by Susan Mart-Charman
Table of Contents|
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
He had been specific in his ad: muse, literary. He even knew the name of the goddess who would be his inspiration, as he had researched the topic very carefully: Polymnia, the Muse of the literary arts, and writing. He studied her name for hours, trying to imagine what she looked like, how she would inspire him, exactly. Would her mere presence be sufficient? Would there be a magical touch? Perhaps she’d bestow words of wisdom that would unlock the door to his creativity.
Four loud thumps on the front door jarred John from his musings. Brow furrowed, he tried to think who could be pounding on his door, but came up empty. It was passed the time of day when sales people would call. The thumps reverberated again, and he imagined they sounded... impatient. Setting his pen down, he pushed back his chair, and went to open the door.
She looked as if she was at least ninety years old. The top of her grey head didn’t measure to the middle of his chest, and John was not a tall man. She looked up at him, her eyes a mesmerizing aqua that he felt peered into his very soul. As she assessed him, she unwrapped a butterscotch candy and popped it into her mouth.
“Can’t smoke these days. Definitely taboo. Miss it, though. Ernie and me would be up half the night, tossing ideas back and forth, filling ashtray after ashtray. But those days are long gone. So is Ernie. Okay, that bit of trivia gave you nearly twenty seconds to get used to me. Grab this satchel, here.” She kicked the bag with her foot. “Let’s get to it. I’m not getting any younger.” She pushed passed him as if he was as insubstantial as a sapling.
“Wait!” He turned to stop her, and then looked down at the large cloth bag. Good manners had him reaching down, grabbing up the handles of the amazingly heavy bag. He trundled after her, into his office.
“Who... are you?” His words were breathless.
“You can call me Mildred. Now, let’s get to work. Don’t care for diet cola, but I sure could use a cold beer. You Canadians have the best beer.”
“I don’t have any beer,” John answered, surprised to hear those words instead of the invitation to leave he was thinking.
“Sure you do. There’s a six-pack in the fridge. I don’t require the use of a glass.”
John watched as Mildred settled herself on the office-type chair at the corner of his desk. Determined to take control of the situation, he marched into the kitchen, yanked open the fridge door so that he could prove to this... this... escapee from a retirement home that he had no... there on the second shelf were six long-necked brown bottles, each bearing a different label, from different breweries, and each perfectly chilled. Confused, he reached for one, opened it, and carried it to his office.
“I don’t know why you’re so confused.” Mildred peered at him over the top of her glasses as she plucked the bottle from nerveless male fingers. “You believe in magic.”
John slowly lowered himself to his chair. “Well, of course. But I was expecting...”
“Yeah, yeah,” Mildred answered dismissively, waving her hand. “Some sexy goddess with long luscious hair and legs and a big...” she held her cupped hands in front of her, eyes laughing, “personality.”
“But...your name is Mildred!”
“Mildred fits in the here and now. Figured that out when I had to keep spelling Polymnia every time I introduced myself.”
“I can understand that. But everything I’ve ever read...”
“Huh. Let me tell you a thing or two about writers.” She began to pull books out of her satchel and place them haphazardly upon his desk. “They never change, you know. Neurotic, the lot of them. Some of the very best simply never seized their moment, never dared to risk their dream. And some seized a hell of a lot more than they were entitled to, let me tell you. Aristotle, Socrates, Homer... to a certain extent they were full of it. And Periwinkle Q. Jones never met any of us so how the hell would he know what we looked like?”
“The author of your grade ten text book on Greek Mythology. Now, are you interested in labels and images, or substance?”
John blinked once, watching as the tiny woman took a long drink from the brown bottle. In that moment, everything was reversed. The simple, the ordinary, became the extraordinary. He shook his head, and focused on the question.
“Good. So pay attention. You believe in magic and you believe in dreams. This is wonderful. What you don’t believe in is yourself. This is not wonderful. You’re all tangled up in labels, in images, John, and that is your problem. You think you have to be some sort of superman, or on a quest, to have done anything noteworthy. Wrong.
“You’re a good person. Mona sure didn’t deserve you. What did you do when she asked for a divorce because she fell in love with that idiot dentist’s bank account? You gave her the divorce, kept everything civilized, even though your heart was breaking. You wanted her happiness. What the hell is that if not heroic?
“All the years you spent providing for your kids, you sent them to camps in the summer instead of taking the trips you longed to take, you made sure they had every advantage, were able to utilize every opportunity and saw to it that they got good educations and put yourself last. What is that, if not heroic?”
“That’s not heroic. It’s just doing what’s right.”
“Day in and day out, year after year, of course it’s heroic. Because there were options, and you certainly could have lived your life differently. You think you don’t know anything of value, anything worth writing about? You know how to make a commitment and stick with it. You know how to teach a son to throw a baseball and live responsibly, and how to show a daughter that she has value above and beyond the roles of wife and mother. You know how to believe in magic, how to perform small kindnesses for strangers, and you know how to love and how dream.
“Magic and dreams, John. So few people believe in ’em anymore. People just don’t understand how vital, how important are magic and dreams. Nothing in life, absolutely nothing ever happens without first, a dream. And magic? Why, magic is the stardust that spices life. A toddler smiles at an old man sitting on a park bench: that’s magic. A woman comes home from a busy day at work, exhausted, and holds her child on her lap and listens to endless chatter: that’s magic. Magic is, and the strongest of all magic lies within the human heart. This is a truth that you already know, John Smith. Do you have any idea how very special that makes you?”
John felt his face heat in response to Mildred’s compliment. Doubt about the identity of his visitor melted away.
“I’ve never felt special. I’ve always felt... less than.”
“One of the mysteries of humankind. Those who have no basis in fact think themselves important and special. And those with every reason to celebrate their true greatness believe themselves to be nothing.” Mildred shook her head sadly and took another drink from her bottle. Then she reached forward and tapped his blank piece of paper.
“Get started there.”
“But I don’t know what to write.”
“Of course not. You haven’t begun yet. Remember what Hemingway said in that book you read five years ago? You have to begin with one true sentence. So, John Smith, pick up your pen, put it to the paper, and write one true sentence. I can’t guide your journey until you take that first step.”
One true sentence. John’s thoughts began to race, not a race in a straight line, to the finishline, but the race of a ping-pong ball ricocheting off every object in sight, gaining momentum with each ping against a surface. One true sentence. What did that mean, exactly? There were many truths in the world, and a man could spend his entire lifetime...
“John! Stop fooling around and start writing!”
John could have sworn he heard Mrs. Bookmeister.
“That old harpy only became a teacher because ‘party pooper’ was not a credited profession.”
John agreed. The woman should never have become a teacher.
John blinked and looked down at his pad of paper. There, in a very neat script that he recognized as his own, were the words: The woman should never have become a teacher.
“Why not?” Mildred asked.
“At the time I thought she was mean, but in retrospect, I think she really did not like children. That happened a lot in those days. I certainly hope that in these enlightened times, people wanting to work with children are screened more carefully.”
He looked down at his page, and read:
From twelve-year-old John’s perspective Olive Bookmeister was twin sister to the wicked witch of the west. She had a long, ugly nose with a long, ugly wart and her breath always smelled of rotten cabbage. A grown and mature John could look back over the sea of time and realize that Mrs. Bookmeister had simply been a rather plain, unhappy woman who had liked neither her chosen profession nor children.
John felt his heart trip as he re-read the words he had written. More words began to form in his head, screaming for attention. A smile tickled the corner of his mouth as dutifully, and then eagerly, he began to write them down. Forgotten was the pall of dreaming but never doing. Forgotten was the ad he had placed in the paper and the tiny woman who had come to his door. There were only the words and the idea, and they were magic.
Mildred got to her feet and placed a hand on John’s shoulder. She leaned over and bestowed a grandmotherly kiss upon his head. Straightening, she stepped back and raised her arms. Willowy, wispy, ethereal — everything a goddess should be — she beamed a smile of approval and vanished.
Copyright © 2005 by Susan Mart-Charman