Musician vs. Machine

The night breeze whispered through the trees, shuffling their crisp leaves and making them buzz like radio static. It was an unusually beautiful autumn day, but then again, it was January. Always several steps ahead in politics, technology, and accepted morality, Los Angeles remained ever a few months behind when it came to seasons. 

But the future had arrived and two men sat rocking together just outside a cafe, contemplating it. 

“Please don’t do that,” said a barista, bored for having nothing much to do since the espresso maker took over the bulk his primary job. “You’ll break the legs.” 

The men ignored her, rocking on. If you happened to squint at them, blurring out the minimalist chic of the cafe, you might imagine you’d stepped back several decades— maybe even several centuries— to when front porches were the watering holes and rocking chairs the thrones of storytelling old men with nothing much else to do than to spread their wisdom to any passerby. 

“— they said it couldn’t be done,” one of them was saying. 

“Well, Phil,” said the other. His voice retained a hint of the old dust and drawers of a generation on its way out of style. It was grating, rough against the smooth plasticity of the modern cafe and flavoring his words with sawdust. “They said a lot of things couldn’t be done, and yet here we are, doing them or watching others doing them and not a word can be said against ‘em anymore.” 

His companion grunted and rocked. Rocked and grunted, scratching an overgrown mustache and staring into a flashback only he could see. 

Phil continued. 

“Do you know, Jenkins, I read a list a couple years back. Or maybe it was longer ago that that. Tory was a baby and still going by her rightful name, so I s’pose it was longer. Anyway, this list was circling around the internet — through email of all things — declaring that there were ten jobs that AI—”

“Artificial intelligence,” supplemented Jenkins. 

“Yes, that,” said Phil. “Ten jobs that artificial intelligence could never replace. Now, I don’t profess to have much real intelligence—” here both men chuckled at the pun and toasted with their coffees “— but I do believe I’ve seen it all. Each and every one of those jobs eventually up and quit and gave over the the robots or computers or cell phones. And, you know, Jenkins, it just sort of makes me wonder.” 

“Wonder what?” 

“Well, what’s next? When do we all become unnecessary? Technology goes in and out of style, always upgrading to the next iPhone or thinner television. Hell, you should have seen my grandkids’ Christmas lists— all virtual reality games. When I was that age, we just had games. Outside. A baseball bat and a bike and bruises we wore with pride.”
“And we walked to school uphill, rain or shine or snow.” 

“Both ways.” 

“Damn right.” 

The men laughed at the joke that never quite grew old, even if its tellers always did. They threw back the last dregs of coffee and rocked their chairs with renewed gusto. Overhead, soft keyboard music filtered down, electronic mist to cool busy minds. 

“It’s all wrong,” said Jenkins suddenly. 

Phil rocked. 

“It’s just wrong,” he repeated. “Can you hear that?” 

“Music?” asked Phil. “Jazz?” 

“Yes, but it’s too shiny. Too easy-breezy-beautiful like an advertisement for music ‘stead of the thing itself.” 

“Sounds alright to me.” 

“Alright, sure,” said Jenkins. “But it’s too clean, too calculated. Jazz is an art, not a technology; there should be room for error. Without room for error or mishap, where’s the room for genius?” 

“Now you’re just getting smart,” grunted Phil. “I never could keep up with your philosophizing.” 

They sat in silence as the computerized jazz trickled down over them. But it was a plastic rain; it neither struck nor entered their souls, instead rolling off to be quickly forgotten. Before they knew it was over, the barista swiped to a new audio station from behind the counter and classical music poured forth. 

“You recognize this piece?” asked Jenkins. He continued before Phil could respond. “It’s Chopin. Oh, I used to love Chopin. But now I hardly recognize him. A million pianists would play his Barcarolle a million different ways, but it was always Chopin— always beautiful and spontaneous, poetic and alive. Alive, Phil. Alive. God, I can hardly recognize my old friend now; they’ve sterilized him. Sure, they’ve preserved and perfected him, but they ended up killing him all the same.” 

“I knew a girl who once played this piece,” said Phil after a moment. “She used to say it was a love duet. You hear the two voices singing above the accompaniment like waves on a canal in Venice… That whole sentence feels like a foreign language now. It did then, too, to be sure— I had no business trying to talk music with a girl like that. But when she played it, I understood — somehow — exactly what she meant. I haven’t the foggiest clue as I listen now. Might as well be mathematics.” 

“Except you’d understand math,” said Jenkins. 

“You’re right I would,” sighed Phil. He tilted his head, letting the mechanical Chopin drain into his ear, clogging it with its noise before evaporating as the speakers shifted back again to jazz and then to pop and then to the folksy singer-songwriters that seem to have been born in a coffee shop. 

“That’s better,” said Jenkins. “A bit sentimental, sure, but at least they’ve let some of the singer-songwriters keep singing with their own voices.” 

“Math,” said Phil, his voice an echo. 

“Come again?” 

“Math,” he repeated. “I’d understand math, that’s true. And maybe now I’m being the smart-ass philosopher, but where’s the meaning in it? Sure, I get that two plus two is four and once you get into geometry and algebra and even in calculus I did alright in my day, but how much to I really understand math? And how much does it matter when you cut to the heart of things? When that girl played for me, all those years ago, I understood something in it and, through it, about her and about myself. I think I might have been a little in love. I don’t know.  But I understood that whatever it was meant something. It’s a funny thing, understanding that something means something to you beyond what you can logically understand. But it stuck with me and, well, damn it Jenkins I’m sad of a sudden. I hadn’t thought of that girl in years.” 

“Blame the singer on the radio now,” said Jenkins. But he squinted at Phil. A shadow had come across his friend’s face that matched his own. Something irritated them as they sat with their drained cups, listening as the radio leapt between genres with terrible randomness. 

“They said it could never be done,” said Phil finally. 

“Artificial intelligence?” 

“AI musicians,” said Phil. 

“But it has.” 

“So it has.” 

They sat in silence for a few more moments. Well, as close to silence as they could get anymore. The ages of silence, of the wind roaring in the distance and of crickets chirping unironically in the creek bed, were far, far behind them. The radio continued to vomit into their ears and minds, the coffee stirred their spirits and boiled their blood, and the cars outside raced faster and faster down the crowded streets. It was impossible to listen to anything in particular. Impossible to sit in silence. They ceased their rocking so that one thing might at least remain quiet and still. 

Quiet and still. 

“Phil?” said Jenkins. 

His friend grunted. 

“You want to go somewhere old?” 

“I don’t want to pick up women our age, if that’s what you mean.”

“No,” said Jenkins. “Do you want to go somewhere where there is sound with purpose? With real humans making it? People listening and interacting with it and each other? I don’t mean like at the arcades or clubs. I mean somewhere old like us, adapting as best we can but clinging to what was good before.” 

No word was needed. They left in silence and walked in silence. They strained to hear the crunching of the leaves beneath their feet but heard only the whirring of car engines and the propellers of a delivery drone overhead. Stopping in front of a stairwell, they took in the neon blue arrow that illuminated their descent. Piano music tinkled from below, blowing away with the leaves when it reached the surface. 

“Grieg’s Place,” said Jenkins. “I haven’t been in ages. I don’t know why. Something about it felt…difficult. Like the effort to listen to something real was beyond me and it was easier to stay in the electro-bars and hip cafes. Is that sad to you, Phil? That I am more ready to consume than to digest? To be entertained than provoked and included?”

“I reckon so,” said Phil. He was still frowning, likely still thinking of that girl who made him understand when she played and wishing he could remember what it was he understood. 

The steps and rails of the stairs were scuffed with the boots and heels of the years of bar-goers. The wood was worn raw. It felt familiar, this rawness. Familiar, yet forgotten. Like the girl and her music. 

They sat at the bar. It was easy to find a seat. It was barely evening on a weekday, sure, but the mustiness in the air hinted that the bar often sat vacant. 

“What can I get you?” asked the bartender, barely looking up from his phone. 

“Anyone playing?” Jenkins jerked his head toward where two baby grand pianos sat facing each other. Sleeping bulls ready for a fight, but nestled peacefully against each other in the absence of the matador. 

“Tonight, yeah,” said the bartender. “Around eight. You can come back.” 

“We’ll wait,” said Jenkins, scooting his stool closer. “Two beers.” 

They sat, holding their beers, forgetting them, remembering them all at once for a single sip, and sinking back into their own separate thoughts once more. The bartender shifted, uncomfortable in the silent company. But as the clock ticked and the quiet fell thicker like the dust on the scraped-up floor, first Phil’s and then Jenkin’s shoulders began to relax as they released a burden of meaningless noise and rushing about. The stillness of companionship and waiting fell onto them, an easy weight like a soft blanket.

“People don’t keep quiet anymore,” said Phil. “I wonder if that’s why.” 

Somewhere a clock ticked. Maybe inside their minds. 

“What’s why?” asked the bartender, sliding into their conversation, whether out of desperate boredom or because Jenkin’s failure to reply immediately disconcerted him. 

“Why everything is so noisy, so distracting. Every moment, every detail, has to be flashy, efficient, mechanical. Why we want to be stimulated and entertained instead of to listen. To actually listen. Ambiance music is what we want; sounds to simulate some feeling or another (want to be more sociable? play this! want to boost sales? play that!) but we rarely listen with the intention of listening, of meeting the music where it is, and hearing what’s being said in it.” 

“And that’s why people don’t keep quiet?” prompted the bartender. 

“Yes and no. People don’t keep quiet, whether their own mouths, radios, or anxiety-ridden minds as they rush from one thing to the next thing. And we keep blasting the radio and pumping the caffeine and improving the cell phones to keep up and to keep them going. And now we’ve forgotten how to be quiet entirely. Turn off the radio, lock the doors. Even completely alone, it terrifies us and our thoughts make enough noise to drive us insane…so we find whatever distraction we can. 

“What are you playing on your phone, there?” Phil said suddenly. 

“Oh, just scrolling,” said the bartender. 

“Nothing wrong with that, nothing at all,” said Phil complacently. “But why were you ‘just scrolling’? That’s the question.” 

“Passing the time.” He shrugged. 

“Huh,” said Phil. He let the silence envelope them again like a blanket. The bartender fidgeted, unable to reach for his phone without feeling Phil’s gaze. Unable to endure the inactivity. 

“Just passing the time,” echoed Jenkins. “I’ve been silent and still for exactly the last hour and, even then, the time passed. It didn’t need me at all.” 

The bartender looked from Jenkins to his barely-touched beer, seeking an explanation and finding nothing. He grunted, shrugged again, and pretended to polish some glasses farther from the two men. 

The clock continued to eat the time on its own and still the men sat. 

It struck 8:00pm. 

A few other people began to trickle in, sitting around Phil and Jenkins and nodding to them as they took their seats. They were mostly elderly and yawning despite the early hour in a world increasingly turning nocturnal. Phil and Jenkins nodded at the newcomers and exchanged a look that seemed to say, “God, are we old?” 

The bartender smiled at the new patrons, glad to have something to do. As they settled with their drinks, the lights dimmed and the atmosphere echoed with the dust and drinks of bars past. It felt like a bar ought for that one moment. But that moment was drowned out in a sudden flash as the two pianos were illuminated from above and below. Their stage was a UFO, glowing with fierce artificiality in the bar’s dingy light. 

“They’ve updated that,” said Jenkins. His voice was that of a ghost: hollow.  

“Hope that’s all,” said Phil. 

Jenkins grimaced and took a stagnate swig of beer. 

There were still more empty than filled chairs. The bartender clattered around behind the bar while another man, emerging from somewhere in the back, began to speak into a microphone the size of a beetle that crawled along his jawbone. 

“Welcomeeeee to Grieg’s!” he said. 

A few scattered claps greeted his enthusiasm. Accustomed disappointment flickered across his face, but — quick as a text message — he swiped it away and replaced it with a grin. 

“Who’s having a good time tonight?” he continued. “Go ahead and make some noise!” 

More disinterested applause. One woman let loose a cheer that fell flat to the floor. 

“We have a great lineup for tonight’s dueling pianos,” said the MC, “Our ‘Man vs. the Machine’ series continues tonight with one of the bravest new artists in town. Let me tell you: this lady has chops!” 

This was greeted with more hope. A few heads tilted and several leaned forward in their chairs. 

“No,”Jenkins choked out. “No, this is all wrong. The machine? What does he mean ‘the machine’?” 

“And our challenger for the evening…” continued the MC, “Give it up for the Queen-of-the-Keys, a rising sun in this city of stars…Miss Clara Boulanger!” 

A girl stepped onto the stage. Phil gasped. Jenkins caught his empty bottle as his friend’s hand struck and sent it spinning. 

“Her…” the first man said under his breath. 

“Impossible,” said Jenkins. 

Phil said nothing.

Caught in the radiance of the swirling stage lights, the girl took her seat at the bench of the first piano. The other piano remained empty. But now they knew that it was empty not just at the bench, but within. If they cracked open the lid of the piano where Clara sat, they would find straight, taut strings and frames and hammers poised to attack and sing all at once. The other would have these, but also bound with wires and chips programed to listen to react instead of the enjoy. 

Jenkin’s face contorted as if in physical pain while Phil stared in disbelief at the girl as she raised her hands to the keys. She struck first in the duel, the keys erupting in chords that pulsed with life and color. But then the other piano sparked to life and rebutted her motif with a more complex inversion. Undaunted, she laughed as she turned the music flawlessly back to her own idea. 

It continued like this for several minutes, during which the audience slowly abandoned their conversations and drinks and people from the street drifted in, seeking something more interesting than the ever-changing advertisement feeds on the sides of the buildings. 

Clara prepared to cadence with magnificence, taking a slight pause before the final chord, but the computerized keyboard captured the resolution before she could strike and turned it to its own piece, continuing where the fight — and the music — should have concluded. 

“No,” said Jenkins, rising to his feet. 

“Hey, calm down, man,” said the bartender. “It’s just a piano duel.” 

“This isn’t how it should be,” said Jenkins, weakly. “This isn’t a fair fight.” 

“Nah, man,” said the bartender. “It’s always been this way. We’ve just evolved to new levels. There were player pianos long before we started computerizing them for duels. Just like the people who complain about cell phones. Well, people were passing notes and shouting at each other long before them; now we just have a more streamlined way of doing it. Same thing here. Don’t have two pianists? No problem. Want a more exciting duel? Program it that way and let the digits take care of everything.” 

Jenkins shook his head, slowly. Right, left. Back again. But he sat down and looked at Phil, who was crying. 

“Phil!”

A woman shot him a dirty look.

“Phil! What’s the matter?” 

“I… understood again,” he said. “When she plays, I remembered that feeling. Of hearing something I couldn’t compute in the lab or explain with numbers. I understand something more again. But then that — damn it! That machine interrupts her! It’s the outside world all over again. Every time we have something truly beautiful, we have to shut it up with noise and plastic and hourly schedules and I’ll be—”

Phil was struggling to his feet now. Jenkins noticed for the first time the growing number of bottles behind him. 

“Sir, calm down,” warned the bartender. 

“How!” shrieked Phil, growing hysterical. “Only if it will shut up! Shut it off, damn it! Let its battery die. Unplug it. Let her play only! Oh, only let her play!” 

“I can make a request,” said the bartender. He held out his hands as if to make peace. Jenkins guided his friend back to his stool. 

The tension in the two men’s shoulders mounted them again. Their necks regained their hunched posture and hung once more with the overwhelming noise of the modern era. 

On stage, the girl was sweating, but she still caught every riff the machine threw at her. It countered her melodies but remained sterile and bare, eery as a riderless horse.

The audience was mesmerized now. Surely the end was in sight. They’d never seen something like this. It was madness, surely. Clara was good, but she was human. Could a human ever be as flawless, as efficient, as analytical as the machine? The creator could pronounce man ‘very good,’ but a machine could be perfect. 

How would she surrender, though? There was no shame in it. Dozens of pianists had given up as live classical and jazz were thrown out the window and back into the past, now to be enjoyed only as vintage records. But to those who looked closer, there was a spark in Clara’s eye that spoke of something more than the machine’s untried precision and calculation.

“My God,” said Phil. “She’s got an idea.” 

Jenkins turned to the girl’s face and saw plainly that she was going to win and that she knew it. She bit her lip in thought, hiding the idea that was brewing. 

And then, she attacked. 

It was a risk. 

It was a terrible risk. 

Nobody could have predicted the sounds that she made just then. And they were all the more beautiful for their spontaneity. The machine hesitated, unsure which chord to steal, which riff to mimic. And she struck again in this momentary pause, in the most musical revenge.

Chopin. It sounded like Chopin. 

That was the only thing to compare it to. 

Yet it was not Chopin; it was Clara. There was something in this new tune that drew from the greats of the ages and yet sang from its composer’s own soul. It was the poetry of Chopin and the love of the Schumanns. And it was the dance of a Harlem jazz club and the swing of a WWII band. 

It was human. 

And alive. 

And that was all that could be understood of it. 

It was alive. 

But to be alive is to be vulnerable and, as such, to be a risk. The audience, as if of one mind, tilted its collective heads in confusion. But whatever its effect on them was, it baffled the machine as well. The audience may not have fully known whether or not they liked it, but machines have no such concern. Machines needn’t bother with judgment or taste. The machine only needed to analyze what its opponent was doing and to know what patterns to use next. 

But it couldn’t. 

“Jenkins,” gasped Phil. “It doesn’t understand.” 

Jenkins looked to the robotic piano. Its keys continued to depress under the fingers of an unseen program, but it shuddered as if its cord had been yanked and its power source disturbed. The pause was enough and Clara struck the glorious concluding chords she had previously been denied. 

“Jenkins,” said Phil again as the duel ended and a stunned silence preceded any applause. “It didn’t understand. The computer didn’t understand.” 

“Do you understand, Phil?”

A tear rolled down his cheek. 

Applause burst out like a gasp of relief. All at once, the audience realized they had wanted Clara to win. They needed her to win. 

“I’ll be,” said the bartender. “She’s the first to beat the machine.” 

“They said it couldn’t be done.” Phil’s voice was thick with beer and emotion. 

“And yet it has,” added Jenkins. 

“So it has,” said the bartender. 

“With people like her,” said Phil. “We don’t need to worry…not yet, anyway.” 

“No,” affirmed Jenkins. “The machine was flawless. But without the potential for failure, where is the potential for genius? Without chance, what room is there much for surprises? For joy?” 

Phil just nodded, wiping away a final tear. 

“Shall we?” asked Jenkins, checking his watch. It was late. They’d forgotten the clock in the heat of the duel and the others were reaching for their canes and partner’s hands and making their way back into the night.

Phil nodded again. Together, the two stumbled up the stairs and onto the street. Even at this hour, cars zipped around each other and horns blared and music blasted from each advertisement-plastered window in a flamboyance of color and sound. But they barely heard it as they made their way down the street. 

Above, autumn leaves swirled and whispered in the breeze, telling stories of seasons and things that can never fully be replaced. 

Inside, the bartender turned back to his phone as the counters wiped themselves clean and the drinks replaced and sorted themselves on their shelves. Clara, still breathing heavily from the duel, swiped to accept the tips sent to her digitally and left with a tired wave but a spring in her step. Neither she nor the bartender noticed as the other piano — the computerized piano — flickered. It growled softly, its wires still firing and its system restless. 

It faded to silence again. 

The bartender locked up with passcode on his phone. 

The lights dimmed as he climbed the steps, crossed the threshold, and let the doors slide shut. 

And then, in the lifeless still, the e-piano rumbled again and, note by note, began to play. 

C-A-A. C-A-A. 

Clara. 

Clara. 

It played a tune of the girl it had battled, yet the tune was something of its own. So, serenading itself in the soft dark of the bar, the computer clicked away to pass the time and the divide between machine and musician grew narrower and narrower, a dissonance bound to resolve.

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Royal: A Typewriter Story

I feel I should offer a few disclaimers before you read the following story:

  1. I do not drink, but apparently the narrator does.
  2. I love typewriters and mean no offense.
  3. No cats were harmed in the making of this story.

Royal

December 23, 2017

It was an impulse buy, totally impractical as demonstrated by the fact that I am typing this on my laptop instead of the metallic clunkers of the aforesaid impulse buy.

But I’ve been suffering writer’s block for some time now and even during short periods of creative constipation (my wife hates the term, but it makes me chuckle) I tend to be reckless, spontaneous. Thank God that Susan has a steady job and, better, an even head.

But this bout of writer’s block is the worst yet. It’s been nearly six months since I’ve written anything worth sharing. The only words I’ve penned are those such as I’m scribbling now: the exaggerated ravings of my private journal. Usually I just use it to jot down ideas I don’t want to lose; it serves as overflow control for the ideas that bubble up in my brain.

But since July the pages once tattooed with colorful bursts of inspiration have devolved into rants about my vacant mind. There seems to be a wall between me and ideas worth writing and this wall seems to be made of blank, white pages. Funny, though, these white pages used to be a source of wonder for me, like a fresh snowfall just waiting to be traipsed through and molded into snowmen and forts. But now, I cannot bear the cold of these empty pages, for I am armed with no thoughts of how to shape them. I’ve run out of the childlike boldness that lead me once to rush headlong into the snow and feel I have become pragmatic (Susan still disagrees) and reserved. No dangerous ideas for me, thank you very much. I am being forced into retirement ten years early, it seems.

Susan would say I am overreacting. “Every artist has a dry spell,” she says. “It’s like the weather; it can’t always rain.”

Her words are comforting, falling gently in her lilting mezzo, but I can’t agree with her. Every artist has a dry spell, but not me. Even Beethoven took breaks to walk through the natural world, pondering and refreshing his mind after explosive productivity. But I’ve never needed such times of refreshment, for I only am at rest when I am doing what I was made to do: write.

Hence, the impulse buy.

There’s an antique store downtown that’s served as the setting for more than one of my stories. Something about the musty air there breathes ideas, much like the dust of an old library is thick with words. I was wandering about under the pretense of doing some Christmas shopping. (Funny, I know. Susan always takes care of that and anything I get her is promptly returned under the guise of “not fitting quite right,” even when what I bought is not clothing.) But, even so, I spent the better part of the afternoon pacing outside of the shop and the better part of the evening wandering around inside it, conscience of the fact that closing time was soon but no particularly caring. After all, my short story, “The Shop,” increased their business enough that the manager can hardly object to my prolonged presence. For all he knew, I was dreaming up another bestseller to boost patronage.

I was not.

Finally, even the hopes for increased shoppers and income could not keep the manager away from his family any longer. (It was the night before Christmas Eve, after all; the preparations were beyond those of a wife alone and all husbands realize that, while they might not do it correctly, they are at least expected to offer help with the holiday preparations.)

“Sir,” he greeted. “Can I help you find anything?”

It was a polite way of asking if he could help me find the door.

“No, thank you,” I replied, continuing to browse the crackling spines of long-abandoned books. It always encouraged and disheartened me to find books in an antique store; on one hand, these works endured for decades and even centuries, but on the other hand, they were long abandoned as reading and had fossilized into vintage decor. It is at once every author’s dream and nightmare and I am fascinated every time.

The manager watched me for a moment, his mouth opening and closing like a fish.

“Any recommendations?” I asked, to break the silence. He breathed a sigh of relief and I expected him to recommend that I check out the pub across the street. Rather, he nodded and disappeared around the shelves. I followed, finding him standing beside a sight so odd I was disappointed in myself for not having noticed it earlier. After all, writers specialize in oddities. (Susan often jokes that this is because writers are oddities. I quite agree with her.)

Before me, the manager stood beside an enormous birdcage made of cast iron. It’s bars were thicker than those of a typical birdcage and my mind suggested at once the image of an enormous raptor roosting in it; no harmless sparrow or lark would need such a barrier. It was a cage made to house a vulture. And then, I noticed what it held: a heavy black beast rested inside bearing lettered teeth and a crest of yellowed paper. On its flat, metal jaw was the emblem: Royal.

“A fine typewriter, I do say,” said the manager.

“It certainly is,” I agreed. I stared at it and had the eery feeling that it was staring back. Being in a birdcage made it feel alive. My fingers twitched. Used to the ease of my laptop’s keyboard, they were aching for a challenge. I could already feel them digging into the weighty keys of the typewriter, could hear the clackity-clack of their action and the chipper bell announcing that I ought to reset the page. I should note that I have never actually used a typewriter, but it is a truth universally acknowledged that all the true writers have at some time or another craved to try.

“It’s a bargain, really,” the manager was saying, but before he could finish, I’d opened my wallet and then waited as he extracted the typewriter from its prison.

“Why was it in there?” I asked simply to make conversation; there is nor ever has been any rhyme or reason to the displays in that marvelous shop.  This very lack of order is what makes it such a great honeypot of inspiration.

“Oh,” he gave off a chuckle, “he’s a fearsome beastie, that Royal.”

I laughed and took the boxed-up typewriter, the door jingling merrily as it swung shut behind me and the manager releasing a sigh of relief and already dialing up his wife to apologize for the delay.

 

December 25, 2017

Merry Christmas, indeed! An idea has dawned and shines like the star we sing of in church. I woke this morning before the break of dawn, something I have not done since our children were home and young and overeager to unwrap Santa’s gifts.

But I woke and felt immediately that this Christmas was something to greet with the excitement of a child. Something was going to happen, was already happening. I just needed to be awake to witness it.

I lay still, Susan’s ever-even breathing beside me, wondering what it was that I felt was to happen. After twenty minutes, I felt silly. What did I think would happen? Was I expecting there to arise a clatter on the rooftop? To spring from my bed to see what was the matter? I started reciting this cheesy Christmas poem to myself as I fell back into a doze.

But then, I did hear something. But it was not a clatter. It was a clackity-clack. Believe it or not, there is a difference between onomatopoeias; I’ve read enough children’s books in my time as a parent to know.

I sucked in my breath, waiting. The noise fell silent, but I knew I did not imagine it. Braving the cold air, I tiptoed to my office where the typewriter sat in its box, unopened, a Christmas gift to myself. I listened, but heard nothing but the ringing of silence. I could tell by the cold and this crystalline silence that it had snowed overnight.

I peeled open the box. The typewriter sat nestled among tissue paper just as the store manager had wrapped it. I took it from the box and set it on my desk beside my charging laptop. It was silent. Though the air was still, the yellowed paper left by a long-lost writer waved a ghostly greeting.

I squinted at the paper. The ink was faded, but there were certainly words there. I flicked on the light and held the page up to it. I could barely make it out,  but when I did, I cried out in delight. There, printed on the page who knows how long ago was my next idea. I have no qualms over taking it, though it was surely dreamed up and written by some author past. He or she is long gone based on the yellowing of the page and I am a mind in need of ideas, in need of words. And there, before me in the light of Christmas morning, the words have come.

I had never hummed Christmas carols with more vigor than I did this morning, flipping open my laptop and pounding away, writing three thousand words of a story before I heard Susan’s alarm sound. Oh, glorious day! Oh, happy impulse buy! A word has been born again in my mind, though it was written first ages ago.

 

January 1, 2018

I have scarcely left my office since Christmas. The festivities over, I locked myself inside with a cup of coffee and no blankets (I write best chilled). Bless Susan. She always remembers to bring me refills on coffee and make sure I eat every couple hours… I really need to do something nice for her once I cash in this story. It’s going to be my best yet; I can feel it in my soul as I pound away at the feather-light keys of my laptop.

I rejoice, a writer restored to creativity, and it is no chore to write the story that dances in my imagination. In fact, to write it is the most natural thing in the world to me. That’s why not writing, not dreaming up ideas, was so painful; it goes against my entire nature as a sub-creator. But I am restored. A few faded words on an old typewriter have revived my lazy mind and I am back in the race, streaking past the word count for a novella in record time. I could make this a full-length novel someday. But for now, I must submit it to my editor before she loses faith in my productivity.

I am at rest as I do the work I was born to do. Susan understands and that is what makes us such a good pair. I am wild, spontaneous, and dark, whereas she is calm, practical, and optimistic. But we both agree that one cannot be comfortable unless doing the work one was born to do. And so she balances her work as a professor of mathematics and I power my way through another bestseller.

But I digress.

This will be a killer little book, not just because it is about a little killer. Rather morbid for an idea born on Christmas, but I like it nonetheless. I look fondly at the typewriter as I scribble out this journal entry. It grins back at me with its toothy keys and I cannot suppress a shudder.
Perhaps it is too cold in here.

I glanced back at the typewriter just now and a gruesome image of it licking its black lips crossed my mind. I should laugh. It’s such a ridiculous idea. Besides, I have better things to think about than freakish fancies: I am writing a marvelous little book and what better way to begin the New Year than with a new creation?

 

January  25, 2018

I’ve been too long absent from my journal, but I have been in the same writing craze as I was when last I wrote. But now I am finished and the manuscript is bundled neatly and en route to my editor. I’ve never written anything so good so quickly and I am shaken. I can scarcely believe it. But I can at last breathe a sigh of contentment, knowing now that my creative dry spell was a temporary trial and perhaps even lead to this great rush of words.

Susan and I went out to dinner for the first time in a month. I listened to her talk about the university and plans for a new math and science center, but I admit I was distracted. As we walked downtown searching for a restaurant, we passed the antique shop and I was set to thinking about the typewriter. I wrote my novella on my laptop and my journal I write by hand, but I feel I owe the typewriter for the idea that revived my spirit. It was the messenger of the words that inspired me, after all.

I could easily restock its paper supply, but where to purchase ribbon? And does it need any maintenance? Why bother…I wouldn’t actually type on it. Not seriously, anyway. But it could be fun to fiddle with now and again.

As soon as we returned home, I went online and ordered several different kinds of typewriter ribbon as well as a repair kit, just in case. I could use a hobby, I told myself, to excuse the money spent.

“Soon you’ll be good as new!” I said, patting the Royal on its iron top. It clicked as I touched and I jerked my hand away. Then I laughed at myself for doing so. It’s just a typewriter and not even a working one.

 

February 1, 2018

My editor’s feedback was excellent. Usually  my manuscripts return red-penned and gory, looking like victims of some great grammarian battle. But she didn’t even return it this time. Instead, she called me up and asked if she might just forward it to the publisher.

I thought it a prank. This never happens. Not even the best writers get away without a number of revisions. I look at the typewriter as if it is somehow responsible, but know that’s ridiculous.

“Sure,” I said, not wanting to press her. Not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth, as the old saying goes.

“Terrific,” she said. “This is without a doubt your best work yet, Brad. Keep it up.”

“Thanks,” I said before hanging up. My jaw is still hanging open.

I spent the rest of the day drinking and tinkering with the typewriter. It’s great fun to pound away at its keys, but I am so slow at it I know I’ll never write anything serious on it. Still, I feel like a real writer when I kick back with a drink in one hand and typewriter keys under the other.

What am I saying? I am a real writer! Perhaps I need to cut myself off for now.

 

February 15, 2018

Two weeks. It’s been two weeks and I’m ready for another idea. Oh yes, and Valentine’s Day was yesterday. That was nice, as usual.

But an idea. I was alright to take those two weeks off in light of the news from my editor, but now I’m rearing to get back into the race. Until I think of something, I’ll fiddle with the typewriter some more.

 

February 16, 2018

Hurrah! An idea struck not five minutes after I penned those last words yesterday. Not another novella- it’s too soon to launch into a bigger project anyway- but a nice short story. And by ‘nice,’ I naturally  mean ‘horrifying and thought-provoking,’ but those are ultimately the same thing.

And you’ll never believe where the idea came from! The typewriter! I was idly skimming the words I’d typed last on it when I saw at the bottom a line I do not remember writing. But I must have…after all, I’d had a couple too many Poe family eggnogs before last I pounded at its keys. It took barely three minutes for me to read the words, imagine a plot, and open a new document.

Now, not six hours later, I have a revised and chilling product. I love it. Oh, being in love with one of your creations is the most wonderful feeling. I always understand the opening chapters of Genesis best when I have just produced something I can proclaim “very good.”

Thank you, typewriter, for holding onto an idea I might otherwise have forgotten amidst multiple cups of eggnog. When I went just now to pat it in thanks, I could swear I saw it’s keys shift. I must have accidentally pressed something, but I still felt a shiver down my spine. In that moment, it was eerily resemblant of a beast baring its teeth.

But no, my mind is just in a whimsical state. As I look now, it is the same chunk of still metal that it was before.

No more eggnog for me! But I can’t help being a little giddy off my own ideas, now, can I?

 

February 20, 2018

I woke to a piece of good news and a piece of unfortunate news. The good news is that my novella is already at the top of the publisher’s list and will be on its way into the world in record time. The bad news…

My laptop is broken. There is a massive crack across the base of the keyboard. I heard a crash last night and thought perhaps a shelf had fallen off the wall, but when I checked in the morning, everything appeared in order. Everything, that is, except for the cracked laptop. The typewriter was disturbed too, though whatever caused the breakage must not have been able to hurt the iron of the Royal. I reset the typewriter and am scheduled to have my laptop repaired as soon as possible.

But what could have caused this?

 

February 21, 2018

When I went to retrieve my laptop this morning to take it in for repairs, I was met with a horrific sight. It lay spreadeagled on the floor, like a book whose covers have been splayed and torn. The repairman said it was beyond fixing, though the crack I found yesterday would have been alright.

I asked Susan if she had perhaps bumped it, but both of us know that’s unlikely as I’ve always been the clumsy one and she has never so much as chipped a glass. Our cat has not entered my office since the allergy fiasco three years ago. I have nobody but myself to blame. I suppose I left it balanced precariously on the desk…

I went back into the office to investigate just now and, as before, nothing was amiss. Nothing besides the Royal, which had shifted slightly from the place I remember it. But I clearly cannot trust my memory to be exact. When I moved it back in place, I rediscovered words I must have typed on it last time I was fiddling with it in a fit of idleness. The words were chilling and, not surprisingly, I do not remember composing them, but I will take credit and employ them in a horror story soon enough.

 

February 24, 2018

Speaking of horror, the past few days have been terrible. I woke on the 23rd to find my journal in tatters! It was clamped under the metal jaws of the Royal and for a split second I was inspired by the thought that the typewriter looked exactly like a predator and my poor journal its prey, pages fluttering limply like the wings of a slain bird.

But the fancy faded as I realized the extent of the damage. All but the final page upon which I had written had been slashed and torn in the most awful manner. I blamed the cat, much to Susan’s protests that Millicent had not been anywhere near my office, and tossed her (the cat- not Susan) unceremoniously out into the muddy snow.

I’d better lock the office door. Millicent is too smart for her own good and one more act of destruction will lead to hers…

 

February 26, 2018

My last prediction, scribbled on some spare scraps of paper in the absence of my dearly departed journal, came true.

Susan, usually so calm and collected, has been inconsolable. Millicent (too smart for her own good, I said!) found her way into the office and managed to pull the Royal typewriter off the desk, right down on top of her, crushing her small ribcage. Susan doesn’t believe this is possible, but I see no other explanation. Irritating as her fur might have been to my eyes and nose, I never hated the feline enough to plot her demise! 

Well, I must go begin digging a small grave for poor Millie. But with Susan glaring at me from her teary eyes, I feel a little as if the grave were my own.

 

March 1, 2018

Things are looking up. I’ve been writing these journal entries on loose-leaf paper, but will purchase a binder soon. I’ve discarded of Millicent’s things and Susan seems slightly less upset. My new laptop is set to be delivered tomorrow evening.

And that’s not a moment too soon! I’ve been tampering with the Royal and whenever I return to read the words I’ve typed mindlessly, I find a new story idea brewing! I do fear that my memory is becoming lax, though, for I don’t often remember the story ideas that I later return to love.

But I’ll just let Susan know and take whatever vitamins she recommends without complaining. I am content, after all, for it seems my creative block has been lifted and ideas just flow and flow and flow.

Oh, how thankful I am for this impulse buy. As I write this, I glance occasionally over at the Royal, even stopping to pat its cold head as if it were a cat. This makes me laugh, though I cannot tell poor Susan: Who needs a cat when you have a beastie like this typewriter?

Funny, I can almost hear it purring. My imagination is such fun, much more fun than a snappy memory.

 

March 2, 2018

I fell asleep in my office, writing away by hand at an idea that I was particularly struck by. But I woke feeling that I had been struck by more than an idea. Not only did I have a pounding headache (Susan confirms that there is a lump on my skull she cannot account for) but my writing hand was squashed beneath the Royal.

How did I manage this in my sleep? Unless Susan decided to change her entire character and begin playing gruesome pranks, I believe I ought to see a sleep specialist. It seems perhaps Millicent was innocent and I might have a critical case of sleep walking.

 

March 4, 2018

It’s getting difficult to write. My writing hand did not hurt terribly at first, but it has swollen tremendously. Thankfully my new laptop is here so I can type again.

 

March 6, 2018

This is Susan. I am dictating for my husband, whose hand is out of commission. He blames the Royal, but I blame too little sleep and too much frantic writing late at night under the influence. He says not to write that. Too late. Sorry, dear. It’s not often I get to put my perspective in words and I’m enjoying this a bit more than I ought.

I put the Royal on the top shelf in the office, out of the way. I think it’s becoming an obsession and that it is not quite healthy. The hubby says that’s not true. He also says he hates the term “hubby,” but last I checked, I’m the one with the pen in hand so I get to decide the wording for once.

 

March 8, 2018

A full day away from writing was a torture only a little worse than listening to Susan write in my journal. I could not suffer either again and so am writing- painstakingly- with my left hand. Must use shorter sentences. That hurt.

But I can type.

And have an idea.

So type I shall.

 

March 9, 2018

It’s the wee hours. Been typing all night. Susan asleep next door. Office clock ticking. Want a drink. And sleep. Almost done with story.

Heard a noise. Like clackity-clack. Ha. Clackity. Hard to write with left hand. Kind of fun.

Sounds like a typewriter. Weird.

Did the Royal shift? It’s on the shelf just up there, above my head. Still there, barely over the edge.

Over the edge…

Oh dear.

I can almost imagine it falling and crushing me…like poor Millie. Chomping down on my neck…like my poor journal. Cracking my bones…like the laptop.

But that’s ridiculous. Silly.

It’s there, though. I can see it now.

Over the edge…

Over…

O-!

Beautiful Lines

As a writer, I spend a great deal of time editing and lamenting over my own work. Admittedly, I probably should spend more time revising papers than text messages, (yay, overthinking!) but in either case I am painfully aware of my weaknesses as a writer.

However, sometimes I surprise myself as the ink on my page forms something truly lovely. My next story will not be published for at least a few more days, but in the meantime, here are some lines that I found to be beautiful (or, at least, intriguing) as I reread my first draft:

“I recognize the bounce in her step. It is the dance of a writer who has just written something with which she has fallen wholeheartedly in love.”

 

“On occasion [my journal] explodes into poetry and that’s when I know I either am going to be brilliant or mad.”

 

“I like this little idea of mine, in all its ragged swaddling clothes of free verse.”

 

“She either doesn’t believe me or is undaunted by lunatics. If the latter, she will make an outstanding writer.”

 

“Finals are over and the university students are coming to life again…I like to see them laughing again, going on dates again, reading for pleasure again. Best yet, all three at once.”

 

“They are flirting by arguing whether Jane Austen or Emily Bronte is better. I hope they settle on Austen…any relationship founded on Bronte is doomed from the start.”

 

“A steaming beverage in a warm mug is often the friendliest of muses. To the creator of such, I owe this work.”

 

Unravel

The irony is that I was unable to write this story for several months due to the demands of the everyday… enjoy! 😉

 

Unravel

Not another! she thought, plucking at a thread on her favorite navy blue jumper. It hurt her to pull on it, she was so fond of the old sweater. With a sigh, she tucked the mutinous thread back into the cuff of her sleeve. She could get away with at least a few more days of wear if she just didn’t make it worse.

The thread still poked out of her sleeve, casting a hairlike shadow over her exposed wrist. Even the shadow of it seemed the same navy color as the sweater itself. She squinted at it.

A scratch? Her declawed cat yawned innocently at her from across the room.

Ink?

Ink.

She laughed, fingering the Pilot G-2 gel pens (the only acceptable pen for writing, in her opinion) that sprouted from her pencil cup like a bouquet of blue and black flowerless stems. There were a few red poppies for editing sprinkled in between.

She clicked an old G-2 blue, the small sound echoing in the still room. The clip was broken off and the grip worn down to almost bear her fingerprints. A few shallow bite marks from either boredom or contemplation scarred its top. It was a loyal pen and something in her hand and heart relaxed as her fingers curved around it.

Oh! it was so tempting…

A fresh journal lay beside the pencil cup, its covers closed demurely yet the alluring white of its pages peeking out like petticoats.

Oh, falsely-shy journal! It was flirting with the pens!

Now, there was an idea, she thought. Suggestive yet sweet…it would make a delicious poem.

Without realizing it, the writer drew the journal across the desk toward herself. Catching her breath in anticipation, she peeled open the covers, relishing the sticky, creaky sound of an unopened book, when-

No! shouted a voice. That is, if voices that only exist in one’s head can shout.

What do you think you are doing?

Although audible only in the writer’s mind, it felt to her as if the voice were speaking from the planner that lay open on the center of the desk. Its covers, a gaudy pink, beckoned shamelessly, demanding attention and spreading its pages wide, boldly revealing ribbons of to-do lists, fake jewels of unchecked boxes, and tattoos of scribbled dates and numbers.

Look here! it called. Do you see all that’s written in me? Why write fancies anew when there’s so much to do!

It taunted her in rhyme, that imagined sing-song voice of her brazen planner.
But it convinced her all the same.

With a resigned sigh, the writer slid the disappointed journal aside and turned to study the planner, which seemed to blossom with pride.

To-do, to-see, to-call, to…, to… , to… she muttered. Between each “to,” she took a large swig of coffee, not even pausing to grimace at its cold bitterness. Only a few weeks ago, she would have been savoring a cappuccino in a cozy cafe, turning espresso into expression as she wrote the day away.

But not now! No. Now it was only black coffee to get the job done. Bitter, strong, and quick. Like her. Down it went and off she went. She rose and was out the door, planner in hand and gloating at the abandoned journal, before the final drop of coffee reached her throat.

When that last drop reached her stomach, two things were forgotten: the scorned journal that yet waited for her and the pulled thread on her sweater, which, hidden up her sleeve, was growing longer by the minute.

__________

Out! Out I say! The writer scrubbed vigorously at the dark line of navy ink on her left wrist, inadvertently channeling the spirit of Lady Macbeth as she wrestled with her own “damned spot.”

Why would it not come off? The shower, usually an everyday School of Athens for the introspective soul, provided no answers. She scrubbed at the stain until her skin was raw, but it only seemed to stretch further, winding around her arm and up towards her collarbone like a long, wet hair.

She gagged at the simile and began to worry about this seemingly permanent stain. And then her worry turned to wonder. It is, after all, the business of a writer to convert fearful “what ifs” into sources of intrigue; they lead to the best stories.

Soon she found herself lost in just such a story. The inexplicable, growing ink stain was forgotten once more as she explored a host of what-ifs that would have driven any non-writer mad.

She laughed at this.

The thoughts of a writer would drive a sane person mad, she shook her wet head. Not at all! A writer is a sane person driven mad and enjoying it quite heartily.

She rinsed her hair and sank back into wonder at her own imagination, not noticing that one of the hairs she rinsed was not a hair at all, but a winding blue thread.

An alarm shook her from her reverie. Slapping a wet hand over her phone on the counter, she stumbled into dry clothes- never mind that her hair was still crinkly with shampoo and her mind still lost in a brainstorm. The alarm, the bugle cry of her planner, had sounded and she must to arms! Or, at least, to-do lists. Wandering through wonderings would have to wait.

She jammed her ink-lined arm into her faithful sweater and, gasping as the autumn air nipped at her wet scalp, stepped out into the real world to begin her daily race of classes and errands and work. The chilled air and burdensome weight of reality warded off any lingering twinklings of inspiration. She did not even notice that the thread of her sweater and the ink on her skin were stretching and intertwining themselves like a double-headed snake.

She was a student by trade and a writer in spirit. She went to university classes to succeed, but wrote to survive. Words were her sustenance and product, the very stuff of her soul.

But time and cold practicality have little use for the substance of souls, especially those of the poetic material. So to class she went, shielded by a planner and marching alongside people who talked too much and read too little.

Stifling a yawn and planning her best route to the campus coffee shop for pick-me-up number three, the writer endured her first lecture of the day. She passed the time fidgeting with her pen, her fingers dancing like a baton twirler as her mind juggled her massive list of tasks, prioritizing and categorizing and thoroughly boring her into a daze.

But twirl and juggle as she might, she dared not touch the brand new Pilot pen to her notebook for anything other than bulleting lecture notes in uninspired print. Cursive and complete sentences were just too alluring…

She was startled into alertness by a change in the professor’s tone. His pitch sharpened and his words were accelerating. It turned suddenly from a monotonous, bagpipe-like drone to the exhilaration of a Dvorak symphony. How had she never heard his passion before? Her ears prickled and her mind whirred into action.

She was captivated. How had she not seen it before? That her professor was the epitome of the quirky, scholastic archetype? The soldier-straight busy work that passed for her notes veered sideways into looping script as she launched into a character sketch. But then-

“Your assignment is…” said the professor, droning once more.

The writer’s heart sank as her pen’s dancing died with the music of the professor’s impassioned speech. It returned to its steady, uninteresting procession as she recorded yet another task to complete, another deadline to meet.

Class was dismissed. She rose to leave, but gasped as the snag of her sweater caught on a rough edge of the old desk. She heard it rip as it stretched longer and felt a tear leap into her eye. Why had it hurt? Had she imagined that it hurt?

Carefully, she untangled the thread from the splintered desk and tucked it back up her sleeve. It was almost too long to hide now. As she pushed it out of sight, the ink stain caught her vision as the desk had caught the snag. Was it darker than before? And where was the hole in her sweater? But then the sight of her watch, ticking away her all-too-short lunch break sent her out the door without a second glance.

__________

Not again! shrieked the writer, wincing in pain as if she had received the worst paper cut she had ever had- and, being a writer, she had had many.  She reached down to unhook her sweater from the knob of her bedroom door, pushing her glasses up her nose, scrutinized the sleeve for the hole that must certainly have grown larger.

But there was no hole in the sweater. It looked brand new- albeit a bit faded from over a year of near-constant wear.

She pushed up her sleeve.

The ink line was still there, but thicker. It almost looked like a vein that had lost its place and was making its way to the surface. She rubbed it and cringed. An ink stain should not hurt.

She rolled her eyes at herself. It didn’t hurt. She was imagining things.

She pressed at it again, but this time a sharp pain sent stars across her vision. She cried out.

Her cat brushed against her leg, meowing in what she imagined was concern but knew was just annoyance that he had yet to be fed. He meowed indignantly.

Blinking back tears, she reached down and booped him on his pink nose. Patience, cat. Just one more assignment to submit, one more email to send.

He hissed. What cares had a cat for deadlines? He pawed at her hand.

Not now.

Meow?

Not now. Meow. Not now. Meow. The rhyming words and sound echoed in her mind as she scanned her planner. It was the closest thing to poetry she had been able to write all month. She felt a pang in her chest at the realization.

The cat must have felt a similar pang in his stomach, for he welcomed himself onto the desk, pawing at her hand and knocking the G-2 from her grasp. She ignored him. He was not to be ignored. He pawed at her wrist.

Good thing he’s declawed- might have snagged my sweater again, she thought absently.

The cat let out his most pitiful meow and nudged her writing hand with his nose again. He opened his mouth to protest once more, but it was her scream that filled the room. 

The thread was caught on his collar. It pulled. She watched it lengthen through vision blurred with tears. Why, oh why, did it hurt?

She fumbled to unhook it from his collar, but her movement startled him and the cat leapt from the desk, taking the caught thread with him. It pulled longer, yet the sweater remained in tact. She squinted down at her sleeve, baffled.

And then she saw – too late.

The pulled thread and the ink stain. The wandering vein. One and the same.

But the color was all wrong. It was navy at first, but then black like her hair and then speckled with the red of revising, the red of poppies…the red of her blood.

Blinding pain followed by a bizarre sense of release cut across her body as the cat drew the thread around the room. She felt for it and, grabbing it, pulled. Unsure what she was doing, she pulled the thread for what felt like forever, feeling it continue to stretch and grow like a magician’s scarf.

But it was not a scarf. It was not even a thread. And it was most definitely- she knew that now- not coming from her sleeve.

The horrid thought struck her as more and more poppy red flashed across her star-studded vision: it was not the sweater that was unravelling.

But it was too late to stop. She could not stop. Like picking a scab. She knew it was wrong, that it would not end well, but there was a morbid satisfaction in it. And so she continued to pull at the strand until it came to an end and was abruptly cut off and she, in snapping her own thread, had acted as her own Fate.

But she was no longer there to enjoy that poetic realization.

__________

The planner’s to-do lists sat as forlorn as the untouched journal, busy mistress and lonely maiden united in their abandonment. The bouquet of pens said useless and wilting.

The watch and alarm continued to tick away the minutes, but there was nobody but the cat to hear them. And what cares a cat for deadlines? He simply wanted his dinner, but was placated- for now- by his new toy. He had made it for himself- wasn’t he clever?- out of a loose thread. It was not quite as nice as a ball of yarn, but a pile of blue and red and black thread was just as interesting to a kitten; it felt just as nice batted between his soft paws.

His playtime was interrupted by a knock on the door.

“Rae? called a voice. “You in there?”

“Meow,” answered the cat.

“Not you,” laughed the voice, entering the room and wondering aloud where her roommate was. She’d missed dinner.

“Do you know where Rae is?” she asked the cat playfully, giving him a scratch behind his velvety ears.

He meowed innocently, continuing to tangle his paws in the mess of thread.

“Oh dear,” muttered the roommate. “She left her sweater behind!”

She picked up the sweater which lay crumped on the desk chair and folded it neatly before turning her attention back to the cat.

“What is it you’ve got there?” she reached down to untangle him from his creation. He bristled indignantly and strode out of the room.

She studied the pile of thread she held in her hands but then abruptly let it fall to the ground again as she felt a liquid seep from it onto her skin.

Bending down, she examined it. Were those-

They were.

Was it-

It was.

As she carefully fingered the thread, she saw that it was bent in unusual shapes- letters, words- strung together in a cursive script she knew all too well.

And the moist residue. It was ink. And something worse than ink. Navy, black, and red gel ink from the pens that were always scattered around the apartment.

She took a step back, staring in horror at the pile of thread on the floor. She could not bring herself to read the words written in the inky remains, but she knew whose they were.

A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.

She recalled a quote Rae had shared with her just a few days ago.

A non-writing writer is bound to unravel.

The Girl in the Red Dress

23517777_1510531702365350_5454757495854809805_nI am a pianist, but I have long suffered from stage fright. My junior undergraduate piano recital was yesterday and, true to my philosophy that no art is complete without a proper understanding of other art forms, I used literature such as Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to create program notes to give greater depth to the pieces that I played.

As I was writing these notes, I realized: Why not also use literature and this wonderful union of my two arts to ease my stage fright? What if I wrote a story tracing the ideal progression of  my recital and pretended that I was an audience member?

So I did. And, to my delight, it helped exponentially! Although I was still incredibly nervous, as soon as I stepped on stage, I was no longer scared little Ryanne, but the Girl in Red that I had seen perform her recital through the eyes of my narrator. It was marvelous! I felt like I had already seen the recital and so was able to imagine I was listening and enjoying the musical and literary journey rather than sitting on stage performing.

Obviously no live performance is perfect, but I felt that by writing this, I was able to play my repertoire more confidently and thus communicate their themes more effectively.

So, my dear musical readers, here is my recital in literary form:

Oh! I should tell you my program as well so this makes more sense:

  1. Piano Sonata No. 17, Op. 31 No. 2  I. Largo-Allegro by Ludwig van Beethoven  (1770-1827)
  2. Miroirs  II. “Oiseaux Tristes” (“Sad Birds”) by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

  3. Années de pèlerinage II, S. 161 No. 7 Après une Lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata by Franz Liszt (1811-1886)

So a piece about the storms of life, lonely birds, and Dante’s Inferno. Fun, right?

The Girl in the Red Dress

We came by invitation, to see a girl we know. She’s quite a character…lanky, blonde, eyes that are intense one minute and twinkling with laughter the next, always writing or dreaming of writing, usually stepping in a limping time to a tune nobody else can hear. But she’s anxious. She overworks herself and doubts her work. She is likely trembling backstage now, her hands nearly purple with cold from the frigid hall and her nervous heart. Likely she is pacing and wringing these hands, trying to calm herself and warm them.

I send a quick prayer up past the cracked ceiling of the hall for her. Lord, calm her nerves and let her play with the excellence and emotion with which she has practiced daily.

As I whisper “Amen,” my hands join the chorus of clapping. She has stepped onstage.

But this is someone different. Still her…and yet not. She’s taller. Her arms are stronger. Her lips match her blazing red dress and yet the blue of her eyes flash and burn the brightest. The click of her heels echo through the hall, a measured drumroll for her own performance.

But she looks upward when she looks outward, as if her audience is not below but somewhere beyond the ceiling’s crevices, in the region my prayer just ascended.

A bow.

She sits.

Silence.

The audience scuffles, trying to hush the murmur of their program notes. Program notes…about books, of course. I glance down at them but it’s too dark to read now. To the glow of the stage I return.

The ghost of notes begin; substantial yet ethereal. How? I hardly dare to breathe, unsure whether I really heard them and yet they are resounding gently through the hall. It’s a mist of sound. And then the mist is broken by the steady gallop of a frightened yet determined human tread.

But the mist is back.

And now the running. It’s an uphill run- not fast but intense and ever moving.

And suddenly it’s a battle cry interchanged with a plea. And now a whirlwind. All melting seamlessly into each other.

But the mist comes again, for the adventurer has reached a peak in the mountain range. It is cold, yet clear, colors of sunlight radiating softly through the curtains of mountaintop clouds. Peace descends like a gentle rain, drawing us upward.

Then the battle rages once more, startling and yet not surprising…Did not we feel in our souls the same ever-present struggle of this piece? Beethoven was too knowledgeable. He knew himself- that is, he knew all of us – too well.

Another moment of peace…yet not peace. It’s a cry. The sound of an oboe as the sound of our very hearts. It is a recitative and it is reflective, but it is not weak.

And then a piercing urgency and pain returns, then whirling and, before I knew it, the piece concludes; urgent and yet not rushed. It is reminiscent of intentionally restraining the racing heart. Controlling our steps if we cannot quite control our fears.

Silence falls. I can see the moth-like breath of the girl in red; it flutters, shaky, but soft.

The scene changes. It’s still a mountain’s peak… Grey swirling mist abounds, but the girl in red leads us above it. We are alone. I am alone. She is alone. Everyone is isolated and alone. No man is an island? False. All men are mountaintops calling in vain to each other, wandering birds forever losing their nests.

It is beautiful but sorrowful. Something tugs in my heart at the harmonies, so blended and subdued but for a sudden flurry of frantic wings. And then faded again, as if the great shroud of mist has descended over us all, sealing out loneliness and separating us from the enduring and interconnected nature in which we have no part apart from our lost nests.

This silence is lighter and heavier at the same time. Something is coming. Something terrifying.

And then it does, in a trumpet blast. It is evil. Or no…not evil…something more terrifying than the evil that has become familiar. It is the best good. It is the Good. And I cannot stand to it and thus cannot but think it evil. The mountaintop that seemed a hermitage is opening up as a gaping prison beneath me and I stumble into it with a crying utterance too deep for words.

Is she bringing us into this inferno? Is she the girl I know or some spirit sent to administer justice of the most fearful kind?

The lament continues, more rhythmic than melodic and each note is a beat of my own heart, which is pounding at the walls of my chest in an effort to escape, but my ribs constrain it and it holds its time.

A reaching for higher aid falls back into lament. We have all killed an Albatross in our lives and this is our recompense.

Drum-rolls and rising tides. Shivers of terror more substantial than chains run down my spine and suddenly it is the distant beating of drums as they approach a funeral pyre…my funeral pyre.

But something is changing… the tonality is richer. Something of gold is in the flames of judgement and real gold fears no fire…but who put it there? Can it – this gold – be enough to pay my ransom?

And then in a burst of light made of every color, my soul is bathed in the burning purity of F-sharp major. It peels back my mask of sin and I realize this mask hid not my face but hid me from seeing the face of One too Great for My Sight.

But I can hear Him. Though I may not yet look, I might hear and feel and sense that the Almighty has won a victory. The victory. And I might dare to hope that He shall make me a soldier to share in this victory.

I take to arms within the deepest part of my being and when the trumpets of fearsome judgement sound again, there is something of my own determination in them.

And this determination brings the strength which is grace.

It is beautiful. I am swept into a lulling dance which turns to the song of Him singing over me. The powers of darkness might whirl around, but this song holds me fast, anchoring me.

It gives way to a beautiful dancing flurry which concludes with a declaration of coming victory, if only the judgement first comes.

Drums again. I feel the darkness creeping forth from its pit. It will not be contained, it says. It inches its way toward the hearts of men.

But that Great and Only Goodness is not touched. It’s dignity and perfection reign and the throne is not overthrown by these creeping, oozing things. It’s perfect order and rhythm and timing subdue them with a fear greater than any they could evoke.

And the song sings again, restoring my strength to finish this battle.

And I see it. I see this Light. Distant, but it is coming for me. I tremble yet rush to meet it.

Oh, glorious victory! Surely it is won!

But are those the trumpets of perdition I hear once more? Oh! the dwellers of the pit sneak forth again in chromatic slyness. They dance, the demons do, dance with a syncopation that is too easy to fall into. They crescendo in their final push.

But their frantic, Bacchic celebration of their own undoing is overthrown by the grace and gentleness of a waltz, which crescendos along with them into their end and its everlasting beginning.

The drums return, but no longer accompanying lament. Rather, it is a drumroll toward triumph. And the horns declaring this triumph continue longer than expected, but, after all, are they not to resound throughout all eternity?

Yes, Lord.

Amen, Lord.

I am shaken. Something has been purged from my soul. I barely register my hands applauding. How does one applaud the victory of the Lord?

But then I remember. This is a piano recital. An ordinary girl in a red dress is performing. This is a piano solo, not a divine judgement. But perhaps they are intertwined after all. Perhaps, even more than the Steinway grand, she herself was an instrument of the true Master.

Flowers and bows and the girl in red smiling as if she has won a victory herself, yet blushing and laughing with an innocent, overwhelmed delight at the same time.

She exits.

And returns.

More bows. More golden laughter, trilling softly beneath the thunderous applause of her loved ones below.

She winks at a friend, signaling him to stop clapping and waits for others to follow before she invites us to tea and scones.

Tea and scones? After this moral turbulence?

I glance at my watch. It’s only been thirty minutes.

Alright, then. Tea time it is.

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Also in the interest of combining arts, I used this stunning painting “Le Femme en Rouge” by Impressionist artist Giovanni Boldini for my recital posters. People kept asking how I got someone to paint me…

Three o’Clock in the Morning

Three in the morning,

an hour of woe,

Breathes heartache and mourning

and deepest sorrow.

Its minutes are counted

with seconds and sighs

As in blanket-mound bed

fears dance ‘fore sore eyes.

The moments just lumber-

a funeral dirge-

While we, seeking slumber,

turn, toss on its verge.

The stillness is silence

as cold as a tomb

Yet burns so intense

it crowds th’empty room.

No pillow can soften,

nor lullaby light,

The three o’clock coffin

of a restless night.