“A steaming beverage is often the friendliest of muses. To the creator of such, I owe this work.”
My journal burst into poetry today. That’s how I know things are getting serious. Whenever I’m being reasonable- which is most of the time- I write my personal narrative in ordinary (though rather eloquent) prose. But on occasion it explodes into poetry and that’s when I know I either am going to be brilliant or mad.
This time, it’s both.
I was writing as I am now thinking: linearly, in understandable syntax.
But then, it happened.
Poetry happened, for I suddenly realized what it was I had been trying to figure out, the cause of the underlying discomfit I’ve felt over the past few months… No. Not months. Years. My whole life. This unsettled feeling has simply climaxed as I have neared the age others look forward to but I dread as a creative death sentence: retirement.
The poem is scarcely legible and rather terribly written, in my professional opinion. And, glancing with no small amount of pride at the wall of books which I myself have authored, I believe my professional opinion is one to be trusted. Yet, regardless of its disappointing review by Yours Truly, this poem exists; it was born of my brain, fighting its way above its sister and brother ideas to be singly born of my pen. My own ink and thought, almost as dear as my own flesh and blood. Poor as it may be, it is mine. And, poor as it may be, it has something of genius in its fibre, like a great mind in an ugly body (which, in my professional opinion- being just such a mind in just such a body- is often more useful than a brainless beauty.)
I tore the little scribble from my journal and tossed it, but now regret aborting this pitiful brainchild. This pitiful, promising brainchild.
I extract it with care from its underserved cradle, the rubbish bin, and hold it in my hands. This, this I can use.
I tack it to the bulletin board above my desk and I skim it once more. The intrigue of this idea becomes lovely to me. The more I consider it, the more the brilliance of its suggestion washes away the gore of a hasty, unmetered birth. I like this little idea of mine, in all its ragged swaddling clothes of free verse, and I intend to raise it. I intend to put it to use, my last great creation. This little idea will grow from larval poetry into something marvelous. I see the site of my plan, craft it with the stuff of my mind and furnish it to suit this idea which I have raised from reject to ruler…
Only a week later, I have a venue rented, large enough to show that my career has paid me well and small enough to have a cozy atmosphere. Within another week, I have a small staff, just a young man to assist in my new art of espresso brewing and a grad student to advise on making the place ‘hip.’
A couple more days pass and I’ve furnished it with the coziest chairs that have sat long unused in my vast, empty, overpriced home.
Two days later, my cafe, the Inkwell, has customers. Better yet, my ideas have writers.
“What can I get started for you?” I ask, my voice a third higher than normal. Its my customer service voice; I use it whenever taking -or, rather, giving- orders. It’s a slow day at the Inkwell Cafe and I ought to be extra service oriented; it is not a slow day for ideas, after all. And those ideas are my real business; Selling coffee is just a side gig- if you will- to make this first business possible.
The customer blinks up at me, squinting at my face for a moment before blushing and looking away. But she is not quick enough; I saw it in her keen, steel-blue eyes even in that split second of contact. This is a writer. Or, at least, she will be: I asked for her coffee order, but she was not thinking about that right then. She was trying to decide how old I am. Or where I am from. Some concrete detail that she could use for a character sketch.
I like her already. I’ll brew something extra innovative for her.
“I’m not sure.” She blinks. There is no menu in sight. She makes a show of looking around.
“We don’t have a menu.” I am blunt, dropping the service voice for a moment.
“Oh. Good to know I’m not crazy,” she laughs.
“No, just me,” I say, winking at her. She blinks in surprise but laughs again. She either doesn’t believe me or is undaunted by lunatics. If the latter, she will make an outstanding writer.
“So what’ll it be?”
“There’s no menu,” she says. “What do you suggest?”
“Hmmm.” I stare at her and she stares right back. We are analyzing each other, I can tell. Oh, I have not had such a perfect customer in ages. Not since the young man who went on to win a Pulitzer. Too bad he never could account for his inspiration. My eyes flick upwards in annoyance as I remember him. I should not be angry, though. I knew the price of sharing ideas. I cannot reasonably expect any credit.
I return my attention to the girl. I had an idea earlier that would just suit her. She would give it a superb voice…innocent yet with gumption. Yes, she would do nicely for just such an idea.
“We have a terrific blonde roast,” I say.
She side eyes me, bold now, and tosses her fair hair. “Ironic, isn’t it? Never been a fan of blonde roast.”
So much for that idea. She needs something a little more bitter, but also frothy. Rather paradoxical, really. I have to think back to ideas I’d long tucked away. “Spanish latte with almond milk. It’s exotic yet homey, sweet yet spicy. It’s got a nice foam to it, but its espresso flavor is strong and clear.”
“Delicious,” she says. I smile and she pays. Nailed it.
“Name?” I ask.
“Austen,” she says. “With an ‘e’.”
I am more certain of my choice than before. She goes to sit beside a sunshiny window and whips out a notebook from her overstuffed purse. I blink and when I open my eyes again, she is scribbling furiously. She stops, grimaces. It appears the muse is not coming easily today.
I can help with that.
I sprinkle spices over the steamed milk. It’s a slow day, so I take my time, enjoying being able to not only give the recommendations and take the orders, but prepare the brew as well. I find it is more effective that way…gives it a personal touch.
“Austen, your Spanish latte is ready,” I have an employee call out for me. I’m the owner. I might take orders and make orders, but I also give them and, as I do not like shouting, I have Matthew to do it. He’s a terrible writer I’ve found out, but he’s got a good shouting voice so I keep him around.
The girl moves slowly, her face scrunched up against the sunlight pouring through the window and the ideas that are apparently refusing to come to her. She glides back to her seat with the brimming latte and takes a timid sip.
I blink and she is writing.
She takes another sip and writes faster.
She gulps and writes with such speed it is as if the coffee is flowing directly into the words on the page. Remarkable. She might be the best yet.
The latte is finished and she has turned the page in her notebook four times.
Not a bad draft for only a ten ounce latte.
But then, there was a lot put into that one latte, just as there must be a lot in that one story. Both are a great little idea, full of sweet spices and surprises, strong espresso and expressions. She slaps her notebook shut in victory, licks the rim of her cup, which is caked with dried foam, and marches out of the Inkwell Cafe with her head held high. 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.
I take a sip of ice water and sigh contentedly. It was a brilliant little idea and a delicious little latte. I’m glad I found such a customer to enjoy both.
“What can I get started for you?” I ask.
The young man before me stares blankly for a moment, not replying. I smile, understanding.
It’s a busy day. Finals week is hitting the university students hard and they have long since discovered the Inkwell to be a haven for the studious and procrastinating alike. Its armchairs- once forlorn in my lonely home- are by now well-worn but still smell faintly of potpourri. They are filled with tired, caffeinated bodies, each scribbling away at a term paper or skimming a textbook long ignored.
The wear and tear of exams is heavy upon them, so I made a pact with myself: no specials. Only regular coffee orders this week. Rather than recommending elaborate beverages suited to a story, I use my gift of analysis and prescribe drinks like a doctor. Or a dealer. Either way, it gets the job done.
I turn back to the exhausted, still-determined-to-pass-his-classes man before me. I ought to stick to my self-made pact and assign him a simple drink: caffeine and calcium sprinkled with cinnamon to liven his spirits and a protein bar on the side.
But one look into his eyes, one peek into the windows of his soul, and I know. He doesn’t need something to get him through this week. He needs something to get him through life. And coffee- just the regular cappuccino I was already beginning to ring up- cannot do that. This young man needs a story, a vacation from himself but a journey of self-discovery nonetheless. And I know just which type of story he needs. I can see it now, inside my mind, buzzing lonely and patient by itself: an age-old idea, but suited to a young person in desperate need of something to care for and, in the caring, something to care for him.
“I know what I can get started for you,” I say, answering my own question before he can open his mouth. This whole realization and reversal of plan occurred in a moment. Two blinks of the eye and I have decided to do something that might well change his life.
“Okay, thanks.” He does not protest. There is a longing in his eyes and I see clearly that he wants for something but is too weary to ask for it. My decision is confirmed.
“Telemachus,” he says, not missing a beat.
“Is it, really?” I raise my eyebrows, already scribbling his name onto a cup.
“No, but it’s fitting.”
“Waiting for Odysseus to return, are we?” The idea in my mind could hardly be more apt. Hints of home, undertones of growth, a wistful flavor… it’s perfect.
“Something like that.”
He looks into my eyes and beyond my eyes. They are just another set of window panes that he is straining to peer through. This present and vacant expression is one I’ve seen once before in a mirror during a time when I had no ideas. The one time in my life when not a single inkling buzzed in my mind and begged to be written.
I had never felt so useless as I did then…so lost. I was a writer unable to write, a creator unable to create. A queen bee without a hive.
If I had any doubts about my decision- concerns for his final grades, for instance- they are erased now. His look, whether he knows it or not, is one that begs for an idea. His eyes are the mirror I once stared into despairingly. I cannot deny a starving man his bread. Or, rather, his coffee.
He does not ask what it is I am making. I do not charge him. We understand each other, this young man and me. He goes and sits in a corner, at the bar lining the wall, facing nobody and staring diligently at a book he has already read to pieces.
“Telemachus, I have your dark chocolate orange mocha with extra cinnamon and single origin espresso,” calls out Matt. He looks at me, quirking an eyebrow. This is perhaps the most original and ridiculous order yet. I roll my eyes and shrug, as if the brooding young man had ordered it of his own accord…as if the mocha was not one of my most unusual ideas distilled into liquid form.
The young man rises and sullenly picks up his cup, the ship that will bring his Odysseus back to him, though he does not yet know it. I watch over counter as he takes a first sip. Nothing. Just a scrunching of his face as he tries to decide whether he likes it or not. But liking it is not what matters. What matters was that he keeps drinking and his mind begins buzzing. A barren hive no longer, I swear I can see the new little resident flit behind his eyes, which are no longer half-curtained but rather startled awake, thrown open by the light of dawning inspiration.
I smile and, before he realizes it, he smiles back. The grin does not fade from his tired face, but instead props up his sunken cheeks as he flips open a laptop and begins pounding furiously, euphorically, at the keys; his Odysseus, his muse and identity, at last has returned and he is typing furiously to meet him.
It is another busy day. Finals are over and the university students, like flowers poking their weary heads out from under a snow of papers and tests, are slowly coming to life again. I like to see them laughing again, going on dates again, reading for pleasure again. Sometimes and best of all, all three at once.
Just such a couple is here today, two lovers of words. I don’t slip them any ideas but I do help nudge their romance along a little. I work best as a secret muse, but I enjoy trying my hand as a subtle cupid once in a while. I find that latte art is as useful as the mythical arrows and that I am particularly skilled at making foam hearts. Subtle, but it might help nudge them along. Some dark chocolate shavings further set the mood.
I sneak glances at them, my own heart warmed to hear that they are flirting by arguing playfully whether Jane Austen or Emily Bronte is better. I hope they settle on Austen as any relationship founded on Bronte is doomed from the start.
“Austen!” calls a voice. I start, sure someone has read my mind.
I find the speaker, a brunette with eyes that are deep in both set and in expression. She is waving to a blonde girl in a green sweater. Austen. I remember her. Well, I remember the coffee I prepared for her anyway. A lovely sweet idea but with plenty of spice. I wonder how it turned out.
“Lynn!” she calls, waving back at her friend. She jerks her head toward the bar and her friend nods, saving her a seat so she can order.
“Hello,” I say, pretending I don’t remember her, pretending I am not anxious to ask after the charge I had entrusted to her. “What can I get started for you?”
“I liked what you made me last time,” she says, not missing a beat.
“Spanish latte with almond milk.”
“Ah, of course.” There is a gleam in her eye that cannot be attributed to coffee alone. I cannot help my curiosity. “And, ah, how was it?”
“My best yet,” she says. An odd way to describe a coffee she did not have any hand in making, I think. Unless, she is not describing the coffee.
“What would you recommend this time?” she asks. “I am thinking something a bit…darker.”
“Darker would not suit you,” I say before I catch myself. I should let the girl order whatever coffee she wants, but I know that there is more than bitter taste at stake here.
“Oh, but I think it would,” she persists. “Nothing too dark, of course, but perhaps something with a little more suspense. A little more mystery to its…flavor.”
I flinch as I catch her eye. Those steel eyes are wide and lovely, like a cartoon princess. But they are also piercing, direct, and unavoidable.
I nod. “I have the perfect drink in mind.”
“I thought you might,” she says. She moves to take her seat beside her friend, but I stop her.
“Miss?” she turns. “Would your friend like anything? One of our regulars or perhaps a specialty?”
“Certainly a specialty,” she says without delay. “But nothing too bitter. She’s more of a warm and sweet sort…needs to ease into the idea of…coffee.”
A man behind her quirks an eyebrow at this, but if Austen realizes how strange her words sound to anyone besides us two, she does not show it. Rather, she flashes him a smile and blinks up at him with her enormous, focused eyes. He drops his wallet and, flustered, mumbles an apology as he picks it up, but she is already seated with her friend and chattering away. I get the flustered man a house roast black coffee. Nothing too creative for this one. But maybe he will make something of it. Sometimes my customers surprise me with their originality.
“Austen, I have your tall dark roast with a pump of sea salt vanilla,” calls Matthew. Then, when I finish the second drink, “Lynn, I have a lavender London fog with sugar sprinkles.”
Both girls retrieve their drinks. I can feel Austen’s gaze graze my downturned head, but I remain focused on the drink I am creating.
When they leave, I pass a peppermint tea latte to Matthew and go to busk their table. Under Austen’s saucer, I find a napkin with words scrawled over it in the hasty script of a writer whose mind outpaces her pen. I tuck it into my apron pocket and only later, during my dinner break, do I decipher it. An idea I know all too well stares up at me, though it is adorned in different words, dressed in the voice of another writer.
And it is all the more beautiful than I could have imagined.
A package lies on the counter when I arrive at the Inkwell. It is a cold November day and the rain is drizzling, not committed enough to pour nor whimsical enough to mist. The skies are foamy with dark clouds and I know by their London fog color exactly what drink will be most popular today. Well, what drink I will most recommend today.
“What’s this?” I ask, picking up the package. I expect Matthew to respond, but a dreamy voice floats over from the book-lined corner.
“It could be any number of things,” says Dahlia, the resident philosopher. I hired her at first to give marketing advice and keep inventory of the little library in the corner, but she has since nested in the oldest armchair and read her life away. I can think of worse jobs.
“Who left it?”
“I didn’t see.” Her owlish eyes are hidden behind thick glasses and a heavy book I wonder if she actually understands. Aristotle’s Physics.
“Some help you are,” I mutter.
“Thank you,” her voice murmurs drearily.
I open the package. It is wrapped in newspaper, I notice, letting it fall to the floor in a crinkly mess. A sight I have grown to love stares up at me: a new book, freshly published and swaddled in a colorful new sleeve. As is my habit, I raise it to my nose and inhale the smell of fresh paper and ink. I would always remember the smell of my own books, yet this one – born by the pen of another – smells familiar too. Perhaps it is silly, thinking that books made of the same basic materials can smell different, unique. But then, I see the author’s name:
Austen J. Steventon.
I open the back cover and the picture on the sleeve confirms the idea dawning in my mind. It’s the blonde girl with the steely eyes, the regular customer and the owner of the napkin covered in hasty scribbles that I have pinned above my desk.
The lover of coffee, writer of ideas.
I turn to the dedication.
“A steaming beverage is often the friendliest of muses. To the creator of such, I owe this work.”
That is all. It occurs to me she never would have known my name. I had long ago made it another principle for myself not to wear a name tag. It would be too easy then for customers to find that the letters on my apron matched those on the spines of their (maybe) favorite books. I am no Shakespeare, but I have enough of a following that working here, in my own cafe, could become unbearable. After all, it is small enough to have a cozy atmosphere and that does not accommodate crowds of celebrity hunters.
Still, one of the joys of being an author is that I have been able to whisper into the minds of many without ever showing my face. Few think to check the back flaps of books for author photos and I never thought to add one. My writing sells, but my face never would. And, of course, nobody expects their favorite author to be brewing coffee in a shabby cafe.
I read the dedication again and smile, my heart warming as I look upon the work I helped to generate. The best cup of cocoa could not have made me so comfortable as looking down on the collection of ideas I hold bundled in my arm. To think, I once despaired that these ideas would die before their birth but have now been nurtured to maturity under the creativity of another!
I turn the pages, stroking them fondly. I let them fall open to a story in the middle, reading it from the inside out. Even out of order, I find myself utterly lost in a story I thought I knew but has grown to be more beautiful than I’d ever dreamed. I flip back and read the title of this brainchild:
I nearly fall off of my barstool, but keep reading until I finish the story of a young man I remember all too well. Then, I am up and out the door, racing back to my house.
“Watch the cafe!” I shout to Dahlia.
“Any day,” she replies, chuckling to herself about the accidental rhyme before returning to the confusion of philosophy which she has chosen as her vocation.
I launch myself from my car as soon as I arrive, racing upstairs to my office. It’s here somewhere. I know it. I left it pinned up here. I shove aside the napkin Austen left behind once, nearly three years ago…so many drinks and so many stories ago.
There. I find it. The paper, the poem. I write no letter. I simply sign my name at the bottom of the sheet which bears the bastard idea that started this all, that saved the lives of so many of its siblings, the stories I feared would never be written. Austen will understand, I tell myself. We share a mind, though I almost like hers better based on the words that I cannot shake from my vision.
I package it in an envelope and am on my way back to the cafe before I realize: I have no address and I cannot send the poem, this explanation I owe to one who has taken on the demands of the muse in my stead. I slow my frenzied driving, waving at a cop and hoping he will let me by on account of the lazy weather. He does. I reach the cafe and enter to find it as empty as before, Dahlia still buried in her book, Matthew puttering away in the back humming along to music I cannot make out.
I sit at the bar and unfold the poem. I might as well read it again. I murmur its words, tasting them once more, though now with the guild of success to sweeten their sounds.
“My mind is a hive,
Swarming with ideas,
But I am no queen bee, busy though I keep.
I cannot bear them all
And so they fall,
Stillborn with wings yet twitching,
Larval thoughts that had already sought to fly,
To soar, to grow,
To spread their honey and seed
The thoughts and ideas of others…
But I am their failed ruler
Their failed mother.
I cannot nurture them all
And it’s Darwin’s dream
To watch them wrestle in my sleep,
The victor, the most compelling idea
(At the time)
Clambering over its fading siblings-
Those glimmerings of inspiration
That rise and fall,
Shine and die,
Knit together and unravel
In the twinkling of the mind’s fickle eye.
But the victors-
They live and, in their freedom,
Are born and raised and bound
And rest in triumph on thrones
Of store shelves and night side-tables.
But the little ideas,
The miscarried, unborn,
Are what drive me mad
And always have.
They fade and fall
But never leave.
That linger though ignored
As I focus on their more petulant siblings.
I love them
And in so doing
I hear their buzzings,
Though they are supposedly still.
And I love their voices
Though they are supposedly mute.
I ache to ignore their infant mews.
I want to watch them grow,
To feed them nectar of ink
And have them pour out as honey
Onto a white page.
And though I know not how they might turn out,
I love them,
For they are my little ideas
That I captured in butterfly nets
And window glimpses
And moonlit nights
And crisp old grandfather books
Who might have given them an inheritance
Of literary greatness.
But they fall,
Smoked into restless sleep
By their own creator
Who has more bestselling ideas
To write and send forth.
If only I could share,
Could find a host
For these baby ghosts,
For these tiny ideas that deserve to live
And yet are crowded out by each other.
If I could but whisper them
Into the ears of another writer,
Another mother who might nurture them
With milky ink
Or a father who might provide them
A papery home.
I am prideful in my work
But I am not jealous of my ideas;
I love them too much to want to keep them
When I cannot give myself to them.
And I’m tired. And old.
The books on my shelf have multiplied.
They’ve become sequels and trilogies
And I am a grandparent unto them.
I can raise no more of my darling ideas.
They are too many for me.
I can work some sweet magic.
I wrote of such once before.
If I could but pour these ideas into the minds
And into the hearts
Find hosts to drink them in,
Feed on them as bees on nectar…
If I could make such a flower,
With ideas as its drink,
Then they – these starving stories-
Might have hope
Of growth and flight
And I might send them forth
Without having to write.
But brilliant as well.
The flower I craft will serve as
A true “Inkwell.”
As I read my poem for the first time since its conception, I know that this little idea has saved its siblings. The thoughts of this ragged poem blossomed into a plot that lead to the realization of stories I was preparing to abandon, stories that were translated from drink into ink and that I now am reading in published print.
I open to the first story in Austen’s book and pause and read the title. It reassures me, balm to my aging spirit and worrying mind. She knows. I need not send the poem. In her soul she must know, for it is all here in her words. I am relieved to realize this, but, better yet, I am relieved by the promise that this book and especially this first story offer. It seems to whisper back to me, saying:
“ Though you are growing older, the ideas that fly forth from my mind will not be forsaken. So long as the Inkwell Cafe exists and people like my author exist, the ever-buzzing muses will have lovers and homes.”
I whisper the title to myself again, savoring the honey of its sound as it drips from my lips: