Not merely just a writer looking for his muse, something much worse.
By: Robert Goldsborough
There is nothing worse, for a writer, than staring at a blank page. You know all around you are situations running rampant in characters and scenarios, but you cannot quite connect with them. Your muse is absent. So, for hours you stare at that frustrating white and try not to compare it to dying in a snow bank, or avalanche, or some other uncontrollable killer overdressed in white. You pace and smoke too many cigarettes to make the dreaded time pass; 'It will only be a night or two' you tell yourself. Then the muse stays away for a week, a month, two months. Now is when you panic. You can do what most authors do and read different fiction, buy every help book you can find from successful writers, take a nice drunken vacation to some remote region of nowhere to screw your collapsing ego back together, or do what I do. I walk.
I love walking through my quaint old neighborhood just at sunset. The sky bruises from its wide blue to the descending black. The darkness has always helped my muse surface. She enjoys the transmuted shadows that hide anything from anybody; it is a good thing that my muse is of the darker nature. I write horror. She hasn't been around much in a while and my walks haven't seemed to be helping. Every night my feet wander a little bit further from my quiet little neighborhood. I think they want inspiration as much as I do and my bank account.
A few nights ago my feet carried me outside the confines of my nice suburban area into what would pass for a street overflowing with urban tenements. I did not notice the transformation in my surroundings at first; I was too busy kicking around a mud colored rock, until it broke and saw that it was just a ball of mud. When I looked up and saw that I was no longer within the safe zone of the working middle-class I stopped, turned around and looked for the way that I had come. There was no distinguishable path that stated 'hey dummy there are rainbows over here' with a large neon sign. My heart began to race and an urgency of loss gripped my brain. I had lost my way. 'Oh great' I said to no one while images of a white man raped to death with no identification, not even hands to show fingerprints, raced through my forebrain. My years of writing tragic and twisted deaths were sneaking in through every available opening my psyche would allow. I started to run. I didn't turn and run like a sensible person. I just ran. As I ran the images became more sinister in my head; Duct-taped and disemboweled, the removal of my manhood at the hands of unseen strangers, carted off to some unknown location to be sold into white-slavery in a third world country that allowed rich men to purchase all the organs they needed at wholesale prices. The street and the tenements became a blur as I ran. I did not see the baby carriage until I had already tripped over it. I landed face first on the hardest concrete that I had ever felt. I lay there dazed for a second before I heard the words that were being yelled at me.
"Why weren't you watching where you were going you crazy son-of..."
She was an attractive black woman in her late twenties dressed in a blue tracksuit and carrying an armful of groceries. I hadn't knocked over the stroller, just merely hooked a toe around an oversized plastic wheel. I stood apologizing and brushing the fall from my jeans. I lied and said I was late getting home, following every fiction with a more detailed apology. After several minutes she calmed down and asked if I was okay.
"Yeah. Just landed pretty hard and hurt my pride."
She smiled and pointed at my face. There was a thin trickle of blood making its way from my nose to my upper lip. She invited me to her apartment to get some ice. I agreed and she handed me an armful of groceries to carry.
She checked the baby in the stroller before turning up a narrow broken sidewalk that led into the heart of the tenements. The building facades were that late seventies bland shade of brown with nothing to distinguish one building from another. These were buildings of function that had never needed any type of form to lend an air of charm to their purpose. They just boxed the living. Her door was number 12 on the ground floor just off a hidden courtyard that was used for accumulating piles of old beer cans and abused chairs. In a rust colored recliner sat an aging black man oblivious to the world outside his inebriated snores.
She turned the key and shouldered her way in to the dark apartment. I set the grocery bags on her small Formica countertop while she disappeared down a narrow hallway with the quiet baby.
"He needs to be changed. Give me a minute." She called back.
I stood in the small dark kitchen feeling as if I stood on the foreign soil of a forbidden country. I flicked on the light switch over a toaster that looked like it had always been here and the fluorescent tube cracked and buzzed to life. The design of the kitchen and what I could see of the front room looked older than just the late nineteen seventies, but she kept it very neat and tidy. The furniture and appliances were rescued garage sale artifacts, but they looked immaculate in their polished chrome, reupholstered, glory. She had a pride in her surroundings that made me smile. I couldn't even vacuum my tiny office at home. I wondered what she would think of all the mindless clutter that filled my workspace.
"Jim," I lied when she came back to the kitchen.
"What? Oh, sorry. Renita Weems." She shook my hand with a firm grip and then handed me a gallon of milk and pointed at the refrigerator. Renita pushed passed me to grab a couple of cubes of ice from the freezer and wrap them in a clean dishcloth. She grabbed my hand again and dragged my to the front room, pushed me down into an overstuffed chair, and forced my head back to apply the ice pack. I felt like an infant being forced to do what an adult takes for granted.
"You got a cell phone?" she asked.
I told her no and she explained that she didn't have a home phone so I could call my wife. I explained that it was going to be okay and my wife would just have to understand. Renita snapped her fingers at me and told me to quit moving the cloth. The ice was numbing my nose while pulling a sharp ache to the surface. After a few minutes of staring at the ceiling she handed me some paper towel to wipe away the blood. I was relieved to get that frigid bundle off my sore nose.
"You don't live around here, do you Jim?"
"No, I was just out for a walk and lost track of time. I'm sorry again for tripping over you."
"Everything turned out okay, so quit with your apologies." She smiled a broad toothy smile that made me smile.
"Well, okay." I handed her back the wet dishcloth and stood up.
"I guess I better be heading home. Hope I don't run into you again." I said with the best comedic smile I could muster. She snapped her fingers again and told me that I had better not.
"Seeing the world takes both eyes and you should learn to use them." She said.
I nodded an agreement as she walked me out the door.
I walked back to the sidewalk and retraced my steps to try and find where I had lost my way. I noticed that I had no more anxiety about where I was and wondered why I did in the first place. A casual awareness of some unknown danger had fled just by forcing myself to embrace a newness that I was unfamiliar with. I put my hands in my pockets, focused both eyes forward and walked home with a lightness in my being. I had lost my fear of something that I had not understood. All the way home I tried to remember what I was supposed to be afraid of.
I walked up my suburban drive just as the moon was rising. I didn't say a word to my wife as I went up the stairs to my second floor office. I pulled the door tight, a sign to leave me alone, I will be writing. I wrote for almost three straight hours. A smile lived on my face as my hands flew over the keyboard like the ghost of a court reporter possessed them. My muse was back from her vacation and was riding the written waves of profuse prose. It was midnight before my writing mojo ebbed and I stumbled down stairs to grab a beer and a glare from my wife.
"I'm glad you were writing. You were writing weren't you? But I would like to know that you're safe when you disappear like that."
Again apologizes flooded from my mouth, but this time they were followed by kisses. I explained that I had found a refreshing new muse and the dry streak was over. I slept like a baby, maybe Renita's baby, that night when I finished my beer and followed my wife upstairs. Of course, I think the sex helped me sleep as well.
I dreamed that night. I don't fully remember those dreams, but I remember how I felt about them. They were full of a darkness that wrapped itself in a cold like a dead thing bound by its last vestments, a shroud. In this darkness I did not shiver or fear. I was beyond those worries. I enjoyed the darkness and reveled in its chilly embrace. The morning sun woke me to a throbbing head. I had only the one beer before bed but I felt like a six-pack and several shots were still keeping vigil behind my eyes.
My wife Caitlyn had a pot of coffee brewing and poured me a cup. I pushed the sugar away and went in search of some aspirin. The tablets melted with a quick sip of the hot black coffee and I felt an urge for a cigarette. I had given up smoking years ago, but I couldn't shake the feeling that a cigarette with the black coffee would cure whatever was wrong with my head. I slipped on a pair of faded blue jeans and an old concert tee shirt, mumbled something about a walk as I kissed Caitlyn on my way out the door. There was a convenience store just down the block that I knew carried my brand of smokes. The foreign clerk smiled a crooked smile as I paid for the pack and lighter. My head was still throbbing so I smirked back at him to watch his smile fade. I know it was a mean thing to do, but I didn't want the world to smile when my skull throbbed as if my blood wanted out. I lit a slim paper tube and sucked in the forgotten taste of burned tobacco. My head spun slowly from the nicotine, but the throbbing quieted down.
I walked home at a slow pace enjoying the cigarette. On the way up the driveway I batted away the invisible traces of the smell so Caitlyn wouldn't notice and give me a lecture. I hurried through the front door and straight up the stairs to my office, to my computer. I just wanted to write. I closed the door tightly so she would know what was going on. Over the years she had become wise to the sanctuary I sought behind closed doors. She would not even knock to offer me a sandwich if the door was closed. I could be dead for all she knew, but thankfully she never checked. I turned on my computer and paced while the technology booted itself into proper obedience. The word processing program stretched across the screen and I smiled as last nights words materialized. My headache was becoming a forgotten dream.
The words were great. The prose was magnificent. The more I read the more enamored I became with the story. Then right at the climax the words faltered and stopped. 'Where was the rest of it?' I thought. I stared at my fingers on the white keyboard and willed from them more scenes to help fill this growing masterpiece. They didn't move. My fingers lay there like useless detached sausages. I didn't even recognize them. Then I realized that I didn't even recognize the words on the screen. The phenomenon of not recognizing one's own work has happened to me several times in the past; You wind up writing in a mad dash trying to keep up either your fingers with the story or the story with your fingers, but this seemed like a trick of the light. My detached sausages could not have written what I had read because they couldn't figure out what to write next. I began pacing again. This was not another block. The muse had guided me all night. I shut the drapes and darkened the room as much as possible. I sat in the middle of the floor and tried to conjure back that state of mind. After a long meditation I went back to the computer. My fingers would still not move. The muse was not in today. I grabbed a blank sheet of paper from the printer and scribbled from the story I had read. If the muse wasn't going to show her head I would just have to use mine. I scratched out a summary; it was a thin graceless skeleton of useless nouns and verbs. Words I could not get to work for me. I scribbled out more useless nouns and verbs trying to find a path to take the story on. Nothing was moving. The words just sat there like ugly graphite smudges on what was once a pristine field of white. I felt bad for wasting the paper's time. This was a waste. There is nothing left to do with waste except to throw it out. I missed the trashcan with the wadded summary on it and turned back to the glowing computer screen. I reread the story. The shine was gone from the prose. The words seemed bland and almost sinister staring back at me. What good was a story that could never be finished? That was my thought as I deleted the words. Just one button and all that the muse brought was gone forever. I think a tear escaped my eye when the story disappeared back into the depths of non-sequential numbers that haunt my hard drive. I needed a walk.
It was just past noon when I went downstairs. Caitlyn was not home so I didn't get that evil eye from her when I slugged down a beer. I needed that. Now I wanted a cigarette. I started walking in a different direction than I had the evening before. I had been betrayed enough from wherever that muse had come from. Time to try something different. I walked out past the fields of unfinished homes and out past the land that would make way for the ever expanding suburban need. The cigarettes tasted better with every drag. The head spin from not having smoked in several years was even lessening. I started in on my self-interrogation. 'Where had those words come from?' I asked the darkest parts of myself. They had to be mine; you can't just have words appear without having typed them. I knew that the muse was just a device, a toy, that I used to help focus what I needed, the muse was me after all. So, where do I go looking to reconnect with that muse? How could I coax it back out and make it play fair, play with the right words? The ground was changing its texture. The green spring grass was making way for the dusty red earth that was the normal topsoil in this region. I walked on and somewhere between my wandering feet and my searching mind I almost cut myself in half. I didn't see the barbwire fence until I felt it cut across my stomach and prick small drops of blood from my midsection. The barbs were small, jagged and rusty. My first thoughts after the string of curses my mouth released were questions of when my last tetanus shot was. The wire had a tight hold on my thin shirt and it took me a few minutes and a few rips to get free. I cussed again at the new holes in my old shirt. I loved this shirt I had bought several years ago at the...
"Hey. Who are you?" A deep voice yelled.
I looked up and around as fast as I could. The figure was armed and the barrel of his shogun was aimed at my panic stricken face. My lips failed my brain, or vice versa, as the man got closer and asked his question again.
"Robert," I said, being unable to lie in this current state of shock. My brain kept screaming, "Oh my god he's got a gun." My faculties were proving very little use to me at that moment.
"Rob, huh? Well, Rob you ain't from this area, obviously, so let me explain. I don't like it when strangers come crawl'in over my fences. It usually means they want some mischief and I don't like mischief on my land. So take your mischief back to where you came from and we'll call it a day. Okay?"
I nodded in agreement so hard that my cigarettes fell out of my hand. Both our eyes watched as the pack hit the hard red ground. The man with the deep voice lowered his gun and scratched and his stubbled face. He looked from the cigarettes back up to me and I saw his eyes soften a bit.
"My wife made me give those damned things up about ten years back. Can't say that I agreed with her notions then. Would you mind?"
I felt the weather change like being in the eye of a hurricane. The man who had just threatened my very existence was now cowing to ask a favor. My tongue tripped over the 'Yes' several times as it passed my lips as my feet tripped over themselves to help me grab at the pack.
He tucked the short-barreled shotgun under his left arm and extended a leathery hand for a white tube of tobacco. I began to relax as I lit both his and my cigarette. I dragged hard on the burning paper and coughed out a lung of gray smoke. He laughed and clapped me on the back with his browned hand.
"Ah. I see, your just hiding from your missus too."
I said that was exactly what I had been doing and without watching where I was going stumbled gut first into his rather sturdy barbed wire fence. He laughed again, deep and from his belly. My smile crept back to my face and the world was feeling better already.
He told me his name was Henry, but Hank would be just fine, and asked if I was from those damned housing developments that kept eating up all the good grazing land around here. I nodded, staying in step with my already truthful start, and apologized for being one of those who couldn't stay in the city where I belonged. He laughed again and dragged through the rest of the cigarette. I offered him another and he stuck out his leathery hand after first smashing out the other with his dusty roper.
"Not to sound stupid," I started, "but I didn't know that there were still ranchers this close to the area."
"Well, I'm not much of a rancher these days. Once you hit your sixties all the fun is gone from it and all you got left is your land and endless days of try' in to fill the time. So I walk my fences and play a bit." He patted his gun and smiled a gap-toothed grin. Hank looked like he was indeed well into his sixties, but a small twinkle in his eye showed that he did indeed liked to play. He didn't look like the stereo-typical cowboy that you would picture as a rancher, tall lean and ready to step on the back of a bull, but he did seem the part. His button down blue gingham shirt had the southward point across the back of his broad shoulders, his dusty blue wranglers were tucked into his dusty brown work boots and he wore a massive brimmed Stetson that had probably been new thirty years ago. Hank was tanned to a leathery perfection that rivaled any horse saddle and he had the short stocky frame of a man who could pull a tractor out of a pit by himself. His pure earthiness put me at ease.
"You like to shoot?" He patted his gun again.
"Never actually held a gun Hank."
"Now that's a shame. Every grown man oughta know at least how to pull a trigger. Ya never know when it might come in handy."
I agreed. I wanted to agree. This conversation was going somewhere that I had never ventured.
Hank handed me the gun and the heft felt alien and powerful in my hands. I could understand why he patted it like a pet. He led me through a gate in the fence and down a red dirt trail. We walked for several minutes before he stopped at a ring of trees and bummed another cigarette. I followed him through the brush to a small dark pond. The pond had been used to water the cows back in the day Hank explained, but now it just helped him play. There were two gray rocks the size of bowling balls that had a few boards laid across them. We sat on this rough bench and started to whisper.
"You gotta be quiet to get some good shoot' in in." He said.
I was about to ask what he meant when he shushed me with a brown finger. His other hand pointed at a dark mass under a tree not more than five yards from us. He elbowed the gun up to my chin and I held the heavy firearm the way I had seen them hold it in hundreds of movies. I looked down the twin barrels at what I thought to be the sights and fixed them on the dark mass. I closed an eye and yanked back on the trigger. Nothing. No boom, no earthshaking report, the gun didn't fire. I yanked on the trigger a couple more times and started to feel like a bad joke. Hank reached over the barrels and pushed in a red button that was labeled 'safety'. He winked at me and I felt the flush fill my cheeks red. I got another elbow to the ribs and I sighted the mass again. I squeezed the trigger back. BOOM. The shotgun dug into my shoulder and I fell backwards off the homemade bench. Hank was holding his sides laughing, but I couldn't hear a chuckle. The gun's noise had stunned my ears deaf. I lay on the ground rubbing my shoulder when the sound started returning in a loud ring. Hank was still laughing. I had no choice but to laugh too.
"Good thing 'bout these guns, you don't have to be able to see real well in order to hit someth'in." Hank helped me up and took the gun back. He motioned me over to where the dark mass had been and we both looked down at it. I'm not sure what it had been, but it was nothing more than bloody clots of brown fur now. I had hit it with the full force of the shogun's pellets. The small metal projectiles had ripped the animal to pieces. There was a smear of blood on the tree mixed with some dark gore, more of it on the ground and still more of the same in a four-foot round circle. The gun had done its job very well. I felt sickened at the gore, but I was also starting to feel something that I was not used too, a feeling that was overpowering the stomach-turning nausea. The gun had showed me something in its power, but I wasn't quite sure what it was. Hank kicked some red dust over the carnage and slapped me on the back again.
"Now, that's what I'm talk' in about Rob."
I handed him another smoke and I joined him. My nerves were a little stretched, but it felt good and I wanted to think about why.
Hank talked some more about the vanishing ranch lands and other things that a man of his age talks about to get himself pissed off enough so they can feel alive and vital again, but I wasn't listening. I just smoked my cigarettes and nodded at the right times. Somewhere around five o'clock Hank's belly started telling him it was time to eat so we said our goodbyes and I headed off for home. My head was spinning again. Something was coming through. It felt like a pickaxe had been swung hard against the social-economic wall that I had been raised to respect. The wall was still there, I could feel it, but there was a crack and I could see a new light. I could hear new whispers. I swatted at the whispers like I swatted at the smoke earlier. These were new words that I didn't understand, words I wasn't ready to understand. I dug around in the abused cigarette pack and found it empty. One more stop at the convenience store for me. This time the man did not smile at me, but I smiled a toothy grin at him.
I jogged home from the shop with just enough time to be late for dinner. Caitlyn was waiting outside on the front porch as I came up the driveway. I didn't think about it until I caught that stare. A cigarette was hanging out the side of my mouth. My throat froze like a clogged drain and I coughed out the smoke that hadn't made it to my lungs. The burning tube spiraled in a quick arch out of my mouth to land at Caitlyn's feet where it rolled to a stop, indisputable evidence of my crime. My eyes stayed downward counting the cracks in the concrete steps. Caitlyn crossed her arms and went into the house. I knew I was in for an earful, but I just wanted to go upstairs and write. I stepped lightly into the house and went straight for the kitchen, the place all of our discussions take place. I stood there with my head down and waited for the screams, accusations, or anything to start. They never came. Caitlyn was busy washing the dishes from the dinner I had missed and just sighed in long breaths.
"You are writing, right?" Her back was still to me.
"Hungry? There's lunchmeat in the fridge." She finished scrubbing a large pan and left the room. As she left I raised a rebellious finger to tell her that she had no right, but I just accepted her acceptance of the situation and went upstairs. I heard her busying herself in the living room with a book; she wanted me to hear that. I closed myself in my office and turned on my computer. As the screen lit I rummaged around for anything that I could use for an ashtray. I needed another smoke.
I wrote in a mad fury. Just like last night something had a hold on my hands and they danced across the keyboard as if possessed. Around midnight I heard a shuffling at my door so I took a quick break and went to check. I peeked out and saw my wife walking off down the hallway, at my feet laid a shiny round glass ashtray. I smiled and picked it up. Screen printed on the bottom was a bright Las Vegas sign; it was from our honeymoon, when we both used to smoke. I ran down the hallway to the bedroom. My wife was already slipping into her pink nightgown.
"Caity. Thanks for the ashtray." I kissed her from behind.
"Is there anything you want to talk about?" she asked.
"Sure, let's talk. How about out back?"
"Meet ya there in a minute." She smiled and I hoped this was a small victory.
A few minutes later Caitlyn came out back to our small wooden deck that overlooked the blandest backyard in suburbia. She smiled and sat at the glass patio table with me. My opened pack of cigarettes lay there between us like a barrier.
"So, when did you start those back up?"
"Today. I felt this strong need for them."
"They helping with the writing?"
I explained the strong urge I had had that morning, how I had fought to get back what I had written the night before, that there was something I couldn't explain forcing me to think differently. She asked if the walks were part of it. I tried to explain the walks, but as anyone who's been around a writer knows we can't explain anything worth a damn without writing it. I did a lot of smiling and fumbling with words. She did a lot of brow furrowing and nodding. I was becoming frustrated by my inability to verbalize so I lit a cigarette and put the ashtray on the table. The glass clanked together in a sharp, painful tone. She half smiled at me.
"You know it's rude not to offer."
I smiled, scratched my head and handed her my lit smoke. After I lit myself another we sat there in silence. I knew we were both thinking of how we used to be; how we were that week in Vegas. Caitlyn finished her cigarette first, smashed it out on the Vegas sign, kissed me on the mouth and went up to bed. I stayed for another cigarette before tiptoeing through the kitchen to sneak a beer. I took two and crept back up to my office. I downed a whole beer and placed the ashtray next to the computer screen.
I began to read what my hands had typed out earlier. It was good, not great, but still pretty good. The story stopped just like the other one, but I knew where the prose was going. I lit another smoke and opened the window. My fingers went back to typing and I knew I would finish the story.
The sun rose around six-thirty that morning. I woke up in my office chair. There was a bright sunbeam in my eye, a painful crick in my neck and drool stretching from my mouth to my shoulder like an abandoned spider's web. I closed the blinds and tried to stretch out my neck. No good, that crick was going to be with me all day. I moved my mouse around to get my computer out of hibernation. The screen filled with all the words I had typed the night before. I read the first line and then made sure that I had finished it. I jumped up excited and printed out twenty-six pages of story. I was overjoyed; someone had to read this. The printer whirred out the last page and I ran down the hall to jump Caitlyn in bed. She was not pleased. After promising her I'd make her coffee she started to move out from the covers. I waited on pins while the coffee brewed and she came downstairs. Her dark brown hair was knotted and stacked like she slept on her head; she had pulled on some old running shorts and one of my old tee shirts. I went out back to pace the deck with a lit cigarette while Caitlyn read the pages at the kitchen table. She knocked on the glass doors several minutes later and I opened it wide to hear her praise.
"Well, it's not one of your best. But I guess it's a way to get you back on track again, right?"
I was speechless for a second and all I could hear was my heartbeat.
"Uh. Yeah. Just practice to warm me up." My mouth was detached from my swirling brain.
"Did you want me to edit this with you? Or should I wait?"
I muttered something relevant and stared at her drinking the dark coffee I had brewed. I smiled, not a complete smile, but it was early and she wanted one. I sucked the cigarette past the filter and then flicked it into the grass. I was out of cigarettes again.
The guy at the convenience store must have thought that I was some new vagrant, I was still in the same torn shirt and beat-up jeans from yesterday. I bought a newspaper with my cigarettes, I felt like reading about the rest of the world rather than worrying about my little one for a while. Caitlyn had left to do some grocery shopping so I had a couple hours to myself. When I walked into my house I didn't go upstairs, I'd been bitten by a bad critique bug and wanted some time away from the word processor, instead I sprawled out on the overstuffed couch in the living room to read the news. I made it through the headlines before I passed out lying on my back like a dying rodent. It was around noon when Caitlyn woke me with arms full of groceries. I jumped up, rubbed my stiff neck and helped her put the food away. When she seemed content to just read at the kitchen table I grabbed the newspaper and went up to my office. I still didn't want to turn the computer on so I just skimmed the inky pages of the news. The comics got me laughing when an advertisement printed on heavy stock paper slid out of the last pages and into my lap. The card was a glossy print for a new tattoo parlor opening up downtown. The idea of people sticking needles over and over again into their willing flesh unnerved me so I tossed the card into the waste can next to my desk. I laughed my way through some more bad cartoons, but my thoughts kept going back to that glossy image of sharp needles piercing imaginary animals to life on somebody's willing skin. My mind showed me pictures of animated ink cavorting across clean smooth flesh. Exotic fish dove through dermal layers, Asian tigers fought dragons around tendons, and bizarre symbols heated the blood to a boil making all the animals wrap around each other as if in a multi-colored orgy of stinging flesh. My eyes opened and I grabbed my arm in pain. I looked at my flesh for needle marks; my arm was just asleep and the pins were from the blood returning. The card was reflecting back a ray of sunshine from the top of the wastebasket. I pulled it out and read the address.
Caitlyn had experimented with dinner, but it was a fine melding of Mexican and Italian cuisine. I ate myself full, the warm meal made me feel alive. Caitlyn and I talked about pleasantries during the meal and after I said that I had a late night errand I wanted to run. I wanted to clear my head with some new surroundings. After I lied and told her that it was nowhere special, just a drive, she gave in and told me to be safe. I took a long hot shower, changed into some fresh jeans and a clean plain black shirt. I was starting to feel more confident again. The keys jingled in my hand as I unlocked and climbed into our old mustang. I had bought this after the sale of my first book. The car roared awake and I drove downtown. The area I was driving to wasn't too far away, one of the few pleasures of living in suburbia, but as the sun set the drive felt much longer. I had never been to the part of town where the tattoo shop was opening, but I knew it was a rather rough area. There were bars on every corner filled with young punks inside and rows of old motorcycles parked outside. It was a Friday night and hundreds of cars lined the streets to see the bands playing in the small clubs that seemed to be next to every bar. I had to park four blocks away from the tattoo parlor because of the amount of vehicles. The walk would do me good. I shouldered past strangers that I would never see in my neighborhood and it felt good to be surrounded by so many different faces. I felt like I was mixed into a large vat of random humanity and losing my own identity. I could be anyone else besides who I am. The loss of my direct persona was comforting to me in a way that I did not understand. I knew I was entering new territory and I liked it.
A boy about eighteen years old sat on the sidewalk with a multi-colored mohawk and a starving dog. Our eyes met for a second.
"Gottany change?" He ran most of his words together in a tight stream of syllables.
"Yeah, what the hell. Here's a buck." I tossed him a bill and walked into the first bar I saw. The lighting was minimal, the air was choked with cigarette smoke, and a raucous of driving guitars drove steadily out of the jukebox. Everywhere I looked was black paint and an uncountable number of band stickers. I found an open spot at the bar and ordered a beer. I knew I was out of place, but it felt right. I tossed back the beer and ordered tequila. The liquor was warm and burned all the way to my stomach. The longer I stood in the bar the brighter the lights looked, the better I understood why the music sounded so mad. After another beer and tequila I walked out to find the tattoo parlor.
Outside the shop a neon sign told of tattoos and piercings, a young girl dressed in torn black held together with safety pins was holding court with four males in similar attire, and I could hear the whirring of several tattoo guns at work. I crossed the threshold and inhaled the clean scent of disinfectant. My head spun for a second. The walls were papered with bright colors and bold designs. Images that looked like they were traced from the backs of Indian braves lived in lines next to dolphins and cartoon characters making rude gestures. There were display cases of thin metal bars and hoops that were made to lodge in your flesh after poking a sharp needle through. I was in a place I did not understand, but I wanted to. The pieces of metal, called body art, had my full attention I liked the idea of having something stuck in my flesh that I could take out; it would be my choice, under my control.
"Can I help you?" The young girl I had seen outside had snuck behind the counter without me noticing.
"What do I have to do to get one of these?"
"Well, you have to tell me where you want it, what kind you want and pay me for it." When she smiled I noticed the two rings that looped through the meat of her lower lip. There were also bars through both eyebrows and a small red stone pierced through her cheek like Marilyn Monroe's mole.
"What can I get pierced?"
"Honey you can get anything pierced here, as long as you pay for it."
"Can you not hear me? Anything from your face, ears, fingers, chest, johnson on down." She smiled and pointed out the areas she named. I believe I blushed when her finger stopped at my crotch. She was attractive in her torn clothes, showing just a hint too much of this and alluding to a little too much of that with fragments of ink hiding under the cloth. She permeated a certain raw sexuality that I didn't remember from the girls I used to know at her age. I asked what was the 'in' thing to pierce these days. She sighed and told me I should start with my ears. I cut her off in mid argument and asked about her eyebrows.
"Did those hurt?"
"Uh, yeah. But that's kinda the idea. You get pierced to remind you that you're still alive. Pain is real. It triggers all the emotions you try not to feel. Comprenez?" Her French threw me off, but I started to understand what this was all about. I was about to cross into even more unknown land and I might as well jump into it. I asked for an eyebrow piercing. She smiled, shrugged her shoulders and handed me some forms to fill out. I scribbled in the blanks, making sure to keep eye contact with her. When I handed her my driver's license I realized that I was flirting with her. She was half my age, but didn't she smile at me? I felt warm again like I had just downed another tequila. After copying my license she handed it back and I know that she touched my fingers on purpose. There was electricity, like a tiny spark that jumped from her hand to my fingers and up to my brain where it jumbled up my thoughts. What do I do? Can I flirt with her?
I sat and waited for the piercer to become available. Flipping through one of a stack of magazines I saw picture after picture of images forever embedded in peoples' bodies. She smiled when she called my name. I asked her name.
"Claudia." She took my hand and led me down a hallway littered with even more tattoo images.
"There ya go Honey," she pointed at a room, "Klaus will be sticking it in you." A large man about my age and Hawaiian descent shook my hand hard and slapped me on the back. His arms were detailed from wrist to pit with dark tattoos.
"Your first piercing?" He asked in a low nasal voice.
I shook my head yes and lay down on the medical bed. He hummed to himself as he changed his surgical gloves and adjusted something out of my line of sight.
"This will be over in a second," he said as he pinched my eyebrow, "There."
He leaned back and grabbed a mirror. My eye began to water and I felt the metal bar sticking out of the top and bottom of my eyebrow.
"Not a worry my man. Now you are a veteran. Take it easy."
I looked at the metal protuberances for several moments before I stood and shook his hand, said thanks, and took the papers he handed me on cleaning the piercing.
"Oh, it looks great." Claudia said as I paid her out at the desk.
"Thanks. You want to catch a drink somewhere?" I couldn't believe I had just said that.
"Sure. Give me ten and I'll meet you around the corner at the bar with the blinking devil neon, k?"
I wasn't sure what I had just done, but I knew that I would be waiting for her to get a drink at the bar around the corner.
The bar with the devil out front welcomed me in with more dim lights and more heavy guitars. I had already done that tonight, I was used to it. I tugged on the ends of my new piercing to feel the small pain that was there. Claudia was right. It was an invigorating feeling. The shivers ran down my spine with each tug. The bartender stared at me and I stopped playing my little game. I ordered a beer and relaxed. The television behind the bar was covered with foam rubber Halloween props, but the picture was an ever changing view of violent deaths stolen from random horror movies, I recognized a few and laughed at their cheap death scenes. The whole bar was dressed as if every day was Halloween. I laughed at the rubber rats, stringy spider webs, and fake amputations. The jukebox finished it's wailing and reached for another song. In walked Claudia.
"Hey Hon, whatcha drink'in?"
I ordered her a beer and us both a shot of tequila. She turned down the tequila.
"Let me teach you a drink." She said.
Claudia ordered us something called a redheaded slut. The shots were sweet, but potent. I could feel the liquor warming me up again, all the way down to my feet. I started asking her all the same old questions guys have been asking girls for centuries; what do you do, where do live, what are your dreams? She smiled and cocked her head sideways at each question, but didn't answer.
"So, what did you think of your first piercing?"
I explained that she was right; there was something to that little bit of controllable pain. I liked it. She ordered us more drinks and I paid. We talked more about pain and its uses; how we needed it and craved it as the animals we are. The later it became the more my head began to swim with the alcohol.
The sun had been down a while and so had several drinks when Claudia grabbed my hand.
"Come with me. I want to show you something."
Like a ship in a fog I followed her for more illumination. We turned down a narrow alley and crossed over two more streets moving further away from where I parked. Her grip was firm and every few moments she shook our hands to make sure I was still there. My mind kept asking me what I thought I was doing; I had no answer. I knew this was wrong. Allowing myself to be led through darkness to something that was unexplainable, something that crossed everything that I had ever been to fill me with something I never thought I needed, but I did need it. Every fiber of my being was begging for it. I wanted to find the final definition for these thoughts and feelings that had been growing for the past few days. The alcohol helped too.
Claudia opened a heavy door in the side of what looked to be a warehouse. I grabbed her arm and dragged her to the wall to kiss her. She grabbed my throat before our lips met.
She tugged me inside and up two flights of stairs to a landing. She unlocked a blue door and went in.
"Well, are you coming?"
I followed her with my hands stretched out in the dark. I kicked something heavy and almost fell.
"I need some light." I said.
"And you shall have it."
Claudia came at me with a lit candle, grabbed my hand and dropped me onto a mattress on the floor. She stood up and began lighting more candles. In minutes the room was lit with dozens of small flames dancing spots of light across the walls. The room was sparse without any real furniture to name. There were no chairs, but piles of pillows and a couple mattresses strewn on the wide wooden floor. On every wall, which was painted in dark colors like gangland tags you see behind convenience stores, there were bookshelves. The shelves were clotted with books. The room looked like a library styled in dungeon flair. It felt comfortable. Claudia handed me a bottle of red wine with the label peeling and I drank.
"What do ya think? Home sweet hovel." She said.
"Looks perfect. You read, I take it?"
"More like consume. I love books. The written page filled with words that take me to new places and new experiences. I might as well be a book."
"Pages filled with words." I said. Claudia took her shirt off and showed me more words. She had quotes and famous texts tattooed down her back and across her abdomen. Her arms bore scripts from Shakespeare and Dante. I touched the raised flesh and traced the flowing script. Across her breasts were the words of Nietzsche, and Gurdjeff played down her navel. Snippets from Poe, Lovecraft, Bradbury's 'Something Wicked', even Crowley spoke from her inked flesh. She stripped bare, but the words stopped her from looking naked.
"I'm filled by words. With these words I'm never alone."
I held a candle up to her skin and read. She was beautiful. The more I read on her the more I felt her moving into me. She was possessing me by the incantations imprinted on her flesh. She was my grimoire verum, my book of truth and enlightenment. My fingers twitched down her sides and tapped over her thighs. My fingers felt familiar, as if I'd done this before. Then I knew. My fingers felt like this when I wrote. I drank the wine down and met Claudia's gaze.
"I must have more." I said.
She smiled through her metal and started to move away. I grabbed her arm and dragged her down to the mattress. She didn't make a sound. I let my fingers ride the ridges of buried ink up her body to her face. She cooed and closed her eyes. I white hot spark of revelation lit my brain like an alcohol-induced stroke. I found my muse.
"Thank you," I said, "I'll take it from here."
I grabbed the metal rings in her bottom lip and tugged. The metal bent as they tore themselves free from the thin meat. I muted her scream with my forearm. She bit down hard and drew blood. Claudia swung a fist that connected with my head, but it was already swimming and I was use to the sensation. I freed my arm and clamped a hand tight against her mouth. I moved and sat on top of her. I used my other hand to yank out her other facial piercings and watched the blood trickle down into her eyes. She was struggling less with the lack of oxygen, but I didn't want her dead, not yet. When she was still I stood up and grabbed a candle. I needed a knife to finish what I had to do. The kitchen was exposed, as was everything in this studio loft, and I found the drawers of utensils without much problem. Claudia was motionless as I returned with a knife at her throat. I whispered her name over and over into her ear as I let the blade slide under the thin layer of skin at the base of her neck. I drew circles around both shoulders letting my fingers do what they wanted. I brought the blade up and back to her throat. Just a thin slit, enough to pry the flesh up from around her neck was all I was trying to do when her eyes flew open. I grabbed at her face to hold her down, but her arms went wild and she tore at me with her fingernails. One hand tore gashes down my cheek as the other dug sharp nails into my side.
"That's enough." I said and hit her hard with my fist. She went still again, but stole hunks of my flesh with her. My cheek was bleeding like an open faucet and my side filled with the warmth of fresh blood, but they didn't hurt. This was new territory I was entering and I wasn't about to stop until I passed all the way through. I brought the long knife back to her arms and started peeling at her skin again; I just needed a finger hold to tug the flesh away, I wanted the words. Claudia's blood was dark in the candlelight and flowed over my hands. My fingers knew their skill well and dug at the layers of meat that sat like silk on top of the thin fatty tissue. Large sections of her skin flapped free as I pulled. I was undressing all of her now, freeing the prose by stripping away her flesh; she would be naked when I was through. I dragged the metal down her chest and pulled at the meat around her waist. I had to stand to get the leverage I needed to free the words from her. The mattress was saturated with her blood and I slipped in it tearing part of the manuscript. I cursed and then she screamed. She flopped in the pool of her own viscous fluids and waved her lacerated arms flapping the skin from them like flags. I had fallen backwards with a hunk of her abdomen. I felt foolish staring at her navel in my hands and tried to slide over to her. I put my hand back over her mouth and she bit at my fingers.
"No, no." I said and looked into her eyes. Claudia wasn't seeing me anymore. The pain, her pain, had blinded her. She saw beyond what we can see. I envied her a little for what she saw, but I needed her quiet. I had no choice; I had to kill her. I felt bad as I pushed the blade into her throat and her blood ran past my hands. I had never wanted to kill her. I just needed what she had to offer. I needed the clarity, the signpost that stated where I was, the truth, and the experience that would make my work right and believable. It wasn't my fault she had it buried in her flesh. I just happened to need it more than her and I was going to take it. That was the only way to own it. It wasn't going to come to me, that I figured out, I had to take it. The knife was stuck fast in her throat so I had to find another in the kitchen. I slipped again in Claudia's blood as I tried to stand. She gurgled a little as I regained my feet and her flayed hands touched at the knife. Then she went still. I found another knife and went back to work on her.
I didn't get all the skin off as well as I had hoped, but I was still happy with the end result. There were long jagged tears in her thigh skins and hunks of gore clung to the pieces from her back, but I had it. In my hands I had all the inspiration I would ever need. I was complete. I had walked all the way through the forbidden territories and gained my prize. I had achieved enlightenment. I had a story to write.