Friday, September 5, 2008

Muse by Leigh Ellwood

Of the three daughters of Giles Henry Pringle, governor of the principality of Cozelle, middle child Iona was not considered the prize catch, despite arguably being the loveliest of the trio. She was as delicate as the spider's web--on the outset fragile and transparent, a seemingly laughable challenge, yet to some an impervious, complicated snare. To listen to Giles at night when he believed no ears were tuned to him, one would soon discover Iona was no more than that.

Despite Iona's behavior, the men continued to call, their eyes fixated eventually on the swell of Trina's bosom as enhanced by her gauzy dresses. Iona's best chance for sealing a willing union lay in either Trina's quick betrothal (a slim possibility, as Trina's threats to stall the inevitable out of spite were becoming more numerous) or with a suitor unbiased when it came to the Pringle women.

The baby of the family, Nattie, favored her deceased mother in appearance and manner. Tall and sinewy with brown doe eyes positioned over high cheekbones, she shunned the fashions that dictated her sisters' lives, preferring manageably shorter hair and outdoor activities to interest in local politics, a thing shared between her father and sisters. Handsome would be the proper term to describe her, not quite demure, not exactly mannish. Giles had not worried in the beginning, thinking young Nattie would eventually run herself into maturity and pursue the course destined for her. Today, the morning of her eighteenth birthday, Giles worried. He saw no signs of her slowing, not a flicker of interest in any of the young men in town.

Twenty-year-old Iona, to be certain, exhibited no interest in this occasion; the day was like any other. This morning, as usual, found her...

Tania stopped typing and looked at what she had written, her forefinger lightly nudging the scroll button sticking out of the computer mouse. The words bobbed up and down on the screen, giving Tania a headache.

Where did the morning find Iona? What was she doing? Wearing? Saying?

Moreover, what else would the morning find?

Would anybody care what Iona was doing, saying, wearing, or singing?

Would anybody want to pay twenty-one dollars to know?

Tania sighed, thinking back to last night's dream. Damn her muse for leaving her when he said he'd stay. Damn her characters for not when she wanted to scram.

Tania glanced at her notes for this story in progress. Why, too, had she started to tell the story with Iona? At best, she had earmarked Iona for a secondary character, someone against others could bounce off dialogue. Tania shrugged; maybe there was some truth in the theory spread by her writer friends that some characters tended to take on lives of their own when being written. Perhaps Iona felt like being the center of attention.

Well, Tania decided, as long as she was writing something instead of wishing to write something, Iona could scream to the heavens and tap dance.

Tania then sighed. She wasn't writing now, though.

She looked up at the clock above her--a thick wooden disk with black, metal Roman numerals fastened in their positions with tiny black grommets. The minute hand did not appear to have moved since she sat down to her allotted four hours of writing, though the ticking of the second hand clearly filled the silence in her one bedroom condo.

She blinked the sleep from her eyes, squinted, and craned her neck upward; yes, she saw it now ... it was eight-fifteen in the morning in sunny Virginia Beach. Beyond the clock, through her living room-cum-office windows, the Chesapeake Beach shoreline was alive and bloated with out-of-state vehicles, surfboards and vacation clamshells strapped to their roofs. Tourist season had begun.

Tania hated tourist season.

Her gaze drifted back to the clock, which now read eight-sixteen. The clock had been a wedding gift from her now ex-mother-in-law. It matched nothing Tania owned, yet Hubby--Ex-hubby, Tania mentally corrected herself--had insisted on keeping it to spare Mum's feelings. Hubby had thought nothing of sparing Tania's feelings two years after unwrapping that hideous gift when she arrived home late to find him screwing one of his freshman Psych 101 students on their couch, however.

Though she kept it to spite him, Tania hated the clock more than the incoming tourists who would spend the next four months crowding her favorite restaurants and her favorite nooks along the shore. To say nothing of grabbing the good parking spaces in every lot from here to Williamsburg, she reminded herself with a labored sigh. Had she not already been suffering severe writer's block, she would surely have blamed her inability to continue this latest story on the thoughts crowding her mind.

"How much worse can it get?" she moaned to the ceiling. Her answer came immediately with the shrill peal of the phone.

"Gah!" Tania clutched the mouse and dragged it back and forth across its pad, sending its white pointer zig-zagging over the words she had written. The urge to depress the left button, highlight everything, and hit delete passed quickly, and instead she lifted her hand. The sparse paragraphs onscreen were the first she had written in months. Hardly her best work, but this was only a first draft. Surely something could be salvaged.

"Go away!" she yelled after the phone's third ring. The answering machine triggered and Tania listened to the automated female voiced default message before her agent's louder, more demanding voice filled the room. Cheryl Ormond, as usual, sounded two minutes away from an apoplectic fit.

"Pick up the goddamn phone, Tania. I know you're home."

Tania did not move, did not breathe, as if any hint of mobility on her part would betray her to the machine.

"Tania Garber," Charlene warned, "if you don't pick up the phone and talk to me right now I swear upon everything holy that I will--"


Tania relaxed and exhaled, but her relief was short-lived when the phone rang again. Cheryl did not miss a beat.

"You want me to sing? I'll do it, girl. You like ZZ Top? I know their whole catalogue, and don't think I'm going to let some answering machine stop--"

The third time the answering machine triggered, Cheryl immediately launched into "The Grange," and Tania enjoyed her first genuine laugh of the week as the normally high-pitched agent attempted a Texas-flavored bass. It was enough to inspire her to finish the sentence of the last paragraph written:

This morning, as usual, found her in the tiled kitchen of the governor's ancestral residence, a two-acre plot on the edge of town known as The Grange.

"They gotta lotta nice girls, ya'll," Cheryl drawled. "Yuh, huh-huh, huh..."

Tania picked up the hand-held receiver by her computer and the singing on the machine ceased. "Uncle!" she cried.

Cheryl however, appeared to have lost her sense of humor in the split second between her song and Tania's acknowledgment. "Where's the book?" she demanded.

"What book?"

"Don't start with me, Tania. Your publisher is hounding my ass for the next Tawny Garbo romance, and if it's not on my desk or in my e-mail inbox within the next week then it'll be your ass."

"What? Cher," Tania whined, glancing at the clock, "it's eight-twenty in the morning here. The publisher's in California. Who's hounding you at five-twenty in the morning? And why are you hounding me now? Did you finish your morning yoga routine early and have nothing better to do?"

"Number one, I do Pilates. Number two, I'm hounding you because I need your book. Now. Yesterday."

Tania's face stretched into a grin. "Heh, heh, you said 'Number two,'" she replied in her best Beavis and/or Butthead impersonation. Tania often had trouble discerning the two.

"It's not funny, Tania. Your publisher doesn't think so, either. Your tardiness is throwing off their schedule."

"Don't you have other clients to harass?"

"My other clients turn in their work on time. You used to, too."

Tania leaned back in her office chair, wincing as the coils underneath groaned. "Yeah, but what fun was that, being punctual and obedient? Admit it, this way brings much more excitement to your work, wouldn't you agree?"

"If by excitement you mean threats of breach of contract lawsuits, then yes."

"What?" Tania bolted upright and the chair sprang forward, causing her to brush against the keyboard. Frantically she pointed her mouse to the Undo command and cleared the gibberish tarnishing what little there existed of her first draft. "They wouldn't do that."

"They would, they will, they're going to." Tania heard the rustling of a stack of papers on the line. "Marketing and PR is about to begin on this book, their art department already has a draft cover, and we have yet to see word one. Tania, do you realize how much money these guys have put into selling your books? How much they stand to lose if you don't deliver?"

Tania looked around her sparse apartment--at the television set that was not cable ready, the pastel green recliner draped with a white afghan to conceal the grime left by years of sweat, and the coffee table with the chip in the left corner--and sighed again. Those who believed that all famous writers were fabulously wealthy and living on tropical islands were sadly mistaken. Of everything she owned, only the couch was new. For good reason.

"I know I bring in a lot of money through sales," Tania said finally, "and I know how little of the percentage of those sales go to me, after the publishers take their share, and after I've paid my agent."

"Hey now. Without me, you wouldn't even be getting that," Carolyn retorted. "Bedeviled would still be taking up space in the trunk of some editor's car. You know that."

"I do," Tania conceded. She had to admit that despite the lack of furs in her closet and extra zeros in her bank account, she had struck gold when she signed on with Carolyn Ormond's agency five years ago. She remained eternally grateful that the agent had found something salable in one of her novels that the previous thirty or so agents had obviously overlooked. Bedeviled, her third novel written and first one published, became a hot property in Carolyn's capable hands, the first of what Tania christened the B books, as every title since published began with that letter.

Staring at her computer screen, Tania pondered another, less encouraging B word: bankrupt. "What's this again about a lawsuit?" she asked.

Cheryl's sigh was a gentle roar over the phone. "I'm meeting with them later this morning, my time," she said. "I can do some sweet-talking, and at best buy you a week. You think you can have something for me by then? I mean, I know it's not brain surgery for you. Just a nice, Tawny Garbo historical romance with lots of sex, heaving bosoms, throbbing weiners ... it writes itself basically."

Tania, of course, knew better. "A whole week? A whole, seven-day week?" Today was Monday. She would have to increase her allotted writing time to a full eight-hour workday. Perhaps overtime.

Tania hated Mondays more than she hated tourist season and the ugly Roman clock now ticking loudly in her ear.

Cheryl appeared not to hear the panic in Tania's voice. "How much do you have written so far?"

"Oh." Tania clicked the mouse. "It's going rather well. I have a good twenty thousand words down." Give or take nineteen thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine.

"Well, that's not so bad." Cheryl's tone reflected a boundless relief. "Tell you what, I'll definitely get you a week and to reward you, I won't bug you until next Monday. Unless, of course, I hear back from Eve on Bedeviled."

Tania felt her heart throb. "Definitely, let me know what happens there." Eve TV, a cable network specializing in women-centered programming, wanted to option Bedeviled for a miniseries. What Tania stood to earn in the subsidiary sale would hopefully cover a complete design makeover for the condo, with some nesting money to spare.

"One week, darling," Cheryl sang. "Give me something good, or next time I'm singing Metallica's greatest hit, over and over again." Her agent rang off without a goodbye.

"One week," Tania muttered to her computer screen. Seven days to write a novel. It had been done, she knew. Jack Kerouac purportedly had written On the Road in four days, and given the formulaic, romantic pap Tania was known for writing, this next piece would not require as much thought as the great Beat writer had given to his work. Boy meets girl with instant attraction, girl dismisses boy after implausible miscommunication over ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend, girl finds herself in dangerous situation. Boy rescues girl, boy and girl live happily ever after. Intersperse with some creative sex and BAM! Bestseller. Stories like these did easily write themselves.

Tania drummed her fingers across her desk. That being the case, why were there no further words on her screen? Where was that handsome dream man who had destroyed the monstrous manifestation of her writer's block, then promised to be with her? She closed her eyes and tried to conjure his image, but failed.

"Probably out to lunch with the Tooth Fairy," Tania grumbled.

She had an idea, of course, a kernel of thought centered around three sisters. Three was her lucky number--Bedeviled proving that theory, the third time definitely being the charm in that case--and she wanted the streak to continue. This work, however, would be her fourth published work, if it even made it to print. Tania did not want to be a three-trick pony, despite her numerological suspicions.

Three sisters: Iona, Trina, and Nattie. Nice, historic-sounding names for the bucolic, village setting of the fictional Cozelle, named for her parents Cole and Zelda. This untitled work, as with the other B novels, would probably be ripe with flowing damsels garnished with cursed, heirloom jewelry and handsome warriors with rippling, muscular chests and flowing hair to arouse the envy of any romance cover model. There would be conflict with a jealous villain, maybe some fistfights and swooning, and naturally a few scenes of sweaty, passionate lovemaking in the cornfields.

All Tania had to do was write it.

She wanted to bang her head against the monitor. Why could she not write it?

She lowered her head on the keyboard, oblivious to the clacking sound emitting from the pinhole speakers on her monitor. Cheryl was going to call next Monday morning and Tania would still be in the same position, miserable over this failure and worried over how to stave off a lawsuit when she had nothing of value to pawn. The clock was hardly an antique; Mum-in-Law had purchased it at Target. She would have to forfeit her film earnings from Bedeviled, she realized, unless Eve TV decided not to option it. Then there would be nothing to forfeit.

"No!" Tania straightened and positioned her fingers at ASDF and JKL;. She could do this, she could write. She needed a new recliner, a new computer, and a new outlook on life to replace the cynical one that had grasped hold when Hubby moved in with his nubile, twenty-something love bunny. She needed only to get the poison out of her head and pick up where she had left off, and scanning her first draft she saw she had left Iona in the kitchen.

"Come on," she muttered, squeezing her eyes shut again. Deep within the recesses of her memory emerged a faded image--tall and handsome, with piercing blue eyes.

Yes! She smiled.

With a deep breath, Tania plunged headfirst back into The Grange to shape the remainder of Iona's day:

She was perched in her seat at the oak rectangular table--far left to accommodate eating with her left hand--hovering over a plate of steaming corn cakes, scowling. Giles, sitting opposite her, no longer bothered to inquire of her discomfort. Each day brought a new answer, another wheedling request to dismiss their manservant...

Then a thunderous, deep bass shook the floor, rattling a ceramic clown figurine Tania had perched on an occasional table by the couch. Iona's cozy existence faded instantly along the image of her muse, leaving Tania's fingers back at their starting position.

"Damn it!" she cried, and sprang from her chair. The noise was coming from downstairs, but how could that be? The owner of that condo, an elderly retired Navy captain, had left last week for an extended European package tour with several other oldsters. The man had no family that she knew of who would be staying there.

The noise was a steady beat, peppered with loud, staccato commands and girlish squeals. Terrific, Tania thought. More than likely the captain sublet his place to a pack of college students for the season. Assuming the condo, which was laid out similar to Tania's, went for eight hundred dollars a month, four kids desiring close beach access and walking distance to three bars could bunk together cheaply, living off beer and Cheetos. Tania was certain Jack Kerouac never had to work under such conditions.

She slipped on her tennis shoes and stomped down the flight of stairs to number 101, determined to give her new neighbors a welcome they would never forget.