Rob Peterson is a college graduate. When he’s not modeling men’s underwear for Fruit of the Loom, he’s busy writing short stories. Marriage proposals can be emailed to: email@example.com
When the Muse Doesn’t Sing
“Sing to me, Mr. Raymond Carver, Great Muse that you are! Sing of the man driven off course by poverty, wretchedness, loose women, cinnamon Schnapps, and unparalleled moral degradation! Sing loud, great muse, I’m hard of hearing! Louder! I still can’t hear you!”
“What do you want?” Asks Mr. Carver. He’s sitting on my couch, smoking a cigarette, looking deadly serious, almost angry.
“Um, I was hoping you could sing me a song. You know, or just hum a few bars until I get an idea. I’m all out of inspiration and in between stories. I don’t know what to do.”
“Inspiration is everywhere you look,” he says, waving his hand in the air.
“But I’ve been looking, and I haven’t found anything. You won’t sing a little something? It doesn’t have to be a long song. Anything you can spare would be appreciated.”
“I don’t sing absurd humor, it’s not my thing.”
“Well, I can write serious literature, too. I mean, I can try. I love dirty realism. You’re one of my favorite authors. I’d love to write a story about…you know, whatever you can come up with.”
“If you want inspiration, you have to go after it with a club. Jack London taught me that.” He takes a long, serious drag on his cigarette. I notice nicotine stains on his fingers.
“Yeah, okay. I just need some help. If you’ll just get me started, maybe we could write a story together about… an alcoholic school teacher… whose wife… runs off with a door-to-door salesman… and joins a nudist colony in St. Croix?”
“I don’t know that song. It sounds stupid.” He smokes his cigarette down to the filter, squints his eyes, and then eats the filter as if it were a peanut.
“Why would you do that?”
“Because I like the way it tastes.” And just like that Mr. Carver is gone and I’m back to square one.
I pray for another muse, any muse, to sing me a song. James Joyce descends from the heavens, into my living room. He looks around at my shabby furniture. Mr. Joyce —a highly educated man not known for his sense of humor— seems disappointed when he sees his audience. The feeling is mutual. He’s wearing a tweed jacket, a black bowtie, and a felt derby. He takes his time, carefully removing his scarf and his leather gloves. When he’s ready, he sings a song about art, death, philosophy, and a bunch of other shit I don’t understand. Some nonsense about the human condition— whatever that means. Joyce is more classical violin and I’m more Rick James meets Weird Al Yankovich. His song is boring the shit out of me. “I don’t think this is going to work, James.”
“We tried,” he says.
“No hard feelings.” I shake his thin, effeminate hand, pat him on the back and wish him well. I can cross his name off the list. I call on Hemingway, but he arrives drunk and slurring his words. I can’t understand a thing he says when he’s talking to his shoes. I call on Virginia Woolf, but she wants to sing an Italian opera. I call on Jack Kerouac but he doesn’t want to stand still. His rambling sounds a little like Miles Davis, which is fine in moderation, but not what I need today. I don’t know who else I can call on. JD Salinger says he’s busy with his own writing. John Updike is teaching at the big university in the sky. No one wants to help me.
“How dare you!” Shouts Charles Bukowski as he descends into my living room. “How dare you call on Raymond Carver before me. I thought I was your favorite author?”
“You are. I promise. It was nothing.”
“Nothing, huh? I’m the Bard of Skid Row. I’m the one who wrote Post Office in twenty-eight days. I’m the author of thirty-six books of poetry!”
“You’re the best. You are. I forgot about you. My mistake.”
“Forgot about me? I’m insulted!”
“No, no. Don’t be insulted. You’re the best. I meant to call on you earlier but…I got distracted.”
“This is going to cost you, buddy--big time. In ancient Greece, if the poet wanted inspiration from a muse, he had to get down on his knees and beg. He had to provide gifts and offerings. Where’s my gift? Where’s my offering?”
“If you want inspiration from me, you need to provide me with a sacrifice. A real sacrifice.”
“I don’t own any sheep or oxen or anything. I suppose I could kill my neighbor’s cat, if that works.”
“No, not the cat. I want your sister.”
“Buffy? What are you going to do to her?”
Bukowski gives a menacing sneer. “Vile and disgusting things. But don’t worry, she’s gonna love it.”
“Buffy would never agree to this.”
“She doesn’t have to agree to it. Just slip something in her drink.”
“There is no way—”
“Dude, forget it. It’s disgusting. She’s not going to have sex with you.”
“How do you know, did you ask her?”
“Buffy’s got two kids.”
“So? They won’t be in the room with us.”
“I don’t think her husband would like it.”
“Fuck ‘im. Kurt doesn’t have to know. Listen kid, I can give you all the inspiration you need—enough inspiration to get your story published in Barely Legal.”
“Wow! Barely Legal? That’s like my favorite magazine.”
“Then you better talk to Buffy.”
I arrive at Buffy’s house around 7:30pm. Benjamin, Buffy’s eight year old son, is watching the Yankees and Red Sox. Olivia is reading a comic book. Their dog, Baxter, is on the floor chewing a plastic toy. The house feels chaotic. The TV volume is up too loud. The phone is ringing. The living room is small and filled with clutter: junk mail, toys, school books. There is a large pile of clothes on the couch. The ironing board is set up in front of the TV. When Buffy hangs up the phone and returns her attention to folding laundry, I tell her I need a favor.
“I don’t have any money,” she says.
“Neither do I, that’s why I need a favor.”
“What kind of favor?”
“Charles Bukowski has promised me enough inspiration to get published, if you’ll—”
To the children I say, “Cover your ears!” I wait until their ears are sufficiently covered. To Buffy I whisper, “If you’ll have have sex with him.”
“Yeah, right!” She laughs.
“Why not? He’s not that bad.”
“He’s absolutely disgusting. Those acne scars, and his teeth.” Buffy shudders. “I’m married.”
“So what? You and Kurt hate each other.”
“Yeah, but we’re still married.”
Olivia isn’t covering his ears. I give each child ten dollars to go to their room. Reluctantly they leave. When their bedroom doors close I ask again, “Why not? I would do it for you, if the shoe were on the other foot.”
“What if I get VD or something?”
“Oh, come on! You’ll be fine. I’m just about positive he’ll wear a condom.”
“You’ve slept with worse.”
“No, I haven’t.”
“What about Mike Conners, PJ Green, Sean McCarthy…”
“That was a long time ago. And Sean McCarthy wasn’t that ugly.”
“I’m married now,” Buffy says. “I’m not doing it.”
“Maybe Kurt won’t care. He doesn’t have to know.”
“Forget it. What if the kids found out?”
“You can’t do me this one little favor, after all I’ve done for you? Don’t you want to see your big brother get published?”
“You’re not going to get published. It’s time to give up the dream and face reality.”
Kurt’s car pulls in the driveway. Ben and Olivia, now dressed in their pajamas, creep out of their rooms and stand at the top of the stairs, waiting for their daddy to kiss them goodnight. Kurt takes off his coat, kicks off his work boots, and says nothing to Buffy— his roommate. He goes upstairs to tuck the kids in. Buffy and I continue to argue quietly. I’m amazed at how stubborn she’s being. “It’s just a one night stand. You’ve had one night stands before. It’ll probably be over in five minutes.”
“Why don’t you call on a different muse? What about…” Buffy has to think, she doesn’t read much. “What about…Shakespeare? Why don’t you call on him?”
“Seriously? Did you find Romeo and Juliet inspiring?”
“Hmm, no. But I’m a hairdresser, not a writer. You should be inspired by Shakespeare.”
“I should be, but I’m not. I want to work with Bukowski. We’re perfect for each other; we’re both uneducated, vulgar and base. The only way I’ll ever get published is with Bukowski’s help. Please. I’m begging you.” She seems to be thinking about it. Her stony face softens a little; there are fault lines developing in her makeup.
“They can hear you upstairs,” says Kurt as he descends the stairs. He moves a pile of laundry, sits on the couch, and puts his size thirteen feet on the coffee table. There is a small hole at the top of his sock where his big toe sticks out. “What’s in it for us?” Kurt asks. “You get published, Bukowski gets to fuck my wife, what do I get?”
“Sold!” Kurt shouts and leans forward to shake my hand.
“No!” Buffy says. “Not sold. Even a whore makes more than $100.” Kurt starts to say something, then stops short. Buffy and Kurt fight. It seems they are behind on their mortgage. Buffy starts to cry. She reminds Kurt that $100 won’t pay off their mortgage. Kurt concedes that point but says $100 would pay the registration fee for Ben’s Little League. And Olivia wants to take karate lessons. Buffy’s mascara is running. She looks like Alice Cooper with that black gunk running down her face.
I say, “What do you want, Buffy? Name your price. You want 10% of my earnings from the story?”
“Yes!” Shouts Kurt. “We’ll take it. That’s a good deal!”
“No! I can’t be bought!”
“10%” shouts Kurt. “What do mean you can’t do it?”
Buffy sheds more tears. Kurt and I roll our eyes and wait for her to come to her senses. Kurt goes to the kitchen and comes back with a bottle of Malbec and a glass. He pours it to the rim and hands it to Buffy. She takes a long drink and stares into space for a minute. “What if I give him a hand job?”
Sadly, I shake my head. “That’s not gonna do it, Buffy.”
Kurt hands her a tissue. Buffy takes another drink. “All right, a blow job. But I’m not gonna swallow, and that’s my final offer.”
I put my arm around Buffy and say, “I know this is difficult for you. But you need to stop being a bitch and think about me for a change. I’ve always been there for you. You need to do the right thing this one time.”
“Yeah, do him this one little favor,” says Kurt. “Stop making such a big deal out of it.”
I say to Buffy, “Remember that time in third grade when those two boys chased you home from school and I ran outside to protect you.”
“Yeah, they beat the shit out of you, and you ran back in the house crying, ‘Mommy! Mommy!’”
“Yes, but that’s not the point. The point is, I ran outside for you, without any thought for my own personal safety. Because I love you. Now, do me this favor or I’m gonna get pissed.”
She takes another long drink. She looks at Kurt; she looks at me. She says, “Okay fine. But I'm keeping the lights out."
Because I’m a nice guy, I let Buffy finish her wine before invoking Mr. Bukowski. I let her finish the whole bottle. All three of us sit in silence while Buffy prepares herself. Kurt is half-asleep, watching the Yankee game. He’s curled up on the couch under a warm blanket. I wonder if he’s thinking about that 10%. He’s a pretty slippery character; it wouldn’t surprise me if he spent the money on himself. When the time is right I call on Bukowski. He arrives holding a can of beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He looks at Buffy and nods. Buffy’s lips are purple and she’s totally cockeyed. Bukowski puffs on his cigarette as he looks her over. To me he says, “Nice work, kid.”
“Thank you, sir. It’s my pleasure. She’s all yours. You might want to use the guest bedroom,” I tell him, pointing to the door. “The kids are sleeping upstairs… and you probably make a lot of noise.”
My sister gives me a startled look. To Buffy I whisper, “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.” There are tears in her eyes. Perhaps they are tears of joy. Bukowski takes her by the hand and leads the way. The door is closed. I sit on the loveseat and think about how nice it will be when I’m published in a major magazine like Barely Legal. I imagine myself at my 20 year high school reunion, dressed in an Armani suit, handing out copies of my story.
Kurt is curled up on the couch, snoring. I’m crunching numbers in my head, trying to guess how many people will read my story. Thousands? Maybe millions? Barely Legal will be the perfect segue to other magazines. Soon I’ll be published in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Glimmer Train—all those hifalutin magazines that wanted nothing to do with me will soon be licking my boots, begging me for submissions!
The sound of breaking furniture snaps me from my stupor. I hear yelling coming from the spare bedroom. I don’t know if I should knock on the door. They haven’t been in there that long. I want to make sure Bukowski is okay, so I tip-tip to the door and listen. He’s calling Buffy a whore. Buffy says nothing in return. I knock on the door timidly and say, “Take it easy in there. Don’t wake the kids.”
The door opens. Bukowski stands in his boxers and his dark socks, no shirt. His chest hair is gray. There’s something wet and smelly all over him. “The bitch threw up on me!” He shouts.
“Oh, no. Let me get you a towel.” I find a clean towel among the piles of folded laundry. Kurt rolls over and goes right back to sleep. Bukowski is still grumbling when I hand him the towel. I apologize on Buffy’s behalf. He cleans himself off and throws the towel on the floor. He starts getting dressed. Buffy is in the guest bedroom, passed out on the bed, partially dressed. I check to make sure she’s breathing. I turn her head so she doesn’t pull a John Bonham. Then I return to the living room where Bukowski is tying his shoes.
“Where are you going?” I ask.
“What do you mean? We had a deal.” Bukowski stands up and starts to walk away, so I grab his arm. “We had a deal.”
“She passed out,” he yells. “She threw up all over me.”
“I can’t have sex with a woman who’s unconscious.”
“Why not? What difference does it make?”
“Get out of my way,” Bukowski tries to push past me. He must think I’m some kind of punk. I tell him he needs to sing me a song and it better be good. He says, “Fuck you, and your song!” He makes it to the front door. I pick up Benjamin’s baseball bat and whack him in the back. “You said you’d help me get published!” I yell. “You said you were going to sing.” Bukowski is on the floor, screaming. He says he won’t sing. “Oh, no?” I whack him again. “Are you sure about that?” I hit him again. This time I take out his knee cap. Then I hit his elbow. Bukowski is howling. I love it! The profanity that springs from his dirty mouth is incredible. I want more. I bash his fingers one at a time. I hit his shoulder. I don’t want to knock him out; I want to hear him howl. It’s not the prettiest song I’ve ever heard, but it’s better than nothing.
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