By William Kiraly, © July 2018
Prompt: What happens when a creative person cannot or will not give life to their creations.
Author’s Note: This story contains some strong language and mild sexual descriptions.
Danny stacked up his roommates’ dirty dishes onto the old wooden wire spool that served as their coffee table, pushed the old newspapers onto the floor and laid down on the couch. He was so tired, he could barely concentrate enough to build his nest. Finals week had been more brutal than usual. His work at the school paper hadn’t let up even for finals with a huge student council cheating scandal. And the classes he had ignored all semester to work on the newspaper required a catch-up effort that was nearly impossible, but he had done it. He didn’t have his grades yet but in his heart-of-hearts, he knew that he had done okay.
He was never going to be a straight-A student but Danny was pretty sure he was passing everything except maybe creative writing. For his final project, he had submitted a story about the dragon—a story born of an early finals week nightmare—which was the biggest piece of crap he had ever written. This pissed him off to no end, considering what he thought he was going to do for a living.
He was finally fading off when the door slammed open and Jim and Angel walked in.
“Get your ass up, sleepyhead.” Angel called out. “We’re gonna go celebrate the end of finals.”
“Oh fuck,” said Danny. “Man, I gotta sleep. I’m so tired, I can’t even think straight.”
“Yeah, but Sue and Lorelei are joining us at Thalia’s. You like Sue, right?”
Danny threw his arm across his face in defense against the lights they turned on and muttered another curse word. “Okay, give me a minute to get ready.”
Changed into a semi-clean shirt and having splashed water on his face and underarms, Danny was soon walking with his friends to the bar. Being out in the bracing spring air brought at least a little life back into his dead insides.
Thalia’s was hopping when they walked in. A college band was playing very badly and very loudly. College kids finally released from the hell of finals week were trying to let loose and dance and yell and drink.
As promised, Sue and Lori were there and Sue came over and gave Danny a peck on his cheek. He tried to respond with a little more, but she played coy and pushed him away. But she winked at him as she grabbed her drink and went back to the pool table.
Danny knew he should follow. They weren’t exactly boyfriend and girlfriend, but there was something there and he should keep it going for another night. She was smart, self-assured, pretty in her own way, and smelled like heaven. He should have followed.
Instead, he sat down and pulled out the reporter’s notebook he always kept in his back pocket so inspiration could never find him unprepared. He started writing furiously.
Jim looked at him, waved his hand in front of Danny’s face and said “What the fuck? That girl wants you. She’s not my type but damn, I think she’s yours…”
Danny vaguely waved him away.
“What are you doing, asshole?” Jim asked. “This is after finals. It’s time to play. You don’t have another writing assignment, do you Mr. Famous Writer who writes shit?”
“I got an idea, I gotta write it down or I’m going to lose it,” Danny said.
“Come on, man. It’s summer. You don’t have to write anything for four months.”
But Danny kept writing. And he kept writing. And he kept jotting down more notes as he looked around the bar. Every face, every body, had a story idea for him. The man in the silly, bright red t-shirt who looked like Humphrey Bogart, he could be a PI, maybe a clown PI. The tall handsome guy who looked like an officer from Star Trek, he could be a spaceship captain who saves his starving crew. What about that fat girl, maybe she lived a really hard life and had an evil father she wanted to get back at.
Angel came back once or twice to check on Danny, but his friends eventually just gave up and played pool and danced and drank.
Danny kept writing, occasionally sipping his beer absentmindedly. He wrote as fiercely as he could but it still felt like he was losing ideas faster than he could get them down.
He wrote down an idea about a sailor who had an hallucination of being saved by something called the Sea Mistress.
“Buy me a drink, sailor” asked a slightly husky female voice just as he was writing more details of that odd plot. He looked up and sitting in the other chair at his little table was a stunningly beautiful woman. She had chin length straight black hair, full lips with crimson lipstick and long fingernails in matching red. She had a powerfully built, but still very feminine body. She was older than Danny, somewhere in her mid-20’s and she exuded confidence, even sensuality, without being obvious about it.
For a moment, Danny was completely speechless. Yeah, he really liked Sue and while he knew he wasn’t unattractive, women like this never came on to him. Things like this didn’t happen to regular, everyday guys like him.
“Um,” he started out lamely, “I can only get you 3-2 beer, I’m not old enough to buy the hard stuff.”
She laughed, it was a throaty laugh and the laugh rose into her eyes too. “That’ll do fine,” she said.
Danny wasn’t sure if the tiredness was creeping back into him, but he felt just a little light-headed as he went to get her a beer and himself a refill.
He could see Sue watching him with hooded eyes but he sure as hell didn’t care right at that moment. It was a relief that—at least for a moment—the torrent of story ideas had thinned to a trickle. But the old bartender looked like a guy who could forget his whole life story every night and invent a new life every day. Weird idea.
“I’m Danny,” he said, handing her the beer. “Danny, uh, Dan Jackman.”
“Nice to meet you,” she answered. “Just call me Calli.”
“Like in Colleen,” Danny said, thinking about a friend from high school.
“No, actually, like Calliope,” she answered, smiling at him. “Why would you think you’d meet a Colleen in a place called ‘Thalia’s?”
“You a student here?” he asked.
“You could say that. What were you writing so intensely in that little notebook?” she asked.
“Ideas. Maybe it’s sleep deprivation from finals week but as soon as I got here, I started getting all of these story ideas. It was like they were pouring out of my brain and I had to write them down before I forgot them.”
“You’re a writer?” she said, brightening with interest.
“I am, or at least that’s what I want to be. I haven’t published anything yet but it’s the only thing I can imagine doing with my life.”
“Tell me about your stories,” she said, sipping her own beer then putting it down in such a way her hand touched his. She didn’t move it.
Danny jolted at the touch, it was like the fire hose of ideas came roaring back as he stared into her deep brown eyes. It took all his strength to fight the urge to grab his notebook again.
“I don’t know, I love telling stories. When I was a kid, I used to tell my sister stories to calm her down when my dad was on one of his drunks or my Mom was in one of her tirades. It’s the only way I could get her to go to sleep. Later on, I wrote a bunch of stories in junior high and high school. I guess I am published ‘cuz two of them were published in our school arts magazine. A lot of them were like Star Trek ripoffs but really, they were pretty good. It was the only way I knew how to get through those years until I got to leave home.
“How about now, you’re what, a sophomore?”
“Junior. I don’t know. Maybe since I’m not so miserable anymore, I can’t seem to write any stories I like all that much. I write for the Spectator, I did the series on the two student council members who were caught cheating and the school tried to cover it up.”
“Ohh, yeah, I saw that one. Hell of good story.”
“Yeah, but it’s like my ability to write fiction has left me for the time being. The best one I did was about a kid who went to jail rather than register for the draft, but it felt really artificial to me. I don’t know anything about being in jail.
I wrote another about a girl on campus fighting for her rights after being raped by another student and I just turned in a really, really awful one about a dragon with a hole in it’s head that represents the worst parts of capitalism. Someday when I’m famous, I know that one will pop up somewhere and absolutely destroy my reputation.”
Calli threw her head back and laughed. “Well, Mr. Dan, lets see if we can get you back on track. Why do you write such political stuff?”
“I used to just write stories that I thought were fun or interesting to me, but with the world in the shape its in now, well you can’t write just for entertainment. We have to change the world.”
“And how much politics do you do outside of your writing.”
“Well, I write for the newspaper, that’s political, that’s investigative.”
“When was the last time you worked for a politician or went to a protest or even went to a candlelight vigil?” she asked, tilting her head to the side a little.
Danny looked down. “Well never, really.”
“If it doesn’t interest you in real life, why do you think you could write about it? A good story comes from here,” she said, poking his chest, “not here” she said, playfully slapping his forehead. A wise man once said “If you write to impress it will always be bad, but if you write to express it will be good.”
“Well my my, aren’t we Miss Erudite. Who said that?” Danny asked.
“Thornton Wilder. A man with impeccable writing credentials.”
Danny sighed, but he was impressed. “I don’t think I could ever be that good” he said.
Calli took his hands in her own and looked straight into his eyes. “I think maybe yes you can.”
When she touched him, he gasped. The flood of images started fire-hosing through his head again. She smiled very sensuously at him and the flood trickled back to one image of him and her together in wild abandon and it was all he could do to not start shaking.
“Would you like to dance?” she asked him and he just nodded, it was the only movement he felt he could trust himself to make.
They danced for a long time. Angel and Jim kept playing pool, Sue and Lorelei walked out with Sue trying—and failing—to give him an unpleasant look. Dan didn’t notice anything but Calli.
Later on, the rubber band safely on the doorknob to warn his apartment mates to not disturb, Dan stood in his room, savoroing slowly undressing his new friend. The curves promised by her clothes were more exquisite than he had dared to hope. It was like opening a present as he took her clothes off one by one. The red blouse, the lace bra underneath, the skirt, the panties. By the time he got to the stockings, he could feel his heart beating hard against his ribcage.
They made love and it was a new experience for Dan. Though his body felt more drained than any time he had ever made love before, his mind, his soul, felt fuller but more diffuse. He closed his eyes and felt waves of passion as she caressed him and he felt her similarly moved. Their sweat made them slippery, the warmth of her skin seemed to burn him.
In the aftermath, she lay gently and perfectly in the crook of his shoulder. He could feel her left breast laying softly against his chest and he trembled just a little bit in continued ecstasy. She played with the one tiny little tuft of chest hair he had, humming something he didn’t recognize to herself.
“Oh my God!” he said, trying to pull himself up on one elbow. “We didn’t use any protection.”
Calli pushed him down, kissing his neck and then his ear. “Don’t worry Dan, you can’t get me pregnant.”
“Why?” he asked automatically, then apologized. “I shouldn’t have asked that.”
“Its okay,” she said, smiling at him. “You and I can conceive our own children, over and over again, but it’s not me who will give birth.”
“What?” he asked, but his mind was fuzzy. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to sleep with any other woman ever again.” He said, again quickly regretting his words.
“You better,” she said. “You can’t give our children life unless you go out into the world and live a little yourself. And don’t worry, I am not a jealous lover. I’ll stay with you always and share your life with you.”
Dan found himself falling asleep quickly and when he woke in the morning, the smell of her lingered on his body and his pillow and his sheets, but Calli was gone.
He never saw Sue again and that made him sad.
Dan was sitting on his bed, bawling his eyes out. Calli sat across from him, too mad to even look at him.
“What the hell are you doing?” she demanded. “Are you fucking crazy? You have a woman who loves you, a woman with a huge heart and a huge spirit, a woman with a huge creative soul and you’re leaving her for some bimbo?”
“I’m not leaving Sherry for a bimbo or for Jenny or whatever. I can’t control how I feel. I can’t bring myself to really be totally in love with her. I want an epic love story in my life. I know Sherry is great, but I love her but I’m not in love with her.”
“Isn’t that just fucking bullshit. Dan, you are a first-class asshole. If you want an epic love then you better start living an epic life. It doesn’t come to you, you have to go out and get it.”
Dan whimpered. “I’m trying but I’m too scared and too young. I gotta grow up some more before I can settle down.”
Calli just shook her head in sorrow. “Yeah, sorry, Jenny’s not a bimbo, but she’s not what you need. You haven’t written anything but city council meetings and stupid interviews with high school football players since college. You need someone like Sherry to pull you out of your self.”
“She can’t. I’m stuck in there myself and I have to get me out first before I can be what she needs.”
Calli stood squarely in front of him, grabbed Dan’s chin hard and forced his eyes level with hers. “I am not a jealous lover but I am an impatient one. Do what you have to do to bring our children into the world. Grow up, learn to live. But don’t waste your time. We are not guaranteed enough time to finish our work and I don’t want us to die before we create something worthy.”
“Us to die?” he said, trying to pull his chin out of her hand and failing.
“What, you think your creativity outlives you. You die, I die. You give up and I am barren and I will not be childless. Grow up!” she said and slapped him hard across the face.
For years, Dan had not seen Calli. Sometimes she was there just beyond his perception, but he always looked away. She tried to talk to him and he hummed things to himself and drowned her out.
Today, on the verge of falling asleep after a long day at the office, he let his guard down and looked where he shouldn’t have looked. What he saw shocked him.
The beautiful, sensuous woman he had made love to so long ago was changed. It was not just that she was older, he was older too, but that her hair was a frazzled graying mess, her cheeks were hollowed, her skin sallow, her eyes were bloodshot, and her teeth were yellow and crooked.
“So you make me like this and now you won’t look at me or even acknowledge I exist. I am still trying to bring you back to what you should be doing and you ignore every idea I try to give you. Why are you so cruel?” Her voice wavered with pain.
“My God Calli, I’m a grown man. I have work I have to do, I have a family I have to take care of. I have a son and a daughter who need me. I don’t have time to waste chasing a pipe-dream…” There was pain in Dan’s voice too as much as he tried to hide it.
“Besides, I’ve written several stories over the last few years…”
“Three” she spat out at him, “three lousy stories in 25 years. That’s your epic life for you?!”
“I have to put Justin and Ellie through college. He wants to be a game designer, she wants to be a painter. You know how unlikely it is I can make any money writing books, like maybe one out of a hundred writers ever makes any money at all. And I can’t leave everything up to Emily.”
“Oh Emily, you mean the woman who won’t even read the piddling few stories you have written. The one who says she’ll read them only when you become famous and make lots of money?”
“She’s a good woman and a good mother.” Said Dan with a flash of anger.
“And a good inspiration to you?” Calli shot back.
“What the fuck is the use of me locking myself away from my family if all I’m doing is writing books that no one will ever read? I don’t have time for foolish dreams. I’m too fucking old now to start a writing career.”
“My God, is that what you think? You have to have someone read your work to make it worthwhile? Sure, it’s nice, but you write for you and for me, not for anyone else. If you write, you can still have that epic life you thought you would have, maybe even have that epic love affair you gave Sherry up for. But if you don’t write, this is what you’ll see in the mirror.” Once again she gripped his chin firmly in her hand and pulled his face to look at hers eye to eye. Calli’s breath was foul and boozy and she held his gaze until he couldn’t look any more and forced his eyes shut.
Dan and Calli saw each other much more now, and sometimes when Emily was away, they made love like the old days.
Ellie, Dan’s crazy daughter, had a great idea several months ago to do ‘creative prompts’. They would agree on a prompt and she would paint a picture and Dan would write a story and by God, even if no one but Ellie ever read his words, he discovered he loved doing it again.
With both the kids out of the house and on their own, he could find the time to write and deep in his imagination, he found himself plotting the book he knew he had in him. No, the first of many books he had in him.
It was while starting to plot this book that Calli had returned to him, no longer sallow and rheumy. She was still as old as he was but her smile had returned and her eyes crinkled with crows feet that looked more like joy than age.
Ellie didn’t see her but sometimes when they were working together with Ellie at her easel and Dan pounding on his laptop, he would see Calli walk up behind his daughter to ostensibly look closer at her painting. Calli would brush up against Ellie and Dan could see inspiration light up his daughter’s eyes with delight.
Calli would let out one of her glorious laughs and look back at Dan as if to say “What? I didn’t do anything.”
She had been right all those years ago, write for the pure pleasure of imagination and everything will fall into place.
Like Calli, he felt and looked better than he had in years. He had dropped 25 pounds and rediscovered the spring in his own step as well. Even Emily seemed to have taken some notice. Sure, he was in his late 50’s now but he still had time to create a body of work. He still had time to get published if he put his mind to it. With the bright new world of self-publishing, maybe he could find a few hundred or a few thousand or maybe— if he was as good as he thought—a few hundred thousand readers.
This is what Dan was thinking as he rode his bike on that beautiful September day when that odd feeling in his chest turned to tightness, then to excruciating pain, then to blackness.
He woke up very slowly in a hospital room, a cardiac monitor beeping out a hiccuping heartbeat. The room was full of light, he was surrounded by a curtain and heard a great bustle of people wandering around outside that curtain. It dawned on him that it must be the ICU but no one was coming in to check on him.
Calliope was there, sitting in a hospital chair, her head buried in her hands, and her body shivering with wracking sobs.
Somehow she knew he was awake and she looked up at him. “You waited too long.” She said. “You wrote a few good things at the end but it wasn’t enough. You could have done so much more.”
He tried to answer her and he realized he had a breathing tube in his mouth and could only grunt around it. But that noise, as soft as it was, brought the nurse running in followed quickly by Emily and Ellie.
The nurse started fiddling with settings on the machine and trying to tell him he was going to be okay and to calm down, he was in a hospital. But Emily grabbed his hands. She was crying, saying how much she loved him and Ellie stood on the other side, stroking his cheek.
“Justin’s flying in from LA this afternoon, Dan. He wants to see you too. Can you wait for him?” Dan started shaking his head—trying to clear it out, not denying her request—but Emily didn’t understand. Instead, she threw her arms around him saying “Dan, Danny, I love you…” but he couldn’t answer back.
Over Emily’s head, Dan saw Calli with a terrible, rictus of loathing on her face. He saw her raise her beautifully manicured nails then reach through Emily’s body. “You waited too fucking long,” she said again, and he felt her long, red nails dig into his heart like talons.