THE SCREAMER; AFTER A PORTRAIT BY MUNCH
three-ten! Help in three ten!"
A fossilized machine, a bright morning. I'm biting the bit,
hunkered at my typewriter taping keys and lightly slapping the return lever. I
enjoy the act of typing, the clicking and snapping of letters.
Help in three-ten!"
Momentarily I rise from the chair and stretch, yawn and
step to the window of my second floor apartment. I shake stiffness out of my
legs, first one and then the other. Outside there's a lush, overgrown Banana
Palm, and next to that a row of potted plants burgeoning under the shade of the
palm's rubbery leaves. Inhaling that first morning breath, I smile to
myself…"Help in-" and shut the window.
It happens often -
only a muffled noise, a desperate plea in the distance of an otherwise beautiful universe.
Adjusting my position
in the chair, I pursue a twenty-four hour battle with a paragraph. Should I save the object sentence
for the end, turning it into a dramatic resolution, or open with it and then
expound? Perhaps it could be shortened. Is it even germane to the story? When
in doubt, sayeth the experts, slash, dismember, amputate syllables like felling
trees in a rain forest. Edit with blood in your teeth. No such animal as the
sacred word. A small thing, but it's these trivial bits which transform a
writer into an artist. To succeed, the ability to witness the death of one's
best ideas must come easily. A good writer is ruthlessly objective.
However, the perfect
quotable sentence - it is the nature of the beast to spend a lifetime searching
for the perfect quote which will immortalize - an Atlantean piece of narrative,
can change a reader's life the way mine has been twisted by passages digested
over the years.
Her voice is
weakening. She's old, tired, and spends days pasted in a chair watching
television. She's nursing a bad hip and
is tied to the whiskey bottle. That's why she periodically falls out of the
chair. There's a gentleman friend who visits everyday. He delivers the juice and is no great
shakes. He drives a lemon yellow Buick with a tennis ball stuck on the radio
antenna - a real sport. Last week he
collapsed in a drunken stupor downstairs by the mail boxes and the paramedics
"Breathe for me,
old timer, or their gonna throw yuh's in a box and nail it shut."
He sputtered and
spit-up. "No hospital, please."
"Yuh want I
should let you lie here and die? You'd like that."
"No, no hospital,
He's a distinguished
looking gentleman with most of his hair and a silver mustache. She can still
snatch an older Adonis because she used to be a knockout - the Coca-Cola Girl
Some time ago, when
she lived sober, she'd invited my wife up to her place for tea. The old lady
brimmed full of life before Cutty Sark became an appendage. That afternoon she
sat Ann on the sofa with tea and pound cake. Her eyes lit up and she driveled
incessantly, as if she hadn't a visitor in eons. Above the sofa hung a glass
shrine containing Coca-Cola memorabilia: bottles, painted serving trays,
calendars, all with her pictures on them - her supplication to the gleaming
toothy American dream.
"Oh my, yes, I
was very popular, what with the U.S.O. dances and armed services tours. You
know," she spoke with a glint in her eye and a hushed tone, "they
used to pin my pictures up on the barracks.
I gave that Betty Grable gal a run for her money! You're cute too, dear."
Afterwards, Ann ran
off at the mouth, breathless.
nice." A good writer distances himself from the subject.
She's got a giant poster of herself drinking Coke out of a glass bottle with
some army Major So n' So from the forties. A glass bottle, no cans, and she's
wearing a jacket with padded shoulders and a hat with a feather in it and
A week later Ann had a
chance meeting with the Coca-Cola lady downstairs by the mail boxes. By then it
had started. She was buttressing the wall with her nose, disoriented, whiskey
aromatic at eleven o'clock in the morning, and then she saw Ann.
"If it isn't the
li'l hippie whore, huh!" Ann was crushed. "Now we gotta live with
fuckin' hippies in the building!"
I should change the exposition to dialogue. That's it. I
rip the paper out of the machine and crumple it into a space ball. How exciting
, a new beginning. My fourteenth fresh start. What a life, to be a writer.
It's a peaceful,
contemplative existence. The telephone rings. My people know better than to disturb
me during working hours. The good writer is disciplined. It's usually one of
writing. How nice for you. So, I didn't take you away from anything
just completing an in-depth examination into the creative, cognitive, and
ruminating processes of the third frame of my subconscious mind. I'm also
trying to write a paragraph." Maybe the bitch will hang up. The Coca-Cola
lady is screaming again.
"Look, I've got
to go pick up someone off he floor."
I climb the stairwell
to the third floor. I would have taken the elevator but Adonis has taken it
earlier. He got her soused, got his rocks off and then left while he could
still walk. I know the elevator now reeks of urine, Aqua Velva, and Ripple.
It's their plot to die together, a grotesque Romeo and Juliet - double
cirrhoses of the livers. It will be a conclusion with no respect, no love -
prolonged suicide. Might make an interesting story. The good writer is always
scratching for a story.
I approach the screen
door to three-ten and peer into the darkness of a tomb. The death chair with
mummy blanket strewn across it is empty. The television is blaring afternoon
soap opera. Pictures are crooked and walls are stained nicotine yellow. Liquor
bottles grow scattered in groups, half empty or full, depending on your point of view, and sticky. Trash overflows. The
stench of rotting flesh wafts a perfume of finality. Gawd, she's dead. Then I
see her in the shadows, sprawled on the carpet: a sack of bones with blue veins,
a piece of meat with two cavernous eyes, a tubercular vision by Edvard Munch.
It wasn't so bad that
she called Ann a whore. It's sad, her
life a tragedy. And those eyes wide open and staring at me, frozen. The
Coca-Cola lady raped by American culture until her tits collapsed, cast out as
corporate refuse because her teeth no longer twinkled. Above the chair hangs an
old tin serving tray with her likeness painted on it. She's smiling and young
and the bottle of cola in her beautiful perfect feminine hand is only a dime.
Now, she lies head
propped against the chair where she's fallen, skin loose and gray, and those
"Don't just stand
there, help me, asshole!"
pity takes a hike. A good writer knows when to change game plans, to go with
the flow as it were.
"I need my chair!
I need a drink! You gonna help me, or what?"
"No. I was just
"Fine, have a
nice day. Someone will come along and pick you up."
Occasionally a fresh
point of view is called for. At times like these the writer must stand
back from the page as the painter
distances himself from his canvas. I'm not speaking of avoidance, but
To be vulnerable to
life. Ah-hah! A tree outside my window. A sturdy oak blowing in the wind, its
leaves gently rocking back and forth. This will be fine for at least five
minutes, and if a bird lands in it maybe seven or eight.
I circle the desk but
avoid looking at the paper still in my machine. I can't help her. She's too old.
If I pick her up the wrong way I might break her bones, crush a vertebrae or
something. I glance at the paper. The paragraph is still there. God hasn't
taken care of it. Across the street, city workers shatter asphalt with jack
hammers. That's interesting. Maybe they'll paint some lines. I wonder why they
always wear blue jeans two sizes too big. I wonder if they know about the
blushing butt crack showing whenever they bend over.
"Okay, God, fine!
I'm a son of a bitch! Is that what this is about? Is that why I can't write
this paragraph? Fine!" I spy on the traffic below. It's mid-day and cars
are inching along. This is Southern California. Half the cars are Mercedes
convertibles, the other half Hondas. I move slowly to the telephone and dial
invalid upstairs who needs help getting back into her chair."
apartment number, Sir?"
Can't write now. An
old lady's life is at stake. I've got to supervise the paramedics, make certain
they find the right apartment. What if she dies? Poor thing. I jog down to the
mail boxes and wait. They pull up, a deafening siren and flashing lights. Two
men with starched white shirts jump out, and carrying oxygen they race past me
up the stairs.
"See, God? I
called them. I'm righteous. Now how about it?"
I wait the long wait
until her screen door clacks shut and they ride down in the elevator. Leaping
stairs two at a time I press my nose against the Coca-Cola lady's screen. She's
pasted in the chair watching television and then she notices me.
"I'm glad you're
alright. I was worried sick about you and -"
"I don't recall
saying, 'Asshole, call the paramedics!'" A blue vein pulses out of her
forehead. "Idiot! Do you know what this is going to cost me!"
Back at my
window, I wonder how many stories there are from one red light to another. The
muse is gone. I'm losing the battle. Sometimes, the good writer has no option
left other than to make a deal with God - to request the immoral, the unthinkable,
just this once. Ann's key turns in the lock. When she pops open the door I
notice a bit of commotion outside.
the haps, Ann?"
Coca-Cola lady got struck dead by lightning. Well, her television antenna was
struck. She was changing the station on her set when she fried. It's strange,
you know? Not a cloud in the sky."
inexplicable happenings, these things we dare not fathom," I warn. I
return to my typewriter and finish the paragraph. God is not dead. He drives a
blue Mercedes and He's listening.