Harlan Ellison was in my mind as I wrote this. His concussive talent and combative personality impacted my little brain with the force of a hurtling comet when I was younger. The Olympia typewriter mentioned in this tale is a call back to his own instrument.
I published this story on June 3rd, 2018. Harlan died just a few weeks later, on the 27th.
I kills me that I never got the chance to meet him.
The old man sat at his desk, scanning the fresh-typed words. His Olympia Manual waited patiently. Silently. Eager to record any thoughts he felt like sharing.
The words wouldn’t flow as they once did. There was a time when the hammers struck sparks and the words exploded off the page for those who read them.
He pursued the revelation. The constant eureka. He didn’t know how the process worked. It just worked. Of course, some days were better than others.
This was the tragedy of age. He knew he wasn’t as fast as he once was. Not as sharp. The audience was smaller, many of them moved on, one way or another.
His fingers, like his back, grown bent and stiff with age, moved slow and ponderous on the keyboard. Still, like a well-worn hammer, they pounded out the words as they came.
Still, every morning he sat down at his well-worn chair – the one that leaned slightly to the right – and hunted.
There are those who think inspiration a gift. He knew better. He knew Inspiration as a fickle mistress, to be wooed, seduced, pampered. The more you romanced her, the more she’d flirt with you.
She never came on strong. Not at first. She’d lightly tease the fuzzy edges of his dreams. Stroke the embers of his imagination. Eventually, he’d lose himself in the seduction. The fire. Unaware of the world around him. Typing furiously. Images scorching the page. Fingers struggling to keep up with the drama playing out in his head.
Sometimes he chased her all day, it was true. Never catching a glimpse. But later, after he’d left his desk and put his labors behind him, she would tempt some half-formed dream out of his thoughts. It could be during the news, a movie, while drifting off to sleep, or in the shower.
It seemed, that sometimes, running water drew her to him. Obviously, it wasn’t his body. Not anymore. Not ever. He had after all, the frame of a writer, built through years of sitting – stooped over his typewriter – drinking black coffee, eating donuts or whatever his wife put in front of him. Some days, he was unaware that he had eaten at all. But the evidence was there. The empty cup, the smeared plate.
It wasn’t that life didn’t attract him. He loved his wife. He loved the mornings spent together over eggs and coffee. And he loved the children they’d raised together.
He knew that it hadn’t been easy. Artists are a selfish lot, after all. Everything takes a backseat to the muse.
He was committed to his muse. And why not? Had they not shared 1000 stories? Created people? Worlds? Gods? Had she not given him a life richer than any he’d hoped for, had he worked for a company or gotten a job?
Job! It should be a four letter word. Who cared if he ate. Art drove him. He could go days without eating, but never a day without his art. No, never that.
So he sat in the place where he knew, one day he would die, surrounded by his volumes of his work, and those his peers. His awards. A fan’s standout letter claiming his words changed her life. A framed note from an old teacher insisting he had no talent. In many ways, that letter gave him more pleasure than any of the awards or acclamations.
Today, he sensed a slight difference in the air. In the pressure on his face. In his lungs. Was it the weather? The season? No, he thought to himself. Nothing so mundane as that.
He searched for the cause. Not with his eyes or nose, but with his fingers. His mind. He knew that the change was not external. And yet…
He asked his muse, what was the change? If he could gain the truth of it, he could express it.
He sensed a stirring at his back. A bony hand on his shoulder. It was The Call. The one he’d dreaded. No Muse reached out for him today. No, it was her cousin, come to steal his breath.
He felt the icy breath on his ear. “Your efforts are done. Cease your toils.”
He typed on as if his fingers could flee for him.
‘I won’t leave with another story in me.’ He pressed on, struggling to remain, to complete just one more tale. To share another small slice of his soul with a hungry world.
“Come. She’s no longer yours. Moved on to younger fingers – agile minds. Her faithless eyes gaze elsewhere.”
Bitter sweat racing down his neck, he hunkered down, and continued his pursuit. His fingers floundered here and there.
“Stop this folly. Let someone else have their turn. Step back. Stand up. Release your pain and be free.”
He leaned in all the harder. His brow furrowed – squeezing words out of his mind. It dripped slowly, like juice from a spent orange.
“Come.” Another bony hand grasped his shoulder. An ache clutched his chest.
“NO!” He shrugged off the clasping hands. Not while I have breath in my lungs. Life in my fingers. They flailed for the formless. The story. The song. Just one touch to scratch another tale out of the scaly mind that once gushed forth prose and song like a fountain of shimmering water.
The Presence leaned in. Weight bore down on his shoulders. The final kiss to end his tale.
His fingers began to falter, to stumble, to slow.
‘Wait!’ He thought. “What was death, but the ultimate inspiration?”
He inhaled deep and righted himself. Ripped out the spent page, replaced it, and began the race anew.
He recognized The Shade for what it was. Just an outfit. A costume.
His Muse loved him. Loved the chase. She tried one final time. “Have an end.” She whispered.
He smiled. “No.” He whispered back “Let’s dance.”
She smiled and kissed his head. Her man. Her writer. He’d just needed a little push after all.
The shot fired. The game was on.