A creative person often has a muse — that person who inspires the creative. The muse can be a person known to creative or can be an inspirational figure from history. The Greeks personified the muse in their mythology by creating nine characters, goddesses who inspired them in various areas — music, poetry, literature, and science. I have followed the Greeks’ example and created a fictional muse. My muse is a psychological construct who gets my creative stream moving. Similarly, I personified my Inner Critic as well. I have written a number of stories over the years where I do battle with my Inner Critic (and almost always squash her). Writing these short stories has helped me overcome the occasional creative block in my writer’s journey. A number of years ago, I finally wrote a story where my Muse comes face-to-face with my Inner Critic. Here is a re-post of that epic encounter.
At The Oracle
I rushed down the rain-slick street towards The Oracle. A break in the storm allowed fingers of light from the setting sun make the rain-laden clouds darkly ominous. I picked up my pace, hoping to get to the bookstore before the clouds unleashed a new round of rain.
I was supposed to meet an old friend at the bookstore, a writing buddy from back in the day when I actually wrote things. Sherlyn was passing through town on a promotional tour of her new novel. She had promised me that we would meet and catch up on old times.
When we were young, we would meet at the Oracle, write in our respective journals for a few minutes, and then read to each other what we had written. Of course these writing sessions were fueled by cups of Oracle coffee, the strongest brew known to humankind. Those had been great experiences, and we often come away from our writing sessions with the seeds of new stories to revise and expand. Sherlyn had taken those writings and produced a novel that made her famous. I was still making time at a dead-end desk job.
I glanced at my watch. I was fifteen minutes late. Picking this time of day to get through the daily commuter nightmare mess was a bad idea, but this was the only time Sherlyn could meet. It was my mistake not to give myself more time to arrive and find a place to park. I hope my friend had not been waiting too long. I hope I had not missed her altogether.
I rounded a corner and saw the warm interior of the bookstore shining through its huge plate glass window set into the facade of an ancient brick building. A faded sign hanging next to the entrance read “The Oracle, est. 1851”. A bell jangled as I pushed through the door, the same bell that Mrs. Delphinia Ravenhill, the original owner, had installed a hundred and sixty years ago.
I hurried by a table of slick, glossy art books and wove through the stacks of Self-Help and Sustainable Living towards the backroom cafe’. With pastries to die for and coffee that would keep you awake while you did, the Oracle café was a place where writers and other creatives gathered to drink, eat, write first drafts, sketch drawings, read books, or just day-dream. The cafe’ was always busy, but at certain times, like November when the regional Nano-wrimo groups convened, one was lucky to get a table at all. Tonight though, most likely because of the afternoon storm, the cafe was only moderately active.
Mostly there were men and women occupying single tables, the faces intent on their laptops or the books they were reading. Some frantically scribbled in journals. At a few tables there were pairs or trios quietly conversing. I scanned the room: Sherlyn was not there. This concerned me. If she were running late, she would have texted me. I had a sinking feeling that I had been stood up.
I took a seat at the long marble counter situated in front of a row of antique brass expresso machines. A woman stood in front one of the machines drawing a cup. On the back of her shirt was the Oracle’s ravens-head logo and the name Corvida.
Where’s Bennie, I wondered. I slid onto a stool at the counter and pulled out my cell phone. There was no message from Sherlyn. I sighed.
A steaming cup slid across the counter and into my view.
“I thought you might like this. It’s on the house,” said Corvida.
I glanced up at her. She had thick waves of black hair tied back and was dressed in the t-shirt and jeans requisite for twenty-somethings, but her eyes seemed to belong to a much older person. She reminded me of my great-aunt Millicent, a mischievous old lady with a twinkle in her eye and wisdom on her tongue. Corvida, quite frankly, had a disconcerting aura about her — like she might have belonged behind this expresso bar, but not quite.
“Uh, thanks.” I looked down at the cappuccino and noted that the Oracle’s raven-head logo had been drawn into the foam of the drink. “Nice work.”
“Thanks,” said Corvida.
“How did you know this was my favorite drink here?”
“Bennie told me.”
“Where is Bennie?”
“Off celebrating. He just got accepted into the writing program at State.”
“He did?. That’s great news. I know he was on pins and needles waiting to hear. I’m so happy for him.”
“Me too.” Corvida smiled as she pulled a damp rag from under the counter and began wiping it down.
I picked up the cup and inhaled the earthy aroma of the coffee. This was a little ritual I always performed before I took a sip.
“Wow, Bennie made into a graduate program. He’s going places.” I set the cup down. “Not like me.”
“You don’t need any more schooling, “ said Corvida, eyeing me from the other end of the counter.
She walked back down to me. “School is right for Bennie and he’ll learn from that experience. You’ve had your own experiences – unique to you – you just need to write them down.”
“Yeah,” I sighed. I leaned an elbow on the counter and hoisted my feet on the stool next to me. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. “
“There’s nothing wrong with you. You just need an idea, that’s all.”
“Sure. No problem. No problem at all.”
Corvida shoved the towel back under the counter. “So what brings you here on a weekday afternoon? Bennie said you were part of the Saturday morning crowd.”
“I’m meeting my friend, Sherlyn Queensman.”
“THE Sherlyn Queensman? “
“Yep, she’s the one.”
“Her novels take up a whole shelf over in 2-D.” Corvida motioned towards the front of the store. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she got a Pulitzer in the next year or so. And what a life she’s lived: her novels, her social activism, her five deadbeat husbands and, what did I just hear? She’s learning to be a pilot? Amazing woman. How do you know her?”
“She and I used to sit in this café and write together. Right over there.” I pointed to a table in the corner underneath the poster of Mary Shelley.
“No kidding? Sherlyn Queensman wrote here? I bet you have a story or two to tell about that.”
“Yeah, I would.”
“I bet you know all about her formative years.”
“That I would…” Suddenly, something in the back of my mind sparked. I shook my head. Naw, that’s a dumb idea…. still…..
I took a deep breath and the smell of cinnamon and carmelized butter overwhelmed me. “Are those fresh cinnamon buns I smell?”
“Yep, last batch of the day. Want one?”
“Comin’ right up.” Corvida pushed through the double doors into the kitchen.
Suddenly, a twangy voice cut through the air from the other end of the counter. “Those buns are making you fat.”
I knew that voice. I knew it well. Arvilla.
She sat on a stool, her back leaning against a brick pillar. In her short tight dress, chunky jewelry, and her usual spiky heels, Arvilla was a walking ad for the Rodeo Drive Chamber of Commerce. She casually sipped from a white and green venti-sized paper cup from the franchise down the street.
I already encountered my Inner Critic twice before, each time letting her mess with my head before kicking her out on her own. I was not going to let her work on me again. I pointed my index finger at her.
“Do not start with me, Arvilla. Do not say another word.”
Arvilla sniffed and set her cup on the counter. “Sugar, you seem to be under the presumption that I have come to see YOU. Rest assured, that is not the case at all.”
I lowered my finger and looked at her.
“See,” she said as she flourished a wave across the café, “these are the people I came to see. That one over there, in the corner – her plot stinks to high heaven and I’m going to have a little chat with her about that. And that gentlemen over there? He spends way too much time writing. He needs to have some distraction. I’m just the person for that.” Arvilla chuckled.
“Wait a minute. You mean to tell me that you didn’t come to see me, to rake me over the coals a bit.”
“No, darlin’, I did not.” Arvilla plopped her feet on the floor and leaned forward on her stool. She stared straight back at me and continued, “You are not even on my radar any more. You are not worth my time and effort. The truth is, sweetie, I have come to the conclusion that you are never going to write anything worthwhile in your whole life ever. In fact, that conclusion can apply to most anything about your life.”
I felt like I had been slugged in the gut.
Suddenly, the door from the kitchen banged open and there stood Cordiva, her eyes trained on Arvilla. “What are you doing here?” she spoke with a scary calmness.
Arvilla slid off her stool and turned to face Corvida. “Doing my job,” she replied.
“Your job is simply to tell people where to stick in their commas and semi-colons.”
I would swear that Arvilla’s tacky red hair was becoming even brassier.
Arvilla placed her hands on her hips. “I’ll tell you where to stick it, honey. You must have paid a visit to Mount O. because you’ve got a real goddess-complex happening here thinkin’ you can order me around.”
Corvida slowly walked around the end of the counter and faced Arvilla. I slid my stool out of the way, trying to make myself as unnoticeable as possible.
Cordiva slowly said, “You’re right. I don’t need to tell you what to do. You already know what has been handed down to us to do. In case you’ve forgotten, let me remind you, dear sister, that you are supposed to HELP, not hinder.”
“Well, I do help. If it weren’t for me, SHE,” Arvilla pointed toward me, “would be embarrassing herself by writing all kinds of dribble. She should be thanking me.”
Cordiva said, “Why don’t you try a little positive critiquing for a change. “
“What?” Arvilla and I replied in unison. We both stared at Cordiva in bewilderment.
“You heard me. Arvilla give Elle a compliment. I know you can do it,” Cordiva coaxed with a sugary smile.
“Fine. I will.” Arvilla gave an exasperated sigh. “Let’s see…. This will take a minute.”
I gave Cordiva a “why-are-you-putting-me-through-this” look.
“Alrighty, I got it.” Arvilla turned to me and said, “Your ability to write dialogue is fairly decent….and… well, you don’t totally suck at writing place descriptions…”
“And….” Said Cordiva.
Arvilla had a pained look on her face and after a long pause burst out, “Aw, heck, Cordiva, that’s all I got. She’s hopeless. She can’t write a sustainable plot for more than a couple thousand words and her writing, at best, is full of clichés.” Arvilla glanced at me. “She’s boring and unremarkable.” She turned back to Arvilla. “Face it, sugar, you are not doing her any favors by babying her.”
Cordiva said nothing for a moment. I thought I felt a tremor run through the counter top and heard the faint tinkle of cups and saucers on the shelf behind it. The lights flickered and momentarily dimmed.
“What’s the real problem here, Arvilla?” Cordiva took a step towards her.
“What do you mean?” Arvilla stepped back.
“Why don’t you want her to succeed? Is the fact that I might be correct in my estimation of her talent and potential and that sticks in your craw?
“You are full of it!”
Cordiva’s face lightened as if a profound bit of insight came to her. “Or is it, dear sister, you’re just a Critic because YOU do not possess any sort of creative power of your own. You’re angry because she has that power – and I have that power – and you don’t. You’re jealous of her, Arvilla.”
Arvilla’s eyes turned yellow and she hissed back, “I am not jealous of something like HER. She’s pathetic. I think the Universe was wrong to have wasted the molecules to create HER. She should not even exist!” She aimed these last horrible words directly at me.
I cringed and pulled into myself even more so. She must be right. Yes, she was absolutely correct.
Suddenly, I heard a loud pop and the sound of falling glass, followed by another pop and then another. I looked to the back of the counter. The bottles of Torani syrup on the shelf behind the counter were exploding, one after another. The cups and saucers on the shelf underneath were propelling themselves over the counter. I threw up an arm to protect myself from the flying glass and ceramic shrapnel, but it was all flying in the direction of Arvilla.
“I’ve had about all I can stand of you,” rumbled Cordiva. She began to grow in front of me, her t-shirt and jeans transforming into a cloak of black feathers. Her eyes were coal-black and filled with anger. She advanced towards Arvilla.
“From this point forward, you will no longer have any influence on anyone in this café.”
There was a loud bang and the café and bookstore began to sway. The overheads went off, leaving only the eerie blue glow of the building’s emergency lights. I heard a patron from the front of the bookstore scream “Earthquake!”
The tables were too far away for me to take cover, so I got down on the floor and crouched as closely as I could to the front of the counter. I could hear Arvilla shrieking and cursing Corvida and through the dim blue light I could see her covering the face and head. The shaking got steadily worse.
Then, the roof fell in on Arvilla.
“Huh?” I looked up at Bennie’s concerned face.
“Miss Elle, are you okay? You dropped your bag on the floor and then, well you sorta zoned out for a minute.”
Indeed I was on the floor. I picked up my bag and climbed back on the stool. I looked around the café. The patrons who had been there when I entered were still engaged in writing and conversation. Nothing was out of place. Everything was as it should be. I should have known from my past experiences with Arvilla that everything would be.
I turned towards the front windows of the bookstore. The sky had finally opened up and it was pouring rain.
“Some lightning show, huh? I thought for sure we’d lose power with that last strike.”
I turned back to the young man. “Where’s Corvida?”
“Corvida. Why are you here? She said you were off.”
“No….” said Bennie with some hesitation. “I’ve been here all afternoon. Um, are you going to answer your purse?”
“My purse?” I looked over at my hand bag that I had placed back on the counter. I could hear my cell phone’s ring tone coming from it. “Oh, yeah.” I scrambled to get it out and looked at the caller ID. I quickly flipped it open.
“Sherlyn? … Yes, I’m still here at the store.. Where are you?… Yeah, traffic sucks and its pouring outside… Yeah, I have time to wait for you. What’s up? …. Uh-huh, uh-huh… That’s fantastic! …. What? You’re kidding me? …. Well, heck-yeah, I’ll do it… Sure, I’ll get an agent right away. … They will?… That much?…. Okay… Okay… We can get a rough outline laid out this evening if you have the time. I’ve got some ideas already for this. Oh, Sherlyn, this will be just like old times…. Yeah, okay…. I’ll see you in a few minutes.” I punched off the phone.
“Well?, said Bennie. “Looks like you just got good news.”
“Oh, Bennie, this is amazing. My friend, Sherlyn Queensman, just heard from her publisher that they’ve authorized an official biography of her life. They said she could pick the biographer.”
“And she picked you?”
“Yes, I can’t believe it! And her publisher is even going to give me an advance. This is incredible! Absolutely unbelievable!”
“That’s not so unbelievable,” Bennie smiled as he slid a cup of cappuccino in front of me. “You’d better drink this before it gets cold.” I looked down into the cup and saw the Oracle’s ravens head logo drawn into the foam.
And then I saw the raven wink at me.
LJGloyd © 2010, revised 2016
Image: LJGloyd 2016
Here is my first story featuring Arvilla which is also one of the very first stories I wrote for the Soul Food Cafe.
Inspired by Letter M at the Soul Food Cafe