The Source of Inspiration

    The idea was perfect.    
    Perfect enough to wake Jesse out of a deep sleep. He sat up in bed and fumbled with the lamp on the nightstand, finally finding the on switch.
    It was a simple premise, but it was brilliant. The pieces of it had been swirling in his subconscious for months, but it had finally crystallized and unfolded in a shockingly vivid dream. Unique, original and full of promise, it was just the idea that would take his writing career from being a dreamer, to being an author.
    He hoped.
    He thumbed at his iphone. 4:45 a.m. More than enough time to get the idea laid out in his computer, then catch another hour of sleep before his day officially began.
    Jesse pulled himself from bed, threw on his Texas A&M t-shirt and moved quickly and quietly down the hallway of their small house, taking extra care as he moved past his son’s partially opened door. He heard Cole’s soft snoring.
Pleasepleasepleasekeepsleeping.
    Jesse entered their kitchen and, not wanting to risk waking Cole by turning on all the lights,
instead clicked on the small, dim single bulb over the sink. He thought it would give him
just enough light to maneuver in their cramped but cozy kitchen. But as he took a seat at
their table and reached for his computer bag, in the low light he missed the plastic cup
that was still out from last night’s Tex-Mex dinner night. His elbow clipped it, and it
hit the linoleum floor with the cartoon loudness that only happens when silence
is what is needed.
    Jesse froze. His eyes scrunched, teeth gritted, he listened to the cup slowly -
too slowly - come to a spinning stop.
    Wait for it.
    Wait for it.
    “Daddy?”
     Damn.
    He needed to get this idea down, but he couldn’t make Cole wait. He sighed, and headed back down the hallway.
    “Hey bud,” he said, as he pushed open his son’s bedroom door.
    “What was that noise?” Cole asked, rubbing his eyes.
    Jesse sat down on the edge of his son’s bed and pulled the Dallas Cowboys bed sheet back up over Cole’s legs.     “That was me, bud. Sorry. I was just doing some work on the computer. Go back to sleep.” He stroked Cole’s brown hair, and tucked the stuffed Chewbacca in under the sheets. Cole’s arm immediately wrapped around it.
    “Will you stay with me?” Cole asked, his words fuzzy with sleep.
    “Of course,” Jesse said. He kept stroking and brushing Cole’s hair and hummed a nameless tune all the while trying to will Cole back to sleep.
Just a few minutes, he thought to himself. Just hang on to the idea. Hang on to it.
    Finally, he heard his son’s breathing slow to a deep, steady rhythm and with practiced ease, Jesse silently extricated himself from his son’s room.
    Back at the kitchen table, he powered up his laptop, but was startled by the ringing of his iphone.
5:02 a.m.? What the…?
    The home screen showed it was his father-in-law, Joe, calling. It wasn’t rare for Joe to call at random hours, for random reasons, especially lately as the Alzheimer’s took away pieces of routine from Joe’s life.
    Jesse swiped to answer his phone, and swiveled in the chair so his voice would carry away from the hallway and his sleeping son.
    “Joe, are you ok?” he asked, trying to keep his voice low.
    No answer, although Jesse could hear the TV on in the background in Joe’s apartment. It sounded like the hosts from “Fox and Friends,” the morning pseudo-news show.
    “Joe?” he asked again, his concern ticking up slightly.
    “Jesse,” his father-in-law finally responded. “I was just wondering if you and Emily were still bringing the kids over tonight.”
    Now it was Jesse’s turn to hesitate. He hated these calls, when the Alzheimer’s was in total control of Joe’s faculties, and his father-in-law had no memory that his daughter and granddaughter had died in a car accident eight months ago.
    “No, they’re not going to be able to make it, Joe,” Jesse replied. “I figured we could just have a guy’s night, you, me and Cole. Monday Night Football’s on, Cowboys-Giants, and I’ll bring the pizza. How’s that sound?”
    Another pause.
    “That’s sounds great – I do love watching Troy Aikman.”
    Jesse sighed inwardly, not even wanting to get into that topic. Aikman hadn’t played for the Cowboys since 2000. “Yup, me too Joe.”
    “Alright, I’ll see y’all tonight then. Give my love to the girls.”
    “I…I will Joe. See you tonight.”
    Jesse swiped the phone conversation to an end. His gaze paused at the photo on the home screen of his phone. The four of them at a Ranger’s game last season.
    “Dad sends his love,” he whispered, a finger gently touching his wife’s face. “Me too.”
    He was about to get up and head back to bed, when he remembered why he was up at this unholy hour.
    It jarred him that he had almost forgotten the story idea. He needed to hurry now: the memory of the perfect idea was beginning to crumble at the edges, like a sandcastle being taken by the tide.
    He double-clicked the Microsoft Word icon when Facebook Messenger pinged incoming.
    [You up already?]
    It was from Amos, a friend and co-worker at GAO USA, an up-and-coming natural gas and oil company based in Texas.
    Amos was a notorious early riser, and, when they were out in the field together, loved to wax philosophical about sunrises, and the stillness of the morning.
    [Yah, couldn’t sleep. You just getting up too?]
    [Ha! Been up for an hour already, made waffles for the wife, did three miles on the treadmill, read through early emails!]
    Jesse seethed with the shared, but good-natured hatred that all night owls reserve specifically for early risers.
    [Hey, by the way,] Amos messaged. [You may want to check out this morning’s message from corporate.     They’re reopening the investigation of the hydraulic tubing on Well 12.]
    “Damn!” Jesse swore softly. A fire had erupted on Well 12 six months back and the subsequent investigation had been time consuming. It was great that GAO was being cautious and thorough, but this would be the fourth time over the same material, and it would draw him into the same meetings and discussions. Again.
    [Ok thanks for the heads-up. Might as well start moving.]
    [Ok see you at 8am, bright and early!] and with that Amos was gone.
    Jesse began thinking about what the home office was going to need from him. He had kept most everything he needed about the accident in a single binder, but best to go over it and double check before he was asked for it.
    Fully awake now, Jesse turned on Mr. Coffee, and headed to the bathroom for a shower, and the start of the day.
    Back in the kitchen, Word finally opened on his laptop. The cursor blinked patiently, waiting for the first words of that perfect idea in Jesse’s head to be typed on the screen.
    It was too late, though. The words would not be coming.
    The perfect idea was forgotten and gone.

                                                                                                •

    “What the hell was that!?”
    From her office on Mt. Olympus, Sage watched in stunned disbelief as she lost Jesse again.
    Again!
    Sage’s knuckles turned white as she gripped the snow globe attuned to Jesse’s mind. A small translucent hologram of Jesse currently hovered at its center, and the tiny snowflakes began to speed up and swirl ever quicker around the floating hologram. The speed and uniform direction of the flakes meant his mind was ramping up for the workday.
    Creatively speaking, she knew from experience it would be nearly impossible to influence him now.
    “Poseidon’s Puckered Asshole!” Sage shook the globe in frustration and slammed it on her desk – instantly regretting it. She had no fear that the treasured object would break. It was, after all, created by a craftsman who had studied under Hephaestus himself. It just wasn’t fair to the globe that she should take her anger out on it.
    “I had him!” she barked, crossing her arms. She sat helplessly, watching the speed of the flakes continue to quicken. Giving the stink eye to the hologram of Jesse, she pointed at it and whispered: “I had you, you son of a bitch.”
    A soft tap on the door to her workspace took her attention away from the globe. Through the small window in her office door she saw her friend Slade waving at her. She motioned for him to come in.
    No one had captured sauntering quite like Slade. He somehow made it look more natural than simply walking. He sauntered over to her desk, leaned against it and flicked his fedora back away from his forehead. He pulled the toothpick from the corner of his mouth, raised a single eyebrow and asked, “Waddya say, dollface? Is it time to let nature take its course and bust up the furniture?”
    Sage laughed out loud at her friend’s antics, but her laugh ended in a deep sigh.
    “Seriously, though,” Slade said, seriously. “I heard ya yelling in here – if there was gonna be a donnybrook, you know Slade is good for a tumble or two.”
    Sage laughed again despite her mood. “I appreciate it Slade, but…” She was about to tell him that she was going to get back to work, when she realized she needed a breather – and maybe a friendly ear.
    “Hey, you want to take a break with me? I need to get out of here for a bit.”
    “Sure sweetheart. I know this little gin joint that’s got an out of this world piano player.”
    “Actually, I was thinking about the Oasis. You want to go?”
    “Oh!” Slade said, the seriousness of her request pulling him out of his gumshoe shtick. “Sure, let’s go.”

                                                                                                •

    The Oasis was more than just a spot to hang out and recharge. It was the equivalent of a mini-vacation. Luxurious pools, unlimited food and wine, amazing company. Still, all that could be had at the Hard Rock Casino in Las Vegas. No, the Oasis was truly unique because it was outside the mortal realm, situated smack dab in the middle of the Sands of Time.
    Hermes had found it millennia ago, but it was the Muses who had come to truly appreciate its glory.
    Maybe it was the smells from battlefields and feasts of long ago that wafted in on warm breezes. Maybe it was the sounds of passion, terror and joy, of musical concerts long performed and yet to be conceived, that echoed in from beyond the dunes. Maybe it was the visions of heroic deeds, of feats of strength and weakness alike, that shimmered in the desert sun.
    Put them altogether and it was like reliving the victories and tragedies of the history of humankind.
    For a muse who wasn’t feeling all that creative, it was the perfect place to come and become reinvigorated.
    There was a danger to it though – since time moved differently here, it was easy to lose yourself in the Oasis. Accidentally or on purpose, take your pick.
    “Look at poor Apponax,” Slade said, waving in the direction of a solitary individual floating in circles on a small raft in one of the coves. Slade took a sip of his oversized strawberry margarita, put the half empty glass back into the sand and then eased his body into the warm, crystal waters with a contented sigh. “How long is he going to stay here? It’s becoming pathetic really. He should just commit to his genre, or call it quits and start up again with something new.”
        Sage sipped at her Bloody Mary. She was sitting at the edge of the pool, her feet and legs dangling in the water. She kicked at the waters, watching the bubbles swirl and pop. “What was his genre again?”
    “The Iambus.”
    “The…what?”
    “Iambus. It was an attack poem.”
    “Oh I remember,” Sage said, taking another sip from her drink. “Didn’t that start with the cult of Dionysus?”
    “Yeah it was great fun for a long time, but Apponax gave up at some point around 40 BC. It fell out of style shortly thereafter.”
    “Psssh, why? You’d think an attack poem would be perfect for mortals these days, the way that culture has coarsened lately.”
    Slade nodded. “Actually, the Iambus was pretty close to the equivalent of a rap battle. Remember the last scene in the movie 8 Mile? Where Eminem squares off against Papa Doc? By the way, did you know the actor that played Papa Doc is the same guy who plays the Falcon in the Marvel movies? I love that guy. Great actor. Anyway, it was like that. Political, personal, humorous. People used it for all sorts of things, until Apponax gave up, and it faded out of use. A missed opportunity for him, really. Had he still been working at it, maybe he would have started the Rap genre. He was definitely ahead of his time.”
    Sage looked at Apponax, wondering what had made the muse finally quit. Had he run into a creative that he couldn’t spark?
    Like what she was running into with Jesse?
    She sipped at her drink and sighed.
    Slade had his eyes closed, but heard the sigh. “So, you gonna tell me what’s going on or am I gonna have to beat it out of you?”
    She finished her drink in one last gulp, and calling on her courage, said “I’m thinking about quitting the Western genre.”
    Slade’s eyes sprang open and he stared at her with horror. “What!? Are you crazy?”
    “Why am I crazy?” she asked, folding her arms across her chest. “You just said a second ago that Apponax should try something new. I’m just feeling…well, like I’m not having much of an impact anymore.”
    Slade was standing in the pool, his mouth slightly agape.
    “Stop staring at me like that,” Sage said, kicking some water at him. “I’ve been thinking about this a long time, and I think…maybe…it’s time for me to ride off into the sunset.”
    Slade drifted to the edge of the pool, and picked up his margarita. He took a long sip, eying her thoughtfully.
    “Ok, say something now,” Sage said.
    Slade finished his drink, and signaled their waiter for another round. The mermaid brought ice-cold pitchers and refilled their glasses with a smile and a playful splash of her tail.
    Sage realized how rattled Slade must have been – he didn’t even give the waitress so much as a passing glance.
    Instead, he took a gulp of the newly-full drink and finally spoke: “It’s impossible for me to imagine the Western genre without you at its helm.”
    “Thank you, sincerely,” Sage said. “But there are some good muses that would pick it up easily and run with it.”
    “I’m sure there are, but it was you who started it and made it great,” Slade said. “What did they call them when the books were first published?”
    Sage rolled her eyes. “Which? Dime novels? Penny-dreadfuls?”
    “Well, either I guess. My point being that you didn’t give up when people were mocking the stories. They called it lowbrow, they called it cheap thrills, but it was you who fought for the genre and never gave up! Everyone was telling you not to waste your time. ‘O Sage, the Western frontier was only going to last a handful of years.’ ‘O Sage, the frontier is so geographically isolated so it won’t have global appeal.’ ‘O Sage, these mortals are so low and base.’ But you saw it! You saw the new batch of legends that were rising out of that age, and that they had universal appeal. Timeless stories of villains and heroes, danger and romance, triumph and despair in a rugged untamed setting. You created a genre that even now spawns countless products around the world!”
    “Products yes, but not novels!” Sage finally blurted out, the heart of her angst finally bubbling to the surface.
    Slade blinked. “Wait, what?”
    “Quickly, what was a favorite recent western story that you remember?”
    “The Revenant.”
    “Book or movie?”
    “Uhh, there was a book?”
    “Arrgghh! Yes, and a very good book that the movie was based on! Does anyone know the book? No. Does everyone know Leonardo DiCaprio and Clint Eastwood? Of course. You see my point? Western movies and music are beloved around the world! One of the biggest selling video games of all time was a western: Red Dead Redemption. Comic books, TV shows, websites, museums – mortals are paying to take vacations in rebuilt Wild West towns. And you could argue that without those penny-dreadfuls, none of that would exist today. But when was the last time a western novel was on the New York Times bestseller list? When was the last time someone picked up a western novel at an airport gift shop to read on the plane? Oh, they pick up one of your detective authors all the time – Michael Connelly, Jonathan and Faye Kellerman. People run to the store when their new ones come out, or pre-order them on Amazon. But who casually picks up the latest Matt Braun novel, or runs to the bookstore the day the new Johnny Boggs novel hits the stands. And those are two fantastic Western authors, by the way! No, the days of Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour are gone. Western culture has never been brighter, but the future of the Western novel has never been darker.”
    They sat in silence then, drinking their drinks and watching the shimmering mirages dance at the edge of the oasis - visions of long-forgotten heroics.
    “I’m sorry, I guess I didn’t realize,” Slade finally said.
    “It’s not just that,” Sage replied, her shoulders sagging. “Although all that has weighed heavily for a long time. It’s a recent failure of mine that’s also eating at me. A new creative I’ve been trying to spark. Jesse is his name, and I sense in him a passion and skill and dedication that I haven’t seen in years. He could be one of the greats. Maybe someone to bring the western novel back from the brink.”
    “He has all the necessities?”
    “And more! He has a questing soul and a questioning mind. Command of the language, imagination to spare. He has fallen from great heights, and picked himself up from terrible lows. He has seen the face of death – and stood firm. And he’s such a kind man, a man who could do so much more for himself, for his family, to inspire others beyond himself, if he just had the chance.”
vSlade raised his arms out to his sides. “He sounds amazing. What’s the problem?”
    “That’s just it – I don’t know!” Sage snapped. She tried to take another sip from her glass, but it was mysteriously empty. She thrust it out to the passing mermaid, who filled it with a grin.
    “I’m not sure I understand this current life mortals lead,” Sage continued. “Connected by technology in so many ways, yet more disconnected from each other at the same time. Their minds constantly humming but seemingly without a clear focus. Worse still, I fear that we are losing creatives to careers that use up their creativity. That instead of pursuing their personal passions, they are using their energies to write and imagine and create in the service to their corporate masters. I can’t imagine it’s ever been more difficult to get through to these mortals than right now!”
    Sage was about to continue her tirade, but the soft chuckling from over her shoulder halted her next comment like the slamming of a door. She was about to fire off a sharp retort to whomever was laughing at her, until she realized who was laughing at her.
    It was Calliope.
    First of the muses, daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne, wife of Ares. The initial inspiration at the dawn of writing for mortal men.
    From Calliope’s spark came the inspiration for the works of Homer and Virgil, Shakespeare and Tolstoy, Stephen King and Danielle Steel and a thousand other epic authors.
Sage and Slade, finally remembering themselves, bowed.
    “M’lady,” they said in unison.
    Calliope waved a hand at them, taking off her sandals and cooling her feet in a shallow spot of the pool. “Enough of that. Please, continue my dear. I was fascinated by what you were saying.”
    Sage flushed with embarrassment, suddenly aware of how whiny she had been sounding. But, she thought, if anyone understood her frustration, it would be Calliope, Mother of the Musae.
    “I…” she squeaked, then cleared her throat. “I was saying that it seems difficult to reach mortals these days.”
    “Hmmm,” Calliope responded, her long delicate hand drawing slow circles in the water. “I don’t think that’s quite what you said.”
    Sage hesitated, then finally relented. “No, you are correct. I was saying that it can’t be more difficult to reach mortals than it is right now.”
    Calliope smiled at her. It wasn’t a mocking smile, but instead was filled with a quiet patience, like a teacher who is about to correct an incorrect yet earnest student.
    “Continual fear, and in danger of violent death: the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” Calliope quoted.
    “Thomas Hobbes,” Sage said a split second before Slade, giving him a smug smile.
    “It has always been such for mortals, since the beginning of time. Wars, conquerors, natural disasters, plagues. Do you think it was easy to get through to mortals during the time of the Black Plague?”
    “No, you’re right, of course,” said Sage. “But it seems as if we are in a different age. A technological age that saps mortal wills, and distracts them from what is important. An age of leisure where achieving leisure is almost too easy, and they no longer struggle for what is important.”
    Calliope was nodding at everything Sage was saying. “Yes, we are in a different age, just as you were in a different age when you first started your Westerns, and we will be in a different age 100 years from now. While mortal lives change, what doesn’t change is their need for creative pursuits and their desires for epic stories to remind them of why they struggle and their connection to the universe. And while the way they create these stories may have changed - from stick, to quill, to pencil, to computer - the spark of inspiration remains pinnacle in its power to change mortal lives.”
    Sage stood up and paced now, kicking sand with every step. “Of course, but I have tried everything with this creative. Dreams in the night. Whispers on the wind. Visual clues in his workday. Textual clues in his product. Regardless of what I try, I can’t get through to him!”
    Calliope laughed lightly. “Yes, you have tried hard. To force inspiration upon him. But what are you forgetting?”
    Sage stopped pacing, frozen by Calliope’s words.
    In her mind, she pulled back the book of her training, returned with the days of her beginning, sitting at the feet of Alo, her mentor.
    The first rule of inspiring a mortal was…
    “…understanding what inspired them,” she gasped.
    She thought then of Jesse, who was struggling this past year with the death of his wife and daughter, struggling to take care of his aging father-in-law, struggling at his job to do what was right, and protect the safety of his co-workers. She thought then to the night before, where she thought she almost had him, but these struggles, these interruptions tore him away, interruptions from his co-worker and father-in-law and from…and...from…his…his…
    “I’ve got to go!” she screamed, turning and thrusting her glass into the sand. She caught Slade’s surprised eyes, and Calliope’s bemused smile.
    “Thank you, both,” she whispered.
    Then she ran.

                                                                                                •

    “That was quite a game,” Joe said from his recliner. “Aikman looked sharp.”
    Jesse smiled from the table, where he was cleaning up the Papa John’s boxes. Cole was asleep on the floor, a box of crayons and some scratch paper laid out on the floor in front of him.
    “Yup, I almost didn’t think they were going to pull that out there in the end. I hate losing to the Giants.”
    Most of the pepperoni pizza was gone, Jesse saw, but there were a couple pieces of cheese left over that he could take into work for lunch tomorrow. He put all the leftovers into one box and put the empties in the garbage. He then pulled down Joe’s blanket from the cabinet, and laid it over his father-in-law’s legs.
    “We’re going to get going, ok Joe,” Jesse said, kneeling by the recliner. “I’ve got another busy day tomorrow, and I need to get the little one to bed.”
    “Ok Jesse. Thanks for coming over. Too bad the girls couldn’t come, though,” he said. His gaze went to the small framed picture on the end table next to his recliner. The photo was from almost three years back. Joe had joined them on a day trip to Lake Whitney. Katie was holding Brooke in her lap, while Cole was wrestling Joe on a blanket near the lake’s edge. Everyone was laughing.
    A perfect day.
    His trembling hands didn’t stop Joe from picking up the frame and bringing it close. His eyes lingered on his daughter, and granddaughter. Gone from their lives nearly a year.
    Jesse watched as his father-in-law’s eyes focused on the picture, and cold clarity returned.
    “I miss them so much,” Joe whispered.
    Tears filled Jesse’s eyes, and he couldn’t speak. He finally replied, “Me too Joe. Me too.”
    Joe closed his eyes then, the picture still in his hands. Jesse leaned his recliner into place. He would be asleep in minutes.
    Jesse quietly moved to where Cole was zonked out on the floor, a couch pillow under his head. Jesse smiled as he picked up the pictures that Cole had been drawing. There were football players, and lots of Star Wars, always lots of Star Wars. He started to collect them all, then noticed the one on the bottom. It was a cowboy on horseback, and it looked like he was riding through a canyon and down in the valley was…
…and it all came crashing back into Jesse’s mind.
    The idea. That perfect idea.
    The characters.
    The plot.
    It was original.
    It was unique.
    Jesse’s heart was racing as he picked up his sleeping son, and packed him into the car, a fistful of drawings tightly in his grasp.
    Jesse could barely keep to the speed limit as they headed home. As swiftly and as surely as he could, he tucked his still sleeping son into bed, secure again under his Cowboys bed sheet.
    Jesse sat at the edge of a the bed for a minute, again stroking his son’s hair, and looking at the picture Cole had drawn.
    “I don’t know how you knew,” he whispered. “But thank you bud.”
    Back in their kitchen, Jesse taped Cole’s drawing of the cowboy onto the wall next to his computer.
    He would not forget.
    Then he began to type.
   
by Bruce Battle