Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Muse

[A small café. There is a table center stage, with a small table cloth and a vase with a single flower in it. Lying flat on the table are a paint brush and pallet. As the lights come on, signaling the start of the drama, CALLIOPE and NEIL enter the stage together and sit. As he sits, Neil nonchalantly folds his hands together.]

Calliope: I'm so glad you could make it today. It seems like we don't get together much anymore.

Neil: Tell me about it. I keep meaning to see you, but it's like there's always something else popping up. They've got me working on this big project at the agency for the American Ketchup Association, where I'm supposed to come up with an image for the slogan "Nothing says love like a bottle of ketchup." Call me crazy, but I just don't know what management was thinking when they approved that slogan.

Calliope: Wow. That's bad. How are you tackling it?

Neil: (disgusted) Well, you really can't do much with a bottle of ketchup that screams romance, can you? It's not like people get engaged over hot dogs and french fries, or like you offer your girlfriend a bottle of Heinz 57 when you do want to propose. I suggested something that would suggest warmth and congeniality, like a family cookout, and I was told that would make people think of Pepsi commercials from the 1980s. (shakes head despondently) I don't know what I was thinking when I joined this place.

Calliope: (after a pause) You know, I'm going to take a wild guess here, and say that you're really not that wild about your job.

Neil: Oh, yeah, "Mr. Ketchup" is on top of the world. (pause) You know, when I started at the agency, I was doing a good job. You saw how driven I was back then. I was pouring myself into the job, working extra hours to make sure I gave the best art for our campaigns that I could.

Calliope: So what happened?

Neil: I don't know. I guess I just gave up when I realized all the agency cares about is that we get the job done, and not that we do a good job at it. There was one guy who nearly cost us a major contract —

Calliope: Even bigger than the American Ketchup Association?

Neil: (smirks) Slightly. He threw together a lousy proposal, got their corporate logo wrong, and left it riddled with errors. Three of us had to stay late the next four days fixing it up so we didn't lose the contract, and no one up top said boo about it. In fact, they let Theresa go three weeks later because she earned too much and it was cutting into their profit margin.

Calliope: Ouch.

Neil: I feel like most of what I do is crap, mass-produced crap like only Andy Warhol could do. I'm making enough to feed my family, but that's it. I've got wings, but I feel like I've forgotten to fly. I haven't been able to paint even here, in my art studio, for months. I just stare at the canvas like an idiot while the dust gathers on my model.

Calliope says nothing. She just listens intently. As Neil speaks this next part, he raises his hands together, still joined, to the front of his face. It is almost as though he is praying.

You have always been my muse. You're the most beautiful, most frightening and most wonderful person I have ever known. Every picture I have made has been by your inspiration.

Remember the Thanksgiving picture I made a few years ago? It had the well-to-do, well-fed family gathered around a table loaded with food, and every one of them except the little boy was oblivious to the starving people just beyond the light around the table. My wife said that one was almost as disturbing as the one of the Mexican woman begging with the lifeless child in her arms. Those weren't pleasant paintings, but I thought they were important because they captured the anguish of need and the brutality of human indifference. It was your compassion that inspired me, because I know how deeply you feel you feel their hunger and their pain.

Calliope: Thank you. I always liked those paintings myself.

Neil: Remember "Mad Kermit"?

Calliope: (laughs) How could I forget? That was so warped. A giant Kermit the Frog smashing through downtown Newark, knocking over buildings and catching planes with that giant tongue.

Neil: That was you too. (She laughs) No, I'm serious. There's this wild and reckless joy you have that delights in the most absurd things. It's like you just have all this laughter bottled up inside you, and sometimes it comes out in these absurd ways, like something out of "Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail."

It's not just laughter, though. It's something I can't understand. Even when life is so rough that I don't want to talk to you, I can't bear the thought of living without you. It's like, even though there are times that I don't believe you're real, I can't stop talking to you.

Calliope: That was the idea.

Neil: I know.

There is a long, long pause.

Calliope: So what do you want from me, Neil?

Neil: Well, I'd like to find a new job. (pause) But I want to paint again, Lord, the way I used to, instead of just staring at the canvas. Art was always how I worshiped you best, and can't do that any more. It's killing me inside. I feel like I've forgotten how to tune in to you and hold a conversation anymore.

Calliope: (she smiles ironically) You appear to be tuned in just fine right now.

As she hands him his brush from off the table, the lights fade out.

Copyright © 2006 by David Learn. Used with permission.

No comments: