The Traveller and the Muse

by Little Red

 

It was sickly sweet, her voice, the kind you could really get used to, so that you missed it passionately and would burn yourself alive to get another taste of it. I’d almost forgotten how it tasted -- how it sounded, rather -- but recognized it as soon as she spoke from across the bar. "Harry." No one else sounded that way.

"Tell me the story of my life," she said, and perched herself an empty barstool away. The bartender brought her a martini without her even asking. People were always reading her mind.

"Karen." I said. Her voice ran fingers through my hair, breathed against my spine, tore through my clothes and my skin right there at the counter without me even putting my bourbon down. When I turned to look at her she was sitting serenely, her hair and eyes darker than I remembered, wearing clothes I’d never seen her in before. I recognized the lipstick, the same crimson shade. It didn’t come off on her martini glass when she sipped.

"You never finished your novel," she said to me.

"It’s coming."

I put the bourbon down and fumbled for a cigarette. My thoughts froze, as they always did. The cigarette refused to light for a moment. I waited for Karen to talk again.

"I expected to find you here," she said finally. "You still live up above?"

I nodded.

"Still have that old ugly carpet?"

I nodded again. The cigarette finally took flame and I drew slowly. I briefly considered dropping the match, lit, like my heroine had done in this very bar in an early chapter, to see whether the counter really would ignite in a burst of passionate flame. The match burnt itself down before I decided one way or the other.

"Where have you been?" I finally asked, not because I expected her to tell me, but because it was the right thing to say. Somewhere more interesting, was what any answer I imagined would have amounted to.

"Nowhere," she replied instead.

I want to see everywhere you write about, Harry.

You can see it from here. I’ll tell it to you. I can’t follow you, Karen, my typewriter is here. I can’t leave Anastasia at the train station.

"How is Anastasia?" Anastasia, my beautiful heroine, who had stolen a train ticket from an investment banker she’d conned into sleeping with her in an empty baggage room at Union Station. I had considered sending her to Egypt from there, if I could figure out how to get her out of the country. It had been winter, and my kitchen window wouldn’t close all the way. I wanted her to go somewhere warm.

Karen dipped a fingernail into her drink and touched it to her tongue. Her fingernails matched her lipstick.

I hadn’t touched my typewriter in months, except to dust it. Karen used to dust it for me, reverently, not jealous of the shiny black finish or the polished keys, not minding when I would make love to her on my old ugly carpet with ink from fixing jammed letters and changing ink ribbons still all over my fingertips.

I’ll come back, love, if you wait here for me. I’ll always come back. They always do, remember.

I remembered that, and I expected it. I knew that about Anastasia and I waited for her to want to come back, but knew I hadn’t gotten her far enough away yet. I was unsure if she wanted Egypt anymore. I didn’t know how to get her there. I imagined my book in print often, lovers curled up with it between them, the man reading Anastasia’s thoughts aloud to his love as Karen read them to me, a page at a time as I finished writing them. I had the man read, not the woman, because no other woman could sound as sweet as Karen, like molasses. I didn’t know how the novel would end for Anastasia, but I did know that the woman being read to would smile, fulfilled, as it did, because I had perfectly echoed all her desires. I knew all of that.

****

We went upstairs to my apartment afterwards and made love for hours, on the couch, the kitchen floor, the bed when we finally found it and again on the couch. I left her asleep on the old carpet she hated so much and wrote furiously. She was naked except for her skirt and slept all day. Anastasia put off her plans for Egypt and struck out for the States by train, finding that the investment banker’s ticket would take her to Chicago. There was a man in the dining car, a stranger who spoke a foreign language, who caught her attention because he was dressed so well. I left her on that train for awhile, listening to that passenger babble musically at the train conductor, and Karen slept almost without breathing. She had gained weight and a scar above her left eye, a small one. It seemed to suit her. I emptied her purse: a string of plastic pearls, a stack of crumpled receipts with notes scrawled on the back, thirty three dollars and change, crimson lipstick. I read a few of the notes on the receipts -- they were mostly phone numbers, written by strangers, some with area codes and some without. One had a street address, in Sault Ste. Marie. Another said 10:05, Dr. Landing, and appeared to have been written in eyeliner pencil. It smudged all over my fingers, and tasted grainy and bitter.

Karen woke up around six in the evening. I had nothing in my kitchen except coffee and cigarette cartons, so we went downstairs to the bar to eat. She wore a red dress which had hung in my closet since she left, the one from which the smell of lavender laundry soap had never completely left. Anastasia wore almost the same thing as she stole her train ticket away from the investment banker, but I doubted he noticed the lavender. "It still fits," Karen told me.

****

I met Karen the first time in a bar near the train station. She ordered her martini and her voice clung to me. I lit a cigarette to clear my throat and my thoughts seemed to stop, mired in sweetness and alto as she asked me what train I’d come in on.

"Tell me the story of your life," I put to her instead, wanting her to speak and speak and never stop.

"Karen," she extended a hand.

"Harold Palmer. I’m a writer." I had not come on the train, I had come to look at the travellers. I never left the city.

"Then you should tell me the story of my life."

She had arrived on the 7:45 from Ottawa with a change of clothes in a gutted violin case. I learned her last name was Miller when she started getting mail sent to my apartment a few weeks later -- monthly telegrams from her sister, and Chatelaine magazine. She read my stories to me as I wrote them, page by page, me smoking and typing without even looking at the paper, only looking at her, transfixed. She read in nothing but lipstick, a blanket around her shoulders when it got colder, even sleeping in my constant view. I bought her the red dress from Eaton’s with the money from a Thanksgiving story for the Toronto Star. I heard something new in the words when they went through her, a meaning I had never known I intended, something lost when they were printed flatly on newsprint or glossy magazine paper. She needed something more to read, a better story, something which suited her.

Anastasia had been a waitress in a diner in a short story which had lain unfinished in my desk for months. She hated it there. In Karen’s voice I tasted everywhere Anastasia wanted to go and started writing her again, this time not in the diner, but in a train station, somewhere far more befitting of her passion and wanderlust. I promised my agent a novel, to publish in chapters in the back of a national fiction gazette. I did not sleep for days at a time, Anastasia and Karen’s voice posessed me. I pulled the next sentences, chapters, adventures from Karen lying naked on the carpet and reading. She never told me where she wanted Anastasia to go next. She didn’t have to. She hardly said anything that I hadn’t written first, and when she did it was to tell me, at Christmas, that she had to go away. I had never seen her cry before.

I want to see everywhere you write about, Harry.

She promised to come back, and was gone in the morning. All her clothes still hung in my closet and her violin case was in the corner. I didn’t think she would be long.

****

I gave Karen what I had written since she left, the few chapters that had struggled out of me before I abandoned my typewriter and what I had written last night as she slept. She started reading the pages aloud to me and then stopped for a minute and asked to see the telegrams her sister had sent while she’d been away. I pointed her to the stack of mail and waited as she sifted through it.

"Your agent is asking for the next chapter," she said, waving a handful of envelopes after she opened the first one, dated in January, and looked it over.

"It didn’t sound right."

She read the rest of the chapters I’d given her, fully clothed, sounding more rushed than I remembered her. Anastasia was different. I wondered if Karen could hear how Anastasia’s direction had wavered, how it had taken weeks of coffee and cigarettes and bourbon in the bar downstairs to seduce that investment banker in the baggage room, how every time she wanted to make love to a stranger Karen had run into the scene crying. The memory of Karen and molasses drowned out what Anastasia wanted to tell me and where she had to go next. We made love when she was done reading, and Karen still tasted the same way. I moved back to my typewriter afterwards and she wrapped the blanket more tightly around her.

"Maybe Anastasia should get pregnant," she said.

****

I still imagined the lovers reading my novel once it was in print, curled up together, the man reading aloud, next to a fireplace this time. The woman took each page as he finished it and tore it from the binding, burning it as he read, like the bar counter in an early chapter when Anastasia had set it afire. I forgot why she had done that. It made sense when Karen read it.

I had considered burning the agent’s letters when they came, a weekly reminder that I owed him something, that I had promised him a chapter novel about a beautiful woman who never stayed anywhere very long. I left them instead in a pile by the door, unread after the first few, convinced that the novel would finish soon and that I would be able to send him what he wanted. I wrote more after Karen fell asleep. The train took forever to get to Chicago -- I had never been there and didn’t know what awaited her. She bribed the conductor to let her inside the foreign passenger’s sleeping compartment and waited there for him, convinced she could have a beautiful love affair without words. Maybe he could get her to Egypt, or at least off the continent. He didn’t show, and I carried Karen to the bed so she could sleep more comfortably. When it got light outside I took a taxi downtown and spent the last of the money I had from the agent’s advances to buy her a used violin, to go in the case that she’d left in the corner. She tuned it when I gave it to her and played ten notes perfectly, the start of a song I couldn’t quite remember having heard before, and then put the instrument down.

"I don’t remember any songs."

****

We went out again on tab to dinner and drinks, and she asked me what I thought would happen to Anastasia. She had never spoken like that before -- Karen understood that each word demanded the next one and that I could no more tell Anastasia’s future than my own if it was to be real. She had gone astray in the chapters I’d written while Karen was gone, I had to somehow bring her back to herself, find her something to hold on to. "Maybe she meets a writer," Karen suggested.

"Writers aren’t interesting enough."

Anastasia wasn’t interesting enough, I felt. She had lost something in the months since Karen left at Christmas. She either wanted something different now, or didn’t know what she wanted. She had stopped writing herself, that was what it was, I was now forcing words upon her where before I had been only typing them out. I ached for her strangely, as though she were ill or injured, withering away on that train to Chicago, bored or disgusted with seduction and prose, lost all of a sudden. Karen fell asleep in the bedroom, ill from something she’d picked on the train, she said.

****

The foreign-speaking passenger arrived back at his compartment well into the evening. He wrote music. They made love and he played the violin, the same ten notes Karen played and more, she didn’t speak his language and couldn’t read music, but he still wrote for her, her eyes and lips still bringing out something in the notes that wasn’t there otherwise. He played her on strings and she watched him, writing herself again for me, feeling how he loved her by what he played and how he was bored with Chicago, with travel, with everything else. She listened and then he fell asleep with her. They woke up before the train stopped at a station, in a small American town somewhere between Toronto and Chicago, and got out, Anastasia bringing nothing but the lipstick she had tucked into the foreign passenger’s violin case. Then she was quiet.

I considered burning the rest of the novel, the woman by the fireplace in my mind. I put it away instead, in my desk next to the diner story where Anastasia had come from. I titled the chapter about the train compartment "The Traveller and the Muse" and wrote a cover letter for my agent, apologizing for the delay and because it was not a novel. I typed out a second copy for Karen to read when she awoke, brought the envelope to the mailbox, and set to writing the Easter story the Toronto Star had asked for. It was simple, unglamorous, without characters who demanded more interesting lives or Karen naked on the carpet to direct me. The editors would like it, I reasoned, it would fit well into three columns. With the money I could buy Karen sheet music and a new dress. In the morning, she came out from the bedroom and asked me to come to bed with her. Her voice was sweet, even when she wasn’t reading. No one else sounded that way. I finished my sentence and washed the ink off my hands, presenting her with ‘The Traveller and the Muse.’

"It’s done," I said.

We made love without Anastasia for awhile.

 

~ end! ~

 

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