Volume 2, Number 1 -- January, 1997
by Robert L. Phillips
I blew into Chicago on the heels of a cold wind that rattled shutters and blew trash through the streets. Nevertheless, as always, there was a crowd waiting for me at the airport. Standing at the door of the plane looking at the upturned expectant faces, I felt magnanimous. Though they hoped for only a word, I gave them a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph, virtually an entire novella. Direct yet subtle; tragic yet comic; fantastic but oh-so-true. I smiled modestly as the crowd cheered. I descended the steps slowly, giving the paparazzi plenty of opportunity to catch my profile against the clear starry sky.
I paused at the terminal door. One of the posters that decorated the dirty wall had ripped so that a piece of my ear seemed to flap in the wind. I stopped and fixed the tear with a piece of scotch tape while the flashbulbs click, click, clicked away. Nothing like the common touch to make for good front-page copy.
A waiting limousine whisked my retinue and me from the airport. A fleet of news helicopters trailed us like tick-birds behind a grazing rhino. I sat in the back and dictated passages from my upcoming science fiction novel, Rats Live on no Evil Star. Simultaneously, I listened to Max Westinghouse, my agent, read from the reviews of my Napoleonic biography, Able Was I Ere I Saw Elba -- "modest yet ambitious in its scope", "fictional yet unassailably true", " divinely inspired yet revealing ultimate humanity". I waved him silent and signaled to Ted Philco, my business manager, to fill me in. My epic historical novel, A Man, a Plan, A Canal, Panama had broken all first edition records by selling 1.2 copies for every English speaking person on Earth. It had already been translated into 37 languages including Tagalog, Xhosa, Twi, and the Rongo-Rongo script of Easter Island. My personal wealth was now greater than the combined Gross National Products of Bulgaria, Sri Lanka, and Bukina Faso.
The limousine stopped in front of the television studio. I smiled at the crowd and walked inside where I was to appear on the Johnny Maytag show. Johnny greeted me at the studio door with his famous smile. For an hour we sat in front of the cameras and chatted about my life, my novels, and my book of theological speculations; God, a Dog. Johnny asked me what I thought of the Los Angeles plumber who had undergone plastic surgery to remake his face in the image of mine. I replied with mock solemnity, "Well, Johnny that's fine with me, as long as he doesn't find a surgeon who can give him my talent. My looks he can have, and welcome to them." The audience roared with laughter. Nothing like a touch of self-deprecating humor to bring them alive.
After the show, I went dancing with Anita Nodoze, the rising young Swedish actress. We went to the Redivider, the hottest club in town. We danced the Lindy, the Frug, the Charleston. While dancing, I held my head high, so that those who were lucky enough to get inside could admire my profile against the pulsing lights. A reporter asked me about my relationship with Anita and I replied with a wink that she was the inspiration for Carmilla in my pornographic novel Lewd I did Live, Evil Did I Dwel. He smiled and scribbled on his pad. Thus did I ensure the delectable Anita's success.
Later I sat in with the band and played hot saxophone for a few numbers. Oh, how the flashbulbs flared! Afterwards the bandleader came over and grasped my hands. "You should have been a musician," he said, tears of admiration and wonder glittering in the corners of his eyes. I smiled modestly, as always and said nothing.
Afterwards, Anita and I had drinks in an intimate cocktail lounge and I drove her home. I left her at the door with a chaste kiss; we were, after all, just good friends. Let the gossip sheets get ahold of that! Nothing like unexpected virtue to sell copies.
The next morning I awoke before dawn and descended into the dark, wind-swept streets. I walked for two blocks savoring the solitude. Somewhere in the distance a dog howled into the darkness. I pulled my coat tight around me and pulled the collar to shield my face. So disguised, I could be a character in one of my own stories; the man always surrounded by crowds, yet so alone. My face smiled up at me from a newspaper rack. I slipped a coin in and removed a paper. Tucking it under my arm, I headed back toward the hotel.
Even at this early hour, a crowd had gathered at the hotel door, anticipating my departure. A yell went up as someone identified me and the crowd surged toward me. A man with a florid face and bulging eyes thrust a copy of my juvenile masterpiece Del's Bobsled toward me to autograph. I gently pushed it back and stepped into the hotel lobby and let the porters brush particles of soot from my otherwise immaculate suit. Max and Ted were waiting for me in the lobby. No time for breakfast, Max told me, we had to rush to San Francisco to attend the dedication of a memorial statue. It was important that the crowds should be able to compare my profile with the sculptor's likeness, posed as it would be to advantage against the background of the pure blue Pacific.
On the way to the airport, Max and Ted chattered, as usual, about my successes. Able was I Ere I Saw Elba was held responsible for a coup d'etat in Bolivia that had replaced a repressive military junta with a benevolent monarchy. A woman in Alabama claimed that touching a copy of A Man, A Plan, A Canal; Panama had cured her of scrofula. I wasn't really listening. Instead, I watched out the window as we glided through the gray and empty streets. Even now, they seemed cleaner than when I had arrived.
Another crowd awaited us at the airport. Or perhaps it was the same crowd that greeted me, still remaining from the night before, hoping for another bequest of precious words. It had happened. People everywhere were so hungry, so hungry to escape for a moment from the squalor and petty struggles of their everyday lives. During the night, the wind had torn and shredded the posters and mutilated versions of my face grinned and leered down on me from every side.
The crowd was oddly subdued -- sadness at my imminent departure, no doubt. I mounted the steps to the airplane door slowly. At the top I turned back and looked down at the mass of bodies straining toward me. Every face was upturned, waiting for some word, some gesture, of benediction. Though the crowd was silent, I felt I could hear their thoughts; "Do not leave us. Stay with us, make us happy, lift our burdens from us, make our way easier, give us the ineffable blessing of your words." For a moment only, I was tempted to stay. Then, without a word, I turned and entered the airplane.
I was in a solemn mood as the airplane took off into the morning sky and the city whirled beneath me. Max sat beside me chattering about more triumphs: dictatorships overthrown; cures effected; crops growing higher, faster, more bountiful than ever before. I waved him into silence. Yes, there had been triumphs. But there was still so much left to do. Progress was so slow. I opened the paper I had bought and began reading at random. Fire kills thirty-seven in Dacca. Famine in North Africa. Charges of genocide leveled by Greece against Turkey. Riots in Pittsburgh. Low level fighting between India and Pakistan. So much suffering. So much senseless struggle. I looked out at the dirty swirling clouds and felt my depression deepen. Against so much suffering, my task seemed impossible, my efforts Sisyphean.
And yet, yet, I thought, what greater task could there be? Even if I did not cure all, heal all, but only lightened mankind's burden a bit, wasn't that something? Rats Live on no Evil Star would help, once it had been published. And after that was the Creation-inspired fantasy I was already playing with in my mind -- Madam, I'm Adam. That would help too. The plane broke through the clouds into blinding sunlight and my spirits lifted. I began to dictate, almost too rapidly for my secretary to follow. Then, blazing with a furious creative fire, I grabbed pad and pen from him and began to write the words myself, as fast as my fevered brain could spew them out, jabbing furiously at the paper with the pen in my fever. I smiled as I wrote. And, somewhere over Utah, I jotted down the final, yet first, letters of my latest masterpiece.
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