≡ Menu

The Artist of the Ugly


The pensive screen blinked and The Writer could feel his heart pinging. Thirteen years of work, one page, swallowed into an abyss of lost-forever sentences in less than a second. Manically he stroked his chin, as if his beard were dripping off. Waves of grief passed over him. Perhaps not wholly irrecoverable? The single-sentence, semicolon-clad monolith of a manuscript tentatively titled Into the Breathless Mouth of Babylon by M. Burnside, was to be the second piece in his sophomore collection. Was to be, when there came that wrenching crunch, ungodly cough of circuitry within the plasticine peach-thin skin of laptop, not unlike a spork dropped into a blender, as he was forced to witness the sight of so marvelously wrought a thing – a string of script so carefully crystallized in an amber of text, sculpted from sap of time insoluble – vanish: Vamoose c’est la vie voila! – and, in so doing, solidify his obscurity for time immemorial.


You could have a steam train—Peter Gabriel had been singing, just before the incident—if you just lay down your tracks. Taunting The Writer through the speaker of an old, battered radio buried under three floors of oaken board in the basement, as if underwater, one golden oldie after another slid in among the meandering stations between Bjork’s It’s Oh So Quiet & Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide. Mister Giddy, his lackadaisical calico, had been watching him work, tail twitching along with the arrhythmic wind swarms thumping at the window frame, insistent to intrude into his master’s quietude. At the moment of the consummate sentence’s conception the cat had leapt, startled at the sound of a car crashing some blocks away. Just before that, The Writer had been thinking of submarines—their little periscopes peeking up out of the water. He could smell the sweet lemon-bitter scent of his tea whistling downstairs on the stove, ready to be imbibed, ready to birth so many galaxies like Proust’s own demitasse.


A stroke of brilliance: If he could just recreate the conditions in which the muse had initially communed with him, maybe he could rewrite it exactly as it was, recapture the original in all its splendor & literary virtuosity?


The initiative to replicate his original genius began without a hitch, at first. Buying a replacement laptop and opening a new document was easy enough, but complications arose almost immediately upon hiring the driver to crash their car around the block. The screeching of the wheels was off, and it was an expensive ordeal. It occurred to The Writer that perhaps no one crash could be duplicated. Still, he knew he must try. Again! He texted the driver, inspiration swirling in the space of his irises. The songs came next. It wasn’t enough to request just the one song, he had to hear all three songs in a row, in the right order no less. This involved quite some waiting on the line to the radio station,  then a great deal of explanation standing in the kitchen scribbling spirals on a newspaper. Filling a bathtub with toy submarines proved relatively less complicated, though tedious, as some of the plastic vessels were prone to flipping upside-down in the water. Getting the buoyancy levels right by filling them with just the right amount of water was tricky. All things considered, remaking tea was the easiest of the tasks, then waiting for it to boil.


But then there was the matter of the cats: the circus of cats in harnesses dangling like a feline trapeze troupe, ballet of paws none touching the floor, mewling as they bobbled up and down, tails writhing undulating with indifference. Mister Giddy had proven stubborn, unwilling to partake in The Writer’s collaboration. The choreography was wrong, the angle at which he jumped when the car went skidding tragically inaccurate, not to mention each time it crashed it became somewhat less startling to the cat, who came to expect it, finding it more and more unsurprising. This is how The Writer came to gather up all the cats in the neighborhood, rigging up the contraption of an elaborate mobilea series of swings custom-built so each could be suspended in mid-air all at once. Surely one of them would get the angle right, lunging the way it was supposed to? This assumption proved erroneous, as all the cats interconnected at once resulted in each cat sensing the movements of the other, bouncing off cue. Again! He commanded the cats, inspiration swirling in the space of his irises. You could have a steam train—Peter Gabriel sang, taunting The Writer—if you just lay down your tracks. When the right words finally came they came in a dizzying rush, a lapse of wizardry, words flowing direct from the fingers of the muse into his own, as the car crashed perfectly and the cats danced and the periscopes peeked. He could smell the sweet lemon-bitter scent of his tea whistling downstairs on the stove, along with something else now too? Paper burning . . . all those spirals consumed.


And anyone whose head happened to be curling around a curtain to steal a peek at the scene that afternoon might see the firetruck sprawled in the cul-de-sac flashing its silent alarm. Might see The Writer standing in his driveway, cavalcade of cats at his back, one perched on his shoulder blade yawning nonchalantly. Might see the man’s head tipping back, howling with laughter at the spectacle of it all. Inscrutable, maddening spectacle of it all. He’s lost it, they might conclude. They might be right.

“Your house, sir” they might overhear one of the fire fighters murmur to the man. 


“Your house, sir. It’s burning down.”

“Yes.  Thank you, my good man. YesSo it is.   I can see that now.”


Matthew Burnside tweets about pizza rolls @MatthewBurnsid7