The downpour has pedestrians popping their collars. It has late starters piling on the layers. The Author puts his heart on his sleeve. The Detective puts his chip on his shoulder. One shuffles into the tavern. The other ambles.
They take their stations at opposite ends of the bar. The Author is an open book. His stool spins around every time the door chimes. He catches each patron with his puppy dog eyes. Then he hunches over his memo pad with his hands in his cardigan, an over protective father guarding his precious pages.
The Detective stands with his hands on the counter. His trench coat, his armor, shrouds him in mystery. His second skin has spent the day drinking up all the grime off the street. Now it needs to drip dry. His eyes hide beneath the brim of his fedora. He waves his fingertips over a candle, playing with fire, biding his time. He stares long and hard at the Author, a poker player reading his opponent.
The Author runs his hand through his widow’s peak, scrawls some chicken scratch into his memo pad. He taps his pen to his two front teeth.
The Detective breaks the ice, “You know, when inspiration strikes, it doesn’t care who it hurts.” He waits for the Author to perk up. The Detective smiles like his every utterance is an inside joke.
The Author says. “Excuse me?” He squints at the man in the coat. His height and build are the same as the Author’s. He just stands a little taller. His face shares the same features. He just wears them differently. It feels like he’s peering into a black reflection.
The Detective steps forward to close the gap between them. He smirks, “You ought to sit with your back against the wall. Inspiration could be lurking right around the corner. It likes to prey on word smiths such as yourself.”
The Author pushes his spectacles up to the bridge of his nose, “I’m not sure I follow you.”
The Detective tilts his head to the memo pad. He says, “When inspiration strikes, it has a way of making it look like something else. Sylvia Plath counted sheep in the oven. Anne Sexton lost count in the garage. Virginia Woolf slipped on her favorite coat and lined her pockets full of rocks. Hart Crane dove in after her. Spalding Gray dove in after him. Are you starting to sense a pattern here?”
The Author turtles up. He rubs the leather patches over his elbows. The smooth texture offers him little solace.
The Detective pierces the Author’s comfort bubble. He says, “Inspiration can’t help itself. It just keeps striking. It’s gotten so brazen over the years, like it wants to get caught.”
The Author turns away revealing the footprints on his back. The Detective leans into the light to reveal the boot heal across his cheek.
“He’s got no need to order up a round,” the Author thinks to himself, “He’s already punch drunk.”
The Detective looks both ways. He cups his fingers over his mouth and whispers, “Hemingway sat at the dinner table and ate himself a shotgun. Hunter S. Thompson said, ‘I’ll have what he’s having’.”
At this, the Author exhales. He aligns his pen to his memo pad like a dinning utensil beside a plate.
Not discouraged in the slightest, the Detective winks, “Maybe Edgar Allen Poe had a little too much laudanum. But maybe, just maybe inspiration got him.”
Later tonight, the Author will have the perfect retort for these attacks on his craft. It will come to him in hindsight. Author’s call this “The spirit of the staircase.” That epiphany that comes on your way out of the party. The spirit will bestow blessings of whit and cunning so scathing they’d cut the tallest giant down to size, but for now the Author sits and takes it. He says, “Is there something I can help you with?”
The words taste like mud on his tongue. The Author trips through social graces. The Detective stands while the Author crawls.
“There is, there is something you can help me with. You could answer some of my questions.” The Detective pulls up a stool, orders a house Manhattan on the Author’s tab.
The Author orders a sarsaparilla, changes his mind and orders the house Manhattan. When the bartender asks if he has a walnut allergy the Author draws a blank.
The Detective twirls a toothpick down his knuckles. He says, “Do you ever wonder how meek and stupid Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had to feel, you know before he created Sherlock Holmes to make himself feel better?”
The Author shrugs, “I guess I’d never thought about it that way. He was a learned man with an affinity for justice.”
The Detective licks his lips. He says, “Really? What about Dashiell Hammett? You never wondered how many divorces, how many affairs he had to go through in order to create Sam Spade? A tough as nails caricature no woman could hurt.”
The Author shakes his head. “Hammett worked at a detective agency. He wrote what he knew.”
The Detective downs his Manhattan in a single gulp. The Author takes a sip that goes down like a slap in the face.
The Detective throws his hands up. “You’ve never wondered how clinically depressed Raymond Chandler had to be to create Philip Marlowe? How many literary agents Chandler had to sleep with, to get Marlowe to come to the conclusion that, ‘dead men are heavier than broken hearts’?”
The Author folds his cardigan one side over the other. He drives his hands deep into his pockets. Then in a gesture out of sync with the rest of his body, the Author raises his chin up. He says, “What exactly are you getting at?”
The Detective flicks his tooth pick. It bounces across the linoleum. He says, “I watch people. That’s what I do. I’m a private dick, but I think you already know that. I’ve been watching you write for as long as I can remember.”
The Detective sets his fedora on the counter. His hair is slicked straight back. He bites his lip, “I see how you try to sustain yourself. To survive the effects of your inspiration. I watch you try to coax a smile out your librarian. I watch you overtip your waitress. I watch you sigh as all their heals pass you by. I watch you drink. I know your fantasies come in the three act structures. I know that no one’s buying what you’re selling. I know how disappointed this makes you, and I know who you take it out on.”
“Who?” The Author can’t help but walk right into the question.
The Detective points his thumb to the boot print on his face.
The Author leans forward, “Have we met before?”
The Detective nods toward the memo pad. He flicks it open to the page in progress. He taps the Author’s chicken scratch and says, “You don’t give me time to sustain myself either. Not with the sharks in the water and the vultures in the air. You clog my streets with so much blood, I’m too busy mopping them to clock out. You owe me a clean break, an after life with a picket fence. Instead, you’ve got me strolling through the chalk shadows of everyone I have ever known. I’m done doing that.”
The Author looks to his work, then to the man in the trench coat. He makes the connection. “You’re real?” He says.
The Detective gives that a long nod, “The last horse finally crosses the finish line.”
The Author tries to stand, but the Detective catches him by the cardigan.
The Detective says, “We need to talk about where we go from here. What’s my end game?”
The Author gulps, “You don’t have an end game. You only think you want one because you’re supposed to.” He shakes his head. Takes a swig of his drink. The Author says, “There’s no sunset waiting for you on the horizon. You just keep going on to the next case, then to the next one, then to the next one. Like a shark who can’t stop swimming or else you’ll die.”
The Detective shakes his head, “Where does that lead me?”
The Author exhales, “On your knees in an alley, caught between a pair amber headlights, puzzled but never defeated.”
“That’s not good enough.” The Detective growls. He commandeers the memo pad and scoops up the pen. “What if I can help you fix it? What if we strike inspiration back? We can crank this thing out together. Give ourselves the story we both deserve.”
“Okay.” The Author says sucking his lip into his mouth. He nods toward the memo pad, “What do you think of my opening?”
The Detective reads the first paragraph aloud, “The downpour has pedestrians popping their collars. It has late starters piling on the layers. The Author puts his heart on his sleeve. The Detective puts his chip on his shoulder. One shuffles into the tavern. The other ambles.”
He swishes the words around in his mouth and shakes his head. The Detective says, “That will never work.”