By Margaret Rennie
The curtain brushed the stage floor, and the lights gradually began to brighten. The playwright stood with his back against the wall at the rear of the theater, hands in his tuxedo pants pockets, listening to the silence. It was dense and palpable, devoid of the usual whispers, shuffling of shoes, and rattling of programs. He could hear his own pulse throbbing in his ears, and for a second, he thought he might have bombed.
When the applause finally began, it erupted like thunder, gaining momentum, becoming louder and louder until it was deafening, shaking the walls of the venerable old theater and rattling the crystal chandeliers above. The audience rose to its feet with shouts of "bravo," calling the cast back three times to take bows. Upon the third curtain call, the clapping took on a rhythmic character, and cries of "Author! Author!" could be heard above the clamor.
Jack Vanallen leaned his head against the wall and smiled a satisfied smile. Another hit, his fifth in a row. With this play, he would have three successful Broadway shows running concurrently. His reputation, and his future, were assured. Now, he could take the yearlong break he had been craving. He would go to Monte Carlo, and Aruba. He would buy a Mercedes. He would...
He started, suddenly realizing that the audience members sitting around where he stood had recognized him, and were now turned, watching him, applauding with their hands held high, whooping and whistling. He grinned, and with a short wave, ducked out the door of the theater.
He walked quickly through the still empty lobby, heading for the doors to the street. An elegantly dressed, silver-haired woman came up alongside him, matching his stride, and hooked her arm in his. He slowed his pace, looking down at Molly Enright, his agent, his patron, and his friend.
"Another one, Jack," the woman purred. "This ones big, too. I told you. Didnt I say so?" She placed an affectionate hand on his chest, and leaned her head against his shoulder. "Youre a magical goose, my darling boy, and youve just produced another golden egg. Youre making us all rich and happy."
Jack smiled down at her.
"So you did, Molly, so you did say so." Jack took her hand from his chest and kissed the back of it. "You are my inspiration, Mrs. Enright." Molly laughed merrily.
"Will you be at 21 tonight to wait for the reviews to come in?" she asked as they walked. "You must come this time, Jack. The investors want you there. Youre the toast of Broadway now, and theyll want to show you off, show everyone what good sense they had betting on you. They want to be standing next to you when you hold up the "Times" rave for the cameras." Molly grinned. "And, of course, everyone seeing you out on the town with that ravishing young ingenue youve been diddling wont hurt ticket sales any, either." Jack looked away and chuckled.
"Molly, youre a naughty, naughty girl. No wonder Howard looks so exhausted all the time." Molly patted his arm and stopped.
"Speaking of the old goat, I have to wait here for him. So, are you coming? To 21 I mean?" She shook her finger at him. "Youd better show up this time, Jack, I mean it." Jack chucked her under the chin and winked. "You had better be there, young man," Molly called after him as he went out the door. "Ill come and find you, I swear I will." She smiled lovingly at the playwrights departing figure as the theater doors opened, and the happily chattering audience poured out into the lobby.
Jack had stepped off the curb and raised his arm to hail a taxi, when a feminine voice piped up just behind him.
"Arent you Jack Vanallen, the playwright?" Jack looked around at the girl. She was a pretty thing, and couldnt have been more than sixteen.
"Well, that depends on who wants to know," he replied, a slightly flirtatious tone creeping into his voice in spite of himself. The girl smiled brightly.
"My names Jennifer. Jennifer King," she breathed. "Im going to be a stage actress."
"Is that right," Jack asked, looking fascinated. Jennifer blushed, holding up an autograph book and pen.
"Can I...do you think that you..." the girl stammered, abashed before the tall and handsome Broadway icon. Jack took the book and pen and scribbled his name.
"There you go, Jennifer," he said, handing them back to her. "Anything else?" He couldnt help smiling at her discomfiture. Jennifer shook her head dumbly as Jack climbed into the back of the waiting taxi. She stood starstruck, staring after its red tail lights as they disappeared into the New York City traffic.
Jack threw down his keys on the entry hall table of his apartment, and ignored the unopened mail that lay there. He shrugged off his tuxedo jacket and tossed it carelessly over the back of a dining room chair as he made his way to the kitchen. Glenda, his cleaning lady, had been there in his absence, he saw. The apartment gleamed. He opened his refrigerator door and searched the bottom shelf until he found the bottle of Dom Perignon hed stashed there the night before, just after dress rehearsal. He popped its cork, took a long swig straight from the bottle, and pulled his dress shirt out of his pants with his free hand. He carried the champagne to the living room, kicking off his shoes as he walked. Sinking down onto the sofa, he bent forward to remove his tie, socks, links, and studs, then sat back against the cushions with a great sigh of relief.
After hed congratulated himself on his brilliance, and had killed a third of the bottle of champagne, he picked up the remote from the end table next to him and switched on the stereo. George Gershwin. "Rhapsody in Blue." It always seemed so fitting on opening nights. So Manhattan. So Broadway.
Jack continued to drink straight from the bottle, grinning stupidly, his head lolling against the back of the sofa. He was at the top of his game, and had never felt so exhilarated. Im a fucking genius, he thought to himself. Im a fucking genius whos going to fucking Monte Carlo, and whos buying a fucking Mercedes! He giggled drunkenly.
He briefly considered, then rejected, the notion of asking Julie to travel to Europe with him. It wasnt as if hed be hard up for female companionship without her. Jack was a man who was never without a woman, who never had trouble attracting whomever caught his eye. He loved the ladies, and the ladies, from six to sixty, loved him right back.
He tipped the bottle again, and was disappointed to find it empty. He laughed as he realized that hed drunk an entire bottle of champagne, all by himself, and hed enjoyed every drop of it. I could drink another one, he thought, as he felt exhaustion suddenly wash over him. It had been a long night. He groped for the remote and switched off the stereo. Stretching out onto the sofa, he tucked a pillow under his head, and gave into his sleepiness with delicious abandon.
The morning sun shone brightly through Jacks living room windows, flooding the room with light and dragging him up out of the depths of his slumber. He woke to find himself curled on his side, knees pulled up to his chest, cuddling the empty bottle of Dom Perignon against him like a teddy bear.
His eyes felt as though theyd been glued shut. He slowly opened them and painfully blinked at the sunlight. His head throbbed; his mouth felt as though it had been stuffed with cotton. This wouldnt do. He could not function this way. He let the champagne bottle drop to the carpet with a thud and shifted to his back, prepared to sink into sleep again.
Suddenly, his eyes flew open, wide with disbelief. His mind was slow to process this morning, and the image he had seen immediately upon waking was only now registering. I didnt see that, he told himself. Im dreaming. He reached up with a none-too-steady hand, rubbed his eyes, and cautiously turned his head.
It was no dream. There it was, close enough to touch. A womans leg, propped up on his coffee table. A very nice womans leg, as a matter of fact, wearing a golden sandal on its foot. Jack lifted his aching head slightly, following the leg to its conclusion, which happened to be at the hip of a spectacular-looking blonde girl in her twenties, draped in a very short white dress, and sitting in his living room chair, looking back at him with a smirk.
"Welcome to the living, Vanallen," the smirking lips said. "For a while there, I was afraid we might have lost you." Jack couldnt remember when he had ever heard such a pleasant, musical voice. He lifted his head further, with the intention of getting up. The beautiful girls eyes twinkled crystal blue with amusement.
"I wouldnt do that if I were you, Vanallen," she said, as his head weakly dropped back to the pillow. She stood and walked over to the side of the sofa. Kneeling, she laid a cool palm on his forehead.
"That champagnell kill you," she murmured, stroking his hair. Jack could feel his headache disappear as if by magic.
"I hope you wont take this the wrong way," he said, "but, who are you? I dont think you came home with me last night. Im sure Id remember." The girl nodded, smiling.
"You know me, Vanallen. Weve spent lots and lots of time together. Itll all come back to you. Right now, I want you to try to sit up." She tugged at his arm. He was amazed to find that he felt fine. Strong. His headache was completely gone.
"But...whats your name?" he asked. She rose and headed for the kitchen.
"Thalia," she replied over her shoulder, grinning. "You may call me Thalia."
Thalia came out of the kitchen holding a steaming pot of fresh coffee in one hand, and Jacks gigantic coffee mug in the other. She set them down on the dining table and crooked her finger, beckoning to Jack to come and sit down.
What a girl, Jack thought. She knows just what I need. He stood up, his aches and pains now only a vague memory, and began to make his way to the dining room. Thalia looked at him, and erupted into mirthful laughter. Jack looked down at himself and realized that he looked ridiculous, barefoot, in rumpled tuxedo pants, dress shirt wide open, the linkless cuffs flopping. He was sure that his hair was sticking up comically. Wonderful time to meet a fabulous woman. Who the hell was she, anyway? How could he not remember a beauty like her?
He sat at the table, and Thalia poured coffee into his mug.
"You might want to roll up those sleeves," she offered, "before you drag them through your bacon and eggs." She walked out of the room, toward the back part of the apartment.
"Hey, wait a minute," Jack called, alarmed. "Where are you going?" Was this one of those crazy chicks who meets a guy one night and tries to make herself at home the next morning? He didnt need her wandering around at will, going through his things. Before he had a chance to get up and go after her, she returned, carrying his laptop.
"Well need to get to work right after breakfast," she said in response to his confused expression. She patted his shoulder. "I really am making you bacon and eggs. You should be flattered. Im not often this considerate." She again laughed her infectious laugh. Jack was beginning to suspect that she was a bit crazy, but she certainly was lovely. And he was rather enjoying her company. He thought that he would tolerate her a while longer. Especially if she was making him breakfast.
Thalia sat alongside him as he mopped up egg yolk with toast. He ate his breakfast with relish, wondering at his appetite. He felt unusually well for a morning after a champagne binge. Thalia watched him, legs crossed, chin resting on the heel of her palm.
"Why arent you eating?" Jack asked her. "Arent you hungry?"
"Something like that," Thalia smiled. "All finished? Good. We need to get to work." She gathered his dishes and carried them to the kitchen. "Boot up, Vanallen," she called. "Lets go. Time waits for no man, as they say."
Jack stared at his laptop. What was she talking about? He jumped, startled, as she came up behind him. He hadnt heard her approach. She bent, her lips close to his ear, and he thought that she was going to kiss him, when she began whispering.
Her words were unintelligible, and nearly inaudible, a jumble of softly uttered sounds that he could not put together into language. Yet, it was all familiar, comfortably so, and thrilling at the same time. Jack closed his eyes and let the hushed tones run through him like gentle waves. A flood of images began to crowd his mind, people he had never met, places he had never visited, in vivid, colorful detail. He found himself observing the people, and their situations. He began asking them questions about themselves. What made you do that? Why do you want that? What will you do now? And they answered him. They described, and explained, and justified, their stories spinning themselves into tales, fascinating tales, tales that begged to be told.
Jack came out of the sweet spell with a jolt, aching with disappointment at its end, and saw that Thalia now sat across from him, intently watching his face.
"Remember me now, Vanallen?" She wasnt smiling. He realized that this was the first time he had seen her without a grin on her face.
"You seem familiar. Or rather, you feel familiar. It feels familiar to me to be around you. But no, I dont know you. Im sorry. Wh-what was that, just now? What did you do to me?" The smile returned to her face.
"I inspired you."
"You...look, honey, Thalia, whoever you are. This is getting weird. The way you made my headache disappear, and that little, I dont know what youd call it, hypnotic thing you just did to me...I dont know. This is definitely strange. I dont even know how you got in here."
"Nothing strange about it, Vanallen. Youre one of the chosen, thats all. By my sisters and me," she answered, before he could utter the question that had formed in his mind. "We choose those to whom we give our gifts. We chose you. I chose you. A very long time ago."
He understood and he didnt understand. He opened his mouth, the words get out poised on his tongue.
"What do you want?" he heard himself ask instead. "Who are you, and what do you want from me?"
"Ive told you who I am," she replied gently. "I am Thalia. I am your Muse. Those five smash hit comedies you wrote? I gave them to you. Every word of them. You know its true, Vanallen. You know it in your bones. You know how you feel, sitting in front of your computer when it all crystallizes, all comes together, and you suddenly see the whole story, and..."
"...and the words flow," he continued, "and they are just right, and I cant type fast enough, and Im afraid Ill lose something if I dont get it all down, and before I know it, Ive drunk two pots of coffee and the suns coming up..." Jack blinked. It had happened again. She had put another spell on him.
"Yes, I suppose you could call it that. It is like a spell, rather." She smirked at his dumbfounded expression. "Yes, sometimes I can hear your thoughts, just as you can hear mine, even though you arent aware that you can."
Jack stood up so suddenly that he nearly knocked over his chair. He put both hands on his head and gaped at her with disbelieving eyes. He no longer knew with absolute certainty which of them was speaking at any given time. It was as if his mind had merged with hers and was no longer entirely his own. His heart pounded in his chest.
"Dont be afraid, Vanallen," Thalia said, her voice kind. "Nothing has changed. Were the same to one another that we have always been. Youve just never been able to see me before, thats all."
Jack walked around in tight circles, trying not to panic.
"Okay," he said breathlessly. "Lets assume that Im not losing my mind. Lets assume that you arent just a bad case of post-drunk DTs. Now what? Assuming you are who you say you are, why appear to me like this? What do you want from me?" Thalia looked down, her brow furrowed.
"What do I want? What do I want from you? Well, thats the easy part. I want another play." Jacks eyes narrowed.
"A...play? Thats it? You want me to write another play?" Thalia nodded brightly.
"Thats it! Thats all! Thats not so hard, is it?" Jack gripped the back of his chair.
"Why this way? I dont understand. If youre...what you say, why this way now? Why arent I just carried away by an overwhelming sense of inspiration? How come I can see you?"
"Am I so hard to look at?" Thalia asked demurely, fingering her long, blonde locks. "Look, Vanallen, I had to do something to get your attention. You have to write another play now, and you were all set to take a year off. I cant wait a year. So..."
"So, what are you saying? That I cant take my year off until I write another play?" Jack shook his head. "What are you going to do? Hold me hostage here until I produce a play?" Thalia smiled sweetly.
"If you like. Theres no need to make this difficult, Vanallen. After all, Ive always been here when you needed me, havent I? And now I need you. I want a play. Thats all. I have my reasons. I just want you to write another play. Now. Before Monte Carlo. Before your visit to the Mercedes dealership." Jack squeezed his eyes shut, realizing that he had not yet told anyone about either of those things. He thought that his headache might be returning.
"Okay, I believe you. I think. But I cant just toss off a play. If youre...you must know whats involved. The planning. The rewrites. The..." Thalia waved impatiently.
"Yes yes. You have a play in you, Vanallen, just waiting to come out. You can get it all down on paper in a matter of days. Trust me; I would know. Itll be easy. Youll let your calls go to the answering machine. Ill keep you in food and coffee. And just think, after the first act is completed to my satisfaction, Ill let you take a shower." Jack nodded.
"Thatll be, what, three days? Well, you have to live with me. Fine. Ill just sit here and start typing. Why not? A play. A whole play. Just like that. Well, whatever the lady wants." He yanked his chair back and sat. He gave Thalia an angry look and pointed to his laptop. She obligingly pushed it toward him, folded her hands in front of her, and grinned.
Jack sat staring at the blank screen. Not everything he had ever written in his life was inspired, so to speak, but never, ever in his memory had he been at a loss for words like this. Thalia stayed out of his way, appearing only to bring him fresh coffee and the occasional sandwich. He typed a while, then pressed and held the backspace button. He completed an opening scene, read it through, highlighted it in its entirety, and hit delete. He sat back and cracked his knuckles, and asked Thalia to get him an aspirin. She quietly came up behind him and lightly touched his forehead. Headache gone, he returned to staring at the blank screen.
"I have to have a shower," he complained to her late that night. "Thats it. Thats what the problem is. I cant stand it. I have to have a shower. I have to shave, and comb my hair, and change into clean clothes. These pants are so bad I could stand them up in a corner. I have to have a shower. I wont write another word until I get one." He folded his arms and looked at Thalia defiantly.
"You wont write another word? In addition to what, Vanallen?" She walked around the table and pointedly stared at the blank computer screen. "No sir. No deal. No shower until you have a first act completed to my satisfaction. Youd better get started, Vanallen. Time is money."
"You know, lady," Jack retorted, "for a Muse, if thats what you are, you sure are falling down on the job, I dont mind saying." Thalia stuck her tongue out at him and howled with laughter. Jack wondered with amazement that he had ever found her laughter infectious. He sullenly turned his attention back to the computer screen.
After another frustrating hour of disconnectedness from his art, Jack looked up, and realized that Thalia was nowhere to be seen. He craned his neck, scanning his apartment. She was gone. He uttered a sigh of relief, got up and headed for the shower. Safe in his bathroom, he quickly stripped and turned on the water. He lifted a leg over the rim of the tub, and found himself standing in his dining room, still dressed in rumpled tuxedo pants and dress shirt. He stood, wide-eyed, seriously frightened for the first time. Thalias musical voice broke the silence.
"You believe me now, dont you, Vanallen?" Jack spun around. She stood directly behind him. "Lets not fight about this, Vanallen, okay? Im much too fond of you. Why dont you just sit down and write the play. Hmm? The sooner you do as I ask, the sooner you can get on with your life."
Jack sat heavily. He prayed that he would wake up soon, and find himself in Monte Carlo.
It was at four oclock the next morning that the flow began. It came seemingly out of nowhere, words floating down and settling on paper, words that became sentences, and sentences that became speech with natural rhythms. Characters colored in, became three-dimensional, and began to speak to him of their lives and their cares and their joys. Jack got to know them, their motives, their secrets. He typed, the letters flying, organizing themselves into a drama, the very best thing that he had ever written.
He stopped, suddenly realizing that this was a drama, the first one he had ever done. Jack sat back and looked at the screen, bemused. He was a comedy writer, had always been a comedy writer. It was what he did. He had no bent for drama, never had had. And yet, here he was, writing a drama, and a good one. Better than good. Jack could smell a hit, and this would be a hit for sure. A critical smash. He would win awards for this. At least a Tony. Maybe even the Pulitzer.
He stretched, basking in the indescribable pleasure of reaching his personal best. He wasnt ashamed of his comedies, at all. They were good, occasionally great. But this drama...he had never felt such profound satisfaction.
"Youre nearing the end of Act Two," Thalia quietly observed. "You were so wrapped up, I didnt want to disturb you. Its shaping up into a very fine piece of work, Vanallen. You can take your shower now, if you want." Jack shook his head, not looking up, feeling an overwhelming sense of gratitude that he was too shy to let her see.
"You knew, didnt you," he said, keeping his voice even. "You knew that I had this in me, that it would make me happier than I ever thought I could be to create this. I...thank you, Thalia." Jack touched his face, surprised to find it wet. Mutely declining the offer of the shower, he poised his fingers over the keyboard and resumed typing.
For the next day-and-a-half, Jack broke from the computer screen only to drink coffee and go to the bathroom, and he stopped once to swallow a sandwich that Thalia had insisted he eat. He typed feverishly, never stopping to consider that he had not slept. He ignored the ache in his shoulders. Adrenaline flowed with the scenes, climbing to dramatic pitch, and ebbing into poignant resolution. Jack poured his heart into the drama, adding whole pieces of himself, and his experiences. He knew the characters as intimately as he knew his own family, and he loved them. There was no other way to put it. He loved these people.
Nearly three days after he had first seen Thalias face, Jack Vanallen became the proud author of "The Rain Barrel," the most affecting drama that Broadway would see since "Death of a Salesman."
Thalia sat across from him, feeling his happiness.
"I know exactly who I want for the leads," Jack said enthusiastically. "I think theyll be available, and if not, when the street sees this, well have our pick of actors. The financiers will be lining up to back this baby too, you watch. I wont have to kiss anyones ass on this one. Not anyones. This playll have the best. The best director, the best of everything. This is going to be my proudest moment, and I have you to thank, Thalia. I couldnt have done this without you. I think you know that." Thalia smiled sadly, and shook her head.
"No, Vanallen," she said, almost in a whisper. Jack uttered a short laugh.
"No? No, what?" Thalia reached across the table and covered his hand with her own.
"No, the play isnt for you."
"Isnt...what do you mean?" he asked, confused.
"I mean that the play isnt yours to keep. It will go to somebody else." Jacks face fell.
"What? I dont understand. I dont understand you."
"What do you think, Vanallen, all you writers?" Thalia sat back. "You think we, my sisters and I, dream up all this stuff by ourselves? That were the artists? I have a news flash for you, my friend. You are the artists. Humankind. Art comes from the soul, and you are an ensouled species. My sisters and I are little more than couriers. Where do you suppose those comedies came from, hmm? The five that have taken Broadway by storm? The ones that I whispered into your eager ear? They came from other writers. Successful writers. Writers who owe us, Melpomene and me. And now, its your turn to give something back. Dont look so sad, Vanallen. Therell be other hits for you. You are going to be a great name on Broadway, up there with Arthur Miller and Neil Simon. Youre going to have a very sweet life. Weve chosen you, remember, and well never abandon you." Jacks mouth worked.
"But, you dont understand. This is the best thing that Ive ever done. This is my masterpiece. My soul is in here. I cant give this up. Another one. Ill write you another one, Thalia. Dont ask me to give this one up. I cant. I wont. Ill call my agent today and give her the whole synopsis. Whomever your recipient is, he wont be able to publish it. Ill scream plagiarism, and Ill win. Ill..." Thalia watched him patiently.
"Youll do nothing of the kind, Vanallen. You will go to sleep, and when you wake, youll remember nothing of me, nor of this entire incident. I am truly sorry. But this is the way it has to be." She rose from her chair.
Jack jumped up and made a desperate run for the telephone. Thalias eyes followed him, intently focused, as his gait slowed, and he turned, walked calmly to the sofa, fell to the cushions, and went to sleep.
Eight hours later, he woke. Thalia had been wrong. He remembered her, and the entire ordeal. He remembered writing the play. He remembered that it was the creation of his lifetime. But, he couldnt recall the play itself. Not the title, nor the plot, nor the characters. Not one word of it. Like Thalia, and his laptop, his masterpiece was irretrievably gone.
New York Times, Weekend Section
"The Rain Barrel" opened to critical acclaim and a packed house last night. Described as the most affecting drama that Broadway has seen since "Death of a Salesman," it is expected to see a long run, and to sweep the Tony awards. Critics are betting on a Pulitzer Prize for young phenom playwright Christopher Shepherd, who penned "Barrel" as his first drama.
In other news, Broadway star playwright Jack Vanallen is said to have recovered from his long bout with depression. His agent, Molly Enright, reports that he is putting the finishing touches on a new comedy, expected to be ready in time for next season. Broadway will be relieved to have him back, as he has been sorely missed.
Margaret Rennie's Fanfiction