From the author: Jay Lake was bigger than life. Generous, productive, relentless. That time when he annoyed his primary muse by flirting with her sisters and she cursed him to write trash. Yeah, that time he needed to fix that. Always creative. That was Jay.
When I first met Jay Lake, he was wandering around Eugene dressed in the most outrageous shirt I’d ever seen, swinging an aluminum baseball bat, and shouting for someone named Thalia. He had called me after finding my listing in the phone book and had asked me to meet him in front of the library downtown. I didn’t know who he was and, this was quite a while ago, neither did anyone else.
“I know she’s in this town,” he said after I’d got him quieted down. He crunched the bat behind his massive shoulders before taking a swing at an invisible left field fence. “I’m having dreams of tie-dyed hippies at a Star Trek convention endlessly discussing the importance of the opening sentence in fiction. That can only mean she’s in Eugene, so I drove down from Portland to find her.”
I understood what he was talking about – after all I was a member of a notorious Eugene workshop of speculative fiction writers – but the baseball bat had me concerned.
“Why are you looking for this Thalia person? And, why the bat?”
“I like the sound an aluminum bat makes when it hits stuff. For hitting baseballs, a wooden bat is best. I need it just in case her father is around.” Then he grimaced. “She sorta used to be my muse. Then she caught me flirting with a couple of her sisters.” He flipped his shoulder length blond hair from one side of his face to the other. I hadn’t reacted to his confession. I’m a hippie and don’t judge people’s affairs, but I guess he felt like he had to justify his actions. “Hey,” he said, “she was good for laughs, but I’m a complex dude.”
“You met her in Portland?”
“No. This is from when I lived in Texas. Long story.”
“She stalking you?”
“No, I wouldn’t say that. When I left Texas I tried to make amends, but she wouldn’t see me. Sicced her daddy on me.”
“Jay,” I said, letting my exasperation show, “why are you looking for her? Sounds like you are trying to get on with your life. Isn’t that what people do when they leave Texas?”
“Yeah, well, true, but I’m having a little problem. Well, more like a serious problem.” He swung the bat again. “A major, frigging huge problem.” He looked at me over his glasses. “Everything I write is shit.”
“Come on, Jay, none of us can objectively judge our…”
“Not me, dude. I know when I write good stuff. I always write good stuff, but not now.”
“Not me, ever.”
“So, it’s all Thalia’s fault?” I was irritated with his arrogant self-confidence. I had no way of knowing at the time that what he said was true, I just thought he was bragging about his prowess while blaming someone else for his verbal impotence. “How?”
“Curse,” he said in a whisper while he tapped the bat on the sidewalk.
“She was already a bit petulant about my making the moves on some of her sisters, but when she found out I was leaving Texas she threw a severe hissy fit. Tossing dishes and ashtrays and geegaws and anything else she could reach, cussing most wickedly.” He paused and said parenthetically, (“I’m going to use that scene in a story one day”), then winked. “In the middle of her stream of cussedness she threw in a curse that I could only ever write what she would inspire me to write. I wasn’t meant to catch the meaning, but I did.” He jingled the change in the pocket of his shorts. “I didn’t think she meant it, but she did. She stopped feeding my imagination. That wouldn’t be so bad, but my own stuff chugs along for a few hundred words then, BAM!: crap. That just doesn’t happen to me. Hence, curse.”
“So, you’re dreaming of Eugene and you think it’s because she’s here?”
“Yeah. I don’t know why she’s not in Texas.”
“And you want to find her. Convince her to lift her curse.”
“Right. I’m desperate. I called you because you’re a writer and might understand. And you know the town.”
That was kind of him. I was unpublished at the time, but was making all possible professional attempts. Jay used kindness to disarm people, in a good way.
“Okay,” I said, “in what part of town did she live in Texas? Student housing? Suburbs? Downtown condo?”
He looked away from me and mumbled, “Waco trailer park.”
“Maybe you should be looking in Springfield.”
“There are hippies in Springfield?”
He had a point.
“I checked all the trailer parks before I called you,” he said. “Ziltch. Maybe I missed one.”
Now it made sense why, out of the hundreds of speculative fiction writers in this town, he had called me.
“I’m originally from Kansas City, Jay. Most trailer parks in the middle part of America are put in two very specific geological locations.” I raised my eyebrows at him.
“Floodplains,” he said.
I nodded. “And?”
“Tornado prone areas, but there aren’t any tornadoes in Oregon.”
“Tornadoes can occur anywhere on this planet if the weather conditions are right.” It was his turn to nod. “We need to mosey over to the West Eugene wetlands.”
“I’ve already checked out all the trailer parks over there.” He sighed.
“Jay, old buddy,” I said as I clamped my hand on his shoulder. “We write fantasy, science fiction, horror, even magical realism. You’re looking for a pissed off muse. We need to use our imaginations. Anyway, this is Eugene, not all trailers are parked in trailer parks. Where’s your car?”
New Volkswagon Beetles were roomy inside, but watching Jay fold his impressive bulk into the driver’s seat was like watching a movie of a dozen circus clowns climbing out of a miniature car played in reverse. We parked near the Euphoria Chocolate headquarters. I had a hunch we’d find Jay’s muse along the Amazon Slough bike path. Tornadoes love to dip down into drainage creeks. Jay didn’t leave his aluminum bat in the car.
About a quarter mile we encountered one of the last industrial warehouses that bordered the path before it entered the protected wetlands. A school bus converted to a trailer, up on concrete blocks and painted a dayglow rainbow, twenty years of Oregon Country Fair parking stickers filling its windshield, squatted in an abandoned lot. Tied to the bumper, a scrawny goat munched on a few pathetic plants. Multicolored banners and flags flapped in the wind. A pretty young woman with a jester’s cap perched on her violet-streaked dreadlocks sat on a battered lawn chair, tending a struggling patch of garden with a yellow plastic watering can. She wore a purple diaphanous gown with a ragged hem just above her knees, gypsy-style, and muddy hiking boots with mismatched green and orange knee socks. Jerry and Gang sang about the long strange trip through a tiny speaker. A hand-rolled cigarette hung from the girl’s pink painted lips. Skunky smoke curled around a foam red clown ball stuck to her nose.
Jay and I stepped through the chain link gate. The air shimmered, wavered like a desert mirage, and we weren’t in Oregon anymore.
“Texas?” I asked, noting the red dirt, brown tumble weeds, sharp scent of sage, and that the bus now resided in the hollow of a dry river bed.
“Yep. West Texas,” he replied.
“About time y’all showed up,” she said in a distinctly Texan drawl. The bells on her hat tinkled. “I don’t have all fucking day.”
Jay looked around as he nervously tapped the bat into his left palm.
“He ain’t here,” she said, gesturing toward the bat. “Daddy went out for beer last week and I ain’t seen him since. Probably passed hisself off as a handsome gent in a white tux to some horny schoolteacher. Y’all know how he is. Yer right to be mindful. He might smell your nasty ass and decide to drop by unannounced.” She flicked the ash from her cigarette into the garden. The goat bleated. “What the hell do you want?”
Her last statement didn’t make much sense. She’d already expressed that she’d been impatiently waiting for him, but the capricious nature of her kind was legendary. I’d gotten Jay here. It was his game now. With nowhere else to go, nothing else to do, I watched. I didn’t want to tangle with her daddy, but I stayed to cover Jay’s back. I’m a writer. I was curious.
“I came to apologize,” Jay said.
Thalia snorted, a very unladylike sound.
“Ain’t no bother to me y’all want to sniff around my skanky sisters, but you should’ve been man enough not to do it behind my back.” She snorted again and said under her breath, “the bastard doesn’t even understand poetry except to purple it up worse than his prose…”
“Darlin…” Jay began.
“Don’t you ‘darlin’ me, Joseph E. Lake, Junior. We had a deal and you screwed it up. You wanted inspiration, you wanted imagination, you wanted content, you wanted a reason, and I gave you the best years of my life…”
Jay and I both raised our eyebrows at the cliché.
“Well, I held up my half of the bargain and what do I get? You peeking up Calli’s skirt, toying with Euterpe, and tickling Erato’s fancy. God help us all if you ever make a pass at Terpsichore.” She flicked the butt of her cigarette into the garden. The goat ate it while it still smoldered.
I had the impression that Jay was rarely at a loss for words, but faced with the intense aggravation of his former muse he swayed as if searching for solid ground.
Thalia’s daddy appeared out of thin air, dressed in black jeans, a fishnet wife beater, and an Oregon Ducks cap pulled down over his mullet. With a firm pat on the back, Daddy smoothly relieved Jay of the aluminum baseball bat before he even knew what was going on.
“Jay, old dog, what brings you to this neck of the woods?” With a sizzling bolt of lightening, he crushed the bat and shaped it into a crude sword. “Still tapping the keyboard in a vain attempt for immortality?” He grinned at his daughter. “Or are we having a bit of a problem with the words? Limp and uninspired characters? Scenes that don’t perform? Convoluted plots that do not climax?” Daddy petted the goat. It bleated, kicked and tried to bite him. Daddy threatened the goat with the blade, but it wouldn’t back down. Before the confrontation reached the point of a goat sacrifice, Daddy tossed the mangled baseball bat over his shoulder and strolled into the bus. “I’ll leave you children to work things out. I’m tired.” He paused to ask Thalia, “Any Pearl in the fridge?”
She stuck out her tongue.
Jay stooped over to retrieve the sporting equipment, shaped like a bat again, but with a huge dent in its sweet spot. “Damn,” he muttered to himself, “my favorite bat.” Then he gathered himself up to his full height and girth. “Let’s get this over with,” he said to the muse. “What do you want?”
Thalia smiled as cold and sweet as an over-priced snow cone at a county fair carnival. “What any muse wants, babycakes; appreciation, adoration and product. That’s always the bargain. I tease you with unique characters, haphazard juxtaposition of concepts, accidental brilliance of imagery, sudden changes of plot direction, and y’all write your silly little stories. So simple this old fool you’ve dragged along,” she absently gestured in my direction, “could do it.”
“Yeah, I get it. Always have. But what do you want? How much ‘product’ do I write before you drop your curse and let me be on my own.”
Her eyes smoldered the way I’d seen her kind of woman react when another woman flirts with her man and he doesn’t resist. “I don’t curse.” She spat.
“Whatever,” Jay said, looking bored. “How many stories?”
“Five score and one,” Thalia said. “I reckon a half a million words, give or take a few hundred adverbs.”
Jay snorted, a very unladylike sound. “I can write that in a week.”
I bit my tongue. Why was he baiting her if he could get this over with in a couple of months or maybe a year? (Again, I had no way of knowing that Jay wasn’t a braggart.)
Thalia rose up out of the lawn chair, grew taller than the bus, snorted fire, and began an invective that matched Jay’s previous description and admiration. A chorus of foreign voices swirled on the wind. Jay stood his ground and even grew a bit in stature. Not quite a smile flickered at his lips, not quite a twinkle sparkled in his eye. When she finished, Thalia slammed her fist into the dirt garden.
“Three million words,” she roared. “Righteous words, not counting pronouns or articles. Inspired by ME! My whispers, my deadbeat relatives, my whims, my backyard, my follies, my stupid ideas, and my goddamn moody hormones.” She pointed at her farm animal. “And my fucking goddamned goat, too! Y’all got that? Now get the fuck out of here before I change my fickle, irrational, unpredictable mind.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Jay said as, in a graceful motion for a man so big, he bowed then straightened. Buoyant, as if filled with purpose, his expression radiated pure glee. Her expression changed when she caught a glimpse of his joy as he turned away from her. Some sort of confused realization glazed her eyes. Jay pushed me toward the chain link gate. “Move it,” he said. “We’re done here.”
We stepped back into Oregon. Jay walked with a jaunty pace and whistled the overture from Tommy. He acted satisfied, like a man who had just finished Thanksgiving dinner and had gone back for “thirds.”
I waited until we were in the Beetle and almost to my place before I spoke. “I thought you wanted to get rid of her? Now you have to write three million words for her?”
“I never wanted to be rid of her,” he said. “She cursed me. I couldn’t write anything decent. But her Texas trailer-park-tramp, snake-handling, tongue-speaking, cousin-humping manifestation is a gold mine. Jaysus, dude, did you see that bus and goat? I thought Zeus was going to cut that tough little fucker. That shit is awesome.” He glanced away from the road and winked. “Think I should have held out for six million?” He chortled.
His mood turned serious when he stopped to let me out.
“I’m going to need some help.” He leaned out the window. “Do you think the Wordos would mind if I workshopped these stories?”
He drove off before I could answer. Of course we wouldn’t mind.
This story originally appeared in Jay Lake: Intelligence Redesigned, a Jay Lake tribute compiled in 2008 after his first colon cancer diagnosis. I wanted to capture some things about Jay; his joy of writing, his generosity, his productivity, his subject material. We miss you, Jay. A lot..