The Blind Muse
by Andrew Lawrence Crown
Copyright © Andrew Lawrence Crown, 2005. All rights reserved.
Almost eleven thirty and still no sign of Leo in the Blind Muse. I arrived at about eleven after ducking out of a small but lively party of young high school teachers in Lincoln Square celebrating the end of our school year, and it was cause for celebration I thought while making the drive alone through heavy Saturday night traffic down to the South Loop bar thinking all of the time about what it means to be burnt out and idealistic at the same time with the radio on to National Public Radio sending the thoughts into disarray because it was too damn loud with the jazz and Afro-pop Worldwide with Kwame Mufusme. Before I left the party Jenny Roe, who looked like one of my Korean lovers from years back, from my English teaching days in Pusan, South Korea, Jenny took me by the hand with her skinny arms and led me out to the back porch where we were alone because everyone else was dancing and drinking inside. She tried to convince me to kiss her but I would not do it. She told me she would be thinking about me in Greece even though everyone knew she was going there with David from the math department and even though she knew I was married to my solid Korean from Pusan and even though she knew I did not want to hear anything about her ideas about the two of us, Jenny and I. “There is no two of us,” I told her before admonishing her to focus on David but she said, “I’m trying to but I can’t Paul because you always look at me like I’m someone else, like I’m someone you used to care about even though there’s never been anything between the two of us.” I apologized and told her not to think about it because it was nothing while looking away from her purposefully until she told me to look at her while we were talking. “Don’t you think we need to talk about this Paul?” she said. “Don’t you think we need to consider this carefully? Everyone makes mistakes Paul. Just admit you made a mistake. It’s no kind of a crime. Just admit to yourself, to the two of us, that she’s not what you really want, not what you really need, and let’s settle on a plan so we can find out if we belong together. And Paul, look at me when I’m talking to you.” So I tried to look at her and thankfully I could and see my first Pusan girl and still believe that what I had at home with my second Pusan girl waiting for me, waiting by the phone, probably waiting all night long for me to call her and tell her that everything was fine with Leo at the Blind Muse, was solid and I was solid and she was solid and we were twice as solid, doubly solid, solidity squared together.
“You remind me of someone I used to know Jenny, that’s what it means when I look at you,” I told her looking directly at her while she frowned back at me. “But I don’t think we need to talk about it. I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t think I can talk about it. I’ve already made my choice and she’s not a mistake. There’s no plan for the two of us so go back in there to the party and dance with David nice and slow because he’s the one you should be out here on the porch with. Go to him now and make no small plans and then go have a ball with him in Greece.”
I turned up the volume on the radio for a second before I switched it off and it was Afro-pop Worldwide as I reached the South Loop and parked my car just down the block from the Blind Muse. Walking quickly to the bar because I thought I was late and did not want to disappoint Leo’s the artist, Leo the childhood friend, Leo the atheist Jew, Leo the diametrical opposite to me Paul Robertson, Leo the ying to my yang, Leo the closest thing to a bother I ever had, Leo Schwartz the stickler for punctuality, Leo who always said that punctuality was the one thing he knew for certain he believed in. Fifteen years earlier while studying photography at an elite art school in southern California, he had renounced the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and become a devout hedonist. Now at thirty-two he said he no longer had the energy to worship the pleasure gods and he was thinking of leaving the arts and needed to talk about it. I would not keep him waiting because I had seen this coming over the course of the past few months. I knew him better than anyone else so I also knew this was in fact a crisis of the most fantastic proportions which had my friend Leo Schwartz in its grips, like the beast crushing the delicate neck of the prey with his massive canines. Something inside my friend was crushing the life out of him, bleeding him to death, he was feeling the artist’s pain and no longer had the courage to face it head on and instead was depressed in a sad and ridiculous sort of way, calling me up twice a day to talk about graduate school and MBA programs when everyone who knew him thought he would just die in job which required you to wear a suit. I already knew that what he was really contemplating with all of those phone calls and his befuddlement concerning the GMAT was the death of an artist.
I was sitting at the bar for almost thirty minutes when I finally asked Dan the bartender if he had seen Leo in the Blind Muse that night. Dan said he hadn’t seen Leo in the Blind Muse for over a month, which I thought was significant since I knew Leo liked to take his clients there after a wrap at his studio in the South Loop. Leo was wise enough to be good to his clients, sending them expensive gifts from Bloomingdale’s and Marshall Fields, taking them out to the trendiest new restaurants in town, throwing inspired theme parties at the studio to solidify his relationships with the art directors and advertising execs who were the bread and butter for Leo Schwartz Photography. His eccentricity never interfered with his ability to relate to his clients in a professional manner, and the way in which he cultivated his partnership with his agent Jack Silver convinced me that perhaps he might make a go of it in the business world if he ever left the arts. But that was not the key issue. The question of whether Leo could succeed in the corporate world if he put on a suit and cut his hair and took the piercings out of his tongue and eyebrows was not the important question. The important question was why he was ready to throw in the towel when he was at the height of his career, when he was arguably the most successful young commercial photographer in the city of Chicago. I knew this was the real reason why he had asked me to meet him at the Blind Muse and I knew that this was what he wanted to talk about.
I drank a Goose Island and talked with Dan about my plans for the summer vacation until Leo finally showed up with Moe Kinesis, Leo’s hyper-kinetic buddy from his in-house days at Lakeside Photography before Leo went solo as a freelance artist and his career really took off. Dan wished me luck with the writing as I thanked him and watched Leo and Moe look around at the patrons in the Blind Muse looking for me. Moe’s towering self-confidence bordered on self-indulgent narcissism, and when you tried to talk to Moe you never really did because he wouldn’t let you get in a word edgewise, and when you did manage to squeeze in a word or two in-between his thunderous bellows, he never listened to what you said anyway because he was at work dreaming up his next soliloquy. Talking to Moe was like talking to a oncoming freight train with the whistle blaring, like trying to converse with a tornado, but I liked him anyway because he was inventive and outrageously funny even if he was convinced he played second fiddle only to the messiah. He was smiling widely and apparently trying to cheer Leo up with one arm around his back and the other gesturing to the ceiling, to the door, to the women in the Blind Muse, and to the floor, to the Bar, to Dan and I, to the wait staff, saying to Leo so loudly that I could hear him at the bar, “Cheer up my friend. There’s no purpose to all of this wretched sulking. All you see before you Leo my son, you are the master of. Fore you are like Homer. You convene with the Gods of earth, sky, and heaven. You are an artist Leo. Take that Kaplan GMAT test prep book and tear out all the pages and incinerate them one at a time in the furnace buddy. You are closing in on the pinnacle, the peak, your Olympus and Kilimanjaro. You’ve got plenty of art left in you Leo. Stop pretending to be looking for yourself because you already know who you are. We all know who you are. You know who you are. Paul knows who you are, don’t you Paul?”
“Leo, Moe, how are you?” I said as they sat next to me at the bar, Leo in the center, I to his right, and Moe to his left.
“Dan, I’ll have a scotch and soda. Give Leo the same but make it a double,” Moe said. “Paul, what are you drinking, you damned teetotaler.”
“I’m still working on this Goose Island,” I told Moe.
Dan made the drinks while Moe loudly told Leo what he should do with that GMAT test prep book. I looked at Leo and he held his head in his hands, sulking, looking down into his lap, and then closing his eyes and still holding his head in his hands.
“Throw it out the window,” Moe said.
“I need to study it,” Leo muttered still with his head facing downward in his hands and his eyes closed.
“Burn it. Set it afire. Make of it a sacrifice to the Lord,” Moe shouted so loudly that everyone in the Blind Muse could hear him.
No response from Leo.
“He’s an atheist Moe,” I said as Dan set down the drinks in front of us.
“Then he needs to get some religion,” Moe said. “Any damn religion will do Leo. Convert to Hinduism, go on a pilgrimage, go see a Buddhist monk, visit your rabbi. Hell, Paul will take you with him to Korea the next time he visits his wife’s family there, and you two can visit a mountain temple and seek enlightenment. Just do something so that you will believe like you used to believe. Don’t you remember what it was like when you used to believe Leo? You have to find that belief again buddy. You can’t give up like this, not now when you are closing in on your peak. You’re the top damn photo artist in Chicago Leo, and you are only thirty-two. How can you give it all up now?”
Leo ran his fingers through his long brown hair and turned to me and looked at me with a searching gaze.
“Who am I Paul?” he asked me.
“You’re Leo Schwartz, that’s who,” Moe said after pounding his fist on the bar. “Leo Schwartz the top grossing artist for Jack Silver, the top agent in this town.”
“Who am I Paul?” Leo asked me again.
“You are closing in Leo. You can see the summit buddy. Once you reach it no one can take it away from you. Even if they pull you down, even if you fall out of fashion and your style and unique talents are no longer what the ad execs want, they can never take that summit away from you Leo, they can never take away that day when you were at the top of the world and you looked down upon all that there is to see and said to yourself I have seen the face of the magnificent, I have seen the all of it, every last bit and piece of creation.”
“He’s an atheist Moe,” I said.
“He needs to believe again,” said Moe.
“What’s wrong Leo,” I asked him. “Tell us what is really wrong.”
Leo picked up his scotch and soda and raised it to his lips but he did not drink. He set is back down on the bar and he gazed around the Blind Muse as if searching for an answer to my question. When it seemed apparent he could not find it anyplace in the bar he again faced his head downward, his hands holding his head and his eyes closed.
“I’m through with it,” he said.
“Bullshit,” said Moe.
“I’m through. Finished,” Leo said.
“Why Leo? Why do you want to quit now when your work is in such demand?” I asked.
“Because I am. I’m through. I’m finished. I’m a desperate hack.”
“If you’re a hack, then what the hell am I?” asked Moe. “I’ve been shooting catalogs in-house with Lakeside Photography for the last five years. I’ll probably be doing the same thing five years from now. Am I a hack Leo? Because if you are a hack then I certainly must be one too.”
“What makes either of us not hacks?” Leo asked Moe.
“Because we love our jobs Leo. We love to create beauty, or at least capture it Leo. Don’t you still love it? The power and the control we feel when we make the shoot fit our concept and design, and the submission to what is bigger than us when we feel our scheme of beauty is simply what it must be, what it always was and always will be and you and I were just talented enough to discover the magic formula for capturing that idea, freezing it and recording it for others to see and enjoy.”
“I don’t feel it anymore Moe,” said Leo. “I can’t see any beauty in it anymore. I can’t connect to anything larger or permanent. I just see glassware and stereos, and China, and watches, and all manner of chatchkies and I shoot it all machine like, robotic, like a zombie. I don’t see anything bigger than what it is I’m shooting and I know I’m no longer trying to find anything bigger anymore. I just want to make the shoot and get paid for it and be finished with it. I’ve been taking as much work as I can to make as much money as I can and then I spend half the day online with my broker trying to figure how to invest it in the stock market so I can make even more money. I spend half my day watching the Dow and the Nasdaq and the prices of my shares. I’ve turned into a money making machine. I just want to shoot and get paid for it. That’s all. I’ve accepted work so far beneath my talent and ability that I would have turned it down back when I was living in my slummy mouse infested studio just west of Bucktown before Jack Silver ever heard my name.”
“Think of those days,” I urged him. “Remember when you and I were living in the studio and you were driving the ten-year-old rusted out Mazda and all I had was my bike to get me to coffee house where I worked for just above the minimum wage even with my masters from The University of Chicago? Remember all the cheap Mexican carry-out we ate to save our dough and the night you entertained me by shooting peanuts at all of the mice with the slingshot I brought back from Korea? The Mice were everywhere Leo. They were the most loyal friends we had at that time. They kept us company when we cooked, scampering through the cupboards every time we had to grab some more ramen noodles. They joined us on the old worn and ragged couch when we watched Sienfeld re-runs, and they even joined us in the bathroom, watching us shave from atop the mirror and eating holes through all of the worst advertisements in the photo magazines you used to keep in the rack in front of the toilet. When was the last time you saw a mouse in your studio in the South Loop Leo? When was the last time you had to go to Ace hardware to buy a mousetrap and murder your most loyal fans? When was the last time you had to even think about rodents Leo? Now all you have to think about is what work to accept and what work to turn down and where to take out Joan whenever you feel the need to spend some of that cash you are raking in Leo. And you don’t take her to town in a ten year-old used rusted out Mazda Leo. You’re driving a Mercedes now. Look how far you’ve come, and you’re only thirty-two.”
“That’s just the problem Paul. Don’t you see, this is just the thing I’m talking about, the thing that’s killing me. It’s all about the money now. It’s all about the car and keeping the studio furnished in the latest style, and trying to please Joan with expensive meals and weekend getaways and gifts. Just last week Joan and I were at Andie’s for French-Thai fusion with her friends from the north shore and she asked the waiter to bring us the best wine on the wine list. He brought us a bottle and he let Joan smell the cork and she turned it down. Three hundred and eighty-five clams a bottle and she turned it down Paul, and then she wanted us to leave Andie's and find another restaurant even though we had already ordered. I argued with her about it for fifteen minutes and we were so loud that her friends excused themselves from the table and went to get drinks at the bar. Eventually we decided to stay at Andie's and we agreed to drink mixed cocktails instead of wine, but when we got home, believe me Paul, she had the devil in her and she let me have him in the worst way possible until three in the morning, yelling and throwing anything she could find around the studio, hissing at me like a cornered cat, snarling at me like a beast. She broke one of my Tungsten Arri 2000 watt bulbs with a potted fern. That’s over a grand for the bulb in one of those lights Paul, more than twice what the wine would have cost me at Andie’s.”
“What happened next,” I asked.
“We went to sleep, Joan in the bedroom and I in the studio on the couch for the clients. The next day we couldn’t talk about it, and we still haven’t talked about it since.”
“I’m sorry about you and Joan,” I said.
“You know what I think you should do about Joan, Leo ” Moe said.
“What’s that Moe,” I asked him.
“Think about it Paul. You’ve got to tell Leo exactly what you think. He’s already heard it from me and he’s already heard it from his agent Jack Silver. Tell Leo what your gut instinct is Paul. Is Joan part of the solution or part of the problem?”
“You think all of this, these problems Leo is having with his work, his fear that he is a hack, you think this has something to do with Joan?”
“I’m sure of it,” said Moe. “Leo needs to hear your opinion on this matter Paul.”
“I’m not sure it’s my place to intervene in Leo’s relationship with his girlfriend of seven years Moe. I mean, they’ve been together through all the hard times, Leo’s climb from that rodent infested west of Bucktown rat hole to his meteoritic rise to the top of the Chicago commercial art world. Who am I to give Leo advice about his love life? I’m no expert on love or women even though I am happily married. When I wanted to marry my Pusan girl, everyone, my friends, my family, even you Moe, and Leo, all of you, everyone told me I was crazy, out of my mind. You said it would never work out with Suji coming from a totally different culture and from opposite ends of the earth. You told me we would approach our marriage with diametrically opposed sets of expectations which could never be satisfied because we were bound by the force of culture to be so unlike each other. Did I listen to any of you? Did I pay heed to any of your advice? Thank God I did not and thank God I endured our long separation and the celibacy and asceticism which I made my own lamentation and sacrifice to love because it has all paid off in the end because my wife and I are as content as any couple I know. I stood firm against all the nay sayers and rejected most of the advice I received whether it was unsolicited or not, and I am a happier man for it. So why should I now be so impudent as to extend any advice to Leo about his relationship with Joan? I remember once when the three of us, Leo, Joan, and I stayed in on a Saturday night in the rodent infested studio and played scrabble because we didn’t have the money to go out and buy drinks or even to catch a movie. I remember how Leo and Joan snuck off to the bedroom after purposefully letting me beat them at scrabble so they could finish the game early to go make love until the middle of the night while I sat up watching TV with the volume turned up loud to drown out all the passionate whimpers and groans I could hear coming from the bedroom. It wasn’t easy for me to hear all of that with my girl far away in Pusan and my solemn resolution to adopt a life of celibacy while I waited for her visa and travel documents to make it through the INS. I turned down the volume on the TV for a moment or two and heard the two lovers whispering endearments through the thin walls and then I took a broom and brushed the mice off of the couch, reproving myself to think of all of my self-imposed asceticism as a kind of philosophical or religious quest which would get me to the heaven of the philosophers or the one of the Almighty himself before I laid down on the ratty old couch and went to sleep dreaming of a future with my Pusan girl. And now I am living that future and Leo’s future never looked brighter, so I can’t really see what the problem with Joan is other than you looking for an explanation for all of Leo’s uncertainty at this time Moe.”
“That was nice Paul,” Moe said with a twinge of sarcasm. “That was just lovely. You were smart to ignore our advice Paul and I’m glad you and your wife are so happy. But Leo is uncertain now, that’s a fact. You are his oldest friend Paul. You knew him before I did or Joan did or before anyone else did. You grew up together. For heaven’s sake you remember when he was still in diapers Paul. So if you can’t tell him what you honestly think he should do about Joan and what you think about the connection between Joan’s tendency to adopt the manner of an urchin when she’s not spending all of Leo’s money, then I don’t know who can give him honest advice about this doomed relationship which for some reason, mainly Leo’s inordinate sense of guilt and shame, Leo will not permit to die. So I suppose if you aren’t going to tell him what you really think the two of us will just have to sit idly by and watch that old troll sap all of his creativity and destroy his career.”
“Moe, how can you call Joan and old troll? It's true she is much older than Leo. She’ll be forty-four this August while Leo’s only thirty-two. But she’s only been good for him and she has always had his best interests at heart. She has been with him every step of the way in his rise from complete and humble obscurity to notoriety and success. You know how they say that behind every good man is a better woman. Well Joan is that woman for our good man Leo.”
“Leo,” said Moe. “Tell Paul what Jack Silver told you to do about Joan.”
I looked at Leo a bit surprised at first but then not so surprised when I realized that Moe and Leo and Jack had probably discussed this issue at length on several occasions previously, and now was the time when Moe and Leo had finally decided to fill me in. I realized they had kept me in the dark about their plans for ending Leo’s relationship with Joan because they saw me as a family man and knew I would be adverse to any plan which would result in Joan feeling the hurt and pain of separation from Leo who she always said was the love of her life. I knew for a fact that she wanted to marry him and she had often cornered me at their parties and led me away from the guests into a back room or secluded hallway and asked me repeatedly if Leo had ever revealed to me any plan or intention to propose to her. I always regretted having to tell Joan the truth which quite honestly was that Leo was not the marrying type regardless of how much he said he loved Joan or said he needed her.
I looked at Leo while he told me about Jack Silver’s opinion.
“He came over about three weeks ago when Joan was away at her studio working,” Leo began. “He brought a small black briefcase he handed to me as soon as I let him in. ‘Here, take this Leo. I bought you a gift,’ he said. ‘I had hoped it would not have to come to this but I think this is what you need right now.’ I placed the briefcase on the kitchen counter and opened it up and there was two great big bags of weed and some pictures of some beautiful naked girls, all of them young and blonde, just my type, and the pictures had phone numbers on the backs of them. ‘Leo,’ Jack said, ‘I don’t know what the hell has happened to you lately, but you are not producing like you used to. You were the top money maker for the Jack Silver agency until something happened to you and nothing you have done for me in the last ten months is inspired in the way your best work has always been inspired. Something very important is missing Leo. I don’t know where it went, the magic, the genius, the art of your work which I can’t see anymore because it’s just not there, but the clients are disappointed and they have let me know about it Leo. They want the old Leo Schwartz back and I need him back too because you are my top dog buddy. I need you buddy to produce the kind of work you produced for me after I discovered you in Bucktown Leo. Remember when I called you Leo? Remember our first conversation all those years ago? Remember what I said to your over the phone the first time I called you? I said, Leo Schwartz, this is Jack Silver, have you ever heard of me young man? Then you told me you never had heard of me and I said that’s alright kid because I have heard about you and I’m calling you today because I have a plan for your future kid, and this is your lucky day kid because this phone call is going to change your life. And I did change your life Leo. Didn’t I change your life? Didn’t I help you by promoting your work and landing the best jobs for you and introducing you to all of the right and important people? You wouldn’t be where you are today without me Leo and you know it. I wouldn’t be where I am without you either Leo. You’ve made more money for my agency than any other talent I’ve come across in my entire career of almost twenty-five years. That’s why what we have is a partnership buddy. We need each other Leo. I need you just like you need me. But you’ve got to get yourself out of this slump Leo because everyone can see the change, me, the clients, the critics, everyone can see the change and no one likes it Leo. We are all very disappointed.’ Then I closed the briefcase and handed it back to Jack and I told him I hadn’t done any serious drugs for years and that I couldn’t use any of the girls because of Joan, and then Jack got angry. ‘Bullshit Leo,’ he shouted. ‘I remember what you told me you were like when you were younger, when you were a stupid gifted kid genius and just out of art school and genuinely alive. You told me you were smoking weed all day long and screwing everything that had tits and a body temperature, and that’s when you produced some of your best work. I’ve seen your portfolios from your school days. The shots from that time when you were living like a hedonist are amazing. I still don’t know how you pulled them off. Look at you now Leo. Where has the life in you gone Leo? You are so hopelessly lethargic and mopeishly depressed right now. You better smoke this weed or go get yourself a good shrink Leo because I’m looking at you right now and I feel like I am talking to a chronically depressed nobody instead of to one of Chicago’s top young artists. I’ll pay for the shrink myself Leo. You don’t want to call the girls? You think you need to stay loyal to Joan? Okay Leo, if that’s what you want then fine. Forget about the girls and give me back my briefcase. You won’t believe what I paid for the pot and what I already paid the girls upfront. They are waiting for you to call them, but you don’t have to call them Leo. You don’t have to if you think you can’t. I am just trying to help you Leo. I’m desperate because I know you are desperate. I have your best interests at heart. I thought some young beautiful girls would inspire you the way Joan an older woman can’t. I wanted you to get connected to your eros again, to your passion. I wanted you to experience beauty and passion and lust and feel the life force, the will, again, so you could recreate it for me on film they way you used to be able to do so effortlessly. I wanted to help you Leo. I still want to help you. I need you buddy. We all need you at the Jack Silver Agency. I’ve got to get going now, I’ve got a late lunch with a client downtown. I would ask you to join us but you look like hell right now Leo, so depressed and worn out. I’m afraid the client might start to have questions about you if he saw you like this. If you change your mind about the girls give me a call. I don’t think it would be such a bad idea Leo. Joan might even be persuaded that it would be good for you. Hell, you can bring her along and let her join in the fun if she wants. I’ll call you kid. Keep your chin up. You’ve still got a lot of art left in you buddy, you just need to remember how to bring it out and put it on film where it belongs.’ I walked Jack to the door and apologized to him before he left. He shook his head and repeated my name Leo over and over again before he left me with one more piece of advice. ‘You want my advice Leo? Forget about Joan. You need a younger woman. Someone with the kind of beauty to inspire you to reach your peak, someone who can connect you to the life force again. You are a hedonist Leo. Hedonists worship the body and its pleasures. You need a young body you can worship so you can reconnect yourself to your eros.”
After Leo finished telling us about his visit from Jack Silver Moe ordered us another round of drinks even though I was not finished with my Goose Island and Leo had not even touched his scotch and soda.
“Moe, what do you make of Jack Silver’s visit? Do you think Leo really needs to relive the wild life he lived when he was younger. Do you think he needs to dump Joan and find a younger lover?”
“I think Jack Silver is right on target Paul. He’s been in the art world since before we were ten years old. He knows what it takes to get a genius like Leo Schwartz reconnected with his muse. I asked you before if you thought Joan was part of the problem or part of the solution. You never answered me. I’m convinced, like Jack, I am convinced, and like many other friends of Leo who I have talked to are convinced, that Joan is part of the problem. She is pulling him down, sapping his energy with all of her demands and incessant bickering, she’s sucking the life right out of him Paul. Can’t you see it?
I thought about it carefully for a few moments, trying to remember all of the times I had witnessed the two of them, Leo and Joan, exchange harsh words. I compared Leo’s former days of unrestrained hedonism and thrill seeking with his present impotence and muddled confusion over his future and I thought that perhaps Moe and Jack and everyone else advising Leo to get Joan out of his life was right. But then I remembered the sincerity in Joan’s eyes when she talked about her love for Leo, so I decided to defend her.
“True, she’s no longer the most beautiful woman at a party,” I said “But I think if Leo sets his mind to it he can still find some source of inspiration in Joan. Perhaps he can find some element of her nature, lets say her mature wisdom, to focus in on make that his muse. Maybe there is a sense of grace and experience about her which Leo can learn to appreciate.”
“That’s not the way its supposed to happen Paul,” Moe argued. “You are an artist, a writer, you know how it works Paul. We are like blind men when we chase after our muse. We can not follow her deliberately. We will never catch her that way. She must come to us and we must be drawn to her instinctively, before thought and intention pollute our passion with the science of bureaucratically planned creativity. We are artists Paul, not social workers or good Samaritans. Beauty is Paul. Beauty is. It is out there. We did not make it. It was there before us and will still be there after us. Our job is to capture it, freeze it in place so others can see, experience, enjoy it, and learn from it. We can not force beauty into being.”
“I hear you Moe. I agree with much of what you said. But can’t we be artists and yet still be humane? Joan was there with Leo every step of the way, from the time when he was a nobody seriously contemplating the life of a wedding and bar-mitzvah photographer all through his stupendous ascent to the heights of his fantastic success. Surely we can find a way for Leo to be creative again without inflicting great pain on Joan. Let’s not make her our scapegoat.”
“She does love me,” said Leo.
“She will get over it. She’s a strong woman and will find someone new. Right now she is stealing your essence. Anyone can see that.”
“I don’t know about that,” said Leo.
“Hear me out guys,” I said. “There are other ways to find inspiration for creative works. When I’m in need of some creative fire I always return to the classics. Perhaps Leo simply needs to read more, to study ideas, big ideas, eternal questions and dilemmas which have been the inspiration for great art throughout the centuries. He could read philosophy or poetry, drama, fiction, anything so long as it makes him think. Back in grad school at the University of Chicago we used to talk about the great books which we looked forward to wrestling with for the rest of our lives. Books you read half a dozen times and yet you still wrestle with them because they force you to come face to face with the most pressing eternal questions. What is truth? What is beauty? Are ethics possible? How should people live if they want to be truly human? Where do values and morality come from? Do we owe allegiance and obedience to our God or our will? If you read the great books you will wrestle with these questions Leo, and you will be like Jacob wrestling with God himself, and perhaps someplace near the end of the struggle which really never ends you will reach the promised land and in fact they will name that promised land after you.”
Moe was incredulous.
“That’s why you almost never publish Paul. That’s why you will always have such a hard time selling your fiction because you’ve got your head in the clouds. You think too much and feel too little. Your writing is highbrow and elitist. You’ve got nothing to say to the common man. Look at me Paul. Like you, I’m an artist. Unlike you I’ve been making six figures since I was 28 years old and I never went to any college or fancy art school. I’ve got a high school education. That’s it. Nothing more. If you want to be a great artist you’ve got to give the people what they want, and they don’t want your second hand sanctimonious hypocritical moralizing you plagiarize from all of those dusty old books you’ve always got your nose in Paul. You are an educated man Paul, that’s terrific. But did you ever think that perhaps most of the people out there in the world might not share your taste for hyper-profundity and books with cobwebs stuck in them. Give the people what they want Paul. That’s what Leo and I have always done, isn’t that right Leo?”
“The people want cotton candy,” I said. “Sugary, sweet, tasty and delicious, but without substance, reducible to a tiny clump of raw sugar if you squeeze it with your hands or mind. I want to give them something more than what they think they want. I want to give them what they need, something elevating and edifying.”
“Who knows best what the people want and need Paul, you or them?”
“I see what you are asking. You want me to admit that I think I know what is good for people better than they know themselves what is good for them. I won’t say that Moe. I’m an antiquarian. I revere all the old things and the old books. But I’m not an elitist. I suppose the people do know what they want.”
“Then give the people their deplorable cotton candy Paul. There’s a way to do that and still have a message. You might have to be a bit subversive about it, but you can still say something important and make your art appealing and pleasurable as well. Now I say we forget about your great books and talk about how we are going to give Leo here his due share of cotton candy, not to eat for himself, but for him to see and experience what truly thrills most men so he will understand again what it take to produce art that titillates the mass’s longing for gratifying stimulation of the senses. Why don’t the three of us finish our drinks and take a drive up to the Admiral on Lawrence in Albany Park? There Leo can see women as they were meant to be seen, with a minimum of clothing or preferably none at all. At the Admiral Leo will feel the pleasure and power of physical beauty. He will relearn the meaning of the word desire and feel the life force acting through us, and perhaps, just perhaps, something inside will click and his erotic passion and desire to create or recreate the beauty of the world will be reawakened. Let us go, all three of us to the Admiral where we will see first hand creation’s most perfect masterpieces, women whose beauty is pure and innocent in spite of the manner in which they employ it. They will be something to behold my friends, to observe and revere unashamedly and unreservedly, and we will gaze upon them and their splendor and feel every kind of emotion that beauty thrusts upon us, we will know that the essence of our existence is life itself coursing through us, driving us, moving us, impelling us toward what we long for, what we need, what we feel me must have for our own. That thing is beauty itself my boys, the form of creation as it is meant to be seen, to be tasted, savored, devoured over and over again until we are satiated and reduced to weakness, speechlessness, awe, wonder, childish amazement and in the end our bare and naked innocence and helplessness before what is above and superior to us. This can be a profoundly religious experience my boys to rival the midnight mass or the Days of Awe. You may see me break into tears of empathy for those poor exploited girls at the Admiral, and you will come to see how the way they are used and the manner in which they suffer only makes them more beautiful to gaze upon. You will fall in love a dozen times over again, though we need not talk about that. No we will not talk about how we feel. We will not talk at all at the Admiral because that will take us out of our trance-like state of beatific inspiration. This will be no time for words and opinions. In fact I say that as soon as we get there we all three of us take a vow of silence. We will just sit and watch what we will see and allow ourselves to be moved in the way we are meant to be moved. In the center of all of the filth and pain and loneliness of a second rate strip club we will be as clean, pure, innocent as newborn babes, and in the midst of so much darkness we will see the spark and fire of creation.”
I looked at Leo and saw him mulling over Moe’s proposal. His expression was one of absolute befuddlement all over again, and he started talking in that same confused manner I had heard when he called me asking bewildered questions about the GMAT and the graduate school application process.
“What about Joan? What do you think she would do to me if she found about this Moe?” Leo asked very quietly.
“Forget about Joan,” Moe barked. “You’re done with her. She is what you are finished with, not photography. You are not a hack Leo. You’re just whipped. You need to set yourself free from Joan. The Admiral is your emancipation Leo.”
Leo looked like he was thinking it over seriously. He finished his drink while Moe paid the bill and continued to wax philosophical about the strip club in Albany Park.
“Do you think I should go to the Admiral tonight Paul?” Leo asked me.
“You know how I feel about strip clubs,” I said. “I’m a married man. I try to find inspiration for my writing in what I’ve learned from the great writers, thinkers, and artists who came before us. Don’t think you’ll find much more than cheap thrills at the Admiral Leo. If you think cheap thrills will help you with your work then perhaps you should go there with Moe, I don’t know. I’m not the person to ask about this. You know I can’t go with you because I’ve got Suji at home.”
Moe stood up after he paid the bill and finished his drink smiling at me and left me with his final piece of advice for the evening.
“That’s you Paul. Always highbrow. Too good for the rest of us. Too good for a little fun. But don’t worry about it, that’s who you are meant to be. I think you better go home now Paul. Go home to your Suji and tell her Moe Kinesis admires her good fortune. The sooner you leave the sooner Leo and I can start working on his miracle cure. I know you won’t be offended Paul if I ask you to leave right now.
I did not know if I was offended or not, but I said I wasn’t even though I might have been, and I left the two of them there at the bar and I exited the Blind Muse and drove up north to Lincoln Square where my Korean was waiting for me just like I knew she would be. When I opened the door I was humming a Ray Charles tune I had heard on the NPR radio show Blues before Sunrise. I repeated the lyric as Suji came to greet me.
“Ain’t that love?” I said.
She looked a bit puzzled since she was unfamiliar with the Ray Charles song and was in general not fond of the Blues. She was wearing a Tweety Bird t-shirt and a pair of my boxer shorts.
“You want my love you give me yours,” she said.
I did my best to comply with her request and after we both had enough of that I sat up thinking while Tweety Bird slept beside me. I wondered how Leo felt when Joan slept next to him and I wondered whether Moe’s miracle cure could match it. I could not really see how it could, but then I am not the genius and successful artist that is Leo Schwartz. No, I’m not a genius. I’m just a guy who finds it impossible not to think too much. And I stayed up thinking about what that means until four in the morning.