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C.T. Ballentine

In part 4 of this serialized novella, the philosopher-cum-TV writer finds himself moored in suburbia, circumstances which prove less bane than blessing... But the search for a muse continues.

Crammed into a minuscule chair, Friedrich Nietzsche's shadow loomed large over the Dooley Elementary School Private Library, where he sat, frustrated -- rubbing a palm over his stubble-soaked chin, seeking to wrangle a song from his brain, capture it on paper. A growing pile of failure crowded the wastebasket and surrounding patch of threadbare carpet in the form of crumpled notebook-paper balls. Fried smoked. Finding no ashtrays nearby, he dug a mostly empty milk carton from amidst unsatisfactory efforts, figuring that would get the job done.

Willy and Billy, two nine-year-olds in the middle of ignoring an introductory lecture concerning the traits of prehistoric man, were speaking of each other's mothers.

"Hey, Willy. Your ma works at the dumb bitch factory."

"Nuh-uh. She's a scientist."

"She study bitchology?"

"Does not. She plays with doggies all day long so she can find the cure for AIDS. She told me."

"Bet she gave them dogs AIDS herself, with that infected old cooter of hers."

"You're mean, Billy."

"Yeah. But at least my mom don't have AIDS."

"Hey Billy, look at that guy over there."

"What guy?"

"That old guy. Is he smoking?"

"He looks like the janitor."

"His nose is pretty red. Maybe he's sick."

"Bet he got sick after he had sex with your mom."

"Leave me alone, Billy."

The two boys slapped at each other's chest -- Billy, a seasoned bully, easily gaining the upper hand, sending frail and bookish Willy and his chair tumbling straight to the ground -- all while Fried struggled over a not-too-subtle take on an old Chuck Berry number.

Madeline, why can't you be true?
Oh Madeline, why can't you be true?
You done started doing those things you used to do.

Fried crumpled the sheet into his sweaty palms, realizing he hadn't the slightest notion of what departed Madeline used to do. He's known her only a short while.

Scowling, Willy recalled the words of his mother -- one day bullies like Billy would be working for him, and he should remember that. He pointed out to his future employee that the strange old man appeared to be singing to himself.

"These new janitors they've been hiring sure are weird," Billy answered.

Maybe Billy will be a janitor, thought Willy, picturing an oafish Billy in clumsy, dilapidated middle age, scrubbing up unseemly crud, while Willy, proud, suited and lean walked by, tsk-tsking, pointing out a few spots he'd missed. Willy laughed.

"What are you laughing at?"


"Damn straight."

Fried had been sent to write, yes, but it was the writing of cartoons, not songs, for which he'd been hired.

Never mind the wishes of bespectacled business bores. Theirs is a singular mind which relishes the crutch of banal necessity, seeing not out into the periphery. The minds of true genius spread roots far and wide into lovely waters of human understanding, drawing up only what is essential, filtering the murky mud into something radiant and beautiful, something which might absorb the sun. We grow willy-nilly, busting through sidewalk cracks in manners unpredictable, even to ourselves. Imagine that they could truly control growth with the borax of good intentions. Not likely. I have grown resistant, strong. My stalk is huge and thick.

Fried was bitter with the men who'd hired him. They'd greeted what he thought to be a life-changingly brilliant Power Point presentation regarding the revival of the long dormant Flintstones cartoon series with sure-why-not shrugs.

Insufficiently awed.

Fried caught sight of the husky young boy, Willy -- gut protruding from his tattered black sweater, caked in playground scuzz, a pug bully scowl 'neath his sloped forehead -- approaching him with fists locked hard at his side. "No smoking in here, you dope."

Fried blew a fresh cloud into the kid's face. "Buzz off, brat, I've got work to do."

Unfazed, the husky boy guffawed, "Some work. What you doin', working for the paper ball factory or something?"

Fried threw the crumpled Chuck Berry rip-off into the boy's face.

"Man, I'm gonna pound you if you're not careful!" The bully's eyes remained hard, but there was an apprehension in his posture -- after all, even the most accomplished bullies are not used to fighting withered 50-year-old men. Who knows what tricks they have up their sleeves?

Fried, confident in his ability to beat up a nine-year-old boy, or boys, set his mind to wander, but first baring his rotten teeth to the subsequently horrified child, letting loose a whisky growl. Willy ran away.

Fried's thoughts turned to his own mother, a crazy old bat he'd left behind in rural Missouri. Growing up, she'd outshined many a back-hills redneck, donning pristine lab coats, dispensing prescription arthritis meds to farmers who'd likely been old and creaky-boned since they were born. But like most women she was made of weak stock, alone most of the time, Fried's father having disappeared from a German military post to do Lord knows what many years prior. Subscribing to the "if you can't beat 'em might as well join 'em" philosophy, she began spending more and more time in front of the television set, obsessing over the travails of daytime families, loudly damning their wayward ways in an empty living room, chasing ill-begotten stashes of Valium with full boxes of discount white wine. "It's just that it's so hard," she'd told an adolescent Fried, "to make friends around here. Who can I relate to? Name one person you know in this awful town who reads medical journals, or Scientific American. I need something to talk to these people about, sweetie, find some way to fit in."

"But mama," he'd said, "We could always move, find a bigger city where there are more people like you."

"Like me..." she laughed, pulling from her plastic cup of wine. "Friedrich, sweetie, it's important to have a home. And this, whether we like it or not, this is our home."

There was but one single piece of advice Fried could remember from his father, the long departed Army captain, told to him when he was five or maybe six years old. "All women, son, I don't care how smart or stable or lovely they might seem at first, all women will eventually find themselves bat-shit crazy."

It took little more than a glance at the state of his mother's home, the dilapidating paint of the house's exterior, the moldy cigarette reek of its insides and the growing assortment of ill-functioning appliances decorating the postage-stamp backyard for Fried to apprehend the wisdom in the mysterious man's words.

He wrote this on a fresh sheet of notebook paper: "I hate women x24"

Possibilities sing like the infinite choirs whose vocal chords will melt into gold with this truest of songs spilling from their heart, swagger-hipped garage punks, a daringly dressed black with soul to spare, caffeine-throated open-mic hipsters, held in each other's grip across the globe, filling all emotions into the three-word essence of art's true soul: I hate women. Unreal beauty.

Satisfied, Fried began work, filling the voices of the soon-to-be-revived modern stone-age family.

Somewhat later than might have been expected, a librarian in her late 20s, hair knotted haphazardly into a bun on which a pair of reading glasses perched, walked cautiously over to the knee-high, bright orange table where Fried sat amongst tattered piles of notebook paper.

"Sir, you obviously can not be smoking in here."

"Right, sure," he answered, his face still set on the notebook, "Sorry about that." His still smoldering butt he dropped into the milk cartoon, a small trail of smoke drifting from its mouth, growing over time, increasing in blackness.

"Sir," the librarian repeated in a tone no doubt practiced on unruly children, "You've quite obviously set this milk carton on fire. Please put it out."

Fried gave the carton, now burst into baby flames, a perplexed glance, as if he had no idea from where it might have come. He looked up at the librarian, finger balanced just so on the bridge of his nose as if pushing down an imaginary pair of bifocals. "Well, have you got a fire extinguisher?"

Frustrated, the librarian dumped Fried's paper balls onto the ground around his feet, nudging the burning cardboard into the metal basket, huffing out of the room, to the amused attention of an entire second-grade class. Presently, empty and wet waste basket in hand, she approached Fried's table, pulling the notebook out from under his nose.

She sang to him in a whisper, the hoarse lyrics dripping with urgency, like milk falling fresh from the udder. There was no form, Fried noticed, but a melody lurking somewhere under there, a glorious gem of a melody trying its dead level best to make itself known but coming up short every time. Swaying with the breeze of the air-conditioning, Fried was transfixed, missing more or less all of the words, but feeling quite certain that he had ascertained some degree of cosmic connection between their two souls.

This woman is hopelessly in love with me.

The words "What has made you think you might possibly belong here" came into his ears, but he saw beyond all that to her true meaning.

I want you so desperately.

"This is a place where young children have every right to feel safe and secure so that they might learn."

All of my life, I have lived in offering for you.

"I will have to call the police if you do not leave immediately."

You are the last hope I have. Without you I will never again believe in love.

Fried decided he had had enough of women, of their false loves, the rose-petal beginnings that morphed into rotten whining demands. No matter how hard she begged and pleaded he would resist this sultry librarian.

"Listen, lady. Do you know who I am? Have you any idea? A very important writer, am I, with these words, dwelling in the fertile crescent of my brain, these words, spilt out onto the paper before me; they will come to fill the lexicons of pathetic youths more so than any dullard books you attempt to shove down their throats. You think you, with your simple, loving, down on the city/prairie aesthetic, your tired old cardigan, your hopeful, craned neck, you think that you are these children's teacher? You are nothing but a manifestation of the hope they will learn to be hogwash in no time flat. They will spend their early 20s desperate to drink all that you stand for from their minds. Your misplaced ideals! Your flimsy, flabbergast hope! What a crock! I teach the harsh ways of an unforgiving world. I teach of scrapes that cannot be overcome with mere peroxide and bandage. I am the ever-pouring rain of truth, a rain of fire come down to drench all heads!"

"My God! You're blind stinking drunk, too!"

Fried thought for a moment. He wasn't that drunk.

"What would you know of it foul temptress?"

"I'm calling the police."

Fried grabbed at her wrist. "Wait," he said. She struggled for a moment, then turned. Fried dropped her wrist and they locked eyes.

"I write for the cartoons, my child. The cartoons. Our parents. The ones that raise us when no one else will, don't you see?" He motioned to the singed and crumpled mess around him. "Would you put a stop to my glorious parade?"

Being chased from the sidewalk, feeling the ropy bruises already swelling up on his arms from two none too friendly beat cops, Fried decided he was right.

There's no place for women in this world.