A Portrait of the Artist as a Performing Monkey

A Short Story

“Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee,” muttered Gabriel Green, rummaging in his pocket for his cell phone.

“Gabe!” boomed the voice on the other end of the line. “Hello, hello, hello! This is your friendly neighborhood agent.”

“Good morning, Phil,” replied Gabriel, holding the phone several inches from his ear and looking around the café to see whether anyone else was bothered by the noise. “What do you want?”

“Vampires, Gabe, vampires!”

“If you’re looking for an introduction, I can’t help you,” said Gabriel, and sipped his coffee. “I don’t know any vampires.”

Raucous laughter rang from the phone’s speakers. “Ah, Gabe, you’re such a wit. No wonder you’re my favorite author. Are you working on a manuscript?”

“Yes, I’ve begun a novel—”

“Drop it and write me a book about vampires. Gabe, what was that noise? Did you choke?”

“That,” said Gabriel, “was the sound of your favorite author scoffing at you.”

“Vampires are hot right now,” said the voice on the phone. “We’ve got to build up your author cred. Vampires will do the trick—no publisher can resist a juicy vampire novel. You’re choking again, Gabe.”

“Scoffing,” corrected Gabriel. “Phil, explain to me exactly how a shoddy vampire novel will build up my literary credibility.”

“Your stuff is great, but it’s all niche,” said the voice on the phone, as though explaining to a toddler. “We’ve got to expand your platform. People read vampires. You write vampires. Bam! We’ve got magic. Anything you write about vampires will be a hit, or my name’s not Phil Lector.”

Gabe, realizing sips were no longer adequate, gulped his coffee. “Tell me, Phil. After writing this vampire novel, can I get back to my current manuscript?”

“Absolutely,” replied the voice on the phone.

“Fine,” said Gabriel, and swigged his coffee with the violent, jerking motion generally associated with men slugging vodka from small glasses. “You’ll get a vampire novel.”

“One teensy detail I forgot to mention,” said the voice on the phone. “I’ll need a chapter to show publishers as proof of concept. I want to see Chapter One of your novel on my desk by Tuesday morning.”

“Next Tuesday?”

“This Tuesday.”

Gabriel, who was swallowing the last of his coffee, choked.

“Don’t scoff at me, Gabe.”

“I was choking, Phil. Do you realize tomorrow is this Tuesday? I can’t write an entire chapter in one day.”

“Good luck,” said the voice on the phone, followed by a click ending the connection.

Ten minutes later, the proprietor of the café found Gabriel Green staring desolately into his coffee cup.

“You don’t look so good, pal,” he said. “Anything I can get for you?”

“Coffee,” rasped Gabriel. “Just leave the pot on the table.”

By evening, Gabriel Green had read seven encyclopedia articles about vampires, taken three walks in the park, drunk seventeen cups of coffee and written zero words. Deciding it was time for a break, he went to the kitchen to brew more coffee.

“I’m a performing monkey,” he told the coffeemaker.

The coffeemaker made no reply, except to gurgle softly as the coffee brewed.

“When my agent says, ‘Write a vampire story,’ I drench my pen in blood and write a vampire story. When my agent says, ‘Hold a book signing,’ I set up a table and hold a book signing. When my agent says, ‘Dance a polka,’ do you know what I do?”

The coffeemaker growled.

“That’s exactly right,” said Gabriel. “I dance a blasted polka. A performing monkey is exactly what I am. I need more coffee. Are you done?”

The coffeemaker, which was not done, growled again and hissed at him.

An impatient man would have raged at the appliance. Gabriel Green, being a man of mild temper, merely glowered at it until the coffee was ready.

Returning to his chair with the coffeepot, Gabriel sat down and tapped his desk with an irregular rhythm like the beating of a worn-out heart. A blank notebook page lay before him.

“Theirs not to make reply,” he mumbled. “Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die. Into the valley of Death rode the six hundred.”

With that, he stopped tapping, picked up a pen and wrote It at the top of the page.

A minute passed, and the tapping resumed. Gabriel’s face was as empty as the page on the desk before him.

“It what?” he asked. “It was a dark and stormy night? Clichéd. It is well with my soul? Not particularly true tonight. It is a truth universally acknowledged—merciful God, no. Come on, Gabriel. What about it?”

Apart from the tapping, there was complete silence in Gabriel’s apartment. An ardent believer in creating the right mood for writing, he had switched off all the lights except the lamp over his desk. A moth dancing around the bulb sent a vast shadow swooping about the bedroom, but he failed to notice. His attention was riveted on two little letters.

It took three more cups of coffee, but Gabriel finally succeeded in picking up his pen and writing is.

“It is,” he said, and repeated the phrase several times. “What is it? What in the blazes is it?”

Gabriel pulled out another sheet of paper and doodled stick figures fighting with rapiers. The figure of a princess with a flowing gown watched the duel, clutching her blank face with stick hands. A blazing sun appeared over the scene. Hills sprang up in the background.

As he drew a knight riding to the rescue on a stick horse, Gabriel remembered the words It is and felt a fresh wave of panic.

“I’ve never had writer’s block,” he mused, crumpling his drawing and hurling it across the bedroom. “It was always a problem that affected other people and left me alone, like cancer or car accidents.”

The crumpled drawing ricocheted off the far wall and landed on the bed where it lay like a pale, pathetic, papery cabbage.

Gabriel sat back in his chair and rubbed his temples. “What’s wrong with me? Gabriel Green doesn’t get writer’s block. No real writer gets writer’s block. Do performing monkeys get writer’s block?”

An hour passed, and he returned to the kitchen to make another pot of coffee.

“Twenty-two cups,” he informed the coffeemaker. “A record.”

The page lay upon his desk with its two solitary words. They leaped out at Gabriel like an accusation as he sat down and picked up his pen. A cataract of words began to pour through his mind, but none of them completed the phrase he had begun.

An appropriate word occurred to him at last. He scribbled it, signed the page and went to bed.

Phil Lector came into his office on Tuesday morning to find a single notebook page in his inbox. Puzzled, he picked it up and read it.

It is impossible. Gabriel Green.

Author’s Note:

My grandfather told me that James Thurber, the famous humorist, once sat down to write something under pressure. He jotted down The and then stared at the paper for a long time, trying to think of more words to write. At last, unable to think of anything, he scribbled a curse word and went to bed.

Apart from Thurber’s influence, this story demonstrates my love of coffee, loathing of shoddy vampire fiction and discontent with the publishing industry, which too often values marketability over good writing.

Thanks for reading!

6 thoughts on “A Portrait of the Artist as a Performing Monkey

  1. I think Gabriel’s writer’s block has rubbed off on me, because now I’m having a hard time putting my love for this story into words. 🙂 I guess all I can say is great job! I haven’t gotten a new book in quite a while, so this was really refreshing. The simplicity of it combined with the depth makes it especially so.

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