Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Phoebe Writes A Novel. 1. Spring in Gold Strike

The first day of spring dawned in Gold Strike, California. The oleander gleamed, the pines sparkled, and the mighty eucalyptus perfumed the clean, crisp air. A brilliant sun shone over the Gold Country and a blue sky surmounted the activities of muses and mortals alike. For the hundred miles between the state capital and Platinum Lake, every available squirrel stopped for a second to usher in spring with a prayer for peanuts.

In Phoebe Barlow's house on Pistachio Street, all was quiet. Thirteen-year-old Phoebe's parents had already left for work, her mom to Roosevelt Hospital, where she was a bioethicist, her dad to Evergreen College of Arts and Ideas, where he taught classes in interdisciplinary creativity. Her sister Anastasia was off to university. Her brother Thomas was away in Iceland, playing new music with a band of wild Scandinavians. Lexington, Listerine, Hoot, and Minerva, the Barlow's cats, were around, but they were a pampered bunch and only broke the silence when their food dish plummeted to half-empty.

Usually some muses were also about, but they too made no noise. The house could be full of them--Harold Spider, Monica Butterfly, Melanie Caterpillar, Adam Snail, Myrtle Mouse, and more--and you wouldn't have a clue. Melanie Caterpillar might be lounging in your potted geranium, Harold Spider might have burrowed deep in among your books, and as far as you knew your house was tidy and muse-free. Muses were even quieter than indoor cats, which made them about the quietest creatures in nature.

And if you actually needed a muse!--well, then they became downright invisible. There might be a lizard muse right behind your bowl of vegetable soup, a whole troop of them holding a meeting in the tunnel of your rolled-up poster, and, since you needed one, since you had no idea what to write for your science paper on fulcrums and levers, you could train your strongest magnifying glass on every corner of your house and not spot a trace of a muse, not a web, not a wing, not a footprint. Phoebe understood why most people skipped creating, the invisibility of muses-when-you-needed-them being what it was.

"Muses!" Phoebe thought. "They are not nearly as romantic as people make them out to be."

Phoebe had six classes in eighth grade--math, science, history, English, French and P. E.--a free period, which twice a week she filled with Lincoln Middle School's Freethinkers' Club--and lunch. Next for her would be Wilson High School and a good state college. But in her heart of hearts she dreamed of going to Presidio High School, the special high school for gifted students in the capital, and then directly to Paris and the Sorbonne.

She had already decided not to live on either the Left Bank or the Right Bank but instead on the island in between, where Notre Dame and several excellent ice cream stands could be found. From there she would hop right or left according to her mood, right to the Picasso Museum and the bird markets, left to the book stalls, the Rodin museum, and, well, school. In her mind, Phoebe had frequent encounters with her cruel concierge, who always complained and criticized. "No painting allowed in your room!" she would cry at Phoebe's passing figure. Or "Good girls never wear that shade of red!" Phoebe was thrilled to have a cruel concierge in her future.

Phoebe wondered if Paris got snow. Gold Strike definitely got snow. Even with spring arriving, you couldn't be sure that a snowstorm wouldn't materialize out of a clear blue sky. The highest Sierras were snow-capped year round and Gold Strike was only three thousand feet below the Donner summit, where legendary tragedies occurred in the days of wagon trains and pioneer settlers.

Phoebe got together her math homework for Mrs. Knievel, her history homework for Mr. Teasdale, her English homework for Mrs. Edison, her science homework for Mr. Soo, and her French homework for Miss Labelle. As she picked up her French homework she revealed Harold Spider.

"Good morning," Phoebe said.

"Morning," Harold Spider said, stretching. "What beautiful light! Quite Alpine."

"Only 48 more days of school, Harold. The eighth grade takes forever!"

"Wait until your junior year of high school."

"Thank you very much!"

"Sorry," Harold Spider apologized. "But college is quite nice. Particle accelerators and classes that don't start until eleven in the morning."

"I will certainly have no need for a particle accelerator," Phoebe replied crossly. "I mean, don't particles travel fast enough on their own?"

"Good point," Harold Spider agreed. "Though I'm not much of a physicist muse."

"Are there physicist muses?"

"Of course. Where there are physicists."

"So what kind of muse are you? Because that would tell me what sort of artist you muses suppose me to be. Wouldn't it now?"

"My dear, that is a bit of secret. Excuse me while I hunt up a fly."

Phoebe shrugged. It was the kind of answer you expected from muses. In her own mind she supposed that she would become a writer, or maybe a writer and a visual artist (children's books sprang to mind), or maybe something she couldn't visualize, a rasferatu or a krangwingbu, something that didn't even exist yet, a new kind of artist. After all, the traditional roles were so stale: painting images on rectangular panels for hanging on walls, writing arch short stories for literary magazines that nobody read, hopping around half-naked in music videos for screaming teens. No, even if new genre public artists were doing things that were strange and downright silly, like making ice sculptures and photographing them while they melted, or creating arty upscale shopping carts for the homeless, at least they were trying to break free from the conventional, the tired, the moribund.

Lost in thought, Phoebe filled up her backpack, made herself some cinnamon-apple instant oatmeal, and ate her cereal by the window nook with its view of the wild back garden that no one tended.

"But the novel isn't dead," she heard herself say. "At least, I hope not! Because I do want to write my novel about an all-girl rock-and-roll band stranded on a desert island. I am looking forward to writing that novel and I would HATE to think that I might write a fine novel whose only problem is that novels are old hat!"

It was time to leave for school. Phoebe had to switch her mind to conjugating French verbs. "Je suis, tu es, il est, elle est," she began, in that sing-song way known to all conjugators of French verbs. She had a French quiz, probably a pop science quiz, and who knew what other indignities waiting for her at school. "Can I survive until Paris and the Sorbonne?" she groaned, letting herself out and shutting the front door behind her.

A bright morning sun shone down on Gold Strike. Phoebe passed one nut street after another: Peanut, Walnut, Pecan, Macadamia. She passed the High Country Diner, Miss Alma's School of Dance, the All Things Golden antique store, the Sutter's Mill real estate office, and the Gold Strike Collective ceramic studio. The High Country Diner was already full of tourists who had spent the night in Gold Strike and gotten up early, their appetites whetted by the mountain air and the beautiful spring morning. Now it could rightly be called a beautiful spring morning, Phoebe reckoned, since spring had officially arrived. That made her think of the naming and dividing of things, like years into seasons, which made her think of Vivaldi ...

"Paris!" she cried spontaneously. Then, mustering every ounce of will power, she returned to her conjugation. "Je suis, tu es, il est, elle est ... " Finally Abraham Lincoln Middle School appeared. Phoebe picked up her pace, suddenly in a rush to get another day of eighth grade behind her.

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