Dr. Seuss is my Muse

By Ann Philipp

My fingers are poised over my computer keys waiting for a spark of inspiration. Dr. Seuss is sitting behind me; I know he’s there because the room smells like ham.

“Go away,” I say. “I’m working on names.”

“But you called me here, I don’t come unbidden.”

“Fine. I’m unbiddening you. Now go away.”

“Unbiddening is not a word,” he retorts.

“I’m surprised you of all people would make that point.”

I turn and tilt my head down to peer at him over my reading glasses. He’s appeared to me as his cartoon-cat persona. If he were a real cat he’d be called a tuxedo: black with a white chest and face. He wears white gloves, a tall red and white striped stovepipe hat and a red bowtie. His whiskers appear to move independently of his face.

“But I always help you with names,” he says confidently.

“I know, and that’s the problem. You’re the one who gave me Sally in the alley with McNally.”

He raises one eyebrow, “And?” he asks.

“It’s distracting. Rhyming names are distracting. People’s names aren’t supposed to rhyme.”

“But I’ve come up with some of the best names around.”

“Yes, for children, but not for adults.”

“You’ve used me before.”

“Yes,” I admit. “Yes, I did. You gave me Dashina and Lafina, for my children’s story. But do you see any dancing fairies in this novel?” I gesture to my computer screen. “Do you see any frogs wearing goggles?” I ask. “No, this is serious writing. A murder mystery set in San Francisco.”

He sighs and shakes his head. “Your antagonist is having a staring contest with a Pomeranian. I don’t see that as very serious.”

“Haven’t you ever heard of comedic relief?” I throw up my hands, “Isn’t it obvious? It’s there to relieve the tension.”

“Okay, okay, I get it. But why don’t you give me a chance? I’m already here.”

“Oh, all right.” I give in, tiring from the banter. I lean back in my chair and close my eyes, expecting a wait.

“McElligot, Mooney, McMonkey, McBean, McGurkus,” he fires the names out in rapid succession.

I pop open my eyes and turn to him, “Do you know what the word plagiarism means?”

His gives me an angry stare.

“Besides, the only human name in there is Mooney,” I continue. “And you know I have a friend whose maiden name is Mooney, so I won’t use that.”

“Okay, here’s a good one. Mrs. McCave—you know, the one who had 23 sons and named them all Dave?!”

I cross my arms in irritation and shake my head.

“How about Horton?”

“Horton was an elephant,” I say, my patience coming to an end. “Now look, this is very kind of you to help me, but you can’t be my muse today, so please go back to my subconscious and send someone else.” I face my computer, my fingers returning to their position on the keyboard.

He leans back in my Queen Anne chair, the one I use for meditations. I can still see him out of the corner of my eye, and he looks pensive. My rhyming dictionary spontaneously flings itself off the bookcase and onto the floor.

“Knock it off Dr. Seuss. Your parlor tricks do not impress me.”

He is silent.

Well, I may not be impressed, but I am desperate. I pick up the book and read the front cover, “Edited by Clement Wood. Hmm, too southern. Revised by Ronald Bogus. Bogus! Well I’m not using Bogus as a name, no one would believe that. And I’ve already got Ronnie in my mystery.” The name Laurel is written across the bottom edge of the book, I tap my finger on it holding it up so he can see. “And I’m already using Laurel in my screenplay,” I point out.

“Well, that’s the trouble,” he states with conviction. “You keep switching genres, maybe if you were more focused.”

I clench my fist. I want to knock that silly hat off his head.

“I need names, Dr. Seuss, not criticism.”

He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a cigar and a lighter.

“Hey, this is a no smoking household. You want to smoke go outside.”

“Stephen King’s muse smokes.”

“Well, maybe the two of you can get together for a game of Texas Hold ‘em, or whatever you muses do during your off hours, and you can light up your stogie then.”

Again, he is silent.

Realizing that my efforts are going nowhere, I sigh in frustration. Maybe some fresh air and yard work will help. Pulling weeds always clears my head. I love the symbolism—getting rid of the bad ideas to make room for the good ones.

My visitor’s eyes squint at me as I cross the room. Hoping he’ll leave me in peace I slip outside and go to the shed. I pull on my green suede gardening gloves, grab my tools and head out into the yard.

I need new names, I think to myself as I drive my weed puller into the black adobe soil. I tug at the…at the…damn it, what are these things called? Geez, first I can’t come up with any good proper nouns, now I can’t even come up with a basic noun.

“Dandelion,” I hear behind me.

“Dandelion!” I say, holding the weed up triumphantly in the air and shaking the dirt off its roots.

Okay, I’m on a roll now. Well, that’s a lie, but even false encouragement can prime the pump of creativity.

“What’s a good name for a female cop of Irish decent?” I ask the next weed. “McFarland, MacCaffe, MacJaffee.”

A worm flops on the ground in front of me like a fish out of water. I drop it in a hole and cover it with dirt and some mulch.

“McWormy,” I say, sitting back on my heels. Oh boy, am I in trouble!

I hear shuffling behind me.

“Go back to my subconscious, Dr. Seuss,” I say loudly. “I want someone else today.”

“Like who?”

“I don’t know, send Mark Twain, he always had good names.”

“What if he’s busy?”

“Well, try my unconscious, maybe we can pull a name from one of my previous lives.”

“Oh, no, I am not going into your unconscious. That’s a suicide mission.”

“Chicken,” I say, looking over my shoulder to judge his response.

Ignoring my insult he continues: “But there’s always the collective unconscious.”

“Oh no, don’t go there, I’ll end up getting sued for plagiarism for sure. And don’t be asking Stephen King’s muse for ideas either, or I’ll end up with cars named Christine.”

“Wait a minute, back up. What’s this about being sued for plagiarism?” He comes around into view; his tail whipping from side to side. “What’s really going on here?”

I stab my weed puller down into the dirt and stand up to face him. He towers over me so I have to look up. His hat defies the laws of gravity as it extends horizontally over my head. I take off my gloves in what I hope is a dramatic gesture.

“Okay, I’ll tell you what’s going on here,” I say, waving my gloves in his face. “The name McNally is already being used! Yep, that’s right, I found out that little tidbit of information digging through a bag of paperback books at my aunt’s house. Couldn’t you have clued me in a little bit earlier, like before I’d told the name to everyone? Aren’t you supposed to know things like that?”

“Look, missy,” he leans down so close I can smell his ham breath. “I had everyone and their brother complaining about your names. How many hints do I have to give you? Plus, do you have any idea what strings I had to pull to get those books into your aunt’s house? What favors I now owe?” He straightens up and points to a corner of the yard. “I’ve got to come up with three limericks by Friday for a fairy poetry slam.”

My eyes follow the path of his outstretched arm. Under the magnolia tree I notice a hole that appears to be freshly dug. It’s shaped like a mini-amphitheater.

“At least,” he continues, pulling my attention back, “you found out before you sent it off to an agent! Now wouldn’t that have been embarrassing?”

I cross my arms in front of me. Damn it, I hate it when someone else is right. I pull my gloves back on in indignation, refusing to acknowledge his efforts.

“Fine! Ingrate!” he shouts. “I’ll send someone else. Maybe Barbara Kingsolver is available, since you’ve been so gaga over her lately!” He walks off, disappearing behind the shed.

I look up dreamily into the light blue sky, “Ah, Barbara Kingsolver, now there’s a woman who understands the power of a name.”

A soft rustling tickles my ears, just like a whisper. I turn, and a tall beautiful woman with short dark hair smiles at me. A monarch butterfly perches on her shoulder.

“I’m not really who you want,” she says. “This is who you want,” she fades away quickly and in her place appears someone who looks just like me.

The woman steps forward smiling, taking off her gardening gloves at the exact same time I take off mine. We extend hands to shake.

“Hi, I hear we’ve got some work to do,” she says to me.

“Yes,” I smile. “Yes, indeed.”

As we walk back to the house I ask her, “What do you think about the name O’Brien?”

She shakes her head no, “Unfortunately, it’s being used, but don’t worry. We’ll come up with something.”