Coffee Filters and Cryptography (Much Extended Version)

Coffee Filters and Cryptography (Much Extended Version)

A Story by E. L. Foley

Coffee filters with buildings sketched on them had been taped up all over the red brick walls of the apartment. The draft from the windows that wouldn't quite close fluttered them faintly, like soft giggling. When he was struck by the mood--visited by a muse, he liked to say--he had to draw, there were no two ways about it, and it didn't matter whether he had any paper in the house. And so the coffee filters.

He liked the slightly rough texture, the roundness, the pleats like a sunburst around each sketch. And when the muse came, he didn't need coffee anyway--it was power, like the caffeine from a thousand cups, coursing through his veins. His best work--all his work, in fact--was done during those flashes of inspiration. That's why he wouldn't let them medicate him. No point, if he'd lose the drive to make art, his livelihood.

Now, the muses were quiescent, and he paced the wide planked floors with nothing in particular on his mind.

He watched her, curled up in the blue velvet wing chair, watching him. They had met at that gallery that always smelled a bit like hummus at the opening of one of his shows a few weeks ago, and she had been in and out of his apartment, his bed, and his life since. Her eyes were astute, made him think of owls. The way her coppery hair rested against the curve of her cheek was perfect--he had drawn it over and over, on real paper. And she looked quite appealing in his Art Institute sweatshirt. Quite appealing indeed. The rumor of a smile was beginning to form on her narrow lips, and he knew where that was headed, or rather hoped he knew where that was headed. Back to bed.

But moments drifted past like cumulus clouds and still she said nothing, and so he shifted the path of his pacing closer. No reaction--she still followed him with her owl eyes.

There were numbers behind her eyes. He couldn't see them, but he knew. She worked like he did, when the muse came, but it was all equations. Pages and pages of equations--taped on the walls of her house, he had been delighted to find. Cryptography, something for the government. She was all puzzles and numbers and energy and he loved the way she watched him like he was another puzzle, someone to be decoded.

Her equations were beautiful, more beautiful than she was. When she spoke them, or wrote them out in that light, looping script, or described them in intimate detail, whispering their properties and usages into his ear as she lay next to him on crisp cotton sheets.

But she was leaving Washington tomorrow, going somewhere to meet with some military consultants. He would miss her and her numbers, and was starting to already, but didn't know how to ask. Didn't know quite what it was he wanted to ask. When she got back to D.C., would she call him? Would this, whatever it was between them, continue? He had never been particularly good at holding onto people, but this one, he wanted to keep around. Were they dating? He supposed that was the word. More appropriate than anything else.

And, more importantly, was she happy? She seemed to be, even when she wasn't caught in the delicate frenzy of calculation, but how can anyone be certain of anyone else's emotion?

“Pallas?” He broke the silence with his nickname for her.


“Do you know when you're getting back?” He was self-conscious, and his nervousness rippled through the air like perturbations on the surface of a pond.

“No, not yet,” her voice was quiet and steady, holding a hint of amusement.

“Will you call me when you come back?”

“As soon as I return,” she replied with a smile that seemed to softly fill her entire person. She stood gracefully, and took his hand, leading him to the bedroom.


Pallas slid out of bed as soon as the ghost of dawn light appeared. Still under the sheets, he squinted in the darkness to follow her movements as she gathered her clothing and dressed, feeling that somehow the shadows seemed deeper around her. He had meant to wake earlier, to listen to the subtle patterns of her breath and memorize her form, but sleep had held him fast, and not released until she awoke. Instead, his ears strained to catch the soft swish of fabric, and the dainty sound of buttons slipping into place. It was bittersweet--an affirmation that she would be leaving but reminiscent of the careful process of removing each garment. Perhaps to remember this better fit the mood of the morning.

Finally ready, she stood over him, looking down with a faintly bemused expression.

“It's time for me to go,” her voice was soft, as though she was afraid to disturb the sleeping world.


She stepped back as he stood. Pulling her close for a final kiss, he asked, “I will see you again, right?”

She laughed softly. “Yes. We can arrange to see each other as soon as I am settled back in town. It seems I have left quite an impression.”

He didn't quite know what to say to that, and so he simply nodded and led her to the door, exchanged goodbyes, and watched her walk down the hall.

For a few moments, he stood feeling displaced, but the natural progression of morning overtook the lingering emotion. A hot shower steaming up the small, blue-tiled bathroom while dissolute thoughts wafted upwards. The welcome embrace of a thick fluffy towel. Perfectly aligned buttons on a well-starched blue shirt, neatly tucked into gray wool slacks. The hunt for The Iliad and The Odyssey on the bookshelf, under the magazines on the glass coffee table, finally found on the bedside table and packed into the worn leather messenger bag. Trench coat pulled on, door locked, and he walked briskly out of his building to a bakery and coffee shop he frequented for breakfast.

A large red flower was painted, blooming, around the doorway, and white letters read Amaryllis. Stepping inside, he sat down at his usual table, in the corner by the window, where he could watch the people walk by.

“Good morning, Allan,” he was greeted by a pale waitress.

“Good morning--coffee and a blueberry danish, please.”

“Alrighty, just a minute.” Stepping over to the counter, a few swift motions and the danish sat appealingly on a yellow plate in front of him while steam curled up from the murky surface of a large mug of coffee. “What're you working on now?”

“The college commissioned a series of mythology-themed paintings. They're renovating the classics department.”

“That's exciting.” A nervous looking couple seated themselves on the other end of the bakery, and she began heading in their direction. “Well, enjoy your breakfast.”

Biting into the flaky pastry, he stared at his reflection in coffee, thinking about the mythology project. He hoped the muse would come soon. He needed the muse to come soon. He had been distracted, primarily with Pallas, and he recognized that that was his own fault, but the college would be wanting to see something soon, and he had nothing to show them. It wasn't entirely for lack of trying. He had read The Iliad and The Odyssey cover to cover in two weeks, and had plowed half way through The Aeneid. He had rented old movie versions of Aristophanes's plays, then walked around the city, imagining the people in Greek and Roman garb. He had bought new paints and canvas, making sure to take in the distinctive, inspiring scent of the art supply store. And yet all of this had failed to coax the muse into coming.

Alan watched a clump of suited people stride past, their briefcases swinging with the rhythm, and felt the pressure to work mount. Unable to sit anymore, he stood up and paid for his breakfast.

Stepping out into bright sunshine, he tried to let the warmth lighten his mood. Slipping on his headphones as he approached the bus stop, he ran through the track listing on his mp3 player and finally settled on “Spirit in the Sky.” Perhaps that would bring the muse upon him.

But the bus lumbered through congested city streets without being intercepted by inspiration. Staring at the blue seat-back in front of him, his thoughts slipped to Pallas--his Pallas--rather than the task at hand.

Had she landed yet? Was she still up there, somewhere in the air? Where was she going, really? Was she building a new code right now? When she was talking to him, it was almost as though he could understand what it was that she was saying. Did he sound like that, to her, when he rambled about why he painted what he did, what it meant?

The bus came to a halt in from of the National Academy of Sciences, and he walked down the green tree-lined street, then turned the corner onto 23rd. The concentration of tourists slowly increased as he progressed, though it wasn't peak season. And then, as he walked, it rose in front of him--the tall white walls and Greek revival columns of the Lincoln Memorial. He loved to watch the people who came to do their best Jimmy Stewart impression. If he waited long enough, he could find someone hunched by a column, talking about “long shadows” and words “carved in stone.” They were all Mr. Smith, come to vent their disillusionment at Washington--sincere or joking.

And there it was. An earnest young man wearing jeans with his collared shirt and tie staring up at the great bronze Lincoln soulfully. Fitfully, he paced the shallow white steps, deftly avoiding a clump of scarlet clad school children as if they were not there at all. Then, with the weight of the world upon his shoulders, he walked to the top of the steps and sat down ever so slightly leaning on the cool pillar. A redheaded girl came up to him and played Jean Arthur's part.

Smiling slightly, Allan watched. Though not close enough to hear the dialogue, he could see a fervor in this performance that most lacked. Watching their faces intently, it swelled within him that he had found Artemis and Apollo. He dug a slim digital camera out of his inner coat pocket, and discreetly zoomed in on the two figures talking animatedly. A few pictures, and it was ready. The images he would paint were forming in his mind--postures, light, clothing--and he dashed off to catch the next bus home.

The whole ride was the sweet agony of waiting; he sat with his eyes closed, holding onto the pictures in his mind while his feet tapped restlessly and hands mimicked brush strokes in anticipation. When his stop was reached, he shoved his way off the bus, heedless of the wake of umbrage and profanity he left behind, and ran the two blocks to his apartment with trench coat flying open behind him. He knew it, he could see it, he had to make it. Up the stairs, through his door, to the drafting table, ripping a half-used sheet off the top of pad, and he was into the sketches. Starting with Artemis drawing her bow, then Apollo reclining with a lyre, on and on the faces poured from his pencil.

Zeus reigned and Hades brooded. Poseidon bubbled mightily while an aquamarine sprite leaned against his shoulder. Aphrodite and Cupid sat talking to each other, sly knowing looks in their godly eyes. And finally there was Athena--Pallas Athena--with hints of his own in her face. Really, it was the owl eyes and the curve of the hair. The face was fiercer, beautiful in the austere way of wisdom, but somehow he found it impossible not to impart a piece of his recent beloved into this goddess.

The hours flew past, and he drew and redrew--six iterations and more--perfecting each line of the images. Page after page, only slight variations until each heavenly being had been distilled their essence.

Long shadows draped his apartment, and hunting through the tall walnut cabinet for paint brushes, he was forced to stop and turn on lights.

Pulling out the canvas, he began the first of the faces, Apollo, constantly consulting the final sketch so that his eyes were flicking back and forth like a tennis ball at Wimbledon. All thoughts of the lights in his room faded away as he became absorbed in the colors, the smooth glide of paint onto the tight-stretched fabric an the bright scent of acrylic rising around him. Layer and layer, and pacing the room's length a few times and back again for another layer and one more color and changing the curve of the eyebrow and just a bit more light on the eyes, pacing the room again, and another layer, and back again. Eventually, that seemed right, seemed good and so he began with Artemis and her bow. New colors, remixing more of the old to carry it through--they'd be hanging in the same rooms, after all--and staring at the sketch and altering just a bit and then layers of paint on the naked canvas and pacing once more.

His pace increased, crescendoing slowly as this second image neared completion and with his nice slacks covered in paint he realized he was starving, and so strode to the kitchen and grabbed a loaf of rye bread out of the refrigerator and brought it back into the studio. Pulling out a slice, he clamped it in his teeth as he replaced the twist-tie and then in four bites had it all swallowed before he picked up the brush again. Ignoring the accidental taste of acrylic, he began again, setting determination into Artemis' mouth as she aimed at her quarry, an unsuspecting doe. The softness of its fur was causing difficulties and so he tried again and then another layer on top of that, gave up and cast a shadow over the creature, hiding its texture in the shade of the edge of the forest. And then his hands were off and running again, lights in the sky and thickly mixing a new color--deep gold--and then pacing the room a few more times. Running fingers through his hair, unnoticed blue streaks left behind, hardening, and he finished Artemis.

Pacing the floor, and around into his bedroom, Allan stood for a moment staring down at the bed. He should sleep. He couldn't sleep. And there was the soft impression where she had lain. Thoughts scattered. He turned around and back into the studio.

Athena--he would paint Athena. And so he began--the outline of the face he knew, and the nose of someone else entirely, and the enigma set in the quirk of her lips. Bathed in light, surrounded by stacks of books, she sat so casually, and he mixed a few more colors, emptying the cyan tube, and then fishing in the cabinet for another. Back again and he stared at the sketch and shifted the position of her elbow and added another layer to the sweep of her hair. Pacing the floor, running his hands through his hair, his fingers got caught in the hardened paint. Thinking briefly that he should shower soon, he added another layer, and then began her lovely gray eyes. Their intensity caught him, and the pressure to keep going, finish this, mounted. She stared at him regally, all knowledge caught in the subtle swirl of slate and white of the bright iris and the depth of the black pupil. Backing up, and across the room, he sat on the low deacon's bench and returned her look. Just watching, thinking about whether he should change the eyebrows and somehow his leaden eyelids came down.

Sleep snuck up on him, and he passed out with this head leaned against the wall and legs splayed out in front of him. Even his dreams refused to remain still--running, catching Pallas, bus stops, and painting after painting.

Waking with a start, neck stiff from its awkward angle, and he began again. Another layer, pacing the floor, around again.

Three days passed in this fashion, passing out for a few hours here and there, finishing the rye bread and moving on to the slightly overripe peaches from the bowl on the counter and then leftover lasagna and endless cups of tea and finally dry Ramen noodles, and each god and goddess compelling him to finish. Empty tubes of paint piled up, his shirt and slacks were stained deep. His hands were entirely coated, and his entire person had acquired a layer of grime from forgetting to shower. Pacing, staring, painting, remembering to eat occasionally--the world drifted past unnoticed. The phone rang and was ignored. Mail was jambed into his box in the lobby and sat forlorn.

Poseidon, Hades, Zeus re-sketched and outlined and painted thickly layer on layer coalesced into existence and then Hermes came into his mind and was sketched and painted.

And then suddenly it was over. He had fallen curled up on the drop cloth in the corner and awoken empty. The muse had left and now he was alone.

Shuffling into the bathroom he stood at the mirror, looking at the wildly disheveled bloodshot man before him. Stripping off his caked clothing, he threw them directly into the trash. There was no point in trying to get the stains out. Stepping into the shower, it felt wonderful to be clean. Using heavy-duty pine-scented soap, he scrubbed off every speck of paint and washed away the sweat and unpleasantness of three days of frenzy.

Finally clean enough, Allan dressed in tailored jeans and a soft green t-shirt and wandered around his apartment, assessing the mess. There was paint on the floor, though not too much. His refrigerator handle was covered. The lamps and light switches had it. Peach pits festered unpleasantly in odd places. Bread crumbs sat in his chairs. Sighing, he decided to put that off for another few moments. He went downstairs and checked his mail, sorting it by importance as he walked up the pinkish terrazzo steps and then put them in the appropriate piles on his desk. He listened to his phone messages, and wrote out a list of whom he would have to call back. All of these concerns he would leave for tomorrow. Picking up the phone, he dialed the Chinese food place down the street. “Hello? Yes, I'd like the Moo Shu Pork, and Chicken Fried Rice, some of those Fried Pork Buns, two Egg Rolls, and an extra order of Steamed Rice...Right...The name is Defoe, Allan Defoe...That address is still correct. Thank you very much.”

He hung up and then dialed a second number. “Hey, Remy...So, I got the mythology project done and I'm back in the world now...Exactly--so will you help me clean up? It's about a level five mess. There's a very nice bottle of red wine burning a hole in my cabinet and...Sure...There's Chinese on the way too...Right, haven't really eaten in days. I'll see you in a bit then. Bye.”

Allan slowly walked to the window, then stood staring out of it thoughtfully. He still felt empty. It wasn't the depressive phase, just the sudden absence of all that energy, the muse. A bit numb in the aftermath. He had never quite gotten used to this. Shaking his head, he went into the kitchen and pulled two green plates out of the dark wood cabinets and then fished two sets of chop sticks from a drawer. He arranged the place settings identically on the stone counter, and added a pair of wine glasses and black cloth napkins. He stood looking off into space, wide eyed for a moment.

It was because of the empty feeling, more than the mess, that he called Remy. She understood the ebb and flow of the condition--they had met at a support group. She would help him fill up the empty space in his mind, just as he had for her so many times. Allan didn't think her husband liked that they were friends, would have preferred it if Remy didn't call him when things got tough for her. He needn't have worried.

A knock, and he went to answer the door. She had beaten the food there. She walked in, smile first and the calmly assessing dark eyes following slightly behind. In a faded T-shirt and slightly fraying jeans, she had come to work.


“Hey, the food isn't here yet, but it should be soon.”

“That's fine,” Remy walked in and picked up the wine bottle. Allan went into the bathroom and pulled Pine-Sol, rags, and a bucket out from under the sink. He knew that she was talking about the wine, the way she always did, but he didn't bother to listen. It was just a string of uninteresting words.

Coming back out, he could see her looking appraisingly at the paintings.

“Not your best, but they're very good.”

“I just hope the college likes them.”

“I'm surprised they didn't have students do it.”

“No studio art major. They have more of a humanities focus--hardly any art classes at all. And they probably want a 'name'. I'm popular right now.”

The both of them stood back and looked. Allan had not yet really given the final images thought.

Remy drew in a breath before speaking, “so, who's the girl?” A smile tugged at the left corner of her mouth.

“How did you know?”

“You haven't been in touch much lately.”

“Er, sorry...”

“And there are about twenty drawings of the same woman lying around your place.”


“And that one,” she gestured at the painting of Athena, “is better than the rest. And she looks an awful like the lady in the pencil sketches. I think that there's been a real flesh-and-blood muse around the place.”

“Yes.” He tried to remain impassive, but his face was moving into a soft expression of its own accord.

“It's been a long time since there was someone in the picture. Why didn't you tell me?”

“The last week I've been...focused. Not making any calls. You know.”

“Right, but I didn't think she'd have been around for this.” She spread her arms to encompass the chaos of paint that was his living room. “You met her before.”

Allan sat down in the walnut rocking chair and looked down at his hands.

“I'm not quite sure where she and I stand, is the thing.”

“Well have you--” a knock at the door, and Allan got up to answer. “Been dating her for long?”

“I met her--” opened the door, thanked and paid the delivery boy, “I met her at my show a couple of weeks ago.”

“And?” Remy poured them each a glass of wine while Allan piled pork on his plate.

“And she came home with me that night,” bite of food.

“You don't usually work that fast,” she was grinning at him. Sip of wine.

“I know. Exactly.”

“So what happened after that?” Remy heaped a bit of everything on her plate.

“She was around. I don't know--we spent a lot of time together. Slept together a lot. But I don't know if we're dating or what. That's why I haven't told anyone really. Not that there's many other people in my life to tell, but still. I don't know at what point I get introduced to her friends. If ever.”

Remy looked at him hard.


“She's not married, is she?”

“No, of course not.” He grabbed a pork bun.

“Have you been to her place?”

“Yeah. Plenty of times. She's got a house in Cathedral Heights. Nice place, lots of books.”

“Would you come by unannounced?”

“I did, once or twice.”

“And that didn't bother her?”

“No. Just said that I had to wait while she finished up some work.”

“What does she do?”

“She's a cryptographer. For the government.”

“Wait, crypts? Like graves or something?”

“No, codes.”

“So she's a spy?”


“You’re having an affair with a Washington egg-head? Mr. Artistic

Temperament?” She finished her wine, laughing.

“I don’t think I’d call it an affair. I don’t know what I’d call it, but not

'affair'.” He was indignant.

“Well I don’t know what it is either. But I just can’t picture you with

some nerd.”

“She’s not a nerd. She’s should hear her talk about her

work. It’s like...she’s excited and reverent and so confident. It’s beautiful.”

“If you say so,” Remy’s smile dimmed. “I just don’t want you to get hurt.”

“It's hard not to.”

“I know--you don't fall often, but when you do, you fall hard.”

The room was quiet for a moment.

“She's away right now on business. She said she'd call when she got back.”

“When she does, I want to meet her.”


They ate the rest of their meal in silence.

© 2010 E. L. Foley

Author's Note

E. L. Foley
This story doesn't seem to want to end. Thought it was done before, then added almost ten pages, and it still doesn't have a satisfactory conclusion--I'm sorry about that.
There's also a section where I slipped into something rather like stream-of-consciousness, but it's a third person narration. Does it work at all?

My Review

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I love the scenario and characters you've created. The interaction between them is very real and has an intimate feeling to it. Also, I just love the way you describe things, especially in the first scene and later on when you bring the woman into the picture.

My only complaint is that this feels like it needs more. Maybe it's just because I have an affinity for classic plot structure, but I believe a greater sense of conflict could make the story more dynamic. For instance, you mention the medication thing in passing, then just drop it. It would be kind of interesting to see you work your character's mental disorder into the central conflict, when seems to be that of losing "Pallas".

This review was written for a previous version of this writing

Posted 13 Years Ago

This is very nice...I like it a lot. In my opinion, it's an excellent piece of writing, short though it be. Long ago, before I had enough income to supply me with plenty of drawing paper, I also would draw on whatever kind of paper I could find.

This review was written for a previous version of this writing

Posted 13 Years Ago

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2 Reviews
Added on June 10, 2010
Last Updated on July 20, 2010
Tags: Art, Math, Love, Coffee Filters, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Bipolar Disorder
Previous Versions


E. L. Foley
E. L. Foley

It Depends

Currently studying Physics, my other pursuits are largely done in the time stolen from lab reports, badly botched circuit building, and endless problems. I knit, write (obviously, though I'm not very.. more..

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