For the Soul of Edward Dean Hazlitt
by Harry Buschman
My days are endless and yet the time seems to fly by with ever increasing speed. I sense an impatience in me that I find hard to control. I am reminded of an old theory which permits a person to halve the distance to a goal ad infinitum. I practiced it when I was a boy. Almost but not quite? To never get to the math exam, to the dentist, to hold off the inevitable forever!
My vision has tunneled and I am blind to the beauties that grow by the side of the road. It’s a mental condition, not a physical one. As I look back on the closing circle of my days, I find my capacity for accepting anything new has dwindled to the vanishing point – halving itself day by day so to speak. I weigh the events of today on the unreliable scales of my experience, and like almost every old man I know, I am convinced that life is not as good or brave or honorable as it used to be. There is no Churchill, no Roosevelt, no Einstein. I choose these heroes out of the rag bag of my experience, (leaving Hitler and Jack the Ripper inside of course).
I would give anything to start over!
My writing goes slowly. It is labored and ponderous now. It doesn't spill spontaneously from the tip of the pen as it once did, and the little talent I still have is only a tinted likeness of what it used to be. I resurrect familiar characters rather than create new ones, and it’s almost beyond the limit of my concentration to motivate and guide them through the tangled web of plot. I lose interest in them through no fault of their own. Writer’s block has become a chronic disease, and it’s a rare day when I can say anything meaningful.
I would sell my soul to write again!
I think a long life might work for some, but few people in the arts have been productive in the twilight of their years. Old age would have tarnished the image of Mozart or Mendelssohn – they lived a lifetime in thirty odd years. What would thirty more have given them? Would they have reached greater heights? I doubt it. Is it possible they knew from the beginning they had to get it done in their first thirty years? Did they hear a voice within them saying, “Get cracking Wolfgang, move it Felix, you can’t halve the distance forever – you don’t have forever.” For the life of me, I can’t think of another reason why Wolfgang and Felix – yes, and old Edward Dean Hazlitt got as much done as they did in so little time.
I should be satisfied. I’ve done enough ... yet life is so sweet, success so intoxicating that I am seduced and inclined to linger as long as I can. I feel something may yet happen to bring it all back again. There are miracles every day, are there not? When you least expect it, something wonderful may happen.
To her credit my wife gave up on me long ago. Took off like a rocket when it became evident that the force was no longer with me. She enjoyed herself while it lasted though, receptions, cocktail parties, television interviews ... “How does it feel to be the wife of a Pulitzer Prize author, Ms. Hazlitt?” ... “Do you like the travel, the hotel life, the three page spread in Time ... it must be so exciting.” Then suddenly we were both over forty and the sand ran out of our glass. She stuck it out for three years waiting for me to emerge from my funk. But Ed Hazlitt was moribund – she stuck a fork in him, and he was done. I got a card from her just a few weeks ago. From Cannes. “How’ya doing, Eddie?” it said. A rhetorical question no doubt – one she knew the answer to without asking. It was signed with her maiden name.
How long have I sat here? In this room, at this typewriter, with chapter one still unfinished and gathering fly shit on the table beside me – as stale as last week’s newspaper? Hanging on to life like a barnacle. I can recall a time not so very long ago, I walked the streets of Greenwich Village and I would feel the electric hand of inspiration running up and down my spine! I would jump in the air as though I’d been goosed. I would shout and shiver in my bones like a man possessed. Women would stare at me, they’d back away clutching their purses ... looking about them in dismay. Now everything is quiet and there is no one to pause as they pass my house and say ... “This is where Hazlitt lives! A man who’s seen it all, a man to stop and listen to! Let us go in. Let us go in and sit at his feet and hang on his every word.” No! They will say, “Somebody clear this rubbish out of here, how can we make any progress with this old fart standing in the way!”
This afternoon, while in this frame of mind, I put on my old gray jacket with the corduroy patches on the elbows and went out for a long walk – the full length of Bleeker Street all the way down to Barrow. On the corner was a new natural food store. (They spring up like dandelions in the Village) As I stood in front of the homeopathic medicines and herbal elixirs, I was ready to try any and all of them if they promised to cure my creative sterility. There was Chamomile and Devil’s Claw, they were anti rheumatics – of no use to me. There was Fever Few for migraine and Garlic for cholesterol. I shook my head. My problems were rooted elsewhere, even Ginseng was not for me. “Hmmm, Saint John’s Wort. Good for depression! Well now, that’s more like it,” I thought. “I’ve got depression running out of my ears.”
“You’ve got to be Edward Dean Hazlitt! I’d know those soulful eyes anywhere!” A round woman of uncertain age was standing behind me with both hands to her cheeks, a gray alligator bag, slung from one chubby arm swung wildly and scattered a display of vitamin bottles. They rattled noisily down the aisle and the other customers, intent in their search for homeopathic remedies, raised their eyes and stared at us.
A voice came from the ceiling. “Roosevelt, we have a spill in aisle three.” The woman picked her way carefully across the aisle and stood in front of me. “Oh, dear me – look what I’ve done! But I couldn’t help it, could I?” Her brows knitted. “You are Edward Dean Hazlitt aren’t you? ... I mean, I’d be the biggest fool if you’re not.”
I thought it best to acknowledge it with a nod, then make a hasty retreat. It wasn’t the only nature food store in the neighborhood. “Yes Ma’am, Ed Hazlitt – the Edward Dean is for book covers.”
“Thank Heaven, Mr. Hazlitt. I must confess I thought you were dead.” Her eyes drifted ceilingward and she brought her hands together in a prayerful gesture. “You were my favorite, Mr. Hazlitt. Let me see ... ‘The Lady of Acorn Ridge’ and, what was that other one again, ‘Shoes of Iron’ – that’s my favorite I think. When Father Anselmo finds the letter from – who was it again ...”?
She had it all wrong ... but I made no move to correct her. Father Anselmo was in ‘The Turquoise Buddha’. She went on and on. Meanwhile, Roosevelt arrived to pick up the vitamin bottles, the woman seemed to be oblivious of everything but me.
Then she became aware of Roosevelt squatting at her side filling a basket with vitamin bottles; she sobered a bit and pouted as she peered over her glasses at me ... “Why aren’t you writing any more?” She must have read my reaction, because she stopped her pouting and introduced herself, “Lordy, where are my manners?” Her hands fluttered up to her face again and she said, “I’m Margaret Braintree.” She extended her hand as though she wanted me to kiss it. I took it and shook it instead. The name rang a bell – a small bell, more of a tinkle than a bell. “I must be getting senile ma’am – you said your name is Braintree, didn’t you?”
“Yes, Mr. Hazlitt. Braintree. It’s my maiden name. My husband used it too, bless his black heart,” She sniffed disdainfully. “The little bastard ran out on me after the sixtieth book. “Charles and Margaret Braintree – don’t tell me you’ve forgotten the Braintrees?”
It came in a rush! The mystery twins! Back in the thirties ... or was it the twenties. “Mystery of the Month.” For four or five years, as regular as the clock they cranked out a 250 page mystery every month. It always amazed me that no matter how elaborate the mystery was, it would be solved in 250 pages, give or take a few. I suddenly realized I was still shaking her hand as though it was a well pump that had gone dry ... “Margaret Braintree! I haven’t been myself, really I should have remembered you instantly ... let’s see ... “The Pool Table Murders,” The ... The ... “The Case of the Heebie Jeebies.” A moist and happy light came into her eyes. They welled up to overflowing.
She fished in her alligator bag for a tissue, and not finding one, rubbed her nose on the back of her white glove. “Heebie Jeebies, yes – it was “The Heebie Jeebie Affair” by the way, and “The Pool Shark Murders” – it doesn’t matter, you remembered, just as I remembered “The Lady of Acorn Bridge.”
“Ridge, Ms. Braintree.”
“Whatever, Mr. Hazlitt. The important thing is we remember each other. Do you realize what a blessing that is to has-beens?” I handed her my handkerchief, thankful that I had brought a recently laundered one with me. She drew herself up to her full height, which brought her head up to the level of the St. John’s Wort display shelf and cleared her nose in my handkerchief and handed it back to me. Then she said in a plaintive voice, “Have you had lunch, Mr. Hazlitt?”
I quickly consulted my watch, pretending I had pressing engagements elsewhere, but when I saw her lips quiver, I shrugged and said, “Ms. Braintree I’d be delighted to have lunch, I have no appointments until this evening.” I didn’t want this to drag on too long – and I really didn’t feel like treating her to dinner.
I hadn’t had a lady on my arm in years especially one as animated as Margaret Braintree. She skipped along at my side taking two steps to my one, chattering incessantly. “Really, Mr. Hazlitt, I feel fate has stepped in to bring us together this afternoon – two over the hill Village writers. The things we’ve seen – the ups, the downs.”
“Where are we going Ms. Braintree?” We were making good time up Bleeker Street but I had no idea where we were going.
“Oh, I thought it was all decided.” She somehow arrested her forward motion but kept her feet moving. I have seen joggers do that while waiting for the light to change, but to my knowledge I’ve never seen an elderly woman marking time in the middle of the street. “You don’t mind The Firehouse, do you?”
“No, of course not,” I sighed. It was the place Poe hung out when he lived in the Village. It was more expensive than I liked, after all, I had just gone out for a walk and a look see at the natural food store. Lunch at The Firehouse begins at somewhere around nine A.M. and goes on ‘til six in the evening. I hoped Ms. Braintree was not intending to settle down there for the afternoon.
She marched in ahead of me, peeled off her gloves and suddenly appeared to grow taller. Her voice took on an authoritative tone ... “Louis! Good to see you again. The table in the corner if you please.” She turned slowly and placed her hand on my shoulder. “I’d like you to meet Louis, Mr. Hazlitt – isn’t he distinguished? A gentleman who just happens to be a waiter.”
“Good to meet you, Louis.”
She took her hand away, lowered her voice and turned back to Louis in confidence, “You must remember Edward Dean Hazlitt, Louis – a romance writer of rare sensitivity and taste. Forgotten and out of fashion I’m afraid, much like Margaret Braintree.” We made our way to the corner table, and before I could think of it, Louis took her coat and draped it carefully over his arm. “Please Louis, as quickly as you can – bourbon – double, and I needn’t remind you to keep them coming, do I?” She turned and smiled sweetly at me. “Please sit, Mr. Hazlitt. One waiter is enough – you look like a double Beefeater Martini with a twist, am I right?”
Heading off Louis, I held the chair for her and she sat down with an air of finality. She looked as though she might spend the day. The change in her was remarkable, it was as though we had left little Margaret Braintree outside in the street and someone – someone in the full flush of success had asked me to lunch.
“There’s something about The Firehouse,” she leaned back comfortably and said. “It isn’t just Edgar Allan Poe. Do you know, Mr. Hazlitt, Henry James sat in that very chair you’re sitting in? Theodore Dreiser used to sit over there by the kitchen door. Yes, and Mark Twain often spat in that same brass cuspidor there at the corner of the bar.”
“I had no idea, Ms. Braintree.”
Our drinks arrived and I sipped mine carefully, the first sip of a double Beefeater must be taken slowly and with respect, it is always a powerful experience. Ms. Braintree, on the other hand, held her Bourbon up to the light from the wrought iron chandelier above us, smiled appreciatively and tossed it down.
“Drinking together is a sign of trust, Mr. Hazlitt – I think I’ll call you Edward now?” Another bourbon arrived for Ms. Braintree, I had yet to take the second sip of my Martini. “Invigorating. For a person with a thirst like mine – nothing puts out the fire like 85 proof Kentucky Bourbon.” She upended the glass, smacked her lips and put down it with a flourish.
“I’m not much of a drinker, Ms ...”
“... Margaret – I’m not very hungry either. I think I’ll just have a sandwich.” Louis appeared out of nowhere and I ordered pastrami on rye – I figured it might be big enough so I could skip dinner. He looked questioningly at Ms. Braintree.
“ ... and madam?”
“Just another bourbon, Louis. I’m working this afternoon – must stay lean and mean you know.” She said this while keeping her eyes on me. “I seem to remember a Mrs. Hazlitt.”
“She’s in Cannes, Margaret – we’re living apart ... and your husband.”
“The little bastard is in Hollywood – doing dialogue for Warner Brothers.”
It was an uncomfortable moment, two confessions of marital failure and we avoided eye contact until she became animated again. “Do you still write, Edward?”
“I try, but it’s like pulling teeth – you know? I know all the rules, the forms – all the do’s and don’ts. But nothing comes. Remember the play “I Am A Camera?” Well, I am a word processor.”
“That’s tragic Edward, it’s degrading. It will make a eunuch of you. I had the same problem until I began eating here at the Firehouse.”
“You mean the ghosts of James and Twain?”
“No. Nothing of the sort. I met Johnny Monday”
“Who’s he?” My sandwich arrived along with another Bourbon for Margaret. This time she rolled her Bourbon glass between her thumb and forefinger, then took a tiny sip.
“Monday publications. Have you ever done, “As told to’s?”
“They’re phony auto-biographies. Illiterate politicians, basketball players, actresses. They write their auto-biographies, and on the cover it says,” she drew a picture of a book in the air, “My Life as a Daredevil” by Evel Knievel, with Ginger Lovechild. That’s me, Ginger Lovechild. Monday publishes these books by the dozen.”
“Like a collaborator ... not bad. Get to meet interesting people?”
“Of course not! That’s the best part,” Margaret smiled, “you don’t have to meet the idiots at all! Would you want to collaborate on a book with Evel Knievel? Of course you wouldn’t! Monday gives me voice tapes and I listen to the dimwits romanticize about the most important events in their lives ... like the day they learned to tie their shoes.” She reached across the table and tapped her knuckles on the back of my hand. “It’s a writer’s Social Security, Edward. People pay to read this stuff – pick a name – be an ‘as told to’.”
“It’s tempting Margaret, but I don’t know. What would Poe say?”
“You’re going to starve to death worrying about what Poe would say. Look – Edward ... none of us is pure, each of us carries a secret deep within us as dark as the bottom of a swamp.” She melted a bit and gave me the sweet old lady smile she used in the natural food store. “I’ve got more ‘as told to’s’ than I can handle. Edward.” She began counting on her fingers, “there’s Ngumbo Jumbo the basketball player, Trudy Goodshoes, Alison Shields ...”
I waved at Louis and made a writing motion with my hands. $38.75! Holy smokes! I never spend more than three bucks for a meal. I paid by card and tipped Louis six dollars. “I must be going, Margaret. Lots of luck with your ‘as told to’s, but it really isn’t for me.”
She looked as though she might cry. “Scruples! Oh, Edward – must you? Look at us, we have nothing. No Social Security, no pension – if we are to live in this world we must make our own way. He’ll be here any minute.”
“Who? Johnny Monday?”
“Yes. He’ll have something for you I’m sure.” She took my hand and held it hard. “He told me only last week he’s publishing a new cook book – ‘Living Low-Fat and Loving It’ – he needs somebody to pad out the recipes. It would be just right for you Edward.”
I looked down at her. She was still holding her Bourbon – her face was creased with lines as finely etched as a steel engraving, her eyes were wet with tears that I’m sure were shed more for herself than me. A faint aroma rose from her, a blend of Bourbon and Lily of the Valley. Her battleship gray hair, heavily lacquered and impervious to wind and rain reflected the candle-shaped light bulbs from the wrought iron chandelier. She was ashamed of herself and she couldn’t hold my gaze for more than a second. Her eyes drifted around the room, lingering momentarily on the unseen ghosts of Dreiser, Poe and Twain.
A wave of righteousness flowed over me and I knew I could gather enough strength in me to close the book at last – the game was not worth the playing any more. I withdrew my hand from hers and said, “You reach a time in your life, Margaret – a time and an ending. You can narrow the distance by half just so long. Finally there is no knife so keen that it can come between you and the ending.”
©Harry Buschman 2001