View or add comments on this story
My days seem endless, yet the time left to me flies by with ever increasing
speed and I sense an impatience in me that I find hard to control. I am
reminded of an old theory which permits one to halve the distance to a goal
ad infinitum. I practiced it when I was a child. Those were the days -
almost but not quite? To never get to the math exam, to the dentist, to hold
off the inevitable forever!
It seems to me my vision has tunneled and I am blind to the beauties that
grow by the side of the road. I'm sure it's a mental condition, not a
physical one. As I look back on the closing circle of my years, 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
narrow scales of my experience, and like almost every old man I know, I am
convinced that life is not as good and brave and honorable as it used to be.
There is no Churchill, no Roosevelt, no Einstein. I pick these heroes out of
the rag bag of my experience, (leaving Hitler and Jack the Ripper inside of
course) and I persuade myself that life is going downhill... 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 whatever talent I
still retain is 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, and 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 haven't got forever." For the life of me, I can't think of
another reason how Wolfgang and Felix - yes, and 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
gratifying that I am seduced and inclined to linger as long as I can. Even
now it's hard to let go, even when I'm just a shell of myself. 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 on
the far side of forty and the sand ran out of the glass. She stuck it out for
three years waiting for me to emerge from my funk. Then... well I don't
blame her, Ed Hazlitt was moribund - stick a fork in him, he's done. 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 dust 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 as I walked the streets of Greenwich Village I would feel
the electric hand of inspiration running up and down my spine! I would jump
several inches 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, back away
clutching their purses and 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, sit at his feet and hang upon 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 rather 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 scattered
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 up 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 wished 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; regular as the
clock they cranked out a 250 page mystery every month. It always amazed me
that no matter how involved 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
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
"Ridge, Ms. Braintree."
"Whatever, Mr. Hazlitt. The important thing is we remembered 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. Then she said in a plaintive voice, "Have you had lunch, Mr.
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 and downs."
"Where are we going Ms. Braintree?" We were making good time up Bleeker
Street but I had no idea where we were headed.
"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
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 more in command of things and 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 the 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 brass
cuspidor over 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, smiled appreciatively and tossed it
"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 that I could skip dinner. He looked
questioningly at Ms. Braintree.
"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,
"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 no good 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, for instance 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
light 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 had enough strength left
in me to close the book - that the game was not worth the playing any more.
I withdrew my hand from hers and said, "You reach a time, Margaret - a time
and an ending. You can narrow the distance by half just so long. Finally
there is no knife so sharp that it can come between you and the end."
View or add comments on this story
Back to top
Back to list of stories