Harley, Aggie and the Bitch
Harley, Aggie and the Bitch
by Harry Buschman
"You remember how it was with us, Aggie, don't you? We'd look at each other, one look and we'd know what each of us wanted – and what did we do next. How easy it all was for us." I reached over and took her hand. "We'd roll over, take a breath and we'd be eager to go again.”
I lowered my eyes and traced the lines in the palm of her hand. “That's how it used to be with the bitch and me. Back then I could start a book with the first sentence. I can't put a coherent sentence together any more."
She lay back and looked up at the sky. Her voice was low. "I loved you then, Harley, and I love you now. Relax. We've got two weeks ahead of us. There's plenty of time."
It was my second paid vacation this summer – It was convenient for Harpers to get me out of their hair, even pay me an advance if they had to. It was harder for them to look me in the eye and tell me why the book wouldn’t sell and why wasn’t I getting the damn thing over and done with.
But we can't complain about the weather. This time of year up here in the mountains all you hear is the wind in the trees. the kids are back in school, and half the bungalows on this side of the lake are empty. I can sit out here on the porch all afternoon and write 'til my fingers are stiff. The way they used to be – there was no stopping me then. I'd take a deep breath and my fingers would try to catch up with the words in my head. Aggie would come out and say, "Give it a rest, Harley. You'll wear yourself out!"
I look over at her now. I've been a strain on her lately and I hate myself for it. But most of all I hate the bitch for walking out on me. It's been harder for Aggie than it's been for me. There's a fine network of lines around her eyes – I'm so sorry – I reach for her hand again.
"Want to go some place for supper, Aggie?"
She turns her head toward me, "If you want to Harley."
"I thought maybe you'd like to, that's all."
"We have fresh corn from the farm. You could do a steak. Steak – corn – and I'll make a salad. How does that sound?"
She wants to eat here, just the two of us. We're going back to the city in two weeks and she wants us to be together as long as possible. I do too. Once we get back to the city it will start all over again.
So I shuck the corn and leave the green leaves out back for the raccoons, then I start up the barbecue. It's windy and the coals catch quickly. I see a hawk eying me from a crotch in a tree downwind of the smoke, I know what's on his mind. If I were to go inside for a moment the steaks would be gone when I came back. He keeps moving from one tree to another. I've learned his technique over the summer – he will change position while my attention is occupied elsewhere and I'll lose track of him. Out of sight, out of mind. My guard will go down and if I'm careless there will be a rush of air and a beating of wings, and our supper will be gone. He knows I'm watching him and he's infuriated because I stand between him and the steaks. Once they're on the fire, he loses interest. He is not a gourmet, he likes his meat raw.
"The steaks are just right, Harley. You could make a living cooking steaks."
"A better living than I make as a writer."
"That's not what I meant, you know that. You're a renaissance man, you do everything well. Like the wine, only a renaissance man would think of a Montrechat with barbecued steak."
"It's all we had left." I take the remains of our dinner and scatter it on the shore of the lake. It will be gone before dark. If the hawk doesn't carry it away the raccoons will. I'm afraid we have brought the curse of civilization here and I wonder what these creatures will eat when we’re gone.
I've put it off as long as I can. It's time to see if it's going to be one of those bad nights again. I sit down in the spare room and go over my notes, then I read what I wrote yesterday. It's too precious – there's too much lace in it. The orchestration smothers the melody, and the setting outshines the stone. That’s what I mean. But it says what I wrote, and who knows – maybe that’s what I wanted to say. I turn around to see if the bitch is behind me. She is – for a while at least. She tells me to get moving, she'll stay here until I run dry.
I close my eyes and see the men again. It's late summer and the road is dusty and dry. The leaves are starting to fall and the men are marching uphill and into the wind. They're marching in cadence and the gray-brown Italian dust trails after them. I hear the metallic jingle of equipment, occasional coarse laughter and the creaking of leather. That's where I left the story yesterday – bitch, where do I go from here?
"What lies ahead of them? What do they see?"
Just ahead of them lies the wooden bridge and beyond that, the green foothills and the distant naked spine of the sierra. Anyone can see the battle will be fought up there, somewhere between the foothills and the mountains. The enemy holds the high ground and he will call the shots.
There is a tired moan when the men see the hills ahead of them. They've been dragging the caisson and the howitzers behind them all day. Surely the major will let them rest after they cross the bridge.
Major Joplin turns and marches backward facing the men. "Company! ... rout step - MARCH!" Immediately the men break into a ragged walk to interrupt their rhythmic cadence on the bridge. Some of them unsling their rifles to ease their shoulders and they look longingly at the cool grassy bank on the far side for a likely spot to spend the night.
The picture is so clear to me. It is as though I am with them again. So far, so good, bitch – stay with me an hour longer!
I go back inside to check on Aggie. She's reading in bed and listening to the CD player with her earphones on. This wonderful woman! So patient, so deserving of a better man.
"I'm fine, dear. How you doing?" She asks the old question tentatively.
"So far, so good. The bitch is still with me. I'm going to give it another hour or so."
"Fall out! Stack arms! Smoke 'em if y'got em'!" The men sit by the side of the river – don't they, bitch? Some of them take off their shoes and cool their feet in the swift running stream – upriver some of them ease their canteens into the water and fill them. The light is fading now and the cook starts the Coleman for coffee. Major Joplin walks along the bank of the river and talks to his men in groups of two and three, like Henry the fifth before Agincourt. They're done in. He can see that. He calls the captain aside and suggests they'll bed down here for the night and go on to the railroad spur in the morning. The captain doesn't like it. It doesn't sound good to him. He doesn't know why he doesn't like it, but he questions the wisdom of crossing the bridge if only to pitch camp on the other side, with the river behind them.
He is about to voice his objection when the yellow flashes of gunfire erupt from the foothills ahead of them – the sound is like firecrackers, isn't it bitch? Something like the string of one-inchers we used to throw at passing cars on the Fourth of July. Then comes the "cr-r-ummp" of mortars and the sharp "blatt-blatt" of field artillery. Flares burst overhead and the frightened soldiers mill about in the glare looking for their shoes and socks. The captain shouts into the bewildered face of the major, "You never fight a battle with a river behind you – you – fucking idiot!" Above the roar of the shelling he shouts to his disorganized men, "Get back across the bridge! Leave everything! Run for the bridge!"
How many men did we leave on that grassy bank, bitch? About a third of them, right? Almost 80 men. Dead and dying barefoot men. Then the gun fire followed us back across the bridge, hurrying us along – kicking up dust behind us. Looking back we could see what looked like piles of clothing left behind in the fading light. Some of it moved, some of it did not. Then, finally, in the quiet there was the God-awful sound of men crying in pain, fear and frustration. In war, crying is the saddest sound of all to hear.
"That was the way it was, bitch. That's the way I remember it. What do I do now? Where do I go from here, where am I? Bitch – don't leave me here alone! Where the hell are you when I need you?"
I know she's had enough, but I turn around to make sure. She's through with me for the night. Where does she go when she's done with me? I want to ask her how the story's going, but she keeps her opinions to herself – no feedback. You never know until the rejections come back. It's too late then. You sit and wonder, "Maybe if I'd done it this way. That way. Maybe. Maybe."
Well that's enough for tonight, war is hell sure enough. There is no excuse for the butchery of war, the impersonal slaughter of stockyard cattle. But writing about war is worse than hell. It brings it home to you, if you've lived it. I pull the cover over the typewriter and turn out the light.
It's been a warm day for September, but there's a chill in the air this evening. Down at the edge of the lake I can see a deer drinking. The moon is rising and across the face of it I see an endless line of geese. No wonder Aggie loves it here. She would be happy to stay on the shore of this lake all winter with the moose and the bears, sleighing into town once a week for the mail and the papers. She's a country girl at heart, and constant as the tick of time. Not like the bitch! Painted smile, she'll drop you like a hot potato the minute you lose it.
I remember the first book, the novel. "A new voice!" "A rich promise for the future." "An astounding achievement for one so young." "A depth of understanding and an economy of language recalling the best of Hemingway and Faulkner." How easy it is to remember the words of praise. No thought, regardless of its complexity was beyond my power to put into words. The bitch hung on my arm like a hooker and she'd laugh and cry at everything I said.
The second book went slower, so slow in fact that I started the third before I finished the second. Then I caught the bitch blowing on some other guy's dice.
"Aggie, you're still awake."
"I wanted to finish this. I hate taking half-read books back to the city. Are you okay?" That's the gentle way she has of asking me how the writing went.
"Got through the battle, Aggie. That's the easy part. The hard part is what to do with the losers. The bitch will help me. She knows all about losers."
I wash up quickly and get into the striped nightgown Aggie bought for me in town. The bed is cold on my side and I grunge up close to her to share her warmth. We huddle together and watch the September moon climb higher. The trees are thinner now and the light in the bedroom is nearly as bright as day.
"Here," she says, "put these on." She opens the drawer of the bedside table and pulls out a pair of eyeshades.
We sleep so well together, like two spoons in the silver drawer, or as close as pages in a book (There I go with the lace work again!). We breathe at the same time and turn at the same time. I've often wondered how Siamese twins must sleep and I'm sure they sleep no closer than Aggie and me. There is one major difference, she wakes earlier than I do, and this morning is no exception.
"Harley, do you know what time it is?"
"2 a.m. Go back to sleep it's pitch dark."
"Take off your eyeshades. The sun is up bright and clear. It's 7:30."
"I don't have eyeshades on."
"You do. You look like you're playing pin the tail on the donkey."
I push the eyeshades up, the sunlight is bouncing off the rippling surface of the lake and the ceiling quivers like yellow fire. The birds are making a God awful racket. I let one arm creep out from under the covers to test the temperature.
"It must be forty degrees in here! We'll die if we get out of bed!"
Without a word of warning, she gets up, pulls the covers off me and runs into the bathroom. There is nothing for it but to start the day. I find my slippers and the leather coat I wear outdoors. I can see my breath as I head for the kitchen where I turn on all four gas burners and the oven. Aggie enters fully dressed wanting to know where her breakfast is, and like everything else, we do it together.
"I'll finish the book by the end of the week, Aggie."
"Then it's back to the city I guess. A final draft on the word processor and over to Harpers. It's called 'The Bridge' by the way. We should really begin calling it by its Christian name. It'll be the fourth, Aggie, God be with us." As though by magic, the toast popped up and the water kettle whistled. We both said "Amen!"
"You've got no reason to worry. You sent the first six chapters to Harpers two months ago, they loved it. didn't they?"
"You can't be too careful, Aggie. When a publisher says he loves the beginning it means he expects the ending will be an improvement."
By Friday night the first full draft was done. There was a lot of "xxxx's" and stuck on paragraphs, but all the words were there. With the bitch's help, I got myself through the court martial, the 'old-boy' cover up of Major Joplin and his final suicide in the Commissioned Officer's barracks in Naples. Everything was in its place. Neat and tidy.
Aggie packed all week. We stuffed all the left-over staples in plastic bags and stored them in the cupboards for the October hunters. The leftover edibles were spread around outside for our four legged friends. By Saturday morning there was nothing to do but go.
It is a gray day, a good kind of day to be leaving a place you remember with affection. It occurs to me as I back out of the driveway that I haven't left this bungalow in a month. Aggie's been running in and out of town for food and mail, and as we roll through its quiet main street I can't remember having been here since we arrived.
"I'm ashamed to say it, Aggie, but I feel like a stranger here. Is that the Post Office?"
"Yes, it's the Town Hall too. Over there is Peavey's hardware where I got the mouse traps, and we're passing Oldheimer's General Store." She rolls her window down and shouts, "Morning Lennie!"
She turns to me, "Lennie's the only plumber in town, he's the one who snaked out our john." She rolls the window back up again. "I like it here, Harley, it's the first time I've felt at home in a place since we've been married." She looks away quickly... "I could live here, know what I mean?"
"Tell you what, Aggie. If "The Bridge" works out, there's no reason we can't find a place up here." The promise sounds hollow to me and I suspect Aggie thinks so too.
"You want me to be honest with you, Harley?"
She settles herself diagonally between the back of the seat and the door so she can see my expression as she talks.
"You're not a great writer, Harley. You know that don't you?"
"Don't get me wrong, you're good – sometimes you're very good, but you're not a great writer. There's only a handful of great writers. "The Bridge" may put us on easy street for a while and it'll make a bundle for Harpers. But you're going to have to be there to make it happen. If you were a great writer you could write anywhere in the world. The world would come to you wherever you were."
"You're telling me something I already know, Aggie. I'm not that great. I'm as good as I'll ever be, but not as good as that – I'm not as good as I would like to be."
"I love you, Harley. I love you as a husband. You're the only husband I will ever have, the only one I will ever want, but I know your limitations just as I know my own." She turns in her seat to face forward, "I wonder... "
"What do you wonder, Aggie?"
"If it was the other way around, I mean." She takes a deep breath and seems to be searching for the right words. "I've always had to share you with that bitch of yours, you know?"
"Not really, Aggie."
"Oh yes! Maybe she's only in your head, but when she's with you I have to wait. I have to wait until she's through with you." She looks down at the map folded in her lap. "You stay on this road 'til exit 32, then it's a clear shot to I-95."
"What did you mean about the other way around?"
"Oh, nothing. It just came to me how you might feel if I was the one with the talent, that's all. How would it be for you, Harley – suppose I had a bastard instead of you having a bitch – suppose you had to wait in bed until he was done with me? She reaches over and touches the side of my face. "You didn't shave, did you?"
"That's another thing, Harley. The bitch doesn't care, but I do."