Years ago North American elk, or wapiti (Cervus canadensis), were hunted in the American west and Canada during the rut. For those innocents in the class that don’t know what the rut is, it’s that time of year when the bulls are humping the cows. The time of estrus when cow elk hormones are at their peak and bull elk are their stupidest. A mature bull of eight winters or so in his prime can manage a harem of eight to ten but it’s not easy. There are always wannabes trying to steal one or all members of his string, so the bulls fight to hang on to what they’ve acquired.
To announce his intentions a bull elk bugles. He raises his nose to the sky so his antlers almost touch or straddle his back, expands his chest and emits a long, shrill, piercing challenge song that echoes and reverberates through the high country. It’s a sound like no other in nature. It makes the hair stand on the back of your neck, something I try to do with my writing. Once you’ve heard it, it’s unforgettable. The bull is saying to one and all, cows and bulls alike, I’m the biggest, baddest stud in the forest and together we’ll make nice little elk babies… or; to the bulls, I’m gonna take away all you have and all you’ll ever have. Meet me in that high meadow and I’ll clean your plow. They’re easy to kill during the rut, or let’s say relatively easy to kill since no elk is easy to hunt, because men, always looking for an edge, make reed flutes that with practice can mimic the bull elk’s bugle. That was once considered the epitome of sport hunting – to bugle a bull into shooting range.
Over the years a great many magnificent bulls, six points per branch, the tips white and nearly translucent, were killed, mostly for sport since the meat of a bull shot during or towards the end of the rut is dry, malodorous and stringy. A spike bull or fat cow makes much better eating, as good as or better than any corn-fattened steer. Genetically these were the best breeding bulls, the ones least desirable to remove from the breeding gene pool. If thinning of the herds was necessary, and once all the wolves were shot out of the west, it was, then young males and cows should have been targeted, just as two-year old steers are sent to slaughter. Eventually, the clueless bureaucratic herd managers got religion and closed the elk-hunting season during the rut. That made hunting elk, always a difficult proposition even tougher, at least if a big six-pointer was the target of choice.
I’ve been on five pack trips with horses and mules into prime elk country in northeast Oregon, where the only way in or out was by horse or shank’s mare, and have seen exactly one bragging-size bull killed, and not by me. I write a little about these trips in my novels. I had tags and always packed a rifle but mostly I went to wrangle the stock. The bull that was killed; we rode more than five miles from camp and then climbed nearly three thousand vertical feet. Near the top my two compadres dismounted and I led their horses to a prearranged spot miles away while they hunted around the mountain on foot. I spent the day in the pick-up meadow, the horses grazing nearby, and towards late afternoon I heard a single shot. I gathered the horses and rode in the direction of the sound and found my pals with the bull. We butchered it on the spot and it took all three horses to carry the meat, hide and head back to camp. The only elk I’ve killed was a fat cow taken less than a mile from my home when I lived in Oregon’s Ochoco Mountains.
What does this discussion of elk hunting have to do with going down on women? My protagonist in Affirmative Action, Jonathan Tyne, is an oral guy. He believes the proper, frequent and extended use of lips and tongue is the best way to keep his woman from straying. It also makes her extravagantly responsive and demonstrative. He boasts to his inamorata, Catherine Duvall, that once he was with two women, one bi-sexual, and he bet her partner that if she were blindfolded she would not know who was licking her, him or her girl friend. The non-bi thought it was disgusting but her partner thought it would be a kick, so they did it, except the bi and Jonathan played a trick on the other girl. They agreed that only Jonathan would go down, twice. He had shaved very closely so beard rash was not an issue. Afterwards, the girl swore the second experience was her bi partner and better than any man, including him. She was furious when they told her what they had done but eventually saw the humor and admitted how much fun she’d had. She never became bi-sexual but she and Jonathan remained friends.
Where Catherine Duvall is concerned, Jonathan is like a bull elk during the rut. He repeatedly exposes himself to Russian and Italian hit men in order to stay close to Catherine. He knows it’s stupid, that he’s begging to get whacked but he can’t not try to stay close to her: (I know it’s a double negative; it’s intentional). He can no more abandon the unforgettable Catherine than stop breathing, although given the people trying to kill him, that outcome is a distinct possibility. Just like rutting bulls.
Here is some dialogue between them, hopefully, to stimulate a discussion of whether going down, expertly of course, will keep a woman from fooling around. Does Jonathan have his head up his ass? Do I? Enjoy, and please tell me what you think.
Jonathan is telling Catherine why he no longer fools around with married women…
He paused for a sip of cognac and she said, “Is it possible you were getting even for what happened to you?”
He stared at her for a moment. A rather perceptive remark, he thought, and then said, “Maybe. I’ve told myself Madeleine didn’t have sex with the new guy until after she informed me of her decision but that too is pretty naïve.”
“Sorry, I shouldn’t have interrupted you. Please continue.”
“So, sometime early in ’97, when I had this epiphany and finally got my shit together, I stopped getting it on with married women. From that point on I mostly added names to my address book. I didn’t stop playing the game and I won’t until I find Ms. Right but I no longer behave so self-destructively. Sooner or later someone I’m attracted to that is free to choose and wants an exclusive relationship will sit down at the piano to listen and life will be good again. And don’t take this the wrong way but tonight is the third time I’ve come back to Di Giorgio’s looking for you. I saw you for the first time last December. It was before you were performing because the piano wasn’t in its usual spot and the raised stage was still under construction. You were the hostess that night too and you seated me in a booth in the front dining room. I was able to watch you throughout dinner, for almost two hours. You were wearing a white silk blouse buttoned to the throat, black slacks and black pumps. You had your hair different then. It was done in this loose braid and then coiled on the back of your head and to say I was smitten is an understatement.”
“Sorry Michael, I don’t remember you. We get so many guests that…”
Tyne gestured with his hand, palm outward, waggling his fingers as he interrupted her. “I thought tonight, when we spoke in the reservations line you recognized me from last December… oh not my name but maybe my face… or perhaps the hair. I thought I saw something in your eyes. You know how you see someone for the first time, and your eyes meet, maybe by chance, and there’s something there, like maybe you two know something no one else knows… or you’ve seen each other before?”
“You don’t have to apologize, I quite understand,” finally feeling confident using his Ware pseudonym with this one would be okay.
“My, my, you have quite a memory… what I was wearing, even how I wore my hair.”
“My dear Catherine, you were… are, impossible to forget, especially in those slacks. You have an ass to die for. I’ve thought about your ass many times since then.”
“Do you always speak so… frankly?”
“Yes, pretty much; it saves a great deal of time.”
“You said this is the third time you stalked me. When were the other two times?”
“I’m not stalking you. I simply…”
“If it’s not stalking, what the hell do you call it? I don’t know you; perhaps you’re a serial rapist or an axe murderer?”
“That’s nonsense and you know it. You think Lydia would vouch for me if I weren’t a stand-up guy? I simply regretted not making more of an effort that first time to get to know you, at least make an attempt to see you again and I was looking for a ring and I can’t recall seeing one. I was here in March and also in June but if you were here I didn’t see you. But all that’s behind us now since you aren’t free to choose,” and to make his point unequivocal he touched her wedding ring. “Are you?”
She ignored the question and pulled her hand away. Instead she said, “So, is that your story; why someone who plays the piano as well as you do uses it in this childish way; to score piano groupies?”
“Is that what it is about me that gets under your skin? That I use the piano for sex?”
“That’s one of them, a big one.”
“You’re such an arrogant smartass and I don’t like smartasses.”
“Well kiddo, you’re not exactly a slouch in that department yourself.”
“So if I understand you correctly, you’re just looking for the next Mrs. Ware. Is that it?”
“I’m not looking for ownership, just exclusivity… for whatever time I have left.”
“You look healthy enough. Is there something wrong with you?”
“No, I’m in good health but life is fragile and shit happens.”
“Un-huh. Are we done?”
“Not quite. Recently I was discussing all this with someone…”
“That isn’t the way I thought about her but I suppose to you anyone I meet in a piano bar is a groupie. Think whatever you like. This was in California, my most recent trip and the real point of the evening was to celebrate the birthday of a man I’ve known and loved for more than twenty-five years. She wasn’t exactly my date but my friend’s wife was trying to be helpful and included her in the guest list. She made a point of introducing us. Her name is Isabel and when she joined me at the piano I could see the rings. I played… oh, at least a dozen pieces, mostly for the man, including some Elton John original compositions I learned as a birthday gift for him, but I also played one she requested and I played Alfie with harp augmentation for the first time in public.
“Did the woman know it was your friend’s birthday?”
That was the third time she’d interrupted him, he thought, as he gazed at her face, her eyes so striking as to threaten to make him lose his train of thought. If he spent any amount of time with this woman he was going to have to find a way to stop her from doing that. Of course, he’d interrupted her too. Perhaps they shared that trait in common, as he and Madeleine did; perceiving they knew where the thread of a conversation was going and jumping in to the consternation of the other party. After Madeleine and he had argued about it for the umpteenth time, he’d made a concerted effort, mostly successful, to rein in his own rude behavior. This woman seemed to bring out the worst in him.
He stared at her for a full minute with the trace of a smirk on his face, thinking; might as well get in a punch of my own since she’s been wailing on me. So he said, “You have this annoying habit of interrupting me.”
“You do it too.”
“Yes, I know I do. It’s a bad habit I’m trying to control. Maybe we could both work on it, that is, if we’re going to spend any amount of time together?”
“That remains to be seen but I’ll take it under advisement.”
Tyne studied her face for a moment, remembering what the waiter had said: that she wore the ring to keep the hound dogs at bay – wondering whether to believe him. Perhaps it was something else Charles hadn’t told him, that she really had remarried. Of course, if Antony and his squeeze Carla had it right, it was a lie. But, it wasn’t a bad lie; not a lie he couldn’t forgive, especially if he could get her to come clean, of her own accord, because she didn’t want to keep him at bay. He decided it was worth a try.
“You know, I’ve heard it said some couples fight, deliberately, because making up is so much fun. The sex is off the charts. I’m thinking we may be like that.”
“We’re not a couple.”
“Yet, what does yet mean?”
“We’re not a couple, yet.”
“I wouldn’t hold my breadth if I were you.”
“You look like you’re a fifteen-minute girl.”
“I’m almost afraid to ask but what’s a fifteen-minute girl?”
“A girl that craves sex every fifteen minutes.”
“That would take a platoon and I’m not into gangbangs.”
“Only takes one if he knows what he’s doing.”
“And you do?”
“Un-huh. Best is when a fifteen-minute girl hooks up with an oral guy, especially one that plays the harmonica. That’s why I know we’re going to be great pals. We’ll fight a lot, come close to killing each other, probably, but making up will be so good.”
“Is your wife a fifteen minute girl?”
“Whatever. Is she?”
“Ten, but she’s Spanish and Spanish women are the hottest women on the planet. Their body temperature’s even a degree or so warmer than the rest of us.”
“And she divorced you because you couldn’t keep up?”
“No, she divorced me because at that moment of existential crisis that all relationships eventually have, I failed her. What can I say; at times I can be pretty stupid… but the good news is I learned my lesson.”
Her eyes were not only striking, they flashed when she was angry. He could see she was working overtime to keep her anger in check. The danger, he knew, was that if she could control her anger she could control him. Hot and cold, fire and ice; a woman to make a man forget about all other women, he thought. “Yes, of course she knew it was Jeremy’s birthday even though she knows him only casually. They both teach at UCB. As I said, Jeremy’s wife Claire thought the party a good opportunity to introduce the two of us.”
It took her a moment to remember what she’d asked him. “So she knew something special was going on; not like what you did tonight?”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
“Interesting. Please continue, but spare me all this fifteen-minute shit.”
“Are you sure? I mean; oral guy and fifteen-minute girl is one of the primal forces of nature. It’s not something to ignore.”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
He stared at her for a moment, and he could see she was amused as well as angry, so he said, “Jeremy and Claire were holding court at a table with a bunch of his university friends so Isabel and I were alone at the piano, and you know how it’s possible to talk between songs… so we talked. But I don’t like to waste my time on the married ones so I told her straight out that I don’t fool around with married women. And for some reason I can’t explain, she told me some rather personal things about her relationship with her husband. Long story short she said she was separated and was in the process of severing the ties that bind. She may have been lying, because she was still wearing his rings, but I chose to believe her, possibly because Claire had told me the same thing and she was such a fox – about your age, dark like you, very nice figure, athletic rather than voluptuous, also like you, and smart, a lecturer in history at Berkeley.
“So, I played, mostly for Isabel, for over an hour and we talked some more. And one of the things we talked about was exclusivity and at one point she asked me why it was so important to me. The question really threw me. No one had ever asked me that question before and I’d never asked it of myself. I’d always taken it for granted that that was the way it was supposed to be, when a man and woman paired off, without really knowing why. She didn’t hurry me but she wasn’t giving me a choice; she wanted an answer. Finally, after much thought, I was able to give her one but it was a very banal answer because I had absolutely no intellectual basis for my belief. What I told her was no better than myth… no better than a fairy tale. I said I was happiest when I was in a committed, exclusive relationship with my ex-wife and now that I’m not I’m more than a little unhappy. So I play the piano in places like this and keep a good grip on my expectations. And I am not stalking you.”
“Are you seeing her?”
It was a simple question but the look on her face was not so simple. Maybe a little cheeky, he thought; maybe the question was freighted with hidden nuance, or could have been, so he said, “You’re asking me if I’m sleeping with Isabel?”
“What? No, I… I could care less whom you’re sleeping with.”
“Sounded like you want to know whether Isabel and I are lovers.”
“No, that isn’t what I asked you. Are you seeing her?”
“Seeing, sleeping with, what’s the difference?”
“Well, if you don’t know by now you’re clearly too obtuse for me to explain it.”
“I have many shortcomings but obtuse is not one of them. No, I didn’t sleep with her and no; I’m not seeing her. She wasn’t as interested in me as I was in her.”
Three months later, their relationship still platonic (you’ll have to read the story to discover why), when he threatens to leave her she says…
Catherine poked him in the shoulder and told him to move over. She sat next to him on the piano bench, with her thigh pressed against his. She joined in and played a duet from the treble side of the keyboard, just the way she knew he enjoyed playing with her. When they finished the piece she laced the fingers of her hand in his and said, “I don’t want you to go. I can’t imagine my life without you in it. For the time being I can’t deal with what that implies about my feelings for you, so… we’ll do it your way and see how it goes. But, all I can say to you partner, you’d better be terrific in the sack, and… god help you if you’re not.”
“By the time we finish making the CD you’ll be a fifteen-minute girl.”
“Then you’ll do it?”
“Of course I will. If it’s important to you it’s important to me.”
“Not good enough.”
“Didn’t you just hear me say I’ll do it?”
“I heard that but you told me your ex was a ten-minute girl so I expect no less.”