Bill Vernon’s poems, stories and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies. He’s the author of Old Town, published by Five Star Mysteries. He served in the United States Marine Corps, studied English literature, then taught it. Writing is his therapy, along with exercising outdoors and doing international folk dances.
I’m not a Hemingway fanatic. Far from it. I figure he’d have been hard to get along with, someone I might have ended up deliberately insulting, daring him to take a punch. Then we’d have gone at it. He was, I think, egomaniacal enough to provoke me that way. Like one of those short men who seem to have to prove themselves wherever they are with whomever.
I wasn’t even thinking of him. I picked that Laundromat because it was close, just a few blocks from Hotel Familia, up to the corner across from the Madame Curie Institute, then up the hill a couple more blocks. The slots in its machines took euros that bought three cycles, wash, rinse, and spin, cleaning the stink from my travels. I prefer that to the German machines I once used in Dabel, Deutschland. They’d taken over two hours to thrash a load, which ended up so clean the colors were faded and the American cotton fabrics were so frazzled they seemed to have gained two years’ wear. I remember wishing that one might expunge the stains on one’s past so easily. Spun-dry, my clothing this time smelled just as sun-fresh and seemed just as clean as that bunch. I folded, bagged it, and stepped outside with the sack slung over my shoulder.
Surprise! This dull chore had made this city’s life real. No one had done the work for me. There’d been no intervention of translators, no do-gooders advising the dumb American what he ought to do. I’d immersed myself in a neighborhood’s life for an hour. Nodded to deux filles, probably university students, et une madame. Like friendly neighbors, we’d all sat side by side digesting breakfast, reading, and watching clothes spin.
Now the facades around me were the fronts of real places where real people lived. Sudden enthusiasm overwhelmed my common sense. Waiting inside, I’d uncovered notes that revealed a nearby place that now attracted me compellingly. It wasn’t on my way, but oh well, aren’t we all slaves to emotion? I turned up the hill instead of back toward my room, lugging the pillow-case size laundry bag, and with each step it slammed my back as if accumulated experience had reached critical mass and were propelling me, seeking release.
Upon arrival at the targeted street number, I gawked, proverbial tourist, interest piqued, resting my burden on the ground in front of Hemingway’s first Paris home, surprised to find no markers announcing his stay there. He wasn’t important enough for that? Well, printed words from past reading would have to suffice, directing my attention to the ground floor. It was now broken into apartments, not a cafe as it had been then. However, I could see through murky mental windows the author and Hadley seated with friends around those little round French tables in a clean, well-lit atmosphere, knees and feet bumping underneath, cigarettes burning, chatting animatedly, sipping wine and eating boiled eggs. Perhaps that last detail imposed memories of a depression-era American movie scene in a bar (The Killers, 1946 version?) onto this cafe’s menu.
Camera time, creating modern aids for a faulty modern memory. The lens played over the door, caught the number and street, the facade, and recorded details I’d otherwise never remember. I of course carried away more than those images, then added additional pictures a block or so farther. A tavern he’d frequented up the street had become an art movie house. Still, its front might resemble the way it had been and suggest something to me in the future. How could a few more photos hurt? There would be more than 2,000 to search through and title by the time I returned to Ohio.
Once such enthusiasm starts, how and where does it end? A subconscious guide insisted on an itinerary unplanned until that moment. Indelible ink on some neurons told me that five blocks away was the Pantheon. Going there, I could make a circular route, then head back to my room to meet my wife, who’d be angry by now anyway, my absence from her already approaching two hours. She was only a few blocks away as my absence was nearing three hours, after loitering with wonder, passing Hugo’s, Zola’s, and Rousseau’s crypts before hurrying on. Did the young mustachioed ex-reporter precede me to these tombs and feel a ghostly creative excitement stimulating him as it did me?
The adrenaline that had kicked in tried to force me into another direction. I really had to get back to my Hadley, who is nowhere as humble and unassertive as his was. Recriminations were set, I sensed, on delayed fuses waiting for me to trip them. Still, I had to slow down passing the eastern gates of the Luxembourg Gardens, to glimpse the trained foliage, the weeded flower beds, to snap a few more photos, to imagine the great one seated on a metal bench among the supposed sweet mixture of scents, pondering a new emasculating encounter for Nick Carraway. No damn it. That Nick was from the other famous guy that Papa learned to dislike. Hemingway’s Nick was Adams. Of course. That’s what rushing did to my clarity of thought.
Even worse more confused reaction occurred at 27 Rue de Fleurus, where I worried that the potent anger building in my partner had to be nearing detonation. But imagining Gertrude Stein’s salon on the 2nd floor on a Saturday night overcame that danger. I saved shot after shot of the building’s outside as if that might suggest the contents of the inside back then, the crowd of guests, the writers, artists, and composers, imbibing, arguing, absorbing ideas that would help them create things that the world guards and parlays for increasingly higher sums today.
Hemingway (why would people willingly call him Papa?) must have staggered down these very streets, singing and shouting, in the back of his mind weighing Gertrude’s and the other creators’ advice about his compositions. About their other ideas, their theories of art, their criticisms and descriptions of what was working and what not. I wasn’t thinking so well myself, tiring by now, stumbling thank God downhill mostly, finally reaching my room. With an extended monologue prepared in defense of my tardiness, I was surprised to find it unneeded. My not-so-meek Hadley was asleep.
A “Rose is a rose is a rose,” of course. She was basically indifferent to my lonely literary ramblings. However, she is always ready to go somewhere other than where she is at the present, so my excited desire to continue my morning’s brush with the man from Chicago was stimulating enough to stoke her engines. We hiked off toward the river, sans bac à linge sale, crossed the Boulevard St. Germain, and found Shakespeare And Company, which had helped Hemingway publish and sell Three Stories And Ten Poems, his preliminary entrance into book history.
We edged around inside, zigzagging along aisles among the crowded shelves. It had been and still tried to be the bookstore haunt of exiled English language writers, and though this wasn’t the store’s original location, though Sylvia Beach founder and owner was long gone, the place conveyed a tone, a history that made it a strong river-side harbor of nostalgia.
We even dawdled in a stuffy side room while an American expatriate, according to a sign, read from his newly printed book of poems. That recitation drove us outside in the middle of his second poem. He wasn’t T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound, though he showcased similar obscurity and suggested hidden meaning (maybe some was actually there), but his lack of transparency didn’t interest us. We were water spiders who tip-toed across the smooth surface of the real. On second thought, however, perhaps that poet’s sort of expression actually did fit. The bookstore under Sylvia’s direction had published Joyce’s Ulysses when no other publishing house would.
This was the city of lights, and its bright illumination was making us blink and sigh. I thought I remembered reading about a sawmill where Hemingway would sometimes go to work out. It was near Clichy, I believed, the Moulin Rouge, the Montmartre area, in a location where we’d have to search and ask for directions. My confused notion of its address, as well as on second thought its existence, plus the certainty that it was a long, hard trek there from the left bank, had something to do with my not mentioning it a ma femme.
With just enough courage, like a Hemingway hero, to overcome the effects of overstimulation, I struggled on toward the end of my short obsession, barely glancing at the Seine and the tour boats plying the greenish brown water. Same thing passing between the grand scope of the Tuileries and the I. M. Pei pyramid at the Louvre’s entrance. I was on my last legs, looking for a refuge, though my better half might not have been.
Thank God for Harry’s New York Bar. Something vague in the back of my mind had appropriately led me there. My Hadley had never heard of it, but its American familiarity wrapped a warm welcome around us. The plaques commemorating English colleges and rugby teams, the American university pennants, drink menus with the list of classic cocktails said to have been invented on these very premises, the nice soft seats. For me, placing my bum on a seat once warmed by famous others before me was almost reward enough for our efforts. It didn’t matter by this time, though, if Ernest himself had sat in my exact seat.
My muscles and brain relaxed, the thrill of whatever it was I’d been doing settled warmly inside, mixing pleasantly with the Budweiser I deliberately ordered—I didn’t know why a beer from back home seemed like the right thing to drink.
“Cheers,” my good wife said bravely.
“Tchin-tchin,” I said, showing off. The brew was cold and tasted good.