© 2012 Michael D. Brown These pieces first appeared individually on Thinking Ten – A Writer’s Playground.
“I was hoping for the sun to rise early,” Fredo said to Anna lying beside him. Stroke of luck, to wake and find him still in situ. Living under an assumed name in the south of France was not the most ideal of situations, but at least he had gotten out from under the smothering pression of Monsieur Proust, and had managed to have Marcel buy him a light aeroplane in the bargain. The reclusive writer, so jealous of her, had no idea how many people, male and female, he had to be jealous of, if he had to be that way at all. For the last five months, traveling with Alfredo, there were days she actually found his ego insufferable. And there were days she loved him more than life itself. “Will you go up today?” Anna asked looking at him through half-closed eyes. She hoped it was not obvious, she was looking to sleep in. “I will,” he said, “I want to see the sun gleaming on the Mediterranean. I will fly to Cannes.” Had he known it was the last time he would gaze upon her face he might have appreciated more how she had stuck by him, for she
knew of his many paramours, and found Marcel Proustâ€™s over-reactionary jealousy somewhat stifling herself. Their room in Monaco with its window under a shade tree suited her fine. Though she enjoyed the nightlife of Paris, she found some of the people she had to be nice to too arch for her taste. The city was filled with frigid, catty women and over polished and powdered fey men, or libertines like Alfredo. And there were the contradictions! She could not fully understand how Proust in spite of his dissatisfaction with both of them could still be so generous with his money. He was one of the few people with whom they were acquainted who sat on a pile of gold and could afford to be ailing all the time. Anna saw him as a lonely man with sad eyes and a big heart. Alfredo, who had chauffered Proust in Cabourg only played at being his secretary and occasionally let him win at chess, but was treated as a possession until he snuck them off for the south and clearer air. She still could not believe his temerity in traveling under the name of Marcel Swann as if he were on a fact finding mission, and yet did not appear to be enjoying the last laugh. She liked to think he loved her and might have made their
marriage official at some point. He did love flying, though, that was undeniable. As Anna sat across from Proust and related the details of that last Saturday morning in May, she, of course, did not tell him of the personal thoughts going through her mind, nor did she let on that this was not the way events had actually occurred. She had not been there with Alfredo outside of her memory. That was just the way she wished it to be remembered, and in so doing they might console each other on his loss. She dipped a biscuit into her tea, and as the aroma of something from her past life drifted by her senses, in almost a whisper she asked, â€œAnd what will you do now, monsieur?â€? suggesting she respected the level of his grief surmounted her own. There was still much he could do for her.
The door opened slowly and Jim did not look up from his desk. It would be Nora, who, if in a good mood, would be bringing him a welcome cup of Irish tea after returning from the post office. It was so cold these days. More likely, she would be intruding to see if he were actually working. She had remarked more than once that their sojourn in Paris, originally planned for a couple of weeks, and now going on its second year, was discouraging. She made it plain that she thought he was wasting time on his current project, and should seriously consider returning to teaching for Berlitz. “Dearest one,” he said while continually scribbling away, and that would infuriate her every time, “Is there something I can do for you? I’m trying to organize my epiphany.” “No,” she said, “No. Nothing at the moment.” And then, he did look at her over his glasses. His eyes were giving him trouble, and it took a moment to focus. There was, however, something in her negativity, oddly reminiscent of Lillian Wallace several months earlier in her great
positivism repeatedly saying Yes, which had inspired him to delve into the mind of his character Molly, and hadnâ€™t she originally been inspired by his Nora? Why did she constantly put the lie to all he was attempting to do? She was wearing a brown suit-like garment which she had tried to brighten up with a little orange faux silk scarf. So she had been out shopping or getting the post. He realized she would be indignant having to dress so meanly in the fashion capitol of the world, something that rarely crossed his mind, but did now as he looked at her. Nora was an earthy individual. That was something they shared. It was what had brought them together back in 1904. Now, after almost eighteen years with him, through good times and bad, mostly mediocre, and poor, and the children with their health and mental problems, she was looking more like him, and in so becoming, they seemed to be growing apart. They had come to a fork in their road and more often than not love talk turned to quibbling. He longed for the days when he could write her wicked letters and the both of them would reread them later and become randy all over again.
His fortieth birthday was coming up and with it the publication of his book. “How would it be if we get you a brand new outfit for February, and you can wear it styled a little differently to the ballet and the Schiff’s party afterward? Stravinsky and a number of other celebrities will be…” Before he could say more, she cut him off. “James Aloysius Joyce, is there a woman alive who wants to be asked something like that? It’s plain to see you know very little about the opposite sex. First of all, I was not invited to the Schiffs’ party, and you know very well it’s not Stravinsky you’re hoping to run into but that poofter Proust, and much as I despise that kind of person, I would not want him noticing poverty-stricken Nora Joyce wearing the same frock to your publishing party and again to the ballet and its after-party.” He glanced out the window and saw it was snowing. The whiteness bothered his eyes—too much like a blank sheet of paper. Paris covered in snow might be any place in the world, but he knew by May its lights would once again be dazzling. He could understand her distress over being asked to expose her commonness, something he did not give a
damn about as concerned himself, but it hurt him that she accused him of not understanding women. If there was one thing he prided himself on it was that fact, and though his offer had been made in jest, once again she had taken his words literally. “No,” he thought, “No, no. She will never see the bigger picture. Not in this lifetime. No, no. No.”
She held the door for me, but I did not know how to tell her that was not I wanted. Difficult to express oneself when the wrong word or gesture could stop the cash flow. Now, of course, things will be different, but itâ€™s too little, too late. Tom was looking at the nearly empty bottle, and in somewhat of a haze, wondered if he had spoken that last bit aloud. The barkeep was looking at him in a way that suggested he had audibly voiced his doubts, but this man knew nothing of Aline. For this, his fifth European jaunt, and on a Guggenheim fellowship, he chose to do the better part of his drinking just outside of town. He stayed in Paris to be sure. Aline had to know where to send her voluminous letters. But the tone of her words and the tone of what was supposed to be the city of lights, the core of romance, was becoming tiresome. Ragged and often unshaven, but always be-tied, he walked the streets in rain or sunshine looking for all the world like the homely tourist he felt he was, when in fact he desired to be the fashionable expatriate. The week
before he had visited Scott Fitzgerald who had come down from Switzerland to close up their French digs and called to say a meeting would be propitious. He had his hands full that one with that little woman of his. A real looker she was; a little too much lip rouge and face powder and some kind of meandering thought process known only to herself, and, he guessed, to Fitzgerald, who seemed attuned, but a wholly different kind of woman compared to Aline. Well, a kid in comparison, if truth be told. And mercurial as a loon. He could have sworn Zelda despised him from the moment she laid eyes on, consistently addressing him with a faux respectful, “Mister Wolfe this and Mister Wolfe that, and then she surprised him sneaking a kiss full on the lips when Fitzgerald went to refresh the bottle of pernod. “You taste like licorice,” she whispered, “Has your woman ever told you that?” Then, on her husband’s return she had her hands all over him, and reiterated how she “simply adored” her Scottie. Tom would never mention her indiscretion in his letter to Max Perkins, who, he was certain knew much more about the whys and wherefores of the Fitzgeralds’ relationship than even they were willing to admit to themselves. The
man knew too much about all his writers to the point, apparently, of how they should best appear in print despite their strong desires to display otherwise. Ah, well, the book was selling moderately well and most of the critics loved it, and it had gained him the fellowship, which if left in its original form, probably would not have been published nor would he have returned to France because he was damned sure he would not have asked Aline for more help, not at this point. Her letters were killing him. He had not been able to hook up with Joyce as planned. The man was going blind. But Scott Fitzgerald was a treat, and there was something in the personalities of the two of them he felt sure would find its way into his next tome. The River would be his Great American Novel, and there was room for people like the Fitzgeralds among his cast of thousands, but, recalling the broken bust he had noticed in their garden and how they appeared so easily to accept a loss of value, moving on, he would show the seriousness underlying their sense of folly. It would not do to alienate the public with foolish characters, not with the market in the dumps. When he thought of life here on the continent, and his private complaints of ennui and
weighed it against what he could see was about to happen back in the States, in balance he guessed this place was not so bad. Then, too, She was waiting for him as she constantly reminded him. The age of jazz had peaked and dissipated. Poor, addled Zelda Fitzgerald was still hung up in it, but Aline Bernstein was a realist. He became aware he had got his finger stuck in the bottle, and thought irrationally, I must have been trying to climb inside it because I’m sure as hell not looking forward to going home again. When the barkeep noticed his discomfort and came over to assist him, he muttered, “You can’t, you know…” “Monsieur?” the man asked, confused. “You can’t go home again,” Tom said, “Nobody can, not really.”
Today started off better than some, Scott thought, but his enthusiasm for producing his hitherto sacred thousand words diminished by noon, He began a letter to Gertrude Stein in an attempt to reconnect with some of his old cronies, but balled it up and trashed it before getting to the point of what he wanted to say, and instead wrote to his daughter, telling her he was making a last tired effort in Hollywood, that he had seen better days. It was not as if he wanted to share his misery with her, but he knew she would see through the kind of false happy note he had earlier attempted in communicating with Zelda, who by now, in the deepest throes of schizophrenia, could not even distinguish between happy and sad. Sheila was a decent woman by all accounts even if she did make her living gossiping about celebrities, and though he did not consider what she wrote as literature by any stretch, he felt the targets of her barbs deserved what they got. The whole town was corrupt, but she was good for him. She understood him, and though she tormented
him about his drinking, what she was unaware of, she could not prevent. Standing at the counter, looking like any ordinary Joe, in order to discretely purchase a bottle, he felt as if he were somehow cheating on her in a way he had never considered with Zelda, who had been plotzed half the time herself. He could not help himself. His thirst was unquenchable. For all the work he had started and abandoned, after being fired several times, he had finished one screenplay, and it was not something he was proud of. He told himself this one bottle was by way of celebrating this minor achievement. He had seen something through to its completion, something he had not done in a long time, and so headed to a small out of the way bistro for a nominal cup of coffee with which he could down the booze. How he yearned for the carefree days in Paris in the â€˜twenties when drinking and carousing had presented few problems other than the occasional hangover easily routed with a bromo or better yet the hair of the dog. The long nights drifting seamlessly into each other, and Zelda smelling of lavender sachet and laughing like a little girl,
all of that was gone, and in its place his nemeses spreading rumors of his decline with only Sheila to put in a good word now and then when it got to be too much. He recalled a day by the lake in Geneva when he had still held out hope for Zeldaâ€™s recovery, when a blue sky offered a false promise never to be kept. Then wild lavender which had found its way into Gertrudeâ€™s garden and trailed its way up her walls taunted him further. There was, too, that oneâ€™s tour of the States four years earlier when she had not even made time to see him. Her motherliness had vanished when she became more than a name. She still wrote in her inimitable, incomprehensible manner, but he did not like her politics these days. The woman had actually proclaimed that she thought this man Hitler should be awarded the Noble Prize, and she so prescient, could she not see what was happening in her beloved France? He wondered how he could have thought of writing to her, but then remembered that he had been somewhat sober on waking, and perhaps had intended to make a statement in his letter, a half-formed plan that was overwhelmed by his great thirst.
Yes, that world was gone, his creativity dwindling. Uninspired, he could see no end to his current project. His heart could give out any day soon and it would be left unfinished. Knowing he did not have the strength to make it up the two flights to his own place and he would more than likely stay the night with Sheila, he decided to bring her something to appease her, for she would surely light into him as soon as she detected he was soused. Roses? That would look too much like an apology and not very original. He settled on a crystal fruit bowl for her table and picked up some apples for her to fill it with. On the way home, he bit into one, but when the bile rose, he ducked into an alleyway and vomited behind a trash pail, feeling in that moment that what poured out of him fed those awful rumors.
At the risk of sounding ungrateful, Alice muttered, “You’re right, of course. You were always right.” In the middle of the night, Gertrude had called out for something to drink, and Alice felt it an imposition to rise out of their bed to administer to her needs. She could sense a coming feeling of independence she both yearned for and feared. Eventually, Gertrude was convinced to submit to a surgery. From the gurney, she was asked, “What is the answer?” She had none and remained silent, looking at her shrunken mate. A moment later, Gertrude croaked out, “Well, then, what is the question?” The unseasonal summer day was grey, the ground soggy as if a pestilence had settled over Neuilly-sur-Seine. The War had spoiled everything. Germs were everywhere. A cancer was eating Gertrude up from inside. She was half the size she had always been “My dear Alice, remember it is not what France gave you but what it did not take from you that was important.
Therefore, a life was saved, more than once. We had to find ourselves here. The Americans we left behind, they were too ignorant to realize there was no there there.â€? She was repeating herself, playing off old quotations she had become noted for years earlier, and Alice felt she was a fake. Yes, in these her last moments, that is how she came off. Her work had been compared to that of Proust and Joyce, and perhaps it had gone to her head, or maybe she had known it all along. In the salon, the chores of maintenance were never subrogated. All those young sycophantic hangers on, where were they now? Older, less enthusiastic, angrier, or dead, How she longed for the days when she silently observed the sparks instilled by Mother Gertrude. She, herself, had merely to prepare tea or pour the cognac and act the good little wife. How she missed Hadley Hemingway when they would leave Gertrude conversing with the men back when there was no talk of collaboration and taking wrong sides. What was wrong after all but a word to describe the unpopular? Is it always this way, Alice wondered, that the loved and loving one in her illness becomes wearing upon oneâ€™s desire to serve? She gave indeed, but took so much, and
with this final act, Gertrude would take memory and playfulness with her in search of the Lost. Alice might survive, though she could not predict for how long, alone. With or without the Great One it made very little difference, after the devastation and the routing. Recalling the request made in the darkness, and assessment formed in weariness, she now felt nothing more than a smudge of guilt, yes, over her ungrateful attitude, and she feared it was as much a cancer, which if left unchecked, would consume her in a diminished world, and if that was to be expected, then, so be it.
"’Put that away or I'll have to call the police,’ she said, “but she was joking, of course. Yes, well,” Papa said to the Cuban reporter as the young man lit his own cigar, “They say what doesn’t kill you…you know, but I’ll tell you, some days I feel like a zombie come from out of the jungle. I’ve walked away from two plane crashes, and there was the bushfire earlier this year. I’m a mess right now. Over in Entebbe they wrote me off for dead, but I proved them wrong. Don’t worry. I’m not going to show off my scars. Have another drink.” The sounds of a party going on at a distant neighbor’s house or something of that nature could be heard, so the great writer closed a window and turned up the fan lest anything interfere with the impression he was trying to make. He could see the kid was awestruck, and while a part of him did not want it to be that way, there was the part that thrived on reaction like that as if it were his due. He considered the drink in his hand, and how, if given enough time to himself, he would get bombed and then nothing would get written. Mary would be out for hours,
so she presented no hindrance. This audacious youth, smoking in front of him as if they were old buddies, and yet so impressed by his every utterance would have tipped them back shot for shot just to show he could keep up with him, but he wanted to stay sober this afternoon, or part of it at least. He stood by his writing lectern. Obviously, the kid knew of his writing while standing habit, that kind of thing was part of his legend, the better part of which he himself had helped to establish. His worst excesses had been publicly observed, his tantrums, slurred speech—there was no need to bolster anyone’s belief in those activities. He felt a slight chill run through his back muscles. But could the kid know how much he had been suffering internally for the last decade—not by a long shot! He could drop a clue or two on that score to show his humanity. Little things like that went a long way these days. “I lost some good buddies in the early forties,” he said, taking care to keep a twinge out of his voice—saddened but not devastated. “Fitzgerald, then Joyce, then Max Perkins…” He might have mentioned a few others, but the reporter added, “And Gertrude Stein?”
“That old biddy,” Hemingway said, a crimson flush rising on his neck. “Sure, I noted her loss, but the men were different. We were soul mates. Hasn’t been the same without ‘em.” “Did you ever encounter Marcel Proust?” the reporter asked as if it were something he had just thought of without referring to his notes. “Read some of his work in my youth,” the old war horse said, “Not to my taste at all. My philosophy is, if you’ve got something to say, something definitive, state it succinctly, and stop jabbering.” “Oh,” said the younger man, obviously one of those who’d read the Frenchman back in college, and that being not so long behind him, had left its impression, one that would take a few more months of Scott Fitzgerald’s work, or even his own, to obliterate. “The way he went on about trying to recover the sensations of lost love…can’t be done…love, true love, stops time momentarily. It doesn’t get consumed by it, to be recalled and relived at a later date. I’ve been married a few times, to real women. I’m a man who knows.” He did not enjoy blowing his own horn, but would try to
dissuade anyone who came to him convinced that a sickly homosexual loner knew anything about abiding love. “And your writer friends, the ones you mentioned, you do not feel your memories color the way you perceive the passing of time?” Right about then, Hemingway felt he could use a good stiff one. This one knew some stuff, but he could see it was not enough. By the time the booze was in the tumbler, the moment had passed. The reporter himself switched gears without waiting for a response. Hemingway enjoyed a challenge now and then, but would not be driven by some young hotshot. “How did you come to be called Papa?” “I took it on myself when I was in my twenties,” he said, almost as an aside. “I felt old then. It was not a superiority thing.” “Oh,” again. Probably recalling things he had been quoted as saying about characters like Thomas Wolfe, calling him a literary Li’l Abner. He knew he had been awfully smug at one time—could not afford to be at this juncture, with his body about to cave in on him, but he had once. The thought briefly crossed his mind that he might be manufacturing the things he felt people thought about him. All they saw was the gruff exterior. No way to
know, really. Of course, that was the safest route—divert their interest—leave them wondering if anyone could know him. His women did, a couple of them, but whatever they might say could easily be discounted. “Have another shot,” he said nudging the bottle toward the reporter, not offering to fill his glass as a good host might. Everything depended on one’s perception of now, of the current instance, and he had provided some large shoes to fill with an equally sizable persona to maintain. “Do you like to fish?” he asked offhandedly. He was thinking of how it might be somebody else’s turn to win the competition named after himself, but he did not say that. Instead, he said, “I’ve been thinking about sailing the Pilar over to Bimini again. Haven’t been there in about eighteen years. The damned boat is sitting tied to the dock like Friday’s ferry. Too long. Too long.” He did not want to ramble, by any means, but his days of action seemed to be receding, and it saddened him a bit. “It is rumored you are in line for the Nobel Prize for Literature.” As an image of William Faulkner closing his store passed his vision, he thought, this kid isn’t drunk enough yet. He’s never had to deal with stage fright. He’s still hitting
the soft spots. “I’ve heard those rumors,” he said to the youth, “And consider this. They may recognize the virtue in never ‘sending a reader to the dictionary.’” When the kid smiled on hearing the quote, Hemingway thought, yes, definitely not there yet, but there was something he liked about him.