Audio Story: ‘Away from the Orchard’

Introductory screen image for the video, with the title Away from the Orchard and a drawing of a smiling apple.

Now that we’re into autumn, it’s time for eating everything that’s been covered with pumpkin spice. (Isn’t that the same spice mixture for apple pies? Why not “apple pie spice” everything then? But I digress.)

Also it’s time for visiting your friendly neighborhood farm for enjoying a bumpy hay ride, choosing just the right pumpkin, trying not to get woefully lost in a corn maze, and apple picking.

That last activity occurs in the beginning of my short story “Away from the Orchard.” A boy is picking apples with his family and he drops an apple with the excuse that it’s too small.

The apple decides it would rather not stay on the ground in the orchard, so it moves along. A short, sweet story about that decision and the journey afterward.

If you’d rather listen to the audio on YouTube, click here.

‘Claude,’ Part 7 – Conclusion

Two arches are covered in roses, and they are in the top half of the painting. A pond is in the bottom half, and it shows the reflection of the arbors and many trees.
“Flowering Arches, Giverny” 1913

Here’s the conclusion to my historical-fiction story about Claude Monet in his later years. To read from the beginning:

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6


Part 7

Back in Giverny, Claude’s depression was intensified by the house without Alice. He ached to tell her about his trip to Les Collettes. Despite the emptiness of the room’s owner, Claude went to Alice’s bedroom and closed the door and sat on a chair and softly talked of the trip. As if she was sitting up in bed and smiling while she listened. He felt a little better.

Occasionally before Alice passed away, Claude’s doubts had been so heavy, he stayed in his bedroom all day. Meals were brought to him. Those episodes were short-lived, then he would leave his room and return to his family and painting. 

Even though this current depression was heavier than any of those times, Claude saw that he could find a path back to art. Auguste had been correct about surrender as a horrible choice.

Claude was fearful of his vision quickly becoming worse and his sight robbed from him. He would’ve hated to lose the visual joys of his life. His children growing older. Gatherings around the dining table. Reading letters from loved ones, writing back. A cat lounging in a sun-spotted area of the garden, the feline yawning and baring fangs, the cat’s eyes drowsy with such contentment it could not imagine how the moment could be improved upon. 

Japanese arched bridge and the pond at Giverny. Water lillies are in the pond. Behind the bridge, in the background are weeping willows and other trees.
“Water Lilies and Japanese Bridge” 1899

Seeing roses climbing the arches along the Grand Allée roses covering the arch at the boat dock clematis climbing trellises bearded iris Japanese crab apple trees Japanese cherry trees Japanese maples water lilies water iris wisteria azaleas ferns weeping willows rhododendrons bamboo sunflowers wallflowers morning glories African marigolds forget-me-nots agapanthus Spanish blue bells nasturtiums geraniums delphiniums pelargoniums dahlias gladioli pansies Oriental poppies red corn poppies Chinese peonies tree peonies Asiatic lilies cosmos lilacs ox-eye daisies snapdragons sweet peas hollyhocks hydrangea asters orchids in the greenhouse giant hogweed English lavender tulips daffodils foxgloves.

And of course seeing life begin on a blank canvas. Strokes of color forming the shapes of things, becoming what he created. His wives had accused Claude of pouring more of his heart and time into art and gardening than nearly everything else, and he knew that to be true. They were the loves that would not die. Flowers did, but they came back.

He had time. He wouldn’t be struck blind tomorrow. Hopefully not.

After breakfast the next day, Claude walked to the pond, to the peak of the arched bridge. Canopy of wisteria overhead. He wondered if the pond really seemed blurrier than the last time he looked at it, or if his mind was playing a trick. Below the bridge was a rippling mirrored image of himself. The water painted a portrait of Claude in his own style and set it in motion, a painting better than anything he could’ve accomplished. You could interpret nature, but you could never best her. That realization put you in your place as merely human. Claude focused only on the pond, blocking out the land and sky from his vision. Water lilies, ripples, reflections of clouds. He pretended those formed the entire world. Everything else was the void. To be able to paint that world on a large scale. To share that world with others. Show them the ceaseless surface of water in a way they hadn’t seen before.

End

Blue circles dot the pond for water lillies, and there is the reflection of a tree on the water's surface.
“Water Lillies” 1915

copyright © 2020 Dave Williams. All images are from Wikimedia Commons

Sources

Thanks to the authors of the following books and webpages, for the research they did in the lives of Monet and Renoir. The materials were helpful for me to write about the events of 1908 and 1911 in the “Claude” story. I took creative liberties with dialogue, as well as the thoughts and some activities of the characters. Renoir and Gabrielle’s trip to visit Monet in Giverny during the summer of 1911 was included in the source material, but I made up the trip Monet took to Les Collettes.

Fell, Derek. The Magic of Monet’s Garden. Buffalo, NY: Firefly Books, 2007.

Fell, Derek. Renoir’s Garden. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1991.

Michels, Heide. Monet’s House: An Impressionist Interior. New York, NY: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1997.

The Phillips Collection. “The Pain Passes but the Beauty Remains.” Experiment Station blog. July 27, 2012.

Seitz, William C. Claude Monet article. Encyclopedia Britannica online.

Stuckey, Charles F. (editor). Monet: A Retrospective. New York, NY: Park Lane, 1986.

Todd, Pamela. The Impressionists at Home. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, Inc., 2005.

White, Barbara Erhlich. Renoir: An Intimate Biography. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, Inc., 2017.

‘Claude,’ Part 6

Trees are in the foreground of the painting, with a farmhouse behind the trees.
“Farm at Les Collettes” by Renoir, 1908-1914

This continues my historical-fiction story about Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir in their later years. To read from the beginning:

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5


Part 6

Two decades ago, Auguste had moved away from Impressionism after viewing works by Raphael during a trip to Italy, and he began to paint his subjects with a clearer line. Auguste had written of this shift to Claude, and Claude had sent a letter back that he understood, was eager to see what came out of Auguste’s changed method. Claude never communicated his disappointment, but he supported his close friend. 

Auguste’s path had been difficult in tuning the voice of his fingers. Out of that difficulty, he had developed a personal style blending qualities from Impressionism and classical art, resulting in art akin to Peter Paul Rubens with looser brushstrokes.

In the garden, Claude noted the differences between here and Giverny: the types of plants thriving in this climate, the hillside, the areas left to grow wild. He had become accustomed to his careful strategy of plantings and he needed to bite his lip to avoid recommending alterations. This was Auguste and Aline’s garden, not his. Aline had arranged a formal garden in an area, but Auguste’s wish was to not overly design and manicure nature. So the poppies and iris were allowed to proliferate to their desires underneath the trees.

Those flowers were not blooming now, in summer. The roses, which seemed to be everywhere, were in bloom and they perfumed the air, along with lavender, angel’s trumpet, eucalyptus.

Some garden paths were sloped for Auguste’s wheelchair to be pushed. Other paths were stepped, and Auguste was carried in a sedan chair. Claude joked that he looked like a sultan.

A woman stands in the middle of the painting, surrounded by flowers and trees. This is on hillside, and part of a farmhouse can be seen on the top of the hill.
“Young Woman in a Garden, Cagnes” by Renoir, 1903-1905

“Please paint,” Claude said. “Don’t refrain from it on my behalf.”

“You don’t mind?” Auguste asked.

“Not at all. Just because I’m not painting doesn’t mean you shouldn’t paint either.”

Auguste accepted. He sat in the shade, a brush slid into his grip, and worked on a canvas of the old farmhouse of plaster walls, chunks missing to show stones, and a terra cotta-tiled roof.

Meanwhile, Claude roamed the garden, admiring it. Masses of red pelargoniums softened the tops of retaining walls. The Venus Victrix statue, the goddess holding an apple. Cacti, yucca, agave, wild oat grass, bamboo. Trees: palm to linden to pine to orange to peach to cypress. Claude saw Coco climbing a tree, and saluted. He enjoyed the garden’s progress since he had last visited here.

Also while Auguste painted, Claude visited Cagnes with Aline, Jean, Coco, and Gabrielle. The buildings in town were of similar architecture of the farmhouse, the streets of cobblestone. Then the docks for the fishermen, the Mediterranean opening up in her dazzling blue, the salt air more pungent.

During the visit, Claude feasted on the freshest seafood he had eaten in a long time—fish, oysters, mussels, octopus, scallops. Cooked with garlic, lemon, butter. Or cooked with wine, tomatoes, herbs. All washed down with Sancerre and other white wines. 

Claude’s grief from the passing of his beloved Alice made space within him for peacefulness brought by being with the Renoir family. He fit effortlessly in their embrace, strengthened by the years they had known each other. Auguste’s history, Aline’s compassion, Coco’s laugh, Gabrielle’s delightfulness.

Woman and child rest in the shade made by trees. In the middle ground are more trees, and in the background is the Mediterranean Sea.
“Cagnes Landscape with Woman and Child” by Renoir, 1910

The day before Claude left, he and Auguste sat on a balcony to soak in the view of the garden and sea beyond. An umbrella protected Auguste’s sensitive skin from the sunlight. They discussed the news from Paul Durand-Ruel about the buzz in Paris over a Spanish painter. Rumors had swirled about one of the Spaniard’s paintings. Five nude women, their bodies formed by odd angles. Some of the women had masks for faces, and one’s face was twisted about.

“Sounds very strange,” Auguste said.

“It does,” Claude said. “But after I thought about it, I realized that’s what people used to say about us. The young artists are now shaking things up. It’s their turn.” 

“But with weird angles? Masks instead of faces?”

“I don’t understand it either,” Claude said. “But it could be the new direction. That’s no longer in our hands.”

“What’s the painting called?”

“The Spaniard calls it Mon Bordel.”

Auguste winced in distaste. “As if he made his own brothel?”

“I had a similar reaction,” Claude said. “Then I remembered a certain prostitute that sent the old hats tittering many years ago. Back when Édouard was the bad boy.”

Olympia.” Auguste’s distaste smoothed away.

Édouard Manet’s Olympia, by her direct gaze at the viewer, demanded you acknowledge her nudity and her position as a prostitute. Behind Olympia, a black maid presented a flower bouquet that could’ve been a gift sent by a client. Shocked viewers called the painting vulgar. Previously, art’s nudes were gods and goddesses.

That was the second of Manet’s paintings to cause tongues to sharpen and wag in Paris. His earlier Luncheon on the Grass had ignited controversy by showing two dressed men picnicking with a nude female, while another female in an opaque dress bathed in a stream, the group surrounded by dense forest.

Claude had been inspired to paint his own Luncheon on the Grass, women in billowy dresses, additional figures for a more complex arrangement. However, Gustave Courbet had criticized the painting as a knock-off, saying, “By chance of birth, you nearly match Édouard’s surname. People will confuse you two with only a letter of difference. Why would you encourage that confusion by creating a similar painting?” Claude didn’t finish the artwork. Later, he was always irritated when someone confused him with Édouard. “Monsieur Manet and I are distinct individuals,” he would say.

Auguste and Claude bemoaned the recent theft of La Joconde from the Louvre. Saying the act greatly disrespected art’s history. The small painting was a treasure. The way da Vinci had painted the lady’s curious eyes and mysterious smile, the ripples in her dress and sleeves, was masterful. The artwork deserved to hang in a museum for all to appreciate, not secluded in a thief’s apartment. With any luck, the authorities would soon track down the painting and slap justice on the thief. 

As Auguste cursed the burglar, he lifted an arm and shook his hand, as if the thief stood before them and could see Auguste’s outrage. Then he sat back in his wheelchair and let out a grunt.

Once again, Claude was impressed by the man’s resilience. He had been beaten down by pain and frozen muscles, but he kept pursuing his art. The man had immense courage in his heart. Claude’s eyes teared up and he wiped away the moisture.

“Look at us,” Claude said. “Me with my blurred eyesight. You with your difficulties. We’re quite a pair, aren’t we?”

That earned another grunt from Auguste. “I feel I have several more years in me, God willing. But I miss the vitality of youth.”

“As do I, mon ami.

“The alternative is giving up,” Auguste said. “What kind of choice is that? Not one for me. I will move forward. The pain passes, but the beauty remains.”

Claude looked from the trees to sea, a study in viridian and blue. “Always beautiful, yes.”

“That is the arrangement everyone is given,” Auguste said. “We get difficulties and in return, we get this.” He gestured toward the setting before them. “And a great deal more.”

story concludes on Part 7


copyright © 2020 Dave Williams. The first image is from Wikimedia Commons; the final two images are from WikiArt.

Note

I made up nearly all of the dialogue in the story. The only exception is in this part: “The pain passes, but the beauty remains.” A quote attributed to the elderly Renoir when asked by Matisse why he continued to paint while afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis (source: Experiment Station, website for the Phillips Collection). In my story, Monet asks instead of Matisse.

‘Claude,’ Part 5

Painting of small harbor, with boats at docks and houses by a curving walkway
“Cagnes Landscape” by Renoir, 1910

This continues my historical-fiction story about Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir in their later years. To read from the beginning:


Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4


Part 5

A train brought Claude from Vétheuil to Paris, then another train in a longer journey south, releasing him in the village of Cagnes-sur-Mer.

He inhaled the smell of the sea and understood again why Auguste had moved here. The area provided plenty of subject matter for art, and the air itself was marvelous. Particularly in winter, when the warmth of this area was better for Auguste than the northern region’s cold that worsened his arthritis pain.

Auguste’s chauffeur drove Claude to Les Collettes estate, and on the climb to the house, the car passed a pine grove, olive trees, and palm trees. At the top of the slope, the house was made of pale stones and white shutters.

The door opened and out came Aline Renoir, plumper than the last time Claude had seen her, graying hair swooped in a bun. A little white-and-brown dog raced out and barked at the visitor.

Madame Aline Renoir is sitting with Bob the dog on her lap.
“Madame Renoir With Bob” by Renoir, 1910

“Don’t mind Bob,” Aline Renoir said. “He’s always running about. Hardly ever keeps still.”

“Unlike the rest of us,” Claude said and kissed her cheeks, followed by an embrace. “And I couldn’t forget about him. Bob is such a funny name for a dog.”

Aline looked at the dog sniffing Claude’s shoes. She said, “He’s a funny little thing. The name fits.”

“It’s a joy to see you. You are as lovely as ever, Madame.”

“And you are as full of flattery as ever,” Aline said. “I apologize for not coming to see you, but I needed therapy.” Aline had suffered from diabetes for years.

“I hope you were treated well at the spa?”

“I was. Now, let’s get you inside and to the table. You must be famished after your travel.”

Gabrielle was the next to welcome the visitor, cheerful as she was back in Giverny. She had been a buoyant addition to the Renoirs, although Aline had been jealous of the younger woman spending time with her husband. However, Auguste had told Claude he had never been romantic with Gabrielle, and he even had asked permission from Madame Renoir for Gabrielle to pose nude for him.

Auguste seemed more comfortable in his own home. Before, he had said the place felt like a convent to him, that nearby Nice—where Auguste went to his doctor for treatment—was more energetic. But he had also called Les Collettes a paradise. The garden was to his liking, but the house not as much.

Dinner was sole fillets poached in white wine, and the adults were joined by two of the three Renoir boys: Jean and Coco. Jean was in his late teens, and Coco was only ten years old. When Coco was born, Auguste had written to Claude with concerns about becoming a parent again at the age of sixty. But Coco, whose real name was also Claude, had been in many of Auguste’s portraits. The oldest Renoir son was Pierre, working as an actor in Paris, mostly in the theater, also in the silent film La Digue.

Jean and Coco had met Claude on several occasions, and weren’t shy around him. The boys talked about Bob’s mischief, his chasing rabbits and barking at hens and goats. However, the dog ventured too close to the goat and was kicked in the hindquarters, so Bob had kept a farther distance since then. And the boys told of the time Bob stole part of a roasted chicken from the kitchen table.

Gabrielle said, “That’s the last time I let Bob in the kitchen while I’m cooking. You turn around for a minute, and the naughty devil grabs his chance.”

The boys’ energy reminded Claude when his sons were their ages. After the Monet and Hoschedé households had combined, the meals had been noisier by the increased number of kids. Claude sometimes missed those stimulating meals, and he now enjoyed the lighter dose of them in the Renoir house. 

The pattern of days in Les Collettes reflected those the friends had spent in Giverny. 

In the studios inside the main house and in a separate structure, Auguste showed his paintings to Claude. A mix of landscapes around the property and Cagnes, portraits, a few still lifes. Claude thought the two self-portraits in a white hat were striking in the honesty of showing his age. Auguste had peered into a looking glass and had not flinched.

Surely, people had criticized Auguste for painting scores of nudes at this late stage of his career and called him a dirty old man. To Claude, the paintings were celebrations of beauty. Responses to a wish to reproduce on canvas the things you adored. All artists were fixated. Your eye caught on certain items, and you investigated their curves, colors, textures. Was the eye the originator of the fixation? Or the head or heart? Claude didn’t know, and the answer didn’t matter. He had been too busy investigating what he considered wondrous.

The portraits held a kind of magic. The nude and clothed models would never grow old inside them. Not Aline, not Gabrielle, none of the others. As long as the paint held its color, the model’s age would remain as on the day of the painting’s creation. 

Also, a curiosity about the style of the women, changed since Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette. While the artist had become more shrunken—resembling the numerous gnarled olive trees on his land—the women in the paintings had grown fleshier and rosier. As if Auguste wanted to portray the joie de vivre yet burning inside himself, but instead of showing it in his self-portraits, he enhanced women with vigor.

“You haven’t lost your touch,” Claude said. “If anything, you have become better at the subtleties. These are luminous.”

Merci,” Auguste said. “I’m pleased how they came out. Of course, you always see parts that could be improved.”

“A curse of the artist,” Claude said. “Ever since you veered away from our style, you’ve become more of your own person.”

continued on Part 6

Two paintings: one is a self portrait of Renoir, with tan hat ad a white beard. The other painting is of a mostly nude woman sitting next to a garden wall, with a spout that has water pouring from it
“Self-Portrait” 1910 and “Woman at the Fountain” 1910, both by Renoir

copyright © 2020 Dave Williams. First two images are from Wikiart; the last two are from Wikimedia Commons

‘Claude,’ Part 4

In the foreground is the river, with ripples showing the reflection of the tall trees and buildings of the Vetheuil village.
“Vétheuil in Summer” 1880

This continues my historical-fiction story about Claude Monet in his later years. To read from the beginning:

Part 1Part 2Part 3


Part 4

Vétheuil, with familiar streets and buildings. Memories seemed to want to erupt from Claude’s head and replay before his eyes. The women prominent in his life, Camille and Alice, along with the children skipping about.

Before Auguste and Gabrielle left Giverny, they had persuaded Claude to visit them. Auguste had said, “The salt air will do you good.” Claude decided to leave after them, so waving good-bye wasn’t difficult while knowing he would see them soon.

A couple days were spent getting affairs straight, mainly sorting out instructions to the head gardener on what to do while Claude was away. 

His luggage packed, Claude was driven by chauffeur to the cemetery in Vétheuil. Leaving the chauffeur in the car, Claude walked around the headstones until finding the particular one. He placed a bouquet of white gladiolus on the grave with the plaque marked Camille Doncieux,épouse du peintre Claude Monet. Seeing his own name was unnerving. His name wasn’t on Alice’s plaque. 

The death year on the plaque—1879—caused Claude to envision the painting of his first wife on her deathbed, but he wished to banish that image while in the cemetery. Better to remember Camille resplendent in movement and emotion. Remember her guarded look when she had met Claude, as he had been introduced to the young woman as a model for artists. Claude had hired her but could pay hardly anything. 

Claude remembered painting her and dancing with her. Remembered her face as they made love, her worry when she learned she was pregnant. Her anger when Claude told her he would depart Paris and live with his aunt. He did it to create the ruse to his family that he and Camille were no longer together. She had yelled, “How could you leave me when I am with your child? You have responsibilities here. What kind of man are you?” On the train heading away, Claude had heard those words echoing and he felt that he was a coward.

He had returned to Paris when Jean was born, but stayed only a handful of days before departing again. Camille’s anger was made worse by crying. Added to that, Jean’s crying seemed to communicate his disappointment in his father for not staying.

Three paintings of Camille: one where she wears a fur lined jacket over a dress of green and black stripes, one where she wears a red kimono, and one where she wears a light colored dress and holds a parasol
“Camille” 1867, “Madame Monet Wearing a Kimono” 1875, and “Woman with a Parasol – Madame Monet and Her Son” 1875

Claude’s next return was before Christmas, and the three finally became a family. Living in sad apartments and constantly concerned about money, but they were together. Claude and Camille were married a few months before Jean turned three.

Amid the struggles were times sparkling with happiness, in which their troubles were not entirely forgotten but temporarily dismissed. Times of baby Jean gazing at the world, Jean’s smiles and adorable laughs. Camille modeling for Claude, her in a silk dress striped in black and emerald green, flowing underneath a black velvet jacket trimmed in fur. Another time, she wore a brilliant red kimono with a samurai embroidered on the back, his hands gripping sheathed swords. Claude marveled over the samurai’s fierce expression, and laughed over the contrast of the warrior and Camille’s beauty. Under the spell of Japanese art, Claude had adored painting his wife wearing the garment. Then while Camille was immersed in nature. In gardens and meadows, on the banks of the Seine, on the beach at Trouville during their honeymoon. Camille wearing one of the few dresses and hats she owned and didn’t have to borrow for modeling. A parasol’s stem rested on her shoulder, the dome shading her back and head. 

A man had asked Claude, “Why do you include so many parasols in your paintings?” Claude had said parasols were part of ladies enjoying a pleasurable afternoon, and that made for a lovely vision. Also, Claude thought people would like to have such artwork on their walls, so in humdrum or distressing times, people could look at the artwork and imagine themselves stepping into the scene. They could feel some of the pleasure of that afternoon, which could ease their minds. Even a little would be beneficial. The man had frowned doubtfully at Claude and carried on with his day. Claude had been glad he didn’t tell the man of his further thinking that parasols resembled huge flower blossoms.

“I’m sorry,” Claude now said to Camille’s grave. “I’m sorry for not treating you better. I should’ve been a better husband and father. I should’ve been better to you, after you gave me so much.” He kept his voice low, despite being the only one in the cemetery.

If heaven existed, Camille’s spirit might’ve heard Claude. Or perhaps her spirit was close, although he could not detect it. He had been doubtful whenever someone claimed to feel spirits of the deceased. Wherever Camille’s spirit resided, Claude hoped she understood his reasons for his actions, understood that he was as fragile and error-prone as everyone else. Perhaps more than other people. He prayed she forgave him.

continued on Part 5


copyright © 2020 Dave Williams. All images are from Wikimedia Commons

‘Claude,’ Part 3

Trees are on the left side and background. The Seine River flows from the right side of the canvas to the middle. Many blue and purple ripples are on the river.
“Branch of the Seine near Giverny” 1897

This continues my historical-fiction story about Claude Monet in his later years. To read from the beginning:

Part 1Part 2


Part 3

Arriving in the summer were Auguste and Gabrielle, coming from Cagnes-sur-Mer in the South of France. Paul had arranged a driver and car to take them the many kilometers to Giverny.

A blessing for Claude to have a dear friend with him, yet it brought sadness when Claude watched the chauffeur and a gardener carry Auguste from the car to a wheelchair. The slim man who used to stroll with Claude for hours around Paris. Decades later, Auguste was even thinner, and walking caused him a great deal of pain. Rheumatoid arthritis had ravaged the poor man’s body and paralyzed a portion of his facial muscles. He had sought relief from massages and baths at spas, which, if any relief was found, turned out to be temporary.

As it happened, Madame Renoir was at a spa in Vichy and wasn’t among the visitors. Gabrielle aided Auguste in the trip. She was Aline Renoir’s cousin and had been hired as a nanny for Auguste and Aline’s second son, Jean. Since then, Gabrielle had become a caregiver and model for Auguste. She was just less than half of Auguste’s age of seventy.

As Gabrielle pushed Auguste’s wheelchair toward the house, Claude welcomed them.

Auguste’s demeanor remained serious, as he said, “There has been a mistake. I was expecting to see my friend Claude. Instead, I have been brought to his grandfather.”

Claude laughed. “I am a grandfather, and a proud one at that.”

“I’d like to be one,” Auguste said, now with humor in his eyes. “I was later than you in having children.”

“You already resemble a grandfather,” Claude said. “If you doubt me, you should look into a looking glass. What you see is not the future, but the present.”

Auguste stroked his white beard with the side of his hand, the fingers paralyzed in a grip. He said, “Oh, I’m quite aware. But your beard is longer. You were always the bushier one.”

Claude leaned down, held Auguste’s bony shoulders, and gave him kisses on both cheeks. The men’s white beards touched, and Claude’s was indeed longer. Despite the humor, Auguste couldn’t hide his disappointment in having to sit during the greeting.

“Are you two finished comparing your beards?” Gabrielle asked. “I would like to see the garden. I had to listen to Auguste go on and on about your famous flowers for the entire trip.”

“A slight exaggeration,” Auguste said. “But let’s go see what keeps Papa Noël busy when he’s not delivering presents.”

During Auguste’s visit, many hours were spent by Claude pushing Auguste’s wheelchair in the straight, orderly paths of the garden next to the house, and the more curving path that followed the perimeter of the pond. Claude would stop the wheelchair next to a bench, then take a seat and the men smoked cigarettes while admiring the blossoms and trees. They exchanged updates of what their children had been up to since their last letters to each other. They talked of Alice Monet and in a way kept her alive.

A train arrives in the train station, with steam billowing up.
“Gare Saint-Lazare, Arrival of a Train” 1877

The painters reminisced about their youthful days, such as when Claude convinced the director at the Gare Saint-Lazare to temporarily delay the trains, so he could paint them and their churning steam.

“It still amazes me how you pulled that off,” Auguste said. “You with your lacy shirt cuffs and your talk of how the trains would make grand art.”

“I impressed the train station director,” Claude said with a smile. “The man knew a true artist when he saw one.”

“Bah,” Auguste said. “You were far from famous back then. You hoodwinked the man. You were a common charlatan.”

“None of us was famous. But we dreamed of success.”

Auguste nodded. “And you were the biggest dreamer of us all. With your studio on a boat.”

Claude liked the mental picture of people on shore, pointing at him in the small boat. He had been quite a sight, starting in Argenteuil. The floating studio had shown him the Seine’s ripples in a different way than from land. He said, “I still have the boat, moored close to here.”

“Of course you do,” Auguste said. He motioned a clutched hand at the scene before them. “And for you to dream up this … this ecstasy of color. As if these flowers have crowded together to get your attention. They’re positively falling over themselves to get the great Monet to paint them.”

“Not recently, I haven’t.”

Auguste looked gently at his dear friend. “But you will get back to it. You’re in a miserable place now, and you may think you’ll never paint again. But you have been there before, and you returned to painting. It’s too deep inside us to ever go away.”

Gratitude washed through Claude. “I’m very glad you are here.”

“Certainly,” Auguste said. “Have faith in the light inside you. It will come out again. As artists, we have to have that. Otherwise, we would only paint the night. And who would buy that?”

“Perhaps some would like paintings of nighttime Paris.”

“Perhaps. But limiting yourself to those would not be good for you.”

“Canoe on the Epte” 1890 and “Rouen Cathedral, Portal, Sunlight” 1893

They spent time in the studio, converted from a barn when the Monets bought the property. The space also served as a drawing room where family and guests conversed after meals, sitting on the wicker chairs, drinking coffee or liqueur, eating cheese straws or fruit jellies or violet-flavored bonbons.

The walls, crammed with paintings, offered a visual biography of Claude’s interests and homes and travels throughout the years. A viewer could shift his or her feet on the wooden floorboards, move their attention around, and absorb a sense of the artist’s history without being told a word. Self portrait of a younger Claude with dark hair, Rouen cathedral, haystacks, water lilies, London’s Houses of Parliament, Camille holding a parasol before a cloudy sky, poplars, two women paddling a canoe, youthful Jean and Michel on a path between beds of tall sunflowers at Vétheuil, Waterloo bridge, cliffs at the sea.

“You see?” Auguste said. “These are far better than if you painted the night.”

Claude inhaled from his cigarette and swept his eyes across the paintings. Here was result of learning from tradition, then breaking it to strive on the path of plein air painting. Claude had been joined not only by Auguste, but Sisley, Bazille, Manet, Cassatt, Morisot, and others. They interpreted how nature looked and felt in a place, at a specific time. Short strokes with the brush, varying colors, becoming intoxicated with color and light. For Claude, that intoxication remained.

Lunches and dinners were livelier than before Auguste and Gabrielle arrived. Claude couldn’t help but think of how Alice would’ve loved to be here, with these guests. He felt guilty for having a nice time without her.

In his first lunch of the visit, Auguste said the yellow dining room was like being inside a daisy’s petal, one decorated with Japanese prints on the walls.

With Marguerite’s skillful hands in the kitchen, the group ate very well. Chicken with chervil. Duck with turnips. Broiled steak in wine. Tomatoes stuffed with thyme, mushrooms, bacon, and shallots. Salads that Claude dressed at the table, but some guests—such as Gabrielle—asked for a separate bowl, due to the host’s fondness for a lot of black pepper.

Meals raised yet another difficulty for Claude to see the state of his friend’s condition. Twenty years earlier, Auguste had suffered from dental neuralgia and his teeth were extracted to lessen the pain. His food had to be mashed or liquefied. It was a blow to a man who loved eating, especially grilled herring with mustard sauce and fire-roasted meat and potatoes.

Marguerite accommodated Auguste’s culinary need, mashing his food and preparing soups for him: cream of sorrel, garlic, and cream of turnip.

“Tell me more about the good, old days,” Gabrielle said at a lunch. “I’d like to hear again about when you two used to kick up your heels.”

People are walking by the dock on the Seine River, with buildings and trees in the background
“Quai du Louvre” 1867

Gabrielle had already heard many stories, since she had been with the Renoirs for so long. The Renoirs had been living in Montmartre, which had felt like the countryside, when they hired Gabrielle as a nursemaid. She had arrived after Auguste’s time of poverty in downtown Paris and she witnessed his rising success. Gabrielle had experienced the Saturday nights when friends came to the Renoir house for conversation and dinner of Aline Renoir’s pot-au-feu that had filled the house with a wonderful aroma.

“I never kicked up my heels,” Auguste said. “I was too dedicated to my art for such frivolities. Claude was the wild man.”

While Claude chuckled, Gabrielle said, “Oh, come off it. I know you didn’t spend all your days bent over a canvas. You were young once, I am sure of it.”

“We were young once?” Auguste asked the host.

“Once upon a time, we were,” Claude replied. “And you participated in the frivolities, too. You can’t deny the truth, mon ami.”

The friends described regularly meeting with other painters at Café de Bade, then later Café Guerbois to discuss their works. The gatherings were valuable for camaraderie among like-minded artists. As were evenings at Frédéric Bazille’s studio. Frédéric had been generous in allowing Auguste and Claude to use his studio, since they didn’t have studios of their own when starting out. The three painted and caroused together, and friends joined them in merry making after the sun set. Noisier were Friday nights at Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s studio, where party-goers drank from the assortment of liqueur bottles, sometimes of unusual cocktails that Henri invented. Classier receptions were held at Georges Charpentier’s home, as well as that of Berthe Morisot’s parents.

“My, my, you two were quite the bon vivants,” Gabrielle said.

“We had our moments,” Claude grinned.

Behind that grin and unsaid was the thought of the friends who had died since then. Many had gone. Bazille at the tragic age of twenty-eight. Berthe Morisot, courageous and graceful amid the group of mostly men. Édouard Manet was older than much of the group, but his passing still stung. Alfred Sisley, just before the turn of the century. Toulouse-Lautrec, soon into the new century.

Sadness added to sadness from those departures. Claude knew Auguste felt it as well; his eyes did not hide it. And Auguste rubbed his nose, a typical gesture when he was troubled.

Claude also knew those vibrant and beautiful people had made marks inside him. Here he was, with a fellow survivor, who could share in telling stories about them.

continued on Part 4


copyright © 2020 Dave Williams. All images are from Wikimedia Commons

‘Claude,’ Part 2

The Seine River is in the foreground, and several buildings of Lavacourt are in the distance, behind trees.
“Banks of the Seine at Lavacourt” 1879

This continues my historical-fiction story about Claude Monet in his later years. To read from the beginning:

Part 1


Part 2

Alice died three Mays after the Monets returned to Giverny. The timing of her death didn’t make sense in 1911’s spring, when the earth was warming and flowers were blooming. More sense would’ve been in the colder months. Inside Claude, the weather matched those months more than the weather outside.

After Alice was buried in the Giverny Church Cemetery, Claude took to longer-than-usual walks in his garden. The sunny days did nothing to improve his spirit. Nor did the vast amount of colorful flowers. The weeping willows, which had looked graceful before, now appeared melancholy. Claude sat on a bench by the pond and felt emptiness inside him.

The sorrow intensified when he imagined Alice at the table during lunch, chatting with him, family, and friends. Smiling, laughing, complementing Marguerite on particularly tasty dishes. Memories of Alice were everywhere. Sharper memories when he clicked on an electric light. And when he drank plum brandy from one of the Murano glasses they had bought in Venice. He missed conversations with her, her teasing him about being so meticulous in his instructions to the gardeners.

Claude tried working on the paintings of Venice, adding to them from mental images, but they did not bring the respite he hoped. He put the Venice paintings to the side, along with the other paintings in progress.

His thoughts reached far back, to places his mind had not visited in a while. He met Alice when she had been married to Ernest Hoschedé, who hired Claude to paint landscapes and panels in his château. Claude and Alice Hoschedé shared intimate moments. Claude’s wife at the time, Camille, lived with their son Jean in Argenteuil. Looking back, Claude knew he had been swept up by Alice’s charm. And she may have desired to indulge in a bohemian artist, a change from her husband who was an executive in a Parisian department store.

Claude became so attached to the Hoschedés that after Ernest’s fortunes fell and he went into bankruptcy, the Hoschedés and Monets moved into a house together in Vétheuil. By then, Camille had given birth to a second son, Michel. The house was a whirlwind of activity with the six Hoschedé children and two Monet boys. Claude couldn’t continue intimacies with Alice, despite his wishes and attraction to her.

Different fortunes fell when Camille’s health declined, first with tuberculosis, then uterine cancer. She was only thirty-two years old when she died.

Camille Monet on her deathbed, with paint strokes of white and gray and lavender
“Camille Monet on her Deathbed” 1879

Claude’s heart broke. He painted Camille’s likeness on her deathbed, shrouded in strokes of white, lavender, grays. Her mouth partially open, her eyes closed forever. She would never get to grow old, would never see their sons grow old, would never get to enjoy the fruits of Claude’s increasing success in later years.

Guilt crushed Claude, an ugly emotional partner with his anguish. He cursed himself for the dalliance with Alice. That had been a poor decision, even if Camille never knew about it. But she might’ve been suspicious from how Claude had looked at Alice and talked about her.

Camille had stayed at Claude’s side through poverty and his sometimes crushing doubts that he could forge a career as an artist. She had nursed him after his attempt to drown himself in the Seine and end the darkness. With little Jean, they had fled to London and Zaandam to avoid the ravages of the Franco-Prussian War. She had cheered Claude’s epiphanies with his developing style of painting. She had embraced him and given him strength when he needed it. They had often argued about the lack of money, wanting a better place to live, wishing for nicer food. Yet, through it all, she had remained with him.

During Claude’s pain over Camille’s loss, Alice Hoschedé had brought his two boys to Paris, along with her own children. By this time, Ernest Hoschedé was out of the picture—he had moved to Belgium—but he was still married to Alice.

Claude had thrown himself into his work, traveled the countryside, recorded on canvas what he saw: ice on the Seine, frost on a clearing, poppy fields, hills, and trees. The cliffs and sea at Fecamp. Nature and art were his medicines.

Path in the middle of a garden that's full of sunflowers. A little boy stands on the path, and another little boy stands on the stairs behind him.
“Monet’s Garden at Vétheuil” 1880

Also medicinal was Alice, who had returned to Vétheuil with the children. She whipped the household into shape and created as much order as possible with eight children. The combined family moved to Poissy (not to Claude’s liking), then to Giverny (more to Claude’s liking). When Ernest occasionally dropped into these homes, Claude took trips to paint at different places. But he despised the reason for leaving the houses, and had difficulty with his art. Alice refused Ernest’s desire for his family to move in with him and she refused Claude’s insistence to divorce Ernest.

A dozen years after Camille’s death, Ernest passed away. Alice grieved, then finally married Claude. She destroyed his letters to Camille, saying he needed a fresh start.

Other changes came with the larger income from Claude’s paintings, since Paul Durand-Ruel’s experiment of bringing Impressionist art to America had paid off. The Yanks were gobbling up paintings. The money enabled the Monets to purchase the house they had been renting in Giverny. As well as buy the neighboring land and buildings, expanding the gardens and constructing a studio for Claude. Then purchase more land across the railroad tracks and instruct workers to divert the Epte river’s Ru stream to the additional land to form a sizable pond, after receiving permission from the village council.

The garden and pond were his sanctuary. Places of inspiration and healing. With two wives gone, Claude’s legs of their own accord carried him around the garden as memories replayed in his mind. Turning over the past, like working the soil, rediscovering fragments, feeling a small glow at happy memories but suffering with the knowledge that those times would not be repeated with Alice. The journey behind him seemed to stretch a few lifetimes.

Mercifully, his children—biological and step-children—visited to keep Claude company and help manage the household. Those included Jean, in his mid-forties, who had married his step-sister Blanche, a fine painter in her own right who had often painted next to Claude before she married Jean and moved to Rouen.

continued on Part 3


copyright © 2020 Dave Williams. All images are from Wikimedia Commons

‘Claude,’ Part 1

Photo of Claude Monet with short hair and a long beard.
Monet in 1899, taken by Nadar

During seven days, I’ll be posting my short story “Claude” about, yes, that Claude. The story takes place later in Monet’s life.

The story will be posted in sections, since the whole story would make a long post — and I’m going to include Monet’s paintings here and there to break up the text and show what paintings are mentioned in the story.

Nearly all of the dialogue is made up. The only exception is a Renoir quote in the story’s Part 5.

This story is in my collection, Jumble: Stories and Drawings. (The book’s 68 drawings are independent of the 18 short stories.) “Claude” is the only historical fiction story. The ebook is available here, and it’s in the Kindle Unlimited program. The paperback is available here.

I hope you enjoy the story…


Claude
by Dave Williams

The irony was sad, but at times he found an odd humor in it. The humor helped him avoid thinking a great deal about his vision, because a great deal of worry led to a dark place. Where his eyesight ended before his body did.

The irony: A man had once told Claude, “Your paintings are blurry, sir. As if everything is wrapped in mist. Which is understandable with smoke from trains at the station, but not on rivers and gardens. Perhaps you need spectacles to see the world better and paint clearer lines?”

Claude had told the man the style was purposeful; he and others had a new method of painting that interpreted the world differently than past artists.

The man had given a dismissive wave—disgusting by itself—and said, “These look as if you slapped down paint as quickly as you could. You wanted to rush and finish them so you could have as many as possible to sell?”

“That is not the case,” Claude had said. “I work swiftly to catch the feel of the scene and the look of light at that moment. A great deal of thought goes into them. They are not slap-dash.”

The man had harrumphed. “These aren’t to my taste. Perhaps someone loose with drink would appreciate them, but not me. Good day, sir.”

The man’s false politeness had worsened his insults. Claude had wanted to punch the man in the face, but knew the action would’ve worsened the situation. The man, like many other people decades in the past, had not understood what Claude and his friends were doing with paint. The man had refused to try to understand. He was rigidly stuck in art’s traditions.

Now, Claude’s world outside the paintings had started to blur. One of the issues that came with aging. As with wrinkled skin, less hair atop his head and the remainder turning to white, quicker tiredness, aches. Such was the inevitable with those who managed to live past youth. But to a man who worshiped light and color, the eyesight’s diminishment was concerning to say the least.

And the beginning of that diminishment could’ve contributed to Claude’s frustration that built the longer he studied the canvases meant for an upcoming exhibit in Paris, at the gallery of Paul Durand-Ruel. The paintings weren’t ready. As devastatingly simple as that. A few of them had spent too long on easels, looking overworked. Doubt cast gloom again in his heart, and he slashed those few canvases. The rest, he turned to face the wall. He canceled the exhibit, to Paul’s dismay. But Claude’s dealer would have to manage, as he had for years with artists.

Monet's painting of Venice's Grand Canal, with paint strokes of blue to green to purple to lavender.
“Le Grand Canal, Venice” 1908

Glorious to be in Venice. It was a magical trip to spend with Alice, who had proposed that her husband would benefit from a change of scenery away from Giverny. Alice was correct, and Claude was happy for it.

Venice presented him with a resurgent passion to put oils to canvas and interpret the buildings and canals. And the city provided memories Claude cherished after the tragedy that happened too soon after the journey. Two and a half years afterward, but far too soon. The memories also made him ache, since the married couple never got the chance to return to Venice, as they had hoped.

But hope was alive during bright parts of the trip. Hope in discovering the old city and a new subject to paint, hope in the century that still felt new, eight years into it.

After his hours of painting each day, Claude made sure to include time for walks with Alice and meals at restaurants and gondola rides, which delighted Madame Monet so much she looked practically girlish.

“You can’t get away from bridges and water,” she teased him.

Claude smiled at the insight, although deep meditation had not been required to achieve it. He said, “I can’t help it.”

“Even away from your precious pond, you need the water,” Alice said.

“Not entirely true, my love. I traveled to London a few years ago.”

“And what did you paint? Water and bridges. You went to another place and found yet another river.”

“But in a different light,” Claude said. “The Thames shows itself differently than the Seine and these canals. Everywhere has something particular about it, and I try to capture that. This place has an ancient feeling, like the tales of old.”

“You are hoping princes and princesses will walk about with their attendants, all decked in their finery?” Alice appeared amused.

“That would be splendid,” Claude said. “Perhaps I would sketch them and burn the picture of them in my mind to paint them later.”

“Could we stay long enough for Carnival?” she said. “We could see the revelers in their masks and elaborate costumes. We could even dress up and join the fun.”

Claude hummed pleasurably at the imagined vision of the Venetian celebration. He had heard stories of it. Indeed, those would be marvelous sights, as if entering an olden tale. He told his wife he wasn’t sure if they would stay the through winter, to Carnival. But possibly they could return another year.

After the Monets had settled into their friend Mary Hunter’s home and Claude toured the city for good spots, he set about his work. To capture the light at certain times, he painted in different spots as the day progressed. His subjects were the rows of columns and arches of the Palazzo da Mula, Palazzo Dario, and the Doge’s Palace. The tower and dome of the San Giorgio Maggiore basilica. The domed tops of Santa Maria della Salute on the Grand Canal. His paintings were beginnings, to be finished back in his studio.

The silhouette of a church with brilliant sunset: the sky is red to orange to yellow to blue
“San Giorgio Maggiore au crépuscule” 1908

Alice and Claude took gondola rides at sunsets, gliding on the canals, admiring the proud buildings, poles jutting from the water, other gondolas gliding past. Alice said she felt as if she was dreaming before her head rested on a pillow.

One day, she braved the pigeons in a piazza, letting them alight on her hat and outstretched arms. Not exactly loving the experience, but wanting to try it. Later, she enjoyed telling family and friends of the experience.

Mary Hunter needed to leave the city, and the Monets moved into the Grand Hotel Britannia, whose electric light charmed them. The electric illumination in their hotel suite was especially helpful when, for several days, the October and November’s chill and rain forced Claude indoors, and his mood matched the dreary weather.

“Oh, hush down,” Alice said. “Take this chance to rest your old bones. The rain will eventually pass, and you can go back to tromping the streets, clattering your easel and brushes, making a loud racket.”

Claude grunted and sipped his brandy and followed her suggestion. He was in his late sixties; Alice was four years younger. The rest did them good, despite Claude’s grumblings. Alice’s prediction became true. The sun returned, and with it Claude’s clattering around the streets.

However, the increasing cold finally caused the Monets to leave in early December and head home, where they promptly told workers to install electric lights in the house.

continued on Part 2


copyright © 2020 Dave Williams. All images are from Wikimedia Commons.

Snakecharmer Blues

I’ve started to revist short stories I wrote in the late ’90s, when I submitted them to magazines in the hope for publication. None of the stories were accepted, and they slept for many years in a filing box. This is the first story I revisited, then edited. It felt surreal, of traveling back in time to my younger self. In my mind, I saw the room where I typed the story. I can’t remember all that I thought and felt back then to come up with this story, blending a little mystery into the walk down memory lane.

I hope you enjoy the story…


Snakecharmer Blues
by Dave Williams

Henry Despres knew something was wrong as he sat on the barstool and watched his friend play guitar.

When Louis played in bars before, talking among the bar’s patrons typically stayed to a minimum. Murmurs at some of the tables. Drink orders said to bartenders. Over all of it, the music from Sweeter Than Night was clear.

Not this time. Zeke’s customers chatted, their din competing with the music. The music stayed on top, but not by much, like a wrestler barely outmuscling his opponent.

Up on stage, Louis looked like he was trying too hard. His face was twisted with effort, sweat sliding down his wrinkled forehead and cheeks in thin streams. Blue and purple stage lights danced across his face, giving it an ugly shine. His fingers jerked on the guitar, seemingly attacking the strings to force out each note.

Henry Despres sipped his beer. Shelly was right; the music was off. Henry was glad she had called him several days ago to share the news about her husband, even though the news had arrived in a voice heavy with concern: “He’s been moody. Sometimes he’s really, really happy, like he’s about to burst. Talks up a storm, says we’re gonna do this and that, and things are gonna be great. He’ll go on and on about he’s gonna take me on the road and play in other cities and we’ll have the time of our lives. Then other times he’ll be angry and complain about his boss and how he doesn’t give a shit about Louis and treats him like dirt. And about he doesn’t get the chances he deserves when he can play so good. But Henry, you know how he blew that chance he had.”

Since Shelly had paused, Henry had filled the gap: “Yeah, that was sad. Do you think his moodiness is because of that?”

“Don’t know,” Shelly had said. “Could be. But that was months ago, and he looked like he was rolling with it back then.”

“Maybe he was just acting like he was rolling with it,” Henry had said.

“Yeah,” Shelly had said. “Maybe you’re right. Could you talk with him? See if something’s bothering him that he won’t talk to me about? I know he doesn’t tell me everything. But I’d hope he’d talk to me about important things.”

Henry had said he’d have a chat with Louis, see if he could dig up what was bothering his good friend.

The old Louis bared his soul to the music. Played with every ounce of passion and heart inside him. The crowd in the bar stared at the man at center stage. The music was so mesmerizing, you couldn’t look away. Like a spell was cast over the bar patrons.

And when people danced to the old Louis, they did it with their eyes half-closed. They lost themselves in the music. They forgot about the mundane things of every day. As if in a trance, listeners swayed like wheat in a field blown by wind. Gerard’s drums and Nina’s bass guitar provided the backbone of the blues music played by Sweeter Than Night. Louis’s lead guitar rose and fell in driving riffs, searing to the ceiling, pulling you in, telling you to let go, release your worries and join the dance or sit there and nod your head and tap your feet. The important thing was to let go.

The dancers came to the bar with worries squeezing them into tight balls. Work, bills, rents, mortgages, troubles, regrets, anxieties, frustrations. Within the music, the people uncurled and stretched, writhed and shook their hips.

During each extended song, Gerard and Nina simmered their drums and bass guitar to a low groove, giving space for Louis to explore a freestyling jam, the notes swirling around the dancers. Then the drums and bass picked up volume and speed, catching up to Louis. The three musicians lifted to a peak, sustaining that for an ecstatic moment, ending the song in a long peal from Louis’s guitar. In the sudden silence, the music echoed in everyone’s ears, even seeming to hang in the air, holding on to any auditory crevice, reluctant to leave. Louis spoke banter into the microphone, gave a joke or two, and the band started the next song.

Louis knew he was a snakecharmer.

One night a few years ago, and this was before Louis and Shelly got married, two friends went out on the town. Henry and Louis did that on some weekday nights, since Louis played for crowds on Friday and Saturday nights. The friends listened to other bands. After last call in a bar, they stumbled—clumsy, noisy, bourbon-breathed—to Louis’s apartment. Henry collapsed on the couch.

Louis picked up an acoustic guitar before plunking on an easy chair. His mood fit the style of chair. He strummed a soft mellow rhythm, and said: “Nothing like it. When I’m playing and people’re dancing. Man, it’s a great feeling. And it goes on and on the whole night. Yeah, some of ’em get all drunk and sloppy like us right now, but not all of ’em.”

Henry grinned. Many times, he had heard Louis describe his feelings on playing music. Henry didn’t mind hearing it again. He drifted with the acoustic guitar’s melody and Louis’s words, like the musician was trying his hand and mouth at spoken poetry over music.

“I want to give ’em a break for a night,” Louis said. “Let me take all that sad shit away. And when I’m done, y’all go home and get some sleep and maybe you’re in better shape to deal with your problems in the morning. Not if you’re hung over, though.” Louis chuckled. “Then you got another problem. But everybody needs a break now and then.”

Even drunk, Louis played a good lullaby. Henry passed out on the couch. Like many other nights before Louis got hitched.

Tonight at Zeke’s, however, Louis was charming nobody. Gerard and Nina’s faces were hard to read; you couldn’t tell if they were disappointed in their lead guitarist’s stabbing out notes. Maybe they were used to it.

Henry hadn’t seen Louis play for a good bit. After the wedding, Louis didn’t go out drinking and seeing other bands. Just played with his band at bars. Part of that came with the life change. A newly married man’s friends figured the fresh groom was busy at home once he and the Missus returned home from the honeymoon. Also, Louis had started saying he and Shelly were saving money for a house. Everyone saw it as getting a larger nest to fit a family that planned to expand.

Henry’s focus had shifted to other buddies, work, his own wondering if he should get serious about settling down. Louis and Shelly had hosted Henry at their apartment for dinners, and those were enjoyable, but in a different way than the two bachelors used to spend time.

Taking a swig of beer, Henry remembered Louis’s excitement over the invitation to try out for a record label. A big executive in a pretty suit had asked Louis to “test drive” some songs. That’s the phrase the exec had used. If the test drive went well, they’d make a record and go on tour. Money would be made. Then more records and tours and more money. Louis showed up drunk to the studio and played decently. Far from his best. The exec threw a fit and threw Louis out.

And maybe Louis was merely acting that he was rolling with the smashed chance. Maybe his turmoil grew until it needed a release.

Last night, Shelly had called Henry again and got to the point, her voice cracking: “It’s drugs.”

“What? How … how can you know that? Did you see him take some?”

Shelly had sniffled. “I found a little bag of white powder in his guitar case. In the little box where he keeps picks and extra strings. You know how he always breaks strings.” A pause for another sniffle. “I know, I know. I was snooping. But I felt like I had to, with the way he’s been acting.”

Air seemed to rush out of Henry’s body, leaving him hollow. He had never guessed that as the reason for his best friend’s unusual behavior. Henry had said, “Don’t feel bad about snooping. Probably be a good thing in the long run.”

“If I confront him about this, he might lose his top,” Shelly had said. “That’s how he’s been. You’re gonna talk to him, right?”

“I said I would.”

“Tell me how it goes. I’m really worried.”

The music stopped and the guitarists set down their instruments to scattered applause. Louis approached the bar and smiled when he saw Henry. The friends clasped hands and embraced. Henry felt a familiar comfort he hadn’t realized he sorely missed.

Louis sat on a stool and said, “Been a helluva long time. How’ve you been?”

“Hanging in there,” Henry said. “How about yourself?”

The bartender pushed a drink across the counter to Louis. He hadn’t ordered the drink; it simply arrived.

Louis nodded to the bartender and knocked back some of what looked to be straight bourbon. Louis said, “Surviving. You know how it is.”

“Sometimes I don’t,” Henry said. “You looked mad up there.”

“Think so? Not so much. I’ve just been in a funk.”

“Really? That’s it?”

“Happens to everybody once in a while,” Louis said, his eyes looking annoyed. “Why? Did I sound bad?”

Henry considered a reply other than a rude, but honest, yes. He said, “You didn’t sound like you usually do.”

Louis gave a dismissive wave. “Can’t be on fire all the time, you know. I’ll get back to it soon.”

“Glad to hear it.”

“Listen, let’s catch up more after the show. Have a couple and chill.” Louis took his drink backstage.

Henry supposed he had started too strong in the interrogation. Smarter would’ve been to grease the conversational wheels, then wait till later to bring out the observation about Louis seeming mad and forcing out the music.

In the second set, Louis’s playing was toned down. He came across as tired. As much as Henry hated to admit, Louis was phoning in the performance. Henry and Louis had quickly described other musicians that way, back in their bar-touring days. Now, Henry was reluctant to stick the same label on Louis.

Talking and laughter were easier to hear amid the customers, their attention away from Sweeter Than Night and joshing with each other.

When the music stopped, mediocre applause rewarded the band, then the musicians started packing up the drum kit and other equipment. No encore would happen tonight.

After the stage was cleared, Louis carried his guitar case over to Henry, who finished off his beer. The men waved bye to the bartender and headed out.

“Coffee at the diner?” Louis said.

“How about we walk some?” Henry said. “Be nice to stretch my legs, and I could use the fresh air.”

“You’re not the one who’s been standing for two sets.”

“I’ll carry the guitar,” Henry said. “Let’s go for a little ways, then hit up a diner.”

Louis grunted as he handed over the guitar case. Henry liked the feel of the handle and the appearance of the case, giving him a cooler look—to him, it did. While loving to listen to music, he seemed to have all thumbs when Louis had taught him several chords, and they eventually gave up the lessons.

Small talk started by Henry relaying news about the friends he had hung out with lately. Who had moved to another city. Who had gotten different jobs. A band that broke up. Changes. The city’s buildings stood still, but not much else did.

Louis offered comments, like: “Sam always kept going on about leaving for Chicago. Seemed like he would always think the grass was greener somewhere else.”

They walked without a specific destination, and Henry knew he was putting off the direct questioning to Louis, but Henry enjoyed this quiet time with an old friend. The streets were mostly empty of people, except for small groups of loud folks partying on the young weekend.

Louis said he needed a rest. Since no diner was in sight, the men sat on the front step of a darkened restaurant. Closed up, having fed Friday night customers and waiting until the Saturday lunch crowd. The sign above the door read Fais de Beaux Rêves in ornate lettering. The place looked fancy, the food surely costing more than the men could afford to spend on dinner.

Henry and Louis leaned their backs against the restaurant’s glass door. The guitar case was placed on the sidewalk before them.

Hefting a sigh, Henry said, “I’ve got to get serious. What’s really going on with this funk you’ve got?”

“This again?” Annoyance was spiked in the question. “Like I told you, it happens.”

“Just that I haven’t seen you like that before,” Henry said.

Louis’s eyes settled on him for a stretched moment, as Louis possibly weighed whether to continue pushing back or offer an explanation.

Then came Louis’s decision: “A lotta things’re going on. All those bills and shit. The stack of bills keeps getting higher. You pay one off, and two more take its place. And people’re calling up, asking for shit. Everybody wants a chunk out of you. I’m getting tired of it.”

Progress. A small flame of hope shone in Henry’s heart. He said, “Yeah, I get it. How’re you dealing with it?”

Louis tipped his head in the direction where they had come from. “Back there. Playing’s always been an outlet for me. You know that.”

“Sure, sure. But is it working like it used to?”

“Don’t mess around,” Louis said. “You already know the answer to that.”

“So if it’s not doing the trick, what else you doing?”

“What’s gotten into you? Why all these questions?”

“’Cause I’m worried,” Henry said. “Shelly’s worried. We want to know about what you’re going through.”

The disgust in Louis’s grunt-laugh could’ve offended the restaurant. “She called you. Figures. I should’ve fucking known. You show up out of nowhere. When’s the last time we talked? I should’ve known, hearing you talk like that at the bar after we haven’t seen each other in so long.”

“Sorry for not coming to see you before,” Henry said. “I’m gonna see you more often. Promise.”

“Okay, fine.”

“And, yeah, Shelly called me,” Henry said. “What do you expect? You’ve got her worried. You’re not talking straight to her. She’s your wife, for Christ’s sakes. Think about what that means.”

“You kidding me?” Louis said. “I know what that means. She’s been complaining about me being moody. She nags and nags, won’t give it a rest. I tell her what’s up, same as I just told you, but she keeps nagging at me. So goes and calls you.” He shook his head, apparently in disbelief at Shelly’s action.

Silence took over. They watched the lit sign of Ron’s Bakery across the street. The men sat side by side, but Henry felt they were on different parts of the country. He wondered what Louis was thinking. He missed his friend’s old ways: easy with a laugh and a smile, easy to sit for a bit and talk about anything that came up.

Louis said, “It gets tough. Yeah, I get angry sometimes. Everybody does. You get frustrated and mad at the stupid shit and sometimes I ain’t the best guy to be around. But I get through it. What’s the choice? That or go crazy. Crazy don’t appeal to me.”

“Me neither. I know how you get through it. Shelly told me.”

Louis’s head whipped around, to stare at Henry, and Louis said, “What? What’d she tell you?”

While the earlier part of the conversation had challenged Henry, the next part seemed a wide gap he needed to jump over. Or retreat from. The path would’ve been much smoother—for Henry—if Louis had fessed up.

“I wished it would’ve been booze,” Henry said. “That would’ve made more sense.”

“What’re you talking about? You’re not making sense.”

“Drugs.” Henry closed his eyes as he spoke. “Shelly said she found some in your guitar case.”

As Louis kept quiet, Henry looked over to see his friend staring ahead, with an expression in a mask that offered no evidence of the thoughts behind it. The guitar case also kept silent, with no excuse given for what it could be hiding now.

Louis looked beaten and sad. “I wasn’t looking for it. It wasn’t like that. Shit was getting to me, but I was dealing with it. Trying to, at least. Then one night we had a gig uptown. Classier place than Zeke’s. It was a good chance to get our sound out there more. You never know who’s in the audience. And we played a hot night. I was excited, ’cause we played so good, and a couple guys came up to us afterward. I forget their names. Anyway, they asked if we wanted to go to a party. Gerry and Nina said they were tired and wanted to get home. I was supposed to go back with them in the van, but one of the other guys said he’d drive me home. Said it was on his way, no problem. So I went with them to this sweet apartment. Well, we’re drinking and having a good time. Then somebody breaks this shit out. I’m feeling fine from the playing and the booze, I say, why not, you only live once.”

He didn’t need coaxing. As if he was lifting the secret off his chest. Henry absorbed each word.

“Those guys hooked me up with more of the stuff,” Louis said. “It gives me that same feeling I get when my music’s true and people’re dancing. That same high. Maybe I wouldn’t need the stuff if I had a gig every night. But I don’t. Gotta get through all those work days to get to the gigs. Then the shit piles up and pushes you down. Feels like happiness is so far away, you might never feel it again. But the stuff’s right at hand. When you got it, it is. So you go for that sweetness. It’s not complicated, man. I wanted to forget the pain and feel good.”

Henry waited in case Louis had more to say, but he seemed to have finished his piece. Somebody howled from another block. Sounded like a drunk answering an ancient urge to yell as a wolf at the moon.

“That stuff’s turning you into someone else,” Henry said. “You get that, right?”

Louis gazed at him from the corner of an eye. “Now I do, yeah.”

“I can help,” Henry said. “Shelly, too. Of course she would. You’ve got lots of friends. All of us can help. But you’ve got to be open to that. Are you?”

After a moment, Louis said softly, “Yeah.”

“Good. ’Cause I’ve got to wonder, if you keep playing like you did tonight, that Zeke’s and other places might not ask you to come back.”

“Was it that bad?”

Henry said, “It wasn’t great, I’ll tell you that. I wasn’t kidding when I said I’ll come to your shows more. It was stupid how I got out of the habit. I’ll change that.”

“You better.”

“And you’re welcome to drop by my place anytime,” Henry said. “If you want to sit and have some beers and talk about shit that’s bothering you. If you want to talk to someone besides Shelly.”

Louis nodded. “Yeah, I’d like that.”

As Henry stood, he felt lighter. He’d gotten through what he’d set out to do tonight. And they’d gotten through a difficult conversation. Louis was clearly embarrassed, and there was no need to beat the issue to death.

“Let’s get you home,” Henry said, extending a hand, and Louis clasped it for assistance in standing.

Henry picked up the guitar case. The men began walking back where they came, heading toward the nearest bus stop. Most of the city was asleep on this crisp, cool very early morning. The streetlamps created cones of illumination that broke up the darkness. Their lighted circles on the sidewalk and street could’ve been spotlights on a stage, or islands of hope.

End


copyright © 2021 Dave Williams

Deliveries from Past and Future

Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris

A couple weeks back, I learned a new documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick will be airing tonight on PBS, and last for three nights.

As a teenager, I enjoyed reading Hemingway — along with Stephen King, Tolkein, and comic books. And with the documentary soon arriving, I wondered about writing a short story with him as a character. I did that last year with Claude Monet, and the experiences of researching his life and crafting a story were fascinating: the research breathed life into Monet as a person, rather than a name on plaques next to his paintings in museums, and my attempt to capture some of that breathed life into a story that I hoped respected the man.

I started with Wikipedia’s Hemingway article to see if anything inspired an idea for a story, and I was immediately captured by this part:

In November 1956, while staying in Paris, he [Hemingway] was reminded of trunks he had stored in the Ritz Hotel in 1928 and never retrieved. Upon re-claiming and opening the trunks, Hemingway discovered they were filled with notebooks and writing from his Paris years. Excited about the discovery, when he returned to Cuba in early 1957, he began to shape the recovered work into his memoir A Moveable Feast.” — Wikipedia

I hadn’t heard of that event in Hemingway’s life, and the good fortune of it connected with me to begin a story. I made up a character, Lucien Clement, who claims to have known Hemingway in the ’20s and suggests the two of them spend a day visiting cafés and other spots that they frequented back then.

So I ask for the reader’s indulgence with the fictional actions and dialogue. Although, the locations are real.


Deliveries from Past and Future
by Dave Williams

The bearded man was so engrossed reading the newspaper article, he didn’t hear the question spoken by the bald man standing by him.

The bald man repeated the question, a notch louder—but not enough to be considered rude in the café of the Ritz Hotel: “Pardon?”

The bearded man gazed upward, supposing the person was the waiter. However, the standing man didn’t wear the formal uniform of a waiter. The bearded man said, “What is it?”

“I believe you are the person I seek,” the bald man said. “But I wish to check before I make a fool of myself. Are you the American writer Ernest Hemingway?”

The bearded man sized up the other man, done from the disadvantage of seated while the other stood. The bald man appeared to be in his early sixties, a little older than himself. The bald man had spoken with a French accent.

“I am,” the bearded man said. “Who are you?”

“Lucien Clement.” He extended a hand, which Hemingway clasped. Clement said, “We met many years ago, when you lived in Paris. I heard you were in town and I hoped to track you down. A wonderful opportunity to chat with you again.”

Hemingway squinted at the standing man. “You say we chatted back then? I don’t remember you. Did we talk only once?”

“More than that,” Lucien Clement said. “We talked in Madame Stein’s salons and the occasional café.”

After mentally reviewing the faces of people he had encountered thirty-plus years ago, Hemingway couldn’t find any who matched the face before him. But that could’ve been due to the man’s lack in standing out from the many people whom Hemingway had met. “I don’t remember you.”

“Ah, that is not a surprise,” Clement said, then smiled. “In the story of your life, I am a minor character. A very minor one. May I join you?”

Curiosity caused Hemingway to point his opened hand to the empty seat across the table. As the bald man sat, Hemingway said, “What are you playing at? Are you really a reporter trying to dig up dirt?”

Clement wore a sad expression. “I assure you I am not, sir. I could think of some incident or conversation from back then, and tell you. Would that convince you?”

“You could’ve read about it in the papers,” Hemingway said.

The waiter arrived and asked if the new gentleman would like to order. Clement asked for a café au lait, the same beverage in Hemingway’s cup. Hemingway asked for a refill. Clement put forth another request: if the waiter could ask Monsieur Ritz to pay them a visit.

Once the waiter departed, Hemingway said, “You know Charley?”

“A mutual friend of ours,” Clement said. “He is the reason I am here. He told me you are in Paris. He will vouch for me, that I am not a reporter.”

Hemingway was pleased. “I’d trust Charley’s word.”

“A trustworthy gentleman,” Clement said. “One who would keep a customer’s steamer trunks and not throw them in the rubbish.”

A chuckle came from Hemingway. “Old Charley told you about that, did he? That was a special moment. Day before yesterday, me and Charley and Aaron were having lunch here. Charley tells me outta nowhere that two of my trunks are in the basement.” Hemingway chuckled again. “Who would’ve thought? I figured they were lost. But Charley tells me nope, they’ve been stored away ever since the ’20s.”

“What a fantastic gift,” Lucien Clement said. “Those trunks even survived through a war.”

The last word darkened Hemingway’s face. “The damnable Nazis would’ve taken the trunks if they knew they were here. They stole a great deal of art in their invasions.”

“You had stories in the trunks? Your stories as art?”

“No,” Hemingway said. “They had a mish-mosh, clothes and letters and the like. But most important, my notebooks were still there. Notebooks filled with what I was up to back then.”

“Marvelous.” Clement grinned. “It is as if your younger self came back to talk with you.”

Pausing to think, Hemingway then said, “An odd way to describe it. But, yes, I suppose it’s like that.”

The waiter delivered two cups of café au lait on the table, said Monsieur Ritz would arrive shortly, and removed Hemingway’s old saucer and cup.

After Clement sipped the coffee and remarked on its good taste, Charles Ritz arrived tableside and bid good morning to the seated men. Thin mustached and wearing suit and tie, Charles said, “Ah, Lucien, good to see you’ve caught up to Papa.”

“Indeed,” Clement said.

“You know this fellow?” Hemingway said.

“Yes, yes, Lucien and I have been friends for many years,” Charley Ritz said.

“And he rambled around with us battered people back then?”

“He did,” Charley Ritz said. “Sometimes we talk of the old days. But we talk more of the present days. For some reason, he likes listening about my fly-fishing trips.”

Clement said, “I’ve told you. I like to imagine myself in the streams, forest all around.”

The three men made small talk, then Charles Ritz excused himself, saying he needed to return to his office. Clement asked Hemingway if the character reference satisfied Hemingway’s doubt. The writer said it did.

“I have a proposal for you,” Clement said. “If you are not busy today, I would enjoy visiting some café that were your favorites back then. A walk through memories. And I would very much like to talk about your books.”

Hemingway stroked his beard while mulling over the proposal. He had planned to read his notebooks, which he had done yesterday and the afternoon on the day before that. Yet here was the chance to revisit the old times in familiar places with an unfamiliar man, who might remember things that Hemingway had forgotten.

“I’m game,” Hemingway said. “Let’s do it.”

*****

From statue to statue, the taxi crossing the Seine between them. Outside the Ritz Hotel, a tall column — its bronze turned green — with Napoleon looking small as he stood on the column’s far top. Then, after the taxi stopped, the statue of Marshal Ney was seen much closer to the ground. Also green tinted, the marshal held a sword aloft.

Hemingway went to stand by the statue and thought, You’re as strong as ever, my old friend.

The writer was warmly welcomed in La Closerie des Lilas. Inside the restaurant, Hemingway acted cordially to the staff while memories flooded his mind. Writing alone and nursing coffee. Talking with Ezra. Reading Scott’s book about the rich bootlegger with an unpleasant, garish cover of a woman’s sad eyes and lips hovering in the night sky over a glowing city. Celebrating with Joyce over Syvia’s decision to publish his rambling novel about a man rambling about his town.

Much had happened among these red-backed booths, mahogany bar, and terrace bordered with lilacs—which were hibernating in this November chill. Other patrons were here and there. Two ladies chatted at a table; two men at another.

As Hemingway and Clement sat and ordered lunch, they overheard the men at the other table discussing French military action in Egypt. One man’s opinion was that more soldiers should’ve been sent in to ensure the Suez Canal was taken. The second man disagreed, saying the soldiers were needed more in Algiers, to put down the guerillas.

“Both conflicts are horrific,” Clement said to his lunch partner. “Man rushes too quickly to violence. The leaders should’ve tried harder to talk through our differences. That would save many lives.”

“War is dirty business,” Hemingway said. “I was reading about Egypt when we met. But that looks to be over quicker than Algiers. That’s much nastier.”

“Did your character do something similar?” Clement said. “Roger, I think his name is? From your book named for a tolling bell?”

Hemingway didn’t try to cover his distaste for Clement’s mistakes. “The book is For Whom the Bell Tolls, and the man’s name is Robert Jordan. And you’re wrong. They aren’t similar. Far from it. Robert blew up a bridge to help the guerrillas fight fascists. They aren’t guerrillas in Algiers. They’re terrorists that target civilians. That’s despicable.”

Clement, forearms on the table, opened his hands, palms up—as if to receive a bowl. “Please pardon me. I meant no offense. A time has passed since I read the book. I forgot that detail.”

“It’s an important one.”

“You are right, of course,” Clement said. “Could you tell me of your experiences in the Spanish Civil War? And how that led to the book? I’m very interested.”

Hemingway took a drink of the red Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine. Did he want to sit here and chat, after this Clement tried to equate terrorists with Robert Jordan? Except, the man could’ve made a mistake. He would give the fellow a chance. The day could still bear fruit. The fellow could’ve turned out to be a living embodiment to the notebooks. Filling gaps in Hemingway’s memory.

That would have to wait, if Hemingway was to indulge Clement’s request. Hemingway found no reason to deny it. He didn’t have to offer keen details, more of an outline. So he spoke of Spain, that beautiful, sun-drenched country, in a far different time than his earlier visits of chumming with friends and watching bullfights. The fighting had turned into the mess that men wreak on other men. And that time, Hemingway’s chums were reporters. Including Martha.

Clement made for an attentive audience. Listening while eating haddock, poached egg, and spinach in butter cream sauce — further lubricated with Pouilly Fuisé. Hemingway took breaks in his storytelling to chew forkfuls of filet of beef, fired with bourbon, and potatoes.

*****

Lunch had stretched from food with wine to just wine. Conversation had stretched from Spain to the ’20s, particularly of happenings inside La Closerie des Lilas.

Revisiting the memories brought a sadness to Hemingway. Some of those friends were no longer around: Gertrude, Scott, Joyce. Less painful to envision them as they had been rather than of the hole they had left. Better images showed when they were vigorous and exchanged ideas and argued and drank deep of life. As if each was a sculptor working on the sculpture of himself or herself, and contributing to the sculptures of their friends.

Back then they had no way of knowing about their futures, which were shrouded in mystery. Some people had met some successes in their arts. Others had written fine stories that did not excite the reading public. When he died, poor Scott had been the name of a chap from the Roaring Twenties. But Scott would’ve been over the moon if he’d been alive when the bootlegger book became popular, even given out to troops during the Second World War.

Hemingway and Clement crossed the short distance from the restaurant to Jardin des Grands Explorateurs. A break from eating and sitting.

Yet again, Hemingway fantasized for the health of his younger years. Walking would’ve been more enjoyable without discomfort. An obvious frustration of growing old was not being able to do what you used to, but crashes through the years had accelerated that trajectory for him.

Even with that, Hemingway was grateful to be outside and breathing the crisp air in Paris. He had always loved the city’s display of elegance through architecture and cafés and flowers and bridges. And, as this garden of explorers exemplified, through statues and rows of trees. At one garden’s side, a large fountain’s statuary of turtles spewed water toward the rearing horses in the fountain’s center.

The opposite side of the garden led to the Jardin du Luxembourg that expanded in width and depth. Here, the trees created hedge-like walls. The tree trunks were bare of branches from earth up to perhaps five feet, where branches began. The branches were trimmed, and the trees grew so close together, that the branches and leaves formed uniform walls in rows. Now they were orange walls, the color glowing in the sun.

“You told me before,” Clement said, “how you walked in these gardens to keep your mind away from food. I thought that was a good way to focus your thoughts. I enjoy walking here and try to let my thoughts wander. It’s beautiful. A garden of Eden within the city.”

“Doesn’t feel like Eden to me.” Hemingway gestured to the groups of people seated on chairs and benches. “All these folks instead of God’s array of animals.”

“They do take away from the Eden idea, yes,” Clement said. “I see them as islands scattered in the streams of pathways.”

Hemingway peered at his companion. “A curious way to say it. What do you do?”

Clement seemed pleased to be asked about himself, instead of the conversation centering on Hemingway. Clement said, “I am a philosopher. I teach, I publish books.”

“Books, huh?” Hemingway’s peering grew in curiosity. “Would I have heard of them?”

“I doubt you would,” Clement said. “They are not as successful as yours, but I like to imagine they have shaken up the thoughts of one or two people. They are thinking books, not books of action like yours.”

Only action?”

“No, no, please do not get the wrong impression,” Clement said. “The places in them are quite important. War, of course. And the sea. I much admired The Old Man and the Sea. It felt right to me. To my time in life. An old man struggles against a mighty fish. That fish could be other things to other old men and women. All of us have struggles. And they feel more difficult as we grow older.”

“They sure as hell do.”

“Would you like to see my books?” Clement asked. “I know a good bookstore.”

“Me too. There’s a decent chance both of us are thinking of the same one.”

They had reached the large octagonal fountain somewhat in the middle of the garden. Behind the fountain stood Palais du Luxembourg, looking like the stately home of a lord amid his richly manicured estate.

Heading east would’ve been shorter to reach a street on which to hail a taxi, but Clement requested they walk in the other direction, to stop at the Statue of Liberty before leaving the garden. Hemingway said that was fine. For him, seeing the statue had always caused the odd sensation of déjà vu. Before Paris, he had been used to Lady Liberty associated with New York City. However, here it stood. Different size, different place. As if the statue had decided to take a vacation and shrank to fit within airplane regulations. The vacation had turned into a permanent home.

*****

The smell of Shakespeare and Company was particular to the store, not the place—since the bookstore’s location had change from when Hemingway went there in the ’20s to now. From Rue de l’Odéon, a short walk north from Luxembourg Gardens, to next to the Seine on Rue de la Bûcherie, a farther walk from the gardens. Or a short taxi ride.

The shop made Hemingway think of learning and generosity. Of course customers could buy books, but the store also served as a library and temporary flat. Sylvia had generously allowed Hemingway to borrow books, and he had absorbed stories of Russian masters. A blessing to one with very few francs in his pocket. The single bed on the store’s second floor had been used by many travelers. Finding a refuge to rest during their journeys.

As Hemingway and Clement said “bonjour” to the clerk behind the counter, Hemingway thought of how some women consistently wore a signature perfume, so one associates a perfume’s aroma with specific woman.

Every available space on the walls’ shelves was fit with books. Spines stood and spines lay flat, as pieces in a puzzle. Hemingway had never seen another bookshop as crammed with books, and the bursting-at-the-seams image gave him comfort. Books should be treasured, and this place did that.

Clement led them to the philosophy section, moved his finger along the book spines as a guide for his eyes, found two books, slid them out, and handed them to Hemingway. On the cover of Babel d’escaliers et d’arcades, an illustration of a circular staircase heading up—or down—with no beginning or ending. On the cover of Un palais infini, a room with an archway leading to another room, repeating in the distance, reducing in size until the rooms and archways reached a vanishing point. Lucien Clement’s name was on the bottom of both books.

Hemingway easily translated the titles: “Babel of stairs and arcades. Infinite palace.” Flipping through Babel, he asked, “What are these about?”

Clement suggested they head up to the second floor to talk. They ascended the creaky staircase then walked to the front room with windows offering views of the Seine and Notre Dame. This room gave sources of warmth to Hemingway: sunlight, walls of books, joys he had of reading here. Chairs were next to two walls, and one chair was occupied by a lady who looked up from her book as the men entered.

“This is fortuitous,” Clement said as he and Hemingway sat on chairs in the row opposite to the lady. “When we were younger, you and I chatted for much of an afternoon here. Perhaps the only time we talked one on one.”

After a moment of thought, Hemingway said, “I don’t remember that. What we talk about?”

“Many things. I do not remember all the details, but I remember we talked of Proust, Dumas, Baudelaire, and Henri Bergson. I am sure there were others, but they do not come to mind.”

Hemingway chuckled. “That could’ve been in any conversation I had with any of my chums back then in any café.”

“As with me,” Clement said. “But I know it was here. You spoke of your admiration of In Search of Lost Time, of Proust’s concentration on his growing up. Although you found it long-winded and too long. You particularly enjoyed his recollection of the madeleines that Proust dipped in tea. How he could still remember that taste.”

“I still like that.” Hemingway smiled. “Something strong that sticks with you.”

“That influenced me in my philosophy.” Clement tipped his head toward the two books Hemingway held on his lap. Clement said, “Along with Bergson. He was a big influence.”

“And what is that philosophy? What is this Tower of Babel and this palace?” Hemingway’s finger tapped the top book, the one with stairs on the cover.

“They are us,” Clement said. “You, me, everyone. The titles try to tell the idea that we are constantly evolving and recreating ourselves.”

“Think so? So we don’t stay the same?”

“In some ways, yes,” the philosopher said. “But in other ways, we keep changing. Some ways are small. Others are larger, such as marrying your lover and becoming a parent.”

“Sure, sure, but those happen just a few times in a person’s life. Some more than others, of course.” Hemingway appeared wistful.

“Ah, the small changes are those we change more often,” Clement said. “That connects with my beliefs about time. I am not the first to come up with these beliefs. But I like to imagine that I have put my own fine point on them.”

“What, that we walk around and around some stairs somewhere and never reach the top?”

Clement grinned. “Close, actually. Time is a line and a spiral. We measure time, of course. Second after second. Counting them all the way up to days and years and more. That is the line. But it is only one way to think of time. There are other ways. Time is relative to each person and that person’s mood in the moment.”

“Okay,” Hemingway said. “Einstein came up with that idea.”

“Indeed,” Clement said. “To me, however, there is more complexity. How we see time on a large scale, more than a mere moment. How we see a year passing, a decade passing. A boy turns twenty years old, and his parents say, ‘Where did the time go? Wasn’t our son just a child a year ago? How did our son grow from five years old to twenty in the blink of an eye?’ I do not have children, but I have heard many parents say such a comment.”

“Same here.”

Clement continued, “Time changes in our mind. Our memories of the past change as we age. Our thoughts of the future also change. When we are young, our life feels that it will last forever. We cannot see the end. As we age, we know more about how there is an ending. And as we grow older, our sense of self changes. And we change our memories. For example, we can change memories that make us feel shame. We do that to soften the shame and make ourselves feel better. That is how we constantly evolve.”

Hemingway scratched his neck below his beard. “Interesting food for thought.”

“Much of what I believe is from Bergson. I fear I am a pale imitation of Bergson. His ideas have fascinated me, and I have added my own thoughts to them. But I am not a world-changer. Not like you.”

“You’ve contributed to the world,” Hemingway said as he tapped the book again.

“I tried.” Clement cleared his throat before shifting the conversation: “That is part of why I wished to talk with you today. Not just to reminisce, but to see how the discovery of your notebooks has affected you. A delivery from your past self. Does it change how you see the future?”

“Not really, no. Why would it? It’s about the past.”

“How about we talk about that over dinner?” Clement asked. “I could use the sustenance.”

“Fine. I could eat.”

Clement gazed out of the windows before they left, and he said, “I enjoy the afternoon sunlight in the city. What seemed true at the first light of dawn becomes more complicated. More nuanced.”

Hemingway followed the view of the river, church, and other buildings. “I don’t agree about nuanced. But the sun certainly changes throughout the day.”

*****

The taxi brought the gentlemen to Montparnasse, a street full of restaurants, to the corner where Le Dôme Café stood. Elegant as she always was. The warm lighting invited you inside, and once inside, you were embraced by its refined softness against the wood of the walls.

Tabled, Hemingway and Clement began with a dozen marennes oysters each and shared a bottle of Sancerre. They chose to not resume the paused conversation until the oysters were eaten. The combination of the sea and Paris was too delectable to move their focus elsewhere; the food and wine demanded their attention.

As the men sipped wine after a waiter took away the empty oyster trays, Clement said, “A marvelous way to continue our day. We are feasting our way through the past. A feast that moves from café to café and through our memories. A moveable feast, if you will?”

“Possibly,” Hemingway said. “I’d have to think that one over. Now what’s this business about how I see the future?”

Clement’s grin exuded warmth like the restaurant’s small lamps. “I meant if it changes your plans for the future. What of writing a book of your adventures? I imagine many people would find such a book interesting. I would. And not just for people who were there. People who are too young to have lived in that time.”

Hemingway scanned the other patrons, noting the ones who appeared young enough to fit that category. “The idea’s got merit, I’ll give you that.”

“It is a gamble I would take,” Clement said. “It would be history. A glimpse at another era through your eyes. But not just any era, but a time of much change. Picasso was changing art, James Joyce with literature. And you could write of your love for Paris. How the city is a celebration.”

“You know, I think you’re on to something there.”

“The notebooks are gifts,” Clement said. “That won’t happen with the suitcase Hadley lost at the train station.”

The door closed on Hemingway’s budding enthusiasm, replaced by bitterness unsmoothed after more years since the two trunks were left at the Ritz. In the early ’20s. Winter. Hadley boarded a train at Gare de Lyon to meet him in Geneva. She left the suitcase to buy refreshment. A spineless coward stole the suitcase while she was gone. Nearly all his manuscripts were in that suitcase. The thievery broke Hemingway into pieces which took a while to reassemble.

“Why the hell would you bring that up?” Hemingway demanded.

Clement spread his fingers. “My apologies. I meant no offense. I wished to show how a loss usually remains a loss. Not with your notebooks, however.”

The tension hung above the table as the waiter arrived and delivered plates: roasted turbo with hollandaise for Clement, sole meunière for Hemingway, who ordered another bottle of Sancerre. Neither man ate while the tension stayed.

“You’d have to know that’s a sore spot for me,” Hemingway said.

“Understandable,” Clement replied. “It was a great shame. And it serves to show how rare this event. Time has spiraled backward and created a loop.”

“You’re speaking English, but I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”

Clement said, “Please give me a few minutes to explain. When I was a younger man, I had hair on my head. Now it grows on the sides and back, but I shave it off.” The philosopher slid a hand on his bald head. “When you were a younger man, you wore a black mustache. Now you have a white beard. Of course this happens naturally as we age. Black to white. As if we switch sides on a chess board.”

“What does facial hair have to do with chess?”

“Merely a symbol for what I mean,” Clement said. “Please, we need to start this meal. We do not want it to get cold. Bon appétit, my friend.”

Hemingway didn’t argue, and the men ate a couple bites of the fish on the white octagonal plates. The delicious food helped calm Hemingway’s annoyance.

“We get older and our view of the world changes,” Clement said. “Similar to switching sides in chess. Here is your chance to switch sides back to your younger self with that admirable mustache.”

“You have a strange way of talking.”

“Perhaps because I am a philosopher,” Clement said. “Perhaps it is individual to who I am. But I try to communicate how the notebooks can rejuvenate you. I remember you and your wife were in horrible crashes a couple years ago.”

Just when Hemingway was heading toward a properly pleasant mood for dining in such a restaurant, he was yanked back to gloom. Up to the tragedies, the trip in Africa had been refreshing. In an aerial safari over the Belgian Congo, he and Mary were having a grand time. The plane’s wing collided with an electrical pole. Bruised, the Hemingways aimed to fly the next day to a city with a hospital. During take-off, the second plane burst into flames in a hellish scene. Ernest and Mary finally made it to that hospital, where he had the surreal experience of reading his obituaries in newspapers. That same year, he had won the Nobel.

Fortune smiled at you, but she also spit in your face. Or, like a boxer, landed two consecutive punches on your jaw because her hands were so quick, you didn’t see them flying at you.

Through the gloom, Hemingway could still see the lantern held by the odd man across the table. A rejuvenation. Hemingway had finished a set of short stories before embarking for Europe. Those stories were fine. Now he could head in a different direction. One that could breathe the vitality of youth into his battered body. A hopeful direction of new works and finished ones he’d started years ago.

Hemingway gently swirled his wine glass, sniffed the wine before sipping the cool liquid. He said, “I’m going to give it a shot. This book. But no more of this strange talk. And after this, I’m heading to Harry’s for a stiffer drink. Nobody makes a better cocktail than at Harry’s.”

Clement, clearly enjoying the writer’s decisions, said, “And I would very much like to join you with that drink.”

End


copyright © 2021 Dave Williams