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Hemingway in New Orleans

"Is there time left for me to tell about the day that I met Hemingway?"


We had just discussed "The Three Day Blow," with more argument and laughter than usual. No one in the book club felt ready to leave Papa yet. Our response was enthusiastic, and surprised. Ruth was the one in the group whose comments were invariably academic. To our expectant attention she now pursed her lips and lowered her eyes. Her left hand rose from her lap to smooth the unruffled neckline of her sweater. She began her recitation:


"Just after I was married, I lived for a while in New Orleans, in the French Quarter. I was new there, from New England, a stranger in a strange land. I had nothing to do, nobody to see, and I fell into the habit of walking up and down the French Quarter."


Someone laughed, "Oho, better watch how you say that!" We all laughed except Ruth, already steeped in her story. She just smiled politely and resumed:


"I used to stop in a bookstore and struck up an acquaintance with the owner. She sold no new books. All old, all used, many first editions. In short, an ideal bookstore. I had my eye on Wharton's Age of Innocence, first printing. But that was the Depression, remember. My husband and I were two living as cheaply as one, true, but there was no money to spare for special books. Over the course of a year, however, I saved up my pennies and kept a proprietary eye on this edition. Each time I returned to the store I looked for it, and when I saw it there, I felt a rush of relief and hope. I stroked the binding as you might run your hand along the spine of a cat.


"One day I was caught in a sudden, vigorous thunderstorm. I could have ducked into any shop, but I ran two blocks to my bookstore and arrived dripping wet. The owner gave me a towel for my hair, offered me a cup of hot tea. Our conversation turned to Hemingway, because I observed that she had a lot of his books on a shelf near the register. She asked me whether I liked his writing, and I said I had never read him. I commented that, judging from the quantity of his books still in the shop, he lacked a devoted following.


"'Au contraire,' she told me.' He is particularly popular here. He keeps an apartment in the Quarter, and we always hope he'll write about us.'


"I asked if he ever came in the bookstore.


"'Oh yes,' she said.'Often. In fact, he's standing right now in the doorway.'


"I turned to see the renowned expatriate and beheld the filthiest human being I have ever seen. He had a beard—no, not a beard—it wasn't formed in any way. Mere growth, patchy and straggling, hung from his jowls, several weeks old. Hair greasy and long. Fingernails black and ragged. Eyes bright blue and shot through with red lines. Were I a child, I should have been terrified.


"He mumbled a greeting to the owner and took no notice of me. After rummaging through some books, he approached the counter. When he asked what new books had come in, my acquaintance took the opportunity to introduce me, and I surprised myself by asking:


"If I buy one of your books, Mr. Hemingway, would you sign it for me?


"He frowned, or smirked I should say, and grumbled, 'No. I never sign books people have bought. I only sign books I give away.'


"His gruffness was not unexpected. What did amaze me was that he picked up an edition of For Whom the Bell Tolls, asked me to repeat my name, and he wrote on the flyleaf: 'To Ruth, in a storm.' He paid for the book and placed it in my hand."


Each of us in the book club that night was impressed, congratulatory, good-naturedly envious. Someone asked, "Do you still have that book today?"


"No.I never even read it."


"You've never read For Whom the Bell Tolls!"


"Never. I was so repulsed by the appearance of this man that I never wanted to read anything he had written. Until this short story tonight, I never have."


Into an awkward silence she added:


"I gave the book to a friend, who appreciated it as it was probably meant to be appreciated."


As the group broke up, someone speculated, "It must be worth thousands today."


Going through the door, Ruth said smugly, "Last I checked, a signed, first edition of that novel was worth over $8,000. But my friend no longer has it, either. She moved to the Gulf Coast, a year before Hurricane Camille hit. That book, her library, her whole house, were blown away.In a storm."

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Comments 1

Jan Olsen on Monday, 12 November 2018 09:53

It is a sad story, many tiers, tears. It is a good and very powerful story Mary.

It is a sad story, many tiers, tears. It is a good and very powerful story Mary.
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Monday, 06 December 2021

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