This is the first of a two-part excerpt from a collection of linked stories entitled “Lost Paris.” Read the second part here. Copyright is held by the author.
25th September 1926 – Gare de Lyon, Paris
EZRA POUND lounged in a chair at a café table outside Le Train Bleu, watching his friend approach from the main stairs of the station. Hemingway looked tired, poor devil. He sat down in the chair opposite him.
“Well?” said Hem.
“Wot ya recon, sir?” said Ezra.
“I don’t know.”
“Thanks for coming for my grand send-off.”
“You feeling better?”
“Still entirely wore aht. The medicos gave me all the possible taps, tests, analyses, etc. I suppose at this point, I’m just suffering from health.” He sighed. “I’ll be glad to get back to Rapallo, that’s all I know.”
“I dunno. We’ve arrived at some kind of impasse.”
“And Omar?” said Hem. “What about him? It’s doing my head in right now, being separated from Bumby. You don’t know what it’s like. We’re talking about your own flesh and blood, here.”
“You know my feelings on them thar bambinos, now. They’re not conducive to the woild of letters.”
“That’s a damn cold way to look at it, Ezra. I got lots of writing done when Bumby was a newborn. You adapt. Your whole life changes . . . for the better.”
Ezra smiled. “I remember your tone wasn’t so sanguhween at the news of Hadley being pregnant.”
“Maybe,” he said. “But you need to give yourself time to fall in love with your own child. That’s not going to happen if you’re a thousand miles away.”
“Are you going to have a coffee?”
“What time is your train?”
Ezra looked across at the big clock above the main platform. “Twenty minutes.” He drained the remains of his own cup, which had been cold for almost an hour.
“I won’t, then.”
They stood up and Ezra began picking up his cases. Ernest helped him with his trunk, lugging it across the crowded lobby of the train station, scene of all Ezra’s leave-takings from this, his one-time home.
“Oh, I just heard from Mr. Anthill that he’s up and about,” said Ezra. “Nasty bout with pneumonia, it turns out.”
“Good for George,” said Hem. “Figured he was young enough to kick it. I heard his concert got a little crazy… sorry I missed it.”
“What about you, Hem? When are you going to get out of this damn purgatory and get on with your life?”
“I wish. Hadley’s hundred days just started and I don’t know how I’m going to make it.”
“Them females sure know how to build us our own poihsonalized Hades, don’t they? Fer Khrrisst’s sake, why don’t you just break free and go be with Pauline over yonder in Piggott, Arkansas?”
“Can’t. Hadley won’t give me my divorce without this separation from Pauline for the hundred days and Pauline can’t have her Catholic wedding without the divorce. If I don’t kill myself first.”
There was no humour in this remark. Hem looked like a man who had just taken a bullet for a friend and now he was looking for a leather belt to bite down on while they took it out with some whiskey and a dagger.
“Hang in there, Hem, old boy,” said Ezra, patting him on the shoulder. “This, too, shall bloody well pass.”
“Yes, but so, so slowly.”
Ezra put down his bags to wait. He knew that Hem’s numero uno reason for staying away, truth be told, was more mercenary, related to staying abroad until the end of the year to avoid paying income tax, some scheme Congress had passed for artists, but he saw no reason to mention this and make the man uncomfortable.
They looked off down the tracks at the train rolling towards where they stood on the platform. The same train on which Hadley had left the suitcase with all Hem’s early manuscripts, including his first novel, now lost forever to some railway thief while Hadley was off getting a lemonade or a newspaper or sumfink. Probably best not to mention that little episode, either.
“Ezra,” said Hem without looking at him. “After things settle down and you and Dorothy get back together, I want you to consider having Omar come to live with you both. You’re a father, now, and that little boy will need you. Don’t let him grow up without knowing you.”
Ezra looked at his friend, who had tears in his eyes. He reached out and shook his hand, patting his shoulder at the same time.
“You’re a good man, Hem,” he said. “As for me, I’ve been stuck living with one woman pregnant and the other one furious for a year and a half. Haven’t been able to hear myself cogitate in the slightest. The last baby is out and on its way to a nurse’s cottage and there’s an end to it. I’m going home to be by myself for a while. Maybe get to work on that journal I’ve been meaning to get started.”
Hem nodded. “Good-bye, my friend. I wish you the best of damn luck.”
“You, too,” said Ezra. “You and Pauline should come and visit me in Rapallo once all this is over. Being by the sea is good for the soul.”
“We might just do that. You still owe me a game of tennis.”
The train doors opened and Ezra gave his bags to the porter, shook hands with his friend one last time, said his good-byes and best regards to and climbed up the steps to find his seat. He was on his way back to his normal life at last.
Dear E.P.’s Parents,
Just a quick note to let you know the baby has arrived and everybody is well. We name him Omar to keep up the poetic tradition. It seems to suit him admirably also. He appears small, neat, very philosophic, and at present the eyes, dark blue, are also in the picture. He has a comical crop of dark brown hair, increasing. I hope you won’t be too shocked to hear he is not to return with us to Rapallo just at present. He has already been deposited, in a nice cradle (chosen by my mama) in a little-house-with-garden just outside Paris. Madame Collignon has two children of her own and knows all about bottles and milk and such like . . . I am anxious to get back now to Rapallo and the terrazza.
Ten Days Earlier – 15th September 1926 – Montparnasse, Paris
Hemingway walked along Boulevard du Montparnasse with the slip of paper in his hands, looking down each side street and alley as he passed. He had crossed over the Rue du Cherche-Midi and was almost as far as the Rue de Sèvres when he found the alley he was looking for, the one where the studio of the sculptor Brancusi was located. It was a modest-looking, mostly non-descript shed with lots of skylights and probably a very low rent. Might have been an abandoned workshop or smithy which changed gears when the artists began invading the Quarter.
He knocked on the door, waited a minute, and then knocked again. He placed his ear against the door and held his breath and finally heard a shuffling sound coming from within. The door opened and there stood Pound, his thick, tawny hair in disarray and his neck scarf hanging limply, upside-down, over a dingy-looking white shirt with the collar askew. He looked grubby, his eyes bleary from sleep.
“Mr. Hemingway,” he said. “You keep tracking me down. How did you find me this time?”
“Well, Mr. Pound,” said Hem. “You’ve spent so much of your time looking after others; you shouldn’t be surprised when we want to return the favour. I heard it from Sylvia, who heard it from Man Ray when he came into Shakespeare & Company and told her about the drink he’d had with Brancusi, who was complaining about his melancholy house guest.”
He sighed. “Of course. Well, c’mon in.”
Pound shuffled back across the studio to a couch carved out of half a tree, covered by a cushion and draped in a dirty sheet. He lay down on it with one long exhalation of breath. Hem closed the door behind him, picked up a chair and put it down next to the head of the couch and sat down facing Ezra.
He looked around the room at the many sculptures, some of which looked complete, maybe, and others which looked to be still in progress. Some could’ve been pillars made of repeating shapes stretching almost to the ceiling. Strange, handmade-looking furniture was all over the room. There was a giant stone slab table in front of a primitive fireplace and a fine film of plaster dust covered everything. A workbench which ran the length of one wall was full of every kind of sculptor’s tools. He blinked and turned his attention to his friend.
“How are you, Ezra? Are you getting out at all?”
Ezra sighed again and rubbed his forehead with the back of his hand. “I’m just so damn tired, Hem.”
“Are you writing?”
“No. Things are feeling very . . . um, pointless right now.” His voice quit for a moment and he appeared to be suppressing a sob. “We lost it all, Hem. Some of the best of our generation just . . . gone forever. And for what? An old bitch gone in the teeth. A botched civilization.”
“Yes, well, I’m sure we’ve all felt that way. But you don’t need to solve the world’s problems, Ezra. You’re a father, now. You just need to pull yourself together for your son.”
“I can’t do it.” He shook his head.
“Sure you can. Let’s go get some good strong coffee and a croissant at the Dome. We’ll take a walk around the Jardin du Luxembourg, clear your head.”
“Hem,” he said. “I haven’t been off this couch since you and I went to Neuilly a few days ago. I’m just sleeping or not sleeping or having black ideas all the time. I don’t think coffee is gonna cut it.” He laughed a short laugh. “Nope.”
“Now don’t crack up on me, Ezra. I’m not having the best time of it myself right now. I’m not sleeping at all. Separated from the woman I love, my own kid, my home. Staying in Gerald Murphy’s studio by myself. Got this horrific case of piles you wouldn’t believe… even had to cancel my bicycle trip to Marseilles. Sometimes suicide seems like my only option.”
Ezra looked at him for a beat and then smiled. “That’s real helpful, Hem. Thanks for all the cheerin’ up, ya hear?”
Hem broke into a smile and then laughed at himself. “But you have to stay strong, that’s what I’m trying to say. You have people depending on you. So do I.”
Ezra nodded, staring off at the fireplace.
“Maybe it’s time to get a little help. See what the doctors have to say.”
“You mean the fifth floor?” Ezra looked at him.
“Is that where they had you the last time? I mean, it seemed to help. At least it will give you a rest and let them check you out.”
“You might be right.”
“A nice hospital bed would have to be better than that hollow log you’ve been sleeping in.”
“It’s not bad, actually.” Ezra laughed. “But the food would have to be better. Brancusi’s been feeding me all his favourite traditional Romanian dishes: cabbage rolls, carp in brine, sour soup . . .”
Hem shuddered. “No wonder you’re looking so thin. Where is he, by the way?”
“He went out for some wine and cigarettes. He’s in the middle of a crisis right now. He sold a piece called ‘Bird in Space’ to a wealthy USA-murrikn, but they stopped it at customs and charged it duty as an ‘Industrial Item’ instead of giving it an exemption as a work of art. He’s all up in arms, poor devil, ‘bout them Philistines back in our homeland.”
“Good ole’ U.S. of A.,” said Hem. “If it ain’t Puritanism or Capitalism, it doesn’t exist.”
“Ain’t it the gawd damned truth?”
“So, what do you say? Should we find ourselves a taxi and go get you a professional opinion?
Ezra sighed like it would take all his energy just to stand upright again. He looked down at his feet as if they might not work anymore. “I guess we should.”
“Okay, then,” said Hem. “Where are your shoes?”
“Never mind my shoes . . . where’s my velvet jacket?”
Part 2 of this story will be posted tomorrow.