Hemingway's Suitcase, page 1
By Dennis McDougal
Flashback warm nights
Almost left behind…
Time After Time, Cyndi Lauper
La Chasse Au Furet
Ferret leaned against the corner of a news kiosk, most of his face half-hidden behind a copy of Le Figaro. He had a pronounced overbite. The fine-spun steel wool mustache gathered in tufts beneath an isosceles nose trained to smell hidden loot. His ball bearing eyes rolled from one commuter to the next, his nostrils twitching in anticipation. There were days when a loaf of bread, a jug of wine and a round of Edam would satisfy, but not today. Children with backpacks were easy, but who wanted peanut butter when the rent was due? Ferret needed a high-end score.
Unaccompanied wives and widows were nearly as easy as tots, and far more promising, but they never seemed to travel much after the war. When his first big pinch got him a two-year stretch in juvenile detention, Ferret returned years later to a world where men outnumbered female travelers three to one.
In matters of business, Ferret had always been a lady’s man. They were a softer touch. Not only would they put up less of a fight, women usually carried more cash than their spouses. Ferret once made off with an aging opera singer’s valise that contained enough to keep him housed and fed for a year, had he not fallen for a greyhound with a trick knee at Trouville-Sur-Mere.
“That bitch,” Ferret announced into his broadsheet.
“You must pay for the paper if you read it,” hollered the vendor from the opposite side of the kiosk. Engaged with another customer, he seemed not to have noticed Ferret until that very moment.
Ferret shrank a step, ignoring the order until the vendor yelled a second time: “You must pay!”
Ferret reached deep into his pocket and came up with a single centime. It wasn’t enough for the paper, but he didn’t plan to read more than a sou’s worth. Like female train travelers, coins had grown scarce following armistice – at least those few that found their way into Ferret’s pockets. He made a show of slapping the money on the counter while he continued surveillance. A connoisseur of train travel, he knew a long-distance passenger from a business commuter; the idle rich from desperate sales reps. He could spot a vacation mark a kilometer away.
“And here she comes,” he said to himself.
Ferret fixed his eyes on a damsel in ankle-length skirts and duster, a strand of faux fox fur wrapped tight around her throat. She wore a sensible boater with a strip of pink satin wrapped around the brim. No heels, but her shoes were uncomfortable enough to generate a scowl across her handsome face. She clutched a suitcase with her left hand and a fat purse with the other. Her rump pumped athletic thighs as she struggled to make the train. She was alone.
Ferret’s nostrils flared. He ratcheted his head in one direction, then the other, alert to the possibility of a husband or suitor or perhaps an office supervisor who’d spotted his newest prey in the steno pool and arranged for a week’s tryst in Alsace or the Alps. Her posture bespoke gentility not yet jaded, though headed in that direction. She was a ripe one, judging from her gait: too old to turn all heads but far too young and fashionable to be a nun or a nanny. Ferret reckoned her someone’s mistress off on a fortnight’s recreation before returning to her routine with a new trousseau and ruined reputation.
Once aboard, she was in and out of the passenger car in seconds, her suitcase left on the seat and visible through the window.
His mustache drooped when she emerged onto the platform with her purse still tucked tight beneath her arm. He snorted. Fate delivered a suitcase.
She panned the platform. Pour l’amour?Unh uh. Pour le journal!
She made a beeline toward the very kiosk where Ferret stood. He dropped Le Figaro on the counter and turned in the opposite direction. As she bustled toward the newsstand, he slunk around the side and skittered toward the train.
Ferret glanced over his shoulder as he boarded, making sure the woman was still preoccupied. He saw her order up a bottle of Evian and a Times of London as he lifted the suitcase. Hefting it, he could tell the contents were far more substantial than pushup brassieres and silk underwear. He shot down the length of the passenger car, emerging at the far end on the platform just as madam finished her purchase. By the time she reboarded and began her frantic race up and down the car inquiring after her missing valise, Ferret had vanished into a men’s room.
Locking himself inside a stall, he balanced the suitcase on the toilet seat. Like a lukewarm craps shooter, he rubbed his hands together before he popped the latches. As he parsed the contents for banknotes, the occupant in the next stall loudly passed gas.
“Non,”answered the man in the next stall. “Flatulence.”
Professor Lyle Fields raised his fist to one eye as if peering through a telescope. He narrowed and widened the aperture, observing morning joggers, book-toting scholars, and library-bound cyclists gliding across the oak-studded campus. In the distance stood the gaudy multi-colored Victorian mansion that housed the Bret Harte Fellowship Centre. He lingered there a moment before dropping his fist.
“Like spying on Eden through an asshole,” he sighed.
Fields moved from his office window to a wall mirror and studied his face through Ben Franklin spectacles perched high on his thin, patrician nose. He touched the fluffy lip-to-nostril hedge that he’d begun growing more than a generation earlier. Salt outpaced pepper. His sandy blonde hair was also shocked with gray. A hint of a bluish bag hung beneath each eye. He sucked in his gut. Standing in profile, Fields exhaled and watched his reflection expand. After decades of teaching, a slight paunch had begun to approach inner tube proportions.
“I followed the rules,” he complained. “Where’s my damn cigar?”
Kacky hollered from the outer office. “You need something, Professor Fields?”
Dorothy Katherine Landry appeared at the door, pad and pencil in hand. “Kacky” was her nickname; that’s what she preferred. Turned out Kacky Landry had many preferences and wasn’t shy about presenting them. Stanford University encouraged undergrads to speak up for themselves. This is what she told her future boss when she interviewed for the work/study position. Lyle thought her delusion refreshing so he hired her. An undergrad who spoke up. Imagine.
“I need a great many things, Kacky, but nothing you can manage,” he said.
“Oh.” At first he thought she did indeed understand irony, but seconds later Kacky brightened. “Great! I’m going on break.”
Before he could point out that she’d clocked in at 9 and that it was now 9:20, Kacky had vanished. He returned to his window, focusing once more on the Bret Harte Centre at the eastern edge of campus.
When he first climbed aboard the tenure track a generation earlier as an earnest young associate professor, the fin de siècle mansion stood in utter disrepair. But as Lyle’s own manifest destiny faded, the derelict building had risen like a phoenix. Ten years had passed since it was rechristened the Bret Harte Centre. Cozy bungalows now surrounded the Victorian. One of them should have been his.
Fields could be a Fellow. He should be a Fellow. He was every bit as accomplished as any of them. Truth be told, they were a frivolous lot. He examined the faculty bulletin on his desktop, containing the list of the upcoming year’s winners:
Angela Kenyon, poetess of the New Technocracy, Fulbright Scholar, and reformed crack addict.
Glen Ivy, impressionist essayist, Guggenheim Fellow, and shameless cross-dresser.
Donald Waters, whose critically-acclaimed-but-seldom-purchased book-length studies of America’s seedy underbelly had made him a darling of the New
Estelle Gutierrez, feminist Cuban documentary film maker whose coarse mustache indicated that she may have run with the wolves once too often;
Gwen Zydeco, Cajun harpsichordist who abandoned the name Rachael Schrier when she dropped out of Brandeis, proclaimed herself bisexual, and became a performance artist.
Lon Phuc Do, a Cambodian refugee who sold Krispy Kremes in Pacoima during his first ten years in the U.S. until Joan Didion stopped in for a cruller one Sunday and discovered that Lon wrote limericks in his spare moment. Didion launched him on a career as a “Fresh New Voice on the Pacific Rim.” Lon began wearing turtlenecks and introducing himself to adoring coffee house fans as simply “Fuck Dough.”
What the Fellows did each year was a mystery. None had yet discovered the meaning of life, though the Centre paid each a fat stipend to root around for answers. Six lucky louts selected annually by some anonymous university committee to do nothing but think, schmooze and scribble ... but only if bitten on the ass by their respective muses. There was no accountability at Bret Harte. No performance ratings. No tests. No oral presentations. No freshmen.
“Drones,” muttered Fields. He might hold them in contempt, but never questioned his own motives in wanting to join their ranks. Each autumn he applied; each spring he was rejected.
Lyle’s work on Ernest Hemingway alone ought to have guaranteed him a berth at the Centre. He was a misguided romantic who actually believed in the Great American Novel. How stupid was that? Once hailed for his promising short fiction, he briefly basked in the academic ionosphere as a darling of the Modern Language Association. Knocked ‘em dead from the dais. While he was still hot, he published a pair of critically acclaimed short stories in two ultra-obscure literary quarterlies: “A Clean, Well-Littered Place” in Dirt: An Alternative Reader and “Bleak Cheese” in Leftovers, A Journal of the Orts.
But sprinters rarely win marathons. He’d labored long and hard, manuscript after manuscript, to bring forth his own Great American Novel, only to be repeatedly rewarded with “no thank you” letters. “Too literary” was the kindest and most recurrent criticism. “Bloated,” “self-indulgent” and “pretentious” also popped up frequently. He must have collected a couple hundred such rejections. It was not the track record of a Harte Fellow.
Lyle reached into his bottom drawer and retrieved a half-consumed pint of Jameson's. He tipped a dram or three into his Starbucks then replaced it in the drawer.
He'd sealed his doom by failing to pay the proper obeisance to his department chair. Dr. Knowland Blandé was still a senior professor when he first made a pass at Lyle’s wife. Over the years, Blandé eventually politicked his way to the chairmanship and, from that lofty post, alternately flirted with Linda Fields and tormented her husband. Blandé couldn’t fire a tenured professor, but he could make life miserable. Lyle got the worst classes with the slowest students in the least tolerable time slots. Fields protested. No one listened.
Thus, over time, everything about Lyle Fields became desperately monotonous. Even his divorce evolved into dull suburban angst. Lyle’s sole satisfaction was that neither he nor Blandé wound up with Linda, who was presently in Kauai, blowing some 30-year-old wind surfer.
All of which left Lyle to his students: earnest freshmen with preppy names like Brittney and Colin, Scarlett and Lance. True, they all smiled reverently as he spoke, took copious notes, and occasionally even grasped something about Aristotelian structure and iambic pentameter. Once in awhile, one would sit up like a bolt and ask a question before lapsing back into coma. All were brilliant kids with 5.0 GPAs and fat SAT scores, but with an aptitude for science or math or business, not literature. With rare exceptions, none majored in English. To most, Lyle’s survey course was obligatory tedium to fulfill general education requirements so they could dig into some real classes. They focused on med school, computer science, or an MBA that would buy a first class ticket into the leisure class of the 21st century. Fuck art. Make bank. These kids had the right idea.
He sipped his Irish coffee.
Lyle swiveled, letting his breath sputter slowly, ready to scold Kacky. Instead, he stopped cold and hiccupped. “Clarissa?” He sat up straighter and sucked in his gut.
Twilight eyes, honey hair, pale pink sweater, tight white denims, it could only be… “Clarissa Daugherty! It is still Daugherty?”
“Uh huh.” The vision before him nodded hard, forcing her pageboy forward like a blonde tsunami. She swept her hair back with one hand, exposing her eyes once more. “Still Daugherty,” she cooed.
“Well do come sit,” he said. “I was just getting ready for my Joyce lecture.”
“Carol Oates?” she asked. Lyle fell to awkward silence, which Clarissa broke with a wave of her hand. “Just kidding,” she said. “I remember Ulysses.”
In a brief note from L.A., Clarissa recently wrote that she might drop by for a visit. In fact, she had a huge surprise for him. Huge! Clarissa had always spoken in superlatives: everything was unbelievable, absolutely the most, bigger than God.
But Lyle heard nothing further and dismissed her note as Face Book nostalgia from a favored former student, if in fact “student” was the proper word.
He’d only been teaching for two years when she swept into his classroom like Botticelli’s Venus. Before Clarissa, Lyle had lapsed into despair. Filling hungry young minds turned out to be Chinese water torture. The drips took notes and regurgitated everything in their term papers. If a future Faulkner or Sylvia Plath lurked somewhere in their midst, their disguises were impenetrable. Long before Blandé became department chair, Lyle thought almost daily of quitting, and might have done so were it not for Clarissa Daugherty. Hundreds had come through his literary boot camp since then, but only a handful like Clarissa made him want to stay.
Here was a woman whose very presence broke down the bicameral mind. Without even trying, she incited minor riots simply entering the lecture hall. Charisma didn’t adequately describe her gait. Not only was she a knockout, Clarissa Daugherty wanted to know everything. A draught of sweet mountain spring water in the university desert. She sat at the back of the class, quietly soaking up every word. Then she’d pounce. Her initial questions were tentative, even naïve, but by the time she’d finished reversing the Socratic method, Fields felt himself drowning in his own syllogisms. Students like her were the real reason the old Greek ordered up a tankard of hemlock. Clarissa Daugherty wasn’t screwing around. She wanted to know.
And now, she sat before him once more, no less inquisitive or tantalizing than she had been a decade earlier. There were laugh lines at the edges of her eyes, but they only made her complexion more alluring. In fact, the years seemed to have brought her into fuller bloom. Her breasts seemed bigger. Gravity had been kind.
“Professor Fields,” she said.
He looked up. “Lyle,” he corrected her with a smile.
“Dr. Fields ...” she began again, not meeting his eyes.
“Lyle,” he insisted. “Really. Call me Lyle. You graduated. You get to use my first name.”
She waited a beat as if making a decision. Then she crinkled her eyes, smiled and leaned in, resting her forearms on the edge of his desk. “Lyle,” she said firmly. “You got my letter?”
“Well, I have a problem,” she said. “I found Hemingway’s suitcase.”
He sat still, his jaw hanging. He blinked twice.
“What?” He could not have been more astonished if she had reached across the desk and yanked his mustache.
“I found Hemingway’s suitcase,” she repeated.
“The suitcase?” he asked.
Lyle was able to call himself Dr. Fields thanks to the suitcase. His doctoral thesis explored every detail, every nuance of the near-mythical piece of luggage that contained young Ernest Hemingway’s life’s work. Lyle knew the story by heart.
Mrs. Hemingway was utterly devoted to her husband and his budding career as journalist and author. She savored every word. At times she worried over his syntax more than Ernest did himself. Thus, it was with the greatest reverence and care that she did as Ernest commanded on the afternoon of December 2, 1922, and obediently loaded a suitcase with all his manuscripts so that he could work on them during their Swiss holiday.
Her husband had already left for some bob sledding, serious drinking, and ski lodge R&R. Hadley locked up their Left Bank apartment, bought a ticket at the Gare de Lyon, and hustled to catch the night train from Paris to Lausanne. After boarding, she set the suitcase on her seat and briefly returned to the platform to buy a newspaper and a bottle of water. When she returned, the suitcase was gone.
She searched frantically, but in vain. Arriving in Switzerland the next day, she wept uncontrollably, unable to tell Ernest what had happened. He coaxed and cajoled her, trying to pry the mystery confession from her as his prodigious imagination ran wild. What could reduce his dear wife to hysteria? A death in the family?
No, no, no! Nothing like that. She had done something ... something so awful!
A one-night stand? An affair? An affair with Ernest’s best friend? Fornicating with Ford Maddox Ford? Shacking up with Sherwood?
Hadley shook her head violently, unable to speak. Each name he barked provoked more tears.
With who then? An affair with a Jew? A Negro? My God, a Negro? Oh Hadley! How could you?
“No, no,” she said, crying and shaking her head. She had remained faithful – had never entertained a single thought otherwise. No Desdemona was Hadley Hemingway. Her sin was far worse than straddling an entire army of Moors.