He sat alone at the bar, with his cane leaning against his stool, and looked at the mirror behind the rows of bottles in front of him. He was a handsome man, with dark, solid features and dark, solid eyes. He wore his hair straight back, closely trimmed around the ears and nape, a holdover from his days in the war. He heard the door to the pub open, but didn’t look at who it was. A few minutes later he heard a deep and cheerful voice ask for a pack of cigarettes and a Coca-Cola with a few splashes of rum.
“Can you spare some matches? I just got in off the train and I’m fresh out.”
“Sure. Just a minute.”
“I’ve got your light,” the man with the cane said.
He turned to look now at who had ordered a Coca-Cola with a few splashes of rum and saw him wearing a familiar outfit. For a man who rarely smiled (and he had his reasons for not doing so), this prompted an exceedingly indulgent one. The uniformed man wore his hair similarly to his own, but sported a leaner physique and an easier smile.
“Where were you? Italy?”
“You lucky bastard. How’s Paris?”
“It was beautiful–like a fantasyland. I even saw Woodrow Wilson at a parade once.”
“Poor devil. I’m afraid we’re living in a country run by the President’s wife now.”
“I read about it on the way back over. Seems like an awful way to go.”
“There are worse ways a man could die.”
“Nevermind that. But I’ll agree with you that it is undignified, and if possible, a man should always find a way to die with dignity.”
“I take it you served?” the uniformed man asked.
“I drove ambulances.”
“What a coincidence. So did I,” the uniformed man smiled.
“Bully for us, then,” the man with the cane said, raising his glass to toast him.
“How were you wounded, if you don’t mind?”
“I don’t usually indulge that question, but I’ll permit it on account of our shared service.”
He struck a match for the uniformed man and lit his cigarette patiently.
“I was in the trenches. Delivering chocolate and cigarettes from the canteen–it’s amusing, the things Italian soldiers ask for in war. A mortar landed not far away and caught me in the leg.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Your sympathies are kind but unnecessary. I made out lucky compared to a few of the chaps nearby.”
“Were they killed?”
“Several. But you know that story, I’m sure.”
“I’m afraid to admit it, but my experience was limited. I didn’t make it to France until after the armistice.”
This agitated the man with the cane.
“Why the hell even volunteer then?”
He noticed the uniformed man writing in a small notebook now.
“And what the hell are you writing? Are you a writer? Are you taking notes of this?”
He looked over the uniformed man’s shoulder to see his work. He wasn’t taking notes at all. He was doodling. It was a duck, but with eyes like a human’s and, strangely enough, a French beret. The agitated man grew more agitated, letting his contempt seep into his tone.
“You’re drawing cartoons?”
The man with the cane finished his drink and motioned for another to the bartender. He turned back to the uniformed man.
“‘When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.’”
“You speak like a man of religious conviction.”
“And you must be the only war veteran in all the world who still draws cartoons.”
“It’s a good thing you never saw the inside of my ambulance.”
“Perhaps it is better that we didn’t meet during the war.”
“Are you? Religious, I mean. In my experience, war has a tendency to either strengthen or scatter a man’s belief in other worlds.”
“In your experience? And what estimable experience is that? What do you know of the front and its attendant dystopia?”
The uniformed man was unperturbed. He kept drawing.
“Not as much as you’d, I’d guess.”
“A man has an obligation to be knowledgeable about all things, most of all the things with which he disagrees,” the man with the cane continued. “No, I am not religious.”
“I tried to join the army, but they wouldn’t let me,” the uniformed man said.
“I was sixteen. So I joined the Red Cross instead with a pal of mine, they were a little more flexible about the age requirement, although I still had to lie about my age.”
“That’s a fine enough attempt. I hope you’ll forgive me if I took offense before.”
“I took no offense. I would have made it over to Paris before the fall, but they kept me behind after I got the flu.”
“Damned devilish disease. My father treats veterans at his clinic, says half the men we lost in the war were to Spanish flu.”
“I never understood why they call it that. I saw plenty of it in France.”
The uniformed man finished his drawing, ripped it from his notepad, and set it aside only to start another.
“They were the first to report it. Wartime censors wouldn’t let anything print in the other countries until it was too late for fear of boosting the enemy’s morale.”
“That’s a terrible joke, isn’t it? Their fear of the enemy was deadlier than the enemy itself.”
This made the man with the cane smile for a second time, which was almost a record in those days.
“I’ll write that down, if you don’t mind.”
“Not at all.”
The man with the cane took a napkin and began scribbling on it, and for a few moments they sat, one drawing cartoons and the other writing, in silence. When he finished his writing, the man with the cane continued.
“The Spanish are an interesting people. I met several in Italy. I’ll go there someday myself.”
“Oh really? Where to? Madrid?”
“Yes, and to the other places. There are many places in Spain. There is a town near the Pyrenees called Pamplona, and each July they have a seven-day festival that would put our Independence Day to shame.”
“What’s it called?”
“What happens at this festival that’s so much greater than the fourth of July?”
“There is much drinking from wine-skins, and music played, and red bandanas waved, and laughter peeled from rooftop balconies, and scores between rivals settled, and love made, and very little sleep, and even less desire for sleep. Every morning at six sharp a group of bulls to be slayed in the stadium that afternoon is ran through the tiny alleyways, and the brave men run far in front of them, and the stupid men run close in front of them, and the very brave and very stupid men run barely in front of them at all. Or so I am told.”
“Sounds like those men have a death-wish.”
“There is no honest man who does not at one moment or another long for death. It is his reaction to it that provides us with a measure of his courage.”
“Do you think a lot about death since you’ve been wounded?”
The man continued his drawing, with split but intense focus on both of his subjects, as if one fortified the other.
“I think about many things.”
“You seem intent on capturing the hard realities of life. I like finding ways to escape them for just a few moments.”
“It is necessary to look at things squarely, or else you will live and die like a fool.”
“That may be. And my thoughts aren’t as grand as yours, I don’t pretend.”
“It isn’t the size of a man’s thoughts that are of import, but their truth.”
The uniformed man chuckled. “Well in that case, I think the White Sox should have won the Series.”
“Oh, if you’d been here to hear it. I was sitting in this chair two nights ago when it ended. I told Jackie, our bartender, the fix was in on this. Shoeless Joe, Chick Gandil, the whole lot of them. Lefty Williams lost three starts. At least boxers try to hide it when they throw a match. Do you like boxing?”
“I wonder how much they were paid.”
The man was done with another drawing. It was a strange and silly looking thing, which a child might have loved for its fantastical qualities. He quickly started working on a third, stubbing the butt of his cigarette out into an ashtray as he worked, as if the drawing itself were habit-forming. It was another duck.
“You’re an odd bird, my friend. Where are you from?”
“My parents live in Chicago now. I was born here too, but we lived for a time down in Missouri, where my father farmed some land that belonged to his brother.”
“There’s a goodness in the lean, hard work of farming.”
“Sometimes there is. Sometimes it’s just hard and lean, without so much goodness. There was a railroad that came up from Kansas City in those days, may still be there, and when I was just a little guy I’d sit out by the tracks all afternoon and wait for those steam engines to roll by.”
“The Santa Fe line, right?”
“You know it?”
“I lived in Kansas City before the war.”
“So did I!”
“I thought it was Missouri?”
“We moved to Kansas City a few years later. That’s where I learned to draw. Why were you there?”
“I was a writer. A newsman, really. For the Star.”
“That’s a good paper. Delivered it for six years with my father when I was a boy. You know I tried to get a job drawing cartoons over there, but they wouldn’t even hire me to drive a truck.”
“I tried getting a byline there and never succeeded either, so don’t feel bad. It’s tough when you’re competing with Teddy Roosevelt sounding the war trumpet on the front page every day.”
“I guess you don’t have to compete with him anymore.”
“No, but I’m done with that paper for now.”
“What a pity. I read about his death on the most beautiful day in Paris. I’ll tell you, there are few places more magical than Paris in the winter. I was at this wonderful little cafe on the Boulevard St. Germain.” He paused to finish the last of his drink. “Presidents old and new, dropping like flies I guess.”
“Fitting, isn’t it? All those soldiers dying, you figure we should lose a few leaders too. We’re all united in death’s dance.”
“You know, come to think of it, you’d like that place. There were always all kinds writers and philosophers meeting there.”
“What was it named? I’ll look it up if I ever get there.”
“Les Deux Magots. Forgive my French, I know it’s unacceptable for a man who spent time there.”
“No no, that’s just fine, I’ll remember it.”
The uniformed man finished another drawing, and laid it on top of the first two before starting another. The man with the cane wrote the words “Les Deux Magots, Boulevard St. Germain,” on his napkin under the earlier quote, and stuck it in his jacket pocket.
“You said you studied art in Kansas City?”
“Well. I wouldn’t say it was that formal. I took a few classes on Saturdays at the Fine Art Institute.”
“Best story I covered for the Star was there. It was a dance some ladies there threw for the chaps from Camp Funston and Fort Leavenworth before they shipped out. It was a silly, sad little thing, with all the soldiers fussing over one girl in a red dress who played the piano very poorly.”
“Have you thought of returning to your job there now that you’re home?”
“I could no more return to Kansas City and that work than I could to boyhood, or my mother’s teat.”
“Is that what you’re doing in Chicago? New work?”
“My parents live in Oak Park. I’m visiting from Toronto, where I work now.”
“I was born just up the street, in Hermosa. Surprised we haven’t run into each other, either here or in Kansas or driving ambulances. How old are you?”
“Twenty. And you?”
“I’ll be eighteen in December.”
“Christ, you’re still a baby. No wonder you’re still at it with those cartoons.”
“You sure do put a lot of stock in a severe perspective.”
“I value looking at things honestly, and conducting yourself gracefully in the face of the perilous situation life places us in.”
“That on account of your close call with that mortar shell?”
“That, and worse.”
“With a woman.”
“That bad, eh?”
“If the shell nearly killed me, she made it worse after she brought me back.”
“Tell me about her.”
“Tell you about her! Someday I’ll write a whole book about her.”
“Well I’m just back in town, I’ve got nowhere to be fast. It’s nice to stop moving for a while.”
“Thanks, but I’d rather not. Telling the story makes me sound like a sullen bore, and it ruins whatever vitality it may possess if I ever get around to putting it on paper, where it belongs. Besides, it isn’t fit for a man to go on about these things.”
The uniformed man set another drawing aside and added it to the pile.
“That reminds me.”
“The story I was telling.”
“Please, continue. I didn’t know you were.”
He made seemingly identical doodles, with changes perceptible only to the most astute observer. It was a small feat of evolution which attested to the author’s own attention to detail.
“The railroad tracks down in Marceline, Missouri. When I was a young boy, some afternoons I’d put my ears down to the tracks and listen for the trains rolling in from far away. Every few months or so, a train would roll in that sounded different from the others.”
“It was lighter. Harder to hear until it was very close. They’d stop a quarter-mile short of the station, so as to not scare the passengers waiting for other fares. The trains were always shorter on those days, two, three cars at most.”
He finished another drawing, moving with impressive speed now, and tore it out before starting another.
“What were they?”
“They called them ‘convict cars.’ Big old cast-iron prisons they kept chain gangs in as they moved from town to town doing road work. I’ll never forget the first time I saw the men unloaded off one of those cars; what I really expected were horses or cattle. They didn’t just travel in those cars, either. They lived in them.”
“So naturally, as a young boy, I felt a certain amount of curiosity and pity toward these men. I wanted to know them, but the foreman would banish me any time he caught sight of me. Whenever I could sneak past his line of vision though, I’d sit down low in the grass and talk to the men while they worked.”
“Just their lives. What brought them there, whether they had any hope for the future. Not unlike how we’ve been speaking the last few minutes.”
“And what did you find?”
“That few, if any of them, were ever leaving those chains. I think you might say they were like us in that way.”
“You’re laying on the metaphor a bit thick, but yes, that’s just my point; it’s important for you to recognize the untenable situation life places us in, so it can be faced with decency and honor.”
“Oh I recognized it then, and I do today. So did those men. They were always very kind, and very eager for me to learn from their mistakes. They went about their sentences with the kind of dignity that I imagine you enjoy writing about.”
“They sound like men of grit, and great resolve.”
The uniformed man finished his drawing and started another. By this time there was a small stack of paper accumulating between the two of them. The man with the cane looked at them with a combination of curiosity and condescension, though the condescension softened bit by bit.
“Sometimes I gave them whatever I’d drawn in my notebook that day. They’d sneak it back underneath the straw hats they wore to avoid the sun, and then hang them up in their bunks on those cattle cars. They found my doodles amusing in some small way.”
The uniformed man finished another drawing. He collected the stack and started carefully straightening them, so that their edges were perfectly aligned. The man with the cane realized that this was the end of the story, and grew impatient.
“So what’s that got to do with anything?”
“When I think about you, and what I imagine you see as the value of art, I feel like we lay on two different sides of the question. You’d say it’s better to detail the desolation of the men’s captivity with brutal honesty. You’d probably describe the depth and dimensions of the scars they bore from the chains they wore. You’d frame the meager scope of their forsaken lives with unrelenting exactitude, and you’d do all this while saluting their heroism for bearing the tribulations of their small lives with admirable stoicism.”
“I’d say it with different words, but more or less.”
“And I understand that. It’s all very true and noble. But all I could think of each time I saw those men was how unfair life was, how it was unworthy of everything humans were capable of feeling, capable of imagining, and capable of wanting that this world so often flatly denies them.”
“Well I agree with you there. See that’s just the point. To acknowledge that unfairness. To accept it. It makes one better prepared for the ultimate unfairness of death.”
“You talk about your lack of belief in God, and in love too, it seems, when these are the avenues our souls use to avail themselves of our desires for something higher than what we see and hear around us.”
“Because in the end, those things fail us. They always do.”
“I don’t know whether or not those things fail us, or whether they are truth, but what I value about them is how they make people feel. And that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do, starting with giving those drawings to a few weary prisoners on hot afternoons. To help them forget, for just a moment, the trouble of their lives, and the travesty of it all. It doesn’t matter if my drawings are true or not. Sometimes the truth is a cold comfort, and people deserve better than the hard-bitten reality they’re given. They deserve something that will do justice to their capacity to feel wonder in the world. Something more than what this insufficient world has given them. The truth, I think, is in their reaction to it.”
The man with the cane finished the last of his drink.
“Awful eloquent for a cartoonist.”
“I’m not sure words are the highest expression humans are capable of.”
“You’ll have to forgive me. I’m not usually this bad off. I blame it on Agnes.”
“So that was her name?”
“Now we’re getting somewhere. Here, have a look at this.”
The uniformed man had finished carefully straightening the napkins into a pile. He held them firmly in one hand. Brushing the thumb of his other hand past them, he showed the man with the cane a kind of amateur animation–an anvil fell on the duck’s head.
“I figured you’d like the ending,” the uniformed man said.
The man with the cane smiled and chuckled. It was rare for him to laugh, but he did then with softness and sincerity. The uniformed man didn’t miss it.
“It’s fit for a child, but I will say you have talent. What’s your name?”
“Walter? Walter what?”
“Disney. Friends call me Walt though, and you should do the same.”
“Nice to meet you, Walt. Ernest Hemingway. Don’t call me Ernie, though. Bartender, let’s get Walt here another round.”
“I think you’ll do well when you get to Europe, Ernest. I’ve got a feeling about you. You’ll find like-minded people there.”
“I’d say the same for you and motion pictures, but they haven’t figured out how to get those drawings up on screens yet.”
“They have, but they’d be better with sound.”
“Maybe you can devise something for them, Disney.”
“That almost sounds like you’re indulging in what people call fantasy.”
The man with the cane cracked another smile.
“Don’t get carried away. The night is still in its adolescence. Have you ever tried Absinthe, Walt?”
“Never heard of it, Ernest.”
“Call me my last name.”
“How about Hem?”
“Fair enough. They call it the green fairy. Like Tinker Bell. It’s wonderful stuff.”
“From Peter and Wendy.”
The uniformed man gave him a confused look.
“The boy who refused to grow up? Your life philosophy is practically written in that book. A fellow like you would love it. I did when I was a boy.”
“I’ll try to find a copy. I guess you haven’t completely forgotten childish ways.”
“One more thing.”
“Add mice to your drawings.”
“Yes. Children love them.”
The bartender brought them another round.
“To the eighteenth amendment, and Andrew Volstead.” Hemingway said. “Never thought they could actually pass it.”
“Nothing’s impossible,” Disney said.
(NOTE: This short story is also available on Amazon. I encourage folks to read it here for free, but if you do, please post a review there! Thanks!)