April 24, 2003

"Had Hemingway been to the war and back before his twentieth birthday? Well, so had I; and all right, maybe there were no wounds or medals for valor in my case, but the basic fact of the matter was there. Had Hemingway bothered about anything as time-wasting and career-delaying as going to college? Hell, no; and me neither. Could Hemingway ever really have cared very much about the newspaper business? Of course not; so there was only a marginal difference, you see, between his lucky break at the Star and my own dismal stint on the financial desk. The important thing, as I knew Hemingway would be the first to agree, was that a writer had to begin somewhere.

"'Domestic corporate bonds moved irregularly higher in moderately active trading today...' That was the kind of prose I wrote all day long for the UP wire, and 'Rising oil prices passed a lively curb market,' and 'Directors of Timken Roller Bearing today declared' -- hundreds on hundreds of words that I never really understood (What in the name of God are puts and calls, and what is a stinking fund debenture? I'm still dammed if I know), while the teletypes chugged and rang and the Wall Street tickers ticked and everybody gathered around me argued baseball, until it was mercifully time to go home.

"It always pleased me to reflect that Hemingway had married young; I could go right along with him there. My wife Joan and I lived as far west as you can get on West Twelfth Street, in a big three-window room on the third floor, and if it wasn't the Left Bank it certainly wasn't our fault. Every evening after dinner, while Joan washed the dishes, there would be a respectful, almost reverent hush in the room, and this was the time for me to retire behind a three-fold screen in the corner where a table, a student lamp and a portable typewriter were set up. But it was here, of course, under the white stare of that lamp, that the tenuous parallel between Hemingway and me endured its heaviest strain. Because it wasn't any 'Up in Michigan' that came out of my machine; it wasn't any 'Three Day Blow,' or 'The Killers'; very often, in fact, it wasn't really anything at all, and even when it was something Joan called 'marvelous,' I knew deep down that it was always, always something bad.

"There were evenings too when all I did behind the screen was goof off -- read every word of the printing on the inside of a matchbook, say, or all the ads in the back of the Saturday Review of Literature -- and it was during those times, in the fall of the year, that I came across these lines:

Unusual free-lance opportunity for talented writer. Must have imagination. Bernard Silver.

-- and then a phone number with what looked like a Bronx exchange.

"I won't bother giving you the dry, witty, Hemingway dialogue that took place when I came out from behind the screen that night and when Joan turned around from the sink, with her hands dripping soapsuds on the open magazine, and we can also skip my cordial, unenlightening chat with Bernard Silver on the phone. I'll just move on ahead to a couple nights later, when I rode the subway for an hour and found my way at last to his apartment."

---- From the 1961 short story "Builders," by Richard Yates. This story can be found in the recently published Collected Stories of Richard Yates.


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