The building on Rue Mouffetard had a bright light over the door, illuminating the stone step like a stage. Hem paused under the light, blowing onto his hands. He pushed open the heavy front door. Inside, a staircase wound past oak doors, each with a tin number nailed above the peek hole. Men, who Hem recognized from the cafes, sat on the stairs, smoking, playing cards. One man, with a serious brow, was mending a garment. The apartments emitted odors of sweat, aging cheese, soup made with meat killed in the road. The men reeked like dogs.
As he climbed the stairwell, Hem’s step matched the beat of Selma Valeria Diego’s typewriter. Men crowded the landing of the 4th story, panting as they listened to her Underwood tap-dance. Number 37 had a small card posted on the door with this typed message: S’il vous plaît. Ne frappez pas. Jamais.
Hem had dropped off his manuscript four days before and hadn’t slept well since. It was hot in the stairwell. Hem slid off his coat and listened. He could tell by the beat she was working on his book. Rhythm, he had recently decided, was everything. Being brief simply lent itself to a manageable tempo.
Behind walls came muffled sounds of radio news, a woman singing off key. A motor whirled, a baby cried. But everything fell silent the moment the typing stopped. The men jolted to attention. A heater hissed. The door to #37 swung open. Selma Valeria Diego stepped into the hall. The men lunged to the banister, craning their necks to see. She was barefoot. Her hair was disheveled as if she had been tossing in bed. She leaned her elbows onto the banister, her chest rising out of her dress. A lit cigarette appeared in her hand.
Hem shouldered his way to her side.
“I’m on the last chapter,” she said, without glancing at him, her voice like cinder.
He knew better than to ask what she thought. “I’ll wait,” he finally said.
She shrugged, threw the butt of her cigarette over the banister, and returned to her room, the door falling shut behind her. Her scent lingered in the hall. The men rubbed their mouths and scratched themselves, trying to shift their thoughts to other things.
Somewhere below, a door flew open and the stink of caged birds filled the stairwell. An old woman cawed at the men for loitering outside her door. The men shuffled away. A parrot screeched, “Marde!” The door slammed closed. The men shuffled back.
Someone tapped Hem on the shoulder. It was Wagner Lent, a great skier and a miserable poet. They had skied at Schruns together, a few winters past. Spending a day climbing a mountain and then racing down, etching lines across pristine fields of snow, turns strangers into fast friends. They embraced and shared a smoke.
“How’s the novel?”
Hem gestured to #37. “She’s on the last chapter.”
“That’s great, Hem! I never thought you’d finish.”
“If she hates it,” Hem mused, “I’ll take it to the Seine and throw it in a barrel fire and spend the night getting drunk with a Portuguese whore.”
“Such a waste!”
They heard the building door open and bang shut again. Another man groaning, the unseasonal chill rising up the stairwell.
“How goes the poetry?” Hem asked.
“Bah!” Wagner said. He leaned close to Hem and confided, “They claim she’s a muse.”
“She’s the only one I can afford.”
“How’s Hadley?” asked Wagner.
“Fine. We have a kid now.”
“I quit journalism.”
“Ever see Gertrude?”
“Not since she called my writing inaccrochable.”
“What does that mean?”
“Tell me something about Ezra.”
“A man’s never had a better friend.”
“Still cheating on his wife?”
“It can’t be helped.”
They passed the time talking, but after a while, Hem lost the track of the conversation. He was distracted by every ding and thump of the carriage. He imagined her on the other side of the door, galloping down the final stretch of his novel. She would never be the same again.
Abruptly, the typing stopped. The door opened, and Selma Valeria Diego stood in the hushed hall, steam rising from her moist skin. Over her shoulder, Hem spied a scarlet room, the typewriter at the center. Men ensconced in cigarette smoke lounged on thread bare furniture.
Hem pressed a wad of bills into her chapped hands. A small brown boy emerged from the room and lifted the manuscript to Hem. Selma Valeria Diego didn’t say a word. But she smiled. Hem swore she did. He kissed her on the mouth before she pushed him away whispering, “¿Que pienses, Bandito? ¿Esto libro tuyo va a cambiar todo el mundo?”
“Oui, ma belle,” he said. “It’s going to change the world,” and he kissed her harder.
Hem trotted down the steps, the eyes of all the men burning into him. Then he remembered Wagner. “See you at Schruns!” he called and stepped out into the brisk night. The heavy door swung closed behind him. He stood on the step under the light, listening to the stars, the chill making his head tingle.
Rarely did he feel so good. Tomorrow, he decided, he would take his wife to the races.