About the Author
Meeting Henry Miller
“I am old, have had a full life, and have met many interesting people,” Renee said in her thick European accent. “I want you to help me write my memoirs.” She sat, an arthritic wren in her chair, rattling several pills in her hand like colorful marbles. Among others she mentioned Henry Miller’s name, with a twinkle in her eye which hinted at intimacy. Then excusing herself, she stood up to make her way to the bathroom for a glass of water, leaning heavily on a sturdy mahogany cane.
Her absence gave me a chance to look closely at her room. There was a bumpy bed with a brown quilt spread neatly over it, a table cluttered with sheets of paper, a portable typewriter on a stand next to it, and on the floor against one wall a pyramidic mound of boxes, each neatly labelled on their sides in black felt-tipped pen with subject, place and date. On the walls were four of her large paintings, one a bright surreal meandering, another a cluster of phallic cacti, a dash of brilliant electrical short-circuitry near the window, and over the bed a sentimental portrait of a very young girl who vaguely resembled Renee. I liked the cacti best and noticed that their models were in bloom on the windowsill. The window looked out on an unruly garden.
Renee returned from the bathroom, reassuring me that I should not worry about her, that she would, when the pills took effect, feel better. She was carefully groomed, dressed in a handsome handmade robe of a green Mayan print and her gray hair knotted tightly in a bun at the apex of her head.
“I am about to die, but I’m not ready to,” she continued, sitting down again and pointing to the boxes. “My whole life is in them, and I need your help in organizing it.”
Renee had, it seemed, written something on almost everything—poetry, painting, metaphysics, psychology, medicine, and most of all, dying. “I’ve had a lot of time to think about it,” she added, because it had been fifteen years since she was diagnosed as dying. And, of course, there were her memoirs. “I’m original, not crazy,” she assured me, mentioning the names of several eminent doctors who during all the time she had spent in their offices had come to appreciate her and the value of her work.
“Well, now that it’s settled that you will help me,” she said, squinting at me like a sculptor considering where to apply her thumb, “we’ll start tomorrow. We will start with Henry Miller, if you like. You come tomorrow. You can type right here with my typewriter and I can sit beside you and dictate. Then we will work together on the best way to say it. Be prompt now, I haven’t much time.”
Renee stood up abruptly, a signal for me to leave, and accompanied me to the door, pressing a hand to her hip where she said there was great pain. “Tomorrow then, at 2:00 o’clock.”
At 2:00 o’clock the next day Renee opened the door for me, dressed in the same robe as the day before. She asked me to sit in the chair in front of the typewriter and pulled over another near it, so close that our knees touched.
“And how are you today?” she asked, again squinting at me as if trying to rearrange my features to be more satisfying aesthetically.
“Oh, I’m fine.” Her scrutiny made me restless and I looked anxiously at the boxes on the floor. I was curious as to how we were to begin, assuming that a plump file marked “Henry Miller” would have been extracted from them over the previous evening. It seemed a logical first step to read any correspondence between them or see any pictures that she had. But there was nothing on the table except a clipping from a newspaper about Henry Miller frequenting a certain bar in Big Sur with his name underlined by Renee in red ink.
“Renee, where are we going to begin?” I asked, puzzled. “If you’ve already written something, then we can just add to it and polish it.”
“No, no, that’s why I need you. We’re going to start at the very beginning. You sit there and I’ll sit here and you type while I tell you all about it.” She then explained the eccentricities of her typewriter and told me, quite unnecessarily, how to position a piece of paper in it.
“Let’s see,” she began, leaning back a little. “The first time I met Henry Miller... It was evening when we drove up to his gate at his house in Big Sur. Type that. No, don’t. I should
say it better.” I had already typed it.
“Renee,” I suggested gently, “perhaps we should just quickly get the facts down and worry about style later. After all, it is the style that you want me to help you with.”
“No, I don’t have much time. I want to get this as perfect as I can. Try not to make too many mistakes.”
I put in a new piece of paper and waited again.
“It was evening when we drove up to his gate at Big Sur. Johnny waited in the car while I got out. Don’t type this yet. I’m still thinking.”
Of course, once more I had begun to type. Johnny is her husband, a tiny man who I had met only once.
“Don’t waste paper, dear, let me think a little more before you begin.”
It was then that I knew it was going to be a long afternoon. But I wanted to hear all about Henry Miller. I had always wanted to meet him.
“Okay, Renee, you just talk for a while and let me know when you want me to begin.” I leaned back away from the typewriter.
“There were two large black dogs in the yard and at the sound of their barking he came to the door to see who it was. With just one word he silenced the dogs. He was like that--he had presence and power. The dogs immediately fell silent and disappeared as quickly as they had appeared around the side of the house. Are you getting this? Dear, you must pay attention.”
I began to type as quickly as I could all that she had said.
“Wait,” she stopped me, “perhaps we should get a better word for ’presence.’ Maybe ’stature.’ Please white out presence and be sure to put stature in as neatly as you can.” She handed me a little bottle of correcting fluid.
The correction took a few moments and then I told her that I was ready to type.
“He asked me in. He was like that, so gracious, just stopping whatever he was doing to receive a guest. There were two children in the house. Now what were their names, a boy and a girl? He asked them to occupy themselves and not interrupt us and they did as he said. He didn’t scold, but was loving and firm. He was like that.”
Renee paused to look over my shoulder, pulling gently up on the paper to size up our paragraph. “That does not sound good and I must remember the children’s names. I want you to help me make it sound good.”
I was getting exasperated. “Renee, we can do that later.”
“All right, dear, all right. We must be amiable with one another. Let’s see, what next. He showed me into his library, his private place where he wrote. Every inch of the walls were covered with books, books on every subject imaginable. He was a prodigious reader, as you may know. Then we sat down on the couch and we looked out a window facing the Pacific. It was so beautiful. He made up a poem, for me, on the spot, about the ocean and the stars. He was like that, very philosophical and very deep. I have the poem written down somewhere. I memorized it as he spoke it and then afterwards wrote it down.”
Renee sat for a moment trying to remember the words of the poem. “It was metaphysical. He even made up a name for me and put it in the poem. I must remember that poem. Would you like something to eat or drink? I’m getting tired, but I want to keep going on this.”
“I’ll get something, Renee, you just sit and rest,” I answered.
“No, no,” she insisted, rising unsteadily. “If nothing else, I’m a good host, just like Henry Miller.”
Renee left to go to the kitchen and I sat staring at the mound of boxes, wondering just what exactly was in them. She returned carrying a tray with a teapot and two cups and a variety of cookies, nuts and candy on it. There was cream and sugar in little bowls and another with slivers of lemon in it.
“After you’ve eaten,” she said, “we’ll have to finish up for today, because I need to rest.”
It was all very delicious, but Renee was looking at my face again as if it were too plump. I stopped eating.
“No, no, dear, have all you want,” Renee said, leaning forward to touch my shoulder. "You eat and I’ll talk. Henry and I sat on the couch and talked for a long time about every subject imaginable. He said that we were soul mates, or mind mates, that we thought alike. He was like that, you know, he knew lots about everything, a lot about human nature. By then it was getting very late and he walked me to the door, and feeling the wind coming up, asked if I were warm enough and I said, yes, but he doubted it, seeing that I only had on my blue cotton jacket, and he took his own sweater off like the perfect gentleman he was and draped it over my shoulders. I tried to return it to him later. I wrote and asked him if I could send it back, but he said that I should have it, and I was glad to have it, so comfortable it was, like him. I wore that sweater often and thought about him every time I did. I was proud to have Henry Miller’s sweater. I have a picture of me somewhere in his sweater, somewhere in my boxes.”
Renee got up then as if she were going to look for the picture, but then sat down again, her hand grabbing her hip. “It is so painful. You have no idea how much pain I’m in. The young don’t know.”
“What happened to the sweater?” I asked. “Do you still have it?”
“Oh, I kept it for a long time but over the years it got lost. It was a beautiful gray wool sweater with a brown stripe on it. Did you get all that I said down? Dear, you’re supposed to be typing this all down. I’m very disappointed in our day’s work. You must go now and come back tomorrow. I’m tired and must rest. Be here again at 2:00 o’clock tomorrow.” She saw me to the door.
For three more long afternoons I tried to find out more about Renee and Henry Miller, but her story never progressed beyond the lovely gray wool sweater. I did find out, however, that once more, before she became ill, she and Johnny had driven down the road to his home and once more the black dogs had barked, but this time there had been no one home to open the door like a gentleman to the intrusive little woman with the topknot.
I had other work to do and lost track of Renee, except for one letter from her months later, in which she scolded me that I had not helped her at all, that with so little time left to her, she had hoped we’d be mind mates, she had hoped our relationship would be so much more.
|© Laura Beausoleil, 2010|