The Light of the World

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◄  A Clean, Well-Lighted Place The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway
The Light of the World
written by Ernest Hemingway
God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen  ►
Charles Scribner's Sons 1966 [1938] (pages 384-391)

WHEN HE saw us come in the door the bartender looked up and then reached over and put the glass covers on the two free-lunch bowls.

“Give me a beer,” I said. He drew it, cut the top off with the spatula and then held the glass in his hand. I put the nickel on the wood and he slid the beer toward me.

“What’s yours?” he said to Tom.


He drew that beer and cut it off and when he saw the money he pushed the beer across to Tom.

“What’s the matter?” Tom asked.

The bartender didn’t answer him. He just looked over our heads and said, “What’s yours?” to a man who’d come in.

“Rye,” the man said. The bartender put out the bottle and glass and a glass of water.

Tom reached over and took the glass off the free-lunch bowl. It was a bowl of pickled pig’s feet and there was a wooden thing that worked like a scissors, with two wooden forks at the end to pick them up with.

“No,” said the bartender and put the glass cover back on the bowl. Tom held the wooden scissors fork in his hand. “Put it back,” said the bartender.

“You know where,” said Tom.

The bartender reached a hand forward under the bar, watching us both. I put fifty cents on the wood and he straightened up.

“What was yours?” he said.

“Beer,” I said, and before he drew the beer he uncovered both the bowls.

“Your goddam pig’s feet stink,” Tom said, and spit what he had in his mouth on the floor. The bartender didn’t say anything. The man who had drunk the rye paid and went out without looking back.

“You stink yourself,” the bartender said. “All you punks stink.”

“He says we’re punks,” Tommy said to me.

“Listen,” I said. “Let’s get out.”

“You punks clear the hell out of here,” the bartender said.

“I said we were going out,” I said. “It wasn’t your idea.”

“We’ll be back,” Tommy said.

“No you won’t,” the bartender told him.

“Tell him how wrong he is,” Tom turned to me.

“Come on,” I said.

Outside it was good and dark.

“What the hell kind of place is this?” Tommy said.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Let’s go down to the station.”

We’d come in that town at one end and we were going out the other. It smelled of hides and tan bark and the big piles of sawdust. It was getting dark as we came in, and now that it was dark it was cold and the puddles of water in the road were freezing at the edges.

Down at the station there were five whores waiting for the train to come in, and six white men and four Indians. It was crowded and hot from the stove and full of stale smoke. As we came in nobody was talking and the ticket window was down.

“Shut the door, can’t you?” somebody said.

I looked to see who said it. It was one of the white men. He wore slagged trousers and lumbermen’s rubbers and a mackinaw shirt like the others, but he had no cap and his face was white and his hands were white and thin.

“Aren’t you going to shut it?”

“Sure,” I said, and shut it.

“Thank you,” he said. One of the other men snickered.

“Ever interfere with a cook?” he said to me.


“You can interfere with this one,” he looked at the cook. “He likes it.”

The cook looked away from him holding his lips tight together.

“He puts lemon juice on his hands,” the man said. “He wouldn’t get them in dishwater for anything. Look how white they are.”

One of the whores laughed out loud. She was the biggest whore I ever saw in my life and the biggest woman. And she had on one of those silk dresses that change colors. There were two other whores that were nearly as big but the big one must have weighed three hundred and fifty pounds. You couldn’t believe she was real when you looked at her. All three had those changeable silk dresses. They sat side by side on the bench. They were huge. The other two were just ordinary looking whores, peroxide blondes.

“Look at his hands,” the man said and nodded his head at the cook. The whore laughed again and shook all over.

The cook turned and said to her quickly, “You big disgusting mountain of flesh.”

She just keep on laughing and shaking.

“Oh, my Christ,” she said. She had a nice voice. “Oh, my sweet Christ.”

The two other whores, the big ones, acted very quiet and placid as though they didn’t have much sense, but they were big, nearly as big as the biggest one. They’d have both gone well over two hundred and fifty pounds. The other two were dignified.

Of the men, besides the cook and the one who talked, there were two other lumberjacks, one that listened, interested but bashful, and the other that seemed getting ready to say something, and two Swedes. Two Indians were sitting down at the end of the bench and one standing up against the wall.

The man who was getting ready to say something spoke to me very low, “Must be like getting on top of a hay mow.”

I laughed and said it to Tommy.

“I swear to Christ I’ve never been anywhere like this,” he said. “Look at the three of them.” Then the cook spoke up.

“How old are you boys?”

“I’m ninety-six and he’s sixty-nine,” Tommy said.

“Ho! Ho! Ho!” the big whore shook with laughing. She had a really pretty voice. The other whores didn’t smile.

“Oh, can’t you be decent?” the cook said. “I asked just to be friendly.”

“We’re seventeen and nineteen,” I said.

“What’s the matter with you?” Tommy turned to me.

“That’s all right.”

“You can call me Alice,” the big whore said and then she began to shake again.

“Is that your name?” Tommy asked.

“Sure,” she said. “Alice. Isn’t it?” she turned to the man who sat by the cook.

“Alice. That’s right.”

“That’s the sort of name Vou’d have,” the cook said.

“It’s my real name,” Alice said.

“What’s the other girls’ names?” Tom asked.

“Hazel and Ethel,” Alice said. Hazel and Ethel smiled. They weren’t very bright.

“What’s your name?” I said to one of the blondes.

“Frances,” she said.

“Frances what?”

“Frances Wilson. What’s it to you?”

“What’s yours?” I asked the other one.

“Oh, don’t be fresh,” she said.

“He just wants us all to be friends,” the man who talked said. “Don’t you want to be friends?”

“No,” the peroxide one said. “Not with you.”

“She’s just a spitfire,” the man said. “A regular little spitfire.”

The one blonde looked at the other and shook her head.

“Goddamned mossbacks,” she said.

Alice commenced to laugh again and to shake all over.

“There’s nothing funny,” the cook said. “You all laugh but there’s nothing funny. You two young lads; where are you bound for?”

“Where are you going yourself?” Tom asked him.

“I want to go to Cadillac,” the cook said. “Have you ever been there? My sister lives there.”

“He’s a sister himself,” the man in the slagged trousers said.

“Can’t you stop that sort of thing?” the cook asked. “Can’t we speak decently?”

“Cadillac is where Steve Ketchel came from and where Ad Wolgast is from,” the shy man said.

“Steve Ketchel,” one of the blondes said in a high voice as though the name had pulled a trigger in her. “His own father shot and killed him. Yes, by Christ, his own father. There aren’t any more men like Steve Ketchel.”

“Wasn’t his name Stanley Ketchel?” asked the cook.

“Oh, shut up,” said the blonde. “What do you know about Steve? Stanley. He was no Stanley. Steve Ketchel was the finest and most beautiful man that ever lived. I never saw a man as clean and as white and as beautiful as Steve Ketchel. There never was a man like that. He moved just like a tiger and he was the finest, free-est spender that ever lived.”

“Did you know him?” one of the men asked.

“Did I know him? Did I know him? Did I love him? You ask me that? I knew him like you know nobody in the world and I loved him like you love God. He was the greatest, finest, whitest, most beautiful man that ever lived, Steve Ketchel, and his own father shot him down like a dog.”

“Were you out on the coast with him?”

“No. I knew him before that. He was the only man I ever loved.”

Every one was very respectful to the peroxide blonde, who said all this in a high stagey way, but Alice was beginning to shake again. I felt it sitting by her.

“You should have married him,” the cook said.

“I wouldn’t hurt his career,” the peroxide blonde said. “I wouldn’t be a drawback to him. A wife wasn’t what he needed. Oh, my God, what a man he was.”

“That was a fine way to look at it,” the cook said. “Didn’t Jack Johnson knock him out though?”

“It was a trick,” Peroxide said. “That big dinge took him by surprise. He’d just knocked Jack Johnson down, the big black bastard. That nigger beat him by a fluke”

The ticket window went up and the three Indians went over to it.

“Steve knocked him down,” Peroxide said. “He turned to smile at me.”

“I thought you said you weren’t on the coast,” some one said.

“I went out just for that fight. Steve turned to smile at me and that black son of a bitch from hell jumped up and hit him by surprise. Steve could lick a hundred like that black bastard.”

“He was a great fighter,” the lumberjack said.

“I hope to God he was,” Peroxide said. “I hope to God they don’t have fighters like that now. He was like a god, he was. So white and clean and beautiful and smooth and fast and like a tiger or like lightning.”

“I saw him in the moving pictures of the fight,” Tom said. We were all very moved. Alice was shaking all over and I looked and saw she was crying. The Indians had gone outside on the platform.

“He was more than any husband could ever be,” Peroxide said. “We were married in the eyes of God and I belong to him right now and always will and all of me is his. I don’t care about my body. They can take my body. My soul belongs to Steve Ketchel. By God, he was a man.”

Everybody felt terribly. It was sad and embarrassing. Then Alice, who was still shaking, spoke. “You’re a dirty liar,” she said in that low voice. “You never laid Steve Ketchel in your life and you know it.”

“How can you say that?” Peroxide said proudly.

“I say it because it’s true,” Alice said. “I’m the only one here that ever knew Steve Ketchel and I come from Mancelona and I knew him there and it’s true and you know it’s true and God can strike me dead if it isn’t true.”

“He can strike me too,” Peroxide said.

“This is true, true, true, and you know it. Not just made up and I know exactly what he said to me.”

“What did he say?” Peroxide asked, complacently.

Alice was crying so she could hardly speak from shaking so. “He said ‘You’re a lovely piece, Alice.’ That’s exactly what he said.”

“It’s a lie,” Peroxide said.

“It’s true,” Alice said. “That’s truly what he said.”

“It’s a lie,” Peroxide said proudly.

“No, it’s true, true, true, to Jesus and Mary true.”

“Steve couldn’t have said that. It wasn’t the way he talked,” Peroxide said happily.

“It’s true,” said Alice in her nice voice. “And it doesn’t make any difference to me whether you believe it or not.” She wasn’t crying any more and she was calm.

“It would be impossible for Steve to have said that,” Peroxide declared.

“He said it,” Alice said and smiled. “And I remember when he said it and I was a lovely piece then exactly as he said, and right now I’m a better piece than you, you dried up old hot-water bottle.”

“You can’t insult me,” said Peroxide. “You big mountain of pus. I have my memories.”

“No,” Alice said in that sweet lovely voice, “you haven’t got any real memories except having your tubes out and when you started C. and M. Everything else you just read in the papers. I’m clean and you know it and men like me, even though I’m big, and you know it, and I never lie and you know it.”

“Leave me with my memories,” Peroxide said. “With my true, wonderful memories.”

Alice looked at her and then at us and her face lost that hurt look and she smiled and she had about the prettiest face I ever saw. She had a pretty face and a nice smooth skin and a lovely voice and she was nice all right and really friendly. But my God she was big. She was as big as three women. Tom saw me looking at her and he said, “Come on. Let’s go.”

“Good-bye,” said Alice. She certainly had a nice voice.

“Good-bye,” I said.

“Which way are you boys going?” asked the cook.

“The other way from you,” Tom told him.

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