The Promise of a Home

Sometimes you hear a little rattle in your head, and then it gets louder and louder. Eventually, you can’t ignore it. Gertie and the Babe is a story that “I knew” for a while before I bothered to write it down. Where did it come from? I don’t have a clue.

A French friend has asked if it’s a form of homesickness: an expatriate writer imagining baseball. Possibly. But to my thinking, it’s less a matter of trying to recapture a place (I sometimes quarrel with realism) than to create a new space, a sturdy little box for some of the curious workings of the mind.

Besides, I’m not sure what “expatriate writer” means anymore. When I left Iowa City many years ago and moved to Paris, it wasn’t an artistic choice. I was just a guy who’d fallen in love with a French woman and had followed her back to her home country. I found a job and, in my free time, worked hard on my writing. I didn’t spend my days hanging out at cafés, pretending to be bohemian. Life was too busy. The romanticizing attached to “The Lost Generation” of the 1920s struck me as rather corny, and it still does. Gertie and the Babe pokes fun at some of those images.

But I will mention a crucial incident from those days, one that was formative in my development as a writer. It happened after I’d written a short story that I believed was my best work yet. I thought of it as my “breakthrough” story. I was exhilarated and suddenly able to put away self-doubt and tell myself, with some relief: Yes, I am a writer.

As was the custom in those pre-Internet days, I ran down to the local photocopy shop and then stuffed envelopes and sent the story to the top dozen magazines in America, both glossy and highbrow. I was full of hope that the story’s merits would be apparent to at least one of these magazines, and it would find a home. That’s how I thought of it: a home.

I waited.

And waited some more.

Now, this part wasn’t a new experience for me. I’d submitted work before, played transatlantic ping-pong with my manuscripts. And I was no stranger to rejection. Often they were form rejections, but sometimes they were encouraging rejections, with invitations to try again. The latter were precious, bittersweet missives from New York that I analyzed excessively. But now, I believed, a new phase had started. This time would be different because I’d written such a good story!

I waited some more.

Typically, replies from editors arrived in a piecemeal fashion, perhaps one or two a week. After a rejection, there was always the consolation of knowing that the work was still out there, that the game wasn’t over—maybe, I imagined, at this very minute, another (certainly more perceptive) editor was reading the manuscript with a rapt expression of awe and wonder. Just wait till I get that reply, I thought.

I waited some more.

Then, in the third month, a new development: a massive strike in public services paralyzed France. It was the most serious social unrest since 1968. I remember the television news showing enormous stacks of undelivered mail piling up at post offices and in sorting warehouses. Somewhere in those mountains of envelopes, I just knew, was a very special one, the confirmation of the promise of a home.

Eventually, the strike ended…well, almost. A few Parisian neighborhoods were still blocked by holdouts from the CGT union. This included my street. (I swear I am not making this up.) By then I was indulging in magical thinking. Yes, the fates were testing me, even toying with me, but in the end, when gratification came, wouldn’t it be all the sweeter, since I’d waited for it so long?

* * * 

The great day arrived. Postal delivery was restored. The concierge dumped an enormous pile of mail on my doorstop.

Hastily I sorted through it, tossing aside junk mail and personal letters from family and friends, winnowing it down to a neat stack of my easily recognizable SASE correspondence. The last time I’d experienced such anticipation was probably when I was three years cold, hurrying barefoot down cold stairs to see what was under the Christmas tree.

I opened the first envelope: a rejection. The next envelope: a rejection. I tore through the entire stack and they were all rejections, form rejections, without a word of encouragement or invitation to submit again.

* * * 

Before this day, as I said earlier, I’d been rejected. The experience was nothing new to me. But somehow the cumulative effect of greeting so many rejections, one after another, their pounding regularity, hit me very hard. It certainly wasn’t something I could shrug off or rationalize.

My initial reaction? It probably wasn’t much different from a three-year-old’s.

I ran.

It felt impossible to stay in that place. So I was out the door and down the steps and out on the street, walking blindly with long strides without the slightest idea of where I was going. I just kept moving, as if I could flee not just the stack of letters but also the thoughts in my head, such as: who did I think I was fooling? How could I be so presumptuous as to believe I was a writer? What a sucker! What a self-deluding narcissist!

I walked and walked, across the river and looping aimlessly through the 12th and 11th arrondissements through unfamiliar neighborhoods of people trudging out of Métro exits, shopping out of yellow-lit stalls, going about their lives. Paris is a great city but never had it looked so cold, so indifferent, so emphatically unromantic. It was just an agglomeration of squeezed buildings and sidewalks with lots of dog shit to step around. I had no business here as an artist. That was pure fantasy.

What could I do but keep walking?

The truth is, though, after a time, a person gets tired. You have to sit down. A moment came when, footsore and exhausted, I needed to take a break. So I stopped at a café and ordered a drink. By then I was wrung out and ready to say Fuck it. Yes, and Fuck me. That much was clear. For a while I didn’t think much of anything but just sat at my table, watching the people around me.

And then—well, nothing much. I drank my beer. People came and went. Everyone eyed each other sideways. That was it.

Until I realized what I was going to do next.

I reached into a pocket for a scrap of paper. And I fished in other pockets until I found, to my relief, a pen.

And I started to write a story.

It surprised me but, at the same time, nothing felt more natural. Inevitable, even. It was a new story, slow but steady jottings that grew smaller and curved around the edges of the paper when it became clear that I was on a roll and would need to economize space. Perhaps these words came from a hysterical place inside me, or maybe they were merely reflexive, like a sneeze. I don’t know. I don’t understand the mystery of origins.

But this much I know: I could not not write them.


And how does the story end? Not that story, but this story?

It would be pretty if I could say that on that day, in that café, I began my true “breakthrough” story, the one I’d so dearly hoped for. That story was a success. In a moment of psychological pressure I rose to the occasion and finally wrote something that connected with others.

That would be a happy ending, wouldn’t it?

But the truth is, that story went nowhere, either. It was later rejected, it never found a home. It didn’t in some neat way vindicate my earlier efforts.

The truth of the story I’m telling now lies elsewhere. It’s not so pretty, not so convenient, but it’s not unhappy, either.

Because now I see what happened as an expression of a loyalty to a place. Of course I was wrong to put too much value on publishing, on what other people thought. But I was right, in some ways in spite of myself, to sit down and write, in effect, a letter home. This home wasn’t in Paris or New York or Iowa City. (It still isn’t, and it’s not in the vast ocean of the Internet, either.) Rather, it was a place I had to make myself, come what may, with words.

If you want to come inside and be my guest, you’re welcome. I would be glad to have you. But if you choose otherwise, that’s OK, too. I’ll carry on. A person has to live somewhere.


Charles Holdefer is an American writer currently based in Brussels. His work has appeared in the New England Review, North American Review, Slice and other magazines. He has published four novels with the Permanent Press and is now at work on a new novel. More information is at


Gertie and the Babe

Gertie and the Babe

Perhaps it was inevitable, but the identity switch between Gertrude Stein and Babe Ruth in the winter of 1925 has now been confirmed by Professor Lucille Cauvet of the University of Paris-Nanterre following the discovery of a lost cache of telegrams. With this material proof in hand, along with the testimony of diaries and transatlantic ship logs, Professor Cauvet has now set the record straight.

It all started one December morning in Paris when a tiny woman recognized the baseball star strolling down the boulevard Raspail. She introduced herself as Alice, admitted that she’d always rooted for the Giants, but said it would be an honor if an esteemed American like Mr. Ruth came to lunch.

Her nervous, birdlike face startled him, but her timing was perfect. The Babe had begun to weary of his holiday, and found it a relief to speak English and to be understood. A home-cooked meal—why not?

So he followed her home and planted himself before the table and, after the second bottle of wine had been poured, he began to open up, to tell Alice and another woman present, a stocky, square lady with a big voice, about how he’d turned down the opportunity to go on a barnstorming tour in the Far East in order to take some time in the off-season to think over his future.

“You play the game of baseball, do I understand correctly, Mr. Ruth?”

Alice put in quickly, “Gertrude cares only about writing, about literature. We miss out on a lot of things living here.”

The Babe laughed. “No worries, kid.” He looked around the room. “So it wasn’t you who painted all these pictures?”

The ladies laughed, and he realized that he’d said something foolish, but he didn’t mind, because it relieved him of the obligation of thinking up a compliment for this queer-looking stuff. He and Gertrude tucked in and finished the platter of chicken while the conversation shifted to the Yankees. Alice asked him about his injuries, about the famous belly-ache that had sidelined him. He avoided the truth (he wasn’t going to talk to these ladies about his venereal problems!) and repeated a story about having consumed too much soda pop and hot dogs.

“Yes, that’s what I read in the papers,” said Alice.

Babe shrugged. “A hot dog is a hot dog is a hot dog.”

Gertrude looked on with an absorbed expression and he could tell that she was following closely, taking in his every word. It wasn’t often than a non-fan showed such interest, and with the third bottle of wine, Babe began to unburden his heart. He felt liberated and safe in the company of strangers. For the first time he admitted aloud what a disappointment the 1925 season had been, when he’d slumped below a .300 batting average and the Yankees had floundered to seventh place, an astonishing 28 and ½ games behind the pennant-winning Washington Senators.

“You can turn the page,” Alice reassured. “You can find the old form, Mr. Ruth. People will forget about 1925 Senators. They will remember your achievements.”

“Will they?” he asked. For months the Babe had been nagged by doubts, losing faith in his gifts. Was he washed up?

Now Gertrude sat up straight, wiped her mouth with her napkin and declared, “You, sir, are bellyaching too much. It’s only a game. How hard can it be?”

The Babe couldn’t believe his ears. This Alice was a nice gal but this other one—huh? Never had anyone spoken to him this way!

“Listen, lady, what do you know?”

“I know very much, as a matter of fact. Take my advice, and your talent will do the rest. You have seen the thing, Mr. Ruth, which is the thing you have seen, and having seen what you have seen, you need to continue to see it. This is so.”

“That’s easy for you to say.” Babe tossed down the rest of his glass. “You write stuff?” That’s what you do?”

“And she gives opinions,” said Alice. “She tells people what to do.”

“Oh, I see,” said Babe. “And how hard could that be?”

“I don’t think you’d like to try it, sir.”


Often geniuses arrive at the same idea simultaneously, but it is rare that it happens to geniuses in such widely different fields. And perhaps it was possible because of their mutual scepticism. Probably the experiment would never have taken place if not for Alice, the go-between, the facilitator.

The first part was easy, and it still didn’t seem quite serious when Gertrude put on the Babe’s serge suit and raccoon coat and accepted his passport. From his side, the transition required less effort, because Gertrude’s silk kimonos suited him more comfortably than game-day pinstripes, especially in light of the effects of Alice’s cooking, and the Bambino’s growing girth. “I could get used to this!” he declared, putting his feet up and leaning back on a rattan settee.

Gertrude struggled in April and May, striking out three times in a game against Boston and once, in Cleveland, misplaying a routine fly ball so badly that fans and sportswriters were scratching their heads. But she was tenacious, made adjustments, and her batting average steadily improved, while her power was never in question. (Gertrude was a naturally lofty swinger.) By July, she was hitting over .300 and made one of the most memorable plays of the season when she caught a sacrifice fly in deep right field and threw out Ty Cobb sliding headfirst into home plate. A double play! On her way back to the dugout, the inning over, she trotted past Cobb who was still arguing with the umpire and she haughtily tipped her cap at the irate Tiger. The crowd roared with delight, and Cobb’s reaction—livid, obscene, rolling on the ground as the umpire grappled to restrain him—led to his month-long suspension.

Meanwhile, back in Paris, Ruth’s earlier pleasures began to pale. All sorts of people came round to rue de Fleurus and he quickly grew tired of them. The telegrams he exchanged with Stein at this time are revealing. Upon receiving Stein’s lapidary message, “Lefty Grove—what?“, he sent this troubled reply:

“Make him pitch you inside. GERTIE, who ARE all these weirdos? What am I supposed to SAY to them? G Leblanc—neurasthenia—what? I WON’T do NUDE for Picasso! Hemingway—freeloader— needs title—what? This joint is a madhouse!”

Clearly, the Babe didn’t like the situation and was groping to find his way. Similar telegrams streamed in almost daily from Paris, while Gertrude’s replies were sporadic and sometimes cryptic, leaving much to interpretation. For instance, her July 28 message:

“Cadence—Cadence—your only Fiesta!”

Frankly, the Babe was getting fed up, and Alice had to fetch him home one night when he sneaked away to spend the evening in the company of some rue Blondel floozies and returned, much the worse for drink, to evict the hangers-on at Gertrude’s place with shouts and fisticuffs. “OUT of here! You can all get LOST and stay LOST! YOU CAN QUOTE ME ON THAT!”

Young Ernest trudged off into the darkness, snuffling.

It was an unhappy evening but it seemed to clear the air a bit. Alice consoled him in following days with a leg of lamb with broad beans and a large serving of her special brownies. Back in New York, Gertrude had managed to lift the Yankees back to the top of the American League, a remarkable achievement which included 12 of her 46 homers hit to the opposite field (look it up!) which, though undeniably impressive, was not enough to carry them through the World Series against St. Louis, which the Yankees lost when Gertrude rashly tried to steal second base in the ninth inning of the seventh game.  It was an embarrassing exit, and received more publicity than it deserved, because of course the club wouldn’t have been there without her earlier, and enormous, contributions. Still, it revealed, incontestably, her state of fatigue. It had been a long season. Her October 10 telegram announced: “Time to come home.

The Babe was in full agreement. Yes, it was time.


Thus the experiment ended. Upon her arrival at the rue de Fleurus, Gertrude hugged Alice so hard that she aggravated Alice’s scoliosis, and put her in the Hôpital Lariboisière for three days. The Babe, though he would miss Alice’s grub, was eager to return to his true calling and seems to have recovered his focus and motivation, in his mighty efforts to surpass the impressive stats that Gertrude had racked up in 1926. Would Ruth have managed his amazing 1927 season, with 60 home runs, if not for his Parisian hiatus? In a forthcoming article in the Revue française d’études américaines, Professor Cauvet explores such questions. Would Stein have attempted her subsequent forays into operatic libretti, if not for her Bronx adventures? Such is history—such is humanity.


HoldeferBWCharles Holdefer is an American writer currently based in Brussels. His work has appeared in the New England Review, North American Review, Slice and other magazines. He has published four novels with the Permanent Press and is now at work on a new novel. More information is at