Gertrude's Grave

Michael C. Keith

Gertrude has said things tonight it will take her 10 years to understand.
— Alice B. Toklas

A passage from Ernest Hemingway’s memoir, A Moveable Feast, never left Otto Niemeyer’s thoughts: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” He had never been to Paris, but he had always hoped to go. His salary as a geography teacher at Jarvis Wile School in Summit, Missouri, had never provided him with the funds necessary to make the trip. Private schools in his part of the world were notoriously cheap to their faculty. It was only after putting aside money from a part-time job at an auto parts store, following his retirement, that he was finally able to realize his long delayed dream.

Otto planned to visit the haunts of the book’s iconic expats. He would patronize the cafes of Montparnasse, where Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce, and other legendary figures spent long evenings of drinking and jousting with each other. He’d retrace their paths across the City of Lights, and he’d visit the graves of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in the Père Lachaise Cemetery. Of all the characters in Hemingway’s reminiscences, Stein and Toklas held a special fascination for him. It was their devotion to one another that most caught his fancy. That the two women had found each other, in a world hostile to unconventional couplings, had given him hope. Although he was straight, their relationship served as a beacon in the lonely sea of his existence. A lifelong bachelor, Otto had spent his entire adulthood without a significant other.

While he was not a big fan of Stein’s prose style—What the hell did “There ain’t no answer. There ain’t gonna be any answer. There never has been an answer. That’s the answer,” or “There is no there there” mean? He did enjoy her apparent playfulness with words, but was nonplussed by their ambiguity or, perhaps, it was his lack of comprehending their intended meaning. Still, he admired her deeply and truly looked forward to paying homage to her and the woman who had been her closest consort. The idea that he would be in such close proximity to their remains thrilled him and gave him a sense that he might somehow become a part of their fabled oeuvre.

While his knowledge of the French language was modest, he felt confident it would not pose a problem and, despite his arthritic knees, they were still capable of withstanding hearty walks. It was in this heightened frame of mind that Otto boarded a plane to New York that would connect with a flight to France. He could not have been happier, and he uncharacteristically engaged with as many fellow travelers as he could to share his joy. It was one of the brightest times in his life—a life that had been awash in monotones of grey. Even his childhood, with older parents, had been a lackluster and unmemorable affair. Like Otto, his mother and father had also taught at Jarvis Wile School their entire careers, and like him, they, too, had been forced to stay close to home because of a lack of resources to do otherwise.

*

The day after arriving in Paris, Otto took a cab to the Père Lachaise Cemetery. He had first planned to visit the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, but his powerful urge to visit the resting place of his literary heroines prompted him to revise his plan. After being deposited at the tree-enshrouded entrance of the graveyard, Otto began to stroll down the main path. He was surprised to see how crammed the gravestones were to one another. He had never seen such a crowded burial ground and was glad he had purchased a map of the site in advance of his visit. It would have been impossible to achieve his purpose otherwise, he concluded. The map included information about the graveyard that amazed Otto. More than 70,000 resided in this city of the dead spread over more than one hundred acres. The 5,000 trees lining the gravel lanes delighted him, and the shadows they cast were stenciled to the ground by a vibrant June sun. The effect was captivating and almost otherworldly to Otto, and he could not conceive of a lovelier place to spend the hereafter.

I’m coming, dear Gertrude, he thought excitedly, as he checked the directory on the back of the map labeled “Noted Occupants.” He quickly ran his finger down the long alphabetized column. There she is. He could hardly contain his excitement when he came to her name. I’m coming, Le Stein, said Otto, using the sobriquet given to her by her celebrated coterie. When he reached the grande dame’s grave, he was surprised and somewhat disappointed by how unadorned it appeared set next to a small, yellow storage building. Oh, même moderne, you deserve better, he mumbled to himself, as he knelt close to her headstone. “How you must long for your beloved Rue de Fleurus,” he whispered sympathetically.

As Otto backed away from the decrepit monument, he was certain he heard a female voice intone, “A grave is grave unless it is not grave.” Yes, he thought, yes, of course, dear Gertrude. How could one be grave among friends and lovers? Now, those words I understand. Merci, Le Stein.

Referring to the plot directory again to find the Toklas site, he suddenly became aware that they were just two of a myriad of renowned fellow tenants. He had been so focused on locating Stein that he had failed to see who else was interred in the sacred ground around her. His eyes widened in amazement as they ran down the list: Apollinaire, Balzac, Bernhardt, Bizet, Calas, Chopin, Debussy, Delacroix, Ernst, Pisarro, Seurat . . .. Otto was overcome with the realization that he stood among the remains of some of the world’s most renowned cultural figures. He immediately became obsessed with the idea of becoming an occupant of the hallowed necropolis upon his passing. It would be so wonderful to spend eternity with such extraordinary people. I must . . . I must.

*

Over the next several days, Otto paid his respects to many of the other famous occupants of Père Lachaise. He had also contacted its office to inquire about the possibility of being buried there. The cost of purchasing a plot was formidable, however, and was laden with conditions. An individual had to die in Paris in order to be eligible and sign a renewable lease of 10, 30, or 50 years—the longer the lease, the more expensive. Since plots were limited, if a lease expired, the remains would be removed and relocated. A body could be cremated and placed in the cemetery’s columbarium for less expense, but that did not appeal to Otto. His deepest wish was to share the cemetery’s soil with its deceased luminaries. He believed that to rest among them would add meaning and weight to his otherwise jejune existence.

Otto figured that in order to purchase the plot, he would have to do something drastic to raise the money, and he knew what that meant. He would have to sell his mother’s engagement ring, which he had inherited long ago. The formidable diamond had been handed down through generations of Niemeyers and was worth a considerable sum. While it disturbed him to depart with it, he justified doing so since there had never been anyone to give it to. He had not married and the prospects of getting engaged at his age were less than remote.

He put a down payment on the plot with a credit card, agreeing to pay the balance within thirty days, and returned to the States feeling positively exuberant. While Otto had little to look forward to in what remained of his daily life, he now believed that, in death, he would achieve fulfillment. Spending eternity with the great and glorious was far better than living in his mundane world.

*

Otto located a buyer for his mother’s ring, and to his satisfaction, the sum it brought was in excess of the money he needed to pay off his gravesite. He put the balance in the bank in anticipation of an eventual return trip to Paris when he felt his demise was nearing. Fearing that he might suffer a fatal accident before his time came, he substantially decreased his already nominal presence in the outside world by remaining in his small house as much as possible.

Thus, the years passed slowly and without notable incident until he suffered a minor heart attack. That prompted him to execute his long-planned end-of-days strategy.

“You need a repair of your left ventricle. It’s a delicate operation, but you should come out of it okay, Mr. Niemeyer,” said a coronary specialist at Summit Hospital, where he had been taken.

Upon hearing the doctor’s words, the seventy-six year old patient decided to sell off everything he owned and cash in his retirement investments for his return to Paris. Immediately, after his release from the hospital, Otto set about to clear the path back to the Père Lachaise Cemetery for his rendezvous with Stein and her distinguished neighbors.

Je reviendrai bientot, Le Stein, thought Otto, and soon it was. Within two months, Otto had rented a small room near the cemetery in the 20th Arrondissement. While it cost considerably more than his previous dwelling in the poorer 19th Arrondissement, Otto felt that, since his days were numbered, his finances would more than suffice for the time that remained. He was surprised and a bit chagrined when months passed and his health did not deteriorate as he expected it would.

*

Indeed, the better part of a year passed while Otto impatiently waited for his end to come. During that time, he had visited Père Lachaise nearly every day and had long conversations with many of the cemetery’s notables. Of course, among the most loquacious was Gertrude herself, who regaled him with countless anecdotes and tales of the Lost Generation. Otto could not wait to enter the afterlife with such intriguing and engaging friends. But his wait felt endless until the day before his birthday.

On his brief walk to the cemetery up a narrow street, Otto encountered two intimidating looking youths.

“You American, huh?”

Otto attempted to ignore them and continue on his way, but his path was blocked.

“Give us your things now! Je te tuerai!” threatened the smaller of the two.

When Otto hesitated, the second youth pulled out a knife.

Actuellement!” he growled.

Otto handed over his wallet, watch, and signet ring, and expected the youths to leave him alone.

“Your jaquette. What is there?”

“Nothing. Just some papers of no value,” answered Otto, hoping they would not take the cemetery lease that he always carried with him in the event of the fatal heart attack he expected at any time.

“Give them to us!” demanded his assailants, rifling through his pockets and removing the papers.

“Please, they are worthless,” pleaded Otto.

Non, un vieil homme!” replied the teenager clutching the cemetery lease.

Both young men then turned and ran with Otto in slow pursuit.

“Keep everything, but give me back those papers!” shouted Otto in the direction of their vanishing figures.

As he lumbered across the street, he became dizzy and fell, striking his head against the curb with great force. And it was there that he died.

When the police examined his body, the only identification they found was an address on the elderly man’s medical alert bracelet. After French officials contacted authorities in the States, Otto’s remains were returned to Summit, Missouri. There he was buried with little fanfare in one of the town’s two cemeteries. A modest headstone, engraved with just his first name, was placed next to Estelle and Harold Niemeyer’s graves. Otto’s parents had purchased the plot for their only child when he was born.


About the Author

Michael C. Keith is the author of an acclaimed memoir, four short story collections, and two-dozen non-fiction books. www.michaelckeith.com