Dispatches | October 03, 2008

Earlier this afternoon, almost running late for our weekly editorial meeting at The Missouri Review, I rode my bike hard along a stretch wooded trail. Walking toward me was a short white-bearded man in a straw Panama hat and tropical shirt and a very tall, fresh-faced nun in a full, modern-day habit. I overheard him say, “And then Jesus said to him. . .” The wind rustled through the trees, carrying off the last words of his sentence, though I heard the nun’s reply: “Cool. Really cool.” The austere cross around her neck glinted in the sun as I rode past her to exit the trail for the street.

Thinking of how to tell this story to my husband, it sounded like the set-up of a joke. A nun and Hemingway’s twin were walking through the woods. As a woman sped by on her bike nearly grazing the hem of the nun’s wimple, Hemingway turned to the nun and said, “And then Jesus said to him. . .” At this point, I encounter two narrative problems: I’ve never been able to remember a punch line, let alone write an original joke, and I have no idea what Jesus would say. I strongly dislike those T-shirts that ask “What Would Jesus Do?” Got me.

I suppose their conversation was more mundane than I might imagine. Hemingway II was probably offering his interpretation of biblical scripture, and the nun was simply playing the role of good listener: “That’s cool. Really cool.”

The real gift is not the overheard conversation but the freshness and incongruity of the image: a very tall nun dressed in the garments of her religious order placed alongside a very short man who calls to mind late-career Hemingway. The odd pair are bathed in biblical shafts of sunlight as they walk along a trail that leads into the woods. Now that’s an image a writer should be able to work with.