Hemingway describes the atmosphere of writing in a café—the notebooks and pencils, marble tables, and smell of a café crème. He has a rabbit’s foot in his pocket, which he rubs for good luck. On some days his writing goes so well that he viscerally transports himself to the world he is creating. His “luck would run out,” however, when he hears someone approach him and ask if he is working. At this stage in life Hemingway has a short temper, and calls the person a “rotten son of a bitch.” Hemingway considers going to a different café to work, but he continues to argue with the person, a “tall young fat man” drinking a beer. Hemingway tries to keep writing as the young man taunts him. The man’s words actually begin to spur Hemingway on, and he writes more before closing his notebook and responding to the young man.
Most of the book chronicles Hemingway’s journey as a young apprentice waiting to find real success as a writer. However, this passage illuminates Hemingway’s fame, which, in turn, gets in the way of his ability to work. Though the interruption is irritating, it also somehow fuels Hemingway’s ability to write. This may be the result of pure defiance and anger, which increases Hemingway’s energy and motivation. On the other hand, perhaps being recognized in public helps Hemingway write by suggesting that he is already a famous and successful writer.
The young man says “I thought you could help me, Hem,” and Hemingway offers to shoot him. The young man tells Hemingway that everyone says “you were cruel and heartless and conceited,” and that he used to defend Hemingway but won’t anymore. Hemingway suggests that if the young man can’t write, he should learn to write criticism. Hemingway advises that “creation’s probably overrated” and suggests that they have a drink; the young man accepts. The young man confesses that he finds Hemingway’s work “too stark,” to which Hemingway replies, “too bad.” Hemingway asks the young man to remember not to come to the café when he is working, and the young man replies that he won’t. Hemingway thanks him. He admits that for a while he hoped that the young man would turn out to be a famous critic, but that this did not take place.
Hemingway’s words to the young man at first appear to be unnecessarily aggressive and violent. Although the young man appears to be irritating Hemingway intentionally, Hemingway’s offer to shoot him seems unwarranted. However, once Hemingway proposes that they get a drink, it is clear that his response to the young man is more playful than anything else. His hope that the young man turns into a famous critic suggests that Hemingway enjoys being one of the established and successful “elders” who mentor younger writers in the same way as Hemingway himself was mentored by Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound.
In the chapter’s alternate ending, Hemingway reflects on his desire to hit the young man, but admits that he wouldn’t have hit him “at my home café.” He considers that it might be his own fault if other people interrupt him while working at the café, but that it is worth the risk because the café is such a good place to work. The next morning Hemingway awakes and gives Bumby his bottle of milk and stays at home, where he works “better than I had ever done.” He reflects that “in those days” he didn’t really need the rabbit’s foot but he still liked feeling it in his pocket.
The alternate ending creates an impression of Hemingway that is wiser, kinder, and more mature than the short-tempered figure who threatens to shoot the young man in the café. It is also one of the only scenes in the book where Hemingway discusses taking an active role in the care of his son. The image of Hemingway feeding Bumby before working shows a more domestic side to Hemingway.