James Sloan Allen
“But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.”
The book flapped shut, and Burton Sharp let it drop over on his stomach as he lay in bed beside his sleeping wife, Sylvia. His head sank back into the pillow. He switched off the bedside lamp. His eyes blankly fixed on the lazy rotations of the ceiling fan in the dim moonlight filtering with the night air through gauzy curtains at the window. What a soft sentiment, he said to himself. Nostalgia? Regret? This from Ernest Hemingway, the tough-guy writer who loved to kill as much as he loved to live? Whose life as a big-game hunter and deep-sea fisherman, bullying boxer and bullfighting aficionado, two-fisted drinker and intrepid war correspondent was as famous as his books? To live such a life! Free. Adventurous. Literary. How many young men have yearned for it? Or used to. Me too, Burton admitted. Me, too.
Then it hit him. Maybe Hemingway didn’t get what he wanted, after all. Why the nostalgia, even regrets, at the end, in that last line of that last book, A Moveable Feast? A memoir, no less. But not about the legendary life and the stellar literary career. Instead it’s about the beginning, before all of that. Why did Hemingway look back over the years of adventure and fame and seem almost sorry, as if he had lost something? What was it? Paris? Youth? The Twenties? But that’s probably how most lives work out, Burton ruminated, sleepily following the hypnotic circles of the fan. A trail of incidents, people, places, events that we leave behind, a trail that leads us to where we are, but that we can’t see clearly until we look back, for then some incidents that had hardly caught our eye have become landmarks, and others that once jolted us have left barely a trace. Neurosis comes from this, of course, Burton reminded himself, when we secretly cling to some moments so tightly that we cannot move on. But it’s not neurotic to remember. Or to regret.
Burton Sharp could feel himself swimming in a stream now, as he tended to do late at night, hoping it would carry him, like free association in psychoanalysis, to undiscovered places and unexpected truths. The next words came to him as an echo: “The memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment, and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.” The end of Swann’s Way. Proust meets Hemingway. Burton smiled inwardly at the pairing. The wan, loquacious novelist of the French belle epoche’s lustrous social world, who wrote in bed all day breathing the thick unchanging air of his cushioned room, here together with the hardy he-man writer who whittled literary language to the bone and wrote of cold heroics and emotional desolation and lonely death, and who boasted that he’d choose action over fiction any day. Yet, here they were partners in images of memory and regret, in a Paris of long ago.
Pleased with himself, Burton Sharp closed his drooping eyelids and allowed the stream to ebb away into the rhythmic lapping of shallow waves on the beach below the open window. He liked tropical nights. Key West was a good place to enjoy them. Simple to get to. No customs to go through. And a hospitably historical town. He had come here years earlier researching his first Hemingway book. But that seemed a life-time away. Before he knew Sylvia.
Burton and Sylvia had been married for nearly twenty-five years now. Before they met, Burton had written some short stories, and published a couple of them that nobody read in obscure literary quarterlies. And he had finished a novel that no one would publish. That’s when he had settled on becoming a professor of literature. He had resented the clichéd come-down, and chafed at the prosaic demands of academia. But he had submitted to those demands, teaching pedestrian students and grinding out scholarly articles on American literature and a critical book on Hemingway. And he had married Sylvia, a younger colleague at their small New England college. Now he was writing a new Hemingway biography, to put in the pulse of life that others had left out. Or so Burton told everyone. Sylvia kidded him that he was just sublimating his desire to be Hemingway. But that’s OK, she would say, because sublimation is safe adventure; it can feel as good as the real thing without the dirt and discomfort.
Burton and Sylvia had arrived in Key West that afternoon for the spring semester break and a reprieve from the northern chill. Burton was also tracking down some fugitive details for the book. And he was trying to decide what to do about Paula.
Paula, a graduate student with irrepressible allure, who had fluttered on the periphery of his consciousness through a class he had taught on The Lost Generation, until one day she had flown right into the center. She had come to his office for advice on research topics about Hemingway. Heaving with adulation, she had asked “Professor Sharp” if she could work with him on her Master’s thesis because “you know all the interesting things about literature” and “are so-o-o exciting to talk to.” Then she came again. And again. And again. She wanted more than advice. Burton knew that. Why else would she keep coming so often and keep asking these unnecessary questions, and dress like that, and heave, and adulate, and linger? Burton was yielding. He knew that, too.
Burton loved Sylvia, or he had loved her long enough that he didn’t think about it anymore. But deep in middle age and feeling that he was losing a little more of himself each day, he could not resist the attraction of…what? Was it Paula’s seductiveness that made his blood rush and his head fizz and his knees go rubbery? Or was it Paula’s adulation of him? Burton was honest enough to make the distinction. But he could not honestly make it here.
He was glad to get away. He wanted to sort out his feelings and weigh what kind of life was left to him, and to Sylvia. Sylvia, good Sylvia. She never pretended to be what she wasn’t, or to know what she didn’t know. But she always seemed to know the important things. Sylvia had discrimination, and modesty, and integrity, and what Burton publicly praised as her Buddhist virtue of detachment. Rare qualities in academia, he would say. Her colleagues agreed. Good Sylvia. Paula was different. She lacked discrimination. She winked at modesty. She blinked at integrity. She could never be detached. She heaved and adulated. And this got her into Burton’s mind. He couldn’t get her out. He wanted her. He admitted that. But he wanted to absolve himself first. Somehow, he hoped, Key West would help.
Voices of late-night passers-by talking and laughing in the street pulled Burton back from the edge of sleep. He heard the roar of a motorcycle gunning its engine a few blocks away. Probably heading for Sloppy Joe’s, he guessed. He pictured the cavernous bar on Duval Street, famous for the drinking bouts and boxing matches Hemingway had held there to prove his prowess against the kind of ruffians who had given Key West its original character as a scarfaced-seaman’s-hangout, and whose tradition lives on in burly bikers wearing leather skull-and-crossbones jackets who gather in packs there to drink today. Burton took himself back through time to the story of how Sloppy Joe’s original owner, Hemingway’s boozing and fishing pal Joe Russell, had moved his establishment one night to Duval Street from its cramped location up Green Street not long after Hemingway had met the young Martha Gellhorn at the bar on a summer afternoon in 1936, and four years later made her his third wife and left for Cuba, and that was twelve years after he had first arrived in Key West flushed with youthful renown as the author of tough short stories and The Sun Also Rises and newly married to his second wife, Pauline, who had taken him from his first wife, Hadley. One new wife and new life after another. A trail through wives and exploits and books and honors. And then…regrets?
Enough! Burton pushed the meandering skein from his mind, rolled over and burrowed his head under a pillow. He willed himself to sleep. But his sleep was not easy. It swarmed with restive dreams.
Burton saw himself in Paris, before he had ever been there. In the working-class neighborhood up behind the Pantheon, he was entering the diminutive Place de la Contrascarpe, bordered by dusty shops, weather-beaten apartment houses, and a couple of nondescript cafes, where a quaint fountain in the center splashed under a ring of shady trees. He recognized the spot. It was only steps from the bathroomless third-floor flat on the Rue Cardinal Lemoine where Hemingway and Hadley and their infant son nicknamed Bumby had lived at the beginning, when they were very poor and very happy. Here, Hemingway had said, he would walk home through the leaves that blew off the trees in the wind, and the rain would pelt the apartment windows when the bad weather came after autumn.
Then Burton saw him. Sitting at an outdoor cafe in the square. Young, husky, dark-haired, clean-shaven except for a black mustache, a coffee cup and a glass of wine at his elbow, bent over a notebook, rapidly scrawling. Hemingway, and a story “writing itself,” as he said stories sometimes did. That is the life, the dreaming Burton said aloud to no one. Writing literature in Parisian cafes. Talented and free, creating a myth, and living it. Burton wanted to speak to him, to ask about his life, about Paris, about writing, about anything. He walked across the square and under the trees and around the fountain. But when he reached the outer tables of the cafe, Hemingway had disappeared. No cup, no glass, no notebook. The dreamer could only stand there watching leaves scatter through the empty chairs.
Then the scene dissolved, and Burton found himself in another, larger Paris square. The bustling Place St. Michel on the Seine. There, through the windows of another cafe he saw Hemingway again, hunched over his notebook at a table, with a coffee cup and a half-filled glass at the ready. Writing about Michigan, the dreamer suspected, because Hemingway had said he did that one rainy autumn day while drinking a Rum St. James in “a good cafe on the Place St. Michel” when Michigan was far away. The dreamer opened the cafe door and went inside. He turned toward the table at the window. It was vacant. No cup. No glass. No notebook. Nobody.
The dream went on, hazy and vivid, tantalizing and real. To the Cloiserie des Lilas at the other end of the Boulevard St. Michel, where it intersects with the Boulevard Montparnasse, and where Hemingway often went to write, he confessed, like “a blind pig” or with “the air of a man alone in the jungle” after he and Hadley and Bumby moved to the adjacent Rue du Notre Dame du Champs in 1923, where they were still very poor and very happy. And there he was. Writing fervently at a table outside under the sheltering trees. And then he wasn’t.
Again and again the dreamer found Hemingway at the cafes where he wrote and ate and drank and socialized along the Boulevard Montparnasse–the Dome, the Select, the Negre de Toulouse, and the unnamed–and then close by at 27 rue de Fleurus, where Hemingway visited Gertrude Stein in her long-time home when he was shaping the literary style that became his own, and that Gertrude Stein claimed credit for teaching him, and to whom, like other writers–except Ezra Pound–he was not as gracious in his memoir as he might have been. Hemingway was everywhere. Then he wasn’t.
The dream gathered speed as the dreamer tracked Hemingway from Paris to Spain for the running of the bulls in Pamplona and for the Spanish Civil War, then to the Serengeti Plain in Africa for safaris, and on to the commodious residence outside Havana where Hemingway lived for twenty years after Key West, and back to wartime Europe for real-life heroics, then to Sun Valley and the house in neighboring Ketchum that he shared with his fourth wife, Mary, where in the fall of 1960 he put the final touches on A Moveable Feast, and early one morning the next July put a shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger three weeks before his sixty-second birthday.
The gunshot blast woke Burton with a start. He sat up and pushed a trembling hand through his thinning hair. Where did all that come from? But it was no mystery. He had been trailing Hemingway for years. It was his profession. And his hobby. Sylvia said it bordered on obsession. And being here in Key West and reading the memoir, and puzzling over its elegiac tone, how could he not dream some such dream?
Burton slumped back on the pillow. The questions intruded again. Not that Hemingway’s suicide troubled him. That was an honest act, Burton had always said, because Hemingway was in decline and ill. But what about Paris? What about the nostalgia in the last book finished before the suicide? Was the tone just a topos, a literary mood struck for effect? That wouldn’t be like Hemingway, Burton insisted. Hemingway despised mere effects. “Write one true sentence.” That was Hemingway’s creed. He’d repeated it in that last book. But what about the hints of sentimentality? Could true sentences be sentimental? True sentimentality? Not possible. Sentimentality is a false emotion. So, what was Hemingway’s true emotion in those last lines of regret that sounded almost sentimental?, Burton asked himself. And what about the bitterness before the regrets? Bitterness over “the rich,” as Hemingway scornfully labeled them. Once “you have the rich,” he had snarled, “nothing is ever as it was again.” That was rich Pauline, the second wife, the wife of the Key West years, and her crowd, who came with success. Bitterness and regret? And nostalgia? Had Hemingway let his life slip away from him? What had he lost? What had he wanted?
Stop! Burton scolded himself once more. This is just a preoccupation of the night. Let it go. Besides, perhaps tomorrow there’ll be clues at Hemingway’s house. Burton pitched onto his side. One hand fell against Sylvia’s, resting on her pillow. She didn’t flinch. Sleeps like she’s hibernating, he said mentally. Nothing disturbs her. Lucky Sylvia. Good Sylvia. He drew his hand away and rolled over. Closing his eyes tight, he concentrated on the seductive tropical sounds of the sifting palms and the lapping surf outside, and eventually he floated off on imagined waves of an endless sea to beckoning images of Paula.
The next morning Burton groggily bemoaned the restless night as he and Sylvia had breakfast on the back porch of their Bed & Breakfast overlooking the ocean on the Atlantic side of the island away from the hubbub at the western end of town. It was known as the Dewey House, named for the philosopher John Dewey who had vacationed in it during his later years. Burton and Sylvia liked the intellectual pedigree. And Burton had invented a scene of Dewey and Hemingway meeting at Sloppy Joe’s in the 1930s– Hemingway, the young buck flexing his muscles and his fresh reputation as the rough, plain-spoken all-American writer, and Dewey, the grand old man of American philosophy, admired world-wide for his down-home pragmatism and high-minded democratic principles, both toasting to plain honesty and earthiness, the American style, in philosophy, in literature, in life. Now, Burton remarked, the Dewey House is just a modest B & B. And Hemingway’s house is a major tourist attraction, a shrine. Literature has eclipsed philosophy.
Burton and Sylvia bantered through breakfast, enjoying the ocean glistening in the morning sunlight under a pale blue cloudless sky, and sailboats bobbing against the azure backdrop as if in an Impressionist painting. Then they set out for the shrine.
The walk from South Street along Whitehead Street took them past nondescript bungalows and a few pretty, two-story “conch” houses, some a hundred years old, enduring emblems of historic Key West charm, quaintly mingling Victorian fussiness and French-New Orleans grace, their wrap-around porches and balconies lined by filigreed railings evoking languorous evenings of tall cool drinks and breezy relief from tropical heat. When they reached the Hemingway house at the corner of Whitehead and Olivia–across from the towering lighthouse oddly out of place here, practically in the middle of town–tourists were lined up at the entrance in the six-foot high brick wall encircling the property. Burton grumbled while they waited, paid the fee, and went through.
A jungle of trees and plants almost hid the grandiose conch house, twice the size of any other in town and built of stone, not wood. It could have presided over a lavish plantation in the South Seas. Its yellow walls and green porch and balcony running around the two floors blended into the jungle and the verdant, penumbral grounds. Walking down a winding footpath, Burton pointed out the smaller mansard-roofed cottage behind the main house where Hemingway would go to write in the upstairs studio. And, there were cats. Inconspicuous at first, they soon seemed to materialize everywhere. Dozens of them, lazing on the porch, munching from bowls of food, crawling through the bushes, curled up under trees.
“Six-toed, many of them,” Burton explained. “Scruffy mongrels descended from Hemingway’s own. Cats evidently could do no wrong for Hemingway. They were probably the only animals he wouldn’t kill. He shot dogs to protect ‘em. Key West is a haven for cats now. They’re everyplace.”
“Why the attachment?” Sylvia asked.
“Probably because they’re always a bit feral, untrainable. Hemingway liked that in animals.”
Burton and Sylvia loitered among the cats in the yard and sat in a couple of garden chairs studying the handsome house and watching tourists milling about. They could overhear tour guides retelling how Hemingway and Pauline had bought the house in 1931 with a gift of $8000 from her rich, generous uncle, and how Hemingway had written great literature in it, and how he had left permanently in 1940 for Cuba with Martha Gellhorn, and how the house had been sold in the 1950s with the furnishings still in it after Pauline died. Burton had seen and heard it all before. On his earlier quest for Hemingwayana. But this time was different. He didn’t like it.
“It’s wrong,” he muttered to Sylvia. “A theme park. A circus. Tourists traipsing all over, gawking and craving cheap anecdotes to tell back home. False. Phony. Un-Hemingway.”
“Don’t be so supercilious, Bertie,” Sylvia chided him. “You’re a tourist, too, you know.”
“Oh, that hurts. Isn’t this research?”
“Well, if you want it to be, you’ll have to do more than complain. Let’s go inside.”
“With all of them?”
“You can do it. Hemingway would expect courage.”
Taking her muttering husband’s hand, Sylvia led Burton into the throng pouring through the house. Inside, tour guides were purveying their pat histories in every room. Burton suddenly tugged Sylvia aside through a brief opening in the mass, and urged her up a stairway. At the top, skirting another clutch of visitors, they ducked into an unpeopled room. It was spacious and spare, with a large, ornate iron bed cordoned off against one wall. On the bed, a plump orange tabby cat sprawled, blissfully asleep, oblivious to any intrusion.
“Hemingway’s bedroom,” Burton tersely observed.
“He might not like the circus atmosphere,” Sylvia said, “but he would like the integrity of the cat, wouldn’t he? Or is it a prop?”
“The ‘integrity of the cat’?” Burton replied approvingly. “Nice. Yes, it’s the truest thing here.” He reached over the cordon and grazed the cat’s fur with his finger tips. The creature languidly stretched out its legs, splayed its paws, and contentedly slept on. “No prop,” he assured her.
Voices swelled near the doorway, and the room began filing with murmuring visitors in loud clothes. “And this was Ernest and Pauline’s bedroom,” the guide announced to his ogling flock.
Burton and Sylvia withdrew through a door at the opposite end of the room and hastened down a corridor to an outside door that opened onto the front balcony. From there, through the lush foliage, they could see a river of people gushing through the front gate from tour buses on the street.
“Yuck!“ Burton grouched. “But can you imagine what it must have been like here in the Thirties? The tropical grandeur of it. The peacefulness. No tourists.”
“No air-conditioning,” Sylvia added.
“But that’s the point,” he said. “It would have been so natural, authentic, quiet, steamy, languorous.” Then he heard an inner voice say, “What would Paula be like on a steamy, languorous night?” A thrilling sensation coursed through him. Impulsively, he turned away from Sylvia, ignoring her comic retort about air-conditioning being part of nature’s plan. Then he recovered himself and, wheeling around said with mock ominousness, “If we don’t go now we might never get out. We’ll get caught in the crush and left as bony remains, like the great fish in The Old Man and the Sea after
the sharks got him.”
Sylvia groaned at the ungainly allusion. “Bertie, your literary humor can be about as deadly as a shark. Just not as cutting.”
“Thanks. I’ll remember that when I need it.”
They elbowed their way back to the stairs and down through an ascending tide of bodies. Outside again, they wedged through the incoming visitors and squeezed out the gate. Taking a deep breath and brushing off the invisible noxious detritus of the aliens, they charted a course for a quiet place on the shore where they could sit and have a drink and take in the beneficent serenity of the ocean. Strolling up Duval Street, they passed an unbroken row of cafes, boutiques, T-shirt stores, souvenir shops, and the other usual fare of resort towns. But one thing wasn’t usual. It was oddly conspicuous. That was Hemingway. His face was everywhere. Not the younger man of his Key West days, but the familiar Papa Hemingway, aging, handsomely bearded, his white-hair combed onto his forehead. It was a logo. In advertising. On building signs. T-shirts. Jackets. Curios. Glass ware. Dinner plates.
“Hemingway is as big here as Shakespeare is in Stratford-upon-Avon,” Sylvia exclaimed.
“Bigger,” Burton responded. “He’s got American consumerism going for him. And it’s gotten a lot worse since I was here before.”
Approaching Sloppy Joe’s, they saw a string of shiny motorcycles lining the curb outside. A cacophony of voices backed by the pulsing beat of the juke-box reverberated from inside through the open window walls out into the street. In the capacious, rustic interior, they could see scarred wooden tables and banged up chairs jammed with midday revelers. Leather jackets and flowered shirts, rough guys and tough broads, boisterous college kids and novelty-seeking tourists, all drinking and inhaling the musty atmosphere, watched over by a gigantic smiling face of Papa Hemingway extending across a wall behind the bandstand.
“Hemingway votaries in the temple,” Sylvia cracked. “Do you suppose they all read him?”
“Do they read at all?”
“You’re such a snob.”
Jabbing each other genially, Burton and Sylvia left the votaries at Sloppy Joe’s and went up Green Street where they paused beneath a sign at Captain Tony’s depicting a rugged seaman boasting this was “the original Sloppy Joe’s.” From the sidewalk, they peered into a smaller, darker, nearly deserted bar, every surface seemingly cluttered with tacked-on mementos of patrons past, and proudly exuding the grimy patina of reverential age.
“They’re probably preserving Hemingway’s and Martha Gellhorn’s fingerprints on the bar,” Burton said sarcastically.
“But such respect for history,” Sylvia remarked.
They moved on to Front Street accompanied by the thunder of more motorcycles gunning their way to Sloppy Joe’s, or just calling attention to themselves, and by tourists disgorging from the waterside hotels. As they reached the end of the street near the shoreline restaurants, Sylvia took hold of Burton’s arm and slowed to a stop. “Bertie,” she said reflectively, “have you noticed anything unusual about a lot of the men here?”
“What do you mean?”
“Something odd about their appearance.”
Burton studied the pedestrians and the motorcyclists coming and going. He began to see a pattern.
“Hey, you’re right,” he said. “Older guys. Cropped white hair. Trimmed grey beards.
“One or two you wouldn’t notice,” Sylvia pointed out. “But ten, twenty, more. What a spectacle. What do you think it means?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Pretending to be someone you’re not? To have a more interesting life than you have? It’s really very ironic when you think about it. Hemingway being honored by mass imitations of his appearance! But now that I say that, it occurs to me that they actually have Hemingway look-alike contests here every year. They advertise ‘em in tourist brochures. I had thought it was a joke. But it’s a cult.”
Sylvia cocked her head slightly and threw Burton a quizzical smile.
“What’s that expression for?” he asked.
She chuckled softly and linked her arm in his. “Time for that drink,” she said. Minutes later they were seated at a café on the water ordering drinks and a light lunch.
“The Hemingway look-alikes,” Sylvia picked up the subject again, “do you think they’re doing the same thing as the Elvis imitators?”
Burton hesitated. “Not really,” he began. “The Elvis guys are at least acting out fantasies that fit Elvis. He was a creature of the entertainment culture that depends on the mass media and marketing and publicity and the fawning identifications of ‘fans’ with ‘celebrities.’ Can you imagine, say, Moses look-alikes trekking the hills of Judea, or even little Napoleon look-alikes glowering from horseback around Europe? You need our crass modernity for that. But Elvis, yes. His imitators are just like him. Entertainers, antic pretenders, show biz fabrications. The Hemingway imitators belong to that culture, too. But Hemingway didn’t. Hemingway was no Elvis. He’d hate it.”
“Are you sure?” Sylvia prodded. “Hemingway liked fame, didn’t he? And he got a lot of ‘celebrity’ from magazines and from movies of his books, and he fraternized with movie stars.”
“OK. LIFE magazine and movies of his stories and books might have made him familiar. But it wasn’t ‘celebrity’ then. I mean, Hemingway wasn’t just a creature of publicity. He had genuine ‘fame’ for doing something significant. And he would have despised a world that confuses celebrity with achievement, fantasy with reality and that doesn’t care about the difference, and that lives for the theme park version of reality, pretending all the time.
“He wouldn’t have just laughed it off?”
“Nah. Hemingway didn’t laugh that way. Not the frivolous laughter that accepts anything as long as it’s amusing or campy. Elvis look-alikes, bad TV, that stuff. Grinning with a trophy of the hunt, yes. Guffawing with buddies over drinks, yes. But not just casually laughing things off, or spewing the phony social mirth of cocktail parties that people use nowadays to take the place of words. Anyway, there’s not much humor in Hemingway’s books. A bit of satire, but it’s usually biting, deriding people he knew, or writers he liked to send up–The Torrents of Spring, who reads it? No real humor.”
“You figure Ernest was too earnest for that?” Sylvia quipped.
“Ugh! And you complain about my humor! But you’re right. His version of the importance of being earnest wasn’t Oscar Wilde’s. Hemingway was never trivial. He saw life as struggle, a contest of wills. The hunter and the hunted. The drama of death. Noble. Tragic. His idea of a good time was to carouse or fight or kill. He’d never be a mere tourist. Never just sight-see or sit on a beach. And never just pretend. ‘Write one true sentence.’ That’s what he believed. And that’s the irony of this town. It’s all about tourism and frivolity and pretense. And Hemingway’s in the middle of it! If he saw it today, he’d be repelled and run away again.”
Sylvia held her eyes on Burton for a time without speaking. “Bertie,” she began tentatively, “I don’t know a lot about Hemingway, but I suspect you’re idealizing him. He was, I’d bet, closer to his imitators than you say. Didn’t he brag about everything he did, and about things he didn’t do? And wasn’t he always brazenly acting out his myth of himself as a heroic, honest guy, trying to prove something to himself and others? Didn’t he pretend, after all?”
Taken aback at Sylvia’s uncharacteristic intensity, Burton sat in silence. Maybe Sylvia was right again. Hemingway was proud, and a braggart, and he could be vain. But was he false, or pretending, or self-deceived–like when he insistently plied the Gulf of Mexico hunting Nazi submarines? Burton began feeling discomfited. He didn’t know why. And he didn’t want to argue.
“Well,” he said distractedly, skirting the subject, “maybe so. Maybe so.”
“That’s a pretty tepid response,” Sylvia said. “I don’t think you believe it. You know, Bertie,” she went on, “you seem a bit preoccupied and on edge lately. Anything wrong?”
He couldn’t say anything. He just wanted everything that needed saying to have been said already. Whatever that was. And for it to be all right.
“No,” he feigned. “Just tired. Food will help.”
They lunched and idled through the balmy afternoon gazing at cruise ships coming in, at sailboats skiffing away, and at buoyant parasailors riding high through the far wide sky, their brightly colored parachutes tethered to speed boats towing them back and forth beyond the harbor. Then they browsed oddity shops–a huge seashell emporium offering decorative crustaceans of every shape, a couple of cat-themed boutiques selling objects celebrating Key West’s patron pet, and the Key Lime Pie Company purveying every culinary use of key limes known to humankind. As the late-day shadows lengthened, they wandered back to the shore and the seaside gathering place called Mallory Square. “We have to see the sunset from here,” Burton said. “Otherwise you’ve missed Key West.”
They were not alone. Hundreds of people were sauntering into the square. And jugglers, mimes, musicians, fire-eaters, and other performers were preparing their acts. Burton and Sylvia found a spot near the water. By the time the sun had lowered to the horizon, the entire square was filled, and music, laughter, and bursts of clapping were resounding in the air. Then, as if on cue, the sun, poised against the crimson sky, inched downward, growing larger and a duskier orange as it descended beyond the glassy waters, silhouetting sailboats against its fire. Cameras clicked. Approving oohs and ahhs rippled through the crowd. When the sun’s quivering crest finally slipped out of sight, a radiant array of colors washed up into the sky. And the audience erupted in sustained applause. Taken aback, Burton and Sylvia glanced at each other and shared a muffled laugh. The show was over. The sunset was an entertainment, along with the jugglers and mimes and musicians and fire-eaters.
“Well done, sun!” Burton joked, as he and Sylvia ambled off with the others, to return through town, past the crammed cafes and rowdy bars, the T-shirt boutiques and curio shops, to the Atlantic side for dinner–and for the obligatory Key Lime pie, Sylvia bent on finding the Platonic version of this indigenous confection. Later, sated and tired, they settled back into their philosopher’s bedroom for the end of their Key West day.
Sylvia fell asleep almost as soon as she wrapped herself in the sheets. Burton lifted a book from the stack on his nightstand. To Have and Have Not. Another of Hemingway’s airy literary titles that belie the gritty fiction inside, Burton had sometimes complained. Hemingway had culled them from phrases of other authors. Not exactly “true sentences,” were they, Burton admitted. Was that pretense? This was not a very good novel, either. But it was written in Key West, and set in and around the island. You have to read it if you go, Burton had instructed friends. For the flavor, if nothing else. He started reading it for the third or fourth time, but he couldn’t get into it. He dozed and tried again. No use. Something was pulling at him. The dream? The town? Paula? The flush of excitement he had felt at the Hemingway house? Yes, that was it. That feeling. Or was it some other emotion about the house? He had to go back. Without the tourists.
He waited a while, distractedly reading and fitfully dozing. Then he eased out of bed, put on slacks and a shirt and sandals, and slinked out the door. It was well after midnight. Padding along the streets, he passed loving couples in tight embrace and party-goers straggling home in this ever-reveling town. When he got to the house, he dallied along the walled yard, letting a car come and go. Then, seeing he was alone, he hurriedly found a foot-hold in the craggy bricks and hefted himself up the and over the top.
He dropped clumsily to the ground on the other side, crumpling to his knees among the foliage. It was easier than he’d feared. Not as high as he’d expected. Not as impenetrably over-grown. Only a scuff or two to show for it. Now, not a sound, except for his restrained panting. “Glad Hemingway liked cats, not dogs,” he wheezed, standing up against the wall. The nearly full moon in the clear sky cast a bright night light down through the trees, falling in patches on the grass like camouflage. The moonlight was so bright it reminded Burton of movies that have night scenes filmed in daytime with the camera lens tightened to make the foreground dark, but daylight still shines in the background. It’s artificial night once you see it. This moonlight glared almost like that. But, Burton mouthed the words, this was an honest night.
He surveyed the house. Most of it lay in deep shadows. But the portions of the walls that caught the moonlight gleamed in an eerie yellow-green. Great place for a Halloween party, it occurred to him. And much better than earlier in the day. No circus. Quiet. Authentic. True.
He stepped cautiously through the shadows across the lawn. Remembering the chairs where he and Sylvia had sat that morning, he groped toward them where he could sit and have a good view of the house. He lowered himself into a chair. A screeching yowl tore the silence like a banshee in attack. Leaping up, he saw a small black form bound into the gloom. A cat. He’d sat on a cat. Shaken, he warily sat down again. When he regained his composure, he detected other cats lying on the chairs, beneath the chairs, on the grass, beside tree trunks, against the house. It was their place now. Hemingway would like that, Burton speculated. Let the cats have it. They don’t pretend. They’re just themselves.
Facing the house, Burton envisioned Hemingway here. He had done some good writing in this house, or in that cottage out back. Not as much as the tour guides claim, but enough. A Farewell to Arms had come just before he settled here. And For Whom the Bell Tolls came after he’d left and switched his affections to Cuba and to Martha Gellhorn. But there was the first bullfight book. The first Africa book. Some of the best short stories. True, the one novel he wrote start to finish while living in the house, To Have…, wasn’t very successful. He must have been too close to Key West to write about it well. He usually wrote about things better when they were past and distant. Hemingway had admitted that. “Transplanting yourself,” he described it when he told of writing about Michigan while sitting in that “good café in the Place St. Michele.” He had to go to Paris to write about Michigan. And to Key West and Cuba and Idaho to write about Europe and Africa. He did write The Sun Also Rises close to its subject in Paris and Spain. But, Burton remembered, Hemingway had then revised it in Austria that winter of 1926 when he had fallen in love with Pauline, and “the rich” had come into his life. And everything was different after that.
Hemingway’s memories of Pauline and her ilk weren’t happy. So he couldn’t have been very contented here. The Key West novel wasn’t happy. But, Burton asked himself, what did Hemingway write that was happy? “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” was about as far as Hemingway could go. He wrote it here after the first trip to Africa. Francis Macomber is happy for about one minute before his wife accidentally blows his head off with an elephant gun on safari.
Burton liked this tidy insight. Of course, he conceded, “happy” was probably too “domestic” a term for Hemingway. Hemingway never cared for domestic life, or for women, either, at heart. He needed female affection. But that’s not the same thing. He had to be active, manly. Was that pretense? When he lived here he was usually alone writing about masculine action, or fishing in the Gulf with Joe Russell or drinking at Sloppy Joe’s, or he was far away. He traveled more and more during the Thirties. Africa. The Spanish Civil War. Lengthening stays in Cuba. Then he left for good. The second marriage was over. The third was beginning. And with it came For Whom the Bell Tolls and new acclaim, then a good war in Europe he relished playing a part in and “liberating” the Ritz Hotel in Paris–was this another pretense? But his World War II novel didn’t work. How could it with a title like Across the River and into the Trees? A Hemingway parody. The third marriage didn’t work, either. How could it with a wife like Martha Gellhorn, that resolutely independent woman who couldn’t live in Hemingway’s shadow or abide his histrionics? And then–The Old Man and the Sea. His best. On his mind for fifteen years. It brought a Pulitzer. And clinched the Nobel Prize. But after that, for the last ten years, almost nothing. Or nothing that he finished or was making into something memorable. Except the memoir. Why?
Burton left the question hanging and took in the moonlight playing among the shadows of the evocative scene. From the corner of his eye, he vaguely discerned the cats lying next to him. He came back to them again, the dumb honorable nature of animals. None of the self-consciousness that makes people pretend and prevaricate. Just honest instincts. Hemingway admired them for that. The Old Man and the Sea returned to Burton’s mind. All true sentences. Crystal clear. But, it now struck him, wasn’t that a story about loss, too? Hemingway had believed he was writing about the old man’s courage and manliness and endurance, and about the noble fish’s beauty and strength and valor, and all of that Hemingwayesque morality. But in the end, it turns out to be about loss. The old man kills the valiant fish that he has come to love. As he must, to prove his manhood, to test himself against nature. “I love you fish,” he says, ”but I must kill you.” Then he loses the fish, his victory, his triumph, his honor, to the sharks, bite by bite, and he winds up with nothing but a skeleton and with regrets for having taken the great free fish from the sea, depriving it of its splendid life–for nothing. And he goes home to bed sad, and he dreams of lions that he had once seen roaming in Africa. Loss and regret and dreams of happier days. And so the story closes: “The old man was dreaming of the lions.” Was that Hemingway himself? Burton asked in a flash of discovery. Was he, too, dreaming of the lions at the end? “But this is how Paris was in the early days when….”
Savoring the image, Burton scanned the moonlit yard. The shroud of shadows was drawing back as the moon passed to the west, bringing the front corner of the house into the light. Very grand. And spooky. Burton’s curious eyes played along the lower porch railing and up the moonlit corner column to the second floor balcony. He blinked. His head jerked back. He blinked again. He squinted. Was that a figure standing at the railing in the bright moonlight? He closed his eyes and shook his head. He opened them again and focused on the balcony, the figure was still there. Burton leaned forward, his hands on his knees. He gaped. Was it really…him?
Older than when he had lived here. The Papa figure. Bulky chest, safari shirt, khaki shorts, cropped white beard, short white hair. Gazing motionless toward the moon.
Burton sat almost breathless for what seemed like minutes. Was this the dream? Again? He tried to wake up. But he couldn’t. Then, as in the dream, an urge came over him. Slowly, he stood up. And he crept through the shadows to get closer, fixing his eyes on the figure above. He stopped near the front of the house beneath the balcony. Unlike the dream, Hemingway didn’t vanish. He was still there at the railing. Burton could now see that he was cradling something in his arms, stroking it lightly. A cat. The hands that loved to kill were caressing a cat with the tenderness of a child. Out of character. Or was it?
Burton craned to scrutinize the face. He couldn’t tell for sure, but the features, although aged and bearded, appeared almost soft, kindly. This was not the hearty face of the photographs. The boyishly grinning hunter and fisherman. The ruddy pugilist. The champion drinker. The fervent writer. It wore the deep lines of time and had about it a contemplative aura, as though he were summoning images from the past. The eyes seemed to glint in the light. It wasn’t a sparkle. That face could not have sparkling eyes. They were more likely rheumy with premature age, reflecting the moonlight that they searched into. And except for the fingers stroking the nape of the cat’s neck, the figure remained unearthly still, leaning against the railing, looking off into the night.
Burton didn’t move. The two of them were locked in a tableau. For how long, Burton couldn’t tell. Finally, the figure above shifted slightly, stepped back from the railing, waited a few seconds in the light, and disappeared into the shadows.
Burton stared. Was it the dream? Or a dream within a dream? Or…? Baffled and disoriented, doubting his senses but unwilling to deny them, he then thought he saw a feathery object wafting down from the balcony. He watched it come to rest on the branches of a bush near the ground. He looked up again. No one. Irresistibly drawn, Burton stole toward the object. He leaned down and plucked it from the leaves. An ordinary sheet of paper. Holding it in the moonlight, he could just make out a page of faintly typed words. He brought it close to read. Three disconnected lines came out to him: “I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her…. Paris was never to be the same again…. But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.”
The paper dropped from Burton’s fingers. He froze. He trembled. Then gradually he raised his eyes once more to the balcony above. Empty. He brought them down and nervously glanced around. Nothing but the shadows and the moonlight and the weird nighttime forms. Breathing haltingly, he bent down and picked up the paper. And a mysterious sensation of tranquillity began rising within him. Swiftly it engulfed him in a beneficent spell.
Without thinking, he knew what he would do. He moved as if levitating through the darkness to the front steps of the house and up onto the porch. Through the glass window of the front door he could see only the silent night of a haunted house. Crouching down, he slid the sheet of paper under the door. Then he backed down the steps, and made his way through the moonlight and the shadows across the grass to the wall. After a last gaze at the vacant balcony bathed in the eerie yellow-green light, he hoisted himself up and over the wall. Somnambulistically, he traversed the deserted streets to the Dewey House, where Sylvia breathed heavily in unruffleable sleep as he crawled into bed beside her and left the mystifying night behind.
When Burton Sharp awoke, it was afternoon. He was alone. He sat up and rubbed his bleary eyes, coaxing consciousness into his befogged mind. Encountering the day, he fragmentarily recalled the night. A vague feeling of uncertain quietude passed over him. A calm amidst turbulence. He didn’t want to analyze it. He clambered out of bed and staggered to the window. Sylvia was reading in a chaise lounge under a broad umbrella on the private beach. He pulled on shorts and a shirt and stumbled downstairs and outside.
“Well, you must’ve had a bad night,” she said sympathetically.
“You might say that.”
“I was starting to worry. What’s going on?”
He ordered coffee and juice and a croissant. And he told her the story. About the first dream. And about the second–but no, it wasn’t a dream. And about the house. And the figure. And the ghostly page.
“Either your imagination is getting richer or you’re losing your grip, my dear. Or maybe you’ve just spent too much time with Hemingway.”
“Thanks for the confidence. But at least I understand something better than I used to.”
“‘The meaning of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment.’”
“What are you talking about?”
“What happened to Hemingway. Why it ended as it did. Not the suicide. That had more causes than it needed. But the regrets. The nostalgia. For the early days. All the adventure and the bravado and the books and the fame seemed to fall away at the end. And, like his old man of the sea, he went back to dreaming of the lions. When he was very poor and very happy at the beginning.”
“I’m not sure I follow you, but it sounds like you’ve found Hemingway’s ‘Rosebud.’ The secret of a lost happiness?”
“Sort of. He had a love in his first marriage that he lost, or let go, and whose happiness he would never know again. Maybe that love reminded him of the nurse he had wanted to marry in the Italian hospital during World War I, who broke his heart after he got well and whom he wrote about so fondly in A Farewell To Arms just after he had left his first wife, Hadley. Anyway, the end of his first marriage came to trouble and sadden him. But I think there was more to his regrets and nostalgia than the loss of an early love. He probably longed as much for Wordsworth’s rosebuds as for Charles Foster Kane’s.”
“Yeah. The youthful feeling, or usually it’s youthful, of…how does it go?…the feeling of ‘something evermore about to be’ that makes us ‘set the budding rose above the rose full blown.’ You know how it is. In the beginning we have the optimism of ‘something ever more about to be.’ Later, our lives easily let us down. We lose ourselves in our successes as well as in our failures. We can even, unknowingly, become people we would not have wanted to be. Then, when we look back, our lives appear very different from what we had seen at the beginning, or what we had wanted to see. In the beginning Hemingway had his budding rose. Then he got what he wanted, or what he thought he wanted, and he became someone else. And he gave up a happiness he would later remember with sorrow. But he couldn’t see any of this until the end.”
“A rose is a rose is a rose.” Sylvia recited jocularly.
Burton shot her a mildly pained expression.
“Forgive me, Bertie. I didn’t mean to be dismissive. But you sound so grave. Is there more to this than Hemingway? You want to tell me about it?”
Burton didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know what he felt. That ambiguous feeling of unsettled quietude was stirring inside him again. “It’s nothing,” he lied, and looked
blankly through her.
“Well, c’mon,” she said cheerfully, “before you lapse into hopeless melancholy. We can take a walk with what’s left of the day, have a drink and an early dinner, maybe go to a movie or a cabaret. Forget Hemingway for a while. It’ll clear your head. How about it?”
Burton shrugged compliantly.
They changed clothes and dawdled through rest of the afternoon, exploring the town’s cemetery for its witty epitaphs, touring the Truman White House for its reassuring Americana, and roving aimlessly until early evening brought them to another ocean-side cafe beside Mallory Square. There they again watched the sailboats skimming over the water and the parasailors flying against the sky. Then as the crowd began assembling for the nightly performances in the square, Burton felt that peculiar uncertain quietude of the morning well inside him where it had been percolating all day. Abruptly he blurted: “Let’s get out of here.”
“What do you mean? Don’t you want dinner? Where do you want to go? A movie?”
“I mean leave Key West. Now.”
“What?! Now? Why?”
“I’m not sure. I just want to get out of here. Do you mind? We can get a car and drive through the other Keys. Then fly home from Miami.”
Sylvia assented without understanding. She perceived more than a whim at work. He had been behaving strangely since they had arrived. But she knew how to pick her battles, as well as how win without fighting.
They took a taxi back to their room, where Burton rearranged the flight plans and reserved a car. A convertible, Sylvia had suggested, to make the most of the trip. While Sylvia started packing, Burton went into the bathroom for a quick shower. Toweling off afterwards, he stood before the mirror. “My God!” he gasped. An unrecognizable, old face looked out at him. His hands rose impulsively and clutched at it. His eyes bulged. His mouth fell open. His heart pounded. With fumbling fingers he slathered foam over his cheeks. “One true sentence. One true sentence. Bullshit!” he hissed between gritted teeth as he swiped and hacked with the razor, back and forth, up and down. He rinsed off. Blood oozed from half a dozen nicks. The cropped gray beard was gone. He shoved the white hair back from his forehead, exposing a deeply receding hairline regularly habitually by a studied comb-over. “To hell with…adulation!” he growled.
Grabbing his toiletries, he stalked into the bedroom.
“Whaaaaat’s this?” Sylvia exclaimed, catching sight of his face.
“You have to ask?” he mumbled, stuffing clothes into his suitcase.
“Ooohhh Kayyy,” she said, dropping the question, but guessing the answer. She came over and kissed him on the cheek. He paused and turned toward her
“You’re a bloody mess, you know, Bertie,” she said affectionately, dabbing his face with a tissue.
“So are you, Sylvie,” he whispered with the hint of a smile, lifting the tissue from her fingers and lightly wiping her smudged chin. He kissed her fondly on the forehead.
They finished packing and, bags in hand, headed out the door. Sylvia let Burton go in front as she stayed at the threshold to check the room, routinely guarding against misplaced things. “Hey, Bertie,” she called, pointing to the night table, “you forgot your books.”
“No I didn’t,” he shouted back from the stairs and kept going.
Sylvia swung her head around toward the stairs. Burton had gone. She arched her eyebrows and pursed her lips in surprise. Moments passed. Then her lips parted and curled up a little at the corners. She nodded, and pulled the door closed behind her.
They paid the bill, with apologies and a penalty for the early departure. And, after a short taxi ride to the airport to get the car, they were off, top down. Traffic coming into Key West clogged the causeway linking this western-most Key to the others along narrow Route 1 and on to the mainland 160 miles away. But no traffic was going in their direction at this hour. They were going out, due east on an open road. Warm tropical air flowed over them. Burton at the wheel turned the radio up to hear above the hum of the road and the whoosh of the traffic. The cracking voice of an elderly Frank Sinatra was finishing a Sondheim song: “Send in the clowns…. There ought to be clowns.… Don’t bother.… They’re here.” Burton and Sylvia exchanged slow smiles that grew into gentle laughter. He reached for her hand and took it in his and squeezed it hard. He said nothing. He didn’t need to. Sylvia knew. They were going back to the beginning.
Burton pressed the gas peddle to the floor. The wind rushed against their faces and flapped their hair. Overhead, wisps of high cirrus clouds were brightening with rays of gold and pink and lavender. Behind, the wide Western sky was a swirl of deepening orange and magenta and purple. In Mallory Square the crowd was applauding the sunset.