In Michael Atkinson's novel Hemingway Deadlights, out this week from St. Martin's Press/Minotaur Books, the celestially famous burly-man fiction king finds himself reluctantly and drunkenly investigating a drinking buddy's murder in Key West, just a couple years after his Nobel, and gets tangled up with Cuban lowlife, Hungarian mobsters, and the Cuban revolutionary movement...
They ran out of gas, after delicately backtracking in the dark for only ten minutes. They woke up at sunrise, bobbing and tossing, miserable as dehydrated lizards, but they didn't get back to shore until just before noon, after a Coast Guard boat finally sidled alongside their drifting vessel, berated the two men for being such goddamn fools, talked Hemingway up about The Old Man a bit too much, and then gave them a few gallons of gas. No one mentioned the chase or the shootings — Rick assumed Hemingway would if it were the intelligent thing to do, and Hemingway decided not to, certain that a mere patrolman could and would do nothing but shuttle the case right back to Squiccarini, who's already decided to ignore it. If Hemingway wanted to persist in this, which he had to admit was what it was, he had to go his own way — and he did want to, sensibly or not, more than ever, an effect being shot at has on a certain type of person, the kind that as a schoolkid smiled at sadistic teachers after getting slashed with a steel-edged ruler.
So now Hemingway had a sunburn to go with his ankle, bum back, throbbing kidneys, and scabby knuckles. Mary's gonna be pissed off.
Back on Whitehead Street, he needed a bath, and had one, and it was good. It wasn't quite as good as the bath he had had in Milan, with Agnes that nurse from Chicago, damn he still thought he'd missed the express letting that woman go, or letting her slip away, or escape, God only knows, but the bath, in Milan, was triumphant, in a big alabaster tub alone on an empty ward, only him and her and his first erection since Schio, over three weeks later which is an eternity without an erection when you're 19, warm water, a bottle of zubrowka, and though it was technically his second experience between a woman's legs, the first a beery late-night high school tramp dalliance he couldn't quite remember, this was really his initiation into the feverish secrets of intercourse, the boggling instant when you realize a woman wants you to touch her where she's moist, the lost feeling of doing something unconsciously, skin on skin, membrane on membrane, with a beautiful woman who if you were to be standing aside and watching her do this would compel you to, as the kids say, whack off. And he'd never forget it, though of course 19 was too young to have held on to Agnes even if he could have. He would've eventually moved on in his jumping-trains-at-night way, and so she was probably better off as it was. She would be, what, 63 now? He hoped she'd married a nice doctor.
He got hard now in his bath, thinking, but it didn't last, and he wasn't comfortable enough with his plaster cast hanging over the edge to take care of it anyway. He wasn't frustrated, but was once Marisol simply walked in — why wouldn't she want to fuck the world's most famous writer? what better option does a semi-literate Mexican woman with an illegitimate kid, working as a maid, have? — and told him he had a caller at the front door. Who?
"Un senora." Marisol looked lazily at his wet nakedness, pulling himself out of the tub, as if she were looking at a pig sitting in mud.
Hemingway dried off and dressed as quickly as he could without trying to seem, even to himself, hurried and excited, and the reality of it was actually not very quick at all. By the time he came downstairs, the front door was closed, the foyer was empty, and the woman, the Cuban woman from Galko's, was standing in the parlor sipping a gimlet.
Her dress had the same half-way fusion of traditional peasant and gangster's moll chic, and her dark, sharp-edged features were still alarmingly interesting. Hemingway thought of Dolores del Rio, but this woman had a more commanding presence, as if she were the queen of a lost country.
Hemingway came at her with his hand out, affecting a nonchalance appropriate for old friends, but with an ironic smile that let her affect it as well. She did.
"I'm so glad you found me," Hemingway said neutrally. He silently and with his pointing finger and his eyebrows requested an identical gimlet from Marisol, who had looked in.
"Find you, I'd have to leave the island to get away from you, Hemingway," she said. Sipping, and smiling a little. He introduced himself gently. He was hoping for a sporting good time of flirtatious dialogue, and tried in his manner to aim her in that direction.
But why would she have come, if not for sport? Hemingway was a little on edge — he'd seen too many guns this week, and heard too many threats. The gimlet came.
"Matilde, does Ferenc know you're here?"
"Galko doesn't know about anything that doesn't sit on his lap and scream." Her English had a little New England in it - Hemingway guessed that she'd spent a little time in New Haven or Cambridge.
"Galko has known enough to make a lot of money."
"So? What was it the guy in the movie said: it's no trick to making lots of money if all you want to do is make lots of money."
"I met Hearst."
"I'm sure you have."
"Unhappiest man who ever lived."
"So what's your story, Matilde? Why have you come to me?"
"Going to pull it out of me that easy? Is that all I get?"
Hemingway smiled: that's what he would've said. "OK. Is Matilde Pirrin your real name?"
"Of course. Why wouldn't it be?"
"Who knows. How long have you been in Key West? In the United States."
"I'm not. I come and go. It's not far."
"I know. You are Cuban — what are your feelings on the 26th of July Movement?"
Hemingway was reaching, perhaps — it had just occurred to him, but perhaps Cuthbert's death had something to do with Castro's nascent rebel movement. But perhaps not. It would account, one way or another, for the raised stakes and menacing secrecy all around, all of which certainly seemed to point to something other than just another everyday smuggling homicide. But he was throwing darts now, blindfolded.
"I almost forgot, you have a house in Havana," Matilde purred. "The rebels are, I think, presumptuous, self-serving hoodlums."
"And the Moncada Barracks attack itself?"
"Slapstick." The question remained: was she anti-Castro, or lying?
"We'll see. What do you think?"
"I'll handle the questions, senora. Did you know Peter Cuthbert?"
"Yes. Honestly. Never met him. My condolences, by the way."
"Thanks. Do you sleep with Galko?"
"Never. Though I do fuck him occasionally."
"Because I have no money." She said this with pride in her voice, which sounded fishy.
"You're a liar."
"I am?"Tell me I'm wrong."
"You're right - I've just told two lies. Which are they?""You're still lying. You've told only one. You're from old cigar money, you've never worked a day in your life, not even as a whore. Not even as a rich man's wife."
"Mr. Hemingway, you are deft."
Hemingway was sweating, he discovered, as if from sexual exertion. Laughing, he bellowed to Marisol for not just two more drinks, but a pitcher.
Neither wanted to sit, they wandered around the room as they talked, in circles as if bullfighting.
"And what of you, Hemingway."
"Call me Ernest."
"Hemingway. You are world-famous. Maybe the most famous writer, novel writer, in the world. And you are on what number of wife?"
"Four. And you ask as if being a writer and an unsuccessful monogamist should be, and normally are, mutually exclusive occupations. I would suggest the opposite."
"You'd be neither right nor wrong, of course. For every comemierda you name, I can name a devoted husband."
"I doubt it. One out of four, maybe."
"But I wasn't suggesting that. I meant, being famous has done you no favors. You cannot find love."
"You're wrong. My days are filled with love, more than I can normally stand. I'm not looking for love, so I can hardly be unable to find it. Women aren't my problem."
"Then what is?"
The gimlet pitcher arrived, right on time.
"Right now? I'll tell you. A blank page. Sentences that sound just like other sentences, that sound more and more like bullshit the more time passes. Sentences that aren't truth. Stories that aren't stories really, but just outlandish ideas, because I can't seem to think of stories that should be written anymore. My back. My ankle. Taxes. Alimony. The fact that my sons are all grown up and aren't terribly interested in me any longer. The fact that Paris and Spain and Africa and the wars are all behind me, and what's in front of me looks dull and unchallenging. A world that doesn't understand the meaning of concision and restraint and nobility. A readership that thinks I write the way I do because I'm charmingly emotionally impacted, as a man. Critics whose pitifully paying profession compels them to whip at me like they would an old mule for shitting in the barn. Friends I've insulted or offended while soused and can't figure out how to apologize to. Other people, not friends, who aren't insulted or offended no matter what I do. And a friend's body, in an expensive wood box I paid for, with a hole in him no one can explain, and a strange but lovely Cuban woman in my house that wouldn't be here, it seems, unless Peter was murdered and unless that killing was more than just a dock fight between crooked drunks. That's a problem."
"Do you miss any of your old wives?"
"Your three previous wives."
The fun Hemingway was having had begun to abate somewhere in the middle of his monologue; still headsore from sleeping on that wretched skiff, he was getting tired and antsy, and that was cutting into the gimlet-fueled sexual tension.
"Hadley. I miss Hadley. What I can remember."
"Maybe write about her."
"I have been. Bits and pieces. I think I miss being that young more than I miss her. But don't worry about what I'm writing — there's another problem I've got, being surrounded my whole livelong day by fishermen and bartenders and cops and Cubans and hookers and wives and bureaucrats and lushes who all think they should tell me what I should fucking write about."
"That's not too much of a problem."
"No, of course it isn't."
"Well, Hemingway, in any case, if your problem is not women, then it is a bigger, deeper thing."
"If I knew I was going to be psychoanalyzed today, I'd've stayed in bed."
"Not alone, I trust."
"Very much so. What's Galko's big business in Cuba?"
"He has lots —"
"I know, lots of business everywhere, nobody could possibly say. What I mean, what was so different or important this time?"
"With Cuthbert, you mean? You think Cuthbert worked for Galko?"
By now he was rebounding, he'd had enough gimlet to make virtually any situation buzz with congeniality.
She paused. "Hemingway, I would've thought it was obvious. I'm here to get information from you, not the other way around."
"Really. What could I know?"
"That's the question, big fella. What could you know?"
This pull-my-daisy crap would've tried Hemingway's patience under normal circumstances, but today he was juiced on it. Could've bantered with this rangy elk of a woman all day.
"So, Galko's interested in my investigation."
"You brought it to his house, and he's still cleaning up after the schoolgirls."
"He's got staff for that. Admit it, admit that Galko knew why I was there the moment I appeared. Admit that I scared him. Which is admitting that he knows something about Cuthbert."
The woman had exhausted her resources, and suddenly, imperceptibly, slouched.
"Oh, Hemingway, it's Cuba. We're on an edge, a precipice. Can't you see that?"
"I can see that. And Galko wants to help."
She shrugged. "Of course. Don't you?" She had stepped a fraction closer to Hemingway, and he felt warmer for it.
She finally stepped closer, placed an extraordinarily warm hand on the skin of his arm, and kissed him. She smelled faintly of both pine tar and sarsparilla. His hands moved to her waist, which was slim, and to her back, which was smooth and muscled. She pressed her body inward and crossed the invisible line that told Hemingway that he needn't do virtually anything else to get this woman naked and on her back in no time at all.
Which is what happened: her long legs seemed to almost touch their toes to the ceiling, her dark Latin skin was baby smooth, the grip of her vagina was only firm and expert enough to be mistaken for seismic passion. She was in fact thinner, bonier, than Hemingway generally preferred, but the sense of fucking her to get at, somehow, what was really going on, in her head and heart and in the world at large, kept him flushed and engaged even after he'd decided, during the 16th minute of coitus, that he was exhausted and would rather just nap. She did, however, lubricate more effusively than any woman he'd ever had. He heard splashing.
Afterwards, he did nap, fell asleep in mid-sentence: "...not lying, Marlene Dietrich is a good friend of mine..." When he awoke, it was evening, Matilde was long gone. Hemingway lay in his still-damp sheets, listening to the clink of rigging from anchored boats. There was a hollow feeling in the room, and Hemingway immediately tried, in vain, to steer his thoughts away from the nothingness that faced him in the form of meaningless sex with strange women, dull wealthy comfort, writing that wouldn't come, and the fact that he was now old, dammit, old and getting older and able to look forward to nothing much more than distraction and tedium. Reaching the point of only finding significance in the looking backward, at his life and at his work and at the world, terrified him more than any violence could. Actually becoming "Hemingway" the international symbol of gun-toting, truth-telling ramrod writer-hunk terrified him even more. Did he really miss Hadley? He certainly missed being young and on the verge of figuring out his two worlds — fictional and real — while in Paris. Just as he found himself capable of vanishing down the crumbling country well of evaporated happinesses he can never regain, Hemingway realized that the bizarre, long-legged Cuban woman whose secretions he could still smell on his beard had told him something he hadn't known for certain before: "It's Cuba." That's why Peter died — the Batista regime had been fending off Castro's little insurrectionary force, fueled by expatriate funding in the U.S., for several years. Peter must've brokered a deal, of either arms or contraband to sell, for the revolutionaries, or thought that's what he was doing, or tried to scam them in the process. Or something. Hemingway had no clue if in fact the woman learned what she came to learn; he didn't recall saying anything revelatory. But this megillah, it's definitely Cuba. That's where the jungle paths will lead.
From Hemingway Deadlights by Michael Atkinson. Copyright 2009 by the author and reprinted by permission of Minotaur Books, an imprint of St. Martin's Press, LLC.