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Dark Seeds:
Hemingway Out of Havana

by D. J. Herda


Havana 1944
Hemingway peers out the window, past the fog and the cold drizzle rolling in off the beach.  It is winter, and winter is his least favorite time of year.  Well, winter in Cuba, at least.  In the mountains of Idaho or Colorado or Argentina or even Greece, winter is a different story.  With two staves strapped to his feet and poles to help keep him balanced, the crisp cry of a sunny sharp January lingers lightly on his mind.  But here, winter is simply winter.

He turns back toward the room looking out onto the plaza, where sometimes in more pleasant weather the bulls run wild down the center of Obispo y Mercaderes and the people linger on the corners, smoking cigars and cigarettes, the women, too, and wondering what the day will bring, if it will be hot and humid or if there will be an ocean breeze or what. 

On days such as those, this room seems pleasant, welcoming, a warm spot in which to while away the hours before returning to the villa and work.  The innkeeper at the Hotel Ambos Mundos keeps this room for him free, room number 211, for he knows that it is Hemingway’s favorite and, although Spartan in most respects, has at least a hurricane lamp to warm the chilly winter nights and cast its happy glow along the rows and rows of manuscripts the author keeps stacked between periods of working on them, reading them, re-reading them, and working on them some more.  He often writes at the hotel cantina downstairs, or at an outdoor table when no one is around to distract him, nothing to draw his attention from the arduous task he finds writing to be these days except perhaps for a warm glass of beer or a fresh young sweet wine or even an icy Marguerita. 

Delores asks, “Are you glad you came to Havana?” 

“I’m glad we came to Havana,” he replies.  He smiles at her, seated on the edge of the bed, and crosses the room to be closer to her.  She is all Cuban, he thinks.  Cuban eyes, Cuban hair, Cuban temperament.  Except that her father was born in Corsica and her mother somewhere in the Italian Alps.  Besides which she has never been to Cuba before in her life and wasn’t sure she would like it even now.  Notwithstanding, of course, that he is here.  And that is reason enough for her to approve of the place. 

She reaches her hand out, takes hold of his, and squeezes it for several seconds.  He drains the amber liquid from his glass and sets it on a small tile-topped table next to the bed.  He wears only his boxers—a large, furry chest peering out above them, a chest once larger and more attractive than it is today.  A chest filled with desire and rage, with daring and wanderlust.  A chest a man could be proud of.  A chest ....

He wonders how it will end.  And when.  Will it be with the whimper of passing time, with the tears of old age?  Or, perhaps, suddenly, on an unwise pass in the bullring or on a narrow mountain road laced with land mines?  Or perhaps even in a duel with some jealous fool husband intent upon satisfying his demand for redemption on the heels of an errant wife’s cuckoldry. 

“What’s wrong?” she asks.  He starts at the question, pauses, and shakes his head.  There is nothing wrong.  Nothing, he says, and he leans over to kiss her on the forehead, on the lips, down her neck to two shimmering globes set afire with passion.  But she sees it in his face.  His face tells her everything.  She asks him to stay the night so that they can go to breakfast and the cock fights in the morning.  She knows how the sight of blood excites him so. 

“I, uhh...”  He reaches down to the floor for his pants and slowly, deliberately steps into them.  Tugging at his belt until they are seated once more securely on two wide hips, he pulls the zipper tight.  “I can’t.  I have work in the morning.”

She grins impishly and pulls herself upright upon his side of the bed, thrusting herself out to him, haughty, teasing, daring.  “What work?  What work is so important that you can’t spend this time with me?”

He slips into his shirt, short-sleeved even at this time of year, and buttons it to the top; and then he throws on a cable-knit sweater, gray, with wear marks at the elbows and several small holes around the neck.  He says, “An article.  I have to finish it for Esquire.  It’s late already, and they’ve paid me for it, paid me well.  Which is one of the reasons,” he grins, “I was able to bring you here in the first place.  Remember?”

She reaches out to snare his arm, but he dances quickly away from her.  “Esquire can wait one more day,” she says.  “It has been a long time for you, I think.”  He looks at her as if thinking also.  He breathes in deeply and exhales.  “And I ...”  She runs her hands through her hair, her nipples gleaming haughtily, invitingly, the dew from their mingled perspiration outlining the darkness of each long, swollen teat against the darker still softness of each areola, “I cannot wait another minute.”  Her hands brush the sides of her breasts, move gracefully down—long, red, pointed nails atop dainty fingers that have seen little in the way of hard work during her lifetime on earth, short as it has been. 

She pulls herself up on her knees, forcing her hips forward, posing lewdly as if for some Rubenesque painting, showing off to him the treasures he had won for himself only moments before.  He stares at her, wondering if it is the dew or something else on her mound, glistening tauntingly.

“Stay with me this night.  You know you want to.  You know how much I need you.  One more night.  And then I will leave you to your work.  I promise.” 

He pulls the collar up around his ears and slips into his boots before looking up at her one more time.  “Too much work waiting for me,” he says.  “Besides, my wife is expecting me home.”

*     *     *

There was a time, he understands, when he would not have left her so.  He would have said, To hell with Esquire and taken her up on her offer.  He had that ability.  He had that power.  He had the luxury of living life exactly as he wanted it to be lived.  And damn the consequences.

But that was before the war.  Now it was raging—all hell had broken loose in Europe, broken loose and presented him with a unique opportunity to do what it was that he did better than anyone else on earth, report upon it.  His words from the front were gold back home.  His columns in the Star were still the single most popular feature the newspaper carried.

And if he had been entrenched in some foxhole in Belgium or fighting alongside the Italians at Nunzio, he would likely have said ....

Oh, hell.  I would have said exactly the same thing.  I’m getting too fucking old.  I’m getting too fucking dependable.  I’m getting too fucking ... everything!

He needed Esquire, needed their money.  He had grown fat from it, fat the way he had never thought he would grow fat in a lifetime of trying, fat and complacent, reliant, comfortable.  Fat the way Gertie Stein had warned him he would grow some day, if he weren’t careful.  He recalls his last meeting with her, the last time he was in Paris, and she welcomed him to her home on the Rue, surrounded by books and manuscripts, some belonging to her, others to Falkner and Fitzgerald and whoever else happened to be in Paris at the time.  She had leaned her big frame forward in her favorite chair, as she always did when she served the writer tea and cakes in her sitting room, and told him, “Ernest, I know that you are struggling now with your writing.  All writers are struggling these days, it seems.  But someday, mark my words, you will no longer struggle.  Your writing is good, it is solid.  It is an honest writing.  Your style will make you popular with your readers back home and force the New York publishers to take notice.  And then you will no longer have to struggle as you do today, writing for a pittance.  You will grow fat and lazy, so lazy you will even forget to cash some of the checks they will be throwing at you, begging for more of your writing.  And you will wonder why it was that you ever worried in the first place.”

Hemingway smiles as he thinks of what he told her in return, and his mind wanders to his days as a rogue reporter driving an ambulance for the Italian resistance fighters.  More memories.  He pulls himself together as the veranda lights to the Finca come into view. 

“Here, driver.  At the top.  By the gate,” he tells the cabbie.  He has no more time for memories.  He has other things on his mind now.  He has a wife ... and a villa.  He has the Pilar.  He has a reason for living, living in Havana, living where he enjoys living most.  If that meant turning his mistress down when he could just as easily have said yes, well, then, so be it.

Si, Senor Hemingway.”

Gracias, amigo,” he tells the cabbie as he pulls himself free from the back and reaches in through the window to hand the man two gringo dollars for the trip and tip.  American money is gold in Cuba.  And every cabbie in town knows just how well Hemingway tips.

At the front gates, Hemingway wrestles with the latch before finally slipping it free.  Walking slowly up the cobblestones to the front steps, he climbs them one at a time, recalling some nights when he couldn’t climb them at all.  On a small landing leading into the portico, he stops to open the door.  He listens, looks back over his shoulder at the bobbing white lights in the harbor and the streaking red lights of the cab wending its way down the hill and back toward town, then turns again toward the darkness and enters.  Slipping expertly through the night, he works his way to his study and turns on the light.  He squints momentarily before walking deliberately over to the bookshelf that he has made into a bar. 

Montenegro,” he says softly, reading from the label.  He removes the cork and empties three fingers of rum into a glass.  He downs it in two long gulps and places the empty on the shelf next to the bottle.  He takes a quick look around—his rifle, the shelves stacked with books and lined with photos—mementoes from a life brazenly lived—a small desk that he rarely uses for writing except for the correspondence he turns out in longhand, the dull glint of the terrazzo floor, and reigning over all, his prized possession, his buffalo head.  The beast he had brought back with him from one of his trips to the Cape, considerably stiffer than when they first had met. 

He turns out the light and makes his way toward the back of the house.   There, he knows, he will find the room just as he found the rest of the house: quiet, dark, mausoleum-like, except perhaps for a single ray of moonlight falling across her body.  He moves deftly across the floor, drops his clothes by the side of the bed, and slides in.  He breathes deeply, feels the gnawing between his thighs, feels the memory of the evening, his fleeting youth grudgingly clinging to every sensation.  He feels the woman tighten around him, hears her soft voice, smells her scent.  His wife turns toward him.

“Where have you been?”

Hemingway considers the words carefully.  “At the Floridita,” he says, “drinking.  With some friends.”

She hesitates.  “Did you have sex with her?”

“Did I ...” he hesitates.  What are the consequences?  What are the repercussions?  He is Hemingway.  What can she say?  What can she do?  He is no ordinary man.  He is the greatest living author, perhaps the greatest of all time.  He reads the reviews.  He listens to the interviewers.  What’s more, he is her husband.  “Yes.”

He feels her hesitate before turning away from him.  She turns away from him in a manner that he cannot mistake.  She turns away from him with a finality that he has never felt before.  She is gone.

“I’m going back to the States,” she says calmly.

What?  Why?”

“I’m going to take that job covering the war for Colliers.  And, while I’m home, I’m going to see my attorney.”

He feels his thighs twitch again.  “Why?  Is he good in bed, too?”

Before she can respond, he climbs out, lumbers back to his study, and pours himself another rum.  He looks at the half-filled bottle, checks a cabinet for another and, finding two more, pours a second glass.  He sits down in an easy chair, stares out the window into the darkness and the wind and the rain blowing against the shutters.  He drains one glass and reaches for the other.  He can feel it working.  A cat leaps into his lap and, purring wantonly, nuzzles its head against the writer’s hands, nuzzles it until Hemingway is forced to scratch it behind its ears, beneath its chin, around the neck.

“Which one are you?” he asks softly.  “Three?  Or Four?”  He takes another sip from the glass and sets his arm on the chair’s edge.  Martha once purred this way.  He frowns.  Martha purring.  That’s a laugh.  She hasn’t purred in months, years

Martha moved to Havana the year before they married, but she wasn’t happy with the prospects of life in a small room at the Ambos.  So she began searching the newspapers, finally locating a 15-acre estate 15 miles from downtown Havana.  It was called the Finca Vigia, Lookout Farm.  When Hemingway first saw it, he laughed.  He called it the worst looking place he’d ever seen.  She said that it should suit him fine, then, since he was a pig, anyway.  She set about hiring some workers, and in very little time at all, the Finca was whipped into livable shape. 

It was not the worst of places in which he’d ever lived.  It provided him with a spacious, quiet workspace.  It had a swimming pool and a tennis court, both of which their frequent guests to the villa enjoyed, and Hemingway's myriad cats and dogs wandered freely about the place. 

But the renovation failed to spill over into their marriage, which was, Hemingway realized soon enough, doomed from the start.  His first two wives had been older than he, as she had been so quick to point out whenever they got into an argument.  What hurt their relationship most, however, was her contention that they were sexually “incompatible.”  Whatever that meant.

Hemingway looks down at the napping cat in his lap and, within moments, the half-drained glass slips from his hand and shatters on the tile floor beneath him. 

The cat is gone.

*     *     *

Morning finds Hemingway on the phone, agitated.  He tells his lawyer about the pending divorce and instructs him to fight it.  He’s going to give Delores up anyway.  No sense in losing both women, he says.  He listens impatiently before replying, “Son-of-a-bitch.  You’re right.  Goddamn it.  I hate it when a lawyer is right!  Okay.  Okay, then this.  I want the boat.  I want the clothes on my back.  I want all rights.  She’s not to get any rights, understand?  I want all rights.  She can have the Finca.  Place is too damned big anyway.  I feel like a goddam guest in my own home.”  He pauses and moves the phone to his other ear.  “What?  Of course I’m serious.  Give her the place, if it keeps her from trying to grab my rights.  I’ve got a movie deal pending with Paramount, and I’m not sure whether or not she knows about it.  I’m not sure whether or not, you know, I told her.  I can’t remember.  But if she gets the rights to that, well, hell, I’d might as well go back to driving a hack.” 

He juggles the phone between his chest and his chin and reaches for a bottle.  Finding it empty, he turns his back against the desk.  “She’s going to Europe.  Yes, that’s what she said.  She’s going to Europe to cover the war for Colliers.  Yeah.  The war.  Can you believe it?  That’s the position they offered me!”  He pauses again, reaches for a new bottle, pours himself a drink, and takes a big swig while he opens the shutters.  He squints out into the early morning sun.  “Yeah ... well ... us.  Thing is, they only wanted her because she was married to me.  Ahh, hell.  I figure it’s time to move on, anyway.  Getting rusty here, you know?  Maybe I’ll go back to France for a while, check out the Normandy thing for a few months before coming back to Cuba.  Got an idea for a new book.  But it’s ...” 

He pauses as the door to his study swings open and Martha enters.  She is dressed in riding breeches and a low-cut blouse, her blonde hair pulled back boyishly, looking ready for travel.  “Jack, I’ll call you back,” Hemingway says into the phone before placing the receiver on the cradle and setting down the drink.

“Kind of early,” she says, nodding toward the glass. 

“Kind of late,” he says, motioning to his worktable.  “Never did get back to sleep.  Worked all night on a new book.” 

She takes a step toward him, stops, and catches site of something outside.  “That’s my ride,” she says as Hemingway comes out from behind the desk. 

“Kid,” he tells her,” it doesn’t have to be this way.  I mean ... well, you know what I mean.” 

She says she knows. 

“I fucked up.  I know that.  That’s just ... me.  But that doesn’t mean ...”

She cuts him off, comes up to him, kisses him on the cheek, and leaves.  He watches her through the window, finishes his drink, sits down, and pours himself another before settling back into his chair.  He closes the shutters and nods off in the darkness.

- BACK -

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