A Storyby Richard Bausch
Back in late June of 1949, when I was twelve years old, I spent a morning with Ernest Hemingway. This was shortly after I had been hauled down to Cuba, deeply against my will, by my parents, whom I had begun to think of as the Captain and his wife. The Captain had retired from the navy after twenty years’ service, and was following a friend from his time on a destroyer in the Pacific during the war. They were planning to begin a charter fishing business. The friend, who left the navy as the war ended, was already living down there, and the charter fishing idea was his. My father had wired him funds toward getting things set up.
His half of the investment; it was a lot of money.
The friend’s name, all I ever knew about him, was Coldrow, nickname Cookie. He was supposed to meet us at the harbor in Havana. The Captain and his wife sold and gave away things, and packed other things with a kind of unspoken urgency, and the three of us boarded the Holland America Line’s MS Veendam on the seventeenth of June. When we arrived, the morning of the eighteenth, Cookie wasn’t there. So the Captain rented us rooms a couple of blocks from the Floridita, in a place called Pepe’s (I think the building is still there, under a different name), a big house with a double-decker porch and a café on the first level. There was no sign of Cookie, and no word from him, either. The address he had given my father turned out to be a burned-out cottage at the edge of the Canal de Entrada. Someone told my father that a man fitting Cookie’s description had lived there, but no one knew what became of him after the fire. He was just gone. There was supposed to be a boat, but there was no boat—there was a little dock, but no boat.
So we stayed at Pepe’s, and the long days went by. The Captain spoke Spanish, but his wife and I did not. They had been married only a little more than a year. They were either going to get used to each other, or they never would (they never did). By the fourth day, he was ready to give up trying to locate Coldrow—he had stopped using the nickname by then—and instead of looking for a place where we could set up house, he spent the next three days mostly in bed. The wife was restless and irritable, though she told me bravely that what he required now was rest, that we all must take time to acclimate. Money wasn’t an immediate problem, even with the loss of what he had sent to Coldrow: he had sixty-eight days’ retirement leave, a navy pension after twenty years’ service, and income from an inheritance his first wife, my mother, left him.
Of course, I had nobody, and nothing to do. Nowhere to go. I was just with them: the Captain and his wife.
“Clark,” she said to me somewhere around the tenth or eleventh morning, “go out and get us a newspaper and some bananas. Go busy yourself, be useful. You make me nervous.”
Sitting on a sofa under the one tall window looking out on the city, with a book open on her lap and a cigarette between the index and middle fingers of her left hand, she put me in mind of a picture I’d seen on a paperback cover of a lady of shadows, though there was really nothing mysterious about her. She was a young woman who grew up in Virginia and had never been anywhere, and came from a family that catered to her whims in ways the Captain never did. No doubt she found this exciting about him at first; now she was too far from home, and fairly disenchanted. But she looked chic anyway—nails painted dark red, like her lips; natural blond hair in a perm. She was very pretty and had what I’d heard people call Betty Grable legs.
The cigarette sent its winding strand of blue smoke to the ceiling. I’d been trying again to get the radio tuned to something other than static. “They’ll have newspapers at the Floridita. Go on, boy. Get.”
My own mother died having me. I’d known this for as long as I could remember. And I’d spent most of my life with women my father hired to watch me. He was almost always gone in my growing-up years. Duty tours. The war, of course. But even when he was stationed where I could be with him, regularly I had governesses (his expression) attending to me. It was easy enough to think of him as the Captain.
“Give him some money,” he said now from the other room.
“Really?” she called. “I’m stunned. You need money down here? We have to pay for things down here, even though we already sent money?” Then, low, to me: “There’s some in my purse, over there on the table.”
I brought the purse over to her and she rummaged through the mess inside. A lot of little tubes, a cigarette case, a billfold, some facial tissue, and a compact. “Here.” She held out a ten-peso note, folded so tight it wasn’t much bigger than a postage stamp. “And get yourself an egg or something.”
The Captain coughed in the other room. “Bring some fruit. Any kind of fruit.”
“Bananas,” she called to him. “I said a newspaper and bananas.”
“I hate bananas and you know it. Jesus Christ.”
“You said any kind of fruit, Dwayne. And don’t use that language. It’s common.”
“Screw you, how about that?”
“Your father,” she said to me, “is a common, uncouth, low-life person.”
“What’re you telling him?” came from the other room. “It’s not even nine in the morning. A lot of people are in bed at this hour on a Saturday. Christ. Any kind of fruit!”
That last was louder, meant for me.
I heard the strain he was under in his voice. He had more to worry about than losing money to a supposed friend, and though I was too young to understand it fully, I knew enough: he’d been duty officer when James Forrestal, former secretary of defense, jumped from a high window of the Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Two in the morning on May 22; he was found on the roof of the third-floor cafeteria, wearing only pajama bottoms. I’d heard my parents talking about it the day it happened. I was in my bed, supposed to be asleep, and the Captain’s voice came low, down the hall: “The indignity of it. Pajama bottoms. He was a man of dignity. Something just doesn’t add up.”
And then her voice. “You’re saying—?”
“There was broken glass in his bed, Abby. I was there. I saw it. Broken glass, and his room was across the hall from the window where he went out. Or was thrown.”
“They know he and I formed a bond.”
“That’s what he said. I even heard him say it over the phone. That’s what he called it. He made a big deal about it. He said he felt a bond, that we’d formed a bond because we were navy men, and were against helping the Zionists. And the Zionists, and the government, they hated him. This goes all the way up to the president.”
“Forget I said that about the glass in his bed.”
“You’re kidding. Poor baby, you’re imagining things.”
“I was there in that room at six this morning. I came in and he wasn’t there. Broken glass in the bed. Forget I said anything. I didn’t say anything.”
“Who would I talk to about it, honey?”
“Dwayne. The man jumped. Come on. He was crazy.”
“Explain the broken glass.”
I heard the shrug in her voice. “He broke a glass.”
According to the papers and the radio news, Forrestal was quite outspoken about his anti-Zionist sentiments. My father did not like the Zionists, either. I wasn’t too sure, at the time, what Zionists were. I knew they had something to do with the Middle East and the new country carved out of the Partition. I had an idea, anyway. That stuff about Palestine and Israel was hard to miss, with the radio on every evening and the papers piled up on the coffee table in the living room of our apartment in Roselyn. The Captain believed the Zionists might have killed Forrestal, and that there was a chance they’d be coming after him too. He didn’t speak of this, but it was in the air, in the disquiet you heard in his voice. He and Forrestal formed the bond (he kept using the phrase) while Forrestal was hospitalized. Now Forrestal was dead. The facts kept troubling him, and her. I was in the middle of it all.
Zionists, suicide, theft, murder. Cuba, where we knew no one. The uncertainty of everything. The sad Captain and the sad Captain’s wife.
I had all this in my head as I went out to get a newspaper. I didn’t want to be near them anymore. When I came down the stairs from the top deck, there was Hemingway sitting in the café, a newspaper open on the table, coffee at his elbow, with a squat brown bottle of something on the other side of it. Right away I knew who he was: I had been obsessed with lions and Africa, and the Captain had a magazine with pictures of the author-hunter that everyone called Papa. I knew the face, and now I heard the waiter say, “Algo más, Papa?”
“A couple more fried eggs, Alejandro. With chorizo this time, please.”
Hemingway looked at me and smiled. “And what’s yours this morning?”