Key West, January 1936
by Ron McFarland
Libby loosened the drag on the huge reel even though to do so ran counter to her natural impulse, which was to force the huge fish, to manhandle him, show him who’s boss. But she knew she was making the right move, and she’d be damned if she’d be outdone by Papa yet again. Not this fine afternoon.
And for his part, Hemingway shouted encouragement and instructions, including his insistence that she ease up on the drag, as if the idea had never occurred to her despite years and years of saltwater angling for big fish, including the red grouper that starred in one of her most loved poems.
When the Pilar lurched as Carlos brought her around, Bobby upchucked starboard, his lunch of Cuban sandwiches and several martinis spewed into the Gulf Stream. Myriad minnows sprang into action from nowhere to feast upon this sudden beneficence from above.
Meanwhile, Wally closed the door of his room at the Colonial Hotel and aimed himself along Duval toward Sloppy Joe’s, where he planned to meet Judge Powell, Art, for lunch and a couple of beers, maybe a gin-and-tonic, all of that to be topped off by a stinging roundhouse right to Papa’s grin. Vindication a year or two after the fact.
The marlin soared from the depths shaking his magnificent head, his blade slicing the sun, Papa screaming “Pull, pull dammit! Haul in the slack you crazy bitch!” He said that, he actually said that, and Libby heard him and was not remotely surprised and of course she was already pulling for all her might and reeling in line as fast as she could.
And then, “He’s going to sound, dammit! Give him some slack! Ease up on the goddamned drag! Jesus Christ!” All of which she was already doing, transferring the anger she felt toward Papa straight onto the otherwise quite innocent marlin as he moved down and away and down, down, down.
Bobby uncapped a Schlitz which he fancied would somehow settle his stomach. The current of events would prove him quite wrong in that premise.
At the corner of Duval and Eaton, Wally found himself composing a poem that would begin, “He is not here, the old sun, / As absent as if we were asleep.” Very simple—it would be set up in couplets. His mind flashed back to icy Hartford, where Elsie, lovely Elsie, whose likeness existed right now in his left pocket in the form of the so-called Mercury-head dime, where crazy Elsie awaited his return. Indifferently, he supposed.
Meanwhile, Libby felt the sweet ache of the fight spread across her shoulders, and she shrugged off Papa’s offer of assistance. He wanted that, she knew. He wanted to claim at least partial credit for boating this great fish. He had done that before. Archie MacLeish and Dos had told her the stories, how by the time their account of battling a big marlin or tuna reached just short of the climactic moment, Hem would wedge his way into it, and by the time the story was over, everyone there would believe Hem, not Archie, not Dos Passos, should be credited.
Carlos maneuvered the Pilar carefully, expertly slowing the engines, ignoring Papa’s onrush of nautical advice.
Bobby eased himself from his chair and puked over the rail, portside this time, and a school of pinfish rushed to take advantage of his contribution to their diet. He looked over at Libby and smiled sheepishly, but she did not notice. Too often, it seemed to him, she did not notice his efforts. He was just a boy so far as she was concerned. Her talk was all full of Marianne Moore and her poems, “imaginary gardens with real toads / in them” and “a place for the genuine.” That sort of thing. He envied both of them. One day, he believed, he would be a greater poet than either.
Wally found the Judge right away and ordered a round of gin-and-tonics and relaxed into Art’s rich Georgia drawl. How did he find Key West? Wally asked, and the Judge smiled his easy smile and gave him the title of the still percolating poem: “No possum, no sop, no taters.” If the Keys had been booming ten years ago, they were sure enough busting now, in the heart of the Depression, the Great Depression. It was “deep January” back in Hartford where his daughter Holly would soon turn eleven, or was it twelve? Maybe just ten.
The marlin has gone, the line snapped, Libby left exhausted and quietly weeping, Papa cursing loudly, Bobby carefully massaging Libby’s shoulders. Carlos shrugs and steers the Pilar back toward Key West where the sun is beginning to set.
Art and Wally are nursing a third round of gin-and-tonics when Hem swaggers in already half lit, his eyes burning. He’s in a predictably ugly mood. Catching sight of the supposedly great insurance-company-executive poet who has dared once more to trespass on his private preserve, Papa recalls his sister Sunny coming to him in tears just a year or two ago and telling him of that poet’s vile slander, something about how he, Hemingway, lacked the courage of his own best characters, or the character, for that matter. He’d promised her he’d knock the guy’s block off, and he did knock the guy’s block off, but he’d broken his hand in the process, so this Stevens had gotten the last laugh on him. Well, he’d see about that.
Libby and Bobby trail after Papa and locate a table in the corner so they can be by themselves and talk about poetry. Libby does not recognize Wally right away. They order a pair of Cuba Libres, calling them rum-and-Coke. Bobby tells her about his father, who was a commander in the navy, and about his experiences in private school where he was called “Caligula.” Libby says she’ll call him “Cal.” He touches her hand and she does not pull it away.
Hem comes up to Art and Wally’s table. Wally introduces Art, and Hemingway offers to buy the next round. Wally asks how the fishing went and Hem delivers the narrative, lamenting Libby’s refusal of his assistance, which surely cost them the marlin. “The drinking was good anyway,” Papa says.
The round of gin-and-tonics arrives and Wally and Art nurse theirs while Hem drinks his away in just two or three swallows, then orders himself a Papa Doble.
“Looks like I’ve got some catching up to do,” he says with a wink and with his patented broad grin that seems to light up the room. Everyone seems to be looking at their table. Almost everyone is.
“Let’s go out back,” Papa says brusquely after his third daiquiri. Wally has been waiting for this invitation. “I’m not sure that would be a good idea,” the Judge offers. “I’m thinking we have some unfinished business to transact,” Papa says. “Yes, we do,” says Wally.
What happens then has happened often before in the chronicles of barroom brawls. It’s an old trick. The tough guy heads out the backdoor and the smart guy locks it behind him and strolls out the front door into the welcoming night. “No possum,” Art says. “No sop,” says Wally. “No taters,” Art says, both of them laughing.
Libby and Cal, locked into conversation about poetry and more intimate matters, remain oblivious, as if playing the role of a pair of red herrings to the unfolding drama.
Hemingway reels toward Whitehead Street and Pauline, who has been imitating Tam O’Shanter’s famously “termagant wife,” or is that Rip Van Winkel’s, “Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.” Sure, it’s a bit of each, both Irish and Dutch.
Ambling a bit unsteadily up Duval, pretty much paralleling Papa’s movement up Whitehead, Art and Wally head for the Colonial Hotel. The night has gone very quiet. Stars sparkle overhead and the sea grinds and the wind gasps. Wally stops and looks back at the lighted fishing boats bobbing in the harbor. He smiles broadly and says out loud, as if addressing the Judge, “She sang beyond the genius of the sea.”
Ron McFarland teaches literature & creative writing at the University of Idaho. His most recent book is Appropriating Hemingway: Using Him as a Fictional Character (2015).