Hemingway woke up on the floor of his bedroom, facedown, the bedsheets wrapped in a knot around his left ankle, which had a fat, heavy, slightly damp plaster cast on it, toe to knee. What the, Hemingway’s face said, in a fisted scrunch. His eyes were, in Robert Capa’s mother’s phrase, pissholes in the snow. His cheeks, he could feel them hot with a few newly booze-ruptured capillaries. He became dimly aware that the inaccessible bottom of his foot itched. Outside, breakfast-time Key West fanned itself with coconutty tropical breezes like the queen of Sheba on a chaise lounge.
Early May, 1956. What had happened: Hemingway had been hunting geckos in his courtyard the previous afternoon, and hunting them meant rampaging around the gardens like a 230-pound kindergartner pretending to manhunt Iroquois with a pop-gun. An entire day’s worth of tequila battering his liver, and a 1924 Winchester elephant-stopper in his sweaty hands. His favorite gun, if he had to pick a favorite. The house cats, only two of which had six toes on two feet each, helped, crawling low and melodramatically through the shrubbery and jungle grass, targeting a hapless lizard on the tile walk or high on a palm tree clearly enough so Hemingway would come to see it, too, and then open fire. Each shot from this gun shook the top of each tree even if Hemingway had not in fact shot that particular tree. As it was, one palm took a solid hit and promptly died. Hemingway would have to hire a local gardener and his crew of illegal Nicaraguans a week or so later to remove it completely, before it could topple and perhaps take the house’s second-floor veranda with it.
The tile walk could be replaced, and so could the cats. The servants stayed in the cellar.
After more than a red-faced hour of this, Hemingway had, he thought, obliterated every gecko in the vicinity. But then, following a cat’s sudden, twitchy head turn, he saw one of the sticky-fingered crawlers high on a gutter. As the two of them watched, the lizard scampered up and onto the roof.
Hemingway ran full bore into the house and up the stairs. The cat followed, and ran underfoot on the second staircase. The feet came down on cat, let up, a split second, and then balance was lost. The man collided and grappled with the mahogany banister, kicking two of the balusters into splinters. Curses, some spittle, and then onward, to the third-floor study, past his old writing podium, and to the gable window overlooking a thin stretch of roof. Hemingway heaved his girth up onto the windowsill, atop a carved chest he had bought in Nairobi between safaris and in which, he remembered now for merely a second and then forgot all over again, he’d left love letters received from a Loyalist secretary twenty years earlier, what was her name, Camilla, when he was in Spain and just as Pauline was busy spending all of that money on the notorious saltwater swimming pool he was looking down into right now, kneeling and then standing on the steep, terra-cotta-shingled roof.
The pool was empty, Hemingway ruefully noted. If only it hadn’t been. But good thing it was. A dive from where he stood was too tempting, and would’ve snapped his neck like an ice-cream stick.
The gecko was nowhere to be seen. The cat did not come out onto the roof.
Hemingway harumphed, stamping down with the butt of his rifle. Which broke two terra-cotta tiles, which cascaded down, over the edge and then, after a few pregnant seconds, shattered on the patio with the thick, startling concussion of first-rate skeets.
The cracked tiles around the first two began to shed heavy clay shards, raining down two and a half stories, and when Hemingway attempted to step backward, toward the window, every old shingle under his feet cracked, folded, came loose, and gave way. He landed flatly on his rump, which loosened virtually every tile on the roof, and a monsoon of deadly clay shrapnel poured down to earth. Hemingway instantly began sliding downward, and the rounded clay tiles he grabbed came off in his hand. He thought about the empty swimming pool again, too bad, and also how even if he managed to survive the fall, three floors onto baked tile and concrete, the storm of terra-cotta debris trailing behind him—featuring fractured chunks weighing up to two solid pounds—would surely finish him off.
He looked up. It was a sterling, pitch-perfect Key West day. I wonder who’s fishing for what out there, he thought.
He had to let go of his gun, which was soon airborne. As he closed in on the roof’s edge, his legs made a decision, a decision his back and his head were certainly not in complete agreement with, to leap up and off at the last possible second toward the head of a young palm. Just a foot shorter than the roof edge, the tree stood almost fifteen feet from the house, but its fronds hung closer, like a dozing girl’s hair. Hemingway’s legs figured that if he was to land atop the tree, he could thereafter shimmy down its trunk and be saved. If he came anywhere near it, perhaps he could grab a frond and break his fall, at least to some degree. How the wrought-iron patio furniture beneath the tree would figure into the calculus of either scenario was not something Hemingway’s legs had apparently considered. In the two and a half seconds it took for the whole ordeal to transpire, not every contingency could be properly weighed.
Hemingway leapt. Too far, as it happens—like a flying squirrel, the man’s khaki-dressed, potbellied frame soared narrowly over the top of the tree, immediately beyond which lay a rock garden, rose bushes and more cement. So Hemingway grabbed one of the palm’s long fronds as he nearly passed over it, and held on tight, swinging him back to the tree as if he’d grabbed onto a passing streetcar.
The first casualty were the phone lines, which passed near the tree and which Hemingway missed on his maiden voyage off the roof but in which he successfully entangled his legs upon whipping back. Desperately, he gripped the top of the palm, but the fronds couldn’t support his weight, and so they snapped off. Hemingway proceeded to grip the tree itself, with both arms and phone-line-entwined legs. He started to slip downward, fast. The phone lines snapped off, the gun hit the pavement. The great man soon met the ground, hugging the tree with his eyes closed. His left ankle snapped on impact. He was largely unaware of this, soused as he was, and so he hobbled over to the wrought-iron patio furniture, sat down and yelled for Marisol, his favorite of the current kitchen help, who couldn’t hear him until he was bellowing at the top of his lungs because she was in the cellar with the rest of the staff playing cards. Finally, she brought him a bottle, a glass, a lime and some cold crabmeat, but when she saw his ankle, which was already the size and hue of a ruby red grapefruit, she called the doctor. By the time the doctor arrived, Hemingway was asleep.
This was how Hemingway woke up the next morning with a cast on his foot he had no foreknowledge of, and how, when Peter Cuthbert called that evening with the dreadful sound of blood in his voice, no phone in Hemingway’s house rang because the line was down. Nobody, therefore, even knew that Cuthbert had called except Cuthbert, and by midnight he was dead.
Excerpted from Hemingway Deadlights by Michael Atkinson.
Copyright 2009 by Michael Atkinson.
Published in August 2009 by Minotaur Books.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.