Hemingway Cutthroat

A Mystery

Michael Atkinson

Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books

1
At about the same moment José Robles Pazos was murdered, Ernest Hemingway was drunk on sangria. He would soon become a hunted man, and of course it was the sangria’s fault.
Earlier, just as Robles was being led down a mountainside cut with runoff trenches now dusty in the early spring, led down by a rope tied to his wrists, blindfolded with the torn sleeve from his own shirt, Hemingway was 174 miles away in Madrid, riding in the backseat of an old, roofless Fiat Zero. The car was issuing backfire blasts so loud it occurred to him that the locals might think the Fascists had marched on the city again and were lobbing grenades into the street. It belonged to a flabby, unemployed Spanish journalist named Albarran, whom Hemingway had met the night before at a smoky basement game of Mus, several blocks from the Hotel Florida. Hemingway, in Spain only three days and looking for old-fashioned trouble, lost almost all of his pocket money because he never quite fathomed the game, which smelled like poker but kept involving bridge-style partnerships, and Albarran promised the American he’d take him to see a bullfight in the morning.
But there were of course no bullfights in Spain in 1937, because of the war. Albarran insisted he would make good on his claim, and so before lunch the next day Hemingway found himself horrifyingly sober and tortured by a migraine, driving northeast through the cloudy, bomb-pocked city. In the front seat next to Albarran was another fat Spaniard, older, who only whispered to Albarran in guttural hisses even when spoken to in ordinary tones.
The longer the drive, the more Hemingway began to seethe.
“C’mon, Albarran, tell me.”
“No, no, señor, you will see when we get there, I tell the truth.”
“I shoulda seen this coming.”
Martha was shopping. Until lunch.
The Fiat parked in front of a broad, seemingly abandoned expanse of bombed-out apartment buildings. The three men got out, instinctively hunching and hustling over to the building’s facade. Shells were known to sometimes fall. Albarran knocked on the door, traded a few Catalan obscurities with another man through the crack, and the door opened wide. They walked down a hallway, down a staircase that stank of mold.
“What the,” Hemingway said.
Another door, and then the basement. They walked down a worn set of wooden steps into a vast cellar, its low ceiling supported by massive pine joists and columns that looked positively medieval. The space was empty, save for some rusty petroleum barrels and stacks of empty egg crates. And for the bull, who was tethered to a central column with a thick barge rope.
Hemingway could see immediately, even in the low light from the strung-out wire of bulbs lining the ceiling, that the bull was old, twenty years if it was a day, emaciated, and probably sick. Its ribs were visible and heaving from its breath, and its coat was shaggy. Its eyeballs were milky with cataracts.
How’d they even get the animal down here? he wondered. There were twelve or so other men in the basement standing around, drinking rum from unmarked bottles. Hemingway looked around—there were no seats, no area to watch. If you were in the basement, you were part of the show.
“Una gran corrida!” Albarran chortled.
“You’ve got to be shitting me.”
“It is course libre, señor.”
“I’m out of here,” he said, turning just as a boy ran over to the daydreaming bull and with a quick gesture untied the rope from the column. As the boy dove back into the perimeter shadows, another man raised a pellet rifle and shot the wheezing bull in the flanks.
The bull instantly bellowed and launched into a furious, confused charge, foam flying from his parched nostrils, coming right at Hemingway and Albarran before hooking its whitened horn on another column and tripping, crashing onto its side. Hemingway had to dive away from the stairs, and every man on the room was on the balls of his feet as the bull stood up again, pissed and aching and half blind, and came at them in a vicious gallop, horns out, crushing the egg crates and bumping into the rough stone walls with a startled yelp. Hemingway and the other men ran around the perimeter or sometimes across the open middle, and the bull tried to chase them, always coming faster and sooner than you’d think, so the diving, sprinting, laughing Spaniards were often enough caught on its head, ripped by its horns, and thrown into the air.
“Jesus Christ,” Hemingway growled, keeping one eye on the staircase and trying to dash in inconspicuous bursts clockwise around the room, as the weathered old animal ran more or less also clockwise but intersected the room haphazardly in a homicidal rage, hitting the columns at random and shaking the rafters, looking for the nearest man to gore.
Hemingway didn’t get far at first, spending a long minute huddling in the shadows behind the other men. If anyone is going to catch a horn in the ribs, he thought, it’s going to be one of these nutless scamps.
But then Hemingway pushed Spaniards out of his way, which the men took to be part of the game, pushing each other as well into the line of fire. Crouching down behind a column, he took a rum bottle offered by a shirtless teenager covered in sweat, but before he could bring it to his lips the bull hit the opposite side of the column with the full force of his skull. The bottle shot out of Hemingway’s hand, and the column gave way in a thunderous shredding of old, dry wood. It crumbled in half. Hemingway bolted and leaped for the retaining wall, and the ceiling above the column shuddered and gave off plumes of dust and bowed down some two feet with epic structural screaming.
The Spaniards just whooped it up and kept running, taunting the bull. All Hemingway could focus on was the stairs.
But then the bull took them out—the boy who’d untied the rope ran scrambling up the steps, and the bull came at him and hit the staircase with its crown, and as the boy flew over the last step, up and through the doorway, the whole apparatus splintered around the bull, the beam joints falling over his neck and tripping up his front hooves, so he bucked and crashed, and broke the joints and planks up into kindling in just a few jerks of his massive body.
Hemingway couldn’t believe it. Now what? Edging close to the shattered wood now, Hemingway recalculated—could he move the old barrel over and jump up on it? But how, without getting nailed? Maybe I’ll just have to kill that bull, he thought, with a pipe or something, but he didn’t remember seeing anything like that in the semidarkness. Only bottles. A pike or something, a blade, that’s all it would take, I’ve seen it done enough times. Of course, I’ve seen men die trying, too.
If that fucking beast takes out one more column, we’re all dead.
All of those things I should be doing. This is a new low. I won’t be even able to tell Joe Russell about it.
He stepped toward the broken stairs—he reached up to the fractured wood step under the doorway, but it came off in his hand.
The Spaniards leaped around and hooted. The bull caught one of them on its head, the drunken fellow was lucky to avoid the horns, but then the bull heaved and threw the guy up and behind him, and before the flying man hit a low joist and broke his jawbone on it, his body snagged and ripped the wire that juiced the lightbulbs, and in a snap the room was pitch-black.
Except for the doorway at the top of the erstwhile steps, from which light flowed onto Hemingway, the bull turned.
Fuck, he dove again into the darkness, and the bull hurtled by him with a hairbreadth to spare, the horn brushing his jacket. Then the animal’s brow hit the stone wall full-on, and fell to its knees. The sound of it must’ve been as audible on the street as an underground tremor.
In the half-light, Hemingway could see the animal’s bulk slowly get to its feet and turn, like a losing boxer in the tenth round, unsure of where he is. Maybe it’ll just have a heart attack, he thought, but it turned again, and the goddamn Spaniards started laughing and yelling, the bull remembered it was enraged and out for blood, and charged again. Tiptoeing out of the bull’s vicinity, Hemingway was some distance from the stairs now, and the bull sought out the few men in his direction. As it did he could see across the way the rest of the Spaniards boosting each other up and out the doorway on their shoulders. They were quiet suddenly, not laughing, and the bull paused, puzzled, facing Hemingway, who also didn’t make a sound.
It’s smelling now, he thought. It began to pace toward him.
Hemingway panicked and looked for cover. There was an iron drum to his left and in a scramble he grabbed it by its rim, pulled it over on its side, and shot inside.
It stank so badly of petrol it stung the back of his throat to breathe. He could hear the bull: It snorted and charged and hit the barrel with its horns, knocking it into the wall. It rolled back a little, and the bull wound back a few steps and ran and hit it again. Hemingway would’ve thrown up had he eaten anything that day, but his migraine, which he’d forgotten about the moment he saw the bull, began echoing back on itself now, booming, and he felt as if he were strapped to the clapper of a giant cathedral bell at high noon. He began to dry heave. After a few pregnant moments, the bull hit the lying barrel again, hard, and it bounced off the wall and rolled, over and over, clattering, past the bull and about twenty feet out into the open cellar, Hemingway bracing his body inside with his knees and hands. He was growing delirious, and remembered being tricked as a kid to crawl into an old pickle barrel and then being rolled down an embankment, and throwing up his breakfast of oatmeal all over himself. He remembered washing chunks of it out of his hair afterward. Those bastards. But then he remembered it was his cousin Kit who rolled him, and he felt bad because Kit didn’t make it out of Reims in 1918.
It was quiet. Hemingway was on his back, which made him feel vulnerable. He listened: nothing. It was two whole minutes before he dared to crawl, inch by silent inch, out of the barrel, squinting into the darkness.
The men were all gone, even the one with the broken jaw. Presumably the last was pulled up by his friends. Hemingway looked for the bull, and did not see it standing anywhere near the shafts of light coming from the doorway. He let his eyes acclimate to the shadows, and saw it, prone and on its side, only ten or so feet away. Hemingway stood up and walked over to it: The animal was sprawled out dead. Maybe it had that coronary after all. Long overdue, the crazy old fucker.
He rolled the barrel over, set it upright but bottom up, climbed onto it, and boosted himself up. Outside, Albarran’s Fiat sat at the curb, empty. Without thinking, really, that he was stealing, Hemingway bounded into the driver’s seat, pushed the ignition button, and drove it back south through the wet streets, toward the Hotel Florida.
He had only the desire for drinks, and pulled over to the disheveled cantina where he was to meet Martha for lunch. The waiters had dared to put tables out on the sidewalk.
So, as José Robles, a colonel in the Popular Front and the Spanish government’s adjutant to the Comintern, was yanked along through the wild gorse and heather by a cadre of silent men with heavy footfalls and carbines that bounced dully against their backs with every step down the slope, Hemingway sat down in the sun that had just cut its way from the clouds, and ordered sangria, which came in a pitcher with large wedges of chipped ice. Sooner rather than later, a journalist from Boston noticed him and shook his hand, then an American woman did the same, asking him to autograph her Farewell hardcover. Then, after sangria was reordered and the migraine dissipated like released pipe steam, a Spanish girl of nineteen who’d been sitting alone with a lemonade accepted his invitation to sit with him and share his wine. She was Ana, a Zaragoza señorita in her second year at the university, a nurse in the making and a virgin still but perhaps not for long. He knew he smelled badly of gasoline, but she never mentioned it. Who couldn’t love this hazel-eyed angel, he thought. When she asked him if he was married, he had to think about it for a moment.
“Yes. But in America, being married is sort of like a hobby. I don’t treat it very seriously these days.”
“Here, marriage is like a job.”
“With no pay.”
“Si! And you can’t quit! I want to go to America. I want that hobby—marriage only on Sundays, if I’m bored and it’s raining!”
“You’d fit right in.”
While Hemingway spoke with and to this Zaragoza girl, watching her dimples deepen with the wine and flattery and telling her about Italy during the Great War, and Robles was pulled like a mule down a Sierra de Gúdar foothill, John Dos Passos was in Paris. He’d taken the aging German ocean liner, now the HMS Berengaria, from New York. That afternoon, Dos Passos had interviewed, for Fortune magazine’s series on the Popular Front, Minister of the Interior Marx Dormoy. That morning Dormoy had successfully mustered a vote of confidence from Parliament after being pilloried up and down the boulevards for allowing the anti-Semitic cavemen of the Croix-de-Feu to march, and therein precipitating a riot of protesters, several of whom were shot by nervous policemen. The minister was visibly relieved he hadn’t annihilated either his career or the French Popular Front, and tucked into a quiche the size of a volume of Balzac as he spoke with Dos Passos, and he spoke in large, lovely—if cheese-spittled—paragraphs. So, Dos Passos left the offices beside the Jardin de Luxembourg with a large and vital article in his pocket that he would barely have to write, and treated himself to a cognac somewhere in a heavily shaded side street in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Women walked in and out of the sunlight across the street, and none looked at Dos Passos, who rather resembled a portly, balding supporting character in Blondie, but with watery, slightly crossed eyes. Sitting there, letting his mind wander too far from fiction, Dos Passos thought ahead to Spain, where the revolution was finally happening—the rocky ground he’d loved since his school days was finally being sown with modernity and fellowship and hope.
José Robles walked as he was pulled on a rope, John Dos Passos drank cognac alone, Ernest Hemingway drank sangria with a teenage girl. Ana was getting woozy, but she was perky and fast-thinking, and Hemingway could see why she was probably the first person ever in her family to go to university.
“Señor, is that what American newspapers have told you?”
“What? The Radical Republican Party wasn’t leftist?”
“No! Centrist at best. Lerroux is a snake.”
“And the CEDA?”
“Crazed monarchist jackals.”
“So who was on the left in ’33?”
“Azana, and the socialist parties, same as today.”
“But there was no Popular Front.”
“Not until ’35.”
“It’s all hard to keep straight.”
“Perhaps for you.”
Ana gulped, burped with a smile, and pulled her cardigan around her. Fucking politics, he thought. Why is it always so complicated? On the other hand, this girl was at that stage, with her eyelids at half-mast and her legs widening slowly under the table, that made Hemingway think rampaging filthy thoughts and made his scrotum tingle. After all he’d been through already that day. Fucking bull. Get her number, he thought, get something. That’s the thing about getting women drunk—if it doesn’t have a chance of working out, next time you start all over again at square one.
“Ana, tell me, how many boys have you known? I bet a girl like you, with eyes like yours, has known a good many.”
“So you think I am a farm whore. Because I have green eyes.”
“No! Green? No, no—I meant that you may have entertained, no, endured a few boys, who wanted you to compromise yourself, right? I bet they’re always scouting you, like wolves.”
“Well, yes, a few. They do scout. So?”
“So you have not allowed them.” More wine. “You have not lost your flower.”
Ana blushed but would not allow herself to appear embarrassed. “No, I haven’t, señor, and I won’t lose it today.”
Perhaps not. Ana began to sway, her eyelids fluttering. Hemingway, at thirty-seven a robust and red-cheeked soldier of experience and ego and lovemaking and writing hard-won sentences, decided finally that this young girl was not fair game by any standard, not even a drunkard’s.
Ana began to grow pale, and looked as if she was suddenly, yet halfheartedly, afraid of throwing up. Hemingway looked around the café—many eyes were naturally on him, the loud-voiced celebrity writer from los Estados Unidos, stinking of gasoline, sitting not with the flashy blonde with whom he came to Spain but some soused, raven-haired señorita nearly young enough to be his daughter. He began to panic. What if there was a photographer in the crowd? The area was thick with Brigadesmen and reporters and Russians and students.
Ana abruptly moved her chair out, and bent down, her head between her knees. Getting ready to vomit.
“Ana, should we aim for the curb, huh?”
Dos Passos had another cognac, and thought ahead to Spain some more, dreaming of attaining a proper Communism in that country, a country where the food is good, and he missed Katy, and he knew he’d see Hemingway there again, and sighed when he thought of what an electrifying plea sure and a tortuous ordeal that would simultaneously be. He began writing on napkins. He hoped the cognac would cure his constipation, because it sometimes had that effect, and kept downing cognacs through the next hour until they gave him the runs. Later, he made it back to his cheap hotel room in Paris just in time to avoid an accident, and sat on the toilet with a rhythmic cognac headache. Then, recovered, he typed up his Dormoy article in no time flat on his trusty portable, and took a nap.
But earlier, during the moment, or moments, we’re talking about, half past 2 pm or so, a zone ahead of Greenwich Mean Time, March 23, 1937, at the café with the nauseous Ana, Hemingway began to squirrel the napkins he’d scribbled on into his pockets, a few notes for his dispatches about “the café with fresh girls from Zaragoza,” and the brooding dusk and the way the waiters stood together under the awning talking in whispers. He didn’t want to leave the notes behind should he have to bolt, which he’d do if she began throwing up under the table. Bent over, Ana began to quietly retch toward the sidewalk, but nothing came of it.
Excerpted from Hemingway Cutthroat by Michael Atkinson.
Copyright © 2010 by Michael Atkinson.
Published in 2010 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.