The annual Imitation Hemingway contest was sponsored for years by PEN/Harry's Bar, then by Hemispheres Magazine, but, alas, is no longer. Being one of ten finalists for "Papa in Love" was a great honor. It is hard writing - try it! - to be short, snappy, funny, yet sound like authentic-Hemingway prose. It is sad to no longer have to face this tiny blank white page challenge.
PAPA WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE
Then there were the questions and they were dumb.
"Is that your final answer, Papa?" the man with the tight hair asks me, and even though I know that there are no final answers except in war and in love, I respond in the only way that a man who has seen bravery as big as the Ritz and has even survived the end of the century without a drop of bottled water can respond, with the single word that makes a man a man. "Yes."
I am in the clean well-lighted television studio with the pulsing music for thinking because of what Miguelito the bullfighter said. "It's a new century, Papa," he offered as he lay wounded in the dirt. "It's not enough to fish, fight, write and die," he whispered with his last breath. "Try new things. Go dot-com. Please a woman with your tongue. Try for the dollars that are free on TV. Then die." And he did, dying his manly death in the afternoon before I could ask about that tongue-thing.
The TV man with the silver tongue tells me I've won some more dollars and I watch that tongue and wonder what he knows. The dollars are good but they are not yet the big ones that can take a man back to his best days in Florence, a time of fine wine that had great authority and a low price in pleasant cafes with girls as pretty as apple tart. A man can buy many good meals of cold roasted fillet of ostrich and tagliatellini con luganega at a fine establishment like Harry's Bar & American Grill when he has the million.
"Papa. For $64,000. Only five away from the million --- What is the difference between you and a rich person? Is it--
a)sex b )money
There are old bullfighters and there are brave soldiers and there are other dead white males who are sometimes your friend and sometimes not, but they are always your lifelines, and with the help of AT&T you can call them in the dark of night for the answers that matter.
"Is this Regis?!"
I read Scott the question and he says it is money that makes the difference between a rich person and me and he says it is final and then there are more dollars in my pocket that I will not share with him and it is a swell thing.
A man in the hot seat answers many questions with his own might because he knows by sight what is true at first light. Even when the answers all sound alike he does not ask for help from the audience that is greedier than a blind pig foraging for little radishes and a good foie de veau in the winter rain that can make dirt mud.
"Papa. For $500,000 -- one away from the million. The question is: What do women want? Is it --
a)sex b )money
I see my reflection in the man's shiny tie, sneering at him because he dare ask such a question. There are women with hills who want mountains and there are women with whiskey who want sex and there are women with money who want me and there is no final answer about women and that is the final answer.
I walk away from the million and I remember that I am an old-century man and I remember that when you are very poor and very hungry the writing is good. But then I also remember that when you are very hungry every taste bud on your tongue is sharpened and that Miguelito is a wise dead friend. After all, the tongue-thing can not be as hard as facing the blank white page, but then, what is?
PAPA IN LOVEPapa in Love" made it as one of ten finalists in 1999, but, alas, did not win the Big Prize.
Then there was the good weather. He tried to tell her about the winds and the big hurricane he had known, the one they called El Grande Hurricane, but she said that sounded like a girl's drink back at Harry's Bar & American Grill and it made her sad. That was not the hard stuff she wanted. He knew what she meant and she did not mean the liquid poison that can make the words flow and she did not mean the white powder that can make strong men dance in borrowed shoes and she did not mean the weeds that are smuggled by old men across the river and in through the sea. She meant the little pills that can make a man a real man again, and again, and again. He could not answer her, because in his heart he was still a young man, a man who could face the blank white page, the wild bull, and the girls who were wilder still, all in the same night, and out-perform the bull.
"I will cook the good fish that I have caught," he said, leaving her desire trailing like a matador's red cape in the dirt after the fight. "We will have candlelight and it will be a fine meal, just like at Harry's in the days before the Problem."
"You forgot it, Papa," she said quietly. "You forgot to bring the hard stuff," she said, with the disappointed voice of a woman who knows what she wants and even though she says she loves you on Wednesday, she can easily disappear by Thursday, slipping between the pages of your calendar like a paper clip gone astray in the random diary that is your life.
Only God knows why a man does the things he does in the face of fear, if there is a God, and if that God keeps up with modern medicine. It would have been easy enough to bring it, a simple gesture of something resembling love. There could have been laughter and lust languishing under the palm trees. Instead, there is fine food and cold drinks and there are always friends and later there will be the words that are the work. With any luck, there will be another day when the love also rises.
THERE WAS ICE IN THE SEA
I rowed in the dark keeping the wind in my face. It was not a swell idea to force seven people into a small wooden boat that should only hold four. My beautiful Kate, the bald priest, the twins, two magicians and me. Then there were the waves.
Kate waved at me from her end of the boat. "If we're going to die, Papa, I think that I must tell you things."
I looked away. There was ice in the sea. Big, grand, glorious chunks of floating ice. They reminded me of my last scotch on the rocks at Harry's Bar and American Grill. A damned fine drink in a damned fine bar from another place and time. A time when men fought the good fight, women kept their secrets and ice knew its proper place.
"Kiss me, Kate," I said. I stood up and rocked the boat.
She kissed me like there was no tomorrow and I would have to say farewell to her charms tonight. She kissed me and there was no cold and there was no wind and we were still on the big boat with all the good white dishes.
Then the rain came. The waves were as big as elephants. The sea swelled. In the dark of our night just before the dawn I held Kate tight and I told everyone it would be all right. I said it only trying to lie so that the world would not feel so bad. Also so that nobody would dare ask me who would have to go over first, and for whom the swells rolled.
We sat down. The priest and the magicians were huddled under the one blanket. I knew as sure as I knew the fear of the blank white page that neither God nor magic would save us from the big waves. It was a bad time.
"Save your secrets, Kate," I whispered. "It is too late."
She began to cry, the tears that can make a man remember hope. I made her look up into the wet rain and I told her the story that the tall bullfighter in Palermo told me so long ago. That there are nine galaxies in this universe for every single one of us and that in just our own Milky Way there are sixty-nine suns for each person alive. That if we only face the fear that is the raging bull with courage every single day we will survive for one more day to find the light.
The twins sighed, the priest stopped praying, the magicians smiled. Kate held my hand and we pressed seven bodies into one on the floor of the tiny boat and it was a fine and safe place. We slept the sleep of the innocent until we heard the distant roar of the engine that was big and strong.
Then the sun rose, also.