|Room 206, Sun Valley Lodge|
Oil-on-board, Thomas Van Stein
(In the midst of my conversation with Papa, the artist Van Stein entered the suite, saw what was happening, set up his easel and painted it.)
Today is Ernest Hemingway’s 120th birthday.
The legendary novelist died, aged 62, at his final home—a woodsy cabin in Sun Valley, Idaho, after a peripatetic reporter's existence in Paris, Key West, and Havana.
A few years ago, I stayed in Papa’s old room—206—at the Sun Valley Lodge in Ketchum.
And I encountered his ghost.
And I encountered his ghost.
It happened as I smoked an Arturo Fuente Hemingway Short Story cigar while scribbling into my journal with a Mont Blanc Hemingway ballpoint pen. Earlier in the evening I had dined at Papa’s favorite table in Christiana after visiting his gravesite.
So, I guess I’d asked for it.
It begins with his voice, staccato-like, heavy on enunciation. “I used to call this room Glamour House.”
I ignore the voice, thinking it is in my head.
However, it continues. “But if were here alone, without my wife, I’d call it Hemingstein’s Mixed Vice and Dicing Establishment.”
I look up and see a translucent figure, full beard, head of gray hair combed forward, clad in a brown suede vest over a shirt, sleeves rolled up past the elbow, shorts, and bedroom slippers.
“Have you ever shown yourself before?” I ask.
“Some people think they see me at Finca” [Papa’s old house outside Havana]. “But it’s trick to l-lure tourists to Cuba.” He pauses. “Would you l-like to know why I killed myself?”
“You want to tell me that?”
“I’m storyteller. It’s good story.”
I shrug. “Go for it.”
“World War Two. My Crook Factory. Heard of that, chief?”
“Made Eddie mad at me.”
“J. Edgar Hoover. Me also to blame. Drinking too much. And pills. Seconal, to sleep. I can handle G-men trailing me, make faces at them.” Papa puts its thumbs in its ears and sticks out his tongue. “Hoover thinks he owns spy stuff, in Cuba, especially. I stepped his toes. Broke them.” He glances around the room. “L-Like this place, chief. My hideaway. Gets cold enough to make coyote howl off-key.” He pauses. “They followed me here. No one believed me, but true. Hoover's gumshoes..." He shakes his dead. "Would never end. Fine supper, my l-last. In Christi’s. New York steak, rare—only way to eat meat. Favorite Chateauneuf du Pape. I always said, day without wine, day without sunshine.” Papa chuckles. “L-last to l-leave, about eleven. No hurry.”
“Do you think killing yourself was a selfish act?” I boldly ask.
Hemingway crosses his arms. “Suicide justified when all hope gone. Or if incarcerated. That was me. Would be me again. Captive against will, l-living behind bars.” The apparition shakes its head sadly. “I could not write. Destroyed my think-machine. My mind, erased.” He points a forefinger at his temple. “Shock treatment. Zap! Fifteen times! After first time at Mayo, tried to get it back. Long walks, staring at art. Goya, my favorite. Nothing brings back think-machine. L-loved writing. More than women. Wanted to end it sooner. But I make deal with brain- doctor for no bars on window, gave my word, not kill myself at Mayo. Kept word. Waited till home. Next morning, shotgun and ammo in gun cabinet, keys left out for me.”
“What do you mean, left out?” I ask.
“Mary wants me gone. Fought like cats and dogs. Tell you true, in l-love with another gal.”
“Tillie. But hook-up days over. Tillie had L-Lloyd.” The apparition looks down. “No finer place for conversation than feet under table and place for elbows to rest.” The apparition drops its voice to a low whisper. “I’d do anything for Dutch Charlie’s pickled trout. Used to pay twenty-five cents apiece, eat right here in Glamour House. A moveable feast, for true.”
“Any regrets?” I ask.
“Biggest regret, not seeing grandchild. Bumby’s wife, five months pregnant.” Papa shakes his head. “But more Mayo, more zapping—or jail from taxes. Eddie's revenge.”
“Would you change anything if you had the chance to live your life over again?” I ask.
The apparition nods. “Not spook easy.” Papa raises both arms, hands cupped into fists. “Grab bully by horns.”
“Bully. L-Look bully straight in eye, stare down. Or rip horns from bully’s head, hang over fireplace. Would have stuck around l-longer. Time is l-least thing we have.”
“But you sounded so sure about, uh, ending your life.”
The apparition sighs. “Not right mind. Needed booze, overcome shyness. Stammer—you notice? Got carried away, martinis at noon, after writing. My novel, Death in the Afternoon? Should be titled Drunk in the Afternoon.” Papa sits back, crosses one leg over the other. “L-life, all we got.” He studies its transparent hands. “Not l-living, bases loaded against me.” It hunches forward and looks and directly into my eyes. “Want advice?”
“L-Live each day l-like it’s your l-last. Call everything the way you see it, to hell with everyone.” Papa sits back. “I’m going now.”
And Hemingway’s ghost was gone, leaving me with a cool breeze blowing from across the river and through the trees.