When Ernest Hemingway killed himself with a shotgun in 1961 just shy of 62 years old, he did it because he saw the spiritual progression of those two numbers and because he had too much success in life, said Marcus as we paused outside a barber shop on the Avenue of Saints just down from the cathedral.
I was trying to light a cigarette and almost dropped my matches. That’s nuts, I said once I got the cigarette going. Who kills himself over success?
I’ll tell you kid, said Marcus. A guy seriously wounded in the war. A man with four wives and two plane crashes to drink to.
More reason to live, I said.
To you maybe, said Marcus. But Hemingway saw his death coming later that year and wanted to show it who’s boss.
The barber came out onto the sidewalk brushing loose hair off his pants with both hands. I heard that, he said, and I think you’re both nuts. I shave fifteen heads a day and nobody ever mentions a god damn thing about Hemingway. He went back inside.
Marcus grinned and shook his head. Let’s go, he said.
We moved off and I got to thinking. From what I knew, Hemingway went to Cuba to talk to Castro and seems they hit it off pretty well. He also sold quite a few books. He even went to Africa once or twice. To hunt lion I think.
You ever been to Africa, Marcus?
They shoved me in Fort Hood on the way to the war. Long time ago.
No, the fort.
Marcus grunted. If you say so, he said.
At an intersection we waited for traffic to pass. The sun down smashed the sky. In their cars people looked like flies trapped in jars.
I’d rather be dead than successful, I said.
Marcus crunched his face. Come on kid, he said. You don’t mean that.
How do you know?
That’s just something people say instead of admitting defeat.
Are we defeated? I moved my foot to one side.
He didn’t answer, just watched the stoplight paint its child green. We crossed. It wasn’t what Hemingway did with his life that’s important, said Marcus. It’s what he didn’t do.
He didn’t take the world for granted. Didn’t let people tell him right and wrong.
How about you, Marcus? You let other people tell you right and wrong?
A man’s got to live.
Marcus was old, nearly fifty. He’d probably die soon because that’s what happens when you cross the fifty year line. And the rebel juice leaked out of him long ago. But he was still a good guy and a good hustler. One time we found a bottle of decent whiskey only a quarter empty and sold swigs down by bus station east.
I’m living by my rules, I said.
Yeah kid, said Marcus. And I suppose you eat elephant meat.
What’s that got to do with it?
Hemingway. Brought them down himself. Watched those tons of flesh fall right onto his plate.
Well, I don’t have a gun, I said. Or I would too.
Marcus blatted a skeptical warbled note. Look around, he said. This is the real world. A frying pan.
The world is what we make it, I said. When I was a kid, trains stopped nearby to pick up stuff the factories pushed out. I’d steal what I could and sell it to the junk man. My mama read me stories of faraway pirates and executive murder.
You’re still a kid, said Marcus. And you’re still here.
Not forever, I said. My cousin lives up by the border and he says there’s lots of action.
What kind of action? Same as here, I guess. The same? Yeah. So when you leaving?
Soon, I said. Well, maybe soon. Just need to work a few more things.
We turned right on Constitution and angled across the street to the shady side. Found a bench. Took a seat. A street vendor pushed some junk in our face and we waved him off.
Marcus? I said.
Do we face eternity alone?
Marcus flicked a bug from his arm. Where’d you come up with that? he said.
Found it in Hemingway’s shrapnel wounds, his bloody knee.
Marcus raised his eyebrows. I guess we do kid, he said. We face it alone.
I’m not ready, I said.
Jesus kid, stop it. You’ve got your whole life yet.
Yeah, but I wonder what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. I don’t even know how to get to Cuba.
Got a Hemingway urge? said Marcus. Maybe, I said. Well, at least you don’t have a gun.
That’s not funny, Marcus.
He stood. You’re right, kid. It’s not. A bus passed, belched black smoke.
Then what do we do?
Face it with dignity, kid. Courage and dignity like Hemingway said.
But he was talking about death, I said.
And you kid?
I got to my feet, looked around. I guess I’m talking about life, I said.
Same thing, said Marcus.
Yeah kid. Just a different colored hat.