What really did it for me was watching the Hemingway documentary. The 26-hour PBS one (or thereabouts) by the almighty Ken Burns. I hadn’t known much about Hemingway before that. The only book of his I’d read was The Old Man and the Sea, which I really liked. I tried to read For Whom the Bells Tolls, but couldn’t make it past the first 50 pages. If I am to believe everyone else, this is my fault, not Hemingway’s. Because Hemingway is a genius. The greatest writer of all time.
What I learned from the documentary is that for all Mr. Hemingway’s faults, the sonnovabitch lived a full life. A reporter at a major newspaper by the age of 17. Injured in combat before his 20th birthday. Living in Paris at 22. I could go on and on. It made me look at myself and say, Christ, why haven’t I done anything like that? Fourty-four years old and nothing to show for it other than a beer gut and a patch on my right eye. That’s why I decided to start walking, kind of like how Forrest Gump started running. Just for the hell of it. Hemingway inspired me to get up and go. Life is short. You only live once. Get out there and see the world. Et cetera and so forth.
I had no one to say goodbye to, nothing pinning me to the no-name mountain town I lived in. I wouldn’t even tell my landlord I was leaving. Screw him. He’d been raising rent every month for years with no explanation and no sympathy. He could suck a fat one. I’d just take my Pit Bull, Cooter, and go. Me, Cooter, and the open road — on foot, not by car. I had a nice pile of cash to my name after my dad, sonnovabitch that he was, died last year and left me the riches he’d earned during his sheisty life. He’d hated me, thought I was a lazy piece of human garbage, but since he hadn’t written a will and had no wife or other kids, I was the next of kin. I gladly inherited his dinero.
So one clear morning in what must have been April (I’d long since stopped keeping track of the days and months), I dressed in a three-piece suit with a pink bow tie (also inherited from my father) and walked out my front door with no plans of returning. Cooter, too, was dressed in a dog shirt made to look like a formal suit, because I was a fan of symmetry. With the two of us looking like the bee’s knees, we started down the road. I live (or should I say lived, I’m truly from nowhere) in the mountains, way out in the sticks, so it would take at least half-a-day to reach civilization. I was OK with this. I cared not where I went, or when I got there, or if I even got anywhere at all. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Mr. Hemingway, it’s that the journey, not the destination, is most important. That, and it’s OK to be abusive toward women and humanity in general so long as you can write real good. But I wasn’t gonna beat any women. I loved women. Not that they loved me. Marsha was the only one who ever did. But then she stopped. They always seemed to stop.
As Cooter and I strolled along that lonesome country road, we heard cows mooing all over the valley. The occasional truck, and sometimes a tractor, would pass. Let me tell you, Cooter and I were getting some pretty confused looks from those ol’ farmboys! There they were, dressed in their jeans and white t-shirts, watching a grown man and a dog walk toward them in the finest apparel money could buy. Not one of them stopped to say anything, however, and I was delighted by their confounded looks. I’ve always been somewhat of an outcast, but a lot of the time I’m so much an outcast that I’m simply ignored. No consequence to anyone. So now to be the kind of outcast that elicited a reaction…well, that was really something else.
I was an outcast even from my own father, who’d been a stock broker up in New York City. A real big wig, big city guy, who simply didn’t have the time of day for a no-name such as myself. He’d tried to model me in his image. From a young age, probably around two or three, he’d dress me in suits and show me slideshows about stock market trends. He’d gesture and speak passionately about when to buy, when to sell, and a bunch of other mumbo jumbo I didn’t give two shits about. At the end of each session, he’d grab me by the shoulders and pull me so close to his face that I could see the fat pores on his nose. He’d say “son, now what did you learn today?” and I would sit there in silence, because I hadn’t learned anything. Then he’d shove me to the ground and walk away, muttering curse words and running his fingers through his greasy hair. After he shoved me, I’d lie there staring at the ceiling, daydreaming of a world where he didn’t exist and I could be alone forever. It took a long time for my daydream to come true, but eventually it did.
That’s enough about my shit dad, though. Cooter and I kept walking until I realized we needed to take a break, so we looked for a place for a rest. We saw a creek with a big rock in the middle of it, perfect for taking a load off. So that’s what we did. I sat on that rock like I was the King of the Land of 1,000 Creeks (which is what this part of the world is nicknamed) while Cooter splashed around in the water, soaking his tuxedo. I took a deep breath and all a sudden I was thinking about Hemingway again, about how he’d nearly gotten his leg blown off during the war and then came back to America and told a bunch of tall tales (lies, really) about what he’d gone through, mainly on a’count of the fact that he was a narcissist who thought he was too cool for school. I hate people like that. People who think they’re too cool for anything. Coolness is a myth. Nobody’s all that cool when you really get to know them. We’re all just as screwed up as the next person, when you strip away the social posturing.
I hate people like that. People who think they’re too cool for anything. Coolness is a myth. Nobody’s all that cool when you really get to know them.
I opened my eyes. Cooter was standing at attention in the middle of the creek, his ears erect, his gaze locked on movement across the field. I looked to where he was gazing and noticed a farmer in overalls trudging our way, shotgun in hand. In my eagerness to find a spot to relax, I’d completely ignored the fact that we’d stumbled onto somebody’s property. And now the person whose property we were on was quite angry and wielding a firearm that could easily kill both me and Cooter, bam bam, just like that. I had no interest in dying, not yet at least, because we had this epic walking adventure ahead of us and I couldn’t keep that up if some rogue farmer blasted my head off with a 12-gauge.
“Cooter!” I shouted. “We gotta get out of here!”
We high-tailed it. Like Huck Finn and his buddy, Jim. Sprinting and screaming through the forest. I’d only taken a few steps when I heard shotgun blasts. POW! POW! POW! A deep rumble echoed through the valley. The underbrush was just starting to thicken, being that it was spring and all, so briars lashed at my suit. They ripped at the fabric. Cooter was in a full sprint, about 20 yards in front of me, howling like someone was whacking his paw with a ball-peen hammer. “Don’t stop now, good friend!” I shouted. POW! POW! POW! We were so deep in the woods that I lost my orientation. The only thing on my mind was staying alive. That, and Hemingway. Don’t ask me why. That sonnovabitch was always there for some reason, back in the dark recesses, like a homeless guy at a park who needs a “couple of bucks for something to eat, man!” Fuck Hemingway, I thought. And kept running.
Shortly thereafter I caught a cramp in my ribcage and collapsed. Cooter trotted back to me and licked my face, like he was saying c’mon buddy, we gotta get up, we gotta keep moving. But I held still for a moment and noticed a silence through the trees. No more shotgun blasts, no more angry farmer right on our hind parts. “I think we’re safe,” I whispered to Cooter, who promptly sat down and licked his balls. The slurping was unbearable, but it felt good to no longer be running for our lives. I’ll take the sound of wet dog balls over imminent death any day.
I stood up and looked around and noticed we were on what appeared to be a flat grassy knoll. It seemed like a safe place to post up for a while, or at least until that damn farmer discovered our location. I was hoping that he’d given up and gone back to castrating steers, or whatever it is that farmers do, but it was best to stay on the watch. He could pop around the corner at any second, waving that shotgun of his and shouting “WHAT THE HELL WERE YOUINZ DOIN’ ON MY PROPERTY!”
Threat of an enraged farmer notwithstanding, I didn’t want to continue deeper into the woods. Evening was near. I was already lost and concerned I might never find my way back to the road. But then it dawned on me: who cares if I never found the road again? It wasn’t taking me any particular place anyway. I was merely walking down it as an aimless vagabond. So why not be an aimless vagabond in the middle of the forest, where I could disappear from the prying eyes of humanity, from the farmboys who judge me and my pink bowtie? This grassy knoll would do for a while. There was plenty of firewood from fallen trees, and a creek was rushing somewhere nearby. Cooter and I had stumbled upon a pretty cozy spot, all things considered. So we chose to stay.
It was time for a nap. Cooter agreed. I removed my coat (which was torn up from the briars) and balled it into the shape of a pillow and placed it between my head and a nearby log. I spread out in the soft warm grass. Cooter curled up by my feet. Who needs the road, I thought. The road is too constricting. Too narrow. That’s what Hemingway would think, too. Christ, there I was thinking about ol’ Ernesto again! What was with this obsession? But I didn’t resist it. There were worse writers to have stuck on the brain. And for what it’s worth, Hem was a man who loved places. He had Key West. He had Paris. He had Spain. He had Cuba. He loved the way new places popped with life, at least unless the popping stopped and black reality settled in again. But yes: if Hemingway had Key West, then I had this quaint grassy knoll in the middle of the woods. This place would be mine, at least temporarily, until the farmer showed up or, worse still, the owner of the land I was squatting on barrelled through the trees with a machete to chase me off further into the woods. Until that happened, I’d enjoy this little slice of heaven. I gazed up at the dark blue sky dancing between the leaves and massaged the soft grass with my hands. It felt very good, indeed.
Hem was a man who loved places. He had Key West. He had Paris. He had Spain. He had Cuba. He loved the way new places popped with life, at least unless the popping stopped and black reality settled in again.
I must have fallen asleep because when I opened my eyes, the sun was almost set and there was a chill in the air. My mouth was dry, so I figured I’d take a trip down to the creek and collect some water to boil and drink. I hadn’t brought a pot or anything, obviously. But I could improvise. Maybe use a big, thick leaf, if that’s what it came to. I stood up and said c’mon Cooter, let’s take a walk, and that beautiful dog jumped to his feet and followed me down toward the water. The rush of the creek grew louder as we marched closer. I moved a few saplings out of the way and what was revealed wasn’t so much a creek as it was a gorgeous mountain river. It rushed down the mountainside, splitting here and there around large boulders. It had to be at least 30 feet across at its widest, one of the more beautiful things I’d seen in a while. I was almost brought to tears when I noticed a perfect swimming hole right where we’d entered. “We’ve stumbled on something special,” I said to Cooter, who was wagging his tail and sniffing the water. “C’mon, buddy, let’s take a dip.”
I stripped naked so as not to drench my torn-up three-piece suit or ruin my eye patch, and that old dog and I flopped around in the water for at least an hour. The water was cold when I first jumped in, but my body became acclimated to the temperature and I relaxed into it. I’d never felt so free in my life, floating on my back, embracing the pure solitude Cooter and I had found. I’ve heard that every man needs a place to disappear, and if that’s true, then every man needed a place like this. A place where the endless fuckery of humanity evaporated and there was nothing left but the meditative hum of nature uninterrupted. A place where a man could swim naked with his dog and not have to worry about stock market gains and politics and the stupid little pleasantries of human interaction. How are you doing today, oh I’m just dandy, how are you, oh I’m just dandy, too. It was all so vapid, so false. But here, everything was right. There was nothing to pretend. I thought about Hemingway (again), about him as an old man on a fishing boat, nothing but a small vessel and his gray beard and the vast ocean. Crazy as he was, perhaps he understood what it all meant.
I snapped myself out of the daydream, yet again befuddled as to why I was considering Hemingway. It was an obsession I hadn’t asked for and one I couldn’t control, either. I pulled myself out of the water and sat on the shore, allowing the last rays of sunlight to dry me off. After being in the cold water for so long, my body felt warm back in the atmosphere. Cooter waited until he was right next to me to shake the water off his fur. “Damn it, Cooter!” I shouted, but then I laughed and gave him a rough pet behind the ears. It’s easy to get mad at dogs but just as easy to forgive them, because they’re only doing what they know how to do. Nothing more, nothing less. One couldn’t blame them for that. I could go on and on about dogs. They’re a miracle for the human race, adorable fur-covered meat sacks of unconditional love. One of the greatest things in the world. I figured I’d always be happy if Cooter was by my side. I didn’t foresee myself needing much else. I put on my three-piece suit (making sure all the bowtie was lined up just so) and repositioned my eye patch, which was another holdover from father, bastard that he was. I scratched Cooter’s butt and said c’mon, ol’ boy, let’s head back to our grassy knoll.
As we walked away, I heard leaves rustling further up the stream. Cooter perked up his ears and growled. The rustling stopped. I knelt down, figuring that I should probably make myself as small as possible if that damn farmer was in the vicinity. After several moments, there was more rustling. I saw something shifting between the leaves. By the time it reached the water, the mystery was in full view: a young woman dressed in white. Objectively speaking, she wasn’t the prettiest rose in the garden. But there was a glow about her I found irresistible. She had high cheekbones and big brown eyes that seemed to contain all that was good and bad about the universe. Something moved inside of me that hadn’t moved in a long time. Since Marsha, really.
Hemingway. There he was again, occupying my consciousness. Hemingway loved women, a bit too much if you ask me. He had four wives during his life and was pretty much constantly cheating on them. A real turd, if you want to know the full of it. But I’m sure it’s hard to stay faithful to anyone when you’re the most popular author in the Western world. A legend in your own time. The odd thing about Hemingway, though, was the kind of women he found attractive. They were, with a few exceptions (including the 17-year old hooker he screwed in Paris), homely and androgynous. Odd that the most famous of American authors, an institution unto himself, would settle for anything less than the most beautiful women. But each of us has our own tastes. We don’t choose these tastes but are instead slaves unto them. This goes for everything. So who I am to judge who Hemingway found attractive? They made him happy (at least until they didn’t), and this woman (girl, really) standing before me by this beautiful river made me happier than I’d been in a long time. Spring bloomed in my ribcage.
Odd that the most famous of American authors, an institution unto himself, would settle for anything less than the most beautiful women. But each of us has our own tastes. We do not choose these tastes but are instead slaves unto them.
I was so caught up in her beauty that I hadn’t noticed the baby in her arms. She knelt down to the water to clean the baby’s head. The baby cooed and smiled, and the woman smiled back at him. I felt like a creep gazing in on this gentle moment between mother and son, but I didn’t want to make any sudden movements to startle the poor girl. Cooter, however, did not care about spooking anyone or anything. He sensed an opportunity for more ear rubs and trotted over to the woman, who was frightened upon seeing him but then, realizing he was a friendly ol’ pooch, rubbed his head. Cooter had broken the ice, so I figured now was as good a time as any to come out of hiding.
When the woman caught a glimpse of me, she shielded her son and turned away. I saw her looking at my eye patch. I smiled and said no no, it’s OK, I’m not here to hurt you, and she slowly turned back toward me and let her guard down.
“How old is he?” I asked
She looked at the ground.
“Not even a year.”
She smiled. I looked at my feet and then back at her.
“What are the two of you doing here?”
“Oh,” I said. “I understand.” She was so young and so beautiful I could hardly stand it.
“Well,” I said. “I’m out here looking.”
“Just looking,” I said. “Maybe I’ve already found it.”
“I do understand that, too,” she said.
The baby sneezed and gazed at his mother like she was God. Which she was. She smiled like a benevolent God and kissed his forehead. Then she looked at me.
“What happened there?” she asked, motioning toward her eye.
“Oh, something a long time ago,” I said. “But I don’t have to worry about it anymore.”
She nodded and smiled.
“Where are you staying? Or are you just passing through?”
“Just passing through. I found a cozy piece of grass to sleep on tonight.”
“Would you like to stay with us? Our place is not much, but it is better than some piece of grass. You can get some rest before you move on.”
I nodded, overcome with gratefulness for this beautiful woman’s kindness. I bit my lip and scratched my neck, which was hot.
“What will dad think about me?” I asked, looking at the child.
“There is no dad,” she said. “Not anymore, at least.”
She was right. Her place wasn’t much. But it was infinitely better than sleeping on the forest floor. She lived in a small shed along the river that had just enough room for a bed (a mattress on the floor), a desk and a cooking pot. “The baby sleeps there with me,” she said. “You can sleep there with us tonight, too, if you want. We want you to stay for as long as you’d like. You can help protect us from the bad things.” Those words brought me alive with excitement. The only other woman I’d slept next to was Marsha, when we lived together in a musty apartment on the north side of the city. She’d loved me for a while, but then she stopped and went away, and I was sad for a very long time. Her leaving made me feel flawed, cursed. I decided to never get close to another woman again, not because I didn’t love them, but because I loved them too much. Perhaps things could be different with this woman. Maybe I could get close with her and things could start anew. I was hopeful but worried.
After a while, the woman and the baby fell asleep. I was lying in bed next to them, Cooter at my feet. I was hot. I tossed and turned. My mind was thinking 10,000 things at once, about this woman and what she could mean to me, about the life (not much of one, I’ll admit) I’d left behind, about where I was going and what I was doing, about where I was supposed to be going and what I was supposed to be doing. Eventually, I rose out of bed, quiet so I wouldn’t wake anyone, and walked down to the river. The moon was out and it was bright. I dipped my feet in the cold water and my entire body felt refreshed. I fiddled with my eyepatch, flashing back to the punch that caused it. I shook my head. Fuck him, I thought. He’s gone now.
Then I thought, what is it about rivers? What is it about water? I felt my mind drifting to Hemingway again, about how he loved the ocean and deep-sea fishing, yada yada yada, but I stopped myself before going too far. It didn’t matter what Hemingway thought, what Hemingway liked. He was a prick. A great writer, sure, but also an alcoholic. A cheat. A liar. A pervy old man who screwed underage hookers in Paris. Does being able to string words together in a beautiful way compensate for the lack of a moral compass? Maybe it’s best to simply appreciate the work without evaluating the artist. At any rate, I was done obsessing over this American literary myth. I had to forget about that man so I could become my own man, on my own terms. He was dead. My father was dead, too. And I resolved to be a better person than both of them before I joined them in whatever awaits all of us on the other side.
I walked barefoot back to the shed. I opened the door and it creaked and I tensed up because I was afraid I would wake them. Cooter let out a quiet grumble and I said shhh, Cooter, it’s all right. The woman and child were lying under the window in the moonlight. They looked so peaceful and their peacefulness rose from their sleeping bodies like mist and I breathed it in and felt content. I knew I wasn’t going anywhere. Outside, somewhere deep in the forest, the bad things shuffled in the fog. But they were not here, not right now. I would deal with them when they crawled in from wherever they lurked.
“I am here,” I whispered to the sleeping woman. “And I’m going to help protect you from the bad things. For as long as you’ll stay with me.”
Down at the river, a snake slithered into the water. It kept it’s head above water as it swam further away from shore. The moon illuminated everything. Then the snake dunked its body into the water and disappeared into the darkness for good.
Reflections on fatherhood and family history.
We spent a lot of our free time throwing rocks at cars. That’s just sort of what you did growing up in the sticks with not a lot of stuff to keep you entertained.
When I was in my early 20s, I took a bus to New York City for no reason other than to do it.