Good old Papa.
By these standards, I am only a sometime writer. And as for Hemingway, well he played merry hell with many of his friends and acquaintances, and he was damned hard on his wives, but as a writer he glided up and down the ice like a gold medal champ. You knew his moves were difficult, but Hemingway made them look easy. If you don’t believe me, then read him, put the book aside, and try recreating his style yourself.
It was spring of 1975 in Storrs, Connecticut, and my wife had left me and I was sitting on the floor of what passed for a coffee shop in those days in the basement of the university library in a clutter of used books. Opening one by Hemingway, I read some line in which the writer said if you wanted to kill something bad inside yourself you needed to write about it. I tracked the line down just last year, but now have lost it again. It doesn’t matter. That was the moment. That was the instant when I thought: I am going to write.
Over the next ten years, I wrote three unpublishable novels. Some short stories, reviews, and poetry found their voice in small-press magazines, but you could pretty much count my publishing efforts during those years as a failure. Only my wife still believed in me. She believed in me more than I believed in me.
During those ten years, I educated myself by reading the greats. I read the Russians: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and a little Chekov. I read English novelists: Greene and Waugh, Durrell, Maugham and Burgess. I read Raymond Chandler and Henry Miller, Vladimir Nabokov and William Styron. I read plays and poetry. I read so many writers, hundreds of them, but my demigods, the ones I worshipped, were Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe.
It was the summer of 1977, and Kris and I were living in San Diego for a year just to experience life on the West Coast. I was in a Hemingway phase, and reading Death In The Afternoon, and I decided we needed to see a bullfight. Tijuana was only a few miles away, and so we drove down one Sunday and parked on the U.S. side of the border and strolled into Mexico. With us was a sweet young man from the bookstore where I was working. Randy wanted to be an artist and was always painting or drawing and then giving his work away to anyone who happened to like it.
We walked first through the street vendors who hugged the border, mostly young men, selling everything from t-shirts to onyx chess sets. When we reached the interior of the city, we found a restaurant for lunch where small girls in brightly colored dresses with petticoats underneath flashed around the tables like exotic birds while their mothers and fathers drank coffee and chatted.
When we arrived for the corrida, we purchased our tickets to sit in the sun because they were less expensive. Many people were there — some Americans, but mostly locals. There were six bulls that afternoon, and though usually three toreadors fight two bulls apiece, this was a special contest with six toreadors.
For many years afterwards I could remember each fight and each toreador, but now find I can only pull two of them from the attic. The first was a solidly built man who was very confident and was contemptuous of the size of the bulls being fought that day. He toyed with his bull, using his cape again and again to draw it around him. Finally, he knelt in the sand before the bull, who stared at him without charging. Then he stood and drew his sword and came in over the horns and thrust the sword into the neck of the bull. The bull’s front legs caved so that he was kneeling as the bullfighter had done. Blood streamed from his nostrils, and then he rolled onto one side and died.
The fighter who won the prize that day was a local boy, very young and slender. He killed his bull cleanly and efficiently. After he’d won the prize, the spectators applauded him wildly and a group of young men carried him out of the arena on their shoulders.
Now came one of the stranger experiences of my life up until that time. Even now it remains strange and unique.
By the time the bullfight was over, evening had arrived and the temperature was dropping. No one had wanted to miss any of the fights, and nearly all the men had spent the afternoon drinking beer and now needed a place to release that beer. Just outside the arena was a huge tent. Inside the tent, running around three of the walls, was a giant trough that served as the urinal. There were probably sixty to seventy men urinating into the trough all at the same time, and with so many of them and with the chilly temperature and warm urine, the air inside the tent had become a cloud of urine. I tried to hold my breath while at the same time marveling at the weird urine cloud.
And the weirdness wasn’t yet ended. The three of us decided to take a different way back to the border and found ourselves in a barren field. Here several people had set fires in 55 gallon empty barrels to fight off the night’s chill. For a little while we trudged through the field and then came again to a corner of the town. A crowd had gathered in the street, and leaving Randy and Kris, I strolled over to see what had happened. There was on street in a black dress was an old woman. She was lying still with her eyes closed. Surrounding her head was a little puddle of clear liquid. I guessed a car had hit her. No one in the crowd seemed excited by this accident, though I felt they resented me for being there. So I drifted away and joined Randy and Kris on the next corner, and we walked back to the border.
That was my Hemingway afternoon.