Hemingway the Second

A short story by Frank Diamond published in his short story collection “Damage Control.”

My daughter wants a hamster. We’ve already got a dog, Spike, and he’s a handful. I’m not dead-set against a hamster, and neither is my wife. But we’re not jumping in, either. My daughter’s the nicest little 12-year-old you’d ever want to meet. But we can’t grant her every wish, and even if we could, that wouldn’t exactly be the best thing for her, now would it? 

“What gives you this idea?” I ask. 

“Well,” she says, and pauses for a moment. She puts down the newspaper and looks out the window, as if trying to remember. It is one of those summer mornings where the muted light signals the blending of seasons. “Sarah and Bridget both have hamsters and they’re pretty cute.” 

“And what’s it’s name?” my wife asks, and I know that I’d better start scoping out a place in my daughter’s bedroom where I can set up shop for the little critter. “We need a name,” my wife continues. “I’ve got a book that….” 

My daughter exclaims: “His name is Hemingway!” as if we’d again forgotten where we put our keys. 

And I’ve got to tell you that I didn’t let on at all. Barely blinked, though I could feel my heartbeat race a bit. 

You see, I had been thinking that week about how close we were as a family. It’s just the three of us and we really love hanging out. And I must have told my wife (and hope to someday tell my daughter) just about everything about myself. That’s what you do with soulmates. That’s when it struck me that I’d never told them about Hemingway. My Hemingway. Hemingway the gorilla. 

Sometimes, in the winter, when the falling snow gathers in bundles about my property, I venture into the backyard and watch it lay on the big shed (really a workshop), and the trees and deck outside my bedroom and think about how this softness ironically suggests the solidity of my existence, just as a cover outlines a bed. 

It’s an illusion. I don’t accept that anyone ever “arrives.” I believe in an afterlife (so sue me, I’m religious) and that this detour is only really a question that might be thrown out at a noisy party. 

“What’s that?” you shout. “I can’t hear you!”
“Are you with me or against me?”
But by that time you might have given up, shrugged, and moved on to the next hors d’oeuvre.
Hemingway and I hung out in my early twenties. I had been living in an apartment in Fishtown at the time, thanks to the kindness of a friend who was just beginning to get a toehold on the world of real estate. He wasn’t making any money off of me, that’s for sure. 

“Hey man,” he’d say, over a beer, “just pay me back when you write your book.” 

Well, I’ve written a book. And a play. And screenplays. And about 30 short stories. And I’ve had very little success in getting them published. 

Which doesn’t mean that I’ve been a complete bust as a writer. I’ve done a little bit better with articles. And I make my living as a writer/editor for a trade publication. It’s a craft that puts food on my table and a roof over our heads. And I haven’t given up on making the big score. I’ll keep trying until I die. 

But if the me at 23 could somehow meet me now, at 48, I have to believe that the kid would be disappointed. In those ego-drenched days I knew that I would become one of the immortals. (This is embarrassing. I was a consum- mate jackass for long stretches in my life. Sue me again.) But there you have it. I knew I’d make it. Like Dickens. Like Tolstoy. Like Joyce. And even, like… like… 

Hemingway must have been a drinker because he never stopped by except when I was pretty well lit. (But he never actually drank at my place. I wondered if he stopped by on the way from one bar to another.) 

I didn’t own a TV and friends weren’t always available for the nightlife. I worked two jobs and I tried to write, but on too many occasions I would just sit around drinking and looking at the walls. 

There’d be a soft knock. “Yeah?”
Nothing, just another tap. 

“Coming,” I’d say. 

The very first time I opened the door and saw a gorilla on the other side was like every other time. Almost as if I’d been expecting him. 

I motioned him in.

“Have a seat.”

He’d sigh like a teacher might when confronted with a batch of unmarked tests, and sit on the floor. In the darkness of the apartment, the gorilla reminded me of one of those big-ass stone statues of the Buddha. 

“Let’s have it,” he’d say. 

I’d go to the draw and pull out my notebook. I opened it to whatever it was that I worked on that week. 

He’d sigh again and looked it over. “It’s OK,” he’d finally say. “A poem.”

“I know it’s a poem,” I said.

“Anything else?” 

“I began a short story.”

“Let’s have it.”

“On the next page.”

He frowns, turns the page. He’s somewhat remote for a gorilla, I think, but then what do I know about apes? He smells, and I’m tempted many times to point this out to him. I fantasize. “OK, my stuff stinks, but not as much as you!” But I never do this because I really want his approval. 

“Sentences are too long,” he says. “Remember. Short words. Short sentences. Do you write every day?” 

I shrug. 

“Discipline,” he says. “The writing. The discipline. The writing. The discipline.” 

Then he gets up, and that always humbles me. The way he’d lift himself on his big arms and walk out on the backs of his hands with the rest of him still in lotus position. 

After he’d leave, I’d reach under the orange plastic couch that I’d pulled from a trash pile and find the collected short stories. And in the quiet of the apartment, as I breathed in the residual stench of my departed visitor, I’d sometimes read aloud from the short story “In Another Country.” 

In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more. It was cold in the fall in Milan and the dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows. 

So now I’m watching this hamster, Hemingway. I call him Hemingway the Second, but I keep that to myself. Hemingway is going to town. He’s on that wacky wheel of his and he’s running almost as if he might actually get there someday. 

It’s two weeks after Christmas and it’s snowing, and my wife and daughter’s joy is tempered somewhat by the fact that it’s Saturday. No weather-related day off this time. (My wife’s a teacher.) 

And there are kids out back. My daughter and twenty-five thousand of her closest friends. Rolling up snowmen and calling out to each other as if they’re on opposite sides of the Alps. And it doesn’t mean a thing to Hemingway, the little hamster. He keeps rolling along. 

“What’s the matter?” my wife asks.

It would be a bummer if the hamster keels after just one month. 

“Nothing,” I say. “He’s fine. I’m just watching.”

“Interesting,” she teases. “And what is it exactly that you are seeing?”

“My youth.” 

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