The Way I See It….
I finished reading Across the River and into the Trees this past weekend. It was the last full novel Papa wrote before he swallowed a cartridge of bird shot for breakfast. Had I been his editor the book would not have attained full novel status—the paperback version I read exceeded three hundred pages—but would have served as a strong step into his swan song starring Santiago.
The problem with Across the River is the limited plot. A limited plot could have been a problem for many of Hemingway’s works, but Papa was great for the words he withheld as much as for those he wrote. It was his laconic dialogue, dearth of adverbs and ice berg style of story telling that makes him my favorite author. Had he employed the same formula to Across the River, I believe it would have worked well because the man was writing about his favorite subject, mortality, and his passion is palpable. Unfortunately, Hemingway self indulged, allowing the calf to fatten too much before the kill and his dialogue, rather than drawing us deftly to the execution, becomes flabby and a drag on the story.
Hemingway was at the height of his fame when he wrote this book and my guess is that hubris prevented him from excising the excess to render the prose that had made him a master. It happens to so many of the great ones. I wish I could forget the memory I retain of an aged, overweight Ali slumped in his corner across the ring from a hard, hungry Holmes. The same applies to The Say Hey Kid allowing a center field single through his legs to become extra bases and the last memory many, such as I, have of Willie’s stellar career. Jim Brown, Peyton Manning, Marciano and Mayweather played the retirement game perfectly. I’m hoping Brady follows suit.
Anytime a human being knowingly exceeds his limitations, he succumbs to vanity, the sin of pride. We have all done it; we are all guilty.
But for most of us, thankfully, the demonstration is limited, most likely to family and friends only. The more salient one becomes, the more visible his actions. This equation works across cultures because human behavior is universal. The more publicity a man receives the more likely he is to trespass his limitations, for pride is the culprit and fame contains the highest octane among the fuels of hubris. Only men with a noble focus, which breeds discipline, can perform unaffected by observation.
For guys like Ali and Mays, a chance to redeem their final acts is difficult, if not impossible, due to skills tarnished by time. For physical performers, this is usually the case; less so for cerebral artists such as the writer. It was for this reason that Ernest could strike back, empowered by the vitriol of the reigning literati, and pull off The Old Man and the Sea. It was not a noble response because the achievement was generated as much by pride as the mediocre novel that preceded it. Nonetheless, from an artistic perspective, Papa was able to end his career with a knock out.
However, a career and a life are vastly different pursuits. A successful career does not guarantee a successful life, though access to greater resources via remuneration does increase the odds by mitigating the strain of sustenance; but, this only helps those with discipline and integrity. Without the latter you get Tiger, Cosby, Nixon, the Clintons, Armstrong, Weinstein, Ailes, Simpson….
It is men with this disparity between talent and integrity that leaves us wanting. We yearn for people of talent to be great all around. When they expose a flaw, we express disappointment in them which, due to their fame, hits harder than peer disapproval impacts the average guy. That’s the thing about fame: it’s no one way street. It’ll whack you just as hard and quickly as it will boost you.
So, after Across the River and into the Trees, Papa, bothered by the criticism to which he was subjected, a first in his career, came back swinging for the fences and connected. The Old Man and the Sea was a commercial and critical success, earning Ernest the Pulitzer which, undoubtedly, influenced the panel that awards the Nobel, which Ernest received a year later.
It is with both curiosity and sadness that I ponder how a writer can blow his head off just seven years after being awarded the holy grail of letters. We’re talking about a guy many consider the best author of the twentieth century; others, the best American writer regardless of time; or simply, as John O’Hara asserted, ”the best writer since Shakespeare”. How does a man so accomplished take his life? To many, if not most, the act seems incongruous with the facts, but obviously it isn’t. Many successful people have taken their lives. Obviously success, fame and fortune do not have a commanding impact on a person’s mental health. Other factors matter more.
It was my recent decision to read Hemingway again for the first time in years along with my current participation in the Sepsis Alliance Campaign that drew my attention to mental health. Almost all of the information that is disseminated to raise the public’s awareness of sepsis concerns the body as opposed to the mind.
However, any sepsis survivor will tell you that anxiety, depression, insomnia and cognitive deficiencies, such as a decline in memory and deductive reasoning, haunt them for life. As such, it is not difficult to apprehend that nearly 50% of sepsis survivors suffer from suicidal ideation.
I had reached this intersection of thought last week when I posted a short story titled The Sunniest Days are Sometimes the Coldest. I have presumed that some readers may have wondered why I would have published a piece that seemingly deviates from my other ramblings up to that point; but, no deviation exists.
The post was merely an ice breaker, a way to broach the subject, because mental after effects matter just as much as physical ones, in the awareness campaign about sepsis, and the sentiment doesn’t end there. Mental mobility is at least as important, if not more, in the life and care of every person, sepsis survivor or not. More carnage, liability and decay in our post-modern world can be attributed to poor mental hygiene than to any physical disability. Reading Hemingway merely reminded me of the issue and its urgency.
“Hey John! What are you doin’ here? Where’s Billy?”
As the old guy turned toward me, he moved slower than usual. I wondered if he was sick or injured.
I saw him the Friday before–caught him just as he was closing.
“Hey Billy! Before you go, can I get a Coke?”
He pretended to frown, his furrowed forehead and mischievous eyes gesturing toward the world outside.
“Lotta dames are waitin’, y’know.”
“Yeah, but I gotta work late and I’m gettin’ tired.”
He waved me in.
The store is small, smaller than any other lobby shop I’ve seen in Boston’s financial district; but it is efficient. Two steps in and you’re surrounded by varnished shelves stuffed with Twinkies and Wheat Thins, Cracker Jacks and Tootsie Rolls. A mahogany partition separates the customers from the cashiers. On top sits a huge, steel register with a side lever; each hand cranked transaction rings like the bell on a kid’s bike. Beyond the chinging currency counter, cigarettes and lottery tickets rise, stacked, against one wall; two large thermoses and a heavy duty coffee maker occupy a counter against the other. Between them, through a glass door, a refrigerator tempts you with canned soda, bottled water, and thick sandwiches swathed in Saran Wrap.
“Regular or diet?”
“Why ya workin’ late? It’s Friday.”
“Yeah, I know, but I gotta a project due on Monday.”
He handed me a can. I dangled a dollar.
“The register’s closed. Pay me next week.”
“All right.” I stuffed the bill back into my pants. “Thanks…and have a good weekend.”
“You too.” Then, a second later, as I was heading out the door: “Try to have some fun, will ya? Ya work too much.”
“I will,” I said. But I did not sound convincing.
Billy disturbed me. He had from the beginning. I met him along with John during my first day on the job, a couple of years back, and have been a regular at the store ever since. Writing system documentation can get tedious. A coffee in the morning and another after noon keeps me going.
I met John first. Short and gruff with sharp blue eyes and a gravely voice, he’s so typically Irish Southie that I sometimes wonder if he acts that way on purpose. He follows sports and current events, and each morning we talk a bit. I never have to ask him for a coffee. He automatically fills a cup–black, no sugar–when I walk through the door.
On that first day, I asked John if he owned the store.
“Naw, a guy named Ted owns it. I just work here. Ever since I retired.”
“You work all day?”
“Naw, just mornings. Another guy works in the afternoon.”
That afternoon, I met the other guy. The store was packed with young women, an occurrence I would soon find common. They were laughing and talking, sipping soda, some even smoking, though it was illegal to do so indoors—anything went, I would discover, when Billy was working. I stood in the rear, assuming it was the end of a line.
A cushion of dark hair hovered over their heads.
“How’s it goin’!”
“Uhh…good, thanks.” His exuberance had caught me off guard.
“What can I get for ya?”
“Coffee, please. Black.”
I watched him as he worked. So did all his friends.
He was about my age. A year older actually, as I would later learn. He was also good looking; not handsome, but boyishly so. His face was full and dimpled, his cheeks a fleshy red. Beneath black curls, green eyes seemed amused. Billy affected people, especially women. It was his smile: a radiant, prankish, infectious grin that never vanished.
Unlike John, Billy never learned my name. After a short while, though, he’d also anticipate my order.
“How’s it goin’!” his greetings always ending a few notes higher than they began.
“Yes, please. And how are you doin’?”
“Dannnndy. Gettin’ outta here soon. Gotta redhead t’meet.” He’d look me in the eye and wink. “One–dollar–please.”
I’d hand him the buck.
“Thank you. Have a good one.”
The conversation was usually the same. A few times, though, it extended further. I discovered that he had a college degree and that we lived in the same town.
I started to wonder about Billy: How could he be so carefree and happy? He sells junk food to bankers from a closet in a high rise. Is he satisfied with that? Where’s his ambition?
One day, I hung over the wall that separates my cubicle from Tim’s.
“I bet he’s a drug dealer,” I said, ”or a bookie.”
“You think so?”
“Yeah. Haven’t you noticed that he leaves a lot? And he takes that gym bag with him?”
“Yeah, I have noticed that. He posts a sign on the door: ‘BACK IN 15 MINUTES’”. Then Tim paused, obviously in thought, before adding: “He does take off a lot, doesn’t he?”
Where does he go? we speculated. To lunch?
Doubtful. The store has plenty of food.
To the bathroom?
Not with a gym bag.
My curiosity surged. Sometimes, I’d go down there and a radio would be blaring and Billy would be singing. Other times, I’d find him in Bermuda shorts, no shoes, puffing a cigar. One time, I found him alone.
“Billy, is this your full time job?”
“Nooooo. I’m just doing Ted a favor. He asked me to help him out for awhile.”
That was a year-and-a-half ago.
John finally spoke.
At first, I thought I had misunderstood him. I wish I had.
“God, John–did you know him well?”
The old guy lowered his head. I noticed, in thinning white, a patch of pink I hadn’t before. Time seemed paralyzed as my eyes absorbed the bright badge of age. I can still see the ruddy flesh shining in my mind.
“I thought I did.”
The walk back to my desk took forever. The walls wavered. The floor felt like sponge. Tim was standing in his cube. He saw the coffee in my hand and the look on my face.
“I guess you’ve heard.”
I nodded, my bobbing slight and robotic, my focus distant, my mind detached.
Silence ruled a long, uneasy moment; then Tim spoke.
“Do you, uhh…know how…he did it?”
C’mon man! I thought, snapping out of my cerebral haze. Is that really import…. But I answered nonetheless.
“A .357–through the mouth.”
The Globe lay open on my desk. Tim had put it there. Billy’s obituary was the only one with a photo. He wore that same sunny smile.