The Saturday Evening Post is pleased to be the only magazine to publish each year’s winner of the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition. (This year’s winner, “Lazarus,” can be found in the Jan/Feb 2010 issue.) The following short story by author Mark Howell received an honorable mention.
“Writing a book, grandpa?” she asked from the backseat.
“Why?” I said, eyeballing her in the mirror. She was smiling at her friend. “What’s it to you?
“A subplot is not just another plot, you know,” she said.
“I know that,” I said.
“It’s an echo of the main plot,” she said.
Roslyn is 14 years old. She’s read all of Poe already.
“Hemingway said it,” she said.
“Really, Ros?” I said. “You’re reading Hemingway?”
Hemingway was someone I had wrestled with. Hemingway was something I knew about.
“We found it in the stuff at his house,” said Olivia, who is 15.
“I like the story where they cut each others’ hair off,” said Ros. “Shorter and shorter. Really short.”
“Interesting,” I said.
“Really interesting,” murmured Olivia.
That’s when we found out what was really going on.
She was ours now, Roslyn, daughter of Nell and our son. She came into our lives at the age of nine, reluctantly on her part. Could we ever do enough for her? A child of the wilderness, she arrived in Key West “learning to love alone,” she once told me.
Wanting to save her from herself, I tried to give her everything. She’d have none of it. Her grandmother tried a bit of the opposite with no more success. It was not dire things that happened so much as disobedience awesome enough to leave us breathless.
How many days had she skipped school? Especially days when I myself had dropped her off and picked her up.
My theory, shared by Olivia, was that Ros’s face looked the same on both sides. A rare thing shared by movie actors and models, a symmetrical face is immediately attractive to babies, to teachers, and to sheriff’s deputies. Ros had won face-offs with all three.
The cell phone we bought for her, to keep us in touch, had cut her off from us completely, linking her with a circle we had no part of. The only way we kept in touch was through transportation. A bike or a bus would never get her from New Town across to the other side of the island—to the heart of the heart of Old Town—in anywhere near the time she needed to get there. So we gave her a ride.
I was never quite sure where she actually went. “We have a back way in,” was what she told us. I only knew that it was at the far, purple end of Mullet Lane, where I dropped her off just about every weekday.
“Bye,” I’d say each time, and each time she’d bounce out of the back seat, slam the door and canter off down the lane, cell phone in ear, directly to whatever mystery awaited her at the end of the lane.
I was conflicted about the gateway and she knew it. Olivia was one thing, but who else hung out beyond it? She said his name was Carlos, a boy in high school. His mother owned a cottage there, or someone in her family did, and Carlos and his gang had built tiki huts in “a garden beyond the garden,” according to Ros.
I mean gang in the friendliest way. It was good these kids were still in town. Ros had only one real friendship, with Olivia—and that could be turbulent—but in fact she knew a load of kids. In common with each other, they were all, unsteadily, losing their orbit around school.
One time when her class-cutting got really out of hand, I went in search of Ros, following clues given me by Olivia who had never cut a class in her life. Her penciled sketch got me to Big Pine Key, north of Key West, 30 miles of bridges and islands and then left at a crossroads and at last, in the back country, an overgrown grove of campers and trailers.
At the fence I’d called Roslyn’s name. From a variety of windows popped the heads of several girls. Then came the heads of the boys, older and with longer hair. I had blundered onto Pinocchio Land. Here was where the runaways came, where they paid the rent with whatever it was they could lift from their parents’ houses and pawn for cash.
To our knowledge Ros never revisited Pinocchio Land once her path slid across Carlos, whose mixed group of former Goths and travelers at the end of the lane were managing, somehow, mostly, to stay in school. Ros and Olivia, I guessed, were the youngest of them.
Until that evening when I picked them both up in the car and Ros came up with her nugget on subplots, I had no idea she’d scored a bulls-eye in our family’s literary history.
Hemingway and me, we go way back, to school afternoons as a young idiot reading my own life revealed in his writing; later still to the oceanic work not published for years, providing pleasure purely in writing, in pure writing, in writing “beyond the bones of the others.”
Truth, as a consequence, pierced deep.
“You’ve been hanging out at his house all this time?” I asked her in the car.
“We swim in his pool after hours,” said Olivia. They squealed.
“You’re kidding,” I said. “Are you making this up?”
Ros described the pool; Olivia told of its temperature. They recited the story of Ernest being pissed off with Pauline about the thing.
“You told me about these people,” said Ros. “Are you conflicted about this, grandpa?”
“Oh, I cannot begin to tell you,” I said. “I am lost for words. We must talk.”
“Turn the car round,” she commanded. “We’re going back in.”
“Yes!” said Olivia.
So I turned the car around. We arrived back at the lane and my heart began to beat with a serenity that my mind felt when I first opened a book by him.
The girls instructed me to park at the end of the lane. Twilight had come fast. Within a minute, in a tropical switch from one world to another, the streetlights were brighter than the daylight.
We snuck out of the car and the two of them crept away to the right, away from the gateway that had caused me so much conflict.
How we entered the grounds is a secret that I swore to Ros I would never reveal, and her secret is safe with me. But we did get in, to the empty house and the garden at night, as different from the open house and the public garden of daytime as moon from sun.
The girls ran barefoot across the lawn. They led me by unknowable means inside the writing lodge and to a bloated trunk stamped E.H. on its hide. They took me to his collection of Western novels and a shelf of his own books in strange languages (“Far Vail Till Vap Neu”). They took me to his master bedroom, the big bed and its carved headboard illuminated by the tall windows. On the pale bedspread sprawled a great white cat. A snoozing black cat lay wedged between the mattress and a corner post.
They played with the cats like the bed was their own, and for the moment it was. Ros was at peace in this place. She seemed at home.
“What have you learned here?” I asked, then conflicted the question. “Have you learned anything?”
They looked at each other, unwrapped their limbs from the cats and loped off to another room on the northwest corner.
Somehow a book had already been liberated by the time I got there, from out of a glassed-in bookcase. They were sitting on the floor with it. “This one’s the best,” said Olivia.
I noticed it wasn’t one of Hemingway’s own copies. It was published years after he killed himself. A bright red book covered in plastic. Olivia pointed the spine at me.
“The Garden of Eden,” it said.
“It’s crazy,” said Ros. “He’s a famous writer—” she looked at me with scorn “—and his wife wants him to have sex with another woman on their honeymoon.”
“Wait,” said Olivia, “that’s not it. They swim in the cove together, they eat all these meals. It’s about everything.”
“Yes,” said Ros.
“She wants him to cut his hair like hers,” said Olivia. “And bleach it the same color.”
“Shorter and shorter,” said Ros.
“So he doesn’t know who he is,” said Olivia.
“Then,” blurted Ros, “she burns all his writing,”
“That is too bad!” I said. A grievous shock. I almost shouted. “He deserved that?”
“He was two-minded, Grandpa. It’s a sin.”
“Ah,” I said.
“Look at how he handled his wives,” she said. “It wasn’t so good.”
“You think I’m two-minded?” I said. I was still on my knees.
“You want to talk,” she said, “and then you say you’re lost for words.” She wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “It’s difficult, Grandpa. It’s hard when you’re like that.”
Olivia slammed the book shut. “The cats!” she yelled.
Both of them were up and gone before I was on my feet. I trailed their chattering down the stairs and into the blacks and the blues of the garden. We regrouped in a far corner of the grounds, around a lignum vitae tree. It was wizened and wise though probably still young. “I love this tree,” I said.
“Of course,” said Ros.
“Cats!” yelped Olivia once more and all kinds of them began arriving, silent creatures pretending neglect and neediness but their smarts gave them away. They were interested in us—or not, as the case may be—yet they harbored no pretense in their minds. We messed about with the cats for quite a while, stunned to be in a cave of bushes with them, amid the broken flowerpots and piles of dirt.
“Do you want to go see the basement?” Ros asked me.
“Nah,” I said. “Too deep.”
The three of us quit the grounds then, in the secret way, and reentered the world.
Weeks after that sacred night, Roslyn marched in through the front door. Instead of retreating to her room, she came straight for me and she hugged me.
I realized she was leaving us.
“I love you, Grandpa,” she said. “Say thanks to Grandma. I love her.”
I leaned back. “You’re going to your father’s?”
“I bought the ticket,” she said.
I hugged her again. “I want you to be a movie star,” I said. “I’m quite single-minded about it.”
“Why am I crying, Grandpa?”
Kids don’t understand why they cry, they don’t know their emotions. I’d have to give this my truest shot.
“We cry for what we can’t be,” I said. “But you don’t need to cry. You can be Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland…”
“Some role models,” she said, her perfect face creased and wet. She sobbed again. “I’m crying because I’m happy, Grandpa.”
And with that she left us.