Oct/Nov 2006  •   Fiction

The Thing that Mattered

by Terence S. Hawkins

Photo by Jim Gourley

Photo by Jim Gourley

Hem didn't want to throw up. Not now. Not in front of these people. Not at this grave.

But he was close. His head was pounding. The sour taste of vomit was at the back of his throat. Breathe slow. You don't want it in the mouth. You don't want to think of the black licorice you ate as a kid. You don't want to think about the absinthe last night.

It almost had him there. It took a sharp deep breath, but he stopped it. He stood there a minute feeling the sweat trickle from his armpits and down the stiff bulge of flank and belly that made him so sick to look at. Thinking about what he saw in the mirror almost brought on the explosion again.

Christ it was hot. It was the worst kind of tropical late morning, when you stand there thinking a steam pipe ruptured in a florist's. Air sweet and sticky and boiling. The flowers didn't help. Any fool knew Rick wouldn't want flowers. But Rick didn't know many fools.

Rick wouldn't have wanted a priest, either. But there the priest was, fat as Hem but womanish, droning away in sad, singsong Latin. And Rick wouldn't have wanted to be dead. Yet there he was, about two minutes away from dropping permanently into the wet Cuban ground on a hot Cuban day.

Hem tried not to look at the box. He couldn't see it anyway, mounded over as it was with floral tributes. He tried not to think of the dead man inside and what he looked like right now. Rick had always looked good. Lots better than Hem, though he wasn't that much younger and drank nearly as hard. Now he just looked like a dead man with half a head.

Hem had seen that kind of thing a lot during his war. Not the war he let his friends believe he fought in when they drank at La Floridita. The real war, the one where he drove an ambulance and saw a lot of brave men and men not so brave all coming to the same place, the place where the life is leaving them and they feel death spiraling in and they look in disbelief at the bowels looped around their hands and scarlet stumps flecked with shattered eggshell bone. That war. Or the one Rick fought in, the one Hem had been too old even to pretend to fight in.

Maybe not too old. He was only 42 when it started. Men his age were getting drafted. Maybe too famous. Rick was famous, too, in his way. But it hadn't kept him out of it.

They knew him in Ethiopia when the Italians and their tanks and machine guns and poison gas were losing a war against men who knew that you died just as dead whether you were killed by a lion or a bomb. But those men were grateful for the guns Rick brought them so they could teach the Italians this great lesson.

And they all knew him in Spain. Hem heard Franco said every month Rick was alive cost him a battalion. That was when Hem had met him, when he was already too famous just to fight the war and Rick had to watch where he was when he went out in daylight. And they knew him in North Africa, after he left Casablanca.

Hem heard, too, that Rick kept it up in Havana. He heard the bars and the whorehouses weren't Rick's only businesses. He heard some of the guns that went up into the hills came through the Cafe Americano and La Mariposa first. And he heard Battista wasn't happy, and he heard yesterday that was why Rick was going into the ground today.

Pulleys creaked. The mounded flowers shook and the undertaker's men moved quickly to take them away. No point in burying them, too. Hem swayed slightly. Jesus it was hot. Was it really hot, or was it the damn hurt he got when he drank too much the night before? His sweat seemed different today, oily and thick. Maybe it was time to see that doctor. Maybe he was finally old. Maybe Rick was lucky. Someone had spared him this.

He looked across the open grave. He didn't want to watch Rick going in. Christ. There was Louie. Smiling his superior little frog smile. How the hell could he look like that?

Suit crisp despite the heat. Body still slim despite the years. Though Hem was told he wore a girdle. And Hem heard that the girls you saw him with around town had to work harder and harder for less and less.

Louie looked up. He caught Hem's eye. His were red rimmed. As though he'd been crying. The frog smile was still in place. It just looked all of a sudden as though it didn't belong. Louie and Rick had been through a lot.

The priest was doing something with incense over the grave. Christ, when would this stop? Why the hell add one more stink to already overburdened air? Just then the first breeze of the day blew up. It pushed the priest's smoke towards him. Sweet and thick. It was too much. Hem's mouth filled with saliva. He turned and ran towards the bushes.


Louie caught up with him later. They walked in silence towards the cars. "This must be very hard for you," said Louie after a time.

"It is," said Hem. "He was a good man. Harder for you, I think."

"Thank you. But I'm afraid that's not quite what I meant. Forgive me, but I was referring to your Communist friends."

Silence again. Gravel crunched very loud under their feet. It was getting close to noon. It was much hotter, but Hem felt better. Someone had had a flask with a little rum.

"Do I have Communist friends?"

Louie laughed. "You have friends. This is Cuba. It's 1956. Of course you have Communist friends. More than you know, I'm sure. But I'm also sure you have Communist friends you do know about. For example, two named Fidel and Ernesto."

Hem suddenly remembered he didn't like Louie. He also remembered Louie had worked for Vichy. So he didn't tell him to go to hell. "So we all have Communist friends. Why does that make today hard for me?"

"Papa, surely you jest. Why do you think we buried our friend just now?"

"Only thing to do with a dead man." The headache was coming back now. Just at the base of his head. Soon it would take up the whole skull. Hem started thinking about lunch. Prawns with his Habanero friends. Some beers. Maybe sleep in the afternoon. He hoped he could sleep again that night without liquor. He didn't want to feel this way tomorrow.

Louie laughed. "Well I do imagine you're right. You do know, though, Papa, that even the Cuban authorities are likely to bestir themselves at the violent death of a prominent American expatriate." He shook his head and whistled in obvious admiration. "And I thought I was corrupt when I was an authority myself. But these circumstances will penetrate even the deepest ineptitude and moral bankruptcy. Sorry. Don't mean to sound melodramatic. The funeral, I suppose. But do please remember, inquiries are being made even as we speak. Some of my friends tell me Fidel and his friends are thought to be responsible. And you are thought of as one of Fidel's friends."

Hem stopped in mid-stride. "What the hell?"

Louie shrugged and smiled. "You knew, of course, our friend couldn't break himself of his old habits. Why guns, I always asked him. You make a perfectly admirable living with gin and the roulette wheels and the girls, all of which are at least as interesting and much, much safer. Well. We see I was right. I wish I hadn't been." The frog smile was fixed in place even if the voice quivered. "Forgive me. In any event, my friends tell me Rick's friends—your friends—quarreled with him over price and availability. They appear to have thought he was starving the People's Army or whatever they call it of the necessary wherewithal for the worker's paradise just to drive up the price. Thus an argument. It is thought we buried the result."

Hem stood still. His clothes were sodden. "What's this about me?"

Louie backed up a step. Hem wondered if he smelled traces of liquor and vomit. "Papa, do remember you are known by the company you keep."

"Maybe. But yesterday you told me it was Battista behind it anyway."

Louie smiled. "He is, I am afraid, the usual suspect whenever anyone of wealth or prominence meets a violent end. But as exemplary a Caribbean politician he may be, even he can't be responsible for every well-attended funeral on this island. And now he has competition. Remember, Papa. The company you keep."

They were at the cars. Louie turned to a flowering vine and plucked a blossom. He slipped it into his buttonhole. Hem ground his teeth. Christ, was there no limit to the man?

Apparently not. A sleek Lincoln, late model by Cuban standards, rolled up. At the wheel was a mulatta who looked barely old enough to drive. "Papa, you'll let us drop you? Please you look quite done in by grief." He followed Hemingway's eyes to the driver's seat. "Ah yes. Well. And to think I once told Rick women might be scarce one day. Well they were. But that was North Africa and a long time ago. Please, Papa, let me help you in."


Hem had been at La Floridita for a long time when Laslo came in. He felt better. The big shrimp, almost raw and hot from the oil, had hit the spot. So had the beers. He drank the first three very fast. He had been sipping for the past few hours. No more than three or four. Just six or seven in all, then. If he took a nap soon, he would feel fine that night. Maybe just some wine with dinner and then a really good sleep. Tomorrow would be different.

They knew how to treat him at La Floridita. They greeted him like a hero and then they let him almost alone, just enough sidelong glances to let him know they knew he was who he was. When someone came in looking like he should be recognized, everyone looked at Hem, because no one who came there could be there for any reason but to see him. They wanted to see whether Hem would acknowledge the visitor so they would know how to act.

Laslo still walked as though he should be recognized. Funny. He hadn't got the message. Maybe he should have forgotten that little time he was a hero and remembered instead that very long time he was hunted. Hem was surprised he would forget.

But still he walked like a hero, and at least some of the Habaneros recognized it. They looked at Hem to see what to do. Hem nodded at this man in his fine linen suit and big Panama hat and then nodded at the man sitting opposite him. The fellow at the table stood up and offered the new man his chair. Hem would have jumped to his feet and embraced Laslo had it been earlier in the day. But even though it was only seven beers, it had been a tiring morning, and he knew sometimes when he was tired like that, there could be stories the next day. So he sat.

They shook across the table. "Victor."

"Papa. How was today?"

"Funeral. How could it be? Sorry you missed it."

"So am I. I just arrived. Trouble with passports." He smiled sourly. "I never had this problem until recently. That man from Wisconsin." Suddenly he laughed. "Actually, there was a time when I had even more trouble with passports. That man in Berlin."

Hem laughed too even though he didn't get it. Then he got it and looked over his shoulder. "Still trouble with the Committee?"

Laslo shrugged. "It seems I always have trouble with committees." Hem wasn't surprised. The man didn't know how to trim his sails. Hem's lawyers told him he was safe, but he was glad to be in a place where there could be no subpoenas. But if he wanted to go back to Idaho, he didn't want to have problems because he drank with a man who could compare McCarthy to Hitler.

He decided not to hold his tongue. "Ilsa?"

Laslo shrugged again. "She won't be here." He sipped a beer as though it were cognac. "We lead our separate lives."

I'll bet you do, boy, thought Hem. I'll just bet you do, you stuffed shirt.

Once when they were drunk, he asked Rick what she was like. "Pretty," said Rick.

"I know that," Hem said. "You know what I mean." Then Rick looked at him for a long time. Hem started to sweat. He always felt that way when Rick looked at him too long, especially after he said something like that. Finally Rick spoke. "She was like any woman. She was like one of the girls upstairs. Not as good, maybe." Then Rick poured more bourbon and didn't speak and didn't look at Hem for the rest of the night.

Hem looked at Laslo. "You know what happened?"

"I got some telegrams. Someone shot him in the face."

Hem nodded. He didn't trust himself to speak. Was this eight or nine? "What do you think?"

"What do the police think?"

Hem snorted. "They're Cuban. They think he's dead. They think that because we buried him. Otherwise they don't know."

Laslo considered. "He was shot in the face. He was in his office. There was no sign of a struggle or theft. That means he knew whoever shot him. And he trusted him." He thought again. "Or her."

"I guess you got a lot of telegrams." Hem was pleased he was following so well. The implication of the last words sank in. "One of the girls?"

Laslo shrugged. "Who knows? Was he with any of them regularly?"

Hem thought about Rick. He tried to talk to him about women. It never seemed to work. "He didn't talk about it much. He was quiet about women for such a ladies' man."

Laslo smiled. "My friend, that is probably how he stayed a ladies' man." Hem was starting to remember what he didn't like about Laslo. He was so damned European it made his teeth hurt. "But as you see all I know is courtesy of Western Union. What do you hear?"

Hem's attention had wandered a little. This was number ten in front of him. Maybe when he finished this, he'd have just one of the special drinks they made for him here, the Papa Dobles, dacquiris with twice the usual rum. Just to be polite. But just one.

He made a big show of waving to a bunch of Habaneros who had come in to crunch shrimp, tails and all, bellied up to the bar where he could see them. These boys liked that, strutting in with boots gleaming from the second polish of the day. After this little delay Hem had gathered his thoughts enough to speak. "I hear lots of things," he said at last. "I hear Battista had him killed because he sold guns to the Communists. I hear the Communists had him killed because they thought he was jacking up the price."

Laslo considered again. He was used to thinking and liked it. "Papa, both things can't be true. Well, perhaps I speak too soon. I never thought Hitler and Stalin would sign a treaty."

"Didn't last long."

"Much longer than it takes to shoot a single American in the head. Perhaps they made a deal. Stranger things have happened." He lit a cigarette. "Who is your source, or better, who are your sources for all this news?"


Laslo laughed. Hem couldn't remember having actually heard the man laugh before. He was without humor. Prolonged consideration of the dialectic of history had leached it from his bones and left irony in its place, the way dinosaur's rotting flesh had been replaced with stone. His laugh startled Hem as much as a museum brontosaurus dropping its bony head and rooting for swamp cabbage a million years extinct. "Louie? Well, who better to tell both sides of the same story?"

Number ten was almost gone. "What do you mean?"

Laslo took a silk square from his pocket and dabbed at his eyes. Maybe his fossil laughter hurt. "Papa, you're joking. Did you know the man in Casablanca?" Hem shook his head. "He betrayed France for Vichy and Vichy for the main chance. I'm only surprised he didn't wait longer. Until he could see the Star Spangled Banner on the horizon and the Germans burning documents, for example. But I digress." Hem hoped for another beer. The man was forever on a soapbox. "He's always played a double game. That is all I mean. No one could have a better opportunity to know both sides of a story."

Number 11 had arrived. "That's not all you mean."

"That is all I said. That is all I mean." The square went back in the pocket. "I have friends here, too. Other than yourself, of course. All, I'm afraid, on just one side. Perhaps that is why the Committee keeps asking to hear from me. Oh well. In any case my friends on that side tell me Battista is starting to be concerned. He knows there are guns in the hills. He wants there to be no guns in the hills. It is easier to kill a few people or a few dozen people in the city than a few thousand in the country."

"So Battista had him killed. But Battista didn't kill him. Neither did any of his men. Not in Rick's office. Not like that."

"No. First of all Rick wouldn't have been foolish enough to let one in that close. Second they wouldn't have killed him that way. Too painless and private." Laslo swallowed hard. Perhaps he was thinking about different thugs in a different time. "No. Someone he knew and trusted. And I think we can rule out a purely private dispute. Rick didn't run his life that way."

Hem nodded. When you lived on the edge as long as Rick, you didn't deal in shades of gray. There was only room for black and white, word kept or broken. Much of what he did was illegal, but Hem couldn't think of anything he'd done that was wrong.

Hem hadn't touched the beer in front of him. He was pleased with that. "So Battista bought someone close to him."


"So who close to him could be bought?"

"Well, Papa, not you. Even if you could be bought by anyone, you have more money than you need. Sam never cared about money, and he doesn't need it now. Anyway, is he even physically capable these days?"

"He hasn't sung for two years. He hasn't spoken for six months. He hasn't left the hospital for two. His throat is all cut away and he weighs eighty pounds."

"My God. Death mocks us, doesn't it?" He raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips and stared into the middle distance. "Louie has had a few financial problems, I'm told."

"You really are told quite a lot."

Laslo smiled sourly. "Well. If the FBI didn't let me have my mail, I couldn't write back. Then no one would write to me. Then the FBI would have nothing to read." He lit another cigarette. "Your country is not quite what I expected. I write a lot. No one talks to me. Everyone is afraid. I wanted to march with the Negroes, thinking they at least had nothing to lose by association with me. But no. Apparently Marxism is contagious. And no one wants to invite scrutiny by Mr. Cohn. So I read and I write. I was a little surprised they let me come here. Perhaps I shouldn't have. Perhaps you shouldn't be seen with me."

Hem put his hand on Laslo's shoulder and squeezed. "I'm scared of nothing." He was pretty sure he'd seen everyone in the bar before. "I'm scared of nothing." He had to have lunch with the Ambassador soon. Just to play it safe.


Laslo had been gone a long time. Hem sat and thought about what he had said. Sometimes he talked to his Cuban friends. Sometimes an American bought him a beer. They usually asked him to drink it with them. He had to be much drunker than he was to do that. When the sun went down, he switched to rum. He drank this for a long time. Then Jose told him the car was here and he knew it was time to go, because otherwise there would be stories.

He didn't stay long at the house. He sat and thought some more and got what he needed and started to walk back towards town. It took him a long time. It wasn't far; even ten years ago he could have done it in less than an hour. Even after a long day at La Floridita. But tonight it took him more like two to get to the big house in the little side street.

The lights were on in the second floor. Hem knew they would be. The man who owned the house was never up before noon. He knocked hard. A mulatta girl, maybe the same one who had been at the wheel, opened the door. She recognized him, even if he wasn't sure about her. Her English was bad, so they spoke French. Of course. He was upstairs. Please follow.

Louie was seated in a big leather chair behind a big mahogany desk that made him look even smaller and vainer than he was. He must have just come in. He was wearing a white dinner jacket, and his bow tie was still knotted impeccably. In his lapel was the little red ribbon of the Legion of Honor. Well, he wasn't the first bastard to wear it.

"Papa. A pleasure unexpected." He twitched his sparrow head at the door and the mulatta left. The brass latch clicked. "A late night for us both, I see. Please. Do sit."

Hem stayed on his feet. Not without effort. It had been a long walk on a long day. "No thanks. Son of a bitch." He was surprised at how easily the Luger came out of his waistband.

So was Louie. But just for an instant. "Papa. You have the advantage of me. In more ways than one. What do you mean?"

"I mean I know what you did. You little frog queer son of a bitch."

"Queer? Queer?" Louie chuckled easily and leaned back in his chair, crossing his legs and smoothing the creases in his pants as he did. "I really think that's a bit much, don't you, Papa? Also a bit of the pot and the kettle. Except I'm not the kettle."


Louie tapped a cigarette out of a gold case. He leaned across the desk and extended it to Hem, an eyebrow cocked in polite inquiry. "No? I'm sure you don't mind if I do." He lit up and exhaled as luxuriously as any man who'd ever had a gun pointed at him. "Please do put that away. Or keep it if you like. But you're not fooling anyone. At least here. In any respect."

Hem tried to speak, but no words came out.

"Confused? Sorry. I do forget sometimes how much you drink. Too, too much, Papa. We must talk about that sometime. But not now. Well. I know a few things about you that you might find surprising. First, I know the gun is there for your comfort and nothing else. I know you don't have the guts to kill a man. Not like this. Not in cold blood. Never did. Men like you never do. That explains all those animals you go to such trouble and inconvenience to go off to kill. All those bullfights and the chest beating and the lies about the war. The first one, I mean.

"Second. I know exactly what brings you here. You think I killed Rick. I know that isn't true. I do know who did, and I know why.

"Which brings me to the third thing I know." He smiled. "I've known you how long, Papa? Ten years? I always wondered why you seemed to have such a mania for masculinity. At first I thought it was simply you were an American from the middle of the country who drank too much and enjoyed his fame and started to believe his own lies. You remember I was a policeman, don't you? Even if I was a corrupt provincial policeman, I was still a French policeman. I asked my friends in Paris about you. Just out of curiosity. Always nice to know something about the great man about whom we orbit. Well. They told me things. You were very discreet when you were a young man in Paris, Papa. But still a few slip ups. An arrest or two in the public conveniences. A fight here and there with sailors who didn't have anything to do with them insulting your flag. Tsk. Who would have thought it?"

Hem's voice was choked, but he got it out. "God damn it. That's bullshit. I was a married man."

"So were some of your little lavatory friends, I'd imagine." Louie ground out the cigarette and met Hem's eyes. "Papa. I don't care. I actually think it's rather sad to have to conduct affairs of the heart in a urinal. But. That's not what brings us here, is it? You think I killed Rick. I didn't. As I said, I know who, and I know why."

He cocked his head to the side. He was giving Hem his best profile, like Barrymore. "It wasn't cold blood that night, was it, Papa? I know you, you see. I saw the way you looked at Rick. I saw it ten years ago. That's why I made my little inquiries. Tell me, Papa, how did your heart declare itself that night? A kiss? A fumble between his legs? Or did you come to him dressed like a bride?" Head still tilted, Louie laughed again.

He was right about everything except the thing that mattered. The bullet caught him just under the left cheekbone. Tumbling and mushrooming, it tore off the top of his head. The impact knocked the chair back and over.

Though the room still rang from the shot, Hem heard through it a sound from Idaho. It was the patter of heavy snow falling from pine branches at the first warmth of early spring. He stood quite still for a moment. As it faded, he recognized it for what it was, foamy fragments of airborne brain landing on desk and floor and wall.

Then he heard a sound he recognized from the war. He had heard it many times driving his ambulance. It was the wet crackle of bowels relaxing just past the moment of death. He didn't need to look behind the desk.

The gun was quivering in his hand. He chambered another round and stuffed the Luger into his mouth. Still hot, the barrel burned his lips and he snatched it away. Not yet. Not this time. But soon. He had done the same with another gun, by then cold, the morning after Rick died, when he woke up choking in his own vomit, before he managed to convince himself he'd had just another bad drunk dream. But then he had smelled the smell on the back of his right hand, the cordite stench of a powderburn nightmares can't leave.

The mulatta was pounding at the door. In a second he would go behind the desk because he had to, to put the gun into Louie's hand. He would tell Laslo how he had confronted the little bastard with the truth and how he hadn't been man enough to take his medicine. In a day or two they would stand beside another grave.

Hem got to work. Soon he would not have to be afraid any more.