My travels have taken me to Key West on several occasions, and I love that city. My favorite place in town is 907 Whitehead Street–the location of Ernest Hemingway’s home. http://www.hemingwayhome.com/HTML/main_menu.html (I recommend tour guide Joe Buggy.) I had to keep pinching myself on the tour as I passed through his (very hot) house with the descendants of his six-toed cats prowling around all over the place.
This is a picture of his writing studio–the place where he wrote, among other things, Death in the Afternoon, The Green Hills of Africa, and For Whom the Bell Tolls. He was very disciplined, waking up at five or six each morning to write for a few hours, before heading out for fishing, or boxing, or drinking.
Since visiting the house I’ve read just about every Hemingway book, biography, and website. I’ve tried to make myself an expert in all things Hemingway. I now have a clear picture of his life while he lived in Key West, and it will be the backdrop of my second novel.
Mariella Bennet is a half-Cuban teenager who has just lost her mother. She becomes a housekeeper for the Hemingways to help support her father and sisters. The novel is set during the demise of Hemingway’s second marriage to Pauline Pfeiffer, in Depression-era Key West. The characters are dark and gritty. With the exception of the Hemingways, they live below the poverty line, have seen a lot of death, and struggle from day to day to make ends meet.
Mariella has an obsession with the writer that threatens to interfere with her life and his. I’m trying to decide if I want to take the novel in the direction of Mariella as a scary stalker-type, or just a teenage girl with a serious crush. We’ll see how that plays out. For now, here’s the Prologue. I welcome your feedback.
Just South of Key West
24º N 82 º W
Mariella felt the tug on the line, then the lurch that jerked her forward.
She threw her cigarette over the side of the Corrida and backed into the chair that was anchored to the deck of the boat. She watched the line bow the pole over the edge of the boat. She pushed her dark hair, now run through with gray, out of her face and could see the line sliding back and forth on the railing in response to the fish.
Her first instinct was to call to Jake, but her pride clamped her mouth.
“Damn!” It nearly pulled her out of the chair, but she dug her feet onto the decking and pushed back against it. It would be a long fight, and she would have to call Jake soon, but she was determined that they would pull it in.
She watched her slender arms flexed to the pole. They were deeply tanned and age spots had snuck out here and there, but not too many. She saw drops of sweat forming along her forearms and looked at her watch. It had only been eight minutes.
She smiled as she thought of The Old Man and the Sea, “No one could have fought that long, Papa.”
The minutes slouched by achingly slow, and finally, after thirty-two of them, disgusted with herself, Mariella yelled, “Jake!”
Her twenty-six year old son stumbled out of the cabin from his sleep, physically alert and mentally confused.
“How big?” He ran a hand through his hair.
“Just about took me over.”
He checked her line on the railing and followed it with his hand.
“You ready?” she asked.
“We’ll see.” He smiled, his eyes crinkling at the corners.
“God, he’s like his father,” she thought
Jake grabbed the pole and sat down once his mother moved away. They spent the next three hours bringing in a three-hundred twenty-six pound marlin.
The night was still, and dark, and briny. Duval Street sang from a couple of blocks over, but the bugs outside the window were louder. Jake was asleep on the downstairs couch. He would be sore tomorrow.
Mariella struck a match and lit her cigarette—its light flaring out and leaving a sweet burning smell. She leaned on the door frame, and watched the moths climb up the screen. She flicked them off one by one to clear her view down Whitehead Street. She still had a view of the lighthouse after all these years.
Mariella thought of their fight with the fish. She and Jake had taken turns at the pole, while the other backed the boat down in response to the marlin’s movements. It was a dance, and the fish fought well. In the end, once they were able to tie the rope around the fish’s head, they backed up the boat, pulling the water from its gills to drown the fish. Then they moved like hell to get into the dock before the sharks destroyed it, and built their story all the way back to the pier of the fight, and the strength of the fish, and how Mariella was nearly pulled overboard, and irony of drowning a fish.
After Mariella and Jake had brought in the marlin, they had their picture taken with it like they used to in the old days. A small crowd had gathered to watch the tiny woman direct her son about slicing and packing the fish, which was no small task.
While they had worked, Nick pushed through the crowd. “How much, bella?”
Mariella smiled at the wrinkled old man. She gave him a hug.
“You’re giving it to him,” said Jake. “That took me hours.”
“Shut up, boy.” Nick smacked Jake on the back of the head.
Later, back at the house, Mariella fried up the fish and squeezed a lemon on it. It was satisfying—the crispy fish, the pino grigio, the sunburn, the soreness in their hands and shoulders, a quiet night together before Jake had to get back to his wife, Carrie, who waited, eight months pregnant, on Ramrod Key. She had wanted to go out fishing with them, but Jake worried it would be too much for her. He would stay over and go home the next day.
Mariella sent Jake off to the couch and cleaned up dinner, washing the dishes twice on each side, just as she used to for Papa and Pauline. She put the dishes on the counter to dry as Bumby and Mouse pawed in through the door. Mariella tossed them some leftover fish, and the cats pulled it outside to eat in the shadows.
Mariella took a long drag from her cigarette and picked up the Key West Times that was rolled up outside her door, next to Jake’s discarded boat shoes. She lined up her shoes next to her son’s and picked up the paper.
She walked up the stairs to her room listening to the comfortable, creaking sound of the wood in response to her feet. She could smell the aroma of the fried fish at the top of the stairs and knew it would sit there for days reminding her of her day on the boat with her son. When she got to her room she threw the paper on the bed and went to wash up in the bathroom. When she walked back to her bed, something in the headline caught her eye. Moments later Jake was awakened by her screams, took the stairs two at a time, and pulled her from where she lay on the floor, but was unable to console her.
“Ernest Hemingway, 62, Death by Suicide