by Andrew Valencia
Becca loaded the bags into the car while Richard finished trimming his beard in front of the bathroom mirror. She left plenty of space in the trunk for whatever baggage Richard’s students planned to bring on the trip. For the second year in a row, she was following Richard to PapaCon, an annual celebration of all things Hemingway held each summer at a beachfront hotel in Key West. Two days of lectures, deep-sea fishing, and mojitos culminating in an Ernest Hemingway look-alike contest with a first prize of five thousand dollars. The year before, Richard had been invited to give a lecture on Death in the Afternoon and on the second day had won third place in the look-alike contest. The contest was the only reason they were going back this year.
With the car loaded up, Becca returned to the kitchen and began fixing sandwiches for the drive down. Richard emerged from the bedroom in his underwear holding two slightly different styles of green turtleneck in front of him on clothes hangers.
“Which one of these looks more authentic?” he asked.
Becca tilted her head to the side. “What do you mean by ‘authentic?’” she said.
Richard motioned to the framed photo on the wall—Hemingway as an old man, full white beard, looking off to the side with eyes as intense as ever, the braided collar of a turtleneck puffed up under his chin. Even this early in the morning, his hair still wet, knobby white legs exposed, wearing only his cotton briefs, Richard’s resemblance to Papa was uncanny. “Which one?” he pressed her, switching the sweaters back and forth in front of his chest.
Becca examined the sweater in the photo and contrasted it against the ones Richard was holding. She knew which one she preferred between the two of them, but gauging their authenticity against the seven inches or so of colorless sweater that appeared in the photo was something she doubted she had the expertise to decide. She had left college late in her senior year and hadn’t gotten around to going back yet. In the end, she chose the lighter of the two, but only because it brought out the green in Richard’s eyes.
Once Richard was finished grooming himself and assembling his outfit, they headed out on the road. First they would have to swing by a motel on the outskirts of Miami to pick up Richard’s students, Silas and Nate. They had flown into the city late the night before and gone straight to their room. Richard had agreed to let them come along on the condition that they pay for their own meals and split the cost of gas. Becca had never met them before, but Richard once spoke of them as two of the brightest students he’d ever taught. Now they were among the few former students of his who continued to correspond with him after he had been forced to leave the university.
Richard was in top form as he drove along the highway, his clean hair and clothes meticulously arranged, looking as robust and virile as he had in years. Becca sat back in the passenger seat in shorts and dark sunglasses letting the early morning sun energize her body for the day. Richard reached over and stroked her thigh.
“Five thousand dollars,” he said. “Do you have any idea how much research I can complete with that money?”
Becca patted his arm. “It would sure make things a lot easier.”
“I have a good feeling about this year, honey. You won’t be working at the Gap much longer.”
Becca leaned over and kissed the whiskerless part of his cheek.
They pulled into the motel parking lot and saw Silas and Nate standing with their bags outside the front office. Becca took off her sunglasses and sat up in her seat. “Oh my God,” she said. “What are they wearing?”
Indeed, as Silas and Nate hustled towards the car, they seemed like figures ripped completely out of time. Their outfits were identical—black pants, black gloves, black overcoats buttoned up to their necks, topped off with black bowler hats like the kind Charlie Chaplin always wore. As they got closer Becca could see that they were both carrying a fake plastic shotgun at their sides. There was some meaning that they were going for, of that Becca was sure, but seeing them coming towards the car at that moment was like looking at a painting in a modern art museum with no explanation placarded on the wall beside it.
Richard just laughed. “Those crazy bastards,” he said. “They really did it!”
“Did what?” Becca said.
“They said they were going to go all out on their costumes, but this is really something.”
One of the popular traditions of PapaCon was to show up wearing elaborate costumes inspired by Hemingway’s life and works. In laying their plans for the trip, Richard had even tried to persuade Becca to go as Catherine from A Farewell to Arms, but she had refused. Putting on costumes was never her thing, not even on Halloween.
Silas and Nate were both smiling as they came up on opposite sides of the car. Richard threw his thumb back to signal them to put their bags in the trunk. Becca leaned over close to him.
“Do you think they should wear those the whole way?” she whispered. They had at least three hours of driving ahead of them.
“Why not?” he said, tugging at the green braided collar around his neck. “I’m wearing my costume.”
As soon as they were back on the road, Richard began drilling Silas and Nate about the dissertations they were writing for their PhDs. Silas was doing an ambitious comparative analysis of Hemingway’s influence on several writers throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. But Nate was writing about Thomas Wolfe and fell out of the conversation early on. Becca studied their faces in the rearview mirror. Silas had big ears, but his face was handsome in a serious sort of way. Nate’s face was much leaner and he had what Richard would have called a “very Robert Cohn look.” They sat squished together side by side with their coats still buttoned, their toy shotguns stretched across their laps. Becca was fascinated by them and decided to break in while Richard was trying to remember the name of some scholar he was citing.
“So who are you two supposed to be, anyway?” she said.
“Al and Max,” Silas replied. “From The Killers.”
“I haven’t read that one yet.”
Richard turned so his students could see his exaggerated grimace. “Don’t blame me, boys,” he said. “I’ve done everything I can to cure her of her ignorance.”
“If I tried to read all of the books and stories you recommend to me,” Becca quipped, “I’d be your age before I finished them all.”
Richard pinched Becca’s leg and she let out a playful yelp. All the excitement was bringing out Richard’s rowdy side. At least he’s in good spirits, Becca thought. She reached into the portable cooler between her feet.
“If you guys are hungry,” she said, “I brought some sandwiches for the trip.”
“Thanks,” Silas said, “but I ate breakfast before we left. I was worried it would be hard to find something I could eat once we were out of the city.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m a vegetarian.”
“Oh, okay,” Becca said, and she heard Richard give a short laugh. “What about you, Nate? You want one?”
“What’s in it?” he asked.
“Just ham and cheese.”
“No thanks. I keep kosher.”
Richard stretched his mouth into a clever grin. “We should put you in a kosher convent, Nate,” he said.
He chuckled at his own wit while Nate just smiled and shook his head. Becca felt bad for Nate—she could tell that he was shrugging off a deeper embarrassment than he would let on. She saw Silas reach up behind Nate’s neck and lightly scratch the curls of black hair sticking out from under his hat. At once Nate’s smile turned from artificial to genuine and he seemed to thank Silas out the corners of his eyes.
“So, Becca,” Silas said. “Richard tells us you studied literature under him back at the university. Who’s your favorite writer?”
Again Richard slapped the steering wheel with glee. “Yeah, honey,” he said. “Tell them who your favorite writer of all time is.”
“William Faulkner,” she said, but Richard shot her a knowing glance.
“Now, honey,” he said. “Don’t try to play that game. It wasn’t Faulkner who you originally wanted to write about for your senior thesis. Now go on and tell them.”
Becca scowled. She could have slapped Richard because she knew there was no way out now. Silas and Nate were both waiting for her answer. Finally, she just sighed and gave them all what they wanted: “Beatrix Potter.”
“Peter Rabbit!” Richard crowed. “Her junior year of college and she comes to my office asking me to be her advisor for her senior thesis. ‘So what do you want to write about?’ I ask. And she says Peter Rabbit! Says she wants to write a whole thesis just on Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbit. Well, I can tell you one thing—it would have been the first time in history that a student’s thesis was longer than the books she had to read for it.”
Becca crossed her arms over her chest. “It could have been a serious study,” she said. “I was going to examine the characters of all the books against Jungian archetypes and in the context of Victorian society.”
“It does sound interesting,” Silas chimed in. “Very original.”
“I tell you, boys,” Richard went on. “If I had never gotten ahold of her, she would have never gotten serious about literature.”
“I wasn’t exactly illiterate before we met, Richard,” Becca said. “I had already read Ulysses before I even took your class.”
“But not Finnegans Wake,” Richard replied.
Becca sat quietly sulking. Richard was right: she hadn’t been a very serious student of literature before she met him. She hadn’t read Finnegans Wake. But she had read The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, and of Mrs. Tiggly-Winkle and of Mr. Tod, along with everything else that Beatrix Potter had ever written, and reread them. And though she had never been to England, or anywhere in Europe, even, she had scrolled through webpage after webpage filled with Potter’s original illustrations in the same way Blake scholars poured over his paintings. She was mesmerized by it all, obsessed with it.
She slept for most of the remaining drive down to the Keys, waking every now and then and seeing the open ocean all around them and miles of bridge still ahead. In her sleep, she could still hear Richard talking, and all the recurring names and phrases—Hemingway, expatriate, Lost Generation—seemed to give shape to her dreams, though she couldn’t remember any of them after Richard shook her awake.
“We’re almost there,” he said. “Better get your blood circulating.”
Becca stretched out her back and then looked out from the highway at the approaching city. She could see the hotel a few hundred yards in the distance, close enough to make out the enormous PapaCon banner draped across the front entrance. Already the parking lot was overcrowded from all the tourists who had come down for the convention. Close to three thousand Hemingway aficionados from all over the world were converging on this one spot for a weekend of culture sweetened with fantasy. For the next forty-eight hours, the atmosphere in Key West would be so nostalgic that one might even gaze far out into the Gulf of Mexico and imagine that German U-Boats lay in wait just below the water.
Becca had been through it all the year before, and as they pulled into the parking lot and she saw all the other Hemingways flocking into the lobby, she remembered just how fierce the competition had been among the look-alikes the previous year, and that Richard had felt so lucky just in placing third. There would be more than a hundred of them vying for the top spot, but only one would come away with the crown, and the money.
“You’ll do great,” she said, squeezing Richard’s hand. “Just remember what you said—this is your year.”
“My year,” he said. His eyes were glossy and his chest rose high with each breath. “It’s about time.” They retrieved the bags from the trunk and followed the rest of the geeks inside.
After checking into their rooms, they reconvened downstairs in the event area. Everywhere, middle-aged and young men wandered around the display booths dressed as matadors, Spanish guerillas, and World War I ambulance drivers, while young black waiters dressed in white carried trays of mojitos and pretended to be Cuban. Behind the various booths, men in blue blazers handed out pamphlets for chartered fishing tours and canned wild boar hunts. Silas and Nate wasted no time in finding the bar and stood over it panting and drinking one bottle of water after another. Even in the air-conditioned hotel, their heavy overcoats were stifling.
“If I ever come back here again,” Nate said, “I’m going as a cabana boy. This is unbearable.”
Becca had followed them to the bar after leaving Richard standing in line with the other Hemingways to register for the contest the next day. The line was already stretching outside the hotel and she knew it would be a while. She flipped through the brochure the concierge had given her. The back cover showed Hemingway as a young man in full military dress, his face clean-shaven and still boyish. It said that PapaCon had begun as the Ernest Hemingway Literary Arts Festival, a small gathering of scholars who had come together to celebrate the centenary of Hemingway’s birth. As it became more popular, a major rum company signed on as its official sponsor, changed the name to PapaCon, and got the word out. Now in its eleventh year, it was expected to draw its largest crowd ever. Becca put the brochure in her purse and leaned over to Silas and Nate.
“You guys feel like having lunch?” she said.
They made their way over to a restaurant at the back of the hotel. The menu had been rewritten especially for the convention with dishes like the African Safari Burger and the Grilled Chicken Caesar Salad with Iceberg Theory Lettuce. Silas ordered a Garden of Eden Veggie Burger while Becca and Nate both tried the Old Man and the Blackened Seabass.
“I’m excited to see how Richard’s book turns out,” Silas said after the food arrived. “He must be close to finishing it by now.”
“It’s coming along,” Becca replied. “He still needs to make another trip to Havana to finish his research. It’s not easy with the travel embargo. Last time he went down he had to fly through Montreal first.”
“When was that?”
Becca thought for a moment. “I guess it was over a year ago. Maybe earlier.”
Silas held a french fry between his fingers like a pencil and tapped it against the edge of his plate. “I know he’s very busy with the book,” he said, “but do you remember if he said anything about the letter of recommendation I asked him to write me for the fellowship I’m applying for?”
Becca took a sip of water. “He hasn’t said anything,” she said, “but I’m sure he’s working on it.”
“Oh, I know. I’m not worried.” Silas made a nervous smile and looked down at his plate. Becca could read his face like a poem.
“When is the application due?” she asked.
“In about three weeks.”
“Then I’m sure he’s almost finished with it. He might have already mailed it and just forgotten to tell you.”
“I was just worried that he might still be irritated with me.”
“What do you mean?”
“When I emailed him to let him know that I was going in a new direction with my dissertation, I got the impression that I had offended him. I wasn’t trying to disregard his advice, but the way I was writing it just wasn’t working. Now I’m afraid he might have taken it personally.”
Nate grinned and shook his head. “You think that’s bad, you should have heard him when I told him I was writing about Wolfe. I was afraid he was going to pull out the dueling glove.”
Becca smirked. “Richard’s always taken literature a bit too seriously,” she said. “But then, of course, literature is a very serious thing.”
Just then, a young man walked by their table dressed in a full-body foam marlin costume, his rubber diving flippers smacking against the floor, the enormous bill on his head standing straight up as if deliberately meant to suggest a phallus.
After lunch, the three of them wandered through the convention examining the booths and attractions. A handful of wives and girlfriends were intermixed with the mass of costumed men, meandering absentmindedly about the lobby as if waiting for their fellas to finish trying on pants in a department store. Silas suggested that they go outside and try to see the water, but as soon as they stepped out the door they fell into a large crowd that had gathered in front of a booth set up under the shade of the transplanted palm trees. They edged their way to the front where a lanky man in a tan safari jacket was standing on a platform and calling out to the crowd like a carnival barker.
“My name is Christopher D. Hammond,” the man bellowed, “and what I have to show you today is the real thing—the Holy Grail of Hemingway artifacts—the actual shotgun that the man himself used to commit suicide in Ketchum, Idaho, on the second of July, 1961.”
Becca’s eyes widened and she looked at the display case set up in front of the platform. Inside a padlocked glass case, an oak-handled, single-barrel shotgun hung suspended on a rack of imitation ivory. All around it men gazed on with parted lips and a reverential gleam in their eyes. Becca pressed forward for a closer look and noticed that the very tip of the barrel was tarnished beet red—a grim suggestion of dried blood.
“That’s right, folks,” Hammond continued. “For just fifty dollars, you can put on an authentic replica World War I soldier’s uniform and have your picture taken holding this priceless piece of literary history.” He pointed behind the stand to a cloth backdrop of the Italian countryside. Below the curtain of a changing booth, a man’s hairy legs were visible as he changed into costume. “For just fifty dollars more, you can fire three shells at a mannequin resembling an Austrian infantryman. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity!”
Hammond spotted Becca and Silas standing below him and he called Silas out. “How about you, young man? Like to get a picture of you and your girlfriend with a real shotgun? Or do you prefer to stick with toy ones?”
Silas gripped the handle of the plastic gun and glared at the man. “I may not know much about guns,” he said, “but I do know that the gun Hemingway used had two barrels.”
Hammond’s smile vanished and he gritted his teeth at Silas. “Then how ‘bout moving on and letting someone else have a look.” Becca helped get them moving by wondering aloud whether Richard was finished registering.
They found him at a circular table in front of the bar with two other look-alikes, both bulky middle-aged men with white beards. Richard introduced the other Hemingways as Fred and Bert. Fred wore a green turtleneck similar to Richard’s and Bert a white shirt with thin red stripes and a red ascot. A bottle of silver rum and a bucket of ice rested on the table between them and they all held their glasses out in front of them with the condensation dripping over their fingers. When Richard saw Becca standing over him, he smiled and pulled her onto his lap. Fred and Bert both drew back the corners of their mouths and nodded at Richard.
“Good lookin’ gal you got there,” Fred said.
“Get this, honey,” Richard told her. “I was just telling my new friends about the deep-sea fishing scenes in Islands in the Stream. If you can believe it, they haven’t read it.”
Becca glanced sideways at Richard. She recognized his angle from the year before. He was talking up Hemingway’s less popular works as a way of weeding out the dilettantes. He had been to the last three PapaCons, and every year, as he said, more and more dilettantes came out of the woodwork. Fred invited Silas and Nate to pull a couple of chairs up to their table. He said that he was a real estate developer from Tampa and a “Hemingway nut” in his spare time. His cousin Bert spoke with a slight stutter and let Fred take lead of the conversation, contributing an occasional concurring grin from time to time.
“Let’s get a couple more glasses,” Fred said. “Rum on the rocks okay for you fellas?”
“Thanks,” Silas replied, “but I don’t drink hard liquor anymore.”
Fred and Bert both gave off short, hissing laughs and then Fred blurted out, “You queer or something?”
Silas blinked rapidly, but his expression didn’t change much. When he didn’t say anything after a while, Fred’s mouth morphed into an astonished little circle and he and Bert both burst into a hearty guffaw. Becca felt Richard fidgeting under her and could tell that he was embarrassed by association. She saw that Nate was embarrassed too, but in a very different way. He sat with his eyes lowered holding his hat under the table, tracing the brim with his fingers. Becca recognized in him a need for someone older and wiser to stand by him when it really mattered, but at that moment Richard might as well have been another chair at the table for all he did to help them. These look-alikes always did a lot of talking among themselves, and after all Richard had a reputation to maintain.
“I won’t judge you myself,” Fred said, “but I will refer you to what Papa himself said about your type. He made his position very clear in A Moveable Feast, though I doubt you’ve read it.”
Silas’s face twitched. “I have a copy of it up in my room.”
Bert’s eyes lit up in delight at the fact that he had actually thought up something clever to say. “In the closet, no d-d-d-doubt.”
Fred laughed and patted his cousin’s shoulder. “If you ask me,” he added, “some things oughta stay in the closet.”
Silas picked his gun up off the floor and stormed away towards the elevators, Fred laughing and calling after him. “C’mon, son, we were only kidding!” Nate stood up without a word and followed after Silas, still holding his hat by the brim. Becca slid off of Richard’s lap and into Silas’s empty seat. She looked across the table at Fred and Bert and wanted to rip their beards right off their fat red faces. But Richard only gave them an awkward smile and waved his students off as inconsequential.
“They begged me to bring them down here,” he said.
Becca sat in silence hoping that Richard would excuse them from the table and go find Silas, but instead he ordered another bucket of ice and the conversation turned to other topics—the aesthetics of bullfighting, beard grooming tips, who would win in a fist fight between Hemingway and Mailer (Papa, hands-down). The more he drank, the more Richard struggled to dominate the conversation, slurring words as he recited passages from memory, and Becca began to worry that his exterior confidence would soon give way to his overwhelming anxiety about the next day.
That night, while most of the guests of PapaCon attended a special dinner in the main banquet hall, Richard paced the floor of their room rehearsing his reading for the contest. He had been mixing rum and Coke from the mini-bar all evening and it reflected in his voice as a slight waver at the end of the longer sentences. Still, he tried to get the pauses and inflections down tight, holding his marked-up script out in front of him and measuring his speech patterns against the recording of Hemingway’s actual voice that he had saved on his iPod.
He read aloud: “He lay then and was quiet for a while…and looked across the heat shimmer of the plain to the edge of the bush. There were a few Tommies that showed minute and white against the yellow . . . and, far off, he saw a herd of zebra . . . white against the green of the bush.”
Becca sat on the edge of the bed watching him and fighting the sense of dread that was slowly coming over her. Richard had been nervous at this time last year, but not this bad. She found herself blaming him as the source of all their problems, not because he hadn’t won first place, but because he had let them get to a point where it mattered so much. It felt useless to blame him because, no matter how she tried to spin it, she couldn’t get around the feeling that she was to blame as well.
“I’m going to get some more ice,” she said. Richard didn’t acknowledge her exit. He didn’t even break from his speech.
Becca walked down the hallway toward Silas and Nate’s room and found Silas in an alcove giving serious consideration to the contents of the vending machine. She startled him by touching his arm.
“You doing all right?” she said. “I’m sorry about earlier. Guys like that shouldn’t even be allowed in here.”
Silas shrugged. His eyes were blood-shot, but not in any way that suggested tears. “Do you smoke pot, Becca?” he said.
Inside their room, Silas and Nate had thrown open all the windows to let the smoke drift out. They sat together on the carpet in front of the TV with their jackets off and their backs against the foot of the bed. Silas hung his arm over Nate’s shoulder as they passed the joint back and forth. Becca had taken only two hits and resigned herself to the chair by the window. She glanced outside every now and then to see the waves breaking against the darkened beach.
“Who do you think is the ugliest writer in American history?” Silas asked.
“Steinbeck,” Nate replied. “Big ears, pockmarked face. Not much there to put on a book jacket.”
Silas shook his head. “You ever see any of the old pictures of Sinclair Lewis? The man looked like a little kid with Progeria whose mom tried to hide his bald spot with a bad comb-over.”
“I think I should tell you, Silas,” Becca said, “I haven’t asked Richard about your letter of recommendation yet. I meant to ask him tonight, but he’s practicing hard for tomorrow and I didn’t think I should bring it up.”
“It’s all right,” Silas said. “I’m not getting my hopes up about it at this point.”
“What do you mean?”
“I wrote him about a month ago and asked him if he had sent it out yet. I had asked him for it a while back and so I figured he would have it done by then.” Silas held the smoke in his lungs for a few seconds before letting it out slowly. “He told me he was having trouble deciding what to write.”
“That usually means he hasn’t started writing it yet.” Becca said this without thinking and regretted it after it was said. Silas only responded with a frustrated sigh before he took another long hit off the joint. “I’m sorry, Silas. Is it a really good fellowship?”
“It would have paid for me to do research in Paris for a year,” he said. “Richard’s not the only one with hopes of publishing a book.”
“Well, you should still apply for it, then, even without Richard’s letter.”
“Sometimes I think I’ve made a mistake,” Silas said sleepily. “All my friends told me I was making a mistake focusing on Hemingway. ‘He’s so macho, he’s so old school, everything’s already been written about him. There are plenty of other writers to study.’ I didn’t care. I didn’t want to study another writer. I love his work. I have since I was a teenager. I didn’t want to write my dissertation about anyone else.”
“I felt the same way myself once.”
“About Beatrix Potter?” Nate asked.
Becca sat up straight and took a deep breath of the humid air coming in from outside. She was beginning to feel those two hits and was getting things mixed up in her head. “I know she’s not a really important writer,” she said. “At least not in the way most people think about it. Don’t get me wrong—I love Faulkner, and Hemingway, and Joyce, and all the other great writers I’ve read since then. But Potter was my first. She was the first writer I ever really cared about, and I wouldn’t have discovered any of the others if it weren’t for her.”
“Was that why you fell in love with Richard too?” Silas asked with a cynical grin. “Because he was your first?”
Becca was taken off guard by his bluntness and had to consider the question for a moment. “He opened my eyes to a whole new world,” she answered finally. “And I thought that one day he could help me become a part of it.”
Silas let the dim flame on the joint peter out while Becca feigned a smile to lighten the mood. She felt that he was looking at her with more pity than empathy and decided to leave before she could say anything else she would regret. As she was getting up, her purse slipped from her hands and the contents spilled out onto the floor. Silas handed the joint off to Nate and crawled over to help her pick them up. Then he spotted the brochure she had been given that morning and froze on his hands and knees staring at the cover.
“You mind if I keep this?” he asked. Becca, only half-aware of his question, gave him a quick shake of her head before pulling herself to her feet and heading out the door.
She returned to the room and found that Richard was gone. After two calls that went straight to his voicemail, she took the elevator to the lobby. Sure enough, she found him sitting at the bar with a glass of rum in his hand and a plate of untouched lime chunks in front of him. She took a seat beside him. If he noticed her presence, he didn’t respond.
“You shouldn’t drink anymore,” she told him. “You don’t want a hangover for the contest.”
Richard took another sip. “I don’t get hangovers,” he said. “That’s the least of my concerns for tomorrow.”
“What do you mean?”
Richard brushed his pinky finger against his cheek. Becca looked closely and saw a small red gash above the edge of his whiskers that was already beginning to scab over.
“I cut myself,” Richard replied morosely. “I thought I saw a few uneven hairs, so I tried to get them with the clippers and ended up grazing my cheek. The bleeding’s stopped, but now I’ll have a mutilated face for the contest tomorrow.”
“It’s not that noticeable,” Becca said. “It kind of adds to the mystique, like Hemingway just came back from a boxing match or something.”
Richard slammed the glass down on the bar and growled at Becca, “Don’t patronize me!”
The bartender came over and Becca ordered a glass of wine. She waited until it was in her hand before confronting Richard with the reason she had gone looking for him.
“Silas said that he asked you to write him a letter of recommendation,” she said. “Why haven’t you written it?”
“What am I supposed to write?” he said. “’Of all my former students, Silas is the most precocious when it comes to disregarding advice. When it comes to writing trite academic drivel, he’s wise beyond his years.’”
They both drank. “That’s not right, Richard,” Becca said. “Silas and Nate have a lot of respect for you.”
“They respected me when I was in a position to help them academically,” he said. “Now that I’m unemployed, I don’t have any value for them anymore. If Silas didn’t need something from me now, you can bet that they never would have followed us here.”
“I wish we had never come here. You’ve been cruel to them all day.” She took another drink and added, “You’ve been cruel to me too.”
“Cruelty, my dear, is the natural response of a condemned man to the inevitability of his own demise. You would know that if you ever finished reading The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”
Becca slapped Richard across the arm, but so lightly that he only jerked back in surprise before offering up a mocking laugh.
“You’re not dying of gangrene,” she scolded. “You’re just out of money and you can’t finish your book, but that doesn’t make you a condemned man.”
Richard slid the empty glass forward and stood up from his seat. “What have I been brought to, then, if not condemnation? I mean, goddamn it, look around you!”
Becca turned and examined the occupants of the bar. Everywhere young and old men in period costumes were getting way too much fun out of their rum-based drinks. Out in the front lobby, two drunk grad school types were pretending to bullfight, one of them holding a red tablecloth over his arm like a cape and the other charging with his pointed fingers held at the sides of his head like horns.
“Do you think I actually enjoy coming here every year and taking part in this farce? This is what I’ve been reduced to. This is the world I inhabit now. I gave up what I loved most when I left the university.” Richard took a chunk of lime between his fingers and tore out the juicy flesh with his front teeth. He glared at Becca as he chewed. “I gave it up to be with you.”
“I gave something up too,” Becca said. Richard ignored the tears welling in her eyes and smiled unmercifully.
“What? The chance to become the preeminent Peter Rabbit scholar in North America?” He arched his eyebrow at her as if posing for a photo. “You followed me because you thought I could bring you into my world, but you never wanted to be a real part of my world. You were just looking for someone to escort you through it like a tour guide on a safari. You’re just another dilettante like the rest.”
Coming back through the lobby, her hand at her forehead, Becca spotted Silas out of the corner of her eye. He was standing outside on the neatly kept lawn talking with Christopher D. Hammond. Hammond stood with his hands at his waist while Silas shuffled through the bills in his wallet. Becca gave them only a passing glance; she was in a hurry to get back to the room. She was afraid she might break down crying before she could fall onto the bed.
Richard awoke the next morning feeling sick and with only a fragmentary recollection of what had happened the night before. After a silent and distracted breakfast across from Becca, he borrowed some of her makeup to dab on his cut before heading to the conference room for the start of the contest. Registration had finished up early that morning as the look-alikes who hadn’t bothered about the rest of the convention finally trickled in and signed up. Now they were all coming and going from the microphone in an unbroken rotation, one after another every two minutes, with the average look-alike able to read about a page and a half of text before his time was up. Spectators came and went from the crowded conference room, but Becca stayed seated next to Nate. Where Silas had gone, neither of them knew. In their sleepiness, she and Nate leaned against each other to keep from nodding over. Becca’s entire body felt tired and the readings were lulling her into an even denser haze. She heard the same few pages from The Snows of Kilimanjaro read so many times that by the time Richard took the stage she could have mouthed the words right along with him without a script.
Every detail of his performance, from his gait as he approached the microphone to the way he held the script, had been carefully rehearsed. Still, he struggled through the reading, mispronouncing the names of places like “Karagatch” and “Gauertal,” and then pausing to correct himself. The timer ate away at his remaining time. He tried to hold himself to only one stoic expression, but the hurried quiver in his voice undercut the impression he was trying to give with his body. Her personal bias aside, Becca could only regard Richard’s performance as a decent continuation of the same theme that had been plugging along steadily for the last hour and a half. He got about three-quarters of the way through his script before time ran out and he was forced to take his seat amidst the same general smattering of applause to which all the other look-alikes had been treated.
“You did fine,” Becca said as Richard sat down next her.
He gave her a small nod and tried to catch his breath. They watched the rest of the look-alikes go up to the front as their numbers were called. Richard made no acknowledgment of them and their performances aside from an occasional comment like “Too fat” or “Too old” or “You call that a beard?” They were nearing the end when Silas came forward. He had arrived late to the conference room and had been standing in the far back where no one would spot him.
“Oh my God,” Becca said, rising in her seat. “Look at what he’s wearing.”
Silas took to the microphone in a rented-out World War I Army costume, his hair neatly combed back so that he now resembled the younger Hemingway as much as any of the other look-alikes resembled the older. A few laughs rose up from the audience in response to the novelty of him. Nate and Becca smiled at each other, but Richard only gripped the armrests and breathed through his nose.
Silas opened a worn paperback to a dog-eared page and began to read: “At the lake shore there was another rowboat drawn up. The two Indians stood waiting. Nick and his father got in the stern of the boat and the Indians shoved it off and one of them got in to row.”
Silas read well, giving emphasis to the right words and bringing a particular dramatic energy to the narrative. He seemed to better capture the voice of the young Nick than that of his father, but his effect on the listeners was profound. It wasn’t that his reading voice was especially strong or that he sounded the way they imagined a young Hemingway would sound. It may have been simply that he stood in such contrast to all of the other look-alikes that he couldn’t help but come off as original and inspired. Whatever the case, his words and the way he delivered them had the same effect on the audience as the first drink of cold water on a dehydrated man’s throat; once they got past the initial shock, they relished it as something invigorating and essential. The one female member of the judges’ panel made dreamy eyes at him from across the room.
For Becca, watching Silas deliver his reading stirred up memories of a time when she had sat in a crowded seminar room and watched with unbroken attention as Richard lectured about the works of the great authors, a time when her greatest wish had been that she could feel as passionately about something, anything, as Richard felt about books. But then came scandal and departmental hearings and Richard’s indignant resignation, and then the move south followed by years of struggle and despair until at some point Richard started dressing and talking like Hemingway even when he wasn’t preparing for the contest. She thought of the times when she had caught him standing shirtless in front of the bathroom mirror, trading jabs with his own reflection as if locked in a sparring match with the man on the other side of the glass.
A standing applause greeted Silas as he marched from the podium to take a seat next to Nate. The last few look-alikes gave their readings and after a brief deliberation the judges went up to announce the ten finalists. Richard squeezed Becca’s hand as Silas and the other winners were called up, and when his name wasn’t called he simply let go of her and left without a word. Becca stayed long enough to see Silas awarded first place and presented with a check for five thousand dollars. She kissed his cheek tearfully and left him squeezing Nate’s back in a victorious hug while the other look-alikes circled in to congratulate him.
She found Richard sitting up on the floor when she came into the room. The sheets had been torn off the bed and half a dozen empty liquor bottles from the mini-bar lay scattered on the carpet in front of him. He looked up at her with watery eyes. His breathing was strained.
“We can’t keep going like this,” she said. Richard seemed to take no notice of her words. His lips moved noiselessly as if he were either offering up a prayer or getting a fresh start on rehearsing his lines for next year.
“The bastards screwed me over,” he said weakly.
“All of ’em. All the bastards. The judges, the students, the departmental committee . . . one bunch of bastards after another.”
Becca picked the little bottles up off the floor and began straightening the room. Richard pressed his palms against the carpet as if to push himself up. “Maybe I should go back down,” he said. “Show the sons of bitches that I don’t give a damn. Tell ’em all what they can do with their prize money.” He ran a hand through his hair and looked up at Becca. “How do I look?”
His oily hair was sticking out at all sides. The sweat from his face had made the makeup on his cheek run down onto his beard. The collar of his turtleneck had started to sag, revealing the tuft of curly white hair that covered his flabby chest. This was a man who Becca had loved more than anything back when he was worth loving, and whatever he was bound to do now, he seemed prepared for it. So was she.
“You look authentic,” she said, and left him alone on the floor with himself.
Andrew Valencia was born in Fresno, California, and graduated from Stanford University. He has worked as a journalist in Northern California, studied in England and France, and taught English in South Korea and Panama. His fiction has appeared in Leland Quarterly and Switchback. Andrew plans to spend the next year teaching and writing in Taiwan.