Today’s Key West – Is it Too Funky for Ernest Hemingway?
Today’s Key West – The Hemingway House and Museum
By Tom Winton
You’ve got to wonder what Ernest Hemingway would think of the island he called home for 10 years if he were to return today. Well, guess what! He did return. I just saw him yesterday. No, I’m not kidding. I saw him down at Sloppy Joe’s Saloon on Duval Street yesterday afternoon. Not only that, but he was with his good buddy and founder of the bar Joe Russell.
Sure, I know that Papa has been dead since 1961 and is buried in Ketchum, Idaho. I also know that Joe Russell checked out twenty years before him, in 1941. And that he’s buried in the Key West Cemetery, just a hop, skip, and a stagger from his old bar. But believe me, none of that matters. I saw them I tell you.
It was around 4:30. Sloppy Joe’s was packed as always, and I was sitting at the bar talking to my buddy Fernando. He mixes libations there, so our conversation was in snippets. As he bounced back and forth between me and the customers he was serving, we talked about getting together to do a little tarpon fishing this coming Saturday. We were just about to set a time when he had to skedaddle again to fix drinks for two drop-dead gorgeous school teachers he’d told me were from Massachusetts. The band had just cranked up again after taking a break, and the lead singer was belting out the lyrics to Cheeseburger in Paradise so loud you could have heard them four blocks down Greene Street. I swung around in my stool to check out the high-spirited tourists dancing in front of the band stand, but something in the back corner of the bar caught my eye.
Now, keep in mind that I was only two beers deep at the time. Okay, so maybe it was three or four. I’m not sure, but I was fine I tell you. Anyhoo, standing side by side, in front of the wall with all the old fishing rods and pictures of Hemingway hanging on it, was none other than the literary legend and his longtime sidekick, Joe. I’m 100% sure of it. The only thing is the both of them were kind of transparent. I could see all their features, the drinks in their hands, the sea captain’s hat tilted back on Joe Russell’s head, the rope holding up Hem’s Bermuda shorts, but I could also see the pictures directly behind them.
With my eyes popping out of my head I immediately picked up my bottle of Corona and eased my way over to them.
Deep in a conversation, looking out at the dancers just like I had been, neither of them seemed to notice me. Stealthily, I pulled a chair out from a table just to their left, parked myself, and leaned my head to the side. I could just barely hear them over all the ruckus.
“Son of a gun Hem,” I heard the onetime bootlegger say, “I just can’t get over all this! What the hell has happened to this town…to my place?”
“I don’t know, Josie, looks to me like the island has been invaded by a bunch of Martians.”
“Yeah, check out that guy over there…the chubby middle-aged joker dancing with that sweet young redhead. What the heck’s that thing he’s got wrapped around his waist? Looks like a belt, but that ain’t no buckle on the front of it.”
“I have no idea, compadre,” Hem said, “The thing puts me to mind of the fighting belts we used to wear when fishing for sailfish. The only difference is the thing on the front of his certainly isn’t a cup like we used to stick the butt ends of our fishing rod into. Looks like a small binocular case jiggling out there.”
“Man…things sure have sure changed around here.” Russell then said, rolling his eyes around his old establishment.
“Yes, the only improvement I can see is all these fine looking ladies.”
“Yeah, and it seems half of them are wearing tee shirts or tank tops with the name of the bar and your mug shot on the front of them. What’s with that? How come my picture ain’t on ‘em?”
“Eat your heart out, old buddy.” Hem came back, with a wide grin on his face.
Right about then a tall, dapper looking guy in a Panama hat and white linen suit strode into the spacious open-air barroom. Acting as if he owned the place, a blonde under one arm (who looked like a high-end model) and his other arm seemingly dragging behind him, he had a smile that would make Clark Gable jealous.
Joe Russell did a double take when he saw them then said, “Well roll out the red carpet! Who the heck does this guy think he is, King Farouk?”
“Forget what he looks like,” the white-haired Ernest said, “what’s that he’s dragging behind him?”
It was one of those luggages with an expandable handle…a very small one.
Crinkling up his forehead real tight beneath the black bill of his hat, Joe said, “You mean he can’t carry that thing? It’s only the size of a knapsack for crying out loud. What’s he need wheels for?“
Looking totally disgusted at this point, Hem said, “That’s it! Let’s get out of here. I’ve seen enough. Big strapping guy like him can’t carry a dinky suit case. I don’t know what’s happened to men since we left.”
“You can say that again. I’m damn glad I rounded my last curve when I did.”
With that the two men double-timed it around the dance floor and out one of the wide doorways onto the street. Not a soul had rolled an eye at either of them. I was sure then I was the only one who could see them, and I wasn’t about to let them out of my sight.
After following them out into the bright Florida sunshine, I tailed them as they weaved through and around the onslaught of humanity parading along the wide sidewalks of Duval Street. Block after block I remained just steps behind them but, with their backs to me, I couldn’t hear much of what they said. Tee shirt shops, bars and more bars, gaudy gift shops and restaurants, we passed dozens of them before Hem turned his head towards Joe and I heard him say, “My God! What a circus this place has become.”
Then all three of us spotted a lanky bald guy scurrying across the street through all the slow moving traffic.
“Would ya look at this one?” Joe said. “Not a hair on his head and he’s got a lawnmower tattooed on the side of it.”
“I see it. Can you imagine that?”
They both cracked up laughing but as soon as they calmed down again Hem said, “We’ve got to get the hell out of here, Josie. We’re coming up on Ohio Street, let’s turn there and go to my place.”
That’s exactly what they did. And when we arrived at the Hemingway House/Museum the iron gate in the middle of the tall brick wall out front was locked. The place had already closed for the day.
Ernest Hemingway just stood there for a moment. As he gazed affectionately at his old home through the bars, I couldn’t help thinking how he looked like a man who’d just been reunited with a long lost lover.
A silent moment passed before Joe, standing wordlessly alongside his friend, seeing the sadness in his eyes, tried to console him by saying, “Damn, why’d the have to go and turn the place into a museum?”
Ernest turned to look at him then, and the melancholic look on his face suddenly vanished. Instantly replacing it with the wide devilish grin of a very satisfied prankster he said, “Oh hell Josie, I don’t mind that at all. Did you know that some of the visitors who’ve come here claimed they’ve heard my footsteps upstairs when there was nobody up there?”
“No, I‘ve never heard anything about that up in the big bar in the sky.”
“Yes sir, that’s what some folks say down here. And there have been others who have taken it a step further. Some of them swear they’ve heard the keys of my old Royal typewriter being tapped when no one was upstairs in the studio.”
“You’re kiddin’?” Joe came back. “Ain’t it downright ridiculous the way some people let their minds run away with them? How could anybody believe such hokey….”
“Guess what, buddy,” Ernest interrupted, putting his arm over Joe’s shoulder, “It ain’t hokey!”
For a short second Joe just looked at Hem with a questioning look on his face. Then it sunk in.
“You son of a gun!” he blurted out. “You are one evil amigo!”
He then slung his arm over Hemingway’s shoulder and the two old friends burst out laughing.
I couldn’t help but to feel left out when, with their hearty laughter continuing to echo up and down Whitehead Street, the two ghostly figures drifted right through the bars of that iron gate and made their way toward the front door.
Author Tom Winton
Said to be a man who writes with his pen dipped in his soul, bestselling author Tom Winton has been listed as one of Amazon’s Top 100 “Most Popular Authors” in both Literary Fiction and in Mystery, Thriller, and Suspense.
Born in New York City, he has done everything from working on a railroad gang in the Colorado Rockies to driving a taxicab in Manhattan. He’s been a mailman, a salesman, an entrepreneur and more. Now living in Florida with his wife Blanche and their ill-tempered but lovable Jack Russell terrier Ginger, Tom is working on his sixth book.
Tom’s bestselling novels have been likened to such classics as Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbirdand more. His titles are Beyond Nostalgia, The Last American Martyr, Four Days with Hemingway’s Ghost, Within a Man’s Heart, A Second Chance in Paradise, and a short story collection, The Voice of Willie Morgan. Three Romances From a Man’s Heart is the title of his newly released box set.