In Boozo Veritas # 51 by Teege Braune
The Ghost of an Artifact
I know now that there is no one thing that is true – it is all true.
I have a clear and distinct image of the photograph in my memory. A boy a few years older than myself who I am told is – but do not recognize as – my father sits on the lap of an elderly gentleman. I think of the man, with his white beard and sad, kindly smile, as a grandfather, despite the fact that he in no way resembles either of my actual grandfathers. He beams down at my father who in turns looks, straight faced and serious, at the camera. “Idaho – 1961” is scribbled in ink on the back of the photograph. The one time I remember seeing this old photograph I was informed that the man was a very famous writer who killed himself shortly after my father met him. I don’t know why anyone felt the need to convey that final detail to me as a child, but it stands out as the saddest thing I had heard by that point in my life.
The writer in the photograph is Ernest Hemingway who would have been 115 years old today on July 21, 2014. My father describes their chance encounter as such:
“My family was traveling through Idaho in Spring of ’61 when I was 11, and I was admitted to Sun Valley Hospital with severe joint pain. The doctor’s thought it might be some kind of iron overload. EH was in that hospital at the time, and he liked to tell me stories because I was in such pain. He wanted me to sit on his lap for the story telling – which was weird because I was 11 – but I did it and some nurse took a picture at some point. I was ok, just some odd bug bite or something, but I heard he killed himself a few months later. I remember that scene like it was yesterday.”
My dad does not have a lot more details to offer. As his parents have both passed away and his siblings are all younger, there is no one available to further elucidate the circumstances of this meeting. My dad remembers that Hemingway told him stories about soldiers, cowboys, and Indians, the kind of stuff he perhaps assumed all eleven year old boys enjoyed, though my dad was more interested in spacemen. (Maybe he would have been more entertained had he found himself in the same hospital as Isaac Asimov or Ray Bradbury.) He remembers Hemingway as a kind, elderly man who seemed “very old and sort of out of it,” though Hemingway was only sixty-one at the time. I asked my dad if Hemingway’s suicide affected him emotionally in any fundamental way, but he does not remember. “It was the first time I probably even thought about suicide. It wasn’t a subject people liked to discuss in the early ‘60s. I doubt I had much of a concept of what that meant,” he said. I asked my dad, who I have always known as a prodigious reader, if his youthful encounter with Hemingway allowed him to feel a connection to his work later in life, but my dad says no. “I’ve got nothing. I’m not very familiar with him. I read The Sun Also Rises in high school, but I don’t remember being able to associate that book with the man I met many years before,” he told me. If my dad made an impression on Hemingway there is no record of it. It is entirely possible that Hemingway, whose numerous physical and mental problems had already destroyed him creatively, never wrote another word between his short time with my father and his untimely death.
I became a big fan of Hemingway’s work in high school when I read The Old Man and the Sea and shortly after The Sun Also Rises, the bookends of Hemingway’s career in reverse order. My own writing, in which I attempted to copy Hemingway’s short, abbreviated style, became even worse than it was when I was copying Jack Kerouac’s sprawling sentences.
“Your dad met Ernest Hemingway once,” my mom told me as my interest began to turn into an obsession.
“Dad met Hemingway?!” I nearly shouted.
“Oh, yeah. There was a picture of them together floating around somewhere,” she said casually.
The meaning behind the photograph that I had seen as a child and had not thought about since suddenly became painfully obvious to me. I asked my mom if she knew where it was, but she did not. I asked my dad who said that his parents probably still had it. The next time I was at their house I went through several boxes of photographs but none of them featured Ernest Hemingway. My grandparents remembered the photograph, but could offer no clues as to its whereabouts. “He seemed like such a strange old man, but he loved your dad” was their only input on the entire meeting. Finding the missing photograph became a mission, but none of the family members who I called or emailed had any information. Everyone agreed to search through their old family photos or allow me to look through them myself, but nothing ever turned up. In the last few years I have begun to wonder if the picture is an example of a sort of mass family hysteria or hallucination. Perhaps we are remembering a story about another family who showed my grandparents a picture of their own son sitting on Hemingway’s lap, and at some point we internalized it, made the story about us because that seemed more interesting.
The photograph included here is not the one in question; it is a picture of Hemingway and his own son. Maybe one day I’ll be rummaging through old family albums, turn a page, and there it will be, shining forth from behind its clear envelope, the lost and coveted photograph of my dad sitting on the lap of an old and very depressed Ernest Hemingway, one of the last photographs ever taken of one of the 20th century’s most important writers, a smidgen of history, a family legend verified, one more ghost laid to rest.
Teege Braune (episode 72, episode 75, episode 77, episode 90, episode 102) is a writer of literary fiction, horror, essays, and poetry. Recently he has discovered the joys of drinking responsibly. He may or may not be a werewolf.