My father knew Ernest Hemingway during the Spanish Civil War. At least, this was what he said when my sister, Leticia, brought Fiesta home from her new school and left it on the kitchen table. This was in Buenos Aires, where our parents’ corner grocery sold olive oil, Maria biscuits, and salt-dried cod to fellow Spanish exiles. My father picked up the book and studied the jacket photo of a square-faced young man with a thick mustache.
“I knew this fellow,” he said.
“I doubt that, Papi,” Leticia said.
Leticia was fourteen. She had long, silky hair and a sinuous walk, and my parents had decided to send her to a school without boys. A customer, Señora Roth, recommended Miss Chandler’s, a private girls’ school attended by several of her piano students. Señora Roth’s reputation for getting through to the musically hopeless had spread to the richest neighborhoods of the city, and she could now afford to enroll her son in an all-boys academy whose rigor, she said, was already working miracles. It was the old story of immigrant parents slaving so their children could grow up to despise them.
Leticia shrieked that Chandler girls were snobs de mierda and that she would rather die.
“Don’t tempt me,” my mother said.
After a few months there, however, my sister had the Chandler look perfected: hair pulled back in a loose braid, hands thrust carelessly into the pockets of the regulation blazer, the haughty half-smile, even the drawl.
She explained to my father that Ernest Hemingway was a journalist, not a soldier, during the Spanish civil war, so they couldn’t possibly have met. Since becoming a Chandler student, my sister had begun correcting my parents in a calm voice. This infuriated my mother even more than her shrieking at them.
“Ernesto was one of my American friends,” my father insisted.
All our lives, Papi had talked about the American volunteer soldiers he met in the war: Mike and Joey. He’d been so impressed by their friendliness and generosity. Their Spanish was terrible, so he learned to communicate with them in English. Poor bastard was one of my father’s favorite expressions, deployed frequently throughout the course of any day.
At war’s end, Mike and Joey told him that if he ever came to America, he was welcome to stay with them until he got on his feet. When my parents decided to emigrate, the United States was their first-choice destination, but their application was rejected. My mother was still indignant that Papi’s so-called friends didn’t come through on their promise to sponsor him:
“So we end up in Argentina,” she said, “the butt of the world, living among Italians and thieves and penguins.”
But Papi didn’t blame Mike and Joey. He couldn’t recall their surnames or addresses—all he remembered was that they lived in New York, and evidently, those names were quite common in that city.
After Fiesta came into the house, my father began to speak of Ernesto, the writer, who carried a notebook with him everywhere. Mike and Joey were forgotten. Ernesto became the one who’d invited him to stay until he got on his feet. He talked about the famous author of Fiesta with the customers. He wouldn’t back down, even when Leticia tried to catch him out.
“Where was Ernesto from, Papi?”
“I can’t remember.”
For my father, the prison camp at Burgos had been worse than the war. There, for five years, he was worked, beaten and starved. The many blows to his head had permanently damaged his memory. He was great with the customers, but my mother had to handle the ordering and the money.
“Was it Key West?”
“That’s it, Key West. He said I was welcome there any time.”
“You know that Hemingway’s dead? That he shot himself?”
“Of course,” my father said. He wiped his eyes with the corner of his apron. “Many people who experience war do so.”
When I entered Chandler the following year, I realized my father didn’t know much English beyond poor bastard. “Your pronunciation is faulty,” he’d say if I asked him a question about my homework. “I can’t understand when you mumble.”
“Papi, just admit it,” Leticia said in English. “You really don’t speak this language at all.”
“On the other hand—Leticia,” my father said “your accent is coming along nicely.” He turned to me. “You should practice with your sister, Sonia. She’s going places.” He sighed. “I wish I’d had more opportunity to practice English, but when the war ended, the Americans all went home.”
Suddenly, I had a picture, clear as a memory, of the Americans being told they were free to go, while the defeated Spaniards were marched away in chains. I could see them—filthy, hungry, trudging. My father slipping in the mud and slowly getting to his feet as blows rained down on his head and shoulders. Mike, Joey, and Ernesto watching their friend disappear over the crest of a hill.
Poor bastard, they said to each other.
Kathleen Wheaton lived and worked as a journalist in Spain, Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. Her fiction has appeared in many journals; her collection, Aliens and Other Stories, won the Washington Writers Publishing House Fiction Prize. She is at work on a novel about the dictatorship in Argentina.