Chapter 27 “What If” part 2


Away, and back.

“Signing with Scribner’s didn’t put me in the public eye, it just introduced me to the inner circle. Dorothy Thompson, say, Don Stewart. That didn’t make me a household word. And after The Sun Also Rises was published, and my name started getting out there, still that was people talking about the book, really. People had no idea what I looked like, or how I talked, or what I did for fun. You get the distinction?”

“Yes. But then, let me rephrase it. How did you manage the sudden leap into the inner world of published authors?”

“I soaked it up like a desert plant in the rain. I was still only in my twenties, but it seemed to me like I’d been a long time on the outside looking in.”

“And what if that hadn’t happened? Suppose you had signed your contracts, maybe gotten drunk alone, and then had sailed back to Europe? What then? Did you explore that?”

“I did.”


“You’re talking about a different life, a different man. The young man that I was then was so tremendously attractive! He lit up a room, and he was able to entirely captivate people when he gave them his full attention. They loved me, couldn’t get enough of me.” A sheepish grin. “Either that, or they couldn’t stand me. But in those days mostly people loved me.”

“All that energy, all that enthusiasm.”

“Sure. It was just like with Ezra or Sylvia, people were delighted to welcome me into their crowd. And, like I say, I was damned glad to be allowed in.”

“So are you telling me no alternative scenario existed? That you were always going to be welcomed gladly into the tent?”

“It isn’t the kind of thing you could get away with saying in life, but yeah, it’s pretty much true. My life was always going to be lived on stage, whether I liked it or not.”

“Even if you hadn’t left Hadley for a rich wife?”


There was a pause.

“You know, in life, or on earth, or however you’d say it, that would have gotten you a punch in the mouth.”

“I told you before, consciousness here isn’t constricted in time and attention, so there isn’t the pressure that makes things explode. But what about the question? Why not go take a look?”


And back, not so quickly this time, not so smoothly.

“More complicated than you thought, Mr. Hemingway?”

“Shut up.”

“Does this interfere with the story you got used to telling, Mr. Hemingway?”

“It does.”


“You know goddamn well. I’ve been thinking that Pauline broke up my marriage and broke my dream of succeeding as a writer accompanied by my true love and our son.”

“So how do you see it now?”

“Look, I wasn’t wrong. It’s just –.” Nick waited him out. “I never thought, really.”

“Probably worthwhile to spell it out, Mr. Hemingway. It will clarify.”

“Well, Hadley was eight years older than me, I wasn’t making allowances for how much of a strain it was for her to keep up with me. She started getting to be middle-aged after she became a mother. I never realized – Paul Mowrer did, I guess – that Hadley couldn’t keep up with the life I lived. I burned my candle at both ends, and at first, she did too, and thrived on it after all those years of being treated as an invalid. But it was getting to be too much for her. When Pauline didn’t break us up, we went one of two ways. Either Hadley stopped being my playmate, or her health broke down. Neither way were we really happy.”

“Your marriage bonds loosened, shall we say?”

“Having a good time, are you? I was still in love with her. But I was young, I lusted for younger women,

they were available. Is it any big surprise we’d go our separate ways, married or not? But still, leaving Hadley for Pauline broke my life in two. I knew it was a mistake, and it led to so many more mistakes! If I hadn’t left Hadley, my career would have been sounder, better grounded, more human.”

“In what way, Mr. Hemingway?”

“Don’t you already know?”

I know probabilities, yes. But do I need to keep telling you, it’s in your voicing it that you make it yours. The very talking of it leads to deeper insights. Think about your wives and money, for instance.”

“Well, what about money? The Sun Also Rises was going to bring plenty in royalties, certainly plenty next to what Hadley and I were used to, and it was going to come more predictably than the checks we used to get from the Star. Probably if we had stayed in France we would have moved to a better neighborhood, but we wouldn’t have been moving to the right bank to be with the rich people. But probably we went home in all the versions, sooner or later. France got too expensive, once the franc recovered, and by 1926 I was finished with Europe anyway. I was a long safe way from Oak Park.”

“Long enough that you could have gone back to visit?”

“If I was still married to Hadley? Yes. But in any case, we were coming back to the States.”

“So where did you move to?”

“That seems to depend.”

“New York? Chicago?”

“No, not a big city. Now I needed to live someplace wilder, not so settled, somewhere unspoiled, someplace open and free, where we could hunt and fish. Mostly we went out West – Wyoming, Idaho, Montana.”

“Not Key West?”

“I think Hadley and I could have been happy in Key West, but mostly we lived in the West. Sometimes Hadley and Bumby and I would winter in New Orleans, or Santa Fe, or we’d drop down to Mexico. And of course the life we lived was different from the life I lived with Pauline, because I had Bumby right there, a son to teach things to. That boy certainly did love to fish!”

“But if you never lived in Key West –”

“Then I never wrote To have and Have Not. I never saw Sloppy Joe’s, was never found there by Marty, and so I was never influenced by her urgent politics. I didn’t throw myself into the Loyalist cause, never went to China in ’41, which means I never did any undercover work for the Treasury Department. During the war. And so on. My whole life was different, like I said. I wrote A Farewell to Arms, but it wasn’t exactly the same book. I still had to kill off Katherine, but not by childbirth. I wrote two novels set in the West.”

“So you and Hadley staying married is one decision that did affect everything. I take it you never declared yourself a Catholic.”

“No, and I didn’t spend 20 years in a Catholic Spanish-speaking country. Different life entirely, just like not being wounded in 1918. Not only no Pauline, but no Marty, no Mary, and no going off to the wars, no deep-sea fishing, no Q-Boat.”

“But also no For Whom the Bell Tolls, no Old Man and the Sea.

“I never said it was all gain, just it was a different life. And this doesn’t even talk about the good sound work I did in that life, or our trips to Spain and France, or the new friends we made and the friends we kept.”

”So let’s stay with what did happen when you broke up with Hadley and married Pauline. Let’s say you moved to Key West. What if your father hadn’t killed himself?”


It was like a blow to the face. Odd, that.

Nick was watching him closely. “You never did get over it.”

“No, not even now, and it’s strange, you know? You would think it would be different, now I’ve talked to him and seen he’s alive, or as alive as I am, anyway. You’d think it would change how I feel.”

“You might think that, until you realize that once you’re out of the three-dimensional world, we aren’t constricted in the same ways. Instead of thinking of ourselves as one version that changes as we go along, here it’s more like there is a different version of us for every part of our life: There’s a young Hemingway, a teenage Hemingway, and a 60-year-old Hemingway, and all the rest. In 3D, we don’t sort out like that, because we’re in one body that holds it all together. But here, you could meet yourself at different stages, in different years.”

“You make it sound like being dead is going to be fun.”

“It can be, among other things, yes. But you see, you just experienced your feelings around your father’s suicide, and you can see they are as alive as you are. You will find that they are sharper than they were in life. Most things are.”

“And the needle is stuck in the same groove forever?”

“Not quite forever. But you will find it not so easy to change what you feel, what you are, now that you’re out of the crucible that 3D restrictions create. That’s what 3D life is for, changing by choosing. This life is about other things.” He saw that Hemingway had no words ready. He said, “So go. Suppose your father lived to see 1929, and maybe many years thereafter.”

When he returned, Nick said: “Well?”

“I guess Dad killing himself was one of those things that were meant to be, like my getting wounded in 1918. Even when he didn’t kill himself in December, it usually wasn’t much later. He just ran out of road.”

“Like his son?”

“Yeah, like me. Sometimes the Florida real estate mess cleared up, so he wasn’t going broke, but how was he going to get back his health?”

“Again like his son.”


“Perhaps in ways you still haven’t realized.”

Puzzled: “Such as?”

“In the months before you shot yourself, what was the biggest thing obsessing you, other than your declining health and your inability to write?”

“I’ll be damned! You’re right, I never thought about it. Is that why I was sure I was going broke?”

“You tell me.”

“I will be damned.”


For  a moment, Nick honored Hemingway’s mood. Then: “It’s hard to watch someone you love and be unable to help in any way. But what about the times when he chose to live instead of die? How did that affect your life?”

“It isn’t so much what it did as what it didn’t do. It didn’t convince me that he was a coward, or that my mother was not only bossy but deadly. It didn’t convince me that that I was going to kill myself.”

“Say all that,” Nick said calmly. “What were the longer-term effects?”

“I didn’t follow it that far,” he said shortly.

“Because –?”

Restlessly: “I don’t know, maybe it didn’t seem worthwhile. I mean, it’s just the path not taken.”

Nick waited him out.

“It made me uncomfortable somehow.” A moment’s brooding. “Somehow it was making me feel guilty, I don’t know why.”

“One more indictment, in a life that had given you plenty of experience with guilt.”

“I guess so.”

“And do you have any real reason to be feeling guilty that your father ran out of road, as you put it?”

“No!” A long hesitation. “Or maybe yes, a little. I could have been a better son. I could have kept in touch. Could at least have let him see his grandson.”

“And would that have saved him, Mr. Hemingway?”

“Everybody’s on his own in life. You can help others only so much.”

“Then is it possible that this is the lesson to be drawn here? That your father killed himself but it wasn’t your fault?”

Stiffly: “I never thought it was.” He faltered. “At least, if I did, I wasn’t aware of it.”

“Of course you weren’t aware of it. That’s the whole point of all this, as I keep telling you. So if you are satisfied, let’s move on.”

“All right. It’s funny, it feels like a knot just got loosened.”

“That’s the hope. Tell me, what if you and Pauline had never settled in Key West?”


That took a while! Or seemed to, in a realm without any way to measure time. He returned thinking about consequences.

“Surprised, Mr. Hemingway?”

“Yeah, I was. As far as I can tell, moving to Key West was maybe the third most important thing to happen to me, after July 8, 1918 and leaving Hadley for Pauline. So many things hinged on it.”

“And you hadn’t ever suspected?”

“It’s like you say, the farther out you go, the more thoroughly everything changes.”

“What surprised you the most?”

“Well, you know, the first half of my life was so full, I had forgotten that it didn’t include deep-sea fishing. Until Charley Thompson and Joe Russell took me out, all I knew was stream fishing. Now all of a sudden there was this whole new world to learn.”

“And without it?”

“No learning the Gulf Stream. No trips to Cuba with Mister Josie. No Pilar. No articles for Esquire on the great blue river, and I guess no images of Hemingway as deep-sea sports-fisherman, that sold a lot of books. Plus, I wouldn’t have learned about the Keys and the conchs, the real life of a part of America that no one had ever written about.”

“No article for New Masses about the 1935 hurricane.”

“No, and no close-up study of the politics of revolution in Cuba, and no moving to Cuba. So many consequences. I lived in that town a dozen years. It was like looking at my life if I didn’t get wounded in 1918, all those possibilities, but no main pattern I could see.”

“Surely, there must have been something.”

“I don’t know where we would have wound up, but it sure wasn’t going to be Piggott, Arkansas. It wouldn’t have been a big city, either. So maybe, like with Hadley, Pauline and I would have wound up living in the West somewhere. Denver, maybe, who knows? But there just wasn’t a main alternative pattern. Key West was way more important than I had realized, even, because it was a place I could assemble my mob for fishing trips. Can you imagine if I had tried to get Max to visit me in Havana?”

“And even Havana wouldn’t have been in the cards without Key West, would it?”

“No, probably not. I’ll tell you, this one was a surprise. I guess even after the fact, it can be hard to see your life in the right proportions. I hate to admit it, but I’m liking this. Now where?”

“You mentioned Esquire. What if you and Arnold Gingrich hadn’t come to your agreement to write for his new magazine?”

He grinned. “I had to. That’s how I financed the Pilar.

“Yes, but suppose you hadn’t.”

“We went over this ground in the trial, remember? I said without Pilar, Key West would have become too small for me, and without the safari and without the Esquire articles, my pubic image might not have gotten so out-of-control. Let’s talk about something else.”

“Fine. Then let’s talk about your ‘Panic’ article and its effects, looking at it as the first link in a long chain of events. What might have happened without that first link?”

He considered the question thoughtfully. “Interesting. I never thought to look at it that way. Okay, let’s find out.”


In a body, he might have been frowning.


“Oh, it’s just I was realizing how little I understood of what was going on, what my life was moving toward. You think you’re doing a thing for one reason, and it turns out that you’re doing it for many reasons. And the train you thought was taking you one place was really taking you someplace else entirely. I write an article about what I saw on Matacumbe, and how unnecessary it was, and I send it to New Masses because they want it and they’re the only ones likely to print it. I call it ‘Panic,’ but they, for their own reasons, title it ‘Who killed the vets?’ and of course most people think that’s my title, because most people don’t realize that journalists don’t usually get to write their own headlines.”

New Masses was using you.”

“I never expected anything else. But what I didn’t think about was the FBI noticing, and even the NKVD. All the political lemmings noticed, of course, all the lefty bandwagon-jumpers. Suddenly they’re all assuming I am something that I am not. So on the one hand I am this pleasure-seeking hard drinking playboy, and now I am also this Johnny-come-lately sympathizer to the leftist cause, finally becoming aware of class warfare. Quite a straddle.”

“So how did your life change if you didn’t write that article?”

“No, you can’t draw straight lines in life the way you’re wanting to. Without the article, the other links in the chain still exist. I was still going to meet Marty and drift leftward. I was still going to cover the Spanish Civil War and get put on Hoover’s watch list. I was still going to come to the attention of the Russians.”

“So this is another of the main lines of your life that aren’t easily deflected?”

“Seems like it. Seems like some things, if you don’t come to them one way, you come to them from another direction.”

“And you examined what happened if you didn’t get put on the FBI’s watch list?”

“I did, and that was very interesting.” Bitterly: “Their vendetta cost me, and it cost the country.”

“Now, you know that isn’t balanced.”

Grudgingly: “Okay, no. It wasn’t the FBI alone, and it wasn’t my article by itself. Anybody who supported the Spanish Loyalists got tarred with the same brush. We called ourselves ‘premature anti-fascists,’ after a while, kind of a bitter joke. We were all considered politically untrustworthy. So, yeah, even without Hoover’s vendetta, maybe I wouldn’t have gotten into the OSS. But it was so stupid! When it came to understanding France, and knowing how to deal with the French, who had more to offer than I did? You’ll notice, they were happy to use me when it came to taking Paris.”

“Colonel Bruce was.”

“And you think he didn’t clear that with his superiors? But it had to be deniable, because I was officially a correspondent, so I had to lie about it and they had to pretend to believe my lies.”

Nick let him brood for a long moment, until he said, “Let’s look at something less depressing.”

“Then why don’t we look at your life if you had worked for OSS instead of pretending to be only a war correspondent?”

He brightened. “Good idea!”


He returned shaken. “I had no idea!”

“Far-reaching consequences, sometimes. Things you never would have considered. So how did you experience it?”

“Well, in the versions where I had been with the Spanish Loyalists, it wasn’t easy to overcome the suspicion. But my Crook Factory work with Spruill Braden helped, because that was running an intelligence network on nothing, and Braden himself said it was helpful. And I told them about using Pilar as a Q Boat, so they could see I understood the need for discipline. They decided to give me a try and hope for the best. But they were always waiting for me to get the bit in my teeth, so I was careful to keep my head down. They thought I would want to perform feats of derring-do, and they were always waiting for me to suggest it. But hell, my son was in the OSS! He was the right age for parachuting behind enemy lines, I wasn’t.”

“So how did it turn out?”

“Being with the OSS let me do on a large scale what I did on a tiny scale on the road to Paris. I knew France. I knew Europe and Europeans. I knew how to piece together bits of information to make a larger picture. And, if it happened that there was occasion to lead some parties, as might easily have happened, where’s the harm in it? This time, I wasn’t a correspondent, I was part of the army.”

“So what did you find so surprising?”

“I’ll tell you. When I was with the OSS, I wasn’t with Buck Lanham’s bunch, getting shot to pieces in the Hurtgen Forest. So, at the end of the war, no combat fatigue. This time, when I came home from Europe in 1945, I wasn’t dealing with all those emotional time bombs. And I came home honored for my contribution. I’ll bet in a lot of those versions, I am going to keep on going for many more years, just because I didn’t incur the damage I did in real life.”

“Any drawbacks?”

“You’re always going to have drawbacks. I didn’t spend the fall and winter with Buck and the 22nd, for one thing, and I didn’t get any first-hand combat experience, or anyway not much. These were powerful experiences and I would hate to have missed them. But, they didn’t come free.”

“No. So your postwar life was very different?”

“I guess you’d have to say I was different. What with China in 1941, then the Crook Factory and the Q-Boat in 1942-43, then the OSS through the end of the war in Europe, I hadn’t written anything since For Whom the Bell Tolls. But this time I had been doing officially recognized intelligence work. So instead of trying to write a series of novels, I wrote one novel about the Q-Boat and another one set among OSS men in France in 1944. Smaller-scale ambitions than this time, but more likely to be fulfilled.”

“One more what-if. In real life, you got into trouble for supposedly playing war when you weren’t supposed to carry arms. What if instead of lying about what you had done, you had owned up to it?”

“They would have kicked me out of the European Theater. Sent me home. That wouldn’t have been so bad in a way, because what was ever going to be as bloody marvelous as that July, August and September? And I’d still have my memories of my time with the 22nd, and I would have missed Hurtgen Forest and wouldn’t have had any idea how bad it was.

“But, you know, I had to lie about it. Bruce and the OSS and the brass were desperate for me to lie about it. Bruce had given me objectives! The brass knew damned well where some of their intel was coming from, and they were glad to have it, but they had to turn a blind eye. I couldn’t tell the truth without causing them a lot of trouble. So , like I said, I lied and they pretended to believe me. And you know what? I think that’s about as far as I want to go with what-if.”

“You don’t want to look at your postwar life with Mary?”

“I don’t think there would have been a life with Mary. That all hinged on our meeting in London, and if I was with the OSS, I wouldn’t have had  time to kill waiting for the invasion. I would have been up to my eyes with the advance work. But anyway, no, there’s no point.”

“Then let me suggest one last what-if, late in life but important. Those two successive airplane crashes in 1954. You lived the version where the crashes left you badly injured. But there were two other possibilities, either no crash at all or a crash that killed you. What of those two paths? Care to look”

“Yeah, I do, now that you mention it.” Off again.


And, for the final time, he returned to this no-place, this interruption-without-context.

“You oversimplified. Lots more things could have happened than just the extremes. Let’s say I got killed, either when Roy hit that power line or the next day in the botched takeoff. ‘Dead. Papa killed at 55, still carrying full sail. End of story.’ Would have saved everybody a lot of aggravation.”

“And is that your considered opinion, that it would have saved trouble?”

“After a full seven years of dealing with the effects of those injuries? Yeah, it is. And they were in addition to concussions, and undiagnosed combat fatigue. All that deterioration Hotch was talking about: Could have skipped all of it.”

“It would have made your life a tidier adventure story, certainly. But what about its effect on you, here, as you came over?”

He shrugged. “If you are asking me, would I regret the years I would have missed, what was there to miss? Seven years of progressive loss of control over my own reactions? I could have skipped all that without regret. The other extreme was more interesting. I suppose you already know, without those crashes, chances are I’d still be in 3D, going strong. I always burned my candle at both ends, all my life. I aged quicker than most people. But it was only after the crashes in 1954 that I suddenly began getting old. Continued pain will do that to you, just the pain by itself, not to mention the effects of all the things causing the pain.”

“Or the effects of the ways you may be tempted to self-medicate.”

“Fine. Booze probably didn’t help. But what else did I have? Anyway, without those injuries, I don’t know how my life ends, but I don’t think it’s over yet. Nothing was going to bring back Charlie Scribner and Max Perkins, or the years I lost to politics and warfare, and there wasn’t any way to undo the results of bad decisions,  but the accidents cost the world my second safari book, and I’m sorry about that, because I was doing some good thinking in those African nights. It seems to me I saw a nice companion volume to Green Hills of Africa. Another thing: Without the accidents, I still had time, and I still had the energy, to shape up the two projects I had been juggling since the war. In some versions I did, and in some I didn’t. It’s too bad, because nobody else can finish them for me.

“That second crash cost Mary all that exposed film – hundreds of shots she was planning to use for her article for Life magazine. Cost me my health, cost me several years of good working time. Cost me a place of honor at JFK’s inauguration, when he invited Faulkner and me to represent achievement in American literature. He was a fan, you know, from the time he was a kid.”

I knew. I wasn’t sure you knew.”

“Oh yes. In good health, I would have enjoyed it..” Briskly: “Enough post mortems. Where do we go from here?”



3 thoughts on “Chapter 27 “What If” part 2

  1. So illuminating: (1) he didn’t find a “main pattern” in looking at the alternatives to his choices and events, (2) “. . . how little I understood of what was going on, what my life was moving toward,” (3) “. . . some things, if you don’t come to them one way, you come to them from another direction.”

    His past life review is the most interesting and informative I’ve ever seen. We really see the understanding he gets from it. He’s a changed man.

  2. Got an interesting ping from guidance this AM while reading this. I wondered if I could do “what if” on this side of the veil? Guidance indicated that it could be done. Just go into a deep meditative state, consider a part of my life, begin to imagine what would have happened if — and notice what comes up when the movie starts taking on a life of its own. It seems we are only limited by our beliefs and our imagination.

    Going to play with this. It sounds like fun.

    1. Oh yes, do try! And let us know what happens. To me it doesn’t sound much different from the kind of free-flow imagining that goes into writing fiction, for instance. And since you know, going into it, that you’re doing a “what if,” you don’t have to get agitated over whether you’re making it up. Of course you’re making it up, but the important thing is what the scenery turns out to be like as you take your journeys.

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