The truck broke down and the desert stretched for miles in all directions, as far as they could see. The two men doubted they’d be rescued after their water ran out and had decided to try and walk out the way they’d driven in. But they hadn’t driven in straight, or anything close to it. Survival was possible if they could reach a 7-11 at the crossroads. Civilization, lost at the point of the broken down truck, was now at the the corner of a highway and the dirt road which had taken them into the bush. As the crow flies it was possible. They debated eyeballing this route, short as it was and possible to reach in time. But the tire tracts were a dead certainty and so they’d chosen what sounded like a sure bet. But halfway along the tracks a wind picked up.
Great thirst cannot be imagined and can only be felt and when it is nothing compares. Anything short of the 7-11 and they were dead. They walked along their fading tire tracks. The wind was covering them. Each man saw this but neither dared comment on it. All they carried between them was a fifth of whiskey they’d saved for the ride back. It was a $40.00 bottle of good whiskey which the shorter man had pointed out as a joke when they were preparing to hike out. He’d laughed and tucked the whiskey into his belt and was now carrying it. He didn’t know what desert survival protocol called for regarding an empty water jug and a bottle of booze. He knew booze dried you out and he knew their position was a bad one, though this was slow in catching up to him consciously. Protocol be damned. Maybe there was a protocol regarding your last act of existence. The taller one, by half a foot, had asked for the $40.00 bottle an hour or so into the walk and took a heroic pull of the savory smooth stuff and began talking thus:
“A great, big, award-winning, famous and stupendous writer once said compare yourself to no one other than who you were yesterday.”
“So simple, it’s obvious,” the shorter man said. His easy participation along this line of conversation unexpectedly terrified the taller one. He’d expected a rebuke to his out of place remark. That hadn’t happened. They were both gone.
“Yesterday I was a man waiting for nothing. You can spend your whole life waiting for nothing. Now I’m wasting and drunk under this big ‘ole sky. And it’s not obvious, it becomes obvious when you hear it,” said the tall one.
“What about Churchill?”
“The writer was Churchill.”
“Oh. No, reach higher, pupil.”
“Lincoln,” the short one tried again.
“Lower, but you’re hot.”
“Speak softly and carry a big stick. No, higher.”
“Is there another?”
“Writer, not butcher.”
“Oh boy, the brainwashing of our youth. There were none higher. Read his memoir. Hand me that.”
“Hemingway,” the tall one said handing over the $40.00 bottle.
“Lincoln with booze added.”
“Now you’re talking. Circle back with that.”
“Seems reasonable, the Hemingway thing.”
“I read his little book with the bulls,” the shorter one said.
“Read Islands in The Stream. There was the war he fought in and the one he wrote in. That’s the one he wrote in.”
“I’ll get right on that.”
“But I like where your head is. Uncle Abe and Ulysses. Master and commander.”
“Lincoln was no trigger puller. He preferred a gentleman’s quarry,” said the short one.
“He didn’t need it, he got it all by himself. The stuff you need to write. He wrote through his ordeal. He didn’t wait. It served his purpose.”
“Hemingway went looking for his trouble,” the short one said.
“Who comes by it honestly, anyway? Are we out here for our health?”
“Grant and those guys.”
“The little man from Galena Illinois. He’s on the $50, or is it the $20?” said the tall one.
“He was fond of the bottle. I know that. And fought like a pit.”
“’Ol Hem would have disapproved of his imbibing intolerance. But he would have done so with great pity. A perfect drunk or Hemingway, the dashing drinker of fortune. You either hold your stuff and write about it or send thousands into the fire, drunk the while.”
“Churchill drank happily and often, but well. Lincoln didn’t touch it and no one knows why. T.R. hid his and was probably an addict if he didn’t control it tight around the waist like everything else. Grant couldn’t hold his shit. He was pathetic after two.”
“You prove my point. Hemingway was the mensch.”
“You seem so sure.”
“It comes through the work.”
“For Grant too.”
“The writing or the slaughter?” Asked the taller one.
“Hemingway. Heir to Grant?”
“Heir apparent. A book idea. Cheers.”
“Neither man had God.”
“They had philosophy. That philosophy was duty, first to work and then to an ideal of honor. Hemingway would have been on Grant’s staff had they coexisted. They’d have found each other.”
“Can you live with yourself? was his credo. That’s two people,” said the tall one.
“I do it all the time. But they quarrel something fierce.”
“Grant the butcher. A hundred thousand under his watch and I have to drink to watch just one go,” said the tall one.
“Nineteenth century man had a good God under him.”
“Hemingway. 20th century man. Doubt loosed on a generation lost.”
“He faced his Evil,” said the short one.
“You think him evil?”
“Evil is in the ether and it rises and falls in the human heart. I can’t fault him for holding up a mirror,” said the short one.
“There’s your legacy, poet. Scratch it down on this rock and pass the hat.”
Scratching, the short one looked up. “A man could cut a deal with a 7-11 owner and put an RV right next-door and live in it till 80. You could write your novel in that RV. You’d need a desk and a chair and an account with the manager inside for water, sewage and the hotdog counter.”
“It sure is easy to let it all down, right now, and think so. Send it over.”
“You are like a frightened child who would hide in a closet to escape a fire.”
“That’s the mirror talking.”
“Beware a philosophy of annihilation.”
“What made the mensch so great, anyway? The final analysis.”
“He wrote himself a line just before the end. ‘There aren’t any answers,’ it said. ‘You should know that by now. There aren’t any answers at all.’ Then he put his toe on the trigger.”
“Courage. What else?”