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Monday, January 17, 2011

Alternativa: A Bit of Famous Writer History

I wrote this story long, long ago, for a high school assignment. We were studying the uniquely spare, masculine style of Ernest "Papa" Hemingway at the time, so hopefully in this story you will notice characteristics of that master. The story enjoyed great success at the time, winning second prize for fiction in the county-wide writing contest. I have a strong suspicion that editors today aren't interested in Ernest Hemingway tributes, so here it is now for your enjoyment. Come back soon for the sequel!


Alternativa

He felt that if he went to bed early, he might have a clear grip on Wednesday, though it was not yet Tuesday night.
When he woke up he was sick. His chest hurt. He could not understand it.  His legs hurt. He shivered. As he realized the sickness was through his body and up to his brain, he knew that that was it. Perhaps if he had not realized he was sick… but it was too late now.
Then the maid came in with the tray of breakfast and she saw him lying there with a pale face and she hesitated. Just then his stomach began to hurt and he vomited. The maid looked shocked. She said, “I’ll just leave this here,” about the tray and left it on the dresser.
He wondered whether she would get help or if she would pretend she hadn’t seen him so that when they carried his dead body out of the room and to the river there would be no one to blame.
He pretended that Elena was there and he kissed her several times to say goodbye. He did not want to be thrown into the river without saying farewell to Elena. He kissed her again. “Goodbye,” he said.
Then the maid came back and she was looking blurrier than before. She came near to him. “I’ve sent for the doctor,” she said while she bent down to touch his face. “What happened to you?” It was a shame for such a fine young man to be so sick, especially on the day before his alternativa in Madrid. She felt pity and looked at him. Just then his stomach began to hurt again and he vomited. He tried to miss the good maid but he could not tell if he was successful. When things go blurry on you it is hard to tell these things.
Ernesto thought, “She is saying in her head, ‘I am looking at a coward and a fool. He does not want to do something on Wednesday so he dies on Tuesday.’” This was not what she was thinking at all, but it was what he believed. He was sure she was seeing right through him, down to the core of him, where his fear lay. He had had this fear ever since his apoderado had come and told him and Raúl that he had scheduled Ernesto’s alternativa, his first full fight as a matador, and that it was to be in Madrid. Ernesto had never been to Madrid before this and while he and Raúl were riding into the city the day before and he saw the bullring, he felt almost as sick as he did now. His hands had become cold and sweaty and they had been shaking, be he hid his fear because Raúl did not know that he was afraid, even though they had been friends since birth, or since they had seen their first corrida. Which had come first?
If Raúl had known you were afraid, he would surely have left you, laughing his head off or cursing you and the ground you stood upon and your mother. Well, maybe not your mother, because Raúl had known your mother as long as you had and Raúl was thankful your mother had been there when you were trampled by the cow because that way no one could blame him. Raúl was not afraid. Raúl would not have fear if he had your fortune. Raúl had always known what he wanted and that was to be a first-rate matador. But you were luckier than he was because Raúl might have courage, but he had no art. He would be cursing the day he saw you and your mother if he knew that you had been afraid. But you had no fear of the Madrid ring now because you were going to die and Raúl was going to take your place at your own alternativa because he was your understudy. He had always been your understudy because he may have had courage, but he had no art.
The doctor was long in coming. The maid felt it, too, in the sweaty room that smelled like stale vomit in the heat of Madrid summer. “Don’t worry, señor,” she said to Ernesto when she saw that he was looking at her. She was sitting on a stool by the bed and she had a bowl of water and a cloth to keep him cool. Ernesto wondered why she was wasting her time on him. She surely had better things to do than sit in this room with a novillero who will not live to see his alternativa on Wednesday. “Do not worry,” she said. “You will be fine tomorrow. They will give a brave bull to the senior matador and he will give it to you. And then you will never have to do another alternativa because one in Madrid is valid anywhere in the world!” She was very happy to think of these things for the young man, but he only vomited again.
You made yourself sick when you thought that Wednesday was your only chance for glory and you gave it up in order to die. You were sick to recall how afraid you had been of your chance at glory. But you did not show any of this because if Raúl knew, he would be laughing at your funeral. He would wonder why he had ever been your friend. He would be disgusted to have to take your alternativa because it was touched by your cowardice. Or maybe he wouldn’t. Raúl had always known what he wanted.
Ernesto looked at the maid. She did not know how serious it was. Ernesto asked her where Raúl was. Raúl had always been your friend and he’d always been brave.
When Ernesto and Raúl had ridden into Madrid and Ernesto had become a coward, Raúl had been brave as always. He had stopped at the nearest tavern and bought some wine to celebrate. His hands were not shaking. He drank a lot of wine. Ernesto only watched until Raúl said to him, “Come, friend, and celebrate! It is your alternativa and not mine! Why must I carry the burden of celebrating for us both?”
“Truly, my friend, I am not thirsty,” Ernesto had said. But Raúl insisted. Ernesto drank a little because Raúl had always been his friend.
And now Ernestos’ chest hurt and his legs gave him pain and he sometime vomited. Raúl was looking at bulls and Raúl had always known what he wanted. But Raúl had no art.
“No art in anything!” Ernesto shouted.
“Hush!” said the maid.
“He has no art and he will be taking my alternativa!”
“No one is taking your alternativa but you, señor.”
“He will be making those awful veronicas of his with his legs spread two meters apart and he will kill with his body hunched over and my name was on the poster!”
She thought he was delirious.
He wanted to tell her what had happened because it would be a great relief to him, but he did not want to trouble this nice maid who had wasted her time on him when he was going to die. He also did not think that she would believe him because he was probably already acting delirious.
Maybe it was more serious than she had thought. She hated waiting for the doctor.
“I am going to die,” Ernesto told the maid. “You do not believe it but it is true!”
He wished Elena were there so that he could tell her he was going to die so that she would not be upset when Raúl told her, after they had thrown his body into the river. He remembered how Elena had always been proud of his art, in a concerned way. He could not have loved her if she had not always begged him to be careful. The other thing he loved was that she was understanding when it came to his work. He wondered if Elena would marry Raúl now that Raúl would be the only survivor of the two. Ernesto did not mind if Elena married Raúl because then she would know that her future would be secure. A matador with no art is perhaps the safest person to marry. But he would not be able to tell her anything before he was thrown into the river because he drank when his old friend asked him to.
       You drank because Raúl had always been your friend and you hid your fear because Raúl would laugh. Raúl might have laughed. He might have cursed you. But he might not have poisoned you if you had shown your fear like a real man. Now a real man was taking your alternativa because you were afraid even to show your fear and because the real man had always known what he wanted. You were going to be thrown into the river by that man and he was going to take your brave bull and the audience would probably not like him anyway and would never have a career because he had no art. You wished that that man was in the room because he had always been your friend and you wanted to tell him.