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Vol. 108 - Issue 14, 4/6/2006
Hemingway chickens for sale
by Terry Berkson

On a recent trip to central Florida, my wife, Alice, and I headed all the way down to Key West to see one of those famous sunsets.

The last 100 miles on the causeway were like flying low in a turquoise sky.

We arrived in the late afternoon, paid through the nose for a room and headed over to Mallory Square to watch the sun go down.

There was quite a crowd standing there with drinks in their hands, all facing west like cows to the wind as a live band played Dixieland Jazz.

The sun was just touching the water, giving the impression that it was melting into the gulf, and as it did, the water around it turned red as though some giant crimson ink spot was bleeding into the sea.

I was impressed, but just as the sun was at the peak of its ebb, a tugboat hauled a huge barge across the horizon and blocked the view for everyone on the pier.

All cried “Boo!” as the band played on.

I think that tug boat captain had quite a sense of humor.

He knew just what he was doing when he dragged his curtain across the stage and probably laughed all the way to where he was going.

An even more insidious suspicion of mine is that the Key West Chamber of Commerce pays the guy to block out sunsets so that people will come back again to try and witness the entire spectacle.

Later, we headed over to Sloppy Joe’s  and had grouper and chips for dinner.

Hemingway was supposed to have frequented this place where Marlene Dietrich had sat on a bar stool and drank with him, but I read that the original Sloppy Joe’s was a much smaller place and around the corner.

Also, I was surprised not to see any arm wrestling going on. Alice thought that the place was noisy and wasn’t impressed with the connection to the great writer.

In the morning, I woke up early to the crow of several roosters nearby.

My wife chose to snooze instead of making a pilgrimage to the house where Hemingway lived after he had to leave Cuba.

It was a short walk to Whitehead Street, where his impressive estate was located.

After paying the price of admission, I passed through the house, went upstairs and crossed the catwalk to Hem’s study where the typewriter that he wrote on was displayed.

Knowing the mess that I make when trying to get something published, I thought to myself how neat the room was, but from what I’ve read in Carlos Baker’s biography, I think Hemingway was a slob like me and must have had books, piles of paper, notes and reminders tacked up all over the place.

Later, I was out in the garden looking at Papa’s animal cemetery when this little guy in a trench coat with a pencil mustache slipped out from behind a tree, looked both ways and said, “Hey you want to buy a Hemingway chicken?”

I was relieved because I thought at first the guy was going to flash me.

I had noticed a lot of chickens in the street and in the yard.

They seemed to be everywhere.

“What do you mean Hemingway chicken?” I asked.

“He used to breed them for cock fighting,” the little man said.

The statement sounded vaguely familiar.

“Any chickens he had would be long dead by now,” I said.

The guy sneered at me like I was an idiot and uttered one word, “Descendant!”

“Oh,” I said. “And how would I know if it was a descendant?”

He spoke slowly. “Hemingway’s chickens had an extra toe.”

Again, the statement sounded vaguely familiar, something I might have read in Baker’s biography.

Then the little man opened his trench coat to reveal two large pockets that had been sewn in,  all the time looking both ways to see if anyone was watching.

Each pocket contained a live, upside down chicken.

He grabbed one of the birds’ legs to show me.

“See,” he said. “They have an extra toe.”

Sure enough, there was a fifth digit on the bird’s foot.

“I just so happen to raise chickens,” I told the guy.

“You breed your chickens with one of these,” the little man said, “and they’d be worth something.

“I just caught them. There are people waiting on line to adopt these chickens.”

He looked around again. “But for you – $50 each and they’re yours.”

The idea of breeding and then selling chickens descended from the great Hemingway’s birds sounded good.

“How would I get them back to New York?” I said. “I came down here by plane.”

“My cousin Julio drives to New York City every month.

“He can bring them up and you can meet him.”

“That sounds do-able.”

“For a price – another hundred dollars!”

“Upon delivery!” I said emphatically.

Two hundred dollars and I’d be in business.

Hemingway chickens would bring a lot more income than my paltry poultry had so far. Eggs don’t pay much.

We both agreed to close the deal off Hemingway property where there was less likelihood of anyone noticing our obviously illegal transaction.

When we were a safe distance away, the man took out a notebook and asked me where the chickens were to be taken.

I gave him my son’s address and phone number in Brooklyn.

“How do I know you’re gonna deliver?” I asked.

“Hey, Key West’s a small place! I don’t deliver, I know you’ll be back here again to find me!”

“That’s right,” I said. “Do you take credit cards?”

The guy looked at me for a long time.

Then I handed him five twenties.

He opened his coat to show me the chickens once more before we shook hands and said good-bye.

As I walked back to the hotel I was well aware that there was no guarantee that cousin Julio would deliver, but the prospect of selling Hemingway chickens off of my farm in Richfield Springs was too enticing and made it worth the risk.

I imagined a sign down by our mailbox, HEMINGWAY CHICKENS FOR SALE!

I didn’t bother telling Alice about this new venture.

She was already jealous of the attention I’d been paying to my Rhode Island Reds.


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