Life Imitating Art

Too Long for the Bed: Hemingway's Swede Finds a Home

"Couldn't you get out of town?" "No," Ole Andreson said. "I'm through with all that running around."

"Couldn't you get out of town?"
"No," Ole Andreson said. "I'm through with all that running around."

So I've been feeding two cats outside my day-job office. One is completely feral but as sweet as any feral cat can be. Small and dark with a little white patch on his/her chest (after two years, my wife and I still haven't gotten a good enough look at the nethers to gauge the sex). This one I've been feeding for a while; his/her ear is notched, suggesting he/she was spade/neutered, at some point long ago, before I came into the picture. A few weeks back, a second cat showed up: big, scarred, missing some teeth. A real big-headed male Tom bruiser. But he got along sweetly with feral Littlecat, who seemed to welcome the company. His presence even seemed to help socialize him/her, who started meowing for the first time after Bighead showed up. And with us, well, he was perfectly insistent that we feed him and love him and not touch his head (I have the scar to prove it).

It was Crystal, I think, who first noticed Bighead's toes. She counted seven on one forepaw, six on the other.

Over the years, we've made a few pilgrimages through writers' homes, among them the rural farmhouses of William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Carl Sandburg, and -- nothing farmy about it -- the Key West estate of Ernest Hemingway. Of course, Hemingway's house was the best, if only because it was, in fact, home to several generations of mutant cats. Polydactyl cats: if you've never seen one in the flesh, wow. What a treat you're missing. There, they have names like Charlie Chaplin and Nick Adams, names that suggest they are, in fact, heirs to royal personalities: grand entertainers and characters that spring forth from traditions both literary and cinematic. Two things, well, I love.

So. Yeah. We weren't looking for another cat. Really. But it wasn't that long ago that I bought Criterion's double-release of The Killers, both the 1946 and the 1964 versions, featuring Burt Lancaster and Lee Marvin, respectively, as the washed-up prizefighter Ole Andreson, the Big Swede two men have come to town to kill. And so, imagine my delight, when into our lives walked a twenty-two-toed brawler with no upper teeth and scars so thick they bent two needles at the vet's office. A cat equal parts Lancaster and Marvin: all Swede.

We came out to feed the pair of them last Friday and discovered Bighead's left foreleg -- the one with seven toes -- was swollen and fevered. So we got him to the vet, after taping towels around my arms, just in case he didn't want to walk into the carrier of his own accord (he did). And thus Ole Andreson -- after a snipping and a lancing and a tending -- was ours, and my years-long dream of owning a polydactyl cat, ever since meeting Charlie Chaplin at the Hemingway estate in Key West, came to pass. In his story, Hemingway describes Ole as a "heavyweight prizefighter" who's "too long for the bed." Of the big boxer's fate, Nick Adams says: "I can't stand to think about him waiting in the room and knowing he's going to get it. It's too damned awful." I guess that's how I felt, seeing him with a fevered leg. George advises Nick not to think about it, and that's the end of the story. That's never been an option for me, when it comes to critters, and so: welcome to the family, Ole Andreson. You don't have to run anymore.

How Killer Nashville Taught My Wife to Fight Crime

In August of 2014, my wife and I attended our first writers' conference together. We went to Killer Nashville, which -- for those of you who don't know it -- is a fantastic conference for crime writers. I went with a manuscript and, eventually, through contacts made at the conference, found my agent. And until today, almost nine months later, the good people at Maria Carvainis and the incomparable Elizabeth Copps were the greatest things to come out of that experience. But today, friends, I learned that Killer Nashville is, in more ways than one, the gift that keeps on giving.

Apparently, it also taught my wife how to fight crime.

First, some background: Crystal and I got married in July of 2008. About a year later, for our first anniversary present, we bought each other Electra bicycles. We opted for Electras because, well, we're grown-ups now, and neither of us had ever owned a truly expensive bike and thought the cost alone might encourage us to keep using them after the first week of euphoric togetherness, those yearned-for spring and summer afternoons spent pedaling past fields of blooming flowers. Not the greatest logic, to be sure, but there were other, sounder ideas at play, too: the craftsmanship, the engineering, the idea of something that would endure. We bought cruiser models, the kind you might take to the beach and poke around on leisurely. (According to the logos emblazoned on the sides, their design features "patented flatfoot technology"; to be perfectly honest, I still don't know what this means).

I'd like to tell you that we kept riding them and riding them and that every glorious sunset here in Georgia ended with our biking silhouettes tall against it, but that wouldn't be the truth. In fact, we rode them for about six months, semi-regularly, then put them in the shed and forgot about them for a while.

This past May, feeling guilty and wistful and in need of some good, heart-pumping exercise, we took them out and brought them into the shop for repairs and tune-ups, and we began riding them to the college campus where we work, about a mile from our house, to feed a stray cat that lives under my office building. In the evenings, we returned and left them unchained on our carport, hidden by our parked cars. We live in a small town, and while small-town life doesn't always suit us, it does carry with it the distinct advantage of letting out slack when it comes to trust. Alas, about a week ago, during the day, when both cars were gone from the carport on separate errands and the bikes were left exposed, that slack pulled taught, and someone crept onto our property in broad daylight and stole my black Electra.

We did our due diligence as citizens: we made the police report and thanked the officer, thinking to ourselves that the bike was lost forever. We felt victimized. We felt responsible. After all, by leaving the bike unchained, hadn't I supplied the criminal with opportunity? We talked about the possibility of whether the thief would be foolish enough to ride it around the neighborhood, whether we'd see it ditched along the roadside, whether it was already in a truck somewhere driving away. Anyway, we went on with the business and pleasure of our lives.

Today, at work, I got a call from my wife. "I've called the police," Crystal said. "I saw a guy riding your bike. I've followed him into an apartment complex. I'm going to hang back, but the cops are on their way."

Oh, friends. How to describe, now, the latent thrill of your wife tailing a thief? Or recovering your stolen property like Wonder Woman? I won't even try here.

Instead, this: at Killer Nashville last August, Crystal and I both attended a seminar by a female private investigator. She covered surveillance equipment and surveillance techniques. Among her advice: "Hang back and fly casual." When Crystal spotted the man on my bike, pedaling down the street toward the apartment complex, she did just that. She was driving her Kia on an errand to Walgreens. She turned after him, remembering what the P.I. in Nashville had said and keeping her distance, all the while forming a description of him for the police, anticipating the inevitable moment when he would run. And run, he did. But the details were fixed by then: white sport shirt, shorts, sandals over socks, a beard. A man not necessarily young, but dressing young. A quick process that played out in her head, one picked up in a seminar meant for fiction.

The time was 10 a.m. Crystal waited on the cops, they got there, and she and I texted details for about fifteen minutes after that. She sent word that the officers had found the bike, but the guy riding it was gone. So I drove to the complex to collect the bike. It was mine, for sure, scratched and muddy. Crystal was beaming, and the cops had nothing but praise for her actions. Quick-thinking. Eagle eyes. Good judgment in hanging back.

We were late for a veterinary appointment by then, and when we walked into the doctor's office, carrier in hand, Crystal apologized. "I'm sorry we're late," she said. "I was fighting crime." And it was my turn to beam.

Disclaimer: If you witness a crime occurring, do not assume a writer's conference has taught you to fight it. Use good judgment, as any writer would.