Hemingway's Girl
A Novel 
By Erika Robuck
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Excerpt from Hemingway's Girl:

The first time Mariella saw Hemingway at his house, he was sitting on a dining room chair on the lawn while his wife, Pauline, cut his curling brown hair. He was big and the chair was small and he regarded Mariella with the kind of mocking smile that usually runs between old friends. It occurred to Mariella that Pauline was trying to tame that great animal of a man, and the absurdity of it made Mariella smile back at him.

A flash went off and a lithe, lovely woman who resembled Pauline advanced her camera and said,

“You look like a lion about to pounce, Papa.” 

“Don’t come too close, Jinny. I bite,” he said.

“Honestly,” said Pauline. “Keep still for one more minute.”

Jinny walked around Mariella, looking her up and down the way a man would. “Are you here for a housekeeping job?” Mariella met her eyes and stared back until Jinny looked away.

“Yes,” she said. “I’m Mariella Bennet.”

“Chuck Thompson sent her over,” said Pauline, not lifting her eyes from the back of Hemingway’s head. “She’s done work for him at the dock.”

“He told me you could use the help,” said Mariella.

“Mariella Bennet?” said Papa. “Let me guess: your mother’s Cuban and your daddy’s American.”

“Yes. And a fisherman.”

“Hal Bennet was your dad?” he said, wrinkling his forehead in a mixture of sadness and fondness.

“Yes,” said Mariella.

“You’re hired!” Papa said.

“I haven’t even interviewed her yet,” said Pauline.

“Good. Do that and leave my hair alone.” The big cat pounced out of his chair, hit Jinny on the backside, winked at Mariella, and ran to the yellow Ford parked on the street. Then he disappeared.

Pauline shook her head without a smile and motioned for Mariella to follow her and Jinny inside. As Mariella passed into the sitting room, she was nearly run over by a boy about six years old, followed by his little brother, followed by a large, sweaty governess.

“Have a seat.” Pauline motioned to a formal settee in a pale blue sitting room. Mariella sat and noted a chandelier hanging from the ceiling where she thought a fan should be. Jinny sat down close to Mariella. She smelled of cigarettes and rose water. Suddenly feeling very poor and awkward around these elegant, pretentious women, Mariella squirmed in her dress and tried to figure out if she should cross her legs at the ankle or the knee. 

“Those are your references?” asked Pauline, taking the neat stack of papers from Mariella. 

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You may call me Mrs. Hemingway.”

“Yes, Mrs. Hemingway.”

“You’re just nineteen?”

“Yes, Mrs. Hemingway.”

“Chuck said you need a job closer to home. He spoke highly of you.”  

“I’ve known Mr. Thompson for a long time,” said Mariella. “He’s kept me busy with small jobs at the hardware store and the dock, but I need something more steady.”

“Your father was a fisherman?”

“Yes, but he died back in October. I need to support my mom and my two sisters.” Mariella looked straight at Pauline. She had practiced saying that aloud, and was pleased with herself for her steady voice.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Pauline. She shifted in her chair, clearly ill at ease. After shuffling through Mariella’s references, she put them on a nearby table where a nibbled peach lay on a blue plate, browning in the heat. A fly buzzed around it. Next to the plate was a copy of War and Peace. Mariella eyed it and wondered whose it was.  

“Can you read?” asked Pauline.

“Of course,” said Mariella. She sat up straight in her chair, insulted, and badly wishing she could retort, Can you? But she kept her tongue in check.

Pauline regarded Mariella for a moment. Mariella could feel the woman testing her, wondering if she could fight, cry, and live in front of Mariella without actually having to think about her. Mariella relaxed her posture so she wouldn’t appear aggressive and folded her hands in her lap. 

Something seemed to satisfy Pauline.

“Jinny is my sister,” she said. “Her word is as good as mine. Ada Stern is the boys’ governess. Stay out of her way if you know what’s good for you. And Ernest, always mind him when he’s around, but my word is law. The only real house rule is to never ever disturb my husband when he’s writing. He gets up very early, at five or six o’clock, and goes to the room over the garage to write. He works until it gets too hot, about ten or so, and then he goes fishing. You’ve read his work?”

“Yes,” she lied.

Pauline sat up, as if anticipating the usual outpouring of sentiments regarding Ernest’s talent, but Mariella said nothing. The way the woman then slouched in her chair made Mariella think that Pauline must live vicariously through Hemingway, and that she took compliments to him as praise for herself.

“And does it please you?” asked Jinny.

Mariella looked Jinny in the eye. “Yes, very much.”

Only the ticking of the clock and the sound of muffled children’s voices outside could be heard. Pauline reached over to Jinny’s dress and ruffled through a pocket in its side until she found a cigarette. Mariella reached in her own dress and pulled out a book of matches. She lit Pauline’s cigarette. Pauline let the smoke drift over her face like a veil and said through it, “You’ll start Monday. Be here at seven.” 

Pauline stood, picked up her book, and left the room. Jinny followed her sister. When the women left, Mariella slipped the peach into her pocket for the girls and stepped out onto the back lawn. She thought how nice it would be to have a full enough stomach to take a bite of a peach and leave the rest of it on a table for the flies. It made her dislike Pauline. 

That and the fact that it seemed Pauline knew who Hal was but pretended otherwise so she wouldn’t have to talk about him. 

And the way Pauline assumed Mariella couldn’t read. 

Jesus, she didn’t know if this would be worth the money.

As she walked away, she could feel their eyes on her. She turned and looked up to see Pauline and Jinny on the upper balcony, watching her.

“See you ‘round,” called Jinny. 

“Bye,” said Mariella. She walked away but could still hear their voices.  

“So, what do you think?” said Jinny. 

Pauline waited a moment to answer. Mariella strained to hear her reply.

“She’s a peach.”