Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers”
by Robert K. Johnson
Two hired gunmen, Al and Max, enter a lunch-room, tie
up the cook and Nick, a young
customer, back in the kitchen. They tell the counterman,
George, they will wait for a
regular customer, the Swede, to come in and then kill
George: What are you going to do with us afterwards?
Max: That’ll depend. That’s one of those things you never
know at the time.
And now George understood
that every day of his life,
he fell at a measureless speed
through a darkness that would drop him
to either warm splashing water
or the agony of concrete.
Later, a man comes in, and George quickly tells him that
the cook is sick. “Why the hell
don’t you get another cook?” the man says and leaves.
And though George could still see
plates of ham and eggs,
bacon and eggs on the counter,
the sight could not prevent him
from knowing that the world
he lived in was insane,
that while the cook and Nick,
bound and gagged, sat hidden
in the kitchen next to a killer
holding a gun to their heads,
a man had just complained
about not being served
a dinner and then stalked out,
slamming the door behind him.
When the Swede doesn’t show up, the gunmen leave. Nick
runs to Hirsch’s rooming-
house, where the Swede lies in bed in his room. Nick
tells him about the killers, but the
Swede says he won’t try to elude them—“There ain’t anything
And the sympathy
that lay in the pit
of Nick’s stomach
like a hot sickness
was swept away
by a mounting rage
and the wish that the wall
behind the Swede
would collapse, crush
every bone in his body.
Leaving the Swede’s room in Hirsch’s rooming-house, Nick
meets the landlady
Nick: Good-night, Mrs. Hirsch.
The landlady: I’m not Mrs. Hirsch. I’m Mrs. Bell.
And Nick, too bone-tired
to take another step,
hears her words
echo into a laughter
that tells him he—
that every human being—
nothing at all.
Copyright © 2005 by Robert K. Johnson.