Ezra gives Hemingway a jar of opium and tells him to give it to Ralph Cheever Dunning “only when he needs it.” Hemingway describes Dunning as “a poet who smoked opium and forgot to eat.” Dunning lives near Ezra’s studio, and one day Ezra calls Hemingway because Dunning is dying. When Hemingway arrives, he sees that Dunning is alarmingly thin and could easily die of malnutrition, but he tells Ezra that Dunning is speaking too coherently to be on the brink of death. After spending a night with Dunning “waiting for death to come,” the men call a doctor, and Dunning is taken away to be “disintoxicated.” After Ezra leaves the opium in Hemingway’s care, Hemingway waits to use it only in an “emergency.” This moment comes when Dunning is on a roof and refuses to come down. Yet when Hemingway gives Dunning the opium, Dunning throws it furiously back at him, calling him a “son of a bitch.” Dunning begins throwing milk bottles and Hemingway flees.
Although Ezra has a seemingly unending capacity for generosity and care for those around him, there are still limits to how helpful this kindness can actually be. Dunning is intent on self-sabotage, simultaneously starving himself and descending into the depths of drug addiction. At the same time, Ezra’s request that Hemingway give Dunning the opium “when he needs it” is perhaps not the wisest move. In this passage it becomes clear that even if one has a strong desire to support a friend, it is sometimes difficult to find the best course of action to truly help them. This problem is exacerbated in an environment defined by alcohol and drug abuse and mental illness.
While Hemingway’s attempt to help Dunning is unsuccessful, eventually “the lovers of poetry Ezra had organized” have another try. Hemingway does not remember if or how Dunning dies or why Dunning threw the milk bottles at him. He considers that perhaps Dunning mistook him for “an agent of evil.” Evan Shipman advises that it is good for it to remain a mystery because there needs to be more mystery in life. Hemingway concludes by noting that he has “never seen anything written about Evan Shipman” and thus he wanted to make sure to include Evan in the book.
Much of what takes place in the book is never fully explained, and this passage gives insight into a possible reason why. Rather than providing a rational explanation for all of the events and behavior of the characters in the book, Hemingway provides only hints of solutions, thereby conveying the notion that the world is mysterious and inexplicable.