For the next few days Lottie didn’t drop by, and it wasn’t until a week later that I saw Fitzgerald again. They both had a way of vanishing, Lottie to fly off to New York, Cuba, or Catalina, California, with a heavy date, Fitzgerald to see the Flynns or to go to Baltimore to visit Zelda. Sometimes he went on to New York to confer with his editor or agent. There were times when he rounded out the trip with a two- or three-day spree, alone or with friends. If it was a bang-up spree, he ended in a hospital.
It was almost midnight when I got a call from the Inn. I was in the shop finishing a book column. He was garrulous, his voice thick. I hardly understood what he said, but he made it sound urgent. He wanted me to hop a cab and go out to see him. I hesitated; taxi fare was an extravagance we couldn’t afford and the bus had stopped running at that hour. He insisted he could talk to no one else.
“The worst has happened,” he added. “And it’s partly your fault— damn it!”
It was a dark night and the stars hung low in that high mountain country. I looked out the window as the taxi rolled into the wooded suburbs and swung around curves. The Inn was a stone-faced structure nestling in a pine grove; its elaborate entrance and tremendous fireplace gave it the air of an expensive country club. The young night clerk said Fitzgerald was talking long distance—he had been on the phone most of the evening—and that I should go up; his door was open and he was expecting me.
His back was to me when I entered the brightly lit room of knotty pine and cheerfully curtained windows. There wasn’t a shadow and the paneling reflected the light like glass. Books, clothes, and papers were scattered about, ash trays piled with butts and bits of rubbish; and there were bottles, all empty but one, which was half-full of gin, and cups, bowls, and an ornate silver coffeepot on a room-service tray precariously set near a closet door. The door was ajar; there was a large carton of empty bottles on the floor.
Fitzgerald was sitting on the edge of a flower-patterned couch, the telephone in one hand, a glass and a cigarette in the other, talking in the same hoarse voice. A dressing gown failed to cover his pale legs, which seemed short for his torso, and his stubby and unattractive feet were showing. When he saw me he fumbled for his slippers and hid his feet in them. Then he greeted me, set down the glass, and covered the mouthpiece.
“This will only take another minute.”
He held out his pale white hand and went on talking. I reached for it and he gave mine a shaky grip. His eyes were strained and bloodshot, his cheeks white, and his face was unshaven. Perspiration dotted his forehead. It was a mild night yet he was wearing, underneath his gown, a woolen sweater over a pajama top.
“I have fever,” he said when he hung up, wiping his forehead. “I should be in bed.”
“Why aren’t you?”
“I have to call these people.” He came forward with his glass and put a hand on my shoulder. “Let me give you something.” “No, thank you.”
“Don’t need this now,” he mumbled and walked unsteadily to snap off the ceiling lights. Then he picked up the gin bottle and refilled the glass, took a sip, and sat down on the couch. He pointed the drink at me as I sank into a chair. “A hell of a cure. Never fails. I see you don’t get it. A drink or two more and I’ll sweat out all that booze. When my fever drops I’ll hop on the old wagon again. I see you still don’t understand. At least you don’t lecture me or ask silly questions.”
He set down the glass, drew the gown closer about his shoulders, and dropped his head in his hands. He was silent; I had nothing to say. The phone rang. He picked it up, listened, then told the operator to cancel his other calls. Out of cigarettes, he asked if I had any; I shook my head and he dug among the crumpled butts, found a passable one, and lit it.
“You have no vices.”
“Not obvious ones.”
“Living a double life?”
“Wouldn’t know how.”
“I’ll tell you.”
It had happened with Rosemary. (According to what he told his Dollar Woman, “it had happened” a night or so before I met him, but he spoke to me as if it had just begun.) That, and other things in the preceding thirty-six hours, and he was full of them. He had made up his mind not to get involved with Rosemary and thought he had convinced her that this was the best course for her too. Knowing that she had never been unfaithful to her husband, he told her that she would be on his conscience if he were the first of several lovers.
He also warned her that it could be no more than an affair. Though Zelda was his invalid, probably for the rest of his life, he wouldn’t divorce her; they had belonged to each other in the freshness of youth and all the depth that love holds. He was bound by this love and by duty to her and Scottie, to whom he had been both father and mother since Zelda’s breakdown.
A love affair is like a short story, he had said—Fitzgerald was drinking when he told Rosemary this, but he assured me that he had never spoken a more sober word—it had a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning was easy, the middle might drag, invaded by the commonplace, but the end, instead of being decisive and knit with that element of revelatory surprise as a well-written story should be, usually was dissipated in a succession of messy and humiliating anticlimaxes. He saw the affair, pursuing his analogy for her benefit, only to the middle stage: he had a hunch that events beyond their control would terminate it before it came to its own logical and necessary conclusion.
None of this had made an impression on Rosemary. She had called him a pessimist. Fitzgerald had been so fatuous as to assure her that he was a realist, wryly commenting to me that the distinction between pessimism and realism could have no meaning to a young woman who fancied herself passionately in love. The beginning seemed within her grasp, the middle and the end were an inconceivable future.
She had come to Fitzgerald’s room that night, where they had, in equal parts, talked, drunk, and made love in a limited, frustrating manner, until his moralities became a bore to her and a strain on him. He hated being lectured to and despised his own attempts to lecture someone else—at such a time. But with every drink he took, Fitzgerald became more resolved not to entangle himself. At dawn Rosemary left him and went back to her room in the Inn.
Suddenly he had felt lonely, deserted, and cheated. He cursed himself for having uttered such rubbish and letting her go. She was whathe really wanted—she was young, beautiful, and wildly in love with him—what idiocy had stopped him? What man could ask for more in this tragic life where happiness was a dream belonging only to the perennially young? His reaction had run full circle in the few minutes she had gone when the phone rang. If it was Rosemary, he meant to have her back. Instead, the operator announced that a Miss Lottie was in the lobby to see him.
“I was wild,” he said. He held his head in his hands. “I told the operator to send her up. Forgetting at the moment,” he added, “the significance of her being a call girl—even if most of her clients did read The Wall Street Journal.”
Lottie walked in looking as fresh as the morning, he told me, although she had spent the night with an oil baron from Oklahoma City. Fitzgerald had mentioned his insomnia and crazy hours to her; she reminded him of this by way of apologizing for her visit at such an hour. And she opened her bag and gave him her health report. (This was the first time he mentioned it, confirming Lottie’s story of the test.) He looked at it, startled, and then at her with admiration for having taken such trouble for him. His request to see it had sounded smart to him; now it seemed utterly stupid.
Holding the drink he gave her, Lottie sat back on the couch with an air of ease and freedom, crossing her beautiful long legs. It was dim in his mind what further conversation took place. There were no strings attached to Lottie. Already given over to desire, he needed no encouragement. In a few minutes the delightful Lottie stood like a vision before him. It was only later that he remembered with distaste that an oil millionaire had shortly preceded him.
At any rate, he hoped that this incident would shake his senses back to normal. It wasn’t to be. On the contrary, it served to increase his feeling for the Memphis beauty. The casual experience with Lottie only provoked his deeper hunger: his need for someone who loved him. Love, even temporary and insubstantial, had become a necessity to him out of his own despair and his sense of loss over Zelda. The night before, then, there was the beginning of his love affair with Rosemary.
“I don’t blame you for Lottie,” he said finally. “She’s okay—it’s me. Women and liquor have always gotten me into trouble. But this means I’m losing control. Letting myself go downhill with a whore and then getting involved in an affair that’s bound for disaster—when I’ve hit bottom and there’s scarcely one more emotion in me. Yes, I blame myself. I’ve always been the victim of my weaknesses. And mygreatest one now is a craving for excitement. Christ, how it stimulates me! I need it to pull myself together. To fight off this depression and get back on top. It gives me the illusion I’m still young.”
How he had made the turnabout, I don’t know. It was a night of self-recrimination, of concern for morality that verged on the sentimental, of sentiment that touched on the maudlin, and the last of any booze in the room. It was past dawn; I opened the curtains and the sky was bright with sunshine.
At that early hour Fitzgerald seemed more alive than I did, more youthful and eager for whatever the new day might bring. The gown hung loosely about his shoulders, the perspiration had vanished from his forehead. It seemed that his old cure must have worked. At the door he held my hand and apologized for going on about himself without having asked about my concerns.
But now he had work to do, he said calmly. He had hit on a story idea. No, it had nothing to do with Lottie and her gamy profession. If the story came off, he was sure some of his kind friends—those who predicted an early alcoholic grave for him—would notice that he was still among the living and writing. And he would start on it as soon as he got cigarettes and coffee.