WITH HER ALMOND-SHAPED EYES NARROWED, HER WIDE, SENsuous mouth wearing an expression of concern, Maryvonne asked, “She is unwell?” He was glad it was she who used that word, not him, still shamed by the panic of seeing this strange woman alone under the date palm as he rode toward her on the black mare.
Zelda and Aurelio had gone ahead into the village in search of the old gypsy woman, Maryvonne choosing to wait on Scott in case he couldn’t locate the road from the beach, though Zelda assured her it was unnecessary. Her husband would know where to find her. He was like a bloodhound, she couldn’t shake him if she tried. Still, Maryvonne decided, if she were on a slow horse, left behind by her party, she would want someone on the lookout for her.
Riding beside this handsome man with his wispy golden locks splayed on a sun-reddened face, with his thin lips and diamond-shaped jaw, their horses funneling between the low cabins and thatched-roof cottages, she didn’t pry into his dread thoughts, but asked only, “How long?”
“Since the first breakdown? Ten years.”
“It is difficult on you.”
“The costs you mean? Not insurmountable,” he said, downplaying the history of illness, finding composure in his gravity. “It’s put a strain on our livelihood, but I could never place her in less than capable hands. Once she asked me to stow her in a public asylum because she was afraid she was ruining everything she touched, myself, our daughter, our future but also our past—it was one of those periods when she couldn’t fight the illness—but I got her out of hospitals in New York and Baltimore, away from doctors who were only making matters worse, and I found her the best care I could, down South, in warm weather where she could be outdoors year round. Sometimes over these last two years it has seemed as though we might win, as though she might come all the way back.”
“You hold yourself responsible.” Maryvonne spoke slowly in English, choosing her words carefully. “There are people who never forgive themselves for the misfortunes of loved ones.”
“I should have read the signs earlier,” he replied. His glinting steely eyes made him seem stubborn but not altogether hard. “Maybe then it wouldn’t have been so bad.”
“You have done much. Even I can see this from outside, from the way she speaks of you with gratitude. Also never forget how strong she is. It is the experience I have when I find Aurelio wounded.”
Thankful for her kind words, he feared he was saying too much, his tongue loosened by sun and worry, but also by the exultation of having been spared the worst yet again. His self-accusations felt formulaic. He’d said these things too many times: to Bunny Wilson, Gerald Murphy, and others who could remember Zelda from better days. But such friends were few and far between, and he saw them rarely. Instead he confided in strangers, incanting for some woman who reminded him of Zelda the grim play-by-play of the past decade, typically over drinks, sometimes as a prelude to bedding her. The new woman might console him, her pity permissible, even desirable, but as soon as she started in on Zelda, saying, “Poor dear,” or “It must be awful,” barely skimming the surface of his wife’s sufferings, he recoiled in disgust. He vowed a dozen times never to speak of it to anyone again, and when sober stuck admirably to his resolution, stiff lipped, withdrawn, stoical.
“Please, no more talk of our history,” he said to Maryvonne. “Sometimes I think she could leave it all behind if there was no one to remind her of it.”
“By which you mean yourself.”
“Yes,” he said, admiring her astuteness. “I suppose I do.”
They held the horses in a trot, riding beyond the church into the small square where hours earlier there had been the bustle and squalor of a market, but now they encountered only lonely stalls, stray crates of produce stacked in the dirt lanes waiting to be loaded into the bin of a rusted pickup truck parked in the shade of a banyan tree. After dismounting the mare, he stood below Maryvonne, offering his shoulder. Her foot in the stirrup, she swung the other leg over the arch of the palomino’s hindquarters, then shuffled her hand from the saddle to Scott’s shoulder, freeing herself from the stirrup to swing pendulum-like into him as he caught her by the waist, her cheek brushing against his chin.
Zelda came running toward them.
“Isn’t it exciting?” She pointed to Aurelio in front of a hut, towering over the small elderly woman from earlier that day. “She wants to read my cards, but here’s the weird part. We rode into town straight for the church, and she was at this post calling to us that she knew I’d be passing at this hour. Isn’t that wonderful?”
“It is what she might say,” Maryvonne suggested, “even if she, how does one say—”
“Happened to be there by accident,” Scott said.
“I expect this from you, Scott,” Zelda said, before rotating in a dancer’s quarter turn to cast reproach on the Frenchwoman. Now she inserted her arm into the nook of Maryvonne’s folded elbow, the sleeve of her dress dragging so that the naked skin of their forearms touched. “But you and I agreed to this plan, Maryvonne.”
“I am not disagreeing now,” Maryvonne said amicably. “For all I know, it is a meeting with providence, vraiment, truly.”
Like many lapsed Catholics, Scott was uneasy about the occult. In Asheville he had enjoyed the companionship of a palmist named Laura Guthrie. It was Laura whose words he had been remembering earlier, it now occurred to him, in response to Maryvonne’s compliment, Laura, head wrapped in a turban, set up in a corner of the Grove Park Inn to read the fortunes of wealthy guests and predict the good things that lay ahead, declaring as she held his wrist and ran a finger along the lines of his palm, “It’s true your adversities have been many, but I can assure you of this. There will always be women, many women drawn to you for years to come. It will sometimes be hard for you to choose.” More flattery than divination, her words gave off the scent of practiced flirtation. Her inability to pick up on Zelda’s illness or his devotion to her convinced him that Laura’s otherworldly insights amounted to nothing more than parlor tricks, so he had returned in the evening to ask her to dine with him.
But the old Cuban woman was different. Her irises streaked yellow like Murano glass beads and the taut silver strands of hair pulled beneath a garish headscarf made him wonder if she could access a realm he didn’t believe in and didn’t especially wish to hear from.
“Zelda, this is silly,” he said as they approached the hut, she on one forearm, Maryvonne on the other. At this angle his wife’s face looked gaunt and austere and he could discern the gentle line of rippled scarring along her jaw from the eczema. She had that faraway look she used to get in Paris, then later at Ellerslie, when she set herself against the opponents of her desire. He was only the most obvious of them, for not believing in her talent for ballet, for not helping her chart a professional course while she was young, and the defeats yielding only slowly to growth might have been easier to bear. There were other opponents of her desire: her family, for underestimating her; any woman (actress, painter, writer) who might be perceived as competition, for presenting as more accomplished than she; lastly, the dance itself, for being alluring and so often beyond her.
And her willingness to beat up her body until every muscle in her legs was pulled, twisted, or deformed—her thighs reeking of the muscle oil she rubbed into them religiously, those thighs always in such pain that even while she slept her legs twitched and convulsed beside him in bed at night—well, how could you interpret that except as some way of paying him back for his doubts? She would exorcise all the demons of wasted youth at once, memories in which she was the spirit of an era incarnate, beautiful, frivolous, marvelously irresponsible, promiscuous yet loyal, experimental in action and opinion, always full of wit. She would sculpt her fine muscled body until it was an instrument of the dance and nothing else. Hardly sleeping, practicing six to eight hours a day, she spent the rest of her time worrying about mistakes made at rehearsal, what she needed to do to improve, whether improvement was even possible. The ballet not so much art as proving ground. All the many steps and maneuvers still beyond her, the heights she couldn’t attain on her leaps, the latest loving reprimand from her taskmaster Madame Egorova, were obstacles to be surmounted. She talked endlessly about her limits, doubting she could overcome them; and he failed the test every time, saying it wasn’t necessary to surpass any limits, she had no one to prove herself before, no one was watching. “You’re just afraid I might actually have talent,” she would cry out. “You want to harvest my brilliance, charms, and free-associative thoughts for yourself, so you can churn out stories about useless girls with potential, but God forbid one of us gets into the ring with you. Then you have to put me in my place. What you’re really afraid of is that I might be as good as you are.”
He had never believed in her, she would sometimes say. He had underestimated the diversity of her talents, for painting, for conversation and writing, for dance, riding, and sports of almost any kind. Every criticism he’d ever made of her, mostly while angry and provoked, was an excuse to do whatever the hell she wanted. No regard for his opinion. No worries about the cost to their love affair. Never a pang about the dereliction of her duties as mother or wife. Ballet was an opportunity to rebel against every choice made under the influence of her husband and their disaster of a marriage.
“Okay, let’s get on with this,” Scott said, distrusting the urgency of his wife’s latest desire but seeing no way to deter her. “It’s not real, though. It’s just voodoo superstition mixed with effrontery, the bravado of performance.”
“Then what are you so afraid of? Let me have my fun.”
The levity of her tone made it seem that he was making too much of it. All she wanted, for Christ’s sake, was to consult a palmist or tarot reader and have her fortune told.
“I go to a clairvoyant all the time in Asheville, as do several of the other women. I learn all sorts of things about you and your mysterious double life in Hollywood, since you’re so hush-hush about which films you work on, how your new novel is coming, what you do at night with the women who fall in love with you.”
Modestly, Maryvonne retreated one step, then another, before Scott caught her by the wrist, dragging her forward to demonstrate that he had nothing to hide.
“Ask her how much for two women,” Scott instructed Aurelio, and the Spaniard, standing in the wings for much of the conversation, now took up negotiations, letting the clairvoyant name a price, then shaking his head.
“Scott, I wish to go alone,” Zelda whispered, her face averted from the Frenchwoman.
“But I thought the idea was for the two of you to visit the clairvoyant together,” he protested. “Wasn’t that the great secret you were keeping on the beach?”
Zelda laughed in that way she had of finding her own antics preposterous yet amusing.
“I also wish,” Maryvonne interjected, “for my fortune to be read.”
“You can wait your turn and get a reading after me,” Zelda said sharply. “I don’t want anyone listening to my secrets.”
“But your Spanish is not very good,” Maryvonne said, “and this divining ancient woman will not speak English.”
It was impossible to argue the point.
“Then we’ll go together,” Zelda sighed, “but only tell her what I tell you to tell her, and only ask questions when I say so.”
Scott pulled out his wallet and Aurelio did the same, but Scott waved him off. “No, allow me. It’s my wife’s crazy idea, so the least I can do is shell out the cash.”
“What if she says something I don’t wish to hear, Scott?” Zelda asked suddenly.
“Well, that’s easy enough to solve,” he said, shooting her a severe look, trying to get a handle on her state of mind. “You don’t have to go inside in the first place.”
“Don’t be a high hat, Scott, and don’t be so cowardly. Perhaps my fortunes will have changed,” she said lightly. “Besides, what hazard can a clairvoyant predict that we haven’t already encountered? If she says anything unpleasant, I’ll tell her to move on, a good strategy, don’t you think—I won’t let her say anything I don’t want to hear.”
Zelda parted the red serge curtains to slip into the old woman’s lair, Maryvonne starting after her.
“Is it too much to ask you to keep an eye on her?” he said in a hushed voice.
Maryvonne didn’t reply right away, her chin bowed.
“Don’t worry yourself about it,” he said, half taking back the request but not quite. “All you must do, please, if the old witch says anything ominous, water it down in translation.”
“What is ‘water down’?” Maryvonne asked.
“Tell a lie, dire un mensonge,” he said, raising his thumb and index finger as if holding a delicate pearl between them. “A few small lies, kindnesses really.”
Flipping through his billfold, he extracted a wad of American dollars, reminding himself of the exchange rate, knowing the amount he held was too large and trying to whittle it down. In the midst of his calculations, the old woman snatched the cash from his fingers.
“Si, si, el dinero americano es bueno,” she said and their negotiations came to an end. The extra money, Scott decided, might motivate her to tell a kinder fortune.
Showing a full set of sandstone-colored teeth, the clairvoyant identified a ramshackle bodega beyond the market, saying “Una hora” several times amid a warble of Spanish words, alternately eyeing each man, then flapping her wrists out from the waist to chase them off.
“She say we can wait over there. The drinks are good, she promise us,” Aurelio said, “and they will be on me.”
The old woman put her hand on Maryvonne’s waist, herding her into the hut.
Scott foresaw the tall glass of Bacardi rum waiting for him at the bodega. He was exhausted, as though he’d spent a long day under deadline on the studio lot, running between his office and that of some director who kept arbitrarily reversing course on a script. Only he wasn’t at work, he was on holiday, and you weren’t supposed to feel this worn out by the pursuit of leisure.
Not twenty feet down the road, Aurelio at his side, Scott heard the scuttle of footsteps behind them. Before he could turn she put her warm, soft hand to his neck, thanking him—for his patience, for doting on her impulses. “I know I’m taking advantage, but I’m having a lovely time and you’re so tolerant. Scott, this year is going to be different,” Zelda said. “It’s going to be a good year for us, for money, for so many other things. I just need to hear the clairvoyant say it, then I’ll know it’s true.”
“But Zelda, dear, don’t put too much trust in—”
“That’s not why I ran back, though,” she said. “While riding on the beach earlier, while outracing everyone, I was flooded by memories and I almost forgot to tell you, it couldn’t wait until after. About the dollhouse I made for Scottie that one Christmas, a perfect replica of our house at Ellerslie, curtains in all its windows sewn from the same fabric as the curtains hanging from the windows of that three-storied, high-ceilinged Greek Revival mansion we were living in, do you remember, also, the furniture carved from fine woods with seats wrapped and stapled in leather, the bookshelves in your tiny study made from oak, the perfect miniature of your writing desk, also the figurines for each of us, me, you, Scottie. Did you forget about that?”
“I hadn’t thought of it in a long while,” he admitted, looking to his left to gauge whether Aurelio was listening.
“You see,” she said. “You never remember my charming qualities. But you won’t forget that story again, will you, Scott?”
“Never,” he said.
“Is it gone?”
He wasn’t sure what she meant.
“The dollhouse? Is it gone?”
He thought it might be in storage in Baltimore. If she wished for him to do so, he would check someday soon.
She smiled, pleased to have their disagreement resolved so simply. She didn’t want there to be any hard feelings between them, not when she was about to allow the old fisherwoman to trawl her soul and see what the future held.
Maryvonne wasn’t sure what Scott’s request required of her. Did he mean for her to betray Zelda’s trust? She didn’t think she could dupe this savvy woman even if she tried. Also, it felt like a favor you might ask of a friend of many years, not someone you had met a day ago. Slowly she had begun to reconsider her early impressions of this dazzling, presumptuous, and desperately isolated couple.
“If God came down and gave him the choice tomorrow,” Zelda ruminated, expecting Maryvonne to translate, “which would my husband choose: a long life by my side in which we could finally make each other happy or a bestselling, Pulitzer Prize–winning—oh, never mind, I know the answer to that.”
Maryvonne stopped mid-translation, holding a finger up to the divining woman, telling her to wait a minute, that wasn’t what they wanted to ask after all.
“Zelda,” she said in English, “you need to go slowly, please, and decide what you want to know. We are confusing her.”
“Is she a gypsy?”
“You want me to ask her that?”
“I suppose not,” Zelda said. “But what’s your opinion?”
The woman handed Zelda the deck of cards and instructed her to shuffle them. Zelda cut the deck, nervously folding the two halves into each other until they merged, then splitting and joining them again, no longer chatting, no longer asking questions. Maryvonne took mental notes: the shifts in mood, the sudden lapsing from childish exuberance to dread. Receiving the deck from Zelda, the divining woman began to flip cards face up and lay them on the table, while Zelda, chattering nervously once more, also nibbling on her nails, strained to follow the hands of the old woman rather than the cards on the table, as though policing a poker player she suspected of dealing from the bottom of the deck. The old woman looked up and spoke sharply.
“She say the questions will come later,” Maryvonne explained.
“Let her do it her way, then,” Zelda said, “but I don’t want to yield all control.”
The divining woman flipped nine cards onto the table, structuring them in a V facing herself, a mountain peak from the perspective of Zelda and Maryvonne sitting opposite her.
“Is the card upside down according to whether it’s facing me or her?” Zelda asked.
Maryvonne recognized the major arcana cards right away, the Fool in first position, the Death card reversed in the third position, the Hermit and the Lovers also reversed. Though no expert in tarot, she knew enough to discern that the minor arcana cards weren’t much more promising. Zelda cursed the Fool. Also she didn’t approve of the card in the far corner nearest to her, the shrouded figure, familiar from past readings. She always got dealt that card. No matter what she did, he shadowed her.
The old woman closed her eyes and moved her hands in the air over the deck. She demanded complete silence, and when she opened her lids halfway, you could see her eyes rolling from side to side like marbles in a confined space, until at last she began to incant the lessons of the spirits, her cadence monotonous and solemn like that of monks saying matins.
“She say you are far away from most people you care for and you have closed your heart. So much spirit and energy and confusion. It is for many years, all this confusion, she has rarely seen so much confusion in a deck. You have known great sorrow, sometimes greater joy, which you need to let come again because sorrow, she is winning.”
“When can I ask questions?” Zelda whispered, but the woman did not lower her eyes, continuing in a steady drone.
“She say the cards speak of travel, many trips. Do you want me to interrupt her?”
“Not yet, I suppose.”
“She says, the travel does not satisfy, it is not what you want. Your love is always running away from you.”
“Ask her why the Fool came up first.”
Maryvonne posed the question, but after falling silent for a few seconds, without ever lowering her eyes to them, the clairvoyant resumed her slow chant.
“New beginnings,” Maryvonne said in French because she had fallen behind and could no longer retrieve English words quickly enough, “hope, your life without limits, you must leave something behind.” Then in English: “What is behind you is hard to escape, but you are a decided woman.”
“I need her to slow down,” Zelda said. “It’s too much, all at once.”
The old woman, the yellow streaks of her irises set against burnt-sienna skin, the lines around her eyes channels of wisdom, punched out a phrase, “Los demonios del pasado,” as though rebuking a child for interrupting in class. Zelda’s demons were real, the old woman insisted, and she must turn and face them. “Usted siente que no puede escapar de ellos.”
“You fear the past and it chases you,” Maryvonne summarized, again in French.
“What does that mean? Is she saying it’s just my imagination?”
Maryvonne posed the question and the woman flipped three cards: the Star in reverse, the Moon, the High Priestess in reverse. Again the diviner stared at the deck in silence, this time looking up at Zelda with awe, before again shutting her eyes to prophesy.
“What did she say?” Zelda asked, and Maryvonne realized she hadn’t yet translated.
“You are attuned to the spiritual world. You know things before you must know them. This frightens you, but it is only knowledge. You are stronger than those who tell you otherwise.”
The old woman pressed on, her tone now chastising, now encouraging. A loved one, someone whose name was supposed to be large in the world, was self-destructive. Also perhaps quite ill. “This is not your worst moment, I’m sorry,” Maryvonne said in numbed imitation. “A strong feeling here that all is not well, things are not as they appear, your life constructed of mirrors. You keep asking someone to reflect you, he asks the same of you, but why can not you trust yourself?”
Maryvonne decided to omit the part about a man who adores her but cannot love her as she deserves to be loved. She was trying to decide how much of the reading, if any, to share with Scott.
“You know each other intimately because of crisis,” Maryvonne continued. “In the proximate future, you feel betrayed and old resentment returns, but this is where she cannot understand your choices. You need to be kind to yourself, not keep everyone far away.”
Again the old woman spoke of a loved one who was ill and Maryvonne translated sparingly because she couldn’t lie outright; the gravity of the diviner’s tone gave too much away.
The diviner kept saying, “I am sorry to tell you this,” and Maryvonne asked her to be precise, did she mean Zelda’s husband, did she mean Scott?
“Who is it?” Zelda demanded, mustering all the authority she could. “One of you isn’t telling me something.”
“She say again you already know.”
“If I already know,” Zelda replied curtly, “what did I come here for?”
Outside the bodega two villagers prepped gamecocks, squaring them off so that the birds could preen and strut, wings pluming magnificently. The first of the villagers, his skin rough and grooved like tree bark, slashed a smile showing as many missing or broken-off teeth as whole ones; and the second, diminutive, stocky, with a round face and a pug nose, did not look up. The handlers hovered behind their birds as the adversaries stalked one another, the black gamecock now pressing its powerful neck as a lever onto the neck of the other, its rival now pushing off and raising its wings like a cape before lunging forward again, leading with its terrific talons. Each handler, allowing his bird to peck its opponent never more than once or twice, would then scoop it up from beneath with one hand, covering its eyes, shielding it from its rival. The birds’ beaks were tied shut with string, and after taking the gamecock into his arms each handler would coddle his bird, primping feathers, stroking its clipped and stubbled comb, caressing its throat. Soon, though, the men had replaced the birds on the ground, squaring them off, not having to wait even a few seconds for the cocks’ instinctive hatred of each other to kick in.
“Training exercises,” Aurelio explained. Even a bird that had killed many opponents must be kept fresh. The handlers put him through exercises to make sure the reflexes stayed sharp, that the bird hadn’t lost any of his braggadocio, his will to dominate, his impulse to kill. “I will tell you that the slick black one is veteran of many fights. Notice how he props his chest, how big he makes himself, how high off the ground he leaps. Is ready to strike, knowing already what damage he can do. This one,” he pointed to the other bird, “is a novicio. It is difficult to tell—does he have talent for killing, does he not?”
Scott asked his friend how you could distinguish one type from the other, whether you could instill talent for the fights in all gamecocks.
The handler with the barklike skin shot a quick glance at Aurelio, addressing him in a swath of peasant Spanish from which Scott could make out few if any words. It was always so much harder to understand a foreign tongue as spoken by the lower classes.
“Any cock will fight,” Aurelio said, answering Scott’s question, “but many birds, they must die during the first fight, and maybe they are meant to die. It is not in them, the know-how to fight. It is true also with soldiers. Any man can die on a battlefield, brave man or coward, it make no difference. But some men, I can tell you which ones, must die in their first battle. In them the instincts are wrong.”
“Let’s have that drink,” Scott said. The late afternoon sun was strong on his forehead, his back stiff from the riding.
“Los gallos de pelea son bellos,” Aurelio congratulated the men, then to Scott, “Handsome birds, I tell them.”
Aurelio, propping the door to the bodega ajar with his foot, turned to pose a question to the handlers. Apparently he’d won their trust, for the men answered at once, simultaneously, in a flurry of Spanish.
Inside the bodega a man behind the counter wore a wide-brimmed straw hat over stringy black hair and a poorly manicured beard that made his face resemble an unkempt shrub. Two rows of shelves stacked mostly sinful items, beer, wine, Bacardi rum, cigars, and dozens of varieties of cigarettes. They sat at the nearer of two tables in the establishment, nestled against a four-foot-high ledge running the length of a side wall on top of which a copper-colored oscillating Emerson fan, its aluminum blades in the shape of a yacht propeller, washed his cheek in cool splashes of air.
Aurelio ran through the information the two men had shared with him: who fought cocks on the peninsula, where the fights were held, how to procure an invitation to the fights tomorrow evening.
“You will join me,” he said confidently to Scott.
When the Spaniard went to get drinks, Scott tried to distract himself from thinking about what the clairvoyant might even now be saying to his wife. He remembered Zelda’s note, which she hadn’t allowed him to look at earlier. Extracting the Moleskine from his sport coat, he found the note inside, hardly through the first sentence—“Dearest Scott, I want you to know how much it means to me to hear you promise to take better care”—when Aurelio returned.
“Ah, un billet doux,” Aurelio said as Scott covered the sheet of green stationery with his forearm, vowing to return to it as soon as he could. The Spaniard set four drinks on the table, two lagers and two Cuba libres, that cocktail of Bacardi, Coca-Cola, and lime named in honor of Cuba’s throwing off the yoke of Spain and the United States. He carried two cigars, now biting off the end of his own and striking a match, which he held up to the thick wand of hand-rolled tobacco dangling from his lips. The Spaniard sucked on the near end until concentric rings of orange glowed inside the tip and several pungent clouds drifted across the table, then he handed the other cigar and a book of matches to Scott. There was no way to refuse the gift. Scott liked a cigar as much as the next man, but he wasn’t supposed to smoke anymore. Cigarettes were hard to resist but, like beer, relatively inconsequential. Cigars were a commitment, signifying everything he was supposed to have given up by now. He struck the match, dragged on the end of the cigar, then cupped his mouth into an O, releasing smoke, feeling a tickle in his throat and a cough erupting from his sternum. Head turned to the wall, he held a fist sideways to his mouth to quell the coughing and its slicing pains.
“Are we to speak of love or war?” Aurelio asked, drink in one hand, his cigar stabbing at the green stationery on the table. Scott folded the letter into squares and put it back in the Moleskine to prevent an ash from scalding Zelda’s words.
“War,” Scott suggested. One of his favorite subjects. He had been an officer, second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, during the Great War, on the verge of being sent overseas when the armistice was signed. That he never made it over was one of the great regrets of his life.
“A strange regret,” Aurelio said.
Scott recalled the Spaniard’s horrific-looking wound, his scrape with death.
“I don’t mean to suggest that war is anything less than devastating,” he said. “It’s more like the way one feels about an unpaid debt, and maybe too the writer in me believed it was something I ought to have witnessed. A confession between you and me—my publisher bought my first novel on the premise that any day I was to be shipped out as fodder for the war machine, one of the millions never to return amid that war’s unprecedented rate of fatalities, another illustrative case of the might-have-been.”
“You are a writer, then?” Aurelio asked, and Scott realized too late that he had effectively avoided the topic of what he did until now.
“Let’s not talk about that,” Scott said. He was also a military buff, versed in everything there was to know about the American Civil War, about the strategies of the Great War, about the Battle of Verdun; he knew a great many European wars inside and out.
“It is melancholy to speak of such things,” Aurelio admitted.
If he had it to do over again, would he enlist in the Republican cause?
“Of course,” the Spaniard said. “This is never the question.”
Was he one of the soldiers with correct instincts on a battlefield?
“It is true, you require luck,” Aurelio explained, “especially in the beginning. But say a man, he is ready for battle. Well, in that case there are things he can do in the field that others cannot do, things that make him an asset to his battalion.” He might prove to be a good shot, he might prove efficient in maneuvering away from a line of fire. During his first battle he might suffer four or five false deaths, those occasions on which without some luck he should have died. By his third battle, though, a man might greatly improve his odds. “Now he understands the game better,” the Spaniard maintained. “Improved as a soldier, he moves easier on the field. Deaths surround him, it is true, his own death closes in, but he sees it coming, steps aside. Even when they try to catch him by surprise, he has a play left. To himself a veteran whispers, ‘I know the battle so long and so well,’ but this is dangerous way of thinking.” The trick was to trust what you learned on the field and let the knowledge improve your odds of survival, while yet remaining cautious, never cowardly, but ever cautious.
“Don’t believe your own propaganda, you mean?”
“Yes, I like this saying. Now I see why you are a writer.”
“Let’s not talk about that,” Scott insisted, angry at himself for having said anything in the first place. It made the friendship so much less natural.
“Well, yes, then,” Aurelio replied. “Never believe you know all there is to know because there is forever something new to learn about war.”
Scott couldn’t resist removing the Moleskine from his sport coat. Opening the journal, he jotted down Aurelio’s phrase, about never trusting oneself too much, about always learning something new on a battlefield.
He took a sip of his drink, its cola sweetness an antidote to the remnant taste of bile at the back of his mouth. The drink’s medicinal properties were rather limited. Instead of deadening the nerves, the alcohol fired his frenzied thoughts, making his pulse race, his head feel lighter and lighter. It was a matter of finding the right balance, of reaching the point where the alcohol would quell yesterday’s long hangover, the cumulative toll of weeks and weeks of excess. There were days when the calm returned and you felt again in control, as though you no longer had to burrow ever deeper inside alcohol’s wondrous alchemy, as though you might take or leave the next drink—but this wasn’t one of those days.
He puffed dutifully on the cigar, inhaling the smoke without any enthusiasm for its fragrance. The tobacco mingled on his tongue with the sugar and alcohol, an imbroglio of scents, tastes, forsaken desires. He felt the cough coming in advance this time, pulled out a white monogrammed handkerchief, slightly frayed at the edges, hacking into the linen, feeling the phlegm dislodge in his chest, his cough hollow and barreled, subsiding only to give way to a second fit of violent spasms. When he lowered the handkerchief from his mouth, away from the Spaniard’s line of vision, he saw the blood-spangled pattern, dots and splotches here and there. It had been stupid of him to accept the cigar.
“Your lungs are unwell?” Aurelio said with concern. “I am no nurse like my wife, but in a camp men cough day and night, some of them infected with enfermedad de los pulmones, tuberculosis, some of them no. You have seen the doctor?”
“Not recently,” Scott admitted, not wanting to talk or think about his lungs. He was concerned instead by a man leaning his forearms on the counter near the front of the bodega who appeared to be staring at them. He remembered Zelda at the Pan American terminal in Miami, certain at every turn they were being spied on, and he beat back his own suspicions as implausible.
“Do you see that man there?” Aurelio asked.
Scott looked across the room as if for the first time.
“What about him?”
“He keeps watch on us, no?”
“We’re under surveillance, you mean?” Scott said and Aurelio nodded. It occurred to Scott that the Spaniard had his own reasons for paranoia. How had he accounted for his escape from the camp again, his subsequent emigration from France? A contact here in Cuba had played a role, but was it possible Aurelio had entered the country illegally?
“I can’t be sure,” Scott started to say, when the man pushed off the counter and walked toward them. In an instant Scott recognized him, Senor Famosa Garcia, the pompous yet handsome silver-haired guide hired by Mateo Cardona to show him Havana. Delighted at first by the coincidence, he studied the elderly Cuban’s evenly bronzed face and ghastly milky eye as though registering the features of an old acquaintance, but it wasn’t coincidence, of course.
“How do you two know each other?” Aurelio asked.
Famosa Garcia stood above the table, uninvited, Aurelio preparing to rise and chase the man off if Scott didn’t want him here.
“May I join you for a minute, Senor Fitzgerald?” Famosa Garcia asked.
“Why not,” Scott said.
The dignified emissary took the chair next to Scott and leaned into him as he sat down, whispering into the side of his head that he had a message to convey from Senor Cardona.
“Not now,” Scott replied. “Maybe later at the hotel. We’ll have to get you a drink because we’re talking of Franco’s Spain. What are your views on the triumph of the Fascists?”
Aurelio shifted in his chair uncomfortably.
“Don’t worry,” Scott said boisterously, perceiving humor in the situation but unable to lay hold of it. “May I introduce Famosa Garcia, who is friends with Mateo Cardona of the formidable Cardona family of Santiago de Cuba, not all of whom are enemies of Fascism. But my friend Mateo is a champion of freedom, someone who hates Fascism as much as I do.”
Famosa Garcia stiffened at his remarks, maybe because he’d come here on an errand and had to report back to Havana soon and it wasn’t his duty to have drinks with Scott, but maybe also because he hated the United States rather more than he hated Fascism.
“Shall we drink to Senor Cardona and the demise of Fascism?” Scott said, tilting his glass to the messenger, who lifted empty hands to indicate he was in no position to toast friendships or causes.
“Senor Fitzgerald, I am here on specific matters only.”
“It will have to wait.”
“After all Senor Cardona has done for you,” Famosa Garcia protested coolly, “he deserves this minute of your time, no?”
“No,” Scott said. After all he’s done for me? he wanted to say. You mean guiding me to an out-of-the-way bar where my wife nearly gets killed but instead watches a man knifed? Do you mean promising to make it go away afterward but then constantly hounding me to report that, well, sadly, it hasn’t gone away yet and he must track me through Cuba to remind me of this fact? “Not this minute of time, anyway,” Scott added, softening his position, realizing it would be unwise to send Famosa Garcia away carrying such a harsh message.
“Senor Cardona has done much on your behalf,” Famosa Garcia continued, turning again so that he spoke only to Scott. “There is more to say, about the police, about the investigation.”
“For now, though,” Scott blustered, including his friend Aurelio, “we talk of Spain.”
Scott couldn’t explain his own recklessness, but he wanted to elicit a confession from the silver-maned Cuban. If you admit your sympathies for the Falangists, he said silently to himself, then and only then will I let you deliver your message.
“Sometimes I am tired of talking of Spain,” Aurelio said.
“This man fought and was wounded,” Scott said, holding up his drink, tilting it slightly so that rum and soda spilled onto the table like a libation. He didn’t require Aurelio to fight his battles for him. Rather he would stick up for his noble friend. “Nearly died in the fight to keep Spain a free republic. I’m sorry to say this in his presence, but he and his men never had a chance, and do you know why? You haven’t told me any of this, Aurelio, but you will see that I understand why the war was lost. Let me tell you. Because the Germans and Italians, the united forces of Fascism, controlled the air, because every time a battalion of Republicans seized a strategic position, the planes manned by Mussolini’s Blackshirts, all volunteers I’m assured—no violations of the Non-Intervention Pact as far as President Roosevelt could decide—bombarded the trenches until they were as rife with corpses as with able soldiers.”
“What of the priests and nuns?” Famosa Garcia asked.
“Excuse me,” Aurelio said.
“The Communists killed many bishops, many priests and monks, many nuns,” Famosa Garcia said angrily, announcing his loyalty to the Church and the Spanish crown, refusing to look at Aurelio but instead gazing across the table at Scott. “Did he kill priests and nuns?”
“Never nuns,” Aurelio said.
“On land the Republicans might have won the war,” Scott continued, suddenly out of his depth. He had suspected Famosa Garcia of harboring Falangist sympathies, but this was more information than he had bargained for. “And in many ways they did win it battle by battle, but the bombing of Madrid, it went on and on, the bombing of children and women never ending. What do you think of the Falangists now?”
Scott glared at Famosa Garcia, no subtlety left in his insinuations.
“Maybe the yanquis,” Famosa Garcia said after a long silence.
Scott wanted to ask this silver-haired Fascist to step outside, but the man was too old.
“Maybe the government of the United States of America,” Famosa Garcia continued evenly, “should have assisted the Spanish Republic as everyone expected them to do.”
“Good enough,” Scott said, reaching a hand across the table to clasp the shoulder of the refined man with the strong jaw and milky eye, warming to him, or pretending to do so. “Let’s drink to that.”
Famosa Garcia made excuses to remove himself from the conversation, but Scott said, “Sit, you might learn something,” then instructed Aurelio to take them through the logistics of a people’s army, how the platoons and battalions worked, how ranks were assigned, who gave the orders.
“It is the same as any army,” Aurelio assured him, except the men sometimes weighed in on battalion officers, sometimes rendered votes of no confidence in leadership. This was especially true of the Americans of the Lincoln Battalion, infamous for rotating their crop of leaders, some voted out, others stepping down because they couldn’t follow a direct order, others killed in battle, sometimes from incompetence. It was a joke among the Spanish battalions and international brigades, “Who is in charge of the Americans today?”
“Tell us about the day of your injury,” Scott said to Aurelio. Famosa Garcia protested that he must be going, and this time Scott didn’t prevent him. Only when Mateo’s man had departed did the Spaniard ask whether it was wise to have provoked him so, but Scott dismissed the worry, saying it was nothing compared to what Zelda had put the poor man through three days ago.
“She is for sure very dramatic,” Aurelio said and Scott pushed his chair back from the table, glowering at the Spaniard. He would fight even this man whom he admired very much, whom he could not possibly defeat, if Zelda’s good name was at stake.
“Take it back,” he glowered.
“Stay calm, amigo.” Aurelio took a swig of beer. “I mean no offense. She is free in spirit, braver than most women. Is she stronger than you believe, perhaps stronger even than you?”
Other men might have felt threatened by such a statement, but not Scott. Pleased to hear Zelda receiving her due, he sat again in his chair.
He was trying hard to keep himself in line, but there was something he was afraid of and he didn’t yet know what it was. Maybe it was just the damned letter.
“Couldn’t you ever go back?” Scott asked, wishing to stop talking of Zelda. He felt awe for the Spaniard, this socialist and Basque nationalist who’d fought so bravely for a homeland to which he might never return.
“My country is lost,” Aurelio said sternly.
What if the Americans entered the war against Fascism and defeated Mussolini first, Hitler next, wouldn’t Franco fall in the aftermath?
“I give no thought to such matters,” he insisted. He was fortunate that his cousin had found him in the camps and married him, otherwise he would not be here drinking with a new friend.
“You admire my wife, no?” Aurelio asked and Scott felt he was being accused of something.
Just then there was a commotion near the entrance, the gamecock handler with bark for skin calling for Aurelio by name, something about a woman outside. Apparently the establishment in which they were drinking wasn’t a place for women, at least not proper European women. Maryvonne, defying the ban, bulled into the room as Aurelio sprang from his chair, rushing forward to escort her outside, but she slapped at her cousin’s arms, uttering defiant words, sweeping toward the table, there for one reason and one reason only, to speak with Scott.
It was too soon for the clairvoyant’s reading to be over and he intuited some dire news. She stumbled to recount what had happened, but he could envision it all too clearly: Zelda running off in the middle of the reading, without explanation, without indication of where she was headed. At first Maryvonne thought her new American friend must have stepped outside for fresh air, certain to return in a minute or two, so she had remained seated across the table from the diviner, the two women staring blankly at each other. It was the old woman who at last announced that the Americana wasn’t coming back. Maryvonne rose from the table, upsetting the half-interpreted deck of cards, all but floating out the door into the late afternoon, stunned by the light and air. She remembered the bodega where Scott and Aurelio were waiting. Zelda would have gone in search of her husband.
“She did not come here, then?” Maryvonne said.
Aurelio, at a loss for what to say or do, sidled up to the table and clasped his rum drink, eventually lifting it to his lips.
“I am sorry, Scott,” Maryvonne was saying. “I was sure she only needed fresh air, I was sure she would search for you, she has only been missing a short time.”
“There will be a simple explanation,” Scott said, expert in putting people off the trail of his wife’s madness. The task at hand: interrupt the conclusions toward which Maryvonne might be racing. The first rule of every crisis. Control the room, manage rumors, anticipate the things that might get whispered by acquaintances and strangers and make it back to friends, family, their literary circle, the general public at large. After all, it wasn’t anyone else’s business—this decade-old illness, longer still if you included its genealogy. What people saw, what they believed they saw, wasn’t reality. Reality was what they could remember afterward.
He was so calm and convincing that as he watched the spell take hold of Maryvonne and felt her shoulders relax under the steadying pressure of his palms as if he were a priest executing the rite of absolution, he wondered whether he believed anything of what he said. “No need for alarm,” he heard himself saying. “In all probability it is nothing.”
The initial panic she felt on entering the bodega having lifted, Maryvonne studied Scott. Truly the man was a puzzle. On the beach earlier he had prodded the mare into a dash, worked himself into a state, fretting about what might have happened to his beloved Zelda when nothing had. Now that she’d really gone missing, he took everything in stride.
“This is not unusual,” he assured his friends. As a nurse she understood codes of discretion, the sentiments people couldn’t express residing inside the words they allowed themselves. “Zelda is an impulsive, spontaneous woman,” Scott was saying. “Most likely she headed for the shore, where we’ll find her walking barefoot in the runoff of the waves. Or she’ll be at the hotel when we return, having gone for a swim. My wife doesn’t follow other people’s rules. The gypsy woman was an imperious sort and I could tell she would rub Zelda the wrong way.”
They toured the deserted, dismantled market in haste, but found no traces of Zelda anywhere. They made inquiries with a few straggling townspeople: no signs of anyone fitting Zelda’s description. Next they crossed the road to untie the horses and Scott proposed, reasonably, “We’ll retrace our route from earlier, look for her along the beach.” Aurelio hastened Maryvonne into the saddle of the palomino, then mounted the bay gelding, leaving Scott with the mare. When they reached the sands at the end of the dirt road, her cousin proposed heading up shore, in the direction of the afternoon’s outing. He was obviously unsettled by the entire affair. One of his childhood friends had suffered from nerves in the war, and after a week of heavy bombardment by Mussolini’s airplanes woke three consecutive nights in screams, endangering his entire company, which was entrenched a few hundred meters from the enemy. Though fine during the day, brave and businesslike, capable of shooting straight and accurately, he lost hold of himself by night. Lack of sleep drained him, the nightmares unrelenting, ever fiercer, until one day the lieutenant in charge of the company ordered Aurelio’s friend banished from the front lines. Aurelio didn’t believe most of the propaganda about arbitrary executions for desertion, but he never heard from his friend again. Had he escaped from a hospital bed to wander the streets, clothed as a deserter, earning a deserter’s cruel end? Had he been assassinated by the enemy or, worse yet, by one of his own comrades?
Aurelio, haunted by memories, needed to be on his own. So he led his horse up the beach on a private reconnaissance mission, leaving Maryvonne to ride beside Scott. Applying pressure to the palomino with her heel, she soon had it cantering to the shore, where the waves were higher and rougher, Scott keeping pace on the mare so that they might cross the sands to explore brush, palms, and thin pine forest, then slash down to the water again, combing the terrain for clues of any sort. The spindrift off the water moist and cool, the temperatures dropping, she examined the western sky, trying to guess how many hours until sunset. Below them a trail of gray-black clouds unfolded like the plume of a forest fire.
While they surveyed the empty beach, Scott interrogated her about what the old woman had said inside the hut, how Zelda had reacted to each cryptic statement. Maryvonne fastened on the last set of cards, trying to recall which three cards the diviner had laid down, in what order.
“The occult details,” he said, “are irrelevant to the situation as far as I can see.”
“Well, Scott,” she replied in French, “your wife flees in the middle of the reading, after the diviner deals those exact cards. It seems it might be important.”
“My apologies, I didn’t mean to suggest you were unhelpful,” he said, again full of gentlemanly charm. Amazing how he could turn it off and on. “Was I terribly rude? That wasn’t my intention.”
He asked Maryvonne to take him through everything Zelda had heard and seen, trying to figure out what had prompted her flight. So she recounted the denouement of the reading, Zelda asking, “Tell me about the man I have loved my whole life,” Maryvonne tracking the unfolding prophecy for her. “Is he faithful?” Zelda asked in a guarded tone. She didn’t care if he slept with other women. All she wanted to know was whether an alien affection had taken root in his heart. “He will always love you,” Maryvonne said, translating, watering down the diviner’s words about a man in the cards who loved two women, whereupon Zelda leveled her accusation: “She is evasive on purpose; she needs to tell me what the cards say.” Then the diviner dealt the final three cards—the Devil, nine of cups reversed, the six of wands reversed—and Maryvonne muttered to herself, “Christ.”
“Why?” Scott asked.
Well, she explained, a friend in the Red Cross read tarot and had talked to her about cards of illness, blight, and mortality. Those three were dark cards, especially in combination.
“Any other signs?” he asked. “How did she look?”
“One minute she is fine, the next she accelerates—rushes, no?—from the hut.”
As he turned his horse away from hers to angle it up the beach, she heard him mutter, “Damnit, Zelda,” seeming rather more angry with than worried for Zelda.
The line of stone cabins from the Club Kawama came into view, the beach populated with straw huts, sun umbrellas, and stray late afternoon bathers; and now Aurelio hailed them from behind, his horse advancing in a steady canter.
“No sign of your wife that way, my friend, and I see she is not in your company. Should we notify the authorities?”
Scott blanched at the suggestion, stammering for a second, then with majestic cool began to thank them for their help, assuring them he could handle things from here.
He is lying, Maryvonne thought.
“I’ve inconvenienced you enough,” he said.
“Nonsense,” she protested.
“Well, we can return the horses for you,” Aurelio said. “One less matter for worrying, and I mean what I say about the cockfights tomorrow; you must be my gues’.”
“Guest,” Maryvonne said, correcting her cousin because she was angry with him, hearing that she too failed to hit the t on the end of that word in English. Normally Aurelio would have defended himself, but he said nothing, accepting her reproof—first, for his indelicacy in looking forward to tomorrow’s outing while Zelda was missing; second, for having made plans with Scott that didn’t include her.
Published as Beautiful Fools: The Last Affair of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald by R. Clifton Spargo (NY. Overlook Duckworth, 2013).