Beautiful Fools
by R. Clifton Spargo


WHAT SCOTT MUST HAVE FELT JUST THEN—ON WALKING INTO a hotel room to discover the wife he believed to be missing, possibly harmed, kneeling but now slowly rising from the foot of the bed, his own thoughts not quite accessible to him, the repertoire of grief playing out all at once. He must have experienced the euphoria of averted catastrophe even as the emotions rolled through him, tossing one against another, first joy, then fury, next despondency, next ardor, then joy again.

Zelda saw her opportunity. He’d spent the night fearing her death and he looked the worse for it. She needed to persuade him that the entire episode simply proved how necessary she was to him. Nevertheless, she didn’t wish to explain herself, why and where she’d gone, what she prayed for, whether anyone answered.

“I’m okay,” she promised him.

He couldn’t believe she’d done this to him again.

“I needed to clear my head, but everything is fine now.”

He’d been half certain she was dead.

“Well, you seem to have handled my demise rather riotously,” she said, alluding to the alcohol on his breath, the late hour. The cruel glance he shot her hastened regret. “I didn’t mean that,” she said. “Can I take it back?”

The doors to the balcony had been cracked so that she might listen to the reliably pounding surf, the thunder rolling in while she prayed at the foot of the bed. Just then a gust of wind blew the doors open and she scampered forward, pushing them shut against the spitting winds, thankful for the chance to move out from under his stunned stare.

“Zelda, where were you?”

“It’s not important,” she said, facing him again, noticing he’d left the door to their room ajar, now striding forward also to close it and lock them in. “I can’t remember all the places, in town, at the church—”

“I knew it,” he said.

Then back to find the clairvoyant, after that mostly on the beach, in and out of the woods of the resort.

“We checked most of those places.”

“I know you did, dearest Scott,” she said. “Can we not talk about it just now? We need to take care of you, get you out of those clothes, into something dry and warm.”

Under her coaxing, he seemed all at once to let go, the man before her no longer someone middle-aged, distinguished, handsomely graying at the temples, but instead a person on the verge of collapse, bags under his eyes, his posture slackened, exhaustion emanating from every fiber of his being. On cue he began to cough. It was a hacking, wet cough.

“Scott, let me draw you a bath.”

“I need to let the front desk know you’ve come home.”


“They’re looking for you.”

“Not at this hour, they’re not,” she said. “Besides, I’ve already been found. I’ve been in this room for hours.”

He tried to make calculations about the length of their separation, about the places searched, about his last visit to the room. She watched him doing the math in his head.

“Where did you go after the church?” he asked.

Having turned on the spigot, she ran her fingers under the stream, waiting for it to warm, no guarantee it would at this hour of the night, in the middle of a terrific thunderstorm. While the pipes clanked and water thrummed against the white porcelain basin of the tub, she exited the bathroom to undress her husband, peeling the sleeves of his jacket from his arms, fishing in the breast pocket for the Moleskine to discover it damp around the edges but otherwise undamaged. She placed it on the desk. Lifting her gaze, she saw the gun tucked in his belt and recoiled.

“Scott, where did you get that?”

His hand reached automatically for his hip, the place on his body where her eyes were fixed. “Oh,” he said, “it’s the old Smith and Wesson I bought years ago in Baltimore.”

“Why do you have it on you? Have you been carrying it the entire time?”

“I thought you might be in danger,” he said, extracting the gun from his belt, laying it on the desk beside the journal.

Though disconcerted, she resumed the loving chore of undressing him, remembering all the ways she’d stripped him of clothing in the past, trying to concentrate on the facts before them, wet clothing, wet skin, weariness, so as not to return to the events of the night. Off with the rumpled pinstriped shirt, also the T-shirt underneath, until he was bare chested and she could run her fingers through the ghostly blond-white wisps of hair on his well-defined pectorals, down along his muscled but alcohol-bloated stomach. “You have such nice skin,” she said as she tugged at his belt and in one swift motion pulled his trousers to his ankles, realizing only then that she should have removed his shoes first. He shuffled to the bed and sank into it, coughing as he reclined, a fist held to his mouth to smother the hacking even as he raised his legs so she could unlace the Florsheims and free his feet, ripe from sweat and rain. Again she checked on the water running into the tub, lukewarm at best, but it would do.

He was lying on the bed, naked except for his BVDs, drowsing. She pulled him to his feet, saying, “Scott, let’s get you washed, then we can sleep.”

Afterward she walked him naked, rubbed dry, his pale skin flushed in splotches, only a bathrobe draped over his shoulders, the front hanging open to expose his pene, as the Cubans called it. Depositing him on the sheets, the covers pulled back, she burrowed in beside him.

At some point he must have passed out, he couldn’t be sure for how long. She wore only a long sheer pink nightgown through which he could see the rise of her hips turned sideways, her body rotated into him, her groin warm against his. She nuzzled him, asking was he awake, and how long could they stay in Cuba. “Scott, Scott,” she was saying as he listened to the wind-whipped torrents against the window. “Are we together again? I never know what any of this means.” It was just like her to want everything put back together in an instant, always wanting back into the now, into her marriage, into the notion of family. She believed so desperately in the myth of normalcy, always fearing it had eluded her. Normalcy: he would have defined it, in the style of his friend H. L. Mencken, as the notion that somewhere someone who wasn’t having a good life could still believe she was owed one. Through those long months of her first full breakdown, the institutionalization at Prangins and the tortures endured there in order to be readmitted to the world, the call to normalcy haunted her. Even when inside it, while living on the estate at Ellerslie, or vacationing with her husband and daughter in Charleston, or touring Cuba, she feared it was all just pretend and not how people who were really normal felt about being normal.

He dozed once more and then felt her stirring. She thought there might be somebody in the room. She wanted him to get up and check, then changed her mind. “Don’t leave me, dearest.” So he rolled onto his side to stare into the empty space between the bed and the balcony, assuring her no one was in the shadows. Heavy with exhaustion, listening to the rain, softer now as it prattled on the roof tiles above, he stroked her hair, but she was already asleep.

“I’m here,” he whispered. “It’s always just you and me.”

When next he awoke it was quiet, only dripping drains, the sprinkle and shimmer of wind through drenched palm fronds. Their bodies were no longer touching, she on her side of the bed, he on his. As he drifted in and out of fitful sleep, he thought he heard her chanting in a prayerlike whisper, the murmur soothing as his head sunk heavy into the pillow. When he woke next he had dreamed of her standing by the bed, laying hands on him, running holy medallions and herbs and charms over his prone body, the old woman with the yellow feline eyes witnessing his nudity while guiding Zelda through some incantation. The image of the clairvoyant chanting over his naked body terrified him, and he jolted awake several times during the night, until he became aware of what was happening on the other side of the bed, feigning slumber so as to pretend not to hear his wife’s words.

Eventually, though, he was peering through sleep-heavy lids at Zelda, propped against the headboard, eyes fixed on the air above as if listening to someone, then replying in a string of negation. “I am nothing, I am nothing, I am nothing,” she chanted in a whisper, waiting a few seconds, then answering, “It doesn’t matter, I am nothing.”

“Zelda,” he said softly.

“I’m all right,” she said, gasping for air, on the verge of hyperventilating. “It was only pretend—I wondered what it was to be one of the devoutly possessed, you know, those virgin mystics who experience true union with God.”

Gently he massaged her wrist, so that she would understand what was real, what wasn’t, and she turned to him, tucking her nose into the crook of his neck, silent at first, but soon he could feel the warm trickle of tears pooling along his clavicle.

“Scott, I know something’s wrong with me.” She lifted her face, sniffling, unable to breath, her words nasal-noted from crying and congestion. “But I wasn’t always like this, I don’t care what you say.”


On some level he had known all along how it would happen. So as the sun shone through the white muslin curtains, he held himself responsible. Silhouetted against the morning light, Zelda knelt in the foreground, arms tented in prayer on the brightly colored comforter, fingering the beads of a rosary, head bowed, eyes shut, lips moving rapidly in a simmer of mostly inaudible sound. Here was the reason why he hadn’t slept with her on the trip to Manhattan last fall, even though she had tried several times to seduce him over wine at dinners. No sooner did she begin to envision what might be hers again than she rushed into the future, heedless of danger, without judgment, without temperance. “Is it because you don’t find me attractive anymore?” she had asked in bed at the Algonquin on the last night of their stay in New York.

Why, then, if he’d known not to go down this road six months ago, had he behaved differently here in Cuba?

Well, for one thing, Zelda had seemed healthier, sturdier. He was always too quick to believe in her recovery, celebrating the signs of her old self, the two of them embracing any chance whatsoever to unburden themselves of alienation and acrimony and start over again.

“Did you say something?” she asked from the foot of the bed, her voice hushed, and he remembered again the middle of the night, wishing he had taken his own room as in Havana so that he didn’t have to see Zelda in such a state. In the gray night her wide-open empty eyes had rolled up until nothing but the whites remained visible, shocking, like the faces of zombies in photographs. And as she whispered words in a mantra of negation, “No, no, no,” he stirred, flopped, hoping to nudge her into a less hazardous dream, though he knew it wasn’t a dream, but she shunted him aside, her gaze fixed intently on the ceiling. “Who am I that God should take account of me?” she had muttered. “Am I not small enough yet? When I’m so small as to be hardly visible, when I’ve emptied myself once and for all, will you leave me alone so that I can be the nothing that comes of nothing?”

That memory belonged to the middle of the night. It was dawn now and she had spoken lucidly, seeming to be herself again, so he braced himself for the new day.

“I prayed for you and a clean feeling washed over me,” Zelda said brightly. “Do you have the charm I gave you? You didn’t lose it, did you? Let me see it.”

He raised the twine round his neck to show the silver medallion of a limping Lazarus accompanied by loyal dogs.

“I think you should visit the church today and ask Father Hijuelos to bless it.”

“If I have time.”

“You don’t have anything better to do.”

He remembered that he still hadn’t checked in with the Club Kawana’s management to call off the search by the police. “Well, I told Maryvonne and Aurelio,” he said, focusing his thoughts elsewhere, “that we might join them for an early dinner, and then Aurelio and I are going—”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she said and bowed her head in prayer again, not wishing to discuss the matter. But looking up from the bed a few minutes later, she asked, “Are you thinking of her?”

He thought she must mean Maryvonne.

“You want to go back to her, don’t you?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Your girl in California, the one who probably resembles me, the way they all do in your mind.”

He tried to pretend she was merely speculating, that she didn’t mean a word she was saying.

“The one who stole you from me,” she said. “You didn’t think I’d find out? The old gypsy told me all about her, I know everything, you don’t have to lie. If you would only be honest, I wouldn’t hold it against you.”

He wasn’t going to have this conversation.

“She said you were living with someone, most of the time. Why do you keep secrets from me, Scott? I always find out.”

Were these the revelations that had made her flee and take refuge in a church? Maryvonne hadn’t mentioned anything about them. Had Zelda really returned, as she claimed last night, to visit the clairvoyant a second time?

“Scott, answer me,” she said, angering. “I deserve to know the truth, I deserve to be respected. Why do you never talk about her?”

He was almost persuaded, remembering the times she had begged him to find someone else to take care of him so that she wouldn’t have to worry about him alone in the world, working too hard, drinking too hard, no one to rein him in. Sometimes he wished to talk with her about Sheilah, this nobody who’d made a name for herself in Hollywood, how good she was for him, how kind and tolerant she was, how she consoled him when no one else could, helping him to believe in brief intervals that not everything (all his self-worth, all his future prospects) depended on the next novel.

“At any rate, I’m your wife, not her,” Zelda was saying. “All this chivalry protecting the good name of your mistress. Doesn’t she know you’re married? And what do you tell her about me? Poor Zelda, to whom I’m loyal so long as I can keep her stowed away in a mansion for maniacs and not deal with her myself every day. Do you tell her all my secrets? I have a right to know.”

“Zelda, I would never say anything against you,” he said, but he was thinking how much easier it was without her, how much easier it was with Sheilah. It was a guilty thought. He had long prided himself on always being there for her. “I am loyal to us beyond your wildest imaginings.”

“It’s all just words now, words and memories. So what do you tell her? Do you say I’m crazy and you would like to be with me, but you can’t, well, for reasons that are more obvious to you and my doctors than to me?”

“She has her own secrets,” he said, aware that he’d crossed a threshold by alluding to Sheilah and admitting her into Zelda’s life.

“Another sorrowful golden-haired woman, another replica of me?” Zelda came and sat next to him at the top of the bed, then surprisingly she nuzzled into him.

“Please let’s talk about something else,” he said.

“What’s her name?”

“Zelda, please, let’s talk about something else.”

“Would you like to know what else the clairvoyant told me?”

“There’s more?” he asked, again half-suspecting her of wild invention, and yet wishing to dig, if possible, for the root of yesterday’s disappearance.

“She said we were like siblings, that’s why we know each other so well, why we’re bonded. We’ve known each other in many lives, and in a past life we were brother and sister.”

Under different circumstances he might have pushed back on the revelations and asked in what era they had been siblings, whether they had gone ahead and married anyway. He might have asked whether it was possible to cheat on your sister.

“Don’t you worry that you’re taking advantage of her?” Zelda asked him. “What does she think of this trip we’ve taken? Or doesn’t she know?”

She could never let go of anything. He walked onto the balcony, breathing in the late morning air, damp from last night’s storm, his temples throbbing, his neck and limbs weary. He let himself remember again the thousand outrages of Zelda, how tense a few of her well-chosen words could make him, his back muscles clenching even now, but also how soothing and beatific—he was inclined to say, how necessary—it felt to be in her good graces.

“I can trust you with anything,” she said, again behind him, resting her palm on his back, “you’ll always come for me, won’t you?”

“I’m going for a walk, Zelda,” he said, stepping around her to get out of the sun.

She pretended not to have heard him. “Maybe you should come back to bed.”

Suddenly there was a loud knocking, and she gasped, whispering to him, “Who is it?”

“Un momento,” he called to the door, then turned to her. “We never called the front desk, remember, I told you last night we had to call the front desk.” But he caught himself, adjusted his tone. “Zelda, stay here. I’ll speak with them outside, I’ll say I found you in the middle of the night during the storm, slightly before dawn, and I was dressing now to come and tell them to call off the search.”

“You’re just worried they’ll think you’re a hypochondriac who called in the cavalry when his wife went missing for a few hours.”

“I’ll say you’re in a delicate state and you don’t wish to talk with them.”

“Why would I have to talk with them?”

“Because you went missing, because they might want to know where.”

He dressed swiftly and stepped onto the landing, shoes still untied, to encounter a man he hadn’t met before, a stalwart Cuban named Colonel Silva, owner of the resort, here to follow up on a report about the guest who had gone missing.

“Is there anyone you suspect?” he asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Your reason for asking us to call the police,” Colonel Silva said. “I’ll need to give our reasons.”

Scott wanted to shout, “Because she is missing,” but he caught himself, remembering that his wife was no longer missing. Still, it was infuriating: last night’s manager had promised he would notify the police right away.

“I’ve found her on my own,” Scott said.

“You should have called us.”

“And the manager on duty last night should have called the police when I asked.” Scott stopped himself, realizing he was working at cross-purposes to his present desire. The more he made of the disappearance, the longer this man would linger.

“We were preparing,” Colonel Silva said, “to send our staff to look for her again.”


“All taken care of,” he said, entering the room. As he rounded the corner of the short foyer he saw Zelda seated on the bed, his revolver in her palm.

“What are you doing?”

“I was working up the nerve to come to your rescue.”

“Zelda, put the gun down, you don’t know how to handle it.”

“Well, how hard can it be?” she asked, flipping it in her hand. “What did they want?”

“It was the hotel management, like I said it would be.”

“Someone knocked earlier while you were sleeping.”

He couldn’t decide if she was making this up. “Since we didn’t answer,” he said, “I suppose we can’t know who it was that knocked.”

“Of course we do,” she said. “It was Maryvonne, and maybe Aurelio too, inquiring about tonight.”

Again he told her to lay the gun on the bed or hand it to him, barrel to the ground, handle forward.

“What are you planning?” she said, trying to find her way inside the next round of the quarrel. “Scott, I don’t want you leaving the resort tonight, really I won’t stand for it. It’s not safe, the clairvoyant warned me.”

“Now you’re just wildly inventing, and, besides, it’s not your decision.”

He wondered why she had picked the gun up in the first place.

“Do you know what makes me angry,” she demanded, “the only thing that still makes me angry?”

She flipped the gun absentmindedly from palm to palm, pointing it once at the ceiling, once in his direction, no idea what she was doing with that thing or whether it was even loaded.

“There’s still time, lots of time for us,” she continued, “life is long, Zelda, you would tell me, and I’d ask, Are you sure?”

“You’re your own worst enemy,” he said, trying to make himself stand down, experiencing the rush of memory, always so extravagant and expensive, as it pressed against the present, crowding out possibility with the knowledge of what had been lost, what they could never get back. His true feelings for Zelda were located elsewhere, he told himself, beyond the realm of mutual resentments, in a place where he had once seemed capable and marvelous to her, and she, in turn, the source of his ability. “You depend on niceties,” he said, knowing better than to fight back yet unable to stop himself from doing so. “You depend on elegant vacations and fine clothing to cope with the asylum. You’re used to the frills and bows, all my sweetly bought comforts, I’ve always indulged you, but do you know how often you write saying, I love you, Scott, and by the way we owe this to so-and-so, and could you scrape together money for my expense account because debts need to be paid at the tea shop in Asheville or at some boutique for a new dress? How am I supposed to save a dime? We’ve owed so much, Zelda, I’ve paid and caught up, fallen back and tried to catch up again—what more do you want from me?”

“My father was right.”

“What are you talking about?”

“When the Judge first met you he said you were a man who would probably have trouble paying his taxes. That even when you had money, it would slip through your fingers.

“Why do you suppose you hate ballet so much?” she asked in a level, impartial voice. She had worked round to her favorite source of bitterness: his refusal to let her accept that role with a prestigious ballet company in Naples so long ago, her big break in dance. Apparently she couldn’t be bothered to recall that the tentative offer from the company was hardly a major role, one she herself judged beneath her talent grade, or that it arrived while she was behaving erratically, weeks prior to her first schizophrenic break. Did she ever think what it might have been like if she’d lost control of herself on a stage in Naples in front of thousands of spectators?

“You can’t ever admit that as a ballerina I fashioned myself into a true artist.”

“Only at the cost of ruining yourself,” he shouted.

In her opinion, he hated ballet because he couldn’t stomach being in a room filled with accomplished dancers who were artists of a different order, who challenged the definition of art as he understood it.

“And your love of ballet? Well, it’s about the quaint feeling of superiority you derive from immersing yourself in the only truly aristocratic art, no peons invited to the show. The Bolsheviks weren’t wrong, you know,” he said, reminding her how those enchanting exiles she loved so much, Madame Egorova and all the lovely Russian aristocrats displaced by the revolution to Paris, had perfected their art on the backs of the masses.

“Please, stop. Can we stop, please?” she pleaded. “Why are we talking about politics anyway? I didn’t know you had decided to become a political writer, and I can’t see how it will help us pay our bills.”

She paced the room, wild with fresh grief, as if everything they were talking about had happened only yesterday. He recalled the hallucinations from last night, the chanting, the talking back to voices that only she could hear.

“Zelda,” he said, “put the gun down and we’ll get you some food.”

“I’m not hungry, I’m too worked up. It’s just that I’m losing hope, and I’ve never heard of two people in a bad place drawing each other out of it.” She moved to the bed, poised on its corner, straddling it, her arm raised, the gun extended before her. “Scott, why do you have this?”

“Dearest, please,” he said, trying to placate her, inching closer, halting a couple of feet shy of the bed. “Let’s put the gun back where you found it and we’ll forget the whole—”

“You’re not always in charge,” she said and he rushed her, shoved his weight against her body as if throwing himself into an opponent during a football training camp drill, toppling her so that her head dangled off the bed, her hair falling like a mop in her eyes as he seized the arm that held the gun, gripping the soft fingers wrapped on the handle.

“Scott, answer me.”

“Who do you think you are?” he said, lying completely on top of her, attempting to pry her fingers loose. “It’s just for protection. I bought it while we were living in the woods of Maryland, you remember.”

“I don’t remember a gun.”

“Of course you do, now hand it over.” He squeezed her forearm, digging his thumb into the grove of tendons beneath the wrist, and still she didn’t let go.

He struck her torso with his free arm as she rolled away from him, the gun peeling from his palm, still in her possession, her dress riding up above the knees, her auburn hair splayed violently across her nose. In an instant he was suffused with regret, yet all the more angry with her for having pushed him to this precipice.

“Are you going to give me the gun,” he said, standing again, “or am I going to have to fight you for it?”

Intentionally or not, she was pointing it at him, her index finger tapping the side of the trigger. She rose from the bed, straightened the folds of her dress, tidying her hair as he studied her expression.

“I can’t do this anymore,” he said.

“What do you mean, what are you saying?” Zelda asked, her voice cracking, full of dread. She replaced the gun on the desk where she’d found it. “I didn’t know my holding it would upset you so.”

Goodbye, Zelda, he whispered silently to himself, realizing how long he’d held on, never quite allowing himself to believe the day would come when he would give her up. “Goodbye,” he said audibly now, aware that his eyes were welling. “It’s over,” he scolded himself. “Don’t let her make you forget all the craziness and impossibility ever again.”

“I didn’t hear you. What are you saying?” she asked.

He didn’t answer.

“Don’t go,” she said as he shuffled into his jacket. “When will you return? I told you I don’t want you attending those cockfights because something bad is going to happen.”

“I’m only going for a walk.”

“And you won’t go to the cockfights later?”

Again he didn’t answer.

“When did you say you would be back?”


As he trod the frond-littered pathway that led to the beach, the lawns of the resort strewn with fallen branches, the ground flora still flattened by the rains, Maryvonne appeared from behind a knoll in a floral sundress. Her face flushed, eyes bright and sharp, she wore a look of invitation. Despite his almost desperate desire to be alone, he found himself welcoming her company.

“Scott,” she cried, pressing two fingers to his chest as he stepped onto the beach. “You cannot wear those lovely shoes in the sand.”

He glanced from her sandaled feet to his Florsheims.

“I have a cough coming on,” he said. “Hardly the time to be going barefoot.”

“The sand is warm,” she replied, and after minimal protest he removed his shoes, leaving his socks on.

“She has returned,” Maryvonne said as they strolled up the beach, following the same route he’d pursued by himself the previous evening. “When you join us for drinks on the patio last night, she still does not return, I sense this, but now she has. I should be angry with you, for watering the truth, telling me gentle lies, but I am not.”

“I didn’t want you to worry needlessly.”

“It is your private life, no concern of mine,” Maryvonne said nonchalantly, as if putting distance between herself and a lover but not throwing him over entirely. Though her lineage was anything but aristocratic, she was by instinct a rather sophisticated woman. “Mostly I am glad to see you, tu reprends—resuming yourself, would you say?”

“How can you tell?” he asked.

“By your smile, it is free. When you see me appear on the path, you are happy, I can tell.”

He tried to imagine how that could possibly be true, how he could be caught smiling (if in fact he had been) after what had just transpired in his hotel room.

“It is the only way.”


“It is the only way to tell about happiness,” she explained. “How you feel when you are not thinking about it. This is true also of love, I think, also sadness perhaps.”

She ran her fingers from his elbow down his forearm, her fingernails teasing the skin on top of his knuckles.

“Why could you and I not meet later?” she asked, halting, cupping his hand in hers, pressing open the fingers and tickling his palm softly with her nails.

“Zelda,” he started to say, but how to explain that he had to return to the room soon and make sure his wife hadn’t harmed herself, or that in states of manic paranoia she had an uncanny talent for surmising when other women were attracted to him. “Well, frankly, I’m not sure what we’re doing, how long we’re staying.”

“You are here at least through tonight and you have an excursion with my husband.”

“Also there is someone in Hollyw—”

“Yes, the second woman of the cards, I did not imagine it was I. So I know these things from the diviner, from our conversation, from my intuitions—but what is this to do with me?”

Hers was a highly European take on passion. It struck him as odd that he’d never had a truly sexual affair with a European woman. Two Brits, first Bijou O’Connor in the early thirties, and now Sheilah, but they didn’t count. Europeans, especially the French and Italians, were so much more capable of duality, of grasping the divide between marital love and eros, between obligation and desire, without compromising one or the other. Americans, the Brits too, he supposed, were all so sincere and puritanical that even while committing adultery they tried to simplify their notion of fidelity. As soon as he took up with a new woman, she started plotting to steal him from Zelda, even after he made it clear—often stating the rules explicitly beforehand—that he could never desert her. Sheilah’s tolerance for the duality of his attachment owed much to her own well-kept secrets, but once she’d shared the greatest of them, she became less cosmopolitan in her views, worrying about the depth of his affections, objecting to his use of declarations such as “my marvelous mistress” or “my beloved infidel” to inspire his lust for her. “Just once I’d like to hear you call me,” she had said only this past winter, “the woman you would like someday to make your wife.” Couldn’t he give her that small satisfaction? Couldn’t he tell her he wished it might be so? “You mean if Zelda had never existed, or if she had died during one of her bouts with insanity?” he had asked, and she cursed him, before starting in on herself. Only a masochist, only an orphan with a terrible opinion of self, racked with guilt about the lies she’d told to get where she was and filled with enough self-hatred to throw over marriage to a lord for a tawdry affair of the heart, could have attached herself to a permanently hopeless lush of a man who refused to come up with a Plan B for his life.

“Was there ever a time you say to yourself,” Maryvonne asked, “this is not my responsibility, I have done all I could do for my wife?”

She had led them across the beach toward the runoff of the waves, professing her desire to walk in the shallows and feel the undertow, strong in the wake of the storm.

“You go ahead,” he said, unwilling to bare his feet. “I’ll walk parallel to you, and we can bellow back and forth over the surf striking this empty beach. Highly intimate in its own way.”

“And I will ask you personal questions and you will tell me?”

Sure, why not?

“Which of you slept first with another person? After your marriage, I mean.”

Zelda, most likely. In retrospect she often denied that the affair of 1924 had been sexual, but Scott knew his wife only said that to spare his feelings.

“Can you remember his name?”

Of course he could.

“Why not tell me? As a nurse I met so many soldiers and pilots. Maybe I have heard of him.”

All the more reason not to utter it.

“You are still pained by her infidelity after all these years?” she asked. “And yet you are the one now who leads the life of duplicity.”

Only by necessity, that was the crucial difference.

“Maybe there is choice too in your necessities, maybe it helps if you see it this way. It is only an affair, after all, this first infidelity of Zelda.”

Except he knew that his wife had been ready to leave him for the Frenchman. She had asked for a divorce, her timing terrible. He was trying to finish a novel, his Gatsby, and angrily refused the request, in part because his pride wouldn’t bow before an arbitrary rival, in part because he saw what she couldn’t—that her heroic aviator didn’t want her permanently, that he wasn’t prepared to establish her safely in the world.

“Zelda wasn’t someone who could make her own way in life,” he explained.

“Did you want to leave her?”

“It wasn’t an option.”

“How can you be certain?”

He didn’t reply. It was too hard to bring himself round to the idea that the code by which he had lived these many years might have been in vain, that Zelda might have managed just fine, or just as well, without him.

“I have not seen a soul for a long mile,” Maryvonne observed. “Would it not be marvelous to take off all our clothes and swim far out in the ocean?”

“It’s tempting,” he said. “If I were to stay on this peninsula much longer, you would become very hard to resist. Ask me in a few days, if I’m still around.”

“Oh, look,” she cried, gesturing toward the water, where not thirty feet from shore swam a school of porpoises, breasting the waves in playful, arcing dives. “Do you not see what we have missed? Next time I will be more insisting.”

As they neared the hotel patio, Scott could see Aurelio sitting alone, drinking a coffee and reading a newspaper on a bench beneath a stately palm.

“I almost forget to tell you, my message, the reason I must search for you. You remember, yes, that my husband wishes to escort you on an excursion to the cockfights? Moi, he cannot escort to such a place, even though I offer to cut my hair like a boy. So it is still a plan, he asks me to tell you.”

“I’m looking forward to it.”

“He is going to pick a winning bird for you,” Maryvonne promised, waving to Aurelio who had spotted them from the patio, then taking Scott aside by the arm, rising on her toes to whisper to him, her lips practically touching his—all of this in front of her husband, what audacity. “Let me walk you back to your room and encourage you, do not say no yet, to think about my proposal.”

As they crossed the lawn, his socks soaking up water from the wet grass, he heard his name called and lifted his gaze to discover Zelda leaning forward over the balcony. He envisioned the scene through Zelda’s eyes, the Florsheims dangling from his fingertips; and the image of himself walking beside a strange woman for whom he’d taken off his shoes made his face redden as if he’d been caught in an illicit act.

Maryvonne called out to say she hoped Zelda was better today, suggesting they might have a cup of tea this evening while the men watched birds kill each other, but Zelda, refusing to address Maryvonne by name, answered only, “I’m not feeling at all well.”

“Scott, another thing,” Maryvonne said. “A man stops me this morning and asks if I know you, how long, many such things. There is nothing to it, I tell him, we are new friends and why should he always ask such things.”

“What did he look like?”

“Long, beautiful hair, the color of argent.”

“Silver hair and a milky eye?”


“Scott, are you coming inside?” Zelda called again from the balcony.

“Is he a friend of yours?” Maryvonne asked.

“Scott,” Zelda called.

“Not a friend exactly,” he said, “but I suspect he’s relatively harmless.”

The Frenchwoman kissed him adieu as Zelda again called his name, and Maryvonne now waved to her, saying she hoped they would all get together soon.

“Aurelio did not think so,” Maryvonne replied. “I thought it is better to tell you.”

Next: Chapter 13.

Published as Beautiful Fools: The Last Affair of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald by R. Clifton Spargo (NY. Overlook Duckworth, 2013).