Beautiful Fools
by R. Clifton Spargo


SHIVERING IN THE EVENING AIR, HIS CHEST AND FOREHEAD SOAKED with sweat, he slid along the sheets, contorting his hips like a snake, lifting the limp doll’s arm draped over his stomach, sidewinding until he was out from beneath Zelda. He checked the time, sat up abruptly, and rose into flashes of dizzying color, mostly reds and purples, his entire body heavy as sand, wanting nothing so much as to succumb to the drowsy pull of the bed. He took several steps, yawned, felt a rush of emptiness come over him as though he were blacking out, his balance thrown so that he had to catch himself to keep from toppling. The room was dark, the heavy curtains shutting out all but a dim radiance that settled on the floor near the desk. Zelda hadn’t stirred. Without flicking on a light he slipped into the bathroom, pulled the door shut behind him, wrapping his hand in the dark on the shower knob, its four prongs like the steering wheel on a sailboat. Stepping inside a drizzle that had all the intensity of water sprinkled from a watering can, its cold jarring, brisk, he tucked his head into the stream and withdrew it several times, waking himself. Gradually the water warmed, and though he knew he should step out and get dressed, he lingered under its spray, the heat easing his tired muscles.

He wanted to steal from the room before she awakened. Maryvonne and Aurelio would be waiting for him on the patio downstairs. He was still planning to attend the cockfights because it was the type of thing that might make for a story someday and because he was tired of Zelda dictating the terms of his experience, tired of a life lived for so long without choices. It was a matter of principle. Here was something he wanted to do, an activity he might enjoy. Yesterday belonged to her, the hours squandered on her maniacal fit. Still, as he pulled on clothes he’d laid out neatly on the cool tile of the bathroom floor—all donned earlier this morning, still relatively fresh—he worried that she wasn’t well enough to be left alone.

She was the only thing he truly loved in the world, but his love was twisted and wounded, and he could never again make it a simple, straightforward thing. He saw himself standing over her, demanding the gun, threatening violence, and he wanted a drink, he wanted to forget. There was no way of taking anything back, ever. It was out there in the world and even if she forgave him, she could remember it at a later date, in the middle of some fight, recalling the exact words he’d used, recounting what he’d done and hurling it back at him.

Scott traversed the room in the dark, checking the closet, his suitcase, rummaging through the dresser, on the hunt for chocolate, Benzedrine, stimulants of any kind, something to pull him through the fatigue.

“Why are you nervously pacing?”

He had thought she was still asleep and waited a moment before replying. “I can’t find my other jacket.”

“On the balcony.”

He found the damp sport coat stretched over the back of a white iron chair. Searching the outer pocket, his fingers sinking into a morass of Baker’s German’s sweet chocolate that had melted into the lining, he traipsed through wrapper and foil until he found a stout stump, like a severed plant stem, extracting the pieces of wrapper embedded in it. The candy tasted stale and bitter, laced with musty lint, with tiny scraps of wrapper. Still, he licked his fingers clean and again plunged his hand into the pocket, digging amid the frayed wrapper until he found several newly chocolate-coated pills, bennies, popping them into his mouth.

“I would never have remained silent for so long about your problems,” she said as he reentered the room. “You let me slip too far down—you saw I was in decline and did nothing.”

She was sitting up in the bed, back propped against the headboard, lost in the whirligig of her obsessions in which time was all of a piece, in which this morning was interchangeable with the day they met; yesterday, with her first breakdown in Paris. Even the smallest of his freedoms was a commentary on her captivity, their reunions in one exotic place or another merely sentimental. He had a life elsewhere, another woman waiting for him, worrying about him, pining for his safe return.

“We’ve been here before, Zelda,” he said, conscious of the fact that he was running late.

“Except I can’t remember.”

“I can.”

“I don’t want you to, I don’t want that anymore.”


“Can’t you just forget me? I want to be forgotten, I want to be new again. Do you think that’s even possible? Not just for me, but do you think it’s ever possible, for anyone?”

“Of course I do,” he said hastily.

“You don’t, though, I can tell. For what it’s worth, neither do I. But you don’t know how hard it is to fight what’s inside of you as though it were your enemy—”

“I was there, Zelda.” He assured her he had seen her through it all, from the onset of the illness, and he would help her if she were ever again to sink beneath its waves.

“And yet you’re going out on the town with them tonight.”

He sighed and stole a glance at his watch.

“To gape at birds killing one another. You’ll be horrified by the result, you’ll be unable to decide if you feel worse about betting on a winning, murderous cock or watching the loser writhe in helpless agony.”

“Oh, for crying out loud, look, if you’re so damned lonely, I told you that Maryvonne’s not joining us, she wanted to meet you for tea on the—”

“Please drop it,” Zelda interrupted, resignation in her voice. Then, springing from the bed, launching herself into his arms and resting her cheek against his chest, she said, “You’re still angry. How long are you planning to stay mad?”


At dinner Aurelio appeared to be wearing his wife’s foul mood, waiting for the portion of the night when he would be free to do as he pleased. The couple had taken the liberty of ordering for Scott, though the meal was cold by now: chicken smothered in garlic and herbs, dressed in mango and avocado, the dish altogether too pungent and spicy for his palate. Scott drained his Cuba libre and reached for his beer. The ale with its bitter hops was pleasant going down, the temperate brown-gold liquid staving off the cotton-mouthed sensation. The double dose of alcohol gave him a jolt. For days he’d been running on adrenaline, on the stirrings of this new place and the good healthy sweat of humidity cleansing his body, so that he was never quite fully drunk, not in Havana, not here on Varadero. He ought to put something in his stomach. He took several bites of the chicken, coating his seared tongue with beer and water.

“So, no Zelda, what is the story here?” Maryvonne asked sharply. She was irritated at both Scott and her husband, for their willingness to abandon her. “How am I to pass this night alone?”

“Mi companero,” Aurelio said, ignoring the tenor of his cousin’s complaint, “my wife tells me that you do not live with Zelda in the United States. How often do you see each other?”

Before he could defend himself, Maryvonne protested. Aurelio of all people, she said, should understand that couples must arrive at arrangements suited to life’s difficulties.

“Zelda has trouble with her health,” Scott said, giving away as little as possible, “so she resides in a hospital in Asheville, North Carolina.”

“Yes, yes,” Maryvonne said. “Of course.”

“Whereas I make my living writing for the movies, and there’s only one place to do that, in California, on the West Coast. As Maryvonne says, it’s a difficult situation, but we manage, spending time together between films.”

The waiter came to the table and Scott ordered another drink, loathing himself for saying even the little he’d just said, hoping the alcohol might shut him up. By the time the waiter returned with his second Cuba libre, one of the clerks from the front desk had circled round behind Aurelio to impart a message.

“Our ride is here,” Aurelio said to Scott. “Did you get enough to eat?”

“I’ll take my drink with me,” Scott said, standing, as Maryvonne got to her feet and leaned in for a quick word.

“You wish I should visit her perhaps?” she asked.

He appreciated the offer but, no, it wasn’t necessary.

She kissed him, first the right cheek, which was visible to her husband, then the left, catching the corner of his mouth at a discreet angle, her moist lips lingering there a second, her wine-sweet breath whispering, “Maybe I will see you later.”

In the black Oldsmobile with the long, elegant hood that ascended in the front into a brilliant chrome grille and bumper, Aurelio teased him about the aside with Maryvonne, asking whether secrets had been traded. “Mostly about Zelda,” Scott replied noncommittally. It was hard to tell whether the Spaniard suspected a liaison, and if so, whether he was encouraging or preventing it.

“I always have exceptional relationship with my cousin,” he said, impossible to read one way or the other. “Never nothing to complain about. We share different views about marriage, about a new life in Cuba, but what is this? Nothing, I say. Everything change for me since the war, that is all.” He was trying to confide in Scott and doing a poor job of it, or maybe it would be more accurate to say that Scott was doing a poor job of earning the man’s confidences, partly because he couldn’t understand what was being asked of him.

They drove along the same road Scott had traversed only last night, Aurelio asking whether Scott had money on him. When he confessed to carrying a large sum of cash, the Spaniard smiled and clapped him on the back. “Do you trust me, mi companero, I will make a rich man tonight of you.” The strategy, as far as Scott understood it, was to place bad bets early, throw money around, let their betting appear risky and haphazard, as if they were merely fumbling along on intuition. They must lose more than they won on the early fights. You couldn’t waltz into a foreign town and clear out the house bet after bet without provoking the locals’ resentments. Aurelio had spent the day scouting the cockfighting scene on the peninsula, angling for the skinny on several birds to be fought tonight, including one that was well-bred and to be pitted by an expert handler, a bird that might score them a tidy sum, though it was up against stiff competition. Scott couldn’t afford to gamble and wasn’t any good at it. He was the last man in the world who ought to be scheming for an easy score in a foreign land by betting on a sport he knew nothing about.


There had been no time to collect her thoughts because he’d left in such a hurry. No chance to tell him about the demons that hovered over her while she slept last night and again this afternoon, their presence more electrical than substantial, waves moving in and out of focus, pulsing in red like a strobe light or flickering like fire, spirits looming behind the flashes of light inside of inchoate blackened orbs. They were ambient, distorted shadows of noise, except for every now and then when one of their bone-white faces obtruded for an instant, then retreated. She prayed to banish them, but the whispers persisted, buzzing in her ears, contemptuous of her prayers. They were used to being banished. Too cowardly to speak with clarity—she accused them of cowardice aloud—the spirits left only hints. Though never in whole sentences, they brought news of illness, death, awful occurrences.

Alone now as dusk fell, she turned on the light beside the bed. If she stayed awake, the shadowed beings might be unable to find their way into the room. Still, the night ahead was long and beset with worry. She picked up the novel by Rachel Field, but it couldn’t hold her attention. She rummaged through her luggage, through assorted items on the dresser—her Mason Pearson brush, silk ribbons, cosmetics, several pieces of good jewelry Scott had purchased for her over the years—fondling a bracelet with silver charms from places they had visited together, only then remembering the issue of LIFE borrowed from Maryvonne. She regretted her harsh behavior toward the Frenchwoman this afternoon and hoped she might have a chance to make up for it later. Here again was that blonde girl in the jumper, who might have modeled for a Nazi propaganda poster except her face was so stern and joyless, her eyes eerie in resemblance to those of the doll on her lap, sharp yet somehow lifeless, as though the girl had been conceived in imitation of the doll rather than the other way around. The more Zelda studied the photograph, the more it spooked her. Flipping open the magazine, she vowed not to return to the cover, but every now and then, with index finger keeping her place in an article, she would fold the journal shut to study the girl’s empty eyes, perfect nose, and pouty lips. Fanning through pages of a magazine completely visual in its conception, each of its stories spare on the order of advertising copy or newsreels that merely skimmed the surface of world events, Zelda settled on a layout that caught her eye: the Nazis taking Prague without a fight. LIFE characterized the lies told by the Nazis to justify their actions as “stupid” and alluded to their practice of leveraging atrocity tales no one else believed. The politics of terror could be inferred, but just barely, from photographs of German tanks rumbling into Prague, of military processions filing down cobbled, conquered streets, the Czechs lining up in gray-black overcoats and berets, witnesses to their own capture, a few of the women jeering, perhaps cursing at soldiers with Mausers strapped across their backs who paid them no attention.

On another page she found a quiz and filled it out on Scott’s behalf. It was about how people behave in automobiles, drivers mostly. She answered the first three questions, giving Scott the lowest score twice, the middle score once, and saved the best for last: “When you become tense and nervous during a trip, do you . . . .” Instantly she ruled out Option C: “Try not to let it affect you?” Clearly, the answer was either “Give sharp answers to the people traveling with you?” or “Sulk and refuse to talk?” She split the difference—A worth 5 points, B worth 15, so Scott received a 10, bringing his grand total to 35. The index at the end of the advertisement suggested that any score below 70 described a person tagged by doctors as a “nervous irritable,” the reasons for irritability many: ill health, worries, modern life, coffee. Readers suffering from a sub-70 score were advised to try Postum, a coffee substitute made of oats.

“Scott,” she said to the empty room, remembering how she used to leave the light on in his study when he was away so that when she awoke she would think him near. She imagined him in the car, swigging rum with Aurelio. Hard enough to get him off the booze, never mind weaning him off coffee for some drink made of oats. “Please,” she said, “no more recollections of how I was when we first met, when I made you so happy.”

An article about Charles Lindbergh gripped her longer than it should have; she found his reclusiveness appealing. He didn’t enjoy being in the public eye. How could he after what had happened to his firstborn, stolen from the nursery of the Lindbergh mansion? For several years the American press wouldn’t stop pestering the family, and what finally drove the Lindberghs from the country and across the Atlantic to London and Paris was a photograph taken by a journalist (reproduced here in LIFE) of their second boy in the backseat of a limousine, on display for the next psychopath with a vendetta against them.

Scott would be at the cockfights by now, she imagined. What did he know about gamecocks anyway? Why was he always feigning interest in some sport he knew nothing about? As when he took up boxing after Ernest, trying to prove something to himself: he had even brought that unbearable Parisian back with them to the States in ’28—oh, what was his name?—who stayed with them for almost a year, serving as Scott’s waiting man, sparring partner, and drunken companion. Was Aurelio trustworthy? she wondered. Were the cockfights even legal? One way or the other, though it hadn’t occurred to her until now, there must be seedy sorts involved.

From the top of the dresser with its fine brown-black burnish (she made a mental note to ask someone about the wood, what kind it was), she scooped her rosary up and rolled the beads nervously between her fingers. She felt no desire to pray, but she couldn’t leave him unprotected. So she turned to her devotion, counting beads, contemplating the sorrowful mysteries, knocking out Our Fathers, Hail Marys, Glory Be’s, and O My Jesuses in an effort to keep her husband out of harm’s way.


Roughly a quarter-mile beyond the church, the Oldsmobile turned south on a dirt road that split embankments of palms, acacias, and cedars, and before long it approached a ramshackle cottage. One of the men from the bodega yesterday, the sly one with the barklike skin, waited for them on the porch, seated on a battered wooden bench. He rose and advanced toward the car with his black gamecock cradled in his arm, the bird swelling and unfurling its wings as Scott and Aurelio climbed from the backseat.

“Here he is,” Aurelio said to Scott, speaking of the bird, which was a Spanish black. “In my opinion, lo mas bello of the gamecocks.” He introduced the stocky indigenous villager as Maximiliano, Max for short, and Scott thought, What a marvelous name for a peasant.

Only this morning Max had taught Aurelio the ins and outs of cockfighting in the region, reviewing, for instance, how the bird before them had been kept, when it had been dubbed (this referred to the act of slicing off the wattles beneath the beak and ear lobes, then trimming the fleshy comb, all of which must be done expertly in the first year and healed properly so that there were no pouches of skin where a rival cock might seize hold with its beak). The two men also discussed what Max fed the bird, where and for how long it had been walked, Aurelio preferring birds that passed the pen walk fending for themselves.

A gamecock was to be watched over from a distance by those caring for it, diet supplemented now and then as necessary with protein, mostly eggs, scraps of meat. Since a cock must never encounter rivals during the formative months, the land it trod had to be kept clear of cocks young and old, also of adult male birds such as the Muscovy duck. Hens were off limits during the gamecock’s celibate initiation into a world artificially emptied of rivals and other distractions so that he might perceive it as his own. As Aurelio ran through the basics of raising gamecocks, Max stroked the handsome black bird with the bright red face, massaging its feathers, kneading the neatly cropped flesh of the comb. Occasionally he would dribble onto his fingertips and rub the spittle into the clipped skin beneath the beak, eliciting a ripple of sound from the bird’s chest.

“Listen to this story,” Aurelio said to Scott, and then to Max, “Tell Scott the story of the bird you lost last year,” speaking first in English, then also in Spanish. Max grunted and smiled at the prompt, then subsided into a babble of Cuban-inflected Spanish, Aurelio letting him go on for over a minute before recounting the highlights for Scott. “It was during the walking period. He had fenced off a long stretch of land, free from predators.” Scott caught pieces of Maximiliano’s excited story, the repeated mention of the bird, “un gallo de pelea,” also the term “pequeno estanque” used over and over again. “What is that word?” Scott asked. “Pond,” Aurelio muttered, then translated more of the story, how the cock grew in his own estimation daily, still not dubbed, his comb and wattle as yet brilliant and full. Max had heard tales about gamecocks and water before but never given credence to them. He would soon learn his lesson. For the walking pen included a small pond, and one day his prized gamecock, the best he’d ever bred, lingered near the pond and while nodding forward to drink, peered into the face of a gorgeous bird, which stared back at him. “Tan lindo es un gallo de pelea en sus propios ojos,” Aurelio said, possibly repeating Max’s words, possibly adding a layer of commentary. So handsome to himself is the gamecock that all he perceives in his own reflection is the threatening beauty of another bird encroaching on his turf. He spreads his wings and lifts himself off the ground, the rival bird matching him move for move, all their tactics instinctive; and now one of Max’s sons is racing for the pond, while a younger son sprints to get Max, who seizes a burlap sack always on hand (because a riled cock, especially before the spurs have been sliced off his feet, can shred clothing, flay skin, even take out a man’s eye), and he makes a dash for the pond, already too late. “Despite his haste, his worry, his time and training,” Aurelio said. It was often the way with tragedy. Maximiliano discovered the most beautiful of any bird he’d ever raised drowned in shallow water, having fought and been defeated by its own reflection.

Aurelio laughed as Max and he together concluded the story, but Scott detected a hint of sorrow in the villager’s joviality. It had been his best bird, after all. Scott heaved his chest into a laugh, feeling the tickle in his esophagus and bronchia, the involuntary roll of the hacking cough, as he raised a fist to his mouth. Max walked back to the porch, speaking over his shoulder to Aurelio, who translated, “He says the drowned one was the most gorgeous bird ever. But does it mean he can fight? Not always. This bird he will pit for us tonight, which we are wise to bet on, is a fighter like no other.”

“Has he won many times?” Scott asked, wiping his hand with his handkerchief and tucking it into his pants pocket.

“I’m sure the record has been exaggerated for our benefit,” Aurelio said. But the gamecock had been pitted and fought well and survived without injury. Always a good sign. It was, in Aurelio’s estimation, a bird with the right instincts.

“I would not spar my own bird the day before a match,” he informed Scott, referring to the scene they’d witnessed outside the bodega yesterday. “Still, let us bet on Max’s bird, why not, one of our coquettish bets. We tease the local tournament for fun, find out how and where cash flows, though he is not a bird we will win on. You wait, I will show you the bird I select for this task, in your name, in honor of Mr. Scott Fitzgerald.”

Max returned from the cottage with a bottle of Bacardi rum, cracked the cap, splashed some of the gold-brown liquid at their feet, then passed the bottle, first to Aurelio, who took a long swig, then to Scott, who did the same, the rum smooth and warm, tasting of oak and molasses, though its finish was on the thin side. The men shared the bottle, and each time Aurelio took a swig he praised the bird and its owner, saying, “To your fearless gamecock,” or “To the gameness of the birds tonight.” Scott kept eyeing the gamecock ensconced in the nook of Max’s arm, which stared grimly out into the yard. It bore the shape of a raven, except for the red-orange hue of its reptilian face, except for those intensely bright, protruding brown-black eyes and the trimmed ridge of the comb that reminded Scott of nothing so much as the scales crowning the head of a lizard. The cock showed little interest in the men, but its eyes were alert, looking to take offense.

The three men loitered near the high-end automobile Aurelio had procured, the driver leaning against its hood, awaiting further instruction. Several times the bottle of rum made the rounds, Aurelio and Max exchanging pleasantries and barbs in Spanish, Scott no longer listening, trying to suppress another fit of coughing. Sputtering, he twisted away from the others, feeling the cough subside even as a raw ache lingered in his lungs. He took another swig. The rum sat heavy in his stomach, making him tired and sad rather than forward-looking. It occurred to him that he shouldn’t be sharing the bottle, not if his tuberculosis was kicking in, but it was difficult to be vigilant about the treatment protocols of a disease his friends and family refused to believe he suffered from. The spotting on the handkerchief, the red spittle on his hands, the hollow burning in his lungs, what did they mean if no one believed him?

“He’ll ride with us to the fights,” Aurelio announced as the villager ventured inside the cottage, returning with a pen for the bird and a topless wood toolbox filled with equipment: twine, leather swatches, water, herbs, scissors, and sundry other sharp metal implements. Aurelio sat in the middle with the toolbox, Scott flanking him on one side, Max on the other with the bird in his lap, the pen on the floor. After stuffing a wad of tobacco into the corner of his mouth, Max offered some to his companions, the Spaniard politely accepting a small pinch. The driver, though, refused to start the Oldsmobile. He complained of the cock’s getting loose inside the car, knowing how much damage a gamecock could do—if it saw a rival out the window, if they were to hit a rough patch of road—not only to the leather interior of the Olds but to the men trapped there in that enclosed space with an enraged bird. Agreeing to pen the bird, Max slipped out of the backseat, and when he returned to the car held the pen in his lap, the cock peering forward through its steel cage door. The driver whipped the Olds down the uneven, jagged road, tires popping on gravel and branches as the tropical blue-gray evening descended into the trees ahead.

“What’s that?” Scott asked.

“It’s the gaff,” Aurelio told him, “you know, which replaces the spur after it is shaved down.”

Scott studied the curved spike, designed for no purpose other than to puncture flesh with facility, an instrument that might have been conceived by Spanish inquisitors in their spare time.

“It’s so long,” he said. “How long is the spur above the cock’s heel naturally?”

“Not quite half this length,” Aurelio said. “The gaff increases efficiency.”

As they rode through woods onto the main dirt road, the car’s headlights now and then washed over the glowing eyes of roadside animals. All he could think of was Zelda, alone in that hotel room or wandering long moonlit beaches, tempted by the tides. He was crazy to have left her alone so soon. He extended his palm to receive the bottle from Aurelio, swilled the rum, letting it clear his throat and burn his tender lungs, then shook his head, feeling the buzz, dazed, bleary-eyed, muttering, “God damn me”—his remark drawing a query from the Spaniard as to whether he was all right.

The Oldsmobile now drove along a golf course and soon a white stucco mansion came into view, from the front this time, but still Scott recognized it right away, the same house he had admired from the beach yesterday afternoon. Its many faces, its windowless walls and high parapets, yielded the impression that it was defending itself against something.

“Whose house is that?”

Aurelio posed the question to Max, but the driver spoke up first. “It is the estate of American tycoon, Mr. du Pont.”

Tonight’s series of cockfights was unsanctioned, since the family was not in residence. But cockfights on the peninsula often took place at the du Pont stables. The driver pulled the Olds behind a small line of cars and trucks, several of them in metallic greens and reds with fine chrome bumpers and white roofs, others among them rather obviously weather-beaten and dilapidated. Once inside the stables Scott scrutinized the pit in the foreground of the barn, the open dirt floor swept clean of hay and impediments, strewn with sawdust, and a two-foot-high fence concocted of wire and burlap having been rounded into a ring of twenty feet in diameter.

An in-progress match drew lackluster shouts from the crowd.

The novice bird they’d observed sparring outside the bodega yesterday (Scott wouldn’t have recognized it if not for Aurelio’s prompting) was fighting and in bad shape. It had been billed in the head. Now in runaway mode, it refused to engage its rival, bandying about the arena in an uneven gait. Sometime prior to getting brained, the bird had managed to gash an eye of its rival, which circled the pit in a disoriented frenzy, unable to locate its opponent. The standoff had lasted for more than five minutes.

“Soon they move the match,” Aurelio explained, “to the drag pit.” This was a smaller arena where matches that had become uneventful could be carried to their end.

“Why don’t they pick the damned birds up and let them live to fight another day?” Scott asked.

“There has to be a result,” Aurelio said. “For the sake of bets, for the sake of the birds. Probably the winner of this match will also suffer the hatchet.”

Scott was appalled by the crudity of the logic whereby a bird might survive, even perhaps win a fight, and still surrender its life.

“What good is he if he cannot fight?” Aurelio reasoned. “If eye is hurt, the bird is of no value. A broken leg can be reset, maybe, probably with success, but only if un gallo de pelea shows itself first to be a fighter.”

On the other side of the pit Scott caught sight of—he should have been more surprised, but he wasn’t—Famosa Garcia, crouched low along the wall and cheering on the bird with the gashed eye. Maybe he knew its owner or handler, but more likely he had bet on the bird. Now the referee summoned the handlers to retrieve their cocks and move them to the drag pit. In the midst of the commotion, another villager approached Maximiliano and the two men traded heated words. Apparently, the Spanish black had been scheduled earlier on the bill than expected because a bird had been disqualified. Max wanted time to prepare his bird, to draw out its aggression with the sparring mitts. He spat a long gob of brown saliva at his feet, perhaps in disgust at the news.

“We have to bet on him,” Aurelio said. “Give me some money, I will place our bets.”

“How much?” Scott asked, taking out his wallet.

“Twenty American dollars,” the Spaniard said. “This should be fine.”

It seemed like a large bet, especially given the strategy Aurelio had outlined earlier of wagering mostly to lose on the initial bouts. Almost all the money Scott could lay claim to in the world was on his person, a small reserve stashed in a suitcase at the hotel, no fees due him from the studio or from magazines, his royalties at a standstill, next to nothing in his bank account. The money he drew on for this evening’s revelry had been calculated in terms of the time it bought him: five to seven days here in Cuba, several weeks afterward to scramble for new footing in Hollywood, maybe a month and a half total if he was lucky and frugal, if Arnold Gingrich took another piece or two for Esquire on commission and Scott managed to scrounge up patchwork editing jobs on a few movie scripts. It wouldn’t be long, though, until he was flat broke again and begging from whomever would still float him cash, the circle of candidates ever smaller, shrinking by the year. He was back to surviving on speculation, betting on his next novel to pull him out of hock. Earlier in the day, when Aurelio had boasted that he was sure to win big, Scott played it cool, pretending he didn’t care one way or the other, but of course he did.

Still, the prospect of an easy score tempted him. If he could double the cash laid out tonight, somehow pocket even a hundred bucks, well, winnings like that weren’t small change at this point in his life. Which was why throwing away twenty on a first bet didn’t sit well. Which was why, as he handed over the cash, he was secretly miffed at the Spaniard for making him bet more than he could afford to lose. He hated it when other people were reckless with his money; he’d done enough damage to his finances on his own.

“Yes, for first bet this is fine,” Aurelio repeated as he walked away with Scott’s cash.

Only afterward did Scott think to ask the Spaniard how much of his own money he was wagering, and only after that did he consider that by throwing cash around carelessly he was putting Zelda’s vacation at risk.

“The match was difficult basically from the beginning because it is a really hot night,” someone said to him from behind. Scott turned to meet the familiar, unflappable gaze of Famosa Garcia. “Once a bird loses his cool, it is all over.”

In the company of Mateo’s emissary stood a blond-haired man in a white linen suit—white apparently never out of season in the tropics. He was a German, Famosa Garcia explained, without introducing the man. Scott shouldn’t have been surprised. Roosevelt hadn’t declared war on them yet, and it was well-known that Germans with treacherous politics vacationed and transacted business in America’s neighboring nations to the south, crossing borders with impunity. Maybe he was an anti-Fascist, one never knew. Scott studied the man’s grim smile, his blanched pinkish lips and slightly twisted nose, his thick white-blond brows set over burrowed eyes. For whatever reason, the anonymous German chose to stand a foot or two behind the Cuban’s shoulder at all times.

What bonded the men in the barn, what allowed them to put aside political differences, was a common passion for watching one gamecock square off against another, each descended from birds whose brave genealogy and deadly notoriety went back to antiquity, before the time of Christ’s crucifixion. Fiercely territorial, unyielding, an inspiration to warriors from the classical age on up to the present, the cocks were biologically designed to brawl; even their handlers couldn’t instill the spirited hate in them. It was either in the bird or it wasn’t, what the cockers called gameness. Get Darwin or Herbert Spencer to explain that to you if he could, but you might just as soon blame God.

“The bird I bet on,” Famosa Garcia said, “he fights with fine and clean movements, his blows straight to the breast, hitting hard, then backing off, again rushing his enemy—except it is not an easy game always. Straight out his opponent struck a lucky blow to the eye, always such things are possible, and now my bird fights desperately, aggressively, he lands a brainer, and al instante, in a flash, there is no beauty left in the way he must kill his rival.”

“But you’re confident the fight will go your way?” Scott asked.

“It is the only way,” the silver-haired emissary replied. “I overhear your conversation minutes ago—you bet good money on the Spanish black, a long shot, I believe you say. I did not take you for a gambler, Mr. Fitzgerald.”

What was Famosa Garcia still doing here anyway? Scott wished to be free of him. Had Cardona paid him to stay on and attend tonight’s event? But, then, he couldn’t have known Scott would turn up at the cockfights.

“Your wife, she does not join you tonight?” Famosa Garcia asked even though there was not a single woman in the crowd. He led Scott and the silent German toward the drag pit, the tighter space having worked wonders for the bird that still had gameness. Though ruined for subsequent battle, the one-eyed bird had cornered its rival and now lifted itself to drive the gaffs into the lame bird’s chest. Scott looked away. Focusing too much on the sloppy, brutal end to this bout would only ruin the next for him.

Afterward the handler of the slain bird, the other man Aurelio had spoken to outside the bodega yesterday, the one with the pug nose and flat Amerindian face, rambled on in Spanish to Famosa Garcia and the German, apologizing for his bird’s sad performance.

“I should tell you, Mr. Fitzgerald, I have not yet heard from Senor Cardona,” Famosa Garcia said to Scott. “But the man who died, it turns out, is not a nobody. So, of course, the police must solve this crime.”

“I appreciate the news bulletin,” Scott said coolly, then extracted his Moleskine, remarking that it was a professional vice, forever scribbling observations about your experiences, never knowing what they might amount to. “Of course,” Famosa Garcia said. Scott retreated several steps, unfolding the journal, but as he did so a piece of green stationery slipped from its pages, eddying on an ocean-backed breeze and landing in a strip of rippled, grainy dirt, probably smoothed-over manure. He stooped for it, bending at the waist instead of crouching, dizzied for a split second as the wind again caught the letter, and now also fumbling the Moleskine; and though he nimbly slipped his other palm beneath the falling journal, he failed to make the catch, its pages splaying open into the dirt, papers scattering as he cursed himself and crouched to the ground to gather strewn contents: a negative of the photograph taken with Famosa Garcia, directions to a restaurant here on Varadero, several notes scratched on hotel stationery. Zelda’s letter was no longer in sight. He searched in vain for it, distraught, impatient with himself, as he moved along the wings of the crowd that fanned out toward the stables.

He could smell the hay and sense it prickling in his lungs, breathing in the stink of manure and horse urine but also the vital stench of the horses themselves, their hides like fresh leather on new shoes except different because there was sweat and blood and oxygen in those hides. It was the odor of animal existence in its raw prowess, of yesterday’s black mare on the beach in the sun, still capable of finding her legs when spurred.

Back at the pit, his head clearer now but also troubled by the loss of the letter, he saw Max seated on a stool, holding the Spanish black across his lap, outfitting the bird for its bout. Aurelio had agreed to serve as an assistant of some sort, and as Scott drew close, he watched the Spaniard wrapping small swaths of leather around the bird’s right shank, securing the patches with twine snug against the spur stub, now sliding the gaff with its large curved spike over the leather, fitting it wide so that the point was positioned lower on the heel but in the same basic direction as the shorn spur. Max grasped the bird firmly, one hand clamping its thighs together, the other up along the bird’s cape, and in one swift motion he flipped the bird and Aurelio walked round behind Max to outfit the other shank.

“Why is that damned thing so long?” Scott asked about the gaff when Aurelio stepped over the wall with the stool and box of equipment, leaving Max alone in the pit with the bird.

The look Aurelio shot him contained a hint of scorn, as though he was tired of Scott’s ignorant doubt. In the pit, under the watchful eye of the referee, the handlers exchanged birds, checking that wings and tails had been duly clipped, the gaffs positioned correctly. Satisfied, they swapped birds again, each retreating a few steps to groom and primp the feathers of his fighting cock one last time.

“He never tell me he is also the handler,” Aurelio said, rocking side to side, his weight tilting on one foot, then the other, his voice heavy with disapproval.

The referee summoned the handlers and the crowd clamored in anticipation of the bout. Each handler urged his bird forward, holding it by the tail feather as the gamecocks collided and exchanged pecks, their feathers ruffled, wings spread, striking at each other without yet inflicting any damage. This practice of breasting and billing enticed the birds to engage right away. You could see the fight enter their eyes.

Withdrawing until he stood by the low burlapped wall, Max smiled at Scott and Aurelio, saying, “Deseale suerte a mi gallo glorioso.

“He boasts again of his handsome bird, asks for our blessing,” Aurelio said.

“It’s what the birds might say,” Scott suggested, “all that strutting and attitude, it’s what they might say of themselves if they could. We are handsome, therefore invincible.”

Aurelio smiled at the remark, but it was a grim smile, forced or insincere, maybe both. So Scott asked what troubled him.

“He should be concentrating on the bird,” Aurelio snapped, and Scott was relieved to find that he wasn’t the source of the Spaniard’s displeasure. Clearly, though, Aurelio had his doubts about Max and his bird. Had he too laid down a large bet on the beautiful Spanish black?

Again the referee beckoned the handlers, ordering them to pit the birds, so Max set his handsome black bird with the bright red face in the dirt before him, hovering above and behind the bird, far enough away that it could focus solely on its rival. Instinct told the bird to swagger, pontificate, prepare for onslaught. Its opponent, a stunning white gamecock with bluish-gray breast feathers, came in low and aggressive. The birds measured each other, one craning its neck forward, the other lunging for a quick strike, their wings raised and flapping in sharp, violent motions, each parry and riposte sounding like a percussive slap. As the Spanish black sprang into the air, leading with talonlike feet and the torturous metal gaffs, it flared its wings above its nape angelically, slanting forward, such grace in the low-to-the-ground flight of the two opponents that for a brief interval it was as though they floated in an image torn from someone’s elegant dream.

The white gamecock was swifter, mercurial in its movements. It slipped past the talons of the Spanish black, dodging thrusts, then billing it hard and stiff in the neck, the two birds propping themselves and rotating on their tail feathers, raising talons and bounding forward, gaffs held high, searching for angles at which to strike. The Spanish black’s responses and adjustments lagged behind those of its rival. All at once it became clear that Max’s bird couldn’t win. When Scott glanced again at Aurelio, he saw defeat written on the Spaniard’s face.


What happened next—in a manner of minutes, in a splash of time in which all incidents blur—was one of those events in life people often say are best forgotten. You might spend half your time wishing to remember exactly what you’d done (unable to rid yourself of the belief that even forgotten actions contain hints of the true self), the other half feeling grateful that the mind is so marvelously porous (so much of everyday experience slipping almost immediately beyond our apprehension of it). There may be occasions on which we ought to be thankful for what we can’t remember, but always there is the allure of shame, a sense that here lies one more thing that must remain hidden from sight, even perhaps from yourself.

This much Scott would remember: how the white but blue-breasted bird rose above his rival in full plume, able to get higher all of a sudden, how its steel gaffs plunged into black feathers, frenzied, loosened, floating free as a gaff snagged in the other bird’s breast. Even in injury, Maximiliano’s bird was undaunted, its plumage gorgeous, the feathers from crown to cape standing on edge like frightened hair, wings raised and awful. With the gaff caught in the chest of the black bird, the referee called for the handlers to separate the cocks, Aurelio striding into the pit with the stool and box, Scott pressed against the low burlap wall from the outside, studying the bird. Max tended to his gamecock by plucking a choice feather or two, cooling it with water, applying salve to the wound, but mostly by holding the bird upright so it might crow and jut its neck, gagging on the blood clots in its chest. “If it hacks up a chunk of blood,” Aurelio said to Scott, “that is good.” But as far as Scott could tell the blood merely curdled in the bird’s punctured lung.

Next he must have walked out wide along the wall, for he could remember Famosa Garcia saying, “The beginning is full of the end. Es portentoso, an opening of ill portents for your bird, companero,” and though possibly it wasn’t intended as such, Scott heard the remark as a taunt. The referee called for the birds to be pitted again, their fury and hatred for each other evident in their reptilian eyes, and when Max set the Spanish black down, it glared with bright-eyed hauteur at its rival. Almost immediately the white bird inflicted further damage, descending swiftly, a gaff tripping on the edge of the Spanish black’s wing before glancing off. After that, Max’s bird could no longer lift itself off the ground, and the white gamecock came in once more, feet raised, gaffs aimed at its rival, already tilting badly to the left, nearly prone, and as the blows landed Scott felt them as if they struck his own chest.

It must have been that which led him to hurdle the burlap wall amid a frenzy of shouting, the order of events from here on out arbitrary, as if a spirit of chaos had descended over the pit. Maybe the referee turned and signaled for help (in memory Scott possessed an image of the man’s contemptuous gaze), but in any event before he reached the bird, Famosa Garcia’s German and two locals came out of nowhere to tackle him and he fought back, fists raised, swinging wildly, inaccurately, believing he had to get to the black gamecock if only to spare a single proud bird this rite of barbarism. He took several blows to the head, clenched fists at first, then wild shots to the stomach, one to the solar plexus that knocked the wind out of him and brought him to his knees, gasping, coughing up phlegm even as someone kicked sand in his face. His nose was bleeding. In the confusion he lost track of his opponents, until his gaze latched onto the man in the white suit and he rolled toward him, designing retaliatory damage even in defeat, if only for one of his opponents, if only by bloodying his white linen suit. Scott grabbed at the linen ankle cuffs, attempting to pull the German to the ground, and as the other two assailants increased the severity of their blows, he tried to rub his bloodied nose against the fine clean fabric of the suit of the man who stood above him kicking his leg to free it. Eventually, Scott collapsed, as someone ground a knee high into his clavicle, as someone else plunged a thumb into his eye, the spray of sawdust and granules of sand grinding across the surface of the cornea as he clamped the lid shut and only lamely fended off blows. He rolled free, beyond the kicks to his stomach and groin, the point of someone’s boot catching the bad eye, the pain shooting to his temple, the eye throbbing, difficult now even to open it. Soon he lay in the dirt a few feet from where the gorgeous white gamecock stood over its rival, strutting, taunting, driving its beak into the wounded bird’s chest. A gamecock with any fight left might have held up its heels, offering a well-aimed gaff as a last defense against certain death, but the Spanish black only lay on his side, the reptilian head lifted in a show of defiant dignity as he waited for the rival to come at him again.

Above Scott the handlers of the birds pled with the referee and cursed the man at their feet, Max more viciously than the other handler, who now held the white gamecock in his arms, turning the triumphant bird away from the rival it hadn’t yet finished off. Several men joined the circle of Scott’s assailants, who while relenting in their attack kicked him every now and then for good measure. A boot pitched at his shoulder glanced off the clavicle instead, so that he felt a sharp twinge in the same area where he’d shattered the bone in that diving accident several years ago. He tucked his wounded arm under his body, fearing the worst, wincing in pain but trying to prevent greater injury, wishing somehow to get beyond this moment so he could assess the damage to himself.

Among Scott’s attackers stood Famosa Garcia, not so much intervening as helping to decide what should happen next. At last Aurelio arrived, maybe he had been there the entire time, and he shouted that the Americano had rightly paid for what he had done. Scott wanted to protest, tasting blood in his mouth, but since he seemed to have been forgotten for the moment, he felt along his waist for the Smith & Wesson revolver, ready to pull it on the next person who tried to kick him, except it wasn’t there, that was yesterday, the gun was back in the hotel room with Zelda. If only he’d thought to bring the damned gun. Was this their idea of a fair fight in Cuba? His head dizzied by pain, anger, and alcohol, his mouth filling with blood and saliva as his lungs burned from the effort to catch his breath, he pressed a palm into the sand to raise himself, afraid to use the other because of the sharp stinging in the clavicle on that side. Please don’t let it be broken again, he said to himself.

He would remember later that he had tried to do a one-handed push-up to get to his knees, but the heel of a boot descended, digging into the small of his back so that he was flattened against the ground once more, the boot stepping on the hand by which he’d tried to raise himself. Facedown in the dirt, he felt split open, unprotected: the jagged pain in the clavicle, the raw sear in his lungs; but worst of all was the eye, swollen shut, constantly blinking, fluttering, and he could feel a scraping along the surface of the eye, as though a piece of coarse fabric were embedded beneath the lid.

Some of the pain and outrage would subside within the hour, the parameters of the event blurring until Scott reached a point where he could hardly see himself as an actor in the scene that had unfolded in the pit. It is often this way with our greatest humiliations. Leftover feelings (indignation, embarrassment, remorse) persist, but gradually they detach themselves from the event itself. Later it even becomes possible to treat the episode, if only in the way we talk about it in our heads, as belonging to that which is unreal.

Aurelio kept arguing with the men, saying that Scott’s transgression was irrelevant, that the cockfight was long over, the Spanish black clearly done for after the second injury. Only then did Scott remember to search the floor of the pit again to locate the gamecock, which lay maybe four feet from him, slick and greenish black through the chest, the fine sheen of its coat glistening like oil on the surface of water, the bird no longer attempting to lift its head, since no antagonist stood above, taunting it with the knowledge of its own dying. Max protested, shouting at Aurelio, spewing tobacco juice at his feet, claiming that his bird still possessed a reasonable chance of winning. But one only had to look at the Spanish black, prone on the floor of the pit, and listen for the gurgling noise emitted from its perforated chest to know better. The bird kept kicking his legs, spinning, scattering sawdust, trying to recover and fight and kill whatever it was that had done this to him, but he couldn’t right himself.

No one could understand what Scott had done or why he had done it, Aurelio least of all. “I told you this was not the one,” he said, practically spitting with anger, pleading with him in hindsight, wanting answers—but this remark must have come after they extracted him from the pit, half-carrying him to the Oldsmobile, Scott supported on the shoulders of Aurelio and Famosa Garcia. “I told you our winner comes much later,” Aurelio said. “I do not see why you have done this, Scott Fitzgerald.” It seemed to him that Aurelio’s wrath, though contained, was greater even than that which Scott had suffered in the pit. Expecting consolation from his friend for the way the German and the two local Cubans had come at him all at once, hardly a fair fight, Scott instead met with disgust. Now it was Famosa Garcia who spoke up on Scott’s behalf, “It is a weakness in Americanos I have met. To watch an animal dying, it is something they cannot do. It does not fit with their image of themselves.” All Aurelio could say in response was “?Ay, cabron!” They had been banned from the cockfights, Aurelio as well as Scott. “You cost us money, Scott Fitzgerald, do you understand? You owe us money.” He spoke with contempt, as if dressing down a soldier who had panicked under fire. “Why did you try to rescue that no-good bird? It is acceptable to lose the early bets, remember, I tell you this.” But somewhere in the middle of the Spaniard’s lecture the night went black.

Next: Chapter 14.

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