IT WAS A REAL CALIFORNIA day, full of that sultry and sweet autumn weather you get out in LA and the smell of the trees was in the air. The weather forecast had promised rain but not a drop had fallen. Sheilah Graham felt the humidity and tugged at her white dress as she made her way back from enjoying cocktails with Mr. West and his wife at the Garden of Allah. The Hollywood columnist was in finer form than she had been for days, and the alcohol and good company had given her spirits a lift, along with a jaunty jazz number playing from a nearby radio. She was feeling good, I would dare say, even better with a few Gin Rickeys swirling around inside of her until she saw that strange postcard protruding from the mailbox outside her West Hollywood apartment.
Sheilah tugged the curious paper free. It was yellowed around the edges and had a stamp affixed that read, “Indian Postage, 6 Rs,” and there was an image of a steamer alongside one of the British monarch George VI gazing west. She squinted at the stamp and then turned it over. The postcard was of “Chowringhee Road, Calcutta.” Little shadowy rickshaw men hustled alongside luxury automobiles down a British Raj street. Then she turned it back over again.
“Oh Sheilah. So sorry to leave you this way, but I’ve gone to the Himalayas with Pearu and Julius. If any debtors inquire about my whereabouts, kindly inform them that I am dead. Please understand that this happened quite suddenly. I will write again soon when we reach Thimpu.All my love. From Scott F. in Calcutta”
Sheilah Graham collapsed violently onto the pavement beside the mailbox and held the postcard against her soft breast. A young policeman happened by just at that moment and helped the pretty blonde in the fine dress up. She smoothed out the dress but still couldn’t say anything, couldn’t muster a word, no matter how many times the policeman asked her what had happened and if she was going to be alright. All she could do is stare into the maze of palms that lined the street and sob.
LIKE MOST TERRIBLE THINGS, it had started with Hemingway. That braggart, boozer, and baller had come blustering into town a few weeks prior with his jet set of hangers-on, sycophants, adorers, and brownnosers. Scott said there was a reason Mr. Hemingway’s work never progressed past his early achievements in minimalism — there were too many yes-men and yes-women around telling him that every sentence that dripped from his fingertips was gold.
They holed up at the Garden of Allah back apartments and soon it was like in old Parisian times. Parties that shot through the dawn into the late morning. Smoke-filled rooms. Girls of eighteen. Empty bottles of tequila strewn about the legs of chairs. This time, Hemingway had with him two European correspondents he knew from his life as a fisherman in the Caribbean. Characters from the Keys. Sullen, wiry, muscular types, both with tightly cropped yellow beards and haunting blue eyes. They wore woolen fishing caps, even in the California heat, plus clunky hiking boots. They were from a place called Esthonia, they said, a country up the Baltic that had fallen to the Bolsheviks. “And we have no way to get back,” they said. “And there is no way they would ever let us in.”
“You boys can’t go back,” Hemingway shouted at them. “Stalin will have you both shot when what you really need is another shot! Here, drink up,” he poured them both a vodka. “It will do you good.”
Scott had partaken of the Esthonian vodka, perhaps the last Esthonian vodka anyone would taste in California for some time. One of the Esthonians, the one named Pearu, called it Tulivesi, “firewater.” Hemingway wanted to take them down to Tijuana on a Mexican spree, he said, but Pearu announced he had no intention of going. Instead, he unrolled a map of the British Raj on the table in the morning sunshine. He smoothed out the folds of the map and pointed.
“There are some cargo ships still sailing from Los Angeles to Calcutta in India,” he said. “The Japanese have blockaded the Chinese ports and there are German subs in the Indian Ocean. But. But you can still get to India if you want to and I intend to see this part of the world before it’s impossible! If it’s true what they say and our old world is ending, then that’s exactly where I’m going.”
“But why?” scoffed Hemingway. “You’ve got all the tequila and lemons you need right here.”
“To see His Holiness the Dalai Lama, of course,” said Pearu. “To seek enlightenment.”
Hemingway squinted at Pearu and then at the bottle, then chuckled. “How strong is this stuff?” Julius, the quieter Esthonian, answered from the corner. “Very strong, sir.” That was all he said. Pearu squatted over the map marking his route. Scott Fitzgerald watched the Esthonian from a chair. He was hungover, weary, and soul-broken, but for the briefest moment he was quite intrigued.
Many of life’s big decisions happen in these kinds of hungover, soul-broken moments.
THE SECOND POSTCARD arrived two weeks later. Sheilah Graham was making herself a Gin Rickey in the kitchen and listening to the radio when she heard the flap of the mailbox and went out to check. This latest dispatch from her love also had a stamp of King George VI’s face on it looking west. This time it was postmarked “Bhutan” and had a photograph of a temple inscribed Rinpung Dzong.
Her hands shook as she turned it over and began to read the message. It was written in small characters so that Scott could relate as much of the terrible tale as he could on the back of the card. The Esthonian Julius was dead, Scott reported. A severe fight had broken out with some Sherpas in the foothills of the mountains, one that Scott in part had admittedly instigated after they refused to return the men to their lodgings at the Royal Hotel in Thimpu for what he thought was a fair amount of rupees, and Julius had his head split open with an ax. As such, he and Pearu were no longer on speaking terms much, but they agreed they would press on as far as Lhasa with the hope that the Dalai Lama could resolve their differences. It ended, “All my love. From Scott F. in Bhutan.”
This time Ms. Graham did not collapse on the ground. She sipped her gin and made plans to send word to Scott’s agent, Mr. Perkins in New York. Max would know what to do about this. The new material was just too good really. Why, it could save his career and make them both very, very rich.
MAYBE, IN SOME OTHER REALITY where Scott came crawling back to LA as the old Scott, with his drink and cigarettes and Hollywood hack jobs. But what Scott hadn’t relayed in his latest message to Sheilah was that he could no longer actually send all of his love to her or to Zelda in Alabama for that matter. There was a new woman in his life, a different woman who had evaporated all his dying elements. This new woman’s name was Sonam. She was a Tibetan wanderer who promised to take Pearu and Scott over the mountains to where they could bask in the flowing grace of His Holiness.
To Lhasa! To enlightenment!
They had met this Sonam in one of the many raucous tea houses that lined the back alleys of Thimpu, filled with mountain men and surly women and the bottommost dregs of British society, all of whom were running from something. Scott fit in splendidly. He had quite enjoyed the comforts of the British in the hotels and on the trains the trio had used to get up into the mountains. He had enjoyed the tea and the local brands of cigarettes, which he puffed at while reading the paper, watching the valley landscapes roll by. He had savored the taste of the spicy samosas the porters sold along the way. Scott liked the East in the same way that he had once enjoyed the perks of Paris or the Riviera. He was still a world class writer and expected to travel world class. Yet one look from the dark deep eyes of Sonam had put an end to that life. He was stricken by Sonam, not only by her looks, but by her illimitable soul. He yearned to be closer to her and as close to the core of her soul as any man could get.
“This woman, this strange woman just like a ghost,” he wrote in his journal at night. “She appears as if out of nowhere and yet at all times is everywhere with me.” “But I am always here,” Sonam had said to him in her charming soft way. “And even after I am gone from this earth, I will still be here.” She had volunteered this thought. Or maybe she was trying to teach the white men something?
Pearu also liked Sonam. He liked her name especially, which he said sounded like “message” in his lyrical Esthonian tongue. Yet Pearu was a loyal man. He carried with him a photo of a young university student named Iiris, whom he hadn’t heard from since the Soviets seized possession of his sacred homeland. It was of Iiris whom he dreamed, not the Tibetan. Pearu noted a strange but distant kinship between the Esthonians and Tibetans, an unconscious congruence that held them along the same celestial path or underground lines of belief. He felt as if Sonam was his lost sister, he said. He proclaimed the Tibetans and the Esthonians were once the same nation. “Don’t you get it, don’t you see, you idiot American!” he said. “Sonam is the messenger from His Holiness himself!”
Pearu was no longer upset about the loss of Julius at the hands of the ax-wielding Sherpas either. He was just as invigorated by the mountain air, this life. He was changing. Besides, Esthonians didn’t lose much sleep over such things. Noh, sitt ikka juhtub, he grumbled to Scott. “Shit does happen.”
He and Scott were friends again, of a sort. Tomorrow, they agreed, would be another day.
WHEN THEY AT LAST beheld Lhasa, they were newborn men. Pearu had been stronger and more prepared for the arduous journey over the mountains when they set out, those daily bowls of rice and dal, or dried yak meat and fermented milk. Scott had taken along his complete works in his knapsack and traded copies of This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned for a meal or lodging along the long way. The Tibetan did not feel it necessary to inform the proud American that the locals would most likely use his novels for toilet paper. Along the way, without cigarettes or alcohol in his life though, Scott magnificently regenerated. He had more air in his lungs, more vigor than ever. His libido also became stronger, fiercer, terrific. By the time the rooftops of Lhasa were visible, Sonam was already pregnant with his child. Sonam looked at Scott and rubbed her belly.
The child Lama received the strange bearded mountain men — for by now, Scott had a beard — with the grace of which they had expected and dreamed. Pearu soon became a respected monk in Lhasa and would meditate daily for the death of Stalin and the restoration of the Republic of Esthonia.
Scott F. meantime became the editor of the regional English-language newspaper called The Daily Om and began to publish a variety of fiction under various pseudonyms, never wishing to again capitalize on his old fame. That was the old Scott, he told Sonam, the dead Scott, a man who used to be a drunk, a Hollywood hack, a deeply lost and troubled soul, but who at 44 was reincarnated.
For not all deaths are so final in this life. Each life offers us many smaller deaths to prepare our souls for the one big death, just as it offers us smaller births to remind us of the first.
As for poor Sheilah Graham, she never received another postcard from her beloved Scott F. again and presumed him to be deceased for real. Max the agent decided that a fake death might renew interest and lead to a spike in pre-Christmas sales. A lookalike Irish hobo named Willie was discovered dead one morning and passed off to the coroner as the corpse of the great Fitzgerald. He was mourned by few and interred in Baltimore as we all know, or believe we know. A classic case of misspent talent, they said. His books were revered and still are. Today, he is respected, not pitied.
Nobody knows how the new Scott, the real Scott died, though he surely is no longer among the living. It is rumored that he continued to work in Lhasa until the Chinese invaded and then escaped with the exile government to India. Anecdotal evidence holds these rumors to be true. Various Western mountaineers seem to recall an aging American writer living in the Himalayas for decades, raising a brood of mixed-blooded children, sturdy of build and sacrosanct of mind, devoted to his sacred craft.
It is also said that if you read enough of some of the more impressive works of fiction published by various expatriate regional authors into the 1960s, you can detect here and there that telltale turn of phrase, that startling ring of poetry, that could only have come from his talented hand.
Scott never regretted his decision, you know. He said the time had simply come for him to develop greater perseverance in his practice, as is written in The Tibetan Book of the Dead. And yet thanks to that singular opportunity, he was able at last to attain what had eluded him for so many years, the beatific state that many call nirvana, which means an everlasting bliss.
Dedicated to the memory of the great F. Scott Fitzgerald, who died 80 years ago at the young age of 44, and missed too many opportunities for rebirth.