brian and elvis

“Well, I think Presley, he got a whole thing going. I’m not very interested in Elvis Presley. He made some very good records early on, when he was still interested in his profession. But he lost interest in his career a long time ago. It’s a very impersonal sort of thing. Presley’s records are very impersonal and he has no feeling behind them. I wouldn’t bother to listen to Elvis Presley these days. I just wouldn’t bother. As far as I’m concerned, he’s of no importance in the pop music world whatsoever.”

— Rolling Stones’ guitarist Brian Jones on Swedish National Radio, 1 April 1965

may the odds be ever in your favor

ARGUING WITH SOME STRANGERS about when exactly Russia slipped into illiberalism, when was it, was it with the tanks sent against parliament (’93), or when Yeltsin danced on stage and defeated what’s his name, that revanchist Communist (’96), or that strange day when some unassuming weasel named Putin was appointed president while everyone was waiting for Y2K to melt reality as we knew it? Lurking in the corners, the cartoon villain, ready to spring forth. Maybe it never was free to begin with? Stanley Tucci was there too, visiting other actors at Ugala Theatre in Viljandi. He wished them all a successful hooaeg or season. “May the odds be ever in your favor.” Later, he enjoyed some apple-marzipan truffles at the Green House Café, my treat. Quite tasty, he agreed.

the castle ruins

ODDBALL GOOFBALL REVERIES of her, the Azteca of Tenochtitlan, the seductress of the Mission District. Dark hair, soft eyes, pretty fingers. This time she is dressed up in her vibrant striped cartoon dress, and after a concert we roam the twilight of the castle ruins hand in hand until we fall and make love, full love, in the thin grass of Käevumägi, the Well Hill. A sweet, sticky kind of love, with clothing half on and off, and there are tourists taking photos, but we don’t care, because it’s too much fun. Then she sits up abruptly and recalls her boyfriend in Tallinn, whom she seemed to have forgotten, but then dive backs into the warmth, into the reverie because, well, what else can you do when the connection is so lively and good? So warm, so hot, so small she was in this dream. Whatever it means, whatever gateway it opened, into whatever mystery it leads, I shall so happily follow her. She by now is my archangel, my peaingel. My põhjatäht, my north star.

päevaleht interview

Many associate Viljandi with the Folk Music Festival and the Green House Café. What is your Viljandi?

Viljandi is like an old pair of pants. It’s very comfortable. I can leave my home in the morning and get a cup of coffee without worrying about how I look. Viljandi is like a big family. We are all relatives and close friends, so I don’t need to worry about what people think about me. Certainly, there are other places that influence me deeply, but even where I grew up, I didn’t have that kind of feeling. New York isn’t the kind of place where you can walk around and feel that it belongs to you.

What makes Viljandi different from other Estonian towns?

I always feel relieved when I come into Viljandi. Tartu and Tallinn are known for their urban anonymity. People enjoy and look for that anonymity, because they are tired of village life, where everyone knows everything about you. They would prefer that nobody knows anything about them. People are more closed. Viljandi is the kind of place that accepts all the refugees from Tallinn. People who are tired of urban life and are looking for a comfortable oasis in South Estonia.

Doesn’t this Viljandi oasis ever get boring though?

It depends on where you are in life. I am 41 and I live with my 13-year-old daughter. Actually, there is even too much to do in Viljandi. There is always some concert or exhibition, your friends invite you out. This can be tiring, and I don’t have the time for it.

What led you to move back to Viljandi four years ago?

I had hit bottom. Viljandi seemed like a safe place to start over again. I thought about moving to Tallinn, but this seemed too expensive. It seemed like a huge headache. I moved to a place where rent was cheap, and there is a café with free wifi and good coffee. I needed to be in a safe place surrounded by supportive people.

Are you now a happier person?

Definitely. More stable as well. For Estonians, it seems that relationships and having children are a natural phenomenon. People meet, they like each other, and somehow children show up. Like apples or pears tumble from tree branches. Then, at some moment, the love is lost and they separate. People take this so peacefully in this society. I am influenced by a stricter Southern Italian culture, where a person’s personal happiness doesn’t count so much. It is more important to be loyal to your family. There is a stricter family system.

How did life change for you after your divorce?

When everything fell apart, it created for me a serious existential crisis. I lost my sense of purpose and direction. I was programmed to be a family man, and suddenly I had to live in this Nordic chaos, where everyone basically does what they want to? I had seen how others had lived this way, but I didn’t know how to do it myself. I really struggled with the local culture, and I didn’t understand how people here think or see the world. So I learn each day and things have gotten better. I can’t say that I see the world the same way that Estonians do, but I have adapted, and made some changes in my identity.

In the book, different muses played important roles: the Designer, Miss Cloud, and the Tigress. Do you still believe that you really loved them?

People talk about love all the time. For me, they were more like spirits than muses. They got inside of me and reached me deeply. Usually, people are more distant or neutral, but they went straight to my subconscious and stayed there. It was actually pretty terrifying. A person who is conscious makes decisions for himself. He thinks that his life is under control. But the subconscious has its own mind, its own wishes, and leads you in other directions. So I cannot say if they were loves, but certainly great influences in my subconscious. I put them in the book, because each one reflects different aspects of my life.

More along those lines, the Designer …

In the book, there was the metaphor of the dog and the squirrel. The dog knows that there is a glass window between him and the squirrel, but still he runs and hits his head against the glass. He tries to catch the squirrel, even when he understands that it isn’t possible. This is his instinct. I wanted to show what goes on in the heads of men when they start to chase after women. All the stupid and clumsy things they do. And then they are disappointed, when the woman doesn’t reciprocate interest. My own experience is that the heart is like real estate. When one person leaves, another arrives to take her place. The room is never empty. Sometimes even several people want to move in at the same time.

The Tigress was very young, just 20 years old.

I had always criticized men who take up with younger women. It seemed disgusting. Then I saw how it happens. You go to a café, you meet a woman, you start to talk. You don’t know at first how old she is. That happens later. What do you do? Do you take her to be a child or speak to her as an adult? Pure comedy! And I wound up in the same situation as other divorced men, who wind up talking to women half their age. What a cliché!

What do these interests have in common?

I have typically chosen unstable women. Women who don’t know what they want in life, or where they will sleep tomorrow.

What has helped you find peace at heart and self-love?

Routine and writing help me a lot. I have projects, objectives, and deadlines. At the start, I didn’t. I don’t know what self-love is, but these give structure to my life and keep me grounded. What does self-love even mean? I know who I am and this helps me.

Do you have someone new in your life?

I am not looking for love. Women blow through my life like hurricane winds and it can be tough. If I tried to hold onto them, they would be like pretty birds trapped in a cage. I don’t want that. A person isn’t attractive anymore when their life is stagnant. Relationships turn into prisons. People start to belong to each other and this can be destructive. That set up seems risky to me at the moment. I was married for about 14 years. It was a long, interesting, and intense experience. It’s as if I just got off a rollercoaster. Usually you don’t want to get back on. Some want to, but not me. My head is still spinning. I’m still a bit nauseous. Better to sit a while and sip some water.

You spend a lot of your life in cafes. Can you share a good café story?

Every café has its own story. The Green House is my home café. I go to Ormisson when I am tired of the Green House. The Aida café is very discrete, for example, you can go and drink tea in the corner there. Harmoonia and Fellin are good for dates and meeting people. They are more elegant places. I was surprised that I had passed the Tähe Pub many times and never gone in. Then once I went to a healer across the street. She didn’t have a toilet in her office, so she sent me to the pub across the street. I walked in and it was full of people I had never seen before. A completely different Viljandi! Unbelievable that even in Viljandi you find these kinds of hiding places.

Folk also reveals another side of Viljandi.

Folk is like spring, the whole town blooms. But Viljandi’s branches can support the weight well. There is no othering of visitors to the festival. We are them and they are us. We take them in and embrace them. It is strange to meet famous people from the capital though. I always wonder how they got here and if they are lost.

The Joala Monument has also gotten stranded in Viljandi. How do you feel about it?

I think it’s funny. He is highly respected and I have nothing against him, but this monument is a bit like a voodoo doll. We have built an energy column to Jaak Joala which is now leading a life of its own and is influencing others. I hear the songs from the monument from the moment I step out the door until I go to bed at night. A lot of the songs they selected are covers*, and I feel as if the Estonians are toying with me. “Look, we took your favorite English-language songs and made them our own!” It’s hard to imagine that Americans would take a beloved Estonian song like, “Eestlane Olen Ja Eestlaseks Jään“* and make their own version about chicks in bikinis, hamburgers, and cars. But that is what it feels like. This is cultural cannibalism!

This interview was conducted by Laura-Marleene Jefimov for the Estonian newspaper Eesti Päevaleht. An Estonian-language version was published on 27 January 2021. The interview was conducted in Estonian.

  • The Joala Monument plays Jaak Joala’s covers of The Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar,” The Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville,” and The Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”
  • “An Estonian I Am and an Estonian I Will Stay,” a song popularized by Ivo Linna at the time of the Singing Revolution in the 1980s

benjamin linus moves the island

AT A CONFLUENCE OF SEVERAL RIVERS stood the citadel, surrounded by semi-mountainous terrain. I was there in the white house when the riots started, an angry mob destroying everything in its wake. I took refuge on the windowed-in balcony of the second floor, hot and soiled with cobwebs and sunshine, which is where I encountered Vesta, who somehow was there too, so far away from Estonia, also seeking refuge. All of her modern life troubles of divorce lawyers and child support payments had been swapped out for this real-time flare and calamity, the violent militia rabble breaking into the house, smashing windows, knocking down walls, bent on blood and destruction. They were going to light the place afire. Vesta’s hair was a flame of browngold, and her skin was sun-kissed and brown, which drew out the sky blue in her eyes. She was more alive and womanly than I had seen her in years. In the upheaval, I found my face against her breasts, surrendered to them, and then the full throb confluence of the sexes, that little bit of sanctuary amid a backdrop of chaos, heat, disorder. It was a beautiful, replenishing drop of dream, the very reason I even bother to sleep, and when I awoke the snows tumbled against on the Old Town roofs, and I knew that there still lurked deep within me some tiny shining golden god or goddess. The angels were looking out for me again, yes, and I had been moved, safe and away, like Benjamin Linus once moved the island. I watched the snow and thanked my angels.

howlin’ wolf

A LOT OF PEOPLE is wondering, what is the blues? I hear a lot of people saying, ‘the blues, the blues.’ But I am going to tell you what the blues is. When you ain’t got no money, you’ve got the blues. When you ain’t got no money to pay your house rent, you’ve got the blues. A lot of people holler about, ‘I don’t like no blues,’ but when you ain’t got no money, and can’t pay your house rent, and can’t buy you no food, you damn sure got the blues. If you ain’t got no money, you’ve got the blues, because you’re thinking evil. That’s right. Any time you’re thinking evil, you’ve got the blues.”

minu joala

A monument to the singer Jaak Joala (1950-2014) in Viljandi, Estonia.

IN THE SUMMER, there were two men living in the park at the corner of Posti and Koidu Streets. One of the men would keep watch while the other slept. I noticed one of the sleeping men one day and presumed him to be dead. The police were summoned to rouse the sleeping man, but he refused to budge from his bed of dirt and grass beside the hedge. At some point though, the two men disappeared from the park. I don’t know if they moved to another park in Viljandi. Possibly they left town. They were quickly replaced by two or three fellow alcoholics, who commandeered the wood bench like Serengeti vultures overtaking the branch of a dead tree. 

On occasion, I would see the trio on my way home from visiting a local drinking establishment called Romaan. On one evening, they stood beside one another urinating in the bushes. I didn’t know what to say to them, so I cried out, “Jõudu tööle,” (‘strength to work’) which is the Estonian custom for greeting strangers engaged in activities, to which they replied merrily back, “Tarvis, tarvis” (‘needed, needed’). This is what life was like in the park at the corner of Posti and Koidu Streets. Then Joala showed up.

Jaak Joala, by all accounts a handsome and beloved fellow, known for his Estonian-language covers of American and British pop songs. He was born in Viljandi 70 years ago, and some felt he deserved his own monument in town. The resulting design, which shows his head and hands protruding from a metal column, crowned by blinking, multicolor lights, infuriated locals to levels of fire and passion that were unknown to me. The Estonians are a tolerant race if there ever was one, and not one of them had ever passed judgment on the drinking men who occupied their park, a rather prime patch of real estate in the center of town, no less. Yet when presented with this monument, petitions were circulated, opinions published, fists and voices were raised. 

The people were angry.

Once again, it had taken something as innocent as a monument to lure the Estonians out of their homes and into the public arena to do combat. Famously indifferent to their own suffering and the suffering of others, they burst into a rage when a commemorative statue is not done right. I do not believe these are my prejudices in saying so. It wasn’t so long ago that a statue erected in Pärnu to those who fought the Red Army was removed to Lihula in West Estonia, remember. 

Then when the government decided to move the statue to a war museum in Lagedi, riot police had to be sent into Lihula, a small town. They were met by angry protestors throwing bottles at them. Two years later, the removal of another statue, the Bronze Soldier in Tallinn, resulted in several nights of looting and rioting, more than a thousand arrests, more than 170 injuries, and one death. Walking through the now lush and fragrant park at Tõnismägi still gives me chills.

These have been my experiences with Estonians and monuments. 

Fortunately, the installation of the Jaak Joala monument has gone a little more peacefully in Viljandi. No riot police have been called in yet, and the monument has been visited by droves of sober visitors since its unveiling. They stand and take photos, while the monument plays Joala classics like “Suvi,” (‘Summer’), which is a remake of the 1969 hit “Sugar, Sugar,” by the Archies.  It also plays “Enne ööd sõida linna,” (‘Head to town before nightfall’) which is a version of the Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville.” They take photos, light a candle, and then go to their homes, where they don’t hear his music.

I live right next to the statue and it is therefore always close to me. It is a strange and surreal sight. At night it glows like a UFO and one gets the sense that aliens have just landed in the park. Whenever I go to bring in firewood or to clean the ice off my car now, I am serenaded by Joala. He is singing “Besame Mucho” or “Suvi.”  I keep wondering when the practical joke will stop and they will turn the music off. It seems difficult to imagine that this will never go away. Even when I no longer live in this house, Jaak Joala will still be there in the park, singing and singing. 

I’m not sure how my neighbors feel. It is hard to imagine them opening their windows in the summer, perhaps wishing to hear the songs of the birds as they lie dreamily in their lovers’ arms, only to be constantly regaled by Jaak Joala’s ghost. Imagine every day of your life henceforth having to listen to Jaak Joala’s music, whether you like it or not? It almost seems like torture.

In fact, this is exactly how the Americans torture Islamist prisoners at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Play it once and it’s enjoyable. Play it three times, and it’s tolerable. Play it a thousand times, and you will have a mental breakdown. One might suggest that those who live adjacent to the monument find out where its makers live. Then they can pull up to their homes and loudly play old Joala hits at all hours. Just think, at 9 pm, it’s “Suvi.” At 9 am, “Suvi.” Give them a taste of their own medicine. Which is rather a sad outcome for a statue meant to commemorate someone almost universally adored, including by me. Now I almost never want to hear Joala’s music again. 

I have to remind myself that this is not really happening. It’s just something I made up. Just another surrealistic vignette in wild Viljandi. There is no glowing alien monument to the singer Joala at the corner of Koidu and Posti Streets. There are no old retro songs playing at all hours of the day. It was all just a dream, I tell you. Just a weird dream! The two men are still there living in the park as they always have. The park is vacant and silent now. All is very calm and silent.

the girl with the icelandic map tattoo

IN THE SPRING OF ’14, my wife asked me for a divorce. Somehow I managed to delay it nearly two years. I read a lot about midlife crises, and thought this crisis would pass. She met all the criteria: a) just turned 40; b) obsessively exercising and investing in her appearance; c) embarking on strange new hobbies. In one of our fleeting moments of still togetherness, we bought tickets to Iceland for Christmas. I thought it would allow us to reunite in the Blue Lagoon. Instead, she announced to the children that her decision was final and I swam away to the other side of the steaming waters. Most days, she didn’t bother to go anywhere with me (or us). Instead she hid in the back room on the phone with some Kashmiri dealer in esoterica named Mohammed. One day we did go for a walk by the Tjörnin during a snowstorm. She said that she would now try to find a new partner, and that I should too. I said that I did not want nor need a new partner. I was happy with the way things were. She was not. My mindset hasn’t changed much since that cold day, nor has hers. In the evenings, I was out and about in Reykjavik, eating lamb soup and relaxing at the Vesturbæjarlaug swimming pool on Hofsvallagata. It was here that I met the girl with the Icelandic map tattoo. She had curly golden hair, witchy blue eyes, and the outline of the map of Iceland inked on her right bicep. For whatever reason, desperate, half-married men with needy children clinging at their sides are incredibly attractive to a certain breed of young female. During several encounters, she gave me a come hither look, or more of a, “Don’t you want to go in the back of the changing rooms with me?” kind of look. So it had come to this, I thought. I had been a devoted married family man for years. Here before me awaited my fate in the form of a twentyish Icelandic youth with a patriotic tattoo. Five years later, I am still wondering if she was the one for me. I have found no one to partner with. There doesn’t really seem to be any reason to even have a partner, beyond sex and companionship. So I return to the girl from Vesturbæjarlaug. Maybe she is still there? Or has she finished her graduate studies in Icelandic literature? Might we sit together and talk about Halldór Laxness or Sjón? Then some time in the hot baths, followed by a thorough and satisfying lovemaking session in a cheap rented room downtown as I suckle her pink young breasts for dear life, glory, and god. Is that the best I can hope for now? Maybe so. Then, when it’s over and her golden mane lies draped across my chest, and I trace the map of Iceland on her arm, I can tell myself, this is what it was all for, and all that is now is much better than was then, and this is how it was meant to be. Maybe I will even tell her that I love her. “Fate!” I’ll declare. “Destiny!” Örlög, as the Icelanders say.

‘from scott f. in bhutan’

British India in 1940

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. 

They knew.

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.

F Scott Fitzgerald dances with his wife, Zelda, and daughter, Frances. Photograph: Hulton/Getty
Scott Fitzgerald with wife Zelda and daughter Frances.