By: Susan Koefod
Place: Finalist

On the moonless winter evening of January 13, 1922, Cliff Aron was tending bar at St. Paul’s University Club, having been hired by F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald for their “Bad Luck Ball.” Cliff was Scott’s favorite bartender from the nearby Commodore Hotel, where the Fitzgeralds were regulars. They currently resided in a house a few blocks away at 626 Goodrich and Zelda disliked the place intensely, “Much too boring,” she’d said to Scott when they drank at Commodore. “She’s been in a terrible mood for months now,” Scott told Cliff, “I’m hoping the ball will cheer her up.” Now that Fitzgerald’s books and short stories were selling well, he had the means to keep Zelda richly entertained. 

Zelda’s high spirits were on ample display that night from the moment she entered the Club and dropped off her coat to an attendant in the ladies’ cloak room. She’d hurried to the bar for the first of many gin & juices, her favorite. Cliff had drinks waiting for both Fitzgeralds, but from the smell of alcohol already on her breath, the slur in her southern-accented voice, and her brightly flushed cheeks, it was clear that this was not her first drink of the evening. “I am absolutely giddy to be here,” she said before dancing away in the elite recently opened Club. 

Located on Summit Avenue at the top of Ramsey Hill, the University Club was an instant favorite of the wealthy, all of whom quickly snapped up memberships the day it opened in 1913. In-demand St. Paul architects—Reed and Stern—designed the Tudor-style building, inspired by similar clubs in England, New York, and elsewhere. They’d also designed Grand Central Station in New York City and numerous other St. Paul buildings and mansions along Summit Avenue, validating who belonged to the upper class. The Fitzgeralds didn’t, and Cliff knew Scott resented that.

Zelda’s loud laugh regularly punctuated the sound of the jaunty jazz band hired for the evening. Many flocked to be near to her. The women wore shimmering short dresses. Their lumber and rail baron, banker, and political husbands drank and danced wildly with their wives, sometimes with other men’s wives. Bootlegged liquor flowed freely into the glamorous crowd, keeping Cliff busy at the bar. Cliff knew none of these leading citizens of St. Paul feared arrest.

Cliff had a moment to look around the room once most of the guests were already drinking their third or fourth cocktail of the night. Cliff recognized everybody there as they all frequented the Commodore, but one guest, an elegantly dressed young woman who couldn’t have been more than twenty, was a stranger to him.

She seemed to have no husband or date at her side, but there were other single people at the ball, and he saw her dancing a few times with eligible sons of well-known couples. Her blond hair was fashionably cropped into a bob and a diamond studded headband sparkled in the gentle finger waves she’d styled. Strands of pearls dripped from her earrings and brushed against her neck. The stranger’s black dress seemed slightly plain next to the lavishly beaded creations worn by other wealthy women in the room, but it was just as short. A length of shiny black fringe glistened from the dress’s hem as she danced, and an elaborate, diamond studded choker and two very fine silver bracelets sparkled with her slightest movement.

She looked like she fit in, but he was certain she didn’t belong there. He knew Zelda and Scott didn’t belong there either, they were not at all wealthy and did not have the necessary pedigree. They’d been evicted from their rental home in Dellwood and spent a month at the Commodore before moving to the boring St. Paul house. But St. Paul’s elite were happy to have them in town, even though Scott made fun of them in his satirical newspaper, The St. Paul Daily Dirge, Mortuary Edition. Everyone had received the latest copy written for the occasion as they entered the University Club.

The young stranger caught Cliff looking at her and made her way to the bar without hesitation. She ordered a gin and juice, expertly requesting a double, and sat at the bar to drink it. A copy of the fake newspaper had been left there by a guest. Cliff saw she had no copy of her own, unless she had already tucked it into the beautifully sequined clutch she laid on the bar.

As she sipped her drink, her eyes were on the big bold headline “COTILLION IS SAD FAILURE!” Cliff saw her trail a finger slowly down the left column story, “Frightful Orgy at University Club,” reading aloud Fitzgerald’s description of “these vain frivolous peacocks who strut through the gorgeous vistas of the exclusive and corrupt St. Paul clubs…”

“Did he write about you?” Cliff rakishly asked, hoping to find out who she was.

She raised her eyes to his, gave him a half smile, then answered him in a challenging yet silky voice that told him she was flirting back.

“Do you think he did?” She nodded to her empty glass and he quickly refilled it. He had no idea how to answer her.

The hosts moved close to the bar, and Scott said “Cliff, give us two of what she’s having.” Cliff quickly complied, pouring doubles for both Fitzgeralds while keeping an eye on his bar.

Zelda frowned at the girl Scott had pointed out. “I haven’t seen this one before,” she snapped at him. Cliff had seen Zelda ignite into a rage, even on the happiest of occasions, souring the moment she sensed a slight. “That young woman may be rich,” Zelda erupted, seeing the jewels sparkling on the unknown woman’s neck and wrists,” but she’s the plainest thing I ever saw!”

The entire room hushed. Many had witnessed both the highs and the lows the Fitzgeralds brought into any room they visited, the countless times they’d been asked to leave after causing disruptions. Everyone knew they were witnessing firsthand an example of the bad behavior that resulted in the Fitzgerald’s evictions from more than one fine hotel.

“She’s nothing compared to you,” a handsome son of the town’s wealthiest banker said to Zelda. “Silly, it’s true,” Scott immediately added. “Let’s dance!”  Zelda snorted and giggled and followed Scott onto the dance floor. But instead of taking his hand, she beckoned to the young man who’d complimented her, her good spirits quickly returning. The guests roared and clapped in their moment of payback for Scott’s rude stories about them in the Daily Dirge.

Cliff chuckled and turned his attention back to the mysterious woman, but she’d left the bar. He scanned the room for signs of her for the rest of the night, but never saw her and he couldn’t leave his post. The last guest left the University Club at three in the morning, and as Cliff was closing the bar, the woman’s cloak room attendant brought a small box to him.

“I can’t believe how careless women are with their expensive things,” the woman said. Cliff couldn’t place the voice, though he thought he’d heard one like it at some point during the ball. “Will you arrange to have these lost and found items locked in the safe until someone has the sense to claim them?”

The young woman wore a heavy wool coat, a gray wool-felt cloche, and plain wool gloves. A few blond waves slipped out of the cloche. Her face was clean of the heavy makeup all the rest of the ladies had worn that evening, but he noticed a slight flush in her cheeks, the remnants of coloring in her lips.

He took the box from her as she gave him a half smile. “Good night for tips,” she commented, shaking her simple handbag. “You too?” He nodded. Cliff thought he remembered the smile, the silken challenge of her voice. She said nothing more than good night, then exited the University Club’s front door.

Cliff examined the contents of the box and immediately recognized the beautifully sequined clutch, the hair band, the pearl earrings, the diamond studded choker, and the two very fine silver bracelets.

He hurried to the door to try and catch the ladies’ cloak room attendant — the stranger he now knew was the mystery woman at the bar, the one who’d caught both his and the Fitzgeralds’ notice — but she was gone by then in the moonless early morning hours of January 14th. 


About the author

Susan Koefod is an award-winning novelist. Her Arvo Thorson mystery series debuted with WASHED UP (2011, North Star Press), which was praised by Library Journal as “a smashing debut with astute observations and gorgeous prose.” NAMING THE STARS, her young adult debut, was published by Curiosity Quills Press in September 2016. She has also widely published prose and poetry in numerous literary magazines, anthologies and online venues.

She is a winner of a 2013 Loft McKnight Artist Fellowship for Writers, holds an M.F.A. in writing from Hamline University, and majored in English at St. Catherine’s, graduating in 1981.

She lives in West St. Paul, Minnesota, with her family.