Scott looked at his grandfather as if the venerable old man had just unzipped his skin and a guest from the Jerry Springer Show had climbed out.
Technically, I only sleep with ten of them, Albert thought, the others are just friends.
“Twelve?” Scott repeated. “Like six and then another six, sometimes known as a dozen?”
Albert closed his eyes and breathed. He knew this wasn’t going to be easy, but he had to come clean if he was going to get his grandson’s help. Still, how did you explain this to a twenty-year-old? He wanted to say, Son, when you’re older, you’ll understand, but he couldn’t. He had never patronized his grandson and he couldn’t start now. The problem was, of course, that Albert himself didn’t really understand it. A part of him knew it was wrong, yet he did it anyway, and over the past five years he had learned to handle his conflicted emotions in the most logical way he could think of, he ignored them. Instead, he thought of himself as a victim of circumstance or, more specifically, demographics.
There were a hundred condos at Unique Palm Estates (West) of Del Ray Beach, Florida, in which resided twenty-four married couples, seventy single women, and nine single men—a female to male ratio of almost eight to one. Of those few males, only two were not paralyzed or in a wheelchair or medicated to the point of catalepsy or suffering from Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or any other disintegration of their mental faculties that would otherwise inhibit them from making a woman swoon.
Albert was one of the two.
In contrast to the emaciated ranks of their spermatozoa-producing counterparts, the females at Unique Palm Estates (West) were by and large self-sufficient, in excellent health, and, perhaps most important (as Albert had discovered), endowed with a natural proclivity for understanding statistical probabilities.
Next on the list of considerations—and something he had no idea how to articulate to his grandson—was, well, biology. That was the root of all this. Albert was still a man, after all, with a man’s needs. It had been fifteen years since Carolyn had died and at her wake he had sworn that he would never remarry; that he would never subject himself to this pain again.
But that oath—made to protect his mental health—left him in a biological conundrum. It meant a long future where his only sexual release was masturbation. Alone in the house, he masturbated in the shower, on the toilet, in the kitchen, in the study, and in the stall at the community pool. He masturbated every day, sometimes three or four times, mostly out of boredom, to pass the time, in hopes that he might not feel quite so lonely. But no matter how much he told himself it was okay, no matter how much he tried to accept that it was much better than getting in a bad relationship, the truth was that masturbating always made him feel like a loser, pathetic and pitiable. While experts said this was because society in general considered it inappropriate behavior (the word literally meant “to defile with the hand”), Albert was convinced it was biological, not social. He should know. Not only was he a retired Biology teacher, but he had been playing with himself since Jane Russell was a pinup. To him it was obvious, evolution favored those who felt guilty about masturbation. He imagined explaining this personal epiphany to his students; inviting them to imagine some distant jungle where their chimp-like antecedents had all once frolicked and (thank goodness) fucked. All, that is, except for one chimp, we’ll call Uncle Hugo, who found that fondling his own genitals just as ingratiating as real sex. Uncle Hugo was often found in the woods, alone but contented, masturbating furiously and peeling back his lips in excitement in that special way that chimps do. And so boys and girls, that is why none of Uncle Hugo’s genetic material is with us today. But the other simians—the ones who felt like losers whenever they spanked their little monkeys and eventually developed all sorts of phobias and insecurities that would later provide employment for legions of psychologists—they, they did spread their genetic material and eventually became human beings like you and me.
So after four years of masturbation—when his self-esteem was as low as James Earl Jones—there finally came a night with a girl. She had been young, in her early twenties. Albert had been at a hotel bar and it was the girl’s friend who had propositioned him. The girls were traveling around the country and when they needed extra cash the girl’s friend, who was fat, would pimp for her. In their eyes Albert—a rich, handsome, but harmless looking older man—was exactly what they were looking for. “Would you like to spend the night with my friend?” Albert’s lower, reptilian brain had won the short internal debate.
All night he enjoyed her, but was never quite able to make love to her. Early in the morning they woke and began making out again. He had his fingers in her and she was getting very excited. “That’s it, frig me,” she said. Albert didn’t stop when she said that, but something about it caught him up. Frig. He had never heard that word. And while a part of him was wondering if he could get triple word score with it during Thursday night Scrabble, another part of him was jarred by it. It was a crude word for what this girl saw as a crude thing, but it was something that Albert didn’t consider crude—and that with Carolyn had never been. That’s why he was here with this young creature, wasn’t it? In the hopes of capturing that once again. But the word had laid open the gap between them, and he realized that he had been foolish to come here expecting to recreate that thing he had once known.
It was for this same reason that Albert kept away from the trophy wives that so many of his friends picked up after their divorces. He couldn’t abide their fatuity, their naivety, nor the opportunism that drove them. Simultaneously, his feelings toward his friends who married them grew equally spiteful—as they paraded these young women around—and he steadily distanced himself from all of them.
So with marriage out of the picture and having relearned the vacuity of masturbation from Uncle Hugo, Albert had moved into the condo and into the waiting arms of the widows and divorcées of Unique Palm Estates (West).
Scott was now sitting forward with his head down and his elbows on his knees. Albert wished he would say something, anything. It was like cutting the wire on a bomb and waiting to see if you had made the right choice. He felt certain that at any moment Scott was either going to stand up and give him a high five or get in his car and head back to Key West to spend the rest of spring break with his friends.
The thought that the truth about his mating habits could irreparably damage their relationship made Albert whither inside.
Just then the phone rang. Scott raised his eyebrows—should I get it? Albert shook his head emphatically, no!
The answering machine picked up. “Albert, darling, you’ve missed our afternoon appointment two weeks in a row now. I’m starting to worry. I know you haven’t gone to the great ever after because I’ve seen you out with Scott (Helloooo, sweetheart!). Call me when you get this, I desperately need to see you, darling. I know you won’t keep me waiting. Love you….Bye.”
It was Zsa Zsa. The queen of the harem. Zsa Zsa a la Zsa Zsa Gabor —a nickname she fit right down to her big blonde hair, hyper-feminine self-absorption, and unbridled confidence in the power of her own beauty to get her anything she wanted. But it was more than beauty that made Zsa Zsa dangerous, she possessed another instrument, much more subtle and sinister—her voice. Oh, the lilt of it, the cadence, the sultry voluptuousness of it. It was like a hypnotist’s watch—it drew you in, made you want to obey. That was why Albert couldn’t pick up the phone, he couldn’t say no to her.
Scott, who had never laid eyes on Zsa Zsa, felt it too, the pull of that voice. He was unconsciously leaning toward the answering machine. Scott could tell, regardless of her age, that Zsa Zsa was a woman saturated with sexuality—smokin’.
For Albert, Zsa Zsa was the quintessential condo widow, a woman who was filthy rich, had never worked a day in her life, yet believed she had earned every penny. Zsa Zsa and her kind were the opposite of their men, men who had aged in dog years toiling in the offices of corporate America while their women fluttered about—like a skein of white geese—between the spa, the salon, and the operating table, indefatigable in their consuming endeavor to slow the decay of their bodies. They knew how to stay in shape, how to shop, and how to keep the help in line. Managing Albert had been a simple transition. They shared him, of course. He had become a communal appliance, like a vacuum cleaner or a croquet set that got rotated from condo to condo when needed.
After Zsa Zsa’s wet voice had dissipated, the silence settled back over the room.
Albert, who was beginning to wish he had never opened his mouth, decided to give Scott some time to think. He went to the refrigerator and got two beers, opened them and gave one to his grandson. Scott took it without looking up. Albert drank, but the beer tasted stale in his mouth.
Albert wasn’t exactly sure why his grandson cared so much about him; why, when the rest of his buddies were getting drunk and having sex in the Keys, Scott had decided to spend half the week with him. He suspected it had a lot to do with Albert’s son—Scott’s father—who was a disappointment to both of them—a shit really. A big New York lawyer who was about to go through his third divorce. He sent his checks to Scott’s mom, but rarely bothered to spend any time with him. Every time Albert thought about it, it made him angry. Scott was a great kid and he thought the world of him. He was at Boston College on a scholarship and was doing a co-op with the phone company where, even though he was just a sophomore, they had already offered him a full-time job. He was handsome too, with sandy hair and light green eyes. His whole life was in front of him and Albert couldn’t wait to see how far he would go.
Albert pulled his fingers down his face. It was time to let it all out. He would just start from the beginning and hope Scott understood.
“You know when your Grandma died, I decided never to remarry.”
Scott nodded, he’d heard that.
“But I guess, somewhere along the way, I decided I didn’t want to be completely alone either. I’m not proud of it, but the reason I had to tell you is that, well, I really need your help. I can’t do it anymore.”
“Is that why they keep calling,” he asked, “because you aren’t fulfilling your duties?”
Albert nodded. Something had happened that made it all wrong. What used to thrill him, now left him effete and enervated. “I can’t do it anymore. I just can’t.”
“Have you tried Viagra?” Scott said.
Albert looked at him suspiciously and yes, albeit perhaps sardonically, Scott had said it with a smile.
It made Albert feel instantly better. They were going to be okay.
“No, it’s not that,” Albert laughed. And he was about to explain more—he could let it all out now—but Scott suddenly stood up. Albert held his breath.
“Whatever you need, I’ll help you,” Scott said. “It’s what you’ve always done for me. I figure I owe you a few.”
Albert exhaled, his whole body relaxing. He stood and embraced his grandson. “You don’t owe me anything, you idiot.”
They sat down again, the beer tasting much better, and Albert began to tell him that his problem was not getting it up or any of the other conclusions Scott admitted that he’d jumped to (Albert didn’t have an STD and Zsa Zsa wasn’t pregnant). No, his problem was much worse. For the first time in 15 years, Albert was in love.
* * *
Enter Sally Evans, the new arrival at the Sand Dollar Six condo after Ethel Hanes fell and broke her hip on the way to the mailbox, was rushed to the hospital, and never came back. Sally was young for the community, 59, and coming from New York after a career in editing. She had short black hair that was thick and wavy (very inviting to the hands, Albert thought). She was very fit for her age, but with that extra bit of meat on her backside that most mothers have and that Albert had grown to love. Most fetching was that she was still cute—a term that most of the attractive women in the community had outgrown and traded in for handsome or beautiful.
They had met on the Condo’s yearly boat trip to Lake Marion. For a weekend, the superfluence of ladies, along with their little band of men, took over the lake in a blue-haired armada of five pontoon boats, three fishing boats and a ski boat. For two days the women walked along the grassy hillsides with parasols while the men shuttled them around in the boats, occasionally shaking their fists at young hooligans on jet-skis.
This is how it happened: About twenty of them were sitting out on the lawn by the dock when Albert caught sight of Sally through his clip-on sunglasses. He took a seat close by and eavesdropped on her conversation. After ninety minutes of trying to get up the nerve, he finally went to introduce himself. As he got within radar range, he could feel the eyes of the other ladies on him, their mathematical minds whirling.
“Are you going to swim?” Albert said after formal introductions.
“Oh, my,” she said with a playful smile. “A man who still wants to see me in a swim suit.” Albert laughed, but flushed red. She was already reading him like the warning label on her medication.
But before Albert could think up a clever retort (which might have taken quite a long time because this was not his strong suit), Antonio called out from the dock. “Anybody who wants to go out on the ski boat, better get on board.” He caught sight of Sally. “Hey, Sally, come on!”
Not more than a minute later they were speeding across the lake—Antonio, Sally, Margaret (a petite granny from condo Kiwi Seven), and Albert. As they skimmed across the water, Albert stole glances of Sally. She was grinning into the wind and every now and then she would pull a few strands of hair from her face. Very cute.
Now the only thing wrong with this situation was, of course, Antonio. Albert liked seeing Antonio about as much as he liked seeing odd looking skin growths on his genitalia. If there was anyone at Unique Palm Estates (West) that Albert didn’t care for—no, wait, that is much too polite—if there was anyone that Albert would have liked to have seen cut along the wrists and ankles and put in a shark tank, it was Antonio Stark. The two of them got along like a cobra and a mongoose.
Antonio Stark was a 67-year-old former stockbroker who had retired at 50. For his age (Albert had to admit), Antonio was in great shape, almost as good of shape as Albert was, which was amazing considering the life Antonio had led. All the things that destroy people on Wall Street—the tremendous stress, the diet, the chain smoking, the drinking, and the drug habits—had somehow strengthened and fortified Antonio, they were like fertilizer to him. Built like a linebacker, thick and meaty, Antonio wore his (dyed) black hair in a Trump-esque comb-over. He was ever belligerent and overbearing and walked with a top-heavy tilt of the head and shoulders that gave the impression that he was perpetually about to ram down a door. He reminded Albert of a cross between a sexagenarian Brutus—Popeye the Sailorman’s arch enemy—and Burt Reynolds (but with two extra doses of cocky asshole).
Antonio was also, if you hadn’t already guessed, the other condo cowboy at Unique Palm Estates (West). Just about all of the singles who were not on Albert’s schedule, were on Antonio’s.
“Who wants to ski first?” Sally shouted through the wind.
As far as Albert knew, he and Antonio were the only ones capable of skiing.
“You wanna ski?” Albert said, obviously impressed.
Sally looked at him as if he was just another one of the many old dotards that roamed the estates. “This is a ski boat, right?”
Albert laughed. “Ladies first!”
“Antonio!” she called out, and Brutus Reynolds idled down the boat.
A few minutes later she was in the water, and Albert was sliding out the skis.
“Oh, one’s fine,” she said.
“When was the last time you skied?”
She turned her eyes up, thinking. “Eight years,” she said, “so don’t be too disappointed if I don’t get up.”
Albert cringed a little at that. He was starting to like this woman, and didn’t want her to become broken, maimed or otherwise mutilated so soon after meeting her. This type of thing happened all the time in the community. People didn’t like to get old; they didn’t like to believe that they were weaker or more fragile this year than the year before. And so they would lie to themselves in all kinds of ways to keep that reality hidden. Then one day, they would do something like Sally was doing right now—try to prove to themselves that they were just as strong as they had been years ago. Albert knew that sports were one of the most effective ways that age caught up with people, and now, as Antonio rode out the slack on the line, he feared that when they hauled Sally in again, she wouldn’t be much more than a bag of bones.
Antonio called out, “Ready?”
She wiggled a moment in the water, manipulating the ski. “Go,” she said.
Antonio punched it.
For a moment she was gone, hidden in a fountain of water. Then, suddenly, she was up, tall and poised on the ski, her black hair slicked back. She had nailed it and she knew it. She was smiling, oh, was she grinning. Antonio and Margaret cheered her on, but Albert was speechless. What was he seeing? She was suddenly so beautiful. And that smile! In that grin Albert saw the years fall away from Sally Evans like so much slack water, and he saw her as she once was, how she must have been, a girl of 15 or 16, out on some distant lake more than half a lifetime ago, trying to ski for the first time, her father coaching her on, wobbly at first, but then, then, when she found her legs, that same excited grin.
or Albert, everything in the universe had just found its proper place. There were fireworks and slow motion, love sonnets and sighing, the score of Tristan and Isolde, the whole bit. He had to resist the urge to step off the back of the boat and walk out to her.
But she wasn’t done. Now Sally began to really ski—cutting back and forth across the wake, her body leaning low, almost parallel to the water, as fountains of spray shot up behind her. Margaret cheered. It was now plain that Sally had once been (and still was) very, very good.
After a few minutes she straightened up and put the line into her elbow to rest her arms. She waved at a group of children playing on a dock and they waved back. The forest along the lakeshore rushed by them, speckled with its million-dollar houses.
Oh, Albert was in trouble and he knew it. As he watched her, he realized that it was not just that he was seeing Sally as she had been when she was young, it was the fact that she was every part of womanhood: girl, woman, mother. It was all there. He had found something special.
Albert looked over his shoulder; Antonio was also looking at Sally, barely aware of where the boat was headed, his eyes narrowed and full of lust. Antonio had seen it too.
* * *
That had been two months ago. Since then Albert had taken Sally to lunch three times, gone to the mall twice, and to dinner once. On that third lunch date, she had given him her extraordinary smile. That had been his reward for making her laugh. Then she had put her arm in his and let him lead her around the park. He had learned about her life in New York; of her cottage on Cape Cod—it had belonged to her grandparents and she had spent every summer there since she was born; of her husband, Edward, who had died of lung cancer three years ago; of her 2 daughters and their careers in biotechnology and teaching, and how they were go-getters like Sally. She had bragged about her kids and he had bragged about Scott (and complained a little about his son). He had told her about his love of architecture and how in the summers he was the lead carpenter for a local architect. It had all been going like a storybook.
But then disaster struck: Antonio. Suddenly every time he invited her out—to every shuffleboard or bridge tournament—Antonio would have already gotten to her first. He could hear the disappointment in her voice. “I’m sorry, Albert, but Antonio just called.” He had ideas for drive-in movies, malts and cheeseburgers, an evening on the casino boat, but invariably Antonio would already have her scheduled (and for the same outings!). He knew he was still in the running, he had to be, how could she like that sleaze? But it seemed that Antonio was reading his mind.
The problem was this: It just wasn’t Albert’s style to push a woman, to be aggressive. In contrast, Antonio had no problem being pushy, overbearing, manipulative. This was a man who had spent his whole life convincing old ladies to sell their low-interesting-bearing CDs so that he could churn and burn them in tech stocks. A man who was so enamored of Wall Street villains like Gordon Gecko that he would recite their lines without the slightest hint of irony. “Greed is good.” Manipulating people to his will was his style, no, it was his niche in the ecosystem. That was it. At the base of it, Albert and Antonio co-existed at Unique Palm Estates (West) because—and only because—they used different mating strategies, strategies that catered to the different needs of the women.
Antonio was like a cheetah. When a female cheetah goes into heat the males pursue her relentlessly. It is a race that makes the Iron Man look like a jog to the mailbox; the chase can last three days and cover hundreds of miles. Only when the female has reached the point of complete exhaustion, will she ovulate, and only the fastest, most persistent male will be there to take advantage of the opportunity. (That’s the real reason cheetahs are so fast.) That was Antonio’s style. He would pursue his quarry until he overwhelmed them and they gave in.
Albert, on the other hand, was like a bird—a quetzal. When a quetzal wants to mate, he displays his plumage and parades in front of the females. Unlike cheetahs, here it is the females that decide, based on the most impressive plumage. Albert’s style was to present himself, act natural, and then wait patiently for the female to give him a signal to proceed. If they did, great. If they didn’t, well, usually it was no big deal. There were a lot of fish in the sea, and even more ladies at Unique Palm Estates (West).
Now, of course, the situation was different. He couldn’t just wait around hoping that Sally would realize she was making a mistake. And how could she even know to chose Albert when they had seen each other so little? The more he thought about it, the more it was obvious that it was all part of Antonio’s strategy. Antonio himself knew that Sally would fall for Albert if she got close enough.
That was why he needed Scott’s help. He didn’t know how to compete with the likes of Antonio; he had never had to before. But he had to act. Tonight was the Annual Mint Julep Ball at the clubhouse, and Judith Lindenbaum in Mango Six had heard from Elizabeth Rosen in Coconut Two that Antonio had booked a cruise for two and was going to ask Sally to go with him. It would clearly mark the end of the courtship and the beginning of a relationship. Antonio was trying to close the deal and shut Albert out forever.
As he explained everything to Scott, and as he heard the urgency in his own voice—I can’t let her go, I can’t let her go—he was both thrilled and frightened by it. He was amazed that after all this time he could feel this way. And suddenly he feared that perhaps Sally had become too important, that perhaps she had come to represent something else, something that was probably unattainable: a way out.
How had he arrived at this place? How had he become a Condo Cowboy? Obviously, he had paraded his plumage too much, and had said no too little, but underneath was the fact that he was still reacting to Carolyn’s death. It came back to his stubborn refusal to get too close to anyone; the decision to never put himself though the withdrawal of losing someone again. Once that decision had been made, his life had very quickly become all about pleasure—his way of blocking out the pain. There was no other purpose beyond that. Pleasure and the pursuit of more pleasure. He went from condo to condo collecting the stuff. And why not? Who cared about right and wrong when you had so much pleasure? Zsa Zsa and the others had chosen him, given him a woman’s ultimate compliment. Perhaps they did not love him, but they needed him, and he needed that—needed to be the object of idolatry for these women who had once been Homecoming Queens and Valedictorians and CEO’s and lawyers and proud mothers. They wanted him. All of them. And the pleasure of that (both physical and mental) was good.
At the beginning, of course, he had pined and felt guilty and a disgrace to Carolyn’s memory, but over time the pleasure had slowly but steadily overcome all that equivocation. His mind had adapted, working against him really, to want more and more and more. Finding pleasure became Albert’s mind’s goal, even though, at times, he felt like his own purpose was quite different. But in the struggle between morality and pleasure, pleasure won every time. Eventually his role as condo cowboy became who he was, his niche in the ecosystem.
But now in Sally he saw a chance to break out, which he knew was dangerous thinking because he was expecting of Sally what every man who has ever fallen in love so foolishly expects—redemption. She was likely not strong enough to handle such a burden. But, then again, Albert thought, maybe she was.
Scott asked, “So what are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. All I know is that with Antonio around, I can’t get near her.”
“Then we have to take him out,” Scott said.
Albert nodded. It was true. They had to make sure Antonio didn’t make it to the ball. But how?
Scott sat back and put his hands behind his head. He had been reading Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” for a business class and wanted to apply his newfound knowledge to help his grandfather. But as hard as he tried, he couldn’t think of anything. Then he noticed a flyer on the coffee table.
“MISSING! Bart Henderson, critical Alzheimer’s patient.”
For the past five days there had been a county-wide manhunt for Henderson, who had apparently tried to go for a walk on his own, got lost, and was either wandering around the neighborhoods or off in the parklands, unsure of where (or even who) he was. Scott looked at the photo on the flyer. Henderson looked like every other old guy around here.
A quote from Sun Tzu came to his mind. “Principal 18 – Laying plans – All warfare is based on deception.”
* * *
Antonio Stark looked at his watch and gave a weary sigh. “How much longer?” he asked for the third time.
“I should be done in ten or fifteen minutes,” the kid said. He was underneath the desk fiddling with the phone lines. Antonio looked up as if hoping for divine assistance. The kid had said that an hour and a half ago. What a shitty day. Everything that could possibly go wrong was going wrong. And on such an important day…on the day he was finally going to get Sally. Tonight, if he played his cards right, he was gonna get laid. And not by just any condo lady, mind you, but by the new girl, the fresh meat. Lively and trim Sally Evans. It was a special thrill to seduce one of the new arrivals at Unique Palm Estates (West). He had done this many times, of course, and considered it their initiation. Oh, he couldn’t wait. He had a new bottle of Astro Glide, studded condoms (just in case she insisted, which most post-menopausal women didn’t), and his Levitra and Cialis ready. (Hopefully he would push, but not exceed, the eight-hour erection mentioned on the FDA warning.)
But now everything was going to hell. His clothes hadn’t arrived from the cleaner, the flower shop had screwed up his order, and now, just as he was getting ready to get his clothes, his telephone had died.
It was all very strange; as if some force of nature was against him, trying to keep him from the dance. When the phone had died, the repairman had just magically appeared. Knocking on Antonio’s door wearing a generic workman’s uniform with “Earl” embroidered on the nametag.
“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” Antonio asked. Earl was still working under his desk.
“Oh, yeah, sure. I’m just making sure the problem isn’t in this jack as opposed to being from the street. It won’t take long now.”
“I mean, you look like you’re still in high school.”
“Thanks,” Earl said.
Antonio went to the window and looked out. The repairman had come in a white van that didn’t have a company logo. Now that he thought about it, the kid’s uniform didn’t have the logo either.
“Oh, the van and uniform are new,” the kid said when Antonio questioned him. “They are from the merger with AM Telecom.”
"That merger was two years ago.”
Scott cringed, remembering that Antonio had worked on Wall Street. He got up from under the desk and shrugged. Antonio looked at him sharply.
Was it possible that all these things were happening by chance? Or was someone behind all this? Who would want to stop him? Oh, he knew. Could this be Albert’s doing?
The kid’s cell phone beeped and he looked to be scrolling through a text message. Then he turned to Antonio, “Okay, all done here. I just need to double check the outside connection and I’ll be done.” He grabbed his tools and headed for the door, suddenly in a hurry.
Bizarre, Antonio thought, but he began to relax. It was almost over. As long as he had no hassle picking up his clothes, he would only be a half hour late to the ball.
He followed Earl out the front door and was standing in the yard watching the kid put his tools in the van when the police cruiser pulled into his driveway—lights on, siren off.
* * *
Police Sergeant Greg Blackwell looked at the flyer of the missing Alzheimer’s patient then at the man standing in the yard. He smiled. After a morning of babysitting drunk Spring Breakers, things were looking up. He just might get a commendation for this. Half the cops in the county had been looking for Henderson for close to a week now and he, Sergeant Greg Blackwell, with only two months on the Del Ray Beach force, was about to bring him in. Blackwell put the Crown Vic in park and got out.
“Can I help you, officer?” the old man said.
“Is this him?” Blackwell said to the young man.
“I think so,” Scott said.
“Mr. Henderson, do you know where you are?”
“Henderson? I’m not Henderson. I’m Antonio Stark. This is my condo.”
Scott—who had quickly taken off his uniform and was now standing behind Antonio in a white Hurley t-shirt—shook his head regrettably.
“He doesn’t live here. This is my grandfather’s place.”
“Grandfather?” Antonio was almost shouting now. “What are you talking about? You work for the phone company.”
Sergeant Blackwell and Scott exchanged a knowing glace. Poor fellow, Blackwell thought.
"It’s okay, Mr. Henderson. We’ll get this all straightened out. Your wife and family have been worried about you.”
“No, I’m telling you. You’ve got the wrong guy.”
Blackwell put his hand on Antonio’s shoulder and tried to coax him to the car. Antonio jerked away.
Blackwell put his hand on his billy club.
Antonio tried to make a break for it.
* * *
As Scott was climbing the steps of “his” condo, Antonio was being cuffed and stuffed into Blackwell’s cruiser. In the brief scuffle his lip had been split open. With bloodstained teeth he was shouting, “I’ve got to get to the dance! I’ve got to get to the dance!”
By now the policeman seemed quite confident he had his man.
After watching them drive away, Scott headed back to grandpa’s. He had to admit, a part of him felt a little bit sorry for Antonio, but just a little bit. Mostly, he was immensely pleased. He couldn’t wait to tell his grandfather about it. He would be very proud. And Sun Tzu, if by chance he was looking down from on high, would have been proud, too.
* * *
Albert flipped down the sun visor and checked himself in the small mirror. He tightened up his double Windsor. Satisfied, he flipped up the visor and checked his watch. 8:40. The dance would be in full swing by now. He looked over at Scott, who was just now steering the Acura into the clubhouse parking lot.
He flipped down the visor again—checked his teeth and his hair. He had put on his special dark blue three-piece suit. He looked good—the resplendent quetzal—but was it good enough? This was his one and only shot. Simply parading his plumage around Sally Evans wouldn’t cut it tonight. He had to come right out and say it. If he could just convince her to give him a chance, he knew he could win her.
Albert looked anxiously at the clubhouse. In the entryway he saw men and women standing around, a few smoking cigarettes.
“Relax, grandpa,” Scott said.
Albert exhaled loudly and tried to force a smile.
“Just tell her how you feel,” Scott said, “but don’t freak her out…and if any of your other lady friends are in there, keep away from them.”
A fresh chill ran underneath Albert’s skull. Oh, God. They would all be there. What was he going to do? He would have to grab Sally quickly and try to get her out of there. He pushed this new fear out of this mind. He would just have to take it in stride. What’s more, there was no time to waste; eventually the police would realize their mistake. He summoned his courage and opened the door. Then he turned one last time to his grandson.
“Thank you for giving me this chance, Scott. I just hope I can make it count.”
"I know you can,” he said with a smile that made Albert smile in spite of himself. “Now go get her.”
* * *
The clubhouse at Unique Palm Estates (West) was a colonial hall with a vaulted ceiling, white Doric columns, and paned glass. It had been decked out for the Ball in Southern Plantation style. Tara. Most people were dressed for the occasion and a few—mostly the women—had gone full out. They were done up as Southern Belles (which many of them were) with corsets, bustle dresses and bonnets. Here and there a couple of men had string ties and confederate hats.
Sally Evans was the first thing he saw when he entered the ballroom. Even though the crowd was thick, his eyes immediately fell on her. She was in the middle of the room and somehow seemed taller than everyone else. She was wearing a long black dress that hourglassed at her waist. She looked amazing. The contrast of her light skin against her thick black hair and that dress gave Albert the impression that she radiated light. He remembered that the word for giving birth in Spanish was dar luz, “to give light.” The power to rise up to heaven and bring down a new soul. Albert was sure that was what he was seeing now. It was a power that Albert—like all men—could never know and could never harness, yet one he needed to be near.
She seemed to see him, almost smile, then thought better of it and turned away. Albert started to push his way through the crowd toward her.
It was only twenty feet from the door to where Sally Evans stood like a beacon in the crowd, yet it took an eternity to arrive. Sylvia Swanson from Papaya Seven (his Tuesday/Thursday 4:30) was the first to corner him. “Oh, Albert, I have been so worried about you. Where have you been? I’ve missed you so!” Albert took her and spun her into the coat room, hoping that Sally wouldn’t see. “Tell me, are you upset with me?” Sylvia was Italian-American from Pennsylvania and heir to her late husband’s steel fortune. She was wearing a dark navy dress that was too tight and did little to diminish her increasingly Ruben-esque figure. It took several minutes of cajoling before he could leave her there amongst the coats and hats.
Patricia (never Pat) Miller from Pineapple Eight (Saturday 6:30) besieged him next, playing indignant and hurt. Then it was Ann Marie Dillon from Orange Grove One (Monday/Friday 3:30). She grabbed his tie, pushed him into a corner by the bar, and insisted on a “little kissy.” The ladies knew that they had to be discreet in public, but apparently the three weeks of celibacy had been too much for her. Only after repeated promises to make up missed performances did she release him. Finally he was in the home stretch. He looked again for Sally, had she been watching? She was still there, now only a few steps away. She turned and saw him. A smile. It filled him up, he was going to make it.
“There you are, darling.” Albert stopped in his tracks. It was the voice you didn’t ever say no to. It was Zsa Zsa.
She was dressed in full regalia: the Southern Belle par excellence. Canary yellow bustle dress with matching gloves and parasol. And her boobs. It wasn’t fair! The Victorian corset pushed them up fantastically high. At any moment they seemed sure to burst forth. How could he not stare?
She put one hand around his neck and began to ply his hair. “Oh, darling, I’ve missed you.” Albert’s resolve began to melt.
Zsa Zsa, despite everything (including her insufferable lapdog, Precious), was a beautiful beautiful woman. She was the kind of prize that most men would love to hold—the ultimate status symbol. For to keep a woman like Zsa Zsa meant you had to possess all the wealth, prestige, and influence that her unabated ambition could require. Now, having her so close again, and feeling the eyes of the other men in the room as they looked enviously at Albert, made him realize that his life of pleasure was not so bad, that he should count his blessings, and that to return to Zsa Zsa—certainly the devil he knew—was not such a terrible thing after all.
He tried to fight it, tried to come back from the dark side. He looked toward Sally, but she was gone.
He smiled at Zsa Zsa—trying to play the part—but she had followed his gaze.
“I hope you’re not planning what I think you’re planning,” she said. “Because that would make us all very unhappy,” and she tilted her head and gave a little pout that slowly turned into a sly smirk.
Albert wanted to kick himself. How could he have been so stupid? She knew. Of course she knew. And Zsa Zsa—a woman capable of crushing the armies of Sun Tzu’s while doing her nails—was not about to let Albert go quietly.
“What have you done?” Albert demanded.
“Nothing, darling,” she said, her tone so innocent that for a moment he almost believed her. “I just told her the truth and asked her if she wanted to be a part of the arrangement.”
He broke away from her, heading for the back exit. Zsa Zsa watched him go, biting her lower lip and smiling into her mint julep.
Sally was alone on the back veranda looking out over the unnamed lake that formed the center of Unique Palm Estates (West).
“Hi, there,” he said.
She turned and smiled, but it was a tired smile. “Hi.”
“Can I join you?”
“Sure, seeing as how my date stood me up.” Albert feigned surprise.
When Albert put his hands on the railing beside her, he realized he was shaking. She saw it, too.
He laughed at himself. “I haven’t felt like this in a long time.” She looked at him, seeming to believe him, or at least wanting to.
“Scott told me I needed to tell you the truth, but he also said that I shouldn’t ‘freak you out.’”
“It sounds like good advice,” she said.
“The problem is, I think those things are mutually exclusive.”
He looked at her, trying to read her expression, but couldn’t.
Here we go. “I know what you’ve heard and I wish it weren’t true, but it is. I have made a mess of things, I know that. But I still want you to give me a chance,” and here he paused because it was hard to get out, “because you are the first woman in fifteen years who makes me want to be the man I used to be.”
She said nothing.
He coaxed, “Will you give me a shot?”
She turned to him and ran the back of her hand against his cheek. It made him weak. But then she turned toward the condos that lined the lake and slowly shook her head. “I’m getting out, Albert,” she said. “This is where people come to die and I’m not ready for that. I’m going back to the Cape, I’m going to winterize the cabin, and I’m going to find a job.”
Albert’s heart sank. Had he misread her so? Wasn’t there any feeling between them? He didn’t know what to do. He had an insane desire to kiss her, to do something, to make her shut up, anything so he could go back to the hopefulness he had just seconds ago. But he didn’t move. He knew it was time to go. There was nothing left here. He had blown his chance because of what he had let his life become.
But then Sally nodded toward the homes on the lake. “Would you give up all of this for that one chance, Albert?”
He finally understood. She was just like he was—a proud bird—like a quetzal. She had been waiting for him to show her that he had really chosen her, above all the others. She was going to give him a chance. For a second his heart flopped against his ribs and he felt his whole body go slack with relief. But it passed in a second, replaced by a new anxiety.
Leave the estates? It was something he had never considered and a part of him—a big part actually—was repulsed by the thought. Uh oh. Had he always assumed that he could have her and the others too? Worse, had he pretended he would change just to get the prize? Leave the estates? All that pleasure?
Sally had a plan for him. She would make him go cold turkey. Albert had the sudden feeling of being ensnared.
Now it was her turn to coax. “You know, I figure it’s the only way I can save you.” Then she smiled that incredible smile that made her both young and old, that smile that had won him.
All he had to do was step forward. If he could do that, make that leap, he might be saved.