My neighbor Vic was walking to the pool in swim trunks, shirtless, blue towel around his neck. He offered me a wave and a brown, gap-toothed smile. He glided toward the clubhouse, head held high, like Jacques Cousteau strutting across the deck of Calypso, or an early bird patron marching toward the pasta bar at Sweet Tomatoes.
“Good luck with your surgery,” I said. The next morning, they were transplanting a pig’s valve into his chest.
Vic was a stout little man, about five-four, with a booming, crackled voice. A veteran of the D-Day invasion of Omaha Beach, Vic was now a “get off my lawn” guy, but we got along just fine. He and his wife Fran, they once wrote books and trade journal articles about the printing industry—dense verbiage about halftone, duotone, linotypes, prepress proofs, paper manufacturing, and whatever else.
They retired long ago, during the waning days of dot matrix printers, but their home office still contained a long Formica credenza, two massive laminated desks, IBM Selectric typewriters, a commercial Xerox machine and orange shag carpeting.
“If all goes well, I’ll be discharged from the hospital in about ten days,” Vic said. “If not, I’ll be out of there before happy hour.”
“You’re a real estate agent, right?” Fran asked me downstairs by the mailboxes, a few months after Vic died on the operating table. She was selling her two-bedroom corner condo with the wrap-around balcony to a nurse at her pulmonologist’s office, and now she wanted a nearby rental. “With Vic gone, better to leave my boys a few dollars and keep things simple. The both of them, they’re drinkers, you know, and between you and me, they’re not too bright.”I wondered what my mother might be telling her neighbors about me. So I logged onto the MLS and searched east of Federal Highway, from Oakland Park Boulevard down to Davie Road. I showed Fran several age-restricted units near the 17th Street Causeway, but then the furnished rental beside my apartment became available when the latest tenant and her caged parrots got tossed by the condo association. Several of my letters might have had something to do with it. Renters here can’t keep pets. Residents far beyond the tennis courts and swimming pool had also complained about the noise. I rent too, but so far the association hadn’t discovered my cat. On moving day, I carried Fran’s stuff down the catwalk, mostly clothes, a TV, boxes of food and medicine and photographs and ceramic doodads, along with her leased oxygen machine, featuring a long tube that followed her from room to room. I called an auction company, and they paid Fran a few dollars for the obsolete office equipment and most of her furniture. Fran gave me an Army-green file cabinet, staplers, pens, pencils, reams of yellowed copy paper and her nearly new queen-size Serta Perfect Sleeper. She also insisted on treating me to a nice dinner. “Ruth’s Chris, Morton’s, Joe’s Stone Crab … whatever you like,” Fran said. “That’s not necessary,” I said, but whenever I saw her on the catwalk or downstairs by the mailboxes, she’d ask, “When’s our dinner date?” So on a Tuesday night in January, we went to the Longhorn Steakhouse on Andrews and Cypress, a straight shot up I-95 and easy self-parking. Fran could set aside her O2 machine for a few hours here and there. We ordered prime rib, red wine – the second bottle was Fran’s idea – and we talked about the new brick pavers around the pool, the assessment for the fire alarm system and the ongoing lawsuit with the roof contractor. Two months later, I returned from a week in California. I climbed out of the Super Shuttle van, rolled my suitcase to the mailboxes beside the elevator, and spotted a scribbled note someone had thumb-tacked to the bulletin board. It looked like a shopping list, but it wasn’t. Fran had passed away Saturday night at Broward General. At the funeral, it was mostly neighbors from the condo, Fran’s church friends and Vic’s pals from the VFW. I was one of the few mourners who didn’t crouch onto a padded kneeler. We don’t have those in the synagogue. They set off an interesting drumbeat as everyone gets back up. That week, Vic and Fran’s younger son Chuck knocked on my door. He stood there, unshaven, barefoot, in surfer shorts and a vented Joe Marlin fishing shirt. Add a thrift store guitar and he’d look like a low-rent Jimmy Buffett. He offered me a square box wrapped in tan postal paper. “Dude, hold this for me until I hit the road. If he’s still in town, my idiot brother will come sniffing around and take more stuff from the apartment. He snagged our father’s ashes before I could hop a plane down here. He’ll never think to ask if you’ve got Mom.” I looked at the box, tilted it from side to side, resisted the urge to shake it. “By the way,” Chuck said, “how can I protect my inheritance from the IRS? I got a thing with some back taxes.” “My gig is real estate,” I said, standing there, holding Fran’s cremains. I suggested he call H&R Block. Back inside, I placed Fran on a bookshelf near my bed, but in my half-sleep, I kept hearing her nasally voice and labored breathing. I got up around 3 a.m. and put Fran inside the top drawer of her old file cabinet in my living room. The voice faded somewhat. I wondered if my cat could hear it. Chuck slammed the front door all the time, smoked on the catwalk, and I could smell it in my kitchen. He tossed his beer bottles into the dumpster instead of the adjacent recycle bin – Budweiser, Michelob, Rolling Rock, and the occasional Dos Equis. This character was not the most interesting man in the world. For that matter, Chuck wasn’t “condo people.” He was a drifter, an all-purpose handyman. Asked me to endorse him on Angie’s List, said his friend in Detroit had taught him how to install skylights. “Don’t you need a contractor’s license for that?” I said. And he goes, “Dude, you know anything about making websites?” I suggested he call GoDaddy.com. The Saturday before Memorial Day, Chuck knocked on my door. “Dude, so I’m hitting the bricks at the end of the month. That’s when Mom’s prepaid rent runs out,” he said. “Actually, it ended April thirtieth, but now the sheriff’s office is pushing eviction papers on me.” I did not tell him it was nice having him around. He said I should come over and take one of his mother’s potted plants. I expected some little Pothos plant I could keep on my windowsill or atop the refrigerator. Instead, he stuck me with this tall, scraggly palm of some sort in a busted plastic pot, must have weighed forty pounds. I replanted it in a twenty-gallon cedar container I bought at Kmart. A week later, Chuck showed up at my door and goes, “Dude, I’ll trade you these two artsy-fartsy things for one old lady.” He stood there with a pair of brass bookends shaped like elephants. Then he handed me a business card: Chuck of all Trades. “Got them printed for nine dollars at Office Depot. Nice, right?” “Looks like four-color offset on fifty-percent cotton bond,” I said. “Dude, what’s that?” “Nothing, just printing jargon,” I said. “Wait here, Chuck. I’ll go get your mom.” I put the brass bookends on the floor. My cat gave me an odd look as I retrieved Fran from the file cabinet. “Dude, you should come over for a brewskie,” Chuck said out there on the catwalk, “one for the road.” “Nah, that’s OK,” I said, wondering whether anyone actually says brewskie anymore. “You must have packing to finish up, and tomorrow morning, early, I’m meeting the appraiser at this townhouse I’m selling near the Galleria.” “Dude, you don’t like me. I get that,” Chuck said. “You think I’m not too smart.” “I’ve got no problem with you, Chuck,” I said, thinking how I couldn’t wait to see him leave. “I don’t fit in here at your fancy condo. No back-in parking, no motorcycles, no pickup trucks, no bottles by the pool, can’t ride the elevator barefoot. When I was changing the oil in Mom’s car yesterday, the lady condo manager yelled at me from the golf cart.” “I didn’t write the bylaws. I’ve been here a long time, but I’m a renter too.” “Yeah, but you’re one of them. It’s OK,” Chuck said. “My folks liked you. You treated Mom good, helped her clear out the big apartment. My dad was a war hero, the Greatest Generation, etcetera. I did eighteen months for grand theft in Kentucky. Before I went to the joint, I convinced them I’d be living off the grid awhile, working for an organic dairy farm in Humboldt County. I got the name of the place from a milk carton.” Better to let Chuck believe what he believed. Fact is, Fran and Vic knew all about Chuck’s stint in that Kentucky prison, along with his brother’s suspended sentence for shoplifting in Tennessee. Fran told me at dinner that night. When an old lady downs a bottle and a half of cabernet, there’s no telling what you’ll learn. Lying in my new bed that night, what had once been Fran and Vic’s new bed, I wondered if the brother knew that Chuck was taking their parents’ silver Buick Century, along with Fran’s cremains. And would Fran be stowed in the trunk, or would she ride shotgun all the way to Detroit? And would she and Vic ever be properly reunited? After Chuck left, I sold the brass bookends on eBay for seventeen dollars. I don’t know if they’d been Fran’s, or were they part of the décor from the furnished apartment. Soon, a young couple moved in, but then they had a kid and bought a foreclosed villa in Weston. Then we had a Spirit Airlines pilot whose wife had kicked him out of their house in Lauderdale-By-The-Sea. Vincent, the man who stays there now, is a retired restaurateur from Buffalo. He’s about seventy or so, doesn’t have a car, takes cabs to and from wherever he goes. He often hocks up crud from his sinuses, leans over the catwalk and spits into the hibiscus hedge downstairs. I don’t talk to him much. I still wonder if Chuck ever got sober, settled with the IRS, built a website and launched his skylight business. I’ve never been to Detroit, or anywhere in Michigan, but I’m told they don’t get much sun up there. So long as it doesn’t leak, maybe a well-placed window in the roof is a good thing. The investor who owns my apartment is liquidating his portfolio, so if I can get a mortgage, maybe I’ll buy this place – easier than moving. I’ve been peddling real estate for a while now. Time to own some myself. From the futon in my living room, I see Fran’s potted palm on my screened terrace. Our landscaper thinks it’s a chamaedorea benziei. He did some research for me on his iPad. The little tree has grown, but it still looks fragile, tentative, somewhat day-to-day - sort of like condo people, so I keep it around. I water it sometimes, toss in some fertilizer when I think of it. Just seems like the right thing to do.