Authors: Paula Marantz Cohen
“So,” she continued, wiping her mouth carefully, as though preparing it to embark on the next lap of her saga, “we walked down to the pool to get it, and ran into Rudy Salzburg talking a blue streak to another man. You know how Rudy likes to take prospective buyers around the place, show the highlights, and get the rich ones to fork over something for the landscaping fund? Well, there he was with a very handsome gentleman.”
Flo snorted. “You think anyone in pants is a handsome gentleman.”
“This was a handsome gentleman,” countered Lila stubbornly. “You know it, so stop trying to trip me up.”
“Okay, okay,” said Flo, “he was a handsome gentleman. I’ll grant you that.”
“Tall, full head of hair, nice shape, well spoken. Rudy introduced us. He said, ‘This, ladies, is Mel Shirmer, he’s thinking of taking a place in Boca Festa. Perhaps you could say a few words on its behalf I, of course, said how wonderful it was here, but Flo, being Flo, said, ‘If you want me to tell you it’s paradise, I won’t. It’s more like the waiting room for paradise’—something morbid like that. Rudy looked upset, but Mel thought she was funny. He said, ‘A witty lady,’ and Rudy seemed relieved and said that Flo was a witty and beautiful and generous lady.”
“Yes,” said Flo, “my praises were sung.”
“Mel seemed to be very interested in Flo right away after that. He said she looked very familiar.” Lila nodded as if to say she knew what that line meant.
“Lila, you’re jumping to conclusions,” Flo interrupted. “He said he worked for the
for many years and so had occasion to use the library at the university. Who knows, but he might have seen me there.”
“Flo, be quiet, I’m telling this. So we chat, and he tells us he was a big-time reporter first in Chicago, then bureau chief or something for one of those news agencies. Foreign correspondent, spent time abroad, et cetera, et cetera.” Lila waved the hand holding the buttered roll in the air as if to say that this was impressive but boilerplate material, no need to provide great detail. “Not a lot of money—he was up front about that—but since when does Flo care about money?” Lila added this as an aside, since it placed Flo in a different category from herself and therefore outside the realm of competition. “He loves to read,” she continued, pressing down a finger on one hand for each point that followed, “speaks several languages, enjoys travel, very cosmopolitan, very knowledgeable. It’s a perfect match, if you ask me.”
“No one asked you,” said Flo.
Lila paid no attention. “He explained that he’d retired a few years ago, though he still does some consulting for the big PR firms, to keep his hand in, as he put it. But he thought it was time to finally get a place down here: enjoy the sun, relax, maybe write his memoirs.” Lila gave a particularly knowing look as she delivered this last point—memoir-writing being, she knew, just the sort of thing likely to impress Flo. “Anyway,” she concluded briskly, “he’s joining us for lunch. He seemed so taken with Flo that he as much as invited himself, though she kept her claws in for a change and was gracious about it.”
“All right already,” said Flo. “I’ll admit that he seemed nice, and with the added novelty of being able to make intelligent conversation.”
“And he’s coming to lunch?” asked May. She was eager to meet the man who had impressed her fastidious friend.
“He said he just needed to make a few calls and, if we didn’t mind, would join us in a few minutes,” explained Lila. “It will give him a chance, he said, to check out the food. He and Flo had some jokes about how we Boca-ites live for food. As I say,
they were very sympatico.” She raised her eyebrows meaningfully while Flo rolled her eyes again.
“A widower?” asked May delicately
“That or divorced,” said Lila. “But certainly available. No ring. I looked.”
“Of course you did,” said Flo.
“And very solicitous of Flo.”
“You said that,” said Flo.
“And I’ll say it again.”
The women were halted in their exchange by the sight of an imposing-looking man with a thick head of salt-and-pepper hair entering the dining room. Lila put her hand up in the air and waved. “Mel, over here!”
“He sees us,” said Flo. “No need to make a scene.”
Mel smiled and walked over to the women. He was an extremely good-looking man in his early seventies, with an easy, graceful manner and a warm smile. He moved to the chair near Flo, but not before extending his hand to May. “I’ve met your companions, but I’ve not had the pleasure.” May introduced herself. “I must say that I wasn’t expecting to have lunch with three ladies,” said Mel. “Not that ladies are in short supply in Boca”—he smiled wryly at Flo—”but good company and good conversation, I’m afraid, often are. It’s what’s been keeping me from moving down for several years now.”
“I know what you mean,” said Flo. “If it weren’t for my friends, who enjoy poking fun at ‘our people’—or at least indulge me in poking fun—I don’t know what I’d do.”
“Well, I can see I’ll have to become an honorary member of your group,” said Mel, “if you’ll permit me.”
“You can join right now,” said Lila. “Sign on the dotted line.”
Mel laughed. “I confess that I’m thinking seriously about buying a place in Boca Festa. I’d looked at Boca West several years ago. It’s expensive, but not entirely out of my range. But the place is too pretentious for my taste. Boca Festa seems less so.”
“Yes,” said Flo, “we’re very ‘down home’ here.”
Mel laughed again. “I’m told that the differences between the clubs really aren’t that great. But you learn to distinguish, I’m sure. Freud called it ‘the narcissism of minor differences’—rivalries and such that break out between peoples that are very much alike. I suppose that it’s that way here in Boca.”
“Exactly that way,” agreed Flo. “We are having an ongoing war with our neighbors in Boca Lago. We fear that they may have a step up on us in the quality of their aerobics instruction. We have spies and counterspies trying to get at their secrets and steal their instructor, the curvaceous Kim, and there’s a move underfoot to redecorate the workout room since they did theirs last spring.”
“Well then, maybe I can be helpful,” joked Mel. “I did some intelligence work—very small scale—when I was stationed in Saigon years ago.”
“Were you really a spy?” breathed May.
“Well, they asked me to ask a couple of extra questions in an interview I was scheduled to do, that’s all. It doesn’t quite qualify as spymaster, but there were some cables from the CIA and a debriefing in Washington afterward. More exciting, I’m afraid, in the telling than in the doing.”
The women looked impressed by the telling.
“Have you checked out all the clubs, then?” asked Lila. “It’s flattering to think that you’re inclining toward Boca Festa.”
“As I said, I’ve spent time at Boca West and I know people at the Polo Club and St. Andrews.”
“Broken Arrow is very nice,” volunteered May.
“Nice, yes,” agreed Mel, “but I hear it’s one of the snobbier ones. If you don’t wear the right shoes with your tuxedo, they boot you out—excuse the pun.”
“May’s partial to Broken Arrow,” explained Lila. “She has a friend there.”
“Norman Grafstein is not a snob!” declared May more adamantly than was usual for her.
“Norman Grafstein, is it?” said Mel.
“Do you know him?” asked Flo, noticing that he frowned slightly at the name.
“Not really,” said Mel. “I’ve heard of him, but we’ve never met.”
Hy Marcus arrived at the table at this point and began pelting their guest with tales of his family. When Mel mentioned that he was looking at Boca Festa as a possible home, Hy’s boasting turned in that direction:
“They do a good job with the food, the decorating is top-notch, and the grounds couldn’t be better,” declared Hy. “Take it from me; it’s the best club for the money.”
“I believe it,” said Mel. “Some friends of mine in the area spoke highly of it. I’ll admit that for someone like me, used to the large cities”—he nodded at Flo, as if assuming she shared his view—”this will be quite an adjustment. But I’m ready for a rest, and it helps to know that I’ll find some lively minds if I decide to settle down here.” He glanced at Flo again, and May noted that, for the second time, Flo colored.
“Let me invite you to check it out further,” urged Hy magnanimously. “Breakfast, lunch, dinner, come when you please. Just say you’re my guest and look for us. I usually spend two hours here at every meal, noshing and making the rounds, so you can’t miss me.”
“You’re too generous,” said Mel, putting his hand on Hy’s arm but directing a quick smile at Flo. “I may take you up on that offer.”
Flo had to admit that for once she was grateful to Hy Marcus for being the voluble fool that he was.
HE APPEARANCE OF
EL SHIRMER AT MEALS IN THE
dining room over the next week was a source of pleasure to Flo. They were rarely alone; what with the constant presence of Hy, Lila, and May, not to mention an assortment of others whom Hy was always asking to take a seat, there was less occasion for prolonged talk than she would have wished. Still, they spoke enough to confirm Flo in her initial opinion that Mel was an unusually educated and worldly man for Boca Festa. One day he came in with John Le Carré’s
Tailor of Panama
under his arm.
“Do you like it?” asked Flo. “I found the movie intriguing.”
“Missed that, I’m afraid, and haven’t started the book yet, but I’ve been meaning to read it for years. Did a brief stint way back when I was bureau chief for AP in Panama, and I’m curious to see if Le Carré got it right.”
“It sounds like you’ve led a very exciting life,” noted Flo. “You must miss the travel and the personalities that you met as a foreign correspondent.”
“Yes and no,” said Mel. “It was an exciting life, I’ll grant you, but hollow in many ways. It was skimming the surface, never penetrating to the deeper stuff that calls for time and commitment. I regret that I never really worked at a relationship.”
They were interrupted at this point by a question from one of the women at the table about whether Mel had really been a spy, a fact that had spread like wildfire through the club after Lila had mentioned it casually to Pixie Solomon. There followed an animated conversation on Jewish spies, many residents having
read the book about the baseball player, Moe Berg, who had been a spy during World War II. The reference to Berg elicited at least three repetitions of the familiar joke: “He could speak ten languages, but he couldn’t hit in any of them” (a quarrel ensued as to whether it was ten or thirty languages).
The next evening, when Mel appeared at dinner again, Flo found their conversation moving in the same direction as it had the day before.
“I feel myself a bit out of water here, I must say,” he confided as pictures of grandchildren were passed around the table. It had happened, as it always did, very quickly: No sooner was one photo extracted from a wallet than the rest at the table had theirs out, as though they were all members of some secret society and had been asked to show identification.
“Yes,” agreed Flo, “I’ve considered clipping pictures of a few cute kids out of a magazine so that I can take part in the ritual. Of course, I’d have to provide the supporting commentary on Little League and ballet lessons, and IQs that are off the charts, but I think I have enough gift for fiction to be able to do it. Given free reign, I could concoct something that would blow the competition out of the water.”
Mel laughed, but then continued more seriously: “It’s a regret I have, I must say. A grandchild would be nice to carry on the Shirmer legacy—whatever that is. But then, I would have needed a child as a prerequisite, and that, I fear, was beyond me when it would have been feasible. I didn’t want to be pinned down. That’s what doomed my marriage. The poor woman wasn’t up to packing off for Costa Rica or Zanzibar every few years, though she had no trouble, I must say, with Paris and London.”
“I’m sure it’s difficult for the person who has to tag along,” admitted Flo, “but if you’re blessed with the opportunity to lead such a life, it would be hard to give it up for more domestic pleasures.”
“That’s how I felt, of course,” said Mel, “only now I see more to those domestic pleasures than I did.”
“It’s not unheard of for a man your age to start a family,” said Flo innocently. In point of fact, she was among the most vocal critics when men upped and had children in their sixties and seventies—“trophy children,” she called them when speaking of this with Lila and May. “It’s disgusting.” But she was interested in hearing how Mel would respond to the idea. As she saw it, he was certainly attractive enough to hook a much younger woman.
“Nah,” said Mel, in response to her suggestion that he have children now, “that’s not for me. First, I may like the idea in theory, but if I didn’t have the patience when I was young, I certainly wouldn’t have it now. Second, I’m immune to the attractions of the younger woman. I find that I like mature conversation; it’s something I’m unwilling to give up.”
Flo said nothing. She was secretly glowing with pleasure.
“And you?” asked Mel. “You’ve said that you don’t have grandchildren; what about children? You hardly look like a woman who would deprive herself of—what should I call it?—that great adventure. For women, I often think, it is an adventure, while for men it’s simply a spectator sport.”
“I have one child,” said Flo, laughing. “One of those adventures was enough for me. And you’re right, I have yet to be graced with the glory of a grandchild. Jonathan, my son, has the good sense to realize that he needs to mature a bit before inflicting himself on some innocent child.”
“He’s still finding himself, I assume?” asked Mel sympathetically.
“Oh, no, on the contrary Perhaps he found himself too soon. He made a fortune with one of those new Internet companies right after college. He’d been what they call a nerd in high school; suddenly he was the most popular man at the party. He’s thirty-eight now—chucked his first wife from the nerd days and
married a debutante, to the envy of his high-school friends. I think he married her to provoke that envy.”