Here’s my morning routine (just to give you an idea of what my days are like now): I wake up at 6:15, as if I’ve still got a job. I go downstairs to the front stoop I share with five other units and hope somebody hasn’t filched my newspaper. I take the paper inside and sit at the dining room table, and while I drink a glass of orange juice with Metamucil and eat a piece of toast with marmalade, I read the news. Christ, it’s boring. Depends on your vantage point, I guess, but for me it’s gutless. Meatless. Vegan. A dozen people blown up by an unknown attacker in a country I couldn’t find on a globe if I had to. Some woman in Smalltown, USA, who drove her kids into a lake. Some guy in some other town who didn’t like his neighbor’s music and dusted off his old hunting rifle to deal with it. Politicians with hookers. Cops with too much power. That’s the news: somebody’s an asshole, and another asshole’s got something to say about it. Which isn’t really news, is it?
I go on the Internet to see what’s happening back in Chicago, and it’s like they gave typewriters to a bunch of cats. I turn on the television to check out the local affiliates, and it’s all traffic reports and “human interest” stories. So I watch a few reruns. The Big Valley, which I still enjoy. The Waltons, which is corny, but better than a lot of the garbage they show now. Kojak. Good old Kojak, still with the zingers and still walking into the room with his dick swinging.
I turn the clock radio to the classical station, get in the tub, soak my joints. Put on my robe, go into the kitchen, think about getting a cat, pour a big glass of water and lay out my pills for the day. Atenolol, donepezil, hydralazine, quinapril—over the teeth, past the gums. I put on trousers or a pair of shorts, depending on my mood. A guayabera. Crocs decorated with little Mickey Mouse snap-ons the girl at the mall talked me into. SPF 30 sunscreen with zinc oxide I smear from my collarbones to the top of my head, which went the way of Kojak’s long before I ever had a chance of going gray. Onto this slathered bust, I place one of three straw hats and a pair of Oakleys strong enough to block UVAs, UVBs, and UVCs, whatever they are. Watch, keys, money clip, loose change, and I’m ready for what my doctor likes to call my heart-healthy, low-weight-bearing ambulation. I’m the roaming prince of Villa Ponce de Leon. Do I love my life? Not so much. It’s like the Players Club, only with none of the play.
* * * *
Villa Ponce de Leon is a very proud place. It doesn’t have bushes and trees; it has landscaping. It doesn’t have sidewalks; it has a promenade of winding, wooden slats carefully painted with yellow caution stripes at every step up and step down. It has a Seniors Activity Center—shuffleboard courts; tile-laid tables for checkers and chess; classes in yoga and tai chi and scrapbook making. Its own battalion of big-bellied security guards who ride around on golf carts and wave hello. Signs telling you where you can and can’t park, where you can and can’t walk, where it’s okay for your dog to do its business. Wooden dispensers with crap bags every twenty feet, and signs reminding dog walkers that the entire complex is a “Doodie-Free Zone.” Its literature boasts of being the finest retirement community in all of Brevard County—huzzah!—and in the center of the superfluous roundabout at the entrance to said community stands the man himself: Ponce de Leon, painted to look like bronze, one hand on his hip and the other thrust out, offering up this bountiful wonderland.
“Good morning, Mr. Delacorte,” one of the residents says as she passes me on the promenade. At the end of the leash in her hand is a Chinese crested, looks like he’s got a toupee on top of his head.
I will never get used to being Eugene Delacorte—ridiculous name—but I’ve gotten used to faking it. “Good morning, sweetheart,” I say, smiling my most devilish smile. She smiles back and might even blush if she had enough circulation to get the blood to her cheeks.
Down the way, one of the ancients, he must be close to ninety, is squinting at the notice board with his mouth hanging open. I can’t tell if he’s reading the board or drying his teeth. “Huh,” he says just as I’m about to pass him. “Huh, huh, huh.” Then he turns around and glares at me like I’ve startled him on purpose. “John Kennedy Jr.’s plane went down,” he says.
“It sure did,” I say. “About ten years ago.” I pat his arm and keep walking.
The sky’s gone from blue to a kind of ashy white. Blink your eyes and it’ll be blue again. I follow the promenade around the lake they scooped out of the middle of the complex, past the playground for visiting grandkids, cut across the grass on a path of round pebble stones edged with a rope railing about as high as my ankle, and end up at the pool.
The pool is a fairly new addition to Villa Ponce de Leon. Finished just six months before I arrived, and still bearing the self-congratulatory banner across the entrance to the pavilion: Our Beautiful Pool is Now Open—Residents and Their Guests Only. Maximum of three guests, that is, accompanied by a resident who’s responsible for his or her guests obeying the rules. So says the president of the condo association, the one and only, ball-busting supervillain, Sophia Humphries.
She’s a formidable opponent to yours truly, the roaming prince.
Under the umbrella of her presidency, Sophia is in charge of things like balcony etiquette (no barbecues, no storage, no nude sunbathing) and yard-sale etiquette (no yard sales). She’s also the self-appointed Welcome Wagon; rings your bell right after you move in and presents you with—I kid you not—a basket of takeout menus, mosquito repellant, and a little stuffed-alligator key chain. I can only assume the sweet smile and the twenty-questions game are a regular part of her routine, because when I invited her in for a glass of iced tea, she sat herself down on my couch and was a jovial grand inquisitor. Where had I lived before moving here? Lincoln, Nebraska. What line of work had I been in? Drywall. Any children, grandchildren? Why not? Two of the former, five of the latter. A wife who passed away a few years ago. A sister who runs a daycare center in Omaha. Solid answers, and none of them true—if she was wise, she didn’t let on. “I’d love to see pictures of your grandchildren,” she said, and I told her I would, too, but there were a few boxes that had gone missing when the movers arrived and I was still waiting for them to turn up. “And what made you choose Cape Canaveral, Mr. Delacorte?”
It was chosen for me, just like the name Eugene Delacorte. But of course I didn’t tell her this. There she was, half a cushion away, halfway through her iced tea, around my age, wearing her reading glasses on a chain around her neck, a blouse patterned with hibiscus blossoms, and a whole lot of makeup, including a red-coral shade of lipstick that would have looked just fine on a young fox. She was kind of a sexpot in her own right, and you had to give her credit for it. “Sunny days,” I said with a shrug. “Balmy nights.” I rubbed the side of my neck and then laid my arm across the back of the sofa so that my fingertips—just barely—brushed the collar of her blouse. “Maybe a little romance.”
She glanced around as if suddenly needing to take inventory of my furniture. Then she looked me right in the eye, the smile gone from her lips but then back again in abbreviated form. “Well, aren’t you full of yourself,” she said.
“I am,” I said. “I truly am. And I wish it weren’t so.”
* * * *
The problem with becoming someone else is that you’re still stuck with you. You can change your name, buy all new clothes, pretend you’re from Nebraska when you’re really from Illinois, pretend you used to work in drywall when, really, you were a bookkeeper for an extortion racket, pretend you’re a happy-go-lucky retiree, no secrets, no regrets—and still, when you look in the mirror, you’re going to see the guy you first saw, way back when.
D. B. Cooper, or whatever his name really was, could never be D. B. Cooper again once he jumped out of the plane with all that cash, but he still saw the guy desperate enough to make such a heist when he looked in the mirror. Ferdinand Waldo Demara, the great imposter who pretended to be thirty or forty different people in his lifetime, with thirty or forty different jobs and thirty or forty different personal histories, saw only one guy each morning when he shaved his mug: Ferdinand Waldo Demara. I’ll bet even Mickey Rourke can still see himself if he squints hard enough.
So when I, Eugene Delcacorte, look in the mirror, I see Nick Parascos. And here’s why it’s no picnic, this brand new life: I don’t want to be either one of them. Eugene Delacorte is a cream puff, and Nick Parascos is a rat.
Sophia Humphries, I would guess, is not the happiest camper when she looks in the mirror. I say that not because of her features, but because of all the makeup, and because of her lust for power, and because of that forward lean in her voice. I know more about her than I do about anyone down here—she’s a sharer—but she leaves out the tender parts and won’t go near the juicy bits. She’s divorced, like me. She played tennis until she had to have her knee replaced—a surgery that led to complications, two more surgeries, and a pending malpractice suit. She likes QVC, anagrams, Hummels. She listens to Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck (so she’s a private romantic, maybe, even while she’s a ballbuster). I imagine she’s been through a few wringers in her lifetime, had more than a few turns at the rodeo. And I suspect that, while she’s glad to have survived it all, she’s not exactly thrilled to be Sophia Humphries. She’s got some Barbara Stanwyck in her, sure. She’s even got a little Mae West, if I rose-color my Oakleys. But she’s also got some dour in her dowry. Some Aunt Bee in her bonnet.
Nothing happened that first afternoon, other than that she finished her tea, complimented my Fiestaware, and went on with her day. Did I come on too strong? Not strong enough? Would she have liked it any better if I’d let her take the wheel? These might be questions for another man, but the rev in the engine doesn’t go away, even if you’re driving a jalopy.
* * * *
The pool pavilion is a modest affair, given Ponce de Leon’s lofty standards. Under the banner is an entrance that leads to the check-in counter, and on either side of the counter are the restrooms—ladies to the left, gents to the right, the only way in or out of the pool area. It strikes me as poor planning that you have to pass through the toilets to get to the pool, but there it is.
Sophia hires and fires the people who work the check-in counter. She hires and fires the lifeguards. She has her own test kit and goes behind the pool maintenance man, taking her own pH and alkalinity levels. She’s breaking in a new kid for the desk today and, as I stroll in, she’s also chewing out one of the lifeguards.
“We have to keep these children out of the hot tub,” she’s saying.
The guard is all muscle, shaggy haired and dimple faced. A smirker. He’s got on a white tank top and this snug, little red bathing suit that might as well be Jockey shorts. He shrugs.
“It’s too hot for them,” Sophia says. “They’re not allowed in.”
She’s right; it’s in the regulations. But the guard shrugs again and says, “They jump in really fast,” and he’s right too. I’ve seen them do it. There’s a low wall between the pool and hot tub, and the brats make a game out of belly-sliding over that wall—plop!—right into old people’s laps. I step around the two of them, wink at the scared-looking new kid sitting behind the counter, and cut through the men’s room to the pool area. And what a crazy mix it is. A dozen retirees splayed out on lounge chairs, and half a dozen little hellions darting back and forth, up and down, asking for snacks. It’s like flies on meat. I buy a Vitaminwater from the soda machine and carry it back inside.
Sophia’s got her cinnamon-colored hair teased up into a bouffant, and aqua-blue earrings that match her nail polish. She’s still putting the screws to the lifeguard. “Can I just remind you,” she says, “that it’s your job to keep these children in line? I need one of you watching the counter, and two of you watching the pool, and if that’s too much for you to handle, I’m sure they’re hiring at McDonald’s.”
The guard is fingering the whistle around his neck. “We’ll do our best, Ms. Humphries,” he says, then heads out to the pool.
“I should hope so,” she calls after him. “It’s what I pay you for.” When she turns away, her artificial knee pops and she lets out a small gasp. The lifeguards can be very mean sometimes. Behind her back, I’ve heard them give all kinds of descriptions for the noise her knee makes. They say it sounds like a squeezed aluminum can. Or the leg of a Barbie doll. Or—and I think this one is the cruelest—a wing being ripped off a cooked chicken. They watch her while she’s doing her pH tests and they smirk at each other, waiting for the day that knee might give out and send her twirling into the deep end.
“And here’s Mr. Delacorte,” she says when she sees me. Like I’m one more thing she has to deal with.
“I’m just standing here,” I say, smiling. “Is that against the law?”
“The rules say all residents have to be checked in, whatever reason they’re here.” She’s talking to the new kid behind the counter now, who’s nodding and blowing his bangs out of his eyes. “You’ve read the rules?”
“I will,” he says.
“What does it take?” she asks—not the kid, or me. God, maybe. The ceiling.
“It takes a hope and a dream,” I say. “A wing and a prayer. I heard about this stuff called Hint, supposed to be better than Vitaminwater. Healthier for you. Think we can get some Hint in the machine out there?”
“There are two file boxes,” Sophia tells the kid. “One for In and one for Out. Someone comes in to use the pool—or get a soda—they sign their name on the sheet, you pull their ID card from the Out box, check the photo stapled to the back, and move it to the In box. It’s the only way we can keep track of who’s here.”
“And it’s very important to keep track,” I tell the kid. “It’s paramount. You don’t want any covert operations happening right under your nose, do you?”
“Co-what?” the kid asks.
“Mr. Delacorte,” Sophia says, “can I show you something?” She motions for me to follow her into the ladies’ room.
I ape a What’s this all about? expression for the kid’s benefit and start after her with a goofy Red Skelton walk.
She hollers around the corner, “Anybody in here?”
No reply. A faucet is running. She shakes her head, shuts off the water. Checks for feet under the stalls. Takes my hand and leads me to one of the narrow, metal doors.
“Well, you little vixen,” I say. “Got something naughty in mind?”
“Stop it,” she says. Then she tells me these children are going to put her in her grave. The problem, she says, is that they all think some magic Internet wand is waving over their heads every minute of their lives. (Adorable, right? I could kiss her.) Last week, some girl—and she thinks she knows who—stuffed a clementine down one of the toilets, so Sophia put up signs on the doors to both stalls spelling out the rules for proper food disposal. She’s still holding my hand, and as if my eyes are attached to it, she tugs it up toward the stall door we’re standing in front of. “Just look at that,” she says. On the door are four little corners of ripped paper fixed with masking tape. “Would you have done something like that when you were a child? Would you ever dream of being so bold?”
“I was a rapscallion,” I say. “I gave the nuns a run for their money.”
“I don’t doubt it,” she says, letting go of my hand. “I’d just like to get hold of the girl who stopped up the toilet. I’d just like to shake that girl’s shoulders.”
The bathroom’s got high windows cranked open, and through them I can see that the sky, which had already gone from cloudy to sunny, is now turning cloudy again. “Watch me, watch me, watch me!” we hear one of the hellions scream from the pool, and then a cannonball splash. I follow her back out to the check-in area.
The new kid’s got his iPhone out and is about to put in his earbuds.
“No headphones,” Sophia says. “I need you focused, sonny boy.”
“My name’s Todd,” he says, tucking the iPhone back into his pocket.
“I know your name. I hired you.” But then she smiles—maybe because it’s his first day; probably because she’s worried about running out of teenagers willing to work for $7.25 an hour. She reaches under the counter, pulls out a clipboard with a page fixed to it, and tells the kid it’s the delinquency list. A rundown of all the tenants who are behind on their condo fees. It’s a shame that some people think they can get away with not paying their share, and it’s unfortunate that some people have fallen on hard times, but it makes sense that everyone on the list not be allowed past check-in, because the condo fees are mainly channeled back into what luxury?
Todd looks like he might get a nosebleed trying to follow all this, but then he says, “The pool?”
“He’s a smart cookie,” I say, reaching out to nudge Sophia’s arm with my elbow.
She cuts me the kind of look you’d give a party crasher. The same person whose hand she was just holding in the ladies’ room. “People will try to fool you,” she tells Todd. “They’ll ask you all kinds of questions about special circumstance this and check-in-the-mail that. But they’re either paid up or they’re not.”
“Got it,” Todd says.
I drink my Vitaminwater. I stroll around the little room, dragging my Crocs on the cement floor and watching the sky grow darker through the front window. My former employer used to tell me I was a significant part of his organization. Not that I was a genius with the numbers, but I was dependable. He knew if he asked me to take care of something, I’d do it. Cook the books till they’re golden? I was the guy. Drive up to Evanston and talk some sense into a business owner? I was the guy. And now I’m this guy, as impressive as a goldfish. They tell you to save money for your retirement, but, really, we should all be saving up self-esteem, stockpiling it for days just like this. “Here’s a question,” I say.
Sophia sighs and puts the delinquency list back under the counter.
“I live in a world of beautiful women,” I say. “I live in a world of spicy little numbers, they run around my place dressed in nothing but bikinis, and they can’t get enough of me. If I bring them to the pool as my guests—assuming I’m all paid up, of course—do I have to stay here with them?”
Todd snorts out a laugh. Then he realizes Sophia’s watching him, waiting for him to answer. “No?” he says.
“Yes,” Sophia says, correcting him. “I can see we’ve got our work cut out for us.”
“Another question,” I say, because why not? I’m feeling my vitamins. “There’s a little filly in Building C who’s got her eye on me. A brunette, likes to wear a one-piece with zebra stripes.” (This person doesn’t exist.) “You think I could leave a little present here for her? A box of chocolates with a card, maybe? So when she comes to swim, she knows I’m thinking about her?”
“I guess,” Todd says.
“Well, you guess wrong,” Sophia says. “We’re not the post office. We don’t hold packages for people.”
“It would mean a lot to her,” I say. “And it might help my chances. I mean, you should see this woman.” I jingle the loose change in my pocket. “Woof.”
Todd snorts again.
Sophia taps her aqua-blue fingernails against the counter. “Are you trying to ruin this young man’s first day?” she asks me.
“Absolutely not. I’m just livin’ la vida loca.”
She turns back to her employee. “People flood through that door. You have to be ready for them. And some of them actually come to use the pool and not just loiter.”
“Ouch,” I say.
“And they aren’t all as charming as Mr. Delacorte here.”
Bless her for adding that. I’m done with my drink and just about to head out when the lifeguard comes in through the men’s room.
“What is it now?” Sophia says.
“You hear thunder?”
She frowns at him, then peers through the front window of the pavilion. “No.”
“Rules are, we close for thirty minutes if we hear thunder,” the guard says.
I can see it in Sophia’s eyes: If the pool’s going to close, she wants it to be her idea, not his. Even if he’s right. “No one heard anything in here,” she says.
He shrugs. “Rules are, if the guard hears it.”
“Well, maybe the guard needs to have his hearing checked.”
“Thirty minutes for thunder, one hour for lightning,” the guard says. “Storm’s coming.”
Sophia fakes a chuckle, which she doesn’t do well—too much breath in it, too much staccato. “Do you have a connection to God we don’t know about? Get back out there and do your job.”
The guard’s got a look on his face, I don’t even know what kind of look it is but somebody should smack it off. He turns and walks back through the men’s room.
“The arrogance,” Sophia says.
“That’s right,” I say. “That’s what it is.”
“Do you know I’m a volunteer? I don’t get paid to do this. I do it because I care. This whole complex would go you know where in a handbasket if I wasn’t going the extra mile.”
“Punks, every one of them,” I say. I glance at Todd. “Not you.”
“The board didn’t even ask me. They begged me. ‘Please, Ms. Humphries,’ they said. ‘People look up to you. They respect you. Please provide us with the leadership we need.’”
I seriously doubt this is anywhere near an exact quote, more likely she grabbed the position before anyone else could, but I nod like I’m drinking in every word. “You’re a godsend, Sophia.”
“And you’re a flirt,” she says. “And a yes-man.”
“And a loiterer,” I remind her. “But would you have me any other way?”
There’s part of me that doesn’t want to be doing this in front of the kid, but there’s also part of me that knows this is all I get: a daily stroll around the complex, a few wisecracks, some gutless flirtation. This is me with my dick swinging. Small shakes, right? And ol’ Sophia walks a line you have to admire: a little nice, a little mean, cards held close to her chest and one hand on a lever that’ll drop you through a trapdoor in a heartbeat. She’s got nothing in common with my ex-wife and more than a little in common with some of the girls I used to date, back when I still had hair. And, believe it or not, I used to be able to make them swoon. But Sophia’s not having it—and why should she? I’m a joke in a straw hat.
A deep rumble rolls down from the sky. The three of us look toward the window.
“All the work I put in,” she says. “And for what?”
The next rumble is louder and seems to echo back on itself.
I’m looking around for a garbage can so I can throw out my bottle when this bare foot crosses the corner of my eye. It belongs to a girl around ten years old. She’s got wet hair and a T-shirt pulled on over her swimsuit. She’s hugging a towel against her stomach and bolting from the ladies’ room toward the exit.
Sophia glances at her, does a double take, and snaps, “Hey!” She steps around me and grabs the girl’s arm.
The girl tries to tug herself free.
“I know what you did with that clementine,” Sophia says. “And I’ll just bet you ripped those signs down, too. Do you even realize how lucky you are to have a pool like this?”
The girl’s eyes have grown wide in their sockets. She pulls her head back, and when she opens her mouth, her voice is buoyed by the next rumble of thunder. “Don’t touch me, you old bat! You’re not allowed to touch anyone! Get your claws off me!” She’s like Linda Blair, this girl, her body snapping in one direction, then another, pulling Sophia with it because Sophia won’t let go—or maybe can’t let go, now that the girl’s flailing. It’s all about balance when you get past a certain age. It’s all about not wanting to fall, which is probably why it’s a good idea not to grab hold of someone who needs an exorcism. I take hold of Sophia’s other arm, but my own balance isn’t what it used to be and I hear one of my Crocs screech on the floor, so I let go. The kid behind the counter looks entertained and says, “Awesome,” and I don’t know what kind of universe it would have to be for a comment like that to make sense.
Sophia’s artificial knee pops once, twice. A third time.
“Let GO!” the girl screams, and when she pulls free, there’s one last pop, louder than the others, bouncing off the walls like a rubber ball.
The girl darts out of the pavilion. Sophia wavers, leans sideways, and takes hold of the counter. She’s not just frowning, now; she’s wincing. Grimacing.
“You okay?” I ask.
There’s a distant flash of lightning, followed by more thunder. She’s still holding on to the counter and her lower lip is pushed forward. She lifts her free hand as if to put us all on pause. I’m about to tell the kid to move so she can sit down when the lifeguard comes back in. He cuts a wide berth around Sophia, reaches under the counter, and pulls out a handwritten, cardboard sign that’s got a string looped through it and reads Pool Closed Due to Weather.
“I’m putting this sign out front,” he says, waving it at her.
She doesn’t respond, doesn’t move.
“And we still get paid, even if the pool’s closed.” He heads for the door, then stops and turns around. “And we don’t have to stay here.”
He’s all challenge, this kid, waiting for her to give him a hard time. But not only is she not giving him a hard time, she’s got her eyes closed now, trying to work through what I’m guessing is a substantial amount of knee pain.
“Check the rules if you want,” the guard says.
I feel an old, familiar snarl in my upper lip. Life is fickle, you know? You can be somebody one minute and nobody the next, full of yourself in the morning and empty as a tapped well in the afternoon. I don’t know who I am anymore, but sometimes, just for a second, I know who I want to be.
“Hey, cupcake,” I say with more volume in my voice than I’ve had in a year. “Underpants. She heard you. You made your point and you got your little sign all ready to go, so do what you’ve got to do, okay, jelly bean? Hang it, lock it up, and get the hell out of here. You’re fired.”
He looks from me to Sophia, then back to me. “That’s for her to decide,” he says.
“Well, she decided and she asked me to tell you, okay? She doesn’t feel like talking to you right now. So zappa-dappa and like that. You’re gone.”
He huffs. In an incredulous voice, he asks Sophia, “I’m gone?”
With her eyes still closed, she nods, backing me up on this.
As much as the tan can leave the kid’s face, it does. And what a sweet sight it is. The rain starts pinging against the window as he’s hanging the sign on the door, and when he walks past us, he keeps his gaze down and doesn’t say another word.
I look at Todd and motion with my thumb for him to get out of the chair.
“Am I fired too?” he asks, standing.
“Nah, take a break, kid,” I say. “But you be back here once this is over, understand?”
“Yes, sir,” he says, and without another word he’s out the door and gone.
I put my hand on Sophia’s elbow. She opens her eyes, lets go of the counter, and I guide her over to the chair and help her into it. I squat down next to her and my knees pop because, let’s face it, we’re coming apart here as much as were trying to hold it together. We stay like that as people file out of the restrooms, some of them with their towels wrapped around their shoulders, all of them grumbling about the rain. I hear the door at the other end of the men’s room slam, and then the guard cuts through the entryway, a baseball cap pulled down low on his head and a backpack thrown over a shoulder. He doesn’t look at us, but scratches his cheek with his middle finger, and I could break it for him, I really could, but happy trails, you dumb gorilla.
When it’s just us, I ask her if she needs anything—some water, aspirin. I swear, I’d get her whatever she wanted if it would put the supervillain back in her face. I’d cook her a meal, take her to an Engelbert Humperdinck concert.
“I’m okay,” she says. “Thank you.”
But I don’t want her to thank me. I want her to like me. Even if it’s only for right now, for this one single minute. “That lifeguard?” I say. “He’s a putz. He’s a mook with a whistle around his neck.”
She smiles—just a little, but she smiles. I’m still holding her elbow, and she lays one of her hands on top of mine. She says, “You’re something, Mr. Delacorte.”
I give her a wink. “Call me Nick.”
From “Fountain of Youth” from THE DREAM LIFE OF ASTRONAUTS. Used with permission of Dial Press. Copyright © 2016 by Patrick Ryan.