The frigid air gathering in my yard this morning is not “fresh” or “nippy”. It is not invigorating. And it certainly doesn’t, as the chirpy guy at coffee this morning remarked, “remind you of real Christmas”.
(Snowbirds and transplants constantly need to justify those lost years wedged into the Midwestern ice cube tray….especially when it finally sinks in that Florida was only a couple tanks of gas away the whole time. Most of their faux nostalgia revolves around the (perceived) inadequacies of Florida’s weather. As in, “Don’t you miss the change of seasons down here?” Yeah, right. A sudden winter snap freezing the car battery solid and killing every plant in the yard. What a welcome change from the intolerable drizzle and entombing gray of a Des Moines autum. )
I opened my front door. The air is dry and leathery; it burns my nostrils like a twist of ground pepper. This was not my air - florid and damp and forgiving. A blast from Canada must have dislodged it from one of those flat, grim places up north where nothing grows after Labor Day. This is air from the muddy fields of Dayton or Joliet or Rockford; lined with sad patches of yellow grass bending in the cold breeze; and on very windy days, breaking off embarrassingly at the waist.
I do find coffee tastes better on this sort of day, but the rest, you can have.
But regardless of the temperature, today is December 23. The day each year I check my compass and take a reading - to see how far have I come from that spot I was standing on this day 22 years ago.
Where was I running to that day? Why couldn’t she have come too?
This is my Christmas story.
In a voice that almost convinced me - I assured my sister in Syracuse yes, everything was fine, that I’d be with friends. I hung up my desk phone at 2:30 pm, two days before Christmas, and then immediately quit my job.
By four, I was leaving town and taking the long way. South on A1A through Coral Gables and crossing over to the Old Dixie Highway, past the entrance to the Ocean Reef Club hiding behind its barricade of mangroves, and gliding over the tiny causeway bridge that finally dumps you out across the bay into North Key Largo. From there, it’s only 124 miles to the edge of the world.
My brain rattling and doubt started in the parking lot that morning. I had turned to admire my Honda when I noticed another new, midnight blue Accord with a moon roof a few spaces away. And alloy wheels….with grey leather interior. A carbon copy. For the first time I didn’t feel quite as special a when I’d driven off the dealer’s lot a few days earlier.
I grabbed my shiny new leather briefcase and then imagined I saw another one out of the corner of my eye flying above me on the I-75 overpass.
My friend Wally Odom - sorta my boss too - pulled in the lot a few yards away and locked up his car. He’d moved the kid’s car seat up to the passenger side and stuffed it with an angry looking gorilla in a Marlin’s cap for the commute to work. Together we walked toward the street exit that poured us out onto Biscayne. He was wearing a tear of white tissue over a blood spec on his nose.
“I’m afraid to ask…shaving?”
“How the hell do you cut your nose shaving?.”
The handsome man raised his brow and his lips pulled at the corners. He started to say something, but cut himself off. “You stopping for coffee?” he asked.
We walked over to 5th to our usual walk-up window cut into the sherbet green façade of the “Three Brother’s Presto Laundry“. A Formica counter lipped out over the sidewalk holding napkins and giant shakers of raw sugar. A dull hum and clang from the giant spin dryers floated out the opening pulsing like music to soft to hear; the warm damp air pushed it’s way out with the tiny echoes of Spanish voices following behind. Wally grabbed a table and I stood in line waiting behind a noisy formation of brown-eyed girls making the office morning coffee run. A couple of them noticeably worn, their eyes heavy and glistening from the long Semana Santa clebrations, late night masses, and heavenly mojitos. They chattered and laughed in an easy way that reminded me it was probably a good time to be young and Cuban, wearing nice clothes and working for real money in the Gringo end of Coral Gables. Mariel, the boatlift, and the terror of Havana harbor in darkness wasn’t that long ago.
But in the middle of the group , almost a head taller than the rest, a straight haired blond in a crepe thin, shoulder padded blouse was floating slightly above it all. No bleary Navidad party eyes for her this morning. Just straight lines falling neatly from her fashionable shoulder pads. She smiled and she listened to the girls around her. But I could tell inside she was doing the business, going over the check list. One instant, I saw her tongue forced through her perfectly painted lips and I imagined she was wetting the sharp point of a pencil. Tick another thought off the list. But there were no shoulder pads for the Cuban girls. No precise pencils. Just tight dresses in tropical silk, laughter and warm, brown shoulders creeping into view.
Three sugars for the con leches and what was left from my five for the round faced Cuban woman behind the counter who’d been supplying me with caffeine five mornings a week for much of the past year. Wally Odom was already seated at one of the cement domino tables, idly tipping and twirling the umbrella against the morning sun. I handed him the Styrofoam cup and he peeled off the lid.
“So really,” I took a seat and loosened my tie, “things have to fall just right to cut your nose shaving.”
The tissue had now disappeared. All that was left were the two tiny red lines of a double-edge razor near the crease just above his lip. Wally smiled, but remained facing the street sipping at his coffee an extra moment before answering. “I was letting Christy shave me this morning. I figured it wasn‘t too dangerous … ”safety razors” you know. But three year olds are…. creative.” He smiled and he sipped his coffee.
It wasn’t hard to imagine the scene. Handsome Wally Odom with his face covered in foam, juggling little Christy in his arm, staring into the mirror and planning his day. Maybe his wife Kate the Complete is running late, hopping around the bedroom pulling on a slippery shoe or struggling with panty hose. “Could you please hold her for a minute? Don’t for get the Silverson’s Christmas party tonight….alright? Wally?”
Then I tried to imagine myself, face all covered with foam. Chubby little girl in my arms, looking back at me in the mirror. My dreamy mirror fogged instantly. With the sheer weight of the thought I dropped the child in the sink and ran from the scene wringing foam from my face. Imagining Wally Odom with a handful of little girl and beautiful bouncing wife wasn’t hard. Substituting my face in that mirror took considerably more imagination than I could muster. Wives and children and fluid stability were like mink coats: They might look great on other people, but me? Socks on a rooster.
The lovely brown girls carrying their cartons of coffees walked past us trailing Spanglish and hibiscus scented perfume. Wally changed the subject and asked, “What are you working on today?”
“Really?” He let out a low whistle and smiled.
It had been sort of an office joke when they assigned Oscar LeConte’s latest “Crab Shack Bistro” to me. I was, back then, the new kid. Fresh out of school. Our restaurant consulting firm had already done six previous units for him. On the surface, it was a slam dunk. Use the same floor plan and equipment list from the last unit. Bid it, submit it, and move on. But success had been hard on Oscar LeConte. Things had become more complicated.
In the time he’d been our client, for a couple of years now, he’d wrecked three very expensive cars, two marriages and had been arrested for spray painting the entire contents of a room at the Clevelander Hotel on South Beach fluorescent orange with road marking paint. In a statement to police he had explained, “I vuz aug-u-menting my personal space. This…was most necessary!“ Only a blood test revealing cocaine levels sufficient to detonate an elephant’s heart made it plausible for his lawyer to later argue that the full mayonaise jar of powder found in the room was for ‘personal use’.
By the time we took this last contract for a new location in Kendall, Oscar had his visions. Oscar was now an “ar-teest.” He wanted to “express” himself he kept saying. And “give back to the people”, whatever that means to a guy selling twelve dollar fake grouper sandwiches and weak, half-shot Daquiris at about the same price. Each new location was becoming more elaborate than the last. And with a three gram a day habit and machine gun blast delivery in an accent nobody in the office had yet to identify, actually getting anything done for Oscar LeConte was a remarkable challenge. “Nobody can see, I mean really see, my vees-jzun.” No shit Oscar.
“He’s keeps talking about putting in a bar with windows looking out underwater.”
“You mean like old time “Breakers Hotel” stuff? So do it. Tell him to get out his check book and start writing. Shouldn‘t take the city more than two or three years to permit an underwater bar. His heart will probably have exploded by then….so get a big deposit. ”
“He wants it in the air.”
“In the air.”
“You said underwater.”
“He told me anybody can build a bar underground and stick a pool next to it…..he says “a man with vision” can see the pool in the air, with the bar inside of it. He wants to call it “Captain Nemo’s Space Needle Adventure Bar and Underwater Paradise”.
“Yeah. He’s been calling five times a day to make sure I can see the vee-jzun.”
The crazy part was, I guess I did see his vision - in a way. He wanted to do something impossible. He’d already done the possible. The strict idea of the possible became a known quantity of no value. Hardly worth pursuing. What really got Oscar LeConte’s blood pumping was the magical unknown of the impossible. And of course, the outside chance Peru might become the 51st state.
Wally checked his watch and tossed the last milky swish in his Styrofoam cup into the trash. Time for work. We crossed over Biscayne and for a almost half a block walked under the chilly shadow of a giant banyan. Maybe the banyan tree is some sort of protected species in Florida. I don’t know. But this incredible monster had been left on own it’s own, tearing up the sidewalks and spreading over most of an empty lot. It’s air-roots drove down from the low branches plunging like spears into the soft sandy ground. It wasn’t’ hard to imagine it would slowly take over the city someday, forcing out the invaders of paradise for one final time.
The banyan leaves shined with deep, Irish green. A squadron of black-headed parrots ripped through the sky screaming at the top of their lungs, but unquestionably, they were happy parrots. God it was a pretty day. Not a beautiful day, a pretty day. A tropical picture perfectly focused. Girls in yellow cotton dresses pretty. All bright light and sharp edges. A day when everyone on the street seemed dressed for church and taking the curbs with bounces and smiles. It was bright and clear with only fading few smudges of white against the deep wintertime blue.
The office was quiet. With only two days till Christmas, getting any work done was impossible. Anybody I needed for permitting or licensing projects was high enough up the ladder to be on vacation this week. Our own contractors, the same. I made a pot of coffee in the break room for no particular reason - other than the place was piled to the ceiling with cookies and cakes and pastries. I couldn’t bear to watch the secretaries resort to drinking cream sodas and Yoo-Hoo’s with their sugar bombs. By eleven they’d be tightly clustered around the break table escaping the boredom.
I spent the morning in a slow motion funk deciding how to spend Christmas. Which, for no reason that I can recall, led to the questions getting bigger and bigger… until finally I found myself feeding pencils one by one through the electric sharpener deciding exactly how to spend the rest of my life. The only time I came close to an answer, was while contemplating how not to spend it.
What to do. What to do.
Oscar LeConte had his cocaine and chaos, his ex-wives and his ever expanding artistic universe. This, seemed enough for him. Tragically odd, yet a sort of cosmic perfection. Wally had brains and his looks, a wife and her equally good looks, a daughter and her extraordinary good looks, and an exquisitely tempered patience for existing. A precisely tuned intelligence with which he seemed to navigate life’s problems by bearing down on only the most important at any one time. The rest, he navigated around as easily as paddling a canoe downstream.
I tried adding up what it was that I had, or should have, at this particular time in my life. I cracked open a new package and fed another couple new pencils through the sharpener.
That afternoon when my sister called to check up on me, I hadn’t meant to lie to her. At that moment, I had every intention of spending Christmas with friends. It was the first year the work schedule for my new job in Miami made flying back to Syracuse impossible. Secretly I was glad.
I wasn’t dating any ‘come over for Christmas’ types at the moment, and hadn’t since Susan. A woman about whom, more than once, I’ve been reminded by friends (and sometimes even casual observers), I’d been “a fucking moron” to let get away. But it was hard to explain. Only real poker players can understand the saying, “They’re good cards if you can hold ‘em.” I guess I couldn’t.
Wally of course had invited me over for dinner, something that seemed inevitable since taking me on as his sidekick at work. But I wasn’t sure. Then there was the strange and wonderful arrangement with Lisa Paccalo’s family that was always on the burner.
While at the U of Miami, I had dated the gorgeous, and ultimately unattainable, Lisa Paccalo for an entire 42 days. We struck sparks during a lightening delay under the hospitality tent a the Doral Open. On the Thursday round, she carried the scoring sign for Greg Norman’s group. (It was a charity thing for her sorority, but I never really understood the exact connection.) We dated only a few times before it became obvious the Freshman business major from Syracuse was in over his head. I had the ‘look’, but not the wallet. A girl has to be practical I guess. In a few months, Lisa Paccalo had married a graduating Senior with a degree in Health Administration and father with buildings named after him. Currently, she’s maintaining two kids and a nine handicap over on Key Biscayne.
But a couple of those 42 days, I spent under the Seven Mile Bridge, down in the Keys with her father Stephan, who taught me how to jump tarpon. A tan and meaty Portugese version of the old man and the sea. We hit it off right away. You don’t fight big, angry fish together in the rain sharing his wife’s caldo verde without becoming friends. We did. With my own family up in Syracuse, my dad gone almost ten years now, a friendship with that barrel-chested Portagee came naturally. After five years we still fish in the season and every so often and most holidays I’m still invited for caldo verde.
So I had options.
But the truth really was - none of it meant anything to me. I’d never admit that to anyone, friendship is not a family. They’re great to be around, but Christmas at someone else’s house belongs in their scrap book, not your’s.
My phone rang. It was Julie telling me Oscar LeConte had called. She reported, “He said to just leave you a message” She cleared her throat and repeated, “He wants to know, ‘if you’re seeing the vee-jzun’ …what should I tell him?”
“Tell him, not yet. Not quite yet.” I shoved my last perfectly good pencil into the buzzing hole. By the time I was down to an eraser and the metal nub, I had seen the vision. It was a small one, but it was perfectly clear. I saw one thing I knew I didn’t want to do with my life, and one or two things I knew I needed to do. Right away.
But by three o’clock, I was at my apartment packing a duffle bag.
At three- thirty I had emptied my savings account of $2,478.76.
By four, I was gliding over a two lane causeway peeking through the green wooden guardrail watching the pulsing blue flashes reflecting like diamonds off the Gulf of Mexico.
End of Part 1.