Wheel of Fortune
“If it’s true that our species is alone in the universe, then I’d have to say the universe aimed rather low and settled for very little.” — George Carlin
Roy took only a few weeks to pull up stakes. Despite all the years he’d lived in New York, they didn’t go deep. With Alison gone and Three Partners Realty as depressing as ever, there was little to hold Roy. He’d miss his Bed-Stuy hideaway, but the Buxton deal was too enticing to turn down. Minimizing the questionable ethics involved while maximizing the possibility for adventure, Roy opted for change. Still, his decision hadn’t been easy. His principles had taken a hit, but they weren’t sacrosanct. Flexibility, he reminded himself, was required to survive unusual circumstances.
As Roy waited at Norfolk International Airport for his suitcases, he pictured them alone and unattended on the tarmac at LaGuardia. Paranoia came easy to Roy and the baggage handlers weren’t helping; they seemed to be taking forever.
Shifting his focus, Roy thought about his last phone conversation with Emma. He’d surprised himself by stopping by her apartment several times after their initial meeting to check on her. Now, on the verge of accepting Ken’s offer, he had called ostensibly to say goodbye. But Emma was nobody’s fool.
“I still haven’t heard from her, Roy. If I had, you would know.”
“No harm in checking.”
“There is, actually,” Emma said, in an uncharacteristically harsh tone. “You need to move on.”
“Sure you know. That’s why you called.”
Roy had grown to like Emma, liked her sarcasm. In a way, he considered her a kindred spirit.
“So, you’re doing okay?”
“Fine, under the circumstances. I’m expecting a visit from a home health aide in a few minutes and I’m out of cigarettes. I asked her to buy me some, but I’m not optimistic. How about you?”
“Okay, I guess. Wrestling with a job offer I just got.”
“What do you mean ‘take it,’ Emma? You don’t even know what it is.”
“It doesn’t matter. Does it get you out of New York?”
“Actually it would. At least for a while, probably a long while.”
“Even better. And the money?”
“Theoretically pretty good.”
“What’s the problem then?”
“I’m not sure I trust the guy making the offer. I’m not sure the whole thing is on the up and up.”
“I’m not really sure.”
“How likely is it to become a problem?”
“I don’t think very likely, but I don’t really know that either. I’m not even sure it’s knowable. But it does get me out of New York and it does eliminate my financial headaches.”
“Grab it, Roy,” Emma said, sounding as if she were issuing an order.
“What are your options? You hate your current job. You don’t have any other offers. You need money. Seems like a pretty simple decision to me.”
Emma’s certainty didn’t surprise Roy. She was a strong-willed, opinionated woman. She must have had real potential. Roy could only guess at what had derailed her success in life.
“You certainly can’t still be thinking Alison might show up one of these days.”
Roy didn’t respond.
“You got taken. Accept it. Get over it.”
Roy knew she was right.
“If I take the job, I’ll give you my new contact information before I leave.”
“So if Alison gets in touch, I can let you know?”
“Keep it up, Emma. You’ll miss me when I’m gone.”
“I’m sure I will, sweetie. Loneliness knows no bounds.”
Relieved to finally see his suitcases, Roy grabbed them and headed for the exit. Ken had arranged for Claire Coleman, The Bungalows longtime rental manager, to be his chauffeur for the two-hour trip to Buxton. Claire lived in Norfolk and was no stranger to the commute. She made the trip weekly. For the money Ken was paying, she would happily have made it daily. Holding a large, carefully lettered sign, reading “BLOOM,” Claire was easy to spot. But she seemed surprised by Roy’s appearance. Dressed in a pair of beat-up khakis, a black T-shirt, and a worn sport jacket, he didn’t fit the image she had of a New York real estate guy. But then Claire was already suspicious. Who would buy The Bungalows given their depreciating value?
Ken had told Claire only that the new owner was coming to inspect The Bungalows and to see to their management. He had assured her she would be kept on as rental manager—Roy was not about to search for tenants himself. He had hated doing it in New York, and he had no intention of doing it in Buxton.
Roy would need, of course, to approve all rentals, but he wasn’t about to let that consume a lot of his time. Ken had been quite clear, though. Roy was responsible for a successful operation. He needed him to be hands-on. Fine, Roy thought, but he could still leave the daily grind to Claire, and to others he would hire. He had no intention of becoming a slave to the business. He had other plans.
The torrential rain that had greeted Roy on his arrival continued unabated as he and Claire drove the coast road to Buxton in Claire’s late-model Cadillac. The longer they drove, though, the more remote the Outer Banks felt—more remote than Roy had remembered. He began to worry about adjusting to life so far from civilization. It was one thing to hide out for weeks on end in his Bed-Stuy apartment reading, writing, and drinking. It was quite another to be deprived of New York’s unique array of diversions.
Thoughts of Buxton’s remoteness eventually gave way to concern over Claire’s driving. Neither the windswept rain nor the narrow two-lane highway kept her from speeding. It made Roy nervous, but he didn’t say anything. Fortunately, Claire was a talker and that helped take Roy’s mind off hydroplaning. Besides, she was a wealth of information about the Outer Banks and The Bungalows. Some of it he actually needed to know.
“The Bungalows’ architect died the other day.”
“At The Bungalows?” Roy asked without thinking.
“No, of course not. Ted was one hundred and three. He was in a nursing home in Greenville. But The Bungalows were his signature achievement, even if he did adapt someone else’s design.”
“Frank Lloyd Wright’s,” Roy interjected.
“Right. Still, they were quite the accomplishment in 1955. There was nothing else on that spit of land back then.”
Roy was only vaguely interested in 1955. His focus was on the present.
“Are they fully rented for the upcoming season?”
“Pretty much. But it’s harder than it used to be.”
“More competition—and Ken’s reluctance to upgrade the units. The bungalows are in immaculate condition, but the electric and plumbing are old, the appliances and security systems are out-of-date, and the Internet is unreliable. Ken tried as much as possible to avoid capital outlays, but it’s rapidly becoming a necessity. Rustic is good. Too rustic is not. The people who can afford these bungalows aren’t willing to dispense with too many creature comforts. In the meantime, the erosion problem is all Ken talks about these days, but he’s very insistent that the issue not be discussed with anyone else—especially residents. He doesn’t need the regulars looking for rentals elsewhere.
Roy didn’t respond, so Claire glanced in his direction. He appeared to be listening.
“Nevertheless, The Bungalows are still in demand—just a little less than they used to be. Unfortunately the area around the bungalows is no longer pristine. Ugly new developments have sprung up and there’s an undeveloped piece of property behind them that’s an eyesore. Ken’s done his best to hide it from view, but there’s only so much you can do.”
“So there are enough people within striking distance who can afford the monthly rent?”
“Plenty. There’s more money in Raleigh, Richmond, and Charlotte than there used to be, not to mention Charleston.”
As Claire continued answering Roy’s questions, he found her knowledgeable and articulate. He was impressed with her understanding of the market, The Bungalows’ problems, and Ken’s priorities. And she was politic in discussing them with a stranger. Ken’s description of Claire as little more than competent baffled Roy. She certainly didn’t strike him that way.
“How difficult are the tenants?”
“Well, they’re older people, not a rowdy group. But they have money so they expect things. Depending on how hands-on you want to be…”
Roy cut her off immediately. “As little as possible.”
“Not exactly how Ken explained it to me,” Claire countered.
“Well, Ken’s not in charge anymore,” Roy said emphatically, knowing full well that wasn’t actually true. “So we need solutions that work for us.”
“Well, if it works for you, it works for me,” Claire said, unconvincingly. “What I was about to suggest is that you’ll need someone to handle regular maintenance and someone to deal with tenant issues. Again, these people are paying a lot of money, so they have high expectations. I recently started using the nineteen-year old son of one of the two full-time renters for basic maintenance and you should consider keeping him on. Danny’s a good kid, very capable, a little immature perhaps. He attends junior college up the coast, but has plenty of free time. A bit of a loner, but that’s his business. Watch out for mom, though. She’s a piece of work. As for tenant issues, I foolishly dealt with them myself. It proved to be very time-consuming and a big mistake.”
As Claire rambled on, she began adding excessive detail to her commentary. It sounded to Roy as if she were auditioning to keep a job that wasn’t in jeopardy. As a result, his attention wandered. Initially, Roy had been dismissive of Claire’s appearance. She had a matronly style of dress and an unflattering haircut. But once past those obstacles, Roy now found her to be quite attractive. Claire was trim, of average height, with delicate features, bright, intelligent eyes, and a warm—albeit cagey—smile. Roy guessed she was in her mid-forties. Her complexion was a little too pale for Roy’s taste, but it was still January. A little summer sun might fix that.
But before Roy’s imagination could get out of control, the sight of an eighteen-wheeler barreling toward them brought him back to reality. Claire jerked the wheel to the right to avoid hitting the truck, but the car fishtailed. It was a miracle it stayed on the shoulder and didn’t plunge down the embankment. After returning safely to the road, Roy suggested they make a pit stop. Claire raised no objection.
A real bar would have been Roy’s preference, but they had to settle for a roadside diner. It was the first place they saw and neither was in the mood to be picky. As soon as they sat down, an older, uniformed waitress with a bouffant hairdo and inch-thick make-up appeared. It was three o’clock in the afternoon and the place was empty.
“Just a cup of coffee for me,” Claire said.
Looking over his shoulder at the liquor displayed behind the counter, Roy’s disappointment registered on his face. Unknown brands. He opted for a Bud.
“Not what you wanted, I guess.”
“Not really. But I should cut back on the hard stuff anyway.”
Roy looked at Claire. He wondered if his comment required an explanation.
“So tell me, how do you—how did you—like working for Ken?”
“It was all right. He paid me well because he didn’t want to be bothered with anything. The drive from Norfolk is taxing, but there are worse things.”
“My husband,” Claire said, smiling.
Her matter-of-fact tone surprised Roy.
“Mind if I ask what he does for a living in Norfolk?”
“He doesn’t do it in Norfolk, thank God. He’s a long-haul trucker. That could have been his rig that almost hit us on the highway. Passing a slower vehicle at breakneck speed on a two-lane highway in poor visibility would be just like him.”
The waitress set down Claire’s coffee and Roy’s Budweiser. She asked him if he wanted a glass. He shook his head.
“It doesn’t sound like there’s a lot of love lost between the two of you, or am I wrong?”
“There was no love to be lost. He wasn’t the type to take ‘no’ for an answer. I was pregnant at seventeen, had two kids and a problem husband before I was twenty.”
Roy was struck by Claire’s bluntness. Although refreshing, it seemed out of place. Especially since they’d just met and he was essentially her new boss.
“Are you generally this forthright with strangers?”
“No, but I’m going to be working for you so you might as well know who I am and what I’m about. You will eventually anyway.”
Roy supposed she was right, but he still found her lack of reserve slightly unnerving.
“Am I making you uncomfortable? I have a bad habit of doing that.”
“Not really, but since you don’t seem to draw your personal boundaries too tightly, can I ask you something that’s none of my business?”
“You stayed with your husband in spite of how you felt about him?”
“Yep. He was gone most of the time and I had two kids to raise. He made good money and I didn’t make any. We found a way to co-exist. It wasn’t particularly pleasant, but it worked.”
“Where are your kids now?”
“Fully grown, fairly estranged. Living in California.”
“So you’re free to leave at any time. What’s holding you back?”
“We’ll divorce one of these days, I guess. We just haven’t gotten around to it. Frank’s a real hothead. He can be serious trouble when he wants to be. I’m finishing up my GED and I don’t need Frank’s kind of trouble right now.”
Roy motioned to the waitress. She brought Roy another Bud and refilled Claire’s cup.
“I’ll tell you one thing, it’s good he can’t see me sitting here with you now.”
“Why? Does he disapprove of fraternizing with other men?”
“Pretty much. He’s what you’d call a redneck.”
“No, not really, but I have to be in the mood to do Frank justice and I’m not. Another time perhaps.”
“You know we all make mistakes, Roy. Something tells me you weren’t living the high life in New York. It doesn’t seem like this is such a great opportunity. I was surprised when Ken told me he’d sold The Bungalows, especially since they aren’t even going to be around in another ten years.”
“Yeah, well, that’s also a story for another time. Ken didn’t even want to own them in the first place. You worked for the previous owner, right?”
“What was he like?”
“An asshole. Tommy was almost impossible to work with. He still owns the large lot behind The Bungalows.”
Roy sat up.
“Tommy?” He tried to make his question sound casual.
Roy choked a little on what was left of his beer.
“I say something wrong?” Claire asked.
“No. It’s just that I know the guy. Not personally. Never met him. But Ken should have told me he purchased The Bungalows from Tommy and that he still owns property down here.”
“Ken does what Ken wants. I never trusted the guy. And I never understood why Tommy sold Ken The Bungalows and not the adjacent lot as well.”
“Ken probably didn’t give him a choice.”
“See what I mean about Ken? Forewarned is forearmed.”
Roy chugged the remainder of his beer and motioned to the waitress for another.
…to be continued…