The Sweet Smell of Success
“Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.” ― Alan Jay Lerner
Bubba’s Tavern, unlike Charley’s Crab, wasn’t in the high rent district. The two establishments anchored opposite ends of town. Bubba’s, a longtime fixture on one of Buxton’s run-down side streets, catered to the less affluent. Not known for its decor, Bubba’s featured small wood tables that wobbled and flimsy chairs. One could, of course, always sit at the bar with the regulars.
Although cigarette smoke and the smell of stale beer made for a less than festive atmosphere, Bubba’s had been Roy’s first choice to host his celebration with Claire. She had just converted the last seasonal renter to year-round. It was the culmination of a successful three-year collaboration. A party was certainly in order.
Always eager to spend time with Roy, Claire was disappointed it was a late-afternoon event, not a late-night affair. But Roy had selected the time and venue for a reason: there was little to no chance of bumping into Carolyn. She’d be busy waitressing and she’d never stepped foot in Bubba’s. Although Roy saw nothing wrong with a harmless celebration, Carolyn might.
While it was not yet dusk, Bubba’s was already dark inside. The overhead fixtures were off, so the only illumination came from the small amount of light that squeezed passed the neon Coors and Budweiser signs blocking the front window. Despite the hour, the place was packed with regulars. Roy and Claire had been relegated to a table in the back. But that was fine. Their celebration was private.
Having begun quietly enough, each shot of bourbon—cocktails not being Bubba’s specialty—raised the ante another notch. A diligent proprietor, Bubba had already made several round trips. This time, he suggested leaving the bottle.
“Sure. Why not?” Roy said. “It’ll save you a trip.”
“You sure, Roy? I’m half in the bag already,” Claire said. She held up her hand for Bubba to wait.
“It’s a celebration, Claire. The whole point is to overdo it. Besides, I’ve earned this.”
Indeed Roy had. Throwing off his concerns about Tommy Thompson and fighting an uphill battle to win approval for his year-round renters concept, Roy had been successful on almost every front. Tommy hadn’t reared his ugly head, annual tenancies had become the norm, Roy felt close to being published, and Carolyn played a bigger role than ever in his life. And the biggest surprise of all: the Army Corps of Engineers had managed to significantly slow the beach erosion. Maybe The Bungalows wouldn’t be swallowed up after all.
Roy was also—finally—sitting on a substantial pile of cash. He motioned to Bubba to leave the bottle.
“Maybe you have earned it,” Claire said, begrudgingly. “Especially after you were so sure something would go wrong, what with Tommy owning the adjacent property and all. You should have listened to me, Roy. I told you not to worry. He had bigger fish to fry, and none of them swam anywhere near Buxton.”
That, of course, was fine for Claire to believe, but Roy’s concerns about Tommy still hadn’t completely abated. And while Roy hadn’t had any contact with Gretchen since his arrival in North Carolina almost three years ago, he could only hope she’d forgotten about him. Tommy too.
Lost in thought, it took Roy a minute to realize Claire was trying to get his attention. Pointing to a short, significantly overweight patron at the bar, she asked Roy if he was the cop who’d created unnecessary problems during the Fred Mueller incident. Roy looked over his shoulder. Sure looked like the same guy, shaved head and all.
“Should I offer to buy him a drink? Unnerve him a little?”
“Leave the guy alone, Roy.”
“Hell, let’s have a little fun.”
“I’m all the fun you need. Besides you’re drunk and you don’t need trouble.”
“No one ever needs trouble, Claire. Sometimes it’s just unavoidable.”
“Settle down, Roy, or we’re going home.”
“Propositioning me, Claire? I thought we were finished with that.”
Drunk, Roy Bloom was his own worst enemy. Though he was just sober enough to realize he’d put his foot in his mouth, he was too inebriated to take it out. Claire, however, didn’t miss a beat.
“Only because that’s the way you want it. You’re free to change your mind. Three years is a long time to wait to consummate a partnership.”
Roy was angry with himself. He’d unwittingly opened a Pandora’s box. Closing it wasn’t going to be easy—or nice.
“Jesus, Claire, you never give up. And it’s not a partnership. Don’t go promoting yourself. And don’t breathe life into a dead issue. You must have found other dicks by now to satisfy you.”
“And I have, Roy. But the dick I want the most is the dick I can’t seem to have,” Claire said, having lost all ability to censor herself.
“It ain’t so special, Claire. It’s old and it’s tired. Its best days are behind it.”
“But I bet it’s still good in emergencies.”
“It is, actually. Too bad this isn’t an emergency.”
“Maybe not for you.”
“Okay, Claire. Enough.”
“You’re a hard nut to crack, Roy Bloom.”
“Forget it, Claire. It gets boring after a while.”
With that, Roy got up, slightly annoyed, and headed to the bathroom. He felt sorry for Claire. She was an attractive, smart, and unusual woman who was alone at a time in life when being alone was no longer fun. She’d dressed today to entice Roy. It hadn’t gone unnoticed. And Roy was tempted, but not enough to jeopardize his relationship with Carolyn.
Returning to the table, Roy changed the subject. Claire didn’t object.
“You’re right, that is the cop who hassled me during the FBI raid. He saluted me as I went by. Fucking S.O.B. And you say I’m the one looking for trouble.”
“Leave it be.”
“Fine, whatever. Chalk it up to fond memories,” Roy said, refilling his glass.
Fond memories, indeed. Roy should have listened to Alan. Pushing his year-round rental idea too aggressively had created problems from the outset. Not because it was a bad idea, but because it was poorly executed. By cutting the very corners Claire had warned him not to, Roy had inadvertently invited trouble into his idyllic community.
Immediately after instituting annual tenancies, Roy, eager for year-round renters, leased a bungalow to Fred Mueller. An acquaintance of his and Alan’s from their college days, Fred was a wealthy journalist turned right-wing conspiracy enthusiast. Unbeknownst to Roy, however, Fred had long ago tired of being a passive bystander. A simple background check would have given Roy reason enough to reconsider renting to him.
Fred had been under surveillance for months, and it was Roy’s misfortune that the FBI waited until after Fred moved to The Bungalows to execute their raid. At five in the morning, agents descended upon Fred’s bungalow, confiscating a large arsenal of illegal weapons along with several computers that contained links to far right websites. Sites littered with posts containing undeniable proof of a deep state conspiracy. Although the FBI incursion woke almost every resident of The Bungalows, it had been conducted professionally and was over in a matter of hours. Still, the residents were less than thrilled, and Roy was left on the hook for several months of Fred’s unpaid rent.
The raid made national headlines. Fred, a budding Rush Limbaugh, was already well known in his own right. Roy heard from Ken almost immediately. He was not pleased. And Alan called for no other reason than to say I told you so.
“You should have listened to me, Roy,” Claire said sharply, as Roy snapped out of his stupor. “I kept telling you to vet everyone. But you were lazy. You claimed to know these people. You’d vouch for them. No need for expensive background checks.”
“Claire, that was almost three years ago. What do you want me to say? You were right? Okay, you were right. Happy now?”
“I am,” Claire said, slumping back in her chair. “Thank you.”
But Fred was merely the first of several significant errors in judgment Roy had made as he hurried to fill The Bungalows with year-round renters. A few months after the fiasco with Fred, a well-to-do former colleague of Roy’s from his early days in real estate returning unexpectedly from a business trip shot and killed his wife, her lover, and, finally, himself in the couple’s bungalow. As in Fred’s case, Roy had let Jeffrey skip the usual rental protocols. He had money—lots of it—and Roy remembered him as a normal, down-to earth-guy.
Had Roy bothered with a simple investigation, Jeffrey’s instability would have been obvious. Police reports listed three separate incidents of domestic altercations and a short-lived restraining order in the last year alone. While specifics were lacking, it wasn’t hard to read between the lines. And the information the reports did contain might well have made Roy leery of leasing to Jeffrey. Needless to say, he heard from Ken again.
But by far the most egregious of Roy’s rental miscalculations was also the most avoidable. No check of any kind was needed to foresee the potential disaster to which Roy so casually opened the door. At a Bungalows resident’s bachelor party, he was introduced to an exotic dancer from a “gentlemen’s” club in Greenville. Roy fielded an inquiry from her about renting a unit. It wasn’t for her she said, but for a friend. Rita ran a two-thousand-dollar-a-night call girl operation and was in the market for another location. Initially Roy was extremely reluctant, but Rita eventually managed to convince him that it was really no more than a small-time professional services operation. And when she offered to pay considerably more than the usual rent Roy couldn’t say no, choosing instead to look the other way.
After only a few months, though, a police sting ended the frivolity. Roy was lucky to avoid being charged as an accomplice. Greenville’s new sheriff—God-fearing and self-righteous—had made vice a top priority. Good local representation helped Roy avoid legal action, but Ken was insufficiently placated. He resolved to pay closer attention to the management of The Bungalows. In the aftermath of the incident, Roy decided to alter his criteria for acceptable tenants—no longer would the ability to afford the high annual rent be paramount.
Bubba hated to interrupt. Roy appeared lost in thought and Claire was resting her head on the table—no small feat given the table’s size. The bourbon bottle sat empty. While it was obvious to Bubba another bottle wasn’t needed, he asked anyway. Roy said he thought not. Then he turned to Claire, who managed to sit up to answer Roy’s question.
“How often do you speak with Ken?”
“Not often. He calls from time to time. Why?”
“He seems surprisingly in-the-know sometimes.”
“You’re implying someone is talking out of turn?”
“Well, it’s not me, Roy. What reason would I have?”
“You tell me.”
“Well, let’s not let your suspicions spoil the party,” Claire said, picking up the empty bottle and frowning.
But the party was over. Roy was tired. It was time to go home.
Dusk had fallen. Roy needed to find his car, say a quick goodbye to Claire, and head back to his bungalow. Unfortunately for all concerned, he noticed Danny across the street. He wasn’t alone. Throughout Danny’s two-year romance, Roy had never met Peggy. Despite Roy having warned Danny repeatedly that he was being reckless, Danny adamantly refused to end the affair. As Roy began to cross the street, Claire grabbed his arm to stop him. But Roy was intent on inserting himself where he didn’t belong.
“Danny! How you doing?” Roy yelled from the middle of the street as he approached the couple. Caught off guard, Danny unhappily, but politely, introduced Peggy to Roy, and then to Claire.
“Nice to finally meet you, Peggy,” Roy said, loudly. Embarrassed, Claire hung back. “I’ve heard a lot about you from Danny,” Roy continued, slurring his words and appearing unsteady on his feet.
“Thank you. Danny speaks highly of you. It’s nice to meet you as well,” Peggy said, although it clearly wasn’t.
Peggy looked older than Roy had imagined, a little plump, but attractive and well dressed. Considerably over the legal limit, Roy’s inhibitions had long ago deserted him. Left to fend for himself, he fared poorly.
“Your husband give you the night off?”
Claire turned away in horror. Danny quickly ushered Peggy into the restaurant they had been about to enter.
“Go on in. I’ll join you in a minute.”
Roy, not finished making an ass of himself, continued speaking, albeit to Peggy’s back as she disappeared inside.
“Nice meeting you, Peggy. Maybe sometime I’ll get to meet your husband.”
“Cut it out, Roy,” Claire said, sharply. “You’re making a fool of yourself.”
“I’m not the fool here, Claire. Go on home if you want. Feel free.” Claire took him at his word and wasted no time heading to her car.
“Roy, you’re drunk,” Danny said. “Why don’t you go home as well? I’ll forget you said anything.”
“Don’t do me any favors, Danny. Do yourself a favor. Get out of the line of fire before it’s too late. I guess you’re not afraid to be seen in public with someone else’s wife.”
“It’s none of your business, Roy. How many times do I have to tell you that?”
“You tell me, asshole.”
“I’m not the asshole,” Danny said, calmly turning away and walking into the restaurant.
Several people who had stopped to watch the exchange quickly dispersed, leaving Roy alone to ponder how right Danny had been.
Roy’s cellphone stopped ringing just as he picked it up. He didn’t recognize the number. He lay back down to take the measure of his hangover. After a few minutes, his curiosity got the better of him. He hit the redial button.
“Hi. This is Roy Bloom. You just called me.”
“Yes, Mr. Pagent wants to speak with you. Hold a minute while I connect you.”
“I don’t know any Mr. Pagent,” Roy said, but he’d already been put on hold. Actually, Roy did know Pagent; he just hadn’t remembered the name.
As he waited on hold, Roy hoped this wasn’t going to be a problem. He wasn’t sure he was up to dealing with one.
“Roy, this is Max Pagent. You submitted some stories for our magazine.”
“Right. Right.” Roy perked up.
“Well, they’re not bad. Not really our style, but quite good. I can’t use them, but I know several people who might. I didn’t want to pass them along without speaking with you first.”
“No, thanks. That’d be great.” Roy said, trying to sound low-key, not wanting to appear too eager. But it was better than great.
“Listen, Roy, I can’t really talk now. I have an editorial meeting in a few minutes. Give me a call first thing tomorrow morning and I should have more time. I just finished reading them so I wanted to connect.”
“Sure. No, that’s fine. I’ll give you a call first thing. Thanks.”
“Okay, then. But don’t go getting your hopes up. Usually when I refer material it never sees the light of day.”
“Sure. I understand. Thanks again.”
Roy lay back down in bed. If nothing further came of Pagent’s call, Roy felt his writing was at least being taken seriously. He called Carolyn. After all, she was the one always pushing him to submit his work.
“Hey, I think I just got some good news.”
“Okay,” Carolyn said without much emotion.
“That Pagent guy called. He liked my stories. He can’t use them, but wants to pass them on.”
“I told you,” she said, again lacking any enthusiasm.
“‘I told you.’ That’s all you can say?”
“I’m happy for you, Roy.”
“You don’t sound happy.”
“I ran into Danny this morning.”
Roy winced. “Shit. Sorry about that. I was out of order. I know it. I’d had too much to drink. I haven’t done that in quite a while. I’ll call him in a bit and apologize.”
“Are you also going to apologize to Claire, or doesn’t she care how you behave?”
Roy knew there was no good way out of this, but he would try anyway.
“Carolyn, Claire’s a colleague. We were celebrating our success with The Bungalows. Nothing more.”
“Nothing more? You stumble out onto Main Street at seven in the evening drunk, with Claire, who’s also drunk and who you like to pass off as a business associate, and proceed to make a fool of yourself. Christ, Roy. You’re sixty-three. Grow up, already.”
“There’s nothing to get so upset about.”
“Oh, really? Okay then,” Carolyn said, as she hung up.
Roy knew not to call back. He needed to let her cool down. He showered, decided not to have a drink, and turned on the TV. Just then his phone rang. He was surprised Carolyn was calling back so quickly. It was unlike her. But it wasn’t Carolyn.
“Roy, I didn’t make it back to Norfolk last night. After two miles on the road, I realized it wasn’t a good idea. I pulled into the first motel I saw. Are you hung over?”
“A little. Not too bad. Sorry about last evening, Claire. I know I was out of line.”
“It happens, Roy. Don’t beat yourself up about it.”
Roy debated bringing up Pagent’s call, but decided against it. He would have liked to share his excitement with someone, but since Carolyn had been the driving force behind contacting Pagent he decided bringing it up might be inviting trouble.
“You sitting down?” Claire asked.
“Even better. You know who called me late last night?”
“I’m afraid to guess.”
Roy sat up. “Out of the blue?”
“Out of the blue.”
“What did he want?”
“I’m not quite sure, to be honest. We didn’t talk long. He sounded drunk, and God knows I was. He asked if his lot was an overgrown bed of weeds, but he wasn’t fooling me. He couldn’t have cared less about his property. He was just letting me know he was still around.”
“Shit. That’s not good.”
“Don’t jump to any conclusions.”
“Hard not to,” Roy said, as got out of bed and headed into the kitchen.
“I know. It’s odd that he called.”
“That’s an understatement.”
“What do you suppose he really wanted?”
“To upend my life in Camelot.”
“Yeah, Camelot. Never heard of Camelot? Just keep your phone handy while you’re driving back to Norfolk. Who knows, I might need you.”
“Wouldn’t that be nice.”
…to be continued…