On Dangerous Ground
“When I’m good I’m very, very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better.”— Mae West
Even though Roy and Claire had been working together for three months, renting bungalows on an annual basis created friction between them. Not because Ken was less than enthusiastic, but because Roy was proceeding carelessly. Claire insisted on following genuinely accepted rental protocols; Roy was happy to do whatever was necessary to get the units rented on a longer-term basis.
“I don’t know, Roy. You haven’t really vetted either one of them. That’s not how it’s done you know,” Claire announced, clearly annoyed with Roy’s cavalier attitude. Making light of legitimate concerns was Roy’s favored method of dismissing them. In Claire’s case, however, it didn’t seem to be working.
“Christ, Claire, I know them both. Not especially well anymore, I’ll grant you that. But so what? They’re willing to rent on a year-round basis. That’s what’s important. And their finances look fine.”
“On paper, Roy.”
“On paper is good enough for me. You’re just pissed because you promised the last two units to other people on a seasonal basis and now you have to go back on your word.”
Claire stopped walking and gave Roy a long, hard stare. He’d stepped over the line and he knew it. Claire’s boundaries, while generous, were no mystery to him. He needed to respect them or suffer the consequences. On more than one occasion, an ill-timed remark had left him on his own to deal with a difficult situation.
“Roy, you know damn well that’s not the case,” Claire fired back. “I’ve had virtually no trouble with my renters over the years because I knew who I was renting to, and I knew they weren’t going to create problems. See how successful you are shooting first and asking questions later.”
Damn, Roy thought. Claire’s reluctance to deviate from her long-standing rental procedures was getting on his nerves. He had suggested this walk on the beach to finalize the few remaining issues related to the upcoming season at The Bungalows. The upgrades had cost less than expected, were close to completion, and looked great. But now he was getting pushback from Claire about annual tenancies. He didn’t need it.
“I told you, Claire, no reference letters. These guys would be insulted. Besides, anybody can get a good reference from someone these days.”
“Background checks, Roy. I’m talking about background checks. Spend a few bucks. Buy yourself a little peace of mind.”
But peace of mind wasn’t Roy’s main objective. His primary interest was the increased income from year-round rentals. Although the first two full-time tenants would be acquaintances of Roy’s, the large number of inquiries he’d received to date made him believe year-rounders would be the rule—not the exception—in the future. Claire, however, thought he was cutting corners to further the effort and wasn’t shy with her opinion. She was becoming unusually stubborn and Roy wondered if something else was bothering her.
“Not going to happen,” Roy said. “No background checks.”
“Fine, Roy. You want to chance it, go ahead. You’re the boss.”
“Gee, thanks, Claire. I thought for a minute there I had to clear things with you.”
“You should, but you don’t,” Claire sneered before turning away from Roy and stalking up the beach.
Roy dug his bare feet into the sand as he watched her walk away. He hadn’t meant to piss Claire off, but she’d get over it. She always did. He knew perfectly well, though, that she was right. He just didn’t want to spend the time—or the money—to do it her way. He was anxious to get these deals signed. And he really didn’t think he was taking a chance. Claire missed the point. The importance of advancing the year-round tenant program far outweighed the need to follow some stodgy renting protocols. God, he hated real estate.
As annoying as Claire could be at times, Roy congratulated himself for having kept her in the loop. She was a supportive and knowledgeable advisor with a vested interest. What was good for The Bungalows was good for Claire. Besides, he usually enjoyed her company. For her part, Claire would have liked to enjoy more than just Roy’s company, but that wasn’t going to happen. Roy had met her husband once and had no desire to meet him again under potentially less desirable circumstances. Claire was also a business partner of sorts and it was never smart to engage in extracurricular activities with a colleague. More importantly, though, Roy had become involved with Carolyn. They’d succumbed to a mutual attraction and were surprised to discover they actually liked each other. At sixty, Roy considered himself lucky to have romance back in his life; he wasn’t going to play games.
Thinking about taking a swim, Roy walked to the shoreline. He tested the water: cold, but not unbearable. Then he surveyed the sky: overcast, but not threatening. The strength and speed of the advancing storm, however, remained uncertain. Forecasters weren’t sure Buxton would take a direct hit. Besides, this wasn’t hurricane season so how bad could it be? Swimming was out, though. Carolyn could probably handle it. She’d been a competitive swimmer in college, although you wouldn’t have known it from looking at her. But Roy wasn’t an athlete, and the surf was rough. Maybe he’d just head back to his bungalow, write for a few hours, and return with Carolyn to watch the storm develop—if it developed at all.
Running to catch up with Claire, Roy apologized. He’d been unnecessarily difficult, nervous, no doubt, that his plans for The Bungalows could easily go awry. He and Claire usually worked well together. He needed to keep it that way.
“How’s the writing coming?” Claire asked, interested only in changing the subject.
“Fine. Might even be better if I wasn’t distracted arguing about how to manage The Bungalows.”
Claire feigned hurt, but remained undeterred in her effort to move the conversation away from their professional relationship.
“You haven’t showed me anything lately. Unhappy with your progress?”
Roy glanced at Claire. Sensitive about his work, Roy easily became defensive. He’d waited four decades to find the courage to start writing. Now he was attempting to cram all those missed years into whatever time he had left.
“No, not really. When I have something to share, I will,” Roy said, in a rather perfunctory tone.
“Hey, I was just asking.”
“I know. But you’re right. I’m not making the kind of progress I would like.”
Regardless of how Roy might have felt, the isolation of the Outer Banks had been a huge gift. He’d found a discipline he’d never known. And while still a novice, he understood that discipline was more important than inspiration. Although without a modicum of talent, neither mattered. Roy often wondered how much talent he actually had.
“Carolyn suggested I send some of my stories to a publisher. She thinks they’re good enough to attract some interest. I’m skeptical, but she insisted. So I did.”
“She’s smart, Claire. She’s a good reader. I trust her opinion.”
“How about my opinion? Do you trust my opinion, Roy?” Claire asked.
“Don’t be ridiculous. Of course I trust your opinion. Christ, Claire, didn’t I retain Danny solely on your recommendation? You said he was a hard worker, capable, worked cheap. And you were right.”
“I meant about your writing, Roy, and you know it.”
Roy looked at Claire. They both knew his response had been a lame attempt to avoid a direct answer. When it came to his writing, Claire was an unabashed cheerleader. Not much help there. Roy preferred Carolyn’s brutal honesty. Painful though it was at times, it was far more valuable. When Claire didn’t offer him a convenient way out, he tried downplaying her concern.
“Don’t go getting paranoid on me. Of course I appreciate your feedback. I’ve told you that before.”
Claire wasn’t buying it, though, and Roy could tell. It certainly wasn’t the ringing endorsement she would have liked. It didn’t deter her, however, from making her next comment—one far afield from Roy’s writing.
“You know, there’s nothing pulling me back to Norfolk tonight.”
Roy stopped walking and again stared at Claire.
“It ain’t happening,” Roy said, as gently as he could. But rejection never sounded kind. “It’s appealing. I’ve told you that. It’s just not in the cards.” Roy wondered when Claire would finally accept that. Maybe never.
He continued walking up the beach, hoping she wouldn’t pursue the issue. No such luck. He also wanted a cigarette. In his half-hearted effort to cut back on his drinking, he’d started smoking again.
Claire watched him reach into his pocket and come up empty. “Want one of these?” she called after him, extending a pack of Marlboro Lights in Roy’s direction. He stopped, came back, and took one.
“Jesus, Roy. You don’t make it easy, do you? You think asking’s fun? Are you really just not attracted to me?”
“That has nothing to do with it,” he said, lighting his cigarette, and then Claire’s.
Roy was attracted to Claire. She knew it and she knew Roy knew she knew it. And it ate away at her like a slow-acting poison. But for once in his life, Roy didn’t feel compelled to act on it.
“Okay, what is it then?”
“Not wanting to get shot by Frank, your husband. Remember him?” Roy joked.
“Be serious for a change, Roy. Answer the question.”
“I’ve tried more than once, but subtlety doesn’t seem to work with you.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Claire, you want me to just come out and say it?”
“That’d be nice.”
“Carolyn Ashley. Okay? I like her, and she likes me. The relationship’s good for both of us. Satisfied?”
Claire stiffened. To avoid her glare, Roy looked out over the ocean. The surf was churning harder. He thought he saw lightning in the distance. Maybe the storm was headed his way. When he turned back to Claire, it had already arrived.
“Satisfied, I don’t think so. I just can’t believe you chose her over me.”
“It wasn’t a choice, Claire. It just happened.”
“Things don’t just happen. What? You were an innocent bystander? She pulled you in off the street and you just happened to wind up in her bed?”
“Really, Roy. You sure you didn’t just say to yourself, ‘Jeez, Claire might be problematic. Frank scares the shit out of me. Maybe I should just go for the girl next door. I mean the bungalow next door. It sure would be a lot more convenient.’”
Roy tried to interrupt, but Claire was on a roll.
“I get it, Roy. You preferred to stick with your own kind—safer that way. Didn’t want to stray too far from home. So you settled for skin and bones while a wholesome, good-time country girl waited. You’re a fool, Roy Bloom. That’s what you are. But it’s a free country. Do whatever the hell you want.”
“Cut it out, Claire. For openers, I’d hardly call you wholesome. And second, yes, you are better looking than Carolyn. That’s not the point. You also happen to be married to a redneck who loves guns and keeps one in his glove compartment.”
“He’s not going to shoot you.”
“Probably not, but I don’t feel like taking the chance.
“So you’re afraid to sleep with me?”
“I’m not afraid, Claire,” Roy insisted, although he was. “I’m just not stupid. Besides, I wasn’t sure you were serious anyway.”
“I told you the day we met I wanted to.”
“I thought you were just joking around—you said so yourself.” But Roy had sensed at the time she hadn’t been.
“Well, asshole, I wasn’t.”
Claire moved away from Roy and continued walking. He waited for a minute to give her time to calm down then ran to catch up with her. Roy thought she was overreacting, but what he thought didn’t matter. Claire forced her hands into the pockets of her skin-tight jeans. They looked good on her.
“I feel like strangling you, Roy,” Claire said, angrily. “We should be the ones having the affair and you know it.”
So much for Claire calming down, Roy thought.
“You don’t really think life’s fair, do you, Claire? You’re smarter than that. And as unscrupulous as I may appear at times, I don’t sleep with married women.”
“Very noble of you. I guess Gretchen doesn’t count.”
“Matter of fact, Gretchen doesn’t count. I shouldn’t have slept with her, but we’d been lovers, remember. Besides, according to Gretchen, Tommy had already checked out of her bedroom by then.”
“Big of you to help out.”
Claire lit a second cigarette from the butt of her first.
Roy couldn’t win and he knew it. He had nothing more to say, so he waited for Claire to continue. All Roy wanted was to end the conversation amicably—if possible—and head back to his bungalow. Eventually, Claire acknowledged she’d suspected for a while he’d been sleeping with Carolyn. She just hadn’t wanted to believe it.
“What can I say, Roy? You ruined my fantasy.”
Claire wasn’t looking for a response. Good thing. Roy didn’t have one.
“It’s tough, you know, being married to someone you don’t like, someone you don’t even want touching you. Dammit it, Roy. I’m horny. Is that a crime? I’m horny and I’m picky. A tough combination to satisfy.”
“I don’t understand why you’ve stayed with him all these years.”
“We’ve been through that before, Roy.”
“Yeah, well, maybe I’m a slow learner.”
“I’m not going through it again.”
“Okay, Claire. Have it your way.”
“God, you can be irritating,” she said, less annoyed than resigned. Strangely, Claire’s comment provided both of them an excuse to smile for the first time since the conversation had turned contentious. “Let’s just drop it.”
“Fine by me.”
“Good. Now I have to go. It’d be nice to beat the rain back to Norfolk.”
In spite of the deteriorating weather conditions, Roy lingered on the beach. Although the storm—unusual for that time of year—could pose a threat to The Bungalows, Roy always liked it when Mother Nature flexed her muscle. But when the winds picked up significantly, Roy headed to Carolyn’s. His conversation with Claire had killed his motivation to write.
Carolyn had initiated their romance. Roy would never have made the first move. But he had enthusiastically acquiesced despite compelling reasons—and his earlier promise to himself—to do otherwise. Roy liked to blame his inability to say “no” (although he’d just managed it with Claire) on an unfortunate string of early rejections, but he knew there was more to it. Still, the sting of romantic failure continued to influence his behavior some forty years later.
As he walked to Carolyn’s, kicking up sand as he went, Danny appeared out of nowhere. He looked harried, having run the length of the beach to find Roy.
“What’s up?” Roy asked abruptly, not particularly in the mood for Danny. He liked the kid well enough, but Danny was often a bit too needy for Roy’s taste.
“The hurricane shutters on number eleven won’t close. The hinges are stuck. You know, Roy, this isn’t hurricane season. We’re not even dealing with a tropical storm here. Maybe we don’t need them?”
“Dream on,” Roy said, sharply. “It could be a bad storm, regardless. Even if it peters out, we need to be prepared. What happened to the system we devised to prevent last minute problems like this?” Roy asked, shaking his head and eyeing Danny. “You’ve been checking them regularly, right?” But Roy suspected he hadn’t.
“What do you mean ‘sort of’? It’s a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question, Danny.”
“I skipped the last couple of weeks. I’ve been busy.”
“Jesus, checking them regularly was the whole point. Now, when we don’t have time for this shit, we have to deal with it.”
“I know, Roy. I’m really sorry.”
Roy looked at Danny. The kid did seem genuinely contrite.
“You know I need to be able to rely on you, don’t you?”
Not waiting for answer, Roy continued. “Do we have plywood on hand?”
Danny was relieved. He’d expected Roy to come down harder on him. His boss’s approval meant a lot to him and it wasn’t easy to get.
“Too busy doing what?” Roy asked, as they headed toward the maintenance shed. “You got another job on the side?”
“No, of course not.”
“So what’s going on? You’re usually very reliable.”
“I’ve been in town a lot.”
“Just kicking around.”
“Danny, nobody goes to Buxton just to kick around. There’s nothing there to kick around. Even I know that and I’ve only been here three months. Using your fake ID to get a drink at Bubba’s Tavern?”
“I wasn’t in town drinking.”
“Okay. Well, that narrows it down. You have a girlfriend you’re not telling me about?”
“Not really a girlfriend.”
“Not really a girlfriend, huh? A boyfriend?”
“Fuck you, Roy.”
“Just asking. I didn’t think so, but you never know. It’s fine if you did.”
“Well, I don’t.”
“Okay. So now we’re back to square one. What’s happening in town that’s keeping you from your appointed rounds?” Roy joked.
But Danny didn’t laugh. For a minute Roy felt a confession might be on its way, but it never materialized.
“Okay if we just drop the subject?” Danny asked.
“Sure, if it makes you uncomfortable.”
“I’m not uncomfortable, Roy,” Danny insisted, but everything about him said otherwise. “Let’s just get number eleven boarded up. I feel bad I fucked up.”
Roy was disappointed that Danny hadn’t confided in him. Not because Danny’s secret life in Buxton interested him—if, in fact, there was a secret life—but because it bothered Roy to be seen as too intimidating to trust. He wasn’t going to push, though. He helped carry the plywood to number eleven, surveyed the job briefly, and left Danny to do the work.
It would be months before Roy learned of Danny’s relationship with a married woman twice his age. Danny had been apprehensive about telling Roy; afraid he wouldn’t have taken it seriously. Not an unreasonable fear. Roy had a history of failing to take things seriously. When Danny did confess, they’d actually had a few laughs about it until Roy realized that it was an ongoing affair. He urged Danny to walk away, knowing full well that had he been in Danny’s shoes he wouldn’t have. Danny defended his involvement by insisting Peggy’s husband was a heavy drinker and a philanderer, adding that it wasn’t just about the sex. That only made Roy more concerned. For Danny, at nineteen, the consequences of his behavior were too remote to have much influence on him. For Roy, at sixty, the same shouldn’t have been the case. But it often was.
…to be continued…