Howard Elbright finally found Julian Higbee, the condominium manager, lounging against a concrete column, staring toward the pool area where two young women were taking turns diving from the low board.
“Excuse me,” Elbright said. “The girl in the office thought you were maybe by the tennis courts. That’s where I looked first.”
Higbee, the manager, did not respond in any way. He just stood there beside Elbright, big brown arms folded, thick brown ankles crossed. He was a large and meaty fellow, and on all areas not covered by his pale blue sports shirt and his dark blue shorts, his sun-darkened hide was fuzzed with sun-bleached white hairs. On his solid jowls the hair was pale stubble. Though obviously too young a fellow for a hairpiece, his auburn hair was so carefully coifed to sweep across his forehead just above eyebrow level, it looked glossy and wiglike.
Howard Elbright wondered if the fellow could be deaf and also lack peripheral vision. Alternatively, there was the possibility that Elbright himself had become invisible and inaudible, condemned forever to wander around this bright Florida island trying to join incomprehensible conversations, trying to get people to take his money in exchange for indestructible plastic merchandise. It seemed to him he had been having dreams like that lately.
“Excuse me!” he said.
Without turning toward him, Higbee said, “The so-called girl in the office is my wife. She is Mrs. Higbee. Lorrie Higbee.” He spoke in a curiously loud voice, accenting every syllable, as if accustomed to speaking to the semi-deaf.
“I didn’t mean any--”
“What it was about the tennis courts, it was Colonel Simmins that lives in One-G. It was Colonel Simmins telling me there are ripples in the west service court, in the second of our two tennis courts, and his serve bounces funny. He made me watch his serve bouncing funny. Okay, so it bounces funny. So, like I told him, everybody’s serve bounces funny.” He spun so suddenly that he startled Howard Elbright. “Fair for one, fair for all! Right?” Julian Higbee shouted.
“I’m not a tennis player myself.”
“What he should do, I told him, like I tell everybody: Take it up with your Association. That’s what they are there for. That’s what you elected them for. Then if they want something done, they’ll come to me and they’ll ask me if I can get it done. Right?”
“I guess that’s right.”
The manager put his big brown hand out. “My name is Julian Higbee, sir. I am the manager here. If you are interested in purchasing, there are only two units left here at beautiful Golden Sands. Five-A and Six-E. Every apartment has a breathtaking view of the Gulf of Mexico. If you are interested in renting, I can show you a wide assortment of beautifully furnished--”
“We’re in Four-C.”
Higbee went blank and then grinned. “That’s right! I knew I’d seen you before somewhere. Moved in day before yesterday, right?”
“No. Ten days ago. May third, exactly.”
“Congratulations on finding a new and rewarding life-style, Mister. . . . Don’t tell me. Please don’t tell me.” Higbee closed his eyes, bowed his head, made a fist and pressed the back of his fist to his lips. He made a barely audible humming sound. “Elmore!” he yelled. “I never fail.”
“It’s very close. Elmore. Elbright.”
“It’s close enough, Mr. Elmore. What’s on your mind?”
“I’ve got a list.”
“A list? A list of what?”
“A list of things that have to be fixed. In Four-C.”
“Have to be fixed? That’s very strong language. Are you making a threat of some kind, Mr. Elmore?”
“Elbright. No threats. I just mean that you move into a new place, little things are always wrong and sooner or later they have to be fixed to make the place livable. For example, the air conditioning is--”
“Let’s go to my office and I’ll get out your file.”
Higbee led the way through the parking garage. Golden Sands was an eight-story building. The parking garage, the entrance foyer and the manager’s office and apartment were on the ground floor. The floor above that was called the first floor. There were seven apartments on each floor, but, because of penthouse patios, only five apartments on the top floor. Forty-seven, plus the manager’s efficiency. It was a pale concrete building, one apartment thick, shaped like an angular boomerang. It stood on four cramped acres of land, its rear convexity backing upon an impenetrable jungle of water oak, palmetto, mangrove and miscellaneous vines and bushes. Its concave front faced the constant noisy traffic on two-lane Beach Drive and, at a greater distance, the space between two taller beach-front condominiums and, beyond them, the wide blue Gulf of Mexico.
Higbee stopped suddenly, turned and put a big hand on Howard Elbright’s shoulder, and turned him to the left and said, “Look at that! Damn it to hell, will you look at that?”
Elbright stared in the indicated direction, saw only a silver gray Oldsmobile parked with its nose toward the concrete wall of one of the storage enclosures.
“Don’t you see it?” Higbee demanded. He took a steel tape out of his pocket and went to the Oldsmobile. A rear wheel was on the orange dividing line. He measured the amount of overhang, then went to the front of the car and measured the distance from the bumper to the wall.
“This is Hascoll’s car. Five-F. This time he’s slopped fourteen inches over the side line, and he’s eight inches short of the wall. You know what that does? When there’s a car over there, nobody can get by to these next two spaces, right? Then what happens? I’m watching the television and somebody comes crying they can’t park their damned car. I told him once, I told him thirty times, if his old lady doesn’t know how to park a car, he should park it for her. Is it too much to ask? Keep it between the lines. Touch the wall with the front bumper. Is that too much to ask? I’m telling you, you people have just got to learn how to park your cars.”
Howard Elbright stared up at the young man’s angry face. Howard felt his ears heat up and felt his neck swell. He knew he was not supposed to let himself get angry.
“Did you say ‘you people’? Was that your phrase, Higbee?”
“What am I supposed to call you people?”
“Residents. Owners. With respect rather than derision.”
“Rather than what?”
“Derision, contempt. I help pay your salary, do I not?”
“You pay for management, Mr. Elmore.”
“Elbright. Then shouldn’t you make an effort to please the owners here?”
“Why should I? Oh, I see. Look, you got it wrong. I don’t work for you people. I work for the Gulfway Management Corporation. And Gulfway has got a twenty-year contract to manage this place. Me and Lorrie work for Gulfway. That’s the people I got to please. There’s no use you getting uptight about me, Mr. Elmore. You people can’t do anything about me. Maybe you’re better off with me than the next guy they send over here. You want to know how it works, why don’t you talk with Mr. McGinnity. Seven-B. Pete McGinnity. He’s president of the board of directors of the Golden Sands Association. He doesn’t like it any better than you do. But there it is. Come on, let’s get this list business over with.”
They went into the small office off the ground-floor foyer, opposite the two elevator doors. Lorrie Higbee stopped typing when they came in. She was a small woman with long dark hair that would have hampered her vision had her eyes not been set so close together on either side of the knife bridge of a long sharp nose. In profile all that showed was the end of the nose projecting from beyond a sheaf of shiny black hair. Head on, the visible items were the small dark eyes, the long nose and a ripe red bulge of underlip.
“Mrs. Fish has been calling you,” she said.
“She wouldn’t say.”
“Get the file on Four-C.”
Mrs. Higbee went over to a file cabinet. She wore pale faded jeans, tighter than anything except the very best skin. Howard Elbright tried not to stare at her breasts wobbling unrestrained under her yellow T-shirt.
She brought Higbee the file. Higbee sat at the larger desk and waved Elbright into the visitor’s chair. “Got that list? He’s got a list, Lorrie. How about that?”
Elbright took it out of his wallet and unfolded it and read aloud, slowly and carefully. “The water which comes out of the hot faucets is quite warm, but not hot. The rain comes in under the sliding glass doors in the living room and the front bedroom. There seem to be two refrigerator shelves missing. The compressor on the air conditioner makes a loud yelping noise. The shower door will not close completely. The hot and cold controls on the sink in the smaller bathroom are reversed. The bathtub in the larger bathroom is badly chipped. The interior of one closet was never painted. Two wall plugs seem to be dead. There is a sizable crack in the balcony railing outside the living room.”
“Is that all?”
“Thus far? Okay, now do you remember coming into this office the day you arrived?”
“Happened? You . . . gave me the keys and a stack of literature.”
“You’re leaving out the most important part. Right in front of me and Lorrie you signed this here. You’ll find a copy of it in with the literature, right?”
Howard Elbright had difficulty with the fine print. He read it with a growing dismay. He had certified that the apartment was acceptable to him in all respects, that all work had been completed, and the builder and the developer were relieved of any responsibility whatsoever for incomplete or unsatisfactory work or equipment.
“You said it was a formality,” he said accusingly.
“That’s what it is. A formal binding agreement. You don’t believe me, see a lawyer. What you should have done, you should have taken a day or two to check it out, right?”
“My furniture was here. In the truck.”
“You could have put it in storage. Anyway, I’ll tell you what I can do for you, Elmore. I think I can get you those missing shelves with no problem. I think I got some in storage we didn’t know where they went. About the air conditioner, you got the warranty papers on it, and the address of where it come from, and you can handle it yourself. Matter of fact, you can handle any of this stuff on your list yourself, getting a plumber, an electrician, a painter, whatever. Or you can let me go ahead. You let me do it, and it will be Gulfway’s cost plus ten percent. What my advice would be, you let me handle it because Gulfway can get some crew from the builder that put up this place, and you ought to do better even with the ten percent than when you go outside by yourself, not being acquainted locally. The way it works, you let me do it, it will come through on your monthly billing in addition to the management fee and the land lease and recreation lease and so on.”
“But either way, I have to pay for every one of these things?”
“There’s no way I can give you any free gifts, Elmore.”
“Elbright. Please. Mr. Elbright. Think up a word association to help you remember. I was not very bright to sign that damned agreement. Bright. Elbright.”
“That’s pretty good, Mr. Elbright. Isn’t that pretty good, Lorrie?”
“Fan . . . tastic,” she said in a dead voice.
“I won’t forget it again ever,” Higbee said. “I’ve got an almost perfect memory.”
“Ha,” said Lorrie.
“You want me to take care of the list?”
Howard folded it and put it back in his wallet. “I’ll let you know.”
“Suit yourself. To me it’s just another nuisance, but that’s what I’m here for, right?”
Howard thought he could hear Higbee laughing after the door was closed. As he walked toward the elevators his ears got warm again. He pushed the button. One came down from three, empty. He rode it up to four, got off and turned left, toward the north wing. Four-C was the second door he came to as he walked along the narrow exterior walkway, behind the chest-high concrete wall.
He took his key out, but before entering his own domain he leaned against the wall and looked out toward the east, across the jungly acres to the pale silvery blue of Palm Bay and the misty mainland beyond.
You are now a retired chemist, he told himself. You are a very happy retired chemist, because you live in your fifty-eight-thousand-dollar condominium right here in Golden Sands on Fiddler Key with your loving wife. Your kids are grown and doing well enough. You have the use of an easement to the beach (thirty feet wide, no vehicles permitted) and an easement to the bay shore (twenty feet wide, no vehicles permitted). You are in reasonably good health (one infarction, healed). Edith too (high blood pressure difficult to control). Repeat: You are very happy, Howard. This is the Great American Dream. Enjoy.
Edith was in the kitchen slicing a tomato. “You were so long,” she said.
“We retired fellows take a long time over everything.”
She looked at him. “Is everything okay, dear?”
“Everything is just fine.”
“Will they start soon? Not having hot water is driving me up my new walls.”
“I’ll keep after them, never fear.”
“There wasn’t any trouble, was there, about anything?”
“What kind of trouble could anybody give me? I am immune,” he said. He hugged her and went into the living room and knelt and tried to figure out how the rain could come under the sliding doors. As he knelt there he had the grotesque feeling that he was part of some mass ritual, that up and down this west coast of Florida, on all these narrow elongated offshore islands tucked close to the subtropic mainland and named Clearwater Beach and Anna Maria and Longboat, Siesta Key and Casey Key and Manasota Key and Seagrape Key and this one he was on, Fiddler Key, there were thousands of sixty-two-year-old retired chemists named Howard something, all living in these tall pale structures by the sea, all of them at this moment kneeling and facing their sliding glass doors and wondering how the rainwater managed to seep in and stain their pastel shags. Face west, all you plump old men, and ponder your tropic fates.
Guthrie Garver, known as Gus, was a small, quiet, knotty man. He and Carolyn had been the first couple to move into Golden Sands. They had moved into 1-C two days after the building was given a certificate of occupancy, when the land around it was still raw, with no swimming pool, tennis courts, or surfaced parking areas behind the building. One year ago last month, April.
Excerpted from Condominium by John D. MacDonald. Copyright © 2014 by John D. MacDonald. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.