My father is showing me around his new motel. I shouldn’t call it a motel after everything he’s explained to me but I still do. What it is, what it’s going to be, my father says, is a timeshare resort. As we walk down the dim hallway (some of the bulbs have burned out), my father informs me of the recent improvements. “We put in a new oceanfront patio,” he says. “I had a landscape architect come in, but he wanted to charge me an arm and a leg. So I designed it myself.”
Most of the units haven’t been renovated yet. The place was a wreck when my father borrowed the money to buy it, and from what my mother tells me, it looks a lot better now. They’ve repainted, for one thing, and put on a new roof. Each room will have a kitchen installed. At present, however, only a few rooms are occupied. Some units don’t even have doors. Walking by, I can see painting tarps and broken air conditioners lying on the floors. Water-stained carpeting curls back from the edges of the rooms. Some walls have holes in them the size of a fist, evidence of the college kids who used to stay here during spring break. My father plans to install new carpeting, and to refuse to rent to students. “Or if I do,” he says, “I’ll charge a big deposit, like three hundred bucks. And I’ll hire a security guard for a couple of weeks. But the idea is to make this place a more upscale kind of place. As far as the college kids go, piss on ‘em.”
The foreman of this renewal is Buddy. My father found him out on the highway, where day workers line up in the morning. He’s a little guy with a red face and makes, for his labor, five dollars an hour. “Wages are a lot lower down here in Florida,” my father explains to me. My mother is surprised at how strong Buddy is for his size. Just yesterday, she saw him carrying a stack of cinder blocks to the dumpster. “He’s like a little Hercules,” she says. We come to the end of the hallway and enter the stairwell. When I take hold of the aluminum banister, it nearly rips out of the wall. Every place in Florida has these same walls.
“What’s that smell?” I ask.
Above me, hunched over, my father says nothing, climbing.
“Did you check the land before you bought this place?” I ask. “Maybe it’s built over a toxic dump.”
“That’s Florida,” says my mother. “It smells that way down here.”
At the top of the stairs, a thin green runner extends down another darkened hallway. As my father leads the way, my mother nudges me, and I see what she’s been talking about: he’s walking lopsided, compensating for his bad back. She’s been after him to see a doctor but he never does. Every so often, his back goes out and he spends a day soaking in the bathtub (the tub in room 308, where my parents are staying temporarily). We pass a maid’s cart, loaded with cleaning fluids, mops and wet rags. In an open doorway, the maid stands, looking out, a big black woman in blue jeans and a smock. My father doesn’t say anything to her. My mother says hello brightly and the maid nods.
At its middle, the hallway gives onto a small balcony. As soon as we step out, my father announces, “There it is!” I think he means the ocean, which I see for the first time, storm-colored and uplifting, but then it hits me that my father never points out scenery. He’s referring to the patio. Red-tiled, with a blue swimming pool, white deck chairs and two palm trees, the patio looks as though it belongs to an actual seaside resort. It’s empty but, for the moment, I begin to see the place through my father’s eyes—peopled and restored, a going concern. Buddy appears down below, holding a paint can. “Hey, Buddy,” my father calls down, “that tree still looks brown. Have you had it checked?”
“I had the guy out.”
“We don’t want it to die.”
“The guy just came and looked at it.”
We look at the tree. The taller palms were too expensive, my father says. “This one’s a different variety.”
“I like the other kind,” I say.
“The royal palms? You like those? Well, then, after we get going, we’ll get some.”
We’re quiet for a while, gazing over the patio and the purple sea. “This place is going to get all fixed up and we’re going to make a million dollars!” my mother says.
“Knock on wood,” says my father.
Five years ago, my father actually made a million. He’d just turned sixty and, after working all his life as a mortgage banker, went into business for himself. He bought a condominium complex in Fort Lauderdale, resold it and made a big profit. Then he did the same thing in Miami. At that point, he had enough to retire on but he didn’t want to. Instead, he bought a new Cadillac and a fifty-foot power boat. He bought a twin engine airplane and learned to fly it. And then he flew around the country, buying real estate, flew to California, to the Bahamas, over the ocean. He was his own boss and his temper improved. Later, the reversals began. One of his developments in North Carolina, a ski resort, went bankrupt. It turned out his partner had embezzled a hundred thousand dollars. My father had to take him to court, which cost more money. Meanwhile, a savings and loan sued my father for selling it mortgages that defaulted. More legal fees piled up. The million dollars ran out fast and, as it began to disappear, my father tried a variety of schemes to get it back. He bought a company that made “manufactured homes.” They were like mobile homes, he told me, only more substantial. They were prefabricated, could be plunked down anywhere but, once set up, looked like real houses. In the present economic situation, people needed cheap housing. Manufactured homes were selling like hotcakes.
My father took me to see the first one on its lot. It was Christmas, two years ago, when my parents still had their condominium. We’d just finished opening our presents when my father said that he wanted to take me for a little drive. Soon we were on the highway. We left the part of Florida I knew, the Florida of beaches, high rises and developed communities, and entered a poorer, more rural area. Spanish moss hung from the trees and the unpainted houses were made of wood. The drive took about two hours. Finally, in the distance, we saw the onion bulb of a gas tower with “Ocala” painted on the side. We entered the town, passing rows of neat houses, and then we came to the end and kept on going. “I thought you said it was in Ocala,” I said.
“It’s a little further out,” said my father.
Countryside began again. We drove into it. After about fifteen miles, we came to a dirt road. The road led into an open, grassless field, without any trees. Toward the back, in a muddy area, stood the manufactured house.
It was true it didn’t look like a mobile home. Instead of being long and skinny, the house was rectangular, and fairly wide. It came in three or four different pieces which were screwed together, and then a traditional-looking roof was put in place on top. We got out of the car and walked on bricks to get closer. Because the county was just now installing sewer lines out this far, the ground in front of the house—“the yard,” my father called it—was dug up. Right in front of the house, three small shrubs had been planted in the mud. My father inspected them, then waved his hand over the field. “This is all going to be filled in with grass,” he said. The front door was a foot and a half off the ground. There wasn’t a porch yet but there would be. My father opened the door and we went inside. When I shut the door behind me, the wall rattled like a theater set. I knocked on the wall, to see what it was made of, and heard a hollow, tinny sound. When I turned around, my father was standing in the middle of the living room, grinning. His right index finger pointed up in the air. “Get a load of this,” he said. “This is what they call a ‘cathedral ceiling.’ Ten feet high. Lotta headroom, boy.”
Despite the hard times, nobody bought a manufactured home, and my father, writing off the loss, went on to other things. Soon I began getting incorporation forms from him, naming me vice president of Baron Development Corporation, or the Atlantic Glass Company, or Fidelity Mini-Storage Inc. The profits from these companies, he assured, would one day come to me. The only thing that did come, however, was a man with an artificial leg. My doorbell rang one morning and I buzzed him in. In the next moment, I heard him clumping up the stairs. From above, I could see the blond stubble on his bald head and could hear his labored breathing. I took him for a delivery man. When he got to the top of the stairs, he asked if I was vice president of Duke Development. I said I guessed that I was. He handed me a summons.
It had to do with some legal flap. I lost track after a while. Meanwhile, I learned from my brother that my parents were living off savings, my father’s IRA and credit from the banks. Finally, he found this place, Palm Bay Resort, a ruin by the sea, and convinced another savings and loan to lend him the money to get it running again. He’d provide the labor and know-how and, when people started coming, he’d pay off the S&L and the place would be his.
After we look at the patio, my father wants to show me the model. “We’ve got a nice little model,” he says. “Everyone who’s seen it has been very favorably impressed.” We come down the dark hallway again, down the stairs, and along the first-floor corridor. My father has a master key and lets us in a door marked 103. The hall light doesn’t work, so we file through the dark living room to the bedroom. As soon as my father flips on the light, a strange feeling takes hold of me. I feel as though I’ve been here before, in this room, and then I realize what it is: the room is my parents’ old bedroom. They’ve moved in the furniture from their old condo: the peacock bedspread, the Chinese dressers and matching headboard, the gold lamps. The furniture, which once filled a much bigger space, looks squeezed together in this small room. “This is all your old stuff,” I say.
“Goes nice in here, don’t you think?” my father asks.
“What are you using for a bedspread now?”
“We’ve got twin beds in our unit,” my mother says. “This wouldn’t have fit anyway. We’ve just got regular bedspreads now. Like in the other rooms. Hotel supply. They’re OK.”
“Come and see the living room,” my father tells me, and I follow him through the door. After some fumbling, he finds a light that works. The furniture in here is all new and doesn’t remind me of anything. A painting of driftwood on the beach hangs on the wall. “How do you like that painting? We got fifty of them from this warehouse. Five bucks a pop. And they’re all different. Some have starfish, some seashells. All in a maritime motif. They’re signed oil paintings.” He walks to the wall and, taking off his glasses, makes out the signature: “Cesar Amarollo! Boy, that’s better than Picasso.” He turns his back to me, smiling, happy about this place.
I’m down here to stay a couple of weeks, maybe even a month. I won’t go into why. My father gave me unit 207, right on the ocean. He calls the rooms “units” to differentiate them from the motel rooms they used to be. Mine has a little kitchen. And a balcony. From it, I can see cars driving along the beach, a pretty steady stream. This is the only place in Florida, my father tells me, where you can drive on the beach.
The motel gleams in the sun. Somebody is pounding somewhere. A couple of days ago, my father started offering complimentary suntan lotion to anyone who stays the night. He’s advertising this on the marquee out front but, so far, no one has stopped. Only a few families are here right now, mostly old couples. There’s one woman in a motorized wheelchair. In the morning, she rides out to the pool and sits, and then her husband appears, a washed-out guy in a bathing suit and flannel shirt. “We don’t tan anymore,” she tells me. “After a certain age, you just don’t tan. Look at Kurt. We’ve been out here all week and that’s all the tan he is.” Sometimes, too, Judy, who works in the office, comes out to sunbathe during her lunch hour. My father gives her a free room to stay in, up on the third floor, as part of her salary. She’s from Ohio and wears her hair in a long braided ponytail, like a girl in fifth grade.
At night, in her hotel-supply bed, my mother has been having prophetic dreams. She dreamed that the roof sprung a leak two days before it did so. She dreamed that the skinny maid would quit and, next day, the skinny maid did. She dreamed that someone broke his neck diving into the empty swimming pool (instead, the filter broke, and the pool had to be emptied to fix it, which she says counts). She tells me all this by the swimming pool. I’m in it; she’s dangling her feet in the water. My mother doesn’t know how to swim. The last time I saw her in a bathing suit I was five years old. She’s the burning, freckled type, braving the sun in her straw hat only to talk to me, to confess this strange phenomenon. I feel as though she’s picking me up after swimming lessons. My throat tastes of chlorine. But then I look down and see the hair on my chest, grotesquely black against my white skin, and I remember that I’m old, too.
Whatever improvements are being made today are being made on the far side of the building. Coming down to the pool, I saw Buddy going into a room, carrying a wrench. Out here, we’re alone, and my mother tells me that it’s all due to rootlessness. “I wouldn’t be dreaming these things if I had a decent house of my own. I’m not some kind of gypsy. It’s just all this traipsing around. First we lived in that motel in Hilton Head. Then that condo in Vero. Then that recording studio your father bought, without any windows, which just about killed me. And now this. All my things are in storage. I dream about them, too. My couches, my good dishes, all our old family photos. I dream of them packed away almost every night.”
“What happens to them?”
“Nothing. Just that nobody ever comes to get them.”
There are a number of medical procedures that my parents are planning to have done when things get better. For some time now, my mother has wanted a face-lift. When my parents were flush, she actually went to a plastic surgeon who took photographs of her face and diagrammed her bone structure. It’s not a matter of simply pulling the loose skin up, apparently. Certain facial bones need shoring up as well. My mother’s upper palate has slowly receded over the years. Her bite has become disaligned. Dental surgery is needed to resurrect the skull over which the skin will be tightened. She had the first of these procedures scheduled about the time my father caught his partner embezzling. In the trouble afterward, she had to put the idea on hold.
My father, too, has put off two operations. The first is disk surgery to help the pain in his lower back. The second is prostate surgery to lessen the blockage to his urethra and increase the flow of his urine. His delay in the latter case is not motivated purely by financial considerations. “They go up there with that Roto-Rooter and it hurts like hell,” he told me. “Plus, you can end up incontinent.” Instead, he has elected to go to the bathroom fifteen to twenty times a day, no trip being completely satisfying. During the breaks in my mother’s prophetic dreams, she hears my father getting up again and again. “Your father’s stream isn’t exactly magnificent anymore,” she told me. “You live with someone, you know.”
As for me, I need a new pair of shoes. A sensible pair. A pair suited to the tropics. Stupidly, I wore a pair of old black wingtips down here, the right shoe of which has a hole in the bottom. I need a pair of flip-flops. Every night, when I go out to the bars in my father’s Cadillac (the boat is gone, the plane is gone, but we still have the yellow “Florida Special” with the white vinyl top), I pass souvenir shops, their windows crammed with T-shirts, seashells, sunhats, coconuts with painted faces. Every time, I think about stopping to get flip-flops, but I haven’t yet.
One morning, I come down to find the office in chaos. Judy, the secretary, is sitting at her desk, chewing the end of her ponytail. “Your father had to fire Buddy,” she says. But before she can tell me anything more, one of the guests comes in, complaining about a leak. “It’s right over the bed,” the man says. “How do you expect me to pay for a room with a leak over the bed? We had to sleep on the floor! I came down to the office last night to get another room but there was no one here.”
Just then my father comes in with the tree surgeon. “I thought you told me this type of palm tree was hardy.”
“Then what’s the matter with it?”
“It’s not in the right kind of soil.”
“You never told me to change the soil,” my father says, his voice rising.
“It’s not only the soil,” says the tree surgeon. “Trees are like people. They get sick. I can’t tell you why. It might have needed more water.”
“We watered it!” my father says, shouting now. “I had the guy water it every goddamn day! And now you tell me it’s dead?” The man doesn’t reply. My father sees me. “Hey there, buddy!” he says heartily. “Be with you in a minute.”
The man with the leak begins explaining his trouble to my father. In the middle, my father stops him. Pointing at the tree surgeon, he says, “Judy, pay this bastard.” Then he goes back to listening to the man’s story. When the man finishes, my father offers him his money back and a free room for the night.
Ten minutes later, in the car, I learn the outlandish story. My father fired Buddy for drinking on the job. “But wait’ll you hear how he was drinking,” he says. Early that morning, he saw Buddy lying on the floor of unit 106, under the air conditioner. “He was supposed to be fixing it. All morning, I kept passing by, and every time I’d see Buddy lying under that air conditioner. I thought to myself, Jeez. But then this goddamn crook of a tree surgeon shows up. And he tells me that the goddamn tree he’s supposed to be curing is dead, and I forgot all about Buddy. We go out to look at the tree and the guy’s giving me all this bullshit—the soil this, the soil that—until finally I tell him I’m going to go call the nursery. So I come back to the office. And I pass 106 again. And there’s Buddy still lying on the floor.”
When my father got to him, Buddy was resting comfortably on his back, his eyes closed and the air-conditioner coil in his mouth. “I guess that coolant’s got alcohol in it,” my father said. All Buddy had to do was disconnect the coil, bend it with a pair of pliers and take a drink. This last time he’d sipped too long, however, and had passed out. “I should have known something was up,” my father says. “For the past week all he’s been doing is fixing the air conditioners.”
After calling an ambulance (Buddy remained unconscious as he was carried away), my father called the nursery. They wouldn’t refund his money or replace the palm tree. What was more, it had rained during the night and no one had to tell him about leaks. His own roof had leaked in the bathroom. The new roof, which had cost a considerable sum, hadn’t been installed properly. At a minimum, someone was going to have to re-tar it. “I need a guy to go up there and lay down some tar along the edges. It’s the edges, see, where the water gets in. That way, maybe I can save a couple of bucks.” While my father tells me all this, we drive out along A-1-A. It’s about ten in the morning by this point and the drifters are scattered along the shoulder, looking for day work. You can spot them by their dark tans. My father passes the first few, his reasons for rejecting them unclear to me at first. Then he spots a white man in his early thirties, wearing green pants and a Disneyworld T-shirt. He’s standing in the sun, eating a raw cauliflower. My father pulls the Cadillac up alongside him. He touches his electronic console and the passenger window hums open. Outside, the man blinks, trying to adjust his eyes to the car’s dark cool interior.
At night, after my parents go to sleep, I drive along the strip into town. Unlike most of the places my parents have wound up, Daytona Beach has a working-class feel. Fewer old people, more bikers. In the bar I’ve been going to, they have a real live shark. Three feet long, it swims in an aquarium above the stacked bottles. The shark has just enough room in its tank to turn around and swim back the other way. I don’t know what effect the lights have on the animal. The dancers wear bikinis, some of which sparkle like fish scales. They circulate through the gloom like mermaids, as the shark butts its head against the glass.
I’ve been in here three times already, long enough to know that I look, to the girls, like an art student, that under state law the girls cannot show their breasts and so must glue wing-shaped appliqués over them. I’ve asked what kind of glue they use (“Elmer’s”), how they get it off (“just a little warm water”) and what their boyfriends think of it (they don’t mind the money). For ten dollars, a girl will take you by the hand, past the other tables where men sit mostly alone, into the back where it’s even darker. She’ll sit you down on a padded bench and rub against you for the duration of two whole songs. Sometimes, she’ll take your hands and will ask, “Don’t you know how to dance?”
“I’m dancing,” you’ll say, even though you’re sitting down.
At three in the morning, I drive back, listening to a country and western station to remind myself that I’m far from home. I’m usually drunk by this point but the trip isn’t long, a mile at most, an easy cruise past the other waterfront real estate, the big hotels and the smaller ones, the motor lodges with their various themes. One’s called Viking Lodge. To check in, you drive under a Norse galley which serves as a carport.
Spring break’s more than a month away. Most of the hotels are less than half full. Many have gone out of business, especially those further out from town. The motel next to ours is still open. It has a Polynesian theme. There’s a bar under a grass hut by the swimming pool. Our place has a fancier feel. Out front, a white gravel walkway leads up to two miniature orange trees flanking the front door. My father thought it was worth it to spend money on the entrance, seeing as that was people’s first impression. Right inside, to the left of the plushly carpeted lobby, is the sales office. Bob McHugh, the salesman, has a blueprint of the resort on the wall, showing available units and timeshare weeks. Right now, though, most people coming in are just looking for a place to spend the night. Generally, they drive into the parking lot at the side of the building and talk to Judy in the business office.
It rained again while I was in the bar. When I drive into our parking lot and get out, I can hear water dripping off the roof of the motel. There’s a light burning in Judy’s room. I consider going up to knock on her door. Hi, it’s the boss’s son! While I’m standing there, though, listening to the dripping water and plotting my next move, her light goes off. And, with it, it seems, every light around. My father’s timeshare resort plunges into darkness. I reach out to put my hand on the hood of the Cadillac, to reassure myself with its warmth, and, for a moment, try to picture in my mind the way to my room, where the stairs begin, how many floors to climb, how many doors to pass before I get to my room.
“Come on,” my father says. “I want to show you something.”
He’s wearing tennis shorts and has a racquetball racquet in his hand. Last week, Jerry, the current handyman (the one who replaced Buddy didn’t show up one morning), finally moved the extra beds and draperies out of the racquetball court. My father had the floor painted and challenged me to a game. But, with the bad ventilation, the humidity made the floor slippery, and we had to quit after four points. My father didn’t want to break his hip.
He had Jerry drag an old dehumidifier in from the office and this morning they played a few games.
“How’s the floor?” I ask.
“Still a little slippy. That dehumidifier isn’t worth a toot.”
So it isn’t to show me the new, dry racquetball court that my father has come to get me. It’s something, his expression tells me, more significant. Leaning to one side (the exercise hasn’t helped his back any), he leads me up to the third floor, then up another, smaller stairway which I haven’t noticed before. This one leads straight to the roof. When we get to the top, I see that there’s another building up here. It’s pretty big, like a bunker, but with windows all around.
“You didn’t know about this, did you?” my father says. “This is the penthouse. Your mother and I are going to move in up here soon as it’s ready.”
The penthouse has a red front door and a welcome mat. It sits in the middle of the tarred roof, which extends in every direction. From up here, all the neighboring buildings disappear, leaving only sky and ocean. Beside the penthouse, my father has set up a small hibachi. “We can have a cookout tonight,” he says.
Inside, my mother is cleaning the windows. She wears the same yellow rubber gloves as when she used to clean the windows of our house back in the suburbs. Only two rooms in the penthouse are habitable at present. The third has been used as a storeroom and still contains a puzzle of chairs and tables stacked on top of one another. In the main room, a telephone has been installed beside a green vinyl chair. One of the warehouse paintings has been hung on the wall, a still life with seashells and coral.
The sun sets. We have our cookout, sitting in folding chairs on the roof.
“This is going to be nice up here,” my mother says. “It’s like being right in the middle of the sky.”
“What I like,” my father says, “is you can’t see anybody. Private ocean view, right on the premises. A house this big on the water’d cost you an arm and a leg.”
“Soon as we get this place paid off,” he continues, “this penthouse will be ours. We can keep it in the family, down through the generations. Whenever you want to come and stay in your very own Florida penthouse, you can.”
“Great,” I say, and mean it. For the first time, the motel exerts an attraction for me. The unexpected liberation of the roof, the salty decay of the oceanfront, the pleasant absurdity of America, all come together so that I can imagine myself bringing friends and women up to this roof in years to come.
When it’s finally dark, we go inside. My parents aren’t sleeping up here yet but we don’t want to leave. My mother turns on the lamps.
I go over to her and put my hands on her shoulders.
“What did you dream last night?” I ask.
She looks at me, into my eyes. While she does this, she’s not so much my mother as just a person, with troubles and a sense of humor. “You don’t want to know,” she says.
I go into the bedroom to check it out. The furniture has that motel look but, on the bureau, my mother has set up a photograph of me and my brothers. There’s a mirror on the back of the bathroom door, which is open. In the mirror, I see my father. He’s urinating. Or trying to. He’s standing in front of the toilet, staring down with a blank look. He’s concentrating on some problem I’ve never had to concentrate on, something I know is coming my way, but I can’t imagine what it is. He raises his hand in the air and makes a fist. Then, as though he’s been doing it for years, he begins to pound on his stomach, over where his bladder is. He doesn’t see me watching. He keeps pounding, his hand making a dull thud. Finally, as though he’s heard a signal, he stops. There’s a moment of silence before his stream hits the water.
My mother is still in the living room when I come out. Over her head, the seashell painting is crooked, I notice. I think about fixing it, then think the hell with it. I go out onto the roof. It’s dark now, but I can hear the ocean. I look down the beach, at the other high rises lit up, the Hilton, the Ramada. When I go to the roof’s edge, I can see the motel next door. Red lights glow in the tropical grass-hut bar. Beneath me, and to the side, though, the windows of our own motel are black. I squint down at the patio but can’t see anything. The roof still has puddles from last night’s storm and, when I step, I feel water gush up my shoe. The hole is getting bigger. I don’t stay out long, just long enough to feel the world. When I turn back, I see that my father has come out into the living room again. He’s on the phone, arguing with someone, or laughing, and working on my inheritance.