Tropical Depressions A Through F

He was the only person in line. Still, Keith graded his mood a sullen B-minus after he ordered a tall Starbucks environmentally self-conscious coffee of the day. The familiar upscale mall cafe brooded around him, a silent and dark companion. A flurry of useless but attractive reading lamps on the too-small tables cast halos of dim light occluded by their green visors. Keith dramatically flashed his wrist to check his watch and leaned back on his heels, feigning patience while humming the Stones’ original version of “Satisfaction” loudly enough to, hopefully, encourage the speed of the goateed twenty-something methodically preparing his coffee.

Ever so gently, Keith’s B-minus slumped like a tired old woman, curving itself into a dowager’s C. He had tried to ignore the sound of torrential rain hitting the mall roof. He had struggled to remain unfrazzled when the wind picked up and business didn’t. But sure enough, here he was, caffeine bingeing, his clinically undiagnosed mental state sliding ever downhill. He could feel the heavy press of doom on the back of his neck. Instead of the comforting warmth of a wool scarf or a cotton turtleneck jersey, neck pressures he had once enjoyed while living up north, here in South Florida the press of doom resembled a noose. A searing noose made from broiled asphalt, the kind of asphalt you find in a beach parking lot and don’t want to step on in your bare feet at the end of a long summer day.

A tall coffee would immediately speed up his heart rate and electrify his anxiety, but Keith was resigned to metabolic trauma. He needed the tiny but recognizable endorphin rush he could still capture from the Starbucks brand. Cuban coffee really did the trick, but there were no Cuban restaurants at the mall. Nothing but pointlessly memorable name brands and franchises of franchises. He noticed his fingers trembled slightly as he paid the cleaver-thin server for the day’s third round of legal stimulant. Like a freaking addict, Keith thought, tossing the change into the empty pewter mug serving as a tip jar.

The rain battered the flat roof of the boxy mall in sporadic gushings. As he sauntered back to work, Keith’s dress shirt and slacks stuck to his skin in the places most vulnerable to high humidity and his brow dampened. But, he reassured himself while inhaling the aromatic fumes of an acidic (Peruvian?) dark roast, there was no reason to further downgrade his depression, not yet. If he could calmly sit at his desk and make a few client follow-up calls, touch base with Lila, catch the news on AOL, sip his coffee, text message Ann again and say he was really really sorry this time, well, just maybe he could inflate that C into a buxom B. It was nearly two o’clock, surely he could make it until happy hour without another psychic markdown.

The mall was quietly subdued for a Saturday in September, but just about perfect for the final hours of a week long, economy drowning tropical depression, the fifth of the season. Even before the most recent deluge, business had been bad. All the realtors at the office were agreed: They would never sell out the Tropicana Hills development, even at the prebuild guaranteed investment prices. Not in the current down market, not in such a passé part of the country. The cool people with money were buying second homes in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and, surprisingly, Burlington, Vermont. Or they were planning even further ahead, buying family land in Costa Rica and Panama. The cool retirees with cash were no longer looking for relaxation and golf. These people were simply not interested in what they saw as their grandparents’ retirement communities. Somehow, despite the two (2) Olympic-size swimming pools pictured in the sales literature, despite the proposed state-of-the-art health club with its grinning staff of buff personal trainers, despite the 20,000 square foot Spanish Mediterranean clubhouse with bar and dance floor, somehow the Tropicana Hills ultraluxury development was not catching the eye of the cool people with money. And without the alpha dogs in the lead, nobody was buying.

The mall wasn’t completely deserted. A certain kind of woman shopped during hurricanes, searching for cataclysm discounts. The sexy clatter of high heels on faux marble and the smell of celebrity-endorsed designer perfume made his flesh crawl. Ann. Was she done with him this time? Broad-assed, gutter-mouthed Ann, tough and angular, her two-handed grip on him so demanding he unceasingly satisfied both of them. Whatever did she seen in him anyway? His home sales for the month were nil, his gym membership had elapsed a year ago, and the bald spot on the back of his head grew larger every week. He had room up there now to paint a second face. Keith’s halfcocked C deflated and slipped to the floor, where it crawled along on its belly, a hungover D.

Oddly, the front door to the office was open and a rangy boy sprawled across the rattan couch in the front waiting room. Long and lean and spooky pale, the boy stared at his Game Boy and said nothing as Keith walked past. Intense, thought Keith. He assumed the kid belonged to a client who had wandered off to shop while waiting for one of the realtors. Usually his clients tended to be entitled tightwads without manners or what he thought of as couth.

He peeked into Brody’s office on the way to his own. Her computer was on, the screen saver a Disney slide show of old vacation shots from Caribbean vacations with the girls. Maybe she was in the restroom, but most likely she had gone next door to chat with the Brazilian guy who ran the Nails Etc. Her monthly sales were pitifully low, but Brody had worked her hard-on for the South American manicurist to the point where Keith was pretty sure she only came to the office every day as an excuse to visit with Mr. Nails.

Sipping his still hot coffee, Keith checked weather.com, the Herald headlines, and his email. Nothing from Ann. He slurped more coffee and waited for the reassuring buzz to begin in his ears. A terse email from his wife asked about dinner plans. As if they were still speaking normally to one another. As if his affair hadn’t blown their house down, shattering the rock solid foundation of fidelity and trust they had built together. Lila and Jess had depended on him to be honest and responsible, and what had he done with his beloved family’s devotion? He had smeared petroleum jelly on it and banged it blindly for more than six months. That’s what. The harsh black juices that burned tattoos in his stomach lining were soldering the floppy self-helpless D, remodeling it into a mint condition D-minus.

He could hear the kid tapping one of his size 12 or 13 Nikes against the flimsy wall that separated them. Hadn’t his mother taught him to sit up straight on other people’s couches? Lila would never leave Jess stranded on some stranger’s furniture. And if she caught him lounging like that in public, there would be no television for a week. Obviously, this kid was from a different kind of family, maybe a broken home. Keith sipped his cooling coffee and pretended he could hardly feel last night’s parade of overindulgences throbbing against the back of his skull.

The foot tapping had a pattern, a musical beat, the even drumming of Chinese rubber on papery sheet rock. Although he was tempted to go out and speak sternly to the boy, Keith knew it would be pure venting. Displaced sexual frustration. A weak attempt to reboot his own ego. His neurochemistry and its plummeting D grade could not be revived that way. He sent a text message to Ann instead. Drinx at FPs? Yr Lv Slav. He did not expect a response.

The wind howled and rain slammed against the roof like a fire hose on full blast. Keith dialed Lila at work, then tried her cell. He left no message. She would see that he had called and that was enough of a message. He wondered about his depression: Was it due to his individual and infantile but nonetheless actual unmet expectations, or caused by an unidentified viral malaise, a global downturn in emotional well-being? The kid creaked the rickety couch, shifting his lanky limbs.

Keith knew he was his own best-trained abuser, and most days he had the mental clarity to blame himself for the fucking mess his life had become. Still, as a card-carrying member of the ignorant, ever-suffering human race, he felt he deserved a break now and again. Ann had seemed like just the break a man in his too-late fifties deserved. How many chances did an ordinary hardworking guy like him have to feel like a million bucks, if only for a few hours out of a lousy week? Not many. None, in fact; no more chances. Now she wasn’t speaking to him and his wife wanted him to move out by the end of the month. The homeless realtor. That would go over big at the head office. Keith’s caffeinated D-minus vibrated, morphing into another, more ominous shape.

As he suckled the edge of the cardboard cup, savoring the final dregs of previously robust flavor, the kid kicked the wall rapidly, viciously. Keith shuffled the pile of colorful MLS listings on his desk. Did he really have to sit here until five? He had no showings, no closings, no clients calling, nothing pending. He couldn’t motivate himself to make even a single call to the many unmotivated potential buyers still waiting until house prices slid even lower than the bottom he kept promising them had already been established. Why not just hang it up and head straight for the Fat Palms?

The kid stopped banging the wall. What about the boy? The kid couldn’t stay in the office alone. It seemed improper that he’d been left out in the front room all by himself in the first place. Company rules, potential lawsuits and all that.

Keith walked out to the waiting area and said hi. No response. The kid lay on his back, furiously manipulating the handheld video console. One oversized foot rested against the pseudo-paneling behind the couch, the other bounced up and down on the dirty beige carpet. He could have been lounging in his own den, relaxed and oblivious to his whereabouts. Keith envied the kid’s skill at absolute withdrawal. He left the office door open behind him.

The chemical high associated with breathing the lacquered air in Nails Etc. boosted Keith’s mood. He inhaled deeply, looking around the empty tables for Brody. The walls of mirrors sparkled, the pink Formica booths gleamed. In fact, the whole room sat on its delightful haunches and waited for a treat. No customers, no manicurists. The latest post-Republican-regime recession at work.

When Brody poked her head out from the back room, she looked sleepy and unpleasantly surprised. Keith shrugged and said casually, “Thought I might leave early today. Can you wait for the client to come back?”

“What client? Your client?” Her fly was unzipped, her cream-colored lace blouse wrinkled and half-tucked.

Keith pointed to her crotch and looked away. “The kid’s there and I don’t want to leave him alone for too long. He seems a little uptight.”

Brody laughed, zipping her fly. Spanish soap opera voices drifted in from the back office. “What kid are you talking about? I’ve been here with Renaldo since lunchtime.” She paused. For effect, he assumed. “Actually, I thought you could cover until closing today. I’m busy. For a change.” Brody arched a heavily plucked black eyebrow and smirked. 

“You mean you don’t know whose kid it is hanging out on our couch?” The caffeine swirled around his bloodstream, sparking here and there, tripping up his heart rate. Keith could see himself at the semicrowded bar at Fat Palms, settling onto a plushy barstool and ordering a double scotch on the rocks, nibbling a handful of salted peanuts, chatting with one of the attentive bartenders while catching up on the world series of poker on a crystal clear flat screen.

Brody followed him back to the office. Her usual bipolarish mood had been evened off at a high A, obviously, while his depression had sharpened itself into a bent tuning fork that was none too gently prodding at the most vulnerable part of his neck. He felt the press of doom that only a double at the Fat Palms might—only might—relieve somewhat—and only somewhat.

The kid didn’t even look up when they came in. Super intense, Keith thought.
 “Hello,” Brody said in a gooey I’m-the-adult voice. The kid kept on gaming, his foot rap, rap, rapping the wall. Is he deaf, she mouthed silently, and Keith shrugged.

“Excuse me, but we need to close the office now. Are your parents around somewhere?” Even though Brody was practically shouting, the boy did not flinch or glance their way.

Keith mouthed to Brody, Something is wrong here. She nodded, her tightly permed curls bouncing enthusiastically. She knelt down on the filthy carpet to peer directly into the boy’s blank white face. “Can you hear me?” she called out hopefully, as one might when the phone reception was faulty.

Now that Keith took the time to examine the kid more closely, he could see the telltale signs of regular shaving. The young man’s face held a childlike innocence, though, unmarked by blemishes and guile. And his body was weirdly unformed for an adult, as if he had been lightly sketched and hadn’t been filled in yet.

The storm had settled into the occasional gusts phase with the intermittent spatter of wind-driven rain. There was definitely something off about the kid. Keith’s heart ping-ponged and he could feel cold sweat collecting in his armpits. The alluring image of the Fat Palms’ generous bar drinks at moderate prices in a friendly atmosphere was receding in his mind to an indecipherable blip on a shrinking screen.

Brody stood up again and began speaking as if the kid couldn’t hear her. Keith was sure the boy wasn’t deaf. There was something else going on, something neurological. It was as if the boy lived in another dimension entirely, and only the couch was shared with the world he and Brody occupied. Keith felt mildly jealous.

“We have to call mall security. His parents or caretakers must be out of their minds with worry,” Brody stage whispered. She jumped when the young man suddenly began making noise. Still focused on his video game, the young man emitted a series of owlish hoots.

“Whooo. Whoo-eey,” he repeated while Keith and Brody stood transfixed, staring down at their visitor. He pressed the keys rapidly and methodically on his little computer. “Whooo. Whoo-eey.”

While Brody called security from her office, Keith watched the young man on the couch. His downcast eyes were unreachable. His world was elsewhere. That world may have been secondhand, booted up and downloaded. But it was certainly all-encompassing. There was a great deal of appeal in that. Keith could imagine how real that world would feel to the person who lived in it, alone but not lonely there, caught up in the intense game of a singular mind. He might grade that kind of mental attitude an A for autonomy.

“Gene is coming right over with the mother,” Brody reported. “He says security has been looking for the kid since this morning. His mother is a wreck.” She mouthed a word that Keith was unable to decipher.

The young man began knocking the wall with one foot again, his other scuffed Nike a solid presence on the office floor. Keith realized the rain had finally stopped and the wild winds had quieted. He could imagine how balmy the late afternoon would become, one of those tropical afternoons with soft blue skies and cottony puffs of clouds, the exact type of day people up north think of when they think of buying a getaway house in South Florida. Keith pictured a ravishing sunset. He pictured himself stretched out on the crummy carpet, clasping the kid by his bulky left shoe, hanging on with both hands, hanging on for dear life until forced by bullet-headed ex-wrestler Gene of mall security to let go.

Let go, Keith.

He massaged the base of his neck tenderly, tenderly, until he felt the oil fire tamp itself down, down, down. Keith pulled out his cell and text messaged Lila: Honey be home soon.

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