The unrelenting summertime storms keep northerners away from their seasonal homes in Palm Beach until late November, leading locals to believe that the true celebration of Thanksgiving should take place in April when all of the snowbirds head north once again. On Labor Day, the town is typically quiet, but all of its shops and restaurants remain open and eager to serve those locals who choose to venture out into the heavy tropical humidity.
At the restaurant Ta-boó, an anchor of the high-end shopping street known as Worth Avenue and an establishment that had been frequented by celebrities in bygone days that were still remembered, although perhaps a bit foggily, by many residents of the island, a parking valet accepted a stub from a departing diner and his much younger female companion.
“Bring me my Bentley, boy, and snap to it,” demanded Jack Phlapp, the elderly diner, who looked down to inspect the parking valet’s badge, which displayed the name Oliver. “Aren’t you a little old to be a parking valet?” asked the old man with a sneer.
Oliver ignored the man’s question as he glanced at the ticket, his heavyset body stewing in his undersized poncho. “And don’t get the seats wet!” Phlapp added irritably.
“Well, then, how do you propose that I retrieve your vehicle?” asked Oliver.
“Your problem, not mine,” responded the elderly man.
“Your problem, not mine,” he repeated as he turned away to talk to the young woman.
Oliver trotted uncomfortably across Worth Avenue to the spot where the Bentley had been parked by another valet during the preceding shift. In the darkness and driving rain and with poor visibility, Oliver pushed each of the buttons on the key, hoping that one of them would unlock the doors. Instead, the trunk popped open, revealing a case of vodka and a Costco-sized box of Depends adult undergarments. Oliver smirked as he slammed the trunk shut and climbed into the driver’s seat. He pulled the Bentley out of its parking space and backed it down Worth Avenue to the loading zone in front of the restaurant. Oliver stepped out of the car and stood next to the open door with an expectant look.
“An umbrella, boy, escort me with an umbrella!” demanded Phlapp. Oliver walked around the car to retrieve an umbrella from behind the valet stand and attempted to lead the elderly man back to the driver’s seat. “No, not there. I’m not driving, she’s driving,” said Phlapp, pointing at the girl. “My eyes aren’t what they used to be and I have trouble seeing at night.”
“That extra cocktail can certainly affect our vision as we get older, can’t it?” replied Oliver, needling Phlapp with false sympathy. “Just wait here and I’ll help your daughter stay dry as she gets into the car,” he added with an innocent expression.
“I didn’t have an extra cocktail, son, I had my regular number, and she’s not my daughter. If she plays her cards right, she just might end up as the next Mrs. Phlapp, but until that day comes, you’ll help me first. Now hold my cane for me.”
As Oliver helped Phlapp into the passenger seat, his young companion ran around to the other side of the car, opened the door, and dove in to escape the rain, the puddle that Oliver had left on the driver’s seat saturating the fabric of her very expensive party dress. Now as irritated as her elderly boyfriend, the young woman yanked her door shut and drove off, splashing Oliver’s legs and leaving him with neither a tip nor a word of thanks.
* * *
Oliver Booth was not a professional parking valet, certainly not at his age. He also dabbled in the sale of antiques, although lately his role in that field had been limited to that of a deliveryman. Some months previously, he had attempted to defraud a certain Margaret Van Buren, the wealthy doyenne of Palm Beach society. Because of his status as the manager of an antique shop in town, Mrs. Van Buren had sent Oliver to Paris along with Bernard Dauphin, a young Frenchman who worked as a waiter at the Morningwood Club, to shop for furniture for her guest house at the Marché aux Puces. With Bernard’s help, Mrs. Van Buren had uncovered Oliver’s scheme to inflate the prices of the goods that had been purchased and thus his presumed commission and she had threatened to turn him in to the police unless he made reparations. Much to Oliver’s chagrin, he had been required to cede control of the antique shop to Mrs. Van Buren and pay back all of the costs of his ill-fated trip.
In appreciation for his help and in recognition of his refined sensibilities, Mrs. Van Buren had appointed Bernard to serve as the new manager of the antique shop, which he renamed Le Magasin du Dauphin. He in turn had hired Oliver to serve as his clerk, less out of the goodness of his heart than out of a desire to see him squirm, but Oliver’s prickly temperament had resulted in continuing conflicts with customers and a swift demotion to the position of deliveryman.
Bernard had been away from Palm Beach for most of the summer, which he had spent in France on his honeymoon with his new wife Monique, who was the daughter of Mrs. Van Buren, and her 11 year-old son Martin. In his absence, the shop was being managed by the rugged Simian Pride, a former professional tennis player who was best known for his runner-up showing at the 1983 Bangladesh Open. Having recently been dumped by Lady Caroline Hardcourt and needing to find a new source of funding to subsidize his lavish lifestyle, he had agreed to help run the shop in Bernard’s absence.
Little salesmanship was required from Simian Pride because the goods that Bernard had selected for sale were of such obviously high quality and fine provenance that those people who crossed his shop’s doorstep needed little prompting to make their purchases. Thus, Pride’s primary responsibilities were to process payments and coordinate deliveries, the latter task being somewhat more difficult than one might imagine because the deliveryman was Oliver Booth.
Oliver entered Le Magasin du Dauphin already fuming with dissatisfaction at his menial responsibilities. He walked over to Pride, planted his feet, and stared, sullenly awaiting his assignment.
Simian Pride was not at all intelligent, but he knew that his life would be easier if he could foster a collegial relationship between himself and Oliver. “Er, hello Oliver, how was your night?” he asked.
“Not good at all, Pride. The whole concept of laboring on Labor Day makes no sense to me. And forget about tips, the only thing I got last night was a cold.”
“That’s too bad, Oliver, but I’m sure you’ll feel better soon,” Pride replied. “Now about your delivery schedule today—”
Hoping to provoke a sympathetic response, Oliver responded ingratiatingly. “Yes, Simian, about my schedule,” he began, “I was wondering if you might be able to take some of those deliveries off my hands today, what with my cold and all. Given your obvious level of fitness, I’m sure you could complete them in no time.”
Pride frowned and responded, “Oliver, that’s not possible. I need to be here to greet the customers, and, anyway, I don’t even have a car. I ride that baby blue Vespa that’s parked outside.”
“But you could borrow my car!” suggested Oliver eagerly. “My Citroën is quite the workhorse.”
“And you would ride my Vespa? That would be quite a sight. No, Oliver, I’m sure Bernard would not agree to that arrangement. Would you like me to give him a call to check? I believe it’s cocktail hour over in France right now.”
Recognizing the futility of his request, Oliver replied, “No, forget it, just give me the list of deliveries.”
“Fine,” said Pride, handing him a sheet of paper. “Now Oliver, there are three stops that you’ll need to make this morning. First, please go by Mr. Finkelstein’s house and collect a check from him for the commode that you delivered last week.”
“But I hate asking for payments. Everybody is so mean to me. When I delivered that commode, Mr. Finkelstein told me that his wife bought it, not him, and that I should get a check from her.”
“I know, Oliver, some of these people can be very difficult. It still amazes me that it’s only the wealthiest of our clients, and typically those who received their fortunes without ever having had to work for a living, who are so resistant to paying their bills. Anyway, just tell Mr. Finkelstein . . . respectfully, Oliver, I don’t want any more calls like the last time . . . that as long as he remains married to his wife, her obligations are also his own and that he must write you a check.”
“What if they’ve gotten a divorce?”
“What do you mean, since you saw him last week?”
“Nothing would surprise me in Palm Beach. Just do your best, Oliver. Moving on, your second stop will be at the house of Mrs. Vaugirard. I would like you to deliver this small package to her.” Pride handed Oliver a tiny toothpick holder protected with bubble wrap.
“That’s it? Why couldn’t she take it with her when she bought it?”
“I suppose because we offer free delivery. But don’t complain, all of your deliveries should be so easy.”
“You said I have a third stop before I’m done for the day?”
“No, you have a third stop before you’re done for the morning. I’ll have more deliveries for you after lunch.”
“Your final delivery this morning will be to a Mr. Josephus Morgan. It’s that small writing table by the front door. But please be careful, Oliver. It’s extremely valuable and I’m sure Mr. Morgan would be quite displeased if anything happened to it.”
“Please, Pride, if there’s anyone who knows how to handle fine antiques, it’s me,” replied Oliver as he turned to leave. He walked up to the writing table, pulled open the drawer, and placed the tiny toothpick holder inside. Pushing the drawer shut, Oliver picked up the table and walked out the door.
* * *
Unlike New York, where the limitless supply of available apartments is matched by the multitude of brokers who are eager to represent them, the sale and resale of the limited number of homes on the island of Palm Beach are controlled by a select group of real estate professionals. To become and then to remain influential in Palm Beach, brokers must continually network to capture new clients because they understand that one high-end sale might help them gain recognition, but subsequent sales are necessary to maintain and grow a reputation.
Nick Mount had been the top broker in Palm Beach for the preceding five years, an eternity in an unpredictable market. In addition to occasionally seducing prospective female clients, his tactics to win listings included pleading, wheedling, cajoling, and, on a few rare occasions, outright bullying. On this date, he had decided that cajoling would be the approach that would bear the most fruit. He was in the home of Josephus Morgan, an elderly former industrialist who, it had been rumored, might consider selling his house, Casa Costoso. Although Morgan had no desire to leave Palm Beach, his daughter Madeleine had been pressuring him to do so because she felt that his declining mental powers had made it necessary for him give up his independent life and move into her own spacious apartment in New York.
Typical of his attire during meetings with prospective clients, Mount was dressed impeccably in a blue blazer, a crisp white dress shirt without a tie, white slacks with a blue and white striped ribbon belt, and brand-new alligator loafers without socks. His sun-bleached hair was freshly cut and held in place by an undetectable application of Brilliantine. In contrast, Josephus Morgan, like many elderly persons, had not bought any new clothes during the last 20 years and his standard outfit served only to reinforce his daughter’s concerns regarding his declining faculties. He was wearing a long-sleeved polyester shirt decorated with broad gold and brown stripes that would have met the approval of even the most demanding doormen at the popular discos of the 1970s, a pair of permanently stained beige Sansabelt slacks, and a formerly very sensible but now quite battered pair of Mephisto walking shoes that on this day were trailing a long ribbon of toilet paper.
“But Mr. Morgan, your timing would be perfect if you put your home on the market right now,” suggested Mount. “I do think we’re in a bit of a bubble, and I would hate for the bubble to burst before—”
“What do you mean bubble? It’s only a bubble if you’re planning to sell,” Morgan replied. “I’m not going anywhere. I’m a young man and I have lots of years ahead of me.”
“Mr. Morgan, if I could be so forward, how old are you, really?”
“Well, I’m . . . now let’s see, I was born in 1925 and now it’s . . . what year is it now?”
“You know, math was never my strength. I always had accountants to take care of that sort of thing for me. You figure it out. If it’s 2006—”
“Right, 2013, and I was born in 1925, where does that put me, in my 60s?”
“I believe you’re 88, Sir.”
“Eighty-eight? Ridiculous! I don’t feel a day over 50. And I have the mind of a child!”
Mount allowed himself a hint of a smile and continued his pitch. “Mr. Morgan, I know you’re a busy man,” he lied, “so please allow me to be blunt. I have heard talk that your daughter would like you to live with her in her apartment in New York City. She feels that life would be easier for you there, given your age.”
“Bah! New York City, living in some box in the sky? Never!”
“But Mr. Morgan, if you would just review the draft of a sales contract that I’ve prepared, you’ll see that the terms are very reasonable. As a gesture of good faith, I’ve even reduced my standard commission from 6% to just 5.5%—”
Seeing Oliver enter the room carrying the writing table, Mount stopped his sales pitch and looked on with annoyance at the interruption.
“Oh, so that’s how it works, does it?” shouted Morgan triumphantly. “You try to soften me up first and then you have your friend come in here with a writing table so I’ll have a place to sign away my home? I’ll bet he’s even carrying a pen for me, aren’t you boy?” Morgan glared at Oliver, who in turn looked at Mount in utter confusion.
“Um, I have a writing table here for a Mr. Morgan,” said Oliver tentatively, wiping the sweat from his brow with the sleeve of the jumpsuit that he was required to wear when he made deliveries for Le Magasin du Dauphin. “I was asked—”
“I know what you were asked to do!” shouted Morgan. “Now both of you get out! I need to use the facilities. My damned prostate is acting up again. I’ll thank you to be gone when I return!”
As Morgan left the room, Nick Mount and Oliver stared at each other in shock. Oliver remembered his assignment as well as his desire to finish his morning rounds and move on to lunch. “What should I do with this writing table?” he asked. “I’m supposed to deliver it to someone named Morgan. Could you sign for it so I can get out of here?”
“No, I can’t sign for it, and I don’t appreciate your ruining the business transaction that we were about to conclude,” Mount replied.
“It didn’t seem to me like that old man was going to be agreeing to anything,” said Oliver.
“Look, do me a favor, just keep quiet when he returns and let me see if I can salvage something. Then you can ask him about your delivery.”
“But didn’t he say that he wanted both of us out of here before he returned?”
“Let’s just play it by ear. I have an idea.”
A few minutes later, Josephus Morgan reentered the room. He was shocked to find the two men standing there.
“Uh-oh,” whispered Oliver, “I told you he wanted us to leave.”
“What are you two gentlemen doing here?” asked Morgan. “Why doesn’t that woman ever announce my visitors?”
Taking advantage of Morgan’s failing memory and thinking quickly, Mount replied, “But Mr. Morgan, there was nothing to announce, we had already been meeting about your plan to sell your fine estate for a princely sum. In fact, you were just about to sign this sales agreement.” He placed the contract on Oliver’s writing table and offered a pen to Morgan, who appeared to be befuddled.
“And who are you?” Morgan asked Oliver.
“I’m the person who brought this writing table to your house,” he responded.
“You brought this writing table? Just so I would have a place to sign this contract?” Morgan paused to reflect while Mount and Oliver looked on anxiously. “That’s a very classy move, young man, very classy indeed! I like how you operate, Mr. . . . um . . . Mr. . . . what was your name again?”
“Booth. Oliver Booth.”
“I like how you operate, Mr. Booth,” observed Morgan. Turning to Mount, he said, “Now tell me Mr. . . . um . . . Mr. . . . blast it, I’ve forgotten your name too.”
“Nick Mount, Sir, but please call me Nick.”
“Well, Nick, I hate to pry into personal matters, so I will not be so rude as to ask you what Mr. . . . um . . . this other fellow is being paid for his work, but I’ll make a deal with you.”
“What’s that?” asked Mount with growing concern.
“If I sign this agreement and you successfully sell my house, you will give this man a $10,000 bonus. I find him to be a very impressive character.”
Remembering Josephus Morgan’s declining mental faculties, Mount agreed to the deal immediately, anticipating that without written proof, their oral agreement would be unenforceable. “Absolutely, Mr. Morgan,” he replied. “Oscar here—”
“Oliver,” interjected Oliver.
“Oliver, sorry, is one of our finest . . .” Mount paused, inspecting Oliver, and continued, “. . . young? . . . employees. I would have no problem offering him a bonus after I sell your house. Now if I could just ask you to sign here—”
“Excuse me?” interrupted Oliver.
“Yes, Oliver?” Mount responded with impatience.
“I just wanted to thank Mr. Morgan for his generosity. And ask him how he would like that understanding to be written into the contract.”
“Not now, Oliver,” said Mount with a grimace and then a forced smile. “I can assure you that you’ll receive the bonus that Mr. Morgan has so generously proposed, so just let it go.”
“You see, I knew he had potential!” shouted Morgan. “You’re very wise to suggest a written agreement, son. In my former life as a businessman, I was never very comfortable with oral contracts. Alright, Dick—”
“Yes, Nick, write this down. I promise to pay . . . what was your name again, young man? Anyway, fill in his name, and then add that you promise to give him a $10,000 bonus if and when this property is sold. You sign that and date it and then I’ll sign the contract.”
“No buts allowed. You sign that or you can leave immediately. And then maybe I’ll just have Mr. what’s-his-name here sell my house for me.”
“That’s a great idea!” exclaimed Oliver, beaming.
“But he doesn’t even have a broker’s license!” replied Mount, exasperated. “Alright, alright, I’ll add the extra clause to the contract.”
“And there’s just one more thing,” continued Morgan with a sly grin. “I want this writing table. Consider it the spoils of war.”
Mount looked at Oliver, who shrugged his shoulders and said, “Why not? It’s already his.”
“Excellent, young man. You see, Dick here is already looking to you to make these executive decisions! Now where do I sign?”
* * *
I’m happy to report that my new book, Oliver Booth and the Evil Socialite, is now in the top ten (actually, it’s number seven) in the Literature & Fiction / Humor category on Kindle!
Setting aside the issue of naming one’s Swedish design firm after a skin condition that troubles teens (although perhaps not Scandinavian teens), I wonder what Acne Studios was thinking when it proposed the outfit that is being modeled by this grim young gentleman:
No, this outfit is not intended to be worn as pajamas, so who do they expect will wear it and on what occasion?
I’m sure you will agree that 350 American dollars seems a bit pricey for this ensemble, particularly given that every prisoner who has served on a Mississippi chain gang since the 1930s has received it for free.
Here’s a link to my 100th and final column for the Shiny Sheet.
Thanks for reading!
(click here for ordering information)