“The only thing worse than a lawyer counting his money is when he’s counting someone else’s.”
While they waited for the turkey to defrost, Seth and Stella sat on the sofa in her St. Pete’s condo. Seth was patting her hand and she placed her hand over his.
“Why don’t we put that damn thing out on the patio,” said Seth. “In this humidity, it’ll be melted in five minutes.”
“Seth, what am I going to do now, now that I’m alone? I hate golf and bridge bores me. The people here bore me. They’re all ready to join Mel.”
“If I knew Mel,” said Seth, getting up and staring at the frozen 25-pound turkey on the kitchen counter, “and I knew Mel, he would not want you sitting around in this stifling heat. He’d want you to live, have fun, do things.”
“You mean like go on one of those cramped cruise ships, where you either end up with dysentery or shot by pirates.”
“No, not a cruise, but maybe somewhere where you’re not reminded every time you get your mail that you may be dead before you get to read it.”
Seth grabbed a carving knife and stabbed the bird in the side. “Still frozen like kryptonite. I’ll put it outside.”
He carried the bird that contained the key to the safety deposit box out to the glass outdoor table. He turned it so its rear end faced directly into the blazing sun, then went back inside.
“How the hell can you live down here? It’s like a Burma jungle.”
“It’s nice in the winter.”
“So is Caracas, but that’s no reason to go there.”
“That was so kind of Nicki to hold Mel’s hand,” cried Stella suddenly, breaking down and sobbing. Seth held her tightly, “Okay, okay, it’ll pass.”
“How is she anyway?”
“I sent her to Paradise.”
“You killed her?!”
“No, I didn’t kill her. Something much worse. I put her in a rehab in the Hamptons.”
“Oh, dear, I didn’t know she had a problem.”
“Why would you, she’s an actress! Anyway, it cost about as much as the film’s budget. Waste of money. She said the food was okay, fresh clams every day, but they won’t leave her alone. Every five minutes they have something planned for her. She needs rest, not 24-hour surveillance. I think those joints are just moneymakers anyway. You know how much that place charges for a 30-day stint? No, you don’t want to know. I may litigate if their methods don’t work. When I dropped her off, the director wanted to know if I, me, Seth T. Schmule, would be interested in checking in? Imagine? I don’t drink enough in a year to baste that entire turkey!”
“I could use a rehab.”
“No, you don’t need that. No one needs that. Those alcoholics need to grow up, go back to school, learn something, take responsibility, that’s their problem. They’re totally without good, solid judgment. I should know, I’ve been enabling Nicki for years; impetuous, immature, grandiose, stupid. And steeped in unfounded resentments. Now, you need to get the hell out of this jungle. Come back to the city. I’ll find you a nice place. You’re still young, who knows . . . why don’t you cook that thing, we’ll have turkey sandwiches.”
“I don’t know anything about movies, and neither do you, Seth.”
“I know that if you can make good popcorn, the movie will sell itself. It’s all about the popcorn. Give them great popcorn and they’ll be back. They remember good popcorn a week later, but a lousy movie they forget before they get home. Besides, Mel would have wanted you in the film business. It’s a good investment.”
“But I have enough . . .”
“I’m not so sure. I went over your books. It all depends what’s hidden away in that turkey’s ass. Does Mel have any tools around here? I can drill a hole in its side.”
“He did have his heart set on the Immaculate Toilet Bowl Cleaner.”
“Mel and his damn bowels. What’s up with Jews and the crapper anyway? Maybe that’s it, ‘The Perfect Jewish Bowel Movement,’ a self-help book dedicated to Mel. We’ll self-publish, keep all the profits. I’ll call it, ‘Jews in a Hurry: A Guide To The Perfect Dump.’ ”
“Mel was always jealous of you, you know.”
“That’s because I went out with you before he did. He was always competitive when it came to girls.”
“I would have married you.”
“I know, I know, let’s not rehash that one again.”
“I just couldn’t let your mother live with us. Not for the first year anyway. She’d be in our honeymoon bed. How is she?”
“Controlling as ever. Hates the nursing home. Hates Albany. The original self-hating Jew. I still talk to her every Sunday. She’s losing it. I may have to stay in my childhood home until the end. Remember the house?”
“How could I forget? I had my first kiss on the porch. Remember Seth, how nervous you were. Then your mother knocked on the window.”
“She ruined my life. I still look in the mirror in the morning and wonder if she’d like the tie I’m wearing.”
“Mothers can be like that.”
“You’re not like that. You know how to let a person suffer in his own misery.”
“Did you ever regret you didn’t marry me?”
“Oh, listen, it worked out just fine with you and Mel. He made you happy. You made lots of money. I could never make anyone happy.”
“Nicki seems happy.”
“Nicki! I should call her, make sure they’re not putting electrodes into her self-destructive brain.”
“Seth, will you marry her?”
“After the movie’s made, maybe. She’s first got to get rid of thinking she’s the center of the universe. She thinks the world spins around her. Maybe it did when she was a starlet, but the world spins for no one.”
“Does she like it there? Are they treating her nicely? Gosh, a rehab. Just like Lindsey Lohan.”
“She doesn’t think they understand her and she wants to get out, fast. The director’s quite an operator, along with his thieves’ row silent partners in that Happy Home Lodge. They advertise like something out of Travel & Leisure. Here, I got the brochure.”
He quickly reached inside his jacket and pulled out the flier.
“Here we go. A saltwater pool, a hot tub, a spa, individual flavored colonics. Mel and his happy ass could have checked in there! Oh, great! A chef from the city. Of course. Flowers in each room, your own personal trainer, and even better, your own counselor. A cool fifty grand, but if you opt to stay longer, then you can buy the three-month package for an even hundred thousand.”
Seth looked outside at the turkey basking in the sun and continued.
“This allows the residents their own beach pass; they can use their own vehicle after a week, and they get weekend passes. All in all, an irresistible offer from this little piece of paradise, well hidden and touching a preserve, where you can view up close all of the East End’s exotic creatures. What exotic creatures? There’s nothing out there but deer and ticks. I used to have a place in Westhampton.”
He slapped his knee with the brochure.
“They got everything but a floor show. This is a docked Carnival Cruise Line. Basically, a cash cow bordering on a swampy wetland that hasn’t been maintained forever! Not to mention the raccoon population, which likes to dine on the Happy Home’s discards. And of course, the boasting advertisement. Just listen to this that oozed its way out of a snake oil bottle:
“ ‘We cater to Wall Street executives, Hollywood celebrities, and other high-profile dignitaries who demand anonymity at all costs. Your confidentiality is our primary concern. Our guaranteed privacy is unmatched in the history of rehabilitation. Your well-being is our best-kept secret.’ ”
“Bullshit! Money is!” Seth couldn’t wait any longer for the bird to melt. He had to be back in New York to retrieve Nicki from Grifters Central. He found one of Mel’s drills and ran a cord from the kitchen out to the patio. Stella couldn’t bear this barbaric assault, even if it resulted in the golden key that, along with memories, would free her to do just about anything she had ever wanted to do.
Soon the drilling began. Seth stopped, took off his black nylon windbreaker, rolled up his sleeves, turned around his faux Oyster Perpetual a client had paid his bill with, and began the excavation. He had to be careful, he didn’t want the drill bit damaging the key to the safety deposit box and to the future of his movie.
Stella was sitting on the flowery sofa filing a nail when Seth came in like Perseus carrying Medusa’s head by the hair. He held it up proudly.
“I got it, I got it! Now I have to wash it off. Geez, next time, Stel, just let me hold onto any valuables, it would save a lot of trouble. I’ll never eat a turkey sandwich again.”
Sitting outside the St. Petersburg Savings and Loan in Stella’s red Cadillac coupe, the two were more silent than at Mel’s memorial. Stella was staring at the safety deposit key in her hand and Seth’s mind was spinning like a top.
“Mel was broke! Mortgaged up to his ass, speaking of asses. And you didn’t know, Stella?”
“No, Seth. I thought we were doing just fine.”
“He couldn’t even afford to invest in his toilet cleaner. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“It doesn’t matter now. Take me home, I need a nap.”
Seth went from the divinely inspired conqueror to the defeated, shieldless soldier. They drove back to the condo in silence, and once inside, both collapsed on the couch.
“So that’s that, Seth. I’m sorry. I didn’t know we were so poor.”
“Mel. I told him to let me handle his finances. Well, not to worry. Seth is here. Now I think you should move back to New York. This is no place for a widow. Especially a soon-to-be-impoverished one.”
“But I like it here.”
“No you don’t. What the hell did he do with all his money? Stel, what did Mel do with all his money?”
“I don’t know. Maybe he gambled.”
“What do you mean, maybe he gambled? You’re his wife! You were his wife. Was he a gambler, did he owe money to a bunch of lowlifes? Hope he didn’t sink his dough into that rehab.”
“He used to go somewhere a couple of times a week. He said he was playing golf. Maybe he bet on that.”
“You can’t lose the amount of money you two made in dresses on a golf course. I don’t care if he played ten thousand holes a week! No, he lost it, but it wasn’t hitting a little white ball.”
“We never discussed finance.”
“You should have.”
On the plane, Seth was in the mood to litigate. Someone, anyone. This always made him feel better. Maybe he should have stayed with Stella and investigated where Mel’s loot went. No, that wouldn’t have been the reason he stayed in Florida.
The reason he would have stayed was that he never got over his feelings for Stel, no matter how hard he tried. But by the time he realized how much he was in love with her, she had already married his dear friend, Mel Zine. Besides, he had Nicki, and with a little luck (and money) he was going to get her a nightclub act on the road.
That is, if the rehab hadn’t instilled some incomprehensible, mind-altering revelations. Maybe they’d want to turn her grandiosity down a few notches. Make her humble, maybe work in a store. I gotta get there, and quick, he thought as the plane descended.
Seth rented a car at LaGuardia and drove like hell out to the East End. He got lost a few times, but finally found Happy Home Lodge, well hidden in the woods. He had trouble finding a spot to park because the parking lot was littered with black sedans, and FBI agents were all over the property. He saw Nicki outside, talking to an agent. No, she wasn’t talking to him, she was giving him her autograph! Oh, a star is reborn!
Seth hurried over to her but was blocked by a couple of lumberjacks. “Hold on, you can’t go any farther.”
“I’m an attorney, what the hell’s going on?”
“That is of a confidential nature.”
“Yeah, well, excuse me. That’s my fiancée over there.”
“Really. Wasn’t she in a couple of movies?”
The other lumberjack in black said, “I think I saw her doing a TV commercial. Yeah, now I remember. It was about ‘low T.’ She was luring the guy into the bedroom by undoing his tie. Then she winks at the camera and puts a finger to her lips.”
Seth made his way over to Nicki, who was all aglow from the attention. From humility to vanity in less time than it takes to knock off a bottle of gin. So much for treatment centers, thought Seth.
“What the hell’s going on around here? Honey, are you all right?”
“Oh, Seth, darling, you’re here! They didn’t even give me time to get my face on. Oh, I’m so glad to see you. I hate this place, even if they are going to name a sandwich after me.”
Everyone suddenly turned around as the director was taken away in handcuffs. He resisted the prodding by the agents, looked over at Nicki, then at Seth, then his head was pushed down and into an opened door.
“I’ve changed my mind,” yelled Nicki, “you can name the pastrami and Swiss on pita after me. Just no onions.”
“What’s going on around here?” Seth asked one of the heavies.
“You can read all about it on the news,” he offered and then said to Nicki, “Hey, didn’t you write a book about that thing you were involved with out in Hollywood? Skating, something?”
“ ‘I’m Skating as Fast as I Can.’ You read it?”
“Nah, my wife did. She thought it was pretty good.”
“Come on Nicki. Or are you arresting her too?”
“Don’t get wise with me buddy.”
“All right. If you’re not going to tell me what the hell’s going on, Nicki, get your things. I’ll wait out here.”
Seth went over to the car where the director was staring at his rehab with the triangle logo on the roof blowing in the wind. Seth took out a card and gave it to an agent. “Give this to him. He might need me.”
The agent hopped in and sped off, while the only other rehab guest stood on the lawn watching the show. Seth walked over to him.
“Do you work here?”
“No way, dear, I just support the place. My fifth time. Are you checking in?”
“No, I am not checking in,” said Seth in disbelief at the question.
“That’s okay, I used to think I didn’t need help. They didn’t understand. I’m not that bad. It’s just a phase. Talk about denial!”
“What are all the feds doing here?”
“I think I heard something about this place hiring illegals to work in the kitchen.”
“You been here five times?”
“Oh, that’s just here. In the winter I go down to Palmy. They have a divine rehab right on the beach. Is that your wife you’re picking up?”
“She’s the star of my movie.”
“Oh, Sweetie! I saw her in ‘Knife At The Top Of The Stairs.’ Scary, oh, but that was so long ago, and I’ve been afraid of landings ever since. I can’t live in anything that has a second floor.”
Nicki came out and Seth rushed to her, taking her overnight bag. She went over to the other resident and threw her arms around his neck.
“Oh, Ralph, Ralph, Ralph, I’m going to miss you. You will keep in touch. Oh, please, oh goody. Write to me in care of Seth Schmule, Attorney.”
“We’ll miss you too, darling. I’ll have to have peanut butter and jelly all by my lonesome wonesome. I’ll be out in two and a half months, unless they close the place. Good bye, Miss Nicki.”
Seth threw the bag into the rental and opened the door. Before getting in, Nicki blew Ralph a big kiss, which he caught with his hand and put in his pocket.
“Oh, darling, do you want to take a something for the road? I can make you a divine turkey sandwich.”
Seth shot Ralph a look that gave him chills. Then Seth got in the car, and as he roared off, put his hand in the air and gave Ralph the finger.
Richard Lawless is a resident of East Hampton. This is an excerpt from “Tess: A Stage Play With No Manners.”