Lunchtime at Ocean’s Seafood—I’m eating a fried grouper sandwich and grappling with a major philosophical dilemma.
Barbara Pickering sits across the table from me. As usual, she is in tune with my innermost thoughts and desires.
“You are already contemplating a piece of the key lime pie, aren’t you?” she says.
“Depends on what you mean by already.”
“I mean, you are one bite into your rather large sandwich, there remains a rather small mountain of French fries to be consumed, plus that cupful of coleslaw, and yet there you are thinking about ordering the pie . . . already.”
“It’s good pie,” I say. “They mix crushed peanuts with graham crackers for the crust. They use real lime juice in the filling, not the bottled stuff. Pie like that, there’s a lot to contemplate.”
“I can read you like a book, Chasteen.”
“Oh, really?” I put down my sandwich, lean across the table, and dial up my inner Clooney. “So what are you reading right now?”
Barbara feigns concentration, then surprise. She looks pretty cute doing it.
“Why you filthy, filthy man.”
“Damn, you’re good.”
Barbara’s cell phone rings. She looks at the caller ID.
“Oh my, it’s Aunt Trula.”
“The one in Bermuda?”
“The one who is richer than God?”
She nods again.
“Sorry, but I better take it.”
No objection from me. I finish off the coleslaw while Barbara exchanges pleasantries with Aunt Trula.
“Why no, Titi, I haven’t forgotten, it’s your seventieth, isn’t it? . . . Oh? That sounds lovely, just lovely . . . We’d be delighted . . .”
The two of them carry on. I eat my sandwich and take in the view outside.
Truth be told, the view from Ocean’s is lousy. The Atlantic is nearly a mile away and the windows open on A-1-A as it slithers through Minorca Beach before dead-ending at Coronado National Seashore.
Just down the street from Ocean’s sits a miniature golf course with a humongous pink plaster of paris gorilla as its centerpiece. Next to the golf course there’s a strip mall anchored at one end by a chiropractor’s office and at the other end by the Mane Event, which despite its name is a decent enough place to get a haircut.
In between you’ll find Blue Cat Surf Shop, Barr’s Bait and Tackle, the Wine Warehouse, and not one, but two real estate offices. This is, after all, Florida. By state law, the percentage of Realtors must always be at a level three times that of any other so-called profession and there’s not nearly enough room to store them all.
I finish the grouper sandwich and catch the eye of the curly-haired woman, Kim, who is working behind the counter. I mime my desperate need for pie and she delivers it.
Just as I am savoring the first bite, I hear Barbara say: “That sounds like a wonderful idea. I’m sure Zack can help you out. He’s sitting right here.”
Barbara hands me the phone. I look at it. Then I take another bite of the pie.
“Aunt Trula wants to speak with you.”
“That would be rude,” I say. “To the pie.”
Barbara covers the phone with her hand.
“She’s getting ready to celebrate her seventieth birthday,” she whispers.
“We’ll send flowers.”
“It’s not until April. She wants me to go early and help with the party.”
“She wants you to go, too. She has a business proposition for you. She has offered to buy our tickets.”
“She doesn’t even know me.”
“I’ve told her all about you.”
“Including the part about how I can stand by the bed naked and flex my butt in time with my dazzling a cappella rendition of ‘Chantilly Lace’?”
Barbara gives me that look she can give. She sticks out the phone. I take it.
“Hello there,” I say.
I think I sound fairly chipper, at least for someone who has just been unwillingly separated from his dessert.
“Hello, Mr. Chasteen. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
We go on like that for a bit. And I manage to nibble at the pie without making loud swinish noises.
Aunt Trula speaks in a British accent. She sounds a lot like Barbara. Understandable. She is the younger sister of Barbara’s mother. And ever since Barbara’s mother passed away a few years ago, Barbara and Aunt Trula have become particularly close.
“I understand that you are a horticulturist, Mr. Chasteen.”
“Nope, I just raise palm trees.”
There is a brief silence while I suppose that Aunt Trula is considering whether she really wants to continue a conversation with someone who is more dirt farmer than title-holding functionary.
I take the opportunity to grab another bite of pie. And to consider Dorothy Parker. You can lead a whore to culture, but you can’t make her . . .
“Think you can help me with a little landscaping project that I have in mind?” Aunt Trula says.
“If one wished to plant one’s backyard with palm trees that made a statement, then which palm trees would one choose?”
“Depends on what statement one was trying to make.”
“That one had lived for seventy years and wished to celebrate it,” says Aunt Trula. “Majesty, splendor, that sort of thing.”
No self-esteem issues for her.
“Then I’d say you should go with Bismarckia nobilis. Better known as a Bismarck.”
“Like that German chap, the one with the mustache, the first chancellor or whatever he was.”
“Like him exactly. Otto von Bismarck. Had lots of things named after him, including a battleship that got sunk and a city in North Dakota. I think he’d be proudest of the palm trees.”
“Tell me about them.”
“Broad silvery fronds that fan out like a crown. Grow to about eighty feet tall. Real showstoppers.”
“Do you raise Bismarck palms, Mr. Chasteen?”
“Matter of fact, I do. There’s a large stand of them at the nursery, several dozen. My grandfather brought back the seed pods from Madagascar and planted them years ago, before I was even born. They’re nearly full-grown. Just like me.”
Another pause on Aunt Trula’s end. She’s a Brit. You’d think she’d appreciate my brilliant dry humor.
“Very well then,” she says. “I would like eight of your very best Bismarcks delivered to me here in Bermuda—one for each of the decades in which I have lived. And one more for the decade yet ahead of me.”
“Why cut yourself short? You might hit ninety. Or a hundred.”
“I don’t intend to,” she says.
Before I can come up with a suitable response, Aunt Trula says: “So how much?”
“Well, it’s not quite that simple,” I say.
As palm trees go, Bismarcks are fairly cold hardy. So I’m not worried about their surviving winters in Bermuda, which, even though it is six hundred miles off the coast of North Carolina, enjoys the blessings of the Gulf Stream and gets no cooler than Minorca Beach.
Bismarcks are salt tolerant, so stiff sea breezes aren’t a problem. And they’re adaptable to a wide range of soil, so given a suitable pH range they can thrive in Bermuda’s limestone marl.
The trouble comes with transplanting. Bismarcks don’t take kindly to it. Once established somewhere, they prefer to stay put. Like too many people I know.
I spend several minutes explaining the downside to Aunt Trula.
“No buts, Mr. Chasteen. I want those Bismarcks. And I want them planted in my backyard in time for my party in April. How much?”
I come up with a price in my head. Then I double it. Because I don’t really want to dig up eight specimen-quality Bismarck palms and ship them on a freighter to Bermuda. Especially if they are just going to die once they get there.
I tell Aunt Trula what it will cost her. It is hard to get the number out of my mouth without laughing.
“Splendid, Mr. Chasteen,” says Aunt Trula. “What say I add another fifty percent for all your trouble?”
“Deal,” I say.
But like always, I’ve underestimated the trouble part. And hauling palms to Bermuda is only the start of it.
Copyright © 2007 by Bob Morris. All rights reserved.