Zoe drives a cab in Miami: Zippity Cab is her fifty-year-old pink Cadillac Sedan Deville that she’s kept in tiptop shape until the day that it’s battered by Tootsie, the elderly mother of a Miami Beach commissioner, Hal, who is having career problems of his own. The vehicular conflict leads to a resolution of sorts when Hal hires Zoe as a driver for his father, Max, a once-powerful developer whose driver’s license has been revoked. Max discovers that his most famous hotel, the legendary Louis Quinze, will be demolished and replaced by a glitzy new condo, and that his son Hal had a role in this.
Max’s decision to salvage his legacy exposes the mid-life delusions of Zoe and Hal. Unhappily on the cusp of fifty, Zoe ditches her once-beloved but now-mangled Caddy for a flashy new BMW. Fifty-something Hal, desperate to regain his place in a political and social climate that has left him behind, sells his soul to a developer and chases youth in the form of Staci, a comely Cuban who fears it’s too late to achieve her own dream of Playboy fame. Each is at a turning point in life, trying to deal with change through the often-mindless pursuit of irrational desires, driven to recoup some part of their lives that may be gone forever—and may never have existed at all.
Excerpts: SHIFTING GEARS
(This one takes place in Epicure, a deli on Miami Beach)
“Eighty-three. Eighty-three.” A guy with a greasy comb-over and high-waisted Dockers waves his ticket. After careful deliberation, he orders the shrimp with pasta salad. He changes his mind in favor of the bean and corn salad, then questions the source of the poultry that gave their lives for the chicken salad. When he debates regular tuna salad versus the low-fat version and asks for a taste of each, Zoe can’t take it anymore.
“Just pick something, doofus,” she mutters.
“What?” Comb-over halts in mid-taste, tiny plastic spoon clenched between tuna-clogged teeth. “You got a problem, lady?”
“You’re the one with the problem,” she says. “Make up your mind. You’re not picking out a ring at Tiffany’s. It’s food.”
“Don’t rush me. I’m not going to be rushed. You’re in a hurry, go to Burger King.” He drops the used spoon into the little bucket on the counter and turns to the deli guy. “I think I’d like to taste the lobster salad.”
Before Comb-over can get the spoon to his lips, Zoe grabs it and shoves it into her mouth. “It’s yummy,” she pronounces. “Now get a pound of it and move your sorry butt out of here.”
“Did you see that?” Comb-over yells at the waiting crowd. “She ate my taste.”
The crowd shuffles uneasily, studying their number stubs with renewed interest.
“Sir,” says the deli guy, an experienced hand at counter-induced altercations, “please place your order so we can move on.”
Comb-over glares at Zoe, turns to the deli meister and in a cold and level voice says, “Give me a taste of lobster salad.”
“Okay, that’s it,” Zoe says, wheeling around. “Come on, Max, we’re outta here.”
But Max is gone. And so is her purse.
(Another excerpt: Watching kiteboarders on the ocean)
He can see them from his balcony, tethered to brightly colored kites that arc against the sky like candy wrappers caught by the wind, lithe surfers balancing on boards that skip the waves at high speed, knees bobbling over frothing waves like skiers over bumps. Graceful as Baryshnikov, flexible as Gumby, focused as a kid thumbing a video game, the kiteboarders leap, spin, and cartwheel beneath the billowing U of their kites. Hal’s body flexes in phantom harmony with theirs, pantomiming the careless freedom he once had when all that mattered was the next move.
Once upon a time he was lithe and muscular, too, before his broad shoulders sank, before his carved legs became stringy, before he lost his nerve. When did that happen? When did the years settle over him like a fog, obscuring all those things he thought he was and would be, leaving him high up here on his balcony watching kiteboarders skim the whitecapped waves as lightly as a cat laps cream?
(Still another excerpt)
“You need the big tow truck,” he says. “It’s got a elevator bed that goes up and down. Maybe it can lift your car from the front. Only,” he adds, studying the height of the wall, “I dunno if it’ll go that high.”
A half hour later, she finds out. It doesn’t go that high. It rises to six inches below the front of the car, and that’s as far as it goes. The new tow truck driver sees this as a challenge. He considers borrowing a nearby cement block that is imbedded with a “no parking” sign to increase the range of the bed. Tootsie is numb by now. She doesn’t care what he does. She walks across the street and uses the bathroom in the gas station. Max, judging from the odor that has arisen within the confines of the car over the past hour and a half, is no longer concerned about his urination situation. He has, however, regained his energy enough to share his thoughts with her upon her return:
“I knew it. I knew it,” he says. “Look what happens when I let you drive. If I miss my appointment, I’ll have to wait another three weeks to get him to take a look at this thing.” He pets the malformation with a knobby forefinger. “What do you care? It’s just a nose to you, but to me, it’s my nose.” He slumps into a cross-armed knot behind the seat belt. “I shoulda driven. I’m a good driver. I passed that test. I can prove it.”
Tootsie sees the bed of the tow truck slowly elevate beneath the front of the car. The cement block is on top of it. It rises until it hits the chassis with a crunch. “I think we got it,” the tow truck driver yells.
“The test guy said I didn’t stop at the stop sign,” Max says. “I didn’t need to stop, I told him. I was going very slowly.” (this is an actual quote from my father)
The car shudders, creaks and moans as its front end lifts away from the ledge, tipping Tootsie and Max back in their seats. “Reverse, reverse,” the truck driver yells, and Tootsie throws the car into gear.
“I’ve been driving for 70 years. How many people can say that?” Max asks.
“Gun it!” yells the truck driver.
The car jerks, tossing them like crash test dummies. The front drops with a thud onto its wheels and the car rolls back several yards. Heart leaping, Tootsie stomps on the brake. The tow truck driver jumps down from his cab and gives her a thumbs-up.
(And one more: the Louis Quinze (i.e. the Fontainebleau) Hotel’s estate sale before it’s imploded)
“See that stairway?” Max points across the lobby. “Lemme show you something.” Zoe has to hustle to keep up with him now as he churns in its direction, dodging blonde furniture, television sets and several determined customers who shove him right back when he pushes them aside.
They arrive at the foot of the grand, gilded double staircase to find it roped off and guarded by a bored security guard who is dabbing away with a glue pen at an elaborately decorated inch-long fake fingernail. “Can’t go up, honey,” she says when he tries to unhook the velvet rope. “It’s off limits.”
“Whaddaya mean, off limits?” Max protests. “We just want to go up and take a look.”
“No can do,” she says, examining her nail work. “Can’t allow anybody up the stairs. Insurance, you know.”
“Insurance? It’s a stairway.” He turns to Zoe. “She ruined the surprise. It’s famous. It’s the Stairway to Nowhere. You go up, you look around, you go down again. The mink ladies liked to make a grand entrance that way.” He grabs the velvet rope again. “Let me show you.”
“Hey!” the guard says. “Don’t touch that rope.”
Max unhooks the rope; the guard grabs it. It’s a velvet rope tug-of-war with Max on the losing end until…
“Shit!” The guard releases the rope and drops to her knees. “My nail!” she says, groping the carpet frantically. Max makes his move. He scrambles up the stairway, tripping dangerously over his baggy pants in his getaway. He reaches the top, Zoe close behind. Below them, the guard is sending for the troops on her two-way radio.
Max surveys the lobby from his altitude. Zoe imagines that he’s seeing–not the spring-sprung sofas; the $72 TVs; the upended coffee tables, legs in the air like dead cats—but elegant women in furs, beehive hairdos braided like challas, and deep-tanned, Dep-gelled men in white dinner jackets. She can almost see him as he was in the photo she’s seen in the Wolfe’s condo, taken at a table in the nightclub of the Louis Quinze the night it opened: a dapper, dark-haired dandy. Now, fifty years later, Max Wolfe, the Hotel King, spreads his arms, Pope-like, and embraces the room of his memory.
(Last excerpt, I promise. On the Miami Beach boardwalk)
It’s Saturday, a cool and sunny day, crisp as a new box of matzah. Hal feels alive for the first time in weeks, every sense tingling with the novelty of being in a place he had always taken for granted. Joggers, power walkers, and leisurely strollers pass him in sound bites: not just English in all its accented forms, but a tangle of languages– Spanish, French, Hebrew, Japanese, German, Yiddish, Swedish, something Eastern European with that guttural ch sound he finally mastered after years of Hebrew school. Their voices are woven into a sound track of crashing surf, boom box music, the snuffle of wind through dune grass. A wave of guilt washes over Hal when he hears the screech of building cranes and the bang of falling concrete as another old hotel is gutted to make way for the new, but his guilt subsides in the clean fresh air.
There’s a section I’ll skip, then:
Hal feels as if he’s been released from prison into a cartoon world sculpted from flesh. When’s the last time he saw so much flesh? Tattoo’ed, pierced, wrinkled, waxed, furry, burned, pasty, veined, scarred, pimply, taut, stretch-marked, navel-ringed, liposuctioned flesh.