A Country for Old Men

By on Apr 22, 2018 in Featured, Fiction

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Part One

1

Every great wealth creation in America has sprouted from the opening of a new frontier. Those who were the first to understand that virgin territory was beckoning just beyond the familiar borders, and who had the ability to act on that understanding, have always been rewarded to a degree that could never occur in an established economy. Sometimes this frontier has been geographic, as in the westward expansion. Sometimes it has been a technological frontier, as in the development of the Internet. In Florida, the frontier was old age.

There was a time before people retired. Instead, they just died. Eventually, we reached a point of relative security and material comfort such that the luckiest among us could enjoy a few years of rest between their productive years and death. And then this became widespread enough to have a name, “retirement.” However, the metropolises of the northeast were not ready for masses of graying citizens, who could no longer bear the crowded streets and subways, or the long winters, of their lifelong homes. Meanwhile, a thousand miles to the south, ambitious developers were conducting experiments in draining swampland and creating self-contained communities of seniors. They could see that it would soon not be enough simply to retire — we would need to retire to somewhere. Their experiments would result in the creation of Florida — and, indeed, the last third of the human lifespan — as we know it.  It is in Florida that my story begins. And, of course, that is where it will end.

~~~

When I started law school, I fully expected I would spend my career in Manhattan. This seemed inevitable after I landed an internship with a decent firm after my second year of school. However, it was during that same year that I met Hayley, and even as I was trying to secure a post-graduation offer and scanning apartment listings, there was simultaneously a new gravitational force in my life pulling me southward. Hayley was finishing her master’s in environmental studies and wanted to get as far away from upstate New York as possible, and continually pressed me to look for jobs in her hometown. And that July, while most of my classmates remained up north, I was sitting in a convention hotel in Miami, wearing three layers on account of the air conditioning, staring at the first page of the Florida bar exam.

After we got engaged, we went back to campus for a few days to pack up our student apartments and say goodbye to whoever we knew that was still there. It was now early September, and it felt jarring to be leaving as everyone else was arriving – we were no longer part of the cycles of the school year. Within a week, we had moved into a condo in West Palm Beach, part of a new mixed-use development, Renaissance Center, which was one piece of a grand plan to revitalize the long-decaying downtown. The name of our building was the Piazza, so called because it overlooked the main square around which the development radiated, with a fountain in the center that contributed to the faux-Mediterranean ambience that I was already starting to take for granted. In the first ring around the square were high-end clothing shops, two wine bars, and new outposts of four upscale national chain restaurants, with luxury apartments and condominiums in the upper floors. Beyond that row were the anchor stores and casual dining.  In the final orbit, massive parking structures formed a virtual barricade against the outlying neighborhoods. Beyond the zone of urban renewal were rows of old, brightly colored shacks that looked as if they might blow away with the next storm. You wouldn’t go out there at night. Hayley thought all of this felt contrived and wanted to live by the beach, but I pushed hard for Renaissance Center as the closest approximation of the urban living I had expected before she convinced me to move here, and eventually she conceded.

I had landed a position with Donovan & Woods LLP, whose real estate transactions group was considered one of the best in the region, on par with even the top Miami firms.  I had no interest in real estate, but it was the only area for which the Florida firms were all hiring, so I did my best to fake an enthusiasm for the myriad ways of holding title in property and the intricacies of land use regulations, and the hiring partners were suitably impressed. They put me to work immediately, as there were several large deals in the office, in particular a sale of a light industrial park in Riviera Beach, which implicated some obscure environmental ordinances. I was somewhat of a novelty to them as a rookie from an out-of-state school, and they seemed to enjoy having me research the most arcane subjects imaginable.

Hayley, after a few tense weeks of searching, found a job with the Center for the Protection of Florida’s Resources, a well-funded environmental non-profit. She was surprised by how mundane much of the work was — she spent much of a typical day on fundraising, calling from lists of past donors that had been divided into numeric categories ranging from one to five, in increasing order of how likely they were to make future donations. On her first day, they had her call an entire list of “ones” and she didn’t raise a dime. Both of us were dealing with the shock of going from analyzing policy and institutions from the Olympian perspective of academia, to slogging through reams of minutiae.

Our social life was almost non-existent at the beginning. Even though Hayley had grown up here, she hadn’t actually lived here in years, and most of her friends from high school had relocated somewhere in the northeast. We didn’t have much in the way of neighbors – our building was only partially occupied, and the units on either side of us were empty. We were both working late most of the time, trying to make a good first impression at our jobs, usually going down to one of the pizza places or the grocery in Renaissance Center to pick up one of the pre-made dinners. Even though it was a massive change to go from living on a campus, walking distance from any number of friends and casual acquaintances, to living in a half-empty condo in a town where we barely knew anybody, it didn’t make us unhappy. We were enjoying each other’s company, and this felt like enough.

One Saturday night Hayley’s parents invited us to dinner at Jerry’s Deli, their favorite restaurant in Palm Beach Gardens. Hayley’s father had a successful ophthalmology practice in that town, and they lived in a gated community called Windsor Pointe.  The line was out the door when we arrived, and Dr. and Mrs. Teitelbaum were standing at the back of it.

“So! You made it up from West Palm.” Dr. Teitelbaum called out to us.

“The line moves quickly,” Mrs. Teitelbaum reassured us, even though we hadn’t registered any concern. I felt I was at least a half hour away from being hungry anyway.

“I like that part of town where you’re living,” Dr. Teitelbaum continued. “It’s nice what they’re trying to do there. Revitalize the place. They’ve had a couple projects like that since I’ve lived here, maybe this one will take off.”

Was he mocking my idea to live downtown? I didn’t like the thought of having stepped into one in a series of failed renewal projects. It occurred to me that we might be overpaying for our condo. I felt the need to justify myself. “It’s been terrific so far. The other night, Hayley and I went to this great pan-Asian place down the street.” I realize what an ass I sounded like, using the term “pan-Asian” in a real-life conversation, but I wanted them to know that I had something that they didn’t. I assumed they had some dimly-lit Chinese take-out places within driving distance of their house, but I knew with certainty there was no restaurant in Palm Beach Gardens that had California rolls, General Tso’s chicken, and Pad Thai on the same menu.

Full disclosure: I did not actually like said pan-Asian restaurant. Hayley knew this, agreed that it was mediocre, and didn’t call me on it in front of her parents, and even volunteered how much she liked the pot stickers.

After twenty minutes, we had barely made it inside. And then I saw something that astounded me. A short man entered the restaurant. He was at least in his seventies, but unlike all of the other seniors in the restaurant, he looked sharp.  He was wearing a black button-down shirt (in contrast to the garish yellows, oranges and greens ahead of us in line) and dark gray trousers. No glasses, no cane, no hearing aid, and no comb-over — he was secure in his baldness. And then, moments later, in walked his companion, a striking woman, probably in her fifties, a slightly haughty expression on her face, tall, smart but not overdressed. They walked past the line, were greeted obsequiously by the server, and disappeared to somewhere in the back of the restaurant.

The rest of the group must have noticed my stunned silence. “That’s Morty Silverberg,” Mrs. Teitelbaum whispered. “He’s the man who built this town.”

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About

Aaron Sokoloff is an attorney in San Diego. His short story "The Red Panda" was published in Wild Violet in July 2017. He was the editor of The Brown Jug humor magazine, and his ranking of the entire Pink Floyd discography was published in Nerve.com under his pen name, "Aaron Sokolof." He wasn't just trying to be controversial by listing Atom Heart Mother at #3; that is actually his opinion. He is currently working on a biography of his brother entitled Other Peoples' Cars: The Life and Times of G-ron Sokoloff.

3 Comments

  1. You are so very talented. You must have very talented and amazing parents.

  2. I know for a fact that he does.

  3. I knew it was a fungal ear infection.