Chapter Excerpt

Sometimes, two, three times a year, there would be card parties, or at least invitations to them. Notices by the security desk in the lobby, or left by the door at each condominium, or posted in the game or laundry rooms, or maybe nothing more than a poster up on the easel near the lifeguard's station on each of the half-dozen rooftop swimming pools in the condominium complex, announced that scheduled at such-and-so a time on so-and-such a Saturday night there was to be a gala, come one come all, sponsored by the residents of this or that building-"Good Neighbor Policy Night," "International Evening," "Hands Across the Panama Canal." Usually there would be a buffet supper, followed by coffee, followed by entertainment, followed by cards.

It wasn't that Bingo didn't have its partisans. Wasn't Bingo, like music, an international language? But that's just the point, isn't it, Dr. Wolitzer, chairman of the Towers' Entertainment Committee, argued: The idea of these evenings was to get to know one another, and there was no nutritional value in the conversation of Bingo. G forty-seven, O eleven, I twenty-four. What kind of exchange was that? It was empty of content.

"Cards is better?" Irv Brodky from Building Number Four might counter. "`I see your quarter and raise you a dime?' This is hardly the meaning of life either."

"It could be a bluff," the doctor responded. "A bold bluff answered by a bluff more timid. There's character here. There's room to maneuver."

Wolitzer had been a professional man, had two or three years to go before he'd have to step down as chairman of one of the complex's most influential committees. Brodky was nobody's fool; it would come as no surprise to him that if it came to a vote cards would win out over Bingo. Wolitzer was the glibber of the two and, though it hadn't passed Brodky's notice that the old doc might not himself be bluffing, Irv B. wasn't going to the wall on this one and didn't press the issue. Indeed, he backed down with considerable grace, taking it upon himself to suggest that the Entertainment Committee adopt a cards resolution by acclamation. Also, unless you were actually in it for the tsatske prizes-travel alarms, artificial plants, shadow boxes-practically everyone appreciated a good game of cards.

They did not, could not, know that the bloc of Colombian and Chilean and Venezuelan condominium owners along with the tiny contingent of Cubans couldn't have cared less for these evenings. They had enough friends already, muchas gracias very much, good northern neighbors to last a lifetime and, if truth be told, commanded a sufficiency of English to lord it over this group of retired and fixed-income refugees drifted south from places frequently even farther from Miami Beach-Cleveland, Chicago, New York, St. Louis, Detroit-than the homelands of the South American newcomers.

Actually, these ex-Chicagoans and Clevelanders, former New Yorkers, Detroiters, and erstwhile St. Louisans, were, for all the variety of their geographic, financial, political, and even educational backgrounds, pretty much cut from the same cloth. They were Americans. Really, in existential ways they might not even understand, except for the fine, almost nit-picking distinctions between the Democrat, Socialist, and Republican parties, they had no political backgrounds. They were Americans. If not always at ease, then almost always easy to get along with. They were reasonably affable, eager as Building Four's Irving Brodky to meet you halfway. They knew in their gut that life was short, and put up with it graciously.

They were Americans, cocks-of-the-walk, stereotypical down to the ground, and would have expressed astonishment to know that the very people to whom, no questions asked, they would have extended their hands in friendship during all those galas on all those international evenings, generally dismissed them as just so many babes in the wood. And who, though the South Americans lived among them and to whom they sometimes, if, say, a death in the family forced the surviving party, by dint of the sheer weight of loneliness, to list a condo in the Miami Herald as For Sale by Owner (this would have been during the flush times, from the late sixties through the mid-to late seventies, when the building boom was still on, when it was still a seller's market), would have paid fabulous fees, handsome key money, vigorish, baksheesh that the Southern Hemispherians accepted as the cost of doing business and the surviving parties looked on as the very act of business itself, something maybe even a little sacred and holy not about profit per se but almost about the idea of appreciation, contemptuous of them not so much because they were giving far above par but because these naive, bereft Americans never suspected that their good neighbors to the south already knew it, expected it, may actually have been surprised or even a little disappointed that they hadn't been asked to buy them out at still dearer, more exorbitant prices. Despising them, too, perhaps, for the failure of their imaginations, blind not only to the source of the money with which they were so free but also to the reasons they were so free with it. (Granted, they were Americans, but weren't they Jews, too?) It never seemed to occur to the Americans that some complicated piece of history was happening here, that certain seeds were being planted, certain stakes claimed-that certain bets were being hedged. (Didn't they ever get past the Wednesday Food Section in the newspapers, didn't they read beyond the Winn-Dixie coupons? The pot was being stirred in El Salvador. Nicaragua was starting to simmer. Not fifteen miles from where they stood the Contras were already setting up. In Peru, the Shining Path was in place. Everywhere, the hemisphere seethed along all its awful fault lines, along politics' ancient tectonic plates, meaningless to them as the Spanish language.) As if safe harbor were an alien concept to them, diaspora, exodus, the notion of plans.

They'd been around the block, Jews had, and, to hear the world tell it, had a reputation for being complicated and devious as Jesuits. Why, then, did they overlook in others what they so blithely practiced among themselves-the luxury of a private agenda? Were they so very arrogant that, while completely caught up in their own shrewd plots, they declined to believe in the schemes of others? Unless of course their bark was so much worse than their bite. Unless of course they were all hype and fury and didn't deserve their notoriety as a people who bore a grudge. Even so, the Venezuelans and Chileans, Cubans and Colombians did not much trust (to say nothing of enjoy) such innocent, credulous souls. Why, there were a dozen unexplored reasons the South Americans might be interested in buying up modest, middle-class properties like those to be acquired in the Towers. As long ago as 1959, when Fidel Castro first made his revolution a couple of hundred or so miles from Miami, it should have been clear to anyone that the next wave of immigration would be from the south. These Chileans and Colombians, Cubans and Venezuelans were merely advance men, outposts, an expeditionary force. A party (in a tradition that went back five hundred years) of explorers. Testers of the waters who would one day accomplish with drugs what their proud Spanish forebears had accomplished with plunder.

They were only preparing the way.

(And another thing. It did not apparently register with the old-timers that there was, on average, probably a ten- or fifteen-year difference in their ages, advantage South America. Could they fail to project that it wasn't the survivors who sold their condos to the Latin Americans who would ultimately survive? Something was happening in Miami and Miami Beach, up and down the south coast of Florida, that went unmarked on the Jews' social calendars. It was history.)

But it wasn't just the queer, naive provincialism of the natives that kept most of the Latin Americans away from those Good Neighbor Policy, International Evening, and Hands Across the Panama Canal galas. Much of the nasty secret lay in the naïveté itself. They were-the Latinos-not only a proud people but a stylish, almost gaudy one. The high heels of the women, the wide, double-breasted, custom suits of the men, lent them a sexy, perky, tango air; sent unmixed signals of something like risk and danger that sailed right over the Jews' heads.

So not very many South Americans ever actually saw the "Hispanic" motifs set up in the game rooms by the Committee on Decorations on these poorly attended, floating occasions that traveled from Building One to Building Six, completing on a maybe semiannual or triquarterly basis a circuit of the six buildings every two or three years, depending. The transmuted, phantasmagorical visions, themes, and dreamscapes of a South America that never was mounted on the tarter-up walls of the game rooms in brightly colored crepe- and construction-paper cutouts of bullfights, sombreros, mariachi street bands, and, here and there, rough approximations of piñatas suspended from the ceiling like a kind of straw fruit. All this brought back and made known to the vast majority that had declined to see these wonders for themselves.

"I tell you," Hector Camerando told Jaime Guttierez, "these people get their idea of what anything south of Texas looks like out of bad movies. It's all cantinas and old Mexico to them, sleeping peasants sprawled out under the shade of their hats."

"Ay, ícaramba!" Jaime said flatly.

"There's no stopping them," Hector reported to Guttierez the following year. "You should have seen it, Jaime. The door prize was a lamp that grew out of the back of a burro. Come with me next time."

"I don' need no stinkin' door prize."

But one time, when the gala was hosted by Building Two, Camerando's building, several of the resident Latinos in the Towers complex-Carlos and Rita Olvero, Enrique Frache, Oliver Gutterman, Ricardo Llossas, Elaine Munez, along with Carmen and Tommy Auveristas, Vittorio Cervantes, and Jaime Guttierez himself-their curiosity having been piqued by Hector Camerando's almost Marco Polo-like accounts of these evenings, joined Hector to see for themselves what these galas were all about.

When Guttierez arrived in the game room a handful of his compatriots were already there. He picked up his paper plate, napkin, plastic utensils, and buffet supper and struck out to find where Hector Camerando was sitting. Hector, a veteran of these affairs, spotted him and rose in place at his table to signal his location, but just as Jaime saw him he was stopped by a woman who put her hand on his arm, jiggling the plates he carried and almost causing him to spill them to the floor. She invited him to join her party.

"I see my friend," Jaime Guttierez said.

"So," she said, "if you see your friend he's your friend and you already know him so you don't have to sit with him. Here. Sit by us."

She was actually taking the plates and setup out of his hands and arranging them on the table.

"You look familiar to me. Are you from Building One? They'll come and pour, you don't have to get coffee. Dorothy, you know this man, don't you? I think he's from Building One."

"Three," Guttierez said.

"A very nice building. Three is a very nice building."

"Aren't they all the same?"

"Yes, but Three is as nice as any of them. You get a nice view from Three."

"I'm just looking around," Guttierez said. "The decorations. Who makes them?"

"Oh, thank you," said the woman, "thank you very much. I'll tell my friends on the Decorations Committee. They'll be so pleased. This is just another example of your maintenance dollars at work."

The woman's name was Rose Blitzer. She was originally from Baltimore and had moved south in 1974 with her husband, Max. Rose and Max had a three-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath, full kitchen, living/dining-room area with a screened-in California room. Max had been the manager of Baltimore's largest hardware store and had a guaranteed three-quarters point participation in net profits before his stroke in 1971 from which, thank God, he was now fully recovered except for a wide grin that was permanently fixed into his face like a brand.

"People don't take me seriously," Max said. "Even when I shout and call them names."

Giving brief, lightning summaries of their situations and accomplishments, she introduced Guttierez to the others at the table. It was astonishing to Jaime how much information the woman managed to convey about the people and even the various political factions in the Towers. Within minutes, for example, he learned about the rift between Building One (not, despite its name, the first to go up but only the first where ground had been broken) and Building Five (which enjoyed certain easements in One's parking garage). He was given to understand, though he didn't, that Building Number Two was "a sleeping giant." She sketched an overview of the general health of some of the people at their own and nearby tables.

Jaime clucked his tongue sympathetically. "No, you don't understand," Mrs. Blitzer said. "Those people are survivors. What do they say these days? `They paid their dues.' They came through their procedures and chemotherapies; they spit in their doctors' eyes who gave them only months to live. They laughed up their sleeves."

And she even filled him in on who had the big money. "The little guy over there? He could buy and sell all of us, can't he, Max?"

"I don't dare go to funerals, they think I'm laughing," Max said.

A woman in an apron came by. She held out two pots of coffee-decaf and regular.

"You forgot sugar," one of the women at the table said.

"Ida, she's got her hands full. Don't bother her, take Sweet `n Low. Look, there's Equal."

"I can't digest sugar substitutes without a nondairy creamer."

"Really?" another woman said. "I never heard such a thing. Have you, Burt?"

"Nothing surprises me anymore. It's all equally fantastic."

"How about you, Mr. Guttierez? She wants to know if you want some coffee."

"I better get back to my friend," Jaime said. "He expected me to sit with him."

"Oh, he's very good looking," Rose Blitzer said.

"He has a nice smile," said Max.

"She thinks you're good looking," Guttierez told Hector Camerando.

"Olé."

They were gentlemen. They were from South America. They lived according to a strict code of honor. It would never have occurred to the one to question the word of the other.

So despite the commanding two- or three-gala advantage Hector Camerando held over Jaime Guttierez, the gentleman from Building Three, armed with the bits of information Rose Blitzer had provided him, ate the gentleman of the host building alive that evening in a fast game of human poker.

Continue...

Excerpted from Mrs. TED BLISS by STANLEY ELKIN Copyright © 1995 by Stanley Elkin
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.