Don hangs his head. That voice. That tone. Even his name is a reprimand. He could continue on; pretend he hadn’t heard. It would be a plausible lie. Median age at Broadclare, Senior Condo Living on the Lake, is about 75.
But no. That would only prolong the pain. Don instead relaxes his grip on his walker, straightens up, and turns his head, doing his best to maintain a neutral expression.
And there she is. Mrs. Barton. Madame President. The terror in skirt suits and pearls who rules the condo association and all those who fall under its jurisdiction with an iron fist.
At first glance, she seems harmless enough. A pleasant smile on her only modestly wrinkled face. Hair carefully coiffed and dyed taffy brown, framing her face in gentle waves. A handbag held mid-abdomen. Head tilted politely. If one stopped there, one might mistake her for someone’s harmless granny, perhaps on her way to a game of Hearts with Gussy and the rest of the gals.
However, one glance into those cold gray eyes is all that is required to dispel that notion. There, in that steely gaze not in the least bit tempered by her faux-friendly expression, is revealed that Machiavellian heart that beats a sturdy military march beneath the spandex of her eminently sensible wire-free seamless body blush Wonderbra.
“Mrs. Barton,” says Don, trying and failing to affect a casual yet not-to-be-moved tone.
“And how are you on this fine November day?”
A benign inquiry, one might think. Except, like an arctic wolf, she is now showing her teeth.
“Can’t complain.” He is gruff now, thinking this may dissuade her while simultaneously knowing, from bitter experience, that that’s just not possible.
“Oh good,” she lies.
They stare at each other for a good ten seconds. She’s leaving it to him to ask. It’s part of the game. Don is the first to look away.
“Um, is there anything in particular Mrs. Barton?”
“Well, yes. Now that you mention it, there is.”
He’s meant to think she’d rather not bring this up with him but his malfeasance, whatever it is this time, is making it so that she, ever wary of exercising her power, just has to approach him.
“Ok,” he says warily.
“I take it, Mr. Norland, that you took it upon yourself to familiarize yourself with the condo rulebook upon your arrival here last month?”
Ah Jesus. She’s asked him before. She’s referring to a document nearly a half inch think and spiral bound, delivered him that day he bought his unit. He has read it, as a matter of fact, in snippets at least out loud to his daughter and his son-in-law as part of a joke. There isn’t an aspect of life at Broadclare that isn’t minutely regulated. At the time, while the laughter was still subsiding, he tossed the book aside with the comment, “They can’t be fucking serious.”
He won’t let her catch him being anything less than scrupulous about being what she has referred to as a “conscientious and contributing member of our little Broadclare family.”
“Of course, Mrs. Barton.” He then makes a daring move, “But you already knew that, didn’t you?”
As soon as he says it, he knows he’s made a fatal mistake. Mrs. Barton’s eyes narrow and flash briefly – and he’ll swear to his daughter later that this is true – a shade of infernal red.
“Mr. Norland, are you accusing me of being disingenuous?”
Don swallows thickly. The bravado of the prior moment is completely gone, shriveled to dusty nothingness by the expression of hellfire in those stabbing eyes.
“No, of course not. Sorry. I misspoke.”
“Quite.” And she wriggles her shoulders and a look passes over her face the equivalent of a clicking tongue. “You do understand, Mr. Norland, that investigating and remedying infractions of the regulations is not something I particularly relish?”
Bullshit, thinks Don. Utter bullshit.
“No, of course not,” he says.
“Right then. Now that we are on the topic, we need to talk about your wreath.”
Don blinks. “My wreath?”
“Yes,” she moves past him while lifting her free hand and gesturing him to follow her.
Fearing upsetting her further, he follows in her wake. It’s a short distance to his front door. When they get there, Mrs. Barton pulls a measuring tape from her handbag.
“Alison,” she says sharply and from the shadows behind Don, steps Mrs. Barton’s second-in-command. Don is so startled that he flinches. Alison is a pale creature, so pale that Don momentarily mistakes her for a ghost. It’s a mistake others have made for not only is Alison so pale as to be nearly translucent, she moves without friction or noise thus giving the impression of hovering. She is ageless – but not in the complimentary sense one usually means when applying that word. She is freakishly indeterminate: possibly a teen, maybe even a child or failing that, a woman in her twilight years. Or dead.
And very short. She brushes past Don, the top of her colorless raked back hair passing at the level of his waist. Wordlessly, she accepts the tape measure from Mrs. Barton and applies it to the wreath, measuring its diameter.
“27 and three-quarter inches,” says Alison crisply. Then a smile, if it can be called that, as she turns to Mrs. Barton and adds, “6 and a quarter inch over regulation.”
Mrs. Barton bows toward Don, all smiles herself. This is the most delighted Don has ever seen her.
“Do you hear that, Mr. Norland? I’m afraid that your Christmas wreath is illegal.”
“Illegal?” asks Don. He is more dumbfounded than anything else.
“Yes, Mr. Norland. Illegal. I shall have to ask you to take this down immediately. Given its illegality, I recommend also disposing of it permanently as said wreath will remain of illegal dimensions so long as the rules remain as they are.”
Don glances at the wreath one more.
“My dead wife made this wreath,” he says lamely.
Mrs. Barton and Alison exchange a look. Mrs. Barton is now frowning as she glances back towards Don and tilts her head slightly to the side.
“I do hope, Mr. Norland, that you are not trying to manipulate your way out of this situation by playing on our heart strings?”
Don jaw drops open. Indignant, he manages to summon up the courage to take a step forward as he says, “Now just you wait a damn sec –”
But Mrs. Barton stops him by lifting a gloved index finger. She is looking past him, down the hall. She sniffs the air. Without looking at Don, she mumbles a quick ‘pardon me’ and walks down the hall part way. When she has gotten halfway to the elevator, she turns around to face them again.
“Can either of you hear that?” she asks.
Don is perplexed. Alison however takes a step forward and cups her ear.
“Faintly,” Alison reports. “But I can’t quite make out what it is.”
Mrs. Barton’s lips go thin. She straightens up, both hands now firmly grasping her handbag.
“Typing, Alison, typing. That’s what that is.”
Alison takes another step forward. “Yes,” she says eventually. “Now I hear it too.”
Mrs. Barton sniffs before calling out, “Alright. Very funny! Whoever is doing that will desist immediately.”
Don nearly laughs. “Don’t tell me typing is against the rules as well!”
Mrs. Barton frowns even more deeply. “Not typing per se. I think you’ll find Mr. Norland, that you and Alison and I have become characters in some person’s – oh Hell, I’ll just be blunt – some snickering, childish, no doubt unemployed and stoned person’s story.”
Don blinks. “Story?”
“Oh yes, Mr. Norland. I do believe someone new – possibly a relative of a new resident or a resident themselves – has been perusing our little book of eminently reasonable rules and has decided to write a satire.”
Don inhales deeply and scratches his chin. “Not sure if I follow you Mrs. Barton. Are you saying that we are in someone’s story?”
Mrs. Barton nods vigorously. “Yes, Mr. Norland. That is exactly what I am saying.” She turns her attention to ceiling and calls out loudly, “Well go on then! Make yourself known Mr. or Mrs. Comedian!”
Having been unexpectedly discovered, I find myself as unable to resist Mrs. Barton as Don. Sheepishly, I say, “Yes, hello. My name is Steph and my parents just moved to Broadclare a week ago.”
“Ha!” barks Mrs. Barton. “Then it is as I thought. Find the rules amusing, do you?”
“Didn’t read the whole thing through, did you?”
“Um, no. Just the first few pages. Stopped at that thing about the wreath and just had to write a story. I mean, c’mon. The thing is just ripe for satire.”
Mrs. Barton shoots Alison a look of unabashed triumph which Alison acknowledges with a grim little smile.
“Have you the book near you right now?” asks Mrs. Barton, a smile in her voice.
“Please turn to page 4.”
Mrs. Barton scratches her chin. Another knowing look at Alison. “Please, Steph, do read aloud item 1 on that page.”
“Um, ok. Says here that ‘The Board may establish policies and/or procedures for dealing with Rule Infractions committed by an Owner, Resident or his/her guests or worker, including, but not restricted to, suspension of the Resident’s Club Broadclare privileges.’”
“Right. Parents been enjoying the Club Broadclare amenities have they? The tennis courts, perhaps? The whirlpool? The sauna? The swimming pool? Perhaps the wood shop.”
“Well, yes. That’s a big part of the reason they moved here. It’s, ah, good to see them active.”
“Good. Now that we’ve established that, please turn to page 36.”
“Kay. Just a sec.”
“Read, if you will, the final item on that page.”
I quickly scan it. My breath catches in my throat but rather than invite more trouble I manage to choke out, “These rules are the result of careful consultation and instituted so that a) our Corporation is enabled to operate in a business-like manner and b) to make condominium life better for everyone. Anyone caught ridiculing the rules is considered guilty of an Infraction and therefore subject to whatever policies and/or procedures are established by the Board for dealing with Rule Infractions as previously stated in Item 1, page 4.”
Mrs. Barton clucks her tongue. “It would be such a shame, wouldn’t it, if your parents woke up one day to find their Club Broadclare privileges revoked?”
I search desperately for a loophole but can find none.
“What can I do then? I don’t want that to happen. They’d be really upset.”
“You will cease mocking the rules immediately. You will delete this abomination of a story. And if ever I find it published, you my dear, will be made to feel the full force of my authority. Do I make myself clear?”
“Good. Mr. Norland, you have an hour to dispose of that wreath. Come, Alison.”
And she is off, her heeled shoes sounding like staccato gunfire ricocheting off the faux marble.
Don and I watch her go, both of us torn between resenting and admiring the damn woman.