The Age of Chatterbox
Mr. Chatterbox often reflected that he was aging beautifully. He embraced the whole process. It was a natural and beautiful thing, like watching children grow. And oh, the wisdom it produced. You can’t really feel totally evolved until you are past the half century mark, or in Mr. Chatterbox’s case, well past it.
And fortunately these days, particularly in Sarasota, there were all sorts of ways to slow down the aging process. Indeed, most of the residents did not appear to age past 50; they got there and then magically stopped, decaying only slightly until they were finally called to their reward. All you needed, really, was careful diet and exercise—plus the ministrations of the anti-aging community. And Mr. Chatterbox’s favorite ministrations were those performed at the day spa he went to, a discreet little place tucked away in Burns Court and evocatively titled Mer de.
It was so convenient to be able to get everything done at the same place. They offered all sort of skin treatment and non-invasive facelifts and a complete line of beauty services, plus personalized Pilates and soon—if those rumors were true—high colonics.
On Wednesdays, a man named “Dr. Smith” came in and administered Botox. Mr. Chatterbox had just had his injection and was enjoying his comforting “Botox buzz” when he barely but quite distinctly heard his name being mentioned. It seemed to be coming from just over the partition.
“Mr. Chatterbox?” a woman said. “Who’s he?”
“He writes for Sarasota Magazine.”
“Oh, yeah. Him. But, like, isn’t he real old?”
Mr. Chatterbox’s heart froze.
“Old? He’s totally ancient.”
“Is he here?”
“Oh, he’s always here. He’s their biggest customer. They dye his hair.”
They both burst into peals of laughter. What was this? Some nightmare he’d stumbled into?
“And you know what I heard?”
“They did demographic studies and it turns out that young people hate him. In fact, they hate him so much that the magazine has decided to fire him.”
Mr. Chatterbox didn’t hear the rest. A strange ringing filled his ears. What a horrible piece of gossip. Or was it? It certainly would explain the strange things that had been happening lately. The meetings he wasn’t told about. That accusation about “stealing” office supplies. And that unfortunate “misunderstanding” about his seat on the bus coming back from the company picnic in Immokalee, when he was forced to beg a ride with a couple from Michigan who saw him wandering along the highway.
He had feared it might be incipient Alzheimer’s. Now he knew it was even worse—they were trying to fire him!
As soon as his manicure dried he fled the day spa and hurried over to the Sarasota Magazine office. His mind was filled with many thoughts as he huffed and puffed his way across the street. The irony was that young people adored him. He spoke to them at their level. Why, just several years ago he had befriended a young person who complimented him on his column, and the two of them had become great friends. It was too bad that the young person then stole $250 in cash and a pair of gold cufflinks. But the point is—Mr. Chatterbox knew the young.
He burst into the editor’s office. Pam Daniel was sitting at her desk, leafing through a copy of Vogue and sighing sadly.
“So!” Mr. Chatterbox screamed. “I’m onto your little scheme.”
She looked at him wearily. “What now?”
“You fire me and you’re going to be hit with the biggest age discrimination suit you ever saw! I’m going to drag your name all over the front page of the Herald-Tribune. Well, maybe not the Herald-Tribune. They no longer have a front page. But all the others.”
“Now, Chatty, please . . .”
“And don’t call me Chatty. You should teach yourself some manners. Without me there wouldn’t be any Sarasota Magazine.”
“I can go anywhere in town and get a job. I can go to the Herald-Tribune. Well, maybe not the Herald-Tribune. But all the others. SRQ! They’re always putting out feelers. They’d hire me in a minute.”
“I will not calm down. You can’t fire me with all you little trickery, because I’m too smart. I quit!”
“Is that a promise?”
That night, around 10 p.m., Mr. Chatterbox finally calmed down. And as he did so he realized he had blundered. There was no offer from SRQ. That was all bluff. They’d already turned him down three times. The last time Wes Roberts was particularly kind, though, and even pressed $20 into his hand.
And his new condo. How could he afford it without an income? 1350 Main, and he bought at the top of the market. Now he was going broke rapidly. He owed money all over town. Morton’s. The Cork Shop. Michael’s Wine Cellar. ABC Liquors. Why, just yesterday Steve Haber from G. Fried called. He wanted his carpet back.
The doorbell rang. It was his neighbor from across the hall, photographer Barbara Banks. He’d known Barbara for years. She was the only one who truly understood him, and she often dropped by late at night to try and get back some of the money he owed her.
How Mr. Chatterbox admired Barbara. No longer a spring chicken, she had somehow maintained the admiration of the young. With her smart capri pants and her wind-tousled mane, she was everything he wished he could be.
Barbara lounged on his sectional as he told her what had happened.
“You’ve got a problem,” she agreed.
“What am I going to do?”
“First of all, pull yourself together. Quit crying and get up off the floor. You’ve got to get some kind of job. Immediately.”
“Like what? Delivering pizza? I can’t do that. It’s undignified, and besides I no longer drive after dark.”
“Maybe Sally Schule needs a perfume spritzer at Saks. Maybe Phil Mancini needs a catering waiter.”
“Me serving food to everybody in Sarasota? To the people I write about? Warming up Marjorie North’s decaf? Bringing Annette Scherman some more s’mores? I don’t think so.”
We both thought hard for a moment.
“You could sell real estate. I hear a lot of jobs are open.”
“Please. I need income.”
Then Barbara clapped her hands. “I know. Selena Van Tisdale is looking for an assistant.”
Mr. Chatterbox’s eyes lit up. Selena Van Tisdale. She was the golden girl of the moment. Her name was on everybody’s lips. She had her own online realty firm. She was on the museum board. She was on the list of Sarasota’s 100 Most Powerful People. And she was still in her 20s. They called her the female Matt Orr.
So what if it was just an assistant job. Why, once he got his foot in the door . . . He could escort her to parties. People would fawn over him, just to get access. And the opportunities for pilfering the petty cash must be unlimited. Maybe . . . just maybe . . . he could talk her into buying Scene Magazine. Then he’d have his old column back again.
“Oh, please,” he begged Barbara. “Call her. Call her.”
Selena Van Tisdale lived in the penthouse at 1350 Main. On the top floor the ceilings were much higher and the units much larger. Mr. Chatterbox saw unit No. 1 as soon as he stepped off the elevator.
He rang the bell and waited. Nothing happened. Presently he rang again. At this moment the door opened.
“Don’t ring twice,” said a very angry young woman. “What do you want?”
“Is Selena in?”
“Do you mean Miss Van Tisdale?”
“I’m sorry. . . I think she’s expecting me.”
“Nonsense. I’m Miss Van Tisdale,” she said, and she shut the door.
Mr. Chatterbox rang again.
“Yes?” said Miss Van Tisdale, appearing instantly. “Oh, it’s you. Are you here about the vacuum cleaner?”
“Well, I can’t see you right now. I’m expecting some old geezer who wants to work for me.”
“But I want to work for you.”
“What an extraordinary coincidence. Well, I suppose I can talk to you after I talk to him. Come in and wait.”
Mr. Chatterbox followed Selena into the living room. All of Sarasota lay spread out before him—the magnificent condos of downtown, many in foreclosure, the vacant lots, the giant tooth, the traffic jam, the flotilla of homeless people who lived on the bay. He flinched as a seagull flew into the plate glass window and fell to the terrace, dead.
“That’s another one of your duties,” Selena said. “Clean up all the dead seagulls.”
Mr. Chatterbox studied his possible new employer. She was everything you hated in a young person. Her face was taut and unlined. Her hair was golden and probably extended, and when she flung it around for emphasis it moved like a whip. Her clothes, though casual in the extreme, were the most expensive that Snitch had to offer. As he sat there she made several calls on her cell phone and ate yogurt. She ignored him totally.
I need this job, Mr. Chatterbox kept repeating to himself. I need this job.
There were calls to and from Andrew and Amie and Tom and Liesl. And Marjorie and Margaret and Veronica and Drayton. And Unni and Ulla and the Bobs. Finally she got up for more yogurt and the phone rang again. “Get that,” she yelled.
“Van Tisdale residence,” Mr. Chatterbox said.
“Selena?” The voice was British and unmistakable. “You sound so girlish all of a sudden.”
“It’s me, Cliff. Mr. Chatterbox.”
Selena came on the line. “That’s all right. I’ll take it.”
Mr. Chatterbox made some clicking sounds with his bridgework and pretended he had hung up.
“Oh, Cliff, don’t be too mad at me. But I’m thinking of hiring this other guy.”
“Why? I thought we had a deal.”
“You don’t need another job, Cliff. You have too many already. The charity shows and the auctions and the speeches and the acting roles and the radio and the magazine articles. They’re taking you away from your true passion in life, Cliff. Away from the one thing Cliff Roles was born to do—translate legal documents into German.”
“But why him?”
“I feel sorry for him. He reminds me of my grandfather. I mean my great- grandfather.”
It doesn’t matter how you get the job, Mr. Chatterbox decided. The important thing is that once you get it, you run with it. In fact, he wanted it so badly that he suggested a deal with Selena—he would work for one week for free, as a sort of trial period. After that week they would both review his performance and then decide on salary.
Mr. Chatterbox had heard what fabulous salaries young people made. Why, Pam Daniel’s son made a million dollars a year, according to his mother, and he sent her a check every month to help out with her medication and bingo. Anything was better than what he was making now—$18,000 a year and no benefits. True, he was eligible to participate in the All Media Foodbank Program, whereby employees of local media, like the Herald-Tribune, were allowed to help themselves to unsold take-out from the big dumpster behind Whole Foods. But still, it had always been a struggle.
He wasn’t going to screw up this time, and during that all-important first week, he didn’t. He made sure he was there by eight in the morning, and no task was too menial. He gladly picked up dry cleaning and made Starbuck’s runs and re-organized the spice rack and scrubbed the bathtubs and toilets. He didn’t know where he got the energy (although those pills he found in Selena’s medicine chest certainly helped).
And Selena’s life was so exciting! She was the ultimate Sarasota young person. In fact, she’d been honored as Young Person of the Year by the Chamber, the Hospital Board, the Wellness Community and the UJA. Like so many young people these days, she didn’t limit herself to one job but instead had her hand in so many pots. There were her various online businesses (real estate, PR, networking, and self-esteem classes), plus all the projects she was doing with others. She was currently working with all the Michaels: Michael Saunders, Michael Klauber, Michael Edwards and Michael Moulton.
But it was in social leadership that she truly excelled. No party got off the ground without her input, and everyone wanted her to chair their committee. Naturally, she had to limit herself these days and only pick the cream of the crop. This season her special “baby” was Arty Night for the Arts Council. It was Selena’s idea to hold it in the ruins of the Quay, complete with elephants and camels and a fashion show by Hello Kitty.
Mr. Chatterbox’s trial week flew by. It had been a baptism of fire, a veritable boot camp of challenges, but he had risen to them all. There was only one tiny little thing that had been bothering him. All week long he had been receiving strange things on his new cell phone. He wasn’t sure but he thought these things might be the fabled “text messages” that he heard so much about. What on earth did they mean? And what should he do about them? He couldn’t dare reveal his ignorance to Selena.
True, he could bluff his way through an e-mail, as long as he just had to hit “reply.” (He knew there was a way to write a whole new one from scratch, but he had no idea how.) And he certainly knew how to charge things online. But what were these strange things that people wore in their ears? And what, in God’s name, was an iPod? And these strange phones that you wave your hand over? Why, Selena even had something on her computer, called Squidge or Squark or something like that, where you could carry on a conversation, live, with a person right on your . . . what do you call it? Screen?
On Friday morning he got another one of these strange text messages. It had various "!!!!" after it and it kept coming, over and over and over. He desperately called Barbara at work. She was out on Longboat Key, photographing foreclosed homes for the upcoming real estate auction.
“It says WYCMRN. What on earth does that mean?”
“That means, call me immediately or I’ll kill you. Don’t you know that?”
“I don’t know any of them. Well, I do know BFF. And 420. But this other stuff…”
“OK, call Selena back, then call me and I’ll give you a little list.”
“Oh, thank you, Barbara, thank you!”
Selena, oddly enough, didn’t answer her phone. Hmmm, Mr. Chatterbox thought. He left a voice message that he was at her house and awaiting her call.
He sat in Selena’s office. She had decorated it to perfection, part game room, part lounge, part boudoir. In the boudoir part she had her collection of vintage jewelry displayed, draped on fishwire and looking ever so glamorous. As it so happened, he adored vintage jewelry and was always over at the Woman’s Exchange, looking for a piece.
His eyes rested on a pair of tutti frutti earrings, classics from the 1940s, and his heart beat a little faster. They were exquisite. He wondered if the clip was tight. That was the problem with these old earrings. So he slipped one on. Then the other. He went into the bathroom to see what they looked like. But before he could get there, there was a commotion at the computer. Chimes were going off.
He ran over. Trepidatiously, he jiggled the mouse. Selena’s face appeared on the screen.
“There you are,” she said. Behind her Mr. Chatterbox could detect all sorts of revelry—champagne glasses, pretty girls, a live band.
“Where are you?” he asked.
“David Band’s yacht,’ she replied. “We’re having an Asolo board retreat. Now, listen. Call the Arty Night committee and tell them personally to meet me at Selva at 5:30. We’re about to lose Hello Kitty unless we move fast. And I want you there. Got that?”
“Oh, yes, Selena, yes! Anything else?”
She looked closer at the screen.
“Take off my earrings.”
Mr. Chatterbox entered Selva and sniffed. It had the heady aroma of youthful sweat. Of youthful sweat and liquor and cocktail snacks and all the other wonderful things age had forced him to surrender. But now he was back on the scene! With a vengeance.
He was a tiny bit late, if truth be told. All day he had fretted about his outfit, and as the magic hour approached he had to face facts. He didn’t have a thing to wear. So he ran over to Snitch at the last moment and bought one of those hip new T-shirts with the Virgin of Guadalupe on it. Everybody was wearing them, and even though they didn’t really have his size, they did have one almost as big.
He spied Selena and her party over in the corner. Half of them were talking to each other and the other half were talking on cell phones to other people. How marvelous. It was like one big extended party with the universe, everyone plugged in with everyone else.
He approached and discreetly handed Selena the Hello Kitty contract he had been instructed to bring. There didn’t seem to be a place for him to sit, and there were no empty chairs; fortunately he was able to squeeze onto the corner of a banquette, although he couldn’t really get his rear end on it and had to support himself by his legs, sort of squatting.
He was blending in so beautifully with the young people. Why, they weren’t even looking at him, just accepting him totally in the moment, like he was just another one of them. How witty they all seemed. He listened as the conversation ricocheted around, glamorous talk of rehab and business deals and love affairs and “baby bumps” and Mercedes-Benz and community service—both kinds.
His Virgin of Guadalupe T-shirt was a big hit, he could tell. Everybody was stealing glances at it and smiling.
He was a tiny bit nervous, so he drank two mojitos real quick. That made him feel much more relaxed. Soon he was starting to contribute to the conversation, saying funny things and throwing in his “two cents” on a wide variety of topics, from religion to politics to the price of gas. In fact, he talked a great deal about the price of gas when he was a kid, until he noticed that everyone at the table had suddenly become engrossed in their private phone calls.
Luckily, someone began telling a story about everyone’s dear friend So and So, who Mr. Chatterbox did not personally know but pretended he did. She did this, she did that. In fact, just yesterday she had spent $7,000 on sheets.
“The slut!” Mr. Chatterbox called out wittily. Even he sensed that perhaps he had gone too far. He guessed hopefully that she might be a slut and it would be funny. But apparently she wasn’t a slut and it wasn’t funny.
He felt a strange tingling in his groin area. His cell phone. It was vibrating. He dug into his pocket and pulled it out. There was a text message. Thank God he had brought along that list Barbara had prepared for him.
He squinted at the message. He wouldn’t need the list. This one was easy to figure out. YOU’RE FIRED, it said. LEAVE IMMEDIATELY. He looked at Selena. She was glaring at him.
Mr. Chatterbox stumbled out of Selva in a haze, still clutching his mojito. He turned to his right and fled down Main Street. Soon he found himself at the bayfront. He saw before him the giant tooth and settled on the grass, surrounded by its roots.
So. That was it. His big comeback was not to be. He would never be co-owner of Scene magazine. He would never be a star reporter for SRQ. This was it. The end of the road.
Well, if the young could do without him, he could do without the young. Who did they think they were? Wait until they got a little mileage under their belts. That’d knock a little humility into them. And they weren’t all that interesting, anyway. Not compared to some of the people he’d known.
Mr. Chatterbox squinted at the sunset and thought, “Oh, the good old days.” It was a beautiful Sarasota sunset, mostly blues and pinks. One of the puffy clouds caught his eye and he studied it. Why, it looked like someone. Who? My God, it was Norman Scherman. He was smiling down at Mr. Chatterbox. Good old Norman—life was never as much fun since he died—when, 10 years ago? And there—right next to Norman. Wasn’t that Ed Keating? He always cracked Mr. Chatterbox up. And look—in that cloud. It was Grace Penner—so beautiful and married to the richest man in town. The perfect combination. And over there—Florence Howard and Barbara Hirsch-York. And there was Helen Griffith! And even Sally Traeger . It all came back to him—the men and women who had once ruled the city, back when Sarasota was classy and sophisticated and glamorous and he was the toast of the town.
Mr. Chatterbox felt at peace for the first time in ages. The sun’s rays lit his face as he took the last sip of his mojito. It tasted so sweet. He closed his eyes, and as he drifted off underneath the big tooth, he dreamt of Sarasota Past. He dreamt of the parties and the dancing and the money and the scandals, and as the glass rolled from his hand and unconsciousness overtook him, he was finally, blessedly young again.
Robert Plunket, also known as Mr. Chatterbox, is the author of the comic novels My Search for Warren Harding and Love Junkie.