Decorating Can Be Murder: Chapter 1

By staff November 1, 2008

Part One: A Dream Comes True—or Does It? 

 In this first installment of humorist Robert Plunket’s new series, Timothy Spryke moves to Sarasota to open his new design business, Casual Elegance—but something spooky is in the air.

Mr. Timothy Spryke had always promised himself that when his mother died he would move to Florida and open a decorating business. This pleasant thought sustained him through the years of her decline and final illness. It would be his reward for being a good son. 

As he lay in bed at night, ready to fall asleep, with the icy winter wind blowing in from Lake Superior, his thoughts would go to the house he dreamed of finding. Over the years he had refined it, adding this touch or that, until it was his idea of perfection—an old Spanish bungalow from the 1920s, simple and whitewashed, with a banana palm out front. Here he would both live and conduct his new business. 

Of course, he didn’t think of the house every night. Some nights he thought about what he might name his new business. Nothing seemed quite right, nothing quite special enough. Then one night, after a rich, spicy meal at the New China Buffet in Ironwood, the name came to him. He sat bolt upright in bed and grabbed a pencil and paper. It was so strong, so perfect, that he could not possibly forget it, but recent experience had taught him that he could, and probably would. 

The next morning he looked at what he had scribbled on the back of his electric bill. “Ma Folie Interiors.” Yes, it was perfect. Sophisticated, yet with a touch of whimsy. It suggested toile de Jouy, and lits a la Polonaise and fine French furniture.  

He chuckled to himself. My folly—yes, that’s exactly what it was. All his friends thought he was crazy, leaving Hurlbutt, Wisconsin, where he had lived all his life and taught English at Hurlbutt High for 35 years, to open a business he knew very little about in a strange town where he knew no one. 

Well, he would make a success of it. He felt it in his bones. He had the business card already designed and it was fabulous.  

Two days before her 90th birthday, Mr. Spryke’s mother had what they thought was a small stroke. She seemed confused and disoriented. A fever set in, then pneumonia. Dr. Sturgel told Mr. Spryke that he should begin to make preparations. That night her fever shot to 103 and her breathing grew labored and raspy.

Mr. Spryke sat with her until 2 a.m. Then he lay down on the sofa in the living room, with instructions to the nurse to call him if there were any change. At 6 a.m. he went upstairs to see his mother. The fever was down a little and she was sleeping. He held her hand and watched Good Morning America. That afternoon he walked for a while in the yard. Tears came to his eyes as he thought about what a sweet person she was and how he would miss her. At dinnertime, her color seemed a little better. She asked for a stewed peach and lived another 12 years. 

When she did die, it was peacefully during her afternoon nap. Mr. Spryke waited what seemed a decent interval—three weeks—and then flew to Orlando to begin his search for a new home. The first surprise was the heavy tropical air that hit him as he left the airport terminal. It was exciting and a little scary.

Orlando was not for him, Mr. Spryke quickly decided. Too big and too crowded and too middle-class. He drove on to Palm Beach. It was beautiful but much too intimidating. Mr. Spryke had neither the money nor the nerve to settle there. Fort Lauderdale was glamorous, but there was a strange undercurrent, something sexual in the air that made Mr. Spryke uncomfortable. Boca Raton was just the opposite. There was nothing sexual in the air, and the women wore jogging suits. Miami was too hyper, too exotic; he might as well move to Caracas. Key West, sadly, had been ruined by tourists, Naples was exquisite but deadly dull, and then he got to Sarasota and that was the worst of all. 

It poured as he drove into the city, down a wide boulevard called Fruitville Road. The name was vaguely disquieting, like some insult being hurled at the townspeople. As he approached the downtown the streets didn’t seem to drain properly, and many were flooded. There was a new Walgreens on every corner.

The map indicated a bayfront area, and Mr. Spryke started to search for it. As he drove past a store called Sarasota News & Books, he saw a parking place right in front. It was the first empty parking place he’d seen since he arrived, so he pulled right in.  

Inside it was quite pleasant and cozy, with art books and quality fiction and a little café, and the rain coming down outside the big windows. Mr. Spryke ordered a hot chocolate—he’d gotten a little chill dodging the raindrops. The local newspaper was lying there on the table next to him. “School Board Picks Heads,” said the headline. He pursed his lips. As an English teacher and advisor to the student newspaper, he was offended. “It says nothing and leads the brain to an unfortunate image,” he would have told his students. “Do it over.” 

There was also a big article about housing prices, which were apparently plummeting. This would have been good news if he were moving here, which he certainly was not. The piece featured an interview with a man named Michael Saunders, and there was a big picture of some woman they had used by mistake. How typically small-town . . .

The rain let up just the tiniest bit, but enough for Mr. Spryke to run back to his car. Much to his surprise, the bayfront was only a block away. It was hard to figure out how to get there, as a big highway blocked the way, but Mr. Spryke finally made it and found himself driving around a parking lot with boats moored on one side and large, inexplicable objects on the other. After further examination, the objects turned out to be a public art project. One of the sculptures was a giant tooth, about 30 feet high, standing like an insect on its roots. Mr. Spryke studied it. “No,” he thought. “This is not the town for me.” 

Finding his way back to the Interstate was tricky. He ended up in some neighborhood near downtown but not exactly in it. The houses were older here. Some had been fixed up, but most remained shabby, and some had pick-up trucks parked on their lawns.  

He looked at his watch. With any luck he would be in Clearwater by six. Clearwater. His last chance. Please, dear God, he prayed. Make Clearwater better than this. 

Hopelessly lost by this time, he turned a corner onto a small street and there it was, right in front of him. The house. The house he had dreamed of. Spanish, white, with a banana palm in front. There was something else in front, too. A “For Sale” sign.  

Eight weeks later Mr. Spryke sat in his living room—his new living room. He was sipping his early morning cup of café au lait, quite comfortable in the wicker chair he had purchased for $26 from the Woman’s Exchange. 

It was so pleasant here, right before the sun got too high in the sky and dominated the day’s proceedings. The French doors were open and the cool air—well, coolish air— wafted in, and dappled light shone through the trees, reflecting off the green tropical leaves. A flock of wild parrots flew by. 

Wild parrots! Imagine such a thing.

Across the street were two more old Spanish houses, built at the same time as his, and both remodeled over the years. Mr. Spryke was pleased to note, as he did every time he saw them, that his was the nicest one.

But this morning he was thinking not of the neighbors or the parrots but of his finances.

For the second or third time he calculated his income. There was his teacher’s pension of $32,000, dependable as the state of Wisconsin. His Social Security check came to $1,100 a month, or $13,200 a year, also quite dependable. His life savings were a credible $350,000, and they brought him, depending on “the market,” an additional $15,000 or $17,000. And his mother’s estate, though badly eaten into by the expenses of her long final illness, would add an additional $100,000, or $5,000 in yearly income. All that totaled over $65,000. Over $65,000!

That was the beauty of Ma Folie Interiors. It didn’t have to make any money. It could even lose a little. He already had enough to live on; he had more than enough. Surely some could be spent on life’s little luxuries, like a decorating business.

But the renovations! He hadn’t realized the house needed a new roof. Or new plumbing. The kitchen faucet had cost $800. How had that happened? How had he let that happen? He wasn’t sure he quite trusted the contractor, a guy named Tony who arrived at irregular intervals with a truckload of Mexicans. They would work feverishly for a morning or an afternoon and then disappear for days.

But even worse than the cost, there was another thought at the back of his mind. What did this say about his skills as an estimator? People would expect him to tell them how much their project would cost. Would he be this far off each time he estimated a job?

A pick-up truck pulled up in front, and a young man got out and checked the address. He was in his 30s, tall, slim and broad-shouldered. It was clearly not Tony, who was in his 50s and had a belly and rarely shaved.

Mr. Spryke hurried to the front door to welcome his visitor.

“Rick Yoder,” the young man said, offering his hand. He wore thick glasses and his eyes, magnified and refracted, seemed both shy and a little sad. His hand was enormous: thick and muscular and all-enveloping. The word “paw” flashed in Mr. Spryke’s mind.

“Please, please,” said Mr. Spryke. “Come on in.”

Mr. Spryke had found Rick in the Shopping Guide, a supermarket handout, on the page where handymen and tile installers took out little ads. The first guy he called never answered. The second guy’s wife answered, but he never heard back. Rick was the third guy. He sounded nice, and the price was certainly right. $80 to rescreen the entire porch, screening included.

They walked into the living room. “Wow,” said Rick. “You don’t see many like this anymore.” He reached out to touch the walls.

“Yes!” said Mr. Spryke. So Rick understood. Rick got it.

“Awesome,” said Rick, caressing the surface. “Real plaster.”

From the living room Mr. Spryke watched Rick work. The young man moved quickly and efficiently, cutting the screening with a decisive hand, never using too much or too little. He was able to accomplish the whole job without an assistant.

“Can you do more than install screening?” Mr. Spryke asked from the French doors.

"Yes, sir,” Rick said. “I can do anything. I can build an entire house.”

“Do you have a contractor’s license?”

“I will soon,” Rick said, with a note of pride. He then began to detail some of the jobs he had done recently—a kitchen remodel on Bahia Vista, a garage out in Myakka, a condo on Longboat Key.

“I may have some work for you,” Mr. Spryke said, and an eager, almost desperate look came into Rick’s eyes.

After he finished up and packed his tools and swept the porch, Rick went out to his truck to prepare the final bill. Mr. Spryke followed. On the dashboard of the truck were two framed photos, stuck on with little suction cups. One showed a young woman holding two small boys in her lap. The other showed an older couple, the woman wearing the white bonnet that Mennonite women wear.

Of course, thought Mr. Spryke. He’s a Mennonite. Sarasota was full of Mennonites, and Amish, too. You saw them waiting for the bus.

“Are those your little boys?”

“Yep,” said Rick. “That’s Travis. And that’s Tyler.”

Travis was around five, a cute little kid, but there was something wrong with Tyler. His glasses were even thicker than his father’s and he just didn’t look right. Was he autistic?

“Who do I make the bill out to?” Rick asked.

Mr. Spryke dug out one of his brand-new business cards. They had turned out beautifully, lime green with purple lettering.

Rick looked at it for a while, then moved it a little closer to his glasses and looked some more.

“Who’s Ma Foley?” he asked. “Is that your wife?”

Mr. Spryke’s heart sank. “No, it’s French,” he said. “It means…my caprice.”

Rick squinted at it one more time and then shrugged. He began to laboriously copy it down on the invoice.

That evening Mr. Spryke enjoyed his front porch for the very first time.

He wished he could say that he enjoyed it to its utmost. But this was not the case. Uneasy  thoughts nagged at him. Were the bulbs too bright? He’d found the perfect wall sconces at Sarasota Architectural Salvage and cleaned them himself with a toothbrush, but clearly, the light was just too glaring. Oh, well, that was easy enough to change. New bulbs, problem solved.

Not so with this stupid name thing. Clearly, some people weren’t going to “get” it. Certain vendors, certain tradespeople, just weren’t going to appreciate the nuances of his style. He could live with that.

What he couldn’t live with was the thought of being known around town as the little old man who everybody called “Ma Foley.”

But if he changed the name—and it was still a big but—what would he change it to?

He wished he had someone to discuss this with. Everyone needed someone to talk over daily life with, not just what to name the company but what cereal to buy and what television program to watch. Back in Hurlbutt he had his mother and the nurses. Here he had no one—yet.

He heard a noise from the split philodendron. Those raccoons again. Last week they had climbed the palm trees and begun mating. They threw all caution to the wind and  screeched at the top of their lungs. He went out and shined a flashlight in their faces and it didn’t faze them a bit. It was very unseemly, and Mr. Spryke doubted he would ever look at a raccoon the same way again.

But it wasn’t just the raccoons. It was the human inhabitants, too. He read the Herald- Tribune. He watched ABC7. What a strange cast of characters this town had. Up in Hurlbutt people lived in the same house for generations, Scandinavians and Italians mostly, working in the iron mines—well, not anymore—and voting Democratic. Family was everything.

Here it was different. Who were these people? He couldn’t quite figure it out. His neighbors, for instance. He looked out at the house across the street. A reclusive couple lived there; the man was a shark researcher at Mote Marine. He and Mr. Spryke had chatted a couple of times and he seemed very nice, but the woman—well, he didn’t know the woman. They’d never met. He had seen her taking in groceries but that was about it.

But wait. A light was on and he thought he saw someone looking at him through the curtains. He squinted. No, the curtains were closed. If there had been anyone there, they were gone now.

His gaze shifted to the house on the corner. A lawyer lived there with his family. Gentrifiers with a Saab and a Lab. The man seemed a little cool to Mr. Spyke after he had told him he was planning to put a sign in his yard, terribly discreet and elegant, announcing this was the home of Ma Folie Interiors.

And then there was the house next door, the one with the wall around it. Old Mr. Kneff lived there. He’d been with the circus. Mr. Spryke had Googled him. Bruno Kneff. He could stand on one finger. It said he was Hitler’s favorite performer.

What an awkward position to be in. No wonder he kept to himself. Of course it wasn’t his fault that Hitler liked his work. What would he do under such circumstances, Mr. Spryke wondered. Would he decorate for Hitler?

Mr. Spryke decided it was time to go inside. There was nothing more he could do tonight. He gathered his cocoa mug and the plate that had held his digestive biscuit and the newspaper from this morning. There was a full-page ad on the back for a housing development out by the Interstate. “Casual elegance in a tropical paradise!” it said.

“Casual elegance,” he thought with a snort. That was the most overused phrase in Sarasota. Casual elegance this, casual elegance that…

The noise again. He looked out at the night, on the other side of the screen. Mr. Kneff’s house was as dark as a tomb.

He took everything into the kitchen. That’s when he noticed it. He kept an antique silver toast holder near the phone and used it to hold bills. His “bill caddy,” he called it.

It had been moved. Not much, but still—it was not the way he left it.

Rick? Could he have moved it? No, he’d never left Mr. Spyke’s sight. He never even went into the kitchen.

In his heart Mr. Spryke immediately knew the truth.

Somebody had been in his house. 

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