Hooking Into an Island Economy
I met Suzette Houlton this morning.
She’s Floyd’s mother, so I have to be careful not to write anything bad about her or he’ll kill me. Actually, I really think he’d give it his best shot if provoked. Once you’re bored with torturing toads, whacking intrepid reporters is a reasonable next step.
Henry introduced me to Suzette at the town offices. The offices are really just the larger rooms in a classic white-with-black-shutters house near The Larboard. A small sign out front says “Town Offices,” and sure enough — there they are.
Henry and I pushed through the front door and into the former dining room. That seems to be the office of the Grand Seal Island economic development director, and the Grand Seal Island economic development director is Suzette Houlton.
She was sitting behind a standard-issue metal desk, talking with someone on the phone. She gestured toward the two small folding chairs near the desk, and I sat down. Henry mumbled something about having work to do and disappeared down the hall. I guessed that the mayor’s office was toward the back of the house somewhere.
The rest of the office was as drab and typical as the desk and the folding chairs, but Suzette is far from ordinary. Her broad shoulders, heavy chest, rotund waist, and thick arms were made all the more impressive by the sleeveless floral dress she was wearing. The orchids and tulips and rhododendrons and whatever on the fabric were painted in colors I’m sure God never intended to allow on this planet, and the exposure of Suzette’s beefy upper arms gave her an air of physical strength and grandmotherly softness. She looked like a St. Bernard in Honolulu.
Her hair was piled on her head with architectural prowess, and its particular shade of Red Dye #2 allowed no room for speculation as to the source of its hue. Her eyelids were painted the color of the noonday sun in west Texas, a reflective tint of light yellow that made her Rocky-Horror-red lips leap out all the more. A few pounds of rouge and mascara rounded out the picture.
She was smoking some nasty-smelling brand of filterless cigarettes that she kept in a small box on her desk. She wrapped up her phone conversation, took a deep drag, and then let the smoke escape from her mouth, nose, and probably ears while she talked.
“We haven’t met yet,” she said with a nicotine-stained smile. “I’m Suzette. Economic development director for the town. Three terms running — I guess people just like having me around.”
She laughed heartily at this, coughed, sucked down another third of her cigarette, and gestured toward a bottle of vermouth on her desk.
“Want a pull?” she offered.
I shook my head, explaining that I didn’t think humans were supposed to drink straight vermouth. She laughed and coughed again.
“Sure we are!” she said with a grin. “Ever hear of an extra-wet martini?”
She laughed again before doubling over in a long-term coughing fit.
I had come prepared with a trusty list of reporterly questions about the town’s economic wellbeing. Figuring that the sooner I started the sooner I’d be able to leave, I pulled out my little notebook and started in.
“What, exactly, does the Grand Seal Island economic development Director do?” I queried.
Suzette cough-laughed again. “Hell, sweetie, what don’t I do?” she gasped. “For one thing, I am single-handedly responsible for the development of the tourism industry here on Grand Seal Island.”
The tourism industry. The Larboard has rooms for a few guests, and Cory serves beer and basic food, but I wouldn’t exactly call the town a Mecca for the jet-set. Sure, the occasional yacht steams into harbor, only to steam right out again when the people on board find out that you can’t bar-hop in a one-bar town. And the occasional tourist boat circumnavigates the island, most likely less interested in the flora and fauna than in the nude sunbathing at The Village. But otherwise, Grand Seal Island doesn’t even rate a postcard, let alone a poster and brochure in some travel agent’s office.
“Tourism,” I nodded soberly, which was more than Suzette could do at the moment. “Got it. What else?”
“Commerce,” Suzette said with an overly decisive wink. “The businesses in any town need strong support to stay afloat, and that’s where I come in.”
“What kind of support?” I asked. I pretended to be writing all this down.
“Oh, you know,” she slurred. She knocked down another bolt of vermouth. “Networking, infrastructure, economic development, that sort of thing. And besides, my son runs the Pop’n’Squeak, which is one of the primary business interests on the island. He thinks he owns it, but I do — he never paid me back for it. But he runs it well. It turns a profit every quarter! I’m just so damn proud of him.”
I nodded again, trying to look serious. In my mind, I was trying to guess the percentage of the Pop’n’Squeak profits that came from the sale of legal merchandise, and the percentage that came from the sale of marijuana. I settled on 90 percent, in favor of the pot.
“The Marine Supply shop seems to be doing well, too,” I said.
“Mike’s place? Hell, no,” Suzette retorted. Another swig of swill. “He couldn’t manage a bubble-gum machine and turn a profit. He only scrapes by because of the help I give him.”
I consulted the doodles on my notepad. “Networking, infrastructure, that sort of thing?” I asked.
“Exactly!” Suzette declared. The vermouth was beginning to leach the red dye out of her hair, turning the top of her forehead a shiny scarlet. “Without me, everyone in this town would end up like old Ben Bow.”
“Ben Bow?” I queried with my best journalistic expression.
“Crackpot up north of town,” Suzette grinned, shaking her head. “Nut job. Lost his marbles when his wife died. Now he keeps a bunch of pet rats and lizards and things, and he hardly ever leaves the house.”
“And you’re keeping the town from this fate with your economic-development efforts?” I asked. Not bad for a guy who was only pretending to take notes.
“Well, there is that,” Suzette said with a wicked, deeply disturbing grin. “But that’s not the main thing.”
“So what’s the main thing?” I asked.
Suzette chuckled. “I’m the town’s only prostitute,” she said. And she finished off the vermouth.
— Donovan Graham, “The Shadowless Writer”
Comment — WomynFire982: wait a minute. she told you that?
Comment — Orson Van Dyke: Actually, she can’t get into any trouble for saying something like that. We are allowed under the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution to say almost anything we want. The only way the police can arrest her is if they catch her in the act. Now, they might put greater surveillance on her now that she has offered this public confession, but they also might not. They might think it’s a joke.
Comment — LionHeart: Don’t be stupid. Of course it’s a joke.
Comment — George Reynolds: No, it’s not. Trust me. I know.
Read previous blog entries in the Island Wars story by clicking here.