Friday, December 22, 2006

The Historian's Proposal

We're seated in a narrow dining room/library. In fact, every room in Juan's house seems to be inhabited by books. The sad, quiet air of the coral rock house makes me think of Elliott Smith's "Let's Get Lost."

Juan's assistant pulls out a chair for me at one end of a long wooden table, then skulks away to eat his soup in the corner. He's still in his blue coat, which seems especially odd in unairconditioned Miami.

Juan struggles to sit down at the other end, obviously in pain. He forces a smile.

"I knew your grandmother. Remarkable lady. She learned to thrive in this heat," Juan says, dipping into his bowl.

"How did you..." I start to ask, but Juan isn't listening. He's now rifling through a leather-bound journal.

"I've been keeping a journal since I started the Red Coral Society project. Take notes -- or you'll forget everything. That's my advice," he says.

Even though the chowder is excellent, I'm still feeling uneasy. Maybe it's Juan's jumpy manner (though I know he can't help it), maybe it's how I was chloroformed and dragged here against my will, or maybe it's the rabbit skull looking at me from the bookshelf.

"Opossum," says Juan, meeting my gaze. I quickly look back at my plate.

"This is good. The dolphin," I mumble. "Have you lived here long?" I manage to say, a bit awkwardly.

"Almost three years," Juan says, staring through me. "My parents both died in the Fire in the Glades. I had to seek alternate arrangements." Juan lets this soak in, then adds, "I had a half-brother. But I haven't seen him in years."

"Don't you think you're a bit young to be living on your own?" I challenge him, as Juan's assistant appears out of nowhere and pours me a glass of pinot grigio.

"I'll be eighteen in January. And I prefer living on my own...with my assistant's help, of course." Juan starts to pick up his glass, but his hand trembles and he sets it back down. He looks almost embarassed.

"I read your book," I say quickly. "I liked it. But it was sort of...anticlimactic. You spend five hundred pages searching for the Red Coral Society only to find it never really existed."

Juan smirks. "Francie. You're a smart girl. If you were getting close to solving one of the world's greatest mysteries, would you put it in a book? Post it online? Bring it to a party and let someone walk off with it?" He pauses for effect and grabs a copy of his book from a shelf. "This is for the masses." He points to his head. "This is for me...and my assistant."

Juan's assistant slurps the dregs of his soup. He wipes his face on his sleeve and trudges out of the room. Juan leans towards me.

"Word on the street is you're short on work. It's an extraordinary coincidence, Francie, but I may be out of an assistant soon," he says.

"I'm technically still third assistant to the Queen Conch," I say, loyally. Juan looks unconvinced. "I lost important delivery for her. I need to find it."

Even though Juan is the world's leading expert on the Red Coral Society, I'm not sure if I can trust him, let alone work for him. I really need to get in touch with Grandma and find out why she gave me the missing bottle in the first place.

"I'm also looking for something," says Juan, slowly sipping his pinot grigio. "Tell me...what do you know of the famous conquistador Ponce de Leon?"

Friday, December 15, 2006

Salt Island (and the Man Who Lived There)

I'm sorry it's taken me a while to catch up. Sometimes my story gets ahead of me.

In my last post, I was carried on a ferry steered by an unknown captain to Salt Island. Of course, I didn't know we were headed toward Salt Island until the ferry reached the dark shore.

I had never been to Salt Island, but I knew it immediately by the briny smell -- the result of centuries of ocean salt deposits. No one knows exactly why Salt Island accumulates more than its share of bitter salt -- but because the salt-smell is so pungeant, plans to develop the island for a power plant, luxury condos, and other uses were finally abandoned in the late 1970's and the island fell into decline.

I struggle to lift the blanket off of me -- this was the smell I was trying to place (before the chloroform took effect). I'm still a little groggy, but I can see the pale moon shining over the sparkling piles of salt. The third passenger is leaning over the deck, smoking.

I remember when Rafe used to light up, usually after he'd been drinking. He knew I couldn't breathe around smoke and used to watch as I coughed. Of course, this was before the Thing That Happened in the Snow.

I realize we're not moving. "Let's go." The third passenger tries to direct me off the boat. "This ship's leaving. And trust me -- you don't want to go in the other direction." I silently stumble to my feet. He grabs my arm and leads me off the ferry.

The captain sounds his horn and the ferry pulls away from the island. As the salty gloom sets in, I realize with a sinking feeling that there are no other boats in sight. The third passenger pushes me ahead of him down a winding shell path away from the shore. After about ten minutes, we reach a small house built of carved coral rock. He takes out a key and jiggles it to open the rusty door.

The door creaks open and he pushes me inside. I am overwhelmed by a much more inviting smell: the smell of dinner cooking. My stomach growls.

The third passenger leads me down a narrow corridor to a living room with a very low ceiling. This place is giving me the odd sense of being in someone's cave.

"Sit," the third passenger growls. "The Historian will be with you in a minute." He trudges out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

I look around. The Historian is a collector. The room is filled with specimens of South Florida wildlife and sealife -- shells, stuffed birds, maps of nearby islands. There is also a metal contraption that appears to be an intricate web of pulleys, levers, and found objects like action figures. I step closer to examine it and a small turtle crawls out from under a book, startling me.

I pick up the book. The Lost Journals of Ponce de Leon. The yellowed inside cover reads © 1977, Absynthe Press. The pages are so worn with time and use that they practically crumble in my hands.

"I see you've made yourself comfortable." Behind me is a young man, probably no older than sixteen or seventeen. His pale face is flushed and he leans upon a table for support. He grimaces, as if each of his muscles has failed him. I quickly hand him the book and try not to step on the turtle as I back away.

"I'm sorry."

"No, no, it is I who must apologize. It is so rare that we have guests, I'm afraid my assistant didn't give you a very warm welcome." The Historian turns to me so that his face is lit by the lamplight. My breath catches. He looks exactly like a younger version of Rafe. It's uncanny.

"I've heated up some conch chowder and roasted two dolphins (fish, not Flipper). Please...I'd be honored if you joined me. I've heard so much about you, Francie," the Historian says. My feet still won't move.

"I know, this all must seem very strange to you. Why would I choose to live on Salt Island when I could be playing tennis at private school? They call me the Historian, but you may know me by my real name: Juan Rosado. My book was #1 on the Times bestseller list. It's fiction, with a twist of truth."

Juan Rosado, author of the controversial new book on the Red Coral Society. But I thought the author was at least in his forties.

"No one would believe my crazy theories if they knew how old I was," he offers.

"Come on," he says. "Let's get you something to eat."

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Wreckers

Last night I slept restlessly. I was listening to Joanna Newsom's "Monkey & Bear" before I fell asleep and had a fitful dream of a table of monkeys smashing plates and crawling all over the place. In another, I was running through a house built like a Moroccan temple. I turned a corner and saw Rafe's face in a hanging mirror. He raised his hand. Burnt into his palm was a heart-shaped shell.
It's almost eight. I dial Betty's number on my cell, but no answer. I've been trying to reach Betty all day. I'd like to talk to her. She was the last one to see the owl purse before it disappeared.

I feel a sharp pain in my abdomen again and decide it's just nerves. I'm not a hypochondriac, but I am prone to flights of fancy, and sometimes these flights take the shape of dark, formless things.

I pull out Officer Khost's card and start to dial his number, then change my mind. Maybe I shouldn't get the detective involved until I know if Grandma's trafficking in stolen artifacts.

I take out Brad's card: "8 p.m. The Wreckers." Maybe Brad can help track down the missing purse. His mother is the Mayor of Battersea. She knows everyone.
To get to The Wreckers, you take a ferry from the Old Port. It's not too far from Star Island, but not too close either. I've tried to give directions to friends, but they always wind up getting lost.

Driving across the rickety wooden bridge to the Old Port, I nervously flip through radio stations. My windshield keeps fogging up, so that I can barely see the Bay stretching out in front of me. I park my car and buy a ticket from the machine.

There are only three of us on the ferry. Me in my grey hoodie, the captain, and someone (a man?) in a dark blue hooded coat. The third passenger is smoking a cigarette and staring out over the railing. As the wind picks up, I reach into my pocket for warmth and clasp the bottle of bug repellent Grandma gave me. Ick.

I'm starting to doubt whether Brad is even going to show up. He seemed pretty drunk when he scribbled the meeting place on his card. He's probably at a more trendy bar with Eva tonight, while I'm fighting the wind.

The third passenger tosses his cigarette into the dark waves. He pulls his jacket tighter and starts to walk towards me. I turn around. There is no one on the deck except us. Behind him, the wooden stilts and cracked tile roof of The Wreckers loom over the Bay. We're almost there.

The third passenger reaches inside his coat. In a moment of panic, I realize that there is nowhere to run. I instinctively start to back up as he approaches. He pulls out a pack of gum.

"Gum?" he growls.

"Thanks," I say, my heart racing. I take the stick of gum from his weathered hand and smile to myself. I unwrap the gum and the third passenger starts to walk away, then stops.

Before I can react, someone throws a blanket over me from behind, muffling my scream. The blanket smells funny, like a musty sweater and something else...odd...the smell is the last thing I remember before I start to sway, then everything quickly fades to black.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Found and Lost

If you're into the club scene then you already know about Havana. To get to the swank poolside bar, you first need to find the Havana Botanica downtown.

It's easy to miss, sandwiched between a run-down parking garage and a souvenir shop selling shot glasses and coconut patties.

Once you weave past a few late-night customers looking for remedies for their various urban ailments, the owner points you to the velvet rope at the back exit.

The bouncer opens the door and I step out into the cool Miami night. The crowd flows seamlessly between the outdoor bar, large silk cushions by the pool, and more secluded tents. I am usually a bit intimidated by the leggy South American model set, but tonight I have the yellow dress. I'm feeling okay until I remember I'm still holding my decidedly unglamorous grey hoodie. At least I won't be cold.

An unseen DJ is spinning an upbeat remix of "Yours to Keep" by the Teddybears.

I clutch the owl purse tightly. Grandma gave me specific instructions: "I need you to deliver this purse to the Queen Conch." I'm feeling uneasy about this mission, not knowing exactly what I'm delivering or why it's so important.

I scan the crowd for Betty. As I'm trying to make out the faces of women leaning over the bar, I forget to look down and completely trip over each step leading to the path by the pool. I somehow manage not to lose my balance or the purse, and stop to catch my breath.

"Is that a hoodie?" A model in a black mini-dress gestures with her mojito. As if my lack of coordination wasn't bad enough, it sent off a flare to the fashion police.

"Darling, thanks for holding...that for me." Brad, son of the mayor of Battersea and future-fiance of Eva pushes through the semi-circle of models. "It's seventy degrees out -- you know I need my layers."

Grateful for a quick exit, I follow Brad to the closest tent.

"I think I have one of these in my gym bag," says Brad, dropping the hoodie on a mosaic table. "I like the dress, it reminds me of something...a parakeet, maybe?"

"Thanks," I say, dryly. A waiter pokes his head in and Brad says, "Dos mojitos, por favor," before I can say anything. "Thanks," I repeat.

"No, a canary -- that's it. Canaries are yellow." Brad seems especially pleased with himself tonight. Maybe he's already had a few mojitos.

"So where's Eva? I never heard from her," I say. Brad laughs, then gestures for me to sit closer to him. A little wary, I oblige.

"Eva and and Eva..." I'm not sure where he's going with this.

"You and Eva," I prod. Brad tries to shift to a serious face.

" not my type." Oh, this is classic. I start to get up before he can give me the "I'm in an open relationship" speech. Brad grabs my arm, almost forcefully.

"You have many layers," says Brad. This seems profound until I realize he's looking at the hoodie.

"Yes, Brad, I have a few layers," I say.

"I'm sorry," he says, letting go of my arm. "I'm trying to help her."

"And I'm sure Eva appreciates"

"You think I meant Eva?" The waiter hands me a mojito. "This isn't the best place to talk..." Brad hands me his card. On the front, "Brad." On the back, "Hart & Murk LLP -- Saving Miami, One Palm Tree at a Time."

Brad takes the card back and writes something on it, tucks it in my pocket. "You should call me." He leans in as if he wants to say more, then changes his mind and stumbles out of the tent.

I'm fuming -- does Brad think that because of his family connections he can buy me a mojito and make me swoon? Eva may have fallen for his environmental crusader bit but I'm not as blonde.

I pull out Brad's and Officer Khost's cards. I'm about to tear up Brad's when I see he's scrawled at the bottom: "Tomorrow. 8 p.m. The Wreckers." I put the card back in my pocket and toss Officer Khost's blank card on the table. Betty peeks her head into the tent.

"There you are! If I have to talk to another cigar-smoking middle-aged real estate investor..." Betty sits down on the cushion next to me. I let out a deep breath.

"Okay, here's the deal. I need to get this to the Queen Conch. It's from a friend." I show Betty the owl purse. I decide it's not the best idea to tell Betty about my Grandma living in a parlor above our old office.

"What is it?" Betty asks the inevitable question.

"I don't know...exactly."

"I can't help you if I don't know what it is -- it could be anthrax, or..." Before I can protest, Betty grabs the purse and unzips it.

"Oh my god." Betty looks pale. "You know what this is, don't you?" I take the purse carefully from Betty and look inside.

"It looks like a perfume bottle." Betty searches her oversized black satchel and pulls out the Battersea Dirt. The headline: Rare Spanish artifact stolen from Historical Museum.

I scan the article: "While cataloguing items for an exhibition on "Ponce de Leon and the Fountain of Youth," a curator noticed that a glass bottle labeled #3 was missing. Though the team of archaeologists to discover the bottle initially thought it was simply one piece of conquistador trash, possibly used to store a potent liquor, archaeologists and historians are now beginning to think the bottle, with its inscriptions and heart-shaped insignia has far greater importance..."

"I know the Battersea Dirt isn't the most reliable source, but don't you think it's weird -- the Red Coral Society opens its new building right next door to us, Bottle #3 is stolen, and now you have a special delivery for the Queen Conch?"

"We don't even know if the Red Coral Society exists," I say, pointedly.

"Look, I don't know who gave you this bottle, but you're in over your head..."

Just then, there is a loud commotion outside -- cheers and claps echoing around the pool. I step out of the tent and see a crowd forming near the deep end. At first I'm not sure what I'm seeing, as water seems to part and a platform rises.

Standing on the platform is a woman of perfect proportions and equally perfect diamond jewelry wearing...the same yellow dress. It's the Queen Conch.

Before I have time to react, Eva appears in front of me.

"How could you?" says Eva. She leads me away from the stage. "Did Brad tell you about the dress? He's the only one who knew about it. I had it specially designed for the Queen, in Italy. Has anyone seen you?"

"Maybe a couple of people..."

"I should have called. Things have been...hectic. But to pull something like this..." Eva's pale face is turning pink. "I remember being a third assistant. It was tough. But you can't compete with the Queen...She'll destroy you."

"I'm not competing, I..." My voice trails off. I can see that nothing I say is going to calm Eva down.

"Okay, damage control. You need to leave. Right now." Eva starts to push me as far from the stage as she can, while the Queen raises her microphone.

"Thank you," she whispers into the mic. "I thought I would reward my loyal fans with a secret show. Life is full of secrets," she says. I feel like the Queen's voice is drawing me in, so that I can barely hear Eva yelling at me, or the crowd cheering and pushing by me to get a better view. It is as if we are all under her spell.

Suddenly, I remember Grandma's order. I rush back to retrieve the purse. Both Betty and the purse are now gone. I look everywhere -- on the table, between the cushions...but it is nowhere to be found. Outside, Eva has disappeared into the crowd, now singing along to the Queen's hit, "Sunny Winter."

I step back into the tent and grab my hoodie, in the process knocking over my mojito. It spills all over the table and Officer Khost's card.

Cursing, I try to mop up the mojito. Khost's card has started to make a crackling sound and change color. It emits a few sparks and jumps a bit on the table, like a sputtering firecracker. It's now a deep shade of blue. In awe, I pick up the card with the sleeve of my hoodie and look closely. There, on the once blank front, is a phone number.

Now, I'm not usually one to believe in signs. But I need someone to help me track down a missing owl purse and a possibly stolen bottle. I clutch the card tightly, weaving my way out of Havana, two words firmly in my mind: Officer Khost.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Betty's Invitation

Rain begins to fall outside the former wedding dress shop. Max flies over, handing me the silver owl purse in his beak. He shakes water off his feathers and takes off into the night.

"Max!" I call, but he keeps flying. I don't know why I assumed Max was coming with me, but now that he's gone, the emptiness of Miracle Mile seems palpable.

The columns of the new building seem to loom like concrete guards in the rain. There is a light on in an upstairs window. As I pass by, I can barely make out the outline of someone on the phone before he (or she) swiftly turns the light off.

I feel a sharp pain in my gut, like a terrible cramp, and stop for a minute until it passes. If I had to tell a doctor, I’d say the pain first started on the day I moved back to Miami, and lately, it’s been getting worse.

I put my hand in my pocket for warmth and pull out Officer Khost's card. A drop of rain hits his name, dissolving it, so the entire card is now blank. Great.
I flip the light switch. My apartment looks as it did this morning, no hint of any break-in or natural disaster. Finally relaxing, I drop the dress box and purse on the couch and take out my cell phone.

"Betty. It's Francie."
"Francie! I tried calling you three times, but your line was busy."
"Yeah, sorry bout that...listen, I need your help. I need to find the Queen Conch."
"That makes two of us," says Betty.
"No, not about the job...this is important."
"Francie, you know I don't have the Queen's digits. That's all Eva."
"I don't want to go through Eva. The other day, after Maribel was killed, Eva was wearing a necklace. It was the same necklace Maribel had on the night she died..."
"Don't tell me you're going all conspiracy theory on me. In Miami it's either sex or drugs. I saw on the news, the police think Maribel was using the shop as a cover for some sort of import/export business...I know Eva's not your favorite--"
"No, I'm...look, forget about there any other way to get in touch with the Q.C.?" I look at the owl purse sitting innocently on the couch. It stares back at me.
"I don't know...there's a party tonight, at Havana. Let's meet there. We'll figure something out. But Francie...I don't think it's a good idea to go looking for the Queen if she's not looking for us."
I remember I'm starving. I haven't had much time to shop lately, so I scrounge up some spelt bread and almond butter. I'm trying to balance both and grab a plate when the plate slips out of my hands and smashes to pieces. I guess I'm still a little on edge. I eat my sandwich over the counter, watching the rain fall outside.

I love how time seems to expand in Miami, so that even though it feels like I spent hours in Grandma's parlor drinking mango green tea, my night is just beginning.
It's time to get ready. I sift through my closet in fast forward, tossing clothes all over the floor. I'm about to give up when I remember Grandma's gift.

I lift the yellow dress out of its tissue paper nest. It's perfect.

I grab the owl purse and my grey hoodie. "Secret Meeting" by The National is in my head. I turn and look at my apartment. I can see: a broken dish still on my kitchen floor, clothes strewn everywhere...a sudden gust of wind knocks the sliding glass door open and I rush over to lock it tight before rain pours in.

I smile, thinking about the scene in Grandma's window. Maybe it's okay if things aren't always what they seem.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Inflammation of the Mind

"It's good to see you, Francesca," says Grandma.

"I don't..." My eyes are still adjusting to the light. "Dad said you died when he was ten. He kept that picture of you on the loveseat, with the parrot."

Grandma strokes Max's feathers. "Max and I are both very old," she says, "but we're hardly dead." She smiles and pats a pink velvet chair. "Come sit next to me, Francesca. There is much to talk about and little time."

"Okay." I sit down next to Grandma. She lifts a silver tray with a steady hand.

"Would you care for some flan?" asks Grandma. "Or a cup of mango green tea?"

"No thanks," I say, "and everyone calls me Francie. Francesca makes me sound--"

"Old?" Grandma finishes, raising her eyebrows.

"Dad named me after you, didn't he?" I ask. "He never talked about you. I asked, and all he would say was "a fire." So I stopped asking."

"Are you sure you wouldn't like some flan? Forgive me if I try to feed you. I hear it's what grandmas do." I dip a spoon into the flan. "As you've probably noticed, I'm not your ordinary Grandma."

"I've noticed," I say, licking my spoon.

"Don't think for an instant I haven't been proud. I was elated when you got a part in your high school musical--"

"I was a tree in The Wizard of Oz, Grandma--"

"And when you wrote your famous play, about the girl who couldn't swim, I was so proud of you." Grandma sees my skeptical look. "I couldn't be there. Could you see me bragging about you to the other grandmas at the pool? No. That was not my calling." She pauses. "You look pale, Francie, try some more flan."

"I'm sorry, I'm still trying to...adjust and now you're talking about your calling?"

"Everyone has a calling," says Grandma, "but I am worried about you. Something terrible has happened and if we're not careful, there will be far more terrible things." Though Miami is usually hot this time of year, the parlor feels like ice.

Max swoops closer to Grandma. She pours a cup of tea and hands it to me, reading my thoughts. I warm my hands on the cup.

"You mean Maribel? Grandma, before Maribel was killed...I thought I saw someone, in a store window."

"You thought you saw Rafe?" Grandma asks, and it's hard to convey exactly how I felt.

I haven't heard my ex-boyfriend's name in a long time, not since the Thing...well, you know. Grandma picks up a cane shaped like a snowy egret and walks sternly to the window.

"Francie. I don't ever want to hear you mention "someone" again. Do you think you're the only one who has ever lost a person?" Max flies over to Grandma and lands on her shoulder, so the two are looking back at me in fierce solidarity.

"No, of course--" I'm not sure what I've said, but I try to unsay it.

"Has it even occured to you that I've lost myself, a hundred times over?" Grandma clutches her cane in almost imperceptible unsteadiness. "To think, Max, about the responsibility..." Grandma mumbles. She searches the pockets of her dress.

"Look," says Max. I walk over to Grandma and she opens her hand to show me the silver owl purse I saw in the window of Bottlebrush Tree.

"Look," says Grandma, pointing her cane towards the bay window. I press my hand against the opaque glass and the glass rearranges itself to reveal a dollhouse view of the entire city, lights glittering like stars. As I look closer, I can see the Bay, until the Bay becomes my tiny apartment on the Bay, and the light I left on.

"Closer," says Grandma. I look closer and see clothes scattered, dishes smashed, as if someone ransacked my apartment looking for drugs or.... Suddenly, without warning, the sliding glass door to my balcony breaks and a hurricane-force wind lashes the apartment with heavy rain.

"Grandma," I say, looking out the dark window. "How could this happen?" Grandma doesn't respond, but smiles a peculiar smile. "Has this happened?"

"This may happen, as soon as tonight. It's time." Grandma carefully hands me the owl purse. "I'm giving you a job, Francie. As of now, you're freelance."

"I'm waiting," I say. "It's not the same thing."

"You can still wait," she says, giving me a look, "but in the meantime, I need you to deliver this purse to the Queen Conch." I turn the purse over in my hand and feel something heavy, almost electric, inside. Max steals it from me, perches on the love seat.

"Please be careful," says Grandma. "This may not seem like an important job, or even a third assistant job, but understand that it is of grave importance."

"Okay," I say, "How am I supposed to find the Queen? She's unlisted. No one knows where she lives or which parties she's going to attend. I could ask Eva, but--"

"Eva. That's an excellent idea." I'm starting to doubt Grandma's mission. Maybe I'm better off installing hurricane shutters.

"Oh!" says Grandma, "I almost forgot. If you're going to hobnob with the Star Islanders, you'll need to dress the part." Grandma pulls out a large dress box from under the loveseat. For a second, I'm afraid it's going to be another tourist dress, but then I see the silver lettering: Bottlebrush Tree.

I open the box. Until now, I've believed everything, however strange. But as I pull out the yellow dress, I can hardly breathe.

"Is it mine?" I ask, like a ten-year-old. Grandma smiles in a grandmotherly way and reaches into an antique cabinet for a bottle.

"I wouldn't be a good grandma if I didn't tell you to wear your bug spray. Don't want anyone getting inflammation of the mind, not on my watch." She hands me the putrid-looking bottle. It looks like it's been on her shelf for a hundred years.

"Thanks," I say, half-heartedly. I zip the bottle in my sweatshirt pocket. I pick up the dress box and Max swoops over, still holding the owl purse.

"Good luck, my dear." Before I can respond, the trap door opens and I'm falling into darkness, until I catch my breath and follow Max, step after step, clutching the dress box in my arms, until I reach the second floor.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Lost and Found

For a few long days, I checked my cell phone, flipped through job listings, and ate a lot of Chinese take-out. Still no message from Eva.

Then last night, I started to feel like something was not quite right. Though I rarely remember my dreams, I caught the tail-end of a bad one: me, pressing my hand against walls that twisted and turned, until face to face with a tall, thin woman with cats' eyes, one brown, one green.

She picks up a candle. Carved into the wall is a heart-shaped shell.
I reach under my bed for my journal and feel empty space. Now, I know it's old-fashioned to keep a leather-bound journal when I have you. But you know I can't tell you everything.

I'm sure I left my journal on the office windowsill. My heart races as I think about someone throwing it out, or worse, knowing my entire mind.
Miracle Mile is mostly deserted this time of night. I walk past the dark shops, each populated by gowns, rings, invitations -- haunted relics that, in my mind, open one beady eye as I pass. There is a light wind, as if the rain might come down at any second.

I reach into the potted palm outside for the key and luckily, it's still there.

I unlock the door. As I step into the cold, uninviting shadows of the wedding dress shop, Maribel's death finally hits me. I pull my grey hoodie tighter.

I push the button for the service elevator and wait as it noisily lurches to a halt.

I'm planning in my head how I'm going to grab the journal and get out of there when the elevator reaches the second floor. I hit the light switch and all of a sudden a grey parrot with a red tail swoops down and lands on my shoulder.

"Max!" I say, my heart pounding. "Don't ever--" Before I can finish, Max glides away and lands on a wooden step near the windowsill. Beneath him is a leather-bound journal.

"Look," says Max. "Look." I walk slowly over to the wooden step and Max turns a little, so I can pick up my journal. I flip through and find that several of the pages are now missing. The edges are charred, as if someone burnt the pages but left the binding. One of the pages is titled "The Thing That Happened in the Snow."

"Look," says Max. I instinctively turn to look at Max.

He's standing on the edge of the wooden step, and above him is another wooden step, and another step, spiraling upward towards the ceiling. In my entire time working here, I never noticed a staircase. Maybe it was hidden behind one of the piles of boxes.

Suddenly, the elevator crackles to life and begins its descent. Max flits around nervously. Who else could be here this late? Officer Khost? I instinctively touch the charred edge of a page in my journal. Maybe I don't want to find out.

I look at Max and he flies upward, towards the ceiling, then dips back down, as if to say, follow. I hear the elevator approaching the second floor. Right.

I start to climb, reaching into the darkness and grabbing hold of what feels like an invisible railing. Max's eyes cast a blue glow, leading the way. The further I climb, the more confident I become, until I'm running up the stairs. All I can see below is darkness, so I stop looking down. After what seems like hours, I see the outline of a trap door. I pull open the door and Max swoops inside. I hoist myself up to follow him, shutting the door behind me.

Now, I know this all must seem very strange. But remember, this is Miami. So I'm not completely surprised to find myself standing in the warm red light of a glowing fireplace in a turn-of-the-century parlor. Max soars to show me the tall coconut palms and enormous bay windows looking out at a full moon.

The parrot flies over to perch on a loveseat with pink velvet cushions. Sitting on the loveseat is a young-looking old woman, which is to say that her wrinkles seem to fit her face and her white hair is a perfect white. She's dressed like a bride on her island honeymoon. She slices off a section of peach and offers it to Max.

There is something about this scene that seems oddly familiar. I step forward.

"Grandma?" I say.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Red Coral Society

Tuesday was mostly uneventful. I passed by Bottlebrush Tree, as I always had. The yellow dress was still in the window, its mannequin now holding a silver beaded purse shaped like an owl in its outstretched plastic hand.
I arrive at work at eight a.m. It is as if the crime scene never existed. Our dress shop is empty, except for a few unclaimed wedding dresses. Betty and I spend the morning packing up the office: books, press kits, supplies.

Before we pack the CD player, we listen to my Goodbye Dress Shop Mix:

(1) Broadcast, "Tears in the Typing Pool,"
(2) Juana Molina, "Micael,"
(3) Snow Patrol, "Shut Your Eyes."

Betty doesn't want to talk about Maribel or our jobs, so I pass her the packing tape and she seals boxes. Finally, I have to ask. "You met the Queen Conch. Do you think we'll ever hear from her again?"

"I didn't meet her," says Betty. "You mean at the show? Eva rushed her off stage, soon as the lights went down. Didn't even get my mom's t-shirt signed."

Betty throws a framed photo of the Queen in Tokyo into the box. "I really like my job. I don't want to go back to the Tropical Blush counter at Macy's."

I can't think of anything to say to make Betty feel better, so I hand her another piece of tape. "You don't even have Tropical Blush," she adds.

She's right. Even though I'm in my almost-thirties, this third assistant gig is my best prospect.

I press my hand against the window to say goodbye to Miracle Mile. The End.

Betty and I drag the boxes down to the curb. It is then that something sort of eventful happens, but I'm not going to make a big deal about it. Sometimes I feel like I've spent most of my life making a big deal about nothing at all.

As I set my box down, I see Eva leaving the new building. She quickly throws her arms around a man in a grey suit. I'm thinking about how strange it is to see Eva attached, when the man turns and adjusts his tortoise shell glasses.

It makes sense. Eva is blonde and perfect and a first assistant. I can't even figure out the right hair products. Of course Eva is dating Brad.

"That's him, isn't it?" Betty asks. "He's not so Clooney in person. Plus, if he's dumb enough to date that over-perfumed diva-in-training..."

"Do you know anything about that building? Or that symbol, the heart-shaped shell?" I ask Betty. Betty looks around, then leads us away from Brad and Eva.

"I've only heard rumors," she says.

"So what's the rumor?" Betty's been especially jumpy since Maribel's death.

"It's a meeting place. For the Red Coral Society." says Betty. I start laughing.

"No, really." Betty's expression doesn't change. "Betty, the Red Coral Society is totally fictional. Didn't you read that book that came out, by the local historian, Juan Rosado? He spent years researching the Society and then finally admitted it was probably a story invented by Spanish settlers to pass the time in the heat."

To summarize the five-hundred page book I skimmed on the plane to Miami, if you believe the myth, the Red Coral Society is a secret society founded by Ponce de Leon. Its purpose: to continue Ponce de Leon's search for the Fountain of Youth. Some say that one of the conquistador's descendants actually found the Fountain and is still alive today. I think most storytellers have read The Da Vinci Code one too many times.

"I don't read history, but I do read the tabs," says Betty, "and it exists."

Before I can respond, Brad and Eva appear.

"So I hear you're the one responsible for getting rid of Brad's pink shirt. Bravo," says Eva, squeezing my arm. I should tell you, I don't like touchers or trappers and right now, Eva is both.

"I spill things," I say. Brad grins at me. Eva sees this and loops her arm in his. "I'd better go...I think I left the last chapter of the Queen's book upstairs." Betty covers the label on a box she's holding marked "Final Chapter."

"But I was going to treat you both to a farewell cafecito," says Eva, pouting.

"You guys go on ahead, I'll only be a minute." I run back into the dress shop and stop to catch my breath. I don't care if Brad's dating Eva, really I don't. He's too vanilla for me, anyway. I can't see him ever making me a mix CD, and if he did, it would probably have John Mayer on it. But it still doesn't seem fair that Eva should have everything.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Red and Yellow, Kill a Fellow

I miss my friends up north and I know they're going to be worried when they read this post. So I'm sorry for not writing sooner about what happened to Maribel.
Monday had the potential for being such a good day. I slept ten extra minutes, the air was a little less humid...I even made a mix for the car (Wake-up Mix #1):

(1) The New Pornographers, "High Art, Local News" (a favorite band),
(2) Arden Kaywin, "Me With Me" (inspiration from a Miami girl),
(3) Beirut, "The Canals of Our City" (strange and wonderful).

The Beirut song is the last song in my head before I see the police cars, sirens blazing, in front of the wedding dress shop. Now, this is Miami, so at first I'm not too concerned. But as I get closer, I see an officer trying to calm a very shaken-looking Betty. He sits her down on the sidewalk and hands her a Diet Coke.

Before Betty sees me, I duck past the yellow police tape and into the shop. It still smells faintly of gardenia, and of another, less pleasant odor.

Right away, I see her. She's lying crumpled on her side, next to an open box of chocolate butterflies. No blood. Papers and dress boxes scattered everywhere.

"You can't be in here." The officer rushes over to escort me out, but stops in his tracks. "Sorry, I didn't know this was your scene, Officer Khost," he says.

Officer Khost steps out of the shadows. He's wearing a pale blue guayabera shirt and dark sunglasses. "Thank you, Officer Bradley," he says.

Officer Bradley quickly disappears. I'm not sure why Officer Khost isn't Detective Khost, but he's certainly not the type of officer who brings you a Diet Coke at an accident scene or helps you find your lost dog.

"I'm Francie. I work here. Upstairs. How do you know this wasn't a...heart attack or a random accident?"

"This is Miami," says Officer Khost. "There are no random accidents. Everyone's all dressed up for a reason, Francie." I think about this for a moment, then walk over to Maribel. Something's missing.

"There was a necklace, with a red charm," I say. "She was wearing it last night." Officer Khost looks at me closely.
"What time was this?" he asks.
"I don't know...about seven, seven-thirty?"
"There's no necklace, Francie. We found Ms. Rivera exactly as you see her."
"But maybe the killer..." Officer Khost's look silences me. He starts to light a cigarette, then stops.
"I'm going to have the lab run tests on the chocolate, but my best guess is bug poison. There are a lot of caterpillars this time of year. I like to smash their guts in with a shovel." He pauses for effect. "So why would anyone want to kill a bridal shop owner? Did Ms. Rivera ever talk about any angry brides or bitter ex-fiances?"

Before I can respond, there is a loud squawking noise and a grey parrot with a bright red tail swoops down and lands firmly on my shoulder. This is the first time I've seen Officer Khost crack a smile. It's almost unnatural.

"Francie, this is Max. Maxim de Winter, actually, but he prefers Max." My heart is still beating a hundred times a minute. "Max is an African Grey parrot. He's very smart. My sight hasn't been so good since the Fire in the Glades, so Max here is my second pair of eyes." I'm still unable to speak. "Say hi to Francie, Max."

"Hi to Francie, Max," says Max. Old parrot joke. Max lets out a loud "Haw, haw, haw" and swoops over to Officer Khost.

"Nice trick," I say, catching my breath. Max suddenly takes off again and flies around the room, then out the door. He barely misses the perfectly coiffed head of a tall blonde in a pink cashmere sweater. She's unfazed.

"Francie, I'm Eva, the Queen's first assistant. We haven't met."
"It's nice to--" Eva interrupts me.
"Don't give any statements without checking with me first. I've sent Betty home; she's in no shape to be seen. I expect both of you back here tomorrow morning at eight a.m. sharp to clean out the office."
"I don't understand," I say. Eva sees Officer Khost. She pulls me aside.
"The Queen's launching her book in December and has a new album coming out next spring. Everything's been planned for months; we can't afford any snags."

Eva sees my look of panic. She adopts her most sotto voice. "We're not going to fire you. Expect a change of scene. Have everything packed and ready to be picked up by tomorrow at three. You know the saying: don't call us..."

Officer Khost steps forward. "Look, I don't care who you work for. This is a crime scene. No one's coming in, not until I'm done here."

Eva pulls out an impressive-looking file of papers. "I think I have all the necessary permissions," she says.

Officer Khost smiles. He takes out a card and hands it to me. "Call me if you need anything." I look at the card. It just says "Officer Khost" on the front. I turn it over, but the back is also blank. He steps closer to Eva.

"Nice necklace," he says. Eva's hand quickly moves to her neck. She touches a glass charm with something red inside, the same type of charm I saw on Maribel Friday night. Before I can say anything, Officer Khost is gone.

"It's red coral," Eva says to me. I smile, but inside, I'm not feeling so great. For some reason, I remember the saying my girl scout troop leader taught us in the Everglades, to help us tell the difference between poisonous and non-poisonous snakes: "Red and yellow, kill a fellow. Red and black, friend of Jack."

If only it were that easy to read people.

Friday, October 27, 2006

The Yellow Dress

Things happen. Like: if today had gone differently, I might be backstage at the Queen's show with Betty and Eva. Instead, I'm in flannel PJs, typing in my journal and eating cereal for dinner. Cream of buckwheat, to be exact. I like cereal for dinner when it's a choice, not a state of mind.
So, the dress. It's in the window of a store called Bottlebrush Tree, and it's the most luminous shade of pale yellow, strapless and fitted, with a sort of gauzy layer over it. I know you're thinking "too cutesy," but trust me, I don't usually fall for dresses like this.

I visit the window every day on my way to work. See, Bottlebrush Tree is one of those stores where I'd have to ring the bell to be let in, and then I'd have to talk to the lady and pretend I had $5000 to spend on a yellow dress, and an occasion to wear a yellow dress, and I'm not very good at pretending.

I know I said this journal wasn't going to be about bags or clothes, but the dress is an exception.

I'm about to say goodbye to my dress when I notice someone close behind me in the reflection. It almost looks like...I turn around, but the sidewalk is empty. I've been a bit on edge lately, maybe since the Thing That Happened in the Snow. I pull my grey hoodie around me and walk briskly down Miracle Mile.
Next door to my office, a couple of workmen are finishing up a sign on the new building. I thought they were opening another fancy burger joint, but the marble exterior seems far too elaborate. One of the workmen is carving a symbol I've never seen before. It looks kind of like a Hebrew letter inside a heart-shaped shell.

"Hey, do you know what's opening here?" I ask the workman. He stops carving and stares right through me.

"Francesca!" Because I'm a minute late, Maribel corners me at the door. Maribel is the owner of the first-floor wedding dress shop. Her side project is looking for new ways to humiliate me in front of her customers. She's holding a giant box of chocolate butterflies.

"Francesca, try one," she drawls.

"No thanks," I say, "It's too early in the morning for butterflies." As usual, my absurdist humor completely washes over Maribel.

"No," Maribel says, blocking my path. "I need you to taste this butterfly. My client must choose her party favors, but she can't afford to gain an ounce. She's getting married! But you, no boyfriend, no wedding, you should taste." Maribel shakes the box in my face. Behind her, I see a bride-to-be in a strapless cream gown, looking at me sympathetically. Bride's mother chimes in: "Would you mind? It cost us a fortune to tailor this dress." I look at the bride, at the mother, at Maribel's faux smile.

"I'm sorry," I say, "Chocolate makes me break out, and I'll never find a boyfriend if I'm all pimply." I don't really say that. Instead I grab a butterfly and push past a triumphant Maribel to the service elevator. As the doors creak shut, I look at the butterfly. It's eat or be eaten, little guy.

I step out of the elevator on the second floor and see Betty at her desk, holding a large envelope. "Morning, Bets," I say, tossing the butterfly into the trash.

"Oh, hey." Betty looks startled, drops the envelope.
"What's that? More crazy fan mail for the Q.C.?" I ask, referring to the recent slew of letters we've received c/o the local prison.
"No..." Betty starts to rearrange the pile of alligator bars on her desk, so I know something's up. No one ever sees our office, so the messier the better, in our opinion.
"No, it's...Eva came by this morning. She said the Queen's doing a special show tonight, invitation only."
"That's great! So we'll get to meet her, finally."
"Um...actually, Eva said it's just going to be firsts and seconds this time, and you've only been the third for a couple of months. It's really lame, honestly, I don't even want to go." Betty runs her finger across the delicate gold lettering of the invitation, then reaches up to place it on a stack of contracts, stretching hopelessly towards the ceiling.
"Of course you're going. I expect a full report Monday on the Queen’s dazzling smirk. Oh, and nab me a souvenir -- maybe a lock of the drummer’s hair?"
"Definitely." Betty looks relieved. She jumps up and drags out a cardboard box. "So we have a few more book chapters to edit for Her Royal Highness."
On my way out that night, I walk past the phalanx of ghost-mannequins. I pass by Maribel, going over the books by the dim glow of a gardenia-scented candle. The strong white-floral scent reminds me of the perfume my lead actress used to wear in The Proposal and of my mom’s advice: don’t ever let your scent follow you.

Maribel leans over to blow out the candle. Hanging from her neck over her spray-tanned cleavage is some sort of charm, like a circle of glass with something red inside. I'm about to wish her goodnight, when she looks up and sees me. She quickly draws her shawl, covering the necklace, and lowers her reading glasses.

"Happy Halloween," she says.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Morning Rituals

Monday. I hit play on my iPod and drag myself to the shower. Jellyfish's "Joining a Fanclub" is the first song out of the speakers. Perfect.

I grab my grey jean miniskirt and a ladybug cami from the laundry pile, figuring it's just gonna be Betty and me in the office today.

I mix my gels, cremes, and serums and run them through my curls in a losing battle against the humidity.

Tote bag.
Phoenix CD (for the car).

For my brief commute, I'm more than a third assistant: singing along to "Rally" in a French accent, dodging Miami drivers -- I'm a rock star. I imagine the conversation between the Queen and Eva, her first assistant.

Q. C.: Eva, I can't believe this extraordinary talent is my third assistant. Did you know she could sing?
Eva: No...I...I'm as surprised as you are. Her name's Francie.
Q. C. (clapping): Second assistant--
Betty: --It's Betty--
Q. C.: --You. Finish the press kits. I need one hundred sent out within the hour and make sure they all have the photo of me as Tosca. Francie, I'm one back-up singer short for tonight's show and I'm desperate. Can you wear a Size 0?"

First stop: Cafe Mauricio's, a little Spanish castle of a coffee shop. I order a mint tea and a carrot muffin. A couple of thirty-something lawyer types check out the skirt. I grab the tea in one hand, muffin in the other, turn to make my exit--

--and run (literally) into a crisp, pink polo shirt. The shirt screams, I think, and then--

Shirt: Francie?

I look up, and the shirt's owner pushes back tortoise shell glasses. I'm staring into the green eyes of Brad, son of the mayor of Battersea, one of the most exclusive South Florida zip codes. If you were to pick up any of the local tabs, you'd know that Brad is the closest thing our city has to royalty.

Brad and I went to high school together. I think he was my brother's year, so he'd be about 26. Single. Jewish.

(This is for you, my tab-readers.)

Brad's trying to mop up his shirt. If this were a movie, he'd say something clever, I'd say something clever, and this would be "the encounter." Instead I'm frozen, looking at Brad and his glasses.

This isn't the first time I've fallen for an accessory. First, it was David Goldberg, with his black converse hightops in fifth grade drama class. Later, it was Rafe's messenger bag, or maybe guitar. Now, it's the glasses. It's definitely the glasses.

"I'm so sorry." I hand him more napkins.
"It's okay, it's time, could you order an iced tea?" Brad pulls his jacket on. I look desperately at the door. The lawyers are blocking my escape. The lady behind the counter feels sorry for me. She tries to hand me a new tea.
"So you're back," Brad says, quickly intercepting.
"I'm back."
"I heard you left us."
"Oh, no, I...yeah, I guess I did."
"New York," he says, thoughtfully. "So why Miami? You had a big hit senior year, a play. Didn't it win that award?"
"Things happen," I say. Brad looks at me closely. Or maybe he's counting ladybugs. My phone starts to vibrate -- Betty: Where r u?? "I'd...better run."
"Okay. Well, I'm just down the street. Big silver building, looks like the Death Star. Another lawyer, I know. But it's environmental law, so we're on the good side...."
"I have to go. Sorry again." I grab the tea and manage not to spill it.

For some reason, I don't tell Brad about my job. Maybe it's the feeling I'll run into him again, or maybe I'm not sure how third assistants rank next to models or heiresses. Later, when Betty and I are stuffing gift bags for the charity auction, she makes me tell her the story over and over again.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Queen Conch

On Miracle Mile in Coral Gables, there is a certain wedding dress shop that looks like it has been there forever. If you keep walking past the excited hum of bride-filled dressing rooms to the old service elevator, and take this elevator up to the second floor, you'll find my office.

I've been working as an assistant to a pop star, a diva, you'd know her. Let's call her the "Queen Conch." I'd say she was about ten years older than me, but her true age is a well-kept secret.

You'd think my life was pretty glamorous, all concerts and bling, if it weren't for the fact that I'm actually the third assistant to the Queen. This means I've mostly been working for Betty, the Queen's second assistant. So far as Betty and I can tell, Eva, the Queen's first assistant, is the only one of us who has seen or spoken to the Q. C. since our work began.

The Queen's got her hands in everything, so Betty and I help organize her various projects (like last week's benefit and this week's fashion show) and field phone calls (mostly telling fans they can buy the Queen's book, Men, Mojitos, & Song, out December 1st).

I wasn't born to be a third assistant to a pop diva. 

I might not even be here if it weren't for the Thing That Happened in the Snow. Things happen.

For instance: every night, as I drive home under the dark canopy of trees on Old Cutler, the soundtrack changes.

My favorite three driving home songs:

(1) Sufjan Stevens, "The Mistress Witch From McClure (Or The Mind That Knows Itself),"
(2) Martha Wainwright, "Factory,"
(3) Wolf Parade, "Shine a Light."

It's funny how in fairy tales, everything happens in threes.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Star Islanders

I’m not a Star Islander. In fact, it’s been ten years since I last visited. It was the night of my senior prom.

I stepped out of the limo and into a house built like a Moroccan temple, a maze of soft white walls and no corners.

The house belonged to a girl named Sea.

I sat, curled up on the couch next to my boyfriend (the Composer) and the other almost-adults. I think we watched TV, then fell asleep in separate beds.

The boyfriend: first in a line of boyfriends to become Important, to compose a talked-about symphony or front a band.

Now, when I flip open the Sunday Times, I half-expect to find a section: Francie's Great and Not-so-great Loves. Reviews of minor celebrities.

But this is my journal, not theirs. Once, a long time ago, I also graced the cover of a magazine. It was a story on the Next Big Thing and I was It, author of a hit off-Broadway play: The Proposal. Maybe you've seen it.
I've only recently moved back to Miami, so I feel a bit like a native tourist. This isn't a journal so much as a tourist guide. Point A to Point B and places off the map.

(If you were expecting a soap opera about botoxed housewives and Prada bags, you might want to stop reading.)

I’m not sure anymore what it takes to be a star, or even a Star Islander. I'd like to know, because I've never felt all glittering like the rows of mansions lining the Bay.

Even ten years ago. It was always amazing that between the two of us (the musical genius and the writer) we could never decide on a place to eat.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Prologue: Dear Readers

I’m typing this on the Device, because I’ve been told it’s the best way to reach you, my fellow travelers. Post after post, like lanterns, leading the way. In an instant, clouds shift, and my life is in your hands.

So to speak.