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 just...next 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.