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 Eva...is 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.