Sunday, September 21, 2008

The First Dance

Delgado. I’d never heard Eva’s last name before (she was always Eva or First Assistant). Delgado’s a common enough name, I guess...

The crowd quickly pairs off, and in a second, a handsome Robin grabs Betty and leads her to the dance floor. She shrugs and gestures to the guy standing next to me, a lone crow. He stares into his punch. I watch as the crowd transforms into an elegant, choreographed dance, seemingly from another time.

As the figures glide past me, I marvel at all these people who seem to know where they’re going. As gloved hand meets gloved hand, I start to feel like I’ve spent my whole life (or at least my almost-thirties) looking on.

I start to feel a bit dizzy, as all the brightly-feathered birds twirl by, and the lights of the ballroom darken. My empty punch glass suddenly feels heavy in my hand. How long have I been standing here?

I am like an owl of the desert.

Brad and Eva circle past me, and without thinking, I lower my mask. Brad sees me and freezes. Eva looks to see what he’s looking at, and I duck around the corner.

What was I thinking, coming here? This isn’t my scene. The only reason Brad’s had anything to do with me is cause Khost asked him to.

A couple of parakeets dart past me, and I catch one say, “You know, he could have his pick. And did you see the picture? She must have a winning personality. Poor Eva.”

“I should go,” I say, aloud, and as I start to head for the exit, Brad blocks me.

“Nice egret,” he says.

“Shouldn’t you be out there,” I say, gesturing to the dance floor, “the First Dance isn’t over yet.”

“It's okay, Eva and I will have many more dances.”

“Oh, right, I forgot. You’re engaged. Congratulations. Mojitos all around.”

“What is with you?”

“What’s with me? You’re supposed to be helping me look for the Second Point, and instead, you’re strutting around Battersea with Eva.”

“I’m a falcon,” says Brad, “falcons don’t strut. And I’ve been looking for you the past few days. Where have you been?”

“I was kidnapped, thank you. At the Queen’s book signing, didn’t you see--”

“--all I know is, I turned around, and you were gone.”

“Khost is a D.S.M. Surely he could have tracked down where I was.”

“Well maybe he thought what I did -- that you went off to search for the Second Point on your own.”

“That’s crazy, why would I--” We both look at Eva, who’s searching the room for Brad. He lowers his voice.

“I’m sorry about the Dirt, they’re always trying to pin something on me, trying to make me into Miami's bad boy.”

“Yeah, well, I’m sorry to have ruined your reputation,” I say.

“That is not what I meant!”

“But you know what people are saying. How long are you gonna slum it with a third assistant just to save your client’s Bottlebrushes?”

Brad nods, silently, and starts to turn away. I call after him.

“I quit my job, okay? I’m Khost’s full-time. So as far as anyone knows, I’m downsized. The tabs aren’t gonna let this go, they’ll follow us, and your mother, the Mayor...”

“What about the Mayor?” a deep, stern voice bellows from behind Brad.

The Mayor lowers her peacock mask. “I told you to stay away from her,” she says, as if I’m not there.

“Exactly what I was saying,” I say, trying to duck away. Brad grabs my wings and yanks me closer, as I try to extract myself.

“This isn’t your show, Mom,” says Brad.

“Oh really?” says the Mayor.

“It’s not a bad play,” I say. “If you add the jealous girlfriend.” Eva appears next to the Mayor, her face pink.

“Brad,” she says, softly, “I’m missing a partner.”

“So is Francie,” says Brad, and as his mother and Eva look on, wide-eyed, he pushes me towards the dance floor.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Fantastic Grow The Evening Gowns

I want to live where soul meets body

--Death Cab for Cutie

Betty and I are standing in front of the full-length mirror in my lobby.

“I’m not sure I can do this,” I say, behind my snowy egret mask.

“Of course you can,” says Betty, the pink cockatoo. “You look amazing. I wish I had your legs.”

“Nice plumage,” says Ralph, opening the door for us, “save me a dance, will ya?”


The Gala is at Viscaya, a mansion built like a Venetian palace, all tapestries and mirrors. Now, it’s glowing with the night arrival of the South Florida elite, each costume more elaborate than the next, each a celebration of the best plastic surgeons, the most sparkling diamonds.

Betty insisted on paying for the limo, even though she can’t afford it, so we could make a grand entrance.

The path leading to the palace glows with lanterns and the scent of freshly cut gardenias floating in pools. Gardenias again. I make a note of this, but try not to read too much into their overpowering perfume.

“Mademoiselles Egret and Cockatoo,” announces the masked wild duck at the foyer. I take a deep breath and step out into the crowd, as Death Cab begins to play Soul Meets Body.

Cause in my head there’s a greyhound station
Where I send my thoughts to far off destinations

Sometimes I think the music I hear is not a coincidence, or an accidental soundtrack. Songs appear and disappear, like lights in the darkness.

“Let’s grab some punch,” says Betty, steering me towards an elaborate parrot ice sculpture. As I’m staring at it, a real parrot with a bright red tail glides down and lands on the table, unseen by the Woman in Feathers, ladling punch.

I start towards Max, but Betty grabs my arm and pushes me towards the punch.

“Drink up,” says Betty, handing me a fizzing glass. “Then, we’re gonna dance.”

I look around for Officer Khost, but it’s impossible to find anyone in the masked crowd. I make eye contact with a sinister-looking raven, leaning against a column. He bows in my direction.

As if on cue, the crowd (flock?) of birds starts to murmur and turns to face the entrance.

“She’s lovely,” whispers the Woman in Feathers.

It’s impossible not to recognize Eva, radiant and show-stopping as the pink flamingo. Brad, the noble falcon, takes her arm. Behind them, the unmistakable figure of the Mayor, dressed, rather ridiculously, as a peacock.

The Mayor steps forward, her tail swatting the guests on either side of her. She raises her hand to quiet the crowd of revelers.

“On behalf of the Queen, one of Miami’s finest, I want to welcome all of you to the Queen’s Gala. The Queen regrets that she cannot be with us tonight, but she had emergency. Though we live in difficult times, dark times, perhaps, it is a tribute to this great city that we can come together with music, laughter, and love.” She squeezes Eva’s shoulders.

“And now, please join my son and his new fiancĂ©, Eva Delgado, for the First Dance.”

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Betty's Story, or The Island of Bones and Ashes

Betty packs up her make-up kit and looks around to make sure the other artists are out of earshot.

“You wanna know what the Dirt says? Here's a story. A few hundred years ago, the Red Coral Society, picking up where Ponce de Leon left off, found Bottle #3, the first of three keys to unlocking the Fountain.”

“The first point,” I say. Betty looks at me. “Nothing.”

“At first, the Society celebrated its find and swore, in a blood oath, to guard it at all costs. But then some members started to change with the discovery. They became cautious, paranoid, threatening their fellow members, convinced that a group of traitors was planning to steal the bottle, find the second two keys, and claim the Fountain for themselves."

“The Dirt says (and don’t ask me know they know this) that Juan Rosado, founder of the Red Coral Society, called a meeting. He thought he could address the rival faction head-on.”

“I think I know where this is going,” I say.

“Let me finish,” says Betty. “I know I’m not as good at stories as you. The Red Coral Society met at the Old Fort, in heart of the Glades. In attendance were Juan, his right-hand man, a Spaniard named Luis Delgado--”

“--the Architect--”

“--ten members of the Red Coral Society, and ten members of the Calusa Indian tribe.”

“The meeting quickly turned violent. Several of the men accused of betraying the Society turned around and accused the Calusas using their ‘witchcraft’ to keep them from finding the Fountain. Of course, the Calusas, who already didn’t have such a stellar view of the Spanish, denied this. No one knows what really happened that night, but according to the Dirt, someone at that meeting, probably drunk on Spanish rum, grabbed one of the Society’s most sacred objects, the Map of Hidden Places, and held it in the air, threatening to light it on fire and destroy all record of the search for the Fountain.”

“The meeting dissolved into chaos, and somehow, someone started a fire. It spread quickly, enveloping the Old Fort in flames, and trapping several Red Coral Society members and Calusas inside, while the others fled. The Dirt says maybe half of the original Red Coral Society and several Calusas died that night, and the rest were forever changed. Juan Rosado survived, but was badly scarred.”

“And the Map of Hidden Places?” I ask.

“Destroyed,” says Betty.

“From that night on, the Calusas called the Island where the fort once stood the Island of Bones and Ashes, and the Seminoles, who now live in the Glades, don’t go anywhere near it.”

“This sounds like a ghost story,” I say.

“All I know is, I caught Eva on the phone the other day saying something about a bottle, which I assumed was the bottle you showed me at Havana, and how the Red Coral Society needed to arrange a meeting, to take place at the next full moon, on the Island of Bones and Ashes. I’m telling you Francie, you don’t wanna get involved with the Red Coral Society. It’s dark stuff. I don’t know about you, but I generally stay away from places with the word ‘bones’ in them,” Betty finishes. “What?”

“Nothing,” I say, grimacing, “just a cramp.”

“I didn’t want to tell you all this. Let’s get you ready for the Gala, I’ll give you my bird from last year, if it fits. You’re really not sleeping with Brad?” says Betty.

“Not even cuddling,” I say, gloomily.

Monday, September 01, 2008

The Season

“Close your eyes,” says Betty, applying shadow. “You wanna know what the tabs say? They say, you’re almost thirty, you just quit a highly-coveted job as a third assistant, and you’re completely oblivious to the fact that it’s the Season...”

“Mangos?” I ask.

“Parties. Symphonies. Galas.” Betty looks at me like I’m hopeless.

“I’m not gonna let you go home, wash this make-up off, and throw on your grey hoodie. You’re coming with me to the Queen’s Gala tonight. It’s a masquerade ball: Birds of Florida. No one will know you’re there.”

“I’d love to,” I say, “but I’m a little busy right now. And the last time I saw the Queen, I had a gun pointed at my face and a knife at my throat.”

“Don’t be so melodramatic,” says Betty, “you need to refocus. No more pining after your ex, what was his name? Now Brad’s marrying Eva and you’re pining after him.”

“I’m not pining,” I say, “Brad’s hardly pine-worthy.”

Betty stops applying make-up and opens a drawer. She takes out a photo album. Instead of photos, the album is filled with magazine cut-outs of engagement rings. She flips to a full-page ad for a sparkling diamond solitaire.

“Francie, this is Cartier. You’re never going to meet him if you stay at home, watching reruns of Gossip Girl and eating alligator bars.”

“Hi, Cartier,” I say.

Betty stares at the ad for a moment, then closes the album and gives me a serious look.

“I’m sure Brad likes hanging out with you, but reality check: he’s Miami royalty. He’s got to marry his princess, it’s in his contract. And where does that leave you?”

“Kissing toads,” I say.

“Kissing toads,” affirms Betty.

“Brad’s gonna be at the Gala?” I ask, and Betty nods.

“Be my date,” says Betty, “forget Brad.”

“Okay,” I say, “I’ll make an appearance. But only if you tell me what you know about the Red Coral Society. They're after me, and the bottle, and
I need to know what they want.”