“I can’t believe this is happening,” Vincent said, mumbling into his mango-kumquat smoothie as he gazed up at the television screen inside the lounge. “I’m just glad the General’s not around to see this!”
He licked his mustache and set the slender glass back down on the bar, where for a moment it teetered on the brink. Nikolai, the bartender, was quick to slide it back to safety. (Under the circumstances, Nikolai was being extra-attentive.) Vincent, meanwhile, kept his eyes fixed on the television monitor. A big story was breaking on cable news, something profoundly disturbing to those gathered inside the Twisted Tulip lounge.
* * *
The Twisted Tulip was Vincent’s favorite hang-out in all of Kings World, although Vincent wasn’t what you would call a “regular.” He was partial to Little Amsterdam to begin with—he and the General had spent so many memorable times in Holland together during their younger days—and the Twisted Tulip stood right in the heart of it. Inside, the lounge was especially dark and cozy, and Vincent usually was able to relax in relative obscurity, out of the limelight and away from the hubbub of the bustling amusement park. And since the use of mobile phones was expressly prohibited inside the lounge (all signals, in fact, were blocked), Vincent could enjoy his visit there without interruption, well knowing that the World would keep on twirling, as it were, without his intervention. But there was no enjoyment for the moment.
According to the news story, a small airplane heading south out of the States had crashed into the sea just north of Kings World, with one of her wings clipping a tourist-packed cruise ship as she went. Fortunately, no one on the ship had been injured, but the airplane (and whoever was on board) had disappeared into the sea. Already—not two hours later—deep-sea salvage teams from both the States and Kings World had begun mobilizing to recover the sunken wreck.
As usual, in deference to the mostly foreign clientele, the TV monitors around the lounge were tuned in to a popular cable news broadcast from the States, which for Vincent was really the only drawback to visiting the place, at least at that particular time of day. Ever since the botched presidential election in the States, the news programs originating there had become almost too painful to watch. It had been bad enough that the supposedly impartial media had practically colluded in getting the hapless buffoon elected president, but now that he was in office and mucking things up everywhere (even worse than the opposition had predicted), the media were now sitting right up on his bandwagon, cheering him along--still trying to make their dismal choice look good, Vincent lamented.
And not only had the media lost all sense of objectivity (even what little it once had), the airwaves were now filling up with a new breed of “journalist” who were going so far as to trade in the ideologically charged lingo so dear to the regime’s most loyal contingent. Plain, dispassionate description would no longer do. It was enough to make Vincent’s skin crawl, or worse.
As reported, the now-lost airplane had been on a so-called “rescue mission” to drop “pro-family” leaflets over Kings World—alas, nothing new. It occurred two or three times a year, ever since Kings World opened. To certain self-styled religious types in the States and elsewhere, Kings World was Sodom and Gomorrah rolled up into one, and as such, a prime target for preachers and others bent on crusading and proselytizing in the name of their god. But aside from the fact that Kings World was an amusement park and resort dedicated primarily to adult entertainment and edification, owned and operated predominantly by gays, the place was, in a word, enchanting, and all the more so for being a real place where real people lived.
Ever since the enormously successful “Adults Are People, Too” advertising campaign, people from the States had been flocking to Kings World in droves. It was a place where they could bring the kids and still have plenty of good, grown-up fun. Where else in the world could they—say—drop off the kiddies at the Slumber Party Pagoda and then go out for a night on the town in the Forbidden City, where positively no one under the age of twenty-one was allowed! And the kiddies loved it. Hence the park’s universal appeal.
The leaflet-dropping forays went usually without incident. Except for the airport, the seaport, and the beaches, most of the island of Palmyra—including the urban area that encompassed the amusement park, and the outlying suburbs and industrial areas—was enclosed beneath an air-conditioned, geodesic dome. Moreover, the airport and seaport terminals were themselves fully enclosed and connected directly to the dome by light-rail transit lines. The leaflet-dropping campaigns thus accomplished little but to produce extraneous litter, which the army of groundskeepers and dome workers were more than happy to dispose of.
But now, with the loss of an airplane—the first such occurrence in all the years the drops had been going on—certain religious leaders in the States were accusing Kings World of intentionally shooting the plane down.
Vincent could feel the hair at the back of his neck beginning to stand on end. And what increasingly riled him—though admittedly it didn’t surprise him—was the way the media in the States were so shamelessly feeding into the hands of these “goddamned fanatics,” giving them large blocks of valuable air time to publicize what was merely speculation, fanning the smoldering fires of fear and hatred in the process. Vincent was seething.
“As if the facts by themselves weren’t sensational enough!” he fumed. “What a fucking show!” Vincent knew full well that Kings World had nothing to do with the airplane’s going down.
Or could he be so sure? “Well, we better not’ve had anything to do with it,” he grumbled, dabbing his slightly foaming mouth with a Bev Nap. “And if we did!” (No, he had to rely on his advisors.) Now he was just hoping that the folks up in the States, who in fact comprised the bulk of Kings World’s business, would also be savvy enough to view this so-called news as the show that it was, and not be discouraged from spending their hard-earned vacation time, not to mention their hard-earned dollars, down in Kings World. But things weren’t looking terribly good.
If it weren’t bad enough that the unctuous Rev. Beau Farley, media pundit and founder of Jus’ Jesus Ministries Worldwide, was being “consulted” every five minutes via satellite from his flower-bedecked pulpit, calling the incident a “massacre,” there was the running commentary by anchorperson Holly Rawling (the “Anchorwhore,” as Vincent called her), raising questions—along with her eyebrows—over the “peculiar” policies at Kings World: the established freedom of and from religion and the laws restricting evangelizing and proselytizing on the island—all based on the “quirky” (read: “queer”) right to be left alone. Vincent gasped and rolled his eyes. Finally he stuck his tongue out at Holly and gave her a big raspberry. (Now that felt good!)
Meanwhile, Vincent could at least console himself in knowing that ultimately, when the “black boxes” were finally recovered from the aircraft, however long that might take—weeks perhaps—Kings World would be exonerated and its reputation, however dimly viewed by certain religious types in the States and elsewhere, would be restored.
Vincent finished off his smoothie, took a deep breath, and looked around the bar. He was feeling better now. Nikolai was presently staring right at him, smiling warmly, reassuringly. Vincent took another deep breath and removed his yellow-tinted glasses, closing his eyes for a moment and massaging them between his thumb and forefinger. Then he looked up.
And what was that nasty-looking stuff Nikolai was pouring into the blender? Yuck, skim milk—Nikolai was making him another smoothie. “Nik, make that a gin and tonic, please,” Vincent called out. “On second thought, make it vodka.” Under the circumstances, Vincent figured it best to abstain from his usual Bombay gin.
“Yes, your serene highness, right away,” Nikolai said, stressing the word serene as he flashed Vincent a gat-toothed grin. As much as Nikolai liked to kid around with the big boss, right now he was more concerned with keeping him calm.
Vincent detached his gaze from the TV for a moment and glanced around the bar. The other customers—a half-dozen or so, and counting—were also staring up at the monitors and looking considerably rattled over the news reports. Momentarily another half-dozen straggled in: passengers from the cruise ship, Vincent reckoned. They took seats at the bar in a loose-knit group and began ordering drinks. In between cutting limes and washing glasses in preparation for Happy Hour, Nikolai had been right there to greet them. They looked frazzled, stressed-out, as no doubt they were, considering they could easily have been killed in the “rescue mission incident” (as the news reporters were calling it now).
Vincent sipped his vodka and watched in amusement as the new customers laid their freshly-exchanged “funny money” out on the bar and began fumbling through it to pay for their drinks, cracking little smiles as they went. Vincent would gladly have bought the whole bar a round—he felt so sorry for the bunch—but, as always, he was loath to attract attention.
At last, Vincent’s vodka-and-tonic was beginning to exert its intended effect. The television screen slowly receded into the background—where it belonged—and the magic of the Twisted Tulip began its work. The rich, mellow Rembrandts and other Old Masters, meticulously reproduced and framed in brilliant gold, shone in sublime radiance against the deep ocher satin on the walls. The bold, colorful bunches of tulips and pots of scarlet amaryllis lent their own vibrancy to the room. The flickering electric candles, ensconced among the paintings, animated the scene, while the clever roving eyes in “The Night Watch” added a dash of humor.
Vincent smiled and lifted his glass to one of the last of Rembrandt’s self-portraits, hanging nearby. How he loved the Old Dutch Master. Yet much as he loved him, he swore nonetheless that he would never abide such wrinkles, not on his face, at least not with the help of modern medicine. And, thankfully, the giant dome blocked the most harmful, skin-damaging forms of sunlight.
Vincent then paused to watch Nikolai, who was busy slicing up lemon twists down the bar. Of average height, Nikolai was slim but sinewy, dark and handsome, with a heavy five o’clock shadow that encompassed his shapely, bald-shaven head. On his back, which was momentarily facing Vincent, a patch of curly dark hair sprang up at the base of his neck and disappeared beneath a white, ribbed-cotton tank top, which itself disappeared into a pair of tight black jeans secured by a gleaming studded belt. All solid bones and muscle, Vincent was thinking. And a solid personality, too. Vincent was very pleased with Nikolai. Not all of the bartenders had turned out so good.
Out of the corner of his own roving eye, Vincent soon noticed that one of the newly arrived patrons was staring at him. When Vincent momentarily stared back, he quickly cast his eyes down to the copper-clad bar, where sat his little pile of crowns, coronets, sovereigns, sixpence, sesterces, and sous, each with their own humorous portraits and mottoes. A moment later, the guy looked back up at Vincent. Vincent raised his glass to him and nodded.
Nobody ever stared at him any more, Vincent lamented. Even under so-called normal circumstances, nobody even much looked at him, except for women, that is. Women of all ages and descriptions. Vincent found it somewhat ironic that the older he got, the more attractive he appeared to women, while the less attractive he appeared to his gay brethren. Well, he figured he had to be doing at least something right. And then, of course, there were the drag queens. Somehow he had always attracted them—much to his chagrin.
Anyway, gays were too obsessed with looking young, Vincent thought, himself included, of course. Being young, actually. But—alas—the human body was designed to hold up past age thirty-five and (with the help of modern medicine, at least) even forty. “Heaven forbid,” Vincent mumbled, taking another slow sip of vodka. So then, why was this guy staring at him?
“Uh-oh,” Vincent thought, fumbling with a cigarette before he lit it. “I hope it isn’t so.” Yet he feared it was.
Vincent took a deep puff and nonchalantly looked around the bar. Yes, indeed, he was quite pleased with the recent redecorating job. He’d about had it with the floor-to-ceiling mirrored walls, even though the warped mirrors from the old Fun House, hung at random among the regular ones, had always been a big hit with the customers. (They helped put the twisted in the Twisted Tulip.) And so by popular demand, Vincent had had the Fun House mirrors re-installed in the long hallway leading to the restrooms.
As it was, Vincent had simply grown tired of sitting there watching himself grow old—from every conceivable angle, no less, not to mention in all manner of unseemly distortion. No, at this particular stage in his life, Vincent preferred a more traditional setting in which to sit and relax. And as much as Vincent disliked watching himself grow old, watching Rembrandt grow old—on the other hand—didn’t bother him in the least. Quite to the contrary, Vincent took great delight in the watching: so flawlessly had the Master depicted his own deterioration. Meanwhile, Vincent noticed he was still being watched by the young tourist.
Presently the young man held up a one-crown coin in one hand and a cigarette lighter in the other. Then he lit the flame, examining the coin closely in the flickering light. He then turned to whisper something to his traveling companion sitting beside him, and now both of them looked over at Vincent.
Vincent squirmed in his seat and took another sip of his drink. So he’d been spotted, again—from his silly little picture on the coin!
“How the hell do they do that?” he wondered. The portrait was ten years old, at least, and hardly looked a thing like him anymore. Back then Vincent was clean-shaven, with a full head of hair; now he was bearded and balding. The portrait also showed him wearing a laurel wreath (one of the General’s old things). And encircling the portrait were inscribed the words “Vincent Rex”: “Vincent the King.”
“Damn! How do they do that?!” he moaned, downing the last of his vodka.
Growsers rule! Randy and Sandy didn’t mean to act smug, but the noble line of growsers had ruled the Earth—well, inhabited the island, at least—for eons before the coming of those like Vincent. Growsers had no natural enemies, being intelligent enough to stay out of trouble and, slight and nimble as they were, not worth the effort to hunt down, catch, and—Heaven forbid—gobble up alive! The reigning race of big-bald-mamas-on-two-legs just made the growsers’ lives a little easier and more interesting. (How fortunate that growsers aroused their maternal instinct.) And Randy and Sandy truly loved Vincent—he was a good provider, he was affectionate, he was respectful of the growsers’ noble station, and, perhaps most important of all, he was warm. They could snuggle in his clothes for hours on end without a care in the world. How they loved his clothes! Billowy, baggy, soft, and full of interesting pockets.
When it came to the big bald mamas, Vincent was quite special indeed. And while he was balder than most, he made up for it in splendid whiskers. Presently Randy and Sandy were nestled deep in the interior of Vincent’s jacket, resting contentedly—that is, until the music started up.
Princess Janeva Brown had a whole new attitude. “Now, this could be fun!” she said, peeking inside the cozy-looking Twisted Tulip lounge. She was ready for a little cocktail right about now, she reckoned. For a while there, she’d been having serious second thoughts about the whole trip, despite the fact she’d won it in a radio station contest back in the States.
Heading two days out of the Port of Maiyami aboard the festive M.S. Bloemendam, it had been relatively smooth sailing until about the last half hour of the trip. First, a little airplane almost crashed into the ship just as they were approaching the port; then her luggage got lost. Well, not lost, actually. She’d just had trouble finding it among the thousands of bags lined up in rows inside the cavernous cruise ship terminal. She’d never been on a cruise before, and probably wouldn’t have gone on this one if it hadn’t been free. Even then, she almost didn’t go. She had no desire to hang out for days with a bunch of gay white boys. But her friends told her it would be fun, and that there would be plenty of black boys, too. Well, she had no desire to hang out with gay black boys, either. “Oh, come on, honey,” her cousin and best friend Sondra had told her. “There’s plenty of straight boys, too. You’ll have a great time!” Sondra had visited Kings World before, so she knew. Still, Princess Janeva—Jane, as she insisted folks call her—wouldn’t have gone on the trip if it hadn’t been free.
At least she’d had no trouble checking into her hotel or getting the proper currency—she was able to use her teller card for that, just like in the States. Only the machine dispensed crowns—clowns she called them as she stood counting them out, smiling as she went. The man at the front desk of the hotel had been most polite and helpful, directing Jane to the bank next door to get her money and, when Jane asked where she might go for a drink and a bite to eat, he’d suggested the Twisted Tulip; it was right down the street from the hotel.
So now with clowns in hand, she stopped at a gift shop along the way to pick up some postcards to send to back home, even though she figured she’d be back home herself by the time her friends got them. No matter; Jane enjoyed sitting and writing postcards. (She was a writer at heart.) She bought postcards whenever she went on a trip, some to send and also some to keep as souvenirs. The photographs on the cards were always better than what she could take with her own camera. Nonetheless, she had her camera with her, too.
The gift shop had an impressive selection of colorful cards—and some off-color ones, too, which had Jane turning a deep shade of purple. She was already glad she’d made the trip; boys or no boys, it appeared there would be plenty of things to do. There was the “Dark Ages” chamber of horrors—that looked pretty scary! And “King Ludwig’s Castle”—in pastel colors, no less—and “The General’s Tomb” and “The Cathedral of Brotherly Love.” There was even a Statue of Liberty one and a half times as tall as the original; Jane had seen it from the ship. (She wouldn’t bother to send that card since it looked too much like New Yauk.) There were all kinds of rides to go on, too, plus museums and parks and casinos and live revues and free concerts and parades and cool shops and restaurants and bars. One postcard had a recipe for guacamole and another for key lime pie. Then there was the “Forbidden City” at night—which she certainly was not about to miss!
Jane picked out a dozen or so postcards and paid for them with her clowns, getting back even more-ridiculous currency in change. She smiled again and proceeded down to the Twisted Tulip. It was getting to be Happy Hour already, time for a cocktail and an hors d’oeuvre or two.
Vincent was in a quandary over being spotted. It happened three or four times a year—that is, outside of his official public appearances, rare as they were, and notwithstanding the fact that he wore disguises, even if only a pair of sunglasses and a hat. In fact, trying to spot Vincent had become something of an amusement in itself for park-goers, knowing that the king might be lurking in disguise somewhere in their midst, and Vincent knew that, of course, and tried to be a good sport about it.
He used to be spotted even more frequently, before he had his official portrait removed from all government buildings, and as ridiculous as that old photograph had been, too, with the Snidely Whiplash mustache and the old ermine draped around his neck, devouring her own tail. In light of the fact that his predecessor, the General, had been assassinated, Vincent preferred to stay out of the picture—or out of the sights, as it were—although from the safety of the Royal Apartment he blogged fearlessly throughout the day, on matters ranging from accuracy in the media to global warming, and at night enjoyed chatting on the Royal Chat and catching up on emails. (Though he was careful to mind his words if he was tipsy.) Vincent saw no reason to hold daily public audiences outside the official residence, as the General had done.
Meanwhile, he ordered another vodka and tonic and had Nikolai crank up the music videos. It was almost Happy Hour and Vincent had had quite enough of the vapid Holly Rawling and the bombastic Rev. Beau Farley and the endless invective dressed up in religious drag. Besides, it was making the customers flinch. Vincent stuck his tongue out at the Anchorwhore one last time before the videos came on, stretching his mouth wide between his forefingers.
* * *
It was time to kick back. Exhale. Ruminate a spell. The world, Kings World at least, was a much safer place than it had been when the General came to power, thanks of course to the General. For one reason, the General had been instrumental in getting handguns outlawed, holding himself out to be something of an authority on the subject, given his military background. Handguns were designed primarily for the purpose of shooting people, he argued, and by allowing their indiscriminate possession, the state was complicit in the killing and maiming of its own citizens. It had been a controversial move at the time.
Even more controversial was his ultimately successful campaign to have the death penalty revoked, again asserting his authority as a military man. He’d insisted that, except in times of war, the state had no business killing people, much less its own, especially since the state outlawed the practice in the first place.
But those initiatives were mere warm-up exercises compared with the sweeping “Reformation” (as he called it) the General would usher in, centered on wresting power from the prying preachers and the less than scrupulous lawyers and establishing the new regime.
And while these controversial moves had the ultimate effect of making the island nation a safer, more livable place for all, they had the immediate effect of making it a more dangerous place for the General. Suffice it to say, he made a lot of enemies along the way. And as events played out, the controversial handgun controls did nothing to stop one disgruntled and vengeful lawyer from using a hunting rifle to assault and mortally wound the General as he sat sipping a mint julep (with Vincent, his consort, seated beside him) on the veranda of the Taj Mahal discothèque, the assassin’s erstwhile palatial home.
Vincent took a deep breath and exhaled. How vividly those memories lingered. It was little wonder that Vincent shied away from controversy himself—most especially in public—although he didn’t appreciate being called a “wuss.” That pissed him off royally. It wasn’t as if Vincent had backed off from the General’s reforms—absolutely not. It’s just that Vincent wasn’t nearly as vocal (to put it nicely) as the General had been. He didn’t have a bunch of enemies.
No, Vincent really needn’t fear being assassinated. He had protection anyway—the General hadn’t—so why worry. He took a slow sip of vodka and closed his eyes.
The General’s assassin, Clay Pidgin, had been found guilty of aggravated regicide and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Pidgin was presently residing in the federal penal institution, open to the public and one of the island’s most popular tourist attractions. And the now aged and decrepit Pidgin was presently its main draw.
On his deathbed up in the castle, the General expressed no regrets. Vincent had been right there beside him—it had been their bed, after all. The General said he was proud of helping to establish the gay nation and “banishing the preachers,” and of turning the sleepy little island resort into a world-class amusement park. He said that, once he’d decided he had to be true to himself, he’d always enjoyed being “out” in public with the people; that he was sure that Vincent, so long as he remained true to his own self and his role as king (warning that it would no doubt be a challenge), would make an excellent successor; that he was old anyway; and, lastly, that he loved Vincent with all his heart. And with that said, he heaved a big sigh and peacefully passed on.
Vincent wiped a tear from his eye and looked around the bar. So he’d been spotted. So what! Yeah, he’d had a couple of drinks; he was feeling no pain. He’d come right out and announce who he was and buy the whole bar a round.
“Well, what have we here!” Vincent exclaimed, so loudly that some of the other customers heard him and looked up. Standing in the doorway, clad in a white, navy-trimmed sailor suit with gold epaulets and a crisp pleated skirt, a sailor’s cap cocked to one side, white gloves, and majorette boots, was the most fantastic-looking drag queen Vincent had ever seen. She strode up to the bar beneath the enormous “Night Watch,” its trick eyes following her as she went, and stood, arms akimbo. Nikolai was right there to take her order. The other customers looked on agape.
Meanwhile Trevor, the cook, was wheeling out a linen-draped cart laden with steaming chafing dishes from the kitchen. He, too, took note of the newcomer and laughed.
* * *
“Now this is nice!” Jane mused, taking a sip of her Singapore Sling as she glanced round the room. She’d never had a Singapore Sling before—she normally stuck to her Jack and Diet—but figured now was a good a time to try one, seeing that she was now safely put in at her exotic port of call. “Now that guy looks interesting,” she mused, gazing over at Vincent as she reached up to adjust her sailor’s cap. She was trying to locate a suitable place to sit down and decided to sit over near him. She just loved his cool baggy outfit, and he was handsome, too. “He can’t be gay,” she was thinking.
* * *
“She can’t be real,” Vincent mused. She appeared to be moving his way; if she got close enough, Vincent could tell for sure. Meanwhile the growsers were getting frisky; first the music had got them going, and now the smell of food was wafting through the lounge. (It was getting to be their dinner time.) Presently they were playing tag down in Vincent’s overalls. Even though he wasn’t really ticklish, it always made Vincent smile when they did.
* * *
“See, he’s smiling at me,” Jane mused, swinging a big straw bag as she slowly made her way around the bar, thrusting her hips out to the side as she went. It was her coolest walk—her After-Five Strut—though she rarely had the occasion to use it. But there was something about this guy. She preferred older men anyway; they were usually more settled-down and took better care of themselves, as well they had to.
* * *
“She’s too much!” Vincent was thinking, marveling as she swaggered his way, not missing one heave of her hips. Maybe she recognized him, too, and was looking for a lounge job. Well, that could be arranged!
* * *
Jane took a seat two stools down from Vincent and set her drink on the bar. She then reached into her bag and withdrew a large compact and a lipstick. She opened the compact and examined herself closely in the mirror. Her sailor’s cap had slipped a bit—one more thrust of her hips and it would surely have fallen off—so she carefully replaced it. Then she applied a fresh coat of lipstick, a sultry shade called “Island Maroon”—she’d bought it on board the ship.
Next she peeled off her gloves and tossed them into her bag along with the compact and lipstick, and withdrew a pack of cigarettes. She then lit one up and took a sip of her drink, drawing daintily through the plastic stirrer.
* * *
Vincent couldn’t tell whether she was “real” or not. Her bosoms looked real, but then so did those of a lot of other drag queens. Besides, hers were covered up beneath the fancy jacket and blouse. She didn’t have much of an Adam’s apple, he noticed, nor did she have much of a brow, even though most of that was covered up by her straight, black bangs. Vincent just couldn’t make a call. Meanwhile, the growsers had calmed down and were at last coming to rest, still warmly concealed in Vincent’s overalls, in the vicinity of Vincent’s lap.
* * *
“Will you get a load of that,” Jane was thinking. She wasn’t what you would call a “crotch-watcher” but, out of the corner of her eye, she couldn’t help but notice the movement in the guy’s pants. Then again, the room was pretty dark and the pants were awfully baggy. She took another dainty sip of her drink, now watching intently but still askance. No, it was definitely moving, and it was a big one.
“He likes me!” she mused, then deliberately turned her head in Vincent’s direction and slowly raised her eyes. He was looking right at her, grinning. She smiled back and then lowered her eyes to the bulge in his pants. It was quivering, twitching. Wow! She’d never seen anything like that before, at least not that she could recall. Not even when Jamal was on Viagra, God rest his soul. But wait, she was thinking, still looking but trying—well—hard not to be obvious, and she was usually as cool as—well—a cucumber. Sure, the drink was strong—and she’d never had one of those before—but was she really seeing double, or what?!
“Poor old guy probably doesn’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of,” Graham Hammond was thinking, looking over at Vincent. “Some starving artist, no doubt.” As a financial planner, Graham enjoyed picking the “losers” out in a crowd, those who hadn’t properly financially-planned their lives. He was already looking at retirement himself, and he was only forty-six. But now that his retirement was approaching, he was beginning to wonder what he was going to do with all that time on his hands. He hadn’t really thought much about it all the while he was doing his own financial planning. His goal in life had been simply to accumulate enough funds to be able to retire comfortably at a relatively early age, preferably before his friends, who would then envy him (and how he loved to incite envy!). Wasn’t that the dream back in the States? To make loads of money and then retire? But to retire and do what? He wasn’t into causes. He wasn’t into politics. (He voted his own pocketbook, of course.) He was presently at somewhat of a loss.
Well, he enjoyed traveling and he could afford to do plenty of that. But what would he do at home, around the house? More remodeling? He'd already remodeled the baths and the kitchen -- twice -- in the five years since he'd been there. He was tired of living in the constant mess. Still, he wasn't all that pleased with the shade of granite he'd chosen for his kitchen countertops -- it was a tad too dark -- nor with the double-bullnose edge. Damn! He should have gone with the double-ogee. Oh well. It still beat the God-awful green Corian. Two months and he was over that. What a mistake!
Graham took a big swig of his dry Ketel One martini and looked around the bar. “Gawd! This place looks like a museum,” he thought, making a sour face. He hadn’t visited Kings World since they redecorated the Twisted Tulip. And he wasn’t at all sure he liked it.
Vincent unzipped his pants and Randy and Sandy came scampering out. The drag queen in the sailor suit screamed and sprang from her seat like a jack-in-the-box, nearly toppling her heavy wooden stool. Vincent roared with laughter. He couldn’t resist a good practical joke, especially that one. (And, when he’d had a cocktail or two, he performed it fairly often.) Meanwhile, the other customers looked on, wide-eyed.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Vincent said, looking over at Jane. “It was only a little joke.” The growsers meanwhile had hopped up onto the bar and begun preening themselves.
“A little joke!” Jane said, gasping for air. “Don’t do that to me!”
“I’m really sorry,” Vincent said, making an effort to act serious. “Welcome to Kings World. Here, I’ll buy you a drink. What’s your name?” He then extended his hand to her.
“Princess Janeva Brown,” she said, primly shaking Vincent’s hand, “but please call me Jane. Just Jane. And yours?”
Meanwhile the young fellow who had “spotted” Vincent, along with the fellow sitting next to him, were now standing and leaning almost precariously in Vincent’s direction, clutching the edge of the bar, hanging on every word. Vincent noticed them out of the corner of his eye. He took a generous swig of his vodka. “What the hell,” he thought.
“Well, Princess—Jane. I’m Vincent, the King!” He then called out to Nikolai, loud enough that the whole bar could hear: “Buy the whole bar a round! Tell ‘em it’s on me, Vincent the King!” With that, he downed the last of his drink.
* * *
Graham Hammond looked up and pissed in his pants, then went running out of the lounge, leaving what was left of his dry Ketel One martini.
* * *
“Well,” Jane said, taking a big drag off her cigarette and exhaling it slowly. She was beginning to simmer down. “Pardon the expression,” she said. “So you’re ‘the king of the fags’?”
“I’m afraid so,” Vincent said, tipping his empty glass to her. He’d been called a lot worse, he reckoned, and to think he’d started out in gay life as Skinny Vinny, the size queen—one among many. Then raising his glass, he called out to all the customers: “Just don’t tell anyone you saw me in here! Cheers!”
Nikolai went around the bar, making fresh drinks for the customers who were near empty and handing out free-drink tokens to those who still had a way to go. Vincent, meanwhile, still couldn’t figure out who—or rather what—this Jane character was. “Yes, I’m the king here,” he said, looking back over at Jane. “And what do you do for a living?”
“I work in a law firm back in the States,” she said. “Fingal Gumball Hiney Ashlock Cashwist & Cicerovitz, to be exact.”
“That’s quite something. I’m impressed,” said Vincent.
“Oh, do you know the firm?” Jane said, cocking her head.
“Sorry, no,” Vincent said. “I meant I was impressed that you could rattle it all off so fast.” Like the General, before him, Vincent bore no great fondness for lawyers, although his best friend, the Prime Minister, was a lawyer, or had been. Nikolai meanwhile had made Vincent another vodka and tonic and was bringing it over, along with a token for Jane. Usually two drinks was Vincent’s limit, but apparently Nikolai was allowing him one more. “Are you an attorney?” Vincent asked.
“Secretary, for a partner in the probate department,” she said, looking down at the ashtray as she snuffed out her cigarette. “Let’s just say, it pays the bills. And the work can be pretty interesting at times.”
Well, that was all fine and dandy, Vincent thought, but it didn’t tell him what he was dying to know. Most legal secretaries were female, so most likely she was one, but couldn’t a male do the job equally as well? he wondered. And a fag at that.
“But I like to do my writing on the side,” Jane said, looking back up at him. “I’ve got a Bachelor’s in English.”
Even better, Vincent thought, but that didn’t tell him a whole lot either. Finally he just had to ask her: “I’m sorry, Jane, but are you a man or a woman?”
Jane’s jaw dropped and her eyes opened wide. She was momentarily at a loss for words. “Well, I never!” she finally replied. “Chil’, what do you think?”
“I really don’t know,” Vincent said. “That’s why I was asking. I don’t mean to be rude. Are you gay?”
“I ain’t no Lesbian, if that’s what you think!”
No, he didn’t. “Are you a man then?” he asked.
“A what?! Excuse me!”
“Are you a drag queen?”
“Hell no!” Jane said, lighting up another cigarette. “Do I look like one?”
Vincent hesitated for a moment. Well, he had his answer. Of course he could have told her yes, but he didn’t want to rile the woman any further. She was, after all, a paying customer and she fit right in at Kings World. Vincent thought she was fabulous. “No,” he said at last. “But around here, you just never know.”
“Well, I answered your question then,” Jane replied, composing herself once again and drawing a sip from her lavishly decorated drink as she looked around the bar. She was still glad she’d gone and sat by Vincent. What a sense of humor, she was thinking. And here he turned out to be the king! The Big Poo-Bah, the Grand Panjandrum (how she loved those words). Boy did she have a story to tell the girls when she got back to the States. “Do you mind if I take your picture?” she asked.
Vincent noticed she’d been reaching into her big purse for something, and for a moment he became somewhat alarmed, despite the fact his bodyguard was sitting at a table directly behind him, watching every move. “No, go right ahead,” he said, relieved to know it was only a camera, even as camera-shy as Vincent was.
Randy and Sandy meanwhile were standing up on their hind legs on top of the bar, sniffing the air. The lids
were off the chafing dishes now —customers were up helping themselves to the steaming-hot food.
Momentarily Nikolai returned with three steaming plates and set them down atop the bar—one for Jane, one for Vincent, and one for Randy and Sandy. He then reached into the front of his apron and withdrew two sets of silverware rolled up in paper napkins.
“Why, thank you,” Jane said, taking her silverware and sliding the little plate in front of her. “So what have we here?”
“I think we’ve got some crêpes of chitter fricassee in ink, with guacamole,” Vincent replied, unwrapping his knife and fork.
“Sounds interesting!” Jane said, taking a whiff of her plate. “So tell me,. what’s a chitter?”
Vincent meanwhile had begun cutting up the crêpes on Randy and Sandy’s plate. Randy and Sandy stood by, on all fours now, watching closely. They would wait till it cooled down a bit before they dined.
“Well, do you really want to know?” said Vincent, now slicing into the crêpes on his own plate.
“Don’t tell me this is another joke!” Jane replied, tucking her napkin into her blouse. She wasn’t about to soil the new white sailor suit which she’d bought for her vacation, and the food looked—well—indelible, if not exactly inedible.
“A joke? No, not at all,” Vincent replied, taking a bite of crêpe. “Let’s just say it’s a local critter,” he said. “Go ahead, try it. The way Trevor here makes it, you can hardly even taste it.”
Jane looked puzzled for a second. “Well, in that case, then,” she said, slicing off a piece of crêpe and dipping it into some guacamole, “I’ll give it a try.”
Randy and Sandy meanwhile were sitting on their haunches beside their own plate, nibbling gingerly at the sections of crêpe they held in their front paws. There was no guacamole for them, however—they found it way too sour for their palate.
“Not bad!” Jane said after she had swallowed her forkful. “Not bad at all!” Soon enough she had cleaned her plate, as had Vincent. “You know,” she said, removing her makeshift bib and setting it aside, “so far I have only one complaint.”
“And what is that?” said Vincent, wiping his mouth before taking a sip of vodka, leaving a large plum-colored stain on his napkin.
“Well, it has to do with your Air Traffic Control,” Jane said, withdrawing the compact and lipstick from her big straw bag, along with a sheaf of papers. “Not that it’s that much better back where I come from, mind you.”
Suddenly Vincent felt a slight pang of indigestion.
“I mean, we have near misses in the sky, and on the ground, too,” Jane said, examining her face in the mirror. Here she thought she’d have to reapply her lipstick, but her lips were now even more maroon than they’d been before she’d eaten. After adjusting her cap, she put the compact and lipstick away.
“But honey,” she continued. “Whatever problems we may have, we don’t have no planes crashing into no boats out in the middle of the open ocean.”
The growsers meanwhile had finished off their plate and were busy washing their tiny purple paws.
“Point well taken,” Vincent said, notwithstanding Jane’s hyperbole. He reached into his pocket for his pack of cigarettes; he had to go through three pockets before he found them. Finally he lit one up and went on to tell her about the leaflet-dropping forays from the States.
“Well, that explains this,” Jane said, reaching over to her wad of papers and taking a sheet off the top, then handing it over to Vincent. “I found this on the deck before we docked. There was a whole bunch of them blowing around up there.”
Vincent reached into another pocket for his reading glasses and put them on, setting his tinted glasses aside.
“God loves Fags but hates Faggotry!” the sheet read, in large bold print. “Go strait [sic] before it’s too late! Reserve a place in Heaven with Jesus!!!!” was printed in smaller italics below. Vincent sighed and removed his glasses.
“You know, I was raised as a Christian myself,” Jane said, momentarily lighting up a cigarette. “One of my grandfathers was a minister.”
“One of my great-grandfathers was a minister, too,” said Vincent.
“Well, whaddaya know!” said Jane. “And, by the way, I can spell.”
“Yeah, me too,” Vincent said wryly.
“Anyway, this persecution of the gays—and that’s what it is, persecution. Well, Jesus would never do that—that’s not Christian, not the way I was raised—even when they say God loves you. That’s just some kind of lip service.”
Vincent nodded in agreement.
“They can mince words as much as they want to. They’re still attacking you. They’re saying you’re not supposed to be who you are, that God doesn’t accept you for who you are. Well, Jesus accepted everybody for who they were.”
“Yeah,” Vincent said, taking a drag off his cigarette. “They’re bullying us.”
“Yeah, in the name of religion. And meanwhile putting other people’s lives in danger,” Jane said sternly. “So, King, what are you gonna to do about it?”
Manolo Gutiérrez, Vincent’s bodyguard, was, as usual, sitting back in the shadows behind Vincent, at a table. He’d just finished off his third plate of crêpes and was trying to decide whether he should go for a fourth. No, he decided, he didn’t want to spoil his appetite for dinner. He and Vincent would be leaving for the castle in a while, and there would be real food waiting for him, “not this jonk food,” as he put it.
Manolo was, as usual, watching Vincent carefully. He especially enjoyed watching him cut loose and expose himself, as it were, or, rather, just be himself and have some fun in his kingly role—even though that put Manolo on a higher level of alert, of course.
And he loved the drag queen Vincent was talking to—Manolo was somewhat of a drag queen wannabe himself—and he especially liked her outfit. Manolo was, in fact, part woman himself; he had Klinefelter Syndrome, which gave him an extra X chromosome. While “normal” males have one X and one Y, and “normal” females two X’s, Manolo had two X’s and one Y. So, genetically speaking at least, he could never be a “real” drag queen even if he wanted to be, but he refused to let that spoil his fun. (In fact, although he always knew he wasn’t “straight,” Manolo never knew he had Klinefelter Syndrome until he’d arrived in Kings World and attempted to compete in a drag contest, for which he failed the mandatory blood test.) At any rate, the extra X-chromosome resulted in the typical characteristics of Manolo’s having hardly any body hair (very odd for a Cuban, male or female), small testicles, and large, female-looking breasts. It also resulted, as is typical, in his being very large and tall—he grew up towering over his medium-sized parents (long since divorced), at six feet four inches and weighing almost three hundred pounds.
Fidel Castro didn’t know what to do with Manolo back in macho Cuba—Manolo had turned out liking men, as well—so Fidel put him on a raft with two other “counterrevolutionary deviants” and packed them off to the States (not that the States wanted them, either). Only they didn’t make it to the States. A freak storm arose in the Florida Straits and blew them over to Kings World instead, where, as “deviants,” they were immediately eligible for political asylum and could automatically become residents.
Manolo was now a full-fledged subject and, not only that, had just recently been made a “Peer of the Realm” for his devoted service—an archduke, in fact. Or an archduchess. “Whatever!” Manolo mused, adjusting his newfangled diadem. He was eminently proud to serve his king, and he was highly effective at his job. Most people didn’t know what to make of him when they saw him—he was so singularly strange-looking and imposing (even for as weird a place as Kings World)—so they usually kept their distance from him and Vincent. Still, Manolo carried a pistol in his pocket just in case.
Manolo cackled loudly when Vincent pulled his practical joke on the drag queen. Of course Manolo had seen it before, but it never ceased to amuse him. Now the two of them were carrying on like the best of friends. She was sitting right next to him now, in Lady Shalamar’s chair—her “throne.” Lady Shalamar wasn’t going to like that one bit, Manolo was thinking, and she was due to arrive at any moment for her nightly performance. Meanwhile the moveable stage had been lowered from the ceiling over the pool table, and people were beginning to file in for the show.
“So tell me a little more about your job back in the States,” said Vincent. “I take it, you’re not all that happy there.”
“Well, it’s a living,” Jane said, “and a decent one at that. But I gotta tell ya what happened the other day, right before I left on my trip.”
“Please do,” said Vincent, sipping on his drink.
“Well, there was a little accident,” she said, casting her eyes down at the bar. “I’d left one of the upper drawers open in the filing cabinet by my desk—the phone was ringing off the hook while I was trying to do my filing—and my boss, Joan Cone, came around the corner to give me a tape to type up.”
“And not looking where she was going, she plowed head-first right into the open file drawer. And she screamed out, ‘You stupid witch! Are you trying to kill me?!’ And then she backed off and apologized for what she said.”
“Sounds pretty wicked to me. Heck, you could’ve killed her,” Vincent said, wide-eyed.
“It was an accident!” Jane insisted. “I swear. But then I should never have started laughing. I just couldn’t help it.”
Vincent dropped his jaw and cocked his head, regarding Jane quizzically. “Boy, the General would love you!” he said at last.
Jane knitted her brow, having no idea what Vincent meant. “Anyway, then I apologized, profusely,” she said. “Chil’, you should have seen her the next day, with a fat lip and a black eye. Purple, to be exact. Not even her make-up could completely hide it—and that stuff she buys ain’t cheap. I almost started laughing again when I saw her. And she had to go to court that day. At any rate, she seemed mighty glad I was going out on vacation.”
“I can imagine,” Vincent said.
“At least she didn’t call me a bitch, but hell, I ain’t stupid!” Jane protested. “I might murder the queen’s English sometimes, but I assure you it’s just for effect.”
“No need to explain,” said Vincent. “I think it’s loverly. And you’re a writer also?”
“Yeah, I write a little fiction on the side,” said Jane.
“Ever had anything published?” said Vincent.
“No, but that’s my goal,” said Jane. “My dream, actually. To make a living off it someday. I even brought a little story with me. I’m still putting the finishing touches on it. Perhaps you’d care to read it. I hear you’re big into cultural stuff down here.”
“Well, what have we here!” Lady Shalamar said, rapping her sharp acrylic fingernails on top of the bar. No sooner had she made her evening’s entrance at the Twisted Tulip Lounge and was approaching the bar than Nikolai had her cocktail sitting before her: a double Manhattan, straight up. A couple of those, and she could conquer the world—well, Kings World, at least, which was her job. But who was that sitting in her throne? She would just have to investigate. Several of the customers meanwhile had begun clapping politely; Lady Shalamar glanced around the bar, bowing her head as she went round.
* * *
Vincent set Jane’s manuscript aside. He would read it before going to bed, or try to. It seemed pretty long for a short story.
“Well, I hope you like it,” Jane said, raising her festive tumbler and taking a sip. The cocktail was beginning to make her feel giddy. “And who is this walking over here?” she said, smiling wide. “Looks just like my cousin Thelma, only a bit taller.” Which reminded her: she’d have to write Thelma a card.
Vincent looked up. He hadn’t even seen Lady Shalamar come in.
“Well, I see you’ve finally found me a suitable understudy,” Lady Shalamar said, sidling up to Jane and Vincent and looking Jane up and down. “Love the outfit.”
“Why thank you,” Jane said, looking a bit puzzled.
“But you, chief. Yer hat’s fallin’ off.”
“It’s my Rembrandt cap,” Vincent insisted. “It’s supposed to be lopsided.”
Lady Shalamar looked Vincent up and down. “Well, ya look more like Vincent van Gogh, what with that beard and all.”
“It’s van Gokkkh to you, wise ass.”
“Just jokin’ with ya, chief.”
Vincent secured his cap and at last rose to his feet. “Lady Shalamar,” he said, “I’d like you to meet Princess Janeva Brown.”
Randy and Sandy meantime had cleaned themselves up nicely and secreted themselves snugly back inside Vincent’s clothes. They were allergic to Lady Shalamar’s dander; it made them sneeze.
“And a princess?” Lady Shalamar said, again looking Jane up and down.
“Now act like a lady, Bob,” said Vincent. “Or it’s off with your head!”
“Bob!?” Jane exclaimed, looking Lady Shalamar up and down.
* * *
Well, that was pretty painless, Manolo was thinking, watching the encounter from his table in the back. Under the circumstances, he’d never seen Lady Shalamar act so mellow. Then again, he’d never seen Vincent kick her like that, either—just a swift, little kick to the ankles with his pointed wooden clog, nothing too serious. Lady Shalamar teetered a bit on her Manolo Blahnik five-inch heels—the burgundy velvet ones with the fancy marabou feathers, Manolo’s favorite (though he would never aspire to wear anything so dainty). Lady Shalamar then grabbed hold of Vincent’s arm to steady herself and, as Manolo noticed, didn’t miss the opportunity to sink her nails into his flesh, which made Vincent wince.
Manolo never ceased to be in awe of Lady Shalamar, or, rather, Bob Shalala. Bob, who was originally from Jamaica, was presently the official Court Jester at Kings World and as such was the highest paid entertainer on the island, and “Lady Shalamar” was but one of his many acts, though by far his edgiest—and Manolo’s favorite. Manolo was always amazed at how a person so laid-back and easy-going as Bob could transform himself into such a wicked, sadistic bitch, and such a gorgeous one at that.
Lady Shalamar looked especially ravishing tonight; Manolo couldn’t tell whether it was the glittery make-up or the glittery new dress. Ay dios mio, what a dress! Manolo could go for a new frock himself, though something like that in his size would cost a fortune, what with all the colored glass beads and sequins. But hey, with his new rank in the peerage and his generous new emoluments—hell!—he could afford it.
* * *
Whew! Vincent was relieved that encounter was over. He just wanted to go home now. So did the growsers; they were beginning to sneeze. Vincent massaged them briefly through his layer of clothes, smooching and cooing at them in falsetto. Jane looked over and laughed.
Back at the castle, Vincent would have another bite to eat and then go on the computer for a while—he knew he’d have plenty of emails about the plane incident—then try to read Jane’s story. He’d meet Jane back at the Twisted Tulip the next day for cocktails and return the manuscript. He really enjoyed sitting and chatting with her. He just should have known better than to let Jane sit in Lady Shalamar’s favorite bar stool. Well, Lady Shalamar decided that issue after Jane excused herself to go to the restroom; she upped and stole the stool. Vincent refused to make a scene about it. And Jane took it all in stride when she came back from the restroom, nonchalantly seating herself on the other side of Vincent. She was certainly feeling no pain, Vincent figured. “I know this is all a joke!” she said, and broke out laughing. “And that Hall of Mirrors is a real trip!”
After washing his face and applying his prescription wrinkle cream, Vincent wolfed down half a chicken salad sandwich as he sat at his computer. Randy and Sandy meanwhile had called it a night; after a quick trip to the litter box, they curled up together in their corner of Vincent’s huge canopied bed and were presently sleeping soundly. Manolo had retired to the guard’s quarters, right outside Vincent’s apartment, with a big plateful of black beans and white rice. For all practical purposes, he was off duty for the night.
Sure enough, the emails arriving through the Kings World Intranet were relentless. The populace was positively rabid over the disastrous missionary sortie and made no bones about it. Vincent didn’t even dare go onto the Royal Chat and subject himself to the verbal guillotining or, at the very least, pillorying, in real time. No, the emails said it all: “A lot of us have been bullied and picked on all our lives, and we’re tired of it. We didn’t come down here to be bullied, too, just because we happen to be different. What about ‘live and let live’ and the right to be left in peace? I think Jesus would agree with me on this one.” And, more to the point: “Swat these creeps out of the sky like the no-good mosquitoes that they are. They’re a dangerous nuisance.”
Even his mother up in Ft. Meiers weighed in on the “incident”: “The General would have put a stop to that foolishness long ago!” she had written. Ouch!
She was right, though.
Vincent looked out the window and beheld the vast expanse of Kings World shimmering quietly beneath the geodesic dome. His loft up in the spire of King Ludwig’s Castle afforded a bird’s-eye view. In fact, as king, he had the best view in all of Kings World, and it always soothed him.
“It’s so incredibly beautiful!” Christopher said, gazing out.
And what a pleasant surprise Christopher had been. After he’d “spotted” Vincent from down the bar at the Twisted Tulip and Vincent had bought everyone a round of drinks, Vincent thought no more about the situation, had ignored the guy, in fact, along with his little friend. And then when Vincent and Manolo left the lounge, there he was, standing outside the door, picking Vincent up! Manolo had insisted on frisking him before letting him accompany them back to the castle—”copping a free feel” as Christopher put it—much to the bewilderment of the passers-by. And now here he was in Vincent’s bedroom, nude down to his buttoned boxer briefs. Vincent marveled at his chest and the exquisite tattoo of a lyre on his shoulder. He had the perfect body for Vincent—developed though not overly so. Vincent couldn’t stand an artificially hard, “buff” look, so all the rage in some gay circles. He preferred a natural, graceful physique.
“So, I was wondering,” Vincent said. “Did you recognize me from the coin? I saw you holding it up to the light and ogling me.”
“I’m afraid not,” said Christopher.
“So you really didn’t spot me at all,” said Vincent, “and here I thought . . .”
“I recognized you, all right,” said Christopher, “from your outfit. You were sticking out like a sore thumb. What are you hiding from? You’re the king. People look up to you.”
Vincent didn’t reply. “And that was my new disguise,” he said at last, shaking his head. “So what was with the coin?”
“We were trying to read the motto: ‘M’on qu’ici, mon qui d’où .’ Ma fav’rite. So shall we read that story now?” Christopher said, changing the subject, fixing his eyes on Vincent’s.
And he had the perfect face, too. “Sure,” Vincent said. “You start.”
“A MAIYAMI SUCCESS STORY”
by Princess Janeva Brown
No sooner had the paramedics wheeled Mrs. Wainwright’s cadaver from her boudoir than Pauline was beside the deathbed with her Louis Vuitton briefcase, rifling through her mother’s personal papers. Pauline knew the will had to be in the nightstand somewhere; that’s where she’d ordered her mother to secrete it. Now Pauline had to find the will and destroy it.
Pauline had only recently discovered the existence of the will in question. Unbeknownst to Pauline, her little sister Caroline had drawn it up two years earlier in the law firm where she worked as a paralegal in the Litigation Department; she’d had her mother execute it one day while Pauline was up in New Yauk City on business. The will left their divorced mother’s estate to Pauline and Caroline in equal shares, with Caroline serving as the executrix.
“How dare that little bitch!” Pauline seethed as she overturned one of the drawers into her open briefcase and violently shook it, its heavy brass handles rapping against the polished hardwood. She then went about frantically sifting through the contents. “Where the hell can it be?!”
She had one more drawer to go through after that one. “It had better be in there!” she swore.
Pauline at last emptied the bottom drawer of the nightstand into the briefcase, and the very last thing to fall out amidst a heap of papers was a plastic Baggie containing two chocolate-covered marshmallow cookies. “Sneaky bitch!” Pauline cursed, flinging the bag of cookies across the room and inadvertently striking the closed door.
“Eureka!” she exclaimed when just a few seconds later she came across the fancy cotton envelope with the words “Last Will and Testament” engraved in Old English letters on its face. All of a sudden came a hesitant tapping at the door.
“Pauline, dear, is everything all right?” her father said, his gentle voice resonating through the woodwork—sounding all the more sheepish than usual, Pauline thought.
“Oh, I’ll be OK,” she said, straining to inject a note of sorrow into her voice. “I just need this moment to be alone in Mom’s room.” And with that she closed her briefcase—she had to kneel on top of it to secure the latches—and quietly replaced the bottom drawer in the nightstand. She then stood up, smoothed out her skirt, and looked around the room.
Atop her mother’s long mahogany dresser sat the high school graduation photographs of Pauline and Caroline—each dressed in her “Sunday best”—one at either end, mounted in matching silver frames. Arrayed between them were their great-grandmother’s crystal powder box, a silver comb-and-brush set, and a host of glistening perfume atomizers standing like fantastic chess men atop a mirrored tray. Pauline studied the tableau for a moment and then went about rearranging it, sliding her own photograph to the center of the dresser directly in front of the big mirror and pushing the tray and other articles off to one side. She then snatched up the portrait of her little sister.
“You sneaky little bitch!” Pauline snarled at the wholesome-looking image, then tossed the frame aside into the slightly downward-bulging seat of her mother’s old cane rocker, where momentarily it sat rocking. She then returned her eyes to the dresser. “Now that’s more like it!” she said, studying the scene again, arms akimbo.
Pauline recalled her days in high school as vividly as though she’d been graduated only yesterday; and despite the fact she had the very same photograph hanging in the foyer back at her South Beach apartment—blown up to sixteen by twenty and retouched in oils—seeing the sparkling photograph on her mother’s dresser aroused in Pauline a strong, almost giddy nostalgia.
“Most Likely to Succeed!” she said barely above a hush as she glimpsed at herself in her mother’s mirror, then gazed back at the framed photograph. Thus had it been officially ordained, by vote of the Senior Class at Watercrest Senior High School seven years before. “And looking better than ever, I might add!”
Pauline had been scarcely able to abide those four long years at The Maiyami University, working on her “B.S. as in bullshit” (as she put it). She thanked her lucky stars for Monarch Notes and Evelyn Wood speed reading lessons; without them she’d never have been able to get “that silly sheepskin” (her words again). Yet whether or not she had, she’d known since high school precisely what she wanted to do in life—how she planned on making her “mark”—namely to become a millionaire by age thirty. And real estate would be her chosen avenue to success.
Pauline’s goal originally had been to make her million by age twenty-five; although several months back, upon attaining that age and as yet falling short of her goal, she allowed herself another five years to achieve it—still an ambitious undertaking and certainly nothing to sniff at, she reckoned. Just the same, the inheritance from her mother would surely make a dent. In fact, that had been part of Pauline’s long-range plan ever since her parents’ divorce three years before, when during one of her mother’s bouts of depression Pauline went out and had a will drawn up leaving the entire estate to her.
Under the extenuating circumstances, Pauline had had no trouble getting her poor sad mother to sign it. And as for witnesses, she’d readily procured them after the fact—right off the street, Flagler Street to be exact—paying them twenty dollars apiece, which to them was good money, enough to keep them in wine and cigarettes for days, Pauline figured. She then had her secretary notarize the last page of the document without asking any questions. (She better not have, Pauline huffed.)
Pauline touched up her lipstick, then wet her finger with saliva and smudged her mascara some around the corners of her eyes. “Perfect!” she said. She knew she had to look the part of the forlorn, grief-stricken daughter—it was what decent society expected of her—and Pauline certainly wasn’t about to flout society’s mores. She calculated that it wouldn’t be prudent, especially since she had a way to go yet before reaching her goal. Rather, she’d planned on “massaging” the system and the status quo any in every way she possibly could to get ahead and realize her ambitions.
In fact, she’d already decided to use part of her inheritance to endow a scholarship with the Maiyami Dames of the Opera—one of her mother’s favorite service clubs—and made a mental note to call the Dames’s president over the next several days, before the funeral. Send some “no-talent little bitches” to some music conservatory for the summer, she reckoned. Pauline would attend the silly meetings and present the scholarships herself. A perfect opportunity to do some hobnobbing, maybe even hand out a few business cards. Surely she could wangle a sale out of it—at least one, she figured. And prime real estate, too: maybe a nice waterfront bungalow in Bay Point, or something more spectacular on Indian Creek. Presently her mind was reeling at the possibilities.
She studied her face in the mirror once again. On second thought, the mascara just didn’t look right for such a somber occasion, but she knew she couldn’t bring herself to shed any emotional tears, not even one tiny little drop. Even as a child Pauline had not been one to shed tears, unless of course she didn’t get her way, in which case she’d make such a monstrous, blood-curdling racket that her high-strung mother and her always conciliatory, harmony-seeking father would do practically anything she demanded to make her stop.
Presently she grabbed one of the sparkling perfume atomizers from off the mirrored tray and spritzed herself directly in the eyes, opening them wide as she did. “Oooohhhh, God!” she shrieked in pain, hastily dropping the atomizer and raising her hands to her face. Squinting in the mirror after a long, agonizing moment, she saw she looked just right!
“Pauline, are you OK?” her father called out again through the closed door. Pauline immediately collected her briefcase and opened the door, dramatically collapsing into her father’s arms and letting the briefcase fall with a resounding thud onto the wooden floor of the hall outside the bedroom.
“Oh, Daddy!” she cried out, sniffling over his shoulder.
“There, there,” Dr. Wainwright said, gently rubbing Pauline’s back. “Poor thing! You must really be hurting!”
“You just don’t know!” Pauline said, sobbing genuine tears at last, though presently the irritation in her eyes was subsiding. “I’ll be all right, daddy,” she said, winking behind her father’s back and then loosening herself from his embrace, her head bowed, her mascara genuinely running. “It just hurts so!”
“There, there,” her father said. “Cry all you want. I understand.” At that point he began sniffling himself and withdrew his handkerchief from his back pocket. Not only was he moved by his daughter’s heart-rending display but also the perfume she was wearing was irritating his sinuses. He soon recognized it as a fragrance Pauline’s mother used to wear—”Madame Richelieu”—one he never had been able to tolerate and to which he jocularly referred as “Madame Achoo.” And after a moment, he let out an ear-splitting sneeze.
“Gesundheit,” Pauline barked, startled at her father’s outburst.
Head still bowed, Pauline reached down and picked up her briefcase from the floor, dusted it off, and slowly shuffled toward the back door.
“That’s my little girl!” her father said, still sniffling as he followed her across the Florida Room, clutching his handkerchief. “My little trooper! My little Most Likely to Succeed!”
Again, Pauline was seized by a powerful wave of nostalgia. She immediately stopped at the back door and looked up, smiling as she wiped the last of the tears from her face. “I’ll be in and out of the office if you need me, Daddy,” she said. “Just beep me.” She then let herself out the back door.
‡ ‡ ‡
Little did Dr. Wainwright know—or anyone else in Pauline’s immediate circle—that Pauline was momentarily out of a job. She’d been fired from her realty brokerage a month before for “insubordination.” Well, that was at least better than the fraud charge they’d originally leveled at her, she supposed. (Hell, she could lose her license over something like that.) “Yeah, let ‘em prove it!” she grumbled. (She very well knew they couldn’t.) And now, financially strapped as she was, it appeared Pauline would have no choice but to give up her pricey South Beach apartment, too.
“Well, things do have a way of working out,” she consoled herself as she walked down the loggia to the driveway and her powder-blue Baby Benz, past her sister Caroline’s window.
‡ ‡ ‡
Caroline was wailing and sobbing in her bedroom. She’d discovered her mother’s dead body that morning while getting ready to go to work. That had been traumatic enough —and then confronting the possibility that Pauline had somehow done her in. (Well, Caroline wouldn’t have put it past her!)
Now, Caroline couldn’t erase from her mind the creaking sound of the gurney as it just now bore her mother’s hefty corpse across the floor’s gradients on the way out the front door, then finally down the steps leading from the porch. (She’d hollered out every time she heard—or felt—a thump.)
“Motherrrrr!” she cried again and again amidst her inconsolable sobbing, her face buried deep within the pillows on her bed. At the moment, Caroline was convinced her sorrow would never end.
‡ ‡ ‡
Pauline could hear Caroline sobbing in her room. “Poor, pathetic Caroline!” Pauline said beneath her breath, sarcastically rolling her eyes.
Presently Pauline could hardly wait to reach her car. She had some important calls to make on her cellular telephone, and finally one important errand to run. First, she’d call a moving company to find out about having her belongings moved out of her apartment as soon as possible. Pauline knew of course she’d be breaking her lease, but the lease was almost up anyway, and the landlord was welcome to keep her security deposit. Pauline would certainly make up for it on what she’d be saving by moving back to her mother’s place, and then some—all that much more to roll into her million-dollar pot!
Meanwhile, Pauline planned on storing her possessions in her mother’s two-car garage; it was certainly roomy enough, and if she stacked everything up to the rafters, there would be plenty of room left over for her Baby Benz. Pauline herself planned to take over her mother’s boudoir. She knew full well that Caroline would raise some objections, “but what does she count?!” Pauline insisted, especially now that their mother was out of the picture. “Poor, pathetic Caroline!”
Speeding along towards South Beach, skilfully weaving in and out through the heavy traffic as she went, Pauline made her appointment to meet with the moving company at her apartment the following week in order to get an estimate on the move. She also placed calls to the electric, telephone, and cable companies to arrange to cancel service. (She would of course keep her cellular service and beeper.) Meanwhile, Pauline would move into her mother’s place that very evening; she had only to pack her car with a few articles of clothing and other necessaries, and she’d be on her way.
“Things do have a way of working out!” she said once again as she careered onto the causeway leading to South Beach, speeding past the palm-purfled islands and their stately mansions hugging the bright, placid bay. “Mother used to say how I always came up smelling like a rose!” she exclaimed. “Well, at least she was right about something!”
Yet no sooner had she uttered those words than she felt she was about to be overpowered by the almost sickening scent of her mother’s strong perfume, which still clung to her skin, her hair, her clothes. At once she cracked open the overhead hatch. “Much better,” she said at last, taking deep breaths. She then examined her face in the rear-view mirror and licked her fingers to retouch her smudgy eyes. “Oh, poor pathetic Pauline!” she said with a grin.
‡ ‡ ‡
Back in her apartment, the first thing Pauline did was to remove her photograph from the wall in the foyer; she’d be taking that back to her mother’s that afternoon. She then shuffled over to the sliding glass door to the balcony, tossing her briefcase on the futon as she went, and stood for a spell, surveying the geometrically-shaped islands in the bay beyond. How she’d miss her “many mansions,” she was thinking. Then she turned back into the dimly lighted room. “And how nicely Mother’s pretty things would go in here,” she said. “No more futons for me!”
But alas, Pauline realized, it was time to pick up and move on.
She walked back over to the futon and opened up her briefcase—again having to kneel on top of it, this time to pop the latches open. She then withdrew the purloined will. Upon extracting it from its fancy engraved envelope, she took it to the kitchen sink and ran the tap before switching on the Dispos-All. Next she shredded the stapled pages lengthwise and inserted them a few at a time down the gnashing maw of the drain.
The Dispos-All sucked up the long tendrils like spaghetti, laboring mightily as it went. Pauline took great delight in the fitful mechanical groans and gurgles, though in her present state of mind she missed the sharp, efficient whine of the paper shredder back at her old office. She heaved a sigh of relief when the last few shreds disappeared down the drain.
Pauline then carried the open briefcase to the garbage chute in the laundry room down the hall and, having made sure no one saw her, dumped its entire contents down the chute. “She won’t be needing that crap anymore!” she said as the last sheaf of papers went hurtling down the foul-smelling void. It was mostly her mother’s “depressing poems” anyway, “and who’d want to read that?!” Pauline insisted. She then lingered at the garbage chute a moment before letting the door spring shut. Soon it would be back to hauling garbage bags outside. “Oh well,” she lamented, sighing long. She then returned to her apartment and began gathering up things to take with her. That done, she’d have one stop to make before returning to her mother’s home in Watercrest.
‡ ‡ ‡
Caroline was shocked when she peaked into her mother’s bedroom. “What’s the little bitch up to now?!” she rasped as she entered the room. Suddenly, beneath the soles of her clogs she felt a crunch, and, upon quickly stepping aside, she felt another. Immediately glancing down, she saw she had stepped on, first, a little bag of cookies—her mother’s old favorite—and then one of her mother’s crystal perfume atomizers, grinding it to smithereens. Quickly the heady, florid aroma of Madame Richelieu suffused the bedroom.
“What the hell!” Caroline exclaimed, running back to the closet off the kitchen where the cleaning supplies were kept. She grabbed a whisk broom and dust pan off the door and then reached for a bottle of Fantastik, next stopping by the kitchen for a handful of paper towels. Returning to her mother’s bedroom, she swept the sharp, gritty mess off the floor into the dustpan, then with the towels wiped up the remaining perfume, spraying Fantastik as she went. At last she opened the windows to air out the room. “Whew!” she gasped, convinced that the aroma of Madame Richelieu would never completely escape the room, especially considering how much of it had permeated the fresh open wounds in the wooden floor. As for Caroline’s wooden clogs, she’d give them a thorough scrubbing later.
Next she went about rearranging the top of her mother’s dresser, recovering her cast-off photo from the cane rocker and setting it back up at one end of the dresser, opposite her sister’s, with the silver tray in between. Then, surveying the room once again, she noticed that one of the drawers in her mother’s nightstand was ajar. Upon walking over to close it, she noticed it was empty! In a frenzy then she opened the other drawers and found them empty, too. “Mom’s lyrics! Mom’s librettos!” Caroline declared. “Mom’s will!”
For some reason which her mother never disclosed, Mrs. Wainwright had asked to see her will about a month back. Caroline had been holding it in her office at work and couldn’t very well refuse to return it to her, although she’d had some reservations about doing so. (She’d suspected Pauline was up to something.) So Caroline had first photocopied the document and secreted the copy in a drawer in her desk back at the law firm for safekeeping.
‡ ‡ ‡
“I’m Caroline’s sister, Pauline,” Pauline told the receptionist at Finial Gambol Heiny & Herrera. “Our mother passed away this morning, as I’m sure you’re aware.”
“Oh, so sorry to hear that!” the receptionist replied, looking sadly up at the visitor. But for the teased blonde dye-job, she noted, the woman could easily pass for Caroline’s identical twin.
“Yes, we’ve done our share of crying today,” said Pauline, daintily patting beneath her eyes. “And it was all so sudden. We’re just in shock!”
“I’m so sorry!” the receptionist said. “Tell me, how can we help you?”
“Well, Caroline wanted me to stop by and pick something up for her, something she’d left in her desk. I offered to run by and get it since I was going to be in the neighborhood.”
“Well, isn’t that thoughtful of you. Her office is right down the hall to the left, two doors down. You can’t miss it. Just look for her nameplate up on the wall.”
“Why, thank you,” Pauline replied cordially, and briskly made her way down the hall.
‡ ‡ ‡
“Oh Caroline, you are so predictable!” Pauline muttered. It had taken her all of one minute to find the photocopy of their mother’s will, stuffed inside a plain white envelope and taped to the inside of one of the black steel drawers. Still, Pauline took time to examine the entire contents of the desk thoroughly, even getting down on her knees and inspecting up inside the chair well, just in case Caroline might have been so clever as to hide more than one copy. “Not a chance!” she said when she had finished, getting back to her feet.
Pauline’s first impulse was to shred the document then and there, but instead she deposited it in her purse, making sure to snap it shut, and nonchalantly walked back to the reception area by the front door.
“Caroline and I thank you,” Pauline said to the receptionist as she passed through the open double doors and out into the elevator lobby. And just as she was stepping into one elevator to go down, she saw Frank Ramos, Caroline’s boyfriend, stepping from another elevator on his way up. “Shit!” Pauline mumbled, lowering her head and fumbling to locate the button to shut the doors. “I hope he didn’t see me!” she was thinking just as the doors began to close.
“Pauline Wainwright!” Frank Ramos called out right when the two doors touched in front of her.
‡ ‡ ‡
“Smelling like a rose!” Pauline said on her way down the elevator, but she knew she had to dispose of the copy quickly. She feared Frank Ramos might be coming after her. Lawyer or not, the impetuous Cuban would likely snatch her purse once he’d heard the whole story from the gullible receptionist, Pauline reckoned.
Pauline had parked in a handicapped space on the street right outside the front entrance, using her mother’s handicapped parking placard. Pauline had filched it several months before; her mother had no longer been driving that much anyway, and she hadn’t even missed it.
The placard certainly made parking on congested South Beach that much easier; Pauline could park directly in front of her favorite discos and dance till she dropped (if she wanted to), secure in knowing that her “Baby” was always sitting right outside in a well-lighted spot.
Also, Pauline found that the placard gave her decided advantages in the business world as well; for one thing, she was never late for meetings any more—in fact she was now most often early. “The early bird always catches the worm!” she often caught herself saying. And speaking of which, she remembered she had a job interview in a couple of days, and she made a mental note at once to be sure to make her mother’s funeral arrangements around it.
One of her mother’s old friends had gotten her an interview with the Maiyami office of a New Yauk brokerage firm which was aggressively seeking new associates. The job was practically a sure thing, so Pauline had been told, and she figured she’d better not muff this opportunity, considering her mother was no longer around to pull strings for her. Her mother had been instrumental in Pauline’s getting the last three jobs she’d held (and wound up losing some old friends in the bargain). “Oh, well,” Pauline reflected, “Mom had lots of friends.”
This time around, however, Pauline would make every effort to “keep her nose clean” (her mother’s own admonition) and not offend, or try to take advantage of, others at the company. That meant not only the secretaries but also her “superiors,” as she grudgingly called them: those stodgy, over-thirty types who obviously lacked her own ambition.
“Honk!” a car blasted from behind.
“God! It’s Frank Ramos!” Pauline yelled, peering through the rear-view mirror. On closer inspection, she realized it wasn’t. “So what’s he honking about!?” she declared. “Oh, green light.” Immediately she tore to the left across three lanes of traffic and up onto the ramp leading to Interstate 95, heading south. “I’ll give ‘em something to honk about!” And sure enough they did, with two of them screeching barely to a stop as Pauline maneuvered her Baby Benz up onto the ramp just inches in front of them. “They’d better not touch my Baby!” she swore.
Now speeding south toward Watercrest, Pauline extracted the copy of her mother’s will from her purse while she retracted the sun roof. Grasping the papers between her teeth, with one hand she tore the document lengthwise, then lengthwise again and again till it was shredded to Pauline’s satisfaction, and at last she began hurling the streaming tatters out the sun roof a little bunch at a time. “Let ‘em reconstruct that!” she said, mischievously grinning at herself in the rear-view mirror.
‡ ‡ ‡
“No, Frank, you’re kidding!” Caroline said into the portable telephone as she went about replacing the whisk broom, dust pan, and the bottle of Fantastik. “I can’t believe she’d stoop that low!”
“Well, it’s not there,” Frank Ramos said on the other end of the line. “I looked precisely where you told me, then checked the other drawers. It’s just not there!”
“Why, that little bitch!” Caroline declared.
“Don’t worry, Carolincita,” Frank reassured her. “She won’t get away with this! Trust me!”
“Well, we’ll see,” Caroline said, slamming the closet door in a fit of pique. “As Mom used to say, ‘Pauline always comes up smelling like a rose!’”
“No, don’t let them do this to me!” Pauline hollered.
“Now, now,” said Mrs. Wainwright, rocking back and forth in her old cane rocker, in between taking tiny bites of a chocolate-covered marshmallow cookie.
“Let me out of here! I can’t breathe!” Pauline hollered again.
“Nobody’s holding you back, dear,” Mrs. Wainwright reassured her, still rocking and nibbling away.
“But I can’t move!” Pauline gasped. “I’m paralyzed!”
“Paralyzed, dear,” Mrs. Wainwright said. “Don’t be silly!”
“It’s the roses! Take the roses away! I can’t move!”
“What roses?!” her mother said. “Don’t be silly! That’s you, dear. Smelling like a rose!”
“No! Don’t say that!”
Pauline glanced over at the nightstand—she could barely turn her head—and saw that it was crawling with thorns!
Just then came a knock at the door.
“Who’s that!?” Pauline shouted.
“Come in!” Mrs. Wainwright called out.
Only with great effort was Pauline able to turn her head in the opposite direction now, to behold a veiled figure cloaked in black—on closer inspection an old woman—coming through the door, holding a rose.
“No!” Pauline cried out. “I can’t breathe! Make her go away!”
“It’s my friend,” her mother said, now sitting perfectly still in the rocker, “my old friend from Paris, Madame Richelieu!”
“She’s going to kill me!” Pauline shouted again, as the veiled woman strode silently to the side of the bed.
“Child, don’t be silly!” her mother said.
Madame Richelieu sat down on the bed right beside Pauline, and slowly lifted the rose toward Pauline’s now frozen face. Pauline wanted to scream out, but no sound would escape her lips. She knew she was about to die!
‡ ‡ ‡
Pauline awoke with a start and looked at her alarm clock on the nightstand, noting that it was not crawling with thorns. “It’s three thirty in the morning!” she sighed. “Of all nights when I need my beauty sleep!”
She’d had practically the same nightmare a while earlier and decided she had better make some attempt to prevent it from recurring. No doubt the infernal odor from the broken perfume bottle was the cause, she figured, although she’d had no trouble sleeping through the previous three nights she’d spent in her new boudoir. All the same, she went around the room opening all the windows.
Her mother’s funeral would be taking place later that day, a Saturday forecast to be gorgeous, and Pauline had wanted to look her very best—well, at the very least rested—for the occasion. Afterwards she would be hosting a reception at the house, catered by the Granada Gourmet Market, and Pauline planned on doing lots of “networking.” She’d even gone to the added expense of advertising the reception in her mother’s death notice (calling it an “Open House”), making sure, of course, to mention the Granada Gourmet Market and an open bar.
“Now let me get some sleep!” she sighed, returning to bed and covering her face with a pillow.
‡ ‡ ‡
Pauline glowered at her mother as she lay in the casket, her (Mrs. Wainwright’s) beatific expression seeming no less to mock Pauline. Alas, Pauline’s mother—and Madame Richelieu—had visited Pauline again later that morning, though still in the wee hours, and Pauline had not been able to get back to sleep after that. She only hoped now that she would have the stamina and aplomb for all the schmoozing and polite huckstering she would be doing later. “How dare you!” Pauline muttered.
She withdrew a miniature make-up mirror from her black Gucci bag and once again examined her eyes. There was simply no mistaking those dark, puffy circles! She quickly pulled down her veil and put the mirror away.
Fortunately she’d been able to find a hat with a veil that matched the outfit she’d chosen for the occasion; her mother had boxes upon boxes of them stacked up to the ceiling in her closet. “You’d think she was the Queen Mother!” Pauline had remarked that morning as she went tearing through each box.
Then again, so what if she looked and acted a little frazzled, Pauline had figured—it was her mother’s funeral, for Heaven’s sake. She’d just play the sympathy card—that would work. It would take no real effort to pull it off; and the black pillbox hat with the tulle veil would be the perfect touch.
‡ ‡ ‡
Caroline and Frank Ramos were watching Pauline from the pew in the family’s private alcove at the funeral chapel. “What’s with that mirror?!” Caroline whispered to Frank. “What does she think this is—a cocktail party?!”
The overture from Mozart’s “Così fan Tutte” struck up in the background, signaling that the service would begin in five minutes. Caroline had selected all the music herself—Pauline didn’t have a clue, nor did she seem to care—and “Così fan Tutte” had always been one of her mother’s favorites. Immediately after the service, the overture from “The Magic Flute” would begin, followed by Mozart’s more somber “Masonic Funeral Music,” not one of her mother’s favorites but a piece Caroline had deemed fitting for the occasion.
“A discothèque maybe?” Frank whispered back at Caroline.
“Yeah. South Beach,” Caroline added.
Caroline and her sister had scarcely said a word to one another since the day their mother died. They passed each other in the house in total silence. Before their mother’s death, the two of them would communicate—or pretend to—only out of deference to their mother, and that of course was always in their mother’s presence. Yet now Mrs. Wainwright was no longer around.
Caroline didn’t have a lot to say to her father, either, inasmuch as he would always side with Pauline—buckle under her will—in every matter of dispute between her and her sister. He had flatly refused to hear Caroline’s account of Pauline’s cleaning out the nightstand. “How could you say such a thing! I won’t hear it!” he’d told her, with Pauline standing right beside him, glaring at them both.
“That’s the lowest thing I’ve ever heard you say!” Pauline then said.
“I reckon!” her father said, looking meekly over at Pauline.
At that point, Caroline realized she was only wasting her time trying to get anywhere with her father. He was simply an old fool, a lost cause, blind or indifferent to Pauline’s conniving. “Well, if you believe that vixen,” Caroline had told him point-blank, “I really have nothing more to say to you—ever!” Whereupon he gasped and appeared on the verge of fainting. (Of course, Caroline didn’t really mean it.)
Dr. Wainwright was now standing up at the casket next to Pauline, his arm around her slim waist. “How touching!” Caroline whispered to Frank Ramos.
“Almost makes me want to cry,” Frank whispered back.
‡ ‡ ‡
“Who is these people?!” Beulah Mae whispered to Caroline.
“Your guess is as good as mine, Beulah Mae,” Caroline said, helping herself to a hot pig-in-a-blanket from Beulah Mae’s doily-lined tray.
Beulah Mae Randolph had worked for Caroline’s mother for twenty-seven years and had been more than happy to help out at the reception. Pauline had put her to work early that morning, first hauling Mrs. Wainwright’s comfortable albeit sagging and raggedy rattan furniture from the Florida Room to the garage and setting up card tables in its place, with fresh linen tablecloths and folding wooden party chairs. Then there were the preparations in the kitchen and meeting the caterers, then helping set everything up. With so much to do around the house, Beulah Mae didn’t even get time off to attend Mrs. Wainwright’s funeral.
People were now swarming the house like ants. Most of them hadn’t attended Mrs. Wainwright’s funeral, either—at least as far as Caroline could tell. Many were milling about dressed in open shirts and short skirts, gaily popping hors d’oeuvres and tossing back cocktails as they went. Pauline had the stereo playing in the background, tuned to an easy-listening station. Caroline and Frank Ramos—not to mention Beulah Mae—were beside themselves, although Beulah Mae went about serving hors d’oeuvres as though it were any ordinary garden party. “I’m only doing this for your mama!” she declared sternly to Caroline a short while later when she passed by again with a steaming tray full of bite-sized egg rolls, humming the blues as she went.
Pauline, meanwhile, was hovering about the open front door, greeting people as they came and went. “Welcome to Mom’s Open House!” “Glad you enjoyed it!” “Here, take one of my cards!” From atop a drop-leaf table right inside the foyer, she pulled cards from the stack she’d set out in a gleaming crystal candy dish.
“Smelling like a rose!” Caroline remarked to Frank Ramos as the two of them entered the foyer from the dining room, where beneath the glittering chandelier the table was set with silver chafing dishes, baskets of assorted bread, trays of cold cuts and cheeses, and a cut-glass punch bowl piled to the brim with jumbo shrimp and stone crab claws on ice, all amid two tall, exotic flower arrangements.
“It stinks, if you ask me!” Frank Ramos replied just as Beulah Mae walked by with a fresh heaping tray of miniature quiches. “You can say that again!” Beulah Mae remarked, helping herself to a quiche.
Caroline and Frank Ramos walked through the house hand-in-hand, with Caroline trying to spot people her mother had actually known and thanking them for coming to pay their respects. Meanwhile, strangers were combing every room, opening closets and cupboards and drawers as they went. In the kitchen, they stopped to examine the kitchen sink and look inside the refrigerator. Caroline and Frank could only look at one another, unable to say a word.
Some of the guests were carrying off paper plates of food as they were about to leave. “I wish we had some Saran Wrap,” Caroline heard one couple discussing as they milled about in the kitchen, looking around the room. “It’s over in that drawer,” said another stranger, bearing a plate covered with aluminum foil. “Hate to eat and run, so I’m taking it with me!” he said, taking a swig from a go-cup. Another couple had brought along their own insulated beer cozies. “Now that was smart!” another beer-drinker remarked.
“Lord have mercy!” Beulah Mae mumbled as she passed by again with a tray of sizzling deep-fried mushrooms, rolling her big brown eyes, right before the fireworks commenced.
‡ ‡ ‡
“What’s the meaning of this?!” Pauline ranted at George MacKelvey, her mother’s friend and attorney of many years, who was now lumbering up the front steps.
Caroline stood by in utter amazement; she hadn’t noticed that Pauline had staked out a “For Sale” sign in the front yard, with a smaller “Open House” sign affixed up in one corner. (Then again, Caroline and Frank had entered from the rear.) Mr. MacKelvey was brandishing the sign in his right hand, holding it firmly by the stake. “I think this is a little presumptuous of you, missy!” he told Pauline sharply.
“Put that back!” Pauline shouted. Meanwhile, the other guests standing in the immediate vicinity were turning their heads toward the ruckus at the front door. “You’re ruining my Open House!” she railed.
“Your Open House!” Mr. MacKelvey shouted back, drawing out each word in his mellifluous Southern accent.
“Stop it now!” Pauline screamed. “You’re ruining my whole career!”
“Your career!” Mr. MacKelvey shouted back again amidst a gathering crowd. “Let me tell you something, missy.” He immediately walked up and faced Pauline at close range, speaking in low, measured tones. “I didn’t want to have to tell you this now, but I see I have no choice. You know that Last Will and Testament you dropped off at my office the other day? Well, let me tell you something right now, before this goes any further.”
Like a shrimp tossed into a kettle of boiling water, Pauline’s half-hidden face was changing by the second from pasty grey to brilliant pink.
“That’s not your mother’s last will,” Mr. MacKelvey continued.
“What do you mean?!” Pauline replied, scowling at the lawyer.
“I mean, she executed a new one in my office just two weeks before she died, and do you know what?” he said, pausing for dramatic effect. “You’re not entitled to a damned thing! Your mother doesn’t even want you on this property!”
“What do you mean?!” Pauline exploded. “That sneaky bitch! You’re fired!”
“No, I’m not fired, missy. I’m the executor of that will, and I’m ending your little party right now. Now you best be on your way. What you really need is a good whuppin’!”
“How dare you?!” Pauline yelled.
“Now leave this instant!” the lawyer yelled back.
“You can’t do that!” Pauline insisted.
“Oh, yes I can!”
Meanwhile, Gladys van Horne, the president of the Dames of the Opera, upon hearing all the commotion, had made her way toward the foyer from the Florida Room where she shared a card table with several other Dames and two young would-be scholarship recipients—huddled together in their own “wagon circle” amidst the savage hubbub. Gladys now stood by in abject shock, turning whiter by the second. “Never in all my born days!” she said at last, her jaw descending, wattles wagging. Finally she had to grab hold of a door jamb to keep from collapsing onto the floor.
“Goddamned lawyers!” Pauline swore as she dismounted the front steps, yanking her mother’s hat off her head and throwing it across the lawn. “You can’t tell me what to do! Goddamned leeches! And that goes for Caroline, too! You little bitch!”
Caroline blushed and looked over at Frank, who with Beulah Mae had been standing off to one side throughout the whole exchange. Both of them were shaking their heads.
“Go!” Mr. MacKelvey hollered, standing inside the doorway, still brandishing the “For Sale” sign. “Now!”
“Just wait till I go to law school!” Pauline hollered back over her shoulder as she made her way haltingly down the winding walk. “Yeah, that’s what I’ll do! I’ll beat you at your own game! All of you! Just you wait! You watch me, Goddamnit!”
“Girl, now go!”
The remainder of the day at Mrs. Wainwright’s unfolded without incident, although the altercation between Pauline and Mr. MacKelvey decidedly put a damper on the reception. And while Caroline (unlike Frank) didn’t appreciate Mr. MacKelvey’s lawyerly grandstanding in front of the other guests, known or unknown, she was at least glad to have Pauline out of the house and out of her life—Caroline hoped, for good!
People left rather quickly after the incident, taking the flower arrangements with them, though leaving behind a still huge amount of food—including a good armload of shrimp—which Caroline had wrapped up for Beulah Mae before her father drove Beulah Mae back to Coconut Grove on his own way home to Key Biscayne.
Shrimp was Beulah Mae’s favorite food on Earth, so Caroline had saved the rest of it for her.
“Lord have mercy!” is all Beulah Mae could say as she left Caroline and Frank Ramos standing at the back steps on her way out to Dr. Wainwright’s car, both arms full of groceries, shaking her head.
Dr. Wainwright had left without saying a word about the incident, though standing beside Pauline throughout the ordeal he’d not missed a word, believing Pauline’s choice of attending law school was certainly a suitable one for his “feisty” first daughter, a perfect way for her to “channel her energies,” he had thought.
A physically and emotionally drained Pauline meanwhile careered back to her South Beach apartment in her Baby Benz, stopping off along the way to pick up a study guide for the Law School Admission Test and a ticket for the Florida Lottery. At least soon she would be back working again, she figured, at the New Yauk City brokerage. She’d gone to her job interview the previous morning, arriving early, of course. She’d parked her “Baby” in a handicapped space just outside the building along the busy downtown street, cagily cutting off another “handicapped” driver to get it.
Pauline’s interviewers had been impressed with her aggressive, “New Yauk kind of attitude,” as they’d put it. That had certainly made Pauline feel better. It also meant she could afford to keep her South Beach apartment after all, and from her car she now placed calls to the utility companies to have her services re-connected. So what if her electricity wouldn’t be turned on till Monday; at the moment all Pauline planned on doing was collapsing on the futon. There would be plenty more Saturday nights on which to party. Best of all about getting her new job, Pauline could now begin saving money again, including putting some away for law school. She’d decided to apply to The Maiyami University School of Law—not cheap, perhaps, but not particularly choosy, either. Pauline reckoned she’d have little trouble getting accepted. (She certainly harbored no notions about becoming a legal scholar!)
“Smelling like a rose,” Pauline mused as she passed her “many mansions” along the MacArthur Causeway on her way back to South Beach. “A lawyer by age thirty and a millionaire!” she declared, satisfied that the day’s misadventures had presented her with yet another bold, ambitious goal—a new and challenging pathway to power and success.
* * * * *
Christopher climbed into bed and switched off the lights. Vincent had dozed off just as Christopher was about to finish his reading, and there was still another big part to go. Christopher only hoped he could read the rest of it, but meanwhile he, too, was getting tired.