Authors: Francine LaSala
“His name is Decklin,” ZoÃ« said as she approached. “Decklin Thomas. And it looks like he likes Amy,” she said turning to Amy, who blushed and looked away. “He says to come back and join him when you're done over here,” she said, and started walking away. Then she stopped and turned around again. “And I have no idea what happened to his hair.” With that, she gave a flip of her own platinum locks and disappeared into the fray.
The women were quiet. “Maybe it's time for the âstrangers' talk?” Hannah offered.
Amy, finding herself oddly drawn to the bald man's warm smile and sparkly eyes, walked away from her friends without speaking.
“I'm back,” said Amy, and she reclaimed her seat. “I'm Amy,” she said, feeling strangely at ease as she offered a hand.
“I know,” he smiled, and presented a meaty paw for her to shake. “Decklin. But most people call me Deck.”
“It's nice to meet you, Deck.”
“So how did you knowâ¦” she asked, nodding in the direction of the casket, where Detective Franks just happened to be standing.
“Franks? Strange story really.”
“No. I meantâ”
At that moment, ZoÃ« raced over. “Bastard and the Beast closing in at four o'clock,” she said. “In case you want to split. Hannah's keeping them busy over by the front door.”
Amy started to panic. “I can't stay. I can't see them. Oh, God. Oh, Godâ¦”
“I just found a back exit,” Jane rushed over, out of breath. “Through the Vegas Chamber.” The others just stared at her. “What? No one's in there now.” They all nodded that this was okay. “Come on,” said Jane, waving Amy on.
Deck reached out for her. “Wait. Can Iâ”
“I gotta go,” Amy said. “Sorry. It was really niceâ”
“Now,” Jane exclaimed. “They're coming.
“Yeah. You, too,” Deck waved. “See you around.”
Jane and Amy raced through the halls of Aberdeen's and right into the Vegas Chamber, which was tastefully decorated with silent slot machines and card tables set up with real playing cards and poker chips. In the back of the room was a dazzling “stage” platform, awash in a thousand tiny lights and flanked by two six-foot-tall, sequin-clad, topless showgirl mannequins.
“Wow,” said Amy, temporarily stunned.
“That way,” said Jane, pointing just beyond the towering headdress of the girl on the left.
“See you tomorrow,” Amy said, giving Jane a quick kiss on the cheek and then running off. She pushed through the exit door and reemerged in what she hoped would be a more normal world.
Safely on the street, Amy was a mess of emotions. That amusement park of a funeral parlor. The dead professor. The cops. And coming much too close to running into Liz and David. Not to mention that bald yet oddly compelling whackjobâ¦ Decklin. It was enough to set a girl right over the edge.
Feeling calmer with each step she took away from the freak show at Aberdeen's, Amy slowed her stride and began peering into the store windows she passed. She'd never noticed many of the small, quaint little shops that lined this street she must have walked down a thousand times. There was an antique shop and a bait and tackle store. There was a small bakery and a cheese shop.
At the end of the strip there was a second-hand store. This one she was familiar with. Smitty's. David used to buy his clothes in this store and often encouraged her to do the same. She was sure many of the gifts he had purchased for her while they were together had come from here. Yes, she had been here many times with him, dragged against her will to locate bargains. Useless used garbage at irresistible prices. So, as she looked into the window, she was half expecting to see some of the stuff taken from her own apartment up for sale here. There wasn't. But there was something that caught her eye.
Right in the center of the front window, raised above a broken-down eight-track player and a handheld video game from the 1980s, and perched on a pedestal of luscious black velvet, sat the most remarkable pair of shoes Amy had ever seen. She had never been one of those women who went gaga for shoes, but there was something about theseâshiny, red leather pumps with a dramatic high heel and an embellishment on the toe that looked like a happy little daisy. She couldn't look away and she surprised herself when she leaned in to get a closer look. She could swear that the shoes had somehowâ¦sparkled. But that couldn't be possible. Could it?
Her heart was racing. Her blood ran hot in her veins. She couldn't understand this strange sensation washing over her. She could barely breathe as she leaned in to read the card that bore the price of these magnificent specimens. So transfixed on the shoes was she, that she hadn't noticed the shopkeeper had come out of the store and was watching her from the front door. Amy leaned in further, squinted her eyes, and then gasped. “Two hundred and fifty dollars?” she shouted. “For that! For shoes?!”
“My dear,” the stooped-over old woman said, walking over to her. “These are not just
shoes,” she exclaimed, looking Amy up and down. “You may be too young to remember, but surely you've heard of Rita Hayworth?”
Amy shrugged an acknowledgment.
“She was a Hollywood legend,” the woman said. “These shoes used to belong to her.” She took Amy's arm in hers, and they both looked again at the shoes in a state of reverence. “A lot of people don't know the real story of Rita Hayworth,” she sighed deeply, as she looked at Amy. “Do you?”
The spell was broken. “You know what? I don't care if Michael Jackson was buried in them,” Amy scoffed. “That price is ridiculous!”
The shopkeeper seemed unfazed at the accusation. “Can you really put a price on what makes you feel good, Amy?” she asked. “Can you really attach a limit to what you're worth?”
“HâHow did you know my name?” She could not remember ever seeing this woman before any other time she'd been here , and had no idea how she would have known her name. “I don't thinkâ¦” she started, suspiciously. And she quickly ran off.
As Amy turned the corner of her street, she spotted the Building Boys firmly planted on their stoop. She took a deep breath and put a smile on her face, trying to pass them as quickly as possible.
“Hello, sexy Amy,” cooed Angelo.
“Where did you come from, looking all hot like that?” asked Mario.
“Heh. Who's the skirt?” teased Frankie, and they all laughed.
“Hi, guys,” she choked out. It was all she could muster.
Tony seemed to sense her unease and he raced to her side. “What's wrong, Miss Amy? Another bad day?”
“Something like that.” She smiled weakly.
He moved closer to her, the magnetic Italian machismo of him way too intoxicating as she began to fall under his spell. “Why don't you let Tony take you upstairs?”
She was breathless. “Uhâ¦ maybeâ¦” she said.
He was insistent. He licked his full lips and looked her straight in the eyes. “I think Tony knows how to make it all better.”
She paused momentarily and without being too obvious about it, took in the shocked looks on the faces of the others. Jazzed up by the madness of the day, especially the last mind-bending moment at the second-hand store, she felt all of it could only be explained one way: She'd gotten herself trapped in a looking glass world and perhaps the only way to make sense of all the “crazy” that surrounded her was to dive right inâ¦ Or maybeâ¦
“Maybe another time,” she panted, and she darted inside.
Lauren Austen-Rabinowitz, Jane's mother, had once worked at the same publishing house as Shirley Miller, Amy's mother, which is how the Austen-Rabinowitz and Miller families had become acquainted. But it was Shirley's admission to Lauren that the Millers had no extended family which brought their two families together when Amy was in preschool and Jane a preteen. Since then, the families had become inseparable. Until Eric and Shirley Miller's ill-fated vacation several years before, that is. Now it was just Amy and a mishmash of other random family members who really had no place else to go for holiday events, such as the one Amy was about to attend.
“Hello, Amy,” said Carlos, the doorman, as she entered the building.
“They are waiting for you,” he seemed to chide.
“Yes, I know. I'm late. Thanks.” She darted into the elevator and pressed the button for the seventeenth floor.
She didn't know what she had expected to find when the front door of the apartment swung open, but it certainly wasn't what had greeted her: ZoÃ« outfitted in a quasi-Playboy Bunny getup, wearing a set of oversized bunny ears and an expression that could only be described as humiliated. “No. Not Elijah,” ZoÃ« called back into the room and then added just for Amy: “Only Vashti.”
“Oh, very funny,” Amy smirked, as she leaned over to give ZoÃ« a giant hug and kiss.
“I have to find the humor in all this somehow, Auntie Amy. Do you
what they have me in this year?” she asked.
“What's wrong? I think you look cute.”
“If I was sixteen and decided to wear this myself, my mother would ground me until I left for college. I mean, look at this,” she said as she turned around to give Amy a look at her perky cotton tail. “Seriously,” she said. Then she looked Amy up and down. “What are
wearing?” she asked.
“Why? What's wrong?” Amy asked, immediately self-conscious. “It's just a turtleneck and a jumper.”
“A jumper,” ZoÃ« repeated, in a flat tone.
“A jumper,” Amy replied, wondering what the big deal was.
“Auntie Amy,” she shook her little blonde head. “A
is a person who's given up on life. Someone who sits on a ledge or a bridge somewhere ready to say âgood-bye cruel world' and take a leap. It isn't something you
.” She looked away, ashamed. “It's dreadful.”
“ZoÃ«!” gasped Jane, who had just come over to welcome the new arrival. “Nice little girlsâ¦”
“I know, I know. Nice little girls let their friends walk around looking like bag ladies if that's what makes them happy.”
“That's not what I meant, young lady.” Quite the opposite of Amy, Jane wore a gauzy yellow sundress with a white, loosely buttoned cardigan sweater casually tossed over it. New white espadrilles adorned her otherwise bare feet, and showcased a bright peach pedicure. She was perfectly dressed for a spring celebration; Amy, on the other hand, was dressed more along the lines ofâ¦
“It's Urban Amish,” said ZoÃ«.
“Sorry?” both women asked, looking to the girl.
“Urban Amish. I've been trying to figure it out for years and now I know,” she said, folding her arms across her chest as she nodded at Amy. “Yep. That's her look.”
“ZoÃ«, nice little girlsâ¦” Jane stammered, embarrassed, yet more than a little bit intrigued.
“Think about it, Mama. When's the last time you saw Auntie Amy wear any other color butâ¦” she started naming on her fingers, “black, navy blue, beige, gray.” She looked to her mother. “Am I missing one?”
“No. It's true,” Jane said, looking pained. And then, as though Amy had ruined ZoÃ« in some horrible way and for life, she added, dramatically, “What's wrong with having a little color in your life?”
“There she is!” came a voice from the living room. “There's our Amy!” Saved by the rabbi. Joshua Austen-Rabinowitz, along with Lauren, joined the party at the door, and took Amy into his arms. “Come on in,” he said as he hugged her, taking the bottle of wine she'd brought and passing it to Lauren.
“Nice to see you, dear,” said Lauren, as she planted polite air kiss on each of Amy's cheeks, and took her hand into her own, which was slightly cold and bony. “You over him yet?”
Amy, caught off guard, smiled weakly. “Oh, well. You know how it is. It takes time. I don't think I've ruled out reconciliation andâ”
“I think I have the cure,” Lauren cut her off, without emotion. “There's only one cure for a broken heart, you know.” And then Lauren let out a boozy, uncharacteristically hearty laugh.
Amy didn't know what she was talking about, but nervously laughed along anyway.
“Come! The egg hunt is about to begin,” Joshua beamed, his eyes on his granddaughter. “And our little bunny's done one heck of a job with the hiding this year! Haven't you, ZoÃ«?”
“Sure,” said ZoÃ«, wincing as she looked down at her barely covered form.
Following an hour-long egg hunt that essentially consisted of ZoÃ« having to find every single egg she had hidden earlier as the adults found the bottoms of their glasses again and again, the family gathered around the large, festively decorated table in the center of the dining room for the much-anticipated annual Easter-Seder feast.
A spectacular spread was laid out before themâone that celebrated both the Jewish and Christian traditions of the varied members of the Austen-Rabinowitz families assembled. There were miles of matzoh and mountains of maror. There was a rack of lamb and asparagus and roasted rosemary red potatoes. There enough brisket to feed an army. There was challah bread with colored eggs baked into it (though there wasn't a single drop of Italian blood to be accounted for here)âSt. Yosef's bread, as Joshua liked to joke. And, to ensure the evening would be rich in tradition, and loose in inhibition, there were four wineglasses set at every place.
“We're at the kids' end,” ZoÃ« said to Amy, as she led them to their seats at the foot of the table. “We get to sit with the Happys again,” she joked. Amy couldn't help but let a giggle slip, as this could only mean they'd be sharing their end of the table with the gloomiest people she had ever met.
As if the seating order ever changed from event to event, everyone searched out their place cards. Joshua was at the head, with Lauren to his right and Jane to his left. To Jane's left was Joshua's younger brother, Morty, who looked to be about ten years older than he. To his left sat Lauren's ancient Aunt Clarabelle, followed by Amy. On the other side of the table, there was an empty seat next to Lauren, and beyond that sat Joshua's own ancient aunt, Enid. Next to her sat her long-divorced, morbidly morose son, Grant. And next to him sat his miserable thirteen-year-old daughter, Ava, whom, ZoÃ« had explained to Amy as they walked to their seats, she was expected to entertain. Except not even the bunny suit had sparked even a mocking smile.
The doorbell rang and ZoÃ« cringed. Joshua and Lauren grinned at their granddaughter through a haze of pre-dinner wine and ZoÃ« buried her face in her hands.
“Maybe that's Elijah!” slurred Aunt Enid.
“Go on and get it!” screamed Clarabelle, with a hint too much enthusiasm.
“But I'm really not into
of this,” ZoÃ« pleaded. “I'm a Buddhist.”
Everyone laughed, charmed as ever by the adorable little girl. Except for Amy, who gave ZoÃ« a supportive little hug. And except for Grant and Ava. Because Grant and Ava never smiled.
ZoÃ« took a deep breath and slid out of her chair. “I wonder who this could be,” she said, monotone as she dragged her feet to the front door and opened it.
“Hi, ZoÃ«,” came a man's voice from the other side of the door.
“Oh. Hi, Brendan.” ZoÃ« said, bored, as she turned back to the table. “It's just Brendan.”
Amy didn't know a Brendan and immediately turned her head toward the front door when she saw how excited the other woman at the table appeared at the mere mention of his name. She nearly choked as he entered, as the manâwhom ZoÃ« had dismissed as
âwas the most beautiful man Amy had ever seen. Brad Pitt would have looked like a pile of vomit next to this strapping, sandy-haired, green-eyed Adonis. Amy must have been staring, for when ZoÃ« came back to the table, she leaned over and whispered loudly in Amy's ear, “Stop staring.” Amy promptly took a sip of water and tried to refocus on the dinner party.
“You can't fall in love with a body,” ZoÃ« said pointedly to Amy.
Jane quickly jumped up, urging Uncle Mort to take the seat next to Lauren on the other side of the table. “Come. Sit here,” she gushed to the new addition, tapping the seat next to her. “How
Lauren stood. “No, dear. He'll sit by me,” she said. Jane glared at her mother. “Not for you,” Lauren mouthed, as Jane crossed her arms and sulked and Brendan made his way over to Lauren.
Amy leaned toward ZoÃ«. “Who is he and why haven't I met him before? I mean, he's here in your house for the holidays. He mustâ”
“He's no one. Believe me,” ZoÃ« said, letting out an exasperated sigh.
“Seriously. He must be someone special. An actor?”
“He's just a guy Nana found lurking around at Starbucks one day. Some college dropout.” ZoÃ« looked at Brendan, who began schmoozing with the others. “He's one of those âstrays' New York liberals like to bring to these kinds of events. You know, just some loser with no family and nothing else to do.”
“Oh.” Amy looked away, embarrassed.
“Oh, GodâI didn't mean
, Auntie Amy. Of course you're one of us.”
She smiled. “Thanks, ZoÃ«.”
Before ZoÃ« could explain the reference, Joshua lifted his wineglass and stood. “Now that we are all present and accounted for, we may begin our celebration. The glorious union of centuries-old traditions that could only be possible
“Cheers, everyone,” said Lauren, raising her glass. Everyone drank. And then drank some more as a long, uncomfortable silence followed.
Impatient, Joshua nodded to ZoÃ«. “Come on, child. You should know this cold by now.”
ZoÃ« signed deeply and then began. “Right. Sorry,” she cleared her tiny throat. “Why is this night different from all other nights?” she said in what had become her trademark monotone this evening.
As the ritual unfolded, Amy tried to sneak a quick inconspicuous glance at Brendan, mortified to find he was staring at her. He waved, throwing her for a bigger loop. She turned her head to make sure no one was standing behind her, causing him to chuckle and shake his head. He waved again and mouthed a small “Hello.” She waved back and quickly looked away as the four questions ended.
“Bon appÃ©tit,” said Lauren, and everyone dove in.
“So, Amy,” said Joshua. “Tell everyone how you killed your boss.”
“Joshua!” Lauren gasped.
Clarabelle shouted across the table at Enid. “What did he say?” And then to Morty, “What did he
?” Morty leaned in and whispered to Clarabelle. “She did what?!” Now Clarabelle gasped.
“Dad! Honestly,” said Jane, shaking her head. “Amy didn't
anyone. Her boss choked to death on a cookie.”
“How do you choke on a cookie?” asked a puzzled Enid.
“It was a biscotti,” Amy chirped, thinking this would help somehow.
“Oh,” said Enid, as if it had.
“Pappy, come on,” laughed ZoÃ«. “Amy's not a killer. I mean, seriously. Just look at her outfit.” Now Ava looked Amy up and down, and nodded in agreement when ZoÃ« added, “Doesn't exactly scream âfemme fatale'.”
“ZoÃ« Mary-Alice Austen-Rabinowitz!”
“I kind of dig a chick in a jumper,” said Brendan from across the table. “Seriously,” he said, as if no one believed him.
“I still don't see how you could choke to death on a cookie,” said Enid, looking worriedly at Grant, who had just taken a large bite of a macaroon. Sensing his mother's displeasure, he immediately tossed the macaroon back onto his plate. When she turned away, he picked it up again, considered it, and shoved the rest of the cookie into his mouth.
“I'm Brendan,” Brendan waved to Amy. “I think I was invited here to meet you, right?” he asked, now looking around. Lauren pretended to be looking at her fingernails when his eyes fell on her. He smiled again at Amy. “You know, I've hated every boss I ever had. So I have to say, it's especially nice to meet you.”
Amy flushed bright red. “Well, thanks. But I didn't killâ”
“You never did like that Heimlich, did you?” asked Joshua.
“And those shoes,” said Ava, out of nowhere, and miraculously now smiling at ZoÃ«. “Yes, I see. I think I know exactly what you meanâ”
“Speaking of shoes,” said Amy, coughing as she desperately tried to change the subject. “I had the strangest experience yesterday with a pair of shoes.”
“Really,” said ZoÃ«, now enjoying an audience with Ava. “Because Iâ”
“ZoÃ«!” shouted Jane.
Amy cleared her throat and continued. “I was walking by Smitty'sâyou know, that second-hand store down on the strip?”
“Yes!” exclaimed Clarabelle. “Such bargains. I bought this scarf there and for such a bargain,” she nodded to Enid, who looked crossly at Clarabelle. Clarabelle looked away and absently tugged at the hairs on her chin.
“Right. Well, anyway,” Amy continued. “There were these shoes there, shoes like I'd never seen before. They were red and so shiny andâ¦” she drifted off. “I can't explain it.”
“Did you buy them?” Ava craned her neck to look under the table.
ZoÃ« joined her. “Those aren't them, are they?” asked ZoÃ«. “Because you know those aren't
, right?” ZoÃ« taunted, and Ava actually laughed.