Sobriety was on me before I could get out of the way. It was the mirror's fault. I woke up with the worst hangover of the modern era but was not shocked into full equanimity until I saw that creature lurching out of the glass. What...what happened to me? I had worn a smock and clogs to bed--why? A cigarette butt had burrowed deep into my hair. I combed out other debris (cork remnants, a toenail, a toothpick with a bit of bacon clinging to it) and deftly applied makeup with the help of a grout bag and trowel. The phone rang.
"How horrible for you!" began Tim in a delighted voice.
"It's a bad one," I admitted. "I slept in clogs."
"Not your hangover! I'm talking about the Chicago Society article. What did you do to that reporter last night? He hates you."
Tim saved me the trouble of running out to the nearest newsstand in my clogs, smock, and fatback hat, and began to read aloud.
DIETRICH'S HALLOWEEN--A HONEY OF A TIME
By Babbington Hawkes
The fabulous and salty Honey Dietrich outdid herself last night with a Halloween dual benefit for two new projects, the restaurant Nub (you know where it is) and infantile melanoma (a very sad type of cancer). Amazing to see the Daleys (cowboy and cowgirl) rubbing elbows with Dennis Farina and Keanu Reeves (Mafia hitman and extremely cute mad scientist). Honey herself, divine in retro couture, provided an outstanding Sonoma chardonnay from her family's West Coast winery and Nub chef Pietro Bangalore offered the best of Nub's eclectic nouvelle American bistro cuisine...
...dancing to the sounds of the Weasel Walter Five were our own Roger Ebert (thumbs up on the cabbage patch, Ebes!), Judd Nelson (with new Prince Valiant coif--methinks a starring role in the next Merchant-Ivory period piece is afoot), and a certain portly weatherman from Fox News. Unfortunately, dear friends, as I was preparing to interview Chef Bangalore on upcoming menu changes, the person who had staked herself out at the buffet all night inhaling entire platters lurched into moi and yakked rumaki and Yankee pot roast tidbits all over my butter-soft Ferragamos. Perhaps certain persons should stick to flogging Fishman's sportswear instead of attending social functions where they are woefully outclassed, not to mention overfed...
No, no. I was fairly, almost 100 percent positive that that wasn't me. That didn't happen. It couldn't have. My smock was clean when I woke up. How dare he call me a "person," self-righteous queen Babbington Hawkes, society gossipmonger snob. How did he know who I was? I've only encountered him once or twice in the past, and I'm sure I just stood there hangdog and speechless as usual.
"Have to get back to the reference desk now, old trout," said Tim. "Call me later."
I threw on clothes and made it to Fishman's with five minutes to spare. My work friends soothed me with home remedies. Nan from Hosiery brought me cheesecloth stuffed with rice that she'd heated up in the staff microwave. I held it to the base of my throbbing skull and ignored customers. My senior, Mrs. Lubbeth, always hogged everybody who walked into Women's Wear anyway and only threw me the BOBs (in retail parlance that's "biddies on budgets"). But she did allow me a really long coffee break when I came in, then pulled some cotton balls and a bottle of witch hazel out of her purse so that I might dab some under my eyes. I should carry cotton balls around in my purse, but there's only room for a credit card and one key.
"What's her majesty's first name?" asked Nan, crouching down behind the counter. The executives frowned on fraternization between departments. Divide and conquer and so on.
"Who knows? She's been here eight hundred years, and no one's ever called her anything except 'Mrs. Lubbeth.'"
Nan said, "Except Bernie from Admin. He calls her 'Mrs. L.'"
I was terrifyingly close to hurling Starbucks all over the watchband rotisserie. The mention of freakish Bernie had dredged up some flickering memory from last night. His hair, yes, that was it. Plenty sickening in its usual "party fro" state (business in the front--party in the back), it had been lacquered with sparkly orange hair spray. Halloween, right...he was a spaceman. What had I been? Something in a smock. Suddenly, I felt very cold.
I said, "Nan, I found a toenail and bacon fat in my hair this morning."
"Again?" she sympathized.
Mrs. Lubbeth, unwise to my new hiding place under the counter, walked around the department looking for me. With her way-bleached Angie Dickinson hair and Pucci caftan, Mrs. Lubbeth was a harsh visual dose that morning. She was sort of motherly, in an Endora-from-Bewitched way. Quite unpredictable, she'd bring doughnuts and cookies for us in Women's Wear, then without warning, start goose-stepping around the atrium, howling about sales figures. Sometimes I thought she was putting a curse on me, mushing her lips around and squinting, but usually it turned out that a caraway seed had simply slipped under her partial.
Fishman's had put up a huge sign at the designer boutique, proclaiming, we now stock size 0! I know it's something to shoot for, but I think it would feel anticlimactic to try on clothes and whisper to the mirror, I've done it. I'm finally a zero. Frankly, I have said that, in the usual sense of zero, and it's not so thrilling.
Nan popped her head over the counter, keeping watch for the return of her manager. We saw a tiny woman milling about the designer boutique, which was a corner of our women's wear department. It was partially cordoned off with tall chinoiserie screens to keep regular people out. Mrs. Consolo headed this Fishman's subdepartment, as she was the only one of us sleek enough to wear designer originals and smooth enough to convince sixty-year-old dowagers they looked fabulous in knit Galliano.
The shopper approached Mrs. Consolo with a dress and said, "Do you have this in a zero?"
We couldn't hear Mrs. Consolo's response, but the small customer said loudly, "No, no, a zero. The two just hangs on me." We exchanged glances. Mrs. Consolo disappeared into the back room. Perhaps she was pawing through discarded scraps of fabric under the seamstress's chair, looking for one that was small enough.
If it were me, I'd ask for the zero in a soft, modest voice, implying that I had simply been born a zero, not that I had clawed and murdered my way into zero.
Nan leaned into the countertop mirror and made infinitesimal adjustments to her long red hair and cute Edith Head bangs. She wore one of our new pink cashmere sweater vests over her bare chest, just flat enough to get away with it. I tried that last week, and my right breast made an unfortunate appearance when I smacked the cash register during a voided transaction.
"Oopsie!" I had said, tucking it back in.
The customer, a middle-aged doughboy buying women's panties, had said, "It's not subtle, but it works."
Nan saw her manager advancing. "Better go, see you later. What are you staring at me for?" She looked down at her vest. "It's not a zero, if that's what you're thinking. But cashmere, cashmere...isn't it to die for?"
More coffee and more hiding from customers lifted some of the migraine, depuffed my swollen-udder eye bags, and generally reduced me to my normal witlessness. Sobriety gained on my hangover and with it brought full memory of the previous evening.
It had begun in my apartment with Tim disparaging my Halloween costume.
"Is that the best you could do?" he asked. Deep, disappointed frown lines settled into their usual locations.
After a lifetime of hearing those words on thousands of occasions, I had always hoped I could come up with something better than my standard "Uh-huh" or "I guess not." Decades of practice should have supplied me with some clever, cutting rejoinder.
"I don't know," I replied doubtfully, looking down at my costume.
"A ghost? A ghost?" asked Tim. "This is a Honey Dietrich event, Lisa. Do you know who's going to be there? Oprah. Maggie Daley. Judd Nelson."
"Don't be an idiot," said Tim, roughly pushing me into my dressing area, or closet. "You need to be seen, recognized, if you want to get invited anywhere around here." I liked to think of Tim as my annoying yet slightly loveable gay sidekick, but in truth he was more like a highly strung marine sergeant with a fondness for tiny pastel cigarettes and haute couture.
I was glad I'd been invited to the party, though everyone who worked at Fishman's had been invited. Socialite Honey Dietrich liked us because we never blabbed to the press that she bought half-price irregulars in our designer boutique. It seemed strange to me that the heiress to the Dietrich salt fortune would be so frugal.
She always said, "It comes from living through the war, sugar." Quick subtraction on the store calculator provided no clue as to which war Honey could have lived through. Even if she had had as much plastic surgery as was popularly surmised, she could not have meant World War II; she was in that nebulous late-forties/early-fifties range. Then what? The Korean War? Not exactly a time of famine, unless you were Korean. The war on drugs seemed a more likely possibility, what with the government cracking down on unnecessary refills of Nembutal and Valium and everything.
"You look like a floppy Klansman," said Tim, pulling at the peak atop my head.
I said, "They only had fitted sheets at the thrift."
"You really went all out for this party, didn't you? Sheets at the thrift!"
I make $208.25 a week after taxes. I buy the sheets for my bed at the thrift.
"All you're wearing is a black polyester suit and giant googly-eyed glasses."
He dusted off invisible lint from his cuff and smirked. "I'm Alan Greenspan."
I thought he was the lady from the Old Navy commercials.
Tim cut a huge hole out of my sheet and yanked it down over my head. Then he put my hair in big Farrah curlers and said this was all he could come up with. When asked, I was to say that I was a beauty client of Bumble and Bumble.
"But I don't want to be a customer of Bumble and Bumble," I said. "It's ridiculous."
"No one says 'customer' anymore, and it's not ridiculous, it's New York. You need some kind of clout in Chicago."
He then tried to get me into a cat suit, but I explained that cat suits looked lousy on my saddlebags. He said I needed fashionable ankles and shoes to stick out below my beauty-client smock. He asked for Blahnik stilettos. I gave him Birkenstock clogs.
I was desperate for a cig, but we were late.
We hailed a cab at Division and Ashland. All sorts of witches and zombies were fighting over cabs at the corner, but Tim barreled through shouting, "I'm Alan Greenspan, goddammit! I'm Alan Greenspan!" and the crowds parted like the Red Sea. No one even wants to get close to an economist these days.
We reached the Gold Coast in half an hour. We could have just taken the El, but you can't show up at a Honey Dietrich event on public transportation.
Tim said, "No one must know how poor we are. And for God's sake, don't mention you grew up in Bridgeport, not that everyone won't guess that the moment you open your mouth." Tim had no idea how hard it was to eradicate Thirty-first Street from speech. I still lapsed into its flat vowels and lockjaw cadence, particularly when I was starving for Polish "sahh-sidge" or criticizing "da Mare," Richard Daley.
Mike Royko put it best: Bridgeport is a community that drinks out of the beer pail and eats out of the lunch bucket. We are hardwired for mustaches and Chess King sweaters, for tailgating, for public nuisance. Like a town of relief pitchers, the men are broad in the beam and have strange facial-hair configurations. The women are dwarfed by their coifs. Bridgeport is the South Side--"dese-dem-and-doze" Italian, lace-curtain Polack, bog Irish, blue-collar, stockyards, sluggers, the Daley empire, hog butchers, wheat stackers, builders, and wreckers. Doughnuts can be purchased at any moment of any day. The White Sox-Cubs game is known as the "War of Northern Aggression." I've tried to exorcise my background, but I'm second-generation Bridgeport, and its stains and scars have marked me for life.
Honey's Halloween party was held in one of those cramped, fashionable restaurants that pop up every few minutes in Chicago. They have unappetizing names like Yanal or Flem's. This one, Nub, was Honey's present darling but was expected to cave when she grew bored of it in six months.
Anxiety dawned upon me. "Tim," I said, "I forgot my cigs."
He dragged me past the Nub doorman, a fifteen-year-old boy in pink marabou who informed me, "We have a no-smoking policy, ma'am."
Before Tim had butchered it, my ghost costume had had a perfect little O cut out at mouth level, just the right size for a Kool or a cocktail straw. Without the restrictive O, I would probably eat food and drink beer, two habits that have recently eclipsed smoking, my primary vice.
"Oh, hell," I said. "A buffet."
Tim steered me away from a massive cheese sculpture and into the arms of Honey Dietrich, who was surrounded by a gaggle of dowagers and pretty socialites and young artists. She was dressed in vintage black satin Pauline Trigere, all blond finger waves and red lips. Her triangular nostrils flared hungrily at my friend, hazel-eyed long drink of water that he is. She kissed me forcefully on the mouth.
"I don't believe in air kissing," she said, her eyes never leaving Tim. "So false."
"Honey Dietrich, this is my friend Tim Gideon," I said.
"Oh? Are you the one always leaving those Bibles for me in the hotel?" she murmured, batting three feet of eyelash at him. He smiled stiffly, as though he hadn't heard the Bible joke for the last thirty years.
We discussed our costumes. Honey laughed uproariously at witty Greenspan, and proclaimed my Bumble client garb to be "too, too sick-making." Tim gave me a surreptitious thumbs up, as this was an accolade of high praise currently in vogue. I guessed that she was Veronica Lake, but she shook her head and told me to guess again.
"I'm really not good at guessing," I said.
"Guess!" she ordered.
"Um, okay...." I tried to think of other beautiful blond actresses that would flatter her. "Grace Kelly?"
Despairing, I said, "RuPaul?"
She blanched, but assumed I was not clever or daring enough to poke fun at her, and let it slide. "No, darling, I am last season!"
The tension had built up, and somehow a laugh quite unlike my own escaped me. It was high-pitched and abrasive and psychotic. What was she talking about? Everyone knew I had no idea.From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from The Easy Hour by Leslie Stella. Copyright © 2003 by Leslie Stella. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.