An excerpt from Rita Hayworth’s Shoes shows how it’s done. Happy Passover, Happy Easter, and Happy Spring everyone!
How Amy and Her Extended Family Celebrated the Holidays
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: Zoë 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,” Zoë called back into the room and then added just for Amy: “Only Vashti.”
“Oh, very funny,” Amy smirked, as she leaned over to give Zoë a giant hug and kiss.
“I have to find the humor in all this somehow, Auntie Amy. Do you see 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 you wearing?” she asked.
“Why? What’s wrong?” Amy asked, immediately self-conscious. “It’s just a turtleneck and a jumper.”
“A jumper,” Zoë repeated, in a flat tone.
“A jumper,” Amy replied, wondering what the big deal was. “Auntie Amy,” she shook her little blonde head. “A jumper is a person who’s given up on life. Someone who sits on a ledge or a bridge somewhere ready to say ‘good-bye cruel world’ and take a leap. It isn’t something you wear.” She looked away, ashamed. “It’s dreadful.”
“Zoë!” gasped Jane, who had just come over to welcome the new arrival. “Nice little girls…”
“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 of…
“It’s Urban Amish,” said Zoë.
“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.”
“Zoë, nice little girls…” 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 but…” 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 Zoë 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 and—”
“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, Zoë?”
“Sure,” said Zoë, wincing as she looked down at her barely covered form.
Following an hour-long egg hunt that essentially consisted of Zoë 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 them—one 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)—St. 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,” Zoë 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, Zoë 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 Zoë cringed. Joshua and Lauren grinned at their granddaughter through a haze of pre-dinner wine and Zoë 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 any of this,” Zoë pleaded. “I’m a Buddhist.”
Everyone laughed, charmed as ever by the adorable little girl. Except for Amy, who gave Zoë a supportive little hug. And except for Grant and Ava. Because Grant and Ava never smiled.
Zoë 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, Zoë,” came a man’s voice from the other side of the door.
“Oh. Hi, Brendan.” Zoë 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 man––whom Zoë had dismissed as just Brendan––was 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 Zoë 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,” Zoë 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 are you, Brendan?”
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 Zoë. “Who is he and why haven’t I met him before? I mean, he’s here in your house for the holidays. He must—”
“He’s no one. Believe me,” Zoë 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.” Zoë looked at Brendan, who began schmoozing with the others. “He’s one of those ‘strays’ 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, God—I didn’t mean you, Auntie Amy. Of course you’re one of us.”
She smiled. “Thanks, Zoë.”
Before Zoë 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 here.”
“Cheers, everyone,” said Lauren, raising her glass. Everyone drank. And then drank some more as a long, uncomfortable silence followed.
Impatient, Joshua nodded to Zoë. “Come on, child. You should know this cold by now.”
Zoë sighed 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 appétit,” 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 say?” Morty leaned in and whispered to Clarabelle. “She did what?!” Now Clarabelle gasped.
“Dad! Honestly,” said Jane, shaking her head. “Amy didn’t kill 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 Zoë. “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 Zoë added,
“Doesn’t exactly scream ‘femme fatale’.”
“Zoë 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 kill—”
“You never did like that Heimlich, did you?” asked Joshua.
“And those shoes,” said Ava, out of nowhere, and miraculously now smiling at Zoë. “Yes, I see. I think I know exactly what you mean—”
“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 Zoë, now enjoying an audience with Ava. “Because I—”
“Zoë!” shouted Jane.
Amy cleared her throat and continued. “I was walking by Smitty’s—you 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 and…” she drifted off. “I can’t explain it.”
“Did you buy them?” Ava craned her neck to look under the table.
Zoë joined her. “Those aren’t them, are they?” asked Zoë. “Because you know those aren’t red, right?” Zoë taunted, and Ava actually laughed.
“I don’t get it,” said Brendan.
“What? No.” said Amy, getting annoyed that Zoë was entertaining Ava at her expense.
“Well did you?” asked Grant. “Did you buy them?”
“That’s the ridiculous part,” Amy said. “They were two hundred and fifty dollars. Used. I mean, could you imagine?” she looked around for support from the other women, but not even Jane would look at her. “You don’t think that’s just a little ridiculous?”
“What price can you put on what you’re worth?” asked Morty, seemingly to the air.
Amy was amazed. “That’s so weird,” she said. “That’s kind of what the saleslady said,” and she looked around for a response. She got none. “Anyway, she also said that the shoes had belonged to Rita Hayworth, like that was supposed to decide it.”
“Rita Hayworth,” mused Joshua. “Now that’s a name you never hear anymore. Big in my day, but—”
“Dad, you’re in your sixties,” said Jane. “Were you even born when Gilda came out?”
“Well, in my father’s day maybe. But, oy. What a knockout she was. Hair red as fire. And the most gorgeous set of––”
“Sorry. Well… Anyway, tragic story. Tragic girl,” he shook his head. “Started out bad,” he said, draining the wine from the bottom of his glass. “Drunken horrible parents,” he said, and poured himself another. “Ended badly.”
“What happened?” asked Amy.
“Drank herself crazy,” said Clarabelle, grabbing another bottle from the table and filling her glass. “Alzheimer’s and a slow death.”
“Abusive childhood. Bad marriages,” said Joshua. “Divorced five times,” he said, looking right at Grant.
“And here I thought one was a pain in the ass,” Jane smirked.
Grant was not amused. “Sometimes once is enough,” he chortled, and looked as though he would burst into tears at any moment. “It’s like being cut off at the waist. Every day a new struggle. I just don’t—”
“Oh, are you still sensitive about that? Sorry.” Jane said snidely. She collected some dirty plates from the table as Grant glared at her.
“Let me help you with that,” said Brendan. She blushed and as he followed her into the kitchen.
Zoë looked at her grandparents and then back at Amy. And then at her grandparents. And then back at Amy.
Joshua reflected for a moment and stood. “I have to agree. Two hundred and fifty is too much for a pair of shoes,” he said, as Lauren coolly looked the other way. She stood, collected more dirty plates, and headed for the kitchen. Joshua dutifully piled up the plates in front of him and followed.
Zoë waited for her grandparents to be out of earshot before she leaned in and said, “Except he didn’t tell you the important part.”
“What do you mean?” asked Morty.
“The legend,” said Zoë. “About the shoes?”
“I don’t think I know anything about the shoes,” said Enid. Now they all looked to Zoë, as they often did. “Well, from what I read,” she began, and looked around.
Clarabelle leaned over to Morty, “That child is always reading,” she nodded. “She would know.”
“From what I read, Rita Hayworth was kind of plain and boring when she was young,” Zoë said. “A little like you, Auntie Amy.”
“But then she made a decision that would change her life. She fell in love with a pair of shoes. A very expensive pair of shoes. And, after passing them in a store window day after day on her way back and forth from her job in a factory during the height of the Great Depression, she decided she just had to have them.”
“But how could she afford—” Grant started to ask.
“She always had to give all her earnings to her father on payday, it’s true—”
“So he could drink it!” growled Enid, in disgust, and then swallowed down the rest of the wine in her glass.
Zoë smiled. “That’s right. But this one week, she decided no. That it was her money and that she would spend it the way she wanted to. So…”
“So?” Ava wanted to know.
“So she stopped in the store and bought the shoes.”
A collective gasp came from the group.
“And her father?” asked Clarabelle. “What did she tell her father?”
“She pretended she got mugged,” said Zoë.
“Did he believe her?” asked Amy.
“Oh, no,” said Zoë.
“Then what?” asked Morty.
Zoë looked around before speaking. “Then he beat her, of course.”
“But it never mattered again, because after that, everything changed,” said Zoë.
“Margarita, her real name, went out in the shoes the very next day, and she met Darryl Zanuck.”
“You mean the big Hollywood producer?” asked Enid.
“The same,” said Zoë. “He offered her a role in his latest film, and she left for Hollywood two weeks later.”
“I heard that story!” said Clarabelle. “I remember that!”
“I don’t quite remember it like that,” said Morty, looking a little confused.
There was a moment of silent reflection, but only a moment. “Are you going to buy the shoes, Amy?” asked Clarabelle. “They could be the ones!” gushed Enid.
“Buy the shoes, Amy!” urged Ava.
Amy tried to make sense of it all, while trying to pull herself out of the spotlight. “I don’t think I knew any of that, Zoë. Thanks. But two hundred fifty dollars for shoes. I mean, come on.”
“Some people just don’t understand the power of shoes,” Lauren said, catching the end of the conversation.
“Personally, I don’t think all that much of it,” said Zoë. “Yet I can’t scientifically rule it out.”
Brendan returned with Joshua. Jane, looking annoyed, walked a few steps behind them.
“So who’s taking over for Heimlich?” Joshua asked.
“Right now? His classes are being covered by a few of his graduate students and some other members of the department. But going forward––”
“What about you?” Lauren asked. “Are you taking on any of them?”
“Me?” Amy blushed. “Oh, no. I couldn’t possible teach his classes.”
“But don’t you have a Masters degree in English Lit?” asked Lauren.
“All she has to do is defend her dissertation at this point and then it’s PhD all the way.”
“Jane!” said Amy, horrified.
“Well, I’m sorry, Amy. But it’s true. She downplays how far she’s gotten, and how brilliant her paper was. All she needs to do now is defend it.”
All eyes were now on her. “I have a little, uh, stage fright.”
“Perhaps if you had the shoes…” mused Clarabelle.
“What’s that?” asked Joshua.
“Oh nothing, Pappy,” said Zoë. “Don’t worry about it.”
Amy Miller gets dumped on her wedding day and everyone knows it’s for the best her relationship with David had eaten away at her for years. Except for Amy… When her best friend, Jane Austen-Rabinowitz, and Jane’s sagacious six-year-old daughter, Zoe, convince Amy to treat herself to an extravagantly priced, super-cute pair of shoes, which purportedly once belonged to a siren of the silver screen, she balks at first, but their allure soon wears her down.
Also by Francine LaSala – The Girl, the Gold Tooth & Everything
Mina Clark is losing her mind-or maybe it’s already gone. She isn’t quite sure. Feeling displaced in her over-priced McMansion-dotted suburban world, she is grappling not only with deep debt, a mostly absent husband, and her playground-terrorizer 3-year-old Emma, but also with a significant amnesia she can’t shake-a “temporary” condition now going on several years, brought on by a traumatic event she cannot remember, and which everyone around her feels is best forgotten.
When a trip to the dentist leaves Mina with a new gold crown, her whole life changes. Slowly her memory and her mojo return. But when everything begins to crash down around her, she’s not sure if what’s happening is real, of if she’s just now fully losing her mind… especially when she realizes the only person she can trust is the one she fears the most. What’s it all going to cost her in the end?