"Well, I don't know about phenomenally," I said. The way she had dutifully tacked on Asunción made me ponder whether Doctor Magnánimo might be more to her than just a generous boss.
But mostly I was occupied with keeping myself intact in this new environment. My guerrilla antennae were on full alert, sensing new threats and opportunities pulsing at me as we skimmed along streets lined with palm trees and sea grapes and modest pastel bungalows with those slatted glass windows that keep the heat and rain out. In this tropical city I would have to wear lighter clothes; more of my body would be on display for new critics as well as new potential gropers. There would be levels of sophistication to tap into without revealing my ignorance, levels far more demanding than Major Marjac asking me about wine. There would be new brands of wickedness undreamed of by someone arriving overnight from a sheltered Southern university existence. And usurpers a million times subtler and smoother than Earl.
"I think you're going to like your hotel," Tess was saying. "It has a pool and it's only a few blocks from Miami Avenue. You'll be able to walk to work in your heels. We were able to get you the special monthly rate because the manager, Alex de Costa, is Hector's patient. Alex was being groomed to take over his grandfather's hotel in Havana, but when things got shaky down there, the grandfather had the foresight to sell out in time and buy the Julia Tuttle here. It was a little run-down, but he's renovated it in the European style. Hector says it's exactly like a good family hotel in Madrid or Barcelona now."
"Should I know who Julia Tuttle is?"
"The Mother of Miami? You certainly should! She made Henry Flagler bring the railroad here from Jacksonville. When everything north of Miami froze, she sent him a box with an orange blossom from her tree, and that convinced him. Your hotel stands on the land where her old home was. Granny sewed for Julia and her daughter, you know. Mother remembers Granny altering a whole bunch of Julia's gowns for Miss Fannie right after Julia dropped dead. Poor Julia, she was only forty-eight. I'll be, well, close to that next year, but don't you dare tell a soul. Granny always said Julia worked too hard on her dream and it killed her. Miami was just a swamp full of Seminoles and alligators before Julia came down here on a barge after her husband's death, with all her furniture and silver from Ohio. She had this dream of creating a beautiful subtropical resort, and she made it happen, though she doesn't get nearly enough credit for it nowadays."
Tess didn't resent other people's accomplishments or good fortune, even with her own life so compromised. I was sure that in her place I would have become bitter or crazy. Here she was working on Sunday in a white uniform for a Cuban dentist when she had once traveled by private yacht. She had not seen her high-school-age son since he was fifteen months old. The first thing I planned to do when I got to the Star was to look up Tess in the newspaper's morgue. Not even Mother knew the whole story, and I had promised I would find out what I could.
My first impression of the Julia Tuttle was a letdown, followed by a distinct relief that I could just be myself here. Based on my furtive Christmas stay at the Kenilworth over on the Beach, paid for by someone else, I had expected more glitter and swank in a Miami hotel, even the kind I could afford. Tess was the only platinum blonde in sight, and there was none of that high-gloss decor or those snooty personnel strutting around to make you feel unstylish. A black man in a striped bib apron whom Tess addressed as Clarence loaded my suitcases onto a trolley. The only other visible staff member was a morose-looking desk clerk in a pleated shirt worn outside the pants and a few strips of hair plastered over his bald pate. His countenance brightened when Tess introduced us, and the next thing I knew he was handing me three letters, including one from Mother and one from Loney.
Excerpted from Queen of the Underworld by Gail Godwin Copyright © 2006 by Gail Godwin. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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