Norma Gay Prewett —
I had not noticed her the day before, but my husband said he had. A pudgy, blousy blonde, she perched on the cafe stool at the Seahorse, one of the few breakfast spots on the bay side of the narrow spit of sand that forms this fairly quiet Florida beach community. Because I had purposely left my hearing aids out—noisy restaurants can sear the ears and my needs there can be easily communicated—I was unaware of the beginning monologue. But others were looking alarmed for no reason apparent to me. She had ways of drawing attention to herself that lonely people develop. She was dressed in summer whites and her wrists and neck bejeweled in what might have been costume jewelry or might have been real gems. I could see that she had once been quite pretty in a soft voluptuous way.
As an older woman myself, I spend lots of time in the company of my peers, so am pretty good at judging age. This one was looking back at 60, I figured. The neck is a giveaway, and the hair above was unnaturally blonde and tucked under a cap advertising a fishing pier. Still, she bore vestiges of a sort of beach athleticism. She chirped and teased the waitstaff as they rushed past with hot coffee and dropped a couple of polite words her way. Then, she swiveled on her stool and began to chat up an older couple who had been quietly starting their pancakes. They looked pleasant and calm—perhaps having just come from church. Soon she had hoisted her massive purse and was leaning into their appointed space, effectively blocking the aisle for other customers and waitstaff.
Pas a Grille is a popular tourist town, but year-round residents will tell you that when the seasonal fever and swelling of visitors recedes, it’s a small, quiet town. I figured she knew the couple and returned my attention to my own breakfast. Time passed and I noticed that many surrounding diners, including my husband, were becoming increasingly irritated with whatever was transpiring. From my vantage point facing the wife of the pleasant couple, I was only aware that the animated lady had talked a very long time, speaking in a tight flirty voice meant to carry. The captive couple only seemed to make polite noises once in awhile. She made as if to leave a couple of times, but would suddenly recall something and return to the increasingly impatient audience. Other customers turned to stare and the wait staff squeezed past her with hot, dangerous platters, casting her unperceived looks of exasperation.
Then she took a breath and flitted out the door. There was a general sigh of relief.
Once she was safely out of earshot, the female half of the couple asked the owner about her. “Oh that’s just Rose,” they were told. “She’s here every day with a new story of lost chances and romances.” Eyes rolled all around. I learned that this day she had spoken of the scads of millionaires she had turned down as she piloted her Leer jet on mysterious government contract missions, how she had to reject them all—all the Brazilian rubber kings and the plantations from which she could, like the Lady of Larkspur Lotion, the fallen heroine of a Tennessee Williams play, “see the white cliffs of Dover.” Everyone in earshot now understood that she was a character, a village curiosity, a story to relate at the next party.
Then, Rose suddenly reappeared and conversation ceased. She again approached the beleaguered couple, but this time fanning some dog-eared photos across their booth top. I was not close enough to see the images, but I imagined suitors, perhaps mansions owned and lost, but this time she raised her pitch enough to declare proudly that if any of us spotted a beach chair emblazoned with a huge yellow smiley face that we had seen the item that provided her fortune. She had painted a single chair she said, and they became so wildly successful that soon she had cornered the island market. We looked at each other and the floor, and then everyone watched the waitstaff, who gave up nothing. Seeing no impression, she breezed out again. I saw her settle like a tiny white and gold bug into an immense gold and white Cadillac Escalade.
My husband told me later, that the day before, with another audience, she had been a flight attendant for 40 years but had given it all up for a wealthy suitor who plied her with affection but whom she had spurned. Special flight attendant? Billionaire? Would-be diamond merchant heiress? Cornered market for smiley face beach chairs? I’ll never know. But I do have this story and I hope the best for Rose.