It was about four when I arrived at the dress shop. The Versailles curtains in the display windows changed with the seasons. In winter, they were heavyweight opaque in a platinum shade. Zuza would herald the arrival of spring with bead-trimmed, crushed fabric in sage, which remained throughout the summer. Chenille in taupe was the fall look. By Thanksgiving, she had replaced it with plush velvet draping in gold.
The familiar bells jingled as I passed through the door. Zuza was at the register, chatting on the phone. I hung my coat on the rack. My mind conjured memories from a decade ago—all of us children prancing around the reception room. Since our early kindergarten days, Zuza and my mom had taken turns transporting us to and from school. When Zuza picked us up, we waited here for my mother.
I’d be thrilled to arrive and see the latest dresses displayed on the mannequins, one in each window, and two in the reception area against a backdrop of pale blue walls. We often slumped on the floral sofa beside the floor lamp that had a fringe shade of broadcloth. The center table surrounding the sofa offered past and present editions of Harper’s Bazaar, until Angie and I convinced Zuza to add Cosmo and Seventeen.
Display counters that once exhibited handcrafted fabric dolls and plush, hand-stitched bears made by employees, including my grandmother, now displayed brooches, pendants, chains, and hand-dyed silk scarves. None of the women had time to make dolls anymore. I missed the dolls. I thought immediately of Sweet Cookie, a store-bought doll Zuza had given to me on my fifth birthday.
How I missed that innocent time! All of us kids would stampede to the workroom in back like a herd of cattle. Depending on when you visited, it could be a quiet place with people working or abuzz with the chatter of visitors. Zuza kept coffee brewing on a table against the wall. People brought cookies she would set out there. Beyond the table, as far in the back as you could go, there was a tiny desk where Uncle Dom would sit to do the books. I always looked to see if he was there, though he usually wasn’t on a weekday. He owned a popular barbershop back then where my dad liked to go. It was a hangout for some of the locals.
Zuza hung up the phone now and smiled. “Here’s my beautiful godchild!” Her eyes radiated warmth, caring, kindness, and much love.
We went to the back, where my mother sat cutting and trimming at the long table—the same table where we’d sat coloring during childhood, with the cushioned armchairs and chintz-covered stools and many braided baskets filled with patterns and supplies. My grandmother was at one of the sewing machines, doing alterations, while another worker stood a few feet away, hand-pressing a gown.
Oh, the wonderful memories I had of this place!
Uncle Dom had been so kind when we’d visited on the Saturday after my eye surgery all those years ago.
“I only have to keep the patch for a little while,” I recall telling him.
“Don’t worry,” he had said, “when they take it off, you’re gonna find a princess under that patch.”
“That’s right. And, one day, I’m gonna take you to Pozzilli with me. They have beautiful castles there. You’re gonna see.”
“Oh, yeah, they are huge! I’m telling you, the way they are now is the way they were hundreds of years ago. You’re gonna be the Princess of Pozzilli there, and you’re not gonna believe it.”
I couldn’t help giggling.
“It’s funny?” he asked. “Why do you find it funny?”
“Princess of Pozzilli is a funny name.”
“What, you would rather be Queen of Pozzilli?”
I nodded and then tugged on his sleeve. “Did you bring the dummy?”
I was referring to a wooden doll he sometimes brought with him for his ventriloquist routine. He made everyone laugh, though no one laughed harder than Grandma.
“Next time,” he promised with a wink.
No matter where Uncle Dom was, he appeared more than willing to deliver the impromptu magic tricks, particularly with bills, coins, and cigarettes he would pull from his pockets. Seeing him laugh after he made us laugh was part of the treat. I felt blessed that my parents had chosen him and Zuza for my godparents.
Zuza took my measurements that day, just as she had years ago before creating the costume for my first grade play. For that—my acting debut—she transformed brown moiré fabric into a tunic, seaming the sides, traced a white clock face, cut it out, and drew Roman numerals with a black marker. She glued toy mice to the tunic and headpiece, and, in the final phases, added gold cords and cut out the hands. I had no more to do than tilt my head from left to right, chiming, “Tick-tock. Tick-tock,” but everyone marveled.
I had looked forward to that, but this modeling gig, not so much.
“When you come Saturday to model, bring two pairs of shoes,” she said, “one with maybe a three-inch heel, another with four. I know you must have them, and if you have a strapless bra, bring it. It’s better if it’s beige, that way you can’t see through—and if you have the seamless panties, that would be perfect.”
When Saturday arrived, I gathered all of those things and stuffed them in a backpack. Then I put the backpack aside and took some time to study my books on writing. I looked over Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style—my bible long before The Chicago Manual of Style. Then, hoping it would seal the information in my brain and make a quick, easy guide, I typed a booklet of notes, including notes from the literary agent’s critique.
As I slipped the booklet into a binder I had pulled from my bookcase, a somewhat tattered page fell out. It was an article I had cut out of a magazine: “What to Do With Your First Million.” It might have been from Writer’s Digest or Money Magazine. I subscribed to both. Now, in my mind, seeing this article at precisely that moment seemed like a sign from God. Still, it amused me. Yes, Danielle, God wants you on the French Riviera, wearing a string bikini, shades, and a floppy hat, sipping margaritas and snapping your fingers at cabana boys. Nonetheless, it reinforced my determination.
Along with the college courses I would take to further my literary pursuits, I vowed to sign up for acting classes and voice lessons. Perhaps a desire to prove my worth was one motivating factor, but my interests were genuine.
By one o’clock, I was at the dress shop.
“You’re just going to put on a sample and see how it looks and feels when you move around, when you go to sit down, and when you walk,” Zuza explained. “That way, we can take a look and see how better to fix it. After that, it can be made any size.”
I followed her to the back where Angie was walking around filling a scrap bag with discarded materials. My mother and grandmother usually took Saturdays off, but they were there now working. After the usual greetings and casual conversation, I passed through the louver doors of the fitting room with Zuza’s dress in hand. There was no escaping my reflection in the well-lit room. There were large mirrors with unique etching and pink swags at the top. I didn’t like what I saw in those mirrors. Zuza poked her head in to ask whether I was having a hard time getting the dress on and if the zipper was okay. I said it was all good. I used the bench to put the first pair of heels on and walked out to model.
My grandmother and another worker showered me with praise in Italian.
“Yes, she’s like her mother,” Zuza acknowledged. “Grace always looks beautiful.”
My mother smiled, thanking her. She told me I looked great.
My grandmother remained silent about Zuza’s compliment to my mother, as she always did.
Angie’s grin was one of approval, but something was off with her, I could tell. Even before her dog got sick, she would sometimes be like her old self, and then, other times, she seemed almost too guarded or lost.
In our junior year of high school, we had laughed so much in class that a teacher had asked us if we were on some type of drug. We weren’t, so that made us laugh more. Angie seemed to love how funny I was at school. She was coming out of her shell, like I had, but I could see only a fragment of that girl now. Ordinarily, I could comfort her about her dog, a fight with her parents or anything. All she did now was pull away.
These were my thoughts as Zuza pinned my dress, did her marking, and scribbled notes in a small pad. The prodding felt a bit intrusive, but I knew she was accustomed to working with a dress form. Countless times, I had watched her bone a bodice on that form. She was the ultimate pro.
“How does it feel?” she asked. “If it’s uncomfortable anywhere, let me know.”
She had me walk around the shop and then pretend to be dancing.
We all had a good laugh over that—including Angie.
An hour into this, Angie demanded to leave, lamenting that she’d been at the shop all day, and her dog was alone. The other worker had finished for the day. She offered Angie a ride, and they left.
I was there a couple more hours, trying on other garments and combinations.
Zuza offered to pay me, but I refused. I felt guilty enough having to tell her I could do it only a few more times, or every now and then. The truth was, I didn’t mind taking off here and there on a beautiful day, going for a walk or a trip to the mall, but I reserved much of the weekend for writing.
She seemed to understand, and she shared something with me. “Did you know I almost named this place Vaccaro’s?”
“Yes, I figured I was Mrs. Dominic Vaccaro. It made sense. But it didn’t really make sense. You know why?”
I shook my head.
“Because that was my dream for so long—to have a dress shop. It was not Dominic’s dream. We decided to use my name, and since Zuza wouldn’t have sounded so good, we used my given name—Lucrezia. That’s how we came up with Romance Designs by Lucrezia. You love to write, Danielle. That’s your dream, and I don’t blame you. You keep writing.”
As tightly as I hugged her, it was not sufficient in expressing how dear she was to me.
Deadly Veils Book One: Shattering Truths was originally published as Deadly Veils: Book One: Provenance of Bondage copyright © October 2015 by Kyrian Lyndon. The revised edition, Deadly Veils: Book One: Shattering Truths was published in December 2016. Cover design by KH Koehler Design.