Steven Mallard's showband was in Miami again for a biannual corporate convention with Mr. Mallard's favorite client. By some unexplained phenomenon, we had a solid three hours of free time the afternoon before the gig.
Our hotel was less than a mile from a large shopping mall, so not only could we find something entertaining to do, but we had more options of places to eat other than fast food and Chinese buffets. Such luxuries were rarely available to us when on the road with Steven Mallard.
Yet for some reason, the only other person interested in taking advantage of the opportunity was our guitar player Sid, the lovable, unrivaled champion of the one-liner insult (check out some of his finest moments in Male Unmentionables and My New Circus Trick). We set out into the south Florida humidity, crossed the freeway, and entered the mall.
We didn't have anything particular in mind to do, but were simply happy to be away from the band and all its tension. So we sauntered around, into this store then the next, up the escalator, through the food court -- and then, we saw it!
It took our breath away, glittering radiantly in a display case at the busy intersection of two walkways. It was a gown -- the most elegant, sexy, breathtaking gown of all the gowns that ever there were. Sid and I stared, heads cocked to the side.
"Oh my God..." I whispered.
After a moment of consideration, Sid turned and said in his husky Southern drawl, "Wanna try it on?"
"Yes! But no -- but yes..."
He grinned mischievously, said, "Follow my lead," then winked.
"Oh..." I said. We're gonna play that game, I thought.
"Yep," he read my mind, and with a twinkle in his eye, he led the way to the designer boutique.
"But Sid," I said. "No matter what happens, we have to be unimpressed."
"I know," he replied. "Ain't none of us can afford that."
We had non-verbally agreed that we were going to play Sugar Daddy. I was no older than 25, and he was at least 10 years older than my parents, but in Miami we would pass for a believable couple. Sid was the epitome of "cool" -- always dressed stylishly with his shirt tucked in, always tanned, always wearing a flat cap, always bedecked in gold jewelry like a mob boss. If any older gentleman looked like he could land a much younger woman, it was him. Unlike most men his age in the music world, however, Sid was never creepy. He had a clear moral conscience of what was and was not appropriate, and he always looked out for me. If he joked with me, it was always in good fun and completely without intention. He treated me more like a favorite niece -- and he was going to see to it that I tried on that gown.
We sauntered nonchalantly through the door, and the retail staff greeted us formally.
"I'd like to ask about that gown in the display case," I stated with aristocratic intention.
"Oh yes!" she began her spiel. "It is the second and last one ever to be made, so you won't have to worry about anyone else wearing the same gown at an event. The beads are all coated in 14 karat gold, and are hand sewn onto the fabric. The size of the dress is equivalent to sizes 6 through 10, as the fabric has a bit of a stretch to it."
Sid and I exchanged a high-browed look.
"And how much?" he said gruffly.
"Eight thousand dollars."
"But it is a design from last season so now it is going for $4,000," she continued.
That still cost more than quadruple of what I paid for my car.
After unspoken consideration, I requested to try it on.
"Certainly," the lady said. "And what is your shoe size?"
"My shoe size?"
"Yes, the dress should be worn with heels," her eyes flickered towards my grungy flip flops.
Was she onto our scheme? Sid was dressed like he could have money -- wouldn't a woman without financial means be more likely to seek out a Sugar Daddy arrangement? Shows what I know. Don't break character now, I scolded myself.
Soon the full staff of retail associates had managed to pull the mannequin torso out of the gown, and hung the garment in a changing room for me.
"May I suggest trying it without a bra," our lady spoke through the curtain.
"Thank you," I said.
I pulled off my baggy shorts and t-shirt, tied my hair on top of my head, and attempted to lift the gown over myself, since it had no zipper. It probably weighed 40 pounds! The beadwork was insane -- millions of long, thin, tube shaped, warm gold beads had been stitched parallel to each other, into strategically placed arcs, covering about 80% of the taupe fabric -- so it was heavy. Truly, it was decadent.
I shimmied into the skirt, then up through the bodice. Like the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, I "got stuck only once for a minute or two", but wriggled my way into putting the front of the gown facing forward, with my left arm through the one-shouldered strap and my right arm on the strapless side. I tugged and tugged to bring the lining down, and mushed and mashed my breasts to get inside the cups. I slipped on the heels they'd provided, which were at least six inches high.
Wow -- the grip in the fabric's stretch made this gown an extension of my body. I was able to move and breathe, yet it maintained my waist and flat stomach without any ribbing. This must be how Iron Man feels when he steps into his armor. Anything was possible. My boobs didn't even bounce when I jumped.
I pulled back the curtain of my dressing room, and the entire retail staff gasped. Usually they try to compliment the garment on you, because, of course, they want the commission from the sale -- but nobody said a word. No one thought I'd be walking out without that dress. They gaped.
Sid picked his jaw up from his chest and blushed. He looked away, not wanting to spoil our act.
I walked to the trifecta of mirrors. Even without makeup and hair done, I was an unbelievable sight. The gown hugged my torso until it sloped to my hips, then made a gentle angle into an A-line skirt that went straight to the floor, and fanned out into a magnificent train three feet long behind me. As I walked, the shoes could be seen flashing beneath the hem. A wide panel of fabric with beadwork went over my left shoulder, suggesting a subtly futuristic look, with the golden arcs drawing emphasis to womanly curves, giving it an Egyptian flair. As the eye wandered closer to the floor, the beads tapered off, providing an ombre effect, so that the train itself was free of beads. I looked like Queen of the Nile.
"That's absolutely incredible..." one of the staff whispered.
It would be a tax deductible purchase, I thought. I always keep a collection of gowns handy for performances, like the formal cocktail hour I sung with Mr. Mallard's showband. I could even wear it tonight...
My heart was pounding with lust for this gown.
Sid joined me at the trifecta for a closer inspection and squeaked, "Wow," under his breath so only I could hear, while looking on with a mock concerned, furrowed brow.
"Some of the beadwork would have to be repaired," our associate pointed out. "Which we would have our tailor do. And for that, we'd take the price down to $3,400."
Even when almost 60% off, it still cost almost as much as a year of my rent. I had to fix my face -- I needed to look unimpressed! At least they kept lowering the price, but how much lower could it possibly go?
Other mall shoppers had been congregating at the entrance of the boutique, in awe of the spectacle, whispering amongst themselves.
"I'm afraid we'll have to think about it," Sid stated.
"Oh," our assistant said, concerned. "Well, when is your event?"
"Event?" I asked.
"That you need the gown for."
"I perform," I said. "I need it for the stage." I used a pinch of arrogance in my tone to give my quest for designer formal attire a flavor of importance.
"We have an appointment at another shop," Sid said. "But this one's worth keeping in mind."
I glided back into the dressing room. How I wished someone had taken a picture -- but this was back in the day when camera phones were a new thing and the photos they took were hopelessly pixillated. This gown would just have to live on, glorified in my memory; and be bought by someone who'd wear it just once, then let it sit in her closet until it got donated to a thrift store. That glorious Rolls Royce of a gown, that I would love forever and wear at every formal gig until I was dead -- then get buried in it.
I reluctantly shed my skin of the gown, and pulled on my lackluster, casual tomboy clothes. I hung it reverently on its satin hanger, and exited the store with Sid, each of us somber and lost in our own thoughts.
"It was mighty hard to act unimpressed," he stated. "That was really somethin'."
"There are hardly words," I replied.
"You looked like an absolute goddess."
"That's what an $8,000 gown should get ya," I grinned. "And we talked it down to $3,400!"
"You would've given Steven Mallard a heart attack if you walked out to do his dinner set in that. Just that alone would've been worth the whole $8,000."