B & A
June 20, 2013 § 10 Comments
B & A to ourselves.
We were partners in a business in the sunny Florida Keys that failed. One day B said, “A, Are we out of business, and nobody’s told us?” And I glanced up from my usual daydream and realized she was right. We were.
B has an uncanny ability to see what is, and call it by its proper name.
But locking the door for the last time and turning in the key didn’t harm a friendship that is now about 30 years old. It just sent us spinning in different directions—but that comes later.
I met B when she took a drawing class from me at the Florida Keys Community College. I still remember the drawings she made of her dogs Bucky and Butte. Sleeping dogs, done in a fast accurate scribble, which turned out to describe B herself; fast and accurate, a scribble of life.
She never went to college, didn’t like to read, had trained as a hairdresser, but when I got to know her was itching to do something new.
Her real dream was to become a flight attendant. She got close plenty of times, but never made the final cut. I know I caught her on the rebound when she came to work for me in my gallery, Soft Shell Designs.
I was a mother with a young kid then, a recent graduate of art school, living aboard with my family and trying to reconcile the Jimmy Buffett postcard of the Keys with the reality of trying to earn a living there. Although I couldn’t really afford help I couldn’t make enough inventory by myself. I hired B when she said, yes, she could run a sewing machine.
When B came on board I was designing and hand-stenciling pillows and wall hangings, quilting and selling them in my small shop at The Rain Barrel, a complex of artists and craftsmen in Islamorada.
At first she assembled pillows on my electrified manual Singer. Piece work. But we quickly became partners and friends. B called me her “other marriage.”
It was a case of opposites attracting. I was dreamy, genteel, idealistic, impractical. I filtered everything through metaphor. Growing up I had the family most wish they had. I believed in the magical happily ever after.
B didn’t mess with any of that. The oldest of three girls, she was the father figure in her fatherless household. She was clear-eyed about the way things worked.
When she paid for something she pulled each bill out of her wallet and snapped it straight before placing it in the hand of the person she was paying. The way she handled it, money was solid, real, something to be taken seriously.
She was always prepared. We sometimes took our work to craft shows, B with a trunk-like black purse on one shoulder. “I could live out of this purse for two weeks,” she liked to brag. Although she was tired of doing hair, the act of doing it died hard. At the shows, which were always hotter than hell as the day progressed, she would do French braids for all the female vendors, making us cooler and creating the illusion that all of us were sisters.
In our partnership B was the one with manicured nails and the constantly changing hairdo. She did her best to improve me. While we were partners a haircut for her meant a haircut for me. If she was in the mood for short spiky hair my hair spiked too, consternating Ray, my other-other marriage.
“I could sell a saddle to a horse,” she liked to say. And I’m here to tell you, if a horse had walked in and if she’d had a saddle handy I would have found myself writing up the sales ticket. Until B blew through the door of my gallery I sold based on the flimsy belief that good things sell themselves–and hid out in the back.
Everything I know about selling I learned from her, and here it is.
The speed at which a person can walk through a small shop is too fast for them to form any attachment to an object with a price tag on it. You have to slow them down. A small shop has one advantage. The exit is not very large and a well-placed salesperson can trap a customer like a fly in a bottle.
The word “trap” sounds bad, but B’s trapped customers always seemed happy. She chatted with them, then handed them something they just had to look at. Once a customer was holding an object they had to make the decision to set it down–or buy it.
Where we made our real money was not with the pillows or the paintings that I so hoped would launch me into a life as a “real artist.” It was with hand-painted resort wear. When a customer tried on our clothes B became that wonderful girlfriend who would hand just one more outfit through the door of our tiny dressing room. When a customer was unsure which of several items to choose, Barbara would suggest, “Oh, buy too much!” And they would.
I was the voice. “And now we have Barbara in a crisp white cotton Miami Vice jacket and slacks.” Our designs always wrapped from the front of the garment to the back. As B would say, “So they see you coming…,” she would then turn her shoulder flirtatiously, “and going.”
At Halloween, B dressed up—always as Phyllis Diller. She decked the shop out for any holiday. Every now and then she would declare one on her own, then a hand written sign would go up on our locked door. CLOSED: GONE TO THE ICE CAPADES.
What put us out of business was moving to a larger location. We set up next door to the Coral Grill Restaurant, one of the most popular all-you-can eat joints in the Keys. We thought we would siphon off some of their trade.
What we didn’t understand was that people coming to eat at the Grill were too hungry to visit our gallery. People leaving the Grill were too full to visit our gallery. As one of our vendors, the inimitable Howard “Dubby” Dubman (source of the Miami Vice suits) said, “You girls just lack three things. Location, location, location.”
And so we folded.
Barbara gave becoming a flight attendant one more shot with American Eagle. and she made it!
My family and I moved to Tallahassee. But not long after I arrived in North Florida I boarded the Greyhound to go back to her. An aneurysm in her brain had blown, a congenital defect that had killed her grandmother instantly. Not B. She crawled across her brick patio and up the steps and called 911.
I walked beside her gurney to the operating room. As the doors were pushed open she said something that was typically B. “Don’t worry,” she said, “It’s just a walk in the dark.”
She came to visit me last week. We are now old friends in every sense of the word. She’s been a flight attendant for 21 years, a mover and shaker in her union, and I’ve become a novelist.
We stood in the icy water of Wakulla Springs; B was here on a short stopover flying in from Pittsburgh and hadn’t brought a suit. We marveled at how long ago our Soft Shell days seemed. “Life is like books on the shelf,” she said.
I sometimes wonder which one of us should have become the novelist. B lives in the practical-now but she often says things that are more astute than anything I’ve ever written.
Although it is long closed, one of the dearest volumes on my shelf tells the story of two girls with spiky hair, B & A.