I bet there’s more than one man on this earth who considers
a string bikini a lethal weapon. After what I personally
witnessed here in Miami, I’m in their camp.
As I sit poolside nursing the last piña colada I’ll enjoy
for some time—I’m flying home to Ohio in the morning—my mind
cannot help but return to the events of the last week. They
include homicide, a run-in with an extremely ill-tempered
crocodile, the successful crowning of a new Teen Princess of
the Everglades, a rather fraught ocean voyage aboard a
luxury sportfisher, a bout or two of salsa dancing, and a
truly amazing ghost story.
That last involved Mario Suave—pageant emcee, reality-show
host, and temptation of the highest order.
But I digress.
Events spiraled out of control on my second day in Miami.
At the time I was explaining to Trixie Barnett, the reigning
Ms. Congeniality and a prime BFF, how the aforementioned
Mario had requested my presence at this sultry outpost to
get him out of a bind.
Trixie flipped her copper-colored bangs away from her hazel
eyes. If memory serves, she was wearing a strappy black
floral chiffon maxi dress—very flowy and featuring a
high/low hem. “What in heaven’s name is up with these Teen
Princess of the Everglades pageant people?” She threw up
her hands. “Mario’s daughter is competing! They should
know he might be able to help organize the pageant but he
certainly can’t judge it! Or emcee it!”
You and I both know Trixie is rarely exasperated. But the
poor thing is going through a rough patch back home and is
majorly stressed. That’s why I invited her to join me in
Miami. This beauty queen knows there’s nothing like a
change of scene to get a new lease on life.
Anyway, we were sitting in the theater venue suffering
through rehearsals for the pageant’s opening number. The
finale was set for the next night and Mario’s 16-year-old
daughter Mariela was one of seventy or so girls struggling
to master what anyone with two brain cells to rub together
would know was over-complicated choreography.
“These poor girls started practicing yesterday afternoon and
they’re still totally confused!” Trixie shrieked.
“Can you believe the choreographer has them wearing
“It’s way too dark for those! The only light in here comes
from the colored spotlights!”
Which might be why pandemonium reigned onstage. The
contestants could barely see but were being forced to
perform a synchronized dance while carrying around gigantic
cardboard cutouts of the Florida state animal symbols.
Which by then I knew included the porpoise, manatee,
loggerhead sea turtle, and cracker horse. Not to mention
the American alligator, which might be what ticks off the
“The music’s lousy, too!” Trixie cried. “Why couldn’t they
at least pick a song with a beat?”
A wail emanated from the stage. A contestant toting a
gigantic cutout of a largemouth bass slammed into an
“Why is that girl carrying around a humungous cardboard
fish?” Trixie screeched. “Anyhoo”—she got a grip on
herself—“Mario asked if you could fill in for the judge who
“Even though it was big-time short notice. She pulled out
just two days ago. Crisis at work or something.”
“Mr. Cantwell gave the A-OK?”
“Sure did.” Our pageant owner might be facing felony
tax-evasion charges but he is back to presiding over the
Atlanta headquarters. “He even made it an official
appearance.” Meaning my expenses are paid by the Ms.
America organization. This is one of the many perks of
being the titleholder: I am called upon to represent the
pageant at events across our great nation at no cost to me.
Have tiara; will travel.
I will also admit to you, dear reader, that Miami held the
additional lure of one Mario Suave, whom I knew would be on
site cheering his daughter’s pageant efforts. Unfortunately
his daughter’s mother Consuela is on site as well, and she
is what my mother would call “a piece of work.”
Jostling occurs a few rows behind us. I twist in my seat to
spy the male judge—a sizable Samoan individual—attempting to
disappear up the aisle.
“That’s Lasalo Dufu,” I whisper to Trixie. “He used to play
for the Dolphins and now owns a car dealership here in
Miami. Dufu Dodge. And that’s the other judge all the way
to the left over there.”
“The woman with the long hair who has on as much makeup as
“She has to for work. She does the weather for one of the
Spanish-language TV stations. Her name is Perpetua Lopez
Famosa. Peppi for short.”
We watch the contestants reassemble to take it from the
top. In short order the pirate-ship prop rises from below
the stage floor at such speed that one teen queen gets
thwacked in the backside by the prow. Just as she bursts
into tears, the crescent moon prop drops precipitously from
overhead and contestants are forced to scatter or get conked
in the noggin.
“Somebody could really get hurt in here!” Trixie cries.
“Remember the good old days when pageant people knew what
they were doing? Like when Miss Texas USA did ‘These Boots
are Made for Walkin’ ’ for their opening number?”
“That was fabulous! Texas always puts on a good show.” I
think back to my own pageant triumphs. “Wasn’t it fun when
we did ‘Rock-a-Hula Baby’ on Oahu?”
“Yes!” Trixie pokes me in the arm. “But that pageant’s
always going to be extra special for you because that’s
where you won your Ms. America crown.”
So true. Sometimes I still can’t believe that the name
Happy Pennington will forever be burnished by a national
pageant win. Talk about a glittering place in history.
Trixie and I shamelessly reminisce while matters on stage
careen from bad to worse. One girl trips over the trap door
for the pirate ship, causing a fatal injury to the cardboard
cracker horse. Mercifully the choreographer calls a lunch
“Thank the Lord!” Trixie levers herself to her feet. “I
couldn’t take much more of that. Plus I’m always in the
mood to eat these days. Can you tell I gained a pound and a
Two pounds and it would be a bona fide beauty queen
disaster. “You know what we’ll do?” I say. “Ramp up our
workouts.” We head up the aisle, my maxi dress swirling
about my legs. It’s a halter-style with stripes of black
and burgundy angled to create the effect of a wrap dress.
“Remember how buff we got in Vegas when we were training for
“That was only a month ago but it feels like a lifetime. I
“I do, too.” Shanelle and I were roommates on Oahu when she
represented Mississippi in the Ms. America pageant and she
accompanied me to Vegas when we were both bridesmaids. Now
she’s keeping the home fires burning in Biloxi, taking care
of her husband and son when she’s not masterminding the IT
department at a bank.
Teen beauty queens stream past us. “See you this afternoon,
Ms. Pennington!” “Have a good lunch, Ms. Pennington!” When
they cry, “You have a good lunch too, Ms. Lopez!” I realize
Peppi’s right behind me.
She winks and leans close. “I’ve never seen teenage girls
be so nice.”
I wish my daughter took a page from their book. Of course,
she doesn’t have their incentive. I introduce Trixie to
Peppi, who I now see is wearing a pink and white polka dot
bikini under a black cover-up. “Are you going over to the
hotel for a swim?”
“Are you kidding? Ruin my makeup by actually going in the
water? No, I just want to lie out and get some sun. See
you later!” She sashays off.
Sunlight smacks Trixie and me upside the head as we exit the
theater but the air is pleasantly warm rather than blazing
hot. Though we’re a few miles from the center of the
action—outrageous, anything-goes South Beach—palm trees poke
high into the bright blue sky and I swear you can smell the
Trixie sighs with satisfaction. “November’s the perfect
time to be in Miami.”
“The weather’s great but the high season prices haven’t
kicked in yet.”
“Thank the Lord,” Trixie mutters.
I could kick myself for mentioning money. “You’ll get your
job back, Trixie. Your boss’ll realize she can’t survive
“I can’t talk about it or I’ll start crying. Or screaming.
Or crying and screaming.”
Back home in Charlotte, Trixie worked for a bridal salon
whose owner decided to replace her number one saleswoman
with her can’t-hold-a-job daughter. Good luck with that, is
what I’m thinking.
“Let’s talk about something cheerful,” Trixie says. “Like
when do I get to meet Rachel and your dad?”
“Rachel tonight.” My 17-year-old has promised to join us
for dinner. “As for my dad, it depends on when he blows
into town on his hog.” I only hope Pop isn’t toting his
lady friend on the rump end. I used the attraction of
Florida fishing to pry him away from her. As far as I’m
concerned those two are getting too close for comfort.
“It’s too bad your mom’s not here,” Trixie says.
“You will never believe what’s going on with her. I’ll tell
you about it at lunch. I’m buying.” I raise my hands to
forestall objections. “How about we try the Cuban place
down the block?”
“When in Rome!” Trixie chirps.
The place is bursting with teen queens and their moms but
given my vaunted status as a judge Trixie and I score a
table. We order two entrees to share: Camarones en salsa
criolla and Pierna de puerco asada. Basically,
shrimp in tomato sauce with onions and bell peppers and
roast pork marinated in garlic and spices. We wash it down
with copious quantities of Coke Zero.
“Will Jason come to Miami like he went to Vegas?” Trixie
“We won’t be here long enough. Plus he doesn’t want to take
My Ms. America prize money paved the way for my husband to
take a leave from his mechanic’s job to attend pit school.
Now he’s so into it that it’s hard to believe I had to
badger him into enrolling. It may have taken 34 years but
Jason is morphing into an ambitious man. I really miss him
while he’s in North Carolina but I’m not complaining about
the change in attitude.
Trixie and I are doing a bang-up job of inhaling our
delectable repast when a girl’s voice rises a few decibels
above the piped-in Latin music. “Are you telling me you
don’t believe she saw it?” Then a few seconds later: “She
wouldn’t lie about something like that!” Somebody shushes
the girl but we hear her again. “I swear, if those end up
being the top five? I’m going postal.”
“Who is that girl who’s talking so loud?” Trixie wants to
know. She gazes over my head. “Isn’t that Mario’s
I spin in my seat. “That is Mariela.”
“Wow. She is gorgeous.”
It is so true. I must be careful not to favor her but on
the basis of looks alone it’s hard to imagine another girl
beating Mariela Machado Suave for the Teen Princess of the
Everglades crown. Imagine a teenaged version of Penelope
Cruz multiplied by Sofia Vergara and you get the picture.
Of course, we all know that other factors weigh heavily in
pageant competition. Grace, intelligence, poise under
None of which I’m seeing displayed at the moment. I watch
Mariela half rise from her chair and throw down her napkin.
“I don’t care what you say! My mom totally saw the list of
the top five! And my name was crossed off!”
She must feel my eyes because all of a sudden Mariela’s
looking right at me. Her jaw slams shut faster than a
shark’s after nabbing a seal pup. She drops back into her
chair as her fellow teen queens assume horrified
expressions. “She heard you!” one of them yelps.
She sure as heck did. As I rise and approach Mariela’s
table, all voices hush. “Is there a problem, girls?”
“Nothing’s wrong, Ms. Pennington,” one girl replies.
“Mariela? Will you tell me what you were just telling your
She juts her chin. With that gesture she could be Rachel’s
twin, though the two are about as alike as Lady Gaga and
Mother Teresa. “I think this pageant’s rigged,” Mariela
asserts then details her claim about her mother seeing a top
five list. “My mom told Ms. Lopez off about it, too,”
Mariela concludes as I note that while lots of moms are in
the restaurant, Consuela Machado is not among their number.
I keep my tone measured. “I don’t know what your mom saw,
Mariela, but I assure you the pageant isn’t rigged. We
haven’t even started the preliminary competition. You know
we’ve got swimsuit and evening gown tonight and personal
interview tomorrow morning. No semifinalists will be picked
until that’s all done.”
Mariela is wise enough to remain silent but I can tell she’s
having none of it. This is a Pageant Teaching Moment if
ever I saw one.
“Girls, remember how important it is to maintain a positive
attitude. That doesn’t just mean believing you can win.” I
make eye contact with every teen queen at the table. “It
also means believing the best of everyone around you.”
Mariela looks away but I see her roll her eyes. As the girl
next to her stifles a giggle, I conclude that Mariela could
care less about dissing a pageant judge. Either she’s super
confident or a little foolish.
I glance at my watch. “Pay your checks, ladies. You’re due
on stage in seven minutes.”
Scrambling ensues. Trixie leans close when I return to our
table. “You handled that really well, Happy. Those girls
need to learn that being a beauty queen isn’t just about
what’s on the outside.”
I keep my voice low. “What in the world is Consuela telling
“Even if she did see a list she should keep it to herself.
Especially the part about her daughter’s name being crossed
I’m intimidated by Mariela’s mother, I will tell you. Not
only does she have a child with Mario—about whom I harbor a
fantasy or two—she’s as pretty as J Lo, amazingly fit, and
comes off as kind of imperious. Like me, she got pregnant
in high school. Unlike Jason and me, she and Mario never
You can tell I’m having trouble liking her. I order myself
to take my own advice and believe the best of her.
At least until I know differently.
Outside the restaurant we stroll past the kind of
pastel-colored Art Deco building Miami is famous for. “I
hope Lasalo and Peppi aren’t pointing the girls based on how
they do in rehearsals,” I say as we near the theater. “Or
whether they were nice at the orientation lunch.”
“That wouldn’t be fair at all!”
“Maybe they don’t know that. Maybe they’re first-time
judges. Maybe the organizer didn’t really explain to them
how pageants work.”
“You’re right! This pageant does seem, I hate to say it,
kind of disorganized. Now if somebody saw a list tomorrow
after the personal interviews, that would be different.”
“Sure, once the composite scores from the preliminaries are
added up.” That’s how pageant finales go straight from the
opening number to the semifinalists. “But nobody but the
judges is supposed to see the list. Plus Mariela said her
mom saw a list of the top five.”
“That’s not right!” Trixie sounds truly pained. “No judge
is supposed to pick their top five until the swimsuit and
evening gown competitions are conducted on stage in front of
We enter the auditorium and re-claim our seats. The teen
queens take their marks. I glance around but see no sign of
Lasalo or Peppi. I plan to take them aside to make sure
they’ve got the 411 on how pageant judging works.
The house lights dim, the colored spotlights come on, and
the without-a-beat music once again assails my eardrums. “Ay
caramba,” Trixie mutters. In short order the
crescent-moon prop nosedives toward the cardboard manatee,
stabbing it in its plump posterior. Then the contestant
from Opa-Locka does a face plant on stage left.
“What else could go wrong?” Trixie wails.
Sadly, soon we get an answer to that question. The stage
floor’s trap doors spring open and, like a hulking figure in
a dark alley, the pirate ship looms into view.
A spotlight rakes the bow. I catch a flash of hot pink. I
lean forward and squint, then grab Trixie’s arm. “What is
on the front of that boat?”
Trixie gasps. “Oh my Lord! I think that’s Peppi!”
With another swipe of the spotlight, there’s no mistaking
her. Propped on the foredeck, black cover-up seriously
askew, is Peppi. She’s half upright and half draped over
the prow like a cockeyed bowsprit. Her eyes are bugging
out, her tongue is hanging out, and this beauty queen is
getting a real bad case of déjà vu.
I jump to my feet and hurtle toward the stage. “Stop!” I
A few teen queens are staring at me and laughing. But a few
others are looking around to see what I’m pointing at. And
a few have started screaming.
Another lurch or two and I am close enough to see that Peppi
is no longer sporting the top of her pink and white polka
dot string bikini.
At least not in the usual location. It can be found about a
foot or so north, lassoed tightly around her neck, polyester
and spandex morphed into a murder weapon.
I try to catch my breath, something the woman in front of me
will never again be able to do.
How fleeting is life! At least for Peppi. Sun worshiping
one minute and gone the next to that gigantic pool deck in