CHAPTER ONE

I know it’s hard to imagine a woman getting offed by a tube of lipstick, but I’m here to tell you, it can be done.

I wouldn’t have believed it until the night I saw it myself.  It was the same night I won the coveted crown of Ms. America, or should I say, was given the crown, since the woman who was poised to emerge triumphant got iced instead.

Seriously bad luck for her, I won’t quibble about that, but it just goes to show that what’s unfortunate for one beauty queen can really open up doors for another ...

Don’t let me get ahead of myself. Allow me to set the scene.

Oahu.  Early September.  A balmy evening.  (Aren’t they all in Honolulu?)  The Royal Hibiscus Hotel, an oasis of splendor on an island whose entire land mass is pretty oasis-like as far as this Midwesterner is concerned.

The pageant finale, complete with live audience and television crews beaming the proceedings to millions of homes across the nation.  Fifty-one contestants primped, pinned and poured into evening gowns with more sequins per square inch than a Dancing With the Stars contender.  All of us wearing massive quantities of glittering jewelry, most of it faux, and sashes displaying the names of our home states.  Our hair is held in place by so much hairspray that the CFCs we spewed into the atmosphere getting ready probably caused a measurable retrenchment of the ozone layer over the middle Pacific.  On a stage as wide as my suburban block back home, we’re arrayed on tiers like brides on the wedding cakes we stuffed into our husbands’ mouths in years past, since this particular pageant is geared toward married women, who, as we all know, rule.

In another fifteen minutes, though, one of us will rule more than the rest.  We’re down to the short strokes now, past the parade of states and the swimsuit, talent, and evening gown competitions.  We’re not far from that exhilarating moment when the host announces the winner.

But before he does, it’ll get truly tough.  Because a handful of us will be named to the Top Five and they will have to open their mouths to do more than just smile.  They’ll actually have to speak.

The interviews have been known to trip up the best of us.

Host Mario Suave, who is more beautiful than anyone else on stage and knows it, parts his luscious Latin lips.  “For the last two weeks, as these stunning ladies have graced this gorgeous island, we here at the Ms. America pageant have been searching for that one special woman who embodies the best qualities of the American wife.  Beauty, charm, kindness, poise, and determination!”

Mario pauses to let the crowd holler and clap.  He basks in the glow, then waves his buff, tuxedoed arm to indicate us lesser luminaries, trapped on our tiers.  “And these ladies behind me have risen to the challenge.  Do you know why?”  He leans forward and cups his hand to his ear, as if expecting a brilliant answer to burst from the crowd.

“I’ll tell you why!” he shouts a second later.  He straightens and points his finger at the audience.  “Because the last four letters in American spell I CAN!”

The crowd goes wild.  Clearly there is no observation too corny for a beauty pageant.  This I’ve known all the years I’ve competed, which is basically my entire life.

To my left I hear a barely contained wince.  I glance at Ms. Arizona, the brunette and statuesque Misty Delgado, who that very afternoon became the infamous Misty Delgado of YouTube fame.  Or should I say, notoriety.

“Cut the crap, Mario,” she mutters.  To her credit, her smile hasn’t wavered.  She is hissing through teeth a Disney heroine would envy.  “Name the top five.  These effing stilettos are killing me.”

Mario seems to pick up the cue.  “With no further ado, I will now name the outstanding married ladies who will be our top five finalists.  One of them—”  Pause for effect.  “—will take home the crown of Ms. America.”

With that portentous segue, a drum roll begins.  Mario flourishes a white index card.  The crowd holds its breath.  We queens do, too.  “Ms. Wyoming, Sherry Phillips!”

Redheaded, very pretty, a threat from head to toe.  She sashays down to stage level.  I relax briefly, then tense again for the second card.

“Ms. Rhode Island, Liz Beth Wong!”

Darn!  Extremely perky Asian girl.  And again, not me.

“Ms. North Carolina, Trixie Barnett!”

Her I have to be happy for.  She’s a real gem.  But shoot!  Only two more names.

“Ms. California, Tiffany Amber!”

Argh!  I nearly stomp my foot.  Awful creature.  Her type rhymes with witch.  Tall, blonde, flawless, fake.  Absolutely drop-dead gorgeous.

Oops.  Forget I said that.

“Ms. Ohio, Happy Pennington!”

I don’t recognize it at first.  Then Misty pinches my thigh, with more vigor than is strictly necessary.

I squeal.  Me!  I can’t believe it.  One of the top five!  The last one to make it in!  My hands fly to my face in that I can’t believe it! gesture that’s as natural to successful pageant contenders as taping our boobs for extra lift and separation.

I get a hold of myself and begin the treacherous descent from my tier, clutching the arms of my fellow contestants for support so I won’t topple to certain, ignominious defeat.  I encounter barely veiled glares as I progress but by that point am too delirious with rhinestone ambition to much care.

By the way, don’t ask about the origin of my first name.  Not now, anyway.  My mother came up with it, and believe me, there’s a story there.

I keep a smile plastered to my face, never forgetting the cardinal rule of pageantry: Sparkle!  Sparkle!  Sparkle!  I wink playfully at Mario, who flashes his dimples in return, then cross the stage to assume the position, my eyes trained on the judges in the first row.  Of course, what with the glare of the stage lights, I can’t actually see them, but still I nod in their direction with what I hope passes as confidence.  No one measuring my heart rate would be fooled.

Ms. North Carolina trips over to grab my hand in what after two weeks of acquaintance I know to be a genuine display of happiness for me.  Earlier that evening she won Ms. Congeniality and I guarantee you that vote wasn’t rigged.  Some beauty queens might be vipers in spandex and silicone but this one is truly nice.  I squeeze her hand back, she giggles in shared glee, then returns to her mark a few feet away.

I take a deep breath and try not to think what winning this thing would mean to me.  Of course I’ve claimed a few crowns—after all, I had to win Ohio to get here—but I’ve limped away defeated far more often than I’ve taken that thrilling victory walk down the runway.  And I’ve never come close to winning a national competition before.

I already know where I want the prize money to go.  Straight from the Ms. America coffers to my daughter’s college fund.  With a little something left over for my husband.  Then we could all advance our lives from this.

Oh boy, how excited Jason must be for me right now.  And my mom …

For a moment I’m forced to squeeze my eyes shut.  I can’t imagine what this would mean to her.  All those rinky-dink pageants she put me through … Of course, to her they were swank events that could catapult her daughter to a socioeconomic level she herself could never achieve.  Not so different from what I want for Rachel, is it?  Ironic, let me assure you.  And let’s not forget, if I did manage to grab a national crown, it might make up a little, just a little, for Pop leaving.

I know they’re out there in the audience right now, Mom and Jason, sitting next to each other in forced comradeship.  No doubt Pop is home watching on the tube and cheering me on.  Rachel?  Not so much.  I’m sure she’s on-line bemoaning how her mom is embarrassing her.

Mario’s voice cuts through my thoughts.  And none too soon, for I realize that we top five are about to make our way to the isolation booth.  It’s been wheeled onstage by two of the buffer male dancers, who are holding onto the thing so it doesn’t slip around as we step inside.  Great: another way to fall over.

En route Mario waylays Ms. Wyoming, who’ll be first to do the final interview.  The rest of us slither inside the booth.  Buff Dancer #1 closes the door.  Profound silence descends.

“Wow.”  That in a tone of awe from Liz Beth.  She’s one of a half-dozen Asian girls in the competition.  “This thing is, like, really sound-proof.”

“Did you, like, just fall off the turnip truck?  Or in your case should I say the bok choy truck?”

My head snaps right in Ms. California’s direction.

“Of course it’s sound-proof,” Ms. California Tiffany Amber goes on, wiping invisible lint from her glittery silver gown.  “Otherwise why would they stick us in here?  You’d better smarten up for your interview question, Rhode Island, or you’re toast.”

Liz Beth wilts.  The walls of the isolation booth seem to close in a few more inches.  I swear it’s a hundred fifty degrees in there.  I lick my lips, my mouth like sandpaper.  I smell nervousness all around me and believe me, it’s not pretty.

All of a sudden Trixie from North Carolina laughs.  “Well, y’all, I’m just glad they don’t do headphones anymore.”  She’s a girl-next-door type and invariably cheery.  “Remember that?  Making the girls listen to that cheesy elevator music so they didn’t hear the question instead of putting them in one of these isolation contraptions?”

“It was hell on hair,” Tiffany says as she smooths her perfect blond coif.  “But that would hardly matter for you.”

Trixie’s eyes widen as her hand flies to her chin-length copper-red hair.  “Is there … is there something …”

The booth door opens.  Buff Dancer #2 motions out Liz Beth, who by now looks as freaked out as a nun at a peep show.  Tiffany chortles as she leaves.

A second later I clear my throat.  “Don’t listen to Tiffany, Trixie.”  I reach out to rub her arm.  “Your hair looks terrific.”

“As if,” Tiffany opines.  “Anyway, Congeniality never wins.”

“Stop being a bitch, Tiffany.”  My voice is getting stronger by the second.  “Trixie, there’s always a first time.  And I think the judges are really high on you.”

“Really?”

The door opens again and this time Trixie’s in the firing line.  I give her a thumb’s up right before she steps out.

“Smart, Ohio.”  Tiffany shakes her head, disgust twisting her perfectly symmetrical features.  “Make the competition feel fabulous.”

“Maybe we don’t all need to cut everybody else down to feel good about ourselves.”

“Right.  Tell that to yourself when you lose.”

I’m concocting a pithy riposte when Tiffany shuts me up by lifting her gown to reveal a lipstick and compact taped to her right thigh.

She rips off the tape.  “Never thought of this, did you?”  She sneers.  “I do it every time.  For a last-minute touchup to guarantee I’m even more exquisite for my close-up.”

“Too bad it won’t be close enough to reveal your rotten soul,” I mutter.  Then the door opens and this time I find Buff Dancer #1 signaling me.

“Don’t trip on those clodhoppers of yours,” she singsongs as I take his arm.

I hoist a pound or two of fuchsia satin gown in my free hand and throw back my shoulders.  Jousting with Tiffany has made me a zillion times fiercer than when I stepped into the isolation booth.  Now I want to blow that blonde barracuda into oblivion.

We head toward Mario.  I’m blinded by the stage lights as I remember the timeless advice of Miss America 1972 Lauren Schaefer—of Bexley, Ohio, mind you—who said that when you walk in your evening gown, you should glide as if you were on rollers being pulled by a string.  With applause ringing in my ears, I float across the stage, my smile beatific.  I’m no Tiffany Amber in the looks department, I will confess, but I am slender and brunette and the appearance gods have been kind.  Buff Dancer #1 deposits me at Mario’s side.  The audience settles.  I take a sustaining breath.

Mario glances at his index card.  I guess he can’t remember the question he’s just asked three times.  “Ms. Ohio, if a genie offered you one special power, what would you like it to be?”

I laugh.  “Oh, that’s easy.”  To my mind rises other pageant winners’ advice: Use a dash of humor!  “I’d like to be able to guess the winning lottery number before it’s announced!”

Laughter and clapping burst from the crowd.

I giggle and go on.  “But seriously, folks.  As a wife and mother, the special power I’d most like to have is the ability to do ten different things at the same time.  Then maybe I’d finally catch up with all the To Do’s on my list!”

Both of Mario’s dimples flash.  Now I know for sure I done good.  He motions me to go stand beside my fellow Top Fivers, then grins at the camera and says, “Very cleverly answered by Ms. Ohio, Happy Pennington.  Now for our final contestant, Ms. California, Tiffany Amber!”

Cheers and applause rise to the rafters.  Apparently Tiffany has scads of people fooled.  As for me, I feel like booing.

Buff Dancer #2 opens the door to the isolation booth, then steps back.  I steel myself for Her Supreme Bitchiness to flounce across the stage.

Instead Tiffany pitches forward and crash lands face first onto the stage floor.  Twitching ensues.  In fact, what with the silver gown, she looks like a marlin gasping for breath on the deck of a fishing boat.  Then, after one particularly impressive series of flops, she shudders and goes still.

The crowd’s cheers give way to an audience-wide intake of breath.  The orchestra screeches to an awkward halt.  Mario calls for a cut to commercial.  I can’t often describe myself as flabbergasted but I sure can now.  All we contestants are as frozen as marionettes who’ve lost their puppeteer.  Except for North Carolina, who grabs my arm.  “Good Lord!” Trixie squeals in my ear.  “What in the world’s happened to that girl?”

Buff Dancer #2 attempts to find out.  He hurries over to Tiffany, still lying face down, then bends toward her and shakes her shoulder.  He starts to turn her over.  A second later horror crosses his face and he lets her go, tripping backward as if he can’t get away fast enough.

By this point the air is electric.  All the judges and half the audience are out of their seats.  Uniformed security guards are making their way onto the stage.  The crowd is beyond murmuring; we’ve heard a scream or two.  Mario races over to Tiffany, kneels beside her, and takes her limp arm by the wrist.

A second later he raises his head toward one of the guards and with his free hand covers the microphone on his tuxedo lapel.  I don’t so much hear him say it as I watch his lips form the words.  “She’s dead.”



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