"Ugh! Why do I bother combin' my hair when it's just gonna frizz anyway?"
Birdie Fairfax looked at her scowling reflection in the mirror as she vainly tried to fight her unruly thick, coarse hair into a fashionable pompadour. A combination of St. Augustine's July humidity and her ethnic heritage made this a nearly impossible task.
Hortensia, Birdie's mother, stuck her head inside the door of her daughter's small, sparse bedroom. "Just put it up in a tight bun like I do. You're not going to a dinner party!" And like a flash, she was off to their tiny back garden with her daily basket of wet laundry to hang out to dry.
Birdie closed her eyes and sighed. She had no energy to deal with her mother this morning. Just ignore her, the seventeen-year-old told herself. The butterflies in her stomach had started gnawing away at her as soon as she arose that morning. Today was the day of her very first interview for a job she didn't even want.
It all started several weeks ago when Hortensia, who did laundry for several of the town's residents - mostly middle-class traders - knocked on the kitchen door of the home of Mrs. Della Compton.
"Hortensia!" Mrs. Compton bellowed as soon as she heard the laundress handing off the clean linen bundle to her part-time cook Isobel. "Is that you? Come on in!"
Della Compton, a heavyset woman with an alabaster complexion which severely contrasted with her jet-black hair, had a loud and commandeering manner. Married to a humble, soft spoken accountant, Della had grand illusions of rubbing shoulders with the rich and powerful who populated the city's resorts. The thought never occurred to Mrs. Compton that the very people whose company she sought often did their best to avoid her.
"Yes ma'am," replied Hortensia as she made her way through the immaculate white washed kitchen that smelled of a freshly baked blueberry pie.
Mrs. Compton was doing needlework while sitting on a wing chair which, like a lot of her furnishings, she had inherited from an estate sale. If she could not afford the luxury of buying brand new household decor like the rich, she had no problems acquiring their cast offs. Even now, she sat in her second-hand chair like a regent on a throne.
"Hortensia dear. How old is your girl?"
"My Birdie is seventeen, ma'am," Hortensia haltingly replied, wondering why the other woman suddenly had an interest in her daughter.
"Well," said Mrs. Compton as she picked up a nearby fan and waved the black ringlets off her sweaty thick neck, "A friend of mine told me that the new hotel over on King Street needs servants - just for the summer. And I immediately thought of your....uh....Biddie."
"Birdie, ma'am." Hortensia gently corrected her.
"Yes, of course, Birdie. My friend Iris is the head housekeeper there and she told me that they need extra kitchen help and chamber maids. They thought they wouldn’t get their heaviest influx of guests until the winter, but this summer's boat race has taken our town by storm!"
The Independence Day Regatta had drawn boating enthusiasts from all over the United States and every hotel in St. Augustine was full, which was very unusual for this time of year when visitors from the northern states found Florida’s high temperatures too oppressive. The Montclair, which had only recently opened, now found itself understaffed and in sore need of temporary workers.
"I'll give your girl a glowing reference and have my friend Iris talk to her," Mrs. Compton firmly stated, never giving Hortensia a chance to respond. After all, she thought, she was doing them a great favor. Not only will this put a few coins in their pocket but Biddie...uh, Birdie…will be in the presence of the crème de la crème of high society. Best of all, helping the less fortunate would give Della Compton something to boast about to her friends and to the Ladies Aid Society at her church.
"Uh, yes ma'am. Thank you very much," Hortensia stammered as she wondered how her daughter would react to this act of charity. On the other hand, they could definitely use the extra income. Between her part-time cleaning job at the Eldridges and her laundry business, she was barely making ends meet. Besides, Mrs. Compton had her faults, but Hortensia believed that she was basically a good-hearted woman.
Later that afternoon, Hortensia broke the news to Birdie.
"What? A skivvy in a hotel? Ma! What were you thinkin’? I don't wanna work as a scrub girl! Why didn't you just say no? Or at least ask me first!" Birdie was red faced with fury. She had only just finished her second to last term of school a few weeks ago. Being fairly good with a needle and thread, she hoped to get a job as a dressmaker in town once she graduated at the end of the year.
"Oh, stop it Birdie! Why are you working yourself into a tizzy? It will only be for the summer. You'll earn a bit of money and then you can go back to school and your friends in the fall." Hortensia argued as she stirred the aromatic pot of conch chowder simmering on the stove.
Birdie sat at the rickety dining table in the kitchen with her head in her hands. She was so mad at that moment, she did not trust herself to say another word.
"Elbows off the table. You're a big girl and old enough to know better. What would people think if they could see you right now?" Hortensia carefully ladled the chowder into two mismatched bowls and set them down on the table.
What would people think? That is my mother's official motto, Birdie thought. She has always been worried about what everyone would think of them.
Birdie often bridled under her mother's odd dictates such as never walking through town without a companion or she might be mistaken for a harlot or always keeping her eyes downcast when out in public or people would think she was being insolent.
Birdie also couldn’t comprehend why her mother left the Catholic church, where she was baptized and raised, for the strange, loud and judgmental Community Church congregation that met over in Jeremiah Bailey's house over on Fifth Street. The shouting and hell fire sermons did nothing to draw Birdie closer to a God that she now feared more than revered.
After several minutes of eating in total silence, Hortensia delicately asked, "So, if Mrs. Compton's friend agrees to see you, will you go?"
So NOW you ask me, Birdie angrily thought, but instead she muttered, "Yes, I'll go." Besides, she thought as she looked around their humble dwelling adorned with their meager possessions, we can use the extra money until I get a proper job as a seamstress.
"Gracias a Dios!" Hortensia whispered and then said aloud, "I’ll make sure your dark blue dress is cleaned and pressed."