Part 2: Route 66 and the Million Dollar Wedding Dress

Zaron Burnett III
May 5 · 17 min read

This is Part 2 of a cross-country adventure featuring a mother, a daughter, and the man they hire to drive them across America. Oh, and there’s a rather expensive wedding dress traveling with them, too.

If you’d like to read Part 1 first, click here. (Although, technically, it’s not absolutely necessary, kinda like the way you can miss an episode of a TV show with an ongoing plot and still enjoy the latest episode.)

(photo by the author)

the heart of the fashion district of downtown Los Angeles, still working alone at the end of a rooftop garden party, her knee balanced on a fabric-covered chair, a young woman bends down and lifts a bolt of fabric from the wrought iron table before her. She runs her fingers down the cloth to feel its weave. Her hands possess the sensitivity of a professional designer and the scarred experience of a professional seamstress. She balances her cellphone against her shoulder as she talks with great Spanish-inflected enthusiasm.

“Oh, verdad… But no, I thought, if Anneka can’t come today then how could I miss it? But, William, she tricked me, she did come, and now I’m stuck at this ridiculous garden show. I am going to kill Jean-Claude when I see him. I think telling me to come here today was part of a plot between them. Now they both guilt me, they say I have not been coming to their shows and that since I am out that means I have to go meet them to see the Michael St. Vincent show later today… How do I tell them I can not go?

Avelinda “Ava” Mitchell is American by birth but not by culture. Her floating accent gives her away as someone who was raised in Argentina, followed by years in Spain and Chile, but who then finally attended high school in Oakland, California. Her wandering continental-Spanish by way of NorCal accent and warm beauty, dark hair and dark eyes, combine to make her seem exotic, stylishly dramatic, ahead of the curve, a beloved fixture in LA’s fashion world, but it’s her sharp intelligence and her calculating stare that are quick to remind anyone that a restless, relentless soul storms inside her eyes.

The rooftop garden party is, for all intents and purposes, over. Only a few stragglers remain. The catering staff buzzes through the tables removing the plates, glasses, and silver flatware. They create a familiar din, the cacophony of glass and metal tinkling and clattering as they’re whisked away by an efficient staff. Seated by herself, Ava ignores the stir of commotion around her and concentrates on her phone call.

“What if I fake a medical condition? Which ones have I used recently? I want to be consistent. I can not get caught lying about this one.”

A pair of older women, both career fashion writers whom Ava holds in low opinion, sit at a nearby table, finishing their wine and chatting about how everything’s changing. Ava’s voice has overcome their conversation, stilled it, now they both stare back at her, their faces twin masks of disapproval at her gossipy tone. The irony of fashion writers disapproving of gossip isn’t lost on her; in fact, it amuses Ava. She coolly nods at the two writers.

When the fashion writers continue to stare and eavesdrop without shame, Ava gets up from her white fabric-covered chair, grabs her iridescent purse from the table, smiles at the two with a saccharine, unmistakable sarcasm, and stalks off to face the rest of her day attending friends’ and colleagues’ fashion shows.

“Have I had a urinary tract infection lately? No one wants to ask questions about a UTI,” is the last thing they hear Ava say before she strides past the catering staff and disappears into the noise of the garden party teardown.

heavy industrial metal door pushes open. It slams against the exterior wall of the sound stage. A stream of runway models surges out of the building, each of them in a rush to vape or choke down a cigarette on their fifteen-minute break as they post photos to social media and call in about their next bookings. The air fills with the sounds of their clusters of conversations as the models light up or exhale vaporous clouds like a squad of fashionable dragons.

The same heavy industrial metal door pushes open again; Ava is still on the phone. But now, it’s much later in the day, as her chalk-stained all-black daytime formal wear indicates. A harried assistant trails after her.

“Excuse me, Miss Mitchell, excuse me, Miss Mitchell,” the assistant calls after Ava.

When she gets close enough, she reaches out to touch Ava’s shoulder, finally catching her attention. Ava spins around, expecting a taller person. She adjusts her gaze to look down at the extremely petite assistant.

“Excuse me, one sec, William. Yes?” Ava asks.

“I just need to unplug you,” the assistant offers as an excuse for touching Ava and for so rudely stopping her while she’s busy on the phone.

Without missing a beat of her phone call, Ava nods, and lifts her arms like wings so the assistant can unplug her wireless mic rig. She looks like Jesus Christ being air crucified for the sins of the fashion world.

“How could I say no to Michael? He is the only one in this town who understands what it’s like for me. He takes bold risks, too. Hold on one sec,” Ava says into the phone, she looks down at the assistant still struggling to unplug her mic, “What seems to be the problem?”

“I just, it’s a very beautiful blouse, I didn’t want to damage it. Is this one of yours?”

“Is it mine? Does this look like any of the wack shit you see at this show? This is definitely one of mine.”

“I meant did you design it? Is this one of the pieces from your new line, like, will you be putting this out soon–“

“Oh, no. This is mine. I designed it. Yes. Will I be putting it out on my line? No. If you weren’t so tiny I would just give this to you. You know what though, here. I change my mind. You pair this with a long skirt…or cute jeans…you could wear this. Here. Let’s make this easier.”

Ava unbuttons her blouse, peels it off her shoulders and lets it fall down her arms to her hands. She frees one hand from the sleeve, then the other and hands the blouse to the assistant who can’t believe this is happening.

“Now it is yours. Okay. We are good, now? Yes?” Ava asks.

“We are more than good,” the assistant beams, holding the blouse and wireless mic attached.

“Okay, I go now,” Ava says, and returns her attention back to her phone call.

The assistant, so overcome by what just happened, can’t properly mouth the words thank you. But it doesn’t matter, Ava is too busy to notice. She walks off, eager to get back to her phone call.

“Now, I am done with this day. I am done saying nice things about Michael at his show. I am done, and I am on my way to you. Is everything ready with the angora wool, did my shipment arrive? I want to play with it when I get home. One sec, William,” Ava stops near a model who’s vaping. They exchange a quick yet meaningful and authentic hug.

“Ava, I’m so glad you made it today. I miss you the most. When is your next show? I want to walk for you, you have to let me, I know I sound kinda cringey right now, just straight-up asking like that, but I just–I just–“ the model’s tears interrupt her words, her mascara runs down her cheeks, drawing dark lines of her hurt.

“No, no, Jasmine, do not cry. What is the matter? Of course you can walk for me — I have no show this season but — What is wrong, why are you crying, my sweet girl?” Ava asks, holding her phone away to indicate that the crying model has her full attention.

The model leans forward, she presses her lips close to Ava’s cheek, and whispers something through the hair that hides her ear. Ava’s eyes chart the story. First, they are open, listening, but as the model continues to whisper, Ava’s eyes thin to a squint, they grow tighter and tighter, her nostrils flare with the first signs of anger. When the model is done, Ava’s eyes are fully closed. They pop back open.

“You wait right here, Jasmine. And you do not cry anymore. This is not your problem. Fuck him. I go now, I will make this right. You hear me?” Ava says, as she wipes the lines of streaked mascara from the model’s cheeks with both her thumbs. The model nods, embarrassed, she keeps her back to the other models so no one but Ava can see her tears.

Ava nods at her, turns and walks back toward the heavy industrial door. She pulls her phone back up to her ear as she walks, “William. William. You are still there? I am going to need to call you back. If you do not hear from me, I will be home soon. My town car is still here, yes?”

Ava listens to his answer, nods, “Okay. Bueno. I see you. Ciao.”

An assistant, the same one she gave her blouse to, stands near the sound stage door, busy on her headset. Ava greets her and leans down, whispers something in the assistant’s ear that’s not covered by her headset. The assistant’s eyes grow wide, and then thin, the same Ava’s did.

Still standing alone, the crying model tries to pull herself together. She plays with her phone, trying to act busy, but clearly she’s watching Ava. She sees another woman join Ava and the assistant by the sound stage door. The three talk briefly. The crying model watches them, since she’s the one they’re talking about.

After the more officious woman nods enthusiastically a few times and then shakes Ava’s hand, Ava walks back toward Jasmine, the crying model. Behind her, the assistant and the woman both speak into their headsets, their faces tight with anger. Whatever Ava said has changed their energy completely.

As she draws closer to the crying model, Ava’s face warms into a big and friendly smile, “I spoke to my friend. I tell them what he said and did to you. The one with the red beard. He’s the one, right?”

“Yes,” Jasmine says, in a small voice.

“Okay, good. He is fired now. He will not work for Michael, or for their production crew any more. I do not tolerate that behavior around me. And I tell them they have no excuse to support a man like him. He is gone now. He is fired. You feel better?” Ava says, like the best big sister a crying model could have.

“You had him fired? Ava, you are the best! Please, please, please have a show soon, I sooo wanna walk for you again — “

“I do not have any new show this season planned, but I tell you this, you contact William. Maybe we can shoot together. I do have a new look book in the works.”

“Ohmygod, that would be the best.”

“Good. You have William’s number?”

“My agent does.”

“Okay, I see you on set soon. You okay, sweetie?”

“I’m better than okay. Just thank you, you know.”

“Oh, I know. But they do not get to do this no more. You hear me. Our only problem has been we did not know how strong we are, together. But now we do. And we will not forget again. You know?”

“Love you, Ava,” Jasmine says. She spontaneously hugs her to prove it.

Ava is a loving and kind person but hugging is not something she does. She suffers through this one with as little fuss as she can manage. When the crying model unclenches her, Ava smiles and then lies, “Okay, I need to go — I have two more shows to hit.”

“You can’t go anywhere like that, can you?” the crying model indicates the bra that Ava is wearing. Although it is a beautiful bra, it’s not exactly daytime wear, even for a fashion-forward designer like her. It looks like exactly what it is: a very nice and expensive bra. Ava remembers what she’s done and laughs at herself.

“No, I guess I can not do that, huh? I just need to find my town car. I have a blouse in there I can wear. But if you had not said something and some paparazzo caught me. Eeesh, this would be bad, no? Even as crazy as they make me out to be I would look silly then.”

“Girl, there’s no one else like you in this damn business, that’s why I love you so much.”

“You say that…but when I call your agent and say I want you for my wedding dress in my look book you’ll be suddenly busy, won’t you?” Ava says with a laugh. Both women know it’s true.

“No, I would never do that to you. But you know who is perfect for a wedding dress shoot is Stephania G. She’s way more the type to pull off a–“

“See? You start already,” both women laugh again. “You know I’m not the wedding dress type. But William he insists I make two this year. One for family, one for fashion.”

“Okay, well, if you do want me, you call me. Okay?”

Ava touches the model’s arm, it’s a sweet but unspoken goodbye. And with that, she turns to leave. Ava pulls her cellphone back to her ear.

“William, you still are there? William?” she pulls the phone from her ear, checks it, sees that she’s no longer on a call, “Oh, right. Of course.”

he fingers of two hands twist and contort like tiny interpretive dancers. The graceful digits form shapes — performing American Sign Language. The hands are no strangers to sign language. The slender male fingers sign as quickly as a talkative teen. The hands, fast as they are, give the signs a verbal flavor of emotion. It seems like the hands could sign sarcastically.

Ava’s assistant William raised by a deaf mother, learned to communicate his needs to her, to converse with her, to speak his mind and voice his complaints in sign language. It was born of necessity. He had to learn to put his full personality into his hands. Ultimately, he now feels more expressive in sign language than he does with any spoken language he’s learned. And far more effective than when he speaks his native English. In many ways his deaf friends and family know him better than anyone else.

William always hoped Ava would take him up on his many offers to teach her sign language. She never did. Instead, she still relies on his kindness. That, and the fact he never complains. Somehow Ava can overlook how awkward it is for William to be her sign language translator for video calls with her father. She ignores how uncomfortable it is for him to be so involved in their intimate father-daughter relationship. But long ago, William realized that for Ava this is one area where she’s clearly not very American. She doesn’t have the same emotional or physical boundaries most Americans do. She has her own.

Ava sits next to William on the love seat, her shoulder presses against him. Her laptop balances on the glass top coffee table before them. On the laptop screen, her father waits for William to finish his signing. When his hands finally fall silent, Ava’s father responds.

If he were ever the focus of a police investigation, the witnesses would likely say the suspect is a very virile, very wealthy-looking, middle-aged Latin man who moves like a former dancer. Or maybe they’d say that, if they were particularly observant. Otherwise, they might say he looks like a taller Spanish Tom Hardy.

When her father, Manuel, speaks in sign language, his hands are not nearly as quick or as eloquent as William’s digits. Instead, they move slowly, like watching an aging magician perform card tricks. Having said his piece, Manuel’s hands draw to a pause in their convo.

Certain her father is done speaking, Ava asks William, “I may have gotten some of that — but what did he say?”

“I asked him what you wanted me to say, but he didn’t really answer, he just said, um…well, he said don’t be a jackass,” William says, his best attempt to translate and interpret Ava’s father’s message, and then adds, “He also said he thinks a strong horse tranquilizer is your best bet for dealing with your mother.”

“Ha, ha. But is it for her, or for me? Tell him thanks,” Ava replies, the sarcasm thick as homemade applesauce, and not nearly as sweet. “Please tell him I don’t have any time for his shitty jokes. I just wanna know what I do if I fly across country with her, arrive at my cousin’s wedding and I want to kill Mona. I have zero patience for Mona’s emotional kamikaze bullshit.”

“I don’t know the sign language for kamikaze,” William says.

“Okay — just say…her emotional terrorism. He’ll know what I mean. He was married to her for twelve years.”

William translates her message into sign language for her father. His response is uncharacteristically immediate — it’s the fastest his fingers have moved in the entire conversation. His hands are frenetic, flapping before his face like hummingbirds. William laughs halfway through. He tries to cover it. But it’s obvious. Ava doesn’t interrupt to ask, instead she waits until they’re finished.

William turns to Ava, “He says…she’s your mother not a clinical disease. Don’t be precious. He’s kind of a prick, huh? I mean, is this weird for you? I can tell him you have to go.”

“No, he’s always like this. William, I do appreciate you doing this. I could not handle texting all this to him. I need FaceTime to get it all out at once. You are so kind to me to do this favor,” Ava says, her words have their intended effect.

Williams smiles, he blushes a little, touched. “It’s not a problem. It’s not terrible. For you, I’d translate a conversation with my parents. Thankfully, they’re still not speaking to me. So, we’re good there.”

As the two of them sit on the couch, facing each other, having their emotional moment, Ava’s father, sits silently on the screen, watching them. He rolls his eyes, playing to an imaginary audience, as he waits for them to return to focusing on him.

Ava is the first to think of him, “Oh shit!” She turns from William to face her father on her laptop screen. She waves and says with a big, genuine smile, “Mil gracias, Papa!”

Manuel leans forward, waves goodbye, and ends their video call.

Ava slumps back against the love seat. “I am so fucked. When does Mona get here?”

“Um, she’s here. She got here yesterday,” William gives her the anxious news. He sits back against the love seat, next to her, “But, look, it’s gonna be fine. I mean, she’s just your mother.”

“You say that because she’s not your mother. But — what if — what if she just took the wedding dress on her own? What if I sent it ahead on the plane with her? And that way I do not have to go with her. I do not have to go at all.”

William doesn’t answer. In the space of his silence, Ava grabs a butter knife from the tray of half-eaten bagels and ramekins of different schmears on the coffee table before them. She picks a bagel, presses the dull blade into its softness, and divides it with a knife. She spreads strawberry cream cheese, without much care or attention. She’s too busy consumed with anxious thoughts about her mother’s impending arrival.

“I cannot stand it. She is already making me crazy…and she’s not even here yet. What time did she–“

“She never gave me a straight answer, that is, whenever we discussed her itinerary,” William confesses. “She wouldn’t tell me many details.”

“Why is she is like this?” Ava asks, knowing there’s no good answer to that question. It’s like asking why mosquitos must suck so much blood. It’s just who they are.

“You could tell her you have a business emergency, and that you–“

“No! What if I tell her I’m dying…from a rare disease…and I need to stay here for treatment?”

“You’re the worst liar I know. Is that really always your first thought?” William asks, on the edge of laughter, but, knowing that would be going too far, he keeps his tone friendly.

Ava doesn’t really notice, she’s too busy scheming her escape. “It’s not like she would stay here by my bedside. She’d just be like, ‘Oh, okay, well try not to die before I get back from your cousin’s wedding.’”

Ava’s phone buzzes on the glass-top of the coffee table. Ava stares at it. William turns, and he also stares at it. The phone buzzes menacingly. Ava looks to William, “I can not answer it. You answer it.”

“I just spoke with one of your parents. It’s your turn,” William insists, carefully.

“Fine! But, first, tell me a rare fatal disease. There is one with no obvious external symptoms, no?”

he face in the reflection is tired. But trying desperately not to look it. Ava adjusts her blouse and the loose men’s tie she has playfully added to look somewhat serious. She loosens the tie’s knot even more. Inspects its balance. Pleased with her deconstructed suit, she smiles at her reflection. A small victory. Her tossed together look is the perfect mix of unexpected and familiar. She checks her hair. Pushes at it with nervous hands. It rejects any attempts to be styled so casually. It immediately falls right back to how it looked just a moment before she touched it. She sighs, a small defeat, a prelude to the bigger defeat she expects to come.

“You look fine,” William says from where he sits on the love seat, thumbing through a copy of Women’s Wear Daily.

“I do not want to look fine. She will say something. No matter how I look. If I were thin, she would say I look hungry. Since I am heavy, she will say, how do I get so thick especially when I cannot even cook? I do not want to look too thin, or too heavy, I want to look medium. I do not want to give her any bullets to fire if I can help it.”

“I think you mean ammunition. Never mind. It doesn’t matter. Don’t worry. You look fine.”

Like a mountain cat pouncing, they never hear her coming, that is until she’s right there upon them, with her keys jingling in hand.

“She looks fine…only if she never wants to wake-up next to a good-looking man ever again in her life. Honey. Why are you wearing a tie? Do you think men like women who wear ties?”

And there she is. Ava meets her mother’s eyes in the mirror. There in the reflection, over her shoulder, standing behind her. Mona Mitchell has done one of her favorite things: she appears as suddenly as a flash of lightning. And her effect is just as startling.

“Hiya, baby girl. Momma’s home,” Mona says.

Anyone with fully-functioning vision would agree that Mona Mitchell is strikingly attractive. But Mona is also the sort of person who’s used her beauty both as a weapon and a way to afford herself a lifetime spent chasing fun in the blue waters of the Mediterranean, and then, hours later, frolicking on the mountaintops of the Alps, only to be in a villa in the Caribbean a day later. She chases the horizon the way other people chase a paycheck. Her life is an endless series of misadventures and monied escapades, one of those permanent vacations of the rich and derelict.

“You didn’t read those articles I sent about why you should drink more water, did you? If you don’t regularly drink water, you start to hold water, and you bloat. Are you retaining water? You look like you are,” Mona says as she sets her purse down.

“I think she looks fine,” William says, in loyal defense.

“Yes, but what do you know? You like men,” Mona says, a withering dismissal of his opinion.

“Hi, nice to finally meet you. I’m William,” there’s a broken tone in his voice. He’s been humbled like a puppy and is just as needy to be told he’s okay.

Ava recognizes her mother’s effect, and she wholeheartedly regrets not better preparing and warning William for what to expect. She looks at her chastised puppy and wishes she could protect him from her mother, but she can’t even protect herself.

“Mona Mitchell,” her mother says to William, extending her hand to be kissed, not shaken, “Your emails are cute. So…are those bagels fresh?”

William does what’s expected of him and kisses her hand with a royal fealty.

“You don’t have to do that,” Ava says, knowing it’s far too late now. They’re all in her mother’s world now, and Ava feels like she did as a girl in her mother’s world: just a second-thought. An accessory. An enabler. Her loyal and conflicted daughter, vulnerable and raw, trying desperately to hide it. Which is where she learned sarcasm and to fake an illness. It was one of the few times her mother ever deigned to mother her.

“Mona, do you want to see the wedding dress I made?” Ava hears herself ask, and immediately regrets it.

Well, that’s Part 2 of our cross-country adventure. Next, everyone meets and we head out on the road.

Stay tuned… be sure to check back for more!

Zaron Burnett III

Written by

writer at MEL magazine, essay & short stories at Medium, and always in the mood for donuts