Sweet Mary: A Novel

Sweet Mary: A Novel

by Liz Balmaseda

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781439165461
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: 07/14/2009
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 405,833
File size: 336 KB

About the Author

Liz Balmaseda,
born in Cuba in 1959, was awarded her first Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for her writings on the plight of Haitian refugees and the Cuban- American population. Her second Pulitzer Prize was awarded in 2001 for her role in covering the federal seizing of refugee Elian Gonzalez. She lives in Miami, Florida. This is her first novel.
Liz Balmaseda (born January 17, 1959, Puerto Padre, Cuba) is a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, a writer for The Palm Beach Post and a former columnist for The Miami Herald.  She was awarded her first Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1993 for her writings on the plight of Haitian refugees and the Cuban-American population. She shared a second Pulitzer for breaking-news reporting in 2001, for the coverage of the federal raid to seize refugee Elián González.

Read an Excerpt


THE WORST WEEK of my life began like any other late summer week in Miami, stifling hot. The August steam rose from the Everglades and wrapped itself around the city with a vengeance. No ocean breeze or inland gust seemed strong enough to break its stranglehold. The steam became our second skin, a filmy, salty gauze impossible to wash off. I couldn't imagine being one of those plastic types who, despite the 95-degree swelter, insisted on her usual Miami corporate-level quantities of makeup -- the SPF, the primer, the base, the bronzer, the inner eye highlighter, the lip plumping gloss, all intended to create that "fresh from the beach" glow. To me, the thought of slipping into a business suit seemed punishing enough without the added torture of having to fabricate evidence of a nonexistent trip to the beach. Besides, who needs makeup when you can get second-degree sunburn from walking the dog for fifteen minutes?

I fool myself into thinking I can deflect the heat by wearing white. Of course, nothing deflects the kind of heat I'm talking about. But I wear white anyway because I like what it says about you. It says you're gutsy. It takes nerve to wear a narrow white skirt cut a few inches above the knee and a crisp white shirt unbuttoned to that exact place where your breasts just begin to rise from your ivory lace balconette. That's my no-fail outfit, the one I wear when I have a monumental deal I need to close pronto.

That's what I wore on the day I took the old cowboy out to the middle of the boonies to show him the Glades Terrace property. I piled this guy -- and his maroon-colored poly-blend suit, his diamante-encrusted boots, and his ruby-studded gold bracelet -- into my white BMW M6 and tore across westbound Tamiami Trail just before noon. He was a balding man of rugged complexion, Texan, about sixty years old, and he had an air about him I couldn't pinpoint, not at first. Then again, he once won the World Series of Poker, cashing in at $7.3 million, and I imagine one does not win that ungodly WSOP bracelet if one's intentions are easily read. He seemed charming enough, a soft-spoken sort. But I couldn't tell if he was quiet because he was wily, gullible, or even shy. I was hoping for door number two that morning. I needed gullible in a desperate way.

"Sub-Zero fridge. Antique walnut travertine bath. Turkish steam room. European touches. Garage capacity is four luxury-size cars. Or three Hummers..."

I glanced over at the cowboy to see if I had piqued his curiosity, but he was staring out the window at the dreary landscape of Australian pines and melaleucas and ALLIGATOR WRESTLING signs. In the southern distance, the skies had begun to darken into that deadly shade of charcoal silver that is the default backdrop of summer afternoons in South Florida, and I knew I'd better step on the gas if I wanted to outrun the tempest.

I amped up the pitch, too.

"The place has history, you know. I hear they busted Al Capone out there once," I said to him, but he didn't respond. "How about that for cocktail trivia?"

The cowboy was unfazed. He seemed perplexed by our approach into the western fringes of the county. He seemed lost in serious thought, something I couldn't afford as we headed for Glades Terrace. No, thinking is definitely not allowed when purchasing property at the precipitous edge of the Florida Everglades.

"It's also where they filmed parts of The Specialist. Stallone flick. Great sound track," I said, catching his eye at last.

He gave me a half smile but said nothing. Instead, his eyes traced the pearly buttons of my blouse like a slow bead of sweat, sending an unexpected shiver along the back of my arm. I tried to hide my uneasiness by smiling back, then glancing away as if I were trying to read the road signs. Sly devil, this one. I knew this sale -- if there was to be a sale -- would be no slam dunk. But it wasn't until I turned into the overgrown driveway and saw the monumental wreck that was the Glades Terrace property that I realized just how tough the sale would be. It was going to be brutal, even for me. I can sell just about anything. I once sold a 1982 Camaro Iron Duke, deemed to be one of the "50 Worst Cars of All Time" by Time magazine, for seven thousand bucks. I sold mangoes on eBay a few summers ago. I knocked them off the tree in my parents' back yard and gave them a sexy name: Mangoes from Paradise.

The product description went like this: "Kill the pill routine and have a mango! Would you rather choke back your daily dose of horse pills, the vitamin A, the vitamin E, the selenium, the iron, and the beta carotene? Or would you rather dig into a juicy, luscious mango from paradise? I thought so."

And just a few months ago, I sold my wedding dress. This may not seem like a big deal to anyone at first mention, but it was. This was one hideous wedding dress. It was a champagne, textured-taffeta, overly ruffled specimen handpicked by my quite misguided groom as the "something new" component of my wedding day. Now riddle me this: What kind of lunatic bride allows her fiancé to surprise her on the eve of their wedding with the Dress? The kind who deserves to wear it in front of her two hundred closest friends and relatives, as I did. But while my marriage met a crappy fate, my dress did not. It floated down the aisle at the Copacabana Banquet Hall in Hialeah Gardens on the curves of one brave Damaysi Yamisleidy Hernandez, a hairdresser newly arrived from Victoria de las Tunas, Cuba, who married the American boat captain who spirited her across the Straits of Florida. The captain was so smitten with her that he proposed on the sands of Hallandale Beach, moments after reaching dry land. Three days later he was scouring the online classifieds, hoping to find a fancy dress for his honey, and, boom, there it was, a dress that was more than fancy -- it was fancy on steroids.

The "Surprise Me" Wedding Dress.

"It's not a fairy-tale wedding without a surprise," went my product description. "Fellas, this is the dress every bride will dream about. Trust me. It was the biggest surprise of my life."

I sold it for one thousand seven hundred and fifty bucks. So, like I said, I can sell anything. This was my mantra at Glades Terrace that day.

"We're here," I said in the most upbeat voice I could muster as I pulled up in the shade of a knobby cypress tree. "Home sweet home."

"Home sweet home" was an abandoned ranch-style mansion haphazardly plopped in the Florida wilds. Weeds and muck filled the grounds where a landscaper had been commissioned once to re-create an island paradise in that extravagant, over-the-top style of the cocaine-era nouveau riche. To reach the front door, I had to step along a weed-choked path in Christian Louboutin high heels, past an algae-infested artificial pond, a rusty yacht trailer, armies of screeching crickets, and the carcass of a burned-out sports car of some indistinguishable make. I turned around to check on the cowboy -- the disturbed look on his face said it all.

"We'll clean it all up, plant a couple dozen royal palms. It'll be beautiful," I told him as I climbed the steps to the front door.

I braced for the worst, imagining the place crawling with swampland creatures. If that was the case, I fully deserved it for being so friggin' overeager. I had cajoled the listing from another agent, a sad sack named Brian, who had confided that he was taking a mental health day to go handle a domestic crisis. Word was he caught his wife in bed with their son's wrestling coach. I offered to help in any way I could -- like maybe show the Glades Terrace property. Brian puckered his face and thought about it for a long time.

"The place is a gold mine," he finally said.

"I don't know about that," I said. "But I'm glad to help out."

What I meant was this: "Go home to your slutty wife and let me make this sale already."

Brian gave my shoulder a brotherly squeeze.

"You are a good woman, Mary Guevara," he said. "I hope you sell the heck out of that place."

So there I was at the front door of the Glades Terrace property, trying to erase the Brian tangent from my head. Truth is I was haunted by this vision of him busting his PTA wife with some paunchy, middle-aged wrestler. I found the image more unsettling than the fact that I had swiped a sales lead from him. I have to confess I felt no guilt whatsoever about taking the lead. I couldn't afford to feel guilt. I knew this sale could hoist me over the three-mil mark, land me on the top-seller map, and bring me closer to the life I had visualized on those evening workouts at home, on nights when I lost count of levels climbed on the elliptical machine. I could taste it. I had worked so hard to shake off the debris of a bad divorce, make a decent home for myself and my son, and hit my stride in a brand-new career at a time when business was in the dumps. I mean, what kind of fool takes up real estate when everybody else is hanging it up? Only the queen of bad timing.

I gave the front door a good shove, hoping to scare off whatever lurked on the other side. But the door flung open with ease to reveal a stunning sight: a late-' 70s nightmare. Chrome glinted off every angle of the place. In a sepia haze of rising dust, the sunken living room seemed an ocean of browns, oranges, and burnt siennas. The glass shelves above the wet bar displayed a set of gold-leafed highball glasses and matching decanters. And, to boot, there was a disco ball. Let me put it this way: If those mirrored walls could talk, the stories would most likely involve powder-dusted hundred-dollar bills, a cache of automatic weapons, and a guy named El Gallo. Why Brian didn't stage this place, I'll never know. But who was I to tell any of this to a Texas millionaire scavenging the spoils of a trashed market?

"Note the hurricane-proof windows. Closed-circuit alarm system. Bullet-resistant doors all around. And there's a phenomenal media-slash-entertainment room just down the hall," is what I told him as I took command of the sordid mess. The client seemed to be taking in every detail of the tour: the trompe l'oeiled-out kitchen, the gold-plated bathrooms, the hall of mirrors.

The bedroom proved to be another time-warp scene. A huge, round bed dominated the circular suite. The red, velvety bedspread seemed to spill over into a lounge area of floor pillows, also red. Too much red. I had to glance out the window to refresh my eyes. But there was no view, only a tangle of branches through which I could barely see the daylight. It felt as if we were not in a room of a sprawling house but in some kind of pit, buried deep in the woods. I gasped to myself. Maybe it was the fear that this deal would be a bust, that this loss would send me into a free fall. My mind raced through a progression of extreme scenarios: bankruptcy. Poverty. Homelessness. How on earth would I support Max? I leaned into the window, straining for a glimpse of sunlight. But instead I saw a dove. It was pressing through the brush, methodically weaving its body between the branches. It was clearly stuck, but it didn't seem to know it. There was no panic, just the weaving in and weaving out, twig to twig. Then, in a startling instant, the dove found a clearing and flew away, into the darkening skies. The sight of this filled me with a strange defiance.

I turned to face the cowboy. He was sitting at the edge of the bed.

"You should know there was a gentleman here this morning who said this was his 'dream come true,' " I said to him.

The cowboy reclined into an overstuffed scarlet pillow and let out a rumbling sigh.

"Well, I can certainly relate to that sentiment," he said without a smile.

"You don't find places like this anymore for under four," I said. "It'll be gone in..."

I snapped my fingers to make the point.

"I'll give you a little time," I said, turning to leave.

I was nearly at the bedroom door when I heard the cowboy whistle.

"Darlin'," he said in an almost murmured way, "would you do something for me?"

"Sure. What's that?"

"Will you go stand over there?" he asked, signaling with his chin to some vague corner of the room.


"Right over there," he said, waving a hand toward the lounge area.

I made my way toward the mound of floor pillows, but I stopped abruptly when I realized what he was pointing to, something I hadn't noticed before. It was a stripper's pole, smack in the center of this musky little den area. A stripper's pole, as if the Scarface decor cheese hadn't been enough. And here was this man, this ungodly pile of polyester, asking me to step up to it -- a stripper's pole. What did he take me for? Did I have some kind of flaming-heart tramp stamp tattooed to my lower regions? No. Was my name Precious or Peaches or Porsché? No. Did I smell of Angel eau de parfum by Thierry Mugler? Heck, no. I'm no kind of treacle-scented girl. I'm a nice, properly fragranced Cuban girl.

I fired a look at him, but he wasn't paying attention. He was checking his watch, as if to say, "Get on the pole, bitch, I haven't got all day."

Here's what irked me about the cowboy's request: In a way, I was already up there on that pole. In just about every real estate deal there comes that critical moment when you've got to do the dance. It's that do-or-die moment when the client is holding all the cards -- and both of you know it. In the rarest of circumstances, the property sells itself and the sales agent is just there to breeze the buyer through it. But most of the time you do the dance, some kind of dance. You delete a clause or two. You reduce the price a notch or two. You compromise. Thanks to ol' Brian, the Glades Terrace contract was already egregiously pro-buyer -- there was nothing left to compromise on. There was only the reality that this multimillion-dollar sale dangled by a thread, a buyer's whim. And there was the pole.

I needed this commission. It meant I could afford the down payment on the new house I wanted, the Spanish-style house with the enormous landscaped yard and the free-form lagoon pool and the gourmet kitchen, near the best school in the county.

I gathered myself and walked over to the bed.

"I'm not sure I heard you, sir. But if I heard you correctly, you'd like me to go stand by that pole over there."

"I would."

"Where exactly on the pole, sir?"

"Anywhere you'd like is fine with me."




I turned and walked toward the pole, shoulders rolled back, no hurry, as if to say, "I think I'll go check out what's going on over there." And when I got to the pole, I just leaned on it politely, and I said, "You mean like this?"

"Exactly like that," the customer said in a barely audible tone. "I like them legs..."

"Come again?" I said.

"I said I like them sun-kissed legs, darlin'...longer than July."

"Thank you, sir," I said, rattled a bit but doing my best not to show it.

For the first time that day, I locked into his stare and held it for a long moment. The cowboy reddened, then he laughed out loud. And he kept on laughing in that doubled-over, knee-slapping, short-of-breath way. So pathetic. He was having a grand time at my expense. I could just imagine what the ride back to Miami would be like with McCackles riding shotgun. So, on the spot at the base of that pole, I decided to shut him up for good.

Before the customer could catch his breath, he lost it again when he saw me kick off my sandals and roll up my sleeves. He stopped chortling for a second, intrigued. I grabbed the pole with one arm and swung myself around. That's right: I swung on the damn pole. One round for the big new yard. Another round for Max's new playroom. Another round for my dream kitchen.

I gripped the pole with both hands and hoisted myself up, as if I were climbing the old coconut tree in the backyard of my childhood house in Hialeah. I used to go up that tree when I was nine years old, on bizarre double-dares from my best friend, Gina.

"Dare ya to take your shorts off and climb that tree," she'd say.


I'd peel off my gym shorts and clamber up the curved trunk until I reached the top. With one hand, I'd swat at the coconuts until one of them came loose and tumbled to the ground. Then, while Gina rolled on the grass, laughing wildly, I'd stop for a minute to catch the view from up top: the fruit trees and random clutter, the non sequitur of items on clotheslines, the frayed divisions of backyard fences unable to contain the ruckus of Cuban-exile factory-class families.

So this was a tree, not a stripper's pole. This is what I told myself that day as I tucked the hem of my skirt between my thighs to prevent a peep show and I tightened my legs around the pole. I slid my way up to the top and when I got there, I could see the cowboy was no longer laughing. No, he looked like he was about to have a patatún, as my mother would say. I pushed off with my hands, slowly arching my back, until I was upside down. The room actually looked better that way, like a giant cherry-topped sundae. I slowly curled myself back up, wrapped my arms around the pole, and leaped off, landing nicely on my feet. I adjusted my skirt, slipped on my sandals, and casually walked back to the astounded cowboy.

I leaned down toward the bed.

"Let's make a deal, you and me," I said.

"You name it," he came back.

"If you go to that pole and do what I just did..."

"Yeah, what?"

"You don't have to buy this place."

The cowboy looked at me, bewildered, for a long moment. Then I heard him utter the words that would pole-vault me into a new tax bracket:

"I'll take it," he said. "I'll take it, Sweet Mary."

Copyright © 2009 by Silkpalm Productions, Inc.

What People are Saying About This

Carlos J. Queirs

"A drug bust, law enforcement run amok, vigilante justice-Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Liz Balmaseda transforms today's headlines into Sweet Mary, an exhilarating fictional debut.... [Sweet Mary] will resonate with readers long after today's six o'clock news has been forgotten."--(Carlos J. Queirós, AARP SegundaJuventud)

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Sweet Mary 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Lynda166 More than 1 year ago
Mary Guevara or "Sweet Mary" is accused of being a cocaine dealer. She loses everything and she wants justice. She wants her good name restored and the police are not helping. With a little help from an ex-boyfriend Sweet Mary is out for revenge and will stop at nothing to get the justice that she deserves. I loved this book.