Pretty Little Boxes

PRETTY LITTLE BOXES is a suburban satire complete at 79,000 words. 

CONCEPT: 

Electroshock therapy, illegal contraception, the talking dead…Welcome to mid-twentieth century suburbia where each day slams uniformly into the next. The first day of summer brings a dead dog, a retirement party made to look like Christmas and a discussion on the true meaning of the word Negro.



PRETTY LITTLE BOXES, a character-driven suburban novel, is complete at 79,000 words. In the tradition of Cheever and Updike, this quasi-satirical look at life, circa 1950’s suburban America, chronicles one frenetic summer in the Levittownesque subdivision of Crestview. 

Trapped within the boxes—a widow with a secret, a queen bee questioning her sanity, the Negro maid wanting for more, a retiree attempting to reconnect with his family, and a young newlywed who fears her kitchen.

Five different people struggle under the smothering confines of a summer heat wave. When rain arrives promising relief, but instead becomes one of the worst hurricanes in New England history, they are forced to figure out what lies beyond their pretty little boxes.

I have had short stories published in the WILDERNESS HOUSE LITERARY REVIEW and GRUB STREET. I received my bachelor’s degree in Literature from Hofstra University and a master’s degree in Television/Video Production from Emerson College.

PRETTY LITTLE BOXES will appeal to fans of Kate Walbert’s OUR KIND as well as readers of Robb Forman Dew. The complete manuscript is available upon request.

Excerpt:

There were rules to living in a community such as Crestview. In spite of these rules or perhaps because of them, the first day of summer brought a dead dog, a retirement party made to look like Christmas and a discussion on the true meaning of the word Negro.
A burnt dinner set off the fire alarm, which the dog heard. He, not held behind a fence because the rules prevented them, ran into a wild pack of dogs untrained by owners who’d purchased them in haste, yet another prop in attaining the American dream. Fido, the name on his tag, shaped like a bone set in silver with diamonds around its edges, quickly broke free of the pack roaming the neighborhood, and tore across lawns and streets. He didn’t stop running until the car forced him to. Ginie didn’t see Fido because of the party across the street. The sign said, ‘Retirement’, though it was in red, green and silver which reminded Ginie of something you’d see at Christmas and served to distract her just enough to miss the running canine. Though not a lover of animals herself, killing one had not been a part of her day’s plans. Her neighbor, Lloyd, the retiree, who’d spent his entire adult life in annuities, was currently looking in his bathroom mirror practicing his speech, eager to place his past behind him and move forward to a future which focused on family rather than finances. His diversion came in the form of a stray hair he attempted to pluck while waxing poetic. Florence, the hired help, dusted the blinds in the living room while her employer, Judith, sat in front of her vanity applying the latest face cream purchased at Bloomingdales on her last trip into the city. Her beauty, though not yet fading, she felt, was certainly not at its pinnacle. The sounds brought them all out, tires screeched against asphalt, a child screamed and the unfortunate pooch whined as his short life ended on a tree-lined street surrounded by humans whose faces wore varying expressions. Lloyd approached the child first, attempting to calm her. Florence ran out next. She said she thought her boss, who trailed behind her, compact in hand, might know the owner. Florence’s name was embroidered on the right breast pocket of her black uniform. Though in contrast to the outfit, the maid’s skin seemed brown.
“Why do they call them Negros?” Ginie asked her husband Ralph later that evening once the commotion had settled down. He’d just finished mowing the lawn and had found a dead squirrel in the shed which he was now shoveling into a trash bag. Two dead animals in one day, she wondered if it was some sort of omen, a sign of a rainy summer or worse, a sweltering one.
“I haven’t a clue dear,” he said as he followed her into the house, the contempt in his voice, which had edged its way in over the past several months, stung worse than usual. They couldn’t carry on a normal conversation anymore.
Ginie wanted to ask but acknowledging a problem, meant there was a problem.
“Negro means black and the maid, Florence I think her name is, looks brown. I’m sure this bothers her.”
“What?” Ralph mixed himself a drink and followed her to the bedroom.
“That people perceive her to be something she isn’t. Wouldn’t such an assumption upset you?”  Ginie held a coral dress up as she looked in the mirror. Not quite right. She placed it back in the closet and pulled something else out.
Ralph placed the tie against his shirt, “This matches, doesn’t it?”
“You can’t wear brown with black. I hear the bell. Maybe it’s Rose and Henry. They’re coming over to sit with the children.”
But when Ginie opened the door, Judith stood in front of her.
 “The dog belonged to the McFarlens.” Judith announced.
“Who? Do they live in Crestview?” Ginie couldn’t recall the name and normally she was good with names.
“No, over in Stanwood Park.” A lesser subdivision made up of no frills homes populated by middle-class families. Crestview was a step above. “Clear across the other side of town.”
Ginie opened the door extending an invitation to Judith. To have her stop by was of great significance. She wondered if the other neighbors noticed. Being friendly with Judith upped your status within the neighborhood.
Judith politely declined. “I wonder how the dog got here.” The two women stood in the doorway watching the party wind down across the street. Lloyd came out and waved. His wife attempted to join him; he put his arm around her and led her back into the house careful to close the door while leaving the light on. No one in Crestview turned off their porch light; instead, they burned until bedtime. This became a way for them to keep track of one another, which is exactly what good neighbors did.

PART I
The Letter
***
TINY ROSES
                Ginie moved from room to room shutting all the windows, allowing the unbearable heat to suffocate her, trap her in a home she no longer recognized. Were there signs? She felt herself getting dizzy. She wasn’t sure why she needed to lock herself in, but suddenly Ginie knew she had to shut the world out—lock the doors, close the windows, hide under the covers. Today wasn’t going to happen—not for her. When the final glass pane met the white trim and she was completely enclosed like a caterpillar finally sealed within its cocoon her voice rose, swelling in such a crescendo, she felt it existed independently from her. The yell, filled with such pain and betrayal, caused Ginie to collapse on the sofa. Tears, mixed with the rouge and base she’d applied with such concentration and care only hours ago, stained her cheeks.
Ralph didn’t mail the letter. He was a coward. Instead, he left it sitting on the kitchen table where they’d once bathed the children. Back then things seemed simple—the kids were babies, and Ginie and Ralph in love. Right? Hadn’t they been? Time changed even the most solid emotions. Ginie had been a child herself, pregnant more by chance than by choice. The phone rang. She managed to hold it with one hand while she held the letter with the other. For a woman who normally balanced so much, this diminutive feat meant nothing.
“Hello Mother.” The paper, the same sort she kept for correspondence, stared back at Ginie mocking her. Tiny roses danced along the top, delicate green leaves surrounded them. In matching pink script, the words read, “Just between the two of us.”
Ralph’s transgression should remain that way but, inevitably, at some point she would have to tell. Relieved he had chosen the fancy stationery as opposed to the scratch paper she’d kept in the desk drawer in the study, Ginie thought of the coarse, stark white paper used for the domestic chores that allowed her to run their household which would now be hers alone, though she was not sure how this might work. The only divorced woman in town was kept by a man twice her age. Wives discussed her unfortunate situation in hushed whispers as they passed one another at the grocery store or while picking their children up from school.
“Yes Mother, I’m still here. I dropped Betty and Philip off at camp and came home. You know my Monday schedule.” Did he have to leave her on a Monday? She reached across the table for her purse, noticing the chipped polish on her nails. Did husbands leave wives for such things? Mary Finn suggested the color, Crimson of Passion, to her while they sat playing Pinochle two weeks earlier at the women’s auxiliary.
She listened to Mother talk about Father. He wouldn’t see the doctor concerning the small bruise growing on his chest; her constant trips to the ladies room; how Miss Dooley next door, let her dog relieve himself in the yard as her parents ate breakfast in the kitchen. Ginie drank her coffee and doodled on the letter, envious that mother still had a man to carry on about.
She fished through her casual purse, the one she used to run errands. The taupe handbag was practical leather with a wide handle and did not possess the shiny brilliance of her fancy bag, which boasted a rhinestone exterior, velvet interior, and a delicate pearl clasp. Mother bought the gift for Christmas during her first year of marriage telling Ginie, “A wife’s duty is to dress for her constantly changing roles, to play the part.” The smile revealed the wide gap in-between mother’s top front teeth, and Ginie smiled back, happy they now shared the title of wife. This designation was the most she and her mother ever had in common.
Ginie found the cigarette case behind her address book. After opening the clasp, she tried to light one with a lighter that said San Juan—the place they’d chosen for their honeymoon—a small spark and then, no flame, no fluid. Ginie remembered their wedding night. She sat in the bathroom of their hotel suite wiping the small amount of blood with the soft toilet tissue wondering why everyone made such a fuss about something so silly. Even now, as she sat reading the letter, she felt relieved her sexual duties as a wife were finished.
A box of matches sat wedged in-between the Formica table and the wall. The strong sulfur smell soothed Ginie in some way and reminded her of childhood. Her father often lit his cigarettes with kitchen matches, because he never could keep track of his lighters. Knowing this, Mother always kept a box aside for him.
Somewhere, down the street, a dog barked bringing Ginie back to the present. She scribbled cigarettes on the grocery list in front of her and turned the paper over, “Mrs. Virginia Miller,” she wrote using the penmanship taught to her as a girl, with the petite dots on the “i’s” and the luxurious looped “l’s,” just as she’d done in high school when she dreamed of becoming Mrs. Miller. Should she return to her maiden name? The thought, pushed away as soon as it came to fruition, made her blush. She planned to keep Miller, not to match Ralph, but because they shared children. With or without Ralph, Ginie would remain Mrs. Miller—she’d earned as much.
“Thanks for calling, Mom. I’ll speak to you later this evening.” Ginie hung up the phone, eager to be rid of her mother. She moved toward the living room, gathering up all the scattered things and placing them in a basket she carried to the upstairs bedroom Philip and Betty shared. After picking up the soiled clothing, she sat down on the bed where they once created the children.
Who would pay the bills? A thought that occurred as Ginie picked up the phone, finally ready to take some action. The wayward husband had provided no forwarding address, though most of his things lingered in the house like horrible reminders of a life which no longer existed. The letter had not been his only punishment. He expected her to pack away the belongings he left behind, his discards. She and the children were a part of them.
“Hello,” the voice on the other line came from a tidy and pretty woman Ginie didn’t know well, Carol, Ralph’s secretary. She was a new addition to the firm.
“Carol, hello, it’s Ginie.” Leave my husband alone she wanted to scream, a vision of Ralph kissing Carol’s neck whispering into her ear about the places they would go to when he left his nag of a wife behind.
“Mrs. Miller, I’m glad you called. How’s Mr. Miller feeling?”
“Feeling?” Ginie asked. “I’m not sure what you mean, Carol.”
“Oh, I assumed he was sick. The reason for his absence today.”
“Sick? No,” she paused sure offering more information wouldn’t help.
“I haven’t heard from him today.” Carol retained the nasal whine of an out of whack lawn mower. Why would Ralph want her? She was a child, fresh out of college still a virgin she imagined. Men were attracted to that sort of thing she supposed. Ginie picked up her bag and keys. She was going to travel the route to the office and find her husband. I’ll drag him home if he won’t come, Ginie thought knowing she would keep her family together no matter the cost.
“Maybe he was running errands or had a meeting he failed to tell me about,” Carol added.
Ginie wondered why he would leave his mistress at work. Carol sounded more confused than she did. Carol wasn’t the one Ralph left her for. This insight brought minor relief until dread settled in when she realized the children would be waiting for her at camp. Ginie would have to skip the trip into the city. Maybe when she returned with the kids she would get everyone settled and see if Rose could come over and stay with them. Henry would be home from the office soon and she’d have to have his dinner by then, but Rose would invite the kids to eat with them. They were like family after all.
Now, how to get rid of Carol? “That’s right, Ralph had a meeting. I’d forgotten. Carol, I have to pick up the children. Thank you again.” Ginie placed the phone down and breathed in and out, careful to maintain some sense of calm. What if the children asked about Ralph? It might be necessary to stall, come up with some sort of white lie. Maybe she could hold off until after dinner. Ralph was working late, hadn’t Ginie said the same thing at least fifty times over the past year? Yet, she would lie for him again forced to continue with the charade. Ginie had been unaware of her role as alibi to her philandering husband
She still had a few minutes before she had to pick up the children. As she sat at Ralph’s desk, shuffling through documents she didn’t understand, Ginie wondered what she was hoping to find—bills, a copy of their will, the insurance policy, and at the bottom of the drawer a navy blue book with shiny red raised script, the homeowner’s guide for Crestview. Ginie opened it and stared at the first page. Should she keep it handy? Now that she would be the one responsible for maintaining the perfectly manicured fa├žade of a home with no husband, no father, no man to track the rules. Wait, Ginie thought just as she was about to close the front door and head off to get the kids. She picked up the homeowner’s guide and shoved it in her pocketbook, the practical, not the fancy. Ginie would make Ralph read it when she tracked him down later. He had a responsibility to his home, his children, to her. She wouldn’t let him forget.




A Guide to Homeownership
Welcome to Crestview
SECTION I:
KEEPING YOUR HOME TIDY INSIDE & OUT
            Not only is your home a reflection on your family, but on you as neighbor. You are now a part of the community of Crestview. Taking pride in the interior by cleaning and organizing at the beginning and end of each day is a vital part of homeownership, but one mustn’t forget that the outside of a man’s castle is important as well. There are several invaluable steps one can take in maintaining a welcoming and tidy home exterior.  These include, but are not limited to:

  1. 1.      Lawns should be no more than 3” in length and requires continuous care between the months of April-October. To this end, grass should be mowed at least once a week, preferably twice, during this time period.
  2. 2.      Insidious weeds should be dealt with before they manage to get out of hand. This can be done in conjunction with lawn care and as a part of your weekly yard maintenance.
  3. 3.      Clotheslines are unsightly and should not be on display between Friday-Sunday or in the evening hours at any time during the week. It is important to make sure your neighbors have a pleasant and tidy view while enjoying their own back lawns.
  4. 4.      Fences of any kind will not be allowed. They have been found to discourage neighborly relations and cause general discord amongst neighbors. Keeping an open lawn helps maintain the friendship which will surely blossom once your transition into Crestview is complete.

*Please refer to page 38 for more on general lawn maintenance.
***
OUTSIDE LOOKING IN
Florence Jenkins watched the white women move along Main Street in and out of shops with fancy bags containing expensive clothing, perfumes, socks, and ties for husbands too busy to buy them. She wondered what it would feel like to step inside one of the stores and slip on a silk dress under the glow of dressing room lights in front of full-length mirrors. In her daydream, Selma sat on a settee and admired the clothing as Florence came out, twirling around and modeling for her friend. George would chastise her for acting like a fool.
“Woman, ain’t worth thinkin’ ‘bout somethin’ that ain’t never gonna happen.” He used to squeeze her gently as he perused the paper. Her husband couldn’t read well, but by  looking at the pictures, he picked up a lot.
Florence would head into the kitchen and turn on the radio so George didn’t have to hear her cry.
“Ma’am, are you alright?”
 “I’m sorry,” Florence said to the police officer who had startled her, pulled her back to reality where she stood staring at a window filled with things she only dreamt of while she washed and swept her way through the day.


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