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It’s the summer of 1968, but for twenty year-old MARIAH BAILEY—stuck in her parents’ three-bedroom Colonial, chilling Jell-O molds with MOTHER and ironing FATHER’s shirts—it might as well be 1948. Lot In 1968 suburban America, where Dream Whip pie and LSD might be served at the same backyard barbeque, a young woman grapples for a life beyond the colliding expectations of her church, her peer group, and a mother who is locked up in family secrets. The novel Hothouse will evoke vivid memories in baby boomers. But adult readers of any age will find it hard to resist the confessions of a heroine determined to shed her guilt with her girdle and taste such temptations as a pot-smoking, guitar stroking boy-next-door and a radical young minister who wears his clerical collar like a slipped halo. To open the pages of Hothouse is to step through a beaded curtain and into the world of a Presbyterian Bridget Jones living in the Age of Aquarius.

Humor / Drama
Virginia Ramus
4.7 6 reviews
Age Rating:

Chapter 1

Chapter 1

The Acme is practically an extension of my parents’ house. Food. Cleaning products. Women plodding back and forth in their efforts to sustain family life. The air in here smells metallic and sauerkrauty, like the inside of a refrigerator. Boring, but safe. Until now, that is.

I never should have left Mother in the produce section and wandered off to canned goods, because there are at this very moment two actual career girls sauntering in my direction. Crisp white caps. White nylons. Even the soles of their shoes are white. Clarissa Swankley and Jane Eastman graduated from Wellington High when I did, two years ago—Class of ’66—but from opposite cliffs of the popularity chasm. In tenth grade we were all in the Future Nurses of America Club. I used to dream of someday taking care of those poor kids you hear about in iron lungs. I figured they were even more trapped than I was.

Clarissa and Jane’s hips sway with a terrifying boldness, as they close in on me here in Aisle Two. I’m wearing the old, red and white plaid jumper Mother made me—it’s still perfectly serviceable, Mariah. Camouflage is my only hope. I execute an about-face, move in close to the wall of Campbell’s Soup cans, and attempt to blend.

They’re near enough now for me to make out Clarissa’s words: “If I tease my hair real good, then spray it, I only need two bobby pins to hold my cap in place.” Her blonde bouffant was the envy of the senior class.

The ends of my flip are languishing on my polyester-clad shoulders. Thank goodness I took the time to pin perspiration shields inside my blouse before Mother and I left home.

Jane mutters my name—Mariah Bailey—in a tone you might use to warn somebody about a smear of dog-do on the floor. Some people are so mean they’re not worth hiding from. I turn around again.

Their faces look as though they’ve been peeled off the cover of Glamour. Pale lipstick. High cheekbones accented with glimmering blush. Jane’s eyes, from deep within their wells of mascara, eyeliner and aqua shadow, flick the length of my body. It doesn’t take a mind reader to see that she thinks I look like a large sixth grader in this outfit. She’s right.

“How’ve you been?” Clarissa is directly addressing me. Which confuses me. The most either of these girls ever said to me in school was, “Got ’ny gum?”

My shoulders lift and fall in a shrug. Communication is not my strong point. I’ve learned to get by in tense situations like this with a combination of reflexes, awkward gestures, and the occasional croaked-out word or phrase.

Jane rolls her eyes despite the weight of her makeup, then clears her throat, casting a not so subtle vote that they keep moving.

But Clarissa ignores her. “We’re on lunch break,” she informs me. “Nurses training. Wellington General.”

We’re on brunch lake. Gellington Weneral. It’s a game I play—wixing people’s mords—when I’m nervous. I’ve gotten pretty good at it. I’m careful not to do it out loud.

“Weren’t you in FNA?” she asks.

“For a little while,” I manage.

“How come you dropped out?”

Another shrug. I can’t tell Clarissa Swankley the truth—that my mother informed me I didn’t want to end up an old maid with red hands and bunions like her sister, Maybelle, now did I? I met Aunt Maybelle just the one time she visited us here in Pennsylvania when I was about four. She smelled great—like woodsmoke and lilacs. She’s a registered nurse who lives on a dirt road in the wilds of Vermont with her beagle, Humphrey Bogart. Mother believes working girls are to be pitied and shunned. To be perfectly honest, I myself am still weighing the matter. Of course, with their looks, Clarissa and Jane will get husbands even if they end up as lady brain surgeons.

“You should sign up for nursing school,” says Clarissa. “It’s groovy.”

Jane says something about finding Metrical before they’re late for class, then saunters away.

Clack-fwud. Clack-fwud. That’s the sound of the crippled grocery cart Mother is pushing today. She comes to a halt in the nearby tuna section, and leans over the cart, apparently intent on rearranging its contents. She has twenty/twenty peripheral vision, and isn’t likely to overlook the fact that the hem of Clarissa’s uniform is a whopping four inches above her knees. Mother says girls like that are advertising.

“There are gross parts, but you learn all kinds of neat stuff about the human body,” chatters Clarissa. “Plus”—she pats the concave space between her hipbones—“we’re on our feet a lot, which helps keep the weight down.” She offers me a little smile of…what? Advice? Condolence?

I suck in my abdominal muscles to give my girdle a fighting chance. It’s not like I’m in league with Mama Cass. But I’ll never be mistaken for Twiggy either. Meanwhile, Mother rearranges her rearrangement. Bread before broccoli and iceberg? No, no… iceberg, then bread, then broccoli.

“And the hospital is absolutely crawling with cute doctors and orderlies.”

My scalp prickles with embarrassment. The only boy I ever almost went out with was Ben Goldberg, who asked me to the senior prom. I turned him down to save my parents the trouble. Ben was definitely not Presbyterian.

“Gotta scoot. See ya ’round, Mariah.”

“Who was that?” Mother stares openly at Clarissa’s back.

“Somebody I graduated with.”

Her eyes narrow. “Is she a…friend?” My nearly nonexistent social life has always embarrassed Mother. But since she only likes me to hang around with people as uptight as we are, the pool of candidates is about as narrow as, say, the number of women running for president.

“A friend?” My voice comes out uncharacteristically loud, surprising even me. “When would I ever have a chance to make friends?”

A woman in a maternity dress with a tiny bowtie at the collar strolls by, pushing a cart. Her expression radiates domestic satisfaction. I have an impulse to sneak up behind her and punch my knees into the backs of hers, like the boys used to do to us during recess at Harold Harvey Elementary. We’d crumple into a heap every time.

Instead, I drop—well, okay, toss—the can of soup I’ve been clutching to my chest into the grocery cart. Only, instead of landing in the cart, it bounces Clang! off the rim. I lunge to catch it, sideswiping the shelf behind me with my rear end, sending a volley of red and white cylinders spinning through the air and rolling down the aisle. “Mariah!” Mother’s whisper is fierce, her eyes darting left-right-left for possible on-lookers. “You’re making a scene.”

Wow. Am I? A tongue of excitement licks through me, toes to head. Then drops dead. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Baileys do not make scenes.

“Sorry, Mother.” I scramble to pick up the cans.

“Do you have the curse?” she asks, bending down beside me to help.

I’m now uncomfortably aware of the damp Kotex bunched up in the cotton undies beneath my girdle. I nod.

“Well, no wonder. Let’s get you home.”

Mother is downstairs making us bologna and Velveeta sandwiches. I’m in my room feeling sorry for myself and trying to figure out how to fix my stupid life. I’ve made a list of things I don’t have: I don’t have a job. I don’t have a driver’s license. I’m not in college—my mother put the kibosh on that by informing my guidance counselor that I wasn’t college material. Father kept his opinion to himself, as usual. I don’t have any siblings unless you count my twin sister whom God took to His holy bosom a few minutes after we were born. I’ve always figured He must have given her some of my allotment of courage so she wouldn’t be afraid to die, which is why I was left so short in the gumption department.

Lots of other girls who went to Wellington High are Mrs. Somebody by now, serving mushroom meatloaf to their husbands at dinette sets in the Montshire Arms Apartments on Maple Avenue. For instance, Karen Waldorf and Brad Crawley—who started going steady in ninth grade, were voted cutest couple in our junior year, homecoming king and queen senior year, and had their wedding right after graduation—have a baby already.

It’s embarrassing to have nothing to call myself but Mariah Sue Bailey and zilch to show for my first two decades of life. Even poor Belinda Drake, who everybody used to call Belinda Flake because of her dandruff problem, is pulling cones at the Dairy Queen out on Route 22. Debbie Royal, captain of the cheer leading squad for three years straight, gets to fly the friendly skies as a stewardess. Girls who are sweet and petite, and who aren’t terrified of the opposite sex have a tremendous advantage in life. That leaves me high and dry. Somehow I missed Mother’s genes. She’s tall and willowy, with gingery hair. I look more like Father. A little chunky in the middle, with hair like I’d imagine mole fur—thin, colorless, and better off underground.

I turn the page in my diary to list the things I do have, lest the Lord find me ungrateful. I have a maple tree in the backyard, which my parents planted for me when I was born. They call it the baby’s tree. I used to pretend it was my sister, growing taller with me as the years went by. I stopped at five foot six, but the top branches of my maple are now even with my parents’ bedroom window and going strong. I also have the world’s best little Heinz-57 Varieties dog. He goes by the name Herkimer. He has stubby legs like a Corgi, a German Shepherdish head, and a stretched-out torso like a Dachshund. Herkimer is an albino. His eyes glow like two little red suns burning through a snowstorm. A lot of people are put off by his strangeness. That’s probably why he and I understand each other so well.

Hello darkness, my old friend. I lie on the floor with my ear next to my little record player, left over from childhood. I keep the volume at its lowest notch, so my parents won’t hear the music my one good friend, Diana, lends me. This is my world. A world where all you need is love, and girls transmit good vibrations to boys. Mother would be shocked to know such ideas exist beneath the Bailey roof. In fact, she’d be more than shocked. Things have to pretty much stay the same for her to...well, for her to go on. I try not to rock the boat. If Mother fell overboard, she’d most likely drown and —make no mistake—she’d take me down with her.

Don’t get me wrong. My parents mean well. They’ve tried to raise me properly. Oh, so properly. Growing up, my schedule (like each day’s outfit, which Mother used to drape across my bed while I brushed my teeth) was preordained. We’re members of the First Presbyterian Church of Wellington. On Sundays, there was church and Sunday School; Wednesdays after regular school was Weekday Bible School; Thursdays was choir practice. And during the summers—lest the devil find me shirking—I had to go to both Vacation Bible School and sleep-away Presbyterian Church Camp.

I know I should have been thankful for these opportunities for self-improvement. But in all honesty, I found them to be cruel forms of punishment for children—especially mutantly shy children like me who took the word of God seriously. Other kids seemed reasonably content to do crafts, like creating a diorama of Golgotha in a Buster Brown shoebox. But to me, the teachings of the Bible were way too important for crayons and scissors. I spent the first half of fifth grade agonizing over the fact that my faith must have indeed been smaller than a mustard seed since—hard as I prayed—I couldn’t make puny Mount Howell, the hump of which I can see from my bedroom window, move an inch.

But for all my complaining, I’m beginning to suspect I have something that is way more important than fitting in or having a job or even a husband. That is, for lack of a better word, a soul. I’m not talking about soul, as in the Supremes. Nor do I mean the kind of soul the Bible teaches us to guard constantly lest Satan snatch it and enlist you in his evil army. I gave that over to the Lord for safekeeping a long time ago. What I mean by soul is a sort of vast, bright sky I sometimes notice floating around inside of me. When I’m lucky, out of the blue, it takes the form of that snappy, just-before-a-storm kind of feeling. It blows across the undersides of my skin, cooling off the hot, glossy surfaces of my intestines and circling through my lungs until I am the wind.

Herkimer lies belly-up for me to scratch him. Wads of used Kleenexes surround us on the floor. I’m done crying now.

Honor thy Father and thy Mother. Right, Herk? But at what age is a person supposed to be allowed to start thinking and doing for herself? They still treat me like I’m a child.”

Talking to Herkimer is a lot like talking to God. Neither of them actually answers, but I usually get the feeling they’re listening.

The perfection in Simon and Garfunkel’s harmonizing is starting to grate on my nerves. I yank the needle off the record.

“You should sign up for nursing school. It’s groovy!” I whisper, imitating Clarissa’s perky voice. “Grrrrr,” I growl.

Herkimer flips back onto his stomach and looks up at me, startled.

“I’m so mad I could spit.”

Before I can even think about it, I do. It’s not much. Saliva mostly. A silvery amoeba on my bedroom floor.

Some of the more disgusting boys at school used to brag about the lungers they’d launch over each other’s shoulders in the parking lot during lunch. I’ve even witnessed Father roll down his car window at a stop sign, haul this scraping sound out of his lungs, and hurl an invisible missile into the opposite lane. Mother wouldn’t be caught dead doing such a thing. Obviously.

I wonder how far I could make my spit travel if I really put some effort into it. My woven plastic trashcan from the S & H Greenstamps store sits about six feet away. I straighten my back and curl the sides of my tongue, forming a tunnel from the back of my throat through my lips. I try making the scraping sound. Nothing comes of it.

I clench my stomach muscles and try again. Nope.

“Doggonit! Do you mean to tell me I can’t even spit?” Herkimer’s ears flatten and his eyes widen into stoplights.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor, I press my palms against my knees. I cat-arch my back and sort of…snoggg…attempt to loosen up my sinuses, still soggy with self-pity. Then I round my lips, like I’m about to blow out an entire herd of birthday candles. And…I…shoot! The result bullets past the Sears Unfinished Furniture desk Father painted Alabaster Angel for me in third grade. It arcs above the zebra-striped, fake fur dog bed I sewed for Herkimer last Christmas. It soars over my fluffy pink slippers that lie heel to toe where I stepped out of them this morning at the beginning of what I thought was going to be an ordinary Wednesday.

Phhhwattt! My very own lunger hits the wall above my waiting Greenstamps basket.

“You’re my witness, Herk.” Understandably nonplussed, he rests his head on his paws.

I know it’s gross. But how many females do you know who are good spitters? Other than the dubious distinction of being the champion Bible racer—I was the speediest kid in Vacation Bible School at finding the Bible verses that Reverend Miele called out—what have I accomplished to be proud of?

For about two seconds, I try to picture myself wearing a nurse’s uniform and cap. Painfully scary. Like a full-body Popsicle headache. A sleek stewardess outfit? I doubt they make them in size twelve.

A well-worn scenario floats onto the stage of my imagination, and I relax into its familiarity. I’m wearing tasteful pumps and a perky dress—one that doesn’t make me look fat—as I spread the finishing touches of icing on a three-layer cake. A door opens. I rush to greet my husband, take his hat, stretch on tiptoes for a kiss. He pulls me against his massive chest. A delicious warmth envelops me. Our baby goo-goos from its nearby playpen. I pull away—“Honey, the baby!”—with a promise in my eyes for more, later. He smiles and shakes his head, as if to say, “Gee, how’d I get so lucky?”

“Mariah?” calls Mother. “Lunch!”

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