Crime Fiction Friday: “How To Launder A Shirt” by Patricia Abbott

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One of the best summer reads this year is Patricia Abbott’s The Concrete Angel. I mentioned in my review of it that Patricia was known for her short work. She was kind enough to share one with us for our crime fiction Friday. “How To Launder A Shirt” shows her ability to use simple domestic acts to build an underlying sense of dread. It also has a killer last line.

“How To Launder A Shirt” by Patricia Abbott

I can’t stop thinking about my husband’s new wife.

She must throw his shirts into a clothes dryer because I haven’t seen them hanging on the line. Not once. In fact, the clothesline is wrapped around one of the metal poles out back—as if it hasn’t been used in years. I’d like to tell her that line-dried sheets can be awfully nice. She’d be surprised at the difference fresh air makes. Maybe Helene didn’t grow up in a place where you could hang wash outside in the bright midday sun and capture that scent. I’d bet she grew up in the city where clothes that hung outside sometimes had to be washed again. Or the feel of them wasn’t something you wanted on your skin.

Helene stands on our porch all the time. Joe never did like putting chairs outside so it’s empty just like it always was. It still needs painting and has the same loose floorboard just as you step up to the door. He said a chair on a porch was an invitation for folks to visit, and he didn’t care for strangers in his house. Not even on his porch. I said “our” porch just now when I really meant “their” porch. No one ever talks about the difficulty of altering pronouns when a marriage is finished.

She stands there smoking like I did once—burying the butts as I did too. She’s hoping for a car to pass by or watching the brazen crows pick corn from the farm next door. Maybe looking for an airplane to fly overhead. The days can be so long that you want to break them up with almost anything. I still remember that—the way a ringing phone or a crop duster became something exciting.

Late in the day, Helen might be looking for the school bus to drop off my kids. Her hair, which is long, wispy, and reddish-blonde blows prettily in the wind. The back of her hand shades her gray eyes when the sun starts to drop eye-level. I kept my hair short after a few mishaps. Nothing could grab hold of it.

Now towels—towels need a dryer with one of those little paper sheets to make them soft. Hang them on the line, and the wind can blow the softness right out of them. It can take a long time to learn which routine works best on which laundry. Trial and error, but Joe isn’t the most patient man. You’d better get your Ps and Qs straightened out fast where he’s concerned.

Helene wears slacks—the dressy kind with pleats. Joe never liked me to wear— trouser— as he calls them. Said a woman with legs as good as mine owed it to her husband to show them off. I didn’t mind. Well, yes I did mind, but when a request—or an order really—comes along with a compliment attached, what can you do? Joe even had a specific skirt length he preferred. Too long, and he said I looked like an Amish woman. Too short and I looked like a—well, you know. Since we didn’t have a full-length mirror in the house, I figured he knew best.

I wonder when Joe started liking pleated slacks. Maybe Helene’s legs don’t draw men’s glances. Despite what he says, it’s just as well they don’t. That’s one of the tricky things about Joe—he blames you for what happened when you were just following his orders.

Perhaps his new wife—Helene— sends his shirts to a laundry. Maybe that place on Elm Street in Marine City tends to their things now. Chinese people are known for their skill in laundering shirts. If this is the case, Joe must’ve changed his mind in the last year or two because he couldn’t tolerate commercially-laundered shirts in my day. Said the chemicals they used in laundering his shirts were poisonous—just like that MSG they put in food. Told me the machine that tumbled the clothes was filled with other people’s germs.

Joe was very particular about most things, in fact. Like his shoes, for instance. They always had to point north in his closet. Point them east or south and I was likely to spend some time in the closet with them. Forget to insert the wooden trees and well….

Joe worked for—well he still does, come to think of it—the Ford dealer down in Warren. Sales were down to almost nothing that last year of our marriage. I kept telling him I could get a job and he kept—well—doing what he did when he got angry. Now the car business is back on track, I hear. If only things had recovered more quickly, it might be me looking for the school bus from that porch.

It’s possible Joe’s invested in wrinkle-free shirts although that would surprise me. That kind of shirt was around in my day, but neither of us was satisfied with the way he looked in them. They had the sort of sheen that bounced off your eyes, looked like they might melt into your skin if you stood too close to a fire. Actually, I didn’t think they were that bad, but Joe said he lost sales when he wore one. Said, it looked like he couldn’t afford anything better—or that no one was taking good care of him.

I felt my eye twitch as I watched him finish the knot on his tie that last day, wondering if I’d carelessly put too much starch in his shirt collar. It looked so stiff against his neck somehow. Joe’s neck was tender and getting the starch just right took some doing. I can’t tell you how many fights we had early on over those shirts. I wish I could warn Helene about that.

Although the laundering of shirts seems like a simple thing, it’s one that comes up every day. The care and maintenance of shirts involves equipment and processes that choke, burn, and electrocute. It’s easy to fall going up and down the cellar stairs. One can strangle on a clothesline that twists cruelly on those metal poles. Things you care about like your good coat or the kitten that climbed up on the porch one day can turn up inside a clothes dryer.

I just can’t stop thinking about my husband’s new wife. She’d do well to get the procedure for the care of Joe’s clothes sorted out as quickly as possible.

Unless she wants to rest well under the back-forty… with me.


You can find copies of Concrete Angel on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.

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MysteryPeople Q&A with Patricia Abbott, author of CONCRETE ANGEL

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Patricia Abbott’s debut novel, Concrete Angel, is the involving tale of Eve Moran and the twisted, decades-old relationship she has with her daughter, Christine. The book is an engaging character-driven thriller about love and dependence gone awry. Patricia took some questions from us dealing with her book and relationship with her own daughter, acclaimed noir novelist, Megan Abbott, whose most recent crime novel, The Fever, is soon to hit the small screen in a television adaptation.

MysteryPeople:  What about the idea of Concrete Angel appealed to you as a first book?

Patricia Abbott: I really liked the idea of flipping the plot of Mildred Pierce. But how exactly to do it? When I read about a mother and daughter being convicted of various incidents of fraud and other small crimes and that the daughter claimed her mother made her do it, that seemed like the right fit. How could a mother make her daughter (in her twenties, in this case) commit numerous crimes over many years? I needed more insight into their situation. And then I remembered a childhood friend whose mother had enormous power over her because of her dependence on her mother. It was just the two of them in a pretty scary world. That was also somewhat the setup in Mildred Pierce (after a younger daughter died). Except in that case, Mildred’s extreme love for Veda made her the victim of her monstrous daughter. In Concrete Angel, it’s Christine’s love and dependence on her monstrous mother that sets things into motion. And since that childhood friend lived in my native city of Philadelphia I could set it there. This made it work because I knew their house, the places they went, the bakery they shopped in even. Many of the incidents from the section of the book where Eve marries Micky DiSantis are based on their lives.

MP: Was there a particular reason to send a lot of the action in the seventies?

PA: I wanted to recapture the Philadelphia of my youth and early twenties. Although the book goes well into the seventies–up to 1982, in fact, it is mostly the sixties that I write about in detail: going downtown to glamorous movie theaters and stores, a slower time before towns like Doylestown and Hatboro became outer suburbs. In the mid-sixties they were country towns. I had access to how Philly was changing until my parents left in 2003 or so. But what I remember best were the Kennedy and Johnson years.

MP: Eve is one of those characters you feel compelled to read about, even though you probably wouldn’t want to deal with her in real life for ten minutes. What did you want to get across to the reader about her?

PA: Originally the entire book was set in the third person. But Eve took over every scene until I gave Christine her own voice by putting her sections in the first person. I wanted you to fear and dislike Eve, but she is the more memorable character. She is funny and seductive. Christine can’t hold your attention as a reader because she’s been stunted as a person through dealing with her mother for almost every minute of her life. Likewise Hank, who may escape her, but to what. I wanted you to feel sympathy for Eve from time to time though. She has a few good moments here and there. But on the whole, she is a parasite. She will never see beyond her own needs.

MP:  As someone who was both a mother and daughter. was there anything you could apply to your own experience to such a twisted mother-daughter tale?

PA: I hope not. My mother and I had a difficult relationship in my childhood. She felt pressure (from her mother and sixties norms) for her kids to be perfect. I think she wasn’t that interested or adept in mothering–although not one could admit that in the fifties and sixties. But she was a great mother to an older daughter. We got along beautifully as adults when she no longer felt responsible for me. As for Megan, she was a very easy child to raise. I hope I encouraged her to set goals and pursue them, but mostly it was something inside her. Nobody works as hard as Megan–nobody demands more of the her self. I hope the pressure didn’t come from me, but I can’t say for sure. After a while with children like mine, the expectations may be too high whether you are aware of it or not.

MP: Your short work is well respected. Besides length, what is the major difference between writing a novel as opposed to short story?

PA: I wrote the average short story in about a month to six weeks. This was when I worked on a story every day for 3-4 hours. I began each day by editing the story from the beginning. Of course, I could not do this with a novel and that made me very nervous. I felt as if I lost control of it from time to time. And also, I had to expand the cast of characters considerably and give them all more to do. And, I was used to being rid of them and onto a new idea in a month or so. I wanted to be done with Eve Moran badly. That’s why I give her all the jokes-or what I hope are jokes. I was in danger of drowning in her evilness. I felt like Christine most days. The length of time you must spend with your characters was probably the hardest thing to adjust to.

MP:  Concrete Angel had a long and arduous road before it found a home at Polis Books. How did it feel to see it on a bookstore shelf for the first time.

PA: It felt great although so far it has only been in pictures I’ve seen on the Internet. Book Beat, where I did my first reading, sold out of them so there were none on the shelf. I am realistic about the likelihood of seeing it on many shelves. Perhaps in stores specializing in crime fiction, perhaps in New York stores. But if it succeeds at all, it will be because people like Scott Montgomery hand sell it.

You can find copies of Concrete Angel on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. 

MysteryPeople Review: CONCRETE ANGEL by Patricia Abbott

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Many of us in the crime fiction community have been looking forward to a novel from Patricia Abbott. Her short work has appeared in anthologies and various short story sites for the past several years. It reads like a throwback to the domestic suspense writers of the fifties like Margaret Millar but with a modern psychology. She proves to be able to apply this in a long format with her debut novel, Concrete Angel.

Abbott kicks things off with the line, “When I was twelve, my mother shot a soda-pop salesman she’d known less than eight hours…”

The first four chapters take place during the mid-Seventies. Eve convinces her young daughter, Christine, to take the rap for the murder of a soda-pop salesman, and the two convince the law and others of their story. We then go back to Eve’s life, starting with her upbringing by two simple Christian parents, who were somewhat removed. Eve exhibits manic behavior but remains undiagnosed. She is bent on hoarding, and that soon leads to stealing. We see how she meets Christine’s father, a well-to-do printing magnate; we see their marriage, Christine’s birth, and the crime that leads to their divorce. After separating from her husband, Eve turns to new economic strategies, bringing men home for one-night stands and then cleaning out their wallets in the morning.

The book is told from Christine’s point of view. This includes events that occur before she is born, where Abbott shows her agility with voice. Christine describes events through a prism, relating what little she knows about her mother. It allows us to follow Eve, a character most of us would have trouble being around for ten minutes in real life. It also takes us into the relationship of the two, hinged on a daughter’s desire for attention from a mother who can rarely take the spotlight away from herself. A relationship that comes to a head when Eve has another child and becomes involved with a potentially dangerous man.

The writing always keeps us involved. We’re grabbed with the inciting incident, then given the history that lead to it and how it created our narrator. Christine is a believable character forged by unbelievable circumstances, confused by her situation and struggling to discover herself and find love, but smart enough to handle the most trying of circumstances. Like James M. Cain, Abbott shows how a crime at first bonds its perpetrators. then corrodes that union.

Concrete Angel is the most dynamic mother-daughter relationship since Mildred Pierce. It is told with a style and point of view rarely seen in a debut. Patricia Abbott confirms what many of us already knew about her talent. Here’s hoping many more will find out soon.

You can find copies of Concrete Angel on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.