BKMT READING GUIDES

Tiny Little Thing
by Beatriz Williams

Published: 2015-06-23
Hardcover : 368 pages
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In the summer of 1966, Christina Hardcastle—“Tiny” to her illustrious family—stands on the brink of a breathtaking future. Of the three Schuyler sisters, she’s the one raised to marry a man destined for leadership, and with her elegance and impeccable style, she presents a ...
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Introduction

In the summer of 1966, Christina Hardcastle—“Tiny” to her illustrious family—stands on the brink of a breathtaking future. Of the three Schuyler sisters, she’s the one raised to marry a man destined for leadership, and with her elegance and impeccable style, she presents a perfect camera-ready image in the dawning age of television politics. Together she and her husband, Frank, make the ultimate power couple: intelligent, rich, and impossibly attractive. It seems nothing can stop Frank from rising to national office, and he’s got his sights set on a senate seat in November.
 
But as the season gets underway at the family estate on Cape Cod, three unwelcome visitors appear in Tiny’s perfect life: her volatile sister Pepper, an envelope containing incriminating photograph, and the intimidating figure of Frank’s cousin Vietnam-war hero Caspian, who knows more about Tiny’s rich inner life than anyone else. As she struggles to maintain the glossy façade on which the Hardcastle family’s ambitions are built, Tiny begins to suspect that Frank is hiding a reckless entanglement of his own…one that may unravel both her own ordered life and her husband’s promising career.

Editorial Review

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Excerpt

Tiny, 1966

C A P E C O D , M A S S A C H U S E T T S

The first photograph arrives in the mail on the same day that my husband appears on television at the Medal of Honor cer- emony. It’s accompanied by the customary note written in

block capital letters. By now, I know enough about politics—and about my husband’s family, I suppose—to suspect this isn’t a coinci- dence.

There’s no return address (of course, there wouldn’t be, would there?), but the envelope was postmarked yesterday in Boston, and the stamps are George Washington, five cents each. A plain manila envelope, letter size, of the sort they use in offices: I flip it back and forth between my fingers, while my heart bounds and rebounds against my ribs.

“Tiny, my dear.” It’s my husband’s grandmother, calling from the living room. “Aren’t you going to watch the ceremony?”

She has a remarkable way of forming a sociable question into a court summons, and like a court summons, she can’t be ignored. I smooth my hand against the envelope once, twice, as if I can evaporate the contents—poof, presto!—in the stroke of a palm, and I slide it into one of the more obscure pigeonholes in the secretary, where the mail is laid every day by the housekeeper.

“Yes, of course,” I call back.

The television has been bought new for the occasion. Generally, Granny Hardcastle frowns on modern devices; even my husband, Franklin, has to hide in the attic in order to listen to Red Sox games on the radio. The wireless, she calls it, a little disdainfully, though she’s not necessarily averse to Sinatra or Glenn Miller in the evenings, while she sits in her favorite chintz chair in the living room and drinks her small glass of cognac. It drowns out the sound of the ocean, she says, which I can never quite comprehend. In the first place, you can’t drown out the ocean when it flings itself persistently against your shore, wave after wave, only fifty yards past the shingled walls of your house, no matter how jazzy the trumpets backing up Mr. Sinatra.

In the second place, why would you want to?

I pause at the tray to pour myself a glass of lemonade. I add a splash of vodka, but only a tiny one. “Have they started yet?” I ask, trying to sound as cool as I look. The vodka, I’ve found, is a reliable refrigerant.

“No. They’re trying to sell me Clorox.” Granny Hardcastle stubs out her cigarette in the silver ashtray next to her chair—she smokes habitually, but only in front of women—and chews on her irony.

“Lemonade?”

“No, thank you. I’ll have another cigarette, though.”

I make my way to the sofa and open the drawer in the lamp table, where Mrs. Hardcastle keeps the cigarettes. Our little secret. I shake one out of the pack and tilt my body toward the television set, feigning interest in bleach, so that Franklin’s grandmother won’t see the wee shake of my fingers as I strike the lighter and hold it to the tip of the cigarette. These are the sorts of details she notices.

I hand her the lit cigarette.

“Sit down,” she says. “You’re as restless as a cat.”

There. Do you see what I mean? Just imagine spending the sum-

mer in the same house with her. You’d be slipping the vodka into your lemonade in no time, trust me.

The French doors crash open from the terrace.

“Has it started yet?” asks one of the cousins—Constance, probably— before they all clatter in, brown limbed, robed in pinks and greens, smelling of ocean and coconuts.

“Not yet. Lemonade?”

I pour out four or five glasses of lemonade while the women arrange themselves about the room. Most of them arrived as I did, at the beginning of summer, members of the annual exodus of women and children from the Boston suburbs; some of them have flown in from elsewhere for the occasion. The men, with a few exceptions, are at work—this is a Wednesday, after all—and will join us tomorrow for a celebratory dinner to welcome home the family hero.

I pour a last glass of lemonade for Frank’s four-year-old niece Nancy and settle myself into the last remaining slice of the sofa, ankles correctly crossed, skirt correctly smoothed. The cushions release an old and comforting scent. Between the lemonade and the ambient nico- tine and the smell of the sofa, I find myself able to relax the muscles of my neck, and maybe one or two in my back as well. The television screen flickers silently across the room. The bottle of bleach disappears, replaced by Walter Cronkite’s thick black eyeglass frames, and behind them, Mr. Cronkite himself, looking especially grave.

“Tiny, dear, would you mind turning on the sound?”

I rise obediently and cut a diagonal track across the rug to the tele- vision. It’s not a large set, nor one of those grandly appointed ones you see in certain quarters. Like most of our caste, Mrs. Hardcastle invests lavishly in certain things, things that matter, things that last—jewelry, shoes, houses, furniture, the education of the next generation of Hardcastles—and not in others. Like television sets. And food. If you

care to fasten your attention to the tray left out by the housekeeper, you’ll spy an arrangement of Ritz crackers and pimiento spread, cubes of American cheese and small pale rubbery weenies from a jar. As I pass them by, on my return journey, I think of my honeymoon in the south of France, and I want to weep.

“You should eat,” Constance says, when I sit back down next to her. Constance is as fresh and rawboned as a young horse, and believes that every thin woman must necessarily be starving herself.

“I’m not hungry yet. Anyway, I had a large breakfast.”

“Shh. Here they are,” says Granny. Her armchair is right next to my place at the end of the sofa. So close I can smell her antique floral perfume and, beneath it, the scent of her powder, absorbing the joy from the air.

The picture’s changed to the Rose Garden of the White House, where the president’s face fills the screen like a grumpy newborn.

“It looks hot,” says Constance. A chorus of agreement follows her. People generally regard Constance’s opinions as addenda to the Ten Commandments around here. The queen bee, you might say, and in this family that’s saying a lot. Atop her lap, a baby squirms inside a pink sundress, six months old and eager to try out the floor. “Poor Frank, having to stand there like that,” she adds, when it looks as if President Johnson means to prolong the anticipation for some time, droning on about the importance of the American presence in Viet- nam and the perfidy of the Communists, while the Rose Garden blooms behind him.

A shadow drifts in from the terrace: Constance’s husband, Tom, wearing his swim trunks, a white T-shirt, and an experimental new beard of three or four days’ growth. He leans his salty wet head against the open French door and observes us all, women and children and television. I scribble a note on the back of my brain, amid all the orderly

lists of tasks, organized by category, to make sure the glass gets cleaned before bedtime.

Granny leans forward. “You should have gone with him, Tiny. It looks much better when the wife’s by his side. Especially a young and pretty wife like you. The cameras love a pretty wife. So do the reporters. You’re made for television.”

She speaks in her carrying old-lady voice, into a pool of studied silence, as everyone pretends not to have heard her. Except the chil- dren, of course, who carry on as usual. Kitty wanders up to my crossed legs and strokes one knee. “I think you’re pretty, too, Aunt Christina.”

“Well, thank you, honey.”

“Careful with your lemonade, kitten,” says Constance.

I caress Kitty’s soft hair and speak to Granny quietly. “The doc- tor advised me not to, Mrs. Hardcastle.”

“My dear, it’s been a week. I went to my niece’s christening the next day after my miscarriage.”

The word miscarriage pings around the room, bouncing off the heads of Frank’s florid female cousins, off Kitty’s glass of sloshing lem- onade, off the round potbellies of the three or four toddlers wandering around the room, off the fat sausage toes of the two plump babies squirming on their mothers’ laps. Every one of them alive and healthy and lousy with siblings.

After a decent interval, and a long drag on her cigarette, Granny Hardcastle adds: “Don’t worry, dear. It’ll take the next time, I’m sure.” I straighten the hem of my dress. “I think the president’s almost

finished.”

“For which the nation is eternally grateful,” says Constance.

The camera now widens to include the entire stage, the figures arrayed around the president, lit by a brilliant June sun. Constance is right; you can’t ignore the heat, even on a grainy black-and-white

television screen. The sweat shines from the white surfaces of their foreheads. I close my eyes and breathe in the wisps of smoke from Constance’s nearby cigarette, and when I open them again to the tele- vision screen, I search out the familiar shape of my husband’s face, attentive to his president, attentive to the gravity of the ceremony.

A horse’s ass, Frank’s always called Johnson in the privacy of our living room, but not one member of the coast-to-coast television audience would guess this opinion to look at my husband now. He’s a handsome man, Franklin Hardcastle, and even more handsome in person, when the full Technicolor impact of his blue eyes hits you in the chest and that sleek wave of hair at his forehead commands the light from three dimensions. His elbows are crooked in perfect right angles. His hands clasp each other respectfully behind his back.

I think of the black-and-white photograph in its envelope, tucked away in the pigeonhole of the secretary. I think of the note that accom- panied it, and my hand loses its grip, nearly releasing the lemonade onto the living room rug.

The horse’s ass has now adjusted his glasses and reads from the citation on the podium before him. He pronounces the foreign geog- raphy in his smooth Texas drawl, without the slightest hesitation, as if he’s spent the morning rehearsing with a Vietnamese dictionary.

“. . . After carrying his wounded comrade to safety, under con- stant enemy fire, he then returned to operate the machine gun him- self, providing cover for his men until the position at Plei Me was fully evacuated, without regard to the severity of his wounds.”

Oh, yes. That. The severity of his wounds. I’ve heard the phrase before, as the citation was read before us all in Granny Hardcastle’s dining room in Brookline, cabled word for word at considerable expense from the capital of a grateful nation. I can also recite from memory an itemized list of the wounds in question, from the moment

they were first reported to me, two days after they’d been inflicted. They are scored, after all, on my brain.

None of that helps a bit, however. My limbs ache, actually hurt as I hear the words from President Johnson’s lips. My ears ring, as if my fac- ulties, in self-defense, are trying to protect me from hearing the litany once more. How is it possible I can feel someone else’s pain like that? Right bang in the middle of my bones, where no amount of aspirin, no quantity of vodka, no draft of mentholated nicotine can touch it.

My husband listens to this recital without flinching. I focus on his image in that phalanx of dark suits and white foreheads. I admire his profile, his brave jaw. The patriotic crease at the corner of his eye. “He does look well, doesn’t he?” says Granny. “Really, you’d never

know about the leg. Could you pass me the cigarettes?”

One of the women reaches for the drawer and passes the cigarettes silently down the row of us on the sofa. I hand the pack and lighter to Granny Hardcastle without looking. The camera switches back to a close-up of the president’s face, the conclusion of the commendation.

You have to keep looking, I tell myself. You have to watch.

I close my eyes again. Which is worse somehow, because when your eyes are closed, you hear the sounds around you even more clearly than before. You hear them in the middle of your brain, as if they originated inside you.

“This nation presents to you, Major Caspian Harrison, its highest honor and its grateful thanks for your bravery, your sacrifice, and your unflinching care for the welfare of your men and your country. At a time when heroes have become painfully scarce, your example inspires us all.”

From across the room, Constance’s husband makes a disgusted noise. The hinges squeak, and a gust of hot afternoon air catches my cheek as the door to the terrace widens and closes.

“Why are you shutting your eyes, Tiny? Are you all right?” “Just a little dizzy, that’s all.”

“Well, come on. Get over it. You’re going to miss him. The big moment.”

I open my eyes, because I have to, and there stands President Lyn- don Johnson, shaking hands with the award’s recipient.

The award’s recipient: my husband’s cousin, Major Caspian Har- rison of the Third Infantry Division of the U.S. Army, who now wears the Medal of Honor on his broad chest.

His face, unsmiling, which I haven’t seen in two years, pops from the screen in such familiarity that I can’t swallow, can hardly even breathe. I reach forward to place my lemonade on the sofa table, but in doing so I can’t quite strip my gaze from the sandy-gray image of Caspian on the television screen and nearly miss my target.

Next to him, tall and monochrome, looking remarkably presi- dential, my husband beams proudly.

e calls me a few hours later from a hotel room in Boston. “Did you see it?” he asks eagerly.

“Of course I did. You looked terrific.”

“Beautiful day. Cap handled himself fine, thank God.” “How’s his leg?”

“Honey, the first thing you have to know about my cousin Cap, he doesn’t complain.” Frank laughs. “No, he was all right. Hardly even limped. Modern medicine, it’s amazing. I was proud of him.”

“I could see that.”

“He’s right here, if you want to congratulate him.”

“No! No, please. I’m sure he’s exhausted. Just tell him . . . tell him congratulations. And we’re all very proud, of course.”

“Cap!” His voice lengthens. “Tiny says congratulations, and they’re all proud. They watched it from the Big House, I guess. Did Granny get that television after all?” This comes through more clearly, directed at me.

“Yes, she did. Connie’s husband helped her pick it out.”

“Well, good. At least we have a television in the house now. We owe you one, Cap buddy.”

A few muffled words find the receiver. Cap’s voice.

Frank laughs again. “You can bet on it. Besides the fact that you’ve given my poll numbers a nice little boost today, flashing that ugly mug across the country like that.”

Muffle muffle. I try not to strain my ears. What’s the point? Whatever Caspian said, my husband finds it hilarious. “You little

bastard,” he says, laughing, and then (still laughing): “Sorry, darling. Just a little man-to-man going on here. Say, you’ll never guess who’s driving down with us tomorrow morning.”

“I can’t imagine.” “Your sister Pepper.” “Pepper?”

“Yep. She hopped a ride with us from Washington. Staying with a friend tonight.”

“Well, that’s strange,” I say.

“What, staying with a friend? I’d say par for the course.” Again, the laughter. So much laughing. What a good mood he’s in. The adrenaline rush of public success.

“No, I mean coming for a visit like this. Without even saying any- thing. She’s never been up here before.” Which is simply a tactful way of saying that Pepper and I have never gotten along, that we’ve only cordially tolerated each other since we were old enough to realize that she runs on jet fuel, while I run on premium gasoline, and the two—

jets and Cadillacs—can’t operate side by side without someone’s under- carriage taking a beating.

“My fault, I guess. I saw her at the reception afterward, looking a little blue, and I asked her up. In my defense, I never thought she’d say yes.”

“Doesn’t she have to work?”

“I told her boss she needed a few days off.” Frank’s voice goes all smart and pleased with itself. Pepper’s boss, it so happens, is the brand- new junior senator from the great state of New York, and a Hardcastle’s always happy to get the better of a political rival.

“Well, that’s that, then. I’ll see that we have another bedroom ready. Did she say how long she was planning to stay?”

“No,” says Frank. “No, she didn’t.”

wait until ten o’clock—safe in my bedroom, a fresh vase of hya- cinths quietly perfuming the air, the ocean rushing and hushing outside my window—before I return my attention to the photograph

in the manila envelope.

I turn the lock first. When Frank’s away, which is often, his grand- mother has an unsavory habit of popping in for chats on her way to bed, sometimes knocking first and sometimes not. My dear, she begins, in her wavering voice, each r lovingly rendered as an h, and then comes the lecture, delivered with elliptical skill, in leading Socratic questions of which a trial lawyer might be proud, designed to carve me into an even more perfect rendering, a creature even more suited to stand by Franklin Hardcastle’s side as he announced his candidacy for this office and then that office, higher and higher, until the pinnacle’s reached sometime before menopause robs me of my photogenic appeal and my ability to charm foreign leaders with my expert command of

both French and Spanish, my impeccable taste in clothing and man- ners, my hard-earned physical grace.

In childhood, I longed for the kind of mother who took an active maternal interest in her children. Who approached parenthood as a kind of master artisan, transforming base clay into porcelain with her own strong hands, instead of delegating such raw daily work to a well- trained and poorly paid payroll of nannies, drivers, and cooks. Who rose early to make breakfast and inspect our dress and homework every morning, instead of requiring me to deliver her a tall glass of her special recipe, a cup of hot black coffee, and a pair of aspirin at eight thirty in order to induce a desultory kiss good-bye.

Now I know that affluent neglect has its advantages. I’ve learned that striving for the telescopic star of your mother’s attention and approval is a lot easier than wriggling under the microscope of—well, let’s just pick an example, shall we?—Granny Hardcastle.

But I digress.

I turn the lock and kick off my slippers—slippers are worn around the house, when the men aren’t around, so as not to damage the rugs and floorboards—and pour myself a drink from Frank’s tray. The envelope now lies in my underwear drawer, buried in silk and cotton, where I tucked it before dinner. I sip my Scotch—you know some- thing, I really hate Scotch—and stare at the knob, until the glass is nearly empty and my tongue is pleasantly numb.

I set down the glass and retrieve the envelope. The note first.

I don’t recognize the writing, but that’s the point of block capital letters, isn’t it? The ink is dark blue, the letters straight and precise, the paper thin and unlined. Typing paper, the kind used for ordinary business correspondence, still crisp as I finger the edges and hold it to my nose for some sort of telltale scent.

DOES YOUR HUSBAND KNOW? WHAT WOULD THE PAPERS SAY?

STAY TUNED FOR A MESSAGE FROM YOUR SPONSOR.

P.S. A CONTRIBUTION OF $1,000 IN UNMARKED BILLS WOULD BE APPRECIATED. J. SMITH

PO BOX 55255

BOSTON, MA

Suitably dramatic, isn’t it? I’ve never been blackmailed before, but I imagine this is how the thing is done. Mr. Smith—I feel certain this soi-disant “J” is a man, for some reason; there’s a masculine quality to the whole business, to the sharp angles of the capital letters—has a damning photograph he wants to turn into cash. He might have sent the photograph to Frank, of course, but a woman is always a softer tar- get. More fearful, more willing to pay off the blackmailer, to work out some sort of diplomatic agreement, a compromise, instead of declaring war. Or so a male perpetrator would surmise. A calculated guess, made on the basis of my status, my public persona: the pretty young wife of the candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives from Massachu- setts, whose adoring face already gazes up at her husband from a hun- dred campaign photographs.

Not the sort of woman who would willingly risk a photograph like this appearing on the front page of the Boston Globe, in the sum- mer before my husband’s all-important first congressional election.

Is he right?

The question returns me, irresistibly and unwillingly, to the pho- tograph itself.

I rise from the bed and pour myself another finger or so of Frank’s Scotch. There’s no vodka on the tray, under the fiction that Frank’s wife never drinks in bed. I roll the liquid about in the glass and sniff. That’s my problem with Scotch, really: it always smells so much better than it tastes. Spicy and mysterious and potent. The same way I regarded coffee, when I was a child, until I grew up and learned to love the taste even more than the scent.

So maybe, if I drink enough, if I pour myself a glass or two of Frank’s aged single malt every night to wash away the aftertaste of Granny Hard- castle’s lectures, I’ll learn to love the flavor of whiskey, too.

I set the glass back on the tray, undrunk, and return to the bed, where I stretch myself out crosswise, my stomach cushioned by the lofty down comforter, my bare toes dangling from the edge. I pull the photograph from the envelope, and I see myself.

Me. The Tiny of two years ago, a Tiny who had existed for the briefest of lifetimes: not quite married, slender and cream-skinned, bird-boned and elastic, silhouetted against a dark sofa of which I can still remember every thread.

About to make the most disastrous mistake of her life. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

1. Frank is running for office in the dawning age of television politics. How have public perceptions of politicians changed over the years in the media, and how would Frank’s story play out today?

2. Tiny lives in a bubble, far from hippie culture in the 1960s. But how much is her journey reflected in the times?

3. Tiny is a contained person, private and full of secrets. She seeks to maintain this perfect façade. Would she feel this way if she was a man? If she were born in modern day, as opposed to earlier in the twentieth century?

4. Demands for obedience are ever present in Tiny’s life, especially in the areas of family, work, and romance. How does she confront them?

5. Discuss Caspian’s role in the family. As a veteran and the person who perhaps knows Tiny the best, what does his return mean for the Hardcastles and Tiny?

6. What role does photography play in Tiny’s story? How would this be different if her story were taking place in modern times with the Internet and social media?

7. Discuss Tiny’s time at Woodbridge Clinic. How does that play out in light of the times?

8. What do you think of Tiny’s political engagement, or lack thereof? Do you wish she had been more involved?

9. Discuss Tiny’s relationship with her family—how she does and doesn’t fit in with the Schuylers. In light of the tension between them all, why do you think family is still important to her?

10. What do you think of Mrs. Schuyler’s machinations, and her role in Caspian and Tiny’s relationship?

11. Infidelity and secrets are a running theme throughout both the Schuyler and Hardcastle families. Discuss the patterns of unfaithfulness and betrayal throughout both family histories, and how those have played out in the younger generations.

12. How is Tiny similar to and also different from her sisters? The Schuyler sisters are a complicated bunch, but Tiny is on a different path from Vivian and Pepper.

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  "Tiny Little Thing"by Silversolara (see profile) 06/23/15



Secrets. We all have them, don’t we? But some secrets are a bit larger than others.

Tiny had a secret from her past that she definitely didn't want to be revealed especially since



... (read more)

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