What a Character, Part 1 of 4
Once Upon A Project

Presenting the first of four glimpses into the lead characters of my upcoming novel, Once Upon A Project, coming from Dafina Books on April 29, 2008. Subsequent character blogs will post on the 1st of February, March, and April. The purpose of these blogs is to give readers insight into the personalities of these characters. Please do not confuse them with chapter excerpts.

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Character Name: Patricia Maxwell
Setting: Chicago, March 2007
I broke into a smile when I recognized the written name of my old friend on the RSVP list. ‘Susan Dillahunt, party of three.’ I was exhausted from putting together this damn reunion, but the prospect of seeing Susan again thrilled me. It’s been way too long. I see Grace all the time, but both Susan and my other friend from childhood, Elyse, left the city. Elyse, whom I saw just the other week when she drove down to have dinner with Grace and me, is up in the north suburbs. Lake Forest is a city where you’re upwardly mobile at the least, or at best, have arrived. Susan lives just over the Wisconsin border, in a town called Pleasant Prairie. There might not be much to that burb in terms of culture and restaurants, but wow, what a lifestyle. Not only is Susan's house huge, but it’s right on the banks of Lake Michigan. They have their own private beach behind their back yard, for heaven's sake. I’ll never forget how Grace’s eyes bugged out when she saw it. I love Grace, but she’s a jealous little thing.
Grace has been divorced . . . twice. Both Elyse and Susan are married. Elyse married a guy who’s half a generation older than she is. She complained about him not wanting to do anything anymore at dinner two weeks ago, but at this point she can say she’s been married to him more than half her life . . . something I can't even imagine. Susan’s husband is about our age, and he’s loaded. Credit card processing is his game. He’s a good-looking SOG – I always say 'son-of-a-gun,' since that other expression isn’t very nice – too. I guess they’ll be bringing at least one of their kids, since Susan reserved three tickets. It made me think that maybe planning this thing would work out after all.
Our families were all among the earliest residents of the Theodore Dreiser Projects when they opened 50 years ago. The folks who live there now seem stuck. I want people like Grace, Elyse, and Susan to show that people from the projects can look forward to things other than a lifetime of poverty. Still, I’d had a fear that I’d bitten off more than I can chew. Lord knows my job as prosecutor in the Cook County State Attorney's office keeps me busy. But the minute I saw the current residents of the projects here on the South Side on the news, running their mouths about how they wanted computer rooms and exercise rooms, I started organizing. It all seemed so ridiculous to me. The projects are housing for low-income people. It’s not supposed to be a damn country club. I lived in the Dreiser Projects for a long time, from a babe in arms until after I graduated law school. It was kind of embarrassing . . . all my friends’ families had moved out years before that. Hell, Elyse’s family left before we turned 10, right after the Blizzard of ’67, but we were there another fifteen years. When I’d been working long enough to save some money and get a place of my own, my parents downsized to a one-bedroom, where they stayed until they were able to get into senior citizen’s housing.
My parents never had much of anything. I’ll never understand how they managed to raise three children on next to nothing. We used to joke that we were the real-life Evans family from the TV show Good Times. I was the only girl and the middle child, just like Thelma. But both my brothers met with tragic fates. My older brother got hooked on drugs and did jail time before OD’ing. My younger brother got caught in gang crossfire coming home from school when he was just 16. After that, my parents put all their hopes on me.
Heavy is the head that wears the crown, someone once said. But I do feel I’ve done my parents proud. They looked out for me as well, and they wouldn't be discouraged when it came to my future. They pestered the guidance counselors at school for information on grants and scholarships. My counselor, being a racist asshole, tried to steer me into a service industry, saying I didn’t possess the smarts to go to college, and my parents stood up to him. Now, I'm no Bill Gates, but my grades were well above average. From there I went on Northwestern and got a law degree. I stayed in the prosecutor’s office because I’d rather prosecute real offenders to society, like the gang members and drug pushers that killed my brothers, than defend the rich. My parents brag about their daughter, the attorney, all the time. Their lives are more than satisfactory. Except . . . no grandchildren. I’m the only one among my closest friends who has never been married, and the only one who didn’t have kids. Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be. Or maybe I made the biggest mistake of my life.
Ricky Suarez and I grew up together. His mother’s apartment was down the hall from ours. Chicago might be in the North, but it was segregated, or at least their public housing was. Most of the projects on the South Side were built especially for black residents. The white folks had projects too, up North and to the West. I guess the housing board didn’t know what to do when Miriam Suarez applied for an apartment for herself and her two boys. If she’d been a fair-skinned Latina from, say, Madrid, they probably would have sent her over to live in the white folks’ projects. But she’s olive-complexioned, and her parents were from Mexico, so she got an apartment in Dreiser.
Ricky and I started going together in high school. We were born the same year, but he was a year ahead of me because I was born in December, after the cut-off in place at the time to enter kindergarten. I was his prom date. Our parents thought it was cute, but nothing serious. But when Ricky told me he wanted to marry me when we were 19, everything fell apart. My little brother had just been killed, my older brother was incarcerated for drugs, and my parents had already pinned all their hopes on me. My father said he didn’t want me marrying some “burrito boy,” calling Ricky that because he worked in a Mexican restaurant and planned to open his own place one day. I should marry someone black, he said, and have black children. He and my mother reminded me of how my Uncle Jacob had been lynched in their hometown of Wabbaseka, Arkansas, back in 1954, and how that drove them out of the South and here to Chicago for a life of urban hardscrabble. I didn’t even know Uncle Jacob; he was killed three years before I was born. Besides, they’d always liked Ricky, just like Miriam Suarez always liked me. But my parents wouldn’t budge, and in the end I gave in. I couldn’t bear all the pressure they put on me, the anguished cries that one of their sons was dead and the other one was lost to them. Ricky tried to convince me to override them, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I lost him.
He went on to open a successful luncheonette in the industrial part of the city, and later, an upscale restaurant downtown. The twenty-year friendship between Miriam and my parents came to a halt, and Miriam left Dreiser soon after. And this December I’ll be fifty years old and still alone . . . involved in civic duties like planning reunion luncheons for former residents of the Dreiser Projects because I have nothing else with which to fill my life.
I lowered my eyes, and then a name on the list I held jumped out at me like trick-or-treaters on Halloween. ‘Mr. And Mrs. Enrique Suarez, party of two.’ Oh, my God. Ricky was coming. And bringing his wife.
How was I supposed to handle that?
Want to know more? Click here to pre-order Once Upon A Project from Amazon.


Gwyneth Bolton said...

I'm gonna love this book. I can tell already. I love the concept and Patricia has me intrigued to say the least. Gotta love a striver who made it!


bettye griffin said...

Thanks, Gwyneth! As much as I want to be modest, I will go out on a limb and boldly state that I do believe you will love the book. It's my first mainstream to feature a little romance in it . . . one interracial, another illicit but genuine. I'm just amazed at how easy it was to write.

LaConnie said...


I'm with my Soror Gwyneth on this one. Think you've got yourself a winner!!

Can't wait to read more.


Shelia said...

Happy New Year. I love getting the backstory...by the time I read the book, it'll be like reading about friends.

bettye griffin said...

LaConnie and Shelia,
I'm glad you enjoyed the character sketch. Leaving a good impression on my fellow authors makes me feel pretty doggone good!

Chick Lit Gurrl said...

totally loved meeting this character, :-)

i love backstories and character sketches, and getting these glimpses are awesome!

can't wait until the book hits the stores!

bettye griffin said...

Glad you liked it, Shon! Don't forget to come back on February 1st and read all about Susan.

Patricia W. said...

What's not to like in a character named Patricia?

I'm sold! I saw the post when it went up but knew I needed uninterrupted time to digest it. I finally found a few minutes. Wow! I'm gonna love this book, especially because it feels like it has the flavor of my childhood. This is our era.

bettye griffin said...

I figured you'd get a kick out of it, Patricia! While I believe women of all ages (except maybe the very young ones) will enjoy Once Upon A Project, I can't help feeling that it will be more meaningful for those over 40.