Mr. and Mrs. American Pie
The Tracking Board’s 2016 Launch Pad Manuscript Competition
MRS. MAXINE HORTENCE SIMMONS – PALM SPRINGS, NOVEMBER 1969
There were azaleas. That much I remember vividly.
Joyce Wittenberg Tully brought a dozen of them all the way back from Myrtle Beach, through two plane changes, and then dumped them on my lap at lunch with that triumphant, thin-lipped smile of hers; the one I last saw when her husband finally made partner down at the bank. She tells me how these azaleas are from her mother-in-law’s prize winning garden (“pride of Myrtle Beach since 1952!”) and how “simply divine” they would look as the centerpiece on my Thanksgiving table.
“You know, to complement your dining room’s new tropical theme,” she helpfully added, as though I had not personally toiled over that redesign for five months.
I smiled so hard it made my derriere muscles clench up in knots. I feared if there were suddenly a fire, I would be unable to run from the restaurant and perish with nothing but thoughts of prize azaleas running through my head.
“But Joyce,” I said, “Azaleas aren’t quite tropical, are they? Also, the dining room is Palm Springs moderne with tropical touches, which means we won’t exactly be eating stuffing and mashed potatoes while wearing coconut brassieres. It is still Thanksgiving, after all. There are traditions.”
This is why I’m staring at rumpled azaleas in the trash bin by my bedroom vanity at 1 p.m. on the following day – Thanksgiving Day – as my husband walks in without knocking first. Douglas Rohm Simmons, of the Sacramento Simmons, known throughout that region for their chain of gas stations, stands before me with a frosty pink squirrel in one hand and a suitcase in the other. The drink is not a surprise, since he knows I’ve been sipping away on them since breakfast by the pool. The suitcase, however, makes little sense.
“There’s something I can’t keep from you any longer,” he says. He’s staring at his feet, but his voice is that same firm tone I often hear him take when the office calls after hours.
I sigh. “We have ten guests due any minute and I have four caterers to supervise.” I get back to putting on my eyeliner. “And you’re in my light.”
Douglas moves slightly, allowing the mid-afternoon sun to shine in enough for me to get one eye’s lashes in place.
“This is an urgent matter, Maxine.” Through the drying eyelash glue in the corner of my eye, I see him grip that suitcase handle tight.
“So spill it.” I knock back half the pink squirrel. It coats my mouth and warms the back of my throat. It could stand to be a little pinker.
“I don’t know how to best put this – “
I polish off the pink squirrel. Then it’s back to the eyelashes.
I hear him take a deep breath. His knees buckle a bit. Bet he’s glad I insisted on that extra-thick padding for the bedroom carpets!
“I’m going to Tahiti for a while. Alone.”
I laugh, I think. Or maybe that Valium didn’t settle right with the heavy cream from my drink.
“I mean it, Maxine, I really am. Right after dinner.”
“You’re not going to Tahiti, Douglas.” I know he’s not joking. He has no sense of humor.
He pauses. It’s clearly for effect.
“My lover is there and she’s due to have our child soon.”
What follows from me is definitely a laugh. Or a chortle maybe? A guffaw? Which is the one where you vomit ever so slightly in your mouth?
“We plan on giving birth there and then return to California in a few months’ time.”
“A Tahitian lover?” My elocution has never been so precise.
He nods yes, his head still lowered. “She’s the waitress at that al fresco café. The one by the beach. With the fish.”
I shudder. That fish is nothing more than the catch o’two days ago breaded, fried, and served on a chipped plate. Then something dawns on me.
“I suppose this is why you insist on going to Tahiti every year for our anniversary?”
Douglas nods again. Shifts the suitcase from one hand to the other. It’s getting heavy for him.
“A pregnant lover in Tahiti!” I’m not exactly yelling, I don’t think. Because I can still hear the doorbell chime out “Ode to Joy” and realize the guests are here.
“Maxine, you need to calm down. I was hoping this wouldn’t upset you so,” he says in that angry loud-ish whisper he uses on the neighbor’s dachshund when it defecates in our yard. “We still have dinner to get through.”
“Then why are you telling me this now, Douglas? When I’m doing my face while in my robe on Thanksgiving?”
He can’t answer this, of course. Our whole marriage has been him going off in mad bursts. First the decision to forego the family business for his own accounting firm. Then the sudden pivot out here to Palm Springs, which while infinitely better than Sacramento as far as the weather and social scene are concerned, none-the-less came with precious little forethought. It was a whirlwind getting out here. You try and find decent movers in two days, Douglas!
“You’re not saying anything, Maxine.”
We can both hear the overly cheery talk coming from the living room, where no doubt our guests are wondering why our housekeeper is playing hostess.
“I’m surprised you packed the suitcase yourself,” I finally respond.
My face is finished. I should stop using powder on top of my foundation since it’s settling in those fine lines around my eyes. I probably also ought to tan more.
“I’m taking the red eye out of Los Angeles. A car will be here to pick me up at 9:45. We’ll work out the details shortly.” This is the tone he takes with the gardener. Which I’m realizing now is likely why the bougainvillea around the patio look limp.
He goes to the bedroom door with his suitcase.
“I’ll keep our guests occupied. Please do hurry.”
He doesn’t shut the door all the way behind him. I have to get up and do it myself.
I find a barely-touched Bloody Mary in the master bath and instantly feel irresponsible for having made it hours ago and then forgetting all about it. I decide on another Valium, and of course my diet pill, and finally one of those elegant mint-colored tablets that Evelyn Meyers brought back from France that she swears by. The fact the pill is the same color as the dresses my bridesmaids wore is not lost on me, I suppose. The birth control pills go straight in the toilet and I don’t bother to flush because I absolutely cannot delay getting dressed any longer. Douglas always under-ices everyone’s drinks, meaning I need to get some food in these people quickly or the whole night will crumble.
Oh dear, what to wear? The tasteful navy chiffon I have laid out doesn’t seem right anymore. It will only draw attention to my lack of a tan. I pass on the emerald satin cocktail dress because it’s not yet 2 p.m. and that color is practically screaming at me, but then again the whole room is a bit scream-y. I’m getting that sluggish, walking knee-deep in water feeling that usually means it’s time for a little lie down.
But no! I must soldier through! I have guests and I simply cannot miss the look on everyone’s faces when the turkey is brought out garnished in pineapple rings. It’s a nod to the style of the new dining room without openly flirting with it! Or at least that’s what I thought when I saw the recipe in Sunset Magazine a few months ago. Christ, I hope I didn’t leave that issue in the guest bath.
The Pucci print shift! That’s perfect. Never mind that I can’t get it zipped up all the way. I throw a bright pink scarf around my neck to hide the open zipper up the back. Where are those pink sandals I got for our weekend in Catalina? The ones with the kitten heel, not the flats. I know they are somewhere in this closet.
I’m down on my knees digging towards the back of the walk-in. I glance up to scowl at the low wattage bulbs Douglas insists I use, since decent closet lighting is apparently too great a luxury for me. And that’s when I see it. The tidy little silver box, wrapped up in a crisp black velvet ribbon. Exactly the way it was handed to me in the spring of 1956 when I was barely nineteen and my reign as Miss San Bernardino tearfully ended.
Okay, yes, fine, it’s really more of a tiara than a crown, but you cannot deny the way it gleams in my hands. Even in this horrendous lighting, it’s shimmering like a pile of stars. My pile of stars. For my head. Jesus, I bet this will catch the lights of the tapers on the dinner table. And with the new mirrored wall? I’ll be sensational!
I hear that Douglas has fired up that insipid Man of La Mancha record he loves so much. I was so hoping that was in his suitcase.
I’m nearly half-way to the living room before I realize I completely forgot about the sandals. I’ve come too far walk back now. Again, thank goodness for the extra-thick carpet padding!
I slip into the kitchen, which – hooray – is humming along nicely with everything ready for presentation. I ring the little brass bell I keep by the kitchen’s French doors, but no one can hear me over Don Quixote’s warbling.
“To the table, please!” I need to holler from the kitchen, as if I am about to feed a herd of filthy cowboys from my chuck wagon instead of the crème de la crème of Palm Springs society from a menu I slaved over the selection of. Alas, the record keeps playing while I steady myself for the entrance.
As I push the dinner cart out into the dining room, I realize two things in rapid succession:
One – this turkey is a goddamn work of art. Like Norman Rockwell painted it and decided it was too perfect to be believed as something old Grandma Jones from Great Neck, New York would have cooked up so he gave it to me.
Two – the shoulders on my dress have slid down, meaning all the scarves in the world can’t help me now.
I also seem to have forgotten to put on a bra.
So I suppose there are three things I suddenly realize.
But I was right about the crown! With the candles and the mirrored wall, it lights up the room like a Hollywood premiere. And here I am with my pineapple turkey, waving to my fans. No one can take their eyes off me. That snooty Joan Ferndell Hearst – yes of those Hearsts, but in a roundabout way – clutches the arm of her pinched little husband, who in turn looks across the table to Mr. and Mrs. John Jones, who while usually appearing every bit as interesting as their name implies, now have actual expressions on their faces. Too bad I can’t quite make out what those expressions are because that water I’ve been wading through is now well over my head and somewhat complicating my vision.
What I can see clearly, sitting in the middle of my otherwise perfect table, are a cluster of azaleas shoved into any old vase.
“What the hell, Joyce!” I am louder than the record. I am louder than their polite shock. I am louder than the sound of all the blood rushing to my head.
Douglas leaps to his feet. The napkin from his lap is stuck in his waistband. I want to laugh, but there are ratty azaleas on my Thanksgiving table. Now is not the time.
“You need to sit down, Maxine. Get some food in you.” He uses the tone he always uses with me when I’m being ridiculous about wanting a new sofa, or sex on weeknight, or children.
“I need to serve the turkey,” I answer, chipper as a lady selling toothpaste on TV. There’s that derriere clinch again.
“Allow me,” Douglas insists. He takes the knife from my hand.
“Why don’t you tell everyone about Tahiti, Douglas?” My smile is most certainly about to shatter my entire face.
“You know we go there every year.”
“And this despite there being far more stylish vacation spots – as you, Eileen, so often point out to me.” I polish off someone’s drink. A Manhattan, I think. Probably belongs to one of the Millers.
Douglas has decided that ignoring me is the best option.
“We keep going to Tahiti like it’s 1962 because he’s got a knocked up island girl!”
There’s a gasp. I gasp back, bigger and better. A gasp for the ages. Don Quixote seems to agree with me, swelling in the background.
“You’re clearly out of your mind, Maxine!”
That’s when it happens.
I always thought it would be a literal snapping sensation. Like a rubber band, only on a larger-than-the-universe scale. Otherwise, why would they say things like “she just snapped?” Yet there was no snap or break or even a pop. Instead, this churning, almost burning achy sensation comes slowly easing up from deep and low within my gut. It builds and gets heavy – and quickly, at that. I’m not strong enough to fight it. It’s like trying to hold back an echo.
I start screaming and I don’t stop. I fling open the sliding door with enough gusto that it ricochets back in its track, closing half way. Before I know it, that turkey is in my arms. Not on the platter, just cradled in my arms and spilling its sweet-n-savory pineapple and turkey juices all down my dress, which is in turn managing to stick to me in places while fall off in others. I’m stomping barefoot through the dining room, out across the patio, and I’m poolside before I take a breath.
I hurtle the turkey into the pool with such force I nearly go sliding in after it. I toss my head back and scream and scream and scream.
ROBERT HOGARTH - SCOTTSDALE, ARIZONA, FEBRUARY 1970
“And that’s why I don’t care for azaleas.” She holds her whiskey sour up as if giving a toast and downs the last little bit of it. I immediately prepare her another, because to be frank, if she is this entertaining after only one, I can’t wait until she’s had a few.
It’s been a slow day.
She’s silent again and back to staring at her drink. She walked in nearly an hour ago and sat in a booth picking at the nut dish before I suggested she come keep me company at the bar. She ordered the sour and I asked how her day was going. Normally, I get a “fine thanks,” which means, “I’m here for the booze and not the small talk, bub.” Other times it’s a “I’ll be much better once I get a drink in me!” which is a good signal someone wants to discuss the weather or how their sports team is doing, or if I’m really unlucky, politics. But with this woman, she blurted out something about azaleas and while I’m trying to even picture one in my head, she’s off and running with her story.
It’s a true story, I can promise that. Bartenders learn quick when someone is full of S-H-I-T and this one isn’t. Although, I can’t figure her out much beyond that. She’s in jeans – not quite Haight-Ashbury, but definitely like what the kids wear – and her nails and lipstick are the same shade of orange as her shoes and handbag. Her hair is a feat of engineering. I’m guessing she just had it done at that ritzy place around the corner. Or at NASA, maybe? It’s tall and taught and yet also full and round, and a blonde color you never see out in nature. I do sometimes see it on country western album covers, and each time I picture that blonde from The Birds and think of how if she had this hairstyle, the birds would get caught in it and not peck her to death.
“I’m Robert, by the way,” I finally say.
“I’m Maxine Hortence Sim-,” she smiles. “Force of habit. Merely Maxine Hortence now. He got to keep the last name.”
“Really?” I need to keep her talking.
“Everything is up for grabs in a divorce. But I made him buy it back from me, that’s for sure.” She fidgets with the red plastic sword her sour cherry is still on. Very few people let the cherry soak in the drink. Most eat it the moment the drink is served.
“Are you…” She points to her ring finger.
“Nope. Never had the pleasure.” My standard response, although I’m a little peeved at myself for how quickly it came out.
She looks me up and down, as if counting my branches to determine I am at least 35, then pauses back on that left hand. I know that look and I don’t care for it. It’s a look that usually brings about a game of 20 Questions. I doubt Mrs. Maxine Hortence Sim-whatever will be any different.
“Got a girl?”
There it is.
“Nope. I am free and easy at the moment….” Her eyebrow goes up a little. “Or at least free.”
“That sounds like one of those country-western songs that are so popular out here. We didn’t have much of that in Palm Springs.”
I shrug. “I don’t think one way or another about it.”
“Me as well. At least it’s not as loud as today’s popular music. All that screeching and moaning, it’s unbecoming. Like zoo animals.”
“I do like some R&B,” I offer.
“I don’t mind a little of that from time to time.” She pops the cherry in her mouth finally. She looks like she has more to say, but is careful to chew down every bite before opening her mouth again, even using her cocktail napkin to delicately dab at those orange lips.
“What about Broadway tunes?’
And we’re back at it.
“I’m an Irish bartender in Scottsdale, Arizona. I know sea shanties and all four hundred verses of ‘Danny Boy,’ but other than West Side Story, I couldn’t tell you anything about Broadway.”
Put that in your pipe and smoke it, madam.
“Ugh, that god-damned play,” she says, a little too loudly. “My ex-husband wouldn’t quit with that ‘I know a girl named Maria,’ nonsense.”
“Well, Natalie Wood…He’s only human, after all.”
“He was a jerk.” She laughs hard and very loudly. “Maria. Jesus, he really does prefer his women exotic.”
I’m glad she’s back on track and talking about herself.
“So tell me, Miss Hortence, after one throws a turkey in a pool on Thanksgiving Day, what happens next?” I’m already making her another drink. She looks like someone who is accustomed to there always being both another drink and someone there to make the drink.
“Well, I woke the next day in the bath – no clue how I got there.”
“Someone dumped you in the bath?”
“I was dressed, mind you, and there was no water. Still, terribly uncomfortable. I needed more than the usual relaxants after that.”
I nod in understanding. And what the H-E-double hockey sticks, I make myself a drink, too. A nice, stiff Old Fashioned.
“Did what’s-his-face really go to Tahiti?”
“He did. Or at least as far as I know. I woke-up in the tub and when our housekeeper brought me breakfast, there was a business card on the tray informing me that I had a meeting on Monday with an attorney.”
“Well, that was sure nice of what’s-his-face,” I’m sarcastic, but not too sarcastic.
“Hardly! I went first thing Monday morning to the lawyer Dottie Ross used when that whole unfortunate situation occurred with her husband and the actress. Dottie began that ordeal with a broken heart and ended it with two houses and a new car. A blue convertible something-or-other. Her driver looked absolutely bananas in it.”
“Dottie’s lawyer saved the day?”
“Dottie’s lawyer wouldn’t even see me. None of them would. It was Monday and I snapped on Thursday, so of course word was all around town about it.”
She says “snapped” with a casualness that makes me start to think maybe she is nuts. I casually move the paring knife for the limes off the bar to the counter behind me.
“I go to Douglas’ lawyer and the long and the short of it is that I am a social pariah in Palm Springs and all the money is Douglas’s. I can take a little and get out of town immediately or just walk myself to hell, since the cars aren’t in my name either.”
“That’s terrible. After how many years?”
“That’s what I was thinking! Twelve years – my best years – and all because I snapped I get nothing? I think not.”
She goes on a little too nonchalantly telling me how the following Tuesday was spent loading up a car with everything of value she could scavenge from the house – jewelry, furs, the silver and china – which she took into Los Angeles and sold for cash. Back in Palm Springs, she sold every appliance in the house, with the exception of the brand new, still in the box fondue pot, which she packed up with her things in several suitcases. She then returned to Douglas’ lawyer’s office.
“I have everything packed and in my car. I tell this confidence man of an attorney that I can leave town post haste. First, I want the condominium we recently purchased in Scottsdale. Secondly, I’ll be expecting five-hundred a month in alimony. Finally, I want some money to return Douglas’ last name to him.”
“Well, played, Miss Hortence.” I lift my glass to her.
“Snapping has its advantages.”
MR. ALLEN MOORE, ESQ. – PALM SPRINGS, NOVEMBER 1969
Never in my life have I met a woman I so desperately wanted to throttle, albeit in a legal sense of the word “throttle.” She arrives boisterously and informs my secretary, Miss Hill, that she takes her coffee black with three sugars – despite no coffee being offered to her. Worse yet, she does not wait until I complete my client phone call, which yes, is running a moment or two late. However, that is not a valid reason for her to waltz in here as if my office were the ladies’ lounge at the Walker Scott Department Store. She even slams the door.
Then there is the preposterous “counter-offer,” which I say with all due disrespect because it clearly shows she has little remorse for the agony in which she put my client through on Thanksgiving Day in front of all his peers.
“I hardly think Mr. and Mrs. Gregory Hearst are Douglas’ peers,” she seethes at me. Douglas warned me of that tone of hers. Plus, everyone knows they are Hearsts in a roundabout way, so my assertion of them being “peers” is sound.
“Your choices are clear, Mrs. Simmons. Did you consult with an attorney as I - ”
“Most spurred wives at least get some alimony when their husbands run off with something in a grass skirt!”
“Allow me to counter with the fact that most sane wives do not end up topless at Thanksgiving dinner!”
She slouches back a little in her chair. It’s a sign of defeat and one that I know well.
“I snapped,” she says firmly and too loudly, even for her.
“Which is why Mr. Simmons fears that his accountancy firm will suffer. He needs that home in Scottsdale, Arizona as a contingency plan should he require a new primary residence. This is all your doing, Mrs. Simmons.”
“I picked out that home to be closer to my mother.”
I scan the file in front of me. I don’t need to, since I know it well. I simply need Mrs. Simmons to understand the vastness of the file I maintain on her. It works every time.
“Your mother is deceased.”
“Yes, she died the day after the purchase was finalized. Douglas was dragging his feet about an all-cash sale. Now I would like to have it so that I can live near her final resting place.”
I stare at her over the top of my glasses. A firm stare. It’s another powerful lawyer stance.
What she does next is something I have never experiences in my thirty-three years practicing the law in the state of California. Moreover, I have never heard of such a thing happening to any other attorney, and believe me, we do seek each other’s council.
Mrs. Douglas Simmons tears her shirt off! There’s no unbuttoning or even a pulling of the garment over her head. She rips it from her body with buttons flying every-which-way across my office.
“I want the condominium!” she screams, like a crazed banshee while climbing atop her chair. “I will be completely crazy alllllllll over Palm Springs if I don’t get it!”
She’s fighting with the back hooks on her undergarment and barely maintaining her erectness on the chair when Miss Hill runs in to see what’s the trouble. Miss Hill is unsurprisingly terrified and as young women who are terrified often do, she screams.
“I’m the one who should be screaming!” Mrs. Simmons bellows at the top of her considerable lungs. “You BASTARDS!”
Miss Hill runs to the door as the undergarment hits the floor. Mrs. Simmons, in what I can only describe as some sort of psychosis-induced super-human strength, lunges for the door, slamming it shut and barricading it with her half-naked form. Miss Hill rushes to me, crouching behind me like a frightened child.
“This is only the beginning,” Mrs. Simmons pants. “I will ruin Palm Springs for him. I will ruin Scottsdale for him. I will ruin the entirely of this great nation for him. Do you see how I could do that?”
I’m shielding my eyes with my hand, but nod in the affirmative.
“I want the condominium. I want five-hundred in alimony – monthly. Can you make that happen, Mr. Moore? Or do I need to head straight to his favorite restaurant or perhaps the club?”
“I’ll have the deed signed over in the morning.”
Her body language softens, although I am squinting when looking at her so I cannot ascertain by how much. I bring my voice to a soothing tone. “There’s one final thing, Mrs. Simmons. Your name.”
“What about my name?” She picks her shirt up off my desk and pockets the button lying next to it.
“Mr. Simmons would like it back. For you to revert to your maiden name.”
“How much?” She retrieves the undergarment from the floor.
“How much is the Simmons name worth to him?”
“I don’t – ”
She kicks the chair over with a grunt like a gorilla. Miss Hill yelps again.
“Perhaps two-thousand?” I blurt out.
“Cash. Tomorrow morning. Along with the deed.” She puts her blouse on, continuing to hold the undergarment in her hand. The blouse is mostly open due to the buttons being strewn about my office. “Shall I come here?”
“We’ll have it delivered via courier by 11 a.m.”
“Then I will be on the road out of town by 11:05 a.m. Good day, Mr. Moore.”
She trips over the edge of the fallen chair on her way out, but regains her footing and keeps walking.
ROBERT HOGARTH - SCOTTSDALE, ARIZONA, FEBRUARY 1970 - CONTINUED
I realize that my mouth is hanging open. This woman has left me slack-jawed. It’s nearly 4:30 p.m. and the dinner crowd will be coming in soon, expecting pot pies and French onion soup. Manuel and Consuela slipped in nearly an hour ago, and thank goodness they understand that if I’m with a patron at the bar, I can’t help them in the kitchen. I worry if they heard any of Miss Hortence’s story, since while they for some reason think it’s polite to act as if they don’t know much English, I know better. They are a lovely Catholic couple and I would hate to lose them. Then again, I also don’t want to lose Miss Hortence. Aside from being a potentially very good customer, she is the rarest of people: a bona fide hoot.
“Miss Hortence,” I say.
“Please, I’ve verbally exposed myself to you twice today, call me Maxine.”
“Maxine,” I smile. “The dinner crowd will be coming in soon and I would love if you’d stay and have dinner with me. On the house, of course.”
“I would be delighted, Mr. -?”
“Hogarth. But obviously, you should call me Robert.”
We settle back in a booth and enjoy a bottle of something red I think might have been left behind by the tavern’s previous owner. I keep the bottle’s label aimed towards me throughout dinner; not that Maxine cares to look. She devours a salad with avocado (“I’m a California Girl, after all!”) and smokes through half a pack of Virginia Slims. For dessert, she has an amaretto sour and what she claims is a vitamin and really, who am I to quiz her on the validity of that?
“You should get a jukebox,” she tells me with a delicate wave of those long fingernails. “It’ll warm the place up.”
“I was hoping the low-lighting and all the wood would do that.”
“The more ambiance, the better. At least that’s what this decorator I hired once said. Oh his chatter! You’d think I was paying him by the word,” she clucks.
I fetch a small transistor radio from behind the bar and set it on the table. She smiles as she fiddles with the dial, settling on some twangy number I’ve never heard before. It seems to make her happy as she closes her eyes and lets her head sway back in tune to the music.
The song ends and she lights up her last cigarette.
“Tell me, Miss Maxine Hortence. What now?”
She looks confused, fluttering her eyes for effect.
“You’ve got the condo in Scottsdale, the alimony, the name. You’re well and snapped - ”
That makes her laugh, deep and throaty.
“So what’s next for you?
She fusses with the radio a moment longer before turning it off.
“Robert,” she says, quite purposefully. “Would you be opposed to me frequenting your establishment? Daily, even?”
“I’d be delighted to have you as a regular.”
She shakes my hand and though somewhat unsteady in her heels, flounces out into the night.
SPOILERS LIE AHEAD!! READ NO FUTHER UNLESS YOU WANT THE FULL SYNOPSIS OF THE BOOK
Mrs. Maxine Hortence Simmons is a 35-year old Palm Springs society grand dame in training when on Thanksgiving 1969 her husband Douglas announces he is leaving her for a pregnant mistress in Tahiti. Maxine’s been drinking all day, which when accompanied by several pharmaceuticals and the news her marriage is over, prompts Maxine to snap. That turkey goes right in the pool along with every notion Maxine’s ever had about a lady should comport herself in polite society.
Maxine flees Palm Springs, and with the proceeds of her divorce (all thanks to blackmail), settles in Scottsdale, Arizona, which is merely a less glam, celebrity-free version of Palm Springs. She befriends Robert Hagan, who owns a somewhat respectable tavern, Casa Dulcinea. While Maxine immediately pours her heart out to Robert, entertaining him with her stories of her snapping in Palm Springs, Robert keeps most of his secrets to himself. He grew-up in bucolic Libertyville, Illinois, where his parents ran a restaurant and came to Scottsdale only a year ago to open his own establishment and get away from all that gosh darn snow. Maxine takes one look at the hair peeking out from Robert’s chest and realizes that despite this generally being a universal turn-on for her, Robert does nothing for her libido and realizes he is clearly gay. Robert insists that’s not the case, but rather a by-product of Maxine being from California – the state of fruits and nuts.
Robert and Maxine form a solid if not unconventional friendship. Maxine is restless, in dire need she claims for an outlet for her snapping. She’s prone to outbursts – both petty (a neighbor thinking Maxine is the madam of a brothel since there’s no husband) and serious (Maxine needing to keep the proceeds of her divorce in a safe since an unmarried woman can’t get her own bank account). Robert sees that she’s full of anger from the divorce and the difficulties of being a single woman in 1970 in a world that isn’t changing fast enough for her. She doesn’t want another marriage. Kids are off the table and to be fair, were never much of a consideration. She went to college and graduated after only a year with her MRS degree when she married Douglas. Maxine wants to set the world on fire, but only because she wants to watch it all burn.
A night of drinking at Casa Dulcinea with Robert gets Maxine thinking back to where she claims it all went wrong. It was the night she won Miss San Bernardino in 1956. She was an ideal beauty queen, all teeth and hair and a tasteful amount of ass. Douglas was a judge and he snatched her right up after that. Yet everything that pageant taught her was a lie. There’s no happily ever after. No Prince Charmings. And while the crown still fits, Maxine gets some strange looks wearing it to the liquor store. Maybe all those disenfranchised hippies were right. Maybe anarchy is the way to change the world.
Robert doesn’t agree. He’s lived his life fine – no make that better than fine – by keeping his head down and always walking the straight and narrow, so to speak. Yet life as a confirmed bachelor in ultra-conservative Arizona isn’t easy. What little money he has is sunk in to Casa Duncinea and his religious landlord is hugely suspicious of “what” Robert’s all about.
Maxine concocts a plan that could save Robert’s bar while allowing her to snap all over the concept of a beauty pageant. While she’s too old for Miss America, Maxine is just the right age to win Mrs. American Pie – a contest to crown the nation’s most ideal housewife. Though he’s extremely hesitant to rock the boat – and still insistent to Maxine that he’s not gay – Robert goes along with the plan. One drunken night, she and Robert get “fake” married, with Maxine trading sexual favors with the justice of the peace to backdate the marriage license by several years. Robert borrows a couple of his cousin’s kids for a few weeks, and he and Maxine set to transform themselves into Mr. and Mrs. American Pie.
The first hurdle is that there already is a Mrs. Arizona Pie 1970, and she is a nightmare of a human being. Maxine fills the woman’s garbage cans with nudie magazines, condoms, and malt liquor bottles, leading to a disqualification on the grounds of immorality. The first runner-up assumes the crown and is smug in her self-righteousness, so Maxine gets her disqualified with a fake story that she once put a racially mixed baby up for adoption. The second runner-up abdicates out of fear of what Maxine will do next. With no one left to wear the crown, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Hagan become Mr. and Mrs. Arizona Pie.
Now it’s on to the national pageant, where fake husband and wife Maxine and Robert, and their two fake children are put up in a cottage at a resort in Florida. While Robert is expected to be the typical American man, Maxine needs to be the doting mother, fantastic housekeeper, and dutiful wife – especially since it is all being graded. The situation is immediately stressful for Robert. As a bartender, he’s fantastic at talking to people, but these husbands are all men’s men and Robert is certain someone is going to realize that he is “sitting rather light in his loafers,” as Maxine puts it. Robert is especially nervous since Mr. Illinois Pie is from one town over from Robert’s hometown, which we learn in flashback is a place he had to leave after being caught with another man in a movie theatre bathroom.
Unlike Robert, Maxine is in her element as an agent of pure chaos at the pageant. She’s not interested in anymore sabotage against the other Mrs. Pies. Maxine is aiming higher to bring down the entire institution. The the pageant’s theme is “Celebrating Freedom,” and soon Maxine’s sly leadership skills has the women of the pageant co-opting the counterculture of the 60s, albeit in the least cool, most square manner possible. It’s all part of Maxine’s master plan to gently guide the Pies towards all snapping in a public display of female rage.
Maisey Monroe, AKA Mrs. New York Pie, is the first non-white woman ever in the pageant and she quickly figures out what Maxine is up to – and thinks it’s atrocious. To Maisey, this is yet another example of a white person trying to screw everything up for the lone black person who managed to get ahead. She’s determined to beat Maxine and all the other Pies by being the absolute best wife and mother – and show the judges Maxine is a fraud.
As the contest progresses over the course of a week, tensions are high between Maxine and Robert. He’s unraveling from what he perceives as constant scrutiny from the other men and the judges. Between the daily rounds of golf, followed by drinks and a hot sauna at the Club, and “family” dinners that are watched over by judges, Robert feels like he’s walking around with a big scarlet letter on his cardigan. Maxine is utterly oblivious to what Robert’s going through and too busy trying to convince all the women to stop shaving their armpit hair (“like sexy French women!) or hosting a Mommy’s Little Helper pill swap. When Maxine’s cake falls, she smuggles Robert away from a three martini luncheon to bake her a new one, which he has no clue how to do. He’s furious at the assumption that of course he knows how to bake a fancy cake, and the two quarrel enough for Maisey to hear.
Maisey proves to be a decent person. She corners Maxine by telling her she’ll keep Robert’s secret – if only for Robert’s sake – if Maxine assures that Maisey wins the pageant. To Maisey’s thinking, what could possibly be more subversive than a black woman being crowned Mrs. American Pie? Maxine agrees, although she has no idea how this is going to work since Maisey insists there be no sabotage, or at least not any used as a first resort.
Maxine apologizes to Robert, saying that she never intended to hurt him, adding that she loves him more as her fake husband than she ever did her real husband. Robert is touched. If he weren’t so afraid of his secret getting out, he might really enjoy this week playing husband and dad – two things he’s resigned to never being in real life. At Maxine’s urging, he decides to throw himself into living out that dream the rest of the week. If there’s one thing Maxine knows, it’s that people like the Mr. and Mrs. Pies merely gossip behind each other’s backs. Soon enough, Robert will be back in Scottsdale and never have to see these people again. So why should he care what they think?
Robert knows people inside and out and helps Maxine and Maisey target the strongest opponents to either defeat or form an alliance with. Where Maisey uses White Guilt to garner support, Maxine relies on her Queen Bee attitude to rally her minions. Ruth Ann Reynolds, AKA Mrs. Florida Pie, is a local favorite, a strong contender for the judges who want a traditional woman wearing the crown – and possibly the most obnoxious human on the planet (“She’s Phyllis Schlafly in a better wig and tighter girdle!”). Going into the final day of competition, Maxine and Maisey aren’t sure how the pageant will shake out.
With Maisey and Ruth Ann neck and neck for first place and Maxine right behind them, it all comes down to the night of the talent and evening gown competition. Ruth Ann does a dramatic reading of Bible verses mixed with hyper-patriotic Presidential quotes while playing water glasses. Her gown leaves little to the imagination, but that’s only because it is so boring and dowdy that Maxine is certain it has strangled to death the imaginations of everyone in the room. Maxine goes full-snapping in an interpretive dance number that ends with her burning her bra.
Maisey walks on stage intending to play the piano while singing a spiritual that means a lot to her, but Maxine pulls her aside and whispers something in her ear while looking to Robert. Rather than sing, Maisey sits at the piano, says “This is for my dear new friend, Mr. Arizona Pie,” and plays a well-known classical piece that is beautiful and utterly inoffensive. By blending in and being the most normal, the most middle-of-the-road, least “look at me” person, Maisey wins.
The message is not lost on Robert, nor did Maxine intend for it to be. Maisey’s spiritual would have been powerful, moving statement of who she is and what she’s been through. Robert is crushed that she had to keep all that inside her to win some stupid crown. It’s painful and exhausting to hide who you are and yet being who you were born to be can turn the whole world against you. He finally admits to Maxine that he’s gay. It’s a weight off him – not a big one, but a start.
Fake wife Maxine, fake husband Robert, and their two fake kids return to Scottsdale no worse for wear. Maxine suggests they stay married, and Robert initially balks at the idea until Maxine points out all the advantages for him. He can live a little more freely if everyone thinks he’s married. For Maxine it means always having her best friend around – and of course the simple joy of walking up every morning knowing that her happy marriage is secretly a big middle-finger to the universe. They both agree that priority #1 is to get the hell out of Scottsdale and instead settle in West Hollywood along with a cadre of small dogs and a little bar they run together. Maxine sings feminist torch songs there nightly, her nails and lips still matching her purse and shoes.