Writing Exercise – “Heart in a Box”

Another writing-group exercise, this one from the end of last March. What an eerie, different time to remember. We understood almost nothing of Covid/COVID-19 (which we were still calling “the coronavirus”) and were newly under lockdown in Wisconsin, the governor’s “Stay at Home” executive order having just been issued. People were at a loss about where to get masks, and social media was full of videos showing how to make them out of bandanas and rubber bands.

This exercise was very simple and straightforward: Write about a “heart in a box.” It was one I came up with for the group, inspired by that very phrase popping into my head as I lay in bed shortly after awakening one morning. I had no clue what the words might refer to, although they sounded kind of creepy and at the same time vaguely reminded me of the Nirvana song “Heart-Shaped Box,” but with sort of a David Lynch twist. This was actually an interesting exercise, I thought, in that everyone came up with highly individual, really different responses.

Like last week’s exercise, my “Heart in a Box” was set in my fictional town of Adell Ferry. Some background on this town is in last week’s post (link HERE) if you’re interested.

So first the usual disclaimer. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

And now, my exercise.

“Heart in a Box”

“You’ve heard of people wearing their heart on their sleeve, right? Well, this is like that, see. Except it’s a heart in a box.” Aunt Shelley snaps the lid closed and glares at me, daring me to ask one more question, just one more.

I don’t. I learned my lesson about that the hard way a long time ago. I pick up the box and place it into the basket with the floral arrangements I’m delivering by bicycle around Adell Ferry this afternoon.

Luckily, except for the Heart in a Box, today it’s all “in town,” meaning the flat streets of the city proper. We don’t deliver “out” to the county, but there are still plenty of neighborhoods scattered along the river and up into the surrounding hills. I’m saving for a ten-speed like the one Bobby has. Then I’ll be able to ride up every hill instead of having to walk my bike at the side of the road up the long, steep ones. It’s embarrassing to have people see me do that.

The flowers are mostly Happy Birthdays and Get Well Soons. They’re first on my route, and I’m glad. Floral arrangements take up a lot of room in my bike baskets. I have one basket on my handlebars and two that hang like saddlebags from my rear fender. A terrarium goes to the funeral home for the football player who died in last Friday’s crash out 137.

Last on my list is the Heart in a Box. The delivery I dread. It goes to the Adell Ferry State Institute, a vaguely sinister presence a mile upriver and set back quite far from the road.

At least it’s flat. But the driveway to the collection of white cottages and administration buildings is a long, winding pathway through fields and past the dairy barns. And it’s that time of summer when grasshoppers leap out of the tall grass along the fine-graveled cinder lane at me as I pass, hitting my legs and arms and probably getting their leg hooks tangled in my hair, I realize with a shudder. The crunch of their bodies beneath my tires adds to my revulsion. But the worst still awaits, even though all I have to do is drop off my Heart in a Box at the administration building and not at one of the cottages.

I lean my bike against the massive trunk of the hundred-year-old elm tree that was planted in front of the main building when the hospital was built. The sun is hot. I welcome the shade as I check my hair for insects (none) and reach into my basket for the Heart in a Box. The administration building’s pillared entrance always reminds me of Scarlett O’Hara’s house in Gone With the Wind. Of course, that romantic picture is spoiled by the loud hum of air-conditioners dripping their waste from every window. The cottages have to make do with fans propped up against screens, which clearly doesn’t cool them off enough. As I carry the Heart in a Box up the front steps of Tara, I notice patients sitting outside on several of the cottage porches.

My ninth-grade choir sang Christmas carols at one of the larger structures back in December. The patients crowded around, grabbing greedily at our dresses and jewelry. One old woman with bushy, chopped gray hair tried to trade me her popsicle stick for my bracelet. Her speech was unintelligible. I didn’t know what she wanted until she pushed her wet, wooden stick into my palm and began pulling at my wrist. I recoiled and swatted her hand—then caught Miss Swanson looking at me.

I shrank inside, ashamed of my poor Christmas spirit. Feeling trapped and angry, I undid the clasp and slipped my grandmother’s gift into swollen, grasping fingers. The woman beamed at me, an avaricious glint in her eyes and a stream of gibberish issuing from her gray-mustached mouth. Miss Swanson’s approval on the bus ride back into town could not warm my bitterly cold resentment. You shouldn’t have worn that bracelet if you wanted to keep it, she told me finally, a lesson for next time.

I hate this creepy, fake idyllic place, especially the patients. Mostly because I know I’m supposed to love them like Jesus would.

Cool air rushes out of the administration building as I open the front door. Instead of soothing relief from the heat, its rotting asylum smell makes me shiver with disgust as I imagine the stale, chilly air of a morgue or a dungeon. I drop the Heart in a Box at the front desk, trying not to be rude but with one hand on the doorknob and already backing away as I murmur detached, polite responses to the woman’s friendly effort to engage me in conversation.

And then I’m back on my bike, speeding through the grasshopper gauntlet to make my escape to civilization once more.

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. I also volunteer with a Milwaukee homeless sanctuary, Repairers of the Breach, as chair of the Communications and Fund Development Committee.
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7 Responses to Writing Exercise – “Heart in a Box”

  1. I can imagine that scene with the mad lady. The story oozes discomfort. I did want to know more about the heart in a box, and to see the character grow or change.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for those insights! I’ll keep them in mind for revising this exercise into a story. The truth is, I had no idea what exactly the Heart in a Box should be. Something that a florist would prepare, something that had some kind of “heart” connection. Gotta keep thinking on it!😀


  2. mworfolk says:

    Oh I really want to know what the Heart in a Box is! But I actually think the story is better for not telling us…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sally Cissna says:

    Oh, you leave us wanting more. Great imagery. Would be a great way to introduce the topography and set the scene as well as introduce the mystery of the heart in the box. But, it can’t stop here…then what happens.

    Liked by 1 person

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