Today a lovely, dense jewel of an essay by Abby Frucht, old friend, colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts, wise teacher, mistress of the sentence, as in, my goodness LOOK at these sentences, how they surge forward in phrases, surging and then curling back, twisting and slyly turning the tables, subverting expectation, surprising the reader (maybe the writer, too — it must be fun to write like this; Abby makes the sentence itself a journey, adventure, story). I love the little touches: the little girl who ENJOYS staying behind, weeping at the curb, pretending to be friendless, sisterless and alone, and I ENJOY IT EVEN MORE that the people who drive by know that she enjoys pretending to be friendless and alone. Funny and dense with detail: the sister who is now a judge who forgets to use the gavel, the inserted story of the clubfoot woman whose family was massacred on a boat while she slept, and, of course, at the centre, the abominable snowman that the judge-sister still claims to have seen all those years before.
How does Abby invent these things? She wrote me:
“Abominable” is one of a cycle of essays in progress arising from an assortment of notes such as:
On Harriet Lane, when the younger sister and the older sister were four and five, they often trudged past the margins of the modest neighborhood to reach the potato fields in search of stink bugs, box turtles, and the abominable snowman that liked to hide behind the scrappy trees bordering the fields amid worthless allotments of broken fencing, where blackbirds lived. The sisters and the other kids all carried jelly jars with holes drilled into the lids by the sisters’ dad, since the other dads wouldn’t, and though the brown, hinged stink bugs were marvelous to own, because they stank so bad when you opened the jar and stuck your nose in it and screamed and ran away from it but always came back for another sniff, the best part of the hunt was to sink to your knees and sift through the heavier globules of dirt, the soft manure marbles to be rolled to and fro then crushed between your fingers. The younger sister never saw the abominable snowman, since instead of trekking out to the potato fields with the other kids that day, she stayed behind to sit on the curbside and cry, pretending to be a lonely girl who had no friends, not even a sister, which was her favorite thing to do before she learned how to read. Her skinny legs in their ankle socks sticking straight into the road, she enjoyed glancing up from the smear of her crying to watch the cars swing so close as to ruffle her hair, the mothers on their way home from grocery shopping and the milk truck driver and the mail truck driver and sometimes a father or somebody’s babysitter all seeing her crying there on the curbside but just driving by, since they knew it was something she liked to do. But soon the other kids rushed back, their freckles squared by enthusiasm, the unidentifiable pigment of her sister’s eyes, green or brown, no one could say, incandescent with fear and satisfaction. We saw it we saw the abominable snowman it saw us it tried to catch us it chased us it wanted to eat us, they yelled, not including the one other girl who had stayed behind that day, not because she chose to but because her mother, who was ahead of her time, knew in some future lobe of her brain that there would come a day when mothers forbade their children trekking past the safety of the neighborhood into the reek of the muddy fields. The other girl wasn’t even permitted to touch a turtle. She was allowed only to gape at one from no less than three feet away, by which time the legs and the eyes and the funny, grinning beak might not poke into view again. When the girl who liked to sit on the curbside and cry grew up, she met a young woman who had about her the same, authentic, pitiable loneliness as the girl who was forbidden to touch a turtle. This young woman had a terrible history. Everyone knew it. Plus there was nothing appealing about her, since even in her youthful twenties she wasn’t pretty, and she had a genuine clubfoot, this in the middle of the 1980s, for which she walked with a cane and lopsided shoes. When she was a girl, her parents were murdered on the family boat, a pleasure boat or else a boat with some other reason for being in the middle of the sea that night. The girl lay asleep in the outermost v of the V-berth under damp woolen blankets. Another child, a sibling, slept on the moldering bench that went with the foldout dinner table, but the sibling too was tied up and thrown overboard to drown, leaving only the girl with the clubfoot, who as a young woman seemed determined to tell this story to everyone she met, lest the details of her tragedy neglect to crop up by themselves or via the insinuations of other guests at the dinner party, who already knew them all anyway. The story was like the lopsided shoes, since telling it meant she was at least still standing, if unevenly, and though her eyes too were crooked, one bigger or maybe just sadder than the other, she at least had a long distance boyfriend, which made sense since no one ever met him, and then one day she went there and never came back. When the girl who liked to sit on the curbside and cry before she learned how to read turned fifty six, she phoned the older sister to ask if it was true she had seen the abominable snowman or had she only been toying with the younger sister, like playing her as if she were a xylophone by banging the wooden mallet on the crown of her head or hiding her dirty socks in the babysitter’s pocketbook.
“No, I really did see it,” the older sister replied. She’s a District Court Judge now. She needs to be custom-fitted for robes but she never bangs the gavel, she always forgets. “It was huge with yellow fur. The other kids saw it too, we all did except you. Why are you asking? Writing a story?”
“Essay,” she answered, and sat a moment on the couch, her legs sticking straight in front of her. Her legs resemble the dad’s, too skinny, with embarrassing socks. Before being named judge by the governor of New Mexico, the older sister had considered retiring as a family attorney after twenty-six years in order to help look after her grandchildren, a prospect that had made the younger sister, the one who liked to sit crying and still cries all the time, like in the shower or while riding her bike to the YMCA or at her writing desk or reading novels in bed or fetching orange juice from the kitchen, feel not so bad about weeping, sobbing, crying, wailing, etc. and being gloomy, weary, melancholy, abject, dejected, dispirited, disconsolate, bleak, doleful, disheartened, downhearted and sad. But the older sister’s new judgeship — her robes, her bailiff (a handsome Iraqi war veteran), her fundraising activities, her advocacy of Restorative Justice as a tool in the maintenance of healthy children, her support by a bi-partisan judicial nominating commission moved by her courtroom’s attentiveness to the needs of children, her speeches to unions concerning heroin use among children, her meetings with attorneys general about the law as it pertains to the wellbeing of children, her write-ups in newspapers, her delight in getting up each morning to join her assistant in reviewing the docket in the spacious office suite with the artworks, the expansive but somehow womanly desk, her high heeled pumps, her continued blondeness – makes the sister on the couch feel all the more feckless, pointless, trifling, hollow, ineffectual, vapid, and good-for-nothing, her dented clogs mocking her unworldliness, the only impact she has on other living creatures being on the family dogs, who steal the breads she bakes from off the counter before her eyes and race away to eat them. To be sure, sometimes she cries over things that matter, like for the man calling out from his tomb beneath the rubble of the factory in Bangladesh and the girl with the clubfoot and whole slaughtered families of African elephants and kids with no supper and the parents of that high school valedictorian who vanished off the hiking trail in Ecuador, but what good does it do? Not to mention that on other days she cries for no reason. And though she fears she should find this a monstrous, yellow thing, one that might swallow her up and consume her, she’s okay with her boyfriend only rarely stopping by to put a hand on the curve of her back and offer, “Hon, what’s wrong, Hon?” or, “Hon, pull yourself together, Hon, you’re not two years old, Hon,” after which she dries her tears and starts typing again in the normal way and looking up synonyms. Another thing she asks her sister is: Do you remember the bullet? That bullet a kid chased us with? It wasn’t a bullet, it was made of glass, it had a filament in it, it was probably only a light bulb but we screamed and ran away from him until one of the dads, not ours because he never hit things, smacked him?
“No,” says the judge.
Just no, as if a simple affirmation of the negative might be all that is needed to solve the problem.