Monday, May 19, 2014

My First Time: Abby Frucht

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is novelist and short-story writer Abby Frucht.  Her new collection of stories, The Bell at the End of a Rope, is available from Narrative Library.  Her first collection, Fruit of the Month (University of Iowa Press), won the Iowa Short Fiction Prize for 1987, and was followed by five novels, including Snap (Ticknor & Fields), Licorice (Graywolf), Are You Mine? (Grove), Life Before Death (Scribner), and Polly’s Ghost (Scribner).  Abby is the recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, a New Voices Award from Quality Paperback Book Club, and several citations for notable books from The New York Times.  Lately she is writing essays about confusion/certainty and/or certainty/confusion; this isn't one of them, but you can find one here at Numero Cinq magazine.  She has taught for nearly twenty years at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and lives in Wisconsin.

To Be:
My First Review

The summer I was nine, my first notebook of poems was set upon by Mohicans.  The Mohicans were a boys’ group at Hilltop Day Camp, where I was an Oriole, and I must have left the notebook on a bench in crafts that day, or in a cubby outside swimming.  I had brought it to camp for show and tell.  All the poems rhymed, some told stories and some did not, and most of them came with crayon drawings depicting their subjects: a weeping willow tree for one, a girl on stilts for the next, a rooster stealing a chicken pot pie.  For the spiral, ruled notebook I’d made a cover of pink construction paper showing a drawing of an apple and the words, A Child’s Garden of Verses by Abby Frucht, but although it was one of my most treasured possessions, I wouldn’t have been thinking about it while I was at swimming.  I would have been thinking about holding my breath underwater the length of the pool, treading water fifteen minutes, and doing jackknifes off the high board.  Also, swimming at camp was a tormented affair, because of the kid with the glandular disorder that made him unable to swallow his own saliva.  Saliva dangled in long threads from both sides of his mouth, threads that swung back and forth and became entangled only to spin back apart from each other like the twisted-up strings in a game of Cat’s Cradle.  We were always on the lookout for loose gobs and tendrils drifting around on top of the water, not wanting to catch one between our fingers or worse, scoop it into our mouths.  There’s a chance I’d left the notebook propped against the fence near the water fountain or down the trail at horseback riding, but I wasn’t keeping an eye open for it.

One of the camp employees, Mister Walter in maintenance, had a prosthetic hand.  It was 1965, and the hand resembled a dishwashing glove pulled tight over a puppet’s stiff fingers.  Mister Walter used to hang out in the girls’ locker room chatting with our counselor, Regina, as we dressed and undressed, watching over us girls as we traded our camp boots for flip flops, reached for bathing caps marked with our names near clusters of anemones, toweled our butts dry and lost our balance climbing back into our day-of-the-week panties, the wet floor of the locker room going wobbly underneath us.

“Toby or not Toby,” Mister Walter would say, wagging the pink plastic hand at Toby, one of the youngest Orioles, in whom he took an apparent special interest.  I liked Toby, too.  She had a changeable face.  One minute she’d be turning beet red with laughter but in the next she’d be swollen with unhappiness, her thick bangs shielding damp eyes from view.  Mister Walter liked to lead Toby past the corner toward the sinks and tell her things that wouldn’t interest us, and once, since Regina didn’t want to, he led her into a stall to clean her up after she soiled her panties.  Of all the girls, Toby was the one most likely to win his permission to play on the jalopy, an old car left to rust in a weedy field.  A foot path led there through scraggly Queen Anne’s Lace where grasshoppers lived.  The whole floor of the car was gone.  Tall grass bristled where the back seat had been, and fallen maple pips made eddies along the dashboard.  The driver’s seat, atilt, unstuffed, could still be balanced on in order to reach the steering wheel, and if you slid down and rammed the pedals with your feet, they sent up a sneezy, glittery gust of dead beetle shells.  When Toby asked if she could take me with her to the jalopy that day, Mister Walters approved with a wave of the hand.  She and I were approaching the field along a stretch of weedy blacktop when we stumbled upon the remains of my poems, which I hadn’t even realized were missing yet.

It was a portion of the cover I first recognized--the stem of the apple holding just one leaf--and then the stretched spiral binding with some triangles of paper still attached.  The rest of the book lay scattered around, a stanza here, a comma there, some words torn sideways, others on the diagonal, some all the way down.  I screamed and cried.  A few Mohicans eating ice creams laughed out loud as I lunged at my poems, but Toby walked without me into the field.  She must have been eager to have the car to herself, a crew of dragonflies circling by as she swiveled the sun-warmed radio dial to a station that would never come on again.  Then she’d peel apart the wings of one of the maple pips and stick it on her nose.

After dinner that day when I was done clearing dishes, the counselor in charge of The Mohicans, whose name was Pete and who happened to be going steady with Carol, my babysitter, showed up at our house with Carol and the gift of a bottle of bubble bath, his apology to me for having my notebook ruined.  The three of us lay on our backs on the lawn near a dogwood tree, tracing outlines of clouds, naming their shapes.  I’d never played this game before.  I found it romantic, the grass soft and cool, the sky turning slowly more violet the longer we lay.  Pete’s engraved ID bracelet slid toward Carol’s elbow whenever she raised her arm to point, then needed readjustment to make his name face upright, once she brought her arm down.

I picked out a sheep, Pete found a Z, and Carol a unicycle.  Different from most games, this one seemed designed to induce conversation about things unrelated to it, the sort of talk that, at nine, I wasn’t used to being part of, but when Pete and Carol told me how proud they were to find me no longer crying over my notebook, I answered without stopping to think about it that it didn’t really matter.  I understood this to be true.  In one of the poems was a boy named Johnny who liked to grip spent light bulbs between his teeth and chase scared kids past storm sewers.  I’d drawn a picture of him wearing large, clumsy shoes, to rhyme with fuse, and it was funny, now that the picture was ruined, that he should seem independent of it, released from the sheet of ruled paper that until that afternoon had framed the parameters of his existence.  Because he wasn't flesh and blood, it made no difference what happened to the paper he was written on.  He was no more gone, now, than he'd been there, before.  Either way he was fine, his hair sticking straight out, his eyes aglitter with private, unknowable schemes, not giving a crap if I saved him or not.

I stared up at the faintest beginning of stars and began to absorb, not in words but simply by lying there breathing, this new perspective.  Sometimes I think I’m absorbing it still: a story comes back unloved in the mail, and soon, humbled, I’ll remember Carol asking, “How come it doesn’t matter?  Do you remember the words?  Will you write them again?”  I shrugged.  Nothing bad would ever happen to me as a result of my book being stomped on, neglected, ignored, peed on, spat on, or shunned, that couldn’t be repaired by a peaceful hour’s sojourn under a dogwood tree.  Even harm wouldn’t harm me.  I told Carol and Pete I would get another notebook and write other poems.

“Maybe ones that don’t rhyme,” Pete suggested.

I asked Carol if we could stay there another half-hour, after dark, until bath-time.  I loved lying beside her and the handsome, good-hearted, deep-voiced Pete.  It gave me an early, quasi-sexual thrill, the idea of them side by side on their backs on moist grass within reach of each other.  Next day I got a new spiral-bound notebook and wrote more rhymed poems.  I don’t care what I did with that notebook but I do wish I knew what happened to Toby.  I have even tried looking for her on Facebook.  Probably she’s a racecar driver, a pilot, an astronaut, a train engineer, a ship’s captain, a jockey, a long jumper, or maybe all those things combined.  Maybe she runs marathons, her legs bare among thistles, a scrap of paper in her wake with something written on it that has nothing on earth to do with her.

No comments:

Post a Comment