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SHJ Issue 7
Spring 2013

The Bell at the End of a Rope
by Abby Frucht

Reviewed by Walter Cummins

Narrative Library
(June 2012)

Cover of The Bell at the End of the Rope, by Abby Frucht

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One of the pleasures of reading an Abby Frucht story in her latest collection, The Bell at the End of a Rope, is the surprise that comes when the actual point of the piece is revealed, a tension subtly prepared for but not disclosed until the end. As a reader you think the issue of the plot is clear as you find yourself immersed in a unique world of quirky characters animated through details so complete and compelling that you have no inclination to look for more; you’re satisfied with the rich invention that appears to advance the drama behind the actions of the characters. But that isn’t really it.

The great majority of short stories establish the issues faced by one or sometimes more characters early on and follow through until the climax. These Abby Frucht stories don’t work that way. The real concern slips in sideways, ultimately there, even though the ongoing happenings seem to be about something else.

It’s not a literary trick played by the author on the reader. Rather it’s the characters who miss the point, obsessed with immediate concerns they assume are their life’s dilemmas, not the more fundamental crises they have failed to recognize.

Take “Erasures,” a story that first appeared in this publication [Issue 2, Fall 2010]. It opens with this sentence: “Only when Sandra is passing through security this morning...does she discover he has finally stolen her wallet.” The “he” isn’t identified as her son till later in the first paragraph. But only when she gets to the airplane’s boarding gate does she realize the boy has also stolen her briefcase and her laptop. It turns out that she is a poet flying to an interview for a teaching position and that the poems she planned to read and the notes for the seminar she is to lead are gone. How to cope without this crucial material appears to be her problem.

One doesn’t have to be a poet or an academic to empathize. But we learn in the same paragraph that Sandra has published the same book of poems three times under three titles from three different presses. Even though they are identical, except for the title, she considers them her three books and hasn’t even started her “fourth,” which she is supposed to read from that evening. To complicate matters further, the son has stolen her eyeglasses. There, in an apparent aside, the reader is told: “She imagines the glasses sightless in a drawer of the dresser in his dad’s big house on Bowen Street, filled with clothes the boy won’t wear. He’s not a bad man, her ex, and she had never meant to hurt him. He simply doesn’t have a clue what clothes to buy.”

Phone calls to her son and her ex go unanswered, but Sandra manages to bluff through her performances by reading from a book by an “up-and-coming poet” discovered in her dorm room. Squinting at the page, she passes off the poems as her own and receives an ovation. For the seminar, she uses the game of erasures, the story’s title, by having students take a paper from their backpacks and delete words and phrases. What’s left is a kind of found poem. Sandra thinks of them as “sly alternatives” to the pages in question.

When she returns home, she goes to her ex’s house on Bowen Street to retrieve her son. She unlocks the door and finds the house empty, barren of furniture, including the dresser with the clothes the boy won’t wear. The only thing left is her laptop with a message on it from her ex: “I DO MEAN TO HURT YOU.”

For many writers, that irony might serve as the last line of the story, the vacant house a twist on all the stealing that has taken place, the word “hurt” a revelation of Sandra’s obtuseness in thinking she has not meant to hurt her husband and son. But Frucht takes that irony a step further, with Sandra staring myopically at the line as if it is a poem: “Even blind she can tell it’s not such a great poem.” In the final sentence she deletes it.

Until the concluding paragraphs, the story appeared to be about a woman overcoming logistical handicaps, but the real issue of the piece is Sandra’s blindness to her own life and all the meaning she has erased.

“Erasures” is symptomatic of the stories in The Bell at the End of a Rope, unsettling because their edge suggests something is very wrong beyond what the characters think is wrong. They are missing the true danger, the dysfunction, madness, death, and even murder that lurk beneath the surface. These revelations and the various ways the stories get to them make this a unique and distinctive collection.


SHJ Issue 7
Spring 2013

Walter Cummins

is the co-publisher of Serving House Books and a faculty member in Fairleigh Dickinson University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program. His most recent short story collection, The Lost Ones, was published in 2012.

Cummins has published more than 100 stories in such magazines as Kansas Quarterly, Other Voices, Crosscurrents, Florida Review, South Carolina Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Virginia Quarterly Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Arabesques, and Confrontation, and on the Internet. He also has published memoirs, essays, articles, and reviews.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury