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How to Do a Dead Bug



How to Do a Dead Bug


In a crisis the true facts are whatever other people say they are.

—Don DeLillo

When I was 18, a freshman in college, I met my first Sensitive New Age Guy. He was famous for being Beat, for broadcasting Zen, for joining bongo drum circles in forest clearings, and for hanging around now and then with Jack Kerouac. He was our Visiting Poet. He wore his Birkenstock sandals with mismatched socks. He’d won a Pulitzer Prize, and might yet be able to rise unassisted out of Sukhasana Yoga pose. I’d never sat face to face with such a personage before, and all his marks of distinction coalesced in my eyes as if exulting in the shabbiness of the closed little room in which I and my poems, which had been slipped into his mailbox a day or two earlier, were granted a ten-minute “audience.” There were two wooden chairs, no desks, no table. Blinds down in the window, door firmly closed (they still did that, then), there seemed to exist no universe beyond, no frisbee airborne in the quad, not so much as the thump of a Xerox machine wafting toward us through the stairways, and no dog named Abby who I often heard being ordered to sit and stay. Years later, I would be given a jewelry armoire in which each velvety bench, pillow, and cubby was of strict, illustrious purpose, and it was as if inside one of those sealed, dim chambers, pen tightly in hand, since it seemed only right that I carry an implement of my avocation, that I waited to learn what my purpose might be.

But the Visiting Poet held his own pen, too, and in the margins of one of his own poems in progress was busy making some last-minute annotations. This seemed to me to be his due, and as if I had caught him in the middle of brunch, I sat quietly by until at last he met my eye and with a twinkle in the lenses of his wire-rimmed glasses, let me know I couldn’t write. He said this not with apology but as if it were a cross between The Fifth Major Truth and a scolding by Grandpa. Not the worst of all chauvinist prigs, I’ll concede, he seemed affronted by the wrongs my little handful of words and lines had done him, their very innocence, their youthfulness, rebuking him. The Pretty Child Can’t Write, She Shouldn’t, She Mustn’t, She Dare Not, She Will Not, The Skinny Co-ed Won’t Write, he seemed to pledge to himself as he drew forth my packet of fledgling verse and gave it a final, sick-at-heart look before handing it over. I don’t remember very much about those poems. I remember too much wind in too much hair, and someone telling me correctly in workshop one day that they included too much light. Particles, waves, light in the doorway, light in the sky, light on faces, arms, and eyes and in a glint within the darkness of open mouths, light on lakes and rain puddles, ceilings and stairs, moonlight, starlight, sunlight, swamp light. Even now I barely hesitate. If there’s a lamp in a draft of a story I’m writing, I’ll shut it off or delete it, the way when cooking I find myself skipping the salt, slashing all fats, and halving the sugars.

Except She Does Write, She Does, I reminded myself, and when I argued, “But the professor likes my poems. He accepted me in Workshop,” the Visiting Poet nodded and answered, “Your professor is an awfully kind-hearted man.”

I should have told him that my dad was Kerouac’s friend, the painter Stanley Twardowicz’s, gastroenterologist, who accepted all payment for Stanley’s medical bills in the artist’s vast paintings in lieu of cash, but instead I took my leave. In those days I wasn’t wearing, yet, the maxi skirts I’d favor when I was in my twenties, but my ankles felt primed for the kiss of those hems as I bypassed the trio of coffee samovars in the lounge I liked to frequent and stopped instead at the dorm room of some hapless engineering student, whose books fell off the bed when he opened his door. Decades later, my son will confess to me one evening as we drink Margaritas that he and his wife laugh out loud when my writings veer into sex instead of excavating, God forbid, plot points or something, and after a moment of pained indignation, I’ll bite into my lime wedge, suck the julep from the sour, and decide I agree. Too much diversionary screwing, like with the engineering student, goes on in my writing, even more than during thankfully bygone junctures in my personal history.

“I’ll take that under advisement,” I promise Jess, an attorney, who raises his glass. My other son fretted, when they were boys still living at home with me, “I refuse to earn my living all day at a typewriter making up ways of putting made-up people’s made-up antics into made-up stories all day long,” to which I swore he wouldn’t need to. I was cooking, I imagine. You need to hear him out, capaciously. I laid the wooden spoon down atop the rim of the pot to keep some lemony broth from boiling over, and waited for what more he hoped to divulge. “I don’t want to stand for something. I refuse to be a prop,” he’d later warn me as a teenager, to which I made a commitment to solicit his veto over any brood I wrote.

If it’s true, as Diana Goetsch describes in This Body I Wore, that something great mentors do is “give you your life,” than my sons are still gifting me mine all over. But though I didn’t know it yet, when I was eighteen, so did my dismissal by that Visiting Poet. It didn’t forsake me, although I wouldn’t put it past him to take satisfaction in supposing it did. Rather, I walked out of there chewing on a scrap of the mettle I’d need for how intrepidly I’d slam into the next wrong word, the next go-nowhere opening. My preparation for failure tastes nearly the same, decades since then, as the one for success; it has a sweet, jangly, caffeinated flavor that settles only rarely, line upon line, book upon book. But when it settles it settles like milk, like comfort food.

Oh, too, I never did read a single one of his poems.

And oh, too, it wasn’t only Sukhasana, the yoga pose lurking in the Visiting Poet’s straight-back chair. It was Dead Bug Pose. How to Do a Dead Bug will be the name of this screed, I say to myself.

Fall heavy.

Add resistance.

Don’t look forward.

Employ repetition.

Complete the movement with control.

Avoid performing this exercise if it gives you pain.


The next visiting writer paid a call in my kitchen. My then-husband was the dean who’d secured her appointment. To be Visiting Writer sounds not so lofty as being Visiting Poet, and in her jeans and jean jacket she mocked a self-important profile until I realized that the books she held so grandly forth to offer me were books I had written. She seemed to mean for me to sign them, but I could find no working pen in the pen mug with the picture of the fornicating rabbits, nor even wedged for notetaking in my well-thumbed Moosewood cookbook or in the cookbook from my mom that held a recipe even for boiling water. Our Formica-clad kitchen resembled a laboratory. Whole hypotheses might be tested, whole theories disproven within view of the door overlooking the swing set, still unassembled, that lay in parts on the ground.

“How ’bout pencil,” I wondered?

“Ink lasts longer,” she shrugged, “but pencil can last for a hundred years.”

I signed the books standing up, and we continued to stand while drinking our coffees. Jess, whom I had already driven to daycare that morning, had just an hour before saved the house from burning down, so we talked about him screeching, wordless, from his highchair at something I had finally swiveled backwards to discover were flames consuming the toaster oven. I’d grabbed two mitts from a drawer and launched the toaster outside, past some sturdy, bright-eyed tulips that watched the flames snuff out amid a smell of charred cinnamon. After turning from the window, my visitor and I spoke mainly of money. Book advances, grants, fellowships, coupon clippings. Bylines, royalties, prize money, sticker shock, Sunday papers, weekly specials, and a Buffalo Nickel she found pressed into her palm after testing Anjous for ripeness at Sentry.

“I’m always grateful to be able to make my life as a writer,” I enthused, to which she held an irked sip of cooled-over coffee before alleging, “Me too, but you have it easy. You don’t need to have a job.”

The recipe for boiled water starts out advising a pot with a lid, to trap the heat inside. My guest was famous for being a radical feminist, but of all of the people who set foot in my study, down the hall and past the playroom around the corner from the scorch marks left behind by the toaster oven, she was first, I noticed, in not considering my babies, the timeclock I pushed as mother to my children. I didn’t show my astonishment. Instead, I kept on the lid, and I can still feel the heat. She was bigger than I am, trailblazer, sage, far more important. I have to say that she is dead, now. I’ve read all her obituaries, which leave me ever more vexed by her need to point out I’d neither scrabbled nor toiled, drudged, slogged, missed supper, lost heart. Yes, I did fall through a trap door once while hauling trays of steaming goblets past the bar in a restaurant where I was dishwasher, and I was glad to be stationed at a picnic bench one summer, peering this way and that at the hinge teeth of bivalves, sexing clams for an archeologist. Work is good for you even if you’re married to the dean, which I am not, any longer, and it was at my divorce, when the kids were in grade school, I got an actual job at an actual Master of Fine Arts in Writing program and started teaching in earnest. I stayed twenty-five years. Salary aside (no healthcare included), I don’t begrudge my own notion she was one of the reasons. She didn’t mean to be, I’m sure, but as Ling Ma tells us in Bliss Montage, to be beheld by a person “actualizes” you. If I’ve no wish to be considered a Neglected Minor Master, like the painter Stanley Twardowicz, nor do I hanker, truth be told, to be ever in the least bit legendary. In the far half of my sixties, my eyes laboring, smarting, I hope only to inhabit this humble task called writing the way the boiled potatoes in mom’s old cookbook reside in their skins. I am not in a hurry, the older I get. If I have fewer years left than I had before, then I have less time to lose.

So when I sit at my keyboard, it is with equal measure regard and rebuke of my long-ago mentor letting me know how people think about you when you’re a mom and a writer. Do I forgive her? Yes and no. And when I too am gone, I’ll tell her so. Side by side, we’ll take a seat on those swings on that swing set, our bare toes skimming the planet beneath, and when we sign each other’s title pages, our names will be invisible, our pens holding no ink.


“So I hear you’re not much for the kitchen, yourself,” says the wedding dressmaker seated across from me at my friend L’s dinner table. L is famous for her lavishly impeccable dinner parties, the shanks and terrines, yolks and beurre blancs, kettles and creams. You always know what you’ll get when you have dinner at L’s. Fatter, that is, and a fourth Alexander, and maybe too a new friend, someone L met in a waiting room somewhere, who seems to have known L longer than you have because of calling L’s cats by the names of their forebears, since L is older than God as well as being more benevolent, “which isn’t hard,” L claims, disapproving of the hardships He foists onto the backs of too many people. I should mention that the wedding dressmaker not long ago suffered a terrible loss, one I can’t imagine bearing, and I understand at once that when she tells me L told her I can’t cook—“Sure, I like a few of her short stories, too,” I imagine L warning, “but if she ever invites you over for supper, run the other way”—it is only a thing that props her upright at the table as if over the hum of a sewing machine, eating, working, and keeping on breathing. L is out of sight at her new French range, from where a drumming of spoons amid a commotion of whisks, knives, funnels, and thermometers never stops her chiming in, only now there comes a beat of chagrined-sounding silence as even L’s first husband, in his urn atop the mantle, braces himself against my reply.

  Except I’m not talking. Part of me is too miffed, and another part sad. Not wishing to cause the dressmaker further dismay, I concentrate a moment on scraping from my dinner roll the slabs of butter L smeared there, recalling one of L’s parties a decade ago at which I’d arrived with a platter of chips and some Strawberry Lime Jalapeno salsa, the recipe for which I’d been waiting to follow until strawberry season knowing all along that L would reject it, knew it even as I minced more red onion than called for and scraped in zest from a second lime. L has a delicate, upturned nose. She didn’t need to turn it up for it to be upturned. And then, I got it. You can’t fuck up a berry, but you can fuck up a salsa.

 “You were going to bring strawberries. I was planning on topping each tart with a berry,” L scolded, drawing me into the reaches of her pantry to unearth there a box holding six iced tarts resembling spools of yellow thread. The tarts were store-bought, I saw, noting with glee the pair of filigreed tongs she’d put aside on a china plate for serving. She raised a finger to her lips. It was to be our secret, her buying her sweets already prepared and passing them off as treats she’d devised, plucked out of the hat of the magic of her cooking. Is L one of my mentors? When I am cheerful in my clogs clomping round in my kitchen, mixing too little sugar into batter with no shortening, or perched at the printer inscribing lies and illusions on sheets of paper as steadfast as cooking parchment, am I practicing L’s art: her stings, my wounds, the salve of deception?

“Oh, but I am. I’m fine in the kitchen,” I finally acknowledge the dressmaker’s query. “I mean I do like cooking. And would you all like to come for supper some evening,” I might at L’s house, next time, venture to add, beckoning here and there around L’s table before reaching across it to not quite meet my interlocutor’s hand?

And they’ll all say yes.

Even L will let slip a guarded yes from behind the kitchen door, the cats’ ears flicking.

And that is my answer.

More by Abby Frucht
Review of her recent work Maids



About the author

Abby Frucht’s Fruit of the Month won the Iowa Short Fiction Award in 1987. She has since published seven books of fiction, a book of poetry, and numerous essays nationwide.

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