Abstention

by Louisa Wolf

After the marathon crowds disperse, she crosses a Brooklyn waterway—a river or a lagoon—and buys a new mug from a crabby artisan. She encases it in bubble wrap and pads it in a thick blue sweater for the jostling flight from Kennedy to O’Hare. She washes it by hand and dries it with a soft linen cloth before stowing it at the back of the top shelf, out of reach, where no child can threaten it with slippery hot cocoa hands. Where no coffee drinker might find and lose it in the den or on the deck, absorbed in the Sunday paper.

She chooses the Kelly green silk blouse at J. Crew. It flatters her eyes and shape. The arms billow and drape, caressing her skin like woven lotion. It’s not on sale but she indulges. She pictures it with her favorite blazer, smart black slacks, pearls. She buttons it onto a foam-topped hanger in her closet, between pieces of a perfect ensemble. Mornings, her hands float in their direction until she thinks of lemon juice, salad dressing, toothpaste. The rough edge of her desk snagging, rain splotching. The fabric sways; the tag dangles.

She collects ideas on snippets of paper, in audio notes, emails, voice recognition memos. Cryptic phrases on envelopes, post-its and deposit slips: The singing mailman. A hot sauce revolution. Gingerbread snow cones. Once potent cues, now obscure clues. She abstains, waiting out her husband. She will outlast his googling and suspicion of the men in her stories. She hides her future at the back of the top cupboard, never removing the tag, never drinking deeply, never admiring the swirling silk in her reflection.

Louisa Wolf’s short work has appeared in places such as Agni, MAKE Literary Magazine and Pequin. She has her MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars.

At abstention’s root is restraint. In writing compressed fiction, what do you find yourself abstaining from? What do you see as the form’s restraints? And how do you both work within those and fight against them? In all writing, long or short, I try to be concise. But there are other constraints in compressed fiction which I conform to, sometimes unconsciously. Here I—perhaps most writers—limit the number of scenes, characters and settings. I try to refrain from moving around in time. I abstain from too much back story. I try to zero in on a powerful moment or idea or metaphor. In truth, I find these constraints liberating. I have permission to go deep instead of wide. The challenge is to still honor an arc, if not a plot. To recognize and convey that the scene or scenes are cross-sections of the hero’s life and to imagine more than is explored on the page. (I say ‘hero’ because it is more romantic than protagonist.) I hope to salute or give clues to the before and the after, so that the hero or heroine doesn’t appear to begin and end in the moment or moments of the story. When I find myself exceeding the boundaries of place, people and scenes, I can always start a new short-short. A new chapter, as it were, for the heroine.

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