A few days ago, my brother threw a vintage typewriter from the second floor window of the public library. The window a circular feat of glass-engineering, stained green and bubbled-out like a submarine porthole. The typewriter an indulgent gift from our parents, a rusted antique that had been meant as a decoration. My brother, however, could not be convinced not to loudly pound on the stuck keys.
When finally he could not deal with the defunct device any longer, he flung it through the window. Among falling shards of glass, the typewriter plummeted, its black metal pieces flying apart upon impact. The night the police escorted him home and dumped the remains of the relic on our front lawn, he collected the pieces and buried them in the back yard.
When he had dug a hole at least three feet deep next to where Skippy had been buried (he had collided with an ice cream truck), I shuffled out beside him and dumped the typewriter into the abyss. We kicked and shoveled dirt onto its black veneer, patted down the earth, and then as if my brother had buried his writerly ambitions, he retreated to his room.
My older brother, he was only seventeen, but prone to outbursts of incredible self-doubt during which he would rant about failure, about never being published, and that no one would ever accept his gift of genius and storytelling craftsmanship. I secretly harbored the notion he wrote like a mutant conglomerate of Stephanie Meyer and R.L. Stine, but I never voice this opinion. My parents naturally nursed his ambitions, deluding him with the promise of literary DNA.
Despite his dramatic funeral metaphor, I suspected he would be pitching his newest novel to me by the end of the week.
The Snyders– my family– were a strange folk who loved most of all to read and write. My dad– Carl Snyder or Papa Snyder– he was a literary critic and scholar at the local university, and he published books on books, on the theory of writing books, but he had never written a book himself. Despite this, we and the literary community treated him as a book expert. He looked regal as a gentrified sailor, his head a plume of white, his beard a snow-capped fringe he neatly trimmed every morning with a tiny electric razor.
When I was young, I often watched him trim his beard and wondered why he was so old, why his hair was white and my mother’s was brown. Brown naturally, before she starting having to dye it. When I turned seven, I learned my father was much older than my mother, that my older sister Agatha had a different mother than I. That no one ever talked about that openly or ever discussed the details of the couple’s demise deeply disturbed me. It occurred more than once that perhaps my sister had been adopted or dropped on the doorstep by grumpy aliens.
This concerned me at first, since my mother often commented that she loved Agatha’s name (a tribute to Agatha Christie, a great female mystery writer). My mother adored female writers with grit because she wrote a bestselling crime series.
The fact that my mother had published and my father had not– this did not escape the attention of my brother, who had begun the process of cataloging our lives in a journal. A black leather journal he kept hidden in the top of his closet next to his stash of booze and marijuana– like I wasn’t going to look in such an obvious place.
A gritty, but optimistic professional detective starred in my mother’s hit series. At first, the books had focused on the detective’s personal life, marrying her to a cute forensic scientist, then impregnating her with a new plot twist. Around the time I had been born, however, my mother found her voice and began writing the series in a darker direction. In the fifth sequel, the detective lost her child in a car accident caused by a sadistic criminal. By the end of the novel, her husband had even killed himself out of grief.
I’m not sure what happened in my mother’s life that forced her hand to execute such a thematic darkening, but the critics consumed the work like doves nip up Popcorn. Once she began writing the detective as more desperate, more outlandishly existential, the more popular her series became until she became a figurehead in the dark crime genre, the best-selling woman by far.
One evening, when my father was drunk, he taunted my mother that he might review her latest novel in The New Yorker, that the review would deflate her career and bring her to ruin. He had the power, he claimed, belching and nearly barfing. She replied calmly by calling his bluff, then Googling her own name and then my father’s. This I knew through their animated dialogue about the importance of “hits” or “reviews.”
When I turned thirteen, I began reading my mother’s series, but though I finished every one, all 28, I only continued out of respect for her. The drama dragged on for awfully long, creating repetitive sequels in which always crimes occurred so horrendous, I could not exactly imagine them on my own. Once presented, however, even the most grisly scene seemed trite, perhaps because violent insanity became the norm. At least I read her works; two years later, my father’s scholarly work remained dusty on my shelf.
After my sister moved out, she published a poem about my mother and father which compared them to angry flies debating whose shit tasted better. The poetry she published before going to a college in California, those verses were dark, very prose-like, and jammed with eccentric metaphors that just barely made sense. At college, she made the transition of talking deeply about her own life to talking deeply about other peoples’ lives.
Once poetry critics discovered her literary lineage, they began heralding her as the “Confession Poet of the Literary Life” which I thought was bullshit since she lied outrageously. Now she remained only a depressing scribe, having reconnected with my parents during those two years, like a poser Sylvia Path devotee writing sonnets in her own blood. What a totally morbid bitch, moping around and comparing everything to the fucking “abyss.”
Michael at least– my older brother– he had the decency to suck genuinely and not be praised for it. If even Michael could be published through his parental connections, I would certainly lose all optimism for the quality taste of the publishing world. Maybe at the age of thirty, he’d finally produce some picture book under a corny pen name.
Imagine the weirdest kid you knew, the one who makes up lies about who he is, throws typewriters out windows after they don’t work despite their initially futile condition, or cuts French fries with a knife and fork. If you know someone like that, you probably have met my brother.
And me? The youngest of the Snyder clan? I don’t really write, not really– I mean, I’m writing this, but I don’t write fiction. Or poetry like my sister. Or even criticism like my father. Like every kid without an interesting story and didn’t have the imagination to come up with one, I folded and decided to write a memoir.
Father stumbled through the front door, a pile of boxes under his chin, straining against his veined hands. He dumped the stack at the bottom of the stairs, gasped once dramatically, and called, “Get your arses down here. Your sister’s home.”
My brother scrambled downstairs first, scratching his bum and yawning. I followed, rubbing my eyeballs, figuring it was a mental illness to get up before ten on a Saturday. Course then I remembered Agatha came home today, hauling home from college more clothes than I owned in total. We lugged her suitcases and boxes and hampers brimming with underwear to the laundry room and loaded them straight into the washer, while Agatha blabbed loudly through the wall how difficult her final exams had been. And we hadn’t even finished school yet, looking toward another grueling week of school before winter break began.
Agatha hovered in the hallway. “Michael, I heard you broke your new typewriter. You know, I might write a poem about you. A crushed, young artist struggles to find himself and in an effort of desperate expression, breaks a fucking window with a fucking typewriter.”
“Stop that talk. Michael’s perfectly fine, isn’t that right?” My father did not wait for a reply. “And Agatha, don’t use language around Jackson. He’s impressionable.”
I wanted to speak up, but Agatha broke in. “He’s fifteen– I hope he knows what “fuck” means. Furthermore, I believe I use language any time I talk at all. Would you prefer if I spoke French?”
She could, she claimed, but not understanding or speaking French myself, I could not validate her fluency. Father blew her question off with a wave of his hand, then stormed into the den. “Damn it, Georgina, you can’t even say hello to Agatha when she comes home?”
“I know she doesn’t want to talk to me, Dad. She’s angry.”
“Yes, I am,” hissed mum’s voice through the wall. “That poem you wrote was very inappropriate, Agatha. The imagery, that was barbaric and untrue.”
“Damn it, the murder scene was a metaphor, Georgina. Anyways, I was just being ironic.”
Generally, I tried to avoid squabbles, but as research for my memoir, I decided to stick around, observe the events. Michael shook his head and tromped up stairs, his head down. Once he told me that he hated Agatha, that she taunted him and hated him because his mother was still alive and hers was dead.
Mum and Agatha were having a tiff again because she had recently published a poem in Harper’s about a metaphorical literary critic whose metaphorical wife died in a metaphorical car accident, and then he met a metaphorical new girlfriend. At the end of the poem, the plot unfolded to reveal the fiancé had designed the car crash as an elaborate scheme to marry a famous literary critic, she being a famous children’s novelist.
Agatha swore the poem did not depict mum because naturally my mum had killed no one and wrote not children’s books, but crime fiction. But I pointed out that her occupation, that was probably a metaphor as well. The problem with poetry, I felt, was you could never tell what was real, what was not. If you tell me, your heart is a glacier or a volcano or a wooden coffin, I begin thinking you should seek medical attention.
That night, we had a dinner, and while Agatha talked about her grades with my parents (they were concerned why she missed every biology class but no sessions of Yoga), I snuck upstairs to loot my sister’s bags. Not in a creepy way, not really, but once she got settled in, she would hide her writing, her poetry. She only let people read published work, polished lines stark and bleak, but some of the verse in her doodle-filled notebooks were riotously funny.
Not that we usually shared writing, writers being entirely secretive creatures. Mum refused to show even Dad whatever novel she had been working on for the past few months.
I pushed open the door, tiptoeing across floorboards that threatened to shriek, thumbing through the spines of the notebooks laying on her bed. Opening the first, I leaned against her dresser and read the scribbled lines in the dark:
As I stare into the abyss, feeling my mind sink below the surface of the slithering sea
Agatha always mentioned the fucking abyss, as if she owned a luxury vacation home there.
I see myself staring back at me, a dark reflection
Closing the book, I sighed and muttered, “Well, that’s fucking boring.” I reached for her dresser, gingerly rearranging trinkets laid there. I pulled a crisp letter from the pile to read it and a sparkling ring toppled out– it must have been nestled inside the crease. The ring bounced and rolled into a pile of clothes on the floor. Abandoning the letter, I scrambled after the ring, my body drawing murderous screams from ancient floorboards. Agatha, Agatha would hear, would come running, I thought, as I tore through the dirty clothing to find the ring. Such a beautiful ring, not anything like Agatha might have worn. Shiny as a magpie’s ambitions, as expensive as an engagement ring.
Like an engagement ring. I paused.
Wrenching a warped bra from the pile of shirts, I watched the ring fly into the air. Like a swooshing basketball arcing as the seconds counted down. And I like a wide receiver racing to catch the ball as it plummeted to earth in meteorite-fashion. Plink, the ring fell onto the floor vent, rolled to the left, and fell into the darkness.
Nothing left to do but to flee the scene. I skirted out the door and managed to hop into my own bed as Agatha tromped up the stairs, screaming something back at mum like, “You haven’t written anything good in two years.”
My teeth chattering, I began to write longhand something about the abyss, about sisters, about how we lie to ourselves when we write, how we trick even our own memories of events we never understood.