I Bring Sorrow: And Other Stories of Transgression by Patricia Abbott is a collection of extraordinary, riveting, and thought-provoking stories that explore the dark side of human behavior.
If you haven’t yet discovered Patricia Abbott’s work, I Bring Sorrow is a perfect place to start. I read the fantastic Concrete Angel a while back and was blown away, so I was pleased to discover that Abbott included a short story featuring Eve Moran, the singular mother in Concrete Angel. The story is “Mad Women,” about an unfortunate incident where Eve is caught pilfering bits and bobs at Wanamaker’s Dept. Store in 1962 Philly. Eve’s shame when she’s pulled into a side room by a security guard is palpable, and he seems intent on shaming her further:
He tossed her hard-won booty back in the bag. “Half your haul is junk, lady. A dish probably selling for two dollars and ninety-nine cents? Crissake, there’s dust in it. It’s a display piece.” He held up his dirty finger, and she felt heat rising on her face. The charm bracelet from Wanamaker’s, with its dice and rabbit and one-armed bandit, still lay on the table. “This is something a twelve-year-old girl buys. Not a woman like you.” He fingered the dice charm. “Kind of a sign? You like taking chances, right? Have to have your souvenirs even if they’re worthless.”
Eve is relieved when her husband, Hank, arrives and thinks he’ll be able to get her out of this one, as he has many times before. But Hank has had enough and has other plans for her. It’s a quietly disturbing piece about how little power women often have. One can argue that things are much better today, but in 1962, being a woman was, at times, still akin to being a child. Eve may not be the nicest person, but it’s the rare reader that won’t feel some sympathy for her.
And that’s where a lot of Abbott’s strength lies—in offering us extremely flawed people and asking us to feel something other than scorn for them. And we do.
“On Pacific Beach” is about a woman whose mother is homeless and mentally ill and her guilt for not living closer to her or taking better care of her. It’s a tough read, and Abbott doesn’t flinch on the details of the reality of homelessness and mental illness.
I see her again the next day and the day after, doing what I can each time to clean her up, feed her, and finally, fumbling with her in the back of a vacant auto parts store to change her clothes. She hates my touching her; hates my making her step into a new pair of pants; shudders when I momentarily expose her bare breasts to the dark windows above us; wiggles her feet when I try to trim her toenails before putting on a new pair of sneakers. It’s frustrating, but there is something curative, for me at least, in the feel of her flesh under my hand.
She becomes even more worried when news of a killer emerges, one that seems to target women with one defining characteristic—one that her mother possesses.
“Pox” finds a woman named Hanna wracked with grief while burying another of her children, a baby girl, after she dies from smallpox. When she becomes ill herself, she looks toward the return of her husband and other two children—terrified at the prospect of them falling ill from exposure to her—and begins to take brutal preventative measures. “A Kid Like Billy” is about a small-town police chief, whose son, Billy, is a slow, gentle young man who answers phones at the police station. One day, he goes out on a call by himself with tragic results, forcing his father to make a gut-wrenching decision.
Abbott strikes a more hopeful note in “Scrapped,” set in Detroit (as many of her stories are), about an elderly woman named Marge, whose home is looted and nearly stripped to the bones after she falls ill and stays with her niece for a few days. Marge’s dignity and strength in the face of nearly unspeakable loss is something to celebrate, even as readers will despair at the reality that has befallen much of Detroit.
“How to Launder a Shirt” is a disturbing, brief little story about a woman ruminating about her husband’s new wife, and “The Higher the Heels” features a realtor who gets revenge on the man that romanced her with ulterior motives at heart. “A Lamb of God’ is a shocking, heartbreaking story about a woman driven mad by the tenets of the Church of the Living God—where birth control is forbidden—who is doomed to visit her madness on her children.
“I Bring Sorrow to Those Who Love Me” is a haunting, heartbreaking ode of love and obsession, set to the strains of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1, and “Ten Things I Hate About My Wife” features a man who lists, well, 10 things he hates about his brilliant, successful, competitive, and maybe murderous wife. “What Baghdad Did to Us” is about a US Army Specialist who bides her time before unleashing vengeance on the soldier who sexually assaulted her, and “Burned the Fire” is a very brief, punch-in-the-gut story about a circus performer whose scars tell of a lifetime of pain—and love.
Abbott has a slyly wicked streak, and she uses overarching feminist themes to tell her dark, sometimes devious, and always sharp and socially conscious tales, which play on society’s tendency (still) to tell women to step off, step down, and be quiet. Not on Patricia Abbott’s watch.
This is just a sampling of the 25 stories in this stellar volume, and like I said, this is the perfect place to start if you haven’t discovered this razor-sharp gem of a writer.
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