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Abbreviated / Not Manager Material by Paul Crenshaw


Abbreviation. Condensation. Magnification. Resonance. Flash employs tools borrowed from narrative and poetry, but a good flash is something more than a lyric vignette or a miniature short story. Something very small becomes large. Or a small aspect of a larger story takes on magnified meaning. In his author’s note to these two exemplary flash, Paul Crenshaw describes flash as “an abbreviation of a story, many times, instead of the whole story. It hints. The parts are there, but it’s a representation, a piece.”

“Not Manager Material” begins with a memory, a short-lived job at a Waldenbooks where the young writer tore covers off of paperbacks slated to be remaindered. It closes with a high wire act balancing between the subjunctive (what the writer wouldn’t do after all), past tense (what he did), and an implied future (what he will do twenty years later). The ending takes flight, making this flash much larger than an anecdote.

In “Abbreviated,” Crenshaw’s consideration of shorthand vocabulary and common abbreviations leads to the personal connotations and memories they evoke, and a wide-ranging meditation on abbreviated lives and middle age and fatherhood. In a craft essay in our archive (“This Story Would Make a Good Essay”), Crenshaw considers his fiction and nonfiction: “In fiction, my characters spent a lot of time leaving where they are from. In nonfiction I spend a lot of time going back, trying to make sense of why someone would leave.” “Abbreviated” ends with a breathtaking moment of departure and return, as he goes back in time to the indelible moment when he launched his daughter on her bicycle, and she moves forward in time, leaving. Her takeoff starts with a wonderful series of verbs (“still stretching,” “still expanding,” “still rising”) and expands beyond the writer’s consciousness into hers and something much larger that can’t be explained.  —CRAFT


 

Abbreviated

 

Since entering middle age, I sometimes fear my time is running short. I could use the word “manopause” to explain the changes men face at my age, but I need to save time so I just say midlife, and let the crisis be implied. To save more time, I’ve started using abbreviated words: “temp” and “cell” and “ASAP.” Goodbye is the shortened form of “God be with you,” which may be why we say it when someone we love leaves us, and if we’re lucky we’ll have also said “I love you” as a reminder that we created God out of an image of what love should be.

Texting is an abbreviated form of talking, which means I can’t fully tell you about the fear I felt when my teenage daughter flew overseas, or the relief that filled me when she texted to tell me she had landed. (“Here,” she sent, as if that one word contained all the world within it.) I should also mention all the abbreviations we’ve allowed to infiltrate our texts: tmi and tl;dr and YOLO, all of which signify in some way how little time we have left. I have less left than I have already lived, and this fear may be why I apply abbreviations to words that don’t really need it, how “daughter” is short for “child who used to be small enough to hold in my arms,” and every time I hear “guac” I’m reminded of that pea-green baby food my daughters ate, back when I thought I had to spend so much time making money to feed them I barely had time to appreciate the messes they made.

In addition to the midlife crisis, we also have a word for a crisis that occurs in your thirties, a “thrisis,” and a phrase for one that occurs when you have kids, a “kid-life crisis.” “Thrisis” implies that your thirties are just as bad as your forties and “kid-life” that children cause all sorts of conflicts, but what I remember most is all the time I wasted not holding on to what I had. The small bad apartments of college have become a collage of longing, and the sleepless nights of parenting an infant a retrospective on what not to forget. Who would throw away a memory of your daughter sleeping on your chest, or waking in the middle of the night to see her standing in the doorway, smiling, asking without any words if she can climb in beside you?

We’re always trying to save time, no matter how quickly we see it flash by. This constant trying makes me believe that if we can save time, it’s not by cutting words short but by speaking them. Tell your daughter how hard it was to draw breath when she slept on your chest, but you could do so because you felt her heart continuing to beat. Don’t stand in the doorway unless it’s to ask if you can climb in bed beside the one you love and lie there like you’ll both last forever. We only use abbreviations because there isn’t a way to explain, in any condensation, what an avocado looks like in the morning with dew on the green skin and dawn coming up over the hills. Or how it felt to hold your just-born daughter up to the hospital window as if to show her the world. Or the day you let go of her bicycle and she looked back and saw you weren’t holding her anymore and said, in a voice that is still stretching into space, still expanding into memory, still rising at the thought of being pushed out on her own, “Dad, Dad, Dad!” which was short for something she wouldn’t have been able to explain.

 


 

Not Manager Material

 

I once worked in a Colorado Waldenbooks that was being closed. Never mind the whole string of mistakes that led me there, how I wanted to write a book but mostly leave behind the horrible factory job I had in the hope of something better. I got hired because I’d told the interviewer I was a writer and an English major, both of which were only vaguely true, but when I got there I found the store was being closed and as soon as we shut it down I would manage a kiosk of calendars in the middle of the mall.

My job, for the first day anyway, as they tore out the wall paneling in the store, was to rip off the covers of the books and throw the books away—remaindering them, they called it. I started with romance novels, but by the time I moved to science fiction and fantasy—what I mostly read back then—I began to flip through each book before I tore off the cover. I came across Asimov and Bradbury and Clarke and soon began to read a few lines, then a few pages, from each one. Another worker came around behind me scanning the barcodes of each cover I ripped off, and before long he had caught up. The man who had hired me warned me once to quit reading. Then again, and again, and, finally, fired me in the afternoon of my first day.

I drove back to the mall late that night. I wasn’t after revenge. Instead I parked behind the store, by the dumpster, and climbed in and took as many remaindered books home with me as I could.

I would not get another job in Colorado. A few weeks later, broke and lonely, I drove back to Arkansas. This was the end of my corporate existence. But it was the beginning, twenty years later, of this essay.

 


PAUL CRENSHAW is the author of the essay collections This One Will Hurt You, published by The Ohio State University Press, and This We’ll Defend, from the University of North Carolina Press. Other work has appeared in Best American EssaysBest American Nonrequired ReadingThe Pushcart PrizeOxford AmericanGlimmer Train, and Tin House. Follow him on Twitter @PaulCrenstorm.

 

 

Author’s Note

Cover Contents

I wrote “Abbreviated” while thinking about all the ways we abbreviate words—through text messages, limited Twitter character counts, ways we don’t always say what we mean. Through words and sayings that abbreviate entire arguments or ideas.

I could also have been writing about flash. Flash, whether fiction or creative non, omits words. It pares down language. It’s an abbreviation of a story, many times, instead of the whole story. It hints. The parts are there, but it’s a representation, a piece. “Not Manager Material” for example, hints at much. It suggests how much I love to read, which eventually becomes a love of writing. It also suggests I would not be happy in the corporate world (I can confirm this), that I needed, as a young man, to find a profession in which books played a main role.

It further hints at its own form. In that bookstore I was reading only a few pages of Asimov and Bradbury and Clarke, just a small representation of their larger work. If my manager was too close, I could only read the blurb on the back of the book. We were tearing down books without any thought to their contents, which seems, to a book lover, like such a crime of contempt that I was still thinking about it when I wrote the essay twenty years later.

I’ve since gone back and read much of Asimov and Bradbury and Clarke. I’ve seen more of their worlds than only the first few pages reveal.

But that time in the bookstore, wanting fiercely to be a writer, to surround myself with books and simply sit and read them, ended far too quickly. The truth is, when they told me I would be managing not a store full of books but a kiosk in the mall full of cat calendars, I lost all interest in the job. I was happy they fired me, at least until my rent was due. For weeks I lay in my rented bedroom and read all the remaindered books I’d saved from the dumpster. I didn’t have the front covers, but I had the contents, which is, in a way, the opposite of the essay—in it, I only paint a picture, like a cover of a book, a quick image that hints at what’s within. The rest of the content was torn away.

 


PAUL CRENSHAW is the author of the essay collections This One Will Hurt You, published by The Ohio State University Press, and This We’ll Defend, from the University of North Carolina Press. Other work has appeared in Best American EssaysBest American Nonrequired ReadingThe Pushcart PrizeOxford AmericanGlimmer Train, and Tin House. Follow him on Twitter @PaulCrenstorm.