The Story


The Story was aired on Public Radio in 1979. A short version was published in Chelsea 36, 1977, and the full story was published in Chelsea 38, 1979.

"The Story employs actual sound effects like breaking glass, as well as electronic sounds. It is what some would call "word-jazz," with free association between ideas in the text and sounds in the music. Sometimes the electronic effects are omnipoetic and upstage the voice, but all in all, this is dynamic and coherent conceptual audio. Great late-night programming, and especially effective if treated as episodes in a continuing series."
Dennis Kita (National Federation of Community Broadcasters).


The story has not yet begun. The author is seated. He is examining a
page on which a list of apparently random images in the form of single words, phrases, complete and incomplete sentences have been written.

a few sidewalks
around the darkest point
providing care is taken to keep it clean
It will weigh 800 pounds and be pitched in the key of A.
The mill will be closed for three weeks.
It varied predictably during the course of each day,
a lightning bolt
"or sticky rolls," she said.

The author makes a mark on the paper with his pen, then returns to
the first item: a few sidewalks. He pictures a paved walk and places it, at random, in the woods behind the house. He is about to place a second walk at right angles to the first but somewhat deeper in the woods when she enters, landing flat-footed, aims outstretched, in the middle of the first sidewalk. She's wearing faded blue over-alls and a striped t-shirt.

"Sticky rolls," she says as she lands.

He sets her aside.

The story is still not begun. The author likes the cool geometrical approach the idea a few sidewalks seems to embody. He takes five and sets them down, some at right angles, others diagonally, in the woods behind the house. He wants to imagine the landscape they'll eventually help to create. He hangs an alarm clock in the tree. He darkens the air in the woods and drives lightning into its darkest point. He takes a lighted cigar, forces it to glow brightly, then sets it down next to a boot on the first cement block of the nearest sidewalk.

She's playing hop-scotch on his second cement walk. He tries to ignore her.

He's designing a fire extinguisher for the landscape. He remembers the Power Pac that used to hang in his grandmother's kitchen. It had a shape he always liked. The cylinder was long and slim and the top, through which the CO2 was expelled, was funnel shaped and perfectly proportioned. The label appealed to him too. It announced the virtues of Power Pac modestly, in 6 pt. type. "Power Pac," it said, "is clean, safe, odorless, non-toxic, non-asphyxiating, non poisonous, non-staining..." You had to squint to read it.

He makes his own fire extinguisher thick and stubby. "Fire extinguisher," he writes on the label in letters an inch high. He starts a small leaf fire and extinguishes it. He hangs the fire extinguisher up on a tree trunk when he's through.

He's pleased. He steps back to examine the scene he's created. The alarm clock goes off. At first he doesn't understand where the sound is coming from. He slaps his hands to his ears to cut out the vibrations. Then he grabs the clock and pushes all the buttons. "When nothing happens he hits it. He hits it a second time. And a third. He throws it down hard against the cement sidewalk. The glass breaks.

The story begins.

The story begins in another place. It begins in a town in northern Pennsylvania.

The man enters the town by driving across the Susquehanna River on a cantilever bridge. The man does not think, "This is the Susquehanna River." He does not notice the cantilever bridge. His eyes are fixed on the road and he thinks only of the directions he has been given. Midway across the bridge he maneuvers his car into the left lane.

On the far side of the bridge he bears left and drives north on North Washington Avenue. He counts the blocks. One...two...three. He turns right at the Baptist Church. If he has turned at the correct place he will see a Gulf station two blocks ahead, and beyond that the old railroad station. Martz Trailways will be on the right. He sees the Gulf station.

He draws up in the parking lot of the bus station and with his engine still idling, leans forward and rests his head against the steering wheel. He does not think anything. In a minute he will give himself simple directions. Turn off the engine. Put the key in your pocket. Open the door.

The bus station isn't crowded. There are a few people waiting for the bus to the city, not many. At the front of the station, behind the counter where the departure times are given, Philadelphia on the right, New York City on the left, a single woman issues tickets and answers the phone. "Martz Trailways," she says into the phone, "Can I help you?" A second phone is already ringing.

He gets his ticket while she repeats her greeting into the second
phone. "Martz Trailways," she says, nesting the receiver between her shoulder and chin and smiling at him, "Can I help you?"

"Yes," he says. The froginess of his voice embarrasses him. He clears his throat. "New York City," he says.

To the left of the counter a sign reads, "EXIT."He sits stiffly in a molded orange plastic chair and watches the woman behind the counter. Suddenly he wants to leave the place. He stands up and walks quickly to the counter. He returns his ticket, then moves to the side door. As he starts his car the loud speaker announces the arrival of the bus for New York City. He backs out of the lot and reversing his directions, turns left onto North Washington. When he reaches the cantilever bridge he takes a deep breath. He thinks of the work he will do when he gets home. He is beginning to feel very happy.

The author wants to re-picture the landscape to the rear of the house. He returns to the woods. This time he approaches from a different direction, pushing his way through the stand of small aspen on the north side of the house. Berry bushes snag his pants. Almost at once he becomes aware of the suspension of sound. He stands very still; he wants the wood sounds to return. A twig snaps at his back. He spins quickly, catching a glimpse of the girl's head perched on the limb of a tree. It's too bizarre. He rubs his eyes; there is no head.

The woods darken. He pushes on, ducking under hemlock branches and skirting the heavy growth of briars. He comes to the area where he had placed the sidewalks. The pavements are cracked. The edges are broken and pitted with open places. Yet he remembers oiling the forms and tamping the concrete so honeycombs wouldn't appear. He even remembers waiting an extra day before removing the forms.

He looks for the cigar and finds it smoldering in a pile of freshly
heaped pine needles. The fire extinguisher has been thrown down behind a bush. It is dented and rusty. He pulls anxiously at the lever. The tank is empty. He cannot find the boot.

He assigns the disorder a cause. He says, "The girl did this." As
soon as he says it he knows it is true.

He hides between the branches of a large hemlock, hugging his body
close to the trunk. He thinks the girl will come; he wants the girl to come.

Darkness comes, the girl does not.

The story begins again.

The landscape is undefined. Its contours are obscured by rain. There
is thunder.

A man is walking in the road. He's wearing a yellow slicker suit and
gray green rubber boots with yellow laces. He stops and looks hard at the large gray ramshackle house. The house is located on a country road three miles from town. The nearest house is a quarter of a mile away.

The author doesn't know who the man is or why he has stopped. He
places himself at an upstairs window to watch. He stands behind the curtain; he doesn't want to be seen.

The man in the road moves on. The author suspects he may have moved onto the lawn, but he can't see. He slips from behind the curtain and crosses the room. The hall is dark and thick with dust. The author opens the door to the front bedroom and slips in. He parts the curtains. He can't see the man. He moves quickly to the next room, and the next. At each window he parts the curtains and looks out. The man has disappeared.

Suddenly he thinks of the girl. He wonders if she is still in the
woods. He wonders if she is safe. He's worried; he imagines the man has crossed the yard and entered the woods. He leaves the window and moves quickly down the hall. He takes the stairs two at a time. He throws open the hall closet; his slicker suit isn't there. He sees it on a hall chair. His boots are under the table. He's in a hurry; he doesn't bother to tie the laces.

Outside he takes a quick look at the house. It's dreary. He's the
only person who lives there.

He hurries into the woods. The light is fading. The trees are no
longer separate. Water runs down his face. It's hard to see. He thinks maybe he's lost his way. He thinks he's going in circles. He stops. He forces himself to think about direction. He hasn't found the girl.

When he gets back the front door is open. He can't remember whether he left it open or not. There's a puddle of water in the front hall. He's puzzled. He pushes an electric switch. There's no electricity. He can't decide what to do. He stands very still. The rain water runs off his slicker onto the hall floor.

He decides to go to the dining room for candles. When he gets there
a candle is already burning. Hot wax is running onto the dining room table.

He turns back into the hall. A pale light flickers in the study. He
walks toward it on tiptoe, but his slicker suit is noisy; it makes a
hissing sound as it rubs against itself. He quickly removes it and drops it onto a hall chair. He shoves his boots under the table. Then he tiptoes to the study door.

A man is seated at the desk. He's writing. The girl is seated in a
rocking chair behind him. Neither the man nor the girl look up as he

The author is puzzled by the girl; he doesn't know what to make
of her. He invents a history for her. She is the daughter of a suburban New Jersey family. Her father is a dentist. She and her mother are constantly fighting. He constructs a scene in which, after a particularly heavy exchange, the girl hits her mother and leaves home, taking with her as a memento of family life, a potted plant—an aralia elegantissima, he thinks.

The girl hitch-hikes west, through Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois.
In Nebraska she picks up a ride to the coast where she joins up with a lot of other run-away kids. A sixteen year old from Lake Forest eats her aralia...

The author sighs. It doesn't fit. He goes to the window. The girl is
swinging on a swing in the back yard. She doesn't look like a run-away. She doesn't look like the daughter of a suburban family.

He begins to watch her closely. When he first reached the window she was holding the inch thick ropes with folded arms and dragging her feet in the dust. Now she changes her position. She grabs the ropes in her hands, stretches out and pulls, then drops her legs and, as she passes backwards over the earth, pushes hard. She does this several times. Each time she soars higher and higher. He becomes caught up in her effort; he wants to go down and swing with her.

Suddenly she drops her legs and turning sideways looks up at his

His face burns. He moves away instantly. She's from Brooklyn, he
tells himself, trying to minimize his embarrassment with a new story. She's the daughter of a middle class Italian family.

He sits down and covers his face with his hands. He acknowledges
his embarrassment. Then he takes up his pen and begins to doodle. He makes odd designs, geometric figures; he writes words, place names: Michigan, Milwaukee, Manhattan. He underlines Manhattan. He makes a sketch of a stick figure, swinging, then quickly splats ink on it and stands up. Did she know he was watching her? What must she think of him?

He goes to the window. He hides himself very carefully behind the
curtain before looking out.

She's swinging on the swing in the back yard. She's holding the
inch thick ropes with folded arms; her feet are dragging. Suddenly she knows that he's watching. She changes her position. She takes the ropes in her hands, stretches out and pulls, then drops her legs and as she passes backwards over the earth, pushes hard. She repeats the effort, rising higher and higher with each push.

She knows he's standing behind the curtain. She thinks, "He'll
want to come down soon, I’m sure of it...but he won't. As soon as he wants to enough he'11 do something else..."

She pulls forward..."He loves me." She pushes back..." He loves
me not." Suddenly her face lights up and she turns sideways on the swing and looks up at his window. The curtains move uncomfortably, then settle back into stillness. She's embarrassed him. He's gone.

She laughs and lets her feet drag over the earth. "He'll be back,"
she says aloud. "Five minutes, ten, he can't help himself, he'll be
back." The thought pleases her. She lifts her legs and pulls forward
again, then drops them and pushes back. As the swing starts forward a second time she jumps off and walks away into the woods. She takes her aralia with her.

The author stares out of the window. He stares at the barren patch
of land that lies behind the house. He stares at a few weeds and the
splotches of earth where nothing will take root.

The author thinks of Bleecker Street. Bleecker Street 1956, before the advent of the elegant antique shops. The wind is blowing on Bleecker Street. It wraps a newspaper around his ankle. He laughs and shakes it free. In front of him a little boy is walking between two adults. He holds each by a hand. The wind blows. The little boy lifts his feet and is blown straight out, parallel to the sidewalk. They all laugh...

He has good memories of Bleecker Street, but he will not go back.

The days pass.

He's in the middle of a story. He's standing at the window trying to
think his way across the city to the park. He wants to get his character to the park before noon. But he can't keep his mind on the directions. He keeps seeing the girl as he saw her for the first time in the woods behind the house. She's dressed in faded blue overalls and a t-shirt. She has that goofy grin on her face. At first he doesn't notice her feet. When he does he starts to laugh.

"Her feet are much too large," he says.

The shoemaker, a small obliging man with a bald head, moves quickly in and squats by her side. He feels her right foot, then puts his thumb down forcibly on the big toe. "We could give her a size 8," he says, "nothing smaller."

The author nods. "A size 8 then." He feels suddenly very pleased with himself. He nods again, then turns away and crosses the wide dirty city street. A small wind is blowing. It catches a page of the news and wraps it around his ankle. He swings his leg out in a semi-circle to get free. He enjoys the movement and allows his whole body to turn.

There are three boys on the comer. They're watching him, staring at him out of tough, cynical faces. One of them is about to speak to him.

He shifts his direction. He moves down the Avenue and turns left on
4th., pleased that the way comes so easily now that he has actually started. No one follows him.

When he reaches the park, he slows down. The park is small. It's more like an island in the middle of city traffic than a park. There are a few trees, a small plot of gray earth, a walk...but no benches, no place to sit down. He stops under a sycamore, then leans back, resting his body against the trunk of the tree.

As he relaxes he catches the familiar reflection of himself in the
window. He smiles and checks his watch. It's 11:45. He's reached the park ahead of time.

Automatically his thoughts turn to the girl. He sees her again, standing on the pavement in her overalls and t-shirt, her legs apart and her arms held out, palms forward as if inviting applause. But there's something wrong. Her pants are turned up and her shoes and socks are visible, It makes her foot look extremely large.

"I thought we gave her a smaller foot," he says.

There's no answer. He looks around. The shoemaker isn't there. Instead he sees the three boys. They're walking through the park three abreast. He thinks he sees a blade flash.

"Run," he calls out.

The girl starts to run. She runs toward the street. She runs toward the moving traffic. He follows. He can hear their footsteps behind him. He can hear them getting closer.

"Run," he cries.

She glances back over her shoulder. Why? He opens his mouth to cry out again, but it's too late. A car horn blows, a yellow volkswagen swerves.

In the second before impact he sees a flash of something, a picture of himself. His hand goes out. It touches the familiar reflection in the window. He's in the middle of a story.

He cannot visualize the end.

He spends more and more of his time at the window. He begins to notice for the first time how the woods have grown rusty with the fall, how the fields have withered and been flattened by wind and rain. He stares for a long time at the dark stain where the drainage from the pasture is poor. It's late—late fall, late afternoon, late.

It upsets him to be aware of how much time has passed. He wants to think only of his story. He wants to be able to visualize the end.

He drifts back to his desk. He reads and rereads what he has written. He is bored and dissatisfied. His head aches.

Sometimes he rests. Propping himself up against the bolsters on his bed, he tries to empty his mind. He tries to think nothing. But his mind is relentless. Even in sleep it persists, repeating obsessively what he has read, questioning, looking for an end, waiting for an end to come. She is waiting too, he knows that. Out there in the fields, at the edge of the woods, she's waiting, waiting for him to finish, waiting for him.

"He loves me...he loves me not...

The bus station isn't crowded. There are a few people waiting for the bus to the city, not many. At the front of the station, behind the counter where the departure times are listed, Philadelphia on the right, New York City on the left, a single woman issues tickets and answers the phone. "Martz Trailways," she says into one phone, "Can I help you?" A second phone is already ringing.

He gets his ticket while she repeats her greeting into the second phone. "Martz Trailways," she says, nesting the receiver between her shoulder and chin and smiling at him, "Can I help you?"

"New York City," he says.

To her left, a few feet beyond the counter, a sign reads, "EXIT."
He pushes through the half open door.

Rain is falling on the city—a soft little rain that barely wets his
coat as he walks.

He takes a room south of the bus terminal, in an old hotel. He's been
there before. He thinks he's been there before, years and years before, perhaps in this very room, but he can't be sure. They've done something to it, rearranged it in some way. The bed, the furniture... but he can't remember. It's comfortable enough and that's all he really cares about.

They have changed the bath, he knows it as soon as he enters. It has
shiny chrome faucets, claw like shapes, and a white mirror flecked with gold. The shower curtain is white plastic with gold designs.

The girl pops her head through the shower curtain. "Ta-ra," she says
and disappears back into the interior of the shower
He laughs. He's glad he's come afterall. He leans forward then and
examines his face in the new mirror. It's a pale, not unhandsome face. The jaw is strong. It makes him feel good sometimes, that face. It makes him feel good now. He touches the reflection, affectionately on the nose.

Later he settles down on the bed, props himself up against the two foam pillows and opens the book. There's no place to go yet, not yet, and so he reads. But even as he turns the first page, the print begins to slip away from him. He squints hard to bring it back, but it only wavers there for a minute before slipping away again. The story isn't very interesting...

He hears the elevator rise to the third floor. He hears the elevator doors open and close. He hears, no, he tries to hear the footsteps, holds his breath to hear them, wanting to know which way they'll go on the thick green carpet, wanting to know which way they'll go on the thick brown carpet, wanting to know....

"Stupid;" She's standing on the pavement in front of him. "Stupid:"
she's saying.

He's bewildered, even a little frightened. "I'm sorry," he says, then
stops himself. He can't remember what he's sorry for; he can't remember what he's done.

"Stupid!" she says. "Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!"

The elevator moves on to the fourth floor. He can hear the doors open and close.

"You're not young, you know." His mother says that. "At forty-seven
you're not young."

"Damn!" He sits up. It's dark. For a minute he remains fixed to the bed listening to the wail of a siren as it harrows the night. Then he relaxes. He can hear the darkness within the four walls perfectly. He knows it is empty. He turns on the light, gets up and crosses the room to the bath.

But there's a dark stain on his mind. He feels old and stupid.

He returns and stands in front of the window. It's late. very late. Across the street the buildings are mostly dark. He can distinguish night lights on the interior stairwell of one of the buildings; in another two rooms are brilliantly lighted. He thinks he can hear the sound of music. But it's raining still, quietly, and he thinks he might be mistaken. In the country a quiet rain sometimes fills the gutters with music.

He yawns. It's too late to go out and eat. Instead he crosses the room, opens the door and stands looking down the empty corridor. Blue, the carpet is blue, and worn. Near the elevators there's the usual crock filled with sand. Nothing else. Nothing.

He closes the door. There's a weariness in him. If he were in company at this very moment, every word in him would strain against the weight of that weariness; his tongue would be thick and swollen with it. Alone it's easier. He lies down and falls asleep.

When he wakes it's all suddenly clear. He's done all this before,
including waking here, in this bed, with a book under his body and his hand fast asleep. In a minute he'll go stand at the window and while he tries to work the circulation back into his hand, he'll look up at the water towers. He'll notice the puddles of water that have collected on the rooves. He'll look for a long time at the yellow brick apartment building across the way, the four windows spread out across the top floor, and the woman, the woman seated at her easel.

He's right. There it is, there she is. He has been here before; he has
done this before. It's incredible. Even if he were to sit down this moment and say, "I won't do anything, nothing," it would be something he had done before. He knows he's thought this before, and he can't stop it. He can’t stop the feeling.

He turns away from the window. Maybe the force of his regular patterns will dissipate the feeling. He shaves. He does it very slowly, trying to prolong his stay in the bathroom, to keep himself away from the window. But he's beginning to feel strange about that too. And the feeling is lasting too long He wipes the mirror with his towel and looks into the gray puzzled eyes. Then all of a sudden he throws the towel down. There's no point to this. No point at all. He has to get out of here. He has to be in the park by noon.

He's forgotten the directions. For a minute he stands on the curb
trying to think his way there, but he can't. He keeps seeing her, not as he'll see her this time, but as she was the first time—standing there, flat-footed, with her arms outstretched. She was wearing blue cover-alls and a striped t-shirt. At first he didn't notice her aralia....

Her aralia! Oh Lord! He laughs then and swings out across the wide
dirty city street. Her aralia, it was huge!

A small wind is blowing. It catches up a page of the news and wraps it around his ankle. He swings his leg out, raises it and swings it out in a semi-circle to free himself, then lets himself go with it and turns a complete circle in the street.

There are three boys on the corner. They're watching him. They're watching him out of tough, cynical faces.

He turns away, down the Avenue, trying not to hear what the one is saying. "Hey, I'm talkin to ya. Whadda ya turnin ya goddamn fucking back on me for?...Hey..."

He walks quickly. "Hey, I'm talkin to ya..." He keeps hearing it over and over again.

Then he forgets. He turns left on 4th. He finds the park without any trouble. No one follows him. He sighs and slows his pace; he's early. It's a funny little park, more like an island in the middle of city traffic than a park. There are a few trees, a small plot of gray earth, a walk...but no benches, no place to sit down. He stops under a sycamore. He leans back, resting his body against the trunk of the tree.

But he's beginning to feel strange again. It seems to him that something is wrong, that he has no control over his situation. He's being walked through a series of already familiar events; he's done all this before.

He tries to bring the girl back. He tries to think of her. He wants to see her again as he first saw her. Instead she comes, frightened, hurrying across the park, trying to say something to him that he can't quite hear. He sees them then. The three boys. They're following her, walking three abreast, in step. "Hey, I'm talkin to ya ..." the one is saying. The voice is hard, cruel. He sees a blade flash.

"Run," he calls out, "Run!"

She runs. She runs toward the street. She runs toward the moving traffic He follows. He can hear them. They break step and begin to run. They're getting closer. And then she glances back over her shoulder. He opens his mouth to cry out, but it's too late. In that instant she plunges into the city traffic. A car horn blows, a yellow volkswagen swerves.

In the second before impact he sees a flash of something: a reflection of himself, and then his hand shoots out to grab her, to try and draw her back, this time, this one last time...

It recoils in an explosion of glass.

He stands at the broken window, looking out over the withered fields to the woods. The blood is running down his fingers; it is falling on the floor at his feet. But he can see her. He can see her in the distance. She's waiting for him as he knew she would, waiting for him to come, waiting for the end, waiting for now.


© Helen Thorington, 2004