Offcourse Literary Journal
ISSN 1556-4975 

"The Story " by Robert Wexelblatt.


  2 greek figures
"He brought in a second actor".

J.L.Borges,"The Modesty of History"
(quoting Aristotle about Aeschylus.)


     He hastily finished what he was writing then screwed the cap on his fountain pen, folded the single sheet of paper three times and inserted it into the waiting envelope, which he sealed without addressing.  Pushing back the wooden chair, he leapt up from the battered mahogany secretary which was placed just to the left of the room’s single window.  This was an old-fashioned sash that extended nearly from floor to ceiling; it overlooked the bare branches of a maple tree and an intersection.  A single stride took him to the round table in the middle of the room.  On this he carelessly dropped the envelope then, without bothering to turn off the desk lamp, took down a gray overcoat from a hook by the door, shrugged into it, opened the door and stepped out into the hallway.  Though his keys were in his pocket he left the door to his apartment unlocked.
     It was a freezing early January night, just a week into the new year, and the corridor was chilly.  He hastened down the hall to the stairway.
     The building in which he lived was erected more than a century before as a proud family mansion.  In those days this part of the city had still been almost rural, but over the years the city’s long arms had gradually embraced the neighborhood.  The house had been divided then subdivided so that now there were two apartments to each floor and another squeezed into the attic.  A retired schoolteacher who read popular history and kept a cat shared the second floor with him.  Hearing her neighbor march down the hall at such a late hour did not surprise her—this was not unprecedented—but was nevertheless unsettling.  Laying aside her book she shivered on his behalf.  On New Year’s Day he had presented her with a bunch of carnations and baby’s breath.  These winter flowers, forced in the hothouse, were welcome but so costly.  She had asked him in and offered him tea, but he said he had to be going and wished her a good year.
     The man clambered down the stairway to the front door. This was no longer the elegant oak door of the old days with its long stained glass windows.  Because the neighborhood was no longer safe the landlord had installed a new metal door, ugly but serviceable.  This the man allowed to slam behind him.
     Meanwhile, on the north corner of the intersection, a figure waited under a street lamp.  What with the greatcoat, muffler, and watch cap, it was impossible to say if this person were male or female.  He or she paced back and forth, perhaps with the object of keeping warm but just as likely out of anxiety.  This person might have wished to lean against the street lamp but in the frigid air the metal was uninviting.  At each turn the figure stopped to glance up at the building across the street, focusing on the light in the second-floor window.
     The sound of the door slamming behind the man resounded loudly through the streets.  Hastening down the steps to street level, he headed straight across the intersection with long strides as though setting out on a trek, giving no indication of any intention to stop.  The muffled figure ceased pacing and seemed to brace itself, not against the cold, in which it had been waiting more than half an hour, but for the arrival of the man.  A dispassionate observer might have concluded that their imminent encounter was pre-arranged.  The pacing and searching looks at the mansion suggested that the waiting person was on time and was growing exasperated by the tardiness of the man, up there in the snug warmth of his apartment.  On the other hand, given the nervous gestures of the waiting person, it is just as likely that, if there were indeed an appointment, he or she had arrived early.
     The man pulled up short, as if he would protest, “What are you doing here at this hour?  Why do you keep looking so impertinently up at my window?  Why all this infernal pacing?  What’s the meaning of it?”  Such a diatribe would almost certainly have intimidated the evidently anxious person, now thoroughly chilled, who had not been sufficiently assertive to march up to the door and ring the bell.
     But the man did not deliver a tirade, nor, if he were late, did he apologize.  Instead, in a low, irritated voice that had a tinge of sadness in it, he asked, “Do you really want to go on this way?”
     The waiting figure replied at once in a high voice that could have been a woman's or that of a man who had received a shock, “Are you forgetting what’s at stake?”  Though this was a rhetorical question it was not put angrily, as perhaps the figure had meant to do.  Plainly, he or she was alarmed that the other could conceive of stopping whatever was being continued.
     “Really?”  The man sneered dismissively.
     Then, as the other fumbled for something in its coat pocket with gloved hands, the man surveyed the darkness outside the circle of light thrown by the street lamp. “After all, is there really so much at stake?”  In this way he defended his attitude but unintentionally revealed his uncertainty.
     The other stopped fumbling to say with genuine feeling, “For me, it’s everything.”
     Up in the steeple of a nearby church a clock began to strike the hour, then a second clock, at the top of a second church, started two strokes before the first finished.  The two clocks were close enough so that it sounded as if the first had sped up for four beats before subsiding into regularity again.


     Here the old man unexpectedly stopped.  We waited but there was nothing more.  Why just here, we wondered, with those striking clocks, with a confusion and syncopation of time?  No one would call the story absorbing but then it had only just begun, and it did raise some questions the answers to which might be interesting.  For example, what had the man scribbled and thrust into the envelope?  For whom was the letter intended?  Why did he sit over it pensively and then suddenly become galvanized? Why had he carelessly left the door of his apartment unlocked?  Was the man kind because he had given flowers to his aged neighbor on New Year’s Day or, on the contrary, was he thoughtless because he made so much noise in the hall and allowed the metal door to slam loudly in the middle of the night?  And what of that second figure?  Not to know whether it was male or female seemed gratuitously frustrating; not knowing its sex made the matter seem at once a mystery and the key to one.  For instance, if the figure were a woman one might be inclined to think the story romantic, perhaps about a doomed love affair; but if this nervous, muffled figure were male, well then it might be quite a different matter, a tale of conspiracy perhaps, or a crime story,  one of political intrigue or espionage.
     All these questions revolved in our minds until somebody got up the nerve simply to ask the old man, “Is that really all?”
     “Yes,” he said.  “That’s all.”
     Baffled and a little irate, several of us spoke up.  “But how can this wispy, unsatisfying thing be what you promised?  Yesterday, you promised to tell it us this wonderful, awfully ancient tale.  Ancient?  If it’s so ancient why does it have street lamps and fountain pens and subdivided Victorian mansions and a retired schoolteacher with a cat and a taste for books of popular history?”
     The old man paid us no mind.  He never did and, strange to say, that was just what we liked best about him.
     “The story is ancient,” he said, “terribly ancient.  In fact, I believe it may be the most ancient of all stories.  But you have to remember that, like all archaic narratives, it germinated in the soil of an oral culture and was nourished by close listeners and storytellers with prodigious memories.”
     “That’s absurd.  How can this story come from a pre-literate culture?” somebody protested.  “It begins with a man writing.”
     “As I was about to say, the story has been told for a long time and in countless ways.  Even I have never told it precisely the same way twice.  I have devoted decades to researching the story, immensely difficult work, yet even my studies have been limited to those centuries since the story was first written down.  Still, my work has not been fruitless.  Through it I have found a pattern in its various versions.  Though this pattern is simple it may at first strike you as paradoxical.  The pattern is that the more recent the telling, the longer the story.  The most lengthy version is, therefore, the one you have just heard.  But as the story grows longer it also becomes less clear, less complete, less comprehensive. This, I think, is the real significance of your questions.  In other words, the effort to fill in details, to make everything explicit, only leads to greater confusion.  It is as if what the teller released into the world were not so much words as entangling briars.”  Here the old scholar looked toward the window and fell silent, as though contemplating his extemporaneous metaphor.
     Somebody asked sharply, “How old is the first version of the tale, then?”
     “Oh, far, far older than the first recording of it, I assure you, and that was written down thousands of years ago.”
     “Really?” someone said, imitating the man in the story.
     But we were not all so skeptical.  In a more sympathetic tone somebody else asked, “Can you tell us how the first recorded version went?”
     “Yes, of course.  It went like this:  One night two people met under the sky.”
     “That’s all?”
     “All?  Yes.”
     In a halting voice one of us developed the logical problem this way:  “But you said the story always gets longer every time it’s recounted but also that the original story’s much older than this single sentence you’ve just recited.  But how could anything be shorter or plainer than One night two people met under the sky?”
     Though the question clearly struck him as naïve, the old man smiled, intimating that it did the asker some credit.
     “Obviously one is obliged to extrapolate, but it is easily possible that the story was once not only briefer but also a good deal clearer than the version I’ve just told you or, as you quaintly say, recited.  For example an earlier version might have been Two people met at night, because wherever they met it was bound to be beneath the sky and the writer who, perhaps out of conceit, felt the urge to add that flourish ‘under the sky’ only succeeded in forcing his readers to wonder how it could have been otherwise.  Or even previous to this Two people met could have been the whole story, since we humans have to toil for our livings during the day and can only indulge ourselves socially once the workday is done.  To make a point of saying that they met ‘at night’ is therefore an equivocal  stipulation since a listener would have to wonder whether meeting at night wouldn’t after all be the most natural thing and actually to say they met at night suggests the two might potentially have met during the day and that, in turn, compels us to wonder whether they were rich and idle or poor and unemployed.  You see, more confusion.”
     We didn’t know what to say to this but the old man, intent on his fixed idea, left us little time to consider.
     “If you want my opinion, I believe that the original version of the story, the very first telling, was Two people.  This sentence, unadorned and pure, implies in its very structure the proximity of the two persons and by the same token that they would be certain to meet, even to seek each other out.  Nothing could be clearer or more complete.  You can see how enigmatic the story has already become, but what bewildering turns it might take in the future—that is almost beyond speculation.”




Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University's College of General Studies. He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals, two story collections, "Life in the Temperate Zone" and "The Decline of Our Neighborhood", a book of essays, "Professors at Play", and the novel "Zublinka Among Women", winner of the First Prize for Fiction, Indie Book Awards, 2008.

His work in Offcourse: "Inter Scoti et Scuti" in Issue#39, "Ostbrück" in Issue #35 and "The Dreams of Count Wenzel von Geiz and the Jew Eisik " in #34.


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