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SHORT STORY: ‘The Story’

... so this sentence, which is the story, which embodies the story, cannot be allowed to, has to be held in abeyance as it acknowledges an implicit mortality wholly alien to the nature of perfection ...

He didn’t know if he had read the story somewhere, in a magazine or book perhaps, or someone he didn’t know very well, perhaps hardly knew at all, had told it to him at a party in an unguarded moment, or he had invented it himself some time ago and didn’t know how to close it out so he had filed it away in his mind as something he might deal with in the future when he had enough distance from it to contend with the material or — the least likely of his alternatives — something like it had actually happened to him and, troubled by its implicit commentary, he had blocked it out and now, for its own reasons, it had returned to insist on itself, on its prerogatives as narrative, its bloody need, its inalienable right, to have a life of its own separate from his uncertain connection to it, and what was he going to do about it, what could he do as a writer but honor its insistent presence by retelling the story in a way that would emphasize its uniqueness as an imaginative event while at the same time hoping that no one else after the fact would show up to make claim to it, which would mean that the story for all its closeness to his heart, meaning his artistic vision, had never really been his in the first place and therefore what he had done with it would be vitiated by the charge of plagiarism laid at his door, rightful or not, and worse making him regret his commitment to the story and even regret the story itself, which would be like falling out of love when he had announced to everyone that this one was forever, but then again no one, no one that counted, might show up to deny his right to the story when he had already made it his own, covering the traces of its origins in any event but hadn’t all stories in a certain sense been told before, which was the word on the media street, a popular conception or misconception and so irrelevant to his concerns at the moment (and damn it, where did the story come from anyway) which were (are) to produce a memorable version of the story, the best possible version given his gifts and limitations, whatever they may be, which is the business of others, critics and such, educated readers, to determine, his arrant immodesty best kept to himself far from the public eye or whatever good will his work has accrued over the years will leak through the holes in his reputation, which is a small thing as it is with unspoken aspirations toward bettering its condition and what did he really know what the general culture thought of his work if at all, did he even want to know, but let’s get back to the story, he tells himself, it’s the story that matters, he is only its executor or caretaker perhaps, or parent, the one who keeps it clothed and fed until it is sufficiently formed to deal with the world without him around to mediate its existence, the story which concerns a writer not much like himself who has come into unspecified possession of a story of at once general interest and self-defining strangeness that seems to insist, virtually demand that whoever takes it up give it voice but as it has been entrusted to him, this extraordinary event, by whatever gods control the destinies of prose narrative (by chance, he supposed, and vision and luck) he feels burdened by such responsibility, perhaps even thwarted by it so it requires of him an act of will or presumption to give the story in question the kind of imaginative re-creation it surely deserves and so the shadow of possible failure, possibly inevitable failure looms over his endeavor even as he feels he is solving whatever inherent mystery lies at its core, he is also falling short of the perfect accommodation of substance to form but no one will know while it remains in a state of ongoing inconclusion (in life, all stories go on indefinitely or slip away into ellipsis) so this sentence, which is the story, which embodies the story, cannot be allowed to, has to be held in abeyance as it acknowledges an implicit mortality wholly alien to the nature of perfection, achieve even the illusion of closure without permanently curtailing whatever hope for the earned unexpected it brings to the page, it cannot be brought to conclusion, it cannot be, it cannot, it…


Editor’s Note: This is the fourth installment from Jonathan Baumbach’s forthcoming collection of short stories, “The Pavilion of Former Wives,” to be published by Dzanc later this year. To read Baumbach’s previous story, “Seattle,” click here.

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