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Grace Paley: Anxiety A Story

GRACE PALEY, Grace Goodside at birth, is an award-winning writer of fiction, poetry, criticism, and commentary who spent most of her life in New York City. She is best known for her poignant and humorous, cryptic and poetic short stories. Considered the "Chekhov of New York City," she has produced widely acclaimed collections of short fiction: The Little Disturbances of Man, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, and Later the Same Day. Paley has won a senior fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, has served as a New York State writer of the year, and has been a professor at Sarah Lawrence College and CCNY. She now lives in Vermont and is known as a staunch nonviolent activist for world peace and social justice. She was a member of the Women's Pentagon Action and has been arrested several times for nonviolent civil disobedience. Paley has worked closely with the War Resisters League in New York City. and written two collections of poetry as well as numerous reviews and articles. She was one of the Washington Eleven, arrested for protesting nuclear weapons manufacture in the United States and the USSR. With the artist Vera B. Williams, she created 365 Reasons Not to Have Another War for WRL and New Society Publishers (New York and California). Her Collected Stories were published by Farrar Strauss & Giroux, New York, and can be ordered by any book store or individual from the pubisher.

ANXIETY, A Story:

The young fathers are waiting outside the school. What curly heads! Such graceful brown mustaches. They're sitting on their haunches cating pizza and exchanging information. They're waiting for the 3:00 p.m. bell. It's springtime, the season of first looking out the window. I have a window box of greenhouse marigolds. The young fathers can be seen through the ferny leaves.

The bell rings. The children fall out of school tumbling through the open door. One of the fathers sees his child. A small girl. Is she Chincse? A little. Up u u p, he says and hoists her to his shoulders. U u up says the second father and hoists his little boy. The little boy sits on top of his father's head for a couple of seconds before sliding to his shoulders. Very funny, says the father.

They start off down the street, right under and past my window. The two children are still laughing. They try to whisper a secret. The fathers haven't finished their conversation. The frailer father is a little uncomfortable; his little girl wiggles too much.

Stop it this minute, he says.

Oink, oink, says the little girl.

What'd you say?

Oink oink, she says.

The young father says what! three times. Then he seizes the child, raises her high above his head and sets her hard on her feet.

What'd I do so bad, she says, rubbing her ankle.

Just hold my hand, screams the frail and angry father.

I lean far out the window. Stopl Stop! I cry.

The young father turns, shading his eyes, but sees. What? he says. His friend says, Hey? Who's that? He probably thinks I'm a family friend, a teacher maybe.

Who're you? he says.

I move the pots of marigold aside. Then I'm able to lean on my elbow way out into unshadowed visibility. Once not too long ago the tenements were speckled with women like me in every third window up to the fifth story calling the children from play to receive orders and instruction. This memory enables me to say strictly, Young man I am an older person who feels free because of that to ask questions and give advice.

Oh? he says, laughs with a little embarrassment, says to his friend, Shoot if you will that old grey head. But he's joking I know, because he has established himself, legs apart, hands behind his back, his neck arched to see and hear me out. How old are you, I call. About thirty or so?

Thirty three.

First I want to say you're about a generation ahead of your father in your attitude and behavior towards your child.

Really? Well. Anything else Ma'am?

Son, I said, leaning another two, three dangerous inches toward him. Son, I must tell you that mad men intend to destroy this beautifully made planet. That the imminent murder of our children by these men has got to become a terror and a sorrow to you and starting now it had better interfere with any daily pleasure.

Speech, speech! he shouted.

I waited a minute but he continued to look up. So I said, I can tell by your general appearance and loping walk that you agree with ine.

I do, he said, winking at his friend, but turning a serious face to mine, he said again, Yes, yes, I do.

Well, then, why did you become so angry at that little girl whose future is like a film which suddenly cuts to white, Why did you nearly slam this little doomed person to the ground in your uncontrollable anger?

Let's not go too far, said the young father. We could get depressed. She WAS jumping around on my poor back and hollering Oink, oink.

When were you angriest--when she wiggled and jumped or when she said oink?

He scratched his wonderful head of dark well cut hair. I guess when she said oink.

Have you ever said oink oink. Think carefully. Years ago perhaps?

No. Well maybe. Maybe.

Whom did you refer to in this way?

He laughed. He called to his friend, Hey Ken, this old person's got something. The cops. In a demonstration. Oink, oink, he said, remembering, laughing.

The little girl smiled and said Oink oink.

Shut up, he said.

What do you deduce from this?

That I was angry at Rosie because she was dealing with me as though I was a figure of authority and it's not my thing, never has been, never will be.

I could see his happiness, his nice grin as he remembered this.

So, I continued, since those children are such lovely examples of what may well be the last generation of humankind, why don't you start all over again, right from the school door as though none of this had ever happened.

Thank you, said the young father. Thank you. It would be nice to be a horse, he said, grabbing little Rosie's hand. Come on Rosie let's go. I don't have all day.

U up says the first father U up says the second.

Giddap shout the children and the fathers yell Neigh Neigh as horses do. The children kick their father's horse chests screaming giddap giddap and they gallop wildly westward.

I lean way out to cry once more, Be careful! Stop! But they've gone too far. Oh anyone would love to be a fierce fast horse carrying a beloved beautiful rider, but they are galloping toward one of the most dangerous street corners in the world. And they may live beyond the intersection across other dangerous avenues.

So I must shut the window after patting the April cooled marigolds with their deep smell of summer. Then I sit in the nice light and wonder how to make sure that they gallop safely home through the airy scary dreams of scientists and the bulky dreams of automakers. I wish I could see just how they sit down at their kitchen tables for a healthy snack (orange juice or milk and cookies) before going out into the new spring afternoon to play.

Copyright © 1985, 1987, 1997 by Grace Paley. All rights reserved.

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