Paley: Anxiety A Story
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
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
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.
lean far out the window. Stopl Stop! I cry.
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?
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
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
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
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?
Well maybe. Maybe.
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,
The little girl smiled and said Oink oink.
up, he said.
do you deduce from this?
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.
© 1985, 1987, 1997 by Grace Paley. All rights reserved.