This Is This Story

by David Harris Ebenbach

I’m driving back from somewhere, a nowhere in particular kind of somewhere, and even though I’m not looking for anything, that’s when I see, in the window of the passing car—it’s an old car, a dark, long box of a car—that a bright pink sheet of paper is being pressed to the passenger-side glass, and on it are the words: CALL POLICE, in big block letters. And the car passes me and whatever I was thinking before is now the thought of whether this is a real thing happening, a real-life emergency, and whether I am now the person responsible for whoever inside was pressing the sign against the window—I saw a hand pressing. Uncertain of myself, I follow the car a block that I would have to travel anyway, and I pull up next to it in the left turn lane. The other car’s windows are open halfway. Inside I see a shaggy-headed boy at the wheel, drinking juice from a juice box, and beyond him is a girl with a fat face, still holding the sign against the window, but more loosely, looking away at the boy, and in the back a shadow that might be a baby in a baby seat. This isn’t a real thing. It would be pretty hard for him to miss a sign that pink, no matter how good the juice. And anyway—I realize this on the phone, when I call the police from my house a few minutes later—the sign was printed, laser-printed, and what hostage gets to operate that kind of machinery? Even the 911 operator doesn’t tell me you never know and I did the right thing. She tells me she can barely hear me on my phone that I ought to replace, and after I shout the ridiculous details—I’m not even sure what color the car was—she asks me if I want to talk to an officer. I don’t want to talk to an officer. I want to get back to my life, a life that suddenly seems to be all wide open windows. I hang up the phone and go outside to collect the mail, this the delayed and most important ritual of the day. As usual, only the junk is addressed to me.

David Harris Ebenbach’s first book of short stories, Between Camelots (University of Pittsburgh Press), won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize and the GLCA New Writer’s Award. His poetry has appeared in, among other places, the Beloit Poetry Journal, Subtropics, and Mudfish. Recently awarded fellowships to the MacDowell Colony and the Vermont Studio Center and an Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council, Ebenbach has a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MFA in Writing from Vermont College, and teaches Creative Writing at Earlham College. Find out more at www.davidebenbach.com.

What is “compression” to you? How do you think it operated in the process of writing this piece? And how do you think it continues to operate now that “This is This Story” has become a product? When I start writing, I tend to have an instinct for how long the piece ought to be; some stories feel like they need a page’s worth of space to fully reveal themselves, and others feel like they’re going to need twenty pages. That instinct has a lot of cousins: the instinct for whether the piece ought to be in first person or third, whether the piece ought to be a story or a poem, etc. Of course, the instinct isn’t always right. This piece started out as a poem, a poem that didn’t work until I decided it was secretly a story. Calling it a story gave me more license, I think, to explore the narrator as a character, to make the piece more of a journey. As a result, this final draft is actually a little longer than the first—only by about fifty words, but still. In that way the piece isn’t compressed so much as given just enough room to do what I think it needs to do.

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