A Tale

By: Rick Ruscoll

Last night the American short story, in critical condition, was taken by ambulance to a hospital emergency room; there, the American short story was left gasping on a gurney for who knows how long, when Stephen King rushed in.

“This is the American short story you have here,” Stephen King said, to the lady at the Admissions desk. “Are you going to just leave it here, to die?”

“Excuse me, sir, but who are you?” asked the lady at the Admissions desk.

“Stephen King,” Stephen King said. “Perhaps you’ve heard of me. Besides writing sixty books, I’ve written nearly four hundred short stories –- “

“Sir, it’ll have to wait its turn.”

“Listen to me!” Stephen King exclaimed, in a commanding stentorian voice now, full of authority and urgency. “We need to get the American short story into the OR! Now!”

The American short story was wheeled into the operating room. Stephen King performed the operation himself, with the assistance of Joyce Carol Oates.

Post-op, the American short story was moved to a windowless double room. The American short story lay intubated and unconscious, sharing the room with Norm or Norma, a man or woman whose appendix had burst.

“So,” said Joyce Carol Oates, tentatively, “all that — that came out –- in the operation –- “

“Code,” Stephen King said.

Joyce Carol Oates had a horrified look on her face. “But how did it get there?”

“It’s in all of us, now. But it was bad. Very bad.”

“So — will it –- is it going to –- “

“I don’t know. I just don’t know.”

Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates, sitting on either side of the American short story’s bed, watched as Norm or Norma, on the other side of the room, received a continuous stream of visitors –- adults, teenagers, children, doing all the usual stuff, talking on or playing on or listening to their cell phones, iPods, iPhones, Blackberries, texting, IM’ing, checking and sending email, going online to check football scores, the weather, their Facebook page, their stocks, their blogs, their avatars.

The hospital walls shook, suddenly, as a huge plane went by. Someone said it was the private jet of Kaching, an entrepreneur who had founded a Google-like Internet search company in China.

At this point a man who looked a little bit like the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche –- wearing a dark suit, with bushy dark hair and corresponding facial hair –- entered, and leaned over the American short story. “Nevermore,” he whispered, which means, in poetic language, “Never again.” It’s not exactly clear what the man, Edgar Allan Poe, meant by that, or whether he was there as a well-wisher or a mourner, and then just like that he vanished.

“Where has he been, where has he gone?” Joyce Carol Oates mused.

“What did you say?” asked Stephen King.

Before Joyce Carol Oates could answer, a man who looked like a healthy butcher appeared, and announced, “They named a candy bar after me!”

Joyce Carol Oates’ eyes widened, as did Stephen King’s. “O!” they cried out in unison –- for it was none other than O. Henry! –- the man for whom the O. Henry Prize, an annual prize given for exceptional short stories, was named.

“I like this!” O. Henry exclaimed, munching on an Oh Henry! candy bar. “Although it set me back one dollar and fifty cents! That’s nothing short of robbery; left me with just thirty-seven cents.”

That story may be apocryphal,” Joyce Carol Oates said, respectfully, “I mean, as to whether the Oh Henry! candy bar was actually named after you, O. –- “

The crowd around Norm or Norma was growing restive and generally giving Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates and O. Henry dirty looks, apparently thinking that the three writers were making too much noise.

Now Carson McCullers showed up, along with Truman Capote. The tall, shy, awkward, heavy-boned Carson McCullers found a seat, and Truman found a seat on Carson McCullers’ lap.

“It’s on its last legs?” asked Carson McCullers, so quietly one could barely hear her.

“Did you say, ‘Its fast legs’?” asked Stephen King.

“Last –- last legs,” said Carson McCullers, a bit louder this time.

“Who could have imagined it would ever come to this?” said Truman Capote, the word “this” sounding like “thith.” Truman took out, and started reading, As I Lay Dying.

Stephen King was suddenly conscious of the fact that his knees were sore. As he massaged his knees, he thought that it must be from all the scrunching down he’d been doing, over the past few weeks as well as the past thirty years or so, in order to check out the bottom shelves of magazine racks, necessary if one was to find magazines with short stories, other than The New Yorker and a few others, more prominently displayed.

A procession of visitors appeared, now –- ghostly and wraithlike and clearly down-at-heels –- from the likes of The Kenyon Review, The Iowa Review, Mississippi Review, Colorado Review, Boston Review, and Zoetrope: All Story.

These visitors –- with a clack! and a clack! and a clack! clack! clack! –- dropped their nonworking cell phones onto the floor –- phones so old they just didn’t work anymore? Out of battery? Bills not paid? –- and climbed into bed with the American short story.

But why were they doing this? To resuscitate the American short story? Or to lie down and die with it? What in the world was going on? And what were Stephen King and Joyce Carole Oates doing now? Paying their last respects? Praying? Sitting shiva? And was Stephen King actually picking up a cell phone off the floor now to see if it still worked? Why would he be doing that? What kind of sense did any of this make?

And what did Norm or Norma have to do with any of this?

“I’m not dead yet.”

Wait –- who said that? The American short story? Yes! It was the American short story, ripping out the intubation and glowering at everyone, in and out of bed. “Look at me!” thundered the American short story. “Do I look dead to you?”

Everyone present had tears in their eyes. Even Norm or Norma, from across the room, seemed moved.

But what they were all thinking was what they would have answered, if they’d dared: “Yes;” or, “Just about.”

The American short story fell back down on the bed now, from the exertion. “Repent,” it said, softly. Everyone in and out of bed leaned close, now, to hear. “Get a gadgectomy…And then…laugh if you dare…read…And, not just online…Read short stories…Especially the ones with flavorful little bits…of the heart and soul of the writer…and of America….”

Sing hallelujah! Not quite dead! The American short story!


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