Short Story: The Gertrude Stein Challenge


I have been learning a lot about Gertrude Stein and while I find her to be a mostly horrendous/sloppy writer, she did have some very insightful theories about writing as a practice, specifically the repetition and rhythm of words. She believed that by repeating a word or phrase and variations of it over and over you can create a bit of a mind trick with the reader, allowing you to set a definition and then morph it throughout the story to get across a complex emotion that enhances the meaning.

She took this to an extreme and would often repeat words and linked phrases more than a hundred times in her short stories and novels. Stein likened word repetitions to “witnesses” in defense or support of something. She was so known for this repetition that when she came back to the US on a visit from Paris, the paper’s headline was “Gerty Gerty Stein Stein is Back Home Home Back.”

I have been practicing and playing around with this and was challenged by a friend to write a short story in which I repeated a word over and over, to see how it goes. So, below is what I came up with, a story in which I repeat the same word almost 50 times.

The idea is not to repeat it for the sake of repeating; rather, the word not only serves multiple purpose and meanings within the story, it also becomes the theme of the story.

I chose the word I chose (see below) because its meaning can be morphed. Hopefully it doesn’t become annoying within the story to have it repeated – maybe you barely notice? I also chose it because it represents the theme of the story, the struggle the characters are facing.

So here’s Once Upon a Time, written for good ole Gerty. Pretty challenging when taken to an extreme but, sort of interesting as well.

Style: Theory of Repetition and Insistence

Word Count: ≈ 3,200

Once Upon a Time

I laid in bed on top of the covers and waited to see if she would change her mind and come knock on my door. When she didn’t I got undressed and fell asleep. An hour later the alarm went off. I brushed my teeth, washed my face, dressed, donned my backpack, and walked to the lobby.

Not a lot of time had passed, and I was excited to see her again. I thought that was a good thing. No, a great thing. I would see her again, and even better, not a lot of time had passed. There was no difference between last night and this morning. There had not been enough time to distinguish the end of the night from the beginning of the morning. There had been no time for new perspectives, or for things to change, because not a lot of time had passed.

In the lobby and restaurant there were many people that I knew and I had to pretend like nothing was happening. I had to act and talk like everything was ordinary.

“Did you sleep well?”

“Yes,” I told them. “Very well.”

I sat down at one of the tables and ordered scrambled eggs with ham, fruit, beans, and coffee. I sat with my back to the wall so that I could look out into the lobby. It was filling up quick. Everyone had their rolling suitcases and they stood in line at the desk, waiting to check out. Before long more people that I knew came down. But I did not see her, and I could not tell anyone that I was saving a seat. So when they came over I had to let them sit down and order breakfast. I listened to them talk and I ate the eggs, ham, and beans. Afterwards I ate the fruit and drank the coffee. While they were busy talking I wrapped up two slices of bread in my napkin and set it quickly in my bag. None of them noticed and they went on talking. They had all slept very well.

When I saw her come down the feelings of the night returned. It’s a thought that you have. It’s a memory you remember. It’s a pain that you feel. It’s a lift that you get. It all happens at the same time and you feel it come through you, and if you’re lucky it is the same as it was before. For me it was the same and more and getting better each time. Each time it happened I knew that I was still living, and I knew that I was living it right. I smiled at her. I was happy to feel it and interested to keep it going for a long time.

She returned my smile, but our moment was interrupted when a man came into the lobby from the street. He stood in front of the door on the mat and announced that it was time for the bus to leave. I motioned toward the bus with my head, and she motioned toward the front desk. Everyone filed out from the lobby into the street and put their suitcases on the curb next to the bus. I boarded the bus and walked all the way to the back. I sat in the last row. She was the last one to board the bus. I watched her walk down the aisle, saying hi to the people that she knew, and to the new people she had met. Eventually she sat down in the seats across from me.

It had worked out perfectly, and I was happy about it. With everyone in front of us and no one behind us, it felt like no one could see us. I slid over by the window and tapped my hand on the seat next to me. She moved her bags off her lap and slid across the aisle. I opened my backpack and took out the two slices of bread I had wrapped up in the napkin. She was happy about it. I was happy about it. I put my hand on her knee, and she put her hand on mine. But we kept it in check. We could not talk about our time together, what had happened, what had not happened, what we had wanted to happen or what would happen next time. All we could do was sit next to each other knowing that we were running out of time.

There was no traffic and we got out of the city and on to the freeway without delay. It was a hell of a time for that to happen. It was a hell of a time for any of it to happen. I stared out the window, thinking about her, and all the while the green, lush countryside blended together and passed me by because I was thinking about her. But I was okay with it. I could always find time to see the countryside again. The girl was another story. I knew I had to take full advantage of whatever we had left. That’s the reality of time. In the beginning it is on your side and then, after some time, it is not.

“What time do you get home?”

“This afternoon,” she said. “And you?”

“Not until tomorrow,” I said, “I have to spend the night in California.”

“Oh, you poor thing.”

“That’s why you’re the queen of clubs,” I said, “And I’m just a lowly three of diamonds.”

“But you know,” she said, “The queen always falls for the farmer.”

I checked the rows in front of us. Some people were having conversations. Some had their eyes closed. I squeezed her knee and whispered.

“You can’t say things like that after you reject me.”

“When did I reject you?”

“Last night,” I said.

She smiled. “Was that your way of trying, waiting there?”

“You did not want me to try.”

“I know I said that.”

I smiled when she said it. “So,” I said. “I can try now?”

“No,” she said, her cheeks flush, looking around. “Please don’t try.”

“So,” I said, “It’s the same.”

“No, it’s not the same. Can’t you see that?”

“No, I can’t see that right now.”

“It’s not the same. And one day it might be different.”

“But for now it’s the same.”

“It could be different someday,” she said, “When the timing is better.”

I did not like the sound of it. I did not want to wait until next time.

“Okay,” I said, “Let’s not waste time talking about it.”

The bus continued down the freeway and I could see the top of the volcano out the left side of the bus. Its slopes were green at the bottom, thick with rainforest, and then brown going up above tree line. The clouds had cleared and I could see the smoke coming out the top.

“It’s hard to imagine we were up there,” I said. “From here it seems so far away.”

“It’s pretty tall,” she said.

I squeezed her knee. “It was fun up there,” I said.

“We had a good time.”

She leaned into me a little bit as the bus took the next exit and made a sharp right turn into the airport. It was very small, serving only four flights a day. We were there much too early. But I was not going to complain about extra time with her. Everyone got off the bus and waited while the driver unloaded the bags. We filed into the departure hall and got in line at the desk. Literally everyone from the bus was in the same line for the same flight, and I could see the attendants were unprepared. It was going to take a long time.

At first, I thought this was a good thing. We could wait in line together, and we could keep on talking. But there were too many people that we knew, and I could not say anything that I wanted to say, or try anything that I wanted to try. We waited in line and talked to the people that we knew all around us. It took so long to check in that we got to the gate very late. She asked me if I had any spare change to buy a water, and I said of course, and she bought it and gave me a sip, and before we knew it boarding had begun. The flight left on time and we were not able to slip away and talk. I was not happy about it.

My seat on the plane was nowhere near her. As much as I wanted to, I could not ask the person next to her to switch. I could not do that to her in front of everyone. I did not want them to think bad about her. I knew she was not a bad person. I sat in my seat and I read for a while and then, as it goes, I fell asleep. I did not know I was sleeping until I woke up to find out that I had fallen asleep. The book was still in my lap. When the plane landed I got off and boarded the shuttle. It filled up before she got off the plane. I waited for her at the shuttle stop and together, with all the people that we knew, we stood at baggage claim. I said goodbye to the people that I knew and to many of the people I had met.

“Goodbye,” one of them said, handing me a card. “Safe travels back home.”

“See you next year,” I said.

I put the card in my pocket and I looked for her. She took her bag off the belt and came over. There was a group of us and together we walked out of the terminal into the main lobby. From there, the group was going to split into two groups. Some of us were going to the domestic terminal, and some of us were going to the international terminal. The group started to split up. She was going one way, and I was going the other. We were not going to get a private or proper goodbye, because there were too many people that we knew. I hugged her the same as I did everyone else, but with an extra squeeze.

“I really enjoyed meeting you,” I said.

“I hope we stay friends for a long time.”

I followed the group of people that I knew to the bus. We all got on and it took us to the international terminal. At the check in desks we all got split up at our respective airlines. I waited in line and checked in at the counter. After I had my boarding pass I checked my phone. I had a message from her. She had sent it fifteen minutes ago.

“Are you on the bus yet?”

“I’m already in the terminal,” I responded, “But I can come back. It’s only five minutes.”

I stood with my backpack in the middle of the departure hall. All around me people were walking and I could hear the announcements overhead. I waited for her response.

“I’m already past security,” she said.

I looked at the messages and felt empty. I wanted to spend more time with her. I wished I had paid more attention to my phone. My spirits were raised when another message came through.

“Before I go back, I just want to tell you what a great time I had.”

“I wish we had more of it,” I wrote.

“Me too,” she said.

I waited in line at security. It pained me to know that she was getting on another plane. I walked through the airport and found my friend in one of the lounges. He asked me about how it had gone. I went over to the counter and made a plate of salted peanuts, cheese cubes, and crackers. I put them down in the center of the table and then went back up for two cans of beer. I gave one to my friend and I started from the beginning. I told him everything I could remember. It took quite a bit of time, and he listened to me talk while we drank the beers and ate the peanuts, cheese, and crackers. It felt good to talk about her and to remember her. After I finished he said he was sad to see the story end. Then I had to book a hotel room in Los Angeles. He had to reserve a car in Florida. We worked on our computers and I tried to reserve a room at a beach hostel. But I was too old to rent a bunk, they said, and so I booked a room at a hotel near the airport.

I said goodbye to my friend and I boarded my flight to Los Angeles. On the plane I did not talk to anyone. But I wanted to pass the time. I wrote in my notebook and I listened to music. I listened to the same song a few times, over and over. When the plane landed there was a delay in pulling up to the jet bridge. We had to sit and wait on the ground for twenty minutes. I closed my eyes and pictured that I was back in the town. The square was quiet now that all the cafes and bars had shut down. There was a silence that had not existed at any other time of the night. The cathedral was big and you felt its presence no matter where you were in the square, and it was lit up in the night and it towered over the bench.

“I agree,” I said.

“I never feel this way,” she said, “I meet so many people and I never feel this way.”

“I haven’t felt this way in a long time,” I said.

They were able to get the jet bridge to work and everyone stood up to get off the plane. I pulled my pack from the overhead and followed the line of people off the plane, onto the jet bridge, and into the airport. The delay caused me to miss the hotel shuttle, and I had to wait fifty minutes for the next one. I bought a sandwich from one of the shops and I stood outside on the curb, eating the sandwich.

I did not know what to do. I wanted to feel like there was more to it. I thought of anything else I could think of to kill time while I waited for the shuttle. Finally it came and took me to the hotel. I checked in and went to my room. I undressed, showered, and got into bed, under the covers. I had to be back at the airport in five hours. I did not sleep well. Most of the time I was lying awake. I was tired in the morning on the way back to the airport. I went through security and bought a coffee. Boarding was delayed, but not bad, only twenty minutes. The flight was six hours and I watched two movies that I had already seen.

That evening I went to the beach. I brought a beer and a towel. I put the beer inside the towel while I swam, then came back up, fished out the beer, laid out the towel, and sat down. I drank the beer and looked out over the water. The clouds were changing with the sun going down. Blue. White. Pink. Purple. It was very beautiful. When it was dark it started to rain and when I got home I sat at my desk and listened to the rain while I wrote. I did not write about what had happened, but I did write to her. I wrote about my trip home and I told her about the swim and the sunset. I wanted her to know more about where I lived, and more about how I felt, and to understand that if she came to visit, we would, undoubtedly, have a good time. I addressed the envelope to her office and put the letter inside, along with a couple photos of the cathedral I had printed out. I wrote my return address, stamped it, and put it on the counter with the other outgoing mail.

The next morning I mailed the letter. I knew it was going to take a long time to get there, and that I would have to wait a long time to hear anything about it. I went out with friends to distract myself. I listened to what they had to say but I was not that interested. I was barely present. All I wanted to think about was how she was doing and how she felt about the letter. After a week I grew impatient and I wrote her a message. I told her I hoped she was having a good morning and a good walk through the park. I knew it was wrong the moment I sent it.

“Please, not this early,” she wrote back, “I don’t want to stir things up.”

“I’m sorry. I just want to talk to you.”

“It’s okay. I’m not at home now, so we can talk for a while.”

“Are you in the park?”

“No,” she said, “I didn’t go today.”

“Why not?”

“I’m driving to an early meeting.”

“Certainly you mean you’re sitting in traffic.”

“Yes, lol. I’m listening to music. Did you like the song I sent you?”

“Yes,” I said. “I listened to it a lot on the way home.”

“That makes me happy.”

“Did you get the letter?”

“Yes,” she said, “I’ve read it three times now.”

I was happy about it. “When will you write me?”

“I haven’t had the time but I’ll make some soon.”

“You can’t make time,” I told her. “You should know that by now.”

“I’ll find time.”

“I hope so.”

But the weeks went by in the way that they do and now too much time has passed for me to keep on believing. Too much time has passed and something in her perspective has changed. Not that I can blame her. After all, she has a lot going on, and these kinds of things only happen when the timing is right. Perhaps next year, when we all meet again, or some other time down the road, things will be different, and time will again be on our side. Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe she’ll never write. Maybe I’ll move on and forget about it. Maybe it’s all just something that happened at a conference in Mexico. I guess there’s only one thing that will let me know for sure. Time. I think this is a good thing. No, a great thing. I will see her again next year, and even better, time might be back on our side.


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