The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 16, No. 2

Short Life of Trouble

by Sam Shepard

A one-act play, as it really happened one
afternoon in California

In the dark, a Jimmy Yancey piano solo plays very softly, floating in the background. Soft, blue, foggy light creeps in, extreme upstage, revealing a large, weathered brick patio bordered by shaggy grass and opening out to a distant view of the Pacific Ocean. The rhythmic splashing of waves is heard beneath the piano music and continues throughout the play, always in
the background. The only set piece onstage is a round redwood table with a big, yellow umbrella stuck in the middle of it and two redwood benches set across from one another at the table. The table and benches are down left (from the actors' point of view).
     As the light keeps rising, a short, skinny guy named
Bob is seen center stage dressed in nothing but a pair of light-green boxer shorts. His arms are clasped across his chest with each hand gripping the opposite shoulder, as though warding off the cold. He turns in a slow circle to his right and then repeats the circle to his left, looking out to the ocean as his gaze passes it. He stops, facing the audience, and covers his face with both hands, then rubs his eyes and draws his hands slowly down his cheeks to his chin. His mouth falls open and he drops his head back on his shoulders to stare at the sky. He holds that position. The piano music stops abruptly. Sam—a tall, skinny guy dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, carrying a tape recorder, several notebooks, and a six-pack of beer—enters from right. He stops. Bob drops his hands and stares at Sam. Pause. The sound of distant waves continues.

Sam: Ready?

Bob: Yeah. I just gotta make a couple phone calls first. (Bob moves toward stage right, then stops) Oh, you know where I just was?

Sam: Where?

Bob: Paso Robles. You know, on that highway where James Dean got killed?

Sam: Oh yeah?

Bob: I was there at the spot. On the spot. A windy kinda place.

Sam: They've got a statue or monument to him in that town, don't they?

Bob: Yeah, but I was on the curve where he had the accident. Outsida town. And this place is incredible. I mean, the place where he died is as powerful as the place he lived.

Sam: Nebraska?

Bob: Where'd he live?

Sam: He came from the farm, didn't he? Somewhere.

Bob: Yeah, Iowa or Indiana. I forget. But this place up there has this kind of aura about it. It's on this kind of broad expanse of land. It's like that place made James Dean who he is. If he hadn't've died there he wouldn't've been James Dean.

Sam: Hm.

Bob moves as though to exit stage right again, but stops again.

Bob: You know what Elvis said? He said that if James Dean had sang he'd've been Ricky Nelson.

Sam: Is that right?

Bob: Yeah. (pause) You need anything?

Sam: Nope.

Bob: You brought some beer?

Sam: Yeah.

Bob: I just gotta make a couple phone calls.

Sam: Good.

To read the rest of this story and others from the Summer 2012 issue, please purchase a copy from our online store.