Discourse Worlds: A Heuristic Response

Before responding directly to the chapters on discourse worlds and mental space theory in Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction and Cognitive Poetics in Practice, here is a short story I’m writing using the conceptualizations outlined in these books. In particular, I am making use of M. L. Ryan’s possible worlds theory summarized by both Stockwell and Semino. Stockwell prefers the name discourse worlds ? when adapting Ryan’s theory to literary analysis. Semino cites Ryan’s Principle of Diversification ? to describe the aesthetic potential of plot.

Keeping Ryan’s possible worlds theory in mind, I am rewriting an old story that I started in Jim Hall’s class at UK. Semino notes in her chapter in Cognitive Poetics in Practice that possible worlds theory is not a cognitive theory but a philosophical theory of logic. Consequently, the theory offers little insight into how specific linguistic stimuli interact with reader’s cognitive processing of the text. However, combining possible worlds theory with other cognitive theories, such as schema poetics, can fill in the gaps. I intend to revise the following story further, but I am pleased with the complexity and aesthetic dimensions of the current draft.

Train Track Blues (draft)

It wasn’t over. Moll wanted it to be, but Sonny kept asking for dinner. She turned over in bed. He raised his voice. Three days, Moll had only left the room to pee. Two weeks ago, her job cut her hours and then fired her. Sonny yelled. The walls shook. She needed to get out of her funk. He took her by the neck.

Please. ? Her voiced wavered as she pleaded with him. Don’t bring him into it. ?

He’s in it. ? Sonny took a moment to catch his breath. I’m only asking what he thinks is fit for dinner. ?

David looked up at Moll and Sonny. Moll begged again. But if Sonny couldn’t reach her, maybe her son could. Moll had to pull herself together. They wouldn’t make it on one pay check. David turned his eyes back to the TV. Sonny picked up it up. The chord ripped from the wall. The window shattered, and the TV landed on the pavement outside.


Moll had left Sonny one time and gone to her parents. She hated being there. They spoiled David. But there was no where else, no one else. Sonny sent her letters. Moll’s mother questioned her about the return address: Blackburn Prison?

Those letters worked on her. Moll believed them. Sonny really would be different. When they released him, he found a new job and started making a place for her. She read his letters and knew he wanted her. He had changed.


A bead of sweat rolled down his face, along the edge of his sideburns. The cadence of his voice, even more than his words, told how many times his fists had come down. The smell of his perspiration told the busted television was just the start. Sonny raised his hand.

I don’t want to see this, ? David said and moved toward the door.

Sonny stepped in front of him. Stay, ? he said, but his tone was different than when he spoke to Moll. He never hit the boy, not once. David slipped by him and out the door.


Train tracks cut behind the apartments. The next hours David balanced himself on the steel. Hot tar thickened the air; it burned his nostrils and stuck on the back of his tongue. He imagined hopping a train. The tracks went north. He could run along side and jump into an open box car. He wanted a rush to take him away. Anywhere.

The distance along the tracks made him want to give up. He thought of lying down on the tracks. Summer heat made the railroad ties sticky. He tried to imagine how it would be, his mangled body covered in a sheet. There was comfort the thought of it, like he was out of himself. The train would throw him from the tracks to the edge of the gravel where the bushes were deep August green. Birds, black with bright red shoulders, perched on the power lines. The sky soft blue. A spider–white, grey, pink–crawled across the ties. He thought of his mother.


When Moll had gone to her parents, things had been hard on Sonny. They locked him up, and then Sonny’s PO put a bracelet on his ankle for a couple of months. But Moll had proved herself. And when she came back, she proved she was his. He could have made her do anything, if he didn’t have scruples. But he did. He loved her. So he tried to make a life with her.

They had a nice little rhythm going. She waited tables at night. He had day work digging ditches and pulling concrete. The work was hard, but it kept him out of trouble. Even when they laid him off, he took it like a man.

We’re going out tonight, ? he told Moll when he got home.

She was opening a can of greens. On what? You don’t get paid until Friday. ?

Not always, ? he told her and gave her a kiss on the cheek. He let go of her and started searching the cabinets and drawers. Today I got my check, and I’m taking you out. Let’s go. ?

She watched him as he opened and closed every drawer in the kitchen. I don’t understand, ? she said. Why did they pay you early? ?

Don’t ask so many questions. ? A little edge came back to his voice. Where are my papers? I need my PO’s number. ?

What happened? ? she asked, worry slipping into her own voice.

He cursed. Where the hell are my papers? ?

She pointed to the drawer across from the stove. Just tell me. ?

Sonny went to the drawer. It was crammed full and stuck half open.

Sonny, did you get fired? ? She came up behind him.

He gave the drawer a hard yank, and the front panel came off. His hand swung free, catching Moll on the side of her head. Knocked her down.

I’m sorry. I didn’t mean– ? He was sorry and pulled her up. You’re okay, ? he said.

Moll didn’t resist. She was okay. She stood without another word.

I just need the number off my papers, ? he explained and rummaged through the broken drawer. Then I’m taking you out. ?

She made David a plate and set it on the table. School tomorrow, ? she reminded him. Be asleep by eleven. ?

Sonny took her out. They went to a club. She had danced. And a week later, he had found work on another construction site. Even after losing his job, he still did for her.


Moll swept up glass from the linoleum. Outside the window, Sonny hauled the broken television to the dumpster. She wished he wasn’t such a child. Most of her life, she’d been a mother, over half her life. She fed and changed diapers when they were full of shit. She didn’t need more shit like this broken glass.

Lovers come and go, it’s true. But with children, lovers never go all the way. She wished–no, she loved her children, but if she and Sonny could start without their histories…painful histories. She wanted him to know that women feel it worse. He wasn’t alone. If he could take care of her…or if she were stronger herself… She pulled the blinds closed. She wished she didn’t need him.

When Sonny came back inside, the living room looked, almost, like nothing had happened. He told her to make a phone call. Something had to be done about her son.


David put a penny down and waited by the bush. When the train finally came, he was disappointed in the lumbering, creaking metal cars. It made him tired in that adolescent way that seems endless. But the penny came out shinny: bright, flat copper with a sharp edge.

Parked out front of the apartment was a tan station wagon. The rough putty and grey primer around the wheel wells were familiar, but a strange woman sat in the passenger seat. His father had come.

The three of them sat in the living room. Sonny stood up when David opened the door. Moll sat on the couch, wringing her hands. His father sat on the chair, his face stiff and guarded. The boy can’t stay in my home and disrespect me, ? Sonny said.

David closed the door. They stared at him. A shard of glass that hadn’t been swept up was flush with the metal strip that separated the carpet from the kitchen. I can respect Sonny, ? he said. I can respect you. ?

Moll’s eyes smiled. She looked up from her hands. Sonny didn’t speak. His father tried to convince him to go with him. Was he really sure?

I’m sure, ? he said. No one should have to go through it alone.

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