52 Stories #24: “A Small, Good Thing” by Raymond Carver

baking bread breakfast bun
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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

Oh my goodness, I’m excited to talk to you about today’s #52Stories selection. This tale by Raymond Carver from his 1983 collection Cathedral was recommended by John Reid over at the GOLiverse Facebook page. What a great selection. Very grateful for this.

Let’s get into it!

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The Pitch

A family’s birthday plans are suddenly altered by an accident.

The Payoff

If you’ve never read this story, I don’t want to say too much here that would spoil it for you. Carver provides a glimpse into the souls of his main characters and draws you into their confusion and pain. This story about the fear and grief of a parent was deeply moving in a way I wasn’t expecting, and the bittersweet ending just crushed me in the best way. It’s absolutely worth your time. Go find it and read it.

The Takeaways

I’m putting up the great big SPOILER WARNING tag here, because I don’t want to spoil your reading of the story. So, please forego the discussion below if you have any intention of reading this one!

Here we go:

  • First, let’s talk about the setting, or rather, the lack thereof. I didn’t pick up on any specific identifiers of place or time period, but the vibe I got was suburbs outside a mid-sized city (somewhere like Indianapolis or Pittsburgh), anytime from the 50’s to the 80’s. There are a few details that might help you zero in on a more specific era, but they’re understated enough that the story feels more timeless.
  • Ann’s contemplation of the baker’s abruptness with her sets up the end of the story nicely without being heavy-handed. I forgot about this detail until I read the story a second time. It’s subtle and effective.
  • I had to keep track of the passage of days in my notes. While Carver does indicate when each day passes, the sections in the hospital feel like a blur, and in my first reading I lost track of how many days had passed. Scotty dies only 2 days after the accident, but it feels like much longer–the reader waits anxiously along with the parents for something to change.
  • I found myself getting frustrated with Dr. Francis and the hospital staff as the story progressed. Obviously, Francis was constantly underselling the seriousness of Scotty’s injury, and there was a point at which I started feeling like this was injurious to the parents. At the same time, I had to remind myself that doctors don’t always know what’s happening, and that doctors and nurses work such long hours and see these tumultuous events happening all the time such that they become inured to it. On the other hand, the narrative is so effective that the reader begins to resent that the hospital staff isn’t more impacted by the Weiss family’s tragedy.
  • The conversation between Ann and Franklin’s parents demonstrates that the Weiss’s are not the only ones in that building facing the pain of loss. It’s a good reminder from Carver that there are many families, each of whose stories are powerful in their own right. Grief can isolate us, making us feel as if we’re the only hurting people in the world, when the reality is there are hurts all around us (as the end of the story also demonstrates).
  • I loved the moment when Ann and Howard each admitted that they had been praying, as if they were afraid that it would sound silly to the other. Carver then comments that Ann realizes that Howard is in this with her, and it makes her grateful to be his wife. What a moving consideration of the isolating and yet uniting effects of grief.
  • The calls from the baker are frustrating and sad. The reader immediately realizes what’s going on, but there’s no way for Howard or even Ann to understand the calls in context. It becomes another layer of tragedy, when they start trying to assign meaning to these seemingly random and cruel prank calls, even wondering if the hit-and-run driver was taunting them. All they can see is the pit of worry and grief they are dwelling in, and it isn’t until after the worst happens that they are able to remember what happened before Monday morning.
  • Scotty’s death was brutal to read as a parent. I just can’t even imagine.
  • Carver takes time to describe in effective detail how each parent expresses their grief. Even though we have minimal description of their lives before this story, they still feel like fully-orbed characters.
  • Ann’s confession that she wants to kill the prank caller is a bold choice. Carver risks alienating the reader if the statement sounds too melodramatic, but the way she says this, graphically but not sensationally, feels authentic.
  • The climax of the story really is when Ann realizes the caller is the baker, and they go to confront him. They both realize that he couldn’t have known about Scotty’s death, but they need someone to blame, someone to receive their anger. However, once they lay out their anger toward the baker, the atmosphere changes, and I think it has everything to do with how the baker responds. This self-admittedly abrupt and unsympathetic man sees the anguish and confusion in these two people, and he chooses to be empathetic instead of defensive. He apologizes for his demeanor and poor communication, and asks them to sit at his table. This is both reconciliation and condolence.
  • The baker delivers the title of the story in a line that hit my heart and stayed there: “You have to eat and keep going. Eating is a small, good thing at a time like this.” He offers them coffee and cinnamon rolls, but more than that, he shows them that they have to push through the deep grief that threatens to overwhelm them.  His kitchen table becomes a refuge to Howard and Ann. He later offers them more to eat, saying, “There’s more. Eat up. Eat all you want. There’s all the rolls in the world in here.” The baker is able to open up as well, confessing his own hurt and loneliness and finding a sympathetic ear in this couple.
  • The final line of the story: “They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving.” A beautiful and hopeful ending to an emotionally draining story.
  • All in all, this was a masterpiece. Carver is able to flesh out character and motivation with minimal exposition, demonstrating “show, don’t tell” to its fullest extent. There’s an authenticity to the dialogue and thoughts of these characters, which makes their heartache that much more affecting. The ending was unexpected. As soon as Scotty was hit by the car, I was hoping the “small, good thing” was that he would recover. In actuality, it was that kindness, compassion, and a shared table are powerful in helping to comfort broken hearts and encourage them to endure in the face of great loss.

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

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