Welcome to the new installment of my Dissecting the Short Story series. This week's entry is a timely one, being for a story set around the holiday season. As with all entries in this series, my intention here is to look at a story which was sold to a pro-rate fiction market, generally one of the large digest magazines, and see what we -- as writers -- can learn from it.
I thought this was a fantastic story and one which went in directions I would not have expected before reading it. If you have a copy of this magazine, it might be worth your time to read this one before reading my notes below.
"God Bless" by Barbara Westwood Diehl
January, 2012 Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine
Third Person, Chronological (Well, pretty much...)
Summary [WARNING: Spoilers Included!]:
Donald Markham is at his company's end-of-year celebration where he has just been a runner-up for the Top Sales award at his company. He's bitter about the loss, with a refrain of "It should have been me" running through his head as he watches the winner celebrate and be fawned over by their coworkers. Through a reminiscence we find out that a crude joke made to one of his female clients very well may have kept him from achieving a sale that would have put him over the top. But he places the blame on her instead of on himself.
He leaves the party in a foul mood, at least a bit tipsy. Getting into his car, he dings the door of the car next to his. He considers giving the other car a bigger dent out of spite, but is worried he will somehow get caught so he drives off, but clips the rear fender of the other car on his way out.
He picks up some food and heads toward home. He ruminates that next year he should "rethink his approach to the female accounts, work on his sensitivity. Recalibrate his hormone detector or something." Stopped at a light, he notices a person standing with a backpack and a carboard sign. All he can read on the sign is "God Bless" and Donald surmises that the rest will read something like "Will Work For Food." Waiting on the light, he wonders what the man is keeping in his backpack and how he got there. Impulsively, he rolls down his window and holds out a $20 bill to the man then opens the door of his car and steals the man's backpack. As he drives off, the man chases him and Donald thinks he hears him yelling "My life. Give me back my life."
At home, Donald notices an unfamiliar Pontiac Firebird, an old one in great condition, sitting near his house. He grabs the mail and goes inside, leaving the man's backpack to inspect later. As he goes through the mail, he notices that the postage on the envelopes is all insufficient. Some have a 22 cent stamp, others a 33 cent stamp. A card-size envelope addressed to "Master Donald Markham" bears a 6 cent stamp and contains a "Happy Birthday to a Special Grandson" card with a dollar bill inside.
More strange things are happening. He sees the message light blinking on his phone, but when he turns to it, the familiar phone isn't there. In its place is an old avocado-colored rotary phone. There are more letters. One saying that Donald Markham had not been accepted to a university. The phone rings, now there's an old tape answering machine. A woman tells him she's left his possessions on the side porch and that "Dee Ann still loves her daddy." The sink is all wrong, there's no dishwasher handle, only a cabinet.
He wonders just what he took from the man with the backpack. He sees two more envelopes. One with a large medical bill for oncology services for a Mrs. Marcia Markham. The other he is certain is a condolence card and he can't open it even though there never had been a Mrs. Markham. He decides that he has to get the backpack back to its owner. He digs through it first and finds things representing his own losses. His high school class ring, lost in a river. The engagement ring returned to him once upon a time. He leaves it all in there, puts the birthday card with the dollar bill in the backpack and heads back outside.
The Firebird is no longer bright and shiny and Donald is praying that the backpack's owner will be where he saw him last. He is, and Donald approaches him to return the backpack. In the other man's face Donald "saw his own true face, and all he would ever lose."
One of the things that drew me to this story was its blending of fantasy and crime. Since I'm interested in both the Speculative Fiction genres and Mystery/Crime, it's great to see a story like this one (or Dave Zeltserman's "A Hostage Situation", previously dissected on my blog) printed. It seems like the editor of EQMM has an interest in this sort of crossover story when it's done well.
There is a definite change in the main character throughout the story. At the beginning, his "It should have been me" mantra reigns supreme in his mind. By the end of the story, he realizes that his own losses are "small potatoes" compared to those of the person from whom he stole the backpack. Donald Markham is a rather detestable person early in the story, but you get the sense that he's learned a lot about life in that evening. There are definite echoes of "A Christmas Carol." Some are subtle, like a decal on the Pontiac Firebird glowing when Markham turns the key in his door -- making me think of the doorknocker on Ebenezer Scrooge's door. And then shortly thereafter, a more direct connection -- his reminiscence of "an old TV show" and the man's "God Bless" sign turning into "God bless us one and all."
Even after going over the story a few times, I think there's some ambiguity in the ending. When Donald "sees his own true face and all that he would ever lose" does this suggest that what he experienced was a premonition of what his future might be like? Personally, I think it's more a realization that everyone loses things in life and that an attitude of "There but for the grace..." may be more productive than an "It should have been me..." attitude. If anyone else has read this one, I'd be curious to know what you thought of the ending.
Did The Story Work For Me?
Oh my goodness, yes. As soon as I read this story, I knew I had to pick it for one of these entries. The ambiguity of the ending doesn't bother me at all and while I think I know how I'd interpret it, I can certainly see justification for other readings as well.
For those doing NaNoWriMo, there are still five full days left to finish up. If I manage to not finish at this point, I'm going to feel like I really fell flat on my face. I'm hoping I have a celebratory post on this topic sometime in the next few days to share with you all!
Happy reading and writing, all!