Dispatches | May 29, 2013

During the month of May, The Missouri Review will highlight a single short story to help celebrate National Short Story Month. We’ve asked a diverse group of readers and writers to participate by sharing a short story that demands to be read. Today’s blog post comes from our own technical editor, Patrick Lane.

Only one story I’ve taught has made a student cry in class. Moreover, it wasn’t even a particularly moving passage in the story whose lyricism plucked the heartstrings and brought a tear to the eye; it was the discussion of the story that made the student cry. I reckon that to be some serious narrative power. The story is Judy Budnitz’s “Guilt,” from her 1998 collection Flying Leap.

Budnitz is an accomplished fabulist, and “Guilt” is built on a straightforward “What if?” conceit. Arnie’s mother has just had a heart attack. The story opens with him and his two aunts sitting in the hospital waiting room.

The doctors told us her heart won’t last much longer. Her old ticker is ticking its last, unless something is done. “What can be done?” the aunts cried.

“We can’t fix it,” the doctors said. “She needs a new one, a transplant.”

“Then give her one!” the aunts cried.

“It’s not that easy,” said the doctors. “We need a donor.”

The doctors went away. The aunts looked at me.

“Arnie,” Nina said, “what about your heart?”

Unlike the fantastical conceits of a lot of fabulism, the premise of “Guilt” is disturbingly plausible. When I teach this story some student almost invariably asks, “They can’t actually do that, can they?” In fact, I’m not entirely sure that they couldn’t; but advances in medical technology are not really the crux of “Guilt.” The “What if?” here is not really “What if it were possible to donate your heart to your parent?” but rather “What if you were expected to?”

Arnie is not onboard with this particular form of self-sacrifice. He protests that he needs his heart, that it’s not right that he should give up his life to for his mother:

“We can’t both have my heart,” I say.

“Of course not,” says Nina. “You could get one of those monkey hearts, or that artificial heart they made such a fuss about on the news awhile back.”

“Why can’t Mother get one of those? Or a transplant from someone else?”

“Do you want your mother should have a stranger’s heart? Or a monkey’s heart? Your poor mother? Do you remember how she never used to take you to the zoo because she couldn’t stand to see the filthy monkeys? And you want her to have a monkey’s heart? It would kill her!” Fran cries.

Budnitz has some fun with the stereotypes of Jewish mothers and sons as the aunts continue to needle Arnie, but what’s at stake is the very definition of what it means to be a loving son. The language of love and debt is soon inextricably entangled. The aunts remind Arnie of the sacrifices his mother made to put him through college and of the fact that since graduating all he does is “sit in front of a typewriter all day, call yourself a writer, smoke those cigarettes, never get a haircut–” The accusation is clear: Arnie has been a bad son, a burden on his saintly and long-suffering mother. Donating his heart goes beyond simply the duty of a good son. It becomes the means by which Arnie might finally redeem himself.

Or so the aunts say. Arnie sees the absurdity of their argument and expects reality to come crashing down on them when they present him to the doctor as a potential donor.

“Surely you don’t do that sort of thing?” I say incredulously.

He gazes at me. “It’s very rare, very rare indeed that a son will be so good as to donate his heart. In a few cases it has been done. But it’s so rare to find such a son. A rare and beautiful thing.”

At this point the story adopts a pattern familiar to any fan of The Twilight Zone, in which the rules of the world have changed, but only our protagonist recognizes the difference. Even Arnie’s girlfriend, whom he thinks must surely support him, must surely reject the madness of his relatives, sees the heart donation as not a sacrifice, but a wonderful opportunity:

“Isn’t technology incredible?” Mandy says. “These days doctors can do anything. Now you can share yourself, really give yourself to someone else in ways you never thought were possible before. Your mother must be thrilled.”

In workshop, one of the axes that we use to track tension is connection/disconnection. Are characters growing closer or pulling apart? “Guilt” takes this axis and ties it into knots. We normally think of connection as the positive value and disconnection as the negative. In the classical model, comedies, which end in marriage, are ultimately stories of connection, and tragedies, which end in death, embody disconnection (at least from one perspective). But in “Guilt,” that polarity becomes the point of view of the upside-down world that Arnie finds himself trapped in. It is the aunts and Mandy who insist that Arnie’s reluctance to give up his heart for his dying mother is proof of irredeemable selfishness, who praise connection as the highest virtue, and yet we (at least most of us, I hope) empathize with Arnie. We shiver when Arnie’s mother, ostensibly taking his side and excusing him from any obligation, lays the ultimate guilt trip on her son:

“You have your whole life ahead of you, after all,” my mother says. She looks down at her arms, at the branching veins that creep up them like tendrils of a vine. “I never expected anything from you, you know,” she says. “Of course nothing like this.”

Connection becomes emotional extortion, and disconnection takes the form of a kind of outlaw freedom. Is it right for our parents to expect anything from us? Is it wrong for us to disregard our parents’ expectations of us? Essentially, we all owe a debt to our parents that cannot be repaid, short of repaying a life with a life. Arnie doesn’t get to decide or even debate what he owes his mother; no one will listen to his arguments about whether or not it is fair to ask him to give up his heart. Arnie is left only to decide whether he wants to live in debt or get free of it. As such, the option of giving his very own heart to his mother becomes not the ultimate act of connection and intimacy that all our symbolic traditions would assume it is, but is rather a route to being truly free from her forever.

It was working out this brutal calculus that brought my student to tears. He was trying to articulate what he would say to his mother if they found themselves in such a situation. He didn’t quite get through the whole equation. As he began to get choked up, he simply said, “She wouldn’t — she couldn’t — ask that of me.” For him, Arnie’s dilemma was a “what if?” that had to be kept firmly in the realm of fable and fantasy.

For those aurally inclined, a recording of “Guilt” as read by actor Matt Malloy was featured on This American Life as part of episode #256, “Living Without.” Audio of the episode with the performance of “Guilt” (which is how I first encountered Budnitz’s work) is available at the This American Life website.

Patrick Lane is the Missouri Review’s web editor.