When the Light Gets Green Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The first-person narrator of this story—a young boy when its events take place—remembers his grandfather from an unspecified time after 1918 and the old man’s death. The memories (his own and his grandfather’s, both imperfectly understood) lend depth to the tale and at the same time determine its loose-jointedness.

The story begins appropriately with a recurrent but inaccurate memory—“My grandfather had a long white beard”—and the shock the boy used to feel when he came home from school and watched his grandfather trimming his beard before the mirror: “It is gray and pointed, I would say then, remembering what I had thought before.” As memories will, the boy’s memories combine to create an ideal morning home for the summer from school, but even in the familiar routine of beard-trimming, ceremonious dressing (black vest, gold watch and chain, corncob pipe), and breakfast—always the same—the boy finds himself reminded of his grandfather’s mortality; significantly, this is contrasted with his having been a soldier, “like General Robert E. Lee”: He recalls noticing how “shrunken” his grandfather’s “hips and backsides” were and the way his own stomach tightened at the sight, “like when you walk behind a woman and see the high heel of her shoe is worn and twisted and jerks her ankle every time she takes a step.”

The domestic comedy of breakfast, related as another never-changing given in the boy’s life, reveals a set of tensions and obstinacies not consciously understood by the boy. The laborious explanation of why Uncle Kirby called grandfather Mr. Barden indicates a clannishness perhaps not even recognized by the boy and, ironically, suggests that the grandfather is still in charge, though he clearly is not: “It was because my Uncle Kirby was not my real uncle, having married my Aunt Lucy, who lived with my grandfather.” The matter of the cob pipe becomes a test of authority between husband and wife and between father and daughter, but Uncle Kirby’s grin, “like a dog panting,” and Mr. Barden’s “Don’t it stink” leave the test unresolved.

The story proceeds with three scenes. The first introduces contingency for the first time (“If it had rained right and was a good tobacco-setting season . . . ”). The tobacco-setting occasions a detailed and idyllic description of the lot, the cold stream that runs through...

(The entire section is 983 words.)