Andre Dubus's short story Killings has a bit of an open ending because we don't feel at peace at the end of the story. What do you think will happen next? How do you think murdering Richard Strout will affect Matt Fowler in the future?
We can’t possibly feel peace at the end of Andre Dubus’s short story Killings. Any parent’s worst nightmare is the death of a child. When that child is 21-years-old and just beginning his life as an adult, his death carries with it a pain that is entirely eternal. When Dubus’s story begins, Matt and Ruth Fowler have just buried their son, Frank. Frank’s killer, Richard Strout, walks free, out on bail for Frank’s murder, and likely to receive a lenient sentence for what his attorney will certainly argue was a crime of passion. Matt and Ruth live in a small Massachusetts town, the kind of town where most people know each other and each other’s business. Matt owns a store and he and Ruth live a simple life, with occasional trips to Boston for Red Sox games providing the most visible form of entertainment. Hints as to their existence are provided early in Killings, when Matt contemplates how Frank’s death has impacted him:
“It was a cool summer night; he thought vaguely of the Red Sox, did not even know if they were at home tonight; since it happened he had not been able to think about any of the small pleasures he believed he had earned, as he had earned also what was shattered now forever: the quietly harried and quietly pleasurable days of fatherhood.”
Matt and Ruth know that, no matter what happens, no matter how much good may lie ahead, their lives will never again be the same as before Frank’s murder. Their marriage, as is common in the aftermath of a great tragedy, has become strained. Indeed, Dubus provides clues that suggest the marriage has been bereft of passion for some time, even well-before their son’s death, as when Matt reflects on his and Ruth’s relationship over the years (“living with her for thirty-one years and still not knowing what she talked about with her friends.”) Frank’s romantic relationship with Mary Ann had served as a wedge between Matt and Ruth, with Matt the more understanding of their son’s infatuation with the beautiful, erotic older woman. Ruth, the protective mother suspicious of the allegedly promiscuous and already married Mary Ann, remains skeptical and fearful of could lie in store for her son’s future. The following exchange between the couple illustrates the divide:
Frank: “Her age is no problem. What’s it matter when she was born? And that other business: even if it’s true, which it probably isn’t, it’s got nothing to do with Frank, it’s in the past. And the kids are no problem. She’s been married six years; she ought to have kids. Frank likes them. He plays with them. And he’s not going to marry her anyway, so it’s not a problem of money.”
Ruth: “Then what’s he doing with her?”
Frank :“She probably loves him, Ruth. Girls always have. Why can’t we just leave it at that?”
It is, of course, impossible to state with certainty what will happen to individuals after the story ends. Loss of a child under the circumstances described in Killings can easily cause a marriage to disintegrate. Given what Dubus tells us about the differences Matt and Ruth had over Frank’s relationship with Mary Ann, it can be assumed that Ruth is resentful and bitter over her husband’s failure to intervene in their son’s relationship. Matt’s success in killing Strout pacifies Ruth, at least for the short term. The distance between them will probably never be bridged. Ruth’s pleasure upon learning that her son’s killer is himself now dead, however, indicates that, now, she can allow life to go on. The story ends with Matt and Ruth lying in bed soon after Matt’s return from exacting vengeance upon the murderer:
“She was holding him, wanting him, and he wished he could make love with her but he could not. He saw Frank and Mary Ann making love in her bed, their eyes closed, their bodies brown and smelling of the sea; the other girl was faceless, bodiless, but he felt her sleeping now; and he saw Frank and Strout, their faces alive; he saw red and yellow leaves falling to the earth, then snow: falling and freezing and falling; and holding Ruth, his cheek touching her breast, he shuddered with a sob that he kept silent in his heart.”
There is no “happily-ever-after” in a story like this. The enduring sorrow at the loss of their youngest child and the pro-forma manner in which they existed even before the murder of Frank suggests that Matt and Ruth will never truly be happy again. In all likelihood, Matt will live the remainder of his days emotionally dead, existing in a vacuum of sorts outside of which nobody will truly be able to reach him, save for Willis. Ruth will continue on, a façade of normality on her face, growing deader inside by the day. Their marriage may survive, for the benefit of their other children if for no other reason, but they will exist like strangers among each other.