The first few paragraphs of “After Twenty Years” might first strike the reader as boring. A handsome cop walks the beat on an empty street on a cold and rainy night. However, as the story unfolds, the reader discovers how the details of that exposition lay the groundwork for what is to come.
The cop is handsome but unaware of it. He takes pride in keeping his city safe. He knows the neighborhood intimately. He makes a point of checking for locked doors and scans the area for anything out of place. We learn later that he is searching for someone.
All this contrasts sharply with the stranger named Bob whom he finds waiting in darkened door. Bob has a colorless white face that is scarred. He’s from the West, where he has moved around, fighting to make his way instead of keeping the peace.
The cold rain suggests the metaphorical storm created by the meeting of these two characters. Bob, the man in the doorway, is completely in the dark about what happened to his friend Jimmy. And Jimmy keeps Bob in the dark as to his identity.
The night is already dark, but Bob stands inside an even darker door. That’s his natural habitat, where he skirts the law with shady dealings.
The cop walks the beat at 10 p.m., important because of the hour of the appointment made twenty years ago.
The door where the cop finds Bob leads to a business that closed five years ago. The passage of time closed the door on their easy friendship, and something new has taken its place.
The theme is outlined dramatically when Bob says, “We thought that in twenty years we would know what kind of men we were, and what future waited for us.” The future brings them to that encounter, where Jimmy the cop has his once good friend Bob arrested because he has seen his wanted poster.