Susan Perabo’s short story “The Payoff” is about two middle-school girls named Anne and Louise. The girls seem to have comfortable middle-class lives. Anne’s family has dinner together, where her and her siblings grade their day. Louise’s family is supposedly more eccentric. Louise’s parents don’t like that Anne’s parents once supported Richard Nixon.
One day at school, Anne and Louise catch their art teacher, Ms. McDaniel, performing oral sex on their principal, Dr. Dunn. The girls are amused and disturbed by what they witnessed. They end up writing anonymous notes to the principal in which they ask for money if he wants them to keep quiet about his and Ms. McDaniel’s affair.
Their first attempt at blackmail nets them $20. This could be the significance of the title. The principal actually gives the girls money. He pays them to be quiet.
Here, the significance of the title might be described as ironic. The girls don’t need the money nor do they know what they are going to with it. In fact, Anne ends up using some of the money to buy Ms. McDaniel art supplies. In a peculiar way, Ms. McDaniel, at least for the moment, is paid off as well.
Of course, it’s possible that the significance of the title carries a different meaning. Maybe the payoff isn’t in the money; it’s in what Anne learns. From their blackmail scheme, Anne learns that adults are complicated and she shouldn’t be so quick to judge—whether that grownup is her art teacher or the allegedly off-her-rocker Mrs. Payne.
That the payoff’s significance is tied to Anne’s increased knowledge and empathy is reinforced by the ending. As the story concludes, Anne sees Mrs. Payne not as a derisive caricature but as a young, desirous woman.