The Beach Umbrella Summary
by Cyrus Colter

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The Beach Umbrella Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

On a hot Saturday in late summer, Elijah lolls in the sun on a Lake Michigan beach, like many others out to have a good time. Unlike them, however, he is alone and does not have a beach umbrella. Enchanted by the crowd of frolickers, he comes to the beach almost every Saturday, but his family has stayed home, where his wife is growing upset about his lack of ambition for his family. When she scolds him about getting a “real job,” such as a high-paying job in a steel mill, he thinks of her as being “money-crazy.”

Watching the smoke rising from a mill across the lake, Elijah ponders his job at the warehouse. After working hard there for nine years, he holds a position of responsibility. He wears a white shirt and a tie. The pay might be better, but he likes almost everything else about his job. Also, his pay would be enough, he thinks, if Myrtle did not want so much. A blue-collar job in the mill would be undignified and would leave him exhausted every night.

Feeling lonely and rejected by the groups of bathers, Elijah observes that beach umbrellas attract people to them—men and women who have come to the beach to have fun with others like themselves. Suddenly he feels that he must buy a flashy colorful umbrella.

By Monday evening Elijah has found an umbrella that would fulfill his dream, but he has less than half of the money that it costs. After dinner, his son Randy goes back to work at a store, and Myrtle again berates Elijah for not earning more money. The children, she tells him, will soon need clothes for school. Through the evening Elijah stares at the television, feeling oppressed by his alienation from his family. When Randy comes home, he avoids conversation by going to bed. Later, while Myrtle works in the kitchen, Elijah awakens his son and borrows fifteen dollars, telling Randy that he should not say anything to his mother about the loan.

On the next Saturday the sky is cloudy, but an anxiously hopeful Elijah carefully selects a spot on the beach where he raises his new red and white umbrella. When the sun at last comes out, people crowd onto the beach, and Elijah persuades two boys and their shy young mother to have a drink of lemonade in the shade that his umbrella provides. When the people under the umbrella next to Elijah’s mistake this woman for his wife, she seems content when Elijah fails to correct their misimpression. Elijah is elated. As the conversation proceeds, however, his nervous laughter grows awkward until his new friends perceive that Mrs. Green is not his wife but probably is his girlfriend. There is some embarrassment over this confusion, but again the young mother does not correct the false impression. More bathers settle nearby, and soon Elijah is manic with delight at the boisterous party that he feels he has assembled. Life seems wonderfully different than it was just one week earlier. Elijah frolics in the water, flirting with the young single women and holding the young mother up as he teaches her how to float on her back.

As the sun lowers, Elijah’s anxiety returns, and he tries to enlist friends for next Saturday’s party. When the beach empties, loneliness sweeps over him; for the first time since morning he remembers his own family at home. He feels that he has done an awful thing for just one day of fun, and now he must face the problem of how to repay the money that he has borrowed. After sitting by himself for a long time, he decides that he must sell his umbrella, even if he retrieves only the fifteen dollars that he owes to his son. As he approaches prospective buyers, however, he soon learns that their needs do not match his, or that his offer to sell cheap makes people suspect that he is a thief who is trying to sell something that he stole. Humiliated, and chased off the beach by a self-righteous lifeguard, Elijah sits in his car, shaken, scared, and disillusioned. In this confused state, he feels that he truly has stolen both the umbrella and the joy of the day. Now everyone has gone home, there are no umbrellas in sight, and by next Saturday he will be too tired to enjoy the beach after pouring hot ore all week at the mill.