Download Birthmates Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In “Birthmates,” an omniscient narrator representing the central character’s consciousness affirms his financial responsibility for what transpires. In an effort to save money during an industry slowdown, Art Woo has booked the least expensive room he could find for a business trip, only to find himself in a strange city on a snowy December night in front of the locked door of a welfare hotel. His decision to stay at this hotel and his observations of and responses to these accommodations illuminate his character and his life situation. He is revealed to be a man profoundly alone, grieving, failing personally and professionally, and riding swells of inner terror. During this business trip, Art suffers acutely from fear, from anxiety about his job performance, from grief at his wife’s departure, and from growing awareness of the pain of the loss of their unborn child.

Fearing for his personal safety, Art huddles in his dingy hotel room, scarcely able to sleep, clutching the handset of the clunky old phone as a weapon against imagined intruders. Still clinging to the disconnected phone handset in self-defense as he leaves the lobby in the morning, Art is tormented by children who use the handset to knock him unconscious. Cindy, an African American mother living in the hotel who nurses his injury, stimulates his sexual fantasies and stirs his impulse to care for others.

At the trade show later in the day, Art’s physical fears yield to anxiety about business rivals and his professional future. He dwells on the unhappy prospect of seeing Billy Shore, a hearty, backslapping, mainstream competitor with whom he shares a birthday, but finds that Billy, the man he calls his birthmate, has beaten him once again by escaping to a new job. Ironically, Art is also offered the prospect of a new job, but when he returns to his hotel room, he discovers his phone now has no handset and the headhunter will not be able to contact him. Sitting on the bed, he wishes he could call Lisa, his former wife, to announce his new hopes. His final thoughts are at once denials and affirmations of all the deaths he is suffering: the death of his career, the death of his marriage, the death of his only child before birth, and his own profound sense that he is drowning in a sea of grief and loss he is unable to express.