Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 751
Charlie Pastern lives in a suburb of New York City and spends much of his time at the country club playing golf. He earns the nickname “brigadier” by carrying on in the locker room about America’s enemies, insisting that the only way to deal with them is to drop nuclear bombs on them. Because he spends so little time at home, his wife is the “golf widow” in the title of the story. The marked difference in their personalities is initially dramatized by their attitudes toward the bomb shelter that Charlie Pastern has had constructed under their yard. Charlie is warlike and expects Armageddon, while his wife does her best to maintain appearances, decorating the ugly lump that the bomb shelter makes in the yard with a birdbath and plaster figures. She is also subtly irritable, pointing out the flaws in her neighbors’ possessions to make up for the lack of fulfillment that she feels as a wife and mother—a failure that she does not consider her own fault. While her husband, Charlie, is plump and aggressive, she is gaunt and oblique.
Mrs. Pastern, like her neighbors, is active in collecting donations for medical research. Each of these suburban housewives concentrates on a given illness. Mrs. Pastern’s charity is hepatitis. One autumn day, she goes around the neighborhood collecting for her charity. She covers all of her route except for two families. One of them is the Flannagan family, and while his wife is preparing dinner, Charlie Pastern, to escape the boredom of his house and the lingering boredom of his day in general, agrees to collect the remaining donations.
The fact that he does not know the Flannagans does not stop him from accepting Mrs. Flannagan’s invitation for a drink in her house. Explaining that her husband has been away on business for six weeks, she proceeds to seduce Charlie, which is not difficult—he has been cheating on his wife for some time.
Charlie and Mrs. Flannagan have an affair. They meet in secret several times in New York City. Charlie succumbs to her wheedling and buys her gifts—perfume, a peignoir, a silk umbrella—which he can ill afford. Because of bad investments, his finances are in disarray. After several meetings, Mrs. Flannagan stands Charlie up. When he phones her, she says that she wants to end the affair, but when he confronts her in person, she agrees to continue it if he gives her the key to his bomb shelter, which he does.
Meanwhile Mrs. Pastern is visited by her minister, Mr. Ludgate, and her bishop. What little sense of comfort she has left is all but shattered when it becomes clear that the bishop, apparently a heavy drinker, has come only to see the bomb shelter. He seems more interested in his own and his congregation’s physical survival in the event of a nuclear attack than in the life after death. After the bishop leaves, the final blow to Mrs. Pastern’s composure is delivered by Beatrice, the maid who comes to clean the Pastern’s house twice a week. On the phone, Beatrice informs Mrs. Pastern that her husband has given Mrs. Flannagan the key to the bomb shelter.
Drunk on the remainder of the batch of martinis that she had made for the bishop, Mrs. Pastern corners her husband when he comes home that night. Long debased by their loveless marriage and Charlie’s infidelities, she tells him what she knows about the key. Charlie drives immediately to the Flannagan house, where he finds Mrs. Flannagan’s newest lover hiding naked in a bathroom. Having threatened to kill her (which is in character with his melodramatic hostility against the enemies of America), Charlie goes back home, where his wife accuses him of acting the way he does because he wants the world to be destroyed along with himself. She knows that he is all but bankrupt, that he cannot pay for the bomb shelter, and that far from standing for survival, he is committed to destruction.
Though the Pasterns remain married, they lose everything. Charlie ends up in jail for failure to pay his bills, the house is sold, the children leave college, and Mrs. Pastern lives on welfare with her son in the Bronx. Mrs. Flannagan is last seen divorced and penniless, and when she makes a visit to the bomb shelter one snowy afternoon, she is turned away by the new owners of the Pastern’s house.