CivilWarLand in Bad Decline “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz” Summary
by George Saunders

Start Your Free Trial

Download CivilWarLand in Bad Decline Study Guide

Subscribe Now

“Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz” Summary

As “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz” begins, the unnamed narrator is spending a difficult evening mourning the loss of his wife, Elizabeth. In the morning, he opens his shop for the day—an interactive virtual reality franchise—and is dismayed at the lack of traffic. “No wonder I’m in the red,” he thinks after play-testing a disappointing bowling module on one of his machines. Eventually, a couple of regular customers wander in. One selects a true crime module, while another chooses a pornographic one.

The following day, a woman from the corporate office comes to perform an inspection. She’s not impressed—unless he can convince her otherwise, she warns, the office may terminate the narrator’s franchise agreement. “It's only my livelihood,” the narrator thinks, “it’s only every cent Elizabeth left me.”

Packing up his happiest modules, the narrator closes the shop and sets out to see Mrs. Ken Schwartz. Mrs. Schwartz is a widow, initially assigned to the narrator through an Elder Aid program during his early days of grief therapy. She struggles with her memory, often forgetting that her husband has passed away. The modules cheer her up, so the narrator visits often—she’s especially fond of Viennese Waltz, which she listens to while he tidies up the place.

Mrs. Schwartz needs live-in care, but with the business failing, the narrator lacks the resources. While contemplating the options on the drive home, he lets his mind wander and accidentally passes by “The Spot”—the location where Elizabeth was killed as a drunk driver ran up on the curb. Distraught, he remembers the fight they had that day and leaves the area in a hurry.

To prepare for an appointment the next morning, he stops by the shop to retrieve a module. Upon arrival, something is clearly amiss—his things are strewn about, as though someone’s been there in his absence, and the cashbox is sitting out in the open. Suddenly, he feels a knife at his throat. The man holding the knife demands to know how the equipment is used and allows the narrator to demonstrate.

Distracting him with a module featuring scantily clad nurses, the narrator hits the man in the head with an industrial tape gun, and he falls to the ground. Setting the console to “scan,” he’s able to learn more about the man’s life. His name is Hank, he discovers, and he was a Marine. As he’s trawling through Hank’s memories, the narrator realizes he’s made a grave mistake. Instead of “scan,” he’s been using the “offload” setting. “I've just irrevocably transferred a good third of his memories to my hard drive,” he realizes. Hank, suddenly much more cheerful, wakes up and wanders out the door.

Once the narrator comes to terms with the mistake, he realizes this is an opportunity. He edits the memories to remove any profanity and takes the module to his appointment the following day—a demonstration at an elementary school. The students and the administrators alike are enchanted by the new first-person history module, and the school offers good money for another one. Thinking of the help he needs for Mrs. Schwartz, the narrator says he’ll see what he can do.

During one of Mrs. Schwartz’s lucid periods, he makes his pitch: if the two sell some of her memories, they’ll make enough to pay for her in-home aid. She can live without the sixties, she tells him. The school loves it, and the arrangement continues—Mrs. Schwartz loses her remaining memories little by little, and her aid is retained.

In time, Mrs. Schwartz begins to show signs of deterioration. The narrator realizes he can go no further. Realizing he has no other choice, he labels a blank module, addresses an...

(The entire section is 972 words.)