Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The “quiet desperation” about which Henry David Thoreau wrote in describing the lives of the masses of people breaks out in the open in this tale of frustration and loneliness. The American dream of coming to the big city and there achieving the success that the system argues is due each hardworking person eludes Benny, who has served in the Korean War and returned unscathed to make a life for himself and his family. Trouble phones, crisis lines, and dial-a-prayer services are what pass for human compassion, for understanding. Mechanical and electronic instruments become the only means by which desperate people may attempt to make contact with those they believe could help them. Tenements, low-paying jobs, and unfulfilled promises are the legacies that Benny inherits from those who have gone before.

Benny is almost childlike in his recounting of the troubles that he has experienced; his frustration and anger come more and more to the surface as the story progresses, and by its end he is literally shouting at the operator, demanding and at the same time pleading that someone listen to him. However, the trouble phone spins out its never-changing message: Be good; if you are good, God will love you.