(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Forty-year-old Emily has never thought she was pretty, which has affected her relationships with people, especially men. She had been a high school teacher, but the students’ apathy made her feel so isolated and useless that she quit teaching to work nights as a bartender. One day, two men, one of whom is in a wheelchair, come into the bar where she works. At first Emily is apprehensive, worrying that the disabled man will be hard to talk to and she will have to entertain him through her long shift. Her discomfort embarrasses her because she prides herself on making her customers feel comfortable and at home. As soon as Drew and his assistant Alvin enter, Rita, who has just finished her shift, joins them, and Kay takes their orders. Emily believes that Kay is falling in love with Rita and is distressed, not because they are both women, but because she feels that love affairs are doomed to cause pain and she does not want to deal with that every night at work.

Emily, who has never lived with a man and has not had an intimate relationship in two years, leads a solitary, structured life. She reads late into the night, escaping temporarily from the sadness caused by her fear that she will never have children. Jeff, the bar manager, is recently divorced, and Emily knows he is interested in her. She truly likes Jeff, who is kind, intelligent, and attractive, but is afraid of becoming involved with him. Eventually he asks her to lunch, but she agrees so stiffly that he knows she does not really want to go.

Watching Drew and Alvin, Jeff tells Emily that he had a good friend who was crippled by a land mine in Vietnam. Jeff used to take him fishing, lifting him and his chair on to the boat. Hearing Jeff talk and watching the gregarious Drew, Emily feels that her soul has atrophied without her having noticed it. She realizes she does not...

(The entire section is 757 words.)