Throughout her lifetime of writing, Grace Paley created short, concise stories about life and sometimes about death. No better example exists of her literary mastery of minimalism than in her very short story “Debts.” In this work, readers are told the names of the main characters but gain little or no knowledge of what they look like. Though the physical descriptions of them are sparse, Paley's characters in "Debts" are imbued with profound histories, emotions, and motivations.
At the core of the story are four people. First, there is the narrator's friend, Lucia, who subtly expresses the idea of having the narrator record her family’s stories. The story that the narrator tells is about Lucia’s grandparents, Michael and Maria, and their daughter Anna. It is in the arms of Anna that Michael dies, although Anna confesses she never liked her father. In the telling of these details, Paley brings to life the harsh realities of a woman, living at the turn of the twentieth century, who is widowed twice. Providing only the barest facts, Paley nonetheless intimates images of cobblestone streets, cable cars, and garden estates at the edge of the city. She also assists the reader in smelling homemade bread and the warm dinners that Anna takes to her father because he refuses to eat the food at the hospital where he is staying. More important, Paley manages to convey the striking emotions of a mother who does what she must to survive and a daughter who dutifully cares for the man who helped raise her but failed to make her love him.
“Debts” was included in Paley’s Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, published in 1974. The collection contains stories that are thematically linked by the author’s exploration of women who love the wrong man or who love but lose and learn to survive. In 1985, ABC produced a made-for-television film version of Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, starring Kevin Bacon and Ellen Barkin.