The Five-Forty-Eight Summary
by John Cheever

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The Five-Forty-Eight Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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Among the more successful of John Cheever’s urban tales, extending into suburbia, “The Five-Forty-Eight” recounts the brief but harrowing ordeal of a selfish, thoughtless male executive whose recent past comes back to haunt him in the person of a deeply disturbed young woman lately employed—and dismissed—as his secretary.

When Blake first spots the young woman apparently waiting for him to emerge from his office building at the end of the day, he readily recalls her face but not her name. Only gradually does he come to suspect that she might be following him, yet when her “contorted” face pops into view directly behind his own in the reflection of a store window, Blake suddenly wonders if she might be planning to kill him. In any case, Blake chooses not to recognize her and continues on his way, telling himself that she will be “easy to shake.”

Stepping into a bar that caters exclusively to men, Blake locates a well-hidden seat and proceeds to order a Gibson cocktail; as he drinks it, he recalls the few facts that he has ever known concerning Miss Dent, or Bent, or Lent, whom he had dismissed from his service several months earlier after a single night of lovemaking—presumably because of her strangely “undisciplined” handwriting glimpsed by chance during their brief assignation. Crucially and doubtless typically, Blake has failed then as now to draw the obvious inferences: In a person as shy and restrained as “Miss Dent,” such disorderly handwriting might well indicate a similarly disordered and even unbalanced personality; Blake has also failed to spot the potential significance of Miss Dent’s expressed gratitude for giving her “a chance” after eight months in the hospital. Even now, in the bar, Blake does not seem to wonder in what sort of hospital she might have been.

On finishing a second cocktail, Blake observes that he has missed his usual train to the suburbs, the express, and will instead have to take the local, the five-forty-eight of the story’s title. On his way to the station, Blake notes with some relief that the woman seems to have stopped following him; once aboard the train, however, he nervously seeks familiar faces, noting with some dismay that the two acquaintances present are no longer his friends. Mrs. Compton, his next-door neighbor, is both a busybody and a confidante of the beleaguered Mrs. Blake. Mr. Watkins, an object of Blake’s disdain both because he is an artist and because he rents his home instead of owning it, has long since stopped speaking to Blake thanks to Blake’s disruption of a growing friendship between their adolescent sons.

As the train emerges from underground into the fading daylight, Blake hears a female voice addressing him and finally recalls the young woman’s name as Miss Dent. In response to Blake’s reluctant, perfunctory questions, Miss Dent replies that she has again been “sick” and has been unable to find other...

(The entire section is 770 words.)