Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 770
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 work because Blake has “poisoned their minds.” When Blake nervously prepares to move toward another car, Miss Dent informs him that she is armed with a pistol and quite capable of killing him, albeit reluctantly; all she really wants, she claims, is his attention to what she has to say.
Pulling an unmailed letter from her purse, Miss Dent forces Blake to read it as she rambles on about her sense of persecution and her need for love. On arriving at the Shady Hill station, where Blake normally dismounts, the woman forces him, at gunpoint, to precede her off the train. Marching him north of the station, toward a freight house and coal yard, Miss Dent finally forces Blake to kneel down and put his face in the dirt. Repeating her earlier declarations that she knows more about love and life than Blake does, she continues, “Oh, I’m better than you, I’m better than you, and I shouldn’t waste my time or spoil my life like this. Put your face in the dirt. Put your face in the dirt! Do what I say.”
Taking the woman at least at her word, Blake stretches flat on the ground, weeping as he does so. “Now I can wash my hands of you,” declares his unlikely captor, and before long she is gone, the sound of her retreating footsteps resounding in Blake’s disbelieving ears. Hesitantly, Blake at last raises his face to discover that Miss Dent is indeed gone, having apparently “forgotten” him, having “completed what she wanted to do.” Picking up his hat from the ground, he proceeds on his way home.