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...
(The entire section is 770 words.)