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At the beginning of ‘‘Happy Endings,’’ John and Mary meet. Each of the six versions of the story that follow present a different scenario of what happens to the couple.

Version A is the ‘‘happy ending’’ story. In this version, John and Mary fall in love. They get married, enjoy their jobs, buy a nice home, and start a family. All in all, they live comfortable, fulfilling lives. Eventually they retire and then die. In version B, Mary and John have an affair. Although Mary loves John, he has no special feelings for her; instead, he uses her to gratify his needs for sexual and ego fulfillment. Twice a week, John goes to Mary’s apartment, where she serves him a home-cooked meal. After dinner, John has sex with Mary and then falls asleep while she cleans up the dishes and fixes herself up. She pretends to love having sex with John, not because she actually does, but because she wants John to become so used to it that he will marry her. This strategy does not work, and Mary becomes depressed. Mary’s friends counsel her to break up with John, but she insists that a kinder, better John exists and that he will emerge. Instead, John complains about her cooking and takes another woman out on a dinner date where Mary’s friends see them. They tell Mary about the date. Mary takes an overdose of aspirins, sleeping pills, and sherry. She leaves a farewell note for John. Her secret hope is that John will discover her, take her to the hospital, repent for his actions, and marry her. However, this doesn’t happen, and Mary dies. John weds the other woman, Madge, and the couple live the life described in version A.

In version C, John is married to Madge, and the couple have the life described in version A, but John is unable to enjoy it. Growing older, John finds himself dissatisfied with life. He falls in love with a twenty-two-year-old co-worker named Mary, and they start an affair because Mary feels sorry for him and also enjoys sex with him. Mary is actually in love with James, who is her own age. The freespirited James spends a lot of time riding around on his motorcycle, but one day he returns from a road trip with some marijuana. He and Mary get stoned and are in bed when John, who has a key to Mary’s apartment, comes in. John is overcome with despair, partially because he realizes that he is getting old and bald. He buys a gun, kills Mary and James, and then commits suicide. After some time has passed, Madge marries Fred, and the couple live the life described in version A.

In version D, Fred and Madge’s home is threatened by a giant tidal wave, which lowers its real estate value. Fred and Madge escape from the tidal wave, but thousands of other people drown. They are grateful to be alive, and they continue to live the type of happy life John and Mary lived in version A.

In version E, Fred dies because of a weak heart. Madge spends the rest of her life devoted to charity work.

Version F is a more radical version of the story. In it, John is a revolutionary and Mary is a spy. Despite this racy element, John and Mary’s life still ends as it does in version A.

After all the versions of the story have been presented, an authorial voice intrudes to tell the reader that the ending of each version is the same; the real ending is this: John and Mary die. The voice points out, however, that the writer has more flexibility in deciding what to include in the beginnings and middles of stories, in other words, the plot.

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