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Jacklighting Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Nicholas has died sometime during the past year from injuries incurred while he was taking a midnight ride on his Harley and a drunk, driving a van, hit him head-on. Last year, on his birthday, he was alive but in the hospital, brain-damaged from the accident. This year, on his birthday, he is dead, and the narrator and her boyfriend, Wynn, both of whom used to drive from New York to Virginia to spend Nicholas’s birthday with him, have come instead to visit Nicholas’s brother, Spence, who now lives alone in the house that the brothers once shared.

The first half of the story takes place on the day before the anniversary of Nicholas’s birthday. It is August and hot, but Spence makes jam so the narrator and Wynn can take some back with them to New York. He stays in the kitchen cooking because he does not want to talk with them. Spence’s girlfriend, Pammy, sleeps upstairs with a small fan blowing on her. She is a medical student at Georgetown and has just arrived in Virginia after finishing summer school. Wynn stands in the field across from the house, pacing with his head down. At thirty-one, he thinks that he is in love with one of his students and is going through a mid-life crisis. The narrator watches Wynn from the house as he swings a broken branch and bats hickory nuts in the field. When Spence walks through the living room, he comments on Wynn’s foolishness and on Wynn’s September birthday, of which he wants to be reminded. The narrator tells Spence that last year she gave Wynn a Red Sox cap for his birthday.

When Nicholas was hit by the van, he, presumably, was not wearing his helmet because he had established in it a nest of treasures—dried chrysanthemums, half of a robin’s blue shell, a cat’s-eye marble, yellow twine, a sprig of grapes, a piece of a broken ruler—while baby-sitting the neighbors’ four-year-old daughter. The narrator realizes that the head-on collision could have happened to her or Wynn or Spence because they all had ridden on the back of the Harley without helmets. She also wonders how she and Wynn and Spence are going to feel without Nicholas—the Nicholas who saw the world, the Nicholas who taught the narrator to trust herself and not settle for seeing things the same way, the Nicholas who made her a necklace with a lobster claw hanging from it and placed it over her head.

Even though the second half of the story takes place on the anniversary of Nicholas’s birthday, no one brings it up. Spence makes bread. Pammy and the narrator sit on the porch: Pammy reading the Daily Progress and polishing her nails, and the narrator waiting for Wynn to return from his walk. Pammy mentions that she is older than she looks but that Spence, for a “joke,” tells people that she is twenty-one. She also mentions that she was once addicted to speed. During that time, she traveled the subway, watched horror films, and slept with a stockbroker...

(The entire section is 786 words.)