What happens in The Life You Save May Be Your Own?
One-armed drifter Tom Shiftlet wanders onto Mrs. Crater's farm in Alabama. He stops to watch the beautiful sunset and lifts his arms up to it in the shape of a cross. Mrs. Crater and her daughter Lucynell greet him on the porch. Shiftlet has his eye on the late Mr. Crater's old automobile, and Mrs. Crater wants someone to marry her daughter.
- Shiftlet works for Mrs. Crater as a repairman. He performs small tasks around the farm and spends a lot of time repairing the rusted old automobile. He also teaches the deaf Lucynell her first word: "bird."
- Mrs. Crater makes a deal with Shiftlet: if he marries Lucynell, she'll give him the car, pay for a new coat of paint, give him some money for a brief honeymoon, and allow him to move in permanently. He accepts her offers and marries Lucynell that Saturday.
- After the wedding, Shiftlet and Lucynell leave for their honeymoon. Shiftlet grows increasingly depressed and describes the world as "rotten." At a restaurant called The Hot Spot, Shiftlet abandons Lucynell, who has fallen asleep while waiting for her food. On the way to Mobile, he picks up a hitchhiker who tells him to "go to the devil" before jumping out of the moving vehicle.
Tom Shiftlet, a drifter, wanders onto the farm of Lucynell Crater and her daughter, also named Lucynell, who is deaf. Mesmerized by the beauty of the sunset, Shiftlet raises his arms to the sky, forming a crooked cross with his body, and holds this saviorlike pose for nearly a minute before introducing himself. Mrs. Crater can see from a distance that Shiftlet is a tramp and is not afraid of him. While the daughter looks on innocently, Shiftlet and Mrs. Crater converse seriously. He asks her many deep questions that she does not answer, such as “What is a man?” and makes proclamations such as “The world is almost rotten.” During this entire philosophical conversation, Shiftlet cannot keep his eyes and thoughts off an old automobile parked in the shed, which he would love to have; likewise, Mrs. Crater is sizing him up as a handyman for her farm and a potential son-in-law.
Shiftlet ingratiates himself, teaching Lucynell her first word, “bird,” and performing fix-up duties, including repairing and painting the late Mr. Crater’s automobile and roofing the garden house. Mrs. Crater slyly offers Shiftlet the car, some money, and a home if he will marry her daughter. In their first conversation, Shiftlet tells Mrs. Crater that he would not marry unless he could find an innocent woman among all the trash. Mrs. Crater points out that Lucynell, in her deaf, childlike state, is as innocent as one can be. After haggling over such issues as how much money Mrs. Crater will give him for a honeymoon, Shiftlet finally agrees when the old woman offers to buy the paint for the car, which is now running. The three of them head to town the following Saturday for the wedding. Shiftlet is left cranky and dissatisfied with the civil ceremony, although it is uncertain whether Lucynell has any idea what is taking place. Mrs. Crater is pleased at the success of her plan to acquire a son-in-law to work around the place but appears to have some misgivings saying good-bye to Lucynell as she departs with Shiftlet for the two-day honeymoon.
The fact that he has acquired the coveted car fails to cheer Shiftlet as Lucynell picks the wooden cherries off her Panama hat and tosses them out the window as they drive to Mobile. Shiftlet abruptly leaves Lucynell at a roadside eating place called The Hot Spot, after she falls asleep waiting for her food. Seeing himself as an honorable man, Shiftlet pays for the food and instructs the counterboy to give it to her when she wakes up. Before Shiftlet leaves, the counterboy comments that the sleeping Lucynell “looks like an angel of Gawd.”
Back on the road, and still depressed, Shiftlet picks up a young male hitchhiker, to whom he delivers a dramatic monologue about mothers, especially his own...
(The entire section is 1,330 words.)