Style and Technique

Dybek uses “Pet Milk”—canned, evaporated milk, often used in place of fresh cream—as a defining and controlling symbol in the story. What captures his attention is the way in which “Pet milk swirls in the coffee,” creating a visual symbol that connects the separate sections of the narrator’s life. “Today I’ve been drinking instant coffee,” the story begins, as Dybek constructs a frame that surrounds the narrative action, containing the immediate present as well as an earlier time when his grandmother used Pet milk as a means of maintaining gentility despite economic limitations.

The symbolic swirl—a figure for the flux of the narrator’s life and an emblem of an aesthetic sensibility that finds patterns of meaning in action—appears next in a liqueur glass when the narrator is on a date. Here, it is described as “smoke in repeated explosions,” operating as a visual equivalent for the stirring of emotion. As his friendship with Kate develops, the narrator playfully interferes with the waiter preparing the liqueur, suggesting that he is no longer entirely a spectator, but the waiter is still concerned that the narrator is too contemplative concerning the swirl and that he might enter more fully into an active role.

This leads toward the extended metaphor that operates in the second part of the story. The subway track to the outer suburbs is used as a version of the road of life, a traditional literary device that has allegorical overtones, and in this case, the ride itself is used as a vehicle for presenting the acceleration of sensation that the narrator undergoes. The penultimate paragraph of the story is written as a lyric evocation of physical arousal, and the relaxation of tension that follows coincides with the train “braking a little from express speed.” Then, in the last lines of the story, the narrator returns to the past, seeing in the boy on the platform a replica of his own youth, the smoke from his cigarette a lingering, brief reference to the swirl that initiated the narrative.