A Small, Good Thing by Raymond Carver

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Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Ann Weiss is not pleased with the baker from whom she orders her son Scotty’s eighth birthday cake. Though the baker is of an age to have children, and even grandchildren, he takes no interest in her son’s birthday and seems to have no time for small talk. The transaction is direct and impersonal, and Ann leaves the bakery vaguely disgruntled by the man’s coldness.

Two days later, on his birthday, Scotty and a friend are walking to school when Scotty is hit by a car and knocked to the pavement. The driver of the car stops, but drives on when Scotty gets up, shaken but apparently unharmed. Scotty returns home, lies down on the sofa, and loses consciousness. Alarmed because she cannot rouse him, Ann telephones her husband, Howard, who telephones an ambulance.

At the hospital, Howard and Ann are assured by their physician, Dr. Francis, that nothing serious seems to be wrong with Scotty. He is only in a deep sleep, not in a coma, and will soon awaken. That evening, while they await tests results, Howard goes home to bathe and change clothes. After he has reached the house, the phone rings, and the caller tells Howard that he has an unclaimed birthday cake. Impatient and confused, Howard denies any knowledge of a cake and hangs up, only to be disturbed by a second call a few minutes later. This time, the caller says nothing, then hangs up.

Back at the hospital, Howard discovers that Scotty, still unconscious, is being fed intravenously. Ann is anxious about his not waking up. Howard suggests that Ann go home for a while and tells her about the phone calls, but she refuses to leave Scotty. When Dr. Francis comes in on late-night rounds, Howard and Ann demand to know why Scotty has not yet awakened. The doctor assures them that Scotty is suffering from a hairline fracture of the skull and a mild concussion, but that he seems to be out of any real danger and should soon wake up. He is merely asleep, not in a coma. Later that night, another doctor, a radiologist, comes into the room and announces that a brain scan will be performed on Scotty. The increasingly anxious parents accompany their son downstairs to radiology and return with him to his room at dawn.

Scotty does not awaken the next day, despite Dr. Francis’s assurances that he will do so. The exhausted Howard and Ann maintain their vigil in the hospital room. When Dr. Francis makes his second visit of the day, he expresses his bewilderment that Scotty has not awakened and this time calls the condition a coma. After the doctor leaves, Howard convinces Ann to go home to rest and feed the dog. No sooner has she arrived home, however, than the phone rings; the caller mentions Scotty’s name and hangs up. Terrified, Ann calls the hospital and receives assurances from Howard that their son’s condition has not changed.

Early the next morning (it is now Wednesday), after Ann has returned to the hospital, Howard tells her that the doctors have decided to operate on Scotty. However, even as they are discussing the proposed surgery, Scotty opens his eyes, gazes blankly at his parents, suffers a spasm, and dies. Dr. Francis later attributes the death to a “hidden occlusion” and expresses sympathy. Dazed, Howard and Ann return home, and the phone rings yet again. Ann curses the caller and bursts into tears. Another call, this one late at night, prompts Ann to make the connection she has so far missed: The baker, angry about the unclaimed cake, has been making the calls.

The couple drive to the shopping center bakery to confront the baker. Though it is past midnight, he is still at work, and Ann pounds on the door to get his attention. When he opens the door, Ann pushes past him, identifies herself, and accuses him of making the calls. She angrily explains that her son is dead. Moved and ashamed, the baker asks them to sit down. He talks about the frustrations of his work, the disappointments of his life; he asks their forgiveness. He serves them coffee, cinnamon rolls, and fresh...

(The entire section is 1,864 words.)