A Summer Tragedy

by Arna Bontemps

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The story is told in third person but through Jeff Patton’s eyes. The author begins by describing Jeff and Jennie, an elderly black couple, focusing on their clothing. As a poor share farmer, Jeff rarely wears his best suit.

His fingers trembled and the high, stiff collar pinched his throat. A fellow loses his hand for such vanities after thirty or forty years of simple life. Once a year, or maybe twice if there’s a wedding among his kinfolks, he may spruce up, but generally fancy clothes do nothing but adorn the wall of the big room and feed the moths…. He had not worn his stiff-bosomed shirt more than a dozen times in all his married life.

Jennie is described as having wasted away so much that she looks near death. She is so thin that her clothes billow around her.

Her body, as scrawny and gnarled as a string bean, seemed less than nothing in the ocean of frayed and faded petticoats that surrounded her.

Jeff has many worries about their life together and about his wife specifically, as she is blind. He is experiencing both physical and mental infirmities, some of them resulting from age and others due to their poverty and the heavy demands of farming.

His memory had not been much good recently. He frequently talked to himself. And, although he had kept it a secret, he knew that his courage had left him. He was terrified by the least unfamiliar sound at night. He was reluctant to venture far from home in the daytime.

Jeff is torn. If something does befall him, would it would be worse for Jennie to try to survive alone or to have to take care of him if he survived? He also dreads the idea of being helpless.

Jeff thought of the handicaps, the near impossibility of making another crop with his leg bothering him more and more each week. Then there was always the chance that he would have another stroke, like the one that had made him lame. Another one might kill him. The least it could do would be to leave him helpless.

All these concerns, the reader finally learns, figure into the couple’s decision to end their lives by driving into the river.

Jeff ran the car onto the clay slope, pointed it directly toward the stream, and put his foot heavily on the accelerator. The little car leaped furiously down the steep incline toward the water.

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