Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 865
“The Visitor” is an account of how a man’s past has shaped his present. As the story begins, the anonymous narrator tells of his recent trip from his home in New York City to East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania to deliver a lecture. The university is a short distance from Tobyhanna, where he lived as a boy; on an impulse, he drives the extra miles to visit the town.
Paragraphs about the narrator’s childhood in Tobyhanna—his parents and their rage, a visit to the local bar, and the home in which his family lived—are interwoven with paragraphs about his more recent past—his adult visit to the town—both narrated from his mature perspective. The year that the narrator and his family lived in Tobyhanna was a time of frustration for his parents. His father drank heavily, womanized, and lied to his wife about how he spent his evenings. As his drinking increased and he spent more time away from home, he became increasingly violent. The narrator’s mother was stuck with three small children in a house five miles from town.
As the adult narrator arrives in Tobyhanna, he pulls up to the bar on the main street and goes inside. The smell, look, dampness, and dirty feel of the place are so unchanged that reentering it makes the narrator recall a visit that he, his father, and his brother made there thirty-four years earlier. This bit of memory is the beginning of a longer one about a specific Saturday during one winter; throughout the remainder of the story the remembering and telling about that visit parallels the events and details of the narrator’s recent visit. The locals gathered in the bar in 1986 remind him of those present on that distant Saturday—his father and his cronies and a woman with red lipstick to whom his father gave his complete attention.
The bartender asks the adult narrator if he wants another beer; this abruptly pulls the story forward into the more recent past. The narrator declines and leaves. When he is back in his car, his story again goes back in time, and he is a young boy riding home from the bar with his father and brother. His father invents an alibi to explain their long absence to his wife and gets his son (the narrator) to support his story when his mother questions them. The father knows that of the two sons, he is the one whom his mother will question.
Approaching the same house thirty-four years later, the narrator notices that aside from its color, it is unchanged. A sign identifies the house as Rettstadt’s Restaurant. Now he recalls facing the door that opened into the kitchen when he was a child. He feels weak, his heart beats hard and fast. He is going back into memory, into the past.
On that winter Saturday those many years ago when the narrator, his father, and his brother arrive home, it is snowing, and his mother is in the kitchen. His father delivers his story: His car got stuck in the snow, and he had to do some work at the depot. Mother knows that he is lying; his threadbare excuse demands that she challenge his story. She rejects the lie, telling him that she can smell the bar and another woman on his clothes. They argue; their shouts grow louder and more pained.
Slipping from this painful memory but still on its scent, the adult narrator describes the house as he sees it in 1986—the changes made to convert it to a restaurant. A man scrubbing cooking utensils looks up, sees his visitor, and introduces himself as George Rettstadt. The narrator tells him that he used to live in the house. Rettstadt focuses his gaze and pronounces the narrator’s last name; he mistakes the narrator for his father.
During a brief tour of the house, the narrator sees it as it was and steps deeper into the cave of memory of that long-ago Saturday. He remembers fleeing the kitchen, going upstairs to his bedroom, lying on his bed, his mother bursting into the room to demand the truth from him. She screams at him to admit what she already knows: that they went to the bar and that there was a woman there. The boy nods his head in assent.
The narrator declines Rettstadt’s invitation to see the upstairs; instead he goes outside to look around the yard. He walks to the back of the house to stand beneath the window of his old bedroom. Thrown again into the distant past, he hears the sound of his father’s steps on the stairs. The child knows what is about to happen, knows the depth of his father’s rage and violence. Remembering the beating that he received from his father that day ends both this memory and his visit to the house.
From the ground below the bedroom window, the narrator leaves for the university, where he delivers his lecture to a small group of teachers and students and then dines with them at a local restaurant. Afterward he drives home to New York.
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