(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Ann Beattie’s story narrates the events of scarcely more than half an hour, the time that it takes Carol and Vernon to leave a party at the home of their friends Matt and Gaye Brinkley, drive home through the snow, and lie down to sleep. The story takes on greater spaciousness, however, because of its focus on the consciousness of Carol, whose thoughts range through time and among a number of persons and events. She thinks first of the party and of a childish game that Matt Brinkley had played (significantly, the game is called “Don’t think about . . .”), and by association moves to thoughts about her daughter, Sharon, and Becky Brinkley when they were very young together, and from that to an account of Becky at present, and then to a reminiscence of Sharon’s death from leukemia and that trauma’s continued effect on Vernon despite his dedication to optimism. After all this, Carol returns to the present to ask Vernon if Matt had mentioned Becky; he answers that nothing was said of that “sore subject.”

The narrative breaks and then takes up a comparison between the two married couples: Vernon claims with some seriousness that the Brinkleys are their alter egos, suffering crises in their stead. Clearly, he refers to the many difficulties Becky Brinkley has brought into their lives, and thus obliquely refers to the death of Sharon and the absence of children in his and Carol’s lives. This thought makes Carol consider the randomness of events and the impossibility of finding sanctuary. At home, she disguises the fact that she is crying, hides for a few moments in a bathroom to compose herself, and emerges to find Vernon asleep on a sofa, her coat “spread like a tent over his head and shoulders.” Carol lies down on the floor under his coat, and her last waking thought is of Sharon as an angelic witness who could understand the significance of this tableau of sleepers.