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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 405

Paul is a frail, pathetic child who lives with his mother, a frustrated and bitter woman who spends her days working and her evenings complaining on the phone to her friend Edith Gainesworth about the trouble of caring for a sick son. Paul is so desperately lonely, however, that even this kind of attention excites him. Paul has discovered photographs of his father, who died in the war, in old shoe boxes. He has transferred them to two clean candy boxes and now spends his time looking through them on the back stairs as he listens to his mother ask advice from her friend, who studied psychology at an adult center. Ethel cannot understand why Paul wants to play with these photos instead of with toys like normal children—especially since she has told him so little about his father. Despite her insistence that Paul give up the photos and overcome his obsession with his father, Paul continues to seek companionship through the black-and-white images of his father, watching him grow up from a boy his own age to a man and a soldier in the army. When his mother laments that her days at work are hard but being home in the evening with such a sick child is even worse, Paul enters the room with the pictures and attempts to distract her with airplane and bird sounds. He has been home from school for two months; Ethel is certain that his preoccupation with the photos is making him ill.

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One night Ethel awakens suddenly. Paul is not sleeping in his cot and his blanket is missing, so she looks for him anxiously and resentfully. She first goes to the kitchen, but remembers Paul rarely eats anything. Finding him asleep on the back stairs with the photos, she angrily asks him why he is sleeping there, if it is to be with his photos. When Paul fails to answer, Ethel seizes his boxes of photos. She is repulsed by him; when she notices an ugly mole on his throat, she compares him to a sick bird. Paul inadvertently calls her “Mama Ethel,” though she has told him never to refer to her as his mother because it makes her feel old. A black substance spews from his mouth. He apparently has tried to eat the pictures, but the omniscient narrator says that it is as if Paul has disgorged his heart, blackened with grief.

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