Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1489
Old Man. There are two convicts. One is tall, lean, about twenty-five, with long Indian-black hair, who is serving prison time for a botched train robbery. The second convict is short, plump, and almost hairless, like something exposed when one turns over a rock or a log. The second convict...
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Old Man. There are two convicts. One is tall, lean, about twenty-five, with long Indian-black hair, who is serving prison time for a botched train robbery. The second convict is short, plump, and almost hairless, like something exposed when one turns over a rock or a log. The second convict is serving 139 years for his participation in a gas station robbery in which the attendant was killed, although probably not by the second convict. Both convicts are doing time at the Mississippi State penal farm, which runs along the Mississippi. The river is flooding over its banks, forcing the evacuation of the prisoners.
The convicts are moved by truck, train, and boat, and everywhere they are surrounded by National Guard troops and by the muddy water of the rising river. The two convicts are provided with a skiff and told to pick up stranded farmers and their families. The short convict returns to the staging area alone and reports to the authorities that the boat overturned and that the tall convict disappeared beneath the water. The warden decides to list the tall convict as missing and presumed dead while trying to save lives; the tall convict served his time.
The tall convict in fact resurfaces. He manages to scramble back into the skiff but is unable to control it. He drifts for some time before he encounters a pregnant woman sitting in a tree. He tries to paddle upstream with her but at night they are swept downstream. They meet others who are stranded by the flood; the others refuse to give food and shelter to the convict and the woman. The convict also encounters some National Guard troops and tries to surrender, but they misunderstand and shoot at him. He flees. Finally, the two find higher ground and struggle ashore. The convict passes out.
By the time he revives, the woman has delivered her baby. They get back on the water and are picked up by a riverboat and taken farther south. They are left beside a levee. Taking to the water again, they are befriended by a Cajun, and the convict helps him hunt for alligators. The convict flees again, however, unable to tell the Cajun and the woman that the area is about to be flooded. All three are rescued again and evacuated to safety with other refugees. The convict surrenders himself, dressed in his cleaned prison uniform, to a sheriff’s deputy.
A state official and the warden discuss the prisoner’s case. Officially he is dead and therefore free; the young state official is afraid that the administrative mistake will be discovered. The warden points out that the prisoner turned himself in and that he even returned the skiff. To avoid declaring a mistake was made, the prisoner is nevertheless declared to have attempted escape and is given ten additional years to his sentence. The tall prisoner reunites with the short one, and the novel concludes with them talking about women and prison life, especially the tall one’s extra ten years.
The Wild Palms. A young man calls on a local doctor to help an ailing woman. The doctor and his wife live next door, and they are intrigued by the couple but know nothing about them. The doctor has been speculating for days about the woman’s condition, which he diagnoses in various ways. Before he is admitted to see her, he overhears the delirious ravings of the woman; during these ravings, she calls the young man a “bloody bungling bastard.”
The young man and the woman are Harry Wilbourne and Charlotte Rittenmeyer. Harry is an intern at New Orleans Hospital. He is an orphan who struggled through medical school on a two-thousand-dollar legacy left him by his doctor father. On the day he meets Charlotte, he turns twenty-seven, and his roommate lends him a suit and drags him to a party in the artist’s quarter. Charlotte is a little older; she is married to Francis “Rat” Rittenmeyer and has two daughters. She immediately adopts Harry at the party and insists that he see her home. Harry and Charlotte begin to have lunch together; eventually, they seek out a hotel—but nothing happens. Soon they talk of escaping New Orleans together; the lack of money, however, prevents them from doing so. Then Harry finds a wallet containing more than a thousand dollars. He debates whether to turn it in, but, instead, they use the money to run away to Chicago. In a strange scene at the train station, Rat gives Harry a Pullman check for three hundred dollars to cover the costs of Charlotte’s return ticket if she decides to come back to him. He also exacts a promise from Charlotte to write on the tenth of every month to let him know that she is all right; otherwise, he will send a detective after her. Finally, in a drawing room on the train, they consummate their love.
In Chicago, Charlotte finds an inexpensive apartment with a skylight; she can work at her art while Harry works. At first, Harry has difficulty finding a job, since he did not complete his internship, but he is eventually hired to do syphilis testing at a charity hospital in the Negro tenement district. Charlotte makes figurines which, initially, sell well in local department stores. Harry is fired, however, because Charlotte forgets to write Francis one month, and the detective contacts the hospital. Soon, Charlotte cannot sell her creations; to save money, the couple retreat to a cabin overlooking the lake in Wisconsin.
Here they live an idyllic life, swimming, sketching, and making love, until winter arrives, and their food runs out. They move back to the city; they live in a dreary, one-room efficiency apartment; and Charlotte takes a temporary holiday job dressing windows for a local store. When the job becomes permanent, Harry decides that they are becoming too much like a conventional, married couple, the very condition they once escaped. He takes a job as company doctor for a mining operation in the mountains of Utah; in February they leave Chicago.
In Utah, it is midwinter, and they are unprepared for the bitter cold and the isolation of the mountains. They meet the mine foreman and his wife, Buck and Billie Buckner, and learn that the operation is about to collapse, that the men have not been paid for months, and that they will not be paid. Forced to live with the foreman and his wife, even sleeping in the same room with them to keep warm, Charlotte and Harry cease having sex. Buck confides to Harry that Billie is pregnant; Buck asks him to abort the fetus. At first, Harry refuses, but he finally does perform the operation. Soon after, the Buckners leave, and Harry assumes the role of overseer of the mine. He then realizes that the situation is futile, and he informs the miners, sending them off with the contents of the company store. Charlotte and Harry take the mining train out of the mountains; they go to San Antonio, Texas. Charlotte confides in Harry that she is pregnant, too, the result of a period of passion following the weeks of abstinence. At first, Harry tries to find medicine to induce the abortion, but when that proves ineffective, he reluctantly performs it himself. Charlotte is rejected by her daughters during an attempted meeting with them back in New Orleans. Charlotte, who knows that she is ill from the abortion, makes Francis promise not to prosecute Harry if she should die.
Back on the Mississippi Gulf coast, Charlotte is dying of a botched abortion. The doctor agrees to call an ambulance to take Charlotte to the hospital, but he admits that she is going to die. He also insists on calling the police to arrest Harry, and they take Harry to the hospital where Charlotte dies. Harry is then taken to jail to await the legal proceedings. He is tried and convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to fifty years at hard labor. True to his promise, Rat tries to help Harry, but the judge refuses to be lenient. Rat makes one last attempt to help Harry by smuggling him a cyanide capsule to save himself the fifty years at hard labor. Harry refuses.
The end of the novel focuses on Harry’s musings about his life as he gazes out his cell window. He notices a woman hanging out her washing on the deck of an abandoned ship in the harbor. That domestic scene reminds him of the time he and Charlotte spent together. A palm tree rustling in the wind makes a dry, wild sound that fills Harry’s cell. Harry decides to remain alive to keep the memory of Charlotte and their time together alive; this thought gives him the courage to face his long hard time. Between grief and nothing, Harry muses, I will take grief.