Academic journal article The Southern Review

Finish It, Finish It: Options for Ending a Story

Academic journal article The Southern Review

Finish It, Finish It: Options for Ending a Story

Article excerpt


It's an ordinary enough story: Someone gets cancer and dies. Someone wants something and doesn't get it. Someone is the sort of generous and hospitable person that everyone admires and loves, and that somehow makes the cancer and death even sadder and harder to take.

How to make you want to hear it, all the same?

The 2016 edition of Best American Short Stories has few tales so prosaic. Instead there's the 1800s flight of an abused Native American girl chased by the head of the man she has just poisoned, a talking parrot bemused by humans' desire to speak to alien species, and a miscarriage story that morphs into a retelling of Goldilocks with a twist from William James.

Other stories in the anthology are more in the realm of domestic drama--a father dealing with his spookily impossible child, a Nigerian man remembering how he once betrayed a boy on whom he had a crush, and a lavishly written tale of betrayal and desire in France.

I want to talk about the conclusions of stories I read (or lived) in 2016, as a way of talking about endings in general, that big challenge in life as well as fiction. It's going to take time to get there, though, because there's something I need to address first, and that's the beginning and the middle.

And so, to my ordinary enough story.


People who marry young often speak of growing up together. Not so my husband, Garry, and I, who married relatively late in life and had, at least initially, our separate circles of friends to whom we needed to be introduced. Nancy and Mark were my husband's pals, friends from an Italian class on Cape Cod. (I'll change their names here, though there is really only one anecdote that makes me want to preserve their privacy.) When they met, Garry, who'd otherwise lived in Miami, New York, and Hawaii, had been on the Cape, off and on, for several years, associated, in one form or another, with the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Like Garry, Nancy and Mark were transplants. College sweethearts in Indiana, they'd been living in Boston, where she was a publishing house editor and he an educator, before they moved to the Cape. The language class was preparation for another, though temporary, move. They were going to Italy to study the cuisine for a year. On return, she would--and did--open a cafe.

On the sunny day that I met Nancy and Mark in the garden outside their home, all this was years in the past. Garry, who is a painter, had left the Cape for Arizona then Baltimore, with frequent stays at the art colony Yaddo, which is where I met him. Eventually he married me and moved to Maine, where I had just begun to work as a professor at Colby College. Meanwhile, Nancy closed her cafe to focus exclusively on her successful catering business. She did all the cooking herself out of her kitchen--largely big events, weddings and the like. Though her house was historic, built in the 1700s with a plaque on its facade to prove its noteworthiness, it had been much renovated, and the kitchen had a professional-grade stove and a back closet full of large serving sheets and other tools of her trade. Mark worked at a vocational school for troubled teens, but helped out as waiter on weekends, the kind of man who was always quick to assist with a chore. He was also a sculptor, welding in one of the two outbuildings on their property

We all clicked.

First, because we liked food. Well, most people do, but Nancy and Mark had particularly celebratory meals, cooking being a clear way to show love to others, eating in restaurants a way to appreciate others' art and enjoy the beautiful things of this world. I had a more tortured, I'm-worried-I-am-going-to-gain-weight-or-get-a-stomachache approach to food. Even so, it was no trouble to be focused on talking about meals and preparing them, to enjoy stories about the funny things that could happen at a catered event, when the pressure was on and clients were difficult. …

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