The Falls by George Saunders, 1996
The magic trick:
Making an ambiguous ending beside the point
Sorry if my magic trick headline already offered a spoiler. It’s only going to get worse from here down, so stop now if you still want to be surprised when you read the story.
The key to the story really is the ending. And yes, it is ambiguous. And no, it doesn’t matter. Everyone hates the story that builds, builds, builds suspense only to just abruptly end with no resolution. So I get it if you’re throwing the book on the ground here when the story ends without detailing the life-or-death ending. But look, that’s not the point. The point is that Morse redeemed himself simply by attempting to save the girl’s lives. When we first met him mere pages earlier he was a ball of nerves just walking near the ground of a local school, lest he be regarded as a “wacko.” Now here he is showing decisiveness, bravery, heroism. There’s nothing ambiguous about that development at all. And that’s quite a trick on Saunders’s part.
Good God, but life could be less than easy, not that he was unaware that it could certainly be a lot worse, but to go about in such a state, pulse high, face red, worried sick that someone would notice how nervous one was, was certainly less than ideal, and he felt sure that his body was secreting all kinds of harmful chemicals and that the more he worried about the harmful chemicals the faster they were pouring out of wherever it was they came from.
When he got home, he would sit on the steps and enjoy a few minutes of centered breathing while reciting his mantra, which was “calm down calm down,” before the kids came running out and grabbed his legs and sometimes even bit him quite hard in their excitement and Ruth came out to remind him in an angry tone that he wasn’t the only one who’d worked all day, and as he walked he gazed out at the beautiful Taganac in an effort to absorb something of her serenity but instead found himself obsessing about the faulty hatch on the gate, which theoretically could allow Annie to toddle out of the yard and into the river, and he pictured himself weeping on the shore, and to eradicate this thought started manically whistling “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” while slapping his hands against his sides.