Thank You, Ma’am by Langston Hughes, 1958
The magic trick:
Adding deeper meaning to the story with a simple revelation of the protagonist’s backstory and motivations
Very simple, very short story. Plenty powerful though.
How does he do it? Well, he’s Langston Hughes. So that helps, for starters. But on to the actual mechanics…
We are introduced to Luella Bates Washington Jones, from the very first sentence, as a physically strong and imposing woman. Then we see her act with supreme strength and kindness. But we don’t know why. We don’t have much more than the surface story.
It’s only when she mentions her own past of occasional poor decisions that it makes sense to both Roger in the story and the reader. It only makes her kindness all the more meaningful too. And that’s quite a trick on Hughes’s part.
The woman said, “Um-hum! You thought I was going to say but, didn’t you? You thought I was going to say, but I didn’t snatch people’s pocketbooks. Well, I wasn’t going to say that.” Pause. Silence. “I have done things, too, which I would not tell you, son—neither tell God, if he didn’t already know. So you set down while I fix us something to eat. You might run that comb through your hair so you will look presentable.”