The Battle Of The Suits by Jessamyn West, 1955
The magic trick:
Putting the focus not on the conflict but on the rationale behind the conflict
The key to every story is conflict, right? Two opposing forces… tension, drama, compelling stuff. Well, in today’s featured Jessamyn West story, the conflict is confusing, which is ironic given that the title would indicate a certain clarity as to the battle. There is, however, no clarity.
A teenaged boy at a reform school and the janitor at the school have coincidentally purchased the same kind of suit. The kids are making fun of the boy for wearing the same clothes as a janitor. The principal is asking the janitor to spare the boy the agony and return his suit. It sounds like a very silly situation, but the stakes are remarkably high to the parties involved.
Therein lies the confusion.
Why does the janitor care so much about “winning” this battle? Why does the teenager have it out for this janitor? What is going on here?
So, the conflict isn’t really the key to this story at all. The important stuff is going on behind the conflict, leaving the reader to investigate and consider all the subtext. And that’s quite a trick on West’s part.
“My mother really loved me, didn’t she, keeping me alive on honey and water that way?”
“No doubt about it,” Joe said. “She dead now?”
“No, she’s alive. She’s shacking up with some guy in Tuscon, charming fellow. He’s crazy to marry her, but she don’t know if it would work out. I’d be with them now, except he’s insanely jealous of me.”
Startled, Joe turned, Thermos bottle in hand.
The Senator reassured him. “It’s a Freudian thing,” he said. Then he got up quickly. “That’s a disgusting thing to do.”
“Cleaning a Thermos that way. No scalding, no soap. That’s unsanitary. All kinds of bacteria breed in warm, dark places like that. The least we can do is to be sanitary, isn’t it?”
For a second, Joe was apologetic. The last thing he wanted to do was to offend anybody by being unsanitary. Then he was mad.
“Whose bottle is this, anyway?” he asked. “For thirty years I’ve been rinsing Thermos bottles this way. If it’s so God-damned unsanitary, why haven’t I been sick?”
“It makes me sick to watch you.”
“Who asked you to watch me?” He grabbed the Senator’s arm. “You get out and stay out. It’s none of your business if I park cockroaches in my Thermos bottle.”
The Senator’s head dropped, but not before Joe saw the tears in his eyes.
“I’m sorry, Señor,” he said. “Something must’ve happened to me when I was young. Dirt just makes me sick.”
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