‘The Way It Has To Be’ by Breece D’J Pancake

The Way It Has To Be by Breece D’J Pancake, 1983

The magic trick:

Upping the stakes with a phone call home late in the story

Maybe the weakest story we have (of the 12) from Mr. Pancake. Still, it’s interesting as an intensely depressing piece of noir.

Manipulative as it is, I was really taken with the phone call Alena makes to her mother near the end of the story. The conversation does three things quickly:

  • It makes Alena pathetic as we see her brag about a job she doesn’t really have
  • It connects Alena to some recognizable form of family life
  • We see the mother break down and ask her to come home

Suddenly, the stakes for this story seem much higher. We have context. We have family. All of which of course makes the end of the story that much darker.

And that’s quite a trick on Pancake’s part.

The selection:

In the back was a phone booth, and Alena carried her beer to it. She made the call, and the phone rang twice.

“Hello, Momma.”

“Alena,” her voice trembled.

“I’m in Texas, Momma. I come with Harvey.”

“Stringin’ round with trash. We spoiled you rotten, that’s what we done.”

“I just didn’t want you all to worry.”

There was a long quiet. “Come on back, Alena.”

“I can’t, Momma. I got a job. Ain’t that great?”

“Top shelf in the cupboard fell down and made a awful mess. I been worried it’s a token.”

“No, Momma, it’s all right, you hear? I got a job.”

“All that jelly we put up is busted.”

“It’s all right, Momma, you got a bunch left.”

“I reckon.”

“I gotta go, Momma. I love you.”

The phone clicked.

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