On Day 16 of my short story escapades (in which I read one a day in efforts to improve my own writing), I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that this is the first I’ve read of Flannery O’Connor. I heard her name quite often at uni but somehow never made time enough to read her! My mistake– this one threw some punches.
“A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor
“I found out the crime don’t matter. You can do one thing or you can do another, kill a man or take a tire off his car, because sooner or later you’re going to forget what it was you done and just be punished for it.”
A grandmother’s son and his family are planning a trip to Florida. The grandmother is opposed to this; she wants to see eastern Tennessee, and tries various ploys to persuade her son and his family to do what she wants: first she brandishes an article about an escaped convict, The Misfit, headed for Florida at her son, saying it would be unconscionable to take one’s children in that direction with such a dangerous man at large. Failing to get her son Bailey’s attention, she turns instead to his wife and says that the children have been to Florida; it would round them out better to go somewhere they haven’t been (east Tennessee, hint hint). The wife does not seem to hear her, either.
The next day the family sets off. The grandmother, against what she’s well aware are her son’s wishes, smuggles the family cat, Pitty Sing, along. The car ride is pleasant to her; she sits between John Wesley and June Star, pointing out various sights and beautiful pastures. The wife dozes in the passenger seat and the children read comics.
Alone on the road with our characters, we get a big dose of family antics. The children are bored, and the grandmother criticizes their disinterest. Even the baby, who she offers to bounce on her knee awhile, only offers the occasional faraway smile. At one point the grandmother jokes about Gone With the Wind; she is the only one that laughs. The kids finish their books, begin playing games and, at one point argue and starting hitting one another over the grandmother, who sits in the middle between them. The grandmother tells a story from her youth to pacify them.
They stop for lunch at a barbeque called The Tower. Red Sammy, the owner, enters at one point and says a line about not being able to win, and never knowing who to trust these days. The grandmother agrees people are not as nice as they used to be; assures Sammy he is a good man for letting two men he mentioned charge gas rather than pay in cash. She asks if he has heard about The Misfit.
“A good man is hard to find,” Red Sammy replies. He and the grandmother talk of better times, when people were kinder, and one didn’t have to lock one’s door.
Back on the road, the grandmother remembers a nearby plantation house she once visited in her youth. She wants to see it again, but knows her son can’t be bothered to make a stop for such a thing—so she craftily sells the idea to the children instead, inventing a story about a secret panel inside the house behind which its old owners hid all their silver. The kids are sold and want to go and Bailey says no; but with much kicking and screaming and protest they get their way.
On a dirt route en route to the promised house, the grandmother suddenly remembers: the house she is thinking of is back in Tennessee—not Georgia, through which they are currently traveling. As she startles with this realization, she upsets the basket in which she has smuggled the cat; the animal snarls and goes flying out, landing on Bailey, who is driving.
The car spins off the road, crash-landing into a gulch.
Minor injuries are sustained, but no one is killed or critically wounded. The grandmother announces she believes she has injured an organ—likely as not to reduce her son’s wrath at her—but no one acknowledges her complaint.
Another car approaches from the main road; the grandmother drastically flags it down. It approaches slowly, considering them; when it gets close enough they see there are three passengers. After some consideration the driver gets out and motions for the other two do the same. They do, and all three stare down into the ditch directly over the family. The two younger boys have guns.
The children cry out, “We’ve had an ACCIDENT!”
The driver, a man with spectacles, begins trying to foot his way down and instructs one of his boys, Hiram, to see if their car will run. As they approach, the grandmother gets the vague sensation that she knows the driver, and then places him—
“You’re the misfit!” she shrieks. The driver concedes with pleasure.
Bailey then barks something so vicious to the grandmother that the children are shocked to silence and the old woman begins to cry; even the convict tells her not to be upset, and assures her that men sometimes say things they don’t mean.
Hiram reports the car will take half an hour to fix as the grandmother tells him his nickname is unbecoming, for she can see that he is by nature a good man and comes from good people. The Misfit instructs his boys to take Bailey and John Wesley into the woods: they want to ask them something. Bailey, to his credit, calls his mother Mamma and tells her he’ll be back in a minute.
The grandmother and the Misfit back and forth for a while, her pleading of his goodness, him quietly shaking his head. A shot rings out from the woods, then another. Silence.
Illogically, the grandmother continues pleading with the Misfit. She suggests praying. Jesus. Being good. “I don’t want no hep,” the convict replies. “I’m doing all right by myself.”
Bobby Lee and Hiram return from the woods, the former dragging the shirt that Bailey was wearing. He tosses the shirt to the boss and the Misfit begins putting it on. When the children’s mother begins to sob the convict asks if she and her girl wouldn’t like to join her husband and son. “Yes, thank you,” she murmurs. Hiram and Bobby Lee lead them into the trees.
The grandmother mutters Jesus faintly, now at a loss for words. The Misfit explains his name: that his crime and punishment are mismatched, the latter grossly greater than the former. A scream comes from the woods, then another shot. The convict speaks of justice; the old woman continues pleading. Another two shots.
She pleads and pleads; the Misfit’s philosophy grows more impassioned and mad until he is right up in the old woman’s face and a change comes over her; she takes him as one of her own children. She touches him on the shoulder, and it is the last thing she ever does; the Misfit recoils and shoots.
Hiram and Bobby Lee return. “She was a talker, wasn’t she?” says the latter. The Misfit replies she would have been a good woman, if somebody had been there to shoot her every minute of her life.
This story caught me so off guard! Here I was, expecting the typical family road trip antics with bored, cabin-fevered children, the humorous (and somewhat ignored) elderly, and parents so tired of their kids whining and fighting in the backseat that they almost wonder why they wanted a ‘vacation’ in the first place. If not light-hearted, I certainly expected the story to be one of the family’s frustrations with a possibly-senile grandmother (see: smuggling the cat to the motel).
And yet, there was a shovel-ton of foreshadowing/device-planting in this story. No deus ex machina here, folks. The Misfit was right in the first paragraph, and appeared again midway at the restaurant; the cat—the whole reason the car fell into the ditch in the first place—was mentioned early on, and seemed innocent (even humorous) at the time:
“She didn’t intend for the cat to be left alone in the house for three days because he would miss her too much and she was afraid he might brush against one of her gas burners and accidentally asphyxiate himself.”
But perhaps what makes this story so haunting is precisely that: the rapid change from the everyday (cramped quarters road trip with family) to the horrific (family murder including children and baby). This sort of event—rare though it may be—is shocking to the core and all too real (personally, I could not help but think of Sandy Hook). Sometimes, and to terrible effect, fiction can be just as real and vivid (if not more) than true events. Suite Française, a fictional account of the WWII bombing in Dresden written as it was happening, also comes to mind.
At any rate, this story packs a powerful emotional punch, and reminds us that tragedy occurs in the everyday settings we often take for granted.
nickelodeon: no, not the cartoon station! a jukebox, operated by nickels
valise: a small traveling bag or suitcase
Alright. First “The Nightingale”, now this…I think I’ll look for something happy to read tomorrow!