Associate Editor Pamelyn Casto

A Close Reading of Brady Udall’s
“The Wig”

Read the story here.

Idealized Portrait of a Lady by Sandro Botticelli

The best short-short stories are richer than a first glance or quick read provides. The best stories inspire thought after the story’s finished. Brady Udall’s story is a carefully controlled piece. It includes various interesting fictional details which contribute to the whole of the story and its effect. The details were selected from countless possibilities but are just the right details for the author’s story purposes.

The Opening Hook

The opening provides a great detail for defamiliarizing the reader. The story opens with the image of a child wearing a prostitute/Marilyn Monroe type wig he found in the Dumpster. That opening gets a reader’s attention. The boy sits there munching on his cereal and reading the comics. That odd opening sets off conflicting frames of reference within the story. We don’t usually encounter a little boy wearing such a wig.

No Names for Characters

The two characters have no names. One is the dad and the other is the son. Dad is trying to get ready for work and is irritated with his son. There is no need for the characters to have individual names since Dad and Son designations are enough. The opening throws the reader off track a bit too. It’s not clear what’s to come, no indication of the twists and turns that will be taken later in the short-short story.

Building of Details

There are details included that become even more significant later. They are not thrown in for realism but are carefully placed for effect and for building of meaning (for instance, the football helmet reference, reading the paper, the tie, the wig). The hook works because it lures the reader to ask the all-important question of “why?” Why is dad irritated? Why is the son wearing the Dumpster wig?

First Person Narrative

The story makes use of first person narrative (I) which is limited to Dad’s awareness of what’s taking place. The reader sees things through his eyes and there are no internal thoughts shown on the part of the son.

Simple Generic Setting

The setting is simple: any kitchen or more likely any kitchen in an apartment, (hence the prominent Dumpster). Details of the place/ setting are not important, only those details are included that are relevant to the story.

Building of Related Details/Elements

Again, with the second and third paragraph, important and significant details are added. There is a building feeling of lack of ability for the father and son to communicate with each other– the son ignores dad and crunches on his cereal; dad wants him to remove the wig but won’t say so. Things in the Dumpster become significant later too.

Tie Details

The tie motif comes up again in the third paragraph. In the beginning, dad’s trying to make a “respectable knot.” In the third paragraph he forgets about his tie and going to work. This, to me, represents dad’s “tie” to the present (work) and his “tie” to the past (his dead wife), and now his “tie” to the son. Most of us are required to find ways to hide our grief, are expected to have a “respectable” tie to the past when we’re in public places (such as at work).

Building Suspense

We know by the third paragraph that something’s disturbing dad but we don’t yet know what it is. Udall provides a nice building of suspense. All that’s known so far is that dad’s not going to work now and it has something to do with his son and the wig.

Fuzzy Image/Emotion

The mist is falling outside and dad is pacing about something. The son continues to ignore him while munching on his cereal and rustling the paper. It is clear that there is something dad and the son won’t or can’t talk about. The detail of the falling mist further emphasizes the lack of clarity– a fuzzy image suggesting unspecific emotions.

Mystery Revealed

In paragraph four the mystery is revealed. Mom has passed away. There was an accident last fall. Dad indicates from his narration that he can’t clearly tell if this picture or image in his mind is real or imagined. But it is significant. And like the image of his son wearing the wig and reading the paper.

Son and Mother Images

His wife sat in the chair where his son now sits. She was reading the paper too and the earlier reference to the wig shaped like a football helmet also has connection to the wife or mom. She was reading the sports page.

The Wig/ Past and Present

Her hair was messed up too, like the wig the son’s wearing. This is where past and present intersect, the image of the wife’s last morning reincarnated now in the image of the son. The wife’s hair was “only slightly longer and darker.” Now the reader understands why dad has this unspoken irritation and agitation. Something’s reconstructing itself and it makes him highly uncomfortable.

Dad Wonders About Son’s Stored Images

Then in the fifth paragraph dad wonders if the son has a picture/ image too. He wonders if this is coincidence or is the son also reminded of mom and is trying to be close to her once more? The reader isn’t told and doesn’t need to be. The son’s face is blank; he gives no clue about what’s going on and he continues his reading.

Without Words

Dad then acts on the image, the picture, and holds his son to him. Without saying anything. Dad smells the wig, that does not smell of mom of memory (a clean shampoo scent). It now smells of old lettuce—the smell picked up from the Dumpster– the place for our memories, perhaps, where our memories are finally consigned, a compost heap of sorts from which new things can be born.

The son returns the affection, puts his smooth arms around dad’s neck (a fair description of youthful arms, but which also suggests the smooth arms of the mother). The son returns the father’s hug by placing his arms around his neck–a substitute for the original paisley tie, the tie that would have taken him to work and away from this present situation, this present family tie.

Tie & Wig

The “tie” is finally knotted– the tie to father, son, mother, past and present. Or, we have a final image of father, son, and a “holy ghost” of sorts. And for that brief intersection of time/ memory / image, the family picture is whole once again. The wig serves to represent all sorts of images of women: the prostitute (the sexuality), the Hollywood star image (the untouchable image), and the mom and wife. No words between the dad and son are needed. Their tie to mom (to images and emblems of women) and to each other has been reconnected without words.

Escapes Sentimentality

This could have been a very sentimental story. But Udall’s managed to escape sentimentality and has created a poignant and satisfying scene instead. As a reader, I feel good for the dad and son’s future together. Leaving them hugging each other (and without words) is a fine image to end with. The tiny details included served the story well—all were intriguing, served to build the story, and served to complete the story. Nothing extra, nothing not needed, was put into this touching short short.


About the writer:
Pamelyn Casto, twice a Pushcart Prize nominee, has published feature-length articles on flash fiction in Writer’s Digest (and in their other publications), Fiction Southeast, and Writing World (and elsewhere). Her essay on flash fiction and myth appears in Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field and her 8,000-word essay on flash fiction is included in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading (4 volumes). She also has a 5,000-word article on flash fiction as the lead article in the new book Critical Insights: Flash Fiction. Subscribe to her free online monthly FlashFictionFlash newsletter (first issue published in 2001) for markets, contests, and publishing news for flash literature writers. Casto is an Associate Editor at O:JA&L.

About Brady Udall: Brady Udall is an American writer who teaches writing at Boise State University.

Image: Idealized Portrait of a Lady (Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci as Nymph) by Sandro Botticelli (1455-1510). Tempera on wood. 32.2 x 21.2 inches. Circa 1480. Public domain.