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Associate Editor Pamelyn Casto

A Close Reading of Mary Robison’s “Yours

Click on the title “Yours” to read the Mary Robison flash story.

The Sick Woman by Einar Ilmoni

Read Mary Robison’s “Yours” before reading my comments. I don’t want my words to spoil any of the emotional effects of the interesting discoveries you’ll make for yourself while reading it. Mary Robison is a talented writer who knows how to use a few words to achieve powerful effects. First experience her story for yourself.

This short-short story was published in 1982 in The New Yorker. The piece deftly executes small and subtle details throughout. The carefully placed details and images enrich the story and manage to say so much without an excess of words. Readers are shown just a few hours in this couple’s life but those few hours are enough for readers to come away feeling as if they know these people and to come away caring about this couple.

The opening shows Allison struggling and limping with the weight of pumpkins she’s removed from her Renault. It is fall and Clark sits on a glider in the twilight in his shawl and slippers. The details suggest an elderly man, perhaps a man who’s ill. He does not help Allison. The careful opening directs readers to wonder about Allison’s relationship with Clark.

The author makes a good choice of character names. The name Allison sounds like it would belong to a person much younger than someone named Clark.

Then the story reveals that Clark is seventy-eight, much older than thirty-five-year-old Allison. They have been married for just four months. Because of the age difference, readers might assume she could be a gold-digger, hooking up with a much older man because of his money. Readers often assume easy stereotypes.

More small but important details are added. The couple look somewhat alike. Readers are told Allison wears a natural hair wig that makes a thick blonde hood around her face. And told that her durable clothing is appropriate for her volunteer work each afternoon at a children’s day-care center.

Allison’s turning out *not* to be the stereotypical gold digger– she volunteers with children and dresses in clothing suitable for hard work. Allison’s thick blonde wig is mentioned. At this point in the story, it appears to be just a bit of description but it turns out to be a prop that becomes quite important toward the end of the story. It foreshadows Allison’s serious medical condition.

As the story continues, quick but important details are added to the story that reveal their comfortable financial situation. Their foyer houses a Hepplewhite desk, and on the desk is their maid’s chore list, which includes Clark’s supper which is crossed off.

The antique desk also holds an opened birthday card that indicates trouble from Clark’s daughter. In the card the daughter sent late she told him he’s an old fool who is being cruelly deceived. The daughter does not trust either Allison or Clark’s judgment. The twenty-five dollar check she sent him she signed Jesus H. Christ. Clark’s daughter made it known she is not pleased with this marriage and does not trust Allison and doesn’t trust Clark’s judgment.

The birthday card is not mentioned. The dialogue shown between the couple is realistic. It’s short, to the point, and sounds like how a couple would speak as they focus on the mundane project they’re doing together. Late into this night, mostly in silence, Allison and Clark gutted and carved the pumpkins at an old table on the back porch. They used paring knives and spoons and Clark liked a Swiss Army knife for the precise shaping of teeth, eyes, and nostrils.

At this point, readers learn that Clark had been a doctor, an internist, and that he also enjoyed painting with watercolors. His four pumpkins were expressive and artful. He carved two to look ferocious, one to show surprise, and his final one was serene and beaming. On the other hand, Allison’s four pumpkin faces were a lot less skilled. She used basic triangles to make noses and eyes and the mouths were plain wedges.

By one A.M., they finished with their pumpkin carving project. Clark moved over to the glider again. He looked out sleepily at nothing since across the ravine all the neighbors’ lights were out on this warm Virginia night. The descriptive details of the trees add to the poignancy of the story– most of the leaves had fallen and blown away. The trees stood “unbothered” beneath the round moon above them. It’s as if, like the trees, Allison and Clark had shed their own bothersome leaves too (such as the daughter’s angry and judgmental letter).

Allison cleaned up the mess. That she cleaned up without his help suggests more about Clark’s frail physical condition. Then he announced that her jack-o-lanterns are far better than his. Allison doesn’t believe him. He tells her that once they’re lit she will see hers are better. Allison placed yellow vigil candles into each jack-o-lantern, all lined up in a row on the porch railing, and lit them all. They gazed at the orange faces. Allison still felt she was right–that his jack-o-lanterns were far better than hers. She declares it’s “good night time” and instructs Clark to leave the candles burning. She intends to put in new candles tomorrow.

At this point, readers learn that a few weeks earlier Allison began to die. She instructed Clark not to look at her if her wig came off. That small detail is so touching. It is here that readers realize that young Allison is the one who is most ill– she’s actually in the process of dying. Perhaps her hair loss was due to some type of chemotherapy. That statement is especially poignant when readers recall their earlier judgments about Allison. She’s to die first since she’s far sicker than her much older and frail husband.

With the above information, the title choice becomes more understandable. It is touching how Clark wanted to assure her that she’d missed nothing by being only a little talented as he was. He wanted to assure her that she would miss nothing by not living an unsatisfying life of longer length. He wanted her to understand that having only a little talent, like his, was a plaguing thing. “Yours” refers to Allison’s shorter life and lesser talent and Clark wanted to reassure her she’ll be missing nothing of any importance. His desire was to get drunk with her again, to revive that Dionysian drunkenness of love. But her young life is ending. Clark makes a phone call.

While on the telephone, Clark had a clear view out back and down to the porch. While Clark spoke into the phone, he watched their jack-o-lanterns. The jack-o-lanterns watched him.

Deliberately and effectively, Robison left it unclear who Clark was calling. The middle-of-the-night call likely had something to do with Allison’s dying. Readers are left with the disturbing image of the lit jack-o’-lanterns– Allison’s four cruder carved pumpkins along with Clark’s more artistic creations– all those many glowing and different expressions watching Clark as he watched them in this night’s vigil. No answers were forthcoming on that unseasonably warm autumn night.


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. Pamelyn Casto’s new book Flash Fiction: Alive in the Flicker (A Portable Workshop), a new release from O:JA&L’s Buttonhook Press, is available now on Amazon.

About Mary Robison: Mary Cennamo Robison (1949- ) is an American short story writer and novelist. She has been included among the founding members of the “minimalist” trend, along with authors such as Amy Hempel, Frederick Barthelme, and Raymond Carver.

Image: The Sick Woman by Einar Ilmoni (1880-1946). Oil on canvas. 27.1 x 18.8 inches. 1907. Public domain.

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