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Joel Clay Blog

Stories That Haunt

Stories That Haunt: “Helping” (1987)

Robert Stone’s “Helping” plods along for a short story. Its trudging tone, with cold and gray imagery throughout, helps me feel Elliot’s fifteen months of sobriety, his monotonous struggle to endure. The precise detail, the witty dialogue, and the Vietnam vet’s edge, the feeling that he’s reaching a breaking point—this all kept it interesting to me despite the pace.

The epiphany or climax is only as strong as the foundation—the body of the story—upon which it’s built. And yet, in the stories that follow me around months after first encountering them, I can usually identify a specific point, a culmination that the story drapes itself upon, which everything else flows toward or from. The sharpness of that point dictates the weight of the emotional effect in me.

In “Helping,” that point doesn’t arrive until the end, as is often the case. While Stone keeps me interested, expectant, if the story had ended differently—if the last half-page had been less powerful—my mind likely wouldn’t have revisited it.

The mood and much of the impending conflict is established from the outset. The opening lines: “One gray November Day, Elliot went to Boston for the afternoon. The wet streets seemed cold and lonely. He sensed a broken promise in the city’s elegance and verve. Old hopes tormented him like phantom limbs but he didn’t drink. He had joined Alcoholics Anonymous fifteen months before.

Christmas came, childless, a festival of regret. His wife went to Mass and cooked a turkey. Sober, Eliot walked in the woods. … Day in, day out, he was sober. At times it was almost stimulating. Sober […] he remained, until the day a man named Blankenship came into his office at the state hospital for counseling.”

Elliot works for the government as a counselor for Vietnam vets. In the first scene, Elliot meets with a repeat client, Blankenship. The scene is hilarious but tense. This young adult lifelong criminal born into a family of criminals (all the other known family members are locked up) seems to have convinced himself that he was in Vietnam, though he clearly wasn’t. He appropriates Elliot’s and others’ actual experiences and makes them his own.

Instead of feeling humor in the odd encounter, Elliot bristles. “’It was me over there, Blankenship. Not you.’ […] What an awful job this is. Anger was driving him crazy.” He mocks Blankenship and refuses to help him. We see that Elliot’s cranky, unhappy, that he’s tottering on his deep personal issues stemming from his Vietnam experiences and subsequent alcoholism. “Elliot succeeded in calming himself down after a while, but the image of the black sky remained with him.”

As Elliot leaves the office, we get a brief scene—the one without Elliot—between the receptionist and Elliot’s co-worker. Elliot’s co-worker says the following about Elliot and his wife: “‘He spends every weekend holed up in this goddamn office while she does something or other at the church.’ He shook his head. ‘Every night he’s at AA and she’s home alone.’ […] ‘I’m thinking I’m glad I’m not him […].” This is obviously important to Stone, as the narration shifts away from Elliot, this one time, to his co-workers who provide a third-party picture of Elliot’s life since he’s been sober. It’s an interesting choice, but it’s seamless. Elliot just left the office and we happen to stick around for the co-worker gossip. Also, the story is still fresh—we don’t know yet that this is the only scene without Elliot. I believe it would have jolted us from the fictive dream if dropped in at the end of the story. Nonetheless, it establishes tone and mood, and sets up the following scenes.

Elliot goes to the local library where his cousin works. Nothing like a visit to the library to keep the reader on edge. But we get this: “[…] he swung into the parking lot of the Packard Conway library and stopped with the engine running. What he was experiencing, he thought, was the principle of possibility.”

The scene generates a sort of peaceful tension—we’re at a library with his kind, innocuous cousin; yet, we realize he’s brewing. It is a brief encounter. But we learn that Elliot used to visit his cousin at the library after a drinking binge and before the next one. It was a refuge for him during a dark time, and also a starting off point. Going to the library was a way to give himself permission to drink, to revisit the old pattern.

His cousin takes a call and he leaves.

“His heart, for no good reason, leaped up in childlike expectation. He had run away from a dream and encountered possibility. He felt in possession of a promise. He began to walk toward the roadside lights. […] Only gradually did he begin to understand what had brought him there and what the happy anticipation was that fluttered in his breast. Drinking, he had started his evening from the Conway Library.”

These lines of hope stand out starkly against the drear that smothers Elliot throughout the story. They were still on my mind when I reach the end of the story.

He goes to a bar for a glass, then to the store for a bottle.

He drives home “in a baroque ecstasy, swinging and swaying and singing along.” He’s in the living room listening to Handel’s Largo when his social worker attorney wife, Grace, arrives. They banter. Elliot says that he likes to start the morning off skiing and his wife says that he no longer skies. “Her pointing out that he no longer skied in the morning enraged him.” Then, “With dread and bitter satisfaction, Elliot watched his wife detect the smell of whiskey.”

We are sucked into a scene that has played before.
Elliot lapses into bitter, caustic mode. We see what kind of drunk Elliot is. He talks about stringing wire along the path through the woods, one for the blue-eyed, perfect-life, anti-gun, annoying neighbors and one for their equally flawless children—“And a bitty wee string at kiddie level for Skippy and Samantha, those cunning little whizzes.” Elliot is sardonically hilarious. This essay isn’t about the dark humor, but it is thoroughly present and keeps the story interesting. Then Elliot apologizes to an exasperated Grace, and we see the pattern. “’You’ll end up in jail again’” Grace says.

“’You’ll end up in jail again’” Grace says.

They go back and forth, Elliot nothing-matters-anyway cold, insensitive; Grace desperate, hopeless. Elliot says, “‘[…] there are times when I don’t think I will ever be dead enough—or dead long enough—to get the taste of this life off my teeth. […] this drink I’m having’—he raises the glass toward her in a gesture of salute—'is the only worthwhile thing I’ve done in the last year and a half. It’s the only thing in my life that means jack shit, the closest thing to satisfaction I’ve had.’” He says this to his wife, who has stuck with him despite the many bouts one can assume preceded this one. Wow.

Then, “‘Don’t you hit me,’ she said when she looked at his face. ‘Don’t you dare.’” Without taking us out of the Story, Stone’s telling us that Elliot has hit her in the past while drunk. Then, Elliot taunts her about leaving, she doesn’t have it in her. “‘In my family we stay until the fella dies. That’s the tradition. We stay and pour it for them and they die.’” But next she says, “… I’m not going to stay through another drunk. … I haven’t got it in me. I’ll die.’”

Oh, and now we find out that Grace lost her huge case earlier. “‘I just can’t take it,” she said. Her voice was not scolding but measured and reasonable. ‘It’s February. And I went to court this morning and lost Vopotik.” I love “It’s February” here—we have no idea of its significance. Does she struggle with seasonal depression? Maybe. But the beauty of it is that Elliot knows what she’s talking about. We’re witness to a private conversation, and of course we aren’t going to get everything. It’s what she would say. Stone knows these characters so much deeper than the reader does—and that’s how it should be. Now, he has to carefully choose what he shows us, as the story is for us, but when she would say “It’s February” – two words, and we don’t fully get it, we aren’t taken out of the story, we just feel like we’re witnessing an authentic private conversation. We aren’t supposed to be there, and it creates a subtle thrill for this reader.

We also don’t know at this point who Vopotik is, but we’ll soon discover that the Vopotiks are a druggy, criminal, mentally deranged family (not unlike the Blankenships). Their three-year-old son had his fingers broken (presumably by the parents), and Grace, as the prosecuting attorney, tried to have him removed from the home. She lost, in a humiliating manner—her witnesses didn’t show up (presumably the result of threats from the Vopotiks). Grace is at a lowest low. And here’s Elliot’s under-the-influence response: “Once again, he thought, my troubles are going to be obviated by those of the deserving poor.” And a little later, “‘You shouldn’t get involved that way,’ Elliot said. ‘You should leave it to the caseworkers.’”

“’The Vopotik child will die, I think,’” Grace says, but this doesn’t phase Elliot. He knows how to hit her where it hurts. What a spiteful man. Misery demands company, and Elliot isn’t done. He attacks two more soft spots: their seeming inability to have children, which Elliot appears to blame on Grace; and her religion, the one refuge from her servile, unrecognized life.

Grace says, “’Some kids are obnoxious. No question about it.’

‘I wouldn’t know,’ Elliot said.

‘Maybe you should stop complaining. Maybe you’re better off. Maybe your kids are better off unborn.’”

‘Better off or not,’ Elliot said, ‘it looks like they’ll stay that way.’”

And now Grace is drinking Scotch.

“The liquor seemed to be giving him a perverse lucidity when all he now required was oblivion. His rage, especially, was intact in its salting of alcohol. Its contours were palpable and bleeding at the borders. Booze was good for rage. Booze could keep it burning through the darkest night.”

… “‘These people [Vopotiks] aren’t simply confused. They’re weird. They stink.’

‘You go messing into anybody’s life,’ Elliot said, ‘that’s what you’ll find.’”

They’re drinking together at the table now.

“‘Sometimes,’ Elliot said, ‘I try to imagine what it’s like to believe that the sky is full of care and concern.’

‘You want to take everything from me, do you?’ She stood leaning against the back of her chair. ‘That you can’t take. It’s the only part of my life you can’t mess up.’

He was thinking that if it had not been for her he might not have survived. There could be no forgiveness for that.”

Elliot says, “’You should have been a nun. You don’t know how to live.’” … Then, “’I swear I’d rather be a drunk,’ Elliot said, ‘than force myself to believe such trivial horseshit.’”

… “’You’re really good at this,’ she told him. ‘You make me feel ashamed of my own name.’”

Of all the possible responses, Elliot chooses to criticize Grace, how she handled the case, her expectations, her lack of children, her empty religion. This is the nasty drunk. A sober Elliot would have comforted, we assume, or they wouldn’t still be married. We feel years of tension and fights with a few comments and gestures.

There is probably a great story for the wife—what a remarkable, enduring individual, but this isn’t her story. It’s not about the victim, it’s about the perpetrator.

When it doesn’t feel like it could get worse, the father of the broken-fingers child calls. Elliot answers. The father has called to gloat and to threaten Grace.

“‘Come on over,’ Elliot insisted. ‘Bring your fat wife and your beat-up kid. Don’t be embarrassed if your head’s a little small.’”

Before he is through cussing out Elliot and Grace, the father agrees he will come over.

Alone again, Elliot and Grace resume their conversation. “‘I’m finished,’ Grace said. ‘I’m through, Chas. I mean it.’” Then, a few lines later, she says, “‘I’m not going to stay with you. Chas, Do you understand me?’” I don’t believe her. These sound like lines she’s been repeating and the more she says them, the more I (and Elliot) feel she’s not going to follow through.

But before Grace goes to bed, the conversation takes an ominous turn for Elliot.

“’I can’t leave you alone down her drunk with a loaded shotgun,’ she said. ‘How can I?’

‘Go upstairs,’ he said.

‘If I went upstairs it would mean I don’t care what happened. Do you understand? If I go it means I don’t care anymore. Understand?’

‘Stop asking me if I understand,’ Elliot said. ‘I understand fine.’

Grace goes upstairs.

Stone has concocted an impressive crucible: The protagonist’s worst client visits, pushes him to relapse, the wife loses her big case, the real loser of which is the powerless child whom the wife couldn’t save; okay, and the husband is an incisive, angry, mean drunk; and they both seem to want children but can’t get pregnant; and just to make it clear what kind of bastards she’s been dealing with, the father of the child calls her up and, with a victory party blazing, proceeds to lambaste and threaten her, to say he knows where she lives and will be visiting.

Most can relate to these boiling points where it feels like all the bad that could happen does, at once. And Stone helps make if feel natural with the slow-moving plot. The ingredients are all in. The amalgam is bubbling. Something is going to happen. Something bad probably, something that wouldn’t typically occur to the just-trying-to-survive-the-struggle folks that this couple seems to represent.

But nothing does.
And this is when it becomes powerful to me. The following is why I felt I needed to explore the story further, to force myself to write about it in the hope of understanding. Everything before this moment in the story is plodding forward and upward to this cliff.

Elliot is in a chair with his rifle waiting for the druggy family to show up. “Sitting in the dark room, he found himself confronting Blankenship’s dream. He saw the bunkers and wire of some long-lost perimeter. … Enervated by liquor, he began to cry. Elliot was sympathetic with other people’s tears but ashamed of his own. He thought of his own tears as childish and excremental. He stifled whatever it was that had started them.” This is one of a few occasions used to soften Elliot, to show his humanity, to provide a glimpse of what he can be like sober (and when not with his most dreadful client).

Elliot falls asleep.
He wakes up early as the sun rises, realizes that the Vopotiks never came, downs the remainder of the whiskey, then grabs a ski jacket, a rifle, and heads to the woods behind his house. He stumbles to the back on his mostly drained whiskey energy. “He yawned. More than anything, he wanted to lie down in the soft, pure snow. If he could do that, he was certain he could go to sleep at once.

“He stood in the middle of the field and listened to the crows. Fear, anger, and sleep were the three primary conditions of life. He had learned that over there. Once he had thought fear the worst, but he had learned that the worst was anger. Nothing could fix it; neither alcohol nor medicine. It was a worm. It left him no peace. Sleep was the best.”

Elliot’s neighbor—the one Elliot fantasized decapitating the night before—emerges from the woods and comes over to Elliot. A sidesplitting encounter ensues where the neighbor, noticing Elliot’s rifle, makes passive aggressive remarks about the illegality of hunting in the area. Elliot grows angrier (“He pushed the little red bull’s-eye safety button on his gun to off”) and less subtle in his threats. Before departing, “Elliot was relieved to see that he had stopped smiling.” A desire to Inflict pain on others, to bring others down toward his level, is a sad coping mechanism that metastasizes in Elliot as soon as the alcoholic anger begins welling.

The neighbor departs, frightened as Elliot wanted him, and Elliot slogs toward the house in the snow, defeated and alone.

“As he walked back toward the house, he realized that now there would be whole days to get through, running before the antic energy of whiskey. The whiskey would drive him until he dropped. … Getting drunk was a insurrection, a revolution—a bad one. There would be outsize bogus emotions. There would be petty moral blackmail and cheap remorse. He had said dreadful things to his wife … There would be damn little justice and no mercy.” (201)

Elliot takes a shot at a pheasant and misses.

“Then Elliot turned again toward the house and took a few labored steps and looked up to see his wife at the bedroom window. She stood perfectly still, and the morning sun lit up her nakedness. He stopped where he was. She had heard the shot and run to the window. What had she thought to see? Burnt rags and blood on the snow. How relieved was she now? How disappointed?”

Side note, the “burnt rags” statement (relief or disappointment?) reminds me of Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour”—a brilliant short story in which a wife learns that her husband died in a mining accident, and she feels extraordinary relief and freedom. Then, when he enters through the door, as the report had been inaccurate, she dies of shock. The family believed she died from happiness, but the reader knows that is false. One sometimes wonders how his spouse will react upon news of his death. Did Stone have that story in mind when he wrote “Helping”? I wish I was important enough, and he was alive enough, to ask him.

But Elliot continues: “[…] How beautiful she is, he thought. The effect was striking … Elliot began to hope for forgiveness. He leaned the shotgun on his forearm and raise his left hand and waved to her. Show a hand, he thought. Please just show a hand.

“He was cold, but it had got light. He wanted no more than the gesture. It seemed to him that he could build another day on it. Another day was all you needed. He raised his hand higher and waited.” (202)

I am shaken every time I read those last paragraphs.
Elliot sees his wife in the upstairs window naked, watching him, alerted by the gunshot. He raises his hand and he wants badly for her to love him for who he is, in spite of whatever he did in Vietnam, his alcoholism, his bitterness, his abhorrent treatment of her. She has seen him, as well as anyone probably ever will, and he needs her to love him.

I like the simplicity of the image. It takes this big complicated mess of relapse, a shaky, abusive marriage, Vietnam baggage / PTSD, a huge professional and morale loss for Grace, all showing us the futility and unhappiness of their lives, two helpless helpers (he a counselor; she a child-advocate attorney) at rock bottom, and revealing what is left in the dregs of the barrel: the need to be acknowledged, forgiven, and loved.

The ending brings everything together for me. Elliot knows that violence, tearing down (where alcohol leads him) will not sustain him, but his wife's love will. And I have hope as a reader that this was a weekend relapse, that as soon as his wife raises his hand he’ll get back on the bumpy, windy trail with few redeeming smooth patches, because he understands that what he needs and wants is to love and be loved (by Grace), and he can't have that without sobriety.

Eliot is bitter that his wife expends so much energy on church and child-protective attorneying, but, ironically, it is in that same spirit that she stays with and supports Eliot. She is a helper, a forgiver, a public servant—what Eliot needs, the only type of person who could love him, if he is lovable—the answer to which Elliot will soon discover.

I found myself wondering why I felt for this guy, why I wanted him to figure it out, achieve some degree of happiness. He’s presented in this story as despicable—he’s a racist (calls co-worker zip behind back and Vopotik a Slovak derogatorily), he’s verbally abusive to his wife; it’s implied that he’s been physically abusive. Yet, from the beginning I found myself not so much rooting for him but hoping for him the way you hope for the guy in last place looking at all the runners ahead of him with sorry determination. Of course, his suffering is part of it, his serving in Vietnam, the persistent PTSD he lives with, but I think the biggest compassion-booster, is Elliot’s general unhappiness. His meanness is a mirror into his own soul. When one is on top and bullying those below, it is hard to empathize with his unhappiness; when one is stuck up to his chest in mud, bloodied and beaten, we wonder, I wonder, if, when he finally gets ahold of a passing leg, he’s not so much trying to pull the passerby into the pit with him as he’s actually trying, ineffectual though it may be, to pull himself out.

“Possibility” shows up twice in the story—both in the context of Elliot’s optimism derived from drinking. Drinking was the only way he found hope, the only way he’d felt happy in quite some time. I was reminded of possibility in the last scene. He seems to feel it for the first time in the story not related to alcohol while looking up at his wife. His hope shook me.

You feel the wife’s warmth. She is naked. She just arose from a warm bed wrapped in blankets. She makes no effort to cover herself. Only a glass partition separates Elliot’s cold and his wife’s heat.

I read the story a second time immediately after finishing. Then, weeks later, still haunted, I read it again. As months went by and I did and read other things, the image kept reappearing in my head, making me grateful to those who’ve raised hands for me.

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