He is 88 and she is 70. He will pass within the hour. He is 67 and she is 49. He lets her hold his hand as she leads him through his house–the house of her childhood–one last time. He is 48 and she is 30… In this poignant short story, John Anderson views forward life through a backwards lens. —From Amazon
For a light read, Dear Lucy, by Jay Budgett is pretty heavy. As the summary states, it starts on John Anderson’s death bed, holding the hand of his daughter, Lucy, and scrubs backward. Much like rewinding a movie, Budgett stops every so often to play it forward until you get your bearings. Each section is a short vignette, weighty with details that connect the dots of John and Lucy’s relationship. The story’s end, in a waiting room, is also the beginning.
Budgett has written a spare, poignant, present-tense narrative steeped in realism. The vignettes are carefully balanced between Norman Rockwell moments when John is a perfect, loving father, and the inevitable ones in which he makes mistakes. It’s important to note, however, that even in the low moments, Budgett is painting an idealized portrait of fatherhood. They are all, in their way, drawn from a Hallmark card fantasy. The brilliance of Dear Lucy is in Budgett’s ability to steer readers through a haze of golden “memories” into the waiting room chair entirely convinced we know where we are going when John’s name is called. Then, with measured emotion, Budgett proves us wrong. It is rare for a story to hold onto its twist so effortlessly.
As for the twist itself, I can’t give it away (though I may have already done so) without changing your experience of the story. That leaves me rather limited with how much I can unspool the story’s implications. Budgett says nothing that hasn’t been said before, but I admire the restraint he uses, the delicacy with which he treats John’s experiences.
Beside him, on his deathbed, Lucy has placed a sprouting potato:
She doesn’t like flowers. Doesn’t understand why you’d bring something soon to-be-dead to those who were dying. Potatoes, she has told him many times before, are still growing, still changing.
Budgett’s cleverness here is in the dual reading of his metaphor. To the dying man, it speaks of ongoing life, but it speaks just as loudly to the young man in the waiting room at the story’s conclusion for whom one path ends and another begins.
Dear Lucy is a joy to read, but uniquely, it is a joy to re-read.
- Writing: 5
- Plot: 5
- Technical: 4