Subtext. Charles Baxter describes it as the “subterranean realm” of a story. It’s what fuels character’s emotions and motivations. It’s a technique not of showing or telling but implying. The very nature of subtext, when executed correctly, allows the reader to fill in the blanks, to become an active participant in the story: subtext allows writer and reader to join forces.
“This all happened back when I divorced Tom and moved me and Jimmy out to California,” reads the first line of Derek Updegraffe’s story “Dummy,” published in the 104th issue of The Greensboro Review. It’s an intriguing and captivating line, one that establishes the narrative distance, the weight of the past, and a progression forward (something some writers call the “narrative now”). But this line is effective not because of what Updegraffe does with it, but rather, what he doesn’t do with it.
We learn in the next paragraph of the story’s obscure external conflict, a young son, Jimmy, who unknowingly sleepwalks into his mother’s room every night and attempts to beat her up: “Anyway, things were settling in fine, but then one night Jimmy comes into my room and he starts wailing on me, like really hitting me, his little fists tight like avocados still on the branch” (35). It’s a conflict that lives in a plausible reality, straddling the absurd. As the narrator reckons with this strange conundrum, we begin to see Jimmy as the gateway to the past. What does he know about his parent’s past relationship? Is his sleepwalking and punching some form of repression? The narrator hypothesizes: “My boy swinging at me because of his father’s wrongdoings” (36).
The obvious temptation is to explore the past and backstory through a lens that assigns reason to Jimmy’s behavior. Short stories often do this. They set the scene, introduce character and conflict, and then seek to explain through flashback or backstory—in this case, assigning reason as to why mother and son moved away from the boy’s father. But Updegraffe resists this temptation. He actively chooses not to fill in the blanks, which forces the reader to engage and explore that “subterranean realm” of the story, the unseen, the unspoken.
And while we’re engaging with the potential realities of the past—mainly, why this mother and son duo uprooted their old life—Updegraffe advances the narrative now. Bewildered about her violent sleepwalking son, the narrator drops her son off at daycare, takes the day off from work, and finds herself walking around town, pondering a solution to her problem. When she stumbles into a costume store, she unearths a solution: “The idea, it just hit me” (36). (Note the rhyming action taking place here. She is “hit” by both her son and ideas.) “There was this dummy slouching against a wall. It was heavy looking, and sure enough when I touched it and then pulled up on it, I felt that this thing was heavy, durable” (36).
She buys the dummy, clothes, and accessories from the costume store and proceeds to make the dummy appear as much like her ex-husband as possible. She glues on eyeballs, draws a goatee, dresses it in a pilot’s uniform (the father, we later learn, is an airline pilot), places the dummy in bed, and watches as her son sleepwalks in and wails on the dummy that looks like his father.
“Once, during those dummy months, my boy visited his father for a week in the summer” (37), the story concludes. The boy’s parents make arrangements to drop him off and pick him up at the airport (“I imagined Jimmy in our old house, Jimmy in our pool, Jimmy in his bedroom” ). The week comes and goes, and what does the narrator see on her husband when she picks her son up from the airport? A dark bruise under his eye.
“Dummy” can be found in Issue 104 of The Greensboro Review.
Matt Coz is a second-year MFA candidate in fiction at UNC Greensboro and current Fiction Editor for The Greensboro Review.