The ending of my favorite short story, William Trevor’s “A Day,” is remarkably gentle and generous. It always brings me to tears, no matter how many times I read it. The point of view changes in the final paragraph and the story opens wide, and also returns back to the beginning. The feeling is akin to an embrace. Jamel Brinkley’s “Comfort,” published in the Summer 2020 issue of Ploughshares, was written in response to the Trevor story. Brinkley is one of the best contemporary short story writers, and while I was thrilled to read his piece, I was apprehensive, unsure of whether the story and the ending could match that of the original.
I needn’t have worried. In the ending, as well as throughout the entire story, Brinkley echoes the underlying essence of the Trevor story. Stories written in response to other stories often do so by echoing the plot, or the characters, or the structure. “Comfort” does all that but in capturing its tone—a gentleness and a very light touch—the story transcends the original, its ending resonating with meaning.
Both stories take place over a single day, feature a lonely and sad woman, and show how repetition and ritual have become the focus of each woman’s life. In Trevor’s story, Mrs. Lethwes lives in late-twentieth-century England with her husband of twenty years; she is middle-aged and often alone, her imagination her preferred companion. Drinking has become a daily affair, the way in which she deals with her sense of loss over her inability to have children and the fact that her husband has had—and perhaps is still having—an affair.
In “Comfort,” Simone is also alone. She lives in an apartment in the Brooklyn of today where she too mourns a loss—the death of her brother, Marcus. Simone, like Mrs. Lethwes, goes out of her way to avoid the people in her life—her friend Dana, her parents, her landlady—and she also drinks to quiet her pain. While Mrs. Lethwes uses her imagination to conjure up the story of her husband and his lover, Simone imagines the life of an Officer Brody and his wife, the officer having something to do with her brother’s death. Simone, unlike Mrs. Lethwes, can use technology to track the officer and his wife: she knows where they live, and she can stare at their photos on her phone.
While both stories are quiet, tension is created by the tight container of a single day, a close third-person voice, and the use of the present tense. This provides an excellent way for the reader to travel through the day with the protagonist, experiencing the world as she does. It also creates friction within the narrative as both women long to live anywhere but the present; the present tense forces them to stay in this moment, in this day, in this world. “Comfort” begins: “It is May. Or it is June or July—or August. Or maybe it isn’t Simone’s most hated time of year. Maybe it’s just that the days feel long and that they burn, the sensation of being trapped in an oven.” Right from the start, we get both a sense of suffocation and a confusion as to the concreteness of the present moment. In the opening to “A Day,” there is a similar sense of vagueness, and also a sense of searching: “In the night Mrs. Lethwes wakes from time to time, turns and murmurs in her blue-quilted twin bed, is aware of fleeting thoughts and fragments of memory that dissipate swiftly.” Even as she sleeps, Mrs. Lethwes is very much living in her head. As the stories continue, the repetition of the days is clear. This day is just like the one before, and, presumably, the one to follow.
Both stories begin with the women in bed, waking at the start of the day. They have both had a bad night’s sleep, they both have had vivid dreams, and they both are awake beside a sleeping man. Mrs. Lethwes sleeps next to her husband, and Simone is next to Bamboo, one of her three rotating lovers. Beyond capturing the broad strokes of “Comfort,” however, one of the ways that Brinkley captures the original story’s tone is in echoing some of its smaller gestures. After waking up, for example, Mrs. Lethwes goes and looks out her window: “Drawing aside the edge of a curtain, she glances down into the early-morning garden and almost at once drops the curtain back into place.” Simone also goes to her window, but she “peeks through the blinds instead of opening them.” Neither woman wants the day to begin, and their similar gestures remind us of the connection between the stories.
As “A Day” continues, Mrs. Lethwes goes about her day: she shops, she gardens, she talks (unhappily) to her maid. In the garden, she weeds, only realizing later that she mistook seedlings for weeds, discarding the good instead of the bad. In “Comfort,” Simone talks to her friend Dana on the phone, goes to the market and the liquor store, and is confronted (unhappily) by her landlady. She, too, has an outdoor space, a yard that she is supposed to tend for reduced rent. She visits the yard late in the day and pours wine on the weeds, then smashes her glass against the side of the building. There is anger in Simone that is not in Mrs. Lethwes; they are very different women. Mrs. Lethwes is white and upper-middle-class, living in a wealthy suburb, while Simone is Black and has recently lost her job. They suffer from vastly different losses, but there is similarity in the way that their grief has rendered them unable to deal easily with the business of living.
As each story approaches its end, both women are getting more and more out of touch with reality, as they have both been drinking since the early afternoon. They have always been unreliable narrators, of course, but the drinking means that their thoughts become even more scattered. It is hard to separate fantasy from reality; it is hard to know where the truth lies. And yet, in both stories, this is when their thoughts reveal pivotal information: Mrs. Lethwes creates an entire narrative about adopting a child who will be born to Mr. Lethwes’s lover; Simone divulges not only what happened to her brother with the officer but also acknowledges that she questions the events of that day. She believes she knows the truth, but underneath that, she wonders.
The final paragraph in “A Day” shows a kitchen in a state of disarray:
On the mottled worktop in the kitchen the meat is where Mrs. Lethwes left it, the fat partly cut away, the knife still separating it from one of the chops. The potatoes she scraped earlier in the day are in a saucepan of cold water, the peas she shelled in another. Often, in the evenings, it is like that in the kitchen when her husband returns to their house. He is gentle when he carries her, as he always is.
It is not until the third sentence that we understand the point of view is shifting, and it doesn’t entirely change until that final line. And now we understand why, at the start of the story, she thinks: “In another of her dreams during the night that has passed he carried her, and his voice spoke softly, soothing her. Or was it quite a dream, or only something like one?” The perspective shift allows us to see her from her husband’s eyes, or perhaps from the point of view of an omniscient narrator—or perhaps even Mrs. Lethwes herself, in a moment of lucidity. For the reader, this ending is comforting: she is cared for, with kindness, and this, like everything else, seems destined to continue.
In the closing to “Comfort,” there is also a changed point of view, although here the shift is made clear:
When he returns, he notices that the door to the apartment is unlocked, as it often is. She forgets. He sees the white plastic bag from the supermarket, the black one from the liquor store. He suppresses any desire to tease or scold her about the unripe fruit. In fact, he loses the desire to tease or scold her at all. He chuckles at the way she opened the banana, but the sound doesn’t disturb her. He shakes his head at the empty candy wrappers scattered on the coffee table. He takes her phone, with its unsent message, out of her dangling hand and sets it aside. She looks so unwell lying there on the flattened cushions, so thin, but he still believes in her, in the idea that one day it won’t be like this anymore. He wishes he could make her eat more, or drink less, but he can’t. He does just one thing, the only thing he can on nights like this, when finds her alone on that terrible sofa. He offers her a chance at a decent night of sleep, a chance that she will hurt a little less when she awakens, a comfort. Before he leaves, he picks her up tenderly and brings her to her bed.
The word “return” is echoed from the Trevor ending and it sets up the repetition: this is a night just like so many others. Unlike Trevor, though, Brinkley doesn’t identify the man who returns. We assume this is Bamboo, that as in “A Day,” the man from the beginning will be the man at the end. And earlier in the day, she says that “it’s Bamboo that she imagines lifting her from the sofa and carrying her in his arms so she can sleep in her bed.” That evening, she has texted Bamboo to come over. But we know from earlier in the story that she doesn’t always send the texts that she writes when she is drunk and, indeed, the man sees an unsent text. He “chuckles” at the way she has peeled a banana, a way that she told us she learned from Marcus. And this man doesn’t stay; he won’t be there in the morning. This is not a repeat of the day before. This man is simply ensuring that she is as comfortable as she can be.
Trevor provides us with comfort, a way to connect the end to the beginning, a way to see the repetition of the days. Brinkley does that as well, but he also opens up the ending, allowing for ambiguity, encouraging multiple readings. Someone, we know, is caring for Simone, and this is a comfort and a relief for her, as it is for the reader. But who is this man? Perhaps it is Bamboo but it could also be one of her other lovers or perhaps even her father. It could even be Marcus, caring for his grieving sister, from his home in her memories and her dreams.