31 Days of Stories 2021, Day 1: “Helping” by Robert Stone

From 100 Years of the Best American Stories

The opening paragraph of Robert Stone’s “Helping” sets the tone for what is to come:

One grey 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 did not drink. He had joined Alcoholics Anonymous fifteen months before.

The language is direct and unadorned, as befits an American realist piece, and the sentences are clipped to their bare essentials. A tone of foreboding is contained in the “grey November day,” the “cold and lonely” streets, and the “old hopes” like “phantom limbs” that plague the protagonist. The setting – Boston in the months approaching winter – is identified though not elaborated upon, as is the central character, Elliot. The fact that Elliot feels “the city’s elegance and verve” constitute “a broken promise” is clearly indicative of disillusionment, though to this point we have no idea of what the man might be disillusioned by, or how the metropolis’s cold and lonely streets in fact operate as an objective correlative for his interior state.

The one thing we do know about Elliot at this point is that he is an alcoholic who has been sober for more than a year. There is a note, not of triumphalism, but certainly of success in the observation that despite the precise nature of his torment – Elliot’s old hopes given physical manifestations in the simile of amputated limbs that still tickle and tug at the person from whom they have been taken – he does not give in to an impulse to drink. For those attuned to literary technique, there is also foreshadowing here: the reference to AA and Elliot’s refusal to backslide into old habits is, in the context of Stone’s narrative, the equivalent of Chekhov’s gun.

Of course Elliot will go back to the bottle: that was never really in question. The movement of the story is more about how, and why, he does this.

Stone’s approach in the story’s early stages extends the linguistic and imagistic tactics of the opening paragraph. Christmas is “childless” and “a festival of regret,” while in January “blizzards swept down from the Arctic until the weather became too cold for snow.” Elliot, who lives with his wife, Grace, not in Boston but in the rural Shawmut Valley outside of the city proper, is enveloped by “white silences” in which he hears “the boards of his house contract” and feels “a shrinking in his bones.” Everything we are given here connotes discontent and barrenness, from the insouciant skipping over large periods of time – “Christmas came”; ”In January, blizzards swept down” – to the emphasis on the cold and emptiness of winter – too cold even for snow – and another objective correlative regarding the shrinking boards in Elliot’s house.

What is remarkable about the brief opening paragraphs in “Helping” is how much information they carry – about Elliot himself, about his wounded psyche, about his surroundings – in a very few, spare lines of mostly elliptical description. Stone has internalized Poe’s dictum of a single effect in short fiction: “In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design.”

The design, in “Helping,” is the dramatic extrapolation of Elliot’s torment, which is inextricably tied to PTSD resulting from his time as a soldier in Vietnam. In the narrative present, Elliot is a counsellor at a state hospital; one of his clients, Blankenship, sets the alcoholic vet on a downward spiral of recidivism by claiming to have himself served in Vietnam, a fact that Elliot knows to be untrue. A thief who avoided jail by enlisting in the armed forces, Blankenship “never served east of the Rhine” having been discharged “for reasons of unsuitability.”

Elliot’s reaction to Blankenship illustrates his volatility: he taunts his client, who professes true fear as a result of nightmares – “Fantasies aren’t helpful,” Elliot tells him curtly – and snaps at Ethel, the office secretary, dismissing Blankenship’s referring psychiatrist as a “shrink” and talking about the doctor in explicitly racist terms that we understand to be a holdover from his time in Southeast Asia.

Here, too, Stone is canny in his approach. What really troubles Elliot is not so much the fact that Blankenship has concocted a story about having served in Vietnam, but that his dream finds resonance with the counsellor. “Other people’s dreams are boring,” Elliot initially declaims, but after caving and agreeing to listen to Blankenship, he is startled by the consonance with his own experience. Blankenship recalls in his dream a blackness that may be smoke or the sky, and a feeling of “floating in rubber.” After contracting dengue in Vietnam, Elliot, we are told, succumbed to a similar physical sensation. A few paragraphs further on, Stone writes, “In a waking dream of his own, Elliot felt the muscles on his neck distend. He was looking up at a sky that was black, filled with smoke-swollen clouds, lit with fires, damped with blood and rain.”

There is a doubling here, a layering of experience between the prevaricating Blankenship – note the name – and the psychologically wounded soldier Elliot. It is this recognition, more than anything, that stokes Elliot’s anger and sends him directly from the office to a local bar.

The balance of the story focuses on the fallout once he returns home to Grace, who confronts him about his lack of commitment to sobriety. But things aren’t straightforward here, either. Grace – once again, note the freighted name – scolds Elliot, whom she refers to as Chas (as does a kindly librarian – another level of slippage regarding Elliot’s own degree of forthrightness), saying at one point, “You‘ll end up in jail again.” Stone offers the reader necessary information to comprehend Elliot’s character and Grace’s reaction to him, though without filling in the details or spending time on an extraneous digression.

The distance between the way Grace sees Elliot/Chas versus the way he presents himself is profound, as is her calling her husband “fella,” the same diminutive Elliot applied to Blankenship in their counselling session. Grace’s violent reaction to Elliot’s falling off the wagon (during the course of their argument she throws a glass sugar bowl at him) is explained through dialogue, when she elucidates her family history among alcoholics: “In my family we stay until the fella dies. That’s the tradition. We stay and pour it for them and they die.”

This is Grace’s memory of helping: her family members act as enablers for their dipsomaniac relatives. The various aspects of the story’s title – professional help, military intervention, home caregiving – are explored through dramatic action and implication rather than being spelled out in the text; Stone’s intention is not to be didactic, but to present a group of characters in dramatic situations and thereby unfold their psychic, emotional, and physical makeups and connections.

Elliot’s incipient violence – he describes to Grace a fantasy he has of stringing razor wire around the perimeter of their land in order to decapitate the neighbours, who ski and snowmobile there – is literalized when, drunk, he retrieves a shotgun with which he imagines shooting his neighbour, the professor Loyall Anderson: “In imagination, Elliot rested the tip of his shotgun barrel against Anderson’s smiling teeth. If he fired a load of deer shot into them, he thought, they might make a noise like broken china.” We are presented with what essentially amounts to a PTSD-induced flashback; the notion that Anderson’s teeth “might make a noise like broken china” is too specific to be anything other than a marker of Elliot’s wartime experience – he knows precisely what it sounds like when a man gets shot.

Stone emphasizes the relationship between Elliot’s violence and the booze’s tendency to exacerbate it:

Getting drunk was an 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. He had bullied Anderson with his violence and unhappiness, and Anderson would not forgive him. There would be damn little justice and no mercy.

“Damn little justice and no mercy” could serve as a reasonable subtitle for ”Helping,” a highly ironic choice for title if ever there was one. Stone’s story is contiguous with the work of Russell Banks, a contemporary of the author who also writes about submerged masculine violence and fraught family dynamics. In “Helping,” these subjects are treated with great care and empathy, though the story’s ultimate tone and vision are bleak: there is little justice here, and no mercy.

31 Days of Stories 2021, Day 1: “Helping” by Robert Stone