27 pages 54 minutes read

Andre Dubus II


Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1979

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “Killings”

The story opens on an August morning. The Fowler family is burying their youngest child, Frank Fowler. Frank Fowler was twenty-one years old at the time of his death. Matt Fowler (the family’s patriarch), Ruth (his wife), Steve (the eldest son), and Cathleen (the middle child), have assembled for the funeral. As the family turns to leave the gravesite, Steve says, “I should kill him” (47). Although we do not find out until later, Frank is referring to Richard Strout, who is Frank’s murderer. The third-person omniscient narrator tells us that Frank is twenty-eight years old and has thinning hair. After Frank’s remark, Ruth’s arm, which is linked with Matt’s, tightens. When Matt turns to look at Ruth, he can see that her eyes are swollen.

Frank’s grave is on a hill and overlooks the Merrimack River, although Matt cannot see the river. He looks instead at the opposite bank, and the apple orchard there.

The next day, Steve drives back to Baltimore, to return to his job as a bank manager. Cathleen returns, with her husband, to their home and children in Syracuse.

A month after the funeral, Matt plays poker at Willis Trottier’s house. Willis is a friend of Matt’s. He is a short, silver-haired man who owns a large restaurant. After the game, Matt and Willis linger in conversation. Matt expresses anger at the fact that he sees Richard Strout walking the streets as a free man. He laments the fact that Ruth is forced to see Strout around town, and that it is killing her. Willis tells Matt that Willis saw Stroutat his restaurant’s bar the other night, in the company of an unknown woman.

Willis invites Matt back into the house. Matt checks his watch and surmises that Ruth is most likely already asleep. He looks up at the stars in the skyand thinks vaguely about the Red Sox while following Willis back into the house. He reflects on the fact that he has not been able to enjoy the small pleasures in life since his son’s death.

The two men go down to the game room. Martha, Willis’s wife, has gone to bed. Willis mixes a scotch and soda for each of them. He asks Frank how often he “has thought about it” (48). Matt answers, “Every day since [Richard Strout] got out. I didn’t think about bail. I thought I wouldn’t have to worry about him for years. [Ruth]sees him all the time. It makes her cry” (48). Willis replies that Strout was in his restaurant for a long time on the previous nightand guarantees that Strout will return. Willis states that Strout is currently bartending in Hampton Beach. Willisalso states that he, too, hates Strout, and, that when his own sons went to school with Strout, Strout was no different from the way he is today. He predicts that Strout will only do five years in prison.

Matt states that he has been carrying the .38 mm gun that he has had for years to the store that he owns, of late. He’s been telling Ruth that it’s for security during night deposits. However, Ruth knows that Matt has begun carrying the gun since he first saw Strout, after Strout posted bail, and that he carries it in case “a situation” arises (49). He tells Willis that Ruth knows that, if an occasion arises in which Matt is able to kill Strout without being caught, Matt will do it. Ruth has given her tacit approval.

The narrator then moves from the scene in Willis’s game room and supplies the reader with background information on Strout. Strout is twenty-six years old. He was a high school athlete who entered the University of Massachusetts on a football scholarship. He lasted almost two semesters before dropping out—the school would have kicked him out for his failing grades anyway. He then returned home and worked for his father’s construction company, although he refused to learn the business the way his two older brothers had. Strout then married a young girl (later revealed to be named Mary Ann), and became a bartender. He occasionally gets into scuffles or fights with various men and former classmates around town.

The narrator also reveals that Strout beat Frank Fowler one night, during a previous summer. Frank had been staying with his parents while waiting for his graduate program in Economics to begin and was also working as a lifeguard at Salisbury Beach. There, he met Mary Ann Strout while she was in her first month of being separated from Rich Strout. Strout dropped in on Mary Ann and Frank while they were at Mary Ann’s house. Strout beat Frank, and Frank had to get stitches over his right eyeand had swollen lips from the fight. Frank did not remember making any physical contact with Strout during the altercation. Strout had beaten Frank while Strout’s sons slept in the house. Ruth and Matt encouraged Frank to press charges, but he did not.

The narrator then intimates that Matt and Ruth had spent many evenings lost in their own thoughts while Frank spent every evening with Mary Ann. Ruth didn’t like the relationship between Mary Ann and Frank because Mary Ann was in the process of getting a divorce, had two children, and was four years older than Frank. In their bed, where they shared all of their intimate secrets, Ruth also told Frank that she didn’t like her son’s relationship with Mary Ann because she had heard that Richard and Mary Ann’s marriage had gone bad prematurely, and that they had both been cheating for the entirety of the relationship. Matt tries to comfort and contradict her by saying that Richard would not have stood for Mary Ann cheating, although he has heard the same rumors and has the same misgivings about his son’s relationship with Mary Ann. Matt also privately laments the fact that Ruth has been talking about these issues with her friends, although after thirty-one years of marriage, Matt still does not know exactly what Ruth talks to her friends about.

Matt tries to appease Ruth with rejoinders that he himself does not believe: that Mary Ann and Richard’s divorce doesn’t mean anything, that they were young when they married and Mary Ann simply figured out that Richard was a bastard, that the age difference between Mary Ann and Matt is inconsequential, that it is normal for Mary Ann to have children after six years of marriage, and that Mary Ann simply loved Matt—as many women and girls had over the years.

The narrator also divulges that when Frank told Matt that he actually did like Mary Ann during a drive to Fenway Park, he wasn’t lying; Frank had gazed at the woman’s light brown hair, long brown legs, pretty face, and wide brown eyes on the summer days that Frank had brought her over. Frank had also seen pain in Mary Ann’s eyes that he initially took for the eroticism which was attributed to her through rumor. Mary Ann did not bring her sons to the first two visits to the Fowler’s home, and Ruth later told Matt, while they were in bed, that she believed that Mary Ann didn’t bring them because she was embarrassed, and that Mary Ann shouldn’t feel embarrassed. Ruth therefore invited Mary Ann to bring her sons the next time.

The narrator then reveals that Richard Strout shot Frank in front of his sons. The boys were sitting on the living room floor watching television while Frank sat on the couch and Mary Ann was returning from the kitchen with sandwiches when Strout entered the home and shot Frank twice in the chest and once in the face with a 9mm. automatic: “He then looked at the boys and Mary Ann, and went home to wait for the police” (53).

The reader is then given key insights into Matt’s life and mind. Matt and Willis wait in Willis’s parked car beside Strout’s, on a Saturday night in September. They are waiting in the parking lot of the bar at which Richard Strout works. Matt realizes that he has been wandering, dazed, through his life since the day that Frank died. Matt had always been a fearful father who simultaneously kept his fears for his children’s safety hidden and “controlled within his heart” (54). His children had made it through childhood alive and unscathed however, and his fears subsided, only to be abruptly and unexpectedly confirmed when Frank was suddenly murdered. Then, “he felt that all the fears he had borne while [his children] were growing up, and all the grief he had been afraid of, had backed up like a huge wave and struck him on the beach and swept him out to sea” (54).

Matt squeezes the butt of his revolver as he continues to wait. He watches the last of the drinkers leave the bar. He listens to the tide smacking against the sea wall and can smell the ocean. When Richard comes out of the bar, Frank and Willis each get out of the car and point their guns at him. The narrator discloses that Frank had privately hoped that Richard would not be alone that night and thereby give him reason not go through with killing him, but Richard was indeed alone. Matt puts a glove on his hand, walks to Richard, and commands him not to talk, and to unlock the front and back of his car and get in. He enters the backseat, cocks the gun, aims it at Richard’s temple, and commands Richard to drive home. Willis follows them in his car. Matt had not told Willis that he was afraid that if he spent too much time alone with Richard—smelling his smells, feeling his living presence, and hearing his voice—he might not be able to go through with killing him. Matt also believes that Ruth knew what Matt was about to do when he left that night, although he cannot be sure.

As they drive through the streets that Matt and Willis knew would be deserted at this hour, Richard says “He was making it with my wife” in a careful, although not pleading, voice (56). Matt commands Richard not to speak after pressing the gun to Richard’s head harder than he intended to. As Richard drives, Matt thinks of the grave that he and Willis had dug in the forest last Sunday afternoon when they told their wives they were going to Fenway Park. He then realizes that he has not been back to Frank’s grave, but that he would return to it before it would become covered—in a second burial—by snow during winter. He thinks vengefully about the fact that Richard and his gun are the last things that his son saw on this earth.

Richard drives past a policeman on his way home. As they turn onto Richard’s street, Willis purposefully loses them—as Frank and Willis have planned. Matt thinks about an odd neighbor who may spot them, and commands Richard to pull in through the back. When they enter Richard’s apartment, Matt commands him to pack a suitcase. Matt also takes in the details of Richard’s living space, including a framed photograph of Mary Ann and the children. He is “conscious of the circles of love he [is] touching with the hand that held the revolver so tightly” (59). He commands Richard to pack warm clothes. Richard asks what is going on. Matt tells Richard that Richard will be jumping bail. Richard tries to object and defend himself: repeating that Frank was sleeping with his wife while Richard’s sons were in the house, and that Richard had wanted to reconcile, but he could never get a moment alone with Mary Ann. Richard also attempts to appeal to Matt by saying that he will now spend most of his life in jail as punishment. Matt, unmoved, feeds Richard a lie that he and Willis have purchased tickets out west for Richard, under a false name. He tells Richard that they have arranged for Richard to stay at a friend’s house overnight, and that he will be taken to the airport in the morning.

The two men get back into the car and drive through town. As they do so, Matt reflects on the fact that he had grown up in “this town whose streets had become places of apprehension and pain for Ruth as she drove and walked, doing what she had to do, and for him too, if only in his mind as he worked and chatted six days a week in his store” (60-61). Matt again feels certain that Ruth knows about what he is doing. He reflects that he would not be able to live with Richard having any kind of existence.

After the two men cross into New Hampshire, Matt turns the trembling gun to Richard’s neck and commands him to turn down a dirt road. He tells him that the friends with whom Richard will be spending the night are waiting on the road, and that they will abandon Richard’s car there as well. As Matt watches Richard’s hands tighten around the steering wheel, he thinks of his own hands as they touched Frank’s swollen face on the day after Richard beat Frank. The car rounds a bend and is now out of sight from the highway. Matt instructs Richard to stop the car next to an abandoned gravel pit and steep embankment. Richard again tries to plead with Matt by telling him that he will serve at least twenty years, and that he will not be out of jail until he is forty-six years old. Matt, unmoved, tells Richard that forty-six is nine years younger than Matt already is.

As Richard opens his door, Willis materializes from the shadows and joins them. He points his gun at Richard. Richard gets out of the car and gets his suitcase from the back on Matt’s command. Matt then instructs him to walk down the road. Richard begins to walk, but quickly drops his suitcase and tries to run. Matt shoots him once and Richard goes down, squirming on his belly towards the woods. Matt then walks to him and shoots him twice in the back of the head. Willis and Matt then bury Richard in the pre-made grave, which they cover up with leaves and branches. They then return to the place where Richard was actually shot and cover up the blood with dust. They go to a nearby lake and Matt throws his gun into it. They abandon Richard’s car in Boston and throw his keys into the Merrimack River. The narrator intimates that Matt felt dissociated in the immediate aftermath of the murder.

When Matt returns home, the sun is rising. Ruth is smoking a cigarette in their room. She asks him, “Did you do it?” (63). Matt goes to the bathroom, washes his hands and face, and joins her in the bed—pulling the sheet up to his throat. He then tells Ruth the entire story of the night, with his eyes closed, as she caresses him. As he tells the story, Matt again feels dissociated: “he did not see himself doing what the words said he had done; he only saw himself on that road [where he shot Richard]” (64).

Matt and Ruth resolve not to tell their other children what Matt has done, even though it will hurt them to think that Richard has simply skipped town. Matt then pictures Frank and Mary Ann making love, “their eyes closed, their bodies brown and smelling of the sea”(64). He pictures the mystery woman that Richard had taken up with after murdering Frank, and then pictures Frank and Strout, “their faces alive” (64). Finally, he pictures red and yellow leaves falling to the earth, and then snow falling from the sky. While he holds Ruth, he shudders with a sob that he keeps, silent, in his heart. 

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