“Helping,” a short story by Robert Stone



Robert Stone

One gray 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.

Christmas came, childless, a festival of regret. His wife went to Mass and cooked a turkey. Sober, Elliot walked in the woods.

In January, blizzards swept down from the Arctic until the weather became too cold for snow. The Shawmut Valley grew quiet and crystalline. In the white silences, Elliot could hear the boards of his house contract and feel a shrinking in his bones. Each dusk, starveling deer came out of the wooded swamp behind the house to graze his orchard for whatever raccoons had uncovered and left behind. At night he lay beside his sleeping wife listening to the baying of dog packs running them down in the deep moon-shadowed snow.

Day in, day out, he was sober. At times it was almost stimulating. But he could not shake off the sensations he had felt in Boston. In his mind’s eye he could see dead leaves rattling along brick gutters and savor that day’s desperation. The brief outing had undermined him.

Sober, however, he remained, until the day a man named Blankenship came into his office at the state hospital for counselling. Blankenship had red hair, a brutal face, and a sneaking manner. He was a sponger and petty thief whom Elliot had seen a number of times before.

“I been having this dream,” Blankenship announced loudly. His voice was not pleasant. His skin was unwholesome. Every time he got arrested the court sent him to the psychiatrists and the psychiatrists, who spoke little English, sent him to Elliot.

Blankenship had joined the Army after his first burglary but had never served east of the Rhine. After a few months in Wiesbaden, he had been discharged for reasons of unsuitability, but he told everyone he was a veteran of the Vietnam War. He went about in a tiger suit. Elliot had had enough of him.

“Dreams are boring,” Elliot told him.

Blankenship was outraged. “Whaddaya mean?” he demanded.

During counseling sessions Elliot usually moved his chair into the middle of the room in order to seem accessible to his clients. Now he stayed securely behind his desk. He did not care to seem accessible to Blankenship. “What I said, Mr. Blankenship. Other people’s dreams are boring. Didn’t you ever hear that?” “Boring?” Blankenship frowned. He seemed unable to imagine a meaning for the word. Elliot picked up a pencil and set its point quivering on his desk-top blotter. He gazed into his client’s slack-jawed face. The Blankenship family made their way through life as strolling litigants, and young Blankenship’s specialty was slipping on ice cubes. Hauled off the pavement, he would hassle the doctors in Emergency for pain pills and hurry to a law clinic. The Blankenships had threatened suit against half the property owners in the southern part of the state. What they could not extort at law they stole. But even the Blankenship family had abandoned Blankenship. His last visit to the hospital had been subsequent to subsequent an arrest for lifting a case of hot-dog rolls from Woolworth’s. He lived in a Goodwill depository bin in Wyndham.

“Now I suppose you want to tell me your dream? Is that right, Mr. Blankenship?”

Blankenship looked left and right like a dog surrendering eye contact. “Don’t you want to hear it?” he asked humbly.

Elliot was unmoved. “Tell me something, Blankenship. Was your dream about Vietnam?“

At the mention of the word “Vietnam,” Blankenship customarily broke into a broad smile. Now he looked guilty and guarded. He shrugged. “Ya. “

“How come you have dreams about that place, Blankenship? You were never there. “

“Whaddaya mean?” Blankenship began to say, but Elliot cut him off.

“You were never there, my man. You never saw the goddam place. You have no business dreaming about it! You better cut it out!”

He had raised his voice to the extent that the secretary outside his open door paused at her word processor.

“Lemme alone,” Blankenship said fearfully. “Some doctor you are.”

“It’s all right,” Elliot assured him. “I’m not a doctor.”

“Everybody’s on my case,” Blankenship said. His moods were volatile. He began to weep.

Elliot watched the tears roll down Blankenship’s chapped, pitted cheeks. He cleared his throat. “Look, fella . . .” he began. He felt at a loss. He felt like telling Blankenship that things were tough all over.

Blankenship sniffed and telescoped his neck and after a moment looked at Elliot. His look was disconcertingly trustful; he was used to being counselled.

“Really, you know, it’s ridiculous for you to tell me your problems have to do with Nam. You were never over there. It was me over there, Blankenship. Not you.”

Blankenship leaned forward and put his forehead on his knees.

“Your troubles have to do with here and now,” Elliot told his client. “Fantasies aren’t helpful.”

His voice sounded overripe and hypocritical in his own ears. What a dreadful business, he thought. What an awful job this is. Anger was driving him crazy.

Blankenship straightened up and spoke through his tears. “This dream . . .” he said. “I’m scared.”

Elliot felt ready to endure a great deal in order not to hear Blankenship’s dream.

“I’m not the one you see about that,” he said. In the end he knew his duty. He sighed. “O.K. All right. Tell me about it.”

“Yeah?” Blankenship asked with leaden sarcasm. “Yeah? You think dreams are friggin’ boring!”

“No, no,” Elliot said. He offered Blankenship a tissue and Blankenship took one. “That was sort of off the top of my head. I didn’t really mean it. “

Blankenship fixed his eyes on dreaming distance. “There’s a feeling that goes with it. With the dream.” Then he shook his head in revulsion and looked at Elliot as though he had only just awakened. “So what do you think? You think it’s boring?”

“Of course not,” Elliot said. “A physical feeling?”

“Ya. It’s like I’m floating in rubber. “

He watched Elliot stealthily, aware of quickened attention. Elliot had caught dengue in Vietnam and during his weeks of delirium had felt vaguely as though he were floating in rubber.

“What are you seeing in this dream?”

Blankenship only shook his head. Elliot suffered a brief but intense attack of rage.

“Hey, Blankenship,” he said equably, “here I am, man. You can see I’m listening. “

“What I saw was black,” Blankenship said. He spoke in an odd tremolo. His behavior was quite different from anything Elliot had come to expect from him.

“Black? What was it?”

“Smoke. The sky maybe.”

“The sky?” Elliot asked.

“It was all black. I was scared.”

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.

“What were you scared of?” he asked Blankenship.

“I don’t know,” Blankenship said.

Elliot could not drive the black sky from his inward eye. It was as though Blankenship’s dream had infected his own mind.

“You don’t know? You don’t know what you were scared of?”

Blankenship’s posture was rigid. Elliot, who knew the aspect of true fear, recognized it there in front of him.

“The Nam,” Blankenship said.

“You‘re not even old enough,” Elliot told him.

Blankenship sat trembling with joined palms between his thighs. His face was flushed and not in the least ennobled by pain. He had trouble with alcohol and drugs. He had trouble with everything.

“So wherever your black sky is, it isn’t Vietnam.”

Things were so unfair, Elliot thought. It was unfair of Blankenship to appropriate the condition of a Vietnam veteran. The trauma inducing his post-traumatic stress had been nothing more serious than his own birth, a routine procedure. Now, in addition to the poverty, anxiety, and confusion that would always be his life’s lot, he had been visited with irony. It was all arbitrary and some people simply got elected. Everyone knew that who had been where Blankenship had not.

“Because, I assure you, Mr. Blankenship, you were never there.”

“Whaddaya mean?” Blankenship asked.

Read the rest of “Helping” at The New Yorker.

1 thought on ““Helping,” a short story by Robert Stone”

  1. Nice pick. I’ve loved this story for a long time but have seldom seen others mention it. There’s another phenomenal one in that collection (Bear & His Daughter) about a group of typical Stone characters trying to run drugs on a sailboat— title escapes me, but a shit-hot story.


Your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.