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THE LIFE YOU SAVE MAY BE YOUR OWN
PLOT SUMMARY (Synopsis)
An old woman and her daughter sit on the porch of their desolate house and watch a man with one arm walk up the road. He wears a suit and carries a tool box and stops inside their gate and takes his hat off. The thin old woman says good evening and the fat younger one just watches as the man raises his crooked arm-and-a-half to the sunset and exclaims at its beauty. He says he'd give a fortune to live in a place with such a sunset. He introduces himself and checks out a car ('28 or '29 Ford) sitting in a shed. The old woman says it hasn't run since way back when her husband died. He then tells her that a surgeon can hold a man's heart in his hand, you know, but he won't understand that heart any more than either she or himself.
She asks him twice where he comes from. HE lights a cigarette, takes his time, and tells her he is from Tarwater Tennessee, but points out that he could tell her he is from anywhere and what did it matter: he was a man, and what is a man? She is annoyed. She asks about his tool box and suggests that there is plenty of work around the place, but he'd have to work for food and shelter. He told her there was more to life than money, that he was twenty- eight, and that he had had a lot of jobs, including gospel singer. He'd seen a lot of people that didn't care how a thing was done, but he wasn't raised like that. The whole world existed in a desolate place like this, with that amazing sun.
Mrs. Crater asks if he is married. He says no woman is innocent enough for him--they are all trashy. Then he asks after Lucynell. Mrs. Crater says that Lucynell is the sweetest thing in the world, can cook and clean and that she wouldn't give her up for the world. He tells Mrs. Crater that she shouldn't let any man take Lucynell away. Mrs. Crater says that any man would have to stay here, to have Lucy. Then Mr. Shiftlet says that he could fix this place up, even though he is only part a man, still a man. Mrs. Crater tells him he'll have to sleep in the old car, and he grins and agrees.
Lucynell watches him work, and within a week the place is improved and he has taught her to say "bird." He even starts working on the car. He tells Mrs. Crater that these old cars were built by people who cared, not like people nowadays. She agrees. He says he could teach Lucynell "bird" because he cares. The old woman suggests he teach her another word, "sugarpie," and he gets her meaning right away. She says she'll buy a new fan belt for the car, like he asked. Then she says that if any man wanted her Lucynell, she'd say no, except if the man wanted to stay here on this nice place all paid for. He asks how old Lucynell is. Mrs. Crater says sixteen--but really she could be, you couldn't tell she was thirty. He wants to paint the car and Mrs. Crater says she'll see about that later.
The next he walks to town for gas and after some horrible sounds crash out of the shed, Lucynell starts shouting "Bbbrrddddt!" the car moves stately, out of the shed with Mr. Shiftlet looking proud behind the wheel.
That night on the porch, Mrs. Crater says to him, 'You want a nice girl that can do some work and can't talk back, right?' She points out Lucynell and he agrees that she wouldn't give him any trouble. She suggest that Saturday they can drive into town and go to the courthouse for the marriage. He says he can't marry without some means, some money to take his bride away. Mrs. Crater points out that Lucy wouldn't know a hotel if she saw one. He says he was raised different, that he would have to show his new bride a good time for a day or two. She points out that she is offering him, a drifting and disabled and friendless man, a darn good deal: her place is paid for, the house is always warm, and there is a fine automobile. He says it needs paint. She says all right, he can get it painted. He says he need money to take Lucynell on a honeymoon--his spirit tells him this is the right thing to do, and you can't argue with a man's spirit, it's not right. She offers fifteen dollars. He says he can't do it on fifteen. She says he can't milk her for more that seventeen-fifty. He's hurt by the word "milk," but says he'll make do.
On Saturday they go to town and the marriage is performed but Mr. Shiftlet is unhappy, like he has been insulted. He tells Mrs. Crater that it was only the law that said they were married, and the law don't satisfy him, don't know his heart. But the car is painted pretty, and Lucynell is all dressed up in a white dress that her mother pulled out of a trunk with a straw hat that has wooden cherries on it. Mr. Shiftlet takes Mrs. Crater home so they can pick up the lunch and take off on their honeymoon, but Lucynell doesn't look like she knows what is going on. Her mother tells her she won a prize. Her Sugarbaby. He pulls out of the yard as quick as he can, and feels less depressed when he drives his car fast, more depressed when he looks at Lucynell. He always wanted a car, and wants to get to Mobile by nightfall. She has already eaten all the lunch and thrown the wooden cherries out the car window. After a hundred miles he figures she must be hungry and he stops at a roadside cafe and orders her a big plate of food. But she is sleepy and she falls asleep sitting on her stool with her head on the counter. He tells the waiter that she is just a hitchhiker and that she can eat when she wakes up. The waiter says she looks like "a angel of Gawd" and fingers her pretty hair. Mr. Shiftlet pays for the meal and leaves her there.
Mr. Shiftlet is more depressed than ever as he drives away. He doesn't like being alone, a and also feels that as a man with a car, he has a responsibility to hitchhikers. He sees a sign that says Drive carefully, the life you save may be your own. The sun sets in front of him, and he sees a young man by the side of the road with a cardboard suitcase--he doesn't have his thumb out but he takes the offered ride. The young man is glum. Mr. Shiftlet feels oppressed, and starts talking about mothers, about his mother, about how a boy shouldn't leave his mother and how sorry he is that he left his mother. The boy tells him to shut up. He tells the boy that his own mother was "the very angel of Gawd," and his eyes tear up. The boy tells him that his own mother is a flea bag and Mr. Shiftlet's is a stinking pole-cat--and then the boy opens the door and jumps out.
Mr. Shiftlet drives along with the door hanging open, shocked. A cloud like a turnip moves over the sun, and in the rearview mirror there is shape like a turnip hunched in the road, with a hat on. Terrible, terrible. The rottenness of the world descends on Mr. Shiftlet, and he prays to the Lord. He hears thunder behind him, and races on, trying to beat the storm to Mobile.