The Once and Future Ending

Like most readers, I have pet peeves about stories. There are tricks that nearly always bother me when I see them. One example is an ending in the future tense. I’ll avoid picking on any specific story by making up an example. Let’s say the story’s heroine wants to go to the zoo with her boyfriend, but he’s too lazy to take her there and doesn’t seem to love her enough. In the story, she tries to go to the zoo but has a panic attack in the parking lot. She picks up her phone to call him and ask him to meet her there, but hangs up without dialing. The ending paragraph might say something like:

She sees the day when she will call him hanging on the horizon, bright above the monkey cages. He will come leaping at the sound of her voice. He will swoop down from his perch atop the stool across from the television set and fly to her like a flock of exotic birds. He will stand beside her on the asphalt, and together they will both pretend to be in Africa, to be adventurers. He will kiss her then. He will use his tongue.

An ending like this is an ending of wish. When I see it used, I typically see it contradicting the story’s true ending, maybe in an effort to explain the character’s psychology. In this imaginary story, for example, the truth is that the character is doing nothing. She tried to make a change but failed, and now nothing is going to happen. She stays with the boyfriend though because she’s still hoping for a change, as the final paragraph describes.

The reason I don’t like this style of ending is that I think it removes the impact of the lack of change. I think an ending like this overexplains. Of course, the character wishes things would become different. A good story will have explained that in all that has gone before. I suspect that this type of ending sometimes comes from an urge to end on a satisfying note. If the story’s ending is unsatisfying, however, I would rather the unsatisfying note ring pure. This type of ending often reads like a copout to me, or like the author is trying to fool the reader or herself into going into denial along with the character.

All that to say, I read a story in the Indiana Review recently that showed me how an ending in the future tense can be successful. I think it’s deployed in a subtly different way, and I wanted to describe that. The story’s not online, so you’ll have to pick up a copy of the most recent issue to see the whole thing.

The story is called “Soon, Baby, Soon,” written by Rachel May. It is the story of how a family responds to a father who returns traumatized from war. It does an exquisite job of portraying the heartbreaking uncertainties of the situation, both the hope that things will work out and the despair when his condition seems destined to worsen. This is its last paragraph:

And just like that, for a single, soft second, our old dad is back. All his stories are behind his eyes. And the whole table lets out a big, heavy breath, like we’re deflating–not in a bad way like a ball going flat but in a good way, like maybe soon our bodies will float high enough off the ground to get back to that awe wonder marvel time. I know it will happen. I know we’re gonna get there, sure as I know I can dunk one day, me a girl, not even such a tall girl. I’m gonna do it. I will raise myself up for all of us and soar so easy through the air, and dunk, and everyone will smile and feel all fine and fluttery inside.

I think the reason this works so well is that, while it’s still a wish, it’s not contradicting the truth of the story’s final note and final mood. The wish emphasizes the story’s last moment. It perhaps shows too much hope placed on a single moment, but that’s true to the moment. The story’s not undermining, or giving with one hand and taking away with the other. Instead, the future tense shows how people carry a thought forward, spinning a good moment out into a feeling that all is well in life, or the opposite. This way works much better for me. May’s future tense rings of a lovely poetry of hope. It’s not that this is a true happy ending–much is uncertain about the father in the story. It’s that this future tense is true to the moment from which it springs.

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