Another Vonnegut Short Story

I’ve started working my way though the Vonnegut collection of short stories, “Bagombo Snuff Box,” and on my lunch hour today, I completed the fourth one, entitled simply “The Package” -a story first published in Collier’s Magazine in July, 1952 – almost exactly sixty years ago…

(above: the issue of Collier’s in which this story appeared.  I love how it says “top summer reading – six short stories” at the top)

***minor spoilers included***
Friends Earl Fenton and Charley Freeman are the same age. They went to the same college and were brothers in the same fraternity. Where they were different, though, was the fact that Charley’s family had money. Earl’s did not. In the setting of this story, Earl hasn’t even heard from Charley for over thirty years but gets a phone call from him “out of the blue” as Earl and his wife are just returning home from a lengthy vacation (you see, after college Earl has worked hard and become a shining example of the Self-Made Man).

Upon receiving the call, Earl, who is by nature a friendly person, invites Charley to come to their house (a brand new “package” house, with all the latest technology and gadgets). Coincidentally, moments later the developer they bought the house from calls and also invites himself over, along with a photo crew from a prominent “Homes Magazine” to do a story on them.

While awaiting the arrival of both invited parties, Earl begins to wish he hadn’t been so quick to invite Charley, as his memories of those days, which he confesses to his wife, are not all pleasant. “It does something to a man having to go around waiting on guys his same age, cleaning up after ’em, and seeing them with nice clothes and all the money in the world,” he says. Add to this uneasiness Charley’s somewhat strange appearance (his clothing looks a little threadbare) and behavior (he seems unfamiliar with a tv set, for example – “ah, tv, short for television, I suppose”) after he arrives, and Vonnegut has set up a nice little ‘morality play’ on class consciousness or maybe even class obsession.

For me, It was the mystery surrounding Charley, that made this story interesting. Where has he been? (he says upon seeing Earl for the first time, “This is a pleasure I’ve had to put off for a long time.”) “What has he been doing? Was he in prison? (as Earl’s wife suspects) Why have his fortunes fallen? The reader is kept in suspense about these questions until the very end of the story, which … I hope you will read yourself…