“The Necessary Grace to Fall” begins on an August day in an office in the Hope and Life Insurance Company in an unnamed American city. The main character, Howard, works in this office with Leonard, his immediate supervisor, who is a physical fitness fanatic. Howard has only recently switched to his current position in which he investigates the insurance claims of the deceased. Before this, he worked in the data coding department. Howard is a little disappointed in the work. He had thought it would be more exciting, akin to investigating a crime, but Leonard told him on his first day that he was an investigative assistant only, and his work would be mostly routine. Leonard then told him the routine for handling claims following suicide and natural and accidental deaths. Howard had hoped for a little more murder. The only excitement he had found was working with Ritteaur, the coroner’s assistant, who would tell him over the phone all the gory details of the more interesting cases. Sometimes Howard visits the coroner’s lab, too. He is fascinated by a case in which a wife killed and dismembered her husband.
Howard’s wife, Carla, calls him at work, suggesting they have lunch together. She works on another floor of the same building, in the medical coding department. Howard does not want to meet his wife, and he makes an excuse. It is apparent that their marriage is not all it should be.
Howard gets interested in the file of a woman named Svea Johnson who has recently died after jumping or falling from a bridge. She was about his age and lived in the neighborhood in which he grew up. He thinks they must have gone to high school together, and he wishes he could remember something about her.
He takes a phone call from Carla telling him not to be late for dinner then leaves work early, at about four o’clock in the afternoon, and drives into the neighborhood where Johnson lived. He plans to take a look at her house. He drives around the neighborhood, going past the house where he lived as a boy. But he does not feel right about looking at the Johnson house and drives home without looking at the house numbers.
He returns late for dinner, and Carla demands to know where he has been. She is not satisfied with his response and is spoiling for a fight. But Howard does not have the energy to respond. Carla reminds him that his attendance is required at the Y the following night. Her eight-year-old son, Kevin, from a previous marriage is taking a karate test there.
The next morning Howard tries to avoid looking at the Johnson file. During a coffee break he tells Leonard that he has a strange feeling in his chest, and he thinks something may be wrong with him. Later that morning, he tries to focus on processing the Johnson file. But he suspects that the case was a suicide, and this depresses him. He still feels some physical discomfort. He calls Ritteaur for the autopsy results on the woman, and the coroner’s assistant invites him to come over and take a look for himself.
In the coroner’s lab, Howard sees the body of the dead woman. He observes that she had been beautiful, and he regrets going to the lab. The coroner has found no bruises on the body, which might indicate suicide (since there is no sign of a struggle), but he has also found bits of moss under the woman’s nails, which might indicate she fell. However, it might indicate that she intended to jump but changed her mind at the last minute. Ritteaur has to do some more work before he can record a verdict, but he suspects the verdict will be accidental death. Howard expresses some thoughts about the dignity of the dead, saying that accidental death sounds better than “botched suicide.” After Howard leaves the lab, he once again drives into the neighborhood of the dead woman and stops two doors down from her house. He sits in the car, thinking about his unhappy school days. When he returns to his office, Carla calls him to remind him of Kevin’s green belt karate test. Howard does not want to go.
After work he again goes to Madison Street, where Johnson lived. He sits in his car, planning to knock on the door and ask if Johnson’s parents could tell him a little about their daughter. But he does not carry out his plan. Instead, as he drives slowly past the Johnson house, he sees Carla’s car in his rear-view mirror. She is at the end of the street, turning the corner.
Howard returns to the office. At seven-thirty, Carla calls him from the Y. She says she saw him on Madison Street, and she reproaches him. Then she says that she forgives him, although she does not know what he was doing in that neighborhood. She tells him to be sure to be at the Y for Kevin’s test. Howard starts for the Y, but stops and parks near the bridge from which Johnson fell or jumped to her death. He walks to the bridge then stands on it and leans over the railing. He wonders how the woman must have felt at that moment and what kind of sadness had brought her there. He removes his shoes and stands on the cement handrail. He sees how easy it would be to decide to commit suicide and jump off the bridge. He feels like laughing. Then he stops himself and cautiously climbs down from the ledge. He realizes he has small things to live for, including Kevin’s test, and he tells himself he should try harder to get along with the boy. He also thinks of other things that might happen in the future that would be worth living for. He slips his shoes on and walks back to the car.
Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 24, Gina Ochsner, Published by Gale Group, 2006