The narrator’s friend is already dead when the story opens. He is only once referred to by his name, Donald Williams. Before he died, the friend told the narrator that he had a son in prison, whom he visited about once a year. The friend said that the hardest part about visiting was walking away from the prison, knowing that his son was still trapped inside. After the friend’s death, the narrator is surprised to receive a lawyer’s letter with a note from the friend inside it. His surprise stems from the fact that he thought of the friend as only a casual acquaintance. The narrator becomes obsessed with the idea of visiting the son in prison. His failure to achieve this meeting raises the question that perhaps the friend, the son, or the narrator was lying or even hallucinating.
Suh Jung is a young Asian female paralegal who works in the lawyer’s office that informs the narrator about his friend’s death. She helps the narrator track down his friend’s son in prison. Like the narrator, Suh Jung is a frightened person who lives in an internalized prison. She was victimized by her brutal father, who dominated her and the rest of his household, and seems not to have given her any love. After he committed suicide by hanging himself, she cut off the long hair that he had insisted she not cut. Her stated aim in doing so was to protect herself from the submissive Asian female stereotype. At the narrator’s instigation, Suh Jung starts a sexual relationship with him and opens him up to new experiences, such as mutual bathing. The relationship does not appear to be founded on deep love or even strong attraction, and Suh Jung soon begins to taunt the narrator about his obsession with the son. She takes a more conventional view of the criminal justice system than the narrator, believing the records that accuse the son of terrible crimes and cautioning the narrator against becoming involved.
The narrator is a fifty-seven-year-old African American man with a timid, nonconfrontational nature. He is acutely aware of being a member of “America’s longest, most violently reviled minority,” but unlike his hero, the poet Amiri Baraka, he is neither an activist nor a fighter. He uses expressions that suggest that he feels as if he is locked in an internal prison. When his friend dies, he becomes obsessed with the idea of visiting his son in prison. He tries to track down the son, frustrated at every step by bureaucracy. Along the way, he expresses many observations and criticisms of the prison system that Wideman himself has also voiced in his non-fictional writings. The narrator’s failure to achieve the long-awaited meeting raises the question that perhaps the friend, the son, or the narrator was lying or even hallucinating.
Instead of forming a relationship with the son, the narrator begins a sexual relationship with Suh Jung, the young Asian paralegal who helps him in his search. Though there is no strong spark of attraction between them, he finds himself taking small risks in his relationship with her that appear to shift him out of his habitual timidity. Her bathing him appears to him to be a ritual cleansing, preparing him for the meeting with the son.
Though the narrator fails in his stated purpose of visiting the son, his bearing witness to the prison experience (both in terms of external and internal, psychological prisons) may represent his real achievement. In the simple act of telling his story, he has become an artist-activist like his hero, Baraka.
Very little information is given about the son. He remains a shadowy character who never appears in person in the story. According to the official records, the son has done “the worst kinds of things,” and since the state cannot execute him, it will never let him go. When the narrator writes to the son in prison telling him of the death of his father, he replies in a curt note, indicating he has no knowledge at all of his father, not even that he had died. The narrator sees him as “A smiling leopard in a cage,” an image suggesting stored-up rage. The narrator fails to meet the son, and finally, the reader is left in doubt about the son’s whereabouts or even existence.
Ira Mark Milne, Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students, John Edgar Wideman, Volume 24-Gale (2006)