The Ballad of the Sad Café takes place in the Deep South where McCullers grew up, in the kind of sparse, dried-up town where I imagine some former, blighted America used to reside—a town linked to other towns only by swamps and roads worked by chain gangs and where, in McCullers’ words, “there is absolutely nothing to do.”
Both starting and ending with the image of a boarded-up house, the site of the “sad café,” the story fills the role of the Gothic spinster, moving about her rooms alone like a mournful ghost, with a decidedly un-feeble female. Miss Amelia, a “dark, tall woman with bones and muscles like a man,” is equal parts respected and feared in the town. She’s not one for socializing, preferring to make money, which she does: she runs a store, a liquor still, and even manages a pro-bono doctor’s practice. Besides maker’s skill and business savvy, Miss Amelia is apt to sue anything that moves and even some things that don’t if she thinks it will add to her wealth.
Everything changes in Miss Amelia’s tightly controlled world, and for the whole town, when a hunchbacked man of uncertain age comes to her stoop one spring night and claims to be her kin. This isn’t the first time a stranger has tried to get the better of Miss Amelia with this tactic, and everyone around expects her to turn the strange man out on his ear. But she surprises them. She invites the hunchback in for supper, mends his coat, takes him in to live in her house and, we gather throughout the story, falls in love with him. With the help of the chatty, puckish “Cousin Lymon,” she transforms the store into a café unlike anything the town has ever seen: a place with “tables with clothes and paper napkins, colored streamers from the electric fans, great gatherings on Saturday nights.” But a story of happiness and tentative love comes to a violent dénouement with the reappearance of Marvin Macy, the town troublemaker and Miss Amelia’s ex-husband of 10 days.
If a writer writes in an attempt to figure something out for herself, McCullers seems to be contending with the reality of people being destroyed by love.
“A Domestic Dilemma,” one of six short stories that follow “The Ballad,” takes place over one evening in which the male protagonist comes home from work to find his wife has once again fallen into the sherry bottle. While McCullers does not refuse sympathy for this woman whose “interior life was insufficient without the artifice of alcohol,” the real conflict or “dilemma” of the story is within the man’s heart. His love for his children overflows as he bathes them, particularly his daughter, for whom he feels “a gentleness that was akin to pain.” And while his wife’s alcoholism embarrasses, shames and emasculates him, and he deeply fears that she will hurt or traumatize his children, it’s the love for his wife in which “sorrow parallel[s] desire” that paralyzes him from taking any action.
These stories come back continuously to the “major theme” Tennessee Williams noted in McCullers’ work: “the huge importance and nearly insoluble problems of human love.” If a writer writes in an attempt to figure something out for herself, McCullers seems to be contending with the reality of people being destroyed by love. She seems also to like characters at the edge of breakdown, from the young music prodigy protagonist in “Wunderkind” who finds she can no longer summon a true note, to a disillusioned athlete who has suffered a faith-shaking trauma in “The Jockey.”
The stories’ author had far from a happy life. Marked by chronic illness, suicidal depression, alcoholism, and an emotionally abusive relationship, McCullers died at the age of 50 after nearly 20 years of living with one side of her body paralyzed. The strange, hunchbacked Cousin Lymon of The Ballad of the Sad Café seems to represent the unexpected, uncontrollable forces that come knocking on our doors and take hold of our hearts before we can turn them away.