Most of the stories in this collection are strongly geared toward the development of character, the protagonist facing conflict that does drive them to face decisions that are moral crossroads that may take them in a different direction than they had previously been heading into.
Simple Exercises For the Beginning Student by Alix Ohlin (p. 251) is similar in story to Nathaniel Bellows’ First Four Measures (p. 109): A piano student’s relationship to his instructor brings out his deeper relationship to his family in creating a situation that determines decision and action. In this story, the eight-year old son of a pregnant mom and runaway dad takes lessons with a female teacher who has a seemingly disturbed fifteen-year old son who plays beautifully. Kevin, the eight year-old is upset by the older boy’s playing. With the loss of his father, the financial problems of his mother, and without a real piano at home to practice upon, Kevin compares his relationship with his mother to that of his teacher and her son, finally allowing some feeling to overcome him
Old Boys, Old Girls by Edward P. Jones (p. 265) opens with a protagonist in prison for murder. Caesar’s relationships with his cellmates are dictated by a need to establish strength and superiority. Once Caesar is released, he runs into an old girlfriend whom he had once loved and who has grown hard and slovenly, a far cry from the soft, loving and meticulous person she had been in their youth. He is also tracked down by his brother and sister who insist on his coming over for dinner, despite his inclination to remain distant from them and their middle class lifestyles. He does visit them, is warmly welcomed, and starts to accept an inclination to reunite with his family until he teases his young niece by touching her foot and notices his sister’s look of fear and mistrust. This reveals to him their true feelings, and he leaves, knowing he will never be truly accepted for what he is, but rather for what they want him to be. Back at his apartment building, he finds his old girlfriend has died in her bed and he carefully cleans the room, washes the body, dresses her in her best clothes, and leaves the apartment building. Caesar has seen the changes in people as they mature, the differences in what they become and how they are seen by others. It is a well-written story, an exposition of humanity at its most needy levels of desire.