The story can be found here in The New Yorker.
First Line: "The red-haired homeless lady was arrested after she fell in the street and a taxi almost ran over her."
Last Line: "Indelible, the yellow pollen on the floor."
"Major Maybe" is a story of a memory - nostalgia. It is about an image that pops up and takes the narrator back to a time that is rich with thoughts, choices, feelings. A time when she was free to not choose and a time when she was able to observe and live without judgment.
Remembering the red-haired woman's "mad dash into traffic" brought up recollections of a neighbor's dog, accused by the woman to be a devil. The narrator's memories are further pressed into the building she lived in, the neighbors, her roommate, their affection that had its brief moment. We dance along with Beattie in and around these images. Up one tangent, and down another. We follow her from an abrupt passionate moment with her roommate to her current state: married and remembering those days gone by. All of this brought about by a picture she sees in a magazine of her old apartment.
With my first reading, I felt like I was the tail-end in a game of Crack-the-Whip. Beattie took me one direction, and then yet another. The tone was both conversational and poetic. I was excited to follow where it would go.
But then it ended. Sharply. Beattie took a turn that left me stunned, fallen on the grass, gasping for fresh air.
Even so, I love the last line. It echoes. It lingers. It made me ponder and made me go back into the story to find it's importance - to find why it hovered in my mind.
But it also made me question what a story is.
At first, it seemed a poetic vignette - a lyric. A snapshot-memory and then, life goes on. How is this a shorty story? What is the purpose in sharing this bit of nostalgia?
The purpose of the short story is to elicit a response from the reader. Someone has insisted that they entertain. And Chekhov has said that writers are to ask the readers questions, not to answer them. But each story must have a beginning, middle, and end. That's what separates it from vignettes.
I read again "Major Maybe" looking for the plot, the questions, looking for my answer to them. And it was the ending line that kept haunting me. "Indelible, the yellow pollen on the floor."
In an interview with The Paris Review, Ann Beattie said:
Certain things that I like about endings—endings that hint at the whole
story, that let you know there is an arc, but that offer some related
image or emotion, instead of decoding the initial image, or pattern, or
symbol, endings that alter the tone and the mood just a bit. I realize
that some people criticize me for being arbitrary with my endings. I
think my stories are very determined. I can tell you the reverberation I
have in mind for each element in the story. I can’t make you read it
that way, but it’s been contrived, and then revised. What is there is
I can see it. There is an "intentional" arc in this story. Both the plot and the characters shift from where they were in the beginning. There is a beginning, middle, and end. The narrator shifts. And her life has shifted with her.
I can see it, but I had to look really hard, with eyes squinted, to see it.
The thing that remains? Something "indelible". Memories.
My "response" to this story? "And? So?"
Did I find questions here to examine? Yep: "What is the author trying to do here?"
Was I entertained? For a bit.
Do I still think this is really more like a photograph despite the beginning, middle, and end and the narrator's shift? Does this feel like a vignette forced to dress-up like a short story?