For Esmé with Love and Squalor
by J.D. Salinger
For Esmé with Love and Squalor Section 2 Summary
(Note: Salinger didn't divide this story into sections. This Unofficial Section 2 is the part of the story that takes place in Germany, following the war)
- OK, as promised, here's the "squalid" part of this short story for Esmé. The narrator alerts us to an important shift; he's no longer the first person narrator, and is instead a character that he wryly comments is "cunningly" disguised.
- The scene changes – we're not in England anymore. We're now in Bavaria, Germany, and the war in Europe has just ended.
- The former narrator, now disguised as "Staff Sergeant X" is quartered in a civilian house with nine other American soldiers. It turns out that he did not, in fact, emerge from the war with all his faculties intact – he has trouble concentrating, and can't keep his thoughts straight. He attempts to read a book, but can't focus on it and gives up.
- Sergeant X is not in good shape. He's been chain smoking so much that his gums bleed, and he really seems like he's on the edge of some kind of breakdown.
- He presses his temples to try and make some sense of his thoughts. It doesn't work.
- Sergeant X notices that his hair is dirty and needs to be cut; we learn that he'd spent two weeks in the hospital after the war, but we're not sure why.
- We hear about someone named Corporal Z, who drove X back from the hospital – apparently it's his fault for getting X's hair dirty, since he drives his jeep "combat-style" (with the windshield folded down) to show new soldiers that he actually fought in the war.
- Sergeant X picks up another book, left behind by the house's former occupant (a woman in the Nazi party who was arrested at the end of the war). It's a copy of Die Zeit Ohne Beispiel ("The Time Without Equal"), a collection of essays and articles by Nazi Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels.
- Inside the book, its owner has written (in German), "Dear God, life is hell." Sergeant X ponders the truth of this statement, attempting to contradict it.
- In response, he writes his own comment underneath it: "Fathers and teachers, I ponder 'What is hell?' I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love" (a quote from Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, from The Brothers Karamazov). However, X is distressed to see that his writing is in fact a meaningless, indecipherable scrawl.
- Sergeant X puts the book aside and picks up a remarkably insensitive letter from his older brother, safely living in Albany, in which the brother asks him to pick up some Nazi mementos for "the kids" now that the war is over.
- Corporal Z (mentioned earlier) shows up in Sergeant X's room to chat. They're longtime comrades in the war, and served together in five campaigns on the European front. Unlike Sergeant X, Corporal Z seems to have emerged from the war mentally unscathed and untroubled.
- Corporal Z is an unusually cheerful young man, and he gripes a little about the fact that X is sitting alone in the dark. He barges in on Sergeant X, almost steps on his dog (Alvin), and turns the light on.
- Z, whose real name is Clay, is wearing an Army shirt with all of his decorations (one of which he's not actually authorized to wear) – he's clearly very proud of his achievements.
- Clay tries to get X to come and listen to a Bob Hope broadcast on the radio. He's distracted by X's shaking hands, and comments on how terrible X looked when he came back from the hospital.
- X quickly changes the subject, asking Clay how his girlfriend, Loretta, is doing back home. She writes to Clay regularly, and the latter never fails to read her letters to X, even when they're very personal, and gets X to help him write impressive replies.
- Clay and X discuss some business – they're supposed to leave super early the next morning to go and pick up new jackets for the rest of their unit, and X complains. Both of them grumble about the Army bureaucracy.
- Clay notes with interest that X has a nervous tic on the side of his face, and cheerfully announces that he wrote to Loretta about X's nervous breakdown (apparently why he was in the hospital).
- Loretta is apparently majoring in psychology, and is therefore something of an authority in Clay's eyes. She responded that nobody gets a nervous breakdown "just" from being in the war, and that X must have been unstable throughout his whole life.
- X sarcastically comments on how much he enjoys Loretta's deep thoughts; Clay gets defensive, and there's a moment of tension between them.
- Clay says he's leaving, but stays to talk about something that's clearly been bothering him a bit – he reminds X of an incident that happened to them during the war. The two of them were under shell fire for hours, and, at the end, Clay shot and killed a cat that jumped up on the hood of their jeep.
- Apparently, Clay wrote to Loretta about this strange, unsettling incident, and she discussed it with her psychology class. They decided that Clay was temporarily insane because of the stress of the shelling, which explains the murder of the cat.
- X responds sardonically that Clay wasn't insane, but that he was doing his duty in the war – he grimly jokes that the cat was a German spy and deserved what it got.
- Clay is understandably upset by this sarcastic reply, and angrily demands why X can't just be sincere.
- X is sickened by this exchange, and has to throw up in the wastebasket.
- Clay, embarrassed, tries to make X feel better, and asks him to come down to listen to the radio broadcast with everyone else. X refuses, claiming wryly that he has to look at his stamp collection (he doesn't actually have a stamp collection).
- Clay leaves, after asking if X will help him out with some German words in his next letter to Loretta. He tries again to cheer X up, telling his friend that his mother is glad they've been together through the whole war, since it's made his letters smarter.
- After Clay leaves, Sergeant X shuffles around his old, unopened letters, and tries to write a letter to a friend in New York. However, he can't calm himself down enough to get paper in the typewriter, and gives up.
- Head aching, X shuts his eyes for a moment, trying to gain control. When he opens his eyes, he notices a small, green package that looks like it's been trying to get to him for a while – it's got a bunch of his old Army addresses on it.
- X opens the package halfheartedly. Inside, there's an item wrapped in tissue paper, and a handwritten note.
- It turns out that the package is from Esmé, who writes with the same hilarious, endearing deadpan tone that she speaks with. The letter was written about a year earlier, before the end of the war in Europe. She sends her regards and apologies for not writing earlier, and wishes him well. There are even a few words from Charles (mostly just "HELLO" over and over again).
- The object enclosed is Esmé's father's precious watch, which she sends as a "lucky talisman" for X to keep for the rest of the war.
- X holds on to the letter for a long time; we're not sure what exactly he's thinking about. He slowly pulls the watch out of its wrappings, and notices that its crystal is broken; he doesn't check yet to see if it still works.
- X sits holding the watch for a while, and then suddenly is hit by a merciful wave of sleepiness. We get the feeling that X hasn't slept for a long, long time, and that this feeling of exhaustion is a kind of relief and release.
- Finally, the story's last lines directly address Esmé for the first time, telling her that a really sleepy man can always become a man with his faculties intact once more. There's hope for poor Sergeant X, after all, all because of a lonely girl and her father's watch.