In Grace Paley’s ultra short story “Wants” (pg. 129) the reader becomes acquainted with the narrator through a chance encounter with her ex-husband outside a library. The female voice shares her past relationship and her thoughts on time, marriage, and herself. The story is so short that the experience of reading it is akin to a flashback to a forgotten memory or a dream about a stranger’s conversation overheard in passing. The dialogue and the narrator’s inner voice quickly inform us of their twenty-seven year marriage they shared and we never leave the library. This husband, while an interesting enough man and adequate enough provider, has left her back where she began; wanting, wanting to be a better person, citizen, and mother.
The way Paley guides the reader through time in the story takes two different journeys. One path is the action and external conversation with the ex-husband in and out of the library that leaves the narrator in the same physical space on the steps. The other is the inner voice of the narrator that throughout the physical movement in the story goes between past and present, recollection and regret, wants for the past and future self. The external exchange with her sharp-tongued husband is brief, allowing the reader enough exposure to see he is neither a forgetful nor a forgiving person. Towards the beginning on page 129 she greets him by addressing him as her “life” to which he replies, “What? What life? No life of mine.” This remark instantly denies her feelings and he goes on to blame her for their divorce citing her never inviting “the Bertrams to dinner.” Whether or not he is an ill conversationalist, maybe not the best at small talk, or just generally spiteful, the contrast between what is said and what she thinks is certainly striking and makes the transitions from external to internal voice interesting. The exchange with her husband is so different from the interaction with the librarian. Paley writes, “I gave the librarian a check for $32. Immediately she trusted me, put my past behind her, wiped the record clean…” (pg.130) This stranger, woman, and librarian is instantly able to accept this 18 year late fee and however impersonal this exchange it affects the narrator enough so that she tells the reader about it. The narrator says she doesn’t understand how time passes and how things add up. How when you do nothing about your late library books, husband and family problems can sneak up and not everything can be forgiven but it’s never too late to make change.
After her former husband leaves her on the steps of the library the narrator gets to thinking about the things she wants and unfulfilled promises. She wanted to only have one husband, to make changes in the school system, and to end the Vietnam War for her children through political action. It’s not too late for her to change herself and become the person she wants to be, the one who makes action for change. This is representative of Paley’s political life and the issues she fought for. The catalyst for the narrator in “Wants” is looking out the window and seeing a row of sycamore trees that have just come into maturity. Seeing this as a message of hope she decides to return the two library books she rechecked out to prove to herself she can make the changes she wants. She says, “I can take appropriate action, although I am better known for my hospitable remarks.” (pg. 131) To be better known for hospitable remarks is to say that she is more known as a person who doesn’t always take action but can. Everyone can choose to be political but things get in the way, and maybe in the form of inviting the neighbors over for dinner.