Every evening and before her Saturday naps, Jack tells his daughter Jo a bedtime story. The ritual has been going on since Jo was two, and now that she is four-years-old Jack is running out of ideas and Jo is losing interest. The stories always follow a basic pattern, concerning an animal named Roger who has a problem. Roger goes to the wise owl, who in turn sends him to the wizard who performs a spell and fixes the problem and makes Roger very happy. Roger then plays with the other little animal and gets home in time to hear his daddy come home on the train for dinner.
Jack is tired of his bedtime story ritual with Jo for two distinct reasons. First, it is an obligation to his children which, like most of his familial obligations, he finds increasingly tiring. Second, he has run out of interesting story ideas and is stuck recycling the same plot points, which is torturous for someone who enjoys telling stories. Additionally, Jack’s story form likely mimics his own domestic arrangement, in which Jo is home all day with Clare until he comes home on the train for dinner.
Jack is especially tired of the story time ritual because he has run out of ideas for stories and Jo never falls asleep in naps anymore. Indeed, Jo is growing taller by the day and Jack notes that her legs now stretch halfway down his bed as she snuggles in for her story. Her two-year-old brother Bobby is already asleep.
Jo explains that she wants the story to be about Roger Skunk today, which leads Jack to assume that she must be talking about skunks in school. Having a new animal for the story ignites Jack’s creativity. He begins the story by explaining that Roger was a skunk who smelled so bad that none of the other animals wanted to play with him. This causes Jack to think back to times that he was bullied as a child.
By suggesting Roger be a skunk, Jo is bringing outside knowledge into the story that Jack cannot control. He is happy for this because it gives him new fodder as a storyteller, allowing Roger to become a personal character for Jack, who uses memories of his own to craft a narrative about being ostracized in the same way he currently feels in his marriage.
Jo is upset over Roger Skunk’s problem, and she begs Jack (and Roger) to go see the Owl for advice. Jack is pleased that the story is making Jo so anxious and he wants to build the suspense, but he hears the sound of furniture moving downstairs and remembers that he is supposed to be helping his wife, Clare, repaint the wood in their living room.
Jo feels for Roger skunk because, as a child, she is also concerned about being accepted by her peers. Jack is happy, in turn, because Jo’s discomfort indicates that he has her attention and is in control of the story. He also uses the story to ignore his responsibilities to Clare, although his comment suggests that he is aware that he is dodging his duties.
Jack continues the story. He explains that Roger goes to the owl and asks him for advice, since all of the other animals run away from him because of his smell. Before Jack can continue, Jo interjects that Roger should go see the wizard. Jack scolds Jo for interrupting, and asks her if she would like to tell the story herself. Jo says that she will allow him to tell the story if he tells it “out of his head.”
Jo’s interjection suggests that she has learned the structure of Jack’s story and is able to tell it herself. For Jack, this represents a reversal in their power dynamic: Jo is no longer content blindly accepting everything he says. It also irks him as a storyteller to have his flow interrupted by her questions.
Jack concedes to Jo, telling her that Roger does indeed pay a visit to the wizard. Jo is still unsatisfied, and she asks her father whether magic spells are real. Jack notes that Jo is in a reality phase, constantly questioning facts that her parents tell her and asking whether they are real. Annoyed, Jack responds that magic spells are real in stories.
Jack continues the story, explaining that Roger Skunk journeyed through the woods to visit the wizard’s house. Jack does an impression of the old wizard, which is his favorite part of the story. This makes Jo very happy, as well.
Roger explains to the wizard that all the other animals run away from him because he smells. The wizard invites Roger inside his dusty home. Jack notes that the wizard’s house is very messy because he is a very old man and does not have a cleaning lady. Upon hearing that the wizard is old, Jo asks if he is going to die. Jack explains that wizards don’t die.
Jo’s question about the wizard is another indication of her “reality phase.” It also relates to the theme of growing up because it indicates that, despite Jack’s best efforts and impressions, Jo is not enthralled by the story and would rather be in control of the narrative herself.
Jack explains that Roger decided he wanted to smell like roses and that the wizard did a spell to make it possible. When he recites the spell for Jo, Jack notices that her expression of delight reminds him surprisingly of his wife’s expression when she is pretending to be enjoying herself at a cocktail party.
Jack is particularly angered by Jo’s lack of interest because it reminds him of the ways Clare also undermines and dismisses him. Indeed, as Jo grows up to behave (and look) more like Clare, Jack is unable to separate them in his mind, viewing them both as women who seek to undermine him.
Jack explains that the wizard asks Roger for four pennies as payment for the spell. However, Jack misspeaks and says “Roger Fish” instead of “Roger Skunk.” Jo is upset by the mistake, even as she does not seem to be particularly engaged in the story. Jo’s lack of sincere engagement with the story annoys Jack, since he is telling the story for his daughter’s benefit. Downstairs, Jack hears Clare moving more furniture. He notes that she should not be moving heavy things, as she is six months pregnant with their third child.
In addition to questioning his authority, Jo’s lack of engagement with Roger’s story takes Jack’s limited enjoyment out of the task and turns it back into one of his stifling familial duties. Clare is repainting furniture to prepare for the arrival of their third child, so for Jack, the sound is not only a reminder of worse chores to come, but also of the pressures of an expanding family that he already feels constrained by.
Jack attempts to speed the story up. He explains that Roger returned to his friends who were now happy to play with him since he smelled like roses. The animals played until it was dark and then went home to their mothers. At this point, Jack notices that Jo is no longer listening to him, but fidgeting and looking out the window as if the story was over. Jack explains that this aggravates him because he doesn’t like it when women take things for granted, preferring to keep them apprehensive and desperate to hear what he has to say next.
Jack’s observation about uninterested women is another example of the ways in which his strained relationship with Clare transfers to how he views his daughter’s behavior. The sweeping generalization also indicates that Jack views Clare (and women more generally) as seeking to undermine and infantilize him. The desire to “keep women apprehensive” is therefore overtly misogynistic, as it suggests that making women uncomfortable is the only way Jack feels he can reclaim power from them.
In an effort to regain Jo’s attention, Jack throws a wrench in his classic story. Jack tells Jo that when Roger gets home to his mother, she is repulsed by his scent and demands that he go back to the wizard and get changed back. Jo is horrified with the twist, since Roger’s old smell made the other animals run away. However, Jack persists. He explains that Roger’s mother tells him that he smelled the way a skunk was supposed to smell. The two go back to the wizard and Roger Skunk’s mother hits the wizard on the head.
Driven by the desire to make Jo unhappy, and to therefore regain control of his narrative in ways that he cannot control his life, Jack changes his classic story form in an effort to teach Jo a lesson about duty and responsibility. Instead of allowing Roger to be free of the burden of his scent, Jack explains that Roger gave his chance at full acceptance up out of a duty to his mother, much in the same way that Jack feels his family life is constraining his freedom.
Jo does not accept this change in the story. She demands that the wizard refuse to change Roger back and instead hit his mother on the head himself. Sensing her agitation, Jack explains that the wizard did in fact change Roger back, and Roger and his mother got home just in time for Roger’s father to come home from work. The family then ate a big dinner and went to sleep. Jack explains that when Roger’s mother went to kiss him goodnight he smelled like a skunk again and she was very happy.
Jo senses a flaw in Jack’s story: if Roger smells like a skunk again then he will continue to make the other animals run away. Jack assures Jo that eventually (a word Jo does not recognize) the other animals got used to Roger’s smell and no longer ran away.
Jo says, “That was a stupid mommy” for making Roger change his scent back. With “rare emphasis,” surprising even himself, Jack asserts that it was not stupid. He thinks that Jo notices the severity of his reaction and understands that he must be “defending his own mother to her, or something as odd.” Jack urges Jo to sleep one final time and makes his way to the door.
Jo’s shocking pronouncement that the wizard should hit Roger’s mother to punish her suggests that Jack’s resentment towards his wife is not staying well-hidden, and is in fact subconsciously influencing Jo’s life, even during story time which is supposed to be both Jo and Jack’s reprieve from reality. In addition, the suggestion of physical violence against a “stupid mommy” suggests that Jack may be physically abusive towards Clare.
Before Jack can leave, Jo stops him and explains that she wants a story the next day in which the wizard hits Roger’s mother on the head instead of the other way around. Unsettled, Jack explains that the point of the story is that Roger loves his mother more than he requires the acceptance of the other animals, and is therefore happy with his smell. Jo does not accept this ending and demands that the next story involve Roger’s mother being hit by the wizard.
Jo’s ultimatum about Roger’s story signals to Jack that he is no longer able to control his daughter’s opinions and that she will soon begin contradicting him like Clare does. For Jo, however, her insistence that Roger’s mother be punished is just a further indication that she is using story time to process a real element of her family dynamic: her parents’ unhappy and potentially violent relationship.
Jack does not give Jo a definitive answer, and he goes downstairs to finally help Clare with the furniture. She is halfway through changing the paint color in the living room. When she notices Jack, Clare says that he told a particularly long story. Jack responds, “The poor kid.” Jack is too drained from telling Roger’s story to help paint, and instead he sits down heavily and watches his wife at work.
When Jack finally does interact with Clare, he is listless and depressed. He notes that the first thing Clare does is to chide him for the length of his story, indicating that he believes their relationship to be fundamentally hostile. In addition, despite explaining multiple times that he needs to help Clare paint, he is ultimately too tired to do so, choosing instead to mourn the fatiguing nature of his duties to his family.
Jack notices that the wood is half its old tan color and half a new white color, and that he himself feels equally caught in a sort of limbo. Jack explains that the house’s woodwork—“moldings and rails an baseboards”—feels like a cage surrounding him, and that although he knows Clare is in the cage with him, he has no desire to make any kind of connection with her.
Like the woodwork in his living room, Jack feels caught in a liminal space, between his present unhappiness and resentment in an unfulfilling marriage and the future promise of more children and more confining responsibilities. As Clare paints, she is also building the cage around him. While he understands that she is also limited by their life together, he sees her primarily as his tormenter and not his ally.