A Blue Ribbon Affair

Selzer, Richard

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.
  • Date of entry: Nov-02-2004
  • Last revised: Aug-28-2006


Bertie Shields, a second year college student, and Joyce Renfrew, a nurse, are conveying the body of a dead elderly woman to the morgue. After a brief lustful look at Joyce, whose plumpness does not go unnoticed or uncommented upon by either Selzer or Bertie, the latter averts his eyes to the leaner cadaver, going from "pubic woolgathering" to ribbon-spotting; for he notes with increasing meditative pleasure that the corpse is wearing a bright blue ribbon, tied in a small bow and sitting "at the side of her head like a butterfly." (p. 122)

Bertie waxes reflective, wondering who put the ribbon in her hair and when. Joyce, who looks thirty-five to Bertie and who has "heard about" Bertie from "one of the other girls", begins making verbal and then physical advances as they approach the morgue. Just as he has put the unnamed cadaver on her tray and is proleptically about to "slide the tray home," Bertie’s last sight of the cadaver as she is entering "the dark recess" is the "winky blue . . . "--a sight that goes unfinished as he feels Joyce’s hand on his buttocks. The inevitable happens, of course, on the now vacant stretcher.


In "A Blue Ribbon Affair," as he does in so many of his stories, e.g., "’The Black Swan’ Revisited" (in the collection Taking the World in for Repairs, William Morrow, NY, 1986) and The Consultation (see this database), Selzer is exploring the nexus, literally and metaphorically, of sex and death. And, as usual, the author accentuates the locus of concern, medical professionalism, and medical ethics, by establishing that locus of concern in a locus of medical practice, however marginal (Is a doctor a doctor when he is with a call girl in "The Consultation"? Do dead patients have the same rights as live ones, e.g., not to be subjected to unprofessional, wanton sexual intercourse in their presence?)

As noted above in the summary, Selzer lards the text with sexual innuendoes varying from the heavy-handed (Bertie’s sliding the tray home only sentences before he slides Joyce home) to the slightly more subtle (the unnamed cadaver entering her dark recess just before Bertie enters Joyce’s). When Selzer/Bertie replaces the anonymous, all too dead, almost virginal cadaver cum prim ribbon with the lusty, vibrantly corpulent--but perhaps spiritually dead--Joyce, we are asked to wonder who is dead--and how--and who is alive and whose memory will live longer in Bertie’s and the reader’s memory.

This story compares well with the equally disrespectful Csáth’s Trepov on the Dissecting Table, and Beernink’s more compassionate "Stanley Long: Barbiturate Ingestion" (in Ward Rounds), wherein the poet notes (on page 9) "Before I replaced your red shroud / That you’d neatly combed your hair / While you waited / To go / To sleep." One could also read, to advantage, Auden’s poem, Miss Gee and Raymond Carver's The Autopsy Room (see annotations).


Original copyright 1974

Primary Source

Rituals of Surgery


Simon & Schuster

Place Published

New York



Page Count