Kate, a doctoral student, has chosen to move far away from the small town in which she grew up and in which her widowed mother (a school superintendent) and brother (an insurance man) still live. Kate's life is solitary, punctuated by unsatisfactory and transitory sexual relationships with men; she has headaches and wonders if "there were an agent in her body, a secret in her blood making ready to work against her" (p. 180).

While her mother disagrees with Kate's life choices, their long-distance relationship is sisterly, playful, and intimate. Kate sends her mother Valentine's Day cards, "a gesture of compensatory remembrance" since her father's death six years earlier (177). One year Kate forgets to send the card; soon after, her mother is suddenly hospitalized for tests that reveal a brain tumor.

Kate's brother insists that if she wants to come home, she must keep quiet about the likelihood of the tumor's malignance and the risk that the upcoming surgery will result in paralysis. He argues that their mother is terrified and that there is no point in making her more afraid. Kate objects to the concealment of the truth but complies unwillingly with her brother's request.

She gains permission to take her mother for a ten-minute walk outside, just time enough to take a ferris wheel ride. As their car reaches the top of the wheel, Kate is clearly upset. Her mother comforts her, saying, "I know all about it . . . I know what you haven't told me" (196).


This compact story evokes not only Kate's anguish about the possibility that her mother may be seriously ill, and her confusion about the ethics of concealing information about the prognosis, but also the stress and confusion of the brother, the fearfulness and grace of the mother, and complicated dynamics of the family's history. As Kate and her brother try to care for their mother after their father's death--Kate by courting her mother with Valentines and intimacies, the brother by taking charge of her medical care--both feel vulnerable and uncertain about their ability to provide appropriate support, and need their mother to continue to take care of their emotional needs and to approve of their adult lives.

Despite the children's best efforts to take charge, their mother remains the family's most effective provider of care. Her experience as a patient is perhaps too subtly drawn. Her strength and generosity in understanding and accommodating her children's needs while she herself is most vulnerable affirms the ideology of the perfect mother. As engaging as this ideal may be, the story does little to expand the ways in which we imagine a mother experiencing illness.


Black Tickets, Phillips's first short story collection, won the Sue Kaufman prize for first fiction from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

Primary Source

Black Tickets



Place Published

New York



Page Count