The story begins with Ann Weiss ordering a cake for her son Scotty's eighth birthday. She notices that the baker, "an older man with a thick neck," is distant and somewhat abrupt. His demeanor makes her feel uncomfortable, and his coarse features make her wonder "if he'd ever done anything with his life besides be a baker." Ann is a happy 33-year-old mother and doesn't understand why he wouldn't make some effort to indicate he understands that birthdays are special. But she orders the cake, to be picked up Monday, and then leaves, noticing the large oven and the radio playing country music on the way out.
On Monday, the morning of his birthday, Scotty is walking to school with a friend when he is hit by a car. The friend starts to cry as Scotty has some spasms, and the driver stops several yards ahead, looking back from his car. When Scotty stands back up, the driver leaves. Scotty doesn't cry or say anything to his friend, just heads back home while the friend continues to school. When he arrives home, Scotty sits with Ann on the couch and is telling her what happened when he suddenly slips from consciousness. She quickly calls her husband Howard at work, and he calls an ambulance and then leaves work for the hospital.
Scotty has a rough patch after which he lapses into the sleep of a concussion. Dr. Francis insists to the distraught parents that it is not a coma. They stay with their sleeping son for several hours, but around eleven o'clock, Howard heads home to freshen up. Ann is distant, focused only on her son.
He drives home too fast for safety, and has to catch himself. He thinks about how his life has gone so smoothly for so long – "college, marriage, another year of college for the advanced degree in business, a junior partnership in an investment firm. Fatherhood." Terrible events had yet to befall him, and now that it seems they might have, he is frightened.
When he gets into the house, the dog is barking at the ringing phone. Worried it's bad news from the hospital, he answers it and hears, "There's a cake here that wasn't picked up." Confused, he confronts the voice, and then hangs up. He calls the hospital, and then takes a bath. While in the tub, the phone rings again, and he rushes to it. The caller hangs up.
Howard returns to the hospital to find the boy in the same condition, but a bottle of glucose is now connected to his arm. Ann tells him that Dr. Francis believes Scotty needs nourishment since he has not woken yet. Ann is worried, but Howard comforts her. He encourages her to go home to rest, and warns her to ignore the caller. She refuses to leave. A nurse comes to check the boy's vitals, and tells them he is stable and that Dr. Francis will soon be there. Howard begins to grow frightened again, though he rationally talks himself into believing that Scotty will recover.
Dr. Francis enters and shakes hands with Howard. He checks on Scotty, and assures them that he will be okay. He is waiting on the results of some tests, but they have found nothing outside the hairline fracture, and to Ann's repeated worries insists that it's not a coma, just restorative measures. He assures them that Scotty will be fine and encourages them to rest before shaking Howard's hand again and leaving. Though both parents are concerned, Howard forces a calm demeanor and tries to make her feel better. She tells him that she prayed earlier, her first time in a long while, and asks him to do the same. He admits he already has, and she realizes for the first time that this tragedy is affecting them all – before, she had believed it was only "happening to her and Scotty."
The same nurse returns to check his vitals, and leaves. An hour later, Dr. Parsons, from Radiology, enters. He is dressed casually. Dr. Parsons tells them he wants to take more pictures of Scotty, which worries the parents, who thought they were done with tests. Dr. Parsons says he wants a brain scan, but that it's normal and they need not worry. Two orderlies fetch the boy, and the parents ride down with them all. In the elevator are two other orderlies who speak another language but stay quiet during the ride. Later, after the tests, Howard and Ann accompany Scotty back to his room, where they resume their waiting.
The whole next day, they wait and see no change. Other than leaving occasionally for coffee in the cafeteria, they don't leave. Dr. Francis comes in the afternoon and says he could wake anytime. Nurses come occasionally. A young woman comes later and takes some blood, which worries them. Night comes, and Ann is particularly distraught. Howard drifts off into a nap, and Ann looks out into the parking lot, where she watches the cars and people. She wishes she could be a woman she sees out there, and not herself. Howard wakes and stands with her, both feeling close to one another.
Dr. Francis comes and for the first time expresses some confusion. He's convinced all is well but doesn't understand why the boy hasn't woken yet. He acquiesces to calling the situation a coma. He encourages them to head out for a while, but Ann refuses. When he leaves, Howard argues that she should go home to feed the dog and get some rest, since they will need their strength to weather the next days. Ann thinks that maybe he will wake if she isn't watching and assents. She realizes he needs to be alone, and notices how poorly he looks. She leaves.
Past the nurse's station, in the waiting room, she comes across an African-American family. The table there is littered with cups and food wrappers, and they all seem restless. When a woman sees Ann, she asks "Is it about Franklin?" When Ann tells them she knows nothing, they ignore her. But without knowing why, Ann starts to tell them about Scotty. They reply with their own tale of woe – their son Franklin was a bystander to a knife fight in which he was cut badly, and they are waiting to hear whether the operation on him is successful. Ann feels very close to them, but has nothing more to say, so she leaves.
When she gets home, she finds the door still unlocked, and begins to prepare tea. The phone rings. It's 5:00 a.m., so she's concerned, but it's the man again. She hears some machinery in the background and, when he says nothing but her name, she asks if it's about Scotty and he say it is. He hangs up and she frantically calls the hospital, demanding to be forwarded to Scotty's room. Howard assures her there has been no change, and reminds her about the caller he'd dealt with. He tells her Dr. Francis will be back around 8:00. She wants to keep talking, but he encourages her to rest. After bathing and changing, she drives back to the hospital, feeling vaguely responsible for Scotty's injury and thinking about the family from the waiting room.
Ann heads upstairs to find Franklin's family has vacated the waiting room. Their mess stays behind. Ann inquires at the nurse's station after them, and is told that Franklin died. She heads to Scotty's room, and Howard tells her Dr. Francis came by early, with a neurologist. They have decided they will operate because Scotty hasn't woken. Before Ann's hysteria can begin, Scotty opens his eyes. They rush to him, he looks around, and then closes his eyes again and takes his final breath.
His condition was a "hidden occlusion," a "one-in-a million circumstance." There was almost no way they could have thought to check for it. Dr. Francis is terribly shaken and apologizes profusely, even hugging Ann. Howard cries in the bathroom. Dr. Francis cannot release the body before its autopsy, but he is very tender with them both.
At home, they sit quietly. Howard starts to collect Scotty's scattered toys but can't bring himself to do it. They cry together, make calls to relatives, and talk sporadically. Howard walks out to the garage, where he mindlessly plays with Scotty's bicycle. Inside, the phone rings; it's the man, again mentioning Scotty in a threatening way. Ann screams at him, which brings Howard in to find her weeping and the man no longer on the line.
Around midnight, the phone rings and the caller hangs up. Ann professes a desire to kill the caller, and asks Howard if he could hear machinery. He couldn't, but he did hear a radio. That's when she remembers who it is, and they decide to head down to the bakery and confront him. At the shopping center, almost all the businesses are closed, but they see a light in the back of the bakery and knock on the glass. When there's no answer, they drive around to the back. They bang on the door until the baker opens the door and tells them he's closed.
But Ann is undeterred and steps in. He recognizes her and tells her he's busy and she needs to leave. He sees the fury in their eyes and says they can have the cake but need to leave. When she continues to press him, he tells her he works 16 hours a day and picks up a rolling pin to suggest he will fight if they persist.
The baker tells Howard to be "careful," at which point Howard tells him that they have been waiting with their dying son these past days. Ann's anger suddenly dissipates and she collapses into Howard's arms. After a moment, the baker brings chairs to them and insists they sit down. He makes a place for them on the table, and then apologizes to them – "I'm just a baker. I don't claim to be anything else. Maybe once, maybe years ago, I was a different kind of human being…I don't know how to act anymore, it would seem." He removes some cinnamon rolls from his oven and suggests they should eat – "eating is a small, good thing in a time like this."
They both realize how hungry they are, and eat several rolls. While they do, the baker tells them his life story: about his loneliness, his years of doubt and limitations, his childlessness, the futility of "ovens endlessly full and endlessly empty." He is glad he's a baker, at least, since he can feed people.
He has them smell some succulent bread, and the three of them talk into the morning, "and they did not think of leaving."
Perhaps the most impressive and affecting element of "A Small, Good Thing" is Carver's mastery of poetic detail. The circular dialogue that Ann has with Dr. Francis, the things she and Howard observe on their drives home or out of the hospital window, the sounds they notice like the ticking of an engine … these are but a few of the details that engender an atmosphere of painful helplessness and fatigue that accompany tense situations like these. It's a visceral effect that Carver captures brilliantly through his choices of what to share.
However, the story is also successful in its beautiful exploration of the themes of isolation and connectedness. Though these themes are in one sense contradictory, the very point of the story is to illustrate how we are all separate from one another and yet still endeavor to connect in our loneliness.
The theme of isolation is easy to find. Before Scotty's accident, Ann and Howard live what must have later seemed to be a perfect life. On Howard's drive home, his thoughts about never having had to deal with those destructive "forces…that could cripple or bring down a man," the reader gets the sense that he had never needed more connection with others than what he had with his wife and son. Indeed, Ann cannot understand why the baker is so distant from her in the opening scene. She wonders why he wouldn't try to treat the boy's birthday as a special day. Though shocked at his indifference and intentional separation, she never stops to think about how many cakes he must have to make in his trade. She assumes he must have children of his own, a fallacious assumption that indicates how little she actually tries to empathize with someone else. Why would she? Her life is happy.
These indications of how isolated all humans are from one another continues. Perhaps the ugliest is the driver of the hit-and-run, who leaves the scene. Carver wisely never mentions him again, which accomplishes two things: one, it maintains the limited perspective that never really leaves Ann or Howard; and two, it reinforces this idea that we are all inside ourselves, and once we leave a scene, we are indeed gone. However, even the less antagonistic characters illustrate isolation. Consider Dr. Francis, who is obviously committed to Scotty's recovery but nevertheless maintains a distance from the couple. In specific, he never touches Ann – a fact Carver illustrates by noting how he shakes only Howard's hand on each visit – and is a bit patronizing about her fear, calling her "little mother." There is a great deal of detail paid to what all the other characters wear and look like in the story – Dr. Francis is dressed as if "he had just come from a concert" in one scene, Dr. Parsons is dressed in jeans and a Western shirt, the orderlies are "black-haired" and "dark-complexioned", to name a few. What's established in these observations is that life progresses for everyone else regardless of the suffering that happens in Scotty's room. The depth of the parents's pain affects only them, and no one else. Another detail that suggests this theme is the men on the elevator who speak another language, as though suggesting that we as humans can never understand one another. Ann senses this separation with Franklin's family, with the people she sees in the parking lot, and, after Scotty dies, she shows how this realization has affected her when she expresses a desire to actually kill the baker. Likewise, the baker knows the situation: as soon as they're inside, he realizes it's him vs. them, and prepares himself for that reality.
And yet the story does not express the pessimism of these themes, but rather suggests the other theme of connectedness. We are all alone, and yet we persevere in hope of making a connection with others. One of Ann's character arcs in the story is her movement from being selfishly focused on Scott to realizing that she and Howard "were together in it, this trouble." It takes her a while to finally realize that they are connected by their suffering, and that she's not fully alone. Following this realization, "she felt glad to be his wife." There are a few indications of how he physically affects her, as well. "The pressure from his fingers" as he touches her, and the way "his fingers knead [her] muscles." They are in different bodies but are attempting to be together in their pain, an impossibility they approach when standing next to one another staring out of the hospital window, when "they seemed to feel each other's insides now, as though the worry had made them transparent in a perfectly natural way."
The lesson they come to learn is not that humans can actually understand one another – Carver's stories are too built around the impossibility of communication for this to be a plausible interpretation – but rather that it is our best nature to try anyway. She feels extremely connected to Franklin's family, even though they have little to say to each other. She feels compelled to share her story with them, and is affected to hear theirs. Likewise, Dr. Francis's behavior after Scotty's death indicates how behavior can reveal our desire for connectedness. His cool demeanor is totally shattered, and for the first time, Dr. Francis touches Ann, leading her to the couch and then holding her in a full embrace.
Of course, nothing drives home the tenderness of attempted connection more strongly than their final scene with the baker. Obviously, the baker cannot know the depth of their pain, being childless. And yet he has such deep reserves of sadness that, when they arrive in such a vulnerable state, he is compelled to open up himself. And what's more, they listen and appreciate what they hear. He could have showed them the kindness of food and comfort without sharing his own pain, but they all sense that this occasion is sacred in that they can connect with one another through a shared understanding of pain and disappointment. The man who, at story's beginning, was so distant that Ann could feel unwarranted contempt for him, has revealed the depth of his suffering, and so can they for the first time begin to process the depth of their own suffering. These people are not the same and they can only approach each other so much, and yet because they try to connect, they are all profoundly affected.
The story also serves the theme of tragedy, and ultimately suggests that it is the acceptance of tragedy in our lives that has the potential to connect us. Indeed, this definition is close to that which Nietzsche posits in The Birth of Tragedy. In that essay, he argues that the Greeks rallied around tragic plays because it reinforced their sense of community by reminding them of how unfairly the universe treats the individual. The "forces" that frighten Howard on his drive home are very much the tragic forces, those forces that humans cannot control and yet can, at moment's notice, ruin a person's life. Throughout the story, Howard attempts to comfort Ann by rationally convincing himself and her that Scotty will be okay, but he cannot quell his fright, his underlying belief that tragedy is central to life. The observations of clothing also illustrate this point – life goes on even as the most terrible things happen to others, and there's nothing that can be done about that. The boy Franklin's death is certainly tragic, since he was not even involved in the fight that takes his life, and this is possibly what makes Ann feel close to them. And finally, the baker's acceptance of the unfairness and meaninglessness of time – "ovens endlessly full and endlessly empty" – is part of what connects him with the grieving parents in the final scene. Carver's suggestion is that we are all connected in our smallness, in our lack of control. And while it might be impossible for us to ever truly know one another, or ever take full control of our lives, our attempts to be kind and understand other people is "a small, good thing" that makes our lives worthwhile.