The town where the Sad Café is located oozes with the sense of desperation. Relatively empty, spare, a few ramshackle houses, trees that sprout increasingly few peaches each year and church all situated around a main street barely the length of a football field.
The biggest structure in the entire town is the home of Miss Amelia. The house has to be big; its owner is 100% female, but that can be hard to determine from a cursory glance. Like its owner, there is something rather off about the very architecture of the structure and the sense of desperation that permeates throughout the town extends to the precarious nature of the home which appears to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Also much like its inhabitant.
The grotesque that is an essential component of the work of Carson McCullers is here given symbolic form in the lack of proper symmetry to Miss Amelia and her home and is made even more manifest when hunchbacked dwarf name Lymon arrives with a photograph proving Fanny and Martha Jesup are half-sisters. Which means Miss Amelia and Lymon are cousins.
Miss Amelia had married one Marvin Macy, but refuse to consummate the marriage and right from her wedding night exhibited a strange and strong preference for dressing in pants, reading the Farmer’s Almanac, smoking a pipe and living apart from her husband in the downstairs part of the house. Meanwhile, Marvin’s response to the immediately rejection of him was a life of crime and when Lymon shows upon the scene, he is safety tucked away inside the concrete walls of the big stony.
Despite the apparent existence of blood relations between, Amelia quickly becomes infatuated with Lymon to the point where she gives in to his request to open a café. Cousin Lymon moves in with Amelia—his dwarfish appearance relieves any expectation of contractual obligation for intercourse—and the café becomes an enormous success.
All of this occurs because of a tremendous change that has overcome Miss Amelia. Not only was she mannish in appearance and action, but emotion as well. She was curt, terse and rejected any outward displays suggesting softness and tenderness. Lymon seems to have changed all this and this change has no gone unnoticed by the townsfolk who gather at the café and watch in amazement as Miss Amelia’s soft and tender side becomes apparent.
Not long after Lymon appears on the scene, Marvin Macy is released from the penitentiary. He heads back home with plans to destroy Miss Amelia the way she destroyed him. Lymon is immediately drawn to Marvin, viewing him as the ideal real man that he is not with own bizarre appearance and feminine ways. Macy draws upon this aspect of Lymon’s character to essentially win him away from Amelia, thus setting up an altercation with Miss Amelia in which Lymon plays the essential role in allowing Macy to walk away the winner.
In the aftermath of the fight, Lymon and Marvin rifle through Amelia’s belongings, pilfer from cafe and steal her money before disappearing.
McCullers adds a coda to the conclusion of her story in the form of The Twelve Mortal Men, a story about a dozen members of a chain-gang which resonates thematically with the narrative’s progression as well as the overriding sense of desolation and desperation that comes with being trapped inside a prison of one form or another.