The teenaged Tillie Hunsdorfer describes her fascination with the wonder of the atom. Her mother, Beatrice, is in their cluttered home, speaking on the phone with Mr. Goodman, one of Tillie’s teachers. Mr. Goodman is concerned about Tillie’s withdrawn nature and her repeated absences. It soon becomes apparent that Beatrice is responsible for Tilllie’s absences from school, claiming that she needs her to take care of errands around the house. In reality, Tillie finds solace in her science class, and school is an escape from her dismal domestic life.
Beatrice threatens to chloroform the rabbit that Mr. Goodman gave to Tillie unless Tillie takes care of the rabbit droppings immediately. Tillie’s older sister Ruth appears, looking for lipstick and referring to it as “Devil’s Kiss.” She announces that Tillie’s appearance at the science assembly was the cause of much laughter in the auditorium. Beatrice offers Ruth a cigarette in exchange for a back-scratch. During this exchange, it is revealed that Ruth spent time in a sanitarium after her father died and is troubled by nightmares.
Tillie’s interest in science increases as her teacher gives her some marigold seeds that have been exposed to varying degrees of radiation. While Tillie is tending to her experiment, Beatrice reads the newspaper and speculates wildly about business prospects. The family’s elderly boarder, Nanny, appears, supported by her walker. She neither speaks nor shows any signs of comprehending the activity around her. Beatrice addresses Nanny loudly and mocks her to her blank face. Nanny’s daughter, a successful business woman, does not have time to take care of her, so Nanny is now in Beatrice’s “care.”
Nanny is the latest of a string of boarders with terminal illnesses that have been the primary source of the family’s income. The boarders’ grotesque ailments are also the source of Ruth’s recurrent nightmares. One boarder had worms in his legs. Beatrice continues to express her frustration with how her life has turned out. She describes herself as the best dancer in school, smart, and popular until she married the wrong man. Again, she gets Tillie’s attention by threatening to kill her pet rabbit. Nanny’s shuffling to the bathroom annoys Beatrice, and she explodes at the end of the scene. She says that the half-life of Tillie’s cobalt-exposed flowers is nothing compared to Beatrice: She is the original half-life, with a daughter who has half a mind; another who is half a test...
(The entire section is 1027 words.)