A Tree of Night Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

On an icy winter’s night, nineteen-year-old Kay waits for a train. Her tall, thin figure, conservative attire, and stylish hair suggest breeding and wealth. She carries a gray suede purse, on which elaborate brass letters emblazon her name (k-a-y), as well as several magazines and, incongruously, a green western guitar. Boarding a crowded, littered train, she finds a seat facing a grotesque couple, who share childlike characteristics. The woman’s feet dangle, barely brushing the floor; on her enormous head, her dyed red hair is in “corkscrew curls.” Tipsy, she behaves erratically, by turns syrupy and then mocking, rude, and rough toward Kay. Her deaf and mute companion has thickly lashed, oddly beautiful, milk-blue eyes, and he reeks of cheap perfume, looks childlike, and wears a Mickey Mouse watch.

As Kay settles in her seat, the woman begins a conversation in which she learns that Kay has been to her uncle’s funeral, that she was willed only his green guitar, and that she is a college student. The woman disdains college education. Kay opens a magazine, but the woman prevails on her good manners to talk. As tension builds between them, inexplicably, the woman becomes increasingly able to manipulate Kay. A more emotionally fraught tension bonds the girl and the mute man.

Eventually, under the guise of a polite lie, Kay anxiously tries to flee, but the woman grabs her wrist, demanding, “Didn’t your mama ever tell you it was sinful to lie?” Kay denies the obvious, but hastily obeys a terse “Sit down, dear.” A tangible sense of history pervading their relationship increases when the woman asks Kay about her hometown....

(The entire section is 689 words.)