Events unfold slowly: Mr. Ed, a southern white man, visits Aunt Zimby every Fourth of July—the date that she has designated as her birthday. His purpose is to give her a birthday present, a new pair of blue tennis shoes, although she has never played tennis and is now blind and cannot discern the color. He annually reenacts this tradition, following the example of his father, who has been dead for two years.
Aunt Zimby, who was born around the time of the Civil War, has “belonged” to this family of whites through four generations, being passed down and along to them as a matter of duty, care, and heritage. In her blindness and old age, Aunt Zimby confuses Mr. Ed, the narrator, with Mr. Phil, his dead father. She sits on the front porch of the shanty, which will scarcely keep out a gentle rain, chews snuff, and reminisces about her overlong life. She retells one story from earlier years of a time when she herself was Mr. Phil’s accomplice in eating mulberries against his parents’ instructions. A second recollection is of a night when Mr. Phil went dancing with the white girls, and came home in the rain and mud, wearing only his underwear; he had to undress in order to protect his new clothes.
Lost in age and place, the ancient woman who survives only as a relic from the past asks when Mr. Phil will show up with her new shoes for a birthday present. Ed neither tries to explain that his father is dead nor even tries to answer her; rather, he sits silently with the new shoes in a state of contemplation and is transfigured and transposed to another time and existence. After Aunt Zimby falls asleep, Ed gives the shoes to Vesta, her daughter, and leaves, wiping tears from his eyes.