Chapter 1 (Pages 3-18)
Mrs. Curren is a widow and former Classics professor living in Cape Town, South Africa, and the book opens with her revealing that she has just received a terminal diagnosis. The words of the book are a long letter she is writing to her estranged daughter, who has lived in the United States since 1976. It is now 1986, and Mrs. Curren is obviously trying to impart something about her last days to her daughter, but does not know for certain what it is. Mrs. Curren’s house backs up to an alley, and upon returning from her diagnosis, she finds a homeless man and his dog sleeping in the alley by her house. The man is disheveled, underweight, and always to some degree under the influence. He has a potent smell of body odor, urine, and a life lived out of doors. Mrs. Curren is curt with the homeless man and threatens to alert the police but later offers him some food and tries to find out more about him; unfortunately, the man speaks very little.
One morning, Mrs. Curren is overcome with pain while she is in the garage. The homeless man happens to be nearby, so he helps her into the house to lie down. She explains that she has bone cancer that is situated in her hip. When she attempts to learn more about the man, he withdraws from the house. Later that night, she can feel his presence outside the window when she watches television; she turns up the sound so he can hear. During one of her bad spells, she takes her pain medication and slips in and out of consciousness. At one point, she becomes aware of the distinctive smell of the homeless man and discerns that he must be in the room with her.
When she is feeling better, Mrs. Curren decides to head into town; however, the car has a hard time starting. She enlists the help of the homeless man, who successfully pushes the car to help start it and then joins Mrs. Curren (along with his dog) for the ride into town. As they drive in, Mrs. Curren reflects on a story her mother used tell of her own childhood, long before Mrs. Curren was born. When her mother was a little girl, she took a trip to the mountains in a covered wagon. As they slept at night, her mother became convinced that the wagon was moving when she saw the movement of the stars overhead; she remained paralyzed, convinced the wagon would roll off the side of the mountain. Mrs. Curren’s mother was frightened by what seemed the impending arrival of her own mortality, and her worries only subsided in the morning when she realized the wagon had not moved at all.