Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 736
As the narrator recalls her student years in Cape Town, South Africa, near which her parents owned a mine, she remembers her long friendship with her schoolmate Miriam Saiyetovitz and Miriam’s parents, who owned a concession store.
Against her mother’s initial objections, the narrator finds herself drawn into the exotic world of the concession stores where Africans shop. She is enticed by the sights, smells, sounds, and activities of the shopkeepers and the Africans. Though she is careful to keep her physical distance, because she is repulsed by some of the customs, sights, and smells that accompany this busy merchant world, she experiences an excitement and abundance of life that is seemingly missing from her own.
One day, as she visits the shops, she recognizes a schoolmate among the faces in a crowd and befriends Miriam Saiyetovitz (whose name the narrator initially terms “ugly”). The narrator’s description of Miriam’s mother makes it clear that she is befriending the daughter of a Jewish immigrant family, whose socioeconomic status falls far below that of her own family. Miriam’s parents are hardworking, however, and try to give their daughter everything they can. The narrator is impressed that her newfound friend can retrieve a lemonade from the kitchen inside the shop whenever she desires. She also notes that although Miriam does not physically distance herself from the Africans, she seems not to notice them either, talking only of school and how the future will unfold for the two girls. In fact, Miriam appears unaffected by her surroundings in general.
Miriam is invited to the narrator’s house for a birthday party but appears to think no more of it than of the concession stores. When Miriam tells her mother about the party, Mrs. Saiyetovitz, in her eagerness to reciprocate, invites the narrator to a party for Miriam that is to be held at their newly built house on the outskirts of town. On the day of the party, however, Miriam takes all of her friends to town instead of her house, to the disappointment of her parents. Her parents rationalize Miriam’s actions, believing that she knows better than they do “what is nice and what is right” by virtue of her education. The narrator is eventually introduced into the interior of the store and notes Mr. Saiyetovitz’s “hangdog gentleness” toward the two schoolmates, in contrast to his “strange blasts of power” when dealing with the Africans. She learns, too, that Mr. Saiyetovitz’s name was changed, from Yanka to John, on his arrival in Cape Town.
The narrator and Miriam continue their friendship through their matriculation year, then decide to continue on to the university. Unlike the Saiyetovitzes, the narrator’s parents need not worry about the money to fund an education. The narrator notices that although Miriam’s parents own a newly built house, they still spend most of their time at the store. One day, as the narrator and Miriam ride the bus to town in order to purchase a new winter coat with money provided by Miriam’s father, Miriam ironically declares her preference for the narrator’s father, because he is educated and not a merchant.
During the years at the university, Miriam becomes a “lady,” soft, bored, and conforming to whatever environment in which she finds herself. She socializes with young successful Jewish students and vacations in Johannesburg, while the narrator goes home to the mining town. After they become teachers, the two friends part ways. Some years later, the narrator hears that Miriam has married a doctor. One day, while back in Cape Town, the narrator is reminded of the days spent at the concession store, and visits the old shop to inquire after Mr. and Mrs. Saiyetovitz. She finds Miriam’s parents, “older, sadder,” and waiting “as animals wait in a cage; for nothing.” The couple tell her about Miriam’s success. She has married a doctor, had a son, and lives in a beautiful home in Johannesburg.
The source of the Saiyetovitzes’ pride is also the source of their pain and defeat. They rarely see their daughter and have never been invited to her home. The story ends with a picture of Mr. Saiyetovitz lashing out against an African customer in the back room. The narrator realizes, sadly, how in spite of their own suffering, the Saiyetovitzes are “defeated, and without understanding in their defeat.”