The first two paragraphs—the opening third of the story’s triptych structure—give the background exposition: Theo (probably in his twenties) is dying. Given a choice between a drug that would save his sight and a drug that would keep him alive, he has chosen not to go blind. He has moved back to his mother’s house in New Jersey, after living on his own. His mother must give him drug injections four times a day, through a painful catheter in his chest, but she remains cheerful, and each day urges him to go out with her somewhere.
One warm, breezy afternoon in May, Theo and his mother go shopping for revenge. The action of the story proper, in the middle third of the story, begins and concludes with this brief shopping trip. Sylvia drives Theo to a store where she wants his advice about a present she is thinking of giving his cousin Howard, who is about to get married. The revenge involves Theo’s Aunt Bibi, who gave him a tacky pen and pencil set for his college graduation. After parking the car in a handicapped parking place, Sylvia guides Theo into the gift shop where she has spotted a large, ridged, 1950’s style crystal bowl, stalwart and square-jawed. As Theo observes, the bowl is rather ugly and costs $425. Revenge can be expensive.
Inside the shop, Sylvia picks up the heavy bowl and suddenly tosses it to Theo like a football. The owners of the store can only gasp, but Theo catches the bowl, his cane clattering to the floor. The omniscient narrator observes: “It seemed Sylvia had been looking a long time for something like this, something heavy enough to leave an impression, yet so fragile it could make you sorry.” The objects of this thought are not only Bibi and Howard, the intended victims of her revenge, but Theo, the beneficiary of her love.
In the concluding portion of the story, Sylvia and Theo drive home. When Theo reminds his mother that it is almost time for his medicine, she nearly breaks down but recovers. Theo concludes the story wondering about the bowl and his mother, only recognizing “that she was trusting his two feeble hands, out of the whole world, to keep it from shattering. What was she trying to test?”