On Saturday night, while Mama hunts for her sweets, Jessie rummages for towels and garbage bags and searches the attic for her father’s gun. Jessie tells Mama that she wants the gun for protection. Mama, convinced that there are no criminals near the out-of-the-way country house where they live, thinks Jessie is foolish. Jessie eventually tells Mama of her plan to commit suicide. At first Mama thinks that Jessie, an epileptic, is ill, but Jessie feels fine physically. Then Mama says that the gun is broken, but Jessie proves that it is in good condition. She had gotten bullets by tricking her brother Dawson into believing that she was watching out for prowlers. Desperate, Mama threatens to call Dawson, but Jessie still would shoot herself before he arrived. Mama suggests calling for the ambulance driver, whom Jessie likes. Jessie, however, insists that she wants the night alone with Mama.
Mama tries to convince Jessie that normal people do not commit suicide, but Jessie wants to die and escape to a place of quiet nothingness. Unable to convince Jessie that suicide is immoral, Mama tries to gain control by insisting that Jessie cannot commit suicide in Mama’s house. Trying another tactic, Mama asks Jessie if she wants to stay around to see what she would get for her birthday. The presents turn out to be predictable and not what Jessie wants.
Jessie plans the whole evening and makes a list of things she wants to do. Mama thinks that Jessie might be trying to escape her family, but Jessie is not committing suicide simply to get away from Dawson, her meddlesome brother, or Ricky, her delinquent son with whom she is unable to communicate. Jessie admits that she does not like her life with Mama and that going to live with Mama after Cecil (Jessie’s husband) left her was a mistake that both Mama and Jessie made. Jessie now feels hurt and used. Her life had come to a dead end. She had been contemplating suicide for about ten years but had started to plan it around Christmas, when she realized how empty her life was.
Mama grasps for reasons for Jessie to continue living. She suggests getting a dog, planting a garden, shopping at the A&P, and taking up crocheting. These activities are unsuitable to Jessie, who sees her life as a meaningless bus ride that she wants to end now. Mama then accuses Jessie of acting like a spoiled brat and blames Jessie as the cause of her own misery. Jessie retorts that it is time Mama does something about her own miserable life.
Mama continues in vain to urge Jessie to find ways to make herself happy, by buying dishes, moving furniture, or getting a driver’s license. Mama even suggests that Jessie get a job, but Jessie had failed at two jobs. She could not sell over the phone, and she made people nervous when she worked at a hospital gift shop. Besides, she could not be around people. Jessie could not make her life better, so she was going to control her destiny and end her life.
After moments of tension, Mama and Jessie settle down to have some cocoa. Jessie wants a night of truth and sharing. Mama admits that she never loved Daddy because he had always resented marrying a plain country woman. He never spoke to Mama, but Jessie loves him. Mama then accuses Jessie of being angry that Daddy died and left Jessie with Mama.
When Jessie tries to show Mama where all the pots are, Mama gets angry, takes the pots out...
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of the cabinet, and then throws them, saying she will live on sweets. After things settle down, the two women discuss the breakup of Jessie’s marriage. Mama had played matchmaker and brought Cecil and Jessie together, but Cecil was the wrong man for Jessie. Cecil was a positive thinker and wanted Jessie to live an active life. She tried to stay outdoors and to get more exercise, but she could not meet his expectations. Cecil felt guilty about the time that Jessie was horseback riding and took a fall that supposedly caused her epilepsy. Jessie also realized that she had taught her son that life was unfair and not to trust anyone. Ricky was Jessie and Cecil battling each other in a small space.
Mama reveals that Jessie did not get epilepsy from a fall but inherited it from her father. Mama then blames herself for Jessie’s problems. She feels that she has failed to convince Jessie not to commit suicide. Jessie tries to show Mama that suicide is a positive solution, a way of saying “No” to everything and everyone. Jessie is tired of waiting around to become the person she is never going to be.
Outraged, Mama says that people will feel sorry for her, not for Jessie. Jessie helps Mama make funeral plans and instructs Mama in what to do after the suicide. Then Jessie gives gifts for her family, asks Mama to let her go, goes into her room, and shoots herself. Mama realizes that she only thought that she had a right to Jessie’s life. Doing what Jessie told her, Mama washes the pan and calls Dawson.