Irene Redfield receives a letter from Clare Kendry that she considers dangerous, since she knows that Clare has been passing for white and that Clare’s association with any black person is dangerous. Irene recalls that Clare has always been different, sneaky, and clever, as well as independent, selfish, and self-centered; she remembers Clare’s poise as a teenager when her drunken father bellowed at her for disobeying him. When Clare’s father was killed in a saloon fight, Clare was angry with him for abandoning her.
Irene reads the letter from Clare, who is in New York and wants to see her. Irene is determined not to see Clare, recalling the last time she had accidentally run into Clare. It is two summers earlier, and Irene is in Chicago, shopping for her sons, Brian, Jr., and Theodore. Feeling very warm and thirsty, she stops at the Drayton Hotel for tea. She notices a woman staring at her and thinks she is doing so because she is black. The woman approaches Irene and claims to know her, but Irene does not remember her, until she laughs; she then recognizes the laugh as belonging to Clare Kendry. There had been rumors about Clare’s sudden disappearance from the black community twelve years earlier. Irene and Clare talk about what they had been doing over the years. Irene invites Clare to her house but immediately regrets it. Irene questions Clare about passing for white but Clare, noting that they were both drinking tea at the all-white Drayton Hotel, turns the question back. Irene gets angry and leaves, vowing to have nothing more to do with Clare.
A few days later, Clare repeatedly calls the Redfield residence, but Irene refuses to speak with her, letting her maid, Liza, answer the phone. Finally, exasperated by the constant ringing of the phone, she answers the phone and lets Clare badger her into visiting her. At Clare’s home, Irene and another woman, Gertrude Martin, exchange cool greetings. Irene does not like Gertrude who, like Clare, is passing for white and is married to a white man. Irene’s opinion of Gertrude does not improve when Gertrude tells her and Clare that she does not want to have any “dark” children. Irene’s temper flares and she reminds Gertrude that her children—Brian, Jr., and Theodore—are “dark.” At that moment, John “Jack” Bellew, Clare’s husband, walks in and greets Clare with the nickname Nig. Amid tense silence, when Clare tells John to explain why he calls her that, John says that when he met Clare she was “white as a lily,” but that she appeared to be getting darker. Nig was his affectionate way of telling her that one morning she would wake up a “nigger.” Prompted by an angry but subdued Irene, John goes on...
(The entire section is 1104 words.)