Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 948
The story opens with a description of ‘‘St. Bonny’s’’ or St. Bonaventure, the shelter where Twyla, the narrator, meets Roberta, the story’s other main character, when they are both eight years old. Twyla recalls that her mother once told her that people of Roberta’s race smell funny, and she objects to being placed in a room with Roberta on the grounds that her mother wouldn’t approve. Twyla, however, soon finds Roberta understanding and sympathetic to her situation. While most children at the shelter are orphans, Twyla is there because her mother ‘‘dances all night’’ and Roberta is there because her mother is sick. Roberta and Twyla are isolated from the other children at St. Bonny’s and are scared of the older girls, so they stick together.
Twyla remembers St. Bonny’s orchard in particular but she doesn’t know why it stands out in her memory. She recounts an incident in which Maggie, a mute woman who worked at St. Bonny’s kitchen, fell down in the orchard and the big girls laughed at her. Twyla reports that she and Roberta did nothing to help her. They called her names and she ignored them, perhaps because she was deaf, but Twyla thinks not and, looking back, she is ashamed.
Twyla and Roberta’s mother come to visit one Sunday. The girls are excited and get dressed up to meet them at church services. Twyla is embarrassed by Mary, her mother, because of her casual appearance, but also proud that she is so pretty. When Roberta attempts to introduce her mother to Twyla and Mary, her mother refuses to address them or to shake Mary’s extended hand, presumably because of racial prejudice. Mary says ‘‘That bitch!’’ right there in the chapel and further embarrasses Twyla by groaning during the service. Roberta’s mother wears a huge cross and carries a large Bible. Afterward, Mary and Twyla eat Easter candy, since Mary has brought no lunch for them, while Roberta can’t finish the food her mother brought. Not long after, Roberta leaves St. Bonny’s.
Twyla doesn’t see Roberta again for many years. Twyla is now a waitress, and Roberta comes in to the Howard Johnson’s where she works. Roberta is with two men and tells Twyla that they are on their way to see Jimi Hendrix, but Twyla doesn’t know who Hendrix is. Roberta dismisses Twyla and calls her an asshole. Twyla responds by asking about Roberta’s mother and cattily reports that her own is still ‘‘pretty as a picture.’’
Tywla’s narration picks up again when she is 28 years old and married. She describes her home, husband, and family life. Newburgh, the rundown town where they live, has recently become gentrified, and there is a new mall at the edge of town where Twyla goes one day to shop at a gourmet supermarket. There she runs into Roberta, now married to a wealthy executive, for the first time since their hostile encounter at Howard Johnson’s. Roberta greets Twyla warmly and asks her to a coffee. They laugh and the tension between them seems to dissolve. As they are reminiscing, the incident with Maggie comes up. Roberta claims that Maggie didn’t fall down in the orchard, but that the big girls had knocked her down. This is not what Twyla remembers and she starts to feel uncomfortable. She asks Roberta about their encounter at Howard Johnson’s and Roberta answers, ‘‘Oh, Twyla, you know how it was in those days: black-white.’’ They part ways, promising to keep in touch.
That fall racial tension descends on Newburgh as a result of busing, instituted to ensure integration in the schools. Twyla’s son Joseph is one of the children who has to take a bus to a school in a different area. Twyla is driving near the school Joseph will attend and sees Roberta picketing against busing. Twyla stops and they discuss the issue. They argue and soon the group of picketers surrounds Twyla’s car and start rocking it; Twyla reaches out to Roberta for help, but Roberta does nothing. Police finally come to Twyla’s aid. Just before she pulls away, Roberta approaches her and calls her ‘‘the same little state kid who kicked a poor old black lady when she was down on the ground.’’ Twyla responds that Maggie wasn’t black and that Roberta is a liar. Roberta responds that she is the liar and that they had both kicked Maggie.
Twyla begins to stand on a picket line holding up slogans that respond directly to Roberta’s. Over the course of the six weeks that the schools are closed due to the controversy, Twyla’s signs become more personal, with slogans like, ‘‘Is your mother well?’’
Twyla and Roberta have no interactions for a long time, but Twyla remains preoccupied with what Roberta said about Maggie. She knows that she didn’t kick her, but she is perplexed about the question of whether the ‘‘sandy-colored’’ woman might have been black. One night she runs into Roberta, who is coming out of an elegant party at a downtown hotel. She approaches Twyla and says she has something she has to tell her. She admits that they had never kicked Maggie but says that she really did think that she was black. She confesses to having wanted to kick her and ‘‘wanting to is doing it.’’ Roberta’s eyes fill up with tears. Twyla thanks her and tells her, ‘‘My mother, she never did stop dancing.’’ Roberta answers that hers never got well and begins to cry hard, asking ‘‘What the hell happened to Maggie?’’