The story’s title produces an expectation that characters soon to be introduced will share nostalgia of bygone days and long for happier hours that can never be fully recaptured. A few opening words laced with irony, however, dispel this anticipation. The appearance of a particular white woman in a jazz club, the Palm Cafe, jolts the narrator, whose surprise is intensified by the fact that the lady in question appears to be dating a black man. Faced with a seeming impossibility the narrator consults her long-term memory, checking for accuracy, and concedes that this nemesis of her past, and not a double, is indeed sitting there, waiting to hear the Sunday afternoon matinee of the Cal Callen band.
As the band leader introduces the instrumentalists, the narrator, Philomena Jenkins, hears his usual hip patter with half a mind; the other half is captured by the spectacle of Miss Beth Ann Baker, former Georgia Peach and Miss Cotton Queen, the richest girl in the town of Baker, Georgia, sitting beside a good-looking black man. When Cal Callen introduces the lady piano player by name, Philomena sees Beth squint at her in mutual recognition. This brief acknowledgment causes Philomena to miss her cue in the opening interlude. While a few bars of the music escape her, Philomena detects in Beth’s expression a look that is familiar, but too vague to name. Philomena uses the feelings that look evokes to dig down into the next jazz number, “Round Bout Midnight.” Beth’s presence now seems to facilitate Philomena’s finding “the places between the keys where the blues and the truth lay hiding.” As Philomena identifies with the inconvenience, lack of privilege, and heartache the song calls forth, the notes blend with her understanding of how these realities have shaped both her life and her music. The tangible symbol of all the pain and hurt the knowledge engenders is now embodied by Beth, the little rich girl who had everything.
Philomena bitterly recalls how her parents, servants for the Baker family, had received so little compensation for their sweat that they could not afford to buy new clothes for their daughter, yet they were called treasures and gems by their employers. Philomena remembers having to work so hard as a youngster that stolen, midnight hours were all she could get to practice the piano. As she thinks back to all the times at school when she was called the “Baker Nigger,” feelings of resentment swell and she fantasizes about the disrespect she can finally show Beth to her face.
Philomena’s solo contribution of thirty-two bars to the song wins the audience’s applause—a sign of great approval from the tough, predominantly black audience, which is characteristically stingy with its praise. When the number ends, Philomena is set to flaunt her success before Beth, but when she looks at the table where the young woman and her date were sitting, they are gone.
Philomena completes the set. During intermission, she retires to the dark end of the bar. The emotional edge caused by the near reunion returns, and she slips back into a bitter reverie. Suddenly Beth, alone, appears beside Philomena. In an awkward beginning, Beth brushes off the past and launches into an explanation for her being in the club with a black man. She tells Philomena that she is engaged to the man, Willard; that they are happy; and that her parents will no longer speak to her. As Beth proudly explains that she acquired Willard by her own initiative, and that he is the first thing she has ever owned that no one has...
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handed to her, Philomena is reminded of Beth’s spoiled mother, who often showed the effects of too much whiskey. Philomena sees plainly that Willard is a toy for Beth, who can afford to play with him for a while, but when his presence becomes too inconvenient, she will discard him and quickly return to her life of privilege.
When Beth offers to make Philomena a part of her weekend plans and even extends an invitation to the wedding, Philomena looks beyond Beth’s affair with Willard and remembers how Beth’s father had played the same skin game, leaving as proof three children by different African American women whom he ignored once he lost interest in them sexually. Refusing the opportunity to hurl accusations and delve into the past, Philomena simply replies, “Good-by Beth. Tell your parents I said to go to hell and take you with them, just for company.”
With the reunion behind her, Philomena feels unburdened. Through tears of relief, she realizes more clearly that her music is power—refined by hard work, dedication, and love—and that it has greater lasting value spiritually than Beth’s money, which buys only hollow privilege and fleeting pleasure.