Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1084
As the narrative opens, James and his mother, Octavia, are waiting by the roadside for the bus that will carry them to Bayonne. The weather is cold, and James knows that his mother will be worried that her family lacks wood to keep them warm until her return. She worries about other things as well, especially when James is not there to assume the man’s role in her absence. James is instinctively drawn to his mother and feels the urge to put his arm around her, but he restrains himself, knowing that she regards such a display of affection as weakness and “crybaby stuff.”
James has been silently suffering for some time with a toothache, about which he told no one because he knew that there was no money for the dentist. James’s aunt first became aware that he was in pain, but he swore her to secrecy. She did send for Monsieur Bayonne, a folk healer, to treat the tooth, but his remedies were ineffective. The pain became so unbearable that it could no longer be kept secret from James’s mother, so now they are on their way to have it removed. They have money “enough to get there and get back. Dollar and a half to have it pulled,” and fifty cents left over to buy a “little piece of salt meat.”
As they prepare for the day, James recalls the time before his father went off to the war, when things were better for the family. He also recalls when his mother made him kill two redbirds caught in the traps that he and his brother set for owls and blackbirds. James did not want to kill the redbirds, but his mother killed the first one and then demanded that he kill the other. He refused, and she beat him until he gave in. Afterward, as they ate the tiny morsels, James felt the pride the others had in him for providing even this small meal. He later understood that his mother’s stern discipline was preparing him in case he had to carry on in her stead.
The ride to town on a Jim Crow bus is uneventful except for James’s self-conscious flirtation with a small girl, which amuses the other passengers. Alighting in Bayonne, James becomes aware of the penetrating cold, which seems more intense than at home. They make their way to the dentist’s office, where James listens to an exchange between a preacher who believes it best not to try to understand suffering, and a young, educated black man who insists that people should “question everything. Every stripe, every star, every word spoken. Everything.” These two exchange views on religion, which the young man rejects. Growing angry and frustrated at the young man’s calm rejection of Christian complacency, the preacher finally strikes him twice in the face. The young man merely sits down and reads as the preacher bolts out the door. Later, the young man has a similar exchange with a woman to whom he says, “Words mean nothing. Action is the only thing. Doing, that’s the only thing.” James observes these scenes without comment, but clearly he is impressed by the contrast in values and attitudes between the old and new generations of black southerners. He thinks, “When I grow up I want be just like him. I want clothes like that and I want keep a book with me too.”
The nurse announces that the dentist will see no more patients until after one o’clock, and that all those waiting must leave and return then. Having no place to go to escape the bitter cold, James and his mother walk, window-shopping. When James’s eyes are drawn to a café where white people are eating, his mother insists that he keep his eyes to the front. After walking the length of Bayonne and back, they enter a hardware store, where James has a chance to get warm while his mother pretends to examine ax handles. Soon after returning to the street, James is cold again. Hunger gnaws at him. The courthouse clock shows a quarter to twelve—another hour and a quarter before they can return to the warmth of the dentist’s office. It has now begun to sleet.
After desperately trying to get into the closed dentist’s office to escape the weather, James’s mother heads for the black section of town. They go to a warm café, where, because she feels obligated to spend something, Octavia orders milk and cookies for James and coffee for herself. She eats nothing. A man at the bar puts a coin in the juke box and asks Octavia to dance. The episode ends with Octavia pulling a knife on the pimp. She and James return to the cold street.
As Octavia and James again walk toward the dentist’s they encounter an elderly white woman who asks if they have eaten. Octavia proudly answers that they “just finish,” but the woman insists that they come into her store anyway. Her husband inquires from the back, where their living quarters are and whether she has found them yet, so the reader knows that she was on the street awaiting James and Octavia. Later she explains that she saw the two of them pass earlier, and waited for them to return. She tells them she has warm food on the stove; then, when Octavia seems ready to leave, she quickly adds that it is not free: she asks James to put her garbage out in return for the food. When James actually carries the can out to the street, it is so light that he is sure it is empty. Afterward he is allowed to wash up, and a meal is served him and his mother. Their hostess calls the dentist and arranges for James to see him as soon as the office opens.
As James and his mother leave, Octavia turns and asks the lady if she has salt meat, which she does. When Octavia asks for “two bits worth,” Helena cuts off much too large a chunk. Asserting her fierce pride, Octavia refuses to accept this charity and turns to go. Only when Helena cuts off about half the chunk of meat does she accept it. On the street again, James turns his collar up against the sleet. His mother tells him to put it down again. “’You not a bum,’ she says, ’you a man.’”