Aibileen lost her son, Treelore, when he was twenty-four years old. He had plans to get married and was writing a book about being a black man living and working in Mississippi when he slipped and fell at work and got run over by a tractor-trailer that did not see him lying on the ground. It took Aibileen five months to get herself out of bed and put on her white uniform and gold cross necklace so she could go serve Mrs. Elizabeth Leefolt (“Miss” Leefolt), a scrawny twenty-three-year-old lady who has just had a baby girl named Mae Mobley. Something in Aibileen is different now, though; something has changed. She does not “feel so accepting anymore.”
From the beginning, Mae Mobley is a cranky baby for her mother, though Aibileen has no trouble at all with the child. Miss Leefolt is not an engaged mother; she is ill-equipped and disinterested in raising her own child, though she shows signs of jealousy when her daughter prefers the servant. Every fourth Wednesday of the month is bridge club for Miss Leefolt, and there is a routine preparation of the house as well as the food. The house is small, with only two bathrooms, and it is evident to Aibileen that the Leefolts are not rich.
The bridge club includes three other women: “Miss” Hilly Holbrook and her mother, “Miss” Walter, as well as “Miss” Skeeter Phelan. Miss Hilly lives only ten feet from the Leefolts but drives to bridge club; she is selfish and a bit greedy, and she is not nice to her mother. Miss Hilly is a woman who dresses well and is clearly the woman in charge. Miss Walter has a bit of palsy and eats very little. Miss Skeeter is tall, thin, does not quite know how to dress, and has the appearance of shyness; she and Miss Hilly are about the same age as Miss Leefolt.
After Aibileen has served the women and seen to Mae Mobley, she continues her chores within earshot of the white ladies. They begin by discussing the rudeness of Miss Walter’s maid, Minny, who happens to be a fantastic cook with a bad attitude, according to them. That maid also happens to be Aibileen’s best friend, and she determines to call Minny and tell her that Miss Hilly is not happy with her performance. The bridge club’s conversation then moves to the issue of bathrooms. Miss Hilly is appalled at the idea of using the same bathroom as “the help” and claims it is “dangerous.” She thinks everyone should either have or create a separate bathroom for blacks, which is common in public places. “Everybody knows they carry different kinds of diseases than we do,” she adds. After sending Aibileen out of the room, Miss Leefolt admits it would be nice if her servant did not have to use the bathroom in the house. Miss Skeeter ends the conversation by suggesting they should build a bathroom outside for Hilly—who does not think it is a very funny joke.
After the other two ladies have left, Miss Skeeter is still hanging around in the kitchen. The black preacher on the radio reminds her of the maid she had growing up—Constantine, the woman who raised her. Miss Skeeter says she has tried to find Constantine. Then she tries to apologize for the earlier conversation that she knows Aibileen heard, and she asks if she ever wishes things were different. With a roll of her eyes (though her back is turned so the white woman cannot see), Aibileen says sarcastically that everything is just fine. Miss Leefolt enters the kitchen, interrupting their conversation.
After Miss Skeeter leaves, Aibileen begins the awful job of cleaning the oven as her employer tries to discover what the two of them had been talking about before she arrived. The servant is not talking, and Miss Leefolt goes off in a huff. Aibileen thinks she is going outside to figure out where she will build her a new colored bathroom.