Late in the evening, a drugstore owner and his assistant are closing up for the day. Sam Carr, the small, gray-haired proprietor, stops Alfred Higgins, his adolescent helper, just as the young man is leaving for home. Alfred has worked there for six months, and this is the first time Mr. Carr has ever varied the evening routine of bidding his employee “good night” without even looking at him. Alfred is unnerved by his boss’s softly menacing manner as he blocks his exit.
Mr. Carr asks Alfred to empty his pockets before he leaves. When Alfred feigns surprise and then indignation, Mr. Carr reveals that he knows the exact items that Alfred has stolen that evening: a compact, lipstick, and toothpaste. Moreover, he tells Alfred that he has suspected him of petty thievery for some time but wanted to be proved wrong because he liked him. Now, he believes, he has no alternative but to call in the police.
Mr. Carr pauses to let Alfred absorb the full impact of his sense of betrayal and disappointment. Alfred admits to himself that repeatedly he has been in serious trouble since leaving school and has been unable to hold on to a job. He feels afraid and ashamed. Mr. Carr seems to sense Alfred’s emotional pain and decides to call Alfred’s mother before summoning the authorities. Clearly, Alfred is at a decisive point in his life.
Anxious to appear indifferent and self-reliant, Alfred is nevertheless hoping desperately to be rescued from police and courts by his mother. He expects her to rush in, hysterical and pleading; while he hopes she will save him from the law, he anticipates his embarrassment at her abject behavior to Mr. Carr and her contempt for him. She soon arrives; although it is obvious that she has hurriedly dressed, her poise and calm dignity are a surprise to them both.
She confronts her son, who does not deny his guilt or attempt to mitigate it. She then speaks to Mr. Carr with such unaffected humility and understanding that he is somewhat awed by her. She asks for compassion, which she receives for her son. Mr. Carr dismisses Alfred from his job but lets him go home. On their way home, Alfred’s relief verges on hilarity, but he is restrained by his mother’s obvious pain and anger. Her silence abashes him.
At home, Mrs. Higgins calls Alfred “a bad lot” and sends him to bed while she goes to the kitchen to make some tea. In his room, the fear and shame Alfred felt earlier in the evening begin to dissipate, and he longs to tell his mother how he admired her smooth handling of the situation. He quietly goes to the kitchen, and there, undetected, he observes his mother’s face, the face behind the mask she had worn earlier in the evening. It is “a frightened, broken face utterly unlike the face of the woman who had been so assured a little while ago in the drugstore.” Her hands tremble as she pours tea and draws the cup unsteadily toward her lips. At that moment, Alfred has a sudden, crucial insight. He comprehends the hard reality of his mother’s life as well as the effect of his actions on her. He knows, too, that in an important sense his own youth is over. An evening that began with a shabby crime culminates in a moment of sympathetic identification that marks Alfred’s passage to manhood and maturity.