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The novella begins with a street fight between Jimmie Johnson, the protagonist Maggie’s brother, and a group of children from another neighborhood. Adults stand around watching and doing nothing as Jimmie is beaten severely. An older boy, Pete, comes upon the fight and breaks it up, freeing Jimmie. As they are walking home, Jimmie gets into a fight with one of his friends from his neighborhood because the boy didn’t help him in the fight. In the midst of this second brutal fight, Jimmie’s father comes upon them and begins to kick at the boys until he breaks up the fight. He orders Jimmie to follow him home.
As they approach their tenement building, Maggie and Tommie, Jimmie’s younger sister and brother, come into sight. Tommie is screaming because Maggie is trying to drag him inside the apartment. When she sees Jimmie’s brutalized body, she cries out that he’s been fighting again and their mother will be very angry. They go inside and Mrs. Johnson begins to rage against Jimmie for fighting. She beats him and throws him around. Maggie and Tommie crouch in the corner to get out of the way. Mr. Johnson joins in the fight and then leaves the house in disgust to go to a bar and get more drunk than he already is. Jimmie sneaks out of the apartment and knocks on the door of an old beggar woman who lives in their building. She lets him in, laughing at his family’s antics. She gives him some coins to go get her some beer.
Jimmie goes into a bar and gets the old woman’s bucket filled. On his way home, his father stops him and demands the beer. The boy cannot fend off his father and so has to sneak past the old woman’s door and go back to his own family’s apartment. His mother is snoring in a heap on the floor. He and Maggie sit and stare fascinated at their mother. They crawl over to her and stare into her face. She opens one of her eyes and they run scrambling for cover. They crouch in fear until dawn.
Maggie grows up to be a beautiful girl. Her brother notices one day that she is good-looking. He tells her she must get a job or she will become a prostitute. She gets a job in a sweat shop making collars. She lives her life in the misery of her poverty until one day Pete visits Jimmie at home. Maggie sits to the side admiring Pete, who is dressed as a dandy. Pete and Jimmie exchange stories of their fighting ability. Pete notices Maggie watching him and becomes interested in her. He asks her out on a date. Maggie begins to notice the state of disarray of her family’s apartment and wonders if Pete looks down on them. She tries to make the apartment look better by hanging ribbons on the curtains and a curtain over the mantelpiece. In a drunken rage, her mother destroys all of her work. Pete arrives for her and finds her in the midst of the rubble. Mrs. Johnson curses Maggie as a whore.
Pete takes Maggie to a popular dance hall where she is dazzled by the glitter and excitement of the stage. She thinks of Pete as a prince instead of the uncouth loud-mouth that he is. Maggie watches all that happens on the stage with wrapt attention and Pete watches Maggie. When they get back to her apartment, Pete demands a kiss in recompense for the date. Maggie refuses and Pete feels that she has cheated him.