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CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
Robert Smith, the North Carolina Mutual Life agent, stands on top of Mercy hospital dressed in powder blue suit getting ready to jump off and fly across Lake Superior to the other side. He has written a note and sent it around to all the people in the community, but most of them didnít get it. The only ones in front of Mercy hospital that morning are those who happened to be there anyway and those few who got his notice in time. Most people are busy with their usual morning things. The hospital is located on Not Doctor street, a name not recognized by the post office. In 1896, the first African-American doctor moved on that street and people began to call it Doctor street. After years of this informal name, the authorities decided to name the street Mains avenue. They sent notices around town announcing the street was called Mains avenue and not Doctor street. People then began to call it Not Doctor street. People also tended to call the hospital No Mercy hospital because it admitted no African-American people.
On the day Mr. Smith jumped from the roof of Mercy hospital, the hospital admitted its first African-American expectant mother. A pregnant woman was there in the crowd that morning along with her two half-grown daughters who were carrying baskets of velvet red roses which they made for a department store. The girls dropped their basket and started running after the red roses to keep them from getting soiled in the snow. People helped them. A woman started singing "O Sugarman done fly away" when she saw Mr. Smith with his blue silk wings on the roof.
Officials from the hospital came out cautiously when they realized the gathering wasnít some sort of racial uplift demonstration. They started giving orders as soon as they got over the sight of Mr. Smith on the roof. One nurse tells an African-American woman to send one of the girls around back to notify security. She then points to the womanís grandson. The woman tells her the boyís name is Guitar. The nurse spells out the name of the building where the security guard is and tells the boy to run and get him. When she leaves, he tells his grandmother that the woman forgot an "s" in the spelling of the word. His grandmother tells him the nurse also forgot a "please."
The crowd gets nervous. Mr. Smith comes to their houses once a month to collect insurance payments. Heís always polite and deferential and they always joke with him about his regularity in coming as soon as they have two dimes to rub together. Theyíve always thought he was a good man, but being connected to death as a life insurance salesman has kept him separate from the community somewhat. The singing woman walks over to the pregnant woman and touches her arm, telling her she should be keeping herself warm. She adds that "a little bird" will be here by morning. The pregnant woman objects, saying sheís not due yet, but the singing woman insists. The scene ends with Mr. Smith jumping.
The boy who was born that day in Mercy hospital discovered at the age of four that only birds and airplanes fly. From that moment, he lost all interest in himself. His imagination was left bereft. People called him peculiar or deep. Women come to visit his mother, Ruth Foster, and discuss him. He has trouble escaping them and walking upstairs. Then he has to get passed his sistersí door before they see him and say something in "casual malice." Lena and Corinthians, his sisters, are always upstairs cutting patterns for their red roses. The house is always quiet and prison-like, but that peace ends when Macon Dead, Ruthís husband, arrives home.
Macon keeps every member of his family "awkward with fear." He hates his wife intensely and he shows his disappointment in his daughters. Where they should be experiencing the exuberance of girlhood, they are awkward and subdued. Ruth begins each day "stunned into silliness" and ends each day animated by her husbandís hatred. When Ruthís guests leave each afternoon, she begins dinner. She is a terrible cook, no matter how much she tries. As she prepares the table, she notices the large water mark left in its center. The water mark is like a lighthouse in her life. It reminds her that she is in life and not a dream and that she is alive somewhere inside.
The water mark came about years ago when Ruthís father was still alive. He liked to have fresh flowers on the table every day. It distinguished his family from the people they lived among. Ruth took great care in arranging flowers for the centerpiece. One day she saw in a magazine an arrangement made of driftwood, so she went to the waterside. To get there she had to pass through a poor neighborhood and get chilled by the cold. She brought the driftwood home and made an exquisite arrangement. That night at dinner, she had asked her husband what he thought of it. He said the chicken she had made was bloody and the potatoes lumpy. After that mean response to her artistry, she had let the arrangement disintegrate on the table and when she finally removed it, the water mark was left. The water mark seems like a plant in itself. It sometimes throbs like a fever and sometimes itís subdued.
The water mark is one of Ruthís secret indulgences. The other has to do with her son. She takes him to a room that used to be her fatherís study. Now it is saturated with a "damp greenness" because the windows are filled with an evergreen. She puts her son on her lap and nurses him. While she does so, she tries to ignore that fact that his feet are dangling to the floor. Her son does it like itís a chore. Ruth feels like "his lips were pulling from her a thread of light. It was as though she were a cauldron issuing spinning gold." She thinks of herself as the millerís daughter in Rumplestiltskin. One day everything came to an end when Freddie the janitor came to bring his rent. He knocked on the door and then looked in the window calling. He saw Ruth nursing her son and began to laugh. Ruth dropped her son, signaling to him that what he had suspected all along was right; this daily routine with his mother was wrong and somehow shameful.
Ruth was mainly shocked in her disappointment because she knew that only one of her two secret pleasures was now over. Freddie came in the house laughing and telling Ruth he knew women in the south nursed their children a long time, but he had never seen it in the north and not anywhere for years. He looked at the boy with appreciation as if this action indicated the boy would grow up to be a "ladiesí man." He called him Milkman and the name stuck because Freddie was the town gossip. He went around town telling everyone but Macon Dead about what he had seen. Ruth stayed inside for two months and didnít receive guests because she didnít want to know that they had all heard about it. Macon Dead heard his son being called Milkman and knew there was something wrong in it, but never knew the origin of the nickname. He already felt disgust for his son. He had tried for fifteen years to have a son and when he finally had one, he had had him under the most revolting circumstances.
When he had first married Ruth, they had loved sex. He loved to spend take his time undoing her elaborate and exquisite underwear. Now that he hasnít seen her naked in twenty years, he misses only her underwear. He used to believe that the sight of her mouth on the old manís fingers would stay with him forever, but it hasnít. He has to try to remember the details of that scene and even fabricate details. No one dared to tell him what the nickname of his son meant because he is unapproachable. Only one person--his sister Pilate--would have the nerve to tell him and he hates her more than he hates his wife. He hasnít seen his sister since his son was born and he doesnít want to see her now.
Macon holds onto the bunch of keys in his pocket. They reassure him in their "bunchy solidity." They are keys to all the houses, or shacks, that he owns. He has his business in a building with the name Sonnyís Shop painted on the door. He walks toward this building now thinking of names. He imagines that somewhere in his family line there was probably a young man who got a name in the serious and loving way. "A name that was not a joke, nor a disguise, nor a brand name." Maconís own parents had passed on to him the joke of a name given to his father by a drunken Union soldier. His own family had continued the tradition and now his son had been renamed Milkman Dead. His sister was named Pilate Dead. She had her name written on a scrap of paper, folded into a tiny square and contained in a box which she wears as an earring.
He remembers his fatherís choice of Pilate. His mother had died in childbirth. His father, who was illiterate, had opened the Bible and pointed to a name that seemed to him strong and handsome. Then he wrote it out carefully on a piece of paper and gave it to the midwife so she could tell him what the name was. She told him he couldnít name his child after the man who killed Jesus. He insisted the child would be called Pilate. He put the scrap of paper in the Bible where it stayed until Pilate turned twelve and put the paper in a box which she fashioned into an earring.
He was surprised when Ruth had had his son that Pilate took a great interest in the infant. She came over every day and sat next to his crib staring at him. Macon didnít like this because his sister looked so unkempt. He hadnít seen her since he was sixteen years old. Now she was acting like an in-law. He couldnít help but remember his anger and her betrayal outside that cave so many years ago. Finally, one day he told her she should dress like a woman. He couldnít stand the idea of the white men at the bank knowing this bootlegger was his sister. Pilate listened to him and told him she had been worried about him as well. He went to the door and told her to go away. She had left and never came back.
When Macon gets to his office, he sees a woman and two young boys outside waiting for him. He invites her in and she asks him for an extension on her rent. She is already two months behind. Her grandchildren are living with her and her daughter Cency has left. Her relief check doesnít pay enough even for food, much less rent. Macon Dead tells her if she doesnít have the money to him by Saturday, he will evict her. When she goes outside, her grandson asks her what happened. She doesnít answer directly. She says "A nigger in business is a terrible thing to see." When Mrs. Bains is gone, Macon Dead looks at his account books. He thinks of how he got in to see Ruth in the first place when he had only two houses. He thinks those two houses were the reason Mr. Foster let him see his daughter. He doesnít know that Mr. Foster was relieved to have Macon Dead seeing his daughter. He had begun to feel strange about his daughterís passionate devotion to him.
Macon is interrupted in his thoughts by Freddieís knock. Freddie tells him Porter has gone crazy and has his shotgun out. Macon gets a pistol out of his desk drawer and says he will go to Porter and get his rent, which is due the next day, before Porter spends it all. They get to the house and Porter is being taunted by a group of women. Heís been yelling out the window that he wants someone to have sex with. Macon interrupts them with an order for Porter to put his rifle down and send his rent money down. Porter points his rife at Macon and Macon tells him he will shoot his testicles off if Porter tries to shoot him. Porter tries to turn the shotgun on himself, but heís too drunk and the gun is too long. Next, Porter pulls down his pants and urinates over the heads of the women outside. Then he begins to sob that he loves all of them and is suffering from having so much love. He asks God to give him hate instead of love. He compares himself to Mr. Smith, saying Mr. Smith also couldnít carry all the love he had. Porter finally falls asleep. Macon sends Freddie upstairs for his rent money and then walks away.
When Macon is walking home, he suddenly starts to feel lonely. He decides to take a different route home, one on Darling Street, where his sister Pilate lives with her daughter Reba and her granddaughter Hagar. Pilate had been like his own child for twelve years. When she had been born without a navel, he hadnít thought anything of it. It wasnít until he was seventeen years old that he found out she was probably the only one in the world with such a stomach. He gets to their house and hears them singing. Pilate refuses to pay electricity, so they use kerosene lamps. Macon sneaks up and looks in the window. They look so peaceful and harmonious that he wants to stand there for a long time. He notices his sisterís lips. Theyíre always moving because she always has something in her mouth like pine needles or pieces of rubber bands.
The first scene of chapter one contains most of the main characters of the novel: Ruth Macon and her two daughters, First Corinthians and Lena, Pilate Dead, and Guitar Bains, who will grow up to be friends with the soon-to-be-born Macon "Milkman" Dead. The death of the insurance salesperson, Robert Smith, is as yet, only the occasion that brings these people together, but later, the reader will discover a connection between Robert Smith, Porter, and Guitar Bains, a connection that will push the plot of the novel to its conclusion.
The dominant mood of the first chapter is somber. It describes the tragic regarded as the every day, as if it were nothing to be remarked upon. All the characters live lives of isolated desperation. Ruth Foster Dead, for example, anchors her life with the water stain that marks her dining room table. Macon Dead anchors his identity with the number of houses he rents out to people too poor to pay the rent steadily. Minor characters echo this isolation of individuals. People like Porter, the man who calls out for a woman to have sex with, and wishes he felt hatred instead of love, live in the midst of community and get no succor from it. The only people who seem to live in happy community are pictured at the opening and the ending of this chapter. Pilate Dead, Macon Deadís sister, her daughter Reba and her granddaughter Hagar, sit in a kitchen lighted by kerosene and sing together.
Names are an important motif in African-American literature. Because Africans were taken from their homeland and brought to the American continent, they lost their lineage and were given the haphazard names of chattel slaves. They were often given only first names and, if they needed to, they would take the last name of their slave holders. Morrison shows that this slave time heritage remains in the present day. The original Macon Dead gets his name from the mistake of a drunken Union solider who thinks heís filling in the name of his county. The female members of the family are as haphazardly named by use of a method of blindly choosing a name from the Bible. Pilate got her name when her illiterate father pointed to a word that looked strong and brave. Corinthians and Magdelena called Lena got theirs also from the Bible. The dislocation of the people is signaled by the awkwardness of names that donít fit.