The Dead family is out for a nice little Sunday drive in their black Packard (an old car brand), rolling through town. Little do they know the onlookers refer to this fancy car as the Dead’s hearse, because Macon only takes it for a spin once a week and treats it like a baby unicorn.
The onlookers are kind of jealous, but kind of not, because it’s a boring car that doesn’t really have any fun.
Lena and Corinthians Dead are in the back seat with their stockings rolled down and their shoes off. The Deads are taking the family hearse to Honoré Island where Macon hopes to invest in a black community of summer homes.
Milkman has to pee. Macon pulls over eventually. Lena, like a good sister, agrees to accompany him into the bushes, but Milkman accidentally pees on her pretty dress. Bummer.
Fast forward until Milkman is twelve years old. He meets and becomes friends with Guitar at school. One day, the two of them have the brilliant idea to go see Pilate, because Pilate is spooky and has booze, namely wine.
Guitar is older and has frequented her business before.
The boys find her peeling an orange on her porch and engage in such mundane conversation as "Hi" and "Do you have a navel," etc. Milkman is speechless, except for "Hi," which Pilate says is the word used to herd pigs and sheep. Good to know.
She invites them in and proceeds to make a soft-boiled egg – and gives Milkman and Guitar a great recipe for the ultimate soft-boiled egg.
Pilate proceeds to reminisce about her childhood, namely when her dad was shot five feet into the air, and how, orphaned, she and Macon Sr. wandered around Montour County (we don’t know where exactly that is, except that it’s "farm country" and that it’s maybe near Virginia), seeing their dad’s ghost everywhere. She tells them how scared she was.
Hagar and Reba come back home dragging brambles. Milkman falls in love with Hagar’s behind and is formally introduced to her.
The five of them begin to gingerly pull the berries off the brambles. They sit around talking about how Guitar got his name (he wanted a guitar when he was little), how Reba wins everything (people come far and wide to have her buy lotto tickets and things), and about how Hagar is hungry (sexually).
The three women start singing a song. In fact it’s the same song that was sung when Mr. Smith flew off the hospital roof.
At this point, Milkman’s totally crushing on his older cousin (Hagar), and he is happier than he’s ever been before, making wine with the interesting women and his best friend.
The town crier (a.k.a. Freddie) let’s Macon know where his son has been. Macon rips into Milkman because he doesn’t want any family member hanging out with his odd sister, but Milkman starts relating Pilate’s story of her father’s ghost.
This conversation sends Macon down memory lane, and he tells Milkman about Lincoln’s Heaven, the beautiful, lush farm "just north of the Susquehanna" that his father created and owned for sixteen years until he was shot. We don’t find out why or how he was shot.
Macon says his father never could read or write. When the Civil War ended in 1865, "they all had to register […] Free and used-to-be-slaves." By "they" we assume Macon means all black people living in the South, but we’re not totally sure.
Macon retells the story of his father’s naming: the drunk Yankee asked him where he was born (he said "Macon, Georgia"), and asked him who his father was (he said "dead"), and then wrote his responses down in the wrong spaces. In this way, Macon’s father accidentally became Macon Dead. His wife liked the name because she felt a new name washed away an unhappy past, so he kept it.
Macon returns from his dreamy memory walk and forbids Milkman to visit Pilate’s ever again.
Milkman of course protests, and Macon tells him Pilate is like a poor, injured baby snake you take in, harbor, nurse back to health, until she bites you with her venom and kills you. His word is final – no more Pilate.
Then Macon offers Milkman a job and tells him the most important thing he’ll ever need to know: own things and let those things own other things. Hmm. Kind of like a pyramid scheme, eh?