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Milkman’s trying not to be too freaked out, lying on Guitar’s bed, waiting for his murderer to come and get him.
Rewind to five hours in the past. Milkman arrives at Guitar’s place, asking if he can stay there for the night.
Guitar makes him tea, giving him a "geography lesson" about the origins of the tea he’s drinking. He makes Milkman laugh.
The mood is light until they start talking about soft fried eggs. Guitar tells him he can never be an egg, let alone a soft-fried egg, because eggs are white and fragile. Milkman begs to differ. Guitar says someone will have to bust his shell.
Guitar starts to lecture Milkman once more as he cleans his pad. He throws away a pseudo ashtray with half-smoked cigarette butts. Milkman moves to stop him, and Guitar throws the trash across the room, exclaiming that Milkman’s not listening to him.
Guitar thinks there’s something funny about Milkman. He wants to know why he’s not running from his murderer, since anyone looking for Milkman would know to look in Guitar’s pad eventually, and since his murderer finds him every 30th day of the month. Milkman’s all dressed up in a suit, and Guitar thinks he’s excited about his murder.
Milkman tells him that he knows he’s holding a secret.
Guitar leaves cheerful, promising to bring cigarettes back with him.
Lying in Guitar’s bed, waiting for his murderer, Milkman reminisces about his life. He feels like a garbage can for other people’s actions. He wonders at his lack of independent thought and action.
He recalls the night he saw his mother leaving the house at 1:30 in the morning. Here is his recollection of the night:
Milkman sees his mother sneaking out of the house, walking down the street to the bus station. He tails her in his car until the bus arrives at the intra-county train station. There, he watches her catch a 2:15am. train, which he, like Sherlock Homes extraordinaire, also catches. Whenever the train stops, he leans his head out of the train to see if she has gotten off. Very sneaky, Milk, very sneaky indeed.
Ruth detrains at the very last stop, Fairfield Heights. Milkman follows her through the sleeping town to the cemetery. He waits at the gates for her. When she returns, Milkman confronts her/scares the heck out of her.
They don’t say a word until they get on the train home.
Ruth just starts talking as though they had been in the middle of a conversation already, and tells him how she’s a "small" woman, how her father was the only person in the whole wide world who ever cared for her, who ever cared whether she lived or died.
This is Ruth’s story: she explains that Macon was jealous or something. Macon hid her father’s medicine when he was dying, thus expediting his death. Pilate, she says, is the only reason why he, Milkman, is alive. (Pilate? What?) So, Ruth and Macon stopped sleeping together around the time her father died. When Pilate showed up in town some ten years later, Ruth was about to go crazy from living with a man who wouldn’t touch her and who abhors her. Pilate gave her a greenish-gray grass to put in Macon’s dinner. Macon got randy as a result, he and Ruth make love, and nine months later Milkman arrived by way of stork. But, Macon’s lovey-dovey mood only lasted four days, long enough for Ruth to get pregnant. As soon as the potion wore off, Macon was furious and pushed Ruth to get rid of the baby. Pilate helped keep Ruth safe. This ends Ruth’s story.
Milkman is flipping out. He’s finding out that his entire existence rests upon greenish-grey grassy looking stuff. That’s rough.
He asks his mom the big question: did you sleep with your dead father’s corpse?
She tells him that, when Macon found her, she was in her slip at her father's bedside, kissing his fingers (the only part of his body that wasn’t … she doesn’t finish her sentence, but we think she’s about to say, "decomposing" … eww).
Milkman brings up the whole breastfeeding thing again, asks why she breastfed him for so long. Ruth replies that she also prayed for him twice a day. This is not a good night for Milk. This ends Milkman’s memory of the night he followed his mother to her father’s grave.
Milkman is still lying in Guitar’s bed, imagining what it would be like to be dead, when he hears his murderer coming up the stairs and toying with the locked door.
His murderer is none other than Hagar who, we find out, has sought him out every 30th day of each month for the past six months with some weapon of choice (she likes to mix it up).
We momentarily switch to Hagar’s perspective, and we discover that it wasn’t Milkman’s I’m-breaking-up-with-you note that sent her over the edge. It was the fact that she saw him with his arms around another girl at Mary’s – a girl that looked like Lena or Corinthians, but who had coppery-colored hair and gray eyes.
[We interrupt this program with a scintillating piece of juicy literary trivia. Gray eyes in literature are a bit ominous. Guinevere, who married King Arthur but had an affair with Lancelot, had gray eyes. Gray eyes became a symbol of betrayal or shiftiness. Don’t believe us? Check out the Canterbury Tales.]
Hagar had grown to believe that Milkman was her soul mate, her reason for being on earth. So seeing him with another lady cemented in her brain the need to kill him.
OK, Shmoopsters, now comes a point where we really can’t do justice or try to relate the sheer amazingness that is Song of Solomon. Go read this chapter right now, or at least this paragraph where the nature of Hagar’s rage, madness, jealousy is thrown down. The language in this moment is soul-shaking.
So what does the rest of the world in Southside and Not Doctor Street think about Hagar’s craziness? They just shake their heads, and talk about what crazy, "graveyard loves" can make people do.
Then they think about Empire State, the barbershop janitor who never says a peep. This is their memory:
Empire State marries a white woman in France, brings her home, and is happy as a clam for six years. Then, one day, he comes home to find her in bed with another man, another black man, and discovers that she has/would cheat on him with many other black men. It gets a little ambiguous here – we don’t know whether Empire State discovers that she’s been cheating on him or is just beginning to cheat on him. But we understand that Empire State discovers that his wife doesn’t truly love him for who he is. Upon walking in on this scene, Empire State becomes mute, never saying another word. This ends the collective Not Doctor Street/Southside memory of Empire State’s sadness.
We return to the scene of Milkman lying on Guitar’s bed, listening to Hagar break into the apartment. Unable to unlock the door, she takes her shoe, breaks the window next to the door, fiddles with the window latch, and eventually struggles to open the window.
All the while, Milkman is willing her death silently, but doesn’t move from his position in the bed.
Hagar hoists herself into the room, raises her butcher knife over her head, and brings it down toward Milkman’s neck. Are you nervous, yet? Do you think Hagar is capable of killing Milkman?
The knife angles off of Milkman’s neck, cuts him a little bit, but is ultimately unsuccessful. Milkman flinches a little, but doesn’t open his eyes.
Hagar tries a second time, but can’t bring herself to pull the trigger, if you will. Milkman knows he’s in the clear, gets out of bed, says something really demeaning, and then leaves.
Ruth gets wind of Hagar’s murderous attempts by way of the town crier. She is hurt and immediately starts walking down memory lane, thinking about how hard it was keeping Milkman alive when he was in her womb. She thinks about all the ways Macon made her try to abort her baby. It was only when she went to Pilate’s house out of desperation that her baby was saved. Pilate strapped her in a girdle that she told Ruth not to take off until several months had passed. Then Pilate also put a little voodoo doll on Macon’s office chair, which scared him into never touching Ruth again.
At this point, after swimming in all of these memories about Milkman’s conception and birth, Ruth is furious. She yells at the cabinet, and then catches the bus to get to Darling Street to find Hagar.
Nobody seems to be home, but Ruth walks into Pilate’s house anyway. Again she is enveloped in memories of coming to Pilate for help those thirty-one years before. She hears humming outside and assumes it is Pilate or Reba.
In the backyard, Ruth finds Hagar and what follows is a showdown. Go read this chapter right now. Ruth sees in Hagar the person trying to kill the person (Milkman) who represents the last time she was made love to. Hagar sees in Ruth the person who gets to see the person (Milkman) she loves everyday.
Both are angry and jealous. Hagar tells Ruth that Milkman is her home. Ruth replies that she is his home.
Pilate overhears this brouhaha, and thinks it’s just that: a whole lot of brouhaha. She knows Milkman doesn’t care about either of them.
Hagar has a crazy moment and starts grabbing her hair. Pilate tells her to sit down on her bench and invites Ruth in to take a load off.
Pilate then begins to tell the story of her childhood and of seeing her father’s ghost everywhere. This is her story:
Shortly after their father’s death, Macon and Pilate are wandering around the countryside. They have a falling out, and they split. Pilate decides to head toward Virginia where she suspects she has family (because she thinks her mom was from Virginia, even though she never knew her mom).
Pilate decides to earn some money before she heads to Virginia, is taken in by a Preacher and his wife, and has to wear shoes.
The Preacher and his wife make Pilate go to school. There she finds her undying love for … geography! Her teacher even lets her keep her geography textbook at the end of the school.
But then Pilate enters glorious adolescence, and the Preacher starts "pattin" on her. We don’t know what this means, but we don’t think it can be a good thing.
The Preacher’s wife gets wind of this and kicks Pilate out.
Pilate then meets up with a bunch of migrant harvesters who roam from place to place, picking fruit and beans (a.k.a. legumes) on farms.
She goes to such hot spots as "New York State" and finds a real family in this community. Pilate even finds a mentor, a mother-figure who teaches her the womanly ropes.
Pilate starts getting' busy with one of her fellow pickers, and he notices her lack of a belly button. It turns out, the lack-of-bellybutton is a bad omen of mythical proportion.
When Pilate’s newfound mother gets wind of her nonexistent navel, she makes Pilate strip naked so that she can see with her own eyes. Pilate doesn’t really know what the big deal is because she just thought bellybuttons were things boys had that girls didn’t, since all she knew growing up were her dad and her brother.
The pickers give Pilate lots of money and tell her to peace out, because having no navel is not good for business. Or something.
So Pilate wanders on. At this point, we’re not quite sure where she is, but we know that she’s still dying to get to Virginia.
She joins up with another group of migrant pickers, and again she gets it on with one of the workers. And again they kick her out of their group on account of having no belly button. Only this time, they are not very nice about it. They take her tin cup and leave before she knows they are gone.
Pilate’s in a bind. She needs money to get to Virginia. So she goes into town and starts to work as a laundress. Her hands get all bloody from all the hard work, but eventually she makes some money and catches a wagon down to West Virginia.
We’re not quite sure what happens next, but soon Pilate arrives in Culpepper, Virginia where (again) she’s working as a washerwoman at a hotel. She hears about a colony of black farmers on an island off the coast of Virginia and, faster than you can say "belly button," she catches a ferry boat over to the island and is immediately accepted by the community there. She is the ripe old age of sixteen years old.
Pilate works hard, and eventually starts up a fling with a local farmer. She remembers to keep her non-existent belly button covered up this time. And she gets pregnant.
The other island women are shocked that Pilate doesn’t want to marry her baby’s father, but Pilate worries that she won’t be able to keep her belly button secret a secret if she marries him. She names her baby Reba.
Soon after, Pilate’s dad pays her a visit and says, "Sing, Sing," and "you just can’t fly off and leave a body." So Pilate takes his advice and goes back to Pennsylvania, to the cave where Macon killed the white man many years before, gathers up his bones, and brings them back in a pretty green sack. Pilate is now the proud owner of a rock collection, a geography book, two spools of black thread, and a baby named Reba.
Pilate gets an itch to go traveling, so she and Reba leave the island and wander from state to state. Pilate stops trying to hide her lack of belly button, and so becomes kind of an outcast.
As a result, she does some serious self-reflection and realizes that the way society defines normalcy is just a bunch of hooey. She cuts her hair and begins to really examine what she cares about and why.
She realizes that since she talks to dead people all the time, she doesn’t have to be scared of death (or anything else really) and, in turn, the community around her recognizes her generosity and respectful nature. She becomes the respected outcast with healing powers.
Pilate then begins to make a steady living as a genuine bootlegger. She is successful because she never lets anyone drink on her property. She outsmarts the Prohibition.
When Reba gives birth to Hagar, Pilate recognizes in Hagar a nature and personality that is the polar opposite of her own, and she is stumped. With no Dr. Phil around to answer her questions, Pilate and Reba just decide to continue spoiling Hagar, giving her everything she asks for.
Pilate then realizes that Hagar will need more of a family, so she goes in search of her long lost brother, Macon Dead.
When she finds that her brother is a complete jerk who doesn’t want anything to do with her, she is ready to pick up and push on once more. But then she meets Ruth Dead who is "dying of lovelessness," and realizes that she can’t leave, but has to help this poor woman.
This ends Pilate’s epic tale, which she is making deliberately long in order to calm Ruth down.