Exposition (Initial Situation)
He's Got 99 Problems
Julian is a grown man living at home with his mom. We feel you, man. Worse, he's forced to take her to the Y every week for a weight-reducing class. More problems: His mother is kind of (okay, a lot) racist and embarrasses him with her frumpy fashion sense; and he's got a dead-end job selling typewriters when all he wants to do is write.
Okay, so it's not 99 problems but it's enough more than enough to set up potential for a whole lot of drama.
Everybody Move to the Back of the Bus
This was the era of Rosa Parks, bus boycotts, and integration. Basically, buses were a big deal. So what better place for Julian to teach his mother a life lesson?
But when he sits next to a black man on their weekly ride to the Y, nothing happens except that his mother (and the man) get annoyed. Julian contemplates all the ways he could shock his mother into realizing how backward her views on race are. And we're building to two conflicts: the mother-son drama, and the old-world vs. new-world struggle that's about to get a lot more real.
A cute little boy, Carver, and his mother, a not-so-happy-looking black woman, board on the bus. No big deal right? Carver takes a liking to Julian's mother, while Carver's mother gets increasingly fed up with his antics—and with his cozying up to a white lady. Why might a black kid and a white woman not seem like the best pair in this integrating world?
A Penny for Your Thoughts
Julian's mother wants to give Carver a nickel, but Julian points out that it might come off as a little insulting. Turns out, Julian's mom only has a penny—so she gives a penny to the kid. This is totally going to end up in some life-affirming, hug-it-out scene when the two families learn to see themselves in each other, right?
Uh, no. As Julian predicted, Carver's mother takes offense. Like, really takes offense. She smacks Julian's mother with both her fist and purse, knocking her down. Julian doesn't expect the violent act, but he still thinks it's all for the best—she learned a lesson, and now she's set up for a big redemptive moment that will change her life forever.
For all his college smarts, Julian doesn't catch on right away to exactly how life-changing this little encounter will be. Mom's blood pressure has skyrocketed. She can't walk, can't talk, and basically seems to be having a stroke. Are we about to see some heroic action from our passive, slightly irritating Julian?
Run, Julian, Run
Uh, no. Again. Julian's mother collapses, asks for her dead husband and her childhood nanny, and Julian runs off in tears, screaming for help. We're left with a sense of dread, knowing that Julian will have learned a lesson in "guilt and sorrow." But we have to wonder—what will Julian feel guilty about? Will he really change as a person? O'Connor doesn't tell us.