It’s the eve of Christmas Eve in Milkman’s 31st year, and he’s at the drugstore picking up last minute Christmas presents.
He’s struggling over what to get Hagar, because, he’s not feeling the whole relationship thing anymore. He wants to get her a present that says, "Thank you very much for sleeping with me for fourteen years, but goodbye."
As he’s checking out the drugstore treasures, he recalls the first time he slept with Hagar.
This is his memory: he is seventeen, a frequent partier (thanks to Guitar), and the supplier of alcohol at many a shindig. He heads over to Pilate’s to procure two bottles of wine. When he arrives, Hagar is watching her mother (Reba) fight with a boyfriend in the backyard.
The boyfriend hits Reba, and Hagar calls for Pilate.
Pilate goes outside, grabs the man from behind, pulls out a knife, and cuts him ever so slightly on the skin right above his heart. In perhaps one of the greatest knife scenes of all time (it puts Kill Bill to shame), Pilate tells the man she’s not going to kill him, to please excuse her fervor, but that she can’t stand to see her baby hurt, just like his mama probably would hate to see him hurt. She makes him agree to leave and to never come back, which he does gladly and promptly.
Reba wants to go to the hospital because she thinks that her ribs are broken, but really she just wants to go to the hospital. Pilate takes her.
Well, Milkman is impressed with a capital I. He wonders at Pilate’s strength, but Hagar tells him women are weak.
They flirt for a little bit. Hagar informs him he’s not her type – he’s too young. She’s waiting for a knight in shining armor.
Just when Milkman gets ready to leave with his two bottles of wine, Hagar invites him into her bedroom and unbuttons her blouse. Thus begins their fourteen-year relationship. This ends Milkman’s memory of his first sexual escapade with Hagar.
He continues to reflect on the path this relationship has taken. For the first three years, Hagar’s love was fickle, unpredictable, and surprising. But then Milkman became more and more confident, more street-wise. Hagar grew more and more dependent upon his love, more boring in her love.
There in the drugstore, Milkman decides that ‘tis far better to give money to a girlfriend of fourteen years than an actual, thoughtful present when breaking up with her.
Along with a wad of cash, he decides to write a little goodbye note. This is how it ends: "Also, I want to thank you. Thank you for all you have meant to me. For making me happy all these years. I am signing this letter with love, of course, but more than that, with gratitude" (1.4.99).
When Hagar gets this note it slices her deep, sends her spinning. She hunts Milkman in the streets.
Later on, Milkman is counting cash in his father’s office. A recent murder is on his mind. A sixteen-year-old white schoolboy was strangled to death on his way home from school and his head was smashed in. The authorities say that the way in which he was killed was similar to the way in which a schoolboy had been killed in 1953 and the way in which four grown men had been killed in 1955.
In the barbershop, Milkman finds everyone laughing and suspecting that Winnie Ruth Judd is on the loose. Winnie Ruth Judd is a white murderess who was jailed in 1932, but who escapes once or twice every year. Whenever a white person is murdered for no good reason, everyone suspects that Winnie is on the loose.
The barbershop congregants believe firmly in "white madness," or the killing out of lunacy rather than purpose. They believe that people in the black community only kill another of their race for good reasons like adultery, theft, or insult, and then only kill when compelled by passion in the heat of moment.
Though everyone is laughing about Winnie’s latest strike, the barbershop air is tense. A witness saw a black man near the scene of the crime. An unspoken understanding moves between these men as each one knows he could be a suspect in the murder, for no good reason other than the color of his skin.
As they discuss the murder, Milkman is uneasy. The men discuss details that the news reports have not released, like the fact that the schoolboy was wearing saddle shoes. He begins to wonder whether one of these men knows the murderer or knows something that he doesn’t know.
Milkman and Guitar head out, and Milkman wonders about the saddle shoes aloud. Guitar doesn’t engage in conversation. Milkman gets mad at him. Guitar tells him they are two different people with two different perspectives.
They fight. It’s one of those monumental fights in a friendship that shake things up. Milkman tells Guitar that he doesn’t know who he (Guitar) is, and, therefore, can’t speculate as to what he is or is not interested in.
Guitar begs to differ. He tells him he knows his friend can spend most of his brainpower on picking up girls and socializing at Honoré Island with his "high-toned" friends.
Milkman reminds him he’s never excluded his friend. Guitar expresses his hatred for the island. He tells Milkman that he’s not a serious man. Defensive, Milkman feels his whole world is encircled with seriousness.
To illustrate this, Milkman relates a dream about the seriousness of his mother. Well, at least he tells Milkman it’s a dream, but it actually happened. We’re not quite sure what this means, because it’s a pretty wild dream.
This is Milkman’s dream: Ruth is gardening in the middle of December, making holes in the ground for what look like small onions. As she’s gardening, tulips start sprouting. They grow rapidly, becoming bright, blood-red heads. They continue to grow until they’re shoulder-height. Ruth is oblivious at first, then she playfully swats them away, as anybody would do when attacked by man-eating tulips. They grow and grow, and all Milkman can see is her arms flailing. Eventually they cover her and smother her. This ends Milkman’s dream.
After listening intently, Guitar asks his friend why he didn’t go help his mother in the dream.
Milkman, defensive once again, asks Guitar why he’s being so hard on him, so picky, and wonders why everyone is being so difficult.
Guitar observes that everyone seems to be going in the opposite direction as Milkman. Milkman remembers that time he was walking down the street and everyone was going the opposite way, pushing past him. He tells Guitar he’s going in search of the party. Guitar wishes him a Merry Christmas and disappears before Milkman can ask where’s he’s going. And so ends the friends’ quarrel.
This interaction confuses Milkman. His friend is growing distant, no longer likes to chitchat about weed or about girls. He finds that he constantly has to defend his lifestyle, his interests. He has interests other than his high-toned friends and girls, right?
Milkman ruminates for a little bit. He doesn’t like the real estate business. He begins to think Guitar has a point about his aimless life.
Guitar has made him think about his life and where he’s going. The obvious path of marrying, settling down, and going into partnership isn’t appetizing. But at the same time, he doesn’t care about the barbershop politics, the "racial problems" that fill Guitar’s days. He wonders where the men would be without these politics to debate.
Somebody knocks on the window. Freddie has come for a cup of coffee, which Milkman makes, adding a dash of whiskey (which he keeps in the toilet).
We hear about Freddie’s past. He was orphaned when his mother was killed by ghost. No one would take him in as a result.
This is his story: his mother was walking across a yard with a friend when they saw a woman walking toward them. As the woman got closer she turned into a white bull, and Freddie’s mother collapsed and went into labor right then and there. When he was born, she screamed and died on the spot. That ends the story of Freddie’s birth.
Milkman laughs long and loud at this story, but Freddie warns him that strange things go on all the time. He insinuates that the murderer of the recently slain schoolboy matches Empire State, the barbershop janitor, and that Guitar has been helping to hide him.
Freddie tells Milkman to keep his eyes open and, as he’s leaving, he tells him to ask his sister, Corinthians, to fill him in on what’s been going on. Milkman is thoroughly confused, and Freddie drank all his whiskey.