On your mark, get set, go! We start with twenty-four-year-old Quentin remembering his hometown of Jefferson. He recalls how the black women would do the white people's laundry. He doesn't point out anything wrong with this sharp racial divide, though. C'mon, Quentin.
Then he focuses on Nancy, the black servant who did his family's laundry. He remembers how she was a prostitute for white men. This, as you can imagine, was a traumatizing experience for poor Nancy. She was beaten by one of her customers. She tried to commit suicide in jail and was beaten there too, and ended up drinking and sleeping too much to blot out the memory of her abusive johns.
She also had a husband named Jesus who seemed prone to getting into fights. One day he threatened to cut off the penis of some white man who'd impregnated Nancy.
Then Quentin recalls a specific day when Nancy was afraid to walk home. Jesus had skipped town, but she'd been told he was back, and she feared he meant to kill her because she was pregnant. Yikes, dude. Quentin, at nine years old, shows a special sensitivity to Nancy's plight, but he doesn't help her despite his discomfort with the situation. As the adult narrator, he chalks up his nine-year-old unease to the fact that their kitchen (where Nancy was worrying about Jesus) was lonely and cold instead of busy and cheerful. He seems uncomfortable with the memory.
His father walks Nancy home, which makes his mother complain. His younger siblings, Caddy and Jason, tag along, Caddy teasing Jason for being afraid to walk the lane to Nancy's house in the dark. That concludes the first section. Pretty simple, right?
Moving right along to the next section. We see Nancy staying at the white family's house overnight, since the mother is too scared to be left alone while her husband walks the servant home. That night, Nancy begins wailing in fear, seemingly detached from reality.
The father, armed with a gun, checks for Jesus, but he's nowhere in sight. The next day, Dilsey, another black servant, tries to help Nancy figure out what to do. Nancy says she is hellborn; she feels doomed to death at the hands of Jesus.
Boom—now we're in the third section. Nancy gets even more frightened and wants to stay in the children's room, but the mother won't have it. So the servant comes up with a new idea: the kids should stay with her, at her house. It's as though she thinks their very whiteness will protect her from Jesus. She promises them fun, and after a little debate, the three kids go with her.
Section four; are you ready for more? (We're poets and we know it.) Nancy tries to keep the children entertained by telling a story and popping popcorn, but the kids are increasingly restless and fearful that their parents are looking for them. Meanwhile, Nancy is acting a wee bit unhinged. She leaves her hand on a hot lamp chimney and in the fire and seems not to notice the pain. The kids are pretty creeped out, and then everyone hears someone coming. Nancy begins wailing. We're worried Jesus is coming to kill them all. That's it for the antepenultimate section. (Vocab time: antepenultimate is a million-point SAT word meaning next to-next to-last.)
The penultimate section (next to last!) reveals that the "someone coming" was the white family's father. He tells Nancy that Jesus is nowhere in sight and suggests she go stay with someone else. The servant insists that would do no good— her death at Jesus' hands belongs to her like a destiny. The father tells the children to come home with him. Good call, Pops.
The adult Quentin goes off on a digression about a Mr. Lovelady who collected black folks' burial insurance. It seems he's increasingly disturbed by remembering Nancy's plight—like maybe he's trying to change the subject in his head.
But then, in the last (ultimate!) section, he narrates how the family returned home. They hear Nancy wailing as they abandon her. The nine-year-old Quentin asks, "Who will do our washing now, Father?" The story ends with his two younger siblings arguing pointlessly over Jason being afraid to walk back in the dark.
Quentin's questioning and Caddy and Jason's arguing seem to be all the inadequate family can do in the face of Nancy's plight. That the adult Quentin ended the story with those two items suggests he's realized how unfair his white family's indifference to Nancy's fate was. We're left hanging as to whether Jesus kills her or not.