This story focuses on a young woman named Elethia who carries a small jar of ashes around with her wherever she goes.
In Elethia's town, there is a popular restaurant called Old Uncle Albert's. It's owned by the descendant of a local slaveholder.
The restaurant has a bizarre piece of décor in the window: a "stuffed" effigy of Uncle Albert, perhaps made of wax, like those statues at Madame Tussauds.
If you haven't guessed it yet, Uncle Albert was a Black man. In the window version, Uncle Albert is dressed as a server carrying a silver tray.
The older Black people in town have some recollection of Albert Porter, the real Uncle Albert. They think that dummy Albert was lucky to be in a restaurant that wouldn't serve Black people.
But Elethia can't help but wonder about Uncle Albert's amazingly lifelike hair and nails. She works in the kitchen of the restaurant one summer and learns a horrid truth.
Old Uncle Albert is not a dummy. He's the real thing. Someone had gone all taxidermy on the poor man, and there he stands in the window of the restaurant, like a piece of furniture.
Elethia can't take it. She and her friends break into the restaurant one night and steal Uncle Albert.
Elethia and her friends burn Uncle Albert in the high school's incinerator, and each of the three friends keeps a small bottle of his ashes. The experience shakes them and changes them.
Elethia gets jumpy whenever she hears a noise and is always looking over her shoulder. She spends her life checking out museum "dummies," mostly of Native Americans, to figure out if they are real or not.
Elethia realizes that she can't burn all the real ones (there are too many—ugh) and doesn't know what their wishes would be. Elethia burned Albert because she was pretty sure he'd want that for himself.
The narrator tells us a little more about the real Albert Porter, courtesy of the "old folks" who actually knew him.
The old folks remember a time when white men castrated a Black boy and hung his testicles where the Black community could see them.
Albert took the testicles down and buried them. Nobody ever found the rest of the boy's body.
Albert and his parents were slaves. They didn't learn about emancipation for 10 years—the landowner kept them in ignorance and slavery the whole time.
But Albert wouldn't be broken by that, and he paid the price. The master especially hated Albert and would beat him.
Albert wouldn't leave, even when he could, but did his best to wreak havoc on the place. He suffered a lot because of this.
The old people say that they couldn't understand how dummy Albert had a mouth full of teeth—he'd had all of his own teeth knocked out from rough treatment.
Elethia eventually goes to college, and her compadres enlist in the Army. Uncle Albert follows her. She sees him in the textbooks she studies and all over the world. She sees him everywhere, in fact. (Walker says she also sees many Aunt Albertas—not to leave women out of the misery.)
Elethia keeps Albert's ashes and writes down the old-timers' memories of him.
In her mind, Elethia won't allow Uncle Alberts to exist.