Francie eagerly awaits her first day of school. She is lonely and wants the companionship of other children. Before school, she has to get a smallpox vaccination. Some foreign parents refuse to permit their children to be vaccinated and those children are not permitted into school. Then, the law goes after them for keeping the children out of school. Francie is now seven and Neeley is six. On a Saturday in August, she instructs them to wash themselves and then go to the clinic at 11:00 AM. Katie cannot go with them because she has to work and Johnny is at Union Headquarters, waiting for another job. Neeley is terrified and begins wailing. Francie consoles him. Part of Katie’s reason for not wanting to go is that she can’t stand the idea of Neeley being hurt, not even by a pinprick.
Francie, despite her terrible experience with the teacher’s pet, still looks forward to going school and finding the company that she can’t get from Katie’s nightly readings or her family. Due to the absence of their parents, Francie has to take on a sort of maternal role and comfort her brother. Katie’s immense love for Neeley makes it difficult for her to see him wounded, so she leaves Francie with the task of taking him to the clinic.
Francie and Neeley spend the morning making mud pies and nearly forget about the time until their neighbor, Mrs. Gaddis, yells down that Katie asked her to remind them of when it was nearly 11:00. They go around the corner to the clinic and take their places on a bench. Mothers sit with their children. When it is Francie’s turn, she goes into the examination room trembling. She has never seen a doctor or a nurse before. The sight of the “shiny cruel instruments” and “the smell of antiseptics” fills her “with tongue-tied fright.”
The children’s playful making of the mud pies contrasts with the severe and sterile environment of the clinic. The existence of the children’s dirt in this environment, along with the absence of their mother, foreshadows a scene in which Francie will experience some surprise or harm. This is aided by the fact that she has never before met a doctor or nurse.
The nurse pulls up Francie’s sleeve and swabs her arm. The doctor makes his way toward her, with the needle poised. He stares at her arm in disgust and calls her filthy. He refers to how the poor generally do not wash, though water is free and soap is cheap. The doctor is a Harvard man who is required to put in a few hours at a free clinic once a week. He plans to go into “a smart practice in Boston” after he completes his internship. The nurse is the daughter of poor Polish immigrants who worked in a sweatshop during the day and attended school at night. She agrees with the doctor, who goes on to talk about how such people should be sterilized.
The doctor’s snobby attitude prevents him from adhering properly to his oath as a doctor—to do no harm. Though he treats Francie, he deeply wounds her self-esteem by saying that, because she is poor, she is unworthy of living. His tirade refers to the development of eugenics during the era, which sought not only to introduce birth control, but also to prevent or curb reproduction among certain populations.
When the needle goes into Francie’s arm, she doesn’t feel it. She is too hurt by the doctor’s words. While the nurse ties a strip of gauze to her arm, she speaks up and says that Neeley is coming in next, and that they shouldn’t be surprised to see that his arm will be as dirty as hers. She also says that they needn’t tell him, for they have already told her. She turns, stumbles a little, and walks out of the room. The doctor registers mild surprise that she understood him, then sighs in resignation.
Francie resists the doctor through her speech, proving that she isn’t what he thinks she is. Francie’s speech in defense of herself contrasts with the nurse’s complicit silence. The nurse is silent because she doesn’t want to implicate herself in Francie’s poverty, though she came from a similar upbringing.
That night, Francie comes down with a fever and gets an itch in the place where she was vaccinated. Katie warns her not to scratch it, then the site of the injection swells and turns both dark-green and yellowish. Her mother accuses her of scratching. Johnny comes home and assures Francie that she is fine and that, when he was vaccinated, it was “twice as swollen and red, white, and blue.” He pours water into a basin and adds a few drops of carbolic acid. He washes the sore. The acid stings, but he assures her that the stinging means curing. He bandages her arm with his undershirt. He sends Francie to bed and, in the morning, the throbbing stops. In a few days, the arm is normal again.
Katie’s lack of sympathy for Francie’s infection contrasts with her inability to withstand the prospect of Neeley getting a shot. Johnny attends to Francie, though he does so with his home remedy—carbolic acid. The compound is highly toxic and should not be applied to the skin. Johnny, of course, doesn’t know this and he’ll use it again, as a palliative, after Francie’s sexual assault.
Johnny smokes another cigar and then gets in bed next to Katie, who is already asleep. In one of her rare impulses of affection, she throws her arm across Johnny’s chest. He gently removes it and edges as far away from her as he can, placing himself against the wall. He folds his hands under his head and stares into the darkness for the rest of the night.
Johnny’s reaction to his wife suggests the distance that has grown between them. Though Katie is less patient with Johnny, it remains unclear, until this scene, if he’s still in love with her. It seems that he no longer feels much affection for her.