When Francie tells her mother about her sex curiosity, Katie tells her, “simply and plainly,” all that she knows. As a result, Francie never learns things in “a distorted way.” While normal sex is never discussed, criminal sex is “an open book.” The prowling sex fiend is the fear of all parents and there is one on the loose in the year that Francie is to turn fourteen. He kills a seven-year-old girl. Fear sweeps the neighborhood. Children are kept behind locked doors. The police question the girl’s brother, who is so nervous when he answers, that they arrest him on suspicion. Sergeant McShane, however, only does this to throw off the killer, awaiting him to strike again. This time, the police will be waiting for him.
Though Katie doesn’t want Francie to have sex, she also doesn’t want her to be misinformed by learning about it from other children or, worse, from sexual predators. The discussion of “criminal sex” and the avoidance of discussing “normal sex,” teaches children that sexuality is a thing to fear and avoid, which is the feeling that their parents intend to instill. However, there’s also an attitude of shame toward assault victims that prevents people from reporting predators.
Johnny goes to his friend, Burt, who works as a night watchman at the corner bank and asks to borrow his gun. Johnny asks for this favor due to his willingness to watch the bank while Burt goes home to check on his young wife, whom he constantly suspects of infidelity. Initially, Burt protests, saying that Johnny’s request violates the Sullivan Law—Johnny has no permit. Johnny reminds him that it is also illegal for him to be guarding the bank while Burt goes home. Burt agrees to lend it and teaches Johnny how to use it by pointing at him. Johnny takes the gun and points it to Burt who tells Johnny that the gun is loaded and he should be careful. Johnny notes how they may have accidentally killed each other.
Burt’s obsession with his young wife’s sexuality and the possibility of her cheating reflects the neighborhood’s fears around normal sex. Burt has chosen a young wife, probably thinking that she would be easier to control, but he doesn’t trust her. His unwillingness to marry a woman closer to his own age reflects a tendency among many men to obsess over younger women and girls. Burt’s obsession with youth parallels that of Carney, though it causes him more anxiety.
When Johnny takes the gun home, he tells Francie and Neeley not to touch it. Francie thinks that the revolver looks “like a grotesque beckoning finger.” Johnny keeps the gun under his pillow for a month and never touches it. One afternoon, Katie is cleaning in the halls of a house that is not her own. She wonders if she should wait in the hallway at home for Francie to come home from school. She looks up and down the street and grows uneasy when she doesn’t see Francie. She goes back home for a cup of coffee and then heads back to work. Francie gets home at her usual time and begins to climb the stairs when she sees a man step from a small recess from beneath the stairs, leading to the cellar. The man comes toward her with his lower garments opened. Francie sees his penis and thinks of how “wormy white” it looks.
Francie’s vision of the gun foreshadows the assault that will require her mother to use it to protect Francie. Smith builds suspense in the scene by having the child molester emerge from beneath the stairs, like a household pest or a character from a supernatural pulp story that Francie might read. When the predator comes toward her, he gives Francie her first look at a penis. Francie’s description reflects her revulsion. The description also coincides somewhat with the earlier description of the gun. Guns, too, are often regarded as phallic symbols.
At this moment, Katie is coming down the stairs quietly. She sees a man coming at Francie, who is frozen to the banister. Katie makes no sound and no one sees her. She goes back up the stairs and gets the gun from under the pillow. She puts the gun under her apron and holds it with both hands to keep it steady. She runs back down the stairs. At this point, the child molester grabs Francie and claps a hand over her mouth. Francie hears a sound. She looks up and sees her mother running down the stairs. There is then a loud explosion and the smell of the cloth that has burned through Katie’s apron. The child molester holds his stomach and falls backward. Women scream and doors bang open.
In keeping with the idea of guns as phallic symbols or emblems of power and agency, Katie’s act of placing the gun under her apron corresponds with the child molester’s exposure of his penis. It isn’t clear why Katie conceals the gun, given that there’s no one else around when she shoots. Smith seems to want to draw a contrast between what people conceal from view in order to protect others. Katie has done her best to protect from sexual vulnerability, but the child molester’s exposure makes that impossible.
Katie grabs Francie’s hand to pull her upstairs but Francie remains frozen. Katie hits her wrist with the butt of the gun, releasing her fingers, and pulls Francie upstairs. Neighbors ask what’s wrong and Katie assures them that everything is fine now. Francie keeps stumbling and falling to her knees, requiring Katie to drag her down the hall. When they get to their apartment, Katie puts the chain bolt on the door and sets the gun down. She then asks if the man hurt Francie. Francie indicates that his penis touched her leg. She says that she can still feel it and wants her leg cut off. People pound on their door, but Katie ignores them. She gives Francie a cup of scalding coffee and paces while she thinks of what to do next.
Francie is traumatized and can’t move as a result. When Katie asks if the man “hurt” Francie, “hurt” serves as a euphemism for rape. For Francie, the hurt isn’t physical (the narrative tells us that Katie sees nothing when she looks at the spot that Francie points to on her leg), it’s psychological. The feeling on her leg is symbolic of the lingering memory of sexual assault. Katie gives Francie a “scalding” cup of coffee as though to replace one sensation with another.
Neeley is in the street when he hears the shot. He goes home and hears people mentioning Francie’s name. He goes to his door and pounds on it, demanding to be let in. When he sees Francie lying on the couch, he starts bawling. Katie tells him to stop and go to get his father. Neeley finds Johnny at McGarrity’s. When he hears Neeley’s story, he drops his glass and runs out with him. When he gets home, Johnny goes to Francie and picks her up in his arms, despite how big she is. When she continues to complain about her leg, he agrees to “fix” it with carbolic acid. Francie welcomes the burning, which she thinks has cleansed her of the man’s evil.
While Katie possesses the inner strength, or “invisible steel,” to protect Francie from the child molester from the child molester, she lacks Johnny’s ability to nurture Francie in a way to help her feel better. Their responses to Francie’s attack reveal how Katie and Johnny exhibit parental roles that don’t generally correspond to their genders.
The police knock at the door. Katie lets them in, along with an intern who performs an examination. After confirming that Francie was not raped, he sees the marks on her wrist and leg and Katie explains the causes. The intern marvels at how Francie’s parents did more damage to her than the child molester. He smooths down Francie’s dress, pats her cheek, and gives her a shot to put her to sleep. He tells her that, when she wakes up, she’s to remember everything as a bad dream. Francie immediately falls asleep.
It’s important that the doctor performs the physical examination without asking Francie what happened to her. One could read this as another form of violation. The intern is right to say that neither of Francie’s parents knows how to handle her abuse, but he doesn’t help matters by encouraging her to pretend it didn’t happen at all.
The cop turns to Johnny and asks him where he keeps the gun. He tells him about the hiding place under the pillow. When Katie goes to get it, she forgets that she threw it into the washtub. She gets it out. The cop asks if Johnny has a permit and Johnny says he doesn’t. Johnny says that he found it in the gutter. The cop doesn’t believe the story but agrees to commit it to the record. The ambulance driver hollers from the hall that he is back from the hospital and asks if the doctor is ready to leave. Katie asks if she killed the child molester. The doctor says that she didn’t, but he’ll soon be back on his feet so that he can walk to the electric chair. Katie is sorry that she didn’t kill him. The cop then says that he got a statement from the child molester before he passed out, confessing to the murder of the seven-year-old girl.
The cop agrees to go along with Johnny’s story as a favor to the family for catching a wanted murderer and child molester. Katie’s regret over not killing the child molester contrasts with her Catholic faith, and it also reveals her fierce sense of protectiveness over her children. It doesn’t matter to her that he’ll eventually face the death penalty; she wanted the satisfaction of destroying someone who attempted to destroy Francie. The positive outcome of her not killing him is that the case regarding the seven-year-old girl is solved.
When Francie wakes up the next morning, Johnny is there to tell her it was all a dream. As time passes, it seems to have been just that. The hearing in court seems like she is playing a part in “an unreal play” with only a few lines. Katie testifies about what happened and is not arrested for shooting the child molester. In fact, the judge shakes hands with her. Eventually, the whole affair fades into the background. Johnny is fined five dollars for firing a gun without a permit and Burt’s wife eventually leaves him for an Italian man closer to her own age.
The tactic of telling Francie that her sexual assault was a dream is an attempt to suppress the memory to the point that it’ll simply go away. In Francie’s case, she’s able to separate herself from what happened to her, as though it were all make-believe; and this becomes her method of coping with her trauma. The family never discusses the incident again.
Sergeant McShane comes around some days later, looking for Katie. He hands her an envelope of money from a collection that was taken up at the police station to thank her for catching the child molester. Katie refuses the money. Quietly, she wonders if McShane will ever have the happiness he deserves. Meanwhile, he thinks of how Johnny won’t last much longer, with the way he drinks. He thinks of how Katie will one day be his wife. He’s waited long enough for happiness, due to his wife Molly’s illness. He wouldn’t mind waiting a bit longer.
Both Katie and Sergeant McShane hold on to the dream of better futures for themselves. Katie, even in her own mind, feels too guilty to admit to herself directly that she would prefer to be McShane’s wife. Her religious faith would equate this with adultery. Furthermore, she thinks that her constant willingness to endure personal sacrifice gives her life meaning.