Helen Givings and her husband Howard live in one of the few preserved pre-Revolutionary houses in the area. Helen has a passion for renovation: she has bought and then renovated six homes, reselling them for a profit and then moving. On the day of her planned visit to the Wheelers, Helen had been to visit her son John’s doctor at Greenacres. She finds it horrible there: the psychiatrist is undignified, overworked, poorly dressed, and seems to hardly know anything about her son.
Helen is a character nostalgic for a more genteel past (or her idea of the past as genteel), as shown by her settling down in a house built before the American Revolution, when America was a colony ruled by a king. She looks back on a time with firmer divisions between rich and poor and thinks that her life would have been more beautiful and less troubled then.
Helen is relieved to get home, because, after so many years constantly moving, she loves her current home, which reminds her of her affluent childhood home. She feels that her ability to love the house and feel settled there is a sign of a positive change to her personality, an overdue maturation into womanhood that coincides with her going through menopause. For years, Howard asked her to quit working as a secretary, saying they didn’t need the money, but she insisted that she loved it. She couldn’t explain this to Howard, but what she loved was the hard work, which gave her an outlet away from marriage and motherhood. The transition to become a real-estate broker had been difficult for her, because there hadn’t been enough work to do initially, but then she had discovered that renovating houses could be an outlet for her energy.
Helen is an anxious person, but she has found that she can stave off unhappiness by keeping busy. Although the novel never shows Helen and Howard fighting, it emphasizes that their marriage has been a difficult one. This is part of the reason why Helen has seen it as particularly necessary for to work so much. She knows that she needs the outlet work provides to avoid becoming depressed or fighting with Howard. Renovating houses allows her to have a more creative and fulfilling outlet than being a secretary had, because Helen feels that her good taste is improving her surroundings.
Helen serves Howard tea. He has his hearing aid off, and although Helen talks to him about her plans for that night, he hardly listens, even after turning his hearing aid on. He is a fat, frail man, who looks older than his sixty-seven years. Helen thinks ahead to the evening, when she will ask the Wheelers if she can bring John to visit them. The idea came to her like a vision, and she can picture perfectly how her son will get along with the Wheelers. Recently, she and Howard had taken John for a drive during their visits, and today she had told John’s doctor about her plan. She practices what she will say to the Wheelers as she readies herself.
Helen seems to get little companionship or moral support from Howard, who has very little energy. Meanwhile he seems to cope with the differences between himself and his wife by engaging with her as little as possible. Helen is used to this and makes plans largely on her own. In this case, she thinks that the Wheelers are the kind of interesting, intellectual, high-class people who her mentally ill son could benefit by meeting.
But at the Wheelers’ house, Helen is surprised to see that the Wheelers are uncharacteristically calm, and seem perfectly content in one another’s company. When Helen brings up John, she can see by a slight movement in their faces that they know about John’s hospitalization. In a panic, she finishes asking them if she can bring him to visit the Wheelers. April says they would love to meet him, and suggests that he come next Sunday. As Helen is making excuses to leave, feeling awkward, Frank says that he needs to tell her some important news.
Usually the Wheelers seem disorganized and out of sync with one another, which puts Helen at her ease. Without knowing why they seem changed, Helen registers the alteration in their behavior. Their calm, collected demeanor likely makes her feel even more self-conscious to discover that they already know about John’s hospitalization. She can imagine that she has been the object of gossip around the community.
Back at her home, Helen eagerly tells Howard the astonishing news that the Wheelers will be moving to Europe. She says it seems very irresponsible of them, because they aren’t well-off and Frank doesn’t have a job in Europe. She continues, saying that there is no point in introducing them to John now, since she wants him to make permanent friends. Howard seems hardly to follow her logic as she frantically pours out her anxious thoughts. Helen goes upstairs to change and, seeing herself in the hallway mirror, feels comforted because she looks young and spry. But taking off her shoes, her ugly, old feet shock her. She silently weeps out of disappointment with the Wheelers, her marriage, her child, and all the sorrows of her fifty-six-year life. She goes back downstairs, cheerful again, and continues to talk to Howard, who nods and comments, although he has already turned his hearing aid off.
Helen has been building up her hopes that meeting the Wheelers will help John to make “normal” friends and move towards reentering society and leaving the hospital. Howard has understood little about this plan, so now Helen must bear her disappointment alone. In light of this disappointment, all the other demons that Helen keeps at bay with her proactive and energetic attitude come rushing into her thoughts. She has a total breakdown, but then quickly regains her composure. In the depressing close to the chapter she then pretends her usual cheerfulness to Howard, while he pretends to be listening, but is actually ignoring her.