It is Christmas, and Milkman is consumed with boredom. His mother is obsessing over Christmas decorations, even though they’re exactly the same as they always are, and his father, as usual, gives everyone money instead of presents. Milkman quickly buys presents for his family, but isn’t sure what to get Hagar. It’s been more than 12 years since he began his relationship with her, and he’s beginning to tire of her. She is the “third beer,” the drink one drinks simply because it’s there. He looks for a gift for her, but plans to end their relationship before the end of the year.
Once again, Morrison jumps ahead a number of years. She signals this in a number of ways: she explicitly tells us how many years have passed, but more subtly, she shows how Milkman’s thinking has changed. As a younger man, Milkman was more confused about women and his own place in town — now Milkman is more rigid and blunt in his thinking: dismissing a woman as a “third beer” sounds like the kind of thing his father would say. This indicates how important Macon’s story about Ruth’s possible incest has been to Milkman: it’s made Milkman uncomfortable around women, a little afraid of them, and therefore self-protectively condescending and dismissive.
As Milkman shops, he remembers his relationship with Hagar. They first met when he was 12 and she was 17, and he loved her immediately. As he grew older, he continued to feel this way, and once, when he was 17, he visits the wine house when Reba is arguing with her boyfriend, who starts hitting her. As Milkman watches, Pilate takes a knife and gives the man a shallow wound near his heart. Still holding the knife inside the man, Pilate warns him to leave her daughter alone, and man, in immense pain, leaves after promising never to touch her again.
Milkman thinks back to his childhood, when he met Hagar. The fact that he’s thinking of the past at all it significant: it shows that he’s grown into a man, and it also echoes Macon’s thoughts in the first chapter, suggesting that Milkman is becoming more and more like his father. Meanwhile, Pilate shows that she’s tougher than she might seem: she can do stereotypically “masculine things” without being brutal or bloodthirsty. Her actions are just as effective, but do not end in vengeance.
Afterwards, Milkman talks with Hagar about Pilate’s impressive display of toughness, and tells her that he’s waiting to marry her. Hagar is skeptical, and tells him that she doesn’t love him. Milkman responds that she’s naïve to wait for love. Hagar leads Milkman into her bedroom and removes her blouse; the narrator implies that they make love.
Milkman doesn’t protect Reba himself — in this memory, he’s not the brave, slightly reckless man who pushes Macon against the radiator. But even as a young, innocent man, he’s unwilling to believe in love.
Milkman and Hagar then began semi-secret relationship. They go through periods when they don’t see each other for months, and then see each other every day. Over that time, Milkman begins to care less and less for her, while she thinks she is in a serious relationship with him. He is now 31 and she is 36. Milkman tries to think of a way to end his relationship with Hagar. He will remind her that they’re cousins, he thinks, and give her money instead of a present. He writes Hagar a letter in which he coldly thanks her.
Milkman shows signs that he’s becoming — or has become — as cold and insensitive as his own father. He comes to see his relationship in financial terms, and thinks he can “buy” Hagar out of the relationship (in a kind of parallel to the way that the white sawmill owner tried to “buy” Guitar by giving him candy after his father’s death). And yet at heart all of Milkman’s absurdly cold ideas about how to end the relationship show his inability to actually talk about or confront feelings, or even to feel love.
Milkman sits at his father’s desk and thinks about a white teenager who was recently killed by being strangled to death and then having his head bashed in. In Tommy’s Barbershop, those old enough to remember joke that Winnie Ruth Judd, a criminally insane white woman who committed multiple murders in the early 1930s and then kept escaping from the insane asylum to which she was committed has struck again. Everyone agrees that a white person must have committed the crime, because Black people kill for clearer-cut reasons: adultery, impoliteness, rudeness, etc., or they kill in the heat of the moment. Bizarre murders like Judd’s are merely amusing to the barbershop’s inhabitants, unless the victims are Black.
Again this is a scene that Morrison jumps into, the significance of which will become more clear as the novel continues. The distinction that the Black characters draw here between “white crime” and “black crime,” with “black crime” perceived as somehow more normal seems dubious at best. Also note the difference in the way the people in the barbershop respond to this murder of a white teenager to the earlier murder of Emmett Till. The suggestion is that the racism that the Black characters have experienced has made them cold to the deaths of all people who are not Black.
Police officers, however, suspect a Black man of committing the murders, which worries Railroad Tommy and Hospital Tommy. Hospital Tommy remembers killing people in “the war.” Beneath the jokes, Milkman realizes, the Black men in the barbershop are worried for their safety, since they know they could be arrested for the murders, even if they have perfect alibis. Milkman also notices that the two Tommys mention details of the crimes — a mention of saddle shoes — that suggest that someone they know had detailed knowledge of them.
The anxiety that the men feel attests to the institutional racism that they have experienced throughout their lives. At the same time, Milkman’s attention to the details of what the Tommys say shows that he’s learned well from Pilate, and notices people’s choice of words. It also suggests that perhaps what is going on in the barbershop is not entirely what it seems.
As the Tommys are closing up their shop, Milkman asks them about their mention of saddle shoes. Guitar, who is still standing in the shop, tells Milkman that there’s information he doesn’t need to know. This infuriates Milkman, who accuses Guitar of treating him like a child. Guitar reminds Milkman that they’ve been friends for a long time, even though Milkman’s father unsympathetically kept Guitar’s family poor. Milkman reminds Guitar that he’s invited him to come to Honoré, where his family owns beach houses. Guitar angrily calls Milkman rich and entitled, claiming that he has no concerns other than women and vacationing.
Milkman begins to feel distant from his best friend, Guitar, as well as his family and lover. We don’t entirely understand what makes Guitar tick, and neither does Milkman — we’ve been given hints that he despises white people, to an even greater degree than other people in town, but it’s not clear if he’s capable of murder. In any case, Guitar shows that he’s willing to stick with Milkman and, unlike Feather, overlook his father’s cruelty.
Almost involuntarily, Milkman begins to describe “a dream” he’d had about his mother, in which he watched her digging holes in the ground to plant flowers. The flowers grow so quickly that soon they’re taller than she is. Milkman senses that Ruth is in danger: she won’t be able to breathe. Guitar asks Milkman why he didn’t help his mother in the dream, but Milkman can only answer that it looked like Ruth was enjoying herself. For reasons he can’t fully explain, Milkman then remembers the evening when he walked alone after hitting his father, with everyone else walking in the opposite direction. Guitar wishes Milkman merry Christmas and departs.
Milkman’s dream, like Guitar’s anecdote about the doe, clearly symbolizes something, but it’s hard to say exactly what it symbolizes — this is precisely Morrison’s point. As her characters get older and their thoughts get more complicated, symbolism breaks down into ambiguity. Even if this is the case, it’s clear that Milkman is concerned that his mother is “suffocating” in her husband’s presence, insofar as Macon is restricting her freedom.
Milkman thinks that Guitar no longer enjoys music or drinking; the only things he likes anymore are sports and politics. He also thinks that Guitar may have been right to suggest that his life is dull, nothing but sex and visits to Honoré. Finally, Milkman thinks that Guitar should get married and that perhaps he should, too. The racial and political problems that Guitar is fond of talking about bore Milkman.
Milkman’s friendship with Guitar seems to be breaking down. In part, this is because Guitar is more political than Milkman. Milkman, who is already well off, seems satisfied to settle down and inherit his father’s business, even if he is not necessarily happy. Guitar does not have Milkman’s wealth, and so it is not that surprising that he would be more political as he has a more personal motivation to change the status quo and fight racism.
Milkman then notices Freddie, who is looking for a warm spot in the middle of his work errands and Christmas shopping, and offers him coffee. He asks Freddie how long he’s lived in town. Freddie says that he was born in Jacksonville, Florida, where there was never even an orphanage for Black babies, and adds that ghosts killed his mother: his mother went into labor pains immediately after seeing a “white bull” – a white cop – and died immediately after giving birth to him and looking at him. He adds that his father had died two months previously.
In the past, Freddie has been a nuisance, spreading gossip about Ruth and getting his facts wrong about Porter. Here, though, he seems more serious and thoughtful. Freddie blames white people for his mother’s death, but he also blames himself (indeed, it’s not clear what killed his mother: fear of the police, or childbirth). This helps to explain why Freddie is less forgiving of the Black man who whistled at a white woman — he has considerable experience for blaming himself for white racism and oppression.
Milkman laughs, and Freddie is surprised that Milkman doesn’t believe him. He then advises Milkman to ask Guitar why he’s spending time with Empire State, a mentally unstable janitor, and hints that Guitar knows about the strange murders that have occurred lately. Freddie tells Milkman that the description of the man who fled the scene of the murders matches a description of Empire State. Several years ago, Freddie recalls, a Black man was killed, and a white man was murdered shortly after that — it’s possible that Empire State was the killer. Milkman doesn’t take Freddie seriously, thinking that Freddie is angry at him for laughing at his story.
Milkman may not take Freddie seriously, but we do — we know that Guitar is political in his thinking, energetic in his hatred of racist white people, and potentially capable of taking revenge on them. Freddie’s story here establishes the idea that members of the Black community have been carrying out eye-for-an-eye killings of white people. Milkman, insulated as he is, doesn’t even consider the possibility of such actions being true.
Freddie remembers the insurance man who jumped off the roof, and remembers Milkman as a baby, without explaining what has reminded him of either thing. He gives Milkman one final hint: he should talk to Corinthians about what’s been going on. With this advice, he wishes Milkman a Merry Christmas and leaves.
With Freddie’s parting words, we’re reminded of how little we know about the town, and about the character’s we’ve met so far. It’s not clear, for instance, why Smith killed himself, just as it’s not clear what Corinthians knows. But in this uncertainty Morrison continues to slowly connect the various events of the novel, here connecting Smith and Corinthians, at least tangentially, to the murders.