Though it is “a Negro yard around a Negro house in a Negro settlement,” which “looked to the payroll of the G. and G. Fertilizer works for its support,” there is something happy about the place—“homey flowers” bloom “cheerily” in the tended yard, the house and fence are whitewashed, and the porch is “scrubbed white.” It’s a Saturday, and the house is drying from its “weekly scouring.” Everything is clean, the yard is raked into a pattern, and fresh newspaper cut into a “fancy edge” lines the kitchen shelves.
From its opening lines, the story revolves around a modest Eatonville household. Although its dependence on an outside company makes its financial security precarious, this is a happy home—lovingly tended, tidy, bright, and cheerful. Even before characters are introduced, their pride and delight in their home are evident.
Missie May is taking a bath in the bedroom. Her dark skin glistens, and her “stiff young breasts thrust forward aggressively.” Before she finishes, she hears men’s voices in the distance and notes that she is running behind time today. She hurriedly gets dressed, but not before hearing “the ring of singing metal on wood” nine times. Although she doesn’t see him “grinning happily at the joyful mischief he was about to commit,” Missie May knows it is her husband, Joe, throwing silver dollars for her to pick up and pile beside her plate—a Saturday afternoon tradition. In the yard, Joe hides behind a bush and waits.
In the midst of this beautiful home, Missie May is introduced. She, too, is attractive—the home environment she creates is a reflection of her beauty. Her delight at the sound of the coins bespeaks the rootedness in custom and routine already established—she is expecting her husband and looking forward to what the coins portend. Joe’s “joyful mischief” further sets the tone of their playful, affectionate marriage. Moreover, money plays a positive role in her life with Joe.
Missie May appears at the door “in mock alarm” and demands to know who has tossed the coins. She begins an elaborate search of the yard, checking the shrubbery, under the porch, and up and down the street. When she spots Joe, she chases him and catches him at the kitchen door, where they engage in a laughing, tussling “rough and tumble.” Joe tries to get away, but not too hard; the two are “a furious mass of male and female energy.” Missie May rifles through Joe’s pockets and produces small gifts, such as her favorite candy kisses, that Joe has hidden for her to find.
Missie May’s mock anger and feigned search suggest a long-established charade. This also introduces the theme of deception, though here it is of a joking sort, founded on the couple’s familiarity and love of one another. The chase and Joe’s pretended resistance are likewise playful, suggesting strong sexual tension. Joe’s pocketed gifts show that he enjoys being able to provide small indulgences for Missie.
As they recover from their play-fight, Missie May urges Joe to bathe and dress as well, teasing him, “Ah’m a real wife, not no dress and breath. . .If you burn me, you won’t git a thing but wife ashes.” While Joe takes his bath, Missie May prepares an abundant dinner, complete with a checked cloth, fresh buttermilk, ham, string beans, and a spicy potato pudding. While the couple shares their meal, they also share “banter that pretended to deny affection but in reality flaunted it” and they jokingly fight for seconds of dessert.
Missie May’s teasing insistence on being a “real wife” both underscores her pride in her role and hints that her authenticity might later be in doubt. She relishes preparing an excellent dinner for herself and Joe, a display of plenty amidst their humble circumstances. Their enjoyment of the meal is marked by deep affection, though, like their earlier play, it is characterized by pretended denials of the same. The warmth of the couple’s bond, filled with well-worn domestic comforts, sets up what is to come.
As they finish their supper, Joe reveals that he is taking Missie May to the town’s newly opened ice cream parlor, and the two discuss its proprietor, a man from Chicago named Otis D. Slemmons. He tells Missie May that he wants her to be one of the first ladies to be served at the parlor. He describes Slemmons as being “of spots and places.” Missie May mentions that she had seen Slemmons pass by and tip his hat to her earlier, and that she did not recognize him, though she noticed his gold teeth. Joe is impressed by Slemmons’ fashionable clothes and heavy-set build, saying that Slemmons looked like a rich white man. Missie May is not impressed with Slemmons’ physical appearance, reassuring Joe that “God…built you noble” and that she is satisfied with him just as he is.
In the midst of such familiar routine, an outsider suddenly appears in the couple’s conversation. Immediately there is a mystique about Otis Slemmons; unlike them, he is not rooted in a particular place. Everything about his “rich man’s” appearance sets him apart from other Eatonville residents and most strikingly from Joe. However, appearances often contrast with reality in Joe and Missie’s interactions, creating an expectation that perhaps Slemmons is not what he seems. Joe and Missie May disagree about Slemmons’ appearance, hinting that Slemmons will be a source of conflict between them in the future. In a world rooted in the familiar, Slemmons represents both the allure and the danger of the unfamiliar.
While the couple cuddles affectionately, Joe describes Slemmons’ gold jewelry and gold teeth—a five-dollar gold piece for a stick-pin and a ten-dollar gold piece on his watch chain—which Slemmons claims were given to him by women in Chicago. Missie May is skeptical of Slemmons’ stories and disappointed in Joe’s gullibility (“he kin lie jes’ lak anybody else,” she retorts), but she agreeably puts on her best clothes so that Joe can show off her beauty at the ice cream parlor. In her absence, Joe affects a paunch and swagger like Slemmons’, but finds that his tall, spare build fits ill with Slemmons’ characteristics.
Joe continues to be hung up on the outward trappings of Slemmons’ wealth and the lifestyle they represent. He insists that Slemmons’ claims about himself are true because they came from Slemmons’ own mouth, revealing Joe’s trusting (gullible?) nature. Moreover, even as Joe and Missie May’s attraction to one another is reaffirmed, Joe appears to feel insecure about Slemmons’ alleged prowess with women, even trying to imitate Slemmons’ build and gait, but failing utterly. Missie May’s skepticism makes her appear the more reasonable of the two when it comes to Slemmons—but are appearances deceiving here as well?
On the way home from the parlor, the couple exchange impressions about Slemmons. Joe delights in the amusing “Chicago talk” Slemmons has taught them. (“Dat wife of yours,” Slemmons tells Joe, “is jes’ thirty-eight and two.”) Missie May, meanwhile, is preoccupied by the gold Slemmons wore. She has never seen gold money before, and she muses about the possibility that they might stumble across misplaced gold, which Joe could then wear. Joe just laughs and says that he is satisfied with what he has, as long as he is Missie May’s husband. The couple then retires for the night.
Joe delights in Slemmons’ sophisticated turns of phrase and in the fact that he finds Missie May attractive. Missie May, however, is much more impressed now that she has laid eyes on Slemmons’ gold pieces. She seems genuinely interested, not in Slemmons per se, but in figuring out some way of obtaining gold for themselves. Joe, for all his outward preoccupation with Slemmons, seems genuinely content with the circumstances of his life, as long as he is married to Missie May.
The couple’s life settles into a happy routine. The best part of Joe’s life is returning home to Missie May at sunrise after his night shift, enjoying their mock battle on Saturdays, visiting the ice cream parlor after dinner, and going to church on Sundays, where Missie May out-dresses the other women in town.
The importance of domestic routine in the Banks’ marriage is reinforced by Joe’s happy reflections on the best parts of his life. The usual sequence of weekend events brings him great satisfaction and seems to reflect the overall health of his relationship with Missie May. Yet showing off his wife’s beauty in public, whether at the ice cream parlor or at church, is a key part of that satisfaction. This suggests an underlying insecurity in Joe.
One night, Joe gets off work early and walks home in the moonlight. The sight of the moon reflected on the lake touches his emotions, making him yearn for Missie May. He reflects that they have been married for more than a year and have money put away, so it is about time to start having children.
Near the climax of the story, the moon’s striking beauty, an unusual sight since Joe typically walks home at sunrise, foreshadows the change about to take place in the couple’s marriage. Joe’s reflections also highlight the healthy role played by both money and sexuality in their relationship—an equilibrium that is about to be disrupted.
Joe slips into the house in hopes of surprising Missie May, but when he knocks something to the floor, he hears a gasp and loud movements in the bedroom. There, he discovers Slemmons frantically getting dressed, and Joe is too stunned to act (“He was assaulted in his weakness. Like Samson awakening after his haircut”). He can only laugh.
Joe’s hopeful expectations are cruelly thwarted. The fact that things are out of place in Missie May’s tidy kitchen suggests the disarray about to befall their marriage. When Joe discovers Missie’s infidelity, he is immobilized by the realization that appearances have proven false. Like the biblical Samson shorn of his source of strength, Joe’s disillusionment leaves him frozen and speechless.
As Missie May sobs, Slemmons pleads for his life, offering sixty-two dollars in gold money. As Slemmons considers escape, Joe just stands laughing, but before Slemmons can attack him, Joe knocks him down with a crushing blow. Furious, Joe knocks Slemmons down again as he finishes dressing. Once the man has fled, Joe finds that he is clutching Slemmons’ golden watch charm in his fist.
Coming from such a mild-mannered man, Joe’s sudden violence is striking. Until this point, sexuality had only been a source of celebration between the couple; Joe’s rage shows how viscerally he feels Slemmons’ intrusion on their bond and on his role as provider. Joe wrenches from him the item that had allured Missie May. The object that had bestowed power and status on Slemmons is now within his grasp.
Missie May continues to weep. Joe is overcome with emotion for a while, then has a good laugh and goes to bed. The couple talks briefly about what has happened, with Missie May lamenting that Joe no longer loves her, and Joe replying that she doesn’t know what his feelings are yet. Missie May says that Slemmons had kept after her with the promise of the gold piece. Finally Joe tells her that she can stop crying, because he has gotten the gold piece for her.
Although Missie May had not shown much interest in Slemmons, she was receptive to his advances when accompanied by promises of money. While she was initially more skeptical, she proved more susceptible to deception in the long run than her husband. Her actions with Slemmons have stripped her marriage of pretense. She and Joe will not be able to fall back on jokes and games.
The couple spends a sleepless night until “the sun’s tide crept upon the shore of night.” As dawn breaks, Missie May finds Joe’s presence and voice “strange” and despairs for her marriage, but when Joe asks for breakfast, she springs out of bed to serve him once more. Filled with gratitude for the request, she goes to the trouble of fixing fresh chicken, rice, and biscuits for him. However, their meal is devoid of the usual banter, and she weeps again when Joe places the yellow coin on the table between them. Joe calmly admonishes her, “Don’t look back lak Lot’s wife and turn to salt.”
A new phase dawns in the Banks’ marriage. Though Joe no longer feels familiar to Missie May, his request for breakfast allows her to resume her comfortable role, showing her gratitude by preparing a special meal for him. However, the disappearance of banter shows that not all is normal. Where Joe’s silver dollars had once lain on the table between them, Joe now places Slemmons’ coin, called merely “yellow” as if to cast doubt on its worth. In another biblical allusion, Joe tells Missie May not to look back with paralyzing regret on actions that cannot be undone.
Time passes, with the sun as “the hero of every day, the impersonal old man that beams as brightly on death as on birth.” Missie May still loves Joe and cannot leave him. The Banks’ marriage remains outwardly intact, but it has changed. Joe is polite but aloof. The Saturday romps, the stack of silver dollars, and the pockets full of gifts are gone. Missie May suspects that Joe carries Slemmons’ gold piece in his pocket, but she cannot bring herself to ask him or to search for it herself.
The sun’s detached steadiness symbolizes the couple’s new normalcy. Outwardly, they persist as they always have, but their routine is devoid of its characteristic joy and liveliness. With the disappearance of the Saturday romps, domestic life, trust, and the healthy role of both money and sexuality are all disrupted. The specter of Slemmons’ gold piece haunts their marriage.
One night, some three months after Missie May’s infidelity with Slemmons, Joe comes home from work with back pain. Missie May rubs him with lineament, and at first it is strange, but by morning, they have slept together again—“youth triumphed.” Missie May is triumphant, but then she discovers Slemmons’ gold piece under her pillow.
Missie May examines the supposed gold piece and discovers that it is only a gilded half dollar; Slemmons had counted on villagers’ inability to discern the difference. Upon reflection, Missie May interprets Joe’s action as an insult—he is treating her like a prostitute and saying that he can pay as well as Slemmons could.
Finally the extent of Slemmons’ deceit—and the emptiness of Missie May’s desire—is revealed when she discovers the low value of the coin. Where once the Banks had all they truly needed, now Missie May’s desire for wealth has reaped betrayal and estrangement. Further, her pride is injured by the cold implications of Joe’s “payment.”
Returning the hated coin to Joe’s pocket, Missie May resolves to leave her husband. Shortly after leaving the house, however, she encounters her mother-in-law. Joe’s mother has “prayed nightly” that their marriage would end, and Missie May cannot admit defeat to her. She decides that Joe must be the one to leave and returns home.
Though Missie May is unwilling to tolerate Joe’s insult, her ultimate loyalty to her marriage is sealed when she refuses to concede defeat to Joe’s mother. This turning point signals the genuine love that still exists between the couple, even though it is not outwardly apparent.
Missie May sees the coin no more. Joe’s health is still poor, and every ten days or so, he comes home asking her to rub him with lineament. Some time later —“the sun swept around the horizon, trailing its robes of weeks and days”—Joe comes home to find Missie May chopping wood. He insists on taking over the task, telling her he isn’t blind—she is obviously pregnant. Missie May tells him that the baby will be a boy and the spitting image of him. He asks her, “You reckon?” She asks him who else the child could look like. He doesn’t reply, but fingers something inside his pocket (the gold piece).
An unspecified amount of time passes, symbolized by the ever-consistent sun. A thaw occurs in Joe and Missie May’s relationship. Joe’s concern for his wife’s wellbeing overrides his implied doubts about the baby’s paternity. Joe makes a point of telling Missie May that he isn’t blind, as if to remind her that he is not naïve. In addition, Joe is still hanging onto the gold piece, showing that Missie May’s act still lies between them. He has not let go of the power that his resentment affords him.
Almost six months later, Missie May goes into labor and gives birth to a healthy boy. Joe comes home from work and asks his mother, who is tending to the household, how his wife managed. His mother praises Missie May’s strength (predicting “she gointer have plenty mo’ [children]”) and informs Joe that the baby is the spitting image of him. She further admits that she had been unhappy about their marriage because of Missie May’s mother’s reputation for promiscuity, and she had feared that Missie May would turn out the same way. Joe doesn’t respond, but checks on his wife’s wellbeing for the next few days.
Though the timing of the child’s conception, and thus its paternity, is left ambiguous, the arrival of the new baby signals a healing phase in the family’s relationship. Missie May’s strength in childbirth, as well as the baby’s resemblance to Joe, wins the respect of her mother-in-law, whose prediction of more children speaks to her newfound confidence in the marriage. Joe bides his time in voicing an opinion, but is clearly concerned for his wife’s welfare.
That Saturday, Joe goes to Orlando to shop for the household staples—something he has not done for a long time. Finally he goes to the candy store and chats with the clerk. Joe accounts for his long absence by saying that he has “been round in spots and places.” He uses Slemmons’ fake gold piece to pay for a large amount of Missie May’s favorite candy kisses. Though the clerk suggests buying a wider selection of candy, Joe insists on spending the gold entirely on candy kisses. He tells the clerk about Slemmons, claiming that unlike others in Eatonville, he had not been fooled by Slemmons’ gold or his charms. He also mentions that he has a baby boy at home now, who might enjoy the chocolate as well.
Joe’s actions speak louder than his words. His long-delayed shopping trip suggests that he is purposefully resuming his old routine. More than that, he also redeems the deceptive “gold” piece by purchasing an abundance of his wife’s favorite treat, simultaneously getting rid of the coin for good. In so doing, he shows his forgiveness of her actions, reaffirms his love, and reasserts his status as the one who can truly provide for her. He describes himself using the same words he had used for Slemmons, suggesting that he had been uprooted and is now back where he belongs. Also, for the first time, he acknowledges the baby boy as his own son. Contrary to his claim, it had seemed as if Joe was taken in by Slemmons’ charms at first, but Slemmons’ deceit has not triumphed; Joe has emerged wiser and stronger in his devotion to Missie May.
Returning home, Joe tosses fifteen coins at his front door. Missie May, still recovering from childbirth, makes her way slowly to the door. She teases Joe that as soon as she regains her strength, she will get him for this. After many months without it, the couple’s game has been restored to its customary place in their routine.
The story ends much as it began, yet the Banks’ marriage has weathered a great deal. Missie May cannot run to the door with carefree exuberance, but when Joe initiates their old game, she still responds with heartfelt, teasing delight. Their love may have lost its newlywed innocence, yet it has been tested and emerged stronger, proving it was not merely“gilded,” but genuine.