In the winter, the temperature in the apartment rises so much because of the family’s lack of control over the heating system that the Riverses feel as though they are inside an oven. In addition, on the weekend, there is nothing to do at Horner except sit around all day or go to the Boys Club. Therefore, LaJoe decides to give her children some entertainment and get them out of this terrible heat. She takes Pharoah, the triplets, and her grandchildren Tyisha, Baldheaded, and Snuggles to downtown Chicago as a Christmas surprise.
The irony that the apartment is too hot in the middle of winter serves as a semi-tragic, semi-comic symbolic depiction of how terribly wrong things can be at Horner. Also, the fact that going to downtown Chicago is such an unusual event highlights how isolated the Rivers family is from the city’s main sights and institutions, and how little the children know about neighborhoods other than their own.
The group takes a bus to the city and the children stare in awe at the high-rise buildings. As the children’s excitement increases, LaJoe begins to feel part of a normal family. When they get out the bus, the children are mesmerized by the large crowds and the activity around them, as well as the passersby’s elegant clothing. Trying to stay together, the children move excitedly from window to window, admiring the Christmas decorations and toys in the stores. They eat at McDonalds, and LaJoe then takes them to have two large bags of popcorn, despite Pharoah’s protestations that she should keep the rest of the money for herself.
To the children, downtown Chicago looks like an entirely different world. Their excitement at these new sights reveals the deep socio-economic inequality between their ordinary reality and that of the wealthy crowds and well-stocked stores they encounter in the city At the same time, Pharoah demonstrates his ability to think as a responsible adult when he worries about LaJoe’s money, thus showing that he is willing to sacrifice his own enjoyment for the well-being of the entire family.
Overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of the city, the children return home on the bus, imitating adults’ way of speaking, concluding that they had a “lovely day.” Even LaJoe laughs at their imitations. When they return to the apartment, however, Lafeyette, seemingly hurt at having been left alone, asks why LaJoe didn’t ask him to come. LaJoe then realizes that she has been used to considering Lafeyette an adult, instead of the thirteen-year-old boy that he is.
LaJoe’s moment of laughter in the bus allows her to forget temporarily about her worries and to rejoice in the young children’s innocent behavior. Lafeyette’s sadness at not enjoying such an activity himself reveals that he, too, prefers behaving as an ordinary child than having an adult role, which the neighborhood so often forces him to adopt.
Days later, the family learns that Terence might be sentenced to ten years in prison. While both Lafeyette and Pharoah are shocked by this news and worry about their brother, they keep their thoughts to themselves, since they do not want to make their mother more nervous than she already is. After wondering why Terence needs to be locked up, Pharoah prefers to insist that he is simply too young to understand what is happening.
Instead of finding comfort in their common worries, the members of the Rivers family prefer to keep to themselves—a generous decision aimed at protecting others, but one that also forces them to handle the weight of sadness and the feeling of injustice on their own. Pharoah’s ultimate solution, as usual, is escapism, as he decides not to grapple with the daunting issue of injustice.
Terence will spend ten years in prison if he agrees to plead guilty. Even though Terence still proclaims his innocence, the situation has become more complicated since he was arrested again for armed robbery while he was out on bond during the summer. After being let out of prison on bond, instead of staying away from illegal activity, Terence felt that the entire justice system had let him down and that, if they were wanted to see him as a criminal even though he proclaimed his innocence, he would give them a real reason to send him to prison. This time, though, Terence’s fingerprints were found at a bar after a robbery, and Terence did not deny his involvement.
Paradoxically, Terence’s feelings of injustice and anger at the law have led him to take part in illegal actions—a behavior that mimics Rickey’s, whose only way to handle the burden of violence is by being violent himself. Both boys’ attitudes seem to indicate a complete lack of trust in the justice system’s ability to determine innocence or guilt, which expresses itself as defiance toward the law—which then results in condemnation, the very issue Terence was upset about.
While this new arrest has upset Audrey Natcone, since she hoped that Terence would stay out of trouble unlike most of her clients. However, she still wants to try to negotiate to get Terence six years instead of ten. Lawyers on both sides would rather enter negotiations than go through a trial because of the large number of cases they are handling, which have increased since the man in charge of prosecutions has been running for mayor and wants to show that he is a strong law-and-order man.
The fact that the increase in cases has political causes and is not directly related to an increase in crime suggests that even the justice system is vulnerable to individuals’ self-interest. Indeed, increasing the number of cases that lawyers have to handle increases the likelihood of error—which, in this field, has serious consequences, as it could mean sending an innocent person to prison for years.