A twenty-seven-year-old woman named ‘Mavis’ is being interviewed by a journalist from the local paper about the recent accidental deaths of her twin infants, Merle and Pearl. She had left them inside the car - a distinctive mint green Cadillac - on a hot day while she ran into the store to buy wieners for dinner. Mavis senses that the journalist, though polite, is more interested in gawking than sympathizing. Likewise, she feels that though the neighbors offered the appropriate condolences, they were secretly “pleased when the babies smothered” (21). Nervous, Mavis senses aggression and indifference from her children, particularly her eldest daughter Sal, who pinches her in the side during the interview. The journalist is suspicious of the story Mavis tries to tell: she does not seem to believe the babies could have suffocated in five minutes, the amount of time Mavis claims to have left them, and asks why Mavis would need to run out unexpectedly for meat if her husband comes home for dinner every day. Mavis pretends that this is true, though internally she wonders “what that would be like: to have a husband who came home every day. For anything” (24).
The reason Mavis believes the neighbors were pleased to see the babies go is because she knows they do not approve of the way her family lives. The man she lives with, Frank, does not seem to be her first husband or the mother of all her children. Frank’s Cadillac is notorious in the neighborhood because its luxury is far beyond their means. He bought it even though they have no window screens or a working television. When Mavis drove her children in it, the women of the neighborhood would “flat-out [stare] before shaking their heads” (28).
That night, after the interview, Sal plays with Frank’s old shaving razor over dinner. In bed, Frank forces sex on Mavis, something that seems to happen often. Filled with fear, Mavis is certain that Frank and her children are plotting against her. She decides that she must escape immediately in the window between night and dawn, when “the trap would be agreed upon but maybe not laid yet” (26). When light breaks, she creeps tremulously to the front door, only stopping to grab her purse with the spare car keys inside. She drives first to Peg’s house, a woman she liked but with whom Frank had prevented her from becoming friends. She knows Frank will be furious that she has taken the Cadillac, and realizes it is a terrible idea to idle in the neighborhood in such a recognizable car. She decides to drive to her mother’s in Paterson, New Jersey, though the Cadillac drinks a lot of gasoline and she only has thirty dollars in her purse. She learns from her mother when she arrives that Frank called that morning.
Mavis’ mother, Birdie, gives her food to eat and tells her that anyone could have seen this situation coming. Birdie consoles Mavis to an extent, but also tells her that her children need a mother. She is alarmed by Mavis’ idea that her children are trying to kill her, asking if Mavis felt that the twins were trying to kill her too – a thought that horrifies Mavis. Birdie tells Mavis she can stay, but only if she never mentions the idea again. Within days, however, she overhears her mother telling Frank that he should come as quickly as possible to collect her. A week after Mavis’ arrival she is on the road again, with money and aspirin stolen from her mother, with the intention of reaching California. She pays to have the Cadillac repainted magenta.
As she drives away from the East, Mavis experiences a happiness she has experienced only once before, as a child on an amusement park ride: “the stable excitement of facing danger while safely strapped in strong metal” (33). She picks up a number of hitchhikers on the road, all women, to help share gas and food costs. At an Esso station, she fears that Frank has found her. Panicking, she fails to make it back on to Route 70, and the Cadillac runs out of fuel on Route 18. In the middle of nowhere and without food, Mavis feels defeated, but ultimately decides to follow the example of the self-sufficient girls she picked up along the way and get out to look for help. In this way, Mavis stumbles upon the Convent.
At the Convent, Mavis meets Connie, who offers her coffee and food. Connie explains that only she and a woman upstairs live in the Convent, and that there are no telephones, newspapers, or radios in the house either. Mavis asks how she can get some gasoline out to her car. Connie tells her to wait, that people come to the Convent every day to buy the produce she grows, and these people should be able to help her. Mavis has the peripheral “sensation that the kitchen was crowded with children - laughing? singing? - two of whom were Merle and Pearl” (41). Connie sets Mavis to work shelling pecans, during which a well-dressed, dark-skinned woman named ‘Soane Morgan’ enters. Soane asks Connie about “Mother,” the old woman upstairs. Mother is very sick, but Connie insists that she would refuse to go to a hospital.
Soane takes Mavis to a gas station. Soane is suddenly very quiet and formal, lacking the ease of conversation she displayed in the Convent. After the gas station, Mavis sees the town where Soane lives, a small, perfectly manicured town named ‘Ruby’. One of her sons drops her back at the car; she learns from him that no white people live in Ruby. She returns to the Convent, where Connie is tending to Mother. Mother is tiny, and emanates blinding white light. Mother makes such an impression on Mavis that she decides to stay the night, a stay that extends indefinitely. In the years that follow, Mavis leaves the Convent from time to time, but she always returns.
This chapter gives us our first impressions of both the Convent and the town of Ruby. Mavis is struck by “how still it was, as though no one lived there” (45). This is an ominous image that suggests to us immediately the peculiarity of the town. Even though the “young” trees show that Ruby itself is a young town and the “flower gardens wider than the houses” reflect the residents’ prosperity and leisure, the stillness of the town and the lack of business district suggest the way in which Ruby is a town stuck in time (45). Rather than looking to the future, the town is in stasis.
Though very different, Ruby and the Convent share the characteristic of being isolated. Connie tells Mavis that there are no newspapers or radios in the house: “any news we get have to be from somebody telling it face-to-face” (41). Likewise, Ruby has a population of 360 and no white residents. However, as we will see, this isolation produces different effects. The Convent may not be attuned to the outside world, but it opens itself willingly to strangers. Connie welcomes Mavis even though Mavis is the first stranger ever to show up in Connie’s time at the Convent. Ruby, however, fights to preserve a perhaps impossible isolation by treating with hostility and suspicion all outsiders who enter or pass through. Though in this instance Connie is talking about why she is not frightened to live in the Convent miles away from anything else, her statement that “scary things not always outside. Most scary things is inside” (39) also applies to Ruby, and prepares us for the idea that what threatens the town comes from within rather than without.
This chapter also foreshadows Mavis’ transformation, a change that will be completed during her life in the Convent. Mavis’ transition from being a frightened, helpless mother, fearful of even her young children, into being someone more self-possessed, begins here. We see this first in the moment she steals the Cadillac, and again when she defies her mother, who has called Frank in secret, by running away to California. In acting independently for the first time, she feels a happiness that she has experienced only once before: on an amusement park ride called ‘the Rocket’, as a child. The Rocket of Mavis’ childhood mirrors what she is experiencing now: “the stable excitement of facing danger while safely strapped in strong metal” (33) - in this case, the Cadillac.
This arc of development continues when Mavis becomes lost on the road without fuel. Instead of submitting to fear and to the memory of Frank’s abusive insults that “she was the dumbest bitch on the planet” (37), she thinks of the self-sufficient hitchhiking girls she has picked up along the way and everything that she has learned from them: how to relieve herself in the outdoors, that she should always have food on hand. “Suddenly she sat up, wide awake, and decided not to starve. Would the road girls just sit there? Would Dusty? Bennie?” (37)
It is this decision to take action that leads her after some wandering to find the Convent. In the same way that Mavis learns from Dusty and Bennie on the road, the Convent is a space where women learn from other women. Connie suggests that the newly arrived Mavis “make [herself] useful” (41) by shelling pecans for pecan pie. Mavis immediately rejects this idea, but Connie tells her she “give[s] in too quick,” and that her strong nails mean she has “perfect pecan hands” (42). Watching her own “suddenly beautiful hands” (42) elegantly working at the task, Mavis remembers a sixth-grade teacher whose hands she used to admire (there is an implication that the admiration Mavis had for her teacher was romantic in nature).