Mrs. Archer, Mrs. Kathy Valentine, and Mrs. Corn are entertaining Mrs. Archer’s baby at her home and indulging in gossip, when the doorbell rings. An elderly man, who looks extremely poor if not homeless, attempts to sell Mrs. Archer old shoelaces. Suddenly he nearly faints, and Mrs. Archer calls upon her friends to help the man into the apartment.
Mrs. Corn worries that the man is a drunk, and Mrs. Archer asks her to mind the baby. Mrs. Valentine takes charge and insists that Mrs. Archer prepare a complete meal for the old man, John O’Flaherty. As he sits to eat, Mr. O’Flaherty informs the woman that he knew the poet Yeats. Then, he abruptly stands to leave without finishing his meal. When the women question him, he thanks Mrs. Archer for her hospitality and gives her all of the shoelaces. Then, he suddenly insults Mrs. Corn by telling her that he dislikes old women, before criticizing the quality of sherry Mrs. Archer served him.
Mrs. Corn believes she was correct in assuming that Mr. O’Flaherty is simply a drunkard. He leaves.
This story, like "After You, My Dear Alphonse," pokes fun at gossipy women who jump too quickly to conclusions about others and reveal their own shortcomings or bigotry in the process. All of the women assume that Mr. O'Flaherty is so poverty-stricken that he will be infinitely grateful for any charity he receives. Acting on this assumption, the women thus become rather ungracious hostesses.
Mrs. Archer, who lives at the residence, is most reticent in offering Mr. O'Flaherty any food, and she only does so at the great insistence of Kathy. "Mrs. Archer looked doubtful. 'I have some eggs,' she said" (160). In addition, she serves Mr. O'Flaherty "bad sherry." When Kathy asks if she has wine for the old man, "Mrs. Archer shook her head. 'A little wine,' she said doubtfully" (159). These examples, in which Mrs. Archer is full of doubt regarding the man's intentions, demonstrate that she offers him a meal only at the insistence of her friend. Mrs. Archer remains suspicious of Mr. O'Flaherty and his intentions instead of simply welcoming him more graciously.
Kathy Valentine, on the other hand, treats Mr. O'Flaherty rather condescendingly in her over-exuberant efforts to display her charitable spirit. When Mrs. Archer gives the old man a quarter, Kathy assumes that it is "'[p]robably more than he's gotten all day'" (158), simply based on his disheveled appearance. She says to him later: "'Now you stay right where you are,' Kathy ordered, 'and Mrs. Archer here is going to bring you a little bit of wine. You'd like that, wouldn't you?'" (159). She speaks to Mr. O'Flaherty as if he were a child, not a grown man who is capable of taking care of himself. This is simply another manner, different from Mrs. Archer's, of being rude and patronizing.
Mr. O'Flaherty reveals that, no matter his appearance, he maintains some standards. His claim to know Yeats is debatable, but either way, his knowledge of Yeats elevates him from the status of a poverty-stricken and uneducated drunkard, whom the women originally believed him to be. He is familiar enough with Yeats and his works to quote his poetry.
Mr. O'Flaherty acts as a foil to the women. First, he is the only male in the story, and while they appear to act politely and generously, they are in fact rather closed-minded and dishonest in their intentions. Furthermore, these women enjoy comfortable living situations. Enter Mr. O'Flaherty, a destitute man who is presumed to be homeless. Though his actions are odd and he perhaps does not politely accept their free meal and hospitality, Mr. O'Flaherty does so perhaps because he is more honest and direct. He tells the women what he truly thinks of them instead of hiding his feelings behind societal politeness and conventions of behavior. (This could be a reason he is such an outsider.) For example, as he leaves, Mr. O'Flaherty informs them that he has perceived their bad manners, and he tells Mrs. Corn very frankly that he does not like old women. Furthermore, when he gives them the old shoelaces, which are his only possession, Mr. O'Flaherty demonstrates his great generosity.
Jackson's allusion to Yeats corresponds to the short story title, for Yeats wrote a poem entitled "I Am of Ireland" which contains the line quoted by O'Flaherty: "Come out of charity/Come dance with me in Ireland" (162). The allusion to this poem by Yeats runs farther, as a brief read of the poem indicates that Jackson's John O'Flaherty may indeed be the "old man" character in the Yeats poem. The "solitary man" of the original poem "cocked a malicious eye" before intoning what Jackson's O'Flaherty says at the conclusion of the story: "And time runs on" (163). This circuitous allusion again hints at the possibility of evil or malice in Jackson's otherwise ordinary and domestic story setting. By relating John O'Flaherty to the mysterious man in Yeats's poem, Jackson suggests his potential to be a more sinister figure, perhaps someone similar to James Harris, the daemon lover.