When Halie tells Dodge not to speak ill of his own flesh and blood, he yells, "He's not my flesh and blood! My flesh and blood's buried in the back yard!" There is silence for a moment as the men stare at her. She simply tells him, "That's enough, Dodge," and leaves. On the porch, she turns back and calls to Dodge, telling him not to let Tilden in the backyard anymore. She tells him to watch him, since he's still a child, and Dodge tells her he will.
Halie leaves and Tilden scolds his father for referencing the child buried in the backyard. While Dodge insists that everyone has forgotten, Tilden tells him that Halie, as a mother, can never forget. Dodge tells him he does not want to talk about it, but Tilden insists that everyone has to make a choice between talking and death. "I found that out in New Mexico," he says, "I thought I was dying but I just lost my voice." Dodge scolds Tilden for coming back home, insisting that he was independent at his age, but Tilden tells him he did not know what to do in the world.
Tilden wants to go outside, but Dodge tells him he is not allowed to, before deteriorating into a coughing fit. Tilden does not know what to do, so Dodge sends him to get him some water. As Tilden gets the water, Dodge swallows a pill and lies down on the sofa to rest. When Tilden tries to take Dodge's baseball cap off, Dodge scolds him, saying that Bradley will try to shave his head if he doesn't have a cap on. Dodge encourages Tilden to watch baseball, remembering that he likes the Red Sox, before falling into a deep sleep.
With Dodge asleep, Tilden pulls the whiskey bottle out of the couch and takes a swig, before spreading all the corn husks over Dodge on the couch. After he exits, Bradley, who is about five years younger than Tilden, appears on the porch, covering his head with a newspaper and nearly falling. He stands on the porch in janitor's pants and a gray sweatshirt, and "moves with an exaggerated, almost mechanical limp."
Bradley comes inside and calls to his mother before noticing Dodge. He takes out some clippers and cuts Dodge's hair while he sleeps.
Act 2. Dodge is still asleep on the sofa, but his hair is very short now, and in some places his scalp is bleeding. The husks and the pail have been taken away, and Shelly and Vince soon enter. Shelly is a beautiful 19-year-old girl with black hair wearing heels and a rabbit-fur coat. Vince is Tilden's 22-year-old son who wears sunglasses, cowboy boots, and carries a saxophone case. Shelly marvels at the fact that the house is so quintessentially American.
As she laughs hysterically at her imagining of his "Norman Rockwell" upbringing, Vince tells her to be quiet and scolds her for acting "like an idiot." He tells her he does not want to seem crazy to his family, but she thinks he is taking everything too seriously. When Vince calls for his "grandma," Shelly bursts into hysterics again. "I haven't seen them for over six years. I don't know what to expect," he tells her. As Vince calls for his grandmother again and goes upstairs, Shelly goes over and touches Dodge's head, which immediately wakes him up. When he sees her holding his cap, he touches his shaved head and grabs the cap, putting it on.
Shelly tells Dodge that she's "with" Vince, but that he went upstairs. Dodge remains silent as Shelly tries to make small talk with him, revealing that they stopped because of the horrible rain. "We were going all the way through to New Mexico. To see his father. I guess his father lives out there. We thought we'd stop by and see you on the way. Kill two birds with one stone, you know?" she says, suggesting that Vince wants to get to know his family.
When Vince comes halfway down the stairs, Shelly points to Dodge, and Dodge asks Vince if he brought whiskey, not recognizing him and mistaking him for Tilden. "See what happens when you leave me alone? See that? That's what happens," Dodge says, pointing to his head. Vince asks after Halie, but Dodge tells him she won't be back for days. Shelly gets uncomfortable, but Vince asks Dodge what's been going on. When Dodge tells him that Tilden is there, Vince insists that Tilden is in New Mexico. As Shelly and Vince argue about what to do, Dodge yells, "You two are not my idea of the perfect couple!...There's something wrong between the two of you. Something not compatible."
At the beginning of this section of the play, the eponymous "buried child" is referenced for the first time. When Halie scolds Dodge for speaking ill of his son, Bradley, he insists that his "flesh and blood" is buried in the backyard. This statement seems to freeze the action of the play entirely, which has hitherto had the momentum of a freight train barreling towards some unknown destination. The chatty Halie is rendered speechless, and Tilden and Dodge stare at her, waiting to see what she'll say. She quiets for a moment and tells Dodge, "That's enough." The audience can sense a tear in the fabric of the play, a game-changing reversal that only further calls into question the reliability of the characters and their grasp of reality.
The tragedy of Dodge and Halie's family seems to be a case of arrested development. In spite of being elderly, Halie and Dodge think of their children as highly dependent people, who desperately need their help. Instead of accepting their age and their stage of life, Halie and Dodge each agree that Tilden is "still a child," in spite of being in his late 40s. Similarly, Tilden acts more like an adolescent or a teenager than a grown man. The family exists at the margins of society, playacting at some kind of young American domesticity, further marginalized by their economic precarity and their various addictions, whether it be to whiskey, chewing tobacco, pills, or imagined realities.
Left alone with his father, Tilden waxes poetic on the nature of repression. He tells his father that when he was in New Mexico he realized that one has to talk to someone or they go through a kind of death. Dodge does not want to talk about the past, but Tilden insists, "You gotta talk or you'll die...I found that out in New Mexico. I thought I was dying but I just lost my voice." In this moment, Tilden suggests that repression, elision, and silence are akin to decay and death, that meaning is made through talking about things. Repression and loneliness are the worst fates, according to Tilden, alluding to the ways that his parents have repressed things and made life harder for themselves.
The play takes a turn when yet another generation arrives at the house. Vince, Tilden's 22-year-old son, arrives with his girlfriend Shelly. Their situation is also mysterious, as Vince tells Shelly that he has not been back to this house for six years and she seems to find his wholesome American household to be hysterically funny. If Dodge and Halie represent some image of old American nostalgia, Shelly and Vince, 20-something characters in 1978, represent a younger, countercultural generation, baby boomers in fur coats and dark sunglasses. They subvert the world of the play with their skepticism and youth. Unlike the other characters, they are not yet haunted by regrets or a skewed relationship to the past.
The play continually plays with the nature of reality and its different interpretations through its various characters. When Vince and Shelly arrive at Dodge and Halie's house, Dodge does not recognize Vince. Additionally, they get in an argument about Tilden's whereabouts, with Vince insisting that Tilden is in New Mexico, and Dodge telling him that Tilden is there. The audience cannot help but agree with the senile old man, having just seen Tilden in the previous act. In this way, Shepard subverts the audience's perception of reality, suggesting that no one is a reliable source within the world of the play. Rather, many different realities and perceptions of time seem to be layered on top of one another in the play, and the audience is asked to sift through the various subjectivities, accepting each of them.