The Sky is Gray by Ernest J. Gaines

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The action in “The Sky is Gray” is broken up into thirteen short sections which describe a half day or so in the life of James, an eight-year-old black boy in the rural South of the late 1930s. The story begins with James and his mother waiting, on a painfully cold morning, for the arrival of a bus which will take them to nearby Bayonne. As they wait, his mother thinks about home — about his aunt, the other children, the farm animals and the weather — the narrative follows James’s thoughts back to the origins of his toothache.

Not wanting to be a “crybaby” and knowing well that his mother cannot afford a trip to the dentist, James recalls his efforts to disguise his pain from the rest of his family. But this state of affairs does not last — his Auntie soon discovers that his tooth is rotten. When aspirin fails to work, Auntie wants to tell James’s mother; James convinces her not to, so they turn instead to a neighbor, Monsieur Bayonne, for a prayer cure. But this cure fails, too. The scene in which James’s mother is told — or discovers — that her son must go to the dentist is skipped over, but the family’s poverty, and the comparatively huge cost of having the tooth pulled, is not. James’s mother talks at length about how much it will cost while James pretends to sleep.

James’s thoughts then turn to the memory of two redbirds he and his brother, Ty, had trapped, and to his mother’s inexplicable insistence that he kill them and her equally inexplicable fury when he couldn’t. Only now, in the narrative present, as an “almost eight” year-old boy, can James understand why she forced him to do this. She was preparing him to take care of himself in case she had to go away like his father did.

The bus arrives and, while his mother pays, James moves to the back of the bus, where the blacks are made to sit. James soon finds himself walking through the cold of Bayonne. After a long walk, they finally arrive at the dentist’s office, which is already full of people waiting to be treated. A woman tries to engage James’s mother in conversation, but a man James takes to be a preacher joins in instead. The woman wonders why the Lord allows people to suffer, saying that she doesn’t understand it, but the preacher concludes that it’s something no human can understand. This comment incites a young man — a teacher, James thinks, or a student — to join in. Shortly thereafter the nurse enters the room and announces that the doctor will not treat anyone until one o’clock.

With nowhere to go, and no money to buy anything, James and his mother have no choice but to walk, aimlessly, until the doctor’s office opens again. They briefly duck into a hardware store to warm up, but must soon leave. With more than an hour to go before the doctor’s office will reopen and sleet starting to fall, James’s mother decides to spend their bus money on something to eat and walk home. Eventually they are stopped by an old white lady named Helena who has watched them each time they passed by. She insists that they come inside while she calls the dentist to tell him that they are coming. She offers them food, but though James is hungry, his mother will not accept any charity, so Helena has James move some empty trash cans to the street as a face-saving gesture for his mother.

Their meal finished, James and his mother thank the woman for her hospitality. James’s mother opens the door to exit, but turns and asks for twenty-five cents worth of salt meat. Helena tries to give them a larger piece, but James’s mother insists on an accurate measure. On the street again, James turns his collar up to keep his neck warm; his mother tells him not to, because only bums turn their collars up, and he is not a bum, he is a man.