Song of Solomon opens with a note written by an insurance agent named Robert Smith announcing that he will fly from the top of Mercy Hospital to the other side of Lake Superior. About fifty people - mostly unemployed, self-employed or very young - gather for the spectacle. Mercy Hospital lies on "Not Doctor Street," a strange street name dating back to 1896 when a colored doctor moved there and set up his practice in an area otherwise inhabited only by whites. The Negroes who visited the doctor, and who later moved there themselves, took to calling the street "Doctor Street." One day, however, city politicians decided to post notices around town saying that the road had always been called and always would be called "Mains Avenue and not Doctor Street." Hence, the Negroes now called the road "Not Doctor Street."
The year is 1931 and the place is Ohio. While the crowd outside the hospital is completely absorbed in Mr. Smith's flight of fancy, a colored pregnant woman is making her way to the hospital entrance. The following day she will be the first colored woman permitted to give birth inside the hospital's ward; as fate would have it, she turns out to be the daughter of the (now deceased) doctor after which "Not Doctor Street" was named, making her something of a local celebrity. Seeing Mr. Smith high up on the hospital's roof, the distracted pregnant woman drops the basket she is carrying, spilling red velvety rose petals everywhere. Her teenage daughters scramble to pick them up before the February snow soils them. Simultaneously a shabbily clad woman begins singing at the back of the crowd. Finally, some hospital staff notice that a man is about to leap from the hospital's roof, and so they dutifully scurry outside to intervene. The narrator briefly recounts the insurance agent's role in town - "he was heavily associated with illness and death" - and says that his prospective jump from the top of this building would qualify as the most interesting thing he'd done in life. The firemen finally arrive, but not before it is too late: Mr. Smith has already dived to his death.
The following day the baby, a healthy bouncing boy, is born inside the hospital. The narrative then fast-forwards four years. We learn that the mother's name is Ruth Dead, and that her husband - Macon Dead - is not particularly well-liked in town (and so, by extension, neither is she). They live in a big house that formerly belonged to Ruth's father, the doctor, and they have a green Dodge sedan reserved strictly for Sunday drives. Furthermore, we learn Macon's family lives in fear of him and that he thoroughly despises, if not outright hates, his wife. The only person he hates more than his wife, we are told, is his younger sister named Pilate. To cope with her husband's hatred, Ruth allows herself a few secret indulgences, one of which is that she still breastfeeds her son (and delights in it!) even though he is four years old. One day, however, her joy is permanently spoiled when the family flunky, Freddie, happens to witness this peculiar ceremony. Freddie also happens to be the town's biggest gossip and he sees no reason to keep this indecent incident quiet. We learn that the boy is hereafter called "Milkman Dead" even before we learn his real name: Macon, named after his father and his father's father and so forth. Everybody takes to calling him "Milkman," however, much to his father's dismay. Macon never finds out the story behind his son's strange nickname - nobody dares or cares to tell him - but he has a definite inkling that its origin is lewd.
Names, it turns out, are of supreme importance to Macon Dead and his clan. They are always chosen from the Bible, frequently at random. Macon's two daughters are thus named Magdalene and First Corinthians. Macon's sister, Pilate, was named at birth by their illiterate father (also named Macon, naturally) who opened the Bible haphazardly and pointed to a group of letters that appeared strong and handsome to him. The midwife had politely clarified to him that "Pilate" was a man's name, and the name of the Roman governor who presided over Christ's crucifixion at that. She pleaded with him to pick another name. Embittered because his wife died while giving birth, Macon Senior was quite insistent on naming his daughter Pilate. Unsurprisingly, he prevailed in his stubbornness. Like father, like son.
We witness two interactions with Macon (Junior) Dead which confirm the negative things people say about him. He owns a number of houses in the neighborhood, having begun collecting them in his mid-twenties. As a landlord he is completely ruthless; moreover, he firmly believes this ruthlessness is the key to his success. In one scene he threatens to evict a grandmother and her grandchildren if she doesn't catch up on her rent - she is already two months behind - by the coming Saturday. He ignores her pleas about the many mouths she has to feed. In the second exchange Macon confronts a drunk man - one of his tenants - who is perched high up in an attic window, threatening to kill himself if a woman doesn't come and "satisfy" him. The women below, enjoying the sheer insanity of his request, mock and tease him. Macon is eager to get his rent money before this man kills himself, and he tells the man this bluntly, without hesitation. The drunkard laughs, but not without also aiming his shotgun at Macon. In his now familiar merciless manner, Macon taunts the inebriated man, unflinchingly standing his ground. The man, in the middle of a heated speech, falls fast asleep. Macon then sends his lackey, Freddie, to retrieve his monthly rent from the slumbering drunk.
With a sense of triumph, Macon leaves the scene and heads home, quite content now that he has his rent. It is dusk. He decides to take a shortcut even though it forces him to pass by his sister's house. The narrator fills us in on Pilate. She is notorious for selling the wine she produces with her daughter (Reba) and granddaughter (Hagar) to anyone and everyone, and she lives "pretty much as though progress was a word that meant walking a little farther on down the road," without gas or electricity. Perhaps most oddly, Pilate does not have a bellybutton - the result of her strange birth which claimed the life of her mother. Macon hears music coming from the house and finds himself unable to resist the melody despite his dislike and disapproval of Pilate. He secretly and silently savors the scene from the window, never announcing his presence; the serenity helps him unwind from a stressful day. Entranced, he finds it difficult to move on.
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