As the story opens, Norma Jean Moffitt is exercising her pectoral muscles. Leroy Moffitt, Norma Jean’s husband, was injured four months ago while driving his truck. He wouldn’t want to return to truck driving even if he could. To pass the time, he constructs crafts and dreams of building a log cabin. Norma Jean supports herself and her husband by working at a Rexall drugstore in the cosmetics department.
Leroy is happy to be home and feels affectionate toward his wife, but he worries that she does not return these feelings. She doesn’t seem overjoyed about his constant presence. He wonders whether having him around reminds her of Randy, their son, who died as an infant. Leroy realizes that the death of a child drives many couples apart, and he feels lucky that his marriage is intact.
One night, Leroy buys marijuana from Stevie Hamilton, the son of a former schoolmate of Leroy’s. Stevie’s father is a well-to-do doctor. Leroy tries to make conversation about his plans to build a log cabin, but Stevie isn’t interested. We learn that Leroy and Norma Jean, who are now thirty-four, got married when they were eighteen and had Randy a few months afterward. While the family was at a drive-in watching Dr. Strangelove, Randy died of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). He was four months and three days old.
When Leroy returns home, his mother-in-law, Mabel Beasley, is at the house. She keeps tabs on the state of Norma Jean’s laundry and plants. She gives Norma Jean and Leroy a dust ruffle that she made in the upholstery shop where she works. Leroy jokes that they can use it to hide things. Mabel still resents him for impregnating Norma Jean.
Mabel makes fun of Leroy’s Star Trek needlepoint pillow cover, calling sewing a woman’s hobby. Leroy claims that football players sew and then explains his plans to build a cabin. Norma Jean says the first thing he needs to do is get a job. Mabel urges them to take a trip to Shiloh, the Civil War battlefield where she and her late husband, who died when Norma Jean was a girl, went on their honeymoon.
When Mabel leaves, Norma Jean presents Leroy with a list of possible jobs, including guarding, carpentering, and working in a lumberyard. He says he can’t be on his feet all day, and she reminds him that she does exactly that at Rexall’s. As she speaks, she does leg exercises. Leroy reiterates his desire to build a cabin, but Norma Jean says she doesn’t want to live in one. Norma Jean and Leroy used to have fun when he came home from work, eating food that Norma Jean made, playing cards, and watching television. Now Norma Jean eats healthy cereal. This is one of the many small details that Leroy has learned about his wife now that he’s been home.
Leroy goes for pointless drives and looks around the new subdivisions. After one of these excursions, he arrives home and finds Norma Jean making a casserole and crying because Mabel found her smoking. Leroy comforts her. While he smokes a joint, she plays “Sunshine Superman” and “Who’ll Be the Next in Line?” on the organ he got her for Christmas. He thinks about an old friend, Virgil, who organized a drug bust. Again he mentions the cabin, and again Norma Jean dismisses the idea. He longs to get to know his wife again but doesn’t say anything.
On Saturday, Mabel comes over and tells a story about a dachshund that killed a baby, claiming that the mother was neglectful. Leroy warns Mabel to watch what she says. Afterward, Norma Jean says the story was meant to punish her for smoking. She and Leroy are thinking about Randy, but neither of them says his name.
Norma Jean enrolls in a composition class at night school. Leroy is defensive about his own English. She starts cooking more exotic foods. Instead of playing her organ, she writes a paper about music. Leroy knows she will leave him. He and Mabel commiserate about the change in Norma Jean, and Mabel again suggests a trip to Shiloh. When Norma Jean arrives home, she is rude to her mother. That night, she tells Leroy that his name means the king.
They go to Shiloh on Sunday. It looks like a park, not a golf course, as Leroy imagined. They see a log cabin. Close to the cemetery, they eat a picnic. Leroy feels nervous around his wife, as if she is an older woman and he a bumbling boy. After they eat, Leroy smokes a joint. Silence falls, and Norma Jean says she wants to leave Leroy. He suggests starting over, and she says they already did start over. He asks her if it’s a “women’s lib” issue. Norma says something changed when Mabel caught her smoking. She says she feels like she’s eighteen, which she hates. She walks away.
Leroy continues smoking and thinks about the war and the way it relates to Mabel’s marriage and to his and Norma Jean’s marriage. He realizes that he has left a space in the middle of this history, just as there is a space in the middle of a log cabin, and a space in the middle of his marriage. He realizes that building a log cabin was a terrible idea. He begins to follow Norma Jean, whom he sees walking toward the Tennessee River. On the bluff, she faces Leroy and moves her arms in what could be a gesture to him or an exercise for her pectoral muscles. The sky reminds Leroy of the dust ruffle that Mabel gave them.
Take a Study Break!