After her mother's funeral, the undertaker drives Ellen and her father home. Immediately afterward, Ellen's father takes his keys, drives off in his truck, and does not return until the following night. Ellen stays home and eats the food that the women from the church have made for her and her father. She does not use a plate or utensils but eats straight from the bowls in which the food has been delivered.

Ellen rifles through her mother's dresser and pulls out some of her clothes to wear to school, since she and her mother are roughly the same size. Ellen notes that her own body is oddly-shaped, for her head is a bit too large for her body, though she is certain that when she forms a chest and hips—for which she has been waiting for quite awhile—her physique will be proportional. She has outgrown all of her own clothes, with the exception of a few pairs of socks, and she enjoys wearing her mother's clothing.

Ellen's teachers are all curious to hear about her mother's death. One teacher follows her into the library and probes Ellen for the story of her mother's death, though the teacher already knows. She is fond of this particular teacher who lets her scratch her back during rest time. Afterward, Ellen enjoys how her fingers smell of the teacher's powder.

Starletta, who, according to Ellen, is not as smart as she is herself, but is more fun, is sitting on the steps after school. The girls decide to walk home together instead of taking the bus. When Ellen arrives home, it is dark already, and she sees that her father has turned the lights on inside. She enters the house without speaking to him, as she does whenever he is home with her. If she can, she goes outside to keep safely away from him.

Since his wife's death, Ellen's father has done nothing more than drink and sleep. One night, his two brothers, Ellis and Rudolph come over and find him passed out in the yard. Ellis and Rudolph put him to bed and return the next day to ask that he sign all of his possessions over to them. Ellen reports that after her father signs the papers, he brags that he is now a "free man" and can finally relax. Each month, one of the brothers leaves an envelope of cash money in the mailbox, and Ellen makes a point of getting to it before her father can. She budgets the money herself, dividing it up for separate bill payments and other necessities. She gives what remains to her father, which he uses to buy alcohol.

The hardest part about her situation, Ellen says, is the food. Her father will only eat at a diner in town or will not eat at all. Ellen refuses to be seen with him in public and must survive on frozen dinners that she buys for herself at the grocery store. When it gets cold, an inevitability that Ellen dreads, Starletta's father takes the girls into town to buy them warm winter coats. It is too cold for Ellen to play with Starletta outside in the ditches, so she concocts a game of her own, creating families and their fully supplied houses from mail-order catalogs. When she tires of the catalogs, Ellen joins the Girl Scouts. She forges her father's signature so that she may have the most badges. But by Christmas, Ellen has tired of the scouts too.