Title: Come Dance with Me in Ireland
Author: Shirley Jackson
Where I read it: World Literature: An Anthology of Great Short Stories, Drama, and Poetry (ed. Donna Rosenberg)
Three women get their feathers ruffled and their civility questioned when a poor peddler, possibly drunk, shows up at the door.
Mrs. Archer is a new mother, at home with her baby and entertaining two neighbors: Mrs. Corn and Kathy Valentine. (Blanche is Mrs. Corn's first name - 'Blanche Corn' sounds so brittle and bleached.) Mrs. Corn looks at the man in distaste, convinced he's drunk. Kathy Valentine wants to help him, but doesn't really see him; she thinks she knows all about him based on what she's heard or read about poor men ("they always eat pie"). Mrs. Archer feels that she ought to help him, as long as he doesn't sit in the good chair with his dirty overcoat. She's reluctant to turn him away, as he isn't feeling well, but she can't bring herself to treat him like she would a real guest; her courtesies come in half-measures, carrying insults.
Even though there's nothing supernatural about this man, the story has echoes of tales where a humble beggar is really an angel or royalty; he and the women are, in his own words, "of two different worlds." He may be a poet (he says he knew Yeats). Or he may be a peddler of shoe laces, nothing more or less. Whoever he is, he no longer has the stomach for self-conscious, half-cringing displays of politeness. The women may pass the test he poses, but with a poor or middling grade (what would you do in similar circumstances?).