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[4 of 5] Their Eyes Were Watching God, Chapters 13-16, by Zora Neale Hurston (1937) copy 01

Author: Zora Neale Hurston

“Chapters 13 - 16.” Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston et al., Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2013. Originally published by J. B. Lippincott, September 18, 1937.

13

Jacksonville. Tea Cake’s letter had said Jacksonville. He had worked in the railroad shops up there before and his old boss had promised him a job come next pay day. No need for Janie to wait any longer. Wear the new blue dress because he meant to marry her right from the train. Hurry up and come because he was about to turn into pure sugar thinking about her. Come on, baby, papa Tea Cake never could be mad with you!

Janie’s train left too early in the day for the town to witness much, but the few who saw her leave bore plenty witness. They had to give it to her, she sho looked good, but she had no business to do it. It was hard to love a woman that always made you feel so wishful.

The train beat on itself and danced on the shiny steel rails mile after mile. Every now and then the engineer would play on his whistle for the people in the towns he passed by. And the train shuffled on to Jacksonville, and to a whole lot of things she wanted to see and to know.

And there was Tea Cake in the big old station in a new blue suit and straw hat, hauling her off to a preacher’s house first thing. Then right on to the room he had been sleeping in for two weeks all by himself waiting for her to come. And such another hugging and kissing and carrying on you never saw. It made her so glad she was scared of herself. They stayed at home and rested that night, but the next night they went to a show and after that they rode around on the trolley cars and sort of looked things over for themselves. Tea Cake was spending and doing out of his own pocket, so Janie never told him about the two hundred dollars she had pinned inside her shirt next to her skin. Pheoby had insisted that she bring it along and keep it secret just to be on the safe side. She had ten dollars over her fare in her pocket book. Let Tea Cake think that was all she had. Things might not turn out like she thought. Every minute since she had stepped off the train she had been laughing at Pheoby’s advice. She meant to tell Tea Cake the joke some time when she was sure she wouldn’t hurt his feelings. So it came around that she had been married a week and sent Pheoby a card with a picture on it.

That morning Tea Cake got up earlier than Janie did. She felt sleepy and told him to go get some fish to fry for breakfast. By the time he had gone and come back she would have finished her nap out. He told her he would and she turned over and went back to sleep. She woke up and Tea Cake still wasn’t there and the clock said it was getting late, so she got up and washed her face and hands. Perhaps he was down in the kitchen fixing around to let her sleep. Janie went down and the landlady made her drink some coffee with her because she said her husband was dead and it was bad to be having your morning coffee by yourself.

“Yo’ husband gone tuh work dis mornin’, Mis’ Woods? Ah seen him go out uh good while uh go. Me and you kin be comp’ny for one ’nother, can’t us?”

“Oh yes, indeed, Mis’ Samuels. You puts me in de mind uh mah friend back in Eatonville. Yeah, you’se nice and friendly jus’ lak her.”

Therefore Janie drank her coffee and sankled on back to her room without asking her landlady anything. Tea Cake must be hunting all over the city for that fish. She kept that thought in front of her in order not to think too much. When she heard the twelve o’clock whistle she decided to get up and dress. That was when she found out her two hundred dollars was gone. There was the little cloth purse with the safety pin on the chair beneath her clothes and the money just wasn’t nowhere in the room. She knew from the beginning that the money wasn’t any place she knew of if it wasn’t in that little pocket book pinned to her pink silk vest. But the exercise of searching the room kept her busy and that was good for her to keep moving, even though she wasn’t doing anything but turning around in her tracks.

But, don’t care how firm your determination is, you can’t keep turning round in one place like a horse grinding sugar cane. So Janie took to sitting over the room. Sit and look. The room inside looked like the mouth of an alligator—gaped wide open to swallow something down. Outside the window Jacksonville looked like it needed a fence around it to keep it from running out on ether’s bosom. It was too big to be warm, let alone to need somebody like her. All day and night she worried time like a bone.

Way late in the morning the thought of Annie Tyler and Who Flung came to pay her a visit. Annie Tyler who at fifty-two had been left a widow with a good home and insurance money.

Mrs. Tyler with her dyed hair, newly straightened and her uncomfortable new false teeth, her leathery skin, blotchy with powder and her giggle. Her love affairs, affairs with boys in their late teens or early twenties for all of whom she spent her money on suits of clothes, shoes, watches and things like that and how they all left her as soon as their wants were satisfied. Then when her ready cash was gone, had come Who Flung to denounce his predecessor as a scoundrel and took up around the house himself. It was he who persuaded her to sell her house and come to Tampa with him. The town had seen her limp off. The undersized high-heel slippers were punishing her tired feet that looked like bunions all over. Her body squeezed and crowded into a tight corset that shoved her middle up under her chin. But she had gone off laughing and sure. As sure as Janie had been.

Then two weeks later the porter and conductor of the north bound local had helped her off the train at Maitland. Hair all gray and black and bluish and reddish in streaks. All the capers that cheap dye could cut was showing in her hair. Those slippers bent and griped just like her work-worn feet. The corset gone and the shaking old woman hanging all over herself. Everything that you could see was hanging. Her chin hung from her ears and rippled down her neck like drapes. Her hanging bosom and stomach and buttocks and legs that draped down over her ankles. She groaned but never giggled.

She was broken and her pride was gone, so she told those who asked what had happened. Who Flung had taken her to a shabby room in a shabby house in a shabby street and promised to marry her next day. They stayed in the room two whole days then she woke up to find Who Flung and her money gone. She got up to stir around and see if she could find him, and found herself too worn out to do much. All she found out was that she was too old a vessel for new wine. The next day hunger had driven her out to shift. She had stood on the streets and smiled and smiled, and then smiled and begged and then just begged. After a week of world-bruising a young man from home had come along and seen her. She couldn’t tell him how it was. She just told him she got off the train and somebody had stolen her purse. Naturally, he had believed her and taken her home with him to give her time to rest up a day or two, then he had bought her a ticket for home.

They put her to bed and sent for her married daughter from up around Ocala to come see about her. The daughter came as soon as she could and took Annie Tyler away to die in peace. She had waited all her life for something, and it had killed her when it found her.

The thing made itself into pictures and hung around Janie’s bedside all night long. Anyhow, she wasn’t going back to Eatonville to be laughed at and pitied. She had ten dollars in her pocket and twelve hundred in the bank. But oh God, don’t let Tea Cake be off somewhere hurt and Ah not know nothing about it. And God, please suh, don’t let him love nobody else but me. Maybe Ah’m is uh fool, Lawd, lak dey say, but Lawd, Ah been so lonesome, and Ah been waitin’, Jesus. Ah done waited uh long time.

Janie dozed off to sleep but she woke up in time to see the sun sending up spies ahead of him to mark out the road through the dark. He peeped up over the door sill of the world and made a little foolishness with red. But pretty soon, he laid all that aside and went about his business dressed all in white. But it was always going to be dark to Janie if Tea Cake didn’t soon come back. She got out of the bed but a chair couldn’t hold her. She dwindled down on the floor with her head in a rocking chair.

After a while there was somebody playing a guitar outside her door. Played right smart while. It sounded lovely too. But it was sad to hear it feeling blue like Janie was. Then whoever it was started to singing “Ring de bells of mercy. Call de sinner man home.” Her heart all but smothered her.

“Tea Cake, is dat you?”

“You know so well it’s me, Janie. How come you don’t open de door?”

But he never waited. He walked on in with a guitar and a grin. Guitar hanging round his neck with a red silk cord and a grin hanging from his ears.

“Don’t need tuh ast me where Ah been all dis time, ’cause it’s mah all day job tuh tell yuh.”

“Tea Cake, Ah—”

“Good Lawd, Janie, whut you doin’ settin’ on de floor?”

He took her head in his hands and eased himself into the chair. She still didn’t say anything. He sat stroking her head and looking down into her face.

“Ah see whut it is. You doubted me ’bout de money. Thought Ah had done took it and gone. Ah don’t blame yuh but it wasn’t lak you think. De girl baby ain’t born and her mama is dead, dat can git me tuh spend our money on her. Ah told yo’ before dat you got de keys tuh de kingdom. You can depend on dat.”

“Still and all you went off and left me all day and all night.”

“ ’Twasn’t ’cause Ah wanted tuh stay off lak dat, and it sho Lawd, wuzn’t no woman. If you didn’t have de power tuh hold me and hold me tight, Ah wouldn’t be callin’ yuh Mis’ Woods. Ah met plenty women before Ah knowed you tuh talk tuh. You’se de onliest woman in de world Ah ever even mentioned gitting married tuh. You bein’ older don’t make no difference. Don’t never consider dat no mo’. If Ah ever gits tuh messin’ round another woman it won’t be on account of her age. It’ll be because she got me in de same way you got me—so Ah can’t help mahself.”

He sat down on the floor beside her and kissed and playfully turned up the corner of her mouth until she smiled.

“Looka here, folks,” he announced to an imaginary audience, “Sister Woods is ’bout tuh quit her husband!”

Janie laughed at that and let herself lean on him. Then she announced to the same audience, “Mis’ Woods got herself uh new lil boy rooster, but he been off somewhere and won’t tell her.”

“First thing, though, us got tuh eat together, Janie. Then we can talk.”

“One thing, Ah won’t send you out after no fish.”

He pinched her in the side and ignored what she said.

“ ’Tain’t no need of neither one of us workin’ dis mornin’. Call Mis’ Samuels and let her fix whatever you want.”

“Tea Cake, if you don’t hurry up and tell me, Ah’ll take and beat yo’ head flat as uh dime.”

Tea Cake stuck out till he had some breakfast, then he talked and acted out the story.

He spied the money while he was tying his tie. He took it up and looked at it out of curiosity and put it in his pocket to count it while he was out to find some fish to fry. When he found out how much it was, he was excited and felt like letting folks know who he was. Before he found the fish market he met a fellow he used to work with at the round house. One word brought on another one and pretty soon he made up his mind to spend some of it. He never had had his hand on so much money before in his life, so he made up his mind to see how it felt to be a millionaire. They went on out to Callahan round the railroad shops and he decided to give a big chicken and macaroni supper that night, free to all.

He bought up the stuff and they found somebody to pick the guitar so they could all dance some. So they sent the message all around for people to come. And come they did. A big table loaded down with fried chicken and biscuits and a wash-tub full of macaroni with plenty cheese in it. When the fellow began to pick the box the people begin to come from east, west, north and Australia. And he stood in the door and paid all the ugly women two dollars not to come in. One big meriny colored woman was so ugly till it was worth five dollars for her not to come in, so he gave it to her.

They had a big time till one man come in who thought he was bad. He tried to pull and haul over all the chickens and pick out the livers and gizzards to eat. Nobody else couldn’t pacify him so they called Tea Cake to come see if he could stop him. So Tea Cake walked up and asked him, “Say, whut’s de matter wid you, nohow?”

“Ah don’t want nobody handin’ me nothin’. Specially don’t issue me out no rations. Ah always chooses mah rations.” He kept right on plowing through the pile uh chicken. So Tea Cake got mad.

“You got mo’ nerve than uh brass monkey. Tell me, what post office did you ever pee in? Ah craves tuh know.”

“Whut you mean by dat now?” the fellow asked.

“Ah means dis—it takes jus’ as much nerve tuh cut caper lak dat in uh United States Government Post Office as it do tuh comes pullin’ and haulin’ over any chicken Ah pay for. Hit de ground. Damned if Ah ain’t gointuh try you dis night.”

So they all went outside to see if Tea Cake could handle the boogerboo. Tea Cake knocked out two of his teeth, so that man went on off from there. Then two men tried to pick a fight with one another, so Tea Cake said they had to kiss and make up. They didn’t want to do it. They’d rather go to jail, but everybody else liked the idea, so they made ’em do it. Afterwards, both of them spit and gagged and wiped their mouths with the back of their hands. One went outside and chewed a little grass like a sick dog, he said to keep it from killing him.

Then everybody began to holler at the music because the man couldn’t play but three pieces. So Tea Cake took the guitar and played himself. He was glad of the chance because he hadn’t had his hand on a box since he put his in the pawn shop to get some money to hire a car for Janie soon after he met her. He missed his music. So that put him in the notion he ought to have one. He bought the guitar on the spot and paid fifteen dollars cash. It was really worth sixty-five any day.

Just before day the party wore out. So Tea Cake hurried on back to his new wife. He had done found out how rich people feel and he had a fine guitar and twelve dollars left in his pocket and all he needed now was a great big old hug and kiss from Janie.

“You musta thought yo’ wife was powerful ugly. Dem ugly women dat you paid two dollars not to come in, could git tuh de door. You never even ’lowed me tuh git dat close.” She pouted.

“Janie, Ah would have give Jacksonville wid Tampa for a jump-back for you to be dere wid me. Ah started to come git yuh two three times.”

“Well, how come yuh didn’t come git me?”

“Janie, would you have come if Ah did?”

“Sho Ah would. Ah laks fun just as good as you do.”

“Janie, Ah wanted tuh, mighty much, but Ah was skeered. Too skeered Ah might lose yuh.”

“Why?”

“Dem wuzn’t no high muckty mucks. Dem wuz railroad hands and dey womenfolks. You ain’t usetuh folks lak dat and Ah wuz skeered you might git all mad and quit me for takin’ you ’mongst ’em. But Ah wanted yuh wid me jus’ de same. Befo’ us got married Ah made up mah mind not tuh let you see no commonness in me. When Ah git mad habits on, Ah’d go off and keep it out yo’ sight. ’Tain’t mah notion tuh drag you down wid me.”

“Looka heah, Tea Cake, if you ever go off from me and have a good time lak dat and then come back heah tellin’ me how nice Ah is, Ah specks tuh kill yuh dead. You heah me?”

“So you aims tuh partake wid everything, hunh?”

“Yeah, Tea Cake, don’t keer what it is.”

“Dat’s all Ah wants tuh know. From now on you’se mah wife and mah woman and everything else in de world Ah needs.”

“Ah hope so.”

“And honey, don’t you worry ’bout yo’ lil ole two hundred dollars. It’s big pay day dis comin’ Saturday at de railroad yards. Ah’m gointuh take dis twelve dollars in mah pocket and win it all back and mo’.”

“How?”

“Honey, since you loose me and gimme privilege tuh tell yuh all about mahself, Ah’ll tell yuh. You done married one uh de best gamblers God ever made. Cards or dice either one. Ah can take uh shoe string and win uh tan-yard. Wish yuh could see me rollin’. But dis time it’s gointuh be nothin’ but tough men’s talkin’ all kinds uh talk so it ain’t no place for you tuh be, but ’twon’t be long befo’ you see me.”

All the rest of the week Tea Cake was busy practising up on his dice. He would flip them on the bare floor, on the rug and on the bed. He’d squat and throw, sit in a chair and throw and stand and throw. It was very exciting to Janie who had never touched dice in her life. Then he’d take his deck of cards and shuffle and cut, shuffle and cut and deal out then examine each hand carefully, and do it again. So Saturday came. He went out and bought a new switch-blade knife and two decks of star-back playing cards that morning and left Janie around noon.

“They’ll start to paying off, pretty soon now. Ah wants tuh git in de game whilst de big money is in it. Ah ain’t fuh no spuddin’ tuhday. Ah’ll come home wid de money or Ah’ll come back on uh stretcher.” He cut nine hairs out of the mole of her head for luck and went off happy.

Janie waited till midnight without worrying, but after that she began to be afraid. So she got up and sat around scared and miserable. Thinking and fearing all sorts of dangers. Wondering at herself as she had many times this week that she was not shocked at Tea Cake’s gambling. It was part of him, so it was all right. She rather found herself angry at imaginary people who might try to criticize. Let the old hypocrites learn to mind their own business, and leave other folks alone. Tea Cake wasn’t doing a bit more harm trying to win hisself a little money than they was always doing with their lying tongues. Tea Cake had more good nature under his toe-nails than they had in their so-called Christian hearts. She better not hear none of them old backbiters talking about her husband! Please, Jesus, don’t let them nasty niggers hurt her boy. If they do, Master Jesus, grant her a good gun and a chance to shoot ’em. Tea Cake had a knife it was true, but that was only to protect hisself. God knows, Tea Cake wouldn’t harm a fly.

Daylight was creeping around the cracks of the world when Janie heard a feeble rap on the door. She sprung to the door and flung it wide. Tea Cake was out there looking like he was asleep standing up. In some strange way it was frightening. Janie caught his arm to arouse him and he stumbled into the room and fell.

“Tea Cake! You chile! What’s de matter, honey?”

“Dey cut me, dat’s all. Don’t cry. Git me out dis coat quick as yuh can.”

He told her he wasn’t cut but twice but she had to have him naked so she could look him all over and fix him up to a certain extent. He told her not to call a doctor unless he got much worse. It was mostly loss of blood anyhow.

“Ah won the money jus’ lak Ah told yuh. Round midnight Ah had yo’ two hundred dollars and wuz ready tuh quit even though it wuz uh heap mo’ money in de game. But dey wanted uh chance tuh win it back so Ah set back down tuh play some mo’. Ah knowed ole Double-Ugly wuz ’bout broke and wanted tuh fight ’bout it, so Ah set down tuh give ’im his chance tuh git back his money and then to give ’im uh quick trip tuh hell if he tried tuh pull dat razor Ah glimpsed in his pocket. Honey, no up-to-date man don’t fool wid no razor. De man wid his switch-blade will be done cut yuh tuh death while you foolin’ wid uh razor. But Double-Ugly brags he’s too fast wid it tuh git hurt, but Ah knowed better.

“So round four o’clock Ah had done cleaned ’em out complete—all except two men dat got up and left while dey had money for groceries, and one man dat wuz lucky. Then Ah rose tuh bid ’em good bye agin. None of ’em didn’t lak it, but dey all realized it wuz fair. Ah had done give ’em a fair chance. All but Double-Ugly. He claimed Ah switched de dice. Ah shoved de money down deep in mah pocket and picked up mah hat and coat wid mah left hand and kept mah right hand on mah knife. Ah didn’t keer what he said long as he didn’t try tuh do nothin’. Ah got mah hat on and one arm in mah coat as Ah got to de door. Right dere he jumped at me as Ah turned to see de doorstep outside and cut me twice in de back.

“Baby, Ah run mah other arm in mah coat-sleeve and grabbed dat nigger by his necktie befo’ he could bat his eye and then Ah wuz all over ’im jus’ lak gravy over rice. He lost his razor tryin’ tuh git loose from me. He wuz hollerin’ for me tuh turn him loose, but baby, Ah turnt him every way but loose. Ah left him on the doorstep and got here to yuh de quickest way Ah could. Ah know Ah ain’t cut too deep ’cause he was too skeered tuh run up on me close enough. Sorta pull de flesh together with stickin’ plaster. Ah’ll be all right in uh day or so.”

Janie was painting on iodine and crying.

“You ain’t de one to be cryin’, Janie. It’s his ole lady oughta do dat. You done gimme luck. Look in mah left hand pants pocket and see whut yo’ daddy brought yuh. When Ah tell yuh Ah’m gointuh bring it, Ah don’t lie.”

They counted it together—three hundred and twenty-two dollars. It was almost like Tea Cake had held up the Paymaster. He made her take the two hundred and put it back in the secret place. Then Janie told him about the other money she had in the bank.

“Put dat two hundred back wid de rest, Janie. Mah dice. Ah no need no assistance tuh help me feed mah woman. From now on, you gointuh eat whutever mah money can buy yuh and wear de same. When Ah ain’t got nothin’ you don’t git nothin’.”

“Dat’s all right wid me.”

He was getting drowsy, but he pinched her leg playfully because he was glad she took things the way he wanted her to. “Listen, mama, soon as Ah git over dis lil cuttin’ scrape, we gointuh do somethin’ crazy.”

“Whut’s dat?”

“We goin’ on de muck.”

“Whut’s de muck, and where is it at?”

“Oh down in de Everglades round Clewiston and Belle Glade where dey raise all dat cane and string-beans and tomatuhs. Folks don’t do nothin’ down dere but make money and fun and foolishness. We must go dere.”

He drifted off into sleep and Janie looked down on him and felt a self-crushing love. So her soul crawled out from its hiding place.

14

To Janie’s strange eyes, everything in the Everglades was big and new. Big Lake Okechobee, big beans, big cane, big weeds, big everything. Weeds that did well to grow waist high up the state were eight and often ten feet tall down there. Ground so rich that everything went wild. Volunteer cane just taking the place. Dirt roads so rich and black that a half mile of it would have fertilized a Kansas wheat field. Wild cane on either side of the road hiding the rest of the world. People wild too.

“Season don’t open up till last of September, but we had tuh git heah ahead uh time tuh git us uh room,” Tea Cake explained. “Two weeks from now, it’ll be so many folks heah dey won’t be lookin’ fuh rooms, dey’ll be jus’ looking fuh somewhere tuh sleep. Now we got uh chance tuh git uh room at de hotel, where dey got uh bath tub. Yuh can’t live on de muck ’thout yuh take uh bath every day. Do dat muck’ll itch yuh lak ants. ’Tain’t but one place round heah wid uh bath tub. ’Tain’t nowhere near enough rooms.”

“Whut we gointuh do round heah?”

“All day Ah’m pickin’ beans. All night Ah’m pickin’ mah box and rollin’ dice. Between de beans and de dice Ah can’t lose. Ah’m gone right now tuh pick me uh job uh work wid de best man on de muck. Before de rest of ’em gits heah. You can always git jobs round heah in de season, but not wid de right folks.”

“When do de job open up, Tea Cake? Everybody round here look lak dey waitin’ too.”

“Dat’s right. De big men haves uh certain time tuh open de season jus’ lak in everything else. Mah bossman didn’t get sufficient seed. He’s out huntin’ up uh few mo’ bushels. Den we’se gointuh plantin’.”

“Bushels?”

“Yeah, bushels. Dis ain’t no game fuh pennies. Po’ man ain’t got no business at de show.”

The very next day he burst into the room in high excitement. “Boss done bought out another man and want me down on de lake. He got houses fuh de first ones dat git dere. Less go!”

They rattled nine miles in a borrowed car to the quarters that squatted so close that only the dyke separated them from great, sprawling Okechobee. Janie fussed around the shack making a home while Tea Cake planted beans. After hours they fished. Every now and then they’d run across a party of Indians in their long, narrow dug-outs calmly winning their living in the trackless ways of the ’Glades. Finally the beans were in. Nothing much to do but wait to pick them. Tea Cake picked his box a great deal for Janie, but he still didn’t have enough to do. No need of gambling yet. The people who were pouring in were broke. They didn’t come bringing money, they were coming to make some.

“Tell yuh whut, Janie, less buy us some shootin’ tools and go huntin’ round heah.”

“Dat would be fine, Tea Cake, exceptin’ you know Ah can’t shoot. But Ah’d love tuh go wid you.”

“Oh, you needs tuh learn how. ’Tain’t no need uh you not knowin’ how tuh handle shootin’ tools. Even if you didn’t never find no game, it’s always some trashy rascal dat needs uh good killin’,” he laughed. “Less go intuh Palm Beach and spend some of our money.”

Every day they were practising. Tea Cake made her shoot at little things just to give her good aim. Pistol and shot gun and rifle. It got so the others stood around and watched them. Some of the men would beg for a shot at the target themselves. It was the most exciting thing on the muck. Better than the jook and the pool-room unless some special band was playing for a dance. And the thing that got everybody was the way Janie caught on. She got to the place she could shoot a hawk out of a pine tree and not tear him up. Shoot his head off. She got to be a better shot than Tea Cake. They’d go out any late afternoon and come back loaded down with game. One night they got a boat and went out hunting alligators. Shining their phosphorescent eyes and shooting them in the dark. They could sell the hides and teeth in Palm Beach besides having fun together till work got pressing.

Day by day now, the hordes of workers poured in. Some came limping in with their shoes and sore feet from walking. It’s hard trying to follow your shoe instead of your shoe following you. They came in wagons from way up in Georgia and they came in truck loads from east, west, north and south. Permanent transients with no attachments and tired looking men with their families and dogs in flivvers. All night, all day, hurrying in to pick beans. Skillets, beds, patched up spare inner tubes all hanging and dangling from the ancient cars on the outside and hopeful humanity, herded and hovered on the inside, chugging on to the muck. People ugly from ignorance and broken from being poor.

All night now the jooks clanged and clamored. Pianos living three lifetimes in one. Blues made and used right on the spot. Dancing, fighting, singing, crying, laughing, winning and losing love every hour. Work all day for money, fight all night for love. The rich black earth clinging to bodies and biting the skin like ants.

Finally no more sleeping places. Men made big fires and fifty or sixty men slept around each fire. But they had to pay the man whose land they slept on. He ran the fire just like his boarding place—for pay. But nobody cared. They made good money, even to the children. So they spent good money. Next month and next year were other times. No need to mix them up with the present.

Tea Cake’s house was a magnet, the unauthorized center of the “job.” The way he would sit in the doorway and play his guitar made people stop and listen and maybe disappoint the jook for that night. He was always laughing and full of fun too. He kept everybody laughing in the bean field.

Janie stayed home and boiled big pots of blackeyed peas and rice. Sometimes baked big pans of navy beans with plenty of sugar and hunks of bacon laying on top. That was something Tea Cake loved so no matter if Janie had fixed beans two or three times during the week, they had baked beans again on Sunday. She always had some kind of dessert too, as Tea Cake said it give a man something to taper off on. Sometimes she’d straighten out the two-room house and take the rifle and have fried rabbit for supper when Tea Cake got home. She didn’t leave him itching and scratching in his work clothes, either. The kettle of hot water was already waiting when he got in.

Then Tea Cake took to popping in at the kitchen door at odd hours. Between breakfast and dinner, sometimes. Then often around two o’clock he’d come home and tease and wrestle with her for a half hour and slip on back to work. So one day she asked him about it.

“Tea Cake, whut you doin’ back in de quarters when everybody else is still workin’?”

“Come tuh see ’bout you. De boogerman liable tuh tote yuh off whilst Ah’m gone.”

“ ’Tain’t no boogerman got me tuh study ’bout. Maybe you think Ah ain’t treatin’ yuh right and you watchin’ me.”

“Naw, naw, Janie. Ah know better’n dat. But since you got dat in yo’ head, Ah’ll have tuh tell yuh de real truth, so yuh can know. Janie, Ah gits lonesome out dere all day ’thout yuh. After dis, you bettah come git uh job uh work out dere lak de rest uh de women—so Ah won’t be losin’ time comin’ home.”

“Tea Cake, you’se uh mess! Can’t do ’thout me dat lil time.”

“ ’Tain’t no lil time. It’s near ’bout all day.”

So the very next morning Janie got ready to pick beans along with Tea Cake. There was a suppressed murmur when she picked up a basket and went to work. She was already getting to be a special case on the muck. It was generally assumed that she thought herself too good to work like the rest of the women and that Tea Cake “pomped her up tuh dat.” But all day long the romping and playing they carried on behind the boss’s back made her popular right away. It got the whole field to playing off and on. Then Tea Cake would help get supper afterwards.

“You don’t think Ah’m tryin’ tuh git outa takin’ keer uh yuh, do yuh, Janie, ’cause Ah ast yuh tuh work long side uh me?” Tea Cake asked her at the end of her first week in the field.

“Ah naw, honey. Ah laks it. It’s mo’ nicer than settin’ round dese quarters all day. Clerkin’ in dat store wuz hard, but heah, we ain’t got nothin’ tuh do but do our work and come home and love.”

The house was full of people every night. That is, all around the doorstep was full. Some were there to hear Tea Cake pick the box; some came to talk and tell stories, but most of them came to get into whatever game was going on or might go on. Sometimes Tea Cake lost heavily, for there were several good gamblers on the lake. Sometimes he won and made Janie proud of his skill. But outside of the two jooks, everything on that job went on around those two.

Sometimes Janie would think of the old days in the big white house and the store and laugh to herself. What if Eatonville could see her now in her blue denim overalls and heavy shoes? The crowd of people around her and a dice game on her floor! She was sorry for her friends back there and scornful of the others. The men held big arguments here like they used to do on the store porch. Only here, she could listen and laugh and even talk some herself if she wanted to. She got so she could tell big stories herself from listening to the rest. Because she loved to hear it, and the men loved to hear themselves, they would “woof” and “boogerboo” around the games to the limit. No matter how rough it was, people seldom got mad, because everything was done for a laugh. Everybody loved to hear Ed Dockery, Bootyny, and Sop-de-Bottom in a skin game. Ed Dockery was dealing one night and he looked over at Sop-de-Bottom’s card and he could tell Sop thought he was going to win. He hollered, “Ah’ll break up dat settin’ uh eggs.” Sop looked and said, “Root de peg.” Bootyny asked, “What are you goin’ tuh do? Do do!” Everybody was watching that next card fall. Ed got ready to turn. “Ah’m gointuh sweep out hell and burn up de broom.” He slammed down another dollar. “Don’t oversport yourself, Ed,” Bootyny challenged. “You gittin’ too yaller.” Ed caught hold of the corner of the card. Sop dropped a dollar. “Ah’m gointuh shoot in de hearse, don’t keer how sad de funeral be.” Ed said, “You see how this man is teasin’ hell?” Tea Cake nudged Sop not to bet. “You gointuh git caught in uh bullet storm if you don’t watch out.” Sop said, “Aw ’tain’t nothin’ tuh dat bear but his curly hair. Ah can look through muddy water and see dry land.” Ed turned off the card and hollered, “Zachariah, Ah says come down out dat sycamore tree. You can’t do no business.” Nobody fell on that card. Everybody was scared of the next one. Ed looked around and saw Gabe standing behind his chair and hollered, “Move, from over me, Gabe! You too black. You draw heat! Sop, you wanta pick up dat bet whilst you got uh chance?” “Naw, man, Ah wish Ah had uh thousand-leg tuh put on it.” “So yuh won’t lissen, huh? Dumb niggers and free schools. Ah’m gointuh take and teach yuh. Ah’ll main-line but Ah won’t side-track.” Ed flipped the next card and Sop fell and lost. Everybody hollered and laughed. Ed laughed and said, “Git off de muck! You ain’t nothin’. Dat’s all! Hot boilin’ water won’t help yuh none.” Ed kept on laughing because he had been so scared before. “Sop, Bootyny, all y’all dat lemme win yo’ money: Ah’m sending it straight off to Sears and Roebuck and buy me some clothes, and when Ah turn out Christmas day, it would take a doctor to tell me how near Ah is dressed tuh death.”

15

Janie learned what it felt like to be jealous. A little chunky girl took to picking a play out of Tea Cake in the fields and in the quarters. If he said anything at all, she’d take the opposite side and hit him or shove him and run away to make him chase her. Janie knew what she was up to—luring him away from the crowd. It kept up for two or three weeks with Nunkie getting bolder all the time. She’d hit Tea Cake playfully and the minute he so much as tapped her with his finger she’d fall against him or fall on the ground and have to be picked up. She’d be almost helpless. It took a good deal of handling to set her on her feet again. And another thing, Tea Cake didn’t seem to be able to fend her off as promptly as Janie thought he ought to. She began to be snappish a little. A little seed of fear was growing into a tree. Maybe some day Tea Cake would weaken. Maybe he had already given secret encouragement and this was Nunkie’s way of bragging about it. Other people began to notice too, and that put Janie more on a wonder.

One day they were working near where the beans ended and the sugar cane began. Janie had marched off a little from Tea Cake’s side with another woman for a chat. When she glanced around Tea Cake was gone. Nunkie too. She knew because she looked.

“Where’s Tea Cake?” she asked Sop-de-Bottom.

He waved his hand towards the cane field and hurried away. Janie never thought at all. She just acted on feelings. She rushed into the cane and about the fifth row down she found Tea Cake and Nunkie struggling. She was on them before either knew.

“Whut’s de matter heah?” Janie asked in a cold rage. They sprang apart.

“Nothing’,” Tea Cake told her, standing shame-faced.

“Well, whut you doin’ in heah? How come you ain’t out dere wid de rest?”

“She grabbed mah workin’ tickets outa mah shirt pocket and Ah run tuh git ’em back,” Tea Cake explained, showing the tickets, considerably mauled about in the struggle.

Janie made a move to seize Nunkie but the girl fled. So she took out behind her over the humped-up cane rows. But Nunkie did not mean to be caught. So Janie went on home. The sight of the fields and the other happy people was too much for her that day. She walked slowly and thoughtfully to the quarters. It wasn’t long before Tea Cake found her there and tried to talk. She cut him short with a blow and they fought from one room to the other, Janie trying to beat him, and Tea Cake kept holding her wrists and wherever he could to keep her from going too far.

“Ah b’lieve you been messin’ round her!” she panted furiously.

“No sich uh thing!” Tea Cake retorted.

“Ah b’lieve yuh did.”

“Don’t keer how big uh lie get told, somebody kin b’lieve it!”

They fought on. “You done hurt mah heart, now you come wid uh lie tuh bruise mah ears! Turn go mah hands!” Janie seethed. But Tea Cake never let go. They wrestled on until they were doped with their own fumes and emanations; till their clothes had been torn away; till he hurled her to the floor and held her there melting her resistance with the heat of his body, doing things with their bodies to express the inexpressible; kissed her until she arched her body to meet him and they fell asleep in sweet exhaustion.

The next morning Janie asked like a woman, “You still love ole Nunkie?”

“Naw, never did, and you know it too. Ah didn’t want her.”

“Yeah, you did.” She didn’t say this because she believed it. She wanted to hear his denial. She had to crow over the fallen Nunkie.

“Whut would Ah do wid dat lil chunk of a woman wid you around? She ain’t good for nothin’ exceptin’ tuh set up in uh corner by de kitchen stove and break wood over her head. You’se something tuh make uh man forgit tuh git old and forgit tuh die.”

16

The season closed and people went away like they had come—in droves. Tea Cake and Janie decided to stay since they wanted to make another season on the muck. There was nothing to do, after they had gathered several bushels of dried beans to save over and sell to the planters in the fall. So Janie began to look around and see people and things she hadn’t noticed during the season.

For instance during the summer when she heard the subtle but compelling rhythms of the Bahaman drummers, she’d walk over and watch the dances. She did not laugh the “Saws” to scorn as she had heard the people doing in the season. She got to like it a lot and she and Tea Cake were on hand every night till the others teased them about it.

Janie came to know Mrs. Turner now. She had seen her several times during the season, but neither ever spoke. Now they got to be visiting friends.

Mrs. Turner was a milky sort of a woman that belonged to child-bed. Her shoulders rounded a little, and she must have been conscious of her pelvis because she kept it stuck out in front of her so she could always see it. Tea Cake made a lot of fun about Mrs. Turner’s shape behind her back. He claimed that she had been shaped up by a cow kicking her from behind. She was an ironing board with things throwed at it. Then that same cow took and stepped in her mouth when she was a baby and left it wide and flat with her chin and nose almost meeting.

But Mrs. Turner’s shape and features were entirely approved by Mrs. Turner. Her nose was slightly pointed and she was proud. Her thin lips were an ever delight to her eyes. Even her buttocks in bas-relief were a source of pride. To her way of thinking all these things set her aside from Negroes. That was why she sought out Janie to friend with. Janie’s coffee-and-cream complexion and her luxurious hair made Mrs. Turner forgive her for wearing overalls like the other women who worked in the fields. She didn’t forgive her for marrying a man as dark as Tea Cake, but she felt that she could remedy that. That was what her brother was born for. She seldom stayed long when she found Tea Cake at home, but when she happened to drop in and catch Janie alone, she’d spend hours chatting away. Her disfavorite subject was Negroes.

“Mis’ Woods, Ah have often said to mah husband, Ah don’t see how uh lady like Mis’ Woods can stand all them common niggers round her place all de time.”

“They don’t worry me atall, Mis’ Turner. Fact about de thing is, they tickles me wid they talk.”

“You got mo’ nerve than me. When somebody talked mah husband intuh comin’ down heah tuh open up uh eatin’ place Ah never dreamt so many different kins uh black folks could colleck in one place. Did Ah never woulda come. Ah ain’t useter ’ssociatin’ wid black folks. Mah son claims dey draws lightnin’.” They laughed a little and after many of these talks Mrs. Turner said, “Yo’ husband musta had plenty money when y’all got married.”

“Whut make you think dat, Mis’ Turner?”

“Tuh git hold of uh woman lak you. You got mo’ nerve than me. Ah jus’ couldn’t see mahself married to no black man. It’s too many black folks already. We oughta lighten up de race.”

“Naw, mah husband didn’t had nothin’ but hisself. He’s easy tuh love if you mess round ’im. Ah loves ’im.”

“Why you, Mis’ Woods! Ah don’t b’lieve it. You’se jus’ sorter hypnotized, dat’s all.”

“Naw, it’s real. Ah couldn’t stand it if he wuz tuh quit me. Don’t know whut Ah’d do. He kin take most any lil thing and make summertime out of it when times is dull. Then we lives offa dat happiness he made till some mo’ happiness come along.”

“You’se different from me. Ah can’t stand black niggers. Ah don’t blame de white folks from hatin’ ’em ’cause Ah can’t stand ’em mahself. ’Nother thing, Ah hates tuh see folks lak me and you mixed up wid ’em. Us oughta class off.”

“Us can’t do it. We’se uh mingled people and all of us got black kinfolks as well as yaller kinfolks. How come you so against black?”

“And dey makes me tired. Always laughin’! Dey laughs too much and dey laughs too loud. Always singin’ ol’ nigger songs! Always cuttin’ de monkey for white folks. If it wuzn’t for so many black folks it wouldn’t be no race problem. De white folks would take us in wid dem. De black ones is holdin’ us back.”

“You reckon? ’course Ah ain’t never thought about it too much. But Ah don’t figger dey even gointuh want us for comp’ny. We’se too poor.”

“ ’Tain’t de poorness, it’s de color and de features. Who want any lil ole black baby layin’ up in de baby buggy lookin’ lak uh fly in buttermilk? Who wants to be mixed up wid uh rusty black man, and uh black woman goin’ down de street in all dem loud colors, and whoopin’ and hollerin’ and laughin’ over nothin’? Ah don’t know. Don’t bring me no nigger doctor tuh hang over mah sick-bed. Ah done had six chillun—wuzn’t lucky enough tuh raise but dat one—and ain’t never had uh nigger tuh even feel mah pulse. White doctors always gits mah money. Ah don’t go in no nigger store tuh buy nothin’ neither. Colored folks don’t know nothin’ ’bout no business. Deliver me!”

Mrs. Turner was almost screaming in fanatical earnestness by now. Janie was dumb and bewildered before and she clucked sympathetically and wished she knew what to say. It was so evident that Mrs. Turner took black folk as a personal affront to herself.

“Look at me! Ah ain’t got no flat nose and liver lips. Ah’m uh featured woman. Ah got white folks’ features in mah face. Still and all Ah got tuh be lumped in wid all de rest. It ain’t fair. Even if dey don’t take us in wid de whites, dey oughta make us uh class tuh ourselves.”

“It don’t worry me atall, but Ah reckon Ah ain’t got no real head fur thinkin’.”

“You oughta meet mah brother. He’s real smart. Got dead straight hair. Dey made him uh delegate tuh de Sunday School Convention and he read uh paper on Booker T. Washington and tore him tuh pieces!”

“Booker T.? He wuz a great big man, wusn’t he?”

“ ’Sposed tuh be. All he ever done was cut de monkey for white folks. So dey pomped him up. But you know whut de ole folks say ‘de higher de monkey climbs de mo’ he show his behind’ so dat’s de way it wuz wid Booker T. Mah brother hit ’im every time dey give ’im chance tuh speak.”

“Ah was raised on de notion dat he wuz uh great big man,” was all that Janie knew to say.

“He didn’t do nothin’ but hold us back—talkin’ ’bout work when de race ain’t never done nothin’ else. He wuz uh enemy tuh us, dat’s whut. He wuz uh white folks’ nigger.”

According to all Janie had been taught this was sacrilege so she sat without speaking at all. But Mrs. Turner went on.

“Ah done sent fuh mah brother tuh come down and spend uh while wid us. He’s sorter outa work now. Ah wants yuh tuh meet him mo’ special. You and him would make up uh swell couple if you wuzn’t already married. He’s uh fine carpenter, when he kin git anything tuh do.”

“Yeah, maybe so. But Ah is married now, so ’tain’t no use in considerin’.”

Mrs. Turner finally rose to go after being very firm about several other viewpoints of either herself, her son or her brother. She begged Janie to drop in on her anytime, but never once mentioning Tea Cake. Finally she was gone and Janie hurried to her kitchen to put on supper and found Tea Cake sitting in there with his head between his hands.

“Tea Cake! Ah didn’t know you wuz home.”

“Ah know yuh didn’t. Ah been heah uh long time listenin’ to dat heifer run me down tuh de dawgs uh try tuh tole you off from me.”

“So dat whut she wuz up to? Ah didn’t know.”

“ ’Course she is. She got some no-count brother she wants yuh tuh hook up wid and take keer of Ah reckon.”

“Shucks! If dat’s her notion she’s barkin’ up de wrong tree. Mah hands is full already.”

“Thanky Ma’am. Ah hates dat woman lak poison. Keep her from round dis house. Her look lak uh white woman! Wid dat meriny skin and hair jus’ as close tuh her head as ninety-nine is tuh uh hundred! Since she hate black folks so, she don’t need our money in her ol’ eatin’ place. Ah’ll pass de word along. We kin go tuh dat white man’s place and git good treatment. Her and dat whittled-down husband uh hers! And dat son! He’s jus’ uh dirty trick her womb played on her. Ah’m telling her husband tuh keep her home. Ah don’t want her round dis house.”

One day Tea Cake met Turner and his son on the street. He was a vanishing-looking kind of a man as if there used to be parts about him that stuck out individually but now he hadn’t a thing about him that wasn’t dwindled and blurred. Just like he had been sand-papered down to a long oval mass. Tea Cake felt sorry for him without knowing why. So he didn’t blurt out the insults he had intended. But he couldn’t hold in everything. They talked about the prospects for the coming season for a moment, then Tea Cake said, “Yo’ wife don’t seem tuh have nothin’ much tuh do, so she kin visit uh lot. Mine got too much tuh do tuh go visitin’ and too much tuh spend time talkin’ tuh folks dat visit her.”

“Mah wife takes time fuh whatever she wants tuh do. Real strong headed dat way. Yes indeed.” He laughed a high lungless laugh. “De chillun don’t keep her in no mo’ so she visits when she chooses.”

“De chillun?” Tea Cake asked him in surprise. “You got any smaller than him?” He indicated the son who seemed around twenty or so. “Ah ain’t seen yo’ others.”

“Ah reckon you ain’t ’cause dey all passed on befo’ dis one wuz born. We ain’t had no luck atall wid our chillun. We lucky to raise him. He’s de last stroke of exhausted nature.”

He gave his powerless laugh again and Tea Cake and the boy joined in with him. Then Tea Cake walked on off and went home to Janie.

“Her husband can’t do nothin’ wid dat butt-headed woman. All you can do is treat her cold whenever she come round here.”

Janie tried that, but short of telling Mrs. Turner bluntly, there was nothing she could do to discourage her completely. She felt honored by Janie’s acquaintance and she quickly forgave and forgot snubs in order to keep it. Anyone who looked more white folkish than herself was better than she was in her criteria, therefore it was right that they should be cruel to her at times, just as she was cruel to those more negroid than herself in direct ratio to their negroness. Like the pecking-order in a chicken yard. Insensate cruelty to those you can whip, and groveling submission to those you can’t. Once having set up her idols and built altars to them it was inevitable that she would worship there. It was inevitable that she should accept any inconsistency and cruelty from her deity as all good worshippers do from theirs. All gods who receive homage are cruel. All gods dispense suffering without reason. Otherwise they would not be worshipped. Through indiscriminate suffering men know fear and fear is the most divine emotion. It is the stones for altars and the beginning of wisdom. Half gods are worshipped in wine and flowers. Real gods require blood.

Mrs. Turner, like all other believers had built an altar to the unattainable—Caucasian characteristics for all. Her god would smite her, would hurl her from pinnacles and lose her in deserts, but she would nor forsake his altars. Behind her crude words was a belief that somehow she and others through worship could attain her paradise—a heaven of straighthaired, thin-lipped, high-nose boned white seraphs. The physical impossibilities in no way injured faith. That was the mystery and mysteries are the chores of gods. Beyond her faith was a fanaticism to defend the altars of her god. It was distressing to emerge from her inner temple and find these black desecrators howling with laughter before the door. Oh, for an army, terrible with banners and swords!

So she didn’t cling to Janie Woods the woman. She paid homage to Janie’s Caucasian characteristics as such. And when she was with Janie she had a feeling of transmutation, as if she herself had become whiter and with straighter hair and she hated Tea Cake first for his defilement of divinity and next for his telling mockery of her. If she only knew something she could do about it! But she didn’t. Once she was complaining about the carryings-on at the jook and Tea Cake snapped, “Aw, don’t make God look so foolish—findin’ fault wid everything He made.”

So Mrs. Turner frowned most of the time. She had so much to disapprove of. It didn’t affect Tea Cake and Janie too much. It just gave them something to talk about in the summertime when everything was dull on the muck. Otherwise they made little trips to Palm Beach, Fort Myers and Fort Lauderdale for their fun. Before they realized it the sun was cooler and the crowds came pouring onto the muck again.

DMU Timestamp: September 03, 2020 08:33