Every morning the world flung itself over and exposed the town to the sun. So Janie had another day. And every day had a store in it, except Sundays. The store itself was a pleasant place if only she didn’t have to sell things. When the people sat around on the porch and passed around the pictures of their thoughts for the others to look at and see, it was nice. The fact that the thought pictures were always crayon enlargements of life made it even nicer to listen to.
Take for instance the case of Matt Bonner’s yellow mule. They had him up for conversation every day the Lord sent. Most especial if Matt was there himself to listen. Sam and Lige and Walter were the ringleaders of the mule-talkers. The others threw in whatever they could chance upon, but it seemed as if Sam and Lige and Walter could hear and see more about that mule than the whole county put together. All they needed was to see Matt’s long spare shape coming down the street and by the time he got to the porch they were ready for him.
“Mighty glad you come ’long right now, Matt. Me and some others wuz jus’ about tuh come hunt yuh.”
“Whut fuh, Sam?”
“Mighty serious matter, man. Serious!!”
“Yeah man,” Lige would cut in, dolefully. “It needs yo’ strict attention. You ought not tuh lose no time.”
“Whut is it then? You oughta hurry up and tell me.”
“Reckon we better not tell yuh heah at de store. It’s too fur off tuh do any good. We better all walk on down by Lake Sabelia.”
“Whut’s wrong, man? Ah ain’t after none uh y’alls foolishness now.”
“Dat mule uh yourn, Matt. You better go see ’bout him. He’s bad off.”
“Where ’bouts? Did he wade in de lake and uh alligator ketch him?”
“Worser’n dat. De womenfolks got yo’ mule. When Ah come round de lake ’bout noontime mah wife and some others had ’im flat on de ground usin’ his sides fuh uh wash board.”
The great clap of laughter that they have been holding in, bursts out. Sam never cracks a smile. “Yeah, Matt, dat mule so skinny till de women is usin’ his rib bones fuh uh rub-board, and hangin’ things out on his hock-bones tuh dry.”
Matt realizes that they have tricked him again and the laughter makes him mad and when he gets mad he stammers.
“You’se uh stinkin’ lie, Sam, and yo’ feet ain’t mates. Y-y-y-you!”
“Aw, man, ’tain’t no use in you gittin’ mad. Yuh know yuh don’t feed de mule. How he gointuh git fat?”
“Ah-ah-ah d-d-does feed ’im! Ah g-g-gived ’im uh full cup uh cawn every feedin’.”
“Lige knows all about dat cup uh cawn. He hid round yo’ barn and watched yuh. ’Tain’t no feed cup you measures dat cawn outa. It’s uh tea cup.”
“Ah does feed ’im. He’s jus’ too mean tuh git fat. He stay poor and rawbony jus’ fuh spite. Skeered he’ll hafta work some.”
“Yeah, you feeds ’im. Feeds ’im offa ‘come up’ and seasons it wid raw-hide.”
“Does feed de ornery varmint! Don’t keer whut Ah do Ah can’t git long wid ’im. He fights every inch in front uh de plow, and even lay back his ears tuh kick and bite when Ah go in de stall tuh feed ’im.”
“Git reconciled, Matt,” Lige soothed. “Us all knows he’s mean. Ah seen ’im when he took after one uh dem Roberts chillun in de street and woulda caught ’im and maybe trompled ’im tuh death if de wind hadn’t of changed all of a sudden. Yuh see de youngun wuz tryin’ tuh make it tuh de fence uh Starks’ onion patch and de mule wuz dead in behind ’im and gainin’ on ’im every jump, when all of a sudden de wind changed and blowed de mule way off his course, him bein’ so poor and everything, and before de ornery varmint could tack, de youngun had done got over de fence.” The porch laughed and Matt got mad again.
“Maybe de mule takes out after everybody,” Sam said, “ ’cause he thinks everybody he hear comin’ is Matt Bonner comin’ tuh work ’im on uh empty stomach.”
“Aw, naw, aw, naw. You stop dat right now,” Walter objected. “Dat mule don’t think Ah look lak no Matt Bonner. He ain’t dat dumb. If Ah thought he didn’t know no better Ah’d have mah picture took and give it tuh dat mule so’s he could learn better. Ah ain’t gointuh ’low ’im tuh hold nothin’ lak dat against me.”
Matt struggled to say something but his tongue failed him so he jumped down off the porch and walked away as mad as he could be. But that never halted the mule talk. There would be more stories about how poor the brute was; his age; his evil disposition and his latest caper. Everybody indulged in mule talk. He was next to the Mayor in prominence, and made better talking.
Janie loved the conversation and sometimes she thought up good stories on the mule, but Joe had forbidden her to indulge. He didn’t want her talking after such trashy people. “You’se Mrs. Mayor Starks, Janie. I god, Ah can’t see what uh woman uh yo’ stability would want tuh be treasurin’ all dat gum-grease from folks dat don’t even own de house dey sleep in. ’Tain’t no earthly use. They’s jus’ some puny humans playin’ round de toes uh Time.”
Janie noted that while he didn’t talk the mule himself, he sat and laughed at it. Laughed his big heh, heh laugh too. But then when Lige or Sam or Walter or some of the other big picture talkers were using a side of the world for a canvas, Joe would hustle her off inside the store to sell something. Look like he took pleasure in doing it. Why couldn’t he go himself sometimes? She had come to hate the inside of that store anyway. That Post Office too. People always coming and asking for mail at the wrong time. Just when she was trying to count up something or write in an account book. Get her so hackled she’d make the wrong change for stamps. Then too, she couldn’t read everybody’s writing. Some folks wrote so funny and spelt things different from what she knew about. As a rule, Joe put up the mail himself, but sometimes when he was off she had to do it herself and it always ended up in a fuss.
The store itself kept her with a sick headache. The labor of getting things down off of a shelf or out of a barrel was nothing. And so long as people wanted only a can of tomatoes or a pound of rice it was all right. But supposing they went on and said a pound and a half of bacon and a half pound of lard? The whole thing changed from a little walking and stretching to a mathematical dilemma. Or maybe cheese was thirty-seven cents a pound and somebody came and asked for a dime’s worth. She went through many silent rebellions over things like that. Such a waste of life and time. But Joe kept saying that she could do it if she wanted to and he wanted her to use her privileges. That was the rock she was battered against.
This business of the headrag irked her endlessly. But Jody was set on it. Her hair was NOT going to show in the store. It didn’t seem sensible at all. That was because Joe never told Janie how jealous he was. He never told her how often he had seen the other men figuratively wallowing in it as she went about things in the store. And one night he had caught Walter standing behind Janie and brushing the back of his hand back and forth across the loose end of her braid ever so lightly so as to enjoy the feel of it without Janie knowing what he was doing. Joe was at the back of the store and Walter didn’t see him. He felt like rushing forth with the meat knife and chopping off the offending hand. That night he ordered Janie to tie up her hair around the store. That was all. She was there in the store for him to look at, not those others. But he never said things like that. It just wasn’t in him. Take the matter of the yellow mule, for instance.
Late one afternoon Matt came from the west with a halter in his hand. “Been huntin’ fuh mah mule. Anybody seen ’im?” he asked.
“Seen ’im soon dis mornin’ over behind de schoolhouse,” Lum said. “ ’Bout ten o’clock or so. He musta been out all night tuh be way over dere dat early.”
“He wuz,” Matt answered. “Seen ’im last night but Ah couldn’t ketch ’im. Ah’m ’bliged tuh git ’im in tuhnight ’cause Ah got some plowin’ fuh tuhmorrow. Done promised tuh plow Thompson’s grove.”
“Reckon you’ll ever git through de job wid dat mule-frame?” Lige asked.
“Aw dat mule is plenty strong. Jus’ evil and don’t want tuh be led.”
“Dat’s right. Dey tell me he brought you heah tuh dis town. Say you started tuh Miccanopy but de mule had better sense and brung yuh on heah.”
“It’s uh l-l-lie! Ah set out fuh dis town when Ah left West Floridy.”
“You mean tuh tell me you rode dat mule all de way from West Floridy down heah?”
“Sho he did, Lige. But he didn’t mean tuh. He wuz satisfied up dere, but de mule wuzn’t. So one mornin’ he got straddle uh de mule and he took and brought ’im on off. Mule had sense. Folks up dat way don’t eat biscuit bread but once uh week.”
There was always a little seriousness behind the teasing of Matt, so when he got huffed and walked on off nobody minded. He was known to buy side-meat by the slice. Carried home little bags of meal and flour in his hand. He didn’t seem to mind too much so long as it didn’t cost him anything.
About half an hour after he left they heard the braying of the mule at the edge of the woods. He was coming past the store very soon.
“Less ketch Matt’s mule fuh ’im and have some fun.”
“Now, Lum, you know dat mule ain’t aimin’ tuh let hisself be caught. Less watch you do it.”
When the mule was in front of the store, Lum went out and tackled him. The brute jerked up his head, laid back his ears and rushed to the attack. Lum had to run for safety. Five or six more men left the porch and surrounded the fractious beast, goosing him in the sides and making him show his temper. But he had more spirit left than body. He was soon panting and heaving from the effort of spinning his old carcass about. Everybody was having fun at the mule-baiting. All but Janie.
She snatched her head away from the spectacle and began muttering to herself. “They oughta be shamed uh theyselves! Teasin’ dat poor brute beast lak they is! Done been worked tuh death; done had his disposition ruint wid mistreatment, and now they got tuh finish devilin’ ’im tuh death. Wisht Ah had mah way wid ’em all.”
She walked away from the porch and found something to busy herself with in the back of the store so she did not hear Jody when he stopped laughing. She didn’t know that he had heard her, but she did hear him yell out, “Lum, I god, dat’s enough! Y’all done had yo’ fun now. Stop yo’ foolishness and go tell Matt Bonner Ah wants tuh have uh talk wid him right away.”
Janie came back out front and sat down. She didn’t say anything and neither did Joe. But after a while he looked down at his feet and said, “Janie, Ah reckon you better go fetch me dem old black gaiters. Dese tan shoes sets mah feet on fire. Plenty room in ’em, but they hurts regardless.”
She got up without a word and went off for the shoes. A little war of defense for helpless things was going on inside her. People ought to have some regard for helpless things. She wanted to fight about it. “But Ah hates disagreement and confusion, so Ah better not talk. It makes it hard tuh git along.” She didn’t hurry back. She fumbled around long enough to get her face straight. When she got back, Joe was talking with Matt.
“Fifteen dollars? I god you’se as crazy as uh betsy bug! Five dollars.”
“L-l-less we strack uh compermise, Brother Mayor. Less m-make it ten.”
“Five dollars.” Joe rolled his cigar in his mouth and rolled his eyes away indifferently.
“If dat mule is wuth somethin’ tuh you, Brother Mayor, he’s wuth mo’ tuh me. More special when Ah got uh job uh work tuhmorrow.”
“All right, Brother Mayor. If you wants tuh rob uh poor man lak me uh everything he got tuh make uh livin’ wid, Ah’ll take de five dollars. Dat mule been wid me twenty-three years. It’s mighty hard.”
Mayor Starks deliberately changed his shoes before he reached into his pocket for the money. By that time Matt was wringing and twisting like a hen on a hot brick. But as soon as his hand closed on the money his face broke into a grin.
“Beatyuh tradin’ dat time, Starks! Dat mule is liable tuh be dead befo’ de week is out. You won’t git no work outa him.”
“Didn’t buy ’im fuh no work. I god, Ah bought dat varmint tuh let ’im rest. You didn’t have gumption enough tuh do it.”
A respectful silence fell on the place. Sam looked at Joe and said, “Dat’s uh new idea ’bout varmints, Mayor Starks. But Ah laks it mah ownself. It’s uh noble thing you done.” Everybody agreed with that.
Janie stood still while they all made comments. When it was all done she stood in front of Joe and said, “Jody, dat wuz uh mighty fine thing fuh you tuh do. ’Tain’t everybody would have thought of it, ’cause it ain’t no everyday thought. Freein’ dat mule makes uh mighty big man outa you. Something like George Washington and Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln, he had de whole United States tuh rule so he freed de Negroes. You got uh town so you freed uh mule. You have tuh have power tuh free things and dat makes you lak uh king uh something.”
Hambo said, “Yo’ wife is uh born orator, Starks. Us never knowed dat befo’. She put jus’ de right words tuh our thoughts.”
Joe bit down hard on his cigar and beamed all around, but he never said a word. The town talked it for three days and said that’s just what they would have done if they had been rich men like Joe Starks. Anyhow a free-mule in town was something new to talk about. Starks piled fodder under the big tree near the porch and the mule was usually around the store like the other citizens. Nearly everybody took the habit of fetching along a handful of fodder to throw on the pile. He almost got fat and they took a great pride in him. New lies sprung up about his free-mule doings. How he pushed open Lindsay’s kitchen door and slept in the place one night and fought until they made coffee for his breakfast; how he stuck his head in the Pearsons’ window while the family was at the table and Mrs. Pearson mistook him for Rev. Pearson and handed him a plate; he ran Mrs. Tully off of the croquet ground for having such an ugly shape; he ran and caught up with Becky Anderson on the way to Maitland so as to keep his head out of the sun under her umbrella; he got tired of listening to Redmond’s long-winded prayer, and went inside the Baptist church and broke up the meeting. He did everything but let himself be bridled and visit Matt Bonner.
But way after a while he died. Lum found him under the big tree on his rawbony back with all four feet up in the air. That wasn’t natural and it didn’t look right, but Sam said it would have been more unnatural for him to have laid down on his side and died like any other beast. He had seen Death coming and had stood his ground and fought it like a natural man. He had fought it to the last breath. Naturally he didn’t have time to straighten himself out. Death had to take him like it found him.
When the news got around, it was like the end of a war or something like that. Everybody that could knocked off from work to stand around and talk. But finally there was nothing to do but drag him out like all other dead brutes. Drag him out to the edge of the hammock which was far enough off to satisfy sanitary conditions in the town. The rest was up to the buzzards. Everybody was going to the dragging-out. The news had got Mayor Starks out of bed before time. His pair of gray horses was out under the tree and the men were fooling with the gear when Janie arrived at the store with Joe’s breakfast.
“I god, Lum, you fasten up dis store good befo’ you leave, you hear me?” He was eating fast and talking with one eye out of the door on the operations.
“Whut you tellin’ ’im tuh fasten up for, Jody?” Janie asked, surprised.
“ ’Cause it won’t be nobody heah tuh look after de store. Ah’m goin’ tuh de draggin’-out mahself.”
“ ’Tain’t nothin’ so important Ah got tuh do tuhday, Jody. How come Ah can’t go long wid you tuh de draggin’-out?”
Joe was struck speechless for a minute. “Why, Janie! You wouldn’t be seen at uh draggin’-out, wouldja? Wid any and everybody in uh passle pushin’ and shovin’ wid they no-manners selves? Naw, naw!”
“You would be dere wid me, wouldn’t yuh?”
“Dat’s right, but Ah’m uh man even if Ah is de Mayor. But de mayor’s wife is somethin’ different again. Anyhow they’s liable tuh need me tuh say uh few words over de carcass, dis bein’ uh special case. But you ain’t goin’ off in all dat mess uh commonness. Ah’m surprised at yuh fuh askin’.”
He wiped his lips of ham gravy and put on his hat. “Shet de door behind yuh, Janie. Lum is too busy wid de hawses.”
After more shouting of advice and orders and useless comments, the town escorted the carcass off. No, the carcass moved off with the town, and left Janie standing in the doorway.
Out in the swamp they made great ceremony over the mule. They mocked everything human in death. Starks led off with a great eulogy on our departed citizen, our most distinguished citizen and the grief he left behind him, and the people loved the speech. It made him more solid than building the schoolhouse had done. He stood on the distended belly of the mule for a platform and made gestures. When he stepped down, they hoisted Sam up and he talked about the mule as a school teacher first. Then he set his hat like John Pearson and imitated his preaching. He spoke of the joys of mule-heaven to which the dear brother had departed this valley of sorrow; the mule-angels flying around; the miles of green corn and cool water, a pasture of pure bran with a river of molasses running through it; and most glorious of all, No Matt Bonner with plow lines and halters to come in and corrupt. Up there, mule-angels would have people to ride on and from his place beside the glittering throne, the dear departed brother would look down into hell and see the devil plowing Matt Bonner all day long in a hell-hot sun and laying the raw-hide to his back.
With that the sisters got mock-happy and shouted and had to be held up by the menfolks. Everybody enjoyed themselves to the highest and then finally the mule was left to the already impatient buzzards. They were holding a great flying-meet way up over the heads of the mourners and some of the nearby trees were already peopled with the stoop-shouldered forms.
As soon as the crowd was out of sight they closed in circles. The near ones got nearer and the far ones got near. A circle, a swoop and a hop with spread-out wings. Close in, close in till some of the more hungry or daring perched on the carcass. They wanted to begin, but the Parson wasn’t there, so a messenger was sent to the ruler in a tree where he sat.
The flock had to wait for the white-headed leader, but it was hard. They jostled each other and pecked at heads in hungry irritation. Some walked up and down the beast from head to tail, tail to head. The Parson sat motionless in a dead pine tree about two miles off. He had scented the matter as quickly as any of the rest, but decorum demanded that he sit oblivious until he was notified. Then he took off with ponderous flight and circled and lowered, circled and lowered until the others danced in joy and hunger at his approach.
He finally lit on the ground and walked around the body to see if it were really dead. Peered into its nose and mouth. Examined it well from end to end and leaped upon it and bowed, and the others danced a response. That being over, he balanced and asked:
“What killed this man?”
The chorus answered, “Bare, bare fat.”
“What killed this man?”
“Bare, bare fat.”
“What killed this man?”
“Bare, bare fat.”
“Who’ll stand his funeral?”
“Well, all right now.”
So he picked out the eyes in the ceremonial way and the feast went on. The yaller mule was gone from the town except for the porch talk, and for the children visiting his bleaching bones now and then in the spirit of adventure.
Joe returned to the store full of pleasure and good humor but he didn’t want Janie to notice it because he saw that she was sullen and he resented that. She had no right to be, the way he thought things out. She wasn’t even appreciative of his efforts and she had plenty cause to be. Here he was just pouring honor all over her; building a high chair for her to sit in and overlook the world and she here pouting over it! Not that he wanted anybody else, but just too many women would be glad to be in her place. He ought to box her jaws! But he didn’t feel like fighting today, so he made an attack upon her position backhand.
“Ah had tuh laugh at de people out dere in de woods dis mornin’, Janie. You can’t help but laugh at de capers they cuts. But all the same, Ah wish mah people would git mo’ business in ’em and not spend so much time on foolishness.”
“Everybody can’t be lak you, Jody. Somebody is bound tuh want tuh laugh and play.”
“Who don’t love tuh laugh and play?”
“You make out like you don’t, anyhow.”
“I god, Ah don’t make out no such uh lie! But it’s uh time fuh all things. But it’s awful tuh see so many people don’t want nothin’ but uh full belly and uh place tuh lay down and sleep afterwards. It makes me sad sometimes and then agin it makes me mad. They say things sometimes that tickles me nearly tuh death, but Ah won’t laugh jus’ tuh dis-incourage ’em.” Janie took the easy way away from a fuss. She didn’t change her mind but she agreed with her mouth. Her heart said, “Even so, but you don’t have to cry about it.”
But sometimes Sam Watson and Lige Moss forced a belly laugh out of Joe himself with their eternal arguments. It never ended because there was no end to reach. It was a contest in hyperbole and carried on for no other reason.
Maybe Sam would be sitting on the porch when Lige walked up. If nobody was there to speak of, nothing happened. But if the town was there like on Saturday night, Lige would come up with a very grave air. Couldn’t even pass the time of day, for being so busy thinking. Then when he was asked what was the matter in order to start him off, he’d say, “Dis question done ’bout drove me crazy. And Sam, he know so much into things, Ah wants some information on de subject.”
Walter Thomas was due to speak up and egg the matter on. “Yeah, Sam always got more information than he know what to do wid. He’s bound to tell yuh whatever it is you wants tuh know.”
Sam begins an elaborate show of avoiding the struggle. That draws everybody on the porch into it.
“How come you want me tuh tell yuh? You always claim God done met you round de corner and talked His inside business wid yuh. ’Tain’t no use in you askin’ me nothin’. Ah’m questionizin’ you.”
“How you gointuh do dat, Sam, when Ah arrived dis conversation mahself? Ah’m askin’ you.”
“Askin’ me what? You ain’t told me de subjick yit.”
“Don’t aim tuh tell yuh! Ah aims tuh keep yuh in de dark all de time. If you’se smart lak you let on you is, you kin find out.”
“Yuh skeered to lemme know whut it is, ’cause yuh know Ah’ll tear it tuh pieces. You got to have a subjick tuh talk from, do yuh can’t talk. If uh man ain’t got no bounds, he ain’t got no place tuh stop.”
By this time, they are the center of the world.
“Well all right then. Since you own up you ain’t smart enough tuh find out whut Ah’m talkin’ ’bout, Ah’ll tell you. Whut is it dat keeps uh man from gettin’ burnt on uh red-hot stove—caution or nature?”
“Shucks! Ah thought you had somethin’ hard tuh ast me. Walter kin tell yuh dat.”
“If de conversation is too deep for yuh, how come yuh don’t tell me so, and hush up? Walter can’t tell me nothin’ uh de kind. Ah’m uh educated man, Ah keeps mah arrangements in mah hands, and if it kept me up all night long studyin’ ’bout it, Walter ain’t liable tuh be no help to me. Ah needs uh man lak you.”
“And then agin, Lige, Ah’m gointuh tell yuh. Ah’m gointuh run dis conversation from uh gnat heel to uh lice. It’s nature dat keeps uh man off of uh red-hot stove.”
“Uuh huuh! Ah knowed you would going tuh crawl up in dat holler! But Ah aims tuh smoke yuh right out. ’Tain’t no nature at all, it’s caution, Sam.”
“ ’Tain’t no sich uh thing! Nature tells yuh not tuh fool wid no red-hot stove, and you don’t do it neither.”
“Listen, Sam, if it was nature, nobody wouldn’t have tuh look out for babies touchin’ stoves, would they? ’Cause dey just naturally wouldn’t touch it. But dey sho will. So it’s caution.”
“Naw it ain’t, it’s nature, cause nature makes caution. It’s de strongest thing dat God ever made, now. Fact is it’s de onliest thing God ever made. He made nature and nature made everything else.”
“Naw nature didn’t neither. A whole heap of things ain’t even been made yit.”
“Tell me somethin’ you know of dat nature ain’t made.”
“She ain’t made it so you kin ride uh butt-headed cow and hold on tuh de horns.”
“Yeah, but dat ain’t yo’ point.”
“Yeah it is too.”
“Naw it ain’t neither.”
“Well what is mah point?”
“You ain’t got none, so far.”
“Yeah he is too,” Walter cut in. “De red-hot stove is his point.”
“He know mighty much, but he ain’t proved it yit.”
“Sam, Ah say it’s caution, not nature dat keeps folks off uh red-hot stove.”
“How is de son gointuh be before his paw? Nature is de first of everything. Ever since self was self, nature been keepin’ folks off of red-hot stoves. Dat caution you talkin’ ’bout ain’t nothin’ but uh humbug. He’s uh inseck dat nothin’ he got belongs to him. He got eyes, lak somethin’ else; wings lak somethin’ else—everything! Even his hum is de sound of somebody else.”
“Man, whut you talkin’ ’bout? Caution is de greatest thing in de world. If it wasn’t for caution—”
“Show me somethin’ dat caution ever made! Look whut nature took and done. Nature got so high in uh black hen she got tuh lay uh white egg. Now you tell me, how come, whut got intuh man dat he got tuh have hair round his mouth? Nature!”
The porch was boiling now. Starks left the store to Hezekiah Potts, the delivery boy, and come took a seat in his high chair.
“Look at dat great big ole scoundrel-beast up dere at Hall’s fillin’ station—uh great big old scoundrel. He eats up all de folks outa de house and den eat de house.”
“Aw ’tain’t no sich a varmint nowhere dat kin eat no house! Dat’s uh lie. Ah wuz dere yiste’ddy and Ah ain’t seen nothin’ lak dat. Where is he?”
“Ah didn’t see him but Ah reckon he is in de back-yard some place. But dey got his picture out front dere. They was nailin’ it up when Ah come pass dere dis evenin’.”
“Well all right now, if he eats up houses how come he don’t eat up de fillin’ station?”
“Dat’s ’cause dey got him tied up so he can’t. Dey got uh great big picture tellin’ how many gallons of dat Sinclair high-compression gas he drink at one time and how he’s more’n uh million years old.”
“ ’Tain’t nothin’ no million years old!”
“De picture is right up dere where anybody kin see it. Dey can’t make de picture till dey see de thing, kin dey?”
“How dey goin’ to tell he’s uh million years old? Nobody wasn’t born dat fur back.”
“By de rings on his tail Ah reckon. Man, dese white folks got ways for tellin’ anything dey wants tuh know.”
“Well, where he been at all dis time, then?”
“Dey caught him over dere in Egypt. Seem lak he used tuh hang round dere and eat up dem Pharaohs’ tombstones. Dey got de picture of him doin’ it. Nature is high in uh varmint lak dat. Nature and salt. Dat’s whut makes up strong man lak Big John de Conquer. He was uh man wid salt in him. He could give uh flavor to anything.”
“Yeah, but he was uh man dat wuz more’n man. ’Tain’t no mo’ lak him. He wouldn’t dig potatoes, and he wouldn’t rake hay: He wouldn’t take a whipping, and he wouldn’t run away.”
“Oh yeah, somebody else could if dey tried hard enough. Me mahself, Ah got salt in me. If Ah like man flesh, Ah could eat some man every day, some of ’em is so trashy they’d let me eat ’em.”
“Lawd, Ah loves to talk about Big John. Less we tell lies on Ole John.”
But here come Bootsie, and Teadi and Big ’oman down the street making out they are pretty by the way they walk. They have got that fresh, new taste about them like young mustard greens in the spring, and the young men on the porch are just bound to tell them about it and buy them some treats.
“Heah come mah order right now,” Charlie Jones announces and scrambles off the porch to meet them. But he has plenty of competition. A pushing, shoving show of gallantry. They all beg the girls to just buy anything they can think of. Please let them pay for it. Joe is begged to wrap up all the candy in the store and order more. All the peanuts and soda water—everything!
“Gal, Ah’m crazy ’bout you,” Charlie goes on to the entertainment of everybody. “Ah’ll do anything in the world except work for you and give you mah money.”
The girls and everybody else help laugh. They know it’s not courtship. It’s acting-out courtship and everybody is in the play. The three girls hold the center of the stage till Daisy Blunt comes walking down the street in the moonlight.
Daisy is walking a drum tune. You can almost hear it by looking at the way she walks. She is black and she knows that white clothes look good on her, so she wears them for dress up. She’s got those big black eyes with plenty shiny white in them that makes them shine like brand new money and she knows what God gave women eyelashes for, too. Her hair is not what you might call straight. It’s negro hair, but it’s got a kind of white flavor. Like the piece of string out of a ham. It’s not ham at all, but it’s been around ham and got the flavor. It was spread down thick and heavy over her shoulders and looked just right under a big white hat.
“Lawd, Lawd, Lawd,” that same Charlie Jones exclaims rushing over to Daisy. “It must be uh recess in heben if St. Peter is lettin’ his angels out lak dis. You got three men already layin’ at de point uh death ’bout yuh, and heah’s uhnother fool dat’s willin’ tuh make time on yo’ gang.”
All the rest of the single men have crowded around Daisy by this time. She is parading and blushing at the same time.
“If you know anybody dat’s ’bout tuh die ’bout me, yuh know more’n Ah do,” Daisy bridled. “Wisht Ah knowed who it is.”
“Now, Daisy, you know Jim, and Dave and Lum is ’bout tuh kill one ’nother ’bout you. Don’t stand up here and tell dat big ole got-dat-wrong.”
“Dey a mighty hush-mouf about it if dey is. Dey ain’t never told me nothin’.”
“Unhhunh, you talked too fast. Heah, Jim and Dave is right upon de porch and Lum is inside de store.”
A big burst of laughter at Daisy’s discomfiture. The boys had to act out their rivalry too. Only this time, everybody knew they meant some of it. But all the same the porch enjoyed the play and helped out whenever extras were needed.
David said, “Jim don’t love Daisy. He don’t love yuh lak Ah do.”
Jim bellowed indignantly, “Who don’t love Daisy? Ah know you ain’t talkin’ ’bout me.”
Dave: “Well all right, less prove dis thing right now. We’ll prove right now who love dis gal de best. How much time is you willin’ tuh make fuh Daisy?”
Jim: “Twenty yeahs!”
Dave: “See? Ah told yuh dat nigger didn’t love yuh. Me, Ah’ll beg de Judge tuh hang me, and wouldn’t take nothin’ less than life.”
There was a big long laugh from the porch. Then Jim had to demand a test.
“Dave, how much would you be willin’ tuh do for Daisy if she was to turn fool enough tuh marry yuh?”
“Me and Daisy done talked dat over, but if you just got tuh know, Ah’d buy Daisy uh passenger train and give it tuh her.”
“Humph! Is dat all? Ah’d buy her uh steamship and then Ah’d hire some mens tuh run it fur her.”
“Daisy, don’t let Jim fool you wid his talk. He don’t aim tuh do nothin’ fuh yuh. Uh lil ole steamship! Daisy, Ah’ll take uh job cleanin’ out de Atlantic Ocean fuh you any time you say you so desire.” There was a great laugh and then they hushed to listen.
“Daisy,” Jim began, “you know mah heart and all de ranges uh mah mind. And you know if Ah wuz ridin’ up in uh earoplane way up in de sky and Ah looked down and seen you walkin’ and knowed you’d have tuh walk ten miles tuh git home, Ah’d step backward offa dat earoplane just to walk home wid you.”
There was one of those big blow-out laughs and Janie was wallowing in it. Then Jody ruined it all for her.
Mrs. Bogle came walking down the street towards the porch. Mrs. Bogle who was many times a grandmother, but had a blushing air of coquetry about her that cloaked her sunken cheeks. You saw a fluttering fan before her face and magnolia blooms and sleepy lakes under the moonlight when she walked. There was no obvious reason for it, it was just so. Her first husband had been a coachman but “studied jury” to win her. He had finally become a preacher to hold her till his death. Her second husband worked in Fohnes orange grove—but tried to preach when he caught her eye. He never got any further than a class leader, but that was something to offer her. It proved his love and pride. She was a wind on the ocean. She moved men, but the helm determined the port. Now, this night she mounted the steps and the men noticed her until she passed inside the door.
“I god, Janie,” Starks said impatiently, “why don’t you go on and see whut Mrs. Bogle want? Whut you waitin’ on?”
Janie wanted to hear the rest of the play-acting and how it ended, but she got up sullenly and went inside. She came back to the porch with her bristles sticking out all over her and with dissatisfaction written all over her face. Joe saw it and lifted his own hackles a bit.
Jim Weston had secretly borrowed a dime and soon he was loudly beseeching Daisy to have a treat on him. Finally she consented to take a pickled pig foot on him. Janie was getting up a large order when they came in, so Lum waited on them. That is, he went back to the keg but came back without the pig foot.
“Mist’ Starks, de pig feets is all gone!” he called out.
“Aw naw dey ain’t, Lum. Ah bought uh whole new kag of ’em wid dat last order from Jacksonville. It come in yistiddy.”
Joe came and helped Lum look but he couldn’t find the new keg either, so he went to the nail over his desk that he used for a file to search for the order.
“Janie, where’s dat last bill uh ladin’?”
“It’s right dere on de nail, ain’t it?”
“Naw it ain’t neither. You ain’t put it where Ah told yuh tuh. If you’d git yo’ mind out de streets and keep it on yo’ business maybe you could git somethin’ straight sometimes.”
“Aw, look around dere, Jody. Dat bill ain’t apt tuh be gone off nowheres. If it ain’t hangin’ on de nail, it’s on yo’ desk. You bound tuh find it if you look.”
“Wid you heah, Ah oughtn’t tuh hafta do all dat lookin’ and searchin’. Ah done told you time and time agin tuh stick all dem papers on dat nail! All you got tuh do is mind me. How come you can’t do lak Ah tell yuh?”
“You sho loves to tell me whut to do, but Ah can’t tell you nothin’ Ah see!”
“Dat’s ’cause you need tellin’,” he rejoined hotly. “It would be pitiful if Ah didn’t. Somebody got to think for women and chillun and chickens and cows. I god, they sho don’t think none theirselves.”
“Ah knows uh few things, and womenfolks thinks sometimes too!”
“Aw naw they don’t. They just think they’s thinkin’. When Ah see one thing Ah understands ten. You see ten things and don’t understand one.”
Times and scenes like that put Janie to thinking about the inside state of her marriage. Time came when she fought back with her tongue as best she could, but it didn’t do her any good. It just made Joe do more. He wanted her submission and he’d keep on fighting until he felt he had it.
So gradually, she pressed her teeth together and learned to hush. The spirit of the marriage left the bedroom and took to living in the parlor. It was there to shake hands whenever company came to visit, but it never went back inside the bedroom again. So she put something in there to represent the spirit like a Virgin Mary image in a church. The bed was no longer a daisy-field for her and Joe to play in. It was a place where she went and laid down when she was sleepy and tired.
She wasn’t petal-open anymore with him. She was twenty-four and seven years married when she knew. She found that out one day when he slapped her face in the kitchen. It happened over one of those dinners that chasten all women sometimes. They plan and they fix and they do, and then some kitchen-dwelling fiend slips a scorchy, soggy, tasteless mess into their pots and pans. Janie was a good cook, and Joe had looked forward to his dinner as a refuge from other things. So when the bread didn’t rise, and the fish wasn’t quite done at the bone, and the rice was scorched, he slapped Janie until she had a ringing sound in her ears and told her about her brains before he stalked on back to the store.
Janie stood where he left her for unmeasured time and thought. She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her. Then she went inside there to see what it was. It was her image of Jody tumbled down and shattered. But looking at it she saw that it never was the flesh and blood figure of her dreams. Just something she had grabbed up to drape her dreams over. In a way she turned her back upon the image where it lay and looked further. She had no more blossomy openings dusting pollen over her man, neither any glistening young fruit where the petals used to be. She found that she had a host of thoughts she had never expressed to him, and numerous emotions she had never let Jody know about. Things packed up and put away in parts of her heart where he could never find them. She was saving up feelings for some man she had never seen. She had an inside and an outside now and suddenly she knew how not to mix them.
She bathed and put on a fresh dress and head kerchief and went on to the store before Jody had time to send for her. That was a bow to the outside of things.
Jody was on the porch and the porch was full of Eatonville as usual at this time of the day. He was baiting Mrs. Tony Robbins as he always did when she came to the store. Janie could see Jody watching her out of the corner of his eye while he joked roughly with Mrs. Robbins. He wanted to be friendly with her again. His big, big laugh was as much for her as for the baiting. He was longing for peace but on his own terms.
“I god, Mrs. Robbins, whut make you come heah and worry me when you see Ah’m readin’ mah newspaper?” Mayor Starks lowered the paper in pretended annoyance.
Mrs. Robbins struck her pity-pose and assumed the voice.
“ ’Cause Ah’m hongry, Mist’ Starks. ’Deed Ah is. Me and mah chillun is hongry. Tony don’t fee-eed me!”
This was what the porch was waiting for. They burst into a laugh.
“Mrs. Robbins, how can you make out you’se hongry when Tony comes in here every Satitday and buys groceries lak a man? Three weeks’ shame on yuh!”
“If he buy all dat you talkin’ ’bout, Mist’ Starks, God knows whut he do wid it. He sho don’t bring it home, and me and mah po’ chillun is so hongry! Mist’ Starks, please gimme uh lil piece uh meat fur me and mah chillun.”
“Ah know you don’t need it, but come on inside. You ain’t goin’ tuh lemme read till Ah give it to yuh.”
Mrs. Tony’s ecstasy was divine. “Thank you, Mist’ Starks. You’se noble! You’se du most gentlemanfied man Ah ever did see. You’se uh king!”
The salt pork box was in the back of the store and during the walk Mrs. Tony was so eager she sometimes stepped on Joe’s heels, sometimes she was a little before him. Something like a hungry cat when somebody approaches her pan with meat. Running a little, caressing a little and all the time making little urging-on cries.
“Yes, indeedy, Mist’ Starks, you’se noble. You got sympathy for me and mah po’ chillun. Tony don’t give us nothin’ tuh eat and we’se so hongry. Tony don’t fee-eed me!”
This brought them to the meat box. Joe took up the big meat knife and selected a piece of side-meat to cut. Mrs. Tony was all but dancing around him.
“Dat’s right, Mist’ Starks! Gimme uh lil piece ’bout dis wide.” She indicated as wide as her wrist and hand. “Me and mah chillun is so hongry!”
Starks hardly looked at her measurements. He had seen them too often. He marked off a piece much smaller and sunk the blade in. Mrs. Tony all but fell to the floor in her agony.
“Lawd a’mussy! Mist’ Starks, you ain’t gointuh gimme dat lil tee-ninchy piece fuh me and all mah chillun, is yuh? Lawd, we’se so hongry!”
Starks cut right on and reached for a piece of wrapping paper. Mrs. Tony leaped away from the proffered cut of meat as if it were a rattlesnake.
“Ah wouldn’t tetch it! Dat lil eyeful uh bacon for me and all mah chillun! Lawd, some folks is got everything and they’s so gripin’ and so mean!”
Starks made as if to throw the meat back in the box and close it. Mrs. Tony swooped like lightning and seized it, and started towards the door.
“Some folks ain’t got no heart in dey bosom. They’s willin’ tuh see uh po’ woman and her helpless chillun starve tuh death. God’s gointuh put ’em under arrest, some uh dese days, wid dey stingy gripin’ ways.”
She stepped from the store porch and marched off in high dudgeon! Some laughed and some got mad.
“If dat wuz mah wife,” said Walter Thomas, “Ah’d kill her cemetery dead.”
“More special after Ah done bought her everything mah wages kin stand, lak Tony do,” Coker said. “In de fust place Ah never would spend on no woman whut Tony spend on her.”
Starks came back and took his seat. He had to stop and add the meat to Tony’s account.
“Well, Tony tells me tuh humor her along. He moved here from up de State hopin’ tuh change her, but it ain’t. He say he can’t bear tuh leave her and he hate to kill her, so ’tain’t nothin’ tuh do but put up wid her.”
“Dat’s ’cause Tony love her too good,” said Coker. “Ah could break her if she wuz mine. Ah’d break her or kill her. Makin’ uh fool outa me in front of everybody.”
“Tony won’t never hit her. He says beatin’ women is just like steppin’ on baby chickens. He claims ’tain’t no place on uh woman tuh hit,” Joe Lindsay said with scornful disapproval, “but Ah’d kill uh baby just born dis mawnin’ fuh uh thing lak dat. ’Tain’t nothin’ but low-down spitefulness ’ginst her husband make her do it.”
“Dat’s de God’s truth,” Jim Stone agreed. “Dat’s de very reason.”
Janie did what she had never done before, that is, thrust herself into the conversation.
“Sometimes God gits familiar wid us womenfolks too and talks His inside business. He told me how surprised He was ’bout y’all turning out so smart after Him makin’ yuh different; and how surprised y’all is goin’ tuh be if you ever find out you don’t know half as much ’bout us as you think you do. It’s so easy to make yo’self out God Almighty when you ain’t got nothin’ tuh strain against but women and chickens.”
“You gettin’ too moufy, Janie,” Starks told her. “Go fetch me de checker-board and de checkers. Sam Watson, you’se mah fish.”
The years took all the fight out of Janie’s face. For a while she thought it was gone from her soul. No matter what Jody did, she said nothing. She had learned how to talk some and leave some. She was a rut in the road. Plenty of life beneath the surface but it was kept beaten down by the wheels. Sometimes she stuck out into the future, imagining her life different from what it was. But mostly she lived between her hat and her heels, with her emotional disturbances like shade patterns in the woods—come and gone with the sun. She got nothing from Jody except what money could buy, and she was giving away what she didn’t value.
Now and again she thought of a country road at sun-up and considered flight. To where? To what? Then too she considered thirty-five is twice seventeen and nothing was the same at all.
“Maybe he ain’t nothin’,” she cautioned herself, “but he is something in my mouth. He’s got tuh be else Ah ain’t got nothin’ tuh live for. Ah’ll lie and say he is. If Ah don’t, life won’t be nothin’ but uh store and uh house.”
She didn’t read books so she didn’t know that she was the world and the heavens boiled down to a drop. Man attempting to climb to painless heights from his dung hill.
Then one day she sat and watched the shadow of herself going about tending store and prostrating itself before Jody, while all the time she herself sat under a shady tree with the wind blowing through her hair and her clothes. Somebody near about making summertime out of lonesomeness.
This was the first time it happened, but after a while it got so common she ceased to be surprised. It was like a drug. In a way it was good because it reconciled her to things. She got so she received all things with the stolidness of the earth which soaks up urine and perfume with the same indifference.
One day she noticed that Joe didn’t sit down. He just stood in front of a chair and fell in it. That made her look at him all over. Joe wasn’t so young as he used to be. There was already something dead about him. He didn’t rear back in his knees any longer. He squatted over his ankles when he walked. That stillness at the back of his neck. His prosperous-looking belly that used to thrust out so pugnaciously and intimidate folks, sagged like a load suspended from his loins. It didn’t seem to be a part of him anymore. Eyes a little absent too.
Jody must have noticed it too. Maybe, he had seen it long before Janie did, and had been fearing for her to see. Because he began to talk about her age all the time, as if he didn’t want her to stay young while he grew old. It was always “You oughta throw somethin’ over yo’ shoulders befo’ you go outside. You ain’t no young pullet no mo’. You’se uh ole hen now.” One day he called her off the croquet grounds. “Dat’s somethin’ for de young folks, Janie, you out dere jumpin’ round and won’t be able tuh git out de bed tuhmorrer.” If he thought to deceive her, he was wrong. For the first time she could see a man’s head naked of its skull. Saw the cunning thoughts race in and out through the caves and promontories of his mind long before they darted out of the tunnel of his mouth. She saw he was hurting inside so she let it pass without talking. She just measured out a little time for him and set it aside to wait.
It got to be terrible in the store. The more his back ached and his muscle dissolved into fat and the fat melted off his bones, the more fractious he became with Janie. Especially in the store. The more people in there the more ridicule he poured over her body to point attention away from his own. So one day Steve Mixon wanted some chewing tobacco and Janie cut it wrong. She hated that tobacco knife anyway. It worked very stiff. She fumbled with the thing and cut way away from the mark. Mixon didn’t mind. He held it up for a joke to tease Janie a little.
“Looka heah, Brother Mayor, whut yo’ wife done took and done.” It was cut comical, so everybody laughed at it. “Uh woman and uh knife—no kind of uh knife, don’t b’long tuhgether.” There was some more good-natured laughter at the expense of women.
Jody didn’t laugh. He hurried across from the post office side and took the plug of tobacco away from Mixon and cut it again. Cut it exactly on the mark and glared at Janie.
“I god amighty! A woman stay round uh store till she get old as Methusalem and still can’t cut a little thing like a plug of tobacco! Don’t stand dere rollin’ yo’ pop eyes at me wid yo’ rump hangin’ nearly to yo’ knees!”
A big laugh started off in the store but people got to thinking and stopped. It was funny if you looked at it right quick, but it got pitiful if you thought about it awhile. It was like somebody snatched off part of a woman’s clothes while she wasn’t looking and the streets were crowded. Then too, Janie took the middle of the floor to talk right into Jody’s face, and that was something that hadn’t been done before.
“Stop mixin’ up mah doings wid mah looks, Jody. When you git through tellin’ me how tuh cut uh plug uh tobacco, then you kin tell me whether mah behind is on straight or not.”
“Wha—whut’s dat you say, Janie? You must be out yo’ head.”
“Naw, Ah ain’t outa mah head neither.”
“You must be. Talkin’ any such language as dat.”
“You de one started talkin’ under people’s clothes. Not me.”
“Whut’s de matter wid you, nohow? You ain’t no young girl to be gettin’ all insulted ’bout yo’ looks. You ain’t no young courtin’ gal. You’se uh ole woman, nearly forty.”
“Yeah, Ah’m nearly forty and you’se already fifty. How come you can’t talk about dat sometimes instead of always pointin’ at me?”
“ ’Tain’t no use in gettin’ all mad, Janie, ’cause Ah mention you ain’t no young gal no mo’. Nobody in heah ain’t lookin’ for no wife outa yuh. Old as you is.”
“Naw, Ah ain’t no young gal no mo’ but den Ah ain’t no old woman neither. Ah reckon Ah looks mah age too. But Ah’m uh woman every inch of me, and Ah know it. Dat’s uh whole lot more’n you kin say. You big-bellies round here and put out a lot of brag, but ’tain’t nothin’ to it but yo’ big voice. Humph! Talkin’ ’bout me lookin’ old! When you pull down yo’ britches, you look lak de change uh life.”
“Great God from Zion!” Sam Watson gasped. “Y’all really playin’ de dozens tuhnight.”
“Wha—whut’s dat you said?” Joe challenged, hoping his ears had fooled him.
“You heard her, you ain’t blind,” Walter taunted.
“Ah ruther be shot with tacks than tuh hear dat ’bout mahself,” Lige Moss commiserated.
Then Joe Starks realized all the meanings and his vanity bled like a flood. Janie had robbed him of his illusion of irresistible maleness that all men cherish, which was terrible. The thing that Saul’s daughter had done to David. But Janie had done worse, she had cast down his empty armor before men and they had laughed, would keep on laughing. When he paraded his possessions hereafter, they would not consider the two together. They’d look with envy at the things and pity the man that owned them. When he sat in judgment it would be the same. Good-for-nothing’s like Dave and Lum and Jim wouldn’t change place with him. For what can excuse a man in the eyes of other men for lack of strength? Raggedy-behind squirts of sixteen and seventeen would be giving him their merciless pity out of their eyes while their mouths said something humble. There was nothing to do in life anymore. Ambition was useless. And the cruel deceit of Janie! Making all that show of humbleness and scorning him all the time! Laughing at him, and now putting the town up to do the same. Joe Starks didn’t know the words for all this, but he knew the feeling. So he struck Janie with all his might and drove her from the store.
After that night Jody moved his things and slept in a room downstairs. He didn’t really hate Janie, but he wanted her to think so. He had crawled off to lick his wounds. They didn’t talk too much around the store either. Anybody that didn’t know would have thought that things had blown over, it looked so quiet and peaceful around. But the stillness was the sleep of swords. So new thoughts had to be thought and new words said. She didn’t want to live like that. Why must Joe be so mad with her for making him look small when he did it to her all the time? Had been doing it for years. Well, if she must eat out of a long-handled spoon, she must. Jody might get over his mad spell any time at all and begin to act like somebody towards her.
Then too she noticed how baggy Joe was getting all over. Like bags hanging from an ironing board. A little sack hung from the corners of his eyes and rested on his cheek-bones; a loose-filled bag of feathers hung from his ears and rested on his neck beneath his chin. A sack of flabby something hung from his loins and rested on his thighs when he sat down. But even these things were running down like candle grease as time moved on.
He made new alliances too. People he never bothered with one way or another now seemed to have his ear. He had always been scornful of root-doctors and all their kind, but now she saw a faker from over around Altamonte Springs, hanging around the place almost daily. Always talking in low tones when she came near, or hushed altogether. She didn’t know that he was driven by a desperate hope to appear the old-time body in her sight. She was sorry about the root-doctor because she feared that Joe was depending on the scoundrel to make him well when what he needed was a doctor, and a good one. She was worried about his not eating his meals, till she found out he was having old lady Davis to cook for him. She knew that she was a much better cook than the old woman, and cleaner about the kitchen. So she bought a beef-bone and made him some soup.
“Naw, thank you,” he told her shortly. “Ah’m havin’ uh hard enough time tuh try and git well as it is.”
She was stunned at first and hurt afterwards. So she went straight to her bosom friend, Pheoby Watson, and told her about it.
“Ah’d rather be dead than for Jody tuh think Ah’d hurt him,” she sobbed to Pheoby. “It ain’t always been too pleasant, ’cause you know how Joe worships de works of his own hands, but God in heben knows Ah wouldn’t do one thing tuh hurt nobody. It’s too underhand and mean.”
“Janie, Ah though maybe de thing would die down and you never would know nothin’ ’bout it, but it’s been singin’ round here ever since de big fuss in de store dat Joe was ‘fixed’ and you wuz de one dat did it.”
“Pheoby, for de longest time, Ah been feelin’ dat somethin’ set for still-bait, but dis is—is—oh Pheoby! Whut kin I do?”
“You can’t do nothin’ but make out you don’t know it. It’s too late fuh y’all tuh be splittin’ up and gittin’ divorce. Just g’wan back home and set down on yo’ royal diasticutis and say nothin’. Nobody don’t b’lieve it nohow.”
“Tuh think Ah been wid Jody twenty yeahs and Ah just now got tuh bear de name uh poisonin’ him! It’s ’bout to kill me, Pheoby. Sorrow dogged by sorrow is in mah heart.”
“Dat’s lie dat trashy nigger dat calls hisself uh two-headed doctor brought tuh ’im in order tuh git in wid Jody. He seen he wuz sick—everybody been knowin’ dat for de last longest, and den Ah reckon he heard y’all wuz kind of at variance, so dat wuz his chance. Last summer dat multiplied cockroach wuz round heah tryin’ tuh sell gophers!”
“Pheoby, Ah don’t even b’lieve Jody b’lieve dat lie. He ain’t never took no stock in de mess. He just make out he b’lieve it tuh hurt me. Ah’m stone dead from standin’ still and tryin’ tuh smile.”
She cried often in the weeks that followed. Joe got too weak to look after things and took to his bed. But he relentlessly refused to admit her to his sick-room. People came and went in the house. This one and that one came into her house with covered plates of broth and other sick-room dishes without taking the least notice of her as Joe’s wife. People who never had known what it was to enter the gate of the Mayor’s yard unless it were to do some menial job now paraded in and out as his confidants. They came to the store and ostentatiously looked over whatever she was doing and went back to report to him at the house. Said things like “Mr. Starks need somebody tuh sorta look out for ’im till he kin git on his feet again and look for hisself.”
But Jody was never to get on his feet again. Janie had Sam Watson to bring her the news from the sick-room, and when he told her how things were, she had him bring a doctor from Orlando without giving Joe a chance to refuse, and without saying she sent for him.
“Just a matter of time,” the doctor told her. “When a man’s kidneys stop working altogether, there is no way for him to live. He needed medical attention two years ago. Too late now.”
So Janie began to think of Death. Death, that strange being with the huge square toes who lived way in the West. The great one who lived in the straight house like a platform without sides to it, and without a roof. What need has Death for a cover, and what winds can blow against him? He stands in his high house that overlooks the world. Stands watchful and motionless all day with his sword drawn back, waiting for the messenger to bid him come. Been standing there before there was a where or a when or a then. She was liable to find a feather from his wings lying in her yard any day now. She was sad and afraid too. Poor Jody! He ought not to have to wrassle in there by himself. She sent Sam in to suggest a visit, but Jody said No. These medical doctors wuz all right with the Godly sick, but they didn’t know a thing about a case like his. He’d be all right just as soon as the two-headed man found what had been buried against him. He wasn’t going to die at all. That was what he thought. But Sam told her different, so she knew. And then if he hadn’t, the next morning she was bound to know, for people began to gather in the big yard under the palm and china-berry trees. People who would not have dared to foot the place before crept in and did not come to the house. Just squatted under the trees and waited. Rumor, that wingless bird, had shadowed over the town.
She got up that morning with the firm determination to go on in there and have a good talk with Jody. But she sat a long time with the walls creeping in on her. Four walls squeezing her breath out. Fear lest he depart while she sat trembling upstairs nerved her and she was inside the room before she caught her breath. She didn’t make the cheerful, casual start that she had thought out. Something stood like an oxen’s foot on her tongue, and then too, Jody, no Joe, gave her a ferocious look. A look with all the unthinkable coldness of outer space. She must talk to a man who was ten immensities away.
He was lying on his side facing the door like he was expecting somebody or something. A sort of changing look on his face. Weak-looking but sharp-pointed about the eyes. Through the thin counterpane she could see what was left of his belly huddled before him on the bed like some helpless thing seeking shelter.
The half-washed bedclothes hurt her pride for Jody. He had always been so clean.
“Whut you doin’ in heah, Janie?”
“Come tuh see ’bout you and how you wuz makin’ out.”
He gave a deep-growling sound like a hog dying down in the swamp and trying to drive off disturbance. “Ah come in heah tuh git shet uh you but look lak ’tain’t doin’ me no good. G’wan out. Ah needs tuh rest.”
“Naw, Jody, Ah come in heah tuh talk widja and Ah’m gointuh do it too. It’s for both of our sakes Ah’m talkin’.”
He gave another ground grumble and eased over on his back.
“Jody, maybe Ah ain’t been sich uh good wife tuh you, but Jody—”
“Dat’s ’cause you ain’t got de right feelin’ for nobody. You oughter have some sympathy ’bout yo’self. You ain’t no hog.”
“But, Jody, Ah meant tuh be awful nice.”
“Much as Ah done fuh yuh. Holdin’ me up tuh scorn. No sympathy!”
“Naw, Jody, it wasn’t because Ah didn’t have no sympathy. Ah had uh lavish uh dat. Ah just didn’t never git no chance tuh use none of it. You wouldn’t let me.”
“Dat’s right, blame everything on me. Ah wouldn’t let you show no feelin’! When, Janie, dat’s all Ah ever wanted or desired. Now you come blamin’ me!”
“ ’Tain’t dat, Jody. Ah ain’t here tuh blame nobody. Ah’m just tryin’ tuh make you know what kinda person Ah is befo’ it’s too late.”
“Too late?” he whispered.
His eyes buckled in a vacant-mouthed terror and she saw the awful surprise in his face and answered it.
“Yeah, Jody, don’t keer whut dat multiplied cockroach told yuh tuh git yo’ money, you got tuh die, and yuh can’t live.”
A deep sob came out of Jody’s weak frame. It was like beating a bass drum in a hen-house. Then it rose high like pulling in a trombone.
“Janie? Janie! don’t tell me Ah got tuh die, and Ah ain’t used tuh thinkin’ ’bout it.”
“ ’Tain’t really no need of you dying, Jody, if you had of—de doctor—but it don’t do no good bringin’ dat up now. Dat’s just whut Ah wants tuh say, Jody. You wouldn’t listen. You done lived wid me for twenty years and you don’t half know me atall. And you could have but you was so busy worshippin’ de works of yo’ own hands, and cuffin’ folks around in their minds till you didn’t see uh whole heap uh things yuh could have.”
“Leave heah, Janie. Don’t come heah—”
“Ah knowed you wasn’t gointuh lissen tuh me. You changes everything but nothin’ don’t change you—not even death. But Ah ain’t goin’ outa here and Ah ain’t gointuh hush. Naw, you gointuh listen tuh me one time befo’ you die. Have yo’ way all yo’ life, trample and mash down and then die ruther than tuh let yo’self heah ’bout it. Listen, Jody, you ain’t de Jody Ah run off down de road wid. You’se whut’s left after he died. Ah run off tuh keep house wid you in uh wonderful way. But you wasn’t satisfied wid me de way Ah was. Naw! Mah own mind had tuh be squeezed and crowded out tuh make room for yours in me.”
“Shut up! Ah wish thunder and lightnin’ would kill yuh!”
“Ah know it. And now you got tuh die tuh find out dat you got tuh pacify somebody besides yo’self if you wants any love and any sympathy in dis world. You ain’t tried tuh pacify nobody but yo’self. Too busy listening tuh yo’ own big voice.”
“All dis tearin’ down talk!” Jody whispered with sweat globules forming all over his face and arms. “Git outa heah!”
“All dis bowin’ down, all dis obedience under yo’ voice—dat ain’t whut Ah rushed off down de road tuh find out about you.”
A sound of strife in Jody’s throat, but his eyes stared unwillingly into a corner of the room so Janie knew the futile fight was not with her. The icy sword of the square-toed one had cut off his breath and left his hands in a pose of agonizing protest. Janie gave them peace on his breast, then she studied his dead face for a long time.
“Dis sittin’ in de rulin’ chair is been hard on Jody,” she muttered out loud. She was full of pity for the first time in years. Jody had been hard on her and others, but life had mishandled him too. Poor Joe! Maybe if she had known some other way to try, she might have made his face different. But what that other way could be, she had no idea. She thought back and forth about what had happened in the making of a voice out of a man. Then thought about herself. Years ago, she had told her girl self to wait for her in the looking glass. It had been a long time since she had remembered. Perhaps she’d better look. She went over to the dresser and looked hard at her skin and features. The young girl was gone, but a handsome woman had taken her place. She tore off the kerchief from her head and let down her plentiful hair. The weight, the length, the glory was there. She took careful stock of herself, then combed her hair and tied it back up again. Then she starched and ironed her face, forming it into just what people wanted to see, and opened up the window and cried, “Come heah people! Jody is dead. Mah husband is gone from me.”
Joe’s funeral was the finest thing Orange County had ever seen with Negro eyes. The motor hearse, the Cadillac and Buick carriages; Dr. Henderson there in his Lincoln; the hosts from far and wide. Then again the gold and red and purple, the gloat and glamor of the secret orders, each with its insinuations of power and glory undreamed of by the uninitiated. People on farm horses and mules; babies riding astride of brothers’ and sisters’ backs. The Elks band ranked at the church door and playing “Safe in the Arms of Jesus” with such a dominant drum rhythm that it could be stepped off smartly by the long line as it filed inside. The Little Emperor of the cross-roads was leaving Orange County as he had come—with the out-stretched hand of power.
Janie starched and ironed her face and came set in the funeral behind her veil. It was like a wall of stone and steel. The funeral was going on outside. All things concerning death and burial were said and done. Finish. End. Nevermore. Darkness. Deep hole. Dissolution. Eternity. Weeping and wailing outside. Inside the expensive black folds were resurrection and life. She did not reach outside for anything, nor did the things of death reach inside to disturb her calm. She sent her face to Joe’s funeral, and herself went rollicking with the springtime across the world. After a while the people finished their celebration and Janie went on home.
Before she slept that night she burnt up every one of her head rags and went about the house next morning with her hair in one thick braid swinging well below her waist. That was the only change people saw in her. She kept the store in the same way except of evenings she sat on the porch and listened and sent Hezekiah in to wait on late custom. She saw no reason to rush at changing things around. She would have the rest of her life to do as she pleased.
Most of the day she was at the store, but at night she was there in the big house and sometimes it creaked and cried all night under the weight of lonesomeness. Then she’d lie awake in bed asking lonesomeness some questions. She asked if she wanted to leave and go back where she had come from and try to find her mother. Maybe tend her grandmother’s grave. Sort of look over the old stamping ground generally. Digging around inside of herself like that she found that she had no interest in that seldom-seen mother at all. She hated her grandmother and had hidden it from herself all these years under a cloak of pity. She had been getting ready for her great journey to the horizons in search of people; it was important to all the world that she should find them and they find her. But she had been whipped like a cur dog, and run off down a back road after things. It was all according to the way you see things. Some people could look at a mud-puddle and see an ocean with ships. But Nanny belonged to that other kind that loved to deal in scraps. Here Nanny had taken the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon—for no matter how far a person can go the horizon is still way beyond you—and pinched it in to such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about her granddaughter’s neck tight enough to choke her. She hated the old woman who had twisted her so in the name of love. Most humans didn’t love one another nohow, and this mislove was so strong that even common blood couldn’t overcome it all the time. She had found a jewel down inside herself and she had wanted to walk where people could see her and gleam it around. But she had been set in the market-place to sell. Been set for still-bait. When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Then after that some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks make them hunt for one another, but the mud is deaf and dumb. Like all the other tumbling mud-balls, Janie had tried to show her shine.
Janie found out very soon that her widowhood and property was a great challenge in South Florida. Before Jody had been dead a month, she noticed how often men who had never been intimates of Joe, drove considerable distances to ask after her welfare and offer their services as advisor.
“Uh woman by herself is uh pitiful thing,” she was told over and again. “Dey needs aid and assistance. God never meant ’em tuh try tuh stand by theirselves. You ain’t been used tuh knockin’ round and doin’ fuh yo’self, Mis’ Starks. You been well taken keer of, you needs uh man.”
Janie laughed at all these well-wishers because she knew that they knew plenty of women alone; that she was not the first one they had ever seen. But most of the others were poor. Besides she liked being lonesome for a change. This freedom feeling was fine. These men didn’t represent a thing she wanted to know about. She had already experienced them through Logan and Joe. She felt like slapping some of them for sitting around grinning at her like a pack of chessy cats, trying to make out they looked like love.
Ike Green sat on her case seriously one evening on the store porch when he was lucky enough to catch her alone.
“You wants be keerful ’bout who you marry, Mis’ Starks. Dese strange men runnin’ heah tryin’ tuh take advantage of yo’ condition.”
“Marry!” Janie almost screamed. “Joe ain’t had time tuh git cold yet. Ah ain’t even give marryin’ de first thought.”
“But you will. You’se too young uh ’oman tuh stay single, and you’se too pretty for de mens tuh leave yuh alone. You’se bound tuh marry.”
“Ah hope not. Ah mean, at dis present time it don’t come befo’ me. Joe ain’t been dead two months. Ain’t got settled down in his grave.”
“Dat’s whut you say now, but two months mo’ and you’ll sing another tune. Den you want tuh be keerful. Womenfolks is easy taken advantage of. You know what tuh let none uh dese stray niggers dat’s settin’ round heah git de inside track on yuh. They’s jes lak uh pack uh hawgs, when dey see uh full trough. Whut yuh needs is uh man dat yuh done lived uhround and know all about tuh sort of manage yo’ things fuh yuh and ginerally do round.”
Janie jumped upon her feet. “Lawd, Ike Green, you’se uh case! Dis subjick you bringin’ up ain’t fit tuh be talked about at all. Lemme go inside and help Hezekiah weigh up dat barrel uh sugar dat just come in.” She rushed on inside the store and whispered to Hezekiah, “Ah’m gone tuh de house. Lemme know when dat ole pee-de-bed is gone and Ah’ll be right back.”
Six months of wearing black passed and not one suitor had ever gained the house porch. Janie talked and laughed in the store at times, but never seemed to want to go further. She was happy except for the store. She knew by her head that she was absolute owner, but it always seemed to her that she was still clerking for Joe and that soon he would come in and find something wrong that she had done. She almost apologized to the tenants the first time she collected the rents. Felt like a usurper. But she hid that feeling by sending Hezekiah who was the best imitation of Joe that his seventeen years could make. He had even taken to smoking, and smoking cigars, since Joe’s death and tried to bite ’em tight in one side of his mouth like Joe. Every chance he got he was reared back in Joe’s swivel chair trying to thrust out his lean belly into a paunch. She’d laugh quietly at his no-harm posing and pretend she didn’t see it. One day as she came in the back door of the store she heard him bawling at Tripp Crawford, “Naw indeed, we can’t do nothin’ uh de kind! I god, you ain’t paid for dem last rations you done et up. I god, you won’t git no mo’ outa dis store than you got money tuh pay for. I god, dis ain’t Gimme, Florida, dis is Eatonville.” Another time she overheard him using Joe’s favorite expression for pointing out the differences between himself and the careless-living, mouthy town. “Ah’m an educated man, Ah keep mah arrangements in mah hands.” She laughed outright at that. His acting didn’t hurt nobody and she wouldn’t know what to do without him. He sensed that and came to treat her like baby-sister, as if to say “You poor little thing, give it to big brother. He’ll fix it for you.” His sense of ownership made him honest too, except for an occasional jaw-breaker, or a packet of sen-sen. The sen-sen was to let on to the other boys and the pullet-size girls that he had a liquor breath to cover. This business of managing stores and women store-owners was trying on a man’s nerves. He needed a drink of liquor now and then to keep up.
When Janie emerged into her mourning white, she had hosts of admirers in and out of town. Everything open and frank. Men of property too among the crowd, but nobody seemed to get any further than the store. She was always too busy to take them to the house to entertain. They were all so respectful and stiff with her, that she might have been the Empress of Japan. They felt that it was not fitting to mention desire to the widow of Joseph Starks. You spoke of honor and respect. And all that they said and did was refracted by her inattention and shot off towards the rim-bones of nothing. She and Pheoby Watson visited back and forth and once in awhile sat around the lakes and fished. She was just basking in freedom for the most part without the need for thought. A Sanford undertaker was pressing his cause through Pheoby, and Janie was listening pleasantly but undisturbed. It might be nice to marry him, at that. No hurry. Such things take time to think about, or rather she pretended to Pheoby that that was what she was doing.
“ ’Tain’t dat Ah worries over Joe’s death, Pheoby. Ah jus’ loves dis freedom.”
“Sh-sh-sh! Don’t let nobody hear you say dat, Janie. Folks will say you ain’t sorry he’s gone.”
“Let ’em say whut dey wants tuh, Pheoby. To my thinkin’ mourning oughtn’t tuh last no longer’n grief.”
One day Hezekiah asked off from work to go off with the ball team. Janie told him not to hurry back. She could close up the store herself this once. He cautioned her about the catches on the windows and doors and swaggered off to Winter Park.
Business was dull all day, because numbers of people had gone to the game. She decided to close early, because it was hardly worth the trouble of keeping open on an afternoon like this. She had set six o’clock as her limit.
At five-thirty a tall man came into the place. Janie was leaning on the counter making aimless pencil marks on a piece of wrapping paper. She knew she didn’t know his name, but he looked familiar.
“Good evenin’, Mis’ Starks,” he said with a sly grin as if they had a good joke together. She was in favor of the story that was making him laugh before she even heard it.
“Good evenin’,” she answered pleasantly. “You got all de advantage ’cause Ah don’t know yo’ name.”
“People wouldn’t know me lak dey would you.”
“Ah guess standin’ in uh store do make uh person git tuh be known in de vicinity. Look lak Ah seen you somewhere.”
“Oh, Ah don’t live no further than Orlandah. Ah’m easy tuh see on Church Street most any day or night. You got any smokin’ tobacco?”
She opened the glass case. “What kind?”
She handed over the cigarettes and took the money. He broke the pack and thrust one between his full, purple lips.
“You got a lil piece uh fire over dere, lady?”
They both laughed and she handed him two kitchen matches out of a box for that purpose. It was time for him to go but he didn’t. He leaned on the counter with one elbow and cold-cocked her a look.
“Why ain’t you at de ball game, too? Everybody else is dere.”
“Well, Ah see somebody else besides me ain’t dere. Ah just sold some cigarettes.” They laughed again.
“Dat’s ’cause Ah’m dumb. Ah got de thing all mixed up. Ah thought de game was gointuh be out at Hungerford. So Ah got uh ride tuh where dis road turns off from de Dixie Highway and walked over here and then Ah find out de game is in Winter Park.”
That was funny to both of them too.
“So what you gointuh do now? All de cars in Eatonville is gone.”
“How about playin’ you some checkers? You looks hard tuh beat.”
“Ah is, ’cause Ah can’t play uh lick.”
“You don’t cherish de game, then?”
“Yes, Ah do, and then agin Ah don’t know whether Ah do or not, ’cause nobody ain’t never showed me how.”
“Dis is de last day for dat excuse. You got uh board round heah?”
“Yes indeed. De menfolks treasures de game round heah. Ah just ain’t never learnt how.”
He set it up and began to show her and she found herself glowing inside. Somebody wanted her to play. Somebody thought it natural for her to play. That was even nice. She looked him over and got little thrills from every one of his good points. Those full, lazy eyes with the lashes curling sharply away like drawn scimitars. The lean, over-padded shoulders and narrow waist. Even nice!
He was jumping her king! She screamed in protest against losing the king she had had such a hard time acquiring. Before she knew it she had grabbed his hand to stop him. He struggled gallantly to free himself. That is he struggled, but not hard enough to wrench a lady’s fingers.
“Ah got uh right tuh take it. You left it right in mah way.”
“Yeah, but Ah wuz lookin’ off when you went and stuck yo’ men right up next tuh mine. No fair!”
“You ain’t supposed tuh look off, Mis’ Starks. It’s de biggest part uh de game tuh watch out! Leave go mah hand.”
“No suh! Not mah king. You kin take another one, but not dat one.”
They scrambled and upset the board and laughed at that.
“Anyhow it’s time for uh Coca-Cola,” he said. “Ah’ll come teach yuh some mo’ another time.”
“It’s all right tuh come teach me, but don’t come tuh cheat me.”
“Yuh can’t beat uh woman. Dey jes won’t stand fuh it. But Ah’ll come teach yuh agin. You gointuh be uh good player too, after while.”
“You reckon so? Jody useter tell me Ah never would learn. It wuz too heavy fuh mah brains.”
“Folks is playin’ it wid sense and folks is playin’ it without. But you got good meat on yo’ head. You’ll learn. Have uh cool drink on me.”
“Oh all right, thank yuh. Got plenty cold ones tuhday. Nobody ain’t been heah tuh buy none. All gone off tuh de game.”
“You oughta be at de next game. ’Tain’t no use in you stayin’ heah if everybody else is gone. You don’t buy from yo’self, do yuh?”
“You crazy thing! ’Course Ah don’t. But Ah’m worried ’bout you uh little.”
“How come? ’Fraid Ah ain’t gointuh pay fuh dese drinks?”
“Aw naw! How you gointuh git back home?”
“Wait round heah fuh a car. If none don’t come, Ah got good shoe leather. ’Tain’t but seben miles no how. Ah could walk dat in no time. Easy.”
“If it wuz me, Ah’d wait on uh train. Seben miles is uh kinda long walk.”
“It would be for you, ’cause you ain’t used to it. But Ah’m seen women walk further’n dat. You could too, if yuh had it tuh do.”
“Maybe so, but Ah’ll ride de train long as Ah got railroad fare.”
“Ah don’t need no pocket-full uh money to ride de train lak uh woman. When Ah takes uh notion Ah rides anyhow—money or no money.”
“Now ain’t you somethin’! Mr. er—er—You never did tell me whut yo’ name wuz.”
“Ah sho didn’t. Wuzn’t expectin’ fuh it to be needed. De name mah mama gimme is Vergible Woods. Dey calls me Tea Cake for short.”
“Tea Cake! So you sweet as all dat?” She laughed and he gave her a little cut-eye look to get her meaning.
“Ah may be guilty. You better try me and see.”
She did something halfway between a laugh and a frown and he set his hat on straight.
“B’lieve Ah done cut uh hawg, so Ah guess Ah better ketch air.” He made an elaborate act of tipping to the door stealthily. Then looked back at her with an irresistible grin on his face. Janie burst out laughing in spite of herself. “You crazy thing!”
He turned and threw his hat at her feet. “If she don’t throw it at me, Ah’ll take a chance on comin’ back,” he announced, making gestures to indicate he was hidden behind a post. She picked up the hat and threw it after him with a laugh. “Even if she had uh brick she couldn’t hurt yuh wid it,” he said to an invisible companion. “De lady can’t throw.” He gestured to his companion, stepped out from behind the imaginary lamp post, set his coat and hat and strolled back to where Janie was as if he had just come in the store.
“Evenin’, Mis’ Starks. Could yuh lemme have uh pound uh knuckle puddin’ till Saturday? Ah’m sho tuh pay yuh then.”
|||A beating with the fist.|
“You needs ten pounds, Mr. Tea Cake. Ah’ll let yuh have all Ah got and you needn’t bother ’bout payin’ it back.”
They joked and went on till the people began to come in. Then he took a seat and made talk and laughter with the rest until closing time. When everyone else had left he said, “Ah reckon Ah done over-layed mah leavin’ time, but Ah figgered you needed somebody tuh help yuh shut up de place. Since nobody else ain’t round heah, maybe Ah kin git de job.”
“Thankyuh, Mr. Tea Cake. It is kinda strainin’ fuh me.”
“Who ever heard of uh teacake bein’ called Mister! If you wanta be real hightoned and call me Mr. Woods, dat’s de way you feel about it. If yuh wants tuh be uh lil friendly and call me Tea Cake, dat would be real nice.” He was closing and bolting windows all the time he talked.
“All right, then. Thank yuh, Tea Cake. How’s dat?”
“Jes lak uh lil girl wid her Easter dress on. Even nice!” He locked the door and shook it to be sure and handed her the key. “Come on now, Ah’ll see yuh inside yo’ door and git on down de Dixie.”
Janie was halfway down the palm-lined walk before she had a thought for her safety. Maybe this strange man was up to something! But it was no place to show her fear there in the darkness between the house and the store. He had hold of her arm too. Then in a moment it was gone. Tea Cake wasn’t strange. Seemed as if she had known him all her life. Look how she had been able to talk with him right off! He tipped his hat at the door and was off with the briefest good night.
So she sat on the porch and watched the moon rise. Soon its amber fluid was drenching the earth, and quenching the thirst of the day.