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’ [A beating with the fist] till Saturday? Ah’m sho tuh pay yuh then.”
“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.
Janie wanted to ask Hezekiah about Tea Cake, but she was afraid he might misunderstand her and think she was interested. In the first place he looked too young for her. Must be around twenty-five and here she was around forty. Then again he didn’t look like he had too much. Maybe he was hanging around to get in with her and strip her of all that she had. Just as well if she never saw him again. He was probably the kind of man who lived with various women but never married. Fact is, she decided to treat him so cold if he ever did foot the place that he’d be sure not to come hanging around there again.
He waited a week exactly to come back for Janie’s snub. It was early in the afternoon and she and Hezekiah were alone. She heard somebody humming like they were feeling for pitch and looked towards the door. Tea Cake stood there mimicking the tuning of a guitar. He frowned and struggled with the pegs of his imaginary instrument watching her out of the corner of his eye with that secret joke playing over his face. Finally she smiled and he sung middle C, put his guitar under his arm and walked on back to where she was.
“Evenin’, folks. Thought y’all might lak uh lil music this evenin’ so Ah brought long mah box.”
“Crazy thing!” Janie commented, beaming out with light.
He acknowledged the compliment with a smile and sat down on a box. “Anybody have uh Coca-Cola wid me?”
“Ah just had one,” Janie temporized with her conscience.
“It’ll hafter be done all over agin, Mis’ Starks.”
“ ’Cause it wasn’t done right dat time. ’Kiah bring us two bottles from de bottom uh de box.”
“How you been makin’ out since Ah seen yuh last, Tea Cake?”
“Can’t kick. Could be worse. Made four days dis week and got de pay in mah pocket.”
“We got a rich man round here, then. Buyin’ passenger trains uh battleships this week?”
“Which one do you want? It all depends on you.”
“Oh, if you’se treatin’ me tuh it, Ah b’lieve Ah’ll take de passenger train. If it blow up Ah’ll still be on land.”
“Choose de battleship if dat’s whut you really want. Ah know where one is right now. Seen one round Key West de other day.”
“How you gointuh git it?”
“Ah shucks, dem Admirals is always ole folks. Can’t no ole man stop me from gittin’ no ship for yuh if dat’s whut you want. Ah’d git dat ship out from under him so slick till he’d be walkin’ de water lak ole Peter befo’ he knowed it.”
They played away the evening again. Everybody was surprised at Janie playing checkers but they liked it. Three or four stood behind her and coached her moves and generally made merry with her in a restrained way. Finally everybody went home but Tea Cake.
“You kin close up, ’Kiah,” Janie said. “Think Ah’ll g’wan home.”
Tea Cake fell in beside her and mounted the porch this time. So she offered him a seat and they made a lot of laughter out of nothing. Near eleven o’clock she remembered a piece of pound cake she had put away. Tea Cake went out to the lemon tree at the corner of the kitchen and picked some lemons and squeezed them for her. So they had lemonade too.
“Moon’s too pretty fuh anybody tuh be sleepin’ it away,” Tea Cake said after they had washed up the plates and glasses. “Less us go fishin’.”
“Fishin’? Dis time uh night?”
“Unhhunh, fishin’. Ah know where de bream is beddin’. Seen ’em when Ah come round de lake dis evenin’. Where’s yo’ fishin’ poles? Less go set on de lake.”
It was so crazy digging worms by lamp light and setting out for Lake Sabelia after midnight that she felt like a child breaking rules. That’s what made Janie like it. They caught two or three and got home just before day. Then she had to smuggle Tea Cake out by the back gate and that made it seem like some great secret she was keeping from the town.
“Mis’ Janie,” Hezekiah began sullenly next day, “you oughtn’t ’low dat Tea Cake tuh be walkin’ tuh de house wid yuh. Ah’ll go wid yuh mahself after dis, if you’se skeered.”
“What’s de matter wid Tea Cake, ’Kiah? Is he uh thief uh somethin’?”
“Ah ain’t never heard nobody say he stole nothin’.”
“Is he bad ’bout totin’ pistols and knives tuh hurt people wid?”
“Dey don’t say he ever cut nobody or shot nobody neither.”
“Well, is he—he—is he got uh wife or something lak dat? Not dat it’s any uh mah business.” She held her breath for the answer.
“No’m. And nobody wouldn’t marry Tea Cake tuh starve tuh death lessen it’s somebody jes lak him—ain’t used to nothin’. ’Course he always keep hisself in changin’ clothes. Dat long-legged Tea Cake ain’t got doodly squat. He ain’t got no business makin’ hisself familiar wid nobody lak you. Ah said Ah wuz goin’ to tell yuh so yuh could know.”
“Oh dat’s all right, Hezekiah. Thank yuh mighty much.”
The next night when she mounted her steps Tea Cake was there before her, sitting on the porch in the dark. He had a string of fresh-caught trout for a present.
“Ah’ll clean ’em, you fry ’em and let’s eat,” he said with the assurance of not being refused. They went out into the kitchen and fixed up the hot fish and corn muffins and ate. Then Tea Cake went to the piano without so much as asking and began playing blues and singing, and throwing grins over his shoulder. The sounds lulled Janie to soft slumber and she woke up with Tea Cake combing her hair and scratching the dandruff from her scalp. It made her more comfortable and drowsy.
“Tea Cake, where you git uh comb from tuh be combin’ mah hair wid?”
“Ah brought it wid me. Come prepared tuh lay mah hands on it tuhnight.”
“Why, Tea Cake? Whut good do combin’ mah hair do you? It’s mah comfortable, not yourn.”
“It’s mine too. Ah ain’t been sleepin’ so good for more’n uh week cause Ah been wishin’ so bad tuh git mah hands in yo’ hair. It’s so pretty. It feels jus’ lak underneath uh dove’s wing next to mah face.”
“Umph! You’se mighty easy satisfied. Ah been had dis same hair next tuh mah face ever since Ah cried de fust time, and ’tain’t never gimme me no thrill.”
“Ah tell you lak you told me—you’se mighty hard tuh satisfy. Ah betcha dem lips don’t satisfy yuh neither.”
“Dat’s right, Tea Cake. They’s dere and Ah make use of ’em whenever it’s necessary, but nothin’ special tuh me.”
“Umph! umph! umph! Ah betcha you don’t never go tuh de lookin’ glass and enjoy yo’ eyes yo’self. You lets other folks git all de enjoyment out of ’em ’thout takin’ in any of it yo’self.”
“Naw, Ah never gazes at ’em in de lookin’ glass. If anybody else gits any pleasure out of ’em Ah ain’t been told about it.”
“See dat? You’se got de world in uh jug and make out you don’t know it. But Ah’m glad tuh be de one tuh tell yuh.”
“Ah guess you done told plenty women all about it.”
“Ah’m de Apostle Paul tuh de Gentiles. Ah tells ’em and then agin Ah shows ’em.”
“Ah thought so.” She yawned and made to get up from the sofa, “You done got me so sleepy wid yo’ head-scratchin’ Ah kin hardly make it tuh de bed.” She stood up at once, collecting her hair. He sat still.
“Naw, you ain’t sleepy, Mis’ Janie. You jus’ want me tuh go. You figger Ah’m uh rounder and uh pimp and you done wasted too much time talkin’ wid me.”
“Why, Tea Cake! Whut ever put dat notion in yo’ head?”
“De way you looked at me when Ah said whut Ah did. Yo’ face skeered me so bad till mah whiskers drawed up.”
“Ah ain’t got no business bein’ mad at nothin’ you do and say. You got it all wrong. Ah ain’t mad atall.”
“Ah know it and dat’s what puts de shamery on me. You’se jus’ disgusted wid me. Yo’ face jus’ left here and went off somewhere else. Naw, you ain’t mad wid me. Ah be glad if you was, ’cause then Ah might do somethin’ tuh please yuh. But lak it is—”
“Mah likes and dislikes ought not tuh make no difference wid you, Tea Cake. Dat’s fuh yo’ lady friend. Ah’m jus’ uh sometime friend uh yourn.”
Janie walked towards the stairway slowly, and Tea Cake sat where he was, as if he had frozen to his seat, in fear that once he got up, he’d never get back in it again. He swallowed hard and looked at her walk away.
“Ah didn’t aim tuh let on tuh yuh ’bout it, leastways not right away, but Ah ruther be shot wid tacks than fuh you tuh act wid me lak you is right now. You got me in de go-long.”
At the newel post Janie whirled around and for the space of a thought she was lit up like a transfiguration. Her next thought brought her crashing down. He’s just saying anything for the time being, feeling he’s got me so I’ll b’lieve him. The next thought buried her under tons of cold futility. He’s trading on being younger than me. Getting ready to laugh at me for an old fool. But oh, what wouldn’t I give to be twelve years younger so I could b’lieve him!
“Aw, Tea Cake, you just say dat tuhnight because de fish and cornbread tasted sort of good. Tomorrow yo’ mind would change.”
“Naw, it wouldn’t neither. Ah know better.”
“Anyhow from what you told me when we wuz back dere in de kitchen Ah’m nearly twelve years older than you.”
“Ah done thought all about dat and tried tuh struggle aginst it, but it don’t do me no good. De thought uh mah youngness don’t satisfy me lak yo’ presence do.”
“It makes uh whole heap uh difference wid most folks, Tea Cake.”
“Things lak dat got uh whole lot tuh do wid convenience, but it ain’t got nothin’ tuh do wid love.”
“Well, Ah love tuh find out whut you think after sun-up tomorrow. Dis is jus’ yo’ night thought.”
“You got yo’ ideas and Ah got mine. Ah got uh dollar dat says you’se wrong. But Ah reckon you don’t bet money, neither.”
“Ah never have done it so fur. But as de old folks always say, Ah’m born but Ah ain’t dead. No tellin’ whut Ah’m liable tuh do yet.”
He got up suddenly and took his hat. “Good night, Mis’ Janie. Look lak we done run our conversation from grass roots tuh pine trees. G’bye.” He almost ran out of the door.
Janie hung over the newel post thinking so long that she all but went to sleep there. However, before she went to bed she took a good look at her mouth, eyes and hair.
All next day in the house and store she thought resisting thoughts about Tea Cake. She even ridiculed him in her mind and was a little ashamed of the association. But every hour or two the battle had to be fought all over again. She couldn’t make him look just like any other man to her. He looked like the love thoughts of women. He could be a bee to a blossom—a pear tree blossom in the spring. He seemed to be crushing scent out of the world with his footsteps. Crushing aromatic herbs with every step he took. Spices hung about him. He was a glance from God.
So he didn’t come that night and she laid in bed and pretended to think scornfully of him. “Bet he’s hangin’ round some jook or ’nother. Glad Ah treated him cold. Whut do Ah want wid some trashy nigger out de streets? Bet he’s livin’ wid some woman or ’nother and takin’ me for uh fool. Glad Ah caught mahself in time.” She tried to console herself that way.
The next morning she awoke hearing a knocking on the front door and found Tea Cake there.
“Hello, Mis’ Janie, Ah hope Ah woke you up.”
“You sho did, Tea Cake. Come in and rest yo’ hat. Whut you doin’ out so soon dis mornin’?”
“Thought Ah’d try tuh git heah soon enough tuh tell yuh mah daytime thoughts. Ah see yuh needs tuh know mah daytime feelings. Ah can’t sense yuh intuh it at night.”
“You crazy thing! Is dat whut you come here for at daybreak?”
“Sho is. You needs tellin’ and showin’, and dat’s whut Ah’m doin’. Ah picked some strawberries too, Ah figgered you might like.”
“Tea Cake, Ah ’clare Ah don’t know whut tuh make outa you. You’se so crazy. You better lemme fix you some breakfast.”
“Ain’t got time. Ah got uh job uh work. Gottuh be back in Orlandah at eight o’clock. See yuh later, tell you straighter.”
He bolted down the walk and was gone. But that night when she left the store, he was stretched out in the hammock on the porch with his hat over his face pretending to sleep. She called him. He pretended not to hear. He snored louder. She went to the hammock to shake him and he seized and pulled her in with him. After a little, she let him adjust her in his arms and laid there for a while.
“Tea Cake, Ah don’t know ’bout you, but Ah’m hongry, come on let’s eat some supper.”
They went inside and their laughter rang out first from the kitchen and all over the house.
Janie awoke next morning by feeling Tea Cake almost kissing her breath away. Holding her and caressing her as if he feared she might escape his grasp and fly away. Then he must dress hurriedly and get to his job on time. He wouldn’t let her get him any breakfast at all. He wanted her to get her rest. He made her stay where she was. In her heart she wanted to get his breakfast for him. But she stayed in bed long after he was gone.
So much had been breathed out by the pores that Tea Cake still was there. She could feel him and almost see him bucking around the room in the upper air. After a long time of passive happiness, she got up and opened the window and let Tea Cake leap forth and mount to the sky on a wind. That was the beginning of things.
In the cool of the afternoon the fiend from hell specially sent to lovers arrived at Janie’s ear. Doubt. All the fears that circumstance could provide and the heart feel, attacked her on every side. This was a new sensation for her, but no less excruciating. If only Tea Cake would make her certain! He did not return that night nor the next and so she plunged into the abyss and descended to the ninth darkness where light has never been.
But the fourth day after he came in the afternoon driving a battered car. Jumped out like a deer and made the gesture of tying it to a post on the store porch. Ready with his grin! She adored him and hated him at the same time. How could he make her suffer so and then come grinning like that with that darling way he had? He pinched her arm as he walked inside the door.
“Brought me somethin’ tuh haul you off in,” he told her with that secret chuckle. “Git yo’ hat if you gointuh wear one. We got tuh go buy groceries.”
“Ah sells groceries right here in dis store, Tea Cake, if you don’t happen tuh know.” She tried to look cold but she was smiling in spite of herself.
“Not de kind we want fuh de occasion. You sells groceries for ordinary people. We’se gointuh buy for you. De big Sunday School picnic is tomorrow—bet you done forget it—and we got tuh be dere wid uh swell basket and ourselves.”
“Ah don’t know ’bout dat, Tea Cake. Tell yuh whut you do. G’wan down tuh de house and wait for me. Be dere in uh minute.”
As soon as she thought it looked right she slipped out of the back and joined Tea Cake. No need of fooling herself. Maybe he was just being polite.
“Tea Cake, you sure you want me tuh go tuh dis picnic wid yuh?”
“Me scramble ’round tuh git de money tuh take yuh—been workin’ lak uh dawg for two whole weeks—and she come astin’ me if Ah want her tuh go! Puttin’ mahself tuh uh whole heap uh trouble tuh git dis car so you kin go over tuh Winter Park or Orlandah tuh buy de things you might need and dis woman set dere and ast me if Ah want her tuh go!”
“Don’t git mad, Tea Cake, Ah just didn’t want you doin’ nothin’ outa politeness. If dere’s somebody else you’d ruther take, it’s all right wid me.”
“Naw, it ain’t all right wid you. If it was you wouldn’t be sayin’ dat. Have de nerve tuh say whut you mean.”
“Well, all right, Tea Cake, Ah wants tuh go wid you real bad, but,—oh, Tea Cake, don’t make no false pretense wid me!”
“Janie, Ah hope God may kill me, if Ah’m lyin’. Nobody else on earth kin hold uh candle tuh you, baby. You got de keys to de kingdom.”
It was after the picnic that the town began to notice things and got mad. Tea Cake and Mrs. Mayor Starks! All the men that she could get, and fooling with somebody like Tea Cake! Another thing, Joe Starks hadn’t been dead but nine months and here she goes sashaying off to a picnic in pink linen. Done quit attending church, like she used to. Gone off to Sanford in a car with Tea Cake and her all dressed in blue! It was a shame. Done took to high-heel slippers and a ten dollar hat! Looking like some young girl, always in blue because Tea Cake told her to wear it. Poor Joe Starks. Bet he turns over in his grave every day. Tea Cake and Janie gone hunting. Tea Cake and Janie gone fishing. Tea Cake and Janie gone to Orlando to the movies. Tea Cake and Janie gone to a dance. Tea Cake making flower beds in Janie’s yard and seeding the garden for her. Chopping down that tree she never did like by the dining room window. All those signs of possession. Tea Cake in a borrowed car teaching Janie to drive. Tea Cake and Janie playing checkers; playing coon-can; playing Florida flip on the store porch all afternoon as if nobody else was there. Day after day and week after week.
“Pheoby,” Sam Watson said one night as he got in the bed, “Ah b’lieve yo’ buddy is all tied up with dat Tea Cake shonough. Didn’t b’lieve it at first.”
“Aw she don’t mean nothin’ by it. Ah think she’s sort of stuck on dat undertaker up at Sanford.”
“It’s somebody ’cause she looks might good dese days. New dresses and her hair combed a different way nearly every day. You got to have something to comb hair over. When you see uh woman doin’ so much rakin’ in her head, she’s combin’ at some man or ’nother.”
“ ’Course she kin do as she please, but dat’s uh good chance she got up at Sanford. De man’s wife died and he got uh lovely place tuh take her to—already furnished. Better’n her house Joe left her.”
“You better sense her intuh things then ’cause Tea Cake can’t do nothin’ but help her spend whut she got. Ah reckon dat’s whut he’s after. Throwin’ away whut Joe Starks worked hard tuh git tuhgether.”
“Dat’s de way it looks. Still and all, she’s her own woman. She oughta know by now whut she wants tuh do.”
“De men wuz talkin’ ’bout it in de grove tuhday and givin’ her and Tea Cake both de devil. Dey figger he’s spendin’ on her now in order tuh make her spend on him later.”
“Umph! Umph! Umph!”
“Oh dey got it all figgered out. Maybe it ain’t as bad as they say, but they talk it and make it sound real bad on her part.”
“Dat’s jealousy and malice. Some uh dem very mens wants tuh do whut dey claim deys skeered Tea Cake is doin’.”
“De Pastor claim Tea Cake don’t ’low her tuh come tuh church only once in awhile ’cause he want dat change tuh buy gas wid. Just draggin’ de woman away from church. But anyhow, she’s yo’ bosom friend, so you better go see ’bout her. Drop uh lil hint here and dere and if Tea Cake is tryin’ tuh rob her she kin see and know. Ah laks de woman and Ah sho would hate tuh see her come up lak Mis’ Tyler.”
“Aw mah God, naw! Reckon Ah better step over dere tomorrow and have some chat wid Janie. She jus’ ain’t thinkin’ whut she doin’, dat’s all.”
The next morning Pheoby picked her way over to Janie’s house like a hen to a neighbor’s garden. Stopped and talked a little with everyone she met, turned aside momentarily to pause at a porch or two—going straight by walking crooked. So her firm intention looked like an accident and she didn’t have to give her opinion to folks along the way.
Janie acted glad to see her and after a while Pheoby broached her with, “Janie, everybody’s talkin’ ’bout how dat Tea Cake is draggin’ you round tuh places you ain’t used tuh. Baseball games and huntin’ and fishin’. He don’t know you’se useter uh more high time crowd than dat. You always did class off.”
“Jody classed me off. Ah didn’t. Naw, Pheoby, Tea Cake ain’t draggin’ me off nowhere Ah don’t want tuh go. Ah always did want tuh git round uh whole heap, but Jody wouldn’t ’low me tuh. When Ah wasn’t in de store he wanted me tuh jes sit wid folded hands and sit dere. And Ah’d sit dere wid de walls creepin’ up on me and squeezin’ all de life outa me. Pheoby, dese educated women got uh heap of things to sit down and consider. Somebody done tole ’em what to set down for. Nobody ain’t told poor me, so sittin’ still worries me. Ah wants tuh utilize mahself all over.”
“But, Janie, Tea Cake, whilst he ain’t no jail-bird, he ain’t got uh dime tuh cry. Ain’t you skeered he’s jes after yo’ money—him bein’ younger than you?”
“He ain’t never ast de first penny from me yet, and if he love property he ain’t no different from all de rest of us. All dese ole men dat’s settin’ round me is after de same thing. They’s three mo’ widder women in town, how come dey don’t break dey neck after dem? ’Cause dey ain’t got nothin’, dat’s why.”
“Folks seen you out in colors and dey thinks you ain’t payin’ de right amount uh respect tuh yo’ dead husband.”
“Ah ain’t grievin’ so why do Ah hafta mourn? Tea Cake love me in blue, so Ah wears it. Jody ain’t never in his life picked out no color for me. De world picked out black and white for mournin’, Joe didn’t. So Ah wasn’t wearin’ it for him. Ah was wearin’ it for de rest of y’all.”
“But anyhow, watch yo’self, Janie, and don’t be took advantage of. You know how dese young men is wid older women. Most of de time dey’s after whut dey kin git, then dey’s gone lak uh turkey through de corn.”
“Tea Cake don’t talk dat way. He’s aimin’ tuh make hisself permanent wid me. We done made up our mind tuh marry.”
“Janie, you’se yo’ own woman, and Ah hope you know whut you doin’. Ah sho hope you ain’t lak uh possum—de older you gits, de less sense yuh got. Ah’d feel uh whole heap better ’bout yuh if you wuz marryin’ dat man up dere in Sanford. He got somethin’ tuh put long side uh whut you got and dat make it more better. He’s endurable.”
“Still and all Ah’d rather be wid Tea Cake.”
“Well, if yo’ mind is already made up, ’tain’t nothin’ nobody kin do. But you’se takin’ uh awful chance.”
“No mo’ than Ah took befo’ and no mo’ than anybody else takes when dey gits married. It always changes folks, and sometimes it brings out dirt and meanness dat even de person didn’t know they had in ’em theyselves. You know dat. Maybe Tea Cake might turn out lak dat. Maybe not. Anyhow Ah’m ready and willin’ tuh try ’im.”
“Well, when you aim tuh step off?”
“Dat we don’t know. De store is got tuh be sold and then we’se goin’ off somewhere tuh git married.”
“How come you sellin’ out de store?”
“ ’Cause Tea Cake ain’t no Jody Starks, and if he tried tuh be, it would be uh complete flommuck. But de minute Ah marries ’im everybody is gointuh be makin’ comparisons. So us is goin’ off somewhere and start all over in Tea Cake’s way. Dis ain’t no business proposition, and no race after property and titles. Dis is uh love game. Ah done lived Grandma’s way, now Ah means tuh live mine.”
“What you mean by dat, Janie?”
“She was borned in slavery time when folks, dat is black folks, didn’t sit down anytime dey felt lak it. So sittin’ on porches lak de white madam looked lak uh mighty fine thing tuh her. Dat’s whut she wanted for me—don’t keer whut it cost. Git up on uh high chair and sit dere. She didn’t have time tuh think whut tuh do after you got up on de stool uh do nothin’. De object wuz tuh git dere. So Ah got up on de high stool lak she told me, but Pheoby, Ah done nearly languished tuh death up dere. Ah felt like de world wuz cryin’ extry and Ah ain’t read de common news yet.”
“Maybe so, Janie. Still and all Ah’d love tuh experience it for just one year. It look lak heben tuh me from where Ah’m at.”
“Ah reckon so.”
“But anyhow, Janie, you be keerful ’bout dis sellin’ out and goin’ off wid strange men. Look whut happened tuh Ahnie Tyler. Took whut little she had and went off tuh Tampa wid dat boy dey call Who Flung. It’s somethin’ tuh think about.”
“It sho is. Still Ah ain’t Mis’ Tyler and Tea Cake ain’t no Who Flung, and he ain’t no stranger tuh me. We’se just as good as married already. But Ah ain’t puttin’ it in de street. Ah’m tellin’ you.”
“Ah jus lak uh chicken. Chicken drink water, but he don’t pee-pee.”
“Oh, Ah know you don’t talk. We ain’t shame-faced. We jus’ ain’t ready tuh make no big kerflommuck as yet.”
“You doin’ right not tuh talk it, but Janie, you’se takin’ uh mighty big chance.”
“ ’Tain’t so big uh chance as it seem lak, Pheoby. Ah’m older than Tea Cake, yes. But he done showed me where it’s de thought dat makes de difference in ages. If people thinks de same they can make it all right. So in the beginnin’ new thoughts had tuh be thought and new words said. After Ah got used tuh dat, we gits ’long jus’ fine. He done taught me de maiden language all over. Wait till you see de new blue satin Tea Cake done picked out for me tuh stand up wid him in. High-heel slippers, necklace, earrings, everything he wants tuh see me in. Some of dese mornin’s and it won’t be long, you gointuh wake up callin’ me and Ah’ll be gone.”