Their Eyes Were Watching God
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.”