Their Eyes Were Watching God
To Janie’s strange eyes, everything in the Everglades was big and new. Big Lake Okechobee, big beans, big cane, big weeds, big everything. Weeds that did well to grow waist high up the state were eight and often ten feet tall down there. Ground so rich that everything went wild. Volunteer cane just taking the place. Dirt roads so rich and black that a half mile of it would have fertilized a Kansas wheat field. Wild cane on either side of the road hiding the rest of the world. People wild too.
“Season don’t open up till last of September, but we had tuh git heah ahead uh time tuh git us uh room,” Tea Cake explained. “Two weeks from now, it’ll be so many folks heah dey won’t be lookin’ fuh rooms, dey’ll be jus’ looking fuh somewhere tuh sleep. Now we got uh chance tuh git uh room at de hotel, where dey got uh bath tub. Yuh can’t live on de muck ’thout yuh take uh bath every day. Do dat muck’ll itch yuh lak ants. ’Tain’t but one place round heah wid uh bath tub. ’Tain’t nowhere near enough rooms.”
“Whut we gointuh do round heah?”
“All day Ah’m pickin’ beans. All night Ah’m pickin’ mah box and rollin’ dice. Between de beans and de dice Ah can’t lose. Ah’m gone right now tuh pick me uh job uh work wid de best man on de muck. Before de rest of ’em gits heah. You can always git jobs round heah in de season, but not wid de right folks.”
“When do de job open up, Tea Cake? Everybody round here look lak dey waitin’ too.”
“Dat’s right. De big men haves uh certain time tuh open de season jus’ lak in everything else. Mah bossman didn’t get sufficient seed. He’s out huntin’ up uh few mo’ bushels. Den we’se gointuh plantin’.”
“Yeah, bushels. Dis ain’t no game fuh pennies. Po’ man ain’t got no business at de show.”
The very next day he burst into the room in high excitement. “Boss done bought out another man and want me down on de lake. He got houses fuh de first ones dat git dere. Less go!”
They rattled nine miles in a borrowed car to the quarters that squatted so close that only the dyke separated them from great, sprawling Okechobee. Janie fussed around the shack making a home while Tea Cake planted beans. After hours they fished. Every now and then they’d run across a party of Indians in their long, narrow dug-outs calmly winning their living in the trackless ways of the ’Glades. Finally the beans were in. Nothing much to do but wait to pick them. Tea Cake picked his box a great deal for Janie, but he still didn’t have enough to do. No need of gambling yet. The people who were pouring in were broke. They didn’t come bringing money, they were coming to make some.
“Tell yuh whut, Janie, less buy us some shootin’ tools and go huntin’ round heah.”
“Dat would be fine, Tea Cake, exceptin’ you know Ah can’t shoot. But Ah’d love tuh go wid you.”
“Oh, you needs tuh learn how. ’Tain’t no need uh you not knowin’ how tuh handle shootin’ tools. Even if you didn’t never find no game, it’s always some trashy rascal dat needs uh good killin’,” he laughed. “Less go intuh Palm Beach and spend some of our money.”
Every day they were practising. Tea Cake made her shoot at little things just to give her good aim. Pistol and shot gun and rifle. It got so the others stood around and watched them. Some of the men would beg for a shot at the target themselves. It was the most exciting thing on the muck. Better than the jook and the pool-room unless some special band was playing for a dance. And the thing that got everybody was the way Janie caught on. She got to the place she could shoot a hawk out of a pine tree and not tear him up. Shoot his head off. She got to be a better shot than Tea Cake. They’d go out any late afternoon and come back loaded down with game. One night they got a boat and went out hunting alligators. Shining their phosphorescent eyes and shooting them in the dark. They could sell the hides and teeth in Palm Beach besides having fun together till work got pressing.
Day by day now, the hordes of workers poured in. Some came limping in with their shoes and sore feet from walking. It’s hard trying to follow your shoe instead of your shoe following you. They came in wagons from way up in Georgia and they came in truck loads from east, west, north and south. Permanent transients with no attachments and tired looking men with their families and dogs in flivvers. All night, all day, hurrying in to pick beans. Skillets, beds, patched up spare inner tubes all hanging and dangling from the ancient cars on the outside and hopeful humanity, herded and hovered on the inside, chugging on to the muck. People ugly from ignorance and broken from being poor.
All night now the jooks clanged and clamored. Pianos living three lifetimes in one. Blues made and used right on the spot. Dancing, fighting, singing, crying, laughing, winning and losing love every hour. Work all day for money, fight all night for love. The rich black earth clinging to bodies and biting the skin like ants.
Finally no more sleeping places. Men made big fires and fifty or sixty men slept around each fire. But they had to pay the man whose land they slept on. He ran the fire just like his boarding place—for pay. But nobody cared. They made good money, even to the children. So they spent good money. Next month and next year were other times. No need to mix them up with the present.
Tea Cake’s house was a magnet, the unauthorized center of the “job.” The way he would sit in the doorway and play his guitar made people stop and listen and maybe disappoint the jook for that night. He was always laughing and full of fun too. He kept everybody laughing in the bean field.
Janie stayed home and boiled big pots of blackeyed peas and rice. Sometimes baked big pans of navy beans with plenty of sugar and hunks of bacon laying on top. That was something Tea Cake loved so no matter if Janie had fixed beans two or three times during the week, they had baked beans again on Sunday. She always had some kind of dessert too, as Tea Cake said it give a man something to taper off on. Sometimes she’d straighten out the two-room house and take the rifle and have fried rabbit for supper when Tea Cake got home. She didn’t leave him itching and scratching in his work clothes, either. The kettle of hot water was already waiting when he got in.
Then Tea Cake took to popping in at the kitchen door at odd hours. Between breakfast and dinner, sometimes. Then often around two o’clock he’d come home and tease and wrestle with her for a half hour and slip on back to work. So one day she asked him about it.
“Tea Cake, whut you doin’ back in de quarters when everybody else is still workin’?”
“Come tuh see ’bout you. De boogerman liable tuh tote yuh off whilst Ah’m gone.”
“ ’Tain’t no boogerman got me tuh study ’bout. Maybe you think Ah ain’t treatin’ yuh right and you watchin’ me.”
“Naw, naw, Janie. Ah know better’n dat. But since you got dat in yo’ head, Ah’ll have tuh tell yuh de real truth, so yuh can know. Janie, Ah gits lonesome out dere all day ’thout yuh. After dis, you bettah come git uh job uh work out dere lak de rest uh de women—so Ah won’t be losin’ time comin’ home.”
“Tea Cake, you’se uh mess! Can’t do ’thout me dat lil time.”
“ ’Tain’t no lil time. It’s near ’bout all day.”
So the very next morning Janie got ready to pick beans along with Tea Cake. There was a suppressed murmur when she picked up a basket and went to work. She was already getting to be a special case on the muck. It was generally assumed that she thought herself too good to work like the rest of the women and that Tea Cake “pomped her up tuh dat.” But all day long the romping and playing they carried on behind the boss’s back made her popular right away. It got the whole field to playing off and on. Then Tea Cake would help get supper afterwards.
“You don’t think Ah’m tryin’ tuh git outa takin’ keer uh yuh, do yuh, Janie, ’cause Ah ast yuh tuh work long side uh me?” Tea Cake asked her at the end of her first week in the field.
“Ah naw, honey. Ah laks it. It’s mo’ nicer than settin’ round dese quarters all day. Clerkin’ in dat store wuz hard, but heah, we ain’t got nothin’ tuh do but do our work and come home and love.”
The house was full of people every night. That is, all around the doorstep was full. Some were there to hear Tea Cake pick the box; some came to talk and tell stories, but most of them came to get into whatever game was going on or might go on. Sometimes Tea Cake lost heavily, for there were several good gamblers on the lake. Sometimes he won and made Janie proud of his skill. But outside of the two jooks, everything on that job went on around those two.
Sometimes Janie would think of the old days in the big white house and the store and laugh to herself. What if Eatonville could see her now in her blue denim overalls and heavy shoes? The crowd of people around her and a dice game on her floor! She was sorry for her friends back there and scornful of the others. The men held big arguments here like they used to do on the store porch. Only here, she could listen and laugh and even talk some herself if she wanted to. She got so she could tell big stories herself from listening to the rest. Because she loved to hear it, and the men loved to hear themselves, they would “woof” and “boogerboo” around the games to the limit. No matter how rough it was, people seldom got mad, because everything was done for a laugh. Everybody loved to hear Ed Dockery, Bootyny, and Sop-de-Bottom in a skin game. Ed Dockery was dealing one night and he looked over at Sop-de-Bottom’s card and he could tell Sop thought he was going to win. He hollered, “Ah’ll break up dat settin’ uh eggs.” Sop looked and said, “Root de peg.” Bootyny asked, “What are you goin’ tuh do? Do do!” Everybody was watching that next card fall. Ed got ready to turn. “Ah’m gointuh sweep out hell and burn up de broom.” He slammed down another dollar. “Don’t oversport yourself, Ed,” Bootyny challenged. “You gittin’ too yaller.” Ed caught hold of the corner of the card. Sop dropped a dollar. “Ah’m gointuh shoot in de hearse, don’t keer how sad de funeral be.” Ed said, “You see how this man is teasin’ hell?” Tea Cake nudged Sop not to bet. “You gointuh git caught in uh bullet storm if you don’t watch out.” Sop said, “Aw ’tain’t nothin’ tuh dat bear but his curly hair. Ah can look through muddy water and see dry land.” Ed turned off the card and hollered, “Zachariah, Ah says come down out dat sycamore tree. You can’t do no business.” Nobody fell on that card. Everybody was scared of the next one. Ed looked around and saw Gabe standing behind his chair and hollered, “Move, from over me, Gabe! You too black. You draw heat! Sop, you wanta pick up dat bet whilst you got uh chance?” “Naw, man, Ah wish Ah had uh thousand-leg tuh put on it.” “So yuh won’t lissen, huh? Dumb niggers and free schools. Ah’m gointuh take and teach yuh. Ah’ll main-line but Ah won’t side-track.” Ed flipped the next card and Sop fell and lost. Everybody hollered and laughed. Ed laughed and said, “Git off de muck! You ain’t nothin’. Dat’s all! Hot boilin’ water won’t help yuh none.” Ed kept on laughing because he had been so scared before. “Sop, Bootyny, all y’all dat lemme win yo’ money: Ah’m sending it straight off to Sears and Roebuck and buy me some clothes, and when Ah turn out Christmas day, it would take a doctor to tell me how near Ah is dressed tuh death.”