Their Eyes Were Watching God
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.”