Their Eyes Were Watching God
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.