Their Eyes Were Watching God
The years took all the fight out of Janie’s face. For a while she thought it was gone from her soul. No matter what Jody did, she said nothing. She had learned how to talk some and leave some. She was a rut in the road. Plenty of life beneath the surface but it was kept beaten down by the wheels. Sometimes she stuck out into the future, imagining her life different from what it was. But mostly she lived between her hat and her heels, with her emotional disturbances like shade patterns in the woods—come and gone with the sun. She got nothing from Jody except what money could buy, and she was giving away what she didn’t value.
Now and again she thought of a country road at sun-up and considered flight. To where? To what? Then too she considered thirty-five is twice seventeen and nothing was the same at all.
“Maybe he ain’t nothin’,” she cautioned herself, “but he is something in my mouth. He’s got tuh be else Ah ain’t got nothin’ tuh live for. Ah’ll lie and say he is. If Ah don’t, life won’t be nothin’ but uh store and uh house.”
She didn’t read books so she didn’t know that she was the world and the heavens boiled down to a drop. Man attempting to climb to painless heights from his dung hill.
Then one day she sat and watched the shadow of herself going about tending store and prostrating itself before Jody, while all the time she herself sat under a shady tree with the wind blowing through her hair and her clothes. Somebody near about making summertime out of lonesomeness.
This was the first time it happened, but after a while it got so common she ceased to be surprised. It was like a drug. In a way it was good because it reconciled her to things. She got so she received all things with the stolidness of the earth which soaks up urine and perfume with the same indifference.
One day she noticed that Joe didn’t sit down. He just stood in front of a chair and fell in it. That made her look at him all over. Joe wasn’t so young as he used to be. There was already something dead about him. He didn’t rear back in his knees any longer. He squatted over his ankles when he walked. That stillness at the back of his neck. His prosperous-looking belly that used to thrust out so pugnaciously and intimidate folks, sagged like a load suspended from his loins. It didn’t seem to be a part of him anymore. Eyes a little absent too.
Jody must have noticed it too. Maybe, he had seen it long before Janie did, and had been fearing for her to see. Because he began to talk about her age all the time, as if he didn’t want her to stay young while he grew old. It was always “You oughta throw somethin’ over yo’ shoulders befo’ you go outside. You ain’t no young pullet no mo’. You’se uh ole hen now.” One day he called her off the croquet grounds. “Dat’s somethin’ for de young folks, Janie, you out dere jumpin’ round and won’t be able tuh git out de bed tuhmorrer.” If he thought to deceive her, he was wrong. For the first time she could see a man’s head naked of its skull. Saw the cunning thoughts race in and out through the caves and promontories of his mind long before they darted out of the tunnel of his mouth. She saw he was hurting inside so she let it pass without talking. She just measured out a little time for him and set it aside to wait.
It got to be terrible in the store. The more his back ached and his muscle dissolved into fat and the fat melted off his bones, the more fractious he became with Janie. Especially in the store. The more people in there the more ridicule he poured over her body to point attention away from his own. So one day Steve Mixon wanted some chewing tobacco and Janie cut it wrong. She hated that tobacco knife anyway. It worked very stiff. She fumbled with the thing and cut way away from the mark. Mixon didn’t mind. He held it up for a joke to tease Janie a little.
“Looka heah, Brother Mayor, whut yo’ wife done took and done.” It was cut comical, so everybody laughed at it. “Uh woman and uh knife—no kind of uh knife, don’t b’long tuhgether.” There was some more good-natured laughter at the expense of women.
Jody didn’t laugh. He hurried across from the post office side and took the plug of tobacco away from Mixon and cut it again. Cut it exactly on the mark and glared at Janie.
“I god amighty! A woman stay round uh store till she get old as Methusalem and still can’t cut a little thing like a plug of tobacco! Don’t stand dere rollin’ yo’ pop eyes at me wid yo’ rump hangin’ nearly to yo’ knees!”
A big laugh started off in the store but people got to thinking and stopped. It was funny if you looked at it right quick, but it got pitiful if you thought about it awhile. It was like somebody snatched off part of a woman’s clothes while she wasn’t looking and the streets were crowded. Then too, Janie took the middle of the floor to talk right into Jody’s face, and that was something that hadn’t been done before.
“Stop mixin’ up mah doings wid mah looks, Jody. When you git through tellin’ me how tuh cut uh plug uh tobacco, then you kin tell me whether mah behind is on straight or not.”
“Wha—whut’s dat you say, Janie? You must be out yo’ head.”
“Naw, Ah ain’t outa mah head neither.”
“You must be. Talkin’ any such language as dat.”
“You de one started talkin’ under people’s clothes. Not me.”
“Whut’s de matter wid you, nohow? You ain’t no young girl to be gettin’ all insulted ’bout yo’ looks. You ain’t no young courtin’ gal. You’se uh ole woman, nearly forty.”
“Yeah, Ah’m nearly forty and you’se already fifty. How come you can’t talk about dat sometimes instead of always pointin’ at me?”
“ ’Tain’t no use in gettin’ all mad, Janie, ’cause Ah mention you ain’t no young gal no mo’. Nobody in heah ain’t lookin’ for no wife outa yuh. Old as you is.”
“Naw, Ah ain’t no young gal no mo’ but den Ah ain’t no old woman neither. Ah reckon Ah looks mah age too. But Ah’m uh woman every inch of me, and Ah know it. Dat’s uh whole lot more’n you kin say. You big-bellies round here and put out a lot of brag, but ’tain’t nothin’ to it but yo’ big voice. Humph! Talkin’ ’bout me lookin’ old! When you pull down yo’ britches, you look lak de change uh life.”
“Great God from Zion!” Sam Watson gasped. “Y’all really playin’ de dozens tuhnight.”
“Wha—whut’s dat you said?” Joe challenged, hoping his ears had fooled him.
“You heard her, you ain’t blind,” Walter taunted.
“Ah ruther be shot with tacks than tuh hear dat ’bout mahself,” Lige Moss commiserated.
Then Joe Starks realized all the meanings and his vanity bled like a flood. Janie had robbed him of his illusion of irresistible maleness that all men cherish, which was terrible. The thing that Saul’s daughter had done to David. But Janie had done worse, she had cast down his empty armor before men and they had laughed, would keep on laughing. When he paraded his possessions hereafter, they would not consider the two together. They’d look with envy at the things and pity the man that owned them. When he sat in judgment it would be the same. Good-for-nothing’s like Dave and Lum and Jim wouldn’t change place with him. For what can excuse a man in the eyes of other men for lack of strength? Raggedy-behind squirts of sixteen and seventeen would be giving him their merciless pity out of their eyes while their mouths said something humble. There was nothing to do in life anymore. Ambition was useless. And the cruel deceit of Janie! Making all that show of humbleness and scorning him all the time! Laughing at him, and now putting the town up to do the same. Joe Starks didn’t know the words for all this, but he knew the feeling. So he struck Janie with all his might and drove her from the store.