Jacksonville. Tea Cake’s letter had said Jacksonville. He had worked in the railroad shops up there before and his old boss had promised him a job come next pay day. No need for Janie to wait any longer. Wear the new blue dress because he meant to marry her right from the train. Hurry up and come because he was about to turn into pure sugar thinking about her. Come on, baby, papa Tea Cake never could be mad with you!
Janie’s train left too early in the day for the town to witness much, but the few who saw her leave bore plenty witness. They had to give it to her, she sho looked good, but she had no business to do it. It was hard to love a woman that always made you feel so wishful.
The train beat on itself and danced on the shiny steel rails mile after mile. Every now and then the engineer would play on his whistle for the people in the towns he passed by. And the train shuffled on to Jacksonville, and to a whole lot of things she wanted to see and to know.
And there was Tea Cake in the big old station in a new blue suit and straw hat, hauling her off to a preacher’s house first thing. Then right on to the room he had been sleeping in for two weeks all by himself waiting for her to come. And such another hugging and kissing and carrying on you never saw. It made her so glad she was scared of herself. They stayed at home and rested that night, but the next night they went to a show and after that they rode around on the trolley cars and sort of looked things over for themselves. Tea Cake was spending and doing out of his own pocket, so Janie never told him about the two hundred dollars she had pinned inside her shirt next to her skin. Pheoby had insisted that she bring it along and keep it secret just to be on the safe side. She had ten dollars over her fare in her pocket book. Let Tea Cake think that was all she had. Things might not turn out like she thought. Every minute since she had stepped off the train she had been laughing at Pheoby’s advice. She meant to tell Tea Cake the joke some time when she was sure she wouldn’t hurt his feelings. So it came around that she had been married a week and sent Pheoby a card with a picture on it.
That morning Tea Cake got up earlier than Janie did. She felt sleepy and told him to go get some fish to fry for breakfast. By the time he had gone and come back she would have finished her nap out. He told her he would and she turned over and went back to sleep. She woke up and Tea Cake still wasn’t there and the clock said it was getting late, so she got up and washed her face and hands. Perhaps he was down in the kitchen fixing around to let her sleep. Janie went down and the landlady made her drink some coffee with her because she said her husband was dead and it was bad to be having your morning coffee by yourself.
“Yo’ husband gone tuh work dis mornin’, Mis’ Woods? Ah seen him go out uh good while uh go. Me and you kin be comp’ny for one ’nother, can’t us?”
“Oh yes, indeed, Mis’ Samuels. You puts me in de mind uh mah friend back in Eatonville. Yeah, you’se nice and friendly jus’ lak her.”
Therefore Janie drank her coffee and sankled on back to her room without asking her landlady anything. Tea Cake must be hunting all over the city for that fish.
She kept that thought in front of her in order not to think too much. When she heard the twelve o’clock whistle she decided to get up and dress. That was when she found out her two hundred dollars was gone. There was the little cloth purse with the safety pin on the chair beneath her clothes and the money just wasn’t nowhere in the room. She knew from the beginning that the money wasn’t any place she knew of if it wasn’t in that little pocket book pinned to her pink silk vest. But the exercise of searching the room kept her busy and that was good for her to keep moving, even though she wasn’t doing anything but turning around in her tracks.
But, don’t care how firm your determination is, you can’t keep turning round in one place like a horse grinding sugar cane. So Janie took to sitting over the room. Sit and look. The room inside looked like the mouth of an alligator—gaped wide open to swallow something down. Outside the window Jacksonville looked like it needed a fence around it to keep it from running out on ether’s bosom. It was too big to be warm, let alone to need somebody like her. All day and night she worried time like a bone.
Way late in the morning the thought of Annie Tyler and Who Flung came to pay her a visit. Annie Tyler who at fifty-two had been left a widow with a good home and insurance money.
Mrs. Tyler with her dyed hair, newly straightened and her uncomfortable new false teeth, her leathery skin, blotchy with powder and her giggle. Her love affairs, affairs with boys in their late teens or early twenties for all of whom she spent her money on suits of clothes, shoes, watches and things like that and how they all left her as soon as their wants were satisfied. Then when her ready cash was gone, had come Who Flung to denounce his predecessor as a scoundrel and took up around the house himself. It was he who persuaded her to sell her house and come to Tampa with him. The town had seen her limp off. The undersized highheel
slippers were punishing her tired feet that looked like bunions all over. Her body squeezed and crowded into a tight corset that shoved her middle up under her chin. But she had gone off laughing and sure. As sure as Janie had been.
Then two weeks later the porter and conductor of the north bound local had helped her off the train at Maitland. Hair all gray and black and bluish and reddish in streaks. All the capers that cheap dye could cut was showing in her hair. Those slippers bent and griped just like her work-worn feet. The corset gone and the shaking old woman hanging all over herself. Everything that you could see was hanging. Her chin hung from her ears and rippled down her neck like drapes. Her hanging bosom and stomach and buttocks and legs that draped down over her ankles. She groaned but never giggled.
She was broken and her pride was gone, so she told those who asked what had happened. Who Flung had taken her to a shabby room in a shabby house in a shabby street and promised to marry her next day. They stayed in the room two whole days then she woke up to find Who Flung and her money gone. She got up to stir around and see if she could find him, and found herself too worn out to do much. All she found out was that she was too old a vessel for new wine. The next day hunger had driven her out to shift. She had stood on the streets and smiled and smiled, and then smiled and begged and then just begged. After a week of world-bruising a young man from home had come along and seen her. She couldn’t tell him how it was. She just told him she got off the train and somebody had stolen her purse. Naturally, he had believed her and taken her home with him to give her time to rest up a day or two, then he had bought her a ticket for home.
They put her to bed and sent for her married daughter from up around Ocala to come see about her. The daughter came as soon as she could and took Annie Tyler away to die in peace. She had waited all her life for something, and it had killed her when it found her.
The thing made itself into pictures and hung around Janie’s bedside all night long. Anyhow, she wasn’t going back to Eatonville to be laughed at and pitied. She had ten dollars in her pocket and twelve hundred in the bank. But oh God, don’t let Tea Cake be off somewhere hurt and Ah not know nothing about it. And God, please suh, don’t let him love nobody else but me. Maybe Ah’m is uh fool, Lawd, lak dey say, but Lawd, Ah been so lonesome, and Ah been waitin’, Jesus. Ah done waited uh long time.
Janie dozed off to sleep but she woke up in time to see the sun sending up spies ahead of him to mark out the road through the dark. He peeped up over the door sill of the world and made a little foolishness with red. But pretty soon, he laid all that aside and went about his business dressed all in white. But it was always going to be dark to Janie if Tea Cake didn’t soon come back. She got out of the bed but a chair couldn’t hold her. She dwindled down on the floor with her head in a rocking chair.
After a while there was somebody playing a guitar outside her door. Played right smart while. It sounded lovely too. But it was sad to hear it feeling blue like Janie was. Then whoever it was started to singing “Ring de bells of mercy. Call de sinner man home.” Her heart all but smothered her.
“Tea Cake, is dat you?”
“You know so well it’s me, Janie. How come you don’t open de door?”
But he never waited. He walked on in with a guitar and a grin. Guitar hanging round his neck with a red silk cord and a grin hanging from his ears.
“Don’t need tuh ast me where Ah been all dis time, ’cause it’s mah all day job tuh tell yuh.”
“Tea Cake, Ah—”
“Good Lawd, Janie, whut you doin’ settin’ on de floor?”
He took her head in his hands and eased himself into the chair. She still didn’t say anything. He sat stroking her head and
looking down into her face.
“Ah see whut it is. You doubted me ’bout de money. Thought Ah had done took it and gone. Ah don’t blame yuh but it wasn’t lak you think. De girl baby ain’t born and her mama is dead, dat can git me tuh spend our money on her. Ah told yo’ before dat you got de keys tuh de kingdom. You can depend on dat.”
“Still and all you went off and left me all day and all night.”
“ ’Twasn’t ’cause Ah wanted tuh stay off lak dat, and it sho Lawd, wuzn’t no woman. If you didn’t have de power tuh hold me and hold me tight, Ah wouldn’t be callin’ yuh Mis’ Woods. Ah met plenty women before Ah knowed you tuh talk tuh. You’se de onliest woman in de world Ah ever even mentioned gitting married tuh.
You bein’ older don’t make no difference. Don’t never consider dat no mo’. If Ah ever gits tuh messin’ round another woman it won’t be on account of her age. It’ll be because she got me in de same way you got me—so Ah can’t help mahself.”
He sat down on the floor beside her and kissed and playfully turned up the corner of her mouth until she smiled.
“Looka here, folks,” he announced to an imaginary audience, “Sister Woods is ’bout tuh quit her husband!”
Janie laughed at that and let herself lean on him. Then she announced to the same audience, “Mis’ Woods got herself uh new lil boy rooster, but he been off somewhere and won’t tell her.”
“First thing, though, us got tuh eat together, Janie. Then we can talk.”
“One thing, Ah won’t send you out after no fish.”
He pinched her in the side and ignored what she said.
“ ’Tain’t no need of neither one of us workin’ dis mornin’. Call Mis’ Samuels and let her fix whatever you want.”
“Tea Cake, if you don’t hurry up and tell me, Ah’ll take and beat yo’ head flat as uh dime.”
Tea Cake stuck out till he had some breakfast, then he talked and acted out the story.
He spied the money while he was tying his tie. He took it up and looked at it out of curiosity and put it in his pocket to count it while he was out to find some fish to fry. When he found out how much it was, he was excited and felt like letting folks know who he was. Before he found the fish market he met a fellow he used to work with at the round house. One word brought on another one and pretty soon he made up his mind to spend some of it. He never had had his hand on so much money before in his life, so he made up his mind to see how it felt to be a millionaire. They went on out to Callahan round the railroad shops and he decided to give a big chicken and macaroni supper that night, free to all.
He bought up the stuff and they found somebody to pick the guitar so they could all dance some. So they sent the message all around for people to come. And come they did. A big table loaded down with fried chicken and biscuits and a wash-tub full of macaroni with plenty cheese in it. When the fellow began to pick the box the people begin to come from east, west, north and Australia. And he stood in the door and paid all the ugly women two dollars not to come in. One big meriny colored woman was so ugly till it was worth five dollars for her not to come in, so he gave it to her.
They had a big time till one man come in who thought he was bad. He tried to pull and haul over all the chickens and pick out the livers and gizzards to eat. Nobody else couldn’t pacify him so they called Tea Cake to come see if he could stop him. So Tea Cake walked up and asked him, “Say, whut’s de matter wid you, nohow?”
“Ah don’t want nobody handin’ me nothin’. Specially don’t issue me out no rations. Ah always chooses mah rations.” He kept right on plowing through the pile uh chicken. So Tea Cake got mad.
“You got mo’ nerve than uh brass monkey. Tell me, what post office did you ever pee in? Ah craves tuh know.”
“Whut you mean by dat now?” the fellow asked.
“Ah means dis—it takes jus’ as much nerve tuh cut caper lak dat in uh United States Government Post Office as it do tuh comes pullin’ and haulin’ over any chicken Ah pay for. Hit de ground. Damned if Ah ain’t gointuh try you dis night.”
So they all went outside to see if Tea Cake could handle the boogerboo. Tea Cake knocked out two of his teeth, so that man went on off from there. Then two men tried to pick a fight with one another, so Tea Cake said they had to kiss and make up. They didn’t want to do it. They’d rather go to jail, but everybody else liked the idea, so they made ’em do it. Afterwards, both of them spit and gagged and wiped their mouths with the back of their hands. One went outside and chewed a little grass like a sick dog, he said to keep it from killing him.
Then everybody began to holler at the music because the man couldn’t play but three pieces. So Tea Cake took the guitar and played himself. He was glad of the chance because he hadn’t had his hand on a box since he put his in the pawn shop to get some money to hire a car for Janie soon after he met her. He missed his music. So that put him in the notion he ought to have one. He bought the guitar on the spot and paid fifteen dollars cash. It was really worth sixty-five any day.
Just before day the party wore out. So Tea Cake hurried on back to his new wife. He had done found out how rich people feel and he had a fine guitar and twelve dollars left in his pocket and all he needed now was a great big old hug and kiss from Janie.
“You musta thought yo’ wife was powerful ugly. Dem ugly women dat you paid two dollars not to come in, could git tuh de door. You never even ’lowed me tuh git dat close.” She pouted.
“Janie, Ah would have give Jacksonville wid Tampa for a jump-back for you to be dere wid me. Ah started to come git yuh two three times.”
“Well, how come yuh didn’t come git me?”
“Janie, would you have come if Ah did?”
“Sho Ah would. Ah laks fun just as good as you do.”
“Janie, Ah wanted tuh, mighty much, but Ah was skeered. Too skeered Ah might lose yuh.”
“Dem wuzn’t no high muckty mucks. Dem wuz railroad hands and dey womenfolks. You ain’t usetuh folks lak dat and Ah wuz skeered you might git all mad and quit me for takin’ you ’mongst ’em. But Ah wanted yuh wid me jus’ de same. Befo’ us got married Ah made up mah mind not tuh let you see no commonness in me. When Ah git mad habits on, Ah’d go off and keep it out yo’ sight. ’Tain’t mah notion tuh drag you down wid me.”
“Looka heah, Tea Cake, if you ever go off from me and have a good time lak dat and then come back heah tellin’ me how nice Ah is, Ah specks tuh kill yuh dead. You heah me?”
“So you aims tuh partake wid everything, hunh?”
“Yeah, Tea Cake, don’t keer what it is.”
“Dat’s all Ah wants tuh know. From now on you’se mah wife and mah woman and everything else in de world Ah needs.”
“Ah hope so.”
“And honey, don’t you worry ’bout yo’ lil ole two hundred dollars. It’s big pay day dis comin’ Saturday at de railroad yards. Ah’m gointuh take dis twelve dollars in mah pocket and win it all back and mo’.”
“Honey, since you loose me and gimme privilege tuh tell yuh all about mahself, Ah’ll tell yuh. You done married one uh de best gamblers God ever made. Cards or dice either one. Ah can take uh shoe string and win uh tan-yard. Wish yuh could see me rollin’. But dis time it’s gointuh be nothin’ but tough men’s talkin’ all kinds uh talk so it ain’t no place for you tuh be, but ’twon’t be long befo’ you see me.”
All the rest of the week Tea Cake was busy practising up on his dice. He would flip them on the bare floor, on the rug and on the bed. He’d squat and throw, sit in a chair and throw and stand and throw. It was very exciting to Janie who had never touched dice in her life. Then he’d take his deck of cards and shuffle and cut, shuffle and cut and deal out then examine each hand carefully, and do it again. So Saturday came. He went out and bought a new switch-blade knife and two decks of star-back playing cards that morning and left Janie around noon.
“They’ll start to paying off, pretty soon now. Ah wants tuh git in de game whilst de big money is in it. Ah ain’t fuh no spuddin’ tuhday. Ah’ll come home wid de money or Ah’ll come back on uh stretcher.” He cut nine hairs out of the mole of her head for luck and went off happy.
Janie waited till midnight without worrying, but after that she began to be afraid. So she got up and sat around scared and miserable. Thinking and fearing all sorts of dangers. Wondering at herself as she had many times this week that she was not shocked at Tea Cake’s gambling. It was part of him, so it was all right. She rather found herself angry at imaginary people who might try to criticize. Let the old hypocrites learn to mind their own business, and leave other folks alone. Tea Cake wasn’t doing a bit more harm trying to win hisself a little money than they was always doing with their lying tongues. Tea Cake had more good nature under his toe-nails than they had in their so-called Christian hearts. She better not hear none of them old backbiters talking about her husband! Please, Jesus, don’t let them nasty n*ggers hurt her boy. If they do, Master Jesus, grant her a good gun and a chance to shoot ’em. Tea Cake had a knife it was true, but that was only to protect hisself. God knows, Tea Cake wouldn’t harm a fly.
Daylight was creeping around the cracks of the world when Janie heard a feeble rap on the door. She sprung to the door and flung it wide. Tea Cake was out there looking like he was asleep standing up. In some strange way it was frightening. Janie caught his arm to arouse him and he stumbled into the room and fell.
“Tea Cake! You chile! What’s de matter, honey?”
“Dey cut me, dat’s all. Don’t cry. Git me out dis coat quick as yuh can.”
He told her he wasn’t cut but twice but she had to have him naked so she could look him all over and fix him up to a certain extent. He told her not to call a doctor unless he got much worse. It was mostly loss of blood anyhow.
“Ah won the money jus’ lak ah told yuh. Round midnight Ah had yo’ two hundred dollars and wuz ready tuh quit even though it wuz uh heap mo’ money in de game. But dey wanted uh chance tuh win it back so Ah set back down tuh play some mo’. Ah knowed ole Double-Ugly wuz ’bout broke and wanted tuh fight ’bout it, so Ah set down tuh give ’im his chance tuh git back his money and then to give ’im uh quick trip tuh hell if he tried tuh pull dat razor Ah glimpsed in his pocket. Honey, no up-to-date man don’t fool wid no razor. De man wid his switch-blade will be done cut yuh tuh death while you foolin’ wid uh razor. But Double-Ugly brags he’s too fast wid it tuh git hurt, but Ah knowed better.
“So round four o’clock Ah had done cleaned ’em out complete—all except two men dat got up and left while dey had money for groceries, and one man dat wuz lucky. Then Ah rose tuh bid ’em good bye agin. None of ’em didn’t lak it, but dey all realized it wuz fair. Ah had done give ’em a fair chance. All but Double-Ugly. He claimed Ah switched de dice. Ah shoved de money down deep in mah pocket and picked up mah hat and coat wid mah left hand and kept mah right hand on mah knife. Ah didn’t keer what he said long as he didn’t try tuh do nothin’. Ah got mah hat on and one arm in mah coat as Ah got to de door. Right dere he jumped at me as Ah turned to see de doorstep outside and cut me twice in de back.
“Baby, Ah run mah other arm in mah coat-sleeve and grabbed dat n*gger by his necktie befo’ he could bat his eye and then Ah wuz all over ’im jus’ lak gravy over rice. He lost his razor tryin’ tuh git loose from me. He wuz hollerin’ for me tuh turn him loose, but baby, Ah turnt him every way but loose. Ah left him on the doorstep and got here to yuh de quickest way Ah could. Ah know Ah ain’t cut too deep ’cause he was too skeered tuh run up on me close enough. Sorta pull de flesh together with stickin’ plaster. Ah’ll be all right in uh day or so.”
Janie was painting on iodine and crying.
“You ain’t de one to be cryin’, Janie. It’s his ole lady oughta do dat. You done gimme luck. Look in mah left hand pants pocket and see whut yo’ daddy brought yuh. When Ah tell yuh Ah’m gointuh bring it, Ah don’t lie.”
They counted it together—three hundred and twenty-two dollars. It was almost like Tea Cake had held up the Paymaster. He made her take the two hundred and put it back in the secret place. Then Janie told him about the other money she had in the bank.
“Put dat two hundred back wid de rest, Janie. Mah dice. Ah no need no assistance tuh help me feed mah woman. From now on, you gointuh eat whutever mah money can buy yuh and wear de same. When Ah ain’t got nothin’ you don’t git nothin’.”
“Dat’s all right wid me.”
He was getting drowsy, but he pinched her leg playfully because he was glad she took things the way he wanted her to. “Listen, mama, soon as Ah git over dis lil cuttin’ scrape, we gointuh do somethin’ crazy.”
“We goin’ on de muck.”
“Whut’s de muck, and where is it at?”
“Oh down in de Everglades round Clewiston and Belle Glade where dey raise all dat cane and string-beans and tomatuhs. Folks
don’t do nothin’ down dere but make money and fun and foolishness. We must go dere.”
He drifted off into sleep and Janie looked down on him and felt a self-crushing love. So her soul crawled out from its hiding place.