“The Gilded Six-Bits” by Zora Neale Hurston
It was a Negro yard around a Negro house in a Negro settlement that looked to the payroll of the G. and G. Fertilizer works for its support.
But there was something happy about the place. The front yard was parted in the middle by a sidewalk from gate to doorstep, a sidewalk edged on either side by quart bottles driven neck down into the ground on a slant. A mess of homey flowers planted without a plan but blooming cheerily from their helter-skelter places. The fence and house were whitewashed. The porch and steps scrubbed white.
The front door stood open to the sunshine so that the floor of the front room could finish drying after its weekly scouring. It was Saturday. Everything clean from the front gate to the privy house. Yard raked so that the strokes of the rake would make a pattern. Fresh newspaper cut in fancy edge on the kitchen shelves.
Missie May was bathing herself in the galvanized washtub in the bedroom. Her dark-brown skin glistened under the soapsuds that skittered down from her washrag. Her stiff young breasts thrust forward aggressively, like broad-based cones with the tips lacquered in black.
She heard men’s voices in the distance and glanced at the dollar clock on the dresser.
“Humph! Ah’m way behind time t’day! Joe gointer be heah ‘fore Ah git mah clothes on if Ah don’t make haste.”
She grabbed the clean mealsack at hand and dried herself hurriedly and began to dress. But before she could tie her slippers, there came the ring of singing metal on wood. Nine times.
Missie May grinned with delight. She had not seen the big tall man come stealing in the gate and creep up the walk grinning happily at the joyful mischief he was about to commit. But she knew that it was her husband throwing silver dollars in the door for her to pick up and pile beside her plate at dinner. It was this way every Saturday afternoon. The nine dollars hurled into the open door, he scurried to a hiding place behind the Cape jasmine bush and waited.
Missie May promptly appeared at the door in mock alarm.
“Who dat chunkin’ money in mah do’way?” she demanded. No answer from the yard. She leaped off the porch and began to search the shrubbery. She peeped under the porch and hung over the gate to look up and down the road. While she
did this, the man behind the jasmine darted to the chinaberry tree. She spied him and gave chase.
“Nobody ain’t gointer be chunkin’ money at me and Ah not do ‘em nothin’,” she shouted in mock anger. He ran around the house with Missie May at his heels. She overtook him at the kitchen door. He ran inside but could not close it after him before she crowded in and locked with him in a rough-and-tumble. For several minutes the two were a furious mass of male and female energy. Shouting, laughing, twisting, turning, tussling, tickling each other in the ribs; Missie May clutching onto Joe and Joe trying, but not too hard, to get away.
“Missie May, take yo’ hand out mah pocket!” Joe shouted out between laughs.
“Ah ain’t, Joe, not lessen you gwine gimme whateve’ it is good you got in yo’ pocket. Turn it go, Joe, do Ah’ll tear yo’ clothes.”
“Go on tear ‘em. You de one dat pushes de needles round heah. Move yo’ hand, Missie May.”
“Lemme git dat paper sak out yo’ pocket. Ah bet it’s candy kisses.”
“Tain’t. Move yo’ hand. Woman ain’t got no business in a man’s clothes nohow. Go way.”
Missie May gouged way down and gave an upward jerk and triumphed.
“Unhhunh! Ah got it! It ’tis so candy kisses. Ah knowed you had somethin’ for me in yo’ clothes. Now Ah got to see whut’s in every pocket you got.”
Joe smiled indulgently and let his wife go through all of his pockets and take out the things that he had hidden for her to find. She bore off the chewing gum, the cake of sweet soap, the pocket handkerchief as if she had wrested them from him, as if they had not been bought for the sake of this friendly battle.
“Whew! dat play-fight done got me all warmed up!” Joe exclaimed. “Got me some water in de kittle?”
“Yo’ water is on de fire and yo’ clean things is cross de bed. Hurry up and wash yo’self and git changed so we kin eat. Ah’m hongry.” As Missie said this, she bore the steaming kettle into the bedroom.
“You ain’t hongry, sugar,” Joe contradicted her. “Youse jes’ a little empty. Ah’m de one whut’s hongry. Ah could eat up camp meetin’, back off ‘ssociation, and drink Jurdan dry. Have it on de table when Ah git out de tub.”
“Don’t you mess wid mah business, man. You git in yo’ clothes. Ah’m a real wife, not no dress and breath. Ah might not look lak one, but if you burn me, you won’t git a thing but wife ashes.”
Joe splashed in the bedroom and Missie May fanned around in the kitchen. A fresh red-and-white checked cloth on the table. Big pitcher of buttermilk beaded with pale drops of butter from the churn. Hot fried mullet, crackling bread, ham hock atop a mound of string beans and new potatoes, and perched on the windowsill a pone of spicy potato pudding.
Very little talk during the meal but that little consisted of banter that pretended to deny affection but in reality flaunted it. Like when Missie May reached for a second helping of the tater pone. Joe snatched it out of her reach.
After Missie May had made two or three unsuccessful grabs at the pan, she begged, “Aw, Joe, gimme some mo’ dat tater pone.”
“Nope, sweetenin’ is for us menfolks. Y’all pritty lil frail eels don’t need nothin’ lak dis. You too sweet already.”
“Naw, naw. Ah don’t want you to git no sweeter than whut you is already. We goin’ down de road a lil piece t’night so you go put on yo’ Sunday-go-to-meetin’ things.”
Missie May looked at her husband to see if he was playing some prank. “Sho nuff, Joe?”
“Yeah. We goin’ to de ice cream parlor.”
“Where de ice cream parlor at, Joe?”
“A new man done come heah from Chicago and he done got a place and took and opened it up for a ice cream parlor, and bein’, as it’s real swell, Ah wants you to be one de first ladies to walk in dere and have some set down.”
“Do Jesus, Ah ain’t knowed nothin’ bout it. Who de man done it?”
“Mister Otis D. Slemmons, of spots and places–Memphis, Chicago, Jacksonville, Philadelphia and so on.”
“Dat heavyset man wid his mouth full of gold teeths?”
“Yeah. Where did you see ‘im at?”
“Ah went down to de sto’ tuh git a box of lye and Ah seen ‘im standin’ on de corner talkin’ to some of de mens, and Ah come on back and went to scrubbin’ de floor, and he passed and tipped his hat whilst Ah was scourin’ de steps. Ah thought Ah never seen him befo’.”
Joe smiled pleasantly. “Yeah, he’s up-to-date. He got de finest clothes Ah ever seen on a colored man’s back.”
“Aw, he don’t look no better in his clothes than you do in yourn. He got a puzzlegut on ‘im and he so chuckleheaded he got a pone behind his neck.”
Joe looked down at his own abdomen and said wistfully: “Wisht Ah had a build on me lak he got. He ain’t puzzlegutted, honey. He jes’ got a corperation. Dat make ‘m look lak a rich white man. All rich mens is got some belly on ‘em.”
“Ah seen de pitchers of Henry Ford and he’s a spare-built man and Rockefeller look lak he ain’t got but one gut. But Ford and Rockefeller and dis Slemmons and all de rest kin be as many-gutted as dey please, Ah’s satisfied wid you jes’ lak you is, baby. God took pattern after a pine tree and built you noble. Youse a pritty man, and if Ah knowed any way to make you mo’ pritty still Ah’d take and do it.”
Joe reached over gently and toyed with Missie May’s ear. “You jes’ say dat cause you love me, but Ah know Ah can’t hold no light to Otis D. Slemmons. Ah ain’t never been nowhere and Ah ain’t got nothin’ but you.”
Missie May got on his lap and kissed him and he kissed back in kind. Then he went on. “All de womens is crazy ’bout ‘im everywhere he go.”
“How you know dat, Joe?”
“He tole us so hisself.”
“Dat don’t make it so. His mouf is cut crossways, ain’t it? Well, he kin lie jes’ lak anybody else.”
“Good Lawd, Missie! You womens sho is hard to sense into things. He’s got a five-dollar gold piece for a stickpin and he got a ten-dollar gold piece on his watch chain and his mouf is jes’ crammed full of gold teeths. Sho wisht it wuz mine. And whut make it so cool, he got money ‘cumulated. And womens give it all to ‘im.”
“Ah don’t see whut de womens see on ‘im. Ah wouldn’t give ‘im a wink if de sheriff wuz after ‘im.”
“Well, he tole us how de white womens in Chicago give ‘im all dat gold money. So he don’t ‘low nobody to touch it at all. Not even put day finger on it. Dey told ‘im not to. You kin make ‘miration at it, but don’t tetch it.”
“Whyn’t he stay up dere where dey so crazy ’bout ‘im?”
“Ah reckon dey done made ‘im vast-rich and he wants to travel some. He says dey wouldn’t leave ‘im hit a lick of work. He got mo’ lady people crazy ’bout him than he kin shake a stick at.”
“Joe, Ah hates to see you so dumb. Dat stray nigger jes’ tell y’all anything and y’all b’lieve it.”
“Go ‘head on now, honey, and put on yo’ clothes. He talkin’ ’bout his pritty womens–Ah want ‘im to see mine.”
Missie May went off to dress and Joe spent the time trying to make his stomach punch out like Slemmons’s middle. He tried the rolling swagger of the stranger, but found that his tall bone-and-muscle stride fitted ill with it. He just had time to drop back into his seat before Missie May came in dressed to go.
On the way home that night Joe was exultant. “Didn’t Ah say ole Otis was swell? Can’t he talk Chicago talk? Wuzn’t dat funny whut he said when great big fat ole Ida Armstrong come in? He asted me, ‘Who is dat broad wid de forte shake?’ Dat’s a new word. Us always thought forty was a set of figgers but he showed us where it means a whole heap of things. Sometimes he don’t say forty, he jes’ say thirty-eight and two and dat mean de same thing. Know whut he told me when Ah wuz payin’ for our ice cream? He say, ‘Ah have to hand it to you, Joe. Dat wife of yours is jes’ thirty-eight and two. Yessuh, she’s forte!’ Ain’t he killin’?”
“He’ll do in case of a rush. But he sho is got uh heap uh gold on ‘im. Dat’s de first time Ah ever seed gold money. It lookted good on him sho nuff, but it’d look a whole heap better on you.”
“Who, me? Missie May, youse crazy! Where would a po’ man lak me git gold money from?”
Missie May was silent for a minute, then she said, “Us might find some goin’ long de road some time. Us could.”
“Who would be losin’ gold money round heah? We ain’t even seen none dese white folks wearin’ no gold money on dey watch chain. You must be figgerin’ Mister Packard or Mister Cadillac goin’ pass through heah.”
“You don’t know whut been lost ’round heah. Maybe somebody way back in memorial times lost they gold money and went on off and it ain’t never been
found. And then if we wuz to find it, you could wear some ‘thout havin’ no gang of womens lak dat Slemmons say he got.”
Joe laughed and hugged her. “Don’t be so wishful ’bout me. Ah’m satisfied de way Ah is. So long as Ah be yo’ husband. Ah don’t keer ’bout nothin’ else. Ah’d ruther all de other womens in de world to be dead than for you to have de toothache. Less we go to bed and git our night rest.”
It was Saturday night once more before Joe could parade his wife in Slemmons’s ice cream parlor again. He worked the night shift and Saturday was his only night off. Every other evening around six o’clock he left home, and dying dawn saw him hustling home around the lake, where the challenging sun flung a flaming sword from east to west across the trembling water.
That was the best part of life–going home to Missie May. Their whitewashed house, the mock battle on Saturday, the dinner and ice cream parlor afterwards, church on Sunday nights when Missie outdressed any woman in town–all, everything, was right.
One night around eleven the acid ran out at the G. and G. The foreman knocked off the crew and let the steam die down. As Joe rounded the lake on his way home, a lean moon rode the lake in a silver boat. If anybody had asked Joe about the moon on the lake, he would have said he hadn’t paid it any attention. But he saw it with his feelings. It made him yearn painfully for Missie. Creation obsessed him. He thought about children. They had been married more than a year now. They had money put away. They ought to be making little feet for shoes. A little boy child would be about right.
He saw a dim light in the bedroom and decided to come in through the kitchen door. He could wash the fertilizer dust off himself before presenting himself to Missie May. It would be nice for her not to know that he was there until he slipped into his place in bed and hugged her back. She always liked that.
He eased the kitchen door open slowly and silently, but when he went to set his dinner bucket on the table he bumped it into a pile of dishes, and something crashed to the floor. He heard his wife gasp in fright and hurried to reassure her.
“Iss me, honey. Don’t git skeered.”
There was a quick, large movement in the bedroom. A rustle, a thud, and a stealthy silence. The light went out.
What? Robbers? Murderers? Some varmint attacking his helpless wife, perhaps. He struck a match, threw himself on guard and stepped over the doorsill into the bedroom.
The great belt on the wheel of Time slipped and eternity stood still. By the match light he could see the man’s legs fighting with his breeches in his frantic desire to get them on. He had both chance and time to kill the intruder in his helpless condition–half in and half out of his pants–but he was too weak to take action. The shapeless enemies of humanity that live in the hours of Time had waylaid Joe. He was assaulted in his weakness. Like Samson awakening after his haircut. So he just opened his mouth and laughed.
The match went out and he struck another and lit the lamp. A howling wind raced across his heart, but underneath its fury he heard his wife sobbing and Slemmons pleading for his life. Offering to buy it with all that he had. “Please, suh, don’t kill me. Sixty-two dollars at de sto’. Gold money.”
Joe just stood. Slemmons looked at the window, but it was screened. Joe stood out like a rough-backed mountain between him and the door. Barring him from escape, from sunrise, from life.
He considered a surprise attack upon the big clown that stood there laughing like a chessy cat. But before his fist could travel an inch, Joe’s own rushed out to crush him like a battering ram. Then Joe stood over him.
“Git into yo’ damn rags, Slemmons, and dat quick.”
Slemmons scrambled to his feet and into his vest and coat. As he grabbed his hat, Joe’s fury overrode his intentions and he grabbed at Slemmons with his left hand and struck at him with his right. The right landed. The left grazed the front of his vest. Slemmons was knocked a somersault into the kitchen and fled through the open door. Joe found himself alone with Missie May, with the golden watch charm clutched in his left fist. A short bit of broken chain dangled between his fingers.
Missie May was sobbing. Wails of weeping without words. Joe stood, and after a while he found out that he had something in his hand. And then he stood and felt without thinking and without seeing with his natural eyes. Missie May kept on crying and Joe kept on feeling so much, and not knowing what to do with all his feelings, he put Slemmons’s watch charm in his pants pocket and took a good laugh and went to bed.
“Missie May, whut you cryin’ for?”
“Cause Ah love you so hard and Ah know you don’t love me no mo’.”
Joe sank his face into the pillow for a spell, then he said huskily, “You don’t know de feelings of dat yet, Missie May.”
“Oh Joe, honey, he said he wuz gointer give me dat gold money and he jes’ kept on after me–”
Joe was very still and silent for a long time. Then he said, “Well, don’t cry no mo’, Missie May. Ah got yo’ gold piece for you.”
The hours went past on their rusty ankles. Joe still and quiet on one bed rail and Missie May wrung dry of sobs on the other. Finally the sun’s tide crept upon the shore of night and drowned all its hours. Missie May with her face stiff and streaked towards the window saw the dawn come into her yard. It was day. Nothing more. Joe wouldn’t be coming home as usual. No need to fling open the front door and sweep off the porch, making it nice for Joe. Never no more breakfast to cook; no more washing and starching of Joe’s jumper-jackets and pants. No more nothing. So why get up?
With this strange man in her bed, she felt embarrassed to get up and dress. She decided to wait till he had dressed and gone. Then she would get up, dress quickly and be gone forever beyond reach of Joe’s looks and laughs. But he never moved. Red light turned to yellow, then white.
From beyond the no-man’s land between them came a voice. A strange voice that yesterday had been Joe’s.
“Missie May, ain’t you gonna fix me no breakfus’?”
She sprang out of bed. “Yeah, Joe. Ah didn’t reckon you wuz hongry.”
No need to die today. Joe needed her for a few more minutes anyhow.
Soon there was a roaring fire in the cookstove. Water bucket full and two chickens killed. Joe loved fried chicken and rice. She didn’t deserve a thing and good Joe was letting her cook him some breakfast. She rushed hot biscuits to the table as Joe took his seat.
He ate with his eyes in his plate. No laughter, no banter.
“Missie May, you ain’t eatin’ yo’ breakfus’.”
“Ah don’t choose none, Ah thank yuh.”
His coffee cup was empty. She sprang to refill it. When she turned from the stove and bent to set the cup beside Joe’s plate, she saw the yellow coin on the table between them.
She slumped into her seat and wept into her arms.
Presently Joe said calmly, “Missie May, you cry too much. Don’t look back lak Lot’s wife and turn to salt.” The sun, the hero of every day, the impersonal old man that beams as brightly on death as on birth, came up every morning and raced across the blue dome and dipped into the sea of fire every morning. Water ran downhill and birds nested.
Missie knew why she didn’t leave Joe. She couldn’t. She loved him too much, but she could not understand why Joe didn’t leave her. He was polite, even kind at times, but aloof.
There were no more Saturday romps. No ringing silver dollars to stack beside her plate. No pockets to rifle. In fact, the yellow coin in his trousers was like a monster hiding in the cave of his pockets to destroy her.
She often wondered if he still had it, but nothing could have induced her to ask nor yet to explore his pockets to see for herself. Its shadow was in the house whether or no.
One night Joe came home around midnight and complained of pains in the back. He asked Missie to rub him down with liniment. It had been three months since Missie had touched his body and it all seemed strange. But she rubbed him. Grateful for the chance. Before morning youth triumphed and Missie exulted. But the next day, as she joyfully made up their bed, beneath her pillow she found the piece of money with the bit of chain attached.
Alone to herself, she looked at the thing with loathing, but look she must. She took it into her hands with trembling and saw first thing that it was no gold piece. It was a gilded half dollar. Then she knew why Slemmons had forbidden anyone to touch his gold. He trusted village eyes at a distance not to recognize his stickpin as a gilded quarter, and his watch charm as a four-bit piece.
She was glad at first that Joe had left it there. Perhaps he was through with her punishment. They were man and wife again. Then another thought came clawing at her. He had come home to buy from her as if she were any woman in the longhouse. Fifty cents for her love. As if to say that he could pay as well as Slemmons. She slid the coin into his Sunday pants pocket and dressed herself and left his house.
Halfway between her house and the quarters she met her husband’s mother, and after a short talk she turned and went back home. Never would she admit defeat to that woman who prayed for it nightly. If she had not the substance of marriage she had the outside show. Joe must leave her. She let him see she didn’t want his old gold four-bits, too.
She saw no more of the coin for some time though she knew that Joe could not help finding it in his pocket. But his health kept poor, and he came home at least every ten days to be rubbed.
The sun swept around the horizon, trailing its robes of weeks and days. One morning as Joe came in from work, he found Missie May chopping wood. Without a word he took the ax and chopped a huge pile before he stopped.
“You ain’t got no business choppin’ wood, and you know it.”
“How come? Ah been choppin’ it for de last longest.”
“Ah ain’t blind. You makin’ feet for shoes.”
“Won’t you be glad to have a lil baby chile, Joe?”
“You know dat ‘thout astin’ me.”
“Iss gointer be a boy chile and de very spit of you.”
“You reckon, Missie May?”
“Who else could it look lak?”
Joe said nothing, but he thrust his hand deep into his pocket and fingered something there.
It was almost six months later Missie May took to bed and Joe went and got his mother to come wait on the house.
Missie May was delivered of a fine boy. Her travail was over when Joe come in from work one morning. His mother and the old woman were drinking great bowls of coffee around the fire in the kitchen.
The minute Joe came into the room his mother called him aside.
“How did Missie May make out?” he asked quickly.
“Who, dat gal? She strong as a ox. She gointer have plenty mo’. We done fixed her wid de sugar and lard to sweeten her for de nex’ one.”
Joe stood silent awhile.
“You ain’t ask ’bout de baby, Joe. You oughter be mighty proud cause he sho is de spittin’ image of yuh, son. Dat’s yourn all right, if you never git another one, dat un is yourn. And you know Ah’m mighty proud too, son, cause Ah never thought
well of you marryin’ Missie May cause her ma used tuh fan her foot round right smart and Ah been mighty skeered dat Missie May wuz gointer git misput on her road.”
Joe said nothing. He fooled around the house till late in the day, then, just before he went to work, he went and stood at the foot of the bed and asked his wife how she felt. He did this every day during the week.
On Saturday he went to Orlando to make his market. It had been a long time since he had done that.
Meat and lard, meal and flour, soap and starch. Cans of corn and tomatoes. All the staples. He fooled around town for a while and bought bananas and apples. Way after while he went around to the candy store.
“Hello, Joe,” the clerk greeted him. “Ain’t seen you in a long time.”
“Nope, Ah ain’t been heah. Been round in spots and places.”
“Want some of them molasses kisses you always buy?”
“Yessuh.” He threw the gilded half dollar on the counter. “Will dat spend?”
“What is it, Joe? Well, I’ll be doggone! A gold-plated four-bit piece. Where’d you git it, Joe?”
“Offen a stray nigger dat come through Eatonville. He had it on his watch chain for a charm–goin’ round making out iss gold money. Ha ha! He had a quarter on his tiepin and it wuz all golded up too. Tryin’ to fool people. Makin’ out he so rich and everything. Ha! Ha! Tryin’ to tole off folkses wives from home.”
“How did you git it, Joe? Did he fool you, too?”
“Who, me? Naw suh! He ain’t fooled me none. Know whut Ah done? He come round me wid his smart talk. Ah hauled off and knocked ‘im down and took his old four-bits away from ‘im. Gointer buy my wife some good ole lasses kisses wid it. Gimme fifty cents worth of dem candy kisses.”
“Fifty cents buys a mighty lot of candy kisses, Joe. Why don’t you split it up and take some chocolate bars, too? They eat good, too.”
“Yessuh, dey do, but Ah wants all dat in kisses. Ah got a lil boy chile home now. Tain’t a week old yet, but he kin suck a sugar tit and maybe eat one them kisses hisself.”
Joe got his candy and left the store. The clerk turned to the next customer. “Wisht I could be like these darkies. Laughin’ all the time. Nothin’ worries ‘em.”
Back in Eatonville, Joe reached his own front door. There was the ring of singing metal on wood. Fifteen times. Missie May couldn’t run to the door, but she crept there as quickly as she could.
“Joe Banks, Ah hear you chunkin’ money in mah do’way. You wait till Ah got mah strength back and Ah’m gointer fix you for dat.”