"The Gilded Six-Bits"
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
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
"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,
"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.
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'
Missie May looked at her husband to see if he was playing some prank. "Sho nuff,
"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
"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 thirtyeight 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
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
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
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
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 fo ...
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