From Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick, a book of short stories including previously uncollected work, published this month by Amistad.
“L ooka heah Cal’line, you oughta stop dis heah foolishness you got. Youse in New Yawk now—you ain’t down in Florida. Thaas just what Ah say—you kin git a woman out de country, but you can’t git a country out de woman.”
The woman, Caroline Potts, in sloppy clothes and rundown shoes, was standing arrogantly akimbo at Seventh Avenue and 134th Street. She was standing between her husband, Mitchell Potts, and a woman, heavy built and stylish in a Lenox Avenue way.
The woman was easing on down 134th Street away from the threatening black eyes of Caroline. Mitchell wanted to vanish, too, but his wife was blocking his way. He didn’t know whether to run, to fight, or to cajole, for Caroline was as temperamental as Mercury. Nobody ever knew how she would take things. Back in the Florida village from which they had emigrated, Caroline Potts and her doings were the chief topics of conversation. Whatever she did was original. Mitchell was always having a side gal and Caroline was always catching him. No one besides her husband believed that she was jealous. She had an uncultivated sense of humor. She enjoyed the situation. Men and women behave so queerly when caught red-handed at anything. Sometimes when they expected fight she laughed and passed on. Sometimes she thought out ingenious, embarrassing situations and engineered the two into them, with all the cruelty of the rural.
Her body was wiry and tough as nails and she could hold up her end of the argument anytime in a rough and tumble with her husband, so he couldn’t hope to settle things that way. All these things were in Mitchell’s mind as he faced her on Seventh Avenue. He saw a number of people crowding around them and he was eager to be going.
“Les us g’wan home, Cal’line.”
“You wuzn’t headed dat way when Ah met you.”
“Yes, Ah wuz, too. Ah just walked a piece of de way wid Lucy Taylor.”
“You done walked enough ‘pieces’ wid dat ’oman to carry you back down home.”
Mitchell caught her arm cajolingly. “Aw come, dese heah folks is all standing ’round trying to git into mine and yo’ bizness.”
She permitted herself to be led, but before she moved she let out: “Maybe dat hussy think she’s a big hen’s biddy but she don’t lay no gobbler eggs. She might be a big cigar, but I sho kin smoke her. The very next time she gits in my way, I’ll kick her clothes up round her neck like a horse collar. She’ll think lightnin’ struck her all right, now.”
All of which was very delectable to the ears of the crowd on the street but pizen to Mitchell. He led her away to their flat in the Caribbean Forties with as much anxiety as if she had been so much trinitrotoluene.
There she grew as calm as if nothing had happened and cooked him a fine dinner which they still spoke of as supper. After which he felt encouraged to read her a lecture on getting the country out of the woman.
“Lissen, Cal’line, you oughten ack lak you did today. Folks up heah don’t run after they husbands and carry on cause they sees him swappin’ a few jokes wid another woman. You ain’t down in the de basement no more—youse in New Yawk.”
“Swappin JOKES! So you tryin’ to jerk de wool over MY eyes? New Yawk! Humph! Youse the same guy you wuz down home. You ain’t one bit different—ain’t nothin’ changed but you clothes.”
“How come YOU don’t git YO’SELF some more? Ah sho is tired uh dat way down in Dixie look you totes.”
“Who, me? Humph! Ah ain’t studying about all dese all-front-and-no-back colored folks up in Harlem. Ah totes de cash on MAH hip. Don’t try to git ’way from de subjick. You better gimme dat ’oman if you don’t want trouble outa me. Ah ain’t nobody’s fool.”
Mitchell jumped to his feet. “You ain’t going to show off on me in Harlem like you useder down home. Carryin’ on and cuttin de fool! I’ll take my fist to you.”
“Yas, and if you do, Ah’ll up wid MAH fist and lamm you so hard you’ll lay an egg. Don’t you git ME mad, Mitchell Potts.”
“Well, then you stop running down women like Lucy Taylor. She’s a NICE woman. You just keep her name out yo’ mouth. Fack is, you oughter be made to beg her pardon.”
Caroline turned from the dishpan very cooly. That was just it—NOTHING seemed to stir her up. Even her anger seemed unemotional—a pretense, the effort of a good performer.
“Ah let Lucy Taylor g’wan home today, an’ didn’t lay de weight of mah hand on her, so her egg-bag oughter rest easy. But don’t you nor her try to bulldoze me; cause if you do, you’ll meet your mammy drunk. Ah ain’t gointer talk no mo.”
They went to bed that night full of feelings. No one could know what the paradoxical Caroline had stewing inside her, but all who ran might read the heart of Mitchell.
His body was warm for Lucy Taylor with all the ardor of a new affair. Caroline’s encounter had aroused his protective instinct, too. Moreover he was mad clear through because his vanity was injured—all by this dark brown lump of country contrariness that was lying beside him in a yellow homespun nightgown. He wanted to feel his fist crashing against her jaw and forehead and see her hitting the floor time after time. But he knew he couldn’t win that way. She was too tough. Every one of their battles had ended in a draw.
He thought too of the side gals he had had down in Florida and how his wife had not only worsted them, but had made them all—and HIM—low foolish.
1. Daisy Miller—he had bought her shoes—that which all rural ladies of pleasure crave—and Caroline had found out and had come out to a picnic where Daisy was fluttering triumphantly and had forced her to remove the shoes before everybody and walk back to town barefoot, while Caroline rode comfortably along in her buckboard with a rawhide whip dangling significantly from her masculine fist. Daisy was laughed out of town.
2. Delphine Hicks—Caroline had waited for her beside the church steps one First Sunday (big meeting day) and had thrown her to the ground and robbed the abashed vampire of her underthings. Billowy underclothes were the fashion and in addition Delphine was large. Caroline had seen fit to have her pony make the homeward trip with its hindquarters thrust into Delphine’s ravished clothes.
3. She had removed a hat from the head of Della Clarke and had cleared her throat raucously and spat into it. She had then forced Della to put it back upon her head and wear it all during the big Odd Fellows barbecue and logrolling.
Mitchell thought and his heart hardened. Everybody in the country cut the fool over husbands and wives—violence was the rule. But he was in New Yawk and—and—just let her start something!
Mitchell had changed. He loved Caroline in a way, but he wanted his fling too. The country had cramped his style, but Harlem was big—Caroline couldn’t keep up with him here. He looked the big town and tried hard to act it. After work, he affected Seventh Avenue corners and a man-about- town air. Silk Shebas, too; no cotton underwear for him.
Time went past in weekly chunks and Caroline said nothing more, and so Mitchell decided she had forgotten. He told the men at work about it and they all laughed and confessed the same sort of affairs, but they all added that their wives paid no attention.
“Man, you oughter make her stop that foolishness; she’s up North now. Make her know it.”
Mitchell felt vindicated and saw Lucy Taylor with greater frequency. Much silk underwear passed under the bridge and there was talk of a fur coat for Thanksgiving. But he had ceased to meet her on 134th Street. They switched to 132nd, between Seventh and Lenox.
Whenever they passed his friends before the poolroom at 132nd and Seventh, the men acted wisely; unknowing Caroline would never find out through them, surely.
One Saturday near the middle of November, late in the afternoon, Mitchell strolled into the poolroom in the Lafayette Building, with a natural muskrat coat over his arm.
“Hi, Mitch,” a friend hailed him; “I see you got de herbs with you. Must be putting it over on your lifetime loudspeaker.”
“You talking outa turn, big boy. Come on outside.” They went out on the sidewalk.
“Say, Mitch, I didn’t know you had it in you—you’re a real big-timer! Whut’s become of your wife lately?”
Mitchell couldn’t resist a little swagger after the admiration in his friend’s voice. He held up the coat for inspection.
“Smoke it over, kid. What you think of it? Set me back one hundred smackers—dat.”
“Boy! It’s there! Wife or your sweet stuff?”
“You KNOW it’s for Lucy. Dat wife of mine don’t need no coat like dis. But, man, Ah sho done tamed her. She don’t dare stick her paddle in my boat no mo—done got some of dat country out of her.”
“I’m glad to hear dat ’cause there ain’t no more like her nowheres. Naw sir! Folks like her comes one at a time—like lawyers going to Heaven.”
“Well, any of ’em will cool down after I massage their jaw wid mah African soup bone, yessir! I knocks ’em into a good humor,” Mitchell lied boldly. “Heah come Lucy, now. Oh boy! She sho is propaganda!”
“I’ll say she’s red hot—she just want don’t for the red light!”
She came up smiling coyly as she noticed, in the order of their importance to her, the new fur coat, Mitchell’s nifty suit, and Mitchell.
“Well, so long Tweety, see you in the funny papers.”
“So long, Mitch, I’ll pick you up off the junk pile.”
Lucy and the fur-bearing Mitchell strolled off down 132nd Street. It was nearly sundown and the sidewalk was becoming crowded.
About twenty minutes later the loungers were amazed to see a woman on Seventh Avenue strolling leisurely along with an axe over her shoulder. Tweety recognized Caroline and grew cold. Somehow she had found out and was in pursuit—with an axe! He grew cold with fear for Mitchell, but he hadn’t the least idea which of the brownstone fronts hid the lovers. He tried to stop Caroline with conversation.
“Howdy do, Mrs. Potts; going to chop some wood?”
Very unemotionally, “Ah speck so.”
“Ha, ha! You forgot you ain’t back down South, don’t you?”
“Nope. Theys wood to be chopped up North too,” and she passed on, leaving the corner agog.
“Somebody ought to have stopped her. That female clodhopper is going to split Mitch’s head—and he’s a good scout.”
“We ought to call the police.”
“Somebody ought to overtake her and take that axe away.”
“Who for instance?”
So it rested there. No one felt like trying to take an axe from Caroline. She went on and they waited, full of anxiety.
A few minutes later they saw her returning just as leisurely, her wiry frame wrapped in the loose folds of a natural muskrat coat. Over her shoulder, like a Roman lictor, she bore the axe, and from the head of it hung the trousers of Mitchell’s natty suit, the belt buckle clacking a little in the breeze.
It was nearly five weeks—long after Thanksgiving—before the corner saw Mitchell again, and then he seemed a bit shy and diffident.
“Say, Mitch, where you been so long? And how’s your sweet stuff making it?”
“Oh Lucy? Ain’t seen her since the last time.”
“How come—y’all ain’t mad?”
“Naw, it’s dat wife of mine. Ah cain’t git de country out dat woman. Let’s go somewhere and get a drink.”