The Watchful Eyes of Zora Neale Hurston, Chapter 4

A young, down on her luck white West Virginia woman crosses paths with a discouraged Zora Neale Hurston in Miami in 1957.

Fotosearch / Archive Photos / Getty Images

Chapter 4

Hattie woke up the next morning to Zora knocking and opening the door again. No epiphany had come overnight, as she had spent most of the day unconscious. 

Zora, of course, was furious; she restrained this fury considerably, silently, but Hattie could feel it immediately rip her from the tendrils of sleep. 

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry! I’m leaving!” Hattie crawled out of bed and settled her feet onto the carpet. The world spun, the floor tilted, and the ceiling was suddenly below her. She fell, crashing to the floor. Everything went dark. 

Hattie sputtered as water splashed her face. Zora knelt over her with an empty glass. Hattie gasped, spitting the water from her lips and feeling drops of it sinking into her hair. 

“There’s blood on the sheets,” Zora said. She spoke in a conspiratorial whisper. “Did you have an abortion, girl?”

“No… no…” Hattie whimpered, bursting into exhausted weeping. “I fell… I lost the baby…” She squeezed her eyes shut – they were overflowing with tears, and thick rivers of wetness coated her cheeks. Her chest shuddered, her legs felt bursting with nervousness; she drew them up and locked her knees.

“What happened?”

Hattie turned her head away from Zora, not speaking at first. “I just got out of the hospital. I have no idea where I am, I don’t know Miami, I don’t have any money, I ruined everything…”

Zora pursed her lips. A frown formed on her lips, one that seemed to encompass the entire world. She took a deep breath and forced a smile. “When was the last time you ate anything?

“I don’t know….”

“The Delray Diner is across the street. Maybe you saw it, it’s the one with the sign of the fried egg in the bikini. You need to eat. You’re pale as a frog.”

“I don’t have any money…”

Zora shook her head. “We’re going to walk across the street to the diner. I’m going to buy you breakfast. Despite my wisdom. Now, let’s get up.”

Zora helped Hattie lift herself up. Step by step, they ambled out the door.  Outside, things were very different than they were two days ago; the humidity had been usurped by a cool, sea-scented breeze, and the burning blue sky had been replaced by sludges of gray rain clouds that looked like the fingerpainting of a tempestuous child. 

Zora guided her through the hotel parking lot to the street corner. A newspaper page tumbled in front of the cars on the street. The two of them stood together at the traffic light, waiting to cross, neither of them saying anything, Zora’s arm interlaced with Hattie’s, and Hattie carefully vacillating between how much she leaned on Zora – totally dependent one moment, bashful and ashamed the next. 

On the other side of the street was the Delray Diner, a giant pill of chrome and expansive windows punctuated by a rotating, turquoise sign emblazoned the forementioned bikini-clad fried egg and emblems in the shape of rubies. Zora led Hattie through the parking lot, and as the wind splayed Hattie’s unwashed and uncombed hair, Zora’s countenance remained stoic. Hattie wasn’t quite if this was real – the wind and the murky color of the sky were disorienting after the previously unending drip of steaming humidity. Now she could feel goosebumps on her arms, a drop of rain landed on the back of her neck, and the world grew ever darker. At that moment, a soft groan of thunder, like a bear waking from hibernation, rolled across the horizon behind them, and Zora hurried Hattie faster.

They climbed the front stairs of the diner and Zora pulled open the glass door. Inside, a jukebox was playing “Little Darlin’” by the Diamonds, and everything seemed larger and reflective. Despite her lack of lucidity, Hattie realized that something was wrong as the two different shades of the restaurant’s patrons came into focus. Colored people sat in the back of the restaurant, out of the range of the front counter’s mirrors, and white people took up the prominent foreground. Hattie had never dined in a restaurant with a black person, had never dined with a black person in any way at all. She had never questioned that, in a restaurant, like in most aspects of society, the lives of white people and black people were clearly defined and separated. And it wasn’t that she questioned it now – it’s just that, accompanied with Zora, she wasn’t quite sure where to sit. 

She looked at Zora, who seemed to be sharing the same concerns, her brow furrowed as her eyes scanned the restaurant, perhaps for some illusory middle ground. The two of them must have been quite a sight, and Hattie felt relieved that it seemed like no one was staring at them, but still she did not know what to do, and she was painfully aware of the fact that Zora didn’t know what to do either. 

A waitress with an exploding beehive of curly red hair streamed towards them with horn-rimmed glasses and her notebook stuck into her apron like a dandy’s sword. Her nose was highly pronounced, and despite her obvious best efforts, no matter how much makeup the waitress had applied on her face that day, it was still drowned out by the mob of fiery freckles on her cheeks. 

“Come with me, folks,” she said, never decelerating, curving in front of them like she was on roller skates.

Hattie and Zora followed the voluptuous waitress to a table nestled behind a supporting column, that couldn’t be seen from the entrance of the restaurant. The waitress placed the laminated menus on the table as Hattie and Zora sank into the vinyl booth. Air deflated from the seats. 

“Coffee?” the waitress asked.

“Yes, ma’am, thank you,” said Zora. 

Hattie did not reply, delirious with the enticing scents of the diner. Bacon, sausage, fried potatoes, steak, eggs – it was a feast for the senses, and Hattie’s mouth filled with saliva. 

“She’ll have coffee too, thank you, ma’am,” said Zora. 

“I’ll be right back with it,” smiled the waitress.

Hattie’s limbs were trembling. She was so hungry. It felt as though she was completely empty, that every movement she made was not the result of a biological process, but some last vestige of her will. 

“You’re pale, girl. Real pale,” said Zora. “I don’t know if you’re okay.”

“I just need food,” said Hattie, enjoying being mothered. For the first time since she had fallen down the stairs at Mick’s apartment, she felt a glimmer of hope. She raised her eyes from their listless stare at the table and met Zora’s. “Thank you, Zora.”

Zora stared back, frowning. “What’s your name, child?”

“Harriet.”

“What kind of mess did you get yourself into?”

Hattie was glad she was too exhausted to cry anymore. “I fell in love,” she murmured. 

TO BE CONTINUED IN CHAPTER 5

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