The Watchful Eyes of Zora Neale Hurston, Chapter 3

A young, down on her luck white West Virginian woman crosses paths with a discouraged Zora Neale Hurston in Miami in 1958.

Fotosearch / Archive Photos / Getty Images

Chapter 3

Hattie’s daddy was not a sophisticated man, but he was very opinionated – he didn’t want to hire blacks, but neither did he want to pay a white man’s wages. So, he began his search for a farm hand like Odysseus set sail for home, winding here, being blown there, and he was teased and toyed with by the fickle gods. Finally, he arrived home one day in his truck, clomped up the porch in his heavy boots, pulled open the screen door, and announced to Hattie and her half-interested mother – “I found him.”  

All of this was under Hattie’s radar at the time, as she was graduating from high school, there was prom, why would she begin to care about who her daddy hired for his farm? 

 But, the first time Hattie saw Mick, she knew her daddy’s epic quest had not been in vain. She and her mother were headed out to the grocery store when her daddy called them over to the barn. 

“This is Mick,” her daddy said, pointing to the strong young man in a tank top and jeans standing next to him. “He’s gonna work on the farm for a time. Mick, this is my wife, and my daughter, Harriet.”

Hattie noticed he said “daughter” with more emphasis than was necessary. She stared at Mick awkwardly. He had night-black hair and a sharply defined jaw – not like the boys she knew who still had baby fat in their cheeks. He was a man, sure of himself, with deep, sun-red shoulders, arms thick with muscle… and dirty hands. He was tall. His lips were full, and his nose looked like it had once been broken – it stuck out of his face like a stone kicked out of the ground. 

“Pleased to meet you Harriet,” Mick said, giving her a crooked grin. 

She meant to tell him that only her daddy called her Harriet. She meant to tell him to call her Hattie. But instead she stood there like a dope, saying nothing. 

Her mama sensed the attraction. “Come along now, Hattie.”

Their family was by no means poor – hog prices were up, her mother worked too, as a schoolteacher, and they even had a television set. But her daddy had grown up tremendously poor – “the dirt the other dirt looked down on,” he liked to say – and his thriftiness – or his miserliness, as Hattie sometimes saw it – was too ingrained in her father for him to ever give it up, or even consider any other way of living. That wasn’t to say Hattie’s family were rich – they weren’t, not by a long shot. But Hattie often didn’t understand why every penny was so important all the time. 

It was May. High school was over. She was headed for Fairmount State College in the fall. She had a part-time job in the mornings at the library but in the afternoons there was nothing to do. The next day, around 1, she lay in her bed reading, trying to stay cool. She could hear the sounds of the farm, and was annoyed with them, until she remembered they were being made by Mick. 

Hattie put her book down. Her heart beat faster. She wondered if she could see Mick from her window. Would it be so terrible to look?

Her fingers pressed into the chipping white wood of the windowsill as she watched him. Mick was shirtless, and a gleam of sweat covered his tanned chest, running down the inky hair, dripping onto his belly. The hair on his head was completely soaked with sweat, and locks of it were stuck to his forehead like grasshoppers on a wall. A cigarette hung lazily from his lips, but he would adjust it with his teeth every minute or so. Hattie guessed Mick was in his mid-twenties, maybe older. She imagined his calloused fingers cupping her face. 

Mick turned – looking up to the window and catching Hattie red-handed. His eyes shined, he smiled, and he waved to her. She shrunk back behind the curtain, her breath catching, her heart beating like a locomotive trapped under a blanket. 

The next afternoon, Hattie walked briskly into the kitchen where her mama was cutting out sugar cookies and told her that she would get the mail at the end of the driveway. She told her mother she was expecting a letter. She quickly brushed her hair and checked herself in the mirror, and then strategically rode her bicycle from the back of the house where she knew Mick could see her up close. She was wearing shorts, and she lifted her long leg over the bicycle seat before pedaling down the dirt driveway to the mailbox at the road. Hattie pretended not to notice Mick, as though he was not there, as though he did not even work at the farm, quietly humming to herself. A smile trickled to her lips. She knew he was watching her. 

But when the ecstasy wore off, she wasn’t sure what to do next. She had exhausted all her weapons and strategies. Luckily, the Gods intervened. 

One of the cats had gotten sick and her mama wanted her daddy to drive her to the veterinarian in town. Her father, who thought the idea of a “doctor” for animals was nothing but the highest foolishness, spat out his customary complaints he used any time this happened, and then grabbed his wallet and truck keys. 

They left. Hattie was alone in the house. 

She sat in her room – at her desk, not her bed – and she did not dare to look out the window. 

She heard a knock on the front door. She ran down the top half of the stairs, and then slowed to a calm, cool gait until she reached the floor. “Yes?” she asked him as she reached the screen door. She was wearing a sleeveless lime frock and was barefoot. The sight of him came through the screen door in a mass of tiny squares. 

“It sure is hot,” Mick said, looking her up and down. “I don’t suppose you got ice?”

“We sure do,” she said nervously. She stood breathing for a second. “Come on in. I’ll get you some.”

Mick pulled open the door with a squeak and followed Hattie into the kitchen. She opened the icebox and fixed him some water. When he took it from her hand, his fingers grazed hers, sending a tremor up her spine. Mick took a long sip. Hattie watched his Adam’s Apple as it bobbed up and down. When he finished his drink, he licked his lips, and turned his eyes to Hattie. Anxiety made her hands tremble at her sides. 

“That’s real nice,” he said, looking her up and down again. “Nothing like a cold drink on a hot day. Nothing that is, except you.”

“Ha,” she said, playing with her hands to stop them from shaking.

“You sure are pretty,” Mick said, peering into her eyes and taking a step closer. “You want to go to the pictures with me?”

“Why should I?” She asked, trying to play coy, but she knew she was blushing. 

“Because I asked you to,” he said, showing his crooked grin.

“My daddy will kill you. Or you’ll get fired.” The thought made her feel powerful.

Mick chuckled. “It’s just a job.”

“I don’t know…”

 “C’mon,” he pressed. “I’m real sweet. And I’ll have you back by bedtime.”

“Well…” Hattie said. She wanted to go with him. But she was afraid. Of many things. And as far as her parents were concerned, she was still a child. 

Mick licked his lips again, and Hattie felt something flutter in the pit of her stomach. Anticipation was like television static on her skin. 

He reached out and touched her hip with a finger.

 “Well… okay,” she said, giggling.


The Watchful Eyes of Zora Neale Hurston, Chapter 1

After being spurned in love, a young white West Virginian woman seeks refuge in Miami in 1958…

he doctor discharged her from the hospital. Having nowhere else to go, Hattie took the advice of a kindly, wheezy nurse in the maternity ward, and made her way down the street to a nearby hotel. Outside, there was the din and rush of traffic, and the humid heat was thick and oozing as molasses. The filthy odor of petroleum fumes barely masked the vulgar stench of the trash on the streets that had been rotting in the humidity since before her arrival in Miami a few days ago. She wasn’t sure what hour of the day it was, if it was morning, or afternoon, or some other, undiscovered part of the day that was only revealed to girls like her, to The Damned. She could hardly breathe. The world rolled beneath her feet.

The hotel was smooshed flat across an entire block, one story, as though it had been stepped on. The front doors to the rooms were right out in the sunlight, smeary windows glimpsing inside. The hotel’s peeling, obviously once sunny-yellow paint looked like leftover egg yolk, and the buildings’ corrugated roofs looked like hats pulled down on heads to cover something embarrassing.

Hattie climbed the front office’s cement stairs, pulling herself up by the black, sun-hot railing. She had to use all her weight to push open the heavy glass door, and once it gave way, her excess force made her stumble until she righted herself by grabbing onto the front counter. The office was hot and stuffy inside, and two flies buzzed around the motionless ceiling fan. A heavyset woman in a gray dress that made her look like a giant iron stood pinning postcards to a bulletin board behind the front desk, and she turned to peer curiously at Hattie. She had regimentally straight gray hair that Hattie realized was a cheap wig. The woman was watching a small black and white TV, the volume turned up loud; the announcer’s saccharine voice sounded like an oiled weasel squeezing through a hole in the sewer; and the abrasive laughter of the studio audience was a cacophony of rutting, electric insects.

Hattie had very little money left, and after she paid for the room, she had almost none. The hotel clerk dropped the room key into Hattie’s hands and a few last words crawled from her mouth, but Hattie was too disoriented to make them out. She went back out the door into the sun and searched the buildings until she found her room: #11. She almost fainted as she jiggled the key in the lock. Inside, everything was orange… really orange, from the cinnamon yellow carpeting to the muddy walls; and even the pasty ceiling seamed to emanate a rotten-fruit-like tint. The first order of business, before she collapsed into oblivion, was to close the curtains, which she did marvelously — she didn’t pass out or even stumble. A tentative darkness filled the room. Now the bed stretched before her like a starlit plain, sleep tantalized her, she had made it, she was safe, for now. She was too tired to pull back the top blanket; instead she crawled onto the bed, aspiring for the pillow, but settling for halfway there. Her body pounded in exhaustion. She just needed to sleep… then she would figure things out.

Hattie reached over and twisted the knob of the radio sitting on the bedside table. By some miraculous drop of mercy, squeezed from the stone of Heaven, the soothing twang of Buddy Holly’s guitar gently lifted from the radio and filled the hotel room. “It’s so easy to fall in love…” Buddy sang in his Texan croon.

“That must mean something, there must be something,” Hattie thought as her mind swirled in the darkening paints of sleep, “I’m not alone…”