THE newcomer at Bench 14 seemed gradually to lose his drawn tenseness as the temperature of the old tobacco-stemming room climbed toward a normal eighty-five. The stark expression of his ashen-brown face softened somewhat; his slim hands eased into a smoother stripping of the oily black and tan leaves from their fibrous stems.

At last he paused, and with a tired sigh let his slender figure relax. Slumped on the hard wooden stool, he seemed to invite the humid warmth to creep into his very bones. Almost hungrily he sniffed the air — pungent, rank, with the smell of hot steamed tobacco and three hundred black sweating bodies.

As if with sensuous delight he let his gaze drift down the long whitewashed room with its row after row of great tables and its lines of rocking bodies on either side. Drab men dotted in the colorful lines of women and children! All shades of skin from light cream to blue-black! All colors of the spectrum in headkerchief and dress — some so intense in their vividness of bold yellows and reds that they slashed the sombre spots like molten iron in a black night! Bright heads ceaselessly nodding, like brilliant exotic birds, picking restlessly among their duller neighbors!

A look of peace stole over his face. ‘’T is all des’ de same — as ever,’ his wide lips murmured.

A voice broke into his thoughts with a note of contempt. ‘You sho’ ain’ seasoned to stemmin’, is you, boy?’ offered the slant-eyed yellow girl on his right. ‘You’ll starve runtier’n you is, at dat bench!’ and she snickered.

Indifferently he glanced into her bold pretty face beneath the red bandanna that but partly hid her wavy hair. With a taunting grin she looked up from under her long-fringed lids.

‘Don’ le’ da’ Lula wor’y you, boy,’ consoled the friendly voice of Big Sarah, the fat black woman at his left. Filling her cheek with a fresh brush of snuff, she adjusted the cloth binding the tobacco poultice to her forehead, and continued, with a chuckle, ‘She’ll pester anything — in pants.’

On the breath of the amiable voice there had come to the man the old sociable odor of rum. When had he got even a whiff of rum? Nearly two years! Up North you never smelt it — never got any of the good old factory smells.

‘Ne’r you min’,’ his rather high voice replied in weary tolerance, his eyes coming back to the girl. ‘I ’ll eat — an’ drink, too — ’fo’ long.’

Lula giggled and darted him another look. His bleak gaze traveled from her little ear, with its bright gold hoop, to the rise of her plump bare throat, then, with a flicker of life, over the swell of her round breast, carelessly half exposed by the open sleazy blue waist. He gave her a brief tired smile, then went at his work again.

Presently the man’s attention was suddenly drawn to an altercation across the table from him. A small, bulletheaded black boy, enveloped almost to his chin in a high-bibbed tick apron, was making vigorous passes at the little brown girl in checkered apron and paper cap next him. With a vindictive squeal she seized the small fist and began furiously to belabor it with the heel of her hand.

But without warning, at the girl’s right, there appeared a long hickory, and with a ‘You, Gen’lwade! You, Queenie!’ a buxom black arm flashed twice. A click on the bullet head, a swish through the paper cap, melted the engagement like magic.

Shamed under the subdued raillery from the bench, Gen’lwade gave but a tearful, furtive glance at the newcomer. The man was not laughing; there was a look even of sympathy in his eyes.

Queenie was gingerly feeling her skull under the scant plaits of pigtails, tightly braided with white cord and stretched fore and aft in rows.

‘Hit take Sis’ Pokey to handle ’em!’ chortled Big Sarah. ‘Ev’body gotta step roun’ wid ’at ’oman, mon.’

The newcomer’s eyes were taking in the Junoesque black figure of Pokey. A shade of interest crept into them as he appraised her meticulous neatness. Even her checkered apron, with its crisp little blue frill that rose high over the deep bosom, was immaculate. Her headcloth, bound tight above the wide black brow, was snow-white; the starched, gray-figured calico dress was unrumpled. To the graceful movements of her tall, full body, a necklace of silver dimes jangled musically around the column of her bare throat. But the man’s expression of interest soon settled back into a bleak concentration on his work.

After a while Lula rose, and, yawning wide, stretched her lithe figure indolently. Slouching over to the window for her snuffbox, her eyes lighted on a dilapidated yellow suitcase and a worn guitar leaning against the wall. Impudently she picked up the discolored instrument, and, like a mischievous monkey, gave the strings a twang, and put her ear to the opening. She started to thrum it again, but Captain Nat, the foreman, banged a warning club on the steam pipes. Turning the guitar around as a monkey would a nut, she suddenly peered intently. In the flourishing scroll letters of the itinerant card writer, she slowly spelled out the word ‘Shoofly.’ Grinning, she looked up. The newcomer was anxiously shaking his head at her. With a moue she put back the guitar, and glided to her bench.

Apprehensively the man queried, ‘Did you set it up — out de way?’

But, ignoring the question, she asked teasingly, in a tone all could hear, ‘Is dat yo’ name — Shoofly?’ And she giggled.

The man’s rather poetic brown face beneath the high fuzzy pompadour grew stern. ‘Dat’s what dey calls me,’ he answered with dignity.

But, with a note of excitement, Lula persisted: ‘ Kin you play dat box, boy ? Dance music ?'

‘Sure,’ he answered, matter-of-fact.

Then she pestered him to play for her at dinner hour, to come around at night to play, but Shoofly said he was too tired — maybe next week. He was glad when the hoarse whistle roared out the dinner hour.

Amid the sudden clamor and friendly confusion, Shoofly deliberately rose, and with a tired sigh adjusted his redstriped shirt. Slowly he shuffled toward his coat on the wall.

Even in the splayed remnants of suède-top patent leathers, despite the badly frayed trousers, his slender figure carried a certain air of trimness. Lula’s covert gaze followed him till he was sucked into the laughing, pushing stream of bodies flowing down the wide steps to the yard.

In a far corner of the yard, beyond the tantalizing fumes of the basket women’s big kettles of Brunswick stew and turnip salad, he crammed a threeeent pone of hot corn bread into his mouth, swallowing in great gulps that nearly choked him.


During the early afternoon Lula vainly tried to engage Shoofly in conversation. At last she gave way to his unresponsiveness, and began to hum in a low voice. No one was singing, scarce another even humming in the long room. Monday, black Monday, was n’t a day for singing. It was too far away from Saturday — from money, rum, and rest — for the birth of any urge to sing, except in the most calloused and heedless.

When Lula’s droning words struck Shoofly’s ear, his movements slowed; a faint smile lightened his face. He had n’t heard that song since he left Petersburg. It sounded like home — and Richmond was home, compared to the cold, unfriendly mining hills of Pennsylvania. A glow stole over him. He felt an urge to join Lula’s careless humming: —

‘Sniff my coke an’ I drink my gin—
Doctor say it kill me, but did n’t say when—
Hey, hey! Honey, take a whiff on me-e-e. . . .’

His grinning eyes gave Lula a look of complete understanding.

Raising his glance, he found Pokey frowning heavily at the yellow girl. With a sniff of utter disgust, she looked away, her bold chin in the air. Shoofly chuckled inwardly; Christians had no truck with that song — on any day. Only the far-gone sinners, those in the Devil’s very pocket, sung it at all — it was much worse than playing a guitar.

Not till near quitting time did Shoofly speak. Then he asked Big Sarah in a low voice where he could find the ‘Lender.’

‘You mean de “Strainer”? He de Lump Room boss. But dodge ’im, boy! He’ll strain yo’ flush f’om yo’ blood — a dollah Sat’day fo’ fif’y cent to-day.'

Shoofly only gave an admonishing ‘Sh-h-h!’

When Lula came back from the woman’s dressing corner after the whistle, Shoofly was rearranging a large, glass-studded horseshoe pin in the remnants of his red tie. Her eyes flickered over him. In spite of his down-at-the-heel appearance there was a decided jauntiness about him in his tight-waisted coat and rakishly cocked fedora.

Switching in beside him, the big earrings glittering to the toss of her head, she asked sarcastically, ‘Well, Mis’er Shoofly, what you goin’ do wid all ’at money you made to-day?’

His eyes traveled over her rounded figure in its untidy but modish sky-blue dress, and her run-down high-heeled slippers. He liked wavy hair in a girl — and style — and quick talk.

‘Go roll yo’ hoop, gal!’ he grinned. ‘Ef you ain’ in jail by Sat’day you ’ll see a bench fa’r bu’n up,’ and he cocked his worn fedora more rakishly.

She gave a clear ringing laugh; her eyes brightened. Then they laughed in chorus as they parted.


By Wednesday a smoother brownness had chased away most of Shoofly’s ashy look; his eyes were alive. His body swayed, his fingers flew in the endless snap-strip-strip. The pungent rancidness of the room came to him more sweetly than ever.

As the morning heat climbed. Pokey began to hum softly in a rich contralto. Shoofly appraised her again. Yes, she just spelled neatness — and good cooking. Of course she was black, but Lawd, what a woman! And in spite of a bossy look her face was kind of pretty, too. Of course yellow girls were prettier, more fun, but . . .

The long room was filled with a droning, like the buzz of lazy bees. But there was no real singing. It was still too far away from Saturday. Thoughts of approaching delights were yet too nebulous; and much trouble could come before Saturday.

As soon as he had finished his dinner of hot stew and corn bread, he galloped back up to the warm room and stretched himself lazily on his bench. Through half-closed eyes he watched the two children in their absorbed attempts to fashion tobacco dolls.

Stealthily Shoofly sat up. Gen’lwade’s doll vanished; the little Negro looked furtively away. Shoofly smiled. ‘Le’ me see,’ he said casually, and began to select soft strips of different shades. ‘I use could make a right good ’bacca doll.’

Under his supple fingers, a little short-waisted woman began to take form. Gen’lwade sucked in his breath audibly, his bulging black forehead pushed closer to Shoofly’s hands. With the folding of a bright leaf-scrap about the neck of the diminutive figure, Queenie gave an ‘Unh!’ of ecstatic delight.

During the evolution of the doll, Shoofly made conversation. Were they the only children of Miss Pokey? Where was their father?

‘Pa dead,’ replied Gen’lwade abstractedly, his eyes glued to the doll. But, as if suddenly realizing a raconteur’s golden chance, his voice quickened. ‘An’ de Bur’l S’ciety set ’im a stone — big as dat!’ and he spread his arms apart their full length. ‘An’ he lef’ us de house an’ ’suance money — I dunno how much — boxful, I reckon,’ he added impulsively, pointing to the big tobacco box.

‘Ai-i-yi-e!’ exclaimed Shoofly. ‘Ain’ dat somepin’! ’ Then he asked thoughtfully, ‘Des’ ’zactly what is yo’ name, son?’

‘Gen’lwade,’ answered the boy surprisedly.

‘Dat all yo’ name?’

‘Naw, suh!’ exploded the little darky. ‘I got long name — longer’n anybody in de work, I spec’,’ he continued pridefully. ‘Granny name us a’ter big fo’ks —’

‘What is yo’ long name?’ Shoofly smiled encouragingly.

‘Brig’dier — Gen’al — Wade — Hampton — Price!’ the little voice rolled out as unctuously as that of a silk-stockinged butler announcing a prince of the realm.

‘I ’clar to Gawd!’ gasped Shoofly, impressed in spite of himself. ‘Dat is a name, mon!’ and he looked searchingly at the diminutive bearer of such a breath-taking title.

Then, waxing to his subject, Gen’lwade began, ‘An’ Ma —’ but, seeing Queenie open her mouth too, he hurried his pronouncement. So it was in high chorus that they fervidly shouted: ‘Pokey-hontasVirginiaRandolph — Price! ’

But before Shoofly could voice his wonderment a black hand gave two resounding cuffs almost as one. ‘What you holle’n my name ’bout fo’? You gone crazy?’ came an angry, embarrassed voice.

‘No harm, Miss Pokey! No harm!’ placated Shoofly, with his blandest smile. ‘De chillun des’ tellin’ me yo’ll’s names. An’ quality names dey is, too, ma’am,’ he added with complete admiration.

Mollified, she let him inch on to Queenie’s stool and engage her in conversation. But her replies were dignifiedly aloof — rather the air of a grand dame to a stranger of uncertain lineage. Before the starting whistle, however, Pokey was smiling, her big hand toying demurely with her coin necklace.

Till quitting time Shoofly’s head seethed with contradictory plans, but they were all frustrated by the necessity of another visit to the Strainer. When he finally came out, everyone had gone.


Thursday found Shoofly’s fingers moving as if touched by some Merlin’s wand. Stripped to undershirt, a fancy paper cap cocked aslant over his pompadour, he had drifted into that semitrancelike state of the master stemmer.

Instinctively the entire bench had speeded up. Lula cut an admiring eye at him, but he was lost to his surroundings.

Gen’lwade, with the duplicate of Shoofly’s cap cocked at identically the rakish angle of his friend’s, beamed across the table. ‘Ha-h-h, mon! Mis’er Shoo’ was layin’ de bench!’

The room grew hotter; the air closer, more rancid. White teeth glistened. Thursday was truly here! The harmonious drone of ten-score voices gradually swelled to the roll of a far-off muted organ.

Suddenly the humming sank to a low, moaning undernote.

’He-s-h! Singer Moses — linin’ out!’

Softly, surely, a smooth barytone rose; and, like the chime of faultless bells, three hundred voices joined; and gently climbed; and soared: —

‘When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea-billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.’

Then, as if at the beat of some invisible baton, the deep, ringing bass of Black Tom and the clear, rich tones of Pokey’s contralto led the men and the women in antiphonous refrain: —

‘It is well . . . it is well,
With my soul . . . with my soul . . .’

And then that spectral baton seemed to sweep the ecstatic chorus into a crashing thunder of harmony — like some wondrous vast organ played by an inspired hand: —

‘It is well, it is well with my so-u-l-l.’

The room trembled with resonance. Captain Nat’s flesh crawled, his old eyes dimmed.

Shoofly’s bench mates looked slyly at him. Many other eyes rolled toward his bench. For, high and clear in the harmony, there had soared a natural lyric tenor with notes as limpid, as effortless, as flute tones.

When the last of his golden notes sustained the cadence far into a long minor, a deep quavering sigh breathed from the room. Lawd, Lawd! A sweet singer had sho’ come! The deep blast of the dinner whistle jarred them irritably.

Shoofly reclined on his bench at dinner hour, musing. Pokey strolled up, the eagerness in her eyes belying her casual approach. He gave her a keen glance, then smiled widely at her compliments. Never had she heard a songster carry a better note! Her church needed just such a high singer; she would like to take him down to meet the deacons. . . .

Shoofly shook his head. ‘Not yet, thankee, ma’am! I’se all jammed up in dis-here town. Ain’ got no reg’lar boa’din’ place, an’ sech. Maybe later, ma’am, when I gits sorta settled.’

A somewhat frustrated look came over Pokey’s countenance, but with seeming indifference she drifted down the aisle to a fellow church member. Shoofly’s thoughtful gaze followed her. He did n’t want to get jammed up with church. The very thought portended system, regulations. True, he had fitful cravings for religious service — but three, four times a week? No, not unless absolutely necessary.

Lula came and sat slyly down beside him. Softly she asked, ‘Call yo’se’f some kinda songster, don’ you, Shoo’?’

Not raising his head from his arm, he answered carelessly, ‘Des’ like I some kinda stemmer.’

Lula giggled. Presently she asked unconcernedly, ‘What you doin’ wid yo’se’f to-night?’

Shoofly took ample time to stretch. ‘I dunno — ’zactly,’ he yawned. ‘I got so many triggers set.’ The girl smiled broadly into his face. Suddenly they both burst into laughter.

Somehow, at quitting time, he found himself drifting up the street with Lula.


Through Friday’s singing Shoofly’s emotional tenor lifted the room to inspired heights. An aura of ecstasy crept down even to the prize room on the first floor. When gusts of passionate harmony swept through an open door or elevator shaft, the rat-a-tat-tat of the lump sticks, the wailing signal cries, would break with silence. The great half-naked pressmen would stop, poised, eyes glistening. ‘But ain’t dem stemmin’ niggers car’y’n it to-day!’

Late that afternoon Pokey followed Shoofly to the hydrant. ‘ Why n’t you stroll up wid us dis evenin’?’ she suggested in a casual tone.

Shoofly’s eyes glistened exultantly, but he answered with equal unconcern, ‘Dat’s right — I might.’

Lula was surprised to find Shoofly gone when she came tardily back after dressing. With a sniff and a toss of her head, she slouched lazily out.

Shoofly talked engagingly to Pokey as he strolled beside her. Soon he took her big arm. The children skipped in the rear. Queenie’s splay feet, in a pair of her mother’s old high-buttoned shoes that hung from her thin legs like pipes from reed stems, flapped pigeonwings behind her mother’s Christian back. Gen’lwade’s black feet, bare yet into the late autumn, vainly tried to imitate Queenie’s nimble steps.

Presently, in disgust, he gave up the attempt; and, raising the tail of the faded red sweater that reached almost to his knees, fished a jew’s-harp from the voluminous depths of the man’s knickerbockers that dangled unbuckled about his thin ankles. Springing the peak of his cap straight up from his knobby forehead, he pondered a moment. Then, smiling, he set the harp between his white teeth, and with a hissing twang broke into the old reel, ‘Shoo! fly, don’t bother me!’

Shoofly wheeled, his eyes shining. ‘Whar you learn my chune, Gen’l?’ he asked excitedly. ‘ You kin play it, too! ’ he conceded, nodding with half-shut eyes.

At the touch of this accolade, Gen’lwade’s big eyes threatened to pop. With renewed effort, he hissed, and sucked, and twanged frenziedly.

Pokey was fidgeting uncomfortably. ‘I don’ ’low him play sinner song,’ she objected, frowning the sinning harp into silence. But Shoofly, recapturing her arm, laughingly made light of the thought. It was n’t a bad sinner song; besides, Gen’lwade was so little it did n’t much matter to the Lord.

After a long pause, Pokey indifferently asked, ‘S’pose you got yo’ boa’din’ place — by now?’

Shoofly’s eyes gleamed. ‘Dat I ain’t!’ he exclaimed disconsolately. ‘Look like I can’ git no place to suit me — I so ’tic’la’.’ Then he queried, with a note of suspense, ‘You know a’y ’spectable place?’

Pokey eyed him with a tinge of lingering doubt. Again she appraised his clean new shirt, his frayed but jaunty figure. Her face softened; she almost simpered. ‘I don’ know, ’less, maybe, we takes you in de spar’ room. . . .’

Shoofiy sucked in his breath. He could n’t clinch the bargain too quickly. He did n’t know of a more handsomeacting lady he’d rather board with, he said. Besides, a soft-handed gal ought to have a man around, to split wood and the like. And could n’t they have big evenings together — singing and playing?

Pokey’s eyes had an excited look, but she remarked demurely that good Christians could n’t have guitar-playing around — that is, not much of it.

Shoofly chuckled, and squeezed her arm the tighter.


That Pokey’s clean little house, with its spotless kitchen and snow-white beds, was a thing beyond even his most sanguine dreams, Shoofiy inwardly told the world. From the shining pans and bright-red-oilclothed table of the kitchen to the gilt-framed chromo of her deceased spouse in the spare room, he appraised it. Luck had turned! Carefully he extracted a worn rabbit’s foot from his hip pocket, and reverently kissed it — three times.

And at supper in the warm kitchen, with Gen’lwade beaming across the table, and Queenie flitting about with plates of hot, flaky biscuit and succulent browned catfish, Shoofly stealthily touched the rabbit’s foot again — three times, with his second finger. Luck had to be kept warm, nursed.

While Pokey ironed Gen’lwade’s white shirt for church, Shoofiy, with his feet in a chair, lazily strummed chords on his beloved guitar. Suddenly, as if with irrepressible sentience, the guitar burst out joyfully, and Shoofiy sang: —

‘Shoo! fly, don’ bother me! Shoo! fly, don’ bother me!
Shoo! fly, don’ bother me! I belong to Company G.
I feel, I feel, I feel, I feel like a mornin’ star,
I feel, I feel, I feel, my troubles gone afar.
Shoo! fly, don’ bother me —hear de music on m’ knee!’

Despite Pokey’s protest of ‘Now, Mis’erShoo’! Mis’erShoo’! You know you can’ be playin’ sinner music roun’ me,’ there was a quickened glint in her eye. Gen’lwade’s eyes shone, too, as he squeezed his jew’s-harp tightly, hopefully.

Shoofiy argued. A little music, a little fun, was allowed by God even to high Christians. Did n’t the preachers read that King David played on a harp — yes, even danced? What more could she ask? With a confident grin, he swung into an old ballad about a ship that never returned.

But at the completion of her ironing Pokey called soberly, ‘Pull up yo’ cheers, chillun, an’ le’s sing a hymn.’ In a semicircle about the stove, they sang softly to Pokey’s low, throaty lead: —

‘Chillun. ain’t you glad, done lef’ de house er Pharaoh?
Chillun, ain’t you glad, you done got away? . . .’

Far past the children’s bedtime, with equal fervor, with the same mounting rapture, did sinners and Christian sing.

By the mere act of listening to sinner songs and music, however. — despite the leavening of hymns, — Pokey gave tacit consent to a sin that soon became a custom. Before many nights, Gen’lwade was freely hissing and twanging to Shoofly’s guitar, while Queenie swayed in her chair and cross-shuffled her big shoes. Even so, the three sinners thoroughly enjoyed the nightly hymns into which Pokey invariably led them.


With the passage of Shoofly’s warm, well-fed days, and the coming of a scrubbed, neatly mended look to a rounder, sleeker Shoofly, Lula seemed to melt under his attractions. She began openly by intimate look and gesture to imply a right to familiarities. Often she cut her slant eyes at Pokey, and smiled knowingly. With the ultimate corroboration of the insinuating rumors that Shoofly was really Sis’ Pokey’s regular boarder, the yellow girl became even bolder.

That Shoofiy was immeasurably embarrassed by the girl’s attitude was sensed with gusto by his bench mates. Not only did their suggestive looks and whispers embarrass him, but they spurred on a fast-growing, ominous disquietude at home.

Walking with Lula in the other end of the ward one night, he warned her: ‘Ef you don’ stop dat fool actin’ in comp’ny, gal, I goin’ drop you like a hot ’later. You shan’ jam me no tighter — you hear?’ But Lula only giggled.

And she was worse, more irritating, the next day. At a particularly overt familiarity near quitting time, Shoofly’s patience broke. With a snarl, he slapped her hand aside, and sprung from his stool. Nor did he return till the whistle blew.

After the children had gone to bed that night, Pokey set Shoofly with an incisive eye. ‘Nigger,’ she said, leaning her powerful figure toward him, ‘who you think you is — King Solomon?’

‘Pokey!’ Shoofly gasped. ‘What de matter, Sug’?’

‘Don’ Suga’ me, you narrer weasel.’

‘But, Sug’!’ Shoofly eased from his chair.

‘Hesh!’ her voice grew harshly hysterical, as she arose, one hand held behind her, her big body trembling.

Shoofly took a step backward.

‘Whar yo’ money Sat’days?’ She advanced, shaking her finger at him. ‘An’ what dat squint-eyed slut doin’ droopin’ over you?’

Here some perverse imp tempted Shoofiy beyond himself. ‘How you keep ’lasses f’om drawin’ flies?’ he began — but never finished. A stick of stovewood flashed. Shoofly ducked. The stick shivered the door panel above his head. In a split second he was out of the door — sprinting for the alley.

The house was dark and quiet when Shoofly crept in at midnight.

Next morning, approaching the factory, Pokey gave him a cold warning: ‘Des’ le’ me see you blink a eye at dat wench — des’ oneet!’ And she gave him such a vitriolic glare that he felt chills fly up his back.

When, at the whistle, Lula saw Shoofly change places with Queenie, she gave him a contemptuous sneer.


While looking idly out of the window at dinner a few days later, Pokey suddenly started. When Shoofly’s familiar figure gave his woman companion a playful push, and they both bent double with laughter, Pokey nodded her head grimly. A girl standing beside her smiled insinuatingly in her face.

Shoofly found Pokey’s stool vacant when he came back. She had left word with the children that important business down town demanded her attention.

He joined the singing that afternoon with more abandon than for days past. His repartee took on the old keenness. He seemed to be suddenly freed from some burden, some inhibition. To the children’s surprise he exchanged banters even with Lula. ‘ Unc’ Shoo’ is sho’ a case when he cuts loose!’ Gen’I wade’s worshipful gaze seldom left his friend’s face. This was a day! What matter if their boxes did run short!

On their way home they played soldiers, Shoofly in the van, giving commands. On the bottom of his dinner pail, Gen’lwade thumped and rattled in drum time. Boldly they sang in martial fervor, ‘Shoo! fly, don’ bother me! I belong to Company G.’

But, once at home, the marchers’ exuberance immediately sank to an uneasy depression under the air of cold, aloof solemnity emanating from Pokey. Supper was wordless, oppressive. The children in bed, Pokey sat over the stove, silently brooding.

Suddenly she fixed Shoofly with a look that made him squirm and drop his eyes. ‘Nigger,’ she announced, in a portentous voice, just like a judge on the bench, he thought, ‘you an’ me gwina git mar’ied!’

‘What!’ shrilled Shoofly, shooting from his chair. ‘Me? Naw, suh! Naw, suh!’ He began to back away, shaking his head and waving his hands negatively. But abruptly he paused, as if seized by a sudden thought, and switched to a wheedling tone: ‘Why, Pokey, Sug’, what done come over you?’ He gave a hollow deprecative cackle. ‘Why, you know, Sug’, I ain’ no mar’yin’ man.’

‘Ain’t you?’ said Pokey imperturbably, keeping him fixed with her cold eye. ‘But I’se a mar’yin’ oman,’ she continued flatly. ‘Ain’ no fact’ry nigger livin’ kin laugh at me. I eider gwina be Miz Shoofly Rand’l dis day week — or de mo’ners gwina set roun’ yo’ box.’

‘Now, Pokey,’ Shoofly cajoled in sugary tones, ‘ie’s you an’ me talk dis over quiet-like, honey’; and he resumed his chair with affected assurance. Long he argued, wheedled, and beseeched — even claimed to have already a wife ‘up No’th.’

‘Don’ keer,’ she said relentlessly. ‘You gwina have ’nother one nex’ Chuesday,’ and, drawing a folded document from her bosom, she slapped it menacingly: ‘Here de paper — an’ dar de chu’ch,’ pointing over her shoulder with her thumb.

Shoofly sucked in a long, quivering breath. A hunted look came to his eyes, as they were hypnotically drawn to the document. Hesitantly his fingers advanced; gingerly he drew it to him.

‘What dis?’ he suddenly exclaimed, hope springing to his eyes, as, following his tremulous forefinger, he slowly spelled out: ‘Pow-ha-tan S. Randel. Who dis “Pow-ha-tan”?’

‘Dat’s you, nigger!’ explained Pokey, with a decided note of pride.

‘Naw, na-a-w! Huccome?’

‘’T is you, dough,’ Pokey insisted in an inevitable matter-of-fact tone. ‘ You think I gwine let de license man write down fool name like “ Shoofly"? Naw! ’ And, snatching the license from Shoofly’s flaccid fingers, she strolled calmly to bed.

Midnight found Shoofly hunched over the dead stove, his face buried in his hands. At intervals he emitted a sepulchral groan.


After a depressing breakfast, Pokey coldly stated she was too poorly to go to work. Shoofly shot her a questioning glance. Dejectedly the silent trio straggled out of the alley in the chilly half-light.

Shoofly spoke scarce a word during the forenoon. At dinner hour Lula finally enticed him from his bench. Lounging against the wall in a far corner, she teased and pecked at him.

Suddenly, without warning, something seemed to explode against Shoofly’s jaw. His slender body went spinning across the floor. With almost the same sweep of her powerful arm, Pokey’s big fist crashed the yellow girl’s head against the wall. Then, surprisingly quick, she sprang, and, clutching the dazed girl’s hair, struck again. Red-eyed, mouthing unintelligibly, she drove one deliberate blow after another relentlessly to the girl’s face. . . .

When four men finally pulled Pokey away, the girl’s body slumped to the floor. ‘Oh, Lawdy! Look — she done kill ’er! Gawd-a-mighty! Pokey done kill Lula!’ rang the shrieks of the women. The children, diving under the benches, added their shrill screams. Above the pandemonium, Pokey’s maniacal screech soared: ‘Tu’n me lo-o-se! I cut ’er heart! I drink ’er blood!’

Desperately they threw her across a bench and held her there — inside a jostling circle of hysterical, jabbering Negroes. Every second their hysteria mounted. One woman shoved another too vigorously. With an insane screech the latter struck. Others, frenzied with mounting passion, threw themselves into the mêlée. A man shouted warningly, ‘Look out! Look out — she got a razor!’ Someone adroitly kicked the razor from the woman’s hand. . . .

Before the ambulance and patrol wagon had arrived, a dozen white men from other departments were circulating through the room, herding the stemmers to their seats with gentle pushes and calm, pacifying voices. Lula lay on an old coat, her eyes blinking dazedly. Others with sore heads and bruises were hiding their hurts as best they might, fearful of being pointed out to the police. Shoofly crawled from under a bench, holding his jaw.

When the policemen’s hands touched Pokey, she let out shriek after shriek. With insane strength she fought the three big men. The benches grew uneasy again. Quickly the policemen hustled Pokey through the door. As they disappeared, Gen’lwade gave a long, quavering wail: ‘O-o-h-h! O-o-h! De ’licemens got ’er!’ and buried his face in his arms. Shoofly tried in a dazed way to comfort him. But Queenie, her paper cap gone, her pigtails awry, was sobbing prayers.

It was all too much for Shoofly. Dazedly collecting their buckets and coats, he herded the two sobbing children to the door.

The dreary supper of cold com bread and molasses over, the three drooped in silence before the stove, their eyes never raising. Gen’lwade and Queenie alternately snuffled. Shoofly sniffed occasionally — between low moans.

Presently he felt a touch on his knee. Gen’lwade’s dim eyes looked up. ‘Unc’ Shoo’,’ he whispered, ‘will dey — hang — Ma?’

Shoofly pretended to laugh. Of course not! That Lula wasn’t hurt bad. Don’t worry—they’d just fine Pokey, and turn her loose to-morrow. And he gave Gen’lwade’s frail shoulders an affectedly cheerful slap.


During the makeshift breakfast, Shoofly glanced frequently at the ashen faces of the children. Even he himself had forgotten to wash. Last night’s tears showed in dark streaks down Gen’lwade’s cheeks; and his nose was running. The white binding strings of Queenie’s pigtails were hanging loose in utter abandon. Her big shoes were not buttoned.

Giving a deep sigh, Shoofly rose and went into Pokey’s room. Breaking the flimsy lock on her trunk, he rummaged till he found a small roll of bills, knotted in an old stocking. He pondered a moment, then carefully counted out fifteen dollars — ten for the fine and four-fifty for costs, he reckoned.

Cautioning Queenie not to leave the house with the fire going, he drearily shuffled out of the back gate, on the way to court.

The courtroom was packed with sweating black bodies. Crowding, eager-eyed Negroes jammed even the big doors. Shoofly had almost to fight his way to the front. Standing on his toes, he could barely see the heads of the prisoners through the bars of the bull pen. Once he thought he glimpsed the drawn face of Pokey.

The docket was heavy; there had been much fighting for midweek. Old Judge Whitfield was even more irascible than usual. Those confounded factory niggers needed something to jar them back into a respect for the law — besides, he was going to the country shooting at one o’clock.

Shoofly’s eyes became haggard as he listened to the petulant voice falling inexorably: ‘Thirty days. . . . Sixty days. . . . Grand Jury. . . .’ His uneasiness grew into desperate fear. Spasmodically his moist hand clutched the crumpled wad of bills. Sweat trickled down his face unheeded. When the big officer led Pokey inside the rail, Shoofly was seized with a shivering. He would scarcely have recognized the disheveled, drooping figure as his neat, proud Pokey.

Dazedly he saw Lula, with her head bandaged and face swollen, half supported in front of the bench by Mamie Lee, her friend.

As through a closed door, the judge’s voice came dimly to him. Before he thought the case hardly begun, there suddenly struck his ear, like the sharp clang of a bell: ‘Thirty days! Next case! Move along, sergeant!’

Were his eyes fooling him? They were leading Pokey back? His throat seemed to close. With a moaning cry he sprang to Pokey’s side, but the big guard’s elbow sent him reeling into the crowd. When he collected himself, Pokey was gone.


Shoofly’s world had suddenly grown unutterably cold and gray. The atmosphere of the unkept house chilled him. The scrappy meals, the tousled beds, and the piles of dirty dishes clouded him with black memories. Pokey’s room made him shiver — it felt like a room of death. The bleak, tiptoeing attitude of the children reminded him of a death house, too. And he thought of Pokey almost as dead — his clean, spruce Pokey in that filthy jail. He was glad in the mornings to get out into the chill December air.

Saturday afternoon, on their way home, Shoofly bought Gen’Iwade a new jew’s-harp and Queenie a ten-cent finger ring. For himself he purchased a guitar string and a packet of cheroots. Then, hesitating, he invested another dime in a bag of peppermint drops. The sun did seem brighter as they trudged homeward.

When they entered the back gate they were surprised to see smoke coming from the chimney. On the narrowback porch were a yellow suitcase and a guitar. Shoofly halted, rigid as if frozen. The children’s eyes opened wide. Slowly Shoofly cracked the door, but a woman’s cold voice admonished: ‘Stay outta here, nigger! Yo’ junk is on de po’ch.’ Then, more kindly: ‘Come in, chillun! I see yo’ ma to-day. I gwina take keer yo’ll twell she gits out.’

None of the three figures at the door had moved. Shoofly gazed at the woman as if she had spoken in a foreign language. ‘But — Pokey ain’ say —’ his dry lips began.

‘Dat’s des’ what she do say.’ And, pulling in the children, she slammed the door in Shoofly’s face.


Through black Monday, across the table from the children’s new guardian, who had usurped his stool, Shoofly stemmed like one ridden by fever. Dimly he thought in hopeless circles; but he did know he never wanted to see Lula again. She was the cause of all his trouble — Pokey’s trouble. The world of Richmond was growing too full of complications, too black. He could n’t stand it. He’d leave; go home. That was it — home! He’d work — save every cent. Rut that Lula? She’d be back soon! Suddenly he remembered the small stemming room on the floor below — where the Western tobacco was handled. He’d transfer to down there!

Shoofly’s days in the strange room were in most part hazy ones. But with the coming of Thursday, when the roll of the old spirituals drifted down to him, his thoughts quickened. How he would like to lie back on that ‘Rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham!’ Inwardly he carried the long minors for them. Lawd, how that room could sing! The little room tried to sing, too, but they only irritated Shoofly.

He wondered if his voice was missed upstairs. And Pokey’s. Lawd, what a note she could carry — and when she got back he’d be gone! Lawd! Lawd! How life did jam him!

Bowed dejectedly over his bench after dinner, bleak-eyed, unseeing, Shoofly was aroused by an excited little voice: ‘Unc’ Shoo’!’

He startled up. ‘Dat you, Gen’l? How you, son?’

‘Sh-h-h,’ the boy cautioned. Standing on tiptoe, he whispered in Shoofly’s ear, ‘She back!’

Shoofly started as if struck. Grabbing the thin shoulders, he looked unbelievingly into the boy’s face. ‘Not — Pokey?’ he gasped.

Gen’lwade nodded vigorously, and panted: ‘Cap’n Nat wen’ down — see de jedge — got ’er out.’ Then his whisper broke into a high falsetto: ‘An’ dat Lula — done lef’!’

Breathlessly Shoofly ventured, ‘Did Pokey ax — ’bout me?’

The bullet head shook negatively, the white eyes wavered. ‘Don’ tell I been here,’he cautioned, and bolted for the door.

Shoofly stared hungrily after him, his mouth open, excitement blazing from his eyes.


In vain did Shoofly hang about the big room and pass obtrusively up and down the aisles. To no avail did he try to catch Pokey’s eye — just one glance. Like a blind woman she looked through him. Once he waited by the yard gate and ventured a smiling ‘Good evenin’!’ as she passed out with the children, but only their young voices responded. Despite cold rebuffs, however, the new spark burned strong within him. All women had their breaking point — just bend them long enough. Anyway, Petersburg was now a place very, very far away.

But, as the days climbed fast toward Christmas, Shoofly grew desperate. Messages sent through friendly women, through the children, brought no answer. He spent all his savings on a new shirt and hat and necktie, and had his suit pressed — even invested in a bottle of scented hair oil. Once he got close enough for her to smell the scent when he took off his hat to her. The children sniffed delightedly; but Pokey was not only blind — she had lost all sense of smell.

Sitting alone one night in the dim, greasy Elite Restaurant, absent-mindedly strumming his guitar, Shoofly awoke to an argument between the proprietress and a country nigger. No indeed! Two dollars was more than any possum in the world was worth — she did n’t care if it vjas three days to Christmas.

Suddenly Shoofly’s eyes shone with a peculiar, intense light. He half-started from his chair, paused; then edged closer to the countryman.

The woman offered a dollar — no more. With a haughty sniff, the man started for the door, but Shoofly arrested him with a touch. Beckoning, he led the way to the table where the guitar lay.

After ten minutes of gesticulation and low-voiced, impassioned eulogy of the instrument, Shoofly, at a nod from the man, suddenly grabbed the bag; and the man slung the guitar cord over his shoulder and went thrumming out. Shoofly stood poised, as if about to call him back. Then he wet his parted lips, and with a deep sigh sank into the chair.

The following forenoon Shoofly strolled carelessly down the big room. Finally catching Gen’lwade’s eye, he made a stealthy signal. Puzzled, the little boy followed him. From the depths of a dark closet in a storage room Shoofly dragged forth a ladened sack, and whispered long and earnestly to the boy. Gen’lwade’s eyes opened wider and wider. Gurgles came from his throat. Feverishly he reached for the bag, and, bent under its weight, staggered upstairs.

Shoofly’s stool became a griddle that grew hotter and hotter. At dinner he hurriedly swallowed his corn bread and dashed back to the bench. Fidgeting, his eyes on the door, he sat and waited. But no word came. Subconsciously he saw Cap’n Nat put his newspaper aside, preparatory to the whistle. Shaking his head in despair, Shoofly slumped dejectedly and buried his face in his hands.

Suddenly he was startled by a frenzied clutch at his arm. Wheeling, he looked into the excited eyes of Gen’lwade. The boy was hysterically halfdancing, his black face aglow.

‘Ma say — come supper!’ he gasped. ‘She gone — cook possum! ’

For a short moment Shoofly sat rigid; then with a whoop he sprang up, and, smothering Gen’lwade against him, whirled the little darky in a jumping dance.

‘Wait! Wait! Unc’ Shoo’!’ the muffled voice protested. ”Fo’ I fo’git: she say — de law-paper — hit still waitin’!’

The whistle blew. Gen’lwade broke frantically away and skipped for the door.

Shoofly sank to his seat. Lawdy. Lawdy, Lawdy! ’At ol’ law-paper? What was one ol’ paper? Besides, what white man’s paper could keep a nigger’s foot from the road — if the foot itched bad enough?

Before the stemmers in the little room had got well settled, a clear ecstatic tenor lifted, and the benches swung in joyously: —

‘Sinnah at de river, river mighty wide,
But you gotta cross dat river,
To git on de other si-ede.
Ah done got over, done got over,
Done got over, done got over,
Done got over at las’.’