The Gilded Six Bits


Zora Neale Hurston

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At a meticulously tidy, cheerful-looking home, Missie May is bathing after spending Saturday cleaning the house. As she dresses, she hears her husband Joe tossing silver dollars in the open doorway, heralding his arrival home from work. Missie May runs to the door and searches the yard in mock anger, then chases Joe and wrestles playfully with him until she claims candy and other gifts from his pockets. This affectionate game symbolizes the happiness of their marriage.

Over dinner, Joe tells Missie May he is taking her to the town’s new ice cream parlor, owned by Otis D. Slemmons, a newcomer from Chicago. Slemmons is a heavy-set, well-dressed man bedecked with gold, who brags of his popularity with rich women. After their visit to the ice cream parlor, the couple discusses Slemmons. Joe is impressed by Slemmons and wishes he could emulate his swaggering style. Missie May is more skeptical of Slemmons’ claims, but finds his wealth appealing and wonders how she and Joe might find gold money for themselves. Parading Missie May at Slemmons’ parlor becomes part of the Banks’ Saturday routine, along with the coin-toss game.

One night, Joe is walking home from work early, reflecting on the happiness of his marriage and his hopes for children. He sneaks into the house to surprise Missie May, then hears noises and is stunned to discover Slemmons half-dressed in their bedroom. Begging for his life, Slemmons offers gold money. Joe strikes Slemmons twice, and, after Slemmons flees, Joe finds that he is clutching the man’s golden watch charm. Missie May is disconsolate, telling Joe that she still loves him but that Slemmons had promised her his gold.

The couple continues to live together, though their routine has been disrupted by Missie May’s infidelity. Their mealtime banter is silenced, and their Saturday afternoon romps cease. One night Joe comes home complaining of back pain and asks Missie May to rub him with lineament oil. They end up sleeping together again, and Missie May is overjoyed, until she discovers that Joe has slipped Slemmons’ gold piece under her pillow. She realizes the gold piece is merely a gilded half dollar. She returns the coin to Joe’s pocket.

Some time later, it is apparent that Missie May is pregnant. She tells Joe that it will be a little boy, the spitting image of him, but Joe expresses doubt. After the baby is born, Joe’s mother, who had disapproved of their marriage, praises the baby’s likeness to Joe. Joe keeps his distance for a few days, then goes to Orlando to buy the family’s groceries, something he has not done for a long time. He uses the gilded half dollar to buy candy for Missie May, telling the store clerk how he had bested Slemmons and that he now has a little boy at home. The coin, the symbol of the breach in their relationship, has been exchanged for candy kisses, Joe’s customary gift for Missie May. When he gets back to Eatonville, Joe tosses silver dollars in the doorway once again, marking the healing of their marriage.