Janie thinks that the store would be a really nice place, if only she didn't have to sell things. The porch of the store has become the center of town life, where people gather, tell tall tales, and joke around. For example, a resident named Matt Bonner had this old yellow mule, which was often the subject of conversation. The men on the porch would often joke with Matt about the condition of his mule - his age, his skinniness, his meanness - and Matt fell for it every time, thinking the men were asking serious questions. Matt's reaction often made the whole thing funnier, since he became so agitated and began to stutter. Janie loves these mule stories, and longs to participate, but Joe forbids it. His rationale is that Janie is a better sort of people, and there is no reason to associate with such "trashy" people.
But Janie notices this doesn't keep Joe from participating in the lively goings-on out on the porch. It seems every time things get interesting, Joe always hustles her inside the store. Working in the store gives Janie a sick headache; she finds it hard to calculate prices, for one thing. She also hates Joe's rule about her hair showing; it seems one day he saw a man in the store standing behind Janie, letting his hand brush up against the end of her braid. Since that day, Joe insisted her hair always must be covered when she was in the store: "She was in the store for him to look at, not those others."
Late one afternoon, Matt comes in looking for his mule. The porch-sitters make some of their usual jokes. As usual, Matt walks off in a huff. A little later on, they hear the braying of the mule, and decide to try to catch it for Matt. Pretty soon every man on the porch is helping to "catch" (actually, harass) the mule. Janie sees this spectacle and remarks, under her breath, about how the poor animal had been worked near to death, and he should just be let alone. She didn't know that Jody had heard her, but she hears him tell the men to stop fooling with the mule and find Matt, because he wanted to talk to him. He sends Janie of to get his slippers, and she goes, although "a little war of self-defense was going on inside her." She really wanted to speak up for the mule, but didn't. When she gets back, she hears Jody has offered to buy the mule from Matt. They settle on a price, both men thinking they're getting the better part of the deal. Joe then shocks the people on the porch by saying he's only bought the mule in order to set him free - his statement also implicitly denounces Matt's treatment of the mule. After everyone is finished commenting, Janie speaks: she tells Jody it was a good thing he did, and she equates him with Lincoln and Washington. "You have tuh have power tuh free things and dat makes you lak ah king uh something," she says.
The freeing of the mule gives the town something new to talk about. In fact, the animal becomes a sort of pet; everyone feeds it, pets it, indulges its bad behavior. But soon after, the mule is found dead, with all four feet sticking straight up in the air. At first everyone wants to stand around and talk about it, but eventually they realize they need to dispose of the carcass. But this too, becomes a big event - everyone is going to go to the dragging-out. Jody leaves Janie in charge of the store, to her dismay, because she wants to go. He explains it's not appropriate for her to be there; she counters that she'd be going with him - didn't that make it okay? He explains that a mayor's wife is something different entirely.
Out in the swamp there is a great ceremony over the mule - a whole mock funeral. There is preaching, singing of hymns by the women, and everyone laughs and enjoys themselves. Then everyone leaves the dead mule to the buzzards, who crowd around the carcass as soon as the people are gone. But the flock has to wait for its "white-headed leader," a buzzard called "the Parson." The Parson inspects the carcass carefully, and in an elaborate call-and-response asks what killed the mule. They answer, "bare, bare fat." With the ceremony over, the feast begins.
Joe returns to the store in a good mood, but he sees Janie is sullen about being left behind, which makes him angry. But instead of criticizing her outright, he says that while he finds the antics of the townspeople funny, he wishes they would think about work more than play. Janie responds that everyone has to have fun sometimes; Joe answers that they seem to be more interested in fun than achievement. Janie doesn't say anything out loud, but Joe has not convinced her.
The scene switches to the porch, where several of the men, Sam, Lige and Walter, are having a philosophical conversation. One of them asks, "What is it dat keeps uh man from gettin' burnt on uh red-hot stove - caution or nature?" This produces more arguments about who is better educated, and who is qualified to answer the question. But the men get deeper into the discussion, offering examples and evidence, never quite agreeing. They then move on to a tall tale - one points out the "great big ole scoundrel-beast up dere at Hall's filling station" and they are argue about how much one animal can eat. A little bit later, three pretty young women walk down the street and the men on the porch flirt with them. It's not serious courtship: "It's acting-out courtship and everybody is in the play." Then a fourth, more devastatingly gorgeous girl, Daisy, walks down the street. The men are in agony. Several of the men pretend to be competing for her; they joke about how far they would go to win her.
Janie is actually on the porch at this point, deeply enjoying everything that was going on. To her dismay, an elderly woman customer appears and Jody tells her she has to go into the store to wait on her. She's mad, and Jody can tell, which makes him angry. Jody comes into the store a bit later and, in trying to find a copy of a bill, accuses Janie of misplacing it. She replies that if he just looks around for it, he's bound to find it. He says she shouldn't argue, but just do what he tells her. She answers, "You sho' loves to tell me whut to do, but Ah can't tell you nothin' Ah see!" He answers that he has to tell her what to do, as one has to with women, children and animals, since they don't know any better. Janie shoots back that she certainly knows things, and that women do think. Jody says they only think they're thinking, and don't understand anything.
This was only one example of what was wrong with Janie's marriage. She learned not to say anything out loud, but she wasn't happy. The weren't even having fun in bed anymore - bed was a place she went to when she was tired. One day, despite her best efforts, the dinner Janie cooked was a disaster. Joe reacts by "slap[ping] Janie until she had a ringing sound in her ears and told her about her brains before he stalked on back to the store." Right then, something changes for Janie, and she never thinks about Joe the same way again. She dresses and goes back out to the store.
She finds Jody joking with Mrs. Robbins, who always comes in and "begs" for some charity, some food from Jody. He makes a big show of giving her some salt pork, and Mrs. Robbins makes a big show of bargaining for a bigger piece. In the end, we discover it's not a handout at all, because Joe simply adds it to her husband's tab. This generates discussion on the porch about Mr. and Mrs. Robbins. Mr. Robbins has asked Joe to humor these displays; one of the men wonders why Mr. Robbins never beats his wife for embarrassing him so. Another man answers that Mr. Robbins doesn't believe in hitting women because to do so is like "steppin' on baby chickens." But the men all believe Mrs. Robbins does what she does only out of spite. Remarkably, Janie responds to this out loud. She says she'd spoken to God, who said men would be surprised to find out how little they knew about women. She says, "It's so easy to make yo'self out God Almighty when you ain't got nothin' tuh strain against but women and chickens." This infuriates Jody, who sends her inside to fetch something.
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