Parker’s Back – Flannery O’Connor
Parker’s wife was sitting on the front porch floor, snapping beans. Parker was sitting on the step, some distance away, watching her sullenly. She was plain, plain. The skin on her face was thin and drawn as tight as the skin on an onion and her eyes were gray and sharp like the points of two icepicks. Parker understood why he had married her – he couldn’t have got her any other way – but he couldn’t understand why he stayed with her now. She was pregnant and pregnant women were not his favorite kind. Nevertheless, he stayed as if she had him conjured. He was puzzled and ashamed of himself.
The house they rented sat alone save for a single tall pecan tree on a high embankment overlooking a highway. At intervals a car would shoot past below and his wife’s eyes would swerve suspiciously after the sound of it and then come back to rest on the newspaper full of beans in her lap. One of the things she did not approve of was automobiles. In addition to her other bad qualities, she was forever sniffing up sin. She did not smoke or dip, drink whiskey, use bad language or paint her face, and God knew some paint would have improved it, Parker thought.
Her being against color, it was the more remarkable that she had married him. Sometimes he supposed that she had married him because she meant to save him. At other times he had a suspicion that she actually liked everything she said she didn’t. He could account for her one way or another; it was himself he could not understand.
She turned her head in his direction and said, “It’s no reason you can’t work for a man. It don’t have to be a woman.”
“Aw shut your mouth for a change,” Parker muttered.
If he had been certain she was jealous of the woman he worked for he would have been pleased but more likely she was concerned with the sin that would result if he and the woman took a liking to each other. He had told her that the woman was a hefty young blonde; in fact she was nearly seventy years old and too dried up to have an interest in anything except getting as much work out of him as she could. Not that an old woman didn’t sometimes get an interest in a young man, particularly if he was as attractive as Parker felt he was, but this old woman looked at him the same way she looked at her old tractor – as if she had to put up with it because it was all she had. The tractor had broken down the second day Parker was on it and she had set him at once to cutting bushes, saying out of the side of her mouth to the nigger, “Everything he touches, he breaks.” She also asked him to wear his shirt when he worked; Parker had removed it even though the day was not sultry; he put it back on reluctantly.
This ugly woman Parker married was his first wife. He had had other women but he had planned never to get himself tied up legally. He had first seen her one morning when his truck broke down on the highway. He had managed to pull it off the road into a neatly swept yard on which sat a peeling two-room house. He got out and opened the hood of the truck and began to study the motor. Parker had an extra sense that told him when there was a woman nearby watching him. After he had leaned over the motor a few minutes, his neck began to prickle.
He cast his eye over the empty yard and porch of the house. A woman he could not see was either nearby beyond a clump of honeysuckle or in the house, watching him out the window.
Suddenly Parker began to jump up and down and fling his hand about as if he had mashed it in the machinery. He doubled over and held his hand close to his chest. “God dammit!” he hollered, “Jesus Christ in hell! Jesus God Almighty damn! God dammit to hell!” he went on, flinging out the same few oaths over and over as loud as he could. Without warning a terrible bristly claw slammed the side of his face and he fell backwards on the hood of the truck. “You don’t talk no filth here!” a voice close to him shrilled.
Parker’s vision was so blurred that for an instant he thought he had been attacked by some creature from above, a giant hawk-eyed angel wielding a hoary weapon. As his sight cleared, he saw before him a tall raw-boned girl with a broom.
“I hurt my hand,” he said. I HURT my hand.” He was so incensed that he forgot that he hadn’t hurt his hand. “My hand may be broke,” he growled although his voice was still unsteady.
“Lemme see it,” the girl demanded.
Parker stuck out his hand and she came closer and looked at it. There was no mark on the palm and she took the hand and turned it over. Her own hand was dry and hot and rough and Parker felt himself jolted back to life by her touch. He looked more closely at her. I don’t want nothing to do with this one, he thought. The girls’ sharp eyes peered at the back of the stubby reddish hand she held. There emblazoned in red and blue was a tattooed eagle perched on a cannon. Parker’s sleeve was rolled to the elbow. Above the eagle a serpent was coiled about a shield and in the spaces between the eagle and the serpent there were hearts, some with arrows through them. Above the serpent there was a spread hand of cards. Every space on the skin of Parker’s arm, from wrist to elbow, was covered in some loud design. The girl gazed at this with an almost stupefied smile of shock, as if she had accidentally grasped a poisonous snake; she dropped the hand.
“I got most of my other ones in foreign parts,” Parker said. “These here I mostly got in the United States. I got my first one when I was only fifteen years old.”
“Don’t tell me,” the girl said, “I don’t like it. I ain’t got any use for it.”
“You ought to see the ones you can’t see,” Parker said and winked.
Two circles of red appeared like apples on the girl’s cheeks and softened her appearance. Parker was intrigued. He did not for a minute think that she didn’t like tattoos. He had never yet met a woman who was not attracted to them.
Parker was fourteen when he saw a man in a fair, tattooed from head to foot. Except for his loins which were girded with a panther hide, the man’s skin was patterned in what seemed from Parker’s distance – he was near the back of the tent, standing on a bench – a single intricate design of brilliant color. The man, who was small and sturdy, moved about on the platform, flexing his muscles so that the arabesque of men and bears and flowers on his skin appeared to have a subtle motion of its own. Parker was filled with emotion, lifted up as some people are when the flag passes. He was a boy whose mouth habitually hung open. He was heavy and earnest, as ordinary as a loaf of bread. When the show was over, he had remained standing on the bench, staring where the tattooed man had been, until the tent was almost empty.
Parker had never before felt the least emotion of wonder in himself. Until he saw the man at the fair, it did not enter his head that there was anything out of the ordinary about the fact that he existed. Even then it did not enter his head, but a peculiar unease settled in him. It was as if a blind boy had been turned so gently in a different direction that he did not know his destination had been changed.
He had his first tattoo some time after – the eagle perched on the cannon. It was done by a local artist. It hurt very little, just enough to make it appear to Parker to be worth doing. This was peculiar too for before he had thought that only what did not hurt was worth doing. The next year he quit school because he was sixteen and could. He went to the trade school for a while, then he quit the trade school and worked for six months in a garage. The only reason he worked at all was to pay for more tattoos. His mother worked in a laundry and could support him, but she would not pay for any tattoo except her name on a heart, which he had put on, grumbling. However, her name was Betty Jean and nobody had to know it was his mother. He found out that the tattoos were attractive to the kind of girls he liked but who had never liked him before. He began to drink beer and get in fights.
His mother wept over what was becoming of him. One night she dragged him off to a revival with her, not telling him where they were going. When he saw the big lighted church, he jerked out of her grasp and ran.
The next day he lied about his age and joined the navy. Parker was large for the tight sailor’s pants but the silly white cap, sitting low on his forehead, made his face by contrast look thoughtful and almost intense. After a month or two in the navy, his mouth ceased to hang open. His features hardened into the features of a man. He stayed in the navy five years and seemed a natural part of the gray mechanical ship, except for his eyes, which were the same pale slate-color as the ocean and reflected the immense spaces around him as if they were a microcosm of the mysterious sea. In port Parker wandered about comparing the run-down places he was in to Birmingham, Alabama. Everywhere he went he picked up more tattoos.
He had stopped having lifeless ones like the anchors and crossed rifles. He had a tiger and a panther on each shoulder, a cobra coiled about a torch on his chest, hawks on his thighs, Elizabeth II and Philip over where his stomach and liver were respectively. He did not care much what the subject was so long as it was colorful; on his abdomen he had a few obscenities but only because that seemed the proper place for them. Parker would be satisfied with each tattoo about a month, then something about it that had attracted him would wear off. Whenever a decent-sized mirror was available, he would get in front of it and study his overall look. The effect was not of one intricate arabesque of colors but of something haphazard and botched. A huge dissatisfaction would come over him and he would go off and find another tattooist and have another space filled up. The front of Parker was almost completely covered but there were no tattoos on his back. He had no desire for one anywhere he could not readily see it himself. As the space on the front of him for tattoos decreased, his dissatisfaction grew and became general.
After one of his furloughs, he didn’t go back to the navy but remained away without official leave, drunk, in a rooming house in a city he did not know. His dissatisfaction, from being chronic and latent, had suddenly become acute and raged in him. It was as if the panther and the lion and the serpents and the eagles and the hawks had penetrated his skin and lived inside him in a raging warfare. The navy caught up with him, put him in the brig for nine months and then gave him a dishonorable discharge.
After that Parker decided that country air was the only kind fit to breathe. He rented the shack on the embankment and bought the old truck and took various jobs which he kept as long as it suited him. At the time he met his future wife, he was buying apples by the bushel and selling them for the same price by the pound to isolated homesteaders on back country roads.
“All that there,” the woman said, pointing to his arm, “is no better than what a fool Indian would do. It’s a heap of vanity.” She seemed to have found the word she wanted. “Vanity of vanities,” she said.
Well what the hell do I care what she thinks of it? Parker asked himself, but he was plainly bewildered. “I reckon you like one of these better than another anyway,” he said, dallying until he thought of something that would impress her. He thrust the arm back at her. “Which you like best?”
“None of them,” she said, “but the chicken is not as bad as the rest.”
“What chicken?” Parker almost yelled.
She pointed to the eagle.
“That’s an eagle,” Parker said. “What fool would waste their time having a chicken put on themself?”
“What fool would have any of it?” the girl said and turned away. She went slowly back to the house and left him there to get going. Parker remained for almost five minutes, looking agape at the dark door she had just entered.
The next day he returned with a bushel of apples. He was not one to be outdone by anything that looked like her. He liked women with meat on them, so you don’t feel their muscles, much less their old bones. When he arrived, she was sitting on the top step and the yard was full of children, all as thin and poor as herself; Parker remembered it was Saturday. He hated to be making up to a woman when there were children around, but it was fortunate he had brought the bushel of apples off the truck. As the children approached him to see what he carried, he gave each child an apple and told it to get lost; in that way he cleared the whole crowd.
The girl did nothing to acknowledge his presence. He might have been a stray pig or goat that had wandered into the yard and she too tired to take up the broom and send it off. He set the bushel of apples down next to her on the step. He sat down on a lower step. “Hep yourself,” he said, nodding at the basket; then he lapsed into silence.
She took an apple quickly as if the basket might disappear if she didn’t make haste. Hungry people made Parker nervous. He had always had plenty to eat himself. He grew very uncomfortable. He reasoned he had nothing to say so why should he say it? He could not think now why he had come or why he didn’t go before he wasted another bushel of apples on the crowd of children. He supposed they were her brothers and sisters.
She chewed the apple slowly but with a kind of relish of concentration, bent slightly but looking out ahead. The view from the porch stretched off across a long incline studded with iron weed and across the highway to a vast vista of hills and one small mountain. Long views depressed Parker. You look out into space like that and you begin to feel as if someone were after you, the navy or the government or religion.
“Who them children belong to, you?” he said at length.
“I ain’t married yet,” she said. “They belong to momma.” She said it as if it were only a matter of time before she would be married.
Who in God’s name would marry her? Parker thought.
A large barefooted woman with a wide gap-toothed face appeared in the door behind Parker. She had apparently been there for several minutes.
“Good evening,” Parker said.
The woman crossed the porch and picked up what was left of the bushel of apples. “We thank you,” she said and returned with it into the house.
“That your old woman?” Parker muttered.
The girl nodded. Parker knew a lot of sharp things he could have said like “You got my sympathy,” but he was gloomily silent. He just sat there, looking at the view. He thought he must be coming down with something.
“If I pick up some peaches tomorrow I’ll bring you some,” he said.
“I’ll be much obliged to you,” the girl said.
Parker had no intention of taking any basket of peaches back there but the next day he found himself doing it. He and the girl had almost nothing to say to each other. One thing he did say was, “I ain’t got any tattoo on my back.”
“What you got on it?” the girl said.
“My shirt,” Parker said. “Haw.”
“Haw, haw,” the girl said politely.
Parker thought he was losing his mind. He could not believe for a minute that he was attracted to a woman like this. She showed not the least interest in anything but what he brought until he appeared the third time with two cantaloupes. “What’s your name?” she asked.
“O.E. Parker,” he said.
“What does the O.E. stand for?”
“You can just call me O.E.,” Parker said. “Or Parker. Don’t nobody call me by my name.”
“What’s it stand for?” she persisted.
“Never mind,” Parker said. “What’s yours?”
“I’ll tell you when you tell me what them letters are the short of,” she said. There was just a hint of flirtatiousness in her tone and it went rapidly to Parker’s head. He had never revealed the name to any man or woman, only to the files of the navy and the government, and it was on his baptismal record which he got at the age of a month; his mother was a Methodist. When the name leaked out of the navy files, Parker narrowly missed killing the man who used it.
“You’ll go blab it around,” he said.
“I’ll swear I’ll never tell nobody,” she said. “On God’s holy word I swear it.”
Parker sat for a few minutes in silence. Then he reached for the girl’s neck, drew her ear close to his mouth and revealed the name in a low voice.
“Obadiah,” she whispered. Her face slowly brightened as if the name came as a sign to her. “Obadiah,” she said.
The name still stank in Parker’s estimation.
“Obadiah Elihue,” she said in a reverent voice.
“If you call me that aloud, I’ll bust your head open,” Parker said. “What’s yours?”
“Sarah Ruth Cates,” she said.
“Glad to meet you, Sarah Ruth,” Parker said.
Sarah Ruth’s father was a Straight Gospel preacher but he was away, spreading it in Florida. Her mother did not seem to mind his attention to the girl so long as he brought a basket of something with him when he came. As for Sarah Ruth herself, it was plain to Parker after he had visited three times that she was crazy about him. She liked him even though she insisted that pictures on the skin were vanity of vanities and even after hearing him curse, and even after she had asked him if he was saved and he had replied that he didn’t see it was anything in particular to save him from. After that, inspired, Parker had said, “I’d be saved enough if you was to kiss me.”
She scowled. “That ain’t being saved,” she said.
Not long after that she agreed to take a ride in his truck. Parker parked it on a deserted road and suggested to her that they lie down together in the back of it.
“Not until after we’re married,” she said – just like that.
“Oh that ain’t necessary,” Parker said and as he reached for her, she thrust him away with such force that the door of the truck came off and he found himself flat on his back on the ground. He made up his mind then and there to have nothing further to do with her.
They were married in the County Ordinary’s office because Sarah Ruth thought churches were idolatrous. Parker had no opinion about that one way or the other. The Ordinary’s office was lined with cardboard file boxes and record books with dusty yellow slips of paper hanging on out of them. The Ordinary was an old woman with red hair who had held office for forty years and looked as dusty as her books. She married them from behind the iron-grill of a stand-up desk and when she finished, she said with a flourish, “Three dollars and fifty cents and till death do you part!” and yanked some forms out of a machine.
Marriage did not change Sarah Ruth a jot and it made Parker gloomier than ever. Every morning he decided he had had enough and would not return that night; every night he returned. Whenever Parker couldn’t stand the way he felt, he would have another tattoo, but the only surface left on him now was his back. To see a tattoo on his own back he would have to get two mirrors and stand between them in just the correct position and this seemed to Parker a good way to make an idiot of himself. Sarah Ruth who, if she had had better sense, could have enjoyed a tattoo on his back, would not even look at the ones he had elsewhere. When he attempted to point out especial details of them, she would shut her eyes tight and turn her back as well. Except in total darkness, she preferred Parker dressed and with his sleeves rolled down.
“At the judgment seat of God, Jesus is going to say to you, ‘What you been doing all your life besides have pictures drawn all over you?’” she said.
“You don’t fool me none,” Parker said, “you’re just afraid that hefty girl I work for’ll like me so much she’ll say, ‘Come on, Mr. Parker, let’s you and me …’”
“You’re tempting sin,” she said, “and at the judgment seat of God you’ll have to answer for that too. You ought to go back to selling the fruits of the earth.”
Parker did nothing much when he was at home but listen to what the judgment seat of God would be like for him if he didn’t change his ways. When he could, he broke in with tales of the hefty girl he worked for. “Mr. Parker,’” he said she said, ‘I hired you for your brains.’” (She had added, “So why don’t you use them?”) “And you should have seen her face the first time she saw me without my shirt,” he said. “Mr. Parker,’ she said, ‘you’re a walking panner-rammer!’” This had, in fact, been her remark but it had been delivered out of one side of her mouth.
Dissatisfaction began to grow so great in Parker that there was no containing it outside of a tattoo. It had to be his back. There was no help for it. A dim half-formed inspiration began to work in his mind. He visualized having a tattoo put there that Sarah Ruth would not be able to resist – a religious subject. He thought of an open book with HOLY BIBLE tattooed under it and an actual verse printed on the page. This seemed just the thing for a while; then he began to hear her say, “Ain’t I already got a real Bible? What you think I want to read the same verse over and over for when I can read it all?” He needed something better even than the Bible! He thought about it so much that he began to lose sleep. He was already losing flesh – Sarah Ruth just threw food in the pot and let it boil. Not knowing for certain why he continued to stay with a woman who was both ugly and pregnant and no cook made him generally nervous and irritable, and he developed a little tic in the side of his face.
Once or twice he found himself turning around abruptly as if someone were trailing him. He had had a granddaddy who had ended in the state mental hospital, although not until he was seventy-five, but as urgent as it might be for him to get a tattoo, it was just as urgent that get exactly the right one to bring Sarah Ruth to heel. As he continued to worry over it, his eyes took on a hollow, pre-occupied expression. The old woman he worked for told him that if he couldn’t keep his mind on what he was doing, she knew where she could find a fourteen-year-old colored boy who could. Parker was too preoccupied even to be offended. At any time previous, he would have left her then and there, saying drily, “Well, you go ahead on and get him then.”
Two or three mornings later he was baling hay with the old woman’s sorry baler and her broken down tractor in a large field, cleared save for one enormous old tree standing in the middle of it. The old woman was the kind who would not cut down a large old tree because it was a large old tree. She had pointed it out to Parker as if he didn’t have eyes and told him to be careful not to hit it as the machine picked up hay near it. Parker began at the outside of the field and made circles inward toward it. He had to get off the tractor every now and then and untangle the baling cord or kick a rock out of the way. The old woman had told him to carry the rocks to the edge of the field, which he did when she was there watching. When he thought he could make it, he ran over them. As he circled the field his mind was on a suitable design for his back. The sun, the size of a golf ball, began to switch regularly from in front to behind him, but he appeared to see it both places as if he had eyes in the back of his head. All at once he saw the tree reaching out to grasp him. A ferocious thud propelled him into the air, and he heard himself yelling in an unbelievably loud voice, “GOD ABOVE!”
He landed on his back while the tractor crashed upside down into the tree and burst into flame. The first thing Parker saw were his shoes, quickly being eaten by the fire; one was caught under the tractor, the other was some distance away, burning by itself. He was not in them. He could feel the hot breath of the burning tree on his face. He scrambled backwards, still sitting, his eyes cavernous, and if he had known how to cross himself he would have done it.
His truck was on a dirt road at the edge of the field. He moved toward it, still sitting, still backwards, but faster and faster; half-way to it he got up and began a kind of forward-bent run from which he collapsed on his knees twice. His legs felt like two old rusted rain gutters. He reached the truck finally and took off in it, zigzagging up the road. He drove past his house on the embankment and straight for the city, fifty miles distant. Parker did not allow himself to think on the way to the city. He only knew that there had been a great change in his life, a leap forward into a worse unknown, and that there was nothing he could do about it. It was for all intents accomplished.
The artist had two large cluttered rooms over a chiropodist’s office on a back street. Parker, still barefooted, burst silently in on him at a little after three in the afternoon. The artist, who was about Parker’s own age, twenty-eight – but thin and bald, was behind a small drawing table, tracing a design in green ink. He looked up with an annoyed glance and did not seem to recognize Parker in the hollow-eyed creature before him.
“Let me see the book you got with all the pictures of God in it,” Parker said breathlessly. “The religious one.”
The artist continued to look at him with his intellectual, superior stare. “I don’t put tattoos on drunks,” he said.
“You know me!” Parker cried indignantly. “I’m O.E. Parker! You done work for me before and I always paid!”
The artist looked at him another moment as if he were not altogether sure. “You’ve fallen off some,” he said. “You must have been in jail.”
“Married,” Parker said.
“Oh,” said the artist. With the aid of mirrors the artist had tattooed on the top of his head a miniature owl, perfect in every detail. It was about the size of a half-dollar and served him as a show piece. There were cheaper artists in town but Parker had never wanted anything but the best. The artist went over to a cabinet at the back of the room and began to look over some art books. “Who are you interested in?” he said, “saints, angels, Christs or what?”
“God,” Parker said.
“Father, Son or Spirit?”
“Just God,” Parker said impatiently. “Christ. I don’t care. Just so it’s God.”
The artist returned with a book. He moved some papers off another table and put the book down on it and told Parker to sit down and see what he liked. “The up-t-date ones are in the back,” he said.
Parker sat down with the book and wet his thumb. He began to go through it, beginning at the back where the up-to-date pictures were. Some of them he recognized – The Good Shepherd, Forbid Them Not, The Smiling Jesus, Jesus the Physician’s Friend, but he kept turning rapidly backwards and the pictures became less and less reassuring. One showed a gaunt green dead face streaked with blood. One was yellow with sagging purple eyes. Parker’s heart began to beat faster and faster until it appeared to be roaring inside him like a great generator. He flipped the pages quickly, feeling that when he reached the one ordained, a sign would come. He continued to flip through until he had almost reached the front of the book. On one of the pages a pair of eyes glanced at him swiftly. Parker sped on, then stopped. His heart appeared to cut off; there was absolute silence. It said as plainly as if silence were a language itself, GO BACK. Parker returned to the picture – the haloed head of a flat stern Byzantine Christ with all-demanding eyes. He sat there trembling; his heart began slowly to beat again as if it were being brought to life by a subtle power.
“You found what you want?” the artist asked.
Parker’s throat was too dry to speak. He got up and thrust the book at the artist, opened at the picture.
“That’ll cost you plenty,” the artist said. “You don’t want all those little blocks though, just the outline and some better features.”
“Just like it is,” Parker said, “just like it is or nothing.”
“It’s your funeral,” the artist said, “but I don’t do that kind of work for nothing.”
“How much?” Parker asked.
“It’ll take maybe two days work.”
“How much?” Parker said.
“On time or cash?” the artist asked. Parker’s other jobs had been on time, but he had paid.
“Ten down and ten for every day it takes,” the artist said.
Parker drew ten dollar bills out of his wallet; he had three left in.
“You come back in the morning,” the artist said, putting the money in his own pocket. “First I’ll have to trace that out of the book.”
“No no!” Parker said. “Trace it now or gimme my money back,” and his eyes blared as if he were ready for a fight.
The artist agreed. Anyone stupid enough to want a Christ on his back, he reasoned, would be just as likely as not to change his mind the next minute, but once the work was begun he could hardly do so.
While he worked on the tracing, he told Parker to go wash his back at the sink with the special soap he used there. Parker did it and returned to pace back and forth across the room, nervously flexing his shoulders. He wanted to go look at the picture again but at the same time he did not want to. The artist got up finally and had Parker lie down on the table. He swabbed his back with ethyl chloride and then began to outline the head on it with his iodine pencil. Another hour passed before he took up his electric instrument. Parker felt no particular pain. In Japan he had had a tattoo of the Buddha done on his upper arm with ivory needles; in Burma, a little brown root of a man had made a peacock on each of his knees using thin pointed sticks, two feet long; amateurs had worked on him with pins and soot. Parker was usually so relaxed and easy under the hand of the artist that he often went to sleep, but this time he remained awake, every muscle taut.
At midnight the artist said he was ready to quit. He propped one mirror, four feet square, on a table by the wall and took a smaller mirror off the lavatory wall and put it in Parker’s hands. Parker stood with his back to the one on the table and moved the other until he saw a flashing burst of color reflected from his back. It was almost completely covered with little red and blue and ivory and saffron squares; from them he made out the lineaments of the face – a mouth, the beginning of heavy brows, a straight nose, but the face was empty; the eyes had not yet been but in. The impression for the moment was almost as if the artist had tricked him and done the Physician’s Friend.
“It don’t have eyes,” Parker cried out.
“That’ll come,” the artist said, “in due time. We have another day to go on it yet.”
Parker spent the night on a cot at the Haven of Light Christian Mission. He found these the best places to stay in the city because they were free and included a meal of sorts. He got the last available cot and because he was still barefooted, he accepted a pair of second-hand shoes which, in his confusion, he put on to go to bed; he was still shocked from all that had happened to him. All night he lay awake in the long dormitory of cots with lumpy figures on them. The only light was from a phosphorescent cross glowing at the end of the room. The tree reached out to grasp him again, then burst into flame; the shoe burned quietly by itself; the eyes in the book said to him distinctly GO BACK and at the same time did not utter a sound. He wished that he were not in this city, not in this Haven of Light Mission, not in a bed by himself. He longed miserably for Sarah Ruth. Her sharp tongue and icepick eyes were the only comfort he could bring to mind. He decided he was losing it. Her eyes appeared soft and dilatory compared with the eyes in the book, for even though he could not summon up the exact look of those eyes, he could still feel their penetration. He felt as though, under their gaze, he was as transparent as the wing of a fly.
The tattooist had told him not to come until ten in the morning, but when he arrived at that hour, Parker was sitting in the dark hallway on the floor, waiting for him. He had decided upon getting up that, once the tattoo was on him, he would not look at it, that all his sensations of the day and night before were those of a crazy man and that he would return to doing things according to his own sound judgment.
That artist began where he left off. “One thing I want to know,” he said presently as he worked over Parker’s back, “why do you want this on you? Have you gone and got religion? Are you saved?” he asked in a mocking voice.
Parker’s throat felt salty and dry. “Naw,” he said,”I ain’t got no use for none of that. A man can’t save his self from whatever it is he don’t deserve none of my sympathy.” These words seemed to leave his mouth like wraiths and to evaporate at once as if he had never uttered them.
“Then why …”
“I married this woman that’s saved,” Parker said. “I never should have done it. I ought to leave her. She’s done gone and got pregnant.”
“That’s too bad,” the artist said. “Then it’s her making you have this tattoo.”
“Naw,” Parker said, “she don’t know nothing about it. It’s a surprise for her.”
“You think she’ll like it and lay off you a while?”
“She can’t hep herself,” Parker said. “She can’t say she don’t like the looks of God.” He decided he had told the artist enough of his business. Artists were all right in their place but he didn’t like them poking their noses into the affairs of regular people. “I didn’t get no sleep last night,” he said. “I think I’ll get some now.”
That closed the mouth of the artist but it did not bring him any sleep. He lay there, imagining how Sarah Ruth would be struck speechless by the face on his back and every now and then this would be interrupted by a vision of the tree of fire and his empty shoe burning beneath it.
The artist worked steadily until nearly four o’clock, not stopping to have lunch, hardly pausing with the electric instrument except to wipe the dripping dye off Parker’s back as he went along. Finally he finished. “You can get up and look at it now,” he said.
Parker sat up but he remained on the edge of the table. The artist was pleased with his work and wanted Parker to look at it at once. Instead Parker continued to sit on the edge of the table, bent forward slightly but with a vacant look. “What ails you?” the artist said. “Go look at it.”
“Aint’ nothing ail me,” Parker said in a sudden belligerent voice. “That tattoo ain’t going nowhere. It’ll be there when I get there.” He reached for his shirt and began to gingerly put it on. The artist took him roughly by the arm and propelled him between the two mirrors. “Now look, ” he said, angry at having his work ignored.
Parker looked, turned white and moved away. The eyes in the reflected face continued to look at him – still, straight, all-demanding, enclosed in silence.
“It was your idea, remember,” the artist said. “I would have advised something else.”
Parker said nothing. He put on his shirt and went out the door while the artist shouted, “I’ll expect all of my money!”
Parker headed toward a package shop on the corner. He bought a pint of whiskey and took it into a nearby alley and drank it all in five minutes. Then he moved on to a pool hall nearby which he frequented when he came to the city. It was a well-lighted barn-like place with a bar up one side and gambling machines on the other and pool
tables in the back. As soon as Parker entered, a large man in a red and black checkered shirt hailed him by slapping him on the back and yelling, “Yeyyyyyy boy! O.E. Parker!”
Parker was not yet ready to be struck on the back. “Lay off,” he said, “I got a fresh tattoo there.”
“What you got this time?” the man asked and then yelled to a few at the machines, “O.E.’s got him another tattoo.”
“Nothing special this time,” Parker said and slunk over to a machine that was not being used.
“Come on,” the big man said, “let’s have a look at O.E.’s tattoo,” and while Parker squirmed in their hands, they pulled up his shirt. Parker felt all the hands drop away instantly and his shirt fell again like a veil over the face.
There was a silence in the pool room which seemed to Parker to grow from the circle around him until it extended to the foundations under the building and upward through the beams in the roof.
Finally some one said, “Christ!” Then they all broke into noise at once. Parker turned around, an uncertain grin on his face.
“Leave it to O.E.!” the man in the checkered shirt said. “That boy’s a real card!”
“Maybe he’s gone and got religion,” someone yelled.
“Not on your life,” Parker said.
“O.E.’s got religion and is witnessing for Jesus, ain’t you, O.E.?” a little man with a piece of cigar in his mouth said wryly. “An o-riginal way to do it if I ever saw one.”
“Leave it to Parker to think of a new one!” the fat man said.
“Yyeeeeeeyyyyyyy boy!” someone yelled and they all began to whistle and curse in compliment until Parker said, “Aaa shut up.”
“What’d you do it for?” somebody asked.
“For laughs,” Parker said. “What’s it to you?”
“Why ain’t you laughing then?” somebody yelled. Parker lunged into the midst of them and like a whirlwind on a summer’s day there began a fight that raged amid overturned tables and swinging fists until two of them grabbed him and ran to the door with him and threw him out. Then a calm descended on the pool hall as nerve shattering as
if the long barnlike room were the ship from which Jonah had been cast into the sea.
Parker sat for a long time on the ground in the alley behind the pool hall, examining his soul. He saw it as a spider web of facts and lies that was not at all important to him but which appeared to be necessary in spite of his opinion. The eyes that were now forever on his back were eyes to be obeyed. He was as certain of it as he had ever
been of anything. Throughout his life, grumbling and sometimes cursing, often afraid, once in rapture, Parker had obeyed whatever instinct of this kind had come to him – in rapture when his spirit had lifted at the sight of the tattooed man at the fair, afraid when he had joined the navy, grumbling when he had married Sarah Ruth.
The thought of her brought him slowly to his feet. She would know what he had to do. She would clear up the rest of it, and she would at least be pleased. It seemed to him that, all along, that was what he wanted, to please her. His truck was still parked in front of the building were the artist had his place, but it was not far away. He got in it and drove out of the city and into the country night. His head was almost clear of liquor and he observed that his dissatisfaction was gone, but he felt not quite like himself. It was as if he were himself but a stranger to himself, driving into a new country though everything he saw was familiar to him, even at night.
He arrived finally at the house on the embankment, pulled the truck under the pecan tree and got out. He made as much noise as possible to assert that he was still in charge here, that his leaving her for a night without a word meant nothing except it was the way he did things. He slammed the car door, stamped up the two steps and across the porch and rattled the door knob. It did not respond to his touch. “Sarah Ruth!” he yelled, “let me in.”
There was no lock on the door and she had evidently placed the back of a chair against the knob. He began to beat on the door and rattle the knob at the same time.
He heard the bed springs screak and bent down and put his head to the keyhole, but it was stopped up with paper. “Let me in!” he hollered, bamming on the door again. “What you got me locked out for?”
A sharp voice close to the door said, “Who’s there?”
“Me,” Parker said, “O.E.”
He waited a moment.
“Me,” he said impatiently, “O.E.”
Still no sound from inside.
He tried once more. “O.E.,” he said, bamming the door two or three more times. “O.E. Parker. You know me.”
There was a silence. Then the voice said slowly, “I don’t know no O.E.”
“Quit fooling,” Parker pleaded. “You aint’ got any business doing me this way. It’s me, old O.E., I’m back. You ain’t afraid of me.”
“Who’s there?” the same unfeeling voice said.
Parker turned his head as if he expected someone behind him to give him the answer. The sky had lightened slightly and there were two or three streaks of yellow floating above the horizon. Then as he stood there, a tree of light burst over the skyline.
Parker fell back against the door as if he had been pinned there by a lance.
“Who’s there?” the voice from inside said and there was a quality about it now that seemed final. The knob rattled and the voice said peremptorily, “Who’s there, I ast you?”
Parker bent down and put his mouth near the stuffed keyhole. “Obadiah,” he whispered and all at once he felt the light pouring through him, turning his spider web soul into a perfect arabesque of colors, a garden of trees and birds and beasts.
“Obadiah Elihue!” he whispered.
The door opened and he stumbled in. Sarah Ruth loomed there, hands on her hips. She began at once, “That was no hefty blonde woman you was working for and you’ll have to pay her every penny on her tractor you busted up. She don’t keep insurance on it. She came here and her and me had us a long talk and I …”
Trembling, Parker set about lighting the kerosene lamp.
“What’s the matter with you, wasting that kerosene this near daylight?” she demanded. “I ain’t got to look at you.”
A yellow glow enveloped them. Parker put the match down and began to unbutton his shirt.
“And you aint’ going to have none of me this near morning,” she said.
“Shut your mouth,” he said quietly. “Look at this and then I don’t want to hear no more out of you.” He removed the shirt and turned his back to her.
“Another picture,” Sarah Ruth growled. “I might have known you was off after putting some more trash on yourself.”
Parker’s knees went hollow under him. He wheeled around and cried, “Look at it! Don’t just say that! Look at it!”
“I done looked,” she said.
“Don’t you know who it is?” he cried in anguish.
“No, who is it?” Sarah Ruth said. “It ain’t anybody I know.”
“It’s him,” Parker said.
“God!” Parker cried.
“God? God don’t look like that!”
“What do you know how he looks?” Parker moaned. “You ain’t seen him.”
“He don’t look ,” Sarah Ruth said. “He’s a spirit. No man shall see his face.”
“Aw listen,” Parker groaned, “this is just a picture of him.”
“Idolatry!” Sarah Ruth screamed. “Idolatry! Enflaming yourself with idols under every green tree! I can put up with lies and vanity but I don’t want no idolater in this house!” and she grabbed up the broom and began to thrash him across the shoulders with it.
Parker was too stunned to resist. He sat there and let her beat him until she had nearly knocked him senseless and large welts had formed on the face of the tattooed Christ. Then he staggered up and made for the door.
She stamped the broom two or three times on the floor and went to the window and shook it out to get the taint of him off it. Still gripping it, she looked toward the pecan tree and her eyes hardened still more. There he was – who called himself Obadiah Elihue – leaning against the tree, crying like a baby.