Parker’s Back – Intermediate Level
Parker’s wife was sitting on the front porch floor, breaking beans into small pieces for their evening meal. Parker was sitting on the step, some distance away, watching her sadly. She was plain, plain. The skin on her face was thin and pulled as tight as the skin on an onion. 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. What he couldn’t understand was why he stayed with her now. She was pregnant and pregnant women were not his favorite kind. But he did stay, as if she had him under a magic spell. He did not know why, and this made him feel bad about himself.
The house they rented sat alone except for one tall tree. It was built on a small hill and looked down over a highway which had been cut through hill. From time to time a car would shoot past below. His wife’s eyes would follow after the sound to make sure that it didn’t stop, before coming back to look at the newspaper full of beans in her lap. One of the things she did not like was cars. In addition to her other bad qualities, she was forever finding bad qualities in others. She did not smoke, drink whiskey, use bad language or paint her face. And God knew that 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 thought 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, “There is no reason you can’t work for a man. It doesn’t have to be a woman.”
“Aw shut your mouth for a change,” Parker said quietly.
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 crime against God that would result if he and the woman took a liking to each other. He had told her that she was a big boned 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. She had set him at once to cutting bushes, saying to the colored man who worked for her, “Everything he touches, he breaks.” She also asked him to wear his shirt when he worked. Parker had taken it off, even though the day was not hot, and was unhappy about having to put it back on.
This ugly woman Parker married was his first wife. He had been with 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 kept yard on which sat an old two room house. He got out and opened the cover of the motor and began to study it. 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, he got that feeling.
He quickly looked around the empty yard and porch of the house. A woman he could not see was either behind some nearby bushes or in the house, watching him out the window.
Suddenly Parker began to jump up and down and throw his hand about as if he had got it caught in the motor. He doubled over and held his hand close to his chest. “God dammit!” he shouted, “Jesus Christ in hell! Jesus God damn! God dammit to hell!” he went on, shouting the same bad words over and over as loud as he could. Without warning something with many sharp points hit him hard on the side of his face and he fell backwards across the front of the truck. “You don’t talk no dirty words here!” a voice close to him screamed.
Parker could not see clearly so for a moment he thought he had been attacked by some giant creature sent by God who hit him with an ancient weapon. As his sight cleared, he saw before him a tall, very thin girl with a broom.
“I hurt my hand,” he said. “I HURT my hand.” He was so angry that he forgot that he hadn’t hurt his hand. “My hand may be broken,” he shouted although his voice was still shaking.
“Let me see it,” the girl demanded.
Parker stuck out his hand and she came closer and looked at it. There was no mark on the front of the hand and she took it and turned it over. Her own hand was dry and hot and rough and Parker felt himself bought quickly back to life by her touch. He looked more closely at her. I don’t want anything to do with this one, he thought. The girls’ sharp eyes looked closely at the back of the thick reddish hand she held. There drawn in red and blue was a tattooed eagle sitting on a cannon. Parker’s shirt sleeves were rolled up to the elbow. Above the eagle a snake was wrapped about a sword and in the spaces between the eagle and the snake there were hearts, some with arrows through them. Above the snake there were five playing cards. Every space on the skin of Parker’s arm, from hand to elbow, was covered in some bright design. The girl looked at this with a smile of shock, as if she had accidentally picked up a deadly snake and couldn’t think what to do with it. She dropped the hand.
“I got most of my other ones in foreign countries,” 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, then quickly closed and opened an eye to show that he was having some friendly fun with her.
Two circles of red appeared like apples on the girl’s cheeks and softened her appearance. Parker wanted to know more about her. 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 at a fair, tattooed from head to foot except for his private parts, which had an animal skin around them. Parker was near the back of the tent, standing on a long wooden seat. At that distance the man’s skin looked like it was painted with a single detailed design of brilliant color. The man, who was small and strong looking, moved about on the stage bending his arms up and down to show off his muscles. This caused the pattern of men and bears and flowers on his skin to appear as if it moved on its own. Parker was filled with emotion, lifted up as some people are when the flag passes in a parade. He was a boy whose mouth seemed always to be hanging open. He was heavy and serious, as ordinary as a loaf of bread. When the show was over, he had remained standing on the seat, looking at 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 strange feeling that something was wrong in his life settled in him. It was as if a blind boy had been turned so gently in a different direction that he did not know he was going another way.
He had his first tattoo some time after – the eagle sitting 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 strange too, for before he had thought that only what did not hurt was worth doing. The next year he left school because he was sixteen and could. He went to the trade school for a while, then he left 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 washed clothes for people and could take care of him. However, she would not pay for tattoos except for one with her name on a heart. He had this put on and, although he complained about it, wasn’t really worried. 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 cried over what was becoming of him. One night she took him to a big religious meeting with her. She did not tell him where they were going. When he saw the big lighted church, he pulled away from her and ran.
The next day he lied about his age and joined the navy. Parker was large for the tight sailor’s pants. However, the silly white cap, sitting low near his eyes, made his weak face look thoughtful and almost serious. After a month or two in the navy, his mouth stopped hanging 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 ship. The only thing out place were his eyes, which were the same light green color as the ocean. They reflected the great spaces around him as if they were a tiny model of the mysterious sea. When his ship was in port, Parker usually walked around town comparing the places he was in to Birmingham, Alabama. Everywhere he went he picked up more tattoos.
He had stopped having lifeless ones like the playing cards and guns. He had a tiger and a panther on each shoulder, another snake wrapped about a torch on his chest, and hunting birds on his upper legs. The Queen of England was over his stomach, with her husband to the right of her. He also had some rude things in the area below his stomach, because that seemed the proper place for them. He did not care much what the subject was so long as it was colorful. Parker would be satisfied with each tattoo about a month. Then something about it that had attracted him would wear off. Whenever a good sized mirror was available, he would get in front of it and study his overall look. The effect was not like that of the tattooed man at the fair. To him it looked unplanned and badly done, and a huge unhappiness would come over him. Then he would go off and find another tattoo artist to have another space filled up. The front of Parker was almost completely covered but there were no tattoos on his back. He had no wish for one anywhere he could not easily see it himself. As the space on the front of him for tattoos got smaller, his unhappiness grew and became general.
After one of his periods in port, he didn’t go back to the ship. He remained away from the navy without official leave, drunk, in a cheap hotel in a city he did not know. His unhappiness, from being always there but hidden, had suddenly become serious. It burned inside him. It was as if the panther and the lion and the snakes and the eagles and other animals had gone through his skin and lived inside him in a wild war. The navy caught up with him and put him in prison for nine months. Then they sent him home with no benefits and a mark on his record that meant that he would never be able to get a good job anywhere.
After that Parker decided that country air was the only kind fit to breathe. He rented the small house beside the highway and bought the old truck. He 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 bag and selling them for the same price by the basket to farmers who lived a long way out of town 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 nothing but vanity.” She seemed to have found the words she wanted. “vanity of all vanities,” she said.
“Well what the hell do I care what she thinks of it?” Parker asked himself, unable to understand his feelings. He was silent for a moment, trying to think of something to say that might make them look better in her eyes. “I reckon you like one of these more than the others anyway,” he said, and pushed the arm back in front of her. “Which do you like best?”
“None of them,” she said, “but the chicken is not as bad as the rest.”
“What chicken?” Parker almost shouted.
She pointed to the eagle.
“That’s an eagle,” Parker said. “What fool would waste their time having a chicken put on himself?”
“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 go back home. Parker remained for almost five minutes, looking in amazement at the dark door she had just entered.
The next day he returned with a basket of apples. He was not one to let anything that looked like her get the better of him. 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. It was fortunate he had brought the basket 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 show that she knew he was there. He might have been a lost animal that had happened to come into the yard and she too tired to take up the broom and send it off. He set the basket of apples down next to her on the step. He sat down on a lower step. “Help yourself,” he said, pointing to the basket. Then he fell into silence.
She took an apple quickly as if the basket might disappear if she didn’t move fast. Hungry people made Parker nervous. He had always had enough 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 basket of apples on the crowd of children. He supposed they were her brothers and sisters.
She ate the apple slowly as if she was thinking of nothing else, bent slightly but looking out ahead. The view from the porch stretched off across a long treeless field covered in wild grasses. Across the highway he could see far off 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, like the navy or the government or religion.
“Who do those 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 woman with a wide face, several teeth missing and no shoes on appeared in the door behind Parker. He thought she must have been standing there for several minutes.
“Good evening,” Parker said.
The woman crossed the porch and picked up what was left of the basket of apples. “We thank you,” she said and returned with it into the house.
“That your old woman?” Parker asked in a low voice.
“Yes,” she said. Parker knew a lot of clever things he could have said like “I feel sorry for you,” but he was silent. He just sat there, looking at the view. He thought he must be coming down with an illness.
“If I pick up some peaches tomorrow I’ll bring you some,” he said.
“That would be very nice,” the girl said.
Parker was not really planning to take a 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 tattoos on my back.”
“What you got on it?” the girl said.
“My shirt,” Parker said. “Ha!”
“Ha, ha,” 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 melons. “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. Nobody calls me by my name.”
“What’s it stand for?” she continued.
“Never mind,” Parker said. “What’s yours?”
“I’ll tell you when you tell me what them letters are the short for,” she said. There was a suggestion of flirting in the way she said it and it quickly went to Parker’s head. He had never given the name to any man or woman. It was only to be found on the files of the navy and the government, and the paper he got when his mother took him to church to get named. When someone gave out the name from the navy files, Parker narrowly missed killing the man who used it.
“You’ll go telling people,” he said.
“I promise I’ll never tell nobody,” she said. “On God’s holy word I promise 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 spoke the name in a low voice.
“Obadiah,” she said softly. Her face slowly brightened as if the name came as a sign to her. “Obadiah,” she said.
The name was still terrible in Parker’s opinion.
“Obadiah Elihue,” she said in a respectful voice.
“If you call me that out loud, I’ll break 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 Church Minister, but he was away spreading the word about God in Florida. Her mother did not seem to mind Parker’s 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 really liked him. She liked him even though she kept saying that pictures on the skin were the vanity of all vanities and even after hearing him use all kinds of bad words. She continued to like him even after she had asked him if he was saved and he had replied that he didn’t see there was anything in particular to save him from. As he said this Parker had an idea and added, “I’d be saved enough if you was to kiss me.”
She gave him an angry look. “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 pushed 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 Court office because Sarah Ruth believed people in churches worshiped idols. Parker had no opinion about that one way or the other. The Court’s office was lined with boxes of files and record books with dusty yellow pieces of paper hanging out of them. The officer was an old woman with red hair who had worked there for forty years and looked as dusty as her books. She married them from behind iron security bars as they stood in front of her tall desk. When she finished, she said in an official voice “Three dollars and fifty cents and till death do you part!” and pulled some forms out of a machine.
Marriage did not change Sarah Ruth in any way and this made Parker feel worse about his life 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. This seemed to Parker a good way to make a fool 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 special 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 big boned girl I work for will like me so much she’ll say, ‘Come on, Mr. Parker, let’s you and me…'”
“You’re thinking bad things,” 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 stories about the big boned girl he worked for. “‘Mr. Parker,'” he said she said, ‘I gave you this job 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 picture book!'” This had, in fact, been her remark but it had been delivered as a joke.
Unhappiness 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 strange idea began to work in his mind. He imagined having a tattoo put there that Sarah Ruth could not help but love – a religious subject. He thought of an open book with HOLY BIBLE written under it and some actual words from the Bible 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 words 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 weight – 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 easily upset. This caused him to develop a muscle movement in the side of his face that he could not control.
Once or twice he found himself turning around quickly to see if someone was following him. He had had a grandfather who had ended in the state mental hospital, although not until he was seventy-five. As urgent as it might be for him to get a tattoo, it was just as urgent that get exactly the right one to get Sarah Ruth to respect him. As he continued to worry over it, his eyes took on the empty look of someone deep in thought. 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 deep in thought for even this to make him angry. At any other time, he would have left her then and there, shouting, “Well, you go ahead on and get him then.”
Two or three mornings later he was picking up hay with the old woman’s sorry hay making machine and her broken down tractor in a large field. The field was cleared but for one huge 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. Sometimes the string that went around the hay got caught up inside the machine and he had to fix it. At other times he had to 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 change 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 catch him. A wild crash threw him into the air, and he heard himself calling out in an unbelievably loud voice, “GOD ABOVE!”
He landed on his back while the tractor crashed upside down into the tree and started to burn. 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 pushed himself backwards, still sitting, his eyes open wide, 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 bending run from which he fell to his knees twice. His legs felt like they had no strength, but he reached the truck finally and took off in it. He was in shock, and the car moved from side to side as he went up the road. He drove past his house on the hill 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 giant step forward into a worse unknown, and that there was nothing he could do about it. It was as good as done.
The tattoo artist had two large rooms over a foot doctor’s office on a back street. They were full of objects of all kinds that seemed to fill every bit of space available. Parker, still without shoes, came silently into the first room a little after three in the afternoon. The artist, who was about Parker’s own age, twenty-eight – but thin and with no hair, was behind a small drawing table, copying a design in green ink. He looked up quickly and seemed annoyed. He did not seem to recognize Parker in the empty 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 angrily. “I don’t put tattoos on people who are drunk,” he said.
“You know me!” Parker cried angrily. “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 really sure. “You’ve lost some weight,” he said. “You must have been in jail.”
“Married,” Parker said.
“Oh,” said the artist. With the help of mirrors the artist had tattooed a tiny owl on the top of his own head. It was about the size of a half-dollar and perfect in every detail. He used it to show people how good his work was. There were cheaper artists in town but Parker had never wanted anything but the best. The artist went over to a cupboard at the back of the room and began to look over some art books. “Who are you interested in?” he said.
“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 newest 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 newest pictures were. Some of them he recognized, but he kept turning quickly backwards and the pictures became less and less comforting. One showed a thin green dead face with blood on it. One was yellow with sad looking purple eyes. Parker’s heart began to beat faster and faster until it felt like having a great engine inside him. He turned the pages quickly, sure that when he reached the one that was meant for him, a sign would come. He continued to turn the pages until he had almost reached the front of the book. On one of the pages a pair of eyes looked at him quickly. 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 head of a flat serious looking Jesus with a circle of light behind it and eyes that demanded all. He sat there shaking. His heart began slowly to beat again as if it were being brought to life by a power he could not see or understand.
“You found what you want?” the artist asked.
Parker’s throat was too dry to speak. He got up and gave the book to the artist, opened at the picture.
“That’ll cost you a lot,” the artist said. “You don’t want all the detail though, just the shape and some main features.”
“Just like it is,” Parker said, “just like it is or nothing.”
“It’s your decision,” 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 copy that out of the book.”
“No no!” Parker said. “Copy it now or give me my money back,” and his eyes shone as if he were ready for a fight.
The artist agreed. Anyone stupid enough to want a Jesus on his back, he reasoned, could change his mind the next minute, but once the work was begun he could hardly do so.
While he worked on the copy, he told Parker to go wash his back at the sink with the soap he kept there. Parker did it and returned to walk around the room, nervously bending his shoulders backwards and forwards. 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 rubbed his back with a special liquid to reduce the pain and then began to draw the head on it with his tattoo 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 bone needles. In Burma, a short little brown man had made a beautiful bird on each of his knees using thin pointed sticks, two feet long. People who had never had training had worked on him with pins and black powder from his fireplace. Parker was usually so relaxed and easy under the hand of the artist that he often went to sleep. This time, every muscle was tight and he could not sleep.
At midnight the artist said he was finished for the day. He put one mirror, four feet square, on a table by the wall and took a smaller mirror off the toilet 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 the bright colors reflected from his back. It was almost completely covered with little red and blue and cream and orange-yellow squares. From them he made out the features of the face – a mouth, thick hair above the eyes, a straight nose. But the face was empty. The eyes had not yet been put in. His first thought was that the artist had tricked him and done the wrong picture.
“It doesn’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 at a place for homeless men run by a Christian Church. 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 bed. Because he was still without shoes, he accepted a used pair which someone had given to the church. He was still shocked from all that had happened to him, and was not thinking properly. He put these on to go to bed. All night he lay unable to sleep in the long row of beds with the shapes of men on them. The only light was from a cross shining at the end of the room. The tree reached out to catch him again, then caught fire. The shoe burned quietly by itself. The eyes in the book said to him clearly GO BACK and at the same time did not make a sound. He wished that he were not in this city, not in this room, not in a bed by himself. He wanted to be with Sarah Ruth. Her sharp tongue and sharp eyes were the only comfort he could think of. He decided he was losing his mind. Her eyes appeared soft and wide compared with the eyes in the book. Even though he could not picture the exact look of those eyes, he could still feel how they could see through people. He felt as though they could see through him as easily as the wing of a fly.
The tattoo artist had told him not to come until ten in the morning,. When he arrived at that hour, Parker was sitting in the dark on the floor outside his office, waiting. When he got up in the morning, Parker had decided that, once the tattoo was on him, he would not look at it. He thought that all of his strange feelings of the day and night before were those of a mad 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 as he started work over Parker’s back, “Why do you want this on you? Have you gone and got religion? Are you saved?” he asked in a joking voice.
Parker’s throat felt salty and dry. “No,” he said,”I ain’t got no use for none of that. A man who can’t save himself from whatever it is, isn’t worth worrying about.” These words seemed to leave his mouth like ghosts and to disappear at once as if he had never spoken them.
“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.”
“No,” Parker said, “she doesn’t know anything about it. It’s a surprise for her.”
“You think she’ll like it and lay off you a while?”
“She can’t help herself,” Parker said. “She can’t say she doesn’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 asking questions about the business of regular people. “I didn’t get any 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. Every now and then this would be broken into by a mental image of the tree of fire and his empty shoe burning under it.
The artist worked until nearly four o’clock, not stopping to have lunch. The only times he stopped the electric instrument were to wipe the dripping ink 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 an empty look. “What’s your problem?” the artist said. “Go and look at it.”
“Ain’t nothing wrong with me,” Parker said in a sudden unfriendly voice. “That tattoo ain’t going nowhere. It’ll be there when I get there.” He reached for his shirt and began to carefully put it on. The artist took him roughly by the arm and pulled him between the two mirrors. “Now look,” he said, angry that Parker did not want to look at his work.
Parker looked, turned white and moved away. The eyes in the face in the mirror continued to look at him – still, straight, demanding all, wrapped 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 after him, “I’ll expect all of my money!”
Parker headed toward a small shop on the corner. He bought a large bottle of whiskey and took it into an empty space between two buildings. He drank it all in five minutes. Then he moved on to a pool hall nearby which he often visited when he came to the city. It was a large, open, well-lighted place. It had a bar up one side, gambling machines on the other and pool tables in the back. As soon as Parker entered, a large man in a red and black shirt came over to him. He hit him on the back in a friendly way and called out, “Hey boy! O.E. Parker!”
Parker was not yet ready to be hit on the back. “Lay off,” he said, “I got a fresh tattoo there.”
“What you got this time?” the man asked and then called loudly to a few men at the machines, “O.E.’s got himself another tattoo.”
“Nothing special this time,” Parker said and went over to a machine that was not being used trying not to draw attention to himself.
“Come on,” the big man said, “let’s have a look at O.E.’s tattoo,” and while Parker tried to get away, they pulled up his shirt. Parker felt all the hands drop away and his shirt fell again, hiding the face.
There was a silence in the pool room. It seemed to Parker to grow from the circle around him until it extended down into the earth under the building and up through the roof to the sky above.
Finally some one said, “Christ!” Then they all broke into noise at once. Parker turned around, an uncertain smile on his face.
“Leave it to O.E.!” the man in the red and black shirt said. “That boy’s a funny one!”
“Maybe he’s gone and got religion,” someone shouted.
“Not on your life,” Parker said.
“O.E.’s got religion and wants everyone to know Jesus. Right, O.E.?” a little man said in a way that showed he was making fun of Parker. “An original way to do it if I ever saw one.”
“Leave it to Parker to think of a new one!” the fat man said, and they all began to laugh and joke about it until Parker said, “Oh shut up!”
“What did you do it for?” somebody asked.
“For fun,” Parker said. “What’s it to you?”
“Why aren’t you laughing then?” somebody called out loudly. Parker jumped into the middle of them and like a whirlwind on a summer’s day began a wild fight. It continued until two of them took him and ran to the door with him and threw him out.
Parker sat for a long time on the ground in the small street 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 still appeared to be necessary. He knew that he had to do whatever the eyes that were now forever on his back commanded. He was as certain of it as he had ever been of anything. Throughout his life, Parker had followed whatever feeling of this kind had come to him. Once in great happiness when his spirit had lifted at the sight of the tattooed man at the fair. Often afraid, specially when he had joined the navy. Often complaining to himself and sometimes using bad language, such as 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 whiskey and he observed that his unhappiness was gone. However, he did not feel quite like his old self. 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 hill, pulled the truck under the tall tree and got out. He made as much noise as possible to tell her 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 banged the car door, walked noisily up the two steps and across to the door and tried to push it open. It did not move. “Sarah Ruth!” he shouted, “let me in.”
There was no lock on the door, and he thought she must have placed the back of a chair against the handle. He began to beat on the door and shake the handle at the same time.
He heard the sound of her getting out of bed and bent down and put his head to the key hole, but it was filled up with paper. “Let me in!” he shouted, banging on the door again. “What you got me locked out for?”
An angry 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, banging 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.”
“Stop fooling,” Parker said. “You ain’t got any business treating 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. There were two or three lines of yellow floating above the horizon. Then, as he stood there, a tree of light suddenly appeared on the horizon.
Parker fell back against the door as if he had been pinned there by a spear.
“Who’s there?” the voice from inside said and there was a quality about it now that seemed final. The handle shook and the voice demanded, “Who’s there, I asked you?”
Parker bent down and put his mouth near the key hole. “Obadiah,” he said quietly and all at once he felt the light pouring through him, turning his spider web soul into a perfect pattern of colors, a garden of trees and birds and animals.
“Obadiah Elihue!” he said.
The door opened and he almost fell inside. Sarah Ruth stood there, hands on her hips. She began at once, “That was no big boned blonde woman you were working for and you’ll have to pay her every penny on her tractor you broke up. She doesn’t keep insurance on it. She came here and had a long talk and I…”
With shaking hands, Parker set about lighting the lamp.
“What’s the matter with you, wasting that lamp oil this near daylight?” she demanded. “I ain’t got to look at you.”
The yellow light was all around them. Parker put the match down and began to unbutton his shirt.
“And you ain’t 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 said angrily. “I might have known you was off after putting some more rubbish on yourself.”
Parker’s knees felt weak under him. He quickly turned around and cried, “Look at it! Don’t just say that! Look at it!”
“I did look,” she said.
“Don’t you know who it is?” he cried out in a hurt voice.
“No, who is it?” Sarah Ruth said. “It isn’t anybody I know.”
“It’s him,” Parker said.
“God!” Parker said loudly.
“God? God doesn’t look like that!”
“What do you know how he looks?” Parker cried. “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 said sadly, “this is just a picture of him.”
“Idol worshiper!” Sarah Ruth screamed. “Idol worshiper! Worshiping idols wherever you find them! I can put up with lies and vanity but I don’t want no idol worshiper in this house!” and she picked up the broom and began to beat him across the shoulders with it.
Parker was too surprised to do anything. He sat there and let her beat him until she had nearly knocked him senseless and large raised marks had formed on the face of the tattooed Christ. Then he stood up and walked weakly for the door.
She hit the broom two or three times on the floor and went to the window and shook it out to get the dirt and smell of him off it. Still holding it tightly, she looked toward the tall tree in the yard and her eyes hardened still more. There he was – who called himself Obadiah Elihue – leaning against it, crying like a baby.