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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 the 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 st.u.r.dy, moved about on the platform, flexing his muscles so that the arabesque of men and beasts 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 pa.s.ses. 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 motion 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 n.o.body 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 grey mechanical ship, except for his eyes, which were the same pale slate-color as the ocean and reflected the immense s.p.a.ces around him as if they were a microcosm of the mysterious sea. In port Parker wandered about comparing the rundown places he was in to Birmingham, Alabama.Everywhere he went he picked up more tattoos.
He had stopped having lifeless ones like 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 s.p.a.ce 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 s.p.a.ce 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 h.e.l.l 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 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 didn'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 Sat.u.r.day. 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 out 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 s.p.a.ce 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 G.o.d'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 cantaloups. "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 n.o.body 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'Il swear I'll never tell n.o.body," she said. "On G.o.d'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 tum her back as well.Except in total darkness, she preferred Parker dressed and with his sleeves rolled down.
"At the judgement seat of G.o.d, 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 sh.e.l.l say, 'Come on, Mr. Parker, let's you and me...'"
"You're tempting sin," she said, "and at the judgement seat of G.o.d 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 judgement seat of G.o.d 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 resista 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 he get exactly the right one to bring Sarah Ruth to heel. As he continued to worry over it, his eyes took on a hollow preoccupied 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, "G.o.d ABOVE!"
He landed on his back while the tractor crashed upsidedown 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; halfway 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 holloweyed creature before him.
"Let me see the book you got with all the pictures of G.o.d 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?"
"G.o.d," Parker said.
"Father, Son or Spirit?"
"Just G.o.d," Parker said impatiently. "Christ. I don't care. Just so it's G.o.d."
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-to-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 rea.s.suring.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 too 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 stem 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 pa.s.sed before he took up his electric instrument. Parker felt no particular pain. In j.a.pan 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 peac.o.c.k 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 put 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."