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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 phosph.o.r.escent 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 judgement.
The 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.
"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 layoff you a while?"
"She can't hep herself," Parker said. "She can't say she don't like the looks of G.o.d." 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."
"Ain't 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 gingerly to 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 barnlike 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, "Yeyyyyyyboyl 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," some one 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 original way to do it if I ever saw one:'
"Leave it to Parker to think of a new one!" the fat man said.
"Yyeeeeeeyyyyyyyboy!" 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 where 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 a.s.sert that he was still in charge here, that his leaving her for a night without 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 k.n.o.b. 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 k.n.o.b. He began to beat on the door and rattle the k.n.o.b 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 inl" 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 knowno O. E."
"Quit fooling," Parker pleaded. "You ain't 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 k.n.o.b 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 Elihuel" 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 keresene 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 unb.u.t.ton 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 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 itl"
"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.
"G.o.d!" Parker cried.
"G.o.d? G.o.d don't look like that!"
'What do you know how he looks?" Parker moaned."You ain't seen him."
"He don't look 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 idolator 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.
Judgement Day (1965)
TANNER was conserving all his strength for the trip home. He meant to walk as far as he could get and trust to the Almighty to get him the rest of the way. That morning and the morning before, he had allowed his daughter to dress him and had conserved that much more energy. Now he sat in the chair by the window his blue shirt b.u.t.toned at the collar, his coat on the back of the chair, and his hat on his head-waiting for her to leave. He couldn't escape until she got out of the way. The window looked out on a brick wall and down into an alley full of New York air, the kind fit for cats and garbage. A few snow flakes drifted past the window but they were too thin and scattered for his failing vision.
The daughter was in the kitchen washing dishes. She dawdled over everything, talking to herself. When he had first come, he had answered her, but that had not been wanted. She glowered at him as if, old fool that he was, he should still have had sense enough not to answer a woman talking to herself. She questioned herself in one voice and answered herself in another. With the energy he had conserved yesterday letting her dress him, he had written a note and pinned it in his pocket. IF FOUND DEAD SHIP EXPRESS COLLECT TO COLEMAN PARRUM, CORINTH, GEORGIA. Under this he had continued: COLEMAN SELL MY BELONGINGS AND PAY THE FREIGHT ON ME & THE UNDERTAKER. ANYTHING LEFT OVER YOU CAN KEEP. YOURS TRULY T. C. TANNER.P. S. STAY WHERE YOU ARE. DON'T LET THEM TALK YOU INTO COMING UP HERE. ITS NO KIND OF PLACE.It had taken him the better part of thirty minutes to write the paper; the script was wavery but decipherable with patience. He controlled one hand by holding the other on top of it. By the time he had got it written, she was back in the apartment from getting her groceries.
Today he was ready. All he had to do was push one foot in front of the other until he got to the door and down the steps. Once down the steps, he would get out of the neighborhood. Once out of it, he would hail a taxi cab and go to the freight yards. Some b.u.m would help him onto a car. Once he got in the freight car, he would lie down and rest. During the night the train would start South, and the next day or the morning after, dead or alive, he would be home. Dead or alive. It was being there that mattered; the dead or alive did not.
He had had good sense he would have gone the day after he arrived; better sense and he would not have arrived. He had not got desperate until two days ago when he had heard his daughter and son-in-law taking leave of each other after breakfast. They were standing in the front door, she seeing him off for a three-day trip.He drove a long distance moving van. She must have handed him his leather headgear. "You ought to get you a hat," she said, "a real one."
"And sit all day in it," the son-in-law said, "like him in there.Yah! All he does is sit all day with that hat on. Sits all day with that d.a.m.n black hat on his head. Inside!"
"Well you don't even have you a hat," she said. "Nothing but that leather cap with flaps. People that are somebody wear hats.Other kinds wear those leather caps like you got on."
"People that are somebody!" he cried. "People that arc somebody!That kills me! That really kills me!" The son-in-law had a stupid muscular face and a yankee voice to go with it.
"My daddy is here to stay," his daughter said. "He ain't going to last long. He was somebody when he was somebody. He never worked for n.o.body in his life but himself and had people-other people-working for him."
"Yah? n.i.g.g.e.rs is what he had working for him," the son-in-law said. "That's all. I've worked a n.i.g.g.e.r or two myself."
"Those were just nawthun n.i.g.g.e.rs you worked," she said, her voice suddenly going lower so that Tanner had to lean forward to catch the words. "It takes brains to work a real n.i.g.g.e.r. You got to know how to handle them."
"Yah so I don't have brains," the son-in-law said.
One of the sudden, very occasional, feelings of warmth for the daughter came over Tanner. Every now and then she said something that might make you think she had a little sense stored away somewhere for safe keeping.
"You got them," she said. "You don't always use them."
"He has a stroke when he sees a n.i.g.g.e.r in the building," the son-in-law said, "and she tells me,,,"
"Shut up talking so loud," she said. "That's not why he had the stroke."
There was a silence. "Where you going to bury him?" the son-in- law asked, taking a different tack.
"Him in there."
"Right here in New York," she said. "Where do you think? We got a lot. I'm not taking that trip down there again with n.o.body."
"Yah. Well I just wanted to make sure," he said.
When she returned to the room, Tanner had both hands gripped on the chair arms. His eyes were trained on her like the eyes of an angry corpse. "You promised you'd bury me there," he said."Your promise ain't any good. Your promise ain't any good. Your promise ain't any good." His voice was so dry it was barely audible.He began to shake, his hands, his head, his feet, "Bury me here and burn in h.e.l.l!" he cried and fell back into his chair.
The daughter shuddered to attention. "You ain't dead yet!" She threw out a ponderous sigh. "You got a long time to be worrying about that." She turned and began to pick up parts of the newspaper scattered on the floor. She had gray hair that hung to her shoulders and a round face, beginning to wear. "I do every last living thing for you," she muttered, "and this is the way you carryon." She stuck the papers under her arm and said, "And don't throw h.e.l.l at me. I don't believe in it. That's a lot of hardsh.e.l.l Baptist hooey."Then she went into the kitchen.
He kept his mouth stretched taut, his top plate gripped between his tongue and the roof of his mouth. Still the tears flooded down his cheeks; he wiped each one furtively on his shoulder.