Flannery O’Connor Update: Everything That Rises Must Converge (1963)
Flannery O’Connor (March 25, 1925 – August 3, 1964)
“The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.” – Flannery O’Connor
Parker’s Back (1965)
Humans tattooing their bodies in grotesque fashion is an ancient practice. The Bible forbids body marking in Leviticus 19:28, calling it a sin against the Lord. Once exclusive to sailors and freak shows, today white suburbanites tattoo their arms, throats and legs like ancient pagans. In Flannery O’Connor’s Parker’s Back, O.E. Parker is an American pagan wandering the South. Marked by a sea of tattoos, he evades God and mocks religious nonsense. He’s spent his life avoiding the navy, the government and religion.
Born a poor Southern white, Parker’s tattoos are his only luxury. His entire front body is covered in a mosaic of animals and wild designs. Even Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip are etched above his liver. As a child, he’d seen a tattooed man at the circus. The chance encounter shaped his impoverished destiny. Later he joined the Navy. Unlike the lost souls of today, Parker had reason to poison his skin with indelible ink.
Yet Parker refused to tattoo his back; he’d require two mirrors to see his port side which seemed foolish. He’d stare at his tattoos in the mirror, admiring the menagerie of shapes and colors. Parker came from poor stock. He lived in a shack and drove an old truck. Tattoos were all he had and all he’d ever have. But like most men, rich or poor, a woman caused most of his grief.
O’Connor describes Sarah Ruth as “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.” Sarah Ruth is fanatically religious and even offended by actual church buildings. Such vanity is sinful and worthy of hellfire. She’s revolted by Parker’s tattoos, demanding he cover himself in her presence. Parker is repulsed by Sarah Ruth both mentally and physically. But he can’t stay away. Sarah Ruth sits on her front porch and Parker courts her with her food. She and her family are hungry. As Parker puts it, hungry people “made him nervous.”
Today Americans gorge on America’s bounty. Grocery stores are stocked with every meat, every vegetable, every sugary sweet. Once hunger afflicted huge segments of the population. Flannery O’Connor lived in 1950′s America. This wasn’t the Depression Era. Hungry whites littered America’s cities and countryside well into modern times. Many blacks almost starved to death.
O’Connor wrote Parker’s Back from her hospital bed where she lie dying. It’s one of her last short stories. Lupus ravaged her body as it had done her father. She died at age 39 and America lost its master of the poor man’s soul.
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
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 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 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
“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
“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
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.
The Artificial Nigger (1955)
Mr. Head awakened to discover that the room was full of moonlight. He
sat up and stared at the floor boards the color of silver and then at the ticking on
his pillow, which might have been brocade, and after a second, he saw half of the
moon five feet away in his shaving mirror, paused as if it were waiting for his
permission to enter. It rolled forward and cast a dignifying light on everything. The
straight chair against the wall looked stiff and attentive as if it were awaiting an
order and Mr. Head’s trousers, hanging to the back of it, had an almost noble air,
like the garment some great man had just flung to his servant; but the face on the
moon was a grave one. It gazed across the room and out the window where it
floated over the horse stall and appeared to contemplate itself with the look of a
young man who sees his old age before him.
Mr. Head could have said to it that age was a choice blessing and that only
with years does a man enter into that calm understanding of life that makes him a
suitable guide for the young. This, at least, had been his own experience.
He sat up and grasped the iron posts at the foot of his bed and raised himself
until he could see the face on the alarm clock which sat on an overturned bucket
beside the chair. The hour was two in the morning. The alarm on the clock did not
work but he was not dependent on any mechanical means to awaken him. Sixty
years had not dulled his responses; his physical reactions, like his moral ones, were
guided by his will and strong character, and these could be seen plainly in his
features. He had a long tube- like face with a long rounded open jaw and a long
depressed nose. His eyes were alert but quiet, and in the miraculous moonlight they
had a look of composure and of ancient wisdom as if they belonged to one of the
great guides of men. He might have been Vergil summoned in the middle of the
night to go to Dante or better, Raphael, awakened by a blast of God’s light to fly to
the side of Tobias. The only dark spot in the room was Nelson’s pallet, underneath
the shadow of the window.
Nelson was hunched over on his side, his knees under his chin and his heels
under his bottom. His new suit and hat were in the boxes that they had been sent in
and these were on the floor at the foot of the pallet where he could get his hands on
them as soon as he woke up. The step jar, out of the shadow and made snow-white
in the moonlight, appeared to stand guard over him like a small personal angel. Mr.
Head lay back down, feeling entirely confident that he could carry out the moral
mission of the coming day. He meant to be up before Nelson and to have the
breakfast cooking by the time he awakened. The boy was always irked when Mr.
Head was the first up. They would have to leave the house at four to get to the
railroad junction by five-thirty. The train was to stop for them at five forty-five and
they had to be there on time for this train was stopping merely to accommodate
This would be the boy’s first trip to the city though he claimed it would be his
second because he had been born there. Mr. Head had tried to point out to him that
when he was born he didn’t have the intelligence to determine his whereabouts but
this had made no impression on the child at all and he continued to insist that this
was to be his second trip. It would be Mr. Head’s third trip. Nelson had said, “I
will’ve already been there twict and I ain’t but ten.”
Mr. Head had contradicted him.
“If you ain’t been there in fifteen years, how you know you’ll be able to find
your way about?” Nelson had asked. “How you know it hasn’t changed some?”
“Have you ever,” Mr. Head had asked, “seen me lost?”
Nelson certainly had not but he was a child who was never satisfied until he
had given an impudent answer and he replied, “It’s nowhere around here to get lost
“The day is going to come,” Mr. Head prophesied, “when you’ll find you ain’t as
smart as you think you are.” He had been thinking about this trip for several months
but it was for the most part in moral terms that he conceived it. It was to be a lesson
that the boy would never forget. He was to find out from it that he had no cause for
pride merely because he had been born in a city. He was to find out that the city is
not a great place. Mr. Head meant him to see everything there is to see in a city so
that he would be content to stay at home for the rest of his life. He fell asleep
thinking how the boy would at last find out that he was not as smart as he thought he
He was awakened at three-thirty by the smell of fatback frying and he leaped
off his cot. The pallet was empty and the clothes boxes had been thrown open. He
put on his trousers and ran into the other room. The boy had a corn pone on cooking
and had fried the meat. He was sitting in the half-dark at the table, drinking cold
coffee out of a can. He had on his new suit and his new gray hat pulled low over his
eyes. It was too big for him but they had ordered it a size large because they
expected his head to grow. He didn’t say anything but his entire figure suggested
satisfaction at having arisen before Mr. Head.
Mr. Head went to the stove and brought the meat to the table in the skillet.
“It’s no hurry,” he said. “You’ll get there soon enough and it’s no guarantee you’ll
like it when you do neither,” and he sat down across from the boy whose hat
teetered back slowly to reveal a fiercely expressionless face, very much the same
shape as the old man’s. They were grandfather and grandson but they looked enough
alike to be brothers and brothers not too far apart in age, for Mr. Head had a
youthful expression by daylight, while the boy’s look was ancient, as if he knew
everything already and would be pleased to forget it.
Mr. Head had once had a wife and daughter and when the wife died, the
daughter ran away and returned after an interval with Nelson. Then one morning,
without getting out of bed, she died and left Mr. Head with sole care of the year-old
child. He had made the mistake of telling Nelson that he had been born in Atlanta. If
he hadn’t told him that, Nelson couldn’t have insisted that this was going to be his
“You may not like it a bit,” Mr. Head continued. “It’ll be full of niggers.”
The boy made a face as if he could handle a nigger.
“All right,” Mr. Head said. “You ain’t ever seen a nigger.”
“You wasn’t up very early,” Nelson said.
“You ain’t ever seen a nigger,” Mr. Head repeated. “There hasn’t been a
nigger in this county since we run that one out twelve years ago and that was before
you were born.” He looked at the boy as if he were daring him to say he had ever
seen a Negro.
“How you know I never saw a nigger when I lived there before?” Nelson
asked. “I probably saw a lot of niggers.”
“If you seen one you didn’t know what he was,” Mr. Head said, completely
exasperated. “A six-month-old child don’t know a nigger from anybody else.”
“I reckon I’ll know a nigger if I see one,” the boy said and got up and
straightened his slick sharply creased gray hat and went outside to the privy.
They reached the junction some time before the train was due to arrive and
stood about two feet from the first set of tracks. Mr. Head carried a paper sack with
some biscuits and a can of sardines in it for their lunch. A coarse-looking
orange-colored sun coming up behind the east range of mountains was making the
sky a dull red behind them, but in front of them it was still gray and they faced a
gray transparent moon, hardly stronger than a thumbprint and completely without
light. A small tin switch box and a black fuel tank were all there was to mark the
place as a junction; the tracks were double and did not converge again until they
were hidden behind the bends at either end of the clearing. Trains passing appeared
to emerge from a tunnel of trees and, hit for a second by the cold sky, vanish
terrified into the woods again. Mr. Head had had to make special arrangements with
the ticket agent to have this train stop and he was secretly afraid it would not, in
which case, he knew Nelson would say, “I never thought no train was going to stop
for you.” Under the useless morning moon the tracks looked white and fragile. Both
the old man and the child stared ahead as if they were awaiting an apparition.
Then suddenly, before Mr. Head could make up his mind to turn back, there
was a deep warning bleat and the train appeared, gliding very slowly, almost silently
around the bend of trees about two hundred yards down the track, with one yellow
front light shining. Mr. Head was still not certain it would stop and he felt it would
make an even bigger idiot of him if it went by slowly. Both he and Nelson, however,
were prepared to ignore the train if it passed them.
The engine charged by, filling their noses with the smell of hot metal and then
the second coach came to a stop exactly where they were standing. A conductor
with the face of an ancient bloated bulldog was on the step as if he expected them,
though he did not look as if it mattered one way or the other to him if they got on or
not. “To the right,” he said.
Their entry took only a fraction of a second and the train was already
speeding on as they entered the quiet car. Most of the travelers were still sleeping,
some with their heads hanging off the chair arms, some stretched across two seats,
and some sprawled out with their feet in the aisle. Mr. Head saw two unoccupied
seats and pushed Nelson toward them. “Get in there by the winder,” he said in his
normal voice which was very loud at this hour of the morning. “Nobody cares if you
sit there because it’s nobody in it. Sit right there.”
“I heard you,” the boy muttered. “It’s no use in you yelling,” and he sat down
and turned his head to the glass. There he saw a pale ghost-like face scowling at him
beneath the brim of a pale ghost-like hat. His grandfather, looking quickly too, saw
a different ghost, pale but grinning, under a black hat.
Mr. Head sat down and settled himself and took out his ticket and started
reading aloud everything that was printed on it. People began to stir. Several woke
up and stared at him. “Take off your hat,” he said to Nelson and took off his own
and put it on his knee. He had a small amount of white hair that had turned tobacco
colored over the years and this lay flat across the back of his head. The front of his
head was bald and creased. Nelson took off his hat and put it on his knee and they
waited for the conductor to come ask for their tickets.
The man across the aisle from them was spread out over two seats, his feet
propped on the window and his head jutting into the aisle. He had on a light blue
suit and a yellow shirt unbuttoned at the neck. His eyes had just opened and Mr.
Head was ready to introduce himself when the conductor came up from behind and
When the conductor had gone, Mr. Head gave Nelson the return half of his
ticket and said, “Now put that in your pocket and don’t lose it or you’ll have to stay
in the city.”
“Maybe I will,” Nelson said as if this were a reasonable suggestion.
Mr. Head ignored him. “First time this boy has ever been on a train,” he
explained to the man across the aisle, who was sitting up now on the edge of his
seat with both feet on the floor.
Nelson jerked his hat on again and turned angrily to the window.
“He’s never seen anything before,” Mr. Head continued. “Ignorant as the day
he was born, but I mean for him to get his fill once and for all.”
The boy leaned forward, across his grandfather and toward the stranger. “l
was born in the city,” he said. “l was born there. This is my second trip.” He said it
in a high positive voice but the man across the aisle didn’t look as if he understood.
There were heavy purple circles under his eyes.
Mr. Head reached across the aisle and tapped him on the arm. “The thing to
do with a boy,” he said sagely, “is to show him all it is to show. Don’t hold nothing
“Yeah,” the man said. He gazed down at his swollen feet and lifted the left
one about ten inches from the floor. After a minute he put it down and lifted the
other. All through the car people began to get up and move about and yawn and
stretch. Separate voices could be heard here and there and then a general hum.
Suddenly Mr. Head’s serene expression changed. His mouth almost closed and a
light, fierce and cautious both, came into his eyes. He was looking down the length
of the car. Without turning, he caught Nelson by the arm and pulled him forward.
“Look,” he said.
A huge coffee-colored man was coming slowly forward. He had on a light
suit and a yellow satin tie with a ruby pin in it. One of his hands rested on his
stomach which rode majestically under his buttoned coat, and in the other he held
the head of a black walking stick that he picked up and set down with a deliberate
outward motion each time he took a step. He was proceeding very slowly, his large
brown eyes gazing over the heads of the passengers. He had a small white mustache
and white crinkly hair. Behind him there were two young women, both coffee-
colored, one in a yellow dress and one in a green. Their progress was kept at the
rate of his and they chatted in low throaty voices as they followed him.
Mr. Head’s grip was tightening insistently on Nelson’s arm. As the procession
passed them, the light from a sapphire ring on the brown hand that picked up the
cane reflected in Mr. Head’s eye, but he did not look up nor did the tremendous man
look at him. The group proceeded up the rest of the aisle and out of the car. Mr.
Head’s grip on Nelson’s arm loosened. “What was that?” he asked.
“A man,” the boy said and gave him an indignant look as if he were tired of
having his intelligence insulted.
“What kind of a man?” Mr. Head persisted, his voice expressionless.
“A fat man,” Nelson said. He was beginning to feel that he had better be
“You don’t know what kind ?” Mr. Head said in a final tone.
“An old man,” the boy said and had a sudden foreboding that he was not
going to enjoy the day.
“That was a nigger,” Mr. Head said and sat back.
Nelson jumped up on the seat and stood looking backward to the end of the
car but the Negro had gone.
“I’d of thought you’d know a nigger since you seen so many when you was in
the city on your first visit,” Mr. Head continued. “That’s his first nigger,” he said to
the man across the aisle.
The boy slid down into the seat. “You said they were black,” he said in an
angry voice. “You never said they were tan. How do you expect me to know
anything when you don’t tell me right?”
“You’re just ignorant is all,” Mr. Head said and he got up and moved over in
the vacant seat by the man across the aisle.
Nelson turned backward again and looked where the Negro had disappeared.
He felt that the Negro had deliberately walked down the aisle in order to make a
fool of him and he hated him with a fierce raw fresh hate; and also, he understood
now why his grandfather disliked them. He looked toward the window and the face
there seemed to suggest that he might be inadequate to the day’s exactions. He
wondered if he would even recognize the city when they came to it.
After he had told several stories, Mr. Head realized that the man he was
talking to was asleep and he got up and suggested to Nelson that they walk over the
train and see the parts of it. He particularly wanted the boy to see the toilet so they
went first to the men’s room and examined the plumbing. Mr. Head demonstrated
the ice-water cooler as if he had invented it and showed Nelson the bowl with the
single spigot where the travelers brushed their teeth. They went through several cars
and came to the diner.
This was the most elegant car in the train. It was painted a rich egg-yellow
and had a wine-colored carpet on the floor. There were wide windows over the
tables and great spaces of the rolling view were caught in miniature in the sides of
the coffee pots and in the glasses. Three very black Negroes in white suits and
aprons were running up and down the aisle, swinging trays and bowing and bending
over the travelers eating breakfast. One of them rushed up to Mr. Head and Nelson
and said, holding up two fingers, “Space for two!” but Mr. Head replied in a loud
voice, “We eaten before we left!”
The waiter wore large brown spectacles that increased the size of his eye
whites. “Stan’ aside then please,” he said with an airy wave of the arm as if he were
brushing aside flies.
Neither Nelson nor Mr. Head moved a fraction of an inch. “Look,” Mr. Head
The near corner of the diner, containing two tables, was set off from the rest
by a saffron-colored curtain. One table was set but empty but at the other, facing
them, his back to the drape, sat the tremendous Negro. He was speaking in a soft
voice to the two women while he buttered a muffin. He had a heavy sad face and his
neck bulged over his white collar on either side. “They rope them off,” Mr. Head
explained. Then he said, “Let’s go see the kitchen,” and they walked the length of
the diner but the black waiter was coming fast behind them.
“Passengers are not allowed in the kitchen!” he said in a haughty voice.
“Passengers are NOT allowed in the kitchen!”
Mr. Head stopped where he was and turned. “And there’s good reason for
that,” he shouted into the Negro’s chest, “because the cockroaches would run the
All the travelers laughed and Mr. Head and Nelson walked out, grinning. Mr.
Head was known at home for his quick wit and Nelson felt a sudden keen pride in
him. He realized the old man would be his only support in the strange place they
were approaching. He would be entirely alone in the world if he were ever lost from
his grandfather. A terrible excitement shook him and he wanted to take hold of Mr.
Head’s coat and hold on like a child.
As they went back to their seats they could see through the passing windows
that the countryside was becoming speckled with small houses and shacks and that a
highway ran alongside the train. Cars sped by on it, very small and fast. Nelson felt
that there was less breath in the air than there had been thirty minutes ago. The man
across the aisle had left and there was no one near for Mr. Head to hold a
conversation with so he looked out the window, through his own reflection, and
read aloud the names of the buildings they were passing. “The Dixie Chemical
Corp!” he announced. “Southern Maid Flour! Dixie Doors! Southern Belle Cotton
Products! Patty’s Peanut Butter! Southern Mammy Cane Syrup!”
“Hush up!” Nelson hissed.
All over the car people were beginning to get up and take their luggage off
the overhead racks. Women were putting on their coats and hats. The conductor
stuck his head in the car and snarled, ‘”Firstopppppmry,”,,, and Nelson lunged out of
his sitting position, trembling. Mr. Head pushed him down by the shoulder.
“Keep your seat,” he said in dignified tones. “The first stop is on the edge of
town. The second stop is at the main railroad station.” He had come by this
knowledge on his first trip when he had got off at the first stop and had had to pay a
man fifteen cents to take him into the heart of town. Nelson sat back down, very
pale. For the first time in his life, he understood that his grandfather was indis-
pensable to him.
The train stopped and let off a few passengers and glided on as if it had never
ceased moving. Outside, behind rows of brown rickety houses, a line of blue
buildings stood up, and beyond them a pale rose-gray sky faded away to nothing.
The train moved into the railroad yard. Looking down, Nelson saw lines and lines of
silver tracks multiplying and criss-crossing. Then before he could start counting
them, the face in the window started out at him, gray but distinct, and he looked the
other way. The train was in the station. Both he and Mr. Head jumped up and ran to
the door. Neither noticed that they had left the paper sack with the lunch in it on
They walked stiffly through the small station and came out of
a heavy door into the squall of traffic. Crowds were hurrying to
work. Nelson didn’t know where to look. Mr. Head leaned against
the side of the building and glared in front of him.
Finally Nelson said, “Well, how do you see what all it is to see?”
Mr. Head didn’t answer. Then as if the sight of people passing had
given him the clue, he said, “You walk,” and started off down the
street. Nelson followed, steadying his hat. So many sights and
sounds were flooding in on him that for the first block he hardly
knew what he was seeing. At the second corner, Mr. Head turned
and looked behind him at the station they had left, a putty-colored
terminal with a concrete dome on top. He thought that if he could
keep the dome always in sight, he would be able to get back in
the afternoon to catch the train again.
As they walked along, Nelson began to distinguish details and
take note of the store windows, jammed with every kind of equipment hardware,
drygoods, chicken feed, liquor. They passed one that Mr. Head called his particular
attention to where you walked in and sat on a chair with your feet upon two rests
and let a Negro polish your shoes. They walked slowly and stopped and stood at the
entrances so he could see what went on in each place but they did
not go into any of them. Mr. Head was determined not to go into
any city store because on his first trip here, he had got lost in a
large one and bad found his way out only after many people had insulted him.
They came in the middle of the next block to a store that had a
weighing machine in front of it and they both in turn stepped up on it and put in a
penny and received a ticket. Mr. Head’s ticket said, “You weigh 120 pounds. You
are upright and brave and all your friends admire you.” He put the ticket in his
pocket, surprised that the machine should have got his character correct but his
weight wrong, for he had weighed on a grain scale not long before and knew he
weighed 110. Nelson’s ticket said, “You weigh 98 pounds. You have a great destiny
ahead of you but beware of dark women. Nelson did not know any women and he
weighed only 68 pounds but Mr. Head pointed out that the machine had probably
printed the number upside down, meaning the 9 for a 6.
They walked on and at the end of five blocks the dome of the terminal sank
out of sight and Mr. Head turned to the left. Nelson could have stood in front of
every store window for an hour if there had not been another more interesting one
next to it. Suddenly he said, “I was born here!” Mr. Head turned and looked at him
with horror. There was a sweaty brightness about his face. “This is where I come
from!” he said.
Mr. Head was appalled. He saw the moment had come for drastic action.
“Lemme show you one thing you ain’t seen yet,” he said and took him to the corner
where there was a sewer entrance. “Squat down,” he said, “and stick you head in
there,” and he held the back of the boy’s coat while he got down and put his head in
the sewer. He drew it back quickly, hearing a gurgling in the depths under the
sidewalk. Then Mr. Head explained the sewer system, how the entire city was
underlined with it, how it contained all the drainage and was full of rats and how a
man could slide into it and be sucked along down endless pitchblack tunnels. At any
minute any man in the city might be sucked into the sewer and never heard from
again. He described it so well that Nelson was for some seconds shaken. He
connected the sewer passages with the entrance to hell and understood for the first
time how the world was put together in its lower parts. He drew away from the
Then he said, “Yes, but you can stay away from the holes,” and his face took
on that stubborn look that was so exasperating to his grandfather. “This is where I
come from!” he said.
Mr. Head was dismayed but he only muttered, “You’ll get your
fill,” and they walked on. At the end of two more blocks he turned
to the left, feeling that he was circling the dome; and he was correct for in a half-
hour they passed in front of the railroad station again. At first Nelson did not notice
that he was seeing the same stores twice but when they passed the one where you
put your feet on the rests while the Negro polished your shoes, he perceived that
they were walking in a circle.
“We done been here!” he shouted. “I don’t believe you know where you’re at!”
“The direction just slipped my mind for a minute,” Mr. Head said and they
turned down a different street. He still did not intend to let the dome get too far
away and after two blocks in their new direction, he turned to the left. This street
contained two and three-story wooden dwellings. Anyone passing on the sidewalk
could see into the rooms and Mr. Head, glancing through one window, saw a
woman lying on an iron bed, looking out, with a sheet pulled over her. Her knowing
expression shook him. A fierce-looking boy on a bicycle came driving down out of
nowhere and he had to jump to the side to keep from being hit. “It’s nothing to them
if they knock you down,” he said. “You better keep closer to me.”
They walked on for some time on streets like this before he remembered to
turn again. The houses they were passing now were all unpainted and the wood in
them looked rotten; the street between was narrower. Nelson saw a colored man.
Then another. Then another. “Niggers live in these houses,” he observed.
“Well come on and we’ll go somewheres else,” Mr. Head said. “We didn’t
come to look at niggers,” and they turned down another street but they continued to
see Negroes everywhere. Nelson’s skin began to prickle and they stepped along at a
faster pace in order to leave the neighborhood as soon as possible. There were
colored men in their undershirts standing in the doors and colored women rocking
on the sagging porches. Colored children played m the gutters and stopped what
they were doing to look at them. Before long they began to pass rows of stores with
colored customers in them but they didn’t pause at the entrances of these. Black eyes
in black faces were watching them from every direction. “Yes,” Mr. Head said, “this
is where you were born right here with all these niggers.”
Nelson scowled. “l think you done got us lost,” he said.
Mr. Head swung around sharply and looked for the dome. It was nowhere in
sight. “I ain’t got us lost either,” he said. “You’re just tired of walking.”
“I ain’t tired, I’m hungry,” Nelson said. “Give me a biscuit.”
They discovered then that they had lost the lunch.
“You were the one holding the sack,” Nelson said. “l would have kepaholt of
“If you want to direct this trip, I’ll go on by myself and leave you right here,” Mr.
Head said and was pleased to see the boy turn white. However, he realized they
were lost and drifting farther every minute from the station. He was hungry himself
and beginning to be thirsty and since they had been in the colored neighborhood,
they had both begun to sweat. Nelson had on his shoes and he was unaccustomed to
them. The concrete sidewalks were very hard. They both wanted to find a place to
sit down but this was impossible and they kept on walking, the boy muttering under
his breath, “First you lost the sack and then you lost the way,” and Mr. Head
growling from time to time, “Anybody wants to be from this nigger heaven can be
By now the sun was well forward in the sky. The odor of dinners cooking
drifted out to them. The Negroes were all at their doors to see them pass. “Whyn’t
you ast one of these niggers the way?” Nelson said. “You got us lost.”
“This is where you were born,” Mr. Head said. “You can ast one yourself if
you want to.”
Nelson was afraid of the colored men and he didn’t want to be laughed at by
the colored children. Up ahead he saw a large colored woman leaning in a doorway
that opened onto the sidewalk. Her hair stood straight out from her head for about
four inches all around and she was resting on bare brown feet that turned pink at the
sides. She had on a pink dress that showed her exact shape. As they came abreast of
her, she lazily lifted one hand to her head and her fingers disappeared into her hair.
Nelson stopped. He felt his breath drawn up by the woman’s dark
eyes. “How do you get back to town?” he said in a voice that did
not sound like his own.
After a minute she said, “You in town now,” in a rich low tone that made
Nelson feel as if a cool spray had been turned on him. “How do you get back to the
train?” he said in the same reedlike voice.
“You can catch you a car,” she said.
He understood she was making fun of him but he was too paralyzed even to
scowl. He stood drinking in every detail of her. His eyes traveled up from her great
knees to her forehead and then made a triangular path from the glistening sweat on
her neck ‘down and across her tremendous bosom and over her bare arm back
to where her fingers lay hidden in her hair. He suddenly wanted her to reach down
and pick him up and draw him against her and then he wanted to feel her breath on
his face. He wanted to look down and down into her eyes while she held him tighter
and tighter. He had never had such a feeling before. He felt as if he were reeling
down through a pitchblack tunnel.
“You can go a block down yonder and catch you a car take you to the
railroad station, Sugarpie,” she said.
Nelson would have collapsed at her feet if Mr. Head had not pulled him
roughly away. “You act like you don’t have any sense!” the old man growled.
They hurried down the street and Nelson did not look back at the woman. He
pushed his hat sharply forward over his face which was already burning with shame.
The sneering ghost he had seen in the train window and all the foreboding feelings
he had on the way returned to him and he remembered that his ticket from the scale
had said to beware of dark women and that his grandfather’s had said he was upright
and brave. He took hold of the old man’s hand, a sign of dependence that he seldom
They headed down the street toward the car tracks where a long yellow
rattling trolley was coming. Mr. Head had never boarded a streetcar and he let that
one pass. Nelson was silent. From time to time his mouth trembled slightly but his
grandfather, occupied with his own problems, paid him no attention. They stood on
the corner and neither looked at the Negroes who were passing, going about their
business just as if they had been white, except that most of them stopped and eyed
Mr. Head and Nelson. It occurred to Mr. Head that since the streetcar ran on tracks,
they could simply follow the tracks. He gave Nelson a slight push and explained
that they would follow the tracks on into the railroad station, walking, and they set
Presently to their great relief they began to see white people again and Nelson
sat down on the sidewalk against the wall of a building. “I got to rest myself some,”
he said. “You lost the sack and the direction. You can just wait on me to rest
“There’s the tracks in front of us,” Mr. Head said. “All we got to do is keep
them in sight and you could have remembered the sack as good as me. This is where
you were born. This is your old home town. This is your second trip. You ought to
know how to do,” and he squatted down and continued in. this vein but the boy, eas-
ing his burning feet out of his shoes, did not answer.
“And standing there grinning like a chim-pan-zee while a nigger woman gives
you direction. Great Gawd!” Mr. Head said.
“I never said I was nothing but born here,” the boy said in a shaky voice. “l
never said I would or wouldn’t like it. I never said I wanted to come. I only said I
was born here and I never had nothing to do with that. I want to go home. I never
wanted to come in the first place. It was all your big idea. How you know you ain’t
following the tracks in the wrong direction?”
This last had occurred to Mr. Head too. “All these people are white,” he said.
“We ain’t passed here before,” Nelson said. This was a neighborhood of brick
buildings that might have been lived in or might not. A few empty automobiles were
parked along the curb and there was an occasional passerby. The heat of the
pavement came up through Nelson’s thin suit. His eyelids began to droop, and after
a few minutes his head tilted forward. His shoulders twitched once or twice and then
he fell over on his side and lay sprawled in an exhausted fit of sleep.
Mr. Head watched him silently. He was very tired himself but they could not
both sleep at the same time and he could not have slept anyway because he did not
know where he was. In a few minutes Nelson would wake up, refreshed by his sleep
and very cocky, and would begin complaining that he had lost the sack and the way.
You’d have a mighty sorry time if I wasn’t here, Mr. Head thought; and then another
idea occurred to him. He looked at the sprawled figure for several minutes;
presently he stood up.
He justified what he was going to do on the grounds that it is sometimes
necessary to teach a child a lesson he won’t forget particularly when the child is
always reasserting his position with some new impudence. He walked without a
sound to the corner about twenty feet away and sat down on a covered garbage can
in the alley where he could look out and watch Nelson wake up alone.
The boy was dozing fitfully, half conscious of vague noises and black forms
moving up from some dark part of him into the light His face worked in his sleep
and he had pulled his knees up under his chin. The sun shed a dull dry light on the
narrow street; everything looked like exactly what it was. After a while Mr. Head,
hunched like an old monkey on the garbage can lid, decided that if Nelson didn’t
wake up soon, he would make a loud noise by bamming his foot against the can. He
looked at his watch and discovered that it was two o’clock. Their train left at six and
the possibility of missing it was too awful for him to think of. He kicked his foot
backwards on the can and a hollow boom reverberated in the alley.
Nelson shot up onto his feet with a shout. He looked where his grandfather
should have been and stared. He seemed to whirl several times and then, picking up
his feet and throwing his head back, he dashed down the street like a wild
maddened pony. Mr. Head jumped off the can and galloped after but the child was
almost out of sight. He saw a streak of gray disappearing diagonally a block ahead.
He ran as fast as he could, looking both ways down every intersection, but without
sight of him again. Then as he passed the third intersection, completely winded, he
saw about half a block down the street a scene that stopped him altogether. He
crouched behind a trash box to watch and get his bearings.
Nelson was sitting with both legs spread out and by his side lay an elderly
woman, screaming. Groceries were scattered about the sidewalk. A crowd of
women had already gathered to see justice done and Mr. Head distinctly heard the
old woman on the pavement shout, “You’ve broken my ankle and your daddy’ll pay
for it! Every nickel! Police! Police!” Several of the women were plucking at Nelson’s
shoulder but the boy seemed too dazed to get up.
Something forced Mr. Head from behind the trash box and forward, but only
at a creeping pace. He had never in his life been accosted by a policeman. The
women were milling around Nelson as if they might suddenly all dive on him at
once and tear him to pieces, and the old woman continued to scream that her ankle
was broken and to call for an officer. Mr. Head came on so slowly that he could
have been taking a backward step after each forward one, but when he was about
ten feet away, Nelson saw him and sprang. The child caught him around the hips
and clung panting against him.
The women all turned on Mr. Head. The injured one sat up and shouted,
“You sir! You’ll pay every penny of my doctor’s bill that your boy has caused. He’s a
juve-nile delinquent! Where is an officer? Somebody take this man’s name and
Mr. Head was trying to detach Nelson’s fingers from the flesh in the back of
his legs. The old man’s head had lowered itself into his collar like a turtle’s; his eyes
were glazed with fear and caution.
“Your boy has broken my ankle!” the old woman shouted. “Police!”
Mr. Head sensed the approach of the policeman from behind. He stared
straight ahead at the women who were massed in their fury like a solid wall to block
his escape, “This is not my boy,” he said. “l never seen him before.”
He felt Nelson’s fingers fall out of his flesh.
The women dropped back, staring at him with horror, as if they were so
repulsed by a man who would deny his own image and likeness that they could not
bear to lay hands on him. Mr. Head walked on, through a space they silently
cleared, and left Nelson behind. Ahead of him he saw nothing but a hollow tunnel
that had once been the street.
The boy remained standing where he was, his neck craned forward and his
hands hanging by his sides. His hat was jammed on his head so that there were no
longer any creases in it. The injured woman got up and shook her fist at him and the
others gave him pitying looks, but he didn’t notice any of them. There was no
policeman in sight.
In a minute he began to move mechanically, making no effort to
catch up with his grandfather but merely following at about twenty paces. They
walked on for five blocks in this way. Mr. Head’s shoulders were sagging and his
neck hung forward at such an angle that it was not visible from behind. He was
afraid to turn his head. Finally he cut a short hopeful glance over his shoulder.
Twenty feet behind him, he saw two small eyes piercing into his back like pitchfork
The boy was not of a forgiving nature but this was the first time he had ever
had anything to forgive. Mr. Head had never disgraced himself before. After two
more blocks, he turned and called over his shoulder in a high desperately gay voice,
“Let’s us go get us a Co’ Cola somewheres!”
Nelson, with a dignity he had never shown before, turned and stood with his
back to his grandfather.
Mr. Head began to feel the depth of his denial. His face as they walked on
became all hollows and bare ridges. He saw nothing they were passing but he
perceived that they had lost the car tracks. There was no dome to be seen anywhere
and the afternoon was advancing. He knew that if dark overtook them in the city,
they would be beaten and robbed. The speed of God’s justice was only what he
expected for himself, but he could not stand to think that his sins would be visited
upon Nelson and that even now, he was leading the boy to his doom.
They continued to walk on block after block through an endless section of
small brick houses until Mr. Head almost fell over a water spigot sticking up about
six inches off the edge of a grass plot. He had not had a drink of water since early
morning but he felt he did not deserve it now. Then he thought that Nelson would be
thirsty and they would both drink and be brought together. He squatted down and
put his mouth to the nozzle and turned a cold stream of water into his throat. Then
he called out in the high desperate voice, “Come on and “etcher some water!”
This time the child stared through him for nearly sixty seconds. Mr. Head got
up and walked on as if he had drunk poison. Nelson, though he had not had water
since some he had drunk out of a paper cup on the train, passed by the spigot,
disdaining to drink where his grandfather had. When Mr. Head realized this, he lost
all hope. His face in the waning afternoon light looked ravaged and abandoned. He
could feel the boy’s steady hate, traveling at an even pace behind him and he knew
that (if by some miracle they escaped being murdered in the city) it would continue
just that way for the rest of his life. He knew that now he was wandering into a
black strange place where nothing was like it had ever been before, a long old age
without respect and an end that would be welcome because it would be the end.
As for Nelson, his mind had frozen around his grandfather’s treachery as if he
were trying to preserve it intact to present at the final judgment. He walked without
looking to one side or the other, but every now and then his mouth would twitch and
this was when he felt, from some remote place inside himself, a black mysterious
form reach up as if it would melt his frozen vision in one hot grasp.
The sun dropped down behind a row of houses and hardly noticing, they
passed into an elegant suburban section where mansions were set back from the
road by lawns with birdbaths on them. Here everything was entirely deserted. For
blocks they didn’t pass even a dog. The big white houses were like partially sub-
merged icebergs in the distance. There were no sidewalks, only drives, and these
wound around and around in endless ridiculous circles. Nelson made no move to
come nearer to Mr. Head. The old man felt that if he saw a sewer entrance he would
drop down into it and let himself be carried away; and he could imagine the boy
standing by, watching with only a slight interest, while he disappeared.
A loud bark jarred him to attention and he looked up to see a fat man
approaching with two bulldogs. He waved both arms like someone shipwrecked on
a desert island. “I’m lost!” he called. “I’m lost and can’t find my way and me and this
boy have got to catch this train and I can’t find the station. Oh Gawd I’m lost! Oh
hep me Gawd I’m lost!”
The man, who was bald-headed and had on golf knickers, asked him what
train he was trying to catch and Mr. Head began to get out his tickets, trembling so
violently he could hardly hold them. Nelson had come up to within fifteen feet and
“Well,” the fat man said, giving him back the tickets, “you won’t have time to
get back to town to make this but you can catch it at the suburb stop. That’s three
blocks from here,” and he began explaining how to get there.
Mr. Head stared as if he were slowly returning from the dead and when the
man had finished and gone off with the dogs jumping at his heels, he turned to
Nelson and said breathlessly, “We’re going to get home!”
The child was standing about ten feet away, his face bloodless under the gray
hat. His eyes were triumphantly cold. There was no light in them, no feeling, no
interest. He was merely there, a small figure, waiting. Home was nothing to him.
Mr. Head turned slowly. He felt he knew now what time would be like
without seasons and what heat would be like without light and what man would be
like without salvation. He didn’t care if he never made the train and if it had not been
for what suddenly caught his attention, like a cry out of the gathering dusk, he might
have forgotten there was a station to go to.
He had not walked five hundred yards down the road when he saw, within
reach of him, the plaster figure of a Negro sitting bent over on a low yellow brick
fence that curved around a wide lawn. The Negro was about Nelson’s size and he
was pitched forward at an unsteady angle because the putty that held him to the wall
had cracked. One of his eyes was entirely white and he held a piece of brown
Mr. Head stood looking at him silently until Nelson stopped at a little
distance. Then as the two of them stood there, Mr. Head breathed, “An artificial
It was not possible to tell if the artificial Negro were meant to be young or
old; he looked too miserable to be either. He was meant to look happy because his
mouth was stretched up at the corners but the chipped eye and the angle he was
cocked at gave him a wild look of misery instead.
“An artificial nigger!” Nelson repeated in Mr. Head’s exact tone.
The two of them stood there with their necks forward at almost the same
angle and their shoulders curved in almost exactly the same way and their hands
trembling identically in their pockets.
Mr. Head looked like an ancient child and Nelson like a miniature old man.
They stood gazing at the artificial Negro as if they were faced with some great
mystery, some monument to another’s victory that brought them together in their
common defeat. They could both feel it dissolving their differences like an action of
mercy. Mr. Head had never known before what mercy felt like because he had been
too good to deserve any, but he felt he knew now. He looked at Nelson and
understood that he must say something to the child to show that he was still wise
and in the look the boy returned he saw a hungry need for chat assurance. Nelson’s
eyes seemed to implore him to explain once and for all the mystery of existence.
Mr. Head opened his lips to make a lofty statement and heard himself say,
“They ain’t got enough real ones here. They got to have an artificial one.”
After a second, the boy nodded with a strange shivering about his mouth, and
said, “Let’s go home before we get ourselves lost again.”
Their train glided into the suburb stop just as they reached the station and
they boarded it together, and ten minutes before it was due to arrive at the junction,
they went to the door and stood ready to jump off if it did not stop; but it did, just as
the moon, restored to its full splendor, sprang from a cloud and flooded the clearing
with light. As they stepped off, the sage grass was shivering gently in shades of
silver and the clinkers under their feet glittered with a fresh black light. The
treetops, fencing the junction like the protecting walls of a garden, were darker than
the sky which was hung with gigantic white clouds illuminated like lanterns.
Mr. Head stood very still and felt the action of mercy touch him again but this
time he knew that there were no words in the world chat could name it. He
understood that it grew out of agony, which is not denied to any man and which is
given in strange ways to children. He understood it was all a man could carry into
death to give his Maker and he suddenly burned with shame chat he had so little of
it to take with him. He stood appalled, judging himself with the thoroughness of
God, while the action of mercy covered his pride like a flame and consumed it. He
had never thought him self a great sinner before but he saw now that his true
depravity had been hidden from him lest it cause him despair. He realized that he
was forgiven for sins from the beginning of time, when he had conceived in his own
heart the sin of Adam, until the present, when he had denied poor Nelson. He saw
that no Sin was too monstrous for him to claim as his own, and since God loved in
proportion as He forgave, he felt ready at that instant to enter Paradise.
Nelson, composing his expression under the shadow of his hat brim, watched
him with a mixture of fatigue and suspicion, but as the train glided past them and
disappeared like a frightened serpent into the woods, even his face lightened and he
muttered, “I’m glad I’ve went once, but I’ll never go back again!”
The Life You Save May Be Your Own (1955)
THE old woman and her daughter were sitting on their porch when Mr. Shiftlet came up their road for the first time. The old woman slid to the edge of her chair and leaned forward, shading her eyes from the piercing sunset with her hand. The daughter could not see far in front of her and continued to play with her fingers. Although the old woman lived in this desolate spot with only her daughter and she had never seen Mr. Shiftlet before, she could tell, even from a distance, that he was a tramp and no one to be afraid of. His left coat sleeve was folded up to show there was only half an arm in it and his gaunt figure listed slightly to the side as if the breeze were pushing him. He had on a black town suit and a brown felt hat that was turned up in the front and down in the back and he carried a tin tool box by a handle. He came on, at an amble, up her road, his face turned toward the sun which appeared to be balancing itself on the peak of a small mountain.
The old woman didn’t change her position until he was almost into her yard; then she rose with one hand fisted on her hip. The daughter, a large girl in a short blue organdy dress, saw him all at once and jumped up and began to stamp and point and make excited speechless sounds.
Mr. Shiftlet stopped just inside the yard and set his box on the ground and tipped his hat at her as if she were not in the least afflicted; then he turned toward the old woman and swung the hat all the way off. He had long black slick hair that hung flat from a part in the middle to beyond the tips of his ears on either side. His face descended in forehead for more than half its length and ended suddenly with his features just balanced over a jutting steel‑trap jaw. He seemed to be a young man but he had a look of composed dissatisfaction as if he understood life thoroughly.
“Good evening,” the old woman said. She was about the size of a cedar fence post and she had a man’s gray hat pulled down low over her head.
The tramp stood looking at her and didn’t answer. He turned his back and faced the sunset. He swung both his whole and his short arm up slowly so that they indicated an expanse of sky and his figure formed a crooked cross. The old woman watched him with her arms folded across her chest as if she were the owner of the sun, and the daughter watched, her head thrust forward and her fat helpless hands hanging at the wrists. She had long pink‑gold hair and eyes as blue as a peacock’s neck.
He held the pose for almost fifty seconds and then he picked up his box and came on to the porch and dropped down on the bottom step. “Lady,” he said in a firm nasal voice, “I’d give a fortune to live where I could see me a sun do that every evening.”
“Does it every evening,” the old woman said and sat back down. The daughter sat down too and watched him with a cautious sly look as if he were a bird that had come up very close. He leaned to one side, rooting in his pants pocket, and in a second he brought out a package of chewing gum and offered her a piece. She took it and unpeeled it and began to chew without taking her eyes off him. He offered the old woman a piece but she only raised her upper lip to indicate she had no teeth.
Mr. Shiftlet’s pale sharp glance had already passed over everything in the yard‑the pump near the comer of the house and the big fig tree that three or four chickens were preparing to roost in‑and had moved to a shed where he saw the square rusted back of an automobile. “You ladies drive?” he asked.
“That car ain’t run in fifteen year,” the old woman said. “The day my husband died, it quit running.”
“Nothing is like it used to be, lady,” he said. “The world is almost rotten.”
“That’s right,” the old woman said. “You from around here?”
“Name Tom T. Shiftlet,” he murmured, looking at the tires.
“I’m pleased to meet you,” the old woman said. “Name Lucynell Crater and daughter Lucynell Crater. What you doing around here, Mr. Shiftlet?”
He judged the car to be about a 1928 or ’29 Ford. “‘Lady,” he said, and turned and gave her his full attention, “lemme tell you something. There’s one of these doctors in Atlanta that’s taken a knife and cut the human heart‑the human heart,” he repeated, leaning forward, “out of a man’s chest and held it in his hand,” and he held his hand out, palm up, as if it were slightly weighted with the human heart, “and studied it like it was a day‑old chicken, and lady,” he said, allowing a long significant pause in which his head slid forward and his clay‑colored eyes brightened, “he don’t know no more about it than you or me.”
“That’s right,” the old woman said.
“Why, if he was to take that knife and cut into every corner of it, he still wouldn’t know no more than you or me. What you want to bet?”
“Nothing,” the old woman said wisely. “Where you come from, Mr. Shiftlet?”
He didn’t answer. He reached into his pocket and brought out a sack of tobacco and a package of cigarette papers and rolled himself a cigarette, expertly with one hand, and attached it in a hanging position to his upper lip. Then he took a box of wooden matches from his pocket and struck one on his shoe. He held the burning match as if he were studying the mystery of flame while it traveled dangerously toward his skin. The daughter began to make loud noises and to point to his hand and shake her finger at him, but when the flame was just before touching him, he leaned down with his hand cupped over it as if he were going to set fire to his nose and lit the cigarette.
He flipped away the dead match and blew a stream of gray into the evening. A sly look came over his face. “Lady,” he said, “nowadays, people’ll do anything anyways. I can tell you my name is Tom T. Shiftlet and I come from Tarwater, Tennessee, but you never have seen me before: how you know I ain’t lying? How you know my name ain’t Aaron Sparks, lady, and I come from Singleberry, Georgia, or how you know it’s not George Speeds and I come from Lucy, Alabama, or how you know I ain’t Thompson Bright from Toolafalls, Mississippi?”
“I don’t know nothing about you,” the old woman muttered, irked.
“Lady,” he said, “people don’t care how they lie. Maybe the best I can tell you is, I’m a man; but listen lady,” he said and paused and made his tone more ominous still, “what is a man?”
The old woman began to gum a seed. “What you carry in that tin box, Mr. Shiftlet?” she asked.
“Tools,” he said, put back. “I’m a carpenter.”
“Well, if you come out here to work, I’ll be able to feed you and give you a place to sleep but I can’t pay. I’ll tell you that before you begin,” she said.
There was no answer at once and no particular expression on his face. He leaned back against the two‑by‑four that helped support the porch roof. “Lady,” he said slowly, “there’s some men that some things mean more to them than money.” The old woman rocked without comment and the daughter watched the trigger that moved up and down in his neck. He told the old woman then that all most people were interested in was money, but he asked what a man was made for. He asked her if a. man was made for money, or what. He asked her what she thought she was made for but she didn’t answer, she only sat rocking and wondered if a one‑armed man could put a new roof on her garden house. He asked a lot of questions that she didn’t answer. He told her that he was twenty‑eight years old and had lived a varied life. He had been a gospel singer, a foreman on the railroad, an assistant in an undertaking parlor, and he had come over the radio for three months with Uncle Roy and his Red Creek Wranglers. He said he had fought and bled in the Arm Service of his country and visited every foreign land and that everywhere he had seen people that didn’t care if they did a thing one way or another. He said he hadn’t been raised thataway.
A fat yellow moon appeared in the branches of the fig tree as if it were going to roost there with the chickens. He said that a man had to escape to the country to see the world whole and that he wished he lived in a desolate place like this where he could see the sun go down every evening like God made it to do.
“Are you married or are you single?” the old woman asked.
There was a long silence. “Lady,” he asked finally, “where would you find you an innocent woman today’? I wouldn’t have any of this trash I could just pick up.”
The daughter was leaning very far down, hanging her head almost between her knees, watching him through a triangular door she had made in her overturned hair; and she suddenly fell in a heap on the floor and began to whimper. Mr. Shiftlet straightened her out and helped her get back in the chair.
“Is she your baby girl?” he asked.
“My only,” the old woman said, “and she’s the sweetest girl in the world. I wouldn’t give her up for nothing on earth. She’s smart too. She can sweep the floor, cook, wash, feed the chickens, and hoe. I wouldn’t give her up for a casket of jewels.”
“No,” he said kindly, “don’t ever let any man take her away from you.”
“Any man come after her,” the old woman said, ” ‘ll have to stay around the place.”
Mr. Shiftlet’s eye in the darkness was focused on a part of the automobile bumper that glittered in the distance. “Lady,” he said, jerking his short arm up as if he could point with it to her house and yard and pump, “there ain’t a broken thing on this plantation that I couldn’t fix for you, one‑arm jackleg or not. I’m a man,” he said with a sullen dignity, “even if I ain’t a whole one. I got,” he said, tapping his knuckles on the floor to emphasize the immensity of what he was going to say, “a moral intelligence!” and his face pierced out of the darkness into a shaft of doorlight and he stared at her as if he were astonished himself at this impossible truth.
The old woman was not impressed with the phrase. “I told you you could hang around and work for food,” she said, “if you don’t mind sleeping in that car yonder.”
“Why listen, Lady,” he said with a grin of delight, “the monks of old slept in their coffins!”
“They wasn’t as advanced as we are,” the old woman said.
The next morning he began on the roof of the garden house while Lucynell, the daughter, sat on a rock and watched him work. He had not been around a week before the change he had made in the place was apparent. He had patched the front and back steps, built a new hog pen, restored a fence, and taught Lucynell, who was completely deaf and had never said a word in her life, to say the word “bird.”
The big rosy‑faced girl followed him everywhere, saying “Burrttddt ddbirrrttdt,” and clapping her hands. The old woman watched from a distance, secretly pleased. She was ravenous for a son‑in‑law.
Mr. Shiftlet slept on the hard narrow back seat of the car with his feet out the side window. He had his razor and a can of water on a crate that served him as a bedside table and he put up a piece of mirror against the back glass and kept his coat neatly on a hanger that he hung over one of the windows.
In the evenings he sat on the steps and talked while the old woman and Lucynell rocked violently in their chairs on either side of him. The old woman’s three mountains were black against the dark blue sky and were visited off and on by various planets and by the moon after it had left the chickens. Mr. Shiftlet pointed out that the reason he had improved this plantation was because he had taken a personal interest in it. He said he was even going to make the automobile run.
He had raised the hood and studied the mechanism and he said he could tell that the car had been built in the days when cars were really built. “You take now,” he said, “one man puts in one bolt and another man puts in another bolt and another man puts in another bolt so that it’s a man for a bolt. That’s why you have to ‘pay so much for a car: you’re paying all those men. Now if you didn’t have to pay but one man, you could get you a cheaper car and one that had had a personal interest taken in it, and it would be a better car.” The old woman agreed with him that this was so.
Mr. Shiftlet said that the trouble with the world was that nobody cared, or stopped and took any trouble. He said he never would have been able to teach Lucynell to say a word if he hadn’t cared and stopped long enough.
“Teach her to say something else,” the old woman said.
“What you want her to say next?” Mr. Shiftlet asked.
The old woman’s smile was broad and toothless and suggestive. “Teach her to say ‘sugarpie,’” she said.
Mr. Shiftlet already knew what was on her mind.
The next day he began to tinker with the automobile and that evening he told her that if she would buy a fan belt, he would be able to make the car run.
The old woman said she would give him the money. “You see that girl yonder?” she asked, pointing to Lucynell who was sitting on the floor a foot away, watching him, her eyes blue even in the dark. “If it was ever a man wanted to take her away, I would say, ‘No man on earth is going to take that sweet girl of mine away from me!’ but if he was to say, ‘Lady, I don’t want to take her away, I want her right here,’ I would say, ‘Mister, I don’t blame you none. I wouldn’t pass up a chance to live in a permanent place and get the sweetest girl in the world myself. You ain’t no fool,’ I would say.”
“How old is she?” Mr. Shiftlet asked casually.
“Fifteen, sixteen,” the old woman said. The girl was nearly thirty but because of her innocence it was impossible to guess.
“It would be a good idea to paint it too,” Mr. Shiftlet remarked. “You don’t want it to rust out.”
“We’ll see about that later,” the old woman said.
The next day he walked into town and returned with the parts he needed and a can of gasoline. Late in the afternoon, terrible noises issued from the shed and the old woman rushed out of the house, thinking Lucynell was somewhere having a fit. Lucynell was sitting on a chicken crate, stamping her feet and screaming, “Burrddttt! bddurrddtttt!” but her fuss was drowned out by the car. With a volley of blasts it emerged from the shed, moving in a fierce and stately way. Mr. Shiftlet was in the driver’s seat, sitting very erect. He had an expression of serious modesty on his face as if he had just raised the dead.
That night, rocking on the porch, the old woman began her business at once. “You want you an innocent woman, don’t you?” she asked sympathetically. “You don’t want none of this trash.”
“No’m, I don’t,” Mr. Shiftlet said.
“One that can’t talk,” she continued, “can’t sass you back or use foul language. That’s the kind for you to have. Right there,” and she pointed to Lucynell sitting cross‑legged in her chair, holding both feet in her hands.
“That’s right,” he admitted. “She wouldn’t give me any trouble.”
“Saturday,” the old woman said, “you and her and me can drive into town and get married.”
Mr. Shiftlet eased his position on the steps.
“I can’t get married right now,” he said. “Everything you want to do takes money and I ain’t got any.”
“What you need with money?” she asked.
“It takes money,” he said. “Some people’ll do anything anyhow these days, but the way I think, I wouldn’t marry no woman that I couldn’t take on a trip like she was somebody. I mean take her to a hotel and treat her. I wouldn’t marry the Duchesser Windsor,” he said firmly, “unless I could take her to a hotel and give her something good to eat.
“I was raised thataway and there ain’t a thing I can do about it. My old mother taught me how to do.”
“Lucynell don’t even know what a hotel is,” the old woman muttered. “Listen here, Mr. Shiftlet,” she said, sliding forward in her chair, “you’d be getting a permanent house and a deep well and the most innocent girl in the world. You don’t need no money. Lemme tell you something: there ain’t any place in the world for a poor disabled friendless drifting man.”
The ugly words settled in Mr. Shiftlet’s head like a group of buzzards in the top of a tree. He didn’t answer at once. He rolled himself a cigarette and lit it and then he said in an even voice, “Lady, a man is divided into two parts, body and spirit.”
The old woman clamped her gums together.
“A body and a spirit,” he repeated. “The body, lady, is like a house: it don’t go anywhere; but the spirit, lady, is like a automobile: always on the move, always . . .”
“Listen, Mr. Shiftlet,” she said, “my well never goes dry and my house is always warm in the winter and there’s no mortgage on a thing about this place. You can go to the courthouse and see for yourself And yonder under that shed is a fine automobile.” She laid the bait carefully. “You can have it painted by Saturday. I’ll pay for the paint.”
In the darkness, Mr. Shiftlet’s smile stretched like a weary snake waking up by a fire. After a second he recalled himself and said, “I’m only saying a man’s spirit means more to him than anything else. I would have to take my wife off for the week end without no regards at all for cost. I got to follow where my spirit says to go.”
“I’ll give you fifteen dollars for a week‑end trip,” the old woman said in a crabbed voice. “That’s the best I can do.”
“That wouldn’t hardly pay for more than the gas and the hotel,” he said. “It wouldn’t feed her.”
“Seventeen‑fifty,” the old woman said. “That’s all I got so it isn’t any use you trying to milk me. You can take a lunch.”
Mr. Shiftlet was deeply hurt by the word “milk.” He didn’t doubt that she had more money sewed up in her mattress but he had already told her he was not interested in her money. “I’ll make that do,” he said and rose and walked off without treating with her further.
On Saturday the three of them drove into town in the car that the paint had barely dried on and Mr. Shiftlet and Lucynell were married in the Ordinary’s office while the old woman witnessed. As they came out of the courthouse, Mr. Shiftlet began twisting his neck in his collar. He looked morose and bitter as if he had been insulted while someone held him. “That didn’t satisfy me none,” he said. “That was just something a woman in an office did, nothing but paper work and blood tests. What do they know about my blood? If they was to take my heart and cut it out,” he said, “they wouldn’t know a thing about me. It didn’t satisfy me at all.”
“It satisfied the law,” the old woman said sharply.
‘The law,” Mr. Shiftlet said and spit. “It’s the law that don’t satisfy me.”
He had painted the car dark green with a yellow band around it just under the windows. The three of them climbed in the front seat and the old woman said, “Don’t Lucynell look pretty? Looks like a baby doll.” Lucynell was dressed up in a white dress that her mother had uprooted from a trunk and there was a Panama hat on her head with a bunch of red wooden cherries on the brim. Every now and then her placid expression was changed by a sly isolated little thought like a shoot of green in the desert. “You got a prize!” the old woman said.
Mr. Shiftlet didn’t even look at her.
They drove back to the house to let the old woman off and pick up the lunch. When they were ready to leave, she stood staring in the window of the car, with her fingers clenched around the glass. Tears began to seep sideways out of her eyes and run along the dirty creases in her face. “I ain’t ever been parted with her for two days before,” she said.
Mr. Shiftlet started the motor.
“And I wouldn’t let no man have her but you because I seen you would do right. Good‑by, Sugarbaby,” she said, clutching at the sleeve of the white dress. Lucynell looked straight at her and didn’t seem to see her there at all. Mr. Shiftlet eased the car forward so that she had to move her hands.
The early afternoon was clear and open and surrounded by pale blue sky. Although the car would go only thirty miles an hour, Mr. Shiftlet imagined a terrific climb and dip and swerve that went entirely to his head so that he forgot his morning bitterness. He had always wanted an automobile but he had never been able to afford one before. He drove very fast because he wanted to make Mobile by nightfall.
Occasionally he stopped his thoughts long enough to look at Lucynell in the seat beside him. She had eaten the lunch as soon as they were out of the yard and now she was pulling the cherries off the hat one by one and throwing them out the window. He became depressed in spite of the car. He had driven about a hundred miles when he decided that she must be hungry again and at the next small town they came to, he stopped in front of an aluminum‑painted eating place called The Hot Spot and took her in and ordered her a plate of ham and grits. The ride had made her sleepy and as soon as she got up on the stool, she rested her head on the counter and shut her eyes. There was no one in The Hot Spot but Mr. Shiftlet and the boy behind the counter, a pale youth with a greasy rag hung over his shoulder. Before he could dish up the food, she was snoring gently.
“Give it to her when she wakes up,” Mr. Shiftlet said. “I’ll pay for it now.”
The boy bent over her and stared at the long pink‑gold hair and the half‑shut sleeping eyes. Then he looked up and stared at Mr. Shiftlet. “She looks like an angel of Gawd,” he murmured.
“Hitch‑hiker,” Mr. Shiftlet explained. “I can’t wait. I got to make Tuscaloosa.”
The boy bent over again and very carefully touched his finger to a strand of the golden hair and Mr. Shiftlet left.
He was more depressed than ever as he drove on by himself. The late afternoon had grown hot and sultry and the country had flattened out. Deep in the sky a storm was preparing very slowly and without thunder as if it meant to drain every drop of air from the earth before it broke. There were times when Mr. Shiftlet preferred not to be alone. He felt too that a man with a car had a responsibility to others and he kept his eye out for a hitch‑hiker. Occasionally he saw a sign that warned: “Drive carefully. The life you save may be your own.”
The narrow road dropped off on either side into dry fields and here and there a shack or a filling station stood in a clearing. The sun began to set directly in front of the automobile. It was a reddening ball that through his windshield was slightly flat on the bottom and top. He saw a boy in overalls and a gray hat standing on the edge of the road and he slowed the car down and stopped in front of him. The boy didn’t have his hand raised to thumb the ride, he was only standing there, but he had a small cardboard suitcase and his hat was set on his head in a way to indicate that he had left somewhere for good. “Son,” Mr. Shiftlet said, “I see you want a ride.”
The boy didn’t say he did or he didn’t but he opened the door of the car and got in, and Mr. Shiftlet started driving again. The child held the suitcase on his lap and folded his arms on top of it. He turned his head and looked out the window away from Mr. Shiftlet. Mr. Shiftlet felt oppressed. “Son,” he said after a minute, “I got the best old mother in the world so I reckon you only got the second best.”
The boy gave him a quick dark glance and then turned his face back out the window.
“It’s nothing so sweet,” Mr. Shiftlet continued, “as a boy’s mother. She taught him his first prayers at her knee, she give him love when no other would, she told him what was right and what wasn’t, and she seen that he done the right thing. Son,” he said, “I never rued a day in my life like the one I rued when I left that old mother of mine.”
The boy shifted in his seat but he didn’t look at Mr. Shiftlet. He unfolded his arms and put one hand on the door handle.
“My mother was a angel of Gawd,” Mr. Shiftlet said in a very strained voice. “He took her from heaven and giver to me and I left her.” His eyes were instantly clouded over with a mist of tears. The car was barely moving.
The boy turned angrily in the seat. “You go to the devil!” he cried. “My old woman is a flea bag and yours is a stinking pole cat!” and with that he flung the door open and jumped out with his suitcase into the ditch.
Mr. Shiftlet was so shocked that for about a hundred feet he drove along slowly with the door stiff open. A cloud, the exact color of the boy’s hat and shaped like a turnip, had descended over the sun, and another, worse looking, crouched behind the car. Mr. Shiftlet felt that the rottenness of the world was about to engulf him. He raised his arm and let it fall again to his breast. “Oh Lord!” he prayed. “Break forth and wash the slime from this earth!”
The turnip continued slowly to descend. After a few minutes there was a guffawing peal of thunder from behind and fantastic raindrops, like tin‑can tops, crashed over the rear of Mr. Shiftlet’s car. Very quickly he stepped on the gas and with his stump sticking out the window he raced the galloping shower into Mobile.
Everything That Rises Must Converge (1963)
HER DOCTOR had told Julian’s mother that she must lose twenty pounds on account of her blood pressure, so on Wednesday nights Julian had to take her downtown on the bus for a reducing class at the Y. The reducing class was designed for working girls over fifty, who weighed from 165 to 200 pounds. His mother was one of the slimmer ones, but she said ladies did not tell their age or weight. She would not ride the buses by herself at night since they had been integrated, and because the reducing class was one of her few pleasures, necessary for her health, and free, she said Julian could at least put himself out to take her, considering all she did for him. Julian did not like to consider all she did for him, but every Wednesday night he braced himself and took her.
She was almost ready to go, standing before the hall mirror, putting on her hat, while he, his hands behind him, appeared pinned to the door frame, waiting like Saint Sebastian for the arrows to begin piercing him. The hat was new and had cost her seven dollars and a half. She kept saying, “Maybe I shouldn’t have paid that for it. No, I shouldn’t have. I’ll take it off and return it tomorrow. I shouldn’t have bought it.”
Julian raised his eyes to heaven. “Yes, you should have bought it,” he said. “Put it on and let’s go.” It was a hideous hat. A purple velvet flap came down on one side of it and stood up on the other; the rest of it was green and looked like a cushion with the stuffing out. He decided it was less comical than jaunty and pathetic. Everything that gave her pleasure was small and depressed him.
She lifted the hat one more time and set it down slowly on top of her head. Two wings of gray hair protruded on either side of her florid face, but her eyes, sky-blue, were as innocent and untouched by experience as they must have been when she was ten. Were it not that she was a widow who had struggled fiercely to feed and clothe and put him through school and who was supporting him still, “until he got on his feet,” she might have been a little girl that he had to take to town. “It’s all right, it’s all right,” he said. “Let’s go.” He opened door himself and started down the walk to get her going. The sky was a dying violet and the houses stood out darkly against it, bulbous liver-colored monstrosities of a uniform ugliness though no two were alike. Since this had been a fashionable neighborhood forty years ago, his mother persisted in thinking they did well to have an apartment in it. Each house had a narrow collar of dirt around it in which sat, usually, a grubby child. Julian walked with his hands in his pockets, his head down and thrust forward and his eyes glazed with the determination to make himself completely numb during the time he would be sacrificed to her pleasure.
The door closed and he turned to find the dumpy figure, surmounted by the atrocious hat, coming toward him. “Well,” she said, “you only live once and paying a little more for it, I at least won’t meet myself coming and going.”
“Some day I’ll start making money,” Julian said gloomily- he knew he never would – “and you can have one of those jokes whenever you take the fit.” But first they would move. He visualized a place where the nearest neighbors would be three miles away on either side.
“I think you’re doing fine,” she said, drawing on her gloves. “You’ve only been out of school a year. Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
She was one of the few members of the Y reducing class who arrived in hat and gloves and who had a son who had been to college. “It takes time,” she said, “and the world is in such a mess. This hat looked better on me than any of the others, though when she brought it out I said, ‘Take that thing back. I wouldn’t have it on my head,’ and she said, ‘Now wait till you see it on,’ and when she put it on me, I said, ‘We-ull,’ and she said, ‘If you ask me, that hat does something for you and you do something for the hat, and besides,’ she said, ‘with that hat, you won’t meet yourself coming and going.’”
Julian thought he could have stood his lot better if she had been selfish, if she had been an old hag who drank and screamed at him. He walked along, saturated in depression, as if in the midst of his martyrdom he had lost his faith. Catching sight of his long, hopeless, irritated face, she stopped suddenly with a grief-stricken look, and pulled back on his arm. “Wait on me,” she said. “I’m going back to the house and take this thing off and tomorrow I’m going to return it. I was out of my head. I can pay the gas bill with that seven-fifty.”
He caught her arm in a vicious grip. “You are not going to take it back,” he said. “I like it.”
“Well,” she said, “I don’t think I ought. . .”
“Shut up and enjoy it,” he muttered, more depressed than ever.
“With the world in the mess it’s in,” she said, “it’s a wonder we can enjoy anything. I tell you, the bottom rail is on the top.”
“Of course,” she said, “if you know who you are, you can go anywhere.” She said this every time he took her to the reducing class. “Most of them in it are not our kind of people,” she said, “but I can be gracious to anybody. I know who I am.”
“They don’t give a damn for your graciousness,” Julian said savagely. “Knowing who you are is good for one generation only. You haven’t the foggiest idea where you stand now or who you are.”
She stopped and allowed her eyes to flash at him. “I most certainly do know who I am,” she said, “and if you don’t know who you are, I’m ashamed of you.”
“Oh hell,” Julian said.
“Your great-grandfather was a former governor of this state,” she said. “Your grandfather was a prosperous land-owner. Your grandmother was a Godhigh.”
“Will you look around you,” he said tensely, “and see where you are now?” and he swept his arm jerkily out to indicate the neighborhood, which the growing darkness at least made less dingy.
“You remain what you are,” she said. “Your great-grand-father had a plantation and two hundred slaves.”
“There are no more slaves,” he said irritably.
“They were better off when they were,” she said. He groaned to see that she was off on that topic. She rolled onto it every few days like a train on an open track. He knew every stop, every junction, every swamp along the way, and knew the exact point at which her conclusion would roil majestically into the station: “It’s ridiculous. It’s simply not realistic. They should rise, yes, but on their own side of the fence.”
“Let’s skip it,” Julian said.
“The ones I feel sorry for,” she said, “are the ones that are half white. They’re tragic.”
“Will you skip it?”
“Suppose we were half white. We would certainly have mixed feelings.”
“I have mixed feelings now,” he groaned.
“Well let’s talk about something pleasant,” she said. “I remember going to Grandpa’s when I was a little girl. Then the house had double stairways that went up to what was really the second floor – all the cooking was done on the first. I used to like to stay down in the kitchen on account of the way the walls smelled. I would sit with my nose pressed against the plaster and take deep breaths. Actually the place belonged to the Godhighs but your grandfather Chestny paid the mortgage and saved it for them. They were in reduced circumstances,” she said, “but reduced or not, they never forgot who they were.”
“Doubtless that decayed mansion reminded them,” Julian muttered. He never spoke of it without contempt or thought of it without longing. He had seen it once when he was a child before it had been sold. The double stairways had rotted and been torn down. Negroes were living in it. But it remained in his mind as his mother had known it. It appeared in his dreams regularly. He would stand on the wide porch, listening to the rustle of oak leaves, then wander through the high-ceilinged hall into the parlor that opened onto it and gaze at the worn rugs and faded draperies. It occurred to him that it was he, not she, who could have appreciated it. He preferred its threadbare elegance to anything he could name and it was because of it that all the neighborhoods they had lived in had been a torment to him – whereas she had hardly known the difference. She called her insensitivity “being adjustable.”
“And I remember the old darky who was my nurse, Caroline. There was no better person in the world. I’ve always had a great respect for my colored friends,” she said. “I’d do anything in the world for them and they’d. . .”
“Will you for God’s sake get off that subject?” Julian said. When he got on a bus by himself, he made it a point to sit down beside a Negro, in reparation as it were for his mother’s sins.
“You’re mighty touchy tonight,” she said. “Do you feel all right?”
“Yes I feel all right” he said. “Now lay off.”
She pursed her lips. “Well, you certainly are in a vile humor,” she observed “I just won’t speak to you at all.”
They had reached the bus stop. There was no bus in sight and Julian, his hands still jammed in his pockets and his head thrust forward, scowled down the empty street. The frustration of having to wait on the bus as well as ride on it began to creep up his neck like a hot hand. The presence of his mother was borne in upon him as she gave a pained sigh. He looked at her bleakly. She was holding herself very erect under the preposterous hat wearing it like a banner of her imaginary dignity. There was in him an evil urge to break her spirit. He suddenly unloosened his tie and pulled it off and put it in his pocket
She stiffened. “Why must you look like that when you take me to town?” she said. “Why must you deliberately embarrass me?”
“If you’ll never learn where you arc,” he said, “you can at least learn where I am.”
“You look like a thug,” she said.
“Then I must be one” he murmured.
“I’ll just go home” she said. “I will not bother you. If you can’t do a little thing’ like that for me . . .”
Rolling his eyes upward, he put his tie back on. “Restored to my class,” he muttered. He thrust his face toward her and hissed, “True culture is in the mind, the mind,” he said, and tapped his head, “the mind.”
“It’s in the heart,” she said, “and in how you do things and how you do things is because of who you are.”
“Nobody in the damn bus cares who you are.”
“I care who I am” she said icily.
The lighted bus appeared on top of the next hill and as it approached, they moved out into the street to meet it. He put his hand under her elbow and hoisted her up On the creaking step. She entered with a little smile, as if she were going into a drawing room where everyone had been waiting for her. While he put in the tokens, she sat down on one of the broad front seats for three which faced the aisle. A thin woman with protruding teeth and long yellow hair was sitting on the end of it. His mother moved up beside her and left room for Julian beside herself. He sat down and looked at the floor across the aisle where a pair of thin feet in red and white canvas sandals were planted.
His mother immediately began a general conversation meant to attract anyone who felt like talking. “Can it get any hotter?” she said and removed from her purse a folding fan, black with a Japanese scene on it, which she began to flutter before her.
“I reckon it might could,” the woman with the protruding teeth said, “but I know for a fact my apartment couldn’t get no hotter.”
“It must get the afternoon sun, ” his mother said. She sat forward and looked up and down the bus. It was half filled. Everybody was white. “I see we have the bus to ourselves,” she said. Julian cringed.
“For a change,” said the woman across the aisle, the owner of the red and white canvas sandals. “I come on one the other day and they were thick as fleas – up front and all through.”
“The world is in a mess everywhere,” his mother said. “I don’t know how we’ve let it get in this fix.”
“What gets my goat is all those boys from good families stealing automobile tires,” the woman with the protruding teeth said. “I told my boy, I said you may not be rich but you been raised right and if I ever catch you in any such mess, they can send you on to the reformatory. Be exactly where you belong.”
“Training tells,” his mother said. “Is your boy in high school?”
“Ninth grade,” the woman said.
“My son just finished college last year. He wants to write but he’s selling typewriters until he gets started,” his mother said.
The woman leaned forward and peered at Julian. He threw her such a malevolent look that she subsided against the seat. On the floor across the aisle there was an abandoned newspaper. He got up and got it and opened it out in front of him. His mother discreetly continued the conversation in a lower tone but the woman across the aisle said in a loud voice, “Well that’s nice. Selling typewriters is close to writing. He can go right from one to the other.”
“I tell him,” his mother said, “that Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
Behind the newspaper Julian was withdrawing into the inner compartment of his mind where he spent most of his time. This was a kind of mental bubble in which he established himself when he could not bear to be a part of what was going on around him. From it he could see out and judge but in it he was safe from any kind of penetration from without. It was the only place where he felt free of the general idiocy of his fellows. His mother had never entered it but from it he could see her with absolute clarity.
The old lady was clever enough and he thought that if she had started from any of the right premises, more might have been expected of her. She lived according to the laws of her own fantasy world outside of which he had never seen her set foot. The law of it was to sacrifice herself for him after she had first created the necessity to do so by making a mess of things. If he had permitted her sacrifices, it was only because her lack of foresight had made them necessary. All of her life had been a struggle to act like a Chestny and to give him everything she thought a Chestny ought to have without the goods a Chestny ought to have; but since, said she, it was fun to struggle, why complain? And when you had won, as she had won, what fun to look back on the hard times! He could not forgive her that she had enjoyed the struggle and that she thought she had won.
What she meant when she said she had won was that she had brought him up successfully and had sent him to college and that he had turned out so well-good looking (her teeth had gone unfilled so that his could be straightened), intelligent (he realized he was too intelligent to be a success), and with a future ahead of him (there was of course no future ahead of him). She excused his gloominess on the grounds that he was still growing up and his radical ideas on his lack of practical experience. She said he didn’t yet know a thing about “life,” that he hadn’t even entered the real world – when already he was as disenchanted with it as a man of fifty.
The further irony of all this was that in spite of her, he had turned out so well. In spite of going to only a third-rate college, he had, on his own initiative, come out with a first-rate education; in spite of growing up dominated by a small mind, he had ended up with a large one; in spite of all her foolish views, he was free of prejudice and unafraid to face facts. Most miraculous of all, instead of being blinded by love for her as she was for him, he had cut himself emotionally free of her and could see her with complete objectivity. He was not dominated by his mother.
The bus stopped with a sudden jerk and shook him from his meditation. A woman from the back lurched forward with little steps and barely escaped falling in his newspaper as she righted herself. She got off and a large Negro got on. Julian kept his paper lowered to watch. It gave him a certain satisfaction to see injustice in daily operation. It confirmed his view that with a few exceptions there was no one worth knowing within a radius of three hundred miles. The Negro was well dressed and carried a briefcase. He looked around and then sat down on the other end of the seat where the woman with the red and white canvas sandals was sitting. He immediately unfolded a newspaper and obscured himself behind it. Julianís mother’s elbow at once prodded insistently into his ribs. “Now you see why I won’t ride on these buses by myself,” she whispered.
The woman with the red and white canvas sandals had risen at the same time the Negro sat down and had gone farther back in the bus and taken the seat of the woman who had got off His mother leaned forward and cast her an approving look.
Julian rose, crossed the aisle, and sat down in the place of the woman with the canvas sandals. From this position, he looked serenely across at his mother. Her face had turned an angry red. He stared at her, making his eyes the eyes of a stranger. He felt his tension suddenly lift as if he had openly declared war on her.
He would have liked to get in conversation with the Negro and to talk with him about art or politics or any subject that would be above the comprehension of those around them, but the man remained entrenched behind his paper. He was either ignoring the change of seating or had never noticed it. There was no way for Julian to convey his sympathy.
His mother kept her eyes fixed reproachfully on his face. The woman with the protruding teeth was looking at him avidly as if he were a type of monster new to her.
“Do you have a light?” he asked the Negro.
Without looking away from his paper, the man reached in his pocket and handed him a packet of matches.
“Thanks,” Julian said. For a moment he held the matches foolishly. A NO SMOKING sign looked down upon him from over the door. This alone would not have deterred him; he had no cigarettes. He had quit smoking some months before because he could not afford it. “Sorry,” he muttered and handed back the matches. The Negro lowered the paper and gave him an annoyed look. He took the matches and raised the paper again.
His mother continued to gaze at him but she did not take advantage of his momentary discomfort. Her eyes retained their battered look. Her face seemed to be unnaturally red, as if her blood pressure had risen. Julian allowed no glimmer of sympathy to show on his face. Having got the advantage, he wanted desperately to keep it and carry it through. He would have liked to teach her a lesson that would last her a while, but there seemed no way to continue the point. The Negro refused to come out from behind his paper.
Julian folded his arms and looked stolidly before him, facing her but as if he did not see her, as if he had ceased to recognize her existence. He visualized a scene in which, the bus having reached their stop, he would remain in his seat and when she said, “Aren’t you going to get off?” he would look at her as at a stranger who had rashly addressed him. The corner they got off on was usually deserted, but it was well lighted and it would not hurt her to walk by herself the four blocks to the Y. He decided to wait until the time came and then decide whether or not he would let her get off by herself He would have to be at the Y at ten to bring her back, but he could leave her wondering if he was going to show up. There was no reason for her to think she could always depend on him.
He retired again into the high-ceilinged room sparsely set-tled with large pieces of antique furniture. His soul expanded momentarily but then he became aware of his mother across from him and the vision shriveled. He studied her coldly. Her feet in little pumps dangled like a child’s and did not quite reach the floor. She was training on him an exaggerated look of reproach. He felt completely detached from her. At that moment he could with pleasure have slapped her as he would have slapped a particularly obnoxious child in his charge.
He began to imagine various unlikely ways by which he could teach her a lesson. He might make friends with some distinguished Negro professor or lawyer and bring him home to spend the evening. He would be entirely justified but her blood pressure would rise to 300. He could not push her to the extent of making her have a stroke, and moreover, he had never been successful at making any Negro friends. He had tried to strike up an acquaintance on the bus with some of the better types, with ones that looked like professors or min-isters or lawyers. One morning he had sat down next to a distinguished-looking dark brown man who had answered his questions with a sonorous solemnity but who had turned out to be an undertaker. Another day he had sat down beside a cigar-smoking Negro with a diamond ring on his finger, but after a few stilted pleasantries, the Negro had rung the buzzer and risen, slipping two lottery tickets into Julian’s hand as he climbed over him to leave.
He imagined his mother lying desperately ill and his being able to secure only a Negro doctor for her. He toyed with that idea for a few minutes and then dropped it for a momentary vision of himself participating as a sympathizer in a sit-in demonstration. This was possible but he did not linger with it. Instead, he approached the ultimate horror. He brought home a beautiful suspiciously Negroid woman. Prepare yourself, he said. There is nothing you can do about it. This is the woman I’ve chosen. She’s intelligent, dignified, even good, and she’s suffered and she hasn’t thought it fun. Now persecute us, go ahead and persecute us. Drive her out of here, but remember, you’re driving me too. His eyes were narrowed and through the indignation he had generated, he saw his mother across the aisle, purple-faced, shrunken to the dwarf-like proportions of her moral nature, sitting like a mummy beneath the ridiculous banner of her hat.
He was tilted out of his fantasy again as the bus stopped. The door opened with a sucking hiss and out of the dark a large, gaily dressed, sullen-looking colored woman got on with a little boy. The child, who might have been four, had on a short plaid suit and a Tyrolean hat with a blue feather in it. Julian hoped that he would sit down beside him and that the woman would push in beside his mother. He could think of no better arrangement.
As she waited for her tokens, the woman was surveying the seating possibilities – he hoped with the idea of sitting where she was least wanted. There was something familiar-looking about her but Julian could not place what it was. She was a giant of a woman. Her face was set not only to meet opposition but to seek it out. The downward tilt of her large lower lip was like a warning sign: DON’T TAMPER WITH ME. Her bulging figure was encased in a green crepe dress and her feet overflowed in red shoes. She had on a hideous hat. A purple velvet flap came down on one side of it and stood up on the other; the rest of it was green and looked like a cushion with the stuffing out. She carried a mammoth red pocketbook that bulged throughout as if it were stuffed with rocks.
To Julian’s disappointment, the little boy climbed up on the empty seat beside his mother. His mother lumped all children, black and white, into the common category, “cute,” and she thought little Negroes were on the whole cuter than little white children. She smiled at the little boy as he climbed on the seat.
Meanwhile the woman was bearing down upon the empty seat beside Julian. To his annoyance, she squeezed herself into it. He saw his mother’s face change as the woman settled herself next to him and he realized with satisfaction that this was more objectionable to her than it was to him. Her face seemed almost gray and there was a look of dull recognition in her eyes, as if suddenly she had sickened at some awful confrontation. Julian saw that it was because she and the woman had, in a sense, swapped sons. Though his mother would not realize the symbolic significance of this, she would feel it. His amusement showed plainly on his face.
The woman next to him muttered something unintelligible to herself He was conscious of a kind of bristling next to him, a muted growling like that of an angry cat. He could not see anything but the red pocketbook upright on the bulg-ing green thighs. He visualized the woman as she had stood waiting for her tokens-the ponderous figure, rising from the red shoes upward over the solid hips, the mammoth bosom, the haughty face, to the green and purple hat.
His eyes widened.
The vision of the two hats, identical, broke upon him with the radiance of a brilliant sunrise. His face was suddenly lit with joy. He could not believe that Fate had thrust upon his mother such a lesson. He gave a loud chuckle so that she would look at him and see that he saw. She turned her eyes on him slowly. The blue in them seemed to have turned a bruised purple. For a moment he had an uncomfortable sense of her innocence, but it lasted only a second before principle rescued him. Justice entitled him to laugh. His grin hardened until it said to her as plainly as if he were saying aloud: Your punishment exactly fits your pettiness. This should teach you a permanent lesson.
Her eyes shifted to the woman. She seemed unable to bear looking at him and to find the woman preferable. He became conscious again of the bristling presence at his side. The woman was rumbling like a volcano about to become active. His mother’s mouth began to twitch slightly at one corner. With a sinking heart, he saw incipient signs of recovery on her face and realized that this was going to strike her suddenly as funny and was going to be no lesson at all. She kept her eyes on the woman and an amused smile came over her face as if the woman were a monkey that had stolen her hat. The little Negro was looking up at her with large fascinated eyes. He had been trying to attract her attention for some time.
“Carver!” the woman said suddenly. “Come heah!”
When he saw that the spotlight was on him at last, Carver drew his feet up and turned himself toward Julianís mother and giggled.
“Carver!” the woman said. “You heah me? Come heah!”
Carver slid down from the seat but remained squatting with his back against the base of it, his head turned slyly around toward Julian’s mother, who was smiling at him. The woman reached a hand across the aisle and snatched him to her. He righted himself and hung backwards on her knees, grinning at Julian’s mother. “Isn’t he cute?” Julian’s mother said to the woman with the protruding teeth.
“I reckon he is,” the woman said without conviction.
The Negress yanked him upright but he eased out of her grip and shot across the aisle and scrambled, giggling wildly, onto the seat beside his love.
“I think he likes me,” Julian’s mother said, and smiled at the woman. It was the smile she used when she was being particularly gracious to an inferior. Julian saw everything lost. The lesson had rolled off her like rain on a roof.
The woman stood up and yanked the little boy off the seat as if she were snatching him from contagion. Julian could feel the rage in her at having no weapon like his mother’s smile. She gave the child a sharp slap across his leg. He howled once and then thrust his head into her stomach and kicked his fret against her shins. “Be-have,” she said vehemently.
The bus stopped and the Negro who had been reading the newspaper got off. The woman moved over and set the little boy down with a thump between herself and Julian. She held him firmly by the knee. In a moment he put his hands in front of his face and peeped at Julian’s mother through his fingers.
“I see yoooooooo !” she said and put her hand in front of her face and peeped at him.
The woman slapped his hand down. “Quit yo’ foolishness,” she said, “before I knock the living Jesus out of you!”
Julian was thankful that the next stop was theirs. He reached up and pulled the cord. The woman reached up and pulled it at the same time. Oh my God, he thought. He had the terrible intuition that when they got off the bus together, his mother would open her purse and give the little boy a nickel. The gesture would be as natural to her as breathing. The bus stopped and the woman got up and lunged to the front, dragging the child, who wished to stay on, after her. in and his mother got up and followed. As they neared e door, Julian tried to relieve her of her pocketbook.
“No,” she murmured, “I want to give the little boy a nickel.”
“No!” Julian hissed. “No!”
She smiled down at the child and opened her bag. The bus door opened and the woman picked him up by the arm and descended with him, hanging at her hip. Once in the street she set him down and shook him.
Julian’s mother had to close her purse while she got down the bus step but as soon as her feet were on the ground, she opened it again and began to rummage inside. “I can’t find but a penny,” she whispered, “but it looks like a new one.”
“Don’t do it!” Julian said fiercely between his teeth. There was a streetlight on the corner and she hurried to get under it so that she could better see into her pocketbook. The woman was heading off rapidly down the street with the child still hanging backward on her hand.
“Oh little boy!” Julian’s mother called and took a few quick steps and caught up with them just beyond the lamppost. “Here’s a bright new penny for you,” and she held out the coin, which shone bronze in the dim light.
The huge woman turned and for a moment stood, her shoulders lifted and her face frozen with frustrated rage, and stared at Julianís mother. Then all at once she seemed to explode like a piece of machinery that had been given one ounce of pressure too much. Julian saw the black fist swing out with the red pocketbook. He shut his eyes and cringed as he heard the woman shout, “He don’t take nobody’s pennies!” When he opened his eyes, the woman was disappearing down the street with the little boy staring wide-eyed over her shoulder. Julianís mother was sitting on the sidewalk.
“I told you not to do that,” Julian said angrily. “I told you not to do that!”
He stood over her for a minute, gritting his teeth. Her legs were stretched out in front of her and her hat was on her lap. He squatted down and looked her in the face. It was totally expressionless. “You got exactly what you deserved,” he said. “Now get up.”
He picked up her pocketbook and put what had fallen out back in it. He picked the hat up off her lap. The penny caught his eye on the sidewalk and he picked that up and let it drop before her eyes into the purse. Then he stood up and leaned over and held his hands out to pull her up. She remained immobile. He sighed. Rising above them on either side were black apartment buildings, marked with irregular rectangles of light. At the end of the block a man came out of a door and walked off in the opposite direction. “All right,” he said, “suppose somebody happens by and wants to know why you’re sitting on the sidewalk?”
She took the hand and, breathing hard, pulled heavily up on it and then stood for a moment, swaying slightly as if the spots of light in the darkness were circling around her. Her eyes, shadowed and confused, finally settled on his face. He did not try to conceal his irritation. “I hope this teaches you a lesson,” he said. She leaned forward and her eyes raked his face. She seemed trying to determine his identity. Then, as if she found nothing familiar about him, she started off with a headlong movement in the wrong direction.
“Aren’t you going on to the Y?” he asked.
“Home,” she muttered.
“Well, are we walking?”
For answer she kept going. Julian followed along, his hands behind him. He saw no reason to let the lesson she had had go without backing it up with an explanation of its meaning. She might as well be made to understand what had happened to her. “Don’t think that was just an uppity Negro woman,” he said. “That was the whole colored race which will no longer take your condescending pennies. That was your black double. She can wear the same hat as you, and to be sure,” he added gratuitously (because he thought it was funny), “it looked better on her than it did on you. What all this means,” he said, “is that the old world is gone. The old manners are obsolete and your graciousness is not worth a damn.” He thought bitterly of the house that had been lost for him. “You aren’t who you think you are,” he said.
She continued to plow ahead, paying no attention to him. Her hair had come undone on one side. She dropped her pocketbook and took no notice. He stooped and picked it up and handed it to her but she did not take it.
”You needn’t act as if the world had come to an end,” he said, “because it hasn’t. From now on you’ve got to live in a new world and face a few realities for a change. Buck up,” he said, “it won’t kill you.”
She was breathing fast.
“Let’s wait on the bus,” he said.
“Home,” she said thickly.
“I hate to see you behave like this,” he said. “Just like a child. I should be able to expect more of you.” He decided to stop where he was and make her stop and wait for a bus. “I’m not going any farther,” he said, stopping. “We’re going on the bus.”
She continued to go on as if she had not heard him. He took a few steps and caught her arm and stopped her. He looked into her face and caught his breath. He was looking into a face he had never seen before. “Tell Grandpa to come get me,” she said.
He stared, stricken.
“Tell Caroline to come get me,” she said.
Stunned, he let her go and she lurched forward again, walking as if one leg were shorter than the other. A tide of darkness seemed to be sweeping her from him. “Mother!” he cried. “Darling, sweetheart, wait!” Crumpling, she fell to the pavement. He dashed forward and fell at her side, crying, “Mamma, Mamma!” He turned her over. Her face was fiercely distorted. One eye, large and staring, moved slightly to the left as if it had become unmoored. The other remained fixed on him, raked his face again, found nothing and closed.
“Wait here, wait here!” he cried and jumped up and began to run for help toward a cluster of lights he saw in the distance ahead of him. “Help, help!” he shouted, but his voice was thin, scarcely a thread of sound. The lights drifted farther away the faster he ran and his feet moved numbly as if they carried him nowhere. The tide of darkness seemed to sweep him back to her, postponing from moment to moment his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow.
Revelation (published posthumously in 1965)
The Doctor’s waiting room, which was very small, was almost full when the Turpins entered and Mrs. Turpin, who was very large, made it look even smaller by her presence. She stood looming at the head of the magazine table set in the center of it, a living demonstration that the room was inadequate and ridiculous. Her little bright black eyes took in all the patients as she sized up the seating situation. There was one vacant chair and a place on the sofa occupied by a blond child in a dirty blue romper who should have been told to move over and make room for the lady. He was five or six, but Mrs. Turpin saw at once that no one was going to tell him to move over. He was slumped down in the seat, his arms idle at his sides and his eyes idle in his head; his nose ran unchecked.
Mrs. Turpin put a firm hand on Claud’s shoulder and said in a voice that included anyone who wanted to listen, “Claud, you sit in that chair there,” and gave him a push down into the vacant one. Claud was florid and bald and sturdy, somewhat shorter than Mrs. Turpin, but he sat down as if he were accustomed to doing what she told him to.
Mrs. Turpin remained standing. The only man in the room besides Claud was a lean stringy old fellow with a rusty hand spread out on each knee, whose eyes were closed as if he were asleep or dead or pretending to be so as not to get up and offer her his seat. Her gaze settled agreeably on a well-dressed grey-haired lady whose eyes met hers and whose expression said: if that child belonged to me, he would have some manners and move over-there’s plenty of room there for you and him too.
Claud looked up with a sigh and made as if to rise.
“Sit down,” Mrs. Turpin said. “You know you’re not supposed to stand on that leg. He has an ulcer on his leg,” she explained.
Claud lifted his foot onto the magazine table and rolled his trouser leg up to reveal a purple swelling on a plump marble white calf.
“My!” the pleasant lady said. “How did you do that?”
“A cow kicked him,” Mrs. Turpin said.
“Goodness!” said the lady.
Claud rolled his trouser leg down.
“Maybe the little boy would move over,” the lady suggested, but the child did not stir.
“Somebody will be leaving in a minute,” Mrs. Turpin said. She could not understand why a doctor-with as much money as they made charging five dollars a day to just stick their head in the hospital door and look at you-couldn’t afford a decent-sized waiting room. This one was hardly bigger than a garage. The table was cluttered with limp-looking magazines and at one end of it there was a big green glass ashtray full of cigarette butts and cotton wads with little blood spots on them. If she had had anything to do with the running of the place, that would have been emptied every so often. There were no chairs against the wall at the head of the room. It had a rectangular-shaped panel in it that permitted a view of the office where the nurse came and went and the secretary listened to the radio. A plastic fern, in a gold pot sat in the opening and trailed its fronds down almost to the floor. The radio was softly playing gospel music.
Just then the inner door opened and a nurse with the highest stack of yellow hair Mrs. Turpin had ever seen put her face in the crack and called for the next patient. The woman sitting beside Claud grasped the two arms of her chair and hoisted herself up; she pulled her dress free from her legs and lumbered through the door where the nurse had disappeared.
Mrs. Turpin eased into the vacant chair, which held her tight as a corset. “I wish I could reduce,” she said, and rolled her eyes and gave a comic sigh.
“Oh, you aren’t fat,” the stylish lady said.
“Ooooo I am too,” Mrs. Turpin said. “Claud he eats all he wants to and never weighs over one hundred and seventy-five pounds, but me I just look at something good to eat and I gain some weight,” and her stomach and shoulders shook with laughter. “You can eat all you want to, can’t you, Claud?” she asked, turning to him.
Claud only grinned.
“Well, as long as you have such a good disposition,” the stylish lady said, “I don’t think it makes a bit of difference what size you are. You just can’t beat a good disposition.”
Next to her was a fat girl of eighteen or nineteen, scowling into a thick blue book which Mrs. Turpin saw was entitled Human Development. The girl raised her head and directed her scowl at Mrs. Turpin as if she did not like her looks. She appeared annoyed that anyone should speak while she tried to read. The poor girl’s face was blue with acne and Mrs. Turpin thought how pitiful it was to have a face like that at that age. She gave the girl a friendly smile but the girl only scowled the harder. Mrs. Turpin herself was fat but she had always had good skin, and, though she was forty-seven years old, there was not a wrinkle in her face except around her eyes from laughing too much.
Next to the ugly girl was the child, still in exactly the same position, and next to him was a thin leathery old woman in a cotton print dress. She and Claud had three sacks of chicken feed in their pump house that was in the same print. She had seen from the first that the child belonged with the old woman. She could tell by the way they sat- kind of vacant and white-trashy, as if they would sit there until Doomsday if nobody called and told them to get up. And at right angles but next to the well-dressed pleasant lady was a lank-faced woman who was certainly the child’s mother. She had on a yellow sweatshirt and wine-colored slacks, both gritty-looking, and the rims of her lips were stained with snuff. Her dirty yellow hair was tied behind with a little piece of red paper ribbon. Worse than niggers any day, Mrs. Turpin thought.
The gospel hymn playing was “When I looked up and He looked down,” and Mrs. Turpin, who knew it, supplied the last line mentally, “And wona these days I know I’ll we-eara crown.
Without appearing to, Mrs. Turpin always noticed people’s feet. The well-dressed lady had on red and grey suede shoes to match her dress. Mrs. Turpin had on her good black patent -leather pumps. The ugly girl had on Girl Scout shoes and heavy socks. The old woman had on tennis shoes and the white-trashy mother had on what appeared to be bedroom slippers, black straw with gold braid threaded through them-exactly what you would have expected her to have on.
Sometimes at night when she couldn’t go to sleep, Mrs. Turpin would occupy herself with the question of who she would have chosen to be if she couldn’t have been herself. If Jesus had said to her before he made her, “There’s only two places available for you. You can either be a nigger or white trash,” what would she have said? “Please, Jesus, please,” she would have said, “Just let me wait until there’s another place available,” and he would have said, “No, you have to go right now”, and I have only those two places so make up your mind.” She would have wiggled and squirmed and begged and pleaded but it would have been no use and finally she would have said, “All right, make me a nigger then-but that don’t mean a trashy one.” And he would have made her a near clean respectable Negro woman, herself but black.
Next to the child’s mother was a redheaded youngish woman, reading one of the magazines and working a piece of chewing gum, hell for leather, as Claud would say. Mrs. Turpin could not see the woman’s feet. She was not white trash, just common. Sometimes Mrs. Turpin occupied herself at night naming the classes of people. On the bottom of the heap were most colored people, not the kind she would have been if she had been one, but most of them; then next to them — not above, just away from — were the white-trash; then above them were the home-owners, and above them the home-and-land owners, to which she and Claud belonged, Above she and Claud were people with a lot of money and much bigger houses and much more land. But here the complexity of it would begin to bear in on her, for some of the people with a lot of money were common and ought to be below she and Claud and some of the people who had good blood had lost their money and had to rent and then there some colored people who owned their homes and land as well. There was a colored dentist in town who had two red Lincoln’s and a swimming pool and a farm with registered whiteface cattle on it. Usually by the time she had fallen asleep all the classes of people were moiling and roiling around in her head, and she would dream they were all crammed in together in a box car, being ridden off to be put in a gas oven.
“That’s a beautiful clock,” she said and nodded to her right. It was a big wall clock, the face encased in a brass sunburst.
“Yes, it’s very pretty,” the stylish lady said agreeably. “And right on the dot too,” she added, glancing at her watch.
The ugly girl beside her cast an eye upward at the clock, smirked, then looked directly at Mrs. Turpin and smirked again. Then she returned her eyes to her book. She was obviously the lady’s daughter because, although they didn’t look anything alike as to disposition, they both had the same shape of face and the same blue eyes. On the lady they sparkled pleasantly but in the girl’s scared face they appeared alternately to smolder and to blaze.
What if Jesus had said, “All right, you can be white-trash or a nigger or ugly”!
Mrs. Turpin felt an awful pity for the girl, though she thought it was one thing to be ugly and another to act ugly.
The woman with the snuff-stained lips turned around in her chair and looked up at the clock. Then she turned back and appeared to look a little to the side of Mrs. Turpin. There was a cast in one of her eyes. “You want to know where you can get you one of them there clocks?” she asked in a loud voice.
No , I already have a nice clock,” Mrs. Turpin said. Once somebody like her got a leg in the conversation, she would be all over it. “You can get you one with green stamps,” the woman said. “That’s most likely where he got hisn. Save you up enough, you can get you most anythang. I got me some joo’ry.”
Ought to have got you a wash rag and some soap, Mrs. Turpin thought.
“I get contour sheets with mine,” the pleasant lady said.
The daughter slammed her book shut. She looked straight in front of her, directly through Mrs. Turpin and on through the yellow curtain and the plate glass window which made the wall behind her. The girl’s eyes seemed lit all of a sudden with a peculiar light, an unnatural light like night road signs give. Mrs. Turpin turned her head to see if there was anything going on outside that she should see, but she could not see anything. Figures passing cast only a pate shadow through the curtain. There was no reason the girl should single her out for her ugly looks.
“Miss Finley,” the nurse said, cracking the door. The gum-chewing woman got up and passed in front of her and Claud and went into the office. She had on red high-heeled shoes.
Directly across the table, the ugly girl’s eyes were fixed on Mrs. Turpin as if she had some very special reason for disliking her.
“This is wonderful weather, isn’t it?” the girl’s mother said.
“It’s good weather for cotton if you can get the niggers to pick it,” Mrs. Turpin said, “but niggers don’t want to pick cotton any more. You can’t get the white folks to pick it and now you can’t get the niggers because they got to be right up there with the white folks.”
“They gonna try anyways,” the white-trash woman said, leaning forward.
“Do you have one of those cotton-picking machines?” the pleasant lady asked.
“No,” Mrs. Turpin said, “they leave half the cotton in the field. We don’t have much cotton anyway. If you want to make it farming now, you have to have a little of everything. We got a couple of acres of cotton and a few hogs and chickens and just enough white-face that Claud can look after them himself.
“One thang I don’t want,” the white-trash woman said, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. “Hogs. Nasty stinking things, a-gruntin and a-rootin all over the place.”
Mrs. Turpin gave her the merest edge of her attention. “Our hogs are not dirty and they don’t stink,” she said. “They’re cleaner than some children I’ve seen. Their feet never touch the ground. We have a pig-parlor- that’s where you raise them on concrete,” she explained to the pleasant lady, “and Claud scoots them down with the hose every afternoon and washes off the floor.” Cleaner by far than that child right there, she thought. Poor nasty little thing. He had not moved except to put the thumb of his dirty hand into his mouth.
Mrs. Turpin gave her the merest edge of her attention. “Our hogs are not dirty and they don’t stink,” she said. “They’re cleaner than some children I’ve seen. Their feet never touch the ground. We have a pig-parlor- that’s where you raise them on concrete,” she explained to the pleasant lady, “and Claud scoots them down with the hose every afternoon and washes off the floor.” Cleaner by far than that child right there, she thought. Poor nasty little thing. He had not moved except to put the thumb of his dirty hand into his mouth.
The woman turned her face away from Mrs. Turpin. “I know I wouldn’t scoot down no hog with no hose,” she said to the wall.
You wouldn’t have no hog to scoot down, Mrs. Turpin said to herself.
“A-gruntin and a-rootin and a-groanin,” the woman muttered.
“We got a little of everything,” Mrs. Turpin said to the pleasant lady. “It’s no use in having more than you can handle yourself with help like it is. We found enough niggers to pick our cotton this year, but Claud he has to go after them and take them home again in the evening. They can’t walk that half a mile. No they can’t. I tell you,” she said and laughed merrily. “I sure am tired of buttering up niggers, but you got to love em if you want em to work for you. When they come in the morning, I run out and I say, ‘How yal this morning?’ and when Claud drives them off to the field I just wave to beat the band and they just wave back.” And she waved her hand rapidly to illustrate.
“Like you read out of the same book,” the lady said, showing she understood perfectly.
“Child, yes,” Mrs. Turpin said. “And when they come in from the field, I run out with a bucket of ice water. That’s the way it’s going to be from now on,” she said. “You may as well face it.”
“One thang I know,” the white-trash woman said. “Two thangs I ain’t going to do: love no niggers or scoot down no hog with no hose.” And she let out a bark of contempt.
The look that Mrs. Turpin and the pleasant lady exchanged indicated they both understood that you had to have certain things before you could know certain things. But every time Mrs. Turpin exchanged a look with the lady, she was aware that the ugly girl’s peculiar eyes were still on her, and she had trouble bringing her attention back to the conversation.
“When you got something,” she said, “you got to look after it.” And when you ain’t got a thing but breath and britches, she added to herself, you can afford to come to town every morning and just sit on the Court House coping and spit.
A grotesque revolving shadow passed across the curtain behind her and was thrown palely on the opposite wall. Then a bicycle clattered down against the outside of the building. The door opened and a colored boy glided in with a tray from the drug store. It had two large red and white paper cups on it with tops on them. He was a tall, very black boy in discolored white pants and a green nylon shirt. He was chewing gum slowly, as if to music. He set the tray down in the office opening next to the fern and stuck his head through to look for the secretary. She was not in there. He rested his arms on the ledge and waited, his narrow bottom stuck out, swaying slowly to the left and right. He raised a hand over his head and scratched the base of his skull.
“You see that button there, boy?” Mrs. Turpin said. “You can punch that and she’ll come. She’s probably in the back somewhere.”
“Is thas right?” the boy said agreeably, as if he had never seen the button before. He leaned to the right and put his finger on it. “She sometime out,” he said and twisted around to face his audience, his elbows behind him on the counter. The nurse appeared and he twisted back again. She handed him a dollar and he rooted in his pocket and made the change and counted it out to her. She gave him fifteen cents for a tip and he went out with the empty tray. The heavy door swung too slowly and closed at length with the sound of suction. For a moment no one spoke.
“They ought to send all them niggers back to Africa,” the white trash woman said. “That’s wher they come from in first place.”
“Oh, I couldn’t do without my good colored friends,” the pleasant lady said.
“There’s a heap of things worse than a nigger,” Mrs. Turpin agreed. “It’s all kinds of them just like it’s all kinds of us.”
“Yes, and it takes all kinds to make the world go round,” the lady said in her musical voice.
As she said it, the raw-complexioned girl snapped her teeth together. Her lower lip turned downwards and inside out, revealing the pale pink inside of her mouth. After a second it rolled back up. It was the ugliest face Mrs. Turpin had ever seen anyone make and for a moment she was certain that the girl had made it at her. She was looking at her as if she had known and disliked her all her life-all of Mrs. Turpin’s life, it seemed too, not just all the girl’s life. Why, girl, I don’t even know you, Mrs. Turpin said silently.
She forced her attention back to the discussion. “It wouldn’t be practical to send them back to Africa,” she said. “They wouldn’t want to go. They got it too good here.”
“Wouldn’t be what they wanted-if I had anythang to do with it,” the woman said.
“It wouldn’t be a way in the world you could get all the niggers back over there,” Mrs. Turpin said. “They’d be hiding out and lying down and turning sick on you and wailing and hollering and raring and pitching. It wouldn’t be a way in the world to get them over there.”
“They got over here,” the trashy woman said. “Get back like they got over.”
“It wasn’t so many of them then,” Mrs. Turpin explained.
The woman looked at Mrs. Turpin as if here was an idiot indeed but Mrs. Turpin was not bothered by the look, considering where it came from.
“Nooo,” she said, “they’re going to stay here where they can go to New York and marry white folks and improve their color. That’s what they all want to do, every one of them, improve their color.”
“You know what comes of that, don’t you?” Claud asked.
“No, Claud, what?” Mrs. Turpin said.
Claud’s eyes twinkled. “White-faced niggers,” he said with never a smile.
Everybody in the office laughed except the white-trash and the ugly girl. The girl gripped the book in her lap with white fingers. The trashy woman looked around her from face to face as if she thought they were all idiots. The old woman in the feed sack dress continued to gaze expressionless across the floor at the high-top shoes of the man opposite her, the one who had been pretending to be asleep when the Turpins came in. He was laughing heartily, his hands still spread out on his knees. The child had fallen to the side and was lying now almost face down in the old woman’s lap.
While they recovered from their laughter, the nasal chorus on the radio kept the room from silence.
“You go to blank blank And I’ll go to mine But we’ll all blank along To-geth-ther, And all along the blank We’ll help each-other out Smile-ling in any kind of Weath-ther!”
Mrs. Turpin didn’t catch every word but she caught enough to agree with the spirit of the song and it turned her thoughts sober. To help anybody out that needed it was her philosophy of life. She never spared herself when she found somebody in need, whether they were white or black, trash or decent. And of all she had to be thankful for, she was most thankful that this was so. If Jesus had said, “You can be high society and have all the money you want and be thin and svelte-like, but you can’t be a good woman with it,” she would have had to say, “Well don’t make me that then. Make me a good woman and it don’t matter what else, how fat or how ugly or how poor!” Her heart rose. He had not made her a nigger or white-trash or ugly! He had made her herself and given her a little of everything. Jesus, thank you! she said. Thank you thank you! Whenever she counted her blessings she felt as buoyant as if she weighed one hundred and twenty- five pounds instead of one hundred and eighty.
“What’s wrong with your little boy?” the pleasant lady asked the white-trashy woman.
“He has a ulcer,” the woman said proudly. “He ain’t give me a minute’s peace since he was born. Him and her are just alike,” she said, nodding at the old woman, who was running her leathery fingers through the child’s pale hair. “Look like I can’t get nothing down them two but Co’ Cola and candy.”
That’s all you try to get down em, Mrs. Turpin said to herself. Too lazy to light the fire. There was nothing you could tell her about people like them that she didn’t know already. And it was not just that they didn’t have anything. Because if you gave them everything, in two weeks it would all be broken or filthy or they would have chopped it up for lightwood. She knew all this from her own experience. Help them you must, but help them you couldn’t.
All at once the ugly girl turned her lips inside out again. Her eyes were fixed like two drills on Mrs. Turpin. This time there was no mistaking that there was something urgent behind them.
Girl, Mrs. Turpin exclaimed silently, I haven’t done a thing to you! The girl might be confusing her with somebody else. There was no need to sit by and let herself be intimidated.
“You must be in college,” she said boldly, looking directly at the girl. “I see you reading a book there.”
The girl continued to stare and pointedly did not answer.
Her mother blushed at this rudeness. “The lady asked you a question, Mary Grace,” she said under her breath.
“I have ears,” Mary Grace said.
The poor mother blushed again. “Mary Grace goes to Wellesley College,” she explained. She twisted one of the buttons on her dress. “In Massachusetts, she added with a grimace.”And in the summer she just keeps right on studying. Just reads all the time, a real book worm. She’s done real well at Wellesley; she’s taking English and Math and History and Psychology and Social Studies,” she rattled on “and I think it’s too much. I think she ought to get out and have fun.”
The girl looked as if she would like to hurl them all through the plate glass window.
“Way up north,” Mrs. Turpin murmured and thought, well, it hasn’t done much for her manners.
“I’d almost rather to have him sick,” the white-trash woman said, wrenching the attention back to herself. “He’s so mean when he ain’t. Look like some children just take natural to meanness. It’s some gets bad when they get sick but, he was the opposite. Took sick and turned good. He don’t give me no trouble now. It’s me waitin to see the doctor,” she said.
If I was going to send anybody back to Africa, Mrs. Turpin thought, it would be your kind, woman. “Yes, indeed,” she said aloud, but looking up at the ceiling, “It’s a heap of things worse than a nigger.” And dirtier than a hog, she added to herself
“I think people with bad dispositions are more to be pitied than anyone on earth,” the pleasant lady said in a voice that was decidedly thin.
“I thank the Lord he has blessed me with a good one,” Mrs. Turpin said. “The day has never dawned that I couldn’t find something to laugh at.”
“Not since she married me anyways,” Claud said with a comical straight face.
Everybody laughed except the girl and the white trash.
Mrs. Turpin’s stomach shook. “He’s such a caution,” she said, “that I can’t help but laugh at him.”
The girl made a loud ugly noise through her teeth.
Her mother’s mouth grew thin and tight. “I think the worst thing in the world,” she said, “is an ungrateful person. To have everything and not appreciate it. I know a girl,” she said, “who has parents who would give her anything, a little brother who loves her dearly, who is getting a good education, who wears the best clothes, but who can never say a kind word to anyone, who never smiles, who just criticizes and complains all day long.”
“Is she too old to paddle?” Claud asked.
The girl’s face was almost purple.
“Yes,” the lady said, “I’m afraid there’s nothing to do but leave her to her folly. Some day she’ll wake up and it’ll be too late.”
“It never hurt anyone to smile,” Mrs. Turpin said. “It just makes you feel better all over”
“Of course,” the lady said sadly, “but there are just some people you can’t tell anything to. They can’t take criticism.”
“If it’s one thing I am,” Mrs. Turpin said with feeling, “It’s grateful. When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, a little of everything, and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting, ‘Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is!’ It could have been different!” For one thing, somebody else could have got Claud. At the thought of this, she was flooded with gratitude and a terrible pang of joy ran through her. “Oh thank you, Jesus, Jesus, thank you!” she cried aloud.
The book struck her directly, over her left eye. It struck almost at the same instant that she realized the girl was about to hurl it. Before she could utter a sound, the raw face came crashing across the table toward her, howling. The girl’s fingers sank like clamps the soft flesh of her neck. She heard the mother cry out and Claud shout, “Whoa!” There was an instant when she was certain that she was about to be in an earthquake.
All at once her vision narrowed and she saw everything as if it were happening in a small room far away, or as if she were looking at it through the wrong end of a telescope. Claud’s face crumpled and fell out of sight. The nurse ran in, then out, then again. Then the gangling figure of the doctor rushed out of the inner door. Magazines flew this way and that as the table turned over. The girl fell with a thud and Mrs. Turpin’s vision suddenly reversed itself and she saw everything large instead of small. The eyes of the white-trashy woman were staring hugely at the floor. There the girl, held down on one side by the nurse and on the other by her mother, was wrenching and turning in their grasp. The doctor was kneeling astride her, trying to hold her arm down. He managed after a second to sink a long needle into it.
Mrs. Turpin felt entirely hollow except for her heart which swung from side to side as if it were agitated in a great empty drum of flesh.
“Somebody that’s not busy call for the ambulance,” the doctor said in the off-hand voice young doctors adopt for terrible occasions.
Mrs. Turpin could not have moved a finger. The old man who had been sitting next to her skipped nimbly into the office and made the call, for the secretary still seemed to be gone.
“Claud!” Mrs. Turpin called.
He was not in his chair. She knew she must jump up and find him but she felt like someone trying to catch a train in a dream, when everything moves in slow motion and the faster you try to run the slower you go.
“Here I am,” a suffocated voice, very unlike Claud’s, said.
He was doubled up in the corner on the floor, pale as paper, holding his leg. She wanted to get up and go to him but she could not move. Instead, her gaze was drawn slowly downward to the churning face on the floor, which she could see over the doctor’s shoulder.
The girl’s eyes stopped rolling and focused on her. They seemed a much lighter blue than before, as if a door that had been tightly closed behind them was now open to admit light and air.
Mrs. Turpin’s head cleared and her power of motion returned. She leaned forward until she was looking directly into the fierce brilliant eyes. There was no doubt in her mind that the girl did know her, know her in some intense and personal way, beyond time and place and condition. “What you got to say to me?” she asked hoarsely and held her breath, waiting, as for a revelation.
The girl raised her head. Her gaze locked with Mrs. Turpin’s. “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog,” she whispered. Her voice was low but clear. Her eyes burned for a moment as if she saw with pleasure that her message had struck its target.
Mrs. Turpin sank back in her chair.
After a moment the girl’s eyes closed and she turned her head wearily to the side.
The doctor rose and handed the nurse the empty syringe. He leaned over and put both hands for a moment on the mother’s shoulders, which were shaking. She was sitting on the floor, her lips pressed together, holding Mary Grace’s hand in her lap. The girl’s fingers were gripped like a baby ‘s around her thumb. “Go on to the hospital,” he said. “I’ll call and make the arrangements.”
“Now let’s see that neck,” he said in a jovial voice to Mrs. Turpin.
He began to inspect her neck with his first two fingers. Two little moon-shaped lines like pink fish bones were indented over her windpipe. There was the beginning of an angry red swelling above her eye. His fingers passed over this also.
“Lea’ me be,” she said thickly and shook him off. “See about Claud. She kicked him.”
“I’ll see about him in a minute,” he said and felt her pulse. He was a thin grey-haired man, given to pleasantries. “Go home and have yourself a vacation the rest of the day,” he said and patted her on the shoulder.
Quit your pattin me, Mrs. Turpin growled to herself.
“And put an ice pack over that eye,” he said. Then he went and squatted down beside Claud and looked at his leg. After a moment he pulled him up and Claud limped after him into the office.
Until the ambulance came, the only sounds in the room were the tremulous moans of the girl’s mother, who continued to sit on the floor. The white-trash woman did not take her eyes off the girl. Mrs. Turpin looked straight ahead at nothing. Presently the ambulance drew up, a long dark shadow, behind the curtain. The attendants came in and set the stretcher down beside the girl and lifted her expertly onto it and carried her out. The nurse helped the mother gather up her things. The shadow of the ambulance moved silently away and the nurse came back in the office.
“That there girl is going to be a lunatic, ain’t she?” the white-trash woman asked the nurse, but the nurse kept on to the back and never answered her.
“Yes, she’s going to be a lunatic,” the white-trash woman said to the rest of them.
“Po’ critter,” the old woman murmured. The child’s face was still in her lap. His eyes looked idly out over her knees. He had not moved during the disturbance except to draw one leg up under him.
“I thank Gawd,” the white-trash woman said fervently, “I ain’t a lunatic.”
Claud came limping out and the Turpins went home.
As their pick-up truck turned into their own dirt road and made the crest of the hill, Mrs. Turpin gripped the window ledge and looked out suspiciously. The land sloped gracefully down through a field dotted with lavender weeds and at the start of the rise their small yellow frame house, with its little flower beds spread out around it like a fancy apron, sat primly in its accustomed place between two giant hickory trees. She would not have been startled to see a burnt wound between two blackened chimneys.
Neither of them felt like eating so they put on their house clothes and lowered the shade in the bedroom and lay down, Claud with his leg on a pillow and herself with a damp washcloth over her eye. The instant she was flat on her back, the image of a razor-backed hog with warts on its face and horns coming out behind its ears snorted into her head. She moaned, a low quiet moan.
“I am not,” she said tearfully, “a wart hog. From hell.” But the denial had no force. The girl’s eyes and her words, even the tone of her voice, low but clear, directed only to her, brooked no repudiation. She had been singled out for the message, though there was trash in the room to whom it might justly have been applied. The full force of this fact struck her only now. There was a woman there who was neglecting her own child but she had been overlooked. The message had been given to Ruby Turpin, a respectable, hardworking, church-going woman. The tears dried. Her eyes began to burn instead with wrath.
She rose on her elbow and the washcloth fell into her hand. Claud was lying on his back, snoring. She wanted to tell him what the girl had said. At the same time, she did not wish to put the image of herself as a wart hog from hell into his mind.
“Hey, Claud,” she muttered and pushed his shoulder.
Claud opened one pale baby blue eye.
She looked into it warily. He did not think about anything. He just went his way.
“Wha, whasit?” he said and closed the eye again.
“Nothing,” she said. “Does your leg pain you?”
“Hurts like hell,” Claud said.
“It’ll quit terreckly,” she said and lay back down. In a moment Claud was snoring again. For the rest of the afternoon they lay there. Claud slept. She scowled at the ceiling. Occasionally she raised her fist and made a small stabbing motion over her chest as if she was defending her innocence to invisible guests who were like the comforters of Job, reasonable-seeming but wrong.
About five-thirty Claud stirred. “Got to go after those niggers,” he sighed, not moving.
She was looking straight up as if there were unintelligible hand writing on the ceiling. The protuberance over her eye had turned a greenish-blue. “Listen here,” she said.
Claud leaned over and kissed her loudly on the mouth. He pinched her side and their hands interlocked. Her expression of ferocious concentration did not change. Claud got up, groaning and growling, and limped off. She continued to study the ceiling.
She did not get up until she heard the pick-up truck coming back with the Negroes. Then she rose and thrust her feet in her brown oxfords, which she did not bother to lace, and stumped out onto the back porch and got her red plastic bucket. She emptied a tray of ice cubes into it and filled it half full of water and went out into the back yard. Every afternoon after Claud brought the hands in, one of the boys helped him put out hay and the rest waited in the back of the truck until he was ready to take them home. The truck was parked in the shade under one of the hickory trees.
“Hi yawl this evening,” Mrs. Turpin asked grimly, appearing with the bucket and the dipper. There were three women and a boy in the truck.
“Us doin nicely,” the oldest woman said. “Hi you doin?” and her gaze stuck immediately on the dark lump on Mrs. Turpin’s forehead. “You done fell down, ain’t you?” she asked in a solicitous voice. The old woman was dark and almost toothless. She had on an old felt hat of Claud’s set back on her head. The other two women were younger and lighter and they both had new bright green sun hats. One of them had hers on her head; the other had taken hers off and the boy was grinning beneath it.
Mrs. Turpin set the bucket down on the floor of the truck. “Yawl hep yourselves,” she said. She looked around to make sure Claud had gone. “No. I didn’t fall down,” she said, folding her arms. “It was something worse than that.”
“Ain’t nothing bad happen to you!” the old woman said. She said it as if they all knew that Mrs. Turpin was protected in some special way by Divine Providence. “You just had you a little fall.”
“We were ‘in town at the doctor’s office for where the cow kicked Mr. Turpin,” Mrs. Turpin said in a flat tone that indicated they could leave off their foolishness. “And there was this girl there. A big fat girl with her face all broke out. I could look at that girl and tell she was peculiar but I couldn’t tell how. And me and her mama were just talking and going along and all of a sudden WHAM! She throws this big book she was reading at me and …”
“Naw!” the old woman cried out.
“And then she jumps over the table and commences to choke me.”
“Naw!” they all exclaimed, “naw!”
“Hi come she do that?” the old woman asked. “What ail her?”
Mrs. Turpin only glared in front of her.
“Somethin ail her,” the old woman said
“They carried her off in an ambulance,” Mrs. Turpin continued, “but before she went she was rolling on the floor and they were trying to hold her down to give her a shot and she said something to me.” She paused. ” You know what she said to me?”
“What she say,” they asked.
. “She said,” Mrs. Turpin began, and stopped, her face very dark and heavy. The sun was getting whiter and whiter, blanching the sky overhead so that the leaves of the hickory tree were black in the face of it. She could not bring forth the words. “Something real ugly,” she muttered.
“She sho shouldn’t said nothin ugly, to you,” the old woman said.
“You so sweet. You the sweetest lady I know.”
“She pretty too,” the one with the hat on said.
“And stout,” the other one said. “I never knowed no sweeter white lady.”
“That’s the truth befo’ Jesus,” the old woman said. “Amen! You des as sweet and pretty as you can be.”
Mrs. Turpin knew just exactly how much Negro flattery was worth and it added to her rage. “She said,” she began again and finished this time with a fierce rush of breath, “that I was an old wart hog from hell.”
There was an astounded silence.
“Where she at?” the youngest woman cried in a piercing voice.
“Lemme see her. I’ll kill her!”
“I’ll kill her with you!” the other one cried.
“She b’long in the sylum” the old woman said emphatically.
“You the sweetest white lady I know.”
“She pretty too,” the other two said. “Stout as she can be and sweet. Jesus satisfied with her!”
“Deed he is,” the old woman declared.
Idiots! Mrs. Turpin growled to herself. You could never say anything intelligent to a nigger. YOU could talk at them but not with them. “Yawl ain’t drunk your water,” she said shortly. “Leave the bucket in the truck when you’re finished with it. I got more to do than just stand around and pass the time of day,” and she moved off and into the house.
She stood for a moment in the middle of the kitchen. The dark protuberance over her eye looked like a miniature tornado cloud which might any moment sweep across the horizon of her brow. Her lower lip protruded dangerously. She squared her massive shoulders. Then she marched into the front of the house and out the side door and started down the road to the pig parlor. She had the look of a woman going single-handedly, weaponless, into battle.
The sun was a deep yellow now like a harvest moon and was riding westward very fast over the far tree line as if it meant to reach the hogs before she did. The road was rutted and she kicked several good-sized stones out of her path as she strode along. The pig parlor was on a little knoll at the end of a lane that ran off from the side of the barn. It was a square of concrete as large as a small room, with a board fence about four feet high around it. The concrete floor sloped slightly so that the hog wash could drain off into a trench where it was carried to the field for fertilizer. Claud was standing on the outside, on the edge of the concrete, hanging onto the top board, hosing down the floor inside. The hose was connected to the faucet of a water trough nearby.
Mrs. Turpin climbed up beside him and glowered down at the hogs inside. There were seven long-snouted bristly shoats in it-tan with liver-colored spots-and an old sow a few weeks off from farrowing. She was lying on her side grunting. The shoats were running about shaking themselves like idiot children, their little slit pig eyes searching the floor for anything left. She had read that pigs were the most intelligent animal. She doubted it. They were supposed to be smarter than dogs. There had even been a pig astronaut. He had performed his assignment perfectly but died of a heart attack afterwards because they left him in his electric suit, sitting upright throughout his examination when naturally, a hog should be on all fours.
A-gruntin and a-rootin and a-groanin.
“Gimme that hose,” she said, yanking it away from Claud. “Go on and carry, them niggers home and then get off that leg.”
“You look like you might have swallowed a mad dog,” Claud observed, but he got down and limped off. He paid no attention to her humors.
Until he was out of earshot, Mrs. Turpin stood on the side of the pen, holding the hose and pointing the stream of water at the hind quarters of any shoat that looked as if it might try to lie down.
When he had had time to get over the hill, she turned her head slightly and her wrathful eyes scanned the path. He was nowhere in sight. She turned back again and seemed to gather herself up. Her shoulders rose and she drew in her breath.
“What do you send me a message like that for?” she said in a low fierce voice, barely above a whisper but with the force of a shout in its concentrated fury. “How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too?” Her free fist was knotted and with the other she gripped the hose, blindly pointing the stream of water in and out of the eye of the old sow whose outraged squeal she did not hear.
The pig parlor commanded a view of the back pasture where their twenty beef cows were gathered around the hay-bales Claud and the boy had put out. The freshly cut pasture sloped down to the highway. Across it was their cotton field and beyond that a dark green dusty wood which they owned as well. The sun was behind the wood, very red, looking over the paling of trees like a farmer inspecting his own hogs.
“Why me?” she rumbled. “It’s no trash around here, black or white, that I haven’t given to. And break my back to the bone every day working. And do for the church.”
She appeared to be the right size woman to command the arena before her. “How am I a hog?” she demanded. “Exactly how am I like them?” and she jabbed the stream of water at the shoats. “There was plenty of trash there. It didn’t have to be me.
“If you like trash better, go get yourself some trash then,” she railed. “You could have made me trash. Or a nigger. If trash is what you wanted, why didn’t you make me trash?” She shook her fist with the hose in it and a watery snake appeared momentarily in the air. “I could quit working and take it easy and be filthy,” she growled. “Lounge about the sidewalks all day drinking root beer. Dip snuff and spit in every puddle and have it all over my face. I could be nasty.
“Or you could have made me a nigger. It’s too late for me to be a nigger,” she said with deep sarcasm, “but I could act like one. Lay down in the middle of the road and stop traffic. Roll on the ground.”
In the deepening light everything was taking on a mysterious hue. The pasture was growing a peculiar glassy green and the streak of the highway had turned lavender. She braced herself for a final assault and this time her voice rolled out over the pasture. “Go on,” she yelled, “call me a hog! Call me a hog again. From hell. Call me a wart hog from hell. Put that bottom rail on top. There’ll still be a top and bottom!”
A garbled echo returned to her.
A final surge of fury shook her and she roared, “Who do you think you are?”
The color of everything, field and crimson sky, burned for a moment with a transparent intensity. The question carried over the pasture and across the highway and the cotton field and returned to her clearly, like an answer from beyond the wood.
She opened her mouth but no sound came out of it.
A tiny truck, Claud’s, appeared on the highway, heading rapidly out of sight. Its gears scraped thinly. It looked like a child’s toy. At any moment a bigger truck might smash into it and scatter Claud’s and the niggers’ brains all over the road.
Mrs. Turpin stood there, her gaze fixed on the highway, all her muscles rigid, until in five or six minutes the truck reappeared, returning. She waited until it had had time to turn into their own road. Then like a monumental statue coming to life, she bent her head slowly and gazed, as if through the very heart of mystery, down into the pig parlor at the hogs. They had settled all in one corner around the old sow who was grunting softly. A red glow suffused them. They appeared to pant with a secret life.
Until the sun slipped finally behind the tree line, Mrs. Turpin remained there with her gaze bent to them as if she were absorbing some abysmal life-giving knowledge. At last she lifted her head. There was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk. She raised her hands from the side of the pen in a gesture hieratic and profound. A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were tumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who , like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They, alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces even their virtues were being burned away. She lowered her hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead. In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile.
At length she got down and turned off the faucet and made her slow way on the darkening path to the house. In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.
A Good Man Is Hard To Find (1955)
The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennes- see and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey’s mind. Bailey was the son she lived with, her only boy. He was sitting on the edge of his chair at the table, bent over the orange sports section of the Journal. “Now look here, Bailey,” she said, “see here, read this,” and she stood with one hand on her thin hip and the other rattling the newspaper at his bald head. “Here this fellow that calls himself The Misfit is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida and you read here what it says he did to these people. Just you read it. I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn’t answer to my conscience if I did.”
Bailey didn’t look up from his reading so she wheeled around then and faced the children’s mother, a young woman in slacks, whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage and was tied around with a green head-kerchief that had two points on the top like rabbit’s ears. She was sitting on the sofa, feeding the baby his apricots out of a jar. “The children have been to Florida before,” the old lady said. “You all ought to take them somewhere else for a change so they would see different parts of the world and be broad. They never have been to east Tennessee.”
The children’s mother didn’t seem to hear her but the eight-year-old boy, John Wesley, a stocky child with glasses, said, “If you don’t want to go to Florida, why dontcha stay at home?” He and the little girl, June Star, were reading the funny papers on the floor.
“She wouldn’t stay at home to be queen for a day,” June Star said without raising her yellow head.
“Yes and what would you do if this fellow, The Misfit, caught you?” the grandmother asked.
“I’d smack his face,” John Wesley said.
“She wouldn’t stay at home for a million bucks,” June Star said. “Afraid she’d miss something. She has to go everywhere we go.”
“All right, Miss,” the grandmother said. “Just re- member that the next time you want me to curl your hair.”
June Star said her hair was naturally curly.
The next morning the grandmother was the first one in the car, ready to go. She had her big black valise that looked like the head of a hippopotamus in one corner, and underneath it she was hiding a basket with Pitty Sing, the cat, in it. She didn’t intend for the cat to be left alone in the house for three days because he would miss her too much and she was afraid he might brush against one of her gas burners and accidentally asphyxiate himself. Her son, Bailey, didn’t like to arrive at a motel with a cat.
She sat in the middle of the back seat with John Wesley and June Star on either side of her. Bailey and the children’s mother and the baby sat in front and they left Atlanta at eight forty-five with the mileage on the car at 55890. The grandmother wrote this down because she thought it would be interesting to say how many miles they had been when they got back. It took them twenty minutes to reach the outskirts of the city.
The old lady settled herself comfortably, removing her white cotton gloves and putting them up with her purse on the shelf in front of the back window. The children’s mother still had on slacks and still had her head tied up in a green kerchief, but the grandmother had on a navy blue straw sailor hat with a bunch of white violets on the brim and a navy blue dress with a small white dot in the print. Her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.
She said she thought it was going to be a good day for driving, neither too hot nor too cold, and she cautioned Bailey that the speed limit was fifty-five miles an hour and that the patrolmen hid themselves behind billboards and small clumps of trees and sped out after you before you had a chance to slow down. She pointed out interesting details of the scenery: Stone Mountain; the blue granite that in some places came up to both sides of the highway; the brilliant red clay banks slightly streaked with purple; and the various crops that made rows of green lace-work on the ground. The trees were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled. The children were reading comic magazines and their mother and gone back to sleep.
“Let’s go through Georgia fast so we won’t have to look at it much,” John Wesley said.
“If I were a little boy,” said the grandmother, “I wouldn’t talk about my native state that way. Tennessee has the mountains and Georgia has the hills.”
“Tennessee is just a hillbilly dumping ground,” John Wesley said, “and Georgia is a lousy state too.”
“You said it,” June Star said.
“In my time,” said the grandmother, folding her thin veined fingers, “children were more respectful of their native states and their parents and everything else. People did right then. Oh look at the cute little pickaninny!” she said and pointed to a Negro child standing in the door of a shack. “Wouldn’t that make a picture, now?” she asked and they all turned and looked at the little Negro out of the back window. He waved
“He didn’t have any britches on,” June Star said.
“He probably didn’t have any,” the grandmother explained. “Little riggers in the country don’t have things like we do. If I could paint, I’d paint that picture,” she said.
The children exchanged comic books.
The grandmother offered to hold the baby and the children’s mother passed him over the front seat to her. She set him on her knee and bounced him and told him about the things they were passing. She rolled her eyes and screwed up her mouth and stuck her leathery thin face into his smooth bland one. Occasionally he gave her a faraway smile. They passed a large cotton field with five or fix graves fenced in the middle of it, like a small island. “Look at the graveyard!” the grandmother said, pointing it out. “That was the old family burying ground. That belonged to the plantation.”
“Where’s the plantation?” John Wesley asked.
“Gone With the Wind” said the grandmother. “Ha. Ha.”
When the children finished all the comic books they had brought, they opened the lunch and ate it. The grandmother ate a peanut butter sandwich and an olive and would not let the children throw the box and the paper napkins out the window. When there was nothing else to do they played a game by choosing a cloud and making the other two guess what shape it suggested. John Wesley took one the shape of a cow and June Star guessed a cow and John Wesley said, no, an automobile, and June Star said he didn’t play fair, and they began to slap each other over the grandmother.
The grandmother said she would tell them a story if they would keep quiet. When she told a story, she rolled her eyes and waved her head and was very dramatic. She said once when she was a maiden lady she had been courted by a Mr. Edgar Atkins Teagarden from Jasper, Georgia. She said he was a very good-looking man and a gentleman and that he brought her a watermelon every Saturday afternoon with his initials cut in it, E. A. T. Well, one Saturday, she said, Mr. Teagarden brought the watermelon and there was nobody at home and he left it on the front porch and returned in his buggy to Jasper, but she never got the watermelon, she said, because a nigger boy ate it when he saw the initials, E. A. T. ! This story tickled John Wesley’s funny bone and he giggled and giggled but June Star didn’t think it was any good. She said she wouldn’t marry a man that just brought her a watermelon on Saturday. The grandmother said she would have done well to marry Mr. Teagarden because he was a gentle man and had bought Coca-Cola stock when it first came out and that he had died only a few years ago, a very wealthy man.
They stopped at The Tower for barbecued sand- wiches. The Tower was a part stucco and part wood filling station and dance hall set in a clearing outside of Timothy. A fat man named Red Sammy Butts ran it and there were signs stuck here and there on the building and for miles up and down the highway saying, TRY RED SAMMY’S FAMOUS BARBECUE. NONE LIKE FAMOUS RED SAMMY’S! RED SAM! THE FAT BOY WITH THE HAPPY LAUGH. A VETERAN! RED SAMMY’S YOUR MAN!
Red Sammy was lying on the bare ground outside The Tower with his head under a truck while a gray monkey about a foot high, chained to a small chinaberry tree, chattered nearby. The monkey sprang back into the tree and got on the highest limb as soon as he saw the children jump out of the car and run toward him.
Inside, The Tower was a long dark room with a counter at one end and tables at the other and dancing space in the middle. They all sat down at a board table next to the nickelodeon and Red Sam’s wife, a tall burnt-brown woman with hair and eyes lighter than her skin, came and took their order. The children’s mother put a dime in the machine and played “The Tennessee Waltz,” and the grandmother said that tune always made her want to dance. She asked Bailey if he would like to dance but he only glared at her. He didn’t have a naturally sunny disposition like she did and trips made him nervous. The grandmother’s brown eyes were very bright. She swayed her head from side to side and pretended she was dancing in her chair. June Star said play something she could tap to so the children’s mother put in another dime and played a fast number and June Star stepped out onto the dance floor and did her tap routine.
“Ain’t she cute?” Red Sam’s wife said, leaning over the counter. “Would you like to come be my little girl?”
“No I certainly wouldn’t,” June Star said. “I wouldn’t live in a broken-down place like this for a million bucks!” and she ran back to the table.
“Ain’t she cute?” the woman repeated, stretching her mouth politely.
“Arn’t you ashamed?” hissed the grandmother.
Red Sam came in and told his wife to quit lounging on the counter and hurry up with these people’s order. His khaki trousers reached just to his hip bones and his stomach hung over them like a sack of meal swaying under his shirt. He came over and sat down at a table nearby and let out a combination sigh and yodel. “You can’t win,” he said. “You can’t win,” and he wiped his sweating red face off with a gray handkerchief. “These days you don’t know who to trust,” he said. “Ain’t that the truth?”
“People are certainly not nice like they used to be,” said the grandmother.
“Two fellers come in here last week,” Red Sammy said, “driving a Chrysler. It was a old beat-up car but it was a good one and these boys looked all right to me. Said they worked at the mill and you know I let them fellers charge the gas they bought? Now why did I do that?”
“Because you’re a good man!” the grandmother said at once.
“Yes’m, I suppose so,” Red Sam said as if he were struck with this answer.
His wife brought the orders, carrying the five plates all at once without a tray, two in each hand and one balanced on her arm. “It isn’t a soul in this green world of God’s that you can trust,” she said. “And I don’t count nobody out of that, not nobody,” she repeated, looking at Red Sammy.
“Did you read about that criminal, The Misfit, that’s escaped?” asked the grandmother.
“I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if he didn’t attack this place right here,” said the woman. “If he hears about it being here, I wouldn’t be none surprised to see him. If he hears it’s two cent in the cash register, I wouldn’t be a tall surprised if he . . .”
“That’ll do,” Red Sam said. “Go bring these people their Co’-Colas,” and the woman went off to get the rest of the order.
“A good man is hard to find,” Red Sammy said. “Everything is getting terrible. I remember the day you could go off and leave your screen door unlatched. Not no more.”
He and the grandmother discussed better times. The old lady said that in her opinion Europe was entirely to blame for the way things were now. She said the way Europe acted you would think we were made of money and Red Sam said it was no use talking about it, she was exactly right. The children ran outside into the white sunlight and looked at the monkey in the lacy chinaberry tree. He was busy catching fleas on himself and biting each one carefully between his teeth as if it were a delicacy.
They drove off again into the hot afternoon. The grandmother took cat naps and woke up every few minutes with her own snoring. Outside of Toombsboro she woke up and recalled an old plantation that she had visited in this neighborhood once when she was a young lady. She said the house had six white columns across the front and that there was an avenue of oaks leading up to it and two little wooden trellis arbors on either side in front where you sat down with your suitor after a stroll in the garden. She recalled exactly which road to turn off to get to it. She knew that Bailey would not be willing to lose any time looking at an old house, but the more she talked about it, the more she wanted to see it once again and find out if the little twin arbors were still standing. “There was a secret:-panel in this house,” she said craftily, not telling the truth but wishing that she were, “and the story went that all the family silver was hidden in it when Sherman came through but it was never found . . .”
“Hey!” John Wesley said. “Let’s go see it! We’ll find it! We’ll poke all the woodwork and find it! Who lives there? Where do you turn off at? Hey Pop, can’t we turn off there?”
“We never have seen a house with a secret panel!” June Star shrieked. “Let’s go to the house with the secret panel! Hey Pop, can’t we go see the house with the secret panel!”
“It’s not far from here, I know,” the grandmother said. “It wouldn’t take over twenty minutes.”
Bailey was looking straight ahead. His jaw was as rigid as a horseshoe. “No,” he said.
The children began to yell and scream that they wanted to see the house with the secret panel. John Wesley kicked the back of the front seat and June Star hung over her mother’s shoulder and whined desperately into her ear that they never had any fun even on their vacation, that they could never do what THEY wanted to do. The baby began to scream and John Wesley kicked the back of the seat so hard that his father could feel the blows in his kidney.
“All right!” he shouted and drew the car to a stop at the side of the road. “Will you all shut up? Will you all just shut up for one second? If you don’t shut up, we won’t go anywhere.”
“It would be very educational for them,” the grandmother murmured.
“All right,” Bailey said, “but get this: this is the only time we’re going to stop for anything like this. This is the one and only time.”
“The dirt road that you have to turn down is about a mile back,” the grandmother directed. “I marked it when we passed.”
“A dirt road,” Bailey groaned.
After they had turned around and were headed toward the dirt road, the grandmother recalled other points about the house, the beautiful glass over the front doorway and the candle-lamp in the hall. John Wesley said that the secret panel was probably in the fireplace.
“You can’t go inside this house,” Bailey said. “You don’t know who lives there.”
“While you all talk to the people in front, I’ll run around behind and get in a window,” John Wesley suggested.
“We’ll all stay in the car,” his mother said.
They turned onto the dirt road and the car raced roughly along in a swirl of pink dust. The grandmother recalled the times when there were no paved roads and thirty miles was a day’s journey. The dirt road was hilly and there were sudden washes in it and sharp curves on dangerous embankments. All at once they would be on a hill, looking down over the blue tops of trees for miles around, then the next minute, they would be in a red depression with the dust-coated trees looking down on them.
“This place had better turn up in a minute,” Bailey said, “or I’m going to turn around.”
The road looked as if no one had traveled on it in months.
“It’s not much farther,” the grandmother said and just as she said it, a horrible thought came to her. The thought was so embarrassing that she turned red in the face and her eyes dilated and her feet jumped up, upsetting her valise in the corner. The instant the valise moved, the newspaper top she had over the basket under it rose with a snarl and Pitty Sing, the cat, sprang onto Bailey’s shoulder.
The children were thrown to the floor and their mother, clutching the baby, was thrown out the door onto the ground; the old lady was thrown into the front seat. The car turned over once and landed right-side-up in a gulch off the side of the road. Bailey remained in the driver’s seat with the cat gray-striped with a broad white face and an orange nose clinging to his neck like a caterpillar.
As soon as the children saw they could move their arms and legs, they scrambled out of the car, shouting, “We’ve had an ACCIDENT!” The grandmother was curled up under the dashboard, hoping she was injured so that Bailey’s wrath would not come down on her all at once. The horrible thought she had had before the accident was that the house she had remembered so vividly was not in Georgia but in Tennessee.
Bailey removed the cat from his neck with both hands and flung it out the window against the side of a pine tree. Then he got out of the car and started looking for the children’s mother. She was sitting against the side of the red gutted ditch, holding the screaming baby, but she only had a cut down her face and a broken shoulder. “We’ve had an ACCIDENT!” the children screamed in a frenzy of delight.
“But nobody’s killed,” June Star said with disappointment as the grandmother limped out of the car, her hat still pinned to her head but the broken front brim standing up at a jaunty angle and the violet spray hanging off the side. They all sat down in the ditch, except the children, to recover from the shock. They were all shaking.
“Maybe a car will come along,” said the children’s mother hoarsely.
“I believe I have injured an organ,” said the grandmother, pressing her side, but no one answered her. Bailey’s teeth were clattering. He had on a yellow sport shirt with bright blue parrots designed in it and his face was as yellow as the shirt. The grandmother decided that she would not mention that the house was in Tennessee.
The road was about ten feet above and they could see only the tops of the trees on the other side of it. Behind the ditch they were sitting in there were more woods, tall and dark and deep. In a few minutes they saw a car some distance away on top of a hill, coming slowly as if the occupants were watching them. The grandmother stood up and waved both arms dramatically to attract their attention. The car continued to come on slowly, disappeared around a bend and appeared again, moving even slower, on top of the hill they had gone over. It was a big black battered hearselike automobile. There were three men in it.
It came to a stop just over them and for some minutes, the driver looked down with a steady expressionless gaze to where they were sitting, and didn’t speak. Then he turned his head and muttered something to the other two and they got out. One was a fat boy in black trousers and a red sweat shirt with a silver stallion embossed on the front of it. He moved around on the right side of them and stood staring, his mouth partly open in a kind of loose grin. The other had on khaki pants and a blue striped coat and a gray hat pulled down very low, hiding most of his face. He came around slowly on the left side. Neither spoke.
The driver got out of the car and stood by the side of it, looking down at them. He was an older man than the other two. His hair was just beginning to gray and he wore silver-rimmed spectacles that gave him a scholarly look. He had a long creased face and didn’t have on any shirt or undershirt. He had on blue jeans that were too tight for him and was holding a black hat and a gun. The two boys also had guns.
“We’ve had an ACCIDENT!” the children screamed.
The grandmother had the peculiar feeling that the bespectacled man was someone she knew. His face was as familiar to her as if she had known him all her life but she could not recall who he was. He moved away from the car and began to come down the embankment, placing his feet carefully so that he wouldn’t slip. He had on tan and white shoes and no socks, and his ankles were red and thin. “Good afternoon,” he said. “I see you all had you a little spill.”
“We turned over twice!” said the grandmother.
“Once”, he corrected. “We seen it happen. Try their car and see will it run, Hiram,” he said quietly to the boy with the gray hat.
“What you got that gun for?” John Wesley asked. “Whatcha gonna do with that gun?”
“Lady,” the man said to the children’s mother, “would you mind calling them children to sit down by you? Children make me nervous. I want all you all to sit down right together there where you’re at.”
“What are you telling US what to do for?” June Star asked.
Behind them the line of woods gaped like a dark open mouth. “Come here,” said their mother.
“Look here now,” Bailey began suddenly, “we’re in a predicament! We’re in . . .”
The grandmother shrieked. She scrambled to her feet and stood staring. “You’re The Misfit!” she said. “I recognized you at once!”
“Yes’m,” the man said, smiling slightly as if he were pleased in spite of himself to be known, “but it would have been better for all of you, lady, if you hadn’t of reckernized me.”
Bailey turned his head sharply and said something to his mother that shocked even the children. The old lady began to cry and The Misfit reddened.
“Lady,” he said, “don’t you get upset. Sometimes a man says things he don’t mean. I don’t reckon he meant to talk to you thataway.”
“You wouldn’t shoot a lady, would you?” the grandmother said and removed a clean handkerchief from her cuff and began to slap at her eyes with it.
The Misfit pointed the toe of his shoe into the ground and made a little hole and then covered it up again. “I would hate to have to,” he said.
“Listen,” the grandmother almost screamed, “I know you’re a good man. You don’t look a bit like you have common blood. I know you must come from nice people!”
“Yes mam,” he said, “finest people in the world.” When he smiled he showed a row of strong white teeth. “God never made a finer woman than my mother and my daddy’s heart was pure gold,” he said. The boy with the red sweat shirt had come around behind them and was standing with his gun at his hip. The Misfit squatted down on the ground. “Watch them children, Bobby Lee,” he said. “You know they make me nervous.” He looked at the six of them huddled together in front of him and he seemed to be embarrassed as if he couldn’t think of anything to say. “Ain’t a cloud in the sky,” he remarked, looking up at it. “Don’t see no sun but don’t see no cloud neither.”
“Yes, it’s a beautiful day,” said the grandmother. “Listen,” she said, “you shouldn’t call yourself The Misfit because I know you’re a good man at heart. I can just look at you and tell.”
“Hush!” Bailey yelled. “Hush! Everybody shut up and let me handle this!” He was squatting in the position of a runner about to sprint forward but he didn’t move.
“I pre-chate that, lady,” The Misfit said and drew a little circle in the ground with the butt of his gun.
“It’ll take a half a hour to fix this here car,” Hiram called, looking over the raised hood of it.
“Well, first you and Bobby Lee get him and that little boy to step over yonder with you,” The Misfit said, pointing to Bailey and John Wesley. “The boys want to ast you something,” he said to Bailey. “Would you mind stepping back in them woods there with them?”
“Listen,” Bailey began, “we’re in a terrible predicament! Nobody realizes what this is,” and his voice cracked. His eyes were as blue and intense as the parrots in his shirt and he remained perfectly still.
The grandmother reached up to adjust her hat brim as if she were going to the woods with him but it came off in her hand. She stood staring at it and after a second she let it fall on the ground. Hiram pulled Bailey up by the arm as if he were assisting an old man. John Wesley caught hold of his father’s hand and Bobby I,ee followed. They went off toward the woods and just as they reached the dark edge, Bailey turned and supporting himself against a gray naked pine trunk, he shouted, “I’ll be back in a minute, Mamma, wait on me!”
“Come back this instant!” his mother shrilled but they all disappeared into the woods.
“Bailey Boy!” the grandmother called in a tragic voice but she found she was looking at The Misfit squatting on the ground in front of her. “I just know you’re a good man,” she said desperately. “You’re not a bit common!”
“Nome, I ain’t a good man,” The Misfit said after a second ah if he had considered her statement carefully, “but I ain’t the worst in the world neither. My daddy said I was a different breed of dog from my brothers and sisters. ‘You know,’ Daddy said, ‘it’s some that can live their whole life out without asking about it and it’s others has to know why it is, and this boy is one of the latters. He’s going to be into everything!”‘ He put on his black hat and looked up suddenly and then away deep into the woods as if he were embarrassed again. “I’m sorry I don’t have on a shirt before you ladies,” he said, hunching his shoulders slightly. “We buried our clothes that we had on when we escaped and we’re just making do until we can get better. We borrowed these from some folks we met,” he explained.
“That’s perfectly all right,” the grandmother said. “Maybe Bailey has an extra shirt in his suitcase.”
“I’ll look and see terrectly,” The Misfit said.
“Where are they taking him?” the children’s mother screamed.
“Daddy was a card himself,” The Misfit said. “You couldn’t put anything over on him. He never got in trouble with the Authorities though. Just had the knack of handling them.”
“You could be honest too if you’d only try,” said the grandmother. “Think how wonderful it would be to settle down and live a comfortable life and not have to think about somebody chasing you all the time.”
The Misfit kept scratching in the ground with the butt of his gun as if he were thinking about it. “Yestm, somebody is always after you,” he murmured.
The grandmother noticed how thin his shoulder blades were just behind his hat because she was standing up looking down on him. “Do you every pray?” she asked.
He shook his head. All she saw was the black hat wiggle between his shoulder blades. “Nome,” he said.
There was a pistol shot from the woods, followed closely by another. Then silence. The old lady’s head jerked around. She could hear the wind move through the tree tops like a long satisfied insuck of breath. “Bailey Boy!” she called.
“I was a gospel singer for a while,” The Misfit said. “I been most everything. Been in the arm service both land and sea, at home and abroad, been twict married, been an undertaker, been with the railroads, plowed Mother Earth, been in a tornado, seen a man burnt alive oncet,” and he looked up at the children’s mother and the little girl who were sitting close together, their faces white and their eyes glassy; “I even seen a woman flogged,” he said.
“Pray, pray,” the grandmother began, “pray, pray . . .”
I never was a bad boy that I remember of,” The Misfit said in an almost dreamy voice, “but somewheres along the line I done something wrong and got sent to the penitentiary. I was buried alive,” and he looked up and held her attention to him by a steady stare.
“That’s when you should have started to pray,” she said. “What did you do to get sent to the penitentiary that first time?”
“Turn to the right, it was a wall,” The Misfit said, looking up again at the cloudless sky. “Turn to the left, it was a wall. Look up it was a ceiling, look down it was a floor. I forget what I done, lady. I set there and set there, trying to remember what it was I done and I ain’t recalled it to this day. Oncet in a while, I would think it was coming to me, but it never come.”
“Maybe they put you in by mistake,” the old lady said vaguely.
“Nome,” he said. “It wasn’t no mistake. They had the papers on me.”
“You must have stolen something,” she said.
The Misfit sneered slightly. “Nobody had nothing I wanted,” he said. “It was a head-doctor at the penitentiary said what I had done was kill my daddy but I known that for a lie. My daddy died in nineteen ought nineteen of the epidemic flu and I never had a thing to do with it. He was buried in the Mount Hopewell Baptist churchyard and you can go there and see for yourself.”
“If you would pray,” the old lady said, “Jesus would help you.”
“That’s right,” The Misfit said.
“Well then, why don’t you pray?” she asked trembling with delight suddenly.
“I don’t want no hep,” he said. “I’m doing all right by myself.”
Bobby Lee and Hiram came ambling back from the woods. Bobby Lee was dragging a yellow shirt with bright blue parrots in it.
“Thow me that shirt, Bobby Lee,” The Misfit said. The shirt came flying at him and landed on his shoulder and he put it on. The grandmother couldn’t name what the shirt reminded her of. “No, lady,” The Misfit said while he was buttoning it up, “I found out the crime don’t matter. You can do one thing or you can do another, kill a man or take a tire off his car, because sooner or later you’re going to forget what it was you done and just be punished for it.”
The children’s mother had begun to make heaving noises as if she couldn’t get her breath. “Lady,” he asked, “would you and that little girl like to step off yonder with Bobby Lee and Hiram and join your husband?”
“Yes, thank you,” the mother said faintly. Her left arm dangled helplessly and she was holding the baby, who had gone to sleep, in the other. “Hep that lady up, Hiram,” The Misfit said as she struggled to climb out of the ditch, “and Bobby Lee, you hold onto that little girl’s hand.”
“I don’t want to hold hands with him,” June Star said. “He reminds me of a pig.”
The fat boy blushed and laughed and caught her by the arm and pulled her off into the woods after Hiram and her mother.
Alone with The Misfit, the grandmother found that she had lost her voice. There was not a cloud in the sky nor any sun. There was nothing around her but woods. She wanted to tell him that he must pray. She opened and closed her mouth several times before anything came out. Finally she found herself saying, “Jesus. Jesus,” meaning, Jesus will help you, but the way she was saying it, it sounded as if she might be cursing.
“Yes’m, The Misfit said as if he agreed. “Jesus shown everything off balance. It was the same case with Him as with me except He hadn’t committed any crime and they could prove I had committed one because they had the papers on me. Of course,” he said, “they never shown me my papers. That’s why I sign myself now. I said long ago, you get you a signature and sign everything you do and keep a copy of it. Then you’ll know what you done and you can hold up the crime to the punishment and see do they match and in the end you’ll have something to prove you ain’t been treated right. I call myself The Misfit,” he said, “because I can’t make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment.”
There was a piercing scream from the woods, followed closely by a pistol report. “Does it seem right to you, lady, that one is punished a heap and another ain’t punished at all?”
“Jesus!” the old lady cried. “You’ve got good blood! I know you wouldn’t shoot a lady! I know you come from nice people! Pray! Jesus, you ought not to shoot a lady. I’ll give you all the money I’ve got!”
“Lady,” The Misfit said, looking beyond her far into the woods, “there never was a body that give the undertaker a tip.”
There were two more pistol reports and the grandmother raised her head like a parched old turkey hen crying for water and called, “Bailey Boy, Bailey Boy!” as if her heart would break.
“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,” The Misfit continued, “and He shouldn’t have done it. He shown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but thow away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness,” he said and his voice had become almost a snarl.
“Maybe He didn’t raise the dead,” the old lady mumbled, not knowing what she was saying and feeling so dizzy that she sank down in the ditch with her legs twisted under her.
“I wasn’t there so I can’t say He didn’t,” The Misfit said. “I wisht I had of been there,” he said, hitting the ground with his fist. “It ain’t right I wasn’t there because if I had of been there I would of known. Listen lady,” he said in a high voice, “if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now.” His voice seemed about to crack and the grandmother’s head cleared for an instant. She saw the man’s face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children !” She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest. Then he put his gun down on the ground and took off his glasses and began to clean them.
Hiram and Bobby Lee returned from the woods and stood over the ditch, looking down at the grandmother who half sat and half lay in a puddle of blood with her legs crossed under her like a child’s and her face smiling up at the cloudless sky.
Without his glasses, The Misfit’s eyes were red-rimmed and pale and defenseless-looking. “Take her off and thow her where you thown the others,” he said, picking up the cat that was rubbing itself against his leg.
“She was a talker, wasn’t she?” Bobby Lee said, sliding down the ditch with a yodel.
“She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
“Some fun!” Bobby Lee said.
“Shut up, Bobby Lee,” The Misfit said. “It’s no real pleasure in life.”