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Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

O. E. Parker, a profane and shiftless man, has married Sarah Ruth Cates, a plain-looking, self-righteous woman who was “forever sniffing up sin.” Parker is unable to understand this marriage—why she stays with him, or he with her.

He had met Sarah Ruth one day when his truck broke down before her house. Sensing that the woman was watching him, Parker pretended to mash his hand in the machinery, swearing profusely. Without warning, Sarah Ruth appeared, striking him for talking filth. However, Parker noticed, beneath her severe countenance, that she had a curiosity in his tattoos, even though she denounced them as a “heap of vanities.” Parker’s fascination with tattoos began at age fourteen, when he saw a tattooed carnival man. Years later, he had got his first tattoo, then another, until now his front was almost entirely covered with serpents, eagles, hawks, and other animals. However, all these tattoos failed to make a coherent design, and his back had no tattoos at all.

Parker had not intended to marry any woman, especially not Sarah Ruth; he could not imagine why anyone would marry her. Nevertheless, he is married to her, and growing increasingly dissatisfied. Nothing will do, it seems, but to get another tattoo—something on his back, something religious, something forceful enough to “bring Sarah Ruth to heel.”

A few days later, Parker is baling hay with a broken-down tractor. Distracted by thoughts of his tattoo, and by the fierce sun, Parker collides with an old tree that seems to reach out at him. Parker finds himself knocked out of his shoes, hurled high into the air, shouting, “GOD ABOVE.” He watches, amazed, as the tractor and the tree burst into flames, consuming his shoes.

Knowing somehow that his life has been changed, Parker rushes immediately into town for that tattoo and demands a picture of God. Leafing backward through various pictures of Christ, Parker selects a stern, Byzantine Christ with fierce eyes. He insists that the tattoo artist...

(The entire section is 505 words.)