Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1258
On his second night in Taulkinham, Motes walks downtown without looking at any of the stores. It is a Thursday, so everything is open late. He stops to watch a lean-faced man with a card table set up like an altar in front of a department store. A few people...
(The entire section contains 1258 words.)
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On his second night in Taulkinham, Motes walks downtown without looking at any of the stores. It is a Thursday, so everything is open late. He stops to watch a lean-faced man with a card table set up like an altar in front of a department store. A few people have gathered to watch as he demonstrates a potato peeler; he targets one boy, Enoch Emery, for a sale. As the man tries to close the deal, a tall, thin man with a black suit and hat laughs harshly. He is wearing gloves and dark glasses, and the lines on his face appear to have been painted on and then faded. As he laughs, he jingles a cup of coins and taps his white cane in front of him. He is followed by a young girl in a black dress and black knitted cap passing out pamphlets.
The potato peeler is furious at being upstaged by this pair and intensifies his sales pitch. The man begins to work the crowd, asking them to help a blind, unemployed preacher: surely they would rather give him a nickel than hear him preach. The crowd starts to disperse and the salesman grows irate. As the blind man approaches, Motes sees that the lines on his face are scars. The girl hands Hazel a pamphlet entitled “Jesus Calls You,” but he immediately tears the tract into small pieces and lets them drop to the ground like confetti.
The girl watches him, eyes glittering. She pulls out two coins to buy one of the peelers, but she is fifty cents short. After they walk off, Motes throws two dollars at the salesman and grabs one of the peelers before running after the pair. Emery is suddenly trotting next to him, like “a friendly dog with light mange.” Emery works for the city and has been in town two months. He asks Motes if he cares much for the “Jesus business” the pair was spouting. Motes gives him a laconic “no.”
Motes is intent on following the preacher and the girl and he fails to follow the traffic signal, despite the boy’s warnings. A policeman stops Motes, but Emery manages to get him out of trouble. Motes is barely grateful. The boy tells Motes about being taken by a “Welfare woman” who traded for him from his father and eventually made him go to a Bible academy for the worst four weeks of his life. When he ran away from there, she threatened to have him imprisoned, so he stayed with her. He tried to run away from the woman many times, but she always found him. He finally scared her in a crude way; only then was able to endure his time in her home.
The two have nearly caught up with the preacher and girl; they watch them mount the steps to a large building and sit near the stone lions on pedestals. When Motes gets close, the blind man says he can smell the sin on his breath, startling Motes. He claims he did not follow the man; he followed the girl to give her the potato peeler. She does not want to take it, but the preacher insists she put it in the bag hung over her shoulder. He knows Motes did not just follow her; he can hear the “urge for Jesus” in Motes’ voice.
Motes collapses on the stairs, and the preacher tells him he cannot run away from Jesus. Suddenly he reaches out and covers Motes’ face with his hands for a moment before Motes knocks them off him. The blind man laughs and says some preacher left his mark on Motes and wonders if Motes wants him to take it off or give him another one. The girl suddenly tells him the only cure for his pain is Jesus, and she tells him a terrible, grotesque story to prove it. Motes is suitably horrified.
The preacher hears shuffling inside the building and tells the girl to prepare the leaflets for “his congregation.” Emory and the girl stand on one side; Motes and the preacher stand on the other. Motes insists he is as clean as the preacher, and the preacher tells him he is guilty of fornication and blasphemy and probably more, but Motes insists he does not believe in sin and the only thing that matters is that Jesus does not exist.
Motes rushes to the top of the stairs where people are leaving the building and begins to warn them about the blind man who wants to preach Jesus to them. He begins to preach his own kind of sermon, telling them Jesus was crucified but not for them and that they are all “clean.” He intends to preach a new church, one which costs nothing to join. When the crowd disperses, Motes approaches the preacher and stands there for a moment while the blind man laughs at him. Motes walks away and the man hollers that his name is Asa Hawks, so he will know it the next time he tries to follow him.
Emery follows Motes, but Motes is weary of the talkative boy who whines about how lonely and miserable he is here alone in the city and working at the zoo. As he is about to walk into Mrs. Watts’s shack, Emery blurts out that the girl gave him the potato peeler, told him where they live, and asked him to bring Motes to visit them. The boy, nearly crying, tells Motes that he thinks he has “wiser blood” than anyone else. Motes responds by throwing the stack of tracts at Emery and the boy turns and runs away.
Motes’ performance with Mrs. Watts the night before had been a spectacular failure and she had laughed at him; he is not sure what she will say when he walks into her room. She is sitting on the bed, smearing something on her face, and when she sees him she laughs, takes off her nightgown, and puts his hat on her head. He strips off his clothes, turns out the lights, and jumps into bed with her.
Once, when he was twelve, he managed to get into a sideshow at a circus where a naked woman was writhing on a black cloth inside a coffin while men were huddled on benches around her. From somewhere at the front of the crowd, Motes heard his father say that if every casket had one of these, lots of people would be ready to go sooner. The boy ran out of the tent. When he got home, his mother was doing laundry at the wash pot in the yard wearing her usual long, black dress. He hid behind a tree, but it was as if she could see right through it and came toward him with a stick asking what he saw. As she thwacked him with the switch, she told him Jesus died to redeem him, but Motes muttered back that Jesus never asked him.
Motes exchanges the guilt of the tent for the “nameless unplaced guilt” he now felt. The next day he takes his good shoes, the ones he only wears to church and in the winter, and fills them with small stones and rocks. He walks in the shoes for a mile and then eases his feet in a stream, waiting for a sign from God. There is nothing. He puts the shoes back on and walks another half mile before finally taking them off and going home.