I shouldn’t have done it to Obie. I keep telling myself that he’s really better off, that he might come to even worse end if it hadn’t happened the way it did, but I know that isn’t true. I know I played a dirty trick on the only guy who ever really loved me and I know I’ll remember it as long as I live and think about it the last thing before I die. I keep thinking how he loved to work in the fields under the hot sun with sweat seeping through his rough blue shirt in a great dark stain until the whole shirt was sopping wet, and about how he used to take a dip afterwards in the deep pool at the bend of the creek and then sit naked on the bank like a small, innocent boy and watch the shifting pattern of sunlight and shade and listen to the stirrings and splashings of small life along the bank and in the water. You can’t do things like that where Obie is now. Not in a mad house.
He isn’t really crazy, no matter what they said. It’s just that he isn’t bright. I don’t know much about the technical gradations of intelligence, but I guess you’d call Obie an imbecile, maybe. He was a good worker, but you always had to tell him exactly what to do. You’d tell him to get the ax, he’d get the ax. You’d tell him to chop some wood, he’d chop some wood. Then, unless you’d tell him to put the ax away, he’d leave it right out in the God damn rain or anything else. The only time he ever went ahead and did something on his own, without being told just what, was the time I’m telling about, the time I played the dirty trick on him. It got pretty trying sometimes, telling him just every little thing to do that way, and I lost my temper and cursed him more times than I can count, but I regret it now, and wish I hadn’t done it, and most of all I wish I hadn’t done what I did in the end to get him put away. I miss Obie. It’s lonely around here without him.
It happened the day I heard him singing Two little Hands out behind the barn. Two little Hands is a religious song, a kind of hymn, I guess, and it’s all about someone having two little hands for Jesus, and it’s supposed to be sung by kids in Sunday School and places like that. Someone had got hold of Obie early and taught him a few simple things about religion, and he was always singing this little song that he’d picked up somewhere. He only knew a few lines, because that was all he was capable of remembering, but he liked to sing what he knew, and he sang it every time he thought to, or someone asked him to, and it was sort of funny and sad at the same time to hear the big lug do it, especially because his hands were really about the size of a brace of snow scoops.
I heard him singing this song behind the barn, and then I heard someone start to laugh as if it was the funniest God-damn thing that ever happened. There were two voices laughing, that is, a man’s and a woman’s, and I knew it was Ivy and Gunner Hoke back there with Obie. I began to feel sick then, partly because I didn’t like anyone poking fun at Obie, but mostly because it was Ivy and Gunner doing it. Ivy was my step-sister, no blood relation, and Gunner was a tall lean guy from in town who came out to see her. He was doing more than seeing her, too. I knew that as well as anything, even though I couldn’t actually prove it, and for a long time I kidded myself that I hated Gunner for that reason, because I didn’t approve of such goings-on, but now I that I’m making a clean breast of everything and telling the whole story, I may as well admit that it was really because I wanted to take Ivy for myself and never could.
She was enough to make anyone want to. Gunner and I weren’t the only ones by any means, and so far as I know maybe Gunner wasn’t the only one who managed it. She did everything she could to put it in a guy’s mind, that was sure. She was certain to be sloppy fat someday, like her old lady, my stepmother, but now her body was just full and ready, like it had been tree-ripened in the hot summer sun for picking, and it had a way of projecting itself through the thin cottons she wore around the place. She knew the effect she had on me, all right, I wasn’t fooling her any, and she got a hell of a bang out of it even though she never intended to give me any house. I guess I hated her in a way just as much as I hated Gunner, but I’m trying to be honest, and I can’t be sure, because it was all mixed up with my wanting her the way I did.
I went around behind the barn, and there was Obie singing this little song about two little hands for Jesus, and he was standing like a kid speaking a piece for the parents on the last day of school, with his big feet together in the dust and his huge, bony hands hanging down at his sides below knobby wrists that looked like they’d been swollen and crippled by arthritis. He had a pained look on his face, just like he always got when he sang, his pale eyes staring straight in front of him and filled with a kind of misery, as if it hurt him to try to remember the words in the order they were supposed to come. Tears were rolling down his cheeks, and his slack mouth that was never quite closed, even when he wasn’t talking or singing, leaked saliva at the corners, and the saliva ran down over his chin. He was a big, lank guy at least three inches over six feet, and his bones were thick and knobby at all the joints just like at the wrists, and /e looked like just what he was, a big boob without the brains to know when someone was making a damn fool of him, but I didn’t think it was funny.
Ivy and Gunner did, though. They were leaning against the barn with their arms around each other, and they were laughing fit to kill. Ivy with an abandon that was almost hysteria and Gunner more quietly, in his own way, his bright red lips drawn back off white teeth in an expression that was somehow canine and cruel.
I went over and grabbed Obie by an arm and jerked him around. His song ended with a little squawk in his throat, and he stood looking down at me with his mouth hanging open and his pale eyes clouded and confused in the wav they got when anything happened too suddenly or was a little different from anything that had happened to him before.
“What’d you do that for, Jake?” he said. “I was singing my song for Ivy. You oughtn’t to stop me when I’m singing my song for Ivy.”
“God damn it,” I said, “can’t you tell when someone’s making a damn clown out of you? Haven’t you even got that much brains?”
He shook his head slowly from side to side, laboring to understand what I’d said, taking each word one at a time in the darkness of his brain and figuring it and then putting them all together at the end like a little kid just learning to read.
“You oughtn’t to say that, Jake. Ivy’s my girl. You know Ivy’s my girl. Ivy wouldn’t do anything like that to Obie.”
“Don’t be any more of a fool than God intended you to be, Obie. Ivy’s just stringing you along. She’s Gunner’s girl, not yours. Why would she laugh at you if she wasn’t? Why would she stand there laughing at you and letting Gunner laugh with her right in front of you if she wasn’t?”
It was true that Ivy teased Obie. She was cruel by instinct, and it gave her a big bang to work him up to the point where he was leaking saliva through his loose lips and shaking like a bird dog evacuating peach seeds, and you’d have thought it was a dangerous game for her, that a big powerful guy with no brains to evaluate consequences might have just slapped her down and had what he wanted, but she knew it wouldn’t happen because Obie had this simple religion in him and a rudimentary kind of morality that had been drilled into him for his own protection that said you never bothered anyone, least of all a woman, and that any kind of physical intimacy, no matter how bad you wanted it, was evil and strictly taboo. He’d never have touched Ivy, or Gunner, either, if it hadn’t been for me. Never on earth.
He swung his head around and looked at Ivy and Gunner by the barn.
“Gunner oughtn’t to do that to Ivy. Ivy doesn’t like it. Ivy wouldn’t even like Obie to do something like that.”
Gunner let his hand slip off her and stepped forward, bending a little at the waist like a man ready to attack. He was looking at me, not Obie, and his eyes were as black and shiny as two chips of anthracite, and his face, though he had quit laughing, had the same expression as before, his red lips drawn back in the shape of cruel pleasure without sound. Ivy, in an unconscious gesture, lifted her hands to her armpits and ran them down the sidelines of her body as if she enjoyed the feel of herself.
She said softly, “Don’t pay any attention to Jake, Obie. He’s just jealous. He’s jealous because I’m your girl instead of his.”
Obie shook his head again, his sparse dry hair falling down over his eyes. No. Jake’s Obie’s friend, Jake’s Obie’s friend, and Ivy’s Obie’s girl.”
It was as simple as that to the big boob. He couldn’t see any conflict. He couldn’t sec any reason at all why it shouldn’t be that way.
Gunner laughed with a sound that was no more than a long breath hissing through his teeth, “Jake’s a sneaky little mouse, that’s what he is. Jake’s a slimy, panting little jerk who can’t get what he wants and doesn’t want anyone else to get it.
My hate was too big for me then, and I stepped forward and started to swing at him, but he was much too fast for me and hit me flush in the mouth, and I was suddenly on my back in the hot, dry dust with blood in my throat. After fifteen seconds or so, I got up to do the best I could, but it wasn’t necessary, because Obie was standing between me and Gunner, and his huge hands were clenching and unclenching slowly.
“Don’t hit Jake again,” he said to Gunner. “Don’t hit Jake and don’t touch Ivy.”
Gunner was lean and mean and fast as hell, but he didn’t want any part of Obie. Obie would simply have waded into him and taken him in his big hands and crushed the life out of him, and Gunner knew it. In his eyes were fear and sudden withdrawal, but in Ivy’s eyes there was nothing but the crazy, shining excitement that was always her reaction to violence or the sight of blood as the symbol of violence.
“Come on, Obie,” I said. “Let’s cut out. I want you to help me down in the fields.”
I took him by an arm and led him down the cowpath into the pasture at the lower end and across the pasture toward the creek, and all the way he kept turning his head every few steps to look back toward Ivy and Gunner by the barn, and I could tell he was trying to figure it out, what had happened and why I had stopped him from finishing his song and why we had all said and done the things we had. My lips were split and beginning to swell, and one tooth was so loose that I could push it around with my tongue, but that wasn’t what hurt. A few cuts and bruises didn’t matter a damn. What hurt was the festering hatred and humiliation inside me that made me want to vomit and was all the worse because I couldn’t think of anything to do about it. At the edge of the timber along the creek I stopped and looked back myself, and I could see Ivy and Gunner walk across the barnyard and into the barn with their arms around each other, and I knew all of a sudden without any doubt at all just what they were going in there for. I think I knew because I understood that it would be necessary for Ivy to complete the cycle of intense physical excitement that the brief episode of violence and blood had aroused but hadn’t satisfied.
“What we stopping for, Jake?” Obie said. “I thought we were going to the fields.”
If he hadn’t said that, maybe I wouldn’t have done it. Maybe just a little thing like his saying something at the wrong time was the difference between doing it and not doing it.
“I just remembered that we’ll need a pitch fork, Obie,” I said. “Go back to the barn and get one.”
“What we need a pitch fork for?”
“Never mind that. Just go get it. It’s sticking in the hay in the loft.” He started back the way we had come, and when he’d gone a few steps, I said, “Wait a minute, Obie. Listen to me. You be real quiet going in the barn. Don’t let anyone see you or hear you. You understand?”
His eyes got clouded and confused from the effort of trying to understand why I was telling him to get the fork in a way that was different from the way I had always told him to get it before.
“Why, Jake? Why don’t you want anyone to see me?”
“Never mind. I’ve got my reason. Will you do it the way I say?”
“Sure, Jake. If you say so.”
“Don’t forget, now. Promise?”
“Sure, Jake. I promise.”
He turned and started again, and I stood and watched him, watched his long, loping gait eat up the distance to Ivy and Gunner in the barn, and then I went on through the trees to the bank of the creek and sat down. I gathered a handful of pebbles and threw them one at a time into the dark green water, watching the little concentric circles move outward from the place where the pebble went in, and then, after the water had smoothed out, I lay back on the bank and closed my eyes and began to count, and I had counted a long way, I don’t remember how far except that it was a long way, when I heard Obie’s big clod-hoppers thumping the ground, and he came through the trees and sat beside me. He was breathing very hard. His breath was like a whinny in his nostrils.
Without opening my eyes, I said, “You get the fork, Obie?”
“What’s the matter, Obie?”
He didn’t answer, and I guess he didn’t even hear me, but after a while he said more to himself than to me, “He oughtn’t to have done it. She oughtn’t to have let him.”
I knew then that it was both of them. I knew that he had seen what I’d sent him to see and that he’d done what I’d thought he might do. I couldn’t stand the sight of him sitting there crying, so I rolled over and buried my face in my arms, but I could still see him just the same, and I can still see him now and I only wish they had, in the place where he is, a field where he could work under the hot sun with his big hands, and a creek where he could go when the work was finished.