Flannery O'Connor : The Coat
Rosa found him rolled over in the mud down by the gully. She started. The wash basket fell off her head and six white shirts-washed, pressed, and folded-flapped face-down in the mud. One of them was in reach of his hand, a rigid, immobile hand, strangely white against the soft red clay it lay in. She felt like sinking into the clay herself. It had taken her all afternoon to iron them shirts. She picked them up except the one that almost touched him. She fished that up with a stick and drop ped it into the basket. Then she looked at him again. He seemed almost to have been pressed down in the clay, his thin body and outstretched arms forming a weird white cross in relief on the red. Light-colored trousers clung to his wet body and Rosa notic ed that a thin coating of ice had begun to form around his arms and back.
He had on no coat.
"Whoever killed him ain't lef' nothin' for nobody else," she muttered. "Done took the coat offen his back. These niggers 'round here ain't got no sense." Allus got caught in some devilment an' got theysevs in the 'lectric chair. 'Thout gittin' nothin' out it neither. Niggers was funny that way, she mused. Wonder howcome she was different? Allus had been. Even when she was little, she was brightern Lizzie an' Boon. She was scrawny but she was bright. And scrawny as she was, she had got Abram. Strongest nig ger in Bell's Quarters was hers. He was devilish like the rest of 'em, but, Lord, that nigger was strong! He could er strangled that man there wit one er his hans. She looked down at the cross apprehensively. Might er done it too 'cepin' he had gone in to wn for keresene an' that had carried him t'other way. This would be one time Abram wouldn't be mess up in nothin'. He warn't a bad nigger, couldn't help stealin' now an' then, er gittin' hissef drunk, er fightin'. It was in his blood like sense was in her s. Abram had sense too-almost as much as she had- when he warn't drunk; but git that nigger drunk and he'd forget he a king an' gonna git him a throne someday. Him an' her-they gonna have 'em a throne, Abram say. He gonna git 'em a throne. Would too. Long 's he won't drunk an' didn't git hissef in trouble. But he warn't mess up in this killin' here. This was some other nigger's doin', er maybe a white man's. Maybe.
Vaguely she wondered if they might think she had killed the man.
They sho would if they seen her tracks leadin' up to him. Now how they gonna know them her tracks? They warn't God Amighty. Rosa put the basket on her head again and went back home.
She was sorting the Grocery-Store-Wilkinson's wash from the Sheriff-Thomases when Abram came in. She heard three, slow, deliberate footsteps and thought it was someone else. Then the door creaked and he peered in. She knew he was drunk by the way he opene d the door. If it had weighed a hundred, he couldn't have done it more slowly. Cheap wine-allus got him. Abram closed the door behind him with infinite care and tiptoed to the bed where she had the wash laid out.
"You ain't gonna lie down on that wash, nigger!" she screamed as he lowered himself to the Sheriff's stiff, green-striped shirt. Abram rolled over on the floor.
"Where the keresene?" she demanded.
Abram yawned. "I ain't been after it yet," he murmured.
"What you waitin' on? We ain't got enough but for tonight, an' tomorrer's Sunday. You ain't got no sense." She slapped another shirt on the pile. "Usin' my keresene money to git yosef drunk wit. I ain't got no money to be payin' for yo' liquor, nigger," s he stormed.
Abram fumbled in his pocket. "Here yo' seventy-fi' cents," he said softly.
She took the money suspiciously. "Then what you stole to git yosef drunk wit?"
"Ain't stole nothin'. Found it."
"What you found?"
"Lemme go to sleep, Rosa," he whined.
"What you found, I say?"
"Just a ol' coat."
"What it have in it?"
"Ain't had nothin' in it."
"How you git drunk off an ol' coat then?"
"I eschanged it for a lil' wine at Branches sto'. Lemme go to sleep, Rosa," he pleaded.
She folded her arms and stared at him. He could feel her eyes singeing the back of his neck. He rose slowly and sheepishly held a five-dollar bill out to her. "Here de money I found in de pocket, Rosa."
She felt the fear slowly clamp down on her, numbing the thing that beat in her chest. "You ain't got no sense," she moaned. "Why you have to go eschange that coat at Branches? They finds that man an' you done showed yosef eschangin' his coat, they git you sho'."
Abram stared. "Don't you want the money, Rosa?" he mumbled.
She snatched it from him and flung it to the floor. He backed away in amazement. "I ain't found no more, Rosa. Honest I ain't. I didn't git but fo' dollars for dat coat an' I done drunk it all."
"How come you got to kill somebody? Ain't you got enough to do 'thout gittin' yosef mess up like that? I don't want to have to tell people you done got yosef in the 'lectric chair when they asks how you is."
"I ain't kill nobody, Rosa. Where you git dat idea?"
"You ain't got sense enough to jest kill him an' git his money an' go-you got to eschange his coat," she said bitterly, "an' there's probly a hunnert people knows that his coat."
"Dat whose coat?" Abram's voice rose to an unnatural tenor.
"You knows there ain't no sense triflin' 'round wit me, Abram, pretendin' you don't know what I talkin' 'bout. When they finds that dead man roll over in that gully an' sees his coat up there at Branches an' you done eschanged it, they gon put you in the 'lectric chair 'fore you gits chance to turn 'round good." It was fine she had some sense to take care of Abram wit. He needed her. "An' who that man?" she demanded.
"I ain't seen no man," Abram whispered. He dropped down on the bed. "What I gonna do, Rosa? Was he a white man?"
"You know he white good's you know you black."
"What I gonna do?" he mumbled.
"This ain't none er my doin'," she sniffed. "I ain't kill nobody."
"I ain't kill nobody neither," he said sullenly.
"I knows when you lyin' good's I know my name, Abram." She stalked over to a pile of clothes bags in the corner and began to draw out the musty-smelling shirts and sheets the Brinsons always sent.
"I goin' an' git dat coat," Abram said suddenly.
"You jest drunk," she muttered. "How many seen you eschange that coat? They allus fo' er five white men in there 'sides a passel er niggers. What gonna keep them from 'membering 'bout it when that man's found?" She was bright. Allus.
Abram limped back to the bed. "I reckon I go off an' hide for a spell," he said.
"That's yo' affair." She inspected the front of Joe Brinson's shirt as if its state of grime was all that interested her. They'd git him whether he hid or not. They allus got 'em. "Ain't got sense enough to kill him an' git. Got to go sportin' his coat al l 'round," she muttered.
Abram looked up. He could feel advice coming.
"Ain't got sense enough to bury what he done kill befo' they finds it." She opened another wash bag. "I sho' ain't gonna go out in the dark by mysef an' git filthy buryin' him."
Abram shook his head. "What I want to bury him for? I goin' over to Rivertred an' lie low."
"An' they be waitin' on yo' do' step when you come back. Or else they be out there to git you. You better listen to somebody wit some sense."
"I got my own sense."
"You ain't usin' it then."
"I reckon I ain't," Abram sighed.
e was still rolled over in the mud-the same way she had seen him before-when they came. Abram set the lamp down.
"It'll be easy to cover him over wit dis slime," he suggested.
"An' have him juttin' out like a rock for the rain to wash off? You ain't got no sense. Start diggin'."
"Right next to him. Then you can roll him over into it."
Of course, she knew she'd have to tell him everything to do. She was smartern him. Knowd it when she married him. But he was smartern them other niggers. He was the onliest one she would er had-him that gonna be the king. She found a stump and sat down.
Abram's shovel slid rhythmically in and out of the mud. The lamp's shining into his face made crystals of the big drops of sweat erupting on his forehead and silvered his cheekbones and the ridge of his nose. He was a king awready. White folks could be kings in the day time when the light was in their favor; but niggers was kings at night. "Quit yo' slackin' up. I don't wan' have to set on this stump all night." Abram would jest fit a throne-slouched down in them purple drapes. She'd have to be supervisin ' it for him so's he wouldn't git hissef drunk. That'd make her a queen. "Start makin' that hole longer. He ain't round." There they'd be-her an' Abram-settin' side by side. Wit other folks washin' their clothes. "Thow that rock out er there. You gonna br eak that shovel befo' we done paid for it." Said she'd never keep Abram. Done shown 'em though. He was drunk but he was hers. Scrawny as she was. She watched the moon rolling unconcernedly among the clouds. That would be the way her an' Abram would do-jes t roll on 'bout their business 'thout mindin' nobody; but plenty er folks mindin' them-like those shadows that changed when the moon come through 'em.
"Ain't dat deep enough?" Abram asked after a while.
She got up and peered into the hole. "Naw, that ain't deep enough. Jest keep goin'. You got the energy to kill him, you got the energy to bury him."
"Suppose somebody fin' us here?"
"Who gonna fin' us here this time er night?"
"Maybe they out lookin' for him."
"Well, they ain't gonna know to look here 'til somebody pass an' tell 'em they seen him."
"Howcome you didn't tell nobody, Rosa?"
"Why I wan' git mysef mess up in that? He done ruin six shirts awready. Leastwise, you done ruin 'em-sportin' his coat 'round, leavin' him rolled over in the open like he suppose to be sunnin' hissef. Hurry up. I done tol' you I ain't gonna set on this stump all night."
"Ain't it deep enough yet?"
"I done tol' you it ain't."
Abram pushed the shovel in again. "Half dis slime runnin' back in," he remarked.
"If you thow it far enough, it ain't gonna go back in."
"I'll have to wait 'til de moon git from behind dat cloud so's I kin see." Abram stuck his shovel in the ground and looked around for a place to sit.
"You kin see well enough by that lamp. You jest tryin' to rest."
"Lamp goin' out. You didn't put enough keresene in it. Dere it go now," Abram said happily as the lamp sputtered and the darkness absorbed his shadow.
Rosa got up. "I goin' back up there an' git you another one. You be settin' here all night waitin' for that moon to come out. Don't you see all them clouds?"
"Be powerful dark goin' up dere by yosef," he suggested.
"I done it befo'. You set there an' if that moon do come out for a few minutes, you git yosef at it an' make haste. You ain't worth all this wearyment."
She started cautiously up the path, digging her heels into the soft earth and, where it was steep and slippery, feeling for roots to pull up on with her free hand. Hadn't been for her, he'd be gittin' hissef in the 'lectric chair wit all his drunkness. He was drunk but he was strong. Strong like a king-even strongern that man at the fair. Biggern him, too. Howcome this path warn't so slippery in the day time? Must be these shoes wit their wore-down heels. She clutched on a root to steady herself. Now that lamp was draggin'. Suddenly she felt herself falling backwards. She grasped at the ground to steady herself but she felt only mud slipping through her fingers. She heard the lamp crash a second before she stopped rolling and when she felt about her on th e ground, broken glass cut her fingers. "An' this the onliest good lamp we got," she muttered. "Reckon I'll wait on the moon to git itsef from behin' that cloud befo' I git up," she groaned. "Ain't gonna do Abram no good wit my neck broke." It just had a minute to go. She could see the end of the cloud becoming fringed with light. In a second, there it'd be, an' it'd take it a couple er minutes to git 'round to that other cloud an' by that time, she would be on the good path.
There it was! Slidin' out like a slow freight from the tunnel. Now where is I? she wondered. She got stiffly up and looked about her. Down the hill between the trees she could see the gully and to its left, stationary as a part of the rock he was enthrone d on, Abram, gazing up at the moon, his shovel like a scepter idle by his side. "Howcome he don't git hissef up an' tend to that man now the moon out?" she muttered. That jest like him-settin' there dreamin' like he owned the country. That would be the wa y he'd set on a throne. Like he was holdin' it up 'stead er it holdin' him. An' her probly havin' to hold 'em both up. "Abram!" she shrilled, " git yosef offen that rock an' start diggin'." To her satisfaction the king scrambled off his throne and the sce pter became a shovel again. Havin' to holler at him like he was one er Lizzie's chillun. He was her chile, though, the onliest one she'd got. She chuckled. Warn't nothin' wrong wit his ears neither. Hmp! He better had heard her. She found the path again a nd clawed her way up, reaching the edge of the hill just as the moon slid under cover. Now the road was straight and she could run.
The shack was dark and she had to feel her way to the shelf where they kept the other lamp and the matches. Like as not wouldn't be no keresene in it neither. She shook it. Jest like she thought. Good thing she kept candles. Where'd that Abram be if it wa rn't for her? He'd probly be sleepin' in that bed there like nothin' had happened an' then gittin' hissef in the 'lectric chair. She put the candle stumps and the matches in her pocket and left the shack.
The steep, winding path that led down into the gully seemed even longer and darker as she stood where the good road ended and lit a candle to light her way down. That Abram better be workin' when she got there. Her trapesyin' 'round all night wit all that washin' she got to do in the mornin'! Going down was harder than going up. The trees were scattered thinly and the small plants were of little use to clutch. Rosa held the candle low by her side and with her knees bent and her free hand grasping for an o ccasional tree to steady on, groped her way down the path. Farther on she felt broken glass under her feet. This where she seen Abram from, too. Now where was he? She leaned against a tree and tried to find where she had looked before. T'warn't no use loo kin' when the moon was in, she thought, but suddenly a lighted area over to the west caught her eye, and there, standing on a rock, was Abram, his head bent, his hands in the air. Now where he git all that light from? Why warn't he diggin'? She crept clos er. Was them hounds she heard barkin'? White men! Must be ten of 'em! Wit guns an' dogs. All 'round him. She clung to the tree. They'd got him. Wit all her tryin', they'd got him. 'Possum huntin' more than likely an' found him there. She remembered she ha d called him. Likely 'tracted 'em. No. They'd er got him anyway. She felt hollow. The devil allus ketched up wit his own; it was in Abram's blood. She snuffed the candle out and looked more closely. There were guns all around him. She edged her way closer . She could hear them talking.
One laughed. "First time I've ever got a coon when I was looking for a 'possum."
"What's yer name, nigger?" another asked.
"I ain't done nothin'," Abram yelled. "I ain't done nothin'."
"Oh, we know you ain't done nothin'. You just nursin' that corpse for its mamma, but what's yer name-just for the record?" The man poked a gun at his side.
Abram stiffened. "I ain't done nothin'," he muttered.
He won't gonna tell 'em. Rosa knew he won't. They didn't know Abram. He was drunk an' when he was drunk, he didn't have no truck wit strangers who was rough wit him. He roused up an' fought.
"Who's he killed?" one man asked.
"Never seen him before."
"Who is he, nigger?"
"I ain't done nothin'," Abram insisted.
"I believe this nigger's a looney," one man growled.
"Oh, he'll talk with some persuasion." A man in a plaid jacket strode toward Abram. "Listen, nigger," he snarled, "open up or get hell beat out you." He prodded the gun into Abram's side. "Get off that rock," he ordered.
"He ain't gonna do it," Rosa whispered. "He gon stan' there like a king. He gonna kill that man. He gon . . ."
Abram wrenched the gun from its owner and like a black streak darted past the startled group and up the open side of the gully. Rosa groaned. Ef only he'd er come this side she might could er helped him.
Several of the men raised their guns.
Rosa clung to the tree. She heard four shots and a scream. Later that night when she crawled home-after they had taken his body, them men what didn't have no business wit it-she wondered if it hadn't been better them gittin' him that way. Them 'lectric ch airs-she shuddered-weren't fit for no king; and all that week, though she lay on her bed with what the neighbor women called the "fall fevers," there was a little core of something light buried in the dark weight her head was.
Toward the end of the week she was just well enough to walk (although she couldn't feel that she was walking) out to Mrs. Wilkinson's car that had honked three times loudly in front of her door. She was able to take the wash bundle out of the back of the automobile and to stand almost straight while Mrs. Wilkinson told her that there were two of Roy's shirts in there, three of her own summer dresses-that she wanted done with extra carefulness-and Mr. Wilkinson's light hunting jacket which she would find s imply filthy. He had lost it last week in the woods and found that some colored man had taken ten dollars out the pocket and exchanged the coat at Branches for four pints of cheap wine. Wasn't that ridiculous? She knew Mr. Wilkinson had paid at least twen ty dollars for that coat. And oh yes, she told Rosa, there were six of her best luncheon napkins and a table runner in the bundle and for heaven's sake, she told her, she was not to lose any of the napkins. She had the hardest time imaginable keeping up w ith them; last year she had lost three and the year before, two. And she told Rosa how in the beginning there had been sixteen.
"The Coat," copyright © 1995 by the Estate of Flannery O'Connor, is published for the first time with the permission of the author's literary executor and of her Estate.