A good friend is always advising me to read Flannery O’Connor. I never tell him, but I already do. I’m from the South; I’m supposed to read Flannery O’Connor. However, I sometimes read her same stories over and over again.
“A Good Man is Hard to Find” is my favorite. It is violent and strange, but still so funny. I’ve read it many times simply looking for something new to think about.
Her short stories are the subject of many books whose authors try to interpret what Flannery O’Connor wanted to convey. Honestly, I think this is an important beauty of her work – it can be interpreted in so many ways.
In the middle of the outrageous, often disturbing tales, I find a wonderful sense of southern bespectacled woman humor. Flannery makes me smile, laugh and scratch my head. “Spending time with her” is something that I enjoy.
The other day while sitting in the back of my college classroom reading one of Flannery’s stories, my right eye started watering, throbbing and feeling like it was going to fall out of my head. My nose was dripping, then running like a sieve. My students were taking a test, so I went to the restroom to get something to wipe my eye and nose.
Coming back into the classroom, I turned on the oscillating fan in the back of the room and sat down to continue reading Flannery’s “Revelation.” Again, I do not find sadness in her stories; I find Flannery’s big smile, bookish glasses and sharp southern Catholic wit.
I had gotten to the part in the story where a lady (Mrs. Turpin) sitting in the waiting room of a doctor’s office gets hit in the head by a book thrown by a young lady named “Mary Grace.” Perhaps one of my students had hit me, without me realizing it. That is exactly what it felt like. We have a pretty big textbook and my right eye felt as though someone had hit me, hurling it from somewhere in the front of the room.
That was not the case.
Going back and forth to the hall of the building for relief, I started to figure out something in my classroom was causing my right eye to explode and my nose to cry. The oscillating fan had only made it worse.
Then it hit me like a book thrown from across the classroom.
I knew what it was…
Growing up I spent a lot of Saturdays and summer days in my Grandmama’s ten cent store in Wedowee, Alabama. Grandmama sold candy, magazines, kitchen stuff, toys and everything else you would imagine in a rural Alabama ten cent store.
She even sold perfume. I distinctly remember my Mama warning me never to open the little bottles with the red lids. I would ask her, “Why not?” She wouldn’t explain.
Some children are going to do what you tell them they shouldn’t do; it is even more probable when you do not give them an explanation of why not to do it. So one hot summer afternoon, I decided to open one of the little bottles with the red lids.
My eyes watered, my nose ran, and for a very long time, everyone who came in uttered the same phrase as soon as they came in Grandmama’s ten cent store with the wooden screen door and oscillating fans blowing left and right around the cash register where Grandmama would sit and wait to do business with the folks that would wander in.
They would say, “Somebody opened a bottle of Atom Bomb.”
Atom Bomb was cheap perfume; as a matter of fact, it was the “cheapest” perfume Grandmama sold. What on earth would cause someone to want to put something like that on their body puzzled me. Just thinking about the smell makes my eyes pour water – my right eye in particular. I still don’t know how to best describe the aroma or stench. Perhaps being drowned in vanilla flavoring, while someone poured gasoline on your sunburn, while another fellow squirted vinegar based hot pepper sauce in your eyes (particularly your right one).
Mama explained to me that the type of folks who used Atom Bomb perfume usually did so to cover up the fact that they didn’t take a bath. Mama taught school in Alabama for 42 years, she was good at explaining things like this. She also probably knew that if she had explained it to me before I opened one of the little bottles with the red lids, I would have opened it anyway.
Flannery O’Connor could have gotten away with a much more straightforward explanation of the reason and type of folks that might need to use Atom Bomb perfume. Someone would have probably died in the process, but there would have been humor involved and the underlying message could have been taken (or appreciated) in a variety of scents.
The smell in my classroom was not going away; it was just being oscillated back and forth so as to continue to hit me on the left, right, top and bottom of my right eye. I couldn’t continue reading Flannery’s “Revelation” because I was using various combinations of my hands and fingers to hold my right eye in my head and going back and forth to the hallway for air.
On death’s door and reading this particular story, I started thinking about the Book of Revelation in the Bible. I remember somewhere the angels burning perfume or incense and it smoking and people praying. There was thunder, rumblings, lightning flashing and earthquakes.
My right eye was definitely going to fall out if I didn’t hold it in.I had figured out the best way to keep it in was to jab my right thumb into it, palm up and hold it there by hanging on to my right ear with the other four fingers.
Finally, the class was over. The headache and the smell of the Atom Bomb stayed with me for the rest of the evening.
Mama's and Flannery’s words will stay with me forever.
Flannery O’Connor died in August of 1964, at the age of 39, of complications from lupus.
“I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say.” ~ Flannery O'Connor
Find more stories at www.CranksMyTractor.com.