Hazel arrives in Taulkinham at six the next evening, after having been left behind by the train. He had run after the departing train, but his hat flew off, and he had to stop to retrieve it. In the city, he is struck by the many electric signs, and goes to the men’s toilet to find a private place to sit. Hazel enters a stall marked “Welcome” and discovers, written on the stall, an address for Mrs. Leora Watts, “the friendliest bed in town,” and signed “Brother.” Hazel copies down the address and leaves the station in search of a taxi.
Hazel again seems beset upon by the world, an isolated oddball out of sync with those around him. He could not abandon his hat, a symbol of his spiritual calling and separation from the more animalistic people around him. Hazel is overwhelmed in their world, and finds refuge in the bathroom. His discovery of Mrs. Watts’ address seems destined, as if some invisible hand were guiding his path. At the same time it also represents a grotesque intrusion of the animal connected with the spiritual (the note is signed “brother,” usually a religious epithet.
In the taxi, the cigar-smoking driver squints at Hazel in the mirror, recognizing Leora Watts’ address and confused about why he would want to go there—“she don’t usually have no preachers for company,” he explains. Hazel frowns, telling the driver that he is not a preacher, but the driver persists, telling Hazel that the hat, and something in his face, make him look like a preacher. Hazel clutches the hat and, expressionless, insists that he doesn’t believe in anything.
The driver’s smoke links him to the cruel, animalistic young women smoking in the dining car. His insistence that Hazel is a preacher – which he reads from his hat, and something “spiritual” in his face – shows that the world’s view of Hazel is different from what he would like to be. Hazel is enraged, withdrawing into the blank expression that characterizes his moments of anger, and steadfastly denying the religious destiny others see.
The driver reassures Hazel that even preachers aren’t perfect, and that it’s okay if he needs to commit sin himself in order to better understand what he is condemning. Hazel gets out of the car, repeating his statement of denial and non-belief. The driver scowls and drives away, disgusted, saying “that’s the problem with you preachers… you’ve all got too good to believe in anything.”
This comic misunderstanding further emphasizes the divide between Hazel – who, in an attempt to assert his free will and deny the power that religion has over him, is enraged by being mistaken for a preacher – and the driver, who is frankly unconcerned with the judgment or sin that drives Hazel’s anger and guilt.
Hazel looks at the shack that stands before him, peering in at a crack in the shades to find a large white knee. He goes through the unlocked door and looks through a cracked door in the hallway, the only source of light. A sweaty blonde figure, Mrs. Leora Watts, is sitting alone on a white bed, trimming her toenails, dressed in a too-small pink nightgown. She stares at him for a minute, but then goes back to her toenails.
Here again we are reminded just how alone – and also how young and confused – Hazel is, as he stands outside this strange house. He is in search of a home, and his first exploration of the house mirrors the memory of his return to Eastrod. The grotesque, animal Mrs. Watts is almost a fantastical figure for the inexperienced Hazel.
Hazel enters the room, and wanders about, examining its grungy contents, his senses “stirred to the limit.” He sits down on the far corner of the bed and begins to run his hand along the sheet. Mrs. Watts seems happy to see him, and her tongue emerges to moisten her lip, but she says nothing. Hazel puts his hand on her heavy foot, and she smiles widely, revealing yellowing, gapped teeth. She asks Hazel whether he is “hunting something.”
The intense tension of this moment reveals Hazel’s inexperience and desire for connection, and O’Connor’s description of the pair’s body movements conjures up an image of two animals in a cage. That he touches her first on the foot is both comic and a sign of his discomfort. Mrs. Watts seems to revel in this discomfort.
Hazel almost leaps through the window, but Leora Watts’ grip is firm. She pulls him closer, and he carefully controls his request for “the usual business.” Mrs. Watts responds with a simple “make yourself at home.” They stare at each other tensely for almost a minute, and then Hazel says, in a high voice, that he is “no goddamn preacher.” Mrs. Watts smirks just slightly, and tickles his face, reassuring him that “Momma don’t mind if you ain’t a preacher.”
His instincts urge him to flee, but Hazel steels himself, his presence here driven more by some sort of spiritual quest to assert his free will and deny the idea of sin than any lustful desire for pleasure. Again, this assertion falls on deaf ears, as Mrs. Watts brushes aside his talk of preachers to get down to the usual business.