The God Shop, Part 1
He ain't hurt nobody. He loved somebody and dying for loving is punishment enough. It has to be.
By Donnie Moreland
It was no later than 6:23 am, on September 19th, when Officer Jacob Dochavney discovered the two bodies in the Tacoma River. He waited to call it in. He was three days from his two week vacation he’d been hollering about since February. He was supposed to be going to Las Vegas with some buddies from his old battalion and he wasn’t about to let an investigation into two dead niggers—he’d later proclaim during a round of darts at Maggie’s Bar—ruin his plans.
He waited fourteen minutes before calling in what would be noted as a Double Homicide by the Hill County Medical Examiner. It would take a week before the bodies, which were well into the process of decomposition, to be identified as James Jackson and Willis Thurman. The Hill County Medical Examiner reported that Thurman had died from one .45 caliber bullet to the chest. Jackson had died from multiple skull fractures, from an object which the Hill County Medical Examiner could not determine.
Jackson and Thurman’s respective families, which resided in a three mile proximity of one another in Lexington County, were notified a week after the Hill County Chief of Police, Marc Jacobs, announced he would be opening an investigation into the murders of Jackson and Thurman—but would only be contributing 11% of the Hill County Police Department to the investigation. That meant Dochavney was required to postpone his vacation.
When the families were notified of the deaths of Jackson and Thurman, there was brief mention of taking legal action against the Hill County Police Department for purposefully elongating the time of discovery to investigation by Willis’s cousin, Lena Henry. Her husband, David Henry, encouraged her to dismiss her grievances because, according to David, “If they ain’t give a shit yesterday, why they gonna give a damn tomorrow?”
Joint funeral arrangements were made, as both men were members of St. Luke’s Baptist Church. But one matter still worried both families and the 349 Black folks of Clarkesville, Florida: Pastor Earl Thurman, of Saint Luke’s Baptist Church—who departed alongside his Uncle, Willis Thurman, for an arranged sabbatical—was not among the bodies discovered and was, for that matter, nowhere to be found.
The morning Pastor Thurman and Willis left Clarkesville for their family cabin along the Tacoma, Earl felt the urge to bring his .22 caliber revolver. He’d been anxious the night before. His stomach turning, as every time he’d fall asleep, he’d see that same burning car barely rolling along some long strip of county road at dusk. He’d always wake right as it exploded. He kept a bottle of Jack Daniels beneath his pillow, and it helped during the worst of it. But he didn’t touch it last night. He didn’t want to be hungover for that five hour drive.
Earl was looking at the gun in the bottom drawer of his bedroom dresser as he grabbed his bible. Something was beating at him to bring it, but he closed the drawer and got on with the day. Willis was already dressed, preparing pancakes and listening to Vanessa Bell Armstrong run all over Peace Be Still on the radio. There were scrambled eggs, bacon and orange juice already on the counter when he thought to call Earl down but got caught up in the kids playing outside the kitchen window. He scuffed at their cursing and whispered something under his breath, hoping Jesus agreed with his estimations of how the Black folk in Clarkesville raised their children.
“Food ready, Earl. Come on down here,” Willis beckoned.
Earl was slow to get out of the shower when he heard his Uncle calling him through the walls. His sinuses were flared and the moisture was helping a bit, but he could only go so long ignoring the man before there would be knocking at the door. He couldn’t decide what outfit to bring along, moving dress shirts along one another in his closet, so he figured he’d wait until after breakfast to pack. Willis was preparing some sausages when Earl finally came down to set the table.
“You ain’t hear me calling yo……you ain’t dressed?” Willis said, offended by the sight of Earl’s half hidden tattoo, behind his tank top.
“Breakfast look good,” Earl sighed out, ignoring his Uncle’s judgments.
The two ate quietly for some time before Willis cleared his throat as he did before bringing up something Earl would rather not speak about. Sometimes it was women, other times it was Earl’s Daddy, but it could be anything. Anything from Reagan to his unnerving fascination with Debbie Allen and her sister, or most obsessively, matters of the church.
“I want to talk about yesterday’s serman,” Willis announced, past a half mouthful of eggs.
Earl put down his fork and sat up. He removed his glasses and began to clean them in between a nearby napkin, which he did whenever he felt that burning which drops from the bottom of the heart to the top of the belly. That same burning which accompanied attending his gossiping Deacon board meetings, meetings with the NAACP District President or James Jackson blubbering at Clarice and Lorna Jackson’s funeral.
“What about the sermon?”
Earl had begun a series dedicated to the passing of Jessie Major. Jessie was one of Yolonda Major’s boys. She had four. Jessie, Barker, Tommy and Moe. Four boys, but Jessie stood out because of how impressive he was on the football field. He played quarterback for the high school and was being scouted by a few teams out West. Texas A&M was the most persuasive, and that’s where he went. They promised him a full ride, but he would have to take up a wide receiver position. A Black quarterback meant big hands and decent field awareness. But running out routes wasn’t running behind a center. He took them up on the offer and left, for the sake of getting a better look at the world. No one told him that the last place you want to be as a Black boy who liked boys was Texas, but he certainly found out when his offensive line coach found him and one of the linebackers lip locked after practice had let out.
He lost his scholarship, was homeless, and headed to Houston with too much pride to go back to Clarkesville. Even Earl told him, when he left, to not look back. So he didn’t. He ended up contracting HIV, some three years later in ‘88 and was dead a year after that. Between him finding out he had contracted the virus and letting go of his last breath, he did come back to Clarkesville. His mother told him that despite what he was hiding, she knew something was wrong and she wanted him home with her and his brothers.
The Major house might as well have had a red letter on the door once folks found out Jessie’s diagnosis. No one visited. Barker, the oldest, moved out and stopped calling. Tommy and Moe stayed fighting and Yalonda might as well have committed the house to a nunnery, with her son as her God. She rarely left his side and when she did, it was to attend service, where Earl hesitated to publicly shame his congregation for treating this family like pariah, forcing their hand in reclusion. This was mostly due to Willis in Earl’s ear, as the advisor he always had been.
But, privately, he did go by the house. He did pray with Yolanda. He did laugh with Jessie. And he did weep, having hung up the phone with Yolanda and knowing there were funeral arrangements to be made. That was two years ago. And yesterday, he finally decided to call a spade and spade and charge Clarkesville for their part in the tragedy of the Major house.
“If you’d heard how your people was talking about you, before you opened your mouth yesterday I think you would’ve reconsidered some of that venom in your voice,” Earl said, his fork fiddling in between the remaining of his pancakes.
Earl put a toothpick from the holder in his mouth, before rubbing out some new grey in his beard.
“They know my door is open. They can come talk to me, if they have a grievance,” Earl responded.
“You talk about them people like you the mayor or somebody. This ain’t no administration building and you ain’t no damn beaurocrat. You a servant to your people and they don’t want to hear about no men laying up with other men.”
“I’m a servant of compassion first, and when folks are dying all over…”
“Oh shut up, with all that, boy. Like I don’t know who you are. But you done forgot who you talking to,” Willis snickered, wiping any leftovers from his mustache.
Earl looked into Willis like he stole something from him. Like he stole something in him. He pulled the pick from his mouth before sitting back, crossing his legs and clearing his own throat, which he did when that burning could no longer be tempered by his teeth grinding down on his tongue.
“I know well who I’m talking to. Same man that was all up in my face about why we shouldn’t have even allowed Yolanda and them boys through the door. Why it was spitting on my father’s grave to even have Octavia put that boy’s name in a damn announcement. That’s who I’m talking to, since you know who you are talking to, right? I said what needed to be said yesterday. What I should have said when Charlie took that knife off of Maurice before he killed one of them boys down at the school. Couldn’t have blamed him, if he did hurt one of them, the way their parents—my congregation, my people right—were in my office gossiping about Yolanda conjuring and devil worshipping and what they were going to do if… all that craziness and recklessness. It was shameful. You were shameful. I acted shamefully. Hiding and leaving their house in the dark, when all the boy needed was some kindness. Can you understand that? Just some damn kindness. What did he do? What are any of those boys doing, but dying. He ain’t hurt nobody. He loved somebody and dying for loving is punishment enough. It has to be.”
Earl was holding back some other, more devilish words as his Uncle got up from the table to put up a few dishes.
“Dying from loving, you said. That’s mighty interesting coming out of your mouth, boy,” Willis said, his back to Earl.
Those words he knew he couldn’t say while facing his nephew or else he’d might as well have put a bullet in him. And the space between the sound of Earl’s chair legs scraping across the floor and the ascending footsteps from the dining room to Earl’s bedroom was enough for Willis to know that, had he turned around, it might have been to a fist in his mouth. Regardless, he was still pleased with himself. So much so, that while he placed the utensils in the soapy water, he’d begun to smile as he hummed along to Shirley Caesar’s Jesus, playing from his memory.
Jesus, Jesus, I love calling your name.
Jesus, Jesus, everyday your name is the same.
The drive to Tacoma River was a quiet one, if not for Al Green, Luther Vandross, Aretha Franklin and most recently, The Emotions. Don’t Ask My Neighbor was Earl’s favorite song and luckily some of the kids from the Sunday School put together a cassette mixtape of some of his favorite songs for his birthday. He was in on it, of course given that they had asked what those songs were but he did very much appreciate the gesture. Sheila Hutchinson’s simmering rhythms were a Harpies chord which drew Earl closer to the lake house, so when he felt his Daddy itching for words, he would press replay.
When they arrived at the lake house, a blue sky was still in full bloom which meant there was still time to fish. Willis was the first to go inside. Earl turned the car off and sat for a spell. He loved this place. He loved helping his Daddy and Willis put this old thing together. It wasn’t much. Two rooms, one bathroom, a kitchen and a small study but it was a castle, in mind, when he wasn’t there. This was where Willis, and his Daddy, would come to catch their breath and review any loose ends of the church’s operations.
After his Daddy was found laid up with somebody who wasn’t his momma, trips to the cabin were infrequent. His mother was always reluctant to let him spend any time there, so he wouldn’t get to know this place until he began ministering 12 years ago, when he returned to Clarkesville following his Daddy’s passing. Much like his Daddy, this was where he, and Willis, would find some reprieve and open up the church’s quarterly books. It became tradition. A compulsory demand and mindless practice. But his bones needed it. There were times he could even hear his Daddy’s footsteps on the roof. It was just Willis’s footsteps he found repulsing. Those came with the man.
“You just gonna sit here the whole time or come help me unpack?” Willis shouted, stomping back to the vehicle.
Earl got out of the car to get the man away from him. Their exchange, earlier, was a cycling film reel, catching fire the more he saw Willis’s face. And they had some days here. The aroma of the Tacoma fed his inner child. Always did. The air was especially sticky this time of year—the back end of Summer—and those beads of sweat tickling the skin between his chest and belly made that river water a matter of sex. He’d jumped in once and his Daddy tore his hide in two. One, because Earl wasn’t the best swimmer and that water was deeper than his ambitions. Two, because that water was a cesspool of who knows what, flowing down current from the white occupants of these woods, they all prefered remain unseen.
Walking inside, Earl remembered the fan needed fixing. Much here needed screwing in, renailing, cleaning, etc. His Daddy’s room, which was now his, was pretty empty, much like every other corner of this place. A bed with some dusty linens, a right bedside radio and one of his Daddy’s old suits in the closet that Earl was sure his father thought he would be able to wear again, having most likely forgotten it, not expecting to die naked on the toilet in one of his friend’s ex-wive’s homes. Earl put his bag down, took off his Stacy Adams loafers, sat down and let himself fall back into a light sleep.
The tires rotated so slow, so heavily, displacing ground as her Mercury Capri scorched in front of the still pink, and blue morning sky. There was humming, down the road and to his left. Something was there, far from him to distinguish but close enough to see it was human. Maybe. Humming. Androgenous humming. The car caught aflame. He looked to his left and it wasn’t there. The humming grew so loud, but to his right. He turned and it was there. Beside him, suspended in air. Falling. Soft white, revival cloth on its body. The back of a bald, brown head was what he saw of the apparition. It floated, in that falling posture. The humming intensified as it turned to him, just as the car exploded and he awoke to his Uncle standing in the doorway, in a half statement.
“….cool enough to do some fishing. Come on, now.”
Earl stared at the man, coming back to life before nodding his head as Willis made his way outside, humming something old, something hard, something between the cross and the plantation.