If James were angry, he would have shot him right there but whatever emotion lived in his belly, with those words, seemed to bind his body.


By Donnie Moreland

“Where do you keep the shells?” Earl whispered.

Willis, enamored with the searing heat of a bullet having ripped through his shoulder, seemed to hear his nephew retroactively.

“Jesus….Lord.….I can’t remember.”

Earl looked back to the door, accepting he was just going to have to wait here. Wait to know their enemy, in these forests. Play the defensive. No. There was no defense here. He was preparing for the worst. So that’s what they did. They waited. Waited right up until that door opened and those alien footsteps, slow like a giant’s hammer, began to grow legs, a body and a familiar face.

“Pastor Thurman,” James Jackson called. The big man walked in, repositioned the table and chairs, took a seat, and laid his rifle in his lap. 

Willis didn’t have to look at Earl to know they both knew what this was. Earl lifted Willis and they both came in view of the man.

“If this is between me and you, James, let my Uncle go ahead and get himself some help. He won’t tell nobody about what’s going on here.

“Pastor, I’ll kill you where you stand, if y’all don’t come on.”

READ: The God Shop, Part 1

Earl dropped the rifle, out of sight, so James wouldn’t scatter him across the walls. No sense scaring the man. 

Earl let Willis down in the chair across from James.

“I’m going back to his room to get a chair, for myself.”

“Go on,” James said, with a kind of scarring calm and an assuredness of an upper hand. 

Earl retrieved Willis’s handmade prayer chair and kneeled between the men. Humiliation wasn’t the word. Kneeling before his executioner, there was something macabre about the scene. Earl looked at Willis who was looking at his wounds. He couldn’t look at James. That would be too frightening. But James needed those eyes. He needed to know his prey saw death before giving it over. 

“You can’t look at me, Pastor?” James whispered. 

Earl tried to refuse, as James put hands on the rifle and leaned forward.

“You can’t look at me, Pastor?” he repeated.

READ: The God Shop, Part 2

Earl slowly rotated his view to see the gaze of his own murderer. It was funny, Earl thought. Some years ago, having a handyman attend services meant the building would receive some tender love and care, at reasonable rates. Hell, James even reshingled Earl’s roof, for the price of three of Earl’s sweet potato pies. You could say the two were friends, even. 

James—with his wife, Lorna, and daughter, Clarice—were natives of Dallas, Texas. But when Lorna’s Daddy, Bill Duke, got sick, they packed up and headed East to Clarkesville. James wasn’t too happy about that decision, but he liked the charm of these Black folks and something about the minister at St. Luke’s Baptist Church lent him comfort enough to reduce the prices of his repair services around town and settle in. 

They were friendly folks. Became a popular pair, with Lorna’s hairdressing and James’s hands. They stayed in town, a good while after Lorna’s Daddy died. About five years, in fact. In that time, they attended St. Luke’s on a fairly regular basis. James wasn’t too big on religion, but he did like how Earl preached. It was something different. He would tell Lorna, it was something a little more honest going on in that man’s head, than with other “pulpit pimps,” as he’d call them. 

Then James got news his brother was shot and killed by an off duty police officer, in Detroit, and James wasn’t too kind with too many after that. His work suffered, as he picked up the bottle. Lorna began to confide in Earl about not feeling safe with James and Earl tried to counsel them both, and then James by himself. It seemed to help, for a time, but when Lorna started noticing bruises on Clarice’s arms and back, she was well past counsel. 

She left Clarkesville, going back to Dallas. James became a recluse. His Ford pickup rarely moved from his driveway and when it did, folks in town knew to respect that face as one which didn’t need company. When Earl was invited to a minister’s convention in Dallas, he happened across Lorna while at a Walmart. She treated him to dinner. It’s unclear if even Earl knew what happened. He was always attracted to her. Tried to taper it, with prayer. In truth, he was relieved when she moved away. But while with her, with no real reason but scripture to say no to his skin, they went to bed together. 

She said she didn’t make much of it. She just wanted to feel someone that wasn’t James but was familiar enough so that she might feel safer beneath the hands of another, and then others. Some time after Earl had returned, about four or five months after, Lorna called with news that she was pregnant. She didn’t want anything from him. Said she wouldn’t ruin him like that and given his residence, there was no reason to pick up those chains—her Daddy’s death, James’s abuse and the markings of a hussy in the mind of many there, once word of the child’s father grew legs. She just wanted to tell him. She wasn’t even completely sure she was going to keep it either. She, again, just wanted to tell him. 

Panic set in Earl. So much so that he began to pray a new prayer, every night. A prayer that she’d lose that baby and that his error would be his, and his alone, to know. He prayed that prayer, never feeling quite right with himself but not having any other answer for himself. About a month later, there was a knock at his door. He invited a weeping James into his house and was given the news that Lorna and Clarice had died in a car accident. A truck driver, asleep at the wheel, merged into their lane with no time for Lorna to drift any other way but into him. James, in that they never divorced, had reason to bury them in Clarkesville. 

Earl was to preside over the funeral procession, as usual, but when he fell apart on his Uncle’s floor about not being able to do it, what he had done and how he’d lost his religion because, in his words, “What God would answer such prayers”, Willis met his secret with a slap and pulsating curses, demanded he do his job and swallow those words so that no other ear may oblige their company. 

“James, I don’t have much to give you except my life which you seem set on taking. Don’t humiliate me. Just do what you need to do.”

Earl sounded about ready to go, which aroused Willis’s attention.

“Humiliation!?” James stood up, slapping Earl across the floor. He picked Earl up and hit him to the ground, kicking him in the sternum before sitting back down.

“Get your trifling ass back here, nigger!” James shouted.

Earl struggled back to his feet and kneeled between the two, again.

Willis and Earl caught eyes, but with no messaging from either about what to do. 

“You got some fucking nerve talking about being humiliated. You fucked Lorna. I know. You put your baby in my wife. I know. You had the nerve to smile in my face, hug me, say their fucking names and put them in the motherfucking grou…”

James stopped, pulled a flask from his breast pocket and took a sip, then handed it to Willis to sip from, which he obliged and then to Earl.

“Drink, nigger,” James demanded.

Earl took the flask and drank. The man had good taste in Whiskey, Earl thought, almost wanting to laugh but didn’t want to invite any more reason for a beating.

“You should have known I had people in Dallas, pastor. Should have known word get to me,” James said, taking another sip. 

Earl had figured something, maybe not this would have happened between them. That having gone so long since sharing Lorna’s bed, her death and not coming to face with his actions was a little too spiteful, even for a vengeful deity. So he expected something, some meeting with fate. Just, again, maybe not this. But something, so to James’s inconvenience, he was prepared. 

“James. There is nothing you can do to humiliate me. Only two shamed…. ever been shamed was Lorna and Clarice.”

If James were angry, he would have shot him right there but whatever emotion lived in his belly, with those words, seemed to bind his body in some invisible casing. He couldn’t move. He’d come all this way to do this one thing. Waited a full year. Followed them, stalked their trail on their last visit so he’d be comfortable enough to do this one thing that seemed a millennia from resolution, now. Should have shot him from outside. Been done with it. But he wanted to play with him. Scare him. Make him beg. Now, there was no pleasure. Just Earl and decisions to be made. 

“I been sitting on this every night of my life, James. And I’m tired of my dreams. So you gonna send me some peace, fine. Please, do. But I’mma say what need to be said. You not doing this for her and you damn well know it.”

Earl stopped for a breath, still spitting blood from behind his teeth.

“We killed that woman, James! Took a piece out! Each of us. Me. You…….I…….I did what I did.”

Earl was looking to Willis, with his next word.

“Hell I prayed what I prayed, when she told me she was pregnant. I’m sure my seed did it’s part, too.”

Willis smiled a smile you do when you outgrow your crawl space and have to come out in the open. He wanted to kill Earl himself, for putting this on him. Hell, he was the only one with a bullet in him up until this moment. He just wanted him to shut up, let James have his way so he could go on. But this was his nephew. His brother’s boy. As much as he wished him gone, out of his hair, he wasn’t ready for his death. He wasn’t ready to let his brother go, completely. With all that Earl had done, if God could have Willis, why couldn’t he do the same for Earl. Redemption was always in a man’s reach, no matter his darkest hour, right? Had to be. How else would he, himself, be sitting here? Willis inquired to something, somewhere far from this table. A few tears fell from his cheeks, when he was given his answer. 

Earl would never be able to ask about those tears. More so, who they might have been for. Maybe they were the same ones Earl saw him shed, for his Daddy, as a child when he overheard his Daddy praying that god forgive him, save him from the memories of the children he’d plundered while playing soldier boy in those Korean villages. Praying he’d take him back and wash him of his sins. 

“You want to kill me, boy. Do me the honor. I’m tired of playing y’alls game. I do my part to… to bring a little sense to folks judging and gossip spreading behind a book that I don’t care too much for, these days, anyway,” Earl chuckled, now unbothered by the prospect of further blows.

“I want to help folks, James. That was my mistake, because you can only seem to help Black folks from behind a pulpit or a bar. And I should have chose the other one, when I had the chance. But I kept on and whether you see it or… .hell, you know it, I think there is something else about to pull that trigger. Something that don’t like me much and I, frankly, don’t like it. I… look at me pitying myself. This ain’t about me. Really ain’t even about you, but I understand that you need it to be.”

Earl looked at James whose eyes were purely ravenous. A raging beast, waiting for their owner to let go of their leash so that they may feed. 

“Like I said, if you going to shoot me, don’t play with me. Do it. But don’t act like you doing that woman and that little girl any favors.”

Earl braced. He wish he had more to say. More to explain, but the person who deserved those words would never hear them anyway. That’s when another something happened. Much like those tears, Earl would never quite know why Willis spat in James’s eyes, but he did. James pointed the rifle at Willis’s chest and pulled the trigger. Earl pounced on the gun, being tossed back, before picking up the prayer chair and hitting James. As the man stumbled downwards, Earl picked up the rifle by the barrel and hit James right on the temple, again and again and again and again and again and again and again. 

The little movement which came from the body wasn’t from anything alive. Earl dropped the gun and sat in the chair James occupied. He didn’t know whether to scream or weep, both maybe. All he could do, bloodied with blood his own and not his own, was sit.

That next morning, after having dumped both bodies in the river, he readied to go. He cleaned up some. As much blood as he could. He packed up the car, looking out into the surrounding forest. The trees looked like a congregation might, when in disagreement about a minister’s message. Leaning over, mouth to ear, covered by white gloves and gold watches to pass along their whispers and chagrin. 

He looked around. He felt watched. Maybe not by someone, but something, thinking of his Daddy, who floated along the current. While grabbing his father’s suit, from the closet, he heard a noise and knew this was it. He was almost happy to make himself visible to his death maker. Each step, he savored. Then he saw its eyes. A doe, rummaging around the kitchen. 

When the animal felt Earl, behind her, she turned around. She didn’t run. She just looked, with eye’s familiar. His Daddy’s maybe. Lorna’s. The child he’d not meet. He walked to the car and grabbed the rifle and pointed it at her, hoping she would run away. Hoping she didn’t know him. But she didn’t. She just walked on by, all the way to the river and began to drink. Earl got into the car, turned the keys and pressed play on the cassette player, met by his own Medusa. Sheila’s verse:

Come to me 

Don’t be afraid of

What you’ll see

You’ll find I love you 

Come to me 

Don’t be afraid

It was all that he required to put the car in drive and turn the wheel to somewhere. Nowhere, but somewhere still.