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African American Contemporary Fiction

This story contains sensitive content

Trigger Warning: This story contains the use of a gun.

 “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” That’s what Jerome always said. He must have willed his way into jail cause that’s where he’s been since he accidentally shot his best friend in the leg. This would have been fine if his best friend wasn’t Cappie, Pastor Mackenzie’s son, which would have also been fine if Pastor Mackenzie didn’t have it out for Jerome in the first place.

According to Grandma, after the incident, Pastor Mackenzie was overheard saying that Jerome should have been locked away behind bars since he was 7 when he stole money from the offering bowl at church. Grandma said that it must have slipped Pastor Mackenzie’s mind that Cappie was also involved in the theft by instigating and daring Jerome to take the money in the first place and that both boys were found guilty. Now, she said, it seemed convenient to forget Cappie’s part again and blame Jerome. She said that history had a way of repeating itself and that now, Pastor Mackenzie was not going to stop until his form of justice was served. Grandma said she couldn’t believe that a God-fearing man like Pastor Mackenzie could blatantly misconstrue the offenses of boys as crimes but then again, she said she believed it because it was the fearing side of people that made them think that punishment was always the answer for people’s mistakes.


When the gun went off everything stopped and started moving again in slow motion. Out of the corner of my eyes I saw Mama charging from the back of the house with the washing still in her hand looking like the time that water fell out from underneath Reena in the middle of the market. Mama dropped to her knees and grabbed me and patted me all over. She did the same thing to Aneesa who was standing next to me and who had begun to cry in that open mouth and no sound kind of way. When Mama didn’t find what she was looking for she took off into the house but dropped the washing at the top of the steps. I grabbed Aneesa’s hand and tried dragging her with me to the house so we could find out what was happening but she yanked her hand away and ran home. Just then, I heard screaming and crying coming from inside the house and it was a man’s voice. I had never heard a man’s cry before and it frightened me so much that I began crying myself.

Mama’s voice rang out, “Oh Gawd! Pickle, run down to Mr. Jesse’s house and ask him to dial the ambulance, tell him it’s an emergency!” I turned heel and ran as hard as I could and passed the message along to Mr. Jesse who said he had heard the bang and had called ahead to the police already but that he’ll call the ambulance as well. I ran back down the road and by the time I got home a crowd was already surrounding our gate cause of the screaming and wailing coming from inside. I pushed my way past them and ran through the gate and was about to run up the stairs when Grandma came down the steps and grabbed me in her arms. “Child there’s been an accident. Ain’t nobody dead inside. Just foolishness, you hear. Just plain foolishness.” I wanted to know what happened but I knew better than to ask so I let Grandma hug me and let my questions disappear inside my head.

The ambulance showed up first and I watched with Grandma as they ran inside our house and then brought Cappie out on the stretcher. He was still crying when they loaded him up in the back of the wagon and as they were about to close the doors he yelled out “somebody call my Papa! Please!” I looked up at Grandma only to see her shake her head and muttered “Here we go,” and then the police showed up.


I had never seen the police up close before and when they walked through the gate and over to me and Grandma, I could see that they were young, like Jerome and Cappie. Grandma pointed them inside the house and they touched their hats and went in. They were all inside for a long time and then we heard screaming and it was Mama’s voice and she was yelling “No! You can’t do this! It was an accident!” Jerome came out the door with his head hung really low and he had blood all over his shirt and pants. He looked like he was crying and I had never seen Jerome cry before and it made me feel tight inside and so I started crying too. Grandma squeezed my hand but I was afraid to look up at her so I kept my eyes on Jerome and watched as he ducked his head into the back of the police car and kept watching until they drove off down the road.

Our neighbors at our gate started to leave and then we heard the clanging of Papa’s truck coming up the road. Mama ran out of the house towards his truck yelling “They took our boy Chalky! We got to go get him!” And she got in and they sped off.

Grandma and I must have stayed in the same spot for a long while cause by the time she moved all the people had gone and it was nearly black outside. “Come child, let’s fix you some milk and molasses and get you off to bed,” was all she said. I wanted to protest that it was too early and that I wanted to know what was happening and without meaning to I started to cry again and that made Grandma stop walking and bent down to look at me. “You scared?” she asked, hugging me and I nodded into her shoulders. “Me too, child.” “You want to know what happened huh?” I nodded again, slower this time because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to know or not. “Ok, come inside. I’ll try my best to explain it to you.”


What started the whole mess was Cappie got hired down at the junkyard as the night watchman and he was issued a gun for his safety. He was supposed to lock the gun away and leave it after his shift had ended, but instead the first thing he did was bring it over to show Jerome. They were going to go shooting by Pulliam Creek.

Grandma said that before they even left the house the two of them were showing off in the mirror and that’s when they started tussling over who was going to hold the gun next. One of them accidentally pulled the trigger and that’s when Cappie got shot in the leg.

When Mama and Papa came home that night, they looked tired and Mama looked like she’d been crying all day. Her whole face was swollen like it was about to burst and spill water all over the table. Grandma fixed them some coffee and bread and it was some time before they started talking. Mama said that when they got to the station Pastor Mackenzie was already there raising hell about how he knows that Jerome was a criminal and that he should be kept behind bars. She said they tried to plead with him that it was an accident and that even Cappie admitted it was an accident but since he was still technically a minor the whole issue was left in Pastor Mackenzie’s hands and he went ahead and pressed charges on Jerome. Papa said that he even tried talking to him, man to man, but it made no use cause he had a vendetta and wouldn’t listen to reason. Papa said that they were going to keep Jerome in custody and that if it escalated, he could get charged with assault and that his bail would be thousands of dollars. When he said that, Mama started crying all over again. Grandma pressed her hand to her mouth and turned away real fast and then Papa must have realized I was still in the room cause he sent me off to get ready for bed immediately. I know better than to make a fuss or argue with Papa so I excused myself from the room but I didn’t go off to bed either. Instead, I hurried out of the room and when I turned the corner to go up the stairs I stopped and squatted down by the bottom step and tried to listen some more. For a long time, all I heard was crying and Grandma saying, “hush child, hush. It won’t happen. It was an accident. Don’t you fret. Where there’s a will. There’s a way.” Everybody was quiet again and so I tipped-toed up the stairs and went to bed.


At breakfast the next morning Grandma said that there was no way we could come up with that much money. She said she was going to go talk to Pastor Mackenzie after breakfast and see if she could reason with him. Mama spent the whole day pacing through the house and cleaning so I stayed out in the yard the whole time cause I didn’t want to get in her way. I wanted to go over to Aneesa’s house to play but knew that Mama would tan my hide for even thinking about leaving so I spent my time in the back playing with the chickens.

It was late in the day when Grandma came back and she looked madder than the time she caught Jerome and Cappie playing inside the water drums we kept for emergencies. I snuck into the house and overheard Grandma call Pastor Mackenzie “a darned fool of a man” and then slam her hand on the table. “Does that mean he’s not dropping the charges?” asked Mama. “I’m afraid not, child. He looked me in the eyes and said that what happened was unfortunate but we have to let the law play out. I nearly lost my temper but I held my tongue and left.”

Papa came over that night and said he spoke to the lawyer who was working on Jerome’s case. He said that there would be a hearing in the next few days and till then there wasn’t much we could do except wait.


On the morning of the hearing Grandma left me in charge of Pop-pop while they drove to the courthouse with Papa. She said she had to go cause her prayers were stronger in person and that I was old enough to help. All the same to me, I didn’t want to go and watch a bunch of hand-wringing at the hearing anyway or listen to Pastor Mackenzie say anything bad about Jerome. Pastor Mackenzie might have everyone in town convinced that he was a saint, but not me. I knew he was mean since the time I heard him call Mama a Jezebel when he thought we had all walked away after service one Sunday. I had bent down to buckle my shoes and heard him say it under his breath. When I asked Grandma what a Jezebel was, she turned around and almost slapped my mouth clean off. She asked me where I heard that word and when I told her that I got it from Pastor Mackenzie she made me repeat the whole story word for word and made me promise never to ever say that word again nor tell Mama what happened. Grandma said that sometimes when people don’t know a story, they make one up instead and judge people wrongly based on their assumptions. Later, that day I asked Jerome what a Jezebel was and when he told me I spat I was so mad.

Last month Mama sent Papa out of the house and now Papa rents a room over top of Ms. Annette’s salon. Papa no longer shows up to church on Sundays and I overheard Grandma saying that he’s been doing time at Creepy John’s bar at the edge of town almost every night. Nobody talks about why Papa left or if he’s coming back to live with us, not even Grandma. I miss him but I don’t talk about that either.


Sometimes I wonder why Pastor Mackenzie is so mean. I wonder if he started out that way with the fear of God so high in him that he must make sure that everybody has the same fear too. I never feared God and have no plans on starting either. Grandma said that God is better than the best thing in the world and is so full of love that there is absolutely nothing to fear. So why would I fear the best love in the world? What Grandma has to say about God feels righter and truer than anything that Pastor Mackenzie has ever had to say on his best day in church.

Grandma says that God is all love and that a thing that is all love cannot even think of anything that is not loving. She said God made us all so we are all God, even Pastor Mackenzie but I don’t know about him, he seems meaner than a serpent in a pit of scorpions. He has everyone convinced that he’s a saint but me and Grandma know better. Grandma also said that we could never sin and that there’s no such thing cause if we are all God, why would God make himself a sinner or even punish himself for making mistakes. She said not to pay any mind to Pastor Mackenzie, that he’s just patching together what he thinks and what he got taught, just like everybody else. I asked grandma why we got to go to church if we think differently from what he’s teaching and she said we go to church to commune with God, not with Pastor Mackenzie.

It was evening by the time I heard Papa’s truck come clanging down the road. They all came inside and Mama busied herself making coffee. Everybody looked tired and no one even asked me if I fed Pop-pop yet, which I did, or if I was okay, which I was. Grandma sat at the table looking down at her hands. She must have been wringing her hands all day cause there were dry patches on her knuckles and I could see the wrinkles on her hand and in the web of her fingers.

I knew better than to ask what happened so I tiptoed out of the house and climbed up into the back of Papa’s truck like I used to when it was living here with him. I moved his rake and shovel aside so I could lay down and stare up into the sky. I watched as the blue left and made room for the black. I watched as the stars were suddenly everywhere, like they were there the whole time. I listened as the crickets started their dance and as the night-time slowly settled in. 

I must have dozed off cause the next thing I knew Papa was standing by the truck saying “Pickle, your Mama’s looking for you.” I sat up and he lit the end of his cigarette and took a long drag before blowing it out through his nose. I watched as the smoke circled and drifted up into the lamp light. When I looked back at Daddy, I could see that he was shaking and knew that he was crying even though his head was down. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Papa cry and watching him made me sad to my stomach.


That Sunday I got up and got ready for church but when I went downstairs nobody was dressed. Grandma said that we were never setting foot back into that church as long as Pastor Mackenzie was at the pulpit. It turns out that the whole town followed suit cause we heard that no one showed up for church that Sunday either. By the end of the week, we heard that Cappie got released from the hospital and that Pastor Mackenzie packed his family up and left town. Apparently, he got placed in a different church outside of Raleigh on the other side of North Carolina. Folks were saying that he left cause no one respected him anymore and that he pushed too hard and turned an accident between boys into police business and that it just wasn’t right.

When we were in town earlier, someone said that they saw Pastor Mackenzie over at the police station and that they overheard him dropping the charges against Jerome. It must have been true because that evening Papa pulled up and he and Jerome got out of the truck together. Before Jerome could even walk up the steps, Mama was out the door and hugging and kissing and checking him all over. “I’m sorry, Mama,” was all he said before Mama was squeezing him again. Papa bent down and picked me up even though I was too big to be picked up anymore. Though he was built bigger than a house I heard him strain when he propped me on his hip. He mustn’t have realized that I had grown but I clung on to his neck, anyway, smelling his aftershave and his sweat. Instead of going up into the house, Papa walked back over to his truck where he grabbed his suitcase from the bed. Grandma met us at the door this time and looking Papa square in the eyes she said, “Don’t you ever risk this family on booze again, you hear me Chalky?” Papa didn’t even flinch and he looked at me and said “Loud and clear Ma’am. Loud and clear,” and we all went inside. Thank You, God. Thanks an awful lot.

February 12, 2022 04:02

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1 comment

James Grasham
22:00 Feb 17, 2022

I read this in a southern American accent (or what I assume a southern American accent sounds like) it was a really interesting story to read. Just one thing to note - right at the beginning I felt a little bombarded by all of the characters you introduced so quickly, could they have been spread out a little more maybe?


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