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Golgotha || by Nick Young


IT WAS THE TALK of the town, and there were no two ways about that. A body found floating in Wabbins Creek? The body of a negro? When you have a town like Kenton, population eight thousand, every one of them with a white face, then there was no mystery why it would be the only topic on everyone's lips.  

Take the four men who occupied the same front window table for breakfast every Monday morning, 7:30 sharp, at Theo's Diner. All had pushed past fifty; all were the pillars of the community.

Pete Scanlon sold life insurance and doubled as Kenton's mayor. His horn rim glasses, as they always did, looked as if they were ready to slide down his nose and off his face. He was clearly annoyed and spoke up first:

"It's a helluva thing … a hell-uh-va thing, let me tell you.  Can't do the town's image a bit of good, finding him out there like that."

"I heard he was naked," said Jimmy Harrington, who ran the five-and-dime on Main Street and was president of the local Elks lodge, stirring a third packet of sugar into his mug of coffee.

"Bare-ass naked," said Sandy Braun, owner of the town's John Deere dealership. "And that's from the police chief's mouth."

"How many days had he been in the water?" Ben Chapman was a raw-boned man with rough hands suited to his work as the only large-animal vet for two counties.  

"Ernie said it looked like maybe three," Sandy Braun answered.  

"Well, it's a goddamned blight on this community, that's what I say." Jimmy Harrington kept shaking his head as he spoke. "Just when the Chamber of Commerce is getting ready to put out their splashy brochure."  

"Jimmy," Doc Chapman began, scolding, "we're talking about a human life here."

"He knows that, Ben. We all know that," Sandy Braun cut in. Then, nudging his mug of coffee to the side, he leaned in and lowered his voice. "Will someone tell me how he ended up here in the first place?"

"Well, he came from somewhere down south, didn't he? Mississippi, I think," said Pete Scanlon, looking from one man to the next for confirmation. Ben Chapman nodded.

"That's my point," Sandy Braun continued. "What business did he have coming up here?"

"It's a free country, Sandy," said Ben Chapman.

"What I'm saying," Braun went on, his tone taking a sharper edge, "is that he should have stayed with his own kind down in Mississippi or wherever. Or kept going—to St. Louis, Chicago. Live with his own people. We really don't need niggers in Kenton, do we?"

"I guess he came along at just the right time for Reverend Beecham," Pete Scanlon said. "He needed the help around the church after Rusty died." Sandy Braun was not satisfied.

"He could've hired on a white man to do odd jobs, cut the grass. I never trusted young Reverend Beecham anyway.  I have my doubts about his church.  I don't think it's even really Christian."

"Oh, come on, Sandy." Doc Chapman rolled his eyes, his annoyance growing.

"I mean it," Sandy Braun plowed right ahead. "I don't believe he preaches the gospel of our lord and savior.  He's too wishy-washy ... too hell socialistic. Why else would he hire that buck?" Doc Chapman set his jaw and looked away.  The other two men sat absorbed in their coffee until Pete Scanlon finally broke the silence:

"I expect Ernie is going to get his end of it wrapped up pretty soon. It looks cut and dried. No foul play, just a suicide."

"Good," declared Jimmy Harrington. "The best thing for this town is to get this behind us just as quick as we can, or we might as well flush that Chamber of Commerce brochure right down the toilet."


***


"Anyone who thinks her leaving town more than a week ago was just a coincidence has a hole in their head."  This declaration was made with utter certainty by Mrs. James Harrington to the two women on either side of her as they reclined in chaise lounge chairs beside the shimmering blue-green of the Quail Ridge Country Club pool. It was a ritual several times a week for Midge Harrington, Sue Scanlon and Petey Braun, all tanned and trim in their mid-forties: a round of golf in the morning, lunch on the clubhouse veranda followed by an afternoon of sun and cocktails. "Timothy," she called out to the young man behind the poolside bar, raising her empty highball glass and rattling the ice in it, "be a dear and bring another, sil vous plait."

"Right away, Mrs. Harrington," Tim replied with a wave.

"It is rather suspicious, isn't it?" mused Petey Braun, smoothing suntan lotion up and down her left arm.

"Rather suspicious?" Midge Harrington answered. "That negro begins working at First United three months ago.  Elizabeth Beecham up and leaves town last week -- "

"She went to her mother's up in Danville," Sue Scanlon said. "That's what she told Bev Sproules is what I heard."

"The point is, ladies—" Midge Harrington broke off as the bartender  arrived with a fresh drink.

"Sorry to interrupt," Tim said.  

"When you come bearing this," Midge said as she took the vodka-and-tonic, "you are always forgiven.  How about it, girls?  Ready for refills?"  

"Overdue," said Petey Braun.

"Likewise," Sue Scanlon agreed. Tim smiled and hurried back to the bar.

"Now, as I was saying," Midge Harrington resumed, "the point is that Elizabeth Beecham suddenly moves out of Kenton, and a few days later, the church handyman turns up floating in the creek.  Coincidence?" Midge let the last word drip with suggestiveness. Sue Scanlon seemed scandalized.

"You're not saying he did it because they were having an affair and she broke it off, are you?"

"And why not?" Midge Harrington replied.

"Well, I mean …"  Sue Scanlon was at a loss to say anymore. At that moment, Tim appeared and placed drinks on the small tables beside Sue and Petey. After he left, Midge eyed her friend with bemusement.

"Why, Susan, you look positively flummoxed."

"Well, Midge, what you're suggesting …" Sue answered, quickly taking refuge in her margarita.

"Come on, Sue, we're big girls here.  We've all still got our … needs.  Why would Elizabeth Beecham be any different?"

"But a minister's wife?"  

"A young, attractive minister's wife. Eve and the forbidden fruit, m'dear. Don't be such a prude."

"Still … I—"

"Can't see yourself with a colored man?" said Midge Harrington.  The question hung in the hot August air for a long moment before Petey Braun took a deep drink of her martini, leaned in toward her companions and said conspiratorially:

"Just between us girls, did you ever drive by the church when he was working outside?  Well, I did a couple of weeks ago during that really hot spell we had? It was one of those days when it must have been a hundred, a hundred-five?  Anyway, he was cutting out some thick shrubbery with a pair of big hedge clippers."  Petey Braun dropped her voice, her tone becoming more salacious:  "And as I watched—I happened to be parked on the same side of the street—he stripped off the tight tee shirt he was wearing. It was soaked through.  And he stretched, arching back at the waist … and I could see the sweat rolling down his chest … the muscles of his arms.  I thought I was looking at one of those marble statues you see in a museum -- only dark chocolate.  And as he turned, I saw how the sun flashed off a gold cross he had on a thick chain around his neck." Her voice trailed off at the memory.    

"Well.  I.  will.  be.  damned,"  Midge Harrington marveled, looking at Sue Scanlon. "I guess we know what our girl's been doing when she's all alone in her room at night."


***


He sat alone in the front pew. From the west, the day's fading sunlight filtered through one of the church's four stained glass windows. Philip Beecham let his eyes linger on the image: Jesus, bent from the weight of the wooden cross he was forced to bear, laboring up the steep hill where he would be crucified. He drew a deep breath, closed his eyes and let his head fall forward. So much pain. So great the loss. It would require all his strength and test the depth of his faith to overcome what had befallen him.

He did not blame Elizabeth for leaving. She understood that once the secret had been revealed, there was no turning away, the stain could not be erased.   And it was not only the small-town shame. It was the personal betrayal. A lie that could never be made right. And so she had said simply that she was leaving, "for everyone's good."

That had cut Philip deeply enough. But then to have had Roland go missing for days followed by the discovery of his body in Wabbins Creek … .

Philip had gone to the tiny room Roland had rented in the old Tyler house beyond the southern edge of Kenton; he knew the way. There were few possessions to speak of on a dresser top—a comb, some spare change, a 5x7 photo of Roland and a smiling elderly woman in a cheap silver frame. And there was a small oblong cedar box with a metal clasp. Alongside,  a folded piece of ivory note paper with Philip's name printed on it in a delicate hand. He took the note closer to the room's only window where the light was better and read, and his soul was wounded again.  

Roland's language was plain—words of sorrow, of regret at the pain he had caused. There was also fear that gripped him, a terror of what would happen to him as a black man if their secret became known and the deeper harm it would surely bring. There was more, and the paper trembled in Philip's hand as he read.

Now alone in the church during the dying of the day, Philip took up the small box, undid the clasp and opened it, letting the rich scent of cedar envelop him. Inside was the braided gold chain and cross that had been his gift to Roland. Gently, he lifted them free, entwining the warm metal in his fingers. He closed his eyes and brought the cross to his lips, holding it there for a very long time.



Image Credit: Pinterest



MEET THE AUTHOR:

Nick Young is an award-winning retired journalist whose career included twenty years as a CBS News correspondent. His short stories have appeared in the San Antonio Review, CafeLit Magazine and Vols. I and II of the Writer Shed Stories anthologies.





 


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