Mr. Simmons was fidgeting with his hands, his usual calm, quiet grace having abandoned him. His lips were quivering and his eyes possessed a haunted look time would never heal. Much was owed him and Mr. Avery. That’s what made what I had to tell the heartbroken old man so hard.
Seeing familiar faces among the arriving mourners conjured up memories of when I’d been a boy. The neighborhood I’d grown up in had been a mini United Nations. There’d been no fences or stone walls to separate us from one another. Houses stood close together, doors were kept unlocked, and a whispered word could be heard throughout the entire neighborhood. While English was the dominant language some kids only spoke their parents’ country’s native tongue at home. Despite our many differences, we all shared a common set of values. Respect for others topped the list.
When Mr. Avery died I called my brother, Tommy, in San Francisco. High school had been a difficult period in his life. Mr. Simmons and Mr. Avery had helped him get through it. On the phone, Tommy and I reminisced about the night he and the other older scouts had lured us new inductees to the Indian Caves for a snipe hunt. When attempting to capture the ever “elusive” snipe, I’d fallen and broken my leg. Tommy and a few other boys ran and got Mr. Avery and Mr. Simmons. They’d just taken over being our troop’s leaders. When our parents arrived at the hospital, they told all of them the accident had occurred during a troop outing. That wasn’t true. Snipe hunting is a traditional scout hazing activity and nothing an adult would sanction.
Days later, when we asked why they’d lied, they’d said, “Life presents countless learning opportunities and we should be thankful that God had seen fit to make sure nothing worse had happened that night.” In that same meeting, our troop adopted Mark Twain’s words as our motto. “Always do what is right. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”
That was who they were, men who taught and led by example. Whether it be blood drives, staffing polling places during elections, or becoming scout troop leaders when our former leader moved away, they were always among the first to volunteer. One coached youth recreation league basketball and the other refereed. Both were deacons at St. Stephens Church, members of the adult men’s choir, and visited with the church’s housebound elderly.
Mr. Simmons was tall, thin, and light-skinned with a pencil moustache. He was reserved, soft-spoken, and a slight Southern twang sometimes crept into his speech revealing his birth region. At the Savings and Loan, where he worked as a teller, he always rewarded us kids with a lollipop whenever we deposited money into our Christmas Club accounts.
Mr. Avery, however, was a large, coal black colored Jamaican and didn’t have a shy bone in his body. He was the town milkman. Before I was school age, I thought he was like Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. We’d put our empty milk bottles in the metal box on our back porch, overnight they’d disappear, and in their place would be bottles of fresh cold milk.
When I was in grammar school, Mr. Avery’s milk truck always seemed to appear as we reached the crosswalk. He’d brake, the truck would backfire twice before stopping, and then he’d sing out, “You children go ahead and cross the street. Do your best today.” After we’d safely crossed, he’d give a friendly tap of the horn, then continue on his route.
As the room in the funeral home filled up, I wondered where Shirley was. I called her cell phone and it went directly to voice mail. Mr. Avery and Mr. Simmons had even played a minor role in my wife and my relationship.
I’d just finished college, returned home, and been hired to teach history at the local high school in the fall. Mr. Avery had called out, “Most who leave don’t return, but we knew you would,” as I was walking past their house. They both laughed, almost upsetting the checkerboard grazing their knees. When I asked how they’d been so sure.
They replied in unison, “Shirley.”
I’d always been in love with Shirley. We’d grown up together and stayed in touch during college. When she told me she planned to return home after graduation, well…
Then they asked if Tommy had found happiness in California. When I replied it seemed he had, Mr. Simmons nodded with satisfaction.
“I’m glad for him,” he said, softly. “Me? I couldn’t live in California. It has too many wildfires.”
“Yah. And mudslides and earthquakes. Don’t get those around here,” said Mr. Avery, shaking his head.
Though wildfires were exceptionally rare in our area, fires weren’t when I was a child. When I was in the 6th grade, the apartment building a block from our house burned to the ground. That night, as Tommy and I were getting ready for bed, we heard a knock on our front door. After that, Dad and Mom had come upstairs, him disappearing into their room.
“What’s going on?” asked Tommy as Mom entered our room carrying a cardboard box.
“Some of our neighbors lost all their belongings in the fire,” she said, opening a dresser drawer. “Mr. Avery and Mr. Simmons are collecting donations to help them out.”
“Here,” I said, grabbing the baby looking pajamas my grandmother had sent me for Christmas.
Tommy and I stuffed all the hand-me-down clothes and old toys we didn’t want into the box until it was full. After thanking us, our parents went back downstairs with the boxes.
When Tommy and I scooted over to our bedroom window and peered out into the street, we saw Mr. Simmons come around the hedge in front of the Johnson’s house next door. When he and Mr. Avery reached their car, they put the boxes they were carrying in its trunk, then resumed going house-to-house collecting donations.
I checked my watch, then Mr. Simmons. I hadn’t noticed how he’d shrunk and grown thinner over the years. How was I going to tell him that St. Stephens’ new pastor, Reverend Lewis, had refused to officiate at Mr. Avery’s funeral?
When I returned home after college, I stopped attending St. Stephen’s. Shirley, however, had remained an active member of the church. Despite my non-parishioner status, I’d met Reverend Lewis on many occasions in my current capacity as the local high school’s principal.
When I met with him about officiating at Mr. Avery’s funeral, his degrees along with a photo of him, his wife, and their son and daughter, were prominently displayed in his office. After we exchanged pleasantries, I got right to the point of my visit. He put his hands together like in prayer and momentarily closed his eyes. Then, eyes open, he looked at me over his half-frame glasses and said, “I don’t believe it would be appropriate.”
Stunned, I asked why.
“Well…” he cleared his throat. “Brother Avery and Brother Simmons’ relationship violates certain tenets of the Bible. As a man of God and a Christian, I’d be condoning sin. I’m sure you can understand my position.”
The words “are you shitting me” burst from my mouth. I, like everyone else who had known Mr. Avery and Mr. Simmons for so many years, only thought of them as two decent, caring members of our community. Across the centuries, people had cited ancient stories like “Adam and Eve” the “Mark of Cain” and bible passages about slavery to justify their heinous oppression and abuse of their fellow men and women. How could anyone who considered themselves a true follower of Christ’s teachings support or advocate such blind prejudice? And especially another black man who proclaimed himself a ‘Man of God!’. Surely he must have experienced the evil of unjust prejudice first-hand during his lifetime.
It was nearly time for the service to begin. Shirley still hadn’t arrived. Rabbi Moskowitz, Fr. McCarthy, Reverend Wilson, Iman Halal, members of their congregations, and some of St. Stephens’ oldest members were extending their condolences to Mr. Simmons. I was grateful to see so many faces, many of them belonging to people who’d moved away from our town years ago.
Instead of greeting and thanking people for coming, all I could think about was the news I had to deliver. Finally, when I knew I couldn’t delay any longer, I headed toward Mr. Simmons. I was on the verge of telling him Reverend Lewis had been called away by a last-minute emergency when I heard voices and the doors to the room were flung open.
We’ve come this far by faith
Leaning on the Lord
Trusting in his Holy Word
He’s never failed me yet
Oh oh oh oh oh oh oh
No turning ‘round
We’ve come this far by faith
It was the congregation of St. Stephens, Shirley, and Tommy in the lead. The mourners rose to their feet and tears flowed down Mr. Simmons’ face. Those who knew the words of the song joined in the singing.
Following the burial, everyone gathered at Mr. Avery and Mr. Simmons’ house for the repast. Their front porch was overflowing with people. Inside the house, every surface held a tray, platter, or serving dish brought by someone whose life they had touched. As people shared memories and stories about Mr. Avery, Mr. Simmons busied himself assembling plates of food and handing them out.
I learned that Shirley had phoned Tommy after I told her about my meeting with Reverend Lewis. He immediately booked a flight, and she had met him at the airport that afternoon.
As I asked Tommy how things were going between him and Calvin, the front door to the house opened. Glimpsing a pair of half-frame glasses, I took a step toward the door. Tommy placed a hand on my shoulder, stopping me, and nodded toward Mr. Simmons. Among the crowd of mourners, Reverend Lewis looked lost. Mr. Simmons, plate in hand, was making his way across the room to greet him.
J L Higgs‘ short stories typically focus on life from the perspective of a black American. He has had over 40 publications and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Magazines publishing his work include Indiana Voice Journal, The Writing Disorder, Contrary Magazine, Rigorous, Literally Stories, and The Remembered Arts Journal.
He resides outside of Boston. Find him on Facebook
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