“Ordinary Time” by Carolyn Ogburn
This 2019 Peden Prize-winning story captures universal themes of grief, sacrifice, misunderstanding, and moving forward. A man in the middle of his life confronts the memory of a man at the self-decided end of his—and considers the burdens each of us carries. Intelligent and heartfelt, Ogburn’s “Ordinary Time,” is not at all ordinary.
by Carolyn Ogburn
“This decision to sacrifice myself was not impulsive: I have struggled all my life (especially the last several years) with what it means to take Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s insistence that Christ calls a person to come and die seriously. He was not advocating self-immolation, but others have found this to be the necessary deed, as I have myself for some time now: it has been a long Gethsemane, and excruciating to keep my plans from my wife and other members of our family.” http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/retired-pastor-saw-destiny-in-self-immolation
The parking lot was light by six in the morning, but its streetlights still buzzed and flickered yellow in the gray-green dawn. House wrens flitted across the abandoned asphalt, little gray birds that had nested in the electric curl of the still-lit O’s and A’s, the crook of the G. The ditches hummed with crickets, frogs. In a few hours, Caleb knew, the parking lot would seem quiet again, full of everyday traffic: the occasional rattle of shopping carts bumping along the broken pavement, car doors opening and closing, the sounds of ordinary people doing ordinary things. It would seem quiet, but for the yellow police tape enclosing a broad empty space at the center of the lot, a space that still smelled of gasoline.
What Caleb was doing there, in a metal folding chair, might have been appropriately called a wake. His truck was still where he’d parked it yesterday, its Louisiana tags the only out-of-state plates in this dusty Texas town. He’d meant to leave as, one by one, the strip mall’s shops closed. He’d intended to stand up as the county’s social services offices closed; then the nail salon and the Dollar General. He’d stood up when the Golden Rule Family Buffet finally turned off its lights, but his feet somehow never moved him toward his truck, and when finally, at the far end parking lot, only the gas station’s automatic pumps were lit as the sky filled with dark around its edges, he’d found himself seated again, staring at the oily stain on the asphalt where the Reverend Charles Moore had been.
No one had called. Not that they would. Greta, maybe, who thought he was at the hotel where Aunt Lane’s birthday reception would be, the day after tomorrow.
To be fair, he had checked in at the Hampton Inn about an hour from here, just outside Dallas, where he still had “people.” Family is what he meant, but here in Grand Saline, it was the old ways of speaking that came back to him. Where’re your people from? He envisioned a quiet, assembled tribe staring at him wordlessly from ladder-back chairs. Here, he would have said. My people are from here. But nobody was here now. Not even Moore, who wasn’t his people after all. Just a preacher he’d known as a child.
But after he carried his luggage up to the room and after he stopped by Aunt Lane’s to pay his respects, after he’d sat with Dwayne and Colton and Marie and said how well their mother looked, their mother, Bennie, who looked up from the recliner and giggled like a girl, and Greta made sure they all had plates full of green-bean casserole, sweet tea, coleslaw, yeast rolls, three-bean salad, deviled eggs, and thick slices of ham, no matter that it was only five o’clock in the afternoon and none of them hungry, after he’d done what he assumed he’d come here to do, Caleb found his truck moving down US-80, directed toward the strip mall on the bypass where Charles Moore had died.
Even now, to close his eyes would bring the image of what Moore had seemed like to him as a child on those long Sunday mornings when Caleb sat wedged between his Aunt Lucille and his mother, who made sure she positioned herself between Caleb and his sister, Greta. He wasn’t allowed a fan on account of past abuses of that privilege, but wedged in between the two fervent women, he benefitted from their exertion without ever having to do a lick of work. Childhood had been good to him.
Moore had been lean, even then. A tall, rangy man with long arms, so long it seemed he could have reached out and in one easy gesture plucked Caleb up from between the women and thrown him over his shoulder. That was Caleb’s idea of being saved, then: being chosen from the sweaty onlookers, being taken to someplace better, cleaner. He didn’t know where this new place might be, though. He never really got past the being chosen.
It was Reverend Moore he remembered when he felt the stirrings of his own vocation, when he’d confessed to the student counselor that he might be misplaced in the university, might want, instead, to go to seminary. The counselor had looked at him gravely. “You talk with your minister about this?” he asked. Caleb hadn’t attended church since he’d left home. The recognition that he wanted to serve the church had come as a guilty surprise. The Episcopal Church wasn’t the church in which he’d been raised, but it was within walking distance of campus, so it was there that Caleb found the encouragement to apply to seminary programs, and it was within the Diocese of South Carolina that he’d spent most of his career. But it had been the Methodist Reverend Moore’s uncompromising stance, even then, on what was referred to as “the race question” that had carried Caleb through many a long night. He’d never thought to contact his old minister, hadn’t really thought of him in years. Not even when Meg was diagnosed.
Caleb had a sermon to prepare for next week, but when he tried to write, it was the Reverend Moore who came to his mind. Not after he was on fire but just before. A seventy-nine-year-old man pacing the parking lot in the melting heat, his long arms stiff and awkward like they always had been. Like he was put together in a rush, built of different stuff. His face a mask of pride and anger, as when he’d heard about the church’s decision to stay apart from the debates that followed Little Rock, debates Caleb wouldn’t really understand until years later, debates his parents wouldn’t allow talk of at home.
But then Caleb would hear the laughter, as from his childhood pew or the front porch where Reverend Moore would sometimes come for Sunday dinner; the fact was, he couldn’t stop hearing it, like a real thing across the empty parking lot. A surprisingly high-pitched cackle of a laugh: that was the way you always knew the Reverend was there. He’d loved puns, surprise endings. Hee-hee-hee! Made you look! He’d laughed hard, every time, tricking Caleb and the cousins. Made you look!
Where had the gas can been? Did he leave it by the car while he paced? Was it in the trunk? Or did he lift it from the trunk, set it down while walking back and forth? He’d not have wanted to walk with it, surely, gas sloshing in its red plastic container. It was a two-gallon can, but no way of knowing how full it had been. No way of knowing how much gas it takes to burn a body, or, if there was a way to measure, Caleb didn’t know it. The gas can in his mind poured from a long plastic spout, longer than most men’s arms could reach. Surely he’d have taken off the spout: that detail worried at his mind. There was probably a police report, he thought, knowing that he’d never ask, that the information he needed wouldn’t be found there.
He wondered, the vision of the gaunt old man walking the length of the busy parking lot heavy before him, if Moore had known even at the end that he would really go forward with it. Had he known it when he’d filled the gas can? He’d mowed the grass on Saturday, the day after he intended to set himself on fire, according to the letters found on the dash of his car. The day after Juneteenth, the day that the Emancipation Proclamation had been announced in Texas in 1865. The day had passed, and he’d let it pass. He’d seen that the grass needed mowing, and he’d mowed it. Maybe he’d even used the gas he’d intended for his immolation—that’s what it was called, self-immolation; Caleb hadn’t known there was a word for it, an ugly, numb word that stripped the thing of all its fire—just to mow the grass, and maybe he’d thought that was it. He thought how Moore would have felt, seeing the yard after it had been mowed. How nice the yard would have looked, how clean. And he was still alive. How that would have shamed him.
Caleb heard the phone’s buzzing, knew without looking that it would be Shane calling with her first coffee, checking in. It had made no sense to Shane to carry the family all the way to Texas to attend the birthday celebration for a woman who wouldn’t even know they were there. Even when she was drinking, Shane had been practical. She hadn’t wanted to come to the birthday, and she surely didn’t understand her husband’s sudden need to leave three days early to drive six hours to “the piss-poor armpit of a godforsaken state” to pay homage to a man he’d “hardly known, and hadn’t ever said word one about” until he’d seen it in the papers. Still, yesterday, she’d told him, “Do what you need to do.” He guessed that was intended as a sort of absolution.
When she called she was full of news about the kids, what they’d done, what they’d eaten and not eaten, what had happened yesterday at work, her meeting last night. Caleb listened to her talk, feeling as sad as he’d ever felt in his life.
He picked up the phone now, like he knew he would. “Hey.”
“Morning, Mr. Frost,” Shane said. An old joke. “You awake?”
Caleb nodded. “I am,” he said.
“Hotter than h-e-double-hockey-sticks here today. They’re calling for triple digits. I hope you get inside a little. It’ll be even hotter where you’re at, I saw. You just make sure you stay hydrated. Hey, Jeffrey, Jeff, make sure you get that on your ears—Jeffrey got burned yesterday at Little League; I got the fronts of his legs, but the backs rubbed off on the car seat, and he’s just as red as he can be. A-gain.”
She talked on as Caleb listened with half an ear. Since they’d lost Meg, they seemed like people who belonged to someone else. That might have been the worst part, that he hadn’t lost just Meg but all of them. There was still a feeling he had, still recognizably love, but love at a distance. It was like seeing a movie set on a beach somewhere. You knew what it was; you knew what it felt like to be there, but it wasn’t real. You were in a cold theater, sitting in the dark, watching a picture show. You weren’t there, at the beach.
“What have you told them?” Caleb interrupted her to ask. “Have you told them?”
“Oh, honey,” She sighed. “I don’t think it’s necessary to go into the details.”
“Maybe not,” Caleb said. “But what’s going to happen when Kelsey reads about it in the paper?”
“She only reads the paper during the school year,” Shane said. “It’s a civics thing.”
“It hasn’t been on the news at all?”
“Not national.” She paused. “Jeff’s been following the World Cup—did you know that? He’s already telling me to sign him up for soccer in the fall. Do you think we should? I think it’s a good idea. I hope the practice won’t be on Thursday; maybe it’ll be on Tuesdays, that would be the easiest. Maybe I can talk to some of the other parents, I’ll see if there’s any way to make sure . . .”
It seemed like she thought he was in the next room. If she didn’t understand what her husband was doing, that was something she could accept. Accepting the things she couldn’t change was an important part of her “program,” but changing the things she could—making sure soccer met on a day when she wouldn’t have to be driving Kelsey one place and Jeff another—was also important. Caleb heard the click of her heels as she walked around the kitchen, the phone pressed to her cheek while she refilled her coffee, wiped the counters, poured cereal into the empty bowls. “Kelsey,” she called, her voice in another direction. “Jeff, y’all ready? Breakfast.”
The lights no longer buzzed over the parking lot. Cars moved, stopping and going at the intersection’s traffic light. He caught the tail ends of guitar lines, talk radio, the heavy thump of bass.
“You still there?” he heard Shane ask.
“Still no word on when the services will be?”
“They’re thinking maybe this coming Saturday.” Caleb heard her walk across the kitchen to where the calendar was hung, knew she was mentally rearranging the inked events on the page.
“You still don’t want us to come?”
“Nope. I’ll be fine. “Caleb sucked at his teeth. “Love you,” he said at last.
“Love you too, “she said.
Caleb had been to this town only once as an adult, years ago, for a cousin’s funeral. Ellie had been close to his own age, thirty-four or thirty-five, but she’d had cancer since they’d been in high school. Her whole life, it seemed, had been spent in the shadow of death. Not like his parents, who’d passed within a few months of each other, one of complications from diabetes, the other from a botched cardiac surgery. Not like his Aunt Lucille, who’d died in Osaka after she married the second time, and even her body hadn’t come back. Not like Meg, his oldest, who’d been only fourteen, gone within weeks of her diagnosis. Weeks. He heard “I’m glad she didn’t have to suffer” so often that he’d stopped recognizing the words. He did what he was supposed to do: he attended budget meetings, he preached sermons that were full of anecdotes he found online like he had for years. What ministers had done before the Internet, he shuddered to think. “Yes, ma’am,” he would say when he didn’t have another choice but to hear them out. “Yes, ma’am. It was a blessing.”
It had been a long time since he’d attended any funeral at which he had not presided. His friend Sheila, whom he’d known since seminary, had presided. He didn’t know who’d thought to call her. It seemed, like so much of that time, that it had just happened. He barely remembered the service now, grateful only for the prayer book’s well-worn majesty. “As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives; and that at the last he will stand upon the earth . . .” The words unfurled over the crowded room like a hot breeze, until there was a sense of commonality in their suffering. At the last, Caleb thought, stupidly. He ached for it to be over, done.
And yet when the services had been read, as Sheila raised her right hand to deliver the blessing, her palm facing Caleb and his family, and said, “May the Lord bless you and keep you,” he longed to cry, “Wait, no,” for once leaving here, the world would once again press its concerns against him, so hard he could barely breathe. Caleb had suddenly remembered how, when he was a child, the Reverend Moore had done the same thing: “May the Lord make his face to shine upon you. And grant you peace.” His large hand had been steady, pale in the shade beneath the tent. How many funerals had there been, how many palms raised toward how many grieving flocks?
No one lived here anymore, but four generations of Caleb’s family were buried in a rambling acre a mile or so from where the service had been held. Caleb had been born here, like Charles Moore. Here had been Charles Moore’s first ministry, the church Caleb attended as a child. The church where they’d held his cousin Ellie’s funeral that had, once upon a time, been Moore’s church.
That had been the last time he’d been to Grand Saline. They’d gathered for Ellie’s services at Aunt Lane’s house in Dallas, caravanned to Grand Saline in a line of minivans, hatchbacks, and sedans. It was the children’s first funeral. Meg had been old enough to stay quiet, a terrible grace evident in her composure. Shane had to walk Jeff and Kelsey outside the church while the funeral was happening. They’d caravanned again, the two or three miles from the church to the cemetery. Ellie’s oldest boy, only a year older than Meg, had played a stuttering “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” on the trumpet. They’d sat around among the flower arrangements, slapping mosquitoes and fanning themselves with the church bulletins. Then they’d all driven back to Dallas, the kids asleep in the backseat. All three of them.
Before reading the letter that was in the paper, Caleb hadn’t known that that first flock, the one here in Grand Saline, had sent Moore packing after he publicly agreed with the school decision at Little Rock. He’d advocated the end to segregation here in Texas, called it a stain on the Christian conscience. Apparently, the flock hadn’t felt stained. Reverend Moore would have been barely twenty-two, newly married, and newly ordained. If he’d seen that the people who’d been so kind to him, who’d praised his sermons and welcomed him into their homes since he was a boy, didn’t welcome their black neighbors along with him, he’d assumed that it just hadn’t occurred to them. That they would do what he called “the right thing” if only they’d known how to do it. Even though he’d quickly been disabused of this fantasy by that particular flock, well, he still thought that somehow his message just needed to be clearer.
“I brought you some coffee cake,” the woman said.
Caleb blinked, rubbed his eyes, and looked up at her from his folding chair. He must have been dozing a little, because he hadn’t heard her walk up. The woman wore a dense coil of reddish-black braids, bangs flatted and cut in rough angles around her weathered face. He held up a hand to block the sun. “Good morning.”
She thrust a tinfoil container toward him, her dark fingers tipped in swirls of blue-and-white nails. “Here,” she said. “You may be hungry.”
“Well, thank you, ma’am,” Caleb said, embarrassed. He took the package. “I’m fine, but, well, that’s mighty kind of you.”
She tilted her head, waiting. He put the foil package to his nose, took a deep breath. “Cinnamon,” he said. “Thank you.” The swirls, he saw now, were like small globes, like seeing the earth from space, each one painted onto the nail.
“I didn’t make it,” she said, “but I thought you might be getting hungry. Anything else you need, you just ask. I’m here all the time, right over there.” She nodded toward the salon.
“Thank you,” he said again.
She looked toward the police tape. “It happened there,” she said. “What I mean is, I saw it.”
“You saw him?”
She nodded, a tiny shake of the head. Took out a pack of GPC menthol 100s, picked one out with her fingernail. “He’d been walking around the parking lot for a while—I work over there, at the salon. It’s slow.” She lit the cigarette held between burgundy lips. “So I was there watching, and he’s just walking back and forth, and I said to Darryl, my boyfriend, ‘Darryl, what do you think that fool man is doing? Lost his keys?’ I was getting ready to send him out to help him look. But then he got some square thing, like a towel or something, and he kneels down on it. He picks up—well, I didn’t really know what it was, but then something told me to think, ‘Is that gas?’ and the next thing you know he’s pouring it all over himself, and then he’s on fire.”
“You saw it,” Caleb said; it was all he could think to say, but the woman didn’t respond.
“Darryl knew before I did. Grabbed the fire extinguisher, runs out there.” She took another drag, her eyes toward the pavement. “He’s, standing up like he’s trying to walk, but—” another drag—“well, and then Darryl’s spraying him down. I don’t know. It seemed like forever to put it out.”
She stubbed out the cigarette with a little left on it, put the butt back in the carton. Her fingers were shiny, as if freshly oiled or lotioned. “I thought he was a Muslim, like a terrorist. I thought we were being attacked. I mean, what kind of person sets themself on fire?”
“I’m Caleb,” Caleb said, holding out his hand.
“Katrina,” the woman said. She stepped closer to shake his hand, then moved slightly away again.
Caleb said. “He was . . . a nice man. A good man.”
Katrina shook her head. “Darryl was in Iraq, and he says he never saw nothing like that before. He’s still messed up about it.”
Caleb said, “He was upset about racism.”
“Racism? Huh. That man was crazy,” she said. Then, quickly, “I’m sorry. But he’d have to be depressed.
“I saw you here yesterday,” she said with a different tone.
Caleb moved the tinfoil coffeecake from one side of his lap to the other. “I’m trying to . . .” he said, then stopped. He took a breath. “I’m just wanting to think about what happened.” He gestured toward the police tape. “This seemed as good a place as any.”
“He your kin?” she asked.
Caleb shook his head. “I knew him. When I was a boy.” He started to say, “He’s the reason I became a priest,” but something stopped him. The same something that had kept him from putting on the clerical collar that morning.
They sat in silence, listening to the thrum of slow traffic on the bypass and their own thoughts. Caleb unwrapped the coffeecake, broke off a piece of it. He hadn’t known anyone who’d gone to Iraq, except Shane’s friend’s son. As far as he knew, the boy was still there.
“Well,” Katrina said, “I’ll be getting on.”
“Thank you,” Caleb said again. Then heard himself add, “I think this is the same kind of rolls my daughter likes.” The present tense still the default, he observed as if from a distance.
“You married?” Katrina asked. “How many children?”
“A boy and a couple of . . . and a girl. Back in Louisiana.” He blushed. “You?”
“Oh, Lord, yes. Two boys. Both of them grown now.”
“Moore had two boys,” Caleb said.
Katrina’s jaw hardened. “How could he do that to those babies? No matter how old they got to be, they still his babies.” Then, softening, “Maybe it’s different for men.”
Caleb wondered if it was, in fact, different. “I don’t know. It’s hard to figure. I mean, he was old, right?”
He’d worn his collar yesterday, but sometime in the night it had irritated his skin, and he’d stuffed it in his pocket. Now he wished he had it on still. The truth was he had no idea what the old man had been thinking. “He knew he would be dying.”
“Well, no,” Caleb admitted. “It doesn’t seem like it. He was in fine health; that’s what everyone says. It’s not like he had cancer. But still, he was seventy-nine.”
“He still has a family, doesn’t he? He’s still married. What’s she supposed to do now? Poor thing must be just sick. Paper said he didn’t even talk to her about it ahead of time. Racism. Huh.” Katrina pursed her lips. “Well, you come on if you need anything.”
“Thanks,” Caleb said. He didn’t look at her as she walked across the parking lot, her heels echoing hard judgment.
The little brown dog looked like it was used to living off scraps. It approached Caleb as he walked from the gas station, tail wagging, nose respectfully sniffing the pavement, eyes hopeful. “Nope, I got nothing,” Caleb told the dog. He held out his hand, let the dog sniff how little was there. “Go on.”
The dog looked away, then back at Caleb. It wagged its stub of a tail again, and circled around twice, nails clicking on the pavement.
Caleb sipped his coffee from the plastic travel mug. The coffee was too hot, burned his tongue, syrupy with powdered creamer. Caleb sighed. “What the hell,” he said. He didn’t know if he meant about the scorching coffee, his sore mouth, the dog that was even now following him, Caleb saw, hopping along on three legs, or the fact that it was the morning of the second day he’d been sitting here staring at an empty patch of parking lot. He thought of his Aunt Lane, her eyes blue as a broken vein. Caleb, the outlier, adrift in the parking lot where a man had died.
His folding chair was where he’d left it, to the side of the police tape, its back to the two-lane highway bypass. He sat down. “Well, come here, buddy,” he whispered. He lowered his hand, held out his knuckles for the dog’s inspection. The little brown dog hopped across the asphalt. “What happened to you?” he wondered aloud.
The dog gave a few soft whimpers and pushed its ears beneath Caleb’s hand. Caleb rubbed, and the little brown dog pushed harder. “Good boy,” Caleb told him. “Don’t you have a person somewhere?”
Around this town, the town that Charles Moore had indicted with all the fury of the righteous, local congregations had given over their regular services to prayers for Charles Moore and his family. It was on every church sign. “Prayers for the Moores,” or, more obliquely, “Prayers for All Who Mourn.” Caleb wondered what that meant. He envisioned a priestly shape draped in black, laying hands on the indistinct figures of Moore’s wife, his children, grandchildren. His flock. Caleb thought of the casseroles, the pies, the tins of brownies and lemon squares, the frozen lasagnas and potpies stacked in his own freezer, brought by the women of the parish as a generally recognized response to hardship of any sort. Moore’s widow’s grief, like his own, unanswerable by anything less tangible than casserole.
His sister, Greta, had moved into his house for a short time after Meg’s death. It had been Greta who’d directed the flow of traffic that arrived with cards and flowers and food wrapped in tinfoil. People who know what to do in extraordinary times aren’t always those with imagination, he’d observed. “We’ll keep you in our prayers,” was said over and over again. “We’ll pray for you.”
And yet Caleb had been unable to visit Moore’s family, even though he’d driven right past the house. The house had a white wreath of flowers on the front door but otherwise looked like any other suburban Texas ranch house, with its empty expanse of front lawn and silvery cottonwood oaks. He couldn’t stop in because he couldn’t not say the things that he knew to say. “We’ll pray for you,” he would have said. “I’ll pray for you. I’ll keep you in my prayers.”
But Moore’s dying request was not to be answered in the form of prayers. He’d requested justice, and that request, far as Caleb could see, had been met with the same stony silence he’d known all his life.
What was it for, then?
The little brown dog sighed as it settled next to Caleb’s feet. There was a blast of diesel as a delivery truck pulled around to the back of the Dollar General. Caleb thought about the typed letter Moore had left on the dashboard of his car. In the letter, he’d written about being a boy, growing up in the backwoods less than a mile from where Caleb’s family once lived. About the road he’d walked with his unnamed friends to their usual fishing stream, and the encounter in which he’d learned why they’d called that part of town “pole town.” He and his friends had been invited by a man they knew as Uncle Billy to accept a glass of water. “But his real purpose was to cheerily tell us about helping to kill the ‘niggers’ and put their heads up on a pole.”
This had already been history by the time Moore heard about it. It was already in the past.
If there had been lynchings, if postcards were made, if the town’s whites had come out for the entertainment of dark-skinned arms and legs hanging up off the ground. It had already been long ago. If heads had been nailed to the tops of poles, Moore had never seen them, either. It was already far in the past, even then.
“Segregation, well, it was just the way it was,” Caleb remembered one man telling him. They’d been seated next to each other on a flight; the man was going to Tampa for a sales convention of some sort. “We didn’t think there was anything wrong about it,” the man had gone on. “It was just normal. I don’t think anyone I knew ever really thought any less of black people, not like they make it out to be.” The man’s eyes had blinked rapidly behind his bifocals. Caleb had turned away, shocked. This history wasn’t something people talked about. Maybe Moore had thought he would change that. In the letter, he’d written, “Many African Americans were lynched around here, probably some in Grand Saline: hanged, decapitated, and burned, some while still alive. The vision of them haunts me gravely.” But why hadn’t Caleb ever heard Moore say this when he was alive? What had he ever heard about racism, growing up? If Moore had tried to have the church welcome black people, back then, why didn’t Caleb remember anything about it? The police tape taunted him: You don’t remember? You didn’t listen? Caleb couldn’t remember anything out of the ordinary. A nice guy.
The coffee rose, acid searing the back of his throat. He put the cup down. The little brown dog barked softly in its sleep.
The stores were open now, and cars moved in and out of the parking lot. It made Caleb think about the ocean, the way the waves just kept on coming in whether anyone was there to see them or not, when he suddenly recalled fishing with Moore; and maybe his Uncle Odum, Lucille’s first husband, had been there too. Was he imagining it? The long empty hours waiting for a bite, quiet but for Moore’s machine-like laugh, his terrible jokes. “Why do you always bring at least two Baptists fishing? Because if you bring one, he’ll drink all your beer!” It might have even been Uncle Odum with those jokes, Caleb couldn’t remember.
His coffee cup was empty, and the little brown dog had polished off the crumbs of the coffee cake. The police tape moved gently in a breeze Caleb couldn’t feel. He’d attached an umbrella to the back of the folding chair with duct tape, but his legs were hot in the sun.
A young man in khakis and a collared shirt ambled out to the end of the parking lot, where Caleb sat. When he got close enough, he gave a little wave. A ring on his pinky finger glinted in the sun, and his belly pressed the plaid cotton weave against the glint of his belt buckle.
“Hey,” said Caleb. He nodded cautiously.
The younger man’s hand had raised, as if to shake Caleb’s, but instead he gestured toward the tape. “Is that where it happened?”
“Ah,” the man said. “Here.” His eyes filled with tears. “Right here,” he said. “Right here.” He stumbled, dropped to his knees, his hands on the pavement, eyes closed.
Caleb turned away, embarrassed. Then, ashamed of his embarrassment, he turned back. The little brown dog sprang to its feet and began to bark, a high-pitched friendly yip, nails clicking against the pavement as it circled the man.
“Oh, a dog!” the man quickly rose, wiped his eyes, put a hand out to the dog. “What’s his name?”
“He’s not my dog,” Caleb said, apologetically. “He just showed up this morning.”
“He’s adorable,” the man said. He seemed to mean it. His voice raised an octave. “What’s your name, little fellow? What’s your name?” The transformation was so rapid that Caleb had to wonder. A man whose emotions came so quickly to the surface.
“Well,” Caleb said. Then, “Did you know him? The Reverend Moore, I mean?”
The man turned to Caleb then, brushed his hand against his pants as if to wipe it clean, and raised it to shake. “That man was a great, great man. The Reverend was . . . I’m sorry, I can’t believe I’m like this. I didn’t know it would be so hard.”
“Thank you,” was all Caleb could think of to say. He found himself standing. “How did you know him?”
“I’m sorry—I’m Dale. I forgot you wouldn’t know. He did our wedding, Keith’s and mine. No one else would, you know. We’d just wanted it to be in a church.” He sniffed, wiped his eyes. “Sorry.”
Caleb shook his head. “It’s all right,” he said. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“It’s what he wanted,” Dale said. He shrugged. “He thought it would make a difference. He always thought that it would make a difference.”
“Oh, no.” Dale laughed, a quick gasp. “No, that’s not what I meant. I just mean, that’s how he was. I didn’t have any idea that he might . . . He just, he thought he could change things. Maybe he was right, maybe not. I don’t know. But look around. What’s different?”
The two men were silent a moment. Diesel engines idled at the far end of the parking lot. Dale said, “He probably thought it would be a bigger deal. You know, that the press would . . . that people would see how bad it was. He thought, I don’t know, that we, our society, hadn’t made amends, I guess you’d say. And without that, we were in trouble.”
“But he wasn’t in trouble, right? That you knew of?”
Dale shook his head. “Everybody loved him. I mean, not everybody agreed with him, but he was who he was.”
“Who kills themselves over amends?” Caleb muttered. “It doesn’t make sense.”
“It was a bust anyway,” Dale said.
“Me and Keith. He left me a month later, after three years. Three and a half.”
“He left you a month in? After you got, um, after the wedding?”
“Well, six weeks. Not quite six weeks. There was someone else, as it turned out. Isn’t that always the way it is?” Dale knelt down, rubbed the dog, which rolled over onto its back. Its little belly was hopping with fleas, dark against the light brown fur.
“You know the secret of a long marriage? Just never want a divorce on the same day.”
“That sounds just like something Reverend would have said!” Dale exclaimed. “Damn! It does! Just like him. Oh, my.” The little brown dog sprang to its feet, nails clicking as it pranced. The edges of the parking lot blurred in the heat.
Dale returned with a Styrofoam ice chest, a case of Miller High Life, and a bag of kibble. He was now sporting a Marlins baseball cap. He carried a folding chair that had a tag still hanging from it. “It’s five o’clock someplace,” he said, cracking open a beer.
“Cheers,” Caleb agreed. He raised his can. “To Moore.”
They both took long, cool swallows. Dale pushed open his chair—they’d moved to the gravelly, weedy edge of the pavement. No shade but Caleb’s umbrella and Dale’s ball cap. From here, Caleb could see that the asphalt wasn’t as clean as it had seemed. That it was crumbling, breaking apart, white and gray. Weeds pushed their way through only to be flattened by traffic. Black streaks, oil stains, water dripping from leaking air conditioners. Butterflies dipped and lowered to the pavement, lifting to dive again. Plastic bottles, candy wrappers, empty chip bags, bottle caps, Styrofoam flecks: these things drifted around the lot. He saw the bodies of worms, dried where they’d been stranded by the sun. From somewhere within the grass, a cicada’s song twitched and soared. Dale shook out some kibble for the little brown dog, which they’d come to call LB. “Good dog,” he said, approvingly.
Caleb cracked open a second. It was almost as good as the first. “Do you suppose they’re going to bust us for open container?”
“This is Texas,” Dale said. “I thought you were from Louisiana?”
“Well, it’s been a while since I acquainted myself with the law on this particular subject.” The truth was that he had pretty much stopped drinking when Shane did.
“I’m more likely to be busted for being openly queer,” Dale said. He was on his third. He belched and grinned. “Don’t worry about it.”
Caleb nodded. This was what his life had come to, then. Drinking High Life with a gay man in the middle of godforsaken noplace Texas. “As long as you don’t make a pass at me,” he said.
“Honey, as if.” Dale laughed, and Caleb grinned, took another drink. The heat together with the beer was making him giddy and swollen, sloshy.
“Reverend Moore—that was the thing, you know? I always thought, how much different my life would have been, if he really were my family. Like, if he were my dad. Because let me tell you,” Dale jabbed a finger in Caleb’s direction. “Let me tell you, my family did not have the same AT-titude toward me that the Reverend did. Not a-tall, no sir. “
“Well, I’m, um, sorry for that,” Caleb said.
“Spilt milk now. Their loss.” Dale tossed his head. “But I just always wanted to know, how did he get that way? Because it was like he didn’t even bat an eye. He accepted folks for who they was. Always did. No matter what, you could tell them, Oh, yeah, go to Moore. He’ll help you. But who helped him?”
“I don’t know,” Caleb said. “Maybe he didn’t think he needed any help.”
“Everybody needs help,” Dale said. “I mean—well, look. What happened.”
“But was it wrong?” Caleb set down his beer, and his hands clenched and opened as he spoke. “I mean, if he’d told someone—anyone—his plan, they’d have said, ‘Let’s get you some help.’ And they wouldn’t have meant, let’s get you some help getting people over racism. Getting people to act in a kinder way. Getting, you know, better schools for poor kids, getting access to health care for everyone, doing something about the criminal justice system. No, they would have meant, ‘Let’s get you help because you’re crazy. You must be depressed, out of your mind.’ And what would that have helped him with, exactly?”
“It would have helped. It would have. I know it,” Dale said. “He was working on all that stuff. We all were. Are. I mean, Jesus. Sorry, but, isn’t that what we’re all doing? It’s not going to happen overnight. And now we got one less captain in the fight. I think he bailed. I think he cut and run.” Dale’s eyes were bright with tears, and Caleb looked away.
“I hear you,” he said. “I know what you mean. I just, well, I’m not sure.” Jeff was probably at soccer practice right now, Kelsey still at the after-school program at the Y. Thinking of a fight felt abstract, distant. Shane would be sitting in the minivan, biting her nails, reading The Grapevine, talking on her cell, checking Facebook. He would have been at work on his sermon for Sunday, meeting with the vestry about that ceiling repair and planning the next Interfaith Celebration committee meeting. None of this felt real to him, either. He picked up the beer again, but it was hot.
“Okay,” Caleb said, “maybe I don’t know what you mean. What do you mean, ‘in the fight’? I mean, what do you do, to fight? Besides just stay alive?”
“That’s the main thing,” Dale said, his mouth twisting wryly. “Pretty low bar, don’t you think? Well, apparently not. Sorry. I have a terrible sense of humor. Or timing,”
“I’m just asking,” Caleb said. He felt a stab of pain behind his left eye and closed both eyes for a moment.
Dale sighed. “Right. So, what I was thinking about was all the stuff we do to try to make changes. Like pride marches and petitions and ‘It Gets Better.’ Like making sure we have people of color, like they say, on our school boards and police forces and in our churches. I mean, I don’t do all that much. But Moore did. He did that stuff.”
“Does it make any difference?”
“You tell me! Once upon a time, I wouldn’t have walked over to you and told you about me and Keith. Once upon a time, meaning five years ago, which is no time. My cousin Toly, he didn’t get that chance. So, hell, yes, I think there’s some difference.” His voice was pure, shrill as birdsong. LB sprang up, sniffing the air anxiously, then circled a few times before settling back down into the rough grass at Caleb’s feet.
“I hear you,” Caleb said. “I reckon you got something there.” But he didn’t really know what difference the man had made. The couple hadn’t even lasted. What was the point in marrying someone you weren’t going to stick with? But then he thought of Shane, and Greta, and all the wives everywhere, and freezers full of food, and silence. His beer was empty again.
“Listen,” Dale was saying, “it’s folks like Reverend who make change happen. It’s like, they remind you that just because something is a way, it doesn’t have to always be the same way. Shit, I don’t know how to say it. I guess I just mean he was a good man. Maybe that’s enough.”
“It wasn’t for him, though. Looks like he needed more.”
“What did he need? Somebody to gun him down, you know, like MLK or Bobby Kennedy? Where was the grassy knoll for Moore? He didn’t even get a grassy knoll.” Dale’s words were slurring a little.
“Yeah, most of us don’t get a knoll,” Caleb agreed. He needed some food. Shane would be calling, and he needed to sober up a little. That’s the last thing he needed, her flipping out on him. Could pizza be delivered to a parking lot? Worth a shot. He was drinking a cold beer now, so it must be a new one.
They ended up not being able to find a delivery place—maybe there was one, but it wasn’t listed when they called 411. After what seemed like forever trying to explain what they needed to an automated system, Caleb and Dale ended up staggering over to the gas station for some plastic-wrapped sandwiches. It was cool inside the gas station. Hot dogs turned on little industrial roasters. They had a kind of pizza service there, but the glass display was dark, with a sign written in magic marker and stuck to it with tape: out of odr. Giant ice drinks were less than a dollar. Caleb bought two, even though they came with free refills, and stuck a large bag of Funyuns on the counter alongside the sandwiches. Dale was insisting on paying for everything.
“No, no, your money’s no good here,” he kept saying, even while Caleb was pushing past him, wallet in hand. “It’s okay, I got it.”
The woman at the cash register just kept ringing things up without looking at either one of them. Caleb thought about explaining how his wife would be calling any minute, so that she didn’t get the wrong idea, but then the words didn’t put themselves into his mouth. It sure did feel good in the air conditioning. He found himself walking to the men’s room and wondered why he’d waited to go. He closed his eyes to the wonderful release, even though the room smelled like Lysol and pond scum, and the florescent light was flickering so badly that he could see it even with his eyes closed. The fart fan clattered overhead. Caleb was sitting now, his head bent towards his knees. He could hear Moore’s high-pitched laughter, mixed in with the rattle of the fan.
“I don’t know what to do,” Caleb whispered. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what you wanted.”
Someone was turning the doorknob, but they stopped when Caleb yelled, “OCCUPIED!”
The laughter continued. “I got you that time! Whooo-ee! Got you!”
“You got me, yes, sir, you got me.” Caleb rubbed his palms on his pant legs as he sat, jackknifed, on the toilet. Was it all a joke? he wondered and felt the familiar slow burn of being the last to get the meaning. What the hell kind of joke would it have been? “What the hell?” he heard himself saying out loud. “What the hell?”
Dale was knocking at the door. “Buddy, you okay? How you doing? Let’s get going.”
The gas station light blinded Caleb as he stepped out. There were some late afternoon thunderclouds building to the west, sun streaking through them in a way his mama used to call “Jesus clouds.” The wind was cool across his shoulders. He tugged open the cellophane wrapper and took a bite of the sandwich. His mouth filled with dry bread, ham so thin it was more like flavoring. He tore open the mayonnaise packet with his teeth, squirted it on the top of the next bite.
Dale walked behind him, feeding LB the Funyuns. “Good boy!”
Together they made their way back to the chairs, one with the umbrella flipped upside down by the wind. Caleb picked it up, sat down, still chewing. The police tape had torn, and now it drifted toward them like a streamer.
“Ordinary time,” Caleb murmured.
“Sorry. I was just thinking, about how every part of the year, in the church, is a season. This here, where we are now? It’s called “Ordinary Time.” It’s the season that follows the Pentecost, back around Memorial Day.”
“Ordinary Time, huh?” Dale chuckled. “What are the others?”
“Well, there’s Easter, you know, and there’s Christmas. Lent, the forty days before Easter. Ordinary’s the longest. It runs all the way through till Advent, the four Sundays before Christmas. I think Methodists used to call it Kingdomtide?” Then, “I’m actually a priest, you know? Just not wearing the—” and here he circled his hand to his neck.
“That right?” Dale asked. “Well, I’ll be.”
Caleb shrugged. “It’s during Ordinary time that the liturgy contains the miracles,” he confided. “Not Christmas or Easter. Those commemorate his birth and resurrection. But the miracles? Ordinary time.”
“I sure didn’t know that,” Dale said.
“Well,” Caleb said. He laughed, apologetically. Dale propped his feet up on the cooler, examined his fingernails. As if something had been settled, Caleb opened the second sandwich. When the phone rang, he let it go.
The trucks started to arrive about an hour later, just as the sun was setting. The trucks idled on the far side of the parking lot, their trailers painted with clowns and freckle-faced children. They carried giant plastic slides to be inflated and colored lights that were lit. Ferris wheels, Tilt-A-Whirls, even a miniature roller-coaster arrived and were assembled as Caleb and Dale watched, speechless, LB barking furiously and circling the chairs.
“It’s a carnival! A dad-gummed carnival!” Dale said, more than once.
The scent of diesel filled the night air; the engines still idled noisily. Caleb could hear pale-skinned people shouting to one another as they moved between the trucks setting up for the evening, but he couldn’t make out what they were saying.
Caleb thought about the call he’d missed. About Shane, who’d be getting back from her meeting just about now. The kids would have been over at Judy’s, and Shane would be worrying that they didn’t have their homework done before now. Why did she pay Judy? Etc., etc. He thought about his Aunt Lane, moving around the house that somehow managed to be crowded and empty at the same time, and about Greta snoring on the pullout. He thought about the woman who’d brought him that coffee cake this morning, the one who’d seen it (“I saw it,” he heard her say again and again) and about her friend Darryl, the vet. He wondered what else Darryl had seen, what else that he saw again once he’d seen the vision of a man in flames. In Caleb’s mind, the vision was silent, flickering like an old movie, but the flames were always yellow, orange, and there was never much smoke.
Dale was breathing heavily beside him, his head resting gently on his chest, LB curled now at his feet. Caleb stood, feeling the stretch in his legs, his feet cramped in his shoes. He smelled the stink beneath his arms, his damp T-shirt. He scratched his crotch. It was dark now in the parking lot, even though it was lit by streetlights; they seemed like nothing beside the bright lights of the carnival. Music pulsed from the trucks, heavy bass mixed with almost inaudible guitars, maybe accordions. A plastic grocery bag floated gently across the parking lot, then another. As Caleb watched, they drifted gently into the night sky and disappeared.
I couldn’t tell you how I stumbled across the story of the Reverend Charles Moore, who on June 23, 2014 poured a can of gasoline over himself in Grand Saline, Texas, and lit a match. It received little direct attention at the time, despite a letter typed and left on the dashboard of his car that explicitly stated the reason for his decision: to honor those killed by lynching and to implore his fellow white citizens to repent and make amends. Moore’s actions were quickly judged to be a result of mental illness, thus calling for individual, rather than collective, action.
I was interested, like the narrator Caleb, in sitting with this a while longer. Caleb also has a history he can’t talk about, the death of his fourteen-year-old daughter, “gone within weeks of her diagnosis.” I didn’t want to put words to Caleb’s grief but to have this empty space in a parking lot that’s marked (with police tape and a gas-stained scar on the pavement) as holy and gave us a space to sit and listen.
Charles Moore was not invented, and I hope that my characterization of him will honor the real man. As a white Southern queer woman who shares, with Reverend Moore and Caleb, Flannery O’Connor’s “Christ-haunted South,” I wanted to amplify Moore’s struggle to reconcile the kindness of white people with the abject violence we’ve committed and continue to commit. This violence is a part of our histories, both personal and public, that we don’t talk about.
Carolyn Ogburn lives in the southern Appalachians. She has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has been awarded fellowships from Ragdale and Virginia Center for Creative Arts. She’s been a regular blogger for Ploughshares, contributing writer for Numero Cinq, and her poetry and essays can be found in a variety of online and print journals. This is her first published short story.