An excerpt from the short story "Going the Distance"
Author - Jonathan Hainey
My feet began to feel heavy as I walked to my place. I could hear my heart pounding louder and louder with each step I took. I felt like I had run the entire 26.21 miles the marathon required before the gun even went off. Once I saw my mark, my head began to spin, and I felt my soul leave my body.
I could only tell myself, “Hang on Chris. You got this. Remember why you are here.”
Immediately, the thought of my father came to my mind. I have not had this feeling since the day my family found out he was murdered. The words felt like sharp needles piercing my flesh as they came out of my brother’s mouth.
* * *
“Dad died this morning. Chris, are you listening to me? I said Pop died in his cell this morning.”
I could not get myself to reply. I could only stare at my brother’s expressionless and oddly emotionless face. He never saw eye to eye with our father prior to him being incarcerated. They had their disagreements, but I never knew my brother had such a cold side to him. Our father was a good man. Many thought too good, including his sons, my two younger brothers Timothy and Dexter. Our father worked his entire life in a small grocery store run by his parents and their parents before them. Our father was very proud of his little shop.
He would often say, “Our little store here is a safe haven for our people. We are not only providing goods for sale, but we are providing a chance -- a chance for a better life. When some little black girl or boy is walking on Wilcox Blvd and finally sees the red bricks of our building through the trees, they know they are a little further and safer from the hate and anger of the world behind them. I know you boys have a lot of ideas on what you want to do when you grow up. I’m talking to you Christopher. Your mama told me about that silly dream you have of joining the Olympics. We need to stick with what we know and be where we are needed. You boys have a responsibility with maintaining this store and keeping that peace for your community.”
He was right about the importance of our store for the neighborhood. Many kids and their parents felt that way about our father’s store. It was a frequent hang-out spot and it seemed that many of the crimes that happened in Chattanooga, Tennessee in the 1950s were just not happening on the corner of Wilcox Blvd and Greenwood Road.
All of Eastdale, including my father, believed that his store was the reason for that. As kids, we always thought that no one wanted to start trouble because of how big and scary looking our father was. He was a tall and muscular man. His arms always reminded me of two big tree stumps that stuck out of the ground behind the store. His dark black eyes would pierce through anyone who would look into them for too long. His skin was the color of charcoal. My mother always joked with him that if he didn’t always wear his lucky white apron that she would lose him in the black of night when he would throw out the trash before closing.
My father would always respond with the same line. “That’s why I married someone like you Audrey. You keep me from fading into the dark with all your light.”
My mother was very light-skinned. She could almost pass as a white lady. Often new customers would stop at the door and analyze her before approaching. It wasn’t until she invited them in that they entered, always with a sign of relief on their faces. My mother was also young and beautiful. She had big, light eyes that often resembled the caramel candies we sold near the register.
It wasn’t until we were in high school that we found out the real reason behind the odd peace our father’s store seemed to bring. My younger brother Dexter was the one to find out.
“What’s bothering you two?” I asked.
“We found out why we don’t have any Goddamn money,” replied Timothy with anger in his eyes.
I had never heard him take the Lord’s name in vain before that day. His words shocked me. Such a mature sentence coming out of such a young kid. It felt like only yesterday that he was waking me up on a Saturday morning to take him to catch frogs in a jar near Chickamauga Creek and get some ice cream for 25 cents on the way back home. For the first time, I truly studied Timothy. He had always been tall for his age. Like my father, he was dark-skinned. In fact, all my siblings minus my youngest sister Gloria were dark like my father. I was almost a spitting image of him. I was a lot leaner and not as tall, but I was only seventeen at the time.
“What are you talking about Timothy? We've always known why we don’t have any money. On top of dad receiving payments in favors and kids stealing from the store, Mr. Henderson raises the rent every month on both the house and the store. Dad tells us this every day.”
Dexter moved in front of Timothy and grabbed my arm before I walked past both of them.
“We are not talking about dad being too nice to run this store or the theft from all the neighborhood punks or the rent being raised. I saw dad hand over a brown paper bag with all the money we earned last week to some fat old white cop,” Dexter’s voice cracked towards the end of his sentence. You could see the hate in his eyes for the man that had been taking our money and the frustration and sadness for our father.
“Are you sure about this? Why would dad give some white cop our money?”
I tried to move my arm away from my brother’s tightening grip, but he held on as if he was anticipating my action. He pulled me closer to him so that I knew what he was going to say next was serious. I couldn’t help but deeply study Dexter. He had changed since the last time I really saw him. I had been trying to avoid him for the last couple of months.
Ever since he met that boy Elbert on his High School football team, it’s been all about black power this and black power that. Anytime he sees a white person now he is ready to pounce. Anyone who disagrees with him is considered an enemy, oftentimes including me.
He and my father would constantly clash about his newfound beliefs.
Once, I remember my father at dinner saying, “I understand the need to want to fight back, Son. It could solve a lot of things at the moment. It could make you feel good to raise a hand to the oppressor, but Dexter, you need to think about the repercussions that your actions can bring. What about your brothers? Christopher and Timothy could get caught in the middle. Someone could choose to hurt them just to hurt you. What about your sisters? Gloria and Tyra. Have you thought of them?”
Dexter wouldn't even look at my father that night. “Some white man will get them now or later. It doesn’t matter if it’s in retaliation to what I did. At least if someone hurts them because of me it was worth it. If they die which we all will by the hands of some white man, then why not die for a cause. An eye for an eye just like the Bible says," he replied.
The dinner table was silent after my brother said that. We all stared at my father waiting for him to yell at our brother. It was my mother who broke the silence.
“Dexter Marcus Jordan, I can’t believe you would say something so awful in front of your sisters. You are done with dinner. Get up to your room right now.”
He got up without any remorse on his face and walked up to his room.
That was the most recent confrontation. But when he was telling me about the bribe later, he stared at me with the same black, piercing eyes my father had. The light from the kitchen ceiling shined bright on his face. It lit up the scar he had above his left eye brow that he'd gotten from a white man with a knife who stopped him on his way to school one morning. He was only thirteen at the time. He cried for a week straight and had to walk to and from school with me every day, and he hated that because he had to wait an extra hour after school for me to finish practicing with the track team. But once we would walk past the field where the white man grabbed him, I could tell that he was grateful to have me by his side. Dexter has come a long way since then. Today, he didn't need anyone to walk with him. I would be afraid for the white boy that chose to rob him. If it was a fair fight, Dexter would win every time.
“He is paying that white son of a bitch to keep the white folks and white cops from bothering anyone on this block. Why do you think this street hardly has any dead brothers or sisters on it? As long as Dad keeps handing everything over to that pig, we can sleep safe and sound with our bellies rumbling every night.”
My brother pushed my arm away after he finished speaking. I didn’t rub my arm even though it was sore from his grip. I knew it was important to seem tough at this moment. I was still bigger and stronger than Dexter and could easily bring him down if it came to it, but I didn’t want to show any kind of weakness in front of either of them. I needed to defend our father and maybe make these boys see reason, at least long enough until dad could ease our doubts and explain why he was handing over something that our family desperately needed.
“Whatever Dad was doing I’m sure he had a perfectly good reason to do it. Maybe dad borrowed some money that we didn’t know about or maybe he is buying something from the cop. Dad has been talking about getting a new cooler for the sodas for months now. Maybe this cop heard about that and is selling an old one he had laying in his garage.”
As I heard the words come out of my mouth, I knew that Dexter was right. Our father was giving our hard-earned money to some white cop who was taking advantage of a poor old black man. I couldn’t let them know that. I held my stare as long as I could.
“Chris, we both know you are way too smart to believe that. No white man, especially a cop, is going to give Dad a loan or sell him anything. You and I have always known that money has been disappearing every week for years. We were just in denial.”
As Dexter turned and started walking to the front door, I asked him the question that showed my defeat.
“When are you going to tell him about it?”
He stopped in front of the door with his hand clasping the door handle. "I'll tell him when the right moment comes. I hope you will back me and Timothy when it happens.”
Without another word, they were both out of the house and disappeared into the dusk.
* * * I remember I pushed my brother out of the way and rushed into the house. My heart was beating in my throat. My feet were heavy as I walked up the steps. I feared what I knew I was going to see next. I opened the door to find my mother on the kitchen floor. She was sobbing and yelling.
“No Lord, why? Why my Carl? Why did you take him from me?”
My sisters were both on their knees holding my mother. Tyra was the first to notice my presence. She let go of my mother and ran to me. She hugged me and confirmed what my brother had said.
“They killed Pop, Chris. His lawyer called an hour ago to tell Mama they found him dead in his cell this morning.”
She buried her face in my chest. I was still in shock when I held her. I finally was able to speak after about five minutes of holding her.
“How did he say Pop died?” I asked.
Gloria looked up and opened her mouth, but my mama spoke first.
“He was beaten to death by those white bastard guards. My sweet and gentle Carl was taken in such a violent awful way. He was alone and away from me.”
She no longer looked at me or acknowledged anyone in the room as she continued to scream my father’s name.
“Where is Timothy?” I asked.
Gloria answered through tears, “he is not back yet. He said he was going to the store to buy a new shirt for graduation. He should be back any minute now.”
I didn’t want Dexter to be the one to give him the news. It was just another opportunity for him to sow more hate in Timothy’s heart.
“I’ll tell him about pop if that’s alright with both of you.”
The girls just nodded through the tears that seemed endless. I bent down to get closer to my mother.
“Mama, I’m sorry about Pop. He is in a better place now, and he will be waiting for us. He will probably have chores ready for us when we get to heaven to see him. I can hear him now telling Dexter to sweep the steps of the Pearly Gates because God is arriving soon.”
My mother was looking right at me, but she was nowhere in that room. Her eyes were no longer the color of caramel. They were a dark brown almost black and there seemed to be no life in them anymore. Before I could hug her, I heard the voices of my brothers outside. I ran as fast as I could to stop Dexter, but Timothy was already bloodying his fists punching the ground.
Dexter looked up at me while holding my brother.
“How can you not want to kill every white son of a bitch you see, huh?" said Dexter. "In order for blacks to survive, all white people need to die. What is it going to take for you to get that, Chris? What family member is next?”
I knew that there was nothing that could be said. I stared at my little brother, hopeless in saving him from the pain he was going through.
* * *
Back at the track I heard the voice on the loudspeaker. “Runners take your marks. Get ready. Bang!”
Before I could truly gather myself after remembering the sound of my brothers’ bare knuckles hitting the dirt road, we were off.
Jonathan Hainey is a 2022 PCC Summer Creative Writing Academy participant and a current student at LMU. Writing is his passion, and he aspires to be an attorney.