Short Story: Righteous by Doug Canter

Standing behind the barn’s pine planks, Diamond inhaled the Shenandoah Valley breeze searching for traces of cinnamon that might have escaped from his mother’s haven. He devoured the last chunk of biscuit, egg, and sausage, and gazed at the handful of colonial red brick structures in the distance, wondering where his life would take him. At the Dunkin Donuts in Mud Creek, his girlfriend Julia gripped a backpack. Her blond-streaked, long, black hair hung loosely over her broad shoulders as she dialed her uncle. 

Miles away, Simon looked out the window as a street cleaner noisily swept crushed fast-food remnants and empty beer cans up the wet Baltimore street. He sighed deeply as the telephone rang, wondering who could be calling so early. Simon pushed a copy of Maya Angelou’s The Complete Poetry behind the picture of Julia riding her first bicycle and reached for the ringing cell phone on his desk. Simon listened to his niece’s strained voice. He mumbled “ahem” on the occasions when she stopped to sniffle. 

Julia kept repeating “nothing happened.” Every time he heard her say “nothing happened” Simon squeezed the cellphone harder. 

“I only had two drinks,” she said, grabbing the bus tickets as they slid out of the kiosk. 

Simon sipped cold coffee from a mug one of his students had given him and rubbed the top of his close-cut curly hair. “Why were you even there?” He asked, thinking back decades to his Saturday nights at Morgan State. Does your father know?”  

“My father’s too busy fighting with his new wife,” Julia said. “I’ve got a go,” she added abruptly and stepped outside the Dunkin Donuts to meet the approaching Greyhound. Simon swore under his breath. 

Two pigeons swooped down and sat on the green fire hydrant in front of the Two Pier Church of Christ across Saint Paul Street. Simon held the silent phone for a full minute, unsure whether to call his sister, before he placed it in his pocket. It would only take him three and a half hours to travel to Brawn Tree in Saturday traffic. 

The next day, Diamond and his parents drove to the white wooden Baptist church on the Brawn Tree campus for Sunday Mass. From a distance, Mud Rest didn’t look like much, a faded one-street Appalachia town with a white clapboard coop grocery, poplar paneled old bar, full-stocked gun shop, Ford truck and tractor dealership, real estate lawyer’s single-story bricked office, the historic Confederate-era Pigeon Inn, and a combined Shell station and convenience store near campus a mile outside of town. Most people drove fifteen miles on the interstate to Harrisonville to buy their weekly groceries. In its heyday, before they took the statue of General Marcus Eliot down, before the hat factory closed, before Diamond was even born, twenty thousand people lived in the town and surrounding area of Hollow County. Now, only eight hundred year-round residents lived there. 

Jesus’ body hung contorted on a stained pine cross fixed to the white ceiling behind the pulpit where the Reverend Gabriel J. Eliot, Jr. stood. “Which one among you, if you had a one hundred sheep and you lost one wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine sheep in an open pasture and search for that lost one?”’ Reverend Eliot’s words rocketed throughout the sanctuary. “Which one?” He screamed passionately. Diamond glanced at the seated congregation behind him, huddled together shoulder to shoulder, each with a solemn façade of allegiance to the voice of God. “Learn to do good; relieve the oppressed, plead for the widow.” The gray heads in the church nodded, almost in unison. Diamond’s father ended his sermon with a personal story about Diamond and his sister, about how he had to resist the temptation of trying to restrain their independence as they each grew. Diamond tapped his scuffed white sneakers and smoothed the tail of his long shaggy blond hair back over his collar. He hated it when his father told stories about him in church. 

As Diamond and his mother sauntered up the center aisle towards the church door, Mr. Washington’s plea for help floated through his mind. Yesterday had been unseasonably hot. Diamond’s skinny six-foot-tall body rocked lightly in his granddaddy’s oak rocker on the front porch as he had sipped coffee. He remembered closing his eyes to pull in a strong waft of honeysuckle in the October air when he had heard a rumble on the stone driveway. Then, a tall and unnerving Black stranger walked up the porch steps uninvited. Diamond had immediately called the maid and instructed her to dial the sheriff. Diamond now saw the same man in the parking lot. Diamond instinctively lifted his red cap and smoothed his hair back before spitting reflexively on the lawn. 

“God bless you, Reverend,” a plump matronly parishioner said to Reverend Eliot outside the church. Diamond stood silently next to his mother. He heard an unusual collective whispering like a thousand humming bees hovering near the parking lot. An angry glare poked thin rays through a mist behind a large poplar tree as the burning cast gray ghost-like shadows that looked like large dangling arms. Standing on a grassy island surrounded by pink and white wildflowers, Washington searched his pack for water and poured a quarter cup of the warm liquid over his sweaty scalp as he strode across the driveway and lawn in front of the church and through the buzzing to where Diamond’s father stood. 

“Reverend Eliot,” Diamond’s father said with an outstretched arm, standing in the oversized shadow of Washington’s menacing figure. 

Diamond had always been amazed at his father’s ability to maintain a smile and welcoming demeaner as he shook the many hands who floated out of church on Sunday mornings. “Have we met?” Reverend Eliot asked. 

Washington motioned no. Beads of sweat danced on his brow. “Simon Washington,” he said. “I’m here to ask for help.” Diamond tried to lean closer to hear the rest of the conversation. Reverend Eliot was a welcoming and loving man. His smile never waned, but Diamond could tell that even his father was becoming perturbed by the way the curl of the edges of his lips remained fixed as if pinned to the middle of his cheeks.  

“The sheriff’s deputy directing traffic at the intersection near the church parking lot had the presence of mind to take the large angry Black man into custody,” Diamond’s mother gossiped to a friend on the phone as they drove home. Diamond had summoned the deputy at his mother’s instruction. He didn’t hear enough of the conversation to understand Mr. Washington’s problem. Somebody was missing. That is all he heard before his father dispatched him to retrieve their golden retriever from the church office. In the end, the stranger had just appeared to be an angry Black man, but something about Washington’s lonely eyes from their first meeting haunted Diamond, and he thought of his father’s sermon. 

Once back home, Diamond plodded outside to smoke a Marlboro in the moving afternoon shadows near the barn tortured like a man on fire. He answered the ringing phone as he quashed a lit match with a short waiving motion. 

“The clinic is closed,” Julia said, through sobs. Her voice sounded low and vulnerable, just like the day he had met her at the gas station. The sunlight of their first kisses had been a strange seed. He had felt her warmth from those gentle wet expressions even when they had stood in the cold shadows of the flowering poplar trees behind the barn when she had seemed so perfect.

“I thought you hadn’t decided. I thought you were going to wait to talk,” he said, angrily. An icy ache tore a piece of his insides. He had told Julia he would marry her even though he had not yet introduced Julia to his parents. After years of listening to his father’s sermons, Diamond knew his Pa and Ma would help him figure out how to care for his child. 

Julia sniffled. 

Diamond thought back to Washington’s appearance outside the church not understanding the foreboding he felt. But the words of his father’s recent sermons and the softness of Julia’s reassuring voice, even in the face of so much uncertainty, punctured his doubts. 

“I need to see you,” Julia implored. “I need to find a place where I can make this go away safely.”        

“God dammit, Julia. This is a baby you’re talkin about, a little precious person.” He really had no idea what caring for an infant would entail. It was as if his mind was filled with plastic images from his mother’s Christian Family Action League. He elicited Julia’s promise not to do anything until they spoke again. She had no car and only a little over $200. He would never admit it aloud, but he relished having Julia dependent on him. As he thought of Julia waiting for him at his family’s hunting cabin, his mind touched the warm, lavender-scented crease below her shoulders. 

In the shadow of a large poplar the next day, the acrid smoke from Diamond’s cigarette overpowered the scent of magnolia. Diamond heard the memory of Mr. Washington’s urgent plea in the light breeze, and he wondered if his Pa would feel as concerned if Diamond went missing. But the pounding of Reverend Eliot’s cane from inside the house intruded, interrupting the peacefulness of the meadow. “Diamond…,” his Pa screamed from the sun draped porch, his devoted retriever licking his outstretched hand. “Get your ass out back and feed Millie. 

Julia called her Uncle Simon who sat in a rocker outside the Pigeon Inn. He had slept all morning after his release from the county jail. He looked at a recent photo of Julia on his phone. Simon’s sister had married and had children when she was in high school. Eventually, her husband’s swearing, “fuck you” and “fuck that,” in the presence of Julia and her younger brother had gotten so abusive that Julia’s mother had asked Simon and his wife to take care of Julia one summer. One summer then became ten years. He answered his phone on the second ring. A slight drizzle began to fall. Beholding the grassy and wooded bucolic Shenandoah Mountains, he savored the aftertaste of the local strawberry jam from lunch as he told Julia about his arrest. Simon started to confide that he felt out-of-place in Mud Rest, but his niece’s muffled crying stopped him. 

“I don’t know what to do, Uncle Simon.”

Simon waited.

“I blacked out.”  

“You only had two drinks…” 

“I did. But I blacked out. I remember the red hallway carpet of the fraternity spinning around as I tried to will myself to the front door. But it was like my feet were glued to the floor.”

“Did anyone hurt you?” 

He heard her sobbing. “Someone with a gentle male voice held my arm to keep me from falling. I leaned…”  

“It’s going to be okay. Tell me everything.” He waited for her to stop crying. 

“I leaned on his shoulder. He said something about going upstairs. I shook my head. I am almost positive I shook my head.”

“Did you say anything?” 

“I started crying when someone lifted my legs up in the air….” Julia said. She wiped flowing tears from her cheeks. 

“Oh, God,” Simon uttered softly. 

“You have got to report this to the police,” Simon said with exasperation. 

Diamond sat on a tire outside the Shell station smoking a cigarette the next day. The Monday morning customers kept asking him about the “Black family” that “staged the college girl’s disappearance.” Several Twitter posts had fed the fury with images of Julia and her parents. Julia’s light brown skin gave her a tanned appearance, but the image of her and her mother, a dark Black woman with a pearly smile, stunned him. He knew where Julia was staying. He knew Julia had not orchestrated her disappearance. But he was shocked to learn that Washington’s arrest and the hysterical response on social media involved his girlfriend. 

Diamond drove his truck two and half hours to his parent’s cabin. After a few minutes of small talk, they settled in front of the gas fireplace. A brown and orange scarf wrapped around Julia’s head. Her hair hung tied in a ponytail. She wore a loose black T-shirt that revealed her tattoos. The small turquois stone necklace Simon had given her pressed against her throat. Diamond touched her course hair gently. He had offered to marry Julia, but she had college and career plans. “How would you support a baby?” She asked, crossing one of her jean-covered legs. As they talked, he took note of her facial features. 

“Where, Diamond?” She repeated, loudly, interrupting his thoughts. 

Diamond bowed his head in confusion, unable to think. He never had been able to keep up with Julia. Not really. He loved her recall of things, her memory, her thoughts. The fact that she seemed to love him had been enough, at least until now.        

“We should talk with my father,” Diamond said flatly. 

“The father I have never met. The father you have never asked me to meet.” 

Diamond nodded, looking at his sneakers. It was his only option. He wanted the baby, and he was afraid of losing Julia. 

“Okay,” Julia said hesitantly, out of choices as well, but not convinced. “There’s something that I…,” she started to say, but Diamond, so preoccupied with his own fears, spoke over her. 

“We’ll leave as early as possible tomorrow morning.” He wondered if she knew about the outcry on social media. 

“Let’s make sure we have all our options when we speak with you father.” She patted her stomach. “Let’s make a list of places outside of Virginia where I can get a safe abortion.” She squinched her face in a way that seemed to say this is your fault.       

After returning to campus, Julia reported her Friday night rape to the police and to the school administration. The police identified the four boys involved, all of whom lived at the Phi Psi fraternity house. But the police said they did not have enough evidence to prosecute, and they turned the results of their investigation over to the school. The school initiated its own investigation. The incident was the fourth time in three years a female coed at Brawn Tree had reported rape or sexual harassment of some kind at the Phi Psi house. But even after the overwhelming proof from both investigations and notwithstanding the repeat nature of the accusations over Phi Psi parties, the school did nothing. Rumors circulated that one of the identified fraternity boys was the son of a wealthy alumnus who had contributed a large sum of money to the school. The comments on social media were split. Some blamed Julia for drinking too much. Others pointed out that not many freshmen women, or even men for that matter, had experience monitoring their consumption of grain alcohol punch. Julia didn’t really care about the anonymous community’s views as long as she could find a place to obtain a safe abortion. 

“It’s been a hell of a week,” Simon said to his wife as he, Lydia, and Julia followed the hostess. They arrived first. Photos of eastern gray foxes adorned the light pine walls. Two white birch logs burned red and yellow in the hearth on the room’s north side. Julia had not yet told Uncle Simon and Aunt Lydia that she was pregnant. They had been so distraught about the Phi Psi assault and dealings with the local police, and she had been preoccupied with searching for safe options that she hadn’t been able to find the strength. Diamond and his parents arrived ten minutes later. 

Reverend and Mrs. Eliot smiled grimly as they spotted Washington and his wife seated at the center table. Julia wore tight washed-out jeans and a white linen top. Diamond’s initial grin of genuine delight at the sight of Julia disappeared abruptly when he recognized Washington. Diamond felt uncomfortable sitting in the dining room with Julia’s uncle and aunt but tried to hide it. His father could not. Diamond’s Pa clenched his teeth as he reached to shake Simon’s large Black hand, which exacerbated Diamond’s anxiety. 

“Nice to meet you again,” Julia’s uncle said evenly as he squeezed Reverend Eliot’s outstretched fingers. 

Glancing down after releasing his grip, Reverend Eliot loudly cleared his throat and took his seat before the ladies. He sat at the head of the table across from Diamond’s Ma. Her white print dress patterned with red orchards seemed to hold up her thin body and made her face seem even more pale than usual. She smiled weakly across the table at Diamond and Julia as Reverend Eliot said something about God’s grace. Diamond’s red MAGA hat pushed back his shaggy hair. He and Julia sat across from her Uncle Simon and his wife who faced the picture window and the thick, dark Virginia woods behind the inn, which stood as monuments of past terror, markers of unpaid debts. 

“Red wine or whiskey?” Reverend Eliot asked the waitress. Diamond felt nervous. He had always relied on his father to lead the way for him. But watching his father now, a deep sense of insecurity swept over him. 

“Just water for me,” Simon said. Julia’s uncle dressed like an accountant with wire rimmed glasses and a white starched shirt. He didn’t possess the appearance of any Black man Diamond had ever met. The only Black men that Diamond had ever known were Mr. Carver, the seventy-year-old church maintenance man and Mr. Lee, the groundskeeper at the Eliot farm. A flash of guilt, like when you owe someone money but rationalize it is not important, rose and disappeared instantaneously within Diamond. 

“I’ll take a glass of the local white chardonnay, Aunt Lydia said. 

“So dear,” how do you feel being back on campus?” Diamond’s Ma asked Julia. 

Julia frowned as she faced her uncle and aunt. 

“The police have not been too helpful,” Simon said.

Reverend Eliot’s consummate fake smile evaporated. 

“I apologize for that,” Diamond’s Ma said. “They mistook you for one of those city protesters.” Diamond watched Washington’s expression closely. 

Simon squinted and frowned. “I was referring to their handling of the investigation.” 

Reverend Eliot, his wife, and Diamond sat questioningly. Diamond was not sure what Julia’s uncle was talking about. But years of poor school performance and low teacher expectations had taught Diamond not to search for answers to things he didn’t understand.         

As the conversation continued, Diamond fidgeted with his top button. He was impressed with Julia’s uncle. He spoke just like the college professors at the local Hollow County Community College, and, as the talk turned to football, he seemed to exhibit a good sense of humor. “Julia and I have an announcement,” Diamond eventually inserted. 

“Good timing,” the Reverend said as the drinks arrived. 

Diamond noticed Julia’s grimace and paused, waiting for reassurance. Diamond had convinced himself that he loved Julia, and it felt good. 

“Diamond, not now,” Julia said angrily. 

“Mr. Washington,” Diamond continued. “I’d like your permission to marry your niece.” 

Reverend Eliot choked on a piece of bread and coughed violently. 

Simon exhaled deeply, looking skeptical. “Well, young man…I’m not Julia’s father.”    

“Diamond,” Julia said sternly with a quick shake of her head. 

Like a truck traveling down a hill without breaks, Diamond pressed forward. His desire to be smarter and more successful and the thought that he could obtain those attributes through Julia was the magnet that pulled him to her. “I love her sir and will take care of her and the baby.” Diamond’s glance quickly captured his parents’ reactions. 

“Baby,” Simon, Lydia, and Diamond’s parents repeated loudly almost in unison. 

Salty tears streaked down Julia’s cheeks. Simon reached over and put his hand over hers. “What’s this?” He asked. 

Reverend Eliot frowned at his son and spoke coldly. “When the hell were you going to tell us about this?”  

Diamond squirmed. “I kept trying, but there never seemed to be the right time. Besides, I knew you and Ma would welcome Julia,” Diamond said haltingly with the recent discovery of Julia’s race still on his mind. Searching his father’s cold gray eyes for reassurance now, Diamond wondered how he could have misjudged the situation so wildly. His father’s sermons had lulled him into a false sense of grace. But now Diamond saw the twitch in his father’s right eye and tightly pressed lips as his Pa sat next to Julia’s uncle. 

“Another whiskey,” Reverend Eliot barked as the waitress placed a plate with herb-roasted chicken and fresh beans in front of Lydia.  

“I’m impressed young man, impressed you want to marry Julia and take care of the responsibility of a child in light of the circumstances.”

“Yes, mixed marriages can be difficult,” Diamond’s father said gruffly. Diamond recognized the anguish on Mr. Washington’s face. It was the same look he had seen on his grandfather’s face when the bank had foreclosed on his farm. 

Simon noisily sucked a ball of saliva from the back of his mouth and then swallowed it with a deep and controlled breath. 

“Babies are a blessing,” Diamond’s Ma said. Reverend Eliot nodded at his wife as he grabbed a fork and knife to attack the chunk of rare roast that the waitress had placed in front of him. 

Wet drops trickled silently down Julia’s smooth tan-colored skin. Diamond knew he could still love her. 

“Julia, is this what you want?” Simon asked. He smiled and spoke softly, but his inflections revealed skepticism. 

As if in a trance, Julia said ever so softly, “I’m not even sure it’s yours, Diamond.” 

Diamond sat motionless with a contorted grimace. 

“Does he know what happened at Phi Psi?” Simon asked his niece. 

She motioned no, and Diamond questioned her. She told Diamond the whole story starting with his call to her canceling their Friday night date the day of the Phi Psi party. 

Diamond felt like a heavy weight pressed against his lungs. He noticed that his father’s twitch had subsided. 

“How could I marry you now?” Diamond blurted out. 

Julia glared at him. “You were the one who made me feel like a criminal when I talked about an abortion.” You were the one who said babies are precious and that you would take care of us forever, no matter what.” Her voice cut like jagged glass. 

Diamond shook his head in disbelief. He rubbed the stubble of facial hair on his chin. She just didn’t get it, he thought. She was a vase with clearly exposed cracks. Her skin seemed blacker now than he ever noticed before. 

Simon noticed Julia’s anguished glare. She breathed loudly through flaring nostrils. Droplets of pain dance in her deep brown eyes, and it angered Diamond. Reverend Eliot scanned the room for their waitress. While the Reverend occupied himself with the bill, Simon turned toward his niece and whispered softly, “Sweet girl, for all the darkness outside, an eternal light illuminates somewhere, inside you, inside us all, even in the ghostly low moonlight, guiding us quietly towards places unknown to you, to me, but known – I am sure – to some higher force of destiny and justice.” Then, he turned to Diamond and his parents and slammed the bottom of his fork on the white tablecloth. “I suggest you leave now before I do something I’ll regret.”  

Reverend Eliot abruptly stopped chewing his meat. He quickly turned away from Simon and Diamond and summoned the retreating waitress. “What is this?” Reverend Eliot asked evenly with a hint of condescension, pointing to his unpaid bill. Diamond sighed, scared of Washington’s fury, uncertain of his own destiny, relieved of the heavy burden of loving Julia, and disgusted at how much like his father he had become. 



About the Author:

“Doug Canter is a Maryland-based writer and English teacher. His writing has appeared in Adelaide MagazineHedge Apple MagazineEvansville ReviewTalking Writing20-Something MagazinePublic Utilities Fortnightly, and Solstice Magazine’s Feature Blog, among others, as well as on the websites of the American Bar Association, Discovery Channel Tech, and Danya Institute. When he is not teaching or writing, Doug is walking the local trails on the C&O Canal near the Potomac River or riding his motorcycle. In 2011, Doug received a Master of Arts in Non-Fiction Writing from Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C.”