KEITH THOMAS WALKER
As a rule, Asha never looked into coffins at funerals. She understood why the practice was necessary for some. But for her, the image only served to sully an otherwise pleasant memory of her loved one.
The option was never under consideration for Lil Richey’s service, so she was spared the torment of seeing her nephew one last time. Due to his small body lying undiscovered for a little over a week, coupled with other trauma his killer had inflicted, the funeral home decided a closed casket service would be more appropriate, and his mother agreed. Asha’s sister, Gloria, was as tormented as Emmett Till’s mother, but she was not of the mindset that the world needed to see what happened to her baby.
* * * * * * * * * *
Asha sat alone on the bleachers at the Hemphill Community Center, where the family had chosen to hold the repast. Gloria’s church had offered to host the gathering, but Emmanuel Baptist was a small building, and Lil Richey’s murder was national news. There were more than 200 mourners and over a dozen reporters at his funeral. The crowd hadn’t dwindled much since they transitioned to the community center.
The gymnasium smelled of fried chicken, butter rolls, pot roast and an assortment of pies that were set up in an adjacent game room that had been converted into a feeding area. The crowd moved from there to the gym, where they toted their paper plates and Styrofoam cups and conversed quietly. There were scarcely any smiles, even from the multitude of children dressed in their formal wear, who wished someone would bring out one of the basketballs that were racked behind the check-in desk. The gym had six perfectly good hoops mounted overhead. Why not let them kick off their church shoes and play with at least one of them?
Asha did not have a plate or Styrofoam cup in hand. She sat stoically, staring at the horde of people, but not really seeing any of them. Never one for dresses, she wore a black pantsuit with a white blouse. Her hair was shoulder length with frizzy curls. Her skin tone was very fair. Her eyes were bloodshot. They were dry but glossy at the moment. Tear stains left salt streaks down her cheeks. The smell of good cooking made her nauseous. She rose to her feet just as her sister’s pastor approached her. His features were comforting, as were his soft eyes, lined with crow’s-feet in the corners.
His hands were clasped together. Asha watched as they separated, and he reached for hers. She offered a hand and stared numbly as he enveloped it with his weathered paws.
“How you holding up?” he asked with a soft voice that was still robust.
She shrugged, looking into his eyes.
“I know this is a difficult time for you,” he said, “but the Lord promises a rainbow after every storm. This world we live in is full of torment and pain. As hard as it is to let him go, there’s no doubt Richey is in a better place.”
The pastor had already offered this assessment during his eulogy. It didn’t make Asha feel any better then, and it didn’t help now. The last time she saw Lil Richey, he was as happy and vivacious as any five-year-old child, just a few months shy of his sixth birthday. Asha couldn’t see how death was a better alternative to the many years of life and laughter that were brutally taken away from him – even if his death opened the gates of heaven.
“Do you mind if I pray for you?” the pastor asked.
Asha didn’t respond, but he began his prayer just the same. She didn’t intentionally tune him out as he spoke, but her gaze wandered and settled on the large mural that hung near the entrance of the gym. In addition to a larger than life picture of her nephew, the mural depicted images of his favorite things; soccer balls, basketballs, Hot wheels and Paw Patrol characters. A few people were standing before the mural, adding their goodbyes with one of the Sharpies the community center provided for well-wishers.
Asha’s eyes returned to the pastor, who was still praying, his head bowed. It was not lost on her that Lil Richey would still be with them today if another pastor hadn’t actually been a demon in disguise. She waited for the man of God to release her and say, “Amen.” Her head began to spin when the prayer didn’t end quickly enough.
She withdrew her hand and said, “I’m sorry, Pastor, but I have to go. I don’t feel good. I need some fresh air.”
The older man’s demeanor was awash with sorrow. He nodded.
“Okay, sister. Please come and find me when you come back in.”
“Okay, I will.”
She stepped past him and managed to make it to the front of the gym without anyone else stopping her. She paused at Lil Richey’s mural before she exited the gym. Other than the graphics, it was blank when she first arrived at the community center. Now it had nearly a hundred messages Richey could presumably read from heaven. Asha had yet to write anything on the mural, but she hoped to find the strength to do so before the repast ended.
* * * * * * * * * *
Outside, the sunlight was initially blinding, the heat equally stifling. With the July temperatures roaring past 100, the safe confines of the airconditioned community center was the only logical option, but Asha heard a few voices in the packed parking lot. She gravitated towards the sound and caught a whiff of cigarette smoke as she neared a small crowd of faces she recognized. They were all relatives, with the exception of the lone female. But Tristan had been with his baby-mama for so long, Asha considered Courtney family.
She stepped to the group and posted up next to her uncle’s Escalade. Her cousin Tristan sat in his Mustang with the door open. His girlfriend leaned next to him on the sleek, black ride. Asha’s other cousins Cedric and Broderick were there, along with her stepbrother Henry. Uncle Lucius sat in the open door of his SUV. Though all of them were sweating, their reason for being outside was apparent. Three of the men were smoking, and Tristan cradled a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue Label.
“What’s up, Asha,” he said and offered her the bottle.
She stepped forward and took it from him. Though her stomach was unsettled, and she’d never had a good experience with drinking in the heat, she turned the bottle up like she was at a house party. No one questioned the two man-size gulps she took before handing the bottle back to Tristan, but her uncle reached for it instead.
“Let me get that.”
She gave it to him and returned to her spot next to his Escalade.
Tristan watched her for a few beats before saying, “We out here talking about that pastor. You know he bonded hisself out last night…”
Asha nodded slightly.
“How the hell that motherfucker even get a bond?” Lucius wondered. “They should’ve threw that pervert up under the jail. Ain’t nobody who did that shit to some little kid should be walking around right now like a free man.”
Most of the people inside the community center would’ve found Lucius’ vitriol poisonous and self-defeating, especially on the day they laid Lil Richey to rest. But Asha had been waiting for someone to give voice to the torment in her heart.
“They didn’t have enough evidence to give him a higher bond,” she told him. “They barely had enough to arrest his ass.”
“They got that nigga on camera with Lil Richey in his car,” Lucius countered. “They got that video right after church camp ended that day. He ain’t have no business with my nephew in his damn car.”
“But that’s all they got,” Cedric said. “They didn’t find nothing in his house, and they didn’t find no evidence when they found Richey. This ain’t no strong case. It’s circumstantial.”
“The hell it is!” Lucius barked. “My nephew been going to that church for years, sitting in class with that motherfucker. Supposed to be hearing the word of God, but that molester prolly been peeping him the whole time, waiting for his chance to snatch him. He drive off church property with Richey in his car and don’t say shit about it for a week, while the whole city looking for him. You trying to say he ain’t do that shit?”
The look in Lucius’ eyes and the bulk of his frame would’ve made anyone agree to whatever he wanted them to, but Cedric didn’t need convincing.
“Naw, I ain’t saying that. I know he killed Richey.”
“He didn’t just kill him,” Lucius interjected. “He fucking raped him.”
Those words continued to make Asha’s body numb, no matter how many times she heard them.
“I’m just saying what them white folks on TV was saying,” Cedric continued. “They say it’s a weak case, and that’s why they couldn’t give him no high bond.”
“That’s buuullshit,” Lucius exclaimed. “White folks always looking out for each other, even if they protecting a goddamned pervert! You know they taking it easy on him, ‘cause he white, and he a pastor.”
“It ain’t that,” Asha said, shaking her head. “I saw it on TV too. Him driving off with Lil Richey don’t prove he killed him.”
Before Lucius’ response could catch up to his frown, Asha said, “I ain’t saying he didn’t do it, either. Everybody know he did it. Some other kids done came forward, talking about how he used to make comments and make them feel uncomfortable. But they don’t have enough evidence for this to be open and shut. That’s why they only arrested him for kidnapping and not murder. The DA said she’s hoping the detectives find more evidence, so they can hit him with another charge.”
“What if they don’t?” Tristan pondered. “What if what they got is all they gon’ get? They convict him of kidnapping, and he get what, like ten years? My little nigga gone, and that motherfucker get off?”
Tristan was rough around the edges, but the circumstances surrounding Richey’s death could make even the scariest goon tear up. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and the tears from his eyes with one palm sliding down his face.
“I don’t think he gon’ get off,” Courtney said. “You can’t do everything he did to Richey without leaving some kind of evidence. They gon’ find it, and when they do, they gon’ burn his ass.”
Asha nodded, slightly comforted by those sentiments. She was also comforted by the liquor that was now coursing through her bloodstream. She knew she’d regret it later, but she reached for the bottle again. “Gimme some more of that.”
Lucius handed it to her. “You want a square too?” He produced a pack of Newport’s.
Asha hadn’t smoked since before she got locked up, but she told him, “Shit, might as well.”
A few moments later, the headrush from the cigarette collided with the alcohol and the heat, and she leaned even heavier on the hot Escalade.
“You alright?” her uncle asked.
She shook her head, her tears falling anew. “Naw.” Her eyes slipped closed. “I don’t think I’m gon’ be alright until that man is convicted of murder. I wish somebody would’ve killed him when he got locked up. How they let him slip through like that?”
“He was probably in protective custody,” Lucius said knowingly. Other than Tristan and his woman, everyone in the group had wasted away a number of years in prison.
“If they don’t get him for murder, I’m liable to kill his ass myself,” Asha said, mainly to herself. Her declaration caused an uneasy silence to settle among the group.
Tristan broke it by saying, “You, Asha you just got out. You shouldn’t be talking like that.”
She opened her eyes and stared at him. “I’m serious. You don’t think he deserve to die for what he did to Richey?”
“I ain’t saying he don’t.”
“But you wouldn’t do it yourself?”
She knew she was asking the wrong person. Tristan’s small-time drug dealing led to a few arrests for possession and assault, but hadn’t even graduated to aggravated assault, let alone murder.
“I’m, I mean, if I was to do something like that, I wouldn’t do it myself. I’d probably hire somebody. I wouldn’t get my hands dirty like that.”
Asha continued to stare at him, her eyes cold now. “Hire somebody? Like who? You know somebody who get down like that?”
He shook his head. “No, not personally. But I know some people who know somebody.” His eyes narrowed as he watched his cousin. “But you shouldn’t be thinking about nothing like that either. Them laws ain’t through with that man. I bet in a couple of–”
“Hey, what y’all doing out here?”
Everyone looked back, surprised that someone had gotten so close without them hearing. When they saw who it was, they straightened their postures and put away the liquor, as if it was the police. Gloria warranted this respect, because none of the pain they felt was comparable to the anguish Richey’s mother had been through. Asha’s heart bled for her sister the moment they locked eyes.
When no one responded to her, Gloria singled out the person she was closest to.
“Asha, what’s going on? Why you out here?”
Asha shrugged. “Nothing, we just…” She shook her head. “We just, we just chilling.”
Gloria looked down at the cigarette in her hand before eyeing the people she was talking to. “Can you come back inside?” she asked her sister. “I need to talk to you.”
Asha nodded. She pushed off the car and dropped her cigarette.
“How you doing, G?” Lucius asked. “You know we all praying for you.”
“I’m okay, Uncle,” Gloria replied. “It’s day-to-day. Today’s been the hardest one so far. They keep saying things will get better, but I don’t see how.”
Asha and her sister weren’t physically similar. Mentally they were worlds apart as well. Gloria wore the look of a mother whose worst fear had been realized. During the week Lil Richey was missing, Asha had watched her beautiful spirit slowly wither away, as if it was being decimated by locusts. What stood before them now was a shell of the woman they had once known. Not only had Gloria lost weight, but she seemed to have aged ten years. Asha wondered if her sister would ever experience the true joy she had known before Richey was first reported missing.
“We here for you, if you ever need anything,” Courtney said.
“Yeah, we all are,” Cedric tacked on.
Gloria nodded and offered a cursory, “Thank you,” before turning towards the community center.
Asha wiped the sweat off her brow as she followed her.
* * * * * * * * * *
Inside the community center, Asha was greeted with cool, refreshing temperatures that made her wonder why she ever thought the sizzling heat was a better alternative. Gloria headed for one of the unoccupied weight rooms, rather than speak to her sister publicly. One of the staff members moved to cut her off, but she stopped short when she saw who it was.
“Oh, um, Mrs. Turner, you would like to use this room?”
“Yes, just for a minute. Is it alright?”
“Yes, of course,” the woman said. She quickly searched for the appropriate key on a keychain affixed to her belt. She unlocked the door and held it open for Asha and Gloria to enter. “If you need anything else,” she said, “please don’t hesitate to let me know.”
“Thank you,” Gloria said, without looking back.
Asha waited for the staff member to add the perfunctory, “I’m sorry for your loss,” but the girl didn’t.
The weight room had glass doors and walls, but with the door closed, their conversation was relatively private. Gloria turned to face her.
“How you feeling?”
Asha shook her head. “I’m the one who should be asking you that.”
“You’ve been worried about me for the past ten days,” Gloria replied. “I think it’s time for me to start looking out for other people.”
Asha continued to shake her head. “No, it’s not. That’s the last thing you need to be doing right now.”
Gloria sighed. “Yeah, it is, Asha. I still have a husband, two kids… And I’ve got you, and everyone else I care about. I need to know that you’re okay. I’m worried about you.”
Her compassion broke Asha’s heart and made her sick to her stomach. Her eyes were almost pleading when she said, “G, everybody in this building needs to be worried about you, not the other way around.”
Never one to mince words, Gloria said, “Asha, I heard what y’all were talking about out there.”
Asha’s emotional bank was nearly depleted. She didn’t have enough empathy to feign guilt.
“Why were you out there talking to them anyway?” Gloria wondered. “Not one of them has anything constructive to say at a time like this.”
Asha frowned. “They family, Sis. Just because they not in here crying don’t mean what they have to say doesn’t matter.”
“What did they have to say, Asha? How they let that motherfucker go? And Somebody need to kill that motherfucker…”
Asha’s mouth fell open, but a moment passed before she could respond. “And what’s wrong with that? Somebody does need to take care of him. If it’s ever been a time to kill, I know you know this is it.”
Gloria brought a hand to her face and rubbed between her eyes. When she withdrew her hand, her eyes were once again filled with tears. For the life of her, Asha couldn’t understand how her sister could possibly have any tears left.
“Do you remember when I came to that prison and asked if you were willing to be Richey’s godmother?” Gloria asked.
Asha nodded. “Of course I remember. It was one of the best days of my life. I cried so hard when you were there and kept crying when you left.”
“Do you remember why I made that decision?”
Asha did remember, but she didn’t respond.
“I told you that being responsible for another life,” Gloria said, “if something were to ever happen to me and Richard, should give you something to live for, a reason to do the right thing when you got out. You promised me you would never do anything to get you sent back to that place.” Her breaths came in shudders while she waited for her sister to respond, but Asha remained mute.
“So,” Gloria continued, “since Richey’s gone, you feel like you don’t have to keep that promise anymore? Was he the only reason you worked hard and bought a car, got your own place?”
Asha shook her head, her tears falling as well.
“Then why would you be out there talking about stuff like that on the day my son got put in the ground – the day your godson was buried?”
Asha was surprised to see anger in her sister’s wet orbs.
“If you loved Richey, like I know you did, you wouldn’t disrespect his memory by talking about murder. If he had anything to do with the transformation you made when you got out, then the best thing you can do right now is honor him by continuing on the path you started. That’s something you can do in his name. You out there drinking and smoking an hour after we buried my son… That’s not you, Asha. You know it’s not.”
Asha thought she didn’t have the wherewithal to register shame, but she was wrong.
“I’m sorry, G,” she said sobbing. “I’m sorry you heard any of that.”
“Don’t be sorry that I heard it, be sorry that y’all were thinking it. I need you to promise me that that conversation is over. That man will get the punishment he deserves. You don’t have to lift a finger to do God’s work.”
Asha nodded. She couldn’t stop her tears from falling. Neither of them could.
“I promise, Sis. I’m sorry.”
They came together and held each other for what felt like an eternity. Eventually, they rejoined the repast hand-in-hand.
* * * * * * * * * *
Asha remained at the service until the sun was starting to set and everyone said their goodbyes. She got the prayer the pastor was so insistent on, and she made sure to sign Lil Richey’s mural before they rolled it up and delivered it to his mother.
I know that your soul is at peace
and I can’t wait to see you again in the
afterlife. You will always be in my heart.
I love you more than words can say
When she made it to the parking lot, Asha spent another twenty minutes offering and receiving more hugs from relatives and well-wishers. When she finally broke away from them and headed to her car, she was surprised to see Tristan was still there. She approached his Mustang, and her cousin rolled his window down. Courtney sat next to him on the passenger side. The car reeked of marijuana, but there was no greenery currently lit.
“What’s up, Asha?” Tristan called. “You get in trouble with G earlier?”
“Naw,” Asha said, but she looked over her shoulder to make sure her sister wasn’t creeping up on her again. “It’s all good. Where you headed?”
“To the house,” Tristan said. “Gotta pick the kids up from her sister’s first. Why, what’s up?”
“I need to holler at you,” Asha told him. “Can you roll with me? I’ll drop you off at your place when we’re done.”
She was surprised by the look of foreboding that washed over her cousin’s face before he looked at his woman and said, “Say, I’ma meet you at the house in a little bit.”
Courtney told him, “Okay.”
They both opened their doors and exited the vehicle. Courtney moved to the driver’s side, and Tristan followed Asha to her truck.
© Keith Thomas Walker