Read the prologue to Sins of Omission.
August 20, 1955
Alonzo Taylor crept past the Jacksonville Naval Air Station on US 17, keeping below the 55 mph speed limit. The sun turned a fiery red as it settled over the Florida peninsula, but the temperature was still 85 degrees, so he kept the window rolled down to provide ventilation.
A driver behind him flashed his beams and honked at him to speed up. Taylor maintained his speed, keeping his eye on the rearview mirror. When northbound traffic cleared, the driver sped around him, glared at him as he passed, then shook his fist and hurled an unheard epithet. He swerved back into the lane, almost clipping Taylor’s front bumper.
The anger didn’t bother him. He was accustomed to it. A white man could drive five, even ten miles above the speed limit without fear of being stopped. Let Taylor change lanes without signaling, drive with a broken taillight, or exceed the posted limit by even two miles per hour and he risked being pulled over. Once the officer realized who he was, he would spend his night in a cell.
He avoided driving after dark, but this was an exception. He had intended to leave the AME Church much earlier, but when the meeting concluded, the ladies circle offered dinner to the project coordinators. The women had spent their afternoon frying chicken, baking cornbread, and steaming carrots, zucchini, and okra. Even with the window fans running, the church kitchen was blazing hot. They had put themselves out. Taylor didn’t have the heart to walk away.
Bishop Faraday then asked him and several of his fellow pastors to spend another half hour discussing church district matters. Knowing that he had a long drive ahead, the bishop offered him his spare bedroom, but Taylor declined. He was only a part-time pastor, had to open his print shop early the following morning, and didn’t want to leave his wife and children on their own.
So here he was, alone on the open road as darkness fell, creeping down the highway toward home, and singing “Ride the Chariot” at the top of his lungs. For a moment, he forgot his anxiety and began to enjoy himself. He was alone and free, behind the wheel of his prized ’52 Studebaker Starlight. His parishioners joked that they couldn’t tell whether he was coming or going in that car. Taylor always answered that his brother had helped build the vehicle as it inched along the assembly line up in South Bend, and he would drive nothing else.
Taylor noticed the truck’s headlights as soon after he turned off the highway onto Raven Road. He didn’t know how long it had been behind him. It concerned him now only because of what it did not do. Though he was well below the limit, the driver did not try to overtake him, remaining a city block behind. He sped up; the truck matched his speed. He slowed down again; the driver backed off.
His chest constricted in panic. Then he decided that since the driver wasn’t trying to overtake him, he just meant to frighten him. Taylor recognized the techniques of intimidation. You didn’t register black voters in Hampton County without the midnight call, the anonymous note, the scrawled threat on your windshield. Still, he wished that it were any other night but Sunday so that he could pull into McHugh’s Service Station and stay until he felt safe.
Turning on his high beams, he drove through the corridor of slash pines, shifting his gaze from the road ahead to the truck behind and then to the speedometer. Aside from the feeble light provided by the crescent moon, only the two sets of headlights pierced the darkness.
The road snaked back and forth as it paralleled Gale Creek, then straightened out once he’d crossed the narrow metal bridge. Here things changed. The truck raced to close the gap between them.
He wants to get by, Taylor thought. He waited until he passed the curves. Taylor held his speed. The truck pulled within inches of his bumper. He sped up to increase the distance, but the truck closed again, blinding him with its brights. Perspiration beaded on his forehead and stung his eyes. He wiped it away.
There was nothing here. This was paper mill land with trees on both sides but no houses, no outbuildings.
He recalled a side road up ahead, dirt or gravel, perhaps a logging road. He hunched over the steering wheel to block out the reflection of the headlights, his hands gripping it until they were bloodless. He rolled up the window, a defensive impulse that his rational mind told him was futile.
There, a hundred feet ahead. He cut his wheel to the right, swerved toward the side road, but overshot the turn. He careened off the road, striking his chest against the wheel and his head against the windshield. The car jerked to a halt in a thicket of palmetto, canted to the driver’s side.
Alonzo Taylor sat there stunned, slumped over the steering wheel. Blood trickled down his forehead and into his right eye. The engine crackled as it cooled. Fluids drained from the radiator and oil pan. The truck reversed up the road, its gears whining. It braked to a stop. The only sound was the mating call of a barred owl: “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?”
Taylor had to get out and hide in the brush. He opened the car door, but it struck something soft, but unyielding, giving only a few inches. Bracing his feet against the door, he pushed upward on the passenger door. His left foot slid across the opening at the base of the door until it became lodged. His calf was wedged between the seat and the door. Taylor cried out in pain, then heard the men approach. He didn’t make out their words, but recognized one voice.
Trapped in the vehicle, he tried to curl up on the floor, twisting his leg as he stretched. Hie bit his lip to stifle a cry. felt his heart beating in his chest, tried to slow his rapid breathing. Everywhere was the smell of pine tar and muck and his own blood.
He heard them ease through the thicket, felt the car tilt further as someone leaned against it. “Is he dead?”
“There’s only one way to make sure. Here. It’s time you grew up.”
A moment of hesitation, of uncertainty, a muttered protest he couldn’t make out. Then the double pump of a shotgun. Alonzo Taylor heard nothing else.
© 2018, James H Lewis