Short Stories

The Last Sin of Solomon Earnest Phelps

It was overcast, with just a nip to the air, the November Tuesday afternoon they laid Solomon Earnest Phelps to rest. He went by Earnest or Ernie, and when people learned his christian name was Solomon, it wasn't a far perversion to silent or Silent Ernie, because he was a man of few words. He lived on the grounds of the Mt. Sinai Baptist Church and Cemetery that he had been the caretaker of since anyone still alive could remember. He had come to the little town of Colbert, Ar after the 2nd World War, when so much was in flux. He took the caretaker's job and moved into the old Parsonage that was empty since the widow James died and left her home in town to the church. He was known as a quiet and kind man, who, by all accounts led an unremarkable life.

The church lot was full of shiny pickup trucks and "hoopties" alike. Everyone came to pay their respects to the man who kept their parents graves clean and always had a pocket full of starlight mints for the kids. Silent Ernie had lots of friends for a man who didn't say much. Although he had come to pay his respects like everyone else in town, Buck Johnson had no use for the man they were laying to rest. Buck owned the areas largest farm equipment dealer that he had grown from a repair shop in his father's barn. He was twenty years Ernie's junior and on the surface the men couldn't be any more different. Buck was an ambitious man with a quick temper and a quicker laugh. He didn't volunteer for the army, but when his number came up he did his service in Vietnam. The army trained him to work on diesels, and when he came home he started taking care of farm equipment for folks in the area. He started buying used equipment that he could refurbish and sell and from there he was able to secure dealership agreements with several large manufacturers. The equipment business had been good to Buck and he had a nice house on

his family's acreage to show for it. He had a pretty wife and two handsome boys. There was a darkness to Buck that he did a good job concealing, but those close to him knew him to have peculiar bouts of melancholy. Nobody in Colbert knew the source of the darkness, or Silent Ernie's connection to it.

Buck got back to Colbert in 1972 after his time in the Army. He moved back into his old room in his father's home and tried to get back to some semblance of normal. He drank at the vfw with the old timers and the other

boys back from Nam, got a job at the service station and started taking in farm equipment to repair on the side out of the family barn. He seemed to be adjusting well to civilian life. He went on dates with a few of the home town girls, but he still carried a torch for Katie Williams. They had gone on a few dates in high school, she was flighty and a little too hippy dippy for the all American farmer's son. When he came up 1a she begged him to enroll in college in Memphis but he wouldn't hear of it. A few month's later he got called up and that was the end of the affair. When he returned home she was married to a riverboat man and had a year old son.

One day not long after he got back, Buck ran into Kate at the grocery. She was sporting a bruise poorly covered with concealer. She lit up when she saw Buck, but an uncomfortable silence was all that passed between them. They would run into each other a few more times and try to make small talk, but it was always awkward and seem to end abruptly. One night Buck was drinking at the VFW and Katie’s husband came in. His name was James Dunbar and he had done his service in the Navy. He was a rough, quiet man, who drank his Falstaff beer and smoked his unfiltered Camels in surly silence. Buck got involved in a conversation with a couple of the old timers and didn’t notice when James left. They held court until last call, and stumbled out to pickups and family sedans in the gravel parking lot.

On the way home Buck noticed Katie’s station wagon parked at the church. His first thought was to mind his own business, but his natural curiosity and the late hour meant that wasn’t an option. He pulled his truck in behind her wagon and stepped out. As he approached he could see her face was swollen and she was silently crying. The baby was on the seat next to her asleep. A few belongings were packed in the back. When she saw Buck she burst into a fresh round of hysterics. She rolled down the window and Buck was at a loss for words. “I’m leaving” she said, “I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m leaving tonight, before he kills booth of us”. Buck came around to the passenger side and slid in, holding the baby boy to his chest and took her hand. He didn’t say much and she spoke in bursts between sobs. They sat like this for over an hour. Buck convinced her to come to his family’s home at least until morning. He walked back to his pickup to lead the way when he saw headlights coming over the hill. He watched as the old ford flatbed headed toward him then turned off to point behind him. He was getting ready to step out and confront the driver when the truck made a last minute course change and slammed right into

the drivers door of his own truck. Buck slid across the bench seat and spilled out the passenger side door onto the gravel lot. Before he could get to his feet James Dunbar was reigning blows on his raised arms with an axe handle. Buck spun his prone body around to sweep the legs out from under his attacker. They struggled on the ground for a moment until Buck managed to get his attacker in a headlock. James fished a cheap switchblade form his pocket and began blindly slashing. Buck’s ears were ringing and he could taste coppery blood in his mouth. He barely felt the slashes where the knife found purchase. He squeezed harder until the slashing stopped. He released and waited for the man to come to but James Dunbar had drawn his last breath. He raised up in time to see the taillights of the wagon disappearing into the night.

Buck sat down on the ground and put his head in his hands, James' lifeless body on the ground next to him. He hardly noticed when Silent Ernie slipped up beside him. “Leave” he said. Ernie extended a hand and helped him up. “Leave now” he said. Buck didn’t know what to do, so he got in his truck and left. He stayed in bed the next day waiting for the Sheriff to come collect him. His emotions ran from fear to rage to shame and finally settled into a listless depression. He told his parents he had taken a fall down a ravine coon hunting with some of the boys, though he wouldn’t say who. After a few days he showered up and ventured out. He went by the house where Katie and James lived and there was no sign of anyone. He walked in the door and was immediately repulsed by what he saw. Food rotted on the table buzzing with flies. There was sign of struggle, beer cans and ashtrays scattered over the floor. He walked out the back door and vomited on the ground, got in his truck and left. He drove to the church and knocked on Ernie’s door.

Ernie ushered Buck into his little house and offered him coffee from the percolator on the little stove. They sat in silence until Buck said “What now?”. Ernie said “What now is, you get on with your life, don’t think about her, don’t think about what you did, he is buried and this is buried. There will be a day to pay the debt but it is not today."

The darkness finally started to lift from Buck the following spring. He was afraid to ask too much about Katie and James, but the rumor was that they had just taken off in the night. They were behind on rent, in debt and unhappy so none was surprised. Buck checked newspapers from the surrounding areas for awhile, hoping for a some word, but stopped after a

few months. The days went by. When he wasn’t working at the service station he repaired farm equipment out of his father’s barn. He invested in a combine that needed some work, got it running and sold it, then another. Before long her was renting a building on the edge of town. First it was Ford tractors then a New Holland dealership. He was dating a farmer’s daughter, Elizabeth, and they were soon engaged. Her father invested in the business and it boomed. He rarely thought about that night directly, but it was always lurking around the corner. The relentless nature of raising a family and running a business kept it at bay. The years brought him two fine sons who were his pride and joy. Life was good, but in the quiet hours sometimes he thought about Katie and the baby boy. Every so often he would awake from a nightmare in a cold sweat.

One day he was paid a visit by Ernie. Buck was apprehensive, but smiled and showed him to his modest office. Ernie looked uncomfortable, but had a steely glaze to his eyes that made Buck uncomfortable. “What can I do you for Ernie?” Never one to waste words Ernie got right to the point. “Put me on the payroll” he said. Buck asked if he was needing a job, and Ernie replied: “No, but you will put me on your payroll. I told you the day would come to pay the debt, today is that day. Pay me what you pay one of your mechanics, with annual raises and benefits” Buck stood up from his desk and said “I think its time for you to leave.” Ernie tossed a packet of papers on the desk. “You will find the direct deposit information, social security numbers and anything else your book keeping requires. You owe this debt.” Buck slammed the office door behind him and sat at his desk with his head in his hands.

Sleep did not come easy to Buck that night. He told Elizabeth that he had indigestion and he went downstairs and sat in his den. He poured bourbon is a glass and stared out the window into the fields. He was a happily married man, a successful business man and a pillar of their small community. Ten years had passed since the incident. On good days he could go on like it never happened. Did he really owe a debt? By all counts it would have been self defense, a justifiable homicide. Why didn’t he just call the Sheriff then? Why did he leave himself in the hands of a quiet cemetery caretaker? He had no answers. He wrested with it until dawn. Refusing Ernie meant bringing the whole thing to the surface. He didm;t know where Katie was or if she was even alive so it would come down to his word against Ernie’s. He was sure the caretaker would surely have no trouble producing a body. Even if he won the legal battle it could ruin his

family, his business and his standing in the community. He decided it would be best for everyone involved to give into this blackmailing son of a bitch.

It wasn’t near as hard as he though it would be. He went to his book keeper Carl, a friend from the VFW and brother in the Mason’s lodge, and told him he needed to set up a “ghost” employee with a direct payroll deposit to a Memphis bank. Benefits and beneficiaries were a name he had never heard of. It was just as well because Buck just wanted this behind him. Carl asked what was the nature of this strange circumstance, but when Buck answered that he didn’t want to talk about it Carl honored his friend’s request. This person that Ernie had designated, or made up, would be receiving a starting salary of $30,000 a year and a tidy package of benefits.

Whenever Buck thought about the salary he was paying to a ghost it stuck in his craw, but he hardly had time to think about it. Business boomed in the following years and he expanded to a second location in Marion. His wife attended the little church Ernie tended to, but Buck had never really been a church goer anyway, so it wasn’t hard to avoid it. He would occasionally run into Ernie at the hardware store or around town and he would give him a cold stare. Ernie returned his look with sad resignation.

Now here he sat at the blackmailing son of a bitch’s funeral. People got up and told stories of Ernie’s generosity. How he took care of widow’s yards and delighted the children. Buck was fuming about the hero’s wake this conniving bastard was getting but he played it cool. He went home that night and poured a glass of bourbon. He was comforted with the thought that next week when Carl came by the office he would “terminate” this “ghost” employee. One thing bothered Buck, why had Ernie stayed in the crummy little shack on the edge of the cemetery? Why had he kept the caretaker’s job when he had a salary coming in for nothing? It didn’t matter now, Buck thought, no use dwelling on it. That night he dreamt of a girl with bruises on her face and tears inner eyes. He dreamt of a baby boy with no father and no future. Despite his anger with Ernie he woke up crying and he wasn’t even sure why.

The next morning Buck arose and got ready for work. He arrived at the shop promptly at 8:15 every weekday morning, rain or shine, excepting holidays and the first day of deer season, if it happened to fall on a

workday. His secretary handed him an envelope that she had found on the door that morning with Buck’s name on it. He quickly took it into his office and closed the door. It read:

Mr. Johnson,
If you are reading this I am no longer. I am sure you are considering this the end of your debt from so many years ago. You are nearly correct, but there is one more task that is required of you. Please go to the St. Andrew’s home for boys on Tennessee street in Memphis, TN on any Friday and ask for William James. Tell him you came for the letter and he will know what to do. Once you have completed this task consider your debt paid.
Solomon Earnest Phelps

That Friday Buck told his secretary he had business in Memphis and got in the shiny GMC truck he bought last year and headed towards I40. He got into memphis around 10AM and headed for the home on Tennessee street. It was a fine old Victorian home with a 6 foot chain link fence around it. He stopped at a speaker in front of the gate and told the lady on the other end he was there to see William James. She buzzed him in and he wheeled the big Jimmy into a parking space marked “visitor” and stepped inside. A kindly but serious looking black lady around the age of 60 (he couldn’t tell for sure) told him William, or Bill as he was known as there, would be up in a minute, and to take a seat. Buck was anxious and remained standing. In a few minutes a young man walked in and extended his hand. Buck took it and noted a firm, but not too tight, grip. Bill motioned him back to an empty classroom down the hall.

They sat across a small table from each other in an awkward silence that seemed to last forever. Finally Buck spoke. “I don’t know where to start, but I’m hoping you can help me get to the bottom of a mystery.” Bill said “I’m hoping you can do the same”. Buck introduced himself, told Bill about his service in Vietnam and about his business in Colbert and now in Marion. He didn’t mention Ernie or their secret. He asked Bill to tell him about himself.

“I was made a ward of the state at the age of 2 when my mother passed away. I don’t know much at all about her. I entered the foster system and bounced between homes until I was 4. Some of those were not very nice

experiences. My last set of foster parents were basically a warehouse for children in exchange for the government checks until they just didn’t come home one day. A man named Ernie brought me here and I stayed until I turned 18. He came every couple of weeks to check on me and I begged him to take me home with him, but he said he could not. He brought clothes and toys and books for all of the boys here. I was never adopted, but its fine, because this is my home. As the years went by I saw less and less of Ernie. When I graduated from high school I got a letter from him stating that I had an account at the University of Memphis in addition to the scholarship I had received. I’m studying history and I want to be a teacher. I help out here on Fridays. I got a strange letter a few days ago that included one for you. Here it is."

Buck took the letter and opened it:

Mr. Johnson,
I hope this letter finds you well and me dead. I know you probably think ill of me. You have every right too. I found you in a vulnerable spot, I took advantage of you and I deceived you. Right or wrong, I leave that to God to decide, I had my reasons.
I was raised in the home you are now in. It wasn’t always good, but my needs were met. When Pearl harbor was bombed I joined the army. I participated in the invasion of France. While I was there I committed an act that haunted me for all of my days. I killed a man. That in and of itself is not unusual in war. This particular man snuck into our camp on my watch. Admittedly I was tired from marching on half rations and falling asleep. I thought the Germans were sneaking up on us. It was a French family, just looking for food. The Father was dead before he hit the ground. There is not a day or sleepless night that goes by that I don’t think about what happened to them after they scattered into the woods. It was an accident of circumstance, but I carried that burden through my days. I suspect you have carried a similar burden, not for the man you killed but for the innocent child. Katie died a year after the incident of a barbiturate overdose. I have maintained ties with St. Andrews over the years and helped where I could. William came here at the age of 4 after a few rough foster experiences. I learned what I could and I believe to my soul that is Katie’s boy who stands before you now.
I had no right to do what I did. I took advantage of your success. I took none of the money for myself. I set up the account and benefits for the boy through housemates from my St. Andrew’s days that took up vocations in

moral gray areas. William and all of the boys at St. Andrews benefited from your unwitting generosity. A fourth of the money was put in a trust for William’s education. I hope this in some way eases the burden you have carried these years and possibly softens the sting of my deceit.

I don’t know if I will answer to God for what I have done or if there is a God to answer to. I have seen too much evil to believe, but too many miracles not too. The man that stands before you is his own man, full of strength, goodness and light. Perhaps it was in the seed, but you provided the water, whether you knew it or not. I thought about telling you where to find him, but what would have become of both of your lives? In my feeble mind this was all for the best. Your secret has gone to the grave with me. Consider yourself released form any obligation to William or myself to continue our arrangement.

Solomon Earnest Phelps

Buck sat the letter down on the table before him and felt faint. He had blocked that night from entering his consciousness for so long. He thought about Katie, his dear Elizabeth and his own boys. He looked at Bill before him and wondered how much he knew or should know. Buck, like so many men of his time and place, was not a man of words. What would he say? Where would he start? The young man before him deserved answers, and Buck wasn’t sure he had them. Bill had waited this long so maybe there was no urgency, though it certainly didn’t feel that way. He thought about his own father’s advice stalking deer in the bottoms. “Breathe, one foot in front of the other, you have all day not to spook him.” Where would he even start? Buck looked across the table at Bill and said “Son, have you ever had Payne’s BBQ?" 

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