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Death and Dr. Moore

Sylvester Dawson’s barbershop was quiet and empty. It was uncommon for the summer day, where customers usually sat sweating in hot towels from noon till five, waiting for that first cool breeze to hit the backs of their freshly trimmed necks.    

            When Dr. Moore drove his convertible to the shop, he seamlessly parked it just in front of the spinning barber’s pole, walking through the doors and into the green leather chair.    

            “The usual, Dr. Moore?” Sylvester said.   

            “Please,” Dr. Moore replied, smoothing down his mustache.    

            The air was cool and quiet in the shop as Sylvester threw the white blanket over Dr. Moore’s torso. “Why so empty, Sylvester?” Dr. Moore asked with a grin. “You do some bad business lately?”   

            There was a strange quiet in the shop, broken only by whirring radio static, and the intermittent grunt of Mac, Sylvester’s assistant, flicking between audio channels.  

“Bet it’s cause a’ that murder,” Mac mumbled, slowly turning the dial.    

            “Murder?” Dr. Moore asked, his brow furrowed.   

            “Yessir,” Mac said, his eyes widening. “They done found the police chief’s brother this mornin’, dead an’ buried.”   

            “Mr. Cogswell,” Sylvester murmured, trimming the hair behind Dr. Moore’s ears. “…A damn mystery.”    

            The news coverage broke through with the tinny voice of the downtown reporter, met with a yelp of celebration from Mac. He set the radio down in triumph in the center of the barbershop as Sylvester stilled his scissors.   

            “…bringing you the continued scene in Birmingham, Alabama, where a body has been identified in an old graveyard just outside the city. Police investigators are seeking information about the suspect from any citizen who can step forward.”   

            “You know how they’re sayin’ they found him?” Mac whispered; his hand halfway stretched across his mouth. “Rumor is he was found buried from the chest down, his hands tied up tight behind his back.”   

            “From the chest down?” Dr. Moore asked, his voice slightly wavering.   

            “Mighty strange,” Sylvester said, shaking his head. “Strange and unnatural.”           

A brief silence then, before Mac piped up: “I don’t reckon anyone ‘round here is confused on why it’s happened, though. We all remember the Jackson murders. You remember   

‘em, don’t you, Sylvester?”   

             “Sure do,” Sylvester replied, grimly.    

            Dr. Moore stayed silent, and Sylvester took that to mean he didn’t know what had happened.    

            “Just a few years back,” Sylvester said, “Cogswell went onto Charlie and Sadie Jackson’s farmhouse. Sorry thing, with their boys an’ all. He killed da’ momma and daddy quick. All over just a little debt.”   

 “Course,” Mac said, looking at Dr. Moore and clicking his tongue. “We all know the real reason why.”   

            The three men nodded independently of one another, lost in thought and grief.    

             The color of their skin.    

 *  *    

 Three years earlier, before heading to Sylvester’s, Dr. Moore found himself in another parking lot: Samuel Moore’s Funeral Home, his own decade-old business, marked with a freshly placed reserved parking placard. He picked up his briefcase and took the short walk to the doors, locking his car behind him.   

            He was the youngest funeral director in town: his brand new’65 Ford convertible in champagne beige, a flawless match to his earth-toned suits and Italian shoes. And although there were older funeral homes in town, including the reigning Thompson & Co. or Gerard & Sons, customers flocked to Moore’s for its style and affordability.    

            Just before entering the building, he noticed a young black boy sitting on the steps, his arms wrapped around his knees. His eyes were red and puffy, like he’d been crying, his lower lip trembling in the early morning sunlight.   

             “What’s wrong, young man?” Dr. Moore asked the boy, who couldn’t conjure up a reply.   

“Why don’t you come inside and sit for a spell?”         

            Dr. Moore grabbed a glass of milk and a plate of cookies from the home’s kitchenette, placing them on the small table beside the thick velvet armchair.  

“Why don’t you sit down, son?”           

The boy sat and nodded. 

 “Do you know who I am?” Dr. Moore asked, hoping to make him feel at ease. “I’m—”    

“You’re Doctor Samuel Moore,” the boy said, his voice wobbling. “Everybody knows who you are.”   

            Dr. Moore came and sat across from the boy, reaching for a cookie. “That’s right. I’m Dr. Moore. I’m glad to meet you. I run this funeral home. What’s your name, son?”   

            “Jimmy Jackson.”   

            “Please to meet you, Jimmy Jackson,” said Dr. Moore. “Now, it sure is early to be sittin’ all alone outside funeral houses. Why’d you come all the way out here to find me? Did your folks send you?”   

            “My folks are dead,” said Jimmy, his eyes brimming with tears. “Jack Cogswell killed them.”   

            Dr. Moore straightened up, the hair on the back of his neck standing on end.   

            “I’m going to kill him,” the boy whispered, his face resolute. “He’s going to pay for what he did.”   

            Dr. Moore sat frozen, unsure of how to proceed. “Now, son… I know you’re upset. It ain’t right what’s happened. But revenge never helped a man. All it can do is put more anger in your heart. And anger on top of anger—"   

            “I don’t care!” Jimmy yelled now, his tiny voice loud, his hands tightly gripping the armchair. “It ain’t right! …It’s just my brother and me. Doctor. And I promised him. I promised him I’d make it right. And I came here ‘cause I thought you could help me. I thought…” The boy looked around, already aware this wasn’t a place of weapons and traps, before hanging his head low. “I guess I wasn’t thinkin’ clear, is all. About what it meant.”                

            Dr. Moore tried to hide his shock. “Now, Jimmy. Killing is big talk. You know you’d go to jail for a long time if you did something like—”    

            “Mr. Cogswell didn’t go to jail. He got off with nothing,” Jimmy interrupted, his voice rising. “He’s out there right now, living for free like it’s nothing!”   

            Dr. Moore let him breathe heavily for a moment, and his shoulders relax. “Son, I can promise you we’ll make this right. It won’t be with revenge and murder, but I promise you, son, we’ll make it right.”   

            “How?” Jimmy asked him. “Tell me how.”   

              “We’ll talk about it later, Jimmy. I promise. In the meantime, you have to head on home. We’ll talk — but you need to promise me you’ll wait till we talk before you do anything wrong. You need to promise me you won’t do anything to Mr. Cogswell, now. All right?”   

            Jimmy stared at the floor. “Alright.”   

            “Let me drive you there, son.”   

                                                                                                        *  *   

 The dogwood trees whizzed past them on either side of the road. The boy, unaccustomed to sitting in the passenger seat of such a fine automobile, stared straight ahead. Jimmy had started to get into the back, thinking it was his proper place, but Dr. Moore was having none of that and insisted he join him up front. Just a few miles down the old dirt road, past the final telephone wire, and there they were: pulling up the long drive to the old shotgun house.  


            “Jimmy Jackson!” She bellowed, throwing open the porch screen door. “Where in the world have you been?!”   

            The boy shrunk a bit against her tone, looking up at Dr. Moore with shy eyes. She stuttered a bit seeing the white man on the porch, her breath catching in her throat. “Mister… I— has Jimmy here done somethin’ wrong?”   

            “Not at all. I’m sorry to drive up here unannounced. My name is Dr. Samuel Moore. I own the funeral home up on Main.”   

            “Carolyn Johnson,” the woman offered nervously, her gaze shifting back and forth, then settling upon the boy with worried eyes. “His aunt. What was my Jimmy doin’ all the way….?”   

            “Found him outside on the steps, ma’am. Just thought I’d bring him home.”   

            Aunt Carolyn’s lips tightened as she looked hard at Jimmy. “Get on inside now,” she said to him in a low voice, “and wash up for breakfast.”    

            Jimmy went in without a word, and Carolyn watched him as he went. “I’m mighty sorry for any trouble,” Carolyn said, looking at Dr. Moore apologetically. “It’s been a hard time   

‘round here for them boys. It’s been hard handlin’—"   

            “There’s no need to apologize, Miss Johnson.” Dr. Moore interrupted. “I understand completely. Might I come in?”   

            If Carolyn was surprised at a white man rolling up the drive with her nephew, she was more surprised he wanted to come into her home. She watched him: his fancy suit, his fine watch, his sparkling-clean-rich-man-car set in the front yard, and only due to the worry in her head for Jimmy, asked him. “Why don’t you come on in for some eggs and toast? It’s the least I can do for you, bringin’ Jimmy home an’ all.”   

* * *   

Dr. Moore sat at the wooden kitchen table, the house clean as a whistle. His chest tightened with sorrow as he looked at the portraits — Jimmy and his brother, family portrait smiles, the deceased couple’s wedding portraits — still hung around the house. Dr. Moore could hear the boys running at full speed upstairs, their energy immune to early morning, racing one another to the faucet.   

Most of the house décor seemed generic. The pillows were fluffed, the tablecloth pressed; nothing out of place. Behind the sofa, in the living room Dr. Moore notice a portrait of Carolyn with the boys, smiling on the front porch steps. Placed carefully next to it was a framed degree from Yale bearing her name in looping gold letters.   

“Surprised, Doctor?” Carolyn grinned, walking up behind him as he looked closely at the certificate.   

“I shouldn’t be,” Dr. Moore replied, quickly averting his gaze. “I was just looking around".   

He felt ashamed of himself and didn’t want Carolyn to think badly of him. He feared being seen as similar to the rest of the racist folk in town.  

“I wouldn’t blame you if you were,” Carolyn sighed, a slight weariness in her voice. “Not many people expect someone like myself to have a Masters from Yale University. Especially now with these three boys runnin’ round. I’m an elementary school teacher for now. Brookville.”   

“There must be some way to make use of that degree,” Dr. Moore said, worrying he was digging himself into a hole. “Although…I went to Penn, myself, and I still work all day with dead bodies. Not my wildest dream, even if it is incredibly lucrative.”   

Carolyn laughed; a bit weakly.   

“I’m a black woman in the South, Dr. Moore. You can probably imagine the odds I’m up against.”   

Dr. Moore stared at her, a slight warmth growing in his throat. There was something about Carolyn: the way her eyes held a joy behind their sadness, the way she smoothed her sweater down over her jeans, and within her soul, a strength that he admired.    

“And Mr. Johnson?” Dr. Moore asked her. “What does he do?”   

They locked eyes just for a moment. A lightning flash.   

“No mister anymore. He passed on about five years ago.”   

“I’m so sorry,” Dr. Moore said. “I can’t imagine so much tragedy in such a small amount of time.”   

“Thank you, Dr. Moore,” Carolyn replied.   

“Please, call me Samuel.”   

“Samuel,” Carolyn said, her gaze softening under his familiarity.    

Dr. Moore looked down at her degree, and then to the portrait. “It’s a mighty wonderful thing you’re doing for these boys, Miss Carolyn.”   

He thought about how much weight had been placed onto her shoulders because of Mr. Cogswell’s actions and clenched his fists. That man was still walking free, and Miss Carolyn and the boys deserved so much better than that.  

She smiled. “I hear the boys coming down the stairs. Let’s sit, and we can discuss more about Jimmy after. If you’re able, that is.”   

* * *   

After breakfast, the boys’ loud steps retreated from the top of the stairs.    

“Alright, Samuel,” Carolyn said, pouring him a final cup of coffee. “Tell me about Jimmy. Should I be worried?”   

“No. Not at all. Quite the contrary. I find him to be extraordinarily bright.”   

Carolyn smiled, taking a sip of coffee. “He’s a good boy. Smart. But… he’s been troubled.”    

“I see.” Dr. Moore said, feeling a pulse of unexpected rage as he wondered how anyone could harm such an innocent boy’s life.   

Carolyn continued. “He misses his folks. He’s been taking it the hardest. Harder than his brother. He was close to his parents. He loved them. My brother was a good, good man — a good father — and Jimmy… He seems suddenly infatuated with death. I understand, sadly, why he was at your doorstep. Probably hoping some ghosts would walk around the corner…”  

 Her smile faded as she looked out the window. Dr. Moore wasn’t sure what to do.   

“I admit, I wasn’t sure what to do when I saw him sittin’ out there. Thought maybe I knew him, or that maybe he was sent over by somebody. He told me about his family.”   

“It’s senseless,” said Carolyn, lost in swirling her cup of coffee. “It was a senseless, violent, racist act. And now he’s got nobody.”   

“Well,” Dr. Moore said, “he’s got you."   

* * *   

A full hour went by before they went their separate ways. Dr. Moore paused in the doorway. “I would really like to do this again sometime. Talk to you. Or maybe take you and the kids out to dinner?”   

Carolyn’s shoulders tensed. She hugged her middle and leaned against the wall. “You sure about that, Samuel? We’d be a bit of…an odd match.”   

Dr. Moore looked at her seriously. “I don’t think so, Miss Carolyn. I don’t care a lick about it, neither.”   

Dr. Moore smiled, though he secretly felt sad that skin color even had to be a part of the discussion in this town.  

She smiled too. “I’d like that, Samuel.”   

He tilted his hat to her, closing the screen door gently. “Good day, Miss Carolyn.”    

            As Dr. Moore left, he realized he hadn’t wanted to hold and be near someone like that for a very long time.   


Two days later, Dr. Moore returned to Jimmy’s run-down house and put a proposition to Carolyn. He would take Jimmy on in the funeral home as a general assistant. He told Carolyn it was because he needed the help, but in reality, he had and entirely different motive.  

           Carolyn was reluctant at first: “You think folks in this town want a black boy taking care of their dead bodies?” And “Do you really think that would be good for him?”             Before slowly warming up to Dr. Moore’s idea: “Don’t worry, Miss. Carolyn. He can learn everything in the back rooms, safely out of sight. It won’t be a problem — and he’ll stay out of trouble…”             And finally, her agreement: “Well, fine, as long as you can drive him to and fro, you’ve got yourself a deal. The boy needs a college fund an’ all…” 


On his first day, Dr. Moore took Jimmy on a tour of the funeral home: its twists and turns, its restricted areas, its ceremony spaces. He monitored the boy closely: taking note of how he didn’t flinch when he was brought into the mortuary, where a dead woman lay still under a white sheet. He watched as the boy studied the trays of sterilized tools, comfortable and still in the cold dead air.Dr. Moore walked round to the other side of the embalming table, pulling the sheet from over the face all the way to the woman’s chest.             “This is the first part of the process, Jimmy. It’s all clinical, and scientific, of course. But we honor the life of the deceased. We treat them with honor and dignity. The dust returns to the earth as it was—"                                                                           * * *   Jimmy was a fast learner. He was keen and willing, and Dr. Moore enjoyed working with him. He had deft hands and a strong stomach and was calm and caring when involved in his work; something Dr. Moore knew was impossible to teach. This boy was special; he was kind and careful, retaining large amounts of information quickly, and keeping the tools clean and organized. He was punctual, and eager, a perfect assistant in every way.             Dr. Moore began to enjoy his presence. He was so used to the solitude of the morgue: a quiet that was only infrequently interrupted by his puttering office admin, Mrs. Morrison.              An old, frazzled, and warm woman, she usually pestered Dr. Moore with needless questions such as how many lollipops to add to the reception hall, or what brand of cleaning products to order for the bathrooms. But despite her interesting manner, he enjoyed working with her: her presence comforting and constant after 12 years together sharing the same lonely space. She was a warm face to a quiet and cold business, and the people in town loved her for this demeanor, which they saw as a salve for their aching hearts.             It was why, when she crossed her arms after first encountering Jimmy’s presence in the morgue, holding a scalpel like it was a part of his own hand, it was such an unexpected blow to Dr. Moore.           “I’m not sure it’s right, Doctor,” Mrs. Morrison said, her voice as shrill as a squawking bird. “If people found out… well, I daresay they wouldn’t like it.”           Dr. Moore put his tool down, steering Mrs. Morrison out of earshot. “I’m going to train the young man up,” he whispered. “After that, he’ll most likely head over to Gaston’s to continue his professional vocation. He’s been through a rough time. He’s a natural.”             “Why can’t he go off to Gaston’s now, then?” She replied, wringing her hands.             “I’m not sure what you mean, Mrs. Morrison.” Dr. Moore said, furrowing his brow.             “I just don’t understand why he can’t start off there, that’s all,” said Mrs. Morrison. “Those are his people, after all.”             In all their years together, Dr. Moore had not realized quite how backwards Mrs. Morrison was. He thought about Jimmy’s small face and hands, the horror discrimination had already brought into his life, reflected in Mrs. Morrison’s gaze. It did not sit easy with him.             “Mrs. Morrison, you and I are friends,” said Dr. Moore. “Please don’t let this come between us. Jimmy will be my apprentice for some time, and I need you to treat him well. Do you understand me?”           Mrs. Morrison sighed, staying quiet and retreating to her office to sulk. Dr. Moore wasn’t sure if Jimmy noticed.                                                                         * * *   Three years passed, and Jimmy had grown almost two feet taller. He had grown into his full head of hair and his lanky legs, starting to wear old tee shirts from his dad’s closet. The two sat cleaning, Jimmy resigned and quiet.            “Would you like to know,” Dr. Moore asked, folding the cloth in his hands, “the real reason I took you on as my assistant that day?”            Jimmy nodded, confused. “Sure,” he said, polishing.             “How’re your feelings now, towards Mr. Cogswell?” Dr. Moore asked.  

                                                                              ** *      Dr. Moore smiled on the car ride over, Jimmy in the passenger seat, enjoying the ride to the Grace Hill Cemetery.           “What a great day to be above the grounds,” he said to himself amidst laughter.  

         He took a turn off the main road, slowing down through the gates of the high-end cemetery and over the immaculate grounds. The tombstones were perfectly aligned, symmetrical marble arches all gleaming against the sun. The grass was so green, it almost looked artificial, and tall dogwood trees lined the outer perimeter of the cemetery, scattered leaves fallen here and there.            Dr. Moore parked and met the groundskeeper, an old and grim friend. Their conversation was swift: prepare the grave and the implements, and never tell a soul. It had been a long time since they had made such an arrangement. But as the two nodded, shaking hands, the deal was signed. Justice would be dealt, even if through unorthodox channels.     

                                                                             * *   Mr. Cogswell blinked and spat as the black hood was yanked off. It took him a moment to adjust to the sun, for his blurry vision to become clear as the drug wore off.            “What’s.…” he muttered groggily, the cold air whipping against his cheeks. As his eyes came into focus, he could make out the distant shape of pine trees, silhouetted against the growing twilight. Underneath him, the scratch of dirt and weeds, the poking up of grass through gravel.            And then he saw them: tombstones, towering up at him from all angles.            “Hey! HEY!” he panicked, struggling desperately to free himself: kicking his legs, throwing his arms — but it was to no avail. The earth was packed tightly around him, packed up to his chest. He was trapped. “Samuel!”             “Ah. So, you remember my name.” Dr. Moore said as he stepped out into view. “You’re right. I’m half of the equation, you see. We threw you in the back of a car and injected you with a lovely concoction to calm you down. Now, it seems you’re here.”             “Who’s this we?” Cogswell said, struggling against the binds and earth. His wrists were tied tightly behind him with rope.            Jimmy joined Dr. Moore. He stood quietly; the saline bag mixed with a drug, deadly but undetectable in an autopsy, held gingerly against his thigh.             “Who the fuck are you?” Cogswell asked.            Jimmy smiled. “Took me a long while to find your family, Mr. Cogswell,” said Jimmy, pointing to a line of tombstones. “They’re all here, Mr. Cogswell. Waiting here for you.”             “You don’t know who you’re dealing with,” said Cogswell, his eyes bulging out of his head.            “Untie me at once and get me out of here now!”            “That won’t be possible, Cogswell.” Dr. Moore said. “Have you made arrangements in the event of your death?”            “My brother is the mayor!” Cogswell shouted. “You both will get the chair if you do anything to me, all this talk of arrangements. Stop this foolishness, Samuel, and get this boy to untie me immediately.”            “Hmm,” Dr. Moore said, looking to Jimmy. “Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure Cogswell recognizes you.”            “No,” Jimmy said, staring intently into Cogswell’s eyes. “What’s one poor black kid from another?”            A flash of recognition crossed Cogswell’s face. “It’s you,” he said softly. “That Jackson boy.” He threw his head back and laughed, a sharp, scattered tone. “Is that what this is all about? You wanted to…embarrass me?”            “I saw you do it,” Jimmy said, his face dark and blank. “Now, it’s your turn to be punished.”            “You wouldn’t dare,” said Mr. Cogswell said smugly.            Jimmy crouched, hooking the saline bag into the line. It traveled from the bag straight to Cogswell’s neck, who hadn’t noticed its presence until now.            “What the fuck is that?!” Cogswell shouted, yelling now. “HELP! Somebody, HELP ME!”           “No use yelling now, Cogswell,” Dr. Moore said. “I think you’ll find the employees are off duty for the evening. You see, Jimmy here’s been trainin’ with me. I’m a mortician and funeral director. This here, Cogswell, is your funeral.”            Cogswell shouted, panic setting into his eyes, but he was already swiftly being subdued by the drug. “Just wait until I get my…hands on you…You psychotic…bastards…” Until his voice couldn’t be registered.             Dr. Moore stepped away towards the car, but Jimmy stayed until the light left Cogswell’s eyes.                                                                            * * *  Dr. Moore pulled out of the grounds and towards the city. They rode in silence. In a quiet neighborhood, not far from Dr. Moore’s funeral home, they stopped and waited outside a beautifully maintained house for plump Mrs. Morrison, smelling of floral perfume.            “All set?” asked Dr. Moore.            “All set,” she said quietly.            Together they drove to the fundraiser being held at the evening church service, a promise from Dr. Moore to Mrs. Morrison. The money raised would provide housing for homeless children. As she sat in the front, her body angled away from the boy in the backseat, Dr. Moore wondered if she saw the irony in it all: Jimmy, once homeless, somehow alienated from her kindness.                                                                           * * *   Back in the barbershop, Dr. Moore sat, admiring the quality of his haircut. Sylvester stood proudly behind him, his smile beaming, the news bulletin finally faded and replaced by retro R&B.            “You know,” Sylvester said, watching as Dr. Moore took out the money from his pocket to pay. “I hope Cogswell died a painful death. I hope he got what he deserved.”          Dr. Moore left, a stride in his step, Mac and Sylvester’s faces framed in the barbershop window like a painting. Dr. Moore noticed how Sylvester stood sweeping, singing along to the songs on the radio. For one shining moment, justice had prevailed.                                                                                   * * *   Dr. Moore was greeted by the high whirr of the vacuum cleaner back at the funeral home, where Jimmy darted up and down the pews. But Mrs. Morrison and her demeanor were somehow the loudest, her eyes bearing some great injustice, her body vibrating as if she were about to explode.            “Thank God you’re here!” She shrieked, tissues flying from her purse as she leaped into the air to greet Dr. Moore. “It’s been ages. I have come to a decision, and I needed to let you know immediately.”            “What exactly is the matter, Mrs. Morrison?”            She huffed, puffing out her lips, small beads of sweat dripping from her brow. “The fundraiser was a disaster,” she said angrily, “all because of that boy.”            “I’m not sure I understand.” Dr. Moore said, his face serious.            “The whole town was talking about it.” She said, spit collecting at the corner of her mouth. “Mrs. Morrison, the woman who arrived with the sad little colored boy! Donations were down, and nobody wanted to talk about the charity, no sir, they only wanted to talk about him.”            Dr. Moore sighed, trying hard to keep his composure. “Mrs. Morrison,” he said tersely, “it’s been years. Jimmy is more than just an excellent worker, he’s family.”            “Family?!” Mrs. Morrison gasped, shaking her fists. “He may be yours, but he isn’t mine. I’ve come to a decision, Dr. Moore. After 12 years of working here, all the hard work I put into this place, for you, for this establishment — and I cannot take the embarrassment and shame. It’s him or me, Dr. Moore. And I’m serious, now. It’s him or me!”            Dr. Moore walked away from her, gently pressing the off button on the vacuum and putting his hand on Jimmy’s shoulder. He regarded her coldly, her tissues spread out across the floor, her clothes damp with perspiration.             “It seems,” he said coolly, “that we already have a replacement for you.”            “A replac—“            Just then, Carolyn walked through the door, dressed in her Sunday best — her hat tall and her dress yellow as sunlight.            “I wish you best of luck in your future endeavors,” she said, walking over to greet the boys. Mrs. Morrison was too shocked to speak, her face twisted in rage. She turned, she left, she slammed the door.  

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