Share This

Tomorrow’s Bread

Excerpted from Tomorrow’s Bread, a novel in progress


Setting: 1961, St. Timothy’s Second Baptist Church in the Brooklyn neighborhood in Second Ward, downtown Charlotte, North Carolina. Brooklyn and much of Second Ward are slated for destruction in urban renewal. “Eben” is Reverend Ebenezer Gabriel Polk, soon to be pastor of St. Tim’s.


Eben sat at Pastor Tilley’s bedside, wanting to leave the sour dry smell that aroused memories of Nettie’s last days. Across the room the top of a chest of drawers was covered with pill bottles. Eben wondered who managed them for Tilley, given that the old man had no living relatives. At eighty-six, wasted by cancer, his mind murky, Harold Tilley hadn’t been able to name anyone who should be notified of his coming demise, other than his longtime parishioners.

“You tell Sister Monroe, she’ll get the word out.”

“I already did. Everyone’s praying for you.”

With a wheezing laugh, the preacher replied, “Save dey prayers for dem what need ’em. I’m ready to go, ready to go.”

Eben believed him. He’d never known anyone as genuinely devout as Harold Tilley, and had benefited from the guidance of this good man who’d led the congregation for almost fifty years. When the time came for Eben to take over as pastor of St. Timothy’s, he was intimidated by all that was expected of him, but eager to begin.

Harold lifted a skinny finger, growled out a word: “Important.” He hesitated, spoke again. “Got to tell you sumpin important ’bout de sanctuary.” Sank-cherry. Eben had become used to the old man’s dialect. Gullah. The South Carolina coast. Though Tilley’s accent was at first odd to Eben’s ear, he’d come to love the sound of it. “Dey’s papers . . . ”—the word sounded like ‘peppers’—“I’se not showed you.”

Eben leaned closer. “Papers?”

“Records. Dey was kep secret, den forgot about. Sumpin seem vital, den folks die or forget. Come enough years, what was worth keeping secret don’t matter no more.”

Eben had learned to sit quietly while Tilley rambled.

“Slaves ran off, you know.”

Eben nodded.

“Kin might say dey was dead, and point to a new grave.” The old man’s wrinkled hand smoothed the covers over his chest. “Weren’t dead, jest run off, but who wants to dig up a grave? Happened. Not often.”

Eben began to understand. “The cemetery.”

“Uh-huh. Not all de markers tell de whole truth.” He stared at the wall behind Eben’s head, his eyes—his awful yellow eyes—moving from left to right as if he were reading a message written there. “Dey’s a marker, JTQ.”

Eben remembered a gray pock-marked stone about a foot square, lichen covered, but the initials carved so deep they were still readable. The grave was a depression near the back wall of the cemetery. He’d sat down beside it one bright day and scrubbed the stone to see if there was anything else besides the two-inch high letters, “JTQ.” He’d found a date, but didn’t know if it marked birth or death or—as was too often true of infants a hundred fifty hundred years ago—both. His best guess was 1825, although the eight might have been a nine. He spoke aloud. “JTQ, 1825.”

“Dat right, you seen it. John Thomas Quarry, but it nineteen and twenty-six.” Tilley made a grunting, coughing sound, clearing his throat as he did often. “Wonder what came of him.”

“You mean how he died?”

“Oh. Yeah, I reckon he is dead now, all dat time. He a fine man, good friend.”

“Harold, you’re not making sense. The man’s grave—”

“Not his grave, jest his marker.” In a complicated series of moves, as if every motion hurt, Tilley rolled over, away from Eben. “De register’s got everything. All about it. In a trunk. In de cellar, back of de coal bin. Still there.” The old man sighed as if the exchange had worn him out and was asleep within seconds.

Eben returned to the church, went straight to the basement, and stood facing the coal storage bin. He managed to maneuver it a few inches out from the furnace, enough to see the solid brick wall behind it. No room for a trunk or anything thicker than a sheet of paper. After pushing the bin back under the delivery chute, he dusted his hands on his shirt, without thinking, then looked down at the black smears. He had coal dust in his hair and his mouth, on his trousers. Why hadn’t he changed into old clothes before tackling the job, and what had he been thinking, giving serious attention to the foolish mumbling of a sick old man?

Tilley died that night, never having said another word.


When Eben took over the parsonage, he came across cartons of correspondence that dated back to just after the Civil War, detailing events before and during Harold Tilley’s life. Over the next months, he spent many evenings going through letters, journals, albums, bills of sale almost a century old, and determined that Harold Tilley had been born in 1875 to Lissa Younger, a freed slave who bore the child by Solomon Tilley, her former master. Just before the end of the war, Solomon had sold Lissa’s common-law husband, a slave named Manning Tilley, “up south.” Manning was later traced to Brownsburg, Virginia, near Charlottesville, where he died in an accident in a blacksmith shop when the head of an ax flew off the handle and hit him between the eyes.

The blacksmith had been touched by Manning’s story of a soft-skinned freed woman on the Tilley farm west of Charleston. Manning told the blacksmith that Solomon Tilley—jealous of the love between him and Lissa—had sold him at the slave market in Charleston in the second year of the war. The buyer traded Manning to the blacksmith in Brownsburg to settle a debt for the shoeing of six horses. The smithy, an abolitionist, freed Manning and gave him a cabin to live in, indenturing the former slave for the $400 mortgage on the shack and the land it sat on. The day the ax head split Manning’s skull, he still owed $183 on his homeplace, which then reverted to the blacksmith. Although he’d been a fair boss and was in general a good man, it never occurred to the smithy that there was little difference between indenture and slavery.

Lissa learned of Manning’s death in a letter the smithy sent her by way of a traveling leather goods peddler who was headed for South Carolina, and who—for a dollar—agreed to deliver the letter.

At birth Harold Tilley had weighed over nine pounds, was light-skinned with a full head of loose brown curls. His skin darkened, but his hair remained a Caucasian hallmark that would prove to be both a blessing and a curse. In the course of his lifetime it was often remarked that he could have passed, but Harold never felt the slightest interest in doing so.


Eben rolled to a stop in front of the church, sat and studied it as he often did—the white cross centered beneath the gable peak, the uneven stones of the front walk, the two rocking chairs on the porch set at precise angles. He got out of the car, locking it behind him as he always did—no point in tempting anyone—and went up the creaking steps. He stopped at the door, surprised to find it open an inch or two. He pushed it gently, feeling as much as hearing the squeal of the hinges, peered into the dark foyer and beyond to the light-filled sanctuary, where smoke rose from between the two back pews. A sweet smell in the air. Unmistakable.

He approached the smoky haze, knowing what he would find, making no effort to be quiet. His brother was stretched out on the last pew, a half-smoked reefer in his hand, gazing upward, his dark face almost lost against the ebony pew. Oscar focused on Eben. “Hello, there.” He took a long draw, holding the smoke in while the two men stared at each other.

Eben stood at the end of the pew and waited, incensed at this violation of his church and alarmed by his brother’s thin, almost emaciated appearance.

Oscar held out the roach, his eyes heavy-lidded, red-rimmed. “Want some?”

Eben shook his head. “That’s not for me.” He shoved his brother’s feet, knocking them to the floor. “I want you out of here. What if one of the deacons walked in?”

Oscar smiled and sat up. “You gettin’ paranoid, brother? That ’posed to be my thing.”

“Why are you doing this in a holy place?”

Oscar pulled on the joint, holding the remaining half-inch between two fingernails, sucking in a deep lungful. He spoke haltingly, letting out a little bit of smoke with each word, “Safe . . . my . . . brother. Yo . . . church . . . is . . . safe.” He sighed out the last of the smoke, tapped the reefer out on the floor, and put what was left into a matchbox he took from his shirt pocket. “Waste not, want not, ain’t that right, Pastor Polk?”

Eben controlled his voice. “Out, Oscar. Now.”

His brother got to his feet, stumbled into the aisle, pulled Eben into a reluctant embrace. “Ease off, Neezer.” The old nickname. “I met a man what’s maybe gone help you.”

Eben gave in, hugged Oscar in return. “What are you talking about?”

Oscar stepped back. “Fella I met at the grocery, axing ’bout who in charge of the graveyard. I say, ‘That’s my brother, the preacher man.’ ” He patted Eben’s cheek. “He coming to see you. That what he say.” Oscar walked down the aisle, swaying and humming as he left the church.


Eben opened the back door to a cold so sharp it cut his face, and retreated inside to grab his old coat, the one he’d bought right after he came home from the war and found he’d outgrown his civilian clothes. It still smelled of cigarettes. He’d smoked years ago, until Nettie got after him about it, after she’d heard cigarettes were bad for your health. Then she, who’d never smoked, was the one who got cancer. He’d have to have the coat cleaned sometime, which is what he thought every winter when the cold forced him back into it.

He left the parsonage with a bag of trash for the bin near the driveway, again bothered by the necessity of hauling the barrel out to the street. The city garbage trucks sent their men to carry bins from behind houses in Myers Park and Eastover, while folks in Second Ward had to carry theirs to the street. When he’d called the sanitation department about this inequity, he’d been told that the garbage men didn’t feel safe going behind houses in Brooklyn or off Beatties Ford or in Biddleville. Eben had to hold his tongue to keep from pointing out that Brooklyn was home to the vast majority of garbage men. Just one more aggravating slight against coloreds that he couldn’t fix and wouldn’t fret on any more than he had to.

The can was full and he half-dragged, half-carried it out to the street. He’d heard about a trash bin on wheels, and every Wednesday he vowed he’d look into that. On his walk back to the parsonage, he saw someone in the cemetery behind the church, walking among the graves. A small man—couldn’t be more than five-five—in a heavy coat, tan suit, and brown fedora. White or light-skinned colored. Eben watched him moving around, reading headstones. Definitely white. No reason to be there that Eben could fathom. The fellow stepped behind a memorial that rose twice as high as most. Eben didn’t like such shows of money, felt folks shouldn’t over-spend on death when others had so much need in life.

He headed for the cemetery, calling out, “Hello?”

The man came out from behind the elaborate marker, but didn’t appear to have heard.

Eben raised his voice. “May I help you?” He opened the rusty gate in the fence that surrounded the graveyard, certain the man would turn at the screech of the iron hinges, but instead the fellow knelt and ran his hand over the face of a stone, continuing to study the marker as Eben approached.

At Eben’s touch on his shoulder, the man stood, putting his finger to a bulky plastic device that encircled his right ear.

“Yes?” The casual reaction of the deaf, not startled or surprised.

Eben extended his hand. “I’m Reverend Polk.”

“Sure,” the man said, “Oscar’s brother.” He spoke in a modulated monotone. “I’m Marion Lipscomb.” He shook Eben’s hand, his fingers feeling slight under wool gloves. “I guess you wonder why I’m here.”

Eben looked down at the stone Lipscomb had been examining. “No, sir, a cemetery is public, maybe the most public place there is.” He could feel the man’s eyes reading his lips, felt it was okay to ask, “Does the hearing aid help?”

“Not much. And as to why I’m here—” he waved his hand, encompassing the half-acre cemetery. “I’m a grave robber.”

Eben laughed. “I suspect if you were, you wouldn’t tell me.”

“Nope.” Lipscomb touched the gravestone. “I’m just an amateur archaeologist. No training, nothing formal, but I have a special interest in burial places that go back a couple hundred years.”

“A hundred and fifty one, to be exact,” Eben said.

“Slave remains, right?”

Eben nodded.

“You may already know that at best slaves got a wooden box, but many were buried in a homemade shroud, sheets sewn together.” Lipscomb looked at the grave they stood beside. “It’s what was buried with them that interests me. I don’t want the stuff, just like to know what was considered necessary to take on with them.”

“To heaven?”

Lipscomb studied Eben’s face, nodded. “Uh-huh, or wherever. When the time comes,” he nodded at the bulldozer sitting on the street, “I’d like to have a look at whatever you find. Document it.”

“Are you making a record for anyone in particular?”

“Nope. But it would be useful to other historians, archaeologists, the descendants of those buried in this peaceful place.”

Eben gestured toward the bulldozer. “Yes, peaceful, until . . .”

“It’s a damn shame, that’s what it is.” Lipscomb said. “Why not just leave the cemetery, even if they take everything else?”

For the first time since Eben had received notice from the city that the graveyard had to be moved, he felt as if he had an ally.