When I started my first novel, I dreamed of seeing my work on library shelves. Today, it is both gratifying and humbling to have this dream become a reality. Hence, once again I give hearty thanks and appreciation to the Hennepin County Library for including my Christopher Family Novel series as part of their collection. As the largest collection of literary works in Minnesota, it means a lot. When it came to including works by African American authors in their system, Hennepin County didn’t just “talk the talk”; they “walked the walk.”
This year, the fifth novel in my series, Never Give Up, will be released. It is a blend of historical fiction, family saga, and whodunit. For today’s blog, I give you an excerpt of a pivotal moment in the story, told through the lens of Judge Earl James Berry’s wife, Juanita Langston Berry:
On the evening of August 19, 1960 Earl and I, Eldon and Elaine, and Donna and Eli were gathered at Eldon and Elaine’s new house at 4054 Clinton Avenue, enjoying a barbecue. It was a warm but comfortable summer evening. Eldon, like most men, considered himself a master at the art of all things that could be barbecued on a grill. Our children were playing in the back yard after they ate, while we sat back in the lawn chairs and talked. We had already discussed the movie we went to the previous evening, Butterfield 8, and now we were on to politics.
“So, what do you think Kennedy’s chances are at the presidency?” Eldon asked Earl.
“Well, I know we’re going to vote for him,” was Earl’s hearty reply.
“If we are, I hope this baby waits until after the inauguration to get here.” Elaine rubbed her softly rounded stomach, partially concealed by her sleeveless maternity top. “I want to see what Jackie’s going to wear to the inaugural ball after she has her baby.”
I took a sip of root beer. “You know, she’s going to set some fashion trends around the country.”
“Anyway, I hope Kennedy makes some changes for civil rights,” Eldon said, getting up to go inside the house. He came out after a minute and said, “Elaine, I’m going to get some more beer. Do you want anything?”
“Bring some Coca-Cola. We want to make some ice cream floats for the kids.”
“Got it.” Eldon gave Elaine a kiss, flashing a smile as he walked to the driveway where their 1958 DeSoto hardtop was parked. “I’ll be back.”
Donna, Elaine, and I continued to talk about Jackie Kennedy as a fashion trendsetter. Earl and Eli discussed the finer points of owning a Cadillac, in particular the 1957 Cadillac we bought from Woody at the beginning of summer. When Earl first saw Perry Mason driving that model on the TV show, he had to have one like it. There were times when it was wise to concede to one’s husband—I benefitted from the deal with a 1958 Buick station wagon as an anniversary present.
We must have talked for a good twenty minutes or so, enough to notice it was nearing sunset. Carter had fallen asleep in my lap, so Elaine and I went into the house to find someplace comfortable and safe to put him down. Donna soon joined us with her youngest son Julian, who had also pooped out.
“I wonder where Eldon is?” Elaine asked. “At this rate, the kids will all be asleep by the time he gets back.”
“It shouldn’t be too long,” Donna answered as she put Julian down. “The stores are going to be closing soon.”
As time went by, however, we grew more concerned. Just going to get beer and soda shouldn’t have taken Eldon so long. We talked on, but the atmosphere started to cloud over with unease. “Why don’t I go down to the store and see what’s holding him up?” Earl offered.
“That sounds like a good idea,” Elaine said. “Sometimes he gets to talking with people in the neighborhood that come in the store.”
We rounded up the kids and brought them inside as twilight made its appearance. Earl grabbed his keys and prepared to leave when we heard a knock at the front door. I saw the puzzled look on Elaine’s face upon seeing the two men standing on the steps. “Yes?”
They identified themselves as police detectives and asked her, “Are you Mrs. Eldon Berry?”
“Yes, I’m Mrs. Berry. What’s this about?”
“Mrs. Berry, we’re here to give you some news,” one of them said solemnly.
We didn’t like the way he said ‘news,’ and the apprehension grew worse. “What kind of news?” Earl asked.
“Mrs. Berry, a man was shot and killed about an hour ago.”
Elaine grew tense. “What does that have to do with me?”
“He was identified by his driver’s license as Eldon Berry. We’re sorry for your loss.”
To her credit, Elaine didn’t faint or scream—she was more stunned—but we could see how hard the news hit her. She clutched the door frame for support. I heard the tears in her voice when she said, “Where is he?”
“He’s been taken to the morgue, Mrs. Berry. But we need to ask you some questions.”
“Can’t that wait until she’s gone to identify him?” Earl adopted his take-charge stance. “You’ve just told her that her husband’s dead.”
“We’re sorry, but we need to do this while things are fresh in her mind.”
Earl’s expression was strained, but his voice was strong and controlled. “I’m Earl James Berry. I’m his brother, and I’m also an attorney. We’re going to the morgue. You can ask all the questions you want in the morning.”
I grabbed Elaine’s purse and handed it to her, still in disbelief over the grim report the police had given us. “You go ahead with Earl,” I told her. “We’ll stay here with the kids until you get back.”
When they returned, I saw the pain and raw grief in their faces over the reality of Eldon’s lifeless body lying in the city morgue. Elaine’s tears came gradually after she sat down, with Eli and Donna doing whatever they could to comfort her. My husband held me in his arms. I could feel his body shaking with unreleased sobs, sobs on the inside. It seemed like untold moments passed before he could compose himself, saying to me, “Honey, could you stay here with Elaine? There’s something I have to do.”
“Of course,” I agreed, knowing where he was going and how difficult it would be for him to deliver that horrible news. No matter what people think, there’s never an easy way to tell parents that their child is dead, even a grown child. I noticed the older children standing around with confused looks on their faces. Oh, the news. How are we going to tell them?
Eldon’s funeral was an ordeal we got through only by the grace of God. The senselessness of his death was lost on no one. People had so many good things to say about him as they expressed their sympathy to the family. Mother Berry had her head on Father Berry’s shoulder during the packed service, the life force seemingly drained out of her. Earl’s face had a grim expression on it, one that swore revenge on the perpetrator of this crime even as they lowered his brother’s body into the ground. Eli and Donna, as well as the rest of the Edwards family, also attended the funeral and stood by us during that difficult time. I was grateful Earl had a friend like Eli, another rock he could depend on.
As soon as the trial date was set, the Berry family was there, with the Edwards family and my parents providing solid moral support. When the defendant was brought in, Earl’s body tensed up and his jaws grew tight. My eyes narrowed as I took a good look at the vile, monstrous beast that had callously taken the life of my brother-in-law. In that instant I wished that Minnesota had the death penalty, but I had to settle for the thought of him rotting in a prison cell for the rest of his miserable life.
At the age of 37, Eldon had been struck down in the prime of his life. He had had so much to look forward to. With a wonderful wife like Elaine, the family he’d always wanted, plus an excellent career working side by side with his father, why did this have to happen to him?
I came to the trial whenever I could, but Earl and his parents were there every day. The case seemed cut-and-dry to us; the defendant was robbing a store and Eldon was killed trying to stop him. What could be clearer than that? Unfortunately, the defendant got off on a technicality.
I remember sitting there in the courtroom with Earl, Elaine, Mother and Father Berry, wanting to scream obscenities at the judge for a miscarriage of justice but too stunned to say a word. I glared at the defendant and his attorney congratulating themselves, hoping that they would be driven to walk into the Amazon River and become lunch for a school of piranhas. I didn’t have to go far to see that same look in Elaine’s eyes.
To say that the verdict left a bad taste in our mouths was a gross understatement. There may have been celebration about President Kennedy’s election, but there was a pall over our family during the holidays. I could only imagine what it was like for Elaine, having a three-year-old child and pregnant with another, one who would never know his or her father except through others. Elaine’s doctor had been concerned that the stress of Eldon’s death and going through the trial could cause her to either lose the baby or go into premature labor. Her doctor, however, hadn’t reckoned with the steely resolve of the Berry family to both protect and support Elaine and Ellen. In addition, the family stood firmly on God’s promises of protection for them. We knew He never failed.
Earl had changed when it came to his work. He was tense, just “doing his job” without the passion. He often came home from work short-tempered and testy, to the point where the children were hesitant to approach him. I often had to intervene, and the tension between us could be felt. In addition to that, our sex life had taken a nosedive. The fact that Eldon’s murderer had walked was eating away at the family. Something had to be done.
On New Year’s Day of 1961 we were all in church, listening to our pastor’s sermon. Earl was unusually quiet, hardly saying a word during fellowship time. That night, after all the kids were in bed, he turned to me and said, “I’ve come to a decision.”
“What kind of decision?”
“About my work.”
I was puzzled. “What do you mean?”
“I’ve had enough of being a defense attorney.” He must have read the question in my eyes, because he added, “No, Juanita, I’m not giving up law. But I am changing it.”
“Tomorrow, I’m having papers drawn up to have my partners buy me out.”
“That still doesn’t tell me how you’re changing things when it comes to practicing law.”
“Because I’m putting in for a position at the district attorney’s office. I’m going to become an assistant district attorney.”
I looked into his smoky gold eyes. Never had he been more serious than at that moment. “This change…it has something to do with Eldon, doesn’t it?”
There was steely conviction in his voice. “If I couldn’t get justice for my brother at the trial, then I can get it for others. The only way to do that is to become a prosecutor.”
Tammy Wynette put out a song years ago called “Stand by Your Man.” We spent half the night discussing the matter, but by the time we went to bed I was convinced that his decision was merited, and I stood by him. It was as though the negative energy Earl had been carrying around diffused, for he took me in his arms and made up for all those nights we had gone without.
© 2019 by W.D. Foster-Graham
Believe in dreams and never give up.