A Bad Night at Brenda’s Tavern

What I relate here took place years ago in southern city where I lived for a couple of years after my discharge from the army. While there I met and became friends with a fellow, who like myself, enjoyed lollygagging, drinking beer and smoking. We also liked to shoot a friendly game of pool and play shuffleboard. The fellow’s name was Willy Moses, but everybody just called him Moe. He was a quiet, friendly fellow who had an easy way about him and who got along with most everybody. Moe would hardly have been noticed among the people in the taverns where we hung out, except for the fact that he was a light-skinned Black man. I watched Moe easily shrug off occasional insults, direct or insinuated, from bigots because he dared to act like he was their equal. That simple act was what some in the south saw as blacks being uppity.

A favorite hangout for Moe and me was Brenda’s Tavern where the pool table was nearly always busy from dusk till closing time. Each player would declare his intention to “challenge the table” and wait his turn to play. The winner of a match would continue to “hold the table” until he was beaten by a challenger. There was usually a friendly wager on each match, which was typically the price of a beer. Disputes were inevitable, especially as players became inebriated and were more inclined to forget where they stood in line to challenge the table. The disputes didn’t usually amount to much, nor did they normally result in lasting hostilities among the pool players.

One night, Moe and I were seated at a table near the pool table drinking beer while he waited his turn to play pool. I had injured my left shoulder playing golf the day before, so it was my night to just drink and lollygag. When it was Moe’s turn to play, his opponent was Junior Freeman, one of the most disagreeable fellows who frequented Brenda’s Tavern. He was trouble just waiting to break out, and after a few beers he sometimes became mean. He had been in jail for crimes ranging from breaking and entering to assault with a deadly weapon. He carried pistol and often bragged about how he’d use it if he had to. He was already high when I came in that night and was beginning to get loud and obnoxious. As long as I can remember, Junior had shown a dislike for Moe, and recently he had been more hostile than usual. A few nights earlier I had stepped in and shut down an argument between him and Moe that was getting out of hand.

The match between Junior and Moe played out without a hitch. Moe got a lucky streak and won easily, and Junior staggered back to the bar. When Moe walked over to our table to take a sip of his beer, I said: “I thought there was a beer wager on the match.”
He said, “there was, but I’ll let it slide for now cause I don’t want no trouble”. Moe held the pool table until Junior’s turn to play came back around. This time Junior won the match, and when Moe sat down at our table at the end of the match, Junior came over and said, “Boy, I’m thirsty for a beer and you owe me one”.
Moe, said, “nope, we’re even”.
Junior said, “and I say you owe me one.”
Moe ignored him and Junior said, “I say you owe me a beer, and I’m getting pretty dam thirsty.”
Moe said, “you know dam well I don’t owe you a beer, so why don’t you get off my back?”

That’s when Junior reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a pistol and leveled it at Moe’s face and said “boy, I’m just about ready to kill you on the spot.”
Moe’s face showed no fear as he said, “Junior, you better kill me while you got the chance, cause if you don’t, I’m gonna kill you the next time I see you.”
Junior laughed and said, “mouthy talk from a black boy looking down the barrel of a thirty-eight pistol in a white man’s hand. Now, get the hell out of here and go back to your own kind.”
Moe said, “Junior, I’m leaving, but I also got a 38-pistol, and I will use it. Junior, you are a walking dead man.” I left Brenda’s place not far behind Moe, and I was sure hoping that he had gone directly home. My first inclination was to go by his house. But then I realized it might be better to give him some time to simmer down, so I decided I’d wait and call him the next day. The time was 10:00 PM.

The headlines of the local paper the next morning read: “Man Found Dead in His Truck.” The article went on to read: “Police say they found a local man identified as Junior Freeman dead at the wheel of his truck a mile from his home. They say he had a single gunshot to his forehead. Anyone with information that might help police solve this case is asked to call the police hot-line.”
“Oh, my god” I said out loud” as I recalled Moe’s last words before he left Brenda’s Tavern last night. For that singular moment, I feared the worst, that is that Moe had done this. I banished the thought as quickly as it had appeared, but I knew that unless Moe had a mighty good alibi he was in a heap of trouble.

Because of what had happened at Brenda’s Tavern that night, it didn’t take long for police to zero on Moe as the prime suspect in the murder. Within two days, Moe was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, and the judge set the trial date for two weeks. Moe had no criminal record, so the Judge set the minimum bail. l took out a loan on my car’s title, and when combined with contributions from Moe’s friends and relatives, I was able to put up the bail money and hire him a lawyer. The lawyer told Moe that the overwhelming circumstantial evidence would weigh heavily against him, even in the absence of any physical evidence to connect him to the crime. He said his defense would be to make Junior look so despicable that the jury would feel sorry for Moe.

As expected, the prosecuting lawyer was able to make a lot of easy points. He called nearly everyone who had been at Brenda’s Tavern that night to testify to what they saw and heard. He ended his examination of each witness with the following question, “and what was the last words you heard Mr. Moses say to Mr. Freeman?”
The witness would answer, “Junior, you are a walking dead man.”
A policeman testified that the bullet that killed Junior was shot from a 38 pistol. Three witnesses testified that they had seen Moe with a pistol, and each time the lawyer would ask, “and what did you hear Mr. Moses say about his pistol?”
The answer would be, “but I also got a 38-pistol, and I will use it.”
During cross examination by Moe’s lawyer, the policeman conceded that he had not found a murder weapon. His lawyer was also able to ask every witness one question to which every witness gave the same answer.
Lawyer, “Do you think it’s reasonable to believe that Mr. Freeman stopped his car in the middle of the night and rolled down his window for a man who had threatened to kill him earlier that same night?” Witness, “No.”

True to his word, Moe’s defense lawyer brought witness after witness who testified to the good character of Moe and the hateful and mean-spirited character of Junior. They all agreed that Moe’s statements that night were completely out of character and that Moe had made the threats out of anger and frustration, with no intent to carry them out. Still, the lawyer told Moe toward the end of the trial that he doubted he would be acquitted. So, the two agreed they would present evidence that Moe had refused so far to go along with. The lawyer told the judge he would be calling a new witness whose testimony might well decide the outcome of the trial. The judge called a huddle of both lawyers at the bench and then announced a recess until the next morning.

When court reconvened the next morning, Moe’s lawyer call Marilyn Jones to the stand. As she walked down the aisle, flash bulbs popped, and everybody stared in disbelief. She was the daughter of a prominent white businessman in town and she coached the girls’ basketball team at the local high school. After Miss Jones was sworn in ,the lawyer asked, “Do you know the defendant?”.
She said, “Yes.”
The lawyer said, “Did you see the defendant last night?”
She said, “Yes.”
Lawyer, “Where did you see him?”
She said, “at my apartment”.
Lawyer, “What time did he get to your apartment last night?”
She said, “about 10:20.”
Lawyer, “How long did he stay?”
She said,“ until seven o’clock the next morning.”
Lawyer, “Can anyone corroborate your testimony?”
She said, “Yes, my sister.” It was common knowledge that Miss Jones lived in an apartment and that her eighteen-year-old sister lived with her.
Moe’s lawyer said, Judge, “I would like to call your attention to the coroner’s report that states that Mr. Freeman died sometime between 11:30 PM and 2:30 AM. With that he went back to his seat beside Moe. The judge asked the prosecution lawyer if he wished to cross examine the witness, and the lawyer declined. Then the judge asked the prosecuting lawyer whether he had any objection to dropping the charge against Moe. When the lawyer said he did not, the Judge dismissed the charge against Moe and released the jury.

During the next few days, it was hard to say which got the most publicity: the revelation that a pretty white woman had testified to save a black man’s life, or the question of who had murdered Junior Freeman. I suspected that the first was related to the second, but almost everyone who knew Junior could name somebody who believed he got what was coming to him. Moe told me he had an idea who had murdered Junior but wouldn’t tell me who it was. That made me even more suspicious that the murder had to do with his relationship with Marilyn Jones. The police were still interviewing the long list of potential suspects, when they got a visit from Marilyn Jones.

Marilyn told the police that she had overheard her father and brother Jimmy talking the night before about the murder and thought the police should bring them in for questioning. After a short interview by police, Jimmy Jones confessed to the murder. Jimmy told them that Marilyn had confided to him several weeks ago that she was seeing Moe. Not long after that Junior had told him that he had learned about the affair and began blackmailing him. Jimmy said he had been at Brenda’s Tavern that night. When Junior told him he was leaving, he saw his opportunity to take care of Junior and put the blame on Moe. He left ahead of Junior and waited for him. The police interviewed the father and concluded he hadn’t known about his daughter’s affair before the trial and had taken no part in the murder.

Moe and I were in Brenda’s Tavern a few nights later, along with the regular crowd, and things seemed to be back to normal. I won my first game with Moe, and I “said, “Moe, you owe me one.”
He replied, “one and a truck load more to boot.”

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