I originally wrote this short story to submit to a fiction contest.
Although my story was not chosen as a finalist, writing it was a fun and challenging exercise.
The drab shrine languished on a bare spot of ground in front of the tall board fence. Wan candles from the five-and-dime, limp flowers, and two teddy bears were left in the dirt where Glory’s husband used to preach every Sunday, scattered shoots of pigweed now poking through the soil.
Glory stopped her car to survey the scene. After Preacher Ted’s burial three weeks ago, his devoted followers continued to stop at the spot, sometimes leaving a memento. After almost a month, much of the stuff was sullied including the forlorn teddy bears, soggy from a recent rain.
How long would her husband be remembered for his preaching here on the outskirts of Rolla, Glory wondered. The large gold Rejoice! that he had painted across the gray boards was fading already. To proclaim this spot—“my fresh air church” he called it—he had painted the gold letters as tall as he could reach. On Sundays, people came from miles around to save their souls along that lonely stretch of road. Perhaps a different saver of souls would eventually claim the spot. Perhaps a new savior would arrive with a milk crate to stand on and a bullhorn to stir up the Sunday fervor in folks.
That’s the way it was in 1954 in rural Missouri. An articulate and forceful speaker like Preacher Ted could set up shop along a neglected stretch of Route 66, gather local believers, praise them for their virtues, remind them of their vices, and earn a nice living in the process. The local farmers and townspeople willingly put a dollar or two in the collection basket for an hour of respite from their labors.
Preacher Ted had been a popular and charismatic leader. Glory had to give him that much. He always said that he was destined to have his own grand church someday. Handsome and tall, his red hair slicked back from his proud face, his mustache carefully groomed. Looking at him, how could you not believe that he took equal care with his soul. If only his devoted acolytes had known the honest truth about the man. How her charismatic husband had never let her forget her insignificance. Glory’s mama was right. She said Glory had married a carnival barker who would treat her to a life of deception.
“You wait,” her mama had said. “Someday, he’s gonna toss you aside like a carton of cracked eggs.”
People used to comment about Glory’s sunglasses. She almost always wore them. Did she have sensitive eyes, they wanted to know. She said yes, she did. After the puffiness and bruises were almost gone, Glory would apply make-up to cover the discoloration before venturing into town. It was at those times that she kept to herself and hoped no one wanted to stop and chat.
Of course, people hadn’t seen the pink scar-welts that marched across the pale skin of her back. They weren’t around when her preacher-husband got lickered up at night and wielded the belt with his right hand while holding the whiskey bottle in his left. She felt a great relief now that he and his brutality were buried.
Glory got out of her car. She figured it was time to remove the old flyers from the telephone pole near Preacher Ted’s abandoned preaching spot. No point in leaving up announcements of events when the main attraction would not be coming back ever again.
Maybe she should bring home the two teddy bears and give them to her son. Teddy, Jr.—or Little Teddy, as everyone called him—might want the bears as a reminder of his late father. Glory walked over to pick up the damp bears from the dirt, then changed her mind. She left them where they were. Why keep reminders at home that her husband had not been comforting, let alone warm and cuddly, for a very long time.
The money sitting in the account at Rolla State Bank was enough to support her and Little Teddy for a while, but not forever. As she drove into town that day and pulled into the parking spot in front of the Busy Bee Laundry, she had an idea. At nine years old, her kid was old enough to carry on his father’s vocation. Why not? Maybe Glory could turn Little Teddy into a preaching sensation like his dad.
Preacher Ted’s followers already doted on the kid. During his dad’s sermons, Little Teddy had carried the collection basket among the crowd. Hadn’t the kind folks who placed money in the basket usually put a few extra coins in the kid’s pocket? In that sense, Little Teddy already had his own faithful following. With a bit of coaching, Glory was confident her son could step into his father’s proselytizing shoes without too much difficulty. Importantly, there would be a steady income again. Glory decided she would start grooming her son to take over for his deceased father.
Glory’s nagging worry now, however, was the rumblings she overheard in town about the need to further investigate the preacher’s death. And she would have to think about how to manage Little Teddy to be successful in his new role as the family’s meal ticket. Like his dad, the kid liked having money in his pocket. And he liked to spend it. The adulation bestowed on Preacher Ted, and by extension on Little Teddy, had fostered self-indulgence.
Every Sunday after the service, Preacher Ted would let Little Teddy help him count the money in the collection basket. The kid’s reward for enticing the generous donations from the worshipers was being allowed to keep the coins they deposited in his little pockets.
Glory had seen how Little Teddy’s youthful charm brought money into the collection basket. When the basket overflowed, the preacher would take Little Teddy to the five-and-dime where he was allowed to indulge his sweet tooth to excess. Glory was always chagrined to see the amount of candy he gorged on with his dad’s blessing. She usually kept her mouth shut about it. Now with the passing of Preacher Ted, she had put an end to that Sunday tradition.
* * *
Glory was folding laundry when she heard the school bus stop in front of the house to drop off Little Teddy. She put to one side an old skirt that needed mending and went to greet her son at the front door. She saw that he did not look well.
“Mama,” he cried. “I feel sick.”
“Oh, no! What’s wrong?”
She looked him over for any sign of fever, muscle weakness, or stiff legs. The government’s mass vaccination effort against polio had not yet reached Rolla, and Glory worried continually about her son’s risk for infection from the polio virus. Several children in town had already been stricken.
“My stomach aches so bad.”
Little Teddy held his crossed arms in front of his small belly and moaned. This didn’t look at all like polio. It looked like too much sugar.
“How much candy have you eaten today and where are you getting it from?” she demanded to know.
She had sent him to school that morning with his usual grape jelly sandwich and an apple in his lunch bag. As a treat, she had included a single Tootsie Roll. Little Teddy looked away from her and didn’t answer.
She took some discarded wrappers off the kitchen counter and held them out for him to see: crumpled wrappers from a Hershey bar, Turkish taffy and Bit-O-Honey, two empty packets of candy cigarettes, and a wad of torn cellophane from a few root beer barrels.
“Don’t you lie to me,” she said. “I found these empty wrappers under the davenport today.” Clearly Little Teddy had a candy pipeline, but he wasn’t talking.
“Well, you think about your answer while I get the Pepto-Bismol to help your stomach feel better,” Glory said.
Little Teddy gagged when he tried to swallow the spoonful of thick pink medicine. He hated the taste of Pepto-Bismol and looked at his mom for sympathy. Glory waited for him to swallow and then made him take a second spoonful. Little Teddy was in agony.
“You keep coming home with a belly ache and Pepto-Bismol is what you’re going to get,” Glory said. “So, who is giving you all this candy?”
Little Teddy confessed that the twin girls in his class whose parents owned the five-and-dime were freely sharing.
“They get candy anytime they want,” Little Teddy said. “I said I would trade my sandwich and apple. But they just give me candy. They both give me a lot.”
Glory didn’t want to come down too hard on Little Teddy. His classmates no doubt felt sorry for him. He missed his dad. Of course, he was much too young to have understood just how afraid she had been. It was the prolonged violence late at night when she had most feared for her life and that of Little Teddy. One time, when Little Teddy was just six years old, he came crying downstairs from his bedroom, holding his pillow and sobbing.
“Please stop fighting!” he had screamed in his little voice.
Often when Glory had checked in on Little Teddy at night, she found him asleep with the sides of his pillow pressed over his ears. It made her very sad knowing that her son had gone to bed on so many nights listening to her crying in the kitchen below. At least now her kid didn’t have to listen to her being choked anymore. She and her son could get on with their lives.
* * *
Glory had started Little Teddy’s preacher training and it was going well. Her son had more good days now and fewer sad ones, with occasional bouts of anger. Glory asked him about his anger.
“All the kids in my class have a daddy,” he said. “Except me.”
With Glory’s patient coaching, Little Teddy warmed to the idea of being the center of attention in front of a crowd of worshipers. Just like his dad had been. Having watched Preacher Ted perform for more Sundays than he could remember, Little Teddy could duplicate the moves easily.
“Always show passion,” Glory reminded him.
She wrote out a sermon for Little Teddy that she was sure would captivate the crowd. She made him practice it over and over, speaking through a bullhorn.
* * *
The Sunday of Little Teddy’s preaching debut was bright and sunny. Glory had made sure to post plenty of flyers on telephone poles on the outskirts of town to announce the event. That morning she felt a calmness, a sense of moving on. Life was going to be much better from now on.
Little Teddy stood on a milk crate and raised his hand. A murmur went through the gathered worshipers and then they fell silent. A few people shouted words of encouragement. The kid acknowledged them with a shy smile. From the back of the gathering, Glory observed her son. Glowing in the morning sunshine with his scrubbed face and ginger-colored hair, he looked beautiful.
Little Teddy raised the bullhorn, pressed the button, and began to preach.
“Rejoice!” he shouted.
The faces in the crowd beamed at the sound of Little Teddy’s voice. They had a child-savior in their midst. As Glory passed the collection basket during her son’s first sermon, she watched the delighted crowd. Little Teddy held them in the palm of his little hands for an hour. He was a natural. A vision of their new prosperous life flashed in Glory’s mind.
* * *
The following afternoon, Glory had a small piece of celebration pie waiting for Little Teddy when he came home from school. But when he came through the door, he was holding his stomach.
“My belly hurts real bad, mom,” was all he said before going to his room.
Glory followed him and coaxed out the truth about what happened at school. His classmates the twins, proclaiming that Little Teddy was a star, had treated him to a massive amount of candy. This time, he ate all of it before getting off the school bus.
“I declare, when are you going to learn that all that candy makes you sick?” she scolded.
She brought the bottle of Pepto-Bismol and a spoon.
“You take two spoonfuls of this, and you’ll feel better.”
Little Teddy wouldn’t come out of his room for supper, so Glory ate alone in the kitchen that night. She checked in on Little Teddy before going to bed early.
“Are you feeling better?” she asked him.
“Maybe,” he said quietly.
* * *
The bawl that came out of Glory’s mouth the next morning was the sound of torture, self-inflicted. How could she not have awakened at the sound of Little Teddy in the middle of the night, nauseous, as he rummaged in the pantry for sugar to sweeten the gagging pink medicine! How could she have forgotten about the small brown-paper bags that she left on the pantry shelf. A small spoon with pink residue rested on the kitchen table next to the opened bag, the one labeled Lead Sugar.
* * *
Glory, numb, sat in the hospital room where Little Teddy lay unconscious, her thoughts drifting as she gazed at her son’s innocent beauty. She thought about how she had ended up here with her son fighting for his life.
She thought about Preacher Ted. Why hadn’t she just packed up and fled with Little Teddy a long time ago. Her anger had been like the hollyhocks out behind her house that grew year after year, seemingly without much effort. She hadn’t paid much attention to the hollyhocks. Or, to her anger. And her despair, well, it had grown aggressively. Was she afraid of the beatings if she had run away and later been found?
She thought about how everything had changed on that day she went to the bank. It wasn’t that long ago, but might as well have been another lifetime. Sitting now in the hospital room, she replayed the movie of that day minute-by-minute, every decision seared into her memory. It was the day she had taken control of her life—or so she thought at the time.
She drove into town on that morning to deposit a refund check at Rolla State Bank. A catchy tune called “That’s All Right” sung by Elvis Presley played on the car radio. She liked the lyrics and liked to sing along, changing one of the lines to “He ain’t no good for you.”
Glory did not remove her sunglasses when she walked into the bank. Below her left eye, the purple residue of dead blood beneath her skin disclosed the punishment her husband had meted out the night before during another drunken rage.
“Good to see you,” Bridie the teller had said cheerfully to Glory that morning. “I’m pertnear finished with this godawful job. You go on over to my window and I’ll be right there.”
As the only bank teller on staff, Bridie’s daily duties included emptying the spittoon that was placed in the corner for the bank’s tobacco-chewing customers.
“I’d like to deposit this check from Union Electric,” Glory said when Bridie was finished. “It’s made out to my husband so just put it in his account.”
“Oh, which account?” Bridie asked. “The new one?”
Glory was puzzled by the question. Since when did her husband have more than one account at the bank?
“The new account?” Glory asked. “My husband has two accounts?”
“Yes,” Bridie said. “There’s his account from before. And he opened a new account recently and has been making regular deposits. So, that’s probably the one you want, right?”
“Yes,” Glory said. “I guess it is. Can you tell me how much money is in the new account?”
“Let’s see,” Bridie said. She opened the accounts ledger. “The balance is 3,123 dollars and 46 cents.”
Glory caught her breath with a gasp.
“Thank you, Bridie … thank you very much.”
Glory had gone outside to her car and she recalled that it had been hard to concentrate. The asphalt parking lot sizzled in the sun, waiting to sear unprotected skin. The heat wrapped around Glory’s feet and legs. Swirling sensations inside her brain of anguish, confusion, suspicion, and contempt, made her limbs feel heavy. What exactly was Preacher Ted planning to do with all that money in a secret account. She was dead certain that whatever his plan was, it did not involve her.
Leaving the bank that morning, she had driven north along Oak Street and parked the car near Frisco Pond. She had gotten out and walked to the edge of the water. She recalled how the gentle sound of the waves lapping at the shore had been calming. What to do? What to do? She wanted the pain to end. So many times, she had wished he would just go away. Abandon her and their son. But why should he get all that money, leaving her and Little Teddy high and dry? Hadn’t she paid her dues, listening week after week to Preacher Ted’s devoted worshipers sing his praises? That day, after Bridie told her about the new account with $3,000, the simmering resentment that she had nurtured for so long erupted.
When Glory returned home from the bank that day, she went immediately to the potting shed behind the house. Her neighbor who worked at the lead mine down the road had given her two small brown paper bags filled with white powder to use as poison bait, after she mentioned seeing mice in her cellar when she turned on the light. The paper bags were still in the potting shed right where she had left them.
One bag was labeled Lead Arsenic, the other bag Lead Sugar. Both bags had a skull-and-crossbones sticker. Mix the two powders together, her neighbor had told her, and sprinkle it in the dark corners of the cellar. He said the lead sugar poison would taste sweet—”Mice like that”—and the lead arsenic would kill them fast. This will get rid of your vermin problem, he said. But she never saw the mice again, and had forgotten about the poison until that day when she drove home from the bank.
While in the potting shed, she discovered the satchel bag by accident. As she turned to leave carrying the poison, her leg had brushed against the corner of an old tarp that stuck out from under the work bench. She hadn’t remembered seeing the tarp there before. And there was something underneath it.
When she pulled away the tarp, there it was. A shiny new satchel bag. She dragged the bag out from under the bench and clicked open the clasp. Inside, the bag was empty except for a white scrap of paper sitting at the bottom. She took out the paper and stared at the phone number that was written in pencil: DA 5-9343.
Going to the telephone in the kitchen, Glory had dialed the number that was written on the paper. Her heart had thumped with adrenalin like a racehorse ready to burst through the starting gate. Holding the receiver, her hand shook badly and she had used both hands to grip it.
“Hello?” It was a woman’s voice that had answered.
Glory said nothing and quietly replaced the phone receiver onto its cradle. It was then that she knew exactly what she had to do. Take back what was rightfully hers. Her dignity, her spirit, her sense of self-worth. It was the day she brought the two brown paper bags into the house and set them on a shelf in the pantry.
That night, sprinkling the two white powders into his supper had been easy. Glory remembered thinking how lucky that the mixture had no unpleasant odor. Preacher Ted’s supper looked and smelled exactly as always. Into his whiskey bottle, she sprinkled only the lead arsenic. He would have noticed a sweet-tasting whiskey, so she left out the lead sugar.
When Preacher Ted had finished eating supper that night, he took his whiskey bottle and went out to the back porch. It was his usual nightly ritual to sit in his rocking chair and get drunk and nasty. Sometimes he hollered at Glory to bring him his tattered Book of Psalms.
That night when Preacher Ted had yelled for his book, he complained about a bad pain in his gut.
“Pray it away,” Glory told him. She walked back inside and went to bed.
Cold and stiff in his rocking chair was how Glory had found her husband the next morning. He had stayed mostly erect, his body listing only slightly to one side. She remembered what she told the mortician when he came to collect the body.
“I guess his heart musta just stopped.” She had picked up the Book of Psalms from where it had fallen onto the floor of the porch and held it to her breasts, pretending to grieve.
* * *
Now the sharpness of all those memories cut at the edges of her thoughts. Now she sat praying in a bleak room in the Phelps County Memorial Hospital, desperately hoping her kid would not pay with his life for her sin.
After many hours, the doctor convinced Glory to go home and try to rest. Little Teddy was heavily sedated and would not be aware of her absence, he said. Glory could return in the morning.
Glory, exhausted, drove home from the hospital. As she climbed the front steps in the darkness and opened the front door, she heard the telephone ringing. Terrified to know what news might be coming through the line, she answered with a barely audible hello.
“Hello.” The girl’s voice on the other end sounded self-assured. “Is my dad there?” she asked.
“I’m sorry, you have the wrong number,” Glory mumbled.
“My dad. Ted. He’s a preacher man. The operator gave me this number for him,” the girl insisted.
“Ted? You said Ted?” Glory’s legs folded beneath her like thin pieces of cardboard.
“This is his daughter,” the girl continued. “Would you have him call me? The number is Davenport 5-9343.” The line went dead.
Glory sat motionless on the floor in her dark kitchen for a long while. Her husband had a daughter. The surreal revelation ricocheted inside her brain. Nothing made sense anymore. Her own choices had led to God’s reckoning. She couldn’t have said how long she sat on the floor staring into the void before she heard the telephone ring again. This time it was the doctor calling from the hospital.
“Come right away, Glory,” he said. “I’m so sorry. So very sorry. I did everything I could to try to save him … Oh, and the sheriff is here and wishes to have a word.”
~ by Janine Gleason