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 small shrine with candles, dying bouquets, and a few soggy teddy bears was still there in front of the board fence. The bare spot where Glory’s husband had stood every Sunday was reverting to life. Scattered shoots of pigweed plants had started to poke through the soil.
As she had done many times already, Glory stopped her car to survey the scene. Her husband Preacher Ted was buried three weeks ago, his followers continuing to leave candles and flowers in his memory—although it didn’t look like anyone had done so in the past few days. The teddy bears, wet from a recent rain, looked forlorn.
Glory wondered how long her husband would be remembered for his preaching here on the outskirts of Rolla. Probably as long as the red-lettered Rejoice! was still legible. She remembered when her husband had borrowed a can of red barn paint from a neighboring farmer to write Rejoice! across the gray boards of the fence. It proclaimed his preaching spot and was where people from the area congregated once a week to be inspired by his oratory. Perhaps a different savior of souls would eventually claim this spot, bringing 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 along this neglected stretch of Route 66 in rural Missouri. An articulate and forceful speaker like Preacher Ted could inspire local believers, praising them for their virtues, reminding them of their vices, and earning him a nice living in the process. The local farmers and townspeople willingly put a dollar or two into 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. He was probably right about his destiny. 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. “Some day, 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. Sometimes after the puffiness and bruises were almost gone, Glory would apply make-up to cover the discoloration before venturing out in public. 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. After the funeral, she had thrown out the sunglasses. If only she could discard the burden of her secret.
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 the teddy bears home to her son. Teddy, Jr.—or Little Teddy, as everyone called him—might want the bears as a memento of his late father. Glory walked over to pick up the damp bears from the dead grass, then changed her mind. She left them exactly 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 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 Preacher Ted’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 the kid 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 Little Teddy gorged on with his dad’s blessing. She usually kept her mouth shut about it. Now, with the passing of Preacher Ted, that Sunday tradition had thankfully ended.
* * *
Glory was folding laundry when she heard the school bus stopping 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, Glory thought, 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.
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 from the kitchen counter and held them out for him to see: crumpled wrappers from a Hershey bar, Turkish taffy, and a Bit-O-Honey, two empty packets of candy cigarettes, and a wad of torn cellophane from root beer barrels.
“Don’t you lie to me,” she said. “I found these under the davenport today.”
Where was he getting this stuff, she wondered. She hadn’t once taken him to the five-and-dime since his dad died. 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 it 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 had come 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. They could both get on with their lives.
* * *
Glory had started Little Teddy’s preacher training and it was going well, she thought. It had been now two months since the funeral and her son was having more good days—but still, understandably, some rough ones. He was often more angry than sad and Glory asked him why.
“All the kids in my class have a daddy. Except me.”
With Glory’s patient coaching, Little Teddy was warming 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, as it were, for more Sundays than he could remember, Little Teddy could duplicate the moves easily.
“Always show passion,” Glory told her kid.
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. In the full morning sunshine, he no longer looked angry. With his scrubbed face and ginger-colored hair, he looked beautiful she thought.
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 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 Little Teddy a star, had treated him to a massive amount of candy. This time, he ate all of it before getting on 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. Glory ate her food alone in the kitchen, saving the celebration pie for later. She checked in on Little Teddy before going to bed early.
“Are you feeling better?” she asked him.
“Maybe,” he said.
* * *
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 labeled with skull and crossbones that she had 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, only a few months, but it might as well have been another lifetime. Sitting now in the hospital room, she remembered that day almost 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 remembered driving 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.”
When Glory had walked into the bank, she remembered saying hello to Bridie the teller who happened to be by the entrance. It was a sunny day and Glory figured it would not seem unusual for her to wear her sunglasses inside. Her left eye, dead blood showing purple beneath the skin, would have disclosed the punishment her husband had meted out the previous evening. Preacher Ted, drunken and enraged by nothing in particular, yet by everything, had taken it out on her.
“I’m pertnear finished with this godawful job,” Bridie had said cheerfully to Glory that morning. “Good to see you. 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 cleaning the spitoon that sat in the corner for the bank’s tobacco-chewing customers.
“I’d like to deposit this check from Union Electric,” Glory had said. “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. As far as she knew, Preacher Ted had only one account at the bank.
“The new one?” Glory asked. “My husband has two accounts?”
“Yes,” Bridie had said. “There’s his old account that he had 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 checked 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 went outside to her car. She remembered it had been hard to concentrate. The asphalt parking lot sizzled in the sun, waiting to burn her feet and legs. The swirling in her head made her limbs feel heavy. Anguish, confusion, suspicion, contempt. 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 was not going to 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 bank account with $3,000, her long-simmering resentment had finally reached a rolling acidic boil.
Glory remembered how she drove home and went immediately to the potting shed behind the house. She had remembered the two small brown paper bags each filled with white powder that her neighbor who worked at the lead mine down the road had given her to use for poison bait. She had mentioned seeing mice in her cellar whenever she turned on the light. Now she was curious whether the paper bags were still in the potting shed where she had left them. They were.
One bag was labeled Lead Arsenic, the other bag Lead Sugar. Both bags had a skull-and-crossbones sticker. Mix these 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.
In the potting shed, her discovery of the satchel bag had been purely by accident. As she turned to leave, carrying the two paper bags, 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 brand new satchel bag. She dragged the bag out from under the bench and clicked open the clasp. 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.
In her kitchen, holding the piece of paper, Glory had dialed the number. She remembered how 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 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 remembered telling him. She walked inside and went to bed.
Still in his rocking chair, cold, stiff and listing to one side, was exactly how Glory had found her husband the next morning. She remembered what she told the mortician when he came to collect the body.
“I guess his heart musta just stopped.”
She remembered that 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.
* * *
The sharpness of those memories felt like cuts in her mind. And now here she was, a few months later, praying in a bleak room in the Phelps County Memorial Hospital, desperately hoping her kid would not pay with his life for her sin. The doctor convinced her to go home and try to rest. Heavily sedated, her son would not be aware of her absence, he said, and she 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 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 ringing 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 you should know that the sheriff is here and wishes to have a word.”
~ by Janine Gleason