This short story is by Marla Cantrell and was the winner of our final Show Off Short Story contest. Marla Cantrell lives and writes in Arkansas. She is the managing editor of @Urban Magazine. Most of Marla’s stories deal with the South, the characters who populate it and the ties they have to the land they love.
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It all started because Mama got caught standing buck-naked in the picture window of her living room. The sheriff come out and talked to me about it. Her house set across from Harmony Baptist and the Sunday morning crowd had gotten an up-close-and-personal look at her. Even hell-fire-and-brimstone can’t compete with a naked lady standing atop a divan, kind of spread eagled and pressed up against a plate glass window.
After the sheriff’s visit, I brought Mama to my house. She had days when she was fine, and then there were days when she was as lost as a ball in tall grass. She’d wander. She’d forget who I was. When I found her wading with the cows in the neighbor’s pond, I called on Doc Patton, who put his hand on my shoulder and told me to check her into the nursing home. Which I did.
The story should have ended there, with Mama in the rest home, me alone in my trailer, and Brother Debo at the pulpit, preaching to the fully clothed. But then Brother Debo come by. I opened my door and there he was, dressed like he was fixing to preach a funeral. “Miss Huggins,” he said. “I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Ransom Debo. I was wondering if we might have a little talk.” Once inside, I swept the magazines off the divan and motioned for him to sit.
“Florene,” I said. “My name’s Florene.” I sat facing him.
“What can I help you with?” I asked. He took my hand.
“Doctor Patton mentioned you had to put your mother away. I’m so sorry. I didn’t know her well, but she did visit me at the church a time or two. Lovely woman.”
“Wait a minute, preacher,” I said. “Don’t go acting like you cared about Mama. If that was the case, you wouldn’t have called the law on her like you done.”
He let loose of my hand and fiddled with his tie tack. It was a tiny gold bible with a ruby where the “O” in holy should have been. I looked right at him. He wasn’t much older than me. Maybe thirty-two or thirty-three. And handsome. Even in that preacher get-up, he was handsome.
“Let’s start over Miss Hugg…, I mean Florene. I’m truly concerned about your mother.” He cleared his throat. “However, there is another reason I’m here.”
“Big surprise,” I said.
He kept going. “Your mother’s house sits across from the sanctuary, and our congregation needs the space. If we had your mother’s house, we could move the adult Sunday school classes there.”
I remember looking in his eyes. They were green with gray rims. Kind of like cat eyes.
“Well,” I said. “I ain’t giving Mama’s property away.”
Brother Debo smiled. One of his front teeth was chipped. “I find prayer helpful when I have an important decision to make,” he said.
“Pray all you want,” I said. “I’ll be figuring out what Mama’s house is worth.”
Brother Debo started coming by once a week. He’d show up and ask if I’d decided anything, and I’d stand at the door, my arms folded, and tell him I was still debating. “No rush,” he’d say, “just wondering.” And then he’d walk back down my steps, his hands in his pocket, and every time he’d be whistling.
The fourth time he showed up, I told him the same thing, but this time I asked him in. It was something about the way he looked that day, like he needed company as much as I did, that made me do it.
It wasn’t long before he stopped talking like a preacher. He started sounding kind of regular, like somebody you’d meet at the Piggly Wiggly on coupon night. After we’d worn out the subject of the Cardinal’s bad season and the Cowboy’s good one, he asked me this.
“You ever been married, Florene?”
I looked past Brother Debo, to the window above the sink. “It’s ain’t something I talk about too much,” I finally said, “but yeah, I been married. I was seventeen. I’d just been crowned Miss Maizie County for the third time. Ain’t nobody beat my record, not in all these years.
“My husband was one of the judges. We didn’t date until after I was crowned, I want you to know, so I earned my title fair and square.
“It ain’t a remarkable story. He drank beer like it was oxygen and he was scared to death of a good day’s work.” I shook my head. “So, I left him and got my old name back.”
Brother Debo took my hand for the second time since I’d met him.
“You know, Florene, I don’t think divorce is so bad. If God can forgive lying and stealing, I don’t see why he can’t allow for a few failed nuptials.”
He opened up to me then. Started talking about his shut-in wife, how she was practically bed-ridden with some mysterious muscle disorder. He mentioned how they weren’t able to have relations. Had a way of telling it, made you think he was a saint for staying with her.
I started watching the road for his car, hoping he’d come by. Which he did, late one Friday night. He showed up on my steps, his Lincoln nowhere in sight. He followed me inside, circling his arms around me when I turned to him, and leaning me up against the paneling.
“It’s wrong, I know it’s wrong, but you’re all I think about,” he said.
I swear I almost called him Brother Debo, but I knew that two people about to do what we were would not be encouraged by religious titles.
I called him Ransom for the first time.
He kissed me, and I sagged against him.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked.
“I could show you Grandma Cant’s quilt,” I said, and felt my face go red. “It ain’t much but I could show you.” I pointed down the hall. “It’s on my bed.
“See,” I said, when we got to my room, “it ain’t much to look at.”
“It’s beautiful,” he said, looking at me instead of the quilt. We sat down on my bed then, my three Miss Maizie County banners hanging on the wall above me, and I realized I was about to become a great sinner.
Damned if I didn’t fall in love. We talked on the phone every day, and we made love every chance we got, and we didn’t tell a soul.
I sold Mama’s house, for too little money, on a Wednesday morning. The deacons shook my hand, and I walked out into the October sun, clutching a skinny cashier’s check.
I called Ransom, and he didn’t pick up. I called again, and he told me his secretary had seen my number come up too many times on his phone bill, in the early morning hours and late at night, and she was talking.
It must’ve been true. I was getting snubbed everywhere I went. On Saturday, Ransom’s wife came to my house, leaning on a cane, and yelled at me, saying I’d seduced her husband same as Delilah troubled Sampson. I have one thing to say about that. For a shut-in, she sure had a good set of lungs.
I called Ransom when she left, but his number had been disconnected. I drove by the church. The sign announcing Sunday’s sermon read: Genesis – It Was The Woman Who Sinned.
I knew then that Ransom had turned on me, and I felt something die inside. I bought a bottle of Wild Turkey and went down to the river.
The next morning, the sun spilled like heartbreak across Harmony Baptist. I could hear the choir from my spot inside
Mama’s house, which hadn’t been touched since the day she left. Ransom’s sermon was long and loud, and it was noon before the invitation finally began.
I climbed onto the divan, my legs still shaky from the drinking. I pushed back the dusty curtains. The sun felt warm on my naked breasts.
I leaned against the window, listening as the last threads of “Rescue the Perishing” faded and then died, and ached for those church doors to open.
Find out how to get your copy of the Show Off Anthology.