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Karma at the Charlie Hotel: Fiction by Louella Lester
Acceptable Margin of Inventory Loss: Fiction by Charlie Kondek
The Racing Rocks: Fiction by Kenneth James Crist
The Preacher Woman of Reverie, Oklahoma: Fiction by Ann Marie Potter
Justice Served: Fiction by Glen Bush
A Broken String of Love Beads: Fiction by Hillary Lyon
Revenge and Redemption: Fiction by Walt Trizna
Thirst: Fiction by Cindy Rosmus
The Solar Punks: Fiction by James Blakey
Rito Was a High Number: Fiction by Fred Andersen
The Parcel: Fiction by Robb White
Red Wine and Cyanide: Fiction by Adrian Fahy
The Crowd: Fiction by Jack Garrett
The Offal Truth: Fiction by Scott MacLeod
Madam Maree Sees Your Future: Flash Fiction by Jon Park
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Promises: Flash fiction by Richard Brown
No Need to Cry: Flash Fiction by Zvi A. Sesling
The Classy Woman: Flash Fiction by William Kitcher
oh how i wish: Poem by Rob Plath
Bird in Flight, Nullarbor Plain, 1967: Poem by John Doyle
Pools: Poem by Bernice Holtzman
I Exist Inside an Invisible Poem Everlasting & Overflowing: Poem by Dr. Mel Waldman
Let me drop the last chapter: Poem by Partha Sarkar
Excursion: The Cruise Ship Chronicles: Poem by Jake Sheff
We'll Always Have Two Things to Hold: Poem by Chandu Govind
why nothing else matters: Poem by John Sweet
the pale grey light of forgotten afternoons: Poem by John Sweet
Orchestra Class: Poem by Elizabeth Zelvin
The Old Lady Shows Her Mettle: Poem by Elizabeth Zelvin
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Pretty Face: Poem by Peter Mladinic
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My Death Knells: Poem by Richard LeDue
Poems as Cheap as Christmas Lights: Poem by Richard LeDue
Dead Work: Poem by John Grey
How He Died: Poem by John Grey
The Man in Their Midst: Poem by John Grey
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4 AM: Poem by Craig Kirchner
Leap Year: Poem by Craig Kirchner
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Dark Tales from Gent's Pens

Ann Marie Potter: The Preacher Woman of Reverie, Oklahoma

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Art by Lonni Lees © 2024

The Preacher Woman of Reverie, Oklahoma

Ann Marie Potter

 

          Melvin Campbell didn’t talk about much besides the price of wheat, football, and the upcoming NASCAR season. Except when he and Carnie Roe were parked in a booth at Jolie’s diner. Then he became an expert on just about everything.

          “It’s not right. Says so in the Bible. Don’t let women talk in church. And sure as hell don’t let ‘em preach.”

          “Not sure you can stop it,” Carnie said, pushing away his plate and doing his best to suppress a wet belch. “We could always go to a different church. There’s no shortage.”

          It was true. There were two pages of churches in the Reverie Yellow Pages.  Oklahoma built its fortresses against hedonism practically on top of each other. There were the Baptists, Lutherans, Nazarenes, Episcopals, and Methodists that clogged up the downtown parking on Sunday mornings and took over the Hutter Park picnic tables in the afternoon. The Holiness folks stuck to the edges of town where their shouting didn’t disturb everyone else. There were a few oddballs, like the Mennonites who didn’t seem to do any harm and the Quakers who were worthless in war, but okay the rest of the time. The sky above Reverie, Oklahoma was skewered with more steeples than testicles at a Calf Fry. The devil was going to have to wiggle long and hard to make it through a crack in the town’s shield of Godliness. Unless people who weren’t paying attention just let him in. Like the Catholics who, thankfully, pretty much kept their sins to themselves, or ignoramus liberals who let a female parade around with a Holy Bible, pretending to be a preacher.

          Melvin froze Carnie with a glare that could have curdled the boysenberry syrup. His words were like bullets, barely making it past his jaw, bright red and bulging with rage. “I been at Christ the Redeemer for sixty years and, by God, my funeral will be there. And it won’t be no woman saying that part about dust and dirt and whatever. We gotta find a way to get rid of her, that’s all there is to it.”

          Carnie’s eyes grew wide, and his weathered face appeared troubled. Either his extra order of bacon was kicking him in the gut, or he was picturing a body in a burlap bag, feeding the crappie at the Coopers Ridge Reservoir. “I got kinfolk serving forever and a day in McAlester. I don’t really want to go there for a family reunion.”

          Melvin seemed to shiver a bit, no doubt thinking of his great-nephew Derrick, doing ten to twenty for trying to kill one of his college professors. Stupid, scrawny kid, no doubt lost his virginity to a pecker owned by someone covered in prison ink. If a jogger hadn’t rescued the half-drownt teacher from the soup, Derrick would be ready for dentures before he ever lay down with a woman.  “Nah, nothing like that.” Melvin said. He pulled a toothpick from the dispenser and worked the plastic with his meaty hands. They were farmer’s hands, never-clean and scarred from encounters with twine and stubborn cotter pins. Toothpick between lips, he seemed to have a sudden inspiration. “Tracy coming home for Christmas? “

          “End of next week for a month. Linda’s looking forward to it. Why?”

          “Well, I was just thinking…” Whatever Melvin was thinking had him squirming like a five-year-old facing a mound of cooked spinach. Most telling, he couldn’t look Carnie in the eye. “This pastor woman has got to be a lesbo, right? A real woman wouldn’t act like that. And Tracy is an awfully pretty girl…”

          Carnie’s face, normally lazy and serene, contorted into a mask of barely controlled fury. “You saying my girl is funny like that?” If his belly hadn’t been wedged tight under the table, he would have come out of the booth.

          Melvin held up both hands to mollify his best friend. “Of course not. But the lesbo won’t know that. If we can get her to make a pass at Tracy, we can send her packing.”

          Carnie used two fingers and a thumb to grasp his own nose, as if feeling the thick imaginary ring threaded through his nostrils. He’d never been able to say no to Melvin, not since grade school. There was no mystery in their relationship. Carnie had been the short, fat kid whose weekly baths in the family fishpond had left him smelling worse than the mud that oozed between his bare toes. Melvin hadn’t been popular by any stretch of the imagination, but he’d had the bulk of a WWE wrestler-in-the-making. Carnie had needed a shield from the bullies and Melvin had needed someone who thought he was worth following around. They were two possum-witted country boys destined to grow old together, one wheat harvest at a time.

          “It might work,” Carnie said, “But I swear to God, if that woman touches my baby…”

          Melvin snickered. “You’ve got to be kidding. You’re talking about the girl who popped Jimmy Westerlake in the snozz. Five times. Left him lying in the cow pasture being sniffed by a very interested bull.

 

          Melvin and Carnie had been too young for Vietnam and too dependent on Dr. Scholl’s and Preparation H for Iraq, but they’d spent their most impressionable years on Melvin’s couch, watching reruns of The Rat Patrol, 12 O’Clock High, and Combat! The next step was reconnaissance and that meant getting a look at the new lady pastor.  Truth be told, though, she wasn’t much to look at. “It’s a good thing she’s a lesbo,” Melvin whispered to Carnie who was in the pew beside him, clawing at his neck to keep from strangling in his tie. “No way she’s gonna push a decent-sized kid out of those skinny haunches. I’ve seen more meat on a finch-bird.” Her head was as skinny as her haunches, covered in medium-brown fuzzy curls wrangled into two plain white plastic barrettes. Her glasses, reflecting off the light above the podium, hid the color of her eyes. She was in every way plain and uninteresting. If her body had any female shapes, they were hidden beneath a thick brown sweater and wool skirt. Black stockings and shoes bespoke bank teller—a bank teller with a clerical collar.

          “I thought she’d be older,” Carnie whispered. “She can’t be more than twenty-five.”

          Melvin’s response was drowned out by the opening hymn. Two dozen voices drug themselves through “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” but other mouths were clamped shut in disapproval bordering on rage. More than a few members of the congregation, having gotten a good look at the church’s dive into sinfulness, headed for the back door, and none too quietly. There were new faces, though, young and female and looking at the curly-haired woman with something like wonder.

          “I liked her preaching,” Linda Roe said, dropping a handful of napkins in the middle of the dining room table. Caroline Campbell took a few but the menfolk seemed content to use their shirtfronts, finger-painting on themselves with canary-yellow butter and barn-red barbeque sauce. “She does a good sermon.”

          “Yeah,” Caroline agreed, “You can’t really go wrong with “What the Donkey Saw on Christmas Eve.”

          “That was cute,” Linda said. “And the kids just ate it up, especially when she started making donkey sounds.”

          Carnie grunted and Melvin sighed the sigh of the dying. Their wives ignored them and started carrying dishes into the kitchen. “Did you talk to Tracy?” Melvin asked. He kept his voice low. The wives were usually sticklers for the Bible, but they sure didn’t have much to say about this mess.

          “Yeah. She wasn’t very happy about it, but she’ll do it. She has a tape-recording thing on her phone. If the woman says something nasty, we’ll have proof.”

          Despite all their clandestine planning, the “great lesbo-trap-caper” came to nothing. Melvin and Carnie let Tracy out of the truck and drove around the corner to park on Elm Street. Melvin pulled his John Deere cap over his eyes and leaned back for a nap. Carnie, who had just sent his innocent baby girl into the lion’s den of depravity, could barely sit still, especially as the minutes passed by. All for a recording of the lady pastor saying, “I’m not gay, Tracy. And even if I was, I don’t believe in opportunistic sex of any variety. Straight or gay, the physical aspect has to spring from the emotional. Call me old-fashioned, but relationship and commitment have to come first. That’s how we earn the pleasure of the physical. When we are absolutely sure we are not using each other out of selfishness.”

          “Well, that was worthless,” Melvin said after listening to the recording. Of course, neither one thought to question the fact that it had taken nearly fifteen minutes for Tracy to come up with the forty-second mini-sermon from the pastor. Neither guessed that the two women had slurped coffee and munched oatmeal raisin cookies as Tracy explained the devious plot of her father and his partner in idiocy. It gave the pastor time to consider the words she would speak into Tracy’s recording app. It gave Tracy time to text Meredith Mae, the woman she’d been sleeping with since junior year.

 

          “We need to do it with a man.”

          “I’m sorry?” Carnie said, jiggling his worm. Anything to wake up the damn crappie, no doubt sitting on the bottom, laughing.

          “We need to send in a boy to trap the harpy. All that self-righteous bullshit about relationship and commitment. We’ll send in a boy to catch her panting and moaning between the sheets. That would get her run out of town on a pig-cart.”

          “Well don’t look at me,” Carnie said lazily. “You’re the one with the son. Think Melvy would do it?”

          Melvin jiggled his own worm, sucked on one corner of his mustache, and thought. “Wouldn’t have any choice. I’m holding the paper on that truck he loves so much. Besides, he hasn’t had all that much luck with women. This would give him a free practice throw. She ain’t all that pretty, but he could close his eyes. She’s probably a virgin, so he wouldn’t get no diseases. Plus, she’s white, so no harm, no foul.”

          Two days later, Melvin Campbell Jr., Melvy to those willing to put up with him, took a bath in his father’s aftershave and went to call on Reverie Oklahoma’s one-and-only female preacher. “I don’t think it would be appropriate for you to come into the rectory, Mr. Campbell, but I’d be willing to take a walk with you. We could look at the Christmas decorations.” It was hard to tell if the pastor had made the suggestion out of propriety, or to escape the cloud of Caballo Blanco that was clogging her sinuses and making her eyes water.

          Reverie, Oklahoma, doesn’t lend itself to long and leisurely strolls, romantic or otherwise.  The Reverend and Melvy Campbell wandered past the Bridger’s house and admired their eight-foot Santa, still regal despite a life-long accumulation of duct tape. Bedded down in the Jenson’s Nativity scene, baby Jesus had been replaced by a decapitated action figure. Now the well-muscled, headless infant seemed intent on crawling out of the felt-lined manger to escape into the dead buffalograss of the neighbor’s lawn. The trim houses of Salem Street gave way to the discreet businesses of Duck Avenue—two body shops and the cable company—before emptying out in a red-dirt wash behind the CVS. The couple walked on, sometimes silent, sometimes venturing into shy speech. The reverend seemed to choose her words carefully, no doubt remembering Melvy’s parentage and Tracy’s brief career in espionage. “So, are you going to follow in your father’s footsteps, Mr. Campbell? Become a farmer?”

          “I am, Reverend.” His tone was a mix of little-boy shyness, teen bravado, and young-man seriousness. “Though I’d like to work more with cattle than crops. Start a herd, plant a garden, run enough chickens and pigs for eggs, fryers, and pork chops.”

          “Sounds nice, Mr. Campbell.” There was a kind of wistfulness in her tone.        Like it sounded really nice.

          “Please, call me Melvy, Reverend.”

          “And you can call me Alice. Alice Olivia McCann to be exact.”

 

          “They been seeing an awful lot of each other,” Carnie said, his smile barely hidden behind his coffee mug. “When you think Melvy is going to take that “free throw” you been talking about? Folks been gossiping about it for months. They go to the movies or eat out at the steakhouse on Fridays, but Melvy never spends the night. Drops her off and gives her a polite little smooch on the cheek.”

          A glare and a growl was about all Melvin could manage in his misery. Just yesterday, Melvy had parked his truck in his parent’s driveway, stomped into the house, dropped the keys in his father’s lap, and said he’d rather walk the rest of his life than hurt so fine a woman as Alice Olivia McCann. Caroline, who was already making clucky mother-in-law noises, had looked like she wanted to applaud. Suddenly, Melvin was the dog in his own house, full of chickpea farts and fleas.

 

          Alice sorted through her blouses and skirts, rejecting anything on the Easter egg spectrum. In the end, she chose a charcoal skirt and leg-of-mutton sleeved blouse the color of old lace. In other words, she would arrive at the Campbell house looking like Jimmy Carter’s mother.  “I love Melvy,” she’d told her sister in their early-afternoon phone call, “and Mrs. Campbell’s been really nice to me. But Mr. Campbell is going to be a trial, for sure.” Sister Lydia was thrilled about the wedding, offered to bake the cake, and commiserated about idiotic in-laws. After all, her own husband’s father had called the sheriff on her for sending her son off to kindergarten with a flowered backpack.

          Civility lasted through baked chicken, garlic potato wedges, green peas with mint, whole wheat dinner rolls and sweet tea. Melvy spent the meal making sure his beloved got the adoring glances she deserved while his mother asked questions about flowers and reception halls. Linda Roe offered to help with the food while Melvin glared and mumbled nonsense about the price of weddings that probably shouldn’t happen anyway. Carnie sat beside his best friend like a mute appendage. By the time the apple cobbler was making its second go-around, Melvin Campbell Sr. could no longer behave himself. He’d spent half the previous night looking up stuff in the Bible and seemed mighty proud of his findings. “The Apostle Paul said not to let women talk in church! It’s right there in Timothy!”

          Alice, who no doubt believed the Apostle Paul needed a good pop in the nose when she got to heaven, was no stranger to Melvin’s limp argument. Her denomination had been ordaining women since the early 70’s but that didn’t stop a few of her seminary classmates from treating her like a leper or a heretic. Invitations to social events were conspicuously absent in her student mailbox. She’d walked into classrooms to find caricatures of herself drawn on the blackboard, a false penis attached to her cartoon body. Her tires had been slashed and her mailbox filled with manure. After graduation, she’d wondered how men with such innate streaks of cruelty had fared in a profession that demanded compassion. Early on she had tried to point out that there was evidence that the author of Timothy had been addressing his comments about women preachers to a specific audience—a Matriarchal cult with a reputation for screeching like banshees during church services. Eventually, however, she realized that she was wasting her time and breath in correcting narratives deftly sculpted by insecure men determined to guard their turf at any cost. For some, it seems that a woman in the pulpit signals the end of all things masculine, if not imminent castration. Their anxiety spikes and they go down screaming like piglets facing the snip.

          Once Alice had worked through it in her own mind, she no longer needed to convince others of her calling to the ministry. She knew who she was and what she was meant to do with her life. She gave Melvin her standard answer. “I was called to be a pastor, Mr. Campbell and God knew my gender when he called me.”

          Melvin wasn’t giving up, though. “But it’s in the Bible!”

          It was Melvin’s wife who helped him decide it was time to finish his cobbler and go to the back porch to smoke a cigar. “The Bible also says to pluck out your eyeballs if you lust after a woman. That’s going to make it pretty hard to read those magazines you have in the bottom drawer of your tool-chest, dear.”

Two weeks later, on the drive to the rehearsal dinner, Melvin grumbled continuously about having to associate with liberal snowflakes who just needed to give up and melt. It was likely that he was anticipating being snubbed by the preacher-woman’s parents. Caroline had spent time with Mrs. McCann and kept insisting that she was very nice, but Melvin accused his wife of being soft on sin, blinded by bouquets, and deafened by wedding bells. She wasn’t the only one. The mothers of the bride and groom, who appeared to be velcroed together, were yammering in a language no male of the species could possibly understand. Melvin found himself in an aluminum chair munching ham on a roll and wishing it was Miller time. Beside him, Amos McCann sat munching roast beef on a roll and looking bewildered. It was Alice’s father that finally broke the silence.

          “The wife and I are so pleased with Melvy. He seems like a real nice boy. Respectful of our Alice.”

          “They do seem well suited,” Melvin said. He seemed surprised to hear himself say it and even more surprised that he meant it. He was probably more surprised at the wedding when—no doubt thinking about Melvy’s first fish, first deer, and first football game—his eyes got wet. Sitting beside him—no doubt thinking about Melvy’s first step, first word, and first day of school—Caroline seemed to be doing her best to drown her corsage in tears. A mere six months later, Melvin, Carnie, and Amos McCann took themselves off to drink beer on the back porch while Caroline, Linda, and Emma McCann sat in the living room, turning a lifetime supply of yarn into baby accoutrements.

          It’s a cliché that a grandchild can melt even the crustiest of hearts, but sometimes clichés are the annoying shadows of reality. Named after Melvin’s mother, may she rest in peace, Aleah Emma Campbell got a firm grip on Melvin Sr.’s heart the minute she stopped looking like a terrifyingly-small pink mini-piglet and started looking like the prettiest little thing he was ever likely to see on earth. Bobbling her on his knee while her mother was busy preaching, Melvin was no doubt thinking about the years to come. Surely it would do no great harm to the universe if he taught her to fish and hunt and drive a tractor.

Ann Marie Potter is in her last year of a PhD program at Oklahoma State University while enjoying her first year in the beautiful state of Wyoming. Her work has been published in The Storyteller, The Meadow, Peauxdunque Review, and Literally Stories.

 Lonni Lees is a multi-award-winning writer in both fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.  Her stories appear in Hardboiled magazine, Yellow Mama, A Shot of Ink, Shotgun Honey, Black Petals, Einstein’s Pocket Watch, All Due Respect, and in the anthologies Deadly Dames and More Whodunits. Among her numerous writing awards over the years, she has award-winning stories in Felons, Flames, and Ambulance Rides, Battling Boxing Stories, and her published short story collection, Crawlspace. Broken won first place and is her 4th published novel. Her first novel Deranged won the PSWA First Place award for best published novel. Her next novel, The Mosaic Murder, was followed with a sequel, The Corpse in the Cactus, which won First Place and was published in the U.S. and UK. She won several other writing awards for her short stories, including Grand Prize.

 

 She received both art and a nonfiction Creative Writing Awards from NLAPW, California South branch, an organization of women writers, artists, and composers, and she served as President from 1982–1984. She is a current member of Sisters in Crime, PSWA, and Arizona Mystery Writers, where she was the first writer to win two consecutive awards in their annual short story contest.

 

 Twice Lonni was selected as Writer-in-Residence at Hedgebrook, a writer’s retreat on Whidbey Island. After living in four states and visiting many countries, she’s settled in Tucson, AZ. She fills her spare time showing her art at WomanKraft Gallery, reminiscing on all her travel adventures, illustrating stories for online magazines, and dreaming up new tales to tell.

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