Next to God's House
fiction by Susan Long

he two-mile walk from Young’s Bottom to Kroger in Clendenin took Margaret about an hour, give or take, depending on how long she spent staring into the display windows of Dalton’s, the town’s only department store, at dresses she would never wear, for occasions she was never invited to. Most days, Margaret wore a cotton housedress, its fabric so worn and thin that if you touched it ever so slightly with your eyes closed, you might swear it was silk.

Margaret did not feel sorry for herself, did not feel that life had been unfair. She accepted it matter-of-factly, much like the sun rising each day, three hundred sixty-five days a year for seventy-two years, plus a bonus day every four years, which Margaret duly noted. Once a week, rain or shine, she walked to Kroger to buy food staples, like milk and eggs, which reinforced that hers was a normal life. But, she much preferred the sustenance provided by frozen TV dinners and Little Debbie Nutty Bars. Margaret was especially fond of the Morton 3-Course Chicken-N Dumplings. 

Sometimes, the Strickland boys offered Margaret a ride into town. They’d spot her walking along the side of the road as they sped around the hill in a 1965 Chevrolet Impala. Jimmy, the oldest of the four, was usually driving. He’d slam on the brakes, roll down the window, and yell: “Want a ride?” Margaret kept walking, her thin body propelled by determined legs that had carried her this far in life, and were in no mood to quit, now.

“We were given legs for a reason, might as well use them,” she’d say, wagging her bony index finger at them.

But, when your dreams reside within the boundaries of where your legs will carry you, you may not get as far as you’d hoped.  

The Strickland boys, and others, teased Margaret. They had heard about what the inside of her trailer looked like — frozen TV dinner containers stacked ten-deep on the kitchen counter, newspapers dating back years carpeting the floor, and clothes piled on every available surface. This information came on good authority, from members of the congregation of the Holy Tabernacle Church, which sat right next door to where Margaret lived. The church ladies considered Margaret one of their community projects and routinely knocked on her trailer door to offer up casseroles and free advice on proper hygiene. Margaret resisted a strong urge to throw the ladies out; instead, she quietly accepted their food and advice, and then promptly tossed those out after the ladies retreated.

A small but tidy house, where Margaret had lived with her mother, once stood on what was now the church parking lot. After their mother’s death, John, Margaret’s brother, sold the property to the church; God’s House was expanding and needed more space. As part of the deal, they included a trailer for Margaret. On the rare occasions that she was asked where she lived, she responded: “Next to God’s House.” 

Margaret worked part-time at the church. The Deacon trusted her with the keys, so she’d go early in the morning to clean. All alone in the church, she felt important, 
like God had invited her to a private reception at his house. Sometimes, she sat down in one of the massive, mahogany pews to take a rest from mopping or dusting, but, unlike many who sat there on Sundays, Margaret didn’t ask any favors of God; she already had everything she needed.

She refused to have a telephone in her trailer, so, once a week, John drove up from Charleston to check on her. Margaret claimed she knew when he was about to arrive. Indeed, John never had to knock. 

She flung open the door, rubbing her index finger back and forth under her nose. 

“I knew you were coming,” Margaret said. “My nose has been itching real bad.”

“You taking your medicine, Margaret?” John asked.

“When I remember,” she said.

“You have any more seizures lately?”

“Those boys were throwing rocks at the trailer again,” she said. “I chased them away.”

“They’re just boys,” John said. “They don’t mean no harm.” 

“Bobby Strickland’s sister is getting married next week,” Margaret said. “Got to clean the church real good.”

“Margaret, you’ve got to clean your own house; this place is a health hazard.” John said this each time he visited, and, each time, Margaret picked up a copy of the Clendenin Herald or Charleston Gazette from the floor, rolled it into a tight tube, and swatted John on the shoulder, a girlish giggle erupting. John counted his blessings when she chose the Herald. Clendenin was a town of about two thousand people; Charleston, the state capital, was much larger.

Margaret recorded her daily activities and observations on the gray, flattened-out, cardboard backs of empty Little Debbie Nutty Bars packages, her scrawled handwriting childlike, made worse by several strokes. On the front side of the cardboard, a wholesome looking, red-headed girl wearing a straw hat, Little Debbie herself, beamed, as though she recognized that a
mundane life deserved as much celebration as any other. 

I got up at 4:50 a.m. No Gazette by 6:45. Gazette finally came at 7:20. I went to the church
at 8 to clean. Bud Johnson left his glasses on top of the organ again. I put them in the office.
Ladies Circle must have met last night, coffee cup rings on the table. At 5:50 p.m. Clifford Jones
came to the church in a red pickup truck, carried boxes and pipes and materials inside. I guess
he’s fixing the heater. His truck was still there at 8 p.m. 

John felt bad for Margaret, but he didn’t see how he could do anything more to help. Everything flowed into John, nothing flowed out; his first wife got tired of the tides never turning. When she left with the girls, 
he sat in the same spot for days, like a stagnant puddle of water. Finally, whatever was left inside him evaporated, and, after that, he was dry 
and brittle.

John left Margaret’s and stopped in town for a beer at The Smoke Shop before heading back down the road. He knew the town well. He knew the bar even better. John, his wife, and three daughters had lived in Clendenin for many years, before his wife divorced him and left West Virginia. Soon after, he moved to Charleston to be closer to his job. John remarried and started another family, hoping things would be different this time.

John felt bad for Margaret, but he didn’t see how he could do anything more to help. Everything flowed into John, nothing flowed out; his first wife got tired of the tides never turning. When she left with the girls, he sat in the same spot for days, like a stagnant puddle of water. Finally, whatever was left inside him evaporated, and, after that, he was dry and brittle.

“You in town to see that sister of yours?” Fat Jack had been the bartender at The Smoke Shop for as long as anyone could remember.

“Yes, she won’t get a phone,” John said. “I come every week.”

“She got a loose screw these days?”

“She was always a little different,” John said. “Guess that’s why she never married.”

“Must get lonely with no one around,” Fat Jack said.

“She’s got the church ladies who come over,” John said. “We make our beds, as they say.”

“I guess you’re right. Maybe I’ll stop by and say hello to her one of these days, when I get a chance,” Fat Jack said.

“I wouldn’t recommend it,” John said. “That trailer of hers is a health hazard. You can hardly walk in the door for all the junk.” 

John left the bar, crossed the Elk River Bridge, and made a left turn onto Elk River Road. He’d made this same turn hundreds of times before, and always thought the same thing — this is a dangerous turn. Nothing new ever occurred to him. Even when they tore down the Dairy Queen, which sat right across the road, he never thought: The Dairy Queen used to be there. John’s ex-wife would have said this was proof he was in a rut.

John was tired of making the sixty-five mile round trip to and from Clendenin, once a week. He thought about how stubborn Margaret was. All the women in his life demanded what was impossible for him to give. And, long after they should have figured that out, they still tried to wrench it out of him. This had gone a long way in wearing John out.

He hated to admit it, but sometimes John wished Margaret would die, so he wouldn’t have to make the drive anymore. 

On her walks into town, Margaret played a made-up game. She’d notice an object on the ground—a beer can, a lone sock, an empty bag—and build a story around it, telling it to herself silently, as she walked. What other people discarded, Margaret brought back to life. At home, with nobody around to see it, she might tell the story out loud, acting out the various parts of her drama. She didn’t consider herself crazy. After all, any of the scenarios she speculated about were possible. Women who had husbands and children didn’t have time to devote to stories like she did, but they didn’t know a thing about the world, either; they just pretended they did.

Naomi Tanner, head of the Ladies Circle at church, wasn’t sure how to relate to Margaret, so during her visits she focused on one of two topics, Jesus Christ or Margaret’s imaginary boyfriend.  

“Margaret, you get yourself a boyfriend, yet?” Naomi asked. 

It was hard to say which was more unlikely, for a boyfriend, or Jesus himself, to walk through the door of Margaret’s trailer.

“I had me a boyfriend once,” Margaret said. For a second, she wasn’t sure if she really had, but then she remembered the kiss, the touch.

“Well, isn’t that nice.” Naomi looked at her watch.

“John ran him off,” Margaret said. “Said he wasn’t good enough for me.”

“Well, I’m sure he wasn’t,” Naomi said. “They never are. I’ve got to get back over to the church now.”

“Looks like rain today,” Margaret said.

Naomi quickly stepped outside and headed over to the church. It was a lot easier to talk to Jesus.

          I got up at 5:45. Swept and cleaned glass off the church parking lot from 6:50 a.m. to 8 a.m.
Boys throwing beer bottles, again. Brenda Strickland drove by and blowed her horn. Spent most
of the day writing down names of 55 counties in West Virginia, starting with Bs: Barbour, Braxton,
all the way up to Ws: Wood, Wyoming. Someone left the church light on. Went to check at 10:35 p.m.
To bed at 11 p.m.

Margaret earnestly tended to the parking lot, as if it were still her yard. She imagined the grass growing underneath the asphalt. She knew a thing or two about grass; certain types were harder to kill than others. She believed this was true of the human spirit, as well. 

On warm Sundays, Reverend Breedlove kept the doors of God’s House wide open, and Margaret listened to a discordant melody—congregants singing standard hymns off-key, punctuated by the squeals of fussy babies. At the monthly revival meetings, heaven seemed within close reach of some; screams and talking in tongues pierced the night’s quiet, and it made Margaret uncomfortable. 

Margaret peeked out the only window in her trailer that wasn’t blocked by the scattered pieces of her life, to watch people arriving for Betty Strickland’s wedding. Margaret had never attended a wedding; John had eloped, at least that’s what he liked to call it. Bonnie was already starting to show when they got married by a justice of the peace up in Big Sandy. She had been to several funerals, the last one being her mother’s. Margaret understood that people dressed up and cried a lot at both. It wasn’t always easy to distinguish tears of joy from tears of sadness; they tasted the same to her. 

Car doors slammed. Women powdered their noses one last time and jerked their children’s hands to move more quickly. Men, looking not a little uncomfortable and out of place, adjusted their belts and ties and took one last puff on their cigarettes. Margaret stared at the parking lot, once a grassy oasis where she searched for four-leaf clovers. She could still smell the recently poured asphalt blacktop, and it made her sick to her stomach.

One Tuesday, Margaret didn’t show up at the church; it took two days before anyone noticed. She prided herself on keeping God’s House sparkling clean, and it tended to stay that way. The congregation of the Holy Tabernacle Church took to heart that cleanliness was next to Godliness and did a good job of picking up after themselves. 

Thursday, when the Ladies Circle met, one of the women noticed Bud Johnson’s glasses on top of the organ.

“That’s strange,” Connie Grayson said, after the opening prayer.

“What’s strange?” Naomi asked.

“Bud’s glasses are on the organ.”

“So, he must have left them there, again,” Naomi said.

“But, Margaret always puts them in the office when she finds them, there.”

“Maybe she finally got herself a boyfriend and left town,” Naomi said.

“Sure, and maybe I’m the Queen of England,” Connie said.

The ladies laughed, but not their church laughs. There was a dark edge to their laughter that caught them off guard for a split second, but they quickly recovered.

“Who wants to volunteer to go over there?” Naomi asked.

“She’s probably sleeping.” I can’t bear to smell that trashy trailer of hers. Beth Taylor nervously fanned herself with her prayer book, trying to suppress the thoughts she was having in God’s House.

“Well, I suggest we wait until morning,” Naomi said. “I’ll send someone over first thing.”

Bobby Tanner, Naomi’s husband, stopped by Margaret’s trailer early the next morning. After three knocks and no answer, he opened the door. Margaret lay stretched out like the morning’s banner headline on top of the Heralds and Gazettes. 

John drove up, and funeral arrangements were made. Reverend Breedlove apologized that the services couldn’t be held at the Holy Tabernacle Church, because Margaret wasn’t officially a member. Instead, they were held at the local funeral parlor across the street from where the Dairy Queen once stood.

Several women from the Ladies Circle attended the viewing of Margaret’s body, and, for once, had no need to address her hygiene.

“I tried to get her to eat better,” Naomi whined.

“I know,” John said. “We all did.”

“She’s with God now,” Reverend Breedlove said.

“Yes, she’s not alone anymore,” John said. “She’s better off.”

“This might not be the right time to bring it up, but have you thought about what you want to do with the trailer?”  Reverend Breedlove asked.

“Haven’t thought about it,” John said. “It’s a mess.”

“Give me a call, when you’re ready,” Reverend Breedlove said. “We could sure use some more space to expand the parking lot.”

John left the funeral parlor and headed home. As he made the left turn onto Elk River Road, he thought: This is a dangerous turn.

Susan Long was born and raised in Clendenin, West Virginia. Her work has appeared in the Orlando Sentinel, Voices of Lung Cancer, several AAA member magazines, and Journalism Educator. Susan has written two novels, Blue Impala, based on a short story of the same name, a finalist in Glimmer Train’s “Short Story Award for New Writers,” and Waiting in Place. A chapter from Blue Impala appeared in Appalachia Bare in 2023, and her short story, “Bookmobile,” was published there in 2024. She is currently working on a collection, Dreams of Appalachia—Take Me Home: Stories and Essays. After receiving a master’s degree in English from C.W. Post-Long Island University, Susan taught high school English and, subsequently, worked for several PR firms in Manhattan. She later moved to Orlando, where she was an assistant professor in the Communications department at the University of Central Florida and a senior writer/manager of National Promotions and Communications at AAA’s national headquarters.

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