Sunday Clothes, Chapter 17

December 13, 2018

“And the old fella says to the doctor, ‘Who says Grandpaw wanted to get married?’” As soon as the punch line was out of his mouth, Pete Norwich guffawed loudly.

“Pete! Honestly!” his wife said in a shocked tone, but Zeb noticed she was smiling behind her napkin.

Becky shook her head, grinning despite her slight blush. “Daddy, I’ve got half a mind not to let you speak at the table anymore if all you’re going to do is embarrass us in front of our guests.”

“Oh, now Becky, come on! Mr. Douglas here didn’t take offense at my little joke. Sakes, I’ve told that one at church before!” laughter

“Not when I’ve been around, you haven’t!” his wife said.

Zeb chuckled politely, more at the reactions of Pete’s wife and daughter than at the joke itself. It was slightly off-color, but, Zeb had to admit, pretty funny.

“Mrs. Norwich, could you please pass some more of that delicious corn?”

“That’s the way—duck out on me right when I need reinforcements,” Pete Norwich said. “Well, as long as you’re at it, pass that corn on around here when you’re done.”

“Mr. Douglas, would you please hand me the potatoes?” Becky said. Zeb passed the bowl of mashed potatoes to her, seated to his left.

“Here you go,” he said. As he handed her the bowl, her fingers brushed across the back of his hand. He was almost sure it was unintentional.

Zeb had caught himself wondering about her age, about why she was still living with her parents when her two younger brothers were already out making their own ways in the world. Zeb had caught himself thinking other things about Rebecca Norwich, too; things that he did his best to shoo from his mind as soon as they entered—things about her easygoing manner, her quick smile, the freckles scattered like brown sugar across her cheeks and the bridge of her nose, the way the sunlight glinted in her blonde hair, the way that blonde hair might feel between his fingers …

“Pete, why don’t you let me come down to your office tomorrow and show you what our company can do for your savings?” Zeb said. “We’ve got some of the best guarantees in the business, and I think we could—”

“Oh, land sakes, here he goes again!” Pete said. “Have the boy over for Sunday dinner and he starts twisting my arm about insurance before the chicken’s even cold! Makes a body reluctant to show hospitality to strangers.”

“Now, Pete, you hush!” said Ruth. “Zeb’s not going to finagle you out of any money—and besides that, he’s not a stranger. I don’t know why you won’t at least hear out his proposition.”

“Lord a’ mighty! He’s got to my own wife now! What’s a fellow to do?”

“Sounds to me like you ought to just buy something from him, Daddy,” Becky said. ‘‘I’d bet that’d be the best way to get him off on somebody else.”

“‘Fraid not, Miss,” Zeb said. “Soon as I sell this old mossback one policy, I’ll be after him for something else. Any boy in knickers can tell you it’s easier to keep a wheel rim rolling after you get up some momentum.”

“Well, at least he’s honest!” Pete said. “I like that in a swindler.”

“To tell the truth, Mr. Douglas,” Becky said, “I must confess I don’t see how you do what you do.”

“What’s that?”

“Walk up to perfect strangers and convince them to trust you enough to buy a life insurance policy from you; give you their hard–earned money in exchange for something they’ll never even see.”

“Well—”

“It’s ‘cause he’s got a silver tongue and a line of malarkey that’ll reach from here to the top of the capitol dome,” said Pete.

“Pete! Hush!”

Zeb grinned. “In all fairness, Mrs. Norwich, your husband’s got a point. Being able to talk to folks is a pretty big help. But, of course, you’ve also got to know what you’re talking about, and you’ve got to sincerely believe that you’ve got the answer to their biggest problem—”

“And do you?” Becky interrupted.

Zeb looked at her. “Do I—what?” portrait

“Have the answer to their biggest problem?” She smiled.

Zeb felt an odd tension in his chest, but he tried to shove it out of his awareness. “Well, every man’s gonna die, but not every man’s got enough money saved up for his family to live on after he’s gone. So … yes, I guess I do.” He looked at her as he finished. Her strange smile puzzled him, intimated that he’d answered a different question than the one she’d asked.

“Well, I think I’ll go out and spend all mine while I’m still kicking,” said Pete, “and let Ruth and Becky makeshift for themselves when I’m pushing up daisies.”

Zeb winked at Ruth. “Mrs. Norwich, it sounds like I better write him up today and not wait till tomorrow.”

‘‘Absolutely!” she said. Pete grabbed his heart and moaned while everyone else laughed.

*******

Walking back toward the hotel, Zeb stared at the sidewalk in front of his feet and thought about the Norwiches. They were such nice folks. This was the third Sunday in a row Zeb had eaten lunch with them. Pete Norwich was a most companionable fellow, and Ruth, his wife, was as gracious as she was hospitable. Zeb truly enjoyed the cordiality and open, easy manner of this family. They had immediately made him feel welcome at church, for which he was grateful.

And … Becky. Zeb felt a twinge of something that might have been guilt—but why? he asked himself. He hadn’t behaved any less than properly toward her. Could he help it if the family had taken a shine to him? He was a married man, after all, and wasn’t about to do anything foolish.

Now that he thought of it, had anyone at the Norwich household ever asked him about his home and family? Absently, he rubbed the third finger of his left hand. Lots of men he knew didn’t wear wedding bands, he thought, a little defensively. Besides, that was Addie’s lookout. He’d bought her a ring; she could get one for him if she wanted him to wear it.

Becky’s question stayed with him. Not so much the question, really, as the interest it implied. He wished Addie would show evidence of some interest in what he did to put bread on the table and a roof over their heads. She had never really asked him about his business, never shown much curiosity about what he did all the time he was away from her. But he noticed she never turned down any of the things it bought for her.

And then an unmistakable sense of guilt jabbed at his insides. He shouldn’t throw off on Addie so! After all, she was the mother of his child! He had courted her and won her and promised to take care of her when her own father had pushed her out. He thought of her, standing on the doorstep of their new house, holding Mary Alice and waving good–bye to him as he left to catch his train. He thought of her as she lay beside him in their bed at night, recalled the smell of her hair, the softness of her neck against his cheek. A warm, penitent glow of protectiveness spread through his chest. courting

He decided to go home the very next weekend. He might even try to find time to go by that notions shop around the corner from the Gleason, try to find something nice for Addie and Mary Alice. Thinking of this made him feel better, and by the time he got to the front door of the hotel, he was whistling a jaunty tune and tipping his hat at passersby.

*******

The look on her face when she opened the door and saw him was worth a thousand dollars at least. Her eyes went wide and her face lit up with a surprised joy that made him wish he could go away and come back again right now, just to see it.

“Well, hello!” she said, and opened her arms to him. Their embrace lasted a long time but not long enough.

Mary Alice bobbed into the room, attracted by the commotion. Zeb’s heart turned over when he saw her. She stood with a finger in her mouth, trailing a rag doll along behind her by one soiled, unkempt pigtail. He knelt down and held out his arms.

“Hello, little lady,” he smiled. “Come give your daddy a hug.”

She stared at him doubtfully.

“Come on, sweetie,” urged Addie. “You better give Daddy a hug.” The child made a few tentative steps toward him before he swooped upon her and grabbed her to him, kissing her loudly several times on each cheek. He set her back down and she stepped quickly to her mother, holding on to her skirts and looking back at him—not exactly in fear, but not in amusement either.

“She’ll get used to you,” Addie said, looking down at her and stroking her hair. “Besides, it’s been, what? Nearly three weeks this time?”

He willed himself not to display annoyance at his daughter’s caution or his wife’s veiled rebuke.

“Well, maybe this’ll warm her up some,” he said, producing a brightly wrapped parcel from the pocket of his greatcoat. He knelt and held it out to Mary Alice. “I brought you something, sugar,” he said, coaxing her. “Something you can use to fix up that dolly’s hair.”

Mary Alice’s eyes went to the package like a moth to a candle flame. It was wrapped in bright blue paper and tied with a red satin bow that gleamed like the day before Christmas. She paced slowly toward it. When she reached him, her gaze shifted from the parcel to his face, making sure he wasn’t about to pounce again. She took the package and retreated a step or two, then plopped down on the floor and began worrying at the bow.

Zeb stood and walked over to Addie. ‘‘And here’s something for her mama,” he said, handing her a slightly larger package done up like the first, in blue and white. As she took it from him, he kissed her on the cheek and began removing his coat.

“Oh, Zeb!” Addie withdrew from the unwrapped box a shimmering silver chain attached to a gold–filigreed silver locket. “It’s so pretty!”

“Aren’t you gonna open it?”

She pried open the catch. Inside was a tiny photograph of her husband. She smiled at him.

He shrugged and grinned. “Don’t want you to forget what I look like while I’m gone.”

Mary Alice made a frustrated whimper. locket

“Here, dumplin’, let me help,” Zeb said. He squatted beside her and tugged the ribbons off the corners of the box and started a small tear in the paper. In the tentative manner of children more interested in the wrapping than the contents, Mary Alice slowly tore off one corner of the paper, then another. Gradually, she revealed a small rectangular box, which proved to contain a miniature comb fashioned of tortoiseshell.

When he again looked up at Addie, she was clutching the locket to her with both hands and regarding him with a fond, glistening expression that quickened his pulse.

*******

Charles McCrary stood in the vestibule of Twelfth Avenue Church of Christ, his Bible tucked beneath one elbow, and spoke to each member of his flock—Christ’s flock, he reminded himself—as they passed him on their way out the door. “Good to see you, Sister Crenshaw; glad you’re doing better … Morning, C. L. Your knee giving you anymore trouble? Hello, there, Janey! I sure like that bonnet your mama put on you today!” His facial expression was much relaxed from the professional scowl he usually affected in the pulpit. In the vestibule, he tried to be more accessible to the congregation.

As he stood here on Sunday mornings, he imagined himself as one of the sheep tenders of the Lord’s homeland: carefully watching each beast as it stepped over the threshold of the fold on its way to pasture, looking for signs of disease or infirmity that required the healing hands of the shepherd. Did this one have an infected cut that needed binding? Did that one need the burrs picked out of its coat? Was that lamb gaining weight as it should?

But sometimes he wondered how much he really knew. Sometimes, as he smiled into their faces and shook their hands and laughed at their childrens’ comments, he wondered what hidden hurts haunted their dreams at night, what silent sins nagged at them in secret. There were times when he wished he could do more than warn them from the pulpit. But he was, after all, only a minister of the gospel, an earthen vessel—Second Corinthians four, seven. There was only so much he could do. flock

*******

Addie shuffled along toward the vestibule, holding Mary Alice on one hip with Beulah Counts at her other side murmuring in her ear, “… thought I was absolutely going to fall asleep if he didn’t finish pretty soon—” Beulah’s face brightened and her voice increased in volume as she extended her hand to Brother McCrary. “That sure was a good lesson today, Brother McCrary!” she said as the preacher smiled at her.

“Well, Sister Counts, thank you. Sister Douglas, good to see you,” he said, turning to Addie.

As he shifted his attention to her, Addie noticed the light glancing off his spectacles.

“You, too,” she replied, nodding.

“Is Zeb gone back to Little Rock?” the minister said. “Noticed he wasn’t here this morning.”

“Yes, sir. He left last Wednesday to go back.”

“Well, fine. Good morning, Brother Chandler,” he said, reaching past Addie toward the next person in line.

‘‘Addie, why don’t you and the baby come on home with us and eat dinner?” Beulah suggested as they stepped out into the gray light of the overcast autumn day.

Addie sighed. “Oh, Beulah, I hate to impose on you again—”

“Don’t be silly, honey, it’s no trouble! I’ll just set an extra place and we’ll fix Mary a little pallet for her to take her nap, and you and I can sit and get caught up on …”

The afternoon’s itinerary droned on, but Addie stopped listening. It was no use. Once Beulah decided to do you a charity, there was no escape. It was just easier to go along with her. Moments ago, Addie had been puzzling over what she would fix for herself and Mary Alice to eat, but now she was gazing wistfully in her mind at her quiet parlor, with only Mary Alice’s baby jabber to put up with.

Addie managed an occasional nod or indistinct murmur of agreement, so as to keep Beulah’s conversational skids greased. She was vaguely grateful Beulah’s husband had not driven the horseless carriage to church this morning. Instead of having to balance Mary Alice on her lap and endure its jostling and stench, they could have a nice, sane walk for the ten or twelve blocks between the church house and the Counts’ home. women

She wondered how Zeb was doing, and what he was doing. He hadn’t talked much about Little Rock this last time, which was both a relief and a curiosity. In the past, he had talked so much about the “good things happening with the agency’’ that she had grown mortally weary. It was hard to preserve the appearance of calm, detached interest—the only way she had found to negotiate the shoals of Zeb’s professional enthusiasm. “Why don’t you ask me how I feel about something?” she often wanted to say. “Why don’t you at least try to talk about something I want to talk about, something that’s interesting to me?” She felt like one of Zeb’s prospects sometimes—like she was being sold on something she’d already bought and paid for. Still, he was her husband and a good provider for her and Mary Alice. The funds he deposited in their bank account on his trips home were more than adequate to keep them all fed and clothed, and supply some nice things, besides. It almost made her ashamed to be impatient with Zeb, as hard as he worked and as easy as she had it. So, out of consideration, instead of showing how she really felt, she tried to be just a shade more than polite—without being so encouraging that he went on and on and on.

She glanced over her shoulder at Will Counts, stepping along behind them with his sons. Will was usually a quiet man—with Beulah as his wife, how could it be otherwise? Addie had the fleeting thought that perhaps Will suggested her invitation to Beulah, to give her someone besides himself to talk at. But, at least Beulah and Will were home together at night. At least Beulah didn’t have to stare up at her bedroom ceiling, missing her husband and wondering how he was, or whether he was giving any thought to her. There was something to be said, after all, for just being together.

A tiny smile fluttered on her lips as she reflected on Zeb’s last furlough. He had been—how could she put it?—here—really here with her, she decided, at last. He’d hardly mentioned Little Rock at all. She’d be busy in the kitchen or taking care of the baby, and she’d turn around and find him leaning in a doorway, looking at her and smiling. He’d told her at least a dozen times he loved her. And … he had been so passionate. Her cheeks flushed with remembered pleasure as she thought of his wide, warm hands, strong on the small of her back as he pressed her urgently to him—

“ … going to answer me, girl?” Beulah was saying, jogging her elbow.

“Do what?” Addie said.

“I been trying for the last half mile to get you to tell me what you’d rather have for dinner—butter beans or purple hulls. I got both, and I’ll be glad to—” She peered intently at Addie’s face. “You all right, honey? Your face is sure red all of a sudden.”

‘‘I’m fine, Beulah. Purple hulls, I guess.”

*******

This post is a chapter from the novel Sunday Clothes, by Thom Lemmons. Sunday Clothes will soon be available for purchase as an e-book at www.homingpigeonpublishing.com

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So Fair and Bright (a weblog) by Thom Lemmons is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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Sunday Clothes, Chapter 16

November 29, 2018

Addie hadn’t heard anything from Mary Alice for some time, so she paced back through the house, trying to locate the too–quiet toddler. When Zeb had moved them into this new, larger place, she’d thought she’d enjoy the increased room, but at times like this she found herself missing the little servant’s cottage on Granny White Pike: there was less space there for a toddler to wander.

She rounded a corner into her bedroom and spied her daughter in the act of plucking one of her crystal figurines from the top of the dressing table.

“No, ma’am!” dressingtable

Mary Alice’s head wheeled about, her eyes big with guilty surprise. Addie paced quickly to her and snatched the figurine from her chubby fist with one hand, spatting the child’s hand sharply with the other.

“You are not to bother these! No, no!”

The baby’s face quickly clouded up and began to rain. Addie picked her up and marched back toward the front of the house, plopping the squalling infant down in the parlor in front of a pile of rag dolls and brightly painted toys.

“If you’d stay in here and play with your own things,” she said, “you wouldn’t get into trouble.”

Mary Alice, the very picture of wronged innocence, bawled unabated at her mother.

Addie sighed and rolled her eyes and searched beside the chair for the mail-order catalog she’d been perusing just before. She thumbed it back open to the jewelry section and began again to look at the men’s rings. She’d decided to buy Zeb a wedding ring for Christmas this year. She’d always felt a little guilty for never having procured him a band. He claimed it didn’t matter to him, but it did to her. He’d gotten her a fine, stylish gold band for their first anniversary, and she intended to have a ring for him by Christmas. She had almost enough money hidden in the pantry Mason jar to pay for the ring she’d chosen. She enjoyed looking at the picture and imagining how it would look on Zeb’s finger. She thought he’d like the ring. It was a gold band, about a quarter-inch wide, with a bead of finely inlaid silver on each border. It would look elegant on his hand, set off by his clean, crisp white cuffs and the dark suits he favored. goldband

Her eyes stayed on the pictures of the rings, but her mind wandered toward Little Rock. In the beginning, Zeb had assured her that successfully turning around the Little Rock agency was the final stepping–stone to his home office position here in Nashville, but it had been more than a year now, and he was still spending at least two weeks each month in the Arkansas capital city—sometimes, like this month, even more. From his talk of things there, it seemed the agency was doing well. She wondered why the men in the home office couldn’t be satisfied with Zeb’s work and offer him the Nashville job he said he wanted. But, on the few occasions when she’d tried to ask him about it, he’d become distant, almost annoyed. “There’s still a lot to do there, Addie,” he would assure her. “Griffs and Carleton are depending on me to leave Little Rock in good shape. I can’t just walk off—not until the job’s finished.”

There were times when Addie wondered what had changed between her and her husband. When they were courting and first married, he couldn’t seem to get enough of her presence. She smiled wistfully as she thought of some of the grand surprises he’d manufactured “for no reason,” as he sometimes said, “but to see that dimple on your right cheek.” It had seemed so easy to enjoy each other in those simpler days: a sunshiny afternoon was a good enough excuse to walk hand–in–hand up Cameron Hill; a night with a full moon carried a honey–scented enchantment that made words unnecessary; seeing the look on his face when she came down the front porch steps was like the secret opening of a longed–for gift.

When had the little joys begun to disappear? What was it about the daily friction of living together that rubbed so much of the shine off two people who thought they loved each other? And could they get it back? She hoped Zeb got that home office job real soon.

Mary Alice’s sobs had subsided to an occasional sniffle and whimper by the time Addie saw the postman walk past the front window. She laid aside the catalog and went to the door. The bright Indian summer afternoon sun was warm on her forearms as she opened the mailbox and removed the contents: a solicitation from someone running for county magistrate, a circular from a sewing notions company, and a letter addressed in a familiar hand … from Lou!

Smiling, she went quickly inside and tossed aside the other two pieces, eagerly running a finger beneath the flap of Lou’s envelope.

 

Dearest sister Addie,

I suppose you thought I dropped off the face of the earth, since

you haven’t heard from me for nearly two months now. I am some

better each day, it seems, altho there are still days when I’m not sure

I want to make the effort to keep going, but those seem to be fewer

and farther between, thank the Lord. It has now been twenty

months since my precious Katherine’s death, and tho I never

thought life could go on without her, it seems to, just the same. I

still miss her terribly, but things aren’t quite so dark anymore, somehow.

Then again, sometimes the most unexpected things will set me 

off. I might see a little girl about her size and coloring, or I might

hear a snatch of a song she used to sing. And I still can’t bear it at

church when they do “Safe in the Arms of Jesus,” like they did at

her service. Dub tries his best but he just doesn’t understand a

mother’s heart and I guess no man does, not really. He’s got to where

he doesn’t like to go out to her grave with me anymore.

Well, how are things with you? I’ll bet Mary Alice is just tearing

up Jack by now at her age and getting into everything, but just

try and remember that you’ll miss these times someday. Oh, goodness,

I better not get started that way again or before you know it

I’ll get back around to Katherine and be all down in the dumps

again. How is Zeb? Did he ever get moved back to Nashville, like

you thought he might? It’d be a shame for him not to get to be

around Mary Alice these next few months as she’ll be changing so

fast and you miss something if you’re gone for even a day, seems like.

I sure would like to see that little sweet thing, tho I know it will

make me sad. I hope we can come to Nashville before long but Dub

stays so busy down at the store and with Robert in school and all it

seems like the time just isn’t ever right.

Oh, I almost forgot to tell you that George Hutto said he was

mighty proud to hear about Mary Alice and he knew she had to be

a beautiful baby with you being her mama. I wonder how long it

took him to work up the nerve to say that much about you at one

time. He looked about like a little boy at his first recital.

Well I guess I’ve rattled on long enough and should close now.

You give that sweet baby girl a hug from her Aunt Lou and write

me back when you can. letter

Your loving sister,

Louisa C. Dawkins

 

Addie laid the letter on the table beside her and smiled into the middle distance. What she wouldn’t give to spend an afternoon in the parlor with her older sister, just talking about this and that, like two old married women.

But, of course, it wouldn’t do, not with Papa’s disapproval hanging over them like a curse. Addie noticed Lou had avoided any suggestion that she and Zeb should come to Chattanooga. They both knew it would be too hard, that Papa would be the invisible participant in every conversation. She would have to work so hard to ignore him that it was almost inevitable he would be the only thing she thought about. And Addie couldn’t imagine much good coming from that.

Mary Alice tugged at her skirt. Addie looked down and the child held up her arms. ‘‘All right, Miss, come on up,” she said, lifting the baby into her lap. Mary Alice snuggled close, the first knuckle of her fist in her mouth. Addie squeezed her gently and rubbed her cheek against the silky brown wisps on the crown of Mary Alice’s head. “Mama doesn’t like to get on to you,” she said, “but you have to learn to leave things alone, little dumplin’. Here you go,” she continued, giving her daughter a sudden squeeze. “That’s from your Aunt Lou.”

The baby giggled at the sudden movement. Addie squeezed her again, she chuckled louder, and so it went for several moments. Soon, the laughter of her little one had banished most of the trailing tatters of Addie’s hovering melancholy. She looked at the mantle clock and realized it was nearly three o’clock. “Come on, young ‘un,” she smiled at Mary Alice. “Let’s find you and me a piece of shortbread. I’m just about hungry!” Mary Alice babbled happily at her mother and clung to her shoulder as they walked toward the kitchen.

*******

Nothing was said when, after an absence of nearly three months, Rose resumed her duties at Jacob Caswell’s house. If he was surprised to find her standing on his doorstep on the July morning she returned, he gave no sign. If he was at all curious as to her whereabouts during her time away, he gave her no evidence, and he knew Rose wasn’t inclined to any unnecessary explanation. And so, with no more to–do than a slight nod from each, the two of them resumed their former arrangement.

Most of the time, Rose moved about the house as dispassionately as the shadows of clouds move across the landscape. She dusted, swept, straightened, cooked, and cleaned with the impersonal efficiency of a force of nature. Jacob, on the rare occasions when he noticed her at all, thought that sharing a room with her was about like sharing it with a piece of moving furniture. duster

But every once in a great while he would feel something brush against his awareness; a tingle on the back of his neck; an impalpable sense of being watched, or thought about, or disliked … or pitied. He would look up, and if Rose did happen to be in the room, he would generally see no more than the flicker of an eye or the slight turning of her head as she attended to whatever task engaged her. Sometimes, he would peer at her thoughtfully for some minutes. If she ever noticed his gaze, it wasn’t apparent.

One day, as Rose was setting his lunch before him, he could have sworn she spoke. “What?” he asked.

She cut her eyes at him as she placed the gravy tureen in front of him, then turned to go back toward the kitchen. “Didn’t say nothin’,” she mumbled as she ambled away from him. When she came back a few seconds later bearing a platter of freshly baked cat–head biscuits, he said, “I sure thought you said something to me.”

She shook her head as she poured his coffee.

The silence lengthened, broken only by the taps of his spoon against the sides of his cup as he stirred in his cream and sugar.

“Well, Rose, I guess I never did ask you where you went this spring. I don’t recall being asked for time off.”

“Can’t nobody remember what they ain’t been asked. I went on my own and I didn’t ask no leave. You don’t want me around no more, all you got to do is say so.”

“Now, Rose, don’t go getting touchy on me. I didn’t mean anything by it. I was just curious, is all.”

She walked back toward the kitchen, muttering under her breath. When she returned, carrying a plate of cold sliced roast beef, she was still going. She clanked the plate onto the table in front of him and turned away. As she did, he was pretty sure he made out the words, “ … ain’t got as much sense as God give a goose … “

“Rose, why don’t you just turn around here and tell me what’s on your mind?” he said. “All this grumbling and mumbling’s about to give me the indigestion, anyway. You might as well have your say, all at once, and get it over with.”

She came about to face him, her hands on her hips and her face tightly set in a scowl of disapproval. “I done been at this house for more than eight years, and every time I think you can’t get no more bullheaded and hardhearted, you up and shows me how wrong I is!”

He stared at her, mouth agape. “Rose, what in thunder are you—”

“You let that child walk outta your life with no more thought than if you was turnin’ out a stray dog! You really think you gonna make out any better on the Judgment Day than that boy she married? Or is you so busy feelin’ sorry for yourself about losing Miz Mary that you ain’t got no time to try to understand somebody else’s feelin’s?”

“Now, Rose, that’s just about enough!” he shouted, slamming his fist on the table and rattling the dinnerware. “The Good Book says, ‘Honor thy father and mother!’ She—”

“The Good Book also say, ‘He that trouble his own house shall inherit the wind!”’ she said. bible.jpg

“What about, ‘Children, obey thy parents’?”

“‘Fathers, provoke not thy childrens to wrath!”’

“I’ll not sit here and be lectured about my own children by a nigger maid!” Jacob wadded his napkin and flung it on the floor as he shoved back his chair and stood. “It’s none of your business what I do or don’t do about Addie!” he shouted, pointing an accusing finger at her. “She’s the one who left, not me. I provided her a home, and she showed her gratitude by turning her back on me—and her mother’s memory! Don’t you stand there all holier–than–thou and condemn me for following my God-given conscience. It like to killed me to see her leave like she did! Do you think she’s the only one who’s hurt over all this?”

“You be a sight better off to listen to this old nigger instead of diggin’ yourself a deeper hole than you already in! You didn’t no more know that young ‘un than if she was a stranger, but you so bound up in yourself, you couldn’t see who she was!”

She turned her head sidelong and shook it at him as she spoke, as if admonishing a wayward child.

“She ain’t in pigtails and pantaloons no more! She a grown woman, and she got to find her own way, and you got to let her! But what did you do? You good as told her your way was the only way! She your daughter in more ways than one, can’t you see that? You tell that child to jump, she naturally going to squat! You tell her to gee, she’ll haw every time! You tell her she can’t have the man she got her eye on, you just as well be tellin’ her he the only man in the world! That child didn’t leave you—you run her off, only you too blind to see it!”

Jacob glared at her. He felt his fingers curling into claws. He spun away, swaying against the edge of the table and knocking his coffee cup sideways. He stalked out of the dining room into the hallway and half ran to the front door, flung it open and was gone.

*******

Rose stood perfectly still, hands on hips, her eyes fixed on the space where he had been. Slowly, her head began to shake, and her eyes brimmed with tears.

“Sweet Jesus, help that man. He dyin’ and don’t know how to tell nobody.”

*******

This post is a chapter from the novel Sunday Clothes, by Thom Lemmons. Sunday Clothes will soon be available for purchase as an e-book at www.homingpigeonpublishing.com

Creative Commons License
So Fair and Bright (a weblog) by Thom Lemmons is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 15

November 15, 2018

Zeb stepped off the train into the midafternoon heat and bustle of Union Station in Little Rock. He set down his valise and motioned with his free hand for a nearby porter. The uniformed negro approached, trundling a hand truck in front of him. Zeb pointed at his suitcase, then handed him the valise. “Is there a hack that can take me to the Gleason Hotel?”

“Yessuh. Right this way.”

Ducking through the shouldering crowd as he followed the porter, Zeb noticed a poster advertising a traveling Chautauqua troupe. There was a show at seven o’clock that evening in the city park. He wasn’t in the mood to sit up in the room and brood. Might be good for him to get out, be in a crowd, hear some music and talk and laughter. He decided to go, after a nap, a bath, and supper. 74315afebe33b0af9ad8c99a2aa2a0e7

When the bellboy set his luggage down on the lumpy bed, Zeb dropped two half dimes into the waiting hand, tossed his hat on top of the suitcase, and stepped across the room to open the curtains. He heard the door close behind him. Zeb stood with his hands in his pockets, staring down from his third-story window onto Markham Street. Just across the way rose the dome of the state capitol building.

He wondered how Addie and the baby were doing. He hated to leave only two weeks after Mary Alice’s birth, but the days of inactivity had begun to chafe more and more. He was worried about his new agents here. A couple of them seemed like real good men, but there were others who wanted constant propping up. He couldn’t afford for the Little Rock agency to falter, now that Griffs and Carleton were beginning to take such a personal interest in his career. If he could keep things going here, it might be the next step to a home office assignment—and he had yet to reach his thirtieth birthday.

Addie had started to tear up some when he was taking his leave. She’d been standing in the front door, holding the baby in her arms.

“Well,” he’d said, looking away, “I guess if I wanna catch my train, I better get going.” The hack was standing in the street, the driver staring fixedly over his horse’s rump.

“Yeah,” she said, or he’d thought she said. Her voice was soft and airy. Her chin was dimpling, as if she were trying to hold it still.

He’d leaned over and kissed Mary Alice on the forehead, then did the same to Addie. He turned and walked away, toward the hack.

“I’ll write as soon as I get there,” he’d called over his shoulder, afraid to look at her, afraid she’d burst into tears in front of the hack driver. He’d thrown his bags into the cab, and the driver clicked his tongue, and he was away, wishing he could ignore the dull ache in his throat.

But he was feeling better now, thinking about all that needed to be done here, all the opportunity waiting for him. It was his responsibility to make a good life for his family. It was his God-given duty, if it came to that, and he was determined to make the most of this chance. Addie would understand. When he had a home office job in Nashville, he’d buy her a nice, roomy house with a big nursery for Mary Alice. He’d be home every night, and they would have nice things—the kinds of things his mother had never had.

He felt a heaviness around his eyes and remembered he’d promised himself a nap. He loosened his cravat and unbuttoned his collar. Setting his luggage on the faded carpet, he stretched out on the single bed with his hands behind his head and closed his eyes.

After tossing and turning for quite a while, Zeb finally accepted his failure at the attempt to actually sleep. He sat up, rubbing his face, and realized the shadows in the room told him dusk was approaching. No time to bathe now if he wanted to get something to eat and get to the Chautauqua show on time. He ran a hand through his hair and straightened his collar and tie. Giving himself a final once-over in the streaked mirror on the opposite wall, he walked out, locking the door behind him and pocketing the skeleton key.13276554a106be32740c2ad6b8276f71

By the time he arrived at the park, a crowd was already pooling under the tent. A brass band was thumping out some march or other; the muffling of the tent and the crowd made the tune indistinct. Zeb hurried up and snagged one of the last rickety wooden chairs on the end of the back row just as the band collided with the final note of the march. The crowd applauded politely, and a large, pot-bellied man with luxuriant sideburns and a florid complexion mounted the steps to the podium and approached the lectern.

Slowly and dramatically, he unbuttoned his coat to reveal a brocaded waistcoat. He took a deep breath and looked at the audience. “I shall perform Antony’s funeral oration from Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare,” he announced in a booming bass voice. He gripped the sides of the lectern and gazed out over the heads of the crowd. Taking three paces away from the lectern, he raised his right hand in a graceful, beckoning gesture.

“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears! I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him …”

There was a slight disturbance by Zeb’s elbow, and he glanced up to see an older man and a young woman standing beside him. The man pointed at the two empty seats to Zeb’s left and asked with his eyebrows if they were taken. Zeb shook his head and stood to let them pass. The man entered first, followed by the woman. They settled themselves, and Zeb resumed his seat.

“… The noble Brutus hath told you Caesar was ambitious; if it were so, it was a grievous fault …”

From the corner of his eye, Zeb saw the woman pull a fan from her handbag. The short, soft drafts bore the scent of her perfume: lilac. In an instant, he was carried back to a moonlit promenade beside the pond in East Lake Park, in Chattanooga. Addie always wore lilac perfume in those days, and the smell made him long for her with a sudden, bodily ache.

“… ambition should be made of sterner stuff …”

She had seemed like an angel to him in those days; her every movement had enchanted him, had hinted at secrets, suggested the possibility of delightful discoveries. He could look at her for hours on end and never grow tired. She dispensed happiness to him, simply by being in his presence. He thought he could never again lack for anything if only he might have her.

And then he had won her. Over Jacob Caswell’s disapproval and the entangling ties of her Methodist upbringing, he had won her. He, the outsider, the poor boy from the hardscrabble farm in north Georgia. The one with the ambition and the drive and the determination—he had won her. And for a time, the sweetness of his life had been everything her enchantment had intimated. She was like the magic pan of gingerbread in the fairy tale; each day he fed on her love until he was satisfied; and the next morning she was still there, fully as beautiful and charming and delightful as the day before.

When had he first noticed the fading of the sweetness? Was it something he had done that had broken the spell? How had he failed her? He had been a faithful husband and a diligent provider. He didn’t run with the drinking crowd, didn’t gamble or carouse. He had based every decision on what he believed to be best for them in the long run. He didn’t like all the moving around and traveling, but what else could he do? This was his opportunity—their opportunity.

He thought of her face in the moonlight of East Lake Park, then remembered the drained, resigned, suffering expression she’d worn yesterday as he walked out the front gate. Where had he gone wrong?

“… O judgment! Thou art fled to brutish beasts, and men have lost their reason …”

The woman beside him stopped fanning for a moment, leaned over and whispered something to the older man. Zeb heard their chuckles mingle softly. He cut his eyes to the left without moving his head. She was well dressed, and he could see strands of blonde peeking from beneath her lace bonnet. She bore a slight resemblance to her companion, and Zeb wondered if she might be his daughter. She was fair-complexioned, but there was a sprinkling of faint freckles across the bridge of her nose. She resumed fanning, and Zeb returned his eyes to the podium. 05dd87b9baa1c7ae95447287a6b7dbc4

After the orator, there was a handbell choir, and after that, a male quartet dressed in wooden shoes and knee breeches and singing in Dutch. Then a man made up like Abe Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address, and a woman dressed as the Statue of Liberty recited “The New Colossus,” by Emma Lazarus. Finally, the pot-bellied Antony came back and gave a long-winded, stentorian benediction, and the program was officially over.

Zeb stood and tried to work the kinks out of his legs. He turned to go, and felt a hand on his arm.

“Thank you for saving the seats for us,” said the young woman, smiling playfully. “I told Daddy we’d be so late we’d have to stand, and if it hadn’t been for you, we would have.”

The man stuck out a hand. “Pete Norwich.”

Zeb shook his hand firmly. “Zeb Douglas. Pleased to meet you.”

“Yes, indeed. And this is my daughter, Rebecca. She drags me to these cotton-pickin’ cultural sessions, whether I want to come or not.” Zeb chuckled with them and took her proffered fingers gently. “Pleased to meet you, Ma’am.”

“It’s ‘Miss,’” she corrected him, “and the pleasure is mutual.”

He looked at her a trifle longer than was strictly necessary. “Well, folks, I’d best be getting back,” he said. He touched the brim of his hat and walked away toward the park entrance. He decided to write a letter to Addie just as soon as he reached his room.

*******

Rose deftly slid the diaper under Mary Alice’s tiny, elevated behind and gently lowered her onto it. She folded and tucked it around the baby’s waist and legs and fastened it with safety pins. “There you go, Missy. I reckon that’ll hold you for awhile, at least.” She rearranged the little white Alençon lace gown and carefully picked up the child, bringing her to her ample bosom. Humming a tune under her breath, she paced slowly toward the parlor, bouncing the baby in a soothing, easy motion.

“Do you really have to go back?” Addie asked. Her expression was wistful as she sat in the cane-bottomed rocker and watched Rose with her daughter.

“Mmm-hmm. ‘Fraid so, Missy. I done wore out my welcome at Freeman’s place, and you ain’t got room for me here.”

“When does your train leave?” lacedress

“In the mornin’, ‘bout eight.”

“I’ll miss you, Rose. You’ve been so good for me—and for Mary Alice.”

“Well, you gettin’ stronger now. You can manage just fine by yourself, I imagine. I’m a old woman, and I been gone from my own place just about as long as I can stand.” Rose eased herself into the overstuffed chair, still gently bouncing the baby and humming softly.

Addie leaned her head back and closed her eyes, rocking slowly and listening to the husky half-whisper of Rose’s voice.

“What’s that song you’re singing?”

Rose increased the volume just enough for Addie to make out the words.

Come and go with me, to my father’s house,

to my father’s house;

Come and go with me, to my father’s house,

to my father’s house.

There’ll be no dying there,

There’ll be no crying there,

No sorrow there, in my father’s house,

in my father’s house.

There was barely enough contour in the tune for it to be called a melody; it was more like a chant. Nudged along by Rose’s voice, it rolled forward and forward, the words barely changing from verse to verse, hypnotic and comforting as the well-worn creases in Rose’s hands.

All will be well in my father’s house, in my father’s house …

The slight creaking of the rocker made a sort of plaintive counterpoint to Rose’s soft singing. Addie felt her mind bobbing aimlessly along the slow, thick current of the tune, whirling lazily in the eddy of the refrain.

In my father’s house, in my father’s house …

Addie thought about her father, imagined him sitting alone in his red leather chair in the parlor, sequestered behind the Chattanooga Times. She wondered if he even knew about her baby; he hadn’t written or sent any word since her marriage. She thought about the things he had said to her when Zeb proposed. Addie questioned whether he still considered her part of the family. In her worst moments, she doubted it. But sometimes, she held out some small hope that Papa would relent, would see that she was still his daughter, no matter what church she attended on Sundays.

Mary Alice’s eyelids fluttered a final time, then closed. Rose peered at her a moment, then eased herself out of the chair and padded to the bedroom. A moment later, she came back into the parlor, having deposited the sleeping baby in her crib. Cradle

“Rose, you never did tell me how you talked Papa into letting you come here to help me.”

Rose glanced at her, then seated herself heavily in the chair. “Slave days is over, honey,” she said, looking down as she arranged her skirts. “Don’t reckon I need your daddy’s say-so to come to Nashville if I got a mind to.”

“Then he didn’t send you to me,” Addie said in a sinking voice. She’d known all along, really, but she’d beguiled herself with the faint hope that Papa had at least given grudging permission for Rose to come and help his daughter in her time of need.

Rose studied her a moment, then looked out the window. “Honey, your daddy done changed when your mama died. I seen death do that to folks—make ‘em hard inside, make ‘em forget how to love them that’s left.”

“I wish Papa could at least try to understand how I feel,” Addie said softly.

“I wish he could, too, honey,” Rose replied. “But sometimes, when somebody hurting—even somebody who love you, deep down—they can’t see nothin’ but they own hurt. It ain’t right, and it ain’t fair, but there it is anyway.”

Several silent moments passed; the mantle clock ticked sedately. Addie’s rocking slowed, then stopped. She crossed her hands on her lap and stared out at Granny White Pike. “I wish Zeb could come home this weekend.”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“He works so hard, Rose. Sometimes … sometimes I worry about him.”

Rose said nothing.

*******

Zeb peered again at the piece of paper in his hand. “Eleven-oh-seven Ninth Street,” he said aloud. He looked around him, scratching his head, until he spied a knot of people walking up the steps of a small rock building in the middle of the block. “Must be it,” he muttered, and stepped quickly toward them.

It was Sunday morning, and he had really intended to go home this weekend, but at the last minute, one of his agents had requested his help to close an important sale. They hadn’t been able to see their prospect until late yesterday afternoon, long after the last convenient train to Memphis had pulled out from the station.

He had been meaning for some time to try to locate the local congregation of the church, but today was the first time he had been able to find the meeting place. Two or three days earlier, he had been idly thumbing through the newspaper and noticed a small advertisement for a “gospel meeting” to commence the next Sunday morning. The evangelist was some Texas fellow Zeb had never heard of, but the way his name was printed in large, bold letters, he figured to be really something. flyer

Zeb mounted the steps to the building and entered the small, cramped vestibule. It appeared the church house was packed to the limit. Evidently the Texas preacher commanded quite a following in these parts. He spotted a vacant place on the last pew, against the wall, and immediately made for it. A bonneted woman was seated next to the open place. Zeb touched her shoulder. “Scuse me, ma’am, but are you saving this for anybody?”

She turned to him, and the first thing he noticed was her good-natured smile. The second thing he noticed was the spray of freckles across the bridge of her nose, and the third thing he noticed was the lock of golden hair that fell from beneath her bonnet to the middle of her forehead. “Well, I guess I get to return the favor, Mr. Douglas. But, it’s ‘Miss,’ remember?”

“Yes, Miss Norwich. I won’t make that mistake again.”

“Fine. Then I guess you can have a seat.”

*******

This post is a chapter from the novel Sunday Clothes, by Thom Lemmons. Sunday Clothes will soon be available for purchase as an e-book at www.homingpigeonpublishing.com

Creative Commons License
So Fair and Bright (a weblog) by Thom Lemmons is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 14

March 4, 2018

The band struck up Sousa’s “Liberty Bell” march, and George Hutto smiled as a group of young children near the front formed an impromptu marching corps. They tromped up and down in front of the crowd by the bandstand, wriggling their fingers and swinging their arms in imitation of clarinetists, trombonists, and cymbal players. They kept at it, Victorian on the 4thJulytoo, for the entire march. No one really minded, George guessed, since it was the final piece on the program. It was a gorgeous, sunny Fourth of July afternoon, and surely no one expected children to sit in one place and fidget indefinitely.

George wandered from his place toward the back of the crowd, meaning to head for the nearest lemonade stand. It looked as if nearly everyone in Hamilton County was in Olympia Park today, and most of them were smiling, as far as he could tell. So far, the reputation of the Chamber of Commerce was secure for another year. George only hoped this evening’s fireworks display was a success. He had felt deep misgivings about letting the Chamber talk him into chairing the entertainment committee, but when the mayor had asked him, he hadn’t been able to find a handy excuse. And, indeed, things were going well. The children’s patriotic skit this morning had been met with enthusiastic–if slightly partisan–applause, and the community band had done a real nice job just now. Once the fireworks went off without difficulty, he could rest easy. For perhaps the twentieth time that day, he scanned the sky to the west and southwest, looking for any telltale stacks of cumulus clouds that might be gathering into thunderheads. All clear, so far. Of course, it was still early afternoon.

The First Methodist Church lemonade stand was in an elm grove, just south of the grandstand for the racetrack. As he approached, George could hear the roaring, popping, and wheezing of the racing cars as their drivers made last-minute adjustments before the preliminary heats began. They had intended to hold the automobile races earlier in the day, but the noise and smell of the machines kept the horses in such a continual uproar, they’d been forced to delay the motorized events until after the end of the harness racing and draft competitions.

George fished a nickel out of his pocket and laid it on the plank counter. “How about a glass with lots of ice?” he asked the nearest attendant.

“Coming right up, George,” she answered. Hearing his name, he looked up at her. “Well, hello, Louisa! Excuse me for not noticing who I was talking to.”

“That’s quite all right,” she smiled, setting down a glass full of chipped ice and pouring Lemonade standinto it from a crockery pitcher so large she had to wrestle it with both hands. “Everybody seems to be having a real nice time today. Y’all did a good job, looks like.”

George smiled shyly, dabbing his forehead with a handkerchief “Well, thanks. Wouldn’t be proper not to throw a big Fourth of July, though, would it? Church making lots of money today?”

“Doing pretty well, long as the weather stays warm.”

“Well, here’s hoping it does, at least till after the fireworks,” he said, saluting the sky with his glass and taking several deep swallows. “Say, uh, Louisa,” he continued, hesitantly, “what do you hear from … from over Nashville way?” He sipped again at his lemonade, tilting his panama back on his head.

“Oh, I don’t guess you heard. Addie and Zeb had a little girl.”

“You don’t say! What’d they name her?”

“Mary Alice, after both grandmothers.”

“Well, I’ll say! That’s just fine, isn’t it! Just fine! Guess everybody’s doing well?”

“Far as I know.” Her smile was quick, and George thought maybe it never got as far as her eyes. She turned away to drop his nickel in the till and put the lemonade pitcher back on the work table. He felt awkward. Maybe he shouldn’t have brought up the subject of children to her.

He cleared his throat, trying to think of something to chink the gap in the conversation. “Louisa, it’s … it’s real good to see you out, working with the other women from the church, and … and getting on so well and all.”

She shrugged and looked away. “Some days are better than others, George. You just keep putting one foot in front of the other, somehow.”

There was a long silence, and this time George didn’t have the nerve to try and fill it.

“But we’ll manage, I guess,” she finished finally, giving him another smile and doing better with it this time. ‘‘And thank you for saying something. Most folks just ignore it, pretend everything’s like it always was.”

He blushed and pulled off his glasses, ducking into his collar as he polished the lenses with his slightly damp handkerchief. “Well, I … I’m awful fond of your family, is all, and—”

“Yes. I know you are, George.” Her eyes were still on him, but now they were full of something besides pain.

He peered at his lemonade, then took an extra-long, thoughtful sip. “I reckon your daddy was tickled,” he said, trying to quickly cover his befuddlement, “to hear about Addie’s new—”

George cringed inside. Of all the stupid things to say! “Louisa, I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking—”

“It’s all right, George,” she said. “You’re not to be faulted. Any right-thinking man would be proud and happy about a healthy new granddaughter. Papa’s just not too good at admitting he might be wrong about some things. He’s got more pride than any one man needs.”

George clunked his empty glass down on the plank. He gave her a nervous smile and touched the brim of his hat. “Well, good to see you again,” he managed, backing away. “I guess I better go see how those boys are doing with the race cars. Tell Dub I said hello.”

“I sure will. Nice talking to you, George.”

He nodded and smiled again, then turned and strode purposefully off toward the Lady Libertygrandstand.

*******

As the western sky began to redden, the crowd started to gather in and around the grandstand. Chamber of Commerce officials had roped off a large area of the infield, just inside the far turn, where the fireworks would be detonated. Families sprawled on quilts in the rest of the infield, staking out space from which to observe the much-anticipated display.

George paced the enclosure, frequently wiping his brow as he observed the preparations of the pyrotechnician. The man had set up a long, narrow table, crisscrossed by scorch marks. He was laying on it a collection of tubes, rockets, and canisters. He made numerous trips to the interior of his painted wagon, always returning with another armload of mysterious and imposing articles. The wagon was painted a brilliant red, and on its side it advertised the name and vocation of the owner. “Horatio P. Folger, Esq.: Explosives Expert, Fireworks, Rainmaking, & Etc.,” it announced in ornate gold-highlighted black letters that followed each other round in an elaborate oval. In the center of the oval were the words “Atlanta, Georgia, United States of America (God Bless the USA).” Beneath, in finer, more sedate black print and straight lines, was an amplification: Available for Civic Events . . . Private Celebrations . . . Land Clearing … Demolition … and Various & Sundry Other Uses.”

George had been watching Horatio P. Folger since his arrival in the midafternoon. Folger had a florid complexion and a prodigious moustache with waxed handlebars. He wore a derby that apparently never left his skull, despite the summer heat. Predictably, a train of boys had trailed him into the fairgrounds and loitered about his wagon, occasionally making half-hopeful offers to assist, which were refused with a chuckle and a shake of the head. And, of course, under his watchful eye, no one dared approach the wagon for a closer look. Horatio P. Folger had evidently been at this for some time.

George was considerably relieved to lay eyes at last on this man. Upon the skill and provision of Horatio P. Folger hung the success or failure of Chattanooga’s Independence Day festivities. George well knew that six months from now very few would remember who had won the cake-baking contest or the horseshoe tournament, but everyone would recollect and discuss at length any perceived inadequacy of this, the capstone event.

Folger went methodically about his business, now and again casting a quick eye at the western horizon. At the center of the roped-off staging area he had placed five or six metal tubes, arranging them in a ten-foot circle. To George, they suspiciously resembled artillery mortars. In a concentric arc fifteen feet outside the circle, Folger had deployed three metal racks that appeared to be frames for launching skyrockets. Each rack could hold four rockets.

During a lull in the preparations, George approached. ‘‘Ah, excuse me, Mr. Folger?”

“Yeah, that’s me. What can I do for you?”

George had expected the voice to be a bass boom, but it was actually a rather high-pitched, soft tone that greeted him. ‘‘Ah, I’m George Hutto. I’m the fellow who wrote you … hired you?”

“Why sure! Glad to make your acquaintance, Mr. Hutto!” As he pumped his hand vigorously, George noted with some satisfaction that Horatio P. Folger had all his fingers and thumbs.

George pulled out his wallet and peeled off a number of bills. “Let’s see. I think it was a hundred, wasn’t it?” He offered the bills, but Folger shook his head.

“Just half now, then half when the show’s over, if you’re satisfied.”

George raised his eyebrows. “Why, I, ah … I just assumed—”

“No, Mr. Hutto,” said Horatio P. Folger, “I don’t want nobody to pay a hundred dollars for a show that don’t meet expectations. Half now, then we’ll talk later.” He held out his hand.

Feeling a cautious, hopeful glow spreading inside him, George counted out fifty dollars on the waiting palm.

“Oh, and one more thing,” added the fireworks man. “Reckon you ‘n’ ‘bout two other fellas could run for me during the show?”

George frowned doubtfully. “Run?”

“Yeah. I’ll have all the charges and rockets laid out on that table yonder, in order from left to right. All you gotta do is bring me the next thing, wherever I’m standing. Rockets’ll be yonder,” he said, pointing at the three racks, “and charges come over here, to the mortars.”

“Well, I don’t know who I can get—”

“Anybody’s fine; you ‘n’ two other men oughta be plenty. Just don’t ask no kids. I don’t boy with firecrackerstrust kids. They’re too clumsy, or too excited. Either one can get you into trouble with this stuff.”

George nodded solemnly, feeling a tiny ache beginning in the center of his forehead. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“Fine.” Folger squinted at the western sky. “I imagine we’ll start here in about … oh, say twenty minutes. Oughta be good and dark by then.”

George wandered off. Good and dark … don’t trust kids … charges … rockets … He wished he had some headache powders. He wished he hadn’t allowed the mayor to talk him into this job. He wished above all that he hadn’t made the acquaintance of Horatio P. Folger, Esq.

Twenty minutes later, George stood by the scorched table and craned his neck skyward to see the huge, floral burst of reds and greens and brilliant whites that announced the opening of the fireworks show. As he heard the boom! closely followed by the long, collective ahhhh! from the gathered populace, his apprehensions evaporated like a raindrop on a hot sidewalk. He and the two other men ran for Horatio P. Folger and observed at close hand the work of a master.

Folger seemed to be following a sort of secret choreography as he skipped in and out of the circle of mortars and placed the rockets in their launching frames. As he lit the fuse of one rocket, George could hear him softly count, “One, two, three,” before lighting the next fuse. And the rockets would ascend in graduated cohesion, flinging across his black velvet canvas the shimmering, cascading, supremely transient compositions of Horatio P. Folger, Esq.

He danced back and forth, loading two or three of the mortars to toss aloft a violet starburst in combination with a scurrying tangle of red-and-white poppers, with maybe a shower of golden stars thrown in for good measure. Then he would be at the nearest frame, setting the rockets brought to him by his half-mesmerized assistants.

George and the other two runners fell into his rhythm, pulled in irresistibly by their leader as, from left to right, they slowly denuded the scorched table of its carefully organized cargo. Folger never looked at them, never gave them any instruction other than his reaching hand awaiting the next explosive pigment for his aerial palette. There was no time for chatter, nor any need. There was only time to retrieve the next charge, the next rocket, and perhaps to glance upward at the breathtaking, disappearing beauty.

For the grand finale, there was a storm of red, white, and blue starbursts, underlined byFireworks thundercracking white shells that exploded barely a hundred feet off the ground. Folger dashed and sprinted to and fro like a man gone mad, firing mortars, lighting rockets, and setting the next pieces with absolute, sure-handed precision. George and the other two men were huffing and puffing, trying to keep pace with the dashing figure of their taskmaster. The cannonade went on and on, seemingly beyond endurance, beyond what was possible for a human to maintain or to watch. And when the last explosion rolled away over the Tennessee River and into the hollows between the hills, when the curtain of silence had settled over Olympia Park for ten seconds, then twenty, then a minute, when even the little children knew that nothing could possibly follow such magnificence, there erupted from the exhausted, thrilled, drained crowd a groundswell of applause, accompanied here and there by spontaneous choruses of Ward’s “Materna’’ and “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.”

George stepped over and gratefully pressed fifty dollars into the hand of Horatio P. Folger, Esq.

*******

George was pleased to realize that he hadn’t thought at all of being nervous during the fireworks show. As he walked back toward town, he heard many favorable comments from other homeward-bound folks, and each compliment gave him a tiny, pleasant glow. The mayor even found him along the way, came up to him, and clapped him on the shoulder. “Fine fireworks this year, George, just fine!” he said in his big, glad voice. “Where was it that fellow was from? Atlanta?”

“Yes, sir, I believe he was,” George replied.

“Well, fine. We ought to try and hire him again next year, don’t you reckon?”

“Well, I’ll let somebody else worry about it next year.”

“Oh, now, George, don’t be so modest! You did a real fine job on the entertainment! Everybody says so, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you weren’t asked again!”

George felt his insides give a kind of half-regretful shrug. “Well … I guess we’ll have to wait and see,” he said, finally.

He climbed the hill toward home, thinking about his conversation with Addie’s sister at the lemonade stand. It was too bad about her father. A corner of his mind tried to toy with a slight, guilty pleasure at her misfortune, but he sternly resisted. Such uncharitable thoughts weren’t Christian, and he well knew it. If Jacob Caswell wanted to be famous for mulishness, that was his lookout.

He had reached the gaslit streets of Cameron Hill. He looked about him at the folksgas lamp wending homeward, talking and laughing softly among themselves, some carrying the small, sleeping forms of those overcome by the strenuous task of being children on a holiday. George wondered what it must be like to have a family, to have children. The quiet, homeward talk went on all about him, but he caught only snatches of words here and there. It was as if those around him were speaking a dialect that was just foreign enough to be puzzling. He could hear tone and inflection, sense the smiles, arguments, caresses, and frustrations lying just beneath the surface of the muted syllables pattering about him in the humid summer darkness—but he couldn’t quite seem to make sense of the words. George wondered what, exactly, he had missed.

“Good evening, George,” called a female voice to his right. He glanced over to see Elizabeth Capshaw walking arm-in-arm with young Jeff Hinson. “Evening, Betsy, Jeff,” he replied as they passed, nodding and touching the brim of his hat. He stared after them for a moment. Jeff had been squiring Betsy around ever since Easter. Looked like they were getting to be thick as thieves. They walked ahead of him, hurrying along to be somewhere else.

*******

Perlie Overby waited, his dirty plug hat crumpled in one fist. After a few seconds, the front door swung open. “Well, hello, Perlie! I didn’t hear you come up. Sorry it took me so long to get to the door.”

“That’s all right, Mr. Caswell, I shoulda made more noise, I guess. I kinda figgered your dogs’d bark at me, but I reckon they’ve smelled my durned ol’ hide so much here lately, I’m just part of the furniture anymore.”

Jacob laughed.

“I come by to let you know I’ll finish the scraping down at the store by tomorrow noon. I guess I’ll be ready to start painting then.”

“Fine, Perlie. Just tell Gus or one of the boys to get you what you need.”

“Well … All right, then. Uh, say, Mr. Caswell?”

Jacob had already started back inside. His hand on the doorknob, he turned back toward the ragged figure on his porch. “Yeah, Perlie?”

Perlie was twisting his hat in his two grimy fists, and his eyes watched the gouged toes of his battered boots. “Uh, Mr. Caswell, I know it ain’t been a week yet, but we run plumb outta beans last night at our place, and I was just wondering if they was any way I could go ahead and maybe get my day’s wages so I could—”

“Sure, Perlie, sure. Why didn’t you say so? Wait right here and I’ll be back directly.” He ducked back inside the doorway of the big house while Perlie waited, alone on the wide porch. When Jacob reappeared a minute or two later, he held out a silver dollar in one hand and a cloth sack in the other. “Here’s a day’s pay, plus a little extra, and here’s some cornmeal. I’ve got more than I can use right now, so why don’t you take this on home, and your wife can cook up some griddle cakes or something for your young ‘uns till you get a chance to get by the store.”

“Well, that’s mighty generous, Mr. Caswell, mighty generous for sure!” Perlie’s head bobbed up and down in gratitude as he took the limp sack from Jacob’s hand. “If you’re sure you ain’t got no use for this here, I imagine we can take care of it for you.”

“Well, that’s all right. You take it, and welcome.”

Perlie turned to go, then faced Jacob once more. “Say, Mr. Caswell, I hate to be a nuisance, but I got to thinking today, I ain’t seen Miss Addie around here fer awhile. She git married off, or something?”

Jacob’s jaw clenched and his brow clouded over. Staring over Perlie’s left shoulder, he said in a grudging voice, “Yeah. She married and left town.”

“Well, that’s real fine. I always did like Miss Addie. You know, one time a coupla winters ago, she come to my place and set with my young ‘uns while me ‘n’ the missus was out of pocket. She was real kind to them young ‘uns, too, and I ain’t never forgot it. Where’d she move off to?”

Jacob peered across the road for a second or two more, then lanced Perlie with a direct look. “I really couldn’t say.” And then he was gone.cornmeal sack

Perlie gaped at the closed door. He thoughtfully hefted the sack of cornmeal a time or two. Finally, settling his hat on his head, he eased down the steps and turned toward home.

*******

This post is a chapter from the novel Sunday Clothes, by Thom Lemmons. Sunday Clothes will soon be available for purchase as an e-book at www.homingpigeonpublishing.com

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 13

February 10, 2018

Rose sat heavily in the chair beside the bed as she wiped the last traces of blood from herMother and baby hands and forearms. “We get you cleaned up, Missy,” she said, “before your man come in here. He see you like this, he liable to fall out.”

Addie looked up from the head of her nuzzling baby long enough to give the older woman a wan smile. “I guess I don’t exactly look fit for polite company, do I?”

“Honey, after what you just done, ain’t nobody gonna expect lace and spit curls. But we don’t wanna scare your man, neither. Most men can stand nearly anythin’ ‘cept birthin’ blood. I think it must remind ‘em of what it done took they mamas to get ‘em here. I think they feels bad about it but can’t say so.”

Addie caressed the child’s downy head. She was starting to get the hang of nursing now and her little mouth was pulling greedily at the nipple. Addie felt the twinge of afterpangs now and again, but compared to the ordeal of the birth, they were barely worth noting.

“Raise up a little on this side, honey.” She leaned as Rose directed, feeling the sheets slide from beneath her. “Now the other side, sugar. Your nightgown don’t look too bad, since we kept it up out the way. We get some clean sheets on this here bed and then we be ready for the new papa to come have a look at this here fine young ‘un.”

Addie peered down at the tiny profile, still nursing eagerly. The baby’s eyes were open, their hue a dark blue bordering on purple, and now and again Addie thought she cut her eyes upward, trying to see. “My sweet baby,” Addie murmured, stroking the still-moist cheek. “My beautiful, perfect child.” She felt dizzied by the dense reality of the suckling child in her arms, by the unfamiliar, stunning fact of her presence. All during the nine months leading up to this moment, Addie had known her more as idea than actuality. But now . . . This thing that had issued from her in tides of pain and blood was a person, endowed with every perfect detail in breathtaking miniature. There now existed a living, breathing human being who had never before been! The simple wonder of it rose far beyond the reach of her mind’s vision, swelling unutterable within her until she thought her heart must burst. She used a finger to heft the tiny hand with its five miniscule fingernails, and suddenly she knew: her heart wasn’t bursting. It was stretching to bear her love for this child, just as her muscles and sinews and flesh had stretched and groaned to deliver such a miracle into the light of day.

Rose tossed a clean, crisp sheet into the air and it settled down over them like a gently falling cloud. She tucked the corners in and propped Addie up just so. Casting a final critical glance at the tableau, she went to the door and called out to Zeb. “Well? You ready to see your new baby?”

Addie heard his steps slowly traverse the parlor. He stepped into the doorway, his face as drawn and void as an empty poke. He looked at her, then down at the tiny head bobbing at her breast, and his eyes flared open. The sight breathed life back into him; his whole body bloomed and stretched and widened with joy, and a grin clasped his face. “Why, Addie,” he breathed, “it’s … it’s beautiful!”

“Not an ‘it.’ It’s a ‘she,”’ Addie beamed.

“A girl?”

“Yeah. Is that all right?”

“Why—why, I imagine so! I imagine so!”

“What you doin’, standin’ in that door like you’s company?” Rose said. “Get on over there and hold that baby!”

Nervously rubbing his hands on his wrinkled shirt front, Zeb sidled toward the bed. He reached forward to receive the wrapped bundle.

“Don’t worry, you ain’t fixin’ to break her,” came Rose’s voice, soft at his elbow. “Just let her head rest in the crook o’ your arm; there–just like that. Looky there, she cuttin’ her eyes at you. You see your daddy, li’l Missy? This here your papa, honey.”

Zeb peered into his daughter’s face, hardly daring to breathe.

“Her … her mouth looks like yours,” he told Addie in a stage whisper.

“Yeah, but she got your eyes, that’s for sure,” Rose said.

“You really think so?”

“Mmm-hmm. I expect they be green this time next year, just like yours. What you gonna name her?”

Zeb and Addie stared at each other. “I thought we’d name her Mary Alice,” Addie said, “after both our mothers. If … that’d be–all right.”

Zeb’s eyes were drawn back to the tiny, red face peering from the blankets. “Well, Miss CradleMary Alice Douglas. How do you do?”

*******

In the days that followed, Zeb became more practiced at holding his daughter, but he never quite felt comfortable doing it. Addie or Rose would place the baby in his arms, and he would struggle manfully to relax—mostly to no effect. But Mary Alice didn’t seem to mind; she seemed fully as contented to be in one set of arms as another. Unless, of course, she was hungry or soiled. Then Zeb yielded gratefully to the experts.

He couldn’t talk about the way he felt toward the child because he didn’t understand it himself. Looking at her, he felt an odd mixture of awe, delight, confusion, pride, fear, and pleasure. Protective zeal surged through him, and on its heels came intense bouts of anxiety. It was at once a wonder and a worry to him that he must now portion his consciousness, not in halves, but in thirds. “Daughter” became an exotic taste for him, a new sensation that he caressed in his mind, standing back and watching himself admire its novelty—and fret over its ramifications.

Sometimes, as he sat, he would catch one of the women watching him. Addie’s eyes were always soft and cherishing, loving him from where she sat, glowing with an adoration that seemed to radiate to him from the baby when he held her. These days, he basked in a reflected light.

Rose, on the other hand, used a more veiled look. Sometimes she would smile at him a little and nod her head, but her eyes never dropped their guarded assessment. She reminded Zeb of an insurance prospect, listening patiently to the sales pitch and constantly wondering how much the payments will be.

He sometimes thought he was outside the fence, looking in at Rose and Addie. The two women shared something he couldn’t calculate or understand. It was the same when callers came, the women all aflutter and the men—when they couldn’t avoid coming—with hats in hand, smiling gravely down at Mary Alice, who appeared completely indifferent to all the attention. The women had so much to say about the whole matter; the men seemed more intent on failing to notice it. They would talk to Zeb about the weather, about automobiles, about dogs and guns and Congress. They would have discussed business, he guessed, but for their knowledge of the line Zeb was in. Maintaining a proper distance was the thing.

A few days after Mary Alice’s birth, a delivery boy came bearing a stylishly wrapped package with a card from the men at the home office. “Congratulations, Zeb and Addie,” it read. Along with the package, the boy handed Zeb a small note in a separate envelope. “So pleased to hear of your new arrival,” it read in Mr. Griffs’ back-slanted hand, “and looking forward to your return to the field. Little Rock needs your steady hand on the tiller.”

Reading the note again, Zeb—to his surprise—felt an odd sense of relief. In the back of his mind, he had been wondering how to broach the subject of his return to work, but there hadn’t seemed to be a right time to mention it. Now, Mr. Griffs had handled it for him. After all, the bosses were plainly ready to have him back in action. Surely no one could fault him for that! And, with the new responsibility of a child to feed and clothe, it was only right that he return to the serious business of making a living. Addie would understand.

“Oh, Zeb, look!” Addie cried, holding up from the ruin of the decorated box a shining silver baby cupsilver cup and saucer. “It’s got her name engraved on it, and her date of birth!” Addie turned the set this way and that.

“Sure is pretty,” said Rose, cradling Mary in one meaty arm.

“Zeb, you must tell Mr. Griffs and the others how delightful this is!”

“Well, now that you mention it,” he said in his most carefully casual voice, “I had thought about checking in at the office here in the next day or so.”

“Yes, I suppose it’s about time for you to think about getting back,” Addie said. The dip in her voice was so slight, Zeb would never have noticed it, had he not been looking for it.

*******

The next morning he rose and quietly washed and dressed in the halflight that trickled through the closed window shades. His eyes felt gritty, and there was a dull pressure in his forehead. He figured he’d slept perhaps three hours all night.

Sleeping with an infant in the tiny bedroom was a mounting frustration. Each time Mary Mother and sleeping babywould gurgle or stir, Addie would sit up or rise from the bed to stand over her and peer intently at her in the dimness. And then, every three hours or so, the baby would get hungry and begin the clucking and chirping that would eventually erupt into a full-blown demand to be fed. Usually, before she could get up a full head of steam, Addie would reach into the crib and gather her up, murmuring sleepily to her and bringing her to the breast.

Amid such a commotion and bouncing of mattresses and rustling of bedclothes, slumber would have been impossible to any but a dead man, Zeb surmised. He had always been a light sleeper in the first place, and the nightly program was certainly not geared to his rest patterns. Addie could catnap during the day when Mary was asleep, but he had never been able to doze when the sun was up.

As he fastened the cuffs on his shirt, he looked over at the tangled bundle on the bed sighing deeply in rhythmic, slow breaths. Best not to disturb Addie, he thought. Lifting his coat from the bedpost, he tiptoed from the room. He took one last glance at the two sleepers and backed quietly through the door, latching it behind him.

In the kitchen was Rose, who had slept on the settee. She sat at the small table, blowing softly on a steaming cup of coffee. She looked tired, crumpled. As he came in, she got up silver coffee potto get the coffeepot. She poured a cup and set it in front of him.

“Thanks.”

She seated herself again without replying. They both sipped gingerly at the black, near-boiling brew.

“They’s toast in the skillet,” she said, a few moments later.

He went over to the stove and carefully plucked a crisp slice of buttered bread from the flat iron skillet. He took a bite, then another.

“How come you didn’t go back to your cousin’s last night?” he asked around his second mouthful.

Rose sipped, then shrugged. “Got too late. Thought y’ all might need some help.”

“Sure was a short night,” he admitted.

“Mmm-hmm.”

She tilted her cup and allowed a little coffee to dribble down its side into her saucer to cool. In a bit, she picked up the saucer and slurped. Setting it down slowly, she glanced at him. ‘‘Ain’t nobody’s fault, though.”

He looked at her. “Do what?”

“Ain’t the baby’s fault. She don’t know no better. And Miz Addie bound to be restless with her for a little while, till she get used to it.”

“I know that.”

She looked down at her saucer. “Yessuh. I’m just sayin’ … ”

He took a few more sips of his coffee, then poured the remainder down the sink. He crossed the parlor and took his hat from the lamp table, pulled on his coat, and walked out the front door.

*******

Rose watched him leave, then studied the tabletop for a long while. “Lord, tell me I’m wrong about that man,” she prayed softly.

Perhaps forty-five minutes later, Addie stumbled into the kitchen.

“Mornin’,” said Rose.

“Good morning. I don’t know why I’m up, the baby’s still asleep.”

“You better get your rest while you can,” Rose said. “You want some coffee?”

“Oh, nothing right now, Rose, thanks.” She peered around. “Where’s Zeb?”

“He gone, honey. He left before you got up.”

“Oh. Well, I … I guess he needed to get an early start.”Hansom cab

“Mmm-hmm. I guess so.”

*******

This post is a chapter from the novel Sunday Clothes, by Thom Lemmons. Sunday Clothes will soon be available for purchase as an e-book at www.homingpigeonpublishing.com

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 12

January 26, 2018

Louisa noticed a buttercup blooming in the tall grass just beside the front steps. Without yellow buttercupexactly knowing why, she approached the simple little yellow blossom and knelt down, touching its petals gently with a gloved finger. Rising and looking about somewhat self-consciously, she realized it was the first thing since Katherine’s death that she had perceived for its own sake.

The automobile was still coughing its death throes when Dub joined her on the front porch. “Don’t understand what’s wrong with that cotton picking thing,” he muttered. “Guy at the livery said he adjusted the carburetor–whatever in thunder that is.”

“Place looks kinda bad, doesn’t it?” she said, looking about her. A tread on one of the front porch steps gaped loose from its stringer, and paint was flaking in numerous places from the porch railing and trim. The grass in the front yard of her father’s house appeared not to have been cut since last summer. In several places, jimsonweeds and cockleburs reared almost knee-high above the unruly lawn.

“Well, he’s never been the tidy one in the family,” Dub observed, pushing his hat back on his head.

“It didn’t have to be this way, Dub,” she insisted in a low voice. Her husband made no reply.

She went to the front door and rapped. “Papa, it’s Lou and Dub! Papa, you home?”

They heard steps coming down the hallway inside, approaching the front door. The door opened, and Jacob Caswell stepped out onto then front porch, carefully pulling the door shut behind him. “Hello, Lou,” he nodded to his daughter. He shook hands with his son-in-law. “Dub.”

“Jacob.”

“Papa, will you come eat lunch with us after church tomorrow?” Her eyes raced over him as she asked the question, spotting details with a woman’s trained eye: the missing button on the waistcoat, the soiled cuff, the wrinkled trousers. It wasn’t hard to imagine what the inside of the house looked like. No wonder he pulled the door to, she thought. He still has some pride.

“Yeah, hon, I guess that’d be all right,” he answered, his hands jammed in his pants pockets. He rocked on his heels, staring out across the road, recently covered with fresh, orange gravel. “Thank you. I’ll be there. Dub, how’s the hardware business these days?”

“Not too bad, I don’t guess. Summer coming on, the farmers are coming in, getting ready for … ”

Louisa strolled away, the men’s voices fading to a nondescript hum in her mind. She Victorian Little Girlwent down the steps and paced slowly around the side of the house, looking at everything and nothing, feeling inside herself the gradual swelling of the familiar empty space. It wasn’t as bad now as right after the funeral, after everybody went home. Those few days were the worst, when there wasn’t even the prospect of a public service to prop her up, only the remainder of a lifetime with a Katherine-shaped void. No, it was some better now. Not easier, exactly. Maybe she was learning to accept the numbness in her heart. Maybe she was learning to expect less.

She sat down on a stump about halfway between the back door of the house and the tree line of the wood covering Tunnel Hill. When she was still living here, this was a hoary old ash tree whose shade had accommodated many a quilt-top tea party, attended by herself and Addie, then barely more than a toddler.

Addie. I should be with you now, helping you and doing for you. Or you should be here, staying with me while Zeb goes off and does whatever it is that takes him away for so long at a time. But . . .

There used to be a soft cushion of bluegrass beneath the old ash, she remembered. But now the ground around the stump was mostly worn bare, with a few scraggly clumps of dandelion and wild rye scattered here and there. The tree had been struck by lightning one night during a wild summer thunderstorm when she still lived here. Louisa still remembered the searing crash that pounded her chest and sounded like the roof being ripped off the house. The next morning, the old ash tree was a smoking, charred splinter. No more tea parties.

Hearing footfalls, she looked up to see Papa walking toward her, his hands still jammed in his pockets. Seeing her glance at him, his eyes dodged to a spot on the ground beside the stump.

“Lou. How … how you doing?”

“Fine, Papa. ‘Bout the same, I reckon.”

“Dub says business is good.”

“I guess. I wouldn’t know.”

He scuffed the toe of his shoe beneath a tuft of rye grass and started idly trying to root it from the ground. “Boys all right?”

“Yes. Robert still mopes some, and the baby’s too little to know much.”

“Well, I expect they’ll be fine. Just take some time.”

“Yes. Just time.

He pulled a hand from his pocket, wiping it hesitantly on his pant leg. He walked up beside her, finally, and laid it on her shoulder. “Lou, I … I’m sorry. Real sorry.”

She sat perfectly still and expressionless, for so long that he removed his hand. He rubbed his face and stuck his hand back in his pocket. He looked away, toward the trees. Just beneath the eaves of the wood stood a sprig of dogwood, halfway through the change from blooms to leaves.

“I’m sorry, too, Papa.”

It was such an odd thing for her to say, dropped without warning into the silence, that he forgot his diffidence and stared at her. “What?”

“I’m sorry too.” She looked up at him. “We both lost a daughter, Papa. The Lord took mine, and there wasn’t anything to be done about it.”

She stood, staring into his shocked face.

“What’s your excuse, Papa?”

She turned and walked back toward the house1890's Model T

She could hear Dub grunting as he tried to crank the motor car. As she rounded the corner by the front porch, she glanced over her shoulder. Her father was still standing by the stump, staring at the place where she had sat.

*******

As she entered the final month of her pregnancy, Addie began to feel more and more like a beached whale, and Zeb just couldn’t seem to understand–although she thought he wanted to. This morning, for example, she felt his irritation at her slowness in getting ready for church. She could hear him pacing the parlor, hear the click of his watch cover every two or three minutes. He might blame her sloth, but he wouldn’t allow it past his lips. That was something, at least.

She snapped home the last clip on the last garter, sighing as she straightened her skirts. Then she gazed hopelessly at her stockinged feet, so far away, and the high-topped shoes on the floor beside them. Bending over to fasten the buttons on her shoes was far beyond her ability this morning, even allowing that her puffy, swollen feet could be coaxed into the strict confines of the lace-up boots. “Zeb, dear, could you please come help me?” she called, unable to think of any better plan.

Zeb walked into the bedroom, his mouth a tight line of impatience. He looked at her. She handed him the buttonhook. “I can’t do my shoes,” she said with a shrug. ‘‘I’m really sorry, dear, but … ”

Without saying anything, he knelt before her and held up one of the shoes. She pointed Black buttoned bootsher toes and pushed, and he wriggled it back and forth until her foot was encased in leather. Then he began working the buttonhook in and out of the fasteners.

They were just finishing the other shoe when they heard the slowing chug of an automobile, the squealing of brakes, followed closely by the obnoxious, gooselike honking of the brass horn. “Beulah and Will are here,” he said in a terse voice. “You ready now?”

She stood. “Just hand me my purse, over there by the dresser.” They went to the front door. Addie noticed that Zeb slapped a grin on his face as soon as they stepped outside.

*******

What a fellowship, what a joy divine,Leaning on the Everlasting Arms

Leaning on the everlasting arms;

What a blessedness, what a peace is mine,

Leaning on the everlasting arms.

 

Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms;

Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms …

Addie wished she could lean on something. The burst of energy she had felt a day or two previous had by now completely evaporated, and she felt all used up. The congregation arrived at the end of the song, and Brother McCrary motioned from the pulpit for them to sit down. Scarcely had she settled herself into the pew when she felt a wet spot. She was horrified to think she might have soiled her undergarments. The baby had settled awkwardly in the past few days, and sometimes, lately, she had barely been able to control her elimination functions. She felt her face burning with humiliation. How on earth could she politely excuse herself during the sermon without embarrassing herself and Zeb?

Just then, a sharp pain speared her midsection, starting from just beneath her breastbone and rippling down her stomach like cascading fire. It felt like the time her calf muscle had cramped while dog-paddling across the deep hole in Cellico Creek—but much, much worse. Despite her best efforts, a gasp escaped her lips, and her hands went to her belly.

Zeb looked at her, his face confused at first, then wide-eyed. “Is it time?” he asked in a half-whisper, grabbing her elbow.

She nodded, biting her lower lip. “I think so,” she managed.

Zeb stood, stepping over the ankles and knees of the other startled worshippers seated on the pew, making his way toward the aisle. He pulled her after him. “Scuse me. Pardon me,” he said in a low voice, keeping his eyes carefully averted from the surprised faces of those he was stepping over. Addie trailed behind him as fast as she could, one hand holding his, one hand gripping her abdomen, her nostrils flaring in and out as she grappled with the pain clamped like a vise on her stomach.

Beulah Counts, seated two rows behind Addie and Zeb, punched Will in the ribs. Will jerked his head up, saw the Douglases threading their way toward the center aisle, and half-leaped from his seat. The four of them paced hurriedly toward the front door of the church.

And all the while, Brother Charles McCrary never paused in his delivery, never faltered in the rhythm of his homily.

Pacing quickly toward the Duryea, Zeb asked Will, “How far is it to the closest hospital?1890's Duryea

“No!” grunted Addie, walking half-doubled over. “Take … me … home!”

“Now, honey, it may be fine and dandy,” Beulah lectured, “for them hillbilly women in Chattanooga to drop their babies in the cabin with nothing but a granny woman, but here in Nashville, we got doctors and hospitals for such things! You just get in the car and we’ll get you to–”

Her pain made Addie reckless. “Beulah, hush!” She turned to look at Zeb. “I want to go home. And I want you to go get Rose.”

“Oh, Lordy! The old nigger!” howled Beulah. “What next?”

Zeb looked at his wife, panting and hanging on to his shoulder. Then he glanced at Will, who was staring back at him, trying to avoid his wife’s angry glare. “Will, I believe you better get us to the house, quick as you can,” Zeb said. ‘‘And then—I guess you better go get Rose.”

*******

Seated beside the bed, Zeb watched helplessly as his wife’s grip suddenly intensified on his hand. She pulled her knees up and rolled to one side, letting go of a long, low moan.

He prayed harder than he ever remembered praying in his life. How much longer couldhands Addie hold on? Where in the name of heaven was Will Counts? He half suspected Beulah had talked him into driving to the hospital and trying to convince someone to come back to the house, even though Addie had given him the piece of paper with the address of Rose’s cousin scrawled in the old black woman’s spidery hand.

He looked on as his wife wrestled alone with her misery, feeling as helpless and lost as an abandoned child. In her agony, she seemed distant and locked away from him. He was frightened by it but had no words with which to resist, even had she been able to hear through the fearfully intimate cords of travail that separated her from him, from knowing, from everything that had been before now. She was far, far beyond his help or even his recognition, and he was bewildered, defenseless, and insufficient.

He heard the backfiring of an automobile and craned his neck to peer around the doorway into the parlor and out the windows facing the street. His heart leaped into his throat as he saw Rose stepping out of the car almost before Will could get it stopped by the curb, and striding in short, side-to-side steps toward the front door.

“Honey, Rose is here! Hang on, all right? She’s here, Addie. Can you hear me, darling?”

“I’m having a baby, Zeb, I’m not deaf! Go on and let her in the house!”

Gratefully, he rose from his chair and strode to the door, but before he could reach it, theVictorian Kitchen door flew open and Rose marched past him as if he were a hatrack, shoving her purse, hat, and coat at him as she went by. “Get some water boilin’,” she commanded, “and bring me some clean towels. We in for a long haul, so you might as well get comfortable.”

Beulah stood in the doorway; arms akimbo, a tight-lipped, disapproving expression on her face. Will was standing a pace or so behind, hands in his pockets, peering sheepishly in at him. Zeb came to himself and tossed Rose’s things on the rocking chair. “Will, thanks for everything.”

Will waved his hand in dismissal. “Weren’t nothin’ at all,” he said. “You need us to do anything else?”

Zeb looked into the bedroom, where Rose leaned over Addie, murmuring low and smiling, wiping her face with a cloth moistened in the washbasin on the bureau. Carefully avoiding eye contact with Beulah, he replied, “No, I don’t guess. I think we’re all right now. We’ll send word when … when the baby comes.”

“Well, all right, then,” Will said, backing gratefully away from the door. He glanced at his wife’s stiff, unmoving back. “Beulah,” he said in a low voice, “I don’t believe we’re needed here now.”

She drew a loud breath through her nose and let it back out the same way. “No, I’d say not,” she huffed, picking up her skirts and flouncing past her husband. Zeb closed the door as Will turned to follow.

*******

“Let’s get you outta them skirts and into somethin’ more practical,” Rose said, raising Addie to a sitting position. She took her feet and carefully swung them down to rest on the floor.

“Oh, Rose, I don’t think I can manage! Do you think there’s time?”

“Honey, this your first child. We gonna be here awhile before anythin’ much happen, other than some hurtin’ and some strainin’. Next time, it’ll be some easier, but this time you got lots o’ work to do.”

“If I have to hurt this much for very long, I don’t think I’m gonna make it,” Addie despaired.

Rose chuckled deep in her throat as she unbuttoned Addie’s dress and slid it off her shoulders. “Oh, I imagine you make it,” she smiled.

“Besides, you in too deep now, honey. Ain’t no backin’ out.”

“Will it really be as long an ordeal as all that?” Addie asked quietly. ‘‘Are you sure?”

bureauRose shrugged as she pulled a fresh nightgown from a bureau drawer. ‘‘Ain’t no one sure but the good Lord,” she said. “But I done had seven of my own and helped a sight more into this world. If your baby here by sundown, you be better off than some I know.”

Addie heaved a deep sigh as she settled the nightgown around her. Then she felt a warm, familiar hand on her shoulder. “I be here with you, honey,” Rose said, patting gently. “I be here till you don’t need me no more. Ain’t much in the way of birthin’ babies I ain’t seen.”

And then another contraction ripped downward from Addie’s breastbone and clenched her belly in a steel band.

*******

For the next eight hours, Zeb alternated between pacing the shrinking confines of the Mantel Clockparlor and fetching various items at Rose’s command. When the early spasms came, he was frightened by the sounds coming from the partially closed bedroom door. He wanted to either go in and hold his wife or run out the door and down the street, to return when it was all over.

As if divining his thoughts, Rose had poked her head into the parlor during that time. “You the only help I got,” she said. “You stay close by where I can call you easy and quick. Now, go warm me a towel on the stove!”

He carried to the doorway a dizzying succession of warm towels, cold cloths, ice chips, steaming water, cups, saucers, blankets, and other assorted paraphernalia. Each element disappeared in a flash of brown hands and arms into the birthing chamber. These instant errands were interspersed with bouts of pacing and an inner turmoil that mounted with each agonized moan from his wife’s tortured body. She sounded like she was dying! Maybe Beulah was right; maybe she needed a doctor. Once, during an apparent lull in Addie’s labor, he crept to the door and timidly raised a knuckle to tap and inquire whether anything was needed. Scarcely had he rapped once when Rose’s head thrust from inside. “Scald a big dishpan and bring it to me,” she ordered, shutting the door in his face. And so it went.

As the afternoon light began to slant long and golden with the coming of evening, the sound and activity in the bedroom reached a flurrying crescendo. Zeb’s blood ran cold as he heard the brutish grunts and growls coming from Addie’s throat.

He heard Rose chanting in a low, insistent voice: “Come on, now, honey. Push for me, baby, push for me. Come on now, puuuuush for me, baby. That’s it, that’s it. All right, let go for a minute, let go … Now! Puuuuush, honey! Come on, now … ” Sounding now like a mule skinner, now like a revival preacher, Rose cajoled and urged and scolded to the rising and falling accompaniment of his wife’s groans and exhalations and half-articulate cries.

“Just a little more! Just a little more now, baby!” he heard, Rose’s voice rising half an octave, as Addie panted loud and rhythmically. “Just a little— there you is, you little dickens!” Rose cried in triumph. A few seconds later, Zeb heard a sound that made his knees wobble: the thin, high wail of a baby exhaling its first lungful of air in a cry of protest.

He would have gone to the door if he thought he could take the five or six paces withoutdoor falling. His heart was yammering in his chest like a thing gone mad. Without realizing it, he had collapsed onto the divan and sat there, staring at the partially closed bedroom door as if it were suddenly the gateway to a foreign country.

*******

This post is a chapter from the novel Sunday Clothes, by Thom Lemmons. Sunday Clothes will soon be available for purchase as an e-book at www.homingpigeonpublishing.com

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 11

January 19, 2018

There was a moment of shocked silence. Then Addie covered her face with her hands. The sobs started in short, silent bursts, then deepened and broadened into a river of grief, pouring from her in huge gasps and loud moans. She felt Rose’s arms around her, smelled the dusky, warm scent of her, and for a moment she was again that bewildered, abandoned child of thirteen, buffeted by a loss that could never be fathomed, only endured. And again, Rose crooned her untiring incantation of comfort: “It’s all right, Missy. You can make it. It’s going to be all right, by ‘n’ by.”Sweet By and By

*******

In the days that followed, they settled into a routine. Rose would come midmorning, after Addie had gotten herself out of bed and in some semblance of order. She would stay through early afternoon, leaving only after she had prepared something that Addie could warm up for supper. On the fine days, if Addie felt up to it, they would go for short walks up and down the streets of the neighborhood. If Addie needed anything from the grocer or butcher, Rose would go around and give orders to have it delivered. She heated towels on the stove and made hot packs to ease Addie’s aching lower back muscles. She massaged Addie’s calves when the frequent cramps would tie them in knots. She helped in piecing the baby’s quilt.

They would sit for long stretches of time without speaking—Addie in her overstuffed armchair, Rose in the cane-bottomed rocker. During the day, the light from the parlor windows was more than adequate to piece or sew by. Addie felt no need for speech, no need to hold up either end of a conversation. Every so often, Rose would ask, in her low, monosyllabic way, if Addie needed anything. And Addie felt not the slightest hesitation about making any request. This, after all, was Rose. Her presence was like the feel of an old, well-worn quilt on a cold night.

Addie sometimes wondered how Rose had managed to get Papa’s permission to come and help out, but she could never make herself ask. Even more, she longed to ask Rose if Papa ever mentioned her, if he ever thought of her. But she was terrified of the answer to that question and left it well alone. And besides, thinking of home invariably led her thoughts back to little Katherine—her adorable lisp; the silken feel of her cinnamon-colored hair as Addie brushed it out for her; the beautiful, perfect curve of her chubby cheek; the sound of her laugh … No, it was better not to speak of the things of home. For now, it was enough that Rose was here. The nights were less lonely, knowing she would see a familiar, caring face the next day.

About a week after Rose’s arrival, Beulah Counts came to call. She blustered in on the coattails of an unseasonably warm south wind. “Lord-y, I tell you that wind like to blew the hair off my head. How you doin’, honey? Mercy, I never seen such a wind as—”

She stopped in midsentence, staring at Rose, who was just then coming from the tiny Coffee cup with flowerkitchen bearing two steaming cups of coffee.

“Who’s that?” Beulah blurted.

“This is Rose, my— She’s come to help me out these last few days,” Addie explained, glancing nervously from Rose to Beulah. Rose gave no sign of recognizing Beulah’s presence, carefully placing first one coffee cup, then the other, on the two crocheted coasters on the small table by Addie’s elbow. “She’s … Rose has been with my family for years, and it’s so kind of her to come when I needed her,” Addie said, smiling sweetly, first at Rose, then at Beulah.

“Uh-huh,” Beulah snorted, placing a hand on her hip. “Well, thank you for the coffee, Addie. I guess I wouldn’t mind a taste, even on a day like—” Beulah’s hand, stretched toward the coffee cup farthest from Addie on the table, froze in midgesture as she watched Rose nonchalantly grasp the cup and bring it to her lips, sip noisily, and replace it on the coaster, never once looking in Beulah’s direction.

“Yes, that’s a good idea,” chirped Addie into the awkward silence. “Rose, why don’t you bring Mrs. Counts a cup of coffee? How do you like it, Beulah dear?”

Beulah’s jaw hung slack on its hinges as she turned to regard Addie. “Addie!” she began in a stage whisper, “do you honestly think it’s proper—”

“Why, of course, Beulah!” piped Addie, at once flustered and secretly delighted at Beulah’s discomfiture. “I think if you want a cup of coffee, it’s perfectly proper for you to have it. How do you like it? Cream, sugar, … or both?”

Beulah stared at Rose’s broad, disappearing back, momentarily framed by the kitchen door. “Both,” she said, finally, pinching her lips together like a miser closing a purse.

“Rose, did you hear?” asked Addie.

Mmm-hmm.”

Beulah seated herself, perching uncharacteristically on the edge of the small settee, Setteeaccepting from Rose the coffee cup as though it were a live rodent. She balanced the cup and saucer carefully on her knees and strove gallantly to ignore Rose’s presence while she made several abortive attempts at chitchat. She never separated the cup from the saucer.

In a few minutes, Rose took her own cup to the kitchen and came back out wearing her old, ratty shawl and a nondescript kerchief over her head. Without a word to anyone, she walked toward the door.

“Rose, are you leaving?” Addie asked.

“Yes’m. I be back in the mornin’.”

“Well … All right, then. Good-bye—and thank you.”

Mmm-hmm.” And then she was gone.

“Who is that old nigger woman?” Beulah demanded as soon as the door was shut. “And why on earth were you … drinking coffee with her?” she continued, her lip curled in contempt. “Having her to wait on you is one thing, but that’s so, so … familiar!”

“Oh, Beulah!” Addie laughed. “Rose just about raised me! In fact, she did raise me after my mama died. And I’ll tell you what else: she cares more for me than—” The words my own father died in Addie’s throat. “—than lots of folks who’ve known me as long,” she said. “She’s just … Rose, that’s all. You can’t let her get to you. She’s just like that, is all.”

“Well, you better listen to me, Adelaide Douglas,” Beulah lectured, shaking an admonitory finger, “she’s a little too big for her old britches, is what I think, don’t matter how long you’ve known her. And people in Nashville ain’t like some might be in Chattanooga.”

No, I guess not, Addie thought.

“You let her keep carrying on like that around you and you’ll be sorry, mark my words. You give ‘em an inch, and they’ll take a mile!”

Despite her best efforts, Addie began to smile while trying to calculate all the inches Rose had accumulated during her lifetime. “Well, anyway, Beulah, I’m so glad you came. Your hand is so much steadier than mine—would you please help me baste the batting into a quilt?”

“I guess so,” she sighed, leaning over to place the cup and saucer on the side table. “Where is it?”

“At the end of the settee, by the door. The bow tie.”

“Yes, I remember the bow tie,” Beulah said. “This room’s not big enough to cuss a cat without gettin’ fur in your mouth. How in the world you gonna set a quilt frame in here?”

“Oh, it’s just a baby quilt,” Addie said. “I didn’t figure on using a frame. I thought I’d probably just lap-quilt it.”Thread spool

“Well,” Beulah said, shaking her head, “where’s your needles and thread?”

*******

Despite Addie’s fretful impatience, March 20 did finally arrive—the day on which Zeb was to return. She was nervous and agitated all day, picking things up and immediately setting them down again, pacing the small parlor like a lion in a cage, staring habitually out the windows, though she knew Zeb’s train wouldn’t arrive in Nashville until ten o’clock that night.

“You better set down and rest, Missy,” Rose said. She was seated in the rocker, and she had the bow tie quilt spread across her lap, taking fine stitches through the cotton batting into the backing, then back through the top. “You gonna wear yourself plumb out before your man even get home.”

“Oh, Rose, I’m sorry. Here, I’ll sit down and talk to you. I’m acting just like a schoolgirl today!”

Mmm-hmm,” came the murmured reply. Rose kept her eyes on her stitching as she asked, “How long he been gone, honey?”

“Oh, it seems like forever! But, I guess it’s really only been … about a month.”

Rose made no reply.

“He’s doing very well in Little Rock, really,” Addie went on. “His bosses are real proud of him. And … and so am I.”

Mmm-hmm.”

“Oh, but I wish it were ten o’clock already!” Addie pushed herself out of the chair and paced toward the front door, then back, hugging herself.

“I miss him so much!”

“You ain’t going to hurry that train none, wearin’ out this here floor,” Rose said. She brought the thread to her lips to bite off an end. “He be home pretty soon, and then you be wishin’ you save your strength for somethin’ besides walkin’ around all day.”

“Rose! You crude old thing! I’m—I’m expecting!”

“Yeah, you is.” She grinned at Addie. ‘‘And so is he!”

Addie stared at her, mouth agape.

“Honey, I done had seven babies,” Rose went on, squinting one eye to rethread the needle, “and I knows how mens thinks, and what they thinks about. He been gone from home a solid month, and he be needin’ you. Don’t worry about that baby; you ain’t gonna hurt him. De good Lord know what he doin’ when he made us the way he do.”

A flush was creeping up Addie’s neck, and a smile twitched the corners of her lips. She turned away, unwilling for Rose to see the effect her advice was having.

The day wore on toward afternoon, and presently Rose stood and walked into the kitchen. She came back, carrying her shawl and kerchief.

“Oh, Rose, don’t go!” Addie urged. “Please! Stay with me until Zeb—until Mr. Douglas gets home. I don’t think I could stand being by myself today, as fidgety as I am. Will you stay? Please?”

Rose looked at her a long moment, then smiled slowly. “Well, all right. I reckon I can stay a little while more, at least. I don’t know if I can catch a trolley after ten o’clock, though—”

“Oh, thank you, Rose! I need someone to talk to, to make the time pass faster.”Mantel Clock

“Well, I don’t know about that,” Rose said, tossing her wraps on the settee and slowly settling herself back in the rocker. “Seem to me like time pass on its own lookout; don’t make no difference whether folks be tryin’ to pass it or not.”

“Now, Rose, you know what I meant. There’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you these last few days. I’ve been wondering: what was it like for you when you had your first baby? How did things change for you?”

Rose rocked slowly back and forth, her hands folded on her bosom. Her face was angled to one side; she appeared to be looking beyond Addie, out the window toward Granny White Pike. For several moments she stayed like that—rocking and looking and saying nothing.

“James come into this world during the worst thunderstorm of the spring, back in ‘57, I guess it woulda been,” she said. “He was my first, an’ I guess I was plenty scared, not much knowin’ what was happenin’. Oh, I done helped at lots o’ birthins, but this one was mine, see, and that make everythin’ different.”

Addie shifted in her chair, moving the pillows at the small of her back so she could face Rose with more ease. The afternoon sun bathed the room in warm, languid light. The traffic on the street outside was infrequent, and the ticking of the Ingraham mantle clock loaned a settled, comfortable feeling to the small parlor. Rose’s well-worn voice droned along the paths of her memory. Addie felt the pull of the voice, felt it summoning her steadily and pleasurably into the reminiscence, like a firm, sure hand on the drawstring of a well bucket, bringing water from a deep, sweet source.

“It was nearly midnight when I felt the pains comin’ on, and I sent my man Leland down to Sister Hattie’s house—oh, I guess maybe a quarter mile or more.” She let out a deep, bubbly chuckle. “Honey, I ain’t never gonna forget the look on that man’s face when I told him it was time. I done had to jab him in the ribs four or five times with my elbow to get him awake enough to ‘tend what I was sayin’. Directly, he set up. ‘What you doin’, woman?’ he say, like I done stabbed him.

“‘It’s time,’ I say, ‘the baby comin’.’

“For a minute, I think he don’t hear me. He just sit there, rubbin’ his face and yawnin’. Den his eyes, they pop like this!” Rose laughed again, shaking her head at the memory. “‘What you say, woman?’ he holler. He like to fall out the bed trying to get his britches on.

“We was stayin’ down by the freight yards in them days, and the closest help was Sister Hattie Sorrels. Leland light out for her house like the devil hisself was on him. He ain’t no more than go out the door when the lightnin’ flash so close by you could hear it crack like a whip, and right on its heels a clap o’ thunder that like to wake the dead.”

“Oh, Rose! Weren’t you scared?”

Rose shrugged. “I guess . . . maybe. But it was too late to do much more than wait. And pray. I done plenty o’ both.”

Several quiet moments passed.

“How long has your husband been—gone?”Rose and Leland

“Fourteen years, the tenth of next month,” Rose answered instantly.

“Was … was he sick?”

Rose shook her head. “He got hurt workin’ on the incline railway up on Lookout. He was standin’ behind a car loaded with blast rock, and a couplin’ bust, and he get run over. He live about three days.” Rose mused a few seconds. “Leland was a crew boss, so the company pay for the funeral, and they give me fifty dollars.”

The clock ticked patiently. An electric trolley clattered past on the street. “How long did it take before you got over it?” Addie asked in a half-whisper.

“You don’t never get over it, honey,” Rose said in a creased voice as low as a moan. “You just learns to live with it, that’s all. And the Lord give strength for the day.”

*******

The afternoon wore on, and despite Addie’s objections, Rose had to leave. The Nashville negroes were boycotting the traction company just then, but Rose’s cousins had told her about a group of blacks who were attempting to run a hack service to compete with the trolleys. The hack picked up not too far from Addie’s house, but it stopped running after dark.

“I got to get on, honey,” Rose said, gathering her things. “I’m too old to walk all the way to Freeman’s house, and I’m too scared to try it at night.”

“Of course, Rose. Thank you so much for staying with me a little longer.”

“Yes’m. Don’t get up, now. I can make it out the door by my own self. You don’t worry about your man; he be here soon’s he can, I imagine. You just take it easy, and send for me, you be needin’ anything.”

Addie watched Rose talk herself out the door, watched the door close behind her, watched her amble off down Granny White Pike with her back-and-forth, purposeful gait.

Addie looked at the mantle clock and sighed. Only a quarter till five …

*******

The brakes jolted the car, shaking Zeb awake. He blinked groggily, wincing as he rubbed the back of his stiff neck. He must have fallen asleep somewhere just this side of Jackson, he guessed. He peered with bleary eyes through the window and watched the Nashville station platform crawl past; slowing, slowing, and stopping with a far-off hissing of steam. “Nayshville, folks, this is Nayshville,” sang the conductor as he walked back through the car. Zeb creaked to his feet and reached into the luggage rack for his valise.

He felt kinked and crusty from the journey, but despite his weariness, a warm anticipation bloomed within him. He was anxious to get to the house, to see Addie. It had been a long month. A corner of his mind teased at the question of whether she’d be glad to see him, whether she’d be at all inclined toward—

No! Mustn’t be thinking about such things, he lectured himself. After all, Addie was approaching her time. Such things weren’t decent to contemplate, and it would surely harm the child anyway. Addie was a fine, upstanding woman, and she deserved the utmost resect, especially from a husband who had been so long absent. Especially in her delicate condition.

He shuffled down the aisle of the car. The air coming through the open doors was chilly, after the comfort of the heated coach. He pulled his watch from his vest pocket and flicked open the cover. Ten-oh-seven. Just about right. The trolleys wouldn’t be running, but he could probably hire a hack to take him home.

He found a slightly dilapidated hansom waiting in front of the station, the horse Hansom cabchamping noisily in a nosebag and the cabbie dozing in the seat. “Say, there,” he called, tapping the side of the cab, “you for hire?”

“Yes, sir,” the cabbie replied through a yawn. “Just climb in and tell me where to.”

“Granny White, up past Vanderbilt. You know where Edgehill is?”

“Yes, sir, sure do,” the cabbie answered, untying the nosebag. “Have you there in a jiffy.”

Half an hour later, Zeb got out of the hansom and flipped a fifty-cent piece up at the driver. “Thank you, sir!” he heard as the cab clattered off. He realized he probably shouldn’t have tipped so much, but he was glad to be home, and he felt generous. Besides, he thought as he strode toward the front gate, I can afford it! He felt his pulse quickening as he opened the gate. The gaslights in the parlor were glowing through the windows, so Addie was waiting up for him. It would be so good to see her again.

An instant after the gate catch banged home behind him, the front door flew open. She was striding toward him, as fast as her girth would allow. He set his valise down and she was in his arms, and he was smelling the sweet scent of lilac soap and feeling her silken hair and drinking a long, glad draught from her lips.

“Well, we better get in the house,” he grinned at her a moment later. “Folks’ll talk.”

“Oh, let ‘em,” she sighed, putting her arm around him as they walked toward the front door. “I’ve missed you so, Zeb.”

‘‘And I’ve missed you,” he replied, opening the door for her.

They went inside. He dropped his valise beside the settee and tossed his derby on the lamp table by the door. Addie took his hand and pulled him forward. Toward the bedroom. He stared at her.

“Addie, what . . . Are you sure . . . Is this—all right?” Despite his protests, his voice was thickening with onrushing desire, and her eyes said everything he wanted to hear.

“Why, we ain’t gonna hurt that baby none,” she said in a weak imitation of Rose’s gutteral voice. “The Lord know what he doin’ … ”

Gas light

Half an hour later, he remembered to come back into the parlor and douse the gaslights.

*******

This post is a chapter from the novel Sunday Clothes, by Thom Lemmons. Sunday Clothes will soon be available for purchase as an e-book at www.homingpigeonpublishing.com

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 10

January 7, 2018

Addie knotted the stitch and leaned over to bite the thread with her teeth. She squinted at the piecing, turning it this way and that. She reached over to the gas lamp and brightened it a bit, then continued inspecting her work. Satisfied with the stitching, she removed the straight pin. She laid the completed “bow tie” on the stack with the two dozen others she had finished.

She felt a dull ache starting behind her eyes. She had been piecing for most of two hours. It was time to get up and move around a little. She levered herself out of the kitchen chair, putting a hand to her back as she stood. Standing was getting harder and harder, along with everything else–she was now almost in her seventh month. The morning sickness had abated, however, which was a blessing. Beulah Counts had assured her of that, recounting in uncomfortable detail the story of her sister, who had “been sicker ‘n a bloated mule” for the entire duration of her pregnancy. Addie dared not complain in Beulah’s presence after hearing that.

Beulah had also let it be known that it was foolish to be making a bow tie quilt for the baby. “What if you have a little girl?”

Addie had shrugged. “I guess the bow tie’ll keep her just as warm.”

Beulah had mumbled something about crowing hens.

Addie didn’t care. She liked the bow tie. She had decided to alternate pink and blue ties, Bow Tie Quiltbut it had nothing to do with Beulah and her opinions.

Addie had begun to notice an odd effect Beulah had on her. Beulah was so plainspoken, so cut-and-dried about everything, and, above all, so bumptious and rough in her manner that Addie felt she had to compensate by going the other way. Lately, it had seemed that the longer Beulah lolled on the settee, the more primly Addie perched on the edge of her seat. The more Beulah swilled her tea or coffee, the straighter Addie’s little finger extended from her own cup handle. The more blunt Beulah’s speech became, the more Addie found herself searching for the most delicate and proper language possible. Addie hated herself for doing it, but she didn’t seem capable of stopping; it just seemed to irritate Beulah so.

There was a quiet tap at the front door. Addie pulled aside the curtain, peering into the early spring dusk. Mr. Chester stood on the doorstep, blowing into his cupped hands. She undid the latch and opened the door. Her landlord smiled at her and touched the brim of his derby. “Evenin’ Mrs. Douglas! Just checking by to see if you’re needing anything.”

“Thank you, no, Mr. Chester. Won’t you come inside? It’s pretty nippy out.”

“Oh, no, I ‘spect I’ll be getting back, ma’am . Mrs. Chester thought I oughta look in on you, make sure everything’s all right.”

“Yes, sir, I’m fine, thank you.”

“Well, all right, then. Good night.” He touched his hat brim again as he backed away from the door.

“Good night, and thank you.” She closed the door and latched it. She hugged herself against the cold draft from outside, rubbing her upper arms. And that was another thing. . . . Her feet hadn’t been warm since January, what with the baby taking more and more of the right-of-way. She could pile on ten quilts at night, and though her face and neck might be sheathed in sweat, her feet would still feel like two chunks of ice.

She never felt cold at night when Zeb was at home …. She glanced at the bureau, where his last letter lay open, read twice since its receipt this morning. It was on the stationery of his hotel in Little Rock, dated one week previous. It was scrawled in the curvaceous, elegant hand of which he was so proud and began, as did all his letters, with the salutation, “My Darling Addie.”

I trust this finds you & our (son? daughter? ha) well. Have had good success this week, hope to close two contracts within the next few days. Have several promising leads on prospective agents for Area. All else pretty good here. 

Will plan to leave in three weeks (Mar. 20th) on the ten o’clock (morn.) train. Should pull into Nashville, barring anything out of the ordinary, by about ten o’clock that night. Am most anxious to once again see my lovely Wife.

Much love,

Zeb. A. Douglas

Addie sighed. Another two weeks to wait.

The days seemed ages long these last few weeks. She had almost reached the point of looking forward to Beulah’s social calls. Beulah, for all her bluster and unsolicited advice, was at least nearby and could be depended on for some diversion every once in awhile; a little conversation–however one-sided. Why hadn’t Louisa answered her last letter? Addie wondered. She had written her what seemed weeks ago, asking her to consider coming to Nashville to help in the days following the baby’s arrival. She really thought she’d have heard something from her sister by now.

Massaging the small of her back, she paced slowly into the ten-by-twelve bedroom that Cradleopened off the parlor. She ran her hand around the new cradle that sat on the floor beside their bed. It had just come a few days ago. Zeb had ordered it from the Sears & Roebuck catalog and had it delivered. She and Zeb had looked at a few cradles, had briefly discussed their various merits and faults, but she had never really made up her mind which one she wanted for the baby.

She sighed. It didn’t much seem to matter now. The cradle was here and it would do just fine, she supposed. It was good of Zeb, really, to go ahead and make the decision. She would probably have just dawdled needlessly over details that wouldn’t matter to anyone but herself. She could almost imagine Beulah’s assessment of the situation: “Honey, that baby’d sleep just as good in an egg crate, long as it had plenty of padding…” And a bow tie quilt would keep her just as warm, she told Beulah in her mind.

*******

“All in favor, say ‘aye.’ ” There was a tired murmur of responses.

“Opposed, same sign.” Silence. “All right, the motion carries.”

George Hutto leaned back from the long walnut table. With what he hoped was an unobtrusive motion, he eased his pocket watch out and thumbed the cover latch. He suppressed a wince. Nine-thirty! They’d been at it for more than two hours, and Clem Osgood didn’t show any signs of stopping. Not for the first time, he scolded himself for allowing Dad to talk him into being on the board of Baroness Erlanger’s new hospital. He was as grateful for the baroness’s generosity as anyone else, but there were plenty of things he’d have preferred to be doing at nine-thirty on a Tuesday evening, rather than sitting in this hard chair and waiting for Clem to put things to a vote. And with a new hospital, there seemed to be no end of things on which to vote.

As Clem made full steam ahead into the next item on the agenda, George’s tired mind wandered. He had a new book at home that he’d been wanting to read, but at the rate this meeting was going, he’d be too tired to enjoy reading when he got there. And then, his attention was commandeered by the words “three more deaths this week.”

“Where?” one of the board members was asking.

“One up in Lookout. One out in the county, and one in Cameron Hill. This is the worst spell of scarlet fever we’ve had since I don’t know when.”Victorian Little Girl

“Cameron Hill … Who was that?”

“Little girl–Dub and Louisa Dawkins’s daughter.”

A shock of recognition jabbed at George’s midsection. “Little Katherine?” he blurted, the first words he’d said all evening, other than “aye.”

Clem looked at him and nodded. “Yeah, I think that was her name. You know the family?”

George’s face reddened. Was Clem mocking him? No, probably not. He doubted anyone in the room would know that the mother of the dead child was Addie’s older sister. Probably no one in the whole blessed state knew he had ever cared for Addie in the first place–including Addie. “I, uh– Yes. I’m … acquainted with some of them. From church.”

“Heard it was a mighty sad thing,” one of the other board members offered. “Heard that toward the end the fever turned her mind. Heard she hollered about angels coming for her, and such.”

“How old was she?” someone asked.

Clem shrugged. “I read the obituary, but I forgot.”

There was a moment or two of silence before Clem cleared his throat. “Next item: staff wants two more beds in Convalescent Ward C …”

As the talk droned on, George came to the guilty realization that he had already forgotten about Katherine Dawkins, except for speculating whether Addie would be attending her funeral. He removed his spectacles and pulled a wrinkled handkerchief from his vest pocket to clean the lenses. Resettling his glasses on the bridge of his nose, he risked another glance at his watch. Nine-thirty-eight. He sighed.

*******

W. G. Dawkins walked the elderly couple to the door. “Thank you for coming over, Brother Wilks. You, too, Sister Wilks. I know Louisa appreciates it too.”

The old woman was sniffling into a well-moistened lilac kerchief. “So young,” she murmured over and over, shaking her head. “So very young.” They were at the door, and the husband turned to shake Dub’s hand. Without looking him directly in the eye, he said, “Dub, she’s better off now.”

“Yes, Brother Wilks, I know. Well … thanks again.” The old people went into the night, and Dub leaned wearily against the door, latching it behind these, the last two callers of a very long and very difficult day.

He had started back toward the parlor, knowing Louisa would be maintaining her ceaseless vigil beside the small casket, when a quiet knock came at the kitchen door.

Oh, Lord! he thought. Who in the world, this late of an evening? He stepped across the plank floor of the kitchen and parted the shade slightly, at first seeing no one. Then, peering downward, he realized the knock belonged to the shortened form of old black Rose, the housekeeper of Louisa’s father. Now why would she be coming around again? he wondered. She already brought that platter of chicken this morning …

He parted the door a foot. “Evening, Rose. What can I do for you?”

“Mister Dub, I sure am sorry ‘bout coming so late, but I sure needs to talk to you.”

He sighed. “Rose, it’s nearly ten o’clock. Are you sure it can’t wait till in the morning?”

“No, sir. ‘Fraid not. I needs to talk to you tonight.”

Rose showed about as much likelihood of budging as an oak stump. She wouldn’t look at hrose?im, but neither would she back up an inch. Dub had been around Louisa’s family long enough to recognize that Rose had something on her mind. He could shut the door in her face, even lock it; she’d still be standing there the next morning, waiting to say what she came to say. Wishing desperately he could sit down somewhere, he let the door fall open. Rose stepped inside. A dark, threadbare shawl was wrapped round her shoulders.

“Mister Dub, I needs fifteen dollars.”

“Rose, good Lord! Why at this, of all times–”

“I got to buy a train ticket to Nashville, and I needs fifteen dollars. I got some money saved up, but I needs that much more than what I got, to do what I got to do when I gets there.”

“Rose, why do you need to go to Nashville right now?” he asked, rubbing his temples. “Why can’t you wait till after the funeral, at least?”

“Miz Addie,” came the instant reply. “She in a family way, and somebody got to tell her what happened to her sister’s child. She find out from a telegram, she liable to lose that baby. And somebody got to do for her, now she gettin’ along toward her time. Miz Louisa woulda done it, but she can’t now. Somebody got to do it, Mister Dub. You the only one close by I can ask. I needs fifteen dollars.”

Dub studied her squat, unmoving figure for several moments. “I don’t reckon you’ve told Lou’s daddy what you’re fixing to do?”

Rose’s eyes flickered toward him, then went back toward their resting place somewhere between the chair rail and the kitchen floor. Her face was as immobile as ever, but that single glance had told Dub all he needed to know.

He had to admit, he hadn’t thought about Addie in the time since Katherine’s death. She would certainly need to know, and Rose was correct about something else: the news shouldn’t just be dropped on a woman as far along as Addie was. Too bad Zeb was still in Arkansas.

“I guess you’re right, Rose,” he said slowly, reaching into his coat pocket for his wallet. “Let’s see, here … Five, ten … “He dug about in his pants pocket and felt the contours of a five-dollar gold piece. “That’d about make fifteen–”

She snatched the money from his hand and walked out the door. Just like that. He smiled faintly, despite his crushing weariness. “You’re welcome,” he said to the closed door.

He went into the parlor, and Lou appeared not to have moved since he had last seen her. She stood beside the open casket, staring down into the face of their dead daughter. The expression on her face was that of someone trying to recognize someone who looked familiar–yet not quite. Walking toward his wife, Dub averted his eyes from Katherine’s— no, its—face. It didn’t look just like her, no matter what the well-meaning visitors said. Everything that made her Katherine was gone; this was just what was left behind. This wasn’t what he wanted to remember.

“Lou, they’ve all gone,” he said softly, placing his hands on his wife’s shoulders. “Why don’t you come to bed? You’ve been right here all day, on your feet.”

“Who was at the kitchen door?” she asked him, without taking her eyes off her child’s death portraitface.

“Just old Rose,” he said, surprised that Louisa had been aware enough to ask the question. “She wants to go to Nashville. To be with Addie.”

After a pause, Louisa nodded. Then turned and walked away, toward the stairs.

“Where you going, honey?” Dub asked.

“To bed, I guess. Maybe if I lie down, I can let myself cry.”

*******

Rose sat on the hard bench in the colored car, staring out the window as the night rushed past, featureless and punctuated only by the frequent glowing cinders from the smokestack.

The colored car was right behind the engine, so the air in the car was uncomfortably full of smoke and coal dust, and the noise and bumps and shakes were more noticeable. It was an old, ramshackle wooden coach, in sharp contrast to the sleek, upholstered, well-equipped steel coaches available to the white passengers of the Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis line. Rose would have liked to use the toilet, but the smell was unpleasant, even from where she was seated at the other end of the car. She wasn’t that uncomfortable—yet.

Not many folks, colored or otherwise, rode the late train to Nashville. There was a young,Train Wheels bright-skinned woman with a brand-new basket in her lap, seated two rows up and across the aisle, to Rose’s left. A little closer to the front and on the same side as Rose, there was an old man and two young boys, about seven and twelve, Rose figured. The man’s skin was the hue of water-stained chestnuts, and the boys were somewhat lighter. The boys were sprawled asleep on two of the benches, so soundly asleep that even when the train’s rough motion jogged them onto the floor, they crawled back onto their plank resting places without opening their eyes.

Rose watched the dark roll by and thought about everything that was happening. It was too bad about Louisa’s little girl. Addie would take the news awful hard, Rose knew; Katherine had been her favorite. She was a sweet little child, always so happy and content. Seemed like those were the ones that took bad sick most often. Maybe not, though, she reasoned. Maybe with them you just noticed more. But children were surely hardest to lose or to see lost. It was out of order; the wrong of it showed up more plainly. “Lord Jesus, please come ‘longside Miz Louisa and Mister Dub,” Rose mouthed silently. “You know what they needin’—give it to ‘em, Lord, amen.”

Rose thought about the bits of news she had gleaned about Addie during her errands to the Dawkins’s home during Katherine’s illness. Her stuck there in Nashville, coming to her time in the middle of a bunch of strangers, and that husband of hers way off somewhere . . . Rose shifted slightly to ease her lower back. Not that a man was much good when the time came, anyway. Rose had borne seven children and seen five of them raised to adulthood, and never once had her man been in the room with her to watch the birthing of his offspring. But Rose had been among friends, and the women of the church had always been there to aid as only those who also knew the sweet, grinding agony of childbirth could. Her man would come in when the blood and struggle was out of sight, and he’d look at the life he’d sired, and he’d maybe smile, maybe not. She’d had a good man—better than many—but there were some times that were just beyond a man.

The bright-skinned girl set the basket carefully on the bench beside her and stood, stretching the kinks out of her cramped legs. She turned and glanced at Rose, smiling briefly.

Rose had cousins in Nashville. She could stay with them and come during the day to do for Addie. Someone had to do for her. Louisa would have done it, if things had been different. Addie should have been able to draw comfort from the bosom of her kin, but …

Rose had worked for Jacob Caswell’s family since he was a young man, and it pained her soul to see his spirit shriveled by his bitterness toward Addie. “Sweet Jesus, won’t you change that man’s heart?” she mouthed, still looking out the window. “Won’t you soften him toward his own flesh and blood, for the sake of thy Word, which say, ‘he that trouble his own house shall inherit the wind’?”

The train rolled on through the night and into the dawn, winding up and down gradesvalise and in and out of tunnels carved into the flanks of the steep hillsides. At about seven in the morning, it ground slowly to a hissing halt in the Nashville station. Gripping her battered and creased cardboard valise in one hand, Rose stepped down onto the platform, glad her cousin’s place wasn’t too far from the station. Even if the trolley had been running at that hour, she doubted she could have managed to locate a colored car. As it was, she’d have to walk. Rose didn’t mind. She’d gotten where she had to go in life mostly on her own two feet.

*******

The persistent knocking finally penetrated Addie’s slumber. She worked herself to the side of the bed and managed to lever herself into a sitting position. Pushing her hair out of her eyes, she felt blindly with the other hand for her dressing robe, draped on a chair beside the bed. She sashed her robe and parted the curtains, peering out into the gray morning to see who was standing on her doorstep. At first, she didn’t recognize the short, broad shape. Then, as the caller reached toward the door to knock again, she turned her face slightly toward the window where Addie stood. Rose! With a gasp of joy, Addie weaved her way around the bed in the tiny room and stepped as quickly as she could across the parlor, toward the front door.

She yanked open the door and threw wide her arms to receive Rose’s squat form. The two women embraced in the open doorway. “Oh, now honey, we got to be careful,” Rose said a moment later, placing a hand on Addie’s protruding belly. “Way you done swole up, two be a crowd!”

“Come in out of this cold air,” Addie said, smiling. “I just can’t believe you’re here! How long can you stay?”

Rose pulled the door to, then turned to look carefully at Addie. “Long as you need me, honey. I’m here to do for you till your baby come. “

Addie stared at her, placing a hand to her mouth. “Oh, but … Papa. How did you manage—”

“Don’t make no difference,” Rose said. ‘‘I’m here, and I’m stayin’ till I ain’t needed no more or you tell me to clear out. Set yourself down, now! Ain’t no call for you to be standin’ up all this time.” Rose fussed over her, getting her seated and propped up just so, mumbling and clucking all the while. Addie sighed under the ministrations, feeling more comforted and at home than she had since …

“Now, Rose, you must tell me all about Lou and all the others. I was expecting to hear from her anytime, but she hasn’t written in the longest.”

Rose paused in her bustling about, giving Addie a slow, careful look. She straightened slowly, arms akimbo, and fixed Addie with a sad look, her head cocked slightly to one side. “Honey, that’s the other reason I’m here. Your sister ain’t going to be able to come.”

Addie’s eyes went wide. “Why? What’s wrong? Is it Dub? Or … or Lou herself?”

Rose shook her head and stooped again to lay a hand on Addie’s arm. “No, honey. Ain’t Sweet By and Bynone of the grown folk. It’s your niece, Katherine, sugar. The scarlet fever done took her. She done passed.”

*******

This post is a chapter from the novel Sunday Clothes, by Thom Lemmons. Sunday Clothes will soon be available for purchase as an e-book at www.homingpigeonpublishing.com

 

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 9

December 2, 2017

“So, anyway, like I was sayin’, these ol’ boys went to this fancy hunting lodge and man, they was just made outta money. So they says to the feller at the lodge, ‘We don’t care how much it costs, we want the best quail dog you got on the place …’ ”

Will Counts was fairly shouting in the front seat, but Addie still could barely hear him over the commotion of the horseless carriage. She held on to her hat with one hand and tried to brace herself against the bumps and swerves with the other. She gritted her teeth and prayed they’d get to church in one piece.

“Will is so proud of this silly thing,” Beulah Counts shouted in Addie’s ear. “He figured 1890's Duryeaout a way to build a backseat out over the engine, so us and the boys could go driving together. They’ll be just sick when they get home from my brother’s and find out they missed out on a trip in the horseless carriage. Will don’t take it out every Sunday, you know.” Beulah’s smile testified that she held a far higher opinion of Will’s generosity than Addie.

“And the feller says, ‘Well, boys, the best thing for quail around here ain’t a dog.’ And they say, ‘What you talking about?’ And he says, ‘Well, ol’ Uncle Jake here can find a covey quicker’n any pointer this side of the mountains.’ And they’s this old feller setting in the corner, half asleep. And the hunters says, ‘How much?’ And the feller says, ‘Five dollars a day per gun, and y’all have to buy Uncle Jake a plug of tobacco.’ And the hunters says, ‘Well, all right, then, if you ain’t pulling our legs.’ And they pay their money and go to hunting …”

The Duryea clattered down Granny White Pike, and Addie’s insides curdled with each jolt. She wished she and Zeb had taken the trolley, as usual. Compared to this rattletrap, the trolley was like a leisurely afternoon on a still pond. But Will had been anxious to show Zeb his new toy, and she hadn’t known until this morning of the perilous invitation he’d accepted.

“Well, I mean to tell you, them boys went through the quail like you-know-what through a goose. They limited out that day, and the next day, and the next. They’d go along, and ol’ Uncle Jake would stop, all of a sudden. He’d point at a little scrap of cover and say, ‘They’s a brace right there,’ or, ‘they’s four of ’em settin’ under this ‘simmin bush right here.’ The gunners ‘d get all set and Uncle Jake ‘d step in there and put up the birds, and blam! blam! Ol’ Jake’d pick up their birds and hand ‘em to ‘em and they’d go on to the next place. These ol’ boys was in some tall cotton. I mean, they was just tickled sick…”

“Now, how you feeling these days, honey?” Beulah’s meaty hand thumped on Addie’s arm. “Having any morning sickness?”

“Not too much,’’ Addie said. “Some days are worse than others.” She squeezed a wan smile onto her face.

“Well, now don’t you worry about it, honey,” Beulah said. “You know what they say: ‘sick mother, healthy baby.’ ”

This young ‘un ought to be stouter than garlic.

“Now, for the whole next year, all these ol’ boys can talk about is getting back to that place and shooting birds over ol’ Uncle Jake. They walk into the place the next season and go straight to the feller and say, ‘We’re here to hunt with Uncle Jake.’ And the feller gets sorta sad-looking and says, ‘Boys, I’m sorry, but Uncle Jake passed on.’ Well, the hunters are just dumbstruck, you know, and finally, one of ‘em asks, ‘How’d it happen?’ And the feller says, ‘Well, he got to running the chickens, and we had to shoot him.’ ”

Zeb’s sudden guffaw splashed back over Addie. When she glanced up, she could see the Red Brick Churchapproaching spire of the church. She clenched her jaws and gripped the arm rail. She sucked deep draughts of the cool autumn air into her nostrils and allowed it to escape from between her lips. At last, the end was in sight. Lord, if you’ll let me get there without heaving up my insides, I promise you I’ll never ride in one of these hellish machines again.

Will herded the Duryea against a curb near the front door and set the brake. They all clambered out as several knickered boys broke away from their families and raced over to the machine, eyeing it and pointing at it. Zeb offered her his arm and they walked up the five steps onto the portico, blending with the rest of the faithful going into the building.

The Twelfth Avenue Church of Christ met in a red-brick church house purchased from a Baptist congregation that went out of business. Their first act upon assuming ownership was to remove the bell from the steeple, since they held that bells, like pianos and organs, had no scriptural authorization and were mostly for show, anyway. They sold the bell to some Methodists and used the twenty dollars to buy a new front door and a sign to hang above it. “Church of Christ,” the sign proclaimed in terse block letters, black on a field of unspotted white, and the members all agreed the twenty dollars had been well spent.

When Addie and Zeb got inside, the elders were already seated in the two large chairs on either side of the pulpit. Addie and Zeb scooted into their customary place about halfway up on the right side of the aisle, just as the song leader strode to the front to announce the first hymn.

Hark! the gentle voice of Jesus falleth

Tenderly upon your ear;

Sweet his cry of love and pity calleth:

Turn and listen, stay and hear.

Ye that labor and are heavy-laden,

Lean upon your dear Lords breast;

Ye that labor and are heavy-laden,

Come, and I will give you rest.

Heavy-laden—that about summed it up for Addie. If Louisa were here, things would be better. Someone to talk with, really talk with, not just pass pleasantries while the men amused themselves. Someone to understand without needing everything spelled out. Someone Addie could trust to tell her what was happening to her body, to her feelings, to her life. Someone to give her a hint of what might lie ahead.

Take his yoke, for he is meek and lowly;

Bear his burden, to him turn;

He who calleth is the Master holy:

He will teach if you will learn.

Ye that labor and are heavy-laden …

*******

Though he was mouthing the words of the chorus, they barely registered in Zeb’s mind. He needed to decide what to do about the offer Mr. Griffs and Mr. Carleton had made him. He knew he could turn the Little Rock agency around and make it a paying proposition. He knew he was being given these challenges for a reason, and he knew one day his consistent successes would be rewarded by a plush home office position. He had to think of the future—now more than ever. Surely Addie could understand that.

And then he thought of her tears, of the flat, scared look in her eyes when he had first Victorian Biblementioned the promotion. It had knocked the wind out of him, that look. He thought she’d be proud of him, excited by the possibilities before him—before them. But all she could see was the uncertainty.

He knew as sure as sunrise he shouldn’t turn his back on this new chance to prove himself. But he couldn’t figure out how to bring Addie around. He’d promised to take care of her. And he was doing that, wasn’t he? He was bringing home more money now than he ever had. And the prospect Griffs and Carleton offered him promised even more. But Addie …

His glance fell on the sloping shoulders of Will Counts and his wife. Beulah Counts sure seemed like a good woman. Seemed like she doted on Will and everything he did. Zeb wondered if Beulah might be able to talk to Addie. Zeb liked Will just fine. He might see what Will thought about the idea. Maybe all Addie needed was another woman to talk to her, to help her see things.

*******

They sang two songs, and then one of the men led a prayer. Another song, and it was time for the sermon. Brother McCrary went to the pulpit and stood with his head bowed for a moment. He took a firm grip on the sides of the lectern and leaned into his text for the day. The light glittered from the lenses of his wire-rimmed spectacles.

“In James the second chapter and verse fourteen, the writer says, ‘What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?

“ ‘Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone …’ ”

He quoted more of the passage, never looking down at the open Bible on the lectern. He Lecturnengaged the eyes of the congregation one by one, as if he had handpicked each verse as a personal oracle for the individuals in the pews.

“Brethren, it’s easy to talk good religion. It’s easy to say all the right things and put up a good front for the eyes of men. What’s hard,” he said, his voice dropping a half-tone, “is living good religion. James knew this, brethren. And that’s why he gives us this warning. We all need to listen, to pay attention to his words. And we all need to obey. Error waits on every side to snare the careless, the heedless. The only way to keep your feet on the strait and narrow path of our Lord is to be constantly vigilant …”

Addie tried to get interested in Brother McCrary’s sermon, but her mind slipped off his words like ice skidding on a hot skillet. Her eyes wandered the sanctuary. She and Zeb hadn’t really gotten to know anyone at Twelfth Avenue. Of course, they’d only been here for a month and a half or so. Beulah and Will Counts were the only people they’d visited with at all, other than when they came to this building on Sundays. She tried to let herself really see the individual people around her. She knew scarcely a handful of them, but she tried to imagine what they might be like.

Two rows in front of her and across the aisle sat a desiccated old woman, her back bent nearly double with a dowager’s hump. She reminded Addie of old Miss Ruthie at Centenary Methodist in Chattanooga. Miss Ruthie had never married, never even been seen with a man. Once, at a church social, Addie and several of her friends were gathered around Miss Ruthie. One of them asked her why she’d never taken a husband. Addie, a little embarrassed by her companion’s cheek, watched as the frail old maid smiled and stroked the girl’s pinafore with her twiglike, bent fingers. “Well, sweetie,” she said in her high, airy voice, “the fact is, I was in love once.”

Addie and her friends drew closer, as if Miss Ruthie were about to reveal a great and necessary secret no one else could tell them.

“Oh, it was many years ago,” Miss Ruthie said. Her eyes closed in reverie. “Long before the war. He was the sweetest boy I’d ever seen. His daddy had a grist mill down on Chattanooga Creek, just down the riverbank from Brown’s Ferry. He was just the kindest thing, and so polite, even though he’d never had much schooling at all.

“Oh, my papa wasn’t too happy about the whole thing.” The color rose on Miss Ruthie’s withered cheek. “But Mama wouldn’t allow him to scold me.” Her thin, bluish lips parted in a smile as she removed a lilac scented kerchief from the front of her dress. Addie noticed the trembling of her brown-spotted hand as she daubed at her lips. “I never said anything to Mama about it, but somehow she knew.”

There was a long silence. A group of young boys rioted past, but the girls didn’t even blink in their direction.

“I thought he was the most wonderful thing in the world,” Miss Ruthie said finally, folding her hands in her lap.

When she could stand it no longer, Addie asked, “Well? What happened, Miss Ruthie?”

The old woman pursed her lips and turned her head slightly to the left. She wasn’t looking at them now. “He died of typhoid during the autumn of ’32. It broke my heart.”

And that was all she would say.

Addie remembered that one of her friends went and got Miss Ruthie a glass of iced lemonade from the table where the church ladies were setting out drinks—as if that might help, somehow. She remembered how Miss Ruthie’s story stayed with her in the days that followed. Like a sad, sweet, old song, it echoed around in her mind at the oddest times—when she was doing chores or skipping rope, playing with dolls or working on her lessons.

She remembered thinking there was a sort of mystery about old men and women. They knew things, had seen and remembered things. They were harder to surprise. She remembered trying to imagine herself as an old woman; she could never conjure up any image other than a slightly wrinkled version of her own ten-year-old face, still capped by the same chestnut hair in ribboned braids.

These days, she was starting to understand a little bit of why she couldn’t see the old woman she would become: a child can’t comprehend all the different kinds of living there are. A child thinks mostly about the visible differences. She doesn’t imagine that all the really important differences are on the inside, tucked away where they can’t be seen. Everybody was like that. Much of the real truth about people was hidden from view—sometimes until it was too late. You mostly just had to wait and see.

“A lot of people will tell you that it’s more important to be a good person than to follow the teachings of the gospel,” Brother McCrary was saying. “They’ll tell you it doesn’t matter much whether you pay attention to the Scriptures or not, as long as you’re living a good, moral life. But these words of James’s stand in contradiction to that sort of thinking, brethren. It’s not enough to say ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not the will of the Father in heaven—Matthew seven, twenty-one … ”

*******

The thought of traveling to Little Rock gave Zeb an odd, secret feeling of excitement. For all his seriousness about his business, there was still a towheaded, eager part of him that stood on tiptoe and watched as he did new things, gained admittance to better and higher circles. Successful men travel on business, this part of him whispered, goggle-eyed and breathless. He was becoming important to the company, or they wouldn’t send him so far away.

He thought of seeing new country, eating new food in places he’d never been. Zeb had Mississippi River at Nightnever crossed the Mississippi River. He thought of all that wide water, sheeted brown beneath him as he rumbled over the new bridge at Memphis. Strangeness and distance chanted to him, pulled at him.

And it was, after all, an opportunity. It wasn’t just some lark he’d made up for himself. Griffs and Carleton were depending on him. He couldn’t afford to disappoint them, to let the company down. He really ought to take the bull by the horns.

Zeb sensed the faint, sour taste of resentment. A man couldn’t be shackled to his wife’s uncertainties, could he? If he was to be the provider, shouldn’t he do it in the way he saw best?

But her anxious face, the bluntness of her apprehension …

The baby in her womb.

It wasn’t fair. How could a man argue with a woman when she was carrying his offspring? She was proof against any attempt at logic or persuasion. It was almost as if she held a hostage and was, in turn, held hostage. And there was a kind of selfishness about her, too, as if she now contained inside herself her own final reason for everything.

He knew he ought to go. But how could he?

*******

“Brethren, is there someone here today who is ready to shoulder the task our Lord has set? Is there someone who is ready to answer, as the prophet Isaiah, ‘Here am I; send me’?”

The congregation sensed the approaching end of Brother McCrary’s sermon and began reaching for the hymnals in the racks.

“If you’re ready to get busy for God, if you’re tired of carrying the useless load of sin and are ready to be washed in the blood of the Lamb and begin walking in the footsteps of Jesus, won’t you come down front today, while we stand and sing?”

The two elders rose from their chairs and paced to the front of the dais as the congregation stood. The song leader strode to the front, singing the opening notes of the altar call.

What can wash away my sin?hymn book

Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

What can make me whole again?

Nothing but the blood of Jesus …

*******

This post is a chapter from the novel Sunday Clothes, by Thom Lemmons. Sunday Clothes will soon be available for purchase as an e-book at www.homingpigeonpublishing.com

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 8

November 22, 2017

 Nashville, Tennessee

October 18, 1899

Dearest Lou,

Well I guess there’s not much doubt about it. I haven’t had my time of the month for two months now. I haven’t told Zeb yet, but I guess I won’t wait too much longer as he needs to know.

I trust this finds you and yours well. We are fine here. I’m finally getting settled in since our move. The men here at the home office seem real proud of Zeb and the work he did with the Murfreesboro office, and he assures me that this move is a real first-rate thing for him, so I guess I’m happy about it. But it does seem a bit hard, just being a newlywed and all and having to up and move so soon.

In a way, I hate to tell Zeb about the baby. Is that terrible of me? Sometimes I fancy I can feel that little life down inside me, and the privacy of it comforts me somehow. But I know these are foolish thoughts. Zeb will be so proud and happy to know he will soon be a papa.

Addie held the pen suspended above the paper. Her eyes left the page and wandered to fountain penan empty space somewhere between her bureau and the window. She ran her other hand over her belly, trying to imagine what was happening inside her body. If a new person was growing inside her, why did she feel so much like she always did? Why wasn’t she shining like the sun, or laughing all the time? There ought to be some extravagance. But, no; this was quiet and slow. She smiled.

How are your Robert and Katherine? And baby Ewell? Is he still gaining weight as fast as he was at first? I know they keep you plenty busy, and I guess I’m fixing to find out just how busy, here in a few months.

I don’t suppose there’s been any change with Papa, has there? I’d like to at least let him know about his future grandchild. That is, if he’d really want to know.

Your loving sister,

Adelaide C. Douglas

She sealed the envelope and affixed the stamp. She placed it on the edge of the bureau so Zeb would see it on his way out in the morning.

A horseless carriage clattered and banged past the front window. Addie glanced at it on her way to the tiny kitchen. There were more horseless carriages here than in Murfreesboro or Chattanooga. Granny White Pike was a busy thoroughfare. Sometimes carloads of youngsters woke them at night with their hollering.

She scooted the cane-bottomed chair under the bureau. She smiled at herself. Youngsters! Here she was, an old lady of nineteen, thinking such things. She paused and passed her hand absently across her belly, imagining the curvature that would become more and more pronounced in the weeks to come.

Ten steps away from the bureau and Addie was in the small kitchen. She had a dutch oven full of white beans simmering on one back burner of the Crown stove and a pan ofVictorian Kitchen chopped potatoes stewing on the other.

She wrapped a dish towel around her hand. She opened the oven door and removed a pan of cornbread, setting it on top of the stove to cool. Addie went to the cupboard above the sink and removed two plates. She scattered the silverware beside the plates, humming under her breath.

Yonder over the rolling river,

Where the shining mansions rise,

Soon will be our home forever,

And the smile of the blessed Giver

Gladdens all our longing eyes …

It wouldn’t take a mansion to make her happy. Even this little cracker box of a place would be fine if she could just stay in it for awhile, see the same scenery for longer than a three-month stretch.

*******

Zeb came in at a quarter past six, his tie loosened and his collar unbuttoned. Despite the slightly cool evening air, his face had a sheen of sweat.

“Had to walk all the way uphill from the Edgehill Street stop.” He brushed her cheek with his lips as he set his briefcase on the floor.

Victorian Trolly

“Why didn’t you get off at the regular place?”

Zeb smiled and ducked his head. “Well, I got to studying about a proposition Mr. Griffs made me, and I guess I just forgot where the trolley was. Good thing I looked up when I did. I like to went clear to the other side of Vanderbilt.”

“Must’ve been pretty serious, then.”

He looked at her a moment, then resumed peeling off his coat and yanking loose the knot in his tie. “Yeah, I guess you might say so.”

Addie set a blue-striped crockery bowl of stewed potatoes on the table, then turned to look at him, wiping her hands on her apron.

He folded his coat over the back of a kitchen chair and draped his tie atop it. He shoved his hands into his pockets. ‘‘Addie, they want me to open a new district office.”

She raised her eyebrows.

“In Little Rock.”

“Arkansas?”

He grinned. “Yes, ma’am.”

She went toward the stove, bunching her apron in her hands to pick up the pan of cornbread.

“What’s wrong, honey? It’ll be a real—”

“Opportunity? Like Murfreesboro and here?”

“Addie, what—what’s the matter?”

The cornbread clattered to the tabletop, and she covered her face with her hands. She skillet cornbreadfelt his arms around her, and she pushed him away. “No, don’t, Zeb! I’ll be all right in a minute, so just … don’t.”

When she looked up at him, his shoulders were slumped. She regretted her loss of control. She daubed at her eyes with a corner of the apron.

“Zeb, I’m sorry. I’m just a little upset right now, and … I’m expecting.”

His forehead wrinkled, like he was trying to work a cipher in his head. And then, something took off behind his eyes, and he jerked himself up straight, like a puppet when somebody twitches the string.

“You’re what?”

She had to smile. “I’m expecting,” she said in a quieter voice. “In a family way, Zeb. You’re fixing to be a daddy.”

He still didn’t move, except for his eyes. They were popping and jerking all around the room. He reminded her of some little boy who’d just been asked a hard geography question by the teacher. He stood there with his hands still in his pockets, looking like he was trying to figure out the right answer.

And then, he grabbed the chair with his coat lying across the back, pulled it out from the table, and sat down like a boxer after a rough round. She didn’t know what to do, so she went to the icebox for the buttermilk pitcher.

“How do you know? Are you sure?” His eyes still weren’t focusing on anything in particular; his arms hung loose at his sides.

“Well, yes, dear, I’m sure. Women know these things.”

Then the smile came, rounding the side of his face and spreading in all directions like molasses on an empty plate.

“A daddy,” he said. His grin went rubbery around the edges. “I’m gonna be a daddy.” He got up from his chair and dropped to his knees in front of her. He placed his arms tenderly about her waist. “Oh, honey. I don’t know what to say.”

A warm gush of love welled up in her. She placed a palm on the crown of his head, stroking gently down the back of his neck, over and over.

“Well, I guess we better eat this before it gets too cold.”

He sat as if he hadn’t heard. “Addie, I love you.”

“I love you, too, Mr. Douglas, but if you don’t get out of my lap, your supper won’t be fit to eat.”

Later, as he spooned a helping of potatoes onto his plate, he said, “When do you reckon the baby might come?”blue striped crockery

She put down her fork and thought for half a minute. “I guess about springtime—maybe sometime in April.” She toyed with her napkin, then asked him, straight out. “Zeb, how soon do you think we’ll have to go to Arkansas?”

He didn’t answer right away. He chewed his potatoes and took a slow drink of the frothy white buttermilk. He daubed the corners of his lips with his napkin. “Well, today they sounded like it might be pretty soon, but what with you being in a family way and all, I just don’t know … ”

“Zeb, I’d sure like to have Louisa with me when my time comes. That’d be a lot easier here than in Little Rock.”

He nodded. “Yes, that’s a fact.” He buttered a slice of cornbread. “I’ll talk to ‘em tomorrow and see what I can work out.”

A hundred questions crowded onto the back of her tongue. What if they don’t care about me and the baby? Why does it have to be right now? Why Little Rock instead of someplace closer: Lebanon or Manchester or even Memphis, for goodness sake? There must be one or two people in a place the size of Memphis who don’t have enough insurance. Why can’t we stay someplace long enough to see the seasons change?

But she sat silent, with her left hand properly folded in her lap, lifting her fork to her lips and sliding the food into her mouth without letting it scrape against her teeth. She would wait and see what Zeb arranged with the company. He’d be able to manage something. And she did love him so. Surely everything would work out.hands

*******

This post is a chapter from the novel Sunday Clothes, by Thom Lemmons. Sunday Clothes will soon be available for purchase as an e-book at www.homingpigeonpublishing.com