Sunday Clothes, Chapter 41

June 13, 2019

Ned cinched the strap around his books, and when the teacher rang the bell, he was the first one through the door. He walked at a good clip down the sidewalk and turned right along Ninth Street. He needed to get to the YMCA and find out whatever it was that Mr. Hutto wanted to tell him. Then he had to catch the trolley out to the Orchard Knob end of the line. bookstrap

He stuck his hand in his pocket and felt the note the girl had brought from the principal’s office during geometry. “See Mr. Hutto after school at the Y,” it read. “He has some news for you.”

“Ned! Ned Overby!”

He looked around and saw Willie Lewis trotting toward him. Guess the colored school must get out the same time we do.

“Where you goin’, Ned?”

“YMCA.”

“What you goin’ there for?”

“Man wants to tell me somethin’.”

“What?”

“If I knew, I wouldn’t have to go.”

“What y’all do at the YMCA?”

“Different stuff. Basketball, calisthenics—”

“What’s that?”

“Exercises. And there’s Bible classes, and other stuff.”

“How come you in such a hurry?”

“You ask a lot a questions.”

“You ask a lot a questions,” Willie said in a perfect imitation of Ned’s voice. “How come you white folks so tetchy about somebody just wanta know somethin’?”

“Ain’t tetchy. Just not used to answerin’ so many questions from somebody that ain’t my mama.”

Willie laughed. Ned thought he ought to be mad about it, but he couldn’t quite get there, somehow. He grinned at Willie. “Ain’t you got someplace you oughta be goin’?”

“Yeah. The YMCA. I want to find out what them calisthenics is.” exercise

“Well, I ain’t doin’ no calisthenics today. I’m goin’ to talk to Mr. Hutto, then I gotta get home.”

“Who’s Mr. Hutto?”

“He runs the place. He’s the one got me set up with my art lessons.”

“Art lessons? They teach you about that too?”

Ned nodded.

“You an artist?”

Ned gave a loose–limbed shrug. “Shoot, I don’t know. I just like to do stuff, that’s all.”

“What kind of stuff?”

“Draw. Paint a little. But I mainly like to carve.”

“Who started you out doin’ that?”

“Nobody. I … I just always did it, I reckon.”

They walked along awhile before Willie said anything else. Willie had a loose, springy way of moving, as if every part of him had a mind of its own and only decided at the last second it wanted to come along with the rest. Ned wanted to find a piece of wood for Willie. Blackjack oak, maybe, or hickory. Yes, hickory. It would render Willie’s angles so much better.

“How long you been working for Miz Addie?” Willie asked.

“‘Bout three years, I reckon.”

“She pay you good?”

“All right, I guess.”

“I’m gonna get me a job, and when I done saved up enough money, I’m gonna ride me a train all the way to New York City.”

Ned gave out a snort. “What you gonna do in New York City?”

Willie wore a funny look that seemed like it started out to be a smile but wound up somewhere else. “Things I can’t do here,” Willie said.

A few boys leaned against the walls beside the main entrance of the Y. There was a game of mumblety–peg going on on one side of the doorway, and some of the smaller boys had scratched out a circle for marbles on the other side. Ned walked up to the boys lounging against the wall. marbles

“Hey, Ralph.”

“Hey, yourself.”

“Mr. Hutto in?”

“Yeah. He just got here.” Ralph’s eyes flickered toward Willie.

“Okay. I’m supposed to go see him.”

Ned opened the door and started inside when he heard Ralph say, “Where you think you’re going?”

He turned around. Ralph stood in front of Willie, blocking his way.

“I was going inside with my friend, here,” Willie said, nodding toward Ned.

Ralph looked a question at Ned. Ned shrugged.

“Niggers ain’t allowed,” Ralph said. A couple of the other boys near the doorway slowly uncrossed their arms and stood away from the wall, watching Ralph and Willie with narrowed eyes.

“Ain’t gonna stay but just a minute,” Ned said. “Mr. Hutto asked me to come by after school.”

“He ask this coon to come with you?” Ralph said.

Ned studied his shoe tops. “Just ran into him on the way.”

“Well, if he knows what’s good for him, he can just—”

“What’s the problem, boys?”

Ned felt his chest loosen with relief. It was Mr. Gaines, his art teacher. “Mr. Gaines, I’m here to see Mr. Hutto. Willie came along with me. He just wanted to see what goes on here at the YMCA.”

“Oh. I see.” Mr. Gaines looked at Willie for a few seconds. “Ralph, you other boys. You have something to do?”

“Yes, sir,” Ralph said. He shoved his hands deep in his pockets and slouched inside. Two of the other boys followed him, looking at Willie out of the sides of their faces as they passed him. scowl

“Now, ah—what’s your name, son?” Mr. Gaines said.

“Willie Lewis.”

“Now, Willie. The boys do have a point. This is for white boys only. I guess Ned forgot to tell you that.”

Willie looked at Mr. Gaines for a second or two, then let his head drop. He nodded, looking down at the ground.

“Well, fine. Why don’t you just wait right over there, in the shade of that tree, and I’m sure Ned’s business won’t take long.”

Willie was walking away before Mr. Gaines could finish what he was saying. He watched Willie’s back for a moment, then flashed a big smile down at Ned. “You better come inside, Mr. Overby. Mr. Hutto’s got some news I think you’ll want to hear.”

Ned followed Mr. Gaines inside.

Where you goin’, white trash? Come on, peckerwood. Let’s go outside …

The voices snickered and sneered in his head. They were all he could hear, and all he could see was the way Willie’s head hung between his shoulders after Mr. Gaines spoke to him. What was the difference, really, between him, walking back to Mr. Hutto’s office with his art teacher, and Willie, turned away at the door? He didn’t dress any better than Willie—shoot, Willie’s clothes were probably cleaner. He wasn’t any smarter, most likely. From the minute Willie walked up to the woodpile at Addie’s, holding the halter rope of the mule he’d borrowed to come fetch his mama, Ned had known here was somebody he could talk to. From the way Willie held himself, Ned could tell here was a quick mind that wanted to see out, to know what there was to know. Ned could see it the same way he could see the agility of a deer in its hindquarters, the same way he could see the shape of a blue jay’s flight in the spread of its wing. portrait

But Ralph couldn’t see it, nor the other bullies. Even Mr. Gaines couldn’t see it. The man who’d taught Ned to let himself really see what he saw—he was as blinded by Willie’s dark brown skin and nappy hair as the rest of them. It confused Ned, put him off. He wondered what else he didn’t understand that made perfect sense to the rest of the world.

Mr. Hutto was standing at the doorway of his office. “Ah, good, Percy. You found him.”

“Here he is.”

They were both grinning at Ned like he was a prize hog. What was going on?

“Ned, come on in and sit down, won’t you?”

Ned shrugged himself into one of the oak chairs in front of Mr. Hutto’s desk. Mr. Gaines sat beside him, in the other chair.

Mr. Hutto laced his fingers together and leaned across at him. “Ned, Mr. Gaines has been telling me you’re doing some really good work. He says you’ve got a lot of talent with your art.”

Ned looked at the corner of the desk and said nothing.

“In fact, he tells me he thinks your work is good enough to get you into a special art school where you could learn from some of the greatest artists and teachers in the country.”

Ned felt his forehead wrinkling.

It was still wrinkled fifteen minutes later when he walked out of the office.

He stepped outside and was surprised to see Willie sitting under the tree. He’d figured Willie’d be long gone after what happened when they got here. He walked across the yard and Willie stood up. He looked at Ned and cocked his head to one side.

“What happened?”

“They just told me I’m goin’ to New York.”

*******

George didn’t know when he’d felt so good. When he locked the front doors of the Y and started his walk home, he was still wearing the grin he’d found when Ned Overby left his office.

“He doesn’t think it’s real,” Percy Gaines had said when Ned walked out.

“He’ll figure it out soon enough when I hand him the train tickets.”

“I’d like to be a fly on his shoulder when that boy gets off the train in New York City,” Percy said.

George rounded the corner of Eighth and Georgia. He looked up and saw a swallow wheeling around the cornices of the Milton Building. He stopped for a minute to watch the bird arc back and forth across the purpling sky. It looked like it was kissing the corner of the building before darting out again, dodging and tumbling and always circling back to the same place.

Ned Overby was going to get his chance. He was going to find out what he was capable of, and if the reactions of Professor Koch at the Institute were any gauge, that was quite a bit. George wondered where Ned might go, what he might see. He wondered how living in New York would change him.

Would the tumbledown shack where his family lived ever seem like home again? Would his father’s rough, good–natured voice come to sound strange in his ears? George’s walk slowed as he considered. It was the right thing, wasn’t it, to extend this opportunity to Ned Overby? Didn’t Ned have the right to find out what was inside him? Didn’t the world have the right?

When George went up the front steps of his house, his mother was sitting in the huge white wicker armchair on the porch. It was dark now, and Mamie had set a coal–oil lamp on the small side table by the chair. Candle bugs flittered all around the light. It was a pretty warm evening, but Mother had a woolen afghan draped over her shoulders. George smiled at her. Her poor old eyes looked faded and watery. She smiled back at him.

“What are you doing out here, Mother? It’s getting dark.”

“Just sitting. It’s nice, sometimes. Just to sit.”

“Aren’t you getting cold?” porch

“I hadn’t noticed.”

“I’ll go find Mamie—”

“Sit down with me a minute, George.”

He perched on the edge of the footstool.

“Honey, why don’t you sit in the swing? You look like a toad on a toadstool.”

“I’m fine.”

She shook her head and gave him a sideways smile. “You put yourself in such awkward places, trying to accommodate. You always have.”

“Ma’am?”

“Nothing.” She leaned back against the chair and let her head fall to one side. “Lots of lightning bugs tonight.”

George looked out across the front lawn. The tiny yellow–green lights flickered on and off, hanging almost motionless in the humid air. He nodded.

“Your father always liked to look at the lightning bugs. But he never wanted anybody to know he did.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know. But he’d sit out here and watch them. Sit here in the dark for hours. And if I said anything about it or anybody else came out on the porch, he’d clear his throat and say how late it was getting and go straight in and get his nightshirt on.”

George gave her a puzzled smile.

“I guess he thought it was foolish for a grown man to enjoy lightning bugs.” She shook her head. “But I never thought so.”

“Why didn’t you just tell him?”

She looked at George. “Good question. There were lots of things I never got around to telling him.”

They sat for a minute, watching the lightning bugs.

“I’m sending Ned Overby to art school in New York,” he said. fireflies

“Who’s that?”

“They live out past Orchard Knob. Perlie Overby’s his father.”

“The fellow that used to work odd jobs for your father?”

George nodded.

“He’s got a son that’s an artist?”

“Yes, ma’am. A good one, looks like. The Peabody Institute took him sight unseen.”

“And you’re paying for it?”

George nodded. “I can afford it, Mother.”

“Of course, you can.” She tilted her head and gave him a narrow–eyed look. “What do you want, George?”

“Ma’am?”

“You heard me.”

“Well … I guess I want to see him get a chance to—”

“I’m not talking about Ned Overby, honey. You. What is it you want?”

George stared out at the lightning bugs. They reminded him of brakemen’s lanterns, signaling a train to a siding far away in the dark. They blinked on and off at him, flashing a cool, mysterious code he couldn’t follow. They were like tiny stars set in the stillness above his lawn, guiding lights to some destination he hadn’t guessed. Couldn’t, most likely.

“I don’t know. Haven’t thought much about it, I guess.”

He wouldn’t look at her, but he knew she was looking at him. He just watched the lightning bugs and listened to the moist, settling dark.

*******

“New York?”

Ned nodded.

“And all you’ve got to do is say yes?”

He nodded again.

Perlie took a deep breath and let it out with a funny little whistling noise. He stared out the front door like he was waiting for somebody. Ned cut his eyes at his maw. She was whipstitching a torn place in a flour sack quilt. She gave no sign what she’d heard.

“Well, son, that’s sure a long ways off.” nyc

“He’ll pay for it, he says.”

“I ain’t talkin’ about the money,” Perlie said, scratching his head. “It’s just … none of our people’s ever done nothin’ like this, and … I don’t know.” Perlie got up and walked over to the door. He leaned against the frame and stared out into the night.

“Where’s Brother going?” Percy said. “How come he’s leavin’?” The little boy came over and stood in front of Ned. “Where you goin’?”

“Be quiet, Percy,” said Mary.

Ned looked at his father. How could he explain to him what he didn’t understand himself? He had no more notion than a goose what he’d do once he got to New York. He was as confused and uncertain about all this as anybody. When he thought about all those people rushing here and there and all that racket and all those buildings blocking the sky, he felt as jittery and shy as a hoot owl in the sunlight. But beneath that, beneath the commotion and the stir ran a low, steady voice that told him this was right, it was his time. Even in Mr. Hutto’s office back at the Y, while he was listening and figuring out he was being offered a chance he’d never even had any excuse to dream about, something was off in a corner of his mind, whispering to him that he was going to grab this thing like a prize and run with it as far and as fast as he could.

How could he make his father hear that voice? How could he tell a man who’d never even been as far as Nashville that he wanted—needed—to go to a place that scared him and pulled him like a magnet, all at the same time? Shoot, Ned had never been to Nashville either. And then he was ashamed and angry because he could look at the man who’d raised him and sung to him and given him a Barlow for Christmas and see that he wasn’t as big as he used to be. And the worst of it was, he didn’t know for sure if he was angry at his father for being less than he had been or himself for knowing it.

His mother was still stitching the quilt. Her hands never paused; her eyes never left her work.

“I’ll be all right, Paw. I will.”

His father’s face swung slowly around, and the way he looked made Ned want to run, or hit something, or bury his face in Paw’s chest. Then Perlie smiled, and Ned’s throat started to feel like he’d swallowed a green persimmon.

“Well, boy …” Paw shrugged and gave a real slow nod. “Yep. Just like ol’ Ned Hutchins.”

Ned heard the snap of the thread as his mother leaned over to bite it.

*******

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.

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Sunday Clothes, Chapter 40

June 6, 2019

“Becky?”

Zeb stepped inside and let the screen door bang shut behind him. He looked in the parlor, but she wasn’t there. He called her again. No answer. He heard the hissing noise from the kitchen and smelled the acrid odor of burning beans. He turned the corner and saw the bluish cloud rolling out of the saucepan. He wrapped a dish towel around the handle and carried the pot to the sink. He opened the window over the sink to let out some of the smell and smoke.

“Becky? You here?” tree

He quickly went through the rest of the rooms, but he didn’t see her until he stepped through the backdoor into the small yard. She was sitting on the ground under one of the elm trees, staring at something in her lap.

“Becky, your beans burned,” he said, moving toward her, trying to pretend to himself that he had no reason to feel relieved. Of course, she was still here; where else would she be?

She didn’t look up at him until he was maybe three steps away, and when she did, he saw she’d been crying, and that the thing in her lap was a crumpled telegram.

“It’s Daddy,” she said in a voice raw from weeping. “He’s real sick.”

Zeb stood there, looking down at her, trying to think of something to say that would seem right. He wished he could hold her, but he doubted that would be any more welcome than usual.

“Well, uh … what’s wrong with him?”

“His heart.”

“He in the hospital?”

“Not now. He’s at home. Mother says the doctor mainly wants him to rest and gain some strength, but—”

“Honey, I’m sorry.”

“Zeb I’ve got to go.”

“Well … sure. Sure, you do. I’ll go buy you a ticket, first thing in the morning.” There was another question waiting to be asked, but he wasn’t sure if he really wanted to hear the answer. “Uh … you want me to come?”

She studied the telegram for a long time. “I don’t think so, Zeb,” she said without looking up. “It’s probably better you didn’t.”

He nodded to himself, trying to figure out if he was relieved or disappointed. A few days to himself might not be too bad. And Becky needed to be with her mother, that was certain. And the thought of being back in Little Rock still wasn’t too appealing. That wouldn’t be any easier for Becky, he guessed, but it was her daddy, after all, and she had to go.

“What do you want to do about supper, Becky?” hospital

It was a little while before she answered. “I’ve got some beans on.”

“I guess you didn’t hear me awhile ago. They burned. I took the pan off the stove and put it in the sink.”

“Oh … I’d just put them on when the Western Union boy came to the door.”

“Yeah. Well, how about going down to the hotel? They’ve usually got a pretty good—”

“Zeb, I don’t know when I’ll come back.”

He thought about making a joke of it but found he didn’t have the strength. “I, uh … Well, how long do you think you might have to stay?”

“I don’t know, Zeb.”

He stuck his hands down in his pockets and swallowed. He nodded some more. “I guess you need to stay as long as your mother needs you, then.”

She stood up and dusted the back of her dress. She nodded at him. She looked at the telegram one more time, then folded it up. “However long that is. I just don’t know.”

He tried without much success to convince himself that she was just talking about the uncertainties of her father’s health. He wanted her to tell him exactly when she was coming back. He wanted to hear her say she was sorry she had to go off and leave him alone like this, and she loved him, and she’d get back just as soon as she could. He wanted to make her promise to come back, promise she wouldn’t pull Little Rock and her parents’ home around her like a shroud. portrait

Most of all, he wanted to believe he had something coming from her—that somehow, she ought to want to be with him enough to make this separation as brief as possible. But when he looked far down inside and let himself think about everything that had happened, it was hard to make much of a case for that.

He realized he was staring at the tops of his shoes. He took a deep breath and straightened. She was watching him. He gave her a smile. She looked away.

“Well, you want to go to the hotel?” he asked.

“I guess so. Yes, that’d be fine.”

She crossed the yard and went up the steps to the back door. She turned and looked back at him. “You coming?”

*******

There wasn’t any place in Humble where you could go to get away from the flat, dirty smell of crude oil, Becky thought. Even when they walked through the ornate double doors of the Lone Star Hotel, the smell followed them in like a drenched cat on a rainy day.

The restaurant was crowded with the usual mix of roughnecks, rig foremen, drilling engineers, and speculators. They found a table that was almost clean, and Zeb waved down a harried busboy and talked him out of two menus. She didn’t know why they needed menus. She always got the pork chops with yams and boiled cabbage, and Zeb always got the ham with black–eyed peas and rice. He was running his finger up and down the offerings, though, just like somebody here for the first time.

She watched him over the top of her menu. His eyes danced back and forth between the bill of fare and the roomful of people. He was always working, always prospecting everywhere he went. They’d been here less than six months, and she guessed he could probably call half the people in the room by name. That was Zeb’s gift, such as it was. He could make you think he’d never met anyone whose company he enjoyed more than yours, and it didn’t matter if you were a grimy roustabout or one of the company bosses in a linen suit and panama hat.

She knew she ought not complain; he made good money. The oil business wasn’t really that much different from the insurance business, he told her, once you learned the terms and got the hang of it. Zeb had sure enough landed on his feet. Looking at him like this, you’d never know he’d had a minute’s worth of trouble in his life.

A large, red–faced man came up and clapped Zeb on the shoulder. “Buy you a beer, Zeb?” Becky could smell the drink on the man’s breath from where she sat.

“Now, Colonel, you know I don’t drink,” Zeb said, his eyes darting at her. “‘Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging, and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise’—Proverbs twenty and verse one.”

“Well, I don’t know about that, Zeb. You reckon the Lord minds all that much if a bunch a hard–working men have a little drink or two at the end of the day? You wouldn’t mind if he had one, would you, there, Missus?” The man was leaning over the table toward her, grinning. She gave him what she hoped was a noncommittal smile and renewed her study of her menu.

Zeb shifted uneasily in his chair. “Say, Colonel, have you had a chance yet to think about that Caddo prospect I showed you the other day?” hotel

“Yeah, I took a look at it. Come on by tomorrow morning and we’ll talk some more.” The man nodded at Becky and weaved between the tables in the direction of the doorway. Zeb watched him go for a few seconds, then looked back at her. He grinned and shook his head.

“Colonel Dickson’s liable to say anything to anybody. He doesn’t mean anything by it, though.”

“I’m ready to order, if you are.”

Zeb flagged a waiter. “Teddy, I’ll have the ham plate with black–eyed peas and rice.” He glanced at her, and she nodded. “And Mrs. Douglas’ll have the pork chops with boiled cabbage and yams.”

The waiter nodded as he scribbled on a dog–eared note pad, then hustled toward the kitchen.

“Maybe I can get you on the eight–oh–seven, day after tomorrow,” he said a minute or two later.

“Just do the best you can. I’ll be ready early. I wouldn’t even mind leaving tomorrow afternoon. I can sleep on the train.”

He nodded, toying with his silverware. He was doing his best to act unconcerned. She knew she probably ought to say something, but she couldn’t think of a good enough reason to want to, somehow.

Part of it was the worry about Daddy. But not all of it, no matter how much she tried to pretend otherwise. She and Zeb lived in silence more and more, like two neighbors with a hill between their houses. The hill was getting harder and harder to climb. Or maybe it was becoming less worth the trouble.

Sometimes, lying in their bed at night or at odd moments during the day, she tried to imagine how it might have been if she hadn’t lost the baby, or if they’d been able to have another one. Maybe the joy of a child would have distracted her from all the ways her life didn’t quite match expectations. She wondered how Zeb would have acted as a father. Would he have doted on their baby? Would he have made up a silly name, as Daddy had done for her? Would she have found in his fondness for his children a reason to remember her fondness for him?

“Sarge,” Daddy had called her, until she started school and Mother made him stop. He used to say that when she cried as a baby her face looked just like a drill sergeant he had when he was in the state militia. Becky had always felt a little sadness after he quit using his pet name for her; it was a small, sweet loss to be treasured. A few times, on the sly, he still called her “Sarge”—but never when Mother was around. Becky wished she were on the train to him right now, wished she were far away from this muddy, humid little town with its overhanging pigpen smell and its crowds of oil–smeared, noisy men.

Zeb was staring at the tabletop. He saw her watching him and gave her a quick smile. She tried to answer it.

“Well, I wish they’d hurry up, don’t you? I’m hungry.”

Becky shrugged and nodded.

“Honey, I’m sure your daddy’s gonna be all right.”

“I hope so.”

“Shoot, with you and your mother both taking on over him, he’ll be back on his feet and down at that store before you can say ‘Jack Robinson.’”

There was a shout from the tool–pushers in the corner. The barkeep, a dour Black Irishman named Rourke, stared hard at them with his hands on his hips. waiter

“I may be gone awhile, Zeb.”

“Yeah, you said that.” He wouldn’t look at her now.

The waiter brought their food. He clumped the thick, white porcelain plates onto their table; he put Becky’s pork chops in front of Zeb and his ham in front of her. They slid the plates across to each other and ate, mostly in silence. The noise of the dining room swirled around them but left them untouched, other than maybe giving their silence a convenient excuse.

*******

“Lila, can you hold this end? I’ll tack it up.”

“Yes’m.”

The bunting was blue, Mary Alice’s favorite color. Addie tried not to think about what she’d paid for it, even after Mr. Peabody’s special discount. “For one of my best customers,” he’d said. She tapped a tack through the fabric and into the top corner of the doorframe, then scooted the footstool over to the other side. She took the other end from Lila and tacked the other side into place. She got down from the stool and backed up a few steps. Yes. The effect was just right; it gave the parlor doorway a festive frame.

Mary Alice came bounding down the stairs. “Mother, is my white crinoline dress clean?”

Addie glanced at Lila and got a nod. “Yes, honey. Lila’s got it hung up in my room. I want to do a little work on the hem before you put it on.” Mary Alice made an impatient sound. “Don’t worry, Mary Alice; there’s enough time before your friends get here.”

“I can see to it, Miz Addie,” Lila said.

“Oh, could you? That would be wonderful. Then I could go finish icing the cake.”

“Yes’m.” Lila went toward Addie’s room.

“My needles and thread are on the vanity, Lila.”

“Yes’m.”

There was a knock at the back door. Addie went back through the kitchen and opened it. Ned Overby stood there, his stained plug hat in his hand.

“Ma’am, the wood’s chopped.”

“Thank you, Ned. Just a minute, and I’ll get your money.” She turned to go, then turned back. “Ned, if I paid you an extra twenty–five cents, could you stay long enough to help me move a table into the parlor for Mary Alice’s party?”

“Yes, ma’am, I reckon. Oh, and ma’am? He wanted me to ask you if his mama was ready to go yet.”

Addie looked in the direction of Ned’s thumb and saw a colored boy leaning against the corner of the house with his hands stuffed in his pockets.

“Oh, hello. You must be Lila’s boy.”

He nodded. “I come to get Mama when she ready.”

“Almost, uh—what’s your name?”

“Willie.”

“Almost, Willie. She’s just finishing up one more thing for me before she goes. Have you got a way to get home?” mule

“Yes’m.” He jerked his chin toward the woodpile. A lop–eared sorrel mule stood there, tethered by a halter rope, its nose down in a patch of clover.

“Well, fine. Ned, can you come on in and help me with that table?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Willie, would you like a cool drink or anything?”

Willie shook his head. Addie looked at him; he reminded her of Rose. Something about the set of his jaw, maybe.

She and Ned pulled the settee and an armchair to one side, then wrestled the big oak pedestal table from the dining room into the parlor. She went to her closet and found some coins; she gave two quarters to Ned and a silver dollar to Lila, who was at the kitchen table finishing the hem work on Mary Alice’s dress. Her eyes widened when Addie gave her the dollar.

“Miz Addie, that’s an awful lot of money for no more than I done—”

“Now, Lila, don’t argue with me. I want you to have that. I couldn’t have gotten ready for this without you.”

“Well, then … thank you.”

“You’re welcome. And Willie’s here to take you home, when you’re ready.”

“Yes’m.”

She sent Mary Alice up to her room with her party dress and walked with Lila to the back door. They went outside and saw Ned, Willie, and Jake all gathered beside the mule. Ned and Willie were talking, and Jake was pestering the older boys and the mule, by turns. “Jake! Leave that mule alone!” Addie said.

Willie saw his mother coming and began untying the rope. Grabbing a handful of the mule’s mane at the base of its neck, he slung himself up onto the animal’s back. He used the rope as a rein and headed the mule toward where his mother stood on the back steps. Lila put an arm around her son’s waist and scooted herself on behind him.

“Thank you again, Lila. I appreciate you coming over.”

“Yes’m.”

“Tell my sister thanks.”

Lila nodded. Willie clicked his tongue and pulled the mule’s head around. He gave it a little kick and got it going toward the lane. Addie watched them leave. Lila sat sideways on the mule’s bare back, holding on to her son’s waist. Addie felt sorry for her; it was a long ride to Chattanooga, twisted halfway around like that.

She saw a quick movement from the corner of her eye and turned her head. Ned was holding onto Jake and taking something away from him.

“Lemme go! Lemme go, Ned!”

Addie went toward them. Ned released Jake, who bolted toward the tree line, bawling as he went. crying

“Jake! You come back here!” Addie called, but he kept running.

She looked at Ned. He was holding a palm–sized rock.

“He was fixing to throw it at the mule,” Ned said. “I just took it away from him, is all.”

Addie sighed and shook her head, staring in the direction her son had gone. “What am I going to do with that boy?”

*******

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 39

May 30, 2019

Addie walked to the window and peered as far as she could down the lane and along the road toward town, trying to see some sign of Dub’s headlights. Nothing. She paced into the parlor and looked at the mantel clock. Half past eight.

“Mother, when are they coming home?” headlights

“I don’t know, honey. Your Uncle Dub said he’d be back by dark.”

“It’s been dark a long time.”

“I know.”

“Why aren’t they back?”

“I don’t know. Why don’t you go finish your lessons?”

Mary Alice turned away and went back toward the kitchen, her head down. Addie’s voice was sharper than she intended. Her anxiety was infecting Mary Alice, most likely. Addie was trying to keep ahead of her worry, but the later it got, the more it gained on her.

The telephone made its rattly ring. Addie stepped quickly into the entryway and pulled the earpiece off the hook. “Hello?”

“Addie, it’s Lou. Dub and the boys just left for your place. He told me to call and tell you, so you wouldn’t worry.”

She felt a rippling flash of relief, followed quickly by aggravation. “What kept them so late?”

“Dub said the traffic down the mountain was real bad after the races were over. He said they got back as quick as they could.”

“Well, all right. They’re on their way?”

“Yes. Dub said Jake had the time of his life.”

“I don’t doubt it. All right, then. Thanks for calling.”

Addie replaced the earpiece on its hook. She wouldn’t have agreed to this at all, but Dub promised he’d keep Jake with him every minute of the time. For weeks and weeks now this auto race foolishness had been the only thing you heard anybody talking about; it had even crowded out the Prohibition vote as a topic of conversation. But now that the commotion was over and Louis Chevrolet and all his millionaire sporting friends were packing up to go back wherever they’d come from, maybe things would settle down to normal again.

She stuck her head in the kitchen. Mary Alice was hunched over her school tablet in the pool of light from the hanging bulb. “That was Aunt Lou. They’re on the way home.”

No acknowledgment. Well, let her have her mad; she probably deserved it. quilts

Addie went back to the parlor and inspected her day’s work. Two more spreads ready to ship to Mr. Lawlis. It was a lucky day for her when the Chicago businessman happened into Dub’s store and saw her bedspreads. He’d let her know more than once he’d be happy to take more than the two spreads per month she’d been sending. But Dub had helped her get started, not to mention he was family. She wasn’t about to throw him over for some fancy dresser from up north, no matter how promptly he paid.

She heard the sound of Dub’s Model T. She went to the front door and stepped out onto the porch.

Dub pulled up in the yard and the doors flew open. Jake and his cousin Ewell chased each other around and around the automobile, imitating the sound of racing cars.

“I’m T. J. Gates, from the Buick Racing Team,” Jake hollered.

“And I’m Loueee Chevrolaaaaay,” shouted Ewell.

“All right, you two,” Dub said. “The races are over; time for the cars to go back in the shed.”

Jake stopped in the middle of the yard and windmilled his arms, still making race car noises.

“Jake, you better tell Uncle Dub ‘thank you,’” Addie said.

“Thank you!” he yelled, without turning around.

“Thanks, Dub, for taking him,” Addie said.

“No trouble, Addie. We had a big time, didn’t we, boys?”

“What do you hear from Robert?” Addie said. “How’s Vanderbilt?”

“Fine, except for the classes.” Dub laughed and shook his head. “Takes after his daddy, I guess.”

“Well, Jake, you better get in the house,” she said. Jake immediately took off on another lap around the Model T.

“Ewell get in the car, son. We better get home. Sorry to be so late, Addie. The traffic—”

“Yes, Lou called. Jake! You better get in this house right now, young man, or I’m fixing to flatten your tires!”

Jake sputtered up the front steps and sprawled on the porch at her feet. “I’m out of gas, Mother.”

She waved at Dub as he backed out of the yard, then bent over and poked the boy in the ribs. “Out of gas, huh? Out of gas?”

He giggled and squirmed, trying to evade her tickling. She got him up and pointed him toward the front door. “I don’t guess Uncle Dub fed you anything, did he?”

“Sure did. They had barbecued turkey legs up there, and lemonade, and cider, and corn on the cob, and—”

“All right, all right. I get the picture.”

“Oh, you should’ve seen it, Mother! All those cars, and the engines just a–roaring, and the dust flying out from under their wheels when they made the turns—”

“I’ll bet you were in hog heaven.” race

“There were even some drivers from Chattanooga. Uncle Dub knew ‘em. Eddy Kenyon, and Charles Duffy, and—”

“And you’d best get those clothes off and get ready to get in the tub. You’ve probably got dust in places you can’t even show decent folks.”

“—and the Buick Racing Team! All the way from Detroit, Michigan, Uncle Dub said. And Louis Chevrolet. He’s French. Mother, where’s Detroit, Michigan?”

“North, a ways. Now get on upstairs.”

“Oh, Mother, it was just bully, is what it was. Bully all the way down to the ground!” He pounded upstairs, shedding clothes as he went. She looked after him, shaking her head. He’d be talking about this for weeks, most likely. She’d be surprised if he slept a wink tonight.

A little while later, she went to the kitchen. It was getting late. Mary Alice needed to be getting ready for bed. “About finished, dear?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Mary Alice closed her book and sat with her hands in her lap, staring down at the dull blue cover of the McGuffey Reader.

“What’s wrong, honey?”

Mary Alice sat very still, not even moving her eyes. Addie was fully prepared to hear about how she’d hurt Mary Alice’s feelings with her sharp tone just before the phone call came from Lou. She was prepared to respond to why Jake got to go to the car races with Uncle Dub and Ewell and she had to stay at home and do her schoolwork. But she wasn’t quite ready for what her daughter actually said. reader

“Sarah Frances Tanner says I don’t have a daddy.”

“Do what?”

“She does. She says I don’t have a daddy.” Still, Mary Alice wouldn’t look at her. “At recess today, she said it. And at lunch she said it to Lucy Wilkes. She told her I don’t have a daddy.”

Addie felt as if a place in the center of her chest was emptying. She stepped to the table and quietly pulled out a chair, then sat. She put her hands on the table and laced her fingers together, then spread them out, palms down. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“So, Sarah Frances said that, did she?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Now she raised her eyes to her mother’s. “Why doesn’t my daddy live with us, like Sarah Frances’s and Lucy’s?”

“Sweetheart—” Where on earth to start? “Honey, do you remember your daddy at all?”

She pursed her lips. “Just a little. I remember some sparkly paper. Was that Christmas?”

Addie gave a sad little smile and a nod. “Yes, dear, that was Christmas. Anything else?”

She twisted her mouth back and forth, then shook her head. “No, I think that’s all.”

“Honey, your daddy traveled a lot. He was gone more than he was home, even after you were born. And then, one day—”

The old hurt surprised her, sidetracked her with its sudden intensity. As if it had been waiting for a chance at her, and this was it.

“One day, he decided he didn’t want to come home anymore.”

“Was he mad at us?”

“Oh, no, sweetheart, not a bit. Not at you, anyway. No, don’t ever think that.”

“Was he mad at you?”

A place in her throat was starting to ache. She swallowed. “I guess he was, in a way. Maybe not mad, exactly, but … I guess he was just sad, maybe.”

“Did you do something bad to him?”

“No, I didn’t. At least … if I did, I didn’t know what it was.”

Mary Alice’s forehead wrinkled. “Mother, was he ever around after Jake was born?”

“No, honey. He wasn’t.” wrapping

“Well, what’ll Jake do? He won’t even have shiny paper to remember.”

No, not even that. “I … I don’t know, honey. I don’t know.”

She reached across the table, put a hand on her daughter’s arm.

“Mary Alice, now listen to me. What happened with your daddy and me wasn’t your fault. And it’s none of Sarah Frances’s business, or anybody else’s. You’re a sweet girl, and I love you, and you just remember that. All right?”

Mary Alice looked at her a long time. “Yes, ma’am.”

“All right, then. You’d better go get ready for bed. School tomorrow.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She dragged her books and paper off the table, tucked them under an arm, and wandered out of the kitchen, toward the stairs. Addie watched her go until she rounded the corner. When she heard Mary Alice’s feet on the stairs, she put her face in her hands.

She wondered why her own hurt hadn’t taught her how to soothe her daughter’s. You’d think I’d know something to say to her, Addie thought. But Mary Alice’s wounds were in a different place, had a different shape. And then Addie felt the raw and livid place inside her, the part of her that felt insulted that her daughter should even notice the lack of a man who’d cared so little for her—or if he did care, it wasn’t in any way that made a practical difference. Just one more way I’m not good enough, she thought. Just one more thing he’s done to me: leaving me here to explain something to a nine-year-old girl that her twenty-nine-year-old mother has never been able to explain to herself.

She got up from the table and wandered over to the sink. She’d tacked a calendar to the wall above the sink, beside the window that looked out onto the backyard and the tree line beyond. Peabody’s Dry Goods sent them out; they had a different illustration for each month of the year. The illustrations were in the style of the old Currier & Ives prints; this month it was a party scene, men and women playing croquet or some such game in the foreground, and a group gathered around some kind of table in the background. A church social, maybe. There wasn’t a title to it. The men were all wearing top hats, and the ladies’ dresses were old–fashioned, flared affairs with huge sleeves ballooning between the shoulder and elbow. And they were all wearing gloves. Didn’t look too practical for croquet, come to think of it. croquet

Mary Alice’s birthday was coming up in a few weeks. Addie would make her a great big cake and invite all her little school friends over. Maybe she’d pay Ned Overby a little extra, get him to stay after his wood chopping and turn the crank on the ice cream bucket. She’d think of some party games the little girls could play, and she might even try to sew a special frock for Mary Alice to wear, just for the occasion. Maybe she’d see if Lou would loan her Lila’s services to decorate and get ready for the event.

She stared out the window at the dark yard, the darker trees. She found herself thinking of Carolina Clark.

Her name was Carolina, like the state, she said, and she was very particular about the correct pronunciation. She was from somewhere up north. She came to Chattanooga when Addie was still a little girl to be the second wife of John Larimore Clark, a wealthy landowner whose first wife died from consumption. Addie remembered the first Sunday John Larimore Clark brought his new wife to church at Centenary Methodist. Addie remembered that even as a child, she thought of Carolina Clark as a small woman, and very pale. She wore big, wide–brimmed hats to church.

Carolina had odd ways, even for a Yankee. She was rarely seen outside the big, three–story house on Walnut Street that she shared with her husband and stepfamily. Some said she almost never left her own room. She was subject to headaches and would spend weeks at a time in bed with the curtains and shutters drawn.

But one of her strangest habits was that she never went anywhere or did anything, indoors or out, without wearing gloves. Naturally, most of the women at Centenary Methodist wore gloves to church. But even at meals, people said, Carolina Clark kept her hands concealed in gloves of silk or fine linen. hatgloves

On a Sunday afternoon in the middle of the summer, right after dinner, Carolina Clark got up from the table and announced that she was going to her room for her usual nap. The servants were away, her husband was traveling on business, and the children were in their rooms upstairs. Sometime that afternoon, Carolina rose from her bed, removed her Sunday clothes, walked outside, and threw herself down the eighty–foot well in the backyard. When her body was removed a few days later, all she was wearing were her white silk gloves.

That was what everybody knew, but what nobody said. At her funeral service, the preacher spoke of her as “a quiet woman who troubled no one.” But the thought of her troubled Addie, even as a young girl. What would make anybody want to do what Carolina Clark had done, she wondered. What dark voices whispered to her from the well, and why didn’t anybody else hear them, or know? Why wasn’t there anyone to shoulder a corner of Carolina Clark’s quiet desperation?

Addie suddenly felt very tired. She had some spreads she ought to work on, now that the house was quiet, but the thought of going into the parlor and threading her needle seemed arid and burdensome. She thumbed the button by the door to switch off the kitchen light. She tested the lock on the front door, then went to her room, turning out lights on the way.

*******

The man across the desk picked up the carvings as if he were handling Babylonian pottery shards. He held them up this way and that way, looked at them from every possible angle. He was a big man; his face was red and sheened with perspiration. His hands were beefy, but he handled Ned’s work like an acolyte might handle sacramental vessels.

“He’s got drawings?”

“Yes, right here.” George laid the leather portfolio on the desk between them. He was proud of the portfolio. He’d ordered it from one of the catalogs Professor Gaines suggested. Ned had grinned for a whole day when George gave it to him.

The man opened the portfolio. His lips made little pursing motions as he looked at Ned’s drawings. He would flip quickly through several sheets, then pause, slightly squinting one eye or stroking his upper lip as he studied a piece more closely.

“The style is a little naive, of course … that’s to be expected. But my! What a sense of line.” As he looked at the drawing, one of his hands strayed to the carving he’d been examining: a deer springing over a log. George smiled. It was hard to keep from touching Ned’s carvings.

“Oh, so he’s done some charcoals … Hmm … Yes.” charcoal

He closed the portfolio and looked up at George. “Well, Mr. Hutto, I must admit I was dubious when I received your first telegram. If Percy Gaines weren’t an old friend— But it appears to be just as you and Percy say. The boy is very, very talented.”

George leaned back in his chair. “Well, Professor Koch, I— It’s good to hear you say so.”

“May I speak with him?”

“Oh, well … he isn’t here. That is, he didn’t—couldn’t come with me.”

Professor Koch arched his eyebrows.

“His father needed him, you see. It’s spring, and that’s the time Perlie—Mr. Overby, the boy’s father—when he sells his hides, and—”

Professor Koch had bridged his fingertips and was staring at George with a blank expression.

“Well, at any rate, Ned couldn’t come with me to New York, you see. I was hoping you could look at his work and tell me— And you have, of course, and so … I was hoping …”

Professor Koch looked at him a bit longer, then cleared his throat with a delicate sound. “Mr. Hutto, you must realize. Our institute has certain standards.”

“Yes, of course.”

“To be considered, each candidate must undergo a personal interview by the faculty.”

George nodded.

“He must agree to the terms and conditions of enrollment. He must be made to thoroughly understand what we expect of our students.”

George took a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at his lips.

“Still …” Professor Koch took up the deer carving. He ran a palm over the deer’s back, ran a fingertip along the delicate, perfect curve of the neck. “I suppose, given the geographic challenges involved …” He put down the carving and aimed a forefinger at George’s chest. “The tuition for the first quarter must be completely prepaid.” deer

“Oh, yes, sir. That will be no problem.”

“And we’ll need letters from a teacher, and from Percy, and—”

“Yes, I’ve already spoken to them, Professor.”

Professor Koch leafed through the portfolio some more. “Yes. Extraordinary eye this boy has.”

George leaned back in the chair again and smiled.

*******

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 38

May 23, 2019

At first, Addie wasn’t sure what it was. It didn’t look exactly like anything she’d ever seen. But when she picked it up and turned it over in her hand, it was as plain as anything that it was a fish.

Or more like the distilled, concentrated idea of a fish—a fish shown the way it might think of itself, if you could imagine such a thing. How could wood be made to do the things this piece of wood did? fish

She’d found the smooth, polished curve of linden lying on the corner of her porch, in the same place she had taken to leaving treats for Ned Overby on the days George Hutto drove him back from the YMCA. She’d found it last Tuesday morning as she was sweeping; she guessed it had lain there since the previous Saturday. The linden, almost bone-white, made little contrast with the whitewashed porch planking. If she hadn’t scooted the carving with the broom, she might never have noticed it.

She smiled as she looked at it now. She’d placed it on her mantle in the parlor. It soothed her eyes from the strain of her candle-wicking. The flow and bend of it invited her hand like an old friend.

She was almost finished with this bedspread. Just one more corner of the pattern to stitch and then it would be ready to wash and dry and take to Dub.

She was still surprised at how quickly the spreads sold. She could tell, at first, that Dub only let her put the spread in his store as a family favor—or maybe to keep from having to put up with Lou’s displeasure. But it sold within the week. After she gave Dub the store’s share—over his protests—she still had more than three dollars left over. And the next piece sold just as quickly. And the next. Dub soon stopped trying to act like he didn’t care about the money and started asking her how soon she could get the next bedspread on his shelf. Mr. Peabody had recently offered to start having one of his boys drive out with her cloth and thread and notions, and he let her know if she needed a few days on credit, that’d be just fine.

Addie was leery of credit, though. She liked the thought of the money in the ginger jar in the back of her closet, and she especially liked knowing all of it belonged to her, to do with as she saw fit. Credit muddied the water.

The Ingraham clicked and rattled, then struck. Ten o’clock—the mail was probably here. She finished out the row she was on and laid aside the cloth. She went to the front door, brushing her hand across the fish’s back as she passed the mantle. meadowlark

She stepped out onto the front porch. A meadowlark sat on the top rail of the lane fence. Its black necklace puffed out, dark against the yellow breast, every time it piped. She came down the steps, and the meadowlark blurred away toward the tree line.

The sound of hammers battered at the clear midmorning air. James Potts had sold off a piece of his pasture fronting the road, and somebody was building a big house on it. Every fair day since early spring she’d been waking to the sound of the project, first the sawing and shouting as they cut down enough of the big sweet gums and ashes to make a notch in the woods for the house to sit in. She’d watched as they leveled the plot, then watched the frame go up and the clapboard siding wrap slowly around the house. Now they were nailing down the roof planking. One of these days, Addie knew, she needed to find out who her new neighbors were going to be. Not that she minded neighbors. It’d be a comfort, in a way. And it would sure be nice if they had a little girl about Mary Alice’s age. Take some of the pressure off.

Good. Her summer Delineator was in the mailbox. Beneath it was an ivory–colored envelope addressed in a very decorative hand. She ran her thumb beneath the flap and opened it. An invitation to Callie Watson’s wedding.

Addie looked down the road, tapping the invitation against her palm. In a little while, she dropped it into the pocket of her apron and started back toward the house, thumbing through the Delineator as she went.

The magazine was a bit of an indulgence, she guessed, but one she thought she could afford. Looking at the smart fashion plates and reading the elegant descriptions of each costume allowed her to dream a little, to imagine herself able to pick and choose among the delightful outfits for herself and her children, just like the ladies in town who lived on Cameron Hill, whose daughters went to Epworth League and whose husbands came home every night to sit in an armchair and smoke and read the paper. The Delineator was an hour or two of pleasant escape, delivered to her mailbox four times a year. Not a bad bargain for twenty–five cents per annum. delineator.jpg

She went back in the house and dropped the magazine on the side table near her sewing chair. She promised herself a nice, long read after lunch—after she finished this spread.

Addie put the last stitches in her work just before noon. Miraculously, though Jake woke up, he was content to coo and gurgle up at the ceiling of his room until she had tied off the last thread and clipped the final row of wicking. She got him out of bed and carried him on her hip into the kitchen, calling up to Mary Alice to come down and get something to eat.

She fed the children and herself and got them both interested in some toys. She went into the parlor and settled herself in her chair, then reached for the Delineator, when she felt something rub against her thigh. It was the envelope in her apron pocket.

She sat back in the chair with a sigh. She’d managed to forget all about Callie Watson and her wedding until just now. She took the invitation out of her pocket and laid it on top of her magazine. She looked at it, cupping her chin in her hand.

She’d known Callie since she was born; the Watsons sat in the pew behind the Caswells at Centenary Methodist, Sunday after Sunday for years. She really ought to go to the wedding. She reached over and thumbed open the card. “William Jefferson Briles,” the groom’s name was. Addie didn’t recollect any Brileses. The boy’s people must be from somewhere else.

Addie wondered where they’d live after they were married. Would William Jefferson Briles settle in Chattanooga, become a partner in his father-in-law’s business? Would he and Callie move into the family pew? Would he be a class leader someday, or even a messenger to the Conference? Or would he follow some strange dream, drag Callie hither and yon, and leave her the day she finally gathered enough gumption to say, “no more”?

Lately, there were whole days at a time when Addie didn’t think about Zeb—when she didn’t wonder what he was doing, where he was living, whether he and this other woman had any friends, any fun, or if they were even still together. Days when she didn’t try to figure out where she’d gone wrong, what signs she’d missed, how she could have done better by him, or by herself, or by somebody. invitation

She turned the wedding invitation over in her hand a few times, then tossed it onto the table beside her magazine. She’d send a gift by Lou. A nice tufted bedspread, most likely. She picked up her Delineator and started looking through the ladies’ evening dresses. Here was one: “Absolutely guaranteed to make the lady wearing it the very cynosure of any gathering, and the gentleman on whose arm she enters the envy of all the swains present.”

*******

George slowed as he approached the lane, then clenched his jaw and turned the wheel, aiming the auto toward Addie’s house. Ned looked at him, a question on his face.

“I’ll just take you on up to the house this time.”

She came out onto the porch, holding the little baby boy. Her daughter trailed behind her, holding onto her apron strings. George braked to a stop and took the car out of gear. Ned got out.

“Well, I guess I’ll see you next time, Ned.”

He nodded and started toward the trail to his house. She was smiling down at the boy.

“Ned, how about taking a loaf of bread to your mama for me?” she asked. “I’ve got you a slice already buttered, with some honey on it.” bread.jpg

Ned shoved his hands deeper in his pockets but didn’t show any signs of leaving without the bread. She went inside and came back out with a bundle wrapped in cheesecloth and Ned’s slice balanced on top. “Here you go.” She handed it to him, and George saw the quick way she glanced away from Ned, toward him. A sliding–away look, like she might be feeling a little bad about something, but not bad enough to say anything out loud.

Ned took the loaf in one hand and the slice in the other. He started to take a bite, but stopped long enough to mumble, “Much obliged.”

“And thank you for the fish,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Will you carve something else for me sometime?”

Ned’s chin fell onto his chest, and he gave what might have been a nod. A flush crept up his neck. He shuffled off around the corner of the house.

Her eyes swung back toward George. He was still sitting behind the wheel of his car, and when she looked at him, he suddenly realized he had no notion of what he might talk to her about.

“George Hutto.” She gave him a slow, greeting nod.

“Addie.” He touched the brim of his hat.

“Fine day for a drive.”

“Yes, I guess it is.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “Somebody building a house across the road from you.”

“Pretty good–sized one too.”

“Yes, pretty good sized.”

The little boy grabbed a fistful of Addie’s hair and tried to put it in his mouth. She craned her head away from him. “Jake, now stop that.” She reached up and pulled the chubby arm away from her hair. He made a squalling sound and tried to snatch his hand away from her.

“No, sir. You stop that,” she told him. He squalled some more.

“Well, I guess I’d better get back,” George said, looking away as he worked the gear lever.

“All right, then,” she said, still wrestling with the little boy. She gave George a sort of distracted wave and went back inside, grabbing at Jake’s hand.

George backed carefully down the lane. Today was Saturday. Why hadn’t he asked her if he could pick her up for church tomorrow? She seemed in pretty good spirits, considering all she’d been through. But maybe that was how it was with most folks—they absorbed the bad in life, then went on. Maybe Addie was going on, that was all. Just doing what people did. toddler

He backed out into the road and put the auto in low. As he drove past, he glanced at the house going up across the road from Addie’s place. This wouldn’t likely be the last house built out this way. He’d heard James Potts was going to divide up a good deal more of his land. Probably a good move, what with the government starting on that dam out by Hale’s Bar and all the talk of the army camp going in just a few miles east. He wouldn’t be surprised if more and more of Chattanooga crawled out this direction.

George felt a vague kind of sadness, thinking of Addie alone in that big house of her daddy’s, just her and the two little children for company. Come to think of it, what made him turn in at her lane today? What did he think he was going to say or do?

Today was Saturday. In a week’s time he’d be back out here, picking up Ned Overby and bringing him home again in the afternoon. Maybe he’d pull down Addie’s lane again. Maybe they’d talk some more. Maybe next time her little boy wouldn’t be quite so cantankerous. Maybe he’d ask for his own slice of bread with some honey on it.

“Old Leather Britches” started running through George’s mind. Pretty soon, he was drumming his fingers on the steering wheel of his car and whistling as he drove back into town.

*******

Addie broke off a corner of the communion wafer and passed the tray to Sister Houser, seated to her right. She had a pretty good spot today, fairly close to the front and no dippers or chewers ahead of her. One Sunday, she’d been late and had to sit at the back, beside Will Tucker. She didn’t know if he noticed her turning the communion cup as he handed it to her and wasn’t sure she cared. It was nearly enough to make you stop taking communion. No use complaining to J. D. or any of the elders, though. They’d just send her to Matthew 26:27 and Luke 22:20 and say the Lord only authorized a single cup when he instituted the Lord’s Supper, and if it was good enough for the Lord and his apostles it was surely good enough for his church. Addie had thought once or twice about asking them if they thought any of the apostles chewed tobacco. communion

Addie knew she was supposed to be meditating on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross as she partook of the communion, but her mind was an unruly thing today. As she took a demure sip from the cup and passed it to Sister Houser, she had the guilty realization that she’d been trying for the last little while to remember where she’d put Mary Alice’s pinafore that needed mending. She sat a little straighter in the pew and tried to imagine the scene at the Crucifixion: Jesus on the cross, his woeful eyes turned to the stormy heavens; the Roman guard on his knees, realizing this was the Son of God; Mary leaning on the shoulder of the apostle John, her newfound son; Peter and the other men somewhere a little distance off, trying to figure out whether to run or pray.

Poor Peter. Addie could easily picture the look on his face—that scared, confused look men get when they suddenly realize they are about to have to do something they never thought they’d have to do. She remembered the first time Zeb was around when Mary Alice got a soiled diaper. He’d called from the other room, announcing the problem. “Well, there’s some diapers right there on the floor by her bed,” Addie had answered from the kitchen. A minute later when she went into the room with Zeb and the baby, he’d been sitting there, looking from that pile of diapers to his newborn daughter, looking like he couldn’t decide whether to bawl or break for the front door. She’d laughed at him till she had to sit down on the edge of the bed to catch her breath, then shooed him out of the room and gone about her business with Mary Alice.

That was in Nashville, in that little bungalow that had been the servants’ quarters behind the big house on Granny White Pike.

Jake twitched in her lap. She looked down at him, sleeping with his fist bunched in front of his face. Mary Alice was leaning into her side, her face sweaty where it was scrunched against the bodice of Addie’s dress. She brushed a damp strand of hair out of her daughter’s face. Sister Houser looked down at Mary Alice and smiled at Addie. She smiled back. They held each other’s eyes for a moment, the old woman and the young one, as the cup moved steadily along the line of the pews somewhere behind them.

*******

The organist mashed a dense hedge of chords out of the bank of pipes at the back of the church, and everybody stood up, sidling along the pews toward the center aisle. Louisa spoke to the people on either side of her, then noticed Callie Watson standing near the end of the pew, faced by a small half–circle of women. She moved toward them.

“Callie, I was so happy to get your invitation in the mail,” she said. “I sure hope you sent one to Addie.” Louisa kept her eyes steady on Callie’s face so she wouldn’t have to decide what to do about the looks the other women would be exchanging at the mention of her sister’s name.

“Oh, yes, ma’am, I sure did.”

“Well, fine. Guess you and your mama are busy as beavers these days, getting everything ready.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Well. I’m happy for you, honey.” She patted the girl’s hand.

“Thank you, Mrs. Dawkins.”

Louisa walked away. “Ma’am,” Callie had called her. “Mrs. Dawkins.” When, exactly, had she crossed over from “Louisa” to “Mrs. Dawkins?” She felt a faint sadness and, at the same time, a wry amusement at herself. The thought came to her that it had been a good little while since she and Dub had pleasured themselves with each other. If he wasn’t already asleep tonight when she got in bed, she might just do something about that.

*******

George was about to step into the center aisle, but he saw Louisa Dawkins coming and waited for her. As she passed, he gave her a polite little nod and a smile, but she must have been thinking about something else; she didn’t acknowledge him. peter

Something Rev. Stiller had said was troubling him. At the time it had seemed an offhand remark, really, just an aside from the main gist of his sermon. But it was stuck in George’s mind like a cocklebur in a horse’s tail, and he couldn’t shake it loose.

Rev. Stiller’s text today was from St. Matthew, the fourteenth chapter. He was talking about Christ’s provision for his followers, starting with the feeding of the five thousand and continuing with his rescue of the terrified disciples from the storm on the lake. He’d said something about how, usually, preachers liked to berate St. Peter for the lack of faith that caused him to start sinking when he tried to imitate his Master’s miraculous walking on the water. “But when you think about it,” Rev. Stiller had said, “St. Peter was the only one who had sufficient fortitude to step out of the boat.”

He’d gone on then, talking about Christ’s love and compassion, about how it was displayed even for those who didn’t understand his mission, like the five thousand, or his power, like the storm–spooked apostles. But George had stayed back in that tossing boat, pondering Rev. Stiller’s chance comment. He tried to imagine himself, like St. Peter, seeing Jesus stride across the waves and asking boldly for the ability to join him. No, he decided, it was a lot easier to place himself with St. Andrew, St. John, and the others, fearfully gripping the gunwales of the bucking boat and staring wild–eyed at their crazy fishing partner as he climbed out of the boat in the middle of a roaring gale. Or, even more likely, somewhere at the back of the crowd of five thousand, grateful for the fish and the bread, but otherwise mostly confused about what had just happened.

He was at the door. He nodded at Rev. Stiller and said a complimentary word or two about the sermon. The pastor shook his hand and said he’d see George next Saturday at the YMCA, which reminded George he’d never had that talk with Rev. Stiller about the Bible class, nor had he approached the young Baptist minister about coming in to teach. George smiled, settled his hat on his head, and picked his way down the steps of the church.

*******

Willie felt his stomach grinding. He was glad Bishop Jefferson was talking loud so the noise from his stomach wouldn’t make Mama look at him from the sides of her eyes like she did sometimes. It wasn’t his fault his stomach was empty, and church went too long. But Mama would probably look at him anyway. And Clarice would laugh at him.

Willie bet the white folks were already out of church, maybe home by now. He didn’t know why colored folks wanted to string church out so long. He looked up at his older brother, Mason Junior, sitting all serious and still with the choir. Just for a minute, Willie wished he could be sitting up there with his brother, out from under Mama’s elbow. But up front like that, he’d have to be still too. Everybody would be able to see him. No, that was no good.

He wished there’d been more to eat this morning than a half pan of cornbread that he had to share with his brothers and sisters. Not even any milk to wash it down, just water. Mama said hush complaining. Daddy didn’t say anything, just went on shaving at the kitchen sink. Daddy usually didn’t say much. Even when he was reaching for his razor strap.   trumpets

Willie listened to Bishop Jefferson. Not the words, really, just the sound of them. That was about the only thing he really liked about church—the way Bishop Jefferson half spoke half sang his words. Willie liked the rhythm of it, the way the words dipped and swooped and rumbled around low right before rising up all of a sudden, like trumpets blaring. Willie liked it that colored folks talked different than white folks. Put their words together different.

His stomach growled again. He liked to listen to Bishop Jefferson, all right. But Willie wished right now he’d finish on up so they could go home.

*******

The pains hit about halfway through the service. As he helped Becky down the front steps of the small white church building, Zeb wondered vaguely what it was about him and women and babies and church services.

He stopped thinking about that when he saw the crimson stains on the back of Becky’s dress as he helped her into the seat of the hired surrey. “Honey? Is something wrong?”

“When was the last time you looked at a calendar?” she said. “It’s only the seventh month, Zeb.” Her breath was coming in quick, shallow pants.

Fear dried his mouth as he yanked the horse around and slapped its rump with the reins. He had to think a minute to remember where he’d seen the small, squarish, two–story frame building that housed the hospital. He prayed there was a doctor around on a Sunday morning.

*******

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 37

May 16, 2019

“I wish you’d look at that,” Louisa said, nodding toward Jake. “He’s trying to see where the sound’s coming from.”

The baby writhed in Addie’s lap, twisting his face toward the front of the auto. At first, Addie had expected the noise of the engines to frighten him, but from the first time Dub had picked them up for Sunday lunch in his Curved Dash, Jake had been fascinated with every one of the loud, smelly contraptions he encountered. This morning, when Jimmy came to fetch them, Mary Alice had stayed on the front porch with her hands over her ears, but Jake had acted like he was trying to jump out of Addie’s arms and crawl into the driver’s lap. loud

They turned off the road into Addie’s lane. “Isn’t that Dan Sutherland’s rig in front of your house?” Louisa said, craning her neck.

“Looks like it might be.”

As they got closer to the house, they saw Dan get out of the sulky and walk around to his horse’s head. He held the halter as the chestnut tossed its head and tried to back out of the traces.

“Stop here, Jimmy,” Louisa said, leaning over the seat. “This car’ll spook Mr. Sutherland’s horse.”

“Yes’m.” Jimmy eased off the throttle and pulled on the hand brake. He started to get out.

“That’s all right, Jimmy. We can manage,” Addie said.

“Yes’m.” He touched his cap as Addie stepped onto the ground.

Addie helped Mary Alice down and gripped Jake with the other arm. He made an irritated noise and tried to climb back into the Oldsmobile. Louisa handed out the bolt of broadcloth. Addie waved to her as Jimmy backed slowly down the lane. She turned and walked toward the house. Jake tried to climb over her shoulder and get back to the auto. She made Mary Alice carry the cloth so she could wrestle with him.

“Getting so you can’t take a peaceful drive out into the country anymore,” Dan said when they reached him. The horse had quieted, but Addie could still see the whites of its eyes as it rolled them toward the receding noise of the car. Lather dripped to the ground from where it nervously tongued the bit. horse

“Sorry, Dan.”

“Oh, that’s all right. I guess I’ll have to give in and get me one of the clatter–traps pretty soon. Scare somebody else’s horse, for a change.” He touched the brim of his hat. “Good to see you again, Addie. How you doing?”

“Fine, thank you.”

He looked at her. “Really?”

“What brings you out, Dan?”

“Why don’t we go inside and sit down? I’ll tell you all about it.”

“Do you have any candy?” Mary Alice said.

“Mary Alice!”

Dan laughed. “Well, yes, ma’am, it just so happens I do.” He looked a question at Addie. She rolled her eyes and nodded. He reached into his breast pocket and took out a shiny peppermint stick. “How’s that?” he said, leaning over to Mary Alice.

She grinned, then dropped the cloth and took the stick. She turned around and flounced up the front porch steps. Jake made a noise and reached toward his sister.

“No, sir, not until you’ve got a few more teeth,” Addie said.

“I’ll get this,” Dan said, bending to pick up the cloth.

They went inside. She put Jake on the floor in the nursery and went into the parlor. Dan sat on one of the armchairs, his legs crossed and his hat on his knee.

“Would you like some coffee? Or, I’ve got a spice cake.”

“No, thanks, Addie. I’ve got things waiting on me back at the office.”

She sat across from him, on the settee. “Well, what brings you all this way on a workday?”

He looked at her. “Addie, Zeb’s gone.”

“Gone?”

“Left. Lit out. Him and that other woman. Got a telegram from my man down there yesterday evening. A couple of weeks ago, looks like, he drew all the money out of his bank accounts, bought two railway tickets, and neither he nor the woman have been seen in Little Rock since.”

It was several moments before any words would form in her mind. “Where?”

“Don’t know. My man couldn’t find that out.” hat

So somebody really could do this, Addie thought. They could share your life, father your children, and then they could just leave, just vanish. They could pack up and go and never look back.

“What’ll I … How can—”

“Addie, he’s been served the papers. If he doesn’t appear in court, the judge will rule in your favor on every element of the complaint.” He waited for awhile, watching her. “Still, I think I’d advise one more thing, just to make sure we’ve covered ourselves.”

“What?”

“There’s a thing called constructive service. Usually, it’s applied when a party wants to sue for divorce, but the spouse can’t be found. That’s not exactly where we are; we sued him and served him, but now we can’t find him. What I’d do is I’d take out ads in the newspapers. I’d post notices in the courthouse, whatever. Just to make double sure he can’t come back later and say he didn’t know our intentions.”

“But he’s not in Little Rock anymore.”

“No, but there’s plenty of folks there who knew him, and the woman too. Word’ll get back, I bet. If anything can flush him out, this is it. And if it doesn’t, we haven’t lost anything.”

“We haven’t?”

He looked at his hat, dusted it with the heel of his hand. “You know what I mean, Addie.”

He stood up. “Well, I’ve got to get on back. No rest for the weary, I guess.”

“I guess not.”

“Addie, I’m—”

“I know, Dan. Thank you. It’s all right. I’m all right. Just go on and do what you need to do.”

“Well. All right, then. Good day to you.”

“And to you, Dan. Thank you for coming.”

“Least I could do.” dreaming

He left. Addie stayed on the settee, thinking about constructive service. An odd term to apply to a divorce proceeding. What would Dan’s notice say? Would the Little Rock newspaper carry a catalog of all her hurts and grievances? No, probably not. There would probably be a long paragraph made up of a single sentence, salted with lots of semicolons and wherefores and parties of the first part aforesaid. It would say exactly what it needed to, most likely; it would achieve exactly the aim Dan Sutherland had in mind.

But the words wouldn’t tell any more about the truth of Zeb and her than the label on a tin of powdered milk would tell you about a cow. Dan’s words would be proper but not accurate. They would be like a screen; they would protect, but they would also conceal.

She tried to imagine herself writing the notice. If she got to choose the words, what would they be? Adelaide Caswell Douglas is divorcing Zebediah Acton Douglas on the grounds that she has no choice. He loved her, and then he didn’t, and there was nothing she could do about it, so why bother to try?

She couldn’t even tell you when it started happening, could she? Couldn’t pinpoint the hour or even the week when her weight of expectation and unfulfilled hopes started to drag him down and make him wish for something else, someone else—which he found, as it turned out.

What was she like, this other woman? What was the shape of her hands, her face? Did she resemble Addie in any way? For a minute, Addie wondered if she’d feel any better if she knew Zeb had left her for someone who reminded him of his wife on a good day. But somehow, she doubted it. Doubted a man would do that and doubted it would make her feel any better to know.

Adelaide Caswell Douglas wishes to announce her permanent disengagement from the man formerly known as her husband. May he rest in peace, amen.

She wished it were that easy.

She heard an automobile popping and backfiring, slowing as it neared her lane. Why would Lou be coming back? She got up and went out onto the front porch.

It wasn’t Lou. The car had stopped at the opening of the lane. Someone got out of the passenger side and crossed in front of the car. A boy. He waved to the driver and walked down her lane.

Ned Overby. So the car belonged to George Hutto; he was bringing Ned back from a meeting at that new boy’s club he’d started in the old cotton warehouse downtown.

Addie hurried back in the house, to the kitchen. She found an apple and quickly sliced off a hunk of the spice cake. Wrapping the food in a dish towel, she went back to the front porch. When she came out, Ned was just stepping off the lane to cut across her yard toward the woods. spicecake

“Hello, Ned. How about a treat?” She held up the bundle.

He glanced toward her, then turned and walked over to the porch. He wouldn’t look at her. He never did.

“There’s an apple in here, and a piece of cake. Thought you might like a little snack for your walk home.”

He shrugged and nodded. She put the bundle in his hands.

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“You’re welcome, Ned. Tell your mother and daddy I said hello.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He shambled off around the corner of the house.

She turned to go back inside and noticed George’s car was still stopped at the opening of the lane. He waved, and she returned the wave. He pulled a little way into the lane and stopped, then backed onto the road to return the way he’d come. He waved once more and drove off toward town.

*******

Louisa opened the door and paused in surprise. Lila stood there, all right, but a little boy was with her.

“Good morning, Lila.” Louisa’s eyes went to the boy.

“Willie with me today. He won’t be no trouble, Miz Lou.”

“Well, certainly, but … shouldn’t he be at school?” He didn’t look sick.

“No’m. Not today. He won’t be no trouble.” boy

“Well … of course.” She stood back from the door and they came inside.

As he passed her, Willie slid a look up at Louisa, a look somewhere between curiosity and distrust. He appeared to be about nine or ten. He clearly had his mother’s features, and he was as neat and scrubbed as she would have expected any of Lila’s children to be, but something told Louisa he would bear watching. She smiled at him and he looked away.

He took a little too much interest in his surroundings, she thought, just a shade too observant.

“Lila, the drapes in the parlor need to be taken down for cleaning today.”

“Yes’m.”

“And if we have time, I’d like to air the mattresses in the boys’ room.”

“Yes’m.”

“This where y’all eat at?” Willie said. He stood in the kitchen doorway, staring at the polished dining room table.

“Hush, now, Willie,” said Lila, moving to him and taking him by the shoulder. “You come on and help me. Stop botherin’ Miz Lou.”

She pulled him after her toward the parlor, but not before Louisa saw his scowl.

All morning long, Louisa found excuses to check in on Willie. Once, as she approached the doorway of the parlor where Lila was working, she heard the boy’s whining voice, then Lila speaking to him in short, sharp words. “You should have thought of that before you sassed Deacon Green. Now get over here and hold this.” Louisa must have paused in the doorway without realizing it; Willie and Lila noticed her and quickly busied themselves with the drapes.

At lunchtime, Louisa went into the kitchen and asked Willie if he’d like some cathead biscuits she had left over from that morning’s breakfast. Willie and his mother sat at the little breakfast table by the window, sharing a section of cornbread Lila had brought and some warmed–up black–eyed peas and buttermilk Louisa had given them. He shook his head. “Don’t like no cathead biscuits,” he said. His mother gave him a tightlipped stare. He ignored her and took a swig of the buttermilk in the Mason jar they were using for a glass. He put it down and licked the white froth from his upper lip. peas

Louisa wished she had some old toys the boys didn’t use anymore, something she could give Willie to pass the afternoon. But she’d cleaned out all the old stuff in the last Christmas toy drive for church.

Early in the afternoon, she climbed the stairs and started down the hallway to the boys’ room, where Lila was tugging the mattresses off the beds. The door to Katherine’s room was open. She stepped inside and there was Willie, standing in the middle of the floor, looking around as if he owned the place. He turned around to look at her.

“Willie, you need to get out of here, right now.”

“Whose room this?”

“My daughter’s.”

“What’s her name?”

“Katherine. Now you get—”

“Where she at?”

“She’s—passed on. Now will you go back where you belong?”

“My meemaw passed. My cousins moved into her house.”

Louisa took a quick step to him and pulled him toward the doorway.

“You get out of this room. You don’t have any business in here. This room stays closed.”

He shuffled down the hallway toward the room where his mother was working. Louisa stood with crossed arms, watching him go. He turned and looked at her just before he stepped through the doorway.

*******

There was a time, Zeb thought, when he knew what he wanted and how to get it. Had it really been so long ago, or did it just seem that way? And since when had the days gotten so heavy and long and useless?

Last night he’d dreamed about his mother. She was out in the hillside field behind the old house back in Georgia, and she was trying to plow the red clay with some kind of contraption made of boards nailed together. He kept trying to tell her to give it up, but it was as if he wasn’t talking. He couldn’t even hear himself.

That was the strange part of the dream, he’d decided, maybe the part that caused him to wake with sweat drenching his pillowcase: he could hear every sound except his own voice. He could hear the rooks croaking in the pines at the crest of the hill; he could hear Shep yapping at a squirrel in the woods below the house. He could hear the grunts his mother made as she tried to force the pitiful and rude wooden thing through the soil. But when he tried to talk to her, there was nothing. And somehow, in the dream, he knew there was no point in going to her either. He wasn’t really there. Not in any way that could do anybody any good. plowing

He’d started to just tear up the telegram from Ab, just tear it up and throw the pieces away and pretend he’d never gotten it. But Becky would’ve known, somehow—seen it in his face, maybe. He’d had to tell her.

And it was as bad as he feared—maybe even worse. For a long time, she said nothing, but he could see it working up inside her, twisting her in knots. And when it came out, oh, it was bitter.

She railed at him, called him names he never knew she’d heard. She’d never see her mother and father again, never be able to look them in the face, and that was only if the public shame didn’t kill them outright, she said. By now everybody in Little Rock thought she was a flat–out whore who’d stolen another woman’s husband and did he think for one minute she’d have given him such encouragement as she had if she’d known the truth about him? And now here she was, stuck in some pitiful little boarding house room in Texas with an illegitimate child in her womb and a man who’d lied to her every step of the way and her name on a marriage license that meant pretty close to nothing and the worst of it was she had no place else to go. And then she crumpled onto the floor at the foot of the bed and sobbed.

He was afraid to get close to her, much less touch her. So, he sat on the little stool in front of the scarred maple dressing table and listened to her cry and tried to think of some way things could get any worse. The stool was short, and his knees stuck out. As he tried to look anywhere but at Becky, his eye swept across the table’s vanity mirror, and he had the absurd urge to laugh; he looked like a grasshopper, ready to jump.

His mind slewed around like a hog on ice. He was probably supposed to say something, but right then “I’m sorry” seemed about like spitting on a house fire. Maybe he ought to hang himself or go to Little Rock and let Pete Norwich give him that horsewhipping Becky had talked about. Something extravagant, something to even things up.

That was three days ago, and she’d barely said a dozen words to him since. Each morning, he’d half expected to wake up and find her gone. But she’d been there in the bed beside him. Using her back like a fence, but there, all the same. She wouldn’t go out of the boardinghouse, would barely go downstairs to meals.

Well, there had to be some sort of prospect going, even in a catch–as–catch–can place like Texarkana, he decided. He’d gotten up this morning and dressed and shaved like a man with places to go. Becky lay in the bed and stared at him like she thought he was crazy, but he went right on. Went down and ate a good breakfast and came back upstairs with some dry toast and weak tea. He set the food on the bedside table, kissed Becky on the top of the head, put on his hat, and left.

It was a little on the warm side this afternoon. He’d have liked to loosen his tie and unbutton his collar, but it was more important to make the right impression. barbers

This morning he’d had a pretty good conversation with a cotton buyer who was thinking about hiring an agent. Zeb didn’t much like the idea of working for somebody else, but the money he’d brought from Little Rock wasn’t going to last forever.

He stood on the street corner and tipped back his panama to mop his forehead. About halfway down the block to his right sat the columned façade of a bank, and right across the street from the bank was a barbershop. Zeb headed for the barbershop.

There was always some kind of prospect going. You just had to know where to look.

*******

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 36

May 9, 2019

Lila spread her palms on the small of her back and grimaced as she tried to stretch the stiff muscles. Her head ached too. She’d sat up late last night, trying to finish Clarice’s dress. It was about all she could handle this morning to scrounge up some day-old cornbread for the children to eat on their way to school. sewing

She was worried about Willie. Deacon Green had sent a note home with their middle boy saying he’d been getting into a lot of scrapes lately, during recess and after school. It was a shame, the principal said, because Willie was smart enough to do anything he wanted to do; he just didn’t want to stay out of trouble, looked like. Deacon Green thought Willie’s parents ought to know.

She talked to Mason, but his answer didn’t go much past whipping the boy again. So far, that hadn’t done much good.

Lila had hopes for Willie. Something told her he was special. Now, Mason Junior was a good son, respectful and hardworking, levelheaded. And the two girls minded and were good to help with the chores and their baby brother.

But Willie had something extra. He was more than just able; he had a gleam about him. That mind of his just naturally stayed about a half a jump ahead of everybody else. Hadn’t he been talking like the grown folks since he was two years old? Didn’t he remember every story he’d ever heard anybody tell, and couldn’t he tell it just like they did, their voice and movements and expressions and all? Oh, he could shine, Willie could—when he wanted to.

Lila didn’t want Willie to end up working in a foundry or a railyard. He could do more than that, be more. She just knew he could. Of course, he could also end up a lot worse.

Lila climbed the steps up to the Dawkins’s back door. She raised her hand to knock, but the door yanked open.

“Oh, Lila, thank goodness you’re here! I just got a call from Mamie O’Dell and the Women’s Study Group was supposed to meet at Lucy Hawkins’s today but Lucy’s sick and Mamie wants to know if they can come here instead and I don’t have a thing ready but I told her yes and oh there’s so much to do. Come in, come in, I need you to start dusting the parlor while I try to figure out what in the world I can fix right quick to go with the tea and coffee …”

“Yes’m.”

*******

The preacher’s voice droned in and out of Ned’s ears like the buzz of grasshoppers in the bushes on a summer afternoon. The boy on his left had his chin on his chest, and a little spot of drool had begun to wet the front of his shirt. The one on his right had turned to the boy on the other side and was whispering something behind his hand. shavings

Ned hoped the preacher didn’t notice the pile of wood chips growing in front of his chair. He probably wouldn’t, all the way on the back row.

He reached down to scratch his ankle. The shoes were still new enough to chafe. Most of the other boys had stockings. That would help some, Ned guessed. But he wasn’t likely to get any. And stiff shoes were better than barefoot.

He turned the wild cherry block in his hand, eyeing it critically. He didn’t like the curve of the dove’s breast. He shaved off a little here and there, then a little more. He looked at it again and thought about the dove he’d seen yesterday near sundown, perched on the dogwood branch just under the eaves of the woods across the tracks from his house. The dogwoods were about ready to bloom, and the redbuds. He was glad the warmer days were close.

Ned wished he knew how to paint. If he did, he could cover the finished carving with the soft, pink–brown of the mourning dove’s plumage, its belly a few shades lighter. He could paint in the black eyes, tiny and round as drops of water in the delicate head. He might even try the black spackling of the wing bars, the dark primaries outlined in white, folded against the bird’s body.

The boy on his right snickered. “Hey, peckerwood,” he said, his hand cupped so it sent the whisper toward Ned. “Peckerwood. Where’d you steal that Barlow?”

Ned kept his head down, his hands moving steadily over the block of cherry.

“Hey, we’re talkin’ to you, peckerwood,” said the boy on the other side, leaning past the boy on Ned’s right. “You ever learn to talk?”

Ned’s eyes flickered at them. Town boys. The one next to him was smaller, but the one on the other side was bigger. Ned had watched him in boxing class. When Mr. Fairchild wasn’t looking, he’d rabbit punch his opponents.

“You better say something, peckerwood,” the bigger one whispered, “or we’ll catch you after class and give you some talking lessons.” The boy on Ned’s right snickered again.

“I ain’t did nothin’ to you.” Ned looked nervously toward the preacher.

“‘I ain’t did nothin’ to you.’” The smaller boy imitated Ned’s voice.

“That how your peckerwood mama taught you to talk?” The two boys smirked.

“Taught him to talk like she taught him to bathe,” the bigger one said, and they giggled some more.

Ned felt the back of his neck tingling and getting hot. His knuckles were white where he gripped the wood. He nearly cut himself.

“Let us pray,” said the preacher. All the boys bowed their heads. During the prayer, one of the boys reached over and thumped Ned’s ear. He heard them laughing quietly. When the prayer was over and everybody was hurrying out of the classroom, the big boy got between Ned and the preacher and grabbed a handful of Ned’s shirt.

“Come on, peckerwood. Let’s go outside.”

“Ned. Can you come here a minute?”

It was Mr. Hutto. He was standing in the doorway of his office, looking right at Ned and his two tormentors. Ned looked up at the big boy, and he had a disgusted expression.

“You got lucky today, peckerwood,” the boy said in a low voice, turning Ned loose. “But I’ll be around.” He and his smaller companion slouched out of the classroom, their hands shoved in their pockets. dove

Ned walked over to Mr. Hutto. Mr. Hutto was watching the two other boys leave. Then he looked down at Ned.

“What have you got there, Ned?”

Ned ducked his head. He shrugged.

“Please, Ned. Let me see it.” Mr. Hutto held out his hand.

Ned dug in the pocket of his overalls and removed the carving. He put it in Mr. Hutto’s hand.

“Sorry, Mr. Hutto. I won’t carve in Bible class no more—”

“This is pretty good, Ned. How long have you been doing this kind of thing?”

Ned shrugged. Mr. Hutto didn’t say anything for a long time.

“Ned, I’ve been thinking about finding someone to start an art class. If I could, would you be interested in taking it?”

Ned looked up at him. “Yes, sir. I reckon.”

Mr. Hutto handed Ned the dove. “Here. You’ll want to finish it, I expect.”

“Yes, sir.” Ned stuck the wood back down in his pocket.

“I need to go out to Orchard Knob on some business. You want to ride home in my car?”

Ned shrugged, then nodded.

“Come on, then. Let’s go.”

*******

Dan Sutherland smelled a rat. It was nearly the middle of March and Zeb Douglas still hadn’t filed a response to the divorce complaint he’d been served in late January. Dan didn’t know what kind of law they practiced in Arkansas, but any fool with a shingle and half sense ought to know Zeb stood to lose big if he didn’t contest the issues.

He scribbled a note and hollered for his clerk.

“Louis, take this down to the telegraph office and have them send it right away. Oh, and here—” He took a twenty–dollar gold piece out of his vest pocket and handed it to the clerk. “Along with the note, cable as much as this’ll buy to the same recipient.”

Louis looked down at the note. “The Purvis fellow again?”

Dan nodded. “Hurry up, now. It’s getting toward evening and the Western Union office’ll be closed before too long.”

Louis went out, and a few seconds later Dan heard the front door open and close.

What might a man do if he was in the kind of pickle Zeb Douglas was in? Dan leaned back in his chair and reached into his humidor for a cigar. He didn’t light it, just rolled it around in his mouth while he stared at the ceiling. cigar

*******

Becky stared out the hotel window at the stand of scraggly yellow pines across the street. She hoped Zeb would remember to bring back the soda crackers she’d asked for. He’d sure been gone long enough, seemed like. But what else could she do except wait? Even if she felt like going out and hunting for him, she hadn’t learned enough about Texarkana to have any notion of where to start. And right now, the thought of standing up and walking around in the dust and noise of this tacky little town was almost enough to make her stomach turn inside out. In fact, nearly anything was enough to make her stomach turn inside out. She hoped this phase of the pregnancy would pass soon.

Waiting on Zeb. That was pretty much her life, ever since that night when she found him passed out drunk in his flat.

When he came to her house a few days later and smiled himself past Mother and Daddy, she already had a feeling what he was going to say. As they turned onto the street in front of the house, her hand on his arm, he told her he had two tickets bought. They could leave for Texas in three days’ time, he said. Nobody would have to know anything.

“What about your divorce?”

“I’ve got that all taken care of.”

Part of her wanted to press for details, and part of her didn’t care, as long as she had some choice besides staying in Little Rock and facing the shame of watching people’s faces as they found out the truth about her. Two rail tickets to somewhere else. Maybe it was better not to know. ticket.jpg

An elopement, Zeb had called it. More like a getaway, or a self–imposed exile.

She heard his step coming down the hallway. She turned away from the window just as his key rattled in the lock. The door swung open and there he stood, all smiles, one hand holding up a little white paper sack and the other hand behind his back.

“Hello, there, lovely lady. I brought you something.”

“Did you find some crackers?”

“Sure did.” He handed her the sack, then brought out the other hand.

“And one more thing.” It was a sheet of paper covered on one side with ornate printing. He laid it on the foot of the bed with a little flourish.

A marriage license.

“Well?”

He was grinning like a possum in the henhouse. Like he’d just handed her the key to a chest full of diamonds and rubies.

“Oh, Zeb, I—”

“You’re what? You’re ready to go hunt for the first justice of the peace we can find? Well, whenever you’re ready, we’ll just go and get this thing officialized.”

She looked at the license, then at him. One corner of his grin started to wilt just a little bit.

“Becky? You’re … you’re still my girl, aren’t you?”

She dragged out part of a smile from somewhere. She crossed the few steps to him and put her face against his chest. His arms went around her, and a moment later, hers went around him. embrace

She was happy. Wasn’t that what she was supposed to be feeling right now?

“Becky, it’ll be all right. You’ll see. Everything’s gonna be all right.”

Yes. Happy. That had to be it.

*******

Addie watched as Lou braided Mary Alice’s hair. The little girl sat perfectly still in her aunt’s lap, her eyes flickering around the room to see who might be noticing all the attention she was getting. Dub sat by the window, reading the newspaper. The boys were outside; Robert was trying to teach Ewell how to hit a baseball.

“Lunch sure was good, Lou,” Addie said, stretching her arm along the back of the settee. “Thank you again for having us.”

Lou made a dismissing sound. “Family’s family. You’re always welcome.”

“I was wondering—could you take me over to Brown’s Ferry sometime, to that lady who sold you my bedspread?”

“Mrs. Langfeld? Sure, I guess, if you want to.”

“I wonder if she’d show me how she does that tufted stitching. It doesn’t look too hard.”

Louisa gave Mary Alice’s braids a final tug and pat. “There you go, Miss Mary Alice. You look just like a little milkmaid now. Go play.”

Mary Alice slid down from Louisa’s lap. “I wanna see ‘em.” She dashed from the parlor and up the stairs toward the mirror on the second–floor landing. raids

“That girl’s as vain as a peacock,” Louisa said, smiling after her.

“Well, you’re not helping her any,” said Dub from behind the paper.

“Oh, you hush, Dub. Nobody rattled your chain.”

“She loves the attention,” Addie said.

“It’s mutual,” Dub said.

“What if we go to Mrs. Langfeld’s Tuesday?” Louisa asked, giving Dub the evil eye. “What time would you want to go?”

“Oh, doesn’t make me much difference, I don’t guess. Just not too early. It’s hard for me to get the kids ready much before nine.”

“Why don’t you just bring them here and let Lila watch them while we go? She gets here between eight–thirty and nine.”

“Well, but if Jake gets hungry—”

“Then we’ll bring him with us. Mary Alice can have the run of the house. Lila’s the sweetest, most agreeable thing you ever saw. Mary Alice’ll be fine till we get back. And then you and I can get caught up on things on the way there and back.”

“Lila? Isn’t that—”

“Mason’s Lila. Rose’s daughter–in–law.”

“You want me to have Jimmy pick you up?” Dub said.

“I guess,” Louisa said. “Brown’s Ferry’s a little too far to walk, and I just hate the streetcars.”

“I’ll have him come by your place first, Addie.”

“Thanks, Dub.”

*******

Bertie Langfeld didn’t look anything like Addie had imagined her. For some reason, Addie always thought of Germans as big people. But Bertie was a small, sharp–faced woman who looked at her with quick eyes and spoke in jerky sentences that almost sounded like barking.

“You want to see the tufting, jah? So. I’ll show you. But. Only this once. I got good business, jah? I don’t give no more free lessons.”

Stacked all around the room were bolts and bolts of cotton broadcloth of nearly every color Addie could imagine. Bertie gathered up a pile of cloth draped over a chair and seated herself.

“So. The design you trace, jah?

Addie could see the lines penciled on the broadcloth. She nodded. bolts

“You stitch in the design.” Bertie made several quick, precise stitches, leaving the thread in loops. Then she took up a pair of scissors and snipped a few inches along the line of stitching, severing the loops and leaving a neat row of wicking.

Bertie looked up at her. Addie nodded again. “Yes. I see.”

“So. You finish the design, you got a nice tufted bedspread. Some people they use thicker stuff for the rugs. But me. I do the bedspreads.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Langfeld.”

Bertie gave her a quick, tight–lipped nod. Her eyes flickered back and forth between Addie and Louisa, who stood quietly off to one side, gently bouncing Jake in her arms.

“I heard about what happened,” Bertie said. She shook her head. “Him running off on you like that. Bad thing. You pick out some cloth to take with you. To get started.”

“Oh, Mrs. Langfeld! I couldn’t.”

Jah. You take some cloth.” She laid aside her work and walked to one of the stacks of broadcloth. “This one. You take the peach. Get you some nice cream–colored thread. Make a nice bedspread. Very popular. So.” She thrust the bolt toward Addie.

Addie looked at Louisa, then back at Bertie. “Well, Mrs. Langfeld—”

“Bertie. Here.”

Addie took the cloth. “How can I ever thank you?”

Bertie’s shoulders twitched a shrug. “You got babies to feed. Go. Make a nice bedspread.”

They walked out onto the front porch. Jimmy was waiting in the Oldsmobile, his hand in the same position on the steering tiller it had been in when Addie and Louisa went inside. He saw them come out and leaned over to crank the engine.

“Thank you so much, Bertie,” Louisa said. “You’ve been so kind to my sister.”

“Yes, thank you,” Addie said. They went down the steps and reached the car just as the ignition caught. Jimmy rushed around to open the door for them.

“You have any trouble, you come back,” Bertie shouted over the din of the auto. “I maybe help you. Just a little more, jah?

*******

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 35

April 25, 2019

Addie drew her head back slowly, slowly, until she could look into Jake’s face. His eyes were closed, and he breathed in soft, sudden puffs. She stood as gingerly as she could and carried him to the bed, careful to step over the squeaking board in the doorway. She reached the side of the bed and leaned over with him, so gradually that the muscles in her back started to complain. She got him onto the mattress and pulled her arm from beneath him, watching his face for any sign of disturbance. Just as she pulled her hand from beneath him, he gave a little whimper. She froze. His eyes never opened. She covered him with the Dutch doll quilt and tiptoed from the room. baby

Finally. Jake had been cranky all morning, needing her every second. And naturally, Mary Alice had seen to it that Mama’s attention had to be divided. After a meager lunch of toast and milk, she’d made Mary Alice go to her bed for a nap. But only after nearly two hours of alternated rocking and walking had she been able to get Jake to sleep.

Addie felt like lying down herself. But she was afraid if she stopped moving or doing, she’d fall down in a hole so deep she’d never climb out again. It was hard today; the sadness was on her like a lead–lined overcoat.

She went to the window and pulled aside the curtain. The winter sunlight lay thin on the late afternoon. She let the curtain fall back in place and looked around the parlor. Her eye fell on the Bible her Epworth League class had given her as a wedding gift. It lay on a side table at the end of the horsehair sofa. She went over to the table and picked up the Bible. The binding was still stiff, almost like new. She carried it to the armchair near the window. She sat down and put the Bible on her lap. She thought about trying to pray but decided she lacked the strength to wrestle with the Almighty.

She opened the Bible, spreading the pages out from the center, handling them like fine linen.

 

And Jeremiah said, The word of the LORD came unto me,

saying, Behold, Hanameel the son of Shallum thine uncle shall

come unto thee, saying, Buy thee my field that is in Anathoth:

for the right of redemption is thine to buy it. So Hanameel mine

uncle’s son came to me in the court of the prison according to the

word of the LORD, and said unto me, Buy my field, I pray thee,

that is in Anathoth, which is in the country of Benjamin: for

the right of inheritance is thine, and the redemption is thine;

buy it for thyself. Then I knew that this was the word of the

LORD. And I bought the field of Hanameel my uncle’s son, that

was in Anathoth, and weighed him the money, even seventeen

shekels of silver …

 

Her eyes drifted on down the page. She read God’s promise to the imprisoned prophet: his real estate investment was to be a sign that even though Babylon was about to destroy Jerusalem and enslave her people, houses and lands would again one day be bought and sold in Judah. But it sounded like that day was on the far side of a lot of suffering and trouble. bible

Addie leaned her head on the back of the chair. She didn’t want Zeb’s money, not really. Come to think of it, he didn’t have anything she wanted. She wanted to be completely free of him. Maybe she didn’t want to leave him with any excuse, any way to take credit for whatever she might do or make of herself. Her children had his name; that was enough. It was more than you could say for the poor child being carried by his paramour.

She guessed she needed to tell Dan Sutherland. As far as she knew, the lawyer was still planning to get everything he could from Zeb. No point in that, as far as she could see.

Of course, that also meant she’d have to do something about her own support that much sooner. The little bit of money Junior had loaned her was about to run out, and she strictly did not want to live off her brothers and sister, however willing they might be to help out.

She pushed herself up out of the chair. Dropping the Bible onto the side table, she wandered back through the house. She arrived at the door to her bedroom. She hadn’t even made up her bed today; the sheets and quilts still lay tangled up, just as she’d crawled out of them this morning. She could see the edge of her new bedspread, draped haphazardly along one side of the bed.

Addie went over to the bed and picked up a corner of the spread. She ran her thumb along the line of the tufting, then bunched the material in her hand. Didn’t seem to be all that much to it. Maybe she ought to go out and talk to the old German woman at Brown’s Ferry, see if she ever needed any piecework. quilt

Orange light slanted through the windows. Nearly sunset. Part of her wanted to just let Mary Alice sleep, wanted to go and sit in the parlor and let the house fall dark around her and do pretty close to nothing for as long as she could. But she guessed she’d better try and find something to feed the child, or she’d wake up hungry and scared and twice as hard to manage as before her nap.

Her steps sounded dry and insubstantial, creaking on the floorboards as she walked back toward the kitchen.

*******

Becky smelled him before she saw him. He’d slid off one side of his bed, it looked like; he was crumpled between the bed and the wall. The front of his clothes was sodden, she guessed with his own vomit.

“Lord, help us all,” she said. “Is this what we’ve come to?”

One of his eyes tried to open but couldn’t. “Becky. Oughtta not use … Lord’s name in vain.”

“Oh, is that what you thought I was doing? No, Zeb, I believe that was about as sincere a prayer as I’ve ever said.” She tossed the divorce bill onto his chest and stood over him with her arms crossed.

He fumbled for the papers a second or two before he could grasp them. He held them up and tried to look at them. His head lolled back and he moaned. The arm holding the papers fell limply to one side. “How’d you get hold of this?”

“You’d better not worry about that. That’s the least of your problems, don’t you think?”

“Becky—”

“Zeb, how could you! You lied to me—and to your wife, too, looks like. If my father knew—”

“No! Now, Becky …” He struggled, then pulled himself into a sitting position. He grimaced and grabbed his forehead, like he was afraid it might come off. “Becky, what good’s it gonna do for you to tell Pete?”

“I’m not sure it’ll do any good,” she said. “But if it got you a good horsewhipping, it might be worth it anyway. If I could see that before he turned me out of the house—” The rest of it lodged in her throat. Then the sobs built up enough force to break the jam. She sank down on the foot of the bed and held her face in her hands, and the desolation poured out of her in a sour–tasting flood. “Oh, God. Please, God, help me.” sobbing

In a little while, he got himself onto his feet. Holding on to the wall, he made his way to the washstand. He splashed some water on his face and wiped it on his sleeve. He weaved back toward her and sat heavily on the bed beside her. He tried to take her hand, but she pulled it away.

“I’m not in the habit of holding hands with somebody who smells like puke.”

“Becky, now listen to me. I’ve … I’m sorry. I never meant for you to find out this way.”

“Oh. When were you planning to let me know?”

He kneaded his forehead. “I don’t deserve anything from you but a cussing, I guess.”

She got up and walked across the room, hugging herself. “Zeb, what in the world am I going to do? I’m carrying your child, and that’s bad enough, but I let myself go too far because I loved you, and I thought you loved me. And now I find out—”

“I do! Becky, I do love you, that’s what I want to say. I love you, and … and we’ll work this out. I’ll stand by you, Becky. I will.”

She turned and looked at him. “Like you stood by your wife?”

For awhile he just sat there, staring at the floor. “Becky, I’ve made some bad mistakes. I’ve done some wrong things.” He looked at her. “But loving you wasn’t one of them. Addie, she—”

“That’s her name?”

“She never saw me the way you see me. She never could.” He stood, and for a second, she thought he was going to topple. But he balanced himself, then came toward her. He put out a hand, and for some reason she didn’t understand, she took it.

“Becky, I just need some time to think. There’s a way out of this, I know it. I just have to figure out what it is. I promise, I won’t leave you. I couldn’t.”

She looked at her hand in his. Then she looked into his face. “Well, you better get to thinking, Mr. Douglas. I’m nearly two and a half months gone, and before long I won’t be able to keep our little secret anymore. So you’d best come up with something good, and do it mighty soon.” She pulled her hand from his and walked to the door. “I’ll be waiting to hear,” she said, and then she left.

*******

Mary Alice was squirming again. She wanted to lay her head in Addie’s lap. So, for at least the third time that morning, Addie peeled back her bonnet and Mary Alice lay down. The heels of her shoes clamped loudly on the pew as she stretched her legs.

Then Jake began to fret. He couldn’t be hungry; she’d fed him just before the service started. She jogged him up and down and tried to get him to take the fooler in his mouth, but he just spat it out every time she plugged it in. She blew little puffs of air in his face. That distracted him for a minute; he blinked and tried to see where the strange sensation was coming from.

It was hard to pay any attention at all to J. D.’s sermon, though she was trying. He’d employed a chart today, a tattered sheet tacked onto the wall behind the pulpit. J. D. had his main points daubed onto it with tempera paint. He couldn’t talk his wife out of one of her good sheets, Addie guessed, even if it was for the Lord’s work. cross

There was a big red cross painted in the middle of the sheet, representing the cross of Christ. On the left side of the cross were the laws of the Jews, the Old Covenant; and on the right side, the laws of the Church, the New Covenant. It would have been a tedious enough sermon even without the two children to entertain. J. D. cited two or three Scriptures for every law on both sides of the cross. His main point was supposed to be the superiority of the New Covenant over the Old, but Addie was about to get to the place where she’d vote for either one if it would help J. D. to finish what he had to say and let her take herself and these children home.

“Well, brethren, the Lord’s established his New Covenant kingdom, and he’s set its laws in place. They’re good laws, laws meant for our protection. But before we can get the benefit of those laws, we’ve first got to enter that kingdom.

“We’ve got to hear the word and believe it, for faith cometh by hearing—Romans ten, seventeen. We’ve got to repent of our sins and our former ways of life, and confess the name of Jesus before men, for with the mouth confession is made—Romans ten and verse ten. And brethren, we must be baptized for the remission of our sins, ‘For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ’—Galatians three, twenty–seven.”

Getting close to the end for sure, now. As best Addie could tell, there wasn’t a single person in the room old enough to make sense of J. D.’s words who wasn’t already a baptized member of Post Oak Hollow Church. But he had to give his altar call, just the same. You never knew, an unbaptized sinner might’ve slipped in the back door without him knowing it.

The congregation stood to sing the final hymn. Addie roused Mary Alice and got the bonnet back in place, after a fashion. She bounced Jake on her hip until the final chorus slid to a halt and the crowd started to disperse. bonnet

“Good to see you, Addie.”

“Morning, Sister Clay. Good to see you too.”

“That little one there is just growin’ up a storm, isn’t he?”

“Fussing up a storm, anyway.”

Sister Clay grinned and wiggled a forefinger at Jake, who twisted his face away as if he’d been insulted. The old woman patted Mary Alice on the head and gave Addie a final look before moving away down the aisle toward the back door.

That last look was what Addie dreaded—the pitying, pious look. Poor woman, raising those two precious children without a daddy … She knew the thought came from a good place, a well–meaning place. But it was also a constant reminder of things she wished she didn’t have to think about. Things they all knew, too, but would never speak of. Not to her, at least.

The back door was open now. Addie bundled the blankets tighter around Jake and checked to make sure Mary Alice’s coat was buttoned all the way up. She shuffled along the aisle, balancing Jake on her hip with one hand and holding onto Mary Alice with the other.

“Mama, we go Aunt Lou’s?”

“No, honey, not today.”

“Aunt Lou’s.” Mary Alice whimpered. “Go Aunt Lou’s.”

“Sweetheart, not today.”

“Why not?”

“Just because.”

“Go Aunt Lou’s.”

“No.”

Lou and Dub and their boys would be leaving Centenary Methodist about now. They’d visit with the people Addie had known all her life, they’d speak a complimentary word about the sermon to Rev. Stiller at the back door. They’d walk down the tall flight of concrete steps to the sidewalk and have a nice stroll along Georgia Avenue until they came to their street. They’d go in the house and smell the roast or whatever else Lou had baking in the oven for their Sunday dinner.

Every now and then, Addie wondered why she kept on coming out to this dingy little whitewashed clapboard building in the middle of nowhere, Sunday after Sunday, where the people knew her only as the woman Zeb Douglas had left—if they even knew that much about her. Dub and Lou would gladly come out to the house and pick her up. They’d take her and the children with them to church in the lovely old building downtown, then to their house for a delicious lunch Addie wouldn’t have to cook. There would be other sets of arms to hold children, cousins to distract them, a fire already laid in the hearth.

But something reared up stubborn inside her every time she thought about it. Going back to the Methodist church seemed to her like just one more way of admitting she’d been wrong about everything all her life. Well, Zeb’s not around to tell her what to think anymore, so maybe now she’ll come back where she belonged in the first place … It was too easy, somehow—too expected. She wouldn’t let her weight down on it.

And would things really be much different at Centenary Methodist? Wouldn’t she get the same pitying looks? Wouldn’t the same tut–tuts be whispered behind her back? She released Mary Alice’s hand, so she could mind her skirts going down the outside steps.

“Sister Addie, we’re ready whenever you are,” Dink Gilliam said as she turned to help Mary Alice down the steps. His wife and four children were already in the buckboard. Addie was glad; as cool as it was, she hadn’t relished the thought of standing in the churchyard making conversation until her ride was ready to leave.

She handed Jake up to Dink’s oldest daughter and took his hand to make the step up into the wagon. Dink lifted Mary Alice up to her. He climbed in on the other side and the springs complained loudly. “Get up,” he said, and his jug–headed bay leaned into the traces.

“Nice weather, for February,” Maud Gilliam said awhile later as they clattered over the Cellico Creek bridge. Addie smiled and nodded.

“Mama, look at him. He’s smilin’ at me,” said the daughter who was holding Jake. Addie hated to tell her it was probably just a gas spasm. babygas

“Brother J. D. sure had a good lesson today,” Maud said.

Addie nodded again. She hoped Maud didn’t ask her opinion; she was too brain–tired to be up to the polite fib she’d have to tell.

“Mama, ‘s go Aunt Lou’s,” Mary Alice said, jouncing along in the bed of the buckboard between Addie’s knees.

“No, honey. I already told you.”

“You mind your mother, sugar,” said Maud, giving Mary Alice a fond, admonishing look. “You want to be a sweet little girl, don’t you?”

Mary Alice looked at Maud as if she’d just suggested asparagus for dessert.

“I got me one of those new turfed bedspreads,” Maud said. “Have you seen ‘em?”

Addie shook her head, confused. “Turfed?”

“Yeah, you know—a row of turfing on a smooth background.” Maud gestured in loops and circles.

Tufted, Addie guessed. “Oh, yes, I got one for Christmas from my sister.”

Maud looked a little disappointed. “I found it up by Brown’s Ferry.”

“The German woman?”

Maud nodded. “Land, she’s sure got the business. The day I was there, they was two in line ahead of me and more comin’ behind. These turfed spreads are all the fashion nowadays. Wished I’d of thought it up.”

“I guess so. I sure like mine.”

“Me too.”

Addie was relieved to see her lane coming up. Dink hauled up in front of her porch and got off to help them down. He set Mary Alice on the ground and handed Addie down. She turned and took Jake from the daughter.

“I wish I could keep him all the time. He’s so sweet,” the girl said.

Addie smiled up at her. “You’d get tired of him pretty quick, honey.”

“But he’s so sweet.”

“Well. Thanks for holding him.”

“Need me to do anything ‘fore we leave, Sister Addie?”

“No, thank you, Dink. We’re fine.”

Dink climbed back in the wagon. He slapped the reins lightly on the bay’s rump, and they trundled off. “Come home with us some Sunday; I’ll show you my bedspread,” Maud called as they pulled away.

Addie smiled and nodded. She waved, then turned toward the house. “Come on, Mary Alice, let’s get inside. It’s cool out.”

*******

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 34

April 19, 2019

A basketball bounced against George’s shins as he walked across the south end of the gymnasium. He picked it up and tossed it back to the boy who had been chasing it.

“Sorry, Mr. Hutto.” basketball

“That’s all right, Tim.” George watched as little Tim Dobbins dribbled back across the crowded floor, dodging through the calisthenics class toward the game in progress under the single goal on the north wall. Ever since that team from the Buffalo YMCA had played an exhibition game here just before Christmas, the boys had been wild about the new game from up north. They’d nearly warted him to death until he got the goal installed and some balls bought. He needed to find some volunteers to start a league, he guessed.

A Bible class was in session in the meeting room. George stepped inside quickly and closed the door against the noise of the gym. A few of the boys looked up at him as he stepped quietly along the back of the room toward the office. He slipped out his watch. Rev. Stiller was running over time, as usual. Some of the younger boys in the back were swinging their legs and staring at the ceiling. George wondered if he ought to give that young Baptist preacher a try for the next class. He’d heard the man held the view that a sermon should be strictly limited to an hour’s length. Maybe he’d know how to liven things up a little for the boys.

George stepped into the office and sat behind the desk. The last stack of receipts still sat where he’d left it yesterday at lunchtime. He sighed. He needed to work down here full time, it seemed, to keep up with all the paperwork. But it wouldn’t do the club any good for him to let his business die for lack of attention, either.

He heard the noise of the Bible class breaking up. He needed to say something to Rev. Stiller, but he had to get these receipts signed and posted to the donors. His door opened. He looked up, and there stood Ned Overby with a rough–looking character that could only be his father.

“You Mister Hutto?” the man said.

George stood and held out his hand. “Yes, I’m George Hutto.”

The man wiped his hand on his pants leg and shook George’s hand. “Overby. Perlie Overby. Ned here says you know each other.”

“Ah, yes. Hello there, Ned. I was pretty lost one day out close to your place, and Ned got me back on the right track.”

“Well, he knows the country pretty good, I reckon. Anyhow, Ned told me about this here club. Says there’s book reading, and such.”

“Yes, we’ve got several classes of various kinds.” The pungent smell of Ned and his father—a mixture of bacon grease, tobacco, and body odor—was rapidly filling the small office. George stepped from behind the desk and held open the door. “Can I show you around?”

“That’d be fine, I reckon,” Perlie said. “All right with you, boy?”

Ned shrugged and nodded.

George walked across the meeting room. “The Saturday boys’ Bible class just left. Maybe you saw them as you came in.” He opened the door to the gymnasium. “And out here we’ve got all kinds of exercise classes: calisthenics, weights, boxing—”

“Yeah, a boy needs to know how to take care of hisself, that’s for sure.”

“And Mr. Allen from the Carnegie Library comes over once a week to teach literature and loan books to the boys.”

“Ned can read pretty good, can’t you, boy? Now, uh, Mr. Hutto, I just wanna make sure of somethin’. We ain’t got much in the way a money—”

“Oh, no, Mr. Overby. Some of the boys pay dues, but the YMCA doesn’t exclude any boy on the basis of payment.”

“Ned said it didn’t cost nobody nothin’.” Perlie’s eyes flickered darkly toward his son. “Didn’t you say so, boy? Now, we ain’t interested in no charity.”

Ned looked back and forth from his father to George. shabby

“Of course not,” George said, trying to think of something. “We’ve … we’ve got lots of jobs that need to be done around here, and I’d expect Ned to help out with his share, just like the others.”

Perlie scratched his beard. It made a coarse, grating sound. “Well, then, in that case … I think he’s pretty set on it, if you’ll have him.”

Ned was looking up at George. It was the first time George had ever been able to tell the boy really wanted something.

“I’d be especially happy for Ned to be here, if he wants to be.”

Perlie looked at his son for a long time. “I guess that settles it, then. When can he come?”

“Why, he can stay here today, if you like. I can even bring him home.”

“No, now, I’d hate to put you out like that. His two good legs got him here; they can take him home.”

“No trouble at all. I’ve got another boy that lives out past Orchard Knob, and I can drop Ned off along the way.”

“All right, then. Ned, boy, you pay attention to what Mr. Hutto says, you hear? You mind.”

Ned nodded. George could see, even through the grime, the flush of excitement in the boy’s cheeks.

He walked to the door with Ned and his father and waved Perlie on his way. When he closed the door and turned around, several of the boys were looking at Ned. They stared until they noticed George watching them, then they quickly went back to what they were doing.

*******

Dan Sutherland looked at the telegram and shook his head. He looked at it again and rubbed his temples. There it was, plain as Western Union could make it. He ought to be pleased, or at least satisfied for his client. He’d hired out to protect Addie Douglas’s interests, after all.

But he wasn’t pleased and he wasn’t satisfied. He was put out, was what he was, put out with the whole sorry world. This Douglas boy had seemed like a decent enough fellow. And Addie was dead–set enough on him to go up against her bullheaded Methodist of a father. Even without her father’s approval, two young people could have made a worse start. And now this.

What went wrong? Something always did, seemed like. Churchgoing people or not, moneyed or not, town folks or country, people just had a hard time not treating each other poorly if you gave them enough time and chances. And you never knew, that was the thing. What started fair ended up foul; what started with love and promises ended up in spite and lies. People fooled you. Fooled themselves, most likely. He’d seen it often enough, he ought to be used to it by now. But he wasn’t.

Dan folded the telegram and tucked it into his breastpocket. He went to the chair in the corner and got his hat. “Louis, I’ll be out for awhile,” he said as he passed the clerk’s desk. “Ring up the livery and tell ‘em to get my sulky hitched up.” He paused in the doorway. “Oh, and draw up a check for three hundred dollars, payable to Albert Purvis of Little Rock, Arkansas. In the memorandum, put ‘final payment.’ I’ll sign it when I get back.”

*******

Addie stared at the words on the yellow Western Union sheet. She thought she’d been prepared for this; for weeks now she’d imagined herself sitting at this table or at Mr. Sutherland’s desk, hearing news like this. She’d imagined herself crying or shouting or angry. But she’d never imagined what she felt now, with the proof in front of her. It was as if she sat at one end of a huge, long room, and Mr. Sutherland was at the other. She stared at the words until they blurred, but all she felt was a cold, hard void. telegram

 

LITTLE ROCK JANUARY 17 1904

DAN SUTHERLAND, ATTORNEY

CONFIRM SUBJ Z DOUGLAS CONSORTING WITH

WOMAN HERE STOP CAN PROVIDE TIMES AND

PLACES IF NEEDED STOP REASON TO BELIEVE SHE

IS WITH CHILD STOP

SEND USUAL AMT STOP PURVIS

 

“Addie.”

She blinked and looked up at him.

“Addie, I’m sure sorry to be having to bring this to you. But you had to know. For sure.”

“Yes, sir, I— With child?”

“Yes, I’m afraid so.”

“Who is this Purvis person?”

“That doesn’t matter, Addie. He’s just a man who finds out things for me sometimes.”

She nodded. She swallowed, then brushed back a stray lock of hair. She looked around. “Jake … where’s … I’d better—”

“Addie, now listen to me. We’re going to have to sue him on the grounds of adultery. He’ll be found at fault. And the way the laws read—here in Tennessee, anyway—he won’t be allowed to marry this woman as long as you’re alive. I don’t know for sure what they’d do about it in Arkansas.” pregnant

“Not marry?”

“That’s right.”

Addie thought about that for a minute, and then she was thinking about this other woman who was—who might be—carrying Zeb’s child. Once he was divorced, he was banned from marrying her? She hadn’t known that. But then, she hadn’t spent much time thinking about the legalities of divorce. Not until Zeb informed her of his intentions, anyway.

Then she started to be surprised at herself for being able to form such sensible thoughts at all. Why, she might be a judge herself! What if Zeb had to come before her bench, plead his case in her court? What would he say? Would he apologize? Beg for clemency? Or would he list her sins against him, the ways she had driven him to this other woman’s arms? No one thought of himself as truly wicked, did he? Surely Zeb had reasons that seemed fair in his own mind. What case would he present?

She realized Dan was saying something. He was looking at her strangely. “Addie, I need your approval to go ahead with this.”

“My approval?”

“Yes. You have to have what the law calls ‘a nearest friend.’ A man to act on your behalf.”

“Oh, of course.”

“Might as well be me, I figure.”

“Yes.”

“All right, then.” Mr. Sutherland got up from the table. “I’ll be on my way. Need to get the papers drawn up.” He turned his hat in his hands and gave her a studying look. “Addie, I’m real sorry about this. I’d sure never wish any of this on anybody.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you.”

“You want me to send for Junior? Or your sister?”

“Oh, well … yes, I guess that’d be nice.”

He gave her one more long look. He put on his hat. He leaned over and took back the telegram. “I’ll need this for evidence. You sure you’re all right?”

“I’m— Yes.”

He touched his hat brim. “Good day, then, Addie. I’ll be in contact with you soon.”

“Thank you, Mr. Sutherland.”

“Now, I told you—”

“Oh, yes—Dan. Thank you, Dan.”

“That’s better.”

*******

Zeb walked into the agency and saw the man at Abner’s desk. Abner looked up. “Well, speak of the devil. Zeb, somebody here to see you.”

The man swiveled around. He held a light brown derby in one hand and a thick–looking envelope in the other. “You Zeb Douglas?” he asked. seal

“Yes. I don’t believe I caught your name?”

Zeb stuck out his hand, and the man slapped the envelope into it.

“Legal papers, Mr. Douglas.” He stood, put on his derby, and quickly walked out the door.

Abner stared after him for a few seconds, then looked at Zeb.

“What in thunder was that all about?”

Zeb looked at the envelope. There was no writing of any kind on the outside. He thumbed open his pocketknife and slid the blade under the flap. The first thing he saw on the sheaf of papers as he unfolded it was the seal of the State of Tennessee. The next thing he saw was the large, ornate printing across the top: “Bill of Divorce.”

“Zeb? You all right?”

“Oh, I … yeah, Ab, I’m fine. I just …”

He wandered back toward his desk, his hat still on his head, his coat still buttoned. He sat down. His eyes swept back and forth across the close printing. There were blank lines in the document, and someone had penned, in a very neat hand, the words “D. L. Sutherland as nearest friend of the plaintiff, Adelaide Caswell Douglas.” The same careful scribe had written Zeb’s name in the blank reserved for “defendant.” Zebediah Acton Douglas. He hadn’t seen his full name written out like that since the announcement of their engagement was printed in the Chattanooga paper.

“… sues on the aforenamed plaintiff’s behalf for the cause of adulteries committed by the aforenamed defendant …”

Zeb had a sudden image of the man with the old black derby. What had he seen? Zeb clenched his jaw, trying to think what kind of scum would take money to spy on another man’s private business. What had been relayed to Chattanooga to be pawed over by some lawyer? Zeb wanted to punch the derby man in the face. He wanted to make somebody pay, right now. This wasn’t supposed to be the way it happened.

What in the world was he going to tell Becky? derby

He had to get out; he needed to think. He shoved the papers in the bottom drawer of his desk, all the way to the back. He pushed himself away from the desk and strode toward the door. He was vaguely aware of Abner’s upturned, surprised face, and then he was outside.

He walked quickly, his arms swinging. He didn’t know where he was going, and he didn’t care. A horse pulling a dray down Cumberland Avenue shied and splashed water on him, and he barely noticed. He walked until he came to the railroad tracks fronting the river bluff, and he turned west. The wind hit him in the face and made his eyes water.

He came to the crossing of Water Street and North Ringo Avenue. He could see the trestles of the railroad bridge across the Arkansas River. His breath was coming harder now, and he was walking slower. He needed to stop somewhere. There was a small, mean–looking saloon on the northwest corner. The faded sign over the door named it “The Golden Horseshoe.” He’d never been in a saloon in his life, but now seemed like a good enough time to start.

The first thing he noticed inside was the quiet, and that surprised him; he’d always imagined saloons as noisy. When his eyes had adjusted to the semidarkness, he saw an empty stool next to the plank bar. He straddled it and propped his hat on one knee.

“What’ll you have?”

What does a man order in a saloon, anyway? “Beer,” Zeb said.

The barkeep turned around and did something, then swung back and clumped a heavy glass mug onto the bar in front of him. Some of the beer slopped out and ran down the side of the mug. Zeb looked at the drink. It didn’t look the way he’d generally heard beer described; it had a meager layer of suds on top, like dirty dishwater. He picked up the mug and took a tiny sip. The taste was bitter; he wrinkled his face but swallowed it anyway.

The barkeep was staring at him. “That’ll be a nickel.”

Zeb fished a five–cent piece out of his pocket and flipped it on the bar. It vanished under the barkeep’s grubby fist.

Well I’ve paid for it; might as well drink it. He picked up the mug and took a half dozen large swallows, trying not to taste, just get it down. He set down the mug and took a couple of deep breaths, then turned it up again until he’d drained it. saloon

A thought flew through Zeb’s head, a memory of his father. Daddy would’ve never set foot in a place like this. But then, Daddy wouldn’t have gotten himself in such a mess, either. Zeb waggled the mug at the barkeep and dug out another nickel.

What was he supposed to do? Zeb guessed he’d need to talk to a lawyer. But did it matter? Once the divorce was done, he’d be shut of Addie, and good riddance. This whole thing was his idea to begin with, wasn’t it? He was getting what he wanted, in a manner of speaking. He might just let her have her day, if that was what she wanted. Not even give her the satisfaction of darkening the courthouse door.

But … were there penalties for not showing up? What could they do to him if he didn’t defend himself? Yes, he needed a lawyer.

One that didn’t know Pete Norwich, preferably.

He was starting to feel a slight teetering sensation, somewhere in the center of his skull. It wasn’t unpleasant, to tell the truth. He was sitting in a saloon drinking a beer and holding his problems out at arm’s length, where he could see them. That’s all it was—a problem. He’d solved problems before. He took two large gulps of beer and slapped another nickel on the bar.

*******

Abner glanced up from his paperwork and saw her just as she stepped onto the boardwalk in front of the agency doorway. He had a quick thought of hiding but realized she was already too close; he’d never make it. He bent to his work and waited for her to come in, feeling a little bit like a condemned man listening for the step of his final escort. The door jangled. He met her with the best smile he could gather up.

“Afternoon, Miss Norwich.”

“Good afternoon, Abner. Where’s Mr. Douglas?”

“Well, now, I don’t know, just exactly. He left outta here about an hour and a half ago, I guess, but he didn’t say where he was going.”

That didn’t set well, it was easy to see. She had a light blue parasol in her right hand, and she was staring real hard at Zeb’s desk and tapping that parasol across the heel of her left palm. Abner didn’t think he wanted to know what she might do with that parasol if she had Zeb here right about now.

“Didn’t say where he was going?”

“No, Miss, he sure didn’t.” She’d dropped all notions of smiling by now. Abner devoutly wished he was somewhere else.

“There’s his valise, on the floor beside his desk. He didn’t take it with him?”

“No, Miss Norwich, I guess he didn’t.” valise

“So he wasn’t going out on business. Did he take anything with him?”

“No, not a thing. Except his hat and coat. And he—” Abner had a sudden desire to bite his own tongue.

“And he what?” The question came out quick, like a hen pecking at a june bug. She was looking at him now, and it wasn’t a friendly look.

“Aw, nothing, really, Miss Norwich.”

‘‘And. He. What?”

“And … he’d just come in a minute or two before he left, so he never even took them off. His hat and coat, I mean.”

She got a white, pinched–looking place around her lips. “Abner, did Mr. Douglas do or say anything else before he left?”

Keeping his eyes on the parasol, Abner said, “Yes, I guess—I guess there was one other thing. He … he looked at some papers right before he left.”

“Papers?”

*******

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.

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 33

April 11, 2019

Zeb had never spent a more miserable Christmas in his life.

He went to Becky’s house, of course, on Christmas Day. How could he refuse? In the state she was in, there was no telling what she’d do or say if he didn’t agree to whatever she proposed. He arrived at the Norwich’s door bright and early, wrapped parcels in hand. Pete answered the door with a hearty “Merry Christmas,” and Zeb breathed a little easier. He’d half expected to be staring down the muzzle of a double–barreled shotgun.

He went inside. Becky’s mother bustled around the table, setting out china and crystal. She gave him a big smile.

“Hello, Zeb! Merry Christmas!”

“Merry Christmas to you, Mrs. Norwich. Here.” He held out one of the presents.

“Oh, honey, would you mind just taking it into the parlor and putting it under the tree? I’m trying to get the table set right quick before we open presents.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Well another hurdle cleared, he thought. No problem there, evidently.

He set the presents under the tree and removed his coat and hat. He hung them on pegs in the entryway and went back into the parlor. At the same time, Becky came into the parlor from the kitchen entrance carrying a double handful of punch cups. When she saw him, she hesitated—so slightly that he might not have seen it if he hadn’t been looking for it—then gave him a wide smile. punch

“Merry Christmas,” she said. She arranged the cups around a porcelain punch bowl resting on a side table, then came and took his hands.

“Merry Christmas, yourself,” he said. He leaned toward her. She backed away, laughing.

“Zeb, not here! What’ll Mother and Daddy think?”

What, indeed? “Sorry,” he said.

“Come into the kitchen and help me for a minute,” Becky said, pulling him after her.

He went in. Becky handed him a fistful of silver forks and a polish cloth and told him to get busy. Mrs. Norwich hurried in and out, taking platters and plates and saucers to the dining room. She and Becky kept up a constant barrage of comments about what needed to be done next for the table setting, the turkey browning in the oven, the various pots and pans bubbling and steaming on the stove. You’d have guessed they were fixing to entertain the governor and his cabinet, Zeb thought.

You’d have also guessed Becky had absolutely nothing on her mind but the preparations for the Christmas meal. He watched her, waiting for a hastily wiped tear; a trembling lip; a long, unfocused glance—something to betray her state of mind about her … inconvenience.

But it wasn’t there. It just wasn’t. As far as Zeb could see, she was the perfect hostess, completely intent on enjoying the perfect Christmas dinner with her perfect beau and her perfect parents. She clearly hadn’t said anything to either of them. And right now, it looked like she’d figured out a way to keep the secret even from herself.

At first, Zeb was relieved. They all went into the parlor and passed around the presents. They took turns opening their parcels. Becky and Ruth exclaimed over each prize, and Zeb and Pete traded wry comments. When Becky unwrapped the matching parasol and bonnet Zeb had found for her at Simpson’s, both she and her mother squealed with delight. It was her ideal color, of course: a pale blue that just set off her hair, eyes, and complexion. parasol

“Now if you’d of just thought to buy a few days of sunshine for her to try out that getup,” Pete said.

Becky had gotten Zeb a new valise for work. He grinned and held it up.

“Mr. Norwich, there’s a pocket in here for that new policy I’m gonna sell you.” Pete made a disgusted noise and shook his head.

But after awhile, Zeb felt his enthusiasm ebbing. The more Pete grinned and laughed and joked, the more Becky and Ruth took on over everything, the worse he felt. Maybe they really knew, after all. Maybe, in a little while when he was relaxed and unsuspecting, the three of them were going to close in on him and … do something drastic. Maybe all this Merry Christmasing was a cover for the coming ambush.

By the time the meal was over, Zeb thought he was about to have a running fit. He felt like he was standing in the far corner of the room watching the wooden smile on his own face and listening to the lame words coming from his mouth. It was as if he were pointing at himself and hollering, “Liar! Humbug! Scoundrel!” The voice in his head was so loud he was surprised they couldn’t hear it.

As they finished their pecan pie and coffee, Becky’s mother said, “Becky, why don’t you let me clean this up? Zeb looks like he could use a walk.”

Zeb looked at her, but he couldn’t detect anything in her face but good humor. He hoped his smile disguised his clenched jaw.

“Well, I can see to myself, Mrs. Norwich. I’ll wait for Becky—”

“No, you two go on. If I get in too deep, I’ll make Pete help me.”

“Now, wait a minute here—”

“Oh, Pete, you hush. Go on, now. Shoo.”

They walked nearly half a mile before either of them said anything. Finally, Becky said, “How you doing?” snowy

He gave a tight little laugh that hurt his throat.

“Seems like I ought to be asking you that.”

They took a few more paces. They both had their hands shoved deep in their coat pockets, their faces locked straight ahead.

“Well?” she said.

“Well what?”

“Why don’t you?”

“Why don’t I what?”

“Why don’t you ask me how I’m doing?” Her voice was rigid. She sounded like somebody hauling on the reins of a horse about to bolt.

“All right, then. How are you doing?”

The sniffles started then, quickly followed by the long, quavering breaths.

“Oh, Zeb. How in the world should I know?”

After a minute he realized his jaw ached from clenching. He took a deep, slow breath.

“Looked like you were doing pretty well back there, with your folks.”

“Well, of course. You think I can afford to let them see how I really feel?”

“No, I guess not. I just— It surprised me, I guess, that’s all.”

“Zeb, what are we going to do?”

There it was. He’d known it was coming, but still he chewed it back and forth, trying to pin down some words to put beside it, something that had a chance to seem right to her and to him at the same time.

He looked back over his shoulder at the capitol dome, dull white against the dull gray overcast. He wondered what it would feel like to be able to just launch yourself toward it, like a bird. Just jump up and keep on going and going, the wind rushing past your face and the ground dropping away.

You could forget how to fly, though, maybe. You could get fifty, a hundred feet off the ground and then the knowledge of how you got there could just leave you as quickly as it came. That was the trouble with flying, he guessed. You might forget, but the ground didn’t. flying

“Becky … I—”

“Don’t.”

Now he stopped walking. His face swung around to look at her. “Don’t what?”

“Don’t say it. Not now. Not like this. I don’t want it this way.”

“What did you—”

“It’s cold. Let’s go back.”

And she turned around, just like that, and started walking back the way they’d come. He could either stand and watch her go or hurry and catch up with her. She walked, without slowing, without a backward glance. Just walked like someone who had someplace to get to and was in a hurry to do it, and he could either come on, or go somewhere else, or stand out in the weather; she didn’t care which.

*******

“What you doing there, boy? Lemme see.”

“Nothing.”

Ned quickly shoved the wood in his pocket and folded the Barlow. He hadn’t heard his paw coming up behind him. That was why he liked to sit out behind the woodpile; it was usually private.

“Whadda you mean, boy? Take that nothin’ outta your pocket and lemme see it.”

Ned dug out the pine block. It was trying to be a squirrel, but he couldn’t get the hindquarters to look right. He handed it to his father. Paw would probably laugh about it, he figured. Ned wouldn’t look at him.

“How’d you get the tail to look like that? All bushy, just like a real one?”

Ned shrugged, still looking down.

“Say, this is good, boy. Real good.” Perlie chuckled. “Shoot, I didn’t know you could do something like this. I guess you got your granddaddy’s eye.”

Ned risked a glance at his father. “My grampaw?”

“Yeah, your mama’s daddy. You should of seen him, boy. He could carve out a dove that looked like it’d fly off if you stomped your foot. He could make a mallard hen that’d fool a drake. He was a carvin’ fool.” dove

“How come I never seen him?”

“Died ‘fore you’s born. Gun went off when he was cleanin’ it, way back in the mountains somewhere, in a winter huntin’ camp. Wound went bad and poisoned him.” Perlie smiled and shook his head. “He could sing too. Taught me half the songs I know. And whistle? He could mock a brown thrush better’n anythin’ I ever saw.”

“Wished I’d of known him.”

Perlie looked at the squirrel, rubbed his hand over its tail. He handed it back to Ned. “Yeah, he was somethin’. Your mama used to say I only took up with her to have an excuse to be around him. Shoot, everybody liked it when he was around.”

“What was his name?”

“You mean you didn’t know? I thought sure we’d told you. You’re named for him. Ned. He was Ned Hutchins.”

Ned looked off toward the river, dull and gray in the winter light.

“Paw, you reckon I could help you some with the traps next time you go out?”

“Well, sure, boy, if you want to.”

Ned took the Barlow out of his pocket and thumbed open the smaller blade. He worked at the squirrel’s flank, crosshatching it to look like fur. squirrel

“I do. If it’s all right.”

He could feel his father looking at him.

“What’s on your mind, son?” Perlie’s voice was quiet. Ned liked it when Paw talked to him like that, like it was just the two of them and they were telling each other things nobody else needed to hear.

“A man came by here awhile back, in the fall. From Chattanooga.”

“What happened?”

“Nothing, Paw. He was just a man I … helped one day.” Ned felt his ears tingling a little bit with the fib, but it was the same one the man had used, so he kept going. “He told Maw he was starting a club—a club for boys, in town.”

“Ned—”

“It don’t cost nothing to go,” Ned said quickly. “And they’d teach you things. And you could see books.”

“And you don’t want to go among them town boys without proper shoes.”

Ned carved a few strokes. “No, I don’t reckon I do.”

“What’d your mama say about it?”

Ned shrugged.

“Well, I don’t know. I’ll talk to your mama,” Perlie said after a long wait. He chuckled again and ruffled Ned’s hair. “I wish you’d look at that. Just like ol’ Ned Hutchins.” Perlie’s footsteps crunched away toward the house.

*******

Lila knocked on the backdoor. She looked down at herself and wiped at the front of her coat. She heard footsteps approaching from inside the house. The door opened, and Louisa stood there, smiling at her. kitchen

“Hello, Lila. Thank you so much for coming. Come on in.”

“Yes’m. Thank you.” She climbed the steps and stood in the kitchen of the big house. There was cabbage cooking, and some other smell Lila couldn’t exactly place. The kitchen was too warm and close to be wearing her coat, but Louisa hadn’t told her where she should put it, so she just left it on.

“I don’t know how to thank you for this,” Louisa was saying. “This big old place is just too much for me, by myself. I just loved Cassie—I guess you know her, don’t you?—but she moved to Memphis. And I haven’t been able to find anyone else who’s worked out.”

Lila didn’t know Cassie; she went to a different church, and she lived in a different part of the Negro section. But Louisa would think all the coloreds knew each other.

“Anyway, I’m just so glad you came by. You know how much we all loved your mother–in–law.”

“Yes’m.”

“Rose was the sweetest thing, and so good to Addie. My father wasn’t ever the same after she was gone.”

“Yes’m.”

Louisa looked at her. Lila kept her eyes down.

“Lila, I know my father wasn’t very … easy to work for. I’m sorry.”

There was a pause, like Louisa thought she was supposed to say something. Lila waited.

“But I hope you won’t think we’re like he was. Like he got toward the end, anyway, God rest his soul.”

“Yes’m.”

Another pause.

“Well? Do you want to take a look around? See what needs doing?”

“Yes’m. I guess we better.”

Louisa showed her where the pots and pans and knives and such were. She didn’t expect her to do much cooking, she said, unless there was some kind of doings. Mostly she needed her for dusting and cleaning once or twice a week, Louisa said. And washing and ironing on laundry days. Louisa took her through the dining room, showed her where the silver was kept. She wouldn’t have to trouble herself with that unless there was a big dinner or something, Louisa told her. silver

They went through the drawing room and the parlor. Lots of furniture and corners to gather dust, Lila decided. The big downstairs bedroom wouldn’t need much, Louisa told her, except every now and then the mattress needed a good beating and airing. Next was the entry hall. A staircase led up and around a bend to the next story. Take a long time to dust and mop that staircase, Lila thought. They went up the staircase, and Lila noted the chandelier hanging in the center of the stairwell. She could see the cobwebs and dust on it. She’d need a long stick to reach the chandelier, she figured.

Upstairs were the children’s bedrooms and the nursery. There was also a small library, but Louisa said Dub wouldn’t even let his own boys in there unless he was on hand to supervise.

“When he’s had some of his men friends over and they get in there smoking their cigars,” Louisa said, “I’ll make him let you in the next day to clean it out. But that’s all you’ll ever do in there.” Lila smiled and nodded her head.

At the next door they passed, Louisa paused with her hand on the knob, then went on. Her face changed, fell.

“That was Katherine’s room,” she said.

“I’m sure sorry, Miz Lou.”

“Oh, thank you, Lila. Goodness, it’s been, what, nearly four years now?”

“Anythin’ need seen to in there?”

“No. That room stays closed.”

“Yes’m.”

They went back downstairs. “Can you come on Tuesdays and Thursdays?”

“Yes’m.”

“What time can you be here?”

“Well, Mason go to work at seven, and time I get the children to school … Half–past eight, I guess, if that’s all right.”

“Oh, that’s fine. Can you start day after tomorrow?”

“Yes’m. I reckon.”

“Oh, and … I pay three dollars a week. Extra, of course, if I need help with a party or something.”

“Yes’m. Thank you.”

Lila started home. Three dollars. Their oldest boy needed some new shoes; patches and paper stuffing was about all that held his old ones together. And if she had a piece of calico, she could finish that dress for little Clarice. And some new ticking for their mattress would sure be nice. Three dollars.

The wind was cold. She pulled her coat around her; it didn’t help much, old and thin as it was. Maybe someone would come along and give her a ride.

*******

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 32

March 28, 2019

“Oh my land, now look what you’ve done!”

Mary Alice looked at her mother and rubbed her hand on the front of her smock, leaving a smear the same green as the pool of paint in which she stood. Addie propped her paintbrush against the sill and started toward her. Mary Alice began backing away.

“You come here to me, Mary Alice Douglas! I’ve been telling you all morning long to keep away from—”

“Well, looks like you’re making progress.”

Addie managed to snag Mary Alice’s elbow. She looked up at Louisa, who stood in the doorway of the parlor.

“Some,” she said, dabbing roughly at the little girl’s dress with a rag. “I could do more if I didn’t have to keep stopping to chase this one out of the paint.” Mary Alice started to whimper.

Louisa stepped into the room, stepping around the puddle of green paint on the floor. She rolled up her sleeves and kneeled beside Addie. paint

“Come here, Miss Mary Alice, and let your Aunt Lou see what kind of a mess you’re in.”

Addie stepped away from them and went back to the sill. Junior had said something about getting wallpaper up later this week. The paint on these sills had to be dry by then. She dipped her brush in the pail and climbed back on the footstool. She painted several strokes.

“How you doing?” Louisa said.

Addie stretched, teetering slightly on the stool as she spread paint to the top of the jamb.

“I don’t know. Some days I wake up and halfway expect to see Zeb in the bed next to me. Other days that whole life seems like something I’m trying to forget. And then, there are the days when I just want to lie there and go on sleeping. But I can’t.”

“No, you can’t. I tried that. It didn’t work.”

Addie stepped off the footstool and dipped her brush. She held it over the pail and watched the puddling of the drip.

“I used to think I knew what my life was going to be. Once I married Zeb, I thought everything would take care of itself—that all the decisions were sort of made. Everything was settled.” She looked at Louisa. “But it turns out nothing was. I just didn’t know it yet.” She raked the brush along the side of the pail, removing the excess paint. “There was a lot I didn’t know.”

“That’s so for all of us.”

“Oh, Lou. You’ve been through so much. I shouldn’t go on about my troubles.”

“I asked you, honey. And hurt comes in all shapes and sizes. Nobody knows what your load’s like but you. Nobody knows mine but me. You can’t compare them because you can’t carry somebody else’s.”

Addie went to the window and began painting the other jamb.

“I know. But I don’t think I could handle yours.”

“Honey, I feel the same way. Oh, lawzy, Miss Mary Alice, just look at the mess on your shoes!”

The little girl gave Louisa a tentative smile around the finger stuck in her mouth.

“‘S g’een.”

“Yes, ma’am, it’s green, and you’ll be tracking it all over the place in a minute.” Louisa settled Mary Alice on the floor and scrubbed the bottoms of her shoes. “Your mama’ll skin you if she finds little green footprints on her kitchen floor.” feet

Just then, Jake gave a fitful cry from the next room. Addie heaved a sigh.

“Awake. And hungry, I’ll bet.”

“So am I, come to think of it. Which reminds me. Miss Mary Alice, would you go out on the front porch and fetch that basket I left by the door? I brought us some lunch.” Louisa watched the little girl scamper toward the doorway.

“Bless your heart,” Addie said.

Mary Alice staggered back from the doorway, gripping the handles of the basket in both hands.

“Set it down here, sugar,” Louisa said. She opened the lid of the basket and started setting out jars and plates and parcels wrapped in cheesecloth.

“We can go in the kitchen,” Addie said.

“No, let’s just eat here on the floor, why don’t we? It’ll be like a picnic, won’t it, Miss Mary Alice?”

Mary Alice grinned. She plopped down cross–legged on the floor, barely missing the puddle of paint.

“Have a pinnic,” she said.

Louisa had brought a loaf of store–bought bread and a jar of homemade apple butter. She got out bread–and–butter pickles and red–rind cheese. She unwrapped a half–dozen slices of ham, all of them white–rimmed and marbled with fat. She pulled out a quart Ball Mason jar filled with buttermilk. It looked to Addie like enough food for a crew of field hands. picnic

Addie cradled Jake with one arm to let him nurse while she ate. Louisa listened to Mary Alice’s jabber and fussed over her and laughed with her and picked up the crumbs of bread and the shreds of ham the little girl scattered while she ate. Addie watched the two of them and thought about Katherine.

When they had eaten, Addie made Mary Alice lie down for a nap. The little girl moaned and fretted, but she stayed on the settee. Louisa told her if she was good and went to sleep, she’d leave a peppermint stick for her mama to give her when she woke up.

Addie changed Jake’s diaper and bundled him up. She returned him to his crib and he was asleep in a moment. She went into the parlor, where Louisa had taken up a paintbrush and begun work on another sill.

“You don’t have to do that,” Addie said.

“I know.”

For awhile the only sound was the swishing of the paintbrushes and the soft popping of the fire in the grate.

“What are you going to do?” Louisa asked.

There was a long quiet.

“I don’t know.”

‘‘Any news from Dan?”

“No. Not in awhile. He just says he’s working on it and to try to be patient.”

“Easy enough for him.”

“He’s not charging me anything, Lou.”

“I know. I shouldn’t be so sharp, I guess. But I just hate to see you going through this.”

“Dub’s on the school board,” Louisa said a bit later. “He could probably find you something.”

‘‘I’m … I’m not ready for that yet, I don’t think.”

They painted another while in silence.

“Honey, you’ve got to—”

“I know, Lou. I will. But not yet.”

They painted until four o’clock. They finished all the window frames in the parlor and had a good start on the study when they heard the pop and clatter of Dub’s automobile coming down the lane. Louisa laid a peppermint stick beside the still–sleeping Mary Alice. She gathered the remnants of their lunch into her basket and shrugged into her coat. Addie put her arm through her sister’s and walked her to the front door. As Louisa straightened her hat on her head, she turned to give Addie a hug. peppermint

“We’ll expect you and the kids for Christmas.”

Addie gave her a surprised look.

“Oh, yes. It is next week, isn’t it? Thanks, Lou. We’ll be there. Mary Alice’ll love it.”

They looked at each other. Louisa gave Addie a peck on the cheek and ducked out the door. Addie went onto the front porch, hugging herself against the cold, and watched her sister go. She waved to Dub, robed and goggled behind the wheel of the auto. Addie went back inside and closed the door. She leaned back against it, still holding herself, and began to cry quietly.

*******

“Oh, Lou! It’s beautiful!” Addie stood and held out the bedspread, letting it fall to the floor.

“I’ve heard it called ‘candlewicking.”’

“I’ve never seen anything done this way,” Addie said. The spread was powder blue; its smooth surface was decorated with intricate, curving lines of tufted stitching. “Where did you find it?”

“An old German lady over by Brown’s Ferry makes them. Looks like she does pretty well.”

Mary Alice was playing with the doll she had just unwrapped when she noticed the bedspread piled on the floor at her mother’s feet. She rolled herself up in it, cradling her doll in the bend of her arm.

“Night–night,” she said, squinting her eyes shut. Everyone laughed. quilt

“Well, better get started cleaning up this mess,” said Dub, gathering the torn wrapping paper from around his feet. “Robert, come help me.”

The boy sighted steadily down the barrel of his new popgun.

“Son.”

Robert sighed and propped the gun in the corner. He shuffled toward his father, kicking scraps of paper into a drift in front of him as he came.

“Why don’t Ewell have to help?” Robert said.

“‘Why doesn’t Ewell,”’ Louisa said.

“Never mind about that,” Dub said. “Stuff all that into this sack here.”

The rest of the day was spent in getting ready to eat, eating, and recovery from eating. For Christmas dinner, Louisa baked a goose and chestnut dressing to go with it. There were yams, mashed potatoes, cranberry salad, apples fried in butter and brown sugar, green beans and limas from last summer’s canning, plum and rice puddings, and the obligatory fruit cake.

Once, Dub leaned toward Addie to chuck little Jake, in her lap, under his chin.

“Boy, I bet you wish you had you some teeth so you could eat some of this.”

“He’ll be eating more than his share before too long,” Addie said. She spooned small portions of mashed potatoes and yams into the baby’s mouth. He smacked his gums and rolled his tongue at the unfamiliar sensation.

After dinner Addie and Louisa cleaned up the dishes while Dub sat by the fire and read his new book. Mary Alice, Robert, and Ewell chased each other up and down the stairs and through every room of the house, shooting and being shot by the popgun.

Just after dark settled, they heard the sound of carolers in front of the house. Addie and Louisa quickly bundled the younger children, and they all went to stand on the front porch. carolers

It was a sizeable group, maybe twelve all together. They clumped under the gaslight by the sidewalk and sang “Silent Night.” Addie could see their breath puffing white in the light from the lamp. They finished the song, then struck up “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen.” At the end of that, Dub invited them all inside for hot spiced cider and cocoa. As they trooped in, wiping their feet on the doormat, Addie realized one of the singers was George Hutto.

“Hello, George,” she said, reaching out to take his wraps and add them to the stack in her arms.

The sudden warmth of the house steamed his glasses as he looked at her. He fumbled them off, blinking and squinting as he wiped the lenses on a wrinkled handkerchief. “Why, uh, hello Addie. Nice to see you.”

“Y’all sounded good out there.”

“Oh. Thanks. Some of the people from church came by, asked if I wanted to sing. I figured, why not?”

He settled his glasses back on his nose. He gave her a tiny smile and a shrug. She nodded, then tried to find something else to look at. After a few seconds, he followed the other carolers toward the steaming bowl of cider on the dining room table.

Addie piled the wraps on a settee in the parlor and went back toward the dining room. Few of the men would look at her. The women tried to study her without seeming to. None of them would give her more than the flicker of a smile before busying themselves with something else.

She felt someone touch her elbow. It was George.

“Addie, ah … I just wanted to say— Oops!”

Someone jostled his arm in passing, sloshing some of the hot cider onto his cuff. He swiped at it with his hand as Addie hurried into the kitchen and found a cup towel. She came back into the dining room and blotted the spill.   cider

“Thank you,” he said, watching her work.

“Don’t mention it.”

‘‘Anyway, I was saying … I’m awful sorry about your—your situation. If there’s anything—”

“Thank you, George. That’s real kind of you. I think that’s got it.” She made a final dab at his cuff.

“Yes, that’s fine. Thanks.”

She went back into the kitchen and occupied herself there until the carolers left. Then she found Mary Alice’s coat and hat.

“Dub, I’m ready for you to drive us back, if you don’t mind.”

Louisa’s face held a question, but Addie didn’t feel like acknowledging it.

She bundled herself and her children into Dub’s Duryea, their presents piled between them and around their feet. Addie threw her new tufted bedspread around the three of them as Dub released the brake and they started down the sloping street toward the main road.

“Want us to pick y’all up for church on Sunday?” Dub said when they were getting out at the house.

Addie paused, then went up the steps to her porch.

“No, I guess not,” she said over her shoulder. “I expect I’ll go on out to Post Oak Hollow.”

Dub shrugged and nodded. He carried their parcels into the house, then said good night as Addie closed and locked the door behind him.

*******

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.