Sunday Clothes, Chapter 2

February 18, 2017

“Well, do you love him?”

Louisa peered at her younger sister, seated on the other side of the quilting frame. Addie ducked her head, but not before Louisa saw the blush.

“Oh, Lou… I don’t know,” Addie said. “He’s awful nice to me. He’s a hard worker, and he makes good money.”

“And he doesn’t clean up too bad either,” Louisa said. She felt the prick of the needle with her fingertip and pulled the stitch through from underneath. She pulled it tight, then placed the needle for the next stitch. “Zeb Douglas is a fine-looking man, and anyone who says otherwise would lie about something else.”

Addie stitched in silence. Louisa thought she could see a faint smile at the corners of her younger sister’s mouth.

“I tell you, I believe I’ve been working on this quilt all my life,” Louisa said. “If I don’t ever see another tree-of-life pattern, it’ll be too soon. Cora Dickerson down the street got one of those new portable Singer sewing machines, and she’s already started piecing tops with it.”

“Does it do as well as hand piecing?”

“Why, I reckon. She could do three tops in the time it took me to get this one pieced. I’ve been telling Dub I need one. Course, I’ll wind up ordering it from Sears & Roebuck’s for Christmas and telling him he got it for me.”

Addie laughed. “Lou, the way you talk about poor Dub! Anybody’d think you were mistreated, the way you carry on.”

Louisa smiled. “Well, I know. Dub’s a good man. I’ve got few complaints, really.”

The silence stretched, broken only by the soft popping of the two quilting needles as they pierced the taut muslin.tree-1

“Lou?”

“Hmm?”

Addie’s lips had that pinched-together, thinking look. Lou thought she knew what was coming next.

“Lou, I… I worry about Zeb and… Papa. Zeb’s not— Well, he’s not Methodist, you know, and—”

“Yes, I know,” Louisa said. “Of course… there’s always George Hutto.”

“Oh, George Hutto!” Addie jabbed her needle through the cloth. “I’m so tired of everybody throwing George Hutto up in my face. I’ve known him ever since grade school, and I don’t see what’s so great about him, even if he does go to the right church!”

Louisa had reached the end of her thread. She looped the needle back through her last stitch and pulled the knot down into the batting, then snipped the extra off down close to the quilt. She reached for her spool of thread and wet the end of the thread between her lips, squinting as she tried to poke it through the eye of her needle. “Well, sounds to me like your mind’s made up on that score, at least,” she said.

“Honey, all I can tell you is this,” Louisa said after awhile. “Comes a time when a woman has to do what’s right for herself, and nobody can tell you what that is, except you. Not me, not Zeb… not Papa.”

Addie’s hands slowed, then stopped. “You mean… You think it might be all right if—”

“I didn’t say that. I don’t know about all right. All I know is you’re a grown woman. This is the 1890s, Addie, and Chattanooga isn’t Istanbul or Peking or someplace like that. A woman has to make her own way, best way she can. And if Zeb Douglas is the way for you, why then—” Louisa sat still for a few seconds, studying the backs of her hands. “Then, maybe that’s what you have to do, that’s all.” She took a few stitches, then looked up, aiming an index finger at Addie. “Now mind, I’m not saying it’s right… or wise.”

Addie’s eyes questioned.

“I’m just saying that you’re eighteen years old, and you’ve got a right to have your say.”

While she stitched, Addie began remembering what she used to do when she was a child. Sometimes, when she felt the need to get away from everyone, she used to climb to the top of one of the sweet gum trees that ringed the backyard of the house. She would climb way, way up to the highest branches, until every breeze that came along would cause her perch to sway and rock. When she was in the top of a tree, Addie could let herself feel freed from the pull of the earth. The thick green foliage hid the ground, creating a special apart-place for her.amer-sweet-gum3

Addie longed for a refuge just now. Louisa had made her see that she had the responsibility of choice, and her position frightened her. Maybe she had climbed too high this time. Maybe a storm was blowing up, rattling and shivering among the tops of the trees, tossing her back and forth, a storm that might throw her down from her safe place. Was there a safe place left? Could she really just do what she thought was best? Was it as simple as that? Or would there be other choices beyond this one, other responsibilities and other finalities that would spin off this moment, like the felling of the first domino? What other choices was she making right now, without a chance to see them?

Her vision refocused on the quilt beneath her fingers. Pursing her lips, she took up her needle and made another stitch across the tree-of life.

 

*******

 

Zeb Douglas felt like a long-tailed cat in a roomful of rockers. His horse was cresting the final ridge between Orchard Knob and the Caswell homestead. He could look down the slope to the place where their lane peeled off from the road.

He had proposed to Addie the week before as they strolled along the gaslit promenade beside the glassy pond in East Lake Park. It had been a fine Indian summer evening. They’d walked for a long time, her hand in his; the sweet twilight air had seemed like it was whispering secrets in his blood. Then one silence stretched a little long, and before he knew it he was speaking up.

“Addie, you know how I feel about you, don’t you?” he said.

“Well … I think so.”

“Addie, I … I love you. There, it’s out. I want you to be my wife. I want to marry you, if you’ll have me.”

They had walked on slowly; that was the strangest thing, he thought later. To somebody standing on the other side of the pond, they were just two people walking together, moving along as smooth as silk. Who’d have known that his heart was slamming around inside his chest like a penned-up jaybird? He kept his eyes on the footpath, afraid to look at her, more afraid with every step. He started wishing he’d kept his mouth shut.

“All right,” she said.

“What?”

She laughed a little and squeezed his hand. “I said all right. I’ll marry you.” He had looked at her then, and she was smiling. “I will,” she repeated. She stopped walking and turned to face him, taking both his hands in hers.lights

Right then, he thought he might bust wide open. He felt his grin getting all long and rubbery. He wanted to jump up and down like a little kid on Christmas morning; he wanted to spin around in a circle and holler. He pulled her to him and squeezed her tight. Her wide-brimmed hat fell off, and he giggled like a schoolboy, snatching it up and planting it askew on her head.

“Oh, Addie, you don’t know how you’ve just made me feel! I’m the happiest fellow in Hamilton County!” He planted a chaste but sincere kiss on her lips.

“Zebediah Douglas!” She pushed him away. “You’d best mind your manners!”

“Aw, I’m sorry, Addie,” he said, grinning. “I just couldn’t help it.”

“Well,” she said, a smile stealing across her face, “I guess I didn’t really mind all that much. Just don’t get too fresh, that’s all,” she said.

“Zeb,” she said a few minutes later as they strolled on down the walk, “when are you going to tell Papa?”

And he hadn’t drawn an easy breath since. His horse started down the curving slope of the Caswell’s drive.

Jacob Caswell could sure do worse for a son-in-law. It wasn’t as though Zeb didn’t have prospects. He’d just been promoted to manager of the Murfreesboro office. He now had three other agents under him, and the company principals were very pleased with his work. He was an up-and-comer in the agency force.

You let your daughter marry me, and I guarantee you’ll never see her taking in washing while her sorry husband’s off running with his coon dogs…

But Jacob Caswell was a dyed-in-the-wool Methodist, and that was that. Every time Zeb called on Addie, he could feel her father’s hostility to his religion chilling the back of his neck. Even when he didn’t go in the house, he could sense Jacob’s disapproval brooding over him like a summer thunderhead.

He tried to tell himself not to take it personally. Addie had warned him repeatedly of her father’s uncompromising denominational compunctions.

She had told him about the time, one raw winter’s night, when a knock came on the front door of their home. Outside was a man huddled against the sleet, clutching his collar about his neck He told Addie’s father that his wagon was broken down just beyond the crest of the rise; a wheel had come off the axle. Could he board himself and his horse for the night? Addie’s father had brought the man in and given him a cup of hot coffee. He was just about to pull on his mackintosh and go out into the night to help the stranger bring in his horse when he chanced to ask the fellow what brought him to these parts on such a bitter evening.

The man answered that he was a circuit preacher for the Church of Christ and that he had come to conduct a revival service.

“Papa got a sick look on his face,” Addie said, “and started taking off his coat. The man looked at him kind of strange, and Papa said, ‘Sir, my religious convictions prohibit me from rendering aid to a person I believe to be a teacher of heresy. I am deeply sorry, but I cannot help you this evening.”’

Addie told how her father sent that man back out into the sleet and shut the door behind him. Jacob Caswell leaned against the closed door for several minutes, then slumped down in the hall chair with his head in his hands. “He felt real bad for the man,” Addie said, “but that’s just how he is about what he believes.”

Now Zeb was here. He reined his horse to a halt and eased down from the saddle. He looped the reins over the porch railing and straightened himself, staring at the front door of the house. He had to ask for Addie’s hand; it was the only honorable thing to do. He knew she would marry him, but he also knew she wanted the proper forms observed. That’s just the kind of girl she was.

He took a deep breath, then another. He dusted off his hat and put it back on his head. He straightened his tie and tugged his coat down all around. And then, like a man going to the gallows, he climbed the front steps.

He raised a knuckle to knock on the frame of the screen door, but before he could, the heavy inner door swung inward. Addie stood there, dressed in her newest crinoline-and-lace. At the sight of her, he almost forgot his nervousness. But then he saw the set of her eyes and the tense way she looked over her shoulder toward the parlor, and every trace of moisture instantly evaporated from his throat.

“Come on in,” she said, standing aside and trying to smile. “Papa,” she called, “Zeb’s here.”

Rose stepped into the hallway as he entered, drying her hands on a dish towel. Her eyes glinted from Zeb to Addie, then toward the parlor where Mr. Caswell waited. She ducked back into the kitchen.

Zeb had to concentrate on what his knees were doing as he paced toward the parlor. He expected Jacob Caswell to be seated in his red leather wingback chair, his face buried in the Chattanooga Times as he had been situated on the other rare occasions when Zeb had been admitted to the parlor. But this time he was standing, his hands clasped behind his back. He still wore his dark Sunday suit, his tie knotted at the throat. He was scowling at the floor, and he looked up as Zeb entered, with Addie following three paces behind.

“Papa,” she said, “Zeb’s here, and he wants—”

“I know why you’re here,” Jacob said. “I’m not blind, you know.”

He glared at Zeb. Zeb felt his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down like a fishing cork. Zeb thought of the words he had rehearsed on the way here. He drew a chest full of air and tried to square his shoulders. “Mr. Caswell, it must be apparent to you that your daughter and I—”

“It’s apparent to me that my daughter has set her mind on marrying you, Mr. Douglas. Only a fool would think otherwise, and I don’t much believe I’m a fool.”

“No … no, sir. I expect not.”

“She’s eighteen years old,” Jacob said, his eyes glittering toward Addie, “and I know better than to try to talk a woman out of something her mind’s set on. That’s the one piece of advice I’ll give you, Mr. Douglas: don’t try to reason a woman out of something she already wants to do.”

Zeb swallowed. “Uh … thank you, sir.”

“But I’ll tell you this, young woman,” Jacob said, aiming a finger at Addie. “You know how I feel about this man’s religion. You were raised in a sensible Methodist family. If you choose to join this man’s church—”

“Ah, we don’t call it ‘joining the church,’ sir,” Zeb said. “We believe God adds the obedient to—”

“Zeb! Not now!” Addie said.

“Never mind,” said Jacob Caswell, his eyes still on his daughter. “You can call it joining, or being added, or whatever other fool thing you fancy, but I’ll say this once and for all: if you follow him into this religious group of his, you best reckon all the consequences. You best make sure you love this fellow enough to live with the consequences.”

No one spoke for a long time. Addie leaned against the doorframe, her hands behind her back. Zeb wondered if she was holding on to the woodwork to keep from falling. Her face was as white as the high lace collar of her dress, and her eyes looked big and dark as they flickered back and forth between him and her father.

Then Addie stood away from the doorframe. She walked toward Zeb and took his arm. She turned to face her father.

“Papa, I love him. I mean it.”hands

Jacob Caswell grunted, shoved his hands into his vest pockets, and stalked past them. He grabbed his hat from the hall tree and yanked open the front door. They heard his rapid strides thump on the front porch and down the steps.

A long breath went out of Addie, and her head fell on Zeb’s shoulder. “Well, that’s that,” she said.

Zeb couldn’t speak. He put an arm around her and patted her. Twice.

*******

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

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 1

January 21, 2017

Part I

August 1898

Addie shaded her eyes and stared up the dirt road for the tenth time in the last five minutes. There! And about time, too.

A horse and buggy crested the hill up from Orchard Knob, trailing a cloud of dust that plumed off to the north, gilded by the westering sun.

She turned and leaned toward the screen door. “Papa, Zeb’s coming up the lane. We’ll be back after meeting’s over.” She didn’t wait to hear his acknowledgment of her message. He’d be scowling.

Rose was sweeping at the other end of the front porch. “Rose, can you leave something out for Papa’s supper before you go home?” Addie said. “I may not be back until after dark.”

“Mmm-hmm.” The broom never paused.

Addie looked at Rose. The old woman’s plump arms moved rhythmically, twin metronomes keeping time to a well-worn tune. “Rose, you… you like Mr. Douglas, don’t you?”

The broom made two strokes, then a third. Rose turned her head slightly toward Addie. “Ain’t for me to say, Missy. He your man, not mine. Don’t matter whether I like him or not.” She went back to her sweeping.

Addie waited on the front porch as Zeb turned off the Orchard Knob road and into their lane. She smiled. How in the world had Zeb snagged the handsome, black-lacquered gig and the quick-stepping sorrel? He was always pulling off some dramatic gesture or other. It was one of the things she loved about him.

He drove up in the front yard, then pulled the horse around broadside and grinned up at her from the seat of the gig. “Well, did I tell you the truth?”

She smiled broadly and nodded. “Zeb, it’s— Well, it’s just something. How did you manage it—rob a bank?”

“I suppose so, in a manner of speaking,” he said, pushing up his bowler to scratch his scalp. “I wrote three policies on a banker up in Murfreesboro, and that put me at the top of the production list for the week. The boss said whoever did that could use his rig for a day. And that’s me! Now, are you gonna stand there gawking all evening, or are we going to meeting?”man_woman_horse__buggy

She came down the steps, and he stood to hold her hand as she stepped into the carriage. She settled herself beside him, and he clicked his tongue while brushing the sorrel’s flank with the buggy whip. When they made the final turn into the lane, Addie glanced back over her shoulder at the house. Rose was standing still, staring after them.

Addie wished that Papa could at least try to like Zeb. He was polite, hard-working, and cut a handsome figure. She enjoyed the feel of his dark broadcloth suit where her hand rested on his forearm, the stark contrast of his crisp white shirt and black string tie. And Zeb was a thorough gentleman. He had never made any gesture toward her that was the least bit improper.

But Zeb was a salesman, and Papa didn’t much approve of salesmen. He stayed put out with the daily stream of drummers that called on Caswell Mercantile Company, he said, and didn’t see why he ought to be welcoming one into his house. Zeb sold life insurance, and that didn’t help either: she’d heard Papa mutter about pigs in pokes.

Then, too, there was the fact that Zeb was a Democrat from Georgia, and Papa was Republican and didn’t completely trust folks from Georgia. That was harder for Addie to understand. Why, from the top of Lookout Mountain you could just about spit on Georgia!

But worst of all, Papa was a strict Methodist, and Zeb was a Campbellite. As far as Papa was concerned, the Campbellites were Johnny-come-latelies who thought they were the only ones going to heaven. Papa said that any group so worked up over total immersion baptism was bound to be all wet about something else. They were worse than the Baptists, he said. At least you could talk to a Baptist, he said.

“Zeb, who’s preaching tonight?” she asked, leaning a trifle closer to him as they turned onto the Orchard Knob road.

“Brother Charles McCrary, I believe. He’s come all the way out from Nashville to hold this meeting.”

“What’s he like?”

“A mighty fine speaker, from what I hear. I’ve never heard him preach, but old Brother Houser once heard him debate some Baptist or other, and he said Brother McCrary like to brought fire from heaven, he was so good.”

“Really?”

“Yep. Said he could quote whole books of the Bible from memory. Said he never once looked at a single note but just spoke extemporaneous. Said he whipped that Baptist like a tied-up goat and hardly broke a sweat.”

They rode on in silence for some time. Behind them, the sun reddened toward the horizon. Cicadas slid up and down their two-note scale with a sound like miniature buzz saws. The horse tossed its head and snorted. Addie felt Zeb’s arm encircle her shoulders, and she leaned into him a bit more.

“Addie, are you still my girl?”

“I guess so. “

“Guess so?”

She laughed and jabbed him in the ribs with her elbow. “Zeb, you know good and well I am.”

“Well, all right, then.”

The wagon yard in front of the church house was three-quarters full by the time they arrived. The service hadn’t begun, though, because several of the men still lingered outside the front door, chewing, spitting, and smoking. They all looked long in the direction of Zeb’s borrowed rig as he pulled up the sorrel and looped the lines over the seat rail. Zeb helped Addie down, then unbuckled the bridle from the horse and clipped a tether to its halter. He pulled a grain-filled nosebag from the floor of the carriage, tied it behind the horse’s ears, gave it a final pat on the withers, and offered Addie his arm as they walked toward the door of the church.

“Evenin’, Zeb,” called one of the men. They all touched their hat brims and nodded at Addie.

“Howdy, Pete,” said Zeb. “Tom, Hershel. How y’all doing this evening?”

“Tolerable well,” said Pete, “but I’d be a sight better if we got some rain.” The others nodded.

“Well, like my daddy used to say, we’re one day closer to rain than we ever have been,” Zeb said.

“I guess that’d have to be right,” Pete said, smiling.

Zeb and the other men talked a little more. They swapped opinions on the war with Spain. Hershel said it appeared to be winding down, now that Cuba had fallen.

Tom peeked through the open door of the church. “Boys, we better get on in. They’re fixing to start.” He held the door and motioned Addie and Zeb inside. “Y’all go ahead.”

“Thank you, Mr. Hoskins,” said Addie.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Post Oak Hollow Church was a small one-room affair, its wood frame covered with whitewashed clapboard siding. There were windows down both sides and a raised platform across the front, in the center of which stood a sturdy oak pulpit. The two rows of pews on either side of the center aisle were constructed of rough-hewn hickory slats with no finish other than the gradual smoothing administered by the backsides of the congregation. The windows were raised, and a slight breeze wafted through, aided by the waving pasteboard fans wielded by many of the women. Most of the fans were from a local funeral parlor and bore an advertisement on one side and reproductions from the Doré Bible on the other. Even though the sun hovered above the horizon, the dale in which the church sat was already in shadow. The coal oil lamps, in brackets along both side walls, were lit.images

Brother Houser, a white-haired gentleman, stood and stepped carefully to a position on the platform just in front of the pulpit. He held a brown paperback book in his hand. “Folks, let’s all get a song book and turn to number sixty-seven.”

Addie and Zeb slid into a seat about halfway toward the front, on the left side next to the center aisle. With the rest of the congregation, they took a hymnal from the rack on the seat in front of them and rustled the pages to find the announced selection. In a reedy voice, Brother Houser began to sing.

 

I have found a friend in Jesus,

He’s everything to me.

He’s the fairest of ten thousand to my soul

 

The congregation joined in with a vigor undimmed by the general lack of skill.

At first, Addie had thought it curious that the Post Oak Hollow congregation sang without a piano or organ. But Zeb had carefully pointed out to her that there was nothing in the New Testament that prescribed mechanical assistance to musical worship. “We try to follow the Bible as our only guide,” he had said. “We wouldn’t want to take a chance on doing anything where we don’t have a New Testament example.” Addie hadn’t ever thought about it that way, but she had to admit there sure wasn’t anything in the New Testament about pianos or organs.

“Silliest thing I ever heard tell of,” Papa had said when she told him. “Course there ain’t nothing in the New Testament about pianos and organs—nor hymnals printed on a printing press, nor ladies wearing corsets to church.” He insisted it was just another case of useless, Campbellite hardheadedness. Addie had thought about pointing out to him that he was being just as dogmatic about his views as he was accusing them of being about theirs but decided discretion was the better part of valor.

After several songs and a prayer offered in an undulatory, singsong voice by one of the congregation’s elders, Charles McCrary rose from his seat on the front pew and walked to the pulpit. His back was ramrod-straight; he carried nothing with him except a black leather Bible. He laid the well-worn Bible on the pulpit in front of him and swept his gaze over the assembly.

He was slight-built and balding. His face was clean-shaven, and wire-rimmed spectacles glittered on the bridge of his aquiline nose. The light glanced off the lenses, giving Addie the fleeting, disturbing impression that instead of eyes he had only featureless panes of glass. He had a thin-lipped, hawkish look: a man who brooked no foolishness. He appeared to be in his mid-forties, perhaps early fifties. And then he began to speak in a fine, strong baritone voice—almost startling, coming from such a small frame.

“It’s good to be here with you, brethren in Christ,” he said. “I bring you greetings from the church in Nashville and from all the faithful brethren throughout Middle Tennessee. When Brother Houser invited me to come and speak to you, I had no idea that the saints in and around Chattanooga numbered as many as they do. I’m truly pleased to see such a fine crowd here tonight and doubly pleased by the fine song service offered by Brother Houser.

“As my text for this evening, I have chosen a passage from the second epistle of the apostle Paul to Timothy … ”

Addie noticed the long, drawn-out way Brother McCrary said “Paul”—as if he savored the name, was reluctant to release it from his lips. It sounded like “pole.”

“In the fourth chapter, beginning in verse one, Paul says, ‘I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom; preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.”

He never looked at his Bible, never made a move to open it. Addie watched, intrigued.

“‘For the time will come’—now hear the next words carefully, brethren—‘when they will not endure sound doctrine—”’ He drove each word of the phrase home with special emphasis, as if hammering verbal nails into the lid of a coffin. He gripped the sides of the pulpit and leaned forward as he quoted the remaining verses. “‘—but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears—”’ He pronounced the last two words like a curse, or the name of an unspeakable disease. ‘“—And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.”’

Two or three rows from the front, on the right-hand side of the meetinghouse, a toddler began to squall and fidget in her mother’s lap. If Brother McCrary heard, he gave no sign. His face wore a pained expression, as if he felt personally responsible for the sorry state of fallen humanity. After a brief, reflective silence, he looked up.

“Brethren, as we look around us today, we see flagrant evidence of the truth of the apostle Paul’s words, just read in your hearing. We see a landscape littered with so-called churches, where so-called Christians come together and profess their so-called allegiance to the Lord.”

No beating around the bush, Addie thought. He is going to wade right into it.

“And in these so-called churches, brethren, what do we find? We find teaching that proclaims as doctrines the commandments of men, Matthew fifteen, nine. We find those who say ‘Lord, Lord!’ but do not the will of the Father in heaven—Matthew seven, twenty-one. We find those who have a form of godliness, but deny the power thereof—Second Timothy three, five. Who profess that they know God, but in works they deny him—Titus one, sixteen—”

Each time Brother McCrary cited a Scripture, he punched his Bible forward in the air, driving gospel spikes.

“In short, my brethren, we find those of whom the Lord will say in the last day, ‘I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity,’ Matthew seven, twenty-three… ”

For the next hour, he fired broadside barrages into every other church for miles around. He laid about with great, circular swipes of Scripture, hewing away at the false teachings and creeds of men that were, in his words, “leading astray the unsuspecting hordes of the sectarian world.” He thrust and parried with the sword of the Spirit, and he never 0012249cf372c40d8f6005d921b4faf6mentioned any names; but as Addie heard him lambaste sprinkling and missionary societies and instrumental accompaniment to hymns and the christening of babies, she didn’t need to wonder how Papa would feel about what she was hearing. If he walked in the back door before Brother McCrary finished, there might be a killing.

And yet, despite the relentlessness of Brother McCrary’s onslaught, she was awed by his presentation. He never consulted an outline, never opened the covers of his Bible, but Addie never doubted that he was quoting his proof-texts verbatim. As he built his breastworks against the evil onslaught of denominationalism, Brother McCrary chinked each crack in the masonry with an appropriate New Testament citation. It was an impressive display of firepower. Addie had no idea the Bible was so hard on things she had previously thought proper, or at least harmless.

When Brother McCrary offered the altar call, Addie felt a tug within her. For some time, as she had been discussing various aspects of doctrine with Zeb, she had begun feeling curiously ambivalent toward her Methodist upbringing. Papa was a good man, although he’d seemed to grow harsher after Mama’s death. They had always been a churchgoing family, and all of Addie’s siblings—now with families of their own—were faithful members of their churches. One of her brothers had even been a class leader for some little church out in the country, before he and his wife moved back into town.

But something about the Campbellites appealed to her. Something, she told herself sternly, more than the charm and good looks of Zebediah Douglas. Something about their urgent appeal to Scripture. Something about their primitive, combative vitality. She had the sense that these folks really believed in something and were willing to fight for it. It gave them an identity that was clear-cut. It gave them a mission. Addie liked that. But, oh! Papa would never forgive her.

From the corner of her eye, she studied Zeb. His face was intent, serious. He appeared to be hanging on every word that Brother McCrary spoke. So sincere … so handsome.

The congregation stood to sing the invitation hymn. Brother McCrary stood expectantly at the head of the center aisle, wiping his forehead with a handkerchief, ready to receive the penitents his sermon had quickened to contrition.

 

There’s a great day coming;

A great day coming.

There’s a great day coming, bye-and-bye;

When the saints and the sinners

Shall be parted right and left.

Are you ready for that day to come?

 

Are you ready? asked the chorus. Are you ready for the judgment Day?

The day was coming, Addie felt sure. But it wasn’t going to be today.

*******

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

Independence Day, 1890s

June 27, 2013

As a tribute to the July 4 celebration, I offer this section of a chapter from my 2004 novel, Sunday Clothes. Set at the turn of the last century, Sunday Clothes is a story about Addie Caswell, an independent-minded young woman of Chattanooga, Tennessee. In this selection, the main character is George Hutto, a quiet man from a respected family who seems steadfastly determined not to recognize his own capabilities …

 

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

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

 The First Methodist Church lemonade stand was in an elm grove, just south of the grandstand for the racetrack. As he approached, George could hear the roaring, popping, and wheezing of the racing cars as their drivers made last-minute adjustments before the preliminary heats began. They had intended to hold the automobile races earlier in the day, but the noise and smell of the machines kept the horses in such a continual uproar, they’d been forced to delay the motorized events until after the end of the harness racing and draft competitions. George fished a nickel out of his pocket and laid it on the plank counter. “How about a glass with lots of ice?” he asked the nearest attendant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 “Mary Alice, after both grandmothers.”

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

 “Far as I know.” Her smile was quick, and George thought maybe it never got as far as her eyes. She turned away to drop his nickel in the till and put the lemonade pitcher back on the work table. He felt awkward. Maybe he shouldn’t have brought up the subject of children to her. He cleared his throat, trying to think of something to chink the gap in the conversation. “Louisa, it’s … it’s real good to see you out, working with the other women from the church, and … and getting on so well and all.”

She shrugged and looked away. “Some days are better than others, George. You just keep putting one foot in front of the other, somehow.” There was a long silence, and this time George didn’t have the nerve to try and fill it.

 “But we’ll manage, I guess,” she finished finally, giving him another smile and doing better with it this time. ‘‘And thank you for saying something. Most folks just ignore it, pretend everything’s like it always was.” He blushed and pulled off his glasses, ducking into his collar as he polished the lenses with his slightly damp handkerchief. “Well, I … I’m awful fond of your family, is all, and—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 As the western sky began to redden, the crowd started to gather in and around the grandstand. Chamber of Commerce officials had roped off a large area of the infield, just inside the far turn, where the fireworks would be detonated. Families sprawled on quilts in the rest of the infield, staking out space from which to observe the much-anticipated display. George paced the enclosure, frequently wiping his brow as he observed the preparations of the pyrotechnician. The man had set up a long, narrow table, crisscrossed by scorch marks. He was laying on it a collection of tubes, rockets, and canisters. He made numerous trips to the interior of his painted wagon, always returning with another armload of mysterious and imposing articles. The wagon was painted a brilliant red, and on its side it advertised the name and vocation of the owner. “Horatio P.  Folger, Esq.: Explosives Expert, Fireworks, Rainmaking, &  Etc.,” it announced in ornate gold-highlighted black letters that followed each other round in an elaborate oval. In the center of the oval were the words ‘‘Atlanta, Georgia, United States of America (God Bless the USA).” Beneath, in finer, more sedate black print and straight lines, was an amplification: Available for Civic Events . . . Private Celebrations . . . Land Clearing … Demolition … and Various & Sundry Other Uses.” George had been watching Horatio P.  Folger since his arrival in the midafternoon. Folger had a florid complexion and a prodigious moustache with waxed handlebars. He wore a derby that apparently never left his skull, despite the summer heat. Predictably, a train of boys had trailed him into the fairgrounds and loitered about his wagon, occasionally making half-hopeful offers to assist, which were refused with a chuckle and a shake of the head. And, of course, under his watchful eye, no one dared approach the wagon for a closer look. Horatio P.  Folger had evidently been at this for some time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 George frowned doubtfully. “Run?”

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

 “Well, I don’t know who I can get—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Image

 

 

 

 

 

George was pleased to realize that he hadn’t thought at all of being nervous during the fireworks show. As he walked back toward town, he heard many favorable comments from other homeward-bound folks, and each compliment gave him a tiny, pleasant glow. The mayor even found him along the way, came up to him, and clapped him on the shoulder.

 “Fine fireworks this year, George, just fine!” he said in his big, glad voice. “Where was it that fellow was from? Atlanta?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

The Old, Old Story, Conclusion

May 10, 2013

[Note to the reader: There are some language cautions in this installment. If you don’t want to experience a thug using non-PG Anglo-Saxonisms, read no further. Just saying …]

Two weeks later, and it’s been one of those days. It’s almost dark, time to check it in. I’m going up the stairs to my apartment and he’s waiting for me on the landing.

Image“What did you think to see? A reed shaken by the wind?”

“Get lost, pal. I’m not in the mood.”

“Come on, man. Tell me what comes after. I don’t need to know—you do.”

I look at him, and in the lousy light of the stairwell his face has this weird, otherworldly sheen—my own private apparition. I blink and shake my head, and he’s back to normal—not an improvement.

Image

“What is it with you, man? I told you—I don’t do futures. Not for you, not for anybody. You play the hand you get, okay? Just like everybody else. Now get outta here and—”

It was a few seconds before I saw the scared, juiced kid approaching from the side hallway. He was holding his right arm close to his side, but I could still see the dull glint of the small-caliber handgun.

“Don’t want no trouble, man. Just gimme your money.”

The street guy stepped in front of me, facing the kid, then spread his arms out wide, like he wanted to hug him.

“Let not your heart be troubled!”

“Look, this kid’s high, okay?” I said, backing away. “I don’t think you ought to—”

ImageHe keeps on talking to the kid, moving slowly toward him, the kid’s eyes getting bigger and bigger.

“In my father’s house are many mansions.”

“That weird-ass shit out my face, man.” The kid is panting, his hand starting to shake.

“If it weren’t so I would have told you.”

Another step closer. Another.

“I said get the fuck outta my face!”

“… and I go there to prepare a place for you—”

The gun was probably only .22 caliber, but the shot was loud in the hallway. I’m scooting back like a crab, plastered against the wall, and for a second, I think the kid missed.

Image

Then the street guy sort of crumples forward, almost like he’s bowing to an audience—before clattering onto the floor like a bag of cantaloupes.

Somebody down the hall opens a door. “What’s going on out there?” The scared kid bolts down the stairs.

I crawl over to the street guy. He’s still breathing, his hand stuffed into the red fountain springing from just below his sternum.

There are tears in his eyes.

Image

“Forgive him, for he knew not…” Then he sighs and his eyes dull like cooling wax.

The cops come and zip him into a black vinyl bag. I stand on the sidewalk outside my building, watching in the red-and-blue flash and the radio squawk until the Suburban from the county morgue wheels around the corner.

Image

Tomorrow is Saturday … and I don’t know what comes next.

 

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

The Old, Old Story, Part 2

April 15, 2013

I knew I’d see him again, the same way you know you’re going to be sick at your stomach when you feel that first little question mark in your gut. Sure enough, about a week later, ImageI’m back working the mall, and I swear I can actually feel him approaching; moving in like a cold front from my mind’s northwest horizon. This particular day, he’s got on a pair of dumpster-issue oxfords, and I can hear the soles slapping the pavement as he comes up to my table. He leans on one hand and stares at me with those washed-out blue eyes. “Who do you say that I, the son of man, am?”

“I dunno—Elvis, maybe? Only without sequins.”

He gives me a lopsided grin. “You ready to tell me what happens next? I still got your money, right here.” He pinches a fold of his pocket.Image

Now I’m irritated. “Look, pal, stop wasting my time, okay? You’re occupying the same space as a paying customer.” Some of these guys, you don’t stiff-arm them up front, they start treating you like their private candy machine.

He gets this soulful, whipped-beagle look, and I swear to you it was like he felt sorry for me.

“Oh, Jerusalem, Jerusalem. I would have sheltered you beneath my wings, but you would not.”

“Yeah, whatever.”

ImageHe moves off down the way, but I can feel his eyes on my back. Not threatening… just sorry. Like I’ve missed something I’d later regret.

(To be continued…)

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

The Old, Old Story, Part 1

March 21, 2013

By way of introduction: Admittedly, this story is a bit of a departure from the stated theme of this site. But it is fiction (at least, mostly), and I guess it could be set somewhere in a metropolitan area of southeast Missouri … if you can find one. So … Enjoy!  

The Old, Old Story

It was definitely the best gimmick I’d ever used; better than the time when I sat in an abandoned department store display window in front of a hand-lettered sign that said, “Suffering from Writer’s Block—Won’t You Help?” Another time, I used to hang out at Wal-Mart, trying to make up stories using all the items people had purchased. junkOne guy had a commode plunger, a case of motor oil, and a sack of birdseed. You don’t even want to think about what I did with that.

But this latest trick was great. I’d take my laptop someplace downtown with lots of foot traffic. They’d see my sign, stare at me a couple of seconds, then either walk on past or slow down for a better look. It got so I could tell pretty quick who would actually sit down and talk.

My sign said, “Get a Life. $5.00.”

I figured out pretty quick that anybody can tell some goofy fairy tale. But I’m thinking it needs to be plausible, but still better than they can do for themselves.

“First off, I don’t do futures,” I’d tell them. “I get you up to this point in time and that’s it. If you don’t like the life I give you, you don’t pay. Got it?” But I never had anybody take back the money—except one. Just that one. God help me.

I’d talk them through it while I polished up the grammar. I’d run a spell-check, copy the whole thing to a CD, and hand it to them. “Anybody with a current version of WordPerfect can print this out for you,” I’d tell them. “Hope you enjoy your new life.” They’d get this cock-eyed grin, maybe shake their heads a little, like, I can’t believe I’m doing this. But I had them, see? They knew as well as I did they wanted that disk more than they wanted the five bucks.

So one day I’m sitting at my usual place. I see him coming from a block away; a homeless guy, dressed in the latest layered look from the Salvation Army. As soon as I spot him, I get this sinking feeling. Sure enough, he makes for me like a ragged chicken coming home to roost. He takes a quick look at my sign and flops into the seat across from me. To my surprise, he fishes around in a pocket and flips a greasy, stained five onto the table.homeless

Making eye contact with him is like staring at the taillights on the last cab leaving a bad part of town. His sun- and wind-scoured face has a raw, caved-in look, like a freshly healed scab. He’s wearing a cap that had maybe been green in a previous life. The tufts of frayed hair sticking out from under it all around are some indeterminate blondish-brown, to match the four-day stubble all over his face. His eyes are a faded blue, and I notice they’re clear and focused. He stares straight at me, like I’m a TV and he’s the remote.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life,” he said. “Who are you?”

“I’m Larry, Moe, and Curly. Nice to meet you.”

“You got a form I need to fill out?” he said. “Most people I work with, they got some kinda form.”

“No, not really. You been around here long?”

“Long enough.”talk

“What’s your name?”

“Whatever you want it to be. You’re the one with the sign.”

As I’m giving him my opening spiel, he leans over and rummages around in his garbage sack, comes out with half a pair of silver kid’s scissors; the kind with the sharp ends, not rounded. He turns sideways in the chair and starts cleaning his fingernails. There is something so ineffably sad about this loser doing his manicure with a broken pair of school scissors that I have a twinge of bourgeois guilt.

“Look, can I get you something? I mean …  are you hungry or anything?”

He gives me a sly grin and shakes his head. “I have food that you know not of.”

Back to the keyboard.

You are the illegitimate son of a wealthy East Coast industrialist, the result of his weekend encounter with a high school senior who placed you for adoption and subsequently went on to graduate from college, marry a banker, have three children and get elected president of the elementary school PTA. Just after your sixteenth birthday, your loving and supportive adoptive parents acceded to your persistent demands to know the truth of your origins. laptopUsing the adoption agency’s records as a springboard for years of determined sleuthing, you finally discovered your father’s identity. You dropped out of college and traveled across the country, working a succession of menial jobs to earn bus fare and meals. When, after months of arduous travel, you finally reached your biological father’s last known residence—a convalescent home in upstate New York—you were told that he had died a week prior to your arrival. Shattered by this tragic circumstance and robbed of your raison d’etre, you began drifting west again, trying desperately to forget the many losses in your life.

The wealthy, dying father loans the whole package a very attractive and plausible sense of pathos, I’m thinking. I save it to a disk and hand it to him. “Here you go. Enjoy.”

He stares at the disk for a couple of seconds. “Can I read it?”

“Well, no. You gotta find somebody to print this out for you.”

He looks at me like, who are you kidding. The guilt cranks up again.

“Okay, okay. Come around here and I’ll put it on the screen.”

As he leans over my shoulder, I can smell the complex and disagreeable ambiance of his existence. I can hear him softly whispering the words on the screen, hear him quietly scratching his cheek.

He stares down at me, his forehead wrinkled with a question. “I don’t get it.”

“What?”

He points at the screen. “I mean—where’s the rest?”

“Uh, that’s it—that’s the whole thing, right there.”

“No, I—” He shakes his head. “What you’ve got is good, okay? But … Well … what happens next?”

“Look, I don’t do futures, remember? I only get you up to this point in time—”walkaway

He looks at me as if I have just spoken in Sanskrit.

“No way.” He snatches the five off the table and stuffs it deep into his pocket. Shouldering the garbage bag, he says, “Sufficient to the day is the evil thereof.” He starts to walk off, then stops. “Here,” he says, tossing the disk at me. Then he’s gone.

(To be continued … )
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

The Home Place — Conclusion

February 22, 2013

It was Christmas Eve, and around mid-morning, Gail took the kids to town to get some last-minute gifts to exchange with the Sloan kids, just down the road. Hal stayed in the tool shed most of the day, welding or tinkering with the machinery scattered around the yard. He gave the outward appearance of a busy farmer trying to get machinery ready for spring. But in the indrawn slump of his shoulders, the tightness around his eyes, I could tell he was just trying to hold back the helpless wail of despondency threatening to break the dam of his self-control. I watched from the house as he scurried from one chore to the next, desperately trying to outrace the bitter tide of despair.

By late afternoon, it made me sick to my stomach, and I had to get away. I backed out of the driveway and drove west, away from the house, down the narrow blacktop road, across the drainage ditches crosshatching the countryside. I found myself turning left onto a small gravel road running down the east side of the acreage we had always referred to as the Wilson Place, after the people from whom my grandfather rented and Dad subsequently purchased it. It was the first farm, after the home farm, that my family had owned. I drove slowly past the dormant fields, corn stubble pointing randomly this way and that, jutting from the dark-grey, lumpy surface. These fields were rich, fertile—and Dad had them cut to grade, so they were easy to irrigate. They could be counted on to produce, year after year. Somebody would get a bargain with the Wilson Place.

Image

As I looked out over the level expanse I realized that still within me there was a fragment of disbelief in the loss of the farm. How could it be that my family would not be here anymore? What would move in to occupy the place within my soul reserved for the farm? It had always been my starting point for self-definition. But someone was buying the North Pole, moving it to Venus. I felt like a salmon returning to its birth-stream, only to find a dam built across the way. And Hal, what of him? I still felt the scalding shame of his futile anger as he lashed out at me, and through me, the forces of uncaring economics that offered solutions without feelings, a life with no heartbeat, survival with nothing to live for. I was not sure my brother had the necessary emotional equipment to survive in the no-name world to which I had inured myself. It struck me that I had learned to live in such a world largely because I knew that always behind the faceless masses, above the ever-shifting heads of the crowd, beyond the manufactured, plastic skyline of my daily grind, there existed a place where people connected with each other, a place where roots ran deep and each person counted. A resting-place from the impassive onrush of the urgent. A home place.

In another moment of epiphany, it came to me that I carried this home place inside me. It had been growing there since my childhood, awaiting a day like this, and I just now realized it. It was born of my love for the farm, nurtured by the love its people shared in good times and bad, tempered by trial and disappointment, strengthened by the dogged faith in God that ran throughout, like the theme of a fugue. The home place lived within me now, separate from the geographical and legal facts about the farm, and no person, no court of law, could ever take it away from me. This place had shaped me, placed its stamp on me, and I would forever remain, for good or ill, a testament, a declaration of its influence.

The sun flickered weakly through the gray, overcast dome of the sky as it settled toward Crowley’s ridge. The air grew cooler with more than nightfall as I drove back to the house. I pulled into the driveway, and I could see, through the foggy windows, gauzy hints of the frantic activity mandatory for households with children on Christmas Eve. Packages were being wrapped for the evening’s exchanging of gifts with the Sloans. The two younger kids were hopping about like manic fleas, unable to contain their excitement.

Image

Gail scurried between the wrapping of gifts and the warming of leftovers in the kitchen. Only Hal sat still, staring into the fireplace in the den, a raft of loneliness adrift in a sea of activity. I went into the house, tossed my coat on the back of a chair, and squatted before the fire, warming my hands. For a long time Hal and I stayed that way; in the same room and worlds apart.

Every now and then, one of the kids would race up the stairs behind us, but they didn’t approach either their father or me. I suppose they were aware of the fragility of the bubble of good cheer surrounding them, and knew better than to risk bursting it by coming too near us.

Image

Finally I turned to face him and cleared my throat, just as he looked up at me and opened his mouth to speak. “Frank, I …”

“No, you go ahead.”

“Well, I was just going to say that I know I came across sort of high-and-mighty this morning, and I didn’t mean to. It’s just that … ”

“Yeah, I know … and I kind of lost it, too, there, and … and I’m sorry as hell, Frank, really I am. You didn’t deserve that load of garbage I laid on you this morning.”

I started to reply, felt my words jamming up behind the baseball in my throat, felt the hot tears spill down my cheeks. “Hal, I … you’re all the family I’ve got. Don’t give up, is all I want to say. Just don’t give up, okay?” I wanted to say more, so much more, but I couldn’t control my voice. I dropped my head, kneading my eyes uselessly as the tears spilled over my fingers. He looked away, into the fire. Still rubbing my eyes, I faced him again.

Image

“Hal,” I said, my lips curling uncontrollably around my words, “I think you’ve got to face the fact that, no matter how much you love the farm, no matter how much history our family has with this place, no matter how hard you’ve tried, you’re going to have to leave here.” Still staring into the fire, his chest began to heave in silent emotion. “I hope you come to the place where you can see your life as something apart from this farm. It’s been good to you, and it’s part of you, but you still have to choose between dying with it and living with your family. Do you hear what I’m trying to say?” No answer. I plunged ahead, into the minefield, not knowing what else to do. “You made some errors in judgment, and you probably took some bad advice along the way, but, Hal, none of us gets to go back. You did what you thought was best, and it didn’t work. Cut your losses. Hal,” I pleaded, “decide to live! Live for Gail, for the kids. There’s something, someone out there bigger than you and your grief. I … I just hope to God you can learn to accept that.”

Gail came to the doorway, saw us there, and hesitated, looking back and forth between us. “Everything okay in here?” she called uncertainly.

“Well, Hon,” said Hal after a long pause, “that sort of remains to be seen.” He looked at me, for the first time since I had begun speaking to him, and a wistful smile was toying with the corners of his mouth.

After several swallows and blinks, Gail managed to say, “Supper’s ready. We’d better eat so we won’t be late.”

Hal and I started toward the kitchen. I felt his rough hand on the back of my neck. I looked outside, where the first few stray snowflakes were drifting aimlessly to the ground.

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.

The Home Place, Part 3

January 20, 2013

I couldn’t move or speak.

“The bank … they’re foreclosing on me. They say I’m too far gone and they’re going to sell me out.”

Finally I forced some air through my throat. “I … I can’t believe … how much money do you owe?”

A dry rasp of a sarcastic laugh. “Only a couple of hundred thousand.”

Troublesome times are here

“Yeah, we had a bad year or two; couldn’t make the interest payments on our loan,” he continued in a dead voice, “and they rolled the deficit forward to the next year. Well, I guess I kept hoping I could farm my way out of it, but … ”

Image

This was not reality. Was it?

“Damn, Hal! How could this happen? This didn’t just creep up on you. How could you not know you were going too far in debt? And how could you not tell me? ”

He recoiled as if I had slapped him, and Gail looked at me with a round, bruised stare, echoed in the eyes of the children gathered by the hallway door. Their eyes told of their fearful confusion at this kind of behavior from the people who were supposed to be in control of everything.

I stood up, began to reach toward him. “God … Hal … I’m sorry.” I wanted to go to him, but his hurt and anger burned around him like an unholy halo, and I couldn’t touch him. I stood for a moment, my hand partially extended toward my brother, then strode out the front door, into the chilly night.

I don’t remember too much of what I did for the next hour. I walked around the mercury-lamp-lit yard, trying to come to terms with what I had just heard. Hal had never said a word, before tonight, to prepare me for this. And I suppose I had just assumed this sort of thing didn’t happen to people I knew. But it had. This land was just another statistic in a ledger; my brother was just another failed businessman.

night

Finally I went inside to go to bed, no less at sea than before, but too cold and fatigued to stay up any longer. Hal and Gail were already in their room, so I locked the door behind me, flipped out the entry light, and, for a long time, leaned limply against the doorway in the darkness of my brother’s house.

I woke up in the morning when the winter sun crawled under my eyelids through the east windows of Kris’s room. I always felt a little silly sleeping in a canopy bed festooned with pink and white Victorian lace, but when I was here, Kris bunked with the boys, and this became “Uncle Frank’s room.”

As I blinked the sleep out of my eyes, the pain of the night before rushed back into my gullet, like acid pouring down a drain. I don’t think I’d slept more than fifteen minutes at a stretch all night; I’d doze for a while then wake up, re-hash Hal’s situation about a dozen times, doze off again and wake again. I felt about as rested as an army grunt in a muddy foxhole. But, with the sun shouting through the windows and the smell of bacon and coffee in my nostrils, I decided I might as well get up.

Gail was in the kitchen, red-eyed, standing over an electric skillet and poking absently at the few strips of bacon sizzling in it.

“Did I correctly identify the smell of coffee, and if so, where the heck is it?”

“Yeah, right over there. Cups are in the cabinet over the coffee maker.” She gestured wearily in the general direction of the cabinets.

“Guess you guys didn’t rest too well last night, either.”

“Oh, that’s nothing new. I haven’t slept all night since the first of the month. That’s when Hal found out from the bank. ”

A long, sterile silence. “Gail, listen, I acted like an ass last night, and … ”

“Oh, Frank, Hal doesn’t blame you. To be honest, he doesn’t have the emotional capital to waste on being upset with you. That’s one of the scariest things … Since he found out, it’s like he’s just slowly running down. He drifts around like he’s not interested in anything. I can’t even touch him anymore. That damned bank has pulled the plug on him, and he’s … he’s just … quit, that’s all. He puts up a front, but I know. He’s dying on the inside …” Her voice trailed off as she stared blankly into the middle distance. Tears began to trail down her cheeks, and she didn’t try to wipe them off. They followed one another, unheeded, down her face and neck, as though she didn’t feel them anymore, or perhaps it was simply too much trouble to take notice of them.

filling men’s hearts with fear

“Isn’t there anyone you can talk to, Gail? Pete Sloan, or somebody … maybe somebody at church?”

She shook her head numbly. “He can’t … or he won’t. And it’s hard for them, too, because they look at him, and they know what’s going on, but talking about it is like admitting it could happen to them, too. I guess keeping it to yourself is a way of keeping it away. I don’t know … ”

“Gail is he … do you think Hal could try something crazy?”

“What’s crazy, Frank?” she demanded, staring defiantly at me. “When you’ve poured your lifeblood into something, when it’s all you’ve ever known or wanted to know, when it’s as big a part of you as this place is for him, and then it gets yanked away from you; what could be crazier than that? You know how you felt when Hal told you. Just try and imagine how he feels. This is all he’s ever wanted to do or be, Frank. This farm is him and he’s the farm. He knows every contour, every ridge on the place. When he’s out on one of the tractors, he’s himself; real and alive and in his natural element. For him to think about not doing that … he can’t think about it, that’s all. He has no way to think about it … oh, dammit!”

bacon

Blue smoke curled up from the charred strips in the skillet. As Gail hurriedly unplugged it and reached for a spatula to scrape the burned bacon out of the pan, I glanced out the window toward the tool shed.

“Is Hal already out?”

“Yeah, he left just after sunup, although what he plans to do out there this time of year, I don’t know.”

“Okay. Listen, I’m not really hungry anyway, so if you’re fixing breakfast for me, don’t bother.”

“All right.”

I began pulling on a light jacket lying across the back of a kitchen chair.

“Frank? Go and talk to him, Frank, okay? I don’t want to lose him, but I can’t reach him, you know? Please … go and … just go and talk to him.”

I drew her close, feeling the painful lump in my craw threatening to back up into my eyes. “Sure, Gail. I’ll go talk to him. I have no idea what on God’s green earth I’ll say, but I’ll go talk to him.”

I wandered out across the frost-coated grass of the yard, toward the tool shed. I could hear the crisp clank of a two-and- a-half pound hammer on steel as I approached the corrugated tin building, guarded on all sides by farm implements, tractors, odds and ends of machinery in various stages of dismantling, all awaiting the call to action in the spring. Would any of this stuff would be here in the spring?

Over there was a light tractor, the one I’d learned to drive on. The drawbar was still bent from the time I tried to pull a ten-foot cultivator through a nine-and-a-half foot gap between two trees. Dad nearly killed me, once he knew I hadn’t done the job myself. Dad and Hal somehow managed to keep piecing the old beast together, nursing it back to health over and over again. I couldn’t believe he was still using it. I wondered who would be the high bidder for that tractor.

Image

Hal was inside the shop, pounding the slag out of a weld he had just made in the tubular steel drawbar of a breaking plow.

“Knock, knock,” I called.

“Who’s there?” He straightened from his scrutiny of the weld, pushing the welding mask up out of his face and turning to greet me.

“Little brother.”

“Little brother who?”

“Little-brother-with-egg-on-his-face. Hey, I want to apologize for yelling at you last night in front of the kids. It was pretty classless.”

“Forget it. I didn’t even know they were there.” He popped the mask down over his face and bent down to the drawbar. I looked away as the arc welder began to crackle and flash.

“Look,” I continued when he paused to tap the slag out of the new weld, “I don’t pretend to know what you’re going through, but I think I know that acting like nothing has happened won’t help anybody. Hal, listen to me.” I laid a hand on his shoulder as he pulled the mask down again. “Gail is worried sick about you. She’s watching you dry up on the inside. You’re killing her, as well as yourself. Look, maybe it’s time for you to start making plans. Maybe you need to … maybe you need to look for something else to do.”

“Yeah, like what?” He raised the mask and stared ahead with a corpse’s eyes. “Riding a tractor around for twenty or so years doesn’t qualify me for a hell of a lot, does, it? And what kind of office could I work in where I could smell freshly-turned earth? Where would I get that, Frank?”

“Hal … you remember when Dad died, how bad that was? How we both felt lost, like somebody had jerked the rug from under the world? Is … is that sort of how this is for you?”

“No … it’s worse. See, even after Dad was gone, as bad as that hurt, I could still come out here, work, go look at the crops–and still feel a part of him … like he was looking over my shoulder, you know?

“Do you remember that song we sang in church when we were kids … let’s see, how did it go … ‘I’ve reached the land of corn and wine / and all its riches–freely mine. Here shines undimmed one blissful day / and all my night has passed away. Oh! Beulah Land! Sweet Beulah Land …’ I remember when we sang that first line, I’d get this picture of our field, with corn in it as tall as a cottonwood tree, dark green as midnight. And I’ve never lost that picture, Frank. For me, heaven is a place where the corn grows tall, without any Johnson grass or careless weeds, and once a week, at night, you get a nice, slow, one-inch rain. ”

Image

He stared out the shop window, across the winter-dead field behind the house. In a minute he looked back at me, gave a half-smile that never reached his eyes, blinked rapidly several times and looked down. “You know,” he mumbled at his shoes, “I used to daydream that someday Jimmy or maybe Kip might want to come back here and, take over from me. Kind of complete the cycle once more. That’s the kind of feeling I have about this place–it’s the source and destination of the cycle. Every spring we break the ground; we plant, we plow, we cultivate. In the fall we harvest, in the winter we rest, and start over in the spring.

“That’s how it was for Dad, see? Winter came for him, and he’s … he’s resting. It was my turn. But if I lose the place, it’s like–for me it’s like the sun not coming up tomorrow. It’s like spitting on Dad’s grave–like all he and Granddad did was for nothing. I’ve poured my life out on this land, Frank,” he said, his eyes rising to mine and boring in like lasers, “but there will be nothing to show I was ever here.” He held my eyes for a moment, then turned away.

“Hal, it sounds to me as if you’re saying you’re ready to kiss everything off. What about your kids; what about Gail? There’s a whole world beyond this place, and you can’t just dig a hole and lie down in it!”

He jerked around viciously to face me. “This has been my world for forty-five years! Can’t you understand that? You talk all this crap about how much you love the place, then you tell me just to toss all that in the toilet, up anchor and go on from here! Well, for me, there ain’t no ‘from here!’ I’m supposed to just walk away from it and start wearing a tie from nine to five like some rootless, faceless, exhaust-fume-sucking company man? Just … just leave me alone.” The welding mask slammed shut, and he turned away from me like the closing of an iron gate. I left the shop, the arc welder spitting angrily behind me.

(To be continued)

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

The Home Place, Part 2

September 13, 2011


I had seen beaten men before, and it was plain that one sat beside me now.
Exactly what Hal had lost, I wasn’t sure, but it chilled me to the bone to see this anvil of a man beaten into impotent grief.

“Hey, what’s the matter? You’re not leveling with me,” I said, gripping his upper arm and trying to look him in the eye. I had not seen Hal cry half dozen times in all our growing-up years: it was scaring the hell out of me.

“I … I don’t want to go into it now, in front of the kids,” he managed to stammer in a poorly-controlled voice. Kip stood stock-still in the hall, his face a scared, stark question mark.

“Yeah … I understand. Hey, Kipper,” I said, turning to him, “do you think you could go in the den and look under the tree for a red package tied up with bright green ribbon? Get it and take it to Kris, so she can read the label and make sure your name is spelled right. Could you do that for me, partner?” Kip wandered doubtfully into the den, glancing back now and then at us as his dad and I sat beside each other, silently groping for words.

I cleared my throat. “So … maybe we should save this until after dinner?”

“Yeah, when we get the kids down for the night we’ll have some time to talk.”

“Just tell me this: is it you and Gail?”

“Oh, no, we’re … at least I think our marriage is okay.”

I felt the vise in my throat loosen a notch. I loved Gail like a sister. In fact, I guess she was the sister I had never had. She had seen me through the morass of puberty, giving big-sisterly advice about things Mom didn’t live long enough to tell me. I knew if it came down to it, I would have to put my emotional chips on my brother; I was just glad I didn’t have to make the choice.

“Okay, Hal, we’ll save it till later. But no more hedging. I want to know what’s going on. Got it?”
He nodded his head as he swiped a massive forearm across his eyes. “Yeah … it’ll be good to get it off my chest.”

We stood there for a couple of minutes while Hal got his face straight. I listened to the sounds of the household: Gail bustling in the kitchen, clanging pans and utensils; two of the kids fighting noisily about some inconsequential catastrophe; the sound of a game show on the television no one was watching. And I thought maybe I didn’t want to know whatever it was I would find out after dinner. I wasn’t sure I could deal with a tragedy striking so close to the center of what was precious to me. Hal was a sort of gravity for me. He was the farm and my childhood distilled into flesh—a human lodestone.

He sniffed and blinked rapidly, struggling to regain a façade of control. He straightened up and we walked into the den, arms around each others’ shoulders. We talked around the lumps in our throats until Gail called us to the table.

Dinner was a minuet of harmless conversation, accompanied by the uninhibited obbligato of the kids’ stream-of-consciousness jabber. Jimmy, the oldest, wanted to know how long I’d had the sports car, how fast would it run, did I get any tickets on the way here, and he made all A’s this quarter. Kris, the classic middle child, picked at her food, giggled, and got repeatedly grossed out by Kip’s clowning with his entree. Gail alternately dealt discipline and glanced back and forth between Hal and me, sensing the silences between words, feeling the presence of the invisible guest at the table.

It announced its presence in unanswered glances, in half-sighs falling feebly into silences which should have been filled by robust, chaotic, vigorous talk of family and the season and the crops. Not for the world would I broach any subject which might spill the wrenching pain of my brother’s grief out onto the table. But how could I know what raw nerve I might strike with the most innocuous reference? It was like walking on glass shards, barefooted and at night and without a flashlight.

So I answered questions, talked to the kids, and complimented the food that I barely tasted. For some reason, a line from a song kept running through my head like a litany. It was a song we used to sing in church: “Troublesome times are here / filling men’s hearts with fear … ”

With dinner eaten, and the children shooed down the hall to begin stalling bedtime, we shuttled the dishes by degrees to the side of the sink, then went into the den and sat down in the glow of a dying fire. Hal and I looked at each other with bleeding eyes until he glanced down, looked at Gail, cleared his throat and, after several false starts, hoarsely gasped, “I’m losing the farm, Frank.”

(To be continued)

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

The Home Place, Part 1

January 5, 2010

I felt nostalgia grabbing at my sternum as soon as my tires crunched in the red gravel driveway. I live in the city, so I don’t drive much on anything except pavement, but even when I do, in my part of the world they don’t really have gravel—they have something called caliche. It doesn’t make the same sound as the red gravel folks use around here.

I used to spend hours—well, minutes, maybe—standing in the driveway with a bat-shaped board, tossing golf-ball-sized rocks into the air and pounding them into the empty field across the blacktop road from our house. Hal taught me how to do it—demonstrated, anyhow. And, big-brother-like, mocked my fumbling efforts at imitation. But I finally got it. The board/bat was how I first learned about hitting the sweet spot. You really want to find the sweet spot when you’re batting rocks from a red gravel driveway.

The place looked different. Not surprising; I hadn’t seen it since Reagan was president. Not the house so much—I expected that. It was more the land itself: flatter, if you can imagine it. More uniform. I’d noticed it on the drive in: fewer trees, and what little contour the terrain used to possess now laser-graded and scraped into the uniformity needed for irrigation. The few sloughs and sinks I remembered from the days when I used to hunt rabbits and squirrels had yielded to the implacable need for increased rice yields. It was just business—I understood that. But I still missed the sight of those old-growth cypresses and sweet gums.

I got out of the car and corralled the store-wrapped packages in and under my arms, turned and walked across the winter-browed front yard. Steam feathered in front of my face in the cool December evening. Through the kitchen windows I could see Gail bent over the sink, peeling or scrubbing or slicing or some such. I reached the front porch and started to nudge the doorbell with a knuckle, but before I did I paused, letting the silence of the darkened countryside seep into me.

The stillness out here was of a completely different quality from that which passed for quiet in the city. It was like being in a closet: one the size of the universe. No whine of truck tires on a freeway, no passing thump of car stereos, no distant music or laughter spilling from the open door of a nightclub or restaurant. Just an elemental hush that I could almost feel on the back of my neck.

I pressed the button and almost instantly heard the pounding of multiple sets of juvenile feet, stampeding toward the door. The door jerked open and a tangle of blond hair, denim, and arms and legs of various sizes flung itself about my waist. “It’s Uncle Frank! He’s here!”

“Hey guys! Take these packages before they’re destroyed.” I parceled the boxes out with a hug and a kiss for each of them. I looked up just in time to see Hal come out of the den, just off the entryway. He smiled. “Hey, bud. Glad you could make it.” We hugged tightly, slapping each other on the back.

I had seen Hal twist steel bolts in half, trying to snug them down just one more notch. And I had seen him rocking his babies, his hard, nicked hands cradling them as gently as a feathered nest.

“How was the drive?”
“Long and uneventful.”
“Still liking your Miata?”
“You bet. Made it here from Dallas in just over eight hours.”

Hal shook his head and smiled. “Well, come on in and put your stuff in Kris’s room. Gail’s still working on supper, so it’ll be a while.”

On my way to the kitchen, I glanced at the small tree in the den. The five-foot spruce struggled gamely to bear up under the weight of all the decorations, clustered as thick as chain mail. The few packages I had brought had just about doubled the volume of parcels under the tree.

Gail scurried between the stove and the refrigerator, choreographing the three-course meal and looking like a utility percussionist during a performance of the 1812 Overture. She finally glanced up and saw me.
She gave me a grin. “Hey, Frank!” She reached for me, a paring knife in her hand. “Oops, sorry,” she said, seeing my mock dodge. She tossed the knife on the counter beside the sink, then turned and gave me a good, tight squeeze. “Good to see you.”

“Likewise, kiddo. Glad to be here. Smells delicious.”
“Well, I hope it is. I got started late, as usual.”
“I’ve already been so advised. How you doing?”
“Oh … okay.”

I searched her eyes for the source of the delayed response, but she looked away.

“So, you can either help me slice potatoes or go in there and chase the kids and visit with your brother,” she said with a quickly summoned smile. “Your choice.”
“With my culinary skills, I can probably make the best contribution by getting out of your way.”
“That’s kind of what I was thinking. Dinner will be ready before you know it.”

I wandered back through the house, looking at everything. This was the same house my parents had brought me home to from the hospital. Through the years our folks had made additions here and there, and Hal and Gail had continued the process during their tenancy. The dwelling had started out as a very simple living room/kitchen/two bedroom crackerbox. Then, as times got a little more prosperous, Dad and Mom had added another bedroom, a carport, and enlarged the kitchen. Hal and Gail had added a den, an upstairs playroom, and a master suite.

So many joinings of timber and time, so many layers of memory … The house existed both Now and Then. The construction of my life had started with the building of this house. By the time I graduated from high school, I was pretty sure I’d outgrown this place. Turns out it had grown into me.

I felt Hal’s hand on my shoulder. “Whatcha doing?”
“Oh, just remembering stuff, I guess.”
“Yeah. Me, too.”
The tone in his voice pulled my head around to look at him.

“Something going on, bud?”
He stared into the middle distance for a second or two, then shook his head. “Nah. Let’s go sit in the den.”

There was a comfortable fire in the fireplace. The TV was on with the volume down; General Schwarzkopf was standing in front of a bank of microphones while stock quotes crawled across the bottom of the screen. Hal aimed the remote and the picture disappeared. I settled into an armchair and rested my feet on an ottoman, and Hal sank into his recliner. We both stared into the fire for a few seconds.

Kip, the youngest, scampered into the room. “Know what Santa’s bringing me, Uncle Frank?” he said, crawling into my lap.

I smiled down into his intent blue eyes. “No, Kipper, what’s that?”
“He’s bringing me a red tractor, just like my daddy’s.”
“No kidding! You going to help your dad plow?”
“Yeah. Just like my daddy.”

“Sounds good, pal. I bet your dad could use another good tractor driver.”
I ruffled Kip’s hair as he scooted out of my lap and trotted toward the stairs leading to the playroom. I grinned at Hal.

Tears gleamed on his cheeks as he stared into the fire. His mouth was twisted into a grimace of anguish.

“Hal? You okay?”

He just kept staring straight ahead.

(to be continued)

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.