Archive for January, 2017

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

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