Sunday Clothes, Chapter 4

The spanking two-wheeled sulky and neat-stepping bay were costing Zeb more than he cared to admit, but this weekend he wanted to cut the best figure he could.

Zeb figured Addie’s father was doing everything he could to throw a wet blanket on their marriage. Surely Jacob Caswell wouldn’t disinherit his daughter for marrying outside the Methodist church. But lately Addie’s letters had dwelled more and more on his opposition. Zeb wondered if she was trying to let him down easy. Or maybe there was another reason.

George Hutto, for example. Did he think Zeb didn’t notice the way his eyes lingered on Addie when they met in the street? And George Hutto was here in Chattanooga, while Zeb was in Murfreesboro, trying to improve his lot in life—and Addie’s. George Hutto would solve Addie’s problems in neat fashion: the family was Methodist, and old Deacon Hutto had held onto the money he’d made. Unlike most of the leading citizens of Hamilton County, he’d avoided wild speculation during the panic of ‘93. Zeb had tried more than once to get an appointment with Old Man Hutto to discuss financial matters but was always bluntly rebuffed.

Zeb pulled up in the yard of Post Oak Hollow Church. The thrushes and blue jays were holding their own noisy prayer meeting in the greening branches of the surrounding trees. He stepped down from the sulky and looped the reins over the hitching post, then turned to hand Addie down. He gave her his best smile. Her gaze slid across him without so much as a howdy.images

*******

Addie rested her hand on Zeb’s arm as they walked toward the church door. He was working too hard at his good mood, and it made her nervous and aggravated at the same time. Why couldn’t he just let her be? Since when did a person have to grin every time somebody else wanted her to?

The fact was, she was getting scared. She still honestly believed she loved Zeb, and when she was with him, things seemed to be the same as always. But it was so hard to remember that during the long weeks when he was in Murfreesboro and she was here. On the other hand, Papa’s disapproval was every day. The silent drag pulled at her like a trotline weight. Would Zeb stand up to everyday life? Till death do us part is a long time, she told herself as they went up the steps into the meeting house.

“Brother Zeb, good to see you!” said the toothy deacon at the door.

“Say, could I get you to lead a prayer for us today?”

They found a seat just before the service started. Old Brother Houser stepped to the front. The congregation quieted amid the rustle and thump of hymnals grabbed from the racks on the backs of the pews. “Let’s all get a song book and turn to number one–oh–five,” he announced. He hummed to himself to get the starting pitch.

Have you been to Jesus for the cleansing pow’r?

Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

Are you fully trusting in his grace this hour?

Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

hymnal

Brother Houser led out in his raspy warble, waving his right hand in the air to keep the time. The congregation chimed in by degrees.

Addie felt nervous, as if she could see and hear too much. The man seated behind her sang in a booming bass, almost on key. She could smell his tobacco-tinted breath, hear him belt out the words of the chorus.

Are you washed in the blood?

 In the soul-cleansing blood of the Lamb?

Are your garments spotless,

 Are they white as snow?

 Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

She tried to concentrate on the words of the hymn, but she found her thoughts drifting toward the unseen man behind her. In her mind’s eye, she constructed a vision that resembled Perlie Overby, with his stained, ragged clothing, his bushy beard, and his rough-hewn courtliness. As far as she knew, neither Perlie nor his family had ever darkened the doorway of any church. But the man sounded like Perlie Overby would, if Perlie were singing this hymn. Except maybe this man was a little closer to the tune.

Addie thought about the pitiful way Perlie and his family lived. And about the tender way he held his infant son, how he had crooned to him in his unmelodious voice. About the way the older children had gathered to him.

Addie realized her heart was pounding in double time. Why was she so restless today? She felt like one of the squirming children, impatient to be somewhere else, anywhere else. On the outside she was still, but inwardly she was fretting and hot and distracted.

A middle-aged man walked toward the front to lead the congregation in prayer. Dink Gilliam—he had a blacksmith shop and livery on the eastern edge of Chattanooga, just down the street from her father’s store. Dink was a square-cut slab of a man with a thick neck bulging over the restraint of the buttoned white collar of his Sunday shirt. As he reached the pulpit and prepared to launch into his prayer, Addie could see the dirt between the split calluses on his fingers. He had a ruddy face and a wide-lipped mouth. “Let us pray,” he said, ducking his head as if he was dodging something.

“Our father which art in heaven, we thank thee for this day, when we can come together to worship thee in spirit and in truth. We pray that thou’d bless us as we gather, and that all that’s done here’d be pleasing and acceptable to thee … “

A little boy on the second row from the front began to fidget and fuss, but if Dink heard, his only sign was to raise his voice and plow ahead. “Lord, we’d ask thee to bless the sick and afflicted wherever they may be, especially those of our number, that they might soon be returned to their muchly wanted health, if it be thy will, and if not, thy will be done in all things …“

The man behind her shifted in his seat and the pew creaked. Some man in the back of the church cleared his throat.

“Lord, we’d pray thy blessin’s on Brother J. D. as he breaks unto us the bread of life. We’d ask that thou grant him a happy recollection of the things he’s learned, and that we might take it into our hearts and apply it to our lives … “

A mud dauber wasp hummed through one of the open windows and buzzed among the open rafters.

“Lord, be with us now through the rest of this service and the rest of the day. We ask all these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.”

“Amen,” chorused several of the men seated about her. Dink, looking relieved, made his way back to his seat, and Brother Houser returned to the front. “Number twenty-three,” he said.inside

Sing them over again to me,

 Wonderful words of life;

 Let me more of their beauty see,

 Wonderful words of life …

 

The hymn concluded and J. D. Carson stood from the front row and took his place behind the pulpit. He had a shock of unruly brown hair, trimmed close on the sides of his head but blossoming in profusion everywhere else. His farmer’s hands were rough and nicked, and his face was a weathered brown up to a line that ran just above his eyebrows. Above that, his forehead was stark white. His wife and two young daughters sat on the right-hand front pew.

“Brethren, it’s good to be with you on this Lord’s Day morning,” he said. He flipped through the pages of his Bible to locate his text for the day. “I’m especially glad to see Sister Hawkins able to be back with us after her long sickness.” He smiled and nodded toward an older woman seated in the second row on the aisle. Sister Hawkins gave a little cough into a crumpled handkerchief.

“This morning, brethren, I want to talk about last words. Some of you know what it means to say good-bye to a mother or a father. Some of you know about saying good-bye to a husband or a wife. And if you’ve ever said that final good-bye to someone like that, you know you’ll always remember the last words that loved one spoke to you while they were here on this earth.

“Last words are something that can’t ever be forgot, brethren, because they’re the most important words we’ll ever hear. They’re important because of the person speaking ‘em. They’re important because of what that person means to us. And they’re important because they’re what stays with us. They’re what we remember.

“Well, there’s lots of last words in the Bible. This morning, I want to look at a few of those last words, and let’s see what we can learn from ‘em that might help us live more like the Lord wants us to … ”

*******

Addie’s vision drifted in the empty air just above the preacher’s head. She was remembering the last hours of her mother. Mama had languished for months as the cancer gnawed at her vitals. There was nothing Dr. Phipps could do for her but gradually increase the dosage of morphine. One day in summer, Mama sent for her. Addie could still see the brilliant June sky as it had appeared through the window of Mama’s room, could still hear the fluting of the mockingbirds and cardinals in the trees outside.

But the warmth and gaiety of summer halted at Mama’s windowpane. Her sickness dimmed the sunlight to a dull haze as it came inside. Mama lay propped up against the headboard of her bed, a dried-out husk. Every so often a spasm took her and her eyes would squint with the pain. Her hair hung dank and limp. Her eyes were dulled by the torture of the disease and the drugs that sometimes held the misery at bay. Addie went to her bedside and took her hand. Mama opened her eyes and looked at her for a long time before saying anything.window

“Addie, honey. Pull my curtains for me, would you, darling? The light hurts my eyes.” Her voice was a gray glimmer of what it had once been.

“Yes, Mama.”

“Sweetheart,” Mama said, “I want you to know how much I love you.”

“Yes, ma’am. I love you, too, Mama.”

Mama had patted her hand—once, twice. Her palm felt pasty and insubstantial. Addie wanted to cry, but Mama was trying to say something else. Addie leaned closer to catch the whisper.

“Addie …  take care of your papa. He’ll need you more than ever when I’m … gone.”

It hadn’t occurred to Addie to question Mama’s words. Or perhaps she had been too grieved to take issue, to make the weary, obligatory protest against her mother’s assessment.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Mama died that night, during the wee hours. Addie was thirteen. She could still feel the knot of anguish she carried in her chest for months and months afterward. If she hadn’t had Rose’s ample lap to cry into, she probably couldn’t have survived at all. The colored maid seemed to know when Addie was longing most for her mother. Addie could still feel Rose’s warm, dry hand gathering and sifting her hair, rubbing along the back of her neck, patting her shoulders.

“Hush, now, baby,” Rose said. “Your mama with Jesus, honey. You can make it. It just take time, baby. It just take time.”

Addie could still smell the starch in Rose’s apron, could still remember its feel against her cheek as she wet it with her tears.

She tried to remember a time when she had been able to share her grief with Papa, but there was nothing to remember.

Take care of your papa … Last words. Impossible words.

*******

J. D. Carson held his open Bible aloft. “So when Joshua had all the people of Israel gathered together, he gave them a speech. And what did he say? He said this, brethren: ‘Choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord’—Joshua twenty-four and verse fifteen.”

J. D. lowered his Bible. “Mighty strong words, brethren, and a question that still bears asking: ‘Choose you this day whom ye will serve.’ Think about it. Who are you gonna serve? God? Or something else?”

*******

Zeb nodded, his eyes fastened on J. D. He hoped Addie was listening. J. D. was a little rough around the edges, but he was sincere, and Zeb knew where he was headed with this first point. Addie needed to decide if she was going to continue to serve her family’s traditions or follow the truth of the Bible as he’d tried to lay it out for her. He tried hard to be patient with her, tried not to force too much on her at once. But often he despaired of ever winning her completely from the domination of her father’s sectarian attitude.

Sometimes he wondered why it was so hard for people to agree on what the Bible said about things that seemed so plain. As a boy, he’d assumed it was just because folks hadn’t had the opportunity to hear the truth. But now, he knew that some people were just too attached to their own traditions to turn loose, even when they’d had the chance to listen to correct doctrine being taught.

He remembered once, when he was a boy, being at the feed store with Daddy on a Saturday morning in midwinter. It was a year or two before Daddy died, he remembered. A bunch of men were gathered around the stove, and Zeb was eyeing the horehound candy in a jar on the counter. The men were talking low and lazy. Then, for whatever reason, the subject of religion came up.

“By the way, Gus,” one of them said to Daddy, “ain’t you one a them Campbellites? Outfit that believes you’re the only ones gain’ to heaven?” The lull in the talk by the stove pulled Zeb’s attention from the candy jar, drew his eyes to his father’s face. Daddy was staring into the grate of the stove, a little smile on his lips. But his eyes weren’t smiling. “Now, Shep,” he said, “that ain’t exactly a fair way to put it—”

“Why not?” said one of the others. “That’s what I’ve always heard about y’all too—that everyone that don’t believe the same way y’all do about everything is going to hell.”

There was a silence. The inside of the feed store, so cozy only moments before, had suddenly become uncertain, menacing.

“Tell you what, boys,” Daddy said, “I ain’t sure what minded y’all to get on this subject, but … ” He shifted on the nail keg where he was seated. He glanced at them, then back to the orange glow in the stove grate. “It’s true that we believe the Bible teaches a right way to do things. And we believe that folks ought to try to—”

“Try to do everything like y’all do, right?” said one of the men. “Ain’t that what you’re trying to say, without saying it? That y’all have figured out what the Bible says, and anybody that don’t agree with you is wrong?”

“Say, now, fellas,” said John Hatchell, the store owner. “It’s winter, all right, but I don’t believe we need this much heat inside here, do y’all?”store

Daddy gave Mr. Hatchell a grateful glance. The others left off at that, but Zeb still remembered how, just a few minutes later, he and Daddy loaded their ground sorghum onto the wagon and drove back out to the house, huddled against the cold. Daddy kept quiet all the way home. And Zeb never said anything about the horehound.

Those men were the type J. D. was talking about. They weren’t interested in hearing the true word of God. They were only interested in guarding what they already knew—whether it was right or not. Men like Addie’s father.

*******

“Now, then. Take a look over in the book of Acts, the twentieth chapter and verse twenty-eight. The apostle Paul is just about to leave for Jerusalem, and he knows he’ll never again see the Christians at Ephesus. A course he’s sad about that, and they are, too, but even more important, he’s got some things he needs to tell ‘em. Some things they need to know to keep their faith sound, ‘cause Paul knows there’s plenty of trouble ahead. Listen to what he says … ”

*******

Trouble ahead. Addie wondered if J. D. had just given her a private prophecy. Sometimes she thought Zeb had no appreciation at all for the sacrifice he was asking her to make. It looked as if he thought her joining his church was no more rigorous than changing the style of her hat.

Oh, she knew he took his faith seriously. And there was no question of his devotion to the teachings of the Bible as he understood them. But he acted as if she should just immediately see things the way he did. As if his views were so self-evidently correct that only a simpleton or a reprobate would reject them. As if it were that easy to turn her back on her upbringing. On Papa. She knew Papa was neither a simpleton nor a reprobate. Where did he fit into Zeb’s scheme of things?

She thought just maybe she had a clearer idea of the size of her step of faith than Zeb did. She knew he meant to be there for her no matter what happened, but it wasn’t the same for him; he wasn’t closing a door on anything. And she didn’t think he had the slightest idea how she felt about it. He was asking her to give away her entire world and accept a world she didn’t know anything about. If Zeb was right about everything, God would make it all come out, somehow. But what if Zeb was wrong? And even if he was right, would God give her back the family, the past, she would lose?

Mama, I wish you were here. I need to talk to you right now.

*******

“‘ … for I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also’ —now get this, brethren—‘of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.”’ J. D. lowered the Bible, his brow furled. “Brethren, we sure need to pay attention to what Paul is saying here. He’s saying that not only will false teachers come from outside the church, they’ll also come from inside. There’s not any of us that’s immune to error, brethren. We got to study and pray, and watch ourselves all the time, to make sure we stay pleasing to the Lord … ”

*******

Zeb recrossed his legs and fussed with the knot in his tie. He flicked an imaginary speck of lint from his trousers and glanced at the rafters above J. D.’s head, where a mud dauber made lazy forays against the wood. From the corner of his eye, he glanced at Addie, sitting so still beside him in her high-collared dress and flower-trimmed hat. Before he could forbid it, a vision sprang into his mind: he was wrapping her in a passionate embrace, her face turned up to his, her eyes closed, her lips parted in rapture. His chest constricted in a rush of tenderest desire.

He pulled himself back toward the present. It wouldn’t do to torture himself with dreams of what wasn’t yet to be—what might not happen at all, he thought. Besides, this wasn’t the time and place for daydreaming. He needed to be paying attention to the sermon.

J. D. was right. You had to stay on guard. If you didn’t, you might drift into error and sin, like countless thousands throughout the ages. God was merciful and good, but he still had certain expectations. He gave his will to men in the pages of the Bible, and he expected obedience. Obedience wasn’t an easy matter. It was like walking a greased plank, and you had to give it all you had to keep your balance. Fine and dandy for the Methodists and the Baptists to talk about God’s grace and “once saved always saved,” but Zeb knew the Bible also said that faith without works was dead—James two, twenty-six.

*******

“Last of all, brethren, let’s look in the Gospel of Mark, chapter sixteen.” J. D. licked his thumb and turned several pages in his Bible. He scanned the page to find his place. “These are some of the last words the Lord spoke to his apostles before he went back up into heaven. Listen to what he says. ‘Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized—’ Let me repeat that last phrase, brethren. It says, ‘He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.”’

*******

Addie heard two older girls at the far end of the pew snickering into their hands as J. D. pronounced the closing word of the verse. Again she was conscious of her heart hammering against her breastbone. He that believeth and is baptized. What about she that believeth? She might be saved, but what then? And then she knew the true name of her vague agitation. It was the disguise she had constructed to cloak the anger she felt at Zeb, at her father, at herself, at the Church of Christ—even at Mama. It was the way she hid from herself her useless rage at the unfairness of everything and everyone that she cared about, her rage at her own inability to find a way to be completely happy. Why did it have to be so hard for her? Why did she have to be the one to reconcile comfort, truth, and love within herself? It was like trying to catch rain in a sieve. It was like trying to crochet with baling wire.baptism

*******

“Now, brethren,” J. D. was saying, “we all know that there’s lots of good folks out there in the sectarian world, lots of sincere folks who think they’re following the Bible. But the Lord said ‘he that believeth and is baptized,’ in that order. It ain’t enough to be sincere, brethren. You got to do right. Jesus said, ‘Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven,’—Matthew seven, twenty-one. And what is that will, brethren? Listen again to the Lord’s last words: ‘he that believeth and is baptized shall be saved … ’”

*******

Addie’s mind was a stump in Zeb’s pasture and he’d jammed a pry bar beneath it. With J. D.’s proof-texts as his fulcrum, he was prying, prying, trying to break her loose. Her thoughts of Papa screamed out against the dislocation, clung to the soil of her past with weakening tendrils. She felt as if everyone in Post Oak Hollow Church was staring at her. Well does she understand or not? When is she going to come around?

*******

“If you’re here today and you’re not a member of the Lord’s church, you need to make it right,” said J. D. “You need to come down front and confess Jesus as your Lord. We’ll go this very hour down to Chickamauga Creek and baptize you for the forgiveness of your sins, and you’ll be washed clean in the blood of the Lamb. If you’re already a Christian and you haven’t lived right, you need to come and ask for the prayers of the church. Whatever your need is today, won’t you come forward this morning while we stand and sing?”

Brother Houser led into the altar call.

While Jesus whispers to you,

Come, sinner, come!

 While we are praying for you,

 Come, sinner, come …

Zeb felt Addie’s hand on his arm. He glanced at her and he felt a thrill along his spine. She was moving past him, toward the center aisle! Was she at last going to make the commitment for which he’d pleaded these last months? Was she going down front to get baptized? If she was, that could only mean …

*******

Addie’s face felt hot. The inside of the church was a blur as she moved toward the aisle. She felt every eye on her as she sidled past Zeb and stepped into the center. With her hand covering the sob trying to escape from her lips, she strode down the aisle and out the back door of the church as the congregation sang the final words of the verse.

Now is the time to own Him:

Come, sinner, come!

Now is the time to know Him:

Come, sinner, come …

*******

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

Advertisements

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: