Sunday Clothes, Chapter 5

The drive back to the Caswell homestead was as long as a dreaded chore, and very quiet.

Addie sat in the sulky and sobbed as the service wound to its conclusion. Zeb, of course, had stayed inside through the communion service and offering until the very end, to lead the final prayer requested of him. That suited Addie fine because she really didn’t want to have to explain to him feelings she didn’t fully understand herself.

When the congregation was finally dismissed, Zeb stepped briskly from the church door, striding toward the sulky. His expression was a mixture of embarrassment, concern, and confusion. But at that moment, Addie couldn’t bring herself to care about what he was thinking. She was too busy with trying to organize and understand her own thoughts.

They were almost halfway back to Orchard Knob before either of them spoke.

“Addie—what’s wrong?” Zeb finally blurted as they neared the one-lane bridge across Cellico Creek.

She shook her head and stared away from him, across the flats toward the Tennessee River, glittering in the noonday sun. She didn’t know how to begin to tell him what she felt. Or maybe she was afraid of what she might say if she tried.

“Honey, I— Is it something I did that upset you?” he asked in a limp voice as they clattered over the tiny wooden bridge.

She turned in her seat and stared at him, unbelieving. Could he really be in some doubt about what was bothering her? Was he that blind? Again she could summon no words suitable to her purpose, and turned away.

After another eternity, they arrived at her house. He stopped the sulky

in front of the porch steps just as Rose, still wearing her Sunday dress with a white apron tied around her waist, stepped out of the front door with a broom in her hand. As if the sulky and its occupants did not exist, she began methodically sweeping the porch.

“Well … I, uh … I wonder what’s for dinner today?” Zeb stammered into the stony silence.Goodbye

For the first time since leaving the church house, Addie found her voice. “I don’t think you’d better come in for dinner today, Zeb,” she said, staring straight ahead. “I think you might ought to go on back to Murfreesboro for awhile. I … ” Her tone wavered, then caught again. “I think it might be best if we didn’t see each other for awhile.” She placed her hand on his arm to steady herself, then caught up her skirts as she stepped down from the sulky.

“Do what?” he asked, incredulous. ‘‘Addie, why won’t you tell me what—”

But she had already gone up the steps and was crossing the porch and reaching for the front door. And then, as he stared after her, she was inside, and gone.

*******

Rose grunted softly as she placed the platter of fried chicken in the center of the table. She glanced at Mr. Caswell, then backed into the corner and bowed her head.

Jacob glanced at Addie, who sat listlessly in her chair, staring at a vacant corner of the dining room.

“Shall we pray? Our gracious heavenly Father, we thank thee for this thy bounty that we are about to receive, and for all thy many blessings. Amen.”

Reaching for a thigh piece, Jacob again glanced at his daughter. “Where’s your beau? He not joining us today?”

For a long moment he thought she hadn’t heard him. “What’s that, Papa?” she responded, finally. “Oh, Zeb … No, he’s not coming in today. He … he had to go on back to … to Murfreesboro.”

Jacob received this news with a lift of his eyebrows. He spooned a heavy dollop of mashed potatoes onto his plate and reached for the bowl of cream gravy.

“Guess maybe he decided Methodist chicken was off his menu.”

Addie stared sharply at her father, then turned away. She grabbed for the bowl of green beans and flicked a spoonful onto her plate.

Rose poured buttermilk into Jacob’s glass from a large crockery pitcher. “Rose, pass me that plate of corn while you’re here, would you?” he said. He selected an ear from the platter.

images-2

“Still, I guess it makes sense. After all, there ain’t nothing in the Bible that says it’s all right to eat fried chicken on Sunday.”

“Papa!” Addie flung her napkin from her lap and vaulted to her feet, glaring at him.

“What? I was just making conversation, is all. Nobody else at the table seemed to much want to talk to me.”

“Neither one of you understands a thing! Not a blessed thing!” Addie whirled about and knocked over her chair as she stomped into the hallway and up the stairs.

Jacob stared after her. As Addie’s footsteps pounded up the staircase, he peered questioningly at Rose, who returned his look with a flat, judging glint in her eye.

“What did I say, Rose?” he asked. “I was just going on; she knows that, doesn’t she?”

Rose moved to Addie’s place and began removing her plate and silverware. ‘‘Ain’t what you said,” the black woman replied without looking at him. “That child beggin’ you for help, but you ain’t listenin’.”

*******

The train ride back to Murfreesboro barely registered in Zeb’s consciousness. He felt as if he were in a black, muffled box, and the sounds and sights of the outside world reached him only as vague bumps and muted murmurs.

He couldn’t believe Addie was going to call it quits with him. He just couldn’t bring himself to accept it. And the hardest part of it all was that he didn’t have the faintest notion what had set her off. The more he thought about it, the more maddening it became.

On Monday morning, he flung himself into the work of the agency: canvassing residential and commercial districts for prospects, going on appointments with junior agents, making calls on policy holders who were late with premium payments. He kept himself busy, trying to crowd out the numb place at the center of his chest.

But it was no use. When he went back to his boarding house at night, the answerless questions came rushing back to nag at him. He followed them round and round inside his head, mesmerized by the pain and confusion like a bird charmed by a snake.

Reading BibleSome of the other bachelors at the house invited him to join them at their evening roisters, but Zeb had no taste for such activity, even if his convictions had permitted it. Instead, he sat in his room and read the psalms of lament from his Bible and tortured himself with his impossible longing.

*******

The year turned the corner into May, and an unseasonable hot spell settled down onto Chattanooga like an unexpected visit from a freeloading relative. Addie spent her days searching for a cool draft and her nights tossing on sweat-dampened sheets. You expected to be hot and distracted by, say, mid–July or August. But in May you expected to be enjoying cool night breezes and days just warm enough to make a glass of lemonade taste really good. But these days, a glass of lemonade didn’t seem to do anything but emphasize the discomfort.

She sat on the front porch one morning, already worn out from fanning herself. She heard the telephone rattle, just inside the front door. It was still a new enough sound to startle her. This past spring Papa had grudgingly placed the order and had the line run out from the nearest trunk, in Orchard Knob. Addie puffed a stray lock of hair out of her face and pushed herself up out of the rocking chair.

She reached the apparatus, pulled the black earpiece from its brass hook, and stood on tiptoe to get her mouth near the mouthpiece.Victorian Telephone

“Hello? Who’s there?”

“Addie? Is that you?”

Addie thought she recognized Louisa’s voice through the static. “Yeah, Lou, it’s me. How are you?”

“Fine, honey. Can you come over this afternoon? I’m having a quilting—”

Louisa’s voice dissolved in a burst of static and electric squeals, and Addie waited patiently until the noise on the line subsided.

“—someone to watch the babies so I can get everything done,” Louisa was saying.

“When did you say you wanted me to come over?” Addie said, mentally filling in the gaps.

“Sometime this afternoon, if you can.”

“All right. I’ll see you after lunch. Bye.” She hung up the earpiece without waiting to hear Louisa’s farewell. As bad as the lines were, it probably wouldn’t have mattered anyway.

*******

Louisa and Dub had recently moved to the newly fashionable Cameron Hill neighborhood. When Addie stepped down from the horse–drawn trolley at the foot of the hill where they lived, she was already drenched in perspiration. By the time she had climbed to the top of the street, she thought she might drown standing up.

The door swung open. “Hi, Aunt Addie.”

It was Robert, her sister’s oldest. The six–year–old grabbed her around the waist in a fierce hug. Patting his back, Addie asked, “Where’s your mama?”

“She’s in the carriage house, looking for her parasol. We’re going to town! And you’re coming with us!”

Some time later, they trooped inside the open doorway of Peabody’s Dry Goods Emporium on Market Street.

“Now, Robert,” Louisa said, “you keep your hands to yourself while we’re in here. I don’t need you handling every string of licorice in the store, you hear?”

“Yes, ma’am.” The boy made a beeline for the candy counters.Emporium

Louisa shook her head as she shifted the baby from the crook of one arm to the other. “That young ‘un says all the right things, but I don’t think he listens to himself.”

Little Katherine tugged on Addie’s hand. “Aunt Addie, can we go look at the bowth and thingth?”

“Sure, honey. Just let’s keep our hands to ourselves, all right?” The four–year–old nodded solemnly.

“I hate not going to Papa’s store anymore,” Louisa said as they moved among the bolts of cloth and barrels of molasses and other staples stacked on the pine-planked floor. “But it’s just so far over there from where we— Robert Eugene Dawkins! What did I just tell you?”

Robert yanked his hand away from the lid of the jar holding the peppermint sticks. He rubbed his palm on his backside as he peered over his shoulder at his mother.

“Well, anyway,” Louisa said as she began inspecting a stack of bunting, “how’s Papa these days?”

“Oh, he’s … fine, I guess.” Addie hoisted Katherine up so she could see the satin bows on the top shelf of the glass display. “I … I don’t talk to him much these days.”

“You spoken to Zeb since last time?”

Addie shook her head.

Mr. Peabody approached. He wore black sleeve garters and sported a pencil in the band that held his eye patch in place. He had lost an eye during the siege of ‘63, and for as long as Addie could remember, there had been a persistent rumor among the children of Chattanooga that he led a secret life as a pirate. The chance of maybe seeing what really lay beneath the patch, along with his well-stocked candy cases, drew many a young boy into his establishment.

“Can we help you with some bunting today, Mrs. Dawkins?”

“How much is this a yard?”

He peered at the material. “Believe it’s twenty cents.”

“All right, let me have … five yards, I guess.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He went behind the counter to get a pair of shears.

“Well, Addie, you’re going to have to tell Zeb something before too much longer. Your wedding is announced for June, and—”

“I know, I know,” Addie said. “What else do you think I’ve been doing the last few weeks, except going round and round about all this? Oh, Lou! I don’t know what to do!”

“About Zeb, or about the church?” Louisa said. She picked up a paper sack and started shoveling navy beans into it from the bin where they now stood.

“It’s all the same thing, Lou,” Addie said. “I can’t marry Zeb unless I’m willing to join the Church of Christ. I can’t just decide on marrying the man I love—I have to marry his church too. And you know what that’ll mean. It’s just too much for me to think about. Have you … have you talked to Bob or Junior about this at all? What do they think about it?”

Louisa set the sack on the scales, noted the weight, then placed it on the counter. “Two and a half,” she said to Mr. Peabody, who waited, pad in hand. He scribbled down a figure. She turned back to her younger sister.Scale

“Well, Addie, they feel kind of the same way I do. The boys think you’ve got to make up your own mind about this and do what you think is right. Junior says you ought to pray about it.” Junior was the oldest brother, the lay minister.

“Don’t think I haven’t been,” Addie said. “And I keep waiting for God to give me an answer. But he just listens, I guess. So far, I don’t feel any closer to knowing what to do.”

“Addie, maybe he’s waiting for you to decide. Maybe he doesn’t care which way you go on this, just so you give yourself the go-ahead, one way or the other.”

“Lou! That almost sounds—blasphemous!”

“Why? Getting married is an honorable thing, and not getting married is too. Why should God care which one you do, as long as you get on with it and quit bothering him about it?”

Addie stared at her sister. “Well, Lou,” she said finally, “this is my life, and things don’t look so cut and dried from where I stand.” She whirled away and stalked to the other side of the store. “Robert,” she called in warning to her nephew who stood, fingers twitching in desire, before the toy shelves, “you better not mess with that stuff Remember what your mama said.”

Louisa made several more selections and waited for Mr. Peabody to figure the total. She signed her ticket and gave instructions for the goods to be delivered that afternoon. They were almost halfway back to the house, trudging with the children up the side of Cameron Hill, before anything else was said.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Addie,” Louisa said. “I didn’t mean to sound so hard and all. I just wish you could get on with your life, either way. That’s all I meant.”

Addie took several steps before answering. “I know. You’re just trying to help. Everybody’s just trying to help, though. Well … almost everybody. That’s part of what makes it so hard—”Sisters chatting.jpg

At that moment, George Hutto came around the corner, headed straight toward them down the hill. He walked in his usual slow gait, his eyes on the ground in front of his feet, but since they were downhill from him, they came into his field of vision anyway. He glanced up at them and, seeing Addie, stopped in his tracks. After a moment, he swept his bowler from his head.

“Hello, Mrs. Dawkins,” he said. “Hello … Addie.”

“Hello, George!” Louisa said in a hearty voice. “How are you today, other than it being too hot?”

“Yes, ma’am, it is awful hot, isn’t it?” He was answering Louisa, but his eyes stayed on Addie as she bore down on him.

“Hello,” Addie said, following her words with a curt nod. She never broke stride as she drew even with him and then she was past, marching up the hill like Sherman through Georgia.

“Aunt Addie, slow down!” said Katherine, trailing along at the end of Addie’s arm like a dinghy on a tow rope.

As she strode up the hill toward her sister’s house, Addie knew what she must do. As much as she hated to admit it, Lou was right. It was time to quit mealymouthing. It was time to do something.

*******

Addie stared long at the letter she held in her hand. Then, with elaborate care, she blotted it and folded it and slid it into an envelope. She sealed the flap and carefully inscribed Zeb’s name and the address of his Murfreesboro boarding house. Before she Mailboxcould change her mind again, she walked quickly to the postal clerk’s window and purchased the two-cent stamp that would take her missive to its destination.

*******

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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