Sunday Clothes, Chapter 10

Addie knotted the stitch and leaned over to bite the thread with her teeth. She squinted at the piecing, turning it this way and that. She reached over to the gas lamp and brightened it a bit, then continued inspecting her work. Satisfied with the stitching, she removed the straight pin. She laid the completed “bow tie” on the stack with the two dozen others she had finished.

She felt a dull ache starting behind her eyes. She had been piecing for most of two hours. It was time to get up and move around a little. She levered herself out of the kitchen chair, putting a hand to her back as she stood. Standing was getting harder and harder, along with everything else–she was now almost in her seventh month. The morning sickness had abated, however, which was a blessing. Beulah Counts had assured her of that, recounting in uncomfortable detail the story of her sister, who had “been sicker ‘n a bloated mule” for the entire duration of her pregnancy. Addie dared not complain in Beulah’s presence after hearing that.

Beulah had also let it be known that it was foolish to be making a bow tie quilt for the baby. “What if you have a little girl?”

Addie had shrugged. “I guess the bow tie’ll keep her just as warm.”

Beulah had mumbled something about crowing hens.

Addie didn’t care. She liked the bow tie. She had decided to alternate pink and blue ties, Bow Tie Quiltbut it had nothing to do with Beulah and her opinions.

Addie had begun to notice an odd effect Beulah had on her. Beulah was so plainspoken, so cut-and-dried about everything, and, above all, so bumptious and rough in her manner that Addie felt she had to compensate by going the other way. Lately, it had seemed that the longer Beulah lolled on the settee, the more primly Addie perched on the edge of her seat. The more Beulah swilled her tea or coffee, the straighter Addie’s little finger extended from her own cup handle. The more blunt Beulah’s speech became, the more Addie found herself searching for the most delicate and proper language possible. Addie hated herself for doing it, but she didn’t seem capable of stopping; it just seemed to irritate Beulah so.

There was a quiet tap at the front door. Addie pulled aside the curtain, peering into the early spring dusk. Mr. Chester stood on the doorstep, blowing into his cupped hands. She undid the latch and opened the door. Her landlord smiled at her and touched the brim of his derby. “Evenin’ Mrs. Douglas! Just checking by to see if you’re needing anything.”

“Thank you, no, Mr. Chester. Won’t you come inside? It’s pretty nippy out.”

“Oh, no, I ‘spect I’ll be getting back, ma’am . Mrs. Chester thought I oughta look in on you, make sure everything’s all right.”

“Yes, sir, I’m fine, thank you.”

“Well, all right, then. Good night.” He touched his hat brim again as he backed away from the door.

“Good night, and thank you.” She closed the door and latched it. She hugged herself against the cold draft from outside, rubbing her upper arms. And that was another thing. . . . Her feet hadn’t been warm since January, what with the baby taking more and more of the right-of-way. She could pile on ten quilts at night, and though her face and neck might be sheathed in sweat, her feet would still feel like two chunks of ice.

She never felt cold at night when Zeb was at home …. She glanced at the bureau, where his last letter lay open, read twice since its receipt this morning. It was on the stationery of his hotel in Little Rock, dated one week previous. It was scrawled in the curvaceous, elegant hand of which he was so proud and began, as did all his letters, with the salutation, “My Darling Addie.”

I trust this finds you & our (son? daughter? ha) well. Have had good success this week, hope to close two contracts within the next few days. Have several promising leads on prospective agents for Area. All else pretty good here. 

Will plan to leave in three weeks (Mar. 20th) on the ten o’clock (morn.) train. Should pull into Nashville, barring anything out of the ordinary, by about ten o’clock that night. Am most anxious to once again see my lovely Wife.

Much love,

Zeb. A. Douglas

Addie sighed. Another two weeks to wait.

The days seemed ages long these last few weeks. She had almost reached the point of looking forward to Beulah’s social calls. Beulah, for all her bluster and unsolicited advice, was at least nearby and could be depended on for some diversion every once in awhile; a little conversation–however one-sided. Why hadn’t Louisa answered her last letter? Addie wondered. She had written her what seemed weeks ago, asking her to consider coming to Nashville to help in the days following the baby’s arrival. She really thought she’d have heard something from her sister by now.

Massaging the small of her back, she paced slowly into the ten-by-twelve bedroom that Cradleopened off the parlor. She ran her hand around the new cradle that sat on the floor beside their bed. It had just come a few days ago. Zeb had ordered it from the Sears & Roebuck catalog and had it delivered. She and Zeb had looked at a few cradles, had briefly discussed their various merits and faults, but she had never really made up her mind which one she wanted for the baby.

She sighed. It didn’t much seem to matter now. The cradle was here and it would do just fine, she supposed. It was good of Zeb, really, to go ahead and make the decision. She would probably have just dawdled needlessly over details that wouldn’t matter to anyone but herself. She could almost imagine Beulah’s assessment of the situation: “Honey, that baby’d sleep just as good in an egg crate, long as it had plenty of padding…” And a bow tie quilt would keep her just as warm, she told Beulah in her mind.

*******

“All in favor, say ‘aye.’ ” There was a tired murmur of responses.

“Opposed, same sign.” Silence. “All right, the motion carries.”

George Hutto leaned back from the long walnut table. With what he hoped was an unobtrusive motion, he eased his pocket watch out and thumbed the cover latch. He suppressed a wince. Nine-thirty! They’d been at it for more than two hours, and Clem Osgood didn’t show any signs of stopping. Not for the first time, he scolded himself for allowing Dad to talk him into being on the board of Baroness Erlanger’s new hospital. He was as grateful for the baroness’s generosity as anyone else, but there were plenty of things he’d have preferred to be doing at nine-thirty on a Tuesday evening, rather than sitting in this hard chair and waiting for Clem to put things to a vote. And with a new hospital, there seemed to be no end of things on which to vote.

As Clem made full steam ahead into the next item on the agenda, George’s tired mind wandered. He had a new book at home that he’d been wanting to read, but at the rate this meeting was going, he’d be too tired to enjoy reading when he got there. And then, his attention was commandeered by the words “three more deaths this week.”

“Where?” one of the board members was asking.

“One up in Lookout. One out in the county, and one in Cameron Hill. This is the worst spell of scarlet fever we’ve had since I don’t know when.”Victorian Little Girl

“Cameron Hill … Who was that?”

“Little girl–Dub and Louisa Dawkins’s daughter.”

A shock of recognition jabbed at George’s midsection. “Little Katherine?” he blurted, the first words he’d said all evening, other than “aye.”

Clem looked at him and nodded. “Yeah, I think that was her name. You know the family?”

George’s face reddened. Was Clem mocking him? No, probably not. He doubted anyone in the room would know that the mother of the dead child was Addie’s older sister. Probably no one in the whole blessed state knew he had ever cared for Addie in the first place–including Addie. “I, uh– Yes. I’m … acquainted with some of them. From church.”

“Heard it was a mighty sad thing,” one of the other board members offered. “Heard that toward the end the fever turned her mind. Heard she hollered about angels coming for her, and such.”

“How old was she?” someone asked.

Clem shrugged. “I read the obituary, but I forgot.”

There was a moment or two of silence before Clem cleared his throat. “Next item: staff wants two more beds in Convalescent Ward C …”

As the talk droned on, George came to the guilty realization that he had already forgotten about Katherine Dawkins, except for speculating whether Addie would be attending her funeral. He removed his spectacles and pulled a wrinkled handkerchief from his vest pocket to clean the lenses. Resettling his glasses on the bridge of his nose, he risked another glance at his watch. Nine-thirty-eight. He sighed.

*******

W. G. Dawkins walked the elderly couple to the door. “Thank you for coming over, Brother Wilks. You, too, Sister Wilks. I know Louisa appreciates it too.”

The old woman was sniffling into a well-moistened lilac kerchief. “So young,” she murmured over and over, shaking her head. “So very young.” They were at the door, and the husband turned to shake Dub’s hand. Without looking him directly in the eye, he said, “Dub, she’s better off now.”

“Yes, Brother Wilks, I know. Well … thanks again.” The old people went into the night, and Dub leaned wearily against the door, latching it behind these, the last two callers of a very long and very difficult day.

He had started back toward the parlor, knowing Louisa would be maintaining her ceaseless vigil beside the small casket, when a quiet knock came at the kitchen door.

Oh, Lord! he thought. Who in the world, this late of an evening? He stepped across the plank floor of the kitchen and parted the shade slightly, at first seeing no one. Then, peering downward, he realized the knock belonged to the shortened form of old black Rose, the housekeeper of Louisa’s father. Now why would she be coming around again? he wondered. She already brought that platter of chicken this morning …

He parted the door a foot. “Evening, Rose. What can I do for you?”

“Mister Dub, I sure am sorry ‘bout coming so late, but I sure needs to talk to you.”

He sighed. “Rose, it’s nearly ten o’clock. Are you sure it can’t wait till in the morning?”

“No, sir. ‘Fraid not. I needs to talk to you tonight.”

Rose showed about as much likelihood of budging as an oak stump. She wouldn’t look at hrose?im, but neither would she back up an inch. Dub had been around Louisa’s family long enough to recognize that Rose had something on her mind. He could shut the door in her face, even lock it; she’d still be standing there the next morning, waiting to say what she came to say. Wishing desperately he could sit down somewhere, he let the door fall open. Rose stepped inside. A dark, threadbare shawl was wrapped round her shoulders.

“Mister Dub, I needs fifteen dollars.”

“Rose, good Lord! Why at this, of all times–”

“I got to buy a train ticket to Nashville, and I needs fifteen dollars. I got some money saved up, but I needs that much more than what I got, to do what I got to do when I gets there.”

“Rose, why do you need to go to Nashville right now?” he asked, rubbing his temples. “Why can’t you wait till after the funeral, at least?”

“Miz Addie,” came the instant reply. “She in a family way, and somebody got to tell her what happened to her sister’s child. She find out from a telegram, she liable to lose that baby. And somebody got to do for her, now she gettin’ along toward her time. Miz Louisa woulda done it, but she can’t now. Somebody got to do it, Mister Dub. You the only one close by I can ask. I needs fifteen dollars.”

Dub studied her squat, unmoving figure for several moments. “I don’t reckon you’ve told Lou’s daddy what you’re fixing to do?”

Rose’s eyes flickered toward him, then went back toward their resting place somewhere between the chair rail and the kitchen floor. Her face was as immobile as ever, but that single glance had told Dub all he needed to know.

He had to admit, he hadn’t thought about Addie in the time since Katherine’s death. She would certainly need to know, and Rose was correct about something else: the news shouldn’t just be dropped on a woman as far along as Addie was. Too bad Zeb was still in Arkansas.

“I guess you’re right, Rose,” he said slowly, reaching into his coat pocket for his wallet. “Let’s see, here … Five, ten … “He dug about in his pants pocket and felt the contours of a five-dollar gold piece. “That’d about make fifteen–”

She snatched the money from his hand and walked out the door. Just like that. He smiled faintly, despite his crushing weariness. “You’re welcome,” he said to the closed door.

He went into the parlor, and Lou appeared not to have moved since he had last seen her. She stood beside the open casket, staring down into the face of their dead daughter. The expression on her face was that of someone trying to recognize someone who looked familiar–yet not quite. Walking toward his wife, Dub averted his eyes from Katherine’s— no, its—face. It didn’t look just like her, no matter what the well-meaning visitors said. Everything that made her Katherine was gone; this was just what was left behind. This wasn’t what he wanted to remember.

“Lou, they’ve all gone,” he said softly, placing his hands on his wife’s shoulders. “Why don’t you come to bed? You’ve been right here all day, on your feet.”

“Who was at the kitchen door?” she asked him, without taking her eyes off her child’s death portraitface.

“Just old Rose,” he said, surprised that Louisa had been aware enough to ask the question. “She wants to go to Nashville. To be with Addie.”

After a pause, Louisa nodded. Then turned and walked away, toward the stairs.

“Where you going, honey?” Dub asked.

“To bed, I guess. Maybe if I lie down, I can let myself cry.”

*******

Rose sat on the hard bench in the colored car, staring out the window as the night rushed past, featureless and punctuated only by the frequent glowing cinders from the smokestack.

The colored car was right behind the engine, so the air in the car was uncomfortably full of smoke and coal dust, and the noise and bumps and shakes were more noticeable. It was an old, ramshackle wooden coach, in sharp contrast to the sleek, upholstered, well-equipped steel coaches available to the white passengers of the Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis line. Rose would have liked to use the toilet, but the smell was unpleasant, even from where she was seated at the other end of the car. She wasn’t that uncomfortable—yet.

Not many folks, colored or otherwise, rode the late train to Nashville. There was a young,Train Wheels bright-skinned woman with a brand-new basket in her lap, seated two rows up and across the aisle, to Rose’s left. A little closer to the front and on the same side as Rose, there was an old man and two young boys, about seven and twelve, Rose figured. The man’s skin was the hue of water-stained chestnuts, and the boys were somewhat lighter. The boys were sprawled asleep on two of the benches, so soundly asleep that even when the train’s rough motion jogged them onto the floor, they crawled back onto their plank resting places without opening their eyes.

Rose watched the dark roll by and thought about everything that was happening. It was too bad about Louisa’s little girl. Addie would take the news awful hard, Rose knew; Katherine had been her favorite. She was a sweet little child, always so happy and content. Seemed like those were the ones that took bad sick most often. Maybe not, though, she reasoned. Maybe with them you just noticed more. But children were surely hardest to lose or to see lost. It was out of order; the wrong of it showed up more plainly. “Lord Jesus, please come ‘longside Miz Louisa and Mister Dub,” Rose mouthed silently. “You know what they needin’—give it to ‘em, Lord, amen.”

Rose thought about the bits of news she had gleaned about Addie during her errands to the Dawkins’s home during Katherine’s illness. Her stuck there in Nashville, coming to her time in the middle of a bunch of strangers, and that husband of hers way off somewhere . . . Rose shifted slightly to ease her lower back. Not that a man was much good when the time came, anyway. Rose had borne seven children and seen five of them raised to adulthood, and never once had her man been in the room with her to watch the birthing of his offspring. But Rose had been among friends, and the women of the church had always been there to aid as only those who also knew the sweet, grinding agony of childbirth could. Her man would come in when the blood and struggle was out of sight, and he’d look at the life he’d sired, and he’d maybe smile, maybe not. She’d had a good man—better than many—but there were some times that were just beyond a man.

The bright-skinned girl set the basket carefully on the bench beside her and stood, stretching the kinks out of her cramped legs. She turned and glanced at Rose, smiling briefly.

Rose had cousins in Nashville. She could stay with them and come during the day to do for Addie. Someone had to do for her. Louisa would have done it, if things had been different. Addie should have been able to draw comfort from the bosom of her kin, but …

Rose had worked for Jacob Caswell’s family since he was a young man, and it pained her soul to see his spirit shriveled by his bitterness toward Addie. “Sweet Jesus, won’t you change that man’s heart?” she mouthed, still looking out the window. “Won’t you soften him toward his own flesh and blood, for the sake of thy Word, which say, ‘he that trouble his own house shall inherit the wind’?”

The train rolled on through the night and into the dawn, winding up and down gradesvalise and in and out of tunnels carved into the flanks of the steep hillsides. At about seven in the morning, it ground slowly to a hissing halt in the Nashville station. Gripping her battered and creased cardboard valise in one hand, Rose stepped down onto the platform, glad her cousin’s place wasn’t too far from the station. Even if the trolley had been running at that hour, she doubted she could have managed to locate a colored car. As it was, she’d have to walk. Rose didn’t mind. She’d gotten where she had to go in life mostly on her own two feet.

*******

The persistent knocking finally penetrated Addie’s slumber. She worked herself to the side of the bed and managed to lever herself into a sitting position. Pushing her hair out of her eyes, she felt blindly with the other hand for her dressing robe, draped on a chair beside the bed. She sashed her robe and parted the curtains, peering out into the gray morning to see who was standing on her doorstep. At first, she didn’t recognize the short, broad shape. Then, as the caller reached toward the door to knock again, she turned her face slightly toward the window where Addie stood. Rose! With a gasp of joy, Addie weaved her way around the bed in the tiny room and stepped as quickly as she could across the parlor, toward the front door.

She yanked open the door and threw wide her arms to receive Rose’s squat form. The two women embraced in the open doorway. “Oh, now honey, we got to be careful,” Rose said a moment later, placing a hand on Addie’s protruding belly. “Way you done swole up, two be a crowd!”

“Come in out of this cold air,” Addie said, smiling. “I just can’t believe you’re here! How long can you stay?”

Rose pulled the door to, then turned to look carefully at Addie. “Long as you need me, honey. I’m here to do for you till your baby come. “

Addie stared at her, placing a hand to her mouth. “Oh, but … Papa. How did you manage—”

“Don’t make no difference,” Rose said. ‘‘I’m here, and I’m stayin’ till I ain’t needed no more or you tell me to clear out. Set yourself down, now! Ain’t no call for you to be standin’ up all this time.” Rose fussed over her, getting her seated and propped up just so, mumbling and clucking all the while. Addie sighed under the ministrations, feeling more comforted and at home than she had since …

“Now, Rose, you must tell me all about Lou and all the others. I was expecting to hear from her anytime, but she hasn’t written in the longest.”

Rose paused in her bustling about, giving Addie a slow, careful look. She straightened slowly, arms akimbo, and fixed Addie with a sad look, her head cocked slightly to one side. “Honey, that’s the other reason I’m here. Your sister ain’t going to be able to come.”

Addie’s eyes went wide. “Why? What’s wrong? Is it Dub? Or … or Lou herself?”

Rose shook her head and stooped again to lay a hand on Addie’s arm. “No, honey. Ain’t Sweet By and Bynone of the grown folk. It’s your niece, Katherine, sugar. The scarlet fever done took her. She done passed.”

*******

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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