Sunday Clothes, Chapter 11

There was a moment of shocked silence. Then Addie covered her face with her hands. The sobs started in short, silent bursts, then deepened and broadened into a river of grief, pouring from her in huge gasps and loud moans. She felt Rose’s arms around her, smelled the dusky, warm scent of her, and for a moment she was again that bewildered, abandoned child of thirteen, buffeted by a loss that could never be fathomed, only endured. And again, Rose crooned her untiring incantation of comfort: “It’s all right, Missy. You can make it. It’s going to be all right, by ‘n’ by.”Sweet By and By

*******

In the days that followed, they settled into a routine. Rose would come midmorning, after Addie had gotten herself out of bed and in some semblance of order. She would stay through early afternoon, leaving only after she had prepared something that Addie could warm up for supper. On the fine days, if Addie felt up to it, they would go for short walks up and down the streets of the neighborhood. If Addie needed anything from the grocer or butcher, Rose would go around and give orders to have it delivered. She heated towels on the stove and made hot packs to ease Addie’s aching lower back muscles. She massaged Addie’s calves when the frequent cramps would tie them in knots. She helped in piecing the baby’s quilt.

They would sit for long stretches of time without speaking—Addie in her overstuffed armchair, Rose in the cane-bottomed rocker. During the day, the light from the parlor windows was more than adequate to piece or sew by. Addie felt no need for speech, no need to hold up either end of a conversation. Every so often, Rose would ask, in her low, monosyllabic way, if Addie needed anything. And Addie felt not the slightest hesitation about making any request. This, after all, was Rose. Her presence was like the feel of an old, well-worn quilt on a cold night.

Addie sometimes wondered how Rose had managed to get Papa’s permission to come and help out, but she could never make herself ask. Even more, she longed to ask Rose if Papa ever mentioned her, if he ever thought of her. But she was terrified of the answer to that question and left it well alone. And besides, thinking of home invariably led her thoughts back to little Katherine—her adorable lisp; the silken feel of her cinnamon-colored hair as Addie brushed it out for her; the beautiful, perfect curve of her chubby cheek; the sound of her laugh … No, it was better not to speak of the things of home. For now, it was enough that Rose was here. The nights were less lonely, knowing she would see a familiar, caring face the next day.

About a week after Rose’s arrival, Beulah Counts came to call. She blustered in on the coattails of an unseasonably warm south wind. “Lord-y, I tell you that wind like to blew the hair off my head. How you doin’, honey? Mercy, I never seen such a wind as—”

She stopped in midsentence, staring at Rose, who was just then coming from the tiny Coffee cup with flowerkitchen bearing two steaming cups of coffee.

“Who’s that?” Beulah blurted.

“This is Rose, my— She’s come to help me out these last few days,” Addie explained, glancing nervously from Rose to Beulah. Rose gave no sign of recognizing Beulah’s presence, carefully placing first one coffee cup, then the other, on the two crocheted coasters on the small table by Addie’s elbow. “She’s … Rose has been with my family for years, and it’s so kind of her to come when I needed her,” Addie said, smiling sweetly, first at Rose, then at Beulah.

“Uh-huh,” Beulah snorted, placing a hand on her hip. “Well, thank you for the coffee, Addie. I guess I wouldn’t mind a taste, even on a day like—” Beulah’s hand, stretched toward the coffee cup farthest from Addie on the table, froze in midgesture as she watched Rose nonchalantly grasp the cup and bring it to her lips, sip noisily, and replace it on the coaster, never once looking in Beulah’s direction.

“Yes, that’s a good idea,” chirped Addie into the awkward silence. “Rose, why don’t you bring Mrs. Counts a cup of coffee? How do you like it, Beulah dear?”

Beulah’s jaw hung slack on its hinges as she turned to regard Addie. “Addie!” she began in a stage whisper, “do you honestly think it’s proper—”

“Why, of course, Beulah!” piped Addie, at once flustered and secretly delighted at Beulah’s discomfiture. “I think if you want a cup of coffee, it’s perfectly proper for you to have it. How do you like it? Cream, sugar, … or both?”

Beulah stared at Rose’s broad, disappearing back, momentarily framed by the kitchen door. “Both,” she said, finally, pinching her lips together like a miser closing a purse.

“Rose, did you hear?” asked Addie.

Mmm-hmm.”

Beulah seated herself, perching uncharacteristically on the edge of the small settee, Setteeaccepting from Rose the coffee cup as though it were a live rodent. She balanced the cup and saucer carefully on her knees and strove gallantly to ignore Rose’s presence while she made several abortive attempts at chitchat. She never separated the cup from the saucer.

In a few minutes, Rose took her own cup to the kitchen and came back out wearing her old, ratty shawl and a nondescript kerchief over her head. Without a word to anyone, she walked toward the door.

“Rose, are you leaving?” Addie asked.

“Yes’m. I be back in the mornin’.”

“Well … All right, then. Good-bye—and thank you.”

Mmm-hmm.” And then she was gone.

“Who is that old nigger woman?” Beulah demanded as soon as the door was shut. “And why on earth were you … drinking coffee with her?” she continued, her lip curled in contempt. “Having her to wait on you is one thing, but that’s so, so … familiar!”

“Oh, Beulah!” Addie laughed. “Rose just about raised me! In fact, she did raise me after my mama died. And I’ll tell you what else: she cares more for me than—” The words my own father died in Addie’s throat. “—than lots of folks who’ve known me as long,” she said. “She’s just … Rose, that’s all. You can’t let her get to you. She’s just like that, is all.”

“Well, you better listen to me, Adelaide Douglas,” Beulah lectured, shaking an admonitory finger, “she’s a little too big for her old britches, is what I think, don’t matter how long you’ve known her. And people in Nashville ain’t like some might be in Chattanooga.”

No, I guess not, Addie thought.

“You let her keep carrying on like that around you and you’ll be sorry, mark my words. You give ‘em an inch, and they’ll take a mile!”

Despite her best efforts, Addie began to smile while trying to calculate all the inches Rose had accumulated during her lifetime. “Well, anyway, Beulah, I’m so glad you came. Your hand is so much steadier than mine—would you please help me baste the batting into a quilt?”

“I guess so,” she sighed, leaning over to place the cup and saucer on the side table. “Where is it?”

“At the end of the settee, by the door. The bow tie.”

“Yes, I remember the bow tie,” Beulah said. “This room’s not big enough to cuss a cat without gettin’ fur in your mouth. How in the world you gonna set a quilt frame in here?”

“Oh, it’s just a baby quilt,” Addie said. “I didn’t figure on using a frame. I thought I’d probably just lap-quilt it.”Thread spool

“Well,” Beulah said, shaking her head, “where’s your needles and thread?”

*******

Despite Addie’s fretful impatience, March 20 did finally arrive—the day on which Zeb was to return. She was nervous and agitated all day, picking things up and immediately setting them down again, pacing the small parlor like a lion in a cage, staring habitually out the windows, though she knew Zeb’s train wouldn’t arrive in Nashville until ten o’clock that night.

“You better set down and rest, Missy,” Rose said. She was seated in the rocker, and she had the bow tie quilt spread across her lap, taking fine stitches through the cotton batting into the backing, then back through the top. “You gonna wear yourself plumb out before your man even get home.”

“Oh, Rose, I’m sorry. Here, I’ll sit down and talk to you. I’m acting just like a schoolgirl today!”

Mmm-hmm,” came the murmured reply. Rose kept her eyes on her stitching as she asked, “How long he been gone, honey?”

“Oh, it seems like forever! But, I guess it’s really only been … about a month.”

Rose made no reply.

“He’s doing very well in Little Rock, really,” Addie went on. “His bosses are real proud of him. And … and so am I.”

Mmm-hmm.”

“Oh, but I wish it were ten o’clock already!” Addie pushed herself out of the chair and paced toward the front door, then back, hugging herself.

“I miss him so much!”

“You ain’t going to hurry that train none, wearin’ out this here floor,” Rose said. She brought the thread to her lips to bite off an end. “He be home pretty soon, and then you be wishin’ you save your strength for somethin’ besides walkin’ around all day.”

“Rose! You crude old thing! I’m—I’m expecting!”

“Yeah, you is.” She grinned at Addie. ‘‘And so is he!”

Addie stared at her, mouth agape.

“Honey, I done had seven babies,” Rose went on, squinting one eye to rethread the needle, “and I knows how mens thinks, and what they thinks about. He been gone from home a solid month, and he be needin’ you. Don’t worry about that baby; you ain’t gonna hurt him. De good Lord know what he doin’ when he made us the way he do.”

A flush was creeping up Addie’s neck, and a smile twitched the corners of her lips. She turned away, unwilling for Rose to see the effect her advice was having.

The day wore on toward afternoon, and presently Rose stood and walked into the kitchen. She came back, carrying her shawl and kerchief.

“Oh, Rose, don’t go!” Addie urged. “Please! Stay with me until Zeb—until Mr. Douglas gets home. I don’t think I could stand being by myself today, as fidgety as I am. Will you stay? Please?”

Rose looked at her a long moment, then smiled slowly. “Well, all right. I reckon I can stay a little while more, at least. I don’t know if I can catch a trolley after ten o’clock, though—”

“Oh, thank you, Rose! I need someone to talk to, to make the time pass faster.”Mantel Clock

“Well, I don’t know about that,” Rose said, tossing her wraps on the settee and slowly settling herself back in the rocker. “Seem to me like time pass on its own lookout; don’t make no difference whether folks be tryin’ to pass it or not.”

“Now, Rose, you know what I meant. There’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you these last few days. I’ve been wondering: what was it like for you when you had your first baby? How did things change for you?”

Rose rocked slowly back and forth, her hands folded on her bosom. Her face was angled to one side; she appeared to be looking beyond Addie, out the window toward Granny White Pike. For several moments she stayed like that—rocking and looking and saying nothing.

“James come into this world during the worst thunderstorm of the spring, back in ‘57, I guess it woulda been,” she said. “He was my first, an’ I guess I was plenty scared, not much knowin’ what was happenin’. Oh, I done helped at lots o’ birthins, but this one was mine, see, and that make everythin’ different.”

Addie shifted in her chair, moving the pillows at the small of her back so she could face Rose with more ease. The afternoon sun bathed the room in warm, languid light. The traffic on the street outside was infrequent, and the ticking of the Ingraham mantle clock loaned a settled, comfortable feeling to the small parlor. Rose’s well-worn voice droned along the paths of her memory. Addie felt the pull of the voice, felt it summoning her steadily and pleasurably into the reminiscence, like a firm, sure hand on the drawstring of a well bucket, bringing water from a deep, sweet source.

“It was nearly midnight when I felt the pains comin’ on, and I sent my man Leland down to Sister Hattie’s house—oh, I guess maybe a quarter mile or more.” She let out a deep, bubbly chuckle. “Honey, I ain’t never gonna forget the look on that man’s face when I told him it was time. I done had to jab him in the ribs four or five times with my elbow to get him awake enough to ‘tend what I was sayin’. Directly, he set up. ‘What you doin’, woman?’ he say, like I done stabbed him.

“‘It’s time,’ I say, ‘the baby comin’.’

“For a minute, I think he don’t hear me. He just sit there, rubbin’ his face and yawnin’. Den his eyes, they pop like this!” Rose laughed again, shaking her head at the memory. “‘What you say, woman?’ he holler. He like to fall out the bed trying to get his britches on.

“We was stayin’ down by the freight yards in them days, and the closest help was Sister Hattie Sorrels. Leland light out for her house like the devil hisself was on him. He ain’t no more than go out the door when the lightnin’ flash so close by you could hear it crack like a whip, and right on its heels a clap o’ thunder that like to wake the dead.”

“Oh, Rose! Weren’t you scared?”

Rose shrugged. “I guess . . . maybe. But it was too late to do much more than wait. And pray. I done plenty o’ both.”

Several quiet moments passed.

“How long has your husband been—gone?”Rose and Leland

“Fourteen years, the tenth of next month,” Rose answered instantly.

“Was … was he sick?”

Rose shook her head. “He got hurt workin’ on the incline railway up on Lookout. He was standin’ behind a car loaded with blast rock, and a couplin’ bust, and he get run over. He live about three days.” Rose mused a few seconds. “Leland was a crew boss, so the company pay for the funeral, and they give me fifty dollars.”

The clock ticked patiently. An electric trolley clattered past on the street. “How long did it take before you got over it?” Addie asked in a half-whisper.

“You don’t never get over it, honey,” Rose said in a creased voice as low as a moan. “You just learns to live with it, that’s all. And the Lord give strength for the day.”

*******

The afternoon wore on, and despite Addie’s objections, Rose had to leave. The Nashville negroes were boycotting the traction company just then, but Rose’s cousins had told her about a group of blacks who were attempting to run a hack service to compete with the trolleys. The hack picked up not too far from Addie’s house, but it stopped running after dark.

“I got to get on, honey,” Rose said, gathering her things. “I’m too old to walk all the way to Freeman’s house, and I’m too scared to try it at night.”

“Of course, Rose. Thank you so much for staying with me a little longer.”

“Yes’m. Don’t get up, now. I can make it out the door by my own self. You don’t worry about your man; he be here soon’s he can, I imagine. You just take it easy, and send for me, you be needin’ anything.”

Addie watched Rose talk herself out the door, watched the door close behind her, watched her amble off down Granny White Pike with her back-and-forth, purposeful gait.

Addie looked at the mantle clock and sighed. Only a quarter till five …

*******

The brakes jolted the car, shaking Zeb awake. He blinked groggily, wincing as he rubbed the back of his stiff neck. He must have fallen asleep somewhere just this side of Jackson, he guessed. He peered with bleary eyes through the window and watched the Nashville station platform crawl past; slowing, slowing, and stopping with a far-off hissing of steam. “Nayshville, folks, this is Nayshville,” sang the conductor as he walked back through the car. Zeb creaked to his feet and reached into the luggage rack for his valise.

He felt kinked and crusty from the journey, but despite his weariness, a warm anticipation bloomed within him. He was anxious to get to the house, to see Addie. It had been a long month. A corner of his mind teased at the question of whether she’d be glad to see him, whether she’d be at all inclined toward—

No! Mustn’t be thinking about such things, he lectured himself. After all, Addie was approaching her time. Such things weren’t decent to contemplate, and it would surely harm the child anyway. Addie was a fine, upstanding woman, and she deserved the utmost resect, especially from a husband who had been so long absent. Especially in her delicate condition.

He shuffled down the aisle of the car. The air coming through the open doors was chilly, after the comfort of the heated coach. He pulled his watch from his vest pocket and flicked open the cover. Ten-oh-seven. Just about right. The trolleys wouldn’t be running, but he could probably hire a hack to take him home.

He found a slightly dilapidated hansom waiting in front of the station, the horse Hansom cabchamping noisily in a nosebag and the cabbie dozing in the seat. “Say, there,” he called, tapping the side of the cab, “you for hire?”

“Yes, sir,” the cabbie replied through a yawn. “Just climb in and tell me where to.”

“Granny White, up past Vanderbilt. You know where Edgehill is?”

“Yes, sir, sure do,” the cabbie answered, untying the nosebag. “Have you there in a jiffy.”

Half an hour later, Zeb got out of the hansom and flipped a fifty-cent piece up at the driver. “Thank you, sir!” he heard as the cab clattered off. He realized he probably shouldn’t have tipped so much, but he was glad to be home, and he felt generous. Besides, he thought as he strode toward the front gate, I can afford it! He felt his pulse quickening as he opened the gate. The gaslights in the parlor were glowing through the windows, so Addie was waiting up for him. It would be so good to see her again.

An instant after the gate catch banged home behind him, the front door flew open. She was striding toward him, as fast as her girth would allow. He set his valise down and she was in his arms, and he was smelling the sweet scent of lilac soap and feeling her silken hair and drinking a long, glad draught from her lips.

“Well, we better get in the house,” he grinned at her a moment later. “Folks’ll talk.”

“Oh, let ‘em,” she sighed, putting her arm around him as they walked toward the front door. “I’ve missed you so, Zeb.”

‘‘And I’ve missed you,” he replied, opening the door for her.

They went inside. He dropped his valise beside the settee and tossed his derby on the lamp table by the door. Addie took his hand and pulled him forward. Toward the bedroom. He stared at her.

“Addie, what . . . Are you sure . . . Is this—all right?” Despite his protests, his voice was thickening with onrushing desire, and her eyes said everything he wanted to hear.

“Why, we ain’t gonna hurt that baby none,” she said in a weak imitation of Rose’s gutteral voice. “The Lord know what he doin’ … ”

Gas light

Half an hour later, he remembered to come back into the parlor and douse the gaslights.

*******

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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