Sunday Clothes, Chapter 12

Louisa noticed a buttercup blooming in the tall grass just beside the front steps. Without yellow buttercupexactly knowing why, she approached the simple little yellow blossom and knelt down, touching its petals gently with a gloved finger. Rising and looking about somewhat self-consciously, she realized it was the first thing since Katherine’s death that she had perceived for its own sake.

The automobile was still coughing its death throes when Dub joined her on the front porch. “Don’t understand what’s wrong with that cotton picking thing,” he muttered. “Guy at the livery said he adjusted the carburetor–whatever in thunder that is.”

“Place looks kinda bad, doesn’t it?” she said, looking about her. A tread on one of the front porch steps gaped loose from its stringer, and paint was flaking in numerous places from the porch railing and trim. The grass in the front yard of her father’s house appeared not to have been cut since last summer. In several places, jimsonweeds and cockleburs reared almost knee-high above the unruly lawn.

“Well, he’s never been the tidy one in the family,” Dub observed, pushing his hat back on his head.

“It didn’t have to be this way, Dub,” she insisted in a low voice. Her husband made no reply.

She went to the front door and rapped. “Papa, it’s Lou and Dub! Papa, you home?”

They heard steps coming down the hallway inside, approaching the front door. The door opened, and Jacob Caswell stepped out onto then front porch, carefully pulling the door shut behind him. “Hello, Lou,” he nodded to his daughter. He shook hands with his son-in-law. “Dub.”

“Jacob.”

“Papa, will you come eat lunch with us after church tomorrow?” Her eyes raced over him as she asked the question, spotting details with a woman’s trained eye: the missing button on the waistcoat, the soiled cuff, the wrinkled trousers. It wasn’t hard to imagine what the inside of the house looked like. No wonder he pulled the door to, she thought. He still has some pride.

“Yeah, hon, I guess that’d be all right,” he answered, his hands jammed in his pants pockets. He rocked on his heels, staring out across the road, recently covered with fresh, orange gravel. “Thank you. I’ll be there. Dub, how’s the hardware business these days?”

“Not too bad, I don’t guess. Summer coming on, the farmers are coming in, getting ready for … ”

Louisa strolled away, the men’s voices fading to a nondescript hum in her mind. She Victorian Little Girlwent down the steps and paced slowly around the side of the house, looking at everything and nothing, feeling inside herself the gradual swelling of the familiar empty space. It wasn’t as bad now as right after the funeral, after everybody went home. Those few days were the worst, when there wasn’t even the prospect of a public service to prop her up, only the remainder of a lifetime with a Katherine-shaped void. No, it was some better now. Not easier, exactly. Maybe she was learning to accept the numbness in her heart. Maybe she was learning to expect less.

She sat down on a stump about halfway between the back door of the house and the tree line of the wood covering Tunnel Hill. When she was still living here, this was a hoary old ash tree whose shade had accommodated many a quilt-top tea party, attended by herself and Addie, then barely more than a toddler.

Addie. I should be with you now, helping you and doing for you. Or you should be here, staying with me while Zeb goes off and does whatever it is that takes him away for so long at a time. But . . .

There used to be a soft cushion of bluegrass beneath the old ash, she remembered. But now the ground around the stump was mostly worn bare, with a few scraggly clumps of dandelion and wild rye scattered here and there. The tree had been struck by lightning one night during a wild summer thunderstorm when she still lived here. Louisa still remembered the searing crash that pounded her chest and sounded like the roof being ripped off the house. The next morning, the old ash tree was a smoking, charred splinter. No more tea parties.

Hearing footfalls, she looked up to see Papa walking toward her, his hands still jammed in his pockets. Seeing her glance at him, his eyes dodged to a spot on the ground beside the stump.

“Lou. How … how you doing?”

“Fine, Papa. ‘Bout the same, I reckon.”

“Dub says business is good.”

“I guess. I wouldn’t know.”

He scuffed the toe of his shoe beneath a tuft of rye grass and started idly trying to root it from the ground. “Boys all right?”

“Yes. Robert still mopes some, and the baby’s too little to know much.”

“Well, I expect they’ll be fine. Just take some time.”

“Yes. Just time.

He pulled a hand from his pocket, wiping it hesitantly on his pant leg. He walked up beside her, finally, and laid it on her shoulder. “Lou, I … I’m sorry. Real sorry.”

She sat perfectly still and expressionless, for so long that he removed his hand. He rubbed his face and stuck his hand back in his pocket. He looked away, toward the trees. Just beneath the eaves of the wood stood a sprig of dogwood, halfway through the change from blooms to leaves.

“I’m sorry, too, Papa.”

It was such an odd thing for her to say, dropped without warning into the silence, that he forgot his diffidence and stared at her. “What?”

“I’m sorry too.” She looked up at him. “We both lost a daughter, Papa. The Lord took mine, and there wasn’t anything to be done about it.”

She stood, staring into his shocked face.

“What’s your excuse, Papa?”

She turned and walked back toward the house1890's Model T

She could hear Dub grunting as he tried to crank the motor car. As she rounded the corner by the front porch, she glanced over her shoulder. Her father was still standing by the stump, staring at the place where she had sat.

*******

As she entered the final month of her pregnancy, Addie began to feel more and more like a beached whale, and Zeb just couldn’t seem to understand–although she thought he wanted to. This morning, for example, she felt his irritation at her slowness in getting ready for church. She could hear him pacing the parlor, hear the click of his watch cover every two or three minutes. He might blame her sloth, but he wouldn’t allow it past his lips. That was something, at least.

She snapped home the last clip on the last garter, sighing as she straightened her skirts. Then she gazed hopelessly at her stockinged feet, so far away, and the high-topped shoes on the floor beside them. Bending over to fasten the buttons on her shoes was far beyond her ability this morning, even allowing that her puffy, swollen feet could be coaxed into the strict confines of the lace-up boots. “Zeb, dear, could you please come help me?” she called, unable to think of any better plan.

Zeb walked into the bedroom, his mouth a tight line of impatience. He looked at her. She handed him the buttonhook. “I can’t do my shoes,” she said with a shrug. ‘‘I’m really sorry, dear, but … ”

Without saying anything, he knelt before her and held up one of the shoes. She pointed Black buttoned bootsher toes and pushed, and he wriggled it back and forth until her foot was encased in leather. Then he began working the buttonhook in and out of the fasteners.

They were just finishing the other shoe when they heard the slowing chug of an automobile, the squealing of brakes, followed closely by the obnoxious, gooselike honking of the brass horn. “Beulah and Will are here,” he said in a terse voice. “You ready now?”

She stood. “Just hand me my purse, over there by the dresser.” They went to the front door. Addie noticed that Zeb slapped a grin on his face as soon as they stepped outside.

*******

What a fellowship, what a joy divine,Leaning on the Everlasting Arms

Leaning on the everlasting arms;

What a blessedness, what a peace is mine,

Leaning on the everlasting arms.

 

Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms;

Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms …

Addie wished she could lean on something. The burst of energy she had felt a day or two previous had by now completely evaporated, and she felt all used up. The congregation arrived at the end of the song, and Brother McCrary motioned from the pulpit for them to sit down. Scarcely had she settled herself into the pew when she felt a wet spot. She was horrified to think she might have soiled her undergarments. The baby had settled awkwardly in the past few days, and sometimes, lately, she had barely been able to control her elimination functions. She felt her face burning with humiliation. How on earth could she politely excuse herself during the sermon without embarrassing herself and Zeb?

Just then, a sharp pain speared her midsection, starting from just beneath her breastbone and rippling down her stomach like cascading fire. It felt like the time her calf muscle had cramped while dog-paddling across the deep hole in Cellico Creek—but much, much worse. Despite her best efforts, a gasp escaped her lips, and her hands went to her belly.

Zeb looked at her, his face confused at first, then wide-eyed. “Is it time?” he asked in a half-whisper, grabbing her elbow.

She nodded, biting her lower lip. “I think so,” she managed.

Zeb stood, stepping over the ankles and knees of the other startled worshippers seated on the pew, making his way toward the aisle. He pulled her after him. “Scuse me. Pardon me,” he said in a low voice, keeping his eyes carefully averted from the surprised faces of those he was stepping over. Addie trailed behind him as fast as she could, one hand holding his, one hand gripping her abdomen, her nostrils flaring in and out as she grappled with the pain clamped like a vise on her stomach.

Beulah Counts, seated two rows behind Addie and Zeb, punched Will in the ribs. Will jerked his head up, saw the Douglases threading their way toward the center aisle, and half-leaped from his seat. The four of them paced hurriedly toward the front door of the church.

And all the while, Brother Charles McCrary never paused in his delivery, never faltered in the rhythm of his homily.

Pacing quickly toward the Duryea, Zeb asked Will, “How far is it to the closest hospital?1890's Duryea

“No!” grunted Addie, walking half-doubled over. “Take … me … home!”

“Now, honey, it may be fine and dandy,” Beulah lectured, “for them hillbilly women in Chattanooga to drop their babies in the cabin with nothing but a granny woman, but here in Nashville, we got doctors and hospitals for such things! You just get in the car and we’ll get you to–”

Her pain made Addie reckless. “Beulah, hush!” She turned to look at Zeb. “I want to go home. And I want you to go get Rose.”

“Oh, Lordy! The old nigger!” howled Beulah. “What next?”

Zeb looked at his wife, panting and hanging on to his shoulder. Then he glanced at Will, who was staring back at him, trying to avoid his wife’s angry glare. “Will, I believe you better get us to the house, quick as you can,” Zeb said. ‘‘And then—I guess you better go get Rose.”

*******

Seated beside the bed, Zeb watched helplessly as his wife’s grip suddenly intensified on his hand. She pulled her knees up and rolled to one side, letting go of a long, low moan.

He prayed harder than he ever remembered praying in his life. How much longer couldhands Addie hold on? Where in the name of heaven was Will Counts? He half suspected Beulah had talked him into driving to the hospital and trying to convince someone to come back to the house, even though Addie had given him the piece of paper with the address of Rose’s cousin scrawled in the old black woman’s spidery hand.

He looked on as his wife wrestled alone with her misery, feeling as helpless and lost as an abandoned child. In her agony, she seemed distant and locked away from him. He was frightened by it but had no words with which to resist, even had she been able to hear through the fearfully intimate cords of travail that separated her from him, from knowing, from everything that had been before now. She was far, far beyond his help or even his recognition, and he was bewildered, defenseless, and insufficient.

He heard the backfiring of an automobile and craned his neck to peer around the doorway into the parlor and out the windows facing the street. His heart leaped into his throat as he saw Rose stepping out of the car almost before Will could get it stopped by the curb, and striding in short, side-to-side steps toward the front door.

“Honey, Rose is here! Hang on, all right? She’s here, Addie. Can you hear me, darling?”

“I’m having a baby, Zeb, I’m not deaf! Go on and let her in the house!”

Gratefully, he rose from his chair and strode to the door, but before he could reach it, theVictorian Kitchen door flew open and Rose marched past him as if he were a hatrack, shoving her purse, hat, and coat at him as she went by. “Get some water boilin’,” she commanded, “and bring me some clean towels. We in for a long haul, so you might as well get comfortable.”

Beulah stood in the doorway; arms akimbo, a tight-lipped, disapproving expression on her face. Will was standing a pace or so behind, hands in his pockets, peering sheepishly in at him. Zeb came to himself and tossed Rose’s things on the rocking chair. “Will, thanks for everything.”

Will waved his hand in dismissal. “Weren’t nothin’ at all,” he said. “You need us to do anything else?”

Zeb looked into the bedroom, where Rose leaned over Addie, murmuring low and smiling, wiping her face with a cloth moistened in the washbasin on the bureau. Carefully avoiding eye contact with Beulah, he replied, “No, I don’t guess. I think we’re all right now. We’ll send word when … when the baby comes.”

“Well, all right, then,” Will said, backing gratefully away from the door. He glanced at his wife’s stiff, unmoving back. “Beulah,” he said in a low voice, “I don’t believe we’re needed here now.”

She drew a loud breath through her nose and let it back out the same way. “No, I’d say not,” she huffed, picking up her skirts and flouncing past her husband. Zeb closed the door as Will turned to follow.

*******

“Let’s get you outta them skirts and into somethin’ more practical,” Rose said, raising Addie to a sitting position. She took her feet and carefully swung them down to rest on the floor.

“Oh, Rose, I don’t think I can manage! Do you think there’s time?”

“Honey, this your first child. We gonna be here awhile before anythin’ much happen, other than some hurtin’ and some strainin’. Next time, it’ll be some easier, but this time you got lots o’ work to do.”

“If I have to hurt this much for very long, I don’t think I’m gonna make it,” Addie despaired.

Rose chuckled deep in her throat as she unbuttoned Addie’s dress and slid it off her shoulders. “Oh, I imagine you make it,” she smiled.

“Besides, you in too deep now, honey. Ain’t no backin’ out.”

“Will it really be as long an ordeal as all that?” Addie asked quietly. ‘‘Are you sure?”

bureauRose shrugged as she pulled a fresh nightgown from a bureau drawer. ‘‘Ain’t no one sure but the good Lord,” she said. “But I done had seven of my own and helped a sight more into this world. If your baby here by sundown, you be better off than some I know.”

Addie heaved a deep sigh as she settled the nightgown around her. Then she felt a warm, familiar hand on her shoulder. “I be here with you, honey,” Rose said, patting gently. “I be here till you don’t need me no more. Ain’t much in the way of birthin’ babies I ain’t seen.”

And then another contraction ripped downward from Addie’s breastbone and clenched her belly in a steel band.

*******

For the next eight hours, Zeb alternated between pacing the shrinking confines of the Mantel Clockparlor and fetching various items at Rose’s command. When the early spasms came, he was frightened by the sounds coming from the partially closed bedroom door. He wanted to either go in and hold his wife or run out the door and down the street, to return when it was all over.

As if divining his thoughts, Rose had poked her head into the parlor during that time. “You the only help I got,” she said. “You stay close by where I can call you easy and quick. Now, go warm me a towel on the stove!”

He carried to the doorway a dizzying succession of warm towels, cold cloths, ice chips, steaming water, cups, saucers, blankets, and other assorted paraphernalia. Each element disappeared in a flash of brown hands and arms into the birthing chamber. These instant errands were interspersed with bouts of pacing and an inner turmoil that mounted with each agonized moan from his wife’s tortured body. She sounded like she was dying! Maybe Beulah was right; maybe she needed a doctor. Once, during an apparent lull in Addie’s labor, he crept to the door and timidly raised a knuckle to tap and inquire whether anything was needed. Scarcely had he rapped once when Rose’s head thrust from inside. “Scald a big dishpan and bring it to me,” she ordered, shutting the door in his face. And so it went.

As the afternoon light began to slant long and golden with the coming of evening, the sound and activity in the bedroom reached a flurrying crescendo. Zeb’s blood ran cold as he heard the brutish grunts and growls coming from Addie’s throat.

He heard Rose chanting in a low, insistent voice: “Come on, now, honey. Push for me, baby, push for me. Come on now, puuuuush for me, baby. That’s it, that’s it. All right, let go for a minute, let go … Now! Puuuuush, honey! Come on, now … ” Sounding now like a mule skinner, now like a revival preacher, Rose cajoled and urged and scolded to the rising and falling accompaniment of his wife’s groans and exhalations and half-articulate cries.

“Just a little more! Just a little more now, baby!” he heard, Rose’s voice rising half an octave, as Addie panted loud and rhythmically. “Just a little— there you is, you little dickens!” Rose cried in triumph. A few seconds later, Zeb heard a sound that made his knees wobble: the thin, high wail of a baby exhaling its first lungful of air in a cry of protest.

He would have gone to the door if he thought he could take the five or six paces withoutdoor falling. His heart was yammering in his chest like a thing gone mad. Without realizing it, he had collapsed onto the divan and sat there, staring at the partially closed bedroom door as if it were suddenly the gateway to a foreign country.

*******

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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