Sunday Clothes, Chapter 13

Rose sat heavily in the chair beside the bed as she wiped the last traces of blood from herMother and baby hands and forearms. “We get you cleaned up, Missy,” she said, “before your man come in here. He see you like this, he liable to fall out.”

Addie looked up from the head of her nuzzling baby long enough to give the older woman a wan smile. “I guess I don’t exactly look fit for polite company, do I?”

“Honey, after what you just done, ain’t nobody gonna expect lace and spit curls. But we don’t wanna scare your man, neither. Most men can stand nearly anythin’ ‘cept birthin’ blood. I think it must remind ‘em of what it done took they mamas to get ‘em here. I think they feels bad about it but can’t say so.”

Addie caressed the child’s downy head. She was starting to get the hang of nursing now and her little mouth was pulling greedily at the nipple. Addie felt the twinge of afterpangs now and again, but compared to the ordeal of the birth, they were barely worth noting.

“Raise up a little on this side, honey.” She leaned as Rose directed, feeling the sheets slide from beneath her. “Now the other side, sugar. Your nightgown don’t look too bad, since we kept it up out the way. We get some clean sheets on this here bed and then we be ready for the new papa to come have a look at this here fine young ‘un.”

Addie peered down at the tiny profile, still nursing eagerly. The baby’s eyes were open, their hue a dark blue bordering on purple, and now and again Addie thought she cut her eyes upward, trying to see. “My sweet baby,” Addie murmured, stroking the still-moist cheek. “My beautiful, perfect child.” She felt dizzied by the dense reality of the suckling child in her arms, by the unfamiliar, stunning fact of her presence. All during the nine months leading up to this moment, Addie had known her more as idea than actuality. But now . . . This thing that had issued from her in tides of pain and blood was a person, endowed with every perfect detail in breathtaking miniature. There now existed a living, breathing human being who had never before been! The simple wonder of it rose far beyond the reach of her mind’s vision, swelling unutterable within her until she thought her heart must burst. She used a finger to heft the tiny hand with its five miniscule fingernails, and suddenly she knew: her heart wasn’t bursting. It was stretching to bear her love for this child, just as her muscles and sinews and flesh had stretched and groaned to deliver such a miracle into the light of day.

Rose tossed a clean, crisp sheet into the air and it settled down over them like a gently falling cloud. She tucked the corners in and propped Addie up just so. Casting a final critical glance at the tableau, she went to the door and called out to Zeb. “Well? You ready to see your new baby?”

Addie heard his steps slowly traverse the parlor. He stepped into the doorway, his face as drawn and void as an empty poke. He looked at her, then down at the tiny head bobbing at her breast, and his eyes flared open. The sight breathed life back into him; his whole body bloomed and stretched and widened with joy, and a grin clasped his face. “Why, Addie,” he breathed, “it’s … it’s beautiful!”

“Not an ‘it.’ It’s a ‘she,”’ Addie beamed.

“A girl?”

“Yeah. Is that all right?”

“Why—why, I imagine so! I imagine so!”

“What you doin’, standin’ in that door like you’s company?” Rose said. “Get on over there and hold that baby!”

Nervously rubbing his hands on his wrinkled shirt front, Zeb sidled toward the bed. He reached forward to receive the wrapped bundle.

“Don’t worry, you ain’t fixin’ to break her,” came Rose’s voice, soft at his elbow. “Just let her head rest in the crook o’ your arm; there–just like that. Looky there, she cuttin’ her eyes at you. You see your daddy, li’l Missy? This here your papa, honey.”

Zeb peered into his daughter’s face, hardly daring to breathe.

“Her … her mouth looks like yours,” he told Addie in a stage whisper.

“Yeah, but she got your eyes, that’s for sure,” Rose said.

“You really think so?”

“Mmm-hmm. I expect they be green this time next year, just like yours. What you gonna name her?”

Zeb and Addie stared at each other. “I thought we’d name her Mary Alice,” Addie said, “after both our mothers. If … that’d be–all right.”

Zeb’s eyes were drawn back to the tiny, red face peering from the blankets. “Well, Miss CradleMary Alice Douglas. How do you do?”

*******

In the days that followed, Zeb became more practiced at holding his daughter, but he never quite felt comfortable doing it. Addie or Rose would place the baby in his arms, and he would struggle manfully to relax—mostly to no effect. But Mary Alice didn’t seem to mind; she seemed fully as contented to be in one set of arms as another. Unless, of course, she was hungry or soiled. Then Zeb yielded gratefully to the experts.

He couldn’t talk about the way he felt toward the child because he didn’t understand it himself. Looking at her, he felt an odd mixture of awe, delight, confusion, pride, fear, and pleasure. Protective zeal surged through him, and on its heels came intense bouts of anxiety. It was at once a wonder and a worry to him that he must now portion his consciousness, not in halves, but in thirds. “Daughter” became an exotic taste for him, a new sensation that he caressed in his mind, standing back and watching himself admire its novelty—and fret over its ramifications.

Sometimes, as he sat, he would catch one of the women watching him. Addie’s eyes were always soft and cherishing, loving him from where she sat, glowing with an adoration that seemed to radiate to him from the baby when he held her. These days, he basked in a reflected light.

Rose, on the other hand, used a more veiled look. Sometimes she would smile at him a little and nod her head, but her eyes never dropped their guarded assessment. She reminded Zeb of an insurance prospect, listening patiently to the sales pitch and constantly wondering how much the payments will be.

He sometimes thought he was outside the fence, looking in at Rose and Addie. The two women shared something he couldn’t calculate or understand. It was the same when callers came, the women all aflutter and the men—when they couldn’t avoid coming—with hats in hand, smiling gravely down at Mary Alice, who appeared completely indifferent to all the attention. The women had so much to say about the whole matter; the men seemed more intent on failing to notice it. They would talk to Zeb about the weather, about automobiles, about dogs and guns and Congress. They would have discussed business, he guessed, but for their knowledge of the line Zeb was in. Maintaining a proper distance was the thing.

A few days after Mary Alice’s birth, a delivery boy came bearing a stylishly wrapped package with a card from the men at the home office. “Congratulations, Zeb and Addie,” it read. Along with the package, the boy handed Zeb a small note in a separate envelope. “So pleased to hear of your new arrival,” it read in Mr. Griffs’ back-slanted hand, “and looking forward to your return to the field. Little Rock needs your steady hand on the tiller.”

Reading the note again, Zeb—to his surprise—felt an odd sense of relief. In the back of his mind, he had been wondering how to broach the subject of his return to work, but there hadn’t seemed to be a right time to mention it. Now, Mr. Griffs had handled it for him. After all, the bosses were plainly ready to have him back in action. Surely no one could fault him for that! And, with the new responsibility of a child to feed and clothe, it was only right that he return to the serious business of making a living. Addie would understand.

“Oh, Zeb, look!” Addie cried, holding up from the ruin of the decorated box a shining silver baby cupsilver cup and saucer. “It’s got her name engraved on it, and her date of birth!” Addie turned the set this way and that.

“Sure is pretty,” said Rose, cradling Mary in one meaty arm.

“Zeb, you must tell Mr. Griffs and the others how delightful this is!”

“Well, now that you mention it,” he said in his most carefully casual voice, “I had thought about checking in at the office here in the next day or so.”

“Yes, I suppose it’s about time for you to think about getting back,” Addie said. The dip in her voice was so slight, Zeb would never have noticed it, had he not been looking for it.

*******

The next morning he rose and quietly washed and dressed in the halflight that trickled through the closed window shades. His eyes felt gritty, and there was a dull pressure in his forehead. He figured he’d slept perhaps three hours all night.

Sleeping with an infant in the tiny bedroom was a mounting frustration. Each time Mary Mother and sleeping babywould gurgle or stir, Addie would sit up or rise from the bed to stand over her and peer intently at her in the dimness. And then, every three hours or so, the baby would get hungry and begin the clucking and chirping that would eventually erupt into a full-blown demand to be fed. Usually, before she could get up a full head of steam, Addie would reach into the crib and gather her up, murmuring sleepily to her and bringing her to the breast.

Amid such a commotion and bouncing of mattresses and rustling of bedclothes, slumber would have been impossible to any but a dead man, Zeb surmised. He had always been a light sleeper in the first place, and the nightly program was certainly not geared to his rest patterns. Addie could catnap during the day when Mary was asleep, but he had never been able to doze when the sun was up.

As he fastened the cuffs on his shirt, he looked over at the tangled bundle on the bed sighing deeply in rhythmic, slow breaths. Best not to disturb Addie, he thought. Lifting his coat from the bedpost, he tiptoed from the room. He took one last glance at the two sleepers and backed quietly through the door, latching it behind him.

In the kitchen was Rose, who had slept on the settee. She sat at the small table, blowing softly on a steaming cup of coffee. She looked tired, crumpled. As he came in, she got up silver coffee potto get the coffeepot. She poured a cup and set it in front of him.

“Thanks.”

She seated herself again without replying. They both sipped gingerly at the black, near-boiling brew.

“They’s toast in the skillet,” she said, a few moments later.

He went over to the stove and carefully plucked a crisp slice of buttered bread from the flat iron skillet. He took a bite, then another.

“How come you didn’t go back to your cousin’s last night?” he asked around his second mouthful.

Rose sipped, then shrugged. “Got too late. Thought y’ all might need some help.”

“Sure was a short night,” he admitted.

“Mmm-hmm.”

She tilted her cup and allowed a little coffee to dribble down its side into her saucer to cool. In a bit, she picked up the saucer and slurped. Setting it down slowly, she glanced at him. ‘‘Ain’t nobody’s fault, though.”

He looked at her. “Do what?”

“Ain’t the baby’s fault. She don’t know no better. And Miz Addie bound to be restless with her for a little while, till she get used to it.”

“I know that.”

She looked down at her saucer. “Yessuh. I’m just sayin’ … ”

He took a few more sips of his coffee, then poured the remainder down the sink. He crossed the parlor and took his hat from the lamp table, pulled on his coat, and walked out the front door.

*******

Rose watched him leave, then studied the tabletop for a long while. “Lord, tell me I’m wrong about that man,” she prayed softly.

Perhaps forty-five minutes later, Addie stumbled into the kitchen.

“Mornin’,” said Rose.

“Good morning. I don’t know why I’m up, the baby’s still asleep.”

“You better get your rest while you can,” Rose said. “You want some coffee?”

“Oh, nothing right now, Rose, thanks.” She peered around. “Where’s Zeb?”

“He gone, honey. He left before you got up.”

“Oh. Well, I … I guess he needed to get an early start.”Hansom cab

“Mmm-hmm. I guess so.”

*******

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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