Sunday Clothes, Chapter 14

The band struck up Sousa’s “Liberty Bell” march, and George Hutto smiled as a group of young children near the front formed an impromptu marching corps. They tromped up and down in front of the crowd by the bandstand, wriggling their fingers and swinging their arms in imitation of clarinetists, trombonists, and cymbal players. They kept at it, Victorian on the 4thJulytoo, for the entire march. No one really minded, George guessed, since it was the final piece on the program. It was a gorgeous, sunny Fourth of July afternoon, and surely no one expected children to sit in one place and fidget indefinitely.

George wandered from his place toward the back of the crowd, meaning to head for the nearest lemonade stand. It looked as if nearly everyone in Hamilton County was in Olympia Park today, and most of them were smiling, as far as he could tell. So far, the reputation of the Chamber of Commerce was secure for another year. George only hoped this evening’s fireworks display was a success. He had felt deep misgivings about letting the Chamber talk him into chairing the entertainment committee, but when the mayor had asked him, he hadn’t been able to find a handy excuse. And, indeed, things were going well. The children’s patriotic skit this morning had been met with enthusiastic–if slightly partisan–applause, and the community band had done a real nice job just now. Once the fireworks went off without difficulty, he could rest easy. For perhaps the twentieth time that day, he scanned the sky to the west and southwest, looking for any telltale stacks of cumulus clouds that might be gathering into thunderheads. All clear, so far. Of course, it was still early afternoon.

The First Methodist Church lemonade stand was in an elm grove, just south of the grandstand for the racetrack. As he approached, George could hear the roaring, popping, and wheezing of the racing cars as their drivers made last-minute adjustments before the preliminary heats began. They had intended to hold the automobile races earlier in the day, but the noise and smell of the machines kept the horses in such a continual uproar, they’d been forced to delay the motorized events until after the end of the harness racing and draft competitions.

George fished a nickel out of his pocket and laid it on the plank counter. “How about a glass with lots of ice?” he asked the nearest attendant.

“Coming right up, George,” she answered. Hearing his name, he looked up at her. “Well, hello, Louisa! Excuse me for not noticing who I was talking to.”

“That’s quite all right,” she smiled, setting down a glass full of chipped ice and pouring Lemonade standinto it from a crockery pitcher so large she had to wrestle it with both hands. “Everybody seems to be having a real nice time today. Y’all did a good job, looks like.”

George smiled shyly, dabbing his forehead with a handkerchief “Well, thanks. Wouldn’t be proper not to throw a big Fourth of July, though, would it? Church making lots of money today?”

“Doing pretty well, long as the weather stays warm.”

“Well, here’s hoping it does, at least till after the fireworks,” he said, saluting the sky with his glass and taking several deep swallows. “Say, uh, Louisa,” he continued, hesitantly, “what do you hear from … from over Nashville way?” He sipped again at his lemonade, tilting his panama back on his head.

“Oh, I don’t guess you heard. Addie and Zeb had a little girl.”

“You don’t say! What’d they name her?”

“Mary Alice, after both grandmothers.”

“Well, I’ll say! That’s just fine, isn’t it! Just fine! Guess everybody’s doing well?”

“Far as I know.” Her smile was quick, and George thought maybe it never got as far as her eyes. She turned away to drop his nickel in the till and put the lemonade pitcher back on the work table. He felt awkward. Maybe he shouldn’t have brought up the subject of children to her.

He cleared his throat, trying to think of something to chink the gap in the conversation. “Louisa, it’s … it’s real good to see you out, working with the other women from the church, and … and getting on so well and all.”

She shrugged and looked away. “Some days are better than others, George. You just keep putting one foot in front of the other, somehow.”

There was a long silence, and this time George didn’t have the nerve to try and fill it.

“But we’ll manage, I guess,” she finished finally, giving him another smile and doing better with it this time. ‘‘And thank you for saying something. Most folks just ignore it, pretend everything’s like it always was.”

He blushed and pulled off his glasses, ducking into his collar as he polished the lenses with his slightly damp handkerchief. “Well, I … I’m awful fond of your family, is all, and—”

“Yes. I know you are, George.” Her eyes were still on him, but now they were full of something besides pain.

He peered at his lemonade, then took an extra-long, thoughtful sip. “I reckon your daddy was tickled,” he said, trying to quickly cover his befuddlement, “to hear about Addie’s new—”

George cringed inside. Of all the stupid things to say! “Louisa, I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking—”

“It’s all right, George,” she said. “You’re not to be faulted. Any right-thinking man would be proud and happy about a healthy new granddaughter. Papa’s just not too good at admitting he might be wrong about some things. He’s got more pride than any one man needs.”

George clunked his empty glass down on the plank. He gave her a nervous smile and touched the brim of his hat. “Well, good to see you again,” he managed, backing away. “I guess I better go see how those boys are doing with the race cars. Tell Dub I said hello.”

“I sure will. Nice talking to you, George.”

He nodded and smiled again, then turned and strode purposefully off toward the Lady Libertygrandstand.

*******

As the western sky began to redden, the crowd started to gather in and around the grandstand. Chamber of Commerce officials had roped off a large area of the infield, just inside the far turn, where the fireworks would be detonated. Families sprawled on quilts in the rest of the infield, staking out space from which to observe the much-anticipated display.

George paced the enclosure, frequently wiping his brow as he observed the preparations of the pyrotechnician. The man had set up a long, narrow table, crisscrossed by scorch marks. He was laying on it a collection of tubes, rockets, and canisters. He made numerous trips to the interior of his painted wagon, always returning with another armload of mysterious and imposing articles. The wagon was painted a brilliant red, and on its side it advertised the name and vocation of the owner. “Horatio P. Folger, Esq.: Explosives Expert, Fireworks, Rainmaking, & Etc.,” it announced in ornate gold-highlighted black letters that followed each other round in an elaborate oval. In the center of the oval were the words “Atlanta, Georgia, United States of America (God Bless the USA).” Beneath, in finer, more sedate black print and straight lines, was an amplification: Available for Civic Events . . . Private Celebrations . . . Land Clearing … Demolition … and Various & Sundry Other Uses.”

George had been watching Horatio P. Folger since his arrival in the midafternoon. Folger had a florid complexion and a prodigious moustache with waxed handlebars. He wore a derby that apparently never left his skull, despite the summer heat. Predictably, a train of boys had trailed him into the fairgrounds and loitered about his wagon, occasionally making half-hopeful offers to assist, which were refused with a chuckle and a shake of the head. And, of course, under his watchful eye, no one dared approach the wagon for a closer look. Horatio P. Folger had evidently been at this for some time.

George was considerably relieved to lay eyes at last on this man. Upon the skill and provision of Horatio P. Folger hung the success or failure of Chattanooga’s Independence Day festivities. George well knew that six months from now very few would remember who had won the cake-baking contest or the horseshoe tournament, but everyone would recollect and discuss at length any perceived inadequacy of this, the capstone event.

Folger went methodically about his business, now and again casting a quick eye at the western horizon. At the center of the roped-off staging area he had placed five or six metal tubes, arranging them in a ten-foot circle. To George, they suspiciously resembled artillery mortars. In a concentric arc fifteen feet outside the circle, Folger had deployed three metal racks that appeared to be frames for launching skyrockets. Each rack could hold four rockets.

During a lull in the preparations, George approached. ‘‘Ah, excuse me, Mr. Folger?”

“Yeah, that’s me. What can I do for you?”

George had expected the voice to be a bass boom, but it was actually a rather high-pitched, soft tone that greeted him. ‘‘Ah, I’m George Hutto. I’m the fellow who wrote you … hired you?”

“Why sure! Glad to make your acquaintance, Mr. Hutto!” As he pumped his hand vigorously, George noted with some satisfaction that Horatio P. Folger had all his fingers and thumbs.

George pulled out his wallet and peeled off a number of bills. “Let’s see. I think it was a hundred, wasn’t it?” He offered the bills, but Folger shook his head.

“Just half now, then half when the show’s over, if you’re satisfied.”

George raised his eyebrows. “Why, I, ah … I just assumed—”

“No, Mr. Hutto,” said Horatio P. Folger, “I don’t want nobody to pay a hundred dollars for a show that don’t meet expectations. Half now, then we’ll talk later.” He held out his hand.

Feeling a cautious, hopeful glow spreading inside him, George counted out fifty dollars on the waiting palm.

“Oh, and one more thing,” added the fireworks man. “Reckon you ‘n’ ‘bout two other fellas could run for me during the show?”

George frowned doubtfully. “Run?”

“Yeah. I’ll have all the charges and rockets laid out on that table yonder, in order from left to right. All you gotta do is bring me the next thing, wherever I’m standing. Rockets’ll be yonder,” he said, pointing at the three racks, “and charges come over here, to the mortars.”

“Well, I don’t know who I can get—”

“Anybody’s fine; you ‘n’ two other men oughta be plenty. Just don’t ask no kids. I don’t boy with firecrackerstrust kids. They’re too clumsy, or too excited. Either one can get you into trouble with this stuff.”

George nodded solemnly, feeling a tiny ache beginning in the center of his forehead. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“Fine.” Folger squinted at the western sky. “I imagine we’ll start here in about … oh, say twenty minutes. Oughta be good and dark by then.”

George wandered off. Good and dark … don’t trust kids … charges … rockets … He wished he had some headache powders. He wished he hadn’t allowed the mayor to talk him into this job. He wished above all that he hadn’t made the acquaintance of Horatio P. Folger, Esq.

Twenty minutes later, George stood by the scorched table and craned his neck skyward to see the huge, floral burst of reds and greens and brilliant whites that announced the opening of the fireworks show. As he heard the boom! closely followed by the long, collective ahhhh! from the gathered populace, his apprehensions evaporated like a raindrop on a hot sidewalk. He and the two other men ran for Horatio P. Folger and observed at close hand the work of a master.

Folger seemed to be following a sort of secret choreography as he skipped in and out of the circle of mortars and placed the rockets in their launching frames. As he lit the fuse of one rocket, George could hear him softly count, “One, two, three,” before lighting the next fuse. And the rockets would ascend in graduated cohesion, flinging across his black velvet canvas the shimmering, cascading, supremely transient compositions of Horatio P. Folger, Esq.

He danced back and forth, loading two or three of the mortars to toss aloft a violet starburst in combination with a scurrying tangle of red-and-white poppers, with maybe a shower of golden stars thrown in for good measure. Then he would be at the nearest frame, setting the rockets brought to him by his half-mesmerized assistants.

George and the other two runners fell into his rhythm, pulled in irresistibly by their leader as, from left to right, they slowly denuded the scorched table of its carefully organized cargo. Folger never looked at them, never gave them any instruction other than his reaching hand awaiting the next explosive pigment for his aerial palette. There was no time for chatter, nor any need. There was only time to retrieve the next charge, the next rocket, and perhaps to glance upward at the breathtaking, disappearing beauty.

For the grand finale, there was a storm of red, white, and blue starbursts, underlined byFireworks thundercracking white shells that exploded barely a hundred feet off the ground. Folger dashed and sprinted to and fro like a man gone mad, firing mortars, lighting rockets, and setting the next pieces with absolute, sure-handed precision. George and the other two men were huffing and puffing, trying to keep pace with the dashing figure of their taskmaster. The cannonade went on and on, seemingly beyond endurance, beyond what was possible for a human to maintain or to watch. And when the last explosion rolled away over the Tennessee River and into the hollows between the hills, when the curtain of silence had settled over Olympia Park for ten seconds, then twenty, then a minute, when even the little children knew that nothing could possibly follow such magnificence, there erupted from the exhausted, thrilled, drained crowd a groundswell of applause, accompanied here and there by spontaneous choruses of Ward’s “Materna’’ and “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.”

George stepped over and gratefully pressed fifty dollars into the hand of Horatio P. Folger, Esq.

*******

George was pleased to realize that he hadn’t thought at all of being nervous during the fireworks show. As he walked back toward town, he heard many favorable comments from other homeward-bound folks, and each compliment gave him a tiny, pleasant glow. The mayor even found him along the way, came up to him, and clapped him on the shoulder. “Fine fireworks this year, George, just fine!” he said in his big, glad voice. “Where was it that fellow was from? Atlanta?”

“Yes, sir, I believe he was,” George replied.

“Well, fine. We ought to try and hire him again next year, don’t you reckon?”

“Well, I’ll let somebody else worry about it next year.”

“Oh, now, George, don’t be so modest! You did a real fine job on the entertainment! Everybody says so, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you weren’t asked again!”

George felt his insides give a kind of half-regretful shrug. “Well … I guess we’ll have to wait and see,” he said, finally.

He climbed the hill toward home, thinking about his conversation with Addie’s sister at the lemonade stand. It was too bad about her father. A corner of his mind tried to toy with a slight, guilty pleasure at her misfortune, but he sternly resisted. Such uncharitable thoughts weren’t Christian, and he well knew it. If Jacob Caswell wanted to be famous for mulishness, that was his lookout.

He had reached the gaslit streets of Cameron Hill. He looked about him at the folksgas lamp wending homeward, talking and laughing softly among themselves, some carrying the small, sleeping forms of those overcome by the strenuous task of being children on a holiday. George wondered what it must be like to have a family, to have children. The quiet, homeward talk went on all about him, but he caught only snatches of words here and there. It was as if those around him were speaking a dialect that was just foreign enough to be puzzling. He could hear tone and inflection, sense the smiles, arguments, caresses, and frustrations lying just beneath the surface of the muted syllables pattering about him in the humid summer darkness—but he couldn’t quite seem to make sense of the words. George wondered what, exactly, he had missed.

“Good evening, George,” called a female voice to his right. He glanced over to see Elizabeth Capshaw walking arm-in-arm with young Jeff Hinson. “Evening, Betsy, Jeff,” he replied as they passed, nodding and touching the brim of his hat. He stared after them for a moment. Jeff had been squiring Betsy around ever since Easter. Looked like they were getting to be thick as thieves. They walked ahead of him, hurrying along to be somewhere else.

*******

Perlie Overby waited, his dirty plug hat crumpled in one fist. After a few seconds, the front door swung open. “Well, hello, Perlie! I didn’t hear you come up. Sorry it took me so long to get to the door.”

“That’s all right, Mr. Caswell, I shoulda made more noise, I guess. I kinda figgered your dogs’d bark at me, but I reckon they’ve smelled my durned ol’ hide so much here lately, I’m just part of the furniture anymore.”

Jacob laughed.

“I come by to let you know I’ll finish the scraping down at the store by tomorrow noon. I guess I’ll be ready to start painting then.”

“Fine, Perlie. Just tell Gus or one of the boys to get you what you need.”

“Well … All right, then. Uh, say, Mr. Caswell?”

Jacob had already started back inside. His hand on the doorknob, he turned back toward the ragged figure on his porch. “Yeah, Perlie?”

Perlie was twisting his hat in his two grimy fists, and his eyes watched the gouged toes of his battered boots. “Uh, Mr. Caswell, I know it ain’t been a week yet, but we run plumb outta beans last night at our place, and I was just wondering if they was any way I could go ahead and maybe get my day’s wages so I could—”

“Sure, Perlie, sure. Why didn’t you say so? Wait right here and I’ll be back directly.” He ducked back inside the doorway of the big house while Perlie waited, alone on the wide porch. When Jacob reappeared a minute or two later, he held out a silver dollar in one hand and a cloth sack in the other. “Here’s a day’s pay, plus a little extra, and here’s some cornmeal. I’ve got more than I can use right now, so why don’t you take this on home, and your wife can cook up some griddle cakes or something for your young ‘uns till you get a chance to get by the store.”

“Well, that’s mighty generous, Mr. Caswell, mighty generous for sure!” Perlie’s head bobbed up and down in gratitude as he took the limp sack from Jacob’s hand. “If you’re sure you ain’t got no use for this here, I imagine we can take care of it for you.”

“Well, that’s all right. You take it, and welcome.”

Perlie turned to go, then faced Jacob once more. “Say, Mr. Caswell, I hate to be a nuisance, but I got to thinking today, I ain’t seen Miss Addie around here fer awhile. She git married off, or something?”

Jacob’s jaw clenched and his brow clouded over. Staring over Perlie’s left shoulder, he said in a grudging voice, “Yeah. She married and left town.”

“Well, that’s real fine. I always did like Miss Addie. You know, one time a coupla winters ago, she come to my place and set with my young ‘uns while me ‘n’ the missus was out of pocket. She was real kind to them young ‘uns, too, and I ain’t never forgot it. Where’d she move off to?”

Jacob peered across the road for a second or two more, then lanced Perlie with a direct look. “I really couldn’t say.” And then he was gone.cornmeal sack

Perlie gaped at the closed door. He thoughtfully hefted the sack of cornmeal a time or two. Finally, settling his hat on his head, he eased down the steps and turned toward home.

*******

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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