Sunday Clothes, Chapter 18

Zeb had only intended to stay home for the weekend, but he talked himself into changing his plans. His time with his wife and daughter seemed especially sweet those few days. Mary Alice soon overcame her reticence about him, and in their bed at night, he and Addie made ardent love to each other. On Monday morning, he decided, rather than catching an early train back, he would go in to the home office and make a report to Griffs or Carleton—whomever he could find. He would hang around the office for awhile, then come back home for a long lunch. He’d done a good job in Little Rock, and he knew Griffs and Carleton wouldn’t begrudge him a little extra time with his family.

The fact was, there was something about going back to Little Rock that made him restive. When he tried to make himself plan his departure, it just seemed easier to get distracted. His leave–taking, when it could finally be avoided no longer, was more arduous for him than it had ever been. train

Still, he was feeling better by the time his train reached Memphis. By the time they rolled into Union Station in Little Rock, he was positively eager to get back to work. He decided that the best antidote for the homesick blues was a dose of good, honest, hard work. He’d enjoyed being home, but he was back now, and it was time to get down to business.

Thursday morning, when he walked into the cramped, two–room office he had rented for the agency, his secretary handed him a note written in a diagonal scrawl across a torn scrap of paper. “Dere Zeb,” it read, “im sorry, but i cant do no more. rekin i just want cut out for this binniss. yr. frend, Luke C. Cutler.” Zeb looked at the secretary.

“Brought it by here Monday morning, first thing,” Abner told him with a shrug. “Looked like he was kinda glad you weren’t here.”

Zeb shook his head in disgust. “Well, Ab, you can lead ‘em to water, but you can’t make ‘em drink. Cutler would’ve been all right, if he’d just had as much gumption as his wife told me he had.” Luke Cutler had answered a notice Zeb placed in the newspaper, announcing the hiring of “Enterprising Men for Financially Rewarding Opportunities in this Area.” More properly, Cutler’s wife had answered the advertisement: she had done most of the talking in the interview; Cutler himself seemed less than enthusiastic about the whole matter.

Abner grinned. He was a slight–built, youngish fellow Zeb had hired the first week he’d been here. He managed the office work and correspondence for the agency. He’d had a brief career as a schoolteacher that had ended abruptly, for a reason Zeb had never learned and decided not to be curious about. Ab was clean, fairly literate, had a reasonably neat hand, and he didn’t need much money to live on, which was perhaps his greatest asset, given what the home office was willing to pay for clerical help. “I told myself the first time she drug him in here, ‘This man don’t want to be here for no reason of his own.’”

Zeb sighed and smiled wryly. “Well, it appears her ambition didn’t last him long in the heat of the day.” He pushed his hat up in the back, scratching his head. “Guess I’ll have to find another man for the north Saline County debit.”

“Yeah. Some a those policies are a week behind already.” office

Zeb wadded up the note and tossed it at a wastepaper basket. As he strode toward his desk, he felt his chagrin giving way to a kind of calm eagerness. He was embracing the challenge, welcoming it as a familiar, satisfying adversary. He would manage this difficulty, and the next, and the next, and the next, because that was what he was good at. His determination was stronger than anything that stood in his way, and he would prove it, one more time.

For the next several days he was immersed in the duties of the agency. First, he busied himself with finding Luke C. Cutler’s replacement: he set about visiting northern Saline County policyholders, at once encouraging continued payment and collecting premiums but also finding out who knew whom in the area, who was trusted, who needed work, who had higher goals in life than growing corn and cotton on ten acres of river bottom land.

Zeb relished the power over others granted him by his gift of gab. He could walk up to any sharecropper’s shack and strike up a conversation. Likewise, he could stroll along the courthouse square and engage some vested, bejowled lawyer in a lengthy exchange of views. The trick, he had learned, was to figure out what the other person was interested in and evidence an interest in that himself. Folks just naturally opened up to him.

Zeb knew he could talk to anyone, at any time, in any place. If good humor and an easygoing manner were what the situation required, he had a vast store of jokes and the familiar style in which to frame them. If, on the other hand, a somber, earnest tone seemed more appropriate, Zeb could instantly become sincere, as easily as taking off one hat and putting on another. He could be anyone he needed to be, a gift not shared by many other people. It was his protection and his advantage. He prided himself on being able to do what most folks were unwilling or unable to do, and to keep on doing it as long as he had to.

Within two weeks he had hired a man to run the debit vacated by Luke C. Cutler. Most of the policies in the vacant debit were paid up to date, and the new agent seemed of a temperament more suited to the insurance business than that of Cutler. Zeb had made contact with his other three agents and assured himself that they were being productive. The stack of new–policy applications to be processed by Abner and forwarded to the home office was holding steady. He even had the leisure to consider whether it might be time to expand the agency by adding another debit just across the Arkansas River, in Argenta.

The burst of activity generated by Cutler’s abdication carried Zeb to a new height of expansiveness. His prospects here were good, and that was so because of his own efforts; there was no feeling of indebtedness or obligation to a predecessor to abate his self–satisfaction. This agency was his; he had built it from the ground up, with no assistance from anyone else. He was becoming known and respected in this place and among these people. No one here knew or cared that he was born and raised on a bare patch of red clay in north Georgia, that his father had died with three young children in the house, and that his mother had been too poor to refuse the suit of the first man who held out the prospect of keeping a roof over their heads. images-2

He had carved his own niche out of Little Rock, and, somewhat to his own surprise, the thought of going back to the home office was losing much of the aura it once had. What did Nashville have to offer, other than more money and a bit of stability? Nashville was someone else’s domain, not his. He wondered what Addie would say if he told her he wanted to move here. He was afraid he already knew the answer, and he didn’t like to let himself think about it.

*******

Becky totaled the column of figures and made an entry in the ledger. Before reaching for another account book, she allowed her eyes to roam from the second–floor office area down the stairway and out over her father’s department store, resting them for a moment from the close work with which she had been occupied most of her morning. For a few moments she watched the sales clerks and customers milling about the counters below. It was a Monday morning, and there weren’t many shoppers in the store. For that very reason, she usually chose Mondays to get the accounts up–to–date.

I wonder what he’s doing right now, she thought, and immediately chided herself. Rebecca Norwich, you are not a schoolgirl anymore, and you know much better than to sit about mooning over some man you know as little as you know Zeb Douglas. She shook her head and took up the next batch of sales receipts. But I wonder if he ever thinks about me, her mind whispered. With an exasperated sigh, she flung down the tickets and tossed the pen onto her desk. woman

She got up from her oak swivel chair and paced the length of the office area, then back again. She wondered, not for the first time, what it was about Zeb Douglas that hung so in her mind. She hardly knew anything about him, other than his easy smile, his lovely manners, and his familiar, friendly way of speaking to her and her parents. He never talked about anything or anyone in Nashville, where he went every second or third weekend, other than vague references to “the home office.” She had no idea about his family, where he came from, or what he was like during the week at his small office near the capitol building.

But she found herself thinking of him more and more. When she came to the store, she sometimes found herself detouring needlessly by the opening of the street where the insurance office was located, more than half–hoping their paths would cross. She had almost nerved herself, once or twice, to walk into the office and pass the time of day, but so far she had managed to restrain herself from such brazen assertiveness. It was about time for Zeb Douglas to eat Sunday dinner with them again, she decided. She’d say something to Mother.

*******

George huddled as deeply as he could inside his greatcoat, trying vainly to dodge the raw north wind. It was cold, the sky was spitting snow, and he was tramping up and down the streets of Chattanooga trying to secure signatures on a letter of solicitation to Mr. Andrew Carnegie of New York, asking him to build a library in this city.

How did he allow himself to be goaded into these situations? He’d heard vague rumors of some of the society ladies forming a committee, and the next thing he knew he was being badgered by his mother into knocking on the doors of perfect strangers and asking them to endorse this fine community effort. Didn’t anyone think he had work to do? Did they think Hutto & Company ran all by itself?

Well, he was sick and tired of the whole thing, that’s all. Let somebody else get out and catch pneumonia on Mr. Carnegie’s behalf. He’d knock on one more door and then he was going home, and the Library Boosters could all go hang, which would suit him, plumb to the ground. snow.jpg

He shuffled onto the front porch of a single–story frame house and tapped gently, hoping no one was home, but the latch began turning almost before his hand had fallen to his side. George waited for the door to open, clamping his portfolio under one elbow and blowing on his hands.

“Yes?” The woman who had opened the door had a black shawl wrapped around her shoulders and was clearly not happy about standing in her doorway with such a brisk north wind blowing.

George touched the brim of his bowler. “Ma’am. I’m George Hutto, and I’m working on behalf of the Chattanooga Library Boosters—”

“Lord a’mighty! On a day like this? Well, come on in before we both freeze slap to death!”

“Yes, ma’am. Thank you.” George stepped across her threshold and removed his hat. He stood in a small foyer with a knotty pine plank floor covered by a slightly threadbare Persian rug. As he warmed up, he was able to allow his face to relax from the squint it had assumed while he was walking into the frigid blast outside. His eyes moved about the portion of the adjoining parlor that he could see until they came to rest on a huge oil painting above the fireplace mantle—a painting of a clipper ship cutting through rough waters under full sail. “Oh!” he said, the word slipping out softly without his realization.

“What? Oh, the ship. My daddy painted that years ago.”

George took a hesitant step or two toward the painting, then stopped and shook his head. “Sorry, ma’am, I didn’t come here to look at—”

“It’s all right, go ahead. It’s kind of an interesting old painting, if you like that sorta thing.”

“Well … thanks. I believe I will look at it a bit, if you don’t mind,” George said, giving a little smile to no one in particular. He paced closer to the painting and tilted his head this way and that, peering at the ship and her rigging. “I guess I’m kinda interested in old ships,” he remarked. “I build them as a hobby. Well, that is, I build models. Not real ships, of course.”

“Is that so?” George could hear her stepping quietly over to stand just behind his left shoulder. Without moving his head, he cut his eyes toward her. She was looking at the picture also, not saying anything. clipper

“Well,” he said, clearing his throat, “I guess I don’t need to take up too much more of your time.” He faced about and pulled a sheaf of papers from his portfolio. ‘‘As I said, I’m with the Library Boosters, and—”

“How many have you built? Just curious.”

He stared at her a moment. “Oh, ships!” he said after a few seconds. “Well, I don’t really know, let’s see—”

“How long does it take? To build one?”

He peered at her again. She was no longer clutching the shawl about her, but it still hung over her shoulders. Her hair was a sandy brown and pulled back into a tight, no–nonsense bun on the back of her head. Her eyes were a chestnut brown—almost black—and she wore a high–necked green linen blouse with a tightly pleated front and a heavy skirt of the same color.

“Well … about a week, usually,” he answered. ‘‘Anyway, we’re trying to get a Carnegie library built here in Chattanooga, and—”

“Would you like some hot coffee?”

Again, he wore the puzzled look of an old dog interrupted in mid-trick.

“Pardon?”

“Coffee. It’s hot, and you must be half frozen if you’ve been tramping up and down streets all morning.”

“Well … I … I suppose so. Yes, ma’am, that’d be nice.”

“May I take your coat and hat?” She held out her hands for his wraps.

George handed her his bowler and removed his greatcoat. She gestured vaguely toward a settee near the grate and then wheeled about, vanishing into another room.

George seated himself gingerly on the settee, his hands on his knees, and looked around the room. The scarcity of knick–knacks surprised him, somehow, as did the relative absence of typical feminine touches in the general decor: no doilies on the furniture, no lace on the curtains, nothing extra or added on. Everything in the room looked as if it was there for a reason.

A log settled on the grate, sending a shower of sparks up the flue. George was glad for the warmth. He squatted in front of the hearth and worked the fire with a poker. He heard her come in behind him. George turned around and moved back toward the settee just as she placed a steaming cup in its saucer on the low table in front of his place. She took a seat in an overstuffed armchair across from him.

He took a careful sip of the coffee and risked a glance at her. She was staring frankly at him, though the expression on her face was considerably more toward pleasant than it had been when he had knocked on her door. With her dark eyes, her gaze reminded him uncomfortably of a crow’s, intent and unblinking. He quickly dropped his eyes to his cup.

“You aren’t having any coffee?”

“Nope. Had my two cups already, don’t need anymore. I keep it on, though. Most of the day. Just in case.”

After another careful sip, George asked, “Does your husband work near here?”

“Widowed three years. Consumption.” crow

“Oh, I’m … I’m sorry.”

She shrugged. “Lord giveth, Lord taketh away.”

He nodded somberly.

“Least he left me well fixed,” she went on, still peering at George with those forthright, burnt–sepia eyes. “That, plus my inheritance from my family. Long as I’m careful, I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do.”

There was an awkward pause.

“Well … that’s a blessing.” George blew on his coffee.

“You told me your name, but I forgot,” she said.

“George Hutto. And I don’t guess I know your name either,” he said, feeling an odd sort of embarrassment steal over him. Here he was, sitting in the parlor and drinking the coffee of a woman whose name he didn’t even know!

“Breck. Laura Sanders Breck. My husband’s people were from Kentucky, but I’m out of the McMinnville Sanderses.”

George nodded thoughtfully, though he had never in his life met another person from McMinnville, as far as he knew.

“Lord never blessed us with children,” she said. “Couldn’t understand why, but there you go.”

She had thin lips that were almost the same color as the rest of her face. Her frame appeared to be somewhat on the spare side, although she was not so thin as to be gaunt. As she spoke, her eyes flickered here and there, always coming back to rest on his face. The rest of her stayed very still, though: her hands rested in her lap and never moved; she held her head motionless; she never changed position in the deep cushions of her chair.

George sipped politely at his coffee a few more moments, and Laura Sanders Breck watched him. He cleared his throat, placed his cup in the saucer, and gently set it on the table. “Well, Mrs. Breck, I certainly—”

“Laura.” Her crow–eyes glittered at him as she said it. Like an invitation, or a challenge.

“I certainly thank you … Laura … for the coffee and the seat by your fire,” he said. ‘‘And now, if I might have my hat and coat, I’ll be on my way.”

Without a word, she sprang from her overstuffed chair and dashed out of the room, returning seconds later with his things.

“Thank you,” he said, placing the bowler on his head and shrugging on the greatcoat. He glanced a final time at the clipper over the fireplace, studying it with a slight squint. She preceded him to the entrance, clasping the shawl about her neck with one hand and opening the front door with the other. He took a deep breath and shouldered into the cold air on the front porch. “Thank you again,” he said as he passed her. Her only reply was a quick, curt nod.

As the door closed behind him and he thumped down the front steps, he realized he had completely forgotten to ask her to sign Carnegie’s petition.

*******

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

Creative Commons License
So Fair and Bright (a weblog) by Thom Lemmons is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

 

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