Archive for February, 2019

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 28

February 28, 2019

The melee ended quickly as the four older boys released their captive and shoved their hands into their pockets, staring in guilt at their shoes. George looked around at the rest of them.

“Buck Tarfield! Don’t you know any better?” Buck shrugged and looked away. “And you—Tommy Clayton! I’ve got half a mind to tell your father about this when I get back to the office!”

Tommy stared at George with big, round eyes. “Now, Mr. Hutto, we wasn’t gonna hurt him, not really. We was just having a little fun with him, is all.” The others nodded in earnest endorsement.

“Well, it didn’t look like much fun for him,” George said.

George realized, to his surprise, that he was enjoying this very much. He felt something kindling inside him, and it was welcome. Anything was better than the indistinct fog in which he had lived since that morning at Mrs. Breck’s house. He was doing something that mattered. He was striking a blow in a just cause.

“You boys better skedaddle. Every one of you ought to be ashamed.”

The four boys drifted off down the street, shoulders slumped and their hands still shoved into their pockets.

George looked down at Ned. “Now, son, what’s your name?”

Ned hung his head and made no reply. boy

“You didn’t do anything to make them mad, did you?”

The boy shook his head vehemently. George studied the small, bony form: the baggy, homespun pants with frequent and ill–sewn patches, the bare, dirty feet, the cracked, filthy fingernails, the matted hair. Even in the open air of the street, George could smell the small boy’s unwashed body and the odor of bacon grease that clung to his clothing.

“Well, if I don’t know your name, how can I help you get home?”

The boy dug a big toe into the dust of the street, but gave no reply except a shrug.

“Do you want to go home?”

A long hesitation, then a reluctant nod.

“Have you ever ridden in an automobile—a horseless carriage?”

Before he could stop himself, the boy looked at George with something close to excitement in his eyes. Then he dropped his face once again, giving George the same noncommittal shrug, accompanied by a slight shake of the head.

“I’ve got an automobile and … I was thinking of taking a short drive. If I knew what direction your place was, I could just drop you off there while I’m out.”

The boy stole a cautious glance at his face. He jerked a thumb in a general easterly direction and said, “Yonder a piece.”

“Do you live in Orchard Knob?” George quizzed.

“Other side a ways.”

“How’d you get into Chattanooga so early in the day? You couldn’t have walked here from Orchard Knob, unless you started awful early.”

Again the suspicious silence.

“Well, never mind. The main thing’s to get you back home again. Come on. My automobile’s parked over at the livery.” He started to walk away, then, on a sudden thought, wheeled around and stuck out his hand. “By the way, I’m George Hutto.”

Without thinking, the boy shook his hand. “Ned Overby.”

“Nice to meet you, Ned. Let’s go.” auto

Ned couldn’t believe that human beings could travel so fast and survive. When Mr. Hutto had begun cranking the shiny, black contraption, Ned had his doubts. The engine had wheezed and coughed like an old man with consumption and flat balked at doing anything else, despite the sweating, earnest efforts of its owner. But then it had finally caught, somehow, and when the machine roared to life and smoke began pouring out of the exhaust pipe in back, Ned was awestruck.

He had heard the boys at school talk about the new vehicles, of course, but he had never been near one until now. He marveled at the way it just bowled along, all on its own. It was pretty bumpy, of course, and he had to hang on to the siderail to keep from getting tossed out, but my how it tore down the road! It would just leave a wagon in the dust! He was scared and enthralled, all at once.

They came down the hill west of Orchard Knob, and the big Caswell house came into view. He tugged at Mr. Hutto’s sleeve and pointed. “You can let me out right there. My house ain’t on no road—I’ll walk from there.”

“You sure?” Mr. Hutto shouted over the roar of the engine.

Ned nodded. Mr. Hutto pulled over to the side of the road in front of the vacant two–story house, and Ned got out. “Thanks for the ride,” he said, staring at the ground. ‘‘And … thanks for taking up for me back yonder.”

“You’re welcome, Ned. Older boys used to pick on me too. I remember how it feels.”

Ned nodded, still unable to look at his benefactor. “Well, I best git.” He crossed the road in front of the automobile and walked toward the woods behind the house.

*******

George watched the boy duck into the tree line and gradually disappear into the foliage covering Tunnel Hill. He stared thoughtfully at the two–story frame house where no one lived anymore. He sat there for perhaps three or four minutes, remembering. Then he put the car in gear and turned it about in the road, pointing it back toward Chattanooga.

A germ of something was trying to grow in his mind. All the way out from town, he had been thinking about Ned Overby: wondering what his life was like, what sort of chances he would ever have. What about the other poor boys in the alleys and shanties, the ones who lived in lean–tos in the hollows and creek bottoms around Chattanooga? What would prevent their lives from being one long, desperate series of encounters like the one Ned Overby had had in the alley with the boys from the “good” families? George wanted to do something. He wanted to help change the balance of nature for the boys like Ned Overby who had no advantages. George drove back to town and parked his car at the livery. He walked slower than usual on his way back to the office, but for once, his eyes weren’t studying the ground in front of his feet. Instead, he looked around at the people he passed, as if seeing them for the first time in his life.

*******

Zeb’s letter—the first in a number of weeks—appeared identical to the many other letters Addie had received from him. She even felt a small thrill of anticipation when she took it from the box, but then she caught herself. Shouldn’t get carried away just because he finally remembered to write.

It was on the same foolscap he always used, addressed in the same stylish hand. She closed the mailbox and went back into the house. Louisa was sitting in the rocking chair in the corner, reading from a storybook to Mary Alice while she held her sleeping baby brother.

“You get something in the mail?”

Addie nodded and smiled, despite herself. “Letter from Zeb.”

Louisa grinned. “Well, open it up, for Pete’s sake. Let’s hear how he’s doing. At least the parts you can read aloud.”

Addie rolled her eyes. “Goodness, Lou. We’re not exactly newlyweds anymore.” readingletter

She tore open the envelope and began scanning the letter as she sat down on the divan. Louisa resumed reading to Mary Alice and her voice droned on, murmuring into the background as Addie’s attention focused on the message from her husband. The salutation struck her as odd; to her best memory, Zeb had never referred to her as “Mrs. Douglas” before. And then, as her eyes scanned the first sentence, then the next, then the next, she felt her heart begin pounding out an alarm, felt her blood roaring a warning in her ears. She put a hand to her mouth and her eyes went wide.

“What is it, Addie? What’s wrong?”

Addie got up and walked toward the kitchen. On her way past Louisa, she dropped the letter in her lap.

“Zeb’s left me.”

“What? What are you talking about?” Louisa grabbed at the letter.

Addie stood in the middle of the kitchen floor, hugging herself and gripping her elbows as she stared blankly out the window over the sink. In a way, she wasn’t surprised. She told herself she had seen it coming, had known things weren’t getting better.

But all during the past weeks and months, another voice inside her mind kept chanting, “Everything’s gonna be all right, everything’s gonna be all right … ” It was that part of her, that illogical, hopeful, believing part that now lay wounded and dying, silent within her. She felt everything shifting around her, felt the world breaking apart and reassembling itself in jagged shapes. She thought she ought to cry, but at this moment she couldn’t even do that. It was as if she was standing in the doorway, looking at herself. This is what a divorced woman looks like. This is how a person feels who’s just been abandoned.

She heard footsteps behind her, then Lou’s hand on her shoulder.

“Oh, Addie. Oh, my dear, sweet Lord, I don’t know what to say.”

Louisa hugged her. Addie felt her arms go up reflexively, felt her body returning the hug. But her mind was still standing in the doorway, watching from a safe distance.

*******

NASHVILLE AUGUST 18 1903

ZEBEDIAH A DOUGLAS

IZARD ST. LITTLE ROCK ARKANSAS

 

WE HAVE A NEW SON STOP HAVE NAMED HIM

AFTER YOU AND PAPA STOP HOPE THIS IS ALL

RIGHT STOP YOUR WIFE ADDIE

 

Zeb stared at the telegram for a long time. By its date, it had been sent barely three days after he had mailed to Addie the last correspondence he ever intended to send her. Apparently, the two messages had crossed. paper

He felt almost as if the words on the yellow sheet had no meaning, as if they had been sent to him by mistake from a stranger. Then he crumpled the paper and tossed it toward the wastebasket in the corner of his room. It missed and lay on the floor beside the basket, slowly trying to open.

*******

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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Sunday Clothes, Chapter 27

February 21, 2019

By the time Beulah Counts had come and collected the fretting Mary Alice, Addie’s pains had begun in earnest. Louisa brought in the large pan she had just scalded, along with a stack of freshly boiled towels.

“I’m so glad you’re here, Lou,” Addie said after her latest contraction subsided enough for her to speak. “Even with the doctor and all, it’s sure good to have your help with this.”

“Oh, honey, I wouldn’t be anywhere else. You couldn’t have kept me away last time, except for—”

“Yes, I know.” There was a silence. “I sure wish Katherine could’ve known her cousins.”

Louisa nodded, looking away. birth

“And I still miss Rose,” Addie said. “She could make me feel safe, just by talking to me.”

“Everybody needs to feel safe. But safe can be hard to come by sometimes.”

The two sisters looked at each other, and their hands joined. Then Addie clenched Lou’s knuckles as the next contraction ripped her in half.

“I wish that doctor would get here,” Louisa said. “We’re not gonna have the luxury of as much time this go-around.”

The doctor, a youngish-looking man named Hodgkiss, arrived within the half hour, and, true to Louisa’s prediction, the baby arrived only an hour or so later. It was a boy.

“You and Zeb talked about names?” Lou said.

Addie brushed back a sweaty lock of hair and shook her head. “I thought about it a time or two, but I guess we never actually got around to it.”

The doctor, tending the baby in a corner of the room, glanced at Addie but said nothing.

“I guess we ought to send him a wire, at least,” Addie said.

Louisa studied her younger sister carefully while she bundled up the soiled sheets. “Yes, I suppose. We can take care of that later though. You tell me what to say and I’ll send it.”

“Reckon I ought to name him after his daddy?”

“Well, he looks like his daddy, anyhow.”

“Yes.”

Louisa hoped Addie’s flat tone was caused by her exhaustion.

*******

Zeb glanced up at Abner. He was scribbling busily on an agency report form that had to be posted to the home office the day after tomorrow. Zeb glanced out the front window. The day was clear and mild. He knew he should be out with one or another of his agents—calling on prospects, running a debit, glad–handing policyholders. Or, at the very least, he should be working on the stack of applications they had received for processing during the last several days. He sighed. Time was when a stack of apps this size would have been plenty of reason for several days’ worth of good spirits. He would have relished the prospect of preparing them for submission to the home office, would have gloated over the increase in commission income they represented, both for his agents and for himself. stacks

For weeks and weeks he had fought a steadily losing battle with desperation. Becky had finally allowed him back in her presence, but it had taken all his persuasive skills to accomplish it. He had plied her with reams of letters, sent baskets of flowers and crates of candy. He had done anything he could think of to make her more kindly disposed. Her parents had even taken his part, he believed, so sincere had been his contrition for his mysterious ways. He had lavished her with every ounce of charm he possessed, and to his great relief he was at last able to reenter her good graces.

But even after he was back on firm footing with Becky, Zeb was not at ease within himself. Each time he would hold her hand, each time they laughed and smiled together in the familiar way that was so precious to him, Zeb felt guilt stinging his mind with visions of Addie, memories of the promises he had made and broken. He did his best to hide all this from Becky. Indeed, the passion they shared was as consuming as ever. On the few occasions they had been able to be safely alone together, her early reticence had melted away in his embrace, and they had tasted again the sweetness of each other’s bodies. Indeed, they shared the guilty pleasure of these stolen moments as a secret they alone must keep; to them it became another evidence of the depth and intensity of the bond they shared.

But the harder he tried to straddle the fence, the less satisfied he was with the result. He feared that Becky would soon sense that he was hiding something from her. It had even begun to affect his ability to run the agency. Some days he could hardly make himself come to work. He was afraid that everything he had built in Little Rock would soon be in jeopardy, but he couldn’t seem to summon the strength to care.

But all that was about to be behind him. Zeb had decided it was time once again to take charge of his life. Glancing surreptitiously at Abner and assuring himself that his secretary was still preoccupied with his paperwork, Zeb slid open the lap drawer of his desk and extracted the piece of cream–colored foolscap on which he had labored, off and on, all morning.

 

Dear Mrs. Douglas,

Surely it must have become apparent to you that the kind affection

that once existed between us is now gone. I no longer desire to

share this union with you. Accordingly, I request that you sue me

for divorce as soon as possible. I will not in any way contest the dissolution

of this marriage; indeed, I am anxious to have the business letter

done at the earliest possible time.

Cordially,

Zeb. A. Douglas

 

Zeb stared at what he had written, momentarily unable to believe it had been composed by his hand. Yet there it was, on the same foolscap that he had used to send Addie a very different sort of letter not so very long ago. There beside the script lay his favorite fountain pen. The letters it had inscribed curved and dipped in the same elegant manner as usual; Zeb had always prided himself on his handwriting. The letter’s appearance gave no sign of the darkness and finality of the words they formed. For a moment, a flicker of remorse tried to kindle in his heart.

But he sternly smothered it. He would not turn back the page, not again. All he had to do to steel himself for the task was remember the stealthy venom in Addie’s words during their walk in East Lake Park. He did not deserve that. He had tried, had faithfully provided for her and Mary Alice—and gotten no thanks nor the slightest whit of understanding in return.

Didn’t he merit some measure of happiness? Why should he deprive himself of the company of a woman who appreciated and understood him just because he had made an ill–considered union with someone else before meeting her? Was Addie’s inner darkness his fault? Did he have responsibility for healing wounds that had existed since long before he had known her? In fact, hadn’t he married her under false pretenses, of sorts? Had he known of the damage inflicted on her by her father’s inflexible, uncaring prejudice, would he have allowed himself to be caught in the middle of it all? He didn’t think so.

No, this was the right thing for him to do. He didn’t care what anyone in Chattanooga thought of him—they didn’t know his side, and wouldn’t understand it anyway. The best thing for him was to put that life away—erase it as if it had never been. He would cease to be the person who had pursued and wedded Addie Caswell. Instead, he would fully embrace the life he had formed for himself in Little Rock. Everything behind him would drop away, like a useless cocoon. He would press toward the future—toward Becky Norwich. He would become the man Becky wanted him to be, and she need never know about the mistakes made by the man he had once been. Surely that was the best way now.

He folded the letter and reached for an envelope.

*******

Ned Overby held his opened Barlow in his right hand and stared at the block of pine in his left, trying to see the shapes it held. He knew he couldn’t start carving until he knew what the piece of wood wanted to be. Nobody had ever told him he should do this. Anytime he picked up a piece of wood, he tried to find the shape of its grain and the direction in which it seemed to be guiding his knife strokes. It made sense to him that he shouldn’t try to fight the wood. He thought it surely made his work better.

Not that his carving was any great shakes. So far, none of the simple animal shapes he had finished had really suited him. They all seemed to fall a bit short in his eyes, but that didn’t bother Ned. He knew he’d get better with time. It was just a matter of letting his hands learn which way to go. carving

The sun felt good on his face and neck as he sat propped atop the woodpile behind his house. It was warm enough that he didn’t need shoes and still early enough in the summer that going barefoot was a novelty to be relished. Ned left his shoes inside when the weather allowed, to save wear. Lately, his shoes had begun to pinch, anyway.

Today was one of those rare, fine days when he didn’t have extra chores to do. He had hoed the few scraggly rows of corn and pole beans just yesterday. There was plenty of wood chopped for the stove, and only two days ago he had made six trips down to the river and back, toting the heavy water bucket so he could refill the battered oak hog’s head that served them as a reservoir. Perlie was running his trotlines on the other side of the river, around the mouth of North Chickamauga Creek. Ned would have to help him clean fish when he got back, but that shouldn’t be until nearly sundown. In the meantime, all he had to do was soak up some sunshine and try to stay out of his mother’s line of vision, or she was sure to dream up something for him to do. Seemed like she couldn’t stand to see a body enjoying himself when she was busy—and she was busy all the time.

He heard the clanking of car couplings and the squeal of brakes echoing through the still woods. They must be changing cars on the siding up by Orchard Knob, he thought. A sudden desire stole over him to sneak into Chattanooga on one of the cars. He had heard his father talk about riding the rails as a younger man. A thrill of fear tingled his skin as Ned wondered if he was bold enough to do something similar. If he got caught, he’d get a whaling for sure—and that was just counting what his paw would do to him. He wasn’t sure what fate awaited boys whom the railroad men nabbed trying to catch a free ride.

For a few minutes he tried to concentrate on what his hands were doing to the block of pine he held. But the shavings began to fall slower and slower as he spent more and more time thinking about the siding, just over the shoulder of Tunnel Hill and a little way through the woods. His mother would probably miss him, but she would most likely figure he was off in the woods somewhere. And if he got away with it, he’d have something to tell the older boys when school started again. Before long, he’d talked himself into it. He folded his knife and put it in his pocket, followed by the barely begun carving. Looking carefully around him, he climbed down from the woodpile.

Squatting in the darkest corner of the empty freight car, Ned began to think about all the things that could go wrong with this adventure, realizing that every single one of the looming possibilities carried with it the likelihood of a hiding, or worse. He could get caught leaving the car once it arrived in Chattanooga. He could fail to arrive home before his father. He could have judged wrong, and be sitting in a car bound for Nashville or some other foreign place instead of Chattanooga. Why hadn’t he listened to his better judgment? Why wasn’t he still sitting peacefully in the sun atop the woodpile, fashioning a turtle or maybe a bird from his block of pine? hopping

But it was too late for such thoughts to do him any good. He was in for the whole ride, and he might as well see it through. To calm himself, he tried to do some carving, but the ride was too rough and he had to put knife and wood back in his pocket. He made himself as comfortable as he could in the dark, jouncing freight car, waiting to see where he would end up.

When the train finally squealed to its jarring halt, Ned crept to the partially open door. Though he knew he hadn’t been traveling long enough to have gone very far, he was still relieved to recognize the silhouette of Lookout Mountain rising over the bustling freightyard. He peered carefully up and down the line and saw no one, so he scrambled quickly down from the car and burrowed into the nearest crowd.

He had been to Chattanooga only once before in his life, about a year ago. Perlie had allowed him to tag along when he came to town to sell his winter’s take of pelts and had even let him squander an Indian–head cent on a piece of licorice. That dark–sweet taste was what Ned chiefly remembered about Chattanooga. But there would be no licorice today. He had nothing in his pockets of any value except his Barlow, and he would rather have sold some of his toes than his knife.

Walking along in the jostling crowds, Ned didn’t understand how so many people could be in the same place at once. His closest experience of town life was Orchard Knob on a Saturday, and that was nothing compared to the masses of humanity now pressing all about him.

Passing the opening of an alley, Ned noticed some boys hunched in a circle.

‘‘All right, sweethearts, here’s the stuff I told you about. Anybody that wants some, show me your money.”

The boy doing the talking looked a couple of years older than Ned, and he was considerably better dressed, as were most of the gang of about ten youngsters. Some of them looked younger than Ned, but the boy with the vial and the two or three gathered behind him looked older—maybe fifteen or so. As a few of the younger boys began digging in their pockets, Ned noticed a wicked smile flash from the vial boy to his cronies and back.

“You sure this medicine’s gonna help me run faster?” one of the younger boys said, pinching a nickel between his thumb and forefinger.

“Guaranteed.”

The smaller boy stepped up to him and held out his nickel, which quickly disappeared into the older boy’s pocket.

“Hold out your hand,” he commanded, pulling the cork from the vial. The younger boy obeyed, and the older boy sprinkled a few taps of the powder into his palm. “It tastes kind of bad, but it’ll have you running like a spotted ape in no time.” vials

Ned noticed one of the older boys smothering a grin.

Once the first boy had taken his dose, a line quickly formed. The older boy pocketed seven or so nickels and sprinkled each palm with the magic running powder.

“What do we do now?” said one of the younger boys.

“If I was you,” said the vial boy. “I’d start running. Home.”

This was met with a howl of laughter from the older boys and puzzled stares from the young customers.

“Fred, what’ll your dad do when he finds out you swiped that stuff from the pharmacy?”

Fred grinned. “He’ll never know. I pinched a little from three or four bottles so he wouldn’t notice. But I reckon they’ll notice, any time now,” he said, nodding his head toward the younger boys.

Just then, one of the younger boys backed slowly away from the group, a concerned look on his face.

“Where you goin’, Rob?”

‘‘I’m, uh … I got to go,” Rob said as he spun about and walked quickly away.

Fred and his buddies roared with amusement. “See? I told you! Ol’ Rob’s fixing to start running!”

“What’s in that stuff anyway?” one of the younger boys said.

“Watch it, Shorty! Not that it’ll mean anything to you, but it’s called phenolphthalein.”

“What’s that?” said another of the younger boys. By now, two or three others had drifted quickly toward the alley opening.

“It means,” said Fred between sputters of laughter, “that in about two minutes you’re gonna have the worst case a green–apple two–step you ever had in your life.”

The four older boys went limp with laughter, holding on to each other and slapping their knees.

Ned watched in fascination as the young boys hustled out of the alley. Evidently, that powder worked mighty fast. He was grinning at their retreating backs when he heard one of the older boys say, “Wait a minute, boys. We still got us a customer here.”

Ned turned around and saw the four older boys looking at him in a way he didn’t much like. He quickly took in the situation and began sauntering toward the alley opening with what he hoped was an unconcerned air. alleykids

“Where you going, white trash?”

Ned kept walking, a little faster. His ears burned with the insult, but he knew he didn’t stand a chance against the four of them. He was about ten feet away from the street when he heard footsteps crunching rapidly behind him. He started to run, but hands grabbed him from behind. He flung himself forward, trying to wrestle free of their grasp.

“Lemme go! Lemme go! I ain’t did nothing to y’all!” he yelled.

“Shut up, you little cow pie!” Fred aimed a fist at Ned’s jaw, but he twisted away from the blow.

“Lemme go!” Ned scratched and kicked at his attackers. He was trying to get out of the alley, but they kept dragging him back. “Leave me be! I ain’t hurt nothing!”

“Shut him up!” said Fred. One of the boys clamped a hand over Ned’s mouth but promptly yanked it away.

“Little skunk bit me!”

*******

George Hutto was walking aimlessly down Market Street, staring at the ground in front of his feet, when he heard the sound of a scuffle. He looked up and saw four bigger boys ganged up on one small, ill–clad fellow. For some reason, his memory flashed back to similar scenes from his boyhood, all the times at school and after church when the more daring, faster boys had made sport of him. Contrary to anything he was prepared for, his ire suddenly flared.

“Hey! Hey, over there! What’s going on over there, you boys?”

Before he realized what he was doing, George had strode to the nearest of the older ruffians and seized him by the shoulder. He realized it was the son of one of the men in his Sunday school class.

“Freddy Stokes! What do you mean, picking on this boy so much smaller than you?”

*******

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.

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 26

February 14, 2019

George strode along, feeling better than he had in days. In fact, he almost felt like whistling, and not caring what anyone thought. He allowed the smile inside him to creep across his face as he walked.

The weather had retreated from the warmth of recent days. A light breeze from the north was hurrying away the tattered scraps of the gray clouds that had poured a gentle night shower on Chattanooga. The wind was cool but bracing, and in the midmorning light, last night’s rain gave everything a vivid, freshly painted look. smiling

For some reason, George Hutto had felt odd and adventurous ever since awakening this morning. To his own surprise, his befuddlement of recent weeks had left him during the night. He was suddenly, unaccountably full of assurance about what he wanted. And what he wanted was to talk to Laura Sanders Breck and tell her, for once, how he felt about her.

At first, the notion seemed strange and risky. But instead of retreating from it, he had allowed himself to taste it, to handle it, and observe it from all sides. And the more he did so, the more reckless and dashing he began to feel. Why shouldn’t he tell her? He was a grown man, after all! If a man cared for a woman, why shouldn’t he say so? It wasn’t as if she should be surprised, he told himself. He’d been accompanying her just about everywhere there was to go in Chattanooga these last three–and–a–half months, and she hadn’t declined any of his invitations, as far as he could remember. Surely that entitled him to speak his mind—didn’t it?

And so he had shaved and dressed and put on his coat. He had walked down to the office and told his father’s secretary that he would be out all morning. What a delicious feeling, to deliver that news to Mr. Cox and turn and walk casually away, not even caring what Mr. Cox thought! George had especially enjoyed that.

And now he was approaching Mrs. Breck’s street, and growing more confident with each step. He tried to imagine how her face would look when he said what he had come to say. Would she blush? Would she give him a demure, eyes-downcast smile? Probably not. She would probably stare at him with those coal–black eyes, blink once or twice, and then give her head a sharp nod. “Well, all right, then,” she would probably say.

And that was all right with George. Everything was all right with George this morning because for the first time in his life, he knew what he wanted and knew what he was going to do about it.

There was a horseless carriage parked in front of Laura Sanders Breck’s house, and that mildly surprised him as he rounded the corner and saw it. A thoughtful little crease appeared on his forehead, but he paced forward anyway. Probably a relative. It might even be a lady friend of hers. George had actually seen a few women driving about in the noisy contraptions.

Despite his newfound confidence, he felt his heart crowding into his windpipe as he stepped onto her front porch and removed his hat. Still, he had something to say, and he was going to say it.

It took Mrs. Breck an unusually long time to get to the door, and when she finally opened it, George was embarrassed to see that her hair was disheveled and she was in her dressing gown. He had never seen her hair down, and why was she in her dressing gown? It was nearly ten o’clock in the morning! He stammered and looked away. ‘‘I’m, uh … I’m sorry to come by so … so early, but—” dressinggown

“George! I had no idea—” She clutched the neck of her gown and glanced back over her shoulder, toward the interior of the house.

He nearly bolted, right then. But then he remembered his earlier determination and decided to screw his courage to the sticking point, as the fellow said. He forced himself to look her directly in the eye, disregarding her flustered expression as he stepped firmly past her onto the worn Persian rug in her foyer. He was going ahead, and that was that. “Mrs. Breck, I have something to say, and I want you to hear me out.”

And then, as he paused to begin his prepared remarks, he heard a muffled cough from within the house. A male cough.

George was completely befuddled and thrown offtrack. Everything he had intended to say to Laura Sanders Breck vanished like a mirage from his mind. He looked at her in confusion, and to his additional surprise he saw her covering her face with one hand. Based on his experience with her, he would have been equally prepared to see her standing on one foot and reciting “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” In fact, the whole scene was bizarre; he wondered fleetingly if he were still asleep in his bed and dreaming.

“George, come outside. We have to talk.”

He allowed himself to be led back onto the front porch. She shivered as they sat on the swing, and George realized, without quite knowing how, that Mrs. Breck wore no clothing other than her dressing gown. Numbly, he added this to the rest of the weird facts quickly accumulating in his mind.

“George, I sure wish you hadn’t had to find out this way.” She sounded different: soft, almost. George had never heard her sound soft.

“George, you’re a sweet man and a good one, and I’ve enjoyed your company. But … you don’t know what you want—or at least you don’t know how to ask for it.”

But, wait. Let me say what I came to say …

“I’ve been on my own for a long time now,” she said, “and I’m at the age where I can’t wait much longer. And when someone comes along who does know what he wants, well— It’s hard for me to turn that down.”

George’s mind began framing another objection but subsided. It was too late, he realized. That much, at least, was starting to seep through the fog. He peered at her, still confused. He had the impression that he ought to be leaving, that his presence was unnecessary—even undesirable. He stood and resettled his hat on his head. “Yes, well … I apologize for any inconvenience, Mrs. Breck. I regret calling on you at such an … awkward time.”

She stayed seated, clutching the dressing gown to her in a vain attempt to shield herself from the cold air. She looked up at him with a pitying, almost beseeching look. “George, it’s not your fault.”

“Yes, well … Good day to you.” He touched the brim of his bowler. “You’d better get back inside. You’ll catch your death.” He turned and walked down the steps. He walked almost to the end of the block before turning to look back at the house of Laura Sanders Breck. To his surprise, she was still on the front porch. She was standing, looking at him. He gave her a weak, tentative wave and continued on his way. sadwalk

He walked into the office, past Mr. Cox’s desk. The gaunt older man looked up in surprise. “I thought you were gonna be out all morning, George,” he said.

George had begun removing his wraps. He turned about, a puzzled expression still on his face. “Yes, I did say that, didn’t I?” Slowly he hung his coat and hat on a nearby rack. “Well, I’m back now. I expect I’ll be at my desk the rest of the day.”

Mr. Cox shrugged and returned to his work, and George shuffled back to his small, cramped office at the back of the warehouse.

*******

Zeb hated to think about what his desk would look like. It would be a rat’s nest of correspondence from the home office, policies that needed to be delivered—some probably with past–due premiums—and assorted other scraps and slabs of unfinished business that would all be screaming to be attended to at the same time. This was the worst part of leaving the office.

He put his key in the lock but found the door already open, somewhat to his surprise. As he entered, he saw Abner at his desk, busily sorting and stacking. “Well, hello, Ab! I didn’t expect you to be here this early.”

Abner grinned at him. “I had a feeling you’d be in this morning, and I didn’t much want you to see the haystack that piled up on your desk while you were gone, so I’m doing a little baling here, is all.”

Zeb sat down behind his desk and began looking through the stacks Abner had made, starting with the policies. Most of them were deliveries from the home office, but one or two looked like a policyholder had stopped making premium payments.

“Ab, who brought this one in? It looks like one somebody’s trying to cough up.”

Abner nodded. “Yeah, Hutchinson from over in Argenta told me one a his people said he couldn’t make the payments any longer.” office

“Betcha two bits Mama wants a new cookstove, and this old boy is trying to figure out how to pay for it.”

Abner nodded. “Probably. Trying to cut some corners.”

“Well, I guess I’ll have to go out with Hutchinson one more time and show him how to poke a policy back down.”

This was just what he needed, Zeb thought: work to do, decisions to make, situations to handle. He could lose himself in agency business and take his mind off … everything.

The door jingled. “Looks like I’m not the only one who figured you’d be in this morning,” Abner said quietly.

Zeb glanced up to see Becky Norwich standing just inside the entrance, staring at him.

“This ain’t but the third time she’s called this week,” Abner whispered.

Ignoring the sarcasm in his secretary’s tone, Zeb slowly pushed himself back from his desk and walked toward her.

“Morning,” he said, trying to mean the smile he was showing. He wasn’t ready for this—not yet. “What can we do for you?”

“How’s your mother?” she said.

“Do what? My mother? Why she’s—fine, I guess, but why—”

“I thought you went to Nashville because your mother was sick. At least, that’s what he told me,” she said, nodding toward Abner.

“Now, ma’am—I mean, miss—I never said nothing about anybody’s mother. I said ‘family emergency,’ is all.”

Zeb said a silent thanks for Abner’s quick mind. Becky’s voice was as taut as a telegraph wire; it wouldn’t take more than a fingernail scrape across her veneer to expose her anger.

“I’m really glad to see you, and I’ll be more than glad to explain everything,” he said, careful to stop a respectful distance away from her, “but I’ve got more than a week’s worth of catching up to do. Do you think I could call on you this evening, maybe? I’ve got a proposition to deliver to your father, anyway.” angry

“Oh, you have, have you? Well, you just come right on over then, Zeb, and you and Daddy can have all the time you need because I’ll be elsewhere!”

She spun on her heel and flung open the door, stomping off down the boardwalk.

Zeb closed the door behind her and then closed his eyes. Why did every problem in his life shove forward, clamoring for attention before he was ready? He sighed and turned around, barely catching the smirk on Abner’s face before the secretary was able to swallow it.

“What are you gawking at? Don’t you have a letter to write, or something?”

“Yessir.”

*******

Zeb wasn’t sure what to hope: that Becky would make good her threat or that she wouldn’t. He arrived at the Norwiches’ near dusk, feeling jumpy as a green colt. He could have gotten there sooner, but he had walked around the block twice before he could make himself go to the door and knock.

He was so intent on the opening he’d rehearsed for Becky that when Pete Norwich answered the door, Zeb stared at him as if he were a stranger.

“Oh, uh, here. I brought the proposal I told you about.” He fished the barely remembered sheaf of papers out of the breastpocket of his coat and proffered them to the older man, who regarded him with a sort of amused scowl. Pete took the papers without looking at them.

“Don’t know what you did, son, but you’re so far in the doghouse you may never see the light of day.”

Zeb shoved his hands into his pants pockets and shook his head.

“Becky chewed you like an old bone when she got home. Even her mama couldn’t get a word in sideways.”

“Will she see me at all?”

“Shoot, boy, don’t start me to lying. You gonna have to ask her yourself.”

“I was afraid you’d say that. Well, lead the way to the wall. I don’t smoke, and I don’t want a blindfold.” Zeb heard Pete’s soft chuckle as he stepped past him into the house.

Hat in hand, he walked into the parlor. Becky was facing away from him, her head down and her arms crossed tightly in front of her. Mrs. Norwich had been saying something to her but broke off immediately when she saw Zeb enter. She withdrew into the kitchen, and Zeb heard Becky’s father quietly close the hall door behind him.

“I didn’t think you’d show your face,” she said.

Zeb had been prepared for an interminable, frosty silence, and he felt ambushed by her quick words. “I … I guess I didn’t think you’d be here when I did.”

She turned to face him, her arms still crossed like a barricade in front of her.

“Well, I am.” She stared at him.

Zeb felt her eyes on him. He wondered what she saw, and how much.

She was wearing a simple, long–sleeved cotton dress with a fine, blue floral print. Her hair was done up, but the inevitable lock was straying across her forehead. In the lamplight, he could barely make out the freckles across the bridge of her nose. He felt the soft place inside him, felt himself longing to open up, to let her in all the way. But how could he?

“Becky, I … I wish I could tell you … But sometimes, things are just not that easy—”

“I’ll tell you what’s not easy, Zeb. It’s not easy being in love with you.” In a more guarded voice, she said, “I’ve invested more in you than I can afford to lose, but I can’t go on like this, Zeb.” Her voice caught on the corner of one of her words, and she cupped a hand to her mouth. A moment later, she continued, still in a quiet voice. “I need to know where I stand with you, Zeb. I need to know if you regard me as anything more than an occasional good time.”

“Now, Becky, it’s not like that—”

“I need to know that I matter to you, that I count for something in your plans.”

“But you do!” eavesdropping

“I won’t be treated like a lap dog, to be petted or turned out at your whim. If I can’t depend on you, Zeb, I’d just as soon not see you again.” And with that, she strode into the kitchen. As the door swung open, Zeb had a glimpse of her mother and father, huddled together and turned away from the entry to the parlor, two conspirators caught in the act of keyhole peeking. Becky stalked past them as the door swung slowly closed.

Stunned, Zeb stared at the floor for a few seconds. Then he turned himself slowly about, with an almost aimless motion, like a heavy–laden barge drifting in a sluggish current. He placed his hat onto his head and showed himself to the door, hoping that he wouldn’t have to speak to anyone on the way.

As he walked downtown, he glanced up at the night sky. There was a skiff of cloud, just enough to blur and dim the stars now and again. Zeb walked toward his lodgings, feeling like a lost soul doomed forever to wander between one burned bridge and another.

*******

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.

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 25

February 7, 2019

“Remember the last time we walked along here?” Zeb said. He smiled at Addie as they ambled along beside the pond in East Lake Park. “Remember what happened that night?”

Addie’s face wore the same vacant, burned-out look she had exhibited since the reading of the will.

“Hmm?”

“Don’t you remember?” Zeb tried again, forbidding his smile to wilt. “I asked you to marry me, right here beside this lake.” pond

“Yeah, now that you mention it, I guess you did.”

It was barely March; the willows around the pond were still bare and the grass was still winter–browned, but it was one of those early spring days when the weather turned off so warm and the sky was so blue it defied a body to stay indoors. Still, it had required all Zeb’s powers of persuasion to convince Addie to take a walk with him. He was beginning to wish he hadn’t taken the trouble.

Since that day at the attorney’s office, Zeb had been grappling within himself for an answer to his dilemma. All along, he knew what he should do, but the wrestling match was between that and what he felt like doing. He had fought and refought the same battles with himself—had captured and surrendered the same ground dozens of times. And today, out here in the lavish sunlight of early spring, he had resolved to finish the campaign once and for all.

Zeb felt the pressure of his next words building, pressing against the back of his teeth like captive steam seeking a release valve. ‘‘Addie, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking since … everything’s happened. The way I … the way we’ve been living isn’t right, somehow.”

She turned her face slightly toward him but said nothing.

“There’s nothing left here for you now, anyway,” he said. Somehow the words didn’t sound as good out in the open air as they had inside his head, but it was too late for retreat. “Your father did the worst he could to you, and he shouldn’t have, but he did, and nobody can change it now. So, what I want to say is—”

They had stopped walking. She was facing him now, her eyes on him, on his lips as they moved. It looked to Zeb like she was trying to see down his throat, to see the words as they formed inside him. Well, at least she was paying attention to something other than her grief.

“—I want you and Mary Alice to come to Little Rock. I want to get us all back together again. I don’t want to live apart anymore.”

Well, he had the words out at last. He tried to ignore the desperate moan of loss that drained away to nothingness inside him. He reached into himself and grabbed a smile from somewhere, trying to mash it into place on a face that wouldn’t hold anything but a grimace. He wanted to do the right thing! Why wouldn’t it feel right?

“When we get back to Nashville, let’s just load everything up and head west.” He reached out to take her hand. Good–bye, Becky. “I want our baby to be born in Little Rock. Addie, things can be good for us there. You’ll see. I’ll find us a—”

She yanked her hand away from him, as if he had smeared it with slime. Her lips were parted but not in a smile. anger

“Is that the best you can do?”

He stared at her.

“Do what?”

“This was what you wanted the whole time,” she said. “You told me they sent you to Little Rock so you could prove to them you were good enough for the home office. But you never once meant to come back, did you?”

Their argument before his last trip back reared up again in his mind.

“Now, Addie, just hear me out this time—”

“My family and my life and my church and everything about me—it’s never been good enough for you, has it? You had to change everything. Just bury it all and start over, didn’t you?”

“Addie! That’s not how—”

“Zeb, I told you before. I’ll not set one foot in Little Rock, Arkansas, or anywhere else on nothing but your say–so.”

The most frightening thing was how quietly she spoke. She had not raised her voice at any time, but the words stuck in his flesh like cockleburs. She had fired from point–blank range.

He stuck his hands into his pockets. Not knowing what else to do, he turned and began walking again. She fell into step beside him. To a casual observer, they might have stopped to exchange remarks on the weather and then resumed their stroll. Zeb felt ruined inside, despoiled and abandoned. And then he began to feel angry.

“It’s really the same thing, you and Papa,” she said, still in the same quiet voice. “Both of you have taken my life away from me and expected me to just go along. Well, I’m not going along anymore, Zeb. Not anymore.”

So this was what happened when a man tried to do the right thing! A man puts his heart through the wringer for a woman, and he gets kicked in the teeth for his trouble! So this was how it was going to be, was it?

‘‘All right, then. I won’t mention it anymore.” And don’t say I didn’t try. 

******* 

Dub hauled on the hand brake as the automobile wheezed its last breath. “I’ll get the bags,” he said as he opened his door.

Louisa turned to face Addie and Zeb in the backseat. “I sure hate to see y’all go back so soon,” she said, smiling at Mary Alice, who was seated in Addie’s lap, disguised as a bundle of winter clothing. The child’s face was barely visible through the tangle of her wraps. “When you gonna come back and see Aunt Lou?” she grinned at the child. ‘‘I’m sure gonna miss you, sweetie.”

Dub opened Addie’s door and offered her a hand. Behind them, a railroad agent strolled the platform, announcing their train. “Two o’clock to Bridge–port, Tullllll–ahoma, War–trace, Murrr–frizburruh, Naysh–ville, and all points west, now boarding on track number eight.”

“Well, that’s us,” Zeb said, shaking Dub’s hand. ‘“Preciate you bringin’ us down here, Dub.”

“No trouble.” trainstation

“I need a hug from this young ‘un before y’all go,” Louisa said, taking Mary Alice from Addie and giving her a tight squeeze. “You make your mama and daddy bring you back to see me, now, you hear?” The child began squirming and reaching for her mother, a troubled look on her face. “Oh, all right, here’s your mama, honey.”

Louisa handed the toddler back to Addie. She put an arm around her younger sister. ‘‘Addie, don’t worry. The boys and me’ll work something out for you. What Papa did wasn’t—”

“I know,” Addie said. She gave Louisa a quick hug with her free hand. “I just don’t want to talk about it anymore right now. We’ve got to go, Lou. Our train’s been called.”

“Need any help with the valises?” Dub said. “I can call a boy—”

“No, that’s all right,” Zeb said. “I got ‘em. Bye.” He hoisted the bags and followed his wife and child into the station.

Louisa watched them walk away into the crowd. Dub opened the car door for his wife, but she was still staring after her sister and her family.

“Lou?” he said after a moment, “can we go now?”

*******

Naturally, Mary Alice was cranky the whole way home, and she refused to sleep. By the time the train pulled into Nashville at half past seven that evening, Addie was so frazzled, so crumpled with fatigue, that she could barely speak. Zeb’s presence—when he wasn’t restlessly pacing the aisles of the car—registered only as a brooding silence. She knew her words in the park had stung him, but she just couldn’t make herself care. Addie doubted if they exchanged more than a half dozen words the whole way. That suited her fine.

When they had disembarked and Zeb had gathered the bags, he turned his face in her general direction and announced, ‘‘I’m gonna find a hack to take you and Mary Alice home. I’ve got to get back, so I’ll just stay here and catch the next train west.”

“Fine,” Addie said. If that’s how you feel about it. She hoisted the little girl on her hip, pressed a hand to the small of her back, and followed him off the platform and into the station.

*******

The driver set the valises down just inside the front door. He touched the brim of his cap and turned to go. “Wait,” Addie called, digging in her handbag, “don’t I owe you something?”

“No, ma’am. Your husband, he done took care of everything back at the station.”

“Well, all right then. Thank you.”

“Yes’m.” motherchld

She closed the door and set Mary Alice down. The child immediately began toddling down the hallway toward the bedrooms. “Da’ee?” she called, peering in one doorway, then another. “Da’ee?”

“Sweetheart, Daddy’s not here. He’s gone.”

Still, Mary Alice methodically searched each room, then went toward the kitchen. “Da’ee? Da’ee?”

From some remote, tightly guarded place within her, Addie felt her convoluted sorrow rising. She dashed into the kitchen and scooped Mary Alice into her arms, just as the sobs and hot tears started. She buried her face in her daughter’s hair and sat down in a kitchen chair, crying and holding her child.

Mary Alice patted her mother’s arm. She peered over Addie’s shoulder, through the doorway into the parlor, where the valises still sat by the front door.

“Da’ee?”

*******

The train rattled into Union Station, but Zeb was so dog–tired he knew nothing of it until he felt the hand of a porter on his shoulder.

“Sir? Sir? You better wake up, sir, unless you mean to ride this train all the way to Fort Smith. We’re in Little Rock.”

Zeb opened and shut his eyes several times in a groggy attempt to focus. He rubbed his face and gathered himself upright. The sunlight hurt his eyes. It looked like the afternoon of some day or other. Seemed like he’d been riding trains for a month. traintrack

He pulled his valise down from the rack and shuffled sideways along the aisle toward the doors. He could feel the cool outside air sliding through the mostly empty car. He wished again he hadn’t packed his overcoat.

He stepped down onto the platform and began walking toward the cab stands. As he walked, he toyed absently with the ring on his left hand. Then he stopped and stared at it for a moment. He set down the valise. He pulled the ring from his finger and held it for a moment in his palm—delicately, like a soap bubble that had lit on his hand.

Then he dropped it down among the cinders and darkened gravel of the track bed. He picked up his valise and shoved his left hand into a pocket. Hunching his back against the cool wind, he walked off toward the cab stands.

*******

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.