Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 30

March 15, 2019

Trusting as the moments fly, singing

Trusting as the days go by;

Trusting Him what e’er befall

Trusting Jesus—that is all …

 

Becky wasn’t much in the mood to sing about trust, which, it seemed to her, was getting harder and harder to come by. She mouthed the words to keep up appearances, but she couldn’t bring herself to really think about what she was singing, as she knew she should. Mercifully, the song ended, and Woodrow Stark took up his station behind the massive, brown–painted pulpit. She was able to focus on the empty air just above his head and allow her mind to drift away from the service. Drifting was what she seemed to do best these days, anyway.

For the third time in as many weeks, Zeb wasn’t at church. She had stood around the entrance longer than was decent, hoping to see him coming—but no. Becky just couldn’t understand the man. One day he would be all smiles; warm, confident, and full of fun; and the next time she’d see him he’d be distracted and edgy, would hardly speak a civil word. Or, she’d go for days and not see him at all. Camera 360

Becky felt her mother’s presence in the pew to her left, sensed the looming worry in her erect posture, in the angle of her neck—cocked to allow her to study her daughter’s profile without seeming to. Mother had the little New Testament she carried in her handbag dutifully cracked open to Brother Stark’s text for the day, had a gloved finger laid on the verse currently under discussion. But Becky knew her mother’s real attention was on her distracted, frustrated daughter. In the last few days there had been a few too many carefully disguised questions, a few too many jests left open–ended, capable of serving as the invitation to a mother–daughter talk. Yes, Mother was anxious about her little Becky. Oh, if she only knew … And, of course, there was Daddy, seated on the other side of Mother, arms across his chest, his head lowered in an attitude of bemused contemplation to disguise his boredom. She tried to imagine what he would be like if he suspected what she was really doing on some of those Saturday afternoons when she was “catching up the books at the store.”

Becky had told herself she ought to have nothing more to do with Zeb—more times than she could count, she had told herself. But … when things were good with Zeb, they were so good. When he was right, when he was behaving in the manner she’d come to think of as “the good Zeb,” something just loosened, came unwound inside her. There were times when they saw each other when his face would bloom like a starving man who’d just smelled a home–cooked meal; times when she felt she was his lifeline. It was good to be needed in that way, good to spend and be spent for someone she could sustain and provide for. In those moments, she felt herself to be a necessity to him, felt helpless to deny him anything he wished from her—and that had gotten her in farther than she’d strictly intended to go, much more than once. Even as she reviewed her indiscretions with him, though, there was a part of her that knew it couldn’t be helped, a part that felt as if she already belonged to him in every way that mattered. Lying in Zeb’s arms seemed to her the most natural thing in the world. Their lovemaking was to her like a secret conference in a world that would never understand a passion like theirs. Why, that part of her asked, should she deny herself something that was so obviously right?

Because it wasn’t right, the rest of her said. Zeb might be as good as the apostle Peter, but he wasn’t her husband. Not yet. There were no promises between them, no commitments. She tried to hush the accusing voice inside her mind, but it wouldn’t be stilled. There were things about the man she just didn’t know, things she needed to know before she put much more stock in him—if, indeed, she hadn’t already invested more in him than she could afford to lose.

“… words of the apostle Paul as he writes to the church in Corinth,” Brother Stark was saying in his dreary, endless voice. “He cautions them against the charms of this world and their former lives when he says, ‘Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God?’—chapter six and verse nine. Hear the catalog of sins from which the gospel had rescued these folks: ‘Be not deceived,’ the apostle says, ‘neither fornicators, nor revilers, nor …’” flushed

At the word fornicators, Becky felt her face flush, hot and guilty. She prayed no one was watching her closely but felt as if all eyes must surely be upon her—scrutinizing her for any trace of reaction to hearing herself labeled. And then she was talking herself past it. It’s not like that with Zeb and me. We love each other, and we mean to stay together. It’s not really like we’re just doing … that … for base reasons.

“Listen again to the warning of the apostle, folks,” said Brother Stark. “‘Flee fornication’—verse eighteen. ‘Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body …’”

Won’t the man give it rest? Then the scold that lived inside her forehead took up the cry: fornicate, fornicate, fornicate … Laid over her gentle, softening remonstrances about the goodness of their times together, of the sweetness and, yes, the innocence of the love she shared with Zeb, was the jarring, sweaty ugliness engendered by that word, fornicate. The scold heaped coals on the furnace of her guilt, fanned the flames and shamed her with the heat of her own weakness. You’re a lewd woman, living in sin and too spineless to admit it to yourself

Becky felt the dull ache beginning behind her eyes, making a slow, pummeling progress down her neck and back until her body felt as if it had been hung like a ham in a smokehouse for a month of Sundays. She retreated into the pain, hiding her hurting mind in it as the words of the sermon drifted tonelessly over her head and out the open windows of the church house.

*******

George shuffled through the reddish, rattling carpet of fallen leaves, doing his best to step past the broken limbs that littered the floor of the woods covering the flanks of Tunnel Hill. Why he hadn’t stopped to change into more suitable clothing before coming out here, he couldn’t imagine. Lately, though, he had found himself doing a number of incautious things. He was going to have to learn to adapt to his newfound bursts of impetuosity, he guessed. leaves

Today his urge had taken the form of a sudden notion to try and locate the abode of Ned Overby. He had driven out from town and parked his vehicle behind the old Caswell place, then picked his way along the footpath that led back into the woods, up one side of the hill and down the other.

He felt a little silly, traipsing through the woods on a gray December afternoon when he really ought to be sitting in front of his grate at the office, but he had forced himself to continue with what he had planned. Since their encounter back in the spring, he had not been able to get the image of Ned Overby out of his mind: the bedraggled, defeated, vulnerable boy who scarcely spoke a half–dozen words. The Young Men’s Christian Association of Chattanooga was nearly ready to open, and George was determined that Ned Overby would be one of its first members, if his family would permit it.

He finally emerged from the tangled undergrowth at the edge of the woods and laid eyes on the small, shabby dwelling by the railroad track. He nearly turned back. How in the world could he, who lived on practically a different planet from these people, possibly communicate what he had in mind for their son?

A woman came out of the door of the house as he approached and made her way toward the haphazard woodpile by the side of the house, a hatchet in her hand. When she was halfway to the woodpile, she noticed George’s approach. She made as if to walk back toward the door. George tipped his hat and smiled. hatchet

“Hello, ma’am. Is this the Overby home, by any chance?”

She stared at him, taking a double–fisted grip on the hatchet. George slowed his steps, then stopped at what he hoped she regarded as a respectful distance.

“Ned probably hasn’t told you about me, but one day this past summer—”

George suddenly realized that if he told Ned’s mother about his ride in George’s automobile, he might be getting the boy in trouble.

“—about the first week of June, I guess it was, I was out this way and … I asked your son about some directions. I was lost, you see, and …”

George felt his face flushing with the strain of inventing the fib off the cuff, and he hoped fervently the woman would let him finish before she sicced a dog on him, or threw the hatchet at his skull. He wondered what would come out of his mouth next.

“At any rate, we got to talking, and— This is the Overby house, isn’t it?”

“My man ain’t home right now,” the woman said. “But I reckon Ned’ll tell me if you’re lying or not. Ned!” she shouted, never taking her eyes off the stranger in front of her. “Get out here! Ned, boy! You hear me?”

The front door squeaked and rattled, and George was immensely relieved to see the tousled head of the boy appear. Allowing for a few months of growth, George easily recognized him as the youngster he had rescued in the alley behind Market Street.

“Hello there, Ned! I was just telling your mother here about talking with you last June, when I saw you on the side of the road, through the woods, there.” He stared at the boy, hoping he would pick up on the alibi and play along.

Ned glanced back and forth between his mother and George.

“Howdy,” he said. The boy shoved his hands in his pockets and tucked his chin into his collar.

“You know this man?” the woman asked.

“Yes’m.” child

The hatchet now hung at her side. George hoped that was a good sign.

“Anyway, Mrs. Overby, my name is George Hutto. I live in Chattanooga, and I’m starting up a Young Men’s Christian Association.”

“We don’t need no charity.”

“Oh, no, ma’am! No, ma’am, nothing like that. This is just a … a sort of club, you see, for young fellows like Ned, there. Place to exercise, and read, and … well, just a place to come and sort of … associate with other boys and … well, I was just thinking about Ned, here, and …”

He had run out of words. He stood there with hat in hand, smiling like a fool at this poor woman who clearly didn’t trust him as far as she could spit.

“Go on back in the house, Ned,” she said in a low voice. When he had gone in, she hugged herself, cradling the hatchet with an odd gesture, as if it were an infant. She spoke, staring at the ground in front of George’s feet.

“We make our own way, mister. We ain’t got much, but we ain’t beholdin’ to nobody for what’s here. It’s a hard life, but it’s all we know. I don’t see much call for anybody puttin’ notions in a boy’s head—notions that ain’t gonna do nothin’ but let him in for hurt later on.”

George blinked at her, the idiotic smile still frozen on his face. She knew! She knew there was another sort of life out there for some people; she just didn’t think Ned could possibly aspire to it. She had completely circled him in her mind, and was already in the road in front of him.

“I understand your point, Mrs. Overby, and I won’t try to talk you out of it … today, at least. But I wish you’d think on it some more, and maybe let me come back another time, maybe when Mr. Overby is here and we could talk.”

Still hugging herself, she turned her head to the right and stared off in the direction of the place where the railroad tracks curved slowly to the left and out of sight behind the shoulder of Tunnel Hill.

“I ain’t gonna say. Perlie’s runnin’ traps this time a year, and I never know when he’s comin’ or goin’.”

George touched the brim of his hat and backed toward the woods.

“Well, good day to you, ma’am. I’ll be on my way.”

When he got back to the old Caswell place, he was startled to see two people standing beside his automobile. They had heard his rustling approach through the fallen leaves and were staring at him when he ducked from under the eaves of the woods. He realized he was looking at Addie Douglas and her oldest brother.

*******

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 29

March 8, 2019

Addie passed the next few days in a buzzing fog of murmured condolences; she passed unseeing and unhearing through the tatters of muted conversations. Most of the time she felt as if she had blundered onto the stage of a play for which she neither knew the lines nor had the script.

She was dimly aware of Louisa, of her concern and care. And of course Beulah Counts fluttered around the edges of her consciousness in a perpetual tizzy of Christian concern. There were many hours when Addie had the sensation of watching herself pretending to be alive.

The children, though, were a different matter. They forced her awareness, demanded her involvement. Some mornings, the crying of little Jake or the nagging and whining of Mary Alice were the only things that could drag her from her bed. infant

A week or so after the arrival of Zeb’s letter, Junior and Dub pulled up in front of the rented house with a wagon and two muscular men. Junior knocked on the door, and when she opened it, he said, “Addie, we’ve come to take you home.”

She fell into his arms and sobbed on his chest. She could speak no words; she could utter only huge, heaving cries of grief and devastation.

Arrangements began to happen all around her: rail tickets bought, the household goods loaded into the wagons and transported to the freight yard for shipping to Chattanooga, Junior and Dub and Louisa loading her and the children into a hired car and driving them to the station.

They moved her, Mary Alice, and Jake into temporary lodgings at Louisa and Dub’s house. When they had been there for perhaps two days, Dan Sutherland came to see her, at Junior’s request.

The graying attorney sat across the kitchen table from her. Louisa sat beside her and Junior stood behind, a hand on Addie’s shoulder.

‘‘Addie, I know this is awful hard for you,” Dan said, “but you’ve got to pull yourself together and think about the legalities of this situation. Your children are depending on you.”

At Dan’s mention of the children, something happened inside her. It was as if she suddenly remembered to start breathing again.

“No one—not even their daddy—can love those babies as much as I do,” she said, staring into Dan Sutherland’s faded blue eyes. ‘‘I’ll do whatever I have to do to make sure they stay with me.”

“I’m glad to hear you say so.”

“Dan, he don’t have a leg to stand on, does he?” Junior said.

“I don’t know. I don’t know what the grounds’ll be. At this point,” he said, looking carefully at Addie, “I don’t even know who’ll sue for the divorce.”

“His letter said Addie should sue him,” Lou said. “Why shouldn’t she do just that? I mean, after all, he just dropped this on her out of the clear, blue sky! Why shouldn’t she sue?”

Dan rubbed his chin. “Well, in the state of Tennessee, it’s pretty hard for a woman who ups and wants out of a marriage to take her children with her.”

“But she doesn’t want out!” Lou said. “Can’t you see that?”

“Of course I see that,” Dan said, “but I’m trying to tell you how the courts’ll see it. They’ll see a man whose wife has sued him for divorce, and if he chose, he could present the case that she was the one who took the first action to end the marriage. That being the case, if he was to decide he wanted to keep the children, I know a lot of judges that would let him do it. Unless of course—”

“What are you thinking?” Junior asked. judge

“Addie, you say this came from nowhere?” Dan said. “You had no warning whatsoever? None?”

Addie pushed herself up from the table and walked away a few paces, hugging herself. She turned back toward them but kept her eyes on the floor. “Things hadn’t been … real good between me and Zeb for awhile.”

“How long?”

“Well … really since about … nine months ago.”

Images flashed through Addie’s mind: Zeb home from Little Rock; the presents he had brought for her and Mary Alice; the fondness they had somehow found for each other during that brief interlude; their passionate embraces in bed … Then, subsequent scenes: Zeb asking her to move to Little Rock; her angry refusals; his silent, brooding hurt …

She forced her eyes to meet Dan’s.

‘‘I’d say it was about then that things began to get worse.”

Dan peered at her a few moments, chewing on a thumbnail.

“Y’all reckon Addie and I could have a minute or two in private?”

When Louisa and Junior had withdrawn to the parlor down the hall, Dan faced her.

‘‘Addie, this is an awful thing to have to ask, but I’ve got to know: did you ever think Zeb might be seeing another woman?”

Addie felt the floor tilt beneath her, then right itself. Another woman! In all the dark confusion and blunt loneliness she had felt, despite her growing dissatisfaction with their marriage, Addie had never suspected Zeb of betraying his wedding vows. Zeb, who had placed such stock in knowing what the Bible said about everything, who had been so insistent that agreement on religious matters precede their marriage—how could it be that Zeb could do something so overt as violating the Seventh Commandment?

“I … I don’t know, Mr. Sutherland. I mean … I never would have thought it of him, but—”

“Let me tell you what I think, Addie. I think the best thing you can do right now, at least until we know a little more, is to refuse to sue for divorce.”

She looked a question at him.

“I think you need to wait and let him sue you. I think you’ll stand a better chance of keeping the children.” mother

“I don’t understand.”

“Addie, for whatever reason, Zeb doesn’t want to be married to you anymore. My feeling is that there’s another woman involved but leave that aside for now. If he wants out bad enough and you won’t sue him, he’ll have to sue you. And to do that, he’s got to give grounds. This day and time, there’s only a few reasons for divorce recognized by the courts of Tennessee: desertion, cruelty—which most men don’t use—deprivation of conjugal rights, and adultery.” Dan paused. ‘‘I’m making the assumption that none of these would apply to you.”

“Certainly not!”

“All right, then. That’s about it. If he sues you, he’s got to prove that one of these fits. And if he can’t prove it, he won’t be granted a divorce. If, on the other hand, my guess about him is correct—”

“But, Mr. Sutherland, how would you ever find out? And if you did, how could you prove in court that—”

“Leave the lawyering to me. And my name’s ‘Dan’ from here on. ‘Mr. Sutherland’ was my dad, and he died three years ago.” He smiled at her and got a faint smile in return. “Now, like I was saying, if my guess is correct, you’ll be granted a divorce, and no court in Tennessee would take your children away from you if he’s involved with someone else.”

“Then … I have no choice but to go through with this?”

He looked at her and sighed.

“No, ma’am, I’m afraid not. Unless, of course, your husband comes to his senses.”

She turned away and looked out the window, once again cradling her elbows in her hands.

“I don’t hold much hope for that, I’m afraid.”

She stared out a window into Louisa’s backyard. Louisa had taken Mary Alice outside, and for a moment Addie watched her daughter bobbing joyously back and forth between her aunt and the pile of toys she had heaped in one of the wrought–iron yard chairs—blissfully ignorant of the shambles her mother’s life had become. child

Addie thought of what her marriage had turned into and realized all she could feel was fatigue. She turned again to Dan Sutherland.

“I’ll do whatever you say, Mr.— I mean, Dan. I’ve spent more time with these babies than he has, by a long shot. They know me—they don’t know him. I mean to do whatever I have to do to keep them.”

“All right.” Dan settled his hat on his head. ‘‘I’ll get to work.”

As Dan walked toward the front door, Junior called him aside into the parlor.

“Dan, Addie’s been left with little or nothing except what we brought back from Nashville. She may not can pay you much for the work you’re doing, but you know I’m good for it, don’t you?”

Dan gave Addie’s oldest brother a direct look.

“Junior, I don’t expect you’ll see a bill from me for this.”

“What do you mean, Dan?”

“Way I see it, your little sister’s had a dang poor run of luck with the men in her life. Meaning no disrespect, but the day your daddy came to my office, I shoulda drubbed him on the head before I let him go down the street and write her out of the will. I guess this is something I can do to ease my mind on that score.”

Junior stared at the lawyer for several seconds.

“Dan, I sure appreciate this.”

“Don’t worry. I might let you buy me a train ticket or two along the way.”

*******

And so it was that on a brilliant afternoon in October, Dan Sutherland received at his office a telegram from Little Rock, Arkansas. He had had to take certain actions that he personally found distasteful, but he had steeled himself to it by thinking of Jacob Caswell’s daughter, abandoned first by her father and then by her husband. Sutherland knew a man in Little Rock who had a knack for acquiring information and an associated talent for making few ripples. He tore open the Western Union envelope and withdrew the wire.

 

LITTLE ROCK OCTOBER 10 1903

DAN SUTHERLAND, ATTORNEY

TALKED TO SECY STOP YOURE ON RIGHT TRACK

STOP MORE LATER STOP SEND USUAL AMT STOP

PURVIS

 

Dan leaned back in his chair. Purvis would keep digging until he either hit rock or the hole was plenty deep. He withdrew a bank book from a desk drawer and began penning a draft payable to A. Purvis, “for services rendered.” He guessed it would probably be only the first of several such payments.

*******

George Hutto walked through the rickety, abandoned warehouse, his footsteps echoing from the wide, knotty pine plank floor up into the dark spaces under the roof. The rafters were festooned with the untidy nests of sparrows and speckled, like the floor below, with black–and–white droppings. George stood in the middle of the floor, his hands in his pockets. He turned slowly through a full circle, his eyes roving everywhere through the big, empty structure. It would need a good deal of fixing up. The roof hadn’t been patched in a few years, and the floor planking was buckled and water–stained in several places. They’d have to clean out all the birds’ nests and haul off the three or four bales of moldering cotton hulking in the northwest corner. There’d be a good deal of carpentry too; there were numerous gaps between the wall slats and underneath the eaves, which explained the sparrow and swallow nests. Paint would be needed, and more lighting. They’d have to cut some good–sized windows. They’d have to heat the place, somehow. Then there was all the equipment they would need. And at some point he’d have to begin recruiting volunteers to teach classes and lead calisthenics and … warehouse

In his mind, George stepped away from the immediate tasks and allowed himself to peer past them. He thought about boys chanting in unison as they performed exercise drills, boys eating hot meals, boys huddled around men with open Bibles or literature books. George tried to imagine the building’s appearance, its sounds, once he had succeeded in filling it with his vision. For just a minute or two he let himself savor the fulfillment of the mission. He needed to memorize the shape and taste of his future satisfaction to get ready for the plain old hard work it would take to make it real.

But even in the midst of calculating the difficulties, George’s dream allowed him to feel reckless and capable; this idea of his was a good thing. He was coming to relish the sensation of inner certainty. Besides, other cities had had good success with the Young Men’s Christian Association; why wouldn’t it work in Chattanooga?

*******

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 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.

 

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.

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 24

January 31, 2019

The young woman pushed through the door into Zeb’s office and stopped short, her smile fading as she stared at Zeb’s vacant desk. Abner got up from his desk just inside the front door and approached her. “Yes, Ma’am? Can I help you?”

“Isn’t this Zeb Douglas’s office?” she asked.

“Yes, Ma’am. He ain’t here right now, though.”

“Where is he?”

Abner studied her carefully. It was pretty obvious she was more than casually interested in Zeb’s whereabouts. He added the columns in his mind and quickly decided he should tread with extreme caution. “Well, he got called back to Nashville, kind of sudden, Ma’am.”

“It’s ‘Miss,’” she said. By now there wasn’t anything left of the smile she’d worn coming in the door. “When did he leave?” office.jpg

“Yesterday morning, Ma’am—’Scuse me, Miss. I think he said it was some kind of … family emergency.”

She stared a hole through him. “What kind of family emergency?”

Abner gave what he fervently hoped was a convincing shrug. “‘Fraid I can’t say, Miss. He got a wire, and he read it, and before you could shake a stick, he was out the door to the station.”

Her features softened a trifle. “Well, I guess if he left in such a hurry as all that, maybe he wouldn’t have had time to let me know … ”

“Oh, I’m sure not, Miss,” Abner offered in his most earnest manner. “He read that wire and lit out like a scalded dog—’Scuse me, Miss. Anyway, he lit out right quick. I don’t imagine he had anything on his mind but getting to Nashville quick as he could.”

She looked at him thoughtfully for a few seconds. “Well, I’m sorry if I snapped at you. My mother is having a little social, and I came to invite Zeb; I guess I was pretty disappointed because I had no idea he was leaving town.”

“Aw, that’s all right, Miss. You didn’t do nothing wrong.”

She gave him another quick, hard look, then softened again. “Well, anyway, just tell him Miss Norwich came by. I’ll talk to him when he gets back to Little Rock. I don’t suppose he said when that would be?”

Abner shrugged again. “No, Miss, I’m afraid not. I’ll sure tell him soon as I see him though.”

“Well, all right.” She gave him a quick smile, adjusted her hat, and left. Abner stood staring after her. He scratched his head and gave a low, worried whistle. “What’s Zeb got himself into now, I wonder?” he asked the empty office.

*******

Becky’s mind was spinning as she walked back to her father’s store. Gone again! She wanted to he angry with Zeb for yet another unexpected disappearance, but the man had said, after all, that it was a family emergency …

She thought again how little she really knew about Zeb Douglas. A tendril of shame tried to bloom in her mind, but she shoved it firmly back. She had allowed herself to cross the line with Zeb … once. It wouldn’t happen again; she had promised herself that much. She knew better, and no matter how deeply she cared for him or he for her, she would not lose control again. It was a mistake, and it wouldn’t be repeated. They were in love, and they had gotten carried away by the moment, but that was all there was to it. sigh

Family emergency … Must be his mother, she decided. She wondered if Zeb favored his mother or his father. She hoped to meet them soon. She hoped that Zeb’s mother would be all right. She also hoped that he would be back soon. She already missed him desperately.

*******

As she swam back toward consciousness, Addie heard murmurs and ripples of voices around her. They reached her ears through the haze in her mind, and they seemed to come from all sides.

“Lou, you were the one that found him, right?”

“Yes. I went out to check on him a day or two after I went to see him at the store. He was in bed, looked like he must have died in his sleep. Had an asafetida bag tied around his neck.”

There was a sad little chuckle. “Lot of good it did him.”

“Too little, too late, I guess. She’s trying to open her eyes.”

Addie felt a hand taking hers, gently stroking it. “Addie, honey? How do you feel, sweetie?”

Addie blinked and tried to focus. Lou leaned over her, studying her face and stroking the hair back from her eyes.

“Well, hello there,” her older sister said, smiling. “Nice to have you back with us!”

“Where’s Mary Alice?” Addie’s tongue felt thick.

“She’s upstairs, taking a nap. She was acting kinda tired and fussy. I hope you don’t mind me putting her down for awhile.” sleep

Addie shook her head. She looked around. “This is your house, isn’t it, Lou?” Her sister nodded. “How long was I out?” Addie asked.

“Well, you kinda came around down at the lawyer’s office, but you never really roused well till now, and that’s been a coupla hours ago,” Bob said, coming to stand behind Louisa and looking down at his younger sister.

“We were getting worried, you being in a family way, and all.”

Addie sighed. The lawyer. Papa’s will … by reason of her willful disregard … It wasn’t a dream after all. Papa had really disinherited her. The shame and hurt washed over her again, but it wasn’t quite as overpowering this time—and she was already lying down. She felt like she ought to cry, but the grief seemed too deep for tears. It was more like a dull, dry ache, an emptiness inside her she had tried to forget. But now it had been shoved into her face, and there was no more avoiding it. Papa had put her out of his heart, and he had proved it by putting her out of his will. He had cut her off, just as he threatened on the day Zeb proposed.

Zeb … For a fleeting moment she wondered why he wasn’t in the room, but it didn’t quite seem important enough to ask about. He’d show up sometime, she assumed. She wondered how the news of the will had affected him. She had the vicious thought that he would probably leave, too, since there was no more hope of any dowry. She immediately reprimanded herself.

“Where’s Junior?” she asked.

“Down at Dan Sutherland’s,” Lou replied. “Seeing if there’s anything we can do about … the situation.” solemn

At that moment the front door opened. They heard steps in the hallway coming toward them. Addie heard the rustle of skirts, heard the murmured voice of Freda, Junior’s wife, as she asked him a question. There was no audible reply, and then Junior was standing in the doorway of the bedroom. The defeated expression on his face told them everything.

*******

Zeb had been walking for almost an hour, but his mind was still as snarled as a rat’s nest. He just couldn’t believe that Addie’s father had actually cut her off. He’d known Jacob wasn’t in favor of their marriage, but he just couldn’t believe a father would …

He felt cast off and cheated. He felt sorry for Addie, guilty for what their marriage had done to her, and angry because he felt guilty. He felt responsible … And then, from nowhere, a vision of himself and Becky Norwich invaded his mind. Becky, with her shiny, golden hair fallen down around her bare shoulders. Becky, her blue eyes looking deeply, deeply into his as he kissed her, as the pounding of his heart drowned out everything else except the feeling of his palms gliding over her skin—

Stop it! He grabbed his head with both hands, as if to clamp it in place—or perhaps to tear it off, to silence his restless and undisciplined mind once and for all. Zeb had never felt more wretched in his life. He had thought that in the days before their marriage, his uncertainty over his fate with Addie was the worst time of his life. But this … He was a battleground between duty and desire. There was no place he could go to escape the enemy inside his head; it was with him every waking moment, torturing him with rapidly alternating visions of rapture and wreckage. How could he even think of Becky Norwich now, when Addie needed him more than ever? But how could he forget Becky’s agreeable smile, her uncomplicated, undisguised interest in him, her softness, her gaiety—and her lithe, glorious body, unfurled beneath him, then wrapped around him like a welcoming, warming blanket? Becky was his in a way Addie had never been, could never be. Where were the answers? What could he do?

He walked on. The gold band on his left ring finger felt unfamiliar and strange, and he thumbed it nervously as he went. He thought of praying but instinctively shied away. He was certainly in no position to approach God with his problems just now. Besides, he had gotten himself into this predicament; it was up to him to extricate himself. ring

He knew he ought to get back to Addie’s sister’s house, even though he really didn’t want to. Addie must have come around by now; he needed to be there. At a time like this, surely there was something a husband could do—even a no–good like himself. He turned his feet back up the hill and began to retrace his steps, still thumbing his wedding ring, turning it round and round on his finger.

*******

George was restless. It was the middle of a Sunday afternoon, and he didn’t know what to do with himself. He thought about going upstairs and working on the model he had begun three months ago, a replica of the U.S.S. Constitution. He had started the ship on a whim after rereading the poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes, but the unpainted, unmasted hull had sat on his worktable, forlorn and abandoned, for weeks and weeks. Lately, he just couldn’t make himself get interested in his models, for some reason.

What he really wanted to do was call on Laura Sanders Breck, but he wasn’t quite able to go through with that either. After all, he had been with her late in the previous week. On top of that, he had escorted her to Jacob Caswell’s funeral. Cat that’s always underfoot gets kicked sooner or later, he lectured himself. In fact, he had imagined that she was the slightest bit restive the last few times they were together. George thought she still liked him for the most part, though, and he was most anxious not to spoil anything by being too hasty.

So he fretted. He’d already gone over the Times twice. He tried to find a book to read, but nothing looked interesting. He thought about taking a walk, but the sky looked threatening, so that didn’t seem advisable.

Pacing through the drawing room, his hands clasped behind him, he nearly collided with his father, who was trudging out of the hallway from the kitchen, carrying a brimming glass of buttermilk with cornbread crumbled into it.

“Watch it, Dad!” he said, shrinking back from the dollop of soaked cornbread that toppled from his father’s glass.

“Watch it, yourself,” Deacon Hutto said in a low grumble. “Moonin’ around the house like a foundered cow. Why don’t you just go see that woman before you fall down the stairs and break your neck, or somebody else’s?”

George felt the blush stinging his cheeks as his father edged around him and made for his favorite Sunday afternoon chair. He hadn’t realized his confusion over Mrs. Breck was quite so apparent. He watched thoughtfully as Dad settled carefully into the chair and began spooning the cornbread into his mouth. cornbread

“Well? What are you staring at?”

“Oh, sorry, Dad. I was just … woolgathering, I guess.”

George’s father grunted to himself as he swallowed another soggy piece of cornbread and chased it with a sip of buttermilk. George turned to go back the way he had come, then stopped and looked at his father. He swallowed, took a breath, then said, “Dad? When you were … Well, when you and Mother were courting, did you ever worry about, maybe spending too much time with her? Maybe wearing out your welcome?”

Deacon Hutto, a spoonful of cornbread halfway to his mouth, carefully put the spoon back into the glass. He looked at his pudgy, red-cheeked son for what seemed to George a full minute, but was probably only a few seconds.

“Son, I don’t much know what you’re driving at.”

George nodded, shoved his hands into his pockets, and drifted out of the drawing room. Deacon Hutto shook his head, rolled his eyes, and dipped up another bite of cornbread.

*******

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 23

January 24, 2019

“Dub, I’m worried about Papa.”

“What’s the matter, Lou?”

Dub slapped at his pillow. It had been a hard day at the store; he’d caught one of the new clerks stealing from the till. Dub hated conflict and avoided it whenever possible, but he couldn’t tolerate theft for one instant. He’d had to confront the clerk, who had denied everything and turned surly. He’d had to have some of the other men remove the fellow from the store. He’d decided not to press charges, but the whole matter had given him a headache that had lasted the rest of the day. He was hoping that he could go to sleep tonight and wake up tomorrow without a tenpenny nail in the center of his forehead.

“Well, he won’t go to the doctor, and he’s been coughing like a lunger for two weeks now. I’m afraid he’s got walking pneumonia but won’t do anything about it.” headache

Dub sighed. He rolled from his side to his back, staring at the ceiling of their bedroom.

“He won’t stay at home,” Louisa said. “He gets up every morning of the world and goes in to that store. He’s trying to kill himself is what I think.”

Dub knew he had to try to make some sort of reply. “Well, honey, surely if he felt that bad he’d stay home.”

Her silence was not that of a satisfied person who was ready to let things drop and allow her husband to go to sleep. He waited, blinking at the darkness above his head.

“Dub, I can’t help worrying about him. Course he won’t let anyone close to him, but I’m his daughter, after all.”

“Lou, if you’re that worried, why don’t you say something to him?”

“Why, Dub, you know good and well he won’t listen to anything I say. That’s about the most hardheaded man in the world, and you know it as well as I do.”

And he’s got at least one hardheaded daughter. “Honey, I don’t know what else to say.”

She sighed. “Well … Good night, dear.”

“Night.” He rolled back onto his side and pulled the quilt over his shoulder. He waited.

“Would you go with me to see him, Dub?”

“If l thought it would do any good, which I don’t.”

She sighed again. He felt the mattress rock as she leaned over to blow out her bedside lamp. He waited.

“I sure wish you’d get this bedroom wired for electricity.”

“Yes, ma’am. I’ll tend to it one of these days.” lamp

Another sigh. The light went out and Dub closed his eyes at last.

*******

Louisa sent the boys off to school the next morning, then put on her coat, gloves, and hat before she could talk herself out of her mission. The hack deposited her on the boardwalk in front of Caswell’s Dry Goods, and she paid the driver, squared her shoulders, and marched up the front steps.

She tramped up the stairs at the back of the store and pushed through the swinging gate into the office area. Her father’s desk was unoccupied. She was about to ask Mr. Sloan, the bookkeeper, for Papa’s whereabouts when a rasping, rattling cough from the vault told her. She went into the vault. Jacob was standing and turning around with a box of receipts in his arms when she saw his face. Before she could stop herself, she let out a gasp.

His face was ashen, and his eyes looked like tunnels in the side of a washed-out clay bank. He wheezed with every breath. He looked at her, and for an instant he wore a guilty expression, before he remembered himself.

“Well, what are you staring at?” He tried to draw himself a bit straighter.

“Papa, you’re going home right this minute! You’re in no condition to be—”

“Last time I checked, I was still your daddy, and I can still—” A coughing fit took him, and he nearly dropped the box. Louisa thought he was about to fall, but he leaned against the vault wall until the spell passed. “I can still look out for myself, without your help,” he finally managed in a half–choked voice before another cough shook him.

“Besides,” he said, “there’s nobody back there at the house anyway. I’m as well off here as I would be there.”

She moved to him and pulled the box from his grasp. “What are you talking about? I thought Lila was—”

“I ran her off.”

“What?”

“She didn’t suit me,” he said as he pushed past her. “If you’re gonna stand there gawking,   you might as well bring that box to Abe.” He shuffled out of the vault and turned toward his desk. sunkenface

Mr. Sloan appeared in the vault doorway. He glanced over his shoulder at Jacob’s receding back, then at Louisa. “Lou, he don’t need to be here,” he said quietly, bending over to pick up the box of receipts. “He’s mortal sick, if you’ll pardon my saying so, and I wish he’d go to the doctor, but he won’t listen to nothing nobody here says to him about it.”

Louisa closed her eyes, massaging her temples with one hand and cradling her elbow with the other.

“I was glad to see you coming up those stairs, ‘cause I figured if anybody could talk sense to him, it’d be you.”

‘‘Abe, he won’t listen to me either,” she said. ‘‘At least, not yet.”

Abe Sloan shook his head and turned to go back to his desk. “I sure wish he’d listen to somebody. He don’t need to be here, and that’s the Lord’s truth.”

She walked out of the vault and turned the corner toward her father’s desk. Jacob sat slumped in his swivel chair. He appeared shriveled, shrunken within himself. He was looking away from her, out over the sales floor. She pulled a cane–bottomed chair over and sat across the desk.

“Papa, why are you doing this?”

“Doing what?”

“Killing yourself.”

“Just got a bad cold, is all.”

“Papa, you and I both know better than that. Why is it you’ve decided to quit living?”

He flicked an angry glance at her, then turned away again. He started to cough and scrabbled hastily in the lap drawer of his desk for a handkerchief. Though he tried to hold it crumpled in his fist as he brought it to his mouth, Louisa saw the rusty speckling of dried blood.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, wiping his lips. “I’ll be all right. If you came down here to henpeck, why don’t you just go on back home?” handkerchief

“Papa, don’t you know I love you?” she said, trying to keep her voice even. “Don’t you think I care about what happens to you? I can’t just let you sit down here and die and act like it doesn’t matter to me one way or the other! Why won’t you let somebody help you?”

“I don’t need anybody’s help!”

He immediately went into another coughing spasm. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw some of the customers on the sales floor stare up at the office. She started to come around and hold his shoulders, but he waved her off.

When he could speak again, he said, “I’ve been alone since your mother died, and here lately I’ve decided that suits me just fine. Nobody to tell me to pick up my stuff, nobody to get in my way around the place, nobody to worry about whether I come or go. Nobody to lecture me about what I ought to do, nobody to go off and leave me. Nobody except me to bother with. That’s how I like it. You hear? Now go on. You’ve shown your Christian concern, and I’ve turned it down. There’s nothing else for you to do.”

She felt the tears stinging the corners of her eyes. “Papa, please—”

‘‘Abe,” he said, standing and walking toward the bookkeeper’s desk, “did you get those receipts totaled up yet?”

Louisa flung herself out of the chair and dashed toward the stairs, covering her mouth with her hand. As she clattered down the steps, she heard him start coughing again.

*******

Zeb walked into the agency and Abner immediately waved a telegraph message at him. “Western Union boy just brought this over, Zeb. Says it’s urgent. Says it came from Nashville.”

Zeb tore open the envelope and extracted the wire. He read it twice before the meaning penetrated. He puffed out his cheeks and his eyes went wide.

“What’s the matter? Bad news from home?”

“Well, you might say that.” Zeb tried to sort out the thoughts as they scrambled past his consciousness. He looked up at Abner. “I’ve got to go back, Ab. My wife’s father died.” telgram

*******

They filed slowly into the young attorney’s office and seated themselves around the long table, the dark–suited men carefully holding the chairs for their wives. Louisa eased into her chair and felt Dub’s hand rest lightly on her shoulder for a moment.

When they were all sitting, the bustling, nervous–mannered young man went to the head of the table and carefully stacked some documents, then seated himself. He cleared his throat and looked at them all. He tried to smile, without much success.

“Well, now that we’re all here,” he said, “I guess we’d better get started. As you may know, your father had filed a revised will with me quite some time prior to his death—”

“Revised?” said Junior, the oldest sibling. “I knew Papa had some kinda falling out with Dan Sutherland, but I didn’t know anything about changes in his will.” Junior peered a question at the rest of them. He looked back at the lawyer. By now a sheen of perspiration was visible on the young man’s forehead. “Well?”

“Yes, ah … Mr. Caswell brought his former will to me at about the time he … he left Mr. Sutherland and asked me to make some, ah … some changes.”

“What kind of changes?” Louisa said.

The attorney dabbed at his forehead with a handkerchief. “Yes, well … Why don’t we just read the will, and I think everything will be self–explanatory.”

Junior sat back in his chair with a frown covering his face, still staring at the sweating lawyer. The rest of them inched forward, their elbows on the table, and waited for the attorney to begin reading. Dub and Zeb were doing their best, Louisa thought, to maintain an attitude of respectful disinterest.

“I, Jacob Isaiah Caswell, being of sound mind, do hereby declare this to be my last will and testament … ”

As the young man’s voice droned on, Louisa studied Addie and Zeb from the corner of her eye. She had been watching them ever since their arrival for the funeral, two days ago. If Papa’s death had affected Addie, she wasn’t showing it. To Louisa, her younger sister seemed disinterested, somehow—apart. Zeb, on the other hand, appeared to be going out of his way to be the same old, glad–handing, smiling, good–humored fellow he’d always been. Courteous, proper, and well–mannered, he looked to Louisa to be a more prosperous, more confident version of the person who had left Chattanooga nearly four years ago.

But something had changed. Louisa couldn’t miss the polite reserve between Zeb and Addie. Allowing for his solicitousness toward Addie’s expectant condition, Louisa sensed a certain aloofness. Zeb treated Addie with the respect one might show an esteemed but distant relative. Louisa was worried about them, even though she couldn’t put her finger on the exact reason why.mourner

“ … do hereby direct that the remainder of my estate be distributed, per stirpes, among my three surviving children—”

“Do what?” said Bob, the younger brother. “What did you just read?”

The young lawyer wiped his forehead and cleared his throat. He looked around the table at them, then read again, in a quieter voice, “The remainder of the estate is to be divided among the three children Mr. Caswell mentions in the following—”

“I don’t guess you can count, son,” said Junior, leaning forward in his chair and carefully placing his folded hands on the table. “There’s four of us: me, Bob, Lou, and Addie. Four.”

The attorney’s only reply was to begin reading again in a flat, weakened voice. “ … my three surviving children: Jacob Isaiah Caswell Junior, Louisa Marie Caswell Dawkins, and Robert Wilkes Caswell. I hereby direct that—” The lawyer’s voice faltered, then resumed. “—that Adelaide Margaret Caswell Douglas, by reason of her willful disregard for the peace and well–being of this home, be stricken from my inheritance, that her right to any proceeds of this estate be revoked, and that she and her heirs and assigns be specifically and perpetually enjoined from any of the benefits that they might otherwise have enjoyed.” The lawyer’s voice faded to a halt.

There was almost a minute of stunned silence. For the first time, Addie showed emotion. All color had drained from her face, and Louisa could see white half–moons beneath her fingernails as she gripped the edge of the table. Even Zeb had lost his usual self–assured air and sat with his mouth agape, staring sightlessly at the empty center of the table.

It was Junior who broke the hush. “Do you mean to tell me that you let Papa write his own daughter out of the will?”

The attorney’s face had a strangled, desperate look. “Now, Mr. Caswell, you must understand that in the state of Tennessee, a person of good judgment can do anything he wants to his estate as long as—”

“Good judgment?” Bob said. “You call this good judgment?”

“No wonder Dan Sutherland and your daddy parted ways,” Dub said. He put his arm around Louisa and softly patted her shoulder as she wept quietly into her handkerchief. “Dan wouldn’t have been party to something like this.”

They all stared accusingly at the young lawyer, who remained absolutely still, except to shrug.

“Mr. Caswell wanted it this way. I’m just the lawyer.”

“Yeah,” said Junior with a snort. “How much did he pay you, boy?”

“Now, Mr. Caswell—”

“I’ve got to get some air,” Addie said, shoving her chair back from the table. She stood, took three steps toward the doorway, and crumpled in a heap of black satin and taffeta.

*******

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 22

January 17, 2019

George held Laura Sanders Breck’s elbow as she stepped into the buggy. Even though it was early February, George felt sweaty beneath his collar. The weather was fair, at least—one of those rare winter afternoons that made spring seem like more than a vague hope. He gave the hired rig a final inspection as he walked around to climb up on the seat. He didn’t exactly know what he was looking for, but he thought he ought to appear accustomed to doing such things. Bill Cray, the liveryman, was a friend of the Hutto family. Surely he wouldn’t allow George to take Laura Sanders Breck out in an unsafe rig. George clambered up into the seat and managed to get the reins gathered into his hands. He glanced over at Mrs. Breck and aimed a smile at her that he hoped appeared friendly and relaxed. “All set?” he asked. buggy

She stared straight ahead and nodded sharply. Once.

George clicked his tongue and the horse leaned into the collar, then stopped. George clicked louder and brushed the bay’s flank with the buggy whip, but the horse made no response other than an annoyed flick of the tail. “Oh,” George said, looking down beside him, “the brake.” He released the brake and clicked his tongue, and the horse moved obediently forward. “Good old Bill,” George said. “Looks like he gave us an experienced horse.” Mrs. Breck made no reply. As they made the final turn out of the wagon yard, George noticed Bill Cray leaning against the door of the barn, hands in his pockets, grinning at them.

They were going on a drive to the top of Lookout Mountain, a favorite activity for courting couples. George had been embarrassed in extending the invitation, half hoping Mrs. Breck would decline. She hadn’t, though, and here they were, clip–clopping down Ninth Street in the broad light of a Saturday afternoon. George felt very conspicuous. He kept his eyes straight ahead, sighting between the bay’s ears at a spot on the road about ten feet in front of them. He hoped Mrs. Breck wasn’t too uncomfortable with the whole town staring at them, as he thought it must surely be, but he didn’t dare turn his head to look at her.

Just after they had rattled across the plank bridge spanning Chattanooga Creek, George decided he really ought to break the silence. He cleared his throat.

“Nice day for a drive, anyhow.”

“Quite pleasant.”

“I think it does a person good to get some fresh air once in awhile.”

“I just hope some fool in one of those motor cars doesn’t come along and scare the horse.”

George slumped a little lower in his seat. “Well, so far we haven’t seen any.”

“I noticed your livery friend had them stacked all around his place.”

“Bill works on them now. Says it’s the wave of the future. Says one day, there won’t be anymore livery business, just motor cars.”

Laura Sanders Breck gave a skeptical grunt. “It’ll be too bad if he’s right.” car

George thought so, too, but he wanted to talk about something else—if he could only think of what that might be. The road was starting to rise up on the flanks of the mountain now, and the horse was leaning more heavily into the collar. George stole a glance at Mrs. Breck. She was sitting ramrod–straight on her side, holding on with a gloved fist to steady herself against the tilting road. She looked as if she was having an awful time. George felt his heart sinking down into his shoes. She was a nice lady, but when he was around her, he felt even more tongue–tied than usual. Still, she seemed not to mind his company; she had yet to refuse any invitation he’d offered. It was confusing. He had the vague sense that there was something they were missing, but he had no idea what it was.

The road turned up more steeply, and the muscles in the horse’s hindquarters bunched tighter. Just as George was about to ask Laura Sanders Breck if she would care to get out and walk around a bit, the horse, straining mightily with the load and the severity of the grade, squeezed off a long, low, quivering flatulence.

George felt his face and neck burning with embarrassment. The sound seemed to go on and on. Without realizing it, he scrunched his chin into his chest. The bay was still pressing forward, and every step produced a staccato aftershock. George wished he could just disappear. How in the world could he ever again face a proper lady like Mrs. Breck when such a mortifying indelicacy clogged the air between them? Not to mention the rather unpleasant smell. And then he heard her speaking.

“Sounds like your livery friend’s been feeding ‘em plenty of oats.”

George felt a laugh bubbling up inside him. No, not now! He clenched his jaw against it and willed it to go away. He felt it surge against the dam of his teeth and force its way upward, squeezing tears from his eyes. Still he held himself in check.

And then the horse erupted once more. It was no use. George threw back his head and guffawed. He laughed all the way from the soles of his feet, laughed so hard the crown of his head ached. Laura Sanders Breck would probably never let him in her sight again. When he finally got a lasso on the runaway laughter, he risked a glance at her, wiping his eyes on his coatsleeve.

And she was smiling. Staring straight ahead but smiling. She turned her head to look at him, and the crow–black eyes twinkled with amusement. She started giggling, and it was all up with him again. Soon, they were both howling at the top of their lungs. Somewhere amid the cleansing flood of merriment, he felt her fingers brush his. They held hands the rest of the way up the mountain. hands

*******

It was Sunday morning, and Zeb Douglas felt wretched. He looked in the mirror a final time, adjusted his cravat and smoothed back his hair. It was time to be leaving if he didn’t want to be late to church, but he was having a hard time getting himself to walk out the door.

He’d avoided Becky Norwich and her family since arriving from Nashville three weeks ago. When he considered her, his thoughts were tangled and troubled. In his mind, her image was perpetually bathed in a golden light. Becky was good–natured and confident. She had learned that it was all right to have firm opinions on things, and Zeb loved to hear her express them. He never had to wonder what she was thinking. She gave every evidence of being tremendously interested in him and everything he did. Being with her was a heady draught.

But he was a married man! He’d made promises to Addie and sired a child with her. Even though she was dour so much of the time, even though she’d never understand why he didn’t want to leave Little Rock, even though he never seemed to quite measure up to her expectations or her approved way of managing life, she was his lawful wife.

As he paced back and forth across the tiny front room, he stuck a hand down in the side pocket of his coat. His fingers encountered a round, smooth object. He drew it out and looked at it. It was the ring Addie had given him at Christmas. On the train, he had been wearing this suit and had, without thinking, dropped the ring off his finger and into this pocket, where it had apparently stayed these last few weeks.

Several times he slipped the ring on and off the third finger of his left hand. Then, slowly, he pulled out the top drawer of a bureau and placed the ring in the bottom, beneath his clean handkerchiefs. He turned around and walked out the front door, closing it behind him. When he reached Ninth Street, he paused long. Finally, instead of turning west toward the rock church building, he turned eastward, pacing slowly toward City Park. He wasn’t ready yet to face her. Not this morning.

He walked around the mostly deserted park with his hands thrust in his pockets. Apparently, most of Little Rock’s citizens were in church this morning—as he should have been. He felt like a great coward, felt guilty for abandoning his Sabbath duties because he couldn’t order his own thoughts and feelings. He tried to pray, but no worthwhile words would come to his mind. He wasn’t sure God wanted to listen to the likes of him, anyway, right now.

He decided to go back to his rooms. He had taken a flat above a dry goods store on Izard Street, about half a block off Fifth. It was small, but he didn’t need much room just for himself. It was also a lot more economical than staying at the Gleason. He had several city blocks to negotiate on the way to the office each day, which he didn’t mind—the walk gave him time to think. He arrived at his front door and was about to put the key in the lock when he heard quick footsteps coming up the stairs behind him. He looked back and felt his heart fall into his stomach. It was Becky Norwich. key

“Becky, what … why aren’t you—”

“In church? Well, I guess I might ask you the same thing.”

She stepped onto the landing at the head of the stairs. ‘‘And while I’m at it, I might just ask you this: who in the world do you think you are, anyway?”

His door fell open and she barged past him, into his apartment. “Becky, this isn’t … I don’t think—”

“Don’t worry, I’m not going to stay long enough to start any talk,” she said, standing in the middle of his parlor. “Mother and Daddy are visiting my uncle in Hot Springs, and as far as they know I’m at church this morning, like a good little girl.”

He stepped into the room and closed the door. “Becky, I’m sorry. I know you must think—”

“Let me just tell you what I think, Zeb Douglas. I think you’re about the most ignorant, unfeeling man I’ve ever been around. I think you don’t know what’s going on right under your nose, and I think I’ve just about had a belly full of it, is what I think.” She jabbed the air in front of his face with her index finger.

“You lead me to believe you enjoy my company, you hold my hand and say we’re friends, and then you leave for Nashville at Christmas without so much as a fare–thee–well. You’ve been back in town for at least three weeks and you didn’t call, didn’t send a note, didn’t act like you’ve ever even made my acquaintance. I’m hurt and embarrassed, Zeb, is what I am. I thought you cared about me, but I guess you’re just not the man I thought you were.”

She had apparently run out of breath. “Becky, I’m awful sorry,” he said. “You just don’t know what I’ve been going through.” He tried to look at her, but he couldn’t. He kept his eyes on a spot on the rug to the left of where she stood.

“Well, I know what I’ve been going through,” she said. “I’ve been in torment, wondering what I did, what I said, how I had possibly offended you to the point that—”

“No, Becky, that’s not it at all,” he said, looking at her for the first time. “It’s not you. It’s … it’s me. Like you said, I’m not the man you think I am.”

Scores of words clogged his throat. He had to tell her! I’m married, Becky, and I feel things for you I’m not supposed to feel! There’s a wife and a daughter in Nashville, Becky. A wife who’s angry with me most of the time, who doesn’t understand me half as well as you do, who confuses me and upsets me—but a wife, Becky. No, I’m sure not the man you think I am.

He tried to swallow past the knot in his throat. He felt a tear well slowly from his eye and roll down his cheek. She moved toward him and touched the tear with a fingertip. Becky peered into his eyes. He wanted to say something but just didn’t know how to start.

“Oh, Zeb,” she whispered, her face inches from his. “Why can’t you just tell me?”

He felt his arms encircling her waist. He pulled her to him, half expecting her to slap him, to scream. Instead, he felt her hands on the back of his head, pulling his mouth hungrily to hers. kiss

At first, he heard a voice in the back of his head chanting over and over, “This is wrong, this is wrong, this is wrong … ” But her breath felt sweet on his neck and her soft blonde hair tumbled down around his hands and the hot blood shouted in his ears as it coursed through his body. Presently the voice was an echo, then a whisper … then gone.

*******

Addie nibbled at the dry toast and waited for her morning nausea to subside. This stage had run much longer this time than with her first pregnancy. Surely, though, she ought to be mostly past the sickness part within a few more weeks.

Mary Alice padded into the kitchen, waving the letter she’d received yesterday from Louisa. “Honey, put Mama’s letter down,” she admonished her daughter. “Put down Aunt Lou’s letter.”

‘‘An’ Loo?”

“Yes, honey, that’s from Aunt Lou, and Mama wants you to give it here.” She held out her hand. Mary Alice reluctantly placed the envelope in Addie’s hand. “Thank you, sweetie. Now go on back in your room and play, all right?”

Mary Alice immediately plopped down in the floor and began fiddling with the lace at the hem of her nightgown. Addie sighed. She ought to dress herself and the baby, but she just didn’t have a lot of extra energy these days, and the news from Chattanooga hadn’t made things any easier.

She had cried most of yesterday after reading about Rose’s death and funeral. In her grief over Rose, she had barely noticed Lou’s worried postscript about Papa’s persistent cough. crying

Right then, it seemed to Addie that loss was all she’d ever known. Her mind viewed the landscape of her life and found it a bleak and barren place. At this moment, she longed with everything in her for one person who would really listen to her, but it looked like there was no one available for the job. She had never felt more lacking and alone than when she found out Rose was gone. At least when Mama died, there was Rose’s lap. Who was left?

Addie wondered if she was the only person in the world who had sustained such dreadful damage. The people she saw on the street and in the stores gave no sign of such wreckage in their lives as she was finding in hers. Surely others had survived abandonment and bereavement. When would her rescue come? When would the good days return? Or wasn’t she entitled?

“Well, Rose,” she said aloud, “Guess what? I’m gonna have to deliver this baby without you. Reckon how I’ll manage?”

“Mama ha’ bebby,” Mary Alice said, standing and placing a chubby hand on her mother’s belly. “Ha’ bebby.”

*******

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 21

January 10, 2019

Mount Moriah African Methodist Episcopal Church was crammed full. More than three hundred people had braved the January wind to wedge themselves into the tiny frame building. Inside, there was barely enough space at the front of the sanctuary for the Reverend Bishop Florissant T. Jefferson to stand in front of the pine plank box that held the earthly husk of Rose Lewis.

With tears streaming down her cheeks, Sister Alma Weeks was pounding out the final chorus of “My Father’s House” on the battered, ill-tuned, old upright piano as the congregation rattled the rafters with the refrain. piano

 

There’ll be no crying there (no, Lord!) 

There’ll be no dying there (Thank you, Jesus!)

No sorrow there, in my Father’s house,

In my Father’s house …

 

As they came to the end of the song, the mourners drew the final words of the chorus out into a long, broadening rallentando, profusely ornamented by impromptu vocal flourishes from all over the church house and loud tremolo chords from Sister Alma. When the last flurries of the piano and the final amens had faded and ground to a halt, Bishop Jefferson raised his long arms up and out, his Bible clasped in one hand.

“My brothers and sisters, we are gathered here today on this sorrowful occasion to say good-bye and Godspeed to our dearly departed sister, Rose Lewis.”

A chorus of assent arose from the crowd. “Yes, Lord.” “That’s right.” “Mmmm-hmmm.” “Yes, sir.” “Well, then.”

“Shall we pray? Our Father that art in heaven, holy and blessed be thy name—”

(Yes, Lord … Well … Go ahead, brother … Tell it … )

“—we invite thy presence with us here today, as with sorrowful hearts, and bitter weeping, we lay to rest this good sister here—”

(Oh, yes, Jesus … That’s right … ) 

“—a woman of noble character—”

(Yes, yes … )

“—a woman of godly and pleasing conduct—”

(Sure is … )

“—a faithful and tireless servant of yours, holy Father, thank you, Jesus … ”

(Oh, Lord, that’s surely right … Amen, and amen … ) funeral

“Our Father, we ask that you look down in mercy and tenderness upon our brothers Mason, James, and William, and our sisters Ruthie and Clarice, and their families as they mourn the passing of their dear mother—”

There was a loud moan on the front pew from Clarice, the oldest daughter. She leaned against her husband, a long–shanked, thin man with skin the color of black coffee. He put his arm around her and patted her shoulder.

“—And, Lord, we know that even now, Leland, Charles, and little Esther are welcoming a beloved wife and mother into the bosom of Father Abraham, praise the Lord—”

(Well then … That’s all right … Yes, Lord … ) 

“—and Lord, we know that just as thou hast raised Jesus Christ from the dead, so shall Sister Rose enter into thy joys, as will all of us here, if we faint not, nor grow weary in well–doing—”

(Thank you, Lord Jesus … Hallelujah! Yes, sir!)

Dub and Louisa Dawkins sat about two–thirds of the way down the center aisle on the left–hand side, the only white faces in the pews. Louisa was a trifle uncomfortable, but she had insisted this was an obligation that could not be avoided. As the funeral service swirled about her, her mind was inevitably drawn back toward the solemn, quiet ceremony that had ushered her daughter Katherine into eternity. She remembered sitting with Dub on the front pew, with the children ranged beside them. She remembered feeling as if she were frozen into a block of ice, sundered from everyone and everything else by the grief that was her food, her breath, her every waking thought. She had felt so alone, so cut off. And the funeral service at First Methodist Church had utterly failed to touch her. She had endured it, allowed it to run off her mind like rainwater off a roof. When someone had instructed her to sit, she had sat. When told to rise, she rose. She was not a participant. She was barely a presence.

But here every person in the church building seemed drawn toward Rose and her family by the rowdy cadence of the give–and–take between the minister and the mourners. This was a ceremony that enveloped the participants, made them partners in the dance. Despite her discomfiture, Louisa felt herself joining in with Rose’s family and friends to sing and weep and pray her into the arms of God. It touched something deep and quick within her, gave her a keen pang of longing for all that was lost.

Bishop Jefferson had finished praying. As he lowered his face to peer out over the audience, Louisa could see the beads of sweat on his broad forehead, just below the cottony line of his white, close–cropped hair. She could also see the tear tracks down both his cheeks.

“Brothers and sisters, Rose Lewis was a good woman.”

(Amen … That’s right … )

“She was a woman who loved God, and loved her neighbor as herself.”

(Mmm—hmm … Sure did … )

“She cared for her husband and did him good, and not harm, all the days of his life.”

(Well then … Yes, indeed … )

“And, my brothers and sisters, I say, with so many of you here today … ”

For the first time, Bishop Jefferson’s voice faltered. Louisa stared in fascinated sympathy as he swallowed and blinked rapidly.

“I say to you … that Rose Lewis was—my friend.”

(Amen. Thank you, Jesus.)

“And is that not why there are so many of us here today?”

(Yes, sure is … )

“Look around you at those gathered here,” he said. “Not many of us rich—”

(No, indeed … That’s the truth … )

“—not many of us wise—”

(Preach it, brother! Go ahead!)

“—not many of us mighty according to the deeds of this world—”

(That’s right! The man is mighty right!)

Louisa sensed the bishop gathering himself, flexing his mind and heart for a great rush toward glory. She felt her pulse accelerating. bishop

“We are the weak—”

(Amen!)

“—the broken-hearted—”

(Yes! Yes!)

“—some would even call us ‘fools’—”

(Oh, yes, Lord!)

‘‘And yet, I say unto you, that God hath chosen the foolish things of this world, that he might shame the wise—”

(Thank you, Lord Jesus!)

“He hath placed his treasures in jars of clay, that through the foolishness of the gospel he might call all men everywhere unto himself—”

The minister heaped phrase upon phrase, like a man throwing dry wood on a bonfire.

‘‘And I say unto you, my brothers and sisters—”

(Tell it! Tell it!)

“—that this woman here, our departed Sister Rose—”

(Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Lord!)

“—was surely a minister of the gospel—”

(Oh, yes! Hallelujah!)

“—in her humble service—”

(Amen!)

“—and her faithful life—”

(That’s right!)

“—and the spirit of the Lord was surely upon her—”

(That’s the truth! That’s the Lord’s own truth!)

“—and she shall surely have her reward—”

(Thank you, Lord!)

“—and shall hear the Master say, on that great and terrible day—”

(Praise Jesus! Thank you, sweet Lord!)

“—’Well done, thou good and faithful servant’—”

(Oh, yes! Yes, yes, yes!)

“—’enter thou into the joys of thy Lord.”’

(Hallelujah! Thank you Lord!)

“Amen. Amen. Shall we sing?”

The pianist banged out the opening chords of “My Lord, What a Morning.” Bishop Jefferson fished a handkerchief out of his hip pocket and mopped his forehead and cheeks.

 

My Lord, what a morning,

My Lord, what a morning,

My Lord, what a morning,

When the stars begin to fall …

 

When the service was over, Rose’s family lined up on either side of the back door of the church and everyone filed past them. Louisa found the exercise in odd contrast to the noisy service; the well–wishers were somber, almost shy as they shuffled past, offering handshakes or, in rare cases, hugs to the bereaved. Were these reserved people the same as those who, with shouts and cries of hallelujah, had ridden the crests of Florissant T. Jefferson’s zeal?

Louisa recognized Mason, Rose’s youngest child, and his wife, Lila. She knew she’d have to be the one to speak; Dub kept his eyes fixed on the toes of his shoes and his hands in his pockets as he shuffled along beside her.

She took Mason’s hand. “Mason, I’m Louisa Dawkins—Jacob Caswell is my daddy. We’re real sorry. Rose was like a part of our family. I’ll never forget all she did for my little sister.”

A light of recognition swept away the veiled look with which Mason had been regarding her. Louisa thought he looked uncomfortable, unaccustomed to the buttoned collar and tightly cinched tie he was wearing.

“Miz Lou? I sure appreciate you coming today. Mama was awful fond of Miz Addie.”

“I know she was. Daddy would’ve been here, too, but him being sick and all … ”

Mason nodded. Louisa held his eyes a moment longer, then stepped back. He was already reaching for the next person in line. As she turned away, Louisa noticed the faded stains on the cuffs of the trousers of his suit. Then they were outside, and Dub was guiding her away, stepping quickly in the brittle January sunlight.

*******

It was even worse than he’d thought it would be.

The Memphis–to–Little Rock train jostled across the alluvial plain between West Memphis and the village of Forrest City. Zeb stared out the window at the bleak, gray winter landscape filing slowly past his window. plain

Yesterday, as he began packing his valise, the vague fear came upon him again. He sensed something was coming toward him, some threat he could not escape. He had a sudden, unexpected longing to stay in Nashville, an odd sense that he would be safe here. But he couldn’t! He had a place there, and he had to return to it. What if Addie and Mary Alice were to come back with him?

That night at supper, he broke a long silence by mentioning casually that there were some nice houses in Little Rock, plenty big enough for their family but not too expensive.

He watched her as she stopped chewing and stared at him. She put down her fork and swallowed.

“What?” she said in a low tone that was both a question and a threat.

He shrugged, ignoring the alarms going off inside his head. “Well, I was just thinking that things are going pretty well for me there, and—”

“I thought you were up for a job at the home office, here in Nashville.”

“Well, I still am, as far as I know, but … I … well, I sorta like it there.” The words sounded weak, even to him. She sat with her arms folded across her chest, hugging her elbows with both hands. He could see the muscles working at the sides of her jaws.

“Zeb, I’m tired of up and moving every time you think you’ve got a better deal. I don’t know anybody in Little Rock, and I only put up with you going there because you said it was the last step to getting a settled job back here in the home office, where you wouldn’t be dragging Mary Alice and me from pillar to post anymore. I put up with it because I thought it was just for awhile.”

She looked away from him and he could see her chest heaving beneath her crossed arms, could hear the angry puffs of breath coming from her nostrils. He stared at the tabletop.

‘‘Addie, I … it wouldn’t have to be—”

“Have you ever stopped to think about what I might want, Zeb? What might be best for Mary Alice?”

He sat silently, bowing his head to receive her angry blows. Couldn’t she see that he was sorry? Didn’t she care how bad he felt?

“I don’t want to move to Little Rock,” she said in a voice as flat as the backside of an axe. “I want to stay here, or—go back to Chattanooga.”

So that was it! Addie had never really left Chattanooga, had she? He had promised to take care of her, to make a new life for them, and he had kept his end of the bargain, but she—she had never stopped pining for the security of her own people and her own place! She didn’t trust him, even after all he’d done! He felt the dull ache of anger in his throat; a wordless anger, and blunt. If she could be hard, he could too.

“Well, all right, then,” he said. “Just forget it.” He picked up his fork and put another bite of food in his mouth. It tasted like sawdust.

*******

The train heaved itself up the grade to the top of Crowley’s Ridge and now rolled toward the drab, tree–lined fields of central Arkansas. A mist was falling from the gray sky. Zeb began trying to occupy his mind with what needed to be done in the office upon his return. He tried to put Addie out of his thoughts.

*******

Addie watched Mary Alice dabble her fingers in her cereal, but this morning she didn’t have the energy to correct her daughter. Thinking about the argument with Zeb and the fierce silences that followed it drained her, sapped her desire.

There was a dull fear about the way she had felt during much of Zeb’s time at home—his “visit,” as she now thought of his times at home. His place within her was much like that of a visitor—a person she recognized but didn’t really know all that well. Even though he shared her bed, he was, in many strange ways, unknown to her—and she to him.

He just didn’t see her. He saw a picture—a portrait he had painted in his mind and labeled “wife.” She honestly believed he could no more conceive of her as having volition and desire, of wanting one thing and not wanting another, than he could lay an egg. It simply hadn’t occurred to him that she wouldn’t jump at the chance to join him in his beloved Little Rock.

She had seen the dejected way he hung his head when the resentment began spilling from her, but it hadn’t mattered. She couldn’t stop, couldn’t stem the flow that spilled from her, fueled by every frustration and every moment of lost loneliness she had felt since he had uprooted her life with his promises of care and security. What did he know of security? He thought it was something in an account at the bank. He had no idea. If she had said everything in her mind, he’d have had something to feel bad about, all right!

But now that her anger was spent and Zeb was gone and the house was filled with the melancholy quiet of a drab winter morning, she wondered if she had done the right thing after all. Maybe it would have been better to keep still. Maybe it would have been the Christian thing to do. She’d half–expected him to yell at her, to fight back. Instead, he just finished his supper and went into the parlor to hide behind a newspaper. He hadn’t bothered to try to kiss her good–bye when he left the next morning. At the time, that suited Addie fine. But now, she wondered …

*******

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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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.