Archive for the ‘historical fiction’ Category

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 33

April 11, 2019

Zeb had never spent a more miserable Christmas in his life.

He went to Becky’s house, of course, on Christmas Day. How could he refuse? In the state she was in, there was no telling what she’d do or say if he didn’t agree to whatever she proposed. He arrived at the Norwich’s door bright and early, wrapped parcels in hand. Pete answered the door with a hearty “Merry Christmas,” and Zeb breathed a little easier. He’d half expected to be staring down the muzzle of a double–barreled shotgun.

He went inside. Becky’s mother bustled around the table, setting out china and crystal. She gave him a big smile.

“Hello, Zeb! Merry Christmas!”

“Merry Christmas to you, Mrs. Norwich. Here.” He held out one of the presents.

“Oh, honey, would you mind just taking it into the parlor and putting it under the tree? I’m trying to get the table set right quick before we open presents.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Well another hurdle cleared, he thought. No problem there, evidently.

He set the presents under the tree and removed his coat and hat. He hung them on pegs in the entryway and went back into the parlor. At the same time, Becky came into the parlor from the kitchen entrance carrying a double handful of punch cups. When she saw him, she hesitated—so slightly that he might not have seen it if he hadn’t been looking for it—then gave him a wide smile. punch

“Merry Christmas,” she said. She arranged the cups around a porcelain punch bowl resting on a side table, then came and took his hands.

“Merry Christmas, yourself,” he said. He leaned toward her. She backed away, laughing.

“Zeb, not here! What’ll Mother and Daddy think?”

What, indeed? “Sorry,” he said.

“Come into the kitchen and help me for a minute,” Becky said, pulling him after her.

He went in. Becky handed him a fistful of silver forks and a polish cloth and told him to get busy. Mrs. Norwich hurried in and out, taking platters and plates and saucers to the dining room. She and Becky kept up a constant barrage of comments about what needed to be done next for the table setting, the turkey browning in the oven, the various pots and pans bubbling and steaming on the stove. You’d have guessed they were fixing to entertain the governor and his cabinet, Zeb thought.

You’d have also guessed Becky had absolutely nothing on her mind but the preparations for the Christmas meal. He watched her, waiting for a hastily wiped tear; a trembling lip; a long, unfocused glance—something to betray her state of mind about her … inconvenience.

But it wasn’t there. It just wasn’t. As far as Zeb could see, she was the perfect hostess, completely intent on enjoying the perfect Christmas dinner with her perfect beau and her perfect parents. She clearly hadn’t said anything to either of them. And right now, it looked like she’d figured out a way to keep the secret even from herself.

At first, Zeb was relieved. They all went into the parlor and passed around the presents. They took turns opening their parcels. Becky and Ruth exclaimed over each prize, and Zeb and Pete traded wry comments. When Becky unwrapped the matching parasol and bonnet Zeb had found for her at Simpson’s, both she and her mother squealed with delight. It was her ideal color, of course: a pale blue that just set off her hair, eyes, and complexion. parasol

“Now if you’d of just thought to buy a few days of sunshine for her to try out that getup,” Pete said.

Becky had gotten Zeb a new valise for work. He grinned and held it up.

“Mr. Norwich, there’s a pocket in here for that new policy I’m gonna sell you.” Pete made a disgusted noise and shook his head.

But after awhile, Zeb felt his enthusiasm ebbing. The more Pete grinned and laughed and joked, the more Becky and Ruth took on over everything, the worse he felt. Maybe they really knew, after all. Maybe, in a little while when he was relaxed and unsuspecting, the three of them were going to close in on him and … do something drastic. Maybe all this Merry Christmasing was a cover for the coming ambush.

By the time the meal was over, Zeb thought he was about to have a running fit. He felt like he was standing in the far corner of the room watching the wooden smile on his own face and listening to the lame words coming from his mouth. It was as if he were pointing at himself and hollering, “Liar! Humbug! Scoundrel!” The voice in his head was so loud he was surprised they couldn’t hear it.

As they finished their pecan pie and coffee, Becky’s mother said, “Becky, why don’t you let me clean this up? Zeb looks like he could use a walk.”

Zeb looked at her, but he couldn’t detect anything in her face but good humor. He hoped his smile disguised his clenched jaw.

“Well, I can see to myself, Mrs. Norwich. I’ll wait for Becky—”

“No, you two go on. If I get in too deep, I’ll make Pete help me.”

“Now, wait a minute here—”

“Oh, Pete, you hush. Go on, now. Shoo.”

They walked nearly half a mile before either of them said anything. Finally, Becky said, “How you doing?” snowy

He gave a tight little laugh that hurt his throat.

“Seems like I ought to be asking you that.”

They took a few more paces. They both had their hands shoved deep in their coat pockets, their faces locked straight ahead.

“Well?” she said.

“Well what?”

“Why don’t you?”

“Why don’t I what?”

“Why don’t you ask me how I’m doing?” Her voice was rigid. She sounded like somebody hauling on the reins of a horse about to bolt.

“All right, then. How are you doing?”

The sniffles started then, quickly followed by the long, quavering breaths.

“Oh, Zeb. How in the world should I know?”

After a minute he realized his jaw ached from clenching. He took a deep, slow breath.

“Looked like you were doing pretty well back there, with your folks.”

“Well, of course. You think I can afford to let them see how I really feel?”

“No, I guess not. I just— It surprised me, I guess, that’s all.”

“Zeb, what are we going to do?”

There it was. He’d known it was coming, but still he chewed it back and forth, trying to pin down some words to put beside it, something that had a chance to seem right to her and to him at the same time.

He looked back over his shoulder at the capitol dome, dull white against the dull gray overcast. He wondered what it would feel like to be able to just launch yourself toward it, like a bird. Just jump up and keep on going and going, the wind rushing past your face and the ground dropping away.

You could forget how to fly, though, maybe. You could get fifty, a hundred feet off the ground and then the knowledge of how you got there could just leave you as quickly as it came. That was the trouble with flying, he guessed. You might forget, but the ground didn’t. flying

“Becky … I—”

“Don’t.”

Now he stopped walking. His face swung around to look at her. “Don’t what?”

“Don’t say it. Not now. Not like this. I don’t want it this way.”

“What did you—”

“It’s cold. Let’s go back.”

And she turned around, just like that, and started walking back the way they’d come. He could either stand and watch her go or hurry and catch up with her. She walked, without slowing, without a backward glance. Just walked like someone who had someplace to get to and was in a hurry to do it, and he could either come on, or go somewhere else, or stand out in the weather; she didn’t care which.

*******

“What you doing there, boy? Lemme see.”

“Nothing.”

Ned quickly shoved the wood in his pocket and folded the Barlow. He hadn’t heard his paw coming up behind him. That was why he liked to sit out behind the woodpile; it was usually private.

“Whadda you mean, boy? Take that nothin’ outta your pocket and lemme see it.”

Ned dug out the pine block. It was trying to be a squirrel, but he couldn’t get the hindquarters to look right. He handed it to his father. Paw would probably laugh about it, he figured. Ned wouldn’t look at him.

“How’d you get the tail to look like that? All bushy, just like a real one?”

Ned shrugged, still looking down.

“Say, this is good, boy. Real good.” Perlie chuckled. “Shoot, I didn’t know you could do something like this. I guess you got your granddaddy’s eye.”

Ned risked a glance at his father. “My grampaw?”

“Yeah, your mama’s daddy. You should of seen him, boy. He could carve out a dove that looked like it’d fly off if you stomped your foot. He could make a mallard hen that’d fool a drake. He was a carvin’ fool.” dove

“How come I never seen him?”

“Died ‘fore you’s born. Gun went off when he was cleanin’ it, way back in the mountains somewhere, in a winter huntin’ camp. Wound went bad and poisoned him.” Perlie smiled and shook his head. “He could sing too. Taught me half the songs I know. And whistle? He could mock a brown thrush better’n anythin’ I ever saw.”

“Wished I’d of known him.”

Perlie looked at the squirrel, rubbed his hand over its tail. He handed it back to Ned. “Yeah, he was somethin’. Your mama used to say I only took up with her to have an excuse to be around him. Shoot, everybody liked it when he was around.”

“What was his name?”

“You mean you didn’t know? I thought sure we’d told you. You’re named for him. Ned. He was Ned Hutchins.”

Ned looked off toward the river, dull and gray in the winter light.

“Paw, you reckon I could help you some with the traps next time you go out?”

“Well, sure, boy, if you want to.”

Ned took the Barlow out of his pocket and thumbed open the smaller blade. He worked at the squirrel’s flank, crosshatching it to look like fur. squirrel

“I do. If it’s all right.”

He could feel his father looking at him.

“What’s on your mind, son?” Perlie’s voice was quiet. Ned liked it when Paw talked to him like that, like it was just the two of them and they were telling each other things nobody else needed to hear.

“A man came by here awhile back, in the fall. From Chattanooga.”

“What happened?”

“Nothing, Paw. He was just a man I … helped one day.” Ned felt his ears tingling a little bit with the fib, but it was the same one the man had used, so he kept going. “He told Maw he was starting a club—a club for boys, in town.”

“Ned—”

“It don’t cost nothing to go,” Ned said quickly. “And they’d teach you things. And you could see books.”

“And you don’t want to go among them town boys without proper shoes.”

Ned carved a few strokes. “No, I don’t reckon I do.”

“What’d your mama say about it?”

Ned shrugged.

“Well, I don’t know. I’ll talk to your mama,” Perlie said after a long wait. He chuckled again and ruffled Ned’s hair. “I wish you’d look at that. Just like ol’ Ned Hutchins.” Perlie’s footsteps crunched away toward the house.

*******

Lila knocked on the backdoor. She looked down at herself and wiped at the front of her coat. She heard footsteps approaching from inside the house. The door opened, and Louisa stood there, smiling at her. kitchen

“Hello, Lila. Thank you so much for coming. Come on in.”

“Yes’m. Thank you.” She climbed the steps and stood in the kitchen of the big house. There was cabbage cooking, and some other smell Lila couldn’t exactly place. The kitchen was too warm and close to be wearing her coat, but Louisa hadn’t told her where she should put it, so she just left it on.

“I don’t know how to thank you for this,” Louisa was saying. “This big old place is just too much for me, by myself. I just loved Cassie—I guess you know her, don’t you?—but she moved to Memphis. And I haven’t been able to find anyone else who’s worked out.”

Lila didn’t know Cassie; she went to a different church, and she lived in a different part of the Negro section. But Louisa would think all the coloreds knew each other.

“Anyway, I’m just so glad you came by. You know how much we all loved your mother–in–law.”

“Yes’m.”

“Rose was the sweetest thing, and so good to Addie. My father wasn’t ever the same after she was gone.”

“Yes’m.”

Louisa looked at her. Lila kept her eyes down.

“Lila, I know my father wasn’t very … easy to work for. I’m sorry.”

There was a pause, like Louisa thought she was supposed to say something. Lila waited.

“But I hope you won’t think we’re like he was. Like he got toward the end, anyway, God rest his soul.”

“Yes’m.”

Another pause.

“Well? Do you want to take a look around? See what needs doing?”

“Yes’m. I guess we better.”

Louisa showed her where the pots and pans and knives and such were. She didn’t expect her to do much cooking, she said, unless there was some kind of doings. Mostly she needed her for dusting and cleaning once or twice a week, Louisa said. And washing and ironing on laundry days. Louisa took her through the dining room, showed her where the silver was kept. She wouldn’t have to trouble herself with that unless there was a big dinner or something, Louisa told her. silver

They went through the drawing room and the parlor. Lots of furniture and corners to gather dust, Lila decided. The big downstairs bedroom wouldn’t need much, Louisa told her, except every now and then the mattress needed a good beating and airing. Next was the entry hall. A staircase led up and around a bend to the next story. Take a long time to dust and mop that staircase, Lila thought. They went up the staircase, and Lila noted the chandelier hanging in the center of the stairwell. She could see the cobwebs and dust on it. She’d need a long stick to reach the chandelier, she figured.

Upstairs were the children’s bedrooms and the nursery. There was also a small library, but Louisa said Dub wouldn’t even let his own boys in there unless he was on hand to supervise.

“When he’s had some of his men friends over and they get in there smoking their cigars,” Louisa said, “I’ll make him let you in the next day to clean it out. But that’s all you’ll ever do in there.” Lila smiled and nodded her head.

At the next door they passed, Louisa paused with her hand on the knob, then went on. Her face changed, fell.

“That was Katherine’s room,” she said.

“I’m sure sorry, Miz Lou.”

“Oh, thank you, Lila. Goodness, it’s been, what, nearly four years now?”

“Anythin’ need seen to in there?”

“No. That room stays closed.”

“Yes’m.”

They went back downstairs. “Can you come on Tuesdays and Thursdays?”

“Yes’m.”

“What time can you be here?”

“Well, Mason go to work at seven, and time I get the children to school … Half–past eight, I guess, if that’s all right.”

“Oh, that’s fine. Can you start day after tomorrow?”

“Yes’m. I reckon.”

“Oh, and … I pay three dollars a week. Extra, of course, if I need help with a party or something.”

“Yes’m. Thank you.”

Lila started home. Three dollars. Their oldest boy needed some new shoes; patches and paper stuffing was about all that held his old ones together. And if she had a piece of calico, she could finish that dress for little Clarice. And some new ticking for their mattress would sure be nice. Three dollars.

The wind was cold. She pulled her coat around her; it didn’t help much, old and thin as it was. Maybe someone would come along and give her a ride.

*******

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 32

March 28, 2019

“Oh my land, now look what you’ve done!”

Mary Alice looked at her mother and rubbed her hand on the front of her smock, leaving a smear the same green as the pool of paint in which she stood. Addie propped her paintbrush against the sill and started toward her. Mary Alice began backing away.

“You come here to me, Mary Alice Douglas! I’ve been telling you all morning long to keep away from—”

“Well, looks like you’re making progress.”

Addie managed to snag Mary Alice’s elbow. She looked up at Louisa, who stood in the doorway of the parlor.

“Some,” she said, dabbing roughly at the little girl’s dress with a rag. “I could do more if I didn’t have to keep stopping to chase this one out of the paint.” Mary Alice started to whimper.

Louisa stepped into the room, stepping around the puddle of green paint on the floor. She rolled up her sleeves and kneeled beside Addie. paint

“Come here, Miss Mary Alice, and let your Aunt Lou see what kind of a mess you’re in.”

Addie stepped away from them and went back to the sill. Junior had said something about getting wallpaper up later this week. The paint on these sills had to be dry by then. She dipped her brush in the pail and climbed back on the footstool. She painted several strokes.

“How you doing?” Louisa said.

Addie stretched, teetering slightly on the stool as she spread paint to the top of the jamb.

“I don’t know. Some days I wake up and halfway expect to see Zeb in the bed next to me. Other days that whole life seems like something I’m trying to forget. And then, there are the days when I just want to lie there and go on sleeping. But I can’t.”

“No, you can’t. I tried that. It didn’t work.”

Addie stepped off the footstool and dipped her brush. She held it over the pail and watched the puddling of the drip.

“I used to think I knew what my life was going to be. Once I married Zeb, I thought everything would take care of itself—that all the decisions were sort of made. Everything was settled.” She looked at Louisa. “But it turns out nothing was. I just didn’t know it yet.” She raked the brush along the side of the pail, removing the excess paint. “There was a lot I didn’t know.”

“That’s so for all of us.”

“Oh, Lou. You’ve been through so much. I shouldn’t go on about my troubles.”

“I asked you, honey. And hurt comes in all shapes and sizes. Nobody knows what your load’s like but you. Nobody knows mine but me. You can’t compare them because you can’t carry somebody else’s.”

Addie went to the window and began painting the other jamb.

“I know. But I don’t think I could handle yours.”

“Honey, I feel the same way. Oh, lawzy, Miss Mary Alice, just look at the mess on your shoes!”

The little girl gave Louisa a tentative smile around the finger stuck in her mouth.

“‘S g’een.”

“Yes, ma’am, it’s green, and you’ll be tracking it all over the place in a minute.” Louisa settled Mary Alice on the floor and scrubbed the bottoms of her shoes. “Your mama’ll skin you if she finds little green footprints on her kitchen floor.” feet

Just then, Jake gave a fitful cry from the next room. Addie heaved a sigh.

“Awake. And hungry, I’ll bet.”

“So am I, come to think of it. Which reminds me. Miss Mary Alice, would you go out on the front porch and fetch that basket I left by the door? I brought us some lunch.” Louisa watched the little girl scamper toward the doorway.

“Bless your heart,” Addie said.

Mary Alice staggered back from the doorway, gripping the handles of the basket in both hands.

“Set it down here, sugar,” Louisa said. She opened the lid of the basket and started setting out jars and plates and parcels wrapped in cheesecloth.

“We can go in the kitchen,” Addie said.

“No, let’s just eat here on the floor, why don’t we? It’ll be like a picnic, won’t it, Miss Mary Alice?”

Mary Alice grinned. She plopped down cross–legged on the floor, barely missing the puddle of paint.

“Have a pinnic,” she said.

Louisa had brought a loaf of store–bought bread and a jar of homemade apple butter. She got out bread–and–butter pickles and red–rind cheese. She unwrapped a half–dozen slices of ham, all of them white–rimmed and marbled with fat. She pulled out a quart Ball Mason jar filled with buttermilk. It looked to Addie like enough food for a crew of field hands. picnic

Addie cradled Jake with one arm to let him nurse while she ate. Louisa listened to Mary Alice’s jabber and fussed over her and laughed with her and picked up the crumbs of bread and the shreds of ham the little girl scattered while she ate. Addie watched the two of them and thought about Katherine.

When they had eaten, Addie made Mary Alice lie down for a nap. The little girl moaned and fretted, but she stayed on the settee. Louisa told her if she was good and went to sleep, she’d leave a peppermint stick for her mama to give her when she woke up.

Addie changed Jake’s diaper and bundled him up. She returned him to his crib and he was asleep in a moment. She went into the parlor, where Louisa had taken up a paintbrush and begun work on another sill.

“You don’t have to do that,” Addie said.

“I know.”

For awhile the only sound was the swishing of the paintbrushes and the soft popping of the fire in the grate.

“What are you going to do?” Louisa asked.

There was a long quiet.

“I don’t know.”

‘‘Any news from Dan?”

“No. Not in awhile. He just says he’s working on it and to try to be patient.”

“Easy enough for him.”

“He’s not charging me anything, Lou.”

“I know. I shouldn’t be so sharp, I guess. But I just hate to see you going through this.”

“Dub’s on the school board,” Louisa said a bit later. “He could probably find you something.”

‘‘I’m … I’m not ready for that yet, I don’t think.”

They painted another while in silence.

“Honey, you’ve got to—”

“I know, Lou. I will. But not yet.”

They painted until four o’clock. They finished all the window frames in the parlor and had a good start on the study when they heard the pop and clatter of Dub’s automobile coming down the lane. Louisa laid a peppermint stick beside the still–sleeping Mary Alice. She gathered the remnants of their lunch into her basket and shrugged into her coat. Addie put her arm through her sister’s and walked her to the front door. As Louisa straightened her hat on her head, she turned to give Addie a hug. peppermint

“We’ll expect you and the kids for Christmas.”

Addie gave her a surprised look.

“Oh, yes. It is next week, isn’t it? Thanks, Lou. We’ll be there. Mary Alice’ll love it.”

They looked at each other. Louisa gave Addie a peck on the cheek and ducked out the door. Addie went onto the front porch, hugging herself against the cold, and watched her sister go. She waved to Dub, robed and goggled behind the wheel of the auto. Addie went back inside and closed the door. She leaned back against it, still holding herself, and began to cry quietly.

*******

“Oh, Lou! It’s beautiful!” Addie stood and held out the bedspread, letting it fall to the floor.

“I’ve heard it called ‘candlewicking.”’

“I’ve never seen anything done this way,” Addie said. The spread was powder blue; its smooth surface was decorated with intricate, curving lines of tufted stitching. “Where did you find it?”

“An old German lady over by Brown’s Ferry makes them. Looks like she does pretty well.”

Mary Alice was playing with the doll she had just unwrapped when she noticed the bedspread piled on the floor at her mother’s feet. She rolled herself up in it, cradling her doll in the bend of her arm.

“Night–night,” she said, squinting her eyes shut. Everyone laughed. quilt

“Well, better get started cleaning up this mess,” said Dub, gathering the torn wrapping paper from around his feet. “Robert, come help me.”

The boy sighted steadily down the barrel of his new popgun.

“Son.”

Robert sighed and propped the gun in the corner. He shuffled toward his father, kicking scraps of paper into a drift in front of him as he came.

“Why don’t Ewell have to help?” Robert said.

“‘Why doesn’t Ewell,”’ Louisa said.

“Never mind about that,” Dub said. “Stuff all that into this sack here.”

The rest of the day was spent in getting ready to eat, eating, and recovery from eating. For Christmas dinner, Louisa baked a goose and chestnut dressing to go with it. There were yams, mashed potatoes, cranberry salad, apples fried in butter and brown sugar, green beans and limas from last summer’s canning, plum and rice puddings, and the obligatory fruit cake.

Once, Dub leaned toward Addie to chuck little Jake, in her lap, under his chin.

“Boy, I bet you wish you had you some teeth so you could eat some of this.”

“He’ll be eating more than his share before too long,” Addie said. She spooned small portions of mashed potatoes and yams into the baby’s mouth. He smacked his gums and rolled his tongue at the unfamiliar sensation.

After dinner Addie and Louisa cleaned up the dishes while Dub sat by the fire and read his new book. Mary Alice, Robert, and Ewell chased each other up and down the stairs and through every room of the house, shooting and being shot by the popgun.

Just after dark settled, they heard the sound of carolers in front of the house. Addie and Louisa quickly bundled the younger children, and they all went to stand on the front porch. carolers

It was a sizeable group, maybe twelve all together. They clumped under the gaslight by the sidewalk and sang “Silent Night.” Addie could see their breath puffing white in the light from the lamp. They finished the song, then struck up “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen.” At the end of that, Dub invited them all inside for hot spiced cider and cocoa. As they trooped in, wiping their feet on the doormat, Addie realized one of the singers was George Hutto.

“Hello, George,” she said, reaching out to take his wraps and add them to the stack in her arms.

The sudden warmth of the house steamed his glasses as he looked at her. He fumbled them off, blinking and squinting as he wiped the lenses on a wrinkled handkerchief. “Why, uh, hello Addie. Nice to see you.”

“Y’all sounded good out there.”

“Oh. Thanks. Some of the people from church came by, asked if I wanted to sing. I figured, why not?”

He settled his glasses back on his nose. He gave her a tiny smile and a shrug. She nodded, then tried to find something else to look at. After a few seconds, he followed the other carolers toward the steaming bowl of cider on the dining room table.

Addie piled the wraps on a settee in the parlor and went back toward the dining room. Few of the men would look at her. The women tried to study her without seeming to. None of them would give her more than the flicker of a smile before busying themselves with something else.

She felt someone touch her elbow. It was George.

“Addie, ah … I just wanted to say— Oops!”

Someone jostled his arm in passing, sloshing some of the hot cider onto his cuff. He swiped at it with his hand as Addie hurried into the kitchen and found a cup towel. She came back into the dining room and blotted the spill.   cider

“Thank you,” he said, watching her work.

“Don’t mention it.”

‘‘Anyway, I was saying … I’m awful sorry about your—your situation. If there’s anything—”

“Thank you, George. That’s real kind of you. I think that’s got it.” She made a final dab at his cuff.

“Yes, that’s fine. Thanks.”

She went back into the kitchen and occupied herself there until the carolers left. Then she found Mary Alice’s coat and hat.

“Dub, I’m ready for you to drive us back, if you don’t mind.”

Louisa’s face held a question, but Addie didn’t feel like acknowledging it.

She bundled herself and her children into Dub’s Duryea, their presents piled between them and around their feet. Addie threw her new tufted bedspread around the three of them as Dub released the brake and they started down the sloping street toward the main road.

“Want us to pick y’all up for church on Sunday?” Dub said when they were getting out at the house.

Addie paused, then went up the steps to her porch.

“No, I guess not,” she said over her shoulder. “I expect I’ll go on out to Post Oak Hollow.”

Dub shrugged and nodded. He carried their parcels into the house, then said good night as Addie closed and locked the door behind him.

*******

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 31

March 21, 2019

Addie’s brother finally broke the silence.

“George.” Junior nodded.

Like an animal trying to shake off a winter’s sleep, George pulled his eyes away from Addie.

“Junior. Addie,” he said, touching the brim of his hat. hattip

“Hello, George,” Addie said. She gave him a weary little wave that looked more like “good–bye.”

“I hope my horseless carriage wasn’t in the way, in the driveway there,” George said. “I was just walking through the woods, and I had no idea anyone was here … that is, that anyone would be here when I—”

“It’s all right, George,” Junior said. “Me and Addie just took a quick drive out to look at the place. She’ll be needing a place to live and all.”

George felt himself gulping around the words he wanted to say.

“Addie … Junior, I’ve … I’m … If there’s anyway I can help—”

“Thank you, George,” Junior said. “We appreciate it.”

“Yes, well … good day, then.” He nodded at them and stepped past, going toward his car.

*******

Junior stared after him for a few moments. “Funny time and place for him to be walking in the woods, don’t you imagine?”

Addie shrugged.

“Well, what do you think?” Junior gestured toward the house. “Place is run down some, nobody living in it the last year or two. But I believe we could have it in shape right quick, if you’d be agreeable.”

Addie tucked her hands under her elbows and looked at the house, the yard. So many ghosts here—so many old regrets hiding in the dark corners. house

“Course it’s a big old place, just you and the two young ‘uns. Expect you’d need a hand now and then.”

“I don’t want to lean on anybody, Junior. I’m tired of that. I want to be on my own two feet, and the sooner the better.”

“Well, I reckon that’s up to you, Addie. But you know we’re here anytime—”

She turned to him. “Oh, yes, Junior. You’ve done so much already. I don’t know what I’d have done, if …”

He shrugged. “That’s what family’s for.”

She turned back and looked at the house. Addie thought about family, about the varieties of loss that word summoned up within her: about Mama, and the sucked–dry look on her dying face; about Papa, and the way he had crumpled up around his anger; Louisa, and her cautious sponsorship of Addie’s dreams, her ravaging grief at the death of her only daughter; and then, of course, Zeb … A drawn–out, dry longing twined its way through her heart as she looked at this cracked and peeling, untended, overgrown place where she had started. She wondered if it would also be the place where she finished. Beginning and ending. Grief and laughter. Disaster and rescue. That’s what family’s for. Who else would live in a place like this?

“Well,” she said, “I guess we’ll just make it work.”

*******

Zeb fumed and fretted over the sales report for the home office. All morning he had been in the foulest of moods, and he had already put this report off longer than advisable. But his unruly mind kicked at the traces and wouldn’t pull the load.

That fellow with the battered black derby and the slippery eyes had been outside the agency when he got here this morning. This time he’d been walking away—maybe ten paces beyond the doorway of the agency—when Zeb saw him. Zeb recognized the nondescript slump of the man’s shoulders even as he tried to lose himself among the passersby on the boardwalk. Had he been in here—talking to Abner, maybe? Zeb put down his pen and stared at his secretary, who kept his nose pointed toward the work on his desk.

Once or twice in recent weeks, as Zeb had walked across the street on various errands, he had thought he glimpsed the same man, seated at a table by the window in the chophouse across the street from the agency. One morning he could have sworn the stranger was lounging at a street corner near his lodgings when he came out to go to the office. Zeb had a mind, more than once, to go up to the fellow and ask him his business, but by the time he could summon the gumption to do it, the man had always slipped away. corner

This sneak–footed spying could only be Addie’s doing! But how in the devil was a woman with two children and no inheritance paying for a gumshoe working in Little Rock, Arkansas? Why hadn’t that blasted woman sued him for divorce, anyway? It had been nearly three months now—she’d had ample time! Did she cherish some fool notion of reconciliation?

He was swept by sudden, unaccountable longing to see Becky. He wanted to hold her in his arms, to smell her hair and remind himself that there was something good in his days, someone who understood and appreciated him.

But, no. Even that wouldn’t do. In the state he was in, he was afraid he’d set off the worst in her. Probably say something harsh, or else she’d detect his distraction and want to know its cause. Becky Norwich certainly did not retreat into hurt silence—oh, no. She’d batter and harry and generally give him a piece of her mind until he’d be forced to lie again, just to preserve the general accord.

No, better to just get his mind on his business and wait a little longer. Surely, any day now, Addie would wake up to the truth of the situation and release him from bondage. He picked up his pen and forced his eyes back to the sentence he had left dangling.

After lunch, just as he felt the walls of the office closing in on him, Gideon Plunkett strolled through the door. Zeb had just recruited Plunkett for the new debit in northwestern Pulaski County. Zeb stood and reached for his coat and hat.

”Abner, Mr. Plunkett and I’ll be canvassing his debit for the rest of the afternoon.”

This was good. Getting out of the office would force him to turn his attention to something besides troublesome thoughts. Normally, canvassing was not one of his preferred chores, but right now it looked like deliverance. oldsmobile

“Come on, Gideon. Let’s go turn up some paying customers for you.”

They walked outside. Zeb felt a pleasant glow at the respectful look with which Gideon Plunkett favored his new Oldsmobile with its unique, curved dashboard.

“Now, Gideon, the key to success in this business is activity.”

Though Gideon Plunkett was probably at least ten years his senior, as far as the insurance business was concerned he was a debutante.

“You gotta see lots of prospects to make the kind of money you want to make, and this afternoon I’m fixing to show you how to find ’em.”

Zeb grunted as he turned the crank on the front of the automobile, then he fiddled with the choke. Another turn, and the engine caught.

“Hop in,” he said over his shoulder as he dashed around to the driver’s side to switch the spark from the battery to the magneto. Then they were off, crow–hopping slightly as they pulled away from the edge of the boardwalk.

“Sorry about that,” he yelled over the roar of the engine, “I’m still pretty new at this.”

The Oldsmobile stuttered along the bumpy, chalky–white road northwest of town, and Zeb slowed as they approached the rickety bridge across the Maumelle River. He tugged the hand brake and brought the car to a stop, just as its front tires rolled onto the boards of the bridge runway.

“Gideon, we’re about to enter your territory, here. You need to think of yourself as a farmer, and this as your field.” Zeb waved an arm at the wooded river bottomland—choked with a tangled, brown undergrowth of last summer’s lamb’s–quarter and cockleburs—on the other side of the brown, sluggish stream. “What kind of crop you make depends on how well you cultivate your land, Gideon. And I’ll tell you this: the only somebody that can limit the size of your crop is you. That’s why the insurance business is the greatest one going, because a man’s only limited by his own ambition.”

Gideon Plunkett wore a serious look as Zeb turned back toward the steering wheel and engaged the transmission. They edged slowly across the bridge into Gideon’s domain.

The first house they came to was a ramshackle, shotgun affair set back in a grove of bunchy elm trees about a quarter–mile along the road from the bridge. Zeb slowed and pulled to the side of the road. Gideon gave him a worried look.

“Now, Zeb, I know these folks here. This old boy don’t do nothing but a little cotton chopping ever once in awhile, and besides that, they’re colored. I doubt they can afford anything.”

Zeb gave his new agent a patient smile.

“First rule, Gideon: never assume. Don’t ever tell a prospect he can’t buy; let him tell you. Come on, Gideon. You know these folks’ name?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“All right, then. You just introduce me, and watch what I do. By the end of the day, I’ll have you talking smooth as silk to people you never saw before in your life.”

A short–haired, yellow dog with ribs showing like barrel staves dragged itself from beneath the front porch steps and slouched toward them, wagging its tail between its legs.

“Don’t reckon we’ll get eaten alive, do you?” Zeb said.

A little boy, wrapped in a dingy blanket and nothing else, appeared on the porch.

“Hi, son!” Zeb said in a sunshiny voice. “Your mama or daddy around?”

The boy went back in and his place was taken a moment later by a heavy–breasted, big–hipped woman. Her feet were shoved into unlaced, badly scuffed men’s shoes, and she wore a pink calico dress with an ancient, moth–eaten Army blanket pulled around her shoulders. She stared down at them with a face as blank as the grate of an unlit stove.

“Uh, Carlotta, is Arthur here?” said Gideon.

A younger child came out of the house and stopped short when she saw the two white men standing in the front yard. Tucking a finger in her mouth, she ducked behind her mother’s skirts.

“Carlotta, I believe you already know Mr. Plunkett, here, and I’m Zeb Douglas. We’re with the Dixie National Casualty Company, and we’re out this afternoon looking for folks that are interested in protecting their families and saving up some money.” He stopped speaking, smiling at her as if they shared some secret joke. Zeb could feel Gideon Plunkett’s eyes flickering back and forth between him and the woman on the front porch, and he waited patiently, never allowing the pleasant expression on his face to waver. Whomever spoke first would cede control of this contest of wills. In a moment, her eyes flickered back toward the dark doorway of the house. porch

“My man he over to Mister Zeke’s.”

“Well, now, Carlotta, that’s just fine,” Zeb said, sounding like she had just given the winning answer in a spelling bee. “Mr. Plunkett and I don’t really have time to talk today, anyway.” Zeb saw the line of her shoulders relax slightly, saw the faint softening of relief in her face.

“Now, Carlotta, you know Mr. Plunkett here, right?”

He waited until she gave a short nod.

“Fine, then. Mr. Plunkett will be back over this way in a few days, and he’s got some ideas I think you and Arthur’ll be real interested in. It’d be all right if he took a few minutes to talk to you, wouldn’t it?” Zeb began nodding as he said the last few words, still smiling directly at her. As he expected, she gave a short, quick shrug and a nod.

“Well, that’s just fine. Mr. Plunkett, I guess we’d better get on to the rest of the folks we need to see today.” Zeb tipped his hat toward the woman. “Thank you, Carlotta, and you be sure and tell Arthur we stopped by, all right?” Zeb turned and began walking back toward the road.

When they had reached the automobile, he turned to face Gideon Plunkett.

“Now, Gideon, I’d get back over here in about two days or so. She’ll have her guard up some, but she’ll be a little curious too. If I were you—”

“Wait a minute, Zeb! Them people back there ain’t got two nickels to rub together! How in the name a Ned d’you expect me to get ’em to pay for an insurance policy when they don’t have a pot to pee in or a window to pour it out of?”

“Gideon, I’ll thank you to not use that kind of language around me.” Zeb held Gideon’s eyes long enough so he could see Zeb meant business.

“You’re gonna have to listen to me, now, Gideon. I’ve been doing this for awhile, and I’ve called on lots of people, some that didn’t even have as good a place as Carlotta’s, back there. I’m telling you that there aren’t very many folks I’ve found that can’t come up with two bits a week for a five–hundred–dollar indemnity plan, especially if you sell it to them the right way and then show up regularly to collect the debit.”

He walked around to the front of the Oldsmobile and put his hand on the crank.

“Shoot, man, I had people with nothing but a dirt floor looking down the road for me when I’d come to collect their payments, and when they handed it over, you’d have thought I was doing them the biggest favor they ever had in their lives.”

Zeb grunted as he cranked the engine, then straightened once more and squinted at Gideon Plunkett.

”And in a manner of speaking, I guess I was doing ’em a big favor. You take a guy like ol’ Arthur, back there,” Zeb said, jerking a thumb back toward the shack in the elm grove. “Say he ups and dies one of these days, say, clearing timber and miscalculates and it falls the wrong way with him underneath—who’s gonna take care of Carlotta and the young ‘uns?” He peered at Gideon, who returned his stare for a few seconds, then nodded reluctantly, looking down at his feet and scratching his head beneath the sweatband of his derby.

“You see, Gideon? That’s what we’re selling, and that’s how you gotta convince these people. You gotta put ‘em in a bind, make ‘em real uncomfortable, then show ‘em the way out—for only twenty–five cents a week, which you’ll be more than happy to collect for ‘em, of course.”

He cranked the engine twice more; it sputtered, then caught. He hurried around to switch the spark.

“Now, hop in, Gideon. We got more prospects to find.”

*******

With dusk settling red and pink against the deep blue of the western horizon, Zeb pulled in beside the boardwalk in front of the agency. By midafternoon, he thought Gideon Plunkett was starting to get the idea. The new agent had even talked his own way past a reluctant prospect or two.

Zeb felt good: competent and in control. He enjoyed seeing a new hire begin to learn how to succeed on his own.

He closed the door of the automobile. Abner was still seated at his desk in the front of the office. What’s he doing here at nearly half past six?

Zeb walked in the front door and looked at his secretary.

“Why you still here, Ab?”

Abner looked at Zeb like a cat who’d just swallowed the pet canary. Zeb glanced toward his desk. crying

Seated in front of it was Becky Norwich.

“Why, uh, hello, Miss Norwich,” he said, taking a step or two past Abner’s station. As Zeb passed Abner’s desk, he heard the scooting of the chair and the quick steps, then the hurried closing of the door.

Becky stared at him. Her eyes were reddened tunnels of fear.

“Zeb, I’m … I think I’m going to have a baby.”

*******

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 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.

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

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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.