Archive for the ‘historical fiction’ Category

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 9

December 2, 2017

“So, anyway, like I was sayin’, these ol’ boys went to this fancy hunting lodge and man, they was just made outta money. So they says to the feller at the lodge, ‘We don’t care how much it costs, we want the best quail dog you got on the place …’ ”

Will Counts was fairly shouting in the front seat, but Addie still could barely hear him over the commotion of the horseless carriage. She held on to her hat with one hand and tried to brace herself against the bumps and swerves with the other. She gritted her teeth and prayed they’d get to church in one piece.

“Will is so proud of this silly thing,” Beulah Counts shouted in Addie’s ear. “He figured 1890's Duryeaout a way to build a backseat out over the engine, so us and the boys could go driving together. They’ll be just sick when they get home from my brother’s and find out they missed out on a trip in the horseless carriage. Will don’t take it out every Sunday, you know.” Beulah’s smile testified that she held a far higher opinion of Will’s generosity than Addie.

“And the feller says, ‘Well, boys, the best thing for quail around here ain’t a dog.’ And they say, ‘What you talking about?’ And he says, ‘Well, ol’ Uncle Jake here can find a covey quicker’n any pointer this side of the mountains.’ And they’s this old feller setting in the corner, half asleep. And the hunters says, ‘How much?’ And the feller says, ‘Five dollars a day per gun, and y’all have to buy Uncle Jake a plug of tobacco.’ And the hunters says, ‘Well, all right, then, if you ain’t pulling our legs.’ And they pay their money and go to hunting …”

The Duryea clattered down Granny White Pike, and Addie’s insides curdled with each jolt. She wished she and Zeb had taken the trolley, as usual. Compared to this rattletrap, the trolley was like a leisurely afternoon on a still pond. But Will had been anxious to show Zeb his new toy, and she hadn’t known until this morning of the perilous invitation he’d accepted.

“Well, I mean to tell you, them boys went through the quail like you-know-what through a goose. They limited out that day, and the next day, and the next. They’d go along, and ol’ Uncle Jake would stop, all of a sudden. He’d point at a little scrap of cover and say, ‘They’s a brace right there,’ or, ‘they’s four of ’em settin’ under this ‘simmin bush right here.’ The gunners ‘d get all set and Uncle Jake ‘d step in there and put up the birds, and blam! blam! Ol’ Jake’d pick up their birds and hand ‘em to ‘em and they’d go on to the next place. These ol’ boys was in some tall cotton. I mean, they was just tickled sick…”

“Now, how you feeling these days, honey?” Beulah’s meaty hand thumped on Addie’s arm. “Having any morning sickness?”

“Not too much,’’ Addie said. “Some days are worse than others.” She squeezed a wan smile onto her face.

“Well, now don’t you worry about it, honey,” Beulah said. “You know what they say: ‘sick mother, healthy baby.’ ”

This young ‘un ought to be stouter than garlic.

“Now, for the whole next year, all these ol’ boys can talk about is getting back to that place and shooting birds over ol’ Uncle Jake. They walk into the place the next season and go straight to the feller and say, ‘We’re here to hunt with Uncle Jake.’ And the feller gets sorta sad-looking and says, ‘Boys, I’m sorry, but Uncle Jake passed on.’ Well, the hunters are just dumbstruck, you know, and finally, one of ‘em asks, ‘How’d it happen?’ And the feller says, ‘Well, he got to running the chickens, and we had to shoot him.’ ”

Zeb’s sudden guffaw splashed back over Addie. When she glanced up, she could see the Red Brick Churchapproaching spire of the church. She clenched her jaws and gripped the arm rail. She sucked deep draughts of the cool autumn air into her nostrils and allowed it to escape from between her lips. At last, the end was in sight. Lord, if you’ll let me get there without heaving up my insides, I promise you I’ll never ride in one of these hellish machines again.

Will herded the Duryea against a curb near the front door and set the brake. They all clambered out as several knickered boys broke away from their families and raced over to the machine, eyeing it and pointing at it. Zeb offered her his arm and they walked up the five steps onto the portico, blending with the rest of the faithful going into the building.

The Twelfth Avenue Church of Christ met in a red-brick church house purchased from a Baptist congregation that went out of business. Their first act upon assuming ownership was to remove the bell from the steeple, since they held that bells, like pianos and organs, had no scriptural authorization and were mostly for show, anyway. They sold the bell to some Methodists and used the twenty dollars to buy a new front door and a sign to hang above it. “Church of Christ,” the sign proclaimed in terse block letters, black on a field of unspotted white, and the members all agreed the twenty dollars had been well spent.

When Addie and Zeb got inside, the elders were already seated in the two large chairs on either side of the pulpit. Addie and Zeb scooted into their customary place about halfway up on the right side of the aisle, just as the song leader strode to the front to announce the first hymn.

Hark! the gentle voice of Jesus falleth

Tenderly upon your ear;

Sweet his cry of love and pity calleth:

Turn and listen, stay and hear.

Ye that labor and are heavy-laden,

Lean upon your dear Lords breast;

Ye that labor and are heavy-laden,

Come, and I will give you rest.

Heavy-laden—that about summed it up for Addie. If Louisa were here, things would be better. Someone to talk with, really talk with, not just pass pleasantries while the men amused themselves. Someone to understand without needing everything spelled out. Someone Addie could trust to tell her what was happening to her body, to her feelings, to her life. Someone to give her a hint of what might lie ahead.

Take his yoke, for he is meek and lowly;

Bear his burden, to him turn;

He who calleth is the Master holy:

He will teach if you will learn.

Ye that labor and are heavy-laden …

*******

Though he was mouthing the words of the chorus, they barely registered in Zeb’s mind. He needed to decide what to do about the offer Mr. Griffs and Mr. Carleton had made him. He knew he could turn the Little Rock agency around and make it a paying proposition. He knew he was being given these challenges for a reason, and he knew one day his consistent successes would be rewarded by a plush home office position. He had to think of the future—now more than ever. Surely Addie could understand that.

And then he thought of her tears, of the flat, scared look in her eyes when he had first Victorian Biblementioned the promotion. It had knocked the wind out of him, that look. He thought she’d be proud of him, excited by the possibilities before him—before them. But all she could see was the uncertainty.

He knew as sure as sunrise he shouldn’t turn his back on this new chance to prove himself. But he couldn’t figure out how to bring Addie around. He’d promised to take care of her. And he was doing that, wasn’t he? He was bringing home more money now than he ever had. And the prospect Griffs and Carleton offered him promised even more. But Addie …

His glance fell on the sloping shoulders of Will Counts and his wife. Beulah Counts sure seemed like a good woman. Seemed like she doted on Will and everything he did. Zeb wondered if Beulah might be able to talk to Addie. Zeb liked Will just fine. He might see what Will thought about the idea. Maybe all Addie needed was another woman to talk to her, to help her see things.

*******

They sang two songs, and then one of the men led a prayer. Another song, and it was time for the sermon. Brother McCrary went to the pulpit and stood with his head bowed for a moment. He took a firm grip on the sides of the lectern and leaned into his text for the day. The light glittered from the lenses of his wire-rimmed spectacles.

“In James the second chapter and verse fourteen, the writer says, ‘What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?

“ ‘Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone …’ ”

He quoted more of the passage, never looking down at the open Bible on the lectern. He Lecturnengaged the eyes of the congregation one by one, as if he had handpicked each verse as a personal oracle for the individuals in the pews.

“Brethren, it’s easy to talk good religion. It’s easy to say all the right things and put up a good front for the eyes of men. What’s hard,” he said, his voice dropping a half-tone, “is living good religion. James knew this, brethren. And that’s why he gives us this warning. We all need to listen, to pay attention to his words. And we all need to obey. Error waits on every side to snare the careless, the heedless. The only way to keep your feet on the strait and narrow path of our Lord is to be constantly vigilant …”

Addie tried to get interested in Brother McCrary’s sermon, but her mind slipped off his words like ice skidding on a hot skillet. Her eyes wandered the sanctuary. She and Zeb hadn’t really gotten to know anyone at Twelfth Avenue. Of course, they’d only been here for a month and a half or so. Beulah and Will Counts were the only people they’d visited with at all, other than when they came to this building on Sundays. She tried to let herself really see the individual people around her. She knew scarcely a handful of them, but she tried to imagine what they might be like.

Two rows in front of her and across the aisle sat a desiccated old woman, her back bent nearly double with a dowager’s hump. She reminded Addie of old Miss Ruthie at Centenary Methodist in Chattanooga. Miss Ruthie had never married, never even been seen with a man. Once, at a church social, Addie and several of her friends were gathered around Miss Ruthie. One of them asked her why she’d never taken a husband. Addie, a little embarrassed by her companion’s cheek, watched as the frail old maid smiled and stroked the girl’s pinafore with her twiglike, bent fingers. “Well, sweetie,” she said in her high, airy voice, “the fact is, I was in love once.”

Addie and her friends drew closer, as if Miss Ruthie were about to reveal a great and necessary secret no one else could tell them.

“Oh, it was many years ago,” Miss Ruthie said. Her eyes closed in reverie. “Long before the war. He was the sweetest boy I’d ever seen. His daddy had a grist mill down on Chattanooga Creek, just down the riverbank from Brown’s Ferry. He was just the kindest thing, and so polite, even though he’d never had much schooling at all.

“Oh, my papa wasn’t too happy about the whole thing.” The color rose on Miss Ruthie’s withered cheek. “But Mama wouldn’t allow him to scold me.” Her thin, bluish lips parted in a smile as she removed a lilac scented kerchief from the front of her dress. Addie noticed the trembling of her brown-spotted hand as she daubed at her lips. “I never said anything to Mama about it, but somehow she knew.”

There was a long silence. A group of young boys rioted past, but the girls didn’t even blink in their direction.

“I thought he was the most wonderful thing in the world,” Miss Ruthie said finally, folding her hands in her lap.

When she could stand it no longer, Addie asked, “Well? What happened, Miss Ruthie?”

The old woman pursed her lips and turned her head slightly to the left. She wasn’t looking at them now. “He died of typhoid during the autumn of ’32. It broke my heart.”

And that was all she would say.

Addie remembered that one of her friends went and got Miss Ruthie a glass of iced lemonade from the table where the church ladies were setting out drinks—as if that might help, somehow. She remembered how Miss Ruthie’s story stayed with her in the days that followed. Like a sad, sweet, old song, it echoed around in her mind at the oddest times—when she was doing chores or skipping rope, playing with dolls or working on her lessons.

She remembered thinking there was a sort of mystery about old men and women. They knew things, had seen and remembered things. They were harder to surprise. She remembered trying to imagine herself as an old woman; she could never conjure up any image other than a slightly wrinkled version of her own ten-year-old face, still capped by the same chestnut hair in ribboned braids.

These days, she was starting to understand a little bit of why she couldn’t see the old woman she would become: a child can’t comprehend all the different kinds of living there are. A child thinks mostly about the visible differences. She doesn’t imagine that all the really important differences are on the inside, tucked away where they can’t be seen. Everybody was like that. Much of the real truth about people was hidden from view—sometimes until it was too late. You mostly just had to wait and see.

“A lot of people will tell you that it’s more important to be a good person than to follow the teachings of the gospel,” Brother McCrary was saying. “They’ll tell you it doesn’t matter much whether you pay attention to the Scriptures or not, as long as you’re living a good, moral life. But these words of James’s stand in contradiction to that sort of thinking, brethren. It’s not enough to say ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not the will of the Father in heaven—Matthew seven, twenty-one … ”

*******

The thought of traveling to Little Rock gave Zeb an odd, secret feeling of excitement. For all his seriousness about his business, there was still a towheaded, eager part of him that stood on tiptoe and watched as he did new things, gained admittance to better and higher circles. Successful men travel on business, this part of him whispered, goggle-eyed and breathless. He was becoming important to the company, or they wouldn’t send him so far away.

He thought of seeing new country, eating new food in places he’d never been. Zeb had Mississippi River at Nightnever crossed the Mississippi River. He thought of all that wide water, sheeted brown beneath him as he rumbled over the new bridge at Memphis. Strangeness and distance chanted to him, pulled at him.

And it was, after all, an opportunity. It wasn’t just some lark he’d made up for himself. Griffs and Carleton were depending on him. He couldn’t afford to disappoint them, to let the company down. He really ought to take the bull by the horns.

Zeb sensed the faint, sour taste of resentment. A man couldn’t be shackled to his wife’s uncertainties, could he? If he was to be the provider, shouldn’t he do it in the way he saw best?

But her anxious face, the bluntness of her apprehension …

The baby in her womb.

It wasn’t fair. How could a man argue with a woman when she was carrying his offspring? She was proof against any attempt at logic or persuasion. It was almost as if she held a hostage and was, in turn, held hostage. And there was a kind of selfishness about her, too, as if she now contained inside herself her own final reason for everything.

He knew he ought to go. But how could he?

*******

“Brethren, is there someone here today who is ready to shoulder the task our Lord has set? Is there someone who is ready to answer, as the prophet Isaiah, ‘Here am I; send me’?”

The congregation sensed the approaching end of Brother McCrary’s sermon and began reaching for the hymnals in the racks.

“If you’re ready to get busy for God, if you’re tired of carrying the useless load of sin and are ready to be washed in the blood of the Lamb and begin walking in the footsteps of Jesus, won’t you come down front today, while we stand and sing?”

The two elders rose from their chairs and paced to the front of the dais as the congregation stood. The song leader strode to the front, singing the opening notes of the altar call.

What can wash away my sin?hymn book

Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

What can make me whole again?

Nothing but the blood of Jesus …

*******

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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Sunday Clothes, Chapter 7

November 10, 2017

The lawyer arched his eyebrows and leaned forward onto his elbows, bridging his fingertips together. “Well, all right, Jacob. What exactly did you want changed in here?”

Caswell huddled into himself for a spell.

“I want my youngest daughter written out of the will.”

Dan made himself count to ten, then on up to fifteen, just for good measure.

“Jacob, you and I’ve known each other a long time, and you know good and well I don’t often give my clients advice on much of anything outside the law. But I think you better be mighty careful about what you’re fixing to do.”

Caswell sat with his arms crossed on his chest.

“Now, Dan, I been all over this in my mind, so don’t you start preaching to me about—”

“All I’m saying is that I’ve never seen any good come from something like this.”

 

“Dan, I didn’t come here to—”

“I know why you came, Jacob, and I’m trying to make you see sense, which would probably be a flat-out miracle. Don’t worry, I won’t charge you extra for the breath I waste on your bullheadedness.”

By now both of them were half out of their chairs. Dan glared at Jacob for a few seconds, and Jacob finally blinked.

“Dan, she’s betrayed the family,” he said as he sank back into his seat. “She’s ground her heel into her mother’s memory, and she’s turned her back on the way she was raised. I don’t see why she ought to benefit from what belongs to the family when I’m gone.”

Dan studied his fingernails. ‘‘Are you sure the rest of the family feels the same way you do?”

Will

“I don’t care what they feel!” Jacob slapped the desk and jumped to his feet. He stalked three paces toward the door, then whirled, aiming a finger at the attorney. ‘‘I’m the one that made the money! I’m the one that’ll blamed well decide who gets it when I die.”

 

“Now, you know I’m not much of a churchgoing man myself,” Dan said, “but I’d be careful about making free with what’s gonna happen when you die. The courts of Tennessee don’t have jurisdiction in the sweet by-and-by … assuming that’s where you end up.”

“Fine one you are to be lecturing me about the hereafter,” Jacob said, jamming his fists into his pockets. “Maybe I’ll find me another lawyer who’s willing to spend more time lawyering and less time preaching.”

“That’s up to you, Jacob. But you know all-fired well I’d be less than a friend if I didn’t say what I thought about this.”

“I hired a lawyer, not a friend.”

Sutherland stared hard at the other man for a full fifteen seconds.

“No, I guess you’re right, Jacob. You can hire a lawyer. But you sure as blazes can’t hire a friend.”

“Now, Dan, you know how I feel about strong language—”

“What did she do that was so unforgivable? Marry a hard-working, good-looking boy from over the state line? You’d disinherit her for that?”

“No! Not just for that! Is that all you think this is about? Well, let me tell you something, Dan. Let me just tell you something.” Jacob was leaning on the desk, looking like he might leap across it into Dan’s face.

“When Mary was on her deathbed, I made her a promise. I promised her I’d raise Addie the way we would’ve done it together. I—”

Jacob’s mouth moved, but the words hung in his throat. The line of his lips blurred. Dan looked away.

“I told her I’d raise Addie to make her proud,” Jacob said a few seconds later. He stared into a dark corner of the room. “It was the only promise I ever made to Mary that I didn’t keep.”

“Jacob, that’s not true. You did the best you could. No one in Chattanooga that knows you would say otherwise. You provided for Addie, and you did your best by her—”

“And what thanks do I get? She runs off with some fella that looks more than half Cherokee—”

“Now, Jacob, there’s not a family in Hamilton County that’s been here very long that doesn’t have a speck or two of Cherokee blood—”

“Who goes to some backwoods church that thinks folks like me are hell-bound! Well, no sir! I’ll not have it! I’ll not let her shame me and get by with it!”

Sutherland flung his hands in the air and came out from behind his desk. He strode to his door and opened it.

“Jacob, I don’t believe there’s anymore I can do for you today. If you want to estrange yourself from your own flesh and blood, I can’t stop you. But I won’t be a party to it!”

Jacob Caswell’s eyes bulged, his face flooded with crimson. He snatched the will in his fist and stalked from the office. He strode past the clerk and slammed the door, making the window panes shudder.

“Mr. Caswell! You forgot your hat!” the clerk said.

“Let him go,” said Dan from the doorway of his office. “Man that hotheaded got little enough use for a hat anyway.”

*******

The ginger tom leaned against George Hutto’s leg, and he glanced down, then back to the hull he held in his fingers. He maneuvered the piece through the bottleneck and settled it onto the wet glue on the platform inside.

Again the cat twined its body against his shin, giving a small, interrogative meow. George lifted the bottle to eye level and studied the alignment of the hull on the base. The man-o’-war was large enough that there was little margin for error. If the hull wasn’t centered just right, the three masts might not have clearance. He kicked at the cat. “Cut it out, Sam.”

But the cat rubbed against him again, then rose on its hind legs and placed its forepaws on his thigh. The cat flexed its claws just enough to let George feel the prick, all the while peering into his face.

George huffed and glared at the cat, then caught himself chuckling at the insistent expression on the feline face. “Well, you’re not one to let a body ignore you, are you, fella?” George placed the bottle on the table and scratched the cat behind the ears. “All right. I’ll let you out, if nobody else will.”

As he reached the bottom of the staircase, he pulled his watch from his vest pocket. Ten Ginger Tom outdoorsminutes to two. Almost time to walk back down to the office. He unrolled his shirt sleeves and fished his cufflinks out of the other vest pocket. He went through the kitchen to the back door, unlatched the screen to let the cat outside, then walked back into the parlor to fetch his jacket from the armchair.

It was nice and cool inside the house. He dreaded the thought of the hot walk downtown and the dreary afternoon in the office. He sometimes could have sworn the columns in his ledger grew when he wasn’t looking.

He stepped to the doorway of the library and peered into the darkened room. Mother was dozing in one of the leather armchairs. He turned to go and a board squeaked under his foot.

“George, honey? That you?”

“Yes, ma’am. I’m going back now. “

“All right, dear. Ask Mamie to come in here before you go, would you?”

“Yes, ma’am.” He settled his panama on his head and walked down the hall toward the front door. Mamie was dusting the crystal in the sitting room, singing quietly to herself.

“Mamie, Mrs. Hutto needs you in the library, please.”

“Yessuh. She be wanting her headache powders, I imagine. Bye, Mister George.”

The first person George saw when he reached the office was Matthew Capshaw. He and Daddy had known each other since they served on opposite sides in the Civil War. He never tired of telling the story of how he and Daddy had met. He was doing it now, in fact.

“Yep, me and old Hutto was in the war together,” Uncle Matt said, “but one of us—I won’t say who—was wearin’ the wrong colors. “

George felt sorry for the young man Uncle Matt had trapped. He was a courier for one of the Nashville firms they dealt with. In fact, George could have sworn Uncle Matt had told this same fellow this same story within the last year. Uncle Matt had a hard time remembering whom he had favored with which one of his tales. Most likely it wouldn’t have mattered anyway; when Uncle Matt took a notion to tell a story, there wasn’t much you could do.

Civil War Soldier

 

“Well, like I was sayin’, I was on picket duty, back in the fall of ‘63 durin’ the siege. It was late at night, you see, and I was wore plumb down to a nub. I’m a-leanin’ up against a tree—big ol’ elm, I believe it was—and I say, kinda out loud, but talkin’ to myself, I say, ‘Lordy; I’d give a five-dollar gold piece for a chaw a tobacco.’ And then this voice from the dark says, ‘Well, here, soldier. I’ll give you a chaw, and I won’t charge you but six bits.’” Uncle Matt slapped his knee and guffawed.

 

George smiled politely, trying to slip around Uncle Matt and the courier. As he walked past, Elizabeth, Uncle Matt’s youngest daughter, rounded the corner from the back with an armful of file folders. She rammed into George, spilling the folders onto the floor.

“Oh, my goodness! I’m sorry, George, I didn’t see you!”

“No, it’s my fault, Betsy. I should’ve been watching where I was going.” He knelt down and began scooping up the scattered sheets of foolscap.

Uncle Matt barreled ahead. “Well, when I heard that voice out of the dark thataway, I like to of—” He broke off, glancing at the figure of his daughter. “Well, anyhow … I was mighty startled. And then this ol’ boy comes towards me and I can see he’s wearin’ blue. ‘Here you go, soldier,’ he says to me. ‘Unless you’re afraid to take a bite from a Union plug.’ And that was how me and ol’ Hutto met, and I still ain’t convinced him the North was just luckier than the South … ”

George handed Betsy the last handful of papers. As she reached to take them, the backs of their hands brushed. “Thank you, George,” she said.

Her voice stopped him. It sounded low and buttery. George knew she was looking at him. He felt the blood burning his cheeks. Without meeting her eyes, he touched the brim of his panama and retreated quickly to his tiny office at the back of the warehouse.

He removed his hat and coat and filled his pen from the inkwell at his desk. The problem of Betsy Capshaw tugged at his mind. She was a dozen years his junior, and he had always thought of her pretty much like a younger sister. But in the last few years it had become more and more difficult to ignore the fact that she didn’t reciprocate his perception.

He was at a loss about how to discourage her and spare her feelings at the same time. He’d thought for a long time that the best course was to say nothing, acknowledge nothing. Then, when he married …

The image of Addie Caswell—Addie Douglas—flashed across his mind, and he paused in his addition of the column. He put down his pen and rubbed his eyes.

He wondered how she was getting on. He’d heard rumors of her father’s wrath at her marriage, and he hoped they weren’t true. Zeb Douglas was a good fellow, if a little flashy, and he hoped for Addie’s sake that Jacob could come to accept that fact, at least. Addie shouldn’t be blamed for choosing a fellow like Zeb, instead of …

He sighed and picked up his pen. He couldn’t find the place he’d left off, and the sum had gone dean out of his head, so he began again at the top of the column.Ledger

There was a shuffle of feet outside his door and a knock at the frame. He glanced up. “Come on in,” he said. He laid his pen aside.

Ben Thomas and Joe Whitehead stepped in. “Hello, fellas.” George smiled. He stood and extended a hand to the nearest. The two men shook his hand and greeted him, then took the seats in front of his desk. The office was small, so they had to scoot carefully between the wall and the desk to keep from banging their knees. Whitehead, especially, with his gangly build, looked cramped.

“Sorry, Joe. I’ve been meaning to talk to Dad about getting a little more space, but—”

“Don’t worry about it, George,” Joe said.

“What brings you boys down here today?”

Whitehead glanced at Thomas, who cleared his throat. “George, Joe and me—and John Lupton, too; you know him, don’t you?—well, the three of us are starting a little business venture, and we were just wondering if you might be interested in coming in with us.”

George leaned back in his chair and scratched his chin. “Well, ah … I don’t know, boys. What’ve you got in mind?”

“You know who Asa Candler is, don’t you, George?”

“You mean that druggist down in Atlanta, the Coca-Cola man?”

“Yeah. Well, right now, the only place you can get Coca-Cola is in a drugstore or a soda fountain, right?”

“Well, yeah, but where else would you—”

“What if you could buy Coca-Cola in a bottle, premixed?” Ben Thomas said. “What if you could bottle it and put it in an ice chest—say, at a grocer’s or a livery stable or … anywhere! Anywhere there might be thirsty people.”

George peered at the top of his desk.

“Think about all the people already drinking Coca-Cola,” said Whitehead. “This thing could go national, George.”

“What thing? All I’ve heard so far is an idea.”

Thomas leaned forward. “Me and Joe and John Lupton have been talking to Candler about getting the sole rights to bottle Coca-Cola. We think he’ll come around to our way of thinking, once we convince him we’re serious. We want to bottle premixed Coca-Cola, seal it in a pressurized container, and sell it in stores for a nickel a bottle.”

“What’s to keep some old boy in the next county from doing the same thing?”

“I don’t know, for sure,” Whitehead said. “Maybe we’ll come up with some unique design for the bottle. We’ll have patent protection, once we get going. But think of the possibilities, George! Chattanooga is a rail hub. We could ship Coca-Cola anywhere in the country from our bottling plant! The iron business isn’t going to make it around here, and you can see that, if you’ll just look. Birmingham’s going to wind up with most of the business because they’ve got better grade ore down there. Shipping hasn’t got a prayer until they do something about the lower Tennessee. The best opportunity a man’s got right now is for something that’s portable, something he can sell anywhere at a price that anyone can afford. Something he can pay somebody else to sell for him, and rake some profit off the top. Coca-Cola in bottles! Just think about it, George!”Victorian Coke Bottles

George massaged the bridge of his nose. “Sounds to me like you fellas already have everything worked out. What I haven’t figured out yet is why you need me.”

Ben Thomas thumped an imaginary piece of lint off the crown of his hat. “Well, strictly speaking, George … we need money. It’ll take money to set up the plant and buy the equipment. When we go back to talk with Candler, it’d be nice to show him some deep pockets, convince him we mean to stick to this thing till it’s done right. We were sort of hoping—” Thomas cut his eyes at Whitehead, then back to George “—hoping you might could come in with us, maybe talk to your dad … ”

George leaned back to stare at the ceiling, cupping his chin and rubbing his cheek with the tips of his fingers. “I don’t know, boys, I just don’t know. Sounds like a pretty risky proposition to me. I don’t know how Dad’ll feel about something like this.”

“We understand, George,” said Whitehead. “It’s something new. Course, we think it’ll work. But it takes some getting used to, no two ways about it. Why don’t you give it some thought, talk it over with your dad, and we’ll check back with you?”

“We’d sure like to have you for a partner, George,” said Thomas. “You and your family are real fine folks, and we’d like to have you on our side of the fence.”

“Well, thanks, fellas. I appreciate your interest, anyway. And I will give it some thought, I promise you.”

“Well, good,” said Thomas, standing and extending his hand.

“Thanks for talking to us, anyway.”

“Sure, Ben, sure, Joe,” he nodded to Whitehead, taking his hand in turn. The two men replaced their hats and walked out the door.

George sat back down and peered into space, his arms crossed across his chest. He liked Whitehead, Thomas, and Lupton, all three. He’d known them for a number of years. But … putting Coca-Cola in bottles and shipping it all over the country? He sighed. This business was doing all right. His family was comfortable, well respected. Why would he want to take a chance?

He found his pen, inspected the tip, and bent back to his column of figures. Maybe he ought to stop by imagesPeabody’s on the way home and order more ship bottles. He’d been thinking about building a steamer.

*******

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

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 5

October 23, 2017

The drive back to the Caswell homestead was as long as a dreaded chore, and very quiet.

Addie sat in the sulky and sobbed as the service wound to its conclusion. Zeb, of course, had stayed inside through the communion service and offering until the very end, to lead the final prayer requested of him. That suited Addie fine because she really didn’t want to have to explain to him feelings she didn’t fully understand herself.

When the congregation was finally dismissed, Zeb stepped briskly from the church door, striding toward the sulky. His expression was a mixture of embarrassment, concern, and confusion. But at that moment, Addie couldn’t bring herself to care about what he was thinking. She was too busy with trying to organize and understand her own thoughts.

They were almost halfway back to Orchard Knob before either of them spoke.

“Addie—what’s wrong?” Zeb finally blurted as they neared the one-lane bridge across Cellico Creek.

She shook her head and stared away from him, across the flats toward the Tennessee River, glittering in the noonday sun. She didn’t know how to begin to tell him what she felt. Or maybe she was afraid of what she might say if she tried.

“Honey, I— Is it something I did that upset you?” he asked in a limp voice as they clattered over the tiny wooden bridge.

She turned in her seat and stared at him, unbelieving. Could he really be in some doubt about what was bothering her? Was he that blind? Again she could summon no words suitable to her purpose, and turned away.

After another eternity, they arrived at her house. He stopped the sulky

in front of the porch steps just as Rose, still wearing her Sunday dress with a white apron tied around her waist, stepped out of the front door with a broom in her hand. As if the sulky and its occupants did not exist, she began methodically sweeping the porch.

“Well … I, uh … I wonder what’s for dinner today?” Zeb stammered into the stony silence.Goodbye

For the first time since leaving the church house, Addie found her voice. “I don’t think you’d better come in for dinner today, Zeb,” she said, staring straight ahead. “I think you might ought to go on back to Murfreesboro for awhile. I … ” Her tone wavered, then caught again. “I think it might be best if we didn’t see each other for awhile.” She placed her hand on his arm to steady herself, then caught up her skirts as she stepped down from the sulky.

“Do what?” he asked, incredulous. ‘‘Addie, why won’t you tell me what—”

But she had already gone up the steps and was crossing the porch and reaching for the front door. And then, as he stared after her, she was inside, and gone.

*******

Rose grunted softly as she placed the platter of fried chicken in the center of the table. She glanced at Mr. Caswell, then backed into the corner and bowed her head.

Jacob glanced at Addie, who sat listlessly in her chair, staring at a vacant corner of the dining room.

“Shall we pray? Our gracious heavenly Father, we thank thee for this thy bounty that we are about to receive, and for all thy many blessings. Amen.”

Reaching for a thigh piece, Jacob again glanced at his daughter. “Where’s your beau? He not joining us today?”

For a long moment he thought she hadn’t heard him. “What’s that, Papa?” she responded, finally. “Oh, Zeb … No, he’s not coming in today. He … he had to go on back to … to Murfreesboro.”

Jacob received this news with a lift of his eyebrows. He spooned a heavy dollop of mashed potatoes onto his plate and reached for the bowl of cream gravy.

“Guess maybe he decided Methodist chicken was off his menu.”

Addie stared sharply at her father, then turned away. She grabbed for the bowl of green beans and flicked a spoonful onto her plate.

Rose poured buttermilk into Jacob’s glass from a large crockery pitcher. “Rose, pass me that plate of corn while you’re here, would you?” he said. He selected an ear from the platter.

images-2

“Still, I guess it makes sense. After all, there ain’t nothing in the Bible that says it’s all right to eat fried chicken on Sunday.”

“Papa!” Addie flung her napkin from her lap and vaulted to her feet, glaring at him.

“What? I was just making conversation, is all. Nobody else at the table seemed to much want to talk to me.”

“Neither one of you understands a thing! Not a blessed thing!” Addie whirled about and knocked over her chair as she stomped into the hallway and up the stairs.

Jacob stared after her. As Addie’s footsteps pounded up the staircase, he peered questioningly at Rose, who returned his look with a flat, judging glint in her eye.

“What did I say, Rose?” he asked. “I was just going on; she knows that, doesn’t she?”

Rose moved to Addie’s place and began removing her plate and silverware. ‘‘Ain’t what you said,” the black woman replied without looking at him. “That child beggin’ you for help, but you ain’t listenin’.”

*******

The train ride back to Murfreesboro barely registered in Zeb’s consciousness. He felt as if he were in a black, muffled box, and the sounds and sights of the outside world reached him only as vague bumps and muted murmurs.

He couldn’t believe Addie was going to call it quits with him. He just couldn’t bring himself to accept it. And the hardest part of it all was that he didn’t have the faintest notion what had set her off. The more he thought about it, the more maddening it became.

On Monday morning, he flung himself into the work of the agency: canvassing residential and commercial districts for prospects, going on appointments with junior agents, making calls on policy holders who were late with premium payments. He kept himself busy, trying to crowd out the numb place at the center of his chest.

But it was no use. When he went back to his boarding house at night, the answerless questions came rushing back to nag at him. He followed them round and round inside his head, mesmerized by the pain and confusion like a bird charmed by a snake.

Reading BibleSome of the other bachelors at the house invited him to join them at their evening roisters, but Zeb had no taste for such activity, even if his convictions had permitted it. Instead, he sat in his room and read the psalms of lament from his Bible and tortured himself with his impossible longing.

*******

The year turned the corner into May, and an unseasonable hot spell settled down onto Chattanooga like an unexpected visit from a freeloading relative. Addie spent her days searching for a cool draft and her nights tossing on sweat-dampened sheets. You expected to be hot and distracted by, say, mid–July or August. But in May you expected to be enjoying cool night breezes and days just warm enough to make a glass of lemonade taste really good. But these days, a glass of lemonade didn’t seem to do anything but emphasize the discomfort.

She sat on the front porch one morning, already worn out from fanning herself. She heard the telephone rattle, just inside the front door. It was still a new enough sound to startle her. This past spring Papa had grudgingly placed the order and had the line run out from the nearest trunk, in Orchard Knob. Addie puffed a stray lock of hair out of her face and pushed herself up out of the rocking chair.

She reached the apparatus, pulled the black earpiece from its brass hook, and stood on tiptoe to get her mouth near the mouthpiece.Victorian Telephone

“Hello? Who’s there?”

“Addie? Is that you?”

Addie thought she recognized Louisa’s voice through the static. “Yeah, Lou, it’s me. How are you?”

“Fine, honey. Can you come over this afternoon? I’m having a quilting—”

Louisa’s voice dissolved in a burst of static and electric squeals, and Addie waited patiently until the noise on the line subsided.

“—someone to watch the babies so I can get everything done,” Louisa was saying.

“When did you say you wanted me to come over?” Addie said, mentally filling in the gaps.

“Sometime this afternoon, if you can.”

“All right. I’ll see you after lunch. Bye.” She hung up the earpiece without waiting to hear Louisa’s farewell. As bad as the lines were, it probably wouldn’t have mattered anyway.

*******

Louisa and Dub had recently moved to the newly fashionable Cameron Hill neighborhood. When Addie stepped down from the horse–drawn trolley at the foot of the hill where they lived, she was already drenched in perspiration. By the time she had climbed to the top of the street, she thought she might drown standing up.

The door swung open. “Hi, Aunt Addie.”

It was Robert, her sister’s oldest. The six–year–old grabbed her around the waist in a fierce hug. Patting his back, Addie asked, “Where’s your mama?”

“She’s in the carriage house, looking for her parasol. We’re going to town! And you’re coming with us!”

Some time later, they trooped inside the open doorway of Peabody’s Dry Goods Emporium on Market Street.

“Now, Robert,” Louisa said, “you keep your hands to yourself while we’re in here. I don’t need you handling every string of licorice in the store, you hear?”

“Yes, ma’am.” The boy made a beeline for the candy counters.Emporium

Louisa shook her head as she shifted the baby from the crook of one arm to the other. “That young ‘un says all the right things, but I don’t think he listens to himself.”

Little Katherine tugged on Addie’s hand. “Aunt Addie, can we go look at the bowth and thingth?”

“Sure, honey. Just let’s keep our hands to ourselves, all right?” The four–year–old nodded solemnly.

“I hate not going to Papa’s store anymore,” Louisa said as they moved among the bolts of cloth and barrels of molasses and other staples stacked on the pine-planked floor. “But it’s just so far over there from where we— Robert Eugene Dawkins! What did I just tell you?”

Robert yanked his hand away from the lid of the jar holding the peppermint sticks. He rubbed his palm on his backside as he peered over his shoulder at his mother.

“Well, anyway,” Louisa said as she began inspecting a stack of bunting, “how’s Papa these days?”

“Oh, he’s … fine, I guess.” Addie hoisted Katherine up so she could see the satin bows on the top shelf of the glass display. “I … I don’t talk to him much these days.”

“You spoken to Zeb since last time?”

Addie shook her head.

Mr. Peabody approached. He wore black sleeve garters and sported a pencil in the band that held his eye patch in place. He had lost an eye during the siege of ‘63, and for as long as Addie could remember, there had been a persistent rumor among the children of Chattanooga that he led a secret life as a pirate. The chance of maybe seeing what really lay beneath the patch, along with his well-stocked candy cases, drew many a young boy into his establishment.

“Can we help you with some bunting today, Mrs. Dawkins?”

“How much is this a yard?”

He peered at the material. “Believe it’s twenty cents.”

“All right, let me have … five yards, I guess.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He went behind the counter to get a pair of shears.

“Well, Addie, you’re going to have to tell Zeb something before too much longer. Your wedding is announced for June, and—”

“I know, I know,” Addie said. “What else do you think I’ve been doing the last few weeks, except going round and round about all this? Oh, Lou! I don’t know what to do!”

“About Zeb, or about the church?” Louisa said. She picked up a paper sack and started shoveling navy beans into it from the bin where they now stood.

“It’s all the same thing, Lou,” Addie said. “I can’t marry Zeb unless I’m willing to join the Church of Christ. I can’t just decide on marrying the man I love—I have to marry his church too. And you know what that’ll mean. It’s just too much for me to think about. Have you … have you talked to Bob or Junior about this at all? What do they think about it?”

Louisa set the sack on the scales, noted the weight, then placed it on the counter. “Two and a half,” she said to Mr. Peabody, who waited, pad in hand. He scribbled down a figure. She turned back to her younger sister.Scale

“Well, Addie, they feel kind of the same way I do. The boys think you’ve got to make up your own mind about this and do what you think is right. Junior says you ought to pray about it.” Junior was the oldest brother, the lay minister.

“Don’t think I haven’t been,” Addie said. “And I keep waiting for God to give me an answer. But he just listens, I guess. So far, I don’t feel any closer to knowing what to do.”

“Addie, maybe he’s waiting for you to decide. Maybe he doesn’t care which way you go on this, just so you give yourself the go-ahead, one way or the other.”

“Lou! That almost sounds—blasphemous!”

“Why? Getting married is an honorable thing, and not getting married is too. Why should God care which one you do, as long as you get on with it and quit bothering him about it?”

Addie stared at her sister. “Well, Lou,” she said finally, “this is my life, and things don’t look so cut and dried from where I stand.” She whirled away and stalked to the other side of the store. “Robert,” she called in warning to her nephew who stood, fingers twitching in desire, before the toy shelves, “you better not mess with that stuff Remember what your mama said.”

Louisa made several more selections and waited for Mr. Peabody to figure the total. She signed her ticket and gave instructions for the goods to be delivered that afternoon. They were almost halfway back to the house, trudging with the children up the side of Cameron Hill, before anything else was said.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Addie,” Louisa said. “I didn’t mean to sound so hard and all. I just wish you could get on with your life, either way. That’s all I meant.”

Addie took several steps before answering. “I know. You’re just trying to help. Everybody’s just trying to help, though. Well … almost everybody. That’s part of what makes it so hard—”Sisters chatting.jpg

At that moment, George Hutto came around the corner, headed straight toward them down the hill. He walked in his usual slow gait, his eyes on the ground in front of his feet, but since they were downhill from him, they came into his field of vision anyway. He glanced up at them and, seeing Addie, stopped in his tracks. After a moment, he swept his bowler from his head.

“Hello, Mrs. Dawkins,” he said. “Hello … Addie.”

“Hello, George!” Louisa said in a hearty voice. “How are you today, other than it being too hot?”

“Yes, ma’am, it is awful hot, isn’t it?” He was answering Louisa, but his eyes stayed on Addie as she bore down on him.

“Hello,” Addie said, following her words with a curt nod. She never broke stride as she drew even with him and then she was past, marching up the hill like Sherman through Georgia.

“Aunt Addie, slow down!” said Katherine, trailing along at the end of Addie’s arm like a dinghy on a tow rope.

As she strode up the hill toward her sister’s house, Addie knew what she must do. As much as she hated to admit it, Lou was right. It was time to quit mealymouthing. It was time to do something.

*******

Addie stared long at the letter she held in her hand. Then, with elaborate care, she blotted it and folded it and slid it into an envelope. She sealed the flap and carefully inscribed Zeb’s name and the address of his Murfreesboro boarding house. Before she Mailboxcould change her mind again, she walked quickly to the postal clerk’s window and purchased the two-cent stamp that would take her missive to its destination.

*******

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