Posts Tagged ‘affair’

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.

 

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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.