Posts Tagged ‘ancestry’

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

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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.

 

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