Posts Tagged ‘Chattanooga’

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 30

March 15, 2019

Trusting as the moments fly, singing

Trusting as the days go by;

Trusting Him what e’er befall

Trusting Jesus—that is all …

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ned glanced back and forth between his mother and George.

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

“You know this man?” the woman asked.

“Yes’m.” child

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

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

“We don’t need no charity.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

This post is a chapter from the novel Sunday Clothes, by Thom Lemmons. Sunday Clothes will soon be available for purchase as an e-book at www.homingpigeonpublishing.com

Creative Commons License
So Fair and Bright (a weblog) by Thom Lemmons is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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Sunday Clothes, Chapter 29

March 8, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m glad to hear you say so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you thinking?” Junior asked. judge

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

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

“How long?”

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

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

She forced her eyes to meet Dan’s.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She looked a question at him.

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

“I don’t understand.”

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

“Certainly not!”

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

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

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

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

He looked at her and sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dan gave Addie’s oldest brother a direct look.

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

“What do you mean, Dan?”

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

Junior stared at the lawyer for several seconds.

“Dan, I sure appreciate this.”

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

*******

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

 

LITTLE ROCK OCTOBER 10 1903

DAN SUTHERLAND, ATTORNEY

TALKED TO SECY STOP YOURE ON RIGHT TRACK

STOP MORE LATER STOP SEND USUAL AMT STOP

PURVIS

 

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

*******

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

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

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

*******

This post is a chapter from the novel Sunday Clothes, by Thom Lemmons. Sunday Clothes will soon be available for purchase as an e-book at www.homingpigeonpublishing.com

Creative Commons License
So Fair and Bright (a weblog) by Thom Lemmons is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

 

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 28

February 28, 2019

The melee ended quickly as the four older boys released their captive and shoved their hands into their pockets, staring in guilt at their shoes. George looked around at the rest of them.

“Buck Tarfield! Don’t you know any better?” Buck shrugged and looked away. “And you—Tommy Clayton! I’ve got half a mind to tell your father about this when I get back to the office!”

Tommy stared at George with big, round eyes. “Now, Mr. Hutto, we wasn’t gonna hurt him, not really. We was just having a little fun with him, is all.” The others nodded in earnest endorsement.

“Well, it didn’t look like much fun for him,” George said.

George realized, to his surprise, that he was enjoying this very much. He felt something kindling inside him, and it was welcome. Anything was better than the indistinct fog in which he had lived since that morning at Mrs. Breck’s house. He was doing something that mattered. He was striking a blow in a just cause.

“You boys better skedaddle. Every one of you ought to be ashamed.”

The four boys drifted off down the street, shoulders slumped and their hands still shoved into their pockets.

George looked down at Ned. “Now, son, what’s your name?”

Ned hung his head and made no reply. boy

“You didn’t do anything to make them mad, did you?”

The boy shook his head vehemently. George studied the small, bony form: the baggy, homespun pants with frequent and ill–sewn patches, the bare, dirty feet, the cracked, filthy fingernails, the matted hair. Even in the open air of the street, George could smell the small boy’s unwashed body and the odor of bacon grease that clung to his clothing.

“Well, if I don’t know your name, how can I help you get home?”

The boy dug a big toe into the dust of the street, but gave no reply except a shrug.

“Do you want to go home?”

A long hesitation, then a reluctant nod.

“Have you ever ridden in an automobile—a horseless carriage?”

Before he could stop himself, the boy looked at George with something close to excitement in his eyes. Then he dropped his face once again, giving George the same noncommittal shrug, accompanied by a slight shake of the head.

“I’ve got an automobile and … I was thinking of taking a short drive. If I knew what direction your place was, I could just drop you off there while I’m out.”

The boy stole a cautious glance at his face. He jerked a thumb in a general easterly direction and said, “Yonder a piece.”

“Do you live in Orchard Knob?” George quizzed.

“Other side a ways.”

“How’d you get into Chattanooga so early in the day? You couldn’t have walked here from Orchard Knob, unless you started awful early.”

Again the suspicious silence.

“Well, never mind. The main thing’s to get you back home again. Come on. My automobile’s parked over at the livery.” He started to walk away, then, on a sudden thought, wheeled around and stuck out his hand. “By the way, I’m George Hutto.”

Without thinking, the boy shook his hand. “Ned Overby.”

“Nice to meet you, Ned. Let’s go.” auto

Ned couldn’t believe that human beings could travel so fast and survive. When Mr. Hutto had begun cranking the shiny, black contraption, Ned had his doubts. The engine had wheezed and coughed like an old man with consumption and flat balked at doing anything else, despite the sweating, earnest efforts of its owner. But then it had finally caught, somehow, and when the machine roared to life and smoke began pouring out of the exhaust pipe in back, Ned was awestruck.

He had heard the boys at school talk about the new vehicles, of course, but he had never been near one until now. He marveled at the way it just bowled along, all on its own. It was pretty bumpy, of course, and he had to hang on to the siderail to keep from getting tossed out, but my how it tore down the road! It would just leave a wagon in the dust! He was scared and enthralled, all at once.

They came down the hill west of Orchard Knob, and the big Caswell house came into view. He tugged at Mr. Hutto’s sleeve and pointed. “You can let me out right there. My house ain’t on no road—I’ll walk from there.”

“You sure?” Mr. Hutto shouted over the roar of the engine.

Ned nodded. Mr. Hutto pulled over to the side of the road in front of the vacant two–story house, and Ned got out. “Thanks for the ride,” he said, staring at the ground. ‘‘And … thanks for taking up for me back yonder.”

“You’re welcome, Ned. Older boys used to pick on me too. I remember how it feels.”

Ned nodded, still unable to look at his benefactor. “Well, I best git.” He crossed the road in front of the automobile and walked toward the woods behind the house.

*******

George watched the boy duck into the tree line and gradually disappear into the foliage covering Tunnel Hill. He stared thoughtfully at the two–story frame house where no one lived anymore. He sat there for perhaps three or four minutes, remembering. Then he put the car in gear and turned it about in the road, pointing it back toward Chattanooga.

A germ of something was trying to grow in his mind. All the way out from town, he had been thinking about Ned Overby: wondering what his life was like, what sort of chances he would ever have. What about the other poor boys in the alleys and shanties, the ones who lived in lean–tos in the hollows and creek bottoms around Chattanooga? What would prevent their lives from being one long, desperate series of encounters like the one Ned Overby had had in the alley with the boys from the “good” families? George wanted to do something. He wanted to help change the balance of nature for the boys like Ned Overby who had no advantages. George drove back to town and parked his car at the livery. He walked slower than usual on his way back to the office, but for once, his eyes weren’t studying the ground in front of his feet. Instead, he looked around at the people he passed, as if seeing them for the first time in his life.

*******

Zeb’s letter—the first in a number of weeks—appeared identical to the many other letters Addie had received from him. She even felt a small thrill of anticipation when she took it from the box, but then she caught herself. Shouldn’t get carried away just because he finally remembered to write.

It was on the same foolscap he always used, addressed in the same stylish hand. She closed the mailbox and went back into the house. Louisa was sitting in the rocking chair in the corner, reading from a storybook to Mary Alice while she held her sleeping baby brother.

“You get something in the mail?”

Addie nodded and smiled, despite herself. “Letter from Zeb.”

Louisa grinned. “Well, open it up, for Pete’s sake. Let’s hear how he’s doing. At least the parts you can read aloud.”

Addie rolled her eyes. “Goodness, Lou. We’re not exactly newlyweds anymore.” readingletter

She tore open the envelope and began scanning the letter as she sat down on the divan. Louisa resumed reading to Mary Alice and her voice droned on, murmuring into the background as Addie’s attention focused on the message from her husband. The salutation struck her as odd; to her best memory, Zeb had never referred to her as “Mrs. Douglas” before. And then, as her eyes scanned the first sentence, then the next, then the next, she felt her heart begin pounding out an alarm, felt her blood roaring a warning in her ears. She put a hand to her mouth and her eyes went wide.

“What is it, Addie? What’s wrong?”

Addie got up and walked toward the kitchen. On her way past Louisa, she dropped the letter in her lap.

“Zeb’s left me.”

“What? What are you talking about?” Louisa grabbed at the letter.

Addie stood in the middle of the kitchen floor, hugging herself and gripping her elbows as she stared blankly out the window over the sink. In a way, she wasn’t surprised. She told herself she had seen it coming, had known things weren’t getting better.

But all during the past weeks and months, another voice inside her mind kept chanting, “Everything’s gonna be all right, everything’s gonna be all right … ” It was that part of her, that illogical, hopeful, believing part that now lay wounded and dying, silent within her. She felt everything shifting around her, felt the world breaking apart and reassembling itself in jagged shapes. She thought she ought to cry, but at this moment she couldn’t even do that. It was as if she was standing in the doorway, looking at herself. This is what a divorced woman looks like. This is how a person feels who’s just been abandoned.

She heard footsteps behind her, then Lou’s hand on her shoulder.

“Oh, Addie. Oh, my dear, sweet Lord, I don’t know what to say.”

Louisa hugged her. Addie felt her arms go up reflexively, felt her body returning the hug. But her mind was still standing in the doorway, watching from a safe distance.

*******

NASHVILLE AUGUST 18 1903

ZEBEDIAH A DOUGLAS

IZARD ST. LITTLE ROCK ARKANSAS

 

WE HAVE A NEW SON STOP HAVE NAMED HIM

AFTER YOU AND PAPA STOP HOPE THIS IS ALL

RIGHT STOP YOUR WIFE ADDIE

 

Zeb stared at the telegram for a long time. By its date, it had been sent barely three days after he had mailed to Addie the last correspondence he ever intended to send her. Apparently, the two messages had crossed. paper

He felt almost as if the words on the yellow sheet had no meaning, as if they had been sent to him by mistake from a stranger. Then he crumpled the paper and tossed it toward the wastebasket in the corner of his room. It missed and lay on the floor beside the basket, slowly trying to open.

*******

This post is a chapter from the novel Sunday Clothes, by Thom Lemmons. Sunday Clothes will soon be available for purchase as an e-book at www.homingpigeonpublishing.com

Creative Commons License
So Fair and Bright (a weblog) by Thom Lemmons is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

 

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 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 22

January 17, 2019

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

She stared straight ahead and nodded sharply. Once.

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

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

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

“Nice day for a drive, anyhow.”

“Quite pleasant.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Becky, what … why aren’t you—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

‘‘An’ Loo?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

This post is a chapter from the novel Sunday Clothes, by Thom Lemmons. Sunday Clothes will soon be available for purchase as an e-book at www.homingpigeonpublishing.com

Creative Commons License
So Fair and Bright (a weblog) by Thom Lemmons is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 21

January 10, 2019

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

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

 

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

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

No sorrow there, in my Father’s house,

In my Father’s house …

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Oh, yes, Jesus … That’s right … ) 

“—a woman of noble character—”

(Yes, yes … )

“—a woman of godly and pleasing conduct—”

(Sure is … )

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Amen … That’s right … )

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

(Mmm—hmm … Sure did … )

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

(Well then … Yes, indeed … )

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

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

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

(Amen. Thank you, Jesus.)

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

(Yes, sure is … )

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

(No, indeed … That’s the truth … )

“—not many of us wise—”

(Preach it, brother! Go ahead!)

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

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

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

“We are the weak—”

(Amen!)

“—the broken-hearted—”

(Yes! Yes!)

“—some would even call us ‘fools’—”

(Oh, yes, Lord!)

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

(Thank you, Lord Jesus!)

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

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

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

(Tell it! Tell it!)

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

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

“—was surely a minister of the gospel—”

(Oh, yes! Hallelujah!)

“—in her humble service—”

(Amen!)

“—and her faithful life—”

(That’s right!)

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

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

“—and she shall surely have her reward—”

(Thank you, Lord!)

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

(Praise Jesus! Thank you, sweet Lord!)

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

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

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

(Hallelujah! Thank you Lord!)

“Amen. Amen. Shall we sing?”

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

 

My Lord, what a morning,

My Lord, what a morning,

My Lord, what a morning,

When the stars begin to fall …

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘‘Addie, I … it wouldn’t have to be—”

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

*******

This post is a chapter from the novel Sunday Clothes, by Thom Lemmons. Sunday Clothes will soon be available for purchase as an e-book at www.homingpigeonpublishing.com

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So Fair and Bright (a weblog) by Thom Lemmons is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

 

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 20

January 3, 2019

Even as George Hutto walked up the front steps of Laura Breck’s house, he still couldn’t figure out exactly what he was doing there. Last week, as much to his own surprise as anyone else’s, he had heard himself invite her to accompany him to Baroness Erlanger’s Christmas social. Her black eyes blinked at him twice, then she accepted with a quick nod and a sharp, decisive, “Yes.” That was all, just “yes.”

George still hadn’t been able to pinpoint when he had precisely understood that he was “calling on” Mrs. Breck. He had visited her that bitterly cold day, admired her father’s ship painting, said barely twenty words to her, and left the premises without even concluding the business that had placed him there. Then a week or so later, he found himself again walking up her street for no reason that he could readily recall. He was almost chagrined when she spotted him from her seat on the front porch swing. It was a rather cool afternoon, after all. Why would anyone be sitting in a porch swing on such a day?

He couldn’t remember the substance of a single conversation they’d had. Once or twice a week, he would turn up at her door and she would invite him inside. She would always have coffee or tea just ready, and a cake or some cookies to go with it. They would usually sit in the parlor. Sometimes he would stare at the ship painting and they would make random comments to each other. Other times they would just sit in her small coffeekitchen and sip their tea and stare out the window at the side yard. Once, they had even ventured into the backyard. He had paced up and down with his hands in his pockets, and she had sat in a whitewashed wrought–iron chair, gathered about herself like an owl on a fencepost.

He tapped at the door and she opened it almost instantly. “Good evening,” he intoned, touching the brim of his bowler. “If you’re ready … ”

Without replying, she scooted outside and closed the door behind her. She bent over the skeleton key in her hand, carefully inserting it into the lock and turning it. She dropped the key into her handbag and straightened to face him. As they started down the porch steps, he felt her slip her gloved hand into the crook of his arm. He wasn’t quite sure what to do with his hand while keeping his elbow at the proper angle to allow her hand to rest comfortably. He felt a little like Napoleon Bonaparte, but for some reason he didn’t want to do anything that might make her move her hand.

All of proper Chattanooga was at the social. George and Laura Sanders Breck glided about at the fringes of the crowd; he introducing her with painstaking propriety to those of his acquaintance, she responding suitably, even emitting a slight smile on occasion. As they moved on past those with whom such formalities were impossible to avoid, puzzled eyes inevitably followed the near–silent duo on their polite, grave voyage through the evening’s festivities. Cloaked in a sort of stately embarrassment, they passed among the celebrants, creating hardly a ripple, other than a questioning smile here and there.

Once, as George carefully dipped some punch for himself and Laura, he felt an elbow in his side. Uncle Matt Capshaw had sidled up to him and was leering at something above his head. “Better kiss that lady friend a yours,” he winked, “‘fore I do.” Puzzled, George’s eyes followed Matt’s up to the bundle of mistletoe, festooned with a red–and–silver bow, that hung from the ceiling, strategically positioned above the punch bowl. George felt his cheeks stinging and hurriedly finished filling the cups, hoping wildly Mrs. Breck, standing beside him, hadn’t noticed. Even worse—what if she thought he’d intentionally lured her to the punch bowl for some clandestine purpose! “Here you are,” he said, offering her the punch, and was horrified to see her looking above him—at the mistletoe.

“Thank you,” she said, taking the punch from him. Their eyes met. Her lips tightened a notch, a very faint pink tint brushed her cheeks, and she turned away, going back toward their place on one of the benches against the wall of the salon. George followed her, unable to take his eyes off the tops of his shoes. He thought he heard Uncle Matt snickering behind him. mistletoe

*******

Perlie Overby tramped through the thickly drifted snow on the way to Jacob Caswell’s house, humming tunelessly under his breath. It was Christmas morning, and he was happy. His youngsters had rolled out of bed at the crack of dawn, tousle–headed and eager to see what surprises awaited them.

“Look like ol’ Santy left some stuff over by the stove,” Perlie had directed them, grinning from his and Martha’s bed. His wife was just then stirring sleepily toward awareness, but he had come wide awake in the predawn darkness when he heard the first whispers from the children’s pallets.

There were four paper sacks by the stove, with four names scrawled in pencil. Ned, the oldest, immediately took charge. “Percy first,” he said, bringing the baby’s parcel to his parents’ bed, where the three–year–old still lay sleeping in his place between the two adults.

“Hey, young ‘un!” Perlie prodded, gently rocking the sleeping infant. “Better wake up, boy, and see what Santy brought.” The child made no response, other than a reflexive, fending gesture. “Leave him alone, Daddy,” Martha murmured. “He’s the only one in the house got enough sense to know it ain’t time to get up yet.”

Perlie had chuckled at this. “What’s he got, Paw?” Ned inquired. Perlie had reached into the sack and produced a bright red apple. Gently he laid it in the crook of the sleeping toddler’s arm. The little boy hugged it to him without so much as the flash of an eyelid.

Next, Ned handed her sack to six–year–old Sally. She produced a fistful of dark brown lozenges. “Horehound,” she said with a shy smile. Mary, the older girl, was not content to allow her big brother to dole out her surprise. Grabbing it away from him, she eagerly looked inside. There was a white comb and about a foot of bright red ribbon. She immediately began attending to her tangled hair. “Hey, boy,” Perlie beckoned to Ned, “You better see what you got this year, ain’t you?”

“I guess so,” Ned replied, reaching with calculated casualness for the final sack. Perlie nudged his wife, who sat up on one elbow to watch her son’s expression. ribbon

The intake of breath and the rapt look was all the confirmation Ned’s parents needed. ‘‘A knife!” he breathed, holding it up like a rare jewel. “A real Barlow!”

*******

Perlie smiled again as he kicked his way through a snowdrift. The Barlow had been a chore to get hold of, but it was worth every penny. A bubble of cheer rose in his breast, and he sang a little to himself.

She churned her butter in Paw’s old boot,

With a risselty–rasselty, hey, John dobbelty

Rusty co–pollity neigh, neigh, neigh!

And for the dasher she used her foot.

With a risselty–rasselty, hey, John dobbelty

Rusty co–pollity neigh, neigh, neigh!

 

She sold her butter in my home town,

With a risselty–rasselty, hey, John dobbelty

Rusty co–pollity neigh, neigh, neigh!

And the print of her heel was on each pound.

With a risselty–rasselty …

He cleared the tree line and entered Jacob Caswell’s backyard. The dogs must have been curled up under the house somewhere, because no barking challenged his approach. A wisp of smoke rose from one of the chimneys. He rounded the house and tromped up the front steps, kicking his boots against the risers to shake off the loose snow. He knocked on the door.

Jacob opened the door, still wearing his dressing gown.

“Christmas gift, Mr. Caswell!” Perlie hoisted the flour sack he had toted from his shack.

“Christmas gift back to you, Perlie. Santa Claus find your house, I guess?”

“Sure did, Mr. Caswell, sure did! And ol’ Santy left something there for you too!” He handed Jacob the sack.

Jacob peered inside the sack with a puzzled expression. “Well, now, Perlie, what in thunder … You sure didn’t need to go to any trouble—”

“Why, shoot, it wasn’t no trouble, Mr. Caswell, no trouble at all. I just ‘preciate the work you’ve slid my way the last few months, and, well … it ain’t much, but me ‘n’ Martha just wanted to say ‘thanks,’ that’s all.”

Jacob had extracted the pungent bundle from the grimy flour sack and held it at arm’s length.

“Martha figgered, this being winter and all, with all the sickness and such going around, you might could use you a as’fiddity bag.”

Jacob continued to eye the bag. A piece of thick homespun was wrapped around the highly aromatic contents and tied at the top with several rounds of grayish yarn, the whole package dangling from a rawhide strap.

“You wear it around your neck—” asafetida

“Yes, an asafetida bag,” Jacob said. “I haven’t had one of these in … quite some time. Well, Perlie, you … you tell Martha I said, ‘thanks,’ all right?”

Perlie’s head bobbed gratefully. “I sure will, Mr. Caswell! And Merry Christmas to you!”

“Merry Christmas to you, Perlie.”

*******

Jacob backed slowly toward the door, still holding the asafetida bag in front of him like a talisman. He went into the house and closed the door. Being careful not to allow the high–smelling package to touch him, he watched out a side window as Perlie Overby tramped in his own tracks, whistling his way back across the side yard toward the tree–covered hillside. He shook his head as Perlie disappeared among the tangle of bare branches. Crazy fool tramping all the way over here in the snow just to hand me this nasty thing.

He took the asafetida bag to the back porch, hanging it carefully on a nail. He wondered what Christmas morning could have been like at the Overby’s shack. That bunch is so poor they can’t even pay attention. Yet there he goes, whistling like a meadowlark on Christmas morning, out before breakfast to bring me a present. Crazy fool.

Jacob went into the parlor and poked at the fire, trying to rouse it a little more. He straightened and looked about him. Time was when this room would have been filled with laughter and the sound of ripping paper. When he would have sat in that chair, right over there, with his feet propped on that ottoman, and endured, with good–natured grousing, all the fuss his wife and children were making. When there would have been four stockings hanging on the mantelpiece, the toes rounded with the obligatory orange or apple. When, at the end of the day, after all the visiting and fighting over the new toys and “Christmas–gifting” of friends and neighbors were concluded, when the children were at last in their beds and the fires were all banked for the night, he and Mary would have smiled at each other and climbed the stairs, arms around each others’ waists, up to their own bedroom, tired and happy and relieved and eager.

He hadn’t even put up a tree this year. What was the point? Nobody here but him, and he’d just have to sweep up all the dropped needles, come tomorrow. Too much trouble, with nobody in the house to care one way or the other anyhow.

Unbidden, the image of seven–year–old Addie entered his mind. She wore her hair long in those days, streaming in a chestnut cascade down her back, sometimes tied with an emerald–green ribbon to match her eyes. Addie was always quieter on Christmas mornings than he expected her to be, he remembered. As if she were thinking of something else; as if she were doing sums in her mind. sisters

He closed his eyes and shook his head just as the big clock in the entry hall chimed the quarter hour. Jacob glanced out a frost–rimmed window, guessing the hour by the color of the daylight. Looked like it was going to be a pretty nice day. He was due at Lou’s by nine. He stirred the fire a final time and hung the poker on the rack.

*******

Rose coughed as Bishop Jefferson rose from his chair beside her bed. “I sure thank you for coming over, Reverend,” she said.

The white–haired pastor took her hand and patted it. “Sister Rose, it was a pleasure. I just hope you get to feeling better real quick.”

“Lord willin’. It’s in his hands.” She covered her mouth and gave another rattling cough. “They’s a lot o’ sickness goin’ round. I expect you got other folks to see today. You done spent enough time on me.”

Lila, Rose’s daughter–in–law, came into the bedroom. “Mama, you better try an’ rest now,” she said, smiling at Bishop Jefferson. “Thank you again for coming, Reverend. I know you’re awful busy, and this being Christmas Day and all … ”

He made a placating gesture. “Now, Lila, you know I been knowing this lady here a long time. Don’t make no difference about how busy I am. When I heard she took sick, I just had to come, that’s all. You folks need anything, you let me know, you hear?”

“Yes, sir.” Lila went to her mother–in–law’s bedside. “You want some more water, Mama? You warm enough?” Lila tugged at the worn, faded, nine–patch quilt that covered the sagging shuck mattress.

“I’m fine, honey. You go on back in there with your childrens. Bye, Reverend.”

The pastor waved as he closed the door behind him. Rose took Lila’s hand.

“Honey, get one of your boys to run over to Mister Jacob’s house and tell him I won’t be in tomorrow. I don’t think I’m gonna to be well enough to work for a few more days.”

“Don’t you worry about that, Mama. I’ll go to Mister Jacob’s for you till you doing better.”

“Thank you, honey. I sure appreciate all you doin’. You so good to me, bringin’ me over here and all … ”

“Hush now. You better rest.”

Rose nodded and rolled over on her side, heaving another clattering cough. Lila tiptoed out of the room. As she closed the door and turned around, Mason, her husband, was standing behind her.

“How’s Mama?”

“I don’t know. She seem awful weak, and her cough sound pretty rough to me.”

“She ain’t never spent this many days in bed,” Mason said softly, shaking his head. “I don’t know … ”

Lila patted his arm and went to see about the children.

*******

Becky listlessly pulled the wrapping paper from her package. She noted the contents of the box and forced a smile onto her face.

“Thanks, Mother. The brooch is lovely.” She paused, then added, “It’ll look real nice with my new dress.”

Ruth Norwich gave her husband a worried glance, but he was engrossed in the James Fenimore Cooper novel he had just unwrapped. Heaving a mental sigh, she smiled back at her daughter. cooper

“Well, I hoped you’d like it, dear.” The scoundrel. Why any man with one eye and half sense could see the way this girl feels about him! Why in the world didn’t he have the gumption to get her something—anything? Zeb Douglas, if I had you here right now, I do declare I’d skin you alive.

“Well, I guess we’d better start cleaning up all this,” Becky was saying, gathering scraps of tissue paper into her lap. “Ray and Fred and their bunch’ll be here before much longer, and—”

“I’ll take care of this, honey,” Ruth interjected. “Why don’t you just gather your things and get them put away?”

“Oh. All right.” Becky drifted down the hallway toward her bedroom.

*******

Why hadn’t he at least told her he was going back to Nashville for Christmas? Becky wondered as she allowed the things in her arms to fall onto her bed. They’d gone for one of their long walks one day, and the next day he was gone on the morning train. No note, no telegraph—nothing. Almost as if he didn’t want her to know he was leaving. Why?

It was funny how people could surprise you, she thought, idly patting the new clothes into a bureau drawer. You were with someone, and you liked it—very much. You thought he did too. You could feel things inside yourself beginning to loosen, things you had held in check for a long time. You sensed the same thing happening with the other person, sensed his unfolding enjoyment of simple talk and unguided conversation. Sensed the gladness with which he took your hand when you walked with him.

And then he did something you didn’t expect—like leaving town with no notice. Like forgetting a simple thing like a Christmas gift for someone whose company he seemed to relish. It was Christmas, for Pete’s sake! A flash of anger flared in her mind for an instant, and she tried to hold it, tried to fan it into something stronger, something to brace her and stiffen her backbone. But even as she clutched at it, big dollops of melancholy splashed on it and doused its heat. Fact was, she didn’t want to be angry at Zeb. She just wanted to understand. And she wanted—part of her hated to admit it—to see him again.

Her mother came in. Becky could hear her bustling innocuously behind her, waiting to be invited into a conversation. She wasn’t sure she had the energy to maintain her side of the talk, but it would be nice to think someone understood.

“Mother?”

“Yes, honey.”

“You reckon men do things on purpose to irritate us, or do they just not know any better?”

Her mother’s laugh was low and conspiratorial as she came to her and took both her hands. They looked at each other for a moment, and Mother glanced over her shoulder, back down the hall toward the parlor where Daddy still sat, probably still traipsing in his mind through the forest primeval with Hawkeye and Natty Bumppo.

“You care a great deal for him, don’t you?” Mother said.

Becky shrugged and nodded. ‘‘And I thought he felt the same, but … ”

“Sweetheart, you have to remember one thing about a man: things that are plain as custard to you don’t make a lick of sense to him. Your daddy says it works the other way, too, but that’s just because I don’t let on how much I know about him.”

Becky gave her mother a shy smile. “So, you mean … maybe he just—” gift

“Took off to Nashville with no more forethought than a goose. Probably didn’t anymore mean to hurt your feelin’s than a rock means to mash your toe if you drop it on your bare foot. He’ll probably show up back here in the next few days with a box all wrapped nice and think that’s good enough. ‘After all, didn’t I bring her a present?’ he’ll think. ‘Not exactly on Christmas, but, shoot, it’s not like I forgot or anything … ‘”

“And I’m supposed to sugar right up to him, just like that?” Becky asked, a skeptical scowl hooding her face.

“Oh, now, honey! I didn’t say that, did I?”

*******

Pete Norwich stood in the doorway of his daughter’s bedroom looking quizzically at his wife and daughter seated on the bed and giggling together like two schoolgirls. “What in thunder are y’all laughing about?”

They looked up, almost as if they’d been caught with their hands in the cookie jar. “Oh, nothing, honey. Just girl talk, is all,” Ruth said, dismissing him with a wave. “Go on back and read your book.”

*******

Mary Alice giggled and buried herself in the pile of crumpled wrapping paper. She had been awake for less than a half hour, but already all her Christmas gifts had been examined and discarded as she turned her attention to the gaily colored litter on the floor of the parlor.

Zeb yawned and stretched. “Well, that’s it, I guess. Now that the presents are all opened, I believe I could use a cup of coffee.”

“There’s one more, Zeb.”

He peered around the messy room. “Where? I don’t see anything but opened boxes and about a bale–and–a–half of torn paper.”

She gave him a nervous little smile, biting a corner of her lip. “Right here.” She brought the ring box out of the pocket of her nightrobe. ringbox

She had dreamed and dreamed of this moment. Perhaps it would redeem the strangeness she had been sensing from him since his arrival two days ago. Perhaps the sight of his wedding ring, so long overdue, would bring back some hint of what she had once felt from him. Addie felt her heart hammering in her throat as she handed him the small, rounded, red velvet box.

Zeb opened the hinged lid. His expression never changed one bit, not even as he took the ring out and slipped it on the third finger of his left hand. After a moment or two, he looked up at her and said, “It’s real pretty, honey. Thanks.”

She felt dashed; she wanted to cry. Day after day, as she had stared at the ring’s likeness in the mail–order catalog, she had imagined how pleased he’d be when he saw it. She had imagined, over and over, how glad he would be, at last, to wear the gold band that said he was hers, forever. She had fancied his grateful smile, the big, warm hug he’d give her. He would appreciate the time she had spent choosing this ring, this very ring. He would understand that she had thought and thought of how it would look on his hand, and of how good it would make her feel to give it to him. And maybe—somewhere deep inside, so deep she had not allowed herself to put words to the thoughts—she had hoped this ring could buy him back, could ransom him from Little Rock and break, with its shiny, golden magic, the spell of otherness that had grown stronger and stronger in him since he took that first train across the Mississippi River.

But all he could do was look at her with that polite expression and say, “Thanks.” He didn’t see any of it, did he? No, he had no idea. She had his thanks and nothing more. Her hopes crumpled inside her like an overused handkerchief.

“I’m glad you like it,” she said, trying and failing to keep the hurt from drawing taut the line of her words. ‘‘I’ll go get us some coffee.”

Zeb watched her leave the room. He sighed and looked out the front window while Mary Alice played with innocent abandon among the torn paper.

What have I done now?

*******

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 18

December 20, 2018

Zeb had only intended to stay home for the weekend, but he talked himself into changing his plans. His time with his wife and daughter seemed especially sweet those few days. Mary Alice soon overcame her reticence about him, and in their bed at night, he and Addie made ardent love to each other. On Monday morning, he decided, rather than catching an early train back, he would go in to the home office and make a report to Griffs or Carleton—whomever he could find. He would hang around the office for awhile, then come back home for a long lunch. He’d done a good job in Little Rock, and he knew Griffs and Carleton wouldn’t begrudge him a little extra time with his family.

The fact was, there was something about going back to Little Rock that made him restive. When he tried to make himself plan his departure, it just seemed easier to get distracted. His leave–taking, when it could finally be avoided no longer, was more arduous for him than it had ever been. train

Still, he was feeling better by the time his train reached Memphis. By the time they rolled into Union Station in Little Rock, he was positively eager to get back to work. He decided that the best antidote for the homesick blues was a dose of good, honest, hard work. He’d enjoyed being home, but he was back now, and it was time to get down to business.

Thursday morning, when he walked into the cramped, two–room office he had rented for the agency, his secretary handed him a note written in a diagonal scrawl across a torn scrap of paper. “Dere Zeb,” it read, “im sorry, but i cant do no more. rekin i just want cut out for this binniss. yr. frend, Luke C. Cutler.” Zeb looked at the secretary.

“Brought it by here Monday morning, first thing,” Abner told him with a shrug. “Looked like he was kinda glad you weren’t here.”

Zeb shook his head in disgust. “Well, Ab, you can lead ‘em to water, but you can’t make ‘em drink. Cutler would’ve been all right, if he’d just had as much gumption as his wife told me he had.” Luke Cutler had answered a notice Zeb placed in the newspaper, announcing the hiring of “Enterprising Men for Financially Rewarding Opportunities in this Area.” More properly, Cutler’s wife had answered the advertisement: she had done most of the talking in the interview; Cutler himself seemed less than enthusiastic about the whole matter.

Abner grinned. He was a slight–built, youngish fellow Zeb had hired the first week he’d been here. He managed the office work and correspondence for the agency. He’d had a brief career as a schoolteacher that had ended abruptly, for a reason Zeb had never learned and decided not to be curious about. Ab was clean, fairly literate, had a reasonably neat hand, and he didn’t need much money to live on, which was perhaps his greatest asset, given what the home office was willing to pay for clerical help. “I told myself the first time she drug him in here, ‘This man don’t want to be here for no reason of his own.’”

Zeb sighed and smiled wryly. “Well, it appears her ambition didn’t last him long in the heat of the day.” He pushed his hat up in the back, scratching his head. “Guess I’ll have to find another man for the north Saline County debit.”

“Yeah. Some a those policies are a week behind already.” office

Zeb wadded up the note and tossed it at a wastepaper basket. As he strode toward his desk, he felt his chagrin giving way to a kind of calm eagerness. He was embracing the challenge, welcoming it as a familiar, satisfying adversary. He would manage this difficulty, and the next, and the next, and the next, because that was what he was good at. His determination was stronger than anything that stood in his way, and he would prove it, one more time.

For the next several days he was immersed in the duties of the agency. First, he busied himself with finding Luke C. Cutler’s replacement: he set about visiting northern Saline County policyholders, at once encouraging continued payment and collecting premiums but also finding out who knew whom in the area, who was trusted, who needed work, who had higher goals in life than growing corn and cotton on ten acres of river bottom land.

Zeb relished the power over others granted him by his gift of gab. He could walk up to any sharecropper’s shack and strike up a conversation. Likewise, he could stroll along the courthouse square and engage some vested, bejowled lawyer in a lengthy exchange of views. The trick, he had learned, was to figure out what the other person was interested in and evidence an interest in that himself. Folks just naturally opened up to him.

Zeb knew he could talk to anyone, at any time, in any place. If good humor and an easygoing manner were what the situation required, he had a vast store of jokes and the familiar style in which to frame them. If, on the other hand, a somber, earnest tone seemed more appropriate, Zeb could instantly become sincere, as easily as taking off one hat and putting on another. He could be anyone he needed to be, a gift not shared by many other people. It was his protection and his advantage. He prided himself on being able to do what most folks were unwilling or unable to do, and to keep on doing it as long as he had to.

Within two weeks he had hired a man to run the debit vacated by Luke C. Cutler. Most of the policies in the vacant debit were paid up to date, and the new agent seemed of a temperament more suited to the insurance business than that of Cutler. Zeb had made contact with his other three agents and assured himself that they were being productive. The stack of new–policy applications to be processed by Abner and forwarded to the home office was holding steady. He even had the leisure to consider whether it might be time to expand the agency by adding another debit just across the Arkansas River, in Argenta.

The burst of activity generated by Cutler’s abdication carried Zeb to a new height of expansiveness. His prospects here were good, and that was so because of his own efforts; there was no feeling of indebtedness or obligation to a predecessor to abate his self–satisfaction. This agency was his; he had built it from the ground up, with no assistance from anyone else. He was becoming known and respected in this place and among these people. No one here knew or cared that he was born and raised on a bare patch of red clay in north Georgia, that his father had died with three young children in the house, and that his mother had been too poor to refuse the suit of the first man who held out the prospect of keeping a roof over their heads. images-2

He had carved his own niche out of Little Rock, and, somewhat to his own surprise, the thought of going back to the home office was losing much of the aura it once had. What did Nashville have to offer, other than more money and a bit of stability? Nashville was someone else’s domain, not his. He wondered what Addie would say if he told her he wanted to move here. He was afraid he already knew the answer, and he didn’t like to let himself think about it.

*******

Becky totaled the column of figures and made an entry in the ledger. Before reaching for another account book, she allowed her eyes to roam from the second–floor office area down the stairway and out over her father’s department store, resting them for a moment from the close work with which she had been occupied most of her morning. For a few moments she watched the sales clerks and customers milling about the counters below. It was a Monday morning, and there weren’t many shoppers in the store. For that very reason, she usually chose Mondays to get the accounts up–to–date.

I wonder what he’s doing right now, she thought, and immediately chided herself. Rebecca Norwich, you are not a schoolgirl anymore, and you know much better than to sit about mooning over some man you know as little as you know Zeb Douglas. She shook her head and took up the next batch of sales receipts. But I wonder if he ever thinks about me, her mind whispered. With an exasperated sigh, she flung down the tickets and tossed the pen onto her desk. woman

She got up from her oak swivel chair and paced the length of the office area, then back again. She wondered, not for the first time, what it was about Zeb Douglas that hung so in her mind. She hardly knew anything about him, other than his easy smile, his lovely manners, and his familiar, friendly way of speaking to her and her parents. He never talked about anything or anyone in Nashville, where he went every second or third weekend, other than vague references to “the home office.” She had no idea about his family, where he came from, or what he was like during the week at his small office near the capitol building.

But she found herself thinking of him more and more. When she came to the store, she sometimes found herself detouring needlessly by the opening of the street where the insurance office was located, more than half–hoping their paths would cross. She had almost nerved herself, once or twice, to walk into the office and pass the time of day, but so far she had managed to restrain herself from such brazen assertiveness. It was about time for Zeb Douglas to eat Sunday dinner with them again, she decided. She’d say something to Mother.

*******

George huddled as deeply as he could inside his greatcoat, trying vainly to dodge the raw north wind. It was cold, the sky was spitting snow, and he was tramping up and down the streets of Chattanooga trying to secure signatures on a letter of solicitation to Mr. Andrew Carnegie of New York, asking him to build a library in this city.

How did he allow himself to be goaded into these situations? He’d heard vague rumors of some of the society ladies forming a committee, and the next thing he knew he was being badgered by his mother into knocking on the doors of perfect strangers and asking them to endorse this fine community effort. Didn’t anyone think he had work to do? Did they think Hutto & Company ran all by itself?

Well, he was sick and tired of the whole thing, that’s all. Let somebody else get out and catch pneumonia on Mr. Carnegie’s behalf. He’d knock on one more door and then he was going home, and the Library Boosters could all go hang, which would suit him, plumb to the ground. snow.jpg

He shuffled onto the front porch of a single–story frame house and tapped gently, hoping no one was home, but the latch began turning almost before his hand had fallen to his side. George waited for the door to open, clamping his portfolio under one elbow and blowing on his hands.

“Yes?” The woman who had opened the door had a black shawl wrapped around her shoulders and was clearly not happy about standing in her doorway with such a brisk north wind blowing.

George touched the brim of his bowler. “Ma’am. I’m George Hutto, and I’m working on behalf of the Chattanooga Library Boosters—”

“Lord a’mighty! On a day like this? Well, come on in before we both freeze slap to death!”

“Yes, ma’am. Thank you.” George stepped across her threshold and removed his hat. He stood in a small foyer with a knotty pine plank floor covered by a slightly threadbare Persian rug. As he warmed up, he was able to allow his face to relax from the squint it had assumed while he was walking into the frigid blast outside. His eyes moved about the portion of the adjoining parlor that he could see until they came to rest on a huge oil painting above the fireplace mantle—a painting of a clipper ship cutting through rough waters under full sail. “Oh!” he said, the word slipping out softly without his realization.

“What? Oh, the ship. My daddy painted that years ago.”

George took a hesitant step or two toward the painting, then stopped and shook his head. “Sorry, ma’am, I didn’t come here to look at—”

“It’s all right, go ahead. It’s kind of an interesting old painting, if you like that sorta thing.”

“Well … thanks. I believe I will look at it a bit, if you don’t mind,” George said, giving a little smile to no one in particular. He paced closer to the painting and tilted his head this way and that, peering at the ship and her rigging. “I guess I’m kinda interested in old ships,” he remarked. “I build them as a hobby. Well, that is, I build models. Not real ships, of course.”

“Is that so?” George could hear her stepping quietly over to stand just behind his left shoulder. Without moving his head, he cut his eyes toward her. She was looking at the picture also, not saying anything. clipper

“Well,” he said, clearing his throat, “I guess I don’t need to take up too much more of your time.” He faced about and pulled a sheaf of papers from his portfolio. ‘‘As I said, I’m with the Library Boosters, and—”

“How many have you built? Just curious.”

He stared at her a moment. “Oh, ships!” he said after a few seconds. “Well, I don’t really know, let’s see—”

“How long does it take? To build one?”

He peered at her again. She was no longer clutching the shawl about her, but it still hung over her shoulders. Her hair was a sandy brown and pulled back into a tight, no–nonsense bun on the back of her head. Her eyes were a chestnut brown—almost black—and she wore a high–necked green linen blouse with a tightly pleated front and a heavy skirt of the same color.

“Well … about a week, usually,” he answered. ‘‘Anyway, we’re trying to get a Carnegie library built here in Chattanooga, and—”

“Would you like some hot coffee?”

Again, he wore the puzzled look of an old dog interrupted in mid-trick.

“Pardon?”

“Coffee. It’s hot, and you must be half frozen if you’ve been tramping up and down streets all morning.”

“Well … I … I suppose so. Yes, ma’am, that’d be nice.”

“May I take your coat and hat?” She held out her hands for his wraps.

George handed her his bowler and removed his greatcoat. She gestured vaguely toward a settee near the grate and then wheeled about, vanishing into another room.

George seated himself gingerly on the settee, his hands on his knees, and looked around the room. The scarcity of knick–knacks surprised him, somehow, as did the relative absence of typical feminine touches in the general decor: no doilies on the furniture, no lace on the curtains, nothing extra or added on. Everything in the room looked as if it was there for a reason.

A log settled on the grate, sending a shower of sparks up the flue. George was glad for the warmth. He squatted in front of the hearth and worked the fire with a poker. He heard her come in behind him. George turned around and moved back toward the settee just as she placed a steaming cup in its saucer on the low table in front of his place. She took a seat in an overstuffed armchair across from him.

He took a careful sip of the coffee and risked a glance at her. She was staring frankly at him, though the expression on her face was considerably more toward pleasant than it had been when he had knocked on her door. With her dark eyes, her gaze reminded him uncomfortably of a crow’s, intent and unblinking. He quickly dropped his eyes to his cup.

“You aren’t having any coffee?”

“Nope. Had my two cups already, don’t need anymore. I keep it on, though. Most of the day. Just in case.”

After another careful sip, George asked, “Does your husband work near here?”

“Widowed three years. Consumption.” crow

“Oh, I’m … I’m sorry.”

She shrugged. “Lord giveth, Lord taketh away.”

He nodded somberly.

“Least he left me well fixed,” she went on, still peering at George with those forthright, burnt–sepia eyes. “That, plus my inheritance from my family. Long as I’m careful, I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do.”

There was an awkward pause.

“Well … that’s a blessing.” George blew on his coffee.

“You told me your name, but I forgot,” she said.

“George Hutto. And I don’t guess I know your name either,” he said, feeling an odd sort of embarrassment steal over him. Here he was, sitting in the parlor and drinking the coffee of a woman whose name he didn’t even know!

“Breck. Laura Sanders Breck. My husband’s people were from Kentucky, but I’m out of the McMinnville Sanderses.”

George nodded thoughtfully, though he had never in his life met another person from McMinnville, as far as he knew.

“Lord never blessed us with children,” she said. “Couldn’t understand why, but there you go.”

She had thin lips that were almost the same color as the rest of her face. Her frame appeared to be somewhat on the spare side, although she was not so thin as to be gaunt. As she spoke, her eyes flickered here and there, always coming back to rest on his face. The rest of her stayed very still, though: her hands rested in her lap and never moved; she held her head motionless; she never changed position in the deep cushions of her chair.

George sipped politely at his coffee a few more moments, and Laura Sanders Breck watched him. He cleared his throat, placed his cup in the saucer, and gently set it on the table. “Well, Mrs. Breck, I certainly—”

“Laura.” Her crow–eyes glittered at him as she said it. Like an invitation, or a challenge.

“I certainly thank you … Laura … for the coffee and the seat by your fire,” he said. ‘‘And now, if I might have my hat and coat, I’ll be on my way.”

Without a word, she sprang from her overstuffed chair and dashed out of the room, returning seconds later with his things.

“Thank you,” he said, placing the bowler on his head and shrugging on the greatcoat. He glanced a final time at the clipper over the fireplace, studying it with a slight squint. She preceded him to the entrance, clasping the shawl about her neck with one hand and opening the front door with the other. He took a deep breath and shouldered into the cold air on the front porch. “Thank you again,” he said as he passed her. Her only reply was a quick, curt nod.

As the door closed behind him and he thumped down the front steps, he realized he had completely forgotten to ask her to sign Carnegie’s petition.

*******

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 16

November 29, 2018

Addie hadn’t heard anything from Mary Alice for some time, so she paced back through the house, trying to locate the too–quiet toddler. When Zeb had moved them into this new, larger place, she’d thought she’d enjoy the increased room, but at times like this she found herself missing the little servant’s cottage on Granny White Pike: there was less space there for a toddler to wander.

She rounded a corner into her bedroom and spied her daughter in the act of plucking one of her crystal figurines from the top of the dressing table.

“No, ma’am!” dressingtable

Mary Alice’s head wheeled about, her eyes big with guilty surprise. Addie paced quickly to her and snatched the figurine from her chubby fist with one hand, spatting the child’s hand sharply with the other.

“You are not to bother these! No, no!”

The baby’s face quickly clouded up and began to rain. Addie picked her up and marched back toward the front of the house, plopping the squalling infant down in the parlor in front of a pile of rag dolls and brightly painted toys.

“If you’d stay in here and play with your own things,” she said, “you wouldn’t get into trouble.”

Mary Alice, the very picture of wronged innocence, bawled unabated at her mother.

Addie sighed and rolled her eyes and searched beside the chair for the mail-order catalog she’d been perusing just before. She thumbed it back open to the jewelry section and began again to look at the men’s rings. She’d decided to buy Zeb a wedding ring for Christmas this year. She’d always felt a little guilty for never having procured him a band. He claimed it didn’t matter to him, but it did to her. He’d gotten her a fine, stylish gold band for their first anniversary, and she intended to have a ring for him by Christmas. She had almost enough money hidden in the pantry Mason jar to pay for the ring she’d chosen. She enjoyed looking at the picture and imagining how it would look on Zeb’s finger. She thought he’d like the ring. It was a gold band, about a quarter-inch wide, with a bead of finely inlaid silver on each border. It would look elegant on his hand, set off by his clean, crisp white cuffs and the dark suits he favored. goldband

Her eyes stayed on the pictures of the rings, but her mind wandered toward Little Rock. In the beginning, Zeb had assured her that successfully turning around the Little Rock agency was the final stepping–stone to his home office position here in Nashville, but it had been more than a year now, and he was still spending at least two weeks each month in the Arkansas capital city—sometimes, like this month, even more. From his talk of things there, it seemed the agency was doing well. She wondered why the men in the home office couldn’t be satisfied with Zeb’s work and offer him the Nashville job he said he wanted. But, on the few occasions when she’d tried to ask him about it, he’d become distant, almost annoyed. “There’s still a lot to do there, Addie,” he would assure her. “Griffs and Carleton are depending on me to leave Little Rock in good shape. I can’t just walk off—not until the job’s finished.”

There were times when Addie wondered what had changed between her and her husband. When they were courting and first married, he couldn’t seem to get enough of her presence. She smiled wistfully as she thought of some of the grand surprises he’d manufactured “for no reason,” as he sometimes said, “but to see that dimple on your right cheek.” It had seemed so easy to enjoy each other in those simpler days: a sunshiny afternoon was a good enough excuse to walk hand–in–hand up Cameron Hill; a night with a full moon carried a honey–scented enchantment that made words unnecessary; seeing the look on his face when she came down the front porch steps was like the secret opening of a longed–for gift.

When had the little joys begun to disappear? What was it about the daily friction of living together that rubbed so much of the shine off two people who thought they loved each other? And could they get it back? She hoped Zeb got that home office job real soon.

Mary Alice’s sobs had subsided to an occasional sniffle and whimper by the time Addie saw the postman walk past the front window. She laid aside the catalog and went to the door. The bright Indian summer afternoon sun was warm on her forearms as she opened the mailbox and removed the contents: a solicitation from someone running for county magistrate, a circular from a sewing notions company, and a letter addressed in a familiar hand … from Lou!

Smiling, she went quickly inside and tossed aside the other two pieces, eagerly running a finger beneath the flap of Lou’s envelope.

 

Dearest sister Addie,

I suppose you thought I dropped off the face of the earth, since

you haven’t heard from me for nearly two months now. I am some

better each day, it seems, altho there are still days when I’m not sure

I want to make the effort to keep going, but those seem to be fewer

and farther between, thank the Lord. It has now been twenty

months since my precious Katherine’s death, and tho I never

thought life could go on without her, it seems to, just the same. I

still miss her terribly, but things aren’t quite so dark anymore, somehow.

Then again, sometimes the most unexpected things will set me 

off. I might see a little girl about her size and coloring, or I might

hear a snatch of a song she used to sing. And I still can’t bear it at

church when they do “Safe in the Arms of Jesus,” like they did at

her service. Dub tries his best but he just doesn’t understand a

mother’s heart and I guess no man does, not really. He’s got to where

he doesn’t like to go out to her grave with me anymore.

Well, how are things with you? I’ll bet Mary Alice is just tearing

up Jack by now at her age and getting into everything, but just

try and remember that you’ll miss these times someday. Oh, goodness,

I better not get started that way again or before you know it

I’ll get back around to Katherine and be all down in the dumps

again. How is Zeb? Did he ever get moved back to Nashville, like

you thought he might? It’d be a shame for him not to get to be

around Mary Alice these next few months as she’ll be changing so

fast and you miss something if you’re gone for even a day, seems like.

I sure would like to see that little sweet thing, tho I know it will

make me sad. I hope we can come to Nashville before long but Dub

stays so busy down at the store and with Robert in school and all it

seems like the time just isn’t ever right.

Oh, I almost forgot to tell you that George Hutto said he was

mighty proud to hear about Mary Alice and he knew she had to be

a beautiful baby with you being her mama. I wonder how long it

took him to work up the nerve to say that much about you at one

time. He looked about like a little boy at his first recital.

Well I guess I’ve rattled on long enough and should close now.

You give that sweet baby girl a hug from her Aunt Lou and write

me back when you can. letter

Your loving sister,

Louisa C. Dawkins

 

Addie laid the letter on the table beside her and smiled into the middle distance. What she wouldn’t give to spend an afternoon in the parlor with her older sister, just talking about this and that, like two old married women.

But, of course, it wouldn’t do, not with Papa’s disapproval hanging over them like a curse. Addie noticed Lou had avoided any suggestion that she and Zeb should come to Chattanooga. They both knew it would be too hard, that Papa would be the invisible participant in every conversation. She would have to work so hard to ignore him that it was almost inevitable he would be the only thing she thought about. And Addie couldn’t imagine much good coming from that.

Mary Alice tugged at her skirt. Addie looked down and the child held up her arms. ‘‘All right, Miss, come on up,” she said, lifting the baby into her lap. Mary Alice snuggled close, the first knuckle of her fist in her mouth. Addie squeezed her gently and rubbed her cheek against the silky brown wisps on the crown of Mary Alice’s head. “Mama doesn’t like to get on to you,” she said, “but you have to learn to leave things alone, little dumplin’. Here you go,” she continued, giving her daughter a sudden squeeze. “That’s from your Aunt Lou.”

The baby giggled at the sudden movement. Addie squeezed her again, she chuckled louder, and so it went for several moments. Soon, the laughter of her little one had banished most of the trailing tatters of Addie’s hovering melancholy. She looked at the mantle clock and realized it was nearly three o’clock. “Come on, young ‘un,” she smiled at Mary Alice. “Let’s find you and me a piece of shortbread. I’m just about hungry!” Mary Alice babbled happily at her mother and clung to her shoulder as they walked toward the kitchen.

*******

Nothing was said when, after an absence of nearly three months, Rose resumed her duties at Jacob Caswell’s house. If he was surprised to find her standing on his doorstep on the July morning she returned, he gave no sign. If he was at all curious as to her whereabouts during her time away, he gave her no evidence, and he knew Rose wasn’t inclined to any unnecessary explanation. And so, with no more to–do than a slight nod from each, the two of them resumed their former arrangement.

Most of the time, Rose moved about the house as dispassionately as the shadows of clouds move across the landscape. She dusted, swept, straightened, cooked, and cleaned with the impersonal efficiency of a force of nature. Jacob, on the rare occasions when he noticed her at all, thought that sharing a room with her was about like sharing it with a piece of moving furniture. duster

But every once in a great while he would feel something brush against his awareness; a tingle on the back of his neck; an impalpable sense of being watched, or thought about, or disliked … or pitied. He would look up, and if Rose did happen to be in the room, he would generally see no more than the flicker of an eye or the slight turning of her head as she attended to whatever task engaged her. Sometimes, he would peer at her thoughtfully for some minutes. If she ever noticed his gaze, it wasn’t apparent.

One day, as Rose was setting his lunch before him, he could have sworn she spoke. “What?” he asked.

She cut her eyes at him as she placed the gravy tureen in front of him, then turned to go back toward the kitchen. “Didn’t say nothin’,” she mumbled as she ambled away from him. When she came back a few seconds later bearing a platter of freshly baked cat–head biscuits, he said, “I sure thought you said something to me.”

She shook her head as she poured his coffee.

The silence lengthened, broken only by the taps of his spoon against the sides of his cup as he stirred in his cream and sugar.

“Well, Rose, I guess I never did ask you where you went this spring. I don’t recall being asked for time off.”

“Can’t nobody remember what they ain’t been asked. I went on my own and I didn’t ask no leave. You don’t want me around no more, all you got to do is say so.”

“Now, Rose, don’t go getting touchy on me. I didn’t mean anything by it. I was just curious, is all.”

She walked back toward the kitchen, muttering under her breath. When she returned, carrying a plate of cold sliced roast beef, she was still going. She clanked the plate onto the table in front of him and turned away. As she did, he was pretty sure he made out the words, “ … ain’t got as much sense as God give a goose … “

“Rose, why don’t you just turn around here and tell me what’s on your mind?” he said. “All this grumbling and mumbling’s about to give me the indigestion, anyway. You might as well have your say, all at once, and get it over with.”

She came about to face him, her hands on her hips and her face tightly set in a scowl of disapproval. “I done been at this house for more than eight years, and every time I think you can’t get no more bullheaded and hardhearted, you up and shows me how wrong I is!”

He stared at her, mouth agape. “Rose, what in thunder are you—”

“You let that child walk outta your life with no more thought than if you was turnin’ out a stray dog! You really think you gonna make out any better on the Judgment Day than that boy she married? Or is you so busy feelin’ sorry for yourself about losing Miz Mary that you ain’t got no time to try to understand somebody else’s feelin’s?”

“Now, Rose, that’s just about enough!” he shouted, slamming his fist on the table and rattling the dinnerware. “The Good Book says, ‘Honor thy father and mother!’ She—”

“The Good Book also say, ‘He that trouble his own house shall inherit the wind!”’ she said. bible.jpg

“What about, ‘Children, obey thy parents’?”

“‘Fathers, provoke not thy childrens to wrath!”’

“I’ll not sit here and be lectured about my own children by a nigger maid!” Jacob wadded his napkin and flung it on the floor as he shoved back his chair and stood. “It’s none of your business what I do or don’t do about Addie!” he shouted, pointing an accusing finger at her. “She’s the one who left, not me. I provided her a home, and she showed her gratitude by turning her back on me—and her mother’s memory! Don’t you stand there all holier–than–thou and condemn me for following my God-given conscience. It like to killed me to see her leave like she did! Do you think she’s the only one who’s hurt over all this?”

“You be a sight better off to listen to this old nigger instead of diggin’ yourself a deeper hole than you already in! You didn’t no more know that young ‘un than if she was a stranger, but you so bound up in yourself, you couldn’t see who she was!”

She turned her head sidelong and shook it at him as she spoke, as if admonishing a wayward child.

“She ain’t in pigtails and pantaloons no more! She a grown woman, and she got to find her own way, and you got to let her! But what did you do? You good as told her your way was the only way! She your daughter in more ways than one, can’t you see that? You tell that child to jump, she naturally going to squat! You tell her to gee, she’ll haw every time! You tell her she can’t have the man she got her eye on, you just as well be tellin’ her he the only man in the world! That child didn’t leave you—you run her off, only you too blind to see it!”

Jacob glared at her. He felt his fingers curling into claws. He spun away, swaying against the edge of the table and knocking his coffee cup sideways. He stalked out of the dining room into the hallway and half ran to the front door, flung it open and was gone.

*******

Rose stood perfectly still, hands on hips, her eyes fixed on the space where he had been. Slowly, her head began to shake, and her eyes brimmed with tears.

“Sweet Jesus, help that man. He dyin’ and don’t know how to tell nobody.”

*******

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 15

November 15, 2018

Zeb stepped off the train into the midafternoon heat and bustle of Union Station in Little Rock. He set down his valise and motioned with his free hand for a nearby porter. The uniformed negro approached, trundling a hand truck in front of him. Zeb pointed at his suitcase, then handed him the valise. “Is there a hack that can take me to the Gleason Hotel?”

“Yessuh. Right this way.”

Ducking through the shouldering crowd as he followed the porter, Zeb noticed a poster advertising a traveling Chautauqua troupe. There was a show at seven o’clock that evening in the city park. He wasn’t in the mood to sit up in the room and brood. Might be good for him to get out, be in a crowd, hear some music and talk and laughter. He decided to go, after a nap, a bath, and supper. 74315afebe33b0af9ad8c99a2aa2a0e7

When the bellboy set his luggage down on the lumpy bed, Zeb dropped two half dimes into the waiting hand, tossed his hat on top of the suitcase, and stepped across the room to open the curtains. He heard the door close behind him. Zeb stood with his hands in his pockets, staring down from his third-story window onto Markham Street. Just across the way rose the dome of the state capitol building.

He wondered how Addie and the baby were doing. He hated to leave only two weeks after Mary Alice’s birth, but the days of inactivity had begun to chafe more and more. He was worried about his new agents here. A couple of them seemed like real good men, but there were others who wanted constant propping up. He couldn’t afford for the Little Rock agency to falter, now that Griffs and Carleton were beginning to take such a personal interest in his career. If he could keep things going here, it might be the next step to a home office assignment—and he had yet to reach his thirtieth birthday.

Addie had started to tear up some when he was taking his leave. She’d been standing in the front door, holding the baby in her arms.

“Well,” he’d said, looking away, “I guess if I wanna catch my train, I better get going.” The hack was standing in the street, the driver staring fixedly over his horse’s rump.

“Yeah,” she said, or he’d thought she said. Her voice was soft and airy. Her chin was dimpling, as if she were trying to hold it still.

He’d leaned over and kissed Mary Alice on the forehead, then did the same to Addie. He turned and walked away, toward the hack.

“I’ll write as soon as I get there,” he’d called over his shoulder, afraid to look at her, afraid she’d burst into tears in front of the hack driver. He’d thrown his bags into the cab, and the driver clicked his tongue, and he was away, wishing he could ignore the dull ache in his throat.

But he was feeling better now, thinking about all that needed to be done here, all the opportunity waiting for him. It was his responsibility to make a good life for his family. It was his God-given duty, if it came to that, and he was determined to make the most of this chance. Addie would understand. When he had a home office job in Nashville, he’d buy her a nice, roomy house with a big nursery for Mary Alice. He’d be home every night, and they would have nice things—the kinds of things his mother had never had.

He felt a heaviness around his eyes and remembered he’d promised himself a nap. He loosened his cravat and unbuttoned his collar. Setting his luggage on the faded carpet, he stretched out on the single bed with his hands behind his head and closed his eyes.

After tossing and turning for quite a while, Zeb finally accepted his failure at the attempt to actually sleep. He sat up, rubbing his face, and realized the shadows in the room told him dusk was approaching. No time to bathe now if he wanted to get something to eat and get to the Chautauqua show on time. He ran a hand through his hair and straightened his collar and tie. Giving himself a final once-over in the streaked mirror on the opposite wall, he walked out, locking the door behind him and pocketing the skeleton key.13276554a106be32740c2ad6b8276f71

By the time he arrived at the park, a crowd was already pooling under the tent. A brass band was thumping out some march or other; the muffling of the tent and the crowd made the tune indistinct. Zeb hurried up and snagged one of the last rickety wooden chairs on the end of the back row just as the band collided with the final note of the march. The crowd applauded politely, and a large, pot-bellied man with luxuriant sideburns and a florid complexion mounted the steps to the podium and approached the lectern.

Slowly and dramatically, he unbuttoned his coat to reveal a brocaded waistcoat. He took a deep breath and looked at the audience. “I shall perform Antony’s funeral oration from Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare,” he announced in a booming bass voice. He gripped the sides of the lectern and gazed out over the heads of the crowd. Taking three paces away from the lectern, he raised his right hand in a graceful, beckoning gesture.

“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears! I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him …”

There was a slight disturbance by Zeb’s elbow, and he glanced up to see an older man and a young woman standing beside him. The man pointed at the two empty seats to Zeb’s left and asked with his eyebrows if they were taken. Zeb shook his head and stood to let them pass. The man entered first, followed by the woman. They settled themselves, and Zeb resumed his seat.

“… The noble Brutus hath told you Caesar was ambitious; if it were so, it was a grievous fault …”

From the corner of his eye, Zeb saw the woman pull a fan from her handbag. The short, soft drafts bore the scent of her perfume: lilac. In an instant, he was carried back to a moonlit promenade beside the pond in East Lake Park, in Chattanooga. Addie always wore lilac perfume in those days, and the smell made him long for her with a sudden, bodily ache.

“… ambition should be made of sterner stuff …”

She had seemed like an angel to him in those days; her every movement had enchanted him, had hinted at secrets, suggested the possibility of delightful discoveries. He could look at her for hours on end and never grow tired. She dispensed happiness to him, simply by being in his presence. He thought he could never again lack for anything if only he might have her.

And then he had won her. Over Jacob Caswell’s disapproval and the entangling ties of her Methodist upbringing, he had won her. He, the outsider, the poor boy from the hardscrabble farm in north Georgia. The one with the ambition and the drive and the determination—he had won her. And for a time, the sweetness of his life had been everything her enchantment had intimated. She was like the magic pan of gingerbread in the fairy tale; each day he fed on her love until he was satisfied; and the next morning she was still there, fully as beautiful and charming and delightful as the day before.

When had he first noticed the fading of the sweetness? Was it something he had done that had broken the spell? How had he failed her? He had been a faithful husband and a diligent provider. He didn’t run with the drinking crowd, didn’t gamble or carouse. He had based every decision on what he believed to be best for them in the long run. He didn’t like all the moving around and traveling, but what else could he do? This was his opportunity—their opportunity.

He thought of her face in the moonlight of East Lake Park, then remembered the drained, resigned, suffering expression she’d worn yesterday as he walked out the front gate. Where had he gone wrong?

“… O judgment! Thou art fled to brutish beasts, and men have lost their reason …”

The woman beside him stopped fanning for a moment, leaned over and whispered something to the older man. Zeb heard their chuckles mingle softly. He cut his eyes to the left without moving his head. She was well dressed, and he could see strands of blonde peeking from beneath her lace bonnet. She bore a slight resemblance to her companion, and Zeb wondered if she might be his daughter. She was fair-complexioned, but there was a sprinkling of faint freckles across the bridge of her nose. She resumed fanning, and Zeb returned his eyes to the podium. 05dd87b9baa1c7ae95447287a6b7dbc4

After the orator, there was a handbell choir, and after that, a male quartet dressed in wooden shoes and knee breeches and singing in Dutch. Then a man made up like Abe Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address, and a woman dressed as the Statue of Liberty recited “The New Colossus,” by Emma Lazarus. Finally, the pot-bellied Antony came back and gave a long-winded, stentorian benediction, and the program was officially over.

Zeb stood and tried to work the kinks out of his legs. He turned to go, and felt a hand on his arm.

“Thank you for saving the seats for us,” said the young woman, smiling playfully. “I told Daddy we’d be so late we’d have to stand, and if it hadn’t been for you, we would have.”

The man stuck out a hand. “Pete Norwich.”

Zeb shook his hand firmly. “Zeb Douglas. Pleased to meet you.”

“Yes, indeed. And this is my daughter, Rebecca. She drags me to these cotton-pickin’ cultural sessions, whether I want to come or not.” Zeb chuckled with them and took her proffered fingers gently. “Pleased to meet you, Ma’am.”

“It’s ‘Miss,’” she corrected him, “and the pleasure is mutual.”

He looked at her a trifle longer than was strictly necessary. “Well, folks, I’d best be getting back,” he said. He touched the brim of his hat and walked away toward the park entrance. He decided to write a letter to Addie just as soon as he reached his room.

*******

Rose deftly slid the diaper under Mary Alice’s tiny, elevated behind and gently lowered her onto it. She folded and tucked it around the baby’s waist and legs and fastened it with safety pins. “There you go, Missy. I reckon that’ll hold you for awhile, at least.” She rearranged the little white Alençon lace gown and carefully picked up the child, bringing her to her ample bosom. Humming a tune under her breath, she paced slowly toward the parlor, bouncing the baby in a soothing, easy motion.

“Do you really have to go back?” Addie asked. Her expression was wistful as she sat in the cane-bottomed rocker and watched Rose with her daughter.

“Mmm-hmm. ‘Fraid so, Missy. I done wore out my welcome at Freeman’s place, and you ain’t got room for me here.”

“When does your train leave?” lacedress

“In the mornin’, ‘bout eight.”

“I’ll miss you, Rose. You’ve been so good for me—and for Mary Alice.”

“Well, you gettin’ stronger now. You can manage just fine by yourself, I imagine. I’m a old woman, and I been gone from my own place just about as long as I can stand.” Rose eased herself into the overstuffed chair, still gently bouncing the baby and humming softly.

Addie leaned her head back and closed her eyes, rocking slowly and listening to the husky half-whisper of Rose’s voice.

“What’s that song you’re singing?”

Rose increased the volume just enough for Addie to make out the words.

Come and go with me, to my father’s house,

to my father’s house;

Come and go with me, to my father’s house,

to my father’s house.

There’ll be no dying there,

There’ll be no crying there,

No sorrow there, in my father’s house,

in my father’s house.

There was barely enough contour in the tune for it to be called a melody; it was more like a chant. Nudged along by Rose’s voice, it rolled forward and forward, the words barely changing from verse to verse, hypnotic and comforting as the well-worn creases in Rose’s hands.

All will be well in my father’s house, in my father’s house …

The slight creaking of the rocker made a sort of plaintive counterpoint to Rose’s soft singing. Addie felt her mind bobbing aimlessly along the slow, thick current of the tune, whirling lazily in the eddy of the refrain.

In my father’s house, in my father’s house …

Addie thought about her father, imagined him sitting alone in his red leather chair in the parlor, sequestered behind the Chattanooga Times. She wondered if he even knew about her baby; he hadn’t written or sent any word since her marriage. She thought about the things he had said to her when Zeb proposed. Addie questioned whether he still considered her part of the family. In her worst moments, she doubted it. But sometimes, she held out some small hope that Papa would relent, would see that she was still his daughter, no matter what church she attended on Sundays.

Mary Alice’s eyelids fluttered a final time, then closed. Rose peered at her a moment, then eased herself out of the chair and padded to the bedroom. A moment later, she came back into the parlor, having deposited the sleeping baby in her crib. Cradle

“Rose, you never did tell me how you talked Papa into letting you come here to help me.”

Rose glanced at her, then seated herself heavily in the chair. “Slave days is over, honey,” she said, looking down as she arranged her skirts. “Don’t reckon I need your daddy’s say-so to come to Nashville if I got a mind to.”

“Then he didn’t send you to me,” Addie said in a sinking voice. She’d known all along, really, but she’d beguiled herself with the faint hope that Papa had at least given grudging permission for Rose to come and help his daughter in her time of need.

Rose studied her a moment, then looked out the window. “Honey, your daddy done changed when your mama died. I seen death do that to folks—make ‘em hard inside, make ‘em forget how to love them that’s left.”

“I wish Papa could at least try to understand how I feel,” Addie said softly.

“I wish he could, too, honey,” Rose replied. “But sometimes, when somebody hurting—even somebody who love you, deep down—they can’t see nothin’ but they own hurt. It ain’t right, and it ain’t fair, but there it is anyway.”

Several silent moments passed; the mantle clock ticked sedately. Addie’s rocking slowed, then stopped. She crossed her hands on her lap and stared out at Granny White Pike. “I wish Zeb could come home this weekend.”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“He works so hard, Rose. Sometimes … sometimes I worry about him.”

Rose said nothing.

*******

Zeb peered again at the piece of paper in his hand. “Eleven-oh-seven Ninth Street,” he said aloud. He looked around him, scratching his head, until he spied a knot of people walking up the steps of a small rock building in the middle of the block. “Must be it,” he muttered, and stepped quickly toward them.

It was Sunday morning, and he had really intended to go home this weekend, but at the last minute, one of his agents had requested his help to close an important sale. They hadn’t been able to see their prospect until late yesterday afternoon, long after the last convenient train to Memphis had pulled out from the station.

He had been meaning for some time to try to locate the local congregation of the church, but today was the first time he had been able to find the meeting place. Two or three days earlier, he had been idly thumbing through the newspaper and noticed a small advertisement for a “gospel meeting” to commence the next Sunday morning. The evangelist was some Texas fellow Zeb had never heard of, but the way his name was printed in large, bold letters, he figured to be really something. flyer

Zeb mounted the steps to the building and entered the small, cramped vestibule. It appeared the church house was packed to the limit. Evidently the Texas preacher commanded quite a following in these parts. He spotted a vacant place on the last pew, against the wall, and immediately made for it. A bonneted woman was seated next to the open place. Zeb touched her shoulder. “Scuse me, ma’am, but are you saving this for anybody?”

She turned to him, and the first thing he noticed was her good-natured smile. The second thing he noticed was the spray of freckles across the bridge of her nose, and the third thing he noticed was the lock of golden hair that fell from beneath her bonnet to the middle of her forehead. “Well, I guess I get to return the favor, Mr. Douglas. But, it’s ‘Miss,’ remember?”

“Yes, Miss Norwich. I won’t make that mistake again.”

“Fine. Then I guess you can have a seat.”

*******

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.