Posts Tagged ‘Chattanooga’

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.

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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

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 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

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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 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

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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 7

November 10, 2017

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

Caswell huddled into himself for a spell.

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

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

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

Caswell sat with his arms crossed on his chest.

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

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

 

“Dan, I didn’t come here to—”

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

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

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

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

Will

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

 

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

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

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

“I hired a lawyer, not a friend.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“George, honey? That you?”

“Yes, ma’am. I’m going back now. “

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Civil War Soldier

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What brings you boys down here today?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George peered at the top of his desk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks for talking to us, anyway.”

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

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

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

*******

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

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 6

November 3, 2017

May 28, 1899

My Dearest Zeb,

I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me for seeming so cruel in dismissing you last month. I assure you it was not done with malice or without extreme soul-searching on my part. Since then, I have shed many tears and spent much time in prayer. Zeb, I have decided that we should marry without further delay, if you still will have me. I do not think that we should wait until the announced date in June as I am not sure my nerves can withstand the tension of the weeks involved. I hope you will not think me immodest or forward in this. I realize this may rush things a bit, but I truly believe it will be best to have the entire business done at the earliest opportunity.

Awaiting your quick reply, I amLove Letter

Your own,

Adelaide M Caswell

*******

The window squeaked against its track. Addie winced. Slowly, with many glances over her shoulder, she raised it as high as it would go. A cool puff of night air brushed against her cheek, and the insects’ chorus trebled in volume. She hoisted her carpetbag to the sill and eased it out onto the roof of the front porch. Moving as stealthily as her skirts would allow, she climbed through the window and onto the shake-shingled roof. She turned around to close her window, then changed her mind. Let them find it open. They’ll know soon enough anyway.

She looked around. The stillness and the moonlight turned the home place into an old-fashioned daguerreotype, frozen in place for this silent moment, for her eyes only. Something to be looked at. To stand outside of.

Moving out to the edge of the roof, she reached cautiously around the corner of the house and felt her fingers slide over Papa’s fifteen-foot ladder. Normally the ladder stayed farther along the side of the house, but she had been inching it toward the front porch over the past several days. She dragged the ladder to her, careful not to allow it to bump the side of the house. She dropped the carpetbag over the side of the porch roof. It thumped into the thick bluegrass of the side yard. She held her breath, waiting for one of the dogs to bark, or for the front door to open below her. After maybe a minute, she swung herself onto the ladder.

Reaching the ground, she gripped the handle of the carpetbag and set off toward the hill behind the house. There was a three-quarter moon, plenty of light for her to find the path that led over the shoulder of the hill and down toward the river road. As the carpetbag’s weight dragged at her shoulder, she half-regretted telling Zeb she’d meet him by the old abandoned springhouse on the river road. This was the only way, though. If Zeb had tried to slip up close to the house, the dogs would’ve raised Cain.

“Kinda late for a stroll, ain’t it?”

The voice came from just inside the tree line, ahead and to her left. A figure stepped out into the moonlight.

It was Papa.

She stopped, her body ramrod-stiff. Her fist gripped the handle of the carpetbag so tightly that her fingernails dug into her palms.

“I expect you’re going to meet your fella,” he said. Her tongue seemed locked behind her teeth. Finally, she nodded her head.

He snorted, shoving his hands into his pockets. He looked away from her.

“How’d you know?”

“Ladders don’t walk down the wall by themselves,” he said without looking at her.

A long hush grew stale and heavy between them.

“I’m glad your mama didn’t live to see this happen,” he said. His voice sounded strange.

“Papa, that’s not fair,” she said, barely controlling her voice. “What Mama asked me to do—it was too much.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I did my best, Papa, but you—” She swayed with the effort of holding in the sob that needed to be released. “I did my best to take care of you, but you— You didn’t want to be taken care of. You didn’t want to understand or listen.”

“Addie, I don’t know what you’re—”

“I’ve got to make my own way now, Papa,” she said through clenched teeth. “I can’t live your life anymore, nor Mama’s. I’ve got to live my own now. Try to see that. Try to understand.”

They stared at each other for a moment that lasted forever. And then she walked past him, toward the hillside.

“Addie, I hope you understand what’s going to happen.”

“You do what you think is best, Papa,” she said without turning around or breaking her stride. “And I’ll do the same.” Squaring her shoulders, she strode into the shadows beneath the trees.

*******

Jacob watched her go until the trees hid her from him. Then he crumpled to his knees and held his face in his hands.

*******

Zeb was waiting at the agreed place. He beamed at her as she came out of the trees, and she did her best imitation of happiness as she lifted the carpetbag up to him. She didn’t start crying until the buggy was moving down the road toward Chattanooga.

“What’s the matter, honey?” Zeb asked. He pulled up the horse and turned toward her.

“Papa,” she said through her sobs. “He caught me leaving.”

“Addie, did he hurt you?”

She shook her head. “He didn’t try to stop me. It’s just hard, Zeb. It’s real hard.”

He placed his hands on her shoulders. ‘‘Addie, look at me. Honey, look at me. I’m going to take care of you now. You aren’t in your father’s house anymore. You’re going to be my wife, and I’m going to do right by you. You hear me?”

After a second or two, she nodded her head.

“All right, then. I want you to dry those eyes and stop worrying. It’s gonna be all right, honey. Do you believe me?”

Another pause, and then she nodded.Eloping

“You sure you believe me?”

She nodded again, sooner this time.

“All right. Then how about a smile. Just a little one, huh?” He chucked her lightly under the chin. At last he coaxed a quavering half-smile from her. “There you go. Now you just sit back and let’s get into town and find the preacher, all right?”

They drove into town to the house of a minister that Zeb knew. Addie would have preferred that ]. D. Carson perform the ceremony since she at least knew him slightly, but it was seven or eight miles to his place over by Harrison.

Though the man was about to retire for the evening, he agreed to perform the ceremony. His wife witnessed. The impromptu wedding party gathered in the small parlor of the minister’s house, the minister’s four nightgowned children ranging big-eyed in the background, and Zeb and Addie were joined in matrimony.

With Zeb’s first kiss still moist on her lips, she turned to the minister and said, “Now I need another favor. I want you to baptize me.”

The man stared at her, at Zeb, then at his wife.

“Well, Arliss,” his wife said, “didn’t you hear the young woman?”

“Of course I heard her, Mother,” he said. “But I don’t know anything about this … situation.” He looked at Zeb. “Does she understand what she’s doing?”

Zeb looked at Addie, and his smile was as wide as she’d ever seen. But as he opened his mouth to answer the preacher, Addie said, “Yes, sir, I believe I do. I’d like to be baptized. Tonight.”

Half an hour later, Zeb was holding aloft a coal-oil lamp and watching with the minister’s wife as Addie and the minister stepped gingerly into the waters of the Tennessee River below the Walnut Street bridge. Addie was wearing an old shift that the minister’s wife had found in a trunk.

River at Night

Addie stared at the blackness of the water and tried not to shiver as it rose higher and higher up her legs; stared at it, trying to read some message there. But it was only water, and it was night. The lamp Zeb held aloft glimmered and rippled on the surface, and it seemed to her that its faint light only darkened the unseen. It was only water. But she was here now, and it was too far back to the bank. Much too far.

They waded out until the waters reached to their waists, and the minister turned toward Addie. He murmured a few instructions. He placed one hand on her shoulder.

“Addie, do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he died for your sins and rose on the third day to ascend to the right hand of God?”

“Yes, I do.”

He raised his other hand. “Then, because of your confession of faith, I now baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, for the remission of your sins and that you might receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” He placed one hand between Addie’s shoulder blades and cupped the other over her hands, covering her face. He tilted her backwards into the dark, swirling water and then raised her up again. She gasped as she came out of the water, then began wiping the water and hair out of her face. She felt the minister take her arm. He led her back toward the bank.

Zeb handed the lamp to the minister’s wife and stepped into the water to meet her.

“Zeb! Your boots!”

“Never mind about that.” He took her into his arms.

Some moments later, after hugs and smiles all around, they climbed into the minister’s buggy. Addie was wrapped in the towels they had brought.

“Where will you go?” the minister’s wife asked.

Addie looked at Zeb. She just now realized that she hadn’t given the first thought to where they’d spend their first night as man and wife.

“Well, I believe we’ll go spend a little time in Nashville,” Zeb said after a few seconds. “Then, I guess we’ll go back to Murfreesboro. I’m in the insurance business there.” Zeb fished a business card out of his vest pocket and handed it to the minister’s wife.

“Well,” she said, beaming at them, “it’s a fine way to begin your lives together—with a new birth into Christ! I’m so happy and proud for you both.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Zeb said. He grinned from ear to ear as he pulled Addie closer to him.

There was no train out of Chattanooga until morning. Addie knew they’d have to stay in a hotel, but she was surprised when Zeb pulled up in front of the gleaming, just-completed Patten. The yellow glow from the lobby’s electric lights gave her a feeling of comfort as Zeb helped her down from the buggy.

They went inside. Addie was at once taken aback and thrilled to hear Zeb casually inform the desk clerk that he needed a room for the night for Mr. and Mrs. Z. A. Douglas.

She tried the name in her mind. Mrs. Zebediah Douglas. Addie Douglas. Adelaide Caswell Douglas. She smiled, savoring the newness, the adventure of it. The bellboy came and collected their bags, and the clerk handed Zeb a gleaming brass skeleton key. “Room two-twelve,” he said. “Top of the stairs and halfway down the hall to your left.”

*******key

Addie stirred and woke. There was a momentary sense of dislocation as she stared at the unfamiliar ceiling. A movement in the bed caused her to turn her head and see Zeb’s back and shoulders, still rising and falling in sleep.

For a few seconds everything seemed unreal, off-kilter. What am I doing here? Am I really supposed to be in bed with Zeb, really supposed to be married? Is this my real life? How can I manage this?

But then, as she lay still and allowed her waking to reorient her, she knew with a warm certainty that this was real, was her life; that Zeb was her husband—and that everything was just as it should be.

The wedding night was a rush of images and sensations—unfamiliar, anticipated, splendid, and dreaded, all at once. Louisa had told her some things, of course, and hinted at others. But she was still nervous about being alone with Zeb, her ignorance of what was expected of her.

But Zeb was so gentle, so loving. As his arms enfolded her and his lips pressed against her face, her hair, her neck, she found hersdf worrying less about what should happen next than savoring what was happening now. Something bloomed inside her, responded with a warm uncoiling to Zeb’s tender urgency. She knew, as they clung to each other, that she would give willingly whatever was required to sustain this timeless moment, this sudden need, this enfolding nowness.

There was pain, for which she was not quite prepared. But she almost laughed at the dismay on Zeb’s face when she cried out. He was consoling almost to the point of silliness. “It’s all right, honey,” she said, gentling his concern with her voice, her arms, her hands. “I think it’ll be better now.” And it was.

Now, watching him sleep, she smiled at the memories. So many changes, so many things she had learned in the space of two weeks. She felt wise now, miles and ages away from the girl who hiked over the hill with her carpetbag in her hand. How could life come so far, so fast?

Zeb snorted and jerked. She reached over and patted his shoulder. He rolled over to face her.

“Good morning, Mrs. Douglas.” He smiled, his eyes still half-lidded with sleep.

“Morning, sir. About time you woke up, I guess.”

He raised himself on one elbow and looked at her.

“What? What’s the matter?” she asked.

“Nothing. Nothing at all.” He leaned over and kissed her on the forehead.

‘‘I’m just thinking about how lucky I am, that’s all.”

She felt her face go warm. “Oh, Zeb. You better go on and get ready for work.”

He placed his palm on her cheek and turned her face toward his.

“Zeb, what are you doing? You’ll be late for work. Zeb, this isn’t exactly the time—”

But it was, all the same.

Later, she sat in front of the mirror, basking in the afterglow as she brushed out her hair and listened to Zeb in the next room, whistling as he worked at his cravat.

“Zeb?”

“Yes, ma’ am?”

“Do you think we might find us a little house to let? The folks here at the boarding house are nice and all, but … I guess I’m not used to so many people living all around me.”

He came into the room, a thoughtful look on his face. “Well, now, Mrs. Douglas, I don’t guess I’d thought about that. Not since last night on my way home, when I signed the papers on the cutest little bungalow you ever saw, just about three streets over.”

“Zeb! Did you really find a place?”Victorian home

A slow grin spread across his lips as he nodded.

It crossed her mind that she’d like to have seen the house before they were obligated. She hushed the thought and reached out to grab his hand. “You do beat all, Mr. Douglas! You sure do beat all!”

He held her hand a moment more, then went back into the next room.

“Better finish up, honey,” he said. “It’s almost seven o’clock. If we don’t hurry up and get downstairs to the dining room, the grits’ll all be gone.”

*******

Jacob Caswell trudged up the steps and into the offices of Haynes and Sutherland, Attorneys-at-Law. A clerk seated near the front door stood from behind his oak roll top desk and extended a hand. “Good morning,

Mr. Caswell! How can we—”

“Dan here today?”

“Uh—yes, sir, I believe so. Did you have an app—”

“Tell him Caswell’s here and I need to see him right away.”

The clerk excused himself and went through the low swinging gate in the banister that divided the front area from the lawyer’s offices. Jacob heard the quiet knock, heard the creak of hinges, heard the low murmuring. He started walking toward the swinging gate while the clerk was still turning around to invite him in. He marched into Dan Sutherland’s office and pulled the door shut behind him.

Dan Sutherland had just seated himself behind his massive mahogany desk when Jacob came in.

“Morning, Jacob. Nice to see you in such a good mood.”

“I don’t have time for your folderol today, Dan. I got something on my mind to do, and I want it done proper and quick.”

Dan leaned forward in his chair as Jacob thumped into one of the chairs across the desk.

“Well, I can see you’re in a hurry, Jacob, so why don’t you just give me a quick once-over?”

Jacob reached into his inside coat pocket and produced a set of papers about a quarter–inch in thickness. He slapped the sheaf onto the inset leather pad atop Dan’s desk. “That’s a copy of the will you drew up for me after Mary died,” he said, thumping the papers with his index finger. “I want it changed. Now.”Will

*******

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

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 5

October 23, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

images-2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

“Hello? Who’s there?”

“Addie? Is that you?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Sometime this afternoon, if you can.”

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You spoken to Zeb since last time?”

Addie shook her head.

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

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

“How much is this a yard?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lou! That almost sounds—blasphemous!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

*******

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

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 4

October 1, 2017

The spanking two-wheeled sulky and neat-stepping bay were costing Zeb more than he cared to admit, but this weekend he wanted to cut the best figure he could.

Zeb figured Addie’s father was doing everything he could to throw a wet blanket on their marriage. Surely Jacob Caswell wouldn’t disinherit his daughter for marrying outside the Methodist church. But lately Addie’s letters had dwelled more and more on his opposition. Zeb wondered if she was trying to let him down easy. Or maybe there was another reason.

George Hutto, for example. Did he think Zeb didn’t notice the way his eyes lingered on Addie when they met in the street? And George Hutto was here in Chattanooga, while Zeb was in Murfreesboro, trying to improve his lot in life—and Addie’s. George Hutto would solve Addie’s problems in neat fashion: the family was Methodist, and old Deacon Hutto had held onto the money he’d made. Unlike most of the leading citizens of Hamilton County, he’d avoided wild speculation during the panic of ‘93. Zeb had tried more than once to get an appointment with Old Man Hutto to discuss financial matters but was always bluntly rebuffed.

Zeb pulled up in the yard of Post Oak Hollow Church. The thrushes and blue jays were holding their own noisy prayer meeting in the greening branches of the surrounding trees. He stepped down from the sulky and looped the reins over the hitching post, then turned to hand Addie down. He gave her his best smile. Her gaze slid across him without so much as a howdy.images

*******

Addie rested her hand on Zeb’s arm as they walked toward the church door. He was working too hard at his good mood, and it made her nervous and aggravated at the same time. Why couldn’t he just let her be? Since when did a person have to grin every time somebody else wanted her to?

The fact was, she was getting scared. She still honestly believed she loved Zeb, and when she was with him, things seemed to be the same as always. But it was so hard to remember that during the long weeks when he was in Murfreesboro and she was here. On the other hand, Papa’s disapproval was every day. The silent drag pulled at her like a trotline weight. Would Zeb stand up to everyday life? Till death do us part is a long time, she told herself as they went up the steps into the meeting house.

“Brother Zeb, good to see you!” said the toothy deacon at the door.

“Say, could I get you to lead a prayer for us today?”

They found a seat just before the service started. Old Brother Houser stepped to the front. The congregation quieted amid the rustle and thump of hymnals grabbed from the racks on the backs of the pews. “Let’s all get a song book and turn to number one–oh–five,” he announced. He hummed to himself to get the starting pitch.

Have you been to Jesus for the cleansing pow’r?

Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

Are you fully trusting in his grace this hour?

Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

hymnal

Brother Houser led out in his raspy warble, waving his right hand in the air to keep the time. The congregation chimed in by degrees.

Addie felt nervous, as if she could see and hear too much. The man seated behind her sang in a booming bass, almost on key. She could smell his tobacco-tinted breath, hear him belt out the words of the chorus.

Are you washed in the blood?

 In the soul-cleansing blood of the Lamb?

Are your garments spotless,

 Are they white as snow?

 Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

She tried to concentrate on the words of the hymn, but she found her thoughts drifting toward the unseen man behind her. In her mind’s eye, she constructed a vision that resembled Perlie Overby, with his stained, ragged clothing, his bushy beard, and his rough-hewn courtliness. As far as she knew, neither Perlie nor his family had ever darkened the doorway of any church. But the man sounded like Perlie Overby would, if Perlie were singing this hymn. Except maybe this man was a little closer to the tune.

Addie thought about the pitiful way Perlie and his family lived. And about the tender way he held his infant son, how he had crooned to him in his unmelodious voice. About the way the older children had gathered to him.

Addie realized her heart was pounding in double time. Why was she so restless today? She felt like one of the squirming children, impatient to be somewhere else, anywhere else. On the outside she was still, but inwardly she was fretting and hot and distracted.

A middle-aged man walked toward the front to lead the congregation in prayer. Dink Gilliam—he had a blacksmith shop and livery on the eastern edge of Chattanooga, just down the street from her father’s store. Dink was a square-cut slab of a man with a thick neck bulging over the restraint of the buttoned white collar of his Sunday shirt. As he reached the pulpit and prepared to launch into his prayer, Addie could see the dirt between the split calluses on his fingers. He had a ruddy face and a wide-lipped mouth. “Let us pray,” he said, ducking his head as if he was dodging something.

“Our father which art in heaven, we thank thee for this day, when we can come together to worship thee in spirit and in truth. We pray that thou’d bless us as we gather, and that all that’s done here’d be pleasing and acceptable to thee … “

A little boy on the second row from the front began to fidget and fuss, but if Dink heard, his only sign was to raise his voice and plow ahead. “Lord, we’d ask thee to bless the sick and afflicted wherever they may be, especially those of our number, that they might soon be returned to their muchly wanted health, if it be thy will, and if not, thy will be done in all things …“

The man behind her shifted in his seat and the pew creaked. Some man in the back of the church cleared his throat.

“Lord, we’d pray thy blessin’s on Brother J. D. as he breaks unto us the bread of life. We’d ask that thou grant him a happy recollection of the things he’s learned, and that we might take it into our hearts and apply it to our lives … “

A mud dauber wasp hummed through one of the open windows and buzzed among the open rafters.

“Lord, be with us now through the rest of this service and the rest of the day. We ask all these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.”

“Amen,” chorused several of the men seated about her. Dink, looking relieved, made his way back to his seat, and Brother Houser returned to the front. “Number twenty-three,” he said.inside

Sing them over again to me,

 Wonderful words of life;

 Let me more of their beauty see,

 Wonderful words of life …

 

The hymn concluded and J. D. Carson stood from the front row and took his place behind the pulpit. He had a shock of unruly brown hair, trimmed close on the sides of his head but blossoming in profusion everywhere else. His farmer’s hands were rough and nicked, and his face was a weathered brown up to a line that ran just above his eyebrows. Above that, his forehead was stark white. His wife and two young daughters sat on the right-hand front pew.

“Brethren, it’s good to be with you on this Lord’s Day morning,” he said. He flipped through the pages of his Bible to locate his text for the day. “I’m especially glad to see Sister Hawkins able to be back with us after her long sickness.” He smiled and nodded toward an older woman seated in the second row on the aisle. Sister Hawkins gave a little cough into a crumpled handkerchief.

“This morning, brethren, I want to talk about last words. Some of you know what it means to say good-bye to a mother or a father. Some of you know about saying good-bye to a husband or a wife. And if you’ve ever said that final good-bye to someone like that, you know you’ll always remember the last words that loved one spoke to you while they were here on this earth.

“Last words are something that can’t ever be forgot, brethren, because they’re the most important words we’ll ever hear. They’re important because of the person speaking ‘em. They’re important because of what that person means to us. And they’re important because they’re what stays with us. They’re what we remember.

“Well, there’s lots of last words in the Bible. This morning, I want to look at a few of those last words, and let’s see what we can learn from ‘em that might help us live more like the Lord wants us to … ”

*******

Addie’s vision drifted in the empty air just above the preacher’s head. She was remembering the last hours of her mother. Mama had languished for months as the cancer gnawed at her vitals. There was nothing Dr. Phipps could do for her but gradually increase the dosage of morphine. One day in summer, Mama sent for her. Addie could still see the brilliant June sky as it had appeared through the window of Mama’s room, could still hear the fluting of the mockingbirds and cardinals in the trees outside.

But the warmth and gaiety of summer halted at Mama’s windowpane. Her sickness dimmed the sunlight to a dull haze as it came inside. Mama lay propped up against the headboard of her bed, a dried-out husk. Every so often a spasm took her and her eyes would squint with the pain. Her hair hung dank and limp. Her eyes were dulled by the torture of the disease and the drugs that sometimes held the misery at bay. Addie went to her bedside and took her hand. Mama opened her eyes and looked at her for a long time before saying anything.window

“Addie, honey. Pull my curtains for me, would you, darling? The light hurts my eyes.” Her voice was a gray glimmer of what it had once been.

“Yes, Mama.”

“Sweetheart,” Mama said, “I want you to know how much I love you.”

“Yes, ma’am. I love you, too, Mama.”

Mama had patted her hand—once, twice. Her palm felt pasty and insubstantial. Addie wanted to cry, but Mama was trying to say something else. Addie leaned closer to catch the whisper.

“Addie …  take care of your papa. He’ll need you more than ever when I’m … gone.”

It hadn’t occurred to Addie to question Mama’s words. Or perhaps she had been too grieved to take issue, to make the weary, obligatory protest against her mother’s assessment.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Mama died that night, during the wee hours. Addie was thirteen. She could still feel the knot of anguish she carried in her chest for months and months afterward. If she hadn’t had Rose’s ample lap to cry into, she probably couldn’t have survived at all. The colored maid seemed to know when Addie was longing most for her mother. Addie could still feel Rose’s warm, dry hand gathering and sifting her hair, rubbing along the back of her neck, patting her shoulders.

“Hush, now, baby,” Rose said. “Your mama with Jesus, honey. You can make it. It just take time, baby. It just take time.”

Addie could still smell the starch in Rose’s apron, could still remember its feel against her cheek as she wet it with her tears.

She tried to remember a time when she had been able to share her grief with Papa, but there was nothing to remember.

Take care of your papa … Last words. Impossible words.

*******

J. D. Carson held his open Bible aloft. “So when Joshua had all the people of Israel gathered together, he gave them a speech. And what did he say? He said this, brethren: ‘Choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord’—Joshua twenty-four and verse fifteen.”

J. D. lowered his Bible. “Mighty strong words, brethren, and a question that still bears asking: ‘Choose you this day whom ye will serve.’ Think about it. Who are you gonna serve? God? Or something else?”

*******

Zeb nodded, his eyes fastened on J. D. He hoped Addie was listening. J. D. was a little rough around the edges, but he was sincere, and Zeb knew where he was headed with this first point. Addie needed to decide if she was going to continue to serve her family’s traditions or follow the truth of the Bible as he’d tried to lay it out for her. He tried hard to be patient with her, tried not to force too much on her at once. But often he despaired of ever winning her completely from the domination of her father’s sectarian attitude.

Sometimes he wondered why it was so hard for people to agree on what the Bible said about things that seemed so plain. As a boy, he’d assumed it was just because folks hadn’t had the opportunity to hear the truth. But now, he knew that some people were just too attached to their own traditions to turn loose, even when they’d had the chance to listen to correct doctrine being taught.

He remembered once, when he was a boy, being at the feed store with Daddy on a Saturday morning in midwinter. It was a year or two before Daddy died, he remembered. A bunch of men were gathered around the stove, and Zeb was eyeing the horehound candy in a jar on the counter. The men were talking low and lazy. Then, for whatever reason, the subject of religion came up.

“By the way, Gus,” one of them said to Daddy, “ain’t you one a them Campbellites? Outfit that believes you’re the only ones gain’ to heaven?” The lull in the talk by the stove pulled Zeb’s attention from the candy jar, drew his eyes to his father’s face. Daddy was staring into the grate of the stove, a little smile on his lips. But his eyes weren’t smiling. “Now, Shep,” he said, “that ain’t exactly a fair way to put it—”

“Why not?” said one of the others. “That’s what I’ve always heard about y’all too—that everyone that don’t believe the same way y’all do about everything is going to hell.”

There was a silence. The inside of the feed store, so cozy only moments before, had suddenly become uncertain, menacing.

“Tell you what, boys,” Daddy said, “I ain’t sure what minded y’all to get on this subject, but … ” He shifted on the nail keg where he was seated. He glanced at them, then back to the orange glow in the stove grate. “It’s true that we believe the Bible teaches a right way to do things. And we believe that folks ought to try to—”

“Try to do everything like y’all do, right?” said one of the men. “Ain’t that what you’re trying to say, without saying it? That y’all have figured out what the Bible says, and anybody that don’t agree with you is wrong?”

“Say, now, fellas,” said John Hatchell, the store owner. “It’s winter, all right, but I don’t believe we need this much heat inside here, do y’all?”store

Daddy gave Mr. Hatchell a grateful glance. The others left off at that, but Zeb still remembered how, just a few minutes later, he and Daddy loaded their ground sorghum onto the wagon and drove back out to the house, huddled against the cold. Daddy kept quiet all the way home. And Zeb never said anything about the horehound.

Those men were the type J. D. was talking about. They weren’t interested in hearing the true word of God. They were only interested in guarding what they already knew—whether it was right or not. Men like Addie’s father.

*******

“Now, then. Take a look over in the book of Acts, the twentieth chapter and verse twenty-eight. The apostle Paul is just about to leave for Jerusalem, and he knows he’ll never again see the Christians at Ephesus. A course he’s sad about that, and they are, too, but even more important, he’s got some things he needs to tell ‘em. Some things they need to know to keep their faith sound, ‘cause Paul knows there’s plenty of trouble ahead. Listen to what he says … ”

*******

Trouble ahead. Addie wondered if J. D. had just given her a private prophecy. Sometimes she thought Zeb had no appreciation at all for the sacrifice he was asking her to make. It looked as if he thought her joining his church was no more rigorous than changing the style of her hat.

Oh, she knew he took his faith seriously. And there was no question of his devotion to the teachings of the Bible as he understood them. But he acted as if she should just immediately see things the way he did. As if his views were so self-evidently correct that only a simpleton or a reprobate would reject them. As if it were that easy to turn her back on her upbringing. On Papa. She knew Papa was neither a simpleton nor a reprobate. Where did he fit into Zeb’s scheme of things?

She thought just maybe she had a clearer idea of the size of her step of faith than Zeb did. She knew he meant to be there for her no matter what happened, but it wasn’t the same for him; he wasn’t closing a door on anything. And she didn’t think he had the slightest idea how she felt about it. He was asking her to give away her entire world and accept a world she didn’t know anything about. If Zeb was right about everything, God would make it all come out, somehow. But what if Zeb was wrong? And even if he was right, would God give her back the family, the past, she would lose?

Mama, I wish you were here. I need to talk to you right now.

*******

“‘ … for I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also’ —now get this, brethren—‘of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.”’ J. D. lowered the Bible, his brow furled. “Brethren, we sure need to pay attention to what Paul is saying here. He’s saying that not only will false teachers come from outside the church, they’ll also come from inside. There’s not any of us that’s immune to error, brethren. We got to study and pray, and watch ourselves all the time, to make sure we stay pleasing to the Lord … ”

*******

Zeb recrossed his legs and fussed with the knot in his tie. He flicked an imaginary speck of lint from his trousers and glanced at the rafters above J. D.’s head, where a mud dauber made lazy forays against the wood. From the corner of his eye, he glanced at Addie, sitting so still beside him in her high-collared dress and flower-trimmed hat. Before he could forbid it, a vision sprang into his mind: he was wrapping her in a passionate embrace, her face turned up to his, her eyes closed, her lips parted in rapture. His chest constricted in a rush of tenderest desire.

He pulled himself back toward the present. It wouldn’t do to torture himself with dreams of what wasn’t yet to be—what might not happen at all, he thought. Besides, this wasn’t the time and place for daydreaming. He needed to be paying attention to the sermon.

J. D. was right. You had to stay on guard. If you didn’t, you might drift into error and sin, like countless thousands throughout the ages. God was merciful and good, but he still had certain expectations. He gave his will to men in the pages of the Bible, and he expected obedience. Obedience wasn’t an easy matter. It was like walking a greased plank, and you had to give it all you had to keep your balance. Fine and dandy for the Methodists and the Baptists to talk about God’s grace and “once saved always saved,” but Zeb knew the Bible also said that faith without works was dead—James two, twenty-six.

*******

“Last of all, brethren, let’s look in the Gospel of Mark, chapter sixteen.” J. D. licked his thumb and turned several pages in his Bible. He scanned the page to find his place. “These are some of the last words the Lord spoke to his apostles before he went back up into heaven. Listen to what he says. ‘Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized—’ Let me repeat that last phrase, brethren. It says, ‘He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.”’

*******

Addie heard two older girls at the far end of the pew snickering into their hands as J. D. pronounced the closing word of the verse. Again she was conscious of her heart hammering against her breastbone. He that believeth and is baptized. What about she that believeth? She might be saved, but what then? And then she knew the true name of her vague agitation. It was the disguise she had constructed to cloak the anger she felt at Zeb, at her father, at herself, at the Church of Christ—even at Mama. It was the way she hid from herself her useless rage at the unfairness of everything and everyone that she cared about, her rage at her own inability to find a way to be completely happy. Why did it have to be so hard for her? Why did she have to be the one to reconcile comfort, truth, and love within herself? It was like trying to catch rain in a sieve. It was like trying to crochet with baling wire.baptism

*******

“Now, brethren,” J. D. was saying, “we all know that there’s lots of good folks out there in the sectarian world, lots of sincere folks who think they’re following the Bible. But the Lord said ‘he that believeth and is baptized,’ in that order. It ain’t enough to be sincere, brethren. You got to do right. Jesus said, ‘Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven,’—Matthew seven, twenty-one. And what is that will, brethren? Listen again to the Lord’s last words: ‘he that believeth and is baptized shall be saved … ’”

*******

Addie’s mind was a stump in Zeb’s pasture and he’d jammed a pry bar beneath it. With J. D.’s proof-texts as his fulcrum, he was prying, prying, trying to break her loose. Her thoughts of Papa screamed out against the dislocation, clung to the soil of her past with weakening tendrils. She felt as if everyone in Post Oak Hollow Church was staring at her. Well does she understand or not? When is she going to come around?

*******

“If you’re here today and you’re not a member of the Lord’s church, you need to make it right,” said J. D. “You need to come down front and confess Jesus as your Lord. We’ll go this very hour down to Chickamauga Creek and baptize you for the forgiveness of your sins, and you’ll be washed clean in the blood of the Lamb. If you’re already a Christian and you haven’t lived right, you need to come and ask for the prayers of the church. Whatever your need is today, won’t you come forward this morning while we stand and sing?”

Brother Houser led into the altar call.

While Jesus whispers to you,

Come, sinner, come!

 While we are praying for you,

 Come, sinner, come …

Zeb felt Addie’s hand on his arm. He glanced at her and he felt a thrill along his spine. She was moving past him, toward the center aisle! Was she at last going to make the commitment for which he’d pleaded these last months? Was she going down front to get baptized? If she was, that could only mean …

*******

Addie’s face felt hot. The inside of the church was a blur as she moved toward the aisle. She felt every eye on her as she sidled past Zeb and stepped into the center. With her hand covering the sob trying to escape from her lips, she strode down the aisle and out the back door of the church as the congregation sang the final words of the verse.

Now is the time to own Him:

Come, sinner, come!

Now is the time to know Him:

Come, sinner, come …

*******

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