Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 33

April 11, 2019

Zeb had never spent a more miserable Christmas in his life.

He went to Becky’s house, of course, on Christmas Day. How could he refuse? In the state she was in, there was no telling what she’d do or say if he didn’t agree to whatever she proposed. He arrived at the Norwich’s door bright and early, wrapped parcels in hand. Pete answered the door with a hearty “Merry Christmas,” and Zeb breathed a little easier. He’d half expected to be staring down the muzzle of a double–barreled shotgun.

He went inside. Becky’s mother bustled around the table, setting out china and crystal. She gave him a big smile.

“Hello, Zeb! Merry Christmas!”

“Merry Christmas to you, Mrs. Norwich. Here.” He held out one of the presents.

“Oh, honey, would you mind just taking it into the parlor and putting it under the tree? I’m trying to get the table set right quick before we open presents.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Well another hurdle cleared, he thought. No problem there, evidently.

He set the presents under the tree and removed his coat and hat. He hung them on pegs in the entryway and went back into the parlor. At the same time, Becky came into the parlor from the kitchen entrance carrying a double handful of punch cups. When she saw him, she hesitated—so slightly that he might not have seen it if he hadn’t been looking for it—then gave him a wide smile. punch

“Merry Christmas,” she said. She arranged the cups around a porcelain punch bowl resting on a side table, then came and took his hands.

“Merry Christmas, yourself,” he said. He leaned toward her. She backed away, laughing.

“Zeb, not here! What’ll Mother and Daddy think?”

What, indeed? “Sorry,” he said.

“Come into the kitchen and help me for a minute,” Becky said, pulling him after her.

He went in. Becky handed him a fistful of silver forks and a polish cloth and told him to get busy. Mrs. Norwich hurried in and out, taking platters and plates and saucers to the dining room. She and Becky kept up a constant barrage of comments about what needed to be done next for the table setting, the turkey browning in the oven, the various pots and pans bubbling and steaming on the stove. You’d have guessed they were fixing to entertain the governor and his cabinet, Zeb thought.

You’d have also guessed Becky had absolutely nothing on her mind but the preparations for the Christmas meal. He watched her, waiting for a hastily wiped tear; a trembling lip; a long, unfocused glance—something to betray her state of mind about her … inconvenience.

But it wasn’t there. It just wasn’t. As far as Zeb could see, she was the perfect hostess, completely intent on enjoying the perfect Christmas dinner with her perfect beau and her perfect parents. She clearly hadn’t said anything to either of them. And right now, it looked like she’d figured out a way to keep the secret even from herself.

At first, Zeb was relieved. They all went into the parlor and passed around the presents. They took turns opening their parcels. Becky and Ruth exclaimed over each prize, and Zeb and Pete traded wry comments. When Becky unwrapped the matching parasol and bonnet Zeb had found for her at Simpson’s, both she and her mother squealed with delight. It was her ideal color, of course: a pale blue that just set off her hair, eyes, and complexion. parasol

“Now if you’d of just thought to buy a few days of sunshine for her to try out that getup,” Pete said.

Becky had gotten Zeb a new valise for work. He grinned and held it up.

“Mr. Norwich, there’s a pocket in here for that new policy I’m gonna sell you.” Pete made a disgusted noise and shook his head.

But after awhile, Zeb felt his enthusiasm ebbing. The more Pete grinned and laughed and joked, the more Becky and Ruth took on over everything, the worse he felt. Maybe they really knew, after all. Maybe, in a little while when he was relaxed and unsuspecting, the three of them were going to close in on him and … do something drastic. Maybe all this Merry Christmasing was a cover for the coming ambush.

By the time the meal was over, Zeb thought he was about to have a running fit. He felt like he was standing in the far corner of the room watching the wooden smile on his own face and listening to the lame words coming from his mouth. It was as if he were pointing at himself and hollering, “Liar! Humbug! Scoundrel!” The voice in his head was so loud he was surprised they couldn’t hear it.

As they finished their pecan pie and coffee, Becky’s mother said, “Becky, why don’t you let me clean this up? Zeb looks like he could use a walk.”

Zeb looked at her, but he couldn’t detect anything in her face but good humor. He hoped his smile disguised his clenched jaw.

“Well, I can see to myself, Mrs. Norwich. I’ll wait for Becky—”

“No, you two go on. If I get in too deep, I’ll make Pete help me.”

“Now, wait a minute here—”

“Oh, Pete, you hush. Go on, now. Shoo.”

They walked nearly half a mile before either of them said anything. Finally, Becky said, “How you doing?” snowy

He gave a tight little laugh that hurt his throat.

“Seems like I ought to be asking you that.”

They took a few more paces. They both had their hands shoved deep in their coat pockets, their faces locked straight ahead.

“Well?” she said.

“Well what?”

“Why don’t you?”

“Why don’t I what?”

“Why don’t you ask me how I’m doing?” Her voice was rigid. She sounded like somebody hauling on the reins of a horse about to bolt.

“All right, then. How are you doing?”

The sniffles started then, quickly followed by the long, quavering breaths.

“Oh, Zeb. How in the world should I know?”

After a minute he realized his jaw ached from clenching. He took a deep, slow breath.

“Looked like you were doing pretty well back there, with your folks.”

“Well, of course. You think I can afford to let them see how I really feel?”

“No, I guess not. I just— It surprised me, I guess, that’s all.”

“Zeb, what are we going to do?”

There it was. He’d known it was coming, but still he chewed it back and forth, trying to pin down some words to put beside it, something that had a chance to seem right to her and to him at the same time.

He looked back over his shoulder at the capitol dome, dull white against the dull gray overcast. He wondered what it would feel like to be able to just launch yourself toward it, like a bird. Just jump up and keep on going and going, the wind rushing past your face and the ground dropping away.

You could forget how to fly, though, maybe. You could get fifty, a hundred feet off the ground and then the knowledge of how you got there could just leave you as quickly as it came. That was the trouble with flying, he guessed. You might forget, but the ground didn’t. flying

“Becky … I—”

“Don’t.”

Now he stopped walking. His face swung around to look at her. “Don’t what?”

“Don’t say it. Not now. Not like this. I don’t want it this way.”

“What did you—”

“It’s cold. Let’s go back.”

And she turned around, just like that, and started walking back the way they’d come. He could either stand and watch her go or hurry and catch up with her. She walked, without slowing, without a backward glance. Just walked like someone who had someplace to get to and was in a hurry to do it, and he could either come on, or go somewhere else, or stand out in the weather; she didn’t care which.

*******

“What you doing there, boy? Lemme see.”

“Nothing.”

Ned quickly shoved the wood in his pocket and folded the Barlow. He hadn’t heard his paw coming up behind him. That was why he liked to sit out behind the woodpile; it was usually private.

“Whadda you mean, boy? Take that nothin’ outta your pocket and lemme see it.”

Ned dug out the pine block. It was trying to be a squirrel, but he couldn’t get the hindquarters to look right. He handed it to his father. Paw would probably laugh about it, he figured. Ned wouldn’t look at him.

“How’d you get the tail to look like that? All bushy, just like a real one?”

Ned shrugged, still looking down.

“Say, this is good, boy. Real good.” Perlie chuckled. “Shoot, I didn’t know you could do something like this. I guess you got your granddaddy’s eye.”

Ned risked a glance at his father. “My grampaw?”

“Yeah, your mama’s daddy. You should of seen him, boy. He could carve out a dove that looked like it’d fly off if you stomped your foot. He could make a mallard hen that’d fool a drake. He was a carvin’ fool.” dove

“How come I never seen him?”

“Died ‘fore you’s born. Gun went off when he was cleanin’ it, way back in the mountains somewhere, in a winter huntin’ camp. Wound went bad and poisoned him.” Perlie smiled and shook his head. “He could sing too. Taught me half the songs I know. And whistle? He could mock a brown thrush better’n anythin’ I ever saw.”

“Wished I’d of known him.”

Perlie looked at the squirrel, rubbed his hand over its tail. He handed it back to Ned. “Yeah, he was somethin’. Your mama used to say I only took up with her to have an excuse to be around him. Shoot, everybody liked it when he was around.”

“What was his name?”

“You mean you didn’t know? I thought sure we’d told you. You’re named for him. Ned. He was Ned Hutchins.”

Ned looked off toward the river, dull and gray in the winter light.

“Paw, you reckon I could help you some with the traps next time you go out?”

“Well, sure, boy, if you want to.”

Ned took the Barlow out of his pocket and thumbed open the smaller blade. He worked at the squirrel’s flank, crosshatching it to look like fur. squirrel

“I do. If it’s all right.”

He could feel his father looking at him.

“What’s on your mind, son?” Perlie’s voice was quiet. Ned liked it when Paw talked to him like that, like it was just the two of them and they were telling each other things nobody else needed to hear.

“A man came by here awhile back, in the fall. From Chattanooga.”

“What happened?”

“Nothing, Paw. He was just a man I … helped one day.” Ned felt his ears tingling a little bit with the fib, but it was the same one the man had used, so he kept going. “He told Maw he was starting a club—a club for boys, in town.”

“Ned—”

“It don’t cost nothing to go,” Ned said quickly. “And they’d teach you things. And you could see books.”

“And you don’t want to go among them town boys without proper shoes.”

Ned carved a few strokes. “No, I don’t reckon I do.”

“What’d your mama say about it?”

Ned shrugged.

“Well, I don’t know. I’ll talk to your mama,” Perlie said after a long wait. He chuckled again and ruffled Ned’s hair. “I wish you’d look at that. Just like ol’ Ned Hutchins.” Perlie’s footsteps crunched away toward the house.

*******

Lila knocked on the backdoor. She looked down at herself and wiped at the front of her coat. She heard footsteps approaching from inside the house. The door opened, and Louisa stood there, smiling at her. kitchen

“Hello, Lila. Thank you so much for coming. Come on in.”

“Yes’m. Thank you.” She climbed the steps and stood in the kitchen of the big house. There was cabbage cooking, and some other smell Lila couldn’t exactly place. The kitchen was too warm and close to be wearing her coat, but Louisa hadn’t told her where she should put it, so she just left it on.

“I don’t know how to thank you for this,” Louisa was saying. “This big old place is just too much for me, by myself. I just loved Cassie—I guess you know her, don’t you?—but she moved to Memphis. And I haven’t been able to find anyone else who’s worked out.”

Lila didn’t know Cassie; she went to a different church, and she lived in a different part of the Negro section. But Louisa would think all the coloreds knew each other.

“Anyway, I’m just so glad you came by. You know how much we all loved your mother–in–law.”

“Yes’m.”

“Rose was the sweetest thing, and so good to Addie. My father wasn’t ever the same after she was gone.”

“Yes’m.”

Louisa looked at her. Lila kept her eyes down.

“Lila, I know my father wasn’t very … easy to work for. I’m sorry.”

There was a pause, like Louisa thought she was supposed to say something. Lila waited.

“But I hope you won’t think we’re like he was. Like he got toward the end, anyway, God rest his soul.”

“Yes’m.”

Another pause.

“Well? Do you want to take a look around? See what needs doing?”

“Yes’m. I guess we better.”

Louisa showed her where the pots and pans and knives and such were. She didn’t expect her to do much cooking, she said, unless there was some kind of doings. Mostly she needed her for dusting and cleaning once or twice a week, Louisa said. And washing and ironing on laundry days. Louisa took her through the dining room, showed her where the silver was kept. She wouldn’t have to trouble herself with that unless there was a big dinner or something, Louisa told her. silver

They went through the drawing room and the parlor. Lots of furniture and corners to gather dust, Lila decided. The big downstairs bedroom wouldn’t need much, Louisa told her, except every now and then the mattress needed a good beating and airing. Next was the entry hall. A staircase led up and around a bend to the next story. Take a long time to dust and mop that staircase, Lila thought. They went up the staircase, and Lila noted the chandelier hanging in the center of the stairwell. She could see the cobwebs and dust on it. She’d need a long stick to reach the chandelier, she figured.

Upstairs were the children’s bedrooms and the nursery. There was also a small library, but Louisa said Dub wouldn’t even let his own boys in there unless he was on hand to supervise.

“When he’s had some of his men friends over and they get in there smoking their cigars,” Louisa said, “I’ll make him let you in the next day to clean it out. But that’s all you’ll ever do in there.” Lila smiled and nodded her head.

At the next door they passed, Louisa paused with her hand on the knob, then went on. Her face changed, fell.

“That was Katherine’s room,” she said.

“I’m sure sorry, Miz Lou.”

“Oh, thank you, Lila. Goodness, it’s been, what, nearly four years now?”

“Anythin’ need seen to in there?”

“No. That room stays closed.”

“Yes’m.”

They went back downstairs. “Can you come on Tuesdays and Thursdays?”

“Yes’m.”

“What time can you be here?”

“Well, Mason go to work at seven, and time I get the children to school … Half–past eight, I guess, if that’s all right.”

“Oh, that’s fine. Can you start day after tomorrow?”

“Yes’m. I reckon.”

“Oh, and … I pay three dollars a week. Extra, of course, if I need help with a party or something.”

“Yes’m. Thank you.”

Lila started home. Three dollars. Their oldest boy needed some new shoes; patches and paper stuffing was about all that held his old ones together. And if she had a piece of calico, she could finish that dress for little Clarice. And some new ticking for their mattress would sure be nice. Three dollars.

The wind was cold. She pulled her coat around her; it didn’t help much, old and thin as it was. Maybe someone would come along and give her a ride.

*******

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

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 32

March 28, 2019

“Oh my land, now look what you’ve done!”

Mary Alice looked at her mother and rubbed her hand on the front of her smock, leaving a smear the same green as the pool of paint in which she stood. Addie propped her paintbrush against the sill and started toward her. Mary Alice began backing away.

“You come here to me, Mary Alice Douglas! I’ve been telling you all morning long to keep away from—”

“Well, looks like you’re making progress.”

Addie managed to snag Mary Alice’s elbow. She looked up at Louisa, who stood in the doorway of the parlor.

“Some,” she said, dabbing roughly at the little girl’s dress with a rag. “I could do more if I didn’t have to keep stopping to chase this one out of the paint.” Mary Alice started to whimper.

Louisa stepped into the room, stepping around the puddle of green paint on the floor. She rolled up her sleeves and kneeled beside Addie. paint

“Come here, Miss Mary Alice, and let your Aunt Lou see what kind of a mess you’re in.”

Addie stepped away from them and went back to the sill. Junior had said something about getting wallpaper up later this week. The paint on these sills had to be dry by then. She dipped her brush in the pail and climbed back on the footstool. She painted several strokes.

“How you doing?” Louisa said.

Addie stretched, teetering slightly on the stool as she spread paint to the top of the jamb.

“I don’t know. Some days I wake up and halfway expect to see Zeb in the bed next to me. Other days that whole life seems like something I’m trying to forget. And then, there are the days when I just want to lie there and go on sleeping. But I can’t.”

“No, you can’t. I tried that. It didn’t work.”

Addie stepped off the footstool and dipped her brush. She held it over the pail and watched the puddling of the drip.

“I used to think I knew what my life was going to be. Once I married Zeb, I thought everything would take care of itself—that all the decisions were sort of made. Everything was settled.” She looked at Louisa. “But it turns out nothing was. I just didn’t know it yet.” She raked the brush along the side of the pail, removing the excess paint. “There was a lot I didn’t know.”

“That’s so for all of us.”

“Oh, Lou. You’ve been through so much. I shouldn’t go on about my troubles.”

“I asked you, honey. And hurt comes in all shapes and sizes. Nobody knows what your load’s like but you. Nobody knows mine but me. You can’t compare them because you can’t carry somebody else’s.”

Addie went to the window and began painting the other jamb.

“I know. But I don’t think I could handle yours.”

“Honey, I feel the same way. Oh, lawzy, Miss Mary Alice, just look at the mess on your shoes!”

The little girl gave Louisa a tentative smile around the finger stuck in her mouth.

“‘S g’een.”

“Yes, ma’am, it’s green, and you’ll be tracking it all over the place in a minute.” Louisa settled Mary Alice on the floor and scrubbed the bottoms of her shoes. “Your mama’ll skin you if she finds little green footprints on her kitchen floor.” feet

Just then, Jake gave a fitful cry from the next room. Addie heaved a sigh.

“Awake. And hungry, I’ll bet.”

“So am I, come to think of it. Which reminds me. Miss Mary Alice, would you go out on the front porch and fetch that basket I left by the door? I brought us some lunch.” Louisa watched the little girl scamper toward the doorway.

“Bless your heart,” Addie said.

Mary Alice staggered back from the doorway, gripping the handles of the basket in both hands.

“Set it down here, sugar,” Louisa said. She opened the lid of the basket and started setting out jars and plates and parcels wrapped in cheesecloth.

“We can go in the kitchen,” Addie said.

“No, let’s just eat here on the floor, why don’t we? It’ll be like a picnic, won’t it, Miss Mary Alice?”

Mary Alice grinned. She plopped down cross–legged on the floor, barely missing the puddle of paint.

“Have a pinnic,” she said.

Louisa had brought a loaf of store–bought bread and a jar of homemade apple butter. She got out bread–and–butter pickles and red–rind cheese. She unwrapped a half–dozen slices of ham, all of them white–rimmed and marbled with fat. She pulled out a quart Ball Mason jar filled with buttermilk. It looked to Addie like enough food for a crew of field hands. picnic

Addie cradled Jake with one arm to let him nurse while she ate. Louisa listened to Mary Alice’s jabber and fussed over her and laughed with her and picked up the crumbs of bread and the shreds of ham the little girl scattered while she ate. Addie watched the two of them and thought about Katherine.

When they had eaten, Addie made Mary Alice lie down for a nap. The little girl moaned and fretted, but she stayed on the settee. Louisa told her if she was good and went to sleep, she’d leave a peppermint stick for her mama to give her when she woke up.

Addie changed Jake’s diaper and bundled him up. She returned him to his crib and he was asleep in a moment. She went into the parlor, where Louisa had taken up a paintbrush and begun work on another sill.

“You don’t have to do that,” Addie said.

“I know.”

For awhile the only sound was the swishing of the paintbrushes and the soft popping of the fire in the grate.

“What are you going to do?” Louisa asked.

There was a long quiet.

“I don’t know.”

‘‘Any news from Dan?”

“No. Not in awhile. He just says he’s working on it and to try to be patient.”

“Easy enough for him.”

“He’s not charging me anything, Lou.”

“I know. I shouldn’t be so sharp, I guess. But I just hate to see you going through this.”

“Dub’s on the school board,” Louisa said a bit later. “He could probably find you something.”

‘‘I’m … I’m not ready for that yet, I don’t think.”

They painted another while in silence.

“Honey, you’ve got to—”

“I know, Lou. I will. But not yet.”

They painted until four o’clock. They finished all the window frames in the parlor and had a good start on the study when they heard the pop and clatter of Dub’s automobile coming down the lane. Louisa laid a peppermint stick beside the still–sleeping Mary Alice. She gathered the remnants of their lunch into her basket and shrugged into her coat. Addie put her arm through her sister’s and walked her to the front door. As Louisa straightened her hat on her head, she turned to give Addie a hug. peppermint

“We’ll expect you and the kids for Christmas.”

Addie gave her a surprised look.

“Oh, yes. It is next week, isn’t it? Thanks, Lou. We’ll be there. Mary Alice’ll love it.”

They looked at each other. Louisa gave Addie a peck on the cheek and ducked out the door. Addie went onto the front porch, hugging herself against the cold, and watched her sister go. She waved to Dub, robed and goggled behind the wheel of the auto. Addie went back inside and closed the door. She leaned back against it, still holding herself, and began to cry quietly.

*******

“Oh, Lou! It’s beautiful!” Addie stood and held out the bedspread, letting it fall to the floor.

“I’ve heard it called ‘candlewicking.”’

“I’ve never seen anything done this way,” Addie said. The spread was powder blue; its smooth surface was decorated with intricate, curving lines of tufted stitching. “Where did you find it?”

“An old German lady over by Brown’s Ferry makes them. Looks like she does pretty well.”

Mary Alice was playing with the doll she had just unwrapped when she noticed the bedspread piled on the floor at her mother’s feet. She rolled herself up in it, cradling her doll in the bend of her arm.

“Night–night,” she said, squinting her eyes shut. Everyone laughed. quilt

“Well, better get started cleaning up this mess,” said Dub, gathering the torn wrapping paper from around his feet. “Robert, come help me.”

The boy sighted steadily down the barrel of his new popgun.

“Son.”

Robert sighed and propped the gun in the corner. He shuffled toward his father, kicking scraps of paper into a drift in front of him as he came.

“Why don’t Ewell have to help?” Robert said.

“‘Why doesn’t Ewell,”’ Louisa said.

“Never mind about that,” Dub said. “Stuff all that into this sack here.”

The rest of the day was spent in getting ready to eat, eating, and recovery from eating. For Christmas dinner, Louisa baked a goose and chestnut dressing to go with it. There were yams, mashed potatoes, cranberry salad, apples fried in butter and brown sugar, green beans and limas from last summer’s canning, plum and rice puddings, and the obligatory fruit cake.

Once, Dub leaned toward Addie to chuck little Jake, in her lap, under his chin.

“Boy, I bet you wish you had you some teeth so you could eat some of this.”

“He’ll be eating more than his share before too long,” Addie said. She spooned small portions of mashed potatoes and yams into the baby’s mouth. He smacked his gums and rolled his tongue at the unfamiliar sensation.

After dinner Addie and Louisa cleaned up the dishes while Dub sat by the fire and read his new book. Mary Alice, Robert, and Ewell chased each other up and down the stairs and through every room of the house, shooting and being shot by the popgun.

Just after dark settled, they heard the sound of carolers in front of the house. Addie and Louisa quickly bundled the younger children, and they all went to stand on the front porch. carolers

It was a sizeable group, maybe twelve all together. They clumped under the gaslight by the sidewalk and sang “Silent Night.” Addie could see their breath puffing white in the light from the lamp. They finished the song, then struck up “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen.” At the end of that, Dub invited them all inside for hot spiced cider and cocoa. As they trooped in, wiping their feet on the doormat, Addie realized one of the singers was George Hutto.

“Hello, George,” she said, reaching out to take his wraps and add them to the stack in her arms.

The sudden warmth of the house steamed his glasses as he looked at her. He fumbled them off, blinking and squinting as he wiped the lenses on a wrinkled handkerchief. “Why, uh, hello Addie. Nice to see you.”

“Y’all sounded good out there.”

“Oh. Thanks. Some of the people from church came by, asked if I wanted to sing. I figured, why not?”

He settled his glasses back on his nose. He gave her a tiny smile and a shrug. She nodded, then tried to find something else to look at. After a few seconds, he followed the other carolers toward the steaming bowl of cider on the dining room table.

Addie piled the wraps on a settee in the parlor and went back toward the dining room. Few of the men would look at her. The women tried to study her without seeming to. None of them would give her more than the flicker of a smile before busying themselves with something else.

She felt someone touch her elbow. It was George.

“Addie, ah … I just wanted to say— Oops!”

Someone jostled his arm in passing, sloshing some of the hot cider onto his cuff. He swiped at it with his hand as Addie hurried into the kitchen and found a cup towel. She came back into the dining room and blotted the spill.   cider

“Thank you,” he said, watching her work.

“Don’t mention it.”

‘‘Anyway, I was saying … I’m awful sorry about your—your situation. If there’s anything—”

“Thank you, George. That’s real kind of you. I think that’s got it.” She made a final dab at his cuff.

“Yes, that’s fine. Thanks.”

She went back into the kitchen and occupied herself there until the carolers left. Then she found Mary Alice’s coat and hat.

“Dub, I’m ready for you to drive us back, if you don’t mind.”

Louisa’s face held a question, but Addie didn’t feel like acknowledging it.

She bundled herself and her children into Dub’s Duryea, their presents piled between them and around their feet. Addie threw her new tufted bedspread around the three of them as Dub released the brake and they started down the sloping street toward the main road.

“Want us to pick y’all up for church on Sunday?” Dub said when they were getting out at the house.

Addie paused, then went up the steps to her porch.

“No, I guess not,” she said over her shoulder. “I expect I’ll go on out to Post Oak Hollow.”

Dub shrugged and nodded. He carried their parcels into the house, then said good night as Addie closed and locked the door behind him.

*******

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 19

December 29, 2018

… Anywhere with Jesus I can go to sleep,

When the dark’ning shadows ‘round about me creep,

Knowing I shall waken never more to roam; 

Anywhere with Jesus will be home, sweet home. 

Anywhere, anywhere! Fear I cannot know; hymnal

Anywhere with Jesus I can safely go.

 

The song coasted to a halt, and the noise of hymnals sliding into pew racks momentarily filled the church house. Then the room quieted as the worshippers stood, waiting for the benediction.

“Our Father in heaven, we thank thee for the blessin’s a this hour,” the gangly, bespectacled man prayed in a singsong voice, “and for the truths spoken unto us by Brother Woodrow. We ask thy blessin’s upon each that’s here, and that thou’d bring us back at the next appointed time. In Christ’s name, amen.”

A chorus of male “amens” answered, and the racket of conversation swelled as the congregation shuffled along the pews toward the center aisle and the front door. Zeb moved with the others, laughing and talking. A firm, meaty hand clapped him on the shoulder, and he turned around.

“Zeb, my wife has fixed up the biggest ol’ mess a chicken and dumplings you ever saw, and I figure you’re just the man to help us eat it,” said Pete Norwich. “Whaddya say?”

And Zeb knew immediately the source of his malaise before his last return to Little Rock: it rose up in him instantly now, flared into a klaxon of danger, blaring away inside his head. He was a married man, and the tendrils of guilty pleasure that beckoned him to accept this opportunity to be with Becky Norwich were forbidden to him, and he knew it. He shouldn’t go. He should decline Pete’s invitation as gracefully as possible, and he should go back to his rooms and pack his things and get on the next train to Nashville, and he should never come back to Little Rock again.

But … he was in charge of his own life, wasn’t he? He’d managed things in Little Rock very well, and he was in control of himself, and what was wrong with having lunch with some of the new friends he’d made for himself in this place that was his own? Why should he turn tail and run, why raise all kinds of awkward questions with Griffs and Carleton—not to mention worrying Addie needlessly? He could handle it. He was equal to this challenge too. And these were church folks, for Pete’s sake. What could happen?

He grinned at Pete Norwich and said, “Sure, Pete! I’ll be there! Thanks!”

*******

Zeb leaned comfortably back in the chair and patted his stomach. “Pete, I’ll tell you one thing: Ruth knows her way around the kitchen. How in the world have you kept from getting big as the side of a barn, way that woman cooks?” barn

“Self–control, son. Nothing but self–control.”

“Yeah, but I’m talking about you, not her.”

“Watch it, boy. I’ll toss you out on your ear, you keep that up.”

Pete rustled the newspaper, and Zeb listened to the women’s voices coming low from the kitchen, just audible above the noises of splashing water and the clink of dinnerware. Becky’s voice was lighter in timbre than her mother’s, though much the same pitch. Zeb imagined her, sleeves rolled to her elbows, perhaps a wisp of blonde hair falling to her shoulder as she washed and dried …

Norwich made a disgusted sound. “I tell you, Zeb, I don’t understand what Roosevelt thinks he’s gonna accomplish with this Labor and Commerce Department foolishness. Sounds to me like just another way for some Washington bureaucrat to get his hands on the public funds.”

Zeb made a noncommittal reply. It was almost reflexive with him: he seldom allowed himself to be drawn into political or religious discussions with prospects. Just as Pete was launching into a diatribe against the wasteful ways of the federal government, Mrs. Norwich came in from the kitchen, bent over the back of his chair, and whispered something in his ear.

“Huh? Why? I’ve just started my paper, Ruth! Can’t a man at least—”

“Pete.”

He stared at her for maybe five seconds and gave in with a shrug. “Yes, ma’am. I’ll be right there.” He looked at Zeb, shook his head, and sighed. Zeb gave him a small, sympathetic smile in return as Pete laid aside the newspaper and followed his wife from the room.

No sooner had they left than Becky came in. Zeb looked at her and smiled. She ducked her head and seated herself in the chair her father had just vacated. She lifted a corner of the newspaper, smiling fondly. “Daddy and his Sunday afternoon rituals.” She shook her head.

“Sure was a good lunch, Becky. Your mama knows how to rearrange the groceries, that’s for sure.”

“Glad you enjoyed it.” She wouldn’t look at him. He couldn’t stop looking at her.

There was a longish silence. Becky took a deep breath, patted her palms on her knees, and turned her face toward him. “It’s a nice, bright afternoon. Why don’t we put on our coats and go for a stroll?”

Zeb nodded. “That’d be all right, I guess.” He got up from his chair as she went to fetch their wraps. She handed him her coat, and he held it for her. As she slid her arms into the sleeves, she leaned back against him, ever so slightly. His heart hammered at his rib cage like a wild thing.

They walked out into the brilliant blue afternoon. The wind was still and every breath of fresh, cool air entered Zeb’s lungs like a shout of joy. He ambled along with his hands in his pockets. “Nice day, like you said,” he offered.

She murmured in agreement.

“Glad you mentioned a walk.”

She said nothing.

They strolled along for almost a hundred yards without speaking. “Excuse me for asking,” Zeb said finally, “but how come a woman as nice looking as you never found a husband?”

She made no reply for a long time, and Zeb feared he had transgressed. Just as he was about to attempt an apology, she said, “I haven’t been in a hurry about such things.” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her glance at him, then away. ‘‘I’m still not,” she said.

They walked on. Ahead and to the right, the capitol dome glistened in the crystalline air. “How’d you come to work for your daddy?” Zeb asked. dome

“I’ve always enjoyed the company of men more than women. Guess it comes of being raised with brothers. I’ve never much been able to abide quilting parties and so forth. I’d rather be working on the store’s books than gossiping about chintz.”

Zeb looked at her and grinned. He could see the smile starting, watched with amusement as she tried to suppress it. At last, it broke free across her face and she looked at him, laughing.

“That’s the most words you’ve said in a row all day. I’d about decided the cat had your tongue for good.”

She shook her head and grinned at the ground. “I don’t know what’s got into me today. I’m usually not nearly so reserved.” She looked at him. “Especially around friends.”

They stopped walking and looked at each other. At the same instant, their hands reached out and found each other. “Friends,” Zeb nodded. They walked on.

*******

December 15, 1902

 My Dear Husband Zeb,

How anxious I am for you to come home for Christmas! I

think you’ll like the way the house looks, at least I hope so. The

wreath is real pretty, I think. Mary Alice is about to worry me to

death, trying to keep her out of the Xmas tree. 

I hope all is well with the agency. It sounds to me like you’ve

really got things going your way. I know you work so hard & I’m

very happy it’s paying off. Maybe the men at the Home Office will

soon figure out what a go–getter you are & give you that position

you’ve been looking for so long. I certainly hope so. letter

Had a letter from Lou the other day, she seems pretty good,

right now. Says Daddy doesn’t hardly come out of the house at all

anymore. It makes me sad, thinking of him in that big old house

all alone, with just Rose for company, her only part of the day. I

know he did wrong by you and me, but my heart aches for him. I

guess I can’t help it since he is my father, after all. 

Well I’ll close this for now. I love you with all my heart & I’m

looking forward to meeting you under the mistletoe (ha!). Hurry

home as soon as you can.

Your own,

Adelaide C Douglas

 

Addie read the letter one last time before folding it. She gazed wistfully for a moment at the envelope, thinking about Zeb’s hands holding it. She wanted to feel those hands again, to look into his face. She briefly considered adding a postscript to that effect but thought better of it. Zeb might think she was being affected—too romantic and gushy. He might think she wasn’t being brave.

Besides, if she started putting down on paper everything she wanted to say to Zeb but couldn’t, she’d never have time for doing anything else. How could she tell him how desperately lonely she was much of the time? How could she say how it made her feel sitting in church with Mary Alice on her lap and looking about at the other families, the children ranked in the pews between their parents like books between bookends? It took two parents to do that. And how could she tell him how she longed to cook for him, to put three plates on the table in the evenings, to hear him breathing beside her in the dark of their bedroom? How could she explain how badly she wished he were here with her, hearing Mary Alice’s babbled attempts at new words, smiling at the new things she was doing each day, marveling at the way their daughter’s personality was already bursting into bloom? Hardest of all, how could she give vent to her darkest suspicion: that Little Rock had stolen her husband from her?

No, it wouldn’t do. He would think she was trying to tether him to her with guilt. He would resent her interference in the pursuit of his dream. He would sigh and shake his head and secretly rue the day he had taken such a weak woman for a wife, and though he might accede to her wishes, there would be a hurt place in his heart that could never be hers again.

Stop it, she told herself. There was no point in thinking such things: Zeb loved her and Mary Alice. He was a good man, and he had more to do during the day than mope over her. He wrote faithfully, and besides, he was just trying to make his way in the world the best way he knew, and she should be ashamed of herself for being so selfish. He’d come back to Nashville soon enough, and their future would be secure, and all would be well, and he wouldn’t have to spend so much time away from home ever again. “Just try and stand it for a little while longer,” he’d told her the last time he was home. “And I promise some day it’ll pay off.” Someday. That was what she’d think about—how it would be, someday.tree

Nodding to herself she affixed the stamp and sealed the envelope. She stood and suddenly felt the room whirling about her head. She had to grab the back of the chair to keep from falling over. In a moment, the spell passed and the room got still again. She’d been having some dizziness lately, for some reason. That, and feeling tired all the time.

Before Addie posted the letter, she just had to look again at the ring. She slid out the lap drawer of the secretary and fished around in the back until her fingers closed on the small, square box from Sears & Roebuck’s. She removed the lid and admired the smooth, shining gold of the center section and the elegant, beaded line of the silver borders. The ring was even more beautiful than the picture in the catalog. She knew Zeb would be proud of it, and that he would be surprised. She tried to imagine the look on his face when he unwrapped it. Feeling a small glow of pleasure, she replaced the cotton padding atop the ring and put the lid back on the box.

She stepped out on the porch and clipped the letter to her mailbox with a clothes pin. It was a cold, bright day, and the blue sky was thickly littered with gray shreds of cloud, scudding along before the north wind. Gripping her elbows against the chill, she glanced up and down the street. Then her eyes fell on the bare branches of the two large hickory trees standing guard in her front lawn. She stood a moment, looking up to their tops, which swayed slowly back and forth. Even if she could climb them, she thought, there was no hiding place now, no concealing safety where she could sit and dream. Only the tossing, indifferent wind of December. I hope Zeb comes home soon, she thought, and went quickly back inside.

*******

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.

 

The Home Place, Part 1

January 5, 2010

I felt nostalgia grabbing at my sternum as soon as my tires crunched in the red gravel driveway. I live in the city, so I don’t drive much on anything except pavement, but even when I do, in my part of the world they don’t really have gravel—they have something called caliche. It doesn’t make the same sound as the red gravel folks use around here.

I used to spend hours—well, minutes, maybe—standing in the driveway with a bat-shaped board, tossing golf-ball-sized rocks into the air and pounding them into the empty field across the blacktop road from our house. Hal taught me how to do it—demonstrated, anyhow. And, big-brother-like, mocked my fumbling efforts at imitation. But I finally got it. The board/bat was how I first learned about hitting the sweet spot. You really want to find the sweet spot when you’re batting rocks from a red gravel driveway.

The place looked different. Not surprising; I hadn’t seen it since Reagan was president. Not the house so much—I expected that. It was more the land itself: flatter, if you can imagine it. More uniform. I’d noticed it on the drive in: fewer trees, and what little contour the terrain used to possess now laser-graded and scraped into the uniformity needed for irrigation. The few sloughs and sinks I remembered from the days when I used to hunt rabbits and squirrels had yielded to the implacable need for increased rice yields. It was just business—I understood that. But I still missed the sight of those old-growth cypresses and sweet gums.

I got out of the car and corralled the store-wrapped packages in and under my arms, turned and walked across the winter-browed front yard. Steam feathered in front of my face in the cool December evening. Through the kitchen windows I could see Gail bent over the sink, peeling or scrubbing or slicing or some such. I reached the front porch and started to nudge the doorbell with a knuckle, but before I did I paused, letting the silence of the darkened countryside seep into me.

The stillness out here was of a completely different quality from that which passed for quiet in the city. It was like being in a closet: one the size of the universe. No whine of truck tires on a freeway, no passing thump of car stereos, no distant music or laughter spilling from the open door of a nightclub or restaurant. Just an elemental hush that I could almost feel on the back of my neck.

I pressed the button and almost instantly heard the pounding of multiple sets of juvenile feet, stampeding toward the door. The door jerked open and a tangle of blond hair, denim, and arms and legs of various sizes flung itself about my waist. “It’s Uncle Frank! He’s here!”

“Hey guys! Take these packages before they’re destroyed.” I parceled the boxes out with a hug and a kiss for each of them. I looked up just in time to see Hal come out of the den, just off the entryway. He smiled. “Hey, bud. Glad you could make it.” We hugged tightly, slapping each other on the back.

I had seen Hal twist steel bolts in half, trying to snug them down just one more notch. And I had seen him rocking his babies, his hard, nicked hands cradling them as gently as a feathered nest.

“How was the drive?”
“Long and uneventful.”
“Still liking your Miata?”
“You bet. Made it here from Dallas in just over eight hours.”

Hal shook his head and smiled. “Well, come on in and put your stuff in Kris’s room. Gail’s still working on supper, so it’ll be a while.”

On my way to the kitchen, I glanced at the small tree in the den. The five-foot spruce struggled gamely to bear up under the weight of all the decorations, clustered as thick as chain mail. The few packages I had brought had just about doubled the volume of parcels under the tree.

Gail scurried between the stove and the refrigerator, choreographing the three-course meal and looking like a utility percussionist during a performance of the 1812 Overture. She finally glanced up and saw me.
She gave me a grin. “Hey, Frank!” She reached for me, a paring knife in her hand. “Oops, sorry,” she said, seeing my mock dodge. She tossed the knife on the counter beside the sink, then turned and gave me a good, tight squeeze. “Good to see you.”

“Likewise, kiddo. Glad to be here. Smells delicious.”
“Well, I hope it is. I got started late, as usual.”
“I’ve already been so advised. How you doing?”
“Oh … okay.”

I searched her eyes for the source of the delayed response, but she looked away.

“So, you can either help me slice potatoes or go in there and chase the kids and visit with your brother,” she said with a quickly summoned smile. “Your choice.”
“With my culinary skills, I can probably make the best contribution by getting out of your way.”
“That’s kind of what I was thinking. Dinner will be ready before you know it.”

I wandered back through the house, looking at everything. This was the same house my parents had brought me home to from the hospital. Through the years our folks had made additions here and there, and Hal and Gail had continued the process during their tenancy. The dwelling had started out as a very simple living room/kitchen/two bedroom crackerbox. Then, as times got a little more prosperous, Dad and Mom had added another bedroom, a carport, and enlarged the kitchen. Hal and Gail had added a den, an upstairs playroom, and a master suite.

So many joinings of timber and time, so many layers of memory … The house existed both Now and Then. The construction of my life had started with the building of this house. By the time I graduated from high school, I was pretty sure I’d outgrown this place. Turns out it had grown into me.

I felt Hal’s hand on my shoulder. “Whatcha doing?”
“Oh, just remembering stuff, I guess.”
“Yeah. Me, too.”
The tone in his voice pulled my head around to look at him.

“Something going on, bud?”
He stared into the middle distance for a second or two, then shook his head. “Nah. Let’s go sit in the den.”

There was a comfortable fire in the fireplace. The TV was on with the volume down; General Schwarzkopf was standing in front of a bank of microphones while stock quotes crawled across the bottom of the screen. Hal aimed the remote and the picture disappeared. I settled into an armchair and rested my feet on an ottoman, and Hal sank into his recliner. We both stared into the fire for a few seconds.

Kip, the youngest, scampered into the room. “Know what Santa’s bringing me, Uncle Frank?” he said, crawling into my lap.

I smiled down into his intent blue eyes. “No, Kipper, what’s that?”
“He’s bringing me a red tractor, just like my daddy’s.”
“No kidding! You going to help your dad plow?”
“Yeah. Just like my daddy.”

“Sounds good, pal. I bet your dad could use another good tractor driver.”
I ruffled Kip’s hair as he scooted out of my lap and trotted toward the stairs leading to the playroom. I grinned at Hal.

Tears gleamed on his cheeks as he stared into the fire. His mouth was twisted into a grimace of anguish.

“Hal? You okay?”

He just kept staring straight ahead.

(to be continued)

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.