Posts Tagged ‘disappointment’

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 26

February 14, 2019

George strode along, feeling better than he had in days. In fact, he almost felt like whistling, and not caring what anyone thought. He allowed the smile inside him to creep across his face as he walked.

The weather had retreated from the warmth of recent days. A light breeze from the north was hurrying away the tattered scraps of the gray clouds that had poured a gentle night shower on Chattanooga. The wind was cool but bracing, and in the midmorning light, last night’s rain gave everything a vivid, freshly painted look. smiling

For some reason, George Hutto had felt odd and adventurous ever since awakening this morning. To his own surprise, his befuddlement of recent weeks had left him during the night. He was suddenly, unaccountably full of assurance about what he wanted. And what he wanted was to talk to Laura Sanders Breck and tell her, for once, how he felt about her.

At first, the notion seemed strange and risky. But instead of retreating from it, he had allowed himself to taste it, to handle it, and observe it from all sides. And the more he did so, the more reckless and dashing he began to feel. Why shouldn’t he tell her? He was a grown man, after all! If a man cared for a woman, why shouldn’t he say so? It wasn’t as if she should be surprised, he told himself. He’d been accompanying her just about everywhere there was to go in Chattanooga these last three–and–a–half months, and she hadn’t declined any of his invitations, as far as he could remember. Surely that entitled him to speak his mind—didn’t it?

And so he had shaved and dressed and put on his coat. He had walked down to the office and told his father’s secretary that he would be out all morning. What a delicious feeling, to deliver that news to Mr. Cox and turn and walk casually away, not even caring what Mr. Cox thought! George had especially enjoyed that.

And now he was approaching Mrs. Breck’s street, and growing more confident with each step. He tried to imagine how her face would look when he said what he had come to say. Would she blush? Would she give him a demure, eyes-downcast smile? Probably not. She would probably stare at him with those coal–black eyes, blink once or twice, and then give her head a sharp nod. “Well, all right, then,” she would probably say.

And that was all right with George. Everything was all right with George this morning because for the first time in his life, he knew what he wanted and knew what he was going to do about it.

There was a horseless carriage parked in front of Laura Sanders Breck’s house, and that mildly surprised him as he rounded the corner and saw it. A thoughtful little crease appeared on his forehead, but he paced forward anyway. Probably a relative. It might even be a lady friend of hers. George had actually seen a few women driving about in the noisy contraptions.

Despite his newfound confidence, he felt his heart crowding into his windpipe as he stepped onto her front porch and removed his hat. Still, he had something to say, and he was going to say it.

It took Mrs. Breck an unusually long time to get to the door, and when she finally opened it, George was embarrassed to see that her hair was disheveled and she was in her dressing gown. He had never seen her hair down, and why was she in her dressing gown? It was nearly ten o’clock in the morning! He stammered and looked away. ‘‘I’m, uh … I’m sorry to come by so … so early, but—” dressinggown

“George! I had no idea—” She clutched the neck of her gown and glanced back over her shoulder, toward the interior of the house.

He nearly bolted, right then. But then he remembered his earlier determination and decided to screw his courage to the sticking point, as the fellow said. He forced himself to look her directly in the eye, disregarding her flustered expression as he stepped firmly past her onto the worn Persian rug in her foyer. He was going ahead, and that was that. “Mrs. Breck, I have something to say, and I want you to hear me out.”

And then, as he paused to begin his prepared remarks, he heard a muffled cough from within the house. A male cough.

George was completely befuddled and thrown offtrack. Everything he had intended to say to Laura Sanders Breck vanished like a mirage from his mind. He looked at her in confusion, and to his additional surprise he saw her covering her face with one hand. Based on his experience with her, he would have been equally prepared to see her standing on one foot and reciting “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” In fact, the whole scene was bizarre; he wondered fleetingly if he were still asleep in his bed and dreaming.

“George, come outside. We have to talk.”

He allowed himself to be led back onto the front porch. She shivered as they sat on the swing, and George realized, without quite knowing how, that Mrs. Breck wore no clothing other than her dressing gown. Numbly, he added this to the rest of the weird facts quickly accumulating in his mind.

“George, I sure wish you hadn’t had to find out this way.” She sounded different: soft, almost. George had never heard her sound soft.

“George, you’re a sweet man and a good one, and I’ve enjoyed your company. But … you don’t know what you want—or at least you don’t know how to ask for it.”

But, wait. Let me say what I came to say …

“I’ve been on my own for a long time now,” she said, “and I’m at the age where I can’t wait much longer. And when someone comes along who does know what he wants, well— It’s hard for me to turn that down.”

George’s mind began framing another objection but subsided. It was too late, he realized. That much, at least, was starting to seep through the fog. He peered at her, still confused. He had the impression that he ought to be leaving, that his presence was unnecessary—even undesirable. He stood and resettled his hat on his head. “Yes, well … I apologize for any inconvenience, Mrs. Breck. I regret calling on you at such an … awkward time.”

She stayed seated, clutching the dressing gown to her in a vain attempt to shield herself from the cold air. She looked up at him with a pitying, almost beseeching look. “George, it’s not your fault.”

“Yes, well … Good day to you.” He touched the brim of his bowler. “You’d better get back inside. You’ll catch your death.” He turned and walked down the steps. He walked almost to the end of the block before turning to look back at the house of Laura Sanders Breck. To his surprise, she was still on the front porch. She was standing, looking at him. He gave her a weak, tentative wave and continued on his way. sadwalk

He walked into the office, past Mr. Cox’s desk. The gaunt older man looked up in surprise. “I thought you were gonna be out all morning, George,” he said.

George had begun removing his wraps. He turned about, a puzzled expression still on his face. “Yes, I did say that, didn’t I?” Slowly he hung his coat and hat on a nearby rack. “Well, I’m back now. I expect I’ll be at my desk the rest of the day.”

Mr. Cox shrugged and returned to his work, and George shuffled back to his small, cramped office at the back of the warehouse.

*******

Zeb hated to think about what his desk would look like. It would be a rat’s nest of correspondence from the home office, policies that needed to be delivered—some probably with past–due premiums—and assorted other scraps and slabs of unfinished business that would all be screaming to be attended to at the same time. This was the worst part of leaving the office.

He put his key in the lock but found the door already open, somewhat to his surprise. As he entered, he saw Abner at his desk, busily sorting and stacking. “Well, hello, Ab! I didn’t expect you to be here this early.”

Abner grinned at him. “I had a feeling you’d be in this morning, and I didn’t much want you to see the haystack that piled up on your desk while you were gone, so I’m doing a little baling here, is all.”

Zeb sat down behind his desk and began looking through the stacks Abner had made, starting with the policies. Most of them were deliveries from the home office, but one or two looked like a policyholder had stopped making premium payments.

“Ab, who brought this one in? It looks like one somebody’s trying to cough up.”

Abner nodded. “Yeah, Hutchinson from over in Argenta told me one a his people said he couldn’t make the payments any longer.” office

“Betcha two bits Mama wants a new cookstove, and this old boy is trying to figure out how to pay for it.”

Abner nodded. “Probably. Trying to cut some corners.”

“Well, I guess I’ll have to go out with Hutchinson one more time and show him how to poke a policy back down.”

This was just what he needed, Zeb thought: work to do, decisions to make, situations to handle. He could lose himself in agency business and take his mind off … everything.

The door jingled. “Looks like I’m not the only one who figured you’d be in this morning,” Abner said quietly.

Zeb glanced up to see Becky Norwich standing just inside the entrance, staring at him.

“This ain’t but the third time she’s called this week,” Abner whispered.

Ignoring the sarcasm in his secretary’s tone, Zeb slowly pushed himself back from his desk and walked toward her.

“Morning,” he said, trying to mean the smile he was showing. He wasn’t ready for this—not yet. “What can we do for you?”

“How’s your mother?” she said.

“Do what? My mother? Why she’s—fine, I guess, but why—”

“I thought you went to Nashville because your mother was sick. At least, that’s what he told me,” she said, nodding toward Abner.

“Now, ma’am—I mean, miss—I never said nothing about anybody’s mother. I said ‘family emergency,’ is all.”

Zeb said a silent thanks for Abner’s quick mind. Becky’s voice was as taut as a telegraph wire; it wouldn’t take more than a fingernail scrape across her veneer to expose her anger.

“I’m really glad to see you, and I’ll be more than glad to explain everything,” he said, careful to stop a respectful distance away from her, “but I’ve got more than a week’s worth of catching up to do. Do you think I could call on you this evening, maybe? I’ve got a proposition to deliver to your father, anyway.” angry

“Oh, you have, have you? Well, you just come right on over then, Zeb, and you and Daddy can have all the time you need because I’ll be elsewhere!”

She spun on her heel and flung open the door, stomping off down the boardwalk.

Zeb closed the door behind her and then closed his eyes. Why did every problem in his life shove forward, clamoring for attention before he was ready? He sighed and turned around, barely catching the smirk on Abner’s face before the secretary was able to swallow it.

“What are you gawking at? Don’t you have a letter to write, or something?”

“Yessir.”

*******

Zeb wasn’t sure what to hope: that Becky would make good her threat or that she wouldn’t. He arrived at the Norwiches’ near dusk, feeling jumpy as a green colt. He could have gotten there sooner, but he had walked around the block twice before he could make himself go to the door and knock.

He was so intent on the opening he’d rehearsed for Becky that when Pete Norwich answered the door, Zeb stared at him as if he were a stranger.

“Oh, uh, here. I brought the proposal I told you about.” He fished the barely remembered sheaf of papers out of the breastpocket of his coat and proffered them to the older man, who regarded him with a sort of amused scowl. Pete took the papers without looking at them.

“Don’t know what you did, son, but you’re so far in the doghouse you may never see the light of day.”

Zeb shoved his hands into his pants pockets and shook his head.

“Becky chewed you like an old bone when she got home. Even her mama couldn’t get a word in sideways.”

“Will she see me at all?”

“Shoot, boy, don’t start me to lying. You gonna have to ask her yourself.”

“I was afraid you’d say that. Well, lead the way to the wall. I don’t smoke, and I don’t want a blindfold.” Zeb heard Pete’s soft chuckle as he stepped past him into the house.

Hat in hand, he walked into the parlor. Becky was facing away from him, her head down and her arms crossed tightly in front of her. Mrs. Norwich had been saying something to her but broke off immediately when she saw Zeb enter. She withdrew into the kitchen, and Zeb heard Becky’s father quietly close the hall door behind him.

“I didn’t think you’d show your face,” she said.

Zeb had been prepared for an interminable, frosty silence, and he felt ambushed by her quick words. “I … I guess I didn’t think you’d be here when I did.”

She turned to face him, her arms still crossed like a barricade in front of her.

“Well, I am.” She stared at him.

Zeb felt her eyes on him. He wondered what she saw, and how much.

She was wearing a simple, long–sleeved cotton dress with a fine, blue floral print. Her hair was done up, but the inevitable lock was straying across her forehead. In the lamplight, he could barely make out the freckles across the bridge of her nose. He felt the soft place inside him, felt himself longing to open up, to let her in all the way. But how could he?

“Becky, I … I wish I could tell you … But sometimes, things are just not that easy—”

“I’ll tell you what’s not easy, Zeb. It’s not easy being in love with you.” In a more guarded voice, she said, “I’ve invested more in you than I can afford to lose, but I can’t go on like this, Zeb.” Her voice caught on the corner of one of her words, and she cupped a hand to her mouth. A moment later, she continued, still in a quiet voice. “I need to know where I stand with you, Zeb. I need to know if you regard me as anything more than an occasional good time.”

“Now, Becky, it’s not like that—”

“I need to know that I matter to you, that I count for something in your plans.”

“But you do!” eavesdropping

“I won’t be treated like a lap dog, to be petted or turned out at your whim. If I can’t depend on you, Zeb, I’d just as soon not see you again.” And with that, she strode into the kitchen. As the door swung open, Zeb had a glimpse of her mother and father, huddled together and turned away from the entry to the parlor, two conspirators caught in the act of keyhole peeking. Becky stalked past them as the door swung slowly closed.

Stunned, Zeb stared at the floor for a few seconds. Then he turned himself slowly about, with an almost aimless motion, like a heavy–laden barge drifting in a sluggish current. He placed his hat onto his head and showed himself to the door, hoping that he wouldn’t have to speak to anyone on the way.

As he walked downtown, he glanced up at the night sky. There was a skiff of cloud, just enough to blur and dim the stars now and again. Zeb walked toward his lodgings, feeling like a lost soul doomed forever to wander between one burned bridge and another.

*******

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

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

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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.