Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 9

December 2, 2017

“So, anyway, like I was sayin’, these ol’ boys went to this fancy hunting lodge and man, they was just made outta money. So they says to the feller at the lodge, ‘We don’t care how much it costs, we want the best quail dog you got on the place …’ ”

Will Counts was fairly shouting in the front seat, but Addie still could barely hear him over the commotion of the horseless carriage. She held on to her hat with one hand and tried to brace herself against the bumps and swerves with the other. She gritted her teeth and prayed they’d get to church in one piece.

“Will is so proud of this silly thing,” Beulah Counts shouted in Addie’s ear. “He figured 1890's Duryeaout a way to build a backseat out over the engine, so us and the boys could go driving together. They’ll be just sick when they get home from my brother’s and find out they missed out on a trip in the horseless carriage. Will don’t take it out every Sunday, you know.” Beulah’s smile testified that she held a far higher opinion of Will’s generosity than Addie.

“And the feller says, ‘Well, boys, the best thing for quail around here ain’t a dog.’ And they say, ‘What you talking about?’ And he says, ‘Well, ol’ Uncle Jake here can find a covey quicker’n any pointer this side of the mountains.’ And they’s this old feller setting in the corner, half asleep. And the hunters says, ‘How much?’ And the feller says, ‘Five dollars a day per gun, and y’all have to buy Uncle Jake a plug of tobacco.’ And the hunters says, ‘Well, all right, then, if you ain’t pulling our legs.’ And they pay their money and go to hunting …”

The Duryea clattered down Granny White Pike, and Addie’s insides curdled with each jolt. She wished she and Zeb had taken the trolley, as usual. Compared to this rattletrap, the trolley was like a leisurely afternoon on a still pond. But Will had been anxious to show Zeb his new toy, and she hadn’t known until this morning of the perilous invitation he’d accepted.

“Well, I mean to tell you, them boys went through the quail like you-know-what through a goose. They limited out that day, and the next day, and the next. They’d go along, and ol’ Uncle Jake would stop, all of a sudden. He’d point at a little scrap of cover and say, ‘They’s a brace right there,’ or, ‘they’s four of ’em settin’ under this ‘simmin bush right here.’ The gunners ‘d get all set and Uncle Jake ‘d step in there and put up the birds, and blam! blam! Ol’ Jake’d pick up their birds and hand ‘em to ‘em and they’d go on to the next place. These ol’ boys was in some tall cotton. I mean, they was just tickled sick…”

“Now, how you feeling these days, honey?” Beulah’s meaty hand thumped on Addie’s arm. “Having any morning sickness?”

“Not too much,’’ Addie said. “Some days are worse than others.” She squeezed a wan smile onto her face.

“Well, now don’t you worry about it, honey,” Beulah said. “You know what they say: ‘sick mother, healthy baby.’ ”

This young ‘un ought to be stouter than garlic.

“Now, for the whole next year, all these ol’ boys can talk about is getting back to that place and shooting birds over ol’ Uncle Jake. They walk into the place the next season and go straight to the feller and say, ‘We’re here to hunt with Uncle Jake.’ And the feller gets sorta sad-looking and says, ‘Boys, I’m sorry, but Uncle Jake passed on.’ Well, the hunters are just dumbstruck, you know, and finally, one of ‘em asks, ‘How’d it happen?’ And the feller says, ‘Well, he got to running the chickens, and we had to shoot him.’ ”

Zeb’s sudden guffaw splashed back over Addie. When she glanced up, she could see the Red Brick Churchapproaching spire of the church. She clenched her jaws and gripped the arm rail. She sucked deep draughts of the cool autumn air into her nostrils and allowed it to escape from between her lips. At last, the end was in sight. Lord, if you’ll let me get there without heaving up my insides, I promise you I’ll never ride in one of these hellish machines again.

Will herded the Duryea against a curb near the front door and set the brake. They all clambered out as several knickered boys broke away from their families and raced over to the machine, eyeing it and pointing at it. Zeb offered her his arm and they walked up the five steps onto the portico, blending with the rest of the faithful going into the building.

The Twelfth Avenue Church of Christ met in a red-brick church house purchased from a Baptist congregation that went out of business. Their first act upon assuming ownership was to remove the bell from the steeple, since they held that bells, like pianos and organs, had no scriptural authorization and were mostly for show, anyway. They sold the bell to some Methodists and used the twenty dollars to buy a new front door and a sign to hang above it. “Church of Christ,” the sign proclaimed in terse block letters, black on a field of unspotted white, and the members all agreed the twenty dollars had been well spent.

When Addie and Zeb got inside, the elders were already seated in the two large chairs on either side of the pulpit. Addie and Zeb scooted into their customary place about halfway up on the right side of the aisle, just as the song leader strode to the front to announce the first hymn.

Hark! the gentle voice of Jesus falleth

Tenderly upon your ear;

Sweet his cry of love and pity calleth:

Turn and listen, stay and hear.

Ye that labor and are heavy-laden,

Lean upon your dear Lords breast;

Ye that labor and are heavy-laden,

Come, and I will give you rest.

Heavy-laden—that about summed it up for Addie. If Louisa were here, things would be better. Someone to talk with, really talk with, not just pass pleasantries while the men amused themselves. Someone to understand without needing everything spelled out. Someone Addie could trust to tell her what was happening to her body, to her feelings, to her life. Someone to give her a hint of what might lie ahead.

Take his yoke, for he is meek and lowly;

Bear his burden, to him turn;

He who calleth is the Master holy:

He will teach if you will learn.

Ye that labor and are heavy-laden …

*******

Though he was mouthing the words of the chorus, they barely registered in Zeb’s mind. He needed to decide what to do about the offer Mr. Griffs and Mr. Carleton had made him. He knew he could turn the Little Rock agency around and make it a paying proposition. He knew he was being given these challenges for a reason, and he knew one day his consistent successes would be rewarded by a plush home office position. He had to think of the future—now more than ever. Surely Addie could understand that.

And then he thought of her tears, of the flat, scared look in her eyes when he had first Victorian Biblementioned the promotion. It had knocked the wind out of him, that look. He thought she’d be proud of him, excited by the possibilities before him—before them. But all she could see was the uncertainty.

He knew as sure as sunrise he shouldn’t turn his back on this new chance to prove himself. But he couldn’t figure out how to bring Addie around. He’d promised to take care of her. And he was doing that, wasn’t he? He was bringing home more money now than he ever had. And the prospect Griffs and Carleton offered him promised even more. But Addie …

His glance fell on the sloping shoulders of Will Counts and his wife. Beulah Counts sure seemed like a good woman. Seemed like she doted on Will and everything he did. Zeb wondered if Beulah might be able to talk to Addie. Zeb liked Will just fine. He might see what Will thought about the idea. Maybe all Addie needed was another woman to talk to her, to help her see things.

*******

They sang two songs, and then one of the men led a prayer. Another song, and it was time for the sermon. Brother McCrary went to the pulpit and stood with his head bowed for a moment. He took a firm grip on the sides of the lectern and leaned into his text for the day. The light glittered from the lenses of his wire-rimmed spectacles.

“In James the second chapter and verse fourteen, the writer says, ‘What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?

“ ‘Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone …’ ”

He quoted more of the passage, never looking down at the open Bible on the lectern. He Lecturnengaged the eyes of the congregation one by one, as if he had handpicked each verse as a personal oracle for the individuals in the pews.

“Brethren, it’s easy to talk good religion. It’s easy to say all the right things and put up a good front for the eyes of men. What’s hard,” he said, his voice dropping a half-tone, “is living good religion. James knew this, brethren. And that’s why he gives us this warning. We all need to listen, to pay attention to his words. And we all need to obey. Error waits on every side to snare the careless, the heedless. The only way to keep your feet on the strait and narrow path of our Lord is to be constantly vigilant …”

Addie tried to get interested in Brother McCrary’s sermon, but her mind slipped off his words like ice skidding on a hot skillet. Her eyes wandered the sanctuary. She and Zeb hadn’t really gotten to know anyone at Twelfth Avenue. Of course, they’d only been here for a month and a half or so. Beulah and Will Counts were the only people they’d visited with at all, other than when they came to this building on Sundays. She tried to let herself really see the individual people around her. She knew scarcely a handful of them, but she tried to imagine what they might be like.

Two rows in front of her and across the aisle sat a desiccated old woman, her back bent nearly double with a dowager’s hump. She reminded Addie of old Miss Ruthie at Centenary Methodist in Chattanooga. Miss Ruthie had never married, never even been seen with a man. Once, at a church social, Addie and several of her friends were gathered around Miss Ruthie. One of them asked her why she’d never taken a husband. Addie, a little embarrassed by her companion’s cheek, watched as the frail old maid smiled and stroked the girl’s pinafore with her twiglike, bent fingers. “Well, sweetie,” she said in her high, airy voice, “the fact is, I was in love once.”

Addie and her friends drew closer, as if Miss Ruthie were about to reveal a great and necessary secret no one else could tell them.

“Oh, it was many years ago,” Miss Ruthie said. Her eyes closed in reverie. “Long before the war. He was the sweetest boy I’d ever seen. His daddy had a grist mill down on Chattanooga Creek, just down the riverbank from Brown’s Ferry. He was just the kindest thing, and so polite, even though he’d never had much schooling at all.

“Oh, my papa wasn’t too happy about the whole thing.” The color rose on Miss Ruthie’s withered cheek. “But Mama wouldn’t allow him to scold me.” Her thin, bluish lips parted in a smile as she removed a lilac scented kerchief from the front of her dress. Addie noticed the trembling of her brown-spotted hand as she daubed at her lips. “I never said anything to Mama about it, but somehow she knew.”

There was a long silence. A group of young boys rioted past, but the girls didn’t even blink in their direction.

“I thought he was the most wonderful thing in the world,” Miss Ruthie said finally, folding her hands in her lap.

When she could stand it no longer, Addie asked, “Well? What happened, Miss Ruthie?”

The old woman pursed her lips and turned her head slightly to the left. She wasn’t looking at them now. “He died of typhoid during the autumn of ’32. It broke my heart.”

And that was all she would say.

Addie remembered that one of her friends went and got Miss Ruthie a glass of iced lemonade from the table where the church ladies were setting out drinks—as if that might help, somehow. She remembered how Miss Ruthie’s story stayed with her in the days that followed. Like a sad, sweet, old song, it echoed around in her mind at the oddest times—when she was doing chores or skipping rope, playing with dolls or working on her lessons.

She remembered thinking there was a sort of mystery about old men and women. They knew things, had seen and remembered things. They were harder to surprise. She remembered trying to imagine herself as an old woman; she could never conjure up any image other than a slightly wrinkled version of her own ten-year-old face, still capped by the same chestnut hair in ribboned braids.

These days, she was starting to understand a little bit of why she couldn’t see the old woman she would become: a child can’t comprehend all the different kinds of living there are. A child thinks mostly about the visible differences. She doesn’t imagine that all the really important differences are on the inside, tucked away where they can’t be seen. Everybody was like that. Much of the real truth about people was hidden from view—sometimes until it was too late. You mostly just had to wait and see.

“A lot of people will tell you that it’s more important to be a good person than to follow the teachings of the gospel,” Brother McCrary was saying. “They’ll tell you it doesn’t matter much whether you pay attention to the Scriptures or not, as long as you’re living a good, moral life. But these words of James’s stand in contradiction to that sort of thinking, brethren. It’s not enough to say ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not the will of the Father in heaven—Matthew seven, twenty-one … ”

*******

The thought of traveling to Little Rock gave Zeb an odd, secret feeling of excitement. For all his seriousness about his business, there was still a towheaded, eager part of him that stood on tiptoe and watched as he did new things, gained admittance to better and higher circles. Successful men travel on business, this part of him whispered, goggle-eyed and breathless. He was becoming important to the company, or they wouldn’t send him so far away.

He thought of seeing new country, eating new food in places he’d never been. Zeb had Mississippi River at Nightnever crossed the Mississippi River. He thought of all that wide water, sheeted brown beneath him as he rumbled over the new bridge at Memphis. Strangeness and distance chanted to him, pulled at him.

And it was, after all, an opportunity. It wasn’t just some lark he’d made up for himself. Griffs and Carleton were depending on him. He couldn’t afford to disappoint them, to let the company down. He really ought to take the bull by the horns.

Zeb sensed the faint, sour taste of resentment. A man couldn’t be shackled to his wife’s uncertainties, could he? If he was to be the provider, shouldn’t he do it in the way he saw best?

But her anxious face, the bluntness of her apprehension …

The baby in her womb.

It wasn’t fair. How could a man argue with a woman when she was carrying his offspring? She was proof against any attempt at logic or persuasion. It was almost as if she held a hostage and was, in turn, held hostage. And there was a kind of selfishness about her, too, as if she now contained inside herself her own final reason for everything.

He knew he ought to go. But how could he?

*******

“Brethren, is there someone here today who is ready to shoulder the task our Lord has set? Is there someone who is ready to answer, as the prophet Isaiah, ‘Here am I; send me’?”

The congregation sensed the approaching end of Brother McCrary’s sermon and began reaching for the hymnals in the racks.

“If you’re ready to get busy for God, if you’re tired of carrying the useless load of sin and are ready to be washed in the blood of the Lamb and begin walking in the footsteps of Jesus, won’t you come down front today, while we stand and sing?”

The two elders rose from their chairs and paced to the front of the dais as the congregation stood. The song leader strode to the front, singing the opening notes of the altar call.

What can wash away my sin?hymn book

Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

What can make me whole again?

Nothing but the blood of Jesus …

*******

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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Sunday Clothes, Chapter 8

November 22, 2017

 Nashville, Tennessee

October 18, 1899

Dearest Lou,

Well I guess there’s not much doubt about it. I haven’t had my time of the month for two months now. I haven’t told Zeb yet, but I guess I won’t wait too much longer as he needs to know.

I trust this finds you and yours well. We are fine here. I’m finally getting settled in since our move. The men here at the home office seem real proud of Zeb and the work he did with the Murfreesboro office, and he assures me that this move is a real first-rate thing for him, so I guess I’m happy about it. But it does seem a bit hard, just being a newlywed and all and having to up and move so soon.

In a way, I hate to tell Zeb about the baby. Is that terrible of me? Sometimes I fancy I can feel that little life down inside me, and the privacy of it comforts me somehow. But I know these are foolish thoughts. Zeb will be so proud and happy to know he will soon be a papa.

Addie held the pen suspended above the paper. Her eyes left the page and wandered to fountain penan empty space somewhere between her bureau and the window. She ran her other hand over her belly, trying to imagine what was happening inside her body. If a new person was growing inside her, why did she feel so much like she always did? Why wasn’t she shining like the sun, or laughing all the time? There ought to be some extravagance. But, no; this was quiet and slow. She smiled.

How are your Robert and Katherine? And baby Ewell? Is he still gaining weight as fast as he was at first? I know they keep you plenty busy, and I guess I’m fixing to find out just how busy, here in a few months.

I don’t suppose there’s been any change with Papa, has there? I’d like to at least let him know about his future grandchild. That is, if he’d really want to know.

Your loving sister,

Adelaide C. Douglas

She sealed the envelope and affixed the stamp. She placed it on the edge of the bureau so Zeb would see it on his way out in the morning.

A horseless carriage clattered and banged past the front window. Addie glanced at it on her way to the tiny kitchen. There were more horseless carriages here than in Murfreesboro or Chattanooga. Granny White Pike was a busy thoroughfare. Sometimes carloads of youngsters woke them at night with their hollering.

She scooted the cane-bottomed chair under the bureau. She smiled at herself. Youngsters! Here she was, an old lady of nineteen, thinking such things. She paused and passed her hand absently across her belly, imagining the curvature that would become more and more pronounced in the weeks to come.

Ten steps away from the bureau and Addie was in the small kitchen. She had a dutch oven full of white beans simmering on one back burner of the Crown stove and a pan ofVictorian Kitchen chopped potatoes stewing on the other.

She wrapped a dish towel around her hand. She opened the oven door and removed a pan of cornbread, setting it on top of the stove to cool. Addie went to the cupboard above the sink and removed two plates. She scattered the silverware beside the plates, humming under her breath.

Yonder over the rolling river,

Where the shining mansions rise,

Soon will be our home forever,

And the smile of the blessed Giver

Gladdens all our longing eyes …

It wouldn’t take a mansion to make her happy. Even this little cracker box of a place would be fine if she could just stay in it for awhile, see the same scenery for longer than a three-month stretch.

*******

Zeb came in at a quarter past six, his tie loosened and his collar unbuttoned. Despite the slightly cool evening air, his face had a sheen of sweat.

“Had to walk all the way uphill from the Edgehill Street stop.” He brushed her cheek with his lips as he set his briefcase on the floor.

Victorian Trolly

“Why didn’t you get off at the regular place?”

Zeb smiled and ducked his head. “Well, I got to studying about a proposition Mr. Griffs made me, and I guess I just forgot where the trolley was. Good thing I looked up when I did. I like to went clear to the other side of Vanderbilt.”

“Must’ve been pretty serious, then.”

He looked at her a moment, then resumed peeling off his coat and yanking loose the knot in his tie. “Yeah, I guess you might say so.”

Addie set a blue-striped crockery bowl of stewed potatoes on the table, then turned to look at him, wiping her hands on her apron.

He folded his coat over the back of a kitchen chair and draped his tie atop it. He shoved his hands into his pockets. ‘‘Addie, they want me to open a new district office.”

She raised her eyebrows.

“In Little Rock.”

“Arkansas?”

He grinned. “Yes, ma’am.”

She went toward the stove, bunching her apron in her hands to pick up the pan of cornbread.

“What’s wrong, honey? It’ll be a real—”

“Opportunity? Like Murfreesboro and here?”

“Addie, what—what’s the matter?”

The cornbread clattered to the tabletop, and she covered her face with her hands. She skillet cornbreadfelt his arms around her, and she pushed him away. “No, don’t, Zeb! I’ll be all right in a minute, so just … don’t.”

When she looked up at him, his shoulders were slumped. She regretted her loss of control. She daubed at her eyes with a corner of the apron.

“Zeb, I’m sorry. I’m just a little upset right now, and … I’m expecting.”

His forehead wrinkled, like he was trying to work a cipher in his head. And then, something took off behind his eyes, and he jerked himself up straight, like a puppet when somebody twitches the string.

“You’re what?”

She had to smile. “I’m expecting,” she said in a quieter voice. “In a family way, Zeb. You’re fixing to be a daddy.”

He still didn’t move, except for his eyes. They were popping and jerking all around the room. He reminded her of some little boy who’d just been asked a hard geography question by the teacher. He stood there with his hands still in his pockets, looking like he was trying to figure out the right answer.

And then, he grabbed the chair with his coat lying across the back, pulled it out from the table, and sat down like a boxer after a rough round. She didn’t know what to do, so she went to the icebox for the buttermilk pitcher.

“How do you know? Are you sure?” His eyes still weren’t focusing on anything in particular; his arms hung loose at his sides.

“Well, yes, dear, I’m sure. Women know these things.”

Then the smile came, rounding the side of his face and spreading in all directions like molasses on an empty plate.

“A daddy,” he said. His grin went rubbery around the edges. “I’m gonna be a daddy.” He got up from his chair and dropped to his knees in front of her. He placed his arms tenderly about her waist. “Oh, honey. I don’t know what to say.”

A warm gush of love welled up in her. She placed a palm on the crown of his head, stroking gently down the back of his neck, over and over.

“Well, I guess we better eat this before it gets too cold.”

He sat as if he hadn’t heard. “Addie, I love you.”

“I love you, too, Mr. Douglas, but if you don’t get out of my lap, your supper won’t be fit to eat.”

Later, as he spooned a helping of potatoes onto his plate, he said, “When do you reckon the baby might come?”blue striped crockery

She put down her fork and thought for half a minute. “I guess about springtime—maybe sometime in April.” She toyed with her napkin, then asked him, straight out. “Zeb, how soon do you think we’ll have to go to Arkansas?”

He didn’t answer right away. He chewed his potatoes and took a slow drink of the frothy white buttermilk. He daubed the corners of his lips with his napkin. “Well, today they sounded like it might be pretty soon, but what with you being in a family way and all, I just don’t know … ”

“Zeb, I’d sure like to have Louisa with me when my time comes. That’d be a lot easier here than in Little Rock.”

He nodded. “Yes, that’s a fact.” He buttered a slice of cornbread. “I’ll talk to ‘em tomorrow and see what I can work out.”

A hundred questions crowded onto the back of her tongue. What if they don’t care about me and the baby? Why does it have to be right now? Why Little Rock instead of someplace closer: Lebanon or Manchester or even Memphis, for goodness sake? There must be one or two people in a place the size of Memphis who don’t have enough insurance. Why can’t we stay someplace long enough to see the seasons change?

But she sat silent, with her left hand properly folded in her lap, lifting her fork to her lips and sliding the food into her mouth without letting it scrape against her teeth. She would wait and see what Zeb arranged with the company. He’d be able to manage something. And she did love him so. Surely everything would work out.hands

*******

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 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

The Old, Old Story, Conclusion

May 10, 2013

[Note to the reader: There are some language cautions in this installment. If you don’t want to experience a thug using non-PG Anglo-Saxonisms, read no further. Just saying …]

Two weeks later, and it’s been one of those days. It’s almost dark, time to check it in. I’m going up the stairs to my apartment and he’s waiting for me on the landing.

Image“What did you think to see? A reed shaken by the wind?”

“Get lost, pal. I’m not in the mood.”

“Come on, man. Tell me what comes after. I don’t need to know—you do.”

I look at him, and in the lousy light of the stairwell his face has this weird, otherworldly sheen—my own private apparition. I blink and shake my head, and he’s back to normal—not an improvement.

Image

“What is it with you, man? I told you—I don’t do futures. Not for you, not for anybody. You play the hand you get, okay? Just like everybody else. Now get outta here and—”

It was a few seconds before I saw the scared, juiced kid approaching from the side hallway. He was holding his right arm close to his side, but I could still see the dull glint of the small-caliber handgun.

“Don’t want no trouble, man. Just gimme your money.”

The street guy stepped in front of me, facing the kid, then spread his arms out wide, like he wanted to hug him.

“Let not your heart be troubled!”

“Look, this kid’s high, okay?” I said, backing away. “I don’t think you ought to—”

ImageHe keeps on talking to the kid, moving slowly toward him, the kid’s eyes getting bigger and bigger.

“In my father’s house are many mansions.”

“That weird-ass shit out my face, man.” The kid is panting, his hand starting to shake.

“If it weren’t so I would have told you.”

Another step closer. Another.

“I said get the fuck outta my face!”

“… and I go there to prepare a place for you—”

The gun was probably only .22 caliber, but the shot was loud in the hallway. I’m scooting back like a crab, plastered against the wall, and for a second, I think the kid missed.

Image

Then the street guy sort of crumples forward, almost like he’s bowing to an audience—before clattering onto the floor like a bag of cantaloupes.

Somebody down the hall opens a door. “What’s going on out there?” The scared kid bolts down the stairs.

I crawl over to the street guy. He’s still breathing, his hand stuffed into the red fountain springing from just below his sternum.

There are tears in his eyes.

Image

“Forgive him, for he knew not…” Then he sighs and his eyes dull like cooling wax.

The cops come and zip him into a black vinyl bag. I stand on the sidewalk outside my building, watching in the red-and-blue flash and the radio squawk until the Suburban from the county morgue wheels around the corner.

Image

Tomorrow is Saturday … and I don’t know what comes next.

 

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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 Old, Old Story, Part 2

April 15, 2013

I knew I’d see him again, the same way you know you’re going to be sick at your stomach when you feel that first little question mark in your gut. Sure enough, about a week later, ImageI’m back working the mall, and I swear I can actually feel him approaching; moving in like a cold front from my mind’s northwest horizon. This particular day, he’s got on a pair of dumpster-issue oxfords, and I can hear the soles slapping the pavement as he comes up to my table. He leans on one hand and stares at me with those washed-out blue eyes. “Who do you say that I, the son of man, am?”

“I dunno—Elvis, maybe? Only without sequins.”

He gives me a lopsided grin. “You ready to tell me what happens next? I still got your money, right here.” He pinches a fold of his pocket.Image

Now I’m irritated. “Look, pal, stop wasting my time, okay? You’re occupying the same space as a paying customer.” Some of these guys, you don’t stiff-arm them up front, they start treating you like their private candy machine.

He gets this soulful, whipped-beagle look, and I swear to you it was like he felt sorry for me.

“Oh, Jerusalem, Jerusalem. I would have sheltered you beneath my wings, but you would not.”

“Yeah, whatever.”

ImageHe moves off down the way, but I can feel his eyes on my back. Not threatening… just sorry. Like I’ve missed something I’d later regret.

(To be continued…)

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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 Old, Old Story, Part 1

March 21, 2013

By way of introduction: Admittedly, this story is a bit of a departure from the stated theme of this site. But it is fiction (at least, mostly), and I guess it could be set somewhere in a metropolitan area of southeast Missouri … if you can find one. So … Enjoy!  

The Old, Old Story

It was definitely the best gimmick I’d ever used; better than the time when I sat in an abandoned department store display window in front of a hand-lettered sign that said, “Suffering from Writer’s Block—Won’t You Help?” Another time, I used to hang out at Wal-Mart, trying to make up stories using all the items people had purchased. junkOne guy had a commode plunger, a case of motor oil, and a sack of birdseed. You don’t even want to think about what I did with that.

But this latest trick was great. I’d take my laptop someplace downtown with lots of foot traffic. They’d see my sign, stare at me a couple of seconds, then either walk on past or slow down for a better look. It got so I could tell pretty quick who would actually sit down and talk.

My sign said, “Get a Life. $5.00.”

I figured out pretty quick that anybody can tell some goofy fairy tale. But I’m thinking it needs to be plausible, but still better than they can do for themselves.

“First off, I don’t do futures,” I’d tell them. “I get you up to this point in time and that’s it. If you don’t like the life I give you, you don’t pay. Got it?” But I never had anybody take back the money—except one. Just that one. God help me.

I’d talk them through it while I polished up the grammar. I’d run a spell-check, copy the whole thing to a CD, and hand it to them. “Anybody with a current version of WordPerfect can print this out for you,” I’d tell them. “Hope you enjoy your new life.” They’d get this cock-eyed grin, maybe shake their heads a little, like, I can’t believe I’m doing this. But I had them, see? They knew as well as I did they wanted that disk more than they wanted the five bucks.

So one day I’m sitting at my usual place. I see him coming from a block away; a homeless guy, dressed in the latest layered look from the Salvation Army. As soon as I spot him, I get this sinking feeling. Sure enough, he makes for me like a ragged chicken coming home to roost. He takes a quick look at my sign and flops into the seat across from me. To my surprise, he fishes around in a pocket and flips a greasy, stained five onto the table.homeless

Making eye contact with him is like staring at the taillights on the last cab leaving a bad part of town. His sun- and wind-scoured face has a raw, caved-in look, like a freshly healed scab. He’s wearing a cap that had maybe been green in a previous life. The tufts of frayed hair sticking out from under it all around are some indeterminate blondish-brown, to match the four-day stubble all over his face. His eyes are a faded blue, and I notice they’re clear and focused. He stares straight at me, like I’m a TV and he’s the remote.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life,” he said. “Who are you?”

“I’m Larry, Moe, and Curly. Nice to meet you.”

“You got a form I need to fill out?” he said. “Most people I work with, they got some kinda form.”

“No, not really. You been around here long?”

“Long enough.”talk

“What’s your name?”

“Whatever you want it to be. You’re the one with the sign.”

As I’m giving him my opening spiel, he leans over and rummages around in his garbage sack, comes out with half a pair of silver kid’s scissors; the kind with the sharp ends, not rounded. He turns sideways in the chair and starts cleaning his fingernails. There is something so ineffably sad about this loser doing his manicure with a broken pair of school scissors that I have a twinge of bourgeois guilt.

“Look, can I get you something? I mean …  are you hungry or anything?”

He gives me a sly grin and shakes his head. “I have food that you know not of.”

Back to the keyboard.

You are the illegitimate son of a wealthy East Coast industrialist, the result of his weekend encounter with a high school senior who placed you for adoption and subsequently went on to graduate from college, marry a banker, have three children and get elected president of the elementary school PTA. Just after your sixteenth birthday, your loving and supportive adoptive parents acceded to your persistent demands to know the truth of your origins. laptopUsing the adoption agency’s records as a springboard for years of determined sleuthing, you finally discovered your father’s identity. You dropped out of college and traveled across the country, working a succession of menial jobs to earn bus fare and meals. When, after months of arduous travel, you finally reached your biological father’s last known residence—a convalescent home in upstate New York—you were told that he had died a week prior to your arrival. Shattered by this tragic circumstance and robbed of your raison d’etre, you began drifting west again, trying desperately to forget the many losses in your life.

The wealthy, dying father loans the whole package a very attractive and plausible sense of pathos, I’m thinking. I save it to a disk and hand it to him. “Here you go. Enjoy.”

He stares at the disk for a couple of seconds. “Can I read it?”

“Well, no. You gotta find somebody to print this out for you.”

He looks at me like, who are you kidding. The guilt cranks up again.

“Okay, okay. Come around here and I’ll put it on the screen.”

As he leans over my shoulder, I can smell the complex and disagreeable ambiance of his existence. I can hear him softly whispering the words on the screen, hear him quietly scratching his cheek.

He stares down at me, his forehead wrinkled with a question. “I don’t get it.”

“What?”

He points at the screen. “I mean—where’s the rest?”

“Uh, that’s it—that’s the whole thing, right there.”

“No, I—” He shakes his head. “What you’ve got is good, okay? But … Well … what happens next?”

“Look, I don’t do futures, remember? I only get you up to this point in time—”walkaway

He looks at me as if I have just spoken in Sanskrit.

“No way.” He snatches the five off the table and stuffs it deep into his pocket. Shouldering the garbage bag, he says, “Sufficient to the day is the evil thereof.” He starts to walk off, then stops. “Here,” he says, tossing the disk at me. Then he’s gone.

(To be continued … )
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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 — Conclusion

February 22, 2013

It was Christmas Eve, and around mid-morning, Gail took the kids to town to get some last-minute gifts to exchange with the Sloan kids, just down the road. Hal stayed in the tool shed most of the day, welding or tinkering with the machinery scattered around the yard. He gave the outward appearance of a busy farmer trying to get machinery ready for spring. But in the indrawn slump of his shoulders, the tightness around his eyes, I could tell he was just trying to hold back the helpless wail of despondency threatening to break the dam of his self-control. I watched from the house as he scurried from one chore to the next, desperately trying to outrace the bitter tide of despair.

By late afternoon, it made me sick to my stomach, and I had to get away. I backed out of the driveway and drove west, away from the house, down the narrow blacktop road, across the drainage ditches crosshatching the countryside. I found myself turning left onto a small gravel road running down the east side of the acreage we had always referred to as the Wilson Place, after the people from whom my grandfather rented and Dad subsequently purchased it. It was the first farm, after the home farm, that my family had owned. I drove slowly past the dormant fields, corn stubble pointing randomly this way and that, jutting from the dark-grey, lumpy surface. These fields were rich, fertile—and Dad had them cut to grade, so they were easy to irrigate. They could be counted on to produce, year after year. Somebody would get a bargain with the Wilson Place.

Image

As I looked out over the level expanse I realized that still within me there was a fragment of disbelief in the loss of the farm. How could it be that my family would not be here anymore? What would move in to occupy the place within my soul reserved for the farm? It had always been my starting point for self-definition. But someone was buying the North Pole, moving it to Venus. I felt like a salmon returning to its birth-stream, only to find a dam built across the way. And Hal, what of him? I still felt the scalding shame of his futile anger as he lashed out at me, and through me, the forces of uncaring economics that offered solutions without feelings, a life with no heartbeat, survival with nothing to live for. I was not sure my brother had the necessary emotional equipment to survive in the no-name world to which I had inured myself. It struck me that I had learned to live in such a world largely because I knew that always behind the faceless masses, above the ever-shifting heads of the crowd, beyond the manufactured, plastic skyline of my daily grind, there existed a place where people connected with each other, a place where roots ran deep and each person counted. A resting-place from the impassive onrush of the urgent. A home place.

In another moment of epiphany, it came to me that I carried this home place inside me. It had been growing there since my childhood, awaiting a day like this, and I just now realized it. It was born of my love for the farm, nurtured by the love its people shared in good times and bad, tempered by trial and disappointment, strengthened by the dogged faith in God that ran throughout, like the theme of a fugue. The home place lived within me now, separate from the geographical and legal facts about the farm, and no person, no court of law, could ever take it away from me. This place had shaped me, placed its stamp on me, and I would forever remain, for good or ill, a testament, a declaration of its influence.

The sun flickered weakly through the gray, overcast dome of the sky as it settled toward Crowley’s ridge. The air grew cooler with more than nightfall as I drove back to the house. I pulled into the driveway, and I could see, through the foggy windows, gauzy hints of the frantic activity mandatory for households with children on Christmas Eve. Packages were being wrapped for the evening’s exchanging of gifts with the Sloans. The two younger kids were hopping about like manic fleas, unable to contain their excitement.

Image

Gail scurried between the wrapping of gifts and the warming of leftovers in the kitchen. Only Hal sat still, staring into the fireplace in the den, a raft of loneliness adrift in a sea of activity. I went into the house, tossed my coat on the back of a chair, and squatted before the fire, warming my hands. For a long time Hal and I stayed that way; in the same room and worlds apart.

Every now and then, one of the kids would race up the stairs behind us, but they didn’t approach either their father or me. I suppose they were aware of the fragility of the bubble of good cheer surrounding them, and knew better than to risk bursting it by coming too near us.

Image

Finally I turned to face him and cleared my throat, just as he looked up at me and opened his mouth to speak. “Frank, I …”

“No, you go ahead.”

“Well, I was just going to say that I know I came across sort of high-and-mighty this morning, and I didn’t mean to. It’s just that … ”

“Yeah, I know … and I kind of lost it, too, there, and … and I’m sorry as hell, Frank, really I am. You didn’t deserve that load of garbage I laid on you this morning.”

I started to reply, felt my words jamming up behind the baseball in my throat, felt the hot tears spill down my cheeks. “Hal, I … you’re all the family I’ve got. Don’t give up, is all I want to say. Just don’t give up, okay?” I wanted to say more, so much more, but I couldn’t control my voice. I dropped my head, kneading my eyes uselessly as the tears spilled over my fingers. He looked away, into the fire. Still rubbing my eyes, I faced him again.

Image

“Hal,” I said, my lips curling uncontrollably around my words, “I think you’ve got to face the fact that, no matter how much you love the farm, no matter how much history our family has with this place, no matter how hard you’ve tried, you’re going to have to leave here.” Still staring into the fire, his chest began to heave in silent emotion. “I hope you come to the place where you can see your life as something apart from this farm. It’s been good to you, and it’s part of you, but you still have to choose between dying with it and living with your family. Do you hear what I’m trying to say?” No answer. I plunged ahead, into the minefield, not knowing what else to do. “You made some errors in judgment, and you probably took some bad advice along the way, but, Hal, none of us gets to go back. You did what you thought was best, and it didn’t work. Cut your losses. Hal,” I pleaded, “decide to live! Live for Gail, for the kids. There’s something, someone out there bigger than you and your grief. I … I just hope to God you can learn to accept that.”

Gail came to the doorway, saw us there, and hesitated, looking back and forth between us. “Everything okay in here?” she called uncertainly.

“Well, Hon,” said Hal after a long pause, “that sort of remains to be seen.” He looked at me, for the first time since I had begun speaking to him, and a wistful smile was toying with the corners of his mouth.

After several swallows and blinks, Gail managed to say, “Supper’s ready. We’d better eat so we won’t be late.”

Hal and I started toward the kitchen. I felt his rough hand on the back of my neck. I looked outside, where the first few stray snowflakes were drifting aimlessly to the ground.

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The Home Place, Part 2

September 13, 2011


I had seen beaten men before, and it was plain that one sat beside me now.
Exactly what Hal had lost, I wasn’t sure, but it chilled me to the bone to see this anvil of a man beaten into impotent grief.

“Hey, what’s the matter? You’re not leveling with me,” I said, gripping his upper arm and trying to look him in the eye. I had not seen Hal cry half dozen times in all our growing-up years: it was scaring the hell out of me.

“I … I don’t want to go into it now, in front of the kids,” he managed to stammer in a poorly-controlled voice. Kip stood stock-still in the hall, his face a scared, stark question mark.

“Yeah … I understand. Hey, Kipper,” I said, turning to him, “do you think you could go in the den and look under the tree for a red package tied up with bright green ribbon? Get it and take it to Kris, so she can read the label and make sure your name is spelled right. Could you do that for me, partner?” Kip wandered doubtfully into the den, glancing back now and then at us as his dad and I sat beside each other, silently groping for words.

I cleared my throat. “So … maybe we should save this until after dinner?”

“Yeah, when we get the kids down for the night we’ll have some time to talk.”

“Just tell me this: is it you and Gail?”

“Oh, no, we’re … at least I think our marriage is okay.”

I felt the vise in my throat loosen a notch. I loved Gail like a sister. In fact, I guess she was the sister I had never had. She had seen me through the morass of puberty, giving big-sisterly advice about things Mom didn’t live long enough to tell me. I knew if it came down to it, I would have to put my emotional chips on my brother; I was just glad I didn’t have to make the choice.

“Okay, Hal, we’ll save it till later. But no more hedging. I want to know what’s going on. Got it?”
He nodded his head as he swiped a massive forearm across his eyes. “Yeah … it’ll be good to get it off my chest.”

We stood there for a couple of minutes while Hal got his face straight. I listened to the sounds of the household: Gail bustling in the kitchen, clanging pans and utensils; two of the kids fighting noisily about some inconsequential catastrophe; the sound of a game show on the television no one was watching. And I thought maybe I didn’t want to know whatever it was I would find out after dinner. I wasn’t sure I could deal with a tragedy striking so close to the center of what was precious to me. Hal was a sort of gravity for me. He was the farm and my childhood distilled into flesh—a human lodestone.

He sniffed and blinked rapidly, struggling to regain a façade of control. He straightened up and we walked into the den, arms around each others’ shoulders. We talked around the lumps in our throats until Gail called us to the table.

Dinner was a minuet of harmless conversation, accompanied by the uninhibited obbligato of the kids’ stream-of-consciousness jabber. Jimmy, the oldest, wanted to know how long I’d had the sports car, how fast would it run, did I get any tickets on the way here, and he made all A’s this quarter. Kris, the classic middle child, picked at her food, giggled, and got repeatedly grossed out by Kip’s clowning with his entree. Gail alternately dealt discipline and glanced back and forth between Hal and me, sensing the silences between words, feeling the presence of the invisible guest at the table.

It announced its presence in unanswered glances, in half-sighs falling feebly into silences which should have been filled by robust, chaotic, vigorous talk of family and the season and the crops. Not for the world would I broach any subject which might spill the wrenching pain of my brother’s grief out onto the table. But how could I know what raw nerve I might strike with the most innocuous reference? It was like walking on glass shards, barefooted and at night and without a flashlight.

So I answered questions, talked to the kids, and complimented the food that I barely tasted. For some reason, a line from a song kept running through my head like a litany. It was a song we used to sing in church: “Troublesome times are here / filling men’s hearts with fear … ”

With dinner eaten, and the children shooed down the hall to begin stalling bedtime, we shuttled the dishes by degrees to the side of the sink, then went into the den and sat down in the glow of a dying fire. Hal and I looked at each other with bleeding eyes until he glanced down, looked at Gail, cleared his throat and, after several false starts, hoarsely gasped, “I’m losing the farm, Frank.”

(To be continued)

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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