Posts Tagged ‘gifts’

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 33

April 11, 2019

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

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

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

“Hello, Zeb! Merry Christmas!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What, indeed? “Sorry,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now, wait a minute here—”

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

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

He gave a tight little laugh that hurt his throat.

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

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

“Well?” she said.

“Well what?”

“Why don’t you?”

“Why don’t I what?”

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

“All right, then. How are you doing?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Zeb, what are we going to do?”

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

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

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

“Becky … I—”

“Don’t.”

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

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

“What did you—”

“It’s cold. Let’s go back.”

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

*******

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

“Nothing.”

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

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

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

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

Ned shrugged, still looking down.

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

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

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

“How come I never seen him?”

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

“Wished I’d of known him.”

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

“What was his name?”

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

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

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

“Well, sure, boy, if you want to.”

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

“I do. If it’s all right.”

He could feel his father looking at him.

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

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

“What happened?”

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

“Ned—”

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

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

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

“What’d your mama say about it?”

Ned shrugged.

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes’m.”

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

“Yes’m.”

Louisa looked at her. Lila kept her eyes down.

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

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

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

“Yes’m.”

Another pause.

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

“Yes’m. I guess we better.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sure sorry, Miz Lou.”

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

“Anythin’ need seen to in there?”

“No. That room stays closed.”

“Yes’m.”

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

“Yes’m.”

“What time can you be here?”

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

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

“Yes’m. I reckon.”

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

“Yes’m. Thank you.”

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

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

*******

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

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

 

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Sunday Clothes, Chapter 32

March 28, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How you doing?” Louisa said.

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s so for all of us.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“‘S g’een.”

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

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

“Awake. And hungry, I’ll bet.”

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

“Bless your heart,” Addie said.

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

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

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

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

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

“Have a pinnic,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

“I know.”

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

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

There was a long quiet.

“I don’t know.”

‘‘Any news from Dan?”

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

“Easy enough for him.”

“He’s not charging me anything, Lou.”

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

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

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

They painted another while in silence.

“Honey, you’ve got to—”

“I know, Lou. I will. But not yet.”

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

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

Addie gave her a surprised look.

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Son.”

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

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

“‘Why doesn’t Ewell,”’ Louisa said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Y’all sounded good out there.”

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

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

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

She felt someone touch her elbow. It was George.

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

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

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

“Don’t mention it.”

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

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

“Yes, that’s fine. Thanks.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

 

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 20

January 3, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

She churned her butter in Paw’s old boot,

With a risselty–rasselty, hey, John dobbelty

Rusty co–pollity neigh, neigh, neigh!

And for the dasher she used her foot.

With a risselty–rasselty, hey, John dobbelty

Rusty co–pollity neigh, neigh, neigh!

 

She sold her butter in my home town,

With a risselty–rasselty, hey, John dobbelty

Rusty co–pollity neigh, neigh, neigh!

And the print of her heel was on each pound.

With a risselty–rasselty …

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

Jacob opened the door, still wearing his dressing gown.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You wear it around your neck—” asafetida

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

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

“Merry Christmas to you, Perlie.”

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hush now. You better rest.”

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

“How’s Mama?”

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

“Mother?”

“Yes, honey.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

*******

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

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

“There’s one more, Zeb.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What have I done now?

*******

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

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

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 17

December 13, 2018

“And the old fella says to the doctor, ‘Who says Grandpaw wanted to get married?’” As soon as the punch line was out of his mouth, Pete Norwich guffawed loudly.

“Pete! Honestly!” his wife said in a shocked tone, but Zeb noticed she was smiling behind her napkin.

Becky shook her head, grinning despite her slight blush. “Daddy, I’ve got half a mind not to let you speak at the table anymore if all you’re going to do is embarrass us in front of our guests.”

“Oh, now Becky, come on! Mr. Douglas here didn’t take offense at my little joke. Sakes, I’ve told that one at church before!” laughter

“Not when I’ve been around, you haven’t!” his wife said.

Zeb chuckled politely, more at the reactions of Pete’s wife and daughter than at the joke itself. It was slightly off-color, but, Zeb had to admit, pretty funny.

“Mrs. Norwich, could you please pass some more of that delicious corn?”

“That’s the way—duck out on me right when I need reinforcements,” Pete Norwich said. “Well, as long as you’re at it, pass that corn on around here when you’re done.”

“Mr. Douglas, would you please hand me the potatoes?” Becky said. Zeb passed the bowl of mashed potatoes to her, seated to his left.

“Here you go,” he said. As he handed her the bowl, her fingers brushed across the back of his hand. He was almost sure it was unintentional.

Zeb had caught himself wondering about her age, about why she was still living with her parents when her two younger brothers were already out making their own ways in the world. Zeb had caught himself thinking other things about Rebecca Norwich, too; things that he did his best to shoo from his mind as soon as they entered—things about her easygoing manner, her quick smile, the freckles scattered like brown sugar across her cheeks and the bridge of her nose, the way the sunlight glinted in her blonde hair, the way that blonde hair might feel between his fingers …

“Pete, why don’t you let me come down to your office tomorrow and show you what our company can do for your savings?” Zeb said. “We’ve got some of the best guarantees in the business, and I think we could—”

“Oh, land sakes, here he goes again!” Pete said. “Have the boy over for Sunday dinner and he starts twisting my arm about insurance before the chicken’s even cold! Makes a body reluctant to show hospitality to strangers.”

“Now, Pete, you hush!” said Ruth. “Zeb’s not going to finagle you out of any money—and besides that, he’s not a stranger. I don’t know why you won’t at least hear out his proposition.”

“Lord a’ mighty! He’s got to my own wife now! What’s a fellow to do?”

“Sounds to me like you ought to just buy something from him, Daddy,” Becky said. ‘‘I’d bet that’d be the best way to get him off on somebody else.”

“‘Fraid not, Miss,” Zeb said. “Soon as I sell this old mossback one policy, I’ll be after him for something else. Any boy in knickers can tell you it’s easier to keep a wheel rim rolling after you get up some momentum.”

“Well, at least he’s honest!” Pete said. “I like that in a swindler.”

“To tell the truth, Mr. Douglas,” Becky said, “I must confess I don’t see how you do what you do.”

“What’s that?”

“Walk up to perfect strangers and convince them to trust you enough to buy a life insurance policy from you; give you their hard–earned money in exchange for something they’ll never even see.”

“Well—”

“It’s ‘cause he’s got a silver tongue and a line of malarkey that’ll reach from here to the top of the capitol dome,” said Pete.

“Pete! Hush!”

Zeb grinned. “In all fairness, Mrs. Norwich, your husband’s got a point. Being able to talk to folks is a pretty big help. But, of course, you’ve also got to know what you’re talking about, and you’ve got to sincerely believe that you’ve got the answer to their biggest problem—”

“And do you?” Becky interrupted.

Zeb looked at her. “Do I—what?” portrait

“Have the answer to their biggest problem?” She smiled.

Zeb felt an odd tension in his chest, but he tried to shove it out of his awareness. “Well, every man’s gonna die, but not every man’s got enough money saved up for his family to live on after he’s gone. So … yes, I guess I do.” He looked at her as he finished. Her strange smile puzzled him, intimated that he’d answered a different question than the one she’d asked.

“Well, I think I’ll go out and spend all mine while I’m still kicking,” said Pete, “and let Ruth and Becky makeshift for themselves when I’m pushing up daisies.”

Zeb winked at Ruth. “Mrs. Norwich, it sounds like I better write him up today and not wait till tomorrow.”

‘‘Absolutely!” she said. Pete grabbed his heart and moaned while everyone else laughed.

*******

Walking back toward the hotel, Zeb stared at the sidewalk in front of his feet and thought about the Norwiches. They were such nice folks. This was the third Sunday in a row Zeb had eaten lunch with them. Pete Norwich was a most companionable fellow, and Ruth, his wife, was as gracious as she was hospitable. Zeb truly enjoyed the cordiality and open, easy manner of this family. They had immediately made him feel welcome at church, for which he was grateful.

And … Becky. Zeb felt a twinge of something that might have been guilt—but why? he asked himself. He hadn’t behaved any less than properly toward her. Could he help it if the family had taken a shine to him? He was a married man, after all, and wasn’t about to do anything foolish.

Now that he thought of it, had anyone at the Norwich household ever asked him about his home and family? Absently, he rubbed the third finger of his left hand. Lots of men he knew didn’t wear wedding bands, he thought, a little defensively. Besides, that was Addie’s lookout. He’d bought her a ring; she could get one for him if she wanted him to wear it.

Becky’s question stayed with him. Not so much the question, really, as the interest it implied. He wished Addie would show evidence of some interest in what he did to put bread on the table and a roof over their heads. She had never really asked him about his business, never shown much curiosity about what he did all the time he was away from her. But he noticed she never turned down any of the things it bought for her.

And then an unmistakable sense of guilt jabbed at his insides. He shouldn’t throw off on Addie so! After all, she was the mother of his child! He had courted her and won her and promised to take care of her when her own father had pushed her out. He thought of her, standing on the doorstep of their new house, holding Mary Alice and waving good–bye to him as he left to catch his train. He thought of her as she lay beside him in their bed at night, recalled the smell of her hair, the softness of her neck against his cheek. A warm, penitent glow of protectiveness spread through his chest. courting

He decided to go home the very next weekend. He might even try to find time to go by that notions shop around the corner from the Gleason, try to find something nice for Addie and Mary Alice. Thinking of this made him feel better, and by the time he got to the front door of the hotel, he was whistling a jaunty tune and tipping his hat at passersby.

*******

The look on her face when she opened the door and saw him was worth a thousand dollars at least. Her eyes went wide and her face lit up with a surprised joy that made him wish he could go away and come back again right now, just to see it.

“Well, hello!” she said, and opened her arms to him. Their embrace lasted a long time but not long enough.

Mary Alice bobbed into the room, attracted by the commotion. Zeb’s heart turned over when he saw her. She stood with a finger in her mouth, trailing a rag doll along behind her by one soiled, unkempt pigtail. He knelt down and held out his arms.

“Hello, little lady,” he smiled. “Come give your daddy a hug.”

She stared at him doubtfully.

“Come on, sweetie,” urged Addie. “You better give Daddy a hug.” The child made a few tentative steps toward him before he swooped upon her and grabbed her to him, kissing her loudly several times on each cheek. He set her back down and she stepped quickly to her mother, holding on to her skirts and looking back at him—not exactly in fear, but not in amusement either.

“She’ll get used to you,” Addie said, looking down at her and stroking her hair. “Besides, it’s been, what? Nearly three weeks this time?”

He willed himself not to display annoyance at his daughter’s caution or his wife’s veiled rebuke.

“Well, maybe this’ll warm her up some,” he said, producing a brightly wrapped parcel from the pocket of his greatcoat. He knelt and held it out to Mary Alice. “I brought you something, sugar,” he said, coaxing her. “Something you can use to fix up that dolly’s hair.”

Mary Alice’s eyes went to the package like a moth to a candle flame. It was wrapped in bright blue paper and tied with a red satin bow that gleamed like the day before Christmas. She paced slowly toward it. When she reached him, her gaze shifted from the parcel to his face, making sure he wasn’t about to pounce again. She took the package and retreated a step or two, then plopped down on the floor and began worrying at the bow.

Zeb stood and walked over to Addie. ‘‘And here’s something for her mama,” he said, handing her a slightly larger package done up like the first, in blue and white. As she took it from him, he kissed her on the cheek and began removing his coat.

“Oh, Zeb!” Addie withdrew from the unwrapped box a shimmering silver chain attached to a gold–filigreed silver locket. “It’s so pretty!”

“Aren’t you gonna open it?”

She pried open the catch. Inside was a tiny photograph of her husband. She smiled at him.

He shrugged and grinned. “Don’t want you to forget what I look like while I’m gone.”

Mary Alice made a frustrated whimper. locket

“Here, dumplin’, let me help,” Zeb said. He squatted beside her and tugged the ribbons off the corners of the box and started a small tear in the paper. In the tentative manner of children more interested in the wrapping than the contents, Mary Alice slowly tore off one corner of the paper, then another. Gradually, she revealed a small rectangular box, which proved to contain a miniature comb fashioned of tortoiseshell.

When he again looked up at Addie, she was clutching the locket to her with both hands and regarding him with a fond, glistening expression that quickened his pulse.

*******

Charles McCrary stood in the vestibule of Twelfth Avenue Church of Christ, his Bible tucked beneath one elbow, and spoke to each member of his flock—Christ’s flock, he reminded himself—as they passed him on their way out the door. “Good to see you, Sister Crenshaw; glad you’re doing better … Morning, C. L. Your knee giving you anymore trouble? Hello, there, Janey! I sure like that bonnet your mama put on you today!” His facial expression was much relaxed from the professional scowl he usually affected in the pulpit. In the vestibule, he tried to be more accessible to the congregation.

As he stood here on Sunday mornings, he imagined himself as one of the sheep tenders of the Lord’s homeland: carefully watching each beast as it stepped over the threshold of the fold on its way to pasture, looking for signs of disease or infirmity that required the healing hands of the shepherd. Did this one have an infected cut that needed binding? Did that one need the burrs picked out of its coat? Was that lamb gaining weight as it should?

But sometimes he wondered how much he really knew. Sometimes, as he smiled into their faces and shook their hands and laughed at their childrens’ comments, he wondered what hidden hurts haunted their dreams at night, what silent sins nagged at them in secret. There were times when he wished he could do more than warn them from the pulpit. But he was, after all, only a minister of the gospel, an earthen vessel—Second Corinthians four, seven. There was only so much he could do. flock

*******

Addie shuffled along toward the vestibule, holding Mary Alice on one hip with Beulah Counts at her other side murmuring in her ear, “… thought I was absolutely going to fall asleep if he didn’t finish pretty soon—” Beulah’s face brightened and her voice increased in volume as she extended her hand to Brother McCrary. “That sure was a good lesson today, Brother McCrary!” she said as the preacher smiled at her.

“Well, Sister Counts, thank you. Sister Douglas, good to see you,” he said, turning to Addie.

As he shifted his attention to her, Addie noticed the light glancing off his spectacles.

“You, too,” she replied, nodding.

“Is Zeb gone back to Little Rock?” the minister said. “Noticed he wasn’t here this morning.”

“Yes, sir. He left last Wednesday to go back.”

“Well, fine. Good morning, Brother Chandler,” he said, reaching past Addie toward the next person in line.

‘‘Addie, why don’t you and the baby come on home with us and eat dinner?” Beulah suggested as they stepped out into the gray light of the overcast autumn day.

Addie sighed. “Oh, Beulah, I hate to impose on you again—”

“Don’t be silly, honey, it’s no trouble! I’ll just set an extra place and we’ll fix Mary a little pallet for her to take her nap, and you and I can sit and get caught up on …”

The afternoon’s itinerary droned on, but Addie stopped listening. It was no use. Once Beulah decided to do you a charity, there was no escape. It was just easier to go along with her. Moments ago, Addie had been puzzling over what she would fix for herself and Mary Alice to eat, but now she was gazing wistfully in her mind at her quiet parlor, with only Mary Alice’s baby jabber to put up with.

Addie managed an occasional nod or indistinct murmur of agreement, so as to keep Beulah’s conversational skids greased. She was vaguely grateful Beulah’s husband had not driven the horseless carriage to church this morning. Instead of having to balance Mary Alice on her lap and endure its jostling and stench, they could have a nice, sane walk for the ten or twelve blocks between the church house and the Counts’ home. women

She wondered how Zeb was doing, and what he was doing. He hadn’t talked much about Little Rock this last time, which was both a relief and a curiosity. In the past, he had talked so much about the “good things happening with the agency’’ that she had grown mortally weary. It was hard to preserve the appearance of calm, detached interest—the only way she had found to negotiate the shoals of Zeb’s professional enthusiasm. “Why don’t you ask me how I feel about something?” she often wanted to say. “Why don’t you at least try to talk about something I want to talk about, something that’s interesting to me?” She felt like one of Zeb’s prospects sometimes—like she was being sold on something she’d already bought and paid for. Still, he was her husband and a good provider for her and Mary Alice. The funds he deposited in their bank account on his trips home were more than adequate to keep them all fed and clothed, and supply some nice things, besides. It almost made her ashamed to be impatient with Zeb, as hard as he worked and as easy as she had it. So, out of consideration, instead of showing how she really felt, she tried to be just a shade more than polite—without being so encouraging that he went on and on and on.

She glanced over her shoulder at Will Counts, stepping along behind them with his sons. Will was usually a quiet man—with Beulah as his wife, how could it be otherwise? Addie had the fleeting thought that perhaps Will suggested her invitation to Beulah, to give her someone besides himself to talk at. But, at least Beulah and Will were home together at night. At least Beulah didn’t have to stare up at her bedroom ceiling, missing her husband and wondering how he was, or whether he was giving any thought to her. There was something to be said, after all, for just being together.

A tiny smile fluttered on her lips as she reflected on Zeb’s last furlough. He had been—how could she put it?—here—really here with her, she decided, at last. He’d hardly mentioned Little Rock at all. She’d be busy in the kitchen or taking care of the baby, and she’d turn around and find him leaning in a doorway, looking at her and smiling. He’d told her at least a dozen times he loved her. And … he had been so passionate. Her cheeks flushed with remembered pleasure as she thought of his wide, warm hands, strong on the small of her back as he pressed her urgently to him—

“ … going to answer me, girl?” Beulah was saying, jogging her elbow.

“Do what?” Addie said.

“I been trying for the last half mile to get you to tell me what you’d rather have for dinner—butter beans or purple hulls. I got both, and I’ll be glad to—” She peered intently at Addie’s face. “You all right, honey? Your face is sure red all of a sudden.”

‘‘I’m fine, Beulah. Purple hulls, I guess.”

*******

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

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