Posts Tagged ‘grief’

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 39

May 30, 2019

Addie walked to the window and peered as far as she could down the lane and along the road toward town, trying to see some sign of Dub’s headlights. Nothing. She paced into the parlor and looked at the mantel clock. Half past eight.

“Mother, when are they coming home?” headlights

“I don’t know, honey. Your Uncle Dub said he’d be back by dark.”

“It’s been dark a long time.”

“I know.”

“Why aren’t they back?”

“I don’t know. Why don’t you go finish your lessons?”

Mary Alice turned away and went back toward the kitchen, her head down. Addie’s voice was sharper than she intended. Her anxiety was infecting Mary Alice, most likely. Addie was trying to keep ahead of her worry, but the later it got, the more it gained on her.

The telephone made its rattly ring. Addie stepped quickly into the entryway and pulled the earpiece off the hook. “Hello?”

“Addie, it’s Lou. Dub and the boys just left for your place. He told me to call and tell you, so you wouldn’t worry.”

She felt a rippling flash of relief, followed quickly by aggravation. “What kept them so late?”

“Dub said the traffic down the mountain was real bad after the races were over. He said they got back as quick as they could.”

“Well, all right. They’re on their way?”

“Yes. Dub said Jake had the time of his life.”

“I don’t doubt it. All right, then. Thanks for calling.”

Addie replaced the earpiece on its hook. She wouldn’t have agreed to this at all, but Dub promised he’d keep Jake with him every minute of the time. For weeks and weeks now this auto race foolishness had been the only thing you heard anybody talking about; it had even crowded out the Prohibition vote as a topic of conversation. But now that the commotion was over and Louis Chevrolet and all his millionaire sporting friends were packing up to go back wherever they’d come from, maybe things would settle down to normal again.

She stuck her head in the kitchen. Mary Alice was hunched over her school tablet in the pool of light from the hanging bulb. “That was Aunt Lou. They’re on the way home.”

No acknowledgment. Well, let her have her mad; she probably deserved it. quilts

Addie went back to the parlor and inspected her day’s work. Two more spreads ready to ship to Mr. Lawlis. It was a lucky day for her when the Chicago businessman happened into Dub’s store and saw her bedspreads. He’d let her know more than once he’d be happy to take more than the two spreads per month she’d been sending. But Dub had helped her get started, not to mention he was family. She wasn’t about to throw him over for some fancy dresser from up north, no matter how promptly he paid.

She heard the sound of Dub’s Model T. She went to the front door and stepped out onto the porch.

Dub pulled up in the yard and the doors flew open. Jake and his cousin Ewell chased each other around and around the automobile, imitating the sound of racing cars.

“I’m T. J. Gates, from the Buick Racing Team,” Jake hollered.

“And I’m Loueee Chevrolaaaaay,” shouted Ewell.

“All right, you two,” Dub said. “The races are over; time for the cars to go back in the shed.”

Jake stopped in the middle of the yard and windmilled his arms, still making race car noises.

“Jake, you better tell Uncle Dub ‘thank you,’” Addie said.

“Thank you!” he yelled, without turning around.

“Thanks, Dub, for taking him,” Addie said.

“No trouble, Addie. We had a big time, didn’t we, boys?”

“What do you hear from Robert?” Addie said. “How’s Vanderbilt?”

“Fine, except for the classes.” Dub laughed and shook his head. “Takes after his daddy, I guess.”

“Well, Jake, you better get in the house,” she said. Jake immediately took off on another lap around the Model T.

“Ewell get in the car, son. We better get home. Sorry to be so late, Addie. The traffic—”

“Yes, Lou called. Jake! You better get in this house right now, young man, or I’m fixing to flatten your tires!”

Jake sputtered up the front steps and sprawled on the porch at her feet. “I’m out of gas, Mother.”

She waved at Dub as he backed out of the yard, then bent over and poked the boy in the ribs. “Out of gas, huh? Out of gas?”

He giggled and squirmed, trying to evade her tickling. She got him up and pointed him toward the front door. “I don’t guess Uncle Dub fed you anything, did he?”

“Sure did. They had barbecued turkey legs up there, and lemonade, and cider, and corn on the cob, and—”

“All right, all right. I get the picture.”

“Oh, you should’ve seen it, Mother! All those cars, and the engines just a–roaring, and the dust flying out from under their wheels when they made the turns—”

“I’ll bet you were in hog heaven.” race

“There were even some drivers from Chattanooga. Uncle Dub knew ‘em. Eddy Kenyon, and Charles Duffy, and—”

“And you’d best get those clothes off and get ready to get in the tub. You’ve probably got dust in places you can’t even show decent folks.”

“—and the Buick Racing Team! All the way from Detroit, Michigan, Uncle Dub said. And Louis Chevrolet. He’s French. Mother, where’s Detroit, Michigan?”

“North, a ways. Now get on upstairs.”

“Oh, Mother, it was just bully, is what it was. Bully all the way down to the ground!” He pounded upstairs, shedding clothes as he went. She looked after him, shaking her head. He’d be talking about this for weeks, most likely. She’d be surprised if he slept a wink tonight.

A little while later, she went to the kitchen. It was getting late. Mary Alice needed to be getting ready for bed. “About finished, dear?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Mary Alice closed her book and sat with her hands in her lap, staring down at the dull blue cover of the McGuffey Reader.

“What’s wrong, honey?”

Mary Alice sat very still, not even moving her eyes. Addie was fully prepared to hear about how she’d hurt Mary Alice’s feelings with her sharp tone just before the phone call came from Lou. She was prepared to respond to why Jake got to go to the car races with Uncle Dub and Ewell and she had to stay at home and do her schoolwork. But she wasn’t quite ready for what her daughter actually said. reader

“Sarah Frances Tanner says I don’t have a daddy.”

“Do what?”

“She does. She says I don’t have a daddy.” Still, Mary Alice wouldn’t look at her. “At recess today, she said it. And at lunch she said it to Lucy Wilkes. She told her I don’t have a daddy.”

Addie felt as if a place in the center of her chest was emptying. She stepped to the table and quietly pulled out a chair, then sat. She put her hands on the table and laced her fingers together, then spread them out, palms down. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“So, Sarah Frances said that, did she?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Now she raised her eyes to her mother’s. “Why doesn’t my daddy live with us, like Sarah Frances’s and Lucy’s?”

“Sweetheart—” Where on earth to start? “Honey, do you remember your daddy at all?”

She pursed her lips. “Just a little. I remember some sparkly paper. Was that Christmas?”

Addie gave a sad little smile and a nod. “Yes, dear, that was Christmas. Anything else?”

She twisted her mouth back and forth, then shook her head. “No, I think that’s all.”

“Honey, your daddy traveled a lot. He was gone more than he was home, even after you were born. And then, one day—”

The old hurt surprised her, sidetracked her with its sudden intensity. As if it had been waiting for a chance at her, and this was it.

“One day, he decided he didn’t want to come home anymore.”

“Was he mad at us?”

“Oh, no, sweetheart, not a bit. Not at you, anyway. No, don’t ever think that.”

“Was he mad at you?”

A place in her throat was starting to ache. She swallowed. “I guess he was, in a way. Maybe not mad, exactly, but … I guess he was just sad, maybe.”

“Did you do something bad to him?”

“No, I didn’t. At least … if I did, I didn’t know what it was.”

Mary Alice’s forehead wrinkled. “Mother, was he ever around after Jake was born?”

“No, honey. He wasn’t.” wrapping

“Well, what’ll Jake do? He won’t even have shiny paper to remember.”

No, not even that. “I … I don’t know, honey. I don’t know.”

She reached across the table, put a hand on her daughter’s arm.

“Mary Alice, now listen to me. What happened with your daddy and me wasn’t your fault. And it’s none of Sarah Frances’s business, or anybody else’s. You’re a sweet girl, and I love you, and you just remember that. All right?”

Mary Alice looked at her a long time. “Yes, ma’am.”

“All right, then. You’d better go get ready for bed. School tomorrow.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She dragged her books and paper off the table, tucked them under an arm, and wandered out of the kitchen, toward the stairs. Addie watched her go until she rounded the corner. When she heard Mary Alice’s feet on the stairs, she put her face in her hands.

She wondered why her own hurt hadn’t taught her how to soothe her daughter’s. You’d think I’d know something to say to her, Addie thought. But Mary Alice’s wounds were in a different place, had a different shape. And then Addie felt the raw and livid place inside her, the part of her that felt insulted that her daughter should even notice the lack of a man who’d cared so little for her—or if he did care, it wasn’t in any way that made a practical difference. Just one more way I’m not good enough, she thought. Just one more thing he’s done to me: leaving me here to explain something to a nine-year-old girl that her twenty-nine-year-old mother has never been able to explain to herself.

She got up from the table and wandered over to the sink. She’d tacked a calendar to the wall above the sink, beside the window that looked out onto the backyard and the tree line beyond. Peabody’s Dry Goods sent them out; they had a different illustration for each month of the year. The illustrations were in the style of the old Currier & Ives prints; this month it was a party scene, men and women playing croquet or some such game in the foreground, and a group gathered around some kind of table in the background. A church social, maybe. There wasn’t a title to it. The men were all wearing top hats, and the ladies’ dresses were old–fashioned, flared affairs with huge sleeves ballooning between the shoulder and elbow. And they were all wearing gloves. Didn’t look too practical for croquet, come to think of it. croquet

Mary Alice’s birthday was coming up in a few weeks. Addie would make her a great big cake and invite all her little school friends over. Maybe she’d pay Ned Overby a little extra, get him to stay after his wood chopping and turn the crank on the ice cream bucket. She’d think of some party games the little girls could play, and she might even try to sew a special frock for Mary Alice to wear, just for the occasion. Maybe she’d see if Lou would loan her Lila’s services to decorate and get ready for the event.

She stared out the window at the dark yard, the darker trees. She found herself thinking of Carolina Clark.

Her name was Carolina, like the state, she said, and she was very particular about the correct pronunciation. She was from somewhere up north. She came to Chattanooga when Addie was still a little girl to be the second wife of John Larimore Clark, a wealthy landowner whose first wife died from consumption. Addie remembered the first Sunday John Larimore Clark brought his new wife to church at Centenary Methodist. Addie remembered that even as a child, she thought of Carolina Clark as a small woman, and very pale. She wore big, wide–brimmed hats to church.

Carolina had odd ways, even for a Yankee. She was rarely seen outside the big, three–story house on Walnut Street that she shared with her husband and stepfamily. Some said she almost never left her own room. She was subject to headaches and would spend weeks at a time in bed with the curtains and shutters drawn.

But one of her strangest habits was that she never went anywhere or did anything, indoors or out, without wearing gloves. Naturally, most of the women at Centenary Methodist wore gloves to church. But even at meals, people said, Carolina Clark kept her hands concealed in gloves of silk or fine linen. hatgloves

On a Sunday afternoon in the middle of the summer, right after dinner, Carolina Clark got up from the table and announced that she was going to her room for her usual nap. The servants were away, her husband was traveling on business, and the children were in their rooms upstairs. Sometime that afternoon, Carolina rose from her bed, removed her Sunday clothes, walked outside, and threw herself down the eighty–foot well in the backyard. When her body was removed a few days later, all she was wearing were her white silk gloves.

That was what everybody knew, but what nobody said. At her funeral service, the preacher spoke of her as “a quiet woman who troubled no one.” But the thought of her troubled Addie, even as a young girl. What would make anybody want to do what Carolina Clark had done, she wondered. What dark voices whispered to her from the well, and why didn’t anybody else hear them, or know? Why wasn’t there anyone to shoulder a corner of Carolina Clark’s quiet desperation?

Addie suddenly felt very tired. She had some spreads she ought to work on, now that the house was quiet, but the thought of going into the parlor and threading her needle seemed arid and burdensome. She thumbed the button by the door to switch off the kitchen light. She tested the lock on the front door, then went to her room, turning out lights on the way.

*******

The man across the desk picked up the carvings as if he were handling Babylonian pottery shards. He held them up this way and that way, looked at them from every possible angle. He was a big man; his face was red and sheened with perspiration. His hands were beefy, but he handled Ned’s work like an acolyte might handle sacramental vessels.

“He’s got drawings?”

“Yes, right here.” George laid the leather portfolio on the desk between them. He was proud of the portfolio. He’d ordered it from one of the catalogs Professor Gaines suggested. Ned had grinned for a whole day when George gave it to him.

The man opened the portfolio. His lips made little pursing motions as he looked at Ned’s drawings. He would flip quickly through several sheets, then pause, slightly squinting one eye or stroking his upper lip as he studied a piece more closely.

“The style is a little naive, of course … that’s to be expected. But my! What a sense of line.” As he looked at the drawing, one of his hands strayed to the carving he’d been examining: a deer springing over a log. George smiled. It was hard to keep from touching Ned’s carvings.

“Oh, so he’s done some charcoals … Hmm … Yes.” charcoal

He closed the portfolio and looked up at George. “Well, Mr. Hutto, I must admit I was dubious when I received your first telegram. If Percy Gaines weren’t an old friend— But it appears to be just as you and Percy say. The boy is very, very talented.”

George leaned back in his chair. “Well, Professor Koch, I— It’s good to hear you say so.”

“May I speak with him?”

“Oh, well … he isn’t here. That is, he didn’t—couldn’t come with me.”

Professor Koch arched his eyebrows.

“His father needed him, you see. It’s spring, and that’s the time Perlie—Mr. Overby, the boy’s father—when he sells his hides, and—”

Professor Koch had bridged his fingertips and was staring at George with a blank expression.

“Well, at any rate, Ned couldn’t come with me to New York, you see. I was hoping you could look at his work and tell me— And you have, of course, and so … I was hoping …”

Professor Koch looked at him a bit longer, then cleared his throat with a delicate sound. “Mr. Hutto, you must realize. Our institute has certain standards.”

“Yes, of course.”

“To be considered, each candidate must undergo a personal interview by the faculty.”

George nodded.

“He must agree to the terms and conditions of enrollment. He must be made to thoroughly understand what we expect of our students.”

George took a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at his lips.

“Still …” Professor Koch took up the deer carving. He ran a palm over the deer’s back, ran a fingertip along the delicate, perfect curve of the neck. “I suppose, given the geographic challenges involved …” He put down the carving and aimed a forefinger at George’s chest. “The tuition for the first quarter must be completely prepaid.” deer

“Oh, yes, sir. That will be no problem.”

“And we’ll need letters from a teacher, and from Percy, and—”

“Yes, I’ve already spoken to them, Professor.”

Professor Koch leafed through the portfolio some more. “Yes. Extraordinary eye this boy has.”

George leaned back in the chair again and smiled.

*******

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.

Advertisements

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 38

May 23, 2019

At first, Addie wasn’t sure what it was. It didn’t look exactly like anything she’d ever seen. But when she picked it up and turned it over in her hand, it was as plain as anything that it was a fish.

Or more like the distilled, concentrated idea of a fish—a fish shown the way it might think of itself, if you could imagine such a thing. How could wood be made to do the things this piece of wood did? fish

She’d found the smooth, polished curve of linden lying on the corner of her porch, in the same place she had taken to leaving treats for Ned Overby on the days George Hutto drove him back from the YMCA. She’d found it last Tuesday morning as she was sweeping; she guessed it had lain there since the previous Saturday. The linden, almost bone-white, made little contrast with the whitewashed porch planking. If she hadn’t scooted the carving with the broom, she might never have noticed it.

She smiled as she looked at it now. She’d placed it on her mantle in the parlor. It soothed her eyes from the strain of her candle-wicking. The flow and bend of it invited her hand like an old friend.

She was almost finished with this bedspread. Just one more corner of the pattern to stitch and then it would be ready to wash and dry and take to Dub.

She was still surprised at how quickly the spreads sold. She could tell, at first, that Dub only let her put the spread in his store as a family favor—or maybe to keep from having to put up with Lou’s displeasure. But it sold within the week. After she gave Dub the store’s share—over his protests—she still had more than three dollars left over. And the next piece sold just as quickly. And the next. Dub soon stopped trying to act like he didn’t care about the money and started asking her how soon she could get the next bedspread on his shelf. Mr. Peabody had recently offered to start having one of his boys drive out with her cloth and thread and notions, and he let her know if she needed a few days on credit, that’d be just fine.

Addie was leery of credit, though. She liked the thought of the money in the ginger jar in the back of her closet, and she especially liked knowing all of it belonged to her, to do with as she saw fit. Credit muddied the water.

The Ingraham clicked and rattled, then struck. Ten o’clock—the mail was probably here. She finished out the row she was on and laid aside the cloth. She went to the front door, brushing her hand across the fish’s back as she passed the mantle. meadowlark

She stepped out onto the front porch. A meadowlark sat on the top rail of the lane fence. Its black necklace puffed out, dark against the yellow breast, every time it piped. She came down the steps, and the meadowlark blurred away toward the tree line.

The sound of hammers battered at the clear midmorning air. James Potts had sold off a piece of his pasture fronting the road, and somebody was building a big house on it. Every fair day since early spring she’d been waking to the sound of the project, first the sawing and shouting as they cut down enough of the big sweet gums and ashes to make a notch in the woods for the house to sit in. She’d watched as they leveled the plot, then watched the frame go up and the clapboard siding wrap slowly around the house. Now they were nailing down the roof planking. One of these days, Addie knew, she needed to find out who her new neighbors were going to be. Not that she minded neighbors. It’d be a comfort, in a way. And it would sure be nice if they had a little girl about Mary Alice’s age. Take some of the pressure off.

Good. Her summer Delineator was in the mailbox. Beneath it was an ivory–colored envelope addressed in a very decorative hand. She ran her thumb beneath the flap and opened it. An invitation to Callie Watson’s wedding.

Addie looked down the road, tapping the invitation against her palm. In a little while, she dropped it into the pocket of her apron and started back toward the house, thumbing through the Delineator as she went.

The magazine was a bit of an indulgence, she guessed, but one she thought she could afford. Looking at the smart fashion plates and reading the elegant descriptions of each costume allowed her to dream a little, to imagine herself able to pick and choose among the delightful outfits for herself and her children, just like the ladies in town who lived on Cameron Hill, whose daughters went to Epworth League and whose husbands came home every night to sit in an armchair and smoke and read the paper. The Delineator was an hour or two of pleasant escape, delivered to her mailbox four times a year. Not a bad bargain for twenty–five cents per annum. delineator.jpg

She went back in the house and dropped the magazine on the side table near her sewing chair. She promised herself a nice, long read after lunch—after she finished this spread.

Addie put the last stitches in her work just before noon. Miraculously, though Jake woke up, he was content to coo and gurgle up at the ceiling of his room until she had tied off the last thread and clipped the final row of wicking. She got him out of bed and carried him on her hip into the kitchen, calling up to Mary Alice to come down and get something to eat.

She fed the children and herself and got them both interested in some toys. She went into the parlor and settled herself in her chair, then reached for the Delineator, when she felt something rub against her thigh. It was the envelope in her apron pocket.

She sat back in the chair with a sigh. She’d managed to forget all about Callie Watson and her wedding until just now. She took the invitation out of her pocket and laid it on top of her magazine. She looked at it, cupping her chin in her hand.

She’d known Callie since she was born; the Watsons sat in the pew behind the Caswells at Centenary Methodist, Sunday after Sunday for years. She really ought to go to the wedding. She reached over and thumbed open the card. “William Jefferson Briles,” the groom’s name was. Addie didn’t recollect any Brileses. The boy’s people must be from somewhere else.

Addie wondered where they’d live after they were married. Would William Jefferson Briles settle in Chattanooga, become a partner in his father-in-law’s business? Would he and Callie move into the family pew? Would he be a class leader someday, or even a messenger to the Conference? Or would he follow some strange dream, drag Callie hither and yon, and leave her the day she finally gathered enough gumption to say, “no more”?

Lately, there were whole days at a time when Addie didn’t think about Zeb—when she didn’t wonder what he was doing, where he was living, whether he and this other woman had any friends, any fun, or if they were even still together. Days when she didn’t try to figure out where she’d gone wrong, what signs she’d missed, how she could have done better by him, or by herself, or by somebody. invitation

She turned the wedding invitation over in her hand a few times, then tossed it onto the table beside her magazine. She’d send a gift by Lou. A nice tufted bedspread, most likely. She picked up her Delineator and started looking through the ladies’ evening dresses. Here was one: “Absolutely guaranteed to make the lady wearing it the very cynosure of any gathering, and the gentleman on whose arm she enters the envy of all the swains present.”

*******

George slowed as he approached the lane, then clenched his jaw and turned the wheel, aiming the auto toward Addie’s house. Ned looked at him, a question on his face.

“I’ll just take you on up to the house this time.”

She came out onto the porch, holding the little baby boy. Her daughter trailed behind her, holding onto her apron strings. George braked to a stop and took the car out of gear. Ned got out.

“Well, I guess I’ll see you next time, Ned.”

He nodded and started toward the trail to his house. She was smiling down at the boy.

“Ned, how about taking a loaf of bread to your mama for me?” she asked. “I’ve got you a slice already buttered, with some honey on it.” bread.jpg

Ned shoved his hands deeper in his pockets but didn’t show any signs of leaving without the bread. She went inside and came back out with a bundle wrapped in cheesecloth and Ned’s slice balanced on top. “Here you go.” She handed it to him, and George saw the quick way she glanced away from Ned, toward him. A sliding–away look, like she might be feeling a little bad about something, but not bad enough to say anything out loud.

Ned took the loaf in one hand and the slice in the other. He started to take a bite, but stopped long enough to mumble, “Much obliged.”

“And thank you for the fish,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Will you carve something else for me sometime?”

Ned’s chin fell onto his chest, and he gave what might have been a nod. A flush crept up his neck. He shuffled off around the corner of the house.

Her eyes swung back toward George. He was still sitting behind the wheel of his car, and when she looked at him, he suddenly realized he had no notion of what he might talk to her about.

“George Hutto.” She gave him a slow, greeting nod.

“Addie.” He touched the brim of his hat.

“Fine day for a drive.”

“Yes, I guess it is.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “Somebody building a house across the road from you.”

“Pretty good–sized one too.”

“Yes, pretty good sized.”

The little boy grabbed a fistful of Addie’s hair and tried to put it in his mouth. She craned her head away from him. “Jake, now stop that.” She reached up and pulled the chubby arm away from her hair. He made a squalling sound and tried to snatch his hand away from her.

“No, sir. You stop that,” she told him. He squalled some more.

“Well, I guess I’d better get back,” George said, looking away as he worked the gear lever.

“All right, then,” she said, still wrestling with the little boy. She gave George a sort of distracted wave and went back inside, grabbing at Jake’s hand.

George backed carefully down the lane. Today was Saturday. Why hadn’t he asked her if he could pick her up for church tomorrow? She seemed in pretty good spirits, considering all she’d been through. But maybe that was how it was with most folks—they absorbed the bad in life, then went on. Maybe Addie was going on, that was all. Just doing what people did. toddler

He backed out into the road and put the auto in low. As he drove past, he glanced at the house going up across the road from Addie’s place. This wouldn’t likely be the last house built out this way. He’d heard James Potts was going to divide up a good deal more of his land. Probably a good move, what with the government starting on that dam out by Hale’s Bar and all the talk of the army camp going in just a few miles east. He wouldn’t be surprised if more and more of Chattanooga crawled out this direction.

George felt a vague kind of sadness, thinking of Addie alone in that big house of her daddy’s, just her and the two little children for company. Come to think of it, what made him turn in at her lane today? What did he think he was going to say or do?

Today was Saturday. In a week’s time he’d be back out here, picking up Ned Overby and bringing him home again in the afternoon. Maybe he’d pull down Addie’s lane again. Maybe they’d talk some more. Maybe next time her little boy wouldn’t be quite so cantankerous. Maybe he’d ask for his own slice of bread with some honey on it.

“Old Leather Britches” started running through George’s mind. Pretty soon, he was drumming his fingers on the steering wheel of his car and whistling as he drove back into town.

*******

Addie broke off a corner of the communion wafer and passed the tray to Sister Houser, seated to her right. She had a pretty good spot today, fairly close to the front and no dippers or chewers ahead of her. One Sunday, she’d been late and had to sit at the back, beside Will Tucker. She didn’t know if he noticed her turning the communion cup as he handed it to her and wasn’t sure she cared. It was nearly enough to make you stop taking communion. No use complaining to J. D. or any of the elders, though. They’d just send her to Matthew 26:27 and Luke 22:20 and say the Lord only authorized a single cup when he instituted the Lord’s Supper, and if it was good enough for the Lord and his apostles it was surely good enough for his church. Addie had thought once or twice about asking them if they thought any of the apostles chewed tobacco. communion

Addie knew she was supposed to be meditating on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross as she partook of the communion, but her mind was an unruly thing today. As she took a demure sip from the cup and passed it to Sister Houser, she had the guilty realization that she’d been trying for the last little while to remember where she’d put Mary Alice’s pinafore that needed mending. She sat a little straighter in the pew and tried to imagine the scene at the Crucifixion: Jesus on the cross, his woeful eyes turned to the stormy heavens; the Roman guard on his knees, realizing this was the Son of God; Mary leaning on the shoulder of the apostle John, her newfound son; Peter and the other men somewhere a little distance off, trying to figure out whether to run or pray.

Poor Peter. Addie could easily picture the look on his face—that scared, confused look men get when they suddenly realize they are about to have to do something they never thought they’d have to do. She remembered the first time Zeb was around when Mary Alice got a soiled diaper. He’d called from the other room, announcing the problem. “Well, there’s some diapers right there on the floor by her bed,” Addie had answered from the kitchen. A minute later when she went into the room with Zeb and the baby, he’d been sitting there, looking from that pile of diapers to his newborn daughter, looking like he couldn’t decide whether to bawl or break for the front door. She’d laughed at him till she had to sit down on the edge of the bed to catch her breath, then shooed him out of the room and gone about her business with Mary Alice.

That was in Nashville, in that little bungalow that had been the servants’ quarters behind the big house on Granny White Pike.

Jake twitched in her lap. She looked down at him, sleeping with his fist bunched in front of his face. Mary Alice was leaning into her side, her face sweaty where it was scrunched against the bodice of Addie’s dress. She brushed a damp strand of hair out of her daughter’s face. Sister Houser looked down at Mary Alice and smiled at Addie. She smiled back. They held each other’s eyes for a moment, the old woman and the young one, as the cup moved steadily along the line of the pews somewhere behind them.

*******

The organist mashed a dense hedge of chords out of the bank of pipes at the back of the church, and everybody stood up, sidling along the pews toward the center aisle. Louisa spoke to the people on either side of her, then noticed Callie Watson standing near the end of the pew, faced by a small half–circle of women. She moved toward them.

“Callie, I was so happy to get your invitation in the mail,” she said. “I sure hope you sent one to Addie.” Louisa kept her eyes steady on Callie’s face so she wouldn’t have to decide what to do about the looks the other women would be exchanging at the mention of her sister’s name.

“Oh, yes, ma’am, I sure did.”

“Well, fine. Guess you and your mama are busy as beavers these days, getting everything ready.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Well. I’m happy for you, honey.” She patted the girl’s hand.

“Thank you, Mrs. Dawkins.”

Louisa walked away. “Ma’am,” Callie had called her. “Mrs. Dawkins.” When, exactly, had she crossed over from “Louisa” to “Mrs. Dawkins?” She felt a faint sadness and, at the same time, a wry amusement at herself. The thought came to her that it had been a good little while since she and Dub had pleasured themselves with each other. If he wasn’t already asleep tonight when she got in bed, she might just do something about that.

*******

George was about to step into the center aisle, but he saw Louisa Dawkins coming and waited for her. As she passed, he gave her a polite little nod and a smile, but she must have been thinking about something else; she didn’t acknowledge him. peter

Something Rev. Stiller had said was troubling him. At the time it had seemed an offhand remark, really, just an aside from the main gist of his sermon. But it was stuck in George’s mind like a cocklebur in a horse’s tail, and he couldn’t shake it loose.

Rev. Stiller’s text today was from St. Matthew, the fourteenth chapter. He was talking about Christ’s provision for his followers, starting with the feeding of the five thousand and continuing with his rescue of the terrified disciples from the storm on the lake. He’d said something about how, usually, preachers liked to berate St. Peter for the lack of faith that caused him to start sinking when he tried to imitate his Master’s miraculous walking on the water. “But when you think about it,” Rev. Stiller had said, “St. Peter was the only one who had sufficient fortitude to step out of the boat.”

He’d gone on then, talking about Christ’s love and compassion, about how it was displayed even for those who didn’t understand his mission, like the five thousand, or his power, like the storm–spooked apostles. But George had stayed back in that tossing boat, pondering Rev. Stiller’s chance comment. He tried to imagine himself, like St. Peter, seeing Jesus stride across the waves and asking boldly for the ability to join him. No, he decided, it was a lot easier to place himself with St. Andrew, St. John, and the others, fearfully gripping the gunwales of the bucking boat and staring wild–eyed at their crazy fishing partner as he climbed out of the boat in the middle of a roaring gale. Or, even more likely, somewhere at the back of the crowd of five thousand, grateful for the fish and the bread, but otherwise mostly confused about what had just happened.

He was at the door. He nodded at Rev. Stiller and said a complimentary word or two about the sermon. The pastor shook his hand and said he’d see George next Saturday at the YMCA, which reminded George he’d never had that talk with Rev. Stiller about the Bible class, nor had he approached the young Baptist minister about coming in to teach. George smiled, settled his hat on his head, and picked his way down the steps of the church.

*******

Willie felt his stomach grinding. He was glad Bishop Jefferson was talking loud so the noise from his stomach wouldn’t make Mama look at him from the sides of her eyes like she did sometimes. It wasn’t his fault his stomach was empty, and church went too long. But Mama would probably look at him anyway. And Clarice would laugh at him.

Willie bet the white folks were already out of church, maybe home by now. He didn’t know why colored folks wanted to string church out so long. He looked up at his older brother, Mason Junior, sitting all serious and still with the choir. Just for a minute, Willie wished he could be sitting up there with his brother, out from under Mama’s elbow. But up front like that, he’d have to be still too. Everybody would be able to see him. No, that was no good.

He wished there’d been more to eat this morning than a half pan of cornbread that he had to share with his brothers and sisters. Not even any milk to wash it down, just water. Mama said hush complaining. Daddy didn’t say anything, just went on shaving at the kitchen sink. Daddy usually didn’t say much. Even when he was reaching for his razor strap.   trumpets

Willie listened to Bishop Jefferson. Not the words, really, just the sound of them. That was about the only thing he really liked about church—the way Bishop Jefferson half spoke half sang his words. Willie liked the rhythm of it, the way the words dipped and swooped and rumbled around low right before rising up all of a sudden, like trumpets blaring. Willie liked it that colored folks talked different than white folks. Put their words together different.

His stomach growled again. He liked to listen to Bishop Jefferson, all right. But Willie wished right now he’d finish on up so they could go home.

*******

The pains hit about halfway through the service. As he helped Becky down the front steps of the small white church building, Zeb wondered vaguely what it was about him and women and babies and church services.

He stopped thinking about that when he saw the crimson stains on the back of Becky’s dress as he helped her into the seat of the hired surrey. “Honey? Is something wrong?”

“When was the last time you looked at a calendar?” she said. “It’s only the seventh month, Zeb.” Her breath was coming in quick, shallow pants.

Fear dried his mouth as he yanked the horse around and slapped its rump with the reins. He had to think a minute to remember where he’d seen the small, squarish, two–story frame building that housed the hospital. He prayed there was a doctor around on a Sunday morning.

*******

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 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 29

March 8, 2019

Addie passed the next few days in a buzzing fog of murmured condolences; she passed unseeing and unhearing through the tatters of muted conversations. Most of the time she felt as if she had blundered onto the stage of a play for which she neither knew the lines nor had the script.

She was dimly aware of Louisa, of her concern and care. And of course Beulah Counts fluttered around the edges of her consciousness in a perpetual tizzy of Christian concern. There were many hours when Addie had the sensation of watching herself pretending to be alive.

The children, though, were a different matter. They forced her awareness, demanded her involvement. Some mornings, the crying of little Jake or the nagging and whining of Mary Alice were the only things that could drag her from her bed. infant

A week or so after the arrival of Zeb’s letter, Junior and Dub pulled up in front of the rented house with a wagon and two muscular men. Junior knocked on the door, and when she opened it, he said, “Addie, we’ve come to take you home.”

She fell into his arms and sobbed on his chest. She could speak no words; she could utter only huge, heaving cries of grief and devastation.

Arrangements began to happen all around her: rail tickets bought, the household goods loaded into the wagons and transported to the freight yard for shipping to Chattanooga, Junior and Dub and Louisa loading her and the children into a hired car and driving them to the station.

They moved her, Mary Alice, and Jake into temporary lodgings at Louisa and Dub’s house. When they had been there for perhaps two days, Dan Sutherland came to see her, at Junior’s request.

The graying attorney sat across the kitchen table from her. Louisa sat beside her and Junior stood behind, a hand on Addie’s shoulder.

‘‘Addie, I know this is awful hard for you,” Dan said, “but you’ve got to pull yourself together and think about the legalities of this situation. Your children are depending on you.”

At Dan’s mention of the children, something happened inside her. It was as if she suddenly remembered to start breathing again.

“No one—not even their daddy—can love those babies as much as I do,” she said, staring into Dan Sutherland’s faded blue eyes. ‘‘I’ll do whatever I have to do to make sure they stay with me.”

“I’m glad to hear you say so.”

“Dan, he don’t have a leg to stand on, does he?” Junior said.

“I don’t know. I don’t know what the grounds’ll be. At this point,” he said, looking carefully at Addie, “I don’t even know who’ll sue for the divorce.”

“His letter said Addie should sue him,” Lou said. “Why shouldn’t she do just that? I mean, after all, he just dropped this on her out of the clear, blue sky! Why shouldn’t she sue?”

Dan rubbed his chin. “Well, in the state of Tennessee, it’s pretty hard for a woman who ups and wants out of a marriage to take her children with her.”

“But she doesn’t want out!” Lou said. “Can’t you see that?”

“Of course I see that,” Dan said, “but I’m trying to tell you how the courts’ll see it. They’ll see a man whose wife has sued him for divorce, and if he chose, he could present the case that she was the one who took the first action to end the marriage. That being the case, if he was to decide he wanted to keep the children, I know a lot of judges that would let him do it. Unless of course—”

“What are you thinking?” Junior asked. judge

“Addie, you say this came from nowhere?” Dan said. “You had no warning whatsoever? None?”

Addie pushed herself up from the table and walked away a few paces, hugging herself. She turned back toward them but kept her eyes on the floor. “Things hadn’t been … real good between me and Zeb for awhile.”

“How long?”

“Well … really since about … nine months ago.”

Images flashed through Addie’s mind: Zeb home from Little Rock; the presents he had brought for her and Mary Alice; the fondness they had somehow found for each other during that brief interlude; their passionate embraces in bed … Then, subsequent scenes: Zeb asking her to move to Little Rock; her angry refusals; his silent, brooding hurt …

She forced her eyes to meet Dan’s.

‘‘I’d say it was about then that things began to get worse.”

Dan peered at her a few moments, chewing on a thumbnail.

“Y’all reckon Addie and I could have a minute or two in private?”

When Louisa and Junior had withdrawn to the parlor down the hall, Dan faced her.

‘‘Addie, this is an awful thing to have to ask, but I’ve got to know: did you ever think Zeb might be seeing another woman?”

Addie felt the floor tilt beneath her, then right itself. Another woman! In all the dark confusion and blunt loneliness she had felt, despite her growing dissatisfaction with their marriage, Addie had never suspected Zeb of betraying his wedding vows. Zeb, who had placed such stock in knowing what the Bible said about everything, who had been so insistent that agreement on religious matters precede their marriage—how could it be that Zeb could do something so overt as violating the Seventh Commandment?

“I … I don’t know, Mr. Sutherland. I mean … I never would have thought it of him, but—”

“Let me tell you what I think, Addie. I think the best thing you can do right now, at least until we know a little more, is to refuse to sue for divorce.”

She looked a question at him.

“I think you need to wait and let him sue you. I think you’ll stand a better chance of keeping the children.” mother

“I don’t understand.”

“Addie, for whatever reason, Zeb doesn’t want to be married to you anymore. My feeling is that there’s another woman involved but leave that aside for now. If he wants out bad enough and you won’t sue him, he’ll have to sue you. And to do that, he’s got to give grounds. This day and time, there’s only a few reasons for divorce recognized by the courts of Tennessee: desertion, cruelty—which most men don’t use—deprivation of conjugal rights, and adultery.” Dan paused. ‘‘I’m making the assumption that none of these would apply to you.”

“Certainly not!”

“All right, then. That’s about it. If he sues you, he’s got to prove that one of these fits. And if he can’t prove it, he won’t be granted a divorce. If, on the other hand, my guess about him is correct—”

“But, Mr. Sutherland, how would you ever find out? And if you did, how could you prove in court that—”

“Leave the lawyering to me. And my name’s ‘Dan’ from here on. ‘Mr. Sutherland’ was my dad, and he died three years ago.” He smiled at her and got a faint smile in return. “Now, like I was saying, if my guess is correct, you’ll be granted a divorce, and no court in Tennessee would take your children away from you if he’s involved with someone else.”

“Then … I have no choice but to go through with this?”

He looked at her and sighed.

“No, ma’am, I’m afraid not. Unless, of course, your husband comes to his senses.”

She turned away and looked out the window, once again cradling her elbows in her hands.

“I don’t hold much hope for that, I’m afraid.”

She stared out a window into Louisa’s backyard. Louisa had taken Mary Alice outside, and for a moment Addie watched her daughter bobbing joyously back and forth between her aunt and the pile of toys she had heaped in one of the wrought–iron yard chairs—blissfully ignorant of the shambles her mother’s life had become. child

Addie thought of what her marriage had turned into and realized all she could feel was fatigue. She turned again to Dan Sutherland.

“I’ll do whatever you say, Mr.— I mean, Dan. I’ve spent more time with these babies than he has, by a long shot. They know me—they don’t know him. I mean to do whatever I have to do to keep them.”

“All right.” Dan settled his hat on his head. ‘‘I’ll get to work.”

As Dan walked toward the front door, Junior called him aside into the parlor.

“Dan, Addie’s been left with little or nothing except what we brought back from Nashville. She may not can pay you much for the work you’re doing, but you know I’m good for it, don’t you?”

Dan gave Addie’s oldest brother a direct look.

“Junior, I don’t expect you’ll see a bill from me for this.”

“What do you mean, Dan?”

“Way I see it, your little sister’s had a dang poor run of luck with the men in her life. Meaning no disrespect, but the day your daddy came to my office, I shoulda drubbed him on the head before I let him go down the street and write her out of the will. I guess this is something I can do to ease my mind on that score.”

Junior stared at the lawyer for several seconds.

“Dan, I sure appreciate this.”

“Don’t worry. I might let you buy me a train ticket or two along the way.”

*******

And so it was that on a brilliant afternoon in October, Dan Sutherland received at his office a telegram from Little Rock, Arkansas. He had had to take certain actions that he personally found distasteful, but he had steeled himself to it by thinking of Jacob Caswell’s daughter, abandoned first by her father and then by her husband. Sutherland knew a man in Little Rock who had a knack for acquiring information and an associated talent for making few ripples. He tore open the Western Union envelope and withdrew the wire.

 

LITTLE ROCK OCTOBER 10 1903

DAN SUTHERLAND, ATTORNEY

TALKED TO SECY STOP YOURE ON RIGHT TRACK

STOP MORE LATER STOP SEND USUAL AMT STOP

PURVIS

 

Dan leaned back in his chair. Purvis would keep digging until he either hit rock or the hole was plenty deep. He withdrew a bank book from a desk drawer and began penning a draft payable to A. Purvis, “for services rendered.” He guessed it would probably be only the first of several such payments.

*******

George Hutto walked through the rickety, abandoned warehouse, his footsteps echoing from the wide, knotty pine plank floor up into the dark spaces under the roof. The rafters were festooned with the untidy nests of sparrows and speckled, like the floor below, with black–and–white droppings. George stood in the middle of the floor, his hands in his pockets. He turned slowly through a full circle, his eyes roving everywhere through the big, empty structure. It would need a good deal of fixing up. The roof hadn’t been patched in a few years, and the floor planking was buckled and water–stained in several places. They’d have to clean out all the birds’ nests and haul off the three or four bales of moldering cotton hulking in the northwest corner. There’d be a good deal of carpentry too; there were numerous gaps between the wall slats and underneath the eaves, which explained the sparrow and swallow nests. Paint would be needed, and more lighting. They’d have to cut some good–sized windows. They’d have to heat the place, somehow. Then there was all the equipment they would need. And at some point he’d have to begin recruiting volunteers to teach classes and lead calisthenics and … warehouse

In his mind, George stepped away from the immediate tasks and allowed himself to peer past them. He thought about boys chanting in unison as they performed exercise drills, boys eating hot meals, boys huddled around men with open Bibles or literature books. George tried to imagine the building’s appearance, its sounds, once he had succeeded in filling it with his vision. For just a minute or two he let himself savor the fulfillment of the mission. He needed to memorize the shape and taste of his future satisfaction to get ready for the plain old hard work it would take to make it real.

But even in the midst of calculating the difficulties, George’s dream allowed him to feel reckless and capable; this idea of his was a good thing. He was coming to relish the sensation of inner certainty. Besides, other cities had had good success with the Young Men’s Christian Association; why wouldn’t it work in Chattanooga?

*******

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 25

February 7, 2019

“Remember the last time we walked along here?” Zeb said. He smiled at Addie as they ambled along beside the pond in East Lake Park. “Remember what happened that night?”

Addie’s face wore the same vacant, burned-out look she had exhibited since the reading of the will.

“Hmm?”

“Don’t you remember?” Zeb tried again, forbidding his smile to wilt. “I asked you to marry me, right here beside this lake.” pond

“Yeah, now that you mention it, I guess you did.”

It was barely March; the willows around the pond were still bare and the grass was still winter–browned, but it was one of those early spring days when the weather turned off so warm and the sky was so blue it defied a body to stay indoors. Still, it had required all Zeb’s powers of persuasion to convince Addie to take a walk with him. He was beginning to wish he hadn’t taken the trouble.

Since that day at the attorney’s office, Zeb had been grappling within himself for an answer to his dilemma. All along, he knew what he should do, but the wrestling match was between that and what he felt like doing. He had fought and refought the same battles with himself—had captured and surrendered the same ground dozens of times. And today, out here in the lavish sunlight of early spring, he had resolved to finish the campaign once and for all.

Zeb felt the pressure of his next words building, pressing against the back of his teeth like captive steam seeking a release valve. ‘‘Addie, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking since … everything’s happened. The way I … the way we’ve been living isn’t right, somehow.”

She turned her face slightly toward him but said nothing.

“There’s nothing left here for you now, anyway,” he said. Somehow the words didn’t sound as good out in the open air as they had inside his head, but it was too late for retreat. “Your father did the worst he could to you, and he shouldn’t have, but he did, and nobody can change it now. So, what I want to say is—”

They had stopped walking. She was facing him now, her eyes on him, on his lips as they moved. It looked to Zeb like she was trying to see down his throat, to see the words as they formed inside him. Well, at least she was paying attention to something other than her grief.

“—I want you and Mary Alice to come to Little Rock. I want to get us all back together again. I don’t want to live apart anymore.”

Well, he had the words out at last. He tried to ignore the desperate moan of loss that drained away to nothingness inside him. He reached into himself and grabbed a smile from somewhere, trying to mash it into place on a face that wouldn’t hold anything but a grimace. He wanted to do the right thing! Why wouldn’t it feel right?

“When we get back to Nashville, let’s just load everything up and head west.” He reached out to take her hand. Good–bye, Becky. “I want our baby to be born in Little Rock. Addie, things can be good for us there. You’ll see. I’ll find us a—”

She yanked her hand away from him, as if he had smeared it with slime. Her lips were parted but not in a smile. anger

“Is that the best you can do?”

He stared at her.

“Do what?”

“This was what you wanted the whole time,” she said. “You told me they sent you to Little Rock so you could prove to them you were good enough for the home office. But you never once meant to come back, did you?”

Their argument before his last trip back reared up again in his mind.

“Now, Addie, just hear me out this time—”

“My family and my life and my church and everything about me—it’s never been good enough for you, has it? You had to change everything. Just bury it all and start over, didn’t you?”

“Addie! That’s not how—”

“Zeb, I told you before. I’ll not set one foot in Little Rock, Arkansas, or anywhere else on nothing but your say–so.”

The most frightening thing was how quietly she spoke. She had not raised her voice at any time, but the words stuck in his flesh like cockleburs. She had fired from point–blank range.

He stuck his hands into his pockets. Not knowing what else to do, he turned and began walking again. She fell into step beside him. To a casual observer, they might have stopped to exchange remarks on the weather and then resumed their stroll. Zeb felt ruined inside, despoiled and abandoned. And then he began to feel angry.

“It’s really the same thing, you and Papa,” she said, still in the same quiet voice. “Both of you have taken my life away from me and expected me to just go along. Well, I’m not going along anymore, Zeb. Not anymore.”

So this was what happened when a man tried to do the right thing! A man puts his heart through the wringer for a woman, and he gets kicked in the teeth for his trouble! So this was how it was going to be, was it?

‘‘All right, then. I won’t mention it anymore.” And don’t say I didn’t try. 

******* 

Dub hauled on the hand brake as the automobile wheezed its last breath. “I’ll get the bags,” he said as he opened his door.

Louisa turned to face Addie and Zeb in the backseat. “I sure hate to see y’all go back so soon,” she said, smiling at Mary Alice, who was seated in Addie’s lap, disguised as a bundle of winter clothing. The child’s face was barely visible through the tangle of her wraps. “When you gonna come back and see Aunt Lou?” she grinned at the child. ‘‘I’m sure gonna miss you, sweetie.”

Dub opened Addie’s door and offered her a hand. Behind them, a railroad agent strolled the platform, announcing their train. “Two o’clock to Bridge–port, Tullllll–ahoma, War–trace, Murrr–frizburruh, Naysh–ville, and all points west, now boarding on track number eight.”

“Well, that’s us,” Zeb said, shaking Dub’s hand. ‘“Preciate you bringin’ us down here, Dub.”

“No trouble.” trainstation

“I need a hug from this young ‘un before y’all go,” Louisa said, taking Mary Alice from Addie and giving her a tight squeeze. “You make your mama and daddy bring you back to see me, now, you hear?” The child began squirming and reaching for her mother, a troubled look on her face. “Oh, all right, here’s your mama, honey.”

Louisa handed the toddler back to Addie. She put an arm around her younger sister. ‘‘Addie, don’t worry. The boys and me’ll work something out for you. What Papa did wasn’t—”

“I know,” Addie said. She gave Louisa a quick hug with her free hand. “I just don’t want to talk about it anymore right now. We’ve got to go, Lou. Our train’s been called.”

“Need any help with the valises?” Dub said. “I can call a boy—”

“No, that’s all right,” Zeb said. “I got ‘em. Bye.” He hoisted the bags and followed his wife and child into the station.

Louisa watched them walk away into the crowd. Dub opened the car door for his wife, but she was still staring after her sister and her family.

“Lou?” he said after a moment, “can we go now?”

*******

Naturally, Mary Alice was cranky the whole way home, and she refused to sleep. By the time the train pulled into Nashville at half past seven that evening, Addie was so frazzled, so crumpled with fatigue, that she could barely speak. Zeb’s presence—when he wasn’t restlessly pacing the aisles of the car—registered only as a brooding silence. She knew her words in the park had stung him, but she just couldn’t make herself care. Addie doubted if they exchanged more than a half dozen words the whole way. That suited her fine.

When they had disembarked and Zeb had gathered the bags, he turned his face in her general direction and announced, ‘‘I’m gonna find a hack to take you and Mary Alice home. I’ve got to get back, so I’ll just stay here and catch the next train west.”

“Fine,” Addie said. If that’s how you feel about it. She hoisted the little girl on her hip, pressed a hand to the small of her back, and followed him off the platform and into the station.

*******

The driver set the valises down just inside the front door. He touched the brim of his cap and turned to go. “Wait,” Addie called, digging in her handbag, “don’t I owe you something?”

“No, ma’am. Your husband, he done took care of everything back at the station.”

“Well, all right then. Thank you.”

“Yes’m.” motherchld

She closed the door and set Mary Alice down. The child immediately began toddling down the hallway toward the bedrooms. “Da’ee?” she called, peering in one doorway, then another. “Da’ee?”

“Sweetheart, Daddy’s not here. He’s gone.”

Still, Mary Alice methodically searched each room, then went toward the kitchen. “Da’ee? Da’ee?”

From some remote, tightly guarded place within her, Addie felt her convoluted sorrow rising. She dashed into the kitchen and scooped Mary Alice into her arms, just as the sobs and hot tears started. She buried her face in her daughter’s hair and sat down in a kitchen chair, crying and holding her child.

Mary Alice patted her mother’s arm. She peered over Addie’s shoulder, through the doorway into the parlor, where the valises still sat by the front door.

“Da’ee?”

*******

The train rattled into Union Station, but Zeb was so dog–tired he knew nothing of it until he felt the hand of a porter on his shoulder.

“Sir? Sir? You better wake up, sir, unless you mean to ride this train all the way to Fort Smith. We’re in Little Rock.”

Zeb opened and shut his eyes several times in a groggy attempt to focus. He rubbed his face and gathered himself upright. The sunlight hurt his eyes. It looked like the afternoon of some day or other. Seemed like he’d been riding trains for a month. traintrack

He pulled his valise down from the rack and shuffled sideways along the aisle toward the doors. He could feel the cool outside air sliding through the mostly empty car. He wished again he hadn’t packed his overcoat.

He stepped down onto the platform and began walking toward the cab stands. As he walked, he toyed absently with the ring on his left hand. Then he stopped and stared at it for a moment. He set down the valise. He pulled the ring from his finger and held it for a moment in his palm—delicately, like a soap bubble that had lit on his hand.

Then he dropped it down among the cinders and darkened gravel of the track bed. He picked up his valise and shoved his left hand into a pocket. Hunching his back against the cool wind, he walked off toward the cab stands.

*******

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 24

January 31, 2019

The young woman pushed through the door into Zeb’s office and stopped short, her smile fading as she stared at Zeb’s vacant desk. Abner got up from his desk just inside the front door and approached her. “Yes, Ma’am? Can I help you?”

“Isn’t this Zeb Douglas’s office?” she asked.

“Yes, Ma’am. He ain’t here right now, though.”

“Where is he?”

Abner studied her carefully. It was pretty obvious she was more than casually interested in Zeb’s whereabouts. He added the columns in his mind and quickly decided he should tread with extreme caution. “Well, he got called back to Nashville, kind of sudden, Ma’am.”

“It’s ‘Miss,’” she said. By now there wasn’t anything left of the smile she’d worn coming in the door. “When did he leave?” office.jpg

“Yesterday morning, Ma’am—’Scuse me, Miss. I think he said it was some kind of … family emergency.”

She stared a hole through him. “What kind of family emergency?”

Abner gave what he fervently hoped was a convincing shrug. “‘Fraid I can’t say, Miss. He got a wire, and he read it, and before you could shake a stick, he was out the door to the station.”

Her features softened a trifle. “Well, I guess if he left in such a hurry as all that, maybe he wouldn’t have had time to let me know … ”

“Oh, I’m sure not, Miss,” Abner offered in his most earnest manner. “He read that wire and lit out like a scalded dog—’Scuse me, Miss. Anyway, he lit out right quick. I don’t imagine he had anything on his mind but getting to Nashville quick as he could.”

She looked at him thoughtfully for a few seconds. “Well, I’m sorry if I snapped at you. My mother is having a little social, and I came to invite Zeb; I guess I was pretty disappointed because I had no idea he was leaving town.”

“Aw, that’s all right, Miss. You didn’t do nothing wrong.”

She gave him another quick, hard look, then softened again. “Well, anyway, just tell him Miss Norwich came by. I’ll talk to him when he gets back to Little Rock. I don’t suppose he said when that would be?”

Abner shrugged again. “No, Miss, I’m afraid not. I’ll sure tell him soon as I see him though.”

“Well, all right.” She gave him a quick smile, adjusted her hat, and left. Abner stood staring after her. He scratched his head and gave a low, worried whistle. “What’s Zeb got himself into now, I wonder?” he asked the empty office.

*******

Becky’s mind was spinning as she walked back to her father’s store. Gone again! She wanted to he angry with Zeb for yet another unexpected disappearance, but the man had said, after all, that it was a family emergency …

She thought again how little she really knew about Zeb Douglas. A tendril of shame tried to bloom in her mind, but she shoved it firmly back. She had allowed herself to cross the line with Zeb … once. It wouldn’t happen again; she had promised herself that much. She knew better, and no matter how deeply she cared for him or he for her, she would not lose control again. It was a mistake, and it wouldn’t be repeated. They were in love, and they had gotten carried away by the moment, but that was all there was to it. sigh

Family emergency … Must be his mother, she decided. She wondered if Zeb favored his mother or his father. She hoped to meet them soon. She hoped that Zeb’s mother would be all right. She also hoped that he would be back soon. She already missed him desperately.

*******

As she swam back toward consciousness, Addie heard murmurs and ripples of voices around her. They reached her ears through the haze in her mind, and they seemed to come from all sides.

“Lou, you were the one that found him, right?”

“Yes. I went out to check on him a day or two after I went to see him at the store. He was in bed, looked like he must have died in his sleep. Had an asafetida bag tied around his neck.”

There was a sad little chuckle. “Lot of good it did him.”

“Too little, too late, I guess. She’s trying to open her eyes.”

Addie felt a hand taking hers, gently stroking it. “Addie, honey? How do you feel, sweetie?”

Addie blinked and tried to focus. Lou leaned over her, studying her face and stroking the hair back from her eyes.

“Well, hello there,” her older sister said, smiling. “Nice to have you back with us!”

“Where’s Mary Alice?” Addie’s tongue felt thick.

“She’s upstairs, taking a nap. She was acting kinda tired and fussy. I hope you don’t mind me putting her down for awhile.” sleep

Addie shook her head. She looked around. “This is your house, isn’t it, Lou?” Her sister nodded. “How long was I out?” Addie asked.

“Well, you kinda came around down at the lawyer’s office, but you never really roused well till now, and that’s been a coupla hours ago,” Bob said, coming to stand behind Louisa and looking down at his younger sister.

“We were getting worried, you being in a family way, and all.”

Addie sighed. The lawyer. Papa’s will … by reason of her willful disregard … It wasn’t a dream after all. Papa had really disinherited her. The shame and hurt washed over her again, but it wasn’t quite as overpowering this time—and she was already lying down. She felt like she ought to cry, but the grief seemed too deep for tears. It was more like a dull, dry ache, an emptiness inside her she had tried to forget. But now it had been shoved into her face, and there was no more avoiding it. Papa had put her out of his heart, and he had proved it by putting her out of his will. He had cut her off, just as he threatened on the day Zeb proposed.

Zeb … For a fleeting moment she wondered why he wasn’t in the room, but it didn’t quite seem important enough to ask about. He’d show up sometime, she assumed. She wondered how the news of the will had affected him. She had the vicious thought that he would probably leave, too, since there was no more hope of any dowry. She immediately reprimanded herself.

“Where’s Junior?” she asked.

“Down at Dan Sutherland’s,” Lou replied. “Seeing if there’s anything we can do about … the situation.” solemn

At that moment the front door opened. They heard steps in the hallway coming toward them. Addie heard the rustle of skirts, heard the murmured voice of Freda, Junior’s wife, as she asked him a question. There was no audible reply, and then Junior was standing in the doorway of the bedroom. The defeated expression on his face told them everything.

*******

Zeb had been walking for almost an hour, but his mind was still as snarled as a rat’s nest. He just couldn’t believe that Addie’s father had actually cut her off. He’d known Jacob wasn’t in favor of their marriage, but he just couldn’t believe a father would …

He felt cast off and cheated. He felt sorry for Addie, guilty for what their marriage had done to her, and angry because he felt guilty. He felt responsible … And then, from nowhere, a vision of himself and Becky Norwich invaded his mind. Becky, with her shiny, golden hair fallen down around her bare shoulders. Becky, her blue eyes looking deeply, deeply into his as he kissed her, as the pounding of his heart drowned out everything else except the feeling of his palms gliding over her skin—

Stop it! He grabbed his head with both hands, as if to clamp it in place—or perhaps to tear it off, to silence his restless and undisciplined mind once and for all. Zeb had never felt more wretched in his life. He had thought that in the days before their marriage, his uncertainty over his fate with Addie was the worst time of his life. But this … He was a battleground between duty and desire. There was no place he could go to escape the enemy inside his head; it was with him every waking moment, torturing him with rapidly alternating visions of rapture and wreckage. How could he even think of Becky Norwich now, when Addie needed him more than ever? But how could he forget Becky’s agreeable smile, her uncomplicated, undisguised interest in him, her softness, her gaiety—and her lithe, glorious body, unfurled beneath him, then wrapped around him like a welcoming, warming blanket? Becky was his in a way Addie had never been, could never be. Where were the answers? What could he do?

He walked on. The gold band on his left ring finger felt unfamiliar and strange, and he thumbed it nervously as he went. He thought of praying but instinctively shied away. He was certainly in no position to approach God with his problems just now. Besides, he had gotten himself into this predicament; it was up to him to extricate himself. ring

He knew he ought to get back to Addie’s sister’s house, even though he really didn’t want to. Addie must have come around by now; he needed to be there. At a time like this, surely there was something a husband could do—even a no–good like himself. He turned his feet back up the hill and began to retrace his steps, still thumbing his wedding ring, turning it round and round on his finger.

*******

George was restless. It was the middle of a Sunday afternoon, and he didn’t know what to do with himself. He thought about going upstairs and working on the model he had begun three months ago, a replica of the U.S.S. Constitution. He had started the ship on a whim after rereading the poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes, but the unpainted, unmasted hull had sat on his worktable, forlorn and abandoned, for weeks and weeks. Lately, he just couldn’t make himself get interested in his models, for some reason.

What he really wanted to do was call on Laura Sanders Breck, but he wasn’t quite able to go through with that either. After all, he had been with her late in the previous week. On top of that, he had escorted her to Jacob Caswell’s funeral. Cat that’s always underfoot gets kicked sooner or later, he lectured himself. In fact, he had imagined that she was the slightest bit restive the last few times they were together. George thought she still liked him for the most part, though, and he was most anxious not to spoil anything by being too hasty.

So he fretted. He’d already gone over the Times twice. He tried to find a book to read, but nothing looked interesting. He thought about taking a walk, but the sky looked threatening, so that didn’t seem advisable.

Pacing through the drawing room, his hands clasped behind him, he nearly collided with his father, who was trudging out of the hallway from the kitchen, carrying a brimming glass of buttermilk with cornbread crumbled into it.

“Watch it, Dad!” he said, shrinking back from the dollop of soaked cornbread that toppled from his father’s glass.

“Watch it, yourself,” Deacon Hutto said in a low grumble. “Moonin’ around the house like a foundered cow. Why don’t you just go see that woman before you fall down the stairs and break your neck, or somebody else’s?”

George felt the blush stinging his cheeks as his father edged around him and made for his favorite Sunday afternoon chair. He hadn’t realized his confusion over Mrs. Breck was quite so apparent. He watched thoughtfully as Dad settled carefully into the chair and began spooning the cornbread into his mouth. cornbread

“Well? What are you staring at?”

“Oh, sorry, Dad. I was just … woolgathering, I guess.”

George’s father grunted to himself as he swallowed another soggy piece of cornbread and chased it with a sip of buttermilk. George turned to go back the way he had come, then stopped and looked at his father. He swallowed, took a breath, then said, “Dad? When you were … Well, when you and Mother were courting, did you ever worry about, maybe spending too much time with her? Maybe wearing out your welcome?”

Deacon Hutto, a spoonful of cornbread halfway to his mouth, carefully put the spoon back into the glass. He looked at his pudgy, red-cheeked son for what seemed to George a full minute, but was probably only a few seconds.

“Son, I don’t much know what you’re driving at.”

George nodded, shoved his hands into his pockets, and drifted out of the drawing room. Deacon Hutto shook his head, rolled his eyes, and dipped up another bite of cornbread.

*******

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 22

January 17, 2019

George held Laura Sanders Breck’s elbow as she stepped into the buggy. Even though it was early February, George felt sweaty beneath his collar. The weather was fair, at least—one of those rare winter afternoons that made spring seem like more than a vague hope. He gave the hired rig a final inspection as he walked around to climb up on the seat. He didn’t exactly know what he was looking for, but he thought he ought to appear accustomed to doing such things. Bill Cray, the liveryman, was a friend of the Hutto family. Surely he wouldn’t allow George to take Laura Sanders Breck out in an unsafe rig. George clambered up into the seat and managed to get the reins gathered into his hands. He glanced over at Mrs. Breck and aimed a smile at her that he hoped appeared friendly and relaxed. “All set?” he asked. buggy

She stared straight ahead and nodded sharply. Once.

George clicked his tongue and the horse leaned into the collar, then stopped. George clicked louder and brushed the bay’s flank with the buggy whip, but the horse made no response other than an annoyed flick of the tail. “Oh,” George said, looking down beside him, “the brake.” He released the brake and clicked his tongue, and the horse moved obediently forward. “Good old Bill,” George said. “Looks like he gave us an experienced horse.” Mrs. Breck made no reply. As they made the final turn out of the wagon yard, George noticed Bill Cray leaning against the door of the barn, hands in his pockets, grinning at them.

They were going on a drive to the top of Lookout Mountain, a favorite activity for courting couples. George had been embarrassed in extending the invitation, half hoping Mrs. Breck would decline. She hadn’t, though, and here they were, clip–clopping down Ninth Street in the broad light of a Saturday afternoon. George felt very conspicuous. He kept his eyes straight ahead, sighting between the bay’s ears at a spot on the road about ten feet in front of them. He hoped Mrs. Breck wasn’t too uncomfortable with the whole town staring at them, as he thought it must surely be, but he didn’t dare turn his head to look at her.

Just after they had rattled across the plank bridge spanning Chattanooga Creek, George decided he really ought to break the silence. He cleared his throat.

“Nice day for a drive, anyhow.”

“Quite pleasant.”

“I think it does a person good to get some fresh air once in awhile.”

“I just hope some fool in one of those motor cars doesn’t come along and scare the horse.”

George slumped a little lower in his seat. “Well, so far we haven’t seen any.”

“I noticed your livery friend had them stacked all around his place.”

“Bill works on them now. Says it’s the wave of the future. Says one day, there won’t be anymore livery business, just motor cars.”

Laura Sanders Breck gave a skeptical grunt. “It’ll be too bad if he’s right.” car

George thought so, too, but he wanted to talk about something else—if he could only think of what that might be. The road was starting to rise up on the flanks of the mountain now, and the horse was leaning more heavily into the collar. George stole a glance at Mrs. Breck. She was sitting ramrod–straight on her side, holding on with a gloved fist to steady herself against the tilting road. She looked as if she was having an awful time. George felt his heart sinking down into his shoes. She was a nice lady, but when he was around her, he felt even more tongue–tied than usual. Still, she seemed not to mind his company; she had yet to refuse any invitation he’d offered. It was confusing. He had the vague sense that there was something they were missing, but he had no idea what it was.

The road turned up more steeply, and the muscles in the horse’s hindquarters bunched tighter. Just as George was about to ask Laura Sanders Breck if she would care to get out and walk around a bit, the horse, straining mightily with the load and the severity of the grade, squeezed off a long, low, quivering flatulence.

George felt his face and neck burning with embarrassment. The sound seemed to go on and on. Without realizing it, he scrunched his chin into his chest. The bay was still pressing forward, and every step produced a staccato aftershock. George wished he could just disappear. How in the world could he ever again face a proper lady like Mrs. Breck when such a mortifying indelicacy clogged the air between them? Not to mention the rather unpleasant smell. And then he heard her speaking.

“Sounds like your livery friend’s been feeding ‘em plenty of oats.”

George felt a laugh bubbling up inside him. No, not now! He clenched his jaw against it and willed it to go away. He felt it surge against the dam of his teeth and force its way upward, squeezing tears from his eyes. Still he held himself in check.

And then the horse erupted once more. It was no use. George threw back his head and guffawed. He laughed all the way from the soles of his feet, laughed so hard the crown of his head ached. Laura Sanders Breck would probably never let him in her sight again. When he finally got a lasso on the runaway laughter, he risked a glance at her, wiping his eyes on his coatsleeve.

And she was smiling. Staring straight ahead but smiling. She turned her head to look at him, and the crow–black eyes twinkled with amusement. She started giggling, and it was all up with him again. Soon, they were both howling at the top of their lungs. Somewhere amid the cleansing flood of merriment, he felt her fingers brush his. They held hands the rest of the way up the mountain. hands

*******

It was Sunday morning, and Zeb Douglas felt wretched. He looked in the mirror a final time, adjusted his cravat and smoothed back his hair. It was time to be leaving if he didn’t want to be late to church, but he was having a hard time getting himself to walk out the door.

He’d avoided Becky Norwich and her family since arriving from Nashville three weeks ago. When he considered her, his thoughts were tangled and troubled. In his mind, her image was perpetually bathed in a golden light. Becky was good–natured and confident. She had learned that it was all right to have firm opinions on things, and Zeb loved to hear her express them. He never had to wonder what she was thinking. She gave every evidence of being tremendously interested in him and everything he did. Being with her was a heady draught.

But he was a married man! He’d made promises to Addie and sired a child with her. Even though she was dour so much of the time, even though she’d never understand why he didn’t want to leave Little Rock, even though he never seemed to quite measure up to her expectations or her approved way of managing life, she was his lawful wife.

As he paced back and forth across the tiny front room, he stuck a hand down in the side pocket of his coat. His fingers encountered a round, smooth object. He drew it out and looked at it. It was the ring Addie had given him at Christmas. On the train, he had been wearing this suit and had, without thinking, dropped the ring off his finger and into this pocket, where it had apparently stayed these last few weeks.

Several times he slipped the ring on and off the third finger of his left hand. Then, slowly, he pulled out the top drawer of a bureau and placed the ring in the bottom, beneath his clean handkerchiefs. He turned around and walked out the front door, closing it behind him. When he reached Ninth Street, he paused long. Finally, instead of turning west toward the rock church building, he turned eastward, pacing slowly toward City Park. He wasn’t ready yet to face her. Not this morning.

He walked around the mostly deserted park with his hands thrust in his pockets. Apparently, most of Little Rock’s citizens were in church this morning—as he should have been. He felt like a great coward, felt guilty for abandoning his Sabbath duties because he couldn’t order his own thoughts and feelings. He tried to pray, but no worthwhile words would come to his mind. He wasn’t sure God wanted to listen to the likes of him, anyway, right now.

He decided to go back to his rooms. He had taken a flat above a dry goods store on Izard Street, about half a block off Fifth. It was small, but he didn’t need much room just for himself. It was also a lot more economical than staying at the Gleason. He had several city blocks to negotiate on the way to the office each day, which he didn’t mind—the walk gave him time to think. He arrived at his front door and was about to put the key in the lock when he heard quick footsteps coming up the stairs behind him. He looked back and felt his heart fall into his stomach. It was Becky Norwich. key

“Becky, what … why aren’t you—”

“In church? Well, I guess I might ask you the same thing.”

She stepped onto the landing at the head of the stairs. ‘‘And while I’m at it, I might just ask you this: who in the world do you think you are, anyway?”

His door fell open and she barged past him, into his apartment. “Becky, this isn’t … I don’t think—”

“Don’t worry, I’m not going to stay long enough to start any talk,” she said, standing in the middle of his parlor. “Mother and Daddy are visiting my uncle in Hot Springs, and as far as they know I’m at church this morning, like a good little girl.”

He stepped into the room and closed the door. “Becky, I’m sorry. I know you must think—”

“Let me just tell you what I think, Zeb Douglas. I think you’re about the most ignorant, unfeeling man I’ve ever been around. I think you don’t know what’s going on right under your nose, and I think I’ve just about had a belly full of it, is what I think.” She jabbed the air in front of his face with her index finger.

“You lead me to believe you enjoy my company, you hold my hand and say we’re friends, and then you leave for Nashville at Christmas without so much as a fare–thee–well. You’ve been back in town for at least three weeks and you didn’t call, didn’t send a note, didn’t act like you’ve ever even made my acquaintance. I’m hurt and embarrassed, Zeb, is what I am. I thought you cared about me, but I guess you’re just not the man I thought you were.”

She had apparently run out of breath. “Becky, I’m awful sorry,” he said. “You just don’t know what I’ve been going through.” He tried to look at her, but he couldn’t. He kept his eyes on a spot on the rug to the left of where she stood.

“Well, I know what I’ve been going through,” she said. “I’ve been in torment, wondering what I did, what I said, how I had possibly offended you to the point that—”

“No, Becky, that’s not it at all,” he said, looking at her for the first time. “It’s not you. It’s … it’s me. Like you said, I’m not the man you think I am.”

Scores of words clogged his throat. He had to tell her! I’m married, Becky, and I feel things for you I’m not supposed to feel! There’s a wife and a daughter in Nashville, Becky. A wife who’s angry with me most of the time, who doesn’t understand me half as well as you do, who confuses me and upsets me—but a wife, Becky. No, I’m sure not the man you think I am.

He tried to swallow past the knot in his throat. He felt a tear well slowly from his eye and roll down his cheek. She moved toward him and touched the tear with a fingertip. Becky peered into his eyes. He wanted to say something but just didn’t know how to start.

“Oh, Zeb,” she whispered, her face inches from his. “Why can’t you just tell me?”

He felt his arms encircling her waist. He pulled her to him, half expecting her to slap him, to scream. Instead, he felt her hands on the back of his head, pulling his mouth hungrily to hers. kiss

At first, he heard a voice in the back of his head chanting over and over, “This is wrong, this is wrong, this is wrong … ” But her breath felt sweet on his neck and her soft blonde hair tumbled down around his hands and the hot blood shouted in his ears as it coursed through his body. Presently the voice was an echo, then a whisper … then gone.

*******

Addie nibbled at the dry toast and waited for her morning nausea to subside. This stage had run much longer this time than with her first pregnancy. Surely, though, she ought to be mostly past the sickness part within a few more weeks.

Mary Alice padded into the kitchen, waving the letter she’d received yesterday from Louisa. “Honey, put Mama’s letter down,” she admonished her daughter. “Put down Aunt Lou’s letter.”

‘‘An’ Loo?”

“Yes, honey, that’s from Aunt Lou, and Mama wants you to give it here.” She held out her hand. Mary Alice reluctantly placed the envelope in Addie’s hand. “Thank you, sweetie. Now go on back in your room and play, all right?”

Mary Alice immediately plopped down in the floor and began fiddling with the lace at the hem of her nightgown. Addie sighed. She ought to dress herself and the baby, but she just didn’t have a lot of extra energy these days, and the news from Chattanooga hadn’t made things any easier.

She had cried most of yesterday after reading about Rose’s death and funeral. In her grief over Rose, she had barely noticed Lou’s worried postscript about Papa’s persistent cough. crying

Right then, it seemed to Addie that loss was all she’d ever known. Her mind viewed the landscape of her life and found it a bleak and barren place. At this moment, she longed with everything in her for one person who would really listen to her, but it looked like there was no one available for the job. She had never felt more lacking and alone than when she found out Rose was gone. At least when Mama died, there was Rose’s lap. Who was left?

Addie wondered if she was the only person in the world who had sustained such dreadful damage. The people she saw on the street and in the stores gave no sign of such wreckage in their lives as she was finding in hers. Surely others had survived abandonment and bereavement. When would her rescue come? When would the good days return? Or wasn’t she entitled?

“Well, Rose,” she said aloud, “Guess what? I’m gonna have to deliver this baby without you. Reckon how I’ll manage?”

“Mama ha’ bebby,” Mary Alice said, standing and placing a chubby hand on her mother’s belly. “Ha’ bebby.”

*******

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

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

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 16

November 29, 2018

Addie hadn’t heard anything from Mary Alice for some time, so she paced back through the house, trying to locate the too–quiet toddler. When Zeb had moved them into this new, larger place, she’d thought she’d enjoy the increased room, but at times like this she found herself missing the little servant’s cottage on Granny White Pike: there was less space there for a toddler to wander.

She rounded a corner into her bedroom and spied her daughter in the act of plucking one of her crystal figurines from the top of the dressing table.

“No, ma’am!” dressingtable

Mary Alice’s head wheeled about, her eyes big with guilty surprise. Addie paced quickly to her and snatched the figurine from her chubby fist with one hand, spatting the child’s hand sharply with the other.

“You are not to bother these! No, no!”

The baby’s face quickly clouded up and began to rain. Addie picked her up and marched back toward the front of the house, plopping the squalling infant down in the parlor in front of a pile of rag dolls and brightly painted toys.

“If you’d stay in here and play with your own things,” she said, “you wouldn’t get into trouble.”

Mary Alice, the very picture of wronged innocence, bawled unabated at her mother.

Addie sighed and rolled her eyes and searched beside the chair for the mail-order catalog she’d been perusing just before. She thumbed it back open to the jewelry section and began again to look at the men’s rings. She’d decided to buy Zeb a wedding ring for Christmas this year. She’d always felt a little guilty for never having procured him a band. He claimed it didn’t matter to him, but it did to her. He’d gotten her a fine, stylish gold band for their first anniversary, and she intended to have a ring for him by Christmas. She had almost enough money hidden in the pantry Mason jar to pay for the ring she’d chosen. She enjoyed looking at the picture and imagining how it would look on Zeb’s finger. She thought he’d like the ring. It was a gold band, about a quarter-inch wide, with a bead of finely inlaid silver on each border. It would look elegant on his hand, set off by his clean, crisp white cuffs and the dark suits he favored. goldband

Her eyes stayed on the pictures of the rings, but her mind wandered toward Little Rock. In the beginning, Zeb had assured her that successfully turning around the Little Rock agency was the final stepping–stone to his home office position here in Nashville, but it had been more than a year now, and he was still spending at least two weeks each month in the Arkansas capital city—sometimes, like this month, even more. From his talk of things there, it seemed the agency was doing well. She wondered why the men in the home office couldn’t be satisfied with Zeb’s work and offer him the Nashville job he said he wanted. But, on the few occasions when she’d tried to ask him about it, he’d become distant, almost annoyed. “There’s still a lot to do there, Addie,” he would assure her. “Griffs and Carleton are depending on me to leave Little Rock in good shape. I can’t just walk off—not until the job’s finished.”

There were times when Addie wondered what had changed between her and her husband. When they were courting and first married, he couldn’t seem to get enough of her presence. She smiled wistfully as she thought of some of the grand surprises he’d manufactured “for no reason,” as he sometimes said, “but to see that dimple on your right cheek.” It had seemed so easy to enjoy each other in those simpler days: a sunshiny afternoon was a good enough excuse to walk hand–in–hand up Cameron Hill; a night with a full moon carried a honey–scented enchantment that made words unnecessary; seeing the look on his face when she came down the front porch steps was like the secret opening of a longed–for gift.

When had the little joys begun to disappear? What was it about the daily friction of living together that rubbed so much of the shine off two people who thought they loved each other? And could they get it back? She hoped Zeb got that home office job real soon.

Mary Alice’s sobs had subsided to an occasional sniffle and whimper by the time Addie saw the postman walk past the front window. She laid aside the catalog and went to the door. The bright Indian summer afternoon sun was warm on her forearms as she opened the mailbox and removed the contents: a solicitation from someone running for county magistrate, a circular from a sewing notions company, and a letter addressed in a familiar hand … from Lou!

Smiling, she went quickly inside and tossed aside the other two pieces, eagerly running a finger beneath the flap of Lou’s envelope.

 

Dearest sister Addie,

I suppose you thought I dropped off the face of the earth, since

you haven’t heard from me for nearly two months now. I am some

better each day, it seems, altho there are still days when I’m not sure

I want to make the effort to keep going, but those seem to be fewer

and farther between, thank the Lord. It has now been twenty

months since my precious Katherine’s death, and tho I never

thought life could go on without her, it seems to, just the same. I

still miss her terribly, but things aren’t quite so dark anymore, somehow.

Then again, sometimes the most unexpected things will set me 

off. I might see a little girl about her size and coloring, or I might

hear a snatch of a song she used to sing. And I still can’t bear it at

church when they do “Safe in the Arms of Jesus,” like they did at

her service. Dub tries his best but he just doesn’t understand a

mother’s heart and I guess no man does, not really. He’s got to where

he doesn’t like to go out to her grave with me anymore.

Well, how are things with you? I’ll bet Mary Alice is just tearing

up Jack by now at her age and getting into everything, but just

try and remember that you’ll miss these times someday. Oh, goodness,

I better not get started that way again or before you know it

I’ll get back around to Katherine and be all down in the dumps

again. How is Zeb? Did he ever get moved back to Nashville, like

you thought he might? It’d be a shame for him not to get to be

around Mary Alice these next few months as she’ll be changing so

fast and you miss something if you’re gone for even a day, seems like.

I sure would like to see that little sweet thing, tho I know it will

make me sad. I hope we can come to Nashville before long but Dub

stays so busy down at the store and with Robert in school and all it

seems like the time just isn’t ever right.

Oh, I almost forgot to tell you that George Hutto said he was

mighty proud to hear about Mary Alice and he knew she had to be

a beautiful baby with you being her mama. I wonder how long it

took him to work up the nerve to say that much about you at one

time. He looked about like a little boy at his first recital.

Well I guess I’ve rattled on long enough and should close now.

You give that sweet baby girl a hug from her Aunt Lou and write

me back when you can. letter

Your loving sister,

Louisa C. Dawkins

 

Addie laid the letter on the table beside her and smiled into the middle distance. What she wouldn’t give to spend an afternoon in the parlor with her older sister, just talking about this and that, like two old married women.

But, of course, it wouldn’t do, not with Papa’s disapproval hanging over them like a curse. Addie noticed Lou had avoided any suggestion that she and Zeb should come to Chattanooga. They both knew it would be too hard, that Papa would be the invisible participant in every conversation. She would have to work so hard to ignore him that it was almost inevitable he would be the only thing she thought about. And Addie couldn’t imagine much good coming from that.

Mary Alice tugged at her skirt. Addie looked down and the child held up her arms. ‘‘All right, Miss, come on up,” she said, lifting the baby into her lap. Mary Alice snuggled close, the first knuckle of her fist in her mouth. Addie squeezed her gently and rubbed her cheek against the silky brown wisps on the crown of Mary Alice’s head. “Mama doesn’t like to get on to you,” she said, “but you have to learn to leave things alone, little dumplin’. Here you go,” she continued, giving her daughter a sudden squeeze. “That’s from your Aunt Lou.”

The baby giggled at the sudden movement. Addie squeezed her again, she chuckled louder, and so it went for several moments. Soon, the laughter of her little one had banished most of the trailing tatters of Addie’s hovering melancholy. She looked at the mantle clock and realized it was nearly three o’clock. “Come on, young ‘un,” she smiled at Mary Alice. “Let’s find you and me a piece of shortbread. I’m just about hungry!” Mary Alice babbled happily at her mother and clung to her shoulder as they walked toward the kitchen.

*******

Nothing was said when, after an absence of nearly three months, Rose resumed her duties at Jacob Caswell’s house. If he was surprised to find her standing on his doorstep on the July morning she returned, he gave no sign. If he was at all curious as to her whereabouts during her time away, he gave her no evidence, and he knew Rose wasn’t inclined to any unnecessary explanation. And so, with no more to–do than a slight nod from each, the two of them resumed their former arrangement.

Most of the time, Rose moved about the house as dispassionately as the shadows of clouds move across the landscape. She dusted, swept, straightened, cooked, and cleaned with the impersonal efficiency of a force of nature. Jacob, on the rare occasions when he noticed her at all, thought that sharing a room with her was about like sharing it with a piece of moving furniture. duster

But every once in a great while he would feel something brush against his awareness; a tingle on the back of his neck; an impalpable sense of being watched, or thought about, or disliked … or pitied. He would look up, and if Rose did happen to be in the room, he would generally see no more than the flicker of an eye or the slight turning of her head as she attended to whatever task engaged her. Sometimes, he would peer at her thoughtfully for some minutes. If she ever noticed his gaze, it wasn’t apparent.

One day, as Rose was setting his lunch before him, he could have sworn she spoke. “What?” he asked.

She cut her eyes at him as she placed the gravy tureen in front of him, then turned to go back toward the kitchen. “Didn’t say nothin’,” she mumbled as she ambled away from him. When she came back a few seconds later bearing a platter of freshly baked cat–head biscuits, he said, “I sure thought you said something to me.”

She shook her head as she poured his coffee.

The silence lengthened, broken only by the taps of his spoon against the sides of his cup as he stirred in his cream and sugar.

“Well, Rose, I guess I never did ask you where you went this spring. I don’t recall being asked for time off.”

“Can’t nobody remember what they ain’t been asked. I went on my own and I didn’t ask no leave. You don’t want me around no more, all you got to do is say so.”

“Now, Rose, don’t go getting touchy on me. I didn’t mean anything by it. I was just curious, is all.”

She walked back toward the kitchen, muttering under her breath. When she returned, carrying a plate of cold sliced roast beef, she was still going. She clanked the plate onto the table in front of him and turned away. As she did, he was pretty sure he made out the words, “ … ain’t got as much sense as God give a goose … “

“Rose, why don’t you just turn around here and tell me what’s on your mind?” he said. “All this grumbling and mumbling’s about to give me the indigestion, anyway. You might as well have your say, all at once, and get it over with.”

She came about to face him, her hands on her hips and her face tightly set in a scowl of disapproval. “I done been at this house for more than eight years, and every time I think you can’t get no more bullheaded and hardhearted, you up and shows me how wrong I is!”

He stared at her, mouth agape. “Rose, what in thunder are you—”

“You let that child walk outta your life with no more thought than if you was turnin’ out a stray dog! You really think you gonna make out any better on the Judgment Day than that boy she married? Or is you so busy feelin’ sorry for yourself about losing Miz Mary that you ain’t got no time to try to understand somebody else’s feelin’s?”

“Now, Rose, that’s just about enough!” he shouted, slamming his fist on the table and rattling the dinnerware. “The Good Book says, ‘Honor thy father and mother!’ She—”

“The Good Book also say, ‘He that trouble his own house shall inherit the wind!”’ she said. bible.jpg

“What about, ‘Children, obey thy parents’?”

“‘Fathers, provoke not thy childrens to wrath!”’

“I’ll not sit here and be lectured about my own children by a nigger maid!” Jacob wadded his napkin and flung it on the floor as he shoved back his chair and stood. “It’s none of your business what I do or don’t do about Addie!” he shouted, pointing an accusing finger at her. “She’s the one who left, not me. I provided her a home, and she showed her gratitude by turning her back on me—and her mother’s memory! Don’t you stand there all holier–than–thou and condemn me for following my God-given conscience. It like to killed me to see her leave like she did! Do you think she’s the only one who’s hurt over all this?”

“You be a sight better off to listen to this old nigger instead of diggin’ yourself a deeper hole than you already in! You didn’t no more know that young ‘un than if she was a stranger, but you so bound up in yourself, you couldn’t see who she was!”

She turned her head sidelong and shook it at him as she spoke, as if admonishing a wayward child.

“She ain’t in pigtails and pantaloons no more! She a grown woman, and she got to find her own way, and you got to let her! But what did you do? You good as told her your way was the only way! She your daughter in more ways than one, can’t you see that? You tell that child to jump, she naturally going to squat! You tell her to gee, she’ll haw every time! You tell her she can’t have the man she got her eye on, you just as well be tellin’ her he the only man in the world! That child didn’t leave you—you run her off, only you too blind to see it!”

Jacob glared at her. He felt his fingers curling into claws. He spun away, swaying against the edge of the table and knocking his coffee cup sideways. He stalked out of the dining room into the hallway and half ran to the front door, flung it open and was gone.

*******

Rose stood perfectly still, hands on hips, her eyes fixed on the space where he had been. Slowly, her head began to shake, and her eyes brimmed with tears.

“Sweet Jesus, help that man. He dyin’ and don’t know how to tell nobody.”

*******

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

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

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 15

November 15, 2018

Zeb stepped off the train into the midafternoon heat and bustle of Union Station in Little Rock. He set down his valise and motioned with his free hand for a nearby porter. The uniformed negro approached, trundling a hand truck in front of him. Zeb pointed at his suitcase, then handed him the valise. “Is there a hack that can take me to the Gleason Hotel?”

“Yessuh. Right this way.”

Ducking through the shouldering crowd as he followed the porter, Zeb noticed a poster advertising a traveling Chautauqua troupe. There was a show at seven o’clock that evening in the city park. He wasn’t in the mood to sit up in the room and brood. Might be good for him to get out, be in a crowd, hear some music and talk and laughter. He decided to go, after a nap, a bath, and supper. 74315afebe33b0af9ad8c99a2aa2a0e7

When the bellboy set his luggage down on the lumpy bed, Zeb dropped two half dimes into the waiting hand, tossed his hat on top of the suitcase, and stepped across the room to open the curtains. He heard the door close behind him. Zeb stood with his hands in his pockets, staring down from his third-story window onto Markham Street. Just across the way rose the dome of the state capitol building.

He wondered how Addie and the baby were doing. He hated to leave only two weeks after Mary Alice’s birth, but the days of inactivity had begun to chafe more and more. He was worried about his new agents here. A couple of them seemed like real good men, but there were others who wanted constant propping up. He couldn’t afford for the Little Rock agency to falter, now that Griffs and Carleton were beginning to take such a personal interest in his career. If he could keep things going here, it might be the next step to a home office assignment—and he had yet to reach his thirtieth birthday.

Addie had started to tear up some when he was taking his leave. She’d been standing in the front door, holding the baby in her arms.

“Well,” he’d said, looking away, “I guess if I wanna catch my train, I better get going.” The hack was standing in the street, the driver staring fixedly over his horse’s rump.

“Yeah,” she said, or he’d thought she said. Her voice was soft and airy. Her chin was dimpling, as if she were trying to hold it still.

He’d leaned over and kissed Mary Alice on the forehead, then did the same to Addie. He turned and walked away, toward the hack.

“I’ll write as soon as I get there,” he’d called over his shoulder, afraid to look at her, afraid she’d burst into tears in front of the hack driver. He’d thrown his bags into the cab, and the driver clicked his tongue, and he was away, wishing he could ignore the dull ache in his throat.

But he was feeling better now, thinking about all that needed to be done here, all the opportunity waiting for him. It was his responsibility to make a good life for his family. It was his God-given duty, if it came to that, and he was determined to make the most of this chance. Addie would understand. When he had a home office job in Nashville, he’d buy her a nice, roomy house with a big nursery for Mary Alice. He’d be home every night, and they would have nice things—the kinds of things his mother had never had.

He felt a heaviness around his eyes and remembered he’d promised himself a nap. He loosened his cravat and unbuttoned his collar. Setting his luggage on the faded carpet, he stretched out on the single bed with his hands behind his head and closed his eyes.

After tossing and turning for quite a while, Zeb finally accepted his failure at the attempt to actually sleep. He sat up, rubbing his face, and realized the shadows in the room told him dusk was approaching. No time to bathe now if he wanted to get something to eat and get to the Chautauqua show on time. He ran a hand through his hair and straightened his collar and tie. Giving himself a final once-over in the streaked mirror on the opposite wall, he walked out, locking the door behind him and pocketing the skeleton key.13276554a106be32740c2ad6b8276f71

By the time he arrived at the park, a crowd was already pooling under the tent. A brass band was thumping out some march or other; the muffling of the tent and the crowd made the tune indistinct. Zeb hurried up and snagged one of the last rickety wooden chairs on the end of the back row just as the band collided with the final note of the march. The crowd applauded politely, and a large, pot-bellied man with luxuriant sideburns and a florid complexion mounted the steps to the podium and approached the lectern.

Slowly and dramatically, he unbuttoned his coat to reveal a brocaded waistcoat. He took a deep breath and looked at the audience. “I shall perform Antony’s funeral oration from Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare,” he announced in a booming bass voice. He gripped the sides of the lectern and gazed out over the heads of the crowd. Taking three paces away from the lectern, he raised his right hand in a graceful, beckoning gesture.

“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears! I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him …”

There was a slight disturbance by Zeb’s elbow, and he glanced up to see an older man and a young woman standing beside him. The man pointed at the two empty seats to Zeb’s left and asked with his eyebrows if they were taken. Zeb shook his head and stood to let them pass. The man entered first, followed by the woman. They settled themselves, and Zeb resumed his seat.

“… The noble Brutus hath told you Caesar was ambitious; if it were so, it was a grievous fault …”

From the corner of his eye, Zeb saw the woman pull a fan from her handbag. The short, soft drafts bore the scent of her perfume: lilac. In an instant, he was carried back to a moonlit promenade beside the pond in East Lake Park, in Chattanooga. Addie always wore lilac perfume in those days, and the smell made him long for her with a sudden, bodily ache.

“… ambition should be made of sterner stuff …”

She had seemed like an angel to him in those days; her every movement had enchanted him, had hinted at secrets, suggested the possibility of delightful discoveries. He could look at her for hours on end and never grow tired. She dispensed happiness to him, simply by being in his presence. He thought he could never again lack for anything if only he might have her.

And then he had won her. Over Jacob Caswell’s disapproval and the entangling ties of her Methodist upbringing, he had won her. He, the outsider, the poor boy from the hardscrabble farm in north Georgia. The one with the ambition and the drive and the determination—he had won her. And for a time, the sweetness of his life had been everything her enchantment had intimated. She was like the magic pan of gingerbread in the fairy tale; each day he fed on her love until he was satisfied; and the next morning she was still there, fully as beautiful and charming and delightful as the day before.

When had he first noticed the fading of the sweetness? Was it something he had done that had broken the spell? How had he failed her? He had been a faithful husband and a diligent provider. He didn’t run with the drinking crowd, didn’t gamble or carouse. He had based every decision on what he believed to be best for them in the long run. He didn’t like all the moving around and traveling, but what else could he do? This was his opportunity—their opportunity.

He thought of her face in the moonlight of East Lake Park, then remembered the drained, resigned, suffering expression she’d worn yesterday as he walked out the front gate. Where had he gone wrong?

“… O judgment! Thou art fled to brutish beasts, and men have lost their reason …”

The woman beside him stopped fanning for a moment, leaned over and whispered something to the older man. Zeb heard their chuckles mingle softly. He cut his eyes to the left without moving his head. She was well dressed, and he could see strands of blonde peeking from beneath her lace bonnet. She bore a slight resemblance to her companion, and Zeb wondered if she might be his daughter. She was fair-complexioned, but there was a sprinkling of faint freckles across the bridge of her nose. She resumed fanning, and Zeb returned his eyes to the podium. 05dd87b9baa1c7ae95447287a6b7dbc4

After the orator, there was a handbell choir, and after that, a male quartet dressed in wooden shoes and knee breeches and singing in Dutch. Then a man made up like Abe Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address, and a woman dressed as the Statue of Liberty recited “The New Colossus,” by Emma Lazarus. Finally, the pot-bellied Antony came back and gave a long-winded, stentorian benediction, and the program was officially over.

Zeb stood and tried to work the kinks out of his legs. He turned to go, and felt a hand on his arm.

“Thank you for saving the seats for us,” said the young woman, smiling playfully. “I told Daddy we’d be so late we’d have to stand, and if it hadn’t been for you, we would have.”

The man stuck out a hand. “Pete Norwich.”

Zeb shook his hand firmly. “Zeb Douglas. Pleased to meet you.”

“Yes, indeed. And this is my daughter, Rebecca. She drags me to these cotton-pickin’ cultural sessions, whether I want to come or not.” Zeb chuckled with them and took her proffered fingers gently. “Pleased to meet you, Ma’am.”

“It’s ‘Miss,’” she corrected him, “and the pleasure is mutual.”

He looked at her a trifle longer than was strictly necessary. “Well, folks, I’d best be getting back,” he said. He touched the brim of his hat and walked away toward the park entrance. He decided to write a letter to Addie just as soon as he reached his room.

*******

Rose deftly slid the diaper under Mary Alice’s tiny, elevated behind and gently lowered her onto it. She folded and tucked it around the baby’s waist and legs and fastened it with safety pins. “There you go, Missy. I reckon that’ll hold you for awhile, at least.” She rearranged the little white Alençon lace gown and carefully picked up the child, bringing her to her ample bosom. Humming a tune under her breath, she paced slowly toward the parlor, bouncing the baby in a soothing, easy motion.

“Do you really have to go back?” Addie asked. Her expression was wistful as she sat in the cane-bottomed rocker and watched Rose with her daughter.

“Mmm-hmm. ‘Fraid so, Missy. I done wore out my welcome at Freeman’s place, and you ain’t got room for me here.”

“When does your train leave?” lacedress

“In the mornin’, ‘bout eight.”

“I’ll miss you, Rose. You’ve been so good for me—and for Mary Alice.”

“Well, you gettin’ stronger now. You can manage just fine by yourself, I imagine. I’m a old woman, and I been gone from my own place just about as long as I can stand.” Rose eased herself into the overstuffed chair, still gently bouncing the baby and humming softly.

Addie leaned her head back and closed her eyes, rocking slowly and listening to the husky half-whisper of Rose’s voice.

“What’s that song you’re singing?”

Rose increased the volume just enough for Addie to make out the words.

Come and go with me, to my father’s house,

to my father’s house;

Come and go with me, to my father’s house,

to my father’s house.

There’ll be no dying there,

There’ll be no crying there,

No sorrow there, in my father’s house,

in my father’s house.

There was barely enough contour in the tune for it to be called a melody; it was more like a chant. Nudged along by Rose’s voice, it rolled forward and forward, the words barely changing from verse to verse, hypnotic and comforting as the well-worn creases in Rose’s hands.

All will be well in my father’s house, in my father’s house …

The slight creaking of the rocker made a sort of plaintive counterpoint to Rose’s soft singing. Addie felt her mind bobbing aimlessly along the slow, thick current of the tune, whirling lazily in the eddy of the refrain.

In my father’s house, in my father’s house …

Addie thought about her father, imagined him sitting alone in his red leather chair in the parlor, sequestered behind the Chattanooga Times. She wondered if he even knew about her baby; he hadn’t written or sent any word since her marriage. She thought about the things he had said to her when Zeb proposed. Addie questioned whether he still considered her part of the family. In her worst moments, she doubted it. But sometimes, she held out some small hope that Papa would relent, would see that she was still his daughter, no matter what church she attended on Sundays.

Mary Alice’s eyelids fluttered a final time, then closed. Rose peered at her a moment, then eased herself out of the chair and padded to the bedroom. A moment later, she came back into the parlor, having deposited the sleeping baby in her crib. Cradle

“Rose, you never did tell me how you talked Papa into letting you come here to help me.”

Rose glanced at her, then seated herself heavily in the chair. “Slave days is over, honey,” she said, looking down as she arranged her skirts. “Don’t reckon I need your daddy’s say-so to come to Nashville if I got a mind to.”

“Then he didn’t send you to me,” Addie said in a sinking voice. She’d known all along, really, but she’d beguiled herself with the faint hope that Papa had at least given grudging permission for Rose to come and help his daughter in her time of need.

Rose studied her a moment, then looked out the window. “Honey, your daddy done changed when your mama died. I seen death do that to folks—make ‘em hard inside, make ‘em forget how to love them that’s left.”

“I wish Papa could at least try to understand how I feel,” Addie said softly.

“I wish he could, too, honey,” Rose replied. “But sometimes, when somebody hurting—even somebody who love you, deep down—they can’t see nothin’ but they own hurt. It ain’t right, and it ain’t fair, but there it is anyway.”

Several silent moments passed; the mantle clock ticked sedately. Addie’s rocking slowed, then stopped. She crossed her hands on her lap and stared out at Granny White Pike. “I wish Zeb could come home this weekend.”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“He works so hard, Rose. Sometimes … sometimes I worry about him.”

Rose said nothing.

*******

Zeb peered again at the piece of paper in his hand. “Eleven-oh-seven Ninth Street,” he said aloud. He looked around him, scratching his head, until he spied a knot of people walking up the steps of a small rock building in the middle of the block. “Must be it,” he muttered, and stepped quickly toward them.

It was Sunday morning, and he had really intended to go home this weekend, but at the last minute, one of his agents had requested his help to close an important sale. They hadn’t been able to see their prospect until late yesterday afternoon, long after the last convenient train to Memphis had pulled out from the station.

He had been meaning for some time to try to locate the local congregation of the church, but today was the first time he had been able to find the meeting place. Two or three days earlier, he had been idly thumbing through the newspaper and noticed a small advertisement for a “gospel meeting” to commence the next Sunday morning. The evangelist was some Texas fellow Zeb had never heard of, but the way his name was printed in large, bold letters, he figured to be really something. flyer

Zeb mounted the steps to the building and entered the small, cramped vestibule. It appeared the church house was packed to the limit. Evidently the Texas preacher commanded quite a following in these parts. He spotted a vacant place on the last pew, against the wall, and immediately made for it. A bonneted woman was seated next to the open place. Zeb touched her shoulder. “Scuse me, ma’am, but are you saving this for anybody?”

She turned to him, and the first thing he noticed was her good-natured smile. The second thing he noticed was the spray of freckles across the bridge of her nose, and the third thing he noticed was the lock of golden hair that fell from beneath her bonnet to the middle of her forehead. “Well, I guess I get to return the favor, Mr. Douglas. But, it’s ‘Miss,’ remember?”

“Yes, Miss Norwich. I won’t make that mistake again.”

“Fine. Then I guess you can have a seat.”

*******

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

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.