Posts Tagged ‘guilt’

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 33

April 11, 2019

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

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

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

“Hello, Zeb! Merry Christmas!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What, indeed? “Sorry,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now, wait a minute here—”

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

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

He gave a tight little laugh that hurt his throat.

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

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

“Well?” she said.

“Well what?”

“Why don’t you?”

“Why don’t I what?”

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

“All right, then. How are you doing?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Zeb, what are we going to do?”

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

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

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

“Becky … I—”

“Don’t.”

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

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

“What did you—”

“It’s cold. Let’s go back.”

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

*******

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

“Nothing.”

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

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

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

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

Ned shrugged, still looking down.

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

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

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

“How come I never seen him?”

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

“Wished I’d of known him.”

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

“What was his name?”

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

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

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

“Well, sure, boy, if you want to.”

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

“I do. If it’s all right.”

He could feel his father looking at him.

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

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

“What happened?”

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

“Ned—”

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

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

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

“What’d your mama say about it?”

Ned shrugged.

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes’m.”

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

“Yes’m.”

Louisa looked at her. Lila kept her eyes down.

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

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

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

“Yes’m.”

Another pause.

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

“Yes’m. I guess we better.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sure sorry, Miz Lou.”

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

“Anythin’ need seen to in there?”

“No. That room stays closed.”

“Yes’m.”

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

“Yes’m.”

“What time can you be here?”

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

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

“Yes’m. I reckon.”

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

“Yes’m. Thank you.”

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

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

*******

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

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

 

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Sunday Clothes, Chapter 30

March 15, 2019

Trusting as the moments fly, singing

Trusting as the days go by;

Trusting Him what e’er befall

Trusting Jesus—that is all …

 

Becky wasn’t much in the mood to sing about trust, which, it seemed to her, was getting harder and harder to come by. She mouthed the words to keep up appearances, but she couldn’t bring herself to really think about what she was singing, as she knew she should. Mercifully, the song ended, and Woodrow Stark took up his station behind the massive, brown–painted pulpit. She was able to focus on the empty air just above his head and allow her mind to drift away from the service. Drifting was what she seemed to do best these days, anyway.

For the third time in as many weeks, Zeb wasn’t at church. She had stood around the entrance longer than was decent, hoping to see him coming—but no. Becky just couldn’t understand the man. One day he would be all smiles; warm, confident, and full of fun; and the next time she’d see him he’d be distracted and edgy, would hardly speak a civil word. Or, she’d go for days and not see him at all. Camera 360

Becky felt her mother’s presence in the pew to her left, sensed the looming worry in her erect posture, in the angle of her neck—cocked to allow her to study her daughter’s profile without seeming to. Mother had the little New Testament she carried in her handbag dutifully cracked open to Brother Stark’s text for the day, had a gloved finger laid on the verse currently under discussion. But Becky knew her mother’s real attention was on her distracted, frustrated daughter. In the last few days there had been a few too many carefully disguised questions, a few too many jests left open–ended, capable of serving as the invitation to a mother–daughter talk. Yes, Mother was anxious about her little Becky. Oh, if she only knew … And, of course, there was Daddy, seated on the other side of Mother, arms across his chest, his head lowered in an attitude of bemused contemplation to disguise his boredom. She tried to imagine what he would be like if he suspected what she was really doing on some of those Saturday afternoons when she was “catching up the books at the store.”

Becky had told herself she ought to have nothing more to do with Zeb—more times than she could count, she had told herself. But … when things were good with Zeb, they were so good. When he was right, when he was behaving in the manner she’d come to think of as “the good Zeb,” something just loosened, came unwound inside her. There were times when they saw each other when his face would bloom like a starving man who’d just smelled a home–cooked meal; times when she felt she was his lifeline. It was good to be needed in that way, good to spend and be spent for someone she could sustain and provide for. In those moments, she felt herself to be a necessity to him, felt helpless to deny him anything he wished from her—and that had gotten her in farther than she’d strictly intended to go, much more than once. Even as she reviewed her indiscretions with him, though, there was a part of her that knew it couldn’t be helped, a part that felt as if she already belonged to him in every way that mattered. Lying in Zeb’s arms seemed to her the most natural thing in the world. Their lovemaking was to her like a secret conference in a world that would never understand a passion like theirs. Why, that part of her asked, should she deny herself something that was so obviously right?

Because it wasn’t right, the rest of her said. Zeb might be as good as the apostle Peter, but he wasn’t her husband. Not yet. There were no promises between them, no commitments. She tried to hush the accusing voice inside her mind, but it wouldn’t be stilled. There were things about the man she just didn’t know, things she needed to know before she put much more stock in him—if, indeed, she hadn’t already invested more in him than she could afford to lose.

“… words of the apostle Paul as he writes to the church in Corinth,” Brother Stark was saying in his dreary, endless voice. “He cautions them against the charms of this world and their former lives when he says, ‘Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God?’—chapter six and verse nine. Hear the catalog of sins from which the gospel had rescued these folks: ‘Be not deceived,’ the apostle says, ‘neither fornicators, nor revilers, nor …’” flushed

At the word fornicators, Becky felt her face flush, hot and guilty. She prayed no one was watching her closely but felt as if all eyes must surely be upon her—scrutinizing her for any trace of reaction to hearing herself labeled. And then she was talking herself past it. It’s not like that with Zeb and me. We love each other, and we mean to stay together. It’s not really like we’re just doing … that … for base reasons.

“Listen again to the warning of the apostle, folks,” said Brother Stark. “‘Flee fornication’—verse eighteen. ‘Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body …’”

Won’t the man give it rest? Then the scold that lived inside her forehead took up the cry: fornicate, fornicate, fornicate … Laid over her gentle, softening remonstrances about the goodness of their times together, of the sweetness and, yes, the innocence of the love she shared with Zeb, was the jarring, sweaty ugliness engendered by that word, fornicate. The scold heaped coals on the furnace of her guilt, fanned the flames and shamed her with the heat of her own weakness. You’re a lewd woman, living in sin and too spineless to admit it to yourself

Becky felt the dull ache beginning behind her eyes, making a slow, pummeling progress down her neck and back until her body felt as if it had been hung like a ham in a smokehouse for a month of Sundays. She retreated into the pain, hiding her hurting mind in it as the words of the sermon drifted tonelessly over her head and out the open windows of the church house.

*******

George shuffled through the reddish, rattling carpet of fallen leaves, doing his best to step past the broken limbs that littered the floor of the woods covering the flanks of Tunnel Hill. Why he hadn’t stopped to change into more suitable clothing before coming out here, he couldn’t imagine. Lately, though, he had found himself doing a number of incautious things. He was going to have to learn to adapt to his newfound bursts of impetuosity, he guessed. leaves

Today his urge had taken the form of a sudden notion to try and locate the abode of Ned Overby. He had driven out from town and parked his vehicle behind the old Caswell place, then picked his way along the footpath that led back into the woods, up one side of the hill and down the other.

He felt a little silly, traipsing through the woods on a gray December afternoon when he really ought to be sitting in front of his grate at the office, but he had forced himself to continue with what he had planned. Since their encounter back in the spring, he had not been able to get the image of Ned Overby out of his mind: the bedraggled, defeated, vulnerable boy who scarcely spoke a half–dozen words. The Young Men’s Christian Association of Chattanooga was nearly ready to open, and George was determined that Ned Overby would be one of its first members, if his family would permit it.

He finally emerged from the tangled undergrowth at the edge of the woods and laid eyes on the small, shabby dwelling by the railroad track. He nearly turned back. How in the world could he, who lived on practically a different planet from these people, possibly communicate what he had in mind for their son?

A woman came out of the door of the house as he approached and made her way toward the haphazard woodpile by the side of the house, a hatchet in her hand. When she was halfway to the woodpile, she noticed George’s approach. She made as if to walk back toward the door. George tipped his hat and smiled. hatchet

“Hello, ma’am. Is this the Overby home, by any chance?”

She stared at him, taking a double–fisted grip on the hatchet. George slowed his steps, then stopped at what he hoped she regarded as a respectful distance.

“Ned probably hasn’t told you about me, but one day this past summer—”

George suddenly realized that if he told Ned’s mother about his ride in George’s automobile, he might be getting the boy in trouble.

“—about the first week of June, I guess it was, I was out this way and … I asked your son about some directions. I was lost, you see, and …”

George felt his face flushing with the strain of inventing the fib off the cuff, and he hoped fervently the woman would let him finish before she sicced a dog on him, or threw the hatchet at his skull. He wondered what would come out of his mouth next.

“At any rate, we got to talking, and— This is the Overby house, isn’t it?”

“My man ain’t home right now,” the woman said. “But I reckon Ned’ll tell me if you’re lying or not. Ned!” she shouted, never taking her eyes off the stranger in front of her. “Get out here! Ned, boy! You hear me?”

The front door squeaked and rattled, and George was immensely relieved to see the tousled head of the boy appear. Allowing for a few months of growth, George easily recognized him as the youngster he had rescued in the alley behind Market Street.

“Hello there, Ned! I was just telling your mother here about talking with you last June, when I saw you on the side of the road, through the woods, there.” He stared at the boy, hoping he would pick up on the alibi and play along.

Ned glanced back and forth between his mother and George.

“Howdy,” he said. The boy shoved his hands in his pockets and tucked his chin into his collar.

“You know this man?” the woman asked.

“Yes’m.” child

The hatchet now hung at her side. George hoped that was a good sign.

“Anyway, Mrs. Overby, my name is George Hutto. I live in Chattanooga, and I’m starting up a Young Men’s Christian Association.”

“We don’t need no charity.”

“Oh, no, ma’am! No, ma’am, nothing like that. This is just a … a sort of club, you see, for young fellows like Ned, there. Place to exercise, and read, and … well, just a place to come and sort of … associate with other boys and … well, I was just thinking about Ned, here, and …”

He had run out of words. He stood there with hat in hand, smiling like a fool at this poor woman who clearly didn’t trust him as far as she could spit.

“Go on back in the house, Ned,” she said in a low voice. When he had gone in, she hugged herself, cradling the hatchet with an odd gesture, as if it were an infant. She spoke, staring at the ground in front of George’s feet.

“We make our own way, mister. We ain’t got much, but we ain’t beholdin’ to nobody for what’s here. It’s a hard life, but it’s all we know. I don’t see much call for anybody puttin’ notions in a boy’s head—notions that ain’t gonna do nothin’ but let him in for hurt later on.”

George blinked at her, the idiotic smile still frozen on his face. She knew! She knew there was another sort of life out there for some people; she just didn’t think Ned could possibly aspire to it. She had completely circled him in her mind, and was already in the road in front of him.

“I understand your point, Mrs. Overby, and I won’t try to talk you out of it … today, at least. But I wish you’d think on it some more, and maybe let me come back another time, maybe when Mr. Overby is here and we could talk.”

Still hugging herself, she turned her head to the right and stared off in the direction of the place where the railroad tracks curved slowly to the left and out of sight behind the shoulder of Tunnel Hill.

“I ain’t gonna say. Perlie’s runnin’ traps this time a year, and I never know when he’s comin’ or goin’.”

George touched the brim of his hat and backed toward the woods.

“Well, good day to you, ma’am. I’ll be on my way.”

When he got back to the old Caswell place, he was startled to see two people standing beside his automobile. They had heard his rustling approach through the fallen leaves and were staring at him when he ducked from under the eaves of the woods. He realized he was looking at Addie Douglas and her oldest brother.

*******

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 27

February 21, 2019

By the time Beulah Counts had come and collected the fretting Mary Alice, Addie’s pains had begun in earnest. Louisa brought in the large pan she had just scalded, along with a stack of freshly boiled towels.

“I’m so glad you’re here, Lou,” Addie said after her latest contraction subsided enough for her to speak. “Even with the doctor and all, it’s sure good to have your help with this.”

“Oh, honey, I wouldn’t be anywhere else. You couldn’t have kept me away last time, except for—”

“Yes, I know.” There was a silence. “I sure wish Katherine could’ve known her cousins.”

Louisa nodded, looking away. birth

“And I still miss Rose,” Addie said. “She could make me feel safe, just by talking to me.”

“Everybody needs to feel safe. But safe can be hard to come by sometimes.”

The two sisters looked at each other, and their hands joined. Then Addie clenched Lou’s knuckles as the next contraction ripped her in half.

“I wish that doctor would get here,” Louisa said. “We’re not gonna have the luxury of as much time this go-around.”

The doctor, a youngish-looking man named Hodgkiss, arrived within the half hour, and, true to Louisa’s prediction, the baby arrived only an hour or so later. It was a boy.

“You and Zeb talked about names?” Lou said.

Addie brushed back a sweaty lock of hair and shook her head. “I thought about it a time or two, but I guess we never actually got around to it.”

The doctor, tending the baby in a corner of the room, glanced at Addie but said nothing.

“I guess we ought to send him a wire, at least,” Addie said.

Louisa studied her younger sister carefully while she bundled up the soiled sheets. “Yes, I suppose. We can take care of that later though. You tell me what to say and I’ll send it.”

“Reckon I ought to name him after his daddy?”

“Well, he looks like his daddy, anyhow.”

“Yes.”

Louisa hoped Addie’s flat tone was caused by her exhaustion.

*******

Zeb glanced up at Abner. He was scribbling busily on an agency report form that had to be posted to the home office the day after tomorrow. Zeb glanced out the front window. The day was clear and mild. He knew he should be out with one or another of his agents—calling on prospects, running a debit, glad–handing policyholders. Or, at the very least, he should be working on the stack of applications they had received for processing during the last several days. He sighed. Time was when a stack of apps this size would have been plenty of reason for several days’ worth of good spirits. He would have relished the prospect of preparing them for submission to the home office, would have gloated over the increase in commission income they represented, both for his agents and for himself. stacks

For weeks and weeks he had fought a steadily losing battle with desperation. Becky had finally allowed him back in her presence, but it had taken all his persuasive skills to accomplish it. He had plied her with reams of letters, sent baskets of flowers and crates of candy. He had done anything he could think of to make her more kindly disposed. Her parents had even taken his part, he believed, so sincere had been his contrition for his mysterious ways. He had lavished her with every ounce of charm he possessed, and to his great relief he was at last able to reenter her good graces.

But even after he was back on firm footing with Becky, Zeb was not at ease within himself. Each time he would hold her hand, each time they laughed and smiled together in the familiar way that was so precious to him, Zeb felt guilt stinging his mind with visions of Addie, memories of the promises he had made and broken. He did his best to hide all this from Becky. Indeed, the passion they shared was as consuming as ever. On the few occasions they had been able to be safely alone together, her early reticence had melted away in his embrace, and they had tasted again the sweetness of each other’s bodies. Indeed, they shared the guilty pleasure of these stolen moments as a secret they alone must keep; to them it became another evidence of the depth and intensity of the bond they shared.

But the harder he tried to straddle the fence, the less satisfied he was with the result. He feared that Becky would soon sense that he was hiding something from her. It had even begun to affect his ability to run the agency. Some days he could hardly make himself come to work. He was afraid that everything he had built in Little Rock would soon be in jeopardy, but he couldn’t seem to summon the strength to care.

But all that was about to be behind him. Zeb had decided it was time once again to take charge of his life. Glancing surreptitiously at Abner and assuring himself that his secretary was still preoccupied with his paperwork, Zeb slid open the lap drawer of his desk and extracted the piece of cream–colored foolscap on which he had labored, off and on, all morning.

 

Dear Mrs. Douglas,

Surely it must have become apparent to you that the kind affection

that once existed between us is now gone. I no longer desire to

share this union with you. Accordingly, I request that you sue me

for divorce as soon as possible. I will not in any way contest the dissolution

of this marriage; indeed, I am anxious to have the business letter

done at the earliest possible time.

Cordially,

Zeb. A. Douglas

 

Zeb stared at what he had written, momentarily unable to believe it had been composed by his hand. Yet there it was, on the same foolscap that he had used to send Addie a very different sort of letter not so very long ago. There beside the script lay his favorite fountain pen. The letters it had inscribed curved and dipped in the same elegant manner as usual; Zeb had always prided himself on his handwriting. The letter’s appearance gave no sign of the darkness and finality of the words they formed. For a moment, a flicker of remorse tried to kindle in his heart.

But he sternly smothered it. He would not turn back the page, not again. All he had to do to steel himself for the task was remember the stealthy venom in Addie’s words during their walk in East Lake Park. He did not deserve that. He had tried, had faithfully provided for her and Mary Alice—and gotten no thanks nor the slightest whit of understanding in return.

Didn’t he merit some measure of happiness? Why should he deprive himself of the company of a woman who appreciated and understood him just because he had made an ill–considered union with someone else before meeting her? Was Addie’s inner darkness his fault? Did he have responsibility for healing wounds that had existed since long before he had known her? In fact, hadn’t he married her under false pretenses, of sorts? Had he known of the damage inflicted on her by her father’s inflexible, uncaring prejudice, would he have allowed himself to be caught in the middle of it all? He didn’t think so.

No, this was the right thing for him to do. He didn’t care what anyone in Chattanooga thought of him—they didn’t know his side, and wouldn’t understand it anyway. The best thing for him was to put that life away—erase it as if it had never been. He would cease to be the person who had pursued and wedded Addie Caswell. Instead, he would fully embrace the life he had formed for himself in Little Rock. Everything behind him would drop away, like a useless cocoon. He would press toward the future—toward Becky Norwich. He would become the man Becky wanted him to be, and she need never know about the mistakes made by the man he had once been. Surely that was the best way now.

He folded the letter and reached for an envelope.

*******

Ned Overby held his opened Barlow in his right hand and stared at the block of pine in his left, trying to see the shapes it held. He knew he couldn’t start carving until he knew what the piece of wood wanted to be. Nobody had ever told him he should do this. Anytime he picked up a piece of wood, he tried to find the shape of its grain and the direction in which it seemed to be guiding his knife strokes. It made sense to him that he shouldn’t try to fight the wood. He thought it surely made his work better.

Not that his carving was any great shakes. So far, none of the simple animal shapes he had finished had really suited him. They all seemed to fall a bit short in his eyes, but that didn’t bother Ned. He knew he’d get better with time. It was just a matter of letting his hands learn which way to go. carving

The sun felt good on his face and neck as he sat propped atop the woodpile behind his house. It was warm enough that he didn’t need shoes and still early enough in the summer that going barefoot was a novelty to be relished. Ned left his shoes inside when the weather allowed, to save wear. Lately, his shoes had begun to pinch, anyway.

Today was one of those rare, fine days when he didn’t have extra chores to do. He had hoed the few scraggly rows of corn and pole beans just yesterday. There was plenty of wood chopped for the stove, and only two days ago he had made six trips down to the river and back, toting the heavy water bucket so he could refill the battered oak hog’s head that served them as a reservoir. Perlie was running his trotlines on the other side of the river, around the mouth of North Chickamauga Creek. Ned would have to help him clean fish when he got back, but that shouldn’t be until nearly sundown. In the meantime, all he had to do was soak up some sunshine and try to stay out of his mother’s line of vision, or she was sure to dream up something for him to do. Seemed like she couldn’t stand to see a body enjoying himself when she was busy—and she was busy all the time.

He heard the clanking of car couplings and the squeal of brakes echoing through the still woods. They must be changing cars on the siding up by Orchard Knob, he thought. A sudden desire stole over him to sneak into Chattanooga on one of the cars. He had heard his father talk about riding the rails as a younger man. A thrill of fear tingled his skin as Ned wondered if he was bold enough to do something similar. If he got caught, he’d get a whaling for sure—and that was just counting what his paw would do to him. He wasn’t sure what fate awaited boys whom the railroad men nabbed trying to catch a free ride.

For a few minutes he tried to concentrate on what his hands were doing to the block of pine he held. But the shavings began to fall slower and slower as he spent more and more time thinking about the siding, just over the shoulder of Tunnel Hill and a little way through the woods. His mother would probably miss him, but she would most likely figure he was off in the woods somewhere. And if he got away with it, he’d have something to tell the older boys when school started again. Before long, he’d talked himself into it. He folded his knife and put it in his pocket, followed by the barely begun carving. Looking carefully around him, he climbed down from the woodpile.

Squatting in the darkest corner of the empty freight car, Ned began to think about all the things that could go wrong with this adventure, realizing that every single one of the looming possibilities carried with it the likelihood of a hiding, or worse. He could get caught leaving the car once it arrived in Chattanooga. He could fail to arrive home before his father. He could have judged wrong, and be sitting in a car bound for Nashville or some other foreign place instead of Chattanooga. Why hadn’t he listened to his better judgment? Why wasn’t he still sitting peacefully in the sun atop the woodpile, fashioning a turtle or maybe a bird from his block of pine? hopping

But it was too late for such thoughts to do him any good. He was in for the whole ride, and he might as well see it through. To calm himself, he tried to do some carving, but the ride was too rough and he had to put knife and wood back in his pocket. He made himself as comfortable as he could in the dark, jouncing freight car, waiting to see where he would end up.

When the train finally squealed to its jarring halt, Ned crept to the partially open door. Though he knew he hadn’t been traveling long enough to have gone very far, he was still relieved to recognize the silhouette of Lookout Mountain rising over the bustling freightyard. He peered carefully up and down the line and saw no one, so he scrambled quickly down from the car and burrowed into the nearest crowd.

He had been to Chattanooga only once before in his life, about a year ago. Perlie had allowed him to tag along when he came to town to sell his winter’s take of pelts and had even let him squander an Indian–head cent on a piece of licorice. That dark–sweet taste was what Ned chiefly remembered about Chattanooga. But there would be no licorice today. He had nothing in his pockets of any value except his Barlow, and he would rather have sold some of his toes than his knife.

Walking along in the jostling crowds, Ned didn’t understand how so many people could be in the same place at once. His closest experience of town life was Orchard Knob on a Saturday, and that was nothing compared to the masses of humanity now pressing all about him.

Passing the opening of an alley, Ned noticed some boys hunched in a circle.

‘‘All right, sweethearts, here’s the stuff I told you about. Anybody that wants some, show me your money.”

The boy doing the talking looked a couple of years older than Ned, and he was considerably better dressed, as were most of the gang of about ten youngsters. Some of them looked younger than Ned, but the boy with the vial and the two or three gathered behind him looked older—maybe fifteen or so. As a few of the younger boys began digging in their pockets, Ned noticed a wicked smile flash from the vial boy to his cronies and back.

“You sure this medicine’s gonna help me run faster?” one of the younger boys said, pinching a nickel between his thumb and forefinger.

“Guaranteed.”

The smaller boy stepped up to him and held out his nickel, which quickly disappeared into the older boy’s pocket.

“Hold out your hand,” he commanded, pulling the cork from the vial. The younger boy obeyed, and the older boy sprinkled a few taps of the powder into his palm. “It tastes kind of bad, but it’ll have you running like a spotted ape in no time.” vials

Ned noticed one of the older boys smothering a grin.

Once the first boy had taken his dose, a line quickly formed. The older boy pocketed seven or so nickels and sprinkled each palm with the magic running powder.

“What do we do now?” said one of the younger boys.

“If I was you,” said the vial boy. “I’d start running. Home.”

This was met with a howl of laughter from the older boys and puzzled stares from the young customers.

“Fred, what’ll your dad do when he finds out you swiped that stuff from the pharmacy?”

Fred grinned. “He’ll never know. I pinched a little from three or four bottles so he wouldn’t notice. But I reckon they’ll notice, any time now,” he said, nodding his head toward the younger boys.

Just then, one of the younger boys backed slowly away from the group, a concerned look on his face.

“Where you goin’, Rob?”

‘‘I’m, uh … I got to go,” Rob said as he spun about and walked quickly away.

Fred and his buddies roared with amusement. “See? I told you! Ol’ Rob’s fixing to start running!”

“What’s in that stuff anyway?” one of the younger boys said.

“Watch it, Shorty! Not that it’ll mean anything to you, but it’s called phenolphthalein.”

“What’s that?” said another of the younger boys. By now, two or three others had drifted quickly toward the alley opening.

“It means,” said Fred between sputters of laughter, “that in about two minutes you’re gonna have the worst case a green–apple two–step you ever had in your life.”

The four older boys went limp with laughter, holding on to each other and slapping their knees.

Ned watched in fascination as the young boys hustled out of the alley. Evidently, that powder worked mighty fast. He was grinning at their retreating backs when he heard one of the older boys say, “Wait a minute, boys. We still got us a customer here.”

Ned turned around and saw the four older boys looking at him in a way he didn’t much like. He quickly took in the situation and began sauntering toward the alley opening with what he hoped was an unconcerned air. alleykids

“Where you going, white trash?”

Ned kept walking, a little faster. His ears burned with the insult, but he knew he didn’t stand a chance against the four of them. He was about ten feet away from the street when he heard footsteps crunching rapidly behind him. He started to run, but hands grabbed him from behind. He flung himself forward, trying to wrestle free of their grasp.

“Lemme go! Lemme go! I ain’t did nothing to y’all!” he yelled.

“Shut up, you little cow pie!” Fred aimed a fist at Ned’s jaw, but he twisted away from the blow.

“Lemme go!” Ned scratched and kicked at his attackers. He was trying to get out of the alley, but they kept dragging him back. “Leave me be! I ain’t hurt nothing!”

“Shut him up!” said Fred. One of the boys clamped a hand over Ned’s mouth but promptly yanked it away.

“Little skunk bit me!”

*******

George Hutto was walking aimlessly down Market Street, staring at the ground in front of his feet, when he heard the sound of a scuffle. He looked up and saw four bigger boys ganged up on one small, ill–clad fellow. For some reason, his memory flashed back to similar scenes from his boyhood, all the times at school and after church when the more daring, faster boys had made sport of him. Contrary to anything he was prepared for, his ire suddenly flared.

“Hey! Hey, over there! What’s going on over there, you boys?”

Before he realized what he was doing, George had strode to the nearest of the older ruffians and seized him by the shoulder. He realized it was the son of one of the men in his Sunday school class.

“Freddy Stokes! What do you mean, picking on this boy so much smaller than you?”

*******

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 17

December 13, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s that?”

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

“Well—”

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

“Pete! Hush!”

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

“And do you?” Becky interrupted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

She stared at him doubtfully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aren’t you gonna open it?”

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

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

Mary Alice made a frustrated whimper. locket

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

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

*******

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

“You, too,” she replied, nodding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do what?” Addie said.

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

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

*******

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

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