Posts Tagged ‘housekeeper’

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 37

May 16, 2019

“I wish you’d look at that,” Louisa said, nodding toward Jake. “He’s trying to see where the sound’s coming from.”

The baby writhed in Addie’s lap, twisting his face toward the front of the auto. At first, Addie had expected the noise of the engines to frighten him, but from the first time Dub had picked them up for Sunday lunch in his Curved Dash, Jake had been fascinated with every one of the loud, smelly contraptions he encountered. This morning, when Jimmy came to fetch them, Mary Alice had stayed on the front porch with her hands over her ears, but Jake had acted like he was trying to jump out of Addie’s arms and crawl into the driver’s lap. loud

They turned off the road into Addie’s lane. “Isn’t that Dan Sutherland’s rig in front of your house?” Louisa said, craning her neck.

“Looks like it might be.”

As they got closer to the house, they saw Dan get out of the sulky and walk around to his horse’s head. He held the halter as the chestnut tossed its head and tried to back out of the traces.

“Stop here, Jimmy,” Louisa said, leaning over the seat. “This car’ll spook Mr. Sutherland’s horse.”

“Yes’m.” Jimmy eased off the throttle and pulled on the hand brake. He started to get out.

“That’s all right, Jimmy. We can manage,” Addie said.

“Yes’m.” He touched his cap as Addie stepped onto the ground.

Addie helped Mary Alice down and gripped Jake with the other arm. He made an irritated noise and tried to climb back into the Oldsmobile. Louisa handed out the bolt of broadcloth. Addie waved to her as Jimmy backed slowly down the lane. She turned and walked toward the house. Jake tried to climb over her shoulder and get back to the auto. She made Mary Alice carry the cloth so she could wrestle with him.

“Getting so you can’t take a peaceful drive out into the country anymore,” Dan said when they reached him. The horse had quieted, but Addie could still see the whites of its eyes as it rolled them toward the receding noise of the car. Lather dripped to the ground from where it nervously tongued the bit. horse

“Sorry, Dan.”

“Oh, that’s all right. I guess I’ll have to give in and get me one of the clatter–traps pretty soon. Scare somebody else’s horse, for a change.” He touched the brim of his hat. “Good to see you again, Addie. How you doing?”

“Fine, thank you.”

He looked at her. “Really?”

“What brings you out, Dan?”

“Why don’t we go inside and sit down? I’ll tell you all about it.”

“Do you have any candy?” Mary Alice said.

“Mary Alice!”

Dan laughed. “Well, yes, ma’am, it just so happens I do.” He looked a question at Addie. She rolled her eyes and nodded. He reached into his breast pocket and took out a shiny peppermint stick. “How’s that?” he said, leaning over to Mary Alice.

She grinned, then dropped the cloth and took the stick. She turned around and flounced up the front porch steps. Jake made a noise and reached toward his sister.

“No, sir, not until you’ve got a few more teeth,” Addie said.

“I’ll get this,” Dan said, bending to pick up the cloth.

They went inside. She put Jake on the floor in the nursery and went into the parlor. Dan sat on one of the armchairs, his legs crossed and his hat on his knee.

“Would you like some coffee? Or, I’ve got a spice cake.”

“No, thanks, Addie. I’ve got things waiting on me back at the office.”

She sat across from him, on the settee. “Well, what brings you all this way on a workday?”

He looked at her. “Addie, Zeb’s gone.”

“Gone?”

“Left. Lit out. Him and that other woman. Got a telegram from my man down there yesterday evening. A couple of weeks ago, looks like, he drew all the money out of his bank accounts, bought two railway tickets, and neither he nor the woman have been seen in Little Rock since.”

It was several moments before any words would form in her mind. “Where?”

“Don’t know. My man couldn’t find that out.” hat

So somebody really could do this, Addie thought. They could share your life, father your children, and then they could just leave, just vanish. They could pack up and go and never look back.

“What’ll I … How can—”

“Addie, he’s been served the papers. If he doesn’t appear in court, the judge will rule in your favor on every element of the complaint.” He waited for awhile, watching her. “Still, I think I’d advise one more thing, just to make sure we’ve covered ourselves.”

“What?”

“There’s a thing called constructive service. Usually, it’s applied when a party wants to sue for divorce, but the spouse can’t be found. That’s not exactly where we are; we sued him and served him, but now we can’t find him. What I’d do is I’d take out ads in the newspapers. I’d post notices in the courthouse, whatever. Just to make double sure he can’t come back later and say he didn’t know our intentions.”

“But he’s not in Little Rock anymore.”

“No, but there’s plenty of folks there who knew him, and the woman too. Word’ll get back, I bet. If anything can flush him out, this is it. And if it doesn’t, we haven’t lost anything.”

“We haven’t?”

He looked at his hat, dusted it with the heel of his hand. “You know what I mean, Addie.”

He stood up. “Well, I’ve got to get on back. No rest for the weary, I guess.”

“I guess not.”

“Addie, I’m—”

“I know, Dan. Thank you. It’s all right. I’m all right. Just go on and do what you need to do.”

“Well. All right, then. Good day to you.”

“And to you, Dan. Thank you for coming.”

“Least I could do.” dreaming

He left. Addie stayed on the settee, thinking about constructive service. An odd term to apply to a divorce proceeding. What would Dan’s notice say? Would the Little Rock newspaper carry a catalog of all her hurts and grievances? No, probably not. There would probably be a long paragraph made up of a single sentence, salted with lots of semicolons and wherefores and parties of the first part aforesaid. It would say exactly what it needed to, most likely; it would achieve exactly the aim Dan Sutherland had in mind.

But the words wouldn’t tell any more about the truth of Zeb and her than the label on a tin of powdered milk would tell you about a cow. Dan’s words would be proper but not accurate. They would be like a screen; they would protect, but they would also conceal.

She tried to imagine herself writing the notice. If she got to choose the words, what would they be? Adelaide Caswell Douglas is divorcing Zebediah Acton Douglas on the grounds that she has no choice. He loved her, and then he didn’t, and there was nothing she could do about it, so why bother to try?

She couldn’t even tell you when it started happening, could she? Couldn’t pinpoint the hour or even the week when her weight of expectation and unfulfilled hopes started to drag him down and make him wish for something else, someone else—which he found, as it turned out.

What was she like, this other woman? What was the shape of her hands, her face? Did she resemble Addie in any way? For a minute, Addie wondered if she’d feel any better if she knew Zeb had left her for someone who reminded him of his wife on a good day. But somehow, she doubted it. Doubted a man would do that and doubted it would make her feel any better to know.

Adelaide Caswell Douglas wishes to announce her permanent disengagement from the man formerly known as her husband. May he rest in peace, amen.

She wished it were that easy.

She heard an automobile popping and backfiring, slowing as it neared her lane. Why would Lou be coming back? She got up and went out onto the front porch.

It wasn’t Lou. The car had stopped at the opening of the lane. Someone got out of the passenger side and crossed in front of the car. A boy. He waved to the driver and walked down her lane.

Ned Overby. So the car belonged to George Hutto; he was bringing Ned back from a meeting at that new boy’s club he’d started in the old cotton warehouse downtown.

Addie hurried back in the house, to the kitchen. She found an apple and quickly sliced off a hunk of the spice cake. Wrapping the food in a dish towel, she went back to the front porch. When she came out, Ned was just stepping off the lane to cut across her yard toward the woods. spicecake

“Hello, Ned. How about a treat?” She held up the bundle.

He glanced toward her, then turned and walked over to the porch. He wouldn’t look at her. He never did.

“There’s an apple in here, and a piece of cake. Thought you might like a little snack for your walk home.”

He shrugged and nodded. She put the bundle in his hands.

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“You’re welcome, Ned. Tell your mother and daddy I said hello.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He shambled off around the corner of the house.

She turned to go back inside and noticed George’s car was still stopped at the opening of the lane. He waved, and she returned the wave. He pulled a little way into the lane and stopped, then backed onto the road to return the way he’d come. He waved once more and drove off toward town.

*******

Louisa opened the door and paused in surprise. Lila stood there, all right, but a little boy was with her.

“Good morning, Lila.” Louisa’s eyes went to the boy.

“Willie with me today. He won’t be no trouble, Miz Lou.”

“Well, certainly, but … shouldn’t he be at school?” He didn’t look sick.

“No’m. Not today. He won’t be no trouble.” boy

“Well … of course.” She stood back from the door and they came inside.

As he passed her, Willie slid a look up at Louisa, a look somewhere between curiosity and distrust. He appeared to be about nine or ten. He clearly had his mother’s features, and he was as neat and scrubbed as she would have expected any of Lila’s children to be, but something told Louisa he would bear watching. She smiled at him and he looked away.

He took a little too much interest in his surroundings, she thought, just a shade too observant.

“Lila, the drapes in the parlor need to be taken down for cleaning today.”

“Yes’m.”

“And if we have time, I’d like to air the mattresses in the boys’ room.”

“Yes’m.”

“This where y’all eat at?” Willie said. He stood in the kitchen doorway, staring at the polished dining room table.

“Hush, now, Willie,” said Lila, moving to him and taking him by the shoulder. “You come on and help me. Stop botherin’ Miz Lou.”

She pulled him after her toward the parlor, but not before Louisa saw his scowl.

All morning long, Louisa found excuses to check in on Willie. Once, as she approached the doorway of the parlor where Lila was working, she heard the boy’s whining voice, then Lila speaking to him in short, sharp words. “You should have thought of that before you sassed Deacon Green. Now get over here and hold this.” Louisa must have paused in the doorway without realizing it; Willie and Lila noticed her and quickly busied themselves with the drapes.

At lunchtime, Louisa went into the kitchen and asked Willie if he’d like some cathead biscuits she had left over from that morning’s breakfast. Willie and his mother sat at the little breakfast table by the window, sharing a section of cornbread Lila had brought and some warmed–up black–eyed peas and buttermilk Louisa had given them. He shook his head. “Don’t like no cathead biscuits,” he said. His mother gave him a tightlipped stare. He ignored her and took a swig of the buttermilk in the Mason jar they were using for a glass. He put it down and licked the white froth from his upper lip. peas

Louisa wished she had some old toys the boys didn’t use anymore, something she could give Willie to pass the afternoon. But she’d cleaned out all the old stuff in the last Christmas toy drive for church.

Early in the afternoon, she climbed the stairs and started down the hallway to the boys’ room, where Lila was tugging the mattresses off the beds. The door to Katherine’s room was open. She stepped inside and there was Willie, standing in the middle of the floor, looking around as if he owned the place. He turned around to look at her.

“Willie, you need to get out of here, right now.”

“Whose room this?”

“My daughter’s.”

“What’s her name?”

“Katherine. Now you get—”

“Where she at?”

“She’s—passed on. Now will you go back where you belong?”

“My meemaw passed. My cousins moved into her house.”

Louisa took a quick step to him and pulled him toward the doorway.

“You get out of this room. You don’t have any business in here. This room stays closed.”

He shuffled down the hallway toward the room where his mother was working. Louisa stood with crossed arms, watching him go. He turned and looked at her just before he stepped through the doorway.

*******

There was a time, Zeb thought, when he knew what he wanted and how to get it. Had it really been so long ago, or did it just seem that way? And since when had the days gotten so heavy and long and useless?

Last night he’d dreamed about his mother. She was out in the hillside field behind the old house back in Georgia, and she was trying to plow the red clay with some kind of contraption made of boards nailed together. He kept trying to tell her to give it up, but it was as if he wasn’t talking. He couldn’t even hear himself.

That was the strange part of the dream, he’d decided, maybe the part that caused him to wake with sweat drenching his pillowcase: he could hear every sound except his own voice. He could hear the rooks croaking in the pines at the crest of the hill; he could hear Shep yapping at a squirrel in the woods below the house. He could hear the grunts his mother made as she tried to force the pitiful and rude wooden thing through the soil. But when he tried to talk to her, there was nothing. And somehow, in the dream, he knew there was no point in going to her either. He wasn’t really there. Not in any way that could do anybody any good. plowing

He’d started to just tear up the telegram from Ab, just tear it up and throw the pieces away and pretend he’d never gotten it. But Becky would’ve known, somehow—seen it in his face, maybe. He’d had to tell her.

And it was as bad as he feared—maybe even worse. For a long time, she said nothing, but he could see it working up inside her, twisting her in knots. And when it came out, oh, it was bitter.

She railed at him, called him names he never knew she’d heard. She’d never see her mother and father again, never be able to look them in the face, and that was only if the public shame didn’t kill them outright, she said. By now everybody in Little Rock thought she was a flat–out whore who’d stolen another woman’s husband and did he think for one minute she’d have given him such encouragement as she had if she’d known the truth about him? And now here she was, stuck in some pitiful little boarding house room in Texas with an illegitimate child in her womb and a man who’d lied to her every step of the way and her name on a marriage license that meant pretty close to nothing and the worst of it was she had no place else to go. And then she crumpled onto the floor at the foot of the bed and sobbed.

He was afraid to get close to her, much less touch her. So, he sat on the little stool in front of the scarred maple dressing table and listened to her cry and tried to think of some way things could get any worse. The stool was short, and his knees stuck out. As he tried to look anywhere but at Becky, his eye swept across the table’s vanity mirror, and he had the absurd urge to laugh; he looked like a grasshopper, ready to jump.

His mind slewed around like a hog on ice. He was probably supposed to say something, but right then “I’m sorry” seemed about like spitting on a house fire. Maybe he ought to hang himself or go to Little Rock and let Pete Norwich give him that horsewhipping Becky had talked about. Something extravagant, something to even things up.

That was three days ago, and she’d barely said a dozen words to him since. Each morning, he’d half expected to wake up and find her gone. But she’d been there in the bed beside him. Using her back like a fence, but there, all the same. She wouldn’t go out of the boardinghouse, would barely go downstairs to meals.

Well, there had to be some sort of prospect going, even in a catch–as–catch–can place like Texarkana, he decided. He’d gotten up this morning and dressed and shaved like a man with places to go. Becky lay in the bed and stared at him like she thought he was crazy, but he went right on. Went down and ate a good breakfast and came back upstairs with some dry toast and weak tea. He set the food on the bedside table, kissed Becky on the top of the head, put on his hat, and left.

It was a little on the warm side this afternoon. He’d have liked to loosen his tie and unbutton his collar, but it was more important to make the right impression. barbers

This morning he’d had a pretty good conversation with a cotton buyer who was thinking about hiring an agent. Zeb didn’t much like the idea of working for somebody else, but the money he’d brought from Little Rock wasn’t going to last forever.

He stood on the street corner and tipped back his panama to mop his forehead. About halfway down the block to his right sat the columned façade of a bank, and right across the street from the bank was a barbershop. Zeb headed for the barbershop.

There was always some kind of prospect going. You just had to know where to look.

*******

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

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

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Sunday Clothes, Chapter 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.

 

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 16

November 29, 2018

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

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

“No, ma’am!” dressingtable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dearest sister Addie,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then again, sometimes the most unexpected things will set me 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

seems like the time just isn’t ever right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

me back when you can. letter

Your loving sister,

Louisa C. Dawkins

 

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

She shook her head as she poured his coffee.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

*******

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

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