Posts Tagged ‘Little Rock’

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 21

January 10, 2019

Mount Moriah African Methodist Episcopal Church was crammed full. More than three hundred people had braved the January wind to wedge themselves into the tiny frame building. Inside, there was barely enough space at the front of the sanctuary for the Reverend Bishop Florissant T. Jefferson to stand in front of the pine plank box that held the earthly husk of Rose Lewis.

With tears streaming down her cheeks, Sister Alma Weeks was pounding out the final chorus of “My Father’s House” on the battered, ill-tuned, old upright piano as the congregation rattled the rafters with the refrain. piano

 

There’ll be no crying there (no, Lord!) 

There’ll be no dying there (Thank you, Jesus!)

No sorrow there, in my Father’s house,

In my Father’s house …

 

As they came to the end of the song, the mourners drew the final words of the chorus out into a long, broadening rallentando, profusely ornamented by impromptu vocal flourishes from all over the church house and loud tremolo chords from Sister Alma. When the last flurries of the piano and the final amens had faded and ground to a halt, Bishop Jefferson raised his long arms up and out, his Bible clasped in one hand.

“My brothers and sisters, we are gathered here today on this sorrowful occasion to say good-bye and Godspeed to our dearly departed sister, Rose Lewis.”

A chorus of assent arose from the crowd. “Yes, Lord.” “That’s right.” “Mmmm-hmmm.” “Yes, sir.” “Well, then.”

“Shall we pray? Our Father that art in heaven, holy and blessed be thy name—”

(Yes, Lord … Well … Go ahead, brother … Tell it … )

“—we invite thy presence with us here today, as with sorrowful hearts, and bitter weeping, we lay to rest this good sister here—”

(Oh, yes, Jesus … That’s right … ) 

“—a woman of noble character—”

(Yes, yes … )

“—a woman of godly and pleasing conduct—”

(Sure is … )

“—a faithful and tireless servant of yours, holy Father, thank you, Jesus … ”

(Oh, Lord, that’s surely right … Amen, and amen … ) funeral

“Our Father, we ask that you look down in mercy and tenderness upon our brothers Mason, James, and William, and our sisters Ruthie and Clarice, and their families as they mourn the passing of their dear mother—”

There was a loud moan on the front pew from Clarice, the oldest daughter. She leaned against her husband, a long–shanked, thin man with skin the color of black coffee. He put his arm around her and patted her shoulder.

“—And, Lord, we know that even now, Leland, Charles, and little Esther are welcoming a beloved wife and mother into the bosom of Father Abraham, praise the Lord—”

(Well then … That’s all right … Yes, Lord … ) 

“—and Lord, we know that just as thou hast raised Jesus Christ from the dead, so shall Sister Rose enter into thy joys, as will all of us here, if we faint not, nor grow weary in well–doing—”

(Thank you, Lord Jesus … Hallelujah! Yes, sir!)

Dub and Louisa Dawkins sat about two–thirds of the way down the center aisle on the left–hand side, the only white faces in the pews. Louisa was a trifle uncomfortable, but she had insisted this was an obligation that could not be avoided. As the funeral service swirled about her, her mind was inevitably drawn back toward the solemn, quiet ceremony that had ushered her daughter Katherine into eternity. She remembered sitting with Dub on the front pew, with the children ranged beside them. She remembered feeling as if she were frozen into a block of ice, sundered from everyone and everything else by the grief that was her food, her breath, her every waking thought. She had felt so alone, so cut off. And the funeral service at First Methodist Church had utterly failed to touch her. She had endured it, allowed it to run off her mind like rainwater off a roof. When someone had instructed her to sit, she had sat. When told to rise, she rose. She was not a participant. She was barely a presence.

But here every person in the church building seemed drawn toward Rose and her family by the rowdy cadence of the give–and–take between the minister and the mourners. This was a ceremony that enveloped the participants, made them partners in the dance. Despite her discomfiture, Louisa felt herself joining in with Rose’s family and friends to sing and weep and pray her into the arms of God. It touched something deep and quick within her, gave her a keen pang of longing for all that was lost.

Bishop Jefferson had finished praying. As he lowered his face to peer out over the audience, Louisa could see the beads of sweat on his broad forehead, just below the cottony line of his white, close–cropped hair. She could also see the tear tracks down both his cheeks.

“Brothers and sisters, Rose Lewis was a good woman.”

(Amen … That’s right … )

“She was a woman who loved God, and loved her neighbor as herself.”

(Mmm—hmm … Sure did … )

“She cared for her husband and did him good, and not harm, all the days of his life.”

(Well then … Yes, indeed … )

“And, my brothers and sisters, I say, with so many of you here today … ”

For the first time, Bishop Jefferson’s voice faltered. Louisa stared in fascinated sympathy as he swallowed and blinked rapidly.

“I say to you … that Rose Lewis was—my friend.”

(Amen. Thank you, Jesus.)

“And is that not why there are so many of us here today?”

(Yes, sure is … )

“Look around you at those gathered here,” he said. “Not many of us rich—”

(No, indeed … That’s the truth … )

“—not many of us wise—”

(Preach it, brother! Go ahead!)

“—not many of us mighty according to the deeds of this world—”

(That’s right! The man is mighty right!)

Louisa sensed the bishop gathering himself, flexing his mind and heart for a great rush toward glory. She felt her pulse accelerating. bishop

“We are the weak—”

(Amen!)

“—the broken-hearted—”

(Yes! Yes!)

“—some would even call us ‘fools’—”

(Oh, yes, Lord!)

‘‘And yet, I say unto you, that God hath chosen the foolish things of this world, that he might shame the wise—”

(Thank you, Lord Jesus!)

“He hath placed his treasures in jars of clay, that through the foolishness of the gospel he might call all men everywhere unto himself—”

The minister heaped phrase upon phrase, like a man throwing dry wood on a bonfire.

‘‘And I say unto you, my brothers and sisters—”

(Tell it! Tell it!)

“—that this woman here, our departed Sister Rose—”

(Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Lord!)

“—was surely a minister of the gospel—”

(Oh, yes! Hallelujah!)

“—in her humble service—”

(Amen!)

“—and her faithful life—”

(That’s right!)

“—and the spirit of the Lord was surely upon her—”

(That’s the truth! That’s the Lord’s own truth!)

“—and she shall surely have her reward—”

(Thank you, Lord!)

“—and shall hear the Master say, on that great and terrible day—”

(Praise Jesus! Thank you, sweet Lord!)

“—’Well done, thou good and faithful servant’—”

(Oh, yes! Yes, yes, yes!)

“—’enter thou into the joys of thy Lord.”’

(Hallelujah! Thank you Lord!)

“Amen. Amen. Shall we sing?”

The pianist banged out the opening chords of “My Lord, What a Morning.” Bishop Jefferson fished a handkerchief out of his hip pocket and mopped his forehead and cheeks.

 

My Lord, what a morning,

My Lord, what a morning,

My Lord, what a morning,

When the stars begin to fall …

 

When the service was over, Rose’s family lined up on either side of the back door of the church and everyone filed past them. Louisa found the exercise in odd contrast to the noisy service; the well–wishers were somber, almost shy as they shuffled past, offering handshakes or, in rare cases, hugs to the bereaved. Were these reserved people the same as those who, with shouts and cries of hallelujah, had ridden the crests of Florissant T. Jefferson’s zeal?

Louisa recognized Mason, Rose’s youngest child, and his wife, Lila. She knew she’d have to be the one to speak; Dub kept his eyes fixed on the toes of his shoes and his hands in his pockets as he shuffled along beside her.

She took Mason’s hand. “Mason, I’m Louisa Dawkins—Jacob Caswell is my daddy. We’re real sorry. Rose was like a part of our family. I’ll never forget all she did for my little sister.”

A light of recognition swept away the veiled look with which Mason had been regarding her. Louisa thought he looked uncomfortable, unaccustomed to the buttoned collar and tightly cinched tie he was wearing.

“Miz Lou? I sure appreciate you coming today. Mama was awful fond of Miz Addie.”

“I know she was. Daddy would’ve been here, too, but him being sick and all … ”

Mason nodded. Louisa held his eyes a moment longer, then stepped back. He was already reaching for the next person in line. As she turned away, Louisa noticed the faded stains on the cuffs of the trousers of his suit. Then they were outside, and Dub was guiding her away, stepping quickly in the brittle January sunlight.

*******

It was even worse than he’d thought it would be.

The Memphis–to–Little Rock train jostled across the alluvial plain between West Memphis and the village of Forrest City. Zeb stared out the window at the bleak, gray winter landscape filing slowly past his window. plain

Yesterday, as he began packing his valise, the vague fear came upon him again. He sensed something was coming toward him, some threat he could not escape. He had a sudden, unexpected longing to stay in Nashville, an odd sense that he would be safe here. But he couldn’t! He had a place there, and he had to return to it. What if Addie and Mary Alice were to come back with him?

That night at supper, he broke a long silence by mentioning casually that there were some nice houses in Little Rock, plenty big enough for their family but not too expensive.

He watched her as she stopped chewing and stared at him. She put down her fork and swallowed.

“What?” she said in a low tone that was both a question and a threat.

He shrugged, ignoring the alarms going off inside his head. “Well, I was just thinking that things are going pretty well for me there, and—”

“I thought you were up for a job at the home office, here in Nashville.”

“Well, I still am, as far as I know, but … I … well, I sorta like it there.” The words sounded weak, even to him. She sat with her arms folded across her chest, hugging her elbows with both hands. He could see the muscles working at the sides of her jaws.

“Zeb, I’m tired of up and moving every time you think you’ve got a better deal. I don’t know anybody in Little Rock, and I only put up with you going there because you said it was the last step to getting a settled job back here in the home office, where you wouldn’t be dragging Mary Alice and me from pillar to post anymore. I put up with it because I thought it was just for awhile.”

She looked away from him and he could see her chest heaving beneath her crossed arms, could hear the angry puffs of breath coming from her nostrils. He stared at the tabletop.

‘‘Addie, I … it wouldn’t have to be—”

“Have you ever stopped to think about what I might want, Zeb? What might be best for Mary Alice?”

He sat silently, bowing his head to receive her angry blows. Couldn’t she see that he was sorry? Didn’t she care how bad he felt?

“I don’t want to move to Little Rock,” she said in a voice as flat as the backside of an axe. “I want to stay here, or—go back to Chattanooga.”

So that was it! Addie had never really left Chattanooga, had she? He had promised to take care of her, to make a new life for them, and he had kept his end of the bargain, but she—she had never stopped pining for the security of her own people and her own place! She didn’t trust him, even after all he’d done! He felt the dull ache of anger in his throat; a wordless anger, and blunt. If she could be hard, he could too.

“Well, all right, then,” he said. “Just forget it.” He picked up his fork and put another bite of food in his mouth. It tasted like sawdust.

*******

The train heaved itself up the grade to the top of Crowley’s Ridge and now rolled toward the drab, tree–lined fields of central Arkansas. A mist was falling from the gray sky. Zeb began trying to occupy his mind with what needed to be done in the office upon his return. He tried to put Addie out of his thoughts.

*******

Addie watched Mary Alice dabble her fingers in her cereal, but this morning she didn’t have the energy to correct her daughter. Thinking about the argument with Zeb and the fierce silences that followed it drained her, sapped her desire.

There was a dull fear about the way she had felt during much of Zeb’s time at home—his “visit,” as she now thought of his times at home. His place within her was much like that of a visitor—a person she recognized but didn’t really know all that well. Even though he shared her bed, he was, in many strange ways, unknown to her—and she to him.

He just didn’t see her. He saw a picture—a portrait he had painted in his mind and labeled “wife.” She honestly believed he could no more conceive of her as having volition and desire, of wanting one thing and not wanting another, than he could lay an egg. It simply hadn’t occurred to him that she wouldn’t jump at the chance to join him in his beloved Little Rock.

She had seen the dejected way he hung his head when the resentment began spilling from her, but it hadn’t mattered. She couldn’t stop, couldn’t stem the flow that spilled from her, fueled by every frustration and every moment of lost loneliness she had felt since he had uprooted her life with his promises of care and security. What did he know of security? He thought it was something in an account at the bank. He had no idea. If she had said everything in her mind, he’d have had something to feel bad about, all right!

But now that her anger was spent and Zeb was gone and the house was filled with the melancholy quiet of a drab winter morning, she wondered if she had done the right thing after all. Maybe it would have been better to keep still. Maybe it would have been the Christian thing to do. She’d half–expected him to yell at her, to fight back. Instead, he just finished his supper and went into the parlor to hide behind a newspaper. He hadn’t bothered to try to kiss her good–bye when he left the next morning. At the time, that suited Addie fine. But now, she wondered …

*******

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

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

 

Advertisements

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 20

January 3, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

She churned her butter in Paw’s old boot,

With a risselty–rasselty, hey, John dobbelty

Rusty co–pollity neigh, neigh, neigh!

And for the dasher she used her foot.

With a risselty–rasselty, hey, John dobbelty

Rusty co–pollity neigh, neigh, neigh!

 

She sold her butter in my home town,

With a risselty–rasselty, hey, John dobbelty

Rusty co–pollity neigh, neigh, neigh!

And the print of her heel was on each pound.

With a risselty–rasselty …

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

Jacob opened the door, still wearing his dressing gown.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You wear it around your neck—” asafetida

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

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

“Merry Christmas to you, Perlie.”

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hush now. You better rest.”

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

“How’s Mama?”

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

“Mother?”

“Yes, honey.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

*******

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

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

“There’s one more, Zeb.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What have I done now?

*******

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

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 19

December 29, 2018

… Anywhere with Jesus I can go to sleep,

When the dark’ning shadows ‘round about me creep,

Knowing I shall waken never more to roam; 

Anywhere with Jesus will be home, sweet home. 

Anywhere, anywhere! Fear I cannot know; hymnal

Anywhere with Jesus I can safely go.

 

The song coasted to a halt, and the noise of hymnals sliding into pew racks momentarily filled the church house. Then the room quieted as the worshippers stood, waiting for the benediction.

“Our Father in heaven, we thank thee for the blessin’s a this hour,” the gangly, bespectacled man prayed in a singsong voice, “and for the truths spoken unto us by Brother Woodrow. We ask thy blessin’s upon each that’s here, and that thou’d bring us back at the next appointed time. In Christ’s name, amen.”

A chorus of male “amens” answered, and the racket of conversation swelled as the congregation shuffled along the pews toward the center aisle and the front door. Zeb moved with the others, laughing and talking. A firm, meaty hand clapped him on the shoulder, and he turned around.

“Zeb, my wife has fixed up the biggest ol’ mess a chicken and dumplings you ever saw, and I figure you’re just the man to help us eat it,” said Pete Norwich. “Whaddya say?”

And Zeb knew immediately the source of his malaise before his last return to Little Rock: it rose up in him instantly now, flared into a klaxon of danger, blaring away inside his head. He was a married man, and the tendrils of guilty pleasure that beckoned him to accept this opportunity to be with Becky Norwich were forbidden to him, and he knew it. He shouldn’t go. He should decline Pete’s invitation as gracefully as possible, and he should go back to his rooms and pack his things and get on the next train to Nashville, and he should never come back to Little Rock again.

But … he was in charge of his own life, wasn’t he? He’d managed things in Little Rock very well, and he was in control of himself, and what was wrong with having lunch with some of the new friends he’d made for himself in this place that was his own? Why should he turn tail and run, why raise all kinds of awkward questions with Griffs and Carleton—not to mention worrying Addie needlessly? He could handle it. He was equal to this challenge too. And these were church folks, for Pete’s sake. What could happen?

He grinned at Pete Norwich and said, “Sure, Pete! I’ll be there! Thanks!”

*******

Zeb leaned comfortably back in the chair and patted his stomach. “Pete, I’ll tell you one thing: Ruth knows her way around the kitchen. How in the world have you kept from getting big as the side of a barn, way that woman cooks?” barn

“Self–control, son. Nothing but self–control.”

“Yeah, but I’m talking about you, not her.”

“Watch it, boy. I’ll toss you out on your ear, you keep that up.”

Pete rustled the newspaper, and Zeb listened to the women’s voices coming low from the kitchen, just audible above the noises of splashing water and the clink of dinnerware. Becky’s voice was lighter in timbre than her mother’s, though much the same pitch. Zeb imagined her, sleeves rolled to her elbows, perhaps a wisp of blonde hair falling to her shoulder as she washed and dried …

Norwich made a disgusted sound. “I tell you, Zeb, I don’t understand what Roosevelt thinks he’s gonna accomplish with this Labor and Commerce Department foolishness. Sounds to me like just another way for some Washington bureaucrat to get his hands on the public funds.”

Zeb made a noncommittal reply. It was almost reflexive with him: he seldom allowed himself to be drawn into political or religious discussions with prospects. Just as Pete was launching into a diatribe against the wasteful ways of the federal government, Mrs. Norwich came in from the kitchen, bent over the back of his chair, and whispered something in his ear.

“Huh? Why? I’ve just started my paper, Ruth! Can’t a man at least—”

“Pete.”

He stared at her for maybe five seconds and gave in with a shrug. “Yes, ma’am. I’ll be right there.” He looked at Zeb, shook his head, and sighed. Zeb gave him a small, sympathetic smile in return as Pete laid aside the newspaper and followed his wife from the room.

No sooner had they left than Becky came in. Zeb looked at her and smiled. She ducked her head and seated herself in the chair her father had just vacated. She lifted a corner of the newspaper, smiling fondly. “Daddy and his Sunday afternoon rituals.” She shook her head.

“Sure was a good lunch, Becky. Your mama knows how to rearrange the groceries, that’s for sure.”

“Glad you enjoyed it.” She wouldn’t look at him. He couldn’t stop looking at her.

There was a longish silence. Becky took a deep breath, patted her palms on her knees, and turned her face toward him. “It’s a nice, bright afternoon. Why don’t we put on our coats and go for a stroll?”

Zeb nodded. “That’d be all right, I guess.” He got up from his chair as she went to fetch their wraps. She handed him her coat, and he held it for her. As she slid her arms into the sleeves, she leaned back against him, ever so slightly. His heart hammered at his rib cage like a wild thing.

They walked out into the brilliant blue afternoon. The wind was still and every breath of fresh, cool air entered Zeb’s lungs like a shout of joy. He ambled along with his hands in his pockets. “Nice day, like you said,” he offered.

She murmured in agreement.

“Glad you mentioned a walk.”

She said nothing.

They strolled along for almost a hundred yards without speaking. “Excuse me for asking,” Zeb said finally, “but how come a woman as nice looking as you never found a husband?”

She made no reply for a long time, and Zeb feared he had transgressed. Just as he was about to attempt an apology, she said, “I haven’t been in a hurry about such things.” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her glance at him, then away. ‘‘I’m still not,” she said.

They walked on. Ahead and to the right, the capitol dome glistened in the crystalline air. “How’d you come to work for your daddy?” Zeb asked. dome

“I’ve always enjoyed the company of men more than women. Guess it comes of being raised with brothers. I’ve never much been able to abide quilting parties and so forth. I’d rather be working on the store’s books than gossiping about chintz.”

Zeb looked at her and grinned. He could see the smile starting, watched with amusement as she tried to suppress it. At last, it broke free across her face and she looked at him, laughing.

“That’s the most words you’ve said in a row all day. I’d about decided the cat had your tongue for good.”

She shook her head and grinned at the ground. “I don’t know what’s got into me today. I’m usually not nearly so reserved.” She looked at him. “Especially around friends.”

They stopped walking and looked at each other. At the same instant, their hands reached out and found each other. “Friends,” Zeb nodded. They walked on.

*******

December 15, 1902

 My Dear Husband Zeb,

How anxious I am for you to come home for Christmas! I

think you’ll like the way the house looks, at least I hope so. The

wreath is real pretty, I think. Mary Alice is about to worry me to

death, trying to keep her out of the Xmas tree. 

I hope all is well with the agency. It sounds to me like you’ve

really got things going your way. I know you work so hard & I’m

very happy it’s paying off. Maybe the men at the Home Office will

soon figure out what a go–getter you are & give you that position

you’ve been looking for so long. I certainly hope so. letter

Had a letter from Lou the other day, she seems pretty good,

right now. Says Daddy doesn’t hardly come out of the house at all

anymore. It makes me sad, thinking of him in that big old house

all alone, with just Rose for company, her only part of the day. I

know he did wrong by you and me, but my heart aches for him. I

guess I can’t help it since he is my father, after all. 

Well I’ll close this for now. I love you with all my heart & I’m

looking forward to meeting you under the mistletoe (ha!). Hurry

home as soon as you can.

Your own,

Adelaide C Douglas

 

Addie read the letter one last time before folding it. She gazed wistfully for a moment at the envelope, thinking about Zeb’s hands holding it. She wanted to feel those hands again, to look into his face. She briefly considered adding a postscript to that effect but thought better of it. Zeb might think she was being affected—too romantic and gushy. He might think she wasn’t being brave.

Besides, if she started putting down on paper everything she wanted to say to Zeb but couldn’t, she’d never have time for doing anything else. How could she tell him how desperately lonely she was much of the time? How could she say how it made her feel sitting in church with Mary Alice on her lap and looking about at the other families, the children ranked in the pews between their parents like books between bookends? It took two parents to do that. And how could she tell him how she longed to cook for him, to put three plates on the table in the evenings, to hear him breathing beside her in the dark of their bedroom? How could she explain how badly she wished he were here with her, hearing Mary Alice’s babbled attempts at new words, smiling at the new things she was doing each day, marveling at the way their daughter’s personality was already bursting into bloom? Hardest of all, how could she give vent to her darkest suspicion: that Little Rock had stolen her husband from her?

No, it wouldn’t do. He would think she was trying to tether him to her with guilt. He would resent her interference in the pursuit of his dream. He would sigh and shake his head and secretly rue the day he had taken such a weak woman for a wife, and though he might accede to her wishes, there would be a hurt place in his heart that could never be hers again.

Stop it, she told herself. There was no point in thinking such things: Zeb loved her and Mary Alice. He was a good man, and he had more to do during the day than mope over her. He wrote faithfully, and besides, he was just trying to make his way in the world the best way he knew, and she should be ashamed of herself for being so selfish. He’d come back to Nashville soon enough, and their future would be secure, and all would be well, and he wouldn’t have to spend so much time away from home ever again. “Just try and stand it for a little while longer,” he’d told her the last time he was home. “And I promise some day it’ll pay off.” Someday. That was what she’d think about—how it would be, someday.tree

Nodding to herself she affixed the stamp and sealed the envelope. She stood and suddenly felt the room whirling about her head. She had to grab the back of the chair to keep from falling over. In a moment, the spell passed and the room got still again. She’d been having some dizziness lately, for some reason. That, and feeling tired all the time.

Before Addie posted the letter, she just had to look again at the ring. She slid out the lap drawer of the secretary and fished around in the back until her fingers closed on the small, square box from Sears & Roebuck’s. She removed the lid and admired the smooth, shining gold of the center section and the elegant, beaded line of the silver borders. The ring was even more beautiful than the picture in the catalog. She knew Zeb would be proud of it, and that he would be surprised. She tried to imagine the look on his face when he unwrapped it. Feeling a small glow of pleasure, she replaced the cotton padding atop the ring and put the lid back on the box.

She stepped out on the porch and clipped the letter to her mailbox with a clothes pin. It was a cold, bright day, and the blue sky was thickly littered with gray shreds of cloud, scudding along before the north wind. Gripping her elbows against the chill, she glanced up and down the street. Then her eyes fell on the bare branches of the two large hickory trees standing guard in her front lawn. She stood a moment, looking up to their tops, which swayed slowly back and forth. Even if she could climb them, she thought, there was no hiding place now, no concealing safety where she could sit and dream. Only the tossing, indifferent wind of December. I hope Zeb comes home soon, she thought, and went quickly back inside.

*******

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 18

December 20, 2018

Zeb had only intended to stay home for the weekend, but he talked himself into changing his plans. His time with his wife and daughter seemed especially sweet those few days. Mary Alice soon overcame her reticence about him, and in their bed at night, he and Addie made ardent love to each other. On Monday morning, he decided, rather than catching an early train back, he would go in to the home office and make a report to Griffs or Carleton—whomever he could find. He would hang around the office for awhile, then come back home for a long lunch. He’d done a good job in Little Rock, and he knew Griffs and Carleton wouldn’t begrudge him a little extra time with his family.

The fact was, there was something about going back to Little Rock that made him restive. When he tried to make himself plan his departure, it just seemed easier to get distracted. His leave–taking, when it could finally be avoided no longer, was more arduous for him than it had ever been. train

Still, he was feeling better by the time his train reached Memphis. By the time they rolled into Union Station in Little Rock, he was positively eager to get back to work. He decided that the best antidote for the homesick blues was a dose of good, honest, hard work. He’d enjoyed being home, but he was back now, and it was time to get down to business.

Thursday morning, when he walked into the cramped, two–room office he had rented for the agency, his secretary handed him a note written in a diagonal scrawl across a torn scrap of paper. “Dere Zeb,” it read, “im sorry, but i cant do no more. rekin i just want cut out for this binniss. yr. frend, Luke C. Cutler.” Zeb looked at the secretary.

“Brought it by here Monday morning, first thing,” Abner told him with a shrug. “Looked like he was kinda glad you weren’t here.”

Zeb shook his head in disgust. “Well, Ab, you can lead ‘em to water, but you can’t make ‘em drink. Cutler would’ve been all right, if he’d just had as much gumption as his wife told me he had.” Luke Cutler had answered a notice Zeb placed in the newspaper, announcing the hiring of “Enterprising Men for Financially Rewarding Opportunities in this Area.” More properly, Cutler’s wife had answered the advertisement: she had done most of the talking in the interview; Cutler himself seemed less than enthusiastic about the whole matter.

Abner grinned. He was a slight–built, youngish fellow Zeb had hired the first week he’d been here. He managed the office work and correspondence for the agency. He’d had a brief career as a schoolteacher that had ended abruptly, for a reason Zeb had never learned and decided not to be curious about. Ab was clean, fairly literate, had a reasonably neat hand, and he didn’t need much money to live on, which was perhaps his greatest asset, given what the home office was willing to pay for clerical help. “I told myself the first time she drug him in here, ‘This man don’t want to be here for no reason of his own.’”

Zeb sighed and smiled wryly. “Well, it appears her ambition didn’t last him long in the heat of the day.” He pushed his hat up in the back, scratching his head. “Guess I’ll have to find another man for the north Saline County debit.”

“Yeah. Some a those policies are a week behind already.” office

Zeb wadded up the note and tossed it at a wastepaper basket. As he strode toward his desk, he felt his chagrin giving way to a kind of calm eagerness. He was embracing the challenge, welcoming it as a familiar, satisfying adversary. He would manage this difficulty, and the next, and the next, and the next, because that was what he was good at. His determination was stronger than anything that stood in his way, and he would prove it, one more time.

For the next several days he was immersed in the duties of the agency. First, he busied himself with finding Luke C. Cutler’s replacement: he set about visiting northern Saline County policyholders, at once encouraging continued payment and collecting premiums but also finding out who knew whom in the area, who was trusted, who needed work, who had higher goals in life than growing corn and cotton on ten acres of river bottom land.

Zeb relished the power over others granted him by his gift of gab. He could walk up to any sharecropper’s shack and strike up a conversation. Likewise, he could stroll along the courthouse square and engage some vested, bejowled lawyer in a lengthy exchange of views. The trick, he had learned, was to figure out what the other person was interested in and evidence an interest in that himself. Folks just naturally opened up to him.

Zeb knew he could talk to anyone, at any time, in any place. If good humor and an easygoing manner were what the situation required, he had a vast store of jokes and the familiar style in which to frame them. If, on the other hand, a somber, earnest tone seemed more appropriate, Zeb could instantly become sincere, as easily as taking off one hat and putting on another. He could be anyone he needed to be, a gift not shared by many other people. It was his protection and his advantage. He prided himself on being able to do what most folks were unwilling or unable to do, and to keep on doing it as long as he had to.

Within two weeks he had hired a man to run the debit vacated by Luke C. Cutler. Most of the policies in the vacant debit were paid up to date, and the new agent seemed of a temperament more suited to the insurance business than that of Cutler. Zeb had made contact with his other three agents and assured himself that they were being productive. The stack of new–policy applications to be processed by Abner and forwarded to the home office was holding steady. He even had the leisure to consider whether it might be time to expand the agency by adding another debit just across the Arkansas River, in Argenta.

The burst of activity generated by Cutler’s abdication carried Zeb to a new height of expansiveness. His prospects here were good, and that was so because of his own efforts; there was no feeling of indebtedness or obligation to a predecessor to abate his self–satisfaction. This agency was his; he had built it from the ground up, with no assistance from anyone else. He was becoming known and respected in this place and among these people. No one here knew or cared that he was born and raised on a bare patch of red clay in north Georgia, that his father had died with three young children in the house, and that his mother had been too poor to refuse the suit of the first man who held out the prospect of keeping a roof over their heads. images-2

He had carved his own niche out of Little Rock, and, somewhat to his own surprise, the thought of going back to the home office was losing much of the aura it once had. What did Nashville have to offer, other than more money and a bit of stability? Nashville was someone else’s domain, not his. He wondered what Addie would say if he told her he wanted to move here. He was afraid he already knew the answer, and he didn’t like to let himself think about it.

*******

Becky totaled the column of figures and made an entry in the ledger. Before reaching for another account book, she allowed her eyes to roam from the second–floor office area down the stairway and out over her father’s department store, resting them for a moment from the close work with which she had been occupied most of her morning. For a few moments she watched the sales clerks and customers milling about the counters below. It was a Monday morning, and there weren’t many shoppers in the store. For that very reason, she usually chose Mondays to get the accounts up–to–date.

I wonder what he’s doing right now, she thought, and immediately chided herself. Rebecca Norwich, you are not a schoolgirl anymore, and you know much better than to sit about mooning over some man you know as little as you know Zeb Douglas. She shook her head and took up the next batch of sales receipts. But I wonder if he ever thinks about me, her mind whispered. With an exasperated sigh, she flung down the tickets and tossed the pen onto her desk. woman

She got up from her oak swivel chair and paced the length of the office area, then back again. She wondered, not for the first time, what it was about Zeb Douglas that hung so in her mind. She hardly knew anything about him, other than his easy smile, his lovely manners, and his familiar, friendly way of speaking to her and her parents. He never talked about anything or anyone in Nashville, where he went every second or third weekend, other than vague references to “the home office.” She had no idea about his family, where he came from, or what he was like during the week at his small office near the capitol building.

But she found herself thinking of him more and more. When she came to the store, she sometimes found herself detouring needlessly by the opening of the street where the insurance office was located, more than half–hoping their paths would cross. She had almost nerved herself, once or twice, to walk into the office and pass the time of day, but so far she had managed to restrain herself from such brazen assertiveness. It was about time for Zeb Douglas to eat Sunday dinner with them again, she decided. She’d say something to Mother.

*******

George huddled as deeply as he could inside his greatcoat, trying vainly to dodge the raw north wind. It was cold, the sky was spitting snow, and he was tramping up and down the streets of Chattanooga trying to secure signatures on a letter of solicitation to Mr. Andrew Carnegie of New York, asking him to build a library in this city.

How did he allow himself to be goaded into these situations? He’d heard vague rumors of some of the society ladies forming a committee, and the next thing he knew he was being badgered by his mother into knocking on the doors of perfect strangers and asking them to endorse this fine community effort. Didn’t anyone think he had work to do? Did they think Hutto & Company ran all by itself?

Well, he was sick and tired of the whole thing, that’s all. Let somebody else get out and catch pneumonia on Mr. Carnegie’s behalf. He’d knock on one more door and then he was going home, and the Library Boosters could all go hang, which would suit him, plumb to the ground. snow.jpg

He shuffled onto the front porch of a single–story frame house and tapped gently, hoping no one was home, but the latch began turning almost before his hand had fallen to his side. George waited for the door to open, clamping his portfolio under one elbow and blowing on his hands.

“Yes?” The woman who had opened the door had a black shawl wrapped around her shoulders and was clearly not happy about standing in her doorway with such a brisk north wind blowing.

George touched the brim of his bowler. “Ma’am. I’m George Hutto, and I’m working on behalf of the Chattanooga Library Boosters—”

“Lord a’mighty! On a day like this? Well, come on in before we both freeze slap to death!”

“Yes, ma’am. Thank you.” George stepped across her threshold and removed his hat. He stood in a small foyer with a knotty pine plank floor covered by a slightly threadbare Persian rug. As he warmed up, he was able to allow his face to relax from the squint it had assumed while he was walking into the frigid blast outside. His eyes moved about the portion of the adjoining parlor that he could see until they came to rest on a huge oil painting above the fireplace mantle—a painting of a clipper ship cutting through rough waters under full sail. “Oh!” he said, the word slipping out softly without his realization.

“What? Oh, the ship. My daddy painted that years ago.”

George took a hesitant step or two toward the painting, then stopped and shook his head. “Sorry, ma’am, I didn’t come here to look at—”

“It’s all right, go ahead. It’s kind of an interesting old painting, if you like that sorta thing.”

“Well … thanks. I believe I will look at it a bit, if you don’t mind,” George said, giving a little smile to no one in particular. He paced closer to the painting and tilted his head this way and that, peering at the ship and her rigging. “I guess I’m kinda interested in old ships,” he remarked. “I build them as a hobby. Well, that is, I build models. Not real ships, of course.”

“Is that so?” George could hear her stepping quietly over to stand just behind his left shoulder. Without moving his head, he cut his eyes toward her. She was looking at the picture also, not saying anything. clipper

“Well,” he said, clearing his throat, “I guess I don’t need to take up too much more of your time.” He faced about and pulled a sheaf of papers from his portfolio. ‘‘As I said, I’m with the Library Boosters, and—”

“How many have you built? Just curious.”

He stared at her a moment. “Oh, ships!” he said after a few seconds. “Well, I don’t really know, let’s see—”

“How long does it take? To build one?”

He peered at her again. She was no longer clutching the shawl about her, but it still hung over her shoulders. Her hair was a sandy brown and pulled back into a tight, no–nonsense bun on the back of her head. Her eyes were a chestnut brown—almost black—and she wore a high–necked green linen blouse with a tightly pleated front and a heavy skirt of the same color.

“Well … about a week, usually,” he answered. ‘‘Anyway, we’re trying to get a Carnegie library built here in Chattanooga, and—”

“Would you like some hot coffee?”

Again, he wore the puzzled look of an old dog interrupted in mid-trick.

“Pardon?”

“Coffee. It’s hot, and you must be half frozen if you’ve been tramping up and down streets all morning.”

“Well … I … I suppose so. Yes, ma’am, that’d be nice.”

“May I take your coat and hat?” She held out her hands for his wraps.

George handed her his bowler and removed his greatcoat. She gestured vaguely toward a settee near the grate and then wheeled about, vanishing into another room.

George seated himself gingerly on the settee, his hands on his knees, and looked around the room. The scarcity of knick–knacks surprised him, somehow, as did the relative absence of typical feminine touches in the general decor: no doilies on the furniture, no lace on the curtains, nothing extra or added on. Everything in the room looked as if it was there for a reason.

A log settled on the grate, sending a shower of sparks up the flue. George was glad for the warmth. He squatted in front of the hearth and worked the fire with a poker. He heard her come in behind him. George turned around and moved back toward the settee just as she placed a steaming cup in its saucer on the low table in front of his place. She took a seat in an overstuffed armchair across from him.

He took a careful sip of the coffee and risked a glance at her. She was staring frankly at him, though the expression on her face was considerably more toward pleasant than it had been when he had knocked on her door. With her dark eyes, her gaze reminded him uncomfortably of a crow’s, intent and unblinking. He quickly dropped his eyes to his cup.

“You aren’t having any coffee?”

“Nope. Had my two cups already, don’t need anymore. I keep it on, though. Most of the day. Just in case.”

After another careful sip, George asked, “Does your husband work near here?”

“Widowed three years. Consumption.” crow

“Oh, I’m … I’m sorry.”

She shrugged. “Lord giveth, Lord taketh away.”

He nodded somberly.

“Least he left me well fixed,” she went on, still peering at George with those forthright, burnt–sepia eyes. “That, plus my inheritance from my family. Long as I’m careful, I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do.”

There was an awkward pause.

“Well … that’s a blessing.” George blew on his coffee.

“You told me your name, but I forgot,” she said.

“George Hutto. And I don’t guess I know your name either,” he said, feeling an odd sort of embarrassment steal over him. Here he was, sitting in the parlor and drinking the coffee of a woman whose name he didn’t even know!

“Breck. Laura Sanders Breck. My husband’s people were from Kentucky, but I’m out of the McMinnville Sanderses.”

George nodded thoughtfully, though he had never in his life met another person from McMinnville, as far as he knew.

“Lord never blessed us with children,” she said. “Couldn’t understand why, but there you go.”

She had thin lips that were almost the same color as the rest of her face. Her frame appeared to be somewhat on the spare side, although she was not so thin as to be gaunt. As she spoke, her eyes flickered here and there, always coming back to rest on his face. The rest of her stayed very still, though: her hands rested in her lap and never moved; she held her head motionless; she never changed position in the deep cushions of her chair.

George sipped politely at his coffee a few more moments, and Laura Sanders Breck watched him. He cleared his throat, placed his cup in the saucer, and gently set it on the table. “Well, Mrs. Breck, I certainly—”

“Laura.” Her crow–eyes glittered at him as she said it. Like an invitation, or a challenge.

“I certainly thank you … Laura … for the coffee and the seat by your fire,” he said. ‘‘And now, if I might have my hat and coat, I’ll be on my way.”

Without a word, she sprang from her overstuffed chair and dashed out of the room, returning seconds later with his things.

“Thank you,” he said, placing the bowler on his head and shrugging on the greatcoat. He glanced a final time at the clipper over the fireplace, studying it with a slight squint. She preceded him to the entrance, clasping the shawl about her neck with one hand and opening the front door with the other. He took a deep breath and shouldered into the cold air on the front porch. “Thank you again,” he said as he passed her. Her only reply was a quick, curt nod.

As the door closed behind him and he thumped down the front steps, he realized he had completely forgotten to ask her to sign Carnegie’s petition.

*******

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

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

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 16

November 29, 2018

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

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

“No, ma’am!” dressingtable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dearest sister Addie,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then again, sometimes the most unexpected things will set me 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

seems like the time just isn’t ever right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

me back when you can. letter

Your loving sister,

Louisa C. Dawkins

 

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

She shook her head as she poured his coffee.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

*******

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

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

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 15

November 15, 2018

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

“Yessuh. Right this way.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“… ambition should be made of sterner stuff …”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

“When does your train leave?” lacedress

“In the mornin’, ‘bout eight.”

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

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

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

“What’s that song you’re singing?”

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

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

to my father’s house;

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

to my father’s house.

There’ll be no dying there,

There’ll be no crying there,

No sorrow there, in my father’s house,

in my father’s house.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mmm-hmm.”

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

Rose said nothing.

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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