Posts Tagged ‘Little Rock’

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 40

June 6, 2019

“Becky?”

Zeb stepped inside and let the screen door bang shut behind him. He looked in the parlor, but she wasn’t there. He called her again. No answer. He heard the hissing noise from the kitchen and smelled the acrid odor of burning beans. He turned the corner and saw the bluish cloud rolling out of the saucepan. He wrapped a dish towel around the handle and carried the pot to the sink. He opened the window over the sink to let out some of the smell and smoke.

“Becky? You here?” tree

He quickly went through the rest of the rooms, but he didn’t see her until he stepped through the backdoor into the small yard. She was sitting on the ground under one of the elm trees, staring at something in her lap.

“Becky, your beans burned,” he said, moving toward her, trying to pretend to himself that he had no reason to feel relieved. Of course, she was still here; where else would she be?

She didn’t look up at him until he was maybe three steps away, and when she did, he saw she’d been crying, and that the thing in her lap was a crumpled telegram.

“It’s Daddy,” she said in a voice raw from weeping. “He’s real sick.”

Zeb stood there, looking down at her, trying to think of something to say that would seem right. He wished he could hold her, but he doubted that would be any more welcome than usual.

“Well, uh … what’s wrong with him?”

“His heart.”

“He in the hospital?”

“Not now. He’s at home. Mother says the doctor mainly wants him to rest and gain some strength, but—”

“Honey, I’m sorry.”

“Zeb I’ve got to go.”

“Well … sure. Sure, you do. I’ll go buy you a ticket, first thing in the morning.” There was another question waiting to be asked, but he wasn’t sure if he really wanted to hear the answer. “Uh … you want me to come?”

She studied the telegram for a long time. “I don’t think so, Zeb,” she said without looking up. “It’s probably better you didn’t.”

He nodded to himself, trying to figure out if he was relieved or disappointed. A few days to himself might not be too bad. And Becky needed to be with her mother, that was certain. And the thought of being back in Little Rock still wasn’t too appealing. That wouldn’t be any easier for Becky, he guessed, but it was her daddy, after all, and she had to go.

“What do you want to do about supper, Becky?” hospital

It was a little while before she answered. “I’ve got some beans on.”

“I guess you didn’t hear me awhile ago. They burned. I took the pan off the stove and put it in the sink.”

“Oh … I’d just put them on when the Western Union boy came to the door.”

“Yeah. Well, how about going down to the hotel? They’ve usually got a pretty good—”

“Zeb, I don’t know when I’ll come back.”

He thought about making a joke of it but found he didn’t have the strength. “I, uh … Well, how long do you think you might have to stay?”

“I don’t know, Zeb.”

He stuck his hands down in his pockets and swallowed. He nodded some more. “I guess you need to stay as long as your mother needs you, then.”

She stood up and dusted the back of her dress. She nodded at him. She looked at the telegram one more time, then folded it up. “However long that is. I just don’t know.”

He tried without much success to convince himself that she was just talking about the uncertainties of her father’s health. He wanted her to tell him exactly when she was coming back. He wanted to hear her say she was sorry she had to go off and leave him alone like this, and she loved him, and she’d get back just as soon as she could. He wanted to make her promise to come back, promise she wouldn’t pull Little Rock and her parents’ home around her like a shroud. portrait

Most of all, he wanted to believe he had something coming from her—that somehow, she ought to want to be with him enough to make this separation as brief as possible. But when he looked far down inside and let himself think about everything that had happened, it was hard to make much of a case for that.

He realized he was staring at the tops of his shoes. He took a deep breath and straightened. She was watching him. He gave her a smile. She looked away.

“Well, you want to go to the hotel?” he asked.

“I guess so. Yes, that’d be fine.”

She crossed the yard and went up the steps to the back door. She turned and looked back at him. “You coming?”

*******

There wasn’t any place in Humble where you could go to get away from the flat, dirty smell of crude oil, Becky thought. Even when they walked through the ornate double doors of the Lone Star Hotel, the smell followed them in like a drenched cat on a rainy day.

The restaurant was crowded with the usual mix of roughnecks, rig foremen, drilling engineers, and speculators. They found a table that was almost clean, and Zeb waved down a harried busboy and talked him out of two menus. She didn’t know why they needed menus. She always got the pork chops with yams and boiled cabbage, and Zeb always got the ham with black–eyed peas and rice. He was running his finger up and down the offerings, though, just like somebody here for the first time.

She watched him over the top of her menu. His eyes danced back and forth between the bill of fare and the roomful of people. He was always working, always prospecting everywhere he went. They’d been here less than six months, and she guessed he could probably call half the people in the room by name. That was Zeb’s gift, such as it was. He could make you think he’d never met anyone whose company he enjoyed more than yours, and it didn’t matter if you were a grimy roustabout or one of the company bosses in a linen suit and panama hat.

She knew she ought not complain; he made good money. The oil business wasn’t really that much different from the insurance business, he told her, once you learned the terms and got the hang of it. Zeb had sure enough landed on his feet. Looking at him like this, you’d never know he’d had a minute’s worth of trouble in his life.

A large, red–faced man came up and clapped Zeb on the shoulder. “Buy you a beer, Zeb?” Becky could smell the drink on the man’s breath from where she sat.

“Now, Colonel, you know I don’t drink,” Zeb said, his eyes darting at her. “‘Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging, and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise’—Proverbs twenty and verse one.”

“Well, I don’t know about that, Zeb. You reckon the Lord minds all that much if a bunch a hard–working men have a little drink or two at the end of the day? You wouldn’t mind if he had one, would you, there, Missus?” The man was leaning over the table toward her, grinning. She gave him what she hoped was a noncommittal smile and renewed her study of her menu.

Zeb shifted uneasily in his chair. “Say, Colonel, have you had a chance yet to think about that Caddo prospect I showed you the other day?” hotel

“Yeah, I took a look at it. Come on by tomorrow morning and we’ll talk some more.” The man nodded at Becky and weaved between the tables in the direction of the doorway. Zeb watched him go for a few seconds, then looked back at her. He grinned and shook his head.

“Colonel Dickson’s liable to say anything to anybody. He doesn’t mean anything by it, though.”

“I’m ready to order, if you are.”

Zeb flagged a waiter. “Teddy, I’ll have the ham plate with black–eyed peas and rice.” He glanced at her, and she nodded. “And Mrs. Douglas’ll have the pork chops with boiled cabbage and yams.”

The waiter nodded as he scribbled on a dog–eared note pad, then hustled toward the kitchen.

“Maybe I can get you on the eight–oh–seven, day after tomorrow,” he said a minute or two later.

“Just do the best you can. I’ll be ready early. I wouldn’t even mind leaving tomorrow afternoon. I can sleep on the train.”

He nodded, toying with his silverware. He was doing his best to act unconcerned. She knew she probably ought to say something, but she couldn’t think of a good enough reason to want to, somehow.

Part of it was the worry about Daddy. But not all of it, no matter how much she tried to pretend otherwise. She and Zeb lived in silence more and more, like two neighbors with a hill between their houses. The hill was getting harder and harder to climb. Or maybe it was becoming less worth the trouble.

Sometimes, lying in their bed at night or at odd moments during the day, she tried to imagine how it might have been if she hadn’t lost the baby, or if they’d been able to have another one. Maybe the joy of a child would have distracted her from all the ways her life didn’t quite match expectations. She wondered how Zeb would have acted as a father. Would he have doted on their baby? Would he have made up a silly name, as Daddy had done for her? Would she have found in his fondness for his children a reason to remember her fondness for him?

“Sarge,” Daddy had called her, until she started school and Mother made him stop. He used to say that when she cried as a baby her face looked just like a drill sergeant he had when he was in the state militia. Becky had always felt a little sadness after he quit using his pet name for her; it was a small, sweet loss to be treasured. A few times, on the sly, he still called her “Sarge”—but never when Mother was around. Becky wished she were on the train to him right now, wished she were far away from this muddy, humid little town with its overhanging pigpen smell and its crowds of oil–smeared, noisy men.

Zeb was staring at the tabletop. He saw her watching him and gave her a quick smile. She tried to answer it.

“Well, I wish they’d hurry up, don’t you? I’m hungry.”

Becky shrugged and nodded.

“Honey, I’m sure your daddy’s gonna be all right.”

“I hope so.”

“Shoot, with you and your mother both taking on over him, he’ll be back on his feet and down at that store before you can say ‘Jack Robinson.’”

There was a shout from the tool–pushers in the corner. The barkeep, a dour Black Irishman named Rourke, stared hard at them with his hands on his hips. waiter

“I may be gone awhile, Zeb.”

“Yeah, you said that.” He wouldn’t look at her now.

The waiter brought their food. He clumped the thick, white porcelain plates onto their table; he put Becky’s pork chops in front of Zeb and his ham in front of her. They slid the plates across to each other and ate, mostly in silence. The noise of the dining room swirled around them but left them untouched, other than maybe giving their silence a convenient excuse.

*******

“Lila, can you hold this end? I’ll tack it up.”

“Yes’m.”

The bunting was blue, Mary Alice’s favorite color. Addie tried not to think about what she’d paid for it, even after Mr. Peabody’s special discount. “For one of my best customers,” he’d said. She tapped a tack through the fabric and into the top corner of the doorframe, then scooted the footstool over to the other side. She took the other end from Lila and tacked the other side into place. She got down from the stool and backed up a few steps. Yes. The effect was just right; it gave the parlor doorway a festive frame.

Mary Alice came bounding down the stairs. “Mother, is my white crinoline dress clean?”

Addie glanced at Lila and got a nod. “Yes, honey. Lila’s got it hung up in my room. I want to do a little work on the hem before you put it on.” Mary Alice made an impatient sound. “Don’t worry, Mary Alice; there’s enough time before your friends get here.”

“I can see to it, Miz Addie,” Lila said.

“Oh, could you? That would be wonderful. Then I could go finish icing the cake.”

“Yes’m.” Lila went toward Addie’s room.

“My needles and thread are on the vanity, Lila.”

“Yes’m.”

There was a knock at the back door. Addie went back through the kitchen and opened it. Ned Overby stood there, his stained plug hat in his hand.

“Ma’am, the wood’s chopped.”

“Thank you, Ned. Just a minute, and I’ll get your money.” She turned to go, then turned back. “Ned, if I paid you an extra twenty–five cents, could you stay long enough to help me move a table into the parlor for Mary Alice’s party?”

“Yes, ma’am, I reckon. Oh, and ma’am? He wanted me to ask you if his mama was ready to go yet.”

Addie looked in the direction of Ned’s thumb and saw a colored boy leaning against the corner of the house with his hands stuffed in his pockets.

“Oh, hello. You must be Lila’s boy.”

He nodded. “I come to get Mama when she ready.”

“Almost, uh—what’s your name?”

“Willie.”

“Almost, Willie. She’s just finishing up one more thing for me before she goes. Have you got a way to get home?” mule

“Yes’m.” He jerked his chin toward the woodpile. A lop–eared sorrel mule stood there, tethered by a halter rope, its nose down in a patch of clover.

“Well, fine. Ned, can you come on in and help me with that table?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Willie, would you like a cool drink or anything?”

Willie shook his head. Addie looked at him; he reminded her of Rose. Something about the set of his jaw, maybe.

She and Ned pulled the settee and an armchair to one side, then wrestled the big oak pedestal table from the dining room into the parlor. She went to her closet and found some coins; she gave two quarters to Ned and a silver dollar to Lila, who was at the kitchen table finishing the hem work on Mary Alice’s dress. Her eyes widened when Addie gave her the dollar.

“Miz Addie, that’s an awful lot of money for no more than I done—”

“Now, Lila, don’t argue with me. I want you to have that. I couldn’t have gotten ready for this without you.”

“Well, then … thank you.”

“You’re welcome. And Willie’s here to take you home, when you’re ready.”

“Yes’m.”

She sent Mary Alice up to her room with her party dress and walked with Lila to the back door. They went outside and saw Ned, Willie, and Jake all gathered beside the mule. Ned and Willie were talking, and Jake was pestering the older boys and the mule, by turns. “Jake! Leave that mule alone!” Addie said.

Willie saw his mother coming and began untying the rope. Grabbing a handful of the mule’s mane at the base of its neck, he slung himself up onto the animal’s back. He used the rope as a rein and headed the mule toward where his mother stood on the back steps. Lila put an arm around her son’s waist and scooted herself on behind him.

“Thank you again, Lila. I appreciate you coming over.”

“Yes’m.”

“Tell my sister thanks.”

Lila nodded. Willie clicked his tongue and pulled the mule’s head around. He gave it a little kick and got it going toward the lane. Addie watched them leave. Lila sat sideways on the mule’s bare back, holding on to her son’s waist. Addie felt sorry for her; it was a long ride to Chattanooga, twisted halfway around like that.

She saw a quick movement from the corner of her eye and turned her head. Ned was holding onto Jake and taking something away from him.

“Lemme go! Lemme go, Ned!”

Addie went toward them. Ned released Jake, who bolted toward the tree line, bawling as he went. crying

“Jake! You come back here!” Addie called, but he kept running.

She looked at Ned. He was holding a palm–sized rock.

“He was fixing to throw it at the mule,” Ned said. “I just took it away from him, is all.”

Addie sighed and shook her head, staring in the direction her son had gone. “What am I going to do with that boy?”

*******

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

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

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Sunday Clothes, Chapter 37

May 16, 2019

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

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

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

“Looks like it might be.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sorry, Dan.”

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

“Fine, thank you.”

He looked at her. “Really?”

“What brings you out, Dan?”

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

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

“Mary Alice!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gone?”

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

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

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

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

“What’ll I … How can—”

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

“What?”

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

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

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

“We haven’t?”

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

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

“I guess not.”

“Addie, I’m—”

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

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

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

“Least I could do.” dreaming

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

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

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

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

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

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

She wished it were that easy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you, ma’am.”

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes’m.”

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

“Yes’m.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whose room this?”

“My daughter’s.”

“What’s her name?”

“Katherine. Now you get—”

“Where she at?”

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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 31

March 21, 2019

Addie’s brother finally broke the silence.

“George.” Junior nodded.

Like an animal trying to shake off a winter’s sleep, George pulled his eyes away from Addie.

“Junior. Addie,” he said, touching the brim of his hat. hattip

“Hello, George,” Addie said. She gave him a weary little wave that looked more like “good–bye.”

“I hope my horseless carriage wasn’t in the way, in the driveway there,” George said. “I was just walking through the woods, and I had no idea anyone was here … that is, that anyone would be here when I—”

“It’s all right, George,” Junior said. “Me and Addie just took a quick drive out to look at the place. She’ll be needing a place to live and all.”

George felt himself gulping around the words he wanted to say.

“Addie … Junior, I’ve … I’m … If there’s anyway I can help—”

“Thank you, George,” Junior said. “We appreciate it.”

“Yes, well … good day, then.” He nodded at them and stepped past, going toward his car.

*******

Junior stared after him for a few moments. “Funny time and place for him to be walking in the woods, don’t you imagine?”

Addie shrugged.

“Well, what do you think?” Junior gestured toward the house. “Place is run down some, nobody living in it the last year or two. But I believe we could have it in shape right quick, if you’d be agreeable.”

Addie tucked her hands under her elbows and looked at the house, the yard. So many ghosts here—so many old regrets hiding in the dark corners. house

“Course it’s a big old place, just you and the two young ‘uns. Expect you’d need a hand now and then.”

“I don’t want to lean on anybody, Junior. I’m tired of that. I want to be on my own two feet, and the sooner the better.”

“Well, I reckon that’s up to you, Addie. But you know we’re here anytime—”

She turned to him. “Oh, yes, Junior. You’ve done so much already. I don’t know what I’d have done, if …”

He shrugged. “That’s what family’s for.”

She turned back and looked at the house. Addie thought about family, about the varieties of loss that word summoned up within her: about Mama, and the sucked–dry look on her dying face; about Papa, and the way he had crumpled up around his anger; Louisa, and her cautious sponsorship of Addie’s dreams, her ravaging grief at the death of her only daughter; and then, of course, Zeb … A drawn–out, dry longing twined its way through her heart as she looked at this cracked and peeling, untended, overgrown place where she had started. She wondered if it would also be the place where she finished. Beginning and ending. Grief and laughter. Disaster and rescue. That’s what family’s for. Who else would live in a place like this?

“Well,” she said, “I guess we’ll just make it work.”

*******

Zeb fumed and fretted over the sales report for the home office. All morning he had been in the foulest of moods, and he had already put this report off longer than advisable. But his unruly mind kicked at the traces and wouldn’t pull the load.

That fellow with the battered black derby and the slippery eyes had been outside the agency when he got here this morning. This time he’d been walking away—maybe ten paces beyond the doorway of the agency—when Zeb saw him. Zeb recognized the nondescript slump of the man’s shoulders even as he tried to lose himself among the passersby on the boardwalk. Had he been in here—talking to Abner, maybe? Zeb put down his pen and stared at his secretary, who kept his nose pointed toward the work on his desk.

Once or twice in recent weeks, as Zeb had walked across the street on various errands, he had thought he glimpsed the same man, seated at a table by the window in the chophouse across the street from the agency. One morning he could have sworn the stranger was lounging at a street corner near his lodgings when he came out to go to the office. Zeb had a mind, more than once, to go up to the fellow and ask him his business, but by the time he could summon the gumption to do it, the man had always slipped away. corner

This sneak–footed spying could only be Addie’s doing! But how in the devil was a woman with two children and no inheritance paying for a gumshoe working in Little Rock, Arkansas? Why hadn’t that blasted woman sued him for divorce, anyway? It had been nearly three months now—she’d had ample time! Did she cherish some fool notion of reconciliation?

He was swept by sudden, unaccountable longing to see Becky. He wanted to hold her in his arms, to smell her hair and remind himself that there was something good in his days, someone who understood and appreciated him.

But, no. Even that wouldn’t do. In the state he was in, he was afraid he’d set off the worst in her. Probably say something harsh, or else she’d detect his distraction and want to know its cause. Becky Norwich certainly did not retreat into hurt silence—oh, no. She’d batter and harry and generally give him a piece of her mind until he’d be forced to lie again, just to preserve the general accord.

No, better to just get his mind on his business and wait a little longer. Surely, any day now, Addie would wake up to the truth of the situation and release him from bondage. He picked up his pen and forced his eyes back to the sentence he had left dangling.

After lunch, just as he felt the walls of the office closing in on him, Gideon Plunkett strolled through the door. Zeb had just recruited Plunkett for the new debit in northwestern Pulaski County. Zeb stood and reached for his coat and hat.

”Abner, Mr. Plunkett and I’ll be canvassing his debit for the rest of the afternoon.”

This was good. Getting out of the office would force him to turn his attention to something besides troublesome thoughts. Normally, canvassing was not one of his preferred chores, but right now it looked like deliverance. oldsmobile

“Come on, Gideon. Let’s go turn up some paying customers for you.”

They walked outside. Zeb felt a pleasant glow at the respectful look with which Gideon Plunkett favored his new Oldsmobile with its unique, curved dashboard.

“Now, Gideon, the key to success in this business is activity.”

Though Gideon Plunkett was probably at least ten years his senior, as far as the insurance business was concerned he was a debutante.

“You gotta see lots of prospects to make the kind of money you want to make, and this afternoon I’m fixing to show you how to find ’em.”

Zeb grunted as he turned the crank on the front of the automobile, then he fiddled with the choke. Another turn, and the engine caught.

“Hop in,” he said over his shoulder as he dashed around to the driver’s side to switch the spark from the battery to the magneto. Then they were off, crow–hopping slightly as they pulled away from the edge of the boardwalk.

“Sorry about that,” he yelled over the roar of the engine, “I’m still pretty new at this.”

The Oldsmobile stuttered along the bumpy, chalky–white road northwest of town, and Zeb slowed as they approached the rickety bridge across the Maumelle River. He tugged the hand brake and brought the car to a stop, just as its front tires rolled onto the boards of the bridge runway.

“Gideon, we’re about to enter your territory, here. You need to think of yourself as a farmer, and this as your field.” Zeb waved an arm at the wooded river bottomland—choked with a tangled, brown undergrowth of last summer’s lamb’s–quarter and cockleburs—on the other side of the brown, sluggish stream. “What kind of crop you make depends on how well you cultivate your land, Gideon. And I’ll tell you this: the only somebody that can limit the size of your crop is you. That’s why the insurance business is the greatest one going, because a man’s only limited by his own ambition.”

Gideon Plunkett wore a serious look as Zeb turned back toward the steering wheel and engaged the transmission. They edged slowly across the bridge into Gideon’s domain.

The first house they came to was a ramshackle, shotgun affair set back in a grove of bunchy elm trees about a quarter–mile along the road from the bridge. Zeb slowed and pulled to the side of the road. Gideon gave him a worried look.

“Now, Zeb, I know these folks here. This old boy don’t do nothing but a little cotton chopping ever once in awhile, and besides that, they’re colored. I doubt they can afford anything.”

Zeb gave his new agent a patient smile.

“First rule, Gideon: never assume. Don’t ever tell a prospect he can’t buy; let him tell you. Come on, Gideon. You know these folks’ name?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“All right, then. You just introduce me, and watch what I do. By the end of the day, I’ll have you talking smooth as silk to people you never saw before in your life.”

A short–haired, yellow dog with ribs showing like barrel staves dragged itself from beneath the front porch steps and slouched toward them, wagging its tail between its legs.

“Don’t reckon we’ll get eaten alive, do you?” Zeb said.

A little boy, wrapped in a dingy blanket and nothing else, appeared on the porch.

“Hi, son!” Zeb said in a sunshiny voice. “Your mama or daddy around?”

The boy went back in and his place was taken a moment later by a heavy–breasted, big–hipped woman. Her feet were shoved into unlaced, badly scuffed men’s shoes, and she wore a pink calico dress with an ancient, moth–eaten Army blanket pulled around her shoulders. She stared down at them with a face as blank as the grate of an unlit stove.

“Uh, Carlotta, is Arthur here?” said Gideon.

A younger child came out of the house and stopped short when she saw the two white men standing in the front yard. Tucking a finger in her mouth, she ducked behind her mother’s skirts.

“Carlotta, I believe you already know Mr. Plunkett, here, and I’m Zeb Douglas. We’re with the Dixie National Casualty Company, and we’re out this afternoon looking for folks that are interested in protecting their families and saving up some money.” He stopped speaking, smiling at her as if they shared some secret joke. Zeb could feel Gideon Plunkett’s eyes flickering back and forth between him and the woman on the front porch, and he waited patiently, never allowing the pleasant expression on his face to waver. Whomever spoke first would cede control of this contest of wills. In a moment, her eyes flickered back toward the dark doorway of the house. porch

“My man he over to Mister Zeke’s.”

“Well, now, Carlotta, that’s just fine,” Zeb said, sounding like she had just given the winning answer in a spelling bee. “Mr. Plunkett and I don’t really have time to talk today, anyway.” Zeb saw the line of her shoulders relax slightly, saw the faint softening of relief in her face.

“Now, Carlotta, you know Mr. Plunkett here, right?”

He waited until she gave a short nod.

“Fine, then. Mr. Plunkett will be back over this way in a few days, and he’s got some ideas I think you and Arthur’ll be real interested in. It’d be all right if he took a few minutes to talk to you, wouldn’t it?” Zeb began nodding as he said the last few words, still smiling directly at her. As he expected, she gave a short, quick shrug and a nod.

“Well, that’s just fine. Mr. Plunkett, I guess we’d better get on to the rest of the folks we need to see today.” Zeb tipped his hat toward the woman. “Thank you, Carlotta, and you be sure and tell Arthur we stopped by, all right?” Zeb turned and began walking back toward the road.

When they had reached the automobile, he turned to face Gideon Plunkett.

“Now, Gideon, I’d get back over here in about two days or so. She’ll have her guard up some, but she’ll be a little curious too. If I were you—”

“Wait a minute, Zeb! Them people back there ain’t got two nickels to rub together! How in the name a Ned d’you expect me to get ’em to pay for an insurance policy when they don’t have a pot to pee in or a window to pour it out of?”

“Gideon, I’ll thank you to not use that kind of language around me.” Zeb held Gideon’s eyes long enough so he could see Zeb meant business.

“You’re gonna have to listen to me, now, Gideon. I’ve been doing this for awhile, and I’ve called on lots of people, some that didn’t even have as good a place as Carlotta’s, back there. I’m telling you that there aren’t very many folks I’ve found that can’t come up with two bits a week for a five–hundred–dollar indemnity plan, especially if you sell it to them the right way and then show up regularly to collect the debit.”

He walked around to the front of the Oldsmobile and put his hand on the crank.

“Shoot, man, I had people with nothing but a dirt floor looking down the road for me when I’d come to collect their payments, and when they handed it over, you’d have thought I was doing them the biggest favor they ever had in their lives.”

Zeb grunted as he cranked the engine, then straightened once more and squinted at Gideon Plunkett.

”And in a manner of speaking, I guess I was doing ’em a big favor. You take a guy like ol’ Arthur, back there,” Zeb said, jerking a thumb back toward the shack in the elm grove. “Say he ups and dies one of these days, say, clearing timber and miscalculates and it falls the wrong way with him underneath—who’s gonna take care of Carlotta and the young ‘uns?” He peered at Gideon, who returned his stare for a few seconds, then nodded reluctantly, looking down at his feet and scratching his head beneath the sweatband of his derby.

“You see, Gideon? That’s what we’re selling, and that’s how you gotta convince these people. You gotta put ‘em in a bind, make ‘em real uncomfortable, then show ‘em the way out—for only twenty–five cents a week, which you’ll be more than happy to collect for ‘em, of course.”

He cranked the engine twice more; it sputtered, then caught. He hurried around to switch the spark.

“Now, hop in, Gideon. We got more prospects to find.”

*******

With dusk settling red and pink against the deep blue of the western horizon, Zeb pulled in beside the boardwalk in front of the agency. By midafternoon, he thought Gideon Plunkett was starting to get the idea. The new agent had even talked his own way past a reluctant prospect or two.

Zeb felt good: competent and in control. He enjoyed seeing a new hire begin to learn how to succeed on his own.

He closed the door of the automobile. Abner was still seated at his desk in the front of the office. What’s he doing here at nearly half past six?

Zeb walked in the front door and looked at his secretary.

“Why you still here, Ab?”

Abner looked at Zeb like a cat who’d just swallowed the pet canary. Zeb glanced toward his desk. crying

Seated in front of it was Becky Norwich.

“Why, uh, hello, Miss Norwich,” he said, taking a step or two past Abner’s station. As Zeb passed Abner’s desk, he heard the scooting of the chair and the quick steps, then the hurried closing of the door.

Becky stared at him. Her eyes were reddened tunnels of fear.

“Zeb, I’m … I think I’m going to have a baby.”

*******

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

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

 

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 27

February 21, 2019

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

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

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

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

Louisa nodded, looking away. birth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dear Mrs. Douglas,

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

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

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

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

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

done at the earliest possible time.

Cordially,

Zeb. A. Douglas

 

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

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

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

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

He folded the letter and reached for an envelope.

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Guaranteed.”

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

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

Ned noticed one of the older boys smothering a grin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where you goin’, Rob?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where you going, white trash?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Little skunk bit me!”

*******

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 25

February 7, 2019

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

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

“Hmm?”

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

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

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

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

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

She turned her face slightly toward him but said nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that the best you can do?”

He stared at her.

“Do what?”

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

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

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

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

“Addie! That’s not how—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

******* 

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

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

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

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

“No trouble.” trainstation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

*******

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

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

“Well, all right then. Thank you.”

“Yes’m.” motherchld

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

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

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

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

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

“Da’ee?”

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 24

January 31, 2019

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

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

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

“Where is he?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where’s Junior?” she asked.

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well? What are you staring at?”

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 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

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

 

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 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

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