Posts Tagged ‘private investigator’

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 34

April 19, 2019

A basketball bounced against George’s shins as he walked across the south end of the gymnasium. He picked it up and tossed it back to the boy who had been chasing it.

“Sorry, Mr. Hutto.” basketball

“That’s all right, Tim.” George watched as little Tim Dobbins dribbled back across the crowded floor, dodging through the calisthenics class toward the game in progress under the single goal on the north wall. Ever since that team from the Buffalo YMCA had played an exhibition game here just before Christmas, the boys had been wild about the new game from up north. They’d nearly warted him to death until he got the goal installed and some balls bought. He needed to find some volunteers to start a league, he guessed.

A Bible class was in session in the meeting room. George stepped inside quickly and closed the door against the noise of the gym. A few of the boys looked up at him as he stepped quietly along the back of the room toward the office. He slipped out his watch. Rev. Stiller was running over time, as usual. Some of the younger boys in the back were swinging their legs and staring at the ceiling. George wondered if he ought to give that young Baptist preacher a try for the next class. He’d heard the man held the view that a sermon should be strictly limited to an hour’s length. Maybe he’d know how to liven things up a little for the boys.

George stepped into the office and sat behind the desk. The last stack of receipts still sat where he’d left it yesterday at lunchtime. He sighed. He needed to work down here full time, it seemed, to keep up with all the paperwork. But it wouldn’t do the club any good for him to let his business die for lack of attention, either.

He heard the noise of the Bible class breaking up. He needed to say something to Rev. Stiller, but he had to get these receipts signed and posted to the donors. His door opened. He looked up, and there stood Ned Overby with a rough–looking character that could only be his father.

“You Mister Hutto?” the man said.

George stood and held out his hand. “Yes, I’m George Hutto.”

The man wiped his hand on his pants leg and shook George’s hand. “Overby. Perlie Overby. Ned here says you know each other.”

“Ah, yes. Hello there, Ned. I was pretty lost one day out close to your place, and Ned got me back on the right track.”

“Well, he knows the country pretty good, I reckon. Anyhow, Ned told me about this here club. Says there’s book reading, and such.”

“Yes, we’ve got several classes of various kinds.” The pungent smell of Ned and his father—a mixture of bacon grease, tobacco, and body odor—was rapidly filling the small office. George stepped from behind the desk and held open the door. “Can I show you around?”

“That’d be fine, I reckon,” Perlie said. “All right with you, boy?”

Ned shrugged and nodded.

George walked across the meeting room. “The Saturday boys’ Bible class just left. Maybe you saw them as you came in.” He opened the door to the gymnasium. “And out here we’ve got all kinds of exercise classes: calisthenics, weights, boxing—”

“Yeah, a boy needs to know how to take care of hisself, that’s for sure.”

“And Mr. Allen from the Carnegie Library comes over once a week to teach literature and loan books to the boys.”

“Ned can read pretty good, can’t you, boy? Now, uh, Mr. Hutto, I just wanna make sure of somethin’. We ain’t got much in the way a money—”

“Oh, no, Mr. Overby. Some of the boys pay dues, but the YMCA doesn’t exclude any boy on the basis of payment.”

“Ned said it didn’t cost nobody nothin’.” Perlie’s eyes flickered darkly toward his son. “Didn’t you say so, boy? Now, we ain’t interested in no charity.”

Ned looked back and forth from his father to George. shabby

“Of course not,” George said, trying to think of something. “We’ve … we’ve got lots of jobs that need to be done around here, and I’d expect Ned to help out with his share, just like the others.”

Perlie scratched his beard. It made a coarse, grating sound. “Well, then, in that case … I think he’s pretty set on it, if you’ll have him.”

Ned was looking up at George. It was the first time George had ever been able to tell the boy really wanted something.

“I’d be especially happy for Ned to be here, if he wants to be.”

Perlie looked at his son for a long time. “I guess that settles it, then. When can he come?”

“Why, he can stay here today, if you like. I can even bring him home.”

“No, now, I’d hate to put you out like that. His two good legs got him here; they can take him home.”

“No trouble at all. I’ve got another boy that lives out past Orchard Knob, and I can drop Ned off along the way.”

“All right, then. Ned, boy, you pay attention to what Mr. Hutto says, you hear? You mind.”

Ned nodded. George could see, even through the grime, the flush of excitement in the boy’s cheeks.

He walked to the door with Ned and his father and waved Perlie on his way. When he closed the door and turned around, several of the boys were looking at Ned. They stared until they noticed George watching them, then they quickly went back to what they were doing.

*******

Dan Sutherland looked at the telegram and shook his head. He looked at it again and rubbed his temples. There it was, plain as Western Union could make it. He ought to be pleased, or at least satisfied for his client. He’d hired out to protect Addie Douglas’s interests, after all.

But he wasn’t pleased and he wasn’t satisfied. He was put out, was what he was, put out with the whole sorry world. This Douglas boy had seemed like a decent enough fellow. And Addie was dead–set enough on him to go up against her bullheaded Methodist of a father. Even without her father’s approval, two young people could have made a worse start. And now this.

What went wrong? Something always did, seemed like. Churchgoing people or not, moneyed or not, town folks or country, people just had a hard time not treating each other poorly if you gave them enough time and chances. And you never knew, that was the thing. What started fair ended up foul; what started with love and promises ended up in spite and lies. People fooled you. Fooled themselves, most likely. He’d seen it often enough, he ought to be used to it by now. But he wasn’t.

Dan folded the telegram and tucked it into his breastpocket. He went to the chair in the corner and got his hat. “Louis, I’ll be out for awhile,” he said as he passed the clerk’s desk. “Ring up the livery and tell ‘em to get my sulky hitched up.” He paused in the doorway. “Oh, and draw up a check for three hundred dollars, payable to Albert Purvis of Little Rock, Arkansas. In the memorandum, put ‘final payment.’ I’ll sign it when I get back.”

*******

Addie stared at the words on the yellow Western Union sheet. She thought she’d been prepared for this; for weeks now she’d imagined herself sitting at this table or at Mr. Sutherland’s desk, hearing news like this. She’d imagined herself crying or shouting or angry. But she’d never imagined what she felt now, with the proof in front of her. It was as if she sat at one end of a huge, long room, and Mr. Sutherland was at the other. She stared at the words until they blurred, but all she felt was a cold, hard void. telegram

 

LITTLE ROCK JANUARY 17 1904

DAN SUTHERLAND, ATTORNEY

CONFIRM SUBJ Z DOUGLAS CONSORTING WITH

WOMAN HERE STOP CAN PROVIDE TIMES AND

PLACES IF NEEDED STOP REASON TO BELIEVE SHE

IS WITH CHILD STOP

SEND USUAL AMT STOP PURVIS

 

“Addie.”

She blinked and looked up at him.

“Addie, I’m sure sorry to be having to bring this to you. But you had to know. For sure.”

“Yes, sir, I— With child?”

“Yes, I’m afraid so.”

“Who is this Purvis person?”

“That doesn’t matter, Addie. He’s just a man who finds out things for me sometimes.”

She nodded. She swallowed, then brushed back a stray lock of hair. She looked around. “Jake … where’s … I’d better—”

“Addie, now listen to me. We’re going to have to sue him on the grounds of adultery. He’ll be found at fault. And the way the laws read—here in Tennessee, anyway—he won’t be allowed to marry this woman as long as you’re alive. I don’t know for sure what they’d do about it in Arkansas.” pregnant

“Not marry?”

“That’s right.”

Addie thought about that for a minute, and then she was thinking about this other woman who was—who might be—carrying Zeb’s child. Once he was divorced, he was banned from marrying her? She hadn’t known that. But then, she hadn’t spent much time thinking about the legalities of divorce. Not until Zeb informed her of his intentions, anyway.

Then she started to be surprised at herself for being able to form such sensible thoughts at all. Why, she might be a judge herself! What if Zeb had to come before her bench, plead his case in her court? What would he say? Would he apologize? Beg for clemency? Or would he list her sins against him, the ways she had driven him to this other woman’s arms? No one thought of himself as truly wicked, did he? Surely Zeb had reasons that seemed fair in his own mind. What case would he present?

She realized Dan was saying something. He was looking at her strangely. “Addie, I need your approval to go ahead with this.”

“My approval?”

“Yes. You have to have what the law calls ‘a nearest friend.’ A man to act on your behalf.”

“Oh, of course.”

“Might as well be me, I figure.”

“Yes.”

“All right, then.” Mr. Sutherland got up from the table. “I’ll be on my way. Need to get the papers drawn up.” He turned his hat in his hands and gave her a studying look. “Addie, I’m real sorry about this. I’d sure never wish any of this on anybody.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you.”

“You want me to send for Junior? Or your sister?”

“Oh, well … yes, I guess that’d be nice.”

He gave her one more long look. He put on his hat. He leaned over and took back the telegram. “I’ll need this for evidence. You sure you’re all right?”

“I’m— Yes.”

He touched his hat brim. “Good day, then, Addie. I’ll be in contact with you soon.”

“Thank you, Mr. Sutherland.”

“Now, I told you—”

“Oh, yes—Dan. Thank you, Dan.”

“That’s better.”

*******

Zeb walked into the agency and saw the man at Abner’s desk. Abner looked up. “Well, speak of the devil. Zeb, somebody here to see you.”

The man swiveled around. He held a light brown derby in one hand and a thick–looking envelope in the other. “You Zeb Douglas?” he asked. seal

“Yes. I don’t believe I caught your name?”

Zeb stuck out his hand, and the man slapped the envelope into it.

“Legal papers, Mr. Douglas.” He stood, put on his derby, and quickly walked out the door.

Abner stared after him for a few seconds, then looked at Zeb.

“What in thunder was that all about?”

Zeb looked at the envelope. There was no writing of any kind on the outside. He thumbed open his pocketknife and slid the blade under the flap. The first thing he saw on the sheaf of papers as he unfolded it was the seal of the State of Tennessee. The next thing he saw was the large, ornate printing across the top: “Bill of Divorce.”

“Zeb? You all right?”

“Oh, I … yeah, Ab, I’m fine. I just …”

He wandered back toward his desk, his hat still on his head, his coat still buttoned. He sat down. His eyes swept back and forth across the close printing. There were blank lines in the document, and someone had penned, in a very neat hand, the words “D. L. Sutherland as nearest friend of the plaintiff, Adelaide Caswell Douglas.” The same careful scribe had written Zeb’s name in the blank reserved for “defendant.” Zebediah Acton Douglas. He hadn’t seen his full name written out like that since the announcement of their engagement was printed in the Chattanooga paper.

“… sues on the aforenamed plaintiff’s behalf for the cause of adulteries committed by the aforenamed defendant …”

Zeb had a sudden image of the man with the old black derby. What had he seen? Zeb clenched his jaw, trying to think what kind of scum would take money to spy on another man’s private business. What had been relayed to Chattanooga to be pawed over by some lawyer? Zeb wanted to punch the derby man in the face. He wanted to make somebody pay, right now. This wasn’t supposed to be the way it happened.

What in the world was he going to tell Becky? derby

He had to get out; he needed to think. He shoved the papers in the bottom drawer of his desk, all the way to the back. He pushed himself away from the desk and strode toward the door. He was vaguely aware of Abner’s upturned, surprised face, and then he was outside.

He walked quickly, his arms swinging. He didn’t know where he was going, and he didn’t care. A horse pulling a dray down Cumberland Avenue shied and splashed water on him, and he barely noticed. He walked until he came to the railroad tracks fronting the river bluff, and he turned west. The wind hit him in the face and made his eyes water.

He came to the crossing of Water Street and North Ringo Avenue. He could see the trestles of the railroad bridge across the Arkansas River. His breath was coming harder now, and he was walking slower. He needed to stop somewhere. There was a small, mean–looking saloon on the northwest corner. The faded sign over the door named it “The Golden Horseshoe.” He’d never been in a saloon in his life, but now seemed like a good enough time to start.

The first thing he noticed inside was the quiet, and that surprised him; he’d always imagined saloons as noisy. When his eyes had adjusted to the semidarkness, he saw an empty stool next to the plank bar. He straddled it and propped his hat on one knee.

“What’ll you have?”

What does a man order in a saloon, anyway? “Beer,” Zeb said.

The barkeep turned around and did something, then swung back and clumped a heavy glass mug onto the bar in front of him. Some of the beer slopped out and ran down the side of the mug. Zeb looked at the drink. It didn’t look the way he’d generally heard beer described; it had a meager layer of suds on top, like dirty dishwater. He picked up the mug and took a tiny sip. The taste was bitter; he wrinkled his face but swallowed it anyway.

The barkeep was staring at him. “That’ll be a nickel.”

Zeb fished a five–cent piece out of his pocket and flipped it on the bar. It vanished under the barkeep’s grubby fist.

Well I’ve paid for it; might as well drink it. He picked up the mug and took a half dozen large swallows, trying not to taste, just get it down. He set down the mug and took a couple of deep breaths, then turned it up again until he’d drained it. saloon

A thought flew through Zeb’s head, a memory of his father. Daddy would’ve never set foot in a place like this. But then, Daddy wouldn’t have gotten himself in such a mess, either. Zeb waggled the mug at the barkeep and dug out another nickel.

What was he supposed to do? Zeb guessed he’d need to talk to a lawyer. But did it matter? Once the divorce was done, he’d be shut of Addie, and good riddance. This whole thing was his idea to begin with, wasn’t it? He was getting what he wanted, in a manner of speaking. He might just let her have her day, if that was what she wanted. Not even give her the satisfaction of darkening the courthouse door.

But … were there penalties for not showing up? What could they do to him if he didn’t defend himself? Yes, he needed a lawyer.

One that didn’t know Pete Norwich, preferably.

He was starting to feel a slight teetering sensation, somewhere in the center of his skull. It wasn’t unpleasant, to tell the truth. He was sitting in a saloon drinking a beer and holding his problems out at arm’s length, where he could see them. That’s all it was—a problem. He’d solved problems before. He took two large gulps of beer and slapped another nickel on the bar.

*******

Abner glanced up from his paperwork and saw her just as she stepped onto the boardwalk in front of the agency doorway. He had a quick thought of hiding but realized she was already too close; he’d never make it. He bent to his work and waited for her to come in, feeling a little bit like a condemned man listening for the step of his final escort. The door jangled. He met her with the best smile he could gather up.

“Afternoon, Miss Norwich.”

“Good afternoon, Abner. Where’s Mr. Douglas?”

“Well, now, I don’t know, just exactly. He left outta here about an hour and a half ago, I guess, but he didn’t say where he was going.”

That didn’t set well, it was easy to see. She had a light blue parasol in her right hand, and she was staring real hard at Zeb’s desk and tapping that parasol across the heel of her left palm. Abner didn’t think he wanted to know what she might do with that parasol if she had Zeb here right about now.

“Didn’t say where he was going?”

“No, Miss, he sure didn’t.” She’d dropped all notions of smiling by now. Abner devoutly wished he was somewhere else.

“There’s his valise, on the floor beside his desk. He didn’t take it with him?”

“No, Miss Norwich, I guess he didn’t.” valise

“So he wasn’t going out on business. Did he take anything with him?”

“No, not a thing. Except his hat and coat. And he—” Abner had a sudden desire to bite his own tongue.

“And he what?” The question came out quick, like a hen pecking at a june bug. She was looking at him now, and it wasn’t a friendly look.

“Aw, nothing, really, Miss Norwich.”

‘‘And. He. What?”

“And … he’d just come in a minute or two before he left, so he never even took them off. His hat and coat, I mean.”

She got a white, pinched–looking place around her lips. “Abner, did Mr. Douglas do or say anything else before he left?”

Keeping his eyes on the parasol, Abner said, “Yes, I guess—I guess there was one other thing. He … he looked at some papers right before he left.”

“Papers?”

*******

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

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

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Sunday Clothes, Chapter 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 29

March 8, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m glad to hear you say so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you thinking?” Junior asked. judge

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

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

“How long?”

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

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

She forced her eyes to meet Dan’s.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She looked a question at him.

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

“I don’t understand.”

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

“Certainly not!”

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

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

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

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

He looked at her and sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dan gave Addie’s oldest brother a direct look.

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

“What do you mean, Dan?”

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

Junior stared at the lawyer for several seconds.

“Dan, I sure appreciate this.”

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

*******

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

 

LITTLE ROCK OCTOBER 10 1903

DAN SUTHERLAND, ATTORNEY

TALKED TO SECY STOP YOURE ON RIGHT TRACK

STOP MORE LATER STOP SEND USUAL AMT STOP

PURVIS

 

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

*******

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

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

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

*******

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

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