Posts Tagged ‘religion’

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 13

February 10, 2018

Rose sat heavily in the chair beside the bed as she wiped the last traces of blood from herMother and baby hands and forearms. “We get you cleaned up, Missy,” she said, “before your man come in here. He see you like this, he liable to fall out.”

Addie looked up from the head of her nuzzling baby long enough to give the older woman a wan smile. “I guess I don’t exactly look fit for polite company, do I?”

“Honey, after what you just done, ain’t nobody gonna expect lace and spit curls. But we don’t wanna scare your man, neither. Most men can stand nearly anythin’ ‘cept birthin’ blood. I think it must remind ‘em of what it done took they mamas to get ‘em here. I think they feels bad about it but can’t say so.”

Addie caressed the child’s downy head. She was starting to get the hang of nursing now and her little mouth was pulling greedily at the nipple. Addie felt the twinge of afterpangs now and again, but compared to the ordeal of the birth, they were barely worth noting.

“Raise up a little on this side, honey.” She leaned as Rose directed, feeling the sheets slide from beneath her. “Now the other side, sugar. Your nightgown don’t look too bad, since we kept it up out the way. We get some clean sheets on this here bed and then we be ready for the new papa to come have a look at this here fine young ‘un.”

Addie peered down at the tiny profile, still nursing eagerly. The baby’s eyes were open, their hue a dark blue bordering on purple, and now and again Addie thought she cut her eyes upward, trying to see. “My sweet baby,” Addie murmured, stroking the still-moist cheek. “My beautiful, perfect child.” She felt dizzied by the dense reality of the suckling child in her arms, by the unfamiliar, stunning fact of her presence. All during the nine months leading up to this moment, Addie had known her more as idea than actuality. But now . . . This thing that had issued from her in tides of pain and blood was a person, endowed with every perfect detail in breathtaking miniature. There now existed a living, breathing human being who had never before been! The simple wonder of it rose far beyond the reach of her mind’s vision, swelling unutterable within her until she thought her heart must burst. She used a finger to heft the tiny hand with its five miniscule fingernails, and suddenly she knew: her heart wasn’t bursting. It was stretching to bear her love for this child, just as her muscles and sinews and flesh had stretched and groaned to deliver such a miracle into the light of day.

Rose tossed a clean, crisp sheet into the air and it settled down over them like a gently falling cloud. She tucked the corners in and propped Addie up just so. Casting a final critical glance at the tableau, she went to the door and called out to Zeb. “Well? You ready to see your new baby?”

Addie heard his steps slowly traverse the parlor. He stepped into the doorway, his face as drawn and void as an empty poke. He looked at her, then down at the tiny head bobbing at her breast, and his eyes flared open. The sight breathed life back into him; his whole body bloomed and stretched and widened with joy, and a grin clasped his face. “Why, Addie,” he breathed, “it’s … it’s beautiful!”

“Not an ‘it.’ It’s a ‘she,”’ Addie beamed.

“A girl?”

“Yeah. Is that all right?”

“Why—why, I imagine so! I imagine so!”

“What you doin’, standin’ in that door like you’s company?” Rose said. “Get on over there and hold that baby!”

Nervously rubbing his hands on his wrinkled shirt front, Zeb sidled toward the bed. He reached forward to receive the wrapped bundle.

“Don’t worry, you ain’t fixin’ to break her,” came Rose’s voice, soft at his elbow. “Just let her head rest in the crook o’ your arm; there–just like that. Looky there, she cuttin’ her eyes at you. You see your daddy, li’l Missy? This here your papa, honey.”

Zeb peered into his daughter’s face, hardly daring to breathe.

“Her … her mouth looks like yours,” he told Addie in a stage whisper.

“Yeah, but she got your eyes, that’s for sure,” Rose said.

“You really think so?”

“Mmm-hmm. I expect they be green this time next year, just like yours. What you gonna name her?”

Zeb and Addie stared at each other. “I thought we’d name her Mary Alice,” Addie said, “after both our mothers. If … that’d be–all right.”

Zeb’s eyes were drawn back to the tiny, red face peering from the blankets. “Well, Miss CradleMary Alice Douglas. How do you do?”

*******

In the days that followed, Zeb became more practiced at holding his daughter, but he never quite felt comfortable doing it. Addie or Rose would place the baby in his arms, and he would struggle manfully to relax—mostly to no effect. But Mary Alice didn’t seem to mind; she seemed fully as contented to be in one set of arms as another. Unless, of course, she was hungry or soiled. Then Zeb yielded gratefully to the experts.

He couldn’t talk about the way he felt toward the child because he didn’t understand it himself. Looking at her, he felt an odd mixture of awe, delight, confusion, pride, fear, and pleasure. Protective zeal surged through him, and on its heels came intense bouts of anxiety. It was at once a wonder and a worry to him that he must now portion his consciousness, not in halves, but in thirds. “Daughter” became an exotic taste for him, a new sensation that he caressed in his mind, standing back and watching himself admire its novelty—and fret over its ramifications.

Sometimes, as he sat, he would catch one of the women watching him. Addie’s eyes were always soft and cherishing, loving him from where she sat, glowing with an adoration that seemed to radiate to him from the baby when he held her. These days, he basked in a reflected light.

Rose, on the other hand, used a more veiled look. Sometimes she would smile at him a little and nod her head, but her eyes never dropped their guarded assessment. She reminded Zeb of an insurance prospect, listening patiently to the sales pitch and constantly wondering how much the payments will be.

He sometimes thought he was outside the fence, looking in at Rose and Addie. The two women shared something he couldn’t calculate or understand. It was the same when callers came, the women all aflutter and the men—when they couldn’t avoid coming—with hats in hand, smiling gravely down at Mary Alice, who appeared completely indifferent to all the attention. The women had so much to say about the whole matter; the men seemed more intent on failing to notice it. They would talk to Zeb about the weather, about automobiles, about dogs and guns and Congress. They would have discussed business, he guessed, but for their knowledge of the line Zeb was in. Maintaining a proper distance was the thing.

A few days after Mary Alice’s birth, a delivery boy came bearing a stylishly wrapped package with a card from the men at the home office. “Congratulations, Zeb and Addie,” it read. Along with the package, the boy handed Zeb a small note in a separate envelope. “So pleased to hear of your new arrival,” it read in Mr. Griffs’ back-slanted hand, “and looking forward to your return to the field. Little Rock needs your steady hand on the tiller.”

Reading the note again, Zeb—to his surprise—felt an odd sense of relief. In the back of his mind, he had been wondering how to broach the subject of his return to work, but there hadn’t seemed to be a right time to mention it. Now, Mr. Griffs had handled it for him. After all, the bosses were plainly ready to have him back in action. Surely no one could fault him for that! And, with the new responsibility of a child to feed and clothe, it was only right that he return to the serious business of making a living. Addie would understand.

“Oh, Zeb, look!” Addie cried, holding up from the ruin of the decorated box a shining silver baby cupsilver cup and saucer. “It’s got her name engraved on it, and her date of birth!” Addie turned the set this way and that.

“Sure is pretty,” said Rose, cradling Mary in one meaty arm.

“Zeb, you must tell Mr. Griffs and the others how delightful this is!”

“Well, now that you mention it,” he said in his most carefully casual voice, “I had thought about checking in at the office here in the next day or so.”

“Yes, I suppose it’s about time for you to think about getting back,” Addie said. The dip in her voice was so slight, Zeb would never have noticed it, had he not been looking for it.

*******

The next morning he rose and quietly washed and dressed in the halflight that trickled through the closed window shades. His eyes felt gritty, and there was a dull pressure in his forehead. He figured he’d slept perhaps three hours all night.

Sleeping with an infant in the tiny bedroom was a mounting frustration. Each time Mary Mother and sleeping babywould gurgle or stir, Addie would sit up or rise from the bed to stand over her and peer intently at her in the dimness. And then, every three hours or so, the baby would get hungry and begin the clucking and chirping that would eventually erupt into a full-blown demand to be fed. Usually, before she could get up a full head of steam, Addie would reach into the crib and gather her up, murmuring sleepily to her and bringing her to the breast.

Amid such a commotion and bouncing of mattresses and rustling of bedclothes, slumber would have been impossible to any but a dead man, Zeb surmised. He had always been a light sleeper in the first place, and the nightly program was certainly not geared to his rest patterns. Addie could catnap during the day when Mary was asleep, but he had never been able to doze when the sun was up.

As he fastened the cuffs on his shirt, he looked over at the tangled bundle on the bed sighing deeply in rhythmic, slow breaths. Best not to disturb Addie, he thought. Lifting his coat from the bedpost, he tiptoed from the room. He took one last glance at the two sleepers and backed quietly through the door, latching it behind him.

In the kitchen was Rose, who had slept on the settee. She sat at the small table, blowing softly on a steaming cup of coffee. She looked tired, crumpled. As he came in, she got up silver coffee potto get the coffeepot. She poured a cup and set it in front of him.

“Thanks.”

She seated herself again without replying. They both sipped gingerly at the black, near-boiling brew.

“They’s toast in the skillet,” she said, a few moments later.

He went over to the stove and carefully plucked a crisp slice of buttered bread from the flat iron skillet. He took a bite, then another.

“How come you didn’t go back to your cousin’s last night?” he asked around his second mouthful.

Rose sipped, then shrugged. “Got too late. Thought y’ all might need some help.”

“Sure was a short night,” he admitted.

“Mmm-hmm.”

She tilted her cup and allowed a little coffee to dribble down its side into her saucer to cool. In a bit, she picked up the saucer and slurped. Setting it down slowly, she glanced at him. ‘‘Ain’t nobody’s fault, though.”

He looked at her. “Do what?”

“Ain’t the baby’s fault. She don’t know no better. And Miz Addie bound to be restless with her for a little while, till she get used to it.”

“I know that.”

She looked down at her saucer. “Yessuh. I’m just sayin’ … ”

He took a few more sips of his coffee, then poured the remainder down the sink. He crossed the parlor and took his hat from the lamp table, pulled on his coat, and walked out the front door.

*******

Rose watched him leave, then studied the tabletop for a long while. “Lord, tell me I’m wrong about that man,” she prayed softly.

Perhaps forty-five minutes later, Addie stumbled into the kitchen.

“Mornin’,” said Rose.

“Good morning. I don’t know why I’m up, the baby’s still asleep.”

“You better get your rest while you can,” Rose said. “You want some coffee?”

“Oh, nothing right now, Rose, thanks.” She peered around. “Where’s Zeb?”

“He gone, honey. He left before you got up.”

“Oh. Well, I … I guess he needed to get an early start.”Hansom cab

“Mmm-hmm. I guess so.”

*******

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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Sunday Clothes, Chapter 12

January 26, 2018

Louisa noticed a buttercup blooming in the tall grass just beside the front steps. Without yellow buttercupexactly knowing why, she approached the simple little yellow blossom and knelt down, touching its petals gently with a gloved finger. Rising and looking about somewhat self-consciously, she realized it was the first thing since Katherine’s death that she had perceived for its own sake.

The automobile was still coughing its death throes when Dub joined her on the front porch. “Don’t understand what’s wrong with that cotton picking thing,” he muttered. “Guy at the livery said he adjusted the carburetor–whatever in thunder that is.”

“Place looks kinda bad, doesn’t it?” she said, looking about her. A tread on one of the front porch steps gaped loose from its stringer, and paint was flaking in numerous places from the porch railing and trim. The grass in the front yard of her father’s house appeared not to have been cut since last summer. In several places, jimsonweeds and cockleburs reared almost knee-high above the unruly lawn.

“Well, he’s never been the tidy one in the family,” Dub observed, pushing his hat back on his head.

“It didn’t have to be this way, Dub,” she insisted in a low voice. Her husband made no reply.

She went to the front door and rapped. “Papa, it’s Lou and Dub! Papa, you home?”

They heard steps coming down the hallway inside, approaching the front door. The door opened, and Jacob Caswell stepped out onto then front porch, carefully pulling the door shut behind him. “Hello, Lou,” he nodded to his daughter. He shook hands with his son-in-law. “Dub.”

“Jacob.”

“Papa, will you come eat lunch with us after church tomorrow?” Her eyes raced over him as she asked the question, spotting details with a woman’s trained eye: the missing button on the waistcoat, the soiled cuff, the wrinkled trousers. It wasn’t hard to imagine what the inside of the house looked like. No wonder he pulled the door to, she thought. He still has some pride.

“Yeah, hon, I guess that’d be all right,” he answered, his hands jammed in his pants pockets. He rocked on his heels, staring out across the road, recently covered with fresh, orange gravel. “Thank you. I’ll be there. Dub, how’s the hardware business these days?”

“Not too bad, I don’t guess. Summer coming on, the farmers are coming in, getting ready for … ”

Louisa strolled away, the men’s voices fading to a nondescript hum in her mind. She Victorian Little Girlwent down the steps and paced slowly around the side of the house, looking at everything and nothing, feeling inside herself the gradual swelling of the familiar empty space. It wasn’t as bad now as right after the funeral, after everybody went home. Those few days were the worst, when there wasn’t even the prospect of a public service to prop her up, only the remainder of a lifetime with a Katherine-shaped void. No, it was some better now. Not easier, exactly. Maybe she was learning to accept the numbness in her heart. Maybe she was learning to expect less.

She sat down on a stump about halfway between the back door of the house and the tree line of the wood covering Tunnel Hill. When she was still living here, this was a hoary old ash tree whose shade had accommodated many a quilt-top tea party, attended by herself and Addie, then barely more than a toddler.

Addie. I should be with you now, helping you and doing for you. Or you should be here, staying with me while Zeb goes off and does whatever it is that takes him away for so long at a time. But . . .

There used to be a soft cushion of bluegrass beneath the old ash, she remembered. But now the ground around the stump was mostly worn bare, with a few scraggly clumps of dandelion and wild rye scattered here and there. The tree had been struck by lightning one night during a wild summer thunderstorm when she still lived here. Louisa still remembered the searing crash that pounded her chest and sounded like the roof being ripped off the house. The next morning, the old ash tree was a smoking, charred splinter. No more tea parties.

Hearing footfalls, she looked up to see Papa walking toward her, his hands still jammed in his pockets. Seeing her glance at him, his eyes dodged to a spot on the ground beside the stump.

“Lou. How … how you doing?”

“Fine, Papa. ‘Bout the same, I reckon.”

“Dub says business is good.”

“I guess. I wouldn’t know.”

He scuffed the toe of his shoe beneath a tuft of rye grass and started idly trying to root it from the ground. “Boys all right?”

“Yes. Robert still mopes some, and the baby’s too little to know much.”

“Well, I expect they’ll be fine. Just take some time.”

“Yes. Just time.

He pulled a hand from his pocket, wiping it hesitantly on his pant leg. He walked up beside her, finally, and laid it on her shoulder. “Lou, I … I’m sorry. Real sorry.”

She sat perfectly still and expressionless, for so long that he removed his hand. He rubbed his face and stuck his hand back in his pocket. He looked away, toward the trees. Just beneath the eaves of the wood stood a sprig of dogwood, halfway through the change from blooms to leaves.

“I’m sorry, too, Papa.”

It was such an odd thing for her to say, dropped without warning into the silence, that he forgot his diffidence and stared at her. “What?”

“I’m sorry too.” She looked up at him. “We both lost a daughter, Papa. The Lord took mine, and there wasn’t anything to be done about it.”

She stood, staring into his shocked face.

“What’s your excuse, Papa?”

She turned and walked back toward the house1890's Model T

She could hear Dub grunting as he tried to crank the motor car. As she rounded the corner by the front porch, she glanced over her shoulder. Her father was still standing by the stump, staring at the place where she had sat.

*******

As she entered the final month of her pregnancy, Addie began to feel more and more like a beached whale, and Zeb just couldn’t seem to understand–although she thought he wanted to. This morning, for example, she felt his irritation at her slowness in getting ready for church. She could hear him pacing the parlor, hear the click of his watch cover every two or three minutes. He might blame her sloth, but he wouldn’t allow it past his lips. That was something, at least.

She snapped home the last clip on the last garter, sighing as she straightened her skirts. Then she gazed hopelessly at her stockinged feet, so far away, and the high-topped shoes on the floor beside them. Bending over to fasten the buttons on her shoes was far beyond her ability this morning, even allowing that her puffy, swollen feet could be coaxed into the strict confines of the lace-up boots. “Zeb, dear, could you please come help me?” she called, unable to think of any better plan.

Zeb walked into the bedroom, his mouth a tight line of impatience. He looked at her. She handed him the buttonhook. “I can’t do my shoes,” she said with a shrug. ‘‘I’m really sorry, dear, but … ”

Without saying anything, he knelt before her and held up one of the shoes. She pointed Black buttoned bootsher toes and pushed, and he wriggled it back and forth until her foot was encased in leather. Then he began working the buttonhook in and out of the fasteners.

They were just finishing the other shoe when they heard the slowing chug of an automobile, the squealing of brakes, followed closely by the obnoxious, gooselike honking of the brass horn. “Beulah and Will are here,” he said in a terse voice. “You ready now?”

She stood. “Just hand me my purse, over there by the dresser.” They went to the front door. Addie noticed that Zeb slapped a grin on his face as soon as they stepped outside.

*******

What a fellowship, what a joy divine,Leaning on the Everlasting Arms

Leaning on the everlasting arms;

What a blessedness, what a peace is mine,

Leaning on the everlasting arms.

 

Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms;

Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms …

Addie wished she could lean on something. The burst of energy she had felt a day or two previous had by now completely evaporated, and she felt all used up. The congregation arrived at the end of the song, and Brother McCrary motioned from the pulpit for them to sit down. Scarcely had she settled herself into the pew when she felt a wet spot. She was horrified to think she might have soiled her undergarments. The baby had settled awkwardly in the past few days, and sometimes, lately, she had barely been able to control her elimination functions. She felt her face burning with humiliation. How on earth could she politely excuse herself during the sermon without embarrassing herself and Zeb?

Just then, a sharp pain speared her midsection, starting from just beneath her breastbone and rippling down her stomach like cascading fire. It felt like the time her calf muscle had cramped while dog-paddling across the deep hole in Cellico Creek—but much, much worse. Despite her best efforts, a gasp escaped her lips, and her hands went to her belly.

Zeb looked at her, his face confused at first, then wide-eyed. “Is it time?” he asked in a half-whisper, grabbing her elbow.

She nodded, biting her lower lip. “I think so,” she managed.

Zeb stood, stepping over the ankles and knees of the other startled worshippers seated on the pew, making his way toward the aisle. He pulled her after him. “Scuse me. Pardon me,” he said in a low voice, keeping his eyes carefully averted from the surprised faces of those he was stepping over. Addie trailed behind him as fast as she could, one hand holding his, one hand gripping her abdomen, her nostrils flaring in and out as she grappled with the pain clamped like a vise on her stomach.

Beulah Counts, seated two rows behind Addie and Zeb, punched Will in the ribs. Will jerked his head up, saw the Douglases threading their way toward the center aisle, and half-leaped from his seat. The four of them paced hurriedly toward the front door of the church.

And all the while, Brother Charles McCrary never paused in his delivery, never faltered in the rhythm of his homily.

Pacing quickly toward the Duryea, Zeb asked Will, “How far is it to the closest hospital?1890's Duryea

“No!” grunted Addie, walking half-doubled over. “Take … me … home!”

“Now, honey, it may be fine and dandy,” Beulah lectured, “for them hillbilly women in Chattanooga to drop their babies in the cabin with nothing but a granny woman, but here in Nashville, we got doctors and hospitals for such things! You just get in the car and we’ll get you to–”

Her pain made Addie reckless. “Beulah, hush!” She turned to look at Zeb. “I want to go home. And I want you to go get Rose.”

“Oh, Lordy! The old nigger!” howled Beulah. “What next?”

Zeb looked at his wife, panting and hanging on to his shoulder. Then he glanced at Will, who was staring back at him, trying to avoid his wife’s angry glare. “Will, I believe you better get us to the house, quick as you can,” Zeb said. ‘‘And then—I guess you better go get Rose.”

*******

Seated beside the bed, Zeb watched helplessly as his wife’s grip suddenly intensified on his hand. She pulled her knees up and rolled to one side, letting go of a long, low moan.

He prayed harder than he ever remembered praying in his life. How much longer couldhands Addie hold on? Where in the name of heaven was Will Counts? He half suspected Beulah had talked him into driving to the hospital and trying to convince someone to come back to the house, even though Addie had given him the piece of paper with the address of Rose’s cousin scrawled in the old black woman’s spidery hand.

He looked on as his wife wrestled alone with her misery, feeling as helpless and lost as an abandoned child. In her agony, she seemed distant and locked away from him. He was frightened by it but had no words with which to resist, even had she been able to hear through the fearfully intimate cords of travail that separated her from him, from knowing, from everything that had been before now. She was far, far beyond his help or even his recognition, and he was bewildered, defenseless, and insufficient.

He heard the backfiring of an automobile and craned his neck to peer around the doorway into the parlor and out the windows facing the street. His heart leaped into his throat as he saw Rose stepping out of the car almost before Will could get it stopped by the curb, and striding in short, side-to-side steps toward the front door.

“Honey, Rose is here! Hang on, all right? She’s here, Addie. Can you hear me, darling?”

“I’m having a baby, Zeb, I’m not deaf! Go on and let her in the house!”

Gratefully, he rose from his chair and strode to the door, but before he could reach it, theVictorian Kitchen door flew open and Rose marched past him as if he were a hatrack, shoving her purse, hat, and coat at him as she went by. “Get some water boilin’,” she commanded, “and bring me some clean towels. We in for a long haul, so you might as well get comfortable.”

Beulah stood in the doorway; arms akimbo, a tight-lipped, disapproving expression on her face. Will was standing a pace or so behind, hands in his pockets, peering sheepishly in at him. Zeb came to himself and tossed Rose’s things on the rocking chair. “Will, thanks for everything.”

Will waved his hand in dismissal. “Weren’t nothin’ at all,” he said. “You need us to do anything else?”

Zeb looked into the bedroom, where Rose leaned over Addie, murmuring low and smiling, wiping her face with a cloth moistened in the washbasin on the bureau. Carefully avoiding eye contact with Beulah, he replied, “No, I don’t guess. I think we’re all right now. We’ll send word when … when the baby comes.”

“Well, all right, then,” Will said, backing gratefully away from the door. He glanced at his wife’s stiff, unmoving back. “Beulah,” he said in a low voice, “I don’t believe we’re needed here now.”

She drew a loud breath through her nose and let it back out the same way. “No, I’d say not,” she huffed, picking up her skirts and flouncing past her husband. Zeb closed the door as Will turned to follow.

*******

“Let’s get you outta them skirts and into somethin’ more practical,” Rose said, raising Addie to a sitting position. She took her feet and carefully swung them down to rest on the floor.

“Oh, Rose, I don’t think I can manage! Do you think there’s time?”

“Honey, this your first child. We gonna be here awhile before anythin’ much happen, other than some hurtin’ and some strainin’. Next time, it’ll be some easier, but this time you got lots o’ work to do.”

“If I have to hurt this much for very long, I don’t think I’m gonna make it,” Addie despaired.

Rose chuckled deep in her throat as she unbuttoned Addie’s dress and slid it off her shoulders. “Oh, I imagine you make it,” she smiled.

“Besides, you in too deep now, honey. Ain’t no backin’ out.”

“Will it really be as long an ordeal as all that?” Addie asked quietly. ‘‘Are you sure?”

bureauRose shrugged as she pulled a fresh nightgown from a bureau drawer. ‘‘Ain’t no one sure but the good Lord,” she said. “But I done had seven of my own and helped a sight more into this world. If your baby here by sundown, you be better off than some I know.”

Addie heaved a deep sigh as she settled the nightgown around her. Then she felt a warm, familiar hand on her shoulder. “I be here with you, honey,” Rose said, patting gently. “I be here till you don’t need me no more. Ain’t much in the way of birthin’ babies I ain’t seen.”

And then another contraction ripped downward from Addie’s breastbone and clenched her belly in a steel band.

*******

For the next eight hours, Zeb alternated between pacing the shrinking confines of the Mantel Clockparlor and fetching various items at Rose’s command. When the early spasms came, he was frightened by the sounds coming from the partially closed bedroom door. He wanted to either go in and hold his wife or run out the door and down the street, to return when it was all over.

As if divining his thoughts, Rose had poked her head into the parlor during that time. “You the only help I got,” she said. “You stay close by where I can call you easy and quick. Now, go warm me a towel on the stove!”

He carried to the doorway a dizzying succession of warm towels, cold cloths, ice chips, steaming water, cups, saucers, blankets, and other assorted paraphernalia. Each element disappeared in a flash of brown hands and arms into the birthing chamber. These instant errands were interspersed with bouts of pacing and an inner turmoil that mounted with each agonized moan from his wife’s tortured body. She sounded like she was dying! Maybe Beulah was right; maybe she needed a doctor. Once, during an apparent lull in Addie’s labor, he crept to the door and timidly raised a knuckle to tap and inquire whether anything was needed. Scarcely had he rapped once when Rose’s head thrust from inside. “Scald a big dishpan and bring it to me,” she ordered, shutting the door in his face. And so it went.

As the afternoon light began to slant long and golden with the coming of evening, the sound and activity in the bedroom reached a flurrying crescendo. Zeb’s blood ran cold as he heard the brutish grunts and growls coming from Addie’s throat.

He heard Rose chanting in a low, insistent voice: “Come on, now, honey. Push for me, baby, push for me. Come on now, puuuuush for me, baby. That’s it, that’s it. All right, let go for a minute, let go … Now! Puuuuush, honey! Come on, now … ” Sounding now like a mule skinner, now like a revival preacher, Rose cajoled and urged and scolded to the rising and falling accompaniment of his wife’s groans and exhalations and half-articulate cries.

“Just a little more! Just a little more now, baby!” he heard, Rose’s voice rising half an octave, as Addie panted loud and rhythmically. “Just a little— there you is, you little dickens!” Rose cried in triumph. A few seconds later, Zeb heard a sound that made his knees wobble: the thin, high wail of a baby exhaling its first lungful of air in a cry of protest.

He would have gone to the door if he thought he could take the five or six paces withoutdoor falling. His heart was yammering in his chest like a thing gone mad. Without realizing it, he had collapsed onto the divan and sat there, staring at the partially closed bedroom door as if it were suddenly the gateway to a foreign country.

*******

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

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 11

January 19, 2018

There was a moment of shocked silence. Then Addie covered her face with her hands. The sobs started in short, silent bursts, then deepened and broadened into a river of grief, pouring from her in huge gasps and loud moans. She felt Rose’s arms around her, smelled the dusky, warm scent of her, and for a moment she was again that bewildered, abandoned child of thirteen, buffeted by a loss that could never be fathomed, only endured. And again, Rose crooned her untiring incantation of comfort: “It’s all right, Missy. You can make it. It’s going to be all right, by ‘n’ by.”Sweet By and By

*******

In the days that followed, they settled into a routine. Rose would come midmorning, after Addie had gotten herself out of bed and in some semblance of order. She would stay through early afternoon, leaving only after she had prepared something that Addie could warm up for supper. On the fine days, if Addie felt up to it, they would go for short walks up and down the streets of the neighborhood. If Addie needed anything from the grocer or butcher, Rose would go around and give orders to have it delivered. She heated towels on the stove and made hot packs to ease Addie’s aching lower back muscles. She massaged Addie’s calves when the frequent cramps would tie them in knots. She helped in piecing the baby’s quilt.

They would sit for long stretches of time without speaking—Addie in her overstuffed armchair, Rose in the cane-bottomed rocker. During the day, the light from the parlor windows was more than adequate to piece or sew by. Addie felt no need for speech, no need to hold up either end of a conversation. Every so often, Rose would ask, in her low, monosyllabic way, if Addie needed anything. And Addie felt not the slightest hesitation about making any request. This, after all, was Rose. Her presence was like the feel of an old, well-worn quilt on a cold night.

Addie sometimes wondered how Rose had managed to get Papa’s permission to come and help out, but she could never make herself ask. Even more, she longed to ask Rose if Papa ever mentioned her, if he ever thought of her. But she was terrified of the answer to that question and left it well alone. And besides, thinking of home invariably led her thoughts back to little Katherine—her adorable lisp; the silken feel of her cinnamon-colored hair as Addie brushed it out for her; the beautiful, perfect curve of her chubby cheek; the sound of her laugh … No, it was better not to speak of the things of home. For now, it was enough that Rose was here. The nights were less lonely, knowing she would see a familiar, caring face the next day.

About a week after Rose’s arrival, Beulah Counts came to call. She blustered in on the coattails of an unseasonably warm south wind. “Lord-y, I tell you that wind like to blew the hair off my head. How you doin’, honey? Mercy, I never seen such a wind as—”

She stopped in midsentence, staring at Rose, who was just then coming from the tiny Coffee cup with flowerkitchen bearing two steaming cups of coffee.

“Who’s that?” Beulah blurted.

“This is Rose, my— She’s come to help me out these last few days,” Addie explained, glancing nervously from Rose to Beulah. Rose gave no sign of recognizing Beulah’s presence, carefully placing first one coffee cup, then the other, on the two crocheted coasters on the small table by Addie’s elbow. “She’s … Rose has been with my family for years, and it’s so kind of her to come when I needed her,” Addie said, smiling sweetly, first at Rose, then at Beulah.

“Uh-huh,” Beulah snorted, placing a hand on her hip. “Well, thank you for the coffee, Addie. I guess I wouldn’t mind a taste, even on a day like—” Beulah’s hand, stretched toward the coffee cup farthest from Addie on the table, froze in midgesture as she watched Rose nonchalantly grasp the cup and bring it to her lips, sip noisily, and replace it on the coaster, never once looking in Beulah’s direction.

“Yes, that’s a good idea,” chirped Addie into the awkward silence. “Rose, why don’t you bring Mrs. Counts a cup of coffee? How do you like it, Beulah dear?”

Beulah’s jaw hung slack on its hinges as she turned to regard Addie. “Addie!” she began in a stage whisper, “do you honestly think it’s proper—”

“Why, of course, Beulah!” piped Addie, at once flustered and secretly delighted at Beulah’s discomfiture. “I think if you want a cup of coffee, it’s perfectly proper for you to have it. How do you like it? Cream, sugar, … or both?”

Beulah stared at Rose’s broad, disappearing back, momentarily framed by the kitchen door. “Both,” she said, finally, pinching her lips together like a miser closing a purse.

“Rose, did you hear?” asked Addie.

Mmm-hmm.”

Beulah seated herself, perching uncharacteristically on the edge of the small settee, Setteeaccepting from Rose the coffee cup as though it were a live rodent. She balanced the cup and saucer carefully on her knees and strove gallantly to ignore Rose’s presence while she made several abortive attempts at chitchat. She never separated the cup from the saucer.

In a few minutes, Rose took her own cup to the kitchen and came back out wearing her old, ratty shawl and a nondescript kerchief over her head. Without a word to anyone, she walked toward the door.

“Rose, are you leaving?” Addie asked.

“Yes’m. I be back in the mornin’.”

“Well … All right, then. Good-bye—and thank you.”

Mmm-hmm.” And then she was gone.

“Who is that old nigger woman?” Beulah demanded as soon as the door was shut. “And why on earth were you … drinking coffee with her?” she continued, her lip curled in contempt. “Having her to wait on you is one thing, but that’s so, so … familiar!”

“Oh, Beulah!” Addie laughed. “Rose just about raised me! In fact, she did raise me after my mama died. And I’ll tell you what else: she cares more for me than—” The words my own father died in Addie’s throat. “—than lots of folks who’ve known me as long,” she said. “She’s just … Rose, that’s all. You can’t let her get to you. She’s just like that, is all.”

“Well, you better listen to me, Adelaide Douglas,” Beulah lectured, shaking an admonitory finger, “she’s a little too big for her old britches, is what I think, don’t matter how long you’ve known her. And people in Nashville ain’t like some might be in Chattanooga.”

No, I guess not, Addie thought.

“You let her keep carrying on like that around you and you’ll be sorry, mark my words. You give ‘em an inch, and they’ll take a mile!”

Despite her best efforts, Addie began to smile while trying to calculate all the inches Rose had accumulated during her lifetime. “Well, anyway, Beulah, I’m so glad you came. Your hand is so much steadier than mine—would you please help me baste the batting into a quilt?”

“I guess so,” she sighed, leaning over to place the cup and saucer on the side table. “Where is it?”

“At the end of the settee, by the door. The bow tie.”

“Yes, I remember the bow tie,” Beulah said. “This room’s not big enough to cuss a cat without gettin’ fur in your mouth. How in the world you gonna set a quilt frame in here?”

“Oh, it’s just a baby quilt,” Addie said. “I didn’t figure on using a frame. I thought I’d probably just lap-quilt it.”Thread spool

“Well,” Beulah said, shaking her head, “where’s your needles and thread?”

*******

Despite Addie’s fretful impatience, March 20 did finally arrive—the day on which Zeb was to return. She was nervous and agitated all day, picking things up and immediately setting them down again, pacing the small parlor like a lion in a cage, staring habitually out the windows, though she knew Zeb’s train wouldn’t arrive in Nashville until ten o’clock that night.

“You better set down and rest, Missy,” Rose said. She was seated in the rocker, and she had the bow tie quilt spread across her lap, taking fine stitches through the cotton batting into the backing, then back through the top. “You gonna wear yourself plumb out before your man even get home.”

“Oh, Rose, I’m sorry. Here, I’ll sit down and talk to you. I’m acting just like a schoolgirl today!”

Mmm-hmm,” came the murmured reply. Rose kept her eyes on her stitching as she asked, “How long he been gone, honey?”

“Oh, it seems like forever! But, I guess it’s really only been … about a month.”

Rose made no reply.

“He’s doing very well in Little Rock, really,” Addie went on. “His bosses are real proud of him. And … and so am I.”

Mmm-hmm.”

“Oh, but I wish it were ten o’clock already!” Addie pushed herself out of the chair and paced toward the front door, then back, hugging herself.

“I miss him so much!”

“You ain’t going to hurry that train none, wearin’ out this here floor,” Rose said. She brought the thread to her lips to bite off an end. “He be home pretty soon, and then you be wishin’ you save your strength for somethin’ besides walkin’ around all day.”

“Rose! You crude old thing! I’m—I’m expecting!”

“Yeah, you is.” She grinned at Addie. ‘‘And so is he!”

Addie stared at her, mouth agape.

“Honey, I done had seven babies,” Rose went on, squinting one eye to rethread the needle, “and I knows how mens thinks, and what they thinks about. He been gone from home a solid month, and he be needin’ you. Don’t worry about that baby; you ain’t gonna hurt him. De good Lord know what he doin’ when he made us the way he do.”

A flush was creeping up Addie’s neck, and a smile twitched the corners of her lips. She turned away, unwilling for Rose to see the effect her advice was having.

The day wore on toward afternoon, and presently Rose stood and walked into the kitchen. She came back, carrying her shawl and kerchief.

“Oh, Rose, don’t go!” Addie urged. “Please! Stay with me until Zeb—until Mr. Douglas gets home. I don’t think I could stand being by myself today, as fidgety as I am. Will you stay? Please?”

Rose looked at her a long moment, then smiled slowly. “Well, all right. I reckon I can stay a little while more, at least. I don’t know if I can catch a trolley after ten o’clock, though—”

“Oh, thank you, Rose! I need someone to talk to, to make the time pass faster.”Mantel Clock

“Well, I don’t know about that,” Rose said, tossing her wraps on the settee and slowly settling herself back in the rocker. “Seem to me like time pass on its own lookout; don’t make no difference whether folks be tryin’ to pass it or not.”

“Now, Rose, you know what I meant. There’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you these last few days. I’ve been wondering: what was it like for you when you had your first baby? How did things change for you?”

Rose rocked slowly back and forth, her hands folded on her bosom. Her face was angled to one side; she appeared to be looking beyond Addie, out the window toward Granny White Pike. For several moments she stayed like that—rocking and looking and saying nothing.

“James come into this world during the worst thunderstorm of the spring, back in ‘57, I guess it woulda been,” she said. “He was my first, an’ I guess I was plenty scared, not much knowin’ what was happenin’. Oh, I done helped at lots o’ birthins, but this one was mine, see, and that make everythin’ different.”

Addie shifted in her chair, moving the pillows at the small of her back so she could face Rose with more ease. The afternoon sun bathed the room in warm, languid light. The traffic on the street outside was infrequent, and the ticking of the Ingraham mantle clock loaned a settled, comfortable feeling to the small parlor. Rose’s well-worn voice droned along the paths of her memory. Addie felt the pull of the voice, felt it summoning her steadily and pleasurably into the reminiscence, like a firm, sure hand on the drawstring of a well bucket, bringing water from a deep, sweet source.

“It was nearly midnight when I felt the pains comin’ on, and I sent my man Leland down to Sister Hattie’s house—oh, I guess maybe a quarter mile or more.” She let out a deep, bubbly chuckle. “Honey, I ain’t never gonna forget the look on that man’s face when I told him it was time. I done had to jab him in the ribs four or five times with my elbow to get him awake enough to ‘tend what I was sayin’. Directly, he set up. ‘What you doin’, woman?’ he say, like I done stabbed him.

“‘It’s time,’ I say, ‘the baby comin’.’

“For a minute, I think he don’t hear me. He just sit there, rubbin’ his face and yawnin’. Den his eyes, they pop like this!” Rose laughed again, shaking her head at the memory. “‘What you say, woman?’ he holler. He like to fall out the bed trying to get his britches on.

“We was stayin’ down by the freight yards in them days, and the closest help was Sister Hattie Sorrels. Leland light out for her house like the devil hisself was on him. He ain’t no more than go out the door when the lightnin’ flash so close by you could hear it crack like a whip, and right on its heels a clap o’ thunder that like to wake the dead.”

“Oh, Rose! Weren’t you scared?”

Rose shrugged. “I guess . . . maybe. But it was too late to do much more than wait. And pray. I done plenty o’ both.”

Several quiet moments passed.

“How long has your husband been—gone?”Rose and Leland

“Fourteen years, the tenth of next month,” Rose answered instantly.

“Was … was he sick?”

Rose shook her head. “He got hurt workin’ on the incline railway up on Lookout. He was standin’ behind a car loaded with blast rock, and a couplin’ bust, and he get run over. He live about three days.” Rose mused a few seconds. “Leland was a crew boss, so the company pay for the funeral, and they give me fifty dollars.”

The clock ticked patiently. An electric trolley clattered past on the street. “How long did it take before you got over it?” Addie asked in a half-whisper.

“You don’t never get over it, honey,” Rose said in a creased voice as low as a moan. “You just learns to live with it, that’s all. And the Lord give strength for the day.”

*******

The afternoon wore on, and despite Addie’s objections, Rose had to leave. The Nashville negroes were boycotting the traction company just then, but Rose’s cousins had told her about a group of blacks who were attempting to run a hack service to compete with the trolleys. The hack picked up not too far from Addie’s house, but it stopped running after dark.

“I got to get on, honey,” Rose said, gathering her things. “I’m too old to walk all the way to Freeman’s house, and I’m too scared to try it at night.”

“Of course, Rose. Thank you so much for staying with me a little longer.”

“Yes’m. Don’t get up, now. I can make it out the door by my own self. You don’t worry about your man; he be here soon’s he can, I imagine. You just take it easy, and send for me, you be needin’ anything.”

Addie watched Rose talk herself out the door, watched the door close behind her, watched her amble off down Granny White Pike with her back-and-forth, purposeful gait.

Addie looked at the mantle clock and sighed. Only a quarter till five …

*******

The brakes jolted the car, shaking Zeb awake. He blinked groggily, wincing as he rubbed the back of his stiff neck. He must have fallen asleep somewhere just this side of Jackson, he guessed. He peered with bleary eyes through the window and watched the Nashville station platform crawl past; slowing, slowing, and stopping with a far-off hissing of steam. “Nayshville, folks, this is Nayshville,” sang the conductor as he walked back through the car. Zeb creaked to his feet and reached into the luggage rack for his valise.

He felt kinked and crusty from the journey, but despite his weariness, a warm anticipation bloomed within him. He was anxious to get to the house, to see Addie. It had been a long month. A corner of his mind teased at the question of whether she’d be glad to see him, whether she’d be at all inclined toward—

No! Mustn’t be thinking about such things, he lectured himself. After all, Addie was approaching her time. Such things weren’t decent to contemplate, and it would surely harm the child anyway. Addie was a fine, upstanding woman, and she deserved the utmost resect, especially from a husband who had been so long absent. Especially in her delicate condition.

He shuffled down the aisle of the car. The air coming through the open doors was chilly, after the comfort of the heated coach. He pulled his watch from his vest pocket and flicked open the cover. Ten-oh-seven. Just about right. The trolleys wouldn’t be running, but he could probably hire a hack to take him home.

He found a slightly dilapidated hansom waiting in front of the station, the horse Hansom cabchamping noisily in a nosebag and the cabbie dozing in the seat. “Say, there,” he called, tapping the side of the cab, “you for hire?”

“Yes, sir,” the cabbie replied through a yawn. “Just climb in and tell me where to.”

“Granny White, up past Vanderbilt. You know where Edgehill is?”

“Yes, sir, sure do,” the cabbie answered, untying the nosebag. “Have you there in a jiffy.”

Half an hour later, Zeb got out of the hansom and flipped a fifty-cent piece up at the driver. “Thank you, sir!” he heard as the cab clattered off. He realized he probably shouldn’t have tipped so much, but he was glad to be home, and he felt generous. Besides, he thought as he strode toward the front gate, I can afford it! He felt his pulse quickening as he opened the gate. The gaslights in the parlor were glowing through the windows, so Addie was waiting up for him. It would be so good to see her again.

An instant after the gate catch banged home behind him, the front door flew open. She was striding toward him, as fast as her girth would allow. He set his valise down and she was in his arms, and he was smelling the sweet scent of lilac soap and feeling her silken hair and drinking a long, glad draught from her lips.

“Well, we better get in the house,” he grinned at her a moment later. “Folks’ll talk.”

“Oh, let ‘em,” she sighed, putting her arm around him as they walked toward the front door. “I’ve missed you so, Zeb.”

‘‘And I’ve missed you,” he replied, opening the door for her.

They went inside. He dropped his valise beside the settee and tossed his derby on the lamp table by the door. Addie took his hand and pulled him forward. Toward the bedroom. He stared at her.

“Addie, what . . . Are you sure . . . Is this—all right?” Despite his protests, his voice was thickening with onrushing desire, and her eyes said everything he wanted to hear.

“Why, we ain’t gonna hurt that baby none,” she said in a weak imitation of Rose’s gutteral voice. “The Lord know what he doin’ … ”

Gas light

Half an hour later, he remembered to come back into the parlor and douse the gaslights.

*******

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

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 9

December 2, 2017

“So, anyway, like I was sayin’, these ol’ boys went to this fancy hunting lodge and man, they was just made outta money. So they says to the feller at the lodge, ‘We don’t care how much it costs, we want the best quail dog you got on the place …’ ”

Will Counts was fairly shouting in the front seat, but Addie still could barely hear him over the commotion of the horseless carriage. She held on to her hat with one hand and tried to brace herself against the bumps and swerves with the other. She gritted her teeth and prayed they’d get to church in one piece.

“Will is so proud of this silly thing,” Beulah Counts shouted in Addie’s ear. “He figured 1890's Duryeaout a way to build a backseat out over the engine, so us and the boys could go driving together. They’ll be just sick when they get home from my brother’s and find out they missed out on a trip in the horseless carriage. Will don’t take it out every Sunday, you know.” Beulah’s smile testified that she held a far higher opinion of Will’s generosity than Addie.

“And the feller says, ‘Well, boys, the best thing for quail around here ain’t a dog.’ And they say, ‘What you talking about?’ And he says, ‘Well, ol’ Uncle Jake here can find a covey quicker’n any pointer this side of the mountains.’ And they’s this old feller setting in the corner, half asleep. And the hunters says, ‘How much?’ And the feller says, ‘Five dollars a day per gun, and y’all have to buy Uncle Jake a plug of tobacco.’ And the hunters says, ‘Well, all right, then, if you ain’t pulling our legs.’ And they pay their money and go to hunting …”

The Duryea clattered down Granny White Pike, and Addie’s insides curdled with each jolt. She wished she and Zeb had taken the trolley, as usual. Compared to this rattletrap, the trolley was like a leisurely afternoon on a still pond. But Will had been anxious to show Zeb his new toy, and she hadn’t known until this morning of the perilous invitation he’d accepted.

“Well, I mean to tell you, them boys went through the quail like you-know-what through a goose. They limited out that day, and the next day, and the next. They’d go along, and ol’ Uncle Jake would stop, all of a sudden. He’d point at a little scrap of cover and say, ‘They’s a brace right there,’ or, ‘they’s four of ’em settin’ under this ‘simmin bush right here.’ The gunners ‘d get all set and Uncle Jake ‘d step in there and put up the birds, and blam! blam! Ol’ Jake’d pick up their birds and hand ‘em to ‘em and they’d go on to the next place. These ol’ boys was in some tall cotton. I mean, they was just tickled sick…”

“Now, how you feeling these days, honey?” Beulah’s meaty hand thumped on Addie’s arm. “Having any morning sickness?”

“Not too much,’’ Addie said. “Some days are worse than others.” She squeezed a wan smile onto her face.

“Well, now don’t you worry about it, honey,” Beulah said. “You know what they say: ‘sick mother, healthy baby.’ ”

This young ‘un ought to be stouter than garlic.

“Now, for the whole next year, all these ol’ boys can talk about is getting back to that place and shooting birds over ol’ Uncle Jake. They walk into the place the next season and go straight to the feller and say, ‘We’re here to hunt with Uncle Jake.’ And the feller gets sorta sad-looking and says, ‘Boys, I’m sorry, but Uncle Jake passed on.’ Well, the hunters are just dumbstruck, you know, and finally, one of ‘em asks, ‘How’d it happen?’ And the feller says, ‘Well, he got to running the chickens, and we had to shoot him.’ ”

Zeb’s sudden guffaw splashed back over Addie. When she glanced up, she could see the Red Brick Churchapproaching spire of the church. She clenched her jaws and gripped the arm rail. She sucked deep draughts of the cool autumn air into her nostrils and allowed it to escape from between her lips. At last, the end was in sight. Lord, if you’ll let me get there without heaving up my insides, I promise you I’ll never ride in one of these hellish machines again.

Will herded the Duryea against a curb near the front door and set the brake. They all clambered out as several knickered boys broke away from their families and raced over to the machine, eyeing it and pointing at it. Zeb offered her his arm and they walked up the five steps onto the portico, blending with the rest of the faithful going into the building.

The Twelfth Avenue Church of Christ met in a red-brick church house purchased from a Baptist congregation that went out of business. Their first act upon assuming ownership was to remove the bell from the steeple, since they held that bells, like pianos and organs, had no scriptural authorization and were mostly for show, anyway. They sold the bell to some Methodists and used the twenty dollars to buy a new front door and a sign to hang above it. “Church of Christ,” the sign proclaimed in terse block letters, black on a field of unspotted white, and the members all agreed the twenty dollars had been well spent.

When Addie and Zeb got inside, the elders were already seated in the two large chairs on either side of the pulpit. Addie and Zeb scooted into their customary place about halfway up on the right side of the aisle, just as the song leader strode to the front to announce the first hymn.

Hark! the gentle voice of Jesus falleth

Tenderly upon your ear;

Sweet his cry of love and pity calleth:

Turn and listen, stay and hear.

Ye that labor and are heavy-laden,

Lean upon your dear Lords breast;

Ye that labor and are heavy-laden,

Come, and I will give you rest.

Heavy-laden—that about summed it up for Addie. If Louisa were here, things would be better. Someone to talk with, really talk with, not just pass pleasantries while the men amused themselves. Someone to understand without needing everything spelled out. Someone Addie could trust to tell her what was happening to her body, to her feelings, to her life. Someone to give her a hint of what might lie ahead.

Take his yoke, for he is meek and lowly;

Bear his burden, to him turn;

He who calleth is the Master holy:

He will teach if you will learn.

Ye that labor and are heavy-laden …

*******

Though he was mouthing the words of the chorus, they barely registered in Zeb’s mind. He needed to decide what to do about the offer Mr. Griffs and Mr. Carleton had made him. He knew he could turn the Little Rock agency around and make it a paying proposition. He knew he was being given these challenges for a reason, and he knew one day his consistent successes would be rewarded by a plush home office position. He had to think of the future—now more than ever. Surely Addie could understand that.

And then he thought of her tears, of the flat, scared look in her eyes when he had first Victorian Biblementioned the promotion. It had knocked the wind out of him, that look. He thought she’d be proud of him, excited by the possibilities before him—before them. But all she could see was the uncertainty.

He knew as sure as sunrise he shouldn’t turn his back on this new chance to prove himself. But he couldn’t figure out how to bring Addie around. He’d promised to take care of her. And he was doing that, wasn’t he? He was bringing home more money now than he ever had. And the prospect Griffs and Carleton offered him promised even more. But Addie …

His glance fell on the sloping shoulders of Will Counts and his wife. Beulah Counts sure seemed like a good woman. Seemed like she doted on Will and everything he did. Zeb wondered if Beulah might be able to talk to Addie. Zeb liked Will just fine. He might see what Will thought about the idea. Maybe all Addie needed was another woman to talk to her, to help her see things.

*******

They sang two songs, and then one of the men led a prayer. Another song, and it was time for the sermon. Brother McCrary went to the pulpit and stood with his head bowed for a moment. He took a firm grip on the sides of the lectern and leaned into his text for the day. The light glittered from the lenses of his wire-rimmed spectacles.

“In James the second chapter and verse fourteen, the writer says, ‘What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?

“ ‘Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone …’ ”

He quoted more of the passage, never looking down at the open Bible on the lectern. He Lecturnengaged the eyes of the congregation one by one, as if he had handpicked each verse as a personal oracle for the individuals in the pews.

“Brethren, it’s easy to talk good religion. It’s easy to say all the right things and put up a good front for the eyes of men. What’s hard,” he said, his voice dropping a half-tone, “is living good religion. James knew this, brethren. And that’s why he gives us this warning. We all need to listen, to pay attention to his words. And we all need to obey. Error waits on every side to snare the careless, the heedless. The only way to keep your feet on the strait and narrow path of our Lord is to be constantly vigilant …”

Addie tried to get interested in Brother McCrary’s sermon, but her mind slipped off his words like ice skidding on a hot skillet. Her eyes wandered the sanctuary. She and Zeb hadn’t really gotten to know anyone at Twelfth Avenue. Of course, they’d only been here for a month and a half or so. Beulah and Will Counts were the only people they’d visited with at all, other than when they came to this building on Sundays. She tried to let herself really see the individual people around her. She knew scarcely a handful of them, but she tried to imagine what they might be like.

Two rows in front of her and across the aisle sat a desiccated old woman, her back bent nearly double with a dowager’s hump. She reminded Addie of old Miss Ruthie at Centenary Methodist in Chattanooga. Miss Ruthie had never married, never even been seen with a man. Once, at a church social, Addie and several of her friends were gathered around Miss Ruthie. One of them asked her why she’d never taken a husband. Addie, a little embarrassed by her companion’s cheek, watched as the frail old maid smiled and stroked the girl’s pinafore with her twiglike, bent fingers. “Well, sweetie,” she said in her high, airy voice, “the fact is, I was in love once.”

Addie and her friends drew closer, as if Miss Ruthie were about to reveal a great and necessary secret no one else could tell them.

“Oh, it was many years ago,” Miss Ruthie said. Her eyes closed in reverie. “Long before the war. He was the sweetest boy I’d ever seen. His daddy had a grist mill down on Chattanooga Creek, just down the riverbank from Brown’s Ferry. He was just the kindest thing, and so polite, even though he’d never had much schooling at all.

“Oh, my papa wasn’t too happy about the whole thing.” The color rose on Miss Ruthie’s withered cheek. “But Mama wouldn’t allow him to scold me.” Her thin, bluish lips parted in a smile as she removed a lilac scented kerchief from the front of her dress. Addie noticed the trembling of her brown-spotted hand as she daubed at her lips. “I never said anything to Mama about it, but somehow she knew.”

There was a long silence. A group of young boys rioted past, but the girls didn’t even blink in their direction.

“I thought he was the most wonderful thing in the world,” Miss Ruthie said finally, folding her hands in her lap.

When she could stand it no longer, Addie asked, “Well? What happened, Miss Ruthie?”

The old woman pursed her lips and turned her head slightly to the left. She wasn’t looking at them now. “He died of typhoid during the autumn of ’32. It broke my heart.”

And that was all she would say.

Addie remembered that one of her friends went and got Miss Ruthie a glass of iced lemonade from the table where the church ladies were setting out drinks—as if that might help, somehow. She remembered how Miss Ruthie’s story stayed with her in the days that followed. Like a sad, sweet, old song, it echoed around in her mind at the oddest times—when she was doing chores or skipping rope, playing with dolls or working on her lessons.

She remembered thinking there was a sort of mystery about old men and women. They knew things, had seen and remembered things. They were harder to surprise. She remembered trying to imagine herself as an old woman; she could never conjure up any image other than a slightly wrinkled version of her own ten-year-old face, still capped by the same chestnut hair in ribboned braids.

These days, she was starting to understand a little bit of why she couldn’t see the old woman she would become: a child can’t comprehend all the different kinds of living there are. A child thinks mostly about the visible differences. She doesn’t imagine that all the really important differences are on the inside, tucked away where they can’t be seen. Everybody was like that. Much of the real truth about people was hidden from view—sometimes until it was too late. You mostly just had to wait and see.

“A lot of people will tell you that it’s more important to be a good person than to follow the teachings of the gospel,” Brother McCrary was saying. “They’ll tell you it doesn’t matter much whether you pay attention to the Scriptures or not, as long as you’re living a good, moral life. But these words of James’s stand in contradiction to that sort of thinking, brethren. It’s not enough to say ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not the will of the Father in heaven—Matthew seven, twenty-one … ”

*******

The thought of traveling to Little Rock gave Zeb an odd, secret feeling of excitement. For all his seriousness about his business, there was still a towheaded, eager part of him that stood on tiptoe and watched as he did new things, gained admittance to better and higher circles. Successful men travel on business, this part of him whispered, goggle-eyed and breathless. He was becoming important to the company, or they wouldn’t send him so far away.

He thought of seeing new country, eating new food in places he’d never been. Zeb had Mississippi River at Nightnever crossed the Mississippi River. He thought of all that wide water, sheeted brown beneath him as he rumbled over the new bridge at Memphis. Strangeness and distance chanted to him, pulled at him.

And it was, after all, an opportunity. It wasn’t just some lark he’d made up for himself. Griffs and Carleton were depending on him. He couldn’t afford to disappoint them, to let the company down. He really ought to take the bull by the horns.

Zeb sensed the faint, sour taste of resentment. A man couldn’t be shackled to his wife’s uncertainties, could he? If he was to be the provider, shouldn’t he do it in the way he saw best?

But her anxious face, the bluntness of her apprehension …

The baby in her womb.

It wasn’t fair. How could a man argue with a woman when she was carrying his offspring? She was proof against any attempt at logic or persuasion. It was almost as if she held a hostage and was, in turn, held hostage. And there was a kind of selfishness about her, too, as if she now contained inside herself her own final reason for everything.

He knew he ought to go. But how could he?

*******

“Brethren, is there someone here today who is ready to shoulder the task our Lord has set? Is there someone who is ready to answer, as the prophet Isaiah, ‘Here am I; send me’?”

The congregation sensed the approaching end of Brother McCrary’s sermon and began reaching for the hymnals in the racks.

“If you’re ready to get busy for God, if you’re tired of carrying the useless load of sin and are ready to be washed in the blood of the Lamb and begin walking in the footsteps of Jesus, won’t you come down front today, while we stand and sing?”

The two elders rose from their chairs and paced to the front of the dais as the congregation stood. The song leader strode to the front, singing the opening notes of the altar call.

What can wash away my sin?hymn book

Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

What can make me whole again?

Nothing but the blood of Jesus …

*******

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