Posts Tagged ‘rural’

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

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 8

November 22, 2017

 Nashville, Tennessee

October 18, 1899

Dearest Lou,

Well I guess there’s not much doubt about it. I haven’t had my time of the month for two months now. I haven’t told Zeb yet, but I guess I won’t wait too much longer as he needs to know.

I trust this finds you and yours well. We are fine here. I’m finally getting settled in since our move. The men here at the home office seem real proud of Zeb and the work he did with the Murfreesboro office, and he assures me that this move is a real first-rate thing for him, so I guess I’m happy about it. But it does seem a bit hard, just being a newlywed and all and having to up and move so soon.

In a way, I hate to tell Zeb about the baby. Is that terrible of me? Sometimes I fancy I can feel that little life down inside me, and the privacy of it comforts me somehow. But I know these are foolish thoughts. Zeb will be so proud and happy to know he will soon be a papa.

Addie held the pen suspended above the paper. Her eyes left the page and wandered to fountain penan empty space somewhere between her bureau and the window. She ran her other hand over her belly, trying to imagine what was happening inside her body. If a new person was growing inside her, why did she feel so much like she always did? Why wasn’t she shining like the sun, or laughing all the time? There ought to be some extravagance. But, no; this was quiet and slow. She smiled.

How are your Robert and Katherine? And baby Ewell? Is he still gaining weight as fast as he was at first? I know they keep you plenty busy, and I guess I’m fixing to find out just how busy, here in a few months.

I don’t suppose there’s been any change with Papa, has there? I’d like to at least let him know about his future grandchild. That is, if he’d really want to know.

Your loving sister,

Adelaide C. Douglas

She sealed the envelope and affixed the stamp. She placed it on the edge of the bureau so Zeb would see it on his way out in the morning.

A horseless carriage clattered and banged past the front window. Addie glanced at it on her way to the tiny kitchen. There were more horseless carriages here than in Murfreesboro or Chattanooga. Granny White Pike was a busy thoroughfare. Sometimes carloads of youngsters woke them at night with their hollering.

She scooted the cane-bottomed chair under the bureau. She smiled at herself. Youngsters! Here she was, an old lady of nineteen, thinking such things. She paused and passed her hand absently across her belly, imagining the curvature that would become more and more pronounced in the weeks to come.

Ten steps away from the bureau and Addie was in the small kitchen. She had a dutch oven full of white beans simmering on one back burner of the Crown stove and a pan ofVictorian Kitchen chopped potatoes stewing on the other.

She wrapped a dish towel around her hand. She opened the oven door and removed a pan of cornbread, setting it on top of the stove to cool. Addie went to the cupboard above the sink and removed two plates. She scattered the silverware beside the plates, humming under her breath.

Yonder over the rolling river,

Where the shining mansions rise,

Soon will be our home forever,

And the smile of the blessed Giver

Gladdens all our longing eyes …

It wouldn’t take a mansion to make her happy. Even this little cracker box of a place would be fine if she could just stay in it for awhile, see the same scenery for longer than a three-month stretch.

*******

Zeb came in at a quarter past six, his tie loosened and his collar unbuttoned. Despite the slightly cool evening air, his face had a sheen of sweat.

“Had to walk all the way uphill from the Edgehill Street stop.” He brushed her cheek with his lips as he set his briefcase on the floor.

Victorian Trolly

“Why didn’t you get off at the regular place?”

Zeb smiled and ducked his head. “Well, I got to studying about a proposition Mr. Griffs made me, and I guess I just forgot where the trolley was. Good thing I looked up when I did. I like to went clear to the other side of Vanderbilt.”

“Must’ve been pretty serious, then.”

He looked at her a moment, then resumed peeling off his coat and yanking loose the knot in his tie. “Yeah, I guess you might say so.”

Addie set a blue-striped crockery bowl of stewed potatoes on the table, then turned to look at him, wiping her hands on her apron.

He folded his coat over the back of a kitchen chair and draped his tie atop it. He shoved his hands into his pockets. ‘‘Addie, they want me to open a new district office.”

She raised her eyebrows.

“In Little Rock.”

“Arkansas?”

He grinned. “Yes, ma’am.”

She went toward the stove, bunching her apron in her hands to pick up the pan of cornbread.

“What’s wrong, honey? It’ll be a real—”

“Opportunity? Like Murfreesboro and here?”

“Addie, what—what’s the matter?”

The cornbread clattered to the tabletop, and she covered her face with her hands. She skillet cornbreadfelt his arms around her, and she pushed him away. “No, don’t, Zeb! I’ll be all right in a minute, so just … don’t.”

When she looked up at him, his shoulders were slumped. She regretted her loss of control. She daubed at her eyes with a corner of the apron.

“Zeb, I’m sorry. I’m just a little upset right now, and … I’m expecting.”

His forehead wrinkled, like he was trying to work a cipher in his head. And then, something took off behind his eyes, and he jerked himself up straight, like a puppet when somebody twitches the string.

“You’re what?”

She had to smile. “I’m expecting,” she said in a quieter voice. “In a family way, Zeb. You’re fixing to be a daddy.”

He still didn’t move, except for his eyes. They were popping and jerking all around the room. He reminded her of some little boy who’d just been asked a hard geography question by the teacher. He stood there with his hands still in his pockets, looking like he was trying to figure out the right answer.

And then, he grabbed the chair with his coat lying across the back, pulled it out from the table, and sat down like a boxer after a rough round. She didn’t know what to do, so she went to the icebox for the buttermilk pitcher.

“How do you know? Are you sure?” His eyes still weren’t focusing on anything in particular; his arms hung loose at his sides.

“Well, yes, dear, I’m sure. Women know these things.”

Then the smile came, rounding the side of his face and spreading in all directions like molasses on an empty plate.

“A daddy,” he said. His grin went rubbery around the edges. “I’m gonna be a daddy.” He got up from his chair and dropped to his knees in front of her. He placed his arms tenderly about her waist. “Oh, honey. I don’t know what to say.”

A warm gush of love welled up in her. She placed a palm on the crown of his head, stroking gently down the back of his neck, over and over.

“Well, I guess we better eat this before it gets too cold.”

He sat as if he hadn’t heard. “Addie, I love you.”

“I love you, too, Mr. Douglas, but if you don’t get out of my lap, your supper won’t be fit to eat.”

Later, as he spooned a helping of potatoes onto his plate, he said, “When do you reckon the baby might come?”blue striped crockery

She put down her fork and thought for half a minute. “I guess about springtime—maybe sometime in April.” She toyed with her napkin, then asked him, straight out. “Zeb, how soon do you think we’ll have to go to Arkansas?”

He didn’t answer right away. He chewed his potatoes and took a slow drink of the frothy white buttermilk. He daubed the corners of his lips with his napkin. “Well, today they sounded like it might be pretty soon, but what with you being in a family way and all, I just don’t know … ”

“Zeb, I’d sure like to have Louisa with me when my time comes. That’d be a lot easier here than in Little Rock.”

He nodded. “Yes, that’s a fact.” He buttered a slice of cornbread. “I’ll talk to ‘em tomorrow and see what I can work out.”

A hundred questions crowded onto the back of her tongue. What if they don’t care about me and the baby? Why does it have to be right now? Why Little Rock instead of someplace closer: Lebanon or Manchester or even Memphis, for goodness sake? There must be one or two people in a place the size of Memphis who don’t have enough insurance. Why can’t we stay someplace long enough to see the seasons change?

But she sat silent, with her left hand properly folded in her lap, lifting her fork to her lips and sliding the food into her mouth without letting it scrape against her teeth. She would wait and see what Zeb arranged with the company. He’d be able to manage something. And she did love him so. Surely everything would work out.hands

*******

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 7

November 10, 2017

The lawyer arched his eyebrows and leaned forward onto his elbows, bridging his fingertips together. “Well, all right, Jacob. What exactly did you want changed in here?”

Caswell huddled into himself for a spell.

“I want my youngest daughter written out of the will.”

Dan made himself count to ten, then on up to fifteen, just for good measure.

“Jacob, you and I’ve known each other a long time, and you know good and well I don’t often give my clients advice on much of anything outside the law. But I think you better be mighty careful about what you’re fixing to do.”

Caswell sat with his arms crossed on his chest.

“Now, Dan, I been all over this in my mind, so don’t you start preaching to me about—”

“All I’m saying is that I’ve never seen any good come from something like this.”

 

“Dan, I didn’t come here to—”

“I know why you came, Jacob, and I’m trying to make you see sense, which would probably be a flat-out miracle. Don’t worry, I won’t charge you extra for the breath I waste on your bullheadedness.”

By now both of them were half out of their chairs. Dan glared at Jacob for a few seconds, and Jacob finally blinked.

“Dan, she’s betrayed the family,” he said as he sank back into his seat. “She’s ground her heel into her mother’s memory, and she’s turned her back on the way she was raised. I don’t see why she ought to benefit from what belongs to the family when I’m gone.”

Dan studied his fingernails. ‘‘Are you sure the rest of the family feels the same way you do?”

Will

“I don’t care what they feel!” Jacob slapped the desk and jumped to his feet. He stalked three paces toward the door, then whirled, aiming a finger at the attorney. ‘‘I’m the one that made the money! I’m the one that’ll blamed well decide who gets it when I die.”

 

“Now, you know I’m not much of a churchgoing man myself,” Dan said, “but I’d be careful about making free with what’s gonna happen when you die. The courts of Tennessee don’t have jurisdiction in the sweet by-and-by … assuming that’s where you end up.”

“Fine one you are to be lecturing me about the hereafter,” Jacob said, jamming his fists into his pockets. “Maybe I’ll find me another lawyer who’s willing to spend more time lawyering and less time preaching.”

“That’s up to you, Jacob. But you know all-fired well I’d be less than a friend if I didn’t say what I thought about this.”

“I hired a lawyer, not a friend.”

Sutherland stared hard at the other man for a full fifteen seconds.

“No, I guess you’re right, Jacob. You can hire a lawyer. But you sure as blazes can’t hire a friend.”

“Now, Dan, you know how I feel about strong language—”

“What did she do that was so unforgivable? Marry a hard-working, good-looking boy from over the state line? You’d disinherit her for that?”

“No! Not just for that! Is that all you think this is about? Well, let me tell you something, Dan. Let me just tell you something.” Jacob was leaning on the desk, looking like he might leap across it into Dan’s face.

“When Mary was on her deathbed, I made her a promise. I promised her I’d raise Addie the way we would’ve done it together. I—”

Jacob’s mouth moved, but the words hung in his throat. The line of his lips blurred. Dan looked away.

“I told her I’d raise Addie to make her proud,” Jacob said a few seconds later. He stared into a dark corner of the room. “It was the only promise I ever made to Mary that I didn’t keep.”

“Jacob, that’s not true. You did the best you could. No one in Chattanooga that knows you would say otherwise. You provided for Addie, and you did your best by her—”

“And what thanks do I get? She runs off with some fella that looks more than half Cherokee—”

“Now, Jacob, there’s not a family in Hamilton County that’s been here very long that doesn’t have a speck or two of Cherokee blood—”

“Who goes to some backwoods church that thinks folks like me are hell-bound! Well, no sir! I’ll not have it! I’ll not let her shame me and get by with it!”

Sutherland flung his hands in the air and came out from behind his desk. He strode to his door and opened it.

“Jacob, I don’t believe there’s anymore I can do for you today. If you want to estrange yourself from your own flesh and blood, I can’t stop you. But I won’t be a party to it!”

Jacob Caswell’s eyes bulged, his face flooded with crimson. He snatched the will in his fist and stalked from the office. He strode past the clerk and slammed the door, making the window panes shudder.

“Mr. Caswell! You forgot your hat!” the clerk said.

“Let him go,” said Dan from the doorway of his office. “Man that hotheaded got little enough use for a hat anyway.”

*******

The ginger tom leaned against George Hutto’s leg, and he glanced down, then back to the hull he held in his fingers. He maneuvered the piece through the bottleneck and settled it onto the wet glue on the platform inside.

Again the cat twined its body against his shin, giving a small, interrogative meow. George lifted the bottle to eye level and studied the alignment of the hull on the base. The man-o’-war was large enough that there was little margin for error. If the hull wasn’t centered just right, the three masts might not have clearance. He kicked at the cat. “Cut it out, Sam.”

But the cat rubbed against him again, then rose on its hind legs and placed its forepaws on his thigh. The cat flexed its claws just enough to let George feel the prick, all the while peering into his face.

George huffed and glared at the cat, then caught himself chuckling at the insistent expression on the feline face. “Well, you’re not one to let a body ignore you, are you, fella?” George placed the bottle on the table and scratched the cat behind the ears. “All right. I’ll let you out, if nobody else will.”

As he reached the bottom of the staircase, he pulled his watch from his vest pocket. Ten Ginger Tom outdoorsminutes to two. Almost time to walk back down to the office. He unrolled his shirt sleeves and fished his cufflinks out of the other vest pocket. He went through the kitchen to the back door, unlatched the screen to let the cat outside, then walked back into the parlor to fetch his jacket from the armchair.

It was nice and cool inside the house. He dreaded the thought of the hot walk downtown and the dreary afternoon in the office. He sometimes could have sworn the columns in his ledger grew when he wasn’t looking.

He stepped to the doorway of the library and peered into the darkened room. Mother was dozing in one of the leather armchairs. He turned to go and a board squeaked under his foot.

“George, honey? That you?”

“Yes, ma’am. I’m going back now. “

“All right, dear. Ask Mamie to come in here before you go, would you?”

“Yes, ma’am.” He settled his panama on his head and walked down the hall toward the front door. Mamie was dusting the crystal in the sitting room, singing quietly to herself.

“Mamie, Mrs. Hutto needs you in the library, please.”

“Yessuh. She be wanting her headache powders, I imagine. Bye, Mister George.”

The first person George saw when he reached the office was Matthew Capshaw. He and Daddy had known each other since they served on opposite sides in the Civil War. He never tired of telling the story of how he and Daddy had met. He was doing it now, in fact.

“Yep, me and old Hutto was in the war together,” Uncle Matt said, “but one of us—I won’t say who—was wearin’ the wrong colors. “

George felt sorry for the young man Uncle Matt had trapped. He was a courier for one of the Nashville firms they dealt with. In fact, George could have sworn Uncle Matt had told this same fellow this same story within the last year. Uncle Matt had a hard time remembering whom he had favored with which one of his tales. Most likely it wouldn’t have mattered anyway; when Uncle Matt took a notion to tell a story, there wasn’t much you could do.

Civil War Soldier

 

“Well, like I was sayin’, I was on picket duty, back in the fall of ‘63 durin’ the siege. It was late at night, you see, and I was wore plumb down to a nub. I’m a-leanin’ up against a tree—big ol’ elm, I believe it was—and I say, kinda out loud, but talkin’ to myself, I say, ‘Lordy; I’d give a five-dollar gold piece for a chaw a tobacco.’ And then this voice from the dark says, ‘Well, here, soldier. I’ll give you a chaw, and I won’t charge you but six bits.’” Uncle Matt slapped his knee and guffawed.

 

George smiled politely, trying to slip around Uncle Matt and the courier. As he walked past, Elizabeth, Uncle Matt’s youngest daughter, rounded the corner from the back with an armful of file folders. She rammed into George, spilling the folders onto the floor.

“Oh, my goodness! I’m sorry, George, I didn’t see you!”

“No, it’s my fault, Betsy. I should’ve been watching where I was going.” He knelt down and began scooping up the scattered sheets of foolscap.

Uncle Matt barreled ahead. “Well, when I heard that voice out of the dark thataway, I like to of—” He broke off, glancing at the figure of his daughter. “Well, anyhow … I was mighty startled. And then this ol’ boy comes towards me and I can see he’s wearin’ blue. ‘Here you go, soldier,’ he says to me. ‘Unless you’re afraid to take a bite from a Union plug.’ And that was how me and ol’ Hutto met, and I still ain’t convinced him the North was just luckier than the South … ”

George handed Betsy the last handful of papers. As she reached to take them, the backs of their hands brushed. “Thank you, George,” she said.

Her voice stopped him. It sounded low and buttery. George knew she was looking at him. He felt the blood burning his cheeks. Without meeting her eyes, he touched the brim of his panama and retreated quickly to his tiny office at the back of the warehouse.

He removed his hat and coat and filled his pen from the inkwell at his desk. The problem of Betsy Capshaw tugged at his mind. She was a dozen years his junior, and he had always thought of her pretty much like a younger sister. But in the last few years it had become more and more difficult to ignore the fact that she didn’t reciprocate his perception.

He was at a loss about how to discourage her and spare her feelings at the same time. He’d thought for a long time that the best course was to say nothing, acknowledge nothing. Then, when he married …

The image of Addie Caswell—Addie Douglas—flashed across his mind, and he paused in his addition of the column. He put down his pen and rubbed his eyes.

He wondered how she was getting on. He’d heard rumors of her father’s wrath at her marriage, and he hoped they weren’t true. Zeb Douglas was a good fellow, if a little flashy, and he hoped for Addie’s sake that Jacob could come to accept that fact, at least. Addie shouldn’t be blamed for choosing a fellow like Zeb, instead of …

He sighed and picked up his pen. He couldn’t find the place he’d left off, and the sum had gone dean out of his head, so he began again at the top of the column.Ledger

There was a shuffle of feet outside his door and a knock at the frame. He glanced up. “Come on in,” he said. He laid his pen aside.

Ben Thomas and Joe Whitehead stepped in. “Hello, fellas.” George smiled. He stood and extended a hand to the nearest. The two men shook his hand and greeted him, then took the seats in front of his desk. The office was small, so they had to scoot carefully between the wall and the desk to keep from banging their knees. Whitehead, especially, with his gangly build, looked cramped.

“Sorry, Joe. I’ve been meaning to talk to Dad about getting a little more space, but—”

“Don’t worry about it, George,” Joe said.

“What brings you boys down here today?”

Whitehead glanced at Thomas, who cleared his throat. “George, Joe and me—and John Lupton, too; you know him, don’t you?—well, the three of us are starting a little business venture, and we were just wondering if you might be interested in coming in with us.”

George leaned back in his chair and scratched his chin. “Well, ah … I don’t know, boys. What’ve you got in mind?”

“You know who Asa Candler is, don’t you, George?”

“You mean that druggist down in Atlanta, the Coca-Cola man?”

“Yeah. Well, right now, the only place you can get Coca-Cola is in a drugstore or a soda fountain, right?”

“Well, yeah, but where else would you—”

“What if you could buy Coca-Cola in a bottle, premixed?” Ben Thomas said. “What if you could bottle it and put it in an ice chest—say, at a grocer’s or a livery stable or … anywhere! Anywhere there might be thirsty people.”

George peered at the top of his desk.

“Think about all the people already drinking Coca-Cola,” said Whitehead. “This thing could go national, George.”

“What thing? All I’ve heard so far is an idea.”

Thomas leaned forward. “Me and Joe and John Lupton have been talking to Candler about getting the sole rights to bottle Coca-Cola. We think he’ll come around to our way of thinking, once we convince him we’re serious. We want to bottle premixed Coca-Cola, seal it in a pressurized container, and sell it in stores for a nickel a bottle.”

“What’s to keep some old boy in the next county from doing the same thing?”

“I don’t know, for sure,” Whitehead said. “Maybe we’ll come up with some unique design for the bottle. We’ll have patent protection, once we get going. But think of the possibilities, George! Chattanooga is a rail hub. We could ship Coca-Cola anywhere in the country from our bottling plant! The iron business isn’t going to make it around here, and you can see that, if you’ll just look. Birmingham’s going to wind up with most of the business because they’ve got better grade ore down there. Shipping hasn’t got a prayer until they do something about the lower Tennessee. The best opportunity a man’s got right now is for something that’s portable, something he can sell anywhere at a price that anyone can afford. Something he can pay somebody else to sell for him, and rake some profit off the top. Coca-Cola in bottles! Just think about it, George!”Victorian Coke Bottles

George massaged the bridge of his nose. “Sounds to me like you fellas already have everything worked out. What I haven’t figured out yet is why you need me.”

Ben Thomas thumped an imaginary piece of lint off the crown of his hat. “Well, strictly speaking, George … we need money. It’ll take money to set up the plant and buy the equipment. When we go back to talk with Candler, it’d be nice to show him some deep pockets, convince him we mean to stick to this thing till it’s done right. We were sort of hoping—” Thomas cut his eyes at Whitehead, then back to George “—hoping you might could come in with us, maybe talk to your dad … ”

George leaned back to stare at the ceiling, cupping his chin and rubbing his cheek with the tips of his fingers. “I don’t know, boys, I just don’t know. Sounds like a pretty risky proposition to me. I don’t know how Dad’ll feel about something like this.”

“We understand, George,” said Whitehead. “It’s something new. Course, we think it’ll work. But it takes some getting used to, no two ways about it. Why don’t you give it some thought, talk it over with your dad, and we’ll check back with you?”

“We’d sure like to have you for a partner, George,” said Thomas. “You and your family are real fine folks, and we’d like to have you on our side of the fence.”

“Well, thanks, fellas. I appreciate your interest, anyway. And I will give it some thought, I promise you.”

“Well, good,” said Thomas, standing and extending his hand.

“Thanks for talking to us, anyway.”

“Sure, Ben, sure, Joe,” he nodded to Whitehead, taking his hand in turn. The two men replaced their hats and walked out the door.

George sat back down and peered into space, his arms crossed across his chest. He liked Whitehead, Thomas, and Lupton, all three. He’d known them for a number of years. But … putting Coca-Cola in bottles and shipping it all over the country? He sighed. This business was doing all right. His family was comfortable, well respected. Why would he want to take a chance?

He found his pen, inspected the tip, and bent back to his column of figures. Maybe he ought to stop by imagesPeabody’s on the way home and order more ship bottles. He’d been thinking about building a steamer.

*******

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 6

November 3, 2017

May 28, 1899

My Dearest Zeb,

I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me for seeming so cruel in dismissing you last month. I assure you it was not done with malice or without extreme soul-searching on my part. Since then, I have shed many tears and spent much time in prayer. Zeb, I have decided that we should marry without further delay, if you still will have me. I do not think that we should wait until the announced date in June as I am not sure my nerves can withstand the tension of the weeks involved. I hope you will not think me immodest or forward in this. I realize this may rush things a bit, but I truly believe it will be best to have the entire business done at the earliest opportunity.

Awaiting your quick reply, I amLove Letter

Your own,

Adelaide M Caswell

*******

The window squeaked against its track. Addie winced. Slowly, with many glances over her shoulder, she raised it as high as it would go. A cool puff of night air brushed against her cheek, and the insects’ chorus trebled in volume. She hoisted her carpetbag to the sill and eased it out onto the roof of the front porch. Moving as stealthily as her skirts would allow, she climbed through the window and onto the shake-shingled roof. She turned around to close her window, then changed her mind. Let them find it open. They’ll know soon enough anyway.

She looked around. The stillness and the moonlight turned the home place into an old-fashioned daguerreotype, frozen in place for this silent moment, for her eyes only. Something to be looked at. To stand outside of.

Moving out to the edge of the roof, she reached cautiously around the corner of the house and felt her fingers slide over Papa’s fifteen-foot ladder. Normally the ladder stayed farther along the side of the house, but she had been inching it toward the front porch over the past several days. She dragged the ladder to her, careful not to allow it to bump the side of the house. She dropped the carpetbag over the side of the porch roof. It thumped into the thick bluegrass of the side yard. She held her breath, waiting for one of the dogs to bark, or for the front door to open below her. After maybe a minute, she swung herself onto the ladder.

Reaching the ground, she gripped the handle of the carpetbag and set off toward the hill behind the house. There was a three-quarter moon, plenty of light for her to find the path that led over the shoulder of the hill and down toward the river road. As the carpetbag’s weight dragged at her shoulder, she half-regretted telling Zeb she’d meet him by the old abandoned springhouse on the river road. This was the only way, though. If Zeb had tried to slip up close to the house, the dogs would’ve raised Cain.

“Kinda late for a stroll, ain’t it?”

The voice came from just inside the tree line, ahead and to her left. A figure stepped out into the moonlight.

It was Papa.

She stopped, her body ramrod-stiff. Her fist gripped the handle of the carpetbag so tightly that her fingernails dug into her palms.

“I expect you’re going to meet your fella,” he said. Her tongue seemed locked behind her teeth. Finally, she nodded her head.

He snorted, shoving his hands into his pockets. He looked away from her.

“How’d you know?”

“Ladders don’t walk down the wall by themselves,” he said without looking at her.

A long hush grew stale and heavy between them.

“I’m glad your mama didn’t live to see this happen,” he said. His voice sounded strange.

“Papa, that’s not fair,” she said, barely controlling her voice. “What Mama asked me to do—it was too much.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I did my best, Papa, but you—” She swayed with the effort of holding in the sob that needed to be released. “I did my best to take care of you, but you— You didn’t want to be taken care of. You didn’t want to understand or listen.”

“Addie, I don’t know what you’re—”

“I’ve got to make my own way now, Papa,” she said through clenched teeth. “I can’t live your life anymore, nor Mama’s. I’ve got to live my own now. Try to see that. Try to understand.”

They stared at each other for a moment that lasted forever. And then she walked past him, toward the hillside.

“Addie, I hope you understand what’s going to happen.”

“You do what you think is best, Papa,” she said without turning around or breaking her stride. “And I’ll do the same.” Squaring her shoulders, she strode into the shadows beneath the trees.

*******

Jacob watched her go until the trees hid her from him. Then he crumpled to his knees and held his face in his hands.

*******

Zeb was waiting at the agreed place. He beamed at her as she came out of the trees, and she did her best imitation of happiness as she lifted the carpetbag up to him. She didn’t start crying until the buggy was moving down the road toward Chattanooga.

“What’s the matter, honey?” Zeb asked. He pulled up the horse and turned toward her.

“Papa,” she said through her sobs. “He caught me leaving.”

“Addie, did he hurt you?”

She shook her head. “He didn’t try to stop me. It’s just hard, Zeb. It’s real hard.”

He placed his hands on her shoulders. ‘‘Addie, look at me. Honey, look at me. I’m going to take care of you now. You aren’t in your father’s house anymore. You’re going to be my wife, and I’m going to do right by you. You hear me?”

After a second or two, she nodded her head.

“All right, then. I want you to dry those eyes and stop worrying. It’s gonna be all right, honey. Do you believe me?”

Another pause, and then she nodded.Eloping

“You sure you believe me?”

She nodded again, sooner this time.

“All right. Then how about a smile. Just a little one, huh?” He chucked her lightly under the chin. At last he coaxed a quavering half-smile from her. “There you go. Now you just sit back and let’s get into town and find the preacher, all right?”

They drove into town to the house of a minister that Zeb knew. Addie would have preferred that ]. D. Carson perform the ceremony since she at least knew him slightly, but it was seven or eight miles to his place over by Harrison.

Though the man was about to retire for the evening, he agreed to perform the ceremony. His wife witnessed. The impromptu wedding party gathered in the small parlor of the minister’s house, the minister’s four nightgowned children ranging big-eyed in the background, and Zeb and Addie were joined in matrimony.

With Zeb’s first kiss still moist on her lips, she turned to the minister and said, “Now I need another favor. I want you to baptize me.”

The man stared at her, at Zeb, then at his wife.

“Well, Arliss,” his wife said, “didn’t you hear the young woman?”

“Of course I heard her, Mother,” he said. “But I don’t know anything about this … situation.” He looked at Zeb. “Does she understand what she’s doing?”

Zeb looked at Addie, and his smile was as wide as she’d ever seen. But as he opened his mouth to answer the preacher, Addie said, “Yes, sir, I believe I do. I’d like to be baptized. Tonight.”

Half an hour later, Zeb was holding aloft a coal-oil lamp and watching with the minister’s wife as Addie and the minister stepped gingerly into the waters of the Tennessee River below the Walnut Street bridge. Addie was wearing an old shift that the minister’s wife had found in a trunk.

River at Night

Addie stared at the blackness of the water and tried not to shiver as it rose higher and higher up her legs; stared at it, trying to read some message there. But it was only water, and it was night. The lamp Zeb held aloft glimmered and rippled on the surface, and it seemed to her that its faint light only darkened the unseen. It was only water. But she was here now, and it was too far back to the bank. Much too far.

They waded out until the waters reached to their waists, and the minister turned toward Addie. He murmured a few instructions. He placed one hand on her shoulder.

“Addie, do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he died for your sins and rose on the third day to ascend to the right hand of God?”

“Yes, I do.”

He raised his other hand. “Then, because of your confession of faith, I now baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, for the remission of your sins and that you might receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” He placed one hand between Addie’s shoulder blades and cupped the other over her hands, covering her face. He tilted her backwards into the dark, swirling water and then raised her up again. She gasped as she came out of the water, then began wiping the water and hair out of her face. She felt the minister take her arm. He led her back toward the bank.

Zeb handed the lamp to the minister’s wife and stepped into the water to meet her.

“Zeb! Your boots!”

“Never mind about that.” He took her into his arms.

Some moments later, after hugs and smiles all around, they climbed into the minister’s buggy. Addie was wrapped in the towels they had brought.

“Where will you go?” the minister’s wife asked.

Addie looked at Zeb. She just now realized that she hadn’t given the first thought to where they’d spend their first night as man and wife.

“Well, I believe we’ll go spend a little time in Nashville,” Zeb said after a few seconds. “Then, I guess we’ll go back to Murfreesboro. I’m in the insurance business there.” Zeb fished a business card out of his vest pocket and handed it to the minister’s wife.

“Well,” she said, beaming at them, “it’s a fine way to begin your lives together—with a new birth into Christ! I’m so happy and proud for you both.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Zeb said. He grinned from ear to ear as he pulled Addie closer to him.

There was no train out of Chattanooga until morning. Addie knew they’d have to stay in a hotel, but she was surprised when Zeb pulled up in front of the gleaming, just-completed Patten. The yellow glow from the lobby’s electric lights gave her a feeling of comfort as Zeb helped her down from the buggy.

They went inside. Addie was at once taken aback and thrilled to hear Zeb casually inform the desk clerk that he needed a room for the night for Mr. and Mrs. Z. A. Douglas.

She tried the name in her mind. Mrs. Zebediah Douglas. Addie Douglas. Adelaide Caswell Douglas. She smiled, savoring the newness, the adventure of it. The bellboy came and collected their bags, and the clerk handed Zeb a gleaming brass skeleton key. “Room two-twelve,” he said. “Top of the stairs and halfway down the hall to your left.”

*******key

Addie stirred and woke. There was a momentary sense of dislocation as she stared at the unfamiliar ceiling. A movement in the bed caused her to turn her head and see Zeb’s back and shoulders, still rising and falling in sleep.

For a few seconds everything seemed unreal, off-kilter. What am I doing here? Am I really supposed to be in bed with Zeb, really supposed to be married? Is this my real life? How can I manage this?

But then, as she lay still and allowed her waking to reorient her, she knew with a warm certainty that this was real, was her life; that Zeb was her husband—and that everything was just as it should be.

The wedding night was a rush of images and sensations—unfamiliar, anticipated, splendid, and dreaded, all at once. Louisa had told her some things, of course, and hinted at others. But she was still nervous about being alone with Zeb, her ignorance of what was expected of her.

But Zeb was so gentle, so loving. As his arms enfolded her and his lips pressed against her face, her hair, her neck, she found hersdf worrying less about what should happen next than savoring what was happening now. Something bloomed inside her, responded with a warm uncoiling to Zeb’s tender urgency. She knew, as they clung to each other, that she would give willingly whatever was required to sustain this timeless moment, this sudden need, this enfolding nowness.

There was pain, for which she was not quite prepared. But she almost laughed at the dismay on Zeb’s face when she cried out. He was consoling almost to the point of silliness. “It’s all right, honey,” she said, gentling his concern with her voice, her arms, her hands. “I think it’ll be better now.” And it was.

Now, watching him sleep, she smiled at the memories. So many changes, so many things she had learned in the space of two weeks. She felt wise now, miles and ages away from the girl who hiked over the hill with her carpetbag in her hand. How could life come so far, so fast?

Zeb snorted and jerked. She reached over and patted his shoulder. He rolled over to face her.

“Good morning, Mrs. Douglas.” He smiled, his eyes still half-lidded with sleep.

“Morning, sir. About time you woke up, I guess.”

He raised himself on one elbow and looked at her.

“What? What’s the matter?” she asked.

“Nothing. Nothing at all.” He leaned over and kissed her on the forehead.

‘‘I’m just thinking about how lucky I am, that’s all.”

She felt her face go warm. “Oh, Zeb. You better go on and get ready for work.”

He placed his palm on her cheek and turned her face toward his.

“Zeb, what are you doing? You’ll be late for work. Zeb, this isn’t exactly the time—”

But it was, all the same.

Later, she sat in front of the mirror, basking in the afterglow as she brushed out her hair and listened to Zeb in the next room, whistling as he worked at his cravat.

“Zeb?”

“Yes, ma’ am?”

“Do you think we might find us a little house to let? The folks here at the boarding house are nice and all, but … I guess I’m not used to so many people living all around me.”

He came into the room, a thoughtful look on his face. “Well, now, Mrs. Douglas, I don’t guess I’d thought about that. Not since last night on my way home, when I signed the papers on the cutest little bungalow you ever saw, just about three streets over.”

“Zeb! Did you really find a place?”Victorian home

A slow grin spread across his lips as he nodded.

It crossed her mind that she’d like to have seen the house before they were obligated. She hushed the thought and reached out to grab his hand. “You do beat all, Mr. Douglas! You sure do beat all!”

He held her hand a moment more, then went back into the next room.

“Better finish up, honey,” he said. “It’s almost seven o’clock. If we don’t hurry up and get downstairs to the dining room, the grits’ll all be gone.”

*******

Jacob Caswell trudged up the steps and into the offices of Haynes and Sutherland, Attorneys-at-Law. A clerk seated near the front door stood from behind his oak roll top desk and extended a hand. “Good morning,

Mr. Caswell! How can we—”

“Dan here today?”

“Uh—yes, sir, I believe so. Did you have an app—”

“Tell him Caswell’s here and I need to see him right away.”

The clerk excused himself and went through the low swinging gate in the banister that divided the front area from the lawyer’s offices. Jacob heard the quiet knock, heard the creak of hinges, heard the low murmuring. He started walking toward the swinging gate while the clerk was still turning around to invite him in. He marched into Dan Sutherland’s office and pulled the door shut behind him.

Dan Sutherland had just seated himself behind his massive mahogany desk when Jacob came in.

“Morning, Jacob. Nice to see you in such a good mood.”

“I don’t have time for your folderol today, Dan. I got something on my mind to do, and I want it done proper and quick.”

Dan leaned forward in his chair as Jacob thumped into one of the chairs across the desk.

“Well, I can see you’re in a hurry, Jacob, so why don’t you just give me a quick once-over?”

Jacob reached into his inside coat pocket and produced a set of papers about a quarter–inch in thickness. He slapped the sheaf onto the inset leather pad atop Dan’s desk. “That’s a copy of the will you drew up for me after Mary died,” he said, thumping the papers with his index finger. “I want it changed. Now.”Will

*******

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 5

October 23, 2017

The drive back to the Caswell homestead was as long as a dreaded chore, and very quiet.

Addie sat in the sulky and sobbed as the service wound to its conclusion. Zeb, of course, had stayed inside through the communion service and offering until the very end, to lead the final prayer requested of him. That suited Addie fine because she really didn’t want to have to explain to him feelings she didn’t fully understand herself.

When the congregation was finally dismissed, Zeb stepped briskly from the church door, striding toward the sulky. His expression was a mixture of embarrassment, concern, and confusion. But at that moment, Addie couldn’t bring herself to care about what he was thinking. She was too busy with trying to organize and understand her own thoughts.

They were almost halfway back to Orchard Knob before either of them spoke.

“Addie—what’s wrong?” Zeb finally blurted as they neared the one-lane bridge across Cellico Creek.

She shook her head and stared away from him, across the flats toward the Tennessee River, glittering in the noonday sun. She didn’t know how to begin to tell him what she felt. Or maybe she was afraid of what she might say if she tried.

“Honey, I— Is it something I did that upset you?” he asked in a limp voice as they clattered over the tiny wooden bridge.

She turned in her seat and stared at him, unbelieving. Could he really be in some doubt about what was bothering her? Was he that blind? Again she could summon no words suitable to her purpose, and turned away.

After another eternity, they arrived at her house. He stopped the sulky

in front of the porch steps just as Rose, still wearing her Sunday dress with a white apron tied around her waist, stepped out of the front door with a broom in her hand. As if the sulky and its occupants did not exist, she began methodically sweeping the porch.

“Well … I, uh … I wonder what’s for dinner today?” Zeb stammered into the stony silence.Goodbye

For the first time since leaving the church house, Addie found her voice. “I don’t think you’d better come in for dinner today, Zeb,” she said, staring straight ahead. “I think you might ought to go on back to Murfreesboro for awhile. I … ” Her tone wavered, then caught again. “I think it might be best if we didn’t see each other for awhile.” She placed her hand on his arm to steady herself, then caught up her skirts as she stepped down from the sulky.

“Do what?” he asked, incredulous. ‘‘Addie, why won’t you tell me what—”

But she had already gone up the steps and was crossing the porch and reaching for the front door. And then, as he stared after her, she was inside, and gone.

*******

Rose grunted softly as she placed the platter of fried chicken in the center of the table. She glanced at Mr. Caswell, then backed into the corner and bowed her head.

Jacob glanced at Addie, who sat listlessly in her chair, staring at a vacant corner of the dining room.

“Shall we pray? Our gracious heavenly Father, we thank thee for this thy bounty that we are about to receive, and for all thy many blessings. Amen.”

Reaching for a thigh piece, Jacob again glanced at his daughter. “Where’s your beau? He not joining us today?”

For a long moment he thought she hadn’t heard him. “What’s that, Papa?” she responded, finally. “Oh, Zeb … No, he’s not coming in today. He … he had to go on back to … to Murfreesboro.”

Jacob received this news with a lift of his eyebrows. He spooned a heavy dollop of mashed potatoes onto his plate and reached for the bowl of cream gravy.

“Guess maybe he decided Methodist chicken was off his menu.”

Addie stared sharply at her father, then turned away. She grabbed for the bowl of green beans and flicked a spoonful onto her plate.

Rose poured buttermilk into Jacob’s glass from a large crockery pitcher. “Rose, pass me that plate of corn while you’re here, would you?” he said. He selected an ear from the platter.

images-2

“Still, I guess it makes sense. After all, there ain’t nothing in the Bible that says it’s all right to eat fried chicken on Sunday.”

“Papa!” Addie flung her napkin from her lap and vaulted to her feet, glaring at him.

“What? I was just making conversation, is all. Nobody else at the table seemed to much want to talk to me.”

“Neither one of you understands a thing! Not a blessed thing!” Addie whirled about and knocked over her chair as she stomped into the hallway and up the stairs.

Jacob stared after her. As Addie’s footsteps pounded up the staircase, he peered questioningly at Rose, who returned his look with a flat, judging glint in her eye.

“What did I say, Rose?” he asked. “I was just going on; she knows that, doesn’t she?”

Rose moved to Addie’s place and began removing her plate and silverware. ‘‘Ain’t what you said,” the black woman replied without looking at him. “That child beggin’ you for help, but you ain’t listenin’.”

*******

The train ride back to Murfreesboro barely registered in Zeb’s consciousness. He felt as if he were in a black, muffled box, and the sounds and sights of the outside world reached him only as vague bumps and muted murmurs.

He couldn’t believe Addie was going to call it quits with him. He just couldn’t bring himself to accept it. And the hardest part of it all was that he didn’t have the faintest notion what had set her off. The more he thought about it, the more maddening it became.

On Monday morning, he flung himself into the work of the agency: canvassing residential and commercial districts for prospects, going on appointments with junior agents, making calls on policy holders who were late with premium payments. He kept himself busy, trying to crowd out the numb place at the center of his chest.

But it was no use. When he went back to his boarding house at night, the answerless questions came rushing back to nag at him. He followed them round and round inside his head, mesmerized by the pain and confusion like a bird charmed by a snake.

Reading BibleSome of the other bachelors at the house invited him to join them at their evening roisters, but Zeb had no taste for such activity, even if his convictions had permitted it. Instead, he sat in his room and read the psalms of lament from his Bible and tortured himself with his impossible longing.

*******

The year turned the corner into May, and an unseasonable hot spell settled down onto Chattanooga like an unexpected visit from a freeloading relative. Addie spent her days searching for a cool draft and her nights tossing on sweat-dampened sheets. You expected to be hot and distracted by, say, mid–July or August. But in May you expected to be enjoying cool night breezes and days just warm enough to make a glass of lemonade taste really good. But these days, a glass of lemonade didn’t seem to do anything but emphasize the discomfort.

She sat on the front porch one morning, already worn out from fanning herself. She heard the telephone rattle, just inside the front door. It was still a new enough sound to startle her. This past spring Papa had grudgingly placed the order and had the line run out from the nearest trunk, in Orchard Knob. Addie puffed a stray lock of hair out of her face and pushed herself up out of the rocking chair.

She reached the apparatus, pulled the black earpiece from its brass hook, and stood on tiptoe to get her mouth near the mouthpiece.Victorian Telephone

“Hello? Who’s there?”

“Addie? Is that you?”

Addie thought she recognized Louisa’s voice through the static. “Yeah, Lou, it’s me. How are you?”

“Fine, honey. Can you come over this afternoon? I’m having a quilting—”

Louisa’s voice dissolved in a burst of static and electric squeals, and Addie waited patiently until the noise on the line subsided.

“—someone to watch the babies so I can get everything done,” Louisa was saying.

“When did you say you wanted me to come over?” Addie said, mentally filling in the gaps.

“Sometime this afternoon, if you can.”

“All right. I’ll see you after lunch. Bye.” She hung up the earpiece without waiting to hear Louisa’s farewell. As bad as the lines were, it probably wouldn’t have mattered anyway.

*******

Louisa and Dub had recently moved to the newly fashionable Cameron Hill neighborhood. When Addie stepped down from the horse–drawn trolley at the foot of the hill where they lived, she was already drenched in perspiration. By the time she had climbed to the top of the street, she thought she might drown standing up.

The door swung open. “Hi, Aunt Addie.”

It was Robert, her sister’s oldest. The six–year–old grabbed her around the waist in a fierce hug. Patting his back, Addie asked, “Where’s your mama?”

“She’s in the carriage house, looking for her parasol. We’re going to town! And you’re coming with us!”

Some time later, they trooped inside the open doorway of Peabody’s Dry Goods Emporium on Market Street.

“Now, Robert,” Louisa said, “you keep your hands to yourself while we’re in here. I don’t need you handling every string of licorice in the store, you hear?”

“Yes, ma’am.” The boy made a beeline for the candy counters.Emporium

Louisa shook her head as she shifted the baby from the crook of one arm to the other. “That young ‘un says all the right things, but I don’t think he listens to himself.”

Little Katherine tugged on Addie’s hand. “Aunt Addie, can we go look at the bowth and thingth?”

“Sure, honey. Just let’s keep our hands to ourselves, all right?” The four–year–old nodded solemnly.

“I hate not going to Papa’s store anymore,” Louisa said as they moved among the bolts of cloth and barrels of molasses and other staples stacked on the pine-planked floor. “But it’s just so far over there from where we— Robert Eugene Dawkins! What did I just tell you?”

Robert yanked his hand away from the lid of the jar holding the peppermint sticks. He rubbed his palm on his backside as he peered over his shoulder at his mother.

“Well, anyway,” Louisa said as she began inspecting a stack of bunting, “how’s Papa these days?”

“Oh, he’s … fine, I guess.” Addie hoisted Katherine up so she could see the satin bows on the top shelf of the glass display. “I … I don’t talk to him much these days.”

“You spoken to Zeb since last time?”

Addie shook her head.

Mr. Peabody approached. He wore black sleeve garters and sported a pencil in the band that held his eye patch in place. He had lost an eye during the siege of ‘63, and for as long as Addie could remember, there had been a persistent rumor among the children of Chattanooga that he led a secret life as a pirate. The chance of maybe seeing what really lay beneath the patch, along with his well-stocked candy cases, drew many a young boy into his establishment.

“Can we help you with some bunting today, Mrs. Dawkins?”

“How much is this a yard?”

He peered at the material. “Believe it’s twenty cents.”

“All right, let me have … five yards, I guess.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He went behind the counter to get a pair of shears.

“Well, Addie, you’re going to have to tell Zeb something before too much longer. Your wedding is announced for June, and—”

“I know, I know,” Addie said. “What else do you think I’ve been doing the last few weeks, except going round and round about all this? Oh, Lou! I don’t know what to do!”

“About Zeb, or about the church?” Louisa said. She picked up a paper sack and started shoveling navy beans into it from the bin where they now stood.

“It’s all the same thing, Lou,” Addie said. “I can’t marry Zeb unless I’m willing to join the Church of Christ. I can’t just decide on marrying the man I love—I have to marry his church too. And you know what that’ll mean. It’s just too much for me to think about. Have you … have you talked to Bob or Junior about this at all? What do they think about it?”

Louisa set the sack on the scales, noted the weight, then placed it on the counter. “Two and a half,” she said to Mr. Peabody, who waited, pad in hand. He scribbled down a figure. She turned back to her younger sister.Scale

“Well, Addie, they feel kind of the same way I do. The boys think you’ve got to make up your own mind about this and do what you think is right. Junior says you ought to pray about it.” Junior was the oldest brother, the lay minister.

“Don’t think I haven’t been,” Addie said. “And I keep waiting for God to give me an answer. But he just listens, I guess. So far, I don’t feel any closer to knowing what to do.”

“Addie, maybe he’s waiting for you to decide. Maybe he doesn’t care which way you go on this, just so you give yourself the go-ahead, one way or the other.”

“Lou! That almost sounds—blasphemous!”

“Why? Getting married is an honorable thing, and not getting married is too. Why should God care which one you do, as long as you get on with it and quit bothering him about it?”

Addie stared at her sister. “Well, Lou,” she said finally, “this is my life, and things don’t look so cut and dried from where I stand.” She whirled away and stalked to the other side of the store. “Robert,” she called in warning to her nephew who stood, fingers twitching in desire, before the toy shelves, “you better not mess with that stuff Remember what your mama said.”

Louisa made several more selections and waited for Mr. Peabody to figure the total. She signed her ticket and gave instructions for the goods to be delivered that afternoon. They were almost halfway back to the house, trudging with the children up the side of Cameron Hill, before anything else was said.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Addie,” Louisa said. “I didn’t mean to sound so hard and all. I just wish you could get on with your life, either way. That’s all I meant.”

Addie took several steps before answering. “I know. You’re just trying to help. Everybody’s just trying to help, though. Well … almost everybody. That’s part of what makes it so hard—”Sisters chatting.jpg

At that moment, George Hutto came around the corner, headed straight toward them down the hill. He walked in his usual slow gait, his eyes on the ground in front of his feet, but since they were downhill from him, they came into his field of vision anyway. He glanced up at them and, seeing Addie, stopped in his tracks. After a moment, he swept his bowler from his head.

“Hello, Mrs. Dawkins,” he said. “Hello … Addie.”

“Hello, George!” Louisa said in a hearty voice. “How are you today, other than it being too hot?”

“Yes, ma’am, it is awful hot, isn’t it?” He was answering Louisa, but his eyes stayed on Addie as she bore down on him.

“Hello,” Addie said, following her words with a curt nod. She never broke stride as she drew even with him and then she was past, marching up the hill like Sherman through Georgia.

“Aunt Addie, slow down!” said Katherine, trailing along at the end of Addie’s arm like a dinghy on a tow rope.

As she strode up the hill toward her sister’s house, Addie knew what she must do. As much as she hated to admit it, Lou was right. It was time to quit mealymouthing. It was time to do something.

*******

Addie stared long at the letter she held in her hand. Then, with elaborate care, she blotted it and folded it and slid it into an envelope. She sealed the flap and carefully inscribed Zeb’s name and the address of his Murfreesboro boarding house. Before she Mailboxcould change her mind again, she walked quickly to the postal clerk’s window and purchased the two-cent stamp that would take her missive to its destination.

*******

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 4

October 1, 2017

The spanking two-wheeled sulky and neat-stepping bay were costing Zeb more than he cared to admit, but this weekend he wanted to cut the best figure he could.

Zeb figured Addie’s father was doing everything he could to throw a wet blanket on their marriage. Surely Jacob Caswell wouldn’t disinherit his daughter for marrying outside the Methodist church. But lately Addie’s letters had dwelled more and more on his opposition. Zeb wondered if she was trying to let him down easy. Or maybe there was another reason.

George Hutto, for example. Did he think Zeb didn’t notice the way his eyes lingered on Addie when they met in the street? And George Hutto was here in Chattanooga, while Zeb was in Murfreesboro, trying to improve his lot in life—and Addie’s. George Hutto would solve Addie’s problems in neat fashion: the family was Methodist, and old Deacon Hutto had held onto the money he’d made. Unlike most of the leading citizens of Hamilton County, he’d avoided wild speculation during the panic of ‘93. Zeb had tried more than once to get an appointment with Old Man Hutto to discuss financial matters but was always bluntly rebuffed.

Zeb pulled up in the yard of Post Oak Hollow Church. The thrushes and blue jays were holding their own noisy prayer meeting in the greening branches of the surrounding trees. He stepped down from the sulky and looped the reins over the hitching post, then turned to hand Addie down. He gave her his best smile. Her gaze slid across him without so much as a howdy.images

*******

Addie rested her hand on Zeb’s arm as they walked toward the church door. He was working too hard at his good mood, and it made her nervous and aggravated at the same time. Why couldn’t he just let her be? Since when did a person have to grin every time somebody else wanted her to?

The fact was, she was getting scared. She still honestly believed she loved Zeb, and when she was with him, things seemed to be the same as always. But it was so hard to remember that during the long weeks when he was in Murfreesboro and she was here. On the other hand, Papa’s disapproval was every day. The silent drag pulled at her like a trotline weight. Would Zeb stand up to everyday life? Till death do us part is a long time, she told herself as they went up the steps into the meeting house.

“Brother Zeb, good to see you!” said the toothy deacon at the door.

“Say, could I get you to lead a prayer for us today?”

They found a seat just before the service started. Old Brother Houser stepped to the front. The congregation quieted amid the rustle and thump of hymnals grabbed from the racks on the backs of the pews. “Let’s all get a song book and turn to number one–oh–five,” he announced. He hummed to himself to get the starting pitch.

Have you been to Jesus for the cleansing pow’r?

Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

Are you fully trusting in his grace this hour?

Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

hymnal

Brother Houser led out in his raspy warble, waving his right hand in the air to keep the time. The congregation chimed in by degrees.

Addie felt nervous, as if she could see and hear too much. The man seated behind her sang in a booming bass, almost on key. She could smell his tobacco-tinted breath, hear him belt out the words of the chorus.

Are you washed in the blood?

 In the soul-cleansing blood of the Lamb?

Are your garments spotless,

 Are they white as snow?

 Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

She tried to concentrate on the words of the hymn, but she found her thoughts drifting toward the unseen man behind her. In her mind’s eye, she constructed a vision that resembled Perlie Overby, with his stained, ragged clothing, his bushy beard, and his rough-hewn courtliness. As far as she knew, neither Perlie nor his family had ever darkened the doorway of any church. But the man sounded like Perlie Overby would, if Perlie were singing this hymn. Except maybe this man was a little closer to the tune.

Addie thought about the pitiful way Perlie and his family lived. And about the tender way he held his infant son, how he had crooned to him in his unmelodious voice. About the way the older children had gathered to him.

Addie realized her heart was pounding in double time. Why was she so restless today? She felt like one of the squirming children, impatient to be somewhere else, anywhere else. On the outside she was still, but inwardly she was fretting and hot and distracted.

A middle-aged man walked toward the front to lead the congregation in prayer. Dink Gilliam—he had a blacksmith shop and livery on the eastern edge of Chattanooga, just down the street from her father’s store. Dink was a square-cut slab of a man with a thick neck bulging over the restraint of the buttoned white collar of his Sunday shirt. As he reached the pulpit and prepared to launch into his prayer, Addie could see the dirt between the split calluses on his fingers. He had a ruddy face and a wide-lipped mouth. “Let us pray,” he said, ducking his head as if he was dodging something.

“Our father which art in heaven, we thank thee for this day, when we can come together to worship thee in spirit and in truth. We pray that thou’d bless us as we gather, and that all that’s done here’d be pleasing and acceptable to thee … “

A little boy on the second row from the front began to fidget and fuss, but if Dink heard, his only sign was to raise his voice and plow ahead. “Lord, we’d ask thee to bless the sick and afflicted wherever they may be, especially those of our number, that they might soon be returned to their muchly wanted health, if it be thy will, and if not, thy will be done in all things …“

The man behind her shifted in his seat and the pew creaked. Some man in the back of the church cleared his throat.

“Lord, we’d pray thy blessin’s on Brother J. D. as he breaks unto us the bread of life. We’d ask that thou grant him a happy recollection of the things he’s learned, and that we might take it into our hearts and apply it to our lives … “

A mud dauber wasp hummed through one of the open windows and buzzed among the open rafters.

“Lord, be with us now through the rest of this service and the rest of the day. We ask all these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.”

“Amen,” chorused several of the men seated about her. Dink, looking relieved, made his way back to his seat, and Brother Houser returned to the front. “Number twenty-three,” he said.inside

Sing them over again to me,

 Wonderful words of life;

 Let me more of their beauty see,

 Wonderful words of life …

 

The hymn concluded and J. D. Carson stood from the front row and took his place behind the pulpit. He had a shock of unruly brown hair, trimmed close on the sides of his head but blossoming in profusion everywhere else. His farmer’s hands were rough and nicked, and his face was a weathered brown up to a line that ran just above his eyebrows. Above that, his forehead was stark white. His wife and two young daughters sat on the right-hand front pew.

“Brethren, it’s good to be with you on this Lord’s Day morning,” he said. He flipped through the pages of his Bible to locate his text for the day. “I’m especially glad to see Sister Hawkins able to be back with us after her long sickness.” He smiled and nodded toward an older woman seated in the second row on the aisle. Sister Hawkins gave a little cough into a crumpled handkerchief.

“This morning, brethren, I want to talk about last words. Some of you know what it means to say good-bye to a mother or a father. Some of you know about saying good-bye to a husband or a wife. And if you’ve ever said that final good-bye to someone like that, you know you’ll always remember the last words that loved one spoke to you while they were here on this earth.

“Last words are something that can’t ever be forgot, brethren, because they’re the most important words we’ll ever hear. They’re important because of the person speaking ‘em. They’re important because of what that person means to us. And they’re important because they’re what stays with us. They’re what we remember.

“Well, there’s lots of last words in the Bible. This morning, I want to look at a few of those last words, and let’s see what we can learn from ‘em that might help us live more like the Lord wants us to … ”

*******

Addie’s vision drifted in the empty air just above the preacher’s head. She was remembering the last hours of her mother. Mama had languished for months as the cancer gnawed at her vitals. There was nothing Dr. Phipps could do for her but gradually increase the dosage of morphine. One day in summer, Mama sent for her. Addie could still see the brilliant June sky as it had appeared through the window of Mama’s room, could still hear the fluting of the mockingbirds and cardinals in the trees outside.

But the warmth and gaiety of summer halted at Mama’s windowpane. Her sickness dimmed the sunlight to a dull haze as it came inside. Mama lay propped up against the headboard of her bed, a dried-out husk. Every so often a spasm took her and her eyes would squint with the pain. Her hair hung dank and limp. Her eyes were dulled by the torture of the disease and the drugs that sometimes held the misery at bay. Addie went to her bedside and took her hand. Mama opened her eyes and looked at her for a long time before saying anything.window

“Addie, honey. Pull my curtains for me, would you, darling? The light hurts my eyes.” Her voice was a gray glimmer of what it had once been.

“Yes, Mama.”

“Sweetheart,” Mama said, “I want you to know how much I love you.”

“Yes, ma’am. I love you, too, Mama.”

Mama had patted her hand—once, twice. Her palm felt pasty and insubstantial. Addie wanted to cry, but Mama was trying to say something else. Addie leaned closer to catch the whisper.

“Addie …  take care of your papa. He’ll need you more than ever when I’m … gone.”

It hadn’t occurred to Addie to question Mama’s words. Or perhaps she had been too grieved to take issue, to make the weary, obligatory protest against her mother’s assessment.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Mama died that night, during the wee hours. Addie was thirteen. She could still feel the knot of anguish she carried in her chest for months and months afterward. If she hadn’t had Rose’s ample lap to cry into, she probably couldn’t have survived at all. The colored maid seemed to know when Addie was longing most for her mother. Addie could still feel Rose’s warm, dry hand gathering and sifting her hair, rubbing along the back of her neck, patting her shoulders.

“Hush, now, baby,” Rose said. “Your mama with Jesus, honey. You can make it. It just take time, baby. It just take time.”

Addie could still smell the starch in Rose’s apron, could still remember its feel against her cheek as she wet it with her tears.

She tried to remember a time when she had been able to share her grief with Papa, but there was nothing to remember.

Take care of your papa … Last words. Impossible words.

*******

J. D. Carson held his open Bible aloft. “So when Joshua had all the people of Israel gathered together, he gave them a speech. And what did he say? He said this, brethren: ‘Choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord’—Joshua twenty-four and verse fifteen.”

J. D. lowered his Bible. “Mighty strong words, brethren, and a question that still bears asking: ‘Choose you this day whom ye will serve.’ Think about it. Who are you gonna serve? God? Or something else?”

*******

Zeb nodded, his eyes fastened on J. D. He hoped Addie was listening. J. D. was a little rough around the edges, but he was sincere, and Zeb knew where he was headed with this first point. Addie needed to decide if she was going to continue to serve her family’s traditions or follow the truth of the Bible as he’d tried to lay it out for her. He tried hard to be patient with her, tried not to force too much on her at once. But often he despaired of ever winning her completely from the domination of her father’s sectarian attitude.

Sometimes he wondered why it was so hard for people to agree on what the Bible said about things that seemed so plain. As a boy, he’d assumed it was just because folks hadn’t had the opportunity to hear the truth. But now, he knew that some people were just too attached to their own traditions to turn loose, even when they’d had the chance to listen to correct doctrine being taught.

He remembered once, when he was a boy, being at the feed store with Daddy on a Saturday morning in midwinter. It was a year or two before Daddy died, he remembered. A bunch of men were gathered around the stove, and Zeb was eyeing the horehound candy in a jar on the counter. The men were talking low and lazy. Then, for whatever reason, the subject of religion came up.

“By the way, Gus,” one of them said to Daddy, “ain’t you one a them Campbellites? Outfit that believes you’re the only ones gain’ to heaven?” The lull in the talk by the stove pulled Zeb’s attention from the candy jar, drew his eyes to his father’s face. Daddy was staring into the grate of the stove, a little smile on his lips. But his eyes weren’t smiling. “Now, Shep,” he said, “that ain’t exactly a fair way to put it—”

“Why not?” said one of the others. “That’s what I’ve always heard about y’all too—that everyone that don’t believe the same way y’all do about everything is going to hell.”

There was a silence. The inside of the feed store, so cozy only moments before, had suddenly become uncertain, menacing.

“Tell you what, boys,” Daddy said, “I ain’t sure what minded y’all to get on this subject, but … ” He shifted on the nail keg where he was seated. He glanced at them, then back to the orange glow in the stove grate. “It’s true that we believe the Bible teaches a right way to do things. And we believe that folks ought to try to—”

“Try to do everything like y’all do, right?” said one of the men. “Ain’t that what you’re trying to say, without saying it? That y’all have figured out what the Bible says, and anybody that don’t agree with you is wrong?”

“Say, now, fellas,” said John Hatchell, the store owner. “It’s winter, all right, but I don’t believe we need this much heat inside here, do y’all?”store

Daddy gave Mr. Hatchell a grateful glance. The others left off at that, but Zeb still remembered how, just a few minutes later, he and Daddy loaded their ground sorghum onto the wagon and drove back out to the house, huddled against the cold. Daddy kept quiet all the way home. And Zeb never said anything about the horehound.

Those men were the type J. D. was talking about. They weren’t interested in hearing the true word of God. They were only interested in guarding what they already knew—whether it was right or not. Men like Addie’s father.

*******

“Now, then. Take a look over in the book of Acts, the twentieth chapter and verse twenty-eight. The apostle Paul is just about to leave for Jerusalem, and he knows he’ll never again see the Christians at Ephesus. A course he’s sad about that, and they are, too, but even more important, he’s got some things he needs to tell ‘em. Some things they need to know to keep their faith sound, ‘cause Paul knows there’s plenty of trouble ahead. Listen to what he says … ”

*******

Trouble ahead. Addie wondered if J. D. had just given her a private prophecy. Sometimes she thought Zeb had no appreciation at all for the sacrifice he was asking her to make. It looked as if he thought her joining his church was no more rigorous than changing the style of her hat.

Oh, she knew he took his faith seriously. And there was no question of his devotion to the teachings of the Bible as he understood them. But he acted as if she should just immediately see things the way he did. As if his views were so self-evidently correct that only a simpleton or a reprobate would reject them. As if it were that easy to turn her back on her upbringing. On Papa. She knew Papa was neither a simpleton nor a reprobate. Where did he fit into Zeb’s scheme of things?

She thought just maybe she had a clearer idea of the size of her step of faith than Zeb did. She knew he meant to be there for her no matter what happened, but it wasn’t the same for him; he wasn’t closing a door on anything. And she didn’t think he had the slightest idea how she felt about it. He was asking her to give away her entire world and accept a world she didn’t know anything about. If Zeb was right about everything, God would make it all come out, somehow. But what if Zeb was wrong? And even if he was right, would God give her back the family, the past, she would lose?

Mama, I wish you were here. I need to talk to you right now.

*******

“‘ … for I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also’ —now get this, brethren—‘of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.”’ J. D. lowered the Bible, his brow furled. “Brethren, we sure need to pay attention to what Paul is saying here. He’s saying that not only will false teachers come from outside the church, they’ll also come from inside. There’s not any of us that’s immune to error, brethren. We got to study and pray, and watch ourselves all the time, to make sure we stay pleasing to the Lord … ”

*******

Zeb recrossed his legs and fussed with the knot in his tie. He flicked an imaginary speck of lint from his trousers and glanced at the rafters above J. D.’s head, where a mud dauber made lazy forays against the wood. From the corner of his eye, he glanced at Addie, sitting so still beside him in her high-collared dress and flower-trimmed hat. Before he could forbid it, a vision sprang into his mind: he was wrapping her in a passionate embrace, her face turned up to his, her eyes closed, her lips parted in rapture. His chest constricted in a rush of tenderest desire.

He pulled himself back toward the present. It wouldn’t do to torture himself with dreams of what wasn’t yet to be—what might not happen at all, he thought. Besides, this wasn’t the time and place for daydreaming. He needed to be paying attention to the sermon.

J. D. was right. You had to stay on guard. If you didn’t, you might drift into error and sin, like countless thousands throughout the ages. God was merciful and good, but he still had certain expectations. He gave his will to men in the pages of the Bible, and he expected obedience. Obedience wasn’t an easy matter. It was like walking a greased plank, and you had to give it all you had to keep your balance. Fine and dandy for the Methodists and the Baptists to talk about God’s grace and “once saved always saved,” but Zeb knew the Bible also said that faith without works was dead—James two, twenty-six.

*******

“Last of all, brethren, let’s look in the Gospel of Mark, chapter sixteen.” J. D. licked his thumb and turned several pages in his Bible. He scanned the page to find his place. “These are some of the last words the Lord spoke to his apostles before he went back up into heaven. Listen to what he says. ‘Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized—’ Let me repeat that last phrase, brethren. It says, ‘He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.”’

*******

Addie heard two older girls at the far end of the pew snickering into their hands as J. D. pronounced the closing word of the verse. Again she was conscious of her heart hammering against her breastbone. He that believeth and is baptized. What about she that believeth? She might be saved, but what then? And then she knew the true name of her vague agitation. It was the disguise she had constructed to cloak the anger she felt at Zeb, at her father, at herself, at the Church of Christ—even at Mama. It was the way she hid from herself her useless rage at the unfairness of everything and everyone that she cared about, her rage at her own inability to find a way to be completely happy. Why did it have to be so hard for her? Why did she have to be the one to reconcile comfort, truth, and love within herself? It was like trying to catch rain in a sieve. It was like trying to crochet with baling wire.baptism

*******

“Now, brethren,” J. D. was saying, “we all know that there’s lots of good folks out there in the sectarian world, lots of sincere folks who think they’re following the Bible. But the Lord said ‘he that believeth and is baptized,’ in that order. It ain’t enough to be sincere, brethren. You got to do right. Jesus said, ‘Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven,’—Matthew seven, twenty-one. And what is that will, brethren? Listen again to the Lord’s last words: ‘he that believeth and is baptized shall be saved … ’”

*******

Addie’s mind was a stump in Zeb’s pasture and he’d jammed a pry bar beneath it. With J. D.’s proof-texts as his fulcrum, he was prying, prying, trying to break her loose. Her thoughts of Papa screamed out against the dislocation, clung to the soil of her past with weakening tendrils. She felt as if everyone in Post Oak Hollow Church was staring at her. Well does she understand or not? When is she going to come around?

*******

“If you’re here today and you’re not a member of the Lord’s church, you need to make it right,” said J. D. “You need to come down front and confess Jesus as your Lord. We’ll go this very hour down to Chickamauga Creek and baptize you for the forgiveness of your sins, and you’ll be washed clean in the blood of the Lamb. If you’re already a Christian and you haven’t lived right, you need to come and ask for the prayers of the church. Whatever your need is today, won’t you come forward this morning while we stand and sing?”

Brother Houser led into the altar call.

While Jesus whispers to you,

Come, sinner, come!

 While we are praying for you,

 Come, sinner, come …

Zeb felt Addie’s hand on his arm. He glanced at her and he felt a thrill along his spine. She was moving past him, toward the center aisle! Was she at last going to make the commitment for which he’d pleaded these last months? Was she going down front to get baptized? If she was, that could only mean …

*******

Addie’s face felt hot. The inside of the church was a blur as she moved toward the aisle. She felt every eye on her as she sidled past Zeb and stepped into the center. With her hand covering the sob trying to escape from her lips, she strode down the aisle and out the back door of the church as the congregation sang the final words of the verse.

Now is the time to own Him:

Come, sinner, come!

Now is the time to know Him:

Come, sinner, come …

*******

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

The Home Place, Part 3

January 20, 2013

I couldn’t move or speak.

“The bank … they’re foreclosing on me. They say I’m too far gone and they’re going to sell me out.”

Finally I forced some air through my throat. “I … I can’t believe … how much money do you owe?”

A dry rasp of a sarcastic laugh. “Only a couple of hundred thousand.”

Troublesome times are here

“Yeah, we had a bad year or two; couldn’t make the interest payments on our loan,” he continued in a dead voice, “and they rolled the deficit forward to the next year. Well, I guess I kept hoping I could farm my way out of it, but … ”

Image

This was not reality. Was it?

“Damn, Hal! How could this happen? This didn’t just creep up on you. How could you not know you were going too far in debt? And how could you not tell me? ”

He recoiled as if I had slapped him, and Gail looked at me with a round, bruised stare, echoed in the eyes of the children gathered by the hallway door. Their eyes told of their fearful confusion at this kind of behavior from the people who were supposed to be in control of everything.

I stood up, began to reach toward him. “God … Hal … I’m sorry.” I wanted to go to him, but his hurt and anger burned around him like an unholy halo, and I couldn’t touch him. I stood for a moment, my hand partially extended toward my brother, then strode out the front door, into the chilly night.

I don’t remember too much of what I did for the next hour. I walked around the mercury-lamp-lit yard, trying to come to terms with what I had just heard. Hal had never said a word, before tonight, to prepare me for this. And I suppose I had just assumed this sort of thing didn’t happen to people I knew. But it had. This land was just another statistic in a ledger; my brother was just another failed businessman.

night

Finally I went inside to go to bed, no less at sea than before, but too cold and fatigued to stay up any longer. Hal and Gail were already in their room, so I locked the door behind me, flipped out the entry light, and, for a long time, leaned limply against the doorway in the darkness of my brother’s house.

I woke up in the morning when the winter sun crawled under my eyelids through the east windows of Kris’s room. I always felt a little silly sleeping in a canopy bed festooned with pink and white Victorian lace, but when I was here, Kris bunked with the boys, and this became “Uncle Frank’s room.”

As I blinked the sleep out of my eyes, the pain of the night before rushed back into my gullet, like acid pouring down a drain. I don’t think I’d slept more than fifteen minutes at a stretch all night; I’d doze for a while then wake up, re-hash Hal’s situation about a dozen times, doze off again and wake again. I felt about as rested as an army grunt in a muddy foxhole. But, with the sun shouting through the windows and the smell of bacon and coffee in my nostrils, I decided I might as well get up.

Gail was in the kitchen, red-eyed, standing over an electric skillet and poking absently at the few strips of bacon sizzling in it.

“Did I correctly identify the smell of coffee, and if so, where the heck is it?”

“Yeah, right over there. Cups are in the cabinet over the coffee maker.” She gestured wearily in the general direction of the cabinets.

“Guess you guys didn’t rest too well last night, either.”

“Oh, that’s nothing new. I haven’t slept all night since the first of the month. That’s when Hal found out from the bank. ”

A long, sterile silence. “Gail, listen, I acted like an ass last night, and … ”

“Oh, Frank, Hal doesn’t blame you. To be honest, he doesn’t have the emotional capital to waste on being upset with you. That’s one of the scariest things … Since he found out, it’s like he’s just slowly running down. He drifts around like he’s not interested in anything. I can’t even touch him anymore. That damned bank has pulled the plug on him, and he’s … he’s just … quit, that’s all. He puts up a front, but I know. He’s dying on the inside …” Her voice trailed off as she stared blankly into the middle distance. Tears began to trail down her cheeks, and she didn’t try to wipe them off. They followed one another, unheeded, down her face and neck, as though she didn’t feel them anymore, or perhaps it was simply too much trouble to take notice of them.

filling men’s hearts with fear

“Isn’t there anyone you can talk to, Gail? Pete Sloan, or somebody … maybe somebody at church?”

She shook her head numbly. “He can’t … or he won’t. And it’s hard for them, too, because they look at him, and they know what’s going on, but talking about it is like admitting it could happen to them, too. I guess keeping it to yourself is a way of keeping it away. I don’t know … ”

“Gail is he … do you think Hal could try something crazy?”

“What’s crazy, Frank?” she demanded, staring defiantly at me. “When you’ve poured your lifeblood into something, when it’s all you’ve ever known or wanted to know, when it’s as big a part of you as this place is for him, and then it gets yanked away from you; what could be crazier than that? You know how you felt when Hal told you. Just try and imagine how he feels. This is all he’s ever wanted to do or be, Frank. This farm is him and he’s the farm. He knows every contour, every ridge on the place. When he’s out on one of the tractors, he’s himself; real and alive and in his natural element. For him to think about not doing that … he can’t think about it, that’s all. He has no way to think about it … oh, dammit!”

bacon

Blue smoke curled up from the charred strips in the skillet. As Gail hurriedly unplugged it and reached for a spatula to scrape the burned bacon out of the pan, I glanced out the window toward the tool shed.

“Is Hal already out?”

“Yeah, he left just after sunup, although what he plans to do out there this time of year, I don’t know.”

“Okay. Listen, I’m not really hungry anyway, so if you’re fixing breakfast for me, don’t bother.”

“All right.”

I began pulling on a light jacket lying across the back of a kitchen chair.

“Frank? Go and talk to him, Frank, okay? I don’t want to lose him, but I can’t reach him, you know? Please … go and … just go and talk to him.”

I drew her close, feeling the painful lump in my craw threatening to back up into my eyes. “Sure, Gail. I’ll go talk to him. I have no idea what on God’s green earth I’ll say, but I’ll go talk to him.”

I wandered out across the frost-coated grass of the yard, toward the tool shed. I could hear the crisp clank of a two-and- a-half pound hammer on steel as I approached the corrugated tin building, guarded on all sides by farm implements, tractors, odds and ends of machinery in various stages of dismantling, all awaiting the call to action in the spring. Would any of this stuff would be here in the spring?

Over there was a light tractor, the one I’d learned to drive on. The drawbar was still bent from the time I tried to pull a ten-foot cultivator through a nine-and-a-half foot gap between two trees. Dad nearly killed me, once he knew I hadn’t done the job myself. Dad and Hal somehow managed to keep piecing the old beast together, nursing it back to health over and over again. I couldn’t believe he was still using it. I wondered who would be the high bidder for that tractor.

Image

Hal was inside the shop, pounding the slag out of a weld he had just made in the tubular steel drawbar of a breaking plow.

“Knock, knock,” I called.

“Who’s there?” He straightened from his scrutiny of the weld, pushing the welding mask up out of his face and turning to greet me.

“Little brother.”

“Little brother who?”

“Little-brother-with-egg-on-his-face. Hey, I want to apologize for yelling at you last night in front of the kids. It was pretty classless.”

“Forget it. I didn’t even know they were there.” He popped the mask down over his face and bent down to the drawbar. I looked away as the arc welder began to crackle and flash.

“Look,” I continued when he paused to tap the slag out of the new weld, “I don’t pretend to know what you’re going through, but I think I know that acting like nothing has happened won’t help anybody. Hal, listen to me.” I laid a hand on his shoulder as he pulled the mask down again. “Gail is worried sick about you. She’s watching you dry up on the inside. You’re killing her, as well as yourself. Look, maybe it’s time for you to start making plans. Maybe you need to … maybe you need to look for something else to do.”

“Yeah, like what?” He raised the mask and stared ahead with a corpse’s eyes. “Riding a tractor around for twenty or so years doesn’t qualify me for a hell of a lot, does, it? And what kind of office could I work in where I could smell freshly-turned earth? Where would I get that, Frank?”

“Hal … you remember when Dad died, how bad that was? How we both felt lost, like somebody had jerked the rug from under the world? Is … is that sort of how this is for you?”

“No … it’s worse. See, even after Dad was gone, as bad as that hurt, I could still come out here, work, go look at the crops–and still feel a part of him … like he was looking over my shoulder, you know?

“Do you remember that song we sang in church when we were kids … let’s see, how did it go … ‘I’ve reached the land of corn and wine / and all its riches–freely mine. Here shines undimmed one blissful day / and all my night has passed away. Oh! Beulah Land! Sweet Beulah Land …’ I remember when we sang that first line, I’d get this picture of our field, with corn in it as tall as a cottonwood tree, dark green as midnight. And I’ve never lost that picture, Frank. For me, heaven is a place where the corn grows tall, without any Johnson grass or careless weeds, and once a week, at night, you get a nice, slow, one-inch rain. ”

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He stared out the shop window, across the winter-dead field behind the house. In a minute he looked back at me, gave a half-smile that never reached his eyes, blinked rapidly several times and looked down. “You know,” he mumbled at his shoes, “I used to daydream that someday Jimmy or maybe Kip might want to come back here and, take over from me. Kind of complete the cycle once more. That’s the kind of feeling I have about this place–it’s the source and destination of the cycle. Every spring we break the ground; we plant, we plow, we cultivate. In the fall we harvest, in the winter we rest, and start over in the spring.

“That’s how it was for Dad, see? Winter came for him, and he’s … he’s resting. It was my turn. But if I lose the place, it’s like–for me it’s like the sun not coming up tomorrow. It’s like spitting on Dad’s grave–like all he and Granddad did was for nothing. I’ve poured my life out on this land, Frank,” he said, his eyes rising to mine and boring in like lasers, “but there will be nothing to show I was ever here.” He held my eyes for a moment, then turned away.

“Hal, it sounds to me as if you’re saying you’re ready to kiss everything off. What about your kids; what about Gail? There’s a whole world beyond this place, and you can’t just dig a hole and lie down in it!”

He jerked around viciously to face me. “This has been my world for forty-five years! Can’t you understand that? You talk all this crap about how much you love the place, then you tell me just to toss all that in the toilet, up anchor and go on from here! Well, for me, there ain’t no ‘from here!’ I’m supposed to just walk away from it and start wearing a tie from nine to five like some rootless, faceless, exhaust-fume-sucking company man? Just … just leave me alone.” The welding mask slammed shut, and he turned away from me like the closing of an iron gate. I left the shop, the arc welder spitting angrily behind me.

(To be continued)

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