Posts Tagged ‘separation’

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 40

June 6, 2019

“Becky?”

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

“Becky? You here?” tree

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, uh … what’s wrong with him?”

“His heart.”

“He in the hospital?”

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

“Honey, I’m sorry.”

“Zeb I’ve got to go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know, Zeb.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I guess so. Yes, that’d be fine.”

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m ready to order, if you are.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Becky shrugged and nodded.

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

“I hope so.”

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

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

“I may be gone awhile, Zeb.”

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

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

*******

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

“Yes’m.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes’m.”

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

“Ma’am, the wood’s chopped.”

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

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

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

“Oh, hello. You must be Lila’s boy.”

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

“Almost, uh—what’s your name?”

“Willie.”

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

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

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, then … thank you.”

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

“Yes’m.”

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

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

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

“Yes’m.”

“Tell my sister thanks.”

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

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

“Lemme go! Lemme go, Ned!”

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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Sunday Clothes, Chapter 25

February 7, 2019

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

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

“Hmm?”

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

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

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

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

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

She turned her face slightly toward him but said nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that the best you can do?”

He stared at her.

“Do what?”

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

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

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

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

“Addie! That’s not how—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

******* 

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

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

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

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

“No trouble.” trainstation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

*******

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

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

“Well, all right then. Thank you.”

“Yes’m.” motherchld

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

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

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

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

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

“Da’ee?”

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 19

December 29, 2018

… Anywhere with Jesus I can go to sleep,

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

Knowing I shall waken never more to roam; 

Anywhere with Jesus will be home, sweet home. 

Anywhere, anywhere! Fear I cannot know; hymnal

Anywhere with Jesus I can safely go.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pete.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She murmured in agreement.

“Glad you mentioned a walk.”

She said nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

December 15, 1902

 My Dear Husband Zeb,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

home as soon as you can.

Your own,

Adelaide C Douglas

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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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.