About this time, Malcolm decided that it was time for Melly to learn how to drive. Her poor health had been the barrier to getting her license at 16, but she was so improved of late that there seemed no reason to put off the lessons any longer. There seemed no reason to Malcolm, at any rate; he thought it would be an excellent thing for Melly to be able to get out on her own sometimes, independent of the kindness of chauffeurs. Melly thought differently. She had no desire to drive. She had no inclination to operate any kind of heavy machinery. She was a fearful passenger; driving was ten times worse, a thousand times worse. However, she was in the habit of deferring to Malcolm’s judgment, and if he was willing to teach her to drive, it would be ungrateful of her to refuse.
The first difficulty — a foretaste, perhaps, of the entire tenor of the project — was in finding a suitable car for the initial lessons. There were a plethora of cars at Stillwater — everyone had at least one. And hardly anyone denied that Melly ought to learn to drive; indeed, there was general surprise that she didn’t already have a license, because didn’t everyone have a license? (The exception was Esther, who thought that the project was folly and that there were enough indecisive people on the roads as it was.) This conviction of universal automotive franchise did not translate into charity: being willing that Melly should drive was not the same thing as being willing that she should drive in one’s own car, and Malcolm’s appeals were met with denials from all quarters.
“I think it’s too kind of you to teach Melly to drive,” said Esther in a tone which emphasized her doubt of that end ever being achieved, “and I’d be happy to let you use my car, but I never know when I’m going to have to rush off somewhere. I’m in and out so much as it is.”
“Well, honey, I don’t mind if Melly learns in my car,” said Cheryl, “but I kind of don’t think that Daddy would want her driving the Jaguar. What do you think, Pugsy? Would Daddy let Melly drive that car?”
As Richard Spencer was away until April, consulting at a sugar plantation in the West Indies where the cell phone and internet reception was spotty at best, Pugsy was not likely to have an answer for Malcolm any time soon.
Dick refused flatly.
“I’m a lot easier on the gears driving drunk than Melly would be driving sober,” he scoffed when Malcolm poked his head into the basement room doorway to sound him out as he watched the game on the big TV.
In the end, Melly had to cut her driving teeth behind the wheel of the utility truck at Stillwater. This was a behemoth of a vehicle, the main function of which was to drive the gravel roads and dirt paths in the sugarcane fields. It was a ridiculous thing in which to put any beginning driver, and the lessons were barely shy of disaster. Malcolm, who despite his natural talent for instruction was still a fairly novice teacher, was excited about taking a high-concept approach to driver’s training. He had decided that the immersion method would be best for Melly. In this, though he was usually so compatible a teacher with her and so diligent for her welfare, he was completely mistaken. Melly, who by her nature prized stability over adaptability, hated the insecurity of sudden change, and the heavy old truck, with its stiff gas pedal and soft break, was an unpredictable beast.
On the first afternoon of lessons, Malcolm drove the truck out between the cane fields and parked in the middle of a long linear strip of gravel.
“Okay, we’re just going to do some basic steering. All you have to do is to hold the wheel steady and point her straight ahead. This is going to be easy, Melly. You can’t mess it up. ”
Melly took her place on the driver’s side of the bench seat and sat bolt upright, clutching white-knuckled at the grubby plastic of the huge wheel. She could barely see over the dashboard.
“Now, turn it on. No, you’ve got to jiggle the key to get it to catch. Good. Left pedal is the break, right is the gas. No, foot on the break!”
“I can’t reach it!” Melly squeaked, sliding down. She jerked the wheel and the truck rolled slowly toward the sugarcane. Malcolm seized the wheel and steered the car back onto the gravel road as Melly flailed at the pedals.
“No, that’s the gas!”
“I can’t find it!”
The big truck lurched forward and then rocked to a halt, engine whining.
“Are you pressing both pedals down? Don’t do that! It’s bad for the truck!”
Melly, legs shaking, eased up on both pedals, and once more the truck rolled gently down the gravel road. Malcolm slid over and got his foot on the break.
“Okay, you just practice steering. Straight ahead. The cane gives you nice natural barriers. Pick a vantage point up in the middle of the road and aim toward it. ”
“Anywhere! Just… farther up the road. If you look right in front of the hood, you’ll have a harder time steering straight.”
Melly choked down the impulse to say that she was already having a hard time, and diligently gazed off into the middle distance. She was oppressed by the claustrophobic sensation of the walls of sugarcane closing in on the road. Malcolm gave the truck a bit of gas, and they rumbled forward.
“I‘ve lost my vantage point,” said Melly, with rising anxiety, holding the wheel rigid. “The whole road looks the same with the sugarcane on either side.”
“Just keep looking ahead. Watch the middle of the road up there.”
Malcolm put more pressure on the gas, and the speedometer crept up to fifteen miles per hour. The truck began to shudder and bounce over the uneven gravel ruts. Melly’s face was pale.
“See, you’re doing fine,” Malcolm assured her. “I’m going to go a little faster. Just keep steering straight ahead. Isn’t that easy?”
Melly, lips pressed tight, didn’t answer.
“Now, I think it’s time for you to take over the gas. Let’s stop and get you situated. Are you ready?”
“Yes you are. Foot on the gas, gently.”
Sitting on the edge of the seat, Melly gingerly depressed the gas with her right foot. The left hovered vigilantly over the brake. Once again the truck jerked up the road.
“Nice!” Malcolm offered an encouraging smile. “You’re doing well. See, you have a knack for driving, Melly.”
“Really?” She turned toward him, taking the wheel with her, and the truck nosed into the cane. Melly slammed both pedals. Malcolm looked at the sea of green outside his window and listened to the strain of the engine against the force of the brake.
“Okay,” he sighed. “Let’s back out and try it again.”
“I don’t know how to back out,” said Melly in a small tense voice.
Eventually, through a process of Malcolm alternately explaining how to turn the wheel, and then doing it himself, the truck was set once more upon the straight and narrow path.
“No sugarcane was harmed in the making of this license,” he said, forcing a smile. Melly glared at the gash in the field and said nothing.
Later that afternoon, Cheryl glanced up from watching The Dog Whisperer to see Malcolm and Melly trudging into the basement. Melly’s face was streaked with tears. Malcolm stalked grimly to the fridge and grabbed a beer.
“Well, you look like you had fun!” she said, as Melly dropped down on the couch beside her. “You ready for your test, Melly?”
“I don’t think I like driving,” said Melly in an unusually audible voice, her words carrying clearly across the room to the fridge.
“Melly just needs more practice,” said Malcolm patiently. “But I think we’ll try again tomorrow.”
“How’d the truck work out for you?” Cheryl asked.
“I don’t think I like the truck,” said Melly in the same carrying tone.
“The truck was a little big for Melly,” said Malcolm in the same patient manner.
“I thought it might be,” said Cheryl, eyes back on the screen. “Y’all really ought to just buy a smaller car for Melly.”
Clearly the truck was not the appropriate technology, but Malcolm was determined to find a solution. Melly wasn’t stupid; she had brains; she could learn. He would teach her if it killed him, as it well might. Cheryl was right; what was needed was a better car. And since no one else was willing to hand over their more reasonable cars as a sacrificial victim of sorts for the fledgling driver, he would have to let her drive his old Morgan.
Malcolm’s reluctance to use his car in the first place had not been selfishness. The Morgan could have its finicky moods, and the learning curve could be steep. There was also the small matter of the manual transmission, but as Melly couldn’t even drive an automatic yet, she might as well learn on a stick shift as on the truck. The length of the Morgan’s hood had always been a concern, but on the other hand the car sat lower than the truck. It was more than likely that Melly would be alarmed by the soft top, side curtains instead of windows, and the freestanding windshield, but she would get used to these things. The more he thought about it, the more he was convinced that all she needed to be inspired with a love of the road was to experience the aesthetic pleasures of ruling it in a vintage car.
To be sure, the Morgan was inspirational by almost any standard. Richard Spencer had at one time been a collector of classic automobiles, and one of the crowning gems of his collection, as much for driving as for admiring, was a bottle green 1967 Morgan Plus 4, a handsome piece of machinery with a gleaming wood dash and a strap across the long hood. Richard had long wanted to pass this favored car to one of his sons, but Dick had always been too careless on the road for Richard to trust him with it, or for that matter, with any of the cars housed in the old carriage houses. Rather, Dick had been given a new M3, and the Morgan handed on to Malcolm. Though no connoisseur of vintage rides, from the start he loved the handsome bug-eyed car with a enthusiasm that gratified his father. There had been little enough occasion for him to drive it during the time he’d been in seminary, but since he’d been home the car had been moved out of storage and tuned up and driven on every occasion. For almost six monastic years Malcolm had been buttoned up, denying himself even reasonable indulgences in order to rid himself of a love of worldly things, but now that he was back in the world his Morgan was his pride and joy. His was an evangelistic love, untinged by selfishness. Not even Melly would be able to remain unmoved by the Morgan’s beautiful lines and gracious handling. Once behind the wheel, after a few preliminaries, she would want to drive.
Melly, confronted with Malcolm’s enthusiasm for this new option, said little, but her heart sank. The truck had been bad, true, but it was old and ugly. She knew that she couldn’t do much to damage it, especially at the glacial pace of her first attempt at driving. The beautiful Morgan, however, terrified her. What if she scratched Malcolm’s car? What if she crashed it? He had told her that it was built on a wood frame, which made it light and speedy. What if she were in an accident while driving it? How on earth could she expect to escape unscathed from an accident in a car with a wood frame? The whole thing would just crumple up around her!
Both Malcolm and Melly made valiant efforts to make this second attempt at lessons a success. Malcolm tried to set Melly at ease by driving her around himself in the Morgan. This was a good instinct on his part. Melly felt safe riding with him, and though the terror of having to drive this car herself was always in the back of her mind, she listened attentively as he talked through the driving process, giving step-by-step instructions for how to let out the clutch, shift gears, use the turn signal, and when to honk at other drivers. She felt almost glamorous reposing in the front seat, sporting the new sunglasses Malcolm had given her, while he piloted the big car effortlessly along River Road. How perfect it would be, she thought, if things could just stay this way, secure and peaceful and quiet, free from burdens and demands and the terror of control.
It could not last; nothing ever did. Malcolm had decided against the confines of the cane field, so this time they started off on the paved yard behind the carriage house. It was a beautiful day for driving, if you liked that sort of thing, and Malcolm had left the top of the car down. Again, he traded places with her, again she grasped the wheel, trying to absorb confidence from rich leather trim. This time there were three pedals, and Malcolm wouldn’t be able to reach any of them across the gear box. Melly felt vulnerable behind the freestanding windshield.
“Let’s talk through it as we go, okay?” Malcolm said, settling in the passenger seat.
“First I always push the clutch down.” Melly recited, pressing with her left foot and feeling the initial springy resistance easing up the harder she pushed. “Then I put it in neutral. Then I turn the key.” The car rumbled to life around her, and Melly gripped the wheel tighter. “Then, I push down on the gas.” Nothing happened.
“What am I doing wrong?”
“That’s the brake.”
“Sorry.” Melly shifted her foot to the other pedal. The gas seemed to be the opposite of the clutch: softer at first and resistant toward the floor. The engine revved, but again, there was no movement.
“Let the clutch out, Melly,”
Melly instantly lifted her foot off the pedal. The Morgan gave a terrible roar, jerked, and sputtered. Melly yelped, and so did Malcolm.
“Too much gas!”
Again Melly pulled away. The car gave a last jerk, and stalled. Malcolm looked down to see Melly holding both her feet in the air above the pedals.
“All right,” he said, as much to encourage himself as her. “That wasn’t so bad for a first try.” Inwardly he was marveling at how calm he sounded in the face of the abuse his engine was taking, and had yet to take, today. “This time, let’s talk through it a different way.”
“Okay.” Melly could sense that he was being patient, and she was frustrated that her incompetence should need so much accommodation.
Malcolm shifted in his seat and leaned his elbow on the door, mentally adjusting his teaching strategy.
“Now, let’s think of this as a matter of balancing on your two feet. The clutch goes down, the gas comes up.”
Melly obediently paddled her feet up and down, feeling the opposing play of the pedals. Malcolm, warming up to his subject again, reached for a comparison to help her understand.
“It’s like… It’s like dancing. You put your weight on one foot and then the other. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“Malcolm,” said Melly, irritated at last into snapping at him, “how often in my life have I been able to dance?”
Again there was silence. Melly was instantly ashamed. He had only been trying to explain, taking time to help her get her license, and she was doing nothing but obstructing. She looked at her hands on the wheel and willed herself not to cry this time.
“I’m sorry,” said Malcolm heavily. “I’m not explaining this very well, am I? Let’s just do it a few more times for practice.”
They tried again. And again. Melly danced on the gas and the clutch and at last the car rolled down the driveway. With Malcolm’s guidance, she steered around the carriage house and turned down the long straight driveway past the side of the house. Melly usually loved to observe the house as she passed by, especially the west side with the library wing joined to the pillared portico by the curving wall of the stairwell, but now she felt she was in thrall to the road ahead, unable to enjoy the scenery and the warmth of the afternoon.
“You’re getting near the road, so you’ll want to stop ahead.”
Melly pressed the brake with her left foot. And pressed again. The car went quiet, but kept moving closer to the road.
“I’m stepping on the brake, but nothing is happening!”
“That’s the clutch. Use your right foot. Melly, breathe!”
The nose of the car passed the mailbox. Melly stomped the brake. The Morgan rocked to a halt and stalled, front wheels in the empty road.
“Don’t panic now,” said Malcolm, scanning up and down the quiet road. “We’re going to do the dance again. Push the clutch. Put it in neutral. Turn the key. Put it in reverse, that’s right. Foot on the gas, gently, and let up the clutch, gently. Keep the wheel straight. You’re doing fine, Melly. You’re a good driver.”
The car backed slowly all the way back down the driveway under the canopy of trees and was maneuvered to a halt in front of the carriage house. There was silence for a moment.
“That was fine,” said Malcolm.
“That was terrible,” said Melly.
“No. You did well. We’ll try again tomorrow.” He got out of the car — stiffly, Melly, thought, as if he were trying to allow himself to relax now that she wasn’t driving his car — and opened Melly’s door. She sat, shoulders bowed.
“Come on, let’s go in.”
“I don’t want to drive any more, Malcolm. I can’t do it.”
He took her hand and pulled her out of the car. “We’ll try again tomorrow.”
One afternoon, after another tense lesson — Melly had made some progress on the road, but she had stalled out at a stoplight, and had been honked at several times — the two again sat silently in the driveway, Melly still with her hands on the wheel. She had done poorly, and she knew it; she wanted a word or two of affirmation from Malcolm, and yet she knew that he would be hard-pressed to find much to compliment in her performance; if Malcolm were to say anything remotely critical, she would be unable to keep from crying. As it was, he seemed unable to say anything at the moment: he was slumped in his seat, head leaned back, eyes closed. Once or twice he heaved a sigh.
Alys Winter, golden wisps of hair curling on her neck after a brisk walk on the levee, rounded the corner of the house. The blue stones of her necklace, one of her own creations, mirrored the blue of her eyes, which widened in respectful amazement when she spotted Malcolm and Melly in their classic roadster. With an exclamation, she hurried over.
“What a fabulous car!” she said, circling it and studying its lines. “What is it? I’ve never seen one like it.”
Malcolm’s eyes opened.
“It’s a Morgan,” he said. “A ‘67 Plus 4.”
“1967? I wouldn’t have been able to place the year. It looks older than that, with the long hood and those headlights, but all the paint and the trim seem like they’re in mint condition.” Alys ran an admiring hand down the hood. “Do you work on it yourself?”
Malcolm laughed and got out. “I don’t know the first thing about working on cars. There’s a body shop in town that’s been pampering this thing since my dad bought it new.”
“It’s been in the family all that time?”
Melly opened her door and stepped carefully out, pushing tangled hair behind her sunglasses. She had no great desire to hear the Morgan praised, or to see Malcolm laugh with Alys Winter, though, she reflected bitterly, she herself had given him little enough to laugh about recently. She turned to go.
“You made good progress today, Melly. We’ll try again tomorrow,” said Malcolm.
“Are you learning to drive a stick?” Alys asked her.
“I’m only just learning how to drive at all,” said Melly, pausing for a moment on her way back to the house. “Malcolm is teaching me.”
“What an amazing experience. You’re so lucky to learn to drive on a classic car like this. ”
Melly took a deep breath and smiled politely. “I’m afraid I’m not very good yet, but I’m very fortunate to have a patient teacher.”
“Everyone should be so lucky as to have a patient brother. I know I don’t.”
Melly was confused, but Malcolm corrected Alys’s misapprehension.
“Melly does have a patient brother, and a good many more besides” he said, “but none of them are me. She’s like family to us, though.”
Melly flushed, though whether it was because she was pleased or disappointed by Malcolm’s sentiment, she could not say. “My older brother is Rene, the philosopher I mentioned at dinner the other night.”
Alys shook her head ruefully. “You must think I’m an idiot, putting my foot in my mouth every time I talk to you. I beg your pardon, Melly. If it’s any consolation, I’m insanely jealous of your opportunity. I wish I’d learned to drive in a car like this.”
“Can you drive a manual?” Malcolm asked.
“It’s been a long time since I tried a stick shift, but I think I could pick it up again quickly. I think it’s like riding a bike — you never really forget how to do it once you learn.”
“Well, here’s your chance to learn to drive in a car like this. Hop in. If you’d like, that is.”
“Can I?” Alys was thrilled. “As long as I'm not interrupting your lessons.”
"Not at all," said Melly.
Malcolm opened the driver’s side door for her, but before she stepped in she turned to Melly.
“You come too, Melly. I don’t think I’m too appalling a driver to have passengers along.”
“No, thank you,” said Melly. “I’ve had enough of cars for one day. “
“You’ll have to watch and tell me how I do, then,” said Alys. She adjusted the driver’s seat back and smoothed her dress, surveying the metal knobs of the door latches and the huge round speedometer and the toggles in the center of the polished wooden dashboard with admiration. Her delight in the car was infectious; Malcolm looked more cheerful than Melly had seen him in many days. The key was still in the ignition. Alys turned it and shifted into gear. The Morgan rumbled, jolted, and stalled. Malcolm was used to this after many days of Melly’s driving, but Melly still watched him with compassion. Had she been treating his car like that all this time? He must be so disappointed to have to sit through a second round of automotive abuse.
Suddenly Alys started laughing merrily.
“Well, that was graceful.” She grinned at Malcolm, and he grinned back. “Shall I try this thing again?”
“Go for it.”
Alys took a minute to reflect — probably dancing her feet on the pedals, Melly thought — and started the car again. This time it roared to life, almost pleasantly, and Alys pulled the car out onto the driveway. Melly watched her blue necklace shimmer and the gold of her hair gleam and flash as the car passed in and out of the shadows of the tree-lined drive. At the top of the road, the Morgan paused, then darted out. The engine revved, quieted, and revved again as Alys shifted into high gear and the Morgan sped off downriver.
“I hope I didn’t offend Melly,” Alys said as she drove out down River Road. “I had no idea she wasn’t part of the family. She seems to fit in so well, and everyone bossed her around so much the other night at dinner that I just assumed she was the youngest.”
Malcolm gave an involuntary snort at this sharply accurate description of his family’s behavior.
“No, she’s not related. Her family lived for a while in the cottage you’re in now, and her mother used to do some sewing work and various jobs for my parents sometimes. They live in Baton Rouge now, but she stayed on with us because of poor health.”
“So now she works for your family, then?” Alys was indignant. “What on earth? Is that a Southern thing? I don’t think it’s legal in New York to employ sick children.”
“Settle down,” Malcolm exclaimed. “Melly’s not a servant. When I said she was like family, I meant it. And she’s not a child either. She’s nineteen.”
“Nineteen?” Alys, like Sophia and Olivia before her, was taken aback to realize that Melly was much older than she looked. “And only just learning to drive?”
“Like I said, poor health.”
Alys shook her head at herself for the second time that afternoon. “I can see that Melly is destined to be an enigma to me, and I’m destined to make ignorant remarks in front of you. But you will admit that she did a lot of the cleaning after the shower the other day, when we came to dinner, and then she took care of the dog for your mother, and everyone seemed to assume that was her role. That’s rather generous for someone who isn’t related and doesn’t get paid.”
“I admit it freely. Melly is generous. It’s in her nature.”
“I’m sure it is, but for my part, I’m going to follow your example and be friendly to her. You never know — there was a case recently of a family in New York that had the model nanny. She cared for the children better than their own mother could have, and cooked and cleaned and was just the sweetest person. Eventually, she and the family parted amicably and they gave her the best references and asked to hear about her new job when she was settled.”
“And then what? She killed them all in their sleep?”
“Of course not. It came out that she’d been keeping an anonymous blog all those years about nannying for the family, and that she’d just signed a book deal with a major publisher.”
Malcolm had to smile. “If the nanny was so willing to tell all right after leaving, perhaps that might indicate she didn’t really love the family as much as people thought she did. Anyway, Melly is very intelligent and more than capable, but she doesn’t prefer to use her abilities in literary endeavors. She uses them as you’ve seen — to serve others without much notice or reward, not because she’s weak or because she’s sly, but because she’s genuinely humble.”
“I believe you!” Alys laughed. “But don’t forget: still waters run deep. When you wake up and find yourself embroiled in the center of a tell-all scandal, don’t say I didn’t warn you!”
Malcolm scoffed. “Yes, on that day you’ll certainly be the first one I call for advice.”
Half an hour later, as Melly lay in her room, the sound of the Morgan rumbling down the driveway stirred her from her reverie and sent her to the window next to the fireplace. She watched the green car turn the corner of the library wing and head back to the yard in front of the carriage house. Alys drew the car smoothly to a stop before the big doors and turned to say something to Malcolm. Her hair had been whipped into big wind-swept curls and her cheeks were flushed with the sheer joy of driving the fabulous Morgan. Malcolm too was tousled and animated. He listened with attention as Alys finished whatever she was saying — it must have been very witty; the blue stones quivered and flashed as she laughed — and then stepped around to her side to open the door for her. They stood chatting for a moment longer before Alys headed left toward the cottages, turning back once to call a last farewell and wave. Malcolm leaned against the car and watched her go, then turned slowly toward the house and walked, lost in thought, to the outside steps up to the library wing. Melly heard him enter the service hall outside her room and pass through to the stairs hall and then, a minute later, travel back through the hall on the level above to his room, directly above hers. She lay back down to what remained of her rest, and to listen to him walking about restlessly over her head.