Part Three: The Scenes
The Winters had been at Stillwater for several weeks when Ian decided to fly back to New York for a few days. Like most of his travel decisions, it was made impulsively. He was under no obligation to mention it to anyone, with the consequence that neither Sophia or Olivia factored his absence into their plans. When they both decided to come down again that weekend, they found Stillwater unaccountably dull and frustrating. Olivia spent Friday night moping around the house, wandering morosely from room to room. Eventually she flopped next to Melly on the couch where she was patiently beading a dense and intricate pattern of swirls along the hem of Sophia’s wedding dress.
“Everything is dead here this weekend,” she complained. “I’m going back to Tulane tomorrow — I can’t believe I actually thought about missing the photography club party to spend quality time with my brothers and sister. Dick is stupid and Malcolm is boring and Sophia’s such a bitch. How do you put up with her all the time? I’d go insane.”
“Sophia isn’t usually here,” said Melly, carefully tying a knot before starting on the next bead. “She only comes down lately so she can keep up with the wedding planning.”
“Wedding planning, bull,” scoffed Olivia. “She comes down here because she wants to flirt with Ian. I’d be embarrassed to throw myself at a man that obviously. Not like it matters — she’s engaged, so of course she thinks she can do whatever she wants. I don’t know why Chris puts up with it, except that he’s so dumb he can’t talk about anything but football and renovations on his old house. I mean, nice guy and all, but can you imagine being married to him?”
“No,” said Melly, relieved to have an opportunity of stating a completely uncontroversial sentiment to which no one could possibly object or press her to elaborate. “No, I can’t imagine that.”
Sophia was not as obliging as Olivia, who only griped at Melly. Rather, she took out her irritation on everyone at Stillwater, and especially on Chris, who’d decided to come down with her. Chris was not a man of action on the weekends. He was perfectly content to watch the full spectrum of Saturday sports and commentary, and if his mind ranged to wider topics or was laden with many cares, he was at no pains to dispel any impression he might give of being completely shallow. He was rich and hot (everyone said so) and he was accommodating, and originally that had been enough for Sophia to consider him a fair prize to dangle at clubs and parties. But as the engagement wore on, it began to dawn on her that she going to have to spend more than just social time with Chris. Sure, they lived together now, but there was no real commitment in that — she could get out for weekends with her friends or trips to Stillwater as often as she wanted. Being required to ride with him to Hazelwood when she wanted to go with the Stillwater group, and play hostess when she had no interest in doing so, had brought home to her that not only could she make demands of Chris, but that the time was coming when he would make demands of her (legitimate demands, she acknowledged in her more self-aware moments). And she didn’t know if she wanted to be under any kind of obligation to Chris.
Olivia went back to college on Saturday morning and Sophia wanted to leave as well.
“Come on, Chris,” she ordered, striding into the family room. “I’ve packed up all my stuff, so we can go any time.”
Chris was settling down on the couch with Dick in front of ESPN and had no inclination to budge.
“I thought you wanted to stay for dinner at least,” he said, “but we can go after the game if you want.”
“After the game?” She was scornful. “I don’t want to wait around here all that time. Let’s go.”
Chris didn’t pay any attention to her. He and Dick were busy placing bets on the final score of the game. Dick won more often than Chris did, but Chris was always convinced that next time was the big time.
Sophia found that she needed to change up her tactics. Snuggling on the couch next to him, she affected to watch for a moment, and then said, “We could be so much more cozy watching the game at home. Let’s just run home. We’ll be there in less than an hour — you probably won’t even miss the game, just the pre-game stuff.”
Chris shook her off. “I let you do your stuff, honey. This is my stuff. Go shopping or something. Talk to your mom. Do some girl stuff. I’m watching the game.”
Sophia pushed off the couch, sullen, and stalked to the door.
“You always used to go on about how you wanted a woman to treat like a princess,” she tossed back at him as she went out.
“Make it up you later, honey,” Chris said, eyes on the screen. “Don’t forget that this trip was your idea anyway. Now hush up.”
Olivia’s spring break was in late March. She had made plans, several months ago, to take a senior trip with friends to Florida, but now she made her excuses and chose to come home and spend the entire week at Stillwater. As a pretense, she brought with her a friend from college who was studying photography and had expressed, at some point, a desire to see the plantation and capture it on film. This fellow was an exchange student from Brazil with the impossible name of Joâo Azevedo. He was an amiable addition to the group — his English was passable, his comprehension the same, and he was not inclined to take offense at the bungling American attempts to pronounce his first name. Olivia just called him “Joe”, and so did Dick. Sophia never called him by name if she could help it. Alys gave her best approximation, which wasn’t too bad, and Malcolm and Melly thought it easier to say “Mr. Azevedo”. Only Ian got it right the first time, and every time.
On the first Friday evening of the break, everyone was gathered down in the basement family room, even Sophia, who did not plan to let Olivia monopolize Ian for a week. There was a sense of anticipation in the air. Everyone felt the freedom of the nine days ahead, and everyone felt the need to be doing, to take some project in hand.
“Let’s take a road trip,” suggested Dick, pacing around the room in his usual antic way, all his other ideas having been shot down by his more practical siblings. “We could go to New Orleans. I have a friend who’s got an apartment in the Garden District, and I bet he’d let us all crash on his floor.”
“Oh yeah, no sanitary concerns there,” said Sophia. “Why don’t we just sleep in a dump?” She was at the table, leaning over Ian’s chair, her hair brushing his cheek, looking at a collection of large black and white prints Joâo’s and Olivia had spread out over the table. Ian was listening to Joâo talk about his recent videography classes, interjecting, from time to time, some professional advice and telling anecdotes about his own various film projects. Melly, at her constant beading in the rocking chair near the latticed windows, noticed that his hand would occasionally brush Sophia’s as they picked up the various prints to study.
“Y’all ought to stay here,” said Cheryl from the couch, where she was watching TV with Pugsy. “Don’t go off and leave me here by myself when Daddy’s out of the country.”
“Melly could stay here with you. She won’t mind.”
“You could stay here, Dick, and let the rest of us go,” called Malcolm from his spot next to Alys on the loveseat near Melly’s rocking chair. “Any New Orleans trip that includes you always involves spending exorbitant amounts of money.”
“Come on, I wouldn’t expect you to bail me out again.”
“I would like very much to take some photos of Stillwater while I am here,” said Joâo. “Or maybe to make a short film. I have shot some videos before. The house, Stillwater, is very dramatic. It has potential.”
“Oh, hell yeah!” said Dick, instantly involved. “We need to make a movie. Ian and Joe can direct it, and the rest of us can be the cast. How about it?”
“That would be awesome,” said Olivia, leaning across the table in excitement. “You’ve got lots of experience, Ian. You could teach Joe about shooting short movies.”
“But what would the movie be about?” Ian asked in amusement.
“Let’s do a slasher!” offered Dick. “I could be a serial killer who breaks into this old house and stalks his victims room by room.”
“Fake blood is a pain to work with,” Ian cautioned. “And it can ruin your clothes and your furniture.”
“Dick, don’t make a big mess,” said Cheryl mildly.
“You wouldn’t have to show the blood,” Dick countered. “You could do some crazy things with camera angles.”
“No,” said Sophia.
“Okay, then. Zombies.”
“Let’s make something funny,” said Olivia. “Something fun we can put up on YouTube. We could go viral.”
“You want to put Stillwater on YouTube?” said Malcolm. “Absolutely not. What would Dad say? He’d have a heart attack.”
“Don’t y’all do anything Daddy wouldn’t like,” said Cheryl, reaching for the remote.
“You’re getting ahead of yourself anyway,” Alys said lightly. “Before you put a movie on YouTube, you first have to have a movie.”
“Let’s ask the expert,” said Olivia. “What would you suggest, Ian?”
“Well,” said Ian, “you only have a week, give or take, to shoot the scenes, and after that you have to edit them. You should do something fairly low-tech. Special effects take time.”
“Let’s do something like those College Humor videos,” said Dick. “They’re short. How about a sketch about vampires?”
“You have such a one-track mind,” said Sophia in disgust.
“Let’s do a spoof,” said Olivia.
“Of what, though?” asked Ian.
“I would love to use the light in the big rooms upstairs,” said Joâo. “Maybe a play by Shakespeare would be nice.”
“I’m not going to spend all week doing Shakespeare,” Dick stated flatly.
Alys proposed a fake movie trailer. Joâo desired to film something epic. Dick demanded humor. Various schemes were proffered, criticized, and rejected, and the liberty of being entirely free to choose one’s own amusement was quickly passing into the discontent of anarchy.
Cheryl had listened placidly to all the discussion. Now she gathered up her little pug preparatory to heading upstairs. “Y’all should do scenes from Gone With the Wind with all those antebellum dresses in the attic.”
At the very name of the movie, Dick, Sophia, and Olivia uttered a Pavlovian groan.
“Mom,” said Dick, rolling his eyes. “Gone With The Wind is like eighty years old. No one under fifty watches it.”
“Except us,” said Olivia. “We’ve all seen it at least once a year for the past twenty years.”
“It comes on TV all the time,” said Cheryl. “Everybody’s seen it. People would like it.” Pausing at the doorway, she looked over the room of dubious faces. “I would like it.”
With that, she went upstairs.
Joâo was confused. “I do not think that I know the Gone With The Wind. What is it?”
“A famous movie. It’s an American thing,” Olivia said.
“It’s a Southern thing,” said Alys archly.
“Mom is obsessed with it,” explained Dick.
Ian felt that the demands of politeness required that he at least entertain the suggestion of the hostess. “Well, that would fit with the various costumes in the attic. And you wouldn’t really need that many people for it. Rhett and Scarlett, Ashley and Melanie…” He laughed. “I call Rhett!”
Dick decided to play along. “I call Mammy!”
“Dick, You can’t be Mammy,” said Malcolm.
“Yes I can,” Dick countered. “I could do it in blackface. It would totally awesome.”
“It would be totally offensive.”
“Perhaps,” said Ian, “it would be a… a commentary on race and prejudice.”
Alys laughed. “Gone With The Wind is, what? Four hours? Five hours? You can’t just remake it.”
But Ian was warming to the idea. “What you do is, you make an extended preview. You get some good scenes in for each character, play them perfectly straight, and then suddenly throw in this bizarre twist: Mammy in blackface! From there it can keep building up to be more and more absurd.”
“So, okay,” said Alys. “What iconic scenes do you have to have for a Gone With The Wind parody?”
“The staircase scene, obviously,” said Sophia.
“Scarlett slaps Rhett,” said Olivia
“Scarlett slaps Prissy,” said Dick. “And then Prissy’s head explodes.”
“Who’s going to be Prissy?” asked Ian.
“Me!” said Dick. “I’ll play Mammy and Prissy. That can be ironic somehow.”
Everyone was getting into the spirit of the thing. Sophia struck a dramatic pose, raised her clenched fist, and declaimed, “As God is my witness, as God is my witness…”
Olivia chimed in. “…I'll never be hungry again! If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill…”
“Or whore…,” said Dick.
“Or commit mail fraud…,” said Alys.
“Or sell junk bonds…,” said Ian.
There was general hilarity.
“Mammy shows Rhett her red petticoat!” Dick howled. “Then she does a striptease!”
“Dick.” Malcolm was growing irritated with him. “Tone it down. I don’t want anything to do with any project which sends you into full idiocy mode for a week.”
Dick had an opportunity to channel his surplus energy a moment later when he, Ian, Sophia, Olivia, and Joâo made a foray up to the attic to bring down various articles of clothing. A blessed quiet descended upon the room. Melly felt a temporary relief. Maybe the first excitement of the undertaking would spend itself out in playing dress-up.
“What do you think of the movie plan?” Alys asked Malcolm. “You don’t seem as enthusiastic as everyone else.”
“I don’t like it, no,” he replied. “I don’t think my father would want videos of Stillwater on YouTube. He values his privacy and his house. And the whole premise is a bad idea, and I’m pretty sure he would find it offensive. I find it offensive. I mean, Dick in blackface?”
Alys tried to look serious, but her lips were quivering with suppressed laughter. “You don’t think it’s funny at all?”
“Something doesn’t stop being inappropriate just because it’s funny,” said Malcolm.
“They don’t have to put it up on YouTube,” said Alys reasonably. “That way we can have the fun of the project, and no one has to be offended.”
Malcolm was not convinced, but he let the subject drop.
The others retuned, bantering and laughing, with their arms full of suits and gowns and petticoats. The table was soon loaded with piles of wool and satin and crinoline, and Alys went over to inspect and admire the lot. Ian soon found a white suit that seemed made for Rhett Butler. He held it up against himself and cocked an eyebrow.
“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” He mimicked Clark Gable perfectly, and received his applause with a cool bow.
“We’ve got our Rhett, so now we need Scarlett.” Dick was burrowing through the clothes looking for a Mammy suit. “Obviously it can’t be Alys. You girls are going to have to audition for it, and Ian can pick out his leading lady. Olivia, get in a costume and give us something.”
Olivia seized a dress from and wrestled it over her head, getting stuck in the layers. She yelped.
“Melly! Help me with this thing. I don’t know where any of the openings are.”
Melly obligingly set her work aside and crossed to help Olivia. The dress was all confused, but she persevered in straightening it out and assisted Olivia in getting it settled over her t-shirt and jeans. Olivia tucked her sleeves up as well she could, and then pulled out three chairs and set them in a row.
“Here, swains,” she summoned Ian and Joâo. “Sit in the outside chairs and look adoring.”
Joâo and Ian took their places, Ian looking appropriately soppy and Joâo, puzzled, trying to mimic him. Olivia sashayed to the center seat, settled herself coyly, and gave each of the boys a slyly demure look. Alys snorted.
“Fiddle-dee-dee!” she said in a goofy approximation of Vivien Leigh’s English-tinged southern accent, tossing her head and wriggling in her chair. “War, war, war; I get so bored I could scream. If either of you boys says ‘war’ one more time…”
Ian took his cue. “War!”
Olivia flounced off a few steps, turned, threw the boys one more demure smile, and resumed her seat.
“War!” Ian pushed.
Olivia smiled brilliantly at him and, unexpectedly, uttered a piercing shriek. Joâo gave an echoing shriek in surprise and then politely applauded her performance. Ian and Dick howled and pounded each other on the back, and Alys was giggling with Malcolm on the loveseat. Even Melly, behind the table, couldn’t help smiling. Olivia had a comic streak.
“That was pretty good!” Dick pronounced. “Sophia, you’re going to have to do pretty well to beat that.”
“Was it good? I missed it,” answered Sophia, entering the room. She had gone out to the big hall to change into her dress, and now she paused in the doorway in a daring dress that slid off her shoulders. She held it closed behind her back in a manner intended to enhance the already decollete effect of the neckline. Heads turned.
Sophia enjoyed her effect for a moment, then ordered, “Melly, come zip me up.”
Melly walked slowly to the far side of the room. She didn’t like this move of Sophia’s. Olivia had been caught up in the fun spirit of the moment, but Sophia was, as always, more calculating. As Melly pulled the zipper up carefully she realized that Sophia had not rolled up her clothes under the dress, but taken them off.
The fastened dress fitted tautly over Sophia’s bare body, and as she moved toward Ian she was evidently very aware of the fact. She crossed up to him, took his hands, cast a smoldering glance up at him through lowered lashes, and murmured, “Ashley, oh, Ashley!”
Ian met her direct gaze, then let his eyes drop briefly down to take in the glories of the dress . “Well, you’re already in character,” he said at last. “But you’re addressing the wrong gentleman.”
“You, sir, are no gentleman.”
“And you, Miss, are no lady.”
Olivia disapproved. “Come on, Sophia, stop fooling around. Try acting a little. We’re supposed to be doing something funny.”
Sophia was no comedian, but she gave it a game shot. She minced toward Melly, took her arm and, glancing at Ian, said with exaggerated confidentiality, ”He looks as if he knows what I look like without my shimmy.”
With that, she made her exit to the hall. Ian was looking after her with an expression which indicated to Melly that whether or not he knew what Sophia looked like without her shimmy, he certainly knew that she hadn’t been wearing one.
While Sophia was out of the room, it was Dick’s turn to try a few scenes. Olivia obligingly slapped him as he played Prissy, and the two of them made hash of Mammy making Scarlett eat before the barbeque. When Sophia entered again, fully dressed (once more Melly had been called upon to help with the zipper, a task she was finding increasingly distasteful), it was time for Ian to make his casting decision.
He struck a dramatic pose, thumbs behind his imaginary suspenders. Sophia and Olivia were both regarding him expectantly, the latter with eagerness, the former with a bold complacency. Olivia was in doubt as to Ian’s choice; Sophia was not. Ian, a master politician, stepped back and regarded the sisters, then turned to Olivia.
“I think you’re probably the funniest actress in the room,” he said easily. She glowed. “I don’t know if there’s any way that I could watch you play Scarlett and keep from cracking up. I couldn’t say my own lines without laughing at your expression. You need a better straight man than me to make your talents shine.”
Olivia wavered, undecided whether she was being praised or slighted.
“You can be Melly Wilkes,” Sophia offered, making an effort not to bask too obviously in her triumph. Her satisfied attitude was not lost on Olivia, and she flushed angrily. Before she could say anything, however, Dick shot that idea down.
““You think Scarlett is too serious for Olivia, so she should play Melly?” he exclaimed. “I think Alys is the only one here who can carry off Melly. Olivia can play…” He rapidly reviewed the movie in his mind. “…She can play Aunt Pittypat. She’s pretty funny. I’d play her myself if I didn’t already have two characters to keep track of.”
This effort at conciliation left Olivia cold, but she didn’t intend to make herself ridiculous in front of everyone by looking like she cared too much about her role.
“I don’t see that we need Aunt Pittypat at all — there’s too many other scenes to cover with throwing her in for distraction,” she said sharply. “I might just help Joe with the camera work. I’m sure he’d appreciate working with someone at least mildly competent.”
Ian could see that she was offended, but before he could decide on the best way to proceed, Dick, tying his head up in a big kerchief, was moving on to other casting decisions. “So Alys will play Melly Wilkes, then.”
Alys seemed pleased at the idea, but she hesitated before accepting. “Perhaps Melly should play her namesake. Wouldn’t that be appropriate?”
This was a suggestion that surprised everyone, and all eyes turned to Melly for her answer. Melly was appalled at the very idea of any expecting her to act in the parody.
“I can’t act,” she protested, hoping that her sorry performance now would convince everyone. “I’m no good at it. I’d ruin the part. No.” She could tell that everyone felt she was over-reacting to a polite question, and her agitation rose.
“You’re mistaken about the namesake,” said Malcolm, who could see how awkward Melly felt about being scrutinized and wanted to shift the attention of the room. “Melly’s name is Melusine, not Melanie.”
“That’s beautiful,” said Alys. “I’ve never heard it before. I guess there’s no connection between Melly and Melly Wilkes, then, except that they’re both perfect ladies.”
Dick didn’t have any time for names or ladies. “So do you want to play Melly, Alys?”
“I’d love to,” she responded. “But who will be Ashley?”
“Malcolm, of course.”
“Wait a minute,” Malcolm protested. “I don’t even know if I want to be part of this whole scheme. For one thing, I don’t know that you, Dick, need any encouragement to be more offensive than you normally are. For another, I don’t care for the project itself. You’re going to make a mockery of Mom’s favorite movie, in Dad’s house, and put it on YouTube without his approval? I don’t like it at all. Pick something else to film.”
“There’s nothing sacred about Gone With The Wind,” said Dick indignantly. “Anyway, it’s dated. Why shouldn’t we mock it? It’s chock full of prejudice and stereotypes.”
“Oh, and you’re going to show up all the stereotypes by playing Mammy in blackface?”
“Exactly!” Ian was proof against this objection. “What could be better? Performing in blackface has always been a sort of tribute to black actors and musicians, an acknowledgment that there was a certain kind of humor that they had perfected. And by showing Scarlett being rude and domineering to a white man, even though in blackface, we show how repulsively selfish her racial attitudes are. It’s completely ironic.”
Malcolm hesitated, looking first to Melly for support, and then over the group. “Can’t one of you do it?”
“Who?” Dick demanded. “Shall we pull another man out of thin air?”
“There’s always Chris,” Sophia drawled. “I’m sure he’d be happy to play Ashley, though I can’t guarantee his acting skills.”
Alys was less than thrilled at the idea of playing Melly to Chris Dalton’s Ashley. “I’m sure that would work out. I’d want to be kind of particular about which scenes he and I do, in that case. He is your fiance and all.”
“Oh, I don’t care.” Sophia brushed off any claim on Chris’s person or actions. “I’m not jealous.”
“Let’s not get Chris involved,” Dick groaned. “Come on, Malcolm, don’t be lame. It’s not like we’re shooting a porno or something. I mean, Gone With The Wind has themes and all. And whatever ironic point we’re trying to make will be completely lost if Chris plays any of the roles.”
“Then do something less ironic.” Malcolm had made up his mind. “I don’t want part of it.”
Alys stood up. “I’m exhausted. Let’s keep on planning in the morning — maybe we can find a good compromise in the morning.”
“Way to go,” Dick muttered to Malcolm as the Winters left. “It’s one thing to bore our family by being all narrow-minded — after all, we’re used to it — but I didn’t think it was part of your old-fashioned code of chivalry to make ladies uncomfortable.”
“I think it’s ironic that you’re appealing to chivalry when you’re asking me to play, ironically, the stereotype of a Southern gentleman.”
“Don’t be academic, Malcolm,” said Olivia. “We’re not dealing with the abstract here. I mean, we’re talking about Chris.”
Worth a Thousand Words: Chrysanthemums
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