Esther had not approved of the idea of a girl of fifteen making alterations to Sophia’s bridesmaid dress.
“I don’t know how you can trust that beautiful dress to someone with absolutely no experience,” she scolded Sophia as they stood some distance away from where Melly sat, carefully picking out the stitches of the zipper. “I know a lady up to Plaquemine who’s done sewing for some of the best families in Baton Rouge — let me take it up there for you, honey. She knows how to get a perfect fit. It’s too sweet of you to let Melly try to help you, but can’t let your expensive dress by ruined because she needs entertainment.”
But Sophia wasn’t interested in dealing with Esther’s seamstress. “I’ve already spent a thousand dollars on that dress, plus $250 to get it altered the first time,” she said. “I’m not throwing any more money at it. If Melly wants to play with it, she can go ahead. Anyway, it’s good for the poor kid to have something to do with herself. ”
Esther appealed to Cheryl, but as she might have expected, Cheryl had no interest in adjudicating the cause. It was her good fortune to be one of those dog-lovers who are so situated by a happy contrivance of Providence that the dogs serve as a completely irrefutable excuse against doing anything inconvenient or troublesome.
“I think it’s cute how she’s working so hard on it,” said that lady, out by the kennels. “And I just don’t have time to fuss about it right now — the puppies haven’t been feeling well, and they take up every minute of my day.”
Stillwater had been constructed over a foundation of cavernous arched basements, built, like the Pharoah’s storehouses, from bricks made by the hands of slaves. Not for John Spencer the hidden, modest cellar; he would not conceal the monumental supports of his mansion in some dank subterranean vault. Rather, the basement rose up to comprise the ground floor of the house: no claustrophobic warren of dark little storage chambers but a vast and airy maze of rooms well-lit by great windows and latticed apertures. The largest of the rooms, the east basement, bisected by three solid posts of brick, had been converted to a modern living room for the convenience of the family, and when everyone was home the Spencers tended to congregate there of an evening. Melly had been asked to come down so often that she now felt free to follow the others without being urged, and now she brought Sophia’s dress with her to work on as she sat on the central couch, quietly felling the zipper to the lining as the siblings sparred around her.
Richard Spencer was traveling on another of his open-ended consultation trips for American Cane. Though a loving father and a naturally gentle man, it was struggle for him to transcend his withdrawn nature and instinctive desire for solitude. As a result, and because he was so often away, his children tended to an uncharacteristic restraint of behavior when he was home. However, without the civilizing check of his quietly severe presence, most of his children felt free to reject his paternal model of discipline in deed and in word.
Dick, in particular, reverted to full frat-boy form. In the evenings, he was restless and antic in the family room, trying to rile up first one sibling and then another.
“Come on, guys, let’s watch a movie,” he coaxed, prowling through the room canvassing the inhabitants isolated in their individual spheres of activity. “How can you stand to sit around and read all night?”
“You only ever watch disgusting movies,” said Olivia severely, as she reclined by one of wide latticework windows, book in hand and a bowl of chips at her elbow. “Why anyone would want to sit through your stupid gross-out comedies is beyond me.”
Dick looked around for support, but Sophia, lounging with her laptop on a far love seat tucked between two brick arches, was too busy running up shopping charges to make him any reply , and Malcolm, with his books spread over the big table where he was making teaching notes for his religion classes, remained silent, though the muscles in his jaw tightened. Dick threw himself on the couch next to Melly.
“C’mon, Melly,” he cajoled, looking for an ally. “You're the little sister I never had. Don’t you want to watch Borat with me? It’s funny.”
Melly shook her head. Dick watched for a moment as her needle glinted over a row of tiny methodical stitches and then suddenly yanked on her thread.
“Stop!” Melly shrieked, barely refraining from ruining her work by pulling the dress away from him.
“You can talk ” Dick exclaimed. “I was starting to wonder.”
Melly, her cheeks hot, bent her head over the dress and carefully smoothed the fabric. Malcolm’s head had jerked up at Melly’s cry, but seeing that Dick had relinquished the needle, he turned back to his notes and willed his clenched fist to relax.
“Leave my dress alone, Dick,” said Sophia, moved to interfere. “And leave Melly alone too. No woman in history has ever wanted to watch Borat. That’s totally a guy thing.”
“See? Even Sophia thinks it’s perverted,” Olivia was delighted to land a successful jab at two siblings at once.
Dick enlisted the help of his fellow men. “Yeah, Melly’s brothers were always rowdy guys. I bet they’d want you to watch it with me, wouldn’t they?”
“I don’t know,” said Melly in a barely audible voice. “I hope not.”
“You hope not?” Dick snorted. “What, you want your brothers to be a bunch of …”
“Dick.” Malcolm had been restraining himself from entering the conversation because he knew that if once he mixed it up with Dick, it would be difficult to keep control. Now he stepped in to Melly’s rescue, keeping his voice deliberately low and even. “Strange as it may seem to you, some people do love and respect their brothers. I very much doubt you’ll ever persuade Melly to do anything if you intend to make crass remarks about her family. If she’s any example, they obviously aspire to higher standards than you do.”
“What the hell, guys?” Dick was getting irritated. “When did you all turn into such a bunch of Puritans?”
“Don’t display your ignorance, Dick,” said Olivia, not looking up from her battered copy of The People’s History of the United States. “You don’t even know the first thing about Puritans.”
“Whatever,” said Dick, pushing himself off the couch and heading for the TV. “I’m starting the movie. You guys can clear out if you don’t like it.”
Sophia continued browsing on her laptop and Olivia sighed and got up to rummage through the fridge behind the bar. Malcolm, who had no intention of being driven out of the family room on account of Dick, pointedly shifted his chair to face away from the screen. But to everyone’s surprise, Melly rolled up the dress and put it in the bag hung on her walker, struggled off the couch, and headed toward the door to the elevator.
“Melly, you don’t have to leave,” called Malcolm, standing up. “Dick is going to turn it off now.”
“Blessed are the meek,” Dick sneered, and pressed “play”.
Malcolm took a step toward Dick. Olivia and Sophia both looked up, and Melly froze. At that instant the elevator bell dinged. A moment later, the door pushed open, and Pugsy trotted in, heralding the approach of his mistress. Cheryl stepped into the room and beamed to find all of her young olive shoots gathered around her table.
“And here’s Melly too!” she exclaimed, taking that girl’s arm and escorting her back into the room. “Come sit with me, honey. Gone With The Wind is playing tonight, and that’s my favorite thing to watch when Richard is gone. It’s so romantic, you know? I just want to cry my eyes out every time it comes on.”
There was a general groan.
“I’ve never seen it,” murmured Melly, allowing herself to be steered back to the couch. Cheryl stood before the TV and watched a few seconds of Borat in increasing confusion.
“What is this, Dick? It looks nasty. Turn it off.” She took the remote away from him and settled next to Melly, Taking in the bored faces of her daughters and Dick’s petulant expression, she said cheerfully, “Y’all can go upstairs if you don’t want to watch it with me.”
An hour and a half later, Malcolm, the only one of his siblings to have remained downstairs, closed the notebook on his completed lesson plan, and smiled to himself to see Cheryl dozing on the couch with Pugsy in her lap and Melly, her sewing abandoned, with her mouth hanging slightly open, watching Atlanta burn .