At this time Alys was busy in her cottage workshop, creating the pieces for her jewelry commission, but though the work demanded a great deal of time, her mind was often free to wander. More and more often, she found herself lighting on the subject of Malcolm Spencer. She didn’t know if she even wanted to be attracted to him. What was in it for her? The Winters were nomads in body and mind, never content to stay in one place or on one subject; Malcolm seemed determined to stay at Stillwater for the rest of his life and waste his talents in a small local school. His desire to teach made little sense to her — education was too earnest a field for Alys. She didn’t understand him, but she enjoyed being with him. There was no reason for anything to go further than that. Anyway, she was busy with her commission and needed to work steadily to meet her deadline.
But she was restless and bored, yearning for his company. Afraid that her pace of work would slip, she sought out Melly as company while she worked. Melly was a nice kid, a little shy but a good distraction from the tedium of wirework or soldering, especially when Alys could give vent to her feelings by bringing the conversation around to Malcolm.
Melly went to the cottage with an uneasy mix of feelings. She didn’t particularly enjoy spending time with Alys. They had little in common, and though Alys was accomplished at never letting a conversation flag, her method of flitting lightly over a variety of topics rather than delving deeply into any subject left Melly, who had no gift for banter, drained.
Alys greeted her at the door, looking cool and flawless in a thin linen dress. She had pinned up her golden curls with jeweled pins from her own collection, and, to Melly’s surprise, sported a pair of glasses. Melly hadn’t realized that Alys had been wearing contacts all this time, but she wondered in passing if the glasses were merely a prop for getting down to business. She tried to suppress the mental image of Alys as a Barbie doll: Working Alys, complete with glasses!
Melly had not been in the cottage since her family had moved out five years ago, and she found it hard to recognized the shabby, cramped quarters in which the Arceneauxs spent so many noisy hours. The battered wood floors were now painted a glossy green to present the illusion that the cottage was merely a gracious extension of the porch, if the porch had been air conditioned and meticulously smothered by Esther in full-on English Floral curtains and cushions and throw rugs. Alys had put her own touches here and there, and the place had taken on an air of light elegance. Melly wondered whether that aura was a reflection of Alys’s innate taste, or merely a projection of the rarefied environs in which she usually moved.
“I guess this is like coming home for you,” Alys remarked, twisting and shaping wire for earrings as she and Melly sat in the small manicured living room of the cottage. “Didn’t Malcolm tell me your family used to live here? This cottage is absolutely charming. I can’t imagine why you ever left.”
“It didn’t look much like this when we lived it in.”
“Well, thank goodness for that! I mean, I appreciate everything Esther’s done, but every time I look at the decor here I feel like I ought to be hosting tea for the Cotillion, and I left all my tacky hats in New York. But your mom sews, right? She taught you? So she was probably able to upholster the furniture the way she preferred. I bet you had the cutest curtains.”
Melly thought of her mother at the end of the day, exhausted, collapsed on the ratty couch in front of the old flickering TV, with a house full of big boys fighting and babies screaming for her attention. She thought of the sheets tacked up over the windows in the house in Baton Rouge.
“My mom was always too busy taking care of us to do much extra sewing,” she said guardedly.
“Kids must be a crazy lot of work. I’m amazed that Mrs. Spencer had so many. It’s hard to imagine her doing anything that requires that much extra effort. But you know, Mr. Spencer seems like a real traditionalist. Maybe it was his idea — he probably just told her to close her eyes and think of puppies.”
Melly found herself snickering and clenched her jaw hard until the impulse had passed.
“I’m glad you enjoy being at Stillwater,” she said.
“I do, and I’m surprised. I never imagined I’d find myself staying in deepest Louisiana outside of Mardi Gras season. The heat is ridiculous — every time I step outside I gain a new respect for hellfire. I’ve accepted air conditioning as my personal Lord and Savior. Malcolm will be so pleased to hear that I'm getting serious about religion. But what I can’t understand is why people would settle down here in the first place. I know Stillwater has been around for ages, but why would anyone even build a house in a backwater like this?”
“I suppose that you might call this a backwater,” Melly said, restraining herself from snapping by trying to match Alys’s goodwill in making conversation and not her snark in choosing her topic. “That’s how Stillwater got its name: from the back waters that eventually became isolated pools. And this is good farm land, and people like to make money from cash crops even when it’s hot. Those who were rich enough could build houses designed to keep them cool. That’s why the ceilings of Stillwater are so high.”
Alys was working away with her head cocked at an attentive angle, but Melly could tell cash crops were not a subject in which she had an abiding interest.
“But ‘backwater’ doesn’t generally mean right on the river,” she continued, feeling trapped on a doomed conversational course. “The real backwaters are out in the bayou. I went out on the bayou once, with my pawpaw in his pirogue, and we watched the sun rise over the cypress trees…”
She faded out, and Alys didn’t revive the topic.
“I was going to make some coffee,” she said, rising and smoothing the fine lines from her linen dress. “Come with me and we’ll get a snack.”
The kitchen was serviceable, if tight. Melly could remember how her mother had scolded when all of her children chose to be underfoot in the cramped space. With the prospect of paying guests, however, long-overdue renovations had been effected, and Melly found the result to be positively airy, and certainly cleaner than she’d ever seen the room. She paused in the doorway, lost in memories of her family.
A terrified shriek yanked her from her reverie. Alys had scrambled onto a chair and stood rigid with terror as a immense roach ambled across the floor.
“Oh my God, is that a roach?” she hissed in tightly controlled hysteria. “I’ve never seen one before. It’s hideous. Do they fly?Oh God, I think it’s going to fly!”
The roach hesitated, seeming to sense her fear. Its antennae, as long again as its body, twitched repulsively. Alys stared in sick fascination at the barbed legs and glossy chitinous body.
Melly strode across the floor and, with a yelp, planted her shoe on the roach with an appalling crunch. Alys shrieked. For a moment there was silence, broken only by the ragged breathing of the two.
“What the…,” Alys whimpered. “That was amazing. How on earth did you do that?”
“Sometimes, if you know what you have to do, it’s best not to think too much about it,” Melly said, with a shudder. The lump under her foot made her skin crawl. She lifted her shoe tentatively. With a quivering of its antenna, the roach scuttled out. To the accompaniment of Alys’s renewed yells, Melly stomped down again with feeling and ground her foot down with finality.
Alys slumped down in the chair. “I could never do that. That was fucking heroic.”
“You could if you had to,” said Melly, with an edge to her voice.
“Yeah, but you seemed like an old pro. I would have called an exterminator and not come back into the house until he was gone.”
“What if you couldn’t afford an exterminator?”
“Then… then I’d die!” Alys laughed weakly.
Melly felt almost sorry for her. A life of wealth and privilege seemed to have given her no instinct for how to survive in the real world.