Moving toward the second trimester here, but I'm not there yet, so I can't vouch for this one entirely because I didn't really read it over so much.
The sudden tedium of Stillwater after a ball had never seemed as objectionable to Melly as it did that Sunday. Her hand throbbed with a dull healing ache, somehow more irritating than the original enervating jolt of pain. Her head throbbed with the aftereffects of a few glasses of wine on a tightly squeezed stomach. Her heart throbbed with the memory of Rene’s sudden departure, but more immediately at Malcolm’s tired smile; with the rest of the family, he had dragged himself to the late Mass, but after that he packed himself off to the school to deal with the bureaucratic glut of paperwork that so weighs down the educational process. He himself seemed weighed down with the unresolved cadence of the night before. Alys had been in playful form, even making cracks about being too worldly to dance with an ex-seminarian; her lack of formality seemed calculated to make her unapproachable. They had been out of tune all evening, though he could not say why.
All this discord Melly had noted through her haze of weariness and kept in her heart to contemplate later. Now it was later, but in the dreariness of the day after even such nuggets of guilty consolation seemed stale and profitless. She wandered the big quiet rooms of the house, winding her way through the chairs and potted palms and fading floral sunbursts awaiting removal by Monday’s cleaning crews (the day after the ball, by Richard’s firm decree, was always a day of reprieve from extra people in the house), seeking for the perfect spot to sit and dissect every nuance of last night. It was not until she was making her third circuit of the downstairs that she realized that what she really wanted to do was to talk over the entire evening with another person: to pick up on any details she had missed, to see her own performance through someone else’s eyes, to be assured that she hadn’t just dreamed Rene and Ian’s vaudeville exit. There was no indulging this desire. Sunday afternoon, always a lazy time at Stillwater, was particularly dead today. Cheryl was asleep in the recliner in her bedroom, her book on her lap and her reading glasses perched perilously on the tip of her nose. Richard had shut himself in the office to catch up on paperwork, if paperwork sounded like the announcers groaning as the Houston Astros blew yet another season’s worth of World Series hopes. Alys had not been seen all day, and Melly was not so desperate as to seek out Esther even though she was probably the person most willing and ready to lay out her opinions on last night or anything.
It was almost a relief to escape from the stale coolness inside to the infernal shade of the front porch. The marble steps were small defense against the mass of humid air crushing down from the river, but the vivid greenness of the levee against the deepening purple of the sky hinted at a coming storm. Melly sat with her elbows on her knees, feeling the sweat bead up along her hairline. The anticipation of the tense oaks in the silence, every leaf still and beautiful as a dancer poised to leap, made her heart swell and ache with a strange restlessness.
“I don’t understand why people talk about the calm before the storm,” she said to no one. “I don’t understand why people think that something is calm just because it’s quiet.”
And now there was a day of quiet, while everyone was still recuperating from the ball anxieties of the last month, before Rene and Ian returned to shake things up, for Melly to wonder: what am I doing here, on the front stairs of Stillwater, waiting for the storm? What I am doing anywhere? Where do I belong? Rene: now he could be dropped anywhere and become family just like that. Everyone likes him, and he’s so confident in himself that he likes everyone. He doesn’t need roots. He takes his foundation with him. Me, I’m not like that. My roots are here at Stillwater. But I’m a transplant, so they’re not really my roots after all. I depend on them, and they give me strength, and I’ve grown here so long that I feel that I belong, but do I? Does the tree need the branch as much as the branch needs the tree? What happens when I’m not useful here anymore?
She considered going in and knocking on Richard’s office door, or barging in like she was Esther on one of her missions of righteousness, to ask him these questions, but he was relaxing right now. Did he really need her interrupting his ball game on the first day in weeks that Esther wouldn’t be fussing at him? She wouldn’t have dared to bother her own father while he was occupied with almost anything. Jean Arceneaux didn’t take graciously to distractions. But if Richard was her father, could she have gone in to sit with him on this lonely day? It used to be that down in the family room Olivia would curl up next to him on the couch and he would put his arm around her and stroke her hair. Melly closed her eyes, basking in the imagined luxury of a father’s comforting touch, and was barely able to restrain the sudden welling under her eyelids.
A low growl of thunder rumbled in the distance, and the first fat drops plashed down on the step beside her. Within seconds the clouds tore asunder. The deluge poured on Melly’s upturned face, wiping away any trace of tears, soaking her hair and clothes and and buoying her spirit. No matter what might happen in the future, there was no place she’d rather be right now than sitting sopping wet on the front steps of Stillwater.
Headlights flashed up at the road, and a car turned down the line of of twisted oaks on Melly’s left. As it drew even with the house, it suddenly jerked to a stop, and after a moment the window rolled down and Malcolm yelled, “Melly, are you nuts? You’ll catch a cold sitting out in the rain. Come on, get in the car.”
Laughing at the thought of coming down sick from an August shower, Melly ran across the lawn and squelched into the front seat. Malcolm shifted gears and rolled down the muddy driveway to the carriage house.
“What on earth?” he demanded as rivulets streamed down her clothes and drenched the upholstery of the Morgan. “I almost had a heart attack when I saw you sitting there — I thought for a minute you were a ghost. Who ever sits on the front steps?”
“I’m the ghost of the Stillwater Queen, haunting the scene of my triumph,” said Melly as mysteriously as she could through giggles. “Esther could work that into the tour and we could probably raise the price by $10 a ticket. Haunted plantations are all the rage. I read about it in last month’s historical association newsletter.”
“Then you know more about it than I do,” said Malcolm. “Heaven help me if I ever had to lead a tour of the house. Esther’s welcome to bilk the tourists out of their hard-earned cash. I’d rather do certification paperwork than to show strangers all around my house.”
“Think of it as teaching,” Melly ordered. “Repeat after me: ‘Stillwater is the largest house along the River, even bigger than our fair neighbor upstream. Completed in 1857…’”
As she had hoped, he laughed at this. “Esther’s going to have to watch her back, or you’ll be taking over her job.”
“I’d never do that.” She was suddenly serious. “I don’t want anyone’s job. I just want to stay here. I love Stillwater. I never want anything to change.”
“Everything changes, Melly, sooner or later.”
“Not me. Not you.”
The car was parked, and they were standing now in the doorway of the carriage house, waiting for the rain to let up so they could make a dash for the back door.
“What do you mean?” Malcolm asked, turning from the weather for a moment. “We’ve both changed in all sorts of ways. Five years ago I was in seminary, and you were barely moving around with your walker. Now I’m a teacher, or trying to be, and you just glided down the stairs last night as the Stillwater Queen, who used to be a little girl crying on the attic steps. Wouldn’t you call that change?”
“That’s things changing.” Melly struggled with her words, a hesitant sculptor trying to chisel away just the right chips of marble to reveal the form hidden in the rock. “Things always change, and sometime we make them change, or sometimes we’re just caught up in them. But I haven’t changed. I’m still the same Melly I was five years ago, even though my body works now and it didn’t so much then.”
She leaned against the car, hoping it would provide intellectual as well as physical support. “Maybe I’m older, but I still make choices the same way, by trying to do what I know is right. And so do you. You’ve never made choices based on what seems to be the easiest thing to do at the moment, or by thinking only about what you feel like doing. If you did, that would seem like you were changing all the time, because feelings are always changing too.”
She twisted her wet hair around her fingers in a helpless gesture, suddenly embarrassed at giving Malcolm a lecture, as if he couldn’t have said it so much nicer himself. He was still at the door, looking out.
“But maybe people who act based on their moods don’t know any other way of acting,” he said, more to the cottages than to her. “Maybe they never learned how to judge consistently. It may not be entirely their fault they seem changeable.”
Melly was not inclined to let the cottages off so easily. “Maybe not, but people can be hurt by poor decisions even if the person making them doesn’t know better.”
“Then what can you do for them?”
“Set a good example, maybe. Make the right choices even if no one else does.”
“But you’re a strong person. It’s easy for you to do what you think is right. What about people who are weak?”
He was still addressing the larger cottage, where a slender form now moved past the light in the living room window. Melly stared at the ground and tried to tamp down her frustration and heartache.
“I’m the weakest person I know.” Somehow, her quiet tone seemed only to amplify her emotion. “Nothing comes easily to me.”
Malcolm turned in the doorway as if slapped.
“What a cruel thing for me to say, Melly. I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”
They were both silent, but now it was his turn to struggle for words as he studied her trembling figure hunched against the car. Finally he sighed at himself and leaned next to her against the car, putting his arm around her and drawing her close.
“You’re the bravest person I know,” he said to her hair, since her face was turned away. “And I’m probably the most self-absorbed. And of the two of us, I think you’re the only one who’s unchangeable, because I’ve never known you to say anything unkind or rude even under severe provocation.”
“You’re not severe provocation.” This, in a quiet choky voice, was most unconvincing.
“Well, I’m not Esther, but I’ll do.”
As he had hoped, she laughed at this, a small snuffing laugh followed by a hiccup.
“Come on,” he said, giving her shoulder the familiar squeeze. “The rain’s letting up, and maybe we can get you into the house before you catch that cold.”
“People don’t catch colds from getting wet in August,” she protested, leaning her damp head against him as they walked across the yard.