Because effing NaNoWriMo is the only thing that will induce labor on this novel.
Ian had taken Rene Arceneaux to New York out of sheer exuberance and genuine conviviality, but the potential of the visit hadn’t escaped him. Rene was a struggling young academic, brilliant but obscure, who could well, through lack of connections, find himself languishing in the bowels of wherever struggling young academics languished. (Ian wasn’t quite clear on what happened to less successful philosophers than Carson Winter, but he knew that anything his uncle’s circle spoke of the plight of their grad students and adjuncts with social indignation and great displays of the kind of enlightened gratitude one showed the household staff for scrubbing the toilets and attending to other distasteful but necessary work.) Ian, however, had connections, and once he saw what a hit Rene made in New York, he dropped a private word into his uncle’s ear. Wasn’t there anything…? As it happened, Carson Winter had been pondering along the same lines. He might not agree with Rene, but Winter could recognize talent when he saw it. And Rene was talent packaged up in a brash young principled Cajun persona, which happened to contrast nicely with Winter’s own role as the elder statesman of relativism.
Wheels were set in motion that very weekend. Several of the friends Winter had invited to hear him debate Rene were, like him, founding members of the prestigious Society of Philosophical Inquiry and Theoretical Ethics. The annual conference was coming up, and Winter, as the keynote speaker, had little trouble in convincing his associates that what the conference really needed this year to spice things up was a counterpoint paper by Rene Arceneaux, a novel discovery in the world of deontic logic and a diversifying element to boot. The benefit of being a New York Times best-selling author and of having his own philosophical society was that Carson Winter was not bound by the red tape that tied up so many lesser mortals. The result was that Ian received a note Tuesday morning informing him that Rene Arceneaux had just been extended an invitation to present his opposition to Carson Winter’s latest book immediately following Winter’s own speech.
A chance like this could be the making of a young academic, and if anyone deserved the break, Rene did. Ian was genuinely happy for his good fortune. Goodness knew how often over the past week he’d felt convicted by Rene’s energy and enthusiasm, his cheerful attitude and his willingness to work. Almost he wished that he had taken the path of scholarship and discipline, that he might have savored the sweets of the intellectual life. This mood couldn’t last, of course; Ian enjoyed his own easy life too much, and privilege had its rewards, one of which was wrangling perks for his friends.
Still, Ian was never one to let friendship get in the way of a good thing, and it had always hovered in the back of his mind how pleased Melly would be if Rene were to land such an opportunity and how sweetly grateful she would be to him for arranging it and bringing her the news. Rene was the way to Melly’s heart, and Ian’s heart swelled at the thought of the joy he was about to give her.
So it was that on Tuesday morning, immediately after he heard the good news, he dashed straight for the big house and banged on the basement door. Almost immediately Cheryl opened the door, Pugsy in her arms.
“Isn’t it a good thing I was just going upstairs?” she said, bestowing a smile upon him, and Pugsy too favored him with a cordial grimace. “Now Melly doesn’t have to get up to get the door.”
“Is she down here? I have to talk to her.”
“She’s on the couch, poor baby.” Cheryl stepped into the elevator. “Since you’re here, you ought to make her a cup of tea.”
Melly, dreading fresh confidences from Alys, had raised herself up on her elbow at the intrusion. She had spent far less thought on Ian than he had spent on her, and in his smitten state he found her gentle confusion at his presence to be adorable. He dragged a chair to the couch and sat by her side, nudging away the basket of soggy tissues.
“I know I should make you your tea right away, but listen to me for a moment first. I have some news for you about Rene, good news! And I had to make sure that you were the first one to know.” He was babbling, he must sound like an idiot, but he couldn’t help it, especially now that the mention of Rene’s name focused her Audrey Hepburn eyes on him. “I just heard from my uncle this morning. You have no idea — or maybe you do, of course you do, you’re Rene’s sister — how impressed he was with Rene. I’ve never known him to say so many flattering things about someone without owing them any favors. He thinks Rene has potential, lots of potential.”
“So Rene convinced your uncle that he was wrong?” Nothing was beyond Rene, of course, but Melly was awestruck at this display of his persuasive power.
“Wrong? No, absolutely not. Who could convince Uncle Carson of that?”
“But how can he want Rene to have more attention if he doesn’t think Rene is right?”
“It’s not about being right. Rene is a fresh new voice in the field. He’s exactly the sort of guy who can make philosophy cool. Disagreeing loudly with my uncle is the best thing he could have done. It makes him controversial, and controversy is compelling.”
Melly rested her head on the couch, struggling to understand Ian’s point. “Well, I’m glad that you had an exciting trip.”
“It’s not just the trip! Melly, Uncle Carson has invited Rene to speak at his national philosophy conference! This is huge for Rene. It’s the beginning of his career! You and I know how smart Rene is. Now people with connections will know. With my uncle’s backing, Rene could get a job offer out of this, or even a book deal if he wanted. Here, look at this!”
Ian handed Melly his phone and leaned over her shoulder as she read the forwarded conference invitation to Rene. Apparently Carson Winter was capable of greater literary feats than his books had suggested — Melly found his style and subject to be completely felicitous, and close enough to her own opinion of Rene’s worth to be highly gratifying. She read and re-read the note, scrolling up and down and nodding at anything Ian said without hearing any of it: that he was so happy for her sake; that he wished there was more he could do; that her happiness had been as important to him as Rene’s happiness; that he wished there was more he could do for them, for her…
“I have to go tell Richard,” she said, struggling to her feet. “I can’t believe how nice your uncle is. He doesn’t sound one bit like he does in his books, at least the way Rene tells it. Do you think Richard already knows? Maybe Rene called him. But I would think Richard would have told me about it immediately. So maybe Rene hasn’t called him because he doesn’t know yet. Maybe he hasn’t checked his email yet. Should I call him?”
This happy stream of chatter had carried her over to the elevator before Ian could stop her.
“Melly! Wait a minute! Don’t go yet!” He jumped up and seized her hand just as she was about to step in, and she realized that she was holding his phone.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, flushing as much from being grabbed as from embarrassment. “I should have asked. I wanted to show this to Richard, but Rene can send it to him later.”
“I don’t care about the phone,” said Ian, pulling her gently back to the couch. “You’re welcome to take it to Richard. You can keep it if you want. But that wasn’t all I wanted to say to you. Rene will be going to New York. I want you to come too.”
“For the conference? Won’t I be in his way?”
“No, not for the conference. Not just for the conference. I’ve done something for Rene, now let me do something for you. In fact,” and now he flashed her a smile that seemed to invite her into a conspiracy, “the main reason I wanted to get Rene to New York was for you, to convince you that I’m not such a terrible person.”
“I don’t think you’re a terrible person,” she said slowly, willing herself to believe it. “You’ve been very kind to my family, and I’m grateful. I don’t know how we can repay you for being so thoughtful. But I also don’t know what I’d do in New York.”
“Work with me. Be my partner. I need you.”
Her startled face was all the encouragement he needed to pour out his plan to her. She would be his costume designer, his wardrobe mistress, his guide for his new production. He needed someone with her expertise. No, he needed her. There was no one else who would do. She would learn on the job. She had so much talent, she was an exquisite seamstress, he’d worked with professionals who didn’t pay half as much attention to detail as she did. She was taken for granted here at Stillwater. No one seemed to realize how exceptional she was, but in New York, Ian would make sure that she was appreciated and rewarded. It was perfect, for both of them. They could help each other so much if she would only come with him.
Melly’s face throbbed painfully as this ridiculous scheme unfolded. She had been impressed by his good offices on Rene’s behalf, but it was like Ian that he could do nothing from pure motives. Even his altruism was the set up for him to have some fun at her expense. But she would not be rude, not when the reminder of his real kindness to Rene was still glowing on the screen in her hand.
“I think you’ve made a mistake,” she said, groping around for her box of tissues so she wouldn’t have to look at him. “I’m… I’m so grateful for everything you’ve done for Rene. But he deserves that. I don’t deserve this. I can’t possibly be qualified.”
“You’re more than qualified.” He slid nearer to her. “You don’t believe in yourself and no wonder: no one here seems to believe in you either. But I do. Give me the chance to prove it.”
“I appreciate the offer, but I can’t go to New York.” She whispered as fiercely as her sore throat would allow. “I’m happy where I am.”
“Are you?” His voice was as husky as her own. “Are you happy here? There are so many ways I could make you happy in New York.” He took her hands, tissue and phone notwithstanding.
“I… I wish you wouldn’t do that,” she said, extracting her tissue, and her hands, from his grasp. “I have to blow my nose. Maybe you could go make that tea.”
“Melly.” He was too close, and her feverish skin ached at the awful pressure. “You’re avoiding me. Will you come with me to New York?”
She’d seen that intensity in his eyes before. It was the expression he’d had when… when he’d looked at Sophia. She had the sudden and terrible conviction that she needed to get away from him right now.
“No. I can’t.” She got up, but he was right beside her all the way to the elevator.
“It wouldn’t work.” The elevator refused to respond to her rapid staccato on the up button. Open, she begged silently, please open for me.
“I think it would. I think you know it’s the only thing that will work. We will make it work.” His confidence was appalling. Why would he keep on pestering her, when she’d told him no already, and more than once? How could she make him believe her? She sought for an answer he might accept.
“You’re not serious about this. I know you’re not.” The bell dinged, the door opened, she escaped in, but he stood blocking the doors from closing.
“I have never been more serious about anything in my life. Melly, promise me you’ll think about.”
“I need to go upstairs.”
“Melly, please. Just think about it.” To her horror, he started to step into the elevator with her.
“Okay, I promise, but I want to go now.” She found his phone still in her hand, and she tossed it at him. As he stepped back to catch it, the door closed with merciful swiftness and the elevator swept her up to the sure solitude of her own room.
Ian stood outside the elevator, reliving the entire interview, his face bright with memory and anticipation. Melly was perfect. She had no false pride. She didn’t try to seduce or bargain or grab what she could for herself. The thought of her confusion at his offer and her hesitant refusals made him catch his breath. He would make her believe in her own precious worth. He would show her how genuine his love was. How could she believe him yet when this was all so new to her? So few people treated her with any regard at all. He was going to change all that. But first, he had to make her see that her best interest, her only option, was to go with him to New York.
He went up to the first floor in his turn and knocked at the door of Richard’s office.
Fortnightly Book, April 30
8 minutes ago