Sunday, January 19, 2014
Stillwater - 42
I will finish off this section of the novel over the long weekend. #accountability
Alys’s decision to go back to New York with Ian was a strategic maneuver. True, she missed the energy of the big city, and the August heat had finally quenched even her creative energies, but these was nothing compared to her uneasiness about Malcolm’s new docility. They were talking again, but he seemed uncharacteristically willing to pussyfoot around the total disaster of their last meeting. Ian and Melly provided the perfect subject for papering over the awkwardness. Together Alys and Malcolm analyzed everything: Ian’s sincere appreciation of Melly’s talent and the amazing opportunity he was providing for her, Melly’s limited prospects at Stillwater, her myriad virtues, how she might grow to love New York. Alys agreed that Ian’s zeal had made him too hasty, but that was how he was when he was worked up about a new venture. Perhaps Melly could steady him! He needed a calming influence, and who on earth was more settling than Melly? Melly was, in fact, an excellent discussion topic. Bonds of approval were forged in praise of her just deserts.
Their new tentative accord suited Alys well enough — goodness knew she had no desire to rehash her own humiliation — but it seemed strange that he hadn’t made any attempt to start some kind of deep discussion about What This Meant for their Relationship. Perhaps he didn’t think she was worth the bother of persuading anymore. Perhaps he was beginning to take her for granted. Alys knew all the standard relationship advice about not expecting the other person to change, but if pressed she would have allowed that the one thing about Malcolm she would have fixed was his tendency to talk about everything, to overanalyze and establish positions and conduct tedious postmortems. And as long as this change was a part of her fantasy Malcolm reboot, she had perfect control of how it manifested. It was only natural that a less discursive Malcolm would translate to a more physical Malcolm. Oddly enough, reality didn’t follow Alys’s script. Malcolm still talked, even if he wasn’t challenging her all the time, and being agreed with wasn’t actually as interesting as she’d thought it would be. He sought common ground now. He was anxious not to alienate her in these last sweet days together. This was right of him, but the fact was that Malcolm needed some time without her — not to forget her, but to long for her. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, right? You never knew what you had until you lost it. These platitudes bolstered her as she began to pack. She had done all a girl could do, and though she didn’t want to lose him, she felt he needed to contemplate losing her.
Malcolm was contemplating losing Alys, and loss in general. Life at Stillwater was going to drive him crazy. Dealing with Alys was giving him whiplash, and Melly, who had always come to him for advice or comfort even over the smallest matters, had barely spoken to him about this job offer that had caused all the uproar. Not only that, she was actively avoiding him. Every time he’d been in the same room with her recently, she gave a pretty convincing impression of being immersed in the deepest study of The Sweet Spot, a magazine that had previously been thrown out each month without even a crease in the cover. This strange new silence worried him. Her sensitive nature had always craved affirmation in anxious circumstances. If she wouldn’t come to him, he’d have to go to her.
He found her, reading again, in the gallery. The melancholy glow of the setting sun, filtering through the spanish moss dripping from the sentinel oaks on the borders of the cane fields, illumined the windowed passage. Red light reflected off all surfaces except Melly’s hair, hanging in a dark velvet curtain over her face. She gave him a brief nod when he sat beside her.
“So,” he said after a moment of watching her carefully turn pages. “Am I going to hear about it from everyone except you?”
“If you’ve already heard about it from everyone, there’s nothing for me to say.”
“There’s everything to say. You could start with why you feel like you can’t tell me about what’s on your mind.”
The hands holding the magazine trembled. “I’ve had to defend myself to Ian and to your dad. I’d rather not have to do it again.”
“I didn’t come here to call you out. I think you were right. Ian made a hash of the whole project, trying to hustle you like that. He ought to have known that would never work. I could have told him so for free.”
Her raised face was such an absurd study of surprise and relief that he laughed.
“And I would have told you so too, if you’d asked me,” he said.
“So you think I’m right not to take the job?”
“I think Ian was a fool to lay it out the way he did. But I do think you might at least consider it a bit more before you slam that door shut all together. This is a solid opportunity he’s offering, and it could be a very good thing for you.”
“So you think I should take the job.”
“I think you should think about it for more than five minutes, is all.”
“I will never move to New York City,” Melly said, causing a good deal more damage than a crease to the cover of The Sweet Spot as she slapped it closed. “It’s impossible. I’ll never go to New York and there is not the faintest possibility that I will ever work for that coonass.”
Malcolm raised his eyebrows at her sudden vehemence. “All right, but it might help people give more weight to your refusal if you could give a more rational explanation than coonassery for turning Ian down.”
Melly swallowed and straightened up into what she hoped was a rational pose. “I mean I think, as far as I can see into the future, assuming my principles remain the same, I will not ever have the desire to go to New York. And I’ll never trust Ian Winter. I don’t think there’s anything there to trust. I think that he’s spent too much time soaking up his uncle’s ideas on… on everything, really.”
“You are absolutely right,” said Malcolm. “The Winter siblings have absorbed too much of their uncle’s attitudes. But is that their fault? That’s all they’ve known. And they haven’t been dragged down too far, or they wouldn’t have such respect for you. You should hear Alys go on about all your fine qualities.”
Melly braced herself against this two-edged admiration. She didn’t want to hear about how strong Alys thought she was to stand up to Ian just like that, or how perfectly she agreed with Malcolm that Ian had rushed things, or how well she understood that Melly couldn’t just uproot at moment’s notice. Melly doubted that Alys understood the first thing about her motivations, but it seemed as well not to say so while Malcolm was still going on about Alys’s opinion that Melly would be a good influence on her brother, and his own opinion that Melly would be a good influence on Alys.
“If I’m supposed to be such a good example,” she said, “I don’t think I ought to start that by making what I see as a bad choice.”
Melly fought to marshal all her floating objections into clear, indisputable arguments. I don’t think that it’s my moral duty to take a job I can’t do properly because my employer needs a missionary and his sister needs a nanny. I’m not a teacher like you. I can’t make everything a learning opportunity, especially to people who didn’t ask to be taught in the first place.
“I…” He was waiting for her answer but somehow glancing up into his eyes wasn’t bolstering her ability to make devastating points. “I can’t trust Ian. I didn’t like the way he behaved with Sophia when we were all here in the spring. Especially while you all were making that stupid video.”
She flushed and clasped her arms around around her knees, wishing she hadn’t said “stupid” because it sounded so childish, but she’d hit too close to home for Malcolm to pay attention to anyone else’s gaffes.
“Don’t remind me,” he said. “Those two were getting out of hand — though don’t forget that she was the one who was engaged, not him — but everyone embarrassed themselves over the whole movie episode. Well, not you, of course.” He forced a small laugh as he drained the cup of bitterness. “I was the worst one of all, because I knew it was a bad idea and I got involved anyway just to appease people.”
Melly drew a deep breath and looked at him. “Then I ought to stay here and be a good example for you.”
In the fading light, it was hard to tell if he was leaning toward her or she was leaning toward him or if they were both sitting still and the universe was contracting around them. She could have stayed like this for days or years, her hazel eyes mirroring his hazel eyes and her thoughts mirroring his thoughts and her soul mirroring his soul. Then Malcolm blinked, and the mirror faded as his mouth contracted in a suppressed snicker.
“What?” Melly asked.
“Nothing,” he said guiltily. “It’s stupid, really.”
“’Bad people drag you down to their level and good people bring you up to theirs.’”
Melly stared at him. “That doesn’t mean anything.”
He rumpled his hair in embarrassment. “Sorry. It doesn’t. It was just something I heard Alys say the other day. Believe it or not, she meant it as a compliment to you.”
Weariness dropped on Melly like a ton of slave-wrought, river-mud Stillwater bricks. Being the subject of Alys’s bad philosophy was the crowning indignity in a week packed with humiliations. She rose from the couch. “I think I’ll go to bed.”
Malcolm, kicking himself for a prize jerk, tried to chat her up as he walked her to her room, but she was too worn out to respond with more than a strained smile as she shut the door behind her.
Melly managed to avoid the Winters for the next few days. It was easy now to stay in the lovely coolness of her room, but she also liked to spend time in Richard’s office, still trying to grasp the complexities of the workings of the sugar industry. Richard seemed pleased by her interest — none of the Spencer children had any head for the business, or any desire to follow it — and his willingness to explain the operations of Stillwater gave Melly fresh hope that he wouldn’t turn her out. Together they discussed the history of the planation and pored over the brittle pages of John Spencer’s journals.
“These really ought to be transcribed,” Richard said with a sigh after trying to decipher a particularly faded bit of ink. “But I don’t have the time, and it’s just not a priority.”
“I could do it,” Melly said, grasping at this new chance to showcase her usefulness. “I’ve got plenty of time. I mean, I have things I do around the house, but I could make it a priority.”
This had not come out right at all; now Richard would wonder what exactly she did all day, and why he was keeping her here. She steeled herself to be cross-examined, but instead Richard said, “I didn’t know you were so interested in history, Melly. Would you really want to spend your days typing up an old journal?”
“Oh, I would,” said Melly positively. “I want to do it. It would be fun and interesting and— ” she fished around for some word to convey her high-minded devotion to Stillwater, “ — educational.”
Richard seemed willing to credit this, and Melly escaped to her room with the volume in hand, pleased at having found a way to show him how functional she could be.
Esther had taken it into her head that Alys and Ian should have a going-away dinner as a last taste of real Southern hospitality, so the night before they left everyone sat down at table together. The dining room was a glory of pressed linen and place settings and floral centerpieces, a perfect farewell to the big house. In the valedictory spirit of the evening, Alys and Ian were at their Wintery best. Even the most critical observer — and Melly was the most critical observer — could find no fault with their company manners. She was forced to reflect that nothing at Stillwater so became them as the leaving it.
Malcolm and Alys seemed frictionless this evening. Alys bent her head close to his as they shared a joke, her peridot earrings casting pale green sparks. Whatever Malcolm’s past qualms were, he showed every sign of being willing to enjoy himself in Alys’s company. Melly reminded herself that back in New York, Alys would be moving with a fast, entertaining set who would probably make her forget Malcolm in a matter of days, but this comfort was as chill and dry as the air circulating through the room.
Almost worse than the spectacle of Malcolm and Alys living it up was the tedious prospect of fighting off Ian all through dinner. But she need not have worried; he was so friendly and polished that her cool manner beaded up and rolled right off him. Vindictiveness was not in Melly’s nature. She was willing to forgive and forget for the sake of never seeing him again. Although she and Ian couldn’t compete with the animation of Malcolm and Alys across the table, they managed to keep up a conversation of sufficiently neutral quality that Melly could almost have liked him for it.
“I will miss this place,” Ian said, indicating the dining room and by extension the whole of Stillwater with an expansive wave of his wine glass. “Even if it changes I can remember it exactly the way it is tonight.”
“Stillwater doesn’t change much,” said Melly. “The house looks almost the same as it did when it was first built. Well, mostly, I mean; there weren’t outlets then or vents for the air conditioner. And only a few of the windows are original anymore.”
“Ah, the lazy pace of life in the South. Maybe it’s just easier for things to change in New — “ Catching himself in time to avoid mention of the contentious city, he quirked a repentant eyebrow at her, “ — anywhere it’s not so hot.”
“Freezing causes change too,” said Melly, trying not to laugh at his ridiculous expression. “But it happens easily no matter where you are. Leave the house and the fields alone, and they’ll change faster than you can imagine. Do you know how much fuss it is to keep Stillwater up to date without messing up the original details? Staying the same takes an incredible amount of work.”
Ian dismissed historical houses. “But what about people? Isn’t one of the great challenges of life to keep reinventing yourself?”
“I don’t know. I think it must be easier to keep throwing everything out and starting again than it is to stay steady.”
“Haven’t you ever wanted to change yourself, though?” The clear blue eyes looking into hers were unsullied by any hint of flirtation. “Find out who you really are, ‘to thine own self be true’?”
“I guess it depends on what you mean by ‘change’. I don’t think I could be true to myself unless I was true to what I believe, and that won’t change.”
Ian raised his glass in a salute to the small resolute figure beside him. “Constancy, thy name is woman!”
That didn’t sound right to Melly. “Is that the quote?”
He smiled. “Close enough.”
After dinner Alys attached herself to Melly for one last tour of the house. Each room held some little stash of memories, and Alys’s cup of nostalgia was running over. She wandered the house as one already living in the past, evoking events of a week or two ago as if the Stillwater Ball had already passed into burnished legend. She loved everything and everyone tonight, especially Melly, and Melly, whose grateful nature clutched at any crumb of affection, responded in kind. They went joyriding in the elevator, peered around the bend of the dim attic staircase (even Alys’s enthusiasm didn’t extend to going into the hot and dusty depths of the big attic at night), giggled as they reenacted Melly’s royal descent, and poked through the books in the library.
“Where does this door go?” said Alys, opening the door in the west wall of the library. “Oh, I’m sorry. It’s your room, isn’t it?”
She moved to close the door, but sweet memory arrested her once more. Her face was soft with the light of an afternoon in springtime as she gazed toward the tall dark windows overlooking the balcony.
“This is where Malcolm and I practiced together,” she said, taking a step into the room. “And you sat over there prompting us. What a good time we had! If I could bring back any day from the past months, it would be that day, the three of us so happy here, and Malcolm playing Ashley Wilkes like a born gentleman.”
“Malcolm is a born gentleman,” said Melly.
“Isn’t he, though? I was never so impressed as when he said he’d be in the movie. He was against the whole idea, but he finally gave in to make everyone else happy. He’s so unselfish.”
“He didn’t make himself very happy, though.” Every word of Alys’s stabbed through Melly to remind her of what a bad, a terrible, a truly ill-conceived match Malcolm and Alys were, how unsuited and unsuitable they were, and how unwelcome this opinion would be to either of them.
Alys’s silvery little laugh was rippling around the room. “Well, his performance was nothing to write home about, so what? No one was going to live up to the standards of realism that Ian and Sophia were setting. Now, don’t turn your back on me because I brought up Ian. I know you hate the idea of New York, but I wish you could see how jealous you’ll make every woman there because Ian admires you. He flirts with everyone, but he doesn’t respect anyone.” She took Melly’s hand and pulled her over to sit on the bed. “Believe me, it is such an honor that Ian trusts you and is impressed with your work. I think it’s a great tribute, Melly.”
“Ian is very kind,” said Melly, willing herself not to insult Alys by snatching her hand away, “but I just can’t see my way to going to New York.”
“I wish you’d come for my sake, not just for his,” Alys said with unwonted shyness. “I’ll miss you. I really don’t know anyone else like you, Melly.”
“I’m sorry,” Melly choked out after a moment. “I can’t. But thank you.”
They sat quietly in the half-light from the open library door.
“Well, never mind,” said Alys briskly. “Let’s not be morose. Come on, I want to see the big rooms one more time. Tell me again what year John Spencer had his wisdom teeth out and how long it took his slaves to carve the frieze over the outhouse.”