Wednesday, May 14, 2014
Stillwater - 44
Melly had hoped that because the advent of the school year was right at hand, the scheme of college might be pushed off to the next semester at the earliest, but Richard had taken up the plan and there was no stopping him. The Stillwater money greased the wheels and opened the doors; she was admitted to St. Mary’s College for the fall term with a minimum of academic fuss. The only hitch was that the dorms were already full, with the result that within a week of Richard’s decision, Melly found herself in her family’s house, sitting on a hard twin bed in her sisters’ room.
Richard probably would have rented an apartment for her if she had asked, but the thought of living all by herself while diving into the unfamiliar world of college was daunting to Melly. At least in the Arceneaux home she would be in the bosom of her family. She had barely seen any of them except Rene over the past five years, the psychological distance between Stillwater and Baton Rouge being far greater than the physical distance. Of course, she couldn’t blame her parents for not coming to see her; her dad’s back was always acting up, and it never seemed to be a good time for Nanette to come down. And wasn’t she as much to blame as anyone? Malcolm or Richard or someone would have driven her up to Baton Rouge if she’d ever asked to go. Why hadn’t she asked?
Sifting through her reasons for this negligence, Melly realized: she thought of Stillwater as her permanent home. She loved her family and she knew they loved her, but she and they moved in separate spheres. Life with the Arceneauxs was loud and chaotic, brash and sloppy, the opposite of the gracious pace of Stillwater. She had searched herself for the slightest hint of domestic nostalgia, but there was little enough in the environment to trigger it. She’d remembered her family’s home of five years ago as being a cramped narrow shotgun house, all cracked plaster and cracked paint and cracked glass and cracked sidewalks. The current house was, if possible, shabbier: a brick bungalow within spitting distance of I-110, with barred windows and a minute front stoop and interior drywall slopped over with graying paint. The odor of mildewed carpet warred with the odor of cheap potpourri in a living room in which there was never enough light or air. The bathroom was festooned with a peeling wallpaper border and a maroon shower curtain. The kitchen stank. Nothing was cozy, nothing was comfortable: the house had been built to generate rental income, not warm feelings.
Still, Melly’s thirst for beauty was subsumed in her desire to be loved, and she could have forgiven the house anything if her family had welcomed her back into the nest with tears and fussings and flutterings. In her secret visions of her grand return, her family wept, rejoiced, killed the fatted calf over the return of their absentee daughter. Her father would grasp her shoulders and admire the young woman she’d become; her mother would press her to her bosom and become her confidante and support; her brothers and sisters would settle her once more into her place at the heart of the family. Rationally, she knew that this kind of reunion ranked far out on the optimism spectrum, but even gruff external hints of a deeper affection would have fulfilled her little fantasy.
Hinting was not the Arceneaux style. What Melly found at home when she finally disembarked from Stillwater’s utility truck (Malcolm, her chauffeur, knew better than to park the Morgan up in that neighborhood), was an immediate and profound indifference to her existence. No one ran out the door to sweep her up in hugs or to exclaim. Standing at the closed front door, Malcolm and Melly could hear shouts and banging inside.
“Y’all best come back later,” called a woman across the street, cigarette dangling from her fingers as she leaned over her porch rail. “They fightin’ in there again.”
Mustering up her homecoming face, Melly rang the doorbell.
The shouts ceased for a second as the door was flung open by a young man with wiry black hair and tattoos snaking down his arm. He glared at the couple on the stoop, then called back into the house, “It ain’t the cops. It’s the goddamn Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
But Melly, digging in her memory, was able to match up this amiable thug with his younger self. “Marc? It’s me, Melly! I’m home!”
“Oh, hey.” Since she was neither the constabulary nor the missionary, he downgraded both her threat and interest level. “Ma, it’s Melly back.”
“Y’all come in.” Her mother’s voice drifted up from the darkness of the living room. Melly, temporarily blinded by the transition from the brilliance outdoors, found she couldn’t make out any of the faces turned her way. She stood uncertainly near the door waiting for someone to guide her in. Apparently Marc wasn’t going to be the one to do it. He nodded at Malcolm, scraped up enough manners to ask, “Where you at, man?” and left the house with a slamming of doors and a screeching of tires. At his exit, consternation broke out again, and another brother (Andre this time — Melly was pleased at how quickly she was able to place him by his voice) ran out yelling at Marc’s disappearing car.
“Is everything okay?” she asked.
“Oh, those boys are always fighting about something,” said her mother, gesturing with the remote as if she might almost shut off the TV. “If it ain’t some girl, it’s money or something. Why don’t you come set down next to mama, cher? How you keeping, Malcolm? How’s your mom and them?”
“We’re all well, thanks,” said Malcolm, setting Melly’s suitcase down by the door and nudging her over toward the couch. “And how are all the Arceneauxs?”
Mama Arceneaux beamed. “Marc got himself a job at the tattoo place and Andre’s working down at the garage, and Raymond’s talking about getting married to his baby’s mama, so we got lots going on. And Leonie graduated in May. I told her she ought to go to beauty school, but she’d rather wash floors at St. Mary College, so you’ll see plenty of her, Melly. Marie-Helene? She’s Daddy’s girl — can’t do no wrong in his eyes.” Nanette gestured at Jean Arceneaux, whom Melly now discerned in a recliner in the corner, scrolling down his phone. He didn’t look up. “Can you believe he got her a phone for her tenth birthday? I told him, ‘Jean, you spoil that girl’, but she got a will of her own and I can’t do nothing with her. She got sent to the principal’s for slapping a girl in class last week.”
Melly was still trying to reconcile this last tidbit with her mother’s complacent delivery when Marie-Helene herself burst into the house in a flurry of long hair, long arms, and long legs accentuated by short shorts. With the unerring instinct of a persecuted ten-year-old, she headed straight for her father.
“Daddy! Tell Leonie to leave me alone. All she does is yell at me for no reason!”
Leonie entered behind her lugging several bags of groceries, her hair crackling with righteous indignation.
“Mama, I am not taking her out of the house again if she’s going to wear that shirt. It’s not even appropriate. It’s just trashy. She’s got enough clothes to be able to get rid of one shirt…”
The sight of strangers on the couch brought her up short. “Melly, Malcolm. Hi.” She sent a desperate glance around the dirty living room and attempted a grin. “I didn’t know y’all would be up today.”
“My shirt is okay! Daddy said I could wear it!” Marie-Helene was not ready to cede attention to her older sister. She displayed her t-shirt for general inspection. It bore the slogan “Daddy’s Little Sweet-Tart”.
Jean Arceneaux was moved to look up from his screen. “What’s wrong with Baby? She looks fine.”
Nanette sighed. “Leonie, don’t fuss at Marie-Helene. Y’all make so much noise.”
“Am I the only member of this family who has any standards?” Leonie demanded. “If I have to take Marie-Helene around everywhere, I want her to at least be presentable. Melly, how long have you been here? Why hasn’t anyone got you a drink? Mama, we have visitors.”
“Melly’s not visitors,” Nanette excused herself from the accusation of neglect. “She’s family.”
Melly earnestly denied that anyone needed to treat her with any special attention, but Leonie, quick, sharp, delivered cold drinks and hot retorts with equal asperity. She was the image of Melly, if Melly had always been the picture of health: the same hazel eyes and creamy skin, but taller and fuller of figure. Her hair, though, was possessed of Rene’s crusading energy. Wild, frizzy, opinionated, it dominated conversation, cowed the opposition, and struck the fear of God into the impious. Leonie, like her mane, had a certain crude unharnessed ardor. She saw and abhorred the slovenly Arceneaux way of life, but her battle against incivility, based as it was on fury, not finesse, had the unfocused impotence of all campaigns of rage. Catching flies with honey was not Leonie’s method. She preferred the brute acidity of vinegar.
The vinegar was flowing now, as Leonie nudged furniture into place and whisked used plates and glasses from the living room to the sink. “Of course Marc and Andre don’t care if they live like a couple of pigs in a sty, but I don’t think it’s asking too much that they show a little respect for the rest of us in the house. Mama, you need to stop letting them leave their nasty dishes all over the place. Do you want more roaches crawling around? We might as well just put out a welcome mat for every creeping insectoid north of Florida Boulevard. ‘Oh, hey, you’ll feel right at home with the Arceneauxs!’ It’s not like Marc has evolved much past the roach stage anyway.’”
As Leonie charged around straightening up, Melly attempted to make friends with Marie-Helene. She remembered the pretty baby she’d spent hours dandling on her hip in the cottage at Stillwater, and as she tried to coax the girl to come sit by her, she was searching for some hint that Marie-Helene remembered the older sister who’d devoted so much time and affection to her. Marie-Helene, however, had retained her pretty baby status in the family, and was less interested in ancient attachments than new ones. She curled up in Malcolm’s lap and favored him with her biggest eyes and brightest smile.
“Did you bring up any treats from Miss Esther?” she asked.
“I didn’t,” he said, trying to slide her off of him. “Was I supposed to?”
She pouted and nestled tighter. “Daddy said that Miss Esther likes to spend your dad’s money and she might as well spend it on us.”
“Marie-Helene, get UP!” Leonie seized her sister’s arm and hauled her off of Malcolm. “Behave yourself! You can’t go around sitting on grownups like you’re a baby. You’re too big to be acting like that. Leave Mr. Malcolm alone right now.”
“Mama!” Marie-Helene wailed. “Leonie hurt my arm! On purpose!”
Malcolm, who had two younger sisters and was well attuned to the art of the fake cry, had to steel himself not to scoff.
“Leonie, leave her be,” said her mother. “Why do you need to bother her when she’s not doing anything to you?”
“She’s being rude, Mama!”
“I am not!”
“Yes you are, and you’re acting like a spoiled baby.”
“Y’all shut up!” Jean Arceneaux bellowed from his recliner. “You girls are always whining about something while I’m trying to relax, and now I’ve got another daughter showing up to add to the noise. What about you?” he demanded of Melly, looking at her for the first time since she’d arrived. “You need to yell too? Let’s have another damn woman yelling, okay? Anything you need to add to the fuss?”
“No, Daddy,” Melly whispered. Malcolm stiffened next to her, and Melly thought he might speak, but Jean was already reabsorbed in his screen.
Leonie’s hair bristled dangerously, but after a glance at Melly’s brimming eyes she restrained herself with a superhuman effort. “Hey, Melly, did you go back to the room yet? I found a chest of drawers for you off Craigslist. Come on, let’s take your stuff back.”
The room was not large, especially to be shared by three sisters, and despite Leonie’s best efforts it was not inviting, but it was away from the living room. The pop-up trundle bed had been rolled out from under the bunkbeds and wedged under the window, and Leonie smoothed Melly’s quilt over it.
“This is so pretty,” she said, tracing the smooth satin stitches of the embroidered flowers with envious fingertips.
“You’ll bring some class to the joint.” Leonie’s laugh was almost bright enough to mask any humiliation. Melly ached for her sister, but was unable to find the right word to convey sympathy without sounding condescending or dismissive. They sat in awkward silence for a moment until Malcolm entered with Melly’s suitcases, and the silence extended as Malcolm stood in the doorway taking in the cheap furnishings of the bedroom.
“Guess I’ll let you unpack,” Leonie said at last, slipping out past Malcolm and shutting the door. Melly blinked in astonishment. If she had not known her Arceneauxs, she would have said that Leonie had… had just done something tactful.
Malcolm sat on the bed next to Melly and looked at her. She looked at the quilt.
“Well, you’re living at home again,” he said. “It’s been a while.”
“Your family seems… much the same.”
“They’re Arceneauxs. That’s how we are.”
“Not you, Melly.”
She took a deep breath and observed the pressboard desk, the broken blinds, the closet door hanging off its rollers, anything but his face. The front door slammed and voices rose again in the living room as one of the returning brothers shared his grievances with the world. Somewhere in the distance an overtaxed subwoofer shook a car. Ugliness was all around her, pressing on her soul, and yet for this minute Malcolm was sitting next to her, an oasis of strength and quiet, and she needed to soak up his presence for a few moments longer before she could face the exile of urban Baton Rouge.
“I think you’ll do well at college,” he said, with an effort at lightness. “St. Mary’s is a good school. The chapel is lovely. Maybe you’ll meet some people who knew Rene.”
Thoughts of Rene were more than Melly’s roiled emotions were ready to bear, and her breath rose in a sob. Malcolm put his arm around her.
“Melly, listen,” he said, shifting so that her head could lay against his shoulder. “You’re going to be fine. You can do this, if you want to. I know how constant you are. But don’t make yourself unhappy because you think you have to be grateful for the Fellowship. It’s a gift, not a millstone.”
His voice was unraveling her, thread by tightly knotted thread, and his arm around her and his body next to her were so intensely real that Melly’s commitment to detachment, all her mental resolve, seemed ephemeral and artificial compared to the heat of his chest under the faded softness of his shirt and the rasp of his unshaven Saturday morning cheek against her forehead. She would speak. She would not speak. She would look at him, and he would understand everything. She would raise her head in three seconds. Two seconds. One…
Malcolm’s phone rang in his pocket. He shifted and fished it out, and Melly saw the devastating brightness in his face as he read Alys’s name on the screen. She stood up and went to the door.
“I’ll let you get that,” she said as pleasantly as her last reserve of detachment allowed. “Tell Alys I say hi.”
Malcolm stood too and followed her.
“You’ll call me if you need anything, won’t you?” he asked. She nodded lightly as she opened the door.
“Melly.” The phone rang again as he closed his hand over hers on the knob, and rang once more. “Will you call me if you need anything?”
One more ring. She made herself look up at him and smile with open, sororal affection. “Yes, of course.”
“Okay,” he said, and answered the phone. “Hey. I’m just dropping Melly off at her family’s house. Hold on a second.”
He pressed her hand. “Are you going to let me know if you need anything?”
His hazel eyes, the eyes that Alys had said were just like Melly’s, studied her face for another moment.
“Goodbye, then,” he said, and he took his hand away from hers, and he was gone.
She had done it. She had left Stillwater, and she had said goodbye to Malcolm, and her heart was still beating. The pain meant that she was still alive.