Technically this is half an installment, but after pulling the 4 AM shift last night I'm too tired to finish up the other part tonight.
For a creature of habit like Melly, the difficulty of uprooting from her beloved ground was compounded by an inhospitable environment. Even a comfortable new home would have been a jolt to her, but such a home as she found herself in was a sad shock to her system in every way. Her head ached and her lungs burned from the acrid stench of the cigarette smoke no one else could smell any more. (“I make those guys smoke out on the porch so it don’t get into the house,” her mother said.) Neither Nanette’s pantry of low-cal snacks nor her father’s fridgeful of beer and Hungryman dinners offered her any nutrition. The whispers of past pain haunted her legs, now weary from her treks to the bus stop and across campus. But more wearying than walking was the sloppy moral atmosphere of the Arceneaux household.
It wasn’t as if Stillwater had been preserved from original sin. There had been plenty of vices there: Dick’s crassness, Sophia’s self-absorption, Esther’s officiousness, Cheryl’s indolence. But there had also been manners and civility and a genuine affection from certain corners. At Stillwater there was reasoned discussion and give-and-take; there were common courtesies and indoor voices. Nobody slammed the door; nobody screamed down the street at his brother; nobody shouted over the angry music blasting out of a car stereo. Profanity was not unknown, but it was used as seasoning, not as the appetizer, entree, and dessert rolled into one. Melly had often been frustrated by the way the Winters seemed to substitute social graces for moral clarity, but as much as she was embarrassed to admit it, it was more pleasant to spend time with Alys and Ian (when he was on his good behavior) than with her own family.
Melly had never been particularly close to her mother, but as the oldest girl, she had been of a certain use, especially when she’d been healthy. There had always been a baby to jog around or change or feed. Now that all members of the family could feed and bathe themselves unaided, Melly realized just how little common mental ground her mother shared with her. Nanette wasn’t particularly cold or distant or malicious. She wasn’t particularly anything. She went to work, she came home, she watched TV. “Me-time” was her mantra. Any woman with seven children had a right to relax now and then, whether it was an extra twenty minutes in the shower or a special snack before she settled down to the serious business of checking email. She’d gotten all her children through their infancy alive, which was a wonder considering her boys, and it had been a relief to send them off to school one by one where the teachers could take them off her hands. Now that most of her children were grown and working, they were big enough to work out their own squabbles, and she rarely raised her voice to assert her maternal authority until the level of household chaos passed her capacity to block it out.
She had certainly developed that capacity to formidable levels. Melly was amazed at the kind of behavior her mother judged too petty to penalize. Marie-Hélène, as the baby, was spoiled and egged on in all kinds of precociousness by Jean Arceneaux and the boys. As a result, there was a disturbing undercurrent of sexuality in the way she moved and talked. She wasn’t a budding Lolita by any stretch, but she was a born entertainer and talented mimic, and she knew she could get attention by parroting what the girls did in music videos. She made innuendos she didn’t understand because her brothers thought it was funny. She wore clothes that she didn’t have the body to fill out because her dad encouraged it, wanting everyone to know that his baby was pretty. It wasn’t that her father and brothers particularly wanted her to develop into the kind of woman they were encouraging her to be as a child. They thought it was cute and harmless to see a ten-year-old girl acting provocatively, and egged her on to shake her booty or sashay around swinging her thin hips, without considering that the way she was learning now to interact with men — manipulating, craving attention, performing — would be a difficult mold for her to break as a woman, if she ever realized that it could be broken.
Nanette did not see this, or if she saw it she didn’t care, or if she cared she thought that this was just the way it was. You know how men are.
One person did not think that this, or any aspect of the Arceneaux household, was the way it ought to be. Melly had hoped that she and Léonie would get along easily, that they would understand each other, that they could be everything that sisters ought to be. There was a lot of admire about Léonie: she took a lot on herself, doing most of the cleaning and what little cooking was done, and she had Rene’s drive to better himself, if not his whiz kid brilliance. The Arceneaux way of living appalled her. She saw her mother’s laziness and her father’s crassness and her brothers’ boorishness and she burned with a crusader’s zeal to cleanse the filth from the temple. But she had a hair-trigger temper and her methods were coarse, combining all of Rene’s showmanship with none of his finesse. She saw, she loathed, she berated, and the usual result was sound and fury. Melly could appreciate the instinct behind Leonie’s outbursts, but in practice, they tended to escalate problems more often than they solved them. And she made no distinctions. Respecting her elders was more honored in the breach than in the observance: Léonie cussed out parents or brothers with equal aplomb.
Between Léonie and the boys there was ancient enmity. Melly found it hard to blame her for that. Marc and André were crude and brash and sleazy. André, the older, had some redeeming qualities: an affection for his mother and Marie-Hélène; a good set of mechanical skills combined with a strong work ethic, which had earned him promotion at the garage; a rough kind of honesty which had kept him off the streets and out of trouble. Marc, however, was a nasty piece of work. Melly, two years his senior, remembered how mean he was even as a little boy, with his sullen attitude and his petty cruelties and anger management issues. In those days Rene, the default authority of the house even at a young age, had kept Marc in check both through his example and the easy force of his personality. Melly remembered Raymond, her next brother, as being competent and basically fair as well. But Rene had not lived at home for a while, and Raymond now had an apartment with his girlfriend and their baby, and no power had arisen to take their place. André was a bit the worse for the lack of old-brother guidance, but his essential good nature had stood him in good stead. Marc didn’t have an essentially good nature. He was volatile and violent. He’d been in and out of juvie. He was someone to steer clear of.
Léonie could not steer clear of Marc. They were like oil and water, only mixing in turbulence. He went out of his way to antagonize her, and she was all out of moderation. Shortly after Melly moved in, Marc upped the ante in their running feud by leaving his bedroom door open. This in itself wasn’t offensive, aside from the smell, but it did expose to the view of all Marc’s newest bit of interior decor, a poster of a petulant blonde astride a motorcycle, hung directly opposite the doorway. And this in itself wasn’t unusual for the guys’ room, since both were mechanical buffs, but the blonde wore nothing but makeup, and her exaggerated physique was designed to attract the eye, not deflect it.
Melly was familiar with the basic elements of female biology, being female herself, but pin-up photography was not part of the artistic and aesthetic heritage of Stillwater. Richard Spencer would never have permitted such a thing in his house, and Malcolm wouldn’t have chosen to have it. Melly had never had cause to give any thought to what resided on Dick’s phone or computer, but she could attest that his bedroom walls were offensive only to people who hated LSU. Now gleaming masses of flesh confronted her every time she stepped out of her bedroom. Marc had hung the poster so that it was almost impossible not to see. It drew the eye of everyone passing down the hall, would they or no, especially if she leaned in to shut the door.
Melly was distressed, not only by the the poster and the attitude behind it, but by the response of her parents. Jean Arceneaux simply wasn’t bothered. When Melly essayed some timid words on the topic, he belched out a laugh. Boys would be boys, and he’d had a few photos in his day… His unsympathetic amusement at her prissiness made him deaf to any further appeal, so she tried her mother. Nanette listened placidly to Melly’s concerns but showed no signs of putting her foot down.
“Now don’t you go riling Marc up,” she said. “It’s bad enough Léonie fighting with him all the time.”
Melly made what she thought would be a sure-fire argument. “But it bothers Marie-Hélène. I can tell. She’s… it’s hard, especially at her age. It’s embarrassing to her, but she can’t look away. I really believe Marc thinks it’s funny.”
“Marc is going to do what Marc is going to do,” said her mother with easy resignation. “Just leave him be and don’t start a fracas. You ought to shut up that room anyway. What ought to bother Marie-Helene is the mess in there.”
When Léonie spoke to her mother, she didn’t bother to mince words. “Mama, get off your lazy ass and tell Marc to take that thing down.”
Melly was shocked, but Nanette merely heaved the sigh of the ages as she sat hunched at her computer. “Hush your mouth, Léonie. You give me a headache. I swear I’d give anything for a little peace in this house, just once.”
After a week of slamming the door every time she passed the room, Léonie’s outrage flamed into action. One night when she knew Marie-Helene was spending the night with a friend, she waited until the boys went out for cigarettes, then went into their bedroom and ripped down the offending poster. For good measure she made a clean sweep of every image of a girl on the wall, regardless of whether they were Marc’s or André’s or clothed or not, and bore them triumphantly into the girls’ room where Melly was sitting on the bed, trying to study.
“I can’t think that was the most philosophical way to resolve the problem,” Melly said cautiously as Léonie shoved the posters into a trash bag and kicked it under her bed.
“I don’t even know what philosophy means,” said Léonie with the pride of one for whom practice has finally trumped theory. “Here’s what I know: those pigs think they can get away with anything. It makes me furious to see that crap hanging up. Marie-Hélène walks past that room all the time! Marc and André have got to learn some respect for women.”
“But how can going into their room and stealing their things teach them respect for women? I don’t think it will make them respect you very much.”
“I don’t care if they respect me. I want them to respect women in general.”
“Respecting women in general doesn’t mean much, though, if they don’t respect women in particular.”
“Well, what am I supposed to do?” Léonie flopped on her bed in her frustration. “This isn’t academic. There was a big picture of a naked lady hanging up, right where everyone including my little sister had to see it every day, and now there’s not. I think in this case the ends justify the means.”
The front door slammed to herald the return of Marc and André. Léonie grabbed the last Harry Potter book from her nightstand and turned the pages with purpose, but Melly could see clearly that she was paying more attention to the fuse smoldering across the hall than to the words in front of her.
A moment later, shouting was heard. Melly thought she still had a moment to steel herself for the coming assault, but Marc barged into the room without a warning knock, André close behind him. Of course there was no knock. Where did she think she was: Stillwater, where these little niceties mattered? No one knocked in this house, just as no one shut a door when she could slam it, or spoke in a civil and moderate tone when he could shout.
Marc was shouting now. “What were you doing in my room?”
“What’s the problem, boys?” said Léonie, looking up from her book a touch too nonchalantly. “Why the rage?”
“You know damn well what the problem is!” Marc’s anger made the small room seem to contract even further. “Don’t even deny that you were messing around in there.”
“Why should I want to deny it?” Léonie played her cool against Marc’s heat. “If you guys are going to flaunt your trash on the walls, you shouldn’t be surprised when people take it out.”
André shoved past Marc.
“Screw his stuff,” he said. “You had no right to take down all of my things. C’mon, Léonie, I’m not a perv like Marc. I’ve never put up naked girls where everyone can see them. Give me back my stuff, at least.”
“Lay down with dogs, get up with fleas,” said Léonie with a shrug. “You’re in the room, you look at Marc’s poster, you’re just as culpable as Marc here.”
“Fuck you,” said Marc.
“Fuck yourself,” said Léonie, flaring up. “You guys are disgusting. You think you can slap some girl up on your wall like she’s your personal property. Well, guess what?” She was off the bed now, ready for a rumpus. “Get used to war, because I’m done with rolling over and playing dead every time you jerks shove your stone-age attitudes in my face.”
Marc was done with the preliminaries. He closed what little distance remained between him and Léonie. Melly, terrified by the way his face twisted with wrath, willed herself not to shrink back against the wall.
“Where is my stuff?” Marc hissed at Léonie.
“I’m not going to tell you,” Léonie spat back. “What are you going to do about it?”
“Last chance: give it back.”
“Stop!” shrieked Melly, jumping up as Marc raised his hand. “They’re under the bed! Leave her alone!”
Marc and Léonie dived for the bag at the same time and tore it, spilling the posters all over the floor.
“Whose side are you on, Melly?” Léonie shouted, kicking and tearing the posters. “You want him to put a naked woman right back up?”
“No,” said Melly, trying to breathe easily as she sat and massaged her shaking legs.
“Then what are you going to do about?” Léonie challenged for the second time, with almost as much hostility as when she’d faced down Marc. “What do you think we should do, if you’ve got so much philosophy?”
Three flushed faces confronted Melly in tense expectation. Never had she felt so much an outsider in her own family as now, when she was being set up as some kind of arbiter of morality. Shouting and the threat of violence had been bad enough, but the pressure of everyone’s expectant silence bearing down on her was far worse. She hesitated, just in case her desperate hope of Rene walking in the door now (knocking or not) and taking charge of the situation were to be fulfilled in the next five seconds, but it seemed such relief was not to be.
“If it were me…” she began, but that didn’t seem right. If it had been her, she would not have been in this situation in the first place, so it seemed disingenuous to play with hypotheticals. How would Rene say it? “I mean, I think you ought…” She swallowed and looked at her hands. “I think you ought to give them back the posters and offer to pay for the damage.”
André stared at her. Marc’s glower turned to smugness. If Leonie had turned over her comfy pillow and discovered a roach underneath, she would have glared at it in with the same expression she turned on Melly.
“What do you mean?” said André, struggling to understand this bizarre new pacifist sister in his house.
“You heard her,” said Marc, allowing Melly’s moral authority since it turned out to be to his financial advantage.
Leonie said nothing, and Melly’s heart sank even further at the thought of being the target when her sister’s pressure cooker of disgust finally blew. Maybe being reasonable could stave that off. “Did you ever try asking Marc to take the picture down?”
“No,” said Marc. “Léonie prefers vandalism.”
“Yeah!” said André. “No one ever asked me to take anything down.”
“What good would it have done? ” Leonie asked the ceiling.
“None.” Marc was as complacent as a cat in the cream.
The pressure cooker exploded. “So what’s the point of asking?” Leonie demanded. “What’s left? One thing. Tear it down. But you,” she rounded on Melly, “you’d call that stealing. I thought you’d be different. I thought I could count on you. But no. Guys can do anything they like in this house, but when a woman insists on getting some respect, you call it stealing.”
“I call it stealing,” said Melly in a small voice, “because it is stealing.”
“See?” said Léonie in bitterness. “I was right. You want that girl back up on the wall so Marc can jerk off at her. You make me sick.”
“No,” said Melly, still not looking up. “It makes me feel sick to think of anyone being just a body to be… to be stared at, without even a name.”
“Her name is Aimee Martin,” André protested. “She does lots of posters and stuff. It’s her job.”
“Even worse,” Léonie said. “You know her name and you still treat her like a thing.”
“She gets paid,” said Marc, suddenly a devotee of the free market.
“So money makes everything right!” said Léonie scornfully. “She gets paid, so it’s okay to lust her up. You get paid to put your shitty picture right back up. What a world, where nobody ever challenges anything Marc does. You can’t even deal with someone so vile. ”
“But we were dealing with him,” said Melly. “We shut the door, every day, every time it was opened. We stayed vigilant.” She glanced up at Leonie’s hot face and willed her to understand. “You and I can’t control Marc’s behavior. We can’t force him to do the right thing. But we can be constant in doing the right thing ourselves, and…” She sagged under the memories of the responses she’d provoked by holding out against Ian. “Sometimes doing what’s right can be taken as a challenge.”
Léonie held to her point. “But you’d know it was still in the house! Don’t you think we have an obligation to get it down, to get it out, to destroy it by any means necessary, even if it means stealing?”
Finally, Melly knew exactly what Rene would say to this. “I don’t think there’s ever any obligation to sin.”
There was silence. Melly’s defensive efforts had exhausted her. She longed to have some quiet time to think over her arguments, to see if she’d said anything stupid or just plain wrong. Marc and Andre stood awkwardly, grappling with the unfamiliar concept of sin. Léonie snatched up a handful of crumpled posters, and Melly prepared herself to hold the course for another round.
“Here,” Léonie said with an effort, flattening out an image of a scantily-clad girl draped over a car and handing it to André. “I’m… I’m sorry I trashed your stuff. I’ll pay for the damage when I get paid.”
No one moved for a moment.
“Forget it,” said André, handing it back. “I didn’t know they bothered you.” He left the room.
Marc kicked through the pile until he found Aimee Martin on her motorcycle. He smoothed the creases and looked at her sultry glare and airbrushed body. Then, with an ugly gesture, he crumpled the poster into a hard ball and threw it in Léonie’s face. A drop of blood welled up on her forehead where it struck her.
“You owe me,” he said, and slammed the door.
It’s Walker Percy’s Hundredth Birthday and We Suck
25 minutes ago