Wednesday, June 25, 2014
Stillwater - 47
Melly’s main source of news from Stillwater was Cheryl, a faithful if not fascinating correspondent.
Ive been so busy lately because Pugsy has finally gotten back into watching The Dog Whisperer with me and so I had to get alot of the episodes she missed on Netflix. We spend too much time looking at TV now without you here to talk to. Pugsy is lonely without you and doesnt beleive that college is any fun.
Malcolm will be going to New York city one of these weekends to see Rene. I think he will visit with Ian and Alys while he is there. I wish he did not have to fly,,, I worry myself to death when Richard is flying. Pugsy does not like planes either.
Esther has been very busy since you left. She is already making plans for next years ball. I guess you will be the queen again. Pugsy will have to do your hair again, haha!! Richard said that it was too soon to make plans for the ball and Esther asked him if he would care to take the preparations in hand. It is a big work and I am glad I dont have to do it because I am just too busy with Pugsy.
Everyone sends their love, especially Malcolm and Richard and Pugsy. Maybe one of these days we will have to drive up to Baton Rouge and see yall. Tell your mama hi for me. I am sure she must be glad to have you at home again.
Love, Cheryl xxoo
Melly was glad for assurances of Malcolm’s love in any medium, but she did wish for an email from him, even just a few lines, to let her know how things stood between him and Alys. Of course he was busy right now. It was the beginning of the school year. And of course between the business of school and the business of Alys, he was too preoccupied to spare many thoughts for her. Still, it was one large step for him to visit New York. What were his intentions? Was he going to hash things out with Alys at last? She yearned to hear from him one more time before her hopes came to nothing.
Oddly enough, and after all these years, Melly finally had daily assurance of being loved. She’d never thought of herself as being any kind of a role model to anyone, but now Leonie looked up to her with an almost alarming eagerness. This was how a mother must feel, looking down at her tiny baby, first understanding the power that she has over this person’s moral development. But Leonie was no baby. She was ready to take an active part in her own improvement. At first the sisters met at the library on campus to study, Leonie flipping through the course textbooks while Melly tried to recreate the class lectures from her notes. But this was so unproductive, and deeply unsatisfying, that Melly began to recommend books that she thought Leonie might learn to enjoy. Initially she was hesitant to give reading advice, fearing that Leonie would think that she was bossy and vainglorious. Leonie took no offense, however. She wanted to read what Melly read and love what Melly loved. It was a new pleasure to her, reading with a friend, and she was determined to wring every last drop of mental nutrition out of it.
On days when they couldn’t borrow one of the family cars, the sisters rode the bus to campus. Late one one of these afternoons, as they walked out of the library together, Melly heard a man’s voice calling her name. She turned in surprise — it wasn’t Malcolm’s voice, and who else would be looking for her? — and to her horror, saw Ian Winter striding toward her, the lovelight bright in his face.
Melly had often worried what she would do if she ever had to meet Ian again, and her strategies had all the benefits and drawback of every imaginary scenario, the benefit being that can be played out over and over again to produce different effects, and the drawback being that a final action need never be settled. Would she run away? Clam up? Slug him? Interesting options all, but when presented with the actual meeting, she found that all virtual actions were subordinated to her habit of civility and the reality of the situation in front of her: meeting Ian in public where it was unlikely that he could press any sort of advantage, not wanting to raise any suspicions in Leonie by unwarranted rudeness, and being able to interact with him in his role as Rene’s benefactor instead of her adversary. She leapt into the breech before he could spin the encounter his way.
“Let me introduce you to my sister, Leonie,” she said as neutrally as possible through the nervous pounding of blood in her head. “Leonie, this is Ian Winter. He’s the one who helped Rene go to New York City by introducing him to his uncle, Carson Winter.”
“How do you do?” said Leonie, leaping forward and pumping Ian’s hand fervently. “Mama was so impressed when she heard about y’all — she saw your uncle on Oprah.”
In an agony of suspense, Melly watched Ian pause and pivot almost seamlessly, toning down the eagerness in his expression to an affable charm.
“You’re nobody until you’re on Oprah,” he said, pitch-perfect as the aw-shucks benefactor. To her vast relief and surprise, Melly saw that he had taken her hint. He cast no telling looks at her as he chatted it up with Leonie (how like Rene she was!), and when he did turn to greet her and shake her hand, he didn’t linger over it or do anything to make her feel uncomfortable.
“I hope Alys is well?”
“She is, and she misses you. I haven’t been able to see much of her, and I just missed Malcolm. He’s flying up this weekend to help Rene settle in.”
Malcolm in New York this weekend! He would see Alys, that was certain, and it was likely that by the time he flew back to Stillwater on Sunday they would have come to some kind of agreement. There had been leisure at Stillwater over the summer and things had been allowed their own pace, but surely, surely in the course of Malcolm’s weekend trip Alys would allow herself to hear Malcolm and understand him. Ian must have an opinion on the matter, but Melly couldn’t think of any way to ask him about it with betraying herself, nor did she especially want to hear him talking about Malcolm. She cast about desperately for a change of subject.
“Do you see much of Rene in New York?”
Rene was an easy topic, and safe. They made pleasant chit-chat about Rene in the Big Apple until Leonie rejoined them, slipping her phone in her purse, and said, “Okay, I’ve called Mama, so she knows to expect us.”
Seeing Melly’s puzzlement, she said, “Didn’t you hear the plan? Ian is going to drive us home and meet Mama. She’s so excited.”
Melly stepped aside to let Leonie into the front seat of Ian’s rental car. She needed the solitude of the back seat to compose her whirling thoughts before her head pounded apart. Ian at her family’s house! Of all the humiliations! Who would be at home right now? Mama, obviously, but Andre? Marc? Her father? She wished the back seat might swallow her. It wasn’t proper to feel that way about her family, but there it was. No one was likely to change in the next few minutes, so that would put an end to Ian bothering her ever again. Her own vanity appalled her. How many times had she wished she would never see Ian again? That was what she had wanted, what she still did want, but not like this, not because of disgust with the Arceneauxs.
She had been almost impressed with him earlier. Leonie was a sharp observer, but Ian’s manner had been absolutely correct the whole time: easy, but not familiar, gracious in exactly the right way not to raise any suspicions that he and Melly had ever interacted in anything other than a blandly social way. Melly had feared that she’d have to beat him off with a stick; instead, it had been a tonic to her soul not to have to steel herself against profanity or crassness or volume. Not since Malcolm left had she been an equal in a conversation.
The house had never appeared meaner than when Ian pulled up in front of it. The late afternoon sun could not mellow the ugly bricks nor soften the iron bars on the windows. The air conditioner groaned and dripped in its futile labors. Ian made no remark, but Melly was mortified as she saw the neighborhood through his eyes. She marched up to the door. Better to get this over with sooner rather than later.
The first surprise was that the place was presentable. Nanette Arceneaux’s energy reserves were hidden deep within, but she did have them, apparently. Surfaces were cleared (Melly feared to see the floors of the bedrooms, but stuff did have to go somewhere) and the carpet had even been vacuumed. Nanette had even mixed up a pitcher of sweet tea for the nephew of the man who’d been on Oprah. Conversation was easy: it was all about Rene. Between the four of them they could dredge up enough anecdotes to fill a book, and Ian endeared himself by recounting the New York trip in brilliant detail. Nanette laughed and admired and declared she’d never heard anything so funny in her entire life. Relaxing had just started to seem like a viable option when the doorknob rattled preparatory to admitting another Arceneaux.
But it was not her father. It was her older brother Raymond, stopping by to drop off his baby before he went to work. Raymond had always been the most agreeable of the three boys other than Rene, as evidenced by his ability to find and keep a girlfriend, and soon he and Ian were hitting it off while Nanette showed off her little granddaughter. Leonie was laughing and joking along with the guys. Melly’s back began to untense. It was starting to seem possible that she might escape this entire episode unscathed either by public disgrace or further contact with Ian.
And in stumped Jean Arceneaux, with Marie-Helene in tow, and Melly’s back seized up again. It was too early in the day for Jean’s drinking to kick in, but that meant that he was apt to be dry and irritable. At no time did he ever look like he’d just stepped out of a bandbox, especially when dressed to combat the summer heat, but today his grungy flip-flops and wife beater were particularly egregious beside Ian’s prep casual. Marie-Helene’s grape popsicle was melting down the front of her tank top as she sized up the stranger. Melly braced for the worst. This was her family, not fancy New York society. So be it if Ian never talked to her again.
But Melly had forgotten to account for one thing. This was indeed her family; it was also Rene’s family. He’d gotten his charm from someone, and amazingly enough, it was Jean Arceneaux. He could be bright and funny when he set his mind to it. He could tell a ribald story in Rene’s cadences. He could work a room. So could Ian. The two of them set to it, with occasional interjections from Raymond. The spectacle of Ian Winter in her family’s dingy living room, exercising his particular gift of making himself universally loved, was almost too fabulous to credit. When the topic worked its way inevitably toward LSU football, she thought that perhaps she could escape to her room, but as Jean flipped on the Friday night game and Raymond took his leave, Ian settled on the love seat next to her.
Now that her father’s attention was settled, Ian hoped he might be able to have something approaching a private conversation with Melly, but in this house it seemed that private conversation was an oxymoron. Sister Leonie, the sharp one, perched on the couch opposite them, her eyes glittering too much like Rene’s for Ian to feel that any innuendo could go unnoticed. He’d already figured that this one was going to have to be won over if Melly was to be approached, since Melly seemed fond of her and the way to Melly was through those she loved.
“What brings you back to Baton Rouge?” Leonie asked, fixing him with her full attention. “You didn’t come down all this way to tell us that Rene says bonjour?”
“He does,” said Ian, “and that would be worth a trip in itself, but I’m here on business too.” He could feel Melly stiffening on the other side of the love seat. “I make films, but the project I’d been planning to work on next has been shelved because we couldn’t fill a key position with the right person. So I had time to think about what I’d like to move on to, and I kept coming back to the beautiful architecture detail I’d seen down here, especially at Stillwater. You’ve seen it, haven’t you?”
Leonie had to admit that she’d never been in the big house. “Melly tells me that it’s beautiful, though.”
“Stillwater is beautiful, but it’s almost writ too large, and it’s already perfect.” He carefully kept his eyes away from Melly to allow her time to relax again once she realized he was not here to press his previous offer. “I need a a different canvas, something more intimate, and not so remote as Stillwater. I’ve always been interested in urban renewal, and the idea of shooting a documentary about buying and restoring a historic house right here in Baton Rouge has been growing on me. I flew down to start scoping out locations and to get leads on local craftsmen, people who are familiar with these houses and their construction and who know how to do the job right.” He smiled. “Maybe you’d have some leads for me?”
“Look around this place,” Leonie suggested. “Does it look like we’ve ever had any skilled craftsman plying their trade here? But I take off my hat to you. You don’t think small. What are you going to do with this house once it’s all restored? Put it back on the market for any hoodlum to buy and destroy?”
Marie-Helene marched over to them with the baby in her arms and deposited her on Ian’s lap.
“Ava wants to see you,” she said, wedging herself in between Ian and Melly. The baby lunged at Ian’s fingers and tugged them inexorably toward her mouth, pausing only to chirp an encomium as she gave his hand a gourmand’s scrutiny. Then she thoughtfully sank her fine sharp tooth into his knuckle and mumbled a little song of love as she chewed. Ian was charmed.
“Do you know I’ve never held a baby before?” he said.
Melly was finally jolted into speech. “Never in your life?”
“No.” He worked his finger out of the baby’s mouth and stood her upright on his lap to get a better look at this small stranger. She burbled solemnly at him, wrinkling her small brow, patted his face with moist hands, and latched onto his jaw. “Hey!”
Marie-Helene giggled and kicked her heels as Melly reached across her to detach Ava. Ian handed the baby to her. They made a pretty picture snuggling together, and now no one would have any reason to think it odd that he should look at Melly with undisguised admiration.
“You asked what I’d do with the house once it’s finished,” he said to Leonie. “I’m thinking about living in it myself. I’ve never had a home of my own. I’ve stayed with my uncle for a long time, and I’ve floated from apartment to apartment, but there was never anywhere permanent that I could point to and say, ‘This is mine.’ I’d like to have a family place, a real base of operations, somewhere stable and welcoming, and beautiful enough that when I walk in the door and look around, I feel like I’m really, truly home.”
Melly bent her head over the baby and murmured in her ear to conceal a sudden upwell of tears. Ian had baffled her emotional defenses with his disarming seriousness. She had not even thought him capable of such sentiments. It was a good sign that there might be hope for him yet, that perhaps the Ian of Stillwater could improve. For his sake, though not for her own, she hoped it was so.
“Hey!” yelled Jean Arceneaux from his recliner. “Y’all hungry? I’m ready for dinner! How about it, Ian? You staying to eat with us?”
Ian saw the wave of emotions sweeping across Melly’s face: apprehension, horror, and finally, a pleading glance directly at him.
“I’m afraid I can’t,” he said with just the right tinge of regret in his voice. “I’m expected somewhere else this evening. I appreciate the offer, though.” And this time he was rewarded with a smile from Melly, a genuine smile of gratitude and relief.
He stood up and shook himself free of Marie-Helene hanging onto his arm. “I was thinking of going down to the waterfront tomorrow morning before I need to fly back. I’d be very pleased if I could convince you ladies to come along with me.”
Leonie had to work, but Marie-Helene was thrilled, and of course, Melly had to accept for her sake. She accompanied him to the door, the baby on her hip.
“I hope you enjoy your dinner,” she said as he stepped outside.
This time he met her eye and would not let her drop her gaze. “I will enjoy it as much I can enjoy anything without you.”
For a moment of suspense, she thought that he might take her hand, but he turned and walked to his car without touching her.
There was much fruit for meditation in the afternoon’s encounter, and Melly, pleading a headache, was able to lie down in privacy and sort her jumbled thoughts. Ian was not over her, and he should have been over her. When had she ever given him any encouragement? Certainly not today. But there was much to approve of in his new venture, and in the way he had been so kind to her sisters. The memory of his concentration while holding the baby almost made her laugh. She was pleased by his perception that taking her hand would have been unwelcome, and impressed that he’d acted on that perception. But most palpable, embarrassing though it was, was the relief that Ian would not be eating at her house. A shock of adrenaline still coursed through her as a vision of her family at dinner flashed into her mind: everyone raiding the fridge for whatever looked good, microwaving whatever seemed edible, fighting over the last frozen burrito or Hot Pocket. She tried to imagine Ian looking into the refrigerator at the motley assortment of processed food products on the peeling wire racks… No. It was too terrible. Her manners were the result of her own personal preference, but he had been raised to expect everyone else to behave politely at table too, and that was the sort of prejudice that was hardest to overcome.