Yeah, I could read this through for continuity, or I could go to bed.
Fortunate indeed are they who can command the weather to fit their fancy. Melly could not. She hoped for rain, vast bucketfuls pouring from the vaults of heaven, flooding the streets and making it impossible to walk down by the river or for Ian to drive to her family’s house. What she found, when she looked out her window in all hopefulness, was glorious October, clear and fine, the weather really almost Novemberish in its hint of crispness. There was nothing to prevent Ian from coming, and nothing did; he arrived on the cramped concrete stoop in good time, paid his respects, and escorted Melly and Marie-Helene to the car, and downtown. There they parked along River Road and stood on the sidewalk surveying the options for strolling amidst greenery. To their right, the Old State Capitol, a great wedding cake of a building, rose up amidst an expanse of fenced, manicured lawn. Tucked beside it was Repentance Park which, Ian had heard, had just received a multi-million dollar renovation.
“All the repentance money can buy,” he said, surveying the green crescent of field. “It doesn’t look very exciting, does it? Anyway, we want to see the river.”
Marie-Helene was already charging ahead up the steps of the pedestrian bridge which would lead them across the street to the terraces and fountains of the river front plaza. Melly followed at a more leisurely pace, and Ian matched her speed. He maintained a correct distance between them, doing nothing to alarm her or make her skittish. Melly appreciated the reserve. It was thoughtful of him, and reduced the hardship of having to spend time in his company. She paused, hovering above River Road — her own River Road, though it ran along the east bank of the river here in the city — and looked away south, wishing she could trace its course down to the ferry from Sunshine to Plaquemine, where it picked up on the west bank and ran down past Stillwater itself. Down to Stillwater, where Malcolm was not, because he was in New York City visiting Alys. Melly wanted to stay on the bridge above River Road and stand vigil until Malcolm returned, but Ian was at her elbow. Marie-Helene was shouting back at them from the next, higher portion of the walkway to come and see the river. With the smallest of sighs, Melly turned her face from Stillwater. Marie-Helene, full of the zeal of youth and animated by the sheer joy of living on such a glorious day as this, ran back to seize their hands and drag them up the second flight of stairs. Ian was infected by her mood. Together they pulled Melly up onto the high walkway over the railroad tracks, where the breeze whipped around them as they took in the view.
Above them drifted flocks of puffy clouds in an azure sky; below them lay the pleasant sculptural grounds of the plaza; beside them rose a monumental homage to the large red stick, the baton rouge; before them stretched a pier arched at intervals with great white pipes bent like paperclips. The sunlight was bright enough to make Melly shade her eyes, but she found that every color was intensified, not bleached, by the clear light. Nothing could alter the essentially muddy nature of the Mississippi, but the vivid blueness of the sky transmuted the water into peridot wavelets chased by the occasional shadow of a cloud. Even Port Allen across the river had acquired a certain industrial nobility.
Such a beautiful prospect did her heart good. She felt her cares melt away from her for the moment. Even Ian’s company wasn’t so onerous, because she could see that he too felt the lure of all that was good and right and lovely about such a day. He didn’t appreciate the sky and the river simply because he was seeing them with her. He could see them in themselves and love them independently of whether she loved them too. Melly remembered how serious he had been when he discussed photography with Olivia Spencer, one of the rare occasions when it seemed to be discussing a subject for its own sake and not for how it served him. Now as he gazed out over the riverscape, she snuck a glance at his face, and could believe that he was not thinking of her at all.
On the levee below them, Marie-Helene was already dancing around on the red-paved path lined with benches. Melly made her way to one and rested her weary legs as she surveyed the two ships moored in the river: the USS Kidd and the riverboat casino.
“There’s an interesting contrast,” said Ian, following her gaze as he sat beside her. “Ship of heroes, ship of fools. One is a monument to men who sacrifice their lives for their country, the other a monument to men who sacrifice their money for their entertainment.”
“Often they’re the same man,” said Melly, thinking of her father.
Ian seemed to follow her. “How long have you been at home now, Melly? A month?”
“Yes,” she said, and then hesitated under the demands of accuracy. “Well, not exactly. I got here on a Sunday evening, so tomorrow it will only be four weeks since I left Stillwater. So it’s almost a month, but not yet…” She might have qualified this several more times if not for the check of his eyes, which glowed with the moonstruck fervor of a parent contemplating an adorable infant.
“You never like to be caught saying anything untrue,” he said. “I like that you always feel that honesty is the best policy.”
“Honesty is a facet of the truth,” she said slowly. “I want to be truthful.”
“That’s why I rely on your judgment.” His boyish face was serious, his body tense with the effort of not leaning close to her. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to see you. I wanted your opinion on my project, especially after I’ve had a night to chew on Leonie’s criticism. Do you think it’s selfish of me to fix up a house for only myself? Do you think it’s wrong of me to come down here from New York and buy your houses and throw money at local workmen like I was some French aristocrat patronizing the peasants?”
Melly was unsure what he wanted her to say. “I guess if you’re stimulating the economy no one will complain.”
“That’s a financial angle. But I need you to tell me what to do.”
“I can’t tell you what to do. You know your business better than I do.”
“But tell me what’s right.”
“You’d do better to ask your conscience instead of me.”
“You’re my conscience, Melly.”
“Don’t say that!” Melly did not want to look at him for fear that she might see the light of sincerity in his eyes. “That’s too much of a burden for anyone to bear, to carry the weight of being someone else’s judgment. It’s wrong to put that on me.”
“If you say so, I believe it.”
“No! Believe it because it’s true.”
Melly stood up and turned her face toward Marie-Helene, and toward the street and the car parked on it. She wanted to walk away and leave Ian behind, but she knew her legs were too tired to carry her very far very fast. He could tell too; even without looking at him she could feel him standing behind her, watching her with the devotion of a penitent before the statue of his patron saint.
“You aren’t well,” he said.
“I am. Well enough. I just need an early dinner and bedtime tonight.”
“Let me take you to dinner, “ he said. “You need better food than you’re getting at home. And you need a better environment. What if…” He stood behind her now, almost whispering in her ear. “What if I drove you down to Stillwater, and we could look around for old time’s sake, and then come back to town to eat? I can put off my flight until tomorrow. The pilot doesn’t care.”
Oh, Stillwater. Her breath caught in her throat as the glorious vision rose up before her: every wing and window clear in her mind as if she were standing out on the levee on a cool summer morning. Ian could have her there in an hour. Speed cost him nothing.
But speed cost her everything, and the detachment from Stillwater she was beginning to foster was still new enough to crumble at temptation.
“I can’t tonight,” she said with all the social self-possession she could muster. “I need to take Marie-Helene to the Vigil Mass.”
“Then let me take you there.”
Not only did he take them to Mass, he went with them. Melly didn’t know whether to be gratified or frustrated at this. In the end she said nothing and left him to his conscience, whatever it told him. She had her doubts about whether he’d ever set foot in a church before, but despite his unfamiliarity with the Mass, he comported himself respectably, though he would take her hand at the Our Father and hold it longer than observation of the congregation should have indicated. Still, when he dropped her and Marie-Helene at the house, he didn’t linger or push her. She stood looking after him longer than he’d stood saying goodbye to her.
The house was dull and gray that evening. Leonie was still at work, so there was no one whose eye lit up when she entered the living room. The noise and the chaos struck her with fresh force now that she’d been out for the day in civilized company. She was disgusted with herself for being disgusted with everyone, and ashamed of preferring Ian’s company to the present company. By the time she caught herself staring at the door in a reverie, half hoping that he would return and renew his offer of taking her to Stillwater, she took herself to her hard twin bed and spent several hours with eyes resolutely closed, repeating a fervent prayer that she would never see him again.