Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Stillwater - 51


How long does it take to reconcile with a new life? Some people charge full tilt at new opportunities; some people slip easily from one scene to the next; some people sit out on their front porch rockers and greet the possibility of change with a civil cha-chunk of their pump action shot guns. Melly wasn’t so bad as all that. She still could not generate a burning affection for her family’s home, or even for most of her family, but they were all scraping along. They were all alive, that was something. Marc still made her nervous when he came home in a mood, but Andre had accepted her as a built-in feature and took pains not to be unpleasant. Marie-Helene now realized that you couldn’t get anything from her by playing cute. Her parents had stopped thinking of her as a total stranger in the house and had accepted her as a long-term boarder. Leonie was different, of course; it was good to be with her, and it was good to know that somebody needed her, though the difference in their temperaments consumed much of Melly’s energy. She studied her family’s moods and attitudes as diligently as she studied for her classes, and she was passing both. There was almost gratification in being able to stay calm when hair-trigger tempers were shooting off all around her. She had been quiet much of her life; she was only now starting to realize the power of silence.

Was she happy? Well, that depended on what you thought happiness was. She didn’t feel happy, or miserable, or anxious, or peaceful. She didn’t feel much of anything. The seasons were rolling over from the stifling heat of the long summer into a mellow wash of November, and with the cool came equilibrium. The emotional pendulum of her first weeks in Baton Rouge slowed and steadied to a day-to-day perseverance. Each class had its schedule; each week had its rhythm; Sunday was her respite. The routine wasn’t exciting, but it wasn’t deadening either. It just was.

The only electric moments in this existence were the fitful contacts with her past life. A small, sharp thrill pierced her heart whenever she saw a new email from Malcolm or Cheryl, even if the message itself only contained a few hasty words about Dick’s slow recovery. Occasionally the thrill was justified by Malcolm’s mention of Alys drama. Alys kept pushing him to come to New York again, but he didn’t feel easy taking a weekend away from his parents in Dallas when they were still so fractured with grief. Melly took no comfort from this lovers’ tiff. Malcolm would go to Alys soon enough, and when he did she wouldn’t pass up the chance to tell Melly all about her conquest. News would come, sooner or later. The anticipation of it became a secret wound she carried everywhere. She might forget it for a while, but it never stopped throbbing. At times the ache would crash over her in a wave; or it would rise up like the evening mist on the fields, clinging to her in a thin haze.

The dreaded announcement came late on the Friday evening before Thanksgiving. Melly’s phone buzzed, and a brief glimpse at the screen showed her Alys’s name. That was enough for the moment. Reading the text meant knowing the worst. It was better to cling to blissful, ignorant hope for a few last seconds. Those seconds were fertile ones: fear, despair, and then doubt tumbled through her mind. When had Alys ever sent her a text? She loved to compose shiny epistolary gems; text would be a cramped stage for her wordsmithing. With renewed uncertainty, Melly picked up the phone again and read the message.

We can fly down today to take you to Dallas. Take this seriously.

Melly stood aghast. Oh God! Dick was dying — Alys must have heard it from Malcolm — and she had to go to them. Cheryl would be so grief-stricken, so desperate for her aid. All the ways should could help in this time of woe played in her mind: the errands she could run, the food she could make, the consolation she could give… As this little mental film wound its last frames, the loose end started flapping. Cheryl had no inhibitions about calling or writing at any hour about anything that popped into her head; why hadn’t she said anything? Maybe she was too overcome to call Melly. But Cheryl loved to lean on those she loved. And just that morning she’d sent an email with no mention of Dick in decline. Had he really slid downhill so fast?

Melly thought it was a bit late to call Cheryl, so she sent a carefully worded text about Dick’s condition, and received an almost instant reply: Dick is great. He wiggled his toe today and is so happy to see Malcolm. Praise God.

So Dick was okay and Malcolm was in Dallas, not New York. Then what could Alys be talking about? Only way to find out was to ask her.

Why? Dick’s fine.
Sophia’s giving Ian trouble.
What trouble?
You know how rumors get started.
What rumors?
Nothing. Don’t listen to any rumors. Ian loves you.
I can’t go to Dallas this weekend.
I hope you won’t be sorry.

Sorry about what? Flutters of worry stirred in Melly’s stomach as she searched this exchange looking for an answer key to Alys’ oblique hints. What sort of trouble could Sophia be causing? Was she still angry about Ian’s flirtation, more than six months afterward? But surely he didn’t need Melly’s permission to escape, and long experience had taught her that Sophia was unlikely to listen to anything she had to say. Alys knew that, and she also knew that Sophia was plenty capable of petty malice. What on earth could Sophia do that would concern Alys enough that she would enlist Melly to stop it? It involved rumors, to which Melly was not supposed to listen because Ian loved her. Why should she care about rumors that Ian didn’t love her? Why should he care, if they weren’t true? But Alys said flat out that Ian did love her, and in fairness Melly had to admit that lying wasn’t one of Alys’s vices. So Alys must think that Melly would doubt that Ian loved her. Why? Because of the rumors?

She trod this circle again and again over the weekend, with no fresh clues to direct her thoughts. After the first burst of communication, Alys maintained radio silence. The uncertainty was starting to get to Melly. If only she knew whether she should be relieved or worried or scared or disgusted! She found herself constantly fiddling with her phone to see if she’d missed an email or a text or a call. Several times she even tapped out a text to ask Alys for more news, but she quashed this spirit of gossip unsent. Whatever Alys had to say would come out in her own good time. Maybe it had all blown over and Alys was ashamed of having mentioned it in the first place. It was better to say nothing and wait, Melly told herself as she put her phone in her pocket and rose to do something, anything but this interminable clicking around.

The school week was a short one because of Thanksgiving break. Her Wednesday class had been canceled, so she had the prospect of five long days at home to cheer her. Late on Tuesday afternoon she sat in a vacation daze in the living room, curled up in the ratty armchair nearest the door. She was not alone; her mother and Marie-Helene were on the couch snickering at some show about weddings, and her father was parked as always in the recliner back by the window, fixated on his phone. A weird sense of déjà vu crept over her as she surveyed the room. Little had changed in the three months she’d been there. Only the light was different. In August, what poor afternoon sun could seep into the window-deficient box of a house had softened the elaborate cheapness of the particleboard TV armoire and gilded the glass over her mother’s Thomas Kinkade knockoffs. Now, in November, the early encroaching twilight didn’t deepen the garish colors of the living room, as it did to the jewel-tone velvets at Stillwater. Here all the vitality drained out of the house with the dying sun, leaving a residual gloom illuminated only by the shifting colors of the TV and the white glare from her father’s corner.  Melly’s limbs felt leaden and her head grew heavy. The outside world faded away with the sunlight. Perhaps everything was a dream, and she had always been in this tomb with these same slack-faced corpses, every angle distorted by the light thrown from the images passing before their unblinking eyes.

She was snapped out of this reverie by the sound of her name. Her father was cackling in a distinctly uncorpsey fashion.

“Who’s your rich friend who got Rene a job?” he called, grinning down at his gently babbling phone.

Melly shook the dusty remnants of dream out of her head. “Ian Winter.”

This was greeted by a guffaw from the recliner.

“Come on over here and look at this, cher,” he said, shifting loudly so she could sit on the arm of the chair.

Melly crossed over and took her place, and Jean Arceneaux scrolled back up to the top of the page he was reading and handed her the phone. The headline brayed, “This man made a point about marriage. I couldn’t have predicted what would happen next.”

“Watch the video!” Jean urged, jostling her elbow. “That’s his uncle, huh?”

Melly watched in confused fascination as Carson Winter, urbane and open-collared, was addressed by a panel of talk show hostesses, a trio of blondes with varying hairstyles and one large black woman. The blonde with the bun leaned across the table with a conversational glint in her eye.

“So you recently made some waves with your thoughts about marriage. Do you have any theories on why people are so upset?”

“Marriage has become this sacred cow across the political spectrum,” said Winter, draping a casual elbow over the back of his chair. “I support the right of anyone who wants to get married to get married, but I think in some ways the same-sex marriage movement has been detrimental to society because it enshrines this one model of marriage as if it were engraved on stone tablets. The fact of the matter is, history has seen as many forms of marriage as there have been societies. I think the pendulum is swinging toward a more open and pluralistic view of relationship. The human organism is not a creature of absolutes.”

“Shattering conventions — I love it,” said the spiky blonde with professionally modulated enthusiasm.

“You flatter me,” said Carson Winter, “but convention is just that, a commonly understood term. It’s not a law that everyone abides by. People talk about family values as if they’re some kind of building code. I think family values are things like honesty. There’s nothing that says a relationship has to be exclusive as long as it’s honest. Marriage is supposed to be some public commitment that says you’ll be exclusive for the rest of your life. But isn’t that often just a form of hypocrisy? Let me give you an example. I’ve brought some guests.” He gestured toward the audience. “Right here with us is that paragon of American virtue, a Southern matron, who’s up in New York this weekend to [bleep] my nephew.”

The camera panned over to focus on the white face of Sophia Spencer Dalton, gaping in shock at Ian Winter next to her. His arm was draped over her shoulders but he couldn’t seem to turn his eyes away from the train wreck on stage. A weak smile was still plastered on his face.

“A lot of people would think it was immoral for a married woman to spend a passionate weekend with a man not her husband,” Carson Winter droned on through the blood pounding in Melly’s ears. “I think it’s immoral to reduce marriage to a societal straitjacket.”

Sophia was out of her seat and scrambling over the studio audience, followed by Ian. The black hostess bellowed, “Oh no he didn’t!”, and the layered blonde motioned desperately for the camera to cut away. Carson Winter crossed his legs and, as the video froze, favored the internet with a still of his perfectly bleached smile.

“Look at her face,” gloated Jean Arceneaux, moving the video back a few frames to snicker at Sophia and Ian’s ludicrous pose. “That’s gonna be a great meme.”

10 comments:

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

Six thumbs up!

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

YOU CAN'T LEAVE US HANGING HERE!!!

entropy said...

So Good.

Bernadette said...

Oh I love this so much. So much. Though I'm torn between scandalized delight that Carson Winter outed his nephew and Sophia on the morning talk shows, and surprise that Jean Arceneaux knows what a meme is. Well, not that he knows what one is, but that he knows what it's called.

Brandon said...

Carson Winter is very nicely done; simultaneously embarrassing people for nothing other than publicity and presenting it as if it were a compliment fits him to a T.

mrsdarwin said...

E., the correct way to end this would have been to focus on Melly's reaction, but it was just getting too late and everything else was already written...

Bernadette, I thought about that for a while, but then I figured that Jean Arceneaux spends a lot of time on the entertainment corridors of the web. And if my dad knows what a meme is, Jean probably does too.

It's going to take me at least three more sections to finish this, but we're getting into the home stretch here.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Actually, I think you ended it on the perfect note . . . assuming you were going for a cliffhanger. LOL!

Until the ending, my only comment was going to be: "Now I know who Melly reminds me of . . . Taylor Swift in her You Belong with Me video!"

While I admire Melly's virtue, I confess that I'm glad that there are some characters who won't turn the other cheek for the sinners of the story, but will give as good as they get. Well, sort of. Carson Winters wasn't really hurt by Ian and Sophia's affair, so his outing them wasn't an act of revenge . . . which at least keeps it from being as bad as it might have been. =P In any case, it's almost cathartic to see that certain characters wouldn't have got away with everything forever.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

Perfect. Carson Winters on a talk show. Of course that's how it all comes out.

And of course Melly's mother has knock-off Thomas Kincaid.

Tao Mason said...

This is brilliant. Soooo good.

As a very occasional visitor to this blog I hadn't been following this story at all, but now I'm going to have to read it from the beginning.

I happen to love the novel that is evidently serving as the premise, but I don't remember ever laughing so loudly when I read the original. Awesome work. :)

MrsDarwin said...

Tao Mason, if you search for "Stillwater Index" and pick the August 2014 post, you'll have a list of links to all but the final, unwritten section. Glad you're enjoying it!