4:50, 4000 words today. Maybe a personal best.
Waves of horrible clarity swamped Melly. All of Alys’s texts made sudden, vile, incontrovertible sense. Sophia was giving Ian trouble? Rumors were getting started? Ian loved her? He was bleeping Sophia, practically on camera! Oh Lord, the Spencers! Had they seen this yet? It would kill them! And how could she have forgotten Chris Dalton? Melly’s thoughts came as short and sharp as her breathing until the room started to spin around her. Somehow she made her way toward her bedroom, unnoticed over the commotion of Nanette and Marie-Helene demanding to see what was so funny. Sounds were muffled and distorted by the rushing in her head, but as she collapsed on her bed she could just hear her mother say, “Well, I hope people won’t stop getting married. How are we supposed to get by if they cut my hours at Tina’s Bridal?”
The bitter taste of this news made Melly heartsick. Sophia was no sister to her, but they had lived under the same roof for years. She remembered all the hours she’d spent beading and knotting Sophia’s wedding dress, and her stomach turned over again as she remembered shrinking back in the corner, dress on her lap, as Ian flirted with Sophia even then. Sophia had walked down the aisle in that dress only six months ago. Six months! Now poor stupid Chris, so stolid and handsome as he waited at the altar for Sophia in her embroidered gown, was abandoned.
Tears spilled onto her pillow as she felt all the sorrow of her friends. Dick, in his hospital bed. Olivia, in Brazil, perhaps seeing the video on Facebook with no warning, just as Melly had. Sophia’s good kind parents, Richard and Cheryl. They must be eaten up with grief. What parent, however negligent (and Richard and Cheryl had never been negligent — too hands off, perhaps), desires that his or her daughter should commit adultery? Cheryl would weep openly and be easily comforted. Richard’s wounds would run deeper. She compared his reaction with her own father’s, and cried some more.
And finally, she let her thoughts turn toward Malcolm. Oh, Malcolm. What must he be suffering tonight, poor love? His sister having an affair with a man he’d always known as a friend. He had to wonder how much Ian’s own dear sister knew beforehand, how much she could have done to discourage Ian and Sophia if she’d been of a mind to. Perhaps now… But Melly stepped away from this mental door and closed it gently. Malcolm had woes enough. She was not going to make a puppet of him in her thoughts.
Wiping her eyes, she rolled over and fished under her pillow for the familiar beads of her rosary. It was going to be a hard night for sleeping.
A slow news cycle, the Thanksgiving break, and sheer outrageousness all combined in a perfect storm to throw the Winter affair before the public in all its sordid glory. The video was an instant viral hit, what with the long holiday weekend allowing everyone the leisure to finally click that link and indulge in mockery or outrage over the lifestyles of the rich and beautiful. The interview itself became a major media fracas as the television network, terrified of a lawsuit, demanded a public apology from Carson Winter, and he, unrepentant, refused to play along with their bourgeois moral demands. Jean Arceneaux, with his finger on the pulse of the internet, had correctly predicted the rise of the “Oh no he didn’t!” meme. As their story metastasized over social media, the wretched couple found themselves cemented by a sticky bond of isolation. Neither of them had intended the affair to be anything more than a weekend of passionate nothings, but now their mutual humiliation made them cling to one another like drowning swimmers. Of course they hadn’t expected to be congratulated on their little fling, but then, they hadn’t ever expected to face the full inquisition of the chattering classes. Ridicule, or the receiving end of it, was a strange new world for both of them. They could dish it out plenty, but having to take it, with no buffer zone of cool points or admiring friends, didn’t have the same clever frisson. It felt like nausea. It felt like nakedness. It felt like… losing.
The day after their public exposure, Ian and Sophia hopped a friend’s jet and flew to his island house, escaping the media conflagration which descended on Carson Winter. Perhaps a prepared statement would have helped the story blow over sooner; as it was, reporters looking for one more detail to flesh out their stories soon took the few detective steps to connect Sophia Spencer Dalton with Dick Spencer who’d been a minor news figure himself recently, bringing that story back in the public eye and launching a thousand reams of commentary on the family values of the 1%.
It had been a bitter month for Richard and Cheryl Spencer, with the near loss of one child and the virtual loss of another. On Thanksgiving Day they sat holding hands in their sterile Dallas apartment and called Olivia in Brazil to ask her to come back home.
“Ohhh…,” she said, and her hesitation sent shivers of apprehension through her father’s heart. “I’m sorry about Dick, really I am, guys. And I’m sorry about Sophia too.” She was suddenly fierce. “I hate her. Even things that start out good she blows up. She ruins everything she touches.”
“No, Olivia,” Cheryl sobbed. “Don’t say that about your sister.”
“I’m sorry, Mom,” Olivia’s voice caught too. “But I can’t come home.”
“Because… because João and I are getting married.”
“Married!” Cheryl squealed through her tears. “Oh, honey! You need to come home, at least for a weekend, so we can tell everyone and plan and go dress shopping…”
“Actually, we…” She started again, faster. “We’re getting married this weekend. We’ve got all the documents and everything.”
There was a silence.
“This weekend?” asked Richard. The apprehension not just shivers anymore, but a full trembling. “Why didn’t you tell us?”
“I was going to,” she said, and now her voice rose high and thick, his little girl crying. “I’m pregnant, Dad.”
The Spencers weren’t the only ones having a hard week. Chris Dalton had learned about his wife’s affair along with the rest of America, and he was at a loss to explain it. He’d always thought of himself as an easy-going husband. When had he ever demanded that Sophia do anything she didn’t want to? She traveled when she wanted to. She bought whatever she liked. He wanted her to be happy, for God’s sake. And then, without the decency to even call him or give any reasons, she was out there flaunting that Winter guy all over TV. That Winter guy — Chris had never liked him, he’d never made any bones about that. But now every time he thought about Ian and Sophia and their stupid frozen faces on TV, a wave of acid washed through his gut and he wanted to smash his fist into walls, windows, or especially Winters. Sophia wouldn’t call him, wouldn’t write to him, wouldn’t answer his messages, texts, emails, any way he could get through to her. He was miserable and alone and full of a bubbling, impotent rage, and that was before he read the comments.
The video had been posted and re-posted, and it was exactly the kind of kerfuffle on which everyone had an easy opinion. Carson Winter came in for the lion’s share of abuse (although a certain segment of the commentariat praised him for putting the slut in her place), but Ian and Sophia were roundly mocked as well. At first Chris felt vindicated every time someone called Sophia out. Yes! Bitch sure got what she deserved! Stupid ho! That was some outrageous shit! But his triumph was dulled by comment after ribald, jeering comment. And people weren’t just making fun of Sophia — they were making fun of him. People who didn’t know his name, or anything about him except that he was married to her, had lots to say about his personality, his money, his manhood, and his family. Even when the jabs were completely inaccurate, they still drew blood.
The common thread in popular opinion was that Sophia was done. Everyone wondered how she’d dare to show her face again. That was the end of her marriage, definitely. Her husband should kick her to the curb. She was so divorced, OMG! Divorce her ass, the sooner the better.
A week and a half after Sophia’s morning show appearance, Chris Dalton blocked all his accounts, changed all his passwords, and texted her to say he was filing for divorce.
A week and a half after her morning show appearance, Sophia was coming to her own unhappy insights. Ian didn’t love her. He didn’t even want her anymore. He had only brought her to the island as a consolation getaway after the scandal broke. They had been fighting, and fighting was a bitter eye opener for Sophia. It was easy to best Chris in a battle of wits, but Sophia had nowhere near the firepower necessary to compete with Ian, nor was she afflicted with the kind of remorse that drove him to slice her to shreds. She could take some cold comfort in the fact that at least she’d screwed him over with little Melly, but at this time when she was particularly vulnerable, he could easily pulverize her with a few home truths. Not only that, in her one act of solidarity with her husband, she too made the mistake of reading the comments. It was a devastating glimpse of the public mind for one so newly emotionally fragile. No one admired her any more. No one wished they could be her. She didn’t make people jealous. Some men applauded Ian and said they’d hit that too, but women felt only contempt for her. Ian was ready to send her back to New York. Chris was through with her. She wouldn’t go crawling to her parents. There was only one person left in the world who would understand her.
Esther Davis consoled and advised her niece, and ended the call with a new sense of purpose. The last week had been hard on her, too. The world had turned against her favorite niece, and in her opinion, Richard Spencer had not done nearly enough to take care of his baby. Dick was going to be fine — nothing could kill that idiot — but anyone could have seen that Chris had never deserved Sophia. Was anyone really surprised that she’d want to escape with Ian Winter? But now Sophia was abandoned by Chris, by Dick, probably by her parents too, by everyone except her aunt Esther. Let Chris divorce her. Esther and her life savings were going to make sure Sophia could rebuild her life in peace.
Early Monday morning, two weeks after Carson Winter took to the airwaves, Esther strode into Stillwater’s kitchen and found Malcolm, returned from an emergency weekend powwow with Alys, picking at his toast and egg before going to the school.
“Now that you’re back I wanted to give you these,” she said, tossing the keys to her cottage on the table. “I’m leaving today.”
“Okay,” said Malcolm into his coffee cup. “When will you be back?”
“Would I give you my keys if I were coming back? I’m leaving. First I’m meeting Sophia in New York. She’s suffering. She needs a change of scene and spiritual renewal. I’m taking her on pilgrimage to Tibet to walk the Mount Kailash kora. Even one circuit around the the mountain can erase negativity from the pilgrim’s life.”
“You’re going to Tibet? Now?” Malcolm, who was not a morning person, stared at her with a groggy sort of helplessness that might have been endearing to anyone else but Esther. “Are you going to be back to run the Christmas fete this weekend?”
Esther gave him a look of spiritual reproach. “I believe that people are more important than parties, Malcolm. I’ve poured too much of my energy into this house as it is. Sophia needs me now and that’s all that matters.”
“Who’s going to run the fete now?”
She shrugged. “It can practically run itself, if it’s so important that it go on.”
“If it’s so important… !“ Malcolm swallowed down a sharper retort. “Have you talked to my parents about this?”
“I didn’t want to add one more thing to their plate. They’re so absorbed in Dick right now that they don’t seem to have time for anything else.”
Now Malcolm stood up. “Of course they’re absorbed in Dick. What else would they be absorbed in right now?”
“Yes, what else indeed? Everything always goes to Dick. He’s the oldest. Perhaps Sophia might have learned to make better choices if your parents had put as much time into her as they had for Dick.”
Malcolm was choked with responses to this: first, mind your own damn business; second, considering how Dick has turned out, more parental attention probably wouldn’t have had much effect; and finally, a rising conviction, painful as it might be to his loyal heart, that there was a kernel of truth in Esther’s accusation.
Esther turned in the doorway. She looked as if she were on the verge of making one last point, but she shut her mouth, pressed her palms together, and bowed. “Namaste,” she said, and left Stillwater for the last time.
Malcolm leaned heavily on the table. He needed to leave for work any minute now. The people who did fete stuff always came after he was gone. Did they have keys? Had Esther opened up for them? He realized that he had no idea how to cancel the party. Esther had so many moving pieces in play that he was sure to miss one. He ran to her office to see what he could dig up in three minutes. The place was a jumble — a testament to Esther’s devotion to Sophia; she normally kept the place neat as a pin — and he had no idea what anything meant. A large desk calendar was scribbled with memos and phone numbers. On tomorrow’s square was written, “Donor tour, 6 pm”.
And he had to leave this minute, or he would be late. He stepped from Esther’s office into the grand hall and looked around. Everywhere preparations for the fete were in evidence: a scaffolding here, a rolled carpet there. The loneliness of the house bore down on him. Somehow he was going to have to figure all this out, by himself, but he couldn’t think about it now. With a sigh, he pulled out his phone and started in on the first task.
“Hi, Dad? Sorry to call so early. I have a bit of bad news…”
The tensions of the past two weeks had wound Melly as tight as a fine yarn. The demands of the last week of classes and registration for the next semester, and now finals week, sapped her mental energy even as every nerve was attuned to what irregular scraps of news she could get from Cheryl or Malcolm. Tuesday morning would be her last final, and then — she had mentioned this to no one yet — she was making a bold plan to ask Cheryl if there was any way she could help her in Dallas over the winter break. It seemed callous to leave her family over Christmas, but it was a matter of indifference to most of them whether she was there or not, and anyway, she’d spent the last five Christmases away from them as it was. The only catch in her plans was Leonie. Melly would miss her desperately, but Leonie would feel the loss of Melly’s presence even more keenly. Once again she reconsidered the idea and shoved it to the back of her mind.
Monday afternoon, as she was stepping out of her Principles of Economics final (she’d probably blown it; her essay was terrible and why hadn’t she remembered that one point the professor had harped on all semester?) her phone buzzed in her pocket.
“Melly? Oh, I’m so glad I caught you! I just don’t know what to do, everything’s crazy, who’s going to look after my poor baby?” Cheryl was keyed up to a pitch of emotion that seemed unusual even in these dark days.
“What’s the matter? Is it Dick?”
“Dick?” Cheryl was momentarily taken aback. “No, Dick’s okay. Who’s going to take care of Pugsy? He’s all alone now, Malcolm never pays any attention to him. He’ll starve.”
“Won’t Esther feed him?”
Cheryl launched into the saga of Esther and the trip to Tibet, though she was so flustered that Melly had to unravel the story bit by bit before she could understand the problem. “And now Pugsy is all alone, and there are strange people all over the house setting up for Esther’s stupid party this weekend, because no one knows how to stop it, and you know how Pugsy hates to be alone with strangers. And Malcolm still has school through next week, and the kennel can’t take him right now. But I can’t leave Richard here alone with Dick because they’re still just learning how to get along. And Pugsy’s going to starve.” This last trailed off into little bursts of sobs.
Melly heard herself say, “I’ll do it. I’ll go down to Stillwater and take care Pugsy and everything. I can be there tomorrow.”
“Oh, honey, how sweet!” Cheryl’s voice trailed back up with this infusion of hope. “Pugsy loves you so much. Malcolm just doesn’t have the touch with dogs.”
Melly doubted whether she had the touch with dogs either, or whether old Pugsy was just used to her, but she wasn’t going to raise that point just yet. There was one more question she needed to ask.
“Do you mind if I bring my sister with me? She’s good with dogs.” Leonie had always wanted a dog, anyway, which was more than Melly could say for herself.
“Of course, honey, do whatever you need to,” Cheryl said, ready to acquiesce to any demand Melly made, as long as she was going to watch Pugsy. “It’s only strangers Pugsy doesn’t like.”
Melly sat on a bench and tried to sort her thoughts through her haze of happiness. She was going back to Stillwater. She was going home. She was taking Leonie. There were so many plans to be made so quickly, but Leonie would help her. Leonie had a head for business, and she was always looking for a broader scope for action. Here it was! Here was her chance!
Leonie found her still sitting on the bench, still staring gently into space.
“Girl, what are you doing?” she asked, slapping one of Melly’s hands gently to wake her up. “Are you okay? You look…,” She peered more closely at Melly. “You look happy.”
Melly started. She was happy, desperately happy, while her friends were still suffering. She had forgotten everyone else’s pain in her own beatitude, and now she closed her eyes for a moment and uttered a quick prayer for all those she loved before she turned to face Leonie with transformed face.
“For the first time in my life,” she said, “I think I’d really like a drink.”
The rest of the evening was spend in work, blessed work toward a happy end. It was as Melly had thought: her parents were completely resigned to the loss of two daughters. Not a tear was shed or a remonstrance tendered. Indeed, Marie-Helene was positively joyful; she was getting her own room.
The next morning, as soon as Melly was out of her 8 am final, she and Leonie went down to the registrar’s office. Clutching her sister’s hand for support, Melly walked up to the cashier’s window and said in a voice of determination, “I’m not coming back to school next semester, and I’d like to withdraw from my classes and clear out my account.”
The next step was to take the money and catch a bus down to a car dealer Leonie had researched last night. This was her part of the show. For one thing, she had the driver’s license. But she was also ready to haggle with a car salesman, a prospect Melly considered downright purgatorial. At the dealership, Melly retired to corner, notebook and pencil in hand, and only spoke to give the correct answer to Leonie’s secret negotiation signals. The process stretched out till the crack of doom, but Leonie was armed with a sense of right and cash in hand, and in the end they drove off in something much nicer than Melly had expected. Then it was back to the house to load up everything and let Jean Arceneaux kick the tires and quiz Leonie about her haggling — something that engaged his interest far more than any of the circumstances surrounding his daughters’ departure. Melly was anxious to be off. Already her spirit was free of Baton Rouge, flying south down the river to Stillwater, and it was pulling her body with it.
Of all days for rush hour to be particularly brutal! Leonie could not be agitated over a little congestion on the roadways. She was reveling in the new car, already named Baby. Not until they had crossed the Mississippi and turned south on Highway 1 did Melly stop fretting about traffic and start fretting about Stillwater.
Baby purred along Highway 1, through White Castle, and, following Melly’s directions, onto River Road. This was her home turf now, and she was on the lookout for any signs of newness, as if the quiet road were likely to have undergone some metamorphosis in the three months she’d been away. There was only the same old scenery, the same old wonderful scenery cloaked in November cool instead of August heat, the same oaks arching over the gravel driveway, the same colossal pink plantation house with its monumental porch supported by stone pillars topped with cedar capitals, the same alcoves and windows and wings and porches and balconies.
“This place looks exactly the same,” said Leonie. “Has anything changed?”
“I hope not,” whispered Melly, almost shaking with anticipation.
There were several cars parked in back, and a few well-dressed ladies milled around, looking lost.
Melly put on her new Stillwater business face. “Can I help you?”
“I think we’re supposed to be taking the tour at 6:00,” said one, with an uncertain glance at her phone. “But Esther Davis isn’t here to meet us, and she’s not answering her phone.”
“Wait here, please,” said Melly. She tried the basement door, found it open, and stepped inside. Everything was quiet in the basement, but she had seen Malcolm’s car in the carriage house. She ran up the stairs, through the kitchen and the old housekeeper’s room, Richard’s office. He wasn’t in that wing, so she ran again, through the gallery to the back stair hall and called, “Malcolm?”
There was a sudden rustle and thumping in Esther’s office. She skidded over to the doorway and found Malcolm standing in front of a chair he’d just knocked over, staring at her across a desk full of papers.
“Melly?” he tried to say, but face was suddenly twisted with a suffusion of hope. She also tried to speak, but it wasn’t possible. She could only look at his suddenly bright eyes and his hair all mussed up as if he’d spent all day clutching his head. Her knees suddenly felt weak, but there wasn’t time to worry about holding herself up; he was already around the desk in an instant, seizing her and pressing her close. “Oh Melly, I am so glad to see you, you don’t know!”
His voice held months’ worth of choked-up stresses; the last words might have been a sob, but she couldn’t tell because he’d buried his face in her hair and it was getting in his mouth. Her heart was pounding so hard that she was afraid he would hear it. Murmuring inarticulately, she patted his back for a moment until it stopped convulsing, then gently quieted her hands on his back and kept her head on his shoulder as still as possible so he wouldn’t be startled into moving away from her. She closed her eyes and leaned into his breathing, and as it steadied, she became aware, though perhaps she’d known it all along, that he was keeping as still as possible so she wouldn’t be startled into moving away from him.
She wanted to stay this way, for hours, for days, but there were people gathering at the back of the house. Another car came rumbling down the driveway, and Malcolm started and pulled away and looked out the window.
“Why are people here?” Melly asked as briskly as she could.
“It’s this tour Esther set up,” he said, still looking down the driveway, but in his normal voice, matching her tone. “It was supposed to start at 6. I don’t even know what to do.”
“I do,” said Melly, turning with purpose toward the door. “Turn on some lights up here, will you?”
At least he knew where the light switches were in his own house. He charged around the first floor flipping on everything he could find, and then ran upstairs in case those rooms were on the tour too. The activity was a welcome diversion; he hardly knew how this day was ending so differently than it had started, but he was surprised and confused and… happy. He was happy for the first time since Dick’s accident, maybe before. His mother’s vague text from earlier in the day, telling him not to worry about feeding Pugsy anymore because it was taken care of, was transformed from one more mysterious irritant to a harbinger of unimaginable peace. Melly was here. She was going to take care of everything. She knew Esther’s systems, she knew the house, she knew Pugsy, thank God.
As he came down the stairs, he could hear the tour group murmuring in the parlor, and, to cap this strange day, there was Melly’s voice drifting back to him clear and strong: “The exterior is mostly in the Greek Revival style, but we see the marriage of Greek Revival and Italianate styles here in the parlor, in the delicate curling plasterwork of the capitals on the columns and pilasters, and in the the geometry of the dentil moldings…”
If there was anyone who could handle this fete, this big unmanageable chaotic Esther’s-idea fete, it was Melly. Thank God she was here! He could have stood hugging her for hours, for days, he was so relieved to see her. Poor thing, had he startled her? She had been so still and quiet and Mellyesque, and for one moment, he thought that perhaps she had been as glad to see him as he was to see her.
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