Bad Counsel (part one)
This is one of the bigger things, this teaching of lessons. We descend a hill, soon to stand among the cattails at the lip of the frog pond, with Andrée and Sam Magruder, a man who may be her father. Here is Leo Magruder’s daughter, coming down, holding out her phone in one balancing fist. Reddening mosquito fodder, she has something against long pants in the late spring, and much against concession, against investing herself in this outing, to dress for it. But jealousy makes her party to it. She wears rubber thongs with her white shorts, a bubblegum pink tee shirt. Her name is Melody.
She might be Andrée’s sister. The resemblance (vague, Andrée thinks) had caught the eye of Sam’s friend from the beach. Sam is telling Andrée, see there…hilltop’ll be leveled first, fill moved down here. Get rid of this. Pause. Bullfrogs plonk, toads trill. A dragonfly drones up fast, hovers near Andreé’s nose; Sam thwacks it with his fisherman’s hat. New drainway, carry the runoff down the culvert.
“But,” she says. She thinks he should make it easy, though she is stuck for an easy way to say this. If he owns the house, and is only going to sell it, he should let Mom buy it, even if she can’t. I mean, Andrée thinks, all this time he gave her nothing for me. Cheesy.
So, she was going to say, it’s kinda nice. A nice little pond. Segue to making her point from there.
“But how come…?” Melody says. Then starts over, calls him by his first name. She is his niece. “Sam, maybe the kids would like the pond.”
Your kids? Andrée thinks, and she asks aloud, “So you’re gonna buy the house?” This seems a bad thing to say, even had Andrée not let her voice air her suspicions. And she wouldn’t, a minute ago, have thought Melody was here for any reason, other than to vie for attention, to shove herself in front of the incomer. Something compressed in Melody’s face has made her cheeks puff. She’s angry; but thinking better of what she might have answered.
Sam is quiet, thinking of the joke he ought to make, wondering whether he can make it, or if a man can’t talk about that stuff now…thinking of his wife, her celebrity shows, the way she puts down other women when they feud.
He is released by the whumping of athletic soles on dry clay, the clink of ice in glass. They look up, to what they call the ridgetop, though the hill is modest enough. Andrée’s mother has lemonade. She raises the pitcher in her hand.
In the kitchen, iridescent lint on the black stovetop. Andrée’s mother says it only shows in the sun. In the sun, rings of grease around each knob also show, and the path of the wipe-down, satiny streaks from three fingers and a thumb on a paper towel. Not that it matters. Andrée will do this cursory job if her mother says to; otherwise, she cleans nothing, and her mother not much. The dirt is more standoff than habit.
Why should I―
And why should I, right back at you.
Sam gets inside the refrigerator and hunts a bottle of water. While he roots, rump up and head down, no one can pass that way. Andrée strides in by the side door, at the culmination of an exasperated little tussle, Melody slow and slower, Andrée at a standstill. Melody taking this half-courtesy as offense.
Andrée has gone first, shrugging at Leo’s daughter in passing. She thinks, I couldn’t say anything… What am I supposed to say?
After you, ma’am.
But knowing her way around the house, she soon has the upper hand. Melody must follow Andrée into the living room, single file through the passage, past the closet’s louver door, the toilet left, washer and dryer right.
Now Sam is no longer in the way.
Melody eyeballs the glasses that Andrée’s mother has been filling with lemonade. Rejected once, Karen pours on, lining them up. Andrée watches Leo’s daughter touch a finger to the stovetop…but not quite. She draws it back. She glances at the fiberboard étagère where Andrée and her mother get their plates, their coffee mugs, and cereal bowls. Andrée considers what Melody projects. But who cares? Dust is probably good for you. If you have a soft immune system, you get sick anyway.
She glides to the counter by the refrigerator, and takes two glasses, holds one out. “You want this? Melody.”
But her relative takes it. She thanks Andrée. She calls her Andrée, and not Andrea, as she used to, resistant to correction.
Melody says: “Sam, how many bedrooms does this place have?”
It does not yet occur to Andrée to bridle. The question seems oddly phrased, that’s all, as though Leo’s daughter and Sam had been in the middle of a conversation.
“What…” he says. “This place here?”
Sam aims a forefinger at the kitchen floor. He says the same thing: “You mean this little house here?”
He doesn’t say Karen’s house, because he has already purchased it from her. It has become property. But the understanding had been that the house would be demolished; that it affected the planned-for view…
That a 60s ranch with scalloped siding and a bad roof wasn’t…
Companionable, say. With the other side of the highway, Sam and Leo’s investment behind the noise wall.
“Two bedrooms,” says Andrée’s mother. “Just two.”
Melody puts something into her nod, an extra, theatrical, “I see, I see.”
(2017, Stephanie Foster)