The Woman of the House
by Camille Hugret
She was eighteen years old when the Elms became her own. The house was given to her by her father after the wedding that took place on the hottest Sunday of 1943 in the Florien Baptist church. At night when the weather grew mild the reception moved inside under a wide tent. Her father had fallen asleep on a pile of cushions in the corner with the deed hanging from his pocket and had to be helped to the car by Levi who was only a boy then. Before Levi could get the car door shut her father had leaped out again, waving the thin sheaf of papers that he had forgotten until searching his pockets for a match. Though she had been half expecting the gift she was struck by a solemn joy. That morning when the preacher announced that she was henceforth Mrs. Bish Montgomery, Eveline still felt like the girl she’d been, but holding the deed to the Elms she was transformed. She thought of how the house would look in the moonlight. Ten acres of boggy ground and hanging Spanish moss separated her father’s house and the Elms Eveline gathered the skirt of her wedding dress in both arms and ran them down.
The moon was slung so low that it seemed settled in the chimney like an egg in a cup. Under its cold light the row of trees that gave the house its name shone pale. Eveline threw her thin arms around each wide Doric column as she passed through the doorway and danced unsteadily up the wrought iron spiral stair. She spun through the empty cavernous rooms and then went through once more with methodical purpose, throwing open windows, listening to the furtive creak of floorboards. It was sunrise by the time Bish found her and both were too tired to do anything but lie down in the middle of a shadowy room and sleep.
Now she was well into her eighth decade and Bish had died long ago but her marriage to the house continued without fuss or renovation. Eveline’s thin arms hung with slack muscle. Her hair was the snowy white of the original columns, which in turn had taken on the lichen green of her eyes. Together Eveline and her plantation house gathered dust and slowly deteriorated. Some years ago the third story’s floor had begun to list to the right. Soon after, the barn roof fell in and all the horses were sold except for Old Neil. Eveline stopped driving her ’57 Fairlane and began putting candy dishes of cat food on the porch, collecting strays. Only the towering elms that gave the house its name remained unchanged. Twenty-seven trees lining the driveway like a string of white elephants.
Though it had become shabby, the house was still of interest, an antebellum relic with three stories of red brick, its façade supported by four enormous white columns. There were other noteworthy mansions in the historical town of Florien but the Elms’ unusual grand iron staircase and cathedral style stained glass windows in the rear parlor meant tourists would pay to look inside. Each May, Eveline put on her hoopskirt, for the sake of pageantry, and welcomed the strangers through her rooms. Trailing cigarette smoke, she told them of its history while nameless wraithlike cats ran from under dusty furniture. Come June, all but the necessary rooms would be shut up to reduce the cost of cooling and Eveline would move through them quietly, watching the birds or playing solitaire in the parlor as the ceiling fans unstuck damp wisps of hair from her forehead.
This June there would be a wedding. Her youngest, LadyAnne had come home from Los Angeles for good and on Sunday she’d marry Jon Coffee, a local boy. She’d given them only two months warning. All Eveline could think to do was call Mr. Oates at the Pigglywiggly and buy a pallet of champagne. At her age she didn’t eat meals in the usual sense anyway and the rest Arthell, her eldest, could arrange the rest. Standing at the kitchen sink she muttered over Lady Anne’s casual announcement. To leave such a thing on an answering machine!
“Don’t make a fuss over the ceremony,” said the voice in dulcet tones. “Modest and mirthless is best for a second marriage they say.” Lady Anne’s was a teasing voice, secure in the knowledge that at least a small fuss would be made. She said that Ella, her daughter would catch a plane from Biloxi and land in New Orleans. “She knows to sit outside and wait for her uncle George to get her. I gave her a picture since it’s been so long. Just between us chickens I’m not sure she’s taken to the new wife.”
Eveline could hear Arthell above, scraping the attic floor with the legs of dusty furniture, dragging the chaos into controlled piles, instilling order. There was a time when Eveline was sure she would marry, but that boy had gone east for college and met someone else and Arthell had become prematurely solitary and plain. She’d settled into her stout chin and grim expression and, as far as Eveline knew, never thought of another boy. It was Bish she saw in her oldest daughter, his dourness and the strong, squared hands. Now Arthell taught school in the next town. She had been the first to arrive that Saturday evening and already had Old Levi sweeping the wet leaves and dirt from the courtyard. She’d set him to work before she’d even taken off her wide-brimmed straw hat and sat down to coffee.
At the kitchen table Arthell removed the coffee pot from her mother’s tenuous grasp and poured two cups. Eveline frowned and dropped her hands into her lap.
“I think it’s horrid to put a young child on a plane all alone.”
“Ella must be at least eight by now momma,” said Arthell. “And when she gets off the plane she’ll see her uncle George waiting for her.”
“Oh, George,” said Eveline fondly and then “eight years old! Gracious, but how?”
“Time does run on but I think that’s about right. Anyway, a plane trip alone never hurt a child, now to grow up with an absentee mother …” Arthell shook out her napkin as though to clear her mind. “They’ll be here soon. At least we should have their rooms ready.”
She pushed her chair back. Arthell never sat for long and it seemed to her mother that their conversations were ever more perfunctory. Sometimes Eveline imagined her daughter saw her as one of her students in need of a brief, distracted lecture.
The tireless noises continued above. Eveline had sent Arthell searching for a number of things that would be necessary for the wedding. Increasingly she’d find herself halted in the middle of a large room with the sense that there was something missing, though she couldn’t grasp whether it was an article of furniture that had fallen to the rats or the memory of something past. At the moment the thing most on her mid was the big linen tablecloth, but now that Eveline thought on it, she guessed it probably wasn’t in the attic but in the stable where Levi had used it to protect the saddles from rain. She was climbing the stairs to tell Arthell when George’s truck came up the drive. He drove with exaggerated indolence, his head lolling against the seat back as though he were asleep at the wheel.
“Just who do you think you are? Get your head up, you!” even as she spoke she was across the courtyard, stepping gingerly with her thin arms outstretched to put her hands on his shoulders, her face into the rough flannel, her only son.
“Momma, you’re about as tiny as a baby spider aren’t you eating or do I have to have a word with Old Levi?”
Ella slid awkwardly from the backseat of the truck and pulled her skirt down over her coltish knees.
“How’s your father, Ella?” Eveline asked the child. The girl turned away to look at the house and sighed loudly. Eveline used to think of her as a shy child but now saw her silence was watchful. She seemed to have a vague separation from her surroundings, like a small foreigner that didn’t speak the language.
“Am I in the yellow room Momma?” asked George and Eveline nodded trying to remember if this was true. She laid a hesitant hand on his suitcase to make him pause while she collected her wits. After a long slow summer where each day had bled seamlessly into the next, here was so much activity all at once and now a blur of tulle from the corner of her eye.
“Now, Ella!” Eveline called after her but the little girl had taken off at a gallop with her arms out like wings. Her white dress disappeared into the darkness of the long hall.
In the room she’d always been told was her own, Ella climbed the little stair next to her bed and rolled back and forth on the enormous mattress that sat high off the floor. She’d stayed in this room many times and its eccentricities had become familiar to her. There was a distressing collection of cracked porcelain dolls seated on the fire’s mantel. The enormous oak door, engraved with interlocking squares, was too heavy for her to budge and in the morning she’d lay in bed and wait pitifully for someone to let her come down to breakfast. Ella had likewise become accustomed to the tall mirror in the door of the armoire whose glass was warped and made her face look old and discolored as she ran past. But it was the wallpaper that each night, kept her mind from settling into the friendly nonsense thoughts before sleep. It was painted in a highly stylized scene that was repeated from ceiling to floorboards. Over and over across the sagging walls a naked baby was dragged by long legged wolves into sepia, water stained caves. Even the whispery sweep of pages turning in the next room couldn’t allay her fears once it was night and she was alone.
Arthell found George unpacking and stood in the doorway to his childhood room holding the list she’d made. She could tell he wasn’t aware of her from the painstaking way he folded his shirts, smoothing the creases with the heel of his palm before stacking them in the pine dresser. He was the sort of man that would always look like the boy he’d been. At forty he still had the blond flat top he’d worn as an Eagle Scout and a spray of freckles across his nose, though his shoulders had grown broader. Arthell remembered how George had shot up in height the year their father had died, as though it were the combination of harsh discipline and assorted disappointments that had kept him from flourishing. She coughed lightly.
“Here’s your list now,” she said at once. “These here you can do tonight.” She pointed at the bottom of the page with a sturdy finger.
He took the list and walked out to the veranda where she could hear him striking his lighter until it caught.
“Don’t burn that list George Joseph,” she called and marched to the edge of the shade. George beckoned her outside with a flourish of his cigar.
“Why don’t you stop slinking around in doorways and come out here?”
Arthell fixed him with a hard stare. “I can’t help but notice that Kevin is not among us.”
George blew a fat ring of smoke that disappeared over the rain gutters and rose lazily in the humid air.
“Did you know I built him a rock garden in the backyard like he’s been talking about for years? I even put a little pond in there and stocked it with goldfish.”
“You cheat on him again?”
“Strung up paper lanterns all along the fence.”
“Oh, George,” she began but stopped when the voice in her ears was too much like Eveline’s
“He threw me out of my own house. I had to sleep in the truck.”
“ Too damn hot out here,” she said and sat heavily on the porch swing. “This place is about to fall down around our ears.”
“I know it.” Said George. “I have eyes don’t I?” He surveyed the land below. There was Old Levi doing his best to hack at the jungle that was creeping into the courtyard. He remembered a birthday, his own? There had been a piñata hung in that same spot and they had taken turns beating it with a long branch. When, with a heroic blow George knocked off its head, they discovered their mother had forgotten to put candy inside. George tearfully brought the piñata’s broken shell to the grown-ups who laughed wildly over the mistake. His mother kissed his forehead, spilling wine on his shoes. There had been some brief talk of going down to the store for some candy but no one had been sober enough to put it into action and it was soon forgotten. Tugging on his father’s shirtsleeve had only gotten him a warning cuff on the ear.
Late in the afternoon Eveline played solitaire in the parlor, according to her habit, and singly her children drifted in, drawn form the recesses of the large house by the concentration of voices.
“Play for us George,” Eveline said, leaning forward. She sat in her faded brocade chair with the antique flyswatter gently stirring the air on the table beside her, like a big palmetto frond stuck to a metronome. Its wide, yellowed palm waved back and forth, back and forth. Without a word George went to the screened sleeping porch adjacent to the parlor and took the viola case from under the armchair where it had always been kept. This was where he’d had his lessons with Mr. Von Ungarn and where he’d played for his parents’ guests under his father’s thunderous gaze. In the stone blue light of evening George sat on the creaking rattan chaise and rested his chin against the instrument. He drew the bow across the strings with such gradation of movement that it appeared to be not moving at all. Each note was sustained in the air above their heads swirling near the ceiling and falling like snow on the group in the parlor.
One summer they’d sent him to Vienna chaperoned by Mr. Von Ungarn, to continue his education at the Schonbrunn Academy of Classical Music. Over several months he had fallen in love with both the city and his music teacher. The pale tutor who had stood in a corner of the Elm’s sleeping porch as George played his scales was entirely different from the man in the white linen suit that led him assuredly through the streets of Schonbrunn and into the privacy of covered canals. George played a timorous C note and thought of the white pigeons resting on the rim of the bell in Stadtpark. He played a reverberating G and remembered the Danube rolling between its banks.
A car swung into the drive and swept the dark porch with its headlights.
“It’s Lady Anne!” said Eveline, “Go and kiss your mother Ella.”
Ella went to the window, holding to her chest an orange cat whose long back feet trailed the floor.
Lady Anne stretched her arms up into the warm night. It had been a four-hour drive from Jon Coffee’s house in New Orleans. Before her eyes the land had changed. Malls and suburbs had given way to an uninterrupted stretch of bayou that with the passing miles, slowly solidified to allow thick groves of mossy cypress and the occasional unmarked road. She’d spent the drive in the passenger seat singing to the radio with a box of wine between her ankles. Once inside she spun around and laughed lightly, then fell into an armchair.
“Amazing! Amazing how everything and nothing can change all at the same time,” she sang and pulled Ella into her lap. The girl seemed taller, her face longer. Jon Coffee went around kissing the women’s cheeks and shook George’s shoulder.
“You haven’t seen your old school friend since he moved to New Orleans have you, Jon Coffee?” said Eveline, unconsciously pressing her hand to her cheek.
“That’s true ma’am but I can see that he hasn’t changed one bit.” Jon Coffee turned his pale moon face toward George and clapped his hands together. “I’d guess it’s about cocktail hour, friend-o.” He said then circled the couch once at a jog and disappeared into the kitchen.
“Yes, we should celebrate,” said Eveline. “You’ll have one won’t you Arthell?”
“A small one,” she said and Eveline smiled.
The oil painting above the mantel was one of Eveline in her mid thirties, a frothy taffeta dress pulled low on her shoulders. Her blond hair was pinned up in a loose chignon and brilliant diamonds hung from her white throat.
“Who does that look like, sweet-pea?” LadyAnne asked her daughter. She draped her arms dramatically across her chair in imitation of the portrait. Ella released the cat which sprang away and shyly touched her mother’s chin with her finger.
“Silly girl,” said LadyAnne. “It’s your grandmother. I’m a bit older than she was when that was done but I guess there’s still the resemblance. Everyone’s always said so.”
Arthell leaned across the coffee table and set her glass down in the exact middle. “One more tune, George,” she said closing her eyes. “That’s the only noise I can bear right now and then I’ll be off to bed and y’all can talk whatever sort of nonsense you like.”
Near midnight, LadyAnne tucked Ella into the big four-poster bed.
“How would you like to sleep in this room every night?”
Ella looked searchingly at her mother.
“It can be your real room when this is my house and you’ll stay with me always. You won’t have to go back to your father.” LadyAnne kissed her forehead and went to her own room across the hall. She thought of the events that she had single-handedly set in motion. Though they’d grown up together in this small town she had few childhood memories of the man she would marry on Sunday. One night she’d kissed him on a whim in a moonlit field, plowed and sweet smelling but her life back then had been a locomotive, a driving force of ambition and desire. He could never have stopped it. It was another small town boy that had made her pause long enough to become a mother and then that town had become too small to contain her and she’d left for L.A. LadyAnne had visited occasionally until she realized there would never be anything new to hear. She knew all along the circuitous nature of small town time, how even the smallest dramas were magnified, dissected, slowly mulled until they were perfectly round polished stones to be brought forth from the teller’s pocket again and again.
In Los Angeles everything was wonderfully strange and fast. Her favorite thing was to go out at night and meet new people. She went about it deliberately and without pretext, as though it were a job, simply walking up and saying “Hello.” One night she wore a tight fitting silvery dress and introduced herself to an older man with a long grey ponytail. He had a house that was as big as the Elms but in which everything was brand new and smelled like fresh paint and eucalyptus. LadyAnne moved her few pieces of furniture out of her small apartment and arranged them in his big house. When he suggested she quit her job as a salon receptionist so they could travel more freely, she did it without even giving notice and the next day they flew across the Atlantic. LadyAnne redecorated the bedroom and planned elaborate dinner parties that she filled with his friends. She became comfortable in the house’s echoing spaces. Around the same time that the smell of new paint finally began to fade he began taking trips without her. It was from a restaurant in Italy that he called and asked her to be out of the big house by the time he returned. She could barely hear him through the feedback of long distance and background voices.
LadyAnne moved into a studio apartment. She didn’t have the will to find another job and running through the maze of her mind all day left her too tired to go out at night. Her escape city had grown cold to her. This was the only way she could put it, a slow turning away, as though she were no longer new to it and so she’d come home for a visit to regroup.
Jon Coffee was on the Elm’s front porch swing as she rode down the tree-lined road in her taxi. He had heard she was coming home and was pitching himself meditatively back and forth on the old swing. His pants were too short and rode up, revealing thick, pale legs. He appeared to be talking to the white porch boards. From a distance she could see his furrowed brow and his mouth forming words. As she stepped out of the taxi he rushed forward to take her bag from the driver.
“Hello, LadyAnne,” he said and kissed her cheek. He smelled the way her father always had, of Bay Rum aftershave.
She stayed for five days and spent part of each one with Jon Coffee. On Sunday he took her to the airport and told her if she would return to Florien, where their families had lived for generations, he wanted her hand in marriage.
While the sirens and city noises eddied around her LA bedroom she had manufactured an ideal husband in Jon Coffee’s blank countenance. Now, in a bedroom of the Elms, his head lay beside her turned slightly away so she could just see the profile in blue silhouette, slack, almost infantile.
When she came to him last night, straight from the airport, she’d marveled with practiced affectation at his bachelor’s house but had really seen a shotgun shack, no bigger than a doublewide. The dark ceiling seemed jarringly near her head. She thought of the high ceilings at the Elms, the house that would be hers according to tradition now that she would be the first to marry and stay in Florien. Her wandering mind redecorated the familiar spaces, swept the odd collections from the mantels, illuminated dark, stagnant corners with track lighting, tore the dusty velvet curtains from their rods, watched the demolition of the spiral stair as gapingly brittle and prehistoric as the skeleton of a dinosaur.
Ella had brought a dollhouse down from the attic and left it overnight on the lawn and now small green lizards darted in and out the windows, licking the walls with their quick tongues. All around preparations for the wedding were underway. Though they hadn’t burned in years, George stood on a ladder cursing and rubbing the soot from the gas lamps in the courtyard. Levi had ridden Old Neil out back, all the way to the cliffs to cut Christmas vine and returned with two full sacks that swayed at the horse’s flanks. Arthell took the vines to wrap through the stair banister and hang from the chandelier. She became so engrossed in the task of weaving the dark glossy leaves that at first she didn’t hear her name called out softly from somewhere upstairs. Arthell slid back the heavy door of her mother’s bedroom and walked across the room, downhill as it were, to her mother’s canopy bed. Eveline had arranged a game of solitaire on the silk duvet across her lap.
“I want you to have the Elms,” she had said. She held a three of spades above the cover floating it here and there before landing it with a snap. Arthell leaned carefully against the bedpost; even in this room of frequent use the spider webs were thick.
“This is your house now,” her mother said, grabbing her wrist. Arthell could feel the paper-thin nails against her skin.
“I know you’ll keep it the way it’s always been. You won’t ever leave or sell to strangers.”
For a moment Arthell remembered her mother as the commanding presence she’d once been. She had smoked and drunk like a fiend, made demands, withheld her attention.
“I want to die here in this room the way it is now. Will you take it?” Arthell remained silent and the muscles around Eveline’s mouth began to tremble until the hard look disappeared from her eyes.
Arthell leaned over and kissed her soft, wilted cheek. “Of course,” she said and returned to her bannister.
Once the Christmas vine was finished, Arthell went to the parlor. She wanted to sit in her mother’s faded chair and think over the day as she did some restful work. LadyAnne was already there, sitting cross-legged on the rug with her eyes closed. Arthell wasn’t sure whether she was sleeping. She knocked a cat off the side table and poured herself four fingers of bourbon from the decanter. Once the alcohol warmed her chest she dared to look around at the house that was hers, a tarnished, yellowed pearl, the beautiful threadbare furniture, the hand blocked wallpaper, priceless and peeling. She would live here with her teacher’s pension each year shutting more and more rooms until the house outlived her as well.
Through the uneasy fog of her hangover LadyAnne had watched the pillows on the parlor chaise which seemed to throb as though breathing with small lungs. She’d closed her eyes for a moment and when she opened them Arthell was beside her polishing silver- a gravy boat, a tureen, a flock of sugar spoons arranged on a sheet of the Times Picayune. Arthell leaned down and brushed a strand of hair from her sister’s bloodshot eyes. LadyAnne was surprised by the gentleness in her sister’s normally officious demeanor. She saw that Ella had come in as well and lay on the floor surrounded by her crayons. She was drawing a picture of a woman with a long black beak and full naked breasts.
“Gracious child,” said Arthell leaning forward and holding the glasses on the chain before her watery eyes. “Get on to your bath now. You’ll have to put your dress on soon.”
Ella ran up the iron stairs to her room. From habit she stopped on the threshold to listen for the wolves creeping through the wallpaper but there were only the sounds of Arthell’s industry and somewhere in the courtyard uncle George’s viola practicing the wedding march.
By the time the sun began its descent the parlor had been swathed in blue and white blossoms. Trumpeter lilies and globes of hydrangea wreathed the mantel as well as the path between the borrowed folding chairs with horribly chipped paint. Most of the town had turned out for LadyAnne’s wedding as the belated invitations had been passed liberally by word of mouth. Those that couldn’t find a seat in the parlor stood on the porch, crowded around the louver doors.
The minister from Florien Baptist was already reviewing the reading before the first guest arrived. He stood straight as a cornstalk behind the wobbly pulpit. George had meant to secure the pulpit somehow but forgot until just before the ceremony when he saw the minister place his oversize bible across it and startle at the swaying. George sat in the last row of seats, closest to the door. He jiggled the viola up and down on his knee. When LadyAnne appeared in the doorway wearing her crisp white suit, he brought it to his chin and began to play. Ella came after clutching a miniature bouquet of violets that she and Eveline and picked form the wild patch in the yard. She followed her mother with long, sliding steps. Jon Coffee wore a tremulous smile and his eyes were full of consequence. LadyAnne rest her gaze on his gleaming shoes. Raising a thin hand the minister began.
“No temptation has overtaken you but that such as is common to man; and God is faithful, but with temptation will provide the way of escape also …”
LadyAnne heard his voice from far away, a steady whine that came from all directions, a sound similar to the dull drone of locusts through which she could hear the labored breath of her husband. Turning, she saw the sea of bobbing hats behind her and wondered how they had continued in their existence while she had been away. Their faces were predominantly old, some nodding with sleepy approval at the Sunday wedding of one of the younger generation in the yellow light of a warm afternoon. And there were others that LadyAnne could pick out, those whose posture belied their skepticism. They leaned forward with sardonic expressions or threw their arms casually over the chair backs. She was riveted to these unsmiling faces; the ones that said Florien knew she wasn’t a match for Jon coffee; that perhaps she was taking advantage of his kindness. Their black stares told her that no matter the vows the preacher was currently reciting, the marriage wouldn’t stick. She would not be able to content herself with a small town man and settle into the sort of life her mother had led at the Elms. Her ambition and restlessness would run her from the town on a rail.
After the ceremony LadyAnne stood, pensive in a cloud of gardenia. Silver trays whirled around her. On the wide porch a brass band played. The gas lamps sputtered and pairs of yellow cat eyes glowed from the shadows at the edge of the lawn. Old Levi in an ancient white tuxedo bowed low and offered his arm to Ella. She turned on a pink satin shoe to bury her face in her uncle George’s sleeve. LadyAnne couldn’t find Jon Coffee, couldn’t remember seeing him since the ceremony. It seemed everyone was asking after him. Finally, from the porch she spotted him. He was standing under the Elms with his own family. Someone was taking pictures and their wide, simple faces pointed to the camera. Over their shoulders it became evening. She and Jon Coffee were fastened together now, like a hook and clasp. They were fitted and bound. The cheerful noise around her was quieting and the candle’s wicks curling into shapes that would shortly be extinguished. Soon they would all go home and there would be only the confetti of cigarettes across the lawn to remind the old house that time still marched on in its usual way and those who must follow would follow.
Camille Hugret is a New Orleans native and an MFA graduate of San Diego State University. She lives on an island in the Northwest with her husband and many goats.