Gusty winds banged against both windows and disengaged Melba’s conflict with her mother’s assertion she had inherited 350 acres of land in White Castle, Louisiana. She watched as the wintry mix thickened, listened as ice pellets tapped on the roof. The fan hanging from the vaulted ceiling had one bulb, no shade. Labeled boxes stacked in sets of four stood in perfect alignment, leaving the windows visible. Papers atop one box appeared the only things displaced. Melba leaned forward to release pressure off her buttocks then relaxed, thinking the room represented her life—compartmentalized, neat, and in order. Until today.
Melba set the documents aside, along with her hatred for White Castle. She rummaged through more memorabilia, separating contents of various boxes in two stacks: things to keep, things to trash. People in old black and white photos seemed unfamiliar to her blurry eyes. She released a tear when she saw a picture of her mother. In the photo, Lucille Jeffries stood in front of a store dressed in a full black skirt, a ruffled blouse, and a wide-brim hat adorned with tight black roses. Melba’s lips quivered. She placed the photograph face down and slid it across the dusty floor, trying to escape the guilt, trying harder not to feel the disgrace associated with the way she had neglected her mother.
Like the blowing snow outside the windows, Melba had developed a cold attitude toward her mother’s pleas to come home. Lucille had begged for her return, “…for a short visit” she had said. “… or at least call me once a week. I’d settle for that, baby.” Melba lowered her head in shame over her childish refusal not to call at all.
In her youth, she had shoved these same documents in a box and warned her mother never to mention the Hammond Plantation or her wayward father’s name again. If she did, Melba vowed never to return. Lucille Jeffries had kept her end of the bargain. Melba had not. Eight o’clock one Tuesday evening, a woman phoned from White Castle, Louisiana, said she’d found Lucille dead in her bed, and after a long pause added, “…from a broken heart.”
Melba wanted to silence the click at the end of that telephone call. She wanted to stack years of regret onto her trash pile. She’d do anything to replace the hurt and loneliness she had inflicted on her mother.
She had allowed Lucille’s obsession with the Hammond family to come between them. Though she regretted instigating the rift, she still thought Lucille had fancied the Hammonds far more than she should.
At an age when a child begins to ask where babies come from, eight-year-old Melba accepted her mother’s explanation that mommies needed daddies to birth offspring. Her young mind failed, however, to understand why she didn’t have one? Everyone in the parish had a father, an unfaithful drunk or philandering seaman perhaps, but a father nonetheless. It disturbed Melba her dilemma seemed different. When Lucille failed to fill the holes in various versions of her story, Melba allowed bullying school kids to explain it to her.
Their murky interpretations depicted Melba’s mother as a woman from the red district of the city rather than a mere maid for George Hammond. They taunted Melba with that belief and on numerous occasions said Melba’s mere existence proved the accuracy of their assessment. In their opinion, Melba was a walking definition of a bastard child. To make matters worse, each swore Melba had inherited the Hammond estate and they made no secret they also hated her white complexion. Melba’s defense of her independence from the Hammond clan on many days sent her home with black eyes, busted lips, and bruises. Over time the painful allegations destroyed Melba’s trust in her mother, fueled her hatred toward the Hammonds, and made her anxious to leave White Castle and never return.
Once, out of rebellion, eleven-year-old Melba had written ‘Melba Jeffries’ at the top of her school papers instead of her birth name, ‘Melba Hammond.’ She insisted the teachers refer to her by that name. When Lucille got wind of it, she expressed concern and scolded Melba off and on during the night and taunted the child with another lecture the next morning.
Now, Melba sat in the attic with her hands cupped over her face, shaking her head. Memories of Lucille’s lectures felt more like a throbbing hang-nail, than chastisements of a loving parent. She picked up Lucille’s letter. She wanted to open the window and toss it in the snow. Rather, she straightened it and shuffled through the pages several times. Lucille’s words bobbed inside Melba’s head like a buoy. They provoked too many questions. The most troublesome of all, “…bury me properly.” Lucille had died twenty-seven years ago, buried in an Iberville Parish cemetery. Confused, Melba had no idea what her mother meant.
As the words lingered, Melba sorted through another box, throwing one envelope in the trash. On second thought, she picked it up. She straightened the folds of the letter, walked to the window, and peered at snow forming mounds onto her 37 acres. Philadelphia’s February storm produced eight inches, six more expected by midnight. Where she lived in New Hope, in the quaint community of Ditter’s Hill, twenty-eight miles from Philadelphia, ten inches had fallen, and counting.
Melba looked at her watch—ten a.m.—and noticed the letter still in her hand. She squeezed her sweatshirt, feeling an ache too deep to touch, too deep to soothe. After nine weeks, she had faced the fact her life had no real purpose. Daniel was dead.
Her hazel eyes widened, narrowed, formed uncharacteristic wrinkles that made her look old and tired. She read, “My Dearest Darling…” and grinned at Daniel’s beautiful penmanship. She imagined him sitting at his architect desk or maybe his two-toned computer desk, a corner of his lip tucked between his teeth, his brow relaxed, as he mused through things he’d say. She loved drowning herself in his copper-colored eyes. Adored how he’d arch one eyebrow and cast a lecherous smile when he wanted to be naughty.
She had a love letter for each of their wedding anniversaries, wrapped in string, in a separate cardboard somewhere in the attic. She frowned. How did this one end up in the wrong box? Sealed? She continued reading and didn’t get beyond the second page before she crushed it with both hands, spread her fingers, and let it fall to the floor.
Her face tingled, turned pink then ignited into hues of fresh, raw meat. Perspiration soaked the armpits of her sweatshirt. Time slowed and everything in the room carouseled.
“Mrs. Chaveaux!” Melba’s maid screamed as she mounted the stairs.
“Deyanira, what happened?” Melba’s driver asked as he bolted through the doorway moments later.
“I don’t know, senõr. I heard her scream. When I came up, I found her pushing boxes to the floor then falling to her knees, screaming. What should we do?”
Lucas curled his arms under Melba’s armpits and tried to make her stand, but her limp body slithered to the floor. “She feels hot. Get a bucket of ice and a towel.” Lucas brushed her long hair away from her face. After her cries subsided, he sat her up and rubbed her back.
“Mrs. Chaveaux, it’s gonna be alright. Tell me what happened.” Lucas took the towel from Deyanira, wrapped ice in it, and rubbed it against Melba’s neck and face until she shuddered.
“I’m okay,” she whispered.
“Yes. I’m alright.”
Lucas looked at Deyanira. With a nod, he dismissed her. “What happened, Mrs. Chaveaux? What upset you? You were doing fine yesterday. You smiled for the first time in weeks. What changed?”
Melba pulled away from Lucas. Several minutes later she stood with her back against the boxes, her eyes fixed on the letter lying on the floor. She picked up the disfigured sheets and handed them to him. Lucas hesitated, but Melba shoved them in his hands. He held it for a moment then folded the letter and placed it on a box. Melba studied his expression, watched as he lowered his head, puzzled he hadn’t read past the first page.
“You know about this?” She leaned forward and tried to make eye contact. When Lucas didn’t answer, Melba spread her arms. “Of course, you do.” She brushed pass Lucas and carried the box downstairs. She placed it in the middle of the bed, looked at it with contempt, then went into the bathroom and splashed cold water on her face.
During their twenty-nine year marriage, neither of them had used infidelity as an outlet for their differences. Designated by many as “the perfect couple,” they had a lot in common: music, food, friends, television shows—especially Frasier. If Daniel lay ill, Melba did, too. If he wanted to make love, she wanted it more. Their arguments rarely heated.
Melba stared in the bathroom mirror as if answers would scroll vertically like movie credits. She questioned if her inability to have his children had any bearing on this dilemma. After four miscarriages, three failed in vitro-fertilization attempts, surgery for a tilted uterus, and several bouts with anemia, she had lost hope. Had Daniel hated her decision to refuse in vitro-fertilization again? Maybe he never accepted her refusal to adopt. Had her obstinate attitude toward not having children in the house proved too much for him?
She paced her twenty-five square foot bedroom, frantic to make sense of Daniel’s behavior, bewildered by her own. She fought the need to rip Daniel’s letter to confetti. Like shadowboxing, she had nothing to fight. She couldn’t argue with him, throw him out, break a bottle over his head, slap him, or divorce him. Trampling her warm memories of their years together, with the announcement he had a son, assassinated every ounce of love she had for him.
In a stupor, Melba wet a towel, stepped onto the broken cup and saucer, with no regard for the discomfort, and scrubbed the wall. When the coffee stain didn’t come out, she bit down hard on her lower lip, picked at a tear in the wallpaper and tore it free. She dug her nail into another seam and continued to rip wallpaper until her elbows and shoulders burned. On impulse, she retrieved two suitcases, grabbed every article of clothing she put her hands on and stuffed them beyond capacity, before passing out.
* * * * *
Outside Melba’s bedroom door, Lucas watched for a moment before heading downstairs. He took one step—paused, then another—paused again, looking back at the bedroom door, cringing each time he heard paper rip.
“What should we do senõr?” Deyanira stood at the foot of the stairs wringing her hands on her apron.
“Wait until it’s over.”
“Do you think she’ll be alright?”
As he turned toward his apartment above the garage, Lucas stopped. His once tight, brown-leathered skin sagged, transformed to a weathered black, worn out in spots, peeling in others.
“She’s hurt. We need to give her time. She’ll be fine…” …as soon as she reads the rest of the letter.