Bill Todd -- Melissa and Jethro: A Quirky Little Novel
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 Chapter 5

A Revelation

Melissa was now able to afford rather nice work-day lunches at a neighboring hotel. On this day, her pleasure was made uncertain by the fact that she was lunching with her mother.

The meeting, suggested by Mrs. Medway, was the first in some time. Indeed, the unstated purpose was to settle, or at least diminish, a rift that looked as if it might become permanent. Melissa, already seated, caught sight of her mother proceeding with uncertainty across the restaurant in her general direction. Her mother looked good. It was amazing how someone who never exercised could keep her small waist and maintain such good posture and bearing. The taste in clothes had always been good, and, although there was more obvious display of wealth in jewelry and trimmings than Melissa would ever have permitted herself, the total effect was well short of the garish.

Knowing that her mother, eschewing glasses out of vanity, would never find her, Melissa rose and met her in the middle of the room. Mrs. Medway belted out,

"Melissa dear, I can't believe it. You look so professional!"

Melissa didn't easily absorb compliments from this quarter. While she did try to look professional, why should it amaze her mother that she succeeded? Did her mother think her incompetent?

As she smiled and led the way to the table, it occurred to Melissa that no one could have looked less professional than Mrs. Medway. This was, in all likelihood, no accident. In her mother's mind, no professional woman could be more than a glorified typist. Moreover, since Melissa took money for her services, that in itself made it impossible for her to be a lady. Ladies volunteered, preferably at the art museum or at a carefully selected fund-raising headquarters. Her mother, seating herself prettily with an arched back and a quick display of knees, said, by virtue of the free association which was so prominent in her thinking,

"I can't even type a letter without making half a dozen mistakes."

It had always irritated Melissa that her mother took pride in her incompetence, but she determined on a fresh, hopefully neutral, start.

"Hasn't the weather been nice lately?"

"It must be hot as blazes where you live. I had Samuel drive me by the other day. How do you stand all those dirty sticky children on the sidewalk? They seem to just sit there dripping ice cream on themselves."

"They can't afford ice cream. Those are popsickles, and they're mostly water, not nearly as sticky."

"And those awful drunks. I had to look away. One might expose himself through sheer incompetence."

"It's true that a man with a quart of fortified wine aboard might have trouble finding a secluded place to relieve himself. But, in reality, there's no risk of exposure. They do it in their pants."

Melissa was aware that her mother brought out in her a peculiar streak, the same streak that endeared her to Jethro Turner. After Mrs. Medway had let out a modified caterwaul, she exclaimed,

"Why on earth didn't you marry Bradford Hopton?"

At least, Melissa thought, they were coming straight to the issue, the one which, with its various manifestations, had caused the rift. She did think of saying that she couldn't marry a man who couldn't conceivably, short of senility, urinate in his pants. But such a comment, whether true or not, wouldn't be constructive.

The episode in question had taken place a year after Melissa's graduation from Wellesley, when she was a graduate student in psychology at the University of Michigan. Bradford Hopton was a man Melissa went out with frequently in college, and he had remained at the Harvard graduate school of business administration. He was intelligent, three inches taller than Melissa, and had a good, if rather black, sense of humor. He was no one to be ridiculed, and he was totally acceptable to Melissa's family, even more than she was to his.

Melissa had never been "in love" with anyone, and, in joking moods, she referred favorably to the follower of Freud who defined falling in love as "a sudden reduction in barriers to intimacy." But she had other moods in which she didn't ridicule love. Being prepared to be loved by Bradford Hopton, who said that he was so inclined, she accepted his telephoned proposal.

Mrs. Medway, evidently wandering along memory lane, said,

"I was on air for weeks after the engagement was announced. Every woman in Hyde Park envied me."

It suddenly struck Melissa that there was something good about her mother. She was honest. She admitted selfish motives without a blush. Or was she just stupid? Anyhow, Melissa attempted to explain,

"The son-in-law who would have made your friends envious might not have been a good husband for me."

"I know that, I'm not silly. But he would have made you a good husband. Why ever did you break it off."

"If I tell you, it's not going to sound very reasonable. You'll have to promise not to jump down my throat."

"I don't jump down people's throats. I only make suggestions."

Mrs. Medway was leaning forward over the table, making innocent and explanatory gestures with her hands. Melissa pointed out that her pendant was about to take a swim in her soup. Her mother leaned back and laughed. She said,

"I suppose I am a rather intense person. I think it made the men like me when I was young. But I'll make a special effort to remain calm."

Melissa set out to explain. Her best college friend, Wendy, remained in Boston after graduation, and occasionally saw Bradford. One night, a few weeks after the engagement, Wendy met him for a beer. Mrs. Medway's face lit up in understanding. Men, in her experience, often made moves on a woman's friends. And best friends were particularly notorious for acts of betrayal.

It took Melissa some time to explain that nothing of the sort had taken place. Midway in that explanation, she realized that it would be simpler to let her mother believe that Bradford had had an affair with Wendy. But, nonetheless, she persevered.

"Bradford told Wendy that he didn't believe in romantic love. He thought that it was important only to make civilized arrangements. Courtesy would then make up for the absence of so-called love. Wendy told me, and I confronted Bradford. In the ensuing discussion it became clear to me that he didn't want to either give or receive love. He wanted a mother for his children and a hostess for his business acquaintances."

Mrs. Medway did remain calm. She said,

"It would have upset me if your father had said anything like that. But I was romantic and silly. I thought you didn't believe in love any more than Bradford."

"I may have talked that way, but I guess I really did believe in love. I may even have believed that a lady has to be loved for what she is, regardless of what she does."

"That's Victorian! I wouldn't have dreamed that you had thoughts like that."

"I hardly knew myself."

"Of course, now, in the light of what I've learned since, Bradford sounds rather sensible."

"He is a sensible man. He married a Radcliffe girl, and I understand that he's quite happy."

"It's that damned interfering Wendy. She shouldn't have been out with your fiance, and she shouldn't have repeated everything he said like some demented little parrot. You don't still see her, do you?"


"Good. I hope she chokes on a chicken bone!"

Melissa was delighted at her mother's loosened and re- directed fury. Then, before she could marshal her defenses, her mother was off again.

"But that doesn't explain this man you see now!"

"Mother, we've already accomplished one thing. Let's stop while we're still ahead."

"But can't you give me some inkling?"

Her mother sounded so plaintive that Melissa relented enough to say,

"For one thing, Bradford would certainly have expected me to be rational, stable, and consistent. Artists don't expect that because they aren't that way themselves."

"You are flighty and impulsive, just like me. But you can't marry a man for the simple reason that he tolerates you."

Mrs. Medway was again gaining momentum, but Melissa firmly closed the subject.

Melissa came home that night to one of Jethro's dinners. Mortimer was particularly cheerful, as he always was when Jethro cooked. He had apparently learned that his chances of getting dinner leftovers in his bowl were far greater than when Melissa cooked.

There was no salad, nor any side dish, but, determining not to be critical of his food preparation, Melissa made no mention of it. She instead told Jethro that she had seen her mother. He replied,

"I've never met her, but I bet she's just like you."

"Of course she isn't. She would never have even considered living in a place like this with a man like you."

"You're just experimenting. You'll revert to form soon enough."

"Unlike me, Mother has never worked or undertaken anything seriously. In most ways, she's bordered on the hopeless. But there now seem to be grounds for cautious optimism."

"What makes you think that?"

"She seems to more or less understand why I broke my engagement to Bradford Hopton."

"Does she know about me?"

"Yes. But I can't remember what I might have told her in our annual phone conversations."

"You probably told her I was an artist, and she probably thinks artists are next door to criminals."

Melissa suppressed a grimace as the new flavoring Jethro had given the beans intruded into her system. However, suspecting that he partially sabotaged the food in the hope that she would take over all the cooking, she again made no complaint. If he thought that she liked the strange assortment of spices he had put in, he might try something different the next time.

Dinner was finished when Melissa noticed a miniature portrait of a woman hanging on the wall. It was nothing like Jethro's work, but it was familiar. When she asked, he replied,

"I found it in an old trunk I was going through. I don't know where it came from, but I thought it was nice enough to hang."

Suddenly it came to Melissa where she had seen it. She burst out,

"I know the woman who's pictured there! It's Julie Howard's mother. Their house got burglarized, and that was the thing they missed most. Her husband commissioned it."

"I must've gotten it at one of the places down the street. Half the stuff they have is stolen."

"I'll give it back to the Howards. I haven't seen them in years, but I used to stay at their house. They'll be delighted."

"But I paid money for it."

"Probably twenty five cents. To us it's just a nice little picture. To them it'll mean a great deal."

"Are they rich people?"

"I suppose moderately. But money hasn't anything to do with it."

It was obvious that Jethro was unhappy, but Melissa was in no mood to pander to his strange class predjudices. Then, seeing the opened trunk that Jethro had been unpacking, Melissa drifted over to it. There was a pile of papers with a rubber band around them, and she noticed that they were bank statements. The name, Jonathan Howard, happened to be visible on the top one.

Melissa felt dizzy and had to sit down. Without realizing it, she had picked up the pile of statements. Now managing to speak in a steady voice, she said,

"There's no market in stolen bank statements. You took them just out of curiosity about the family you were burgling."

"That was a long time ago, before I went into the marines."

"What am I going to say to the Howards when I return the painting? That the man I'm living with stole it?"

"You'd better not say that. They might wonder about some of the other things that were taken."

"Did the marines cure you, or do you still steal?"

Jethro didn't look nearly as insulted as Melissa intended him to be, and he replied,

"I can't imagine that being in the marines in wartime would cure anyone of stealing."

"Well, let's see. You went to the University of Pittsburgh on the GI Bill, and you left without graduating. Did they catch you stealing?"

"I got thrown out for punching an English professor, pursuant to an argument over MacBeth."

"You never told me that. But, of course, you didn't tell me about being a burglar either. Do you still burgle?"

"I haven't in recent years, but I'd still steal from rich people, given a good opportunity."

"You said just now that you'd bought the miniature."

"I'd forgotten where it came from. Anyhow, you're more likely to be arrested than I am. Any of your clients could turn out to be an undercover cop."

"I knew you'd say that. It's not true and it's not fair. Don't say anything else. I'm going to take Mortimer out for a long walk. I don't know when we'll be back."

At her lunch with her mother two days later, Melissa discovered that Mrs. Medway know a great deal about Jethro. Before Melissa could even ask how she knew it, her mother volunteered,

"When you started this awful business, I hired a private detective to investigate you and Mr. Turner. He's been arrested for all sorts of things."

Typically, her mother had no idea that other people might not like being spied on. Melissa, angry as she was, held it in abeyance long enough to ask,

"But he hasn't been convicted of anything, has he?"

"No, but that's just lack of evidence. He's guilty all the same."

But for her recent discovery, Melissa might have argued that a man not convicted for lack of evidence might not be guilty. Instead, she asked,

"What did the detective tell you about me?"

"Just that you live with him. The separate apartment doesn't fool anyone."

That, as things were going, was a relative relief. Melissa then began to explain,

"After Bradford, I decided not to mess with any more businessmen. The young ones, at any rate, are oblivious to all but the most narrow and boring sort of information. Artists, almost by definition, live in a bigger and more interesting world. I then came upon a fine artist who was a decorated Marine war hero. He was also much less given to boasting than our sort of men, and was more spontaneous and more fun to be with."

"Did it matter that he was also a criminal?"

"It never occurred to me to ask. I wasn't used to thinking in those terms."

"That's what happens when you go outside your own class."

"As I've told you, I haven't had much luck with men of my class."

"How about a man like your father? He was interesting and amusing. And honest and civilized into the bargain."

"Yes, he was. But I'm afraid he didn't have the strongest character. I always suspected that he died partly because he didn't want to engage in all of life's struggles."

"I thought you didn't know!"

"Didn't know what?"

"I'm sorry, Melissa, I've just been quite nervous and to pieces lately. I've got different people confused."

"Someone else confused with Daddy?"

"Well, in a way."

Melissa closed her eyes and covered her ears so that she wouldn't have to respond to any further stimuli produced by her mother. The puzzle wasn't really a terribly difficult one. Her mother had half blurted out that her father had killed himself, and was now trying to camouflage her retreat. Melissa said,

"The message I got at Wellesley in the middle of my freshman year was that Daddy had died suddenly of pneumonia. Was it really an overdose of pills, or what?"

There was a certain amount of waffling, but it turned out that Mr. Medway had half botched a job of hanging himself. Then, in the hospital for injuries to the neck, he had died for reasons that weren't clear, at least to his wife. The friendly family doctor had put the best possible face on things. It didn't take Melissa as long as she would have predicted to digest this information. She then volunteered,

"Anyhow, Jethro has a strong character. Once he's even vaguely committed himself to something, he'll go through with it no matter what."

"Your father used to say that we need men like that to win wars. But, once the war's over, they're a danger to the rest of us. Sometimes to themselves as well."

"Jethro isn't a danger to me. He can be difficult at times, but all men are, aren't they?"

"Your father really never was. He was so honorable, even chivalrous to me. I don't think we ever exchanged harsh words."

Melissa could remember a few exchanges of harsh words, but they really hadn't been very frequent. She asked,

"How did you and Daddy ever get together?"

"It was a dress, more than anything. I was seventeen, and it was, by far, the most beautiful dress I'd ever had. Henry took me to a dance, and I wore it. It was absolutely irresistible."

"You mean, you were irresistible in it?"

"No, I'd been out with him before, but it was the dress, not me. Everything was entirely different that night. Things happened, and neither of us quite realized it."

Melissa laughed and asked,

"Was I one of the things that happened?"

Mrs. Medway blushed deeply. Worldly as she was in some ways, this seemed to be a matter of great embarrassment. She finally said,

"We were both hardly more than children. We didn't really intend intimacy. In fact, Henry was never comfortable with it, then or later. But, when we understood that a baby was coming, he insisted. We eloped within days. Both families were scandalized. I suppose they guessed. But everyone accepted it in the end. Henry pretty much made them. He was very strong in some ways."

"So you set up housekeeping. I never suspected that there was anything irregular at the beginning. But I did always rather wonder why I didn't have any brothers or sisters."

"Well, dear, he hadn't really wanted it, you see. It was just the dress."

"Did you wear the dress again, after I was born."

"I loaned it to Cousin Vivian. We were practically the same size at that time, and she had a beau in whom she was very much interested. He was a little hesitant, but it worked for her, too. Not in quite the same way, but they did get married."

It all seemed very comic to Melissa, but she avoided laughing as she asked,

"Judging from her weight in recent years, Vivian couldn't have fitted into it for very long. Did she give it back?"

"Well, no, it was a little too late."

"You mean, she'd already busted the seams?"

Mrs. Medway was now laughing, and she explained,

"Your father was older then, and he was really too nice a man, too fastidious for this world."

It sounded to Melissa as if her parents had only had sex once, with herself as the improbable result of it. Her father's suicide was also put down to fastidiousness, presumably his increasing distaste for an increasingly disorderly world. She said,

"I remember that he was bothered about the war."

"Yes. He didn't have to go because of his eyesight, but it was difficult afterwards when the other men came back. So many of them had become quite coarse in the army, and they weren't always very tactful with Henry."

"But he made it through the immediate post-war period. Hadn't people mostly forgotten about the war by the time of his death."

"Yes, I suppose they had. But Henry was so sensitive and so quick to feel shame. When other things were added ......"

Mrs. Medway stopped abruptly, but then continued,

"Well, you know, I think I was pretty much what Henry needed. I was always attractive, and he liked that. But I wasn't beautiful enough to disturb him."

"Except when you were wearing the one particular dress."

"I suppose there might have been other dresses, not to mention lingerie. But I learned not to do things that provoked strong conflicting feelings in him. If you ever do get married, it's so important to realize what a man needs without forcing him to beg for it in so many words."

"That's not really a problem with Jethro. He just takes what he wants."

"But a more sensitive man might not. Although there wasn't much I could do in the end."

"You could have called me to come home and help."

"I knew you loved him, but that was part of the problem. He didn't deal with love very well. And you'd become so very beautiful. It wasn't your fault at all, of course, but he did have desires ....."

"Wow! I never guessed that. Are you sure?"

"Some men, more sophisticated in some ways, might have taken it to be normal. But Henry was so honorable. You'd left some clothes at home, and, when I came upon him going through the underclothes, his shame went beyond all bounds. I did what I could. I kept telling him that nothing had happened, but that didn't seem to do any good."

"It's a good thing for me that I went into psychology. It makes it easier to keep these things in perspective."

"Well, I didn't have that background. I was rather shocked myself. That made it even more difficult."

"Yes. I can see that it must have."

Bill Todd -- Melissa and Jethro: A Quirky Little Novel
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