Monday, April 29, 2013

"Merely Meredith: A Modern Persuasion" Excerpt--Introducing the Elliots


To find something that pleases one of the five senses is a marvel in itself; to find something that excites them all is nothing short of miraculous. I believe books are just such miracles: the weight of the author's hopes and dreams in your hand, the smell of carefully-preserved musings of some pensive soul, the words that call up scenes in the imagination to transform the eye and ear into extensions of the characters involved, surrounding the reader's mind with strange and wonderful circumstances—
Yes, I am a bit biased, I'll admit it. I work in a bookstore, so it is my job to have books in my hands all day long. I love every minute of it. Well, almost every minute.
About the worst part of my job concerns the short rack of books in front of me. Part memoir, part genealogy, all a bunch of fluff and hot air, I spend most of my day within sight of the newly-updated "How To Be Texan: A History Of The Elliot Oil Legacy," by none other than George Spencer Herbert Elliot III, the richest oil baron in Texas. Only one unfortunate circumstance: in this day and age, oil is not regarded as a precious commodity by the general public. Nobody cares if your family's oil fields produce most of the nation's exports. Particularly not in recent years; oil has been getting a particularly bad rap. That didn't stop Mr. Elliot from publishing his book; he seems to think that any idea that comes into his head is a noble one, and if he can see it through in spite of any efforts to dissuade him, he is the better man. (Better, hogwash!)
I cannot restrain a little frown every time unwitting people add that book to their stack. The title is in larger print than the subtitle, so they might think it's a unique guide for tourists, how to blend in with the culture. As if the Elliots were any example!
Feelings aside, I knew my job and performed it well. That's why Mr. Graham hired me—well, mostly. Sometimes I get the feeling he allowed me to work for him for another reason entirely. He knew my aversion to that particular book, but he understood that one couldn't help one's heritage.

Did I mention that George Herbert Spencer Elliot III is my father?

Indeed, the man who believed his forefathers all but founded Texas, the last oil baron of consequence in Beaumont (if not the nation)—this man is my father. George Elliot has three daughters. The oldest is Elaine, Dad's pride and joy. The next daughter of consequence would be the baby of the family, Cassandra; she was the only one of us fortunate enough to marry, and she did that well enough. Charlie Mangrove was a cattle rancher from Austin whom Dad met and liked at a convention somewhere. Charlie first acquainted himself with all the family, and Cassandra fell for him almost overnight. Dad felt that cattle-ranching was "Texan" enough to be acceptable, yet not too prestigious to make him uncomfortable around his son-in-law.
As for me, I'm just the middle child, nobody special, merely Meredith. Rather than try and outdo my sisters, I am content to remain in the background, doing my own thing, living my own life. My sisters don't mind; my attitude makes it easier for them as they contest each other for my father's good graces.

The flow of customers ebbed somewhat, and I caught sight of Mr. Graham's snowy white head bobbing between the shelves, deep in earnest discussion with one of the customers about a book she had chosen. I caught his eye and signaled that I had a question, not urgent. Mr. Graham winked in acknowledgement and finished with the customer before walking over to me.
"Yes, Miss Meredith," he responded politely, "what is it?"
Dear old Graham, always so polite to me! It had taken a while to convince him that it was totally fine to call me Meredith (mostly because "Miss Elliot" tended to spook the unsuspecting customers, particularly after the release of Dad's book), but he staunchly retained the "Miss." It was so delightfully down-home-Texas of him, I didn't insist on anything further.
Now I had a favor to ask of him.
"Mr. Graham, I know my shift doesn't end for a few hours yet," I began, "but I just needed to call home and—"
Mr. Graham smiled and nodded. "You go right ahead, Miss Meredith." He caught the attention of another girl to take my place. I slipped into the back office and dialed the number. It rang four times before someone picked up the receiver.

"Elliot Estates, who's calling, please?"
I sighed, "Hi Monica, it's Meredith."
"Oh!" my dad's housekeeper brightened with recognition. "Hi there, Meredith! What's going on, honey?"
"Oh, the usual," I replied. "Is Ellie there?"
"Yep, she's just sitting right here, reading her magazine. I'llhand the receiver to her, one sec."
"Thanks," I told her.

A few seconds later, a deliberately accented voice greeted me, "Hello, Meredith."
"Hi, Ellie," I tried to add as much warmth to my voice as I could, "How are things at the house?"
"Oh, just fine!" she drawled, "Daddy's been staying off my back since the Dior incident—"
"What Dior incident?"
"Never mind, it's all paid off now. Speaking of paying off, I think the Forthmans next door have a shark infestation. I've been hearing some strange noises coming—"
"Okay," I interrupted her, "Honestly, Elle, I don't care what the neighbors have in their pool—"
"Pool?" Ellie cried, "Of course I meant loan sharks, honey! Oh lordy," she tittered, "I think Houston's making you soft, sis!"
"Be that as it may," I endeavored to keep my sister on one topic, "How is Dad doing?"
Ellie grunted, "Fine, I guess. He's on the phone most of the time now. I don't know."
Knowing Ellie, that one comment was about as far as I was going to get. I tried another vein. "Have you heard from Cassie lately?"
Ellie sighed, "I've told Monica to take the calls from her. She only calls if she's ill or worried, anyway, and when she does, it's all about her, she won't even listen to me! Of course she never comes to visit, if she can help it. For that matter, neither do you, Mer. It's just me 'n daddy alone here at the house, but does anybody care? No! You both have your own grand lives, you don't give two pins—"
"Actually, that's why I called," I told my sister. "Would it be okay if I come to dinner?"
"Tonight? I guess; I mean, it's not like you would have something more important in Houston—"
"Right, that's why I'm asking," I deliberately ignored the jibe, "Just wanted to make sure it was okay."
"Well you don't have to get my permission for it! After all, you're one of The Family."
I could practically hear the capital letters when she said it. "Great; so when should I come?"
"Dinner's at six."
"I can make it; see you—" I heard the click of the receiver as Ellie hung up.

Such was life as the nondescript middle daughter of the Elliot family. I resumed my post and finished my shift. As the hours ticked down to three-thirty, the end of my workday, I had to concentrate to quell the twisting of my stomach. Not that I was afraid of my family; I would far rather dine in their company than alone. Truth be told, I had another reason for driving an hour and a half out to the Estate for dinner. I only hoped I could accomplish the one task before my father or sister noticed.

Two hours later, I walked into the house. Ellie waited for me, cool as a cat.
"Somebody's in trouble," she warned in a singsong voice.
I could hear Dad thumping around the office, and the printer clattering. It was a Tuesday, so he wouldn't be printing the reports yet; running the machine now could only mean one thing. I dove for the door while Ellie snickered.