Argument, Summa Cum Laude
by Rachel Heffington
From this angle the girl who had escaped to the shrubbery as I had – presumably to quit the hot crush of the crowded party room – appeared to be my height or a little taller. Instinctively, I glanced down at her feet. She wore shoes with a small heel. Were she barefoot, I would have the edge in height and this pleased me. I am not a man who can spare many inches to the advantage of others.
I stepped off the moss-grown walk onto the gravel circle, gave it a deliberate crunch under my heel. She turned, startled, then smiled. Dusk bloomed around her, blending the edges of her gray dress softly into the drawing night.
I raised a hand in greeting toward this charcoal-sketch of a stranger and wandered to fountain in the center of the gravel circle. No water in the fountain. Nor had there been for some time if the collection of cigarette ashes and dead leaves were an indication. I took careful note of these things in an effort to ignore the presence of the girl. I'd gone to the shrubbery to be alone, of course, and wished to remain that way. But soon the smallness, the ridiculousness of we two sharing the same neat-lawned, hedged-about patch of yard without speaking bore down on me.
“Rather a crowd in there, huh?” I ventured.
She, who had drawn off a few paces, turned to me. “Yes, well, graduations are a thing worth celebrating, I suppose.”
I drew a cigar from my pocket. “Do you mind?”
She shrugged. “Only if the wind turns my direction.”
Cigar clenched between my teeth, I cupped my hands and touched a match to its end. This business done, I drew on it and considered the girl. “You a graduate of the grand old Class of '39?”
She smiled a funny smile. Almost an angry smile. “I'm not.”
“Ah, so you're a student then?”
Another smile tinged with a diluted shade of fury. “Actually, no. I'm not a student at all. I don't learn anything. Never.” She hugged herself with a petulant toss of her head. “I've actually given up learning. Stupid to learn anything these days.” Her hair, cut in a blunt-edged bob, sat sharply dark against her heart-shaped face. Defiance incarnate and a dimple in her chin.
I smoked hard, processing what she had said and whether it was strictly sarcasm or whether she might, on the outside chance, believe her own words.
“If you're not a student or a graduate,” I finally asked, “do you mind me asking why you are here?”
She scoffed. “Oh, so it's only graduates or students who may attend the ceremony of a good friend?”
“Look, if you think that's what I meant...”
“Isn't it what you meant?”
“I only meant – ”
“Yes, what did you mean? You'd think a student would have enough brains to know there must be a motive behind asking a question. Now speak plain or I'll go inside. I'd much rather not be bothered by impertinent young men just now, if it's all the same to you.”
She made my mind whirl with the rapidity of her insults. How we'd gone from demure, dusk-sketched dryad to seething shrew in a few sentences bewildered me. Where'd it gone off? A fellow would never have done it. I wished madly for the seclusion I'd left the party to seek. This was why I referred gals to my older and younger brothers. This was why I'd made it into manhood without so much as a second date with any one of them. Women were such complex creatures.
Heaven-sent, I'm sure.
Perfection in human form.
But not something you wanted to go trawling through just for fun, you know. They were much too apt to land on you, claws out.
“Forgive me, ma'am,” I said with a cold, polite bow. I flicked my cigar into the empty fountain and watched it smolder against the skeleton of a maple leaf. “It was not my intention to offend.”
“And who offers his apologies?”
Her distinctly different tone of voice jerked my gaze to her laughing face. She'd dropped the shawl somewhat from her shoulders which were now bare to the purple evening. Proud, aristocratic shoulders as if the dignity of the world – and its riches – belonged to her.
“Don't you have a name?” she asked.
Blood rush to the tips of my ears, turning them scarlet. “Alexander Britton.”
How small her hand felt in my big paw! Yet her grip was stronger than many fellows' and the eyes that fastened on mine were a sensible, affable blue. Not forget-me-not or violet or gray blue. Just blue, tending toward green at the outer rim.
“You're Vince's sister?” I asked, trying to reconcile she of the gray dress with Roland Vincent, currently up to his crumpled necktie in a bottle of bourbon.
“His cousin, actually. And yes, I'm here because he got it into his head to try for a tightly-rolled piece of paper which will henceforth allow him to think himself cleverer than the rest of the family.”
“College hater, I take it?”
Somehow, in that way peculiar to strangers in a strange place, we came together and started walking; we had now reached the far edge of the gravel circle and had to turn back or cross the lawn to go on. Unhesitating, she stepped onto the grass and we sauntered through the hedge via an arched opening. Beyond the hedge lay a damp, meadow-like acre. We made in the general direction of an enormous, many-limbed oak growing in the left corner, nearest the party-house. Madeleine sat on an board-swing hanging from the tree branch unfurling like an elephant's trunk from the tree's heart.
“What's your game?” she asked, suddenly.
I cleared my throat. “I'm fair at baseball.”
“I meant now, here. Why are you talking to me?”
“Because one of you is much less terrifying to my nerves than three hundred of them.” I jerked my head toward the house as a torrent of raucous voices poured out an open window.
“And why don't you walk on, alone?” she asked.
“Why didn't you?”
“And ignore someone speaking to me?” she marveled.
“Women have done harsher things in the name of privacy.”
She sat on that swing without swinging at all, which seemed equal parts nonsensical and practical. I think it would have spoiled the effect if she'd gone cavorting through the sky. Madeleine Vincent seemed, above all, to relish her composure and balanced her girlhood (could she be older than nineteen?) with the carriage of a Parisienne.
“I suppose you're getting a degree?” she asked.
I nodded. “My second, actually.”
“Ughhhh.” A shiver.
“You do yourself no credit acting like an idiot,” I cautioned. “I'm sorry to use the term, but you don't even sound like a thinking adult when you speak that way. If you so despise the educational system, you might keep that opinion to yourself. If you choose to spout it for all the world to hear, be prepared to be laughed at.”
She chewed her bottom lip.
“There is nothing,” I said, waxing hot as I familiarized myself with the subject, “more laughable than an uneducated person beating the educated man over the head with her lack of education. There are forms to be observed in lodging complaints against the system. I'd be happy to instruct you in them if you so choose.”
“Look at him! I've made the little toffee-nose angry!” she wobbled on the swing, settling herself into it with a dangerous glint in her eyes.
“I only intend to help.” Whatever slight interest her svelte figure had brightened in me when I first saw her faded now to a weary sensation of having to calm a petulant child before she set off the hue and cry.
“Is Vince...is he all right?” she asked at length.
I shrugged. “Not the worst in the lot.”
She looked off toward the house. “He drinks too much.”
“Not more than most.”
“He doesn't study,” she said, pinning me with those blue eyes.
“Not many do.”
“He doesn't apply himself at all, does he?”
I stuffed my hands in my pockets. “We-ellll...not terribly much. But nobody does.”
“And he skips classes often.”
“Everyone skips classes, Miss Vincent. It's part of survival.”
“But he still graduates? Acting like that he still graduates!”
Somewhere I recognized I'd lost another battle. “Look, it's not like that.”
“Isn't it?” Madeleine shook her head and the sharp black bob swept her chin. “That's what I hate. A person might work his whole life. A person might read every book he could get his hands on. A person might splay himself wide open for the sake of self-improvement but if he didn't go to college and get a cap and tassels and a piece of paper that says he's spent four years of his life skipping classes and boozing himself, the world won't take him seriously.”
I stared, slack-jawed at her. “You little minx! It isn't like that at all. Most students work very hard for their degrees.”
“You just say most people don't apply themselves.”
“That was hyperbole.”
“You are hyperbole.” Madeleine breathed very fast and a certain expression flitted across her face as if she realized the flawed logic in her comment.
“You want to misunderstand me,” I said. “You do your very best to misinterpret what I mean.”
“Oh, just shut up, Mr. Alexander Britton.”
It was the first time she had used my name and again that curious self-consciousness filtered into her eyes. She banished it and the hardness returned.
“I'm not interested in discussing it further. Look, we're here to congratulate my cousin and his friends and...and you for achieving what you all set out to achieve. I don't have to admire your pretension to congratulate you, do I? Basic civility allows me to recognize that four years devoted to any pursuit are, at any rate, four years of devotion.” She stood and the swing banged against the back of her knees. She took both my hands in hers. “Congratulations, Mr. Britton. Use your education well. Now leave me, please. I'm not ready to go in just yet.”
Nor was I but the grand oak stooped over us, forbidding me to stay. A keen wind riffled through the hedge-leaves and I shivered. “You're not cold?”
“No.” She sat on the swing again.
“Well.” I squinted at the party-house, pretending to concentrate on something, though I barely noticed at what I was squinting. Anything to avoid her gaze. “Goodbye, then.”
“Goodbye, Mr. Britton.”
“Will I see you later – at the party?”
She squared her chin. “I think not. I don't belong among those people. I'll only have this conversation with every other person in that room.” Great weariness weighted her voice to a murmur. “I don't think I have perspective to spare.”
Listening to her, I felt myself becoming more and more depressed. I didn't want her to despise me and the fifty-eight other people in the house behind, but I could not see her angle.
I sighed. “Goodbye.”
“So you said. Please go away now. I'm tired.”
I did as she commanded and once inside the hot, over-crowded house a feeling of great moroseness fell upon me. Even the Manhattan a friend shoved in my hand couldn't cheer me. I wandered to the back of the house where the clamor seemed loudest.
He didn't hear me over the shrill chatter of three girls in thin dresses wearing stolen graduation caps. I waved him down instead and Vince, red in the face and shouting with laughter, squeezed through the crowd to my side.
“Alex, enjoying yourself?”
“Fine party. Fine,” I lied.
“Great! Never seen a crowd happier to be done with it all. To hell with studying! To hell with finals!” Vince raised a brimming shot filled by one of the girls, and the people nearest commended his toast with a rowdy cheer.
I licked my dry lips and tugged on his sleeve. “Met your cousin in the garden.”
“Oh, fine girl,” he yelled. “Bit dramatic, but fine.”
“Funny bird, seems to me,” I confided.
Vince's roving eyes settled briefly on me with a look of extreme amusement. “One of the funniest. Has funny ideas about society. Pretends to think college is bull.”
“Yes. She, umm...said so.”
He laughed rather harder than necessary at this. “Look at your face! Bet she told you she despises being kissed and she'd never travel abroad, not even if someone else paid for it three times over. Little Maddy. Silly girl, but sweet when she's in the mood.”
“Does she mean any of it?”
The three girls crowded once again around Vince; I could barely see his polished head above the other party-goers.
“What?” he roared.
“Does your cousin really mean it – about kissing and college and travel and all?”
“Ha!” he laughed, and even though I couldn't see him for all the arms embracing him, his intoxicated voice rose above the clamor: “Girl doesn't mean a word of it! She tried for ten colleges and they all turned her down. Silly little pigeon. Likes to spit in their eye, now, every chance she gets.”
So that was it. The irrational anger and the defiance and the childlike shame. I looked down at my hand and realized I had rolled my cocktail napkin like a diploma. I tapped it against my palm a few times, smiling. Then, still smiling, I tossed it away and stalked back outside.
With any luck, there'd still be a furious, blue-eyed girl sitting on the old board swing.