Melanie Woodman’s house was probably the largest one in Darlington. Her family was thought by most to be the richest in town, but it was very new money; obscene compared to the well established Darlingtons, Ramseys, and Coopers, the upper middleclass decedents of the original founding families. Their old money had come from the town, from business they built and farms they once ran, and then been put right back into Darlington Township when they donated endowments to schools or parks, offering land for the college. Their families had been in the northern New Jersey area since before the 1700’s. Unlike the Woodmans, who by those standards were relative newcomers.
Melanie’s family bought what was locally known as “The Manor” from the Avanti family, also late arrivals to the area, less than a decade ago. But originally the house had belonged, like so many of the grander ones, to members of the Darlington family. In fact it had been the final jewel in the family crown, when their wealth was at its peak. All that farming money and the prosperity from local businesses, had been sunk into the costly house, built before the great crash, in the early 20’s. Architecturally it was a hodgepodge, part late Craftsman, with Japanese elements, and part English Tudor. The house was singular, both for it’s style, surrounding property, and immense size.
Melanie Woodman’s father worked on Wall Street, though Nola didn’t know what he did there and suspected Melanie didn’t either. When she walked up the long bricked drive lined with various species of dwarf Japanese maples and eerily shaped lava rocks tucked amongst a carpet of woodchips and pachysandra, she felt small, like she didn’t belong in this landscape, this world. But when Nola rang the doorbell it was Mrs. Woodman herself that answered, and the greeting she received was welcoming, in fact, almost too much so.
“Oh!” Mrs. Woodman squealed with delight, “You must be Nola Collins, oh Honey, you look just like the picture of your Daddy on his book jackets, come in, come in.” Nola was ushered into a large foyer with a slate floor and coffered ceiling, dark wood beams stained to look like ebony framed the space like a cathedral and looked harsh against the soft ochre walls. There was a fountain with water bubbling up out of polished river stones and Oriental vases in niches on the walls. In the center of the foyer was a red and black lacquered table topped by a potted orchid paired with a jade-toned Buddha statue, serenely gazing at all who entered. The space had the feel of a Japanese restaurant, Nola half expected Mrs. Woodman to be wearing a brightly colored Kimono. Instead there was one hanging on the wall going up the massive, angular staircase.
Mrs. Woodman noticed Nola taking in the décor. “Do you like Japanese art, Nola?” Before Nola could think of an answer Melanie’s mother continued, “I know you are really smart, Melanie tells me you are some kind of whiz kid. You probably know more about all this than even my husband does. Mr. Woodman’s hobby is collecting, you see. He was presented with a real Samurai sword once when he was on business in Japan and he was just so taken with it he got interested and started this collection. We bought the house because it just seemed to be screaming Japan, don’t you think?”
Nola thought the house might be screaming something else, but she chose not to answer. Instead she just nodded. Grown-ups like Mrs. Woodman rarely expected an actual answer, they just liked to ramble.
“Nola, could I get you something to drink, would you like a Pepsi?”
“No thank you.”
“Well, before I send you off to where the rest of the kids are, just tell me,” and her voice dropped to a whisper, “what is your father working on right now? Mr. Woodman might be a fan of Oriental object d’art, but my love has always been cowboys and Indians. I adored all those old westerns when I was a kid, couldn’t get enough of them…you know, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, oh, and John Wayne movies…oh my.” Her voice again rose to it’s former bubbly heights, “Girls my age loved the Beatles or Elvis but give me The Duke from those old movies and I would just swoon,” Melanie’s mother giggled in a way Nola thought impossible past the age of sixteen. Just then Melanie herself came into the foyer.
“Hi Nola, come on, we’re in the game room. Mom, can you tell Sandy to bring down more sodas?” And with that Nola was taken by the arm and led down a hall, then further down a large flight of stairs and into an expansive basement room. There were no windows, but the room was light and bright, canned spotlights dotted the vast low ceiling and sconces lined the pale yellow walls. The room looked like a cross between an old fashioned arcade and a casino. There were pinball machines, a jukebox, slot machines and even a roulette wheel. At one end of the long room was a billiard table and at the other, a ping-pong table. Nola was dumb struck; she’d never seen anything quite like this. She felt immediately out of place, and more than a little apprehensive. She had no idea how to play most of these games. She didn’t want to look like a fool. As she glanced around she also noticed something else that made her nervous. There were boys here! She held her sleeping bag a little tighter and wondered if she’d misunderstood, had it not been an invite for a slumber party? Was it to be coed? Melanie’s mother didn’t strike Nola as the type to sanction that.
As if reading her mind, Melanie said, “The boys are here until 9:00, after that they have to go home. You can put your sleeping bag over there, with everyone else’s,” and she pointed to a pile of more than a dozen sleeping bags dumped into a heap in a small alcove at one end of the room. When Nola dropped her bag in the appointed spot, she noticed there was a door to the outside; it had glass panels that were painted black and was ornately carved, with an old iron doorknob and gargoyle knocker. Melanie said, “That used to go to the outside, but the bulkhead doors were bricked over when they built the solarium. Now we just call it ‘the stairs to nowhere’ -- see?” and she opened the wooden door to reveal concrete steps that went right up to a brick ceiling. Suddenly there was a burst of laughter from the other side of the room and Melanie excused herself, leaving Nola alone to survey the other guests. She wished she could just stay in this corner, tucked away, and watch for the rest of the night.
six words: see ya soon - minor eye injury still needs healing