Susan Pepper Robbins :: Fred Speaks at Last ::


My Southern Legitimacy Statement is this: I have lived in rural Virginia for 75 years and seen the public schools integrated, the white flight schools close and some Confederate Statues come down. I love the good parts of the South: manners and food, deep and shallow wisdom, the music. like “Crying.”

 Fred Speaks at Last

Away, in the full sense of the word—dead–I am free to admit at last how much I loved hearing people say “Poor Fred.” 

No, it was, in fact, Poor Florence who had to be on duty 24-7 to keep me alive.  Yes, you say, but alive to see that snake, Hughes, her old boyfriend, living large, you say, and I say, high, in my home, drinking my whiskey.  

People will think that I on my death bed was being cuckolded, to use an old word, but, in fact, I was taking hold of the situation so  I could say as Oedipus does finally at Colonus, “I did it all myself.”  

Florence, for all her appealing features, did not have the background for the life we led.  Her mother, if you can believe it, would not let her wash dishes because she said there would be plenty of dishes to wash later when Florence married and had a family.  I had never heard of such a preparation for the future.

 Yes, I invited my rival to move in, he who still loved Florence in his limited way and was living in his truck so needed any help on offer.  I felt better then. It was clear to me that Flo was trying her level best to carry on the full life by pretending that I was dead already and that she had to do everything for her life to go forward; it helped her and I understood. It was pre grieving, a rehearsal with a practical purpose like homework in a way for the big event.  

She even went to funerals for the wrong people, ones we had known only slightly, or not at all, and ones she had heard the wrong name given in Joys and Concerns at church.  It helped with the pre grieving process, she said, to listen to the absolute certainly that she would meet me on the other side of the beautiful river.  And she loved the emphasis on the positive.  One dead person had, Florence reported to me, a “gift for silence.”  It was a quietness that radiated composure and confidence even when the listeners at her funeral knew so many stories about the dead person who had screamed very interesting things.  

Florence told me the story of her grandmother who had been the keeper/caretaker of her retarded brother who had been dropped on his head as a baby and was never “right” they always said.  Now we say challenged.  When that uncle of Florence died, his sister there by his bed, heard him say, “Sister, I wish you could go with me.”  She had answered, “I would go if I could. You know that.”

I felt that Florence was trying to help me take the big step into eternity with these stories, and I was helping her get me there with my collusion/consent/need for Hughes to move in with us.  No matter what.

     What had brought me to this state of being was our last trip.  I was in my new wheelchair with the fold up legs and rubber wheels and we were off to the lunch given by the Cremation Society in the nice restaurant, Local Pleasures, one that emphasizes home gardens with cherry tomatoes growing up the gutter pipes.  We were thrilled to be going out on a date, but getting there was our Waterloo or Appomattox.  I slipped out of my chair which I call my perch or sometimes my pillar, twice, and Florence with her better muscles left from her softball team days was able with the help of a nice Black man to get me back in the chair.  I made the mistake again of trying to say something helpful about Race, the South, White People and our crimes, everything.  But as usual, at least as I have found it, the man, one Wade Pelham, was more gracious than he needed to be.  I didn’t have time to go into my definitions of Black superiority, spirit wise,  so just pointed to his arm as white as my own pale invalid beige arm, and said “We  are kin,” and then apologized for his being kin to white people.  Florence said I needed to shut up and smiled beautifully.  That’s her way.  Wade Pelham said back to me with a wide smile, “There are many good white people.”

      And it is true that here in the After Life, I have met nice white people.  Amy Alison is the nicest so far.  She had died after a terrible but short, only two months with lung cancer.  She had never smoked, but she smiled and said, “It happens.”  Her estranged sisters had come to her bed to say goodbye, a kind of apology.  It did them all good.  Five children, I think.  They loved to read, a rare find here.  Even Jane Austen.

      It was the icing on the cake as we say about many things like the Cremation Lunch and marked my last ride in the wheelchair.  My bruises lasted until my last breath and I was glad.

 “Get the broiler unit on our kitchen stove replaced.”  I could still say such practical things trying to be helpful.  I also used Henry James’ words to help me, “Be kind, be kind, Be kind.”  I was being kind to Florence even in my silence.  Remembering Keats’ whisper to the urn, I knew that unheard melodies are sweeter than the ones we hear.  

     So here, dead as a doornail, I can sing about how good I was not only to Hughes but to my Florence, or I should say our Florence.

     I could see that Florence needed help, of any kind, so we invited Hughes Tolliver to move in. I went along. In fact, I was the one who suggested the move in. What else could I do to make up for the terrible fact of my illness and its (my), burden on my wife?   But now, oh now, I see how I squandered those hours of pain all, all alone, as Coleridge says, with worn-out Florence.  What would I give….  Those hours before Hughes.  BH.  We don’t know what we have until it is threatened.  Then, it may be too late.  But I was trying to be smart, and now in the After Life, it’s too late.

     But then, in extremis, in my death bed, kept nice and fresh always, I was in no condition to object, only to invite and then to acquiesce.  As I have said, we called this event “Pre-Grieving” and sometimes, I called it “Adultery Lite.” 

      We appreciated our definitions and added Leopold Bloom’s “outrage (matrimony) to outrage (adultery).” We found this great summary of our situation in “Ulysses” the BH, (Before Hughes) time, his move-in with us.  We had tried over the years to read the big Joyce novel to each other, a paragraph a night as a kind of therapy, but it was too labor intensive.  

     Still, that paradox about the outrages of marriage and adultery was very helpful and made it possible for me to stay out of the nursing home, Wildwood, and be free to die at home, or so I thought.  I had hoped that death would bring me freedom.  “Ha!” or as we used to say “Aha.”  Which is more thoughtful.

      I had learned to ask Am I the Ass hole, (AITA),  that my dear suicide daughter Bea taught me and the answer was always, Yes.

      As you know, Flo and I had joined the Cremation Society as a test of our taking seriously what we were up against, and it helped to feel that it would take care of things, big things, and would even come get us wherever we might die.  Fat chance that I would be anywhere else but here in my “Lake Isle of Innisfree,” the poem my great aunt would quote when things got “spongey.”  It begins “I will arise and go now,” then says the poet he will grow beans.  To repeat, fat chance, for me.

     I wanted to achieve the transcendence that our friend Aline found in her power when her late-in-life gentleman caller asked her to go to bed, disguising it as watching television from her bed, and when she said no, he invited her to his wedding the next month.  She went and met the bride who thanked her for coming.

     So insulted but not yet silenced, alive I was cuckolded with my permission. My funeral meats were prepared and paid for by me and served up by the imposter, Hughes, invited, needed but despised. Especially by my elder daughter Cynthia who would quote Sophocles to give her take on things an ancient authority, something about how deeds invent the words we need, so my telling my wife, Cynthia’s mother, to ask her old boyfriend, Hughes Tolliver, to move in with us, me on my death bed, her driven mad and exhausted by keeping me alive, this wonderful Cynthia with a new baby and her sister Bea, dead already, so maybe it was only Sophocles who could help us do the deed—invite Hughes–and then  say what was what. 

     I was impressed with my own stardom in the funeral ceremony, not just my ashes thrown out over the James River in the way Florence and I had planned, but with Hughes Tolliver there, there was some added interest owing to the heightened circumstances.
      Florence wished she often said that she had it in her to storm out of a room, or a discussion, or a set of circumstances.  Her life—ours.  But thanks be to the gods, she did not storm out.  She stayed put, but with help, an anchor, Hughes.  It was all horrifying to me and necessary.
“Stultifying” may be the word for us at that point, but maybe “necessary” is a better description.  Florence had no choice but to get help with taking care of me.  How could I object when I was the me who needed help with everything: bathing, walking, and the toilet?     But here in the After Life, I am free, and can soar.  No cane.  No walker, no wheelchair for my soul.  I can see and know and say what was what.

     I was, Flo said once in what passed for a fight, her “Czechoslovakia,” and she was giving up on me. Appeasing the greater fact, the Hitler, of my decline.

     “So this makes you an Enabler of Hitler?” I asked in my fake sugary voice. 

     “In a way,” she had whispered as sincerely as the situation allowed. She would take off her wedding ring, her grandmother’s and lay it on the window sill until she felt better about our situation.  After Hughes moved in, she did not remove her ring so I felt a little better.

     Death she explained to me, was according to some scientist, the gaining of absence, something we had experienced already with the death of our daughter Bea.  Whose absence like a poisoned fog had been killing us, but slowly.  But Cousin Merle said that death was a birth, a creative move.  She was a member, on Zoom, of an Oxford discussion group.  They were reading Gregory, an almost contemporary of Augustine who stole the pears, but became a great Christian thinker.  Death was a creative move.  I was quite impressed with that line of thinking and was trying my best to look back at my life in a creative way.

     So, Florence was my Chamberlain, I was her Czechoslovakia, abandoned to my fate.  I pointed out later that night as she was getting me in bed that in her way she had stormed out but very beautifully. Quietly and powerfully by inviting, with me, our allowing Hughes to come live with us.  To Invade.

     Florence, my Flo, had that power to attract admiration, true love.  Whatever, as young people say.  Once her cousin, a young woman in law school decided to marry the older man, a successful attorney in DC, asked seriously for Florence to be her flower girl in the big deal wedding to be held at a venue on the James River.  Flo had gasped on the phone that Elena must have forgotten that she, Florence, was 78, soon to turn 79, almost 80, an octogenarian.  Unsuitable, even grotesque, horrifying.  Elena had made perfect grades and knew how to argue:  Florence in the riverbank wedding would add something higher, something “ineffable.” Elena loved words and when she brought essays for Flo to go over, there was never anything to comment on.  Flo held out with her refusal to be a bridesmaid.  So, she with me in my wheelchair rolled up the grassy aisle by Elena’s beautiful sister who swore I would be the best man in her wedding when she had one.  Those two young cousins tried to include us in their lives.  I kept saying “Impossible, impossible.”  Flo to her credit, would say, “Listen to Fred!”
     That’s Florence.  She can put a caption, a subtitle, a translation under an event, and her “Czechoslovakia” was for us, though mainly for me:  Horrifying but not surprising.  I did not ask, as I was the last gentleman there, if she used Hitler and Czechoslovakia to describe us to Hughes.  I tried one of our jokes, “HBNS,” (Horrifying but not Surprising) to describe our situation. She knew the abbreviations that fitted our situations.

     Hughes had zero holdings as my dear friend Bill calls money, so whatever was on hand, a possible source of support, our home which I call “Iraq” was his home for the right moves, almost for the asking.  Hughes said he was a contractor and could repair, rebuild, correct all the problems he saw with the house, but that promise turned into a list.  And, as time wore on as it does even in the most accommodated circumstances, Hughes started to add things to fix even to  the grocery lists, things we had never bought,  almond milk, sourdough raisin loaves, salmon steaks.  It was very pleasant but dangerous. His money was tied up in the long illness of his wife, nine years in a nursing home.  He could not divorce her because she would get all of the money.  In a practical way, his bedridden, estranged wife was protecting his money.  She was helpless with her Parkinson’s.

     Still, Hughes helped us more than I could admit when I was alive, but now, free, I can say that he sparked up our dismal gatherings when Florence called on him to recite the limerick that Princess Margaret delivered at the White House when she was sent to get money for the war effort in the early days of WWII.  Without hesitation, Hughes recited:
         There was a young woman from Dallas
        Who used a stick of dynamite for a phallus.
        They found her vagina in South Carolina
        And her asshole in Buckingham Palace.

     A silence would fall at first, and then a waterfall of laughing.  It helped us all.  The Princess got the money England needed.  We got a party spirit.  Florence looked it up on her cell phone and said it was a true story.

     Bea used to tell me I did not understand the connection between danger and pleasure.  I took this much-loved and feared daughter to mean drugs.  I knew something about alcohol but not the others, and I was afraid that Bea knew too much, this daughter who had been “worshipped, not loved,” a distinction my grandmother said was disastrous for children.

     It occurs to me as I speak freely from the After Life that maybe I have inherited a grace I have seldom acknowledged from my alcoholic father.  Florence thinks she is the only one who knows an alcoholic, but maybe not one like my father.  He had a deep layer of fine manners that dictated this shadowy etiquette:  it is rude to ask a guest to have another cup of coffee.  The bad word “another” implies that the guest has already swilled down one and that should be enough.  Who would ever know that?  Especially if it is almost hidden under soft, thick words and a smile just off-center.
     No, Florence was the loser in our marriage and needed any help that came along. Even Hughes’.  Merle, her cousin, and claimed by me as my cousin, had too many opinions about the man and wife thing to have moved in with us to help.  Plus she had her own richly complicated life, a redone 1840 cottage, still with its real heart pine weatherboarding, not the new composite fitted-on boards. To make a poor joke, I called Merle’s house a rancher, and to her credit, she would sigh and say “I wish.” But as you know, she Zoomed with Oxonians.

     Recently she called to give Florence her modernist reading of the Elisha-Elijah story.   You may not recall that story as I did not.  It seems Elijah was ready to die, so Elisha went to see his buddy prophet throw down his mantel on the Jordan River which parted its waters to let them both cross.  I don’t know if Elisha got his feet wet.

      Merle was trying to tell Florence that she should go to the river and even cross over with me. Not go to Raleigh’s Steak House for a dinner date with the reptilian Hughes.  Why?  Because Merle implied silently (for once) on the phone, I was a good man and Hughes was a bad man.  Simple.

     I remember that Fanny Price knows that “No one meant to be unkind,” but everyone at Mansfield Park is, and I can say that everyone in the old pile I inherited, “Iraq,” was unkind too, including me with my dying looks at Florence. Before the relief offered here in the After Life, even my glances from my death bed were killers to my Florence who, to repeat myself, invited  with my benediction, her first boyfriend to move to “Iraq.”  Hughes promised that he could finish the renovation, restore the rose garden, the sunken lily pond, and he had, he said, owned a construction company, so it seemed a little true.  I don’t know what to think, even now, from my observation station in eternity, as Dr. Johnson says who was speaking from the limited view of a London coffee house. 

     You will recall our situation:  I was, as long as I lasted, the second husband of Florence, just my type, father of two girls, one dead with me now but so far un-reunited by the beautiful, beautiful river as the old hymn promised.  One daughter alive with a baby girl but married to a “difficult person.” Very.  Chase hates Florence and hated me and I am sure, still does. 

    Florence is not the only person who has an ex who could (if paid enough) step in to help.  I had my own day as the eligible bachelor who was the ex to several of the women and was invited to parties at the lake to be pleasant and tell old stories about the families up and down the river—one about the old grandmother given a room above the store where the caskets were kept.  She had (developed) an ulcer and took pinched-up charcoal to ease it.  This was a palliative medicine in the 1920’s.

     She was famous for her angel food cakes—egg whites beaten by hand, eight inches tall out of the oven.
     However, sometimes nothing helps, even Rilke who regretted squandering his hours of pain—with his parents before they were shot by the Nazis. And to my surprise, because I thought great thinkers and writers told us the truth, the rest is not silence as I had hoped.  Wittgenstein and also Horatio about his pal Hamlet…wrong.  Voices fill eternity.  Pascal too about the silence of those spaces—not silent, very filled with stories!

    But one voice was Merle’s and she is still alive!  She brought us stories from the outside, meat and drink.  The one came from a friend whose mother had just died, but whom I have not met here.

     The daughter spent hours on the phone with her mother, listening and sympathizing, hook, line and sinker, weeping with her mother on Facetime, believing the reports of the recent thefts of family treasures.  She never ever questioned whether these reports were true or the results of the medicines for a host of conditions.  Never.  The mother suspected everyone of stealing, even her three stalwart sons who were from a fairy tale in their perfections of brain and brawn, all good Christian men, rejoicing in the blessings of their lives.  How could she think for a minute that her own children would steal from her, but more shocking to Florence and me (we could agree on many things still) was that the daughter never ever suspected her beloved mother of being mistaken, of deception caused by dementia, of hiding the china inherited from the great aunt, the brooch from Russia, the gold piece.  Never.

      I thought children doubted every word, every act, and every feeling a parent had.

                       Bea Speaks

     Here, I am also quiet.  One good thing about the After Life is that I don’t have to drink to manage.  Here it is easier.  No Florence and Fred to disappoint, no boyfriend to listen to, no car that needs the bearings or brake shoes replaced.  It’s easier.  I am sure that I will run into Fred here, but so far, as a favorite cousin says, not yet.  And not run into that snake Hughes who moved in to “Help with Fred.” Hughes will stay alive as the Bee Gees sang as long as the hills survive the oceans rising from global warming.  

     I used to  say all the time “Kill me now” when things got shitty, but now that I am dead, I see how brilliant I was,  a word my bbf says I overuse.  It’s true.

     They meant well.  Florence read Jane Eyre to me when I was seven and I loved the way Jane was always looking out of windows.  Me too, I would think.

     Fred would let me sit on his lap and drive on the county roads, pushing me off if we saw a car coming.  So, I was prepared to drive and look for danger.  Two talents. Illegal driving, sober then as a child, drunk later.

     But finding out I was pregnant from my loser boyfriend changed my whole way of thinking about things.  Dying in a total car wreck would obviate—one of Fred’s words, any thought of an autopsy.  That was such a relief to consider.

     It was hard to be alive, and of course, it’s much easier to be dead.  Not entirely though because in my case there are people here, but not all of them yet. I will never be ready to have a heart to heart with my sister Cynthia, Mrs. Perfect.  Maybe later, but not yet as that favorite cousin would often say.

     Even when I was very young, five I think, I knew I was not a girl in the fullest sense of that word, one destined to be a woman like Florence or my sister with her husband and baby.  Cyn wanted me to be in her wedding, but I was too far gone and knew I would ruin it, or cause what my mom called “a stir.”  I was looking out the window at a landscape I did not know a name for, but now I might.  Maybe I was un-destined to be a wife and mom, and briefly when I first knew I was pregnant, I wished I were Trans.  I don’t think a Trans would get pregnant, and maybe because I was such a pretty girl of a thing, guys called me and asked me to go out—many people called me “Pretty Girl”—I felt weighed down and yearned to be free.  My wreck freed me, but maybe not for long.  I know I will have to deal with Florence and Fred here, but later.  Not yet.

     I wish Hughes were dead so I could blast him here and he could die twice. Or go to hell if there is one.  I know he did Florence a great deal of good, helping with Fred.  I know, I know.   The dead can dream, can’t they? Fred avoids me here as he did when we were alive, and that space is restful, very.

     Maybe I took the coward’s way out, aiming for the bridge’s concrete post on the icy road to make it seem that it was the black ice that killed me.   I could have, I know, have lived on, had a healthy baby to be raised by my sister as her own, with me making visits with presents.  I could have.  But I did not.

                     Cynthia’s Turn

     It’s not fair, of course, that one child gets to do all the work of being a child which is or should be an ancient word for the Parent Care/Nurse/ Shrink.  I was the designated child to take care of Florence and Fred, and also take care of my sister too if she would have let me or even to have listened to me or tolerated my presence.  We are/were too different, and then she drove into the bridge.  So, Bea is free, doesn’t need my help, and I was enslaved by my parents until now.   And recently, I have come to see that I am an Antigone, modern version, though I hoped burying Bea would be enough.  I don’t have a brother to bury as poor Antigone had. No indeed.  I suffered from that unstudied, as far as I know, a syndrome I called Parental Need and Love, a deadly combo that kills freedom.  There are other killers.                    My friend Anita had a mother who chained smoked and it gave Anita COPD but instead of blaming her mother, she always said, “It was her only pleasure, living with my dad.”  Anita did not mind her pulmonary problems, sometimes sending her to the hospital.