Susan Robbins: Fiction: March 2022

My Southern Legitimacy Statement: I soaked the cured ham for two days and then boiled it for two hours but it was still too salty so I started over, fearing I had ruined it. No, it worked, and now I serve it to friends and family. I live in rural Virginia where I grew up, go to the church where my mother was christened in 1911, and raised sons who played football and basketball. I want the statues and plaques to have “braided” labels, pointing to context and to real history. “Braided” comes from the African Amercan President of my alma mater, the University of Richmond, Dr. R. Crutcher.

Fred Speaks, Florence Answers

Fred Speaks

      Away, in the full sense of the word, dead, I am free to admit how much I loved hearing people say “Poor Fred.”     No, it was 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 would say, high in my home, drinking my whiskey. I could see that she needed help, of any kind, so Florence allowed Hughes to move in.  I was in no condition to object, only to acquiesce.  She called this event “Pre-Grieving” and I called it “Adultery Lite.”  We appreciated our definitions.  She wished she said that she had it in her to storm out of a room, or a discussion, a set of circumstances.  Her life—ours, but thanks be to the gods, she did not storm.  I was, she said once in what passed for a fight, her “Czechoslovakia,” and she was giving up on me. Appeasing the greater fact of my decline.  Death she explained to me was, according to some scientist, the gaining of absence, something we had experienced already, but were condemned or blessed to have more of it. She was Chamberlain, abandoning me to my fate.  I pointed out later that she had stormed out very beautifully.

    It occurs to me 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.  My father had the 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 maybe that’s 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 redone cottage, real weatherboarding not the new composite fitted-on boards. Even though 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 dinner 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 and called “Iraq” was unkind too, including me with my dying looks at Florence. Before the relief offered here in the afterlife, even my glances from my death bed were killers to my Florence who, to repeat myself, invited or allowed 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 day as the  eligible bachelor 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.  Was this palliative medicine in the 1920’s? 

     She was famous   for her angel food cakes—egg whites beaten by hand, eight inches tall out the oven.

    Florence   Answers

     So Fred died as he had promised and went straight to his idea of the afterlife where he could speak his mind–heaven.  Or not speak.  He was famous for his silences and/or his one-liners. Like the time he was in the hospital for his chemo when he could still drive and asked the nurse to call me to come, so I did, of course. Letting Hughes drive me.  When I walked in his room, with the nice nurse who had called, Fred yelled out, “Not her!  Not that one!”

    The poor nurse almost keeled over.  Then Fred laughed and said that I was his one true love, which was not exactly the case, but so what at that point.

  Such freedom is allowed here where anything goes and is possible. But that day, at St. Mary’s, his joke had made me angry as he claimed back at home he knew it would.  Anger in him or me gave energy and cast a light on the interloper Hughes who saw clearly that with Fred almost dead and then later cremated that he no longer had an excuse to stay on with me, mooch off me, my room and board.  He had felt and often said that he was “helping Florence with Fred” but I had no cover story for what I was doing, and I am sorry to say, was still approving of—letting  an old man, my first boyfriend stay in Fred’s home, my home after Fred/died left.

   So, I was letting an old man, my first boyfriend from when I  was fifteen, live in my house with  me—we were then seventy-eight– just using me for a roof over his  head and  food on the table. It was worse than adultery which has to be by definition, at least still in the South, secret and based on some element of desire, not on the skills of hospice care.  Even in sixty-year olds, adultery is still fun with all of the panoply of illicit love.  I know a couple—as the husband watched tv, the wife was out on the screened-in porch having sex with her neighbor.  

     Stolen kisses, or as young people say, stolen fucks, a word used all the time, like shit.  I hope those two words become passe like the n word.

     My own late-in-life adultery was sex-less, just handholding, first base level.    I was surprised that Hughes had any degree of awareness—how he might look to others, how my friends might take a closer look at his opportunism/exploitation. Or how I might seem to the small circle of friends, all one of them, my cousin Merle, who is left standing.  I was or seemed proof positive that Fred had not mattered to me which was a huge lie.  The truth is that I was not up to taking care of the dying Fred.  Call it like it was.  Failure of nerve, of strength, of moral fortitude.  I needed Hughes more than I ever had as a girl or younger woman.

Bea Speaks

             Here, I am also quiet.  One good thing about the afterlife 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 BeeGees 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, destined to be a woman like Florence or my sister with her husband and baby.  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—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.   The dead can dream. 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. 

                                         The Criminal’s Daughter

     To keep me alive, Florence would go out, yes with Hughes, but often with her cousin Merle, to bring back stories about the people I had known forever, for generations.  The stories were shocking to me, sending a current through my brain and making me want to live.  That’s the  real secret of longevity—wanting to stick around to hear  what on earth would happen next.   Merle was a helper type, but to her credit, she did not see herself as helpful, so you did not feel that you were imposing on her.  Florence would tell her I could do with some muffins or custard and they would show up in a few hours.

    At one of my very low points on my death bed, Florence and Merle came home from a visit  to the  criminal’s daughter. Pearl was a pearl of great price, like Othello’s murdered wife.  She had flown in from Portland where she was a systems analyst, to see her grandmother through to the end, the mother of the criminal, Pearl’s dad.  So Merle and Florence went with muffins and custard to visit with Pearl as she sat by the hospital bed (like mine) of her dying grandmother who did not know of her son’s arrest.  We all knew about it from the newspaper.  Pearl had arranged somehow—put up the bail–for him to be released with an ankle cuff.  He was under house arrest and would not come to his mother’s funeral. Pearl would not speak to him and we were sure she had been cut off from any inheritance, but we did not know what happens to a criminal’s money or property.  Maybe the next of kin got it.    

     It was a visit, Merle said, set in hell.  Where I would be soon, but Merle did not know what hell was and was using the word loosely. In fact, it is a gauzy gray nothing that exists before one’s actual death.  The stories that came home from Merle and Florence’s forays dispelled the gray emptiness, and to mix metaphors, as you must, jump started my battery.