Being Mrs. Culpepper

Chapter 10 – Burying the Dead

On a picturesque late September afternoon Robin and Brandon headed to her parents’ home for lunch.  John and Rose’s estate was about five miles from Robin and Brandon’s home and they rarely visited as a couple. It was no secret that John despised Brandon, and truth be told, Brandon felt the same way about his father-in-law. To Brandon’s credit he worked hard to keep his feelings to himself, to keep peace in the family. This lunch was billed as Rose’s idea, to catch up, but Robin and Brandon knew better. Something was up, including their guard.

“Thanks for doing this, Brandon. I know you and Daddy don’t like each other.”

Brandon’s hands locked in at nine and three on the steering wheel.

“He’s disappointed that I’m not James.”

“I’m glad you’re not James.”

“Really?’

“Yes, really.” She wanted to ask if he wished she were Britt but with him driving and his sensitivity about Britt’s death, Robin decided to change the subject. There had been reduced tension between them since the night Murphy died and she hoped to keep it that way.

“I miss Trey. He seems to be settled in Savannah. When do you want to go and see him?”

“The boy just left a few weeks ago. You’ve always smothered him. Let him be. He’ll be home for Thanksgiving.”

She turned to face him. “You don’t miss him?”

“Of course, I do. He’s fine. We talk a couple times a week. He’s adjusting, making new friends, drinking too much. We talked about all of it.”

She’d spoken to Trey only once since he’d left home. He preferred to text her, he said, and he did, once a week, on Fridays. Her feelings were hurt, him talking to Brandon and not her, but she tried not to let on.

“If he’s drinking too much shouldn’t I know about it, from you?”

“I meant to tell you. I’ve been pre-occupied.”

“You feeling okay? You have seemed down lately.”

“I’m okay. Project problems. You know how it goes.” He squeezed her hand. “How’s my bride? We don’t get to talk much anymore, with a house full of kids to worry about.”

“I know. I miss it, the me and you time. We should probably get some help around the house. I think our budget can handle it. Maybe a vacation, too, an adult vacation.”

“Sounds good.”

She thought back to the first time she’d met Trey at Brandon’s house. Great kid. Never gave her one day’s trouble, except for having to wean him off those pills. She missed him. Maybe she had relied on him too much when Brandon wasn’t around. He never complained. Is that what Brandon meant about smothering?

“You think I smothered Trey? Maybe that’s why he doesn’t want to talk to me as much as she talks to you.”

“You’ve been, you are, a good mother to Trey, to all our kids. They are lucky to have you. He’s finding his way, that’s all. Trying to get his bearings as a man.”

“And you, Brandon?”

“What about me?”

“Are you lucky to have me?”

He took her hand and kissed it. “Damn lucky.” As they approached the long driveway, Brandon patted Robin’s leg.

“We’ll have a nice lunch, enjoy a few minutes of small talk, then we’re out. You good?”

“I’m good.”

She hadn’t told Brandon about the knock-down drag-out fight she’d had with her parents six years ago, when they tried to talk her out of marrying him. She hoped her father wouldn’t dredge it up.

They let themselves into the house. The Porters were in the sitting room, arguing about the twenty-year-old boy on a talk show who cursed out his parents and smoked dope daily. 

“The boy must have brain damage. Probably hadn’t had a haircut in ten years and the weight of his hair squished out his social filters.”

John scoffed at his wife’s analysis. “The boy is a junkie, he likes being a junkie, and if I were his daddy, I’d snatch a knot in him during the next commercial break, for giving his mama lip.” John turned his attention to Brandon. “What do you think about it, Brandon. You have two boys. Would you let them get away with talking to their mother like that?”

“No, sir. There would be plenty of knot snatching.” Brandon’s eyes met Robin’s. They shared a private thought about hitting. During their courtship they had agreed there would be no hitting of any kind in their home.

The conversation shifted to Robin, about her jogging. “Girl, you still running?”

“No, Daddy. Too hard on my body. I do miss it, though. Remember how we used to run together?”

John grunted. “The only running I do these days is in my mind and even then, it’s short distances.”

Robin giggled. “Daddy, you’re awful.”

After the four of them enjoyed a light lunch of crab cakes and salads, followed by courteous chit-chat covering topics from the weather to who died that week, the women headed to the kitchen for tea. John and Brandon remained in the sitting room, staring each other down.

“I’ve never liked you with my daughter. Her mother and I begged her not to marry you but she’s strong willed and convinced herself she loved you. I don’t believe it. I think you came with the boy. She loved Trey the minute she laid eyes on him.”

Brandon said nothing.

“The miscarriage, you see, confused her mind.”

“She’s not confused.”

“You have no idea what goes on with her. You’re never home long enough to know what the hell goes on with your own family.”

“I know my wife. And I love her.”

“I don’t buy it. You don’t buy it. You don’t deserve her and if you loved her, you’d walk away and let her have some peace.”

“You mean let her and James get back together.”

“He hurt her, sure, but compared to the way you live your life, James was a saint.”

“If she wants to be with him, why hasn’t she left me?” 

“For some God forsaken reason, she’s loyal to you.”

John lowered his voice and raised his rage. “One woman on the side doesn’t do for you. You have to leave yourself all over town, degrading your wife and children.”

Brandon moved to the edge of his seat, narrowing his eyes. His voice, his gaze, were steady. 

“Mr. Porter, like I just said, I love Robin. I love my family. And from what I hear, you’ve been very generous yourself with donations in and out of state. Does your wife know about your activities?”

As quickly as John’s jaw dropped, he recovered. “Nice try. I’ve kept quiet about you to spare my daughter and grandchildren the embarrassment of knowing who you really are. But you’ve gotten careless, running with a woman who will ruin you. The one with the boy who calls you daddy.”

Brandon slowly eased back in his chair.

“I’ll give you one week. If you don’t tell her, I will. And if any of your stench gets on my daughter, I’ll ruin you with one phone call.” John glanced out at the garden. “Do we understand each other?”

Brandon wrung his hands.  “Yes, sir.”

During the drive home Brandon didn’t wait for Robin to ask what her father had wanted to discuss.

“He found out about Carla and threatened to tell you unless I confessed to you.”

She folded her arms across her chest. “He should mind his own business. It’s our marriage, not his. We decide whether it will continue, not him.”

“Thank you, Sweetheart. I’m in for the long haul. How about you?”

She stayed silent.

Four days later, Robin’s beloved father died at the age of seventy-five, while he was sleeping. It appeared his heart had given up. Instructions for his funeral had been clearly laid out, years ago. He’d planned a lavish send off, one that required the services of an event planner. There were dignitaries to invite, parking concerns, and caterers to hire. There would be jockeying for the few speaking spots, even though John had clearly named those he’d wanted to say a few words. He’d asked James to do the eulogy. The Governor, if able to attend, would speak. It would be a political event befitting John’s stature in the community, at least that had been his way of looking at his sendoff. Rose, Angel, and Robin sat back and allowed the madness to proceed.

Three days after John’s transition James delivered a eulogy befitting a king. King John Jacob Porter. During the eulogy, with James standing at the ornate podium in the pulpit, Robin watched his every move, noted each voice inflection, and counted the times he looked directly at her as he spoke. With his voice, the selection of stories told, the humor injected at appropriate points — he mesmerized the crowd. Fourteen times his eyes met hers, and fourteen times she squirmed in her seat. During the graveside service Robin kept her eyes on Rose, who seemed to be holding up well.

Church folk, work folk, and nosy folk showed up at the house. It was the gathering John had wanted, filled with political, legal, and community movers and shakers. A gathering he’d known his wife and daughters would detest. It was his funeral, he’d told them. Robin nudged her way through the library, living room, and dining room, each space teeming with guests. The Governor held court in the library. The press milled about. Who let them in? Even in the kitchen high and mighty would-be mourners took advantage of photo ops. John’s kind of people. Who knew the political event of the season would be a funeral?

Two hours into the repast, Robin wanted the hundred or so guests to get out of her daddy’s house. She wanted to run upstairs and curl up in the fetal position then scream until her lungs collapsed. Instead, she drifted from one group of mourners to the next, nodding and thanking, hoping to outmaneuver grief.  She made her way to the living room and there was Rose, looking regal in a couture black dress, doing the meet and greet. Robin wondered where Angel was hiding and hoped she hadn’t cursed anyone out.  

John had loved this house. Robin remembered the year he’d had it built, how he’d celebrated its completion by hosting the Porter Place Open House of 1979. The talk of the town for weeks. She was fourteen at the time. John had claimed he’d purchased the house as a consolation prize for Rose putting up with his busy schedule. Anyone who’d known Rose knew she never wanted an eight thousand square foot home; it had been John’s way to show the world his success. His standing with his wife had somehow fallen off the list of importance.

In private, among family, Rose referred to the house as John’s eight thousand square foot phallic symbol. The Porter Penis.

A little girl about seven or so chased her younger brother around the living room, knocking over a vase. Robin cringed as the child’s mother caught the vase; she smiled to herself, remembering the freedom of childhood, the days before Angel and John had become oil and vinegar: mixing only when shaken. The days before she had her first fainting spell.

After the church service Brandon had agreed to head home and relieve the sitter. He’d given Robin the best hug she’d ever received from him and told her to stay for as long as she needed. He confused her sometimes with his kindness and genuine show of affection. She wondered how he and the children were doing.

James sidled up to her, his arm resting naturally around her waist, interrupting her thoughts. He kissed her cheek. She leaned into him. Prior to the funeral, they hadn’t seen each other in three years, not since John’s retirement party.

“How’s my girl holding up?”

Robin raised up and glanced at him, in his black bespoke three-piece wool suit, looking official and comforting and charming, all at once.  The man could wear a suit. And he smelled, well, delicious. She pinched her hand to remind herself that lust and funerals don’t mix. But they do, said her father’s voice in her head. Especially for you two. Your husband is no good for you. Be with James. I picked him for you.

“We’re tired, Jamie. Can you encourage people to start leaving?”

“Say no more.” He hugged her, then made his rounds.

Twenty minutes later he was back at her side. “You want to slip out and get some air?”

“Daddy wouldn’t like it if I ran out on guests.” 

She’d grown tired and achy. The pounding on her brain settled some as she watched people head for the doors. She wanted to talk to John about all the people in his house: who showed up, who showed out. She wanted to tell him the undertaker did a good job, that he didn’t look like a pimp. That had been his worry when he’d been able to talk about such matters. She also wanted to tell him that during the service tone deaf Sister Frannie Fortenberry tried to convince the master of ceremony that she was supposed to sing a solo but someone wrestled the mike from her hand and escorted her to a seat. John had been a pillar in his Baptist church and it was well known that Frannie  had a church crush on him. Maybe it had been more. Who could tell with John.

“It’s nice out. Come on. He won’t mind.”

James took her by the hand. They walked outside to the swing underneath the magnolia tree on the side of the house, with a view of the parking area.  Seated on the swing, Robin breathed deeply.

“You can wave goodbye from here as people leave.”

People were leaving. Waving goodbye. Hallelujah. Deaconess Josie Mae Jones made her way toward the swing, her gorgeous white church suit now slightly rumpled; designer white hat with a black satin band in one hand, the other smoothing out her reddish-brown wig. She and Rose had been best friends since they were young girls. Through thick and thin, they would say. Country folk loved giving each other nicknames and before long Mrs. Jones was Thick and Rose was Thin, on account of the saying and their appearances.

The friendship took a hiatus after John’s confession that he’d knocked boots with Thick. Rose didn’t speak to the woman for many years, then for reasons known only to them, the women resumed their friendship.

Robin stood to greet her. She embraced Robin the way Nana would have done at a time like this. Comforting, pulling Robin into her ample bosom.

“Baby, you call me if you need anything, you hear?”

“Yes, ma’am. Thank you for all you’ve done.”

“James, good to see you. You take care of our girl.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She gave them a wave then headed toward her black Cadillac, which seemed to swallow her whole when she sat in the driver’s seat. James and Robin stayed on the swing, her head resting against his shoulder. She looked at the blue sky, thankful it had been a good day for her daddy’s sendoff, figuring out how her mother would get along without him. Maybe Rose would be okay, happy for the first time in a long while.

“Did you know that my dearly departed daddy, your hero, jumped the lovely Deaconess’ bones in his study while Mom and I were out shopping? Angel saw them.”

James pulled Robin by the arm and led her to an out of sight spot  away from the house. 

“Robin, honey, have you been drinking?”

She dropped her head, eyes on the ground, then raised up and burst into outrageous laughter. He followed suit, only louder, forcing her to shush him. 

They took a few more steps away from the house and when the laughter died down Robin told the rest of the story as Angel had told it to her.

“There he was, pumping away, with Thick’s legs wrapped around him.”

James lost it, again.

“Did you ever…”

James cut her off.”No ma’am. Never did it, never considered it, that is too disgusting even for me. In the home he shared with his wife and children? With Angel upstairs?”

Robin’s shoulders shook. She heard sobbing and tried to run. James wrapped her in his arms and walked her up the back stairs, shoving aside those who wanted to know if they could help. In her bedroom he tenderly removed her dress, her shoes. She remembered Angel was there in the house to tend to Rose, so she relinquished control and let grief have its way. James put her under the covers and got in bed next to her, holding her, rocking her, until she fell asleep.            

He slid away from her, covering her with a light blanket, hoping it would protect her from the coldness of the AC.

He kissed her cheek. This woman, once his, now belonged to another man. In the bathroom he gazed at his image in the mirror, then quickly looked away, undone by what he’d seen. He returned to her bedroom and watched her, mother of his lost child. Keeper of his heart. The one person other than his parents who could with a look, check him on his BS. Losing her had taken a toll on him. One he’d never tell her about.

He cared for Ashley as the mother of his children, but he never loved her. She’d pursued him relentlessly. He made it easy, the pursuit. We’ll make a great power couple, she’d said. He was foolish to believe her. His high opinion of himself had kept him from begging his wife to come home. Another woman would be happy to take her place, he’d told himself. Another woman ended up in his bed and in his home, but take Robin’s place? Never. Divorce number two resulted.

He missed Robin. Not just the physical closeness. That was important but it wasn’t all that he missed. He’d loved watching her dance with Murphy, wild music blasting throughout the house. Murphy’s tail out of control as he tried to keep up with Robin’s jumping and turning. He loved that she remembered little details about his parents— their likes and dislikes in music, food, movies. Her conversation. She could hold on her in a wide range of topics. He loved her sense of humor, her cooking, her desire to be a great mother and have him be a great father. Her laugh. Her scent. Her big heart on children’s issues. Hot chocolate made from scratch in a pot on the stove, the way her nana taught her to make it. The skin of milk grazing on top, with the taste of the final product richer than any mix. Add a dollop of Robin’s homemade whipped cream, and you’d have a decadent delight. He wished he had a mug of it now.

He wondered if she’d missed the black nightshirt, the one he kept in his top dresser drawer, to have something of hers close to him. He wondered what she’d think of him if she knew that he had photos of her stashed around his home and office. He looked at them when he was stressed, when missing her debilitated him.  There were photos of her on his phone, too, but it was more fun to open a drawer or a law book and see her smiling at him.

Did Brandon rub her back each month when menstrual cramps were unbearable? Maybe she didn’t have them anymore. James had heard from his Mom that the cramps got better after having children. He hoped that was true, for Robin’s sake. Did she still cry during sad movies? Cheat at spades? Have those blackouts? Rose had told him she hadn’t had one in a while, but how would she know? Would Brandon tell her?

He thought of the first time he met her, at her parents’ house. A blind date of sorts arranged by her father. James and Robin had seen each other in passing but had not met until that dinner. When Rose and John retired to their suite after dinner, James thought he should leave, considering the hazards of dating then breaking up with the bosses’ daughter. But he found Robin intriguing, and wanted to get to know her better. So he stayed. They played music and talked until midnight.

An hour passed. Robin’s arms flailed from side to side. Her head, too. Probably dreaming about her father. James moved a chair next to the bed. He took her hand and with his index finger drew a heart in the center. Eyes still closed, she stopped flailing, and smiled. She called his name. He kissed her cheek, then left the room.

James entered the room holding a tray of food. The sleeves of his crisply pressed white shirt were rolled up just below the elbows. She smiled to herself, thinking about the good times with him. Enjoying the view. The way he moved. Like Brandon. In control of his body. Cocky. Confident. And sexy as hell.

“Hello, Robin. It’s good to see you.”

Good to be seen.” 

They smiled at each other.

“One of Daddy’s favorite lines in his older years.”

James nodded.

“You were great today, as usual. Thank you for the kind words about Daddy. Give me a minute.” In the bathroom she freshened up, thankful that she and James had renewed their friendship. They were better as friends, she told herself.  She returned to the bedroom, having put on a blue nightshirt.

Seemingly without thinking or caring where he was or who might enter the room, James pulled Robin into him, and kissed her on the lips. Not passionately, not church like. Somewhere in between. Closed mouth at first. Then she kissed him back, and opened her mouth to his, allowing their tongues to do a familiar dance.  They held each other for a long time.

“Honey, let’s get some food in you.”

She sat on the bed. He placed the tray across her lap. As she stared at the dish of food her eyes filled with water; her voice descended into a whisper.

“Where did you find these?”

“Mom made them for you. I hid them in the back of the fridge in the wine cellar so none of the church crowd could get to them. Warmed them up just now.”

A minute later her cup was empty. “Is there any more?”

“Yep. Back in a sec.”

She threw on her robe and followed him down to the kitchen where it was quiet, and clean. Her eyes stayed fixed on the pot of chicken and dumplings on the stove. James filled two small bowls then placed them on the table; he scooped up two bowls of his mother’s collard greens, seasoned to perfection with smoked turkey. He rested his hands on Robin’s shoulders then guided her to the table.

“Come on. Let’s eat.”

She stared at the food. “I’m not that hungry.”

“You haven’t eaten much in three days. You’ll eat it.”

“Don’t boss me.”

“I promised your father I’d look out for you; I’m keeping my word.”

His firm voice and stern face told her he wasn’t taking any crap from her.

“I’m sorry, Jamie. Where’s Mom?”

“She’s with Angel and her family. I got you.”

“They know you’re here with me?”

“They know. They applauded when I told them I’d hang around in case you needed me.” He paused. “Do you, need me?”

She didn’t mean to nod so quickly, so freely. “I should call Brandon and check on the kids.”

“Rose called him earlier and told him she wanted her girls to stay overnight. He said the kids are good.”

“Sneaky old woman, lying to my husband like that. She always did like you better.”

They laughed together, easily. Freely. He cocked his head to the side, then lowered his chin, the way he’d always done when he was about to say something sweet. Then he flashed a smile, the one that put a knot in the pit of her stomach.  

He stood and bowed, slightly. “At your service, my lady.”

That made her cry, but not so much that she delayed eating. He watched her wolf down the collard greens and the dumplings; when she was done, he laughed his hearty, sexy laugh. She remembered why she loved him.   

“Please thank your mom for me. Everything was delicious.”

“Will do.”

“And thank you for being here.”

“You’re welcome, my love.”

“Do your parents still hold their bid whist marathons in the summers? I miss those.”

“Not anymore. Mom travels a lot. What else do you miss?”

She looked at her empty plate, then at him. “You mean who do I miss?”

“Yes.”

“You, of course. I miss you.”

Robin held his hand. “What did you do while I was sleeping?”

“I watched you sleep.”  

“Really?”

“Yes.” 

“Did you do that when we were married?”

“Sometimes.”

“Why?”

Silence. Then, “So I could have honest conversation with you and with myself, about us, about my out-of-control life and how I struggled with reining myself in.”

“You weren’t interested in a response.”

“That was true in the beginning, but the more I did it—confessed out loud—the more I realized you couldn’t fix me, I had to fix myself.”   

“Confession without the Hail Mary’s.”

“Sort of. By the way, had a chance to talk with Trey after the service. He’s a fine young man. Seems to have taken to college life without much trouble. You’ve done a great job with him.”

 “He’s a good kid.” She wiped her mouth with a paper napkin, then swallowed a few sips of lemonade, which James had spiked with just the right amount of Jack.

“Tell me about JC and Arianna.”

James’ face seemed to light up the kitchen. “JC is in fifth grade. Straight A student, polite, a little shy. He’s into baseball, soccer, driving his sister crazy, and following his daddy around. Arianna is also a good student, mostly A’s, a couple of B’s. Not bad for first grade. She looks like her mom. I can’t bring myself to say no to her. She takes piano lessons and is pretty good for her age. After the divorce…”

It seemed to Robin that James lost his voice. She picked up where he left off.  “It was hard on him and Arianna. You, too.”

He nodded.

“How often do you see them?”

“Every weekend. Holidays. It’s more difficult than I imagined it would be.”

“So you understand why I’m hesitant to leave Brandon, with my children so young.”

He sipped his Scotch. “I do, yes.” He stared into her eyes. “And I don’t care. Say the word, and I’m taking you from him. Say it. Please. He doesn’t deserve you.”

“And you do?”

“Back then, no. Now, yes. Ask my parents.”

“Ask your parents? What are we, twelve?”

“I love you, Robin. I’ll love your children. You’ll love mine. I won’t hurt you again.”

“Let me think for a moment. Four children of my own, two steps, and dealing with Ashley? Not a life I want. Neither do you.”

“You underestimate me.”

He stood to leave. Robin stood, too, to walk him out. They passed the TV room where Angel and Malcolm had fallen asleep on the couch. Robin’s nephews were sprawled out on the floor, half asleep, half watching TV. Angel snored, loudly. Robin shook her head. She sent a text to Rose, checking on her. Rose was sleeping, texted her friend Marcus. Why was Marcus in Rose’s bedroom?

In the foyer near the main entrance Robin turned to face James. He kissed her, hard, and deep, pulling her into him, allowing her to feel his need. She lost her balance. He righted her.

“Ask me to stay.”

She whispered “Stay.”

He took her by the hand. They returned upstairs to her bedroom and made love, tentatively, nervously, then fell asleep. It had been a long, stressful day. Two hours later they were awake, and there was nothing tentative about what they did to each other. For each other. Afterward, neither of them could sleep. She sat up. He stretched out, leaning his head against his elbow.

“James, I need to tell you something.”

She called him Jamie in intimate moments. This, she knew, would not be one of those moments. She lowered her head, looking at the covers as she spoke. “I didn’t like being married to you, stuck in somebody else’s blueprint of who I should be. The way I dressed, wore my hair, the places we went, the movies we saw.  The people we hung out with. I hated all of it.”

He sat up, leaning against the headboard.

“I felt like one of those robot wives from that movie. Grinning, smiling, accommodating my man’s wants and needs while disregarding my own. I’d watched my mother lose herself to my father and I never wanted to be like her in that way but I believed you wanted me to be, and I loved you, so I tried to fit in.”

She sighed. “I would have left you, anyway, cheating or no cheating. I got tired of pretending.”

He brushed fallen hair away from her face. “What were you pretending?”

“That loving you and you loving me was enough.”

“Why didn’t you say something, honey?”

“Why didn’t you notice?”

He sat up.  “I’m sorry, Robin. I was a horrible husband. It never occurred to me that you were unhappy. I figured you were thrilled to be married to me, an up-and-coming attorney who’d won your hand and your father’s approval. I was full of myself. I get it now. I’m not that guy anymore.”

“I know.”

“Finding out about JC gave you the out you needed?”

“Not JC.  You.”

“I get it. But in my defense, however weak you may think it is, I’m not a mind reader. My sensitivity level back then was zero. You should have talked to me about it.”

“You’re right.”

 He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her into him, until there was no space between them. He kissed her forehead, her eyelids, her cheeks, her shoulders. She melted in his embrace. They fell asleep. The next morning Robin woke and dressed first, thankful for plain old jeans and a T shirt rather than mourning clothes. After James showered and dressed, they sat at the foot of the bed, holding hands.

“How did you sleep, Jamie?”

“Best sleep I’ve had in nine years.” He kissed her cheek. “And you?”

“I’m happy you’re here. Glad we talked.”

“He’s a lot like you, you know.”

“Your father?”

“Brandon. He’s a laid-back version of you. And I love each of you. Why is that?”

“I have an opinion about it, but it’s not for me to say.  You have to discover it for yourself.”

She grinned at him. Always the lawyer. She thought about what self-discovery awaited her but she dared not ask him.

He squeezed her hand. “What’s next for us?”

“I wish I knew.”

“At least tell me you won’t close the door on us. Please.”

“The door is open.”