Being Mrs. Culpepper

Chapter 17 - Trey, Meet Brandon

James and Brandon fell into a routine of playing chess several afternoons a week, talking about things they hadn’t expected to talk about: Life. Love. Being a man. Growing a man. Learning to be a husband. A father. They discussed things they’d never shared with anyone else: their hopes, dreams, fears; parts of themselves they didn’t like, and why.

Although his cast had been removed, and his mobility aided by therapy, a cane, and sometimes a walker, there had been no mention of Brandon leaving the Culpepper house.

On chess playing days James stayed for dinner, then he and Robin returned to his house. To everyone’s surprise, Brandon enjoyed having James around and encouraged him to stop by as much as his schedule allowed.

“My kids need to get to know you. You’ll be stepdad soon. Won’t be awkward for them if they’re used to being around you.”

With Robin’s blessing, Darrius stopped by the house several times a week to visit with Brandon, and her. It seemed that Darrius loved being part of a big family and he enjoyed getting to know Robin, the woman he’d wished he’d had as a mother. Robin enjoyed his company as well and welcomed him to the family. It was incredible, looking at Darrius, and listening to him. He was Brandon’s son. His mannerisms, his walk, his voice inflections. His career choice closely aligned with his father’s: he worked as an architect. JJ and Darrius took an immediate liking to each other and before long they were riding together — JJ on a small Honda, Darrius on a Harley, like the one Brandon had wrecked.

On a Thursday afternoon, during a routine game of chess, Brandon and James had one of their talks. 

“Please call Trey for me. Ask him to come by. Last time he was here he left mad so if I call him, he may not pick up.”

“What was he mad about?”

“Me, him, you know, our history.”

“I don’t want to be in the middle of what’s happening with you and Trey.”

“Please, James, he’ll come if you ask him.”

James picked up his cell phone and speed dialed Trey’s number. “Trey. I’m with Brandon. He really needs to see you. Can you come now?”

He listened to Trey’s response. “Okay. See you in a bit.”

He turned to see Brandon moving around with his cane. “What’s going on?”

“I have to talk to him about things we should have discussed years ago. Britt. Robin. You.”

“Tell him the truth and it will be fine. I’m going to leave before he gets here.”

Trey entered the kitchen through the garage, looking around as if he were seeing the room for the first time. The place he’d grown up. The good times with the family, with Murphy. The bad times with his father. He stared into the back yard, underneath the oak tree. He removed his jacket, then his Kangol, and headed to his old bedroom.

“Hi Dad. You’re up and around.”

“Hey, son. Let’s get out of this room, this house. How about grabbing a beer at the place I took you on your twenty-first birthday?”

Already gaining the upper hand. “Sure. Where is everybody else?”

“At James’ house.”

They headed outside to Trey’s pick-up. A black Chevy. Like the one Brandon used to drive. Trey helped his dad step up, and in, then went around to the driver’s seat.

 While stopped at a red light he glanced at his dad’s clean-shaven face, resembling his own, and for the first time in a long while felt pure love for this man who’d given him life.

“How’s Amber?”

“She’s good. Busy with her catering business.”

“Tell her I’m waiting on my pecan pie. Best I’ve had since my Georgia days.”

Trey nodded. “She’s got a big event coming up this weekend so she and the team are tied up for the next few days. I’m sure she’ll make one for you when things settle down. Mom makes a good pecan pie. Ask her to do it if you want it sooner. Or Chef Justin. The man can burn.”

“I’ll wait for Amber. Your mom’s pies are good, but not like Amber’s. Something about the crust in Amber’s pies.”

“Don’t you let your drug induced loose tongue tell Mom you like Amber’s pies better.”

“Too late.”

“You told her?”

“Didn’t mean to do it. A couple of weeks ago Mom and I enjoyed one of Amber’s pies, and I said it was the best pecan pie I’d had since leaving Georgia.”

Trey chuckled. “What did Mom say?”

“She said my taste buds have been compromised by all the pills. We had a good laugh.”

They reached the neighborhood bar. Inside, a couple of construction workers recognized Brandon and stopped by his table to buy a round and shoot the breeze. The place emptied out when the after-work crowd headed home; the evening crowd hadn’t shown up yet. Trey and Brandon had the place to themselves, not counting the bartender and waitress who flirted shamelessly with each other. The waitress looked to be in her forties, maybe ten years older than the bartender. Even so, he seemed to hang on her every word.

“My father was a mean son-of-a-bitch, and for a long time I refused to talk about him. Me and him. Too painful. Then three months ago, after my close brush with death, something in me opened up, like one of your mama’s sunflowers.”

“She loved those flowers.”

“Yes. And you loved giving them to her on her birthday.”

Trey wiped his eyes. “Did you love my mama?”

“Yes, I loved her. I wasn’t a good husband, but I loved her. And I miss her, every day.”

“Me, too.”

Brandon finished his beer, motioned for the waitress, then requested a bottle of whiskey. Trey glared at him.

“I’m not driving, and I’ll need liquor to get through the story I’m going to tell you. You might need a shot or two yourself after hearing what I have to say.”

“I’ll pass. Amber will read me the riot act if she smells liquor on me.”

“Sorry, son. Don’t know how I could forget…”

“And Robin will be mad at you for drinking so much, even if she is divorcing you. She has it bad for you. Don’t know why, but she does.”

Brandon ran his hand across his face, as if his beard were still there. “I got it just as bad for her.”

The waitress placed a bottle of whiskey and two glasses on the table. Trey leaned in. Brandon sipped. He talked about his health, his recovery.

“What went wrong, Dad, in the marriage?”

“When I married Robin, I was mentally beaten down. I was fooling around with Carla mostly to be near Darrius, to protect him from her temper. She used to hit the child for no reason until I stepped in and told her I’d be responsible for discipline. I never hit him.”

“You never hit us, either.”

“Never raised my voice to either of your mothers.” A long pause. “Or my hand.” Another pause. “Your grandpa was abusive to me, to Grandma. I promised myself I’d never hit my children, or my wife.”

He sipped more.

“He was a mean drunk. Came home in one of his tirades, angry that dinner wasn’t on the table, even though it was ten o’clock at night and long past dinner hour. He lunged at my mother, hitting her closed fit, sending her to the floor. I picked up a chair and hit him across the back of the head, hoping to knock him out. But he was too drunk to go down. He spun around, took a swing at me, and missed. I knew how to box a little and got in two good shots before he got his bearings. He beat me until I was unconscious. My sister said the only thing that stopped him from killing me was the shotgun pointed at his head.”

Trey’s eyes glazed over with tears.

“Son, you want me to stop?” Brandon thought he’d messed up; he assumed Trey was ready for this. 

“No, go on.”

“Now remember at this point I’m unconscious so I’m going by Robin’s version, my mother’s version, and Aunt Brooke’s version of what happened next.”

Trey gave him a nod.        

“Robin’s grandparents lived next door to us, and she’d come to stay for the summer. We’d been running buddies all summer and had made plans for stargazing that night. A perfect night. Clear. Calm. Not too humid. Twelve years old. She was something else even then. Smart. Feisty. Loved outdoors, like me. I knew she was waiting on her front porch for me. But I was late, and I’d never shown up late for our adventures. Robin trotted next door and as she stepped onto the porch, she heard screams. Through the front window she saw Senior beating on me; Mom was hitting him over the head with a shoe while Brooke sat on the floor, her pleading cries going unheard. Daddy, stop. Please stop. You’ll kill him.

“Robin ran home to get her Nana and Pop Pop but inside the house she stopped short of their bedroom and fixed her sights on the gun rack in the dining room. Children in Tidbit, Georgia who met height and maturity requirements set by their parents were taught to handle a weapon. Lots of critters out in the country. Robin was a quick study. She was tall— five feet six inches— with the convictions of a woman who’d traveled some rough paths. She removed the shotgun from the rack; her granddad came up behind her and gently took the rifle from her hands. He and her nana followed Robin to my house.    

“Senior heard the creak of the screen door, then the pumping sound. He turned around, sober enough to realize the gravity of the situation. He slowly backed away from me. As Senior stood frozen with fear, hands raised, Robin’s granddad glanced at my disfigured face, and shot your grandpa in the foot.

“That’s when Robin passed out. Her nana used smelling salts to bring both of us around. As my dad lay bleeding on the floor, Robin’s grand dad, tall and country strong, slung my lanky body over his shoulder and took me home with him.

“They put me in Robin’s bed and doctored on my face, my arms, my ribs. As far as they could tell nothing was broken. At least not on the outside. They were afraid to take me to the hospital. How do you explain a father beating his son half dead? Robin and her nana took turns talking to me, trying to keep me awake. Worried about a concussion. Robin held my hand and sang her favorite song. “You Are My Sunshine.” I tried to look at her with my one good eye; the right eye was swollen shut.”

Trey clutched his stomach. “Robin’s favorite song was the same one Mama used to sing to me?”

“Same one.” Brandon turned away from Trey, facing the bar.  

“How do you think the song became one of Mama’s favorites?”

“You’re going to make me say it, huh?”

“You need to say it. I need to hear it.”

“I sang it to you from the first time I laid eyes on you in the delivery room, until you were around four. And yes, I thought of Robin each time I sang it.”

“Why did you stop?”

“I asked your mom to take over. I told her I was sick of that song, but it seemed to soothe you and help you sleep so she kept singing it.”

“You missed Robin every time you sang it. You wondered about her life, how she was doing, what could have been.”

Brandon leaned back in the seat, a sly grin covering his face. “I knew how she was doing. I kept tabs on her. She didn’t know I lived here and I though­t—after seeing her father’s house—I figured I wasn’t in her league. I wanted to ask her to my senior prom and almost called her, but I chickened out.”

“Good Lord, Dad.  That was clearly stalking.  You ever tell her any of this?”

“In words, no. In pictures, yes. But not about the prom.” Brandon told Trey about the box of pictures he’d given Robin. Then he saw an old friend at the bar and made his way there to say hi and stretch his legs. Ten minutes later he was back at the table with Trey.

“You were attracted to Mama because she reminded you of Robin.”

“Yes.”

“Did Mama know that?”

“No.”

“Does Robin know?”

“Now she does. I left her a clue in that box.”

The conversation paused. A long pause.  

“I cried that day in Robin’s bed. I was in bad shape, physically, mentally. She kissed my tears, and told me I would be fine, and we’d have plenty of time for stargazing.”

Brandon snickered. “Her nana hummed hymns and prayed over me, calling on the Lord for my healing and proper vengeance against Senior for what he’d done.”

Trey released a hushed laugh.

“That’s not the best part. Nana told her husband that I needed the power of the circle at my bedside. The Mighty Souls of God Church in Christ Prayer Circle needed to pay me a visit.”

Trey couldn’t contain himself. His laughter drew the attention of others in the bar.

“Dad, I hope you’re not making this up.”

“I swear on your mama’s grave, this is the truth.” Then he laughed, too. “Mr. Sam, Nana’s husband, told Nana that under no circumstances would those long-winded nosy old women come in his house and aggravate the boy with their nonsense. What they did, he said, wasn’t prayer.  It was a contest of wills to see who could outlast the other.”

“Did Nana back down?”

“No way, but she was shut down. She told Mr. Sam I needed the group to intercede on my behalf and he told her God had good hearing and they better intercede from the privacy of their own homes. He said as loud as those women were, God would hear them anywhere. I wanted to laugh but it hurt so I squeezed Robin’s hand and she laughed for me.

“After two days of feeding and singing and doctoring, Miss Ann, that was Nana’s name, announced that I needed a sponge bath. Bad. When Mr. Sam saw the discomfort on my face, he decided to handle the sponging. I was so relieved.”

“Whew. I would have been relieved, too.”  

Brandon downed a shot of whiskey, then talked about Senior. Rumor had it that he’d managed to hobble to a hospital. No one knew how he explained the gunshot wound; maybe he told them he shot himself. The men in the tight knit community put the word out: if Senior showed his face anywhere near his wife or children, they’d shoot him dead for what he’d done to the boy. Senior stayed out of sight.

He stood for a moment to move his leg around. Once seated, he continued the story. 

“Mom was in no condition to take care of me, but she did come next door to visit each day. First time I saw my mother’s bruised, swollen face, I lost it.”

“Where was Robin?”

“Next to me, holding my hand.” Brandon stared at the whiskey for a long while.

Four days after the beating Brandon was up and moving around. His swollen eye had gone down some; the swelling his jaw had gone down, too. His hands and arms were still bruised; defensive wounds, Mr. Sam said. His ribs and back hurt so bad that Nana sent for a doctor. Ribs were badly bruised, not broken, the doc said. The pain pills helped much better than Nana’s home remedies.

By the fifth day Brandon shuffled along with moderate discomfort. His hands were too banged up to hold a spoon or fork steady enough to eat, and his ribs were too sore to do much chewing and swallowing, so Robin fed him the soft food that Nana prepared. Baked apples. Jell-O. Vegetable Soup. Mashed sweet potatoes, with a drop of butter and brown sugar. He could talk a little, and it was painful, but he had things to say to her. They went outside and  sat on the porch.                         

“You should be a nurse. You’re good with sick people.”

She shook her head. “Not sick people. You. I’m good with you.”

“Didn’t the sight of me make you sick?”

“No. But I passed out when Pop Pop shot your daddy.”

“I want to marry you when we get grown.” He placed his hand over his bruised ribs.

She giggled. “You feeling any better?”

“Some. I’m sorry you saw that. During and after. My dad is a jerk.”

She folded her arms across her chest, like she’d seen Nana do. “Your daddy is a criminal. He should go to jail. I hate him for doing that to you and I wish my grandpa had shot him dead. If he ever comes back your mama ought to put rat poison in his food. Daddies are supposed to protect us, not beat us like that. Not leave us, either.”

Brandon didn’t understand the leaving part, but he knew Robin had been high strung about something when she first arrived in town, so he let that one go. “I need a favor, a big one.”

“Okay.”

“Don’t write any of this stuff in your notebook, the one you carry around. I don’t want our children reading it someday. It will upset them.”

“You mean my diary?”

“Yeah, promise me you won’t write anything in it about me. Please.”

“I promise. How many children will we have?”

“We have to have sex to have children. Last time I talked about married sex you ran away.”

“I know. That was before. This is now.”

“Two girls for you. Two boys for me. And we will never hit our children.” He choked up.

She gently touched his hand. “Agreed.”

“And I will never raise my hand to you. Never.”

“That’s good. Cause if you did, I’d poison you.”

“And you won’t poison my food.”

She laughed. “Promise. But I don’t want to be a homemaker like our mothers. I want a job that pays good money. My own money. My own life. If I marry you and you cut the fool and leave me and our children, we won’t starve. We won’t lose our home. If you don’t want that then you can’t marry me.”   

He laughed. It hurt. “I want what you want, as long as nobody hits anybody.”

“Deal.”

“Where’s your grandma? It’s about time for her to come and fuss over me.”

“Inside. Sitting in her chair, talking to the Lord.”

“Out loud?”

“No, silly. She talks in her mind while she meditates on His Word.”

“Sounds like praying.”

“Her eyes are closed when she prays. They’re open when she talks.”

He nodded.

“Plus, praying takes a few minutes. Talking could take all day, all night.”

“You talk and pray like that?”

“Not yet. She tried to teach me. Called me stubborn. Said I need to learn to sit still.” 

Brandon grunted. “The Lord never answers my prayers.”

She closed her eyes, sighed, then opened them and left the porch. In the yard she picked up a stick and drew hop-scotch boxes in the dirt.  She hopped. “Don’t you worry, Brandon. I’ll intercede for you. I’ll pray that Senior goes straight to hell. I’ll pray you get well and grow up to be a good husband and daddy. I’ll pray that you find peace.”

“That’s a lot of praying.”

“You’re worth all that praying.” Her eyes filled with water. “I love you, Brandon Alexander Culpepper.”

“I love you back, Robin Alisa Porter. I’m going to save you one day, the way you save me.”

Trey took a few minutes to compose himself. He hadn’t cried that much since his mother’s funeral; aside from needing the truth, he found crying to be a good soul cleansing, pain relieving activity. The waitress brought over a box of tissues, then patted each of them on the shoulder.

“Two girls and two boys, huh? You got that part right.”

“Yeah, I got a couple of other things right, too.”

“Yes, you did, Dad.” Trey cleared his throat. “I believe I know how you saved her. And me.”

Trey went to his father and hugged him. When the moment passed, he returned to his seat.

“You do realize that your attachment to Robin wasn’t healthy, don’t you?”

“I do now.”

Silence filled the air. 

“When my body was almost back to normal Mom put me on the bus to Charlotte, to stay with Darrius and his family. His mother and my mother were the best of friends. I never went back to Tidbit.”

“That’s why Grandpa walks with a limp. I get it now, why I never stayed with him and Grandma by myself.”

Brandon balled his fists and banged them on the table. “I would have clamped my hands around his neck and squeezed every ounce of life from him, if he had touched you in a harmful way. Any of you.” He placed his trembling hand over Trey’s.

“You did the right thing, Dad.”

“That’s why Robin broke down when she saw me at the house after the wreck. Flashbacks. And that’s why I never sold the house. That house and the St John family saved my life. I can’t bear to think about selling it.”

“I get it.”

“Did he hit Grandma Birdie after that incident?”

“She told me no when I asked her, and I believed her.”

“You had a talk with him.”

Brandon nodded. “When he came to my college graduation. I hadn’t seen him in eight years. First thing I said to him: ‘You hit my mother again, you die.’”

Trey nodded.

“The violence inflicted on me by my father destroyed a part of my soul. I knew I wasn’t right in the head, and I didn’t know what to do about it, didn’t know how to ask for help. It got worse after Darrius Senior died. He was my best friend, my confidant. After Britt died I sunk further into myself; I was scared to death that social services would take you from me, for neglect. I’d heard about Robin’s divorce, her losing the baby. James and his outside child. I knew her, even though I hadn’t talked to her in over twenty years. She’d love you and protect you from the world. And from me, if needed.”

“She’s a fierce mama bear.”

“That she is.”

“I stalked her. Followed her to that concert. Bought a ticket near her seat. Prayed she would remember me, that we’d have something to bond over.”

“You followed her?” Trey moved to the edge of his seat.

 “I was on a mission, son. I needed her for you. Darrius needed me. I know now it was a stupid thing to do, but I didn’t have the skills back then to resolve the situation any other way. I didn’t want my best friend’s son to suffer abuse. I didn’t want my boy to have Carla as a mother.”

Trey excused himself for a bathroom break. By the time he returned, a few evening drinkers had taken seats at the bar, their voices amplified in the small space. Brandon moved his seat closer to Trey. 

“I told myself I didn’t love Robin when I married her, and she didn’t love me. Made myself believe it was all for you. But I loved her. I needed her. I never loved Carla. We got along okay in the beginning, until she started in with her jealousy of Robin. But I knew if I walked away from her, Darrius would be in trouble. Plus, she owned forty percent of the business and refused to be bought out.”

“I get it, about Darrius. He needed you, like I needed James.”

Brandon shook his head. “That was my fault. I shouldn’t have put you in that position. Darrius’ father died…”

“In many ways you died, too, Dad.”

Tears streaked down Brandon’s cheeks.

“Maybe we should stop here.”

“I need to get it out. You’re my practice run for telling your mother all of this, the parts she doesn’t already know.”

Trey touched his father’s shoulder. “All right, Pop.”

Brandon did a double take. “Pop?”

“JJ seems to like calling you that. Thought I’d try it out.”

“I wish I could have gotten custody of Darrius. Brought him home. Raised him with you. You think Robin would have been okay with it?”

“She would have taken him, yeah, and loved him, and she would have thrown you out. And it wouldn’t have taken ten plus years.”

“Yeah, you’re right.”

“Why did you tell her that you wanted to marry her when you got grown?”

Brandon lowered, then raised his eyes. “I saw how her grandparents were with each other. Beautiful people, inside and out. Loving home. No hitting, no yelling. They had fun as a family. I wanted that with Robin. Plus, she understood me. Had seen me at my worst. I thought I wouldn’t have to explain myself to her, assumed she’d understand. I loved her. And I loved you, so I put the two of you together, knowing I’d run the risk of losing you to her.”

“You didn’t.”

“Didn’t what, son?”

“Lose me to Robin. I love her, but not as much as I love you.”

They talked another hour or so about James and his place in the family. Trey finally understood his father. And it felt good. He forgave him, and himself. Carla, too. It seemed to Trey she’d been fighting battles of her own. He drove his father home and put him in bed. Brandon closed his eyes and kept talking.

“This was a good day, son.”

Trey touched his father’s arm. “Do you remember the first time Robin and I met, how she cried when she saw me?”

 “I remember. She was thinking about her baby.”

Trey shook his head. “She looked at me and saw you when you were a young boy. That’s why she cried. That’s why she smothered me with love. By loving me she was loving you through that pain, all over again. When was the last time you two talked about this?”

“When she was twelve, and I was fourteen.”

“Not since then?”

“We were there. No need for us to talk about it.”

“Do you think she remembers anything about that day? That’s a lot for a kid to process. Even a kid like Robin.”

“Don’t know. She had black out spells when she was a young girl. Some things come back; others stay lost. I guess that was her way of surviving the trauma. Forgetting it. I’m going to talk with her about it, hopefully tomorrow. There is one thing though, that she did, that was so sweet. She continued to do it when we dated, and after we married, and I don’t know if she remembers why. But I liked it.”

“Don’t get kinky on me, Dad.”

“Nothing like that, son.” Brandon swung his feet to the side of the bed.

“Five days I spent at her nana’s house. I was beaten up bad, but I remember feeling so much love from Robin and her grandparents. Every night before she went to sleep on the cot, after I pretended to be sleep, she would lean across me and place her right ear close to my chest, and hover for a few moments. It would have hurt if she’d rested her head on my chest. She knew that. So, she hovered. I would open my eyes, and just watch her. The second night I saw her do that, I asked her what she was doing. ‘I’m listening to your heart,’ she said. ‘What in the world for?’ I asked. She said she would sleep better after hearing my heart’s strong and steady rhythm.” 

“Where was her cot?”

“Next to the bed. Her bed. She was on night duty. If I stirred or needed anything at night, she was there. On the third night, when I thought I felt a little better, I told her she could rest her head on my chest if she wanted to and she said no, it would hurt me. Then…”

Brandon could barely speak. He picked up a bottle of water from his nightstand and took several sips.

“She said ‘Brandon, when we get married, I’m going to rest my head on your chest every night, and listen to your heart, and as long as I hear a strong and steady rhythm, I’ll know everything will be okay, even if it’s not okay at that moment.’”

Trey ran his hand across his head. “She was twelve years old.”

“Yeah…”

“You think she remembers saying that?”

“I don’t know. I never asked her.”

“You were afraid to ask.”

“Yeah.”

“Did she do that after you were married?”

Brandon choked up. “Every night, until the night we buried Murphy.” 

“I wish the two of you had gotten some counseling.”

 “Me, too.” 

“You think it’s too late?”

“She’s ready to be with James.”

“What about you, Dad? What are you ready for?”

“I’m ready to see her happy. She can’t be happy with me. I’m too damaged.”

“Ironic, isn’t it? The trauma that bound you two for life also destroyed your marriage.”

“Good way to put it. There’s one more thing I need to talk about if you’re up to it.”

Trey listened to the story about the day his mother died.