Just Like Debbie Reynolds

by Susan Pepper Robbins

I got marriage out of my blood before I was thirty.  It took two husbands, and since then–for many years now–like Debbie Reynolds, I have not dated.

Recently, Ms. Reynolds was interviewed on 20/20, or maybe it was Dateline.  She said the dating part of her life was over.  Everyone watching in America could feel what she was feeling as she talked about Eddie Fisher and men in general.  Her decision to give up men was a great, but necessary loss not only to men, but to herself, and it was a shame.

“It’s sad,” she smiled in a very maturely pretty way. “But, it’s a fact.”

But, it’s not over for my sisters by a long shot. Martha and Harriet are just getting started with their love lives in their fifth and sixth decades.  They have not reached the higher ground that Debbie and I have achieved.

For the record, my first husband, Bill, turned out to be a drunk, a quiet one with manners from Europe, and as serious as the medieval scholar he should have been.  But, circumstances mixed with alcohol changed his plan for studying Aquinas, and he worked his short life in real estate, finding houses that had not yet been put on the historical register but were eligible because no one had bought them up from the old families with enough money left to ruin or improve them with swimming pools and decks, garages and barns for their children’s horses.

William Alexander Stone was dead within a year of our divorce, the summer of `73, when Watergate was on television.  It turned out that Bill had been politely waiting for me to leave to begin to drink seriously, and when I did finally have sense enough to leave, I flung his grandmother’s ring down the stairs of the old house, the one we were living/camping in until he could find the right young couple to see it as a bargain and treasure.

Mansion is not too strong a word.  It had twelve rooms and double-decker porches that looked down on a narrow river. My violence shocked him, but convinced him that the marriage was over.  He probably thought I was going to run out to the hundred- year old shed and get an axe and try to murder him as he sat by the long window in what was once the library though the books were in stacks on the floor because the walnut shelves had been stolen.

His great-great-great aunt had come to the house as a bride and left twelve years later as an impecunious widow in 1863 when she walked away, half-crazy with three small children.  Bill’s grandmother was the middle girl in that straggling band of four who hid in the woods from both Confederate and Yankee soldiers.  She had been taken in as an orphan by her mother’s sister when her parents died with tuberculosis. The house had been abandoned, but never sold, and hardly ever seriously lived in, that is, with generations succeeding each other.  Instead, it acted as a way station. Some desperate cousins had “sought refuge” there during the Depression.  They had raised chickens in one of the front rooms where we found the chicken wire still up, strung across the room to make a corner of it a coop.

Bill was able to prove that he owned the house, being the only heir left.  This was a good thing, because we did not own anything else or have any other place to live.

This big ramshackle house was called “Evening Star” after the cottage in Wordsworth’s poem, Bill said, and added that it suited a love such as ours, and I went along with his view of us until the ring-flinging incident.  We decided after two years of camping there with a hotplate rigged up to a transformer that it should be sold to the new people who said that they would do justice to the house, “justice” they kept repeating, even if they would not promise not to put in central air or add a deck.

“Evening Star” had a family of black snakes in one of the big front rooms. After my ring-flinging, Bill drank himself into a coma, thence into his grave, but before he did, he made sure I understood that I was in no way to blame for his drinking problem.  I agreed.

My second husband’s problem was money, big time. Thomas Whitt Sheridan. Again, I married a real estate man.  Later, I could see this pattern in my life events–love of property/loss of property.

Sherry, as his closest friends called him, which meant everyone he knew, was like Bill Stone, a developer of country estates hidden in the piedmont, houses built in the early eighteenth century by younger no-good sons, wastrels and blackguards whose houses were still standing because of the good materials and cheap labor.  The loss of slave labor was deeply regretted by many of Sherry’s friends too pc to say so. What they would say was that they wanted some Mexicans to do the work Americans wouldn’t.

Many of the houses Sherry acquired before he went belly up claimed kin to Monticello because of their Doric columns and metapes, and in fact, as he began his financial slide, people called him Mr. Monticello, remembering Mr. Jefferson’s money troubles. Sherry’s fall and the collapse of his company made the newspapers, and got him disbarred, (he had “read law” he used to say, but never intended to practice), and ruined my credit rating.  Friends said Sherry damn well almost went to jail, but then they added that if Sherry were ever locked up, basic things in the universe would have to change–the sun would come up in the west, backwards over Lynchburg, scrolling forward eastward over Richmond to the Atlantic, across Norfolk and Portsmouth, in the wrong lane on I-64, setting in the east, causing wrecks in the commuter traffic, blinding the drivers.

Unlike Bill, Sherry did his real estate developing cold sober. Unlike Bill, he was not movie-star handsome but in the ball park, and like movie stars seem, he was perfectly indifferent to his looks which increased his value to women.  Most men will pause in front of a mirror and check a sleeve or tie, or glance in the rear view mirror at their shave. Not my Sherry.

Fast cars, slow women, he said when he met me, and I fell for it.   Bill had had no interest in cars.  His van had over two hundred thousand on it, and Sherry had no interest in houses except as items to market.  He would have died if he had had to spend a night in an old house.  We lived five years in a cheapo Richmond townhouse apartment, but we went through a smoke gray jaguar, a Mercedes convertible and a beamer.  We would drive them by turns to every restaurant and race (horse or car) within two hundred miles of Richmond.  We belonged to all the clubs that accepted payment plans.

I see now that I thought that I was playing the old game of dichotomies with my husbands.  Bill or Sherry.  This was a game we used to play, racing across the living room of a townhouse in Richmond’s Fan District, forcing people to choose one or the other, calling out ice cream or cake, hill or vale, you or me, fire or ice, dancer or dance, death or divorce.  I thought that Bill and Sherry were opposites, but I was as wrong as Newt Gingrich was when he went up against the Clintons. No, Bill and Sherry were two peas in a pod, but I thought they were night and day.

The problem with being married to a drunk is that it blinds you to other problems.  So when Sherry didn’t drink, I thought I was home free because this present husband was sober.  I don’t think I had ever heard of anyone going bankrupt when I met Sherry.  Money was “ever a problem,” to paraphrase somebody, but not desperately one, and not one that called for legal action. I thought that it was a simple coincidence that Bill and Sherry were both in real estate, not understanding that real estate attracts suicides of all degrees.

Dichotomies’ one rule was that you had to choose your answer without a word of discussion. We had played dichotomies in graduate school to relieve the strain of trying to find the “reading” or the “implied or ideal reader” to “unpack” a poem.  Ocean or Mountains, we’d yell.  Silk or Linen.  Yeats or Joyce.  Achilles or Hector.  We could get predictive.  Suicide or AIDS.

I took my belated vow of chastity after Sherry fell apart, and have kept it so far. I was at a dangerous age then, I realize, mid-thirties.  Now in my fifties, I feel vulnerable again, not to men, but to the knife cut of loneliness.

Last year I hiked the Appalachian Trail, well, parts of it.  This year who knows? I’ve asked for a leave of absence from teaching Freshman Comp and if I get it, I’ll go to California and try to be a new person, or better yet, find a person, man or woman, who will roam the wide world, figuratively, with me.  This is not to say that I am bi-sexual.  I am no longer sexual, and I truly believe that there are many people like me and Debbie Reynolds, the Been Theres, Done Thats.

Martha, the older of my two sisters, is a soft-bosomed sixty-three, a virgin, I thought, when she married Charles Parker.  Harriet, now fifty-six, is a runner who weighs less than she did at twenty-two.  She’s divorced from David, the father of her two grown children and involved with a man she has not told us about. She likes secrets and despises confessions.  Secrets give resonance to ordinary life.  She does not think that her love life is anyone’s business but hers.

The way Harriet looks, stringy and modern, as well as her age–both the chronological one and the younger one in the mirror–is a fact which she enjoys holding over Martha’s head, but not over mine because I don’t count, don’t register.  I have big bones and no one ever thinks whether I am fat or thin, old or young, I am just there.  Both Harriet and Martha know that I have taken the pledge–no sex, no men–so I don’t matter in many ways.  When I am not around, out doing my thing like the hiking the Appalachian Trail last spring, it’s fine with them. California will be a perfect way to deal with me.  They’ll say to each other in their Thursday night calls that Claudia’s gone off somewhere again, knowing I’ll come back before long.

All three of us sisters live outside of Richmond in the three surrounding Southside counties, one sister per.  Harriet in Chesterfield, Martha in Powhatan and me, farther out, in Cumberland.  Powhatan has malls so new the cows are still grazing around the edges of the parking lots, Chesterfield’s are old enough to have closed down for revitalization.

“About your age,” Harriet will say to Martha as the final description of a new person she’s met.  The seven-year difference between Harriet and Martha is a chasm to Harriet, one which widens every day in her favor.  And as I have said, I don’t count, so the three year gap between Harriet and me does not matter.

Age gaps do not diminish as people move toward the grave or the sky, although many people think that they do.  In fact, the difference between fifty-six and sixty-three is the difference between water and ice.  To younger people, maybe it is true that all older people look the same, but to oldies, every year, every month counts.  I have even heard senior citizens talk about a three week age difference.

Last year when I was taking Martha for her successful radiation treatments, she announced that she would be getting married.

“Wonderful,” I said.  I am very careful with my sisters, not that they return the compliment.  “Who’s the lucky guy?”

“You don’t know him.”

How true, would have been carefully and presciently an appropriate answer and should have been what I said. What Harriet asked me when I reported this news that I was sure that she already knew, was “How old is he?”   Of course, Harriet was mad that Martha had told me the big news first.

Harriet wants to know things first, wants information of any kind, especially any bulletins from the sexual universe as she calls it.

In September, on a Tuesday, the fourteenth, her radiation just finished two days ago, Martha married Charles Parker, who eight months later drowned in the bathtub.  Not like Agamemnon, Martha said under her breath to Harriet and me.  We both knew she was not being flippant, that she was really heart broken.

Under all the sister stuff, we do love each other, but we do have our go-arounds.  Harriet discusses our sisterhoods at length with me and behind my back with Martha, and we do the same–Martha and I–we talk about Harriet.  Part of the whole system is that Martha and Harriet seem worlds apart, from distant galaxies as my students say.  As different as my husbands seemed to me.

“Keep things straight” I say, careful even when I am speaking to myself.

In fact, Charles Parker turned out to be Harriet’s age, seven years younger than Martha.  An unheard of thing, to us if not to movie stars, but to us, remarkable. I thought that all men looked younger than they were, but Charles looked old, up by several rungs, the ladder of years. Martha and Charles were married for eight months, twelve if you count the four months before the wedding when he lived with Martha and helped her finish the radiation treatments. I appreciated his help with the driving and dinners.

Martha teaches Greek and freshman composition at the local college and after she retires in two years, there will be no more Greek, even in translation, she says, so at every opportunity, even inappropriate ones like Charles’s death, she uses her Greek, mentions it, and makes an allusion, even a ghastly one, like the one to Agamemnon’s bathtub murder.

“Eureka,” she says when she finds her glasses or a student’s folder on her desk.  “Thalassa” she calls out as we get near any body of water, or “Hoi Polloi” to the mall walkers.  She assigns paper topics to her freshmen writing classes that she hopes will attract some classics majors but the numbers are still down.  “My Summer Initiations: Drinking and Sex: Ancient Love Practices.” Last year one of her students explained to her that at her age, she might not get what he was saying about sex or even drinking. Might not understand the hierarchy of sexual practices. Might not know what men feel or why they need to drink.  He was eighteen and apologized for speaking for all men, but still, he was sure that she could not possibly know what men feel, especially about sex.

Charles Parker was an insurance broker, and an “independent scholar” he called himself.  He had been hired to teach the humanities classes no one else would teach, filling in for professors on sabbaticals at Gannon, Martha’s college. It suited him as a dilettante, a renaissance type who said he knew a little about most things.

Harriet called herself an “independent physician” after she heard what Charles had the nerve to call himself and started prescribing St. John’s Wort, ginseng and noni juice. She said all of Charles’ knowledge, self-styled, came from crossword puzzles where her own came from. She was trying to change herself with exercise and herbs.  Her mind would follow the healthful changes in her soma. The mind could take care of itself if the body led the way. The mind could see or feel the wisdom of the body. Her organs would smile, and then her spirit would. I believe she once said something off the wall like that. Observation was therapy, entertainment, religion.  Why read fiction with all that was spread out before us on the lawn of the world! Why indeed, she would laugh. And, she had the stories to back her up on the endless variety of minds and bodies at odds–friends who had married men in prisons who were slated to be executed for rape and murder. It really had happened to her friend Brenda. She married the death row confessed murderer and was paying for him to have a new set of lawyers.

But Harriet was a trooper and helped me put on the wedding for Martha and Charles, and we did it right as if Mart were a nineteen year old girl in 1957, and HarHar and I were her small town banker father and garden club mother. Small, Episcopalian, Southern. I soaked the ham for three days, sawed off the hock and let it simmer twelve hours in a pan so big it sat on two burners.  I had it sliced so you could see the world through a slice, rosy and salty, if you held it up to the window. We invited the thirty people we still knew that did not have trouble driving.  Had the table cloths starched. Harriet polished the pieces of old silver we still had and the brass lamps and fenders. Harriet and I talked as we got ready for the wedding. I went into what Harriet pointed out was victim whining or whinnying and we did have to laugh at me. It has not done me any good to be the baby in my family, not gotten me off any hooks with my sisters, and they bring up Bill and Sherry as if Bill were still alive and Sherry still driving me to the races.  With Martha and Harriet as older sisters, there was no chance that I would be spoiled.  I am their everything.  They own me, their slave. This was my plea as the old hymn goes. Though spoiled, I am not allowed to complain, whine, even muse on my troubles. They are bored with my infantile problems before I open my mouth.

Martha was wrecked by the terrible accident. Charles had been reading in the tub, drinking scotch after his sleeping pill, had fallen asleep and then slipped down, more an Ophelia than Agamemnon. Mart said she was just getting used to being happy. Harriet and I were adjusting to her happiness too.  Hearing stories about Charles’ taking her on golf trips–she had never held a club before–their outings to the mountains or the ocean, their staying up all night together to read novels, made me pretend to be jealous and Harriet nauseous.

Mart had been sure that I was falling in love with the idea of them, the whole thing of their late romance and late-in-life marriage in spite of my chastity vow.  Who could resist this Charles who had discovered Martha whom he called his Elgin Marbles, his Chapman’s Homer, his peaks of Darien and the ocean. Harriet, looking at Mart and Charles’ love gibberings,  googamooga goo goo, wanted to vomit, but went for a longer run instead, but as I said, HarHar knocked herself out helping me throw the fancy-ancy wedding.

Charles Parker was the perfect man and his lies, well, they were perfect too. He was a man, wasn’t he?   Eight little months. Maybe eight months was all that the cover-up/marriage could sustain. Bad health, a drinking problem, two ex-wives and an angry girlfriend in a Cadillac convertible, will out.

Now, Charles’ children, George and Pauline, are taking Martha to court for negligence, though they must know how happy their father was during those eight months. Charles never mentioned his blackouts to Martha or to his children, nor even the dizziness. His lies were the silent type. He never told Martha about the first wife, just about the second one, the mother of George and Pauline.

In their shock, their disbelief that Charles, their father, drowned in the tub of his new wife’s apartment, George and Pauline could have had Martha charged with something worse than negligence.  I try not to hint at criminal negligence, the “m” word even.  Harriet holds back too.

But, Martha shakes her bracelets, two thin silver ones, and asks what am I talking about, what could I mean. How can I add to her torment? Martha ends conversations that are losing their points with a gesture, lifting her shoulders and weeping as if I were not there, my non-essential self, as she is murmuring about being alone and running out of steam. I am of no use, she makes clear with her tears and murmurs.

Useless, I turn to Harriet who takes a turn with Martha.

Harriet has her own set of circumstances. She refuses to admit, maybe to herself, that she lets Ellis Winters stay over at her apartment every weekend now. Joan and Owen, her children, say they will not speak to her if she continues to have Ellis for sleep-ins, stay-overs, though they speak plenty to me about the situation. They want me to tell Harriet that adultery is dangerous, and perhaps still wrong.

“Let Harriet know, tell her that we know what’s going on.” Joan has seen Ellis Winters with his wife at Food of All Nations. Joan bets her life on Ellis Winters’ still being married. We have not met Ellis Winters–how could we when he is a secret–but Joan knows what he looks like through one of her groups that she works with, either Literacy or Aids Awareness. When I try to hint at this fear of Joan’s to Harriet, this sighting, she says her children are liars, especially Joan who is, according to Harriet, a genius at covering her tracks so that she, Joan, always looks good, right.

Like Martha, I do not have children, and so the violence and misery of the ways parents and children deal with each other–trying to outdo each other, egging each other on, reaching for throats, sinking short swords in up to the hilt–how they talk to or about each other still surprise me. Harriet talks about Joan and Owen as if they were agents for Saddam or Milosevic, and though I should be used to it, I am not.

“She has no soul,” Harriet says about Joan.  “He can’t wait to dance on my grave,” about Owen.  “Both of them are killers by instinct and training. They would embezzle from Jesus, his loaves and fishes, the widow’s mite.”  To see the three of them together is to see a study in cameo, carved profiles gently and mildly meditating on love and nature.  They look alike, their beautiful profiles reflect the same gene pool, and their tastes and love of nature reflect it too.

“It’s only Ellis Summers they want to steal,” I say, using his name as if Harriet had told me her secret, all about the man she is dating, the man on the historical society board. I am trying to steer Harriet back to her role in her children’s transferred violence and treachery. I am hoping she will get mad at the Summers children who are roughly the same ages as Joan and Owen if I can think of something they might say if they knew about their father’s weekends with Harriet.  Harriet just looks at me as if I were a foreign exchange student who would be returning to Tanzania in a day or two, so there is no need to correct my English. And, I have not been able to think of a set of plausible lies to explain how I know Ellis Summers’ name and connection to Harriet.

Joan and Owen are as savage about Harriet, though nothing children can do or say sounds as terrible as what parents say about children. This is the end-all and be-all, the alpha and omega of what I have learned about children and parents from Harriet. Owen has said casually to me on the phone, “Mom twisted Joanie’s and my lives into perversions of activity. She has paralyzed us from the ankles up.” This from a young man who got the internship in internet marketing in London, won the full stipends, then got the entry level position at 47,500.00.  I do manage to say to him that he’s doing all right.

All of these accusations fly in triangles across their bi-weekly suppers taken in turn at each one’s apartment or a restaurant to which I am invited as a U.N. peacekeeper, an observer in the former Yugoslavia. Joan thinks that as her mother’s sister, as their aunt, I  should know how far Harriet has failed them, her children, and to be fair, she adds, how far from the mark they, the children fall. My role? I am to exclaim over their failures and bind up their wounds, all victims, but behind each others’ backs–no side must know that I am Flo Nightingale to the other side.

Maybe I do keep them from arming with a Beretta as they eat plates of spaghetti and Greek salads.

Now, I predict that Ellis Winters will be included in the weekly dinners, a rectangle of assaults. Owen and Joan will want him there for the kill, for the slow turning on the spit over the fire of raw personality. Can an adulterer have dinner with the grown children, Joan and Owen, of his mistress who has yet to admit that he spends nights with her, that she even knows him. We seem to have forgotten that this is the new millennium. We’re trapped in 1957.

And who am I that I must do this shuttle diplomacy? I am Claudia, fifty-three, the two-husbands baby of the family, the one with the advice never taken, but always demanded. I say to Martha when I meet her for lunch: “Get a lawyer to handle Charles’ insane children,” and “Don’t retire until the college drags you out.  Keep bribing the students to take your Greek 101. It’s dying out, but don’t speed it up.” To Harriet when she comes by for my rosemaried carrots and roasted leg of lamb, I say, “Get rid of Ellis, but first, admit that he is in your life, that he is married.  He’s not worth it. You look like and are a fool. Listen to your children who are, God knows, terrifying, but they are not liars.”

Then I go forward, outlining my plans to save my sisters:  Buy a grandfather clock kit, rent a house in the mountains. Rewire their houses whether they need it or not. I try to set a good example and have taken up herb gardening and sky diving myself. Joan and Owen like the news that I am jumping from planes because I am only an aunt. They are mild in their ridicule, not hatefully murderous as they would be about such news from their mother. They are kind to their Martha, their Marmar too, that is, they do their laughing behind her back. “Poor Martha-Lartha,” they laugh. “Charles, drowned in the tub?  Have you ever heard of a better way to go?”

I get us all together for lunch–a mistake–and to avoid the subjects of Charles’ death and Ellis Summers’ secret weekend life, we talk about David, Harriet’s husband, Joan and Owen’s dad who left them before they started daycare–eight months for Owen and eighteen months for Joan.

Harriet will talk about David.  He was a letter writer and she says she was the victim of his letter writing talents.

“His letters brought me back to him. Once from Cleveland, once just from Fayetteville.  He’d send me twelve pagers detailing the anatomy of my spirit–no mention of my body which should have suggested a problem or the whole trouble, but I could not get enough of the letters.  And then, he’d wait for me to come noodle-headed home. That would hold me until I left again.”

Then she shocks us by saying “You may ask why letters when I’m the one who loves sex.  Feel free. I went for the letters, I can’t believe it myself, because I can’t write, not like that, and anyone who does write good letters has me in hand, by the throat, over a barrel, dead to rights, at the end of the barrel.”

Of all stupid things, given who we are and what’s happened, we are telling love stories over lunch.  Martha, the new widow, tells Harriet that premature ejaculation can be treated to which Harriet says that she and David never discussed sex. Everything else but. Love, yes, sex, no. She and David talked about love over three-hour Indian dinners cooked with the help of the library staff who found the old books on curry and the British influence on the ancient preparations of curry.

Then Martha says, “I don’t know what I would not forgive.” Does she mean Charles’ carelessness with his life that night in the bath? His lies about his health or his first wife?  Is her forgiveness bottomless? That’s the only thing she can mean.

Harriet’s divorce from David came through the mail, civil, a matter of paper work, like his love letters.

How are we to account for the Joan and Owen? There were also miscarriages. These from such inadequate sex!  “They just came like the leaves, not so many, thank God, but fell on me, not like leaves, but bricks.”

Joan and Owen to their eternal credit die laughing.

This is our lunch.

Susan Pepper Robbins is a life-long writer whose novel was published when she was fifty (One Way Home, Random House, 1993) after it had won the Virginia Prize for Fiction. A collection of her stories was posted by the Tonopah Review recently, and other collections have been finalists in competitions—the University of Iowa, the Flannery O’Connor and the Spokane Prize.