Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Honest Money

Susan Pepper Robbins


“No one could have made all this money honestly.” She was on the front porch looking out at the wedding guests, not lowering her voice. There were over two hundred, the biggest wedding in the
county, ever. Cars were parked up and down the highway for two miles, washed, waxed, glaring in the June sun. Her favorite grandchild, Howard—everyone else called him Dab, short for Dabney, his middle
name--had just married Irene, the richest girl he could find.

Dab did not have our grandmother’s problem with rich people. He loved them all. I was helpless— embarrassed and proud of her for speaking out to the guests who were used to her pronouncements. I was ashamed and proud of Dab.

Later when things got really bad, Irene and Dab’s youngest daughter, burst out crying in the dark yard as she walked with me to the cars parked in the field after one of her parents’ parties, that Irene had been “leaving bruises” on Dab. She called her parents Irene and Dab. She was thirteen.

Grandma had worn her good church dress to Dab and Irene’s wedding, the one she would be buried in so she wore it only for special occasions, and this wedding was like a funeral so she did not mind the wear and tear it was getting in the heat. She hated weddings, watching lambs go to slaughter, but this one she said was worse than terrible. And to miss it would be like not going to Dab’s funeral. She expected him to be killed the way he drove. We all expected it.

Good voile can stand the heat. It was 1956 in central Virginia. The wedding was in the small Baptist church that looked like a Greek temple. Irene’s parents had given the land and the money to build the church. We couldn’t all get in the church and those who did almost fainted from the heat. Ninety-eight degrees that afternoon.

The bridesmaids looked about ready to die in their lavender organza ballerina-length dresses. Their faces were almost lavender under their matte makeup. No one had heard of air conditioning or big
ceiling fans in 1956. Heat was natural. We understood the world.

Irene was known for her tantrums—from first grade through college. Dab knew about them. They were impressive, and he liked being impressed. When things went wrong, she threw a fit, and then things got better. I tried it once or twice at home with my parents and brother Eddie “to no avail.” I loved that phrase and used it often because it always seemed to fit the occasions I found myself in.

Irene had thrown a big fit, we heard, when she told her parents that she was marrying Dab Peyton, Howard Dabney Peyton, my cousin. “Good luck” they’d said, then went on to warn her that she’d have to take care of him all his life, which was true, running his life or trying to with her tantrums and her money, but the money was really land that no one wanted to buy. Still, Irene had the bearing, the “carriage” she said of a woman who owned many farms, who had won ribbons at horse shows, even at The Garden when she was eighteen. The farms were not called farms but places as in the old Jennings Place, the Stillman Place, the Walton Place. We lived on farms, but as Irene would say bitterly many times, “But they're places on the river.”

In his mid-seventies, after a life of hard drinking that kept his law practice inefficient and poor, Dab stopped drinking because of Irene’s major tantrum which she called an intervention—one that brought her a small stroke and then death two years later. She blamed Dab for the stroke and held the sagging left side of her face against him, pointing to it and saying she owed her ruined beauty to him. Then, she’d point to Dab, who’d throw his arm around her shoulder and say to whoever was hearing the story, “But look at this other side. It’s perfect.”

I was Irene’s friend, and after she married Dab, she claimed me as her cousin, or as mama said, her whipping post. Being five years older, Irene did not worry that I would not understand what she told me about her life with Dab and later about her sessions with her doctor; she was sure I couldn’t, being who I was, part of Dab’s family, but I would have to do, she said. I was all she had to work with as a friend. She wanted me to understand that she’d wanted to marry Dab, period. Forget the fact that he had about five girlfriends at the time, two of them putter-outers and that she knew he’d keep on
having girls on the side, and he did—several during their long marriage. Once I saw Dab in his own house at a Christmas party pushing a married woman--plump, glasses, permed hair—up against a
wall and kissing her down her neck while she tried or seemed to try pushing him off her.

Irene could not forget the fact that he was poor and worst of all, never would make any real money. He screwed up the drug case that would have moved him to the big time, that is, to Richmond money.

Our family, I was learning and not just from Irene, ruined the people we married, so Irene was a good test case: how much more could we ruin her? How would we know what we’d done and what had
already been done? She said for years that Dab’s and my grandmother had started the devastation at the wedding when she stood on the porch and spoke to the crowd as if she were Agrippina watching Christians being eaten by lions, a favorite scene in “Quo Vadis” with all of us.

Someone had told Irene what Grandma had said and she quoted it often,“No honest person could have made this much money.” But later, Irene found out that Grandma had only been a small part of her problem and to her credit, she acknowledged that it was her own father who had ruined her. This fact took years to discover and more years to adjust to, but the one thing she never accused him of was dishonesty about money, and she never forgave Grandma or any of us in Dab’s family. We were not let off the hook. It was true that Grandma thought money made people dishonest and Irene thought that money was a measure of goodness or smarts at least. These two ways of thinking about money crashed into each other, and the crash started at the wedding even though it must have started long before that hot day in June.

I had not set my rifle sights on my first husband though I knew him from school. I was learning a great deal at Irene and Dab’s wedding that hot afternoon, not that I realized what was happening to its full extent. To me, back then, it was a perfect afternoon, and I was a helpless dangling puppet girl, dancing in the hot sun, thrilled and embarrassed. Irene was perfectly wrong for Dab, but she looked beautiful in her Montaldo’s gown, as plain in its ivory sleeves that came down to points over her hands that were hard as leather gloves from holding the reins of her blue ribbon winning horses. I couldn’t see the wrongness of things then, but Grandma always could. She and Irene had that in common even though they thought different things were the wrong things. I had to learn the hard way.

Our family had never had any money, and Irene pointed out to me three months after the wedding, we never would have any, the way we carried on about the starving Armenians and Korean orphans. We
thought we still lived in a big house handing out corn bread and sacks of flour, giving the ex-slaves’ great-grandchildren sides of bacon.

In fact, Grandma did live in a ten room house, but the back porch was falling away, the screens billowed out of it, the broken milk separator stood guard by the door. Grandma wouldn’t have curtains or rugs, reminding us that some people didn’t have roofs. She said“rooves” not “rufs” the way our fifth grade teacher had corrected me, but I kept loyal to “rooves.” Her house had a heating system—heat
registers cut in the ceilings above the wood stoves in the dining room and living room so that the heat rose up in wavery ribbons to the frozen bedrooms. When she shook hands with a person she would report later how hard the person worked. Soft hands meant a person didn’t work.

My family also had a big house on the river as Irene always said, but it had only a wood stove in the kitchen as its heating system. My parents had hard hands and were poor, so I felt proud of their honesty, but I fell into the trap that Dab had. I married my school friend who had a future in banking—me who majored in Latin and loved every minute of it. Irene said I was an idiot, and later I
could see that she was right. The banker went crazy and shot himself so I didn’t get any of the insurance because when I found him bleeding, I called the rescue squad who called the police who wrote “self-inflicted” on their report.

_____

Susan Pepper Robbins lives in rural Virginia where she grew up. Her novel was published when she was fifty: One Way Home, Random House, 1993. Her fiction has won prizes (the Deep South Prize, the Virginia Prize) and has been published in journals. She teaches writing at Hampden-Sydney College.

© Susan Pepper Robbins

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012