An Occasional Woman
“How many were there before me?” That was his question after our first time and I answered, guilelessly, “Four.”
I was back from Christmas break in Connecticut. I’d left my red 1965 Buick Skylark convertible with him. We’d just started dating and I was already crazy about him–already dreaming of being a doctor’s wife. Though I was at the top of my J-school class at Northwestern, I didn’t aspire to a career on a magazine. It was the 60s. An MRS degree was what I wanted.
At Midway airport: “Miss Johnston, please report to the Delta counter.” There was a note for me–the car had been in an accident. I stood there, bereft, for a long minute. Just then he tapped me on the shoulder. Maybe that heightened the excitement of seeing him again.
We were made for each other. He gave me a paperback—“Ducks at a Distance.” I gave him a mount of butterflies I’d caught at my home in Greenwich: red-spotted purple, question mark, mourning cloak. I was a fisherman, but he was the better fisherman. And I was gun phobic, though I did like everything else about hunting birds.
On a fall weekend, we drove up to Stevens Point in Wisconsin. He shot a squirrel, and that’s what we had to eat–skinned and burnt on a stick over a fire. We slept in the back of his old station wagon. In the morning, he heard a woodcock’s call. “Peent! Peent!” He tracked it through the red and yellow foliage and shot it. I held the dying bird in my hand until its large, liquid eye dulled over. The breast feathers were eiderdown soft.
We stayed together for two years—but there was that other number. Never in doubt is that my answer—”Four”—had made it a certainty I was not to be a doctor’s wife. Even though his parents wanted us to marry, he felt compelled to marry a virgin.
In the years after our breakup, I’d spoken to Robbie once. A year after we were married—to other people—he called my home in Kentucky around midnight. My husband handed the phone over to my side of the bed. The conversation took place with the phone cord stretched across Harcourt’s bare chest:
“Penny, I’m calling to say my Dad died.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry.”
“I thought you’d want to know. I remember how much you loved him.”
“Yes, I did…when did this happen?”
“Two weeks ago.”
This became an anecdote for Harcourt to tell our friends—Penny’s old boyfriend “The Blue Devil” calling from Missouri very late at night to give her family news that was weeks old—his favorite detail being the cord stretched taut over his chest.
The next phone call was a long time coming. I’d been divorced from Harcourt Kemp, then widowed when my second husband David Ross died at 60 in East Hampton. I’d started a new life, on a little river in Connecticut, with wild ducks I fed through the winter months. From my sunroom one February morning, I noticed a duck standing on the ice. It wasn’t a black duck, wasn’t a mallard. I took a picture of the odd duck: “Who’d know what kind of duck this is? Robbie Helmuth would!”
I found his mailing address on the internet, also a photo of him and Jay Nixon, Missouri’s governor, with a 24-pound tom from an annual turkey hunt. The only thing was that my Robbie Helmuth was 24 and dark-haired. This Loring Helmuth was an old guy and mostly bald.
My note to him was breezy: About the mystery duck, my son Rob (“Named for my Dad, not for you.”) About my red BMW’s vanity plate “Pencar”–his pet name for me, after the manila tag my Dad made for my car key—“Pen Car.” I added my best to his family and Sara (Of course, I remembered his wife’s name. I’d sometimes stay at Sara’s place in Durham during his “36 on, 18 off” residency at Duke.)
At first light a week later, going through junk mail, my fingers almost opened to drop an envelope—with a bluebird on the front— in the wastebasket, but then the precise handwriting looked familiar. It was him.
Dear Pencar, Penelope oh well then Penny! What a surprise to get your letter and how nice! I tried to look you up on the internet but no luck. I did however I think find your house on the Silvermine River on Mill Road. I am still doing surgery but no night call for ER. I have 3 children: Loring Jr. in Nashville, Sara Eliz a pediatric ER physician in ABQ and Jason Reid in Westmont IL who works for Thomson Reuters and came out of the subway when 2nd trade tower was hit on 9/11. In Aug 1990 I came home to an 18-wheeler in the front yard taking everything of value in the house. Sara left with Jason, then a HS junior. Then I was mobilized for the Gulf War and was in Iraq in a MASH. Finally legally divorced! Yeah! So there is a lot to talk about. You could have just left your son’s name hanging for me to wonder. Robbie, Rob, now Loring out of respect for my father.
When he called, he sounded, like my Mom used to say, like he had a mouthful of mashed potatoes. What he said was stunning. That his parents had wished us married, that his wedding night had been a disaster, that the fact he fathered any children at all was a miracle. All Sara wanted was to marry a doctor and have money. He wanted to see me.
Five days later, I was on a plane to St. Louis. When I saw him, my first thought was, “He’s not as tall as I remembered.” We had an awkward little hug, then:
“Well, I’m certainly glad to see you again.”
“I, I’m certainly glad to see you, as well.”
We had a lot to talk about, as he’d said. Of course, he knew what the mystery duck was—a hybrid of a black duck and a mallard. I asked how he’d managed a surgical practice and a house and farm all these years without finding another wife. “Women are trouble,” he said, and let it go at that. I had a pretty good idea that he’d had woman trouble.
When we got to his farm way down in the bootheel part of the state, he said that we—Penny and Rob—would have a cocktail hour like his parents Enid and Loring had done back in Moline. I didn’t tell him that my mother called him misogynistic and said he’d made me a cipher, not even allowed to wear lipstick. She never envisioned me in a marriage with him.
In the huge living room, filled with dead African mammals, was a large glass case containing a duck with a distinctive orange beak and baby blue head standing on a rockweed-covered stone. He’d just received it from a Long Island hunter and taxidermist–a trophy from a winter hunt with his younger son in Montauk. He told me about being out on the sea in sub-freezing wind within sight of the lighthouse. They were going after sea ducks. What had happened to the Helmuth family credo: “You eat what you shoot”?
“Look, Dad! It’s a King!” There was a single King Eider flying among the Common Eiders and he brought it down. King Eiders hardly ever fly so far south; they are mostly seen in northern Alaska. Now this lone wanderer was in a house miles from the nearest water–the lower Mississippi River.
I never re-entered that room. It was his life and I sure wasn’t going to be more than an occasional part of it.
I loved finding Indian arrowheads in the cotton field, walking his retriever around the 100-acre cornfield, fishing the Ozark streams together. Loved when he casually picked up a 6-foot-long rat snake that came in the house, then took it outside coiled around his bare arm—“So long, darlin’”—releasing it into the underbrush. I liked making venison tacos with the bay leaves and juniper berries I’d brought with me. One pre-dawn morning I got up before him and walked down in my pajamas and his pullover to the thicket down by the pond.“Peent! Peent!” He drove down in the old pick-up and together we watched the mating ritual of the woodcock. “Peent!” He flies in an upward spiral so high he’s just a speck in the sky, then tumbles to the ground.
Before I left to drive up to the airport, he went into the back room and came out with something. “I want you to take this. When I’m gone, it will just be thrown out.” It was the butterfly mount I’d made for him. On the back in my imperfectly formed handwriting:
Penny Johnston Greenwich, Conn. Summer 1966