“Oh, I just wish I was dead!” a woman blurted.
I broke away from Grandma and followed the voice. Sitting on the plush, velvet cough against the wall, a stumpy old woman clad in a purple blouse and skirt matched so well with the fabric of the couch that if it had not been for her gray hair and pale white skin, I might not have even seen her. She folded arms over her chest, poked out her bottom lip—also painted purple—and said again, “I just wanna be dead!”
“Winifred, why would you wanna say a thing like that?” Grandma purred.
“Here we go again.” The woman with the eight-year-old hairstyle spun in her chair and turned her back to Winifred. “She says this all the time.”
“Such a damper,” said the older gentlemen sitting on the other side of Grandma beside the record player—the music gone silent again—in an armchair identical to hers. He lowered his head and with his middle finger, scratched the age spot on his bald crown. “You wanna die so much, why don’t you marry Millie? She seems to have mastered the skill of killing spouses.”
Grandma chuckled, but the tears still lingering in the corners of her eyes told me she didn’t appreciate his joke.
“Two broads marrying, humph.” The last of our group sat away from us, giving us only his profile. A newspaper lay open in his lap, and he flipped through the pages as he spoke. “Shit’s legal now, humph. And I thought we were done for when they let the races marry.”
“Then you’d love to hear about my husband Lindell.” Grandma stuck out her tongue. “Don’t mind him,” she said to me. “He used be in the KKK.”
“Marcos is his roommate,” Baldy added, then he yelled out, “Karma’s a bitch, ain’t it, Frank!”
“Stop all that cursing, Thomas,” Grandma swatted at his mouth, and he dodged the back of her hand.
“I was in the navy for thirty years! The sailor talk is bred in me.”
“Why won’t the Lord just take me now!” The wrinkles in the jowls hanging from Winifred jaw deepened as she shook her head.
“Oh, shut up, Winifred!” Thomas and Frank said in unison.
“You stop talking all that craziness, you hear?” Grandma added.
“I don’t have nobody,” Winifred continued. “You got all these husbands, I never even had one. Your granddaughter comes to visit you every week, I ain’t seen my niece since she put me in here. I just wanna die!”
Grandma slowly stood to her feet, her knees making a soft popping sound as she straightened up. She went over and sat next to Winifred on the couch. “Life’s too precious to want to end it before it’s time.” She put her arm around Winifred’s shoulders. “You know, I had a husband who killed himself.”
“Really?” I asked. Grandma nodded, though her attention was focus on Winifred, as if the rest of us weren’t even there. It was just the two of them in conversation now. This story was reserved only for Winifred.
“Deek was a sweet man. I wasn’t smitten by him or anything, but I was happy. He was a great friend.” She looked up at the ceiling and wiped her eyes. “I remember that really bad blizzard of ’58. We sat by the fireplace talking for hours about everything we ever wanted to do in life, until we got soot on our faces.”
“Why did he kill himself?” Winifred asked.
Grandma inhaled deeply, raising her shoulders. When she exhaled, her entire body shrank, and she all but disappeared behind Winifred into the purple couch. “His mother was an awful woman. She gave him a hard time. I don’t think she liked me much. Eighteen-years-old and already widowed three times. I was getting a reputation around our little town. Most men thought I was some kind of witch. Deek was the only one who spoke to me after Carl died.
“I think he knew I wasn’t in love with him like I was with Andrew and Carl. I did love him, though. Maybe I just didn’t tell him enough.” She hung her head and pinched the bridge of her nose. “I should have been there.” Tear drops fell to her thighs, soaking the thin fabric of her dress. “I was at my parents’ house when he did it. Mama had asked me to go to the store and buy her some white beans for her three bean chili.” She titled back and whipped her hair off her face, blinking away tears. “When I got home later that afternoon, I found him hanging from the ceiling fan.”
“You poor girl,” Winifred said.
“Of course, his mother blamed me. Wouldn’t even let me go to his funeral. Me. His wife.”
“Funerals bring out the ugliness in people,” Thomas muttered. “Happened at my wife’s funeral.”
Grandma shook her head. “This woman was already ugly.”
“But you eventually moved on, right?” Winifred asked.
“I eventually remarried, yes,” Grandma said, “but it still haunts me all these years later. I just wish I knew what I could’ve done to prevent it.” One of Winifred’s gray curls stuck out behind her ear, and Grandma twirled it around her finger and tucked it down. “Take it from someone who’s been married twenty-six times and watched each of her husbands die. Death is never easy. Sometimes I’m just as lonely as you feel. But look around you.” She spread her arms, welcoming the rest of us in. “You have family here, and I’ll lend you my granddaughter every once in a while,” she said with a wink.
“How bout lending her a husband,” Thomas joked. We all laughed, even Winifred and grumpy, old Frank, and the heaviness of the air finally lifted.
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