We sat silently in our circle for several minutes, the only noise being the steady creak from the rocking chair as it teetered under the nurse’s shifting weight.
Grandma plucked at a string dangling from the hem of her dress, stalling while she gathered the details of her next story in her head. Had she run out of material? It had to be hard keeping up with twenty-six men—all who had apparently died their own unique deaths.
Where did the stories come from? I tried to remember the years of my childhood when I’d come to her and Pawpaw’s house after school to do my homework while she watched her soap operas. Many of those characters died mysteriously; crashed off cliffs on motorcycles, shot by evil twin siblings, cursed by witches to other dimensions, buried alive. I searched my memory for scenes reminiscent of Andrew, Burt, Carl, Deek, or Elliot’s deaths. Was there a winded jazz musician on All My Children? Maybe an inattentive mechanic on One Life to Live? General Hospital was sure to have had a patient with bulimia checked into a room. No soap opera was without at least one emotionally unstable character, contemplating suicide, but nothing rang a bell. The fork in the outlet trick—I’ve seen that done on America’s Funniest Home Videos, or World’s Dumbest. A silly prank gone horribly wrong, but no one was seriously hurt, right? They wouldn’t show that on TV, would they?
Finally the woman with the eight-year-old hair style spoke. “I don’t remember that at all.”
“What don’t you remember, Tammy?” Grandma asked.
“Any of it. You never married a man named Elliot.”
I surprised myself at how quickly I laughed. Elliot was probably the most believable of all her husbands, if not for the simple fact that his story was so similar to Pawpaw’s.
“It’s just, well, I’ve been listening to you talk about your husbands for years, and I’ve never heard you mention the name Elliot.”
“That dementia’s catching up with you, Tammy,” Thomas said with a smirk.
“Don’t you call me old.” She bit down on her lip and turned away, as if embarrassed to have said anything at all. I wanted to back her up, assure her that her memory was still in tact, but the truth was Grandma had mentioned Elliot, at least enough times for the nurse to remember him—so much so that her enthusiasm to hear it again helped to drive the story since Grandma was also getting slow in her memory. Even as she recited the deaths of her husbands, she took frequent breaks, either to sip water from a glass, swat at invisible flies, speak to nurses, visitors, or other seniors walking by. Then we would have to remind her of the place in the story where she’d left off and wait again while she collected her thoughts to continue.
Age was catching up with all of them, and they fought it ferociously, knowing that if they were to lose their memory, there would be nothing else to live for.
“I married a man with Alzheimer’s once,” Grandma spoke. She was back on focus, using Tammy’s forgetfulness as the base for her next tale. “Right after Elliot.”
“How old was he?” I asked. Grandma couldn’t have been no older than eighteen at the time. That young, what husband would she find suffering from an old man’s disease?
“Well if he was dealing with Alzheimer’s, he was pretty old, Meg,” Grandma said condescendingly. “You gotta remember, by this time, no man my age wanted anything to do with me. Fred didn’t care ’cause he was so close to dying anyway.”
“Did y’all . . . ” the nurse raised one eyebrow, ” . . . do it?”
“You ain’t married if you don’t.” Grandma said.
“Oh god, Grandma, too much information!” Bile rose up at the back of my throat, and I swallowed down hard, feeling the heat and tasting the acid on my tongue. I wanted to gag, but I covered my mouth and held my breath as my stomach settled. We didn’t need another reminder of Burt. The linoleum tiles under the wet floor sign were still a faint pink hue from the other nurse’s haphazard cleaning. Looking at it made me sick all over again, so I turned to Winifred, who had quietly camouflaged herself into the purple couch once again.
“It wasn’t that bad,” Grandma was saying. “It was quick, but when you get to be Fred’s age, you’re lucky to have the stamina to be doing it at all. Gotta take what you can get.”
“I was fucking Mildred all the way up until she died,” Thomas declared proudly. He stood with his knees apart and thrust his hips forward, insinuating his wife bent over in front of him.
“Sit down. Keep it in your pants.” Grandma pushed him away from her. “Nobody wants to see that shriveled up old thing!”
“Careful now.” Thomas turned to me and smirked. “I might become your next granddaddy.”
“Oh, hush up! I’d marry Marcos before I’d ever think about touching you,” Grandma said.
“Yeeeeeaaaah!” Marcos upper lip curled under itself as he grinned from ear to ear, his mouth the shape of a cantaloupe slice, and we all burst into laughter.
“Whatever happened to Fred?” Tammy asked amidst everyone’s cackles and howls.
“Damn, Tammy, you don’t remember Fred, either?” Thomas thumped his temple. “Glad to know I still got my brains.”
Ignoring him, Grandma leaned across his lap to talk to Tammy.
“Careful, there’s a snake in there.” Thomas put his hands behind his head and reclined in his chair.
Grandma only rolled her eyes. I suspected she might have secretly enjoyed his teasing.
“I don’t know what ever became of Fred. He told me one day he was going to the store for milk. He hated it when I did stuff for him. He said it made him feel like an invalid.” Grandma paused. “You know, it was actually my birthday that day.” She closed her eyes, counting silently to herself, then shook her head as if confirming the date. “Yep, and dammit, he was gonna make me some blueberry pancakes, even if it meant walking to the store to buy the ingredients,” she said giggling, mimicking how Fred might have spoken. “I never saw him again.”
“The whole, ‘I’m gonna buy some milk’ ploy,” I said sarcastically.
“Say what you want.” Grandma pushed herself off of Thomas’ knees. “I know for a fact he was telling the truth.” She wagged her finger in my face. “He just forgot who he was on the way.”
I hope you enjoyed the story of Fred from 26 Husbands–26 Unusual Deaths. Be sure to check out other “F” posts from the A to Z Challenge.