I couldn’t believe it was almost five. I hadn’t planned on staying to dinner, but already the nurses were collecting chairs, pushing tables together, setting the place mats and lying forks, knives and spoons on either side.
“Anyone ready to eat?” a nurse standing behind Marcos asked.
Jerry rubbed his stomach. “I’m famished.”
“Well, I would guess so. You ain’t ate nothing since you threw up lunch!” Thomas pointed at the pink stain on the floor by his feet.
Jerry smacked his lips.
“Would you all like to sit together?” the nurse asked.
“Yes, dear,” Grandma said.
The nurse grabbed the handles of Marcos’ wheelchair and turned it toward the cafeteria area. “I’ll be back for you,” she said over her shoulder to Frank.
“One of us can push him, dear,” Grandma said as she stood and stretched her back. She snapped her fingers in my direction. “Take him. Follow that nurse.”
“I was actually thinking about leaving.”
Grandma cocked her head to the side. The look in her eyes told me she was preparing her usual stall routine. “It won’t kill you to take the man to the table, will it?” she said.
That was how it always started. “It won’t kill you, will it?” No, it wouldn’t kill me to do one simple task, but that one simple task always turned into one more, then a third and a fourth, and before I’d even realize what time it was, the staff would be setting up a room for me to spend the night.
I pushed Frank to the end of the table across from Marcos. Jerry and Thomas sat on one side of the table, and Grandma sat on the opposite side. I looked around from Drake, but the man had wondered off in our migration, probably to the bathroom. I wouldn’t miss him or his roaming hands. Maybe I could escape before he came back.
“Won’t you come sit?” Grandma patted the empty seat next to her. Her eyes drooped down like slanted almonds. “I haven’t finished telling you about all of my husbands yet. You’ve listened for this long. You can’t stay for six more?”
“It’ll have to wait until my next visit, Grandma.” I glanced down at my wrist watch. I had three hours to get ready for my date with Kyle. The drive home was about twenty minutes with rush hour traffic. If I left now, I would still have plenty of time, but three hours quickly dwindled to three minutes when listening to Grandma. Her stories were endless, and she told them with such emotion, we were always drawn in, reliving every detail with her, losing track of time all the while.
Grandma hung her head, digging her chin into her chest. “It’s not often that I see my only granddaughter,” she said barely moving her lips, the words coming out muffled.
“You sure she’s your only?” Jerry said out the corner of his mouth.
Thomas snickered into his glass as he took a sip of water.
“Grandma, you act like I don’t come to see you every week.”
Grandma raised her finger. “Key word, week. That means I have to wait seven long, excruciating days.” She wobbled her head around her neck dramatically, touching an ear to each shoulder.
“Careful, for you snap your neck,” Frank said in his gurgly voice.
“Oh you’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Grandma barked back, then said, “Where are you in such a hurry to get to?” when she noticed me sling my purse over my shoulder and check my watch again. “You’re like Uriah. He rushed himself right to the grave.”
“How? Let’s hear it,” Thomas said.
Grandma crossed her arms over her chest and turned her head. “I’ll tell when Meg has a seat.”
I threw my purse over the back of the chair and flopped down beside her. One more. I would stay for one more, and then I was leaving whether Grandma liked it or not.
“Uriah was a chef. Well, not officially, but he was the line cook at one of my favorite restaurants. Leroy’s Heart and Soul. They had the best fried chicken in town. Skin so crispy, it flaked in your mouth.
“He spoiled me when we first got married. Every night, dinner was fried chicken, mac & cheese, collard greens with smoked ham hocks! Mm, mm, mm!” Grandma licked her lips. “I gained fifteen pounds that first month. Linda was getting chunky too. Rick had started college by then, but you wouldn’t even know it, as often as he was home, eating all our leftovers.”
I tapped my foot under the table. The background information was what made Grandma’s stories so long. She had to set it up, introduce the characters, deliver the stakes. She couldn’t just dive into the climax out the gate, start with their individual deaths, even though their deaths were what initially hooked our interest. Where would the thrill of suspense come from if there was no build up?
“Uriah always wanted more. He eventually got tired of working in a small town soul food restaurant. He wanted to be a head chef, but he didn’t want to go to school to get the proper culinary training.” Grandma pressed her finger to her temple. “He thought he knew everything. One day he tried this new recipe at the restaurant— a secret ingredient to give the chicken a nice kick, but not too much that the kids couldn’t still eat it. Everyone loved it, but the executive chef thought Uriah was trying to undercut him. They fired him the next day. That’s when Uriah decided to open his own restaurant out of our garage instead. It was the dumbest idea if there ever was one!”
“Damn, you couldn’t be the supportive wife?” Thomas said.
“No! He had complete strangers coming in and out of my house all through the night. Linda was on waitress duty when she should’ve been doing her homework. Of course, she didn’t care because she was making tips. A dollar from this and that table was a lot of money to her since she ain’t never have none.”
“You never did allowances in your house?” Thomas asked.
“How, when she’s burying a husband every year?” Jerry cracked.
“Where’d you get the money? All of them couldn’t have had life insurance,” Thomas said.
“Who said I had a funeral for all of them? Andrew’s parents buried him in their backyard.” Grandma didn’t wait for Thomas or Jerry to ask about the others.
“Uriah thought he was saving money putting the restaurant in the garage and making me, Linda, and Rick when he was home, host and wait tables. But cooking for a restaurant and actually running the business are two different things. Our customers where just a few family and friends, and Uriah’s regulars form Leroy’s. Still, that was a lot. It was hard cooking for ten to fifteen people a night with one oven, four burners on the stove, and that’s not including the fact that our family still had to eat.
“I was hostess by the door, making sure nobody wandered off where they had no business. You can never be too careful with strangers in your house. Even people you know. They’d be the main ones to steal from you. Linda and Rick were our wait staff. They ran back and fourth between the kitchen and garage carrying thin paper plates with heaping piles of food on them. One night, Linda dropped a whole table’s meal on the stairs. Uriah liked’ve slapped her. That was the only time I’d ever seen her actually want to do her homework.
“After three weeks of breaking out necks, the oven finally gave out. On top of that, we lost two burners on the stove. Uriah bough a crock pot to ease the load, but nobody wanted to wait two hours for their food. Eventually we lost our customers too.
“Uriah kept going on and on about how we’re losing money, we’re losing money, but we weren’t making any money! Not with that grocery bill from buying all that food and that light bill from cooking it! It was a miracle we still had a house!
“Uriah wasn’t having it though. He was so mad—slicing onions, crying and sniffling, mumbling about what he needed to do to get his business back. He wasn’t paying attention at all. Chopped his middle and index fingers clean off. He was so hysterical, swinging his arms all around, that he slit his wrist too before I could finally get the knife away from him. We didn’t have any insurance for the hospital, so I took him to the urgent care clinic, hoping maybe they could stitch him up, but he bled out before the doctor could see him.”
“Christ Jesus! All of that over some fried chicken?” Jerry said.
Thomas nodded to me. “You better stay. We don’t want you hurting yourself like Uriah.”
“That chicken must’ve been damn good,” Frank grumbled.
“Oh, it is!” A nurse pushed a cart of food up to our table. She took one of the plates from the cart and extended her arm over Frank’s shoulder to lay it on the place mat in front of him.
Dinner was fried chicken, mashed potatoes with gravy, green beans, and to add a little tangy sweetness as a dessert, cranberry sauce. After listening to how Uriah had sliced himself open while cooking, the last thing I wanted to see on a plate full of food was anything red.
“Not the healthiest choice for this crowd,” I said looking down my nose at Frank’s plate. It screamed diabetes.
The nurse shrugged. “It’s Friday!”
“We ain’t dead yet,” Frank said with a mouth full of potatoes.
“We will be after this.” Jerry tucked his napkin into the front of his shirt then took his fork and knife in both fists and slammed them down on the table. “Now come on with my food, girly. I’m hangry!”
Grandma sucked her teeth. “Just don’t throw it up this time.”
Apologies if I missed any typos. I skipped lunch to write this post. Is April over yet? This A to Z Challenge is kicking my ass! I’m playing catch up once again — losing track of the days. What comes next? Oh, right. “V’ & “W” will get posted . . . eventually . . .