“I married Andrew when I was sixteen. We were just silly children then, but so in love.” Grandma leaned back in her chair and wrapped the blanket folded in her lap around her arms.
A gray-haired man pulled up beside me in his wheelchair—though he didn’t seem to need it. He used his feet to steer, taking small steps forward and pushing the wheels to catch up.
“Marcos, I was starting to worry,” Grandma said.
A wide grin spread across Marcos’ face, revealing a whole row of missing teeth. “Yeeeeeaaaah!” he said, his voice rising and falling like ocean waves.
Grandma clicked her tongue when she noticed me staring. He must be one of her regular listeners, the ones who didn’t—or couldn’t—talk much.
“Now, where was I?” Grandma said. She slid down into the cushion of her chair to get comfortable. “Andrew’s parents were sharecroppers, and very poor. He told me he only owned two outfits: the overalls he worked and played in, and the slacks and button down he wore to church.”
“How did you two meet?”
Grandma winced. She hated being interrupted. I hoped my question would disrupt the flow of her rehearsed monologue, and she would forget what she had planned to say altogether—memory of a fabricated life failing her. But her face soon relaxed, and she continued on, unfaltering.
“It was breezy that day. I’d finished early with my chores, so I decided to sit on the porch and blow dandelion seeds into the wind. That’s when I saw him. No shirt on. The flap of his overalls unbuckled. His sweaty pecks glistening in the hot, summer sunlight.”
“What? You notice those things.” Grandma winked. “He was beating on our fence like it was a set of drums. Now, my Daddy was no carpenter, and that fence was the sorriest thing you’d ever see. Just walking by would knock it down. So I marched right on up to him and asked what was he aiming to do, beating my fence like that. That’s when he told me about his dreams of becoming a famous Jazz musician playing the sax like Coltrane.”
Grandma sat up and snapped for the nurse who had just walked by. “Bring me Blue Train, will you?”
“Yeeeeeaaaah!” Marcos shouted.
The nurse left to retrieve the record from the bookcase on the other end of the common area while Grandma opened the lid of the small box on the table next to her, which turned out to be a record player. The nurse returned with the record, and Grandma slid the vinyl from the sleeve and careful placed the needle in the groove. Slowly, the smooth rhythms of the blues filled the room.
Grandma swayed her hips with the music. Her voice was softer, in harmony with what played on the record. “He’d been working odd jobs to save up some money for a sax. He was down to the last couple dollars. I knew I had more than that in my piggy bank upstairs. Been filling that sucker up since I was old enough to know what money was. So I went back in the house to get it and cracked it open on one of the pickets. I told him I’d let him have the money on account I be the first person to hear him play.”
“And were you?” I asked.
“Played for me on our wedding night,” Grandma said proudly, her chin in the air.
“Yeeeeeaaaah!” Marcos said.
The music picked up tempo. Marcos began tapping his feet and nodding his head left to right while Grandma shimmied her shoulders, as if she were about to get up and dance.
“So how’d he die?” I asked.
Grandma raised her finger. She closed her eyes and held out her hands in front of her, drumming her fingers on her thighs as if she were the pianist on the record. I watched Grandma and Marcos play their imaginary instruments for another five minutes until finally the cymbals clashed and the song faded into silence.
“Daddy never liked Andrew. He much preferred I marry somebody rich.” Grandma sighed and turned the volume down on the player as the fluttering notes of the sax twirled above our heads on the next track. “Andrew had a gig at this juke joint called Tammy’s. He’d been suffering from a nasty bug all week, and by that night it had gotten even worse. We should’ve canceled, but we needed the money. We were living at my parents’ place. Daddy kept going on and on about how I’d hurt myself marrying a boy who only had a pre-owned saxophone to his name.”
“What happened?” I was leaning forward in my seat. Marcos too. Everyone was, closing in on the space between us and Grandma, hanging on her every word.
“The first half of the show was great. We should’ve stopped there. But the audience wanted an encore, and Andrew was kind of a big head.” Grandma lightly chuckled. “He was in the middle of playing one of his own compositions when he fell into an awful coughing fit.” Grandma stretched her neck and scratched at her throat. “You know how after you’ve been coughing for a long time, you heave to catch your breathe?”
I could barely move. It was as if time itself had frozen as we waited on Grandma to finish. In the back of my mind, I could hear that high-pitch whistle creeping into my eardrums, like in suspense films after the rising music suddenly stopped, and you anticipated something frightening to jump at you on the screen.
“I still don’t understand how it could’ve happened. How he could’ve sucked in the air so forcefully just trying to catch his breath that it would detach from the sax and go straight down his wind pipe.”
“The mouth piece,” Grandma barely whispered. “It was so impossible. Maybe that’s why it took so long for someone to get on the stage and help him. But by then it was too late.”
“No one called 9-1-1!” I was so upset about someone so young and with so much talent and potential dying so soon—like the Coltrane’s, the Holiday’s, the Hendrix’s, and so many others—I’d forgotten that he more than likely wasn’t even real.
“What good would that do when the closest negro hospital was 45 minutes away?”
“Yeeeeeaaaah!” Marcos added, as if confirming that while Andrew himself might have been imaginary, Grandma’s assertion about segregated hospitals and the lack of compassion for negro boys choking on instruments was certainly true. The history books proved it.
Grandma sighed and folded her hands in her lap. “I was made a widow after only three weeks of marriage.”
“Think of it this way,” I leaned forward and patted her knee. “If Andrew hadn’t died, you would’ve never met Paw.”
“Oh no, there were many others between Andrew and your Paw, Meg.” Our background music ended, briefly leaving the room in total silence. Grandma flipped the record to the other side, and started the player up again.
“I wasn’t in mourning two days, before Daddy found a doctor for me to marry,” Grandma said, then mumbled just loud enough for us to hear, “I wonder where the good doctor was when Andrew was dying.”
“So did your second marriage last longer?”
Grandma rolled her eyes. “Yes, but sweetie, let me tell ya, it ain’t always better marrying rich, especially when that rich husband’s name is Burt.”
I hope you enjoyed the story of Andrew from 26 Husbands–26 Unusual Deaths. Be sure to check out other “A” posts from the A to Z Challenge.