Lunch had already ended when I arrived at Cedar Retirement Home, but a few of the residents still lingered in the cafeteria, finishing the last crumbs on their plates. Others wandered by the kitchen doors, asking for left over food; an extra roll, a slice of country ham, a shallow bowl of corn.
Another of Grandma’s regular listeners, came from the kitchen licking cherry Jell-O from a cup. A very tall man—over six feet, he walked with a hunch, shuffling his feet so that his heels didn’t slide out of his slippers. He extended his neck over the cup of Jell-O, like a turtle coming out of its shell, and slowly lapped at the jiggling red cubs with his tongue, knocking them around the edge of the cup, but not quite getting them into his mouth. One dropped to the floor and broke apart into tiny red droplets like splattered blood against the white tile. He only sucked his teeth.
“Jerry, you old goof, why don’t you get a spoon?” Grandma asked.
He shook his head and bent over the wood rocking chair next to Grandma. He twisted his free arm around behind him, feeling for the arm of the chair. When he caught it, he squatted, scooted his feet back, squatted, scooted his feet back, until the back of his knees met the seat of the chair, and he fell into a steady rock.
“Aaaaahhh,” he exhaled, as if he was holding his breath while in the process of sitting. He puckered his lips over top of his snack, slurping the Jell-O into his mouth with much more success. “So, what I miss?” he asked, smacking his lips.
“Grandma was just about to tell us about her supposed second husband, Burt,” I said.
“Yeeeeeaaaah!” Marcos said.
“You don’t believe me?” Grandma asked. She put her hand on her chest, feigning innocence.
“Burt . . . that the one with the weak stomach?” In his mouth, the red cubes of Jell-O bounced around on Jerry’s tongue.
“Swallow your food.” Grandma slapped his bony knee and squeezed it to halt his back and forth rocking. “Slow it down, you just ate, and you’re still eating. You remember what happened last time.”
“Look now, my wife died fifteen years ago.” Jerry kicked his legs up, scooping his feet back into the slippers, and returned to rocking. “I don’t need nobody bossing me around.”
“‘Cuz you grown up now?” Grandma asked.
Jerry nodded. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think they were flirting, but with Grandma’s apparent track record, that wasn’t too out of the question.
“Anyhow, I couldn’t be as bad as your Burt.” Jerry winked.
“Yea, Burt threw up after every meal,” Grandma said.
“Did he have an eating disorder?” I asked.
“He wasn’t tryna lose no weight. Heaven only knew why he was still so fat when he couldn’t keep nothing down.” Grandma made a circular motion around her stomach with her hands. “Big ol’ potbelly, like a pig.”
“Well, that could’ve been a distended abdomen, a product of malnourishment.”
Grandma balled her hands into a fist and placed them on her hips. “I fed that man a balanced meal, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, every day!” she said.
“No, I didn’t mean like . . . you know like the little kids in African countries where famine is really bad . . . you’ve seen those commercials. Maybe he needed a doctor to see what was wrong with him.”
“He was a doctor, Meg!” Grandma snapped. “He carried a stethoscope in a briefcase and made house calls to sick neighbors, but he couldn’t help his dang self.”
Jerry suddenly stopped rocking. He pulled his feet in under his knees and planted them firmly on the ground. The chair stood erect on the front end of the rockers and jerked forward as if it were about to flip over and spill him out onto the floor. He coughed into his fist. Residue of the Jell-O still in his mouth sprayed out onto his fingers and flew toward Marcos who sat directly across from him. His coughs were wet and bubbly, and he rubbed his unsettled stomach with his other hand as it rumbled, making the sound of boiling water.
Grandma looked at him from the corner of her eye. “Don’t. You. Dare.”
But it was too late. He doubled over and retched the pinkish contents of his stomach onto the floor. Marcos hovered his hands over the wheels of his chair, his mind too slow to remind him which way to roll them in order to back up. He watched silently as the vomit spread out and enclosed around his orthopedic shoes. Everyone else in our circle raised their feet and held their legs parallel to the floor, though, with their age, they wouldn’t be able to keep them up for long. Grandma, younger and more flexible than most of the residents, climbed into her chair and sat on her knees.
“Just like—” she started.
“Oh, hush up, woman!” Jerry said as he wiped his mouth with the back of his wrist and pushed himself off his knees, leaning back in the rocking chair.
They could’ve been married fifty years, the way they argued back and forth.
© 2016 Nortina Simmons
A to Z Challenge theme: 26 Husbands–26 Unusual Deaths
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