Marcos returned wearing a new pair of starched khaki pants and the slippers to match. The nurse rolled him into the space between me and Frank and set the anchor to keep the wheelchair in place.
“There you go,” she said. “Nice and clean.”
“Yeeeeeaaaah!” Marcos said.
Then the nurse walked over to Frank and turned his chair to face us, making our circle complete.
“I was fine the way I was,” he said. His voice was deep and hoarse, as if something was caught in his throat and he couldn’t clear it out.
“You don’t want to hear Mrs. Millie’s stories about her husbands?” the nurse asked.
“I’ve heard these stories at least a million times.”
“But you keep coming back, hmm.” Grandma tapped her chin with her finger. “Must be something you like.”
“My favorite is Elliot,” the nurse said. “He was such a clown!”
“Well come have a seat, baby.” Grandma slapped her palm down on the seat of the rocking chair. “Let me tell you about him.”
The nurse side-stepped by Frank, tip-toed around the puddle of water—which had since dried to a sticky consistency that crunched underfoot—and flopped into the rocking chair.
“I met Elliot in the supermarket,” Grandma started. “I stood behind him at the checkout. The line was really long that day for some reason. Maybe one of the cashiers didn’t come to work. Or maybe the whole neighborhood decided to go grocery shopping at the same time. We waited in that line for hours, it seemed like. The woman in front of Elliot must’ve had a litter of kids back home, all that food in her cart.
“The whole time we waited in line, Elliot would look back at me and smile. I knew he wasn’t from around here. Most men would take one look at me and run in the other direction. Four dead husbands in two years. Nobody’s luck was that bad.”
“Tell ’em about the quarter trick,” the nurse said.
Grandma nodded. “When the cashier finally got to ringing up his food, he realized he was twenty-five cents short. He patted down his shirt and pants pockets and checked his wallet again. Nothing. Then he looked at me. I thought he was gonna ask me to borrow some money, but he felt behind my ear instead and found the quarter. ‘What do ya know. And this whole time I thought you’d stolen my heart,’ he said. The kids today would probably say his pickup line was lame, but after Deek, I really needed something that would make me smile.”
I twisted my mouth. She had to be lying. I couldn’t count the number of times Pawpaw had played that same trick on me when I was little, so much so that I expected it whenever I came to visit. “Get the quarters outta my ear! Get the quarters outta my ear, Pawpaw!” I’d shout. He’d smack my ear with his massive hand, and the change would tumble out on the other side into his palm. My ears rang for days after with the sound of clinking silver. To this day, I still don’t know how he did it.
“My grandpa did that to me all the time,” the nurse said proudly.
“Whose hasn’t? I’m pretty sure that’s how Pawpaw proposed to you, isn’t it?” I said. He’d asked Grandma to marry him on her birthday, and every year, he recounted the story. Originally from the coast, Pawpaw took her back to his hometown of Kure Beach for a picnic. Unfortunately, it was mid-October and all the fishermen were out. The pier was crowded and reeked of dead and gutted fished, and all along the beach, fishing lines extended out into the ocean from poles planted in the sand, just past where high tide had ended. With the smell of raw fish filling her nose on the wind, Grandma lost her appetite, and to save the afternoon from total ruin, Pawpaw thumped her earlobe and drew back his hand, spinning the ring around the tip of his finger.
“Nothing your Pawpaw did was original,” Grandma said.
“Well you blushed every time he told us the story.”
“I didn’t say he never swept me off my feet.” Grandma shook her head. “But everything he did he got from Elliot.”
“He knew about him?” I asked.
“He knew about all of my husbands before him. They weren’t a secret.”
Why had he never said anything, I thought. If any of this was true, at some point, Pawpaw would’ve mentioned it. He was a jokester, and Grandma was always the butt of his jokes. I could only imagine how often Pawpaw would’ve brought up something about his twenty-five predecessors, predicting how his inevitable demise would befall him. How would it happen? By cinder block or school bus? He would’ve bantered Grandma endlessly, calling her cursed. I could hear him now—no man would ever live to tell the tale of being married to Millie Jones. He wouldn’t have missed the opportunity to tease Grandma about Burt, or even Andrew. How does one choke on a saxophone mouthpiece anyway? How could one hundred people in the audience sit there and watch it happen? Did they think it was part of the show?
If only Pawpaw were alive today for me to ask him. But anyone capable of refuting Grandma’s stories was long dead.
“The quarters behind my ear, the whoopee cushions in my chair, the bloody fingers in my cup, the floating Jack-o-lanterns at Halloween. All of these were Elliot’s pranks,” Grandma said. “Your Paw just took them and made ’em his own.”
So Elliot was the reason I had nightmares about conjured severed body parts, why I wet the bed for two weeks straight when I was ten. Pawpaw had squirted ketchup into a Styrofoam cup and stuck his middle finger through the bottom. He’d covered it with a lid and called me over to show me something he claimed to have found in his backyard. When I looked inside, I saw a finger, detached from its hand, wiggling around in a pool of blood. I ran out of the kitchen screaming at the top of my lungs, locked myself in my bedroom and wouldn’t come out until he and Grandma had gone home.
“Good thing he never tried the fork in the socket trick.” Grandma sighed. “That’s what did Elliot in.”
“Didn’t he know he would get electrocuted?” the nurse asked.
“Well, yea, if the light switch was on. That was his plan. He’d turn it off and pretend to get electrocuted to scare me.”
“So how’d it get turned on?”
“I might’ve . . .” Grandma shrugged her shoulders. “I’d just bought a new lamp that day. I wanted to see how it looked in the living room.”
“You killed that man, humph,” Frank groaned.
“If I’m being honest,” Grandma said, and I chuckled at the hypocrisy of her statement, “I was a little relieved not to have to walk on egg shells anymore.” She turned to Frank. “I was ’bout sick of all his dang pranks.”
© 2016 Nortina Simmons
A to Z Challenge theme: 26 Husbands–26 Unusual Deaths
Read next: “F” is for Forgetful Fred.