I didn’t wait for Grandma to respond. I took my purse and walked right out of the front door, ignoring her calls for me to come back. Nothing she said would explain away the hurt I felt. Everything I knew about myself, my family, it was all a lie.
I paced around in the lobby. My car was parked right outside the window in the only front row space that wasn’t marked handicap. I searched my purse for my keys. I couldn’t stay there another second. Grandma could be on her way to tell me that Mama wasn’t my real mother, or that Pawpaw was really my uncle. I didn’t know anymore. I had to get out.
I didn’t notice the nurse at the reception desk behind me, and I nearly jumped out of my skin when she spoke. “Excuse me, ma’am. Can I help you?”
“Oh. Uh, no, I was just on my way out.” I stuck my thumb through the key ring and jiggled my keys in my hand, waving goodbye as I made my exit for the glass doors.
“Wait! You’re Ms. Millie’s granddaughter, right?”
I turned around. The nurse was leaning over the front desk watching me. “You look just like her,” she said.
“Really?” I stepped back from the door and approached her suspiciously. “Grandma says I look more like my great-aunt.”
My great-aunt, who had actually been Lindell’s sister, not Pawpaw’s. My mind drifted to Drake, how he kept calling me Jenny because I looked so much like her. I glanced down at the blue veins that showed through the fair skin on my wrist. I’d never questioned why Mama and I were so much lighter than Grandma and Pawpaw. I hadn’t ever noticed, but now it was glaringly obvious. I was a quarter white, and Pawpaw wasn’t my real grandfather. Who was he? Another one of Grandma’s many husbands? Did that mean all the others were real? Andrew? Deek? Fred?
“Did she really have that many husbands?” the nurse asked.
“Well,” I said, shrugging my shoulders, “I know she’s had at least two.” Still, it sounded deceitful coming off my tongue. That Grandma had been with anyone but Pawpaw. That the man I’d grown up calling my family was of no relation; he was just a man.
“She told me about her husband Milton once.” The nurse rested her elbows on the desk and place her chin in her palms. She looked up at the ceiling as if returning to a fond memory. “They spent their honeymoon in a cabin in the mountains. Romantic, huh? Too bad it didn’t last.”
“What did she say happened to him?” I asked flatly. Another dead husband. How convenient.
“She never told you?”
I rolled my eyes. “The story escapes me at the moment.”
“You know how they say April showers bring May flowers?”
“Well, that April brought mudslides. They really shouldn’t cut into mountains to build roads. There’s nothing to hold than land in place when it rains.”
“He died in a mudslide?” I imagined him in a car tumbling down the side of the mountain in a sea of mud and uprooted trees. It reminded me of a clip I’d seen in a Mount St. Helens documentary. I remembered being at Grandma’s house when I watched it. The tragic deaths of the Mount St. Helens eruption must have inspired her next husband. It was his true origin story.
“She said he was going to the store to get diapers for the baby.”
Baby? I leaned in closer. My mother, possibly? Grandma didn’t waste anytime—remarrying while Mama was still an infant. If that were truly the case. Again, I started to question if anything Grandma had said were true. Was Pawpaw really my grandfather, or Lindell? Milton, even? My head was spinning. Who was real and who was fictional? Did Grandma even know? She was such the storyteller, she was starting to believe her own lies.
Maybe the nursing home atmosphere was getting to her. She was younger and healthier than most of the residents, but spending so much time with people whose minds had long deteriorated—Drake couldn’t accept that his wife had passed, Marcos only spoke a single word, Winifred wished for death—was taking an unhealthy effect on her. Grandma’s new normal had become her twenty-six husbands—men she might have known in her lifetime, or simply invented. Her stories about her husbands were just as credible as Drake swearing I was his dead wife, Jenny.
The nurse must have noticed the confusion on my face. “I’m sorry, I thought Ms. Millie told you.”
“I’m kinda in the dark.” I tried to force a smile, but the strain felt like someone was pulling on the skin of my neck.
“Well, I don’t know much.” The nurse pushed herself off the desk and returned to her computer to type something on the keyboard. “Just that Milton was nice enough to marry her while she was pregnant. I think she said the father was murdered?”
“Yes, my grandfather.” I shocked myself at how quickly I answered. With nurses and patients around her repeating Grandma’s stories as truth, I was actually starting to believe them myself. Like the saying went: If you heard a lie often enough . . .
“I’m sorry to hear that.” The nurse turned her eyes back to the computer screen.
I shrugged my shoulders. “I didn’t know him.” I only knew Pawpaw, and Lindell needed more than just biology to steal Pawpaw’s title. He needed the relationship. The endless pranks; the tag teaming against Mama and Grandma; the chocolate chip cookies sneaked into my room after bedtime; and when I was a teenager, the advice on boys—Lindell wasn’t around for any of that. None of Grandma’s husbands were. Only Pawpaw.
I turned and looked out the window. The sun was still high in the sky, reflecting off the hood of the cars in front in a blinding glare. I thought about leaving, but a more curious part of myself wondered what more Grandma could tell me, and if I could believe any of it.
I needed to talk to someone, but not Grandma, not anyone at the nursing home who had been prepped by her stories. Someone I could trust, who could claim witness to some of Grandma’s marriages including Pawpaw, who could tell me if Grandma was just full of it in her old age or if living in a nursing home had taught her honesty.
I reached into my purse for my cellphone and dialed Mama’s number.
© 2016 Nortina Simmons
A to Z Challenge theme: 26 Husbands–26 Unusual Deaths
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