“Satisfied?” Grandma asked when I marched back to the circle. I took my original seat next to Marcos, to which Drake objected. He stood up so quickly, he shed his age twenty years with the popping of his knees.
“Pipe down, Robin Hood,” Jerry said. He bent forward and mushed Drake in the gut with a heavy grunt. “She ain’t Maid Marian.”
Drake flopped back on the couch, kicking his legs up in the air. He tried to push himself to his feet again, but his legs slipped from under him, and the cushion absorbed his fists. He’d exerted all his energy just that quick, returning to a frail old man.
“What did Rick tell you?” Grandma asked. “Assuming that’s who you called.”
“He told me something interesting.” I hesitated to say more. I couldn’t imagine Grandma capable of doing something so evil. Poisoning her husband? She wasn’t that kind of Grandma. No, she was the kind that never stopped talking. No matter where she was, she always found a situation that reminded her of an interesting chapter in her life, like jazz music striking memories of her first husband, Andrew, the saxophonist. What would provoke her to confess the cautionary tale of how she murdered her sixteenth husband?
“Have you ever killed anyone, Grandma?” I didn’t want to accuse her straight out, but it wasn’t too outrageous to think she might have aided a few of her husbands in their deaths. How often did twenty-six men, whose only thing in common was one woman, all die tragically after marrying said woman?
Grandma nodded slowly. “He told you about Pete, huh?”
“So it’s true?”
“You killed someone, Millie?” Tammy asked.
“Can’t say I’m not surprised,” Jerry said. “Probably more where he came from.”
Jerry’s dry joke and Grandma’s shifting eyes put a sour taste in my mouth. Uncle Richard only suspected that Grandma had poisoned Pete. He had no proof, and he surely didn’t have a reason—not one he could think of. But Grandma wasn’t an evil person. She couldn’t be. The worst she’d ever done was fall in love too many times. There had to be an explanation, but succumbing to the darkness to take a man’s life, even with a good explanation, tainted your soul.
“I was protecting your mother,” Grandma said.
“How? What did he do to her?”
“It’s not what he did, but what I was afraid he was going to do.” Grandma crossed and uncrossed her legs. She smacked her dry lips then reached for her glass of water on the table next to her. Realizing the glass was empty, she sat it in her lap between her knees. She lifted her head to the ceiling and swallowed hard. The room was so quiet we could hear her throat click. It was as if everyone the center had stopped what they were doing to listen.
“Pete and I were married a couple years,” Grandma said in a raspy voice. She cleared her throat and began again. “We had been married a couple years when I started to notice how he looked at Linda.”
“How did he look at her?” I asked.
Grandma bounced her knees up and down. She picked up the empty glass and held it in her palms, drumming the edge with her nails. “At first I thought it was the fatherly, endearing kind of look, but then . . .” She crossed and uncrossed her legs again, fidgeted in her chair, put the glass back on the table. “Linda liked to run around the house naked. It was cute when she was a baby, but she was getting older and she needed to put some clothes on. I’d yell at her ’til I was blue in the face, ‘Put some clothes on, Linda! Let’s be a lady today.’
“One day Pete decided to spank her for not doing what I said, which . . . there’s nothing wrong with that. When a child’s disobedient, you give them a spanking. Spare the rod, spoil the child. But . . . let her put some clothes on before you bend her over your knee and smack her bottom with your bare hand.”
“Oh my!” Tammy gasped, covering her mouth with both hands.
“Pedophile!” Frank snorted. It was the first time he’d spoken since Lindell.
“Later that night, I woke up freezing. He wasn’t in bed, so I went down the hall looking for him and saw him come out of Linda’s room. He said she had a bad dream, so he read her a bedtime story. But when I looked down at how his pajama bottoms were pulling at his . . . ” Grandma couldn’t bring herself to say the word, crotch, for all the implications that came with it. “How many bedtimes stories make you . . .” Again, her voice faltered.
I raised my hand. “It’s alright, Grandma. You don’t have to say anything else.”
“Linda said he didn’t touch her. They just laid in the bed together while he read her the story. But all I could think about was how they laid together. Did he spoon her? Did she feel . . .him behind her?”
“Grandma, please.” Bile rose at the back of my throat, and I couldn’t swallow it down. The rancid taste filled my mouth, and it was all I could do not to spit it out on the floor. Grandma’s fumbling with the empty glass made sense now. We all needed water to wash out the filth of Pete from our systems.
“The right thing to do was to divorce him, but all I could think about was him hurting other children. What if he married another woman with a pretty daughter like Linda? Would he do more than just read her bedtime stories? I had to stop him. I had to protect future children as well as my own.”
“So you poisoned him.” I said.
“I cooked him blueberry pancakes . . . with antifreeze.”
“Mama bear!” Thomas slapped her back.
Grandma grimaced, but tried to force a smile.
Tammy was still shaken by what Grandma had shared. “I don’t know what scares me more. That a grown man wanted to have sex with a child, or that you killed him.”
“Are you going to call the cops, Tammy?” Jerry asked flatly.
“Speaking of cops, you weren’t caught? How’d you get away with it?” I asked.
Grandma shrugged. “I got lucky. Turned out Pete had this rare kind of genetic kidney disease. So when his kidneys failed, they ruled that as the reason.”
Tammy rocked herself on her heels and stood up, sliding her chair backward. The legs scraped loudly against the tile floor.
“Tammy?” Grandma looked up, her brows furrowed in a worried stare, silently asking, “You won’t tell anyone, will you?”
Tammy glanced down at her wristwatch. “It’s after two, and I haven’t taken my nap today.” She turned and gave me a thin-lipped smile, then briskly walked on the balls of her feet past the nurses station to where the bedrooms started at the back of the community area.
“Well, she’s got dementia, so if we’re lucky, she won’t remember anything when she wakes up,” Thomas said. He kept his eyes on her until she disappeared into one of the rooms. Then he turned to Frank. “And we all know you’ve killed people, so if you say anything—“
“Bah!” Frank snapped. “She probably killed all her husbands. What do I care?”
“Good answer.” Thomas leaned across Grandma and looked at Jerry.
“I’d a killed the bastard too!” Jerry said.
Marcos had been unusually quiet, but when we all looked to him for his answer, he beamed, showing teeth and gums. “Yeeeeeaaaah!”
“I think that means ‘no,’ ” Jerry said. He flicked his wrist over at Drake. “And this one’s too busy trying to reincarnate his wife, he probably wasn’t even paying attention.”
“Oh, you stop messing with Drake. He’s my friend,” Grandma said.
“Until he tries to sleep with your granddaughter.” Jerry crossed his finger over his throat and stuck out his tongue.
“Ahhh! That’s a good one!” Thomas guffawed, slapping his knee.
Those two always knew how to turn a tense situation into a joke.
© 2016 Nortina Simmons
A to Z Challenge theme: 26 Husbands–26 Unusual Deaths
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