I lost an hour listening to Uriah. The residents had filled the cafeteria by then, each with a plate in front of them, munching slowly. A few stragglers wandered in from their rooms, including Tammy, refreshed from a three hour nap. She walked straight to our table when she saw us, leaning heavily against her walker—the balance in her legs not fully awake yet. She wrapped her arms around Grandma’s shoulders and gave her a tight squeeze.
“I had a dream about you.”
“That doesn’t sound good,” Grandma said between chews.
“Is that all?” Thomas asked, clearly anxious to know if Tammy remembered Grandma’s disturbing confession about Pete that sent her fleeing to her room for a “nap” in the first place.
“It was about you and your husband.”
“Which one?” Jerry carved his knife across his half-empty plate. The silver scraped harshly against the ceramic, making a high-pitched sound that rivaled dog whistles. I rubbed my knuckle against my eardrum and tried to ignore him, staring at Tammy’s wrinkly, age spot covered hand instead.
My mind lingered on the thought of whether Jerry would stab Tammy if she mentioned Pete, to protect Grandma—maybe between her fingers just to scare her into silence. The knife was a dud, barely sharper than a butter knife. Even in this fragile crowd, it couldn’t do any real damage. The chicken meat seemed tender enough, but the knife couldn’t even cut through the thick crust of the skin. Frank had actually peeled the skin away and started picking the meat from between the bones, licking the tips of his greasy fingers as his tongue looped the chicken into his mouth.
“The doctor,” Tammy said, and Jerry dropped his knife, seemingly satisfied with her answer.
“Aw, Tammy, not while we’re eating!” Grandma covered her mouth, spat her food into a napkin, then folded it neatly into a triangle and tucked it under her place mat.
“No, I don’t mean Burt. The animal doctor.”
“Yes. You always spoke so fondly of him. What happened to him again?”
Grandma pushed herself back from the table. I could hear the echo of the clock ticking in my ear as she twirled her tongue around the molars in the corners of her mouth, preparing to talk about another husband.
“Tammy, would you like to sit?” I said quickly, getting up to offer her my seat.
“No! She can pull up a chair.” Grandma snapped her fingers behind her where two men sat at a table of four.
“Grandma, I really can’t stay.”
Grandma waved for me to sit back down. “Val will be quick. I was only married to him a year.”
“You were married to the last three for a year!”
Ignoring me, Grandma scooted her chair down closer to Frank to allow Tammy to sit between us.
“I feel like it would be wrong of me to talk about Val while I’m eating this chicken,” Grandma said, picking at the crispy skin with her fork. “You see, Val wasn’t just a veterinarian. He was a vegetarian too. It would’ve been hypocritical for him to be a devoted animal lover and still eat meat. So he gave it up a long time ago, and when we got married, he made me give it up too.”
“Must’ve been hard after all that food Uriah was feeding you,” Thomas said.
“Any other time, I would’ve flat out said no. You can’t make me give up my chicken, and my bacon, oooh, and that spicy smoked sausage. No way! But we all needed a diet after Uriah. Linda was getting teased at school, Rick couldn’t walk up the stairs without losing his breath, and I was starting to look pregnant.”
“Maybe you were,” Thomas said.
Grandma rolled her eyes. “I think I would’ve known if I was pregnant, smarty pants.”
“So you only ate vegetables?” Jerry asked. “What a waste!”
“Fruits, vegetables, beans. It’s amazing how great they taste when that’s all you’re eating. All that weight just shed right off. It was the healthiest I’ve ever been. Even though Val’s gone, I still try to stick to that diet, avoid meat a few days out the week. Keeps my brain from turning to mush.”
“That why you ain’t touched your chicken?” Frank said. Brown crumbs and spittle collected around the corners of this mouth.
“You think I got to looking this good eating fried chicken everyday?” Grandma said, twisting her hips.
“Not by a long shot,” Thomas said. He had that look in his eyes that said, don’t lock your door tonight. Grandma read it and immediately shied away, her cheeks turning a bright violet again illuminating tiny brown freckles around her nose and cheekbones.
“Meg, are you hungry?” She asked, directing the attention elsewhere. She looked over Tammy’s head and slid her plate down the table to me. “They’ll feed you here, but it’ll cost more than eating out. You can have my plate. I’m done.”
“I’m actually going out,” I said.
“I’ll take it.” Tammy didn’t wait for my response. She snatched the plate in front of her, took my fork and knife, and dug in.
“By yourself or with someone?” Grandma asked.
I hesitated to answer. If I said with someone, she would only interrogate me on who he was, how long I knew him, his age, if he was married, if he had kids, if we had a future. I quickly checked my watch and jolted from my seat, knocking my chair into the back of the man behind me. “Sorry,” I mumbled as I scooped up my purse from the floor and slid the chair under the table. Another thirty minutes gone.
“Is it a boy?”
“Grandma, I’m twenty-six.” I sighed. Would I ever stop being a child to her?
“I’m sorry. A man then?”
“Wait!” Tammy shook Grandma’s shoulder. “You didn’t say how Val died.”
“Oh, he was bit by a rabid dog!” Grandma said hurriedly. She slapped away Tammy’s hand and looked up at me expecting an answer.
“You’re ringing.” Frank pointed to my purse. I hadn’t heard my ringtone at all, but now it was loud and clear as a siren. I wondered how long it’d been ringing. I pulled out my phone, and Kyle’s number flashed on the screen. He’d better not be calling to cancel.
© 2016 Nortina Simmons
A to Z Challenge theme: 26 Husbands–26 Unusual Deaths
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