“Where was I when this supposedly happened?” I demanded. I’d had enough of Grandma’s surprises. She had as many husbands as I had years—her twelfth being my biological grandfather—and now she was telling me that after the man I grew up call Pawpaw passed away, she married three more? Who?
“You were out gallivanting with that fool boyfriend of yours.” The disgust in her voice was like spitting out cold, runny eggs. “Brook.”
“Brick,” I corrected.
“Stupid name. What did his mother call him?”
“I wouldn’t know. I never met her.”
“So you wasted three years of your life with a man whose real name you never knew and whose parents you never met.”
“You’re lecturing me about a relationship that ended years ago.” I had to watch how I raised my voice at her. I wasn’t too old for Grandma to still put me over her knee. For a petite woman, she had large hands, and they were thick; they hollowed out your skull and made your face echo with one smack.
“I’m just showing you how much time you wasted.” Grandma would’ve convinced a stranger that I was still unmarried in my forties, living in a cluttered house that smelled of litterboxes. Just like her generation, seeing a woman’s value in how young she married. Since sixteen, Grandma spent every year with a man. I couldn’t ask for her life. Twenty-six life partners, but also twenty-six deaths. Moments of bliss combatted with equal measures of pain and heartbreak. That wasn’t a world I coveted, full as it was.
“I don’t see it that way, Grandma.” It was true that I hated Brick, but I would’ve only been deceiving myself if I’d said I regretted ever dating him. He was the reason I become a flight attendant. Between the fights—after he’d slammed the doors of motel rooms and left me alone with no money, no food, for days—I went off on my own and fell in love with the ride, the freedom of being away from home, away from him, nothing restricting me, losing myself in a new environment.
You don’t know true liberation until you drive through the flat desert at ninety miles an hour from dusk, deep into the night, the cool breeze blowing through your hair, nothing but the stars and moon to keep you company. And with only you and road and the middle of nowhere, you marvel at how much light still emits from the sky after the sun sets. So much so that you turn off your headlights, stare into the miles of sand and cacti ahead of you, press your foot down hard on the gas, and anticipate the moment you speed right off the edge of the earth in peaceful ecstasy.
I would forever cherish the desert where I broke away the chains. I came back home with a purpose. I wouldn’t settle. I wouldn’t be bound. I would travel the world. Flight attendant seemed like the perfect job to do that, and dating a pilot just felt natural.
“If it hadn’t been for Brick, I probably wouldn’t have ever met Kyle.”
“That’s stretching it a bit,” Grandma said. I didn’t think she’d ever truly forgiven me for leaving the way I did to be with Brick. I’d left without a word—packed what I needed, told my roommate she could have the rest. When the letters finally came about my flunking out of school and my loans for the second semester being rescinded, Brick and I had been living in West Memphis, Arkansas for almost three months.
I knew Grandma was disappointed in me. Although she’d never said it, I could hear it in her voice every phone call. She hated to talk to me, but her love and anxiety to make sure I was still alive outweighed that hatred. Knowing now how much I’d missed while I was gone—three more “grandfathers”—all I wanted to do was apologize for abandoning her. Pawpaw had just died. I should’ve been there for her in that grief.
“Xander made a mural of him,” Grandma said, interrupting my thoughts. “I don’t know why Walter’s death was such a surprise to me. I knew he had cancer. And even if I didn’t, I had lived this kind of loss all my life. After twenty-five years, I must’ve forgotten he wasn’t invincible.
“Xander helped me move on with his wood engravings. He made portraits of me, you, Linda, Rick, Walter. He even did engravings of the postcards you sent every month. It just seemed right to marry him next. Even though he was much older than me, and his xylograph shop wasn’t making any money. It wasn’t located in the best area— between a shopping mall and a Wal-Mart superstore. His shop was there first, but they came in and stole all his customers. He probably should’ve changed the name. No one knows what xylograph even means.” She chuckled softly.
“So what does it mean?” Jerry asked.
“Have you been listening to anything I’ve said? Wood engravings!”
I was thankful Jerry had asked before I did. Without hesitation, Grandma would’ve chastised me for having a poor vocabulary after going to college, dropping out, and then going again. She would’ve said that after all that time, I still learned nothing, despite everything I had picked up just by serving people on a plane. Flying into international airports, I gained a new understanding about various cultures—like how certain gestures could be offensive to some while they meant nothing to others. With the number of Latinos on our flights west, I became fluent in Spanish. Dammit, I even found a man! I couldn’t get credit for that?
Jerry smacked his lips, sputtering spuds of mashed potatoes back at us. “I’m an old man. Why would I use one of those fancy college words when I can say wood engraving just as easy.”
“Because then it loses its mystery and allure.” Grandma kissed her fingertips and spread them out like a blooming flower.
“Sounds like he already lost that if you were his only customer,” Jerry said.
“Time to start thinking about getting that insurance money,” Thomas added.
“You know, sometimes you just make me sick!” Grandma turned away, shaking her head.
“Why?” Jerry asked, “Did the place actually burn down?”
“With him still inside!”
“Not the time, Marcos!” Grandma said.
Marcos bit his bottom lip. His oval eyes shifted back and forth between me and Grandma, and I could almost hear him whimpering like a puppy who’d just gotten slapped on the nose for a reason he couldn’t understand.
Grandma slumped her shoulders. “I’m sorry. It was rough on me. I was back in my routine of short-lived marriages and quick deaths.”
“When you look at it one way, it was kind of on him.” Jerry started to say more, but hesitated.
“Come on. Spit it out already,” Grandma said, then stiffened, realizing her poor choice in words. We all knew Jerry was capable to spitting out much more that he could chew . . . or swallow.
“Well, his art was making firewood.” He nudged Thomas with his elbow to break the awkward silence coming.
“You’re just a dang ol’ fool,” Grandma finally said. Her frown melted away with the tension, and we all had permission to laugh at Jerry’s inappropriate joke.
© 2016 Nortina Simmons
A to Z Challenge theme: 26 Husbands–26 Unusual Deaths
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