by Prissy Elrod | August 13, 2020

How Prissy’s Pandemic Garden Became a True Crime Story

Florida’s Black Widow, a snake and a little arsenic converge to form an unlikely friendship in the garden

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One snake snafu later and Prissy Elrod was quickly known throughout the neighborhood as the “Snake Lady.” Illustration by Stephen Lomazzo

It was January. By then I had been convalescing for nine months.

“Go, enjoy your life,” my physician said through a grin. Three ankle surgeries over a six-month period. Finally, I was being discharged.

Lickety-split I made plans and booked flights … plural. I was ready to spread my wings and escape the opened cage. A three-week adventure awaited. Where to, you wonder? It might be comical if it wasn’t. Sea Island followed by Las Vegas and New York.

Yup! I couldn’t know the godforsaken pandemic was peeking from the shadows ready to rip through the globe. No siree, I was too blissful orbiting my own world—shopping, dining and slurping delicious wines three days before NYC shut down. I flew home and quarantine picked me up at the airport and stayed 14 days. On the 15th day, “stay at home”checked in.

How can I survive another confinement? I begged the universe. My creativity had gotten bored with me and fallen asleep. That meant writing, painting and organizing closets were out.

I learned my girlfriends were playing bridge. Maybe I would do that. Iflashed back to years earlier when I’d tried the game. “You’ll love it,” Carole promised. Once upon a time I believed everything anyone promised. I joined her table of thinking, counting and waiting the next day. It was nothing but rules. “No conversation” was one of them.

Over and over I heard someone say, “Stop talking, Prissy.” My voiceless words were pooled in the back of my throat like bile waiting to be vomited. Pandemic bridge was out. Daytime television, games and puzzles, too. I hated them all.

 “Write another book,” one too many suggested. I wanted to slap them silly. Didn’t they know I was focusing on breathing?

CARRYING ON WITH CRAZY

I lay in bed on another Monday morning wishing I could go back to sleep until Tuesday or Wednesday. I swung my bare leg out from under the cover and lifted it for another ankle exercise. I’d been doing the same ritual for months. Circle clockwise; counterclockwise; flex back; point forward; pull left; now right. Ten times, three rounds, keep going, going, going.

I pointed my big toe toward the ceiling, eying the patched, thrice-mended flesh. A four-inch scar was tattooed over my once-skinny ankle. Six months post-surgery and it remained red, swollen and angry. I rubbed the tender skin and started reading my favorite iPhone apps: Jesus Calling, Daily Horoscope, The Secret, Buddha. Face it, I like to cover my bases.

I listened to music from the AirPods plugged into my ears. A song came on with powerful lyrics streamed by a singer’s vocals. I rewound and listened again.

“Siri, what’s the name of that song?” I asked.

“The name of this song is ‘Carry On’ by Fun,” Siri answered.

Of course! How appropriate the universe would deliver that message to me by a band named Fun. The perfect vessel. Yes, I have Louisiana crazy running through my veins.

While I can’t quote the actual lyrics (copyright infringement), I did decipher the message. Things are what they are and can’t be what they’re not. Keep going.

 The melodic lyrics strung particular words—“feet,” “legs” and “ground”—inside the verses of a song lasting less than five minutes. It rang courage, change and hope. At least for me.

My foot wasn’t perfect, but it worked, and I had two strong legs that craved motion. The sabbatical from walking was over for me. I jumped from my bed with a birthed ambition. I even created a name for the game before I brushed my teeth. Five for Five.

Things are what they are and can’t be
what they’re not. Keep going.
—Prissy

I would walk five miles a day, five days a week. It might be a lame goal for a serious athlete, but it was a challenge for me. It was also a turning point.

Our new neighborhood became my track, a pandemic paradise. We had moved inside the gated community 18 months earlier, a week before Christmas. I mention this only because who in their right mind moves one week before Christmas? Crazy people, that’s who. Merry and Christmas divorced that year.

I clocked my distance as the native Florida trees sheltered me from blistering rays and cooled down the sweltering heat. I walked by spilling fountains splashing water over motionless ponds. Geese and cranes skidded and floated as the water doused them. There were gators and snakes basking and slithering under an open, blue sky. Skittish box turtles would eye me and swiftly dip beneath the mucky water. Most of the reptiles and amphibians inside our gates were permanent residents, others just daily visitors.

One day, as I was videotaping a sunbathing gator, a garter snake crawled over my foot. Two reptiles in one moment. My Florida!

THE SNAKE LADY

It was an early Tuesday morning in June when the doorbell rang. “Prissy, he’s here!” I heard my husband holler. I pulled up my favorite jeans and slipped the bamboo T-shirt over my head. “I’m coming!” I shouted.

I grabbed a wad of my wild hair and wrestled it into a ponytail, then applied gloss on my thinning lips as I raced from the bedroom. There, standing on my doorstep, was the unexpected in life. I couldn’t know I was about to meet the most interesting being on planet Earth. Or, maybe, just in the state of Florida. 

He had a ponytail tied with a leather strip. It was longer than mine. I reacted to his by pulling on mine to try to lengthen it. He wore a dirty orange T-shirt tucked inside his old khaki jeans. Both were covered with dried mud, grass and oil. His jeans were stuck inside knee-high, white plastic boots. He was slim in build, with thin, muscular arms caramelized in color. His face was weathered and wrinkled with a mesh of crow’s feet around the eyes.

“I’m Otis,” he said. I reached for the calloused hand while focused on only two remaining teeth housed inside the smile.

“Call me Prissy.”

Otis had ink-black eyes—dejected, but kind. He was a gardener, frequently requested and employed by a large landscaping company. He was there to tidy up the diseased, distressed and disfigured foliage I’d neglected during my convalescence. My husband hates yardwork but loves me. He also knows my love language: acts of service. If he couldn’t service me then Otis would.

It was his third day on the job and super hot. I went outside to see if Otis needed a refreshment, maybe some iced tea. I found him kneeling on all fours in a bed of ferns as he pulled, chopped and clipped. He looked as wilted as the ferns.

“Be careful of snakes.” I tapped his shoulder.

“I done found three.”

“Three! You killed them, right?”

“No mam, carried ’um off.” He stood to face me wearing the same orange shirt.

“Wait, carried where?”

“Round yonder in dim woods.” He pointed to the vacant lot next to me. Our lot next door. “Day got them a purpose in life.” Like I cared.

“It’s hot; I’ll get you some tea.”I went inside wondering if I dared tell him my own snake history.

 It was an ordinary day, and I was halfway through my walking game. I was two streets away from home and passed some unknown neighbors standing in their yard.

“Good morning,” I said as I waved to the couple.

“Not good at all—a snake!” He yelled back as he pointed to a flower bed.  

“Want me to kill him?” (Notice I say him … sorry!)

“What! Would you?” he screeched.

“Sure, get me a hoe.”  The man returned with an iron shovel. It lookedolder than me and heavier. I grasped the old wooden handle and heaved the rusty antique above my head with both arms. “Stand back!” I ordered as I slammed the colorful flower bush.

Hence, I became known as snake lady. It’s a bit classier
than snake woman, so I’m okay with it.
—Prissy

 The six-foot slimer slithered over to ornamental grass. I chased as he climbed vertically inside an azalea bush. His brown, pointed head was framed by crimson and verdant green. He turned to look at me with a glare, I swear.

Sweating like a pig, I lifted that worthless shovel again. Swung. Missed. Again.

He escaped. Sadly, the plants weren’t so lucky.

“I have to lie down,” the wife said to nobody. I sensed my failed performance traumatized her. Not to mention her flower bed was massacred with a snake still on the loose.

Word spread amongst my neighbors before I arrived home. Hence, I became known as snake lady. It’s a bit classier than snake woman, so I’m okay with it.

A MURDEROUS MOTHER-IN-LAW

I went back outside with his tea and suggested we sit for a few minutes.

“I’m not no spring chicken,” he said.

“Me neither.” We laughed.

We were chitchatting about this, that, nothing, when my husband came outside. He found us sipping tea under the shade of a maple tree.

“Prissy, can I talk to you a minute?”

I turned to Otis. “I’ll be back.” I went in to see what my hubs needed.

“We’re paying him by the hour, you know.”

“No, by the job,” I argued.

“Whatever, let him do it, OK?”

Later, I would be glad I didn’t listen to his suggestion. I returned outside and found Otis trimming the maidenhair ferns next to the ledge where I left him sitting. I sat back down and watched the hard worker. I’m a strange bird who likes to question people, learn who they are and why they became that person.  My minor in psychology messed me up. Otis was a sitting duck for me.

“How, why, what brought you to love gardening, Otis?” I asked. He was lonely and hungry for conversation. He began sharing his life. No surprise: he lived alone with two stray pit bulls he’d rescued. He didn’t own a television or radio.

“Wow, I love watching crime television, especially Snapped and ID. You don’t know what you’re missing,” I said.

“Nah, I read at night—mostly Civil War, history, stuff like that.” He revealed his father had been vice chancellor of a Florida college and had died some years earlier.

“I hated the man after he called me a stupid retard. I left home at 14,” Otis said. “I’m dyslexic.” I didn’t like his dead father then either.

“That means you’re intelligent,” I said. He looked over and smiled, a grateful expression in his eyes.

 “Okay, well, I’m heading back in now; it’s too hot.” I got up from the ledge and brushed the leaves off my jeans.

“Ever heard of the Black Widow?” he asked.

“I hate spiders, especially that one.”

“Not no spider, Florida’s Black Widow, the one executed for murder. That there was my mother-in-law.” I almost tripped over my mended foot. “My wife was her daughter, and we lived with her back when she was doing them killings. She even tried to poison my wife.”

You know, but for them killings she were a nice person.
—Otis

I sat back down, stupefied.

“Did she poison you?” Was I really asking that question?

“Nah, guess she liked me.”

Even for this crime junkie, terror walked up my spine. I followed him around my yard over the next hour. I didn’t stop or go back inside until he finished the unfathomable tale. But it was his last sentence I’ll never forget, maybe even take to my grave.

“You know, but for them killings she were a nice person.”

I’ll spare you the gore and summarize.

Judias Buenoano, aka Judy Ann Goodyear, was the first woman executed in Florida after 150 years. She poisoned her first husband with arsenic, then partially paralyzed her son by feeding him arsenic. Then, she threw him from a canoe. The metal braces on his arms and legs sunk and drowned him. She also killed her common-law husband with arsenic. Finally, she tried to blow up her boyfriend’s car with dynamite but botched that job. He lived to testify against her and get her sentenced to death for the previous killings. That crazy woman was an expert on arsenic, not bombs, clearly. She lived on death row in Starke, Florida, until she took her last nasty breath. All told, she collected $240K of life insurance claims and veterans’ dependency compensation during her reign of terror.

 In the end, COVID-19 has captured, cornered and confined me. But it sure hasn’t crippled my creativity. Rather, somehow, I managed to excavate nuggets of gold from a man who lived life through sorrow and despair. His soul was so wounded from witnessing sin and holding hidden truths. Yet he managed to evolve into this kind, interesting human being. Otis was a reminder of what I learned as a small child: you should never judge a book by its cover. I say you should never judge at all. I thank Otis for that takeaway and for my killer yard.

*Name changed to protect the innocent … me

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