by Lesley A. Diehl
Enjoy this mystery short story previously published in an anthology published by Lesley’s writing group.
“My old lady send that crap in my lunch box, she’d be wearing my fist in her eye.” Ralph watched Ben fold back a corner of his sandwich, look at the contents and grimace.
“Peanut butter and jelly. Not so bad. Anyway, Myra didn’t make it. I did.” Ben took a large bite out of the white bread and washed it down with a slug of coffee from his thermos. He coughed as the dry bread and peanut butter stuck in his throat and gulped more coffee to dislodge the lump.
The two men sat in the only shade available on the site, their legs stretched out in front of them, backs against the trunk of a gnarled and bedraggled live oak, accidentally left standing when the ground was leveled by the bulldozer.. The roar of an earth mover several lots over obliterated their words for a moment. Ralph reached into his jeans pocket and extracted a wrinkled handkerchief. He wiped his forehead. “God, I hate August in Florida, especially here. At least on the coast you get a breeze off the ocean. Here you get the smells from the swamp.”
The coast. Ben remembered the coast well. His three bedroom house in Vero Beach, his job with Data Com as an electrical engineer. And his wife. Then she fancied herself somewhat of a gourmet cook. Now she spent her time watching television in their rented single-wide, sucking up as much junk food as he would bring home to her.
“Myra’s got some heart problems. She can’t get around too well, so I do most of the shopping and make my own lunch,” Ben said. Why was he defending her to Ralph? Because Ralph expressed out loud what Ben felt in his heart. Times were tough. Why couldn’t Myra buck up and help him out?
“Sorry, old boy.” Ralph munched on his roast beef. The horse radish sauce oozed out of the bread and ran down his hand. “Want some?”
“Naw. Ben shook his head, although if he were to be honest, he’d like to grab the sandwich away from his co-worker, shove it into his mouth and slug down the icy cold lemonade in Ralph’s thermos.
Ben thought back to life before he lost his job. He never saved a penny of his more than adequate salary. Why should he? Who would predict he’d lose his job and find himself living in a trailer in the middle of a scrub palmetto field forty miles from the coast. He was lucky to find this job, part-time roofer. No benefits, no health insurance, and Myra’s medical bills were crippling them. Last week the doctor said she might need heart surgery. Where the hell were they going to get the money for that?
“She’s taking her health issues really hard. She just sits in front of the television all day and half the night. Doesn’t move.”
“What’s the doc say? Wouldn’t she be better if she dieted and got some exercise?”
“She’s too depressed. He put her on antidepressants. We’re waiting for them to work.” Ben crumpled up his sandwich wrap and stuffed it into his lunch box.
“You know, buddy, this isn’t just about her. What about your needs? Give any thought to asking Helen out for a little fun? She likes you.”
Helen was the waitress at the bar Ralph and Ben stopped at for a beer some days after work. One beer for Ben. More for Ralph.
“I’m married, man, and I take my vows seriously. C’mon. Back to work.” That should shut up Ralph. Yet Ben couldn’t get the thought of Helen out of his mind the rest of the afternoon.
“I’m home, honey, and I’ve got your bananas.” Ben set his lunch pail on the kitchen table where he found his wife, her face shiny with sweat. “It’s hot in here. Why don’t you have the air conditioner on?”
She looked up at him, spoon in midair, something brown and syrupy running off the side of it. “Because you obviously forgot to pay the electric bill. Why are you so late getting here? I had to eat all this ice cream and chocolate syrup without the bananas. How can you have a banana split without bananas?” Her voice rose in pitch and volume, then broke, and she dropped her spoon onto to the table. Myra’s chins quivered as tears joined the sweat running down her cheeks. “You need a better job.” Her cries stopped abruptly when she reached for the bananas in Ben’s hands. “Grab that other half gallon of ice cream out of the freezer, would ya?”
Ben could see nothing of the tiny, blue-eyed, perky, full-of-life woman he’d married ten years ago. Right now, he hated the mound of flesh that sat in front of him. And yet, he felt sorry for her. Myra wasn’t able to adjust to the changes in their financial circumstances. Were it not for her cousin, Renny, who lived in Okeechobee, Ben knew Myra would be even more impossible to live with. Renny took her out to a movie now and then, and the two of them had lunch together once each week. But what stood in the way of his reaching out and hugging Myra to comfort her was the image of Helen’s face when she served him his beer last weekend in the bar.
“I’ll call the electric company tomorrow.” He turned away from his wife, the image of the Helen’s flirty smile still filled his mind.
“So I’ve got to spend the entire night in this hot box? I’d think you’d be a little more considerate of a woman in my condition.”
“Pack a bag, and I’ll drive you to Renny’s. You can stay there until we get the juice back on.”
On the way back home, he stopped at the bar, but Helen had already left for the night.
Early the next morning, he went by the bank and emptied his savings account, then took the cash and contacted Florida Electric and Gas. They informed him they’d turn the electric on in forty-eight hours. He drove to Renny’s house to let Myra know she’d have to stay there for another day or so.
“Last week it was your phone. This week the electric. Don’t you make any money at that job? Can’t you find anything better?” Renny stood with her hands on her hips, a look of disgust on her face.
Ben wondered if nagging ran in the family. “I’ll see about a pay-as-you-go cell phone,” he said.
“You should, you know. What if Myra needs emergency medical help?”
Oh yeah, thought Ben, like another load of chocolate syrup, a tub of ice cream and a bushel of peanuts. The tires spit gravel as he spun out of the drive.
“You’re fifteen minutes late,” Ben’s foreman notified him when he got out of his car at the site. “There’s no end to the people who’d kill for this job. Better not be late again or you’ll find yourself out of here.”
Ben began to wonder what he’d kill for, and it certainly wasn’t this job. Maybe a little distance from Myra and her cousin. Maybe more than that.
“You here or somewhere else?” asked Ralph. Ben climbed onto the roof and began to shift the shingles into position.
“I’d sure like to be someplace else.” Ben slapped shingles into place and applied the nail gun to them, beginning the dreary, repetitive, sweaty, mind-numbing work for the day.
Instead of joining Ralph at the bar that night, Ben begged off, telling him he had groceries to buy.
“The ball and chain need more bologna or are you feeding her lobster by now?” asked Ralph.
“Shut your trap. You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Ben threw his empty lunch pail into the back of his truck and drove off without another word to Ralph.
He knew Ralph found Ben’s attitude toward his wife irritating, but worse yet, he also figured Ralph felt sorry for him and thought he should grow a new pair.
He nosed the car into an empty space near the building and walked into the library. Ben located the computer terminals at the rear of the main room.
“We close in less than a half hour,” said the woman behind the check-out desk.
“I won’t be long,” he promised.
His internet search brought unexpected results. He thought Florida would have more poisonous scorpions like ones found in the southwestern states, but the most common one here was the brown scorpion. It could deliver a painful sting, but not a deadly one. He wondered what would happen if a person with medical problems experienced many stings. Could an individual die under those circumstances? How could he find out?
The woman who had warned him of the impending closure of the library stopped at the monitor he was using. “We’re closing, sir, as I told you.”
Ben looked up into brown eyes. They weren’t Myra’s icy blue ones, so he decided to take a chance.
“I just moved my wife here from the coast and we’re living out of town. She’s deathly afraid of scorpions. She has a heart condition, and she’s worried she might get stung and die. I told her I’d look into it. You live here long?”
“I was born here. I only heard of one person dying from scorpion stings. A little girl. She was diabetic, I think. Got hit about ten times. She died. It can happen, although it’s rare, but I guess if enough of them got you, well, I’d be worried, especially if I had something wrong with my heart.”
“I wish I could move her someplace safer, but we’re kind of down on our luck right now. I lost my job.”
“You’re a good man to be so worried about her.” The woman gave him a warm and somewhat inviting smile. He returned the look. She backed away from him. “I’ve got to close up now.”
He walked out of the library considering what he had learned. Myra might be vulnerable. Those disgusting-looking creatures were all over the place, probably because he didn’t mow the lawn and the trailer was so old and rusted, it had holes in the floor where they could come in, find food and build their nests. It was a death trap for Myra, he decided, an opinion he shared with Ralph the next day.
“Don’t they sell spray at Home Depot for those buggers?” said Ralph.
“That stuff’s poison. In that little space, Myra’d breathe it in, and the poison would kill her.”
“Might not be such a bad idea. Get a guy out of a bad situation, you know?” Ralph gave him a knowing smirk.
Ben stopped his work and turned on Ralph. “What are you suggesting?” He no longer pointed the nail gun at the shingles, but at Ralph.
“Whoa, buddy. Just kidding.” Ralph held up his hands as if to ward off his friend. “Although there’s nothing so attractive to a woman as a widower, and I’m talking here about Helen.”
“I’m not interested in Helen.” It was a lie, of course, but one he wanted Ralph to buy, and one he wished he believed in himself.
Before he stopped by Renny’s after work to pick up Myra, he drove to the trailer to make certain the electric worked and to turn on the air conditioner. Myra wouldn’t be happy if she had to wait for the hot tin can to cool down. And he paid a visit to the old shed behind the trailer, a large, empty coffee can in his hand.
Myra didn’t comment on the coolness of her house once she returned. Instead she headed for the refrigerator and stuck her head into the frosty cold of the freezer. “There’s only less than a half gallon of ice cream here. Be sure to pick up some when you go to the store.”
“Have a good visit with Renny?” he asked.
She ignored him. Instead she reached into the cupboard and extracted a box of cookies from the shelf. “Renny’s husband Hank was out of work for a while, but he didn’t settle for some crappy job roofing. He’s a real go-getter. Beat the pavement until he found something with good pay. Kept their house. Got direct TV, internet and everything. She’s off shopping at the outlet malls tomorrow. If I were able to walk better, I’d go with her. Not that I could afford to buy a thing. Not even at an outlet mall. I used her phone to order me some of that fancy rum cake I saw advertised on television. I hope that won’t be too much for you to handle. Maybe you’ll have to cut out your beers with the boys, huh?” Winded from her speech, she dropped her over-stuffed frame into the recliner rocker and explored the inside of the cookie box.
“One beer every now and then with Ralph, that’s all.”
She stopped chewing her cookies. He thought she was about to ask him a question, a question he knew he wouldn’t want to answer. But she shrugged her shoulders and grabbed two more cookies out of the box. “I guess one beer can’t hurt. If that’s all it is.” She let out a cackle spewing crumbs down the front of her blouse.
Ben sighed and turned away from the sight of his wife in the stained recliner filling her mouth with chocolate cookies.
“Any lemonade left?” she asked.
He didn’t remember her always being so self-centered, but this was a tough time for her. He’d given her everything she’d asked for before he lost his job. Now he was a failure in her eyes. On the other hand, Helen liked him well enough, and the librarian thought he was a kind man. He thought of himself as kind, and Myra was suffering. He ought to do something about that.
He left for work early the next morning, tiptoeing out of their bedroom, not wanting to awaken his wife. He’d left her a present on the pillow next to her head. He wondered if she’d be surprised.
By the time Ralph arrived at the work site, Ben was whistling a tuneless song and nailing shingles in place.
“This is supposed to be the hottest day this month and you’re acting like there’s a breeze blowing down from the arctic. What’s up?”
Ben refused to meet Ralph’s eyes. “Nothing much.”
At lunch the men sat leaning against a sabal palm, trying to catch the bit of shade provided by what was left of the tree once the bulldozer attacked it. The tree leaned at an unnatural forty-five degree angle, most of its fronds lying dead on the ground, foreshadowing the fate of all the vegetation which once grew abundantly on the development site.
“Not eating today?” Ralph noticed Ben hadn’t brought his metal pail and thermos.
“Too hot.” Ben sipped water from a plastic bottle.
Ralph sneaked a sideways glance at his coworker. “Myra still on strike?”
Before Ben could answer, the foreman drove up to the site in a four-wheel-drive truck, the company’s logo on the door panel obliterated by mud baked by the sun into a thick layer of dirt.
“Your wife and her cousin dropped this off for you.” The foreman handed Ben his lunch pail. “She said you left in such a hurry this morning, you forgot to take it.” He sped off in a cloud of rocks and dirt.
“Well, now, no wonder you’re so pleased this morning. Looks like you had a little come-to-meeting talk with Myra last night, and she’s back on track. Good for you, ole buddy.” Ralph clapped him on his back.
But to Ralph’s surprise, Ben opened the lunch box with a look of anxiety rather than anticipation on his face. Rivulets of sweat rolled off his forehead and down his cheeks.
“So whatcha got there?” Ralph leaned over toward Ben to get a better look.
At the bottom of the lunch pail was a plastic container, one of those double-lined ones, Ben noted, the kind that could keep contents warm or cold. He slowly lifted the lid.
He peered in without hope. “Cerviche.” He spoke in a monotone.
“Never heard of it. What is it?”
“It’s seafood marinated in lime juice, but not cooked.”
“Raw? Ugh! But you said Myra was a great cook. I could give it a try.”
“You won’t like it.” Ben dropped his head to get a closer look at what Myra had made. He identified fish, octopus, shrimp, and a darker ingredient. Myra was a culinary innovator, but something about this made him wonder. He pushed at it with his fork, and he thought it moved its tail higher over its back. Probably just his imagination. Several hours in the citrus marinade and the fridge, even if it was what he thought it was, it had to be dead. He dropped his head closer to the container. Nope. It was what he thought. He sighed, held the morsel aloft on his fork, shoveled it into his mouth and chewed. Crunchy.
He’d have to let Myra know he ate the entire container.