by Eve Fisher
When I Grow Old, I Shall Wear Purple is a never before published mystery short story written by mystery writer Eve Fisher who has had 18 stories published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and a novel with Guideposts, Mystery and the Minister’s Wife: The Best Is Yet to Be.
South Dakota winters are so brutal that even we get tired of them. My mother hated them. Of course, being of sound Norwegian descent she couldn’t admit it publicly, any more than she could admit that she hated cleaning, cooking, laundry and yard work. But she did. Her goal in life had always been to retire and head south, far away from cold and duty, where she could watch soap operas, play cards, read murder mysteries, and gossip, while someone else cooked and cleaned. That was her fantasy, and as soon as she retired, she made it a reality.
She found it, after considerable research, in the Casa Chino Retirement Center in Fresno County, California. I was impressed with the place myself when I went down with Mom to help her move in. It was like walking into a luxury resort, beautifully decorated, light and airy and spacious. The apartments weren’t quite as Architectural Digest. But they were clean, with big closets, and the plan included utilities, weekly housecleaning, and two meals a day. Mom got a one bedroom, which was frankly all she could afford, and moved.
“Linda, I love it,” she said the first Sunday I called. “It’s just what I always dreamed of.”
“And the people are so interesting. They’re from all over the country. There’s even a man from South Dakota. From Homburg, of all places.”
“That must have cut the population in half, when he moved down there.”
“I’ll tell him you said that,” Mom said.
“Great. Make me enemies long distance.”
“His name’s Ole Jensen. I haven’t met him yet, but I’ve heard about him. Nice, quiet, wears bib overalls. They think it’s quaint. I haven’t told them it’s because that’s what he brought with him and he’s too cheap to buy anything new. I know Norwegian bachelor farmers.”
“Don’t we all.”
“And guess what else!”
“They say there’s a prostitute here!”
“You heard me. The word is she wears purple shoes.”
“No,” she said regretfully. “But I check everyone’s feet at dinner.”
The purple shoes became a recurring topic, along with the weather, and local gossip from both sides of the Great Divide. Mom told me all about her fellow residents: Craig and Lee Anne Whitford (“she’s so sweet; she runs his life and he doesn’t even know it”), Inez Wrangel (“an escaped warden if ever I saw one”), Joanna Thrupp (“she says ‘have a nice day’ one more time and I’ll spit in her eye”), Merle Cavendish (“three husbands, and it looks like she cleaned them all out”), and many others. But it was Jerry Nelson I heard about the most.
“He’s a character, all right. Just a big kid with gray hair.”
“Aren’t they all?”
“Not like him. I want you to meet him. He can tell more stories… And he gets in so much mischief. Always playing tricks. The latest thing is, he stole the keys.”
“The master keys. For the whole place. He came to breakfast yesterday, twirling them around his finger. You see, he’s been having a big fight with Jean Lincoln, the assistant manager, about security. He says there isn’t any, which isn’t true, but I can see his point. Anyway, one night he snuck up on Lisa, the night nurse – she’s really an LPN, which is another thing that gets Jerry riled up. No, it’s Craig that gets riled up about that –”
“What about the keys?” I interrupted.
“Oh, well, he snuck up on her, and stole them right off her cart while she was in the office making a phone call. Proving a point, he says. Hmpf. He’s just trying to get management’s goat. I think he’s got it.”
“So, is he going to give the keys back?”
“Eventually. He says first they’ve got to put steak back on the menu for Friday nights.”
Jerry was, according to Mom, “handsome, for an old geezer,” “too fond of cards and drink for her tastes,” “pretty spry for his age,” and “old enough to know better, running around after women the way he does.” From all of that, and more, I could tell she liked him, but I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want her to get alarmed, and besides, it sounded like to get anywhere, she was going to have to cut out Merle.
“That woman… Every time I turn around, there she is. Not that she’s following me around. It’s Jerry she’s always buzzing around, and when she isn’t, she’s asking questions. Prying, if you ask me. I don’t know how Jerry puts up with it.”
“Maybe he likes it.” Mom made a sound. “Men like groupies, Mom, no matter how old they are.”
“Hmpf. And then she makes all these snide little comments. It’s like we were back in high school, and I hated high school.”
But, Merle aside, Mom loved it all: the people, the constant entertainment, the heat, the dry air, the little lizards that baked in the sun on her three-foot square patio, the warmth, the occasional excursions, the gossip, and the fact that she didn’t have to clean or cook a thing. The only down sides were that the roads were so jammed with traffic it frightened her to drive, and there were some petty thefts.
“Knick-knacks. Some money. Some jewelry. Merle said yesterday that someone took her seed-pearl brooch. To tell you the truth, it looked like something a dog chewed on. I think she just lost it. If it did get taken, it had to be the cleaning staff. They only get minimum wage, so what can you expect? I keep my door locked.”
“Well, I would hope so. You need to be careful.”
“Oh, it’s nothing to worry about. And it’s not like I have anything valuable. Our family never ran to jewelry, and I keep my big bills stuffed in my bra.”
“You’re getting as bad as Aunt Olive.”
“I said my bra, not my mattress.”
There was also Ole Jensen, whom she still hadn’t met. She’d seen him, but only twice and only at a distance. No bib overalls. She was told he gambled a lot, which was surprising. “But it came from a gospel source,” she said. “Craig says he and Jerry and this Ole and a couple of other guys get together every Friday night and play poker till late. And Ole’s generally the winner. Cleans everybody out. Now who ever heard of a gambling Norwegian bachelor farmer? Every one I’ve ever known is too tight with their money. And what’s he doing in California, anyway?”
It was a good question. Norwegian bachelor farmers aren’t known for seeing the world. Laskin’s Stören boys (all in their late sixties by now) have never left the county. And while they’re shy, this was ridiculous. Two people from South Dakota in the same California retirement center should have something to talk about, if nothing else to see if they were related. Most of us are. So it was a red letter day, some six months after her move, when she called to say that she finally had met Mr. Jensen.
“And guess what?”
“He’s a cousin.”
“Nothing of the sort. He’s a fake!”
“I’m telling you, he’s a fake! I was in the dining room, at breakfast, and he was walking out when Joanna called him over and introduced us. I could tell straight away he wasn’t from South Dakota. Or a farmer. He doesn’t have the gait. Or the neck.”
“So what did you say?”
“I told him he sounded more South Bronx than South Dakota, and then I said I had relatives in Homburg –”
“You do not!”
“Neither does he! As soon as I said that, he said he had to be going and scurried off. Can you believe it?”
“Well, I guess he thought he could get away with it down there.”
“Yes, until I moved in. I can’t get over it. Why would he do something so stupid as lie about where he was from?”
“Maybe he wanted to be somebody else.”
Mom, who’s never had that desire, said, “Well, I don’t understand it.”
“Mm. Any word on purple shoes?”
“Five pairs at dinner yesterday.”
“Payless had a sandal sale. Ugliest things you ever saw in your life. Merle said she’d never seen so many women so anxious to be suspected of immorality.” I couldn’t help but giggle. “I can’t stand that woman. Do you know I was talking, just talking to Jerry today, right after I spoke with Mr. Jensen, and here comes Merle. Before you could turn around, she’d dragged him off.”
“Takes two,” I said. “Still, you’d better be careful.”
“Hmpf. What’s she going to do? Kill me?”
“Maybe bend you a bit.”
The next day, I was having a quick lunch at home when the phone rang. I answered, and a woman’s voice said, “Linda? Linda Thompson?”
“This is Jean Lincoln, with the Casa Chino Retirement Center.”
“Yes.” My stomach sank down to my ankles. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news. Your mother is in the hospital.”
“We’re really not sure. She wasn’t at breakfast this morning, and she always is, so I thought I’d better check on her. I unlocked her room and went in. There was some sort of accident… She was unconscious. We called an ambulance and rushed her to the local hospital straight away.”
“Thank you,” I managed to say, though I felt like I was made of cement. “I’ll be down as soon as I can.”
We both hung up, and I started making phone calls while I packed a bag.
I hate hospitals. I hate the way it always feels like night, no matter how well they’re lit. I hate the waiting areas, the ragged magazines, the recycled air, the glimpses into rooms as you walk down the corridors, the equipment, the sounds, smells, all of it. And I hated the sight of my mother, lying thin and frail, her eyes closed and sunken in face that suddenly seemed very old.
Then she opened her eyes, saw me, smiled, and gave the appropriate Norwegian greeting: “Linda. You didn’t have to come.”
I made the appropriate Norwegian response: “Well, I wasn’t that busy, so I thought I’d come down. How’s your head?”
“Sore. How do I look?”
“Like a monkey. I’m not sure quite which kind. It’s the bruises.”
Mom made a face and looked even worse. “Well, at least you can’t see the stitches. I’m going to have to wear something on my head until my hair grows out again. Are you any good at turbans?”
“I can give it a try. Mom, what happened?”
“That’s what I’d like to know. I already told the police –”
“Of course, the police. Assault and battery is an important charge. And guess what! They think Ole Jensen did it.”
“Revenge, I guess. For exposing him. He took off in the middle of the night last night. Oh, he had something to hide, you betcha. They think he was behind all those thefts, too.”
“They told you all that?”
“No. Jerry called me up this afternoon – poor man, he’s laid up with lumbago or something. Anyway, he called me and filled me in on all the rumors.” She smiled, then shook her head. “The trouble is, I can’t remember anything. I was in the kitchen, fixing myself a little snack. Graham crackers and –”
“Never mind that.”
“Well, I heard something… It’s all confused. I think I opened the door… Maybe somebody was there… And then a lot of light, and a lot of dark, and then I was here and they told me that somebody had banged me over the back of the head. Jean Lincoln came by earlier. Brought the cards, and those balloons in the corner. She said nothing like this had ever happened to anyone at Casa Chino before,” she said happily. “She was apologizing all over the place.”
“I would think so. Prostitution, petty theft, and now this. I think it’s time you came back home.”
“To South Dakota? Not on your life. I’m going home tomorrow, to my apartment.”
“Hmpf. You’ll see.”
“The doctor will see.”
The doctor sided with Mom. He said there were no signs of concussion, she was healing nicely, and since I was there to keep an eye on her for a few days, she could go home. So by ten-thirty we were in back in Mom’s apartment, looking to see if Ole had stolen anything. Her wallet had been cleaned out, which gave her considerable satisfaction, especially since her big bills were still in her lingerie drawer. By noon, we were in the dining room, surrounded by a crowd anxious to hear the news from Mom’s own lips.
“No, no stitches at all. They use super-glue these days, can you believe that? I’d show you, but I don’t want to turn your stomachs. My face is bad enough. Linda did up this little head scarf for me. I wanted a turban, but… You don’t think it looks too much like I’m having chemo, do you? No, it doesn’t hurt. No more than a bad headache. They gave me some pills. No, I don’t know. I don’t remember a thing. I thought I heard a sound, but…”
I marked our menu sheets, drank my tea, fiddled with my silverware, pleated my napkin. It was sort of like listening to an answering machine: the same message over and over. Finally hunger triumphed over curiosity, and everyone settled down at their places.
“Well,” Mom said, sitting back across from Lee Ann Whitford.
“Well, indeed,” Lee Ann said. “We’ve all been worried sick about you. You’re lucky to be alive.”
“So what is the latest on Ole Jensen?” Mom asked.
Lee Ann looked at Craig, who was shoveling in jello salad. He swallowed hastily and said, “Last I heard they’d found his car at the bus terminal, but nobody’s seen hide nor hair of him. Bus terminal! Who the hell rides a bus? I think he just dumped the car there. Stolen, I’ll bet. I’d believe anything about that guy.”
“So would I,” Mom agreed. The girls brought our entrée. “Jerry warned me – By the way, where is Jerry?”
Craig grinned, and Lee Ann looked slightly embarrassed. “He’s bedridden,” Lee Ann said. “It’s his back.” Craig started laughing. “It’s not that funny,” she snapped at him. “It happened yesterday morning. He’d heard the news, about your attack and all, and you know Jerry. He wanted to hear everything. In a hurry. Wasn’t looking where he was going, running down the hallway, and hit a slick spot on the floor and slipped. Twisted his back out, and he’s been in bed ever since. Will you quit laughing?”
“It’s the phone call,” Craig gasped. “Jerry called us this morning. Right after it happened. You should have heard his voice. He sounded desperate. Merle saw him, and insisted on helping him back to his room. She hasn’t left yet. If he doesn’t watch out, he’ll have to marry her!”
Mom and Lee Ann exchanged enigmatic glances.
“Well, he’s in good hands,” Mom said.
Back in her apartment, Mom started on a long tirade about the police. “They should have at least run fingerprints,” Mom fussed. “They don’t keep these apartments spotless. See? Look at this refrigerator handle. You can see my fingerprints bright as day. I know they could get fingerprints, run them, find out who he is.”
“That would only help if he has a record,” I pointed out.
“Of course he’s got a record!” Mom cried. “Why else would he pretend to be somebody he’s not? People don’t do something like that for the fun of it. No, he’s got a record, and if they’d just hunt, they’d find it.” She sat down in her favorite chair with a thump and looked around angrily. Then she picked up the phone.
“Who are you calling?” I asked.
“Merle,” she said. “I want to ask her about that brooch.” I hid a smile. I knew that was eating at her more than the police. “No answer.”
“Try Jerry’s,” I suggested.
“I wouldn’t dream of it. He should be resting.”
“So should you.” I yawned. “Let’s take a nap, and then you can try Merle again.”
I sent Mom off into the bedroom, and I laid down on the couch and slept for about an hour. When I woke up, Mom was lying in bed on her back, head propped up on a doubled pillow, hands folded, like a medieval tomb effigy, except that her eyes were open.
“I’ve been thinking,” she said. “It doesn’t make any sense. Why would Ole Jensen knock me out?”
“He was trying to hurt you. Maybe even kill you.”
“Nonsense. He scuttled right off. And he’d have to figure I’d have told everybody already. But a jealous woman…”
“You or Merle?” Mom glared at me.
“Merle, of course. You’re the one who said I should watch out for her. What if all of this was just coincidence?”
“You’re going to have to explain that.”
“Merle was there when I met Ole Jensen. What if… She thinks, here’s a man who’s just been exposed as a liar and a fraud. If anything were to happen to her, to me, everyone would believe that Ole did it, because of what happened. So, Merle could whack me over the head –”
“And kill you?”
“I’m not saying she was trying to kill me. Just scare me. Enough so that I’d move out, go back home to South Dakota. Leave the field free for her. And she’d get away scot-free.”
“This is a little over the top, Mom.”
“You don’t know Merle.” She sat up, suddenly energetic. “Come on. Oh, heavens, look at my hair. Quick, Linda, do up my head again, the way you did before. We’re going to pay a call.”
“No, on Jerry. And if Merle happens to be there…”
Jerry lived in the South Wing, all the way at the end, next to the outside door. I noticed that Merle’s – she had a brass nameplate – was right next to his.
“Handy,” I said. Mom sniffed, and knocked on Jerry’s door. There was no answer. Mom knocked again, louder.
“Jerry!” she called out. “Jerry, it’s Fran Thompson!”
“Maybe he’s not there.”
“He is. Listen.”
Mom’s got ears like a fox. I listened, and it seemed that I could hear something moving inside. Not the TV. Maybe it was just the air conditioning. Mom knocked and called out again. Finally the door opened, and Jerry (I assumed) poked his head out.
“Fran,” he said, feebly. “I was just taking a nap.”
“I’m sorry if I woke you,” Mom said, with spurious sympathy. “But I heard about your accident and I thought I’d come by and see how you were.” And she pushed her way past him, into the apartment. “I know you’ve heard all about my little adventure, but –”
We all froze. Someone was moaning in the other room. Mom looked sick, but sailed into the bedroom and then stopped so suddenly I almost bumped into her. Lying on the floor, at the foot of the bed, was an elderly woman, her hands and feet taped with duct-tape, her eyes red-rimmed and desperate above a duct-tape gag.
“Merle!” Mom cried.
I turned around to ask Jerry what was going on and met him lunging at me. Suddenly I was arm in arm with him, in a sort of isometric wrestling match. I couldn’t quite take it seriously, and I was actually trying not to hurt him, when I realized that one of his hands was holding a hammer, and he was trying to get free to use it. On me. Or Mom. So I kneed him as hard as I could, twisting the hammer out of his hand as he fell down on the floor. Then I sat on him, mainly because I couldn’t think of what else to do. Mom was on the floor by Merle, trying to get the duct-tape off her face.
Jerry was bellowing with rage and pain. “My back, damn it! Get off of me!”
“This may sting, Merle,” Mom said, prying up a corner of the duct-tape near Merle’s mouth and pulling it. “Linda, come help me.
“Kind of busy here, Mom.” Jerry was trying to throw me off, and I was looking around for something to subdue him with. “Could you hand me the duct-tape?” Jerry grabbed for my hair and I kneed him hard in the ribs. “It’s up on the bureau.”
Mom handed it to me, and I started wrapping it around Jerry’s wrists. I could see the headlines ‘LaskinCounty Clerk of Courts assaults elderly man in his apartment: Charges pending’, and he put up a fight, but I kept working doggedly, using his bad back and my weight against him. Finally I got him as bound up, hand and foot, as he’d bound Merle. Then I leaned back against the wall, breathing heavily.
Mom had gotten Merle’s gag off – there was a red rash all around the poor woman’s mouth – as well as the duct-tape around Merle’s wrists and feet. Now she was giving her some water.
“How is she?” I asked.
“I think she’ll be okay,” Mom said. Merle’s hands trembled holding the glass, sloshing water down the front of her lilac running suit, which was filthy. I figured that outfit was going in the trash, right down to the matching tennis shoes. “Better?” Merle nodded. “Good.”
“Yes, Merle. It’s going to be all right. What happened?”
“He killed him. I saw him. He killed Ole Jensen.”
I called Jean Lincoln, and Jean must have called the police. But half the people in the center were in Jerry’s apartment long before they arrived. Merle was shaky, but talking, and everyone wanted to hear the story straight from the horse’s mouth.
“I was always suspicious of him,” Merle started off. Mom raised her eyebrows at me and I shrugged. “All that big shot talk of his. He’s on a pension, and that’s it. And there he was, gambling with the big boys, like he could afford it.” Jerry, who was sitting in a chair in his bedroom, still bound, with Bob the security guard and a couple of aides watching him, tried to lunge forward, but couldn’t. “And of course he kept losing -”
“He cheated me!” Jerry yelped.
“I tried to warn Ole, but he just laughed. But I knew Jerry was up to something, so I kept my eye on him. And when he stole the keys… well, that’s when all the thefts started! It was him! Using them, going into people’s apartments and stealing stuff, setting up a smoke screen to cover up his real plans for Ole’s.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Jerry called out.
“You knew that Ole didn’t trust banks,” Merle called back.
“That’s right,” Craig added. “When he lost, he always brought out the cash from the other room. Had oodles of it.”
“Kept his money in his mattress like an idiot,” Merle said.
“Maybe Ole really was Norwegian,” Mom whispered to me.
“Anyway, last night, I was in the West Wing, kind of late, taking a walk, and just as I turned the corner by the laundry, there he was!” She pointed dramatically at Jerry. “Coming out of Ole’s room! Dragging his body! Wrapped up in plastic… It was horrible!” Merle shuddered. “And then,” she turned to Mom, “you came out of your apartment and Jerry knocked you down.”
“Are you telling me that I saw him with Ole Jensen’s body?” Mom cried.
“Of course,” Merle said. “Don’t you remember?” Mom shook her head, looking dazed and broken-hearted. “I froze. And then he saw me. The next thing I knew he had me around the throat… He dragged me down the hall and into Ole’s apartment… He was terribly strong. I was too scared to breathe. And he tied me up and gagged me, and then he left. He was gone for hours.”
“I was not! I was only -” Jerry yelled. Then he caught himself and shut up.
Merle ignored him. “And when he came back… Oh, God, I knew he was going to kill me. Especially when he dragged me out to his car. I thought he was going to take me out in the desert and kill me and dump my body. Instead, he took me back to his apartment, and I’ve been here ever since. I didn’t know what he was going to do with me.” She burst into tears.
Mom looked across the way at Jerry and sniffed. “I’ll bet he was going to tell everyone that the two of you were running off to Las Vegas to get married,” she said.Merle gasped. “And go on a long, extended honeymoon. And when you never came back…”
Jerry looked at Mom. “And everybody would have believed it, too. You would’ve. And wished it was you!”
Mom got up, walked over, and slapped him. “Slipped and fell! You tore your back out lugging that body around. What did you think you were, twenty? I hope you ruptured yourself.”
“The cops are here, Mrs. Thompson,” Bob whispered helpfully. Mom turned around and walked, dignified, past the police and sat back down to watch them take Jerry away.
They found Ole Jensen’s body in some brush by the river, where Jerry had dumped it before leaving Ole’s car at the bus station. They found the cab driver who’d taken Jerry back to Casa Chino. They found Jerry’s fingerprints in Ole’s car. They found blood in Ole’s apartment, from where Jerry had beaten him to death.
They found Ole’s money in Jerry’s closet. It was pretty obvious that Jerry was going to be spending the rest of his retirement in prison. I could go back home, assured that Mom was safe and justice would be done.
“So, did they ever find out where Ole was really from?” I asked Mom, a couple of weeks later.
“Well, that’s the funny thing. The police did run a background check, and it all came back that he was from Homburg.”
“But that’s impossible,” I said. “I had Mary Lou check. There was an Ole Jensen there once, but he died in 1963.”
“The only thing I can think of is that he was in the witness protection program,” Mom said. “And they just don’t understand how small towns work. I was thinking maybe I should write them a letter, and explain to them how we all know each other, and they really shouldn’t try to use us. What do you think?”
“I don’t know. How are you and Merle getting along these days?” Mom shrugged. “Okay. Any more purple shoes?”
“No. Merle said that was just one of Jerry’s red herrings. She may be right.”
I didn’t mention what had occurred to me earlier: there are only a couple of ways to find out if a man keeps his money in his mattress, and lilac is a shade of purple.