by Richard Brawer
The Del Vista Nursing and Rehabilitation Park in Boca Raton, Florida which we had selected to place our mother after her stroke was not one of those Medicaid warehouses. It was more like a five-star hotel and charged like one, a thousand dollars per day for a private room plus incidentals which added up to around four hundred thousand per year. However, our mother could afford it even if she lived the ten more years the doctors predicted. But she didn’t. She died in six months. The question I had was–which one of my brothers or sisters-in-law murdered her?
I was the businessman in the family so I was elected to handle our mother’s affairs, clear out her condo and put it up for sale and go through the legalities of probating her will. When my wife and I went to Del Vista to settle my mother’s bill the director immediately blurted out, “We’re so sorry about Ethel. It wasn’t our fault.”
“No one is blaming you,” I replied.
The Del Vista staff had done a wonderful job caring for her. Her stroke had attacked her upper body, leaving her unable to speak, unable to swallow and her left arm paralyzed, but she had no trouble walking. In the six months of rehab, they had her talking in short sentences, off the feeding tube and eating pureed food.
“We warned her not to walk so fast,” the director said. “If it weren’t for those shoes, she wouldn’t have fallen and broken her hip.”
“What shoes?” I asked.
“Ethel received a gift of leather soled shoes with a heel.” He held up his hand, his thumb and index finger about an inch apart. “You know we only allow our residents to wear sneakers or rubber soled flat shoes. If we had caught it we would have taken them from her. But the package slipped through somehow.”
Suddenly something my doctor brother said leaped into my mind. If she should fall and break something, at her age infections and pneumonia will kill her.
I looked at my wife who responded with a shrug.
I stood up. “Can I see the shoes?”
He led us to a storage room and opened a locker. My mother’s blouses and stretch-waist pants hung neatly on hangers. Those clothes were so not her. She had only shopped in Saks, Bloomingdales and Neiman Marcus. However, at Del Vista pants had to have stretch waists and all shirts had to be pullovers with loose necks for easy on and off. Everything had to be machine washable. That meant polyester clothes from Wal-Mart and Sears. It wouldn’t have surprised me if the trauma of having to wear such “rags” drove her to work harder toward her recuperation.
The shoe box rested on the bottom shelf. I pulled it out. The label read Ferragamo and it had a Saks Fifth Avenue price tag of three hundred dollars. I lifted the lid and stared at the leather slip-ons.
“Nobody knew this was a shoe box?” I asked the director.
“Our receptionist said the lady who came to visit your mother brought a Saks shopping bag. Nobody checked to see what was inside.”
“There was no card or sales slip?”
“Not that we found.”
“And she was wearing these when she fell and broke her hip?”
“Yes. I’m so sorry.”
Leaving the rehab center with the shoe box clutched in my hand I said. “I’m going to Saks to see who sent these.”
My wife tried to talk me out of it. “Leave it alone. What good will it do to find out? It can only cause you grief.”
“If you don’t want to come with me, I’ll drop you off at the condo and go myself.”
She came, but wandered off to look at some dresses while I went to the shoe department. My mother seemed to like to deal with the same salespeople and kept their names in her address book which I had with me. Judy was her salesperson in the shoe department. I asked for her.
“Judy is on vacation,” the clerk told me.
“When will she be back?”
“She just left. I guess two weeks.”
Damn, we’ll be back in New Jersey by then.
My brothers and our wives were gathered around the kitchen table in my house reviewing our mother’s estate. “It looks like we’ll get a little over a million each after taxes,” I said.
“The best thing she ever did for us was die,” my brother, Kevin, said.
The smiles on their faces, including my wife’s, told me they were all probably thinking the same thing Kevin verbalized.
I’m Jerry. My wife is Diane. My brothers and sisters-in law are Kevin and Fran, the oldest, and Mark and Cindy, the youngest. Our mother’s death couldn’t have come at a better time for all of us.
Mark was a great orthopedic surgeon. Too bad he was also the poster child for the slogan, “doctors make lousy businessmen.” He had thrown away hundreds of thousands of dollars in bad real estate investments and the stock market. For some reason he wasn’t satisfied with his high income as a doctor and was investing in get rich quick schemes. And Kevin and Fran had drained their savings taking care of Fran’s mother.
Not that Diane and I couldn’t use the inheritance also. Our daughter and son-in-law lived in California. Their baby was due in two months. Diane continually moaned about how little she would see her grandchild. We had discussed buying a small vacation condo out there but concluded we didn’t have the money. Now we did.
“As soon as her broker liquidates the bonds. I’d say in a couple of weeks.”
I dropped my eyes to the table and thought about the bill that came in the mail from Saks Fifth Avenue shortly after mother died. The pair of Ferragamo shoes was the only item on it. Which one had sent them? Even though I had taken control of mother’s credit cards and check book, any of my brothers or sisters-in-law would have had no trouble getting her Saks card number. All they had to do was go through her files when they stayed at her Florida condo while visiting her at Del Vista and get the account information off a statement.
I couldn’t shake the need to know who sent the shoes. That was my hang-up. I didn’t like unfinished business and obsessed over it until I completed the job. Some say that was a good trait. Others maintain it led to a needless obsession. Well, obsessive compulsive behavior was a family trait inherited from our mother. Hers was for clothes.
Mark broke me away from dire thoughts. “What’s in the bag, Jerry?”
“The bag? Oh, yeah. Things I want to show you. You won’t believe it until you see it for yourself.”
I’m sorry to say, the stuff I had gathered from our mother’s files and drawers showed what a sad person she was. I rummaged through the bag, took out three pieces of notebook paper and placed them on the table. Each page had a heading, Birthday and Anniversary, Get Well, Death.
Kevin picked up the top sheet and read out loud. “I hope your day ( anniv or Bday) is extra special just like you…You’re very special in so many ways…When it comes to special people you’re the specialist…How can anyone explain a (dot dot dot) like you without bragging. What is this?”
Cindy poked her finger at her open mouth feigning vomiting. “I think it’s stuff she writes on cards. She wrote that last one on my birthday card.”
“She wrote that one to me too,” Fran said.
Kevin grabbed the Get Well sheet and read, “I hope you feel better every day in every way. What an asshole.”
My thoughts ran more toward pathetic. While she had to write down any good thought she might come across in order to remember it, she had no trouble spewing an invective without any such memory jogging. She was the anti Dale Carnegie. She always criticized, condemned and complained. Like when Cindy announced she was pregnant and mother replied, Good luck, dear, you’re going to need it. Or the first comment she made to Diane when we arrived at her house for a party she was throwing for her friends who hadn’t been able to make it to our wedding, You’re wearing that?
I reached in the bag, pulled out a stack of checks and flipped them on the table. They fanned out like a deck of cards.
“What are those?” Fran asked.
“Gifts she was going to give to salespeople at her favorite stores.”
“What?” Cindy asked.
“There must be a couple of grand here,” Mark said.
Fran scowled, “She gives thousands to strangers and twenty-five dollar birthday gifts to her grandchildren.”
“Dumb shit,” Kevin scoffed.
“Let me see that,” Mark said.
I slid the documents across the table.
He studied them for a moment. “And she got peanuts for them. That six piece sterling tea service was a genuine Revere from the seventeen hundreds. It had to be worth thousands. It says here she got fifteen hundred.”
Almost in tears, Cindy asked, “Why would she sell all those wonderful treasures?” Cindy had her eye on a few of the Lalique and Baccarat crystal pieces and the Flora Danika dishes. Mark and Cindy started dating in high school and continued through college despite mother doing everything in her power to break them up. Mother didn’t think
Cindy was an appropriate wife for her son, the doctor to be. She even had the unmitigated gall to call Cindy’s mother and say, It’s not that I don’t like Cindy because you’re poor–which was exactly why she didn’t like Cindy–it’s just too early for Mark to be tied down.
Mark and Cindy eloped during his second year in medical school. So furious at her son’s “being entrapped by that trash”– mother’s words not mine–that she called me one day and said she was not going to continue to pay for Mark’s medical school. It wasn’t a question of the money. My father’s will had set aside the funds in a trust for Mark’s education. Unfortunately she was sole trustee. I told her that I would sue her on Mark’s behalf if she misappropriated the funds. She relented because she quickly realized she would have to spend income from her inheritance to defend herself. I never told Mark or Cindy this story. Mother had given them enough grief.
For thirty-five years Cindy groveled for approval from her mother-in-law. Cindy studied her as diligently as if she were taking a graduate course and learned how to dress like her and furnish her house like her. As far as I know Cindy never received a compliment in return.
“You’d think she would want to leave some of those things to her grandchildren for them to remember her by,” Fran said.
Kevin scoffed and said, “You have to be fucking kidding. You know her only interest in us was how we reflected on her.”
For a professor Kevin didn’t have much of a vocabulary except for those four letter words. I guess being on the computer all his life doing math equations didn’t help him get one. Oldest brother Kevin had thought if he moved to the other side of the country he could get away from her. Oh, how wrong he was. Kevin was the epitome of the absent-minded professor. He had a doctorate in math and loved working in academia. Unlike my mother who thought how you dressed defined you, Kevin wore his clothes until they literally turned to rags. The more mother nagged him about his appearance, the more slovenly he dressed. I guess that was his silent way of getting attention from her.
At least it was silent until mother went to California to visit him. On that one and only trip she rifled through Kevin’s drawers while he and Fran were at work and threw away some of his tattered clothes. If she had replaced what she discarded, she might have survived Kevin’s wrath. But she had no intention of spending her money.
She told Kevin, “It was time you bought some new things.”
Kevin threw her out of his house and didn’t reconcile for ten years.
“She used the money she got from selling her treasures to buy more clothes,” I said.
“How do you know?” Mark asked. “I thought she had a big income from the trust.”
“You saw her closets,” Diane said. “She lived alone in that three bedroom condo and every closet was filled with her clothes. She used one just for shoes. She must have had forty pairs, most of them Ferragamo.”
Hearing the name, Ferragamo, the murder weapon, I snapped my head around and stared straight at Diane. Whoever called the shoe department to order those shoes from Judy couldn’t say she was Mrs. Collins because Judy would probably have known mother’s voice. Yet to charge them on mother’s account the person would have had to give a name. Explaining mother was in a nursing home and that the shoes were to be delivered to her would have been sufficient reason for Judy to accept the use of mother’s charge card. I’ll bet Judy was the one who actually delivered the shoes. Did Diane wander off when I went to the shoe department because she did not want to meet Judy face to face? Was she afraid Judy might recognize her voice as the one who ordered the shoes?
I put that horrible thought out of my mind, refusing to believe it for even a split second. I couldn’t help but think Diane did know who ordered the shoes. Diane and her sisters-in-law were constantly on the phone with each other, sometimes two or three times a day. Did they all plan it together? Did Diane know who actually made the call? She was very distraught at the prospect of not being able to spend a lot of time with our coming grandchild.
“Show them the book,” Diane said.
I dragged my eyes from her, searched in the bag again and drew out a tattered book with the padded blue cover. I slid it to her.
“What’s that?” Cindy asked.
“Mother’s high school year book from 1932,” Diane said. “Guess what her only activity was?”
“President of the Dress Committee.
Diane flipped open the book to where she had placed a bookmark. “Read it for yourself.”
“She was a pretty teenager,” Cindy said.
“But one whose obsession started in high school and grew ever larger,” I added. I extracted the Saks’, Bloomingdales’ and Neiman Marcus’ statements from the bag. As I spread them out on the table I let my eyes linger on Diane for an extra second and then looked around at the rest of the family. No one showed the faintest facial expression that might admit guilt. “Her bills for this past year added up to seventy-five thousand dollars,” I said.
“You have to be fucking kidding,” Kevin repeated.
“Your mother only cared about herself,” Diane said, “not what her family thought of her. Her attitude was, like me or not, you’re stuck with me. But impressing strangers who would fawn over her was the most important thing in her life.” She looked at me. “The only reply she had for the awards our daughter won for her TV reporting,” She looked and Kevin and Fran, “or the swimming trophies your daughter won.” She turned her attention to Mark and Cindy, “Or the accomplishment of your daughter becoming managing editor at that national news magazine was, ‘That’s nice’.”
Diane inhaled a deep breath and continued her denunciation. “What normal person, who hasn’t seen you for months would greet you with, ‘You gained a little weight, dear, it must be summer. Or you gained a little weight, dear, it must be winter’. When you guys were in her apartment did you notice anything strange about the family photos she had scattered around?”
My brothers and their wives shook their heads. I bowed mine. I already got my earful of this when we were cleaning out her condo.
“There were pictures of all of you and your families, but there wasn’t one picture of Jerry, me or Heather on the tables or the walls.”
“Are you sure?” Cindy said.
“Yes, I’m sure. I found all the photographs we sent her in a drawer. Your mother hated fat people and Jerry and I were a little too chubby for her to have pictures out on display. We might embarrass her. I’m going to enjoy every cent of her money.”
“I’m calling Saks.” Two weeks had passed and I wanted to see if Judy, my mother’s sales lady in the shoe department had returned.
“Why, Jerry?” Diane asked. “What purpose will it serve?”
I ignored her and dialed.
Diane turned on the TV and put up the volume a bit louder than necessary.
“Shoe department, please,” I said to the operator. Then to Diane, “Turn that down, I can’t hear.”
“Why do you want to do this, Jerry?”
“Because I have to know.”
“Will your mother ever leave us in peace?” She clicked off the TV and stormed out of the room.
“Is Judy there?” I asked to the voice that came on the line.
I introduced myself and told her my mother had passed away.
“Oh my goodness. I knew she was in the nursing home. What happened?”
“How did you know she was in a nursing home?”
“I hadn’t heard from her in a while. I called her home and never got an answer?”
Looking for your Christmas present?
“Then I saw someone from her complex who told me what happened. I called your mother to see how she was doing. She couldn’t speak very well, but she did order a pair of shoes. I charged them to her account and delivered them myself.”
I slowly hung up the phone and went to find Diane. I hugged her and told her what Judy had said.
She said, “We should have spread her ashes outside a Saks store instead of on your father’s grave.”
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section.