A Penny Saved
Eugene Rodney Woodsbury was pleased with himself. Quite pleased indeed.
Tired after his four and a half hour flight from London's Heathrow airport, Eugene was relieved to finally check into his three-star B&B in Larnaca. Along with over a million of his countrymen annually, he came to Cyprus on a holy quest for two commodities sorely lacking in his beloved England: The soothing, bone-warming rays of the Mediterranean sun and glorious golden beaches.
There were of course additional reasons for choosing Cyprus as a holiday destination – and one of them was the price. Pound for euro, you got more for your money than you would at the French Riviera, Malta or Greece.
For our Eugene, the monetary considerations far outweighed all other factors. He explained his choice to his co-workers—Eugene didn't have any actual friends—in a different manner. Cyprus, as a former colony of the crown was preferable and much more suitable than say Miami (“Americans are such barbarians”) or Cote d'Azur (“bloody French”). At least in Cyprus they drove on the proper side of the road!
Truth be told, Eugene chose his holiday destination largely by the price. Simply put, Eugene was stingy. He was a tightwad, a penny-pincher, a miser. It wasn't that he didn't have money to spend… he just hated parting with it.
So here he was. Pale-skinned and knobby-kneed, our watery-eyed Englishman braved over-friendly Greek-Cypriots and deep-fried foods in a strange land, armed with sun screen # 15 and an inherited stiff-upper-lip.
Eugene sat alone at breakfast in the small, yet sunny, dining room of his three-star hotel. Remnants of runny eggs, bangers and beans and toast lay on the plate before him. Although the breakfast was less than impressive, Eugene smiled to himself as he sipped his tepid coffee, giddy over the five or six euro he had “saved” by eating breakfast twice.
He had been prepared for the usual hotel breakfast routine: An elderly matron named Marge, or the Greek equivalent thereof, would ask for his name and room number, then check the list of guests on her food-stained clipboard before allowing him access.
To Eugene's astonishment, no matron or any other staff member guarded the entrance. Not quite believing his luck, he looked surreptitiously around whilst stealing unnoticed up to the breakfast buffet. His excitement rose with each helping of food he plopped onto his plate. Certain this was too good to be true, he ate his meal quickly, positive that at any moment he would be confronted, and possibly admonished, for not following hotel-breakfast protocol.
It never happened. As his plate emptied, his eyes kept a continuous surveillance on his fellow hotel guests arriving for breakfast. He couldn't believe it. None of them were asked to identify themselves, in any manner, as residents of the hotel!
Glancing at his watch, a plan formulated in his miserly mind. Dabbing his mouth genteelly with a cheap paper napkin, Eugene rose languidly from his chair and strolled towards the lifts and his pool-view room.
Once inside he acted decisively. He didn't have much time – breakfast was served from 7.00 till 10.00, and it was nearly nine now. Eugene exchanged his trousers and loafers for shorts and sandals, traded his button-down shirt for an old tee-shirt, and combed his thinning hair forward to cover his balding pate.
Thus disguised, he strode into the breakfast-room, attacked the buffet with an unaccustomed gusto and devoured a second mediocre breakfast.
He couldn't stop smiling. Despite the slight discomfort of an over-stuffed belly, Eugene felt more than satisfied – he was euphoric.
To Eugene's peculiar way of thinking, each free meal was money saved. He figured breakfast in a restaurant would cost him five or six euros at least. That was the reason he insisted on B&B – free breakfasts. Today he had saved twice as much – and it was worth a minor case of indigestion.
Eugene spent the better part of his day at the pool, attaining a lobster-red 'tan' and formulating a scheme to eat three breakfasts the following day. He was unaware of the darling shrieks of the children, splashing and frolicking before returning to the loving arms of their mothers, who wrapped them like sausages with Sponge-Bob towels. Nor did he notice the bikini-clad nymphs strolling to the pool's bar, looking oh-so-good. He was oblivious to it all. As his plan took shape, little euro signs danced before his eyes like sugar-plum fairies. By the time he was thoroughly cooked and ready for his afternoon siesta, his stratagem was complete.
Anyone watching Eugene the following morning would admit he implemented his plan to perfection. His meticulous timing was flawless and the execution eloquent. But no one noticed his subterfuge. Hotel staff and guests went about their business, totally unaware of Eugene's machinations.
Halfway through his second breakfast, the tune from 'Mission Impossible' started playing compulsively in his head. Tum tum tumtum, tum tum tumtum – tatadah, tatadahhh, tatum!
Three-quarters of the way through his third breakfast, Mission Impossible was replaced by the Alka-Seltzer song. Eugene struggled to down two more rashers of soggy, undercooked bacon and half a bowl of Greek Yogurt with muesli. His back teeth were floating from 12 cups of tea, and regurgitation was looking like a viable option. Only the vision of euros flushing down the loo strengthened his resolve, and with the prowess of a pregnant hippo, he scoffed down the remaining tidbits.
Eugene pushed to his feet, and staggered towards the creaky elevator, hoping to reach his room before he embarrassed himself by discharging bodily fluids in public. With Herculean effort, our Englishman ran the last few steps to his room, and flew into the bathroom. Relieving himself was, well, a relief.
Eugene spent the next hour and a half recuperating from breakfast. Towards noon he meandered down to the sea, and spread his novelty “I Love Cyprus” towel over golden grains of sand, beneath a beach umbrella.
Lethargic from his enormous breakfasts, Eugene drifted off into a fitful sleep peppered with dreams of svelte Swedes and swarthy Cypriots who inexplicably turned into beached whales, after ingesting vast quantities of food and drink at a seaside smorgasbord.
Eugene needed no psychoanalyst to interpret his dream. He faced a serious dilemma: How could he eat three or more breakfasts, and still function—let alone enjoy—the rest of the day? He was, after all, on holiday. The obvious answer would be to eat just one breakfast, like everybody else… or have multiple breakfasts, but eat less food at each breakfast.
Eugene found both of these solutions unpalatable. Eating smaller quantities of food seemed pointless. If he didn't get a full meal for his money, he would only be cheating himself. Eat only one breakfast? Ridiculous! He would not forfeit this golden opportunity due to limited abdominal capacity or queasy uneasiness.
Through the late afternoon and well into early evening, Eugene pondered his predicament, at last coming to a solution around dinner time.
I shan't go into details, so as not to offend your sensibilities. Suffice it to say Eugene concocted a ploy so conniving and convoluted it was nothing short of Machiavellian. It included disguises, minimal fluid intake, early-bird-breakfasts and laxatives.
On the last day of his stay, Eugene surprised even himself by eating no less than five breakfasts. Five full breakfasts: Scrambled eggs, bacon, toast with marmalade, Pita bread with local Haloumi cheese, black olives, bangers and beans, Greek yogurt, fresh fruit and a bowl of cereal.
Bloated like a Nigerian Balloon frog, Eugene was ecstatic. He had done it. Five full breakfasts, thirty euro in his pocket! He was barely able to stand. Gaseous emissions refluxing from his boiler-pot belly caused heartburn never before known to him. A wave of nausea threatened as he approached the front desk.
“I'd like to check out please, room 301,” he managed to rasp.
“Yes, Mr. Woodsbury, here is your bill.”
“My bill? I prepaid... you should have my hotel voucher.”
“Let me see…” said the man at the reception desk. “It seems you owe the hotel ninety-six euro.”
“Ninety-six euro! Are you crazy? For what?”
“It seems sir, that in addition to the five breakfasts included in your Bed and Breakfast deal, you consumed another twelve breakfasts, costing eight euros each.”
The color drained from Eugene's face, and he would have had a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach had it not been so overflowing with semi-digested food. The shock of being discovered hit him like a tsunami and he staggered back from the reception desk, dizzy and disoriented.
In the end, he did the only thing a gentleman could do in such a circumstance. He had a coronary seizure.
The pressure, the fried calamari and chips and nearly a ton and a half of food in five days, all took their toll. Eugene was rushed to the Larnaca General Hospital, and admitted to the cardiology ward.
The next morning Eugene felt much better. The rhinoceros that had been sitting on his chest had gone off to greener pastures, and no food for almost twenty-four hours did marvels for that bloated sensation.
Yes, things were looking up. The hotel sent his belongings to the hospital, along with a receipt. The management was kind enough to settle his bill, with their compliments. Nor was he worried about the hospital's fee – it would be covered by his travel insurance. So all in all, aside from the minor inconvenience of having a heart-attack, everything was super. He actually gained a few more days of holiday for free!
His musings were interrupted by the nurse's aide wheeling the lunch trolley into the room opposite him. Eugene had already eaten the diluted, salt-free broth, and the boiled chicken with vegetables. Making sure no one was watching, Eugene slipped his lunch tray under the bed.
“Miss, excuse me, miss?”
The aide stood just outside the door. “Yes? What I can help you with?”
“I didn't get any lunch…”
The aide smiled warmly and set a full tray down next to him. Without a second glance she swished out of the room.
Eugene Rodney Woodsbury was pleased with himself. Quite pleased indeed.
The Body in the Red Silk Dress
I followed two women to the shabby house, one among others on a street that had once been, if not prosperous, at least comfortable. An ethnic neighborhood of Irish or Italian, I guessed, but now sadly in decline. The houses weren’t large enough to be gentrified.
The women were apparently calling to pay their respects, too. The short dark haired woman carried a casserole, probably Italian from the warm, tomato, garlic smell wafting back to me. The other woman, a thin red head, carried a two layer cake. I wished I’d thought to bring food instead of flowers from my garden, although I had sent a fruit basket when I’d heard Francis died.
Harriet opened the screen door with a welcoming smile and ushered us in. “Maria, how nice of you to come,” she greeted the woman bearing the delicious smelling casserole with a one armed hug careful not to dislodge the dish.
“Molly! How sweet of you to bring your special carrot cake.”
Molly kissed Harriet’s cheek. “We’ll put our food in the kitchen.”
Harriet turned to me. Her lips trembled in a smile. She looked close to tears. “Carolyn, I never expected you to come. And bringing flowers, too.”
“I’m so sorry, Harriet.” I gave her thin body a warm hug carefully holding the flowers out a little. “These will need to be put in water.”
“In a moment. Francis is laid out in the recliner.” She stepped aside and motioned to a massive body in a red silk dress stretched out in a super-sized recliner. Although Francis’s eyes were closed and could no longer see, images flickered across the screen of a large muted TV across the room. A remote control lay on the table beside the chair.
“That’s Francis’s favorite dress, you know.”
My eyes took in the dress. A light green crocheted afghan covered the legs except for one white mottled toe that poked out. I wanted to cover the toe. It seemed obscene sticking out like that. My eyes moved over that mound of flesh to the face. Dark hair tinged with gray was slicked back. It looked as if his dark beard had been trimmed, too.
“He loved red. It’s what he always wanted to wear. It’s hard getting dresses in such a big size, and finding red is even harder. That’s why I was excited when I found the red silk dress on sale. It’d been marked down six times. Imagine that! The material alone would cost more than I paid for it. He loved wearing it. Said it felt good. I never thought it would become his funeral dress.” She sniffed a little.
“It looks nice on him.” I said.
“It was his heart, you know,” Harriet said. I nodded.
“He had a lot of health problems. Heart. Diabetes.”
I nodded again remembering him sitting on a bench in Faneuil Square watching tourists and everyone else on the days his wife cleaned. I hadn’t seen him for months now. Harriet claimed he wore dresses because they were more comfortable than tight fitting pants – especially on hot days. Still, it always caused people to look twice, wondering.
“He couldn’t fit in a regular coffin, you know.”
I wondered how much he weighed, but didn’t want to ask. I guessed he must’ve been four hundred pounds or maybe more. He looked heavier than when I’d last seen him. Maybe it was the way he was laid out.
“I couldn’t afford a special coffin. I don’t have that kind of money, you know.”
“I imagine it would be expensive.”
“To save costs Mr. Osborne agreed to lay him out at home in his chair. He’ll be cremated after calling hours.”
“A lot of people do that now. Cremating I mean.” I didn’t know anyone who’d had a funeral at home, but supposed some people still did. I’d heard it was an Amish custom.
She patted my arm. “I’m glad you came, Carolyn. I appreciate the fruit basket you sent, and the flowers. I love flowers, you know.”
“We’ve known each other a long time.”
“Not everyone pays attention to cleaning crews, you know.”
I smiled at her. “I’ve always enjoyed our conversations when you’ve stopped by my booth. You seem to like looking at what I bring each day.”
“Stopping by is like a bit of country, you know. Like the garden I’d like to have with all the herbs and flowers you grow.” She sighed.
“No room to grow anything in this neighborhood. Not that I’d have had time to garden and care for Francis, too. He took a lot of care, you know.”
“I imagine he did, but you took excellent care of him and can feel good about that.” I didn’t know that, but believed she did. She seemed so sweet.
Harriet’s eyes rested on Francis. “I appreciate when you give me some cut flowers at the end of the day, you know.”
I felt a little guilty about her gratitude. I only gave her what didn’t sell and couldn’t be sold as fresh flowers the next day; and a couple of potted herbs that didn’t appeal to customers. But never flowers in pots for her front porch.
More visitors arrived with food, and Harriet directed them to the kitchen.
I took a seat on a wooden folding chair not far from the two women I’d followed in. We introduced ourselves. They were neighbors.
When I mentioned my name, Maria exclaimed, “You’re the one Harriet always talks about. She loves your booth with the flowers and herbs.”
“You don’t live in Boston, do you?” Molly asked.
“No. I live in Concord. It’s where I raise the herbs and flowers I sell.”
“It’s nice there. I’ve only been there once, but it seemed so peaceful,” she said.
“I’ve never been there,” Maria said. “I like Boston. There’s more to do here.”
“Yeah, like you ever do much,” Molly teased her.
“Well, the thing is, I could if I wanted to.”
I didn’t mention how often I came in to visit museums, see plays and other activities that interested me; at least in off seasons when I wasn’t gardening and running my booth.
A booming voice caught my attention. An elderly man standing by Francis said to Harriet. “I thought the doctor said last month his heart was getting better.” His voice drowned out the other conversations.
“Maybe those things come and go, you know.” Harriet dabbed her eyes with a tissue.
“Wasn’t he walking more like the doctor recommended?”
“Maybe a little. I made him get out of his wheelchair and walk at least a short way during our evening strolls. It was hard pushing him, you know.”
The man shook his head. “So sad. I saw you two going around the block a few nights ago. He was some distance behind where you were pushing his chair. Seemed he was out of breath. Could he have been overdoing it a little?”
Harriet swallowed. “I don’t know. The doctor said he should get more exercise. They always say ‘No pain, no gain,’ you know.”
Since my conversation with the ladies couldn’t compete with the old man’s blaring, I looked around the room with its worn carpet, old furniture, not old enough to be antique, but too old and cheap to donate to charity. A picture of flowers painted on velvet with bright splashes of red poppies hung on the wall behind the recliner holding Francis. The painting matched his red silk dress. The only flowers in the room were flowers I’d given her the week before he died, bouquets of flowers slightly wilted and crammed into an imitation milk glass vase. I briefly thought about replacing them with what I’d brought.
A dozen or so people arrived and sat in the remaining chairs furnished by the funeral home. When the minister and funeral director arrived, Harriet brought in two folding lawn chairs from the porch. I wasn’t sure how she’d manage to cram them in, but she did when everyone moved their chairs closer together.
Maria quietly wondered about the minister. Molly whispered, “They didn’t go to church. The funeral director found a minister for Harriet.”
The minister relied more on scripture than Francis’s life. Apparently only what the funeral director gave him; where he was born, family, where he went to school, previous jobs. I was surprised he’d been a Boston policeman at one time. I couldn’t imagine him ever being trim enough.
Harriet’s daughter, Mandy from California, shook her head when the minister asked if she wanted to say a few words about her stepfather.
After the minister finished with a prayer for Francis, the funeral director said they’d be taking him, and if we wanted to pay our last respects, we could do so now and then go to the kitchen where luncheon would be served. “Please stay and eat with the widow in her time of grief. Tables and chairs are set up in the back yard to accommodate everyone.”
I joined the others in the kitchen where food was laid out on the table and counters. Food the neighbors had furnished, I guessed. There were bags of potato chips as well as platters of cold cuts and cheese, macaroni salad, baked beans, the Italian casserole, rolls and Molly’s carrot cake with lots of other desserts, including a scrumptious looking chocolate cake. There were bottles of soda, punch, and coffee brewing. I wanted to slip away, but didn’t want to leave by the front door where men seemed to be struggling to get Francis out the door. I could hear their mutterings. I assumed they weren’t taking the recliner.
I filled a Styrofoam plate and with a cup of punch followed two teenagers outside. The old van Harriet drove was parked in the drive near garbage cans beside the back porch. The back yard was only slightly larger than the living room, and the yellowed dry grass was sparse. A neighbor’s tree leaned over the back fence, but the only thing growing in Harriet’s yard were some shrubs not looking any healthier than the lawn.
I ate in silence as the others around me chatted and laughed. When I finished, I returned to the kitchen.
Harriet was refilling the punch bowl with fruit juice and ginger ale. Her daughter was washing a few dishes.
“Can I do anything to help?” I asked hoping they’d say no so I could leave now that Francis seemed to be gone.
“How sweet of you,” Harriet said. “Could you get more ice cubes out of the freezer for the punch?”
I opened the freezer over the refrigerator, and my mouth dropped open. It was crammed full of pizzas and sweet stuff; cakes, pies, everything Francis shouldn’t have been eating. I found two ice cube trays buried, and managed to dislodge them from under a frozen chocolate cream pie in a box, which then threatened to bring a plastic bag full of doughnuts down on top of me. Finally. I got the freezer door closed without anything on the floor. I couldn’t imagine Harriet eating what was in there.
As I added ice cubes to the punch bowl I said, “I heard someone say your van wasn’t working.”
Harriet nodded. “It’s been broke down almost a month now. It’s too old and would cost more to fix than it’s worth. I won’t need it now, anyway. It’s cheaper taking the T, you know.”
“Mom’s coming out to live with me. I’ve been after her for years to do that but she wouldn’t leave Francis.”
I glanced at Mandy, who was smiling while she washed the dishes. My eyes went to the few potted herbs on the window sill, and a wilted bouquet of flowers. Foxgloves. Digitalis. All the leaves had been removed. I looked from the flowers to Harriet.
She smiled. “I’ve learned so much about flowers from you.” She gave me a slow wink.
Upon a Gnome” in STRANGELY FUNNY and “Norman’s Skeleton’s” in ALL HALLOWS EVIL. She lives on a small farm in NE Ohio with assorted critters. She blogs with Writers Who Kill on Thursdays. http://writerswhokill.blogspot.com/ Website: www.gloriaalden.com
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