Willard glanced down at the headline in the morning paper and took a cautious sip of hot coffee. There had been another death in the next county attributed to a tampered soft drink. Counting yesterday’s tragedy, there now had been four deaths in the last two weeks in a four-county area surrounding Willard’s own Lincoln County. This time the victim was a child. The Daily Sentinel article stated that the authorities believed the most recent death was the work of the same man. Just hours after the death, once again an anonymous caller had phoned the Daily Sentinel, leaving the same cryptic message as before: “Score stands at four down and lighten up. We ain’t even yet!”
Willard finished reading the article just as Ethel walked into the tiny room that served as kitchen, dining room, and living room. He hardly heard her droning voice over the farm report on the television. Willard rarely watched television closely, but he usually left it on just to compete with Ethel’s constant conversations. As for his side of these incessant conversations, he had been relegated to a simple “yes, dear” years ago.
“Have you been smoking again, Willard?” Ethel asked, not expecting or waiting for a reply. “Cigarettes will be the death of you yet,” she added with disdain.
Willard automatically answered quietly, “Yes, dear.”
When Ethel turned her attentions to the dishes in the sink, Willard quickly sniffed the sleeve of his stained tee shirt. He had only taken a couple of puffs. A couple of puffs were all he had time for between their apartment door and the trash bin down in the basement. That’s all he had ever had time for in the twenty-seven years that he and Ethel had lived in the Brookstone Apartments. Willard rubbed his hands across the three-day stubble of light gray whiskers on his cheeks. The whiskers were all the celebrating he had been allowed in honor of his retirement last Thursday. Twenty-eight years as the graveyard supervisor for Madding Building Maintenance, or as Ethel referred to him, the deadnight shift janitor.
Willard looked down at the story once again. A ten-year-old girl, picnicking with her family at Bedbow Park in nearby Jefferson County, had died while drinking from an allegedly poisoned soft drink can. A ten-year old girl! Willard shook his head as he pushed a year-old copy of The Reader’s Digest across the headline. He leaned his head back against the crocheted doily on the back of his well-worn lounger while the farm report and Ethel both droned on in the background.
Willard imagined that the police had probably returned to the Lite-n-Up distribution center downtown looking for clues. They had been there after every one of the three previous deaths blamed on poison transferred from aluminum soft drink cans. Willard had heard the reports from some of the loading dock workers, as the distribution center was one of his contracted maintenance facilities.
One sip. He squeezed his eyes tight as he considered how one sip was all it took to kill each victim. This particular reporter had been kind in his story. He had spared the details of the young child’s contorting muscles, her torso wracked with convulsive gasps as her throat constricted. He had mercifully omitted a graphic description of the final flow of foaming bile through her nose and mouth, and eventually the blood as her internal organs began to rupture. Death had followed quickly. But the late night news anchor who had reported the first three deaths occurring less than fifteen days ago had included such horrific details. Perhaps, Willard thought, that was acceptable to most, since the prior victims had been adults-a waitress on her break, a school administrator alone in his office, and a city worker repairing an underground pipe leak. Willard never did agree with the practice of sensationalizing someone else’s miseries just to boost network ratings. But he couldn’t argue with the fact that it worked. Still, even after the graphic details, Willard found it hard to imagine such a sight.
Ethel’s shrill voice interrupted his thoughts. “Hurry and get cleaned up, Willard. You know that Edith and Barney will be here any minute. After all, they’re all coming over for you.”
Ethel had taken the liberty of inviting Edith and Barney, Ethel’s sister and her obnoxious husband, for a small retirement party in Willard’s honor. Barney owned a bakery, and constantly felt the urge to share with Willard his recipe for success. The formula never included the fact that Barney’s father had died and left him a rather successful business to begin with. Also on the guest list were some of Willard’s neighbors and Vinnie Feinberg, a member of Willard’s former cleaning crew. Vinnie was the birth result of a sheltered Jewish girl’s one-night encounter with a street-wise Italian gigolo.
“Edith knows how much you like her tamale pie, so she’s bringing it over just for you,” Ethel called out from the bedroom. “She said we could keep the leftovers. Wasn’t that nice of her?”
Willard responded with his customary “Yes, dear.”
“Willard, be a dear and get the folding chairs down in the basement. And if you could, Sweetie, would you bring up the paper cups for the sodas? Mrs. Balfowler has some extras that she said we could use. She’s down in the apartment on the second floor next to the fire escape.”
Willard barely heard the last request as he closed the apartment door behind him. Instinctively, he reached for the packet of cigarettes he had stashed behind the fire hose on the wall next to the elevator. He pulled out a single cigarette, lit it, and disappeared into the stairwell.
Both arms awkwardly adorned with folding chairs from the basement, Willard met Edith and Barney as they exited the elevator. Willard tried hard to look pleased when Edith pulled the corner of the aluminum foil back from the tamale pie and offered it up for an approving sniff. With his glasses steamed from the warm tamale pie, Willard could only follow Edith’s voice down the hall and into his apartment.
Willard had just finished setting the chairs in place around the cramped apartment when Vinnie Feinberg and the couple from across the hall arrived.
“Willard. Willard, sweetie, where are the paper cups? You did stop at Mrs. Balfowler’s apartment, didn’t you? Oh, Willard, do I always have to do everything?” Ethel smiled at Vinnie but rolled her eyes when she caught Edith’s sympathetic gaze.
“Mrs. Balfowler assured me that she would bring them with her, dear.” Willard lied. It was a simple lie. Mrs. Balfowler was old. If she arrived without the cups, it would be understandable that she had forgotten. Ethel would be more understanding of Mrs. Balfowler’s forgetfulness than she would Willard’s.
As Edith dished out tamale pie, Ethel made sure that each guest was served. Willard busied himself by handing out cans of soda. When each guest had a generous portion of Edith’s tamale pie and a cold soda, Ethel asked for everyone’s attention.
“Friends, I would like to offer a toast to my husband, Willard. He has worked all his life for this moment. I would like to recognize him on this special retirement day. His retirement will probably be spent the same way he has spent his career-without a plan for the present or the future.”
There was a moment of silence, broken by Vinnie Feinberg’s nervous laugh. Each guest in turn raised a soda can in Willard’s direction. Willard stared back at Ethel, an expectant look giving way to surprise. As his eyes grew wider and his lower jaw dropped open, the few guests turned and looked across the room at Ethel.
Ethel’s eyes were wide. In an instant, both her Lite-n-Up can and full plate of tamale pie slipped from her hands. The can spewed its contents over the kitchen-dining room-living room floor. The tamale pie oozed down her legs and puddled around her feet. Her eyes rolled up until just the white portions were eerily visible to all. Heads turned away as yellowish foam poured from her nose and mouth. No one but Willard saw the bile turn to blood. As horrible as the sight was, he found that he could not turn away. It was the first time in memory that he had seen Ethel’s mouth open with not a sound to be heard.
* * *
The police stepped gingerly about the apartment, avoiding the mixture of Ethel’s expulsions and her tamale pie. The guests had each been questioned and then, one by one, allowed to leave. The officer in charge of the crime scene was understanding and sympathetic in light of Willard’s loss and offered Willard a cigarette. With an appropriate display of grief and reverence for Ethel, Willard politely accepted the cigarette but refrained from lighting it. He sat for a long time thinking about the black plastic bundle he had seen the deputy coroner remove, the bundle that had once been his wife of twenty-eight years. He idly rolled the filter end of the cigarette back and forth between his index finger and his thumb.
After the police had gone, Willard went to the cupboard above the refrigerator-the one just out of Ethel’s reach-and brought down a bottle of Jim Beam. Carefully, he selected a can of Lite-n-Up, vigorously rubbed the top of the can with a dishtowel, and poured the soft drink over a generous serving of bourbon. He sat down at the table and pushed the newspaper account of the young girl’s death aside. From the nearby napkin drawer he pulled out several travel brochures-Hawaii, Mexico, Europe, Australia. He unfolded the pamphlet advertising the benefits of a vacation Down Under. At the same time, he reached across the table for the phone. He had made the call before, and would have to make it two more times after tonight.
“Score stands at five down and lighten up. We ain’t even yet!” As before, he held a white pocket-handkerchief over the mouthpiece.
He took a small sip from the glass and leaned back. He started to get up and retrieve his smokes from behind the fire hose in the hallway but stopped when he remembered the cigarette that the concerned police officer had given him. He rolled it once again between his fingers. He regretted the four other victims-especially the little girl. He would regret the next two as well. But they were necessary to finish the silly riddle he had phoned into the reporter after each death. Only the riddle and the possibility that there might be a serial killer terrorizing the four-county area would deflect any suspicion about Ethel’s death. The chemicals had been easily obtained at work. Access to the Lite-n-Up shipping docks was available on the “deadnight” shift, as Ethel had called it. Just a taste was certain death. Just a trace randomly rubbed onto the rim of a few cans before they were to be delivered to retail. One sip.
Willard licked his lips as he brought both the cigarette and lighter to his mouth. In twenty-eight years, he had never dared to smoke in the apartment. The smooth drag of smoke filled his lungs in a steady stream. But the exhale did not produce the same steady stream. Most of the smoke remained in his lungs, trapped behind his rapidly constricting throat. The smoke that did escape came out in convulsive fits. Foamy bile dripped into the leftover tamale pie, and he staggered to the sink.
While his eyes could still focus, Willard looked at the cigarette in his hand and remembered rolling it nervously between his fingers as the coroner had prepared Ethel’s body hours before. Briefly, horror registered on his face. These were the same fingers that had held the chemical-laden cloth he used to apply certain death to Ethel’s Lite-n-Up can down in the basement. As he collapsed into a frozen fetal position, staring at the burning cigarette between his fingers, he heard Ethel’s shrill voice say, “Willard, those things will be the death of you yet!”