ANNIVERSARY CRUISE


By Martin Dodd



Helen couldn't remember when she first thought of killing Harold. And, as he steered the houseboat toward the setting sun, she inwardly sneered at his idea of a thirtieth anniversary "cruise," but it fit her needs — perfectly.

She sat behind Harold looking out the side window at the lakeshore sliding slowly by. Twenty feet above the shoreline, the manzanitas grew close together on sloping red clay banks. Further up, the slope steepened and scraggly pines gave proof of poor soil. A half-dozen buzzards circled above.

Helen closed the Reader's Digest, took another chocolate crème from the box beside her, and put it into her mouth, whole. It would help dull the edge of anger and anxiety. She closed her eyes and bit into the sweet goo of vanilla and chocolate, rolling it around with her tongue, chewing slowly as she rehearsed her plan for the coming night.

They'd have dinner, a roll in the sack, then the poison, and finally her explanation to the deputy: "Oh, officer, it was horrible...It's our thirtieth anniversary. We had a romantic dinner. Afterward...oh, it's embarrassing. We were making love and...well, he's got blood pressure and cholesterol problems. I should've known. We were...and he just moaned, and —"

Harold interrupted her thoughts. "Get me another beer, Pudge."

She opened her eyes, viewed Harold's wide butt spread across the captain's stool, and thought, where does a fat-assed, middle-aged wreck like you get off calling me "Pudge?" A glance at the back of his head pleased her. His Margo-inspired use of Rogaine hadn't added a single hair to his bald spot. Not one.

Helen swallowed her anger with the remains of the chocolate crème, put her magazine aside, and took four steps across the cabin to the refrigerator. "Anything else while I'm up?"

"Yeah, some more of them Cajun pork rinds."

Helen pulled a long-necked Budweiser from the refrigerator, and then dumped red-stained fried pork rinds into a bowl. She plunked the bottle and bowl on the shelf behind the helm.

"Here you go." She glowered at his sloping belly. Piss-ant, I could just wait until you kill yourself with pork rinds and beer.

Harold had often said he based his diet on "the four basic food groups: fat, sugar, salt, an' alcohol." Despite his recent visits to a gym, his weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol remained dangerously high — high enough, Helen believed, to explain sudden death.

She looked at the wide lake through the sliding-glass door, which opened onto the front deck. "We stopping soon?"

"Yep, we're here. Can you smell 'em? There's a nest of small-mouths over there in Last Mile Cove. Daybreak's gonna find a big ol' bass on my line. Fresh fish for breakfast, a specialty of Harold's Cruise Lines."

Last Mile Cove — perfect. Helen patted his bald spot. "Harold, you're a jewel." He grinned at her. His yellowed teeth showed through wet lips stained red at the corners by pork rind dye. He took a gulp of beer and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

She returned to the foam-padded bench behind him, which served as one of the boat's three pullout-beds. The shore slid by a little faster as he turned the boat into the cove.

Harold belched. "You know? I believe that 'manna from heaven' God give the Jews in the Bible was pork rinds."

Helen sighed. What can I expect from an intellect stretched tight by a couple of condensed novels from the Digest? "Jews don't eat pork, Harold."

"Oh, no? Don't know what they're missing. Jus' leaves more for the rest of us. All part of God's plan."

Helen believed God's plan was to relieve her misery. She had considered divorce, briefly, but she didn't want to lose half the house, their savings, or pass up his life insurance. Her mirror, creeping dress size, and an introductory copy of the AARP magazine gave it a sense of urgency. Harold's diddling Margo wasn't the cause; it was the capper.

"I'm gonna pull us in down there, 'round those rocks." He took a drink of beer. "Ain't nobody at this end. No skiers, an' the other fishermen don't know my places. All that's here is this ol' fisherboy an' his first mate. Aha! First mate. Get it, matey?"

Get it? You'll get it, sailor. "Aye-aye, Captain. I'm your first...and last mate."

"Well, don't be too sure, Pudge, heh-heh, I ain't sure if you're a keeper. You know there's a lotta fish out there that might like my big ol' lure." He stuffed more pork rinds in his mouth, chewed some, and then finished the Bud in a series of gulps.

Pudge? Not a keeper? Big ol' lure? More like a worm. Helen was pudgy, but not too pudgy. Her breasts sagged, but not too much, and she still had a discernable waist. She was in good physical condition except for border-line blood sugar, a little heart murmur, and bunions from too many years in high-heels. Helen felt she could hold her own with most women on the down side of fifty, although the best she got from Harold was "You ain't bad — for an old broad."

* * *

A half-hour later the boat was pulled in, front end to the bank. In the twilight, Harold stood at the water's edge, fifty feet away, casting and reeling. Helen lay on the bench in the front cabin popping chocolates and remembering their previous trip to this lake.

Fifteen years before, Helen and Harold, fourteen-year-old Junior and twelve-year-old Sis had "houseboated" for a week. That trip, Senior announced he wanted to rename his business "Harold and Son's Plumbing and Supply." Junior had responded by saying he wanted to be a professional dancer. Then, five years ago Junior announced he was gay, told Senior where he could stick his monkey wrench, and moved in with a choreographer in New York City.

On the boat, Harold had gone into the bathroom while Sis was taking a shower. Harold claimed he thought Junior was in the shower. Helen thought Harold wanted a peek at Sis. Since then, Helen had wondered if Harold had been at her. She told herself "no," but Sis had twitched her ass around the house in skimpy outfits until she ran off at eighteen with a guy who worked at the 7-11. He was the first of three live-ins and two husbands, and Sis was only twenty-seven. With the first three, Helen had tried to counsel her daughter. Finally, she told Sis she was behaving like a slut. They hadn't spoken since that day five years ago, the same week Junior had left for New York City.

Harold blamed her for the kids' failures. Once he screamed, "You never did make those kids mind. You're too busy eating. An' you let Junior play house with Sis. That's why he turned funny."

Helen calmly replied, "It's your genes, Harold. Everyone in your family has eyes that are too close together. That pinches the front part of the brain. I've been wondering when you'd go funny."

After the kids left home, Harold sold his business and went to work as assistant manager for the local Home Depot. Helen read romances and ate chocolates.

Harold's continual ragging about her weight had caused her to pick up the Reader's Digest with the blurb: "Eat Chocolate and Lose Weight." She hadn't missed an issue, or a chocolate, since. Now, some years later, another article in the Digest unlocked her future. Helen knew the key line by heart: "Digitalis poisoning simulates all the symptoms of a heart attack and unless a coroner is specifically looking for it, digitalis is nearly untraceable."

Harold broke her reminiscence. "Fish on! Fish on! Hot damn! A big one. Helen, get the net an' help me."

Helen muttered, "It'll help if it's big enough to drag you under." She didn't consider Harold a fisherman. He had been on this lake without her several times since their long-ago vacation, but he never returned with fish. Hangover and sunburn, yes. Fish, no.

"Pudge! C'mere quick. I don't wanna lose this baby."

She sat up and watched him reel forward then give a mighty heave backwards. The line snapped. He stumbled back and plopped down hard in the red mud. "Aw, shit!" Harold picked himself up and made several useless attempts to brush the muck off his pants.

He had come home with muddy trousers two months ago after he had been up here. Harold had taken the trip shortly following his father's death "...to be alone with my mem'ries." She suspected Margo had been with him. The teenage boat-hand in the marina supported her suspicion today when he greeted her with, "Nice to see you again."

While Harold prepared for that "mem'ry" trip, he mentioned the "little lady" who worked at the store selling toilets and tubs. Helen had already found the little lady's love notes to Harold and had been to Home Depot to check her out. He had said, "I think her name is Margo."

"Margo?" Helen had responded, "I think I've seen her. Isn't she the one with dyed-red hair and silicone boobs?"

"I wouldn't know 'bout them things."

Helen then asked, "Is the little lady married?"

"Naw, she's a widder. Husband went out with 'the big one' a couple of years ago. They tell me he died in the saddle — went out smiling."

Her plan gelled — Harold can die smiling, too! She had gotten the digitalis a week before from his old man's effects. Perfect. Harold, you're a jewel. You picked your death and your daddy provided the poison.

A short while later Harold showered while Helen worked on dinner and one of the bottles of wine he had purchased. She needed fortification to pull this off. The potatoes were in the oven. She tore lettuce over a bowl. Red wine and candlelight would complete the illusion of a romantic anniversary dinner, and then, as she had come to call her plan, "beddy-bye."

Helen needed physical proof he had been in the act when he'd died. Since they had taken to separate bedrooms for months, she had to let him know she wanted to be "with him" tonight. The task shouldn't be too difficult. With Harold, sex was second only to beer.

The shower stopped. Harold called out, "Pudge, han' me a towel. I forgot to get one."

Perfect! "Just a minute, Hon." Helen got a towel and opened the bathroom door. "You randy devil, I think you just wanted to get naked in front of me." She handed him the towel and managed a wistful look. "It's been awhile."

He grinned big. "Has been awhile. Remember this?" He pointed down.

"Can't forget. I been seeing that — lure for thirty years. If you want to do some fishing later," she winked, "you might get one to brag about. First, get dried and help me with dinner."

"Dinner? I got fishing on my mind."

"How about dinner..." she smiled, "followed by a really nice dessert?"

"Yeah...maybe a banana split. I got the banana an' you got —"

"Later, Hon." She blew him a kiss, and closed the door.

Helen returned to the salad and wine. 'I got the banana...' Ughh! I must be nuts to have put up with him this long. Jesus! What's wrong with me? I even took care of his old man.

Harold had said, "I can't put my daddy in no nursin' home, and he can't be alone, either. With his heart problem, he could have a spell, or overdose, or somethin'."

Helen had said, "So?"

"He ain't got much longer. He oughta die among family...those that love 'im."

"Who would that be?"

"He can live with us. He can pay us instead of a nursin' home."

The latter sealed the deal, and Harold had promised, "He won't be any trouble." She took another sip of wine. No trouble? Shit, Harold, you weren't the one who did the cooking and cleaned up after the old letch.

The bathroom door swung open. Harold hopped into the cabin, naked. "Tah-dahh!" He half-squatted, arms held wide, feet spread apart.

Yechh! she thought, but the wine's effect carried her act. "Oooh, a flasher, a weenie-wagger. You're a dirty old man and tonight..." she rolled her hips with a slow circular motion ending with a thrusting bump of her pelvis, "I'm going to screw you to death."

Harold blinked and straightened up. He opened and closed his mouth then continued, "Oh, really...? You an' who else?"

"Shocked you speechless, huh?"

"Maybe, but I got my pole, and I'm ready to go fishing."

"Later. Get your robe on. I'll open another bottle and you do the steaks."

"Aw, Pudge?"

She pushed him into the bedroom and shut the door. Jesus, I need a drink.

* * *

Harold took the last bite of his steak and looked at Helen across the candlelit table. "I'm a little drunk, Pudge."

"Me too."

He gazed at her, and then shook his head. His eyes were watery. "I'm real sorry things ain't always been good for us."

Her eyes narrowed. What's he up to? Has Margo dumped him? Too late, Harold, I've got a plan and I'm sticking to it. She smiled. "True, Hon, but we're here."

He paused, "Yep," then nodded. "Yep, we are. Anniversary cruise was a great idea, huh?"

"Perfect. I couldn't have planned it better."

Her problem had been figuring out how to keep him from seeking help once the poisoning symptoms started. This baby would call 911 for a toothache. First, there would be extreme nausea and vomiting, and then diarrhea, fatigue and muscle weakness. He would have been in an emergency room by the time the vision symptoms started: blurring, seeing dark circles, and finally a yellowish haze. Harold had solved the problem by announcing "For ol' times' sake, I'm taking you on a thirtieth anniversary cruise. Get away from it all. Jus' you an' me, Pudge — on a houseboat. No TV, no phones, nobody to bother us."

Helen finished her wine. "Have you had enough to eat?"

"Depends on what we're talking about."

Jesus, men have a one-track mind. Even his old man made a pass at me a week before he died. "Do you miss your father?"

"What? Where'd that come from?"

"Oh...it hasn't been long and he just popped into mind. I wondered if you missed him."

"Well, we was never real close...but he always carried a picture of him and me."

Her eyes narrowed. Not close? What was that crap about dying with those that love him? She remembered the photo the old man had in his nightstand drawer: he and a preteen Harold standing in front of an unidentified motel, in an unidentified place, in an unidentified year — loving memories.

Emptying the drawer into a keepsake box after the old man's death brought her the digitalis. Among other drugs and the curious odds and ends, which the old man held dear enough to keep at hand in his last days, was an almost full, ninety-pill bottle of his heart medicine — digoxin. "Unless a coroner is specifically looking for it, digitalis is nearly untraceable." She had started to take the full bottle, but thought, someone may ask about his prescriptions. I've got to be careful. She took about one-third of the pills and left the rest and the bottle with the other keepsakes.

Helen refocused on Harold. Now to bed. She leaned toward him and whispered. "I'll leave the dishes if you're ready for dessert."

He grinned. "Heh-heh. Go ahead. I'm right behind ya. I'll pour us a toast."

She glanced at the half-full bottle. She needed the wine for later. "Let's wait."

Harold stood and weaved unsteadily. "But, it's our anniversary."

"Oooh, I know." God, I hope he's not too drunk. "Are you ready for that banana split?"

He stared blearily for a moment then peeked down his robe. "Oh, yeah!"

Harold went before her, past the kitchen counter and sink, which stood across from the bathroom door, and into the back area that served as a bedroom. Helen pulled a baggie containing twenty-eight finely crushed digoxin tablets from her pocket and, as she passed, put it in the cabinet above the sink. She walked into the room that held a dresser and a pull-out double bunk.

He pulled off his robe.

"My, my." She slipped off her sandals. "Have you been that way all through dinner?"

"Yep."

"Mmmm." She dropped her sweatpants to her ankles. She sat on the bed and removed the pants. "You're all ready like you used to be."

"A little anniversary sur-prise."

Helen hid her grimace in her sweatshirt as she pulled it over her head and then dropped it on the bed. She wore no bra.

"Do I turn you on that much?"

"You and Vi-agra. Wanted to make sure of a big celebration."

Her eyes narrowed, but she managed her flat smile. You son-of-a-bitch. Five years of noodles and now poles. And just for that slut — working out, Rogaine, and Viagra. Bastard.

Helen lay back on the bed. "Hon, for old times' sake, why don't you be on top?"

* * *

Harold lay beside her, sweating and breathing heavily.

Her heart raced, and she realized she was chewing on her lip. It's now or never. "Want another glass of wine, Hon?"

"I can get it. Jus' need to get my breath. You're still a hell of a tumble."

Tumble? You're going to tumble. Helen rose and walked into the kitchen. She reached into the cabinet and retrieved the baggie. Her hand trembled as she emptied the powder into a glass. She hesitated. Jesus, I don't know, maybe we could...

"Pudge?" Harold called from the other room.

Helen jumped. "W-what?"

"You're the best I ever had."

Asshole. She grabbed the bottle... God I'm nervous. She held the bottle with both hands and filled the glass with wine. Perfect — red with beef — covers any taste of pills, too. Her heart pounded, she took a deep breath and returned to the bedroom. Harold sat on the edge of the bed still breathing heavily. "Here, Hon." She handed him the wine then crawled past him and lay down on the bed.

"I gotta pee." Harold placed his glass of wine on the floor next to the bed. He rose, picked up his robe, and shuffled into the bathroom, bumping into the wall and doorway as he went.

She didn't look forward to the vomit and diarrhea, but she could handle it. It wouldn't be the first time she had mopped up his messes. Just a little longer. She expected the deputy would pat her shoulder and say, "There, there, it happens to a lot of people your age. It's not your fault. At least he died knowing the love of a good woman."

The toilet flushed. The bathroom door banged open.

"Pudge, I'll get you some wine an' we'll have a toast...to the next thirty years."

God, yes! I missed that. "Oh...Thanks, Hon." a toast to make sure he drinks his. She giggled. Perfect — he built the scaffold, tied the noose, and now he's going to put the bag over his own head.

After a minute, Harold walked in with a full glass. "Well, as I always say 'one good turn deserves?'" He paled, staggered, and bumped against the wall. Some of the wine sloshed over his hand. "Oops!"

He set the wine glass on the dresser and steadied himself. "I don't feel so good, Pudge."

"You don't look so good."

Harold swayed, and then stumbled toward the bed. His foot knocked over his glass, spilling the poisoned wine onto the vinyl floor. He muttered, "Shit," turned sideways, flopped down hard on his butt, and fell backward across her legs.

Helen propped herself up on an elbow and gaped at the wine she had spiked spreading across the floor. "God damn it, Harold. Now look what you've done!"

He grabbed his chest, gave a gurgling moan and lay still.

Helen stared at him. "Harold?" She sat up and poked his arm. He didn't move. "Harold?" She poked him again with no response, then moved closer and studied him. She felt his neck for a pulse and didn't find one. "My God, Harold, are you dead?" She pulled her legs from beneath him, got up on her knees, leaned over, and put her ear to his chest. No heart beat. She straightened, stunned, she blinked several times then muttered, "Well, son-of-a-bitch," and started laughing.

* * *

Helen returned the mop and bucket to the bedroom closet. She had cleaned the glass she had poisoned and burned the baggie. Now she would wait for the sheriff's morning patrol and "frantically" wave them down.

As she turned to leave the room, Helen noticed the wine Harold had brought her. I could use that. She held up the glass in salute. "A toast, Harold, to a perfect end for our anniversary cruise: no vomit, no shit, no chances with the coroner. Thank you, my dear, suicide by beer and pork rinds!" She started to drink then paused. "Or, maybe it was the Viagra." Helen raised the glass again. "Thank you, Margo." She drank the wine in quick gulps, and then bowed. "Harold, you were a jewel, a goddamned jewel!"

Daybreak was seven hours away. Helen felt relieved, but a little sad and very tired. She had planned to honk the boat's horn, turn lights on and off, and start a little fire on the bank. There would be no one to notice, but it was part of the plan. First, she would rest. Helen went into the front cabin, moved her Reader's Digest and chocolates, and lay down on the bench seat.

A quarter-hour later she felt nauseous. Soon, the vomiting began. Diarrhea followed shortly after. She honked the horn and flashed the lights, but was too weak to go on shore and build a fire. The blurred vision and dark spots started an hour later. A little before dawn, with her heart pounding, she tried to stand. Helen swayed to and fro in a yellowish haze then cursing Harold and his perfect cruise she collapsed to the floor.


Martin Dodd lives in Steinbeck Country: Salinas, California. Following his retirement from thirty-five years of community service, he began creative writing in 2002 at age 67. His work has appeared in Cadillac Cicatrix, Hobart Journal (web issue), The New Yinzer, Homestead Review, Holy Cuspidor, Foolish Times, and Chicken Soup for the Recovering Soul.

He has won, or received recognition in, various contests: Gimme Credit Screenplay Competition (super short), St. Louis Short Story Contest, Writers Digest, By Line Magazine, Glimmer Train, Inkwell Journal, Writers Weekly, Central Coast Writers (California), East of Eden Writers Conference (2008), and NorthernPros.


Copyright © 2011 Martin Dodd. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!


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