Eve Fisher

Ralph Alesund was one of the nicest guys you’d ever meet. He worked at the Laskin grocery store for almost forty years, beginning with stocking shelves as a teenager. It was shortly after he made manager that his wife’s botched surgery required him to retire early. Between the settlement, Ralph’s renowned thrift, and their oldest daughter Sandra being an RN, Marie was cared for at home. After her death, Ralph stay retired, spending all his time in his garden, where he grew every vegetable, fruit, or flower that would survive a South Dakota winter. Handsome, caring, obviously lonely and a good dancer, any number of widows tried to marry him.
The one who got him was Rose Skien, probably because she wasn’t all that eager to remarry. Her first husband, Ragnar, had been a farmer up by Sinai, one of those wild young men that people say need the love of a good woman. He got one, but he didn’t change. Thirty-five years later, he was driving drunk the night he was killed. Rose handled it, as she had her whole marriage, with dignity and grace. She moved to town, got an apartment and worked at the Laskin pharmacy, where she met Ralph. They married on her 62nd birthday, the sweetest old lovebirds you ever saw.
It was happy endings for all – even Ralph’s children approved of their marriage – until Ralph was rushed to the hospital with a massive heart attack. He nearly died twice, before he got there and once in the middle of surgery.
Sandra raced over to help – of course Ralph was airlifted to Sioux Falls – and then got her younger siblings Jim and Mitch down from Aberdeen and the Twin Cities to rearrange everything before Dad came home: a bedroom on the ground floor, a ramp (Jim cursing like a trooper as he hammered away), a complete revamp of the kitchen supplies (“Rose is wonderful, but she’s going to have to change the way she cooks”). Only Joely escaped the forced labor of love, but then Joely was hard to find. Mitch was the only one Joely stayed in touch with, and the last time he’d seen her she’d been headed to Mexico for “a little business, a little R&R.”
“And why not Colorado, now that they’ve legalized marijuana?” Sandra asked. “Why does she have to go all the way to Mexico?”
“I don’t know.”
“You never know. You never know anything.”
To be fair, Sandra was just as happy not to have to deal with Joely. Without her, they managed to complete Sandra’s to-do list in record time, in between runs to Sioux Falls to see their father.
Every visit, Sandra filled Ralph in on all they’d accomplished. Jim would say, “And it didn’t cost near what it would have if we’d hired it.” Ralph would smile and nod, and ask for a few moments alone with Jim or Sandra. Mitch and Rose would sit in the waiting room and talk about Mitch’s life in Minneapolis with Dave. Then they’d all go downstairs to the cafeteria, where the siblings took turns buying dinner. One night Jim pulled out a hundred dollar bill, saying, “They’re bound to have change,” but they didn’t. Sandra only had a five and no checks. Rose was digging around in her purse when Mitch pulled out a credit card and saved the day.
Later, on their way out to the parking lot, Jim grumbled about Mitch showing off, waving his credit card around, and started down old family quarrels, until Mitch finally said, “I wasn’t going to let Rose pay for dinner.”
“I’d have paid her back.”
No, you wouldn’t, Mitch thought, but he didn’t say it.
Ralph came home from the hospital looking white and flabby, shaken and shaky, leaning on his walker with Rose at his side, navigating. Sandra herded them like a mother hen up the ramp and inside to where Mitch had arranged flowers and light refreshments. Jim brought up the rear, carrying everything from a bag of clothing to a shoebox of old photos. Sandra set her father down in an arm chair while Jim dumped the lot and popped open a beer.
“Oh,” Rose sighed, sitting on the couch. “Everything looks lovely. Thank you so much for all you’ve done.”
“Oh, please,” Sandra said, waving her hand. “We’re happy to do it.”
“You don’t mind the changes?” Mitch asked.
“Anything that will help your father is fine with me,” Rose said. Sandra felt a new level of affection for Rose run through her. “If only Joely were here, everything would be perfect.”
The emotion evaporated: Rose was wonderful, but she was still an idiot where that girl was concerned. And Mitch. But Jim and Mitch had to go home, Sandra back to work, while Rose was there, 24/7, endlessly cheerful and practical. She cooked dishes that were tasty and heart-friendly. She played endless games of gin. She listened to all his old war stories. And somehow she found Joely, who came running into the house one afternoon and flung herself sobbing on Ralph’s bed.
Rose called Sandra to tell her the good news. Sandra managed to say, “Lovely,” and then called Jim to tell him the terrible news. But Jim didn’t care.
“She needs to be here. You know that -”
“I do not.”
“As well as I do. Joely’s always been Dad’s baby girl.”
Sandra hung up. She could see it in her mind: Ralph and Joely gazing at each other adoringly while Rose looked on with her tearful smile.
Joely never apologized, never explained, and never changed, Sandra thought. She was out partying the night after she came back, leaving Ralph sick with worry.
“The least she could do is recognize Daddy’s a very sick man,” Sandra snarled. “She could stay home and help take care of him.”
“Now, Sandra, she doesn’t know anything about medicine,” Rose said. “And it scares her.”
“What does?”
“Illness. Death. Not that your father’s dying –” Sandra and Rose both crossed themselves. “But Joely’s always been the youngest, and so pretty. And now she’s… well, it’s starting to crack.”
“Crack being the operative word,” Sandra said. “Or rather meth.”
“Oh, I hope not.”
“Well, she’s hooked on something. I see it all the time at the hospital. You think I can’t recognize it in my own sister?”
Rose sighed. “It’s so hard. And she does make it almost impossible to help her.”
“You think?”
Rose patted Sandra’s arm. “I know. She’s done everything wrong since she was born.”
“It’s not that – it’s that she looks exactly like Mom. That’s why Dad is nuts about her.” Sandra glanced at Rose, who’d stiffened. “I’m sorry. Dad loves you. We all know that. It’s just, ever since Mom died, Joely –”
“I know,” Rose interrupted. “Let it go. It’s punishing you, not her. After all, you’re the one with a future.”
Later that night, when Sandra made her nightly call to Jim, he said, “She’s right.”
“Maybe. Do you think Dad gives her money?”
“No, Joely.”
“God, I hope not. He got pretty fed up over that thing with Squeegees.”
“You mean when she embezzled,” Sandra snapped. “Why can’t you just say it? You’re as bad as Dad. She embezzled three thousand dollars.”
“Well, it is pretty embarrassing. And I don’t really want people knowing about it.”
“People aren’t going to know about it because we’re talking on the telephone. And I’ll tell you what’s embarrassing. That she embezzled so little. Linda Thompson, you remember her. The Clerk of Courts?”
“I know who Linda is. I dated her once before, she got hooked up with Gary.”
“Well, the day of the trial, Joely smart-mouthed Linda, and she ripped Joely a new one. Told her that only an idiot embezzles that little. ‘If you’re going to do something that damned stupid, do us all a favor, make it a million, get away, and never come back.’”
“I’ll bet Joely had something to say about that.”
“Yeah. She said thanks for the advice - Oh, no. Rose is calling. Let me call you back. What is it, Rose?”
“Sandra? I think we need to take your Dad back to the hospital. He feels clammy. And his breathing…”
Sandra called the ambulance and raced over to the house.
“I don’t think we can wait for the ambulance,” Rose said. “If you’ll help me get him out to the car –”
But the ambulance was there, and moments later, Ralph was on his way. Rose rode with him while Sandra stayed behind and gathered clothing, toiletries, papers, pictures. She knew it was going to be a long haul.
Everyone was at the hospital in Sioux Falls by the next day except Joely, who was dropped off three days later by Laskin Police Officer Grant Tripp, who looked about as happy to deliver her as Sandra was to see her.
“Where the hell have you been?” Sandra asked.
Joely shrugged. Sandra might have slapped her, but Rose came out of Ralph’s room, so stern that even Joely kept her mouth shut.
“Thank you,” Rose told Grant. “I’ll never forget this.”
“I’m happy I could help,” Grant said, and left.
Rose turned to Joely and sniffed. “I have a room with a shower here. 126. Go there, clean up, and then come and see your Daddy before he dies.”
“His heart’s almost worn out, and you’re wearing it out faster.” Rose stalked off.
“Well, I hope you’re happy,” Sandra said. “You’ve managed to tick off your biggest supporter in this family.” Joely sat down and started sobbing into her hands. It seemed sincere, even to Sandra. But all she said was, “Do what Rose said. Get cleaned up, and come to Dad’s room.”
Days later, and everyone knew it was the end. Joely flung herself on Ralph’s bed in ICU and wailed.
“Don’t cry, honey,” Ralph gasped. “A good life. Your mother. She was… angel.”
“Oh, Daddy.”
“You look… just like her. I loved her… so much. She was… the prettiest thing… I ever saw.”
Later, Ralph managed to glance at Jim. “You know… what to do…”
“I know, Dad.”
“And be nice… to Rose. The house.”
“Don’t worry,” Sandra said. “We’ll take care of Rose.”
Ralph slipped away. His breathing got steadily worse. A few hours later, he died.
After that came the chaos of funeral arrangements, telephone calls, obituaries, visitors, the will. Rose let Sandra and Jim handle almost everything. She gave Jim the master bedroom – “I can’t sleep there alone” – and took what had been the boys’ room. Joely was in the girls’ room, and Mitch was at the local motel. When Rose wasn’t “resting and remembering”, she was in the kitchen, crying, cooking, baking.
“It gives her something to do,” Mitch explained to Sandra, who was in the irritable stage of grief where nothing pleased her.
“And it gives us a lot better food than we’d get by going out,” added Jim, who appreciated home cooking more than ever since his divorce.
“Or what’s being dropped off at the door,” Joely made a face.
“You should be grateful you’re getting anything at all!” Sandra snapped at her.
“Speaking of getting anything, when’s the will being read?”
“You greedy –”
“Sandra.” Jim’s voice sounded so much like his father’s that Sandra went quiet, and then burst into tears. “After the funeral,” he added.
The will had been drawn up by Ulf Vegard, the cheapest attorney in town, and the reading caused an uproar. The easiest part was that Rose had the right to live in the house, rent-free, for the rest of her life, after which, the house went to the kids, to be sold and the proceeds split equally among all. Everyone had always known that that was Rose’s portion. But the rest of the estate was left unequally: forty percent to Jim, who was also executor, thirty percent to Sandra, and fifteen percent each to Joely and Mitch. Along with an excruciating paragraph explaining why. Rose reached for Joely’s and Mitch’s hands. Joely shook her off and started shouting at Jim.
“You set this up!”
“There’s not a lot,” Jim said. “We’re none of us going to get rich off of this.”
“Don’t hand me that!” Joely snapped back. “Dad got a bundle in that settlement over Mom’s death!”
“That was fifteen years ago. It all got spent.”
“Bullshit. Dad squeezed every nickel. That money is somewhere. I want to see the bank statements.”
“It’s none of your damned business!” Jim snapped back.
“None of my business? I got screwed out of an equal share, and by God, I’m going to make sure I’m not screwed out of whatever my fifteen percent should be. I want to know how much money there is.”
“So you can go and spend it all on booze and drugs!” Sandra attacked.
“Will you all shut up?” Mitch screamed. Everyone stopped and looked at him. “This is unfair to both of us, and both of you know it.”
Sandra jumped in. “Dad was old-fashioned. You know that. And he was disappointed in you and Joely,” she added defiantly.
“Was he disappointed in Rose?” Joely asked. “She didn’t get anything.” She looked around and said, “Where is Rose?”
“She left,” Ulf said shortly.
“And no one ran after her. Well, so much for Rose. She doesn’t get anything –”
“She gets the house,” Jim said.
Joely snorted. “How long before you screw her out of that, too?”
“Now, Joely,” Mitch tried, but Jim was huffing.
“I’m offended that you’d even think I’d do such a thing.”
“Well, she’s what? Ten years married to Dad, so she’s seventy-two? If there really isn’t that much money, the house is a major asset. What if she lives another twenty years? That’s twenty years without a dime in your pocket. What if she gets sick? What if everything goes to taking care of her?” Sandra looked over at Jim. “See? You tight-wad son of a bitch.” Joely grabbed her purse and stormed out of the office.
“Rose gets the house,” Mitch said, pleadingly. He’d seen the look running through Jim’s eyes.
“Of course she gets the house,” Sandra said.
“To live in,” Jim agreed.
Very late that night Mitch and Joely stood outside in the yard, Joely smoking, both drinking, both whispering.
“What do you think we should do?”
“We’ll never be able to break the will.”
“But where’s the money? Dad got a ton of money. It’s got to be somewhere.”
“I don’t know about that. I’ve seen the bank statements.”
“How’d you manage that?”
“Jim doesn’t worry about me the way he worries about you.”
“Dad had ten thousand in a CD, about a thousand in a checking account. A mutual fund account of about fifty thousand. So we each – uh, let’s see…”
“You and me, we’ll end up with a little over nine thousand. There has to be more than that. He got a million from the insurance company. Where is it?”
“He’s been living off it for the last fifteen years.”
“That and his pension. And Social Security. Dad was tight, he didn’t go anywhere, he didn’t do anything… There’s got to be a chunk left.”
“Maybe there’s another account.”
“Then cash. Hidden somewhere. Dad didn’t like banks.”
“Well, if he did, I don’t know where it would be. Under his bed? In one of the endless boxes marked photos? Out in the potting shed? It’s ridiculous. What are you going to do, search the whole property?”
“Why not?”
“I’m leaving tomorrow,” Mitch reminded her.
Rose got up late the next morning, looking so groggy that Jim actually apologized: “I’m sorry everything exploded in front of you yesterday.”
“Well, it was a very trying day. For everyone. Where’s Joely?”
“She’s still asleep. Sandra’s at work. Mitch left for home.” Rose nodded. “You know that Dad only meant the best for us all,” Jim added.
“I’m sure that’s what he hoped for. I’m not sure that’s what happened.”
“But you know how disappointed –”
Rose held up her hand. “When I married your father, I determined to love each of you impartially. I swore to never get in the middle, and I don’t think I have. Your Dad…” she blinked back tears, “I can’t talk about this now. I’m going to go for a drive while it’s still cool. And then I have a PEO luncheon. When I get back, I do not want to talk about this anymore. At least not for a while. All right?”
“All right,” Jim said.
But at two o’clock that afternoon, Sandra got a call at work from a sobbing Rose: “Sandra, the house… I’m at the house… someone’s… everything’s been… it’s all torn up… someone’s robbed us!”
Sandra called Jim on his cell phone as she drove over. “Where the hell are you?”
“I went fishing. Met up with Bjorn Nelson, we’re having a late lunch at the Norseman’s. Why?”
“Something’s wrong at the house. Rose called. Get over here now.”
Sandra screeched into the driveway and ran inside. Rose was standing, dazed, in the middle of a mess that Sandra could never have imagined. Drawers open and emptied; closets wide open; papers and clothes and contents of all kinds strewn from one end of the house to the other.
“Oh, Sandra!” Rose cried out. She raced into Sandra’s arms and burst into tears. “Thank God you’re here! Who? Who could have done this? Who would…”
Sandra looked around over Rose’s shaking body. Joely, she thought. “There, there. Everything’s going to be okay. We’ll get this straightened up in no time. I’ve called Jim, he’s on his way.” She glanced in the kitchen which was, thankfully, largely untouched. She took Rose into the kitchen. “You sit here, and I’ll make you a cup of tea.”
“But who could have… in broad daylight!” Rose moaned, and continued to moan as she drank her tea, nibbled a cookie, and watched Sandra begin to pick things up.
Jim arrived, and the two siblings exchanged a knowing look.
“You stay here, Rose,” Sandra said, “while Jim and I straighten things up. Then we can see if anything’s missing.”
“Do you mind if I lie down?” Rose asked. “I… I just feel sick.”
“Of course.”
Sandra tidied up Rose’s room, got her tucked into bed, and then came back out and helped Jim frantically work through the rest of the house.
“It’s gone,” Jim said.
“All of it?” Sandra asked. They both looked grey in the afternoon light.
“Every bit of it. Unless she moved it…”
“Pfft. She took it,” Sandra said. “Her stuff and her car is gone. The question is, do we call the police?”
Jim ground his teeth. “If we do that, word’ll get out. We’ll have to tell Rose and Mitch about the money. We’ll have to split it with him.”
“Only fifteen percent.”
“He doesn’t deserve any of it!” Jim snapped.
“Yes, but if we don’t, Joely will have gotten away with it. With all of it.”
Late that afternoon two frustrated siblings and a puzzled Rose sat in the living room with Grant Tripp.
“We need you to help us find Joely,” Jim said. “Actually, we need to file charges against her for theft. She’s stolen two hundred and fifty thousand dollars.”
Rose gasped, and Grant pulled out his notebook. “Who from?”
“From us. Dad’s money. It’s what was left over from the settlement over Mom’s death. Dad was… frugal. And he didn’t believe in banks.”
“Mm. Where was it?”
“In an old shoebox marked ‘pictures’. In the closet. Under some others.”
“How did she know it was there?”
“She tore the place apart,” Sandra said. “Rose came home and found the place looking like vandals had been here.”
Grant turned and looked at Rose, who nodded. “I’m sorry to hear that. Did she take anything else?” Grant asked.
They all shook their heads. Grant wrote down everything, and then asked, “Do you have any proof that this money existed?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, it’s only your word that you had that much money lying around in cash –”
“Dad didn’t trust banks,” Jim reiterated.
“Are you going to investigate or not?” Sandra asked.
“I’ll talk it over with Detective Jonasson, see what he says. It would help if you had something, a photograph or –”
“We both saw it! Isn’t that enough?”
Grant turned to Rose and asked, “Did you see it?”
“Ralph never told me about it,” Rose replied. “I knew about what he had in the bank, but this… It must have been extremely private. Between the kids and him. I’m sorry.”
Grant nodded. “I’ll talk to Jonasson. I’ll let you know.”
Everyone in town knew about the missing hoard within the week. Jim and Sandra were frantic. Mitch swore he had no idea where Joely was, and while Jim wasn’t sure, Sandra believed him. Grant said they’d put out a bulletin looking for her, but had no guarantees. “And since it’s cash, she could do anything, be anywhere.”
Cash. The thought of that cash woke Jim up in the middle of the night. Mitch got so fed up with Jim’s relentless questioning that he demanded his $9,000.00 inheritance, threatening a lawsuit if he didn’t get it. Jim, cursing, wrote him a check. Then he wrote himself a check for $24,000, Sandra a check for $18,000.00, and went home to Aberdeen, where he slouched around his apartment, angry and sullen and drinking too much. Sandra was much the same way, lying awake nights, flushed with discontent.
The truth was, Jim and Sandra had long had higher expectations than a low five-figure inheritance. They had both planned better things once they got their hundred thousand plus. And each had, privately, gone into anticipatory debt. And now it was gone: Joely would never come back, and even if she did, she wouldn’t have a cent left. Rose’s quiet acceptance only aggravated things. They had lost everything, and the only thing left of value was the house, which was Rose’s.
A few months later, Jim came down from Aberdeen, and he and Sandra asked Rose to sign a contract that spelled out her life interest in the house.
“But that’s what the will said. Isn’t that legal enough?”
“Oh, this is just to make sure that everything is in writing.”
Rose read the document. “This is all about protecting you. It says that I will not sell the house, that I will return it to you, that I will not leave it to anyone else. Where does this protect me? Where is the clause saying you won’t sell the house out from under me?”
“We would never do that to you!”
“And I wouldn’t do it to you. But you want it in writing.”
“Rose, this is just a precaution –”
“And what about this clause reviewing the contract after ten years?”
“It’s for your sake as well as ours. You might want to move to an apartment, or need special care –”
“I’m not signing this.” She looked at them. “I never thought you loved me, but I thought you liked me.”
“We do –”
“I thought you cared a little about me.”
“Rose –”
“I was his wife, and you’re treating me like a housekeeper. A servant. Who gets to stay out of the goodness of your heart!”
“Please, Rose,” Sandra pleaded. “It’s not like that.”
“No, it’s not. This is your only asset now, isn’t it? And you want to cash it in.”
“It doesn’t say that,” Jim said. “You get to live here. We just –”
“I’d like you to leave now. I need to think about this. Decide what to do.”
“Rose, it’s just a piece of paper,” Sandra said.
“Yes. That’s the point. All these years and it’s all come down to just a piece of paper.”
She stared at them until they left.
Rose refusing to sign was one thing: Jim and Sandra left certain that they’d talk her into it eventually. But then Rose took them to court for the house, and that got every tongue in Laskin wagging. Mitch, from Minneapolis, backed Rose. Up in Aberdeen, Jim helped pay Vegard’s fee. But it was Sandra who faced the town, every day, knowing that people were accusing her behind her back of wanting to boot a seventy-three year old woman out of her home so that she could sell it and pocket the money. Sandra, former cheerleader, homecoming queen, RN, who had nursed her dying mother and been so sweet when her father remarried, had always been on the winning side of the court of public opinion. Her first experience with a negative verdict wore her to a shadow. She literally could not stand it. Within a month she called Jim and told him he was on his own. She was backing out of the lawsuit.
“But what about the house?”
“Let her have it. You don’t know what it’s like, Jim. Even if we got it, I don’t think anyone would buy it. And if they did, they’d buy it to put Rose back in it.” Sandra started sobbing. “It’s awful. I can’t take it anymore. I just can’t take it!”
Rose got the house.
Sandra moved to Sioux Falls.
Jim and Sandra and Mitch never spoke to each other again.
It was a little over a year later when Grant Tripp knocked at Rose’s door.
“Why, Officer Tripp. Please, come in. What can I do for you?”
“Well, Mrs. Alesund, I just got back from Sturgis. I was working as a deputy at the rally.”
“What a job that must be.”
“I ran into Joely.”
“Oh, my.” Rose sat down. “How is she?”
“Not so good. She’s –”
“Wait. Would you like a cup of coffee?”
“That would be great.” He watched as she made the coffee, poured it out, set bars on a plate. “Thank you.”
“Now. Tell me about Joely. You say she’s not so good. Is she…?”
Grant nodded. “She looked kind of rough. But that’s her choice. I talked to her about what had happened the day she left. She admitted she tore the house up, looking for the money, and she said she found some in a shoebox. But only five thousand. In hundreds. She said that was all there was. She still couldn’t believe it. I’m not sure I believe her, except… I know there was more money than that, because God knows how desperate Jim and Sandra were to get it back. So, I can’t help but wonder what you know.” His voice trailed off and he waited.
Rose set down her cup and said calmly, “I took it. I left the five thousand on top of some toilet paper in the box. I burned the rest, later.”
“You burned it? Why in God’s name did you do that?”
“Because… Ralph and I were married for ten years. We split every bill. We were careful with every penny. I thought it was because we were both poor. Did you know that my first husband, Ragnar, made the farm over to his brother back when he realized we’d never have children? That was another deal no one ever told me about. I thought I’d get a share of the farm, but no. I was left with nothing but the prospect of Ragnar’s Social Security. I had to get a job. And then I met Ralph. I thought he was poor, but I didn’t care. He was such a wonderful man. We were in love. We were happy. That’s what I thought. And then I found out that he had all that money. Jim kept coming up with hundred dollar bills, and considering what a tight-wad he is I couldn’t help but wonder where he got them. So I watched. Every visit, Jim got out this box labeled ‘pictures’ and Ralph gave him a hundred bucks. So, when we got back home, before the second heart attack, I looked in the box.”
“And found two hundred and fifty thousand dollars.”
Rose nodded. “For ten years, I bought whatever was on sale and cooked it. We almost never went out to eat. We never went on vacation but to the lake, camping. I cooked there, too. And he had all that money.”
“It was for a rainy day, wasn’t it?”
“It was for him. Maybe for the kids. It certainly wasn’t for me. He never even bought me a new dress.” Her mouth trembled. “Maria was his beloved wife. I was his housekeeper. I got nothing. Not even his true love…” Somehow she stopped the trembling. “As soon as he died, they ripped everything apart. He left me the house to live in, and it said in the will that they’d get it when I died. But I knew that wouldn’t be enough for them. And I was right. They wanted me to sign that paper, handing it over to them while I was alive. How did I know if they wouldn’t kick me out? And they wanted to come through and pick, pick, pick whatever they wanted in it. Take what they wanted and leave me the leftovers –”
“You could have taken the money and done anything you wanted.”
“They would have found out and come after me. You know Jim and Sandra. This way, no one got it. No one knows. You could tell them… but I’m not sure they’ll believe you.”
“Not with Joely to blame,” Grant said. He thought about Sandra and Jim’s frustrated faces. He wasn’t sure if it was cruel or not. “He must have really hurt you -”
“They say you can’t miss what you don’t have. They’re wrong. I know,” she gave a strangled sob. “I’ve missed it twice.”