The place was a mess: tables overturned; broken glass; food scattered across the floor; decorations heaped in piles around the room.
Marge and Fran surveyed the ballroom from the top of a wide staircase.
Fran squinted until her eyes disappeared into the deep sockets below her bushy, gray brows. “I don’t even want to see what’s under those piles.”
“Are we it?” Marge’s tone held a modicum of hope, despite the disdainful twist of her mouth. “I mean, we could use the help.”
Fran shook her head. “In maybe an hour.” She descended three steps and stopped, glancing back at Marge. “You coming or am I here by myself?”
Marge clopped her heels down the staircase. “Nah. Might as well get goin’.”
The two women continued down the stairs and out onto the ballroom floor. They had taken on cleaning buildings at night to raise a extra money. Business offices were the usual fare, but tonight the boss was short of help and an offer of double-time was difficult to pass up.
“I’ll start up by the bandstand, Marge. Why don’t you find a couple of trash cans? You know, the kind that roll around on the wheels, and two . . . no, three boxes of trash bags.” Marge nodded and turned to leave. “I think everything’s in a closet under the stairs. You may have to look in the kitchen for the cans.”
Marge waved her hand without looking back. “Got it,” she said and shuffled off.
Fran circled the stage, picking up cups and plates, and tossed them onto a heap of decorations. The carpeting covering the bandstand was rife with cigarette butts and burn scars.
Muttering, she said, “Christ, whose going to pay for all this?”
She reached down to grab a large cardboard display when the sound of unlubricated wheels squalling and wiggling across the floor caused her to look up. She slipped. The lucky grab of the stage railing kept her on her feet, albeit at a delicately awkward angle. The sour odor of stomach bile bloomed in her nostrils.
“What?” Marge cringed.
Fran grimaced, “We’re gon’na need buckets and mops,” and pointed to the tacky puddle of vomit surrounding her shoes. She hoisted herself onto the stage and checked her pant legs. “Whew! Only got my shoes.” Fran rolled her eyes at Marge. “Is this worth the money?”
Marge paled and struggled to swallow. “I don’t do puke.”
“Well, if there aren’t too many more, I’ll clean them up . . . but I have my limits.”
Marge's face returned to a mottled pink.
For nearly three hours Fran and Marge toiled, a stack of black vinyl bags filling one corner of the cavernous room. When the extra help didn't materialize, they decided to clean up only the trash, and leave the rest for someone else. Fifteen minutes later, they plunked down on two unblemished chairs in the middle of the room.
“It looks like the cavalry’s a no show,” Fran said, mopping her brow with a large red hanky and fanning her face with her hand. “I sure could use something to drink.”
“There’s a soda dispenser in the kitchen. It’s still plugged in. Want a soda?”
“Thanks, Marge. Something with lime or lemon would be great.” Marge trotted off to the kitchen and returned after a short time with two large plastic cups. She handed a fizzing yellow drink to Fran and kept a cola for herself. Fran guzzled about half and smacked her lips together.
“I needed that.” She gulped another quarter and rolled her head toward Marge, peering up at her from under her eyebrows. “So. Why are we working our wrinkly asses off cleaning someone else’s slop?”
Marge chuckled. “Hmmp.” She sipped her cola. “Turned sixty and decided I’d had enough of people bitching about they’re undercooked burgers and cold fries. I’d live on my dead husband’s Social Security, but it ain’t much and it don’t cover all the expenses. God help me if I ever got sick. You?”
Fran pursed her lips and crowded her brows together. “My asshole husband believes my only job was to have kids, clean the house, and cook his dinner . . . pro bono.”
The groove between Marge’s eyebrows deepened and the pitch of her voice rose. “What?”
“For free. He thought since he’s the breadwinner, he decided how and what the money would be spent and that I should be grateful for the pittance of an allowance he gave me, which I could spend only with his approval.”
“Wow . . . and you’ve been married for how long?”
“Was.” Fran caught Marge’s approving nod out of the corner of her eye. “He was in the habit of telling me how to act and what to wear and to keep my mouth shut unless he asked me to speak.” She let out a sardonic laugh. “Well, the kids are grown up and gone. It was just the two of us and he pulled that shit on me once too often.”
“I told him to fuck off.”
“Did he?” Marge cupped her hand over her mouth, stifling a giggle.
“Not quite. He left and took the money with him. Didn’t leave me a dime. So, here I am. I live with my sister and work to help pay the bills. She keeps telling me to quit. Says she has enough saved for both of us, but I can’t do that.”
“Why don’t you file—”
“Can’t afford an attorney. Besides, maybe he’ll die before me. If we’re not divorced, I’ll get it all, anyway.”
“You can only hope.”
“Well—” Fran lumbered up from the chair, “—we better get back to work or the roosters’ll be crowin’ by the time we get out’a here.” She arched her back, pressing her fists into the back muscles just above her hips, and cast a critical eye over the room. “What the hell were these morons celebrating to do this much damage?”
“Must’ve been good.”
They eyed the remaining rubble between them, a hot shower, and dreamland. Fran inhaled deeply as she stared at the stack of trash bags. She puffed her cheeks out and let her breath putter through her lips.
Marge scrunched one side of her face, “Yep,” and glanced at her watch. “Pushing midnight. We should beat the roosters.”
They waded into the largest heap of trash in the room and filled more bags, stopping when they reached a large cardboard sign proclaiming, “Congratulations! Enjoy your new life, Tex!”
They chortled at each other. “Men.”
“You take this end and I’ll take the other,” Fran said, pointing toward the sign.
They each grabbed an end, shuffling about a foot before Marge stumbled to her knees and gasped. She looked at Fran with wide, frightened eyes, and scrambled backwards in a half crouch, pressing her hands to her mouth. Fran ran to her side.
“Oh, sweet Jesus,” Fran panted.
A pair of feet, men’s feet, stuck out from under the sign. One foot wore an expensive black leather shoe, the other laying on its side next to a foot clad in a black silk stocking. The pant legs belonged to a very expensive blue pinstriped wool suit. Fran lifted the sign and peeked beneath, then let it slip from her hand.
“We’d better call—” She stuck her tongue into her cheek and turned to Marge with a subtle lift to her brows. “No.” She canted her head toward the sign. “Let’s check his pockets.” She grinned and bounced her brows up and down for emphasis.
Marge paled. “That’s illegal. Besides, did you see his face?”
“What face?” A pronounced grimace wrinkled Fran’s nose. “Who else is here besides us?”
“You sit here. I’ll do it. Don’t worry. I won’t take his wallet.”
Fran rolled the sign off the body, ignoring the destroyed face. Marge put her head in her hands until she heard the wild clop of Fran’s shoes approaching at a brisk pace. Fran was waving a piece of paper in her hand and fell onto the chair with a muffled thud and out of breath.
“It’s a lottery ticket, and it hasn’t been cashed.”
“Is it a winner?”
“I don’t know.” She reached inside her blouse and pulled out a small purse suspended by a thin chain around her neck. She shook the ticket at Marge, her eyes wide and hopeful. “It’s for the latest drawing and I’ve got the numbers.” From the purse she removed a folded yellow sheet of paper and meticulously checked each number—twice. Her hand shook. Her eyes grew wide and swelled in their sockets. Staring at Marge, her forehead agleam with perspiration, her mouth hung open and her face paled. She slumped against the chair’s back, fanning herself. “It’s . . . it’s . . . it’s the . . . the . . .”
Marge fanned her with a dustpan. “Take a deep breath. Deep breaths.”
As Fran’s breathing slowed, the color returned to her face in mixed shades. Spent, her arms drooped at her sides. The ticket slipped from her hand. Marge swept it up in midair.
“You’d better hold on to this,” she said, waving it in Fran’s face.
Fran sat up and snatched the ticket from Marge’s hand. Slipping it in her purse, she stuck the purse back inside her blouse. She let out a shout and began giggling. “Have you seen the size of that jackpot?”
Marge shook her head. “I can’t afford lottery tickets.”
“Yeah. I found the ticket, but you found the body.”
It took several minutes before the impact of Fran’s words lit up Marge’s face. The surprise passed in a moment and her mouth drooped. “But what about the police? Won’t someone know he had it and tell them? Look at the sign? He was starting a new life for God sakes!”
An exaggerated frown settled on Fran’s face as she shrugged. She jumped out of her chair and walked toward the sign, calling to Marge. “Let’s put the cardboard back and call the police.”
At 1:30 a.m., the two women sat waiting for the police to remove the body. Marge looked at her watch for the sixth time in the last fifteen minutes. Fran covered the watch face with her hand.
“We can sleep in.”
Marge’s face twisted with confusion, and her feet began a vigorous tapping against the floor.
Fran grabbed her knee and glared. “We’re done here. As soon as they interview us, we can go home. They can finish cleaning the place. We can sleep in.” She patted Marge’s arm.
Marge clasped her hands in her lap, tapping her thumbs together and rounding her shoulders.
A tall, heavy-set man waddled toward them. The dark shadow on his face emphasized his swarthy skin tone. The tan suit he wore didn’t fit. He drew up a chair, sitting with his elbows resting on his knees and his hands clasped.
“I’m detective Belcher. You’re Fran?” he asked Marge.
“No. She’s Fran. I’m Marge.” Marge stared at her hands.
“Oh. Sorry.” His eyes moved between them. “So, they sent you here to clean—”
Marge cleared her throat and in a meek whisper, asked, “Can I go to the bathroom?”
The detective ignored her.
Fran laid her hand on Marge’s knee. “What? It’s quite simple. We fill trash bags and leave. These bozos made a mess, and we clean it up. What’s so difficult about that. We’ve already told you—”
Belcher cut her off with a raised hand. “I heard you, but we have to be sure we have missed nothing.” He studied his note pad, rubbing the stubble on his chin. “Did either of you recognize him?”
Fran huffed a loud sigh. “Face covered in blood and a six-inch stiletto heel stuck in one eye makes it a bit difficult. Why don’t you find Cinderella? She might know who he is.”
Belcher’s lids hung at half-mast as he shot her an impatient sideways glance. He removed a pair of latex gloves from his pocket and a plastic zipper bag from inside his coat. In the bag was a wallet. Taking the wallet out, he opened it and held up a driver’s license. Fran’s face blanched.
“That son of a bitch.”
Belcher’s head twitched to one side and his eyebrows arched.
“Where did he get those clothes? Tex? Can I pin a medal on the bitch who belongs to those heels?”
“I assume you’re related to the corpse.”
“Unfortunately . . . and no! I couldn’t get a pair of those heels on these swollen feet if I soaked them in lard.”
Belcher put the wallet and bag back into his coat. He directed a surreptitious peek at her feet and then smiled at Fran. “You don’t need to worry. You’re not a suspect. We’ll find the owner of the shoe and the coroner will do an autopsy. After that, the body’s yours.”
“Fuck him. Burn his ass!”
Belcher sat up in his chair and stretched his back. He chuckled. “I’ll tell you what, ma’am. When you cash in that lottery ticket—” Fran blinked her eyes and her lips parted “—you can burn his ass yourself. Good evening.” He pushed his chair back and tipped his head to the women. Fran gave him the finger when he turned to leave. The coroner wheeled the body out on a gurney, and Belcher paused a moment, then looked back at Fran and Marge. The smirks evaporated from their faces. He winked. “Ah, don’t worry about the mess. We’ve got it.” He gathered a half-dozen uniformed cops and instructed them to tape off and secure the room, then turned and left.
The two women walked out arm in arm, chortling loudly. Fran leaned in close to Marge.
“Want to get a beer?”
“How about two?”
The door slammed behind them, but their guffaws resonated through the walls.