A glance at the headlines this morning confirms that the Great American Dumpster Fire of 2017 rages on. But at least, this being the holidays, carolers can now huddle around it for a moment of shared warmth and cheer before taking their chances at the next house. (These days, if a group of strangers approaches a home demanding that the occupants bring them some figgy pudding and bring it right here, stand-your-ground laws kick into effect.)
The stretch from Thanksgiving to Christmas is my favorite time of year, so I'm trying to maximize whatever good vibes I can find despite current events and the occasional close encounter with Wham!. (Oh, how I loathe you, "Last Christmas." You make "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" look like Cole bleepin' Porter.) How exactly am I accentuating the positive in these dark days? A splash of rum in the ol' eggnog doesn't hurt. Nor does a bourbon chaser. Or a bourbon chaser for the bourbon chaser. A chaser-chaser-chaser really brightens the mood, too. And if a guy's not a little merrier after a chaser-chaser-chaser-chaser...well, he's probably passed out.
Another, probably healthier strategy for Christmas spirit maximization: I'm making like Santa and tossing around freebies. And I don't even care if you've been naughty or nice. Hell, just look at the first line of this post: I've been watching the news. "Nice"? Is that even a thing anymore?
So here, my naughty friends, is a gift for you -- "Fruitcake," a Christmas story I wrote for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine once upon a time. It's the lead story in my collection Naughty: Nine Tales of Christmas Crime. (The paperback makes a great stocking stuffer. Or a great yule log.)
Now if you'll excuse me, I have a cup of eggnog to doctor and some chasers to pound down. Just mentioning that Wham! song parenthetically put it in my head, and if I don't get it out soon this really might be my last Christmas....
Ethel Queenan decided on murder when she saw Connie Sandrelli sitting on Santa’s lap.
Connie was an attractive woman, if you were one of those wolves who goes in for loose blouses and tight slacks and lots of hair. And she was a young woman — just sixty-five. Ever since she moved into the Always Sunny Trailer Park in Clearwater, Florida, the men there had been falling all over each other to drive her to the grocery store, show her how to play shuffleboard, mow the lawn around her mobile home, whatever she wanted whenever she snapped her relatively wrinkle-free, non-arthritic fingers.
The problem was, there weren’t enough men to go around. Each year, five or six Always Sunny wives became Always Sunny widows, while the husband-to-widower conversion rate was much slower. As a result, the competition for available men was fierce. And Santa belonged to Ethel — whether he liked it or not.
Ethel’s husband Ralph had passed two years before. He died the way he’d lived. Cursing and drunk. Enraged by a fourth-quarter fumble during an Indiana University football game, he threw his beer at the television, then kicked in the screen when a Kentucky linebacker ran the ball in for a touchdown. A lightning bolt of electricity ran up his Reebok and flash-fried Ralph Queenan where he stood.
Ethel considered her husband a martyr to Indiana collegiate athletics and even wrote the president of the university asking him to name a hall or a scholarship after Ralph. She never received a response. That made her so mad she threw every one of their Indiana University sweatshirts and jackets and baseball caps and plastic cups and commemorative coins and Christmas tree ornaments into Ralph’s Weber grill, doused the mound with an entire can of lighter fluid and tossed in a lit match.
The resulting burst of flame singed off her eyebrows and set her neighbor’s lemon tree on fire. The trailer park smelled like scorched lemon meringue pie for a month.
Despite her devotion to Ralph’s memory, Ethel had been not-so-patiently waiting to replace her husband from the moment the paramedics carted away his charbroiled carcass. She’d watched with growing fury as other widows—hussies, all of them, even the ones she’d once considered friends — snatched up each new widower as soon as he came on the market.
Ethel was at a temporary disadvantage, having no eyebrows and all. But even after they grew back bushier than ever, romance continued to bloom for others, not for her. She finally took a stand, rising up at a Fourth of July barbecue to declare, “I’ve waited long enough! The next single man in this park is mine! Mine!”
“The next single man” turned out to be Bud Schmidt, a retired postal worker from Duluth, Minnesota. He wasn’t Ethel’s type. With his pale skin and concave chest and bulbous gut balanced on spindly little legs, he looked nothing whatsoever like her dream man, Ricardo Montalban. But he fit her number-one requirement well enough: He was still breathing.
There are many unwritten laws in Florida’s retiree-packed trailer parks and condo associations, and one of them is the four-week rule — a month-long moratorium on courting a widow or widower after the Dearly Departed has been laid to rest. Ethel made her move on Bud the day after his wife died.
First, she brought him a cake. The next day, she brought him Jell-O salad. The day after that, it was tuna casserole. And on the fourth day, she pulled out the big guns, making her intentions clear to one and all: She brought Bud Schmidt a baked ham.
All of Always Sunny was soon abuzz about Ethel’s scandalous behavior. Whenever she walked by, the men cracked wise, shouting out things like “Hey, Ethel — just so’s you know, I’m a meatloaf man myself!” The women, on the other hand, would stop talking altogether, letting her pass by as silently as a snake slithering across the road.
It bothered Ethel, but it didn’t stop her. Only one person’s opinion mattered. And when she dropped by Bud’s mobile home with a new dish every day, he seemed . . . well, not exactly pleased, but not displeased, either. He would just smile, thank her politely and shut his door without saying the words Ethel longed to hear: “Why don’t you come on in and help me eat this?” The only thing that ever changed was the size of Bud’s gut, which was slowly growing from a cute little pot into a fifty-gallon tub, and Ethel’s every outing ended the same way: with her shuffling back to her trailer to leaf through her Betty Crocker cookbook in search of the magic recipe that would convince The Chosen One’s stomach to say “open sesame” to his heart.
Ethel had worked all the way through the Meats and Poultry sections and was just making her first cautious foray into the hitherto uncharted realm of Fish & Shellfish when Connie Sandrelli came on the scene. She was a widow from Rhode Island. She was alone. She was pretty. And, much worse, she could cook.
Chicken cacciatore. Eggplant pasta torte. Risotto. Gnocchi. Ravioli. It was a far cry from the fried chicken and chili mac and pigs in blankets that had, till then, been the backbone of Always Sunny’s weekly pot-luck dinners.
Ethel found Connie’s strange, gloppy-looking contributions pretentious, disquieting, unwholesome. Yet everyone else oohed and ahhed and asked for more. Especially the men. Especially the man. Bud.
“Mighty good,” he said to Connie as he scooped up his third helping of lasagna in Always Sunny’s “recreation hall.” “My. Teee. Good.”
“Why, thank you, Bud,” Connie said. “I’ve got a whole other pan back in my trailer. I’ll bring you over a plate tomorrow, if you like.”
“Dandy. Dannn. Dee.”
Ethel overheard it all, thanks to a hearing aid turned up so high she could make out the wet, slobbery mastication of baked beans and cole slaw twenty feet off. She’d been lingering at the food table, hovering over the untouched salmon loaf she’d brought to the pot-luck. It hadn’t turned out at all like the picture in the cookbook, that loaf. It looked like a roll of fiberglass insulation coated in gravel.
Betty Crocker had let her down. Life was letting her down.
And Connie Sandrelli — she’d crossed her.
The woman should’ve done some research, asked around, respected seniority. But no. Connie had jumped Ethel’s claim. Soon she was bringing Bud new food nearly every day: cioppino and baked ziti and all kinds of supposedly Italian food that Ethel had never seen in a Chef Boyardee can.
Ethel retaliated by upgrading to a more expensive cookbook.
Bud’s bulging stomach went from tub to barrel.
The culinary brawl raged for weeks with no clear victor. Always Sunny’s oddsmakers pegged the outcome as even money: Connie had youth and looks on her side, Ethel had raw determination.
The Christmas party changed everything. As always, it was the highlight of the trailer park’s social calendar. Everyone gathered in the rec hall for caroling and eggnog and presents. And Santa Claus, of course.
It was obvious who should suit up as St. Nick. There was only one man in the park whose belly really did shake like jelly when he laughed.
So an hour into the party, Bud Schmidt ho-ho-hoed his way through the door in the park’s ancient red suit and cotton ball beard. And he wasn’t alone. Santa Claus had a helper this year. Connie Sandrelli.
She was wearing a Santa hat and black boots and a red frock that didn’t quite reach her knees. Ethel thought she looked like an elf hooker. She was helping Bud hand out all the dime store gifts in his sack. She even brought one to a fuming Ethel.
Connie smiled as she handed Ethel the little brightly wrapped package, but all Ethel saw were fangs. She didn’t bother to open the gift. She wrapped it in her paper napkin and left it sitting next to her plate like something unpleasant she’d picked out of her food.
And then, the presents distributed, Santa took his place on his “throne” — a metal folding chair at the front of the hall.
“Ho ho ho! Who wants to come and sit on Santa’s knee?” He turned to Connie. “How about my little elf first?”
Connie hesitated, blushing.
“Come on!” Bud patted his lap. “Come here and tell old Santa what you want for Christmas!”
There were shouts from the audience — “Yeah!” and “Go, Connie!” and “Ignore that dirty old man!” Ethel barely fought back the urge to screech “Don’t you dare, you cheap floozy!”
Connie grinned at the crowd for a moment before taking her place on Santa’s lap. There were a few cheers.
“So what can Santa Claus pull out of his sack for you, little girl?” Bud boomed.
Connie whispered in his ear.
Bud waggled his eyebrows and gave out a hearty “Ho ho hoooo!” And then he kissed her.
Some people laughed. Some people applauded. And one person walked out of the room, went to her trailer and began plotting Connie Sandrelli’s demise.
Ethel scoured her trailer for instruments of death. Soon she had assembled on her kitchen table a pistol (for shooting), a steak knife and knitting needles (for stabbing), a hammer and a scorched bust of former Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight (for bludgeoning), a pillow and a plastic Winn-Dixie bag (for smothering), a toaster (for dropping into a water-filled bathtub) and a fruitcake (for eating — Ethel was hungry).
The pistol wouldn’t work because Ethel couldn’t find any bullets: Ralph had hidden them somewhere, though he refused to explain why. He just said it was “a precaution.” The steak knife, knitting needles, hammer, bust, pillow and bag were out due to Ethel’s arthritis. Some nights, she could barely get her dentures out. A life-or-death struggle with a woman five years her junior definitely seemed like a bad idea.
That left the toaster. Ethel sat at the table for fifteen minutes, chewing on her fruitcake, running various scenarios through her mind. But no matter how she imagined it, she couldn’t quite see a toaster attack panning out. She’d have to wait until Connie was taking a bath, break into her trailer, creep into the bathroom and plug the toaster in without being noticed—and then hope that the electrical cord was long enough to reach the tub.
No, she needed something easier. Something less risky. More sneaky.
She took another bite of fruitcake. Her false teeth clamped down hard on something brittle. It crunched. She cursed.
The cake had come from the grocery store, that was the problem. Those big chains put all kinds of crazy things in their fruitcakes—candy and cherries and whatnot. You never knew what you were going to bite into.
Ethel stopped chewing.
Her chief weapon in the war for Bud Schmidt had been food. Why change strategy now?
The next day, she baked a fruitcake.
# # #
Ethel Queenan’s Christmas Surprise Fruitcake
1 cup diced candied orange peel
1 cup diced candied lemon peel
2 cups diced citron
3 cups raisins, chopped
1/2 cup two-year-old leftover red wine from back of fridge
1/2 cup amaretto (because brandy is too expensive and what’s the difference, really?)
1/2 cup peppermint schnapps (because it’s been sitting around forever so why not use it?)
3 cups flour
3 teaspoons cinnamon
6 teaspoons nutmeg
2 teaspoons cloves, ground
2 teaspoons allspice
1 cup rat poison
1/2 cup Ajax
6 teaspoons dead husband’s heart pills, ground
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup butter
2 cups brown sugar
1/2 cup molasses
1 teaspoon spittle
Mix fruit in a large bowl; pour in wine and brandy substitute. Stir and set aside. Start sipping leftover schnapps.
Sift flour with spices, Ajax, rat poison and pills. Add baking powder and salt and sift again. Start second glass of schnapps. Throw in more spices just to be safe. Then more poison. Then more spices.
Cream butter, add sugar and eggs, mix thoroughly. Add molasses and stir. Spit in batter. Sprinkle with more rat poison. Start third glass of schnapps.
Heat oven to 300 degrees. Feel queasy. Pour remaining schnapps down drain. Lie on couch for twenty minutes.
When head stops swimming, get up and put cake batter in oven. Bake for three hours. Lie down on couch again. Vow never to touch another drop of schnapps. Imagine painful, pleasing death of husband-snatching Jezebel wench.
# # #
It baked up quite nicely. Ethel thought it was the most beautiful fruitcake she’d ever seen. She was almost sorry she couldn’t try a slice.
Her alarm clock beeped her awake at four a.m. the next morning. She rolled out of bed, put on her darkest outfit (a navy blue polyester pantsuit she’d purchased in 1979) and walked to Connie Sandrelli’s trailer. She left the fruitcake on the doorstep. It was covered in wrapping paper with a red bow on top. Attached to the bow was a note.
Merry Christmas, beautiful!
—Your Secret Admirer
Ethel walked away humming “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen.” When she got home, she climbed back in bed expecting to be awakened soon by the sweet sound of sirens.
When Connie Sandrelli found the fruitcake next to her morning paper, she knew immediately who it was from.
A week before, Bud got it into his head that it would be cute if he started cooking for her for a change. The first dish he brought her was something called “cheeseburger Italiana” — or, as Bud called it, “cheeseburger Eye-talian.” It was a casserole. He’d found the recipe on a box of Bisquick.
As a serious, marinara-in-her-veins Italian-American, Connie had to try very hard not to be offended. She had to try even harder when she tasted it.
Bud, it appeared, hadn’t done much cooking in his life. He didn’t seem to know the difference between garlic powder and cumin, for instance. And ketchup and tomato sauce were considered interchangeable. Somehow, Connie kept a smile on her face even as she choked down the man’s blasphemous culinary abomination.
When Bud came by a few days later with something he called a “Velveeta sausage log,” Connie let him know she wasn’t hungry just then but she sure was looking forward to a heaping plate later on. Over the next week, she transferred one hearty slice a day from the refrigerator to the bottom of the garbage can.
Given her earlier encounters with Bud’s kitchen experiments, Connie was in no hurry to chomp into the man’s first stab at cake baking. She’d always found the pleasures of fruitcake to be fickle and fleeting under the best of circumstances. A Bud Schmidt fruitcake could be dangerous.
So Connie gave the cake a place of honor amongst the cookies and biscotti and chocolate balls sent down by her relatives up north, but she never took a bite. She only mentioned the fruitcake to Bud once, fearful that he would suggest brewing up some coffee and tucking in.
“Thanks for your little surprise,” she told him. “It’s lovely.”
Bud smiled and gave her an “Awww shucks, it was nothing” shrug. He thought she was talking about the Velveeta sausage log. Or maybe something else he’d done. His memory wasn’t what it used to be. And anyway, forty-three years of marriage had taught him not to question a woman’s gratitude. If it’s something you earned, great. If it’s not something you earned, even better.
Over the next week, the mountain of holiday treats in Connie’s kitchen was gradually worn away by the erosion of near-constant snacking. Yet the fruitcake remained, inviolate, untouchable, like some moist and mysterious monolith.
It had to go.
Connie couldn’t just throw it away, though. It was a symbol of Bud’s devotion . . . though, in all likelihood, a spectacularly nasty one.
So instead of tossing it out, she dressed it up. She plated it with candy armor — gumdrops and Skittles along the sides, peppermints and candy canes on top. When she was done, the fruitcake was unrecognizable.
She covered it in Saran Wrap and walked it to the trailer of Always Sunny’s most hated resident: George “Bones” Heaton, the manager. She felt a little guilty about pawning off someone else’s gift as one of her own. But wasn’t there an old legend that there’s really only one fruitcake in the world — it just keeps getting passed around? Who was she to stand in the way of tradition?
# # #
Bones (short for “Skin and . . .”) was a small, grizzled man with a large, fleshy mouth that spewed ill will like a smokestack. Always Sunny’s residents were not, on the whole, a rowdy or unreliable bunch. So Bones spent very little of his time breaking up wild parties or overseeing evictions. Instead, his duties as manager leaned heavily toward maintenance work and general handymanery.
As undemanding as these chores generally were, however, Bones seemed bound by holy oath to make them as unpleasant as possible for all concerned. His rote response to any complaint, large or small, were the words “Whadaya want me to do about it?”
Even if you told him exactly what you wanted him to do, the odds weren’t good that Bones would actually do it. Your chances for success worsened considerably if you got on his bad side somehow — which was easy to do, since his “bad side” comprised the majority of his being.
In December, there were two sure-fire ways to inspire his wrathful sloth: (A) coming to his door singing Christmas carols or (B) not coming to his door with a present. Bones had been known to chase away suddenly-not-so-merry carolers with a garden hose. Gifts, on the other hand, he accepted greedily, if not graciously.
Her new neighbors had let Connie know that a Christmas offering to Bones was mandatory. Connie was, of course, outraged and offended. But she also had cracks in her driveway and a box elder that was growing perilously close to her telephone line. So she brought Bones a gift.
“Huh,” the little man grunted when he saw it. “You say there’s a cake under all that candy?”
Connie came as close as she could to a good-natured laugh. “Oh, yes. It should be a tasty one, too. I had my niece Gina make it for me. She’s a pastry chef up in New York. A real wiz kid with the baking. Sometimes she gets kind of fancy with the ingredients . . . you know, experimental. But she—”
“Yeah, okay, thanks,” Bones said, signaling that Connie’s audience with him was at an end. The door to his trailer was closed before she could finish her farewell “Merry Christmas!”
Later that day, Bones’s wife Virgie found the fruitcake on the kitchen table when she returned from the latest meeting of her divorce support group. She’d never been divorced before. She was just trying it on for size. After four weeks with the group, she still couldn’t figure out what everyone was complaining about.
“What’s this?” she called out.
Bones was in the living room, approximately twelve feet away, watching Judge Judy dole out justice reality-TV style.
“What’s what?” he hollered back.
“This thing with all the crap on it!”
“This hunk of crud in the kitchen!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
“This weird-lookin’ blob on the counter!”
“That’s a fruitcake!”
A fruitcake? Virgie thought it looked more like a candy-encrusted brick.
“Where’d it come from?”
It took five more minutes of yelling to work out the details. Virgie never left the kitchen, and Bones never left his seat.
When it was all over, Virgie took the fruitcake to its new home. She thought the cake looked more decorative than edible, so she placed it amongst the snow globes, nutcrackers and miniature angels on the mantelpiece of the double-wide trailer’s faux fireplace. There it stayed for the next twelve months.
Virgie and Bones usually packed up their Christmas decorations around Valentine’s Day or, at the very latest, Easter. But this year it became a one-man job—and the man in question was reluctant to commit to any project that required him to put down the remote control.
When Virgie left Bones, she chose the timing carefully. She didn’t want a big fuss. So she started packing her bags five seconds after the kick-off of the Super Bowl. She was out of the trailer by half-time. Bones tracked her down the next day to attempt a reconciliation — over the phone.
“Awww, you don’t care if I’m there or not, George,” Virgie told him. “I bet you didn’t even stop watching the game after I left last night.”
“Well, yeah,” Bones admitted sheepishly. On the widescreen TV a few feet before him, Judge Judy was scolding a man for selling his best friend a sickly parrot. “But I didn’t enjoy it.”
The reconciliation did not take root, and Bones found himself single for the first time in fifteen years. It didn’t really affect his life much, except that there was a lot less shouting around the trailer and no more bickering about what to watch on TV.
# # #
The following November, Bones’s bachelorhood produced an unexpected dividend. Through no effort of his own, the man suddenly found himself with an admirer.
Ethel Queenan began dropping by every day with food.
“That wife of yours never fed you right,” she’d say as she handed him the latest creation from the pages of her new cookbook: Bake Until Bubbly!. “And now that she’s gone, you’re just wasting away to nothing.”
In attempting to seduce Bones Heaton with fiesta chicken and tuna noodle strudel, Ethel knew she’d scraped all the way through the bottom of the barrel deep into the dirt beneath. She was desperate.
Whether Connie Sandrelli didn’t care for fruitcake or simply had a cast-iron stomach, Ethel would never know. But the man-stealing hussy not only survived the holiday season, she married Bud Schmidt just a few months later. To show that there were no hard feelings, Ethel baked them a chocolate cake — or, to be more precise, a chocolate, Clorox, Cascade, Tide and lemon-fresh Pledge cake. The resulting black sludge was so noxious with chemicals Ethel had to throw it out, pan and all. She nearly passed out from the fumes.
Only two more Always Sunny men came on the market after that. One died three weeks after his wife’s funeral. The other moved to San Francisco with his wife’s brother, something he’d apparently been waiting forty years to do.
That made Bones Heaton the only unattached male in the trailer park. He was a little too young and a lot too lazy, but he was eligible, and Ethel needed a husband. For her, being single was simply not an option. Take the “man” out of “woman” and all you’ve got’s a “wo,” her mother used to say. Ethel always assumed this was a firm endorsement of matrimony. She had no intention of being a “wo” the rest of her life.
Bones accepted her attentions with uncharacteristic patience, largely because he’d grown sick of frozen pizza and fish sticks. Like Bud Schmidt before him, he never invited Ethel inside or dropped by her trailer in return. But he never chased her away with the garden hose, either. In fact, as Christmas drew closer, he began to worry that she’d give up on him before his refrigerator was fully stocked. Given the trailer park’s demographics, it was only a matter of time before another Always Sunny widower stepped onto the auction block. And Bones was realistic enough about his personal charms to know what would happen if he faced competition.
What was called for was a Christmas gift. But Bones being Bones, it would have to entail minimum effort to procure. Ideally, it would be something he could find within ten steps of his La-Z-Boy.
Which is how it came to be that one warm December evening Bones Heaton presented to Ethel Queenan a beautifully decorated, twelve-month-old fruitcake. Ethel cooed and made a fuss over it, though it actually looked far too gussied up for her tastes. But the man had made an effort on her behalf, and that boded well.
And anyway, Ethel thought as she walked back to her trailer, peel off the peppermints and the thing was probably perfectly fine.
She’d been cooking all afternoon, and she was hungry.