The Case of the

Missing Pot Roast


Published in the 2018 Bouchercon anthology

Florida Happens
(Three Rooms Press, September 2018)


The Case of the Missing Pot Roast

 

by Barb Goffman


Looking back, I should have known something was wrong when the pot roast disappeared. Sure, everyone misplaces something sometime. I once searched for the remote control for an hour till I spotted it in the bathroom. And for years I’ve found my husband, Charles’s, false teeth all over the house—they’ve never fit quite right so when they bother him he takes them out and puts them down, never paying attention where. But the pot roast? I was sure I’d left it defrosting on the counter when I went to get my hair done, yet when I came home, it was gone.

I searched for it in vain. It wasn’t in the fridge or freezer. Not in the garbage. Not in the oven. Charles was clueless. There was no way he’d cooked and eaten it in the hour I was gone. So what happened to that pot roast was a mystery. In the back of my mind, I wondered if I’d only dreamed I’d bought the roast. But I couldn’t admit my faculties might be failing. So I dismissed the missing pot roast as weirdness and whipped up some pasta.

That was a month ago. Perhaps if I’d forced myself to figure out what happened to the pot roast, I wouldn’t be in this position now. But back then, I had bigger problems. Charles had started suffering from short-term memory loss and personality changes, and he was getting worse every day. One minute he’d be the man I’d loved for decades, optimistic and kind; the next, he’d be surly and paranoid, acting like a wary stranger. He’d accused me of stealing from him—me, his wife of fifty-one years. And then, in a heartbreaking moment, he’d accused me of trying to kill him.

“Alzheimer’s,” his doctor had diagnosed.

I’d figured that was the problem, but having it confirmed was a terrible blow. His doctor gave me all kinds of pamphlets and urged me to look into long-term care for Charles. I cried when he did that. I knew eventually such care would be necessary. But not yet. I was only seventy-one years old and in relatively good health. I was determined to care for Charles in our home for as long as I could. He was my husband. My love. I owed him that.

#

A week after the pot roast vanished, I came back from the library late one afternoon with a stack of books—Charles and I both loved to read—and found him banging his fist against the wall of windows on our lanai. Charles’s mind might have been fading, but his body was strong. I feared he’d break the glass.

“Charles, stop!”

“You stay away from me!” he screamed at the window. “You’ll never get me!”

I stared outside. Our house backed to a lake, with a golf course on the other side of it. We had a good view of the fifth tee. But no one was out there right then.

“Charles, who are you talking to?”

He veered toward me and began muttering and pacing. “He wants to kill me. Wants me dead.”

My eyes watered. “No one wants you dead, darling.”

“Are you blind, woman? He’s right there, taunting me.” He pointed toward the lake. “Romeo!”

I looked closer. Charles was partly right. Romeo, the alligator who lived in the lake, was floating out there, his snout skimming the water’s surface. But Romeo wasn’t taunting Charles. How could he? And he certainly didn’t want Charles dead. Alligators can live just fine with people as neighbors as long as we don’t feed or disturb them. It was a blessing, I realized, that our backyard sloped down to the water. Because of his bad knee, Charles would never walk down to the lake because the incline made him unsteady, so I didn’t have to worry he’d bother Romeo.

I approached Charles. “Let’s go in other room. I got us some great books to read.”

The doctor had said that when Charles became agitated, I should try to remove the source of his stress. It broke my heart that Romeo was a new source of stress for Charles. He’d always loved that alligator. All wildlife, in fact. It was one of the reasons we’d retired to southwest Florida, near the Everglades. There was so much wildlife around.

“No. If I don’t watch him, he’ll come after me.”

“That’s not going to happen.” I laid my hand on Charles’s arm. “C’mon. I’ve got the newest Adrian McKinty.”

“No!” he yelled and pushed me hard.

I fell back, slamming against a table before landing on my side on the tile floor. Sparks of pain exploded from my hip. I screamed.

After I lay there for a couple of minutes gritting my teeth, I looked up to find Charles standing over me. His eyes were wide. Concerned. “Bev, what happened? Are you okay?”

My Charles was back. “Call an ambulance,” I said.

The paramedics arrived quickly, and Charles let them in. He was like his old self. Polite and caring. When they asked what happened, I told them I’d tripped and fallen. I didn’t want Charles to be blamed. He’d never have hurt me if he was in his right mind. Besides, he didn’t even seem to remember doing it.

The good news, we learned a few hours later, was that my hip wasn’t broken. All those calcium pills I’d been taking for years had paid off. But I was badly bruised. The doctor recommended rest and medication for pain and swelling. The hospital gave me a cane for support.

I was relieved to go home and sleep beside my husband that night. When you’re my age and you land in the hospital, terrible thoughts flit through your mind. Is this the beginning of the end? Will I need to go into an assisted living facility? Or worse? What would happen to Charles? I desperately wanted us to stay together in our own home.

So the next morning, I pulled out the pamphlets Charles’s doctor had given me. If we were going to continue living independently, we’d have to hire some in-home care, at least until I got better. I called one of the services that provided aides. The next afternoon, Gabriela arrived.

She was about twenty-five years old, tall, and lean. She wore her wavy, dark hair in a bun, had a friendly smile, and seemed eager to help. Immediately she had a good way with Charles. I’d been afraid any aide we’d hire would treat Charles like an invalid, but Gabriela treated him like family, and Charles responded positively. We agreed she’d come each day at three for an eight-hour shift. Alzheimer’s patients tend to get worse as the day goes on, so it made sense for her to start mid-afternoon. I could handle Charles each day until then, especially since Gabriela would help with the cooking and cleaning, so I wouldn’t have to put pressure on my hip doing those chores. All in all, she was a godsend.

#

“That’s a beautiful pin,” my friend Margaret said, nodding toward a porcelain butterfly I’d clasped to my shirt where I usually wore my favorite cameo—a gift Charles had given me years ago. We were at the country club playing bridge with Lois and Anita two weeks after I hired Gabriela.

“Thank you.” I picked up my new hand, hoping Margaret wouldn’t ask about my cameo. She had an uncanny ability of raising the one issue you’d like to avoid.

“What made you change?” Margaret said. “You always wear your cameo.”

Darn it. My cameo had disappeared two days ago. I’d debated not wearing any pin today, but of course Margaret would have picked up on that too. I shrugged and bid.

“Come on, Bev,” she said. “Why the secrecy? Did it break?”

Lois glared at her. Chat during bridge was frowned upon, but Margaret acted as if she hadn’t noticed and kept staring at me, clearly waiting for an answer. I felt like she somehow already knew the truth.

“If you must know, I misplaced it,” I said, hoping that would be the end of it.

“You misplaced it?” Margaret quickly bid, then returned her attention to me. “You never misplace anything.”

This was true, as far as Margaret knew. I hadn’t told her—or anyone—about the pot roast. I didn’t want people to think I was losing it. I shrugged again, trying to concentrate on my cards. We began to play the hand, and the talk died down. But as soon as we tallied the score, Margaret started in on me again.

“How are things working out with that girl you hired?”

“Just fine,” I said.

Margaret’s eyes narrowed. “Just fine, huh? And it’s just a coincidence that right after you allowed this girl to start roaming around your house, your beautiful cameo goes missing?”

I felt my cheeks flush. When I’d mentioned the prior week that I’d hired Gabriela, Margaret had pounced, warning me not to trust her. “They all steal,” she’d said. I’d defended Gabriela, telling Margaret she was a nice woman, and that it was wrong to generalize like that. But of course now my cameo had disappeared.

“Margaret, it’s your turn to deal.” Lois sounded annoyed.

“Chill,” Margaret said. Her granddaughter had taught her that term a few months before, and Margaret loved to use it. “Bev is in crisis. We need to help her.”

I pursed my lips. I wasn’t in crisis. “You don’t need to worry. I’ve got everything under control.”

Margaret snorted. “If I were you, Bev, I’d keep a close eye on that girl. First she’ll steal your jewelry. Next it’ll be your husband.”

#

I was so aggravated by Margaret’s comment that I left the club early and drove home. Sometimes I couldn’t stand Margaret. She was such a negative busybody. Gabriela was no femme fatale. I must have misplaced my cameo. Or the clasp broke, and I lost it. Either way, Gabriela surely hadn’t stolen it. I wasn’t going to become one of those people who believed the worst of everyone else.

The house was still as I walked in. I spotted Charles sleeping on a lounge chair on the lanai, so I stepped quietly into our bedroom to search once more for my cameo. But I stopped short, squeezing my cane hard. Gabriela was standing on the far side of the room, reaching for my jewelry box.

“Gabriela?”

She twirled toward me, her mouth ajar.

“I … How is Charles?” I asked. I was so embarrassed that Margaret had been right—Gabriela was stealing from me!—that I couldn’t bring myself to confront her about it.

“He’s having a good afternoon,” she said with a smile. “I didn’t expect you home so soon.”

I could tell. “My hip was bothering me.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Anything I can do to help?”

“No, nothing.”

I went to sit on the lanai, feeling so foolish. I’d trusted Gabriela. Given her a key to my home. Let her—as Margaret said—roam my house. I should fire her. But Gabriela had such a good way with Charles. He lit up around her. I had to think about him, about what was best for Charles. If Gabriela helped him then I could put up with a stolen cameo. Tomorrow morning I’d put our valuables in our safety-deposit box. Everything else Gabriela could have. It would be worth it.

#

The birds were chirping early the next morning, and Charles was in a good mood. After breakfast he went onto the lanai to read the newspaper, and I went into our bedroom to go through my jewelry and decide what to bring to the bank. I opened the box, and my hand flew to my mouth. My cameo was sitting in the top tray. Not in its usual spot but it was there.

I backed up and sat on my bed. Gabriela hadn’t gone anywhere near the jewelry box again yesterday. I’d kept my eye on her. So the cameo must have been there the whole time. How had I missed it?

I bit my lip, suddenly afraid that Charles wasn’t the only one with dementia. Then I shook my head. Snap out of it, Bev. One misplaced cameo doesn’t mean you’re losing it. Besides, it was a huge relief to realize my first instincts had been right. Gabriela hadn’t been stealing from me. There was no reason to store my jewelry after all.

With a smile, I went out to the lanai. Charles was staring out the window as Romeo glided by.

“Isn’t he beautiful?” I said.

Charles glared at me. “You say beautiful. I say deadly.”

It felt as if a dark cloud had suddenly blocked the sun. My Charles was slipping away again, replaced by this fearful man. I had to find a way to improve both our moods.

“How about I cook a nice dinner tonight? Pot roast with onion, carrots, and the little potatoes you love?” My hip was hardly stiff anymore, and the cane really helped, so I could do it.

“Pot roast?” Charles grinned as bright as a full moon reflecting off the lake. “That’s a perfect idea.”

“Wonderful. I’ll go pull one out of the freezer.”

I set the roast on the kitchen counter to defrost, then returned to the lanai to read. I used to read only dark mysteries, but since Charles had gotten sick, I’d found myself gravitating to lighter cozies. They made me feel better. A few times as I turned the page, I caught Charles watching me out of the corner of his eye and smiling. I was so glad that the decision to cook one of his favorite meals had improved his mood. And mine. It was going to be a good day after all.

#

Around two thirty, I went to Publix to pick up the vegetables for our dinner. Charles was still doing well, and Gabriela would be arriving soon in case he needed anything.

I returned home an hour later, eager to start cooking. I always loved how the house smelled after the roast went into the oven. Gabriela met me at the door and carried the groceries into the kitchen.

“Mmm. These carrots look good,” she said. “What would you like me to make for dinner?”

“No need,” I replied, setting my purse on the counter. “I’m feeling spry today, so I’m going to cook the roast.”

“What roast?” Gabriela stared into the bag she’d just emptied.

“That one.” I pointed to the side counter, where I’d left the pot roast. Except it wasn’t there. I blinked repeatedly and quickly scanned every counter in the kitchen. No roast. Charles’s teeth were sitting out, but no pot roast. I looked at the table. Not there either.

Had I left it defrosting in the sink? Not there. Maybe it was in the refrigerator. No, it wasn’t in there either. Not in the freezer. Not anywhere.

“Bev, are you all right?” Gabriela asked.

“I don’t understand,” I cried. “It was here. I left it right there!” I pointed again at the counter.

“There wasn’t any roast sitting out when I arrived,” Gabriela said softly.

 “No. That can’t be. Charles,” I called. He ambled in from the lanai and grabbed his teeth. “Have you seen the pot roast?”

“What pot roast?”

“The roast I’m supposed to make for dinner. The one I set out to defrost.”

“You didn’t set any roast out.”

My heart began pounding. Charles was looking at me vacantly. His memory wasn’t necessarily trustworthy, but Gabriela’s was. She stared at me with concern, her forehead wrinkling. Was I going crazy? How had a second pot roast disappeared?

Tears splashed my cheeks as I hurried to my bedroom. I slammed the door, lay down, and cried. At one point I rolled over. Charles wasn’t there to hold me, so I hugged his pillow instead.

Something hard pressed against my arm. Confused, I turned the pillow sideways and shook its case. One of my gold necklaces slid out onto the bed. Oh my stars. I didn’t even remember wearing it recently, but I must have, and instead of putting it away in the jewelry box, I’d put it in the pillowcase.

It was true. I was losing my mind, just like Charles.

#

My mood over the next few days matched the weather. Dark and dreary. A hurricane was coming. The newscasters advised people in our area to evacuate. All of our neighbors were leaving, but Charles was being obstinate, not wanting to go. Considering I could barely get out of bed, I had no energy to fight him.

“Don’t worry,” I told Gabriela over a tuna-salad dinner. “We’ll be fine.”

She looked doubtful.

“We’ve been through storms before. They say this will only be a category three. A little one. We’ll latch down the hurricane shutters and ride it out.”

“The words little and hurricane seem like an oxymoron,” Gabriela said.

“Look how smart she is.” Charles beamed at Gabriela. “Bev’s right. Everything’s going to be just fine. Don’t you worry your pretty, pretty head.”

Gabriela looked from Charles to me and sighed. “If you say so.”

#

I spent the evening reading on the lanai, trying to distract myself from my worries, while Charles kept staring out into the darkness. Gabriela was busy as a bee, making meals to get us through the storm, replacing batteries in the flashlights, and picking up refills of Charles’s medication. She was like the daughter we’d never had, and I was ashamed I’d ever doubted her.

Charles went to sleep around ten. An hour later, right before leaving, Gabriela came over and sat beside me.

“Please don’t stay here during the storm,” she pleaded.

“We’ll be—”

She held up her hand. “I know. You think you’ll be fine. You’ve been through storms before.”

I nodded.

“But you haven’t been through storms before with an Alzheimer’s patient. Between the wind and the rain, Charles might become very agitated. You’re in no position to help him or protect yourself should he become aggressive.”

“Charles would never hurt me,” I said, even as the day he pushed me down flashed through my mind.

Gabriela laid her hand on top of mine. “I’m worried about you too.”

She was referring to the pot roast, I knew, but she didn’t say the words. “I’m all right. I get a little confused sometimes.”

“Have you told your doctor?”

“Not yet.” Gabriela squeezed my hand. “I’ll tell him. I promise. After the storm’s over.”

Nodding, she pulled a piece of paper from her pocket. “This is the phone number and address of the local Red Cross, in case you need help. I’m heading home to pack, and then I’m driving to my sister’s in Jacksonville. I’ll be back as soon as I can after the storm. And I’ll try to call to check on you.”

“Thank you, Gabriela.”

She kissed my cheek, and in mere moments she was gone.

#

Gabriela had been right about the storm riling Charles up. He usually was easy-going in the morning, but the next morning, after I showered, I found him pacing on the lanai. The hurricane had sped up during the night, and the moaning wind was whipping leaves off the palm trees out back.

“Where have you been?” he demanded. “Who were you with?”

“I was just getting dressed,” I said calmly, hoping to soothe him.

“You’re lying. You’re all twitchy. You’re hiding something.”

I stifled a sigh. The only thing I was trying to hide was my sadness.

“We should pull the hurricane shutters down before the wind gets worse,” I said.

Charles shook his head and blocked the door. “No, it’s not time yet.”

As if there were a set time. But okay. The shutters could wait. Best to calm him down first.

“How about I get you some water. Maybe you’re thirsty.” I pushed a plastic cup under the fridge’s water dispenser, hating the tone I’d used in my voice. I was treating my husband like a child. But I didn’t know what else to do when he got like this.

I held the cup out to him as I stepped back onto the lanai, and he knocked it out of my hand. “You’re trying to poison me! I saw you put something in there.”

“Water.” I sighed. “The only thing in that cup was water.”

I sopped up the mess with a towel, then threw it into the hamper. When I returned, Charles seemed calmer. He was staring out toward the rippling lake.

I decided to make use of it. “I wonder what happens to the fish during a storm. If they were in the ocean, they could swim somewhere safe, but here, they’re stuck.”

I hoped focusing on wildlife would bring my Charles back, but he merely grunted.

Okay. I’d try a different tack. “Look at all those birds.” There were so many moving in tandem that the sky seemed to be swaying. “They must know something’s up.”

“Now!” Charles said. “We need to pull the shutters down now.”

Talk about mental whiplash. “All right.”

“Hurry. It’s time.”

I grabbed my cane, wanting to be sure I’d remain steady on the grass. Then I pulled the sliding-glass door open and stepped outside, with Charles practically pushing me onto the patio. It had already started raining, and the sweet smell of ozone hit me. I paused a moment to breathe it in.

“You should grab the birds first,” he said.

We had three small iron statues of pelicans standing in the soil surrounding some of our trees. They each weighed about eight pounds, so they could fly about in a strong wind and strike the house. We’d brought them in before previous storms, and the wind was already gusting.

Halfway down the lawn, I reached for the first pelican. That’s when someone shoved me. I fell on my bad hip and rolled a few times down the incline, stopping several yards from the water. I cried out, but no one would be able to hear me over the wind, even if anyone were around. Which they weren’t. Everyone with sense had evacuated. Everyone but me and my husband, who was now standing over me with a gleam in his eye.

“You want to kill me, but I won’t let you,” he said.

Sharp pain prevented me from sitting up. “I don’t want to kill you. I love you. Look at me.” Charles’s attention had turned to the lake. I shook his pant leg. “Look at me.”

He did.

“It’s me. Bev. Your wife. I love you.”

“No, you’ve been trying to kill me because you know I’ve found someone else.”

Someone else? “There’s no one else. Not for you or for me. Please, Charles, help me up.”

“There is! The pretty girl. Where is she? Why isn’t she here now?”

The world spun for a moment. “Gabriela?”

“What did you do to her?”

“I didn’t do anything to her. She’s gone to her sister’s place until the storm passes.”

“When she comes back, you’ll be gone, and I’ll be able to give her everything she deserves.” He reached into his pants pocket and pulled out my cameo.

You took my cameo?”

“It’s not yours. It’s mine. I paid for it. And I can give it to anyone I want to.”

The rain was picking up. I had to get back into the house. I tried to crawl but only moved a few feet before my screaming hip stopped me. My cane remained out of reach. Why had I thought I could care for Charles on my own? Why hadn’t I insisted we evacuate? What was I going to do?

Calm yourself, Bev. Charles will snap out of this eventually, and then he’ll help you up. You just need to wait.

In bad times, I often gave myself a good talking to. And as usual, it worked. I took a deep breath and hoped my Charles would return soon, before the storm really intensified.

“There’s my pretty boy,” Charles said.

Pretty boy?

I followed Charles’s gaze. Romeo had emerged from the lake and was slowly crawling toward me. Alligators often sought dry land like our patio during storms. As long as we didn’t bother them, they shouldn’t bother us. Of course, that was easier to believe when I wasn’t lying there defenseless.

“C’mon, boy,” Charles said. “I’ve got lunch for you. I know she won’t be as delicious as those roasts I tossed to you over the last few weeks, but she does have some meat on her bones.”

In that moment time seemed to stop. I hadn’t been going crazy. Charles had accused me of stealing from him, but he’d really been stealing from me. The necklace and the cameo and the pot roasts too. He’d been feeding Romeo, which meant the alligator would likely come after me now. He’d be used to humans and see me as easy prey. Charles had accused me of trying to kill him, when really that had been his plan all along for me.

I grabbed his pant leg and shook it with everything I had. “Charles!” I screamed as the rain mixed with the tears streaming down my face. “Charles. It’s Bev. I’m hurt. Help me!”

I had to get through to him before Romeo reached me. “Charles!”

Romeo was only a few yards away. Oh, God, please help me.

At that moment something zoomed over my head, landing a few feet from Romeo. It began tumbling toward the water before easing to a stop in the grass. What the heck? It was a pot roast. Romeo snapped it up and slid back into the lake. I twisted toward the house as Gabriela rushed to us, her hair pasted against her cheeks.

Charles’s eyes bulged. “What’d you do that for? You’ve ruined everything.”

Gabriela smiled gently. “Nothing’s ruined. Everything’s going to be fine. But you need to go back inside, and I have to help Bev.”

“Help her? You’re on her side? You’re all against me!”

Charles lunged at Gabriela, his hands tightening around her throat. As she tried to fight him off, I used all my strength to inch up the lawn and grab my cane. My hip felt like it was on fire while I pushed myself into a sitting position and swung the cane as hard as I could at the back of Charles’s bad knee. He cried out in pain and fell. Gabriela stumbled backward, wheezing.

With my strength spent, I flopped onto the grass as the rain poured and Charles moaned. Soon Gabriela kneeled by my side.

“Are you all right?” she asked.

“Me? What about you?”

She squeezed my hand. “I think we’ll both be okay. I’ve called an ambulance.”

I stared at her, my guardian angel. “Not that I’m complaining, but what are you doing here?”

“I got halfway to Jacksonville before I turned around. I was the only idiot on the highway heading toward the coast. But I couldn’t let you stay here alone. I thought you’d need me, though I didn’t realize how much.”

“How could you know?” She had no reason to suspect Charles was violent. Few Alzheimer’s patients were.

Gabriela nodded. “Charles gave me a cameo a few weeks ago. He said it was a promise pin, until we could be together. I should have told you, but I didn’t realize what he’d planned. I thought it was a crush, and I didn’t want to hurt you.”

“So the day I caught you by my jewelry box?”

“I’d just put the cameo back inside.”

“And the pot roast just now?”

“I grabbed it at Publix an hour ago, right before they closed. I figured I’d make it for dinner tonight if the electricity held out. You’ve been trying to have one for weeks.”

At that I laughed until tears sprang from my eyes. For the first time in months, they were tears of happiness.

#

Charles and I both spent the storm in the hospital, and Gabriela didn’t leave our side. It turned out the hurricane wasn’t as bad as had been predicted, which was good, because we never got our shutters in place.

Our home is now up for sale. Gabriela’s living there, taking care of it until it sells. Charles and I have moved into an assisted living facility. He’s in the memory-care unit, where he can get the attention he needs. And I’m in a small apartment where I can get help when I need it, which I sometimes do because of my hip.

I don’t get to sleep next to my husband every night anymore, but I do get to see him every day, and that’s enough. I’d made a huge mistake trying to care for Charles on my own. I’d said I was doing it for him, so he could have the continuity of living at home, but really, I’d been doing it for me. I was the one who hadn’t wanted things to change. And I’d nearly paid for my selfishness with my life. At least now I don’t have to worry that Charles is trying to kill me. He’s taken a shine to one of his new nurses, and I don’t interfere.

As for Romeo, I hear he’s been spotted near Margaret’s place. She likes to eat out on her patio at night. I’m thinking of sending her a pot roast.




#

Barb Goffman
Mystery Writer