CRAZY IN PARADISE
By Deborah Brown
Average 4.3 STARS
Dying in the middle of the summer in the Florida Keys is sweaty business. Welcome to Tarpon Cove. Madison Westin inherits her aunt's beachfront motel along with a variety of colorful tenant's - drunks, ex-cons and fugitives. Only one problem: First she has to wrestle control from her lawyer and conniving motel manager. She enlists the help of her new best friend whose motto is never leave home without your Glock. Only in South Florida, land of hot tan lines, drugs on demand - not to mention blackmail and murder.
Tarpon Cove is an unsophisticated beach town situated at the top of the Keys off the Overseas Highway, which begins just north of Key Largo and ends in Key West. Tropical Slumber Funeral Home is located on the main street that runs through town. In a previous life, the building had obviously been a drive-thru fast food restaurant, the kind where you drove through the center of the building to place your order for a hot dog and fries. The new owners hadn’t even bothered to take down the concrete picnic tables that were on the side of the building. But they had replaced the old metal umbrellas with tropical thatched-style ones. A red carpet ran from the parking lot to the front door and continued to the door of the hearse parked behind the building.
We’d taken our seats on the rock-hard old church pews. I turned to look at my mother. “People are going to hear you laughing,” I whispered. “What’s wrong with you?”
My mother, Madeline Westin, had aged well; she looked younger than her sixty years, her short blonde hair framing her face. She wore a colorful sundress that showed off her long tanned legs.
She put her head on my shoulder. “I think Elizabeth is staring at me,” she whispered back.
Mother was right about one thing: it did appear as though Elizabeth was staring at everyone. They’d propped her up in the casket, and positioned her to sit straight up. She was dressed in a tent-style dress that was bright yellow and flowery, with a wilted corsage pinned to the front; a dress she never would’ve chosen for herself. Yellow was her least favorite color, and here she was surrounded by all white and yellow daisies and carnations, when she loved bold color and exotic blooms.
I tried to speak to Dickie about the arrangements when I first arrived in town. He told me firmly that he only took instructions from Tucker Davis and he wasn’t allowed to discuss any of the final details. I wondered why the secrecy, but he was so nervous I didn’t ask any more questions. He told me not to worry; he had worked hard to make everything memorable.
I appealed to him, “Don’t family members usually participate in the planning?”
But he was very clear; Tucker Davis’ approval was the most important thing to him.
I took a deep breath. Later, our family would create a lasting tribute to Elizabeth showing how much we had loved and respected her, and how we would deeply miss her. But for now, this would have to do, I guess.
I glanced up and saw a man who looked to be in his 60’s walking to the podium. He was well-worn, beer-gutted with dirty looking grey hair, and dressed in jean shorts and a tropical shirt that looked as though he’d worn them for several days.
“Hey, everyone,” he said into the microphone. “My name is…” he paused, “well, all my friends call me Quattro.” He held up both of his hands in a two-handed friendly wave.
He was missing his middle finger on his right hand and his thumb on his left hand. Brad and I glanced at one another and laughed. I mouthed “Quattro” at him and waved four fingers. He turned away, biting his lip.
“I told Dickie I’d speak first because he worried no one would come up and say anything and it wouldn’t look right. I told him don’t worry so much.” Quattro slowly scanned the crowd. “I reassured him there were a few people here who could think of something nice to say.” He ran his fingers through his hair and scratched his scalp.
“Elizabeth was a great old broad. Too damn bad, she died so young. She seemed young to me. Hell, I’m only a few years younger. You know she checked out in her sleep, and in her own bed. How much better does it get than that?”
I looked around. A few people were nodding their heads in agreement.
“Now that she’s kicked the bucket…” He paused. “Well, everyone knows there’s no bucket involved.” He laughed at his own humor. “Have you ever wondered what the reward is?” He waited as though he expected an answer. “Hmm, I’ve no idea either. Damn, it’s hot in here. You’d think a funeral place would turn on the air conditioning.”
“Yeah, I’ve got sweat in my shorts,” I heard someone say. A few others voiced their agreement.
“Keeps the smell down and all,” Quattro continued. “I know when it was a drive-thru the air worked good and sometimes the place was downright freezing.”
I saw a few people sniffing at the air. Were they sad? Or were they disappointed they couldn’t smell hotdogs and fries?
Dickie Vanderbilt stood off to the side, staring at his shoes, and picking at his rather large tie tack in the shape of a flamingo.
“But back to Elizabeth. I called her Betty once and, boy, she got mad.”
Mother sobbed loudly, which I knew was actually laughter. People turned to stare. I wrapped my arm around her shoulder and pulled her close. “Mother, please. This funeral is bad enough.”
Her body shook with laughter. I gripped her tightly. “Oww,” she whispered.
“Behave yourself, or I’ll keep squeezing.” I shifted again on the bench, having a hard time sitting still when my legs kept sticking to the wood.
“Elizabeth was good to a lot of people,” Quattro continued. “Too bad she won’t be around to do any of us any more favors.” He looked around and rubbed the end of his nose.
I stared wide-eyed at him wondering if he was about to pick his nose.
“The truth is, I’ve run out of stuff to say. I know she wouldn’t have wanted to die so soon, but the problem is we all think we’re going to live forever, and we don’t. So, ‘God Bless’.” He waved and walked away from the podium.
Brad and I looked at one another. “Finally,” he mouthed, even though he was enjoying the circus more than I was.
I didn’t have to wait long to see what would happen next. An elderly woman who seemed very familiar approached the podium. Mr. Vanderbilt walked over and helped her up the stairs. Now what?
Brad motioned to me, “Miss January,” he whispered.
“No,” I said, shocked at how drastically her appearance had changed.
Miss January was a frail-looking woman, who appeared to be in her eighties, of average height and no more than ninety pounds. In truth, she was only in her forties. Twenty years ago, her husband had been shot to death in front of her and, after that, she’d dedicated her life to a daily bottle of vodka and chain-smoking. Two years ago, she was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer for which she refused treatment. Her doctor told her she would die any day, but she just laughed at him. Elizabeth cared about Miss January because she wasn’t capable of caring about herself.
“I liked Elizabeth,” she started. She fiddled with the microphone; she blew into it, thoroughly entertaining herself. “You know, I’m drunk!” she yelled. “I drank more than usual this morning, toasting Elizabeth over and over. What the hell! I drink every morning.”
I covered my face with my hands.
“Elizabeth wasn’t much of a drinker,” Miss January continued. “I like vodka,” she giggled. “She was always,” she paused, “I mean Elizabeth, would pull me out of the bushes and help me home. At least I think it was her. Some of the time, anyway. That young hottie who lives next door to me at The Cottages, sometimes he picks me up and carries me home. I like that a lot.”
Someone let out a loud burp. Another person clapped. I sat motionless, afraid to look around.
“You need a chair up here!” she yelled. “When the guy from before said it’s hot in this place, he was right. Besides, who wants to stand, anyway?” She swayed from side to side, then tried to grab onto the standing flower arrangement next to her. She missed and fell slowly to the floor, pulling a few long-stemmed gladiolas from the vase in a last-ditch effort to recover.
Mr. Vanderbilt, Quattro, and another man raced up the stairs, to the podium and Quattro picked her up. “Don’t worry folks!” Quattro called. “She’ll be all right. She’s just drunk.” He carried her out.
Mr. Vanderbilt moved to the microphone. What was he doing?
“I’m the owner of this funeral home,” he said. “My name is Dickie Vanderbilt, but I prefer Richard. I can honestly say I’ve never had such a tremendous turn out. I want to thank all of you for coming. I’m sorry about the air conditioning, and whichever one of you dies next I promise the unit will be repaired by that time. Think of Tropical Slumber Funeral Home for all your burial needs.”
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