Gretchen heard the knock on the front door. Setting down her knitting needles, she got up and made her way to the living room. “Who’s there?” she called though the door after she opened it a crack.
“Hi, my name is Cheryl Cox, and I’m your new city councilwoman,” said a cheery voice. “I’m trying to meet as many people as I can in the district so I can bring your concerns to City Hall.”
Gretchen pulled the door open, allowing a wedge of bright sunlight into the room. She had to blink at the brightness, and held up her left hand to shield her eyes while extending the right to shake hands. “I don’t remember anyone from City Hall ever coming around to meet people after they already won the election,” she said. “You already starting your campaign for mayor or somethin’?”
Cheryl laughed. “No, nothing like that, I assure you. I just take my job seriously. I said in the campaign that I want to help people in the Third District, and I aim to keep that promise.”
A moment of awkward silence followed. Gretchen, suddenly realizing she should make the next move, opened the door wider and extended her arm out in welcoming. “My name is Gretchen Wood. Please come in.”
Cheryl stepped through the door into the dimly lit living room. It appeared to contain enough furniture for one person and, at most, one visitor. With the light filtering through the window shades, she could just make out that a coffee table separated the narrow sofa and easy chair. A single framed picture hung from the wall, of a nondescript farm scene in brown, dark green and a smattering of drab yellow. A small TV sat atop a stand in the corner.
“You have a lovely home,” Cheryl said, diplomatically.
“Why, thank you!” Gretchen was truly moved by the compliment. “I was about to put on a fresh pot of coffee. Could I interest you in a cup?”
Cheryl leapt at the chance. “That would be great. Let me help you in the kitchen.”
A brief spasm of apprehension appeared to grip Gretchen, but she recovered quickly. She led the way into the kitchen. Gretchen went directly to the coffee maker and emptied the used grounds into the compost bin.
Cheryl kept one hand on the wall for reference. “It’s very dark in here. I can barely see.”
Gretchen finished putting in the new grounds and filling the well with water before turning the coffee maker on. “Oh, your eyes will get used to it in a minute. With the high price of lightbulbs and electricity these days, I don’t much turn on the lights unless I have to read something with small print. My eyesight ain’t what it used to be—can’t read those tiny letters like I used to, you know.”
“I see,” Cheryl responded, immediately regretting her choice of words. “Well, you know, the city has a program to help lower your electricity bills. I could sign you up for that, if you like.”
“Why, you sweet young thing! But no, I get along just fine with things the way they are. I preserve my lightbulb for special occasions, and the rest of the time I get along just fine.”
Gretchen poured two cups of black coffee and carried them back to the living room. Setting them down on the coffee table, she asked, “Would you like me to bring you some cream or sugar?”
“That won’t be necessary.” She settled herself onto the chair. “Gretchen—may I call you Gretchen? I’m wondering if there is anything you would like me to do for you, or is there any special concern you have here in the neighborhood?”
Gretchen massaged her jaw as she considered. “Nah, I can’t think of much. Of course we’ve always got complaints, but I guess that’s just our general nature. Not much you can really do about those things.”
They chatted for a few more minutes, and Cheryl sipped her coffee. When she had exhausted all the pleasantries in her arsenal, she set her cup down in its saucer and held up one finger. “Gretchen, I just remembered something I have that I think you might like. I’ll be back in a minute.” She rose and walked forcefully to the door to let herself out.
Gretchen had just rinsed her cup in the sink and placed it upside down on the dish rack to dry when she heard another knock on the door.
Cheryl stood at the door in the sunlight, a brown paper bag in her hands. “Guess what I just happened to have in the trunk of my car” She bobbed up on the toes of her shoes as she passed the bag to Gretchen.
The older woman looked inside. It was a package of lightbulbs. “Oh, how much do I owe you for these?”
“Nothing at all—they’re yours. The city has been giving away these lightbulbs for several months now. They take less wattage and they last for years!”
Gretchen held the bag toward her guest. “Nah, I could never accept these.”
“Nonsense! Take them. Like I said, the city is giving them out to encourage our residents to use less electricity. You can say I ordered you to accept them as your civic duty.”
The two women shared a short laugh together, and Gretchen accepted the bag.
“Well, I need to leave now. But I’ll stop by again in the near future to see how you’re doing.”
* * *
The radio announcer reminded his listeners to set their clocks back an hour on Saturday night. “Spring forward and then Fall back,” he repeated the well-worn cliché. Afraid that she might forget, Gretchen went to the clock on the kitchen wall and took it down to adjust the time, even though it was still only Thursday afternoon.
Just then she heard a knock at the front door.
“Hello, Mrs. Wood. Do you remember me?”
“Why, you’re that city councilwoman. It was so nice that you stopped by to introduce yourself. What was it—four months ago? And I’m so happy to see you again.”
Cheryl’s teeth looked like a TV commercial, and Gretchen didn’t see a single flaw in that smile. “I just wanted to stop by and personally bring you a copy of the district newsletter my staff is producing. I wanted you to be aware of what’s going on both in the neighborhood and at City Hall.”
“Come in, come in. Would you like some coffee?”
“That would be wonderful.” Gretchen closed the door behind her, and Cheryl found herself in the dark. “Mrs. Wood—I mean Gretchen—didn’t the lightbulbs I gave you last time work? If not, I can bring more.”
Gretchen opened the door to the kitchen. “Nah, I’m sure they’re good. I’m storing them in the utility closet for a special occasion. I never thanked you properly, looked like you gave me a lifetime supply.”
* * *
Cheryl sat in her office on Tuesday morning, scanning the newspaper for anything that might come up at that afternoon’s council meeting. It all looked pretty routine. But just as she was folding the paper and setting it on the edge of her desk, a name in a small article on the back page caught her eye.
“Oh my, Gretchen Wood has passed away,” she said aloud to herself. Scanning the article, she noted that neighbors had called police to check up on the woman after no one had seen her for some time. They found her body on the floor of her kitchen, a coffee cup clutched in her hand.
But that wasn’t the headline.
“Fortune Found in Dead Woman’s Mattress.” That wasn’t quite correct; the story actually said investigators found a dozen five-gallon plastic jugs in her bedroom closet, that she apparently had stuffed with loose bills over the years. The jugs contained well over a hundred thousand dollars.
“Neighbors told the police that Mrs. Wood’s husband had died years ago and the couple had no children or other family,” the story read. “If no heirs are found, the money will revert to the state.”
Cheryl read through the article once more. No mention of them finding a stash of lightbulbs.