by: Thomas Elson
The fallacy of change. When a new beginning marks the beginning of the end…
Friday, February 19th, 1982. Berdan Daily Tribune – The Ninnescah County Sheriff’s Department reported a Roads and Bridges employee discovered a nude female body near a ditch seven miles from Berdan. Her name has been withheld pending investigation. The preliminary report stated the cause of death as hypothermia.
Two days after Walter T. Andrews received his prognosis, he sat with his second wife, Shirley, and detailed for the first time his lymphatic cancer and the extent of his estate.
“Here’s what I have set-up for you,” he said, then listed her imminent ownership of his large four-bedroom house with its three-car garage, surrounded by an expansive open area, and grassed pastures spotted with healthy oak and cottonwood trees. It exuded the feel of a gentleman’s farm on the outskirts of Berdan, a town named after a Civil War Colonel all but forgotten except for reenactors. Andrew’s remote lakeside cabin, several life insurance policies, and the proceeds from a healthy buy-out agreement from his business partners accompanied the house and land she would inherit. As did a new 1982 Pontiac Trans Am. As she listened Shirley sat with her hands in her lap and uttered not a word.
Three weeks after their dinner, Shirley, twenty-six years of age, tall, erect, well-coiffed, her lithe body sheathed in custom-tailored clothing, walked into the mortuary and the mourners saw precisely why Walter T. Andrews, dead at age fifty-seven, divorced his wife of more than a quarter of a century to marry Shirley.
She walked behind Walter’s coffin as it was carried from the wood-framed church Walter’s grandfather had helped build. The dust from the wheat fields hit her face, and worked into her nose and throat. She coughed, and the smell of wool mixed with funeral incense merged with the stale hay and clung to her hair and clothes.
At the graveside, Shirley knelt to kiss Walter’s coffin. When she stood, she looked into the freshly dug six-foot hole with its deep parallel walls, and recoiled as if punched in the chest.
Shirley lived as a widow for several months, then without warning, married Seán Tyler, a five-foot, eight-inch seasonal carpenter whose youth, eyes, and strong hands attracted her.
“Why do you do it then?” She asked one evening, after Seán was laid-off from his seasonal carpentry job.
“It’s what I know,” Seán replied.
“You need a better job. I could get you a job at Walter’s factory,” Shirley said, referring to her recently deceased husband’s company.
Before her father had died, Shirley was often taken on shopping trips to the largest city in the state. There, she received the royal treatment from the dressmakers of Henry’s Clothing Store, with its polished brass elevators and raised marbled fitting rooms set amid multi-mirrored alcoves, enhancing Shirley’s sense of being a princess. After shopping, Shirley and her mother would cross the street to the Innes Tea Room, where ladies with shopping bags from Henry’s Clothing Store were especially welcome.
Seán was from a less dignified world with days of macaroni and cheese, followed by days of goulash, followed by days of spaghetti. His clothing came from the southern part of town from an old merchant called Farmers Service and Supply with its bare cement floors and dusty parking lot. The walls of Sean’s family home displayed no photographs of him or prized artworks from school, whereas Shirley’s family home resembled a shrine to her development.
Shirley and Seán argued regularly. About his taste in clothes, “I could get you an appointment with Walter’s tailor.” About his table manners, “Here’s what Walter showed me.” His diet, “Don’t eat that. It’s full of saturated fat.” His truck, “I could buy you a new one.” His family, “Why don’t we skip going over there this Christmas? Maybe next time.”
Seán never counterpunched. When Shirley’s jabs continued, he took them in stride, glaring back at her with a cowl that eventually changed him.
Within months of their marriage, Shirley’s emotions slid from cleaving intensity into intense resentment.
After two years of marriage to Seán and six weeks of separation, Shirley awoke alone to a Saturday morning wind that did not blow so much as gasp. And when it gasped, it sounded as if the world had been sucked through a straw, then, like a shotgun blast, detritus scattered against the double-paned bedroom windows. She turned her head to the right toward the gray-tinted sunlight so common in that part of the state.
Drenched in the perspiration of uneasiness, Shirley remained in bed, her eyes alert while her mind raced. The day stretched before her like a gauntlet. She reached for the clock – 7:30 a.m. – and almost dropped it when the alarm sounded. The shrill sound was followed by the announcer’s shouted weather report: The temperature will drop to twenty degrees below zero this evening due to a mass of arctic air sweeping down from Canada. Shirley calculated the hours until dinner and smiled. A little cold never hurt anybody with a heavy coat and a warm car; she thought. Besides, she had a mission.
By ten that morning, Shirley was in her Pontiac Trans Am driving west. She arrived early for her appointment with Walter’s attorney. Seán watched her intently from his truck parked across the street as she walked into the building.
Shirley’s diary detailed incidents of Seán secreting himself in their bedroom closet, and his attempts to tape record her activities. One evening as Shirley and her friend – whom she consistently described both in gender-free and fiction-laden terms – sat immersed in her warm bathtub among bubbles, candles, and shadows she heard the garage door open. She pulled back quickly, sat up, grabbed a towel, and rushed into the hallway. Seán was already at the top of the stairs we she arrived. He brushed past her toward the bedroom, and shoved the wet, naked man against the wall.
“Seán, come here.” Her voice sounding commanding and stern.
He backed quickly from the bedroom into the hallway.
“You and I are separated, Seán.” Shirley’s voice was precise and bold. “You have to go.”
“I am not leaving you with him,” Seán exclaimed, his right arm extending accusingly toward the bedroom. “You can’t be sleeping with other men.”
“You need to leave, or I’ll have to call the police.”
“They’ll arrest you. You can’t just walk into this house at midnight.”
“You can’t be sleeping with other men.”
“I can, and I will,” Shirley said, while turning and reaching for the phone.
Escorted from the house by the police, Seán’s words, physical feints and revengeful stares meant nothing to Shirley. She repeated to herself words that had become sort of a mantra, “Poor guy…hallucinating…some sad male fantasy.” She no longer cared about Seán. She was young, financially independent, and bored as hell.
It was twilight when Shirley applied her makeup and selected a dress for the evening. As she backed the car from the driveway, snow was on her front lawn.
The field next to the restaurant where Shirley would dine was flat, so flat in fact that Shirley felt she could look past the horizon to the very ends of the Earth. On her right was the remaining wheat stubble from the previous harvest that had turned from green to gold, and then to dirt gray. The frigid wind burned as it shot past her bare legs. Shirley sneezed, then sneezed three more times.
The restaurant’s fame was born of dinners of fried chicken served family style, meaning that the waitress placed bowls of food on the table and the customers served themselves. On walls of blue and white flowered wallpaper hung cast iron skillets and decorated ladles, which reminded Shirley of the chipped cup that rested beside the pump handle near the windmill at her aunt and uncle’s farm.
Shirley walked around the bar to avoid the smokers, and thought to herself, Why don’t I let the Sheriff’s Office do this? They can serve these papers. I don’t need to do this by myself.
Then she saw Seán seated at a table besides the hearth, pasted on a smile, patted her purse with the documents the lawyer prepared, and glided over to the table. She noticed a light blue box with a bow rested in front of Seán. Shirley intentionally ignored it. This is not going to be a celebration, she thought.
Under the restaurant’s bright lights, Shirley felt as though she could wrap herself in waves of warm air, and she summoned, what Walter had called, intestinal fortitude. During dinner, Shirley aligned the serving bowls, rearranged the corn and the chicken on her plate, and finally gave up, she turned her fork upside down and placed it on the upper edge of the dinner plate.
She watched Seán eat while she ruminated over her prepared lines. She noticed his eyes did what they always did when he had a plan. It was as if his eyes belonged to another person. Shirley saw his jaw muscles contract, and sense his danger, a darkness she had early on been attracted to. Seán set his fork on the plate and reached for the blue box. Shirley slapped a tri-folded sheet of paper on top of the box.
“What ‘s this?” Seán asked?
“Read it,” said Shirley.
Seán pointed to the top of the page. “It says it’s a Waiver of Service for a divorce.”
Shirley remained silent.
“Well,” he said.
Shirley watched his eyes.
“Well,” he said once more.
“You know very well why. I’m not going over it again.”
Seán stared at the empty plate, then turned toward the nearby window, “Good lord, look at that snow. It looks like it’s rolling toward us.”
Shirley inhaled deeply, cleared her throat, and began, “Seán, this is going to happen. I can’t live with you hiding in the closet and tape recording me in my own bedroom.”
“No. My bedroom,” she said, noticing the fire in his eyes and his clenched fist.
“We’ll be okay if you just stop sleeping with other men.”
“You are in no position to tell me how to live my life,” she said coldly.
“The hell I’m not,” Seán said in a voice somewhere between a growl and a whisper.
“The hell you are,” she said, resuming her original position, “I refuse to do this. Here are the papers. Either do it, or don’t. It doesn’t matter. There will be a divorce.”
“And I’ll get alimony,” Seán fired back.
Shirley did not bother to respond. Instead, she placed her hands on her lap, and firmly said, “I need to go.” She then picked up her purse and scooted her chair back.
“Let’s take a ride before we say goodbye,” Seán said.
“Just tell me what you want, Seán,” she said with utter exasperation in her voice.
Seán smiled, “Let me go home with you tonight. I can drive. We’ll pick up your car after breakfast tomorrow.”
Shirley looked at him, “I’ll be right back,” and walked toward the restroom.
“Alright,” she said when she returned, then pausing for effect, “This isn’t happening. I’m leaving. Without you.”
Seán gripped the arms of his chair, pushed himself up, stopped, placed the blue box in his coat pocket, and slowly turned his head toward the windows.
Shirley avoided piles of fresh snow as she made her way toward the Trans Am. She started its engine, pushed the heater far into the red, and within moments was awash in the heaters welcoming warmth.
She needed to be alone. On Highway 54, Shirley abruptly turned onto County Road 64, and then stopped at a turnoff north of the river about one-hundred yards from Walter’s hidden cabin. She had walked this path many times, and, despite the drifting piles of snow, she felt she needed the time it took to walk from the car to the cabin to dissipate her anger. From inside the car, Shirley heard the crunching sound of gravel. A hand violently slapped the top of the car door, then pulled it open. Another hand clenched her left shoulder and pulled at her.
“Out,” was all Shirley heard before she felt a sharp sensation against her back.
“That way,” a voice boomed, and shoved her toward a ditch near the small grove of trees, sparse remnants of a 1930’s Works Progress Administration windbreak.
Shirley had grabbed the top of the door with her bare hands as she was being shoved, and her flesh stung. Within a few seconds, the capillaries of her hands had constricted and sent her blood deep into her core to warm her vital organs.
All at once Shirley was pushed, pulled, and then punched. She heard what she thought were gunshots but then thought the sound may have been from an old truck backfiring. Distracted by the scratchy snow packed down her blouse, Shirley failed to notice a thin trickle of blood running down her torso.
She collapsed onto her back and felt a harsh pain in her spine, followed by complete numbness in her legs. Moisture trickled, then poured down her face. She heard a voice come from the shadows, “Happy now?” She attempted to kick, but could not.
Ten minutes later, blood seeped back into Shirley’s fingers and her body temperature rose. Sweat trickled down her sternum and the cold, evening air bit at her. She heard the sound of leaves crackle underfoot. The brittle crunch was trailed by the fading sound of a car driving over a gravel road.
Frigid air pressed against her body and sweat-soaked clothes. Her wet clothing dissipated her body heat into the night. Another ten minutes passed. Shirley’s hands and feet ached with the bitter cold. She tried to ignore the pain. A clammy chill started around her skin and descended deep into her body. She was unable to stop shivering, and eventually trembled so violently that her muscles contracted involuntarily.
Too weary to feel any urgency, Shirley decided to rest. Just for a moment. Only a moment, she thought to herself. Her head dropped back. The snow crunched softly in her ear. An hour passed. As the minutes fell by, her body heat leached into the enveloping snow.
Shirley’s body abandoned the urge to warm itself by shivering. Her blood was now as thick as cold crankcase oil. She watched helplessly as the snow covered her. At least she had her coat, she thought. If only I had worn lined slacks instead of a dress. If only I had worn boots instead of heels. If only I had gone home. If only…
Her breath rolled out in short, frosted puffs. Within minutes her heart, hammered by chilled nerve tissues, became arrhythmic. She thought only of a warm car filled with furry animals and the fireplace that awaited her somewhere but she could not remember where. She then thought of saunas, warm food and a glass of red wine.
When Shirley’s initial hypothermic hallucination ended, there was a dead silence, broken only by the pumping of her blood in her ears. Her body drained, she sank deeply into the snow. The pain of the cold pierced her ears so sharply that she rooted into the snow in search of warmth and comfort. Even that little activity exhausted her.
Shirley slept briefly and dreamed of sun and sunflowers carrying warm, furry animals to snuggle close to her. However her night did not last much longer. She lifted her face from her soft, warm snow pillow, and she thought she heard the telephone ring from inside the cabin. She heard it again, but this time it sounded like sleigh bells. Gradually, she realized these were not sleigh bells, but welcoming bells hanging from the door of Walter’s cabin just through the trees. The jingling was the sound of the cabin door as it opened. She attempted to stand, but collapsed. She would have to crawl. The cabin was so close.
Hours later the cabin still sat beyond the grove of trees. Shirley hadn’t crawled an inch. Exhausted, she decided to rest her head for a moment.
When she lifted her head again, Shirley was inside Walter’s cabin seated in front of the woodstove. Walter held her while he spoon-fed her warm soup. Secure and safe, they watched the fire throw a red glow about the small cabin. Walter caressed her face and carried her closer to the fireplace. Shirley felt warm, then warmer, then hot. She was unable to see the flames, but she knew that her clothes were on fire. The flames seared her flesh. Her blood vessels dilated and produced a sensation of extreme heat against her skin. In an attempt to save herself, Shirley ripped off her dress.
The winter storm continued for many days. When the wind subsided, and the temperature rose, the work crews were finally able to clear the roads. Motels emptied of stranded travelers, eighteen-wheelers resumed their western treks, and a county maintenance worker discovered a nude female body in a ditch seven miles from Berdan.
Thomas Elson lives in Northern California. He writes of lives that fall with neither safe person nor safe net to catch them. His short stories have appeared, inter alia, in the Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Red City Literary Review, Clackamas Literary Review, The 3288 Review, Perceptions Magazine, and Literary Commune.