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, or are scheduled to appear, inter alia, in the Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Red City Literary Review, Oracle Fine Arts Review, Avalon Literary Review, Perceptions Magazine, Clackamas Literary Review, and Literary Commune.
Friday, February 19, 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 both his lymphatic cancer and the extent of his estate.
“Here’s what I 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, grassed pastures 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. His remote lakeside cabin, several life insurance policies, proceeds from a healthy buy-out agreement from his business partners, and a fully paid life insurance policy on her life accompanied the house and land she would inherit. As did a new 1982 Pontiac Trans Am. She 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 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 in the fields and clung to her hair and clothes.
At 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.
She lived as a widow a few months, then without notice, 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 he was laid-off from his seasonal carpentry job.
“It’s what I know,” Seán said.
“You need a better job. I could get you a job at Walter’s factory,” she said, referring to her deceased husband’s old company.
Before her father had died, Shirley was taken on shopping trips to the largest city in the state; she received royal attention from the dressmakers of Henry’s Clothing Store with its polished brass elevators and raised marbled fitting rooms set amid multi-mirrored alcoves, which enhanced her sense of being a princess. After shopping, Shirley and her mother crossed the street to the Innes Tea Room – for ladies only – and ladies with shopping bags from Henry’s were especially welcome.
Seán was from a more diminished world with days of macaroni and cheese, followed by days of goulash, followed by days of spaghetti. His clothing came from south of town at Farmers Service and Supply with bare cement floors and dusty parking lot. The walls of his family home displayed no photos or prized drawings from school, whereas Shirley’s family home resembled a shrine to her development.
Their arguments continued. 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 her jabs continued, he only glared; and in that glare, she recognized another person gradually emerge.
Within months of the marriage, her emotions slid from cleaving intensity deep into intense resentment.
After two years of marriage 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, sounded as if the world had been sucked through a straw, then, like a shotgun blast, scattered the detritus 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 perspiration, Shirley remained in bed, her eyes alert, her mind raced. The day stretched before her like a gauntlet. She reached for the clock – 7:30 a.m., almost dropped it when the alarm sounded, 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,” then slid into his local sports voice to read the Friday night scores.
She calculated the hours until dinner and smiled. A little cold never hurt anybody with a heavy coat and a warm car; besides that, 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 from his truck as she walked into the building.
Shirley’s notebook pages detailed incidents of Seán secreting himself in the 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, pulled back, sat erect, grabbed a towel, and rushed into the hallway. Seán was at the top of the stairs. He brushed past her toward the bedroom, and shoved the wet, naked man against the wall.
“Seán, come here.” Her voice like a command.
He backed from the bedroom into the hallway.
“You and I are separated, Seán.” Her voice was precise. “You have to go.”
“I am not leaving you with him,” his right arm extended 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,” she turned, reached for the phone, and walked away.
Escorted from the house by the police, Seán’s words, physical feints, revengeful stares meant nothing to Shirley. She repeated to herself, “Poor guy – hallucinating – some sad male fantasy.” She no longer cared. She was young, financially independent, and bored as hell.
It was twilight when Shirley applied make-up and selected a dress. As she backed the car from the driveway, snow was on her front lawn.
The field next to the restaurant was flat - so flat and level Shirley felt that she could scan past the horizon to the corner of the earth. On her right was the remaining wheat stubble that had turned from green to gold, then to dirt gray. The wind burned as it shot past her bare legs. She sneezed, then sneezed three more times.
The restaurant’s fame rested on dinners of fried chicken served family style – meaning that the waitress placed bowls of food on the table and the customers served themselves while seated inside one of the multiple smaller rooms at one of the tables of pine or oak veneer, on chairs as varied as cane back, ladder back, or plastic Windsor. 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 next to the horse trough near the windmill at her aunt and uncle’s farm.
She walked around the bar to avoid the smokers, and said 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, so she pasted on a smile, patted her purse with the documents the lawyer prepared, and glided to the table. She noticed a light blue box with a bow rested in front of Seán. She intentionally ignored it. “This is not going to be a celebration,” she repeated silently.
Under the restaurant’s bright lights, she felt as though she could wrap herself in waves of warm air, then summoned, what Walter called, intestinal fortitude.
During dinner, Shirley aligned the serving bowls, rearranged the corn and the chicken on her plate, finally gave up, 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, watched as his eyes did what they always did when he had a plan. It was as if his eyes belonged to another person. She saw his jaw muscles contract, and knew his danger – early on had been attracted to it.
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?”
“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.
She watched his eyes.
“Well,” he said once more.
“You know very well why. I’m not going over it again.”
He stared at the empty plate, then turned toward the window, “Good Lord, look at that snow. It looks like it’s rolling toward us.”
She inhaled deeply, cleared her throat, and began, “Seán, this is going to happen. I can’t live with-” She inhaled as if for courage. “-with you hiding in the closet and tape recording me in my own bedroom.”
“No. My bedroom,” she said, noticed his eyes, then 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 stressed the first word with a slow emphasis on the ones that followed.
“The hell I’m not,” he said in a voice that combined a growl and a whisper.
“The hell you are,” she said, then resumed 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,” he said.
Shirley did not bother to respond; instead, she placed her hands on her lap, and said, “I need to go,” 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.” She heard the 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.”
She looked at him, “I’ll be right back,” and walked toward the restroom. She had decided.
“Alright,” she said when she returned, then paused for effect, “I’m leaving.”
Seán gripped the arms of his chair, started to push himself up, stopped, placed the blue box in his coat pocket, and slowly turned his head toward the windows.
Shirley walked around piles of snow toward the Trans Am. She started the engine, pushed the heater far into the red, and within moments felt the warmth.
She needed to be alone. On Highway 54, she 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, needed the time to get rid of her anger. Inside the car, she heard the crunching sound of gravel. A hand slapped the top of the car door, then pulled it open. Another hand clenched her left shoulder and pulled her.
“Out,” was all she heard, and felt a sharp sensation against her back.
“That way,” he said, and shoved her toward a ditch near the small grove of trees, sparse remnants of a 1930’s W.P.A. windbreak.
She had grabbed the top of the door with her bare hands, and her flesh stung. Within a few seconds, the capillaries of her hands constricted and sent blood deep to warm her vital organs. The palms of her hands were a painful 60 degrees
Suddenly she was pushed, pulled, and then punched. She heard what she thought were gunshots. Quickly realized the sounds were familiar – as if from an old truck. Distracted by the scratchy snow packed down her blouse, she failed to notice a thin line of blood.
She fell on her back, 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 a shadow, “Happy now?” She attempted to kick, but could not.
In about ten minutes, blood seeped back into her fingers, her body temperature rose; sweat trickled down her sternum, cold air bit at her. She heard the sound of leaves crackle. 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. The wet clothing dispelled heat into the night. As the cold crept toward her warm blood, her temperature plummeted below 98.6. Another ten minutes passed. Her hands and feet ached with 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 trembled so violently her muscles contracted.
Too weary to feel any urgency, she decided to rest. “Just for a moment. Only a moment.” Her head dropped back. The snow crunched softly in her ear. Forgetfulness nibbled at her. An hour passed. Her body heat leached into the enveloping snow; her temperature fell about one degree every 30 minutes.
Her 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. If only she had worn lined slacks instead of a dress. If only she had worn boots instead of heels. If only she had gone home. If only.
Her breath rolled out in short frosted puffs. Within minutes her heart, hammered by chilled nerve tissues, became arrhythmic, and pumped less than two-thirds its normal amount. She thought only of a warm car filled with furry animals and a fireplace that awaited her – she could not remember where. Then she thought of saunas, warm food and wine.
When her initial hypothermic hallucination ended, there was dead silence, broken only by the pumping of blood in her ears. Her body drained, she sank into the snow. The pain of the cold pierced her ears so sharply she rooted into the snow in search of warmth and comfort. Even that little activity exhausted her.
She slept and dreamed of sun and sunflowers carrying warm, furry animals to snuggle close to her. Her night did not last long. She lifted her face from her soft, warm snow pillow, and 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, collapsed. She knew could crawl. It was so close.
Hours later, or maybe minutes, the cabin still sat beyond the grove of trees. She has not crawled an inch. Exhausted, she decided to rest her head for a moment.
When she lifted her head again, she was inside the cabin 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. Walter caressed her face and carried her closer to the fireplace. She felt warm, then warmer, then hot. She was unable to see flames, but knew 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, she ripped off her dress.
The winter storm continued for many days. When the wind subsided, and the temperature rose, the crews were 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 near a ditch seven miles from Berdan.
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