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MUSED Literary Magazine.

Merely a Passenger

Thomas Elson

In the press coverage, there was no mention of a struggle, no mention that a body had been moved, nor whether any blood had been found. There was official silence whether any mud, grass, or debris from another location had been discovered in the grove of trees. Nor was there mention of a suspect.

Shirley sat at the head of the dining room table built by her great-grandfather, William. She rubbed her palms across the smooth one-hundred-and-two-year-old surface. Without bothering to look around the floral centerpiece, she told her second husband, “I’m driving my car to the restaurant tonight.” She squinted to block the reflection of the setting sun off the brass-framed mirror bought by her great-grandfather to celebrate the opening of his first bank. “You can take your truck. I’ll meet you at the restaurant.”

Seán agreed. He endured her my-agenda-trumps-your agenda dictates and had long grown accustomed to her swings depending on what he did not know. Nor, at this point, did he really care. He had a message to deliver and tonight was as good a time as any. Plus, he was scheduled to start work on a new project in the state capitol the next day.

* * *

One hour and forty minutes after being seated at the Brookvale Hotel Restaurant, Seán stomped out with his fists clenched as tight as his jaw. Karen, Shirley’s friend, rushed over to Shirley in concern. Karen leaned down, touched Shirley´s forearm, and asked, “Honey, is everything okay?”

Shirley growled, “Why the hell did I ever marry that pain in the ass?”

There was a motion and Shirley glanced up. The bar´s mirror showed a familiar reflection. Her eyes widened as he stood, nodded, and left.

At Shirley´s side, Karen, ever mindful of her place, soothed, “It must be hard for you, Shirley.”

Karen bit down on saying anything further. After all, Karen´s husband was an employee at one of Shirley’s inherited banks. Her thoughts swirled behind her held-in-place smile. Well, honey, you knew this guy for, what, a few weeks before you proposed to him? Your only interest in him was his six-pack abs. And now that you´re married you never listen to him. You never listen to anyone, because you have the money to do what you want. And all because of that great-grandfather of yours and his stupid plan.

* * *

Shirley’s great-grandfather, William, had traveled by Conestoga wagon to Kansas before it was a state, quickly adapting to its lack of significant waterways and short growing season compressed between scorching sun and biting cold. He sided with the Union in 1861, served with Jennison´s Jayhawkers, survived, returned, and settled in Ninnescah County. He soon adopted a proprietary attitude, which, as he intertwined land grants, real estate bargaining, bank purchases, dry-state bootlegging, and three marriages into wealth and authority, hardened into ownership, then entitlement.

At the age of seventy-one, William, by now a flinty man of immense wealth, had not heard the word ‘no’ spoken to him in years. His first wife, a hardy pioneer woman, committed suicide during an isolating plains-state winter. His second and third wives died in childbirth. This three-time widower, in search of his eternal spring, announced, in a state of enthusiasm brought on by a family dinner marked by overindulgence, “I’m gonna start lookin’ for a new wife. And this time she’s gonna be someone a hellava lot younger than the last two.”

His pronouncement provoked family squabbles among father, sons, and grandsons, which were followed by pleading, then exhortations. When his boys got around to issuing threats, William quickly brought it all to a halt by letting them know that he had bequeathed the entirety of his estate onto his yet unborn first great-granddaughter. Then, just to spite the boys, William added a spendthrift clause to expire upon the girl’s twenty-sixth birthday.

When William died eight months later, he had found neither his eternal spring nor his youthful spouse.

Through the years, the family’s attitude toward that yet unknown first great-granddaughter grew into disdain. Depending upon the size of the inheritance each family member thought had been stolen from him, this emotion expanded into resentment and even hatred.

When Shirley finally made her appearance, it was into a family whose members sprung from the womb with the knowledge that she was an intruder. She grew into adulthood knowing her uncles, father, and even her younger brother treated her as a thief, somewhat akin to the robber barons.

Two months after the spendthrift clause expired, and one month after Shirley walked out of a bitter probate court hearing in sole possession of her great-grandfather’s 2,800-square-foot home, banks in two states, and land in three, she married a man older and wealthier than her great-grandfather. When he died of lymphatic cancer three years later, she inherited his real estate, more banks, and the proceeds from several life insurance policies.

Four affairs, two assignations, and several one-night stands later, Shirley, tall and statuesque, leaned her upper back against a kitchen door. She stretched to her full height, breathed deeply, and looked down at Seán Tyler, a master carpenter. Her great-grandfather’s kitchen needed an update, and a website with photographs of Italian hidden kitchens caught her eye. On the recommendation of acquaintances in the state capitol, she chose Seán to do the design and installation work.

Shirley focused on Seán’s loose-cropped black hair, strong jaw, and clean-shaven face. Then she looked through his T-shirt and imagined six-pack abs she could bounce on.

He placed his design of a carved baroque door on the counter and said, “Is this what you had in mind?”

Her immediate thought was, Oh, hell, yes. As soon as possible.

Within a few weeks, Shirley announced, “We’ll be married here.” She didn’t wait for a response, “I’ve already arranged the wedding and reception.” Then she handed Seán her iPad open to the St. Fidelis Church website.

He agreed and shrugged. He knew a good thing when it lay in bed next to him.

* * *

“But it’s so far away from your house,” Karen, her maid of honor said, looking at photos of the limestone church seventy-six miles from Berdan just off I-70 west of the ragged Flint Hills. The shadows from the church contrasted with light that hit against the land and disappeared in its crevasses.

“But it will photograph great for the newspaper,” replied Shirley, who had begun to choreograph the day almost to the weather.

The Romanesque design, German windows, Austrian hand-carved stations of the cross, Italian marble altar, and forty-four-foot-high ceiling would accommodate 1,100 people. The architecture would elegantly frame Shirley with her wedding party.

Two weeks later, there stood Shirley, William’s first-born great-granddaughter, inside the vestibule of the photogenic church. Her lips were tight, eyes narrowed, fingers tapping against her Ricca Sposa wedding dress, waiting for the organist to begin.

After the wedding, whirlwind honeymoon among the towers of New York City, and settling-in period, Shirley was content with her newly acquired prize. She was happy to morph herself conditional upon his desires and to serve herself to Seán on any platter he wanted.

* * *

On the fourth month of their marriage, Seán was chaffing under her dictates of where to sit, how to sit, which fork to use, and when to use it. “What difference does it make? They all get the job done,” he said one evening when he mistook a dinner fork for a salad fork and misused a tablespoon as a dessert spoon. He told his bride he wanted to resume his work as a master carpenter in the state capitol. “I’ll be home on the weekends.”

She objected; he did it anyway, and a slow deterioration grew. Nothing cataclysmic - just a gradual progression. Shirley spent increasingly more time at her bank meetings. He grew comfortable alone on the weekends lolling about her sainted great-grandfather’s house.

During a bank meeting at the Berdan branch, once again, Shirley felt as though she could see through clothing. This time it was the bespoke suit of her new bank attorney. She imagined a swimmer’s body, leaned toward him, and said, “Let’s have dinner tonight at the Canterbury Inn.”

His head turned, and she used her little finger to move a strand of hair from her left eye. Dan Bierley, age forty-two, married with no children, was a second-generation lawyer with clients ranging from farmer-ranchers to oilmen. His wife knew he often took clients to dinner, so his acceptance came faster than Shirley expected.

The Canterbury Inn Restaurant was designed along the lines of a club the owner visited during a trip to Canterbury, England. There was nothing else like it in Berdan. Probably nothing like it in Canterbury, either. Shirley and Bierley, both smartly attired, each with green eyes and well-paid-for smiles, made an attractive couple.

Bierley said, “I like this place.”

Shirley closed the wine list, “It’s all right,” she said. Then she lifted her chin and, with the wave of her hand, flipped the list aside. She exhaled, stretched against the back of her chair, inhaled, crossed her legs, and looked directly at Bierley’s eyes.

She was mesmerized by his aura of lust and erudition. He basked in anticipation.

They continued to meet for months either at her house when Seán was working out-of-town or in Kansas City on other weekends. They thought it was easy, since Bierley’s wife did not venture outside Berdan and Seán worked miles away.

On one of their excursions to the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, Shirley said, “I would love to live right there.”

Bierley saw she was pointing to the seven-story condominiums overlooking the Plaza, and said, “Not in Berdan?”

“No, no, I want out.”

* * *

By now the marriage consisted of single syllable utterances on Friday and Sunday evenings, followed by minimal eye contact. There was no intimacy. Shirley realized there was no hope of further molding herself into his expectations of a wife. If she deigned to spread her hands to dance, she would be the one to lead.

After several weekends with no word from his wife, and, in a fit of suspicion, Seán returned to Berdan unannounced on a Monday evening. He saw an unidentified car in the driveway and positioned himself outside their bedroom window. One hour later, he knew.

He would deliver that news at the right time.

* * *

Shirley confided to her brother, “I’ve gotta get out of this thing. But I’m sure as hell not taking a financial hit.” Shirley´s brother had constantly humiliated her as a child. Once she´d come into her money, he had only visited to plead for cash. Just this once. And I’ll pay you back. She would hesitate, and he´d add, With interest, this time.

When at last she would give in, she´d state in an imperious tone, “How about just paying me back this time.”

* * *

She consulted a divorce lawyer in the state’s largest city, who told her, “You’ve got no pre-nup, and this is a no-fault divorce state,” He waited for that to absorb, then added, “You’ve got a lot to lose here.”

She nodded. She drew herself erect, shot her shoulders back, and without blinking, said, “Well, that’s why I’m here.” Then she grinned and asked, “So, am I in the right office?”

The lawyer’s fingers steepled under his chin. “Fortunately, this is not a community property state, but a common law property state. And in this state, when dividing property, most judges are still in the habit of filtering the facts through the colander of extreme cruelty and gross neglect of duty.”

“What’s that mean in English?”

“You two have no children, and it’s a short-term marriage. The judge will divide the money based on who’s at fault.”

“But Seán will tell the court about-”

The lawyer had heard these stories for years.

I strayed, and he’s unfaithful

He won’t, but I can’t

I tried, but he won’t

and on and on and on.

He stopped her from her excuses. “If you didn’t do it, deny it,” the lawyer said. “Otherwise, you will want to say in these exact words, If he wasn’t away from the house so much, I might not have felt he abandoned me, and I wouldn’t have done it. It was a moment of weakness, and I regret it.

He twirled his pen and suppressed a yawn. “Then, you emphasize the point by saying, It may have been a mistake, but if Seán were ever at home, I wouldn’t have looked elsewhere.

He paused for a moment, then raised one eyebrow and shrugged. “The only reason I mention this next thing is to give the marriage one last chance. There’s a marriage encounter weekend I recommend my clients go to with their spouses before filing for divorce. They do group work and confidential journaling. I’ve found it helps my clients to explore their concerns in writing. Whichever way things end up going.”

Shirley was a quick learner. When Seán returned home on Friday night, she stated as he came in, “You and I are going on a marriage weekend next Friday. You need to be home early. I know you’ll be tired, so I’ll drive.”

As he looked up she added without hesitation, “It’ll be great. Sun. Swimming. Good food. Get us the hell away from here.”

* * *

Their hotel check-in was easy. She had paid for the entire weekend in advance and choreographed the weekend down to her smiles.

On the first night they made love. Shirley made sure that Saturday night was even more intense. She curled her hand through Seán’s arm as they walked. During the group sessions she kept her participation minimal, but made sure to reveal to the group that their intimacy was great. She squeezed Seán’s leg each time she talked.

There was another component to her performance. When Seán moved his hand, she flinched. Two more times, when he made a motion toward her, she flinched away.

But it was the marriage journals which were her main focus. During the weekend Seán offered to show her his entries, but she insisted they wait. “When we get home. Not now.”

Shirley took great care when crafting her entries in her journal. She was attentive to follow the retreat counselor’s instructions in every way. Each entry was written as if she was talking directly to Seán.

Seán, I am unable to talk to you about your anger and temper. I’m afraid to. Your outbursts intimidate me and sometimes scare me. I know they’re not caused by me. However, I freak out when you do that. I feel sad, panicky, unable to cope, ashamed, insecure, and unloved when you do those things.

I feel threatened.

* * *

One week later, Shirley told Seán they were having dinner at the Brookvale Restaurant that night. She added, her eyes hidden by the centerpiece on her great-grandfather´s dining room table, “You can take your truck. I’ll meet you at the restaurant.”

The wallpaper at the Brookvale Hotel restaurant was patterned after the the flour sacks which farm wives used to make dresses. Fried chicken dinners were served family style, meaning that smiling, well-fed waitresses placed entire bowls of food on the table, and the customers served themselves.

The couple´s dinner was extended by Seán’s anger and her careful guiding to keep it in public view.

You will

I want

But you’ll be

I don’t care

The whole town will know

What do I care

At last Shirley felt the time was right. She ordered Seán, “Oh, hell, calm down. Quit your damn whining. You sound like a little girl. It’s not the end of the world. We’re getting a divorce, and that’s that.”

Seán stared at her for a long moment. Then, without a word, he stood and turned his back on her. He strode out of the restaurant, not looking back.

The room stared after him, open-mouthed.

Karen came over to offer platitudes which Shirley barely heard. After Karen returned to her own table, Shirley sat alone for a few minutes, giving the room time to absorb her as the abandoned, injured party in this relationship. At last she stood, dropped some bills on the table, and headed out, her spirits rising with each new step. She carefully crossed the parking lot´s gravel in her high heels, her head held high in satisfaction. The chill wind seared her legs.

She started her car and shoved the heater lever into the red against the cold. Nearby, she heard the crunching sound of gravel. She looked to her left. Her door hauled opened. A hand slapped the car roof, and something grasped her left shoulder.

She blinked in surprise. “Bierley? What are you-”

“Shut up.”

“Can’t we just-”

“What the hell were you doing in there for so damn long?”

“Let’s talk.” She reached to stroke his upper arm.

He pulled her out of her car and shoved her into his vehicle. “We’ll talk in here.”

She had never heard him use that tone of voice.

Shirley hunched forward in the passenger seat, drawing her knees to her chest within the circle of her arms. The full blast of his heater blew up her dress. She barely noticed. Her arms shook as her mind went blank in shock.

Within minutes they had gone from the restaurant parking lot, down fifteen miles west on I-70, and onto an off-ramp. The paved, well-maintained road abruptly changed to washboard county roads.

She realized suddenly that her hands were wet against her face. She had no idea when that had happened. “Where are we? Where are you taking me?”

“Well?” His gaze pinned her in place as the car bounced along. “Answer my question. What were you and Seán arguing about? Is he making you leave me?” He growled, then hit the steering wheel. “Now!” he yelled. “Tell me now!”

He hammered the steering wheel even harder, and the entire console reverberated.

Shirley tried to swallow. Her throat was too dry. She coughed to clear it as she curled more tightly into herself. “Please, I’ll do anythi-”

“One way, or another, Shirley-”

He slammed on the brakes to make a hard right turn. Shirley’s head hit the dashboard. The world edged with darkness, then resolved.

His breath became labored. He inhaled after each word, “You – will - not – leave - me.”

His hand moved. She felt a clinch on the back of her neck. She screwed her eyes shut against the pain. “We can-”

Her face was shoved closer to his pants leg and her words were muffled.

She desperately tried again. “Let’s-”

He buried her head deeper into his leg.

Panic coursed through her and she did the only thing she could. She bit down.

His body became rigid. “You bitch!”

He reached across her, threw open the car door, and then gave her a solid push. She landed, flailing, in the rough dirt. The cold night air shocked her lungs to long heaves.

She struggled to get onto her hands and knees. A strong grasp latched onto her forearm, and she was dragged onto her back. In a moment she was deep in the shadows of a grove of trees.

In an isolating winter just like the ones which had driven pioneer women to suicide, Shirley heard three sharp sounds. The last things she remembered was shock, then overwhelming pain.

She was not able to hear the fourth shot.