Limestone in the Winter
Shirley and Jacob Lawson had been alone and cold since the evening of their third anniversary, when she was buried for the first time.
Jacob knew Shirley was engaged in an extramarital affair. He witnessed one of her assignations while hidden inside their bedroom closet, then planted bugging devices in their bedroom and discovered the truth of her camping trips; nevertheless, he resisted his wife’s demands for a divorce unless they first attended marriage counseling. She chose a marriage encounter weekend.
Years earlier, Jacob, a master carpenter with cropped black hair and a clean-shaven face that announced he would do anything for acceptance, had latched his eyes onto Shirley’s classic mid-western face, Irish breadth and Norwegian strength common in that area. To Jacob, this tall, intense twenty-six year old was unique. I had to have her. Insatiable.
Shirley, tall with flawless hair and teeth, more socially adept and ambitious than her husband, worked as a paralegal at a large law firm in Berdan, the county seat. Six months earlier, she enrolled in a seminar in Kansas City, Missouri. Her five foot ten inch glide across the meeting hall caught the eye of Dan Bierley, a senior prosecutor in the County Attorney’s office. He maneuvered himself next to her just as the opening speaker began.
The evening of the seminar, Shirley and Bierley made an attractive couple at the Restaurant on the Plaza. The owner designed it to resemble a club he visited in Canterbury, England. Nothing like it in Kansas City. Probably nothing like it in Canterbury either; but to Shirley, it seemed glamorous. She was flattered by Bierley’s attention; he basked in the change of pace from his marriage. They remained together the entire weekend.
She was always a quick learner, and learned the one thing men wanted most when she lost her virginity at the age of fifteen. That one thing may differ in specifics among different men, but, in the end, it could be reduced to a single, crystalline thing – an illusion. She possessed a preternatural skill to discern which illusion a man craved. She thought of herself as merely delivering her part of the bargain – exchanging goods and services. To Shirley this was the price of living among intrusive men.
Her first husband wanted the illusion of the helpless virgin – Shirley wanted the freedom to be away from her parents. He granted; she acceded. Two and a half years into their marriage, he committed suicide. She consoled herself that he was mentally unbalanced - plus there was his insurance.
Her second husband, Jacob, wanted a strong, authoritative woman, and treated sex as if it were a cabinet project with assigned steps to be completed in strict sequence.
Bierley wanted a freedom-loving colt willing to roam anywhere. Over time, however, his passion descended into possession, then a sense of entitlement, and then into an almost cold exercise of power, which, at first, mesmerized, then frightened, and recently repelled her.
For their third anniversary, Shirley arranged to meet Jacob at the Ninnescah Restaurant in Berdan.
Shirley planned this dinner for weeks, even to the point of calling Jacob to remind him. He drove to pick her up; they had an argument about which car to take, and took separate cars arriving at the restaurant within minutes of each other.
At the table, Jacob shuffled his cloth napkin from left to right, the said, “Are you still planning to take that camping trip?”
Shirley was silent. She had discussed this multiple times. Her camping trips were her business. Whom she went out with was her business. Her dwindling interest in Jacob was her business.
Jacob then brought up their marriage counseling. “We had that marriage-counseling weekend just a month ago.” She heard the eagerness in his voice. “When we checked-in that first night, I was surprised that you made reservations for us to share a room.” She remembered that first night, they had made love; she made sure their second night was even more intense.
When she met his eyes, Jacob continued, “I thought we were there because of marriage problems. But you acted like we had none. Like it was our honeymoon.”
During their sessions, she had told the marriage counselor, “Things are improving. And we’re getting along better.” When the counselor asked about their intimacy issues, Shirley said, “No problems there,” blushed, and added, “Ever.” She smiled as she recalled her strategy.
Shirley looked at Jacob, then she looked for a waiter, and said, “Don’t. Don’t spoil this dinner. We’ve been over this before.”
“It’s already spoiled. Spoiled by your camping with other men. Who are they?” He looked down at the saltshaker, caught her silence, hid his hands under the table, and joined her in searching for a waiter.
They both flinched when the waiter arrived with menus, a water pitcher, and a steady patter of questions. Specials? Drinks? Appetizers? How would you like that prepared? Which vegetable? You have your choice of ... And for the gentleman?
“When did it start?” Jacob asked after the waiter left.
“When did it start?”
She had been determined not to talk about her affairs. Now she sensed an opening. “Right before you hid in the closet that night.”
Three to four months earlier, Jacob had secreted himself in their bedroom closet. Her calendar had an underlined note – DB. In fact, her calendar had the same initials under multiple dates.
I need to tell him. Just get it over with. She started taking, and within five minutes, Jacob shot from the table, his chair hit the floor, and he abruptly walked-out. Shirley, calmer than she thought, remained seated. That wasn’t so hard. She watched as he stomped flat-footed over the snow-covered parking lot, and smiled as he scraped ice off the windshield of his truck.
Thirty minutes after Jacob drove away, she gingerly walked outside. The wind burned her bare legs. Inside her Toyota, she turned on the engine and then the heater. She hurried over the slippery streets to meet Bierley at their usual spot – a little-traveled street a few blocks from the restaurant.
Inside her parked car, she heard a crunching sound, her door opened; she felt the repercussion from a slap on the roof of the car. A gloved hand clasped her left shoulder. “Dan – What are you”
He interrupted, “Why the hell did you take so long?” His voice strained, “We were supposed to be together.”
“We need to talk. Can’t we just-“
He interrupted again, “Tell me why the hell you stayed in there so damn long? You start sleeping with him again?”
“Dan, let’s talk.”
“Of course, we’ll talk – in my car.” He pulled her out of the Toyota, shoved her into his Lincoln. Once inside, she hunched forward, then huddled silent and quivering with her thighs pressed against her chest.
Cemented behind the steering wheel, Bierley demanded a justification. “Well? Tell me,” he said in a baritone whine, then hit the steering wheel. “Now,” and hit the steering wheel again.
Shirley tried to swallow. Throat too dry, she coughed, repositioned herself, kept her arms around her legs. “I can’t- I can’t be with you,” she said.
Bierley’s eyes fixed on her exposed legs, then his finger pointed directly at her, “And, don’t doubt for one damn second, one way or another,” he spit out his last four words, “we will be together.”
Her jaw tightened, “I can’t be the other woman.” Her voice barely audible, “I won’t do it.” As if that would alleviate the situation.
That evening, twenty miles from Berdan, temperature below 30, wind above 40, limestone in the winter cold, inside a grove of trees, under the fallen leaves, and beneath the upturned soil, Shirley was buried for the first time.
At Shirley’s second burial, the minister droned his solemn words - repeated as if inside a cathedral. The smell of loam drifted from the upturned mound a few yards behind the casket. Russian thistles grasped the cemetery fence as a whistle of wind slapped the canvas, surrounded the open grave, then spread like a rug and circled the casket. The sun ricocheted off the whites of the men’s eyes as their pupils darted. Women in black, heads lowered, readied their white handkerchiefs.
Her dark casket shone beneath the mesh canopy under which her family sat - recognized but unknown to Jacob, who stood a safe distance apart.
Dan Bierley was also a safe distance apart as he leaned against his Lincoln parked on a cemetery road fifty yards from Shirley’s casket.
Weeks later, at five o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. “Mr. Lawson, Mr. Jacob Lawson, you are under arrest. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say ... You have... If you cannot ... Then one will be ... Do you understand?’”
“You do understand?” More declarative than interrogative.
“You are under arrest for murder-in-the-first-degree of Shirley Lawson on or about the ...”
His wife dead. Police in his house. Arrested for murder. Too much confusion. A burial. An avalanche. From that point on, Jacob heard only white noise.
Inside the courtroom with its raised judge’s bench, in front of the spectators’ gallery were long counsel tables. The lead prosecutor sat next to the jury. To the right of the prosecutor, at a separate table, sat Jacob Lawson and his court-appointed defense attorney.
“Are you ready for the charges to be read?” The judge asked the assistant county attorney who nodded, but did not bother to stand. Neither Jacob, nor his court-appointed attorney was asked. The judge read from the white sheet of paper prepared by the assistant county attorney.
It had taken Dan Bierley one phone call and two exchanged favors to be assigned as prosecuting attorney in the Jacob Lawson criminal trial.
“As death is a part of life, so decomposition is a part of death. The autopsy revealed Shirley Lawson’s death was caused by three gunshot wounds to her head and throat, which produced massive brain injury. Her stomach held remnants of the same food served at the Ninnescah Restaurant,” said the pathologist as he began his testimony before the jury.
The pathologist responded to Bierley’s questions, “When discovered, her tongue resembled a gray-brown that looked like the bottom of a dried-up, dirty leather shoe sole.” Jacob’s court-appointed attorney sat mute.
When asked about the rest of Shirley’s body, he said, “Her hand had decayed into putrefied, parchment-like skin that looked as if a glove had been peeled halfway down.”
Bierley asked, and the pathologist described the purple-red purge fluid that flowed from her oral and nasal passages. He paused, wiped his forehead, and continued, “The bloating from the accumulation of gas pushed Shirley’s eyes and tongue outside their cavities.” He waited again, then said, “After that her body broke open and released gas and fluids.” The defense attorney remained silent.
The pathologist’s testimony culminated with a photograph of Shirley’s skin at the time of her discovery, accompanied by a description of the enzymes and bacteria that began to self-digest Shirley’s body. Then he said, “We know she had been dead for several days, because of the color of parts of Shirley’s neck, abdomen, shoulders, and head, when her body was discovered.”
Bierley asked his final question of the pathologist, “Is it correct that, when discovered, parts of Shirley Lawson’s skin looked like the golden brown skin of a freshly roasted chicken these jurors might sit down to eat this evening?”
At this point, the defense lodged its only objection; it was sustained, but not erased from the jurors’ memory. The photograph of Shirley’s roasted chicken skin was not withdrawn.
Next, a waitress testified she served the couple dinner; and that Shirley sat with her skirt hiked up past mid-thigh. She also testified that while Shirley remained seated, she saw Jacob slam his palm on the table, knock over his chair, and leave the restaurant.
At the conclusion of the trial, the Court guided the jury, “There is little, if any, doubt that Shirley Lawson was murdered. Three bullets were shot into her head and throat. The only question for the jury is the identity of the murderer.”
A few years later, unable to concentrate, the prisoner drifted. His mind wandered to images of people unseen for years. His brother, now over sixty, his niece at least thirty-five. He saw old friends, imagined their children, grandchildren. He saw Shirley look at him, then disappear. He had experienced enough. Now just forget. No point. No hope. No escape. Fall asleep.
Inside a metal building with closed, unmarked doors on each side, the shackled prisoner walked past gray metal racks holding the institution’s purchased food items – cans of peaches and lard, bags of beans and spaghetti, gallon bottles of ketchup and mustard. Strong hands guided him into a connected building, a smaller metal warehouse with cold floors. Straight ahead was an opening the width of a loading dock door. He stopped. The door descended.
Hands pulled him to the right side of the closed door. His eyes widened. The guards tightened their grips. Six men wore dark blue or darker gray suits; another wore a black cassock with a Roman collar and held a Bible.
No words. He raised his right foot onto the first step. He needed assistance. Left foot, then right foot. Left, right, left, right, left. He stopped. An element of irrationality was required to continue.
He heard a gentle, male voice. “Son, let’s go.’ A moment later, the same voice, “Can you do it by yourself?” No movement. Hands lifted him to the next step. Right, left, right, left, right foot, followed by left. Both feet now on a level surface.
“Wait.” His gasps and shallow breathing were familiar to the dark suited men.
One man stepped forward, opened the manila envelope, and read, “State vs. Jacob Lawson. Denial of Writ and Order of Execution.” His final appeal denied.
None came. Jacob’s mind rushed. No more time. No place left to go.
“Any last words?”
Nothing. Only the sound of the trap door as it slammed, and the weight of Jacob Lawson descending whipped the rope tight.
A lifetime later, Dan Bierley, his face as weathered as an abandoned shack, arrived at a grove of trees. He stopped his car, grabbed his pea coat out of the back seat, opened the door, walked to his car trunk, pulled it open, put on gloves, then picked up a box.
He inventoried its contents, placed tape in a cross pattern over the top and bottom of the box, and rested it inside a black trash bag. With his left hand, he held an entrenching tool; in his right, the black trash bag.
He chopped at the ground to loosen it; stopped and repositioned the entrenching tool, then dug into the loosened dirt. After a few minutes, the box lay in a four-foot rectangular hole covered with dirt, leaves and branches located dead center within of the grove of trees where Shirley Lawson’s body was found.
Back in his car, entrenching tool wiped clean, tape buried under the box, Bierley looked at Shirley’s nude photos – the ones he shot after the pistol fired. These I keep. He felt her echo. His breathing was deep, then deeper. He felt tension, relaxation, release. He exhaled, wiped his hands, placed the car in gear, and drove home.
About the Author: Thomas Elson lives in Northern California. His short stories, poetry, and flash fiction have been published in the United States, Ireland, England, India, and South Africa.