Shirley Put the Top Down

One of the things that made Shirley live in a constant ripple of irritation about her brother, Dane, was that he made her name an endless joke fest… “Shirley, you jest!” was his favorite, but he managed to work in the line from the movie Airplane whenever he could… “Don’t call me, Shirley.”

His older sister thought that by age 48, he should have grown out of it. But Dane didn’t seem to grow out of any extravagances. Four wives, all married with passion and then divorced with much drama for the next one in line. It was amazing that he’d had any time left to run his business.

“Unlike you, my dear sister,” Dane teased. “I want to fully experience everything life has to offer!”

“Like alimony, law suits, and stunts you should be too old to even consider?” Shirley demanded.
Dane put his arm around her. “Shirley you jest,” he murmured, and laughed at her inevitable flush of anger. “Sister dear, when I go to my reward, whatever it will be, I want the judges to say, ‘at least he lived’.”

“If you call that chaos living,” Shirley retorted.

“I do,” Dane said. “And I wish you’d try it. You don’t have to fling yourself onto the marriage-go-round, because I’ve demonstrated there’s a down side. But why not that cross-country trip you’ve talked about?”

“I have no one to go with,” Shirley muttered. “And I have a big project coming up. So how could I take time off?”

“Go by yourself,” Dane countered. “And quit your job. You’ve hated it for years.”

“I’m not irresponsible like you,” Shirley snapped with more righteous indignation than even she felt she had a right to.

Dane only laughed and lifted his beer to salute her. “Just try for once to be happy, sis. Smell the roses or something.”

“Like you would know a rose if you fell over it,” Shirley countered. And they laughed. She was always able to laugh when she was with her brother. When he winked at the waitress, got the phone number and left a sizable tip, Shirley only smiled and rolled her eyes. It always happened that way.


That had been their last birthday party. Although three years apart, they shared the same birth date, and throughout their lives, no matter whether Dane was partying, travelling, marrying or divorcing, or Shirley was redecorating her condo and shuffling up the corporate ladder, they had dinner together at some cheesy diner that reminded them of their childhood. Always, always they finished off with hot fudge sundaes with whipped cream, cherries and nuts.

Of the far too many constants in Shirley’s life, it was the one she loved the most.

And then just as he got off a zip line with fiancée #5, Dane quite suddenly dropped dead. An aneurysm. Unexpected. Without possibility of warning or prevention.

At Dane’s funeral – or rather his celebration-of-life bash, complete with jazz quartet and liquor flowing – Shirley sat at one of the tables and nursed the very expensive Scotch Dane had provided. The ex-wives and quite a few female acquaintances laughed and wept and toasted. A surprising number of men lifted glasses to Dane and recounted improbable stories.

Shirley said nothing, and hardly anyone spoke to her.

She was grateful for that because she wasn’t sure she could form words anyway. Hazily she remembered reading about the weight of grief. The article hadn’t said it felt like an elephant crushed your chest while wasps buzzed and stung in your brain.

Staring at all Dane’s friends and lovers, Shirley raged silently, certain that no one grieved as deeply as she did. They all had people and lives and places. All she had had was Dane.

“And whose fault would that be?” She could hear in Dane’s voice. His usual affectionate mockery. His usual undiluted love for his big sis, no matter how many wives, lovers and adventures colored his life.

When Shirley went home, her apartment would be silent and empty – not peaceful and tasteful as she always insisted to herself. Yesterday, a couple of people at work had heard her brother had died and offered perfunctory sympathy.

What was she going to do now?

Dane had always been good at business, and his affairs were completely in order. To Shirley’s surprise, he even had a lot of money invested. And to her greater surprise, except for bequests to his former wives, his money went to her.

I don’t care about the money, she thought fiercely, sitting in the attorney’s office.

“One last thing.” The lawyer handed her a shoebox, with a letter taped to the top.

Hey Sis,
To be completely corny, if you’re reading this, I kicked it earlier than I had thought possible. And you’ll have to go solo on this little surprise I’ve been planning. I didn’t mean to die so young, Sis, so you’re going to have to channel me.
Your turn to live.
Shirley, this isn’t a jest.
All my love, Dane.

Inside the box, maps, brochures and the keys to a car.

“A very expensive, classic convertible,” the lawyer told her. His calm, cool mask dropped a little in sheer envy.

“Surely, you jest,” Shirley muttered, and when he earnestly reassured her, she laughed.

It only took her a week to dismantle her life and hit the road. According to Dane’s plan, south first, then wherever her mood took her. The car’s music system had come preloaded with a mix of what Dane had picked as great travel music. She loved it. For miles, cocooned in the vintage beauty, Shirley cried, laughed and sang.

At the first rest stop, she sat for awhile watching the world go by. Then with new determination, she cranked down the roof.

“This one’s for you, Dane,” she declared to the universe. She flung her reservations to the four corners, to smell the gasoline and hot pavement of the interstate. Wind would blow in her hair, and she would channel Dane’s love of adventure until at least a small part had embedded itself forever in her soul.

Leaving the rest stop, she floored it. From now on, just like Dane wanted, she would live her life with the top down.

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