"Louise, don't you see? You meant far more to him than I ever did!"
"You don't understand anything, do you? Not a thing." She distractedly pushed behind her ear a lock of hair that had fallen out of her bun. "Maybe I was wrong. I always thought you understood how things were, that you were deliberately manipulating the situation." Louise paused for a moment, considering the thought. "Tell me, I know what you were to Frank, but what was he to you? Just another affair? You left him in the end, but were you ever in love with him?"
Margaret was a little taken aback by the change in tone, but she retained her composure. "To be completely honest with you, no, Frank wasn't just another affair. I was with him for longer than I was with my first husband even. And since Frank and I were stationed together, I saw a lot more of him than I ever did my ex." Never forgetting whom she was talking to, she said the next sentences slowly. "There was a time when I thought that I was in love with Frank. He reminded me quite a bit of my father, and he believed in order and discipline and for me, after being raised in khaki diapers, that was a welcome change from the chaos of the rest of the camp."
"So you did love him." Louise's voice was curiously without expression.
"No, I didn't. I thought I did, but it was never love. Lust maybe, loneliness, convenience, a certain compatibility of interests, but not love."
It was a full minute before Louise said anything, and when she did, she sounded very tired. "Then the only woman who ever loved Frank was his mother. And maybe the girls too."
"You never did?"
"Not that it's any of your business, but no." Preoccupied with her thoughts, she traced a design on the table with her finger. "I shouldn't have come here. You're not at all what I expected."
"What did you think I would be like?"
"I don't know, but not like you are. It never really occurred to me that you might be a normal person."
"Will you tell me why you're here?"
"I might as well." The fight had left her. "I suppose you're wondering why I married Frank in the first place."
Margaret only nodded, afraid if she said anything it would break the spell.
"I didn't want to, not really, but sometimes things just happen and there's nothing you can do about them. I first met Frank in high school. He was the nerdy kid that spent his time talking with the janitor because everyone else made fun of him. I was hardly the prom queen either, but I felt sorry for him. We hung around together a little bit, but it never would have amounted to anything if I hadn't met his mother."
"She's the type who would eat her own young. And in essence, that's what she did to Frank." Flint reappeared in her voice, but this time directed at another target. "The hag dominates him in every sense of the word. She dominated her husband too, before he died."
"What was Frank's father like? The only ones he ever talked about were you and his mother." Margaret privately wondered about the truth of the old adage that men tend to marry women like their mothers.
"Did he keep that damn picture of his mother up by his bed all the time?"
"Yes, in fact it was the only picture I ever saw him with."
"That's typical. He kept that thing on his bedside table our entire marriage. You want to know about inhibited? Imagine having that woman's beady eyes following your every move! Not that Frank was exactly the most creative in that department, but I suppose you'd already know all about that, wouldn't you?" The last was followed by a cynical smirk.
Margaret only smiled weakly in response, not wanting to get into that particular subject with this woman.
"In any event, old Mr. Burns was just as dominated by Mrs. Burns as Frank was. He spent most of his time dead drunk to avoid his wife's nagging. And drunk or sober, Frank was his favorite punching bag. At least until he shot himself, that is."
"Until he what?!"
"Frank's father committed suicide. You didn't know?"
"No! He never mentioned his father. What happened?"
"Nothing that glamorous. It was good fifteen or twenty years ago. He couldn't take his wife anymore and he didn't have the nerve to shoot her, so he shot himself."
"Not really. It might have been nicer for the rest of us if he'd had the guts to take his wife with him, but Mr. Burns at least was better off. Frank cackled a little when we found him lying there but didn't say much. My brother-in-law couldn't be bothered to make the drive from Indianapolis to Fort Wayne for the funeral, and my mother-in-law was mostly concerned about the blood stains in her carpet." Not paying any attention to the horrified expression on her listener's face, Louise returned to her previous subject. "As I was saying, the first time his mother met me, she decided I was good wife material. Maybe because I was one of the few options that had come her way, or maybe I was just lucky. But before I knew what was going on, she had manipulated me into an engagement."
"Yes. To this day I don't know exactly what happened. I know she would coach Frank, telling him what to say when we went out, telling him that I worshipped him. I thought I was in control because Frank was so easy to manage, but I didn't realize how much Mrs. Burns was pulling the strings. Do you know that in the twenty-five years I was married to her son, she never let me call her by her first name? I tried once or twice and she wouldn't even acknowledge that I had spoken until I used ‘Mrs.'"
"But you didn't want to marry him?"
"I was just a kid, and pretending to myself as much as anything else. I told myself that I was in love with him, but I was twenty-one. Who knows what love is when they're that age? Frank was sweet, in a pathetic sort of way, and I didn't have a lot of offers. My family all told me that I was crazy, but I wouldn't listen. I did realize the mistake I was making before my wedding day, but by then it was too late."
"You couldn't call it off?"
"Do you think I would be sitting here now if I could have? I was stubborn and didn't want to admit that I'd been wrong. And my beloved mother-in-law saw that I was doubting and stepped in. There's been two times in my life where she's tried to threaten and cajole me into doing something. That was the first time, and I was scared and I let her convince me and married Frank."
"It sounds to me like you blame his mother for your problems more than anyone else." Margaret spoke without thinking, and got a quick, angry response.
"No, I blame his mother for the marriage. I blame you for the divorce. Although, considering the Oedipal complex Frank has, maybe I should have considered his mother the other woman too." There was no mirth in her voice. "But one thing she did not want was the divorce. The second time she threatened me was when she got wind that I planned to leave the spineless weasel. By that time I was older and wiser, and instead of crumbling I told her exactly what I thought of her and where she could stick her load of bull."
Margaret took a gulp of her now cold tea and remained silent.
Louise favored her with a condescending glance and kept talking. She had no idea why she was confiding in the woman, except maybe out of some vain hope that she might understand. "Our marriage was never a piece of cherry pie, but I told myself that I had a home and a family and a washer/dryer, and that was what every woman wanted. It was only after Frank came home from the war that things got really bad."
"Did I really make such a difference?" Margaret had a hard time believing this. She'd spent a lot of time on Frank, but it had been what happened after she'd left him, and in the leaving of him, that had changed her into the person she was today.
"I've always thought it was you, your influence. If anything, Frank had always worshipped me, but that all changed once he got home. He was distant and surly, and he'd never been that way before. He would cry when he thought I didn't see. I thought it was all over you. I'd heard reports of you even while Frank was in Korea. He told me the only Major Houlihan in camp was an old war-horse, and I let it go. I found out differently once he was home though."
"He didn't tell you about me, did he?"
"No, even Frank isn't that stupid. He had a picture of you in his wallet – which as far as I know he still carries – and the loopy handwriting on the back that read "To Frank, All my love. Margaret" gave me a clue. Different little stuff through the years. Every time I asked him about it, which I did fairly often for a while, he would deny everything. He said the picture was of his cousin, but I knew that was a lie. So I hated you and I blamed you for taking my husband away from me."
"I never meant to do anything of the sort."
"Maybe not. Or maybe you did. The point is, I waited through several very unhappy years until the girls were all out of high school and then a few months ago I left him. One of the first things I did was look you up. Like I said, I used my sister's husband's connections to find you. I wanted to see who had been my phantom rival for so long, to tell you what you'd done to me."
"It wasn't me that was your rival, Louise. Some idea Frank had of me, maybe, but not me." Margaret was willing to apologize for her part in the drama, but not to take full responsibility. She wasn't going to ask, but wondered to herself how much of a part Louise herself had played in creating her situation.
"I said phantom, didn't I?" She was defensive at the perceived attack. "I thought I could get some answers by coming here. Clearly, I was wrong."
Margaret felt helpless. Caustic or not, the woman was pitiable. "I'm sorry I can't give you what you're looking for. I left Frank behind a long time ago."
"That much is obvious. I should go." She moved to stand up.
"Wait! You can't stay a little longer?" There was still more Margaret wanted to ask about. "I never believed him then, but Frank used to tell me that if I ever met you, we would be friends."
Louise regarded her incredulously. "Don't push me too hard. Maybe you're not evil incarnate after all, but you're still the woman who had a long affair with my husband. I don't want to get to know you, ever see you again, or even speak to you for a minute longer." She shook her head, turned and disappeared out the door. There was no resolution for her here.
Margaret watched her go. Sadness and disbelief warred for dominance inside her, but were both defeated by an overwhelming sense of relief. There, but for the grace of God, go I. She'd wanted to marry Frank Burns, and had even accepted a proposal more than once, although he'd always rescinded the offer. What if he hadn't? What if she'd become Margaret Burns after the war instead of Margaret Pierce? She shivered. Suddenly, the only thing she wanted to do was find her family.
Hurriedly, she jumped out of the booth and got Tony's attention at the counter. "Tony, did Hawkeye happen to tell you where he was taking the kids?"
"Your son was begging for a hamburger, so..."
Margaret cut him off. "That means Dana's Burgers. Thanks, Tony. See you later!" She dashed out of the diner, making a beeline for where she knew her husband and children would be. The last half-hour was not one she would ever forget, and right now she wanted only the assurance that she would never be left alone and bitter, like poor Louise Burns.
It took her only a moment to jog down the street to her destination and, seeing her quarry in the window, she eagerly went in.
Hawkeye looked up from the table where he was building a log cabin out of french fries to the rapt attention of his children. "Decided we make better company after all, did you?"
"You're the best company I could have." She slipped into a seat, squeezing Hawkeye's thigh under the table. "I love you."
Hawkeye glanced at her, concerned that something had happened in the diner. "And I love you. Are you okay?"
"I'm wonderful, now. And I'll tell you everything later, I promise." Margaret smiled at him and contentedly turned her attention to wiping ketchup off the corner of her daughter's mouth.