Saturday, November 21, 2015

June, Three

When she arrived home on this afternoon, all was quiet at the Peterson’s. The dog saw her coming up the sidewalk, and she barely got the door open before he was on her. “Hello, Sampson! Hello, my sweet boy!” Sampson was all of twelve pounds, a silky black pekingese that June had rescued from the shelter five years before. He had been the runt of the litter, clumsy and sweet with a prominent underbite and chronic gas. He was, next to Owen, June’s best friend.
“Can you believe it, Sampson? Can you believe they didn’t have any Miracle Whip?” She was resigned to it now, but had every confidence the situation would be rectified before she had to make her first turkey and dressing sandwich the day after Thanksgiving. She knew the folks in town thought she was terribly ill tempered, but if she didn’t keep them in line, who would? The Mrs. Right Reverend Spurgeon Swicegood, in between quaffing her booze and throwing it back up?
She wanted more than anything to sit in her chair with Sampson on her lap and watch that lovely young woman from near the coast on PBS. The young woman was always visiting farmers and buying fresh food like June had eaten when she was young - turnips and runups and sweet potatoes, pigs just butchered and rabbit just caught - and taking it into her kitchen and making things June could only imagine in her wildest dreams. “Lordy,” she’d say to Sampson as they watched, “Who would have even thought of that?” But Thanksgiving was thirty-nine hours away, and June had to get into her own kitchen today.

She peeled onions and washed the celery, rough thumbs rubbing grit from the stalks. She sliced thin skin ribbons from the carrots, then chopped everything fine and cooked it soft in a mound of butter in her cast iron skillet. June broke apart pans of cornbread and diced cubes of crusty bread and put it all in the giant crockery bowl that had been her grandmother’s. She added bits of good sausage and an apple to the vegetables, and when the smell was just right - sweet and spicy and warm - she added them all to the crock. Fresh chicken stock and liberal amounts of salt and pepper, and then the sage. She rolled the leaves tightly and sliced carefully, and was taken back to her grandmother’s kitchen by the scent. Sage was fall and leaves and fireside and family and Thanksgiving, all rolled into one. She added a handful to the bowl and, after a brief consideration, another one for good measure.  She covered the bowl and put it in the icebox, where it would wait patiently to become dressing.

She had just turned her attention to pies when she heard the knock at the door. It was a grim faced Blue, gripping a measuring cup like it was going to run away from her. “Well,” said June, “Are you delivering a terrible message, or does your Mama just need some sugar?”

“Sugar,” Blue replied.

“Come on in, then. ” June turned sideways and let Blue slip past her. Blue had never been inside the house but it was, mostly, as she imagined it would be. Very neat, very outdated, and very, very full. From the oversized furniture to the countless knick knacks to the family pictures on the walls, there was hardly an inch of the house that had not been decorated. It smelled like cinnamon and apples and something deep and woodsy that Blue couldn’t name. The whole house was like a big, warm blanket that Blue wanted to wrap up in, forever. If only June wasn’t there.

June watched the girl stand in the middle of the living room, staring openly at everything around her. She was suddenly aware of the threadbare carpet and the shabby furniture, of all bits and pieces of her parents she’d kept after they’d died. She felt old and frumpy in the presence of this young person, with her blue hair and black lips and skin you could bounce a quarter off of.

“Sugar,” June echoed, and shooed Blue into the kitchen. “I know I have sugar.” Blue stopped short in the doorway, and pointed to a row of jars on the kitchen table. “Is that...cranberry sauce?” She was nearly breathless, and sounded so comical that June almost laughed, until she realized the girl was completely serious.

“Yes, I make a pile of it every Thanksgiving and Christmas as gifts for my family,” she said.
“Can I...can I just taste it?” Blue said, and June was so taken by the innocence of the request that she moved immediately for a spoon. When Blue put the spoon to her mouth, she made a face like someone remembering a memory they didn’t know they had. “It tastes like Christmas!” she said, and June did laugh this time.

“Honey, have you never had cranberry sauce?” she asked, incredulous.

“My mother doesn’t like it, so she’s never let me try. She thinks it’s gross.” Blue raised and eyebrow and when June laughed again, she decided to push it a little farther. “Can you believe that shit?” With that, June doubled over with a giant guffaw that shook her whole body and turned her face red. Blue started laughing, too, and when they finally stopped, June wiped her eyes with her apron and turned serious.

“Young lady,” she asked, “Has your mama taught you how to cook?”

Friday, November 20, 2015

June, Two

“GOOD GOD, Sarah Jane. Get your nose out of your damned Bible and watch where you’re going!” Sarah Jane had not, in fact, been reading her Bible, but couldn’t decide whether she felt insulted that June had spoken to her so sharply, or guilty for not reading her Bible while walking down the sidewalk.

“Hello, Miss June,” Sarah Jane enunciated “miss” like it was an affront that any woman over 30 should have never married. “I suppose you’re out shopping for your famous Thanksgiving feast.”

“I am,” replied June, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

“Of course, the Reverend and I will be serving our usual meal to the less fortunates in town on Thanksgiving Day.”

June’s eyes rolled up so far in her head she swore she could see her brains. She knew two things about Sarah Jane and the Right Reverend Spurgeon Swicegood: One, they both had terrible taste as they were married to each other and two, after serving a modest meal of Stove Top Stuffing, dry as ass turkey slices, and stale rolls to the “less fortunate”, those two jokers high tailed it up to the country club dining room where they ate like pigs and drank two bottles of pinot grigio. June’s niece, who was a waitress at the country club, saw Sarah Jane throw up in her wine glass one Thanksgiving and then blame it on ‘suspect cranberry sauce’. In her wine glass!

“Too bad you ain’t invited to my house,” June mumbled and pounded down the sidewalk. Ten paces away, she felt especially evil and called over her shoulder, “Watch out for the cranberry sauce!”

June’s house was situated on a corner lot, where the business end of town met the living end of town. It was a neat house, built with care in the 1937 by her father’s own hand. June kept the lawn mowed and planted pansies in spring, petunias in summer, and mums in the fall. She painted the clapboard siding every seven years and replaced the roof every twelve, whether it needed it or not. She had a solid heating and air man, a reliable plumber, an honest electrician, and a handyman who would fill in when the others couldn’t. She was a firm believer in the importance of regularly scheduled maintenance, and kept marble covered composition books filled with notes on the upkeep of the house. Only once, when faced with a sudden termite infestation, had she panicked. Since then, she employed a man known around town as Leon the Bug Guy. Leon chain smoked Camel cigarettes and carried an arsenal of chemicals in the back of his lime green pick up truck. She hadn’t had a problem with bugs since.

Across the street to the left was the drug store, and June could sit on her porch and watch the teenage boys share a single cigarette like it was gold. On Tuesday afternoons, she’d watch Lucy Harper pick up her birth control pills wearing a ridiculous sunhat and movie star sunglasses, like everyone in town didn’t know it was her. Directly in front of June’s house sat a blessedly empty lot. A few years ago, a group of folks had tried to start a community garden, but no one wanted to tend the plants they’d planted. June did her part to keep it up, but before long it became overgrown and forgotten, squash and tomatoes dripping from vines and rotting on the ground. It made June boiling mad for a solid three months, until the frost hit and leaves fell and covered it all.

Behind her house was a fallow field that stretched almost further than you could see, until it gave way to scrubby pines that leaned into one another in the sandy soil. To the right lived her one true neighbor and source of great consternation, Joanna Peterson. Joanna lived with her six dogs, four cats, the occasional boyfriend, and her 16 year old daughter, a perpetually sullen, raven haired girl called Blue. While Joanna never missed an opportunity to speak to June (“Juney!” she’d call from her ramshackle porch, “Isn’t this just a magnificent morning?”), Blue had only spoken once. It had been late at night the summer before, and June had woken with a start, drenched in sweat. She walked out into the back yard in a futile attempt to escape the furnace inside of her and seen Blue and a group of half a dozen teenagers huddled in a circle, passing a small object around. She watched them put it to their mouths and saw the glowing ember and realized with a shock that they were smoking marijuana.
Blue looked up and saw her standing there. The girl’s face registered surprise, then shame and embarrassment. She half smiled and raised her hand as if to wave, and that’s when the boy standing next to her noticed June. “Hey Blue, should we ask your friend to the party?” The group laughed and Blue’s face turned hard. Her wave turned into fist from which she extended one pale, middle finger. “Screw you, old lady!” she yelled, and they erupted into cheers. For perhaps the first time in her life, June had nothing to say. After she went inside, she laid in bed for a good long while, staring at the ceiling and wondering if she had been that angry when she was a teenager.

She felt certain she had.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

June, One

June was stubborn, even she wouldn’t argue that. But more than a bad case of bull headedness, June was just plain mad. She walked around town spoiling for a fight, and made sure everyone knew it. She pushed her way through crowds and groused her way around a shop, laying down complaints as heavy and loud as her thunderous footsteps.

“Why ain’t there any Miracle Whip on the shelves?”, she roared the week before Thanksgiving. “I CAN NOT have a turkey and dressin’ sandwich without Miracle Whip. Do you people not know it is THANKSGIVING AND THE LORD WILL NOT ACCEPT ANYTHING BUT MIRACLE WHIP ON A TURKEY AND DRESSIN’ SANDWICH?”

Poor Amos Whitney, 18 years old and ginger headed, his face so full of pimples you could hardly see his freckles, was June’s victim that day. Amos tried to assure her that Jesus would be equally accepting of Miracle Whip or mayonnaise, but she’d have none of it.

“That is why it is called MIRACLE Whip, Amos!”, she bellowed. “Do you presume to think that the Son of God would settle for mayonnaise on this holy holiday?”

It was a hard point to argue.

June was, to her credit, a most extraordinary cook. Her turkey was perfection - all moist and salty on the inside, and brown and crisp on the outside. Her biscuits would make you weep. More than one unfortunate relative had suffered through June’s tirades for a ladleful of her gravy. This year, June was playing host to nearly two dozen relatives and townspeople, and the preparations were making her even more ornery than usual.

And it was hot.

November can be a bitch like that. Mornings saw children at the bus stop bundled up in parkas and too short jeans, huddled together like a waddle of penguins. By afternoon, they’d be running around town barefooted in shorts. The trees tried their best to show color and drop leaves, and the daylilies beneath them couldn’t quite decide whether to bloom or give up the ghost. June had moved through her childbearing years unhampered by both children and men, and had just recently experienced the relentless heat from within of menopause.

November was pissing her off. “Lord,” she’d prayed every morning since the middle of October, “Give a poor woman a break and send me a high of fifty degrees. Amen.”

The thought of cooking all day (and the day before) for folks who didn’t give a rip about her the other 364 days of the year made June madder than hell. She wouldn’t do it at all, shouldn’t do it at all, except for one, darling, charming, precious, five year old nephew.

June didn’t like children, hadn’t anyway until Owen was born. The first time she’d met him, he was nearly six months old, with a head full of curls and big, milk chocolate eyes. He buried his sweet smelling face into her neck, held her ear with a chubby fist, and fallen fast asleep - and June had fallen in love. He was the only person she could clearly remember loving since her mama died when she was ten.

Once a month ever since, June had made the pilgrimage to Carthage, 30 miles away, just to visit Owen and his dull, dough faced parents. She brought him books and sweets and, once, a rocking horse made with real horse hair. She pushed him in the stroller and later, the tire swing. She taught him to play checkers and blow bubblegum and snap his fingers. She let him steer her old truck down the driveway and rolled her eyes behind his mother’s back when she chastised him. He thought she was perfect, and the feeling was mutual.

June would spend countless hours preparing an elaborate meal for thankless relatives, just so she and Owen could sneak away to the back porch and eat nonpareils and talk about how fat Aunt Eliza had gotten. “I’m not that fat, am I?” she would ask and Owen’s eye’s would get big before he said, in all seriousness, “Noooooooooo?” Then June would laugh and pull him close and smell his sweet head.

But right now, all she could see was Amos Whitney’s dumb, pimply face sputtering on about Jesus loving mayonnaise, too. “MY GOD, AMOS. Just order me some Miracle Whip and have it here by Tuesday.” She stomped out of the shop and onto the sidewalk outside, and right into the minister’s wife.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Ride

She’d looked forward to seeing him all day and now she spotted him, his little red car parked across the street, chugging steam out the back end. She stepped off the curb, nearly into the path of a giant truck with spinning rims. A goateed man scowled and gave her the finger, she blushed and laughed and ran across to the waiting car.
“Did you see…”, she started as she opened the door, but stopped before she’d fully sat down. The air was different in here, hot and oppressive and thick with malice. “Hello,” she tried, but he stared straight ahead and did not speak. He pulled out into traffic before she’d buckled, driving too fast and following the car ahead too close.
It was miles before he said anything; they’d left the city and were driving past the low ranchers that lined the road. Before long, the spaces between the houses would grow wider until the flat lawns turned to open pastures, and then they’d be home.
Then he spoke and laid the truth in her lap like a stone. She wanted to cry out, but the weight prevented it and she simply sat there, looking straight ahead. If I don’t speak, she thought, then it will be as if I didn’t hear. If I didn’t hear, she thought, he didn’t say it. And though she willed it to be so, he kept talking and his words were like blows.
Names and dates and places and with each one, she barely whispered, “Yes,” until it became a mantra, yes yes yes. With each yes, a memory, guilt and pleasure and disgust, and disbelief that even now, with his words thrashing her, each yes made her breathless. She had regretted everything but could stop nothing, until she believed she was beyond redemption.
His voice was sharp, emotionless. She wanted to cry and scream and kick her legs. She wanted to tear at her clothes and claw at the window and rip at her skin until she was raw and bloody. She wanted to beg and tell him that she was sorry, so sorry, that this would never happen again. But she knew she was lost and could not be found. She could not apologize for who she was, nor make promises for a person she could not be. So she stayed silent except for her brittle yeses, even when he demanded answers. Even when he wept.
When he pulled into their long drive, she could see her father’s car parked sideways in front of the house. Her father held the door open for her, and she registered her suitcase in the back seat. She looked at the house and saw the flowers she’d planted in the window box the month before had withered from lack of care. The paint on the porch was peeling, and the shutter on the kitchen window had slipped from its hinge.
The men stood outside the car and spoke briefly, then shook hands. For a moment, it looked as if her father wanted to embrace, but thought better of it. When he got into the car, he exhaled long and slow, then started the car.

They drove in silence.