June

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
an elderly lady impacts the life of the couple next door

Submitted: January 26, 2016

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Submitted: January 26, 2016

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It's a perfect day for toasted sardine sandwiches," said Steven. Millie knew his enthusiasm for their lunch wasn't just about the food, though the oily, fishy-tasting open-faced warm sandwiches were quite tasty, but because the rain had put an end to their Saturday commitment to fall clean-up of the yard. They were going to do all the big tasks that their grass cutting lawn service didn't do.

"Poor dear, I guess you will just have to stay inside and watch those countless football games."

Steven took another beer from the fridge and giving her a big smile headed towards the den. 

"Wait a minute, honey. I am going to be incredibly productive, I'm going upstairs and clean out the linen closet and also see what needs to be done in the guest room before Susie and Jack come for Thanksgiving. And I DO NOT want to come downstairs because somebody comes by. If Jake joins you, you can find snacks in the pantry or fridge."  

"Sure, we have bar-b-q chips, don't we?"

"Yes. Listen, even if June comes by, she is all yours. I am NOT coming downstairs."

"Oh, please."

"No, she likes you better anyway. Do not call me."

June was their next door neighbor. Quite old,she lived alone in one of the seven houses on their long cul-de-sac. All were big, heavily wooded lots so they really could not see the other houses but June acted as if they lived in a block of tract houses and that she was only a few steps away. Ever since Bill, her husband had died suddenly of a heart attack, she had sought them out, probably to help quell her loneliness. Her two sons were grown-up and long out of the house and both lived in distant cities. Her husband and her church had been her life. Now it was her church and baking. She made cookies, cakes, pies and coffee cakes just as she must have done for years (Millie wondered about Bill's cholesterol level). Now besides donating to her church bake sales she used her baked goods as an excuse to visit Millie and Steven. As they both were at work during the day she could make her visits only on evenings, weekends and holidays, but that didn't stop her. More and more frequently they would find her at their door, bearing for instance, a still warm, marvelously frequent apple pie. Of course they would invite her in and offer tea, coffee or a soft drink. Millie noticed Steven had even started buying Mountain Dew which neither of them drank, but was a favorite of June's. As her visits became more frequent and of longer length, Millie found her sympathy for June was reaching its limits.

Steven, on the other hand was a pushover. It was a long standing joke with Millie and their daughters, Susie and Jane, that if they really wanted something they shouldn't ask Steven, but should ring the door bell and make their request. A hard headed businessman who could easily and unequivocably  say no in business situations, he was a pushover when someone came to the door of their home. A few years  ago a neighbor boy had been selling magazines to raise money for his soccer team to make a trip. They were still receiving magazines nobody read. Whatever made Steven think she would read People magazine except in the doctor's office, Millie wondered. Also every year she made him take the cartons and cartons of Girl Scout thin mint cookies to to his office. Today she would be throwing out ugly Christmas wrapping paper another neighbor boy had sold. They had a lifetime supply of light bulbs including sizes they couldn't use. She remembered all this so she could use it as reasons to forgive herself for feeling hard-hearted about June.

When she heard the doorbell ring mid afternoon she tip-toed to the top of the stairs to listen to who it was. It definitely wasn't June. The two voices were both male. Alarmingly they sounded menacing.

"Listen guy. Let's make this easy. You show us where the drugs and money are and we'll be out of here and you can go back to the game we can hear, though you know the Bills are going to lose. Who else is home?

"Nobody, it is just my wife and me and she is visiting a neighbor and won't be back for awhile."

Millie realized he said this loudly hoping she would here. Dear God, this was a robbery. In their house. In their end-of-the cul-de-sac quiet neighborhood.

Then Steven said, "All the cash I have is in my wallet in a drawer down here in my den. I think my wife might my wife might have some grocery money in a kitchen drawer. We don't have many prescription drugs, what we do have we keep in the downstairs bathroom next to the kitchen.

"Show us."

She heard them moving down the hall towards the den. Steven, oh, Steven, what will they do to you. Have to help Steven. Fast, fast, have tondo something fast. Have to get out of sight. The girls' bathroom is right behind her. Quickly she is in there, closing the door very quietly.  Now what? Hide in the shower stall? The window. It's the only window in the whole house without a screen. Had to be because it's an unusual size and opens differently from the others. It has a latch on side and swings open sideways rather than be lowered up or down. It is directly above the roof top of the columned porch that extends out over the front door. The roof is flat, the only flat roof on the entire house. She remembers Susie climbing out the window and sitting there sulking when she had been restricted from going anywhere.jane had been caught out there smoking. If they could get out the window, so could she. She puts down the toilet seat and climbs up to stand on it, then opens the window which makes a noise she is sure can be heard downstairs. One leg out. Ouch, this hurts the crotch, but mustn't make a sound. Bumps her head but both legs are out! Reaches back to close the window, can't get it closed all the way, but she is out, standing in the rain. The roof is about six by five feet. She moves carefully edging  away from the window ans standing as flat as she can against the wall. She is sock footed and can feel her feet getting wetter and colder every minute. Now, this has to be it---she reaches in her sweater pocket and yes, there it is, her cell phone. She had been expecting Susie to call and didn't want to miss it. Blessed Susie, who gave her the phone just two months ago on her birthday. She clutches it tightly,can not drop it. Yes, there is the key pad. 911. Answers immediately. Repeats twice, "Address, robbers in house with husband, doesn't know if they have a gun, is out on the roof." Reassured someone will come ASAP. Calm, soothing woman's voice keeps talking to her. They have a patrolman in the area, shouldn't be long. He is alone in his car, will send additional police but they will take longer to get there. 

The voice keeps talking to her until she sees the police car come down the driveway. Then for the first time she notices there isn't another car there, did the robbers walk? The cop is out of the door fast, but doesn't slam the car door. He signals her with just a look upward and a nod as he goes to the front door. It must be unlocked as he doesn't come back. Can he alone do something against the two of them? Might they make Steven a hostage? Rain drops slide down her face and plop down from the ends of her sodden hair. She realizesshe is. Her socks are squishy wet. Maybe she shoild climb back in and see what is happening, but the 911 woman had cautioned her to wait until the second police car arrived and told her it was OK. 

Then everything happens at once. The second police car arrives and two cops are out running toward the house guns drawn just as the first cop comes out with the two robbers in front of him, hands up and Steven walking behind him. Steven, oh thank God Steven. Steven looks just like Steven, no blood or torn clothes or anything to indicate they had hurt him. Now tears are rolling down her face mixing with the rain. The 911 woman is still on the line and Millie relates everything to her and thanks her profusely telling her she is an angel she will never forget. Steven is looking up at her with a big beautiful grin, the robbers are cuffed and put in the second police car. The police come up close to the house and holler up for her to stay there until they come inside and help her.

Just then a car comes down the driveway. June. She gets out garbed head to toe in plastic rain bonnet, rain coat and plastic rain boots. She reaches in the back seat of the car and takes out a plastic covered, towel wrapped plate. She takes a few steps down the driveway, looking carefully where she is stepping with her precious gift. Then she looks up and finally takes in the scene including Millie standing in the rain on the roof. She is so startled she almost drops what she is carrying. Millie can see June's mouth is a perfect O shape, she'd always thought that was just an expression but it really is a perfect O. June turns around as fast as her precious bundle allows her, gets in the car and backs out the driveway.

Millie ignores the directive of the cops and climbs back in the window before they can get there to help her. She will not have her body hauled over the window sill like a wet sack, midriff exposed and butt in the air.

Now all the cops with the robbers are gone and the house is quiet except for the TV in the den still proclaiming the moment-by-moment thrills of the game. For a long time Steven hugs Millie so tight she thinks he'll be as wet as she is. She laughs as they pull apart at the wet impression she has left on him. She is surprised she can laugh, she is surprised at how strangely calm she now feels. The feeling continues as she goes upstairs, takes off her clothes, throws them in the laundry room and than takes a long hot shower. She can't remember when a shower ever felt so marvelous.

Steven has lit a fire in the living room fireplace. For a while they sit quietly just looking at the fire until he makes them each their preferred pre-dinner drink, vodka for her, scotch for him. Then as he sits looking at the fire he tells her about the robbers. They were both young. Late teens or early twenties and the cops said they were probably hooked on oxycontin or some other painkiller. Their car was on the road just outside the driveway. The cops pointed out that their neighbors' homes were posted with burglar alarm signs and they had noticed Millie and Steven's house wasn't. 

I guess we'd better arrange for that service.

Steven answered, "I'll call them on Monday. We've been fooling ourselves that we were too far from the main road for it to happen to us. When I think about it now I suppose our seclusion here makes us more vulnerable.

"Were you scared?"

"Yes, I think I was, but I also felt sorry for the guys, they seemed so young and destined not to make it in life. At the same time I couldn't help but think this was not going to end well for us. I could not think of any thing I could do to thwart them. I hoped you had heard them and were in a very good hiding place upstairs. I should have known you'd be so smart. With this last phrase he stands up and leans down to kiss her on the top of her head, a tender gesture he often bestows on her.

Steven brings up the subject of telling their daughters about their afternoon drama. He thinks they should call each of them tomorrow and both he and Millie be on the line. Millie doesn't want to tell them at all. But Steven points out that it will undoubtedly be in the papers and some friend of Susie's or Jane's or the parent of a friend will no doubt comment on it and sooner rather than later the incident will be reported to one or both of their daughters. So as a compromise they decide to email  them tomorrow downplaying the robbers actually being in the house and emphasizing how the cell phone Susie bought for her mother, which Jane taught her to use, saved the day. (At the mention of the cell phone Steven winced a bit and said, "I know, I know, I will do better." Susie had also given him a phone which sits in a drawer in his desk, largely unused while he continues to rely on the land line phone.)

They had a simple, quiet dinner, lamb chops which Steven could cook on the grill as the rain had stopped while Millie oven roasted sweet potatoes and asparagus. After dinner they settled in the den to watch last week's Saturday Night Live. Neither of them could ever stay awake to watch late night TV so they recorded a few shows. It felt good to laugh and it surprised Millie that laughter came so easily. 

As soon as they went to bed that night they both reached for each other. As she burrowed against Steven with the familiar feel of his firm body against hers and his arms enfolding her, she should have felt safe, but here in the darkness all Millie could think is she might have lost him. She might never have hugged this dear wonderful man again. The tears came first and then the sobs. He pulled her closer and rocks her against him as he whispers over and over, "I'm here, I'm here". He gently rocks and rocks her, stroking and patting her back as her sobs grow stronger. She cries so long it feels like she will never stop, but eventually her sobs subside, she feels a gradually comforting warmth, drowsiness invades her and she falls asleep in his arms. 

Later that week while grocery shopping she meets Linda, one of their cul-de-sac neighbors. Linda always has a brusque manner of speaking and a sardonic view on life, but Millie expected perhaps a bit of sympathy this time. She was wrong. Instead Linda gave one of her deep laughs and said, "You know what dear Junie told me? She said she was shocked because she went to bring you something---she told me what it was but I forgot, anyway one of her baked goodies---and found you raving on the roof with the cops trying to keep you from jumping."  At his point Linda laughs so heartily she can hardly continue. "She was so surprised but suspects maybe you are on drugs. She feels so sorry for poor dear Steven but she just can't go to your house any more with you in such fragile condition."

Linda gives another barking laugh, grabs stunned Millie by the arm and says, "Of course, I told her about the robbers and you using your cell phone but she wouldn't believe me. She said she didn't see any robbers."

"They were in the police car by then."

"No worry, Millie, nobody pays any attention to what June says. Poor old lonely thing."

Millie could hardly wait to tell Steven. She expected he'd be as incensed as she was and march right over to June's and set her straight. Instead he laughed a real hearty belly laugh and said, "Well, problem solved, no more visits. I will miss her pecan coffee cake."

Millie glared at him angrily, but then thinking about it, she joined in the laughter. Linda was probably right, poor old lonely June.


TWO MONTHS LATER

Day after day Millie finds it difficult to zip or button her pants. One pair she knew to be smaller waisted than the others, but when all of them send the same message there can be no more denial. She and Steven had participated in the national food orgy integral to the holidays and now she was seeing the results. Going back to more normal meals wouldn't do it by itself, she needed to exercise. She started by taking the steps instead of the elevator at work. Boring, boring, boring but done  repeatedly five days a week it should make an impact. Then another opportunity presented itself in the form of a January thaw. She decided to take advantage of the weather by going to work early and coming home when it was still light and she could take a rapid step walk. She would go from their house down to the beginning of the cul-de-sac where it meets the main road, a distance of maybe a mile or more. She goes as soon as she gets home and it is not yet dark and she can be seen. Still Steven insists she wear a Day-Glo chartreuse vest, which she agrees to grudgingly as it is definitely not her style. 

Today she has come almost to where the cul-de-sac meets the main road. It is an area where the road divides with a copse of trees separating the incoming side from the out going side. She and Steven regularly argue if this section of the road is going southwest, due west or even slightly northwest. She is sure it is southwest. Of course, now she knows she can prove she is right. Her cell phone has a compass app, which she hasn't ever used. It tells her to move the phone in a broad circle eight movement to activate the compass She is in the process of doing this when a car comes into the curve driving slowly towards her, lights shining right at her. It doesn't follow the curve of the road but continues heading at her. She jumps back and feels herself slide down the steep embankment that borders the road. She grabs at a small tree to stop her slide. She pulls herself up by hanging on to the tree and wedging one foot between the base of the tree and the embankment. The tree is slender and bends precariously under her weight. She holds her breath it won't break.

Ten feet or so down the road the car that seemed to be aiming at her has slid partially off the road, its front end in the air over the embankment. Oh, shit, it is June! There she is leaning against the steering wheel, seat belt pulling tight on her shoulder, looking dazedly out the windshield. 

Millie shouts to her, "Don't move, I'll get up on the road and get help." She can't tell if June has heard her.

Millie knows she has to be very careful in her movements or she will slide all the way down the embankment to the bottom where there is a creek. She can't remember exactly where the creek goes, she knows not on their property. She knows it runs through a culvert under the main road and the embankment there is even steeper. It is getting darker and if she follows the creek eventually she won't be able to see at all.

She can see her phone shining on the ground next to the road. If she can just get up there she can call for help. Or if they are lucky a car will be heading out of the cul-de-sac towards the main road and see June's car. But if they are entering the cul-de-sac the wooded area between this section of the road will prevent them from seeing the car. Steven could be driving in right now and not even know they are there.

She moves her leg that isn't wedged against the tree slowly up the embankment, inch by inch, feeling with her foot for some foot hold. She feels a rock and carefully digs in the toe of her shoe as far as she can. Next she flattens herself against the embankment and with her free hand reaches as far up as she can trying to find something to hold onto before she can try to pull herself up. One side of her face is flat on the dirt and prickly growth. She feels another rock, grabs it and tries to pull herself up, but the rock comes loose in her hand and brings with it a shower of dirt and small stones. She sways and the tree bends further, but it holds and her one foot is still wedged next to it. Again she finds the rock to dig in her free foot, hand goes up slowly patting the bank. Then she feels it, the end of a pipe sticking out from the embankment just a short ways. She stretches as much as she possibly can and grabs ahold of the pipe, tugging at it. It holds! She pulls harder, it still holds. Then taking a deep breath. She pushes with both feet as hard as she can. Now she is head high with the road but she doesn't know how she can get any higher. She sees the edge of her phone just above her and as her foot on the rock starts to slip she grabs it. Down she slides but the tree, the blessed little tree still holds her foot and she still has one hand holding it and in her other  hand is her phone. Must not drop it. Careful, careful. How to use it with one hand? She knows kids do this all the time, but she doesn't think she can. She leans her chest against the bank and props the phone there, under her chin but where she can see it. As she uses her free hand to get back to the main screen and touches the phone app, at that moment the phone starts to slide away just as she is touching the keyboard symbol. Ah, she has it again, now she punches 911.

The policeman are standing at the edge of the road shining their flashlights down at her. One of them says with astonishment, "You again?,"

To get her up, two of them lie flat down on the road, each grabbing one of arms and slowly pull her up, constantly apologizing for bumps and bangs along the way.

She waits in the police car while two tow truck drivers complete the delicate process of getting June and her car back on the road. She tells the police officers how it all happened and they take it all down for their report with few questions and no comments. Just before June and her car are back on the road the ambulance arrives. The police assure her that June is alive and the ambulance attendants confirm it. They all want her to go the hospital in the ambulance with June so she can be checked out for any injuries. She firmly declines.

"I'm scratched and bruised and filthy, but as you can see no broken bones. All I want to do is go home."

They drive her home and as she gets out of the squad car, one of the cops says, "Good job with the phone. Could have been worse for the lady in the car and maybe for both of you if you had to wait longer."

Millie has showered and changed clothes by the time Steven comes home. After he has changed clothes and stands looking at the mail, she says, "Let's order a pizza tonight."

She know this surprises him as she almost never suggests this. She likes the pizza at one restaurant and she likes to eat it there hot from the oven accompanied by one of their special house salads.

"Hard day at work?" Then looking up from the mail he adds "My God, what  happened to your face?"

"Hard day right in the cul-de-sac. If you would please call and order the pizza, extra mushrooms on whatever kind you want except pepperoni, and then pour us some wine, I'll tell you about it."

She gives him an abbreviated version of events, completely leaving out how hard it was for her to crawl up and get the phone.

"She could have killed you!"

"Probably not, she was going much too slowly. You know how she creeps along in that old cadillac."

"She is getting dangerous on the road, maybe it is time she stop driving. I am going to the hospital to see how she is." 

Which is what he did after bolting down some pizza.

Millie is in bed reading---trying to find a position where she isn't resting on one of her many bruises---when Steven comes home.

He sits down on the bed and looks at her like he hasn't seen her in years. He says, "Do you have any idea how indispensable you are to me, you wonderful little cell phone whiz."

Smiling at him, she asked, "How is June?"

"June is all right. They are treating her for shock and are keeping her in the hospital overnight for observation. I didn't have any wish to see her, I just wanted to see how she is. I stopped by the police station on the way home and talked to the officer on duty, Fred, a nice guy. He read me the accident report. The police were able to interview June briefly in the hospital. Knocking someone off the road is serious, they have to determine if she committed a chargeable offense."

"Do you think they will charge her? Poor June, I'm sure she never meant to hit me. I have no desire to see her prosecuted but it would be good if she couldn't drive any more. Maybe then her sons would finally decide it is time she move into a retirement home."

"They may not prosecute. Seems she told them you jumped into the road in front of her waving your arms wildly."

"I was waving one one arm! And I was at the edge of the road, not on it. I certainly wasn't doing any jumping other than getting out of her way. I suppose she told them that I am the nut who climbs out on roofs also. I feel sorry for that old ding bat but she makes me so damn mad."

They found out a few days later that June would not be prosecuted. She had hired a lawyer who argued it was June's word against Millie's as to whether or not Millie was standing at the edge of the road or in it. And Millie had confirmed she was waving an arm. When Steven told Millie this she angrily said, "I told you I was waving an arm, just one arm. I was getting the compass on my phone to work."

Looking patient but puzzled Steven replied, "About that. Explain to me again how looking at the compass involves waving your arms, I mean your arm."

"I'll do better than explain. Go get your phone."

"Can't you just tell me. I am sure it is simple and I'll understand."

"Go get your phone."

So Steven went to his den, came back with his phone in hand and plopped down on the couch across the room from Millie.

"OK, turn it on."

"Done."

"Now hit the utilities app."

"Utilities."

"Oh yeah, there's the compass."

"Now hit it.

It took less than a minute before Steven was up waving his arm in his version of a figure eight.

"Hey, look at that, north is to the left of the fireplace. I always thought it was more to the right."

Walking over to the row of windows that looked out on their flower garden, the yard and then the wooded area he said, "And this is almost due east."

"Steven, do you know what you did to your arm?"

"Well, I'll be damned, I did wave it. Now I get what you've been talking about. Sorry to be so dense. Maybe I should go to the police and explain it to them. I can show them on my phone.

"Oh, let's don't. I am so tired of the whole mess.

"I agree. I'm going outside. I want to check a few other directions.


THREE MONTHS LATER


 Bulging buds on the forsythia, a shivering robin, Easter three weeks away. Intimations of Spring but that night it was chilly, even after a day of almost 60o. Steven had a fire going in the fireplace. They were sitting their with their desr friends, Joan and Mel, enjoying their after dinner de-caf and each other's company. Mel was an emergency room doctor so it wasn't easy to find a weekend date they could come to dinner. Millie loved to cook for them because not only would they eat all kinds of food but they truly appreciated good food. Joan freely admitted to not liking to cook though she certainly enjoyed eating. Mel was an excellent cook when he had the time for it, but he was so exacting it took him much longer than most people (his vegetables were cut into such even, precise pieces they looked machine chopped). He never varied from a recipe, considering it a scientific formula. Millie liked to experiment, sometimes changing just a few ingredients or altering a method slightly which could make a big difference, tonight she had tried a new combination of spices in her paella and all had thought it her best paella ever so she was a happy hostess. She was happy also because of the simple pleasure of looking at the fire and talking relaxedly with her friends and Steven. This was the kind of time she thought of as the best of times. Millie and Steven were happy to announce that Susie and Jack were going to make them grandparents next fall. Joan and Mel had two toddler grandchildren so the conversation was all about the fun of being  grandparents, what to buy before they brought baby for the first visit, how to try not to give advice, how they felt about knowing the sex of the baby before birth, what names they liked and on and on. A joyful topic for them all.

When the phone rang it was the land line so Millie knew it wasn't anyone in their family or probably a call of any import and said to Steven, "Just let the machine get it."

"It will only take me a minute. Excuse mr folks", and he was out of the room and in to the kitchen.

Millie could here his voice, but not what he was saying. He was back in the living room in a couple of minutes and he had his windbreaker on. He said, "There's a neighborhood emergency, sorry, but I have to go. Mel, would you come with me?" Millie noticed he never looked at her while he said this.

Mel answered quickly, "Of course", and was out of his chair, grabbing his jacket and following Steven out the door before either Millie or Joan could ask a single question.

"I'm sorry, Joan, I have no idea what this is about, though I do wonder if it could once more involve our next door neighbor, June."

"Isn't she the one who thought you were a raving drug freak on the roof when you had that awful attempted robbery?"

"That's her. She also ran me off the road when I was out walking, but again claimed I was having some kind of fit on the road."

"What?"

So Millie told her the story and ended by saying, "She really isn't nasty or vindictive. She is a lonely old lady with an active imagination. Maybe she looks at too many crime shows on TV ."

That closed the subject and they talked of mutual friends, ideas for travel, the best shops for bargains, all their usual subjects. They were in the midst of comparing jean brands which had veered off into a discussion of labor conditions overseas when Mel came in.

"It was your neighbor. She had a stroke."

"June?"

"Yes, it looks like a major stroke. Steven rode in the ambulance to the hospital with her. He said to tell you he'd take a taxi home. I'm sorry to have to end such a nice evening this way. The paella was marvelous.  Joanie, I think it is time we go home."

Joan wanted to help with the dishes but Millie said no, it would give her something to do while she waited for Steven. There was a glass or two left of the very tasty Riesling so Millie sipped while she cleared the table, loaded the dishwasher and washed the paella pan and the wine goblets. All the time she kept thinking of poor June. She was glad Steven had gone to help her and rode in the ambulance with her. June was decidedly batty and had been annoying but how awful to be so ill and alone. Millie knew her Susie and Jane would never neglect her if she was alone like June's sons had neglected her.

Steven looked just plain worn out when he came in. They had a long embrace before either of them said anything.

Millie said, "I didn't hear the cab."

"I had it let me out at June's before I came home. I wanted to be sure all the lights were off and the heat turned down and then I locked up. I also wanted to put her address book back."

"Her address book?"

"Yeah, I knew the hospital would want to know how to get in touch with her next-of-kin. I found her sons numbers in there. Now they'll have to pay attention to her. If she makes it, she'll have to go to some kind of care facility.

"Is she really that bad?"

Mel says she only has a slim chance of pulling through and if she did she would be completely paralyzed on one side."

"Honey, I'm glad she called. I'm glad you went to the hospital with her. It had to be a comfort to her."

"You are really nice to feel that way when she has been so wrong about all the things she has been saying about you."

Then he told her that June had called him frequently these last months when Millie wasn't home. They decided she must have watched and seen when Millie's car left their driveway. The first call she wanted to give him a key to her house, saying, "if things don't look right" he should come in and check on her. When he protested, she pleaded, saying it would give her peace of mind. He told her she should think about moving to a retirement home and volunteered to give her some names of places. She said she would think about it and that her minister had suggested a church-affiliated place. But she never brought up the subject again and probably didn't want to move. After that she called him when a fuse blew, when her hot water quit and when she was getting repeated calls from an investment firm.

"I kept hoping she'd decide to move. I felt like I should tell her she shouldn't depend on me, but I couldn't bring myself to do it,"

"Of course you couldn't, because you are a kind, good man, a remarkably good man."

"Thanks for understanding. But now it is over. Let's go to bed."

June died that night.

Millie and Steven went to the funeral. Throughout the service Millie kept thinking it was the most pathetic funeral anybody could imagine. Besides themselves there were a few old ladies who were most likely church friends and a couple who introduced themselves as business associated of June's husband. The minister was new to the church replacing the one who had known June and the service was the standard one for a funeral and the eulogy was completely impersonal. It was all cold and dry and whatever you could say about June, she had neither of those qualities.

June's two sons sat in the front pew emotionless and dry eyed the entire time. One of them was by himself. Millie knew he had been married several times and must now be single again. He had the puffy, blood-shot eyed, blotchy face of a hard drinker. He acted extremely uncomfortable sitting there, often running his hand down his face, moving around in place and tugging at his tie as if it was something he wasn't use to wearing. His brother next to him never looked at him, not even a sideways glance. In contrast to his rumpled brother, his clothes looked if not bespoke, then very expensive. He barely moved nor did his equally expensively dressed much younger wife sitting next to him, though she did cross and recross her legs from time to time and push her professionally streaked blonde hair back behind her ears from time to time, a gesture that appeared habitual.  Two girls about twelve and sixteen, who must be their daughters sat next to her. The older one constantly twisted a strand of her hair, sometimes nibbling on it. Her younger sister was chewing gum and furtively texting on her cell phone. Millie could see what she was doing from several rows back and knew if she'd been closer she would have discreetly but firmly grabbed her phone-punching hand.

At the end of the service the family marched out without looking at anyone or waiting to speak to anyone afterwards. There was no reception not even the desultory assortment of store cookies and weak coffee in the church basement.

Steven summed it up on the way home, "It was pitiful, it was just plain pitiful."

Millie's observation was less charitable, "those two cold, selfish bastards."

About a month later Steven received a call from a local lawyer informing him June had included him in her will. June had bequeathed him ten thousand dollars and the contents of her freezer. Steven quizzed the lawyer about how her sons had felt about June leaving him money. He said the lawyer sort of chuckled and said they weren't pleased about it but the lawyer then explained to them the cost of contesting it would eat up most of the ten thousand. He also led Steven to believe there were ample funds and it would not be wise for her heirs to argue about a a relatively small sum left to a kind neighbor as a token of gratitude. 

Her sons were putting her house on the market immediately and asked Steven to clear out the freezer as soon as possible.

After a short conversation Steven an Millie decided the money would go to charity. They had a list of ten to twelve charitable causes that they had carefully vetted and gave to every year, so they would simply divide Steven's inheritance among them. It was harder to decide what to do with the contents of the freezer as they didn't know the size of the freezer or hie full it was. Steven suggested it was easiest just to go look.

"I still have the key June gave me. I'll give it to the real estate agent as soon as this freezer business is over. Come with me please."

June couldn't think of a valid reason to say no but she still felt uncomfortably like some kind of interloper when they went in the dark house. She kept hurrying Steven. Fortunately the freezer was not in the basement but was easy to find in the large laundry room just off the kitchen. It was a top opening big freezer and it was tightly packed full. It looked to have meat and vegetables as well as June's baked goods.

As Steven closed the freezer too he gave a deep sigh and said, "I suppose I'm not allowed to just say no thank you. Lordy, what a hassle."

At home the solution came to both of them almost simultaneously, they would donate all the food in June's freezer to a local food bank. Millie called a friend she knew who volunteered there by soliciting food from local restaurants and grocery stores. Through her it was all easily arranged.

The next Saturday the food bank sent a truck and two staff members to meet Steven at June's. To make sure there could be no criticism from the real estate agent or June's sons Steven stayed there while the two workers loaded everything in boxes, sorting as they packed. Steven had asked Millie that morning if maybe she agreed he should bring home one pecan coffee cake. She merely tilted her head and looked at him with a hard, steady gaze.

He said, "OK, you're right, forget it."

So Millie was surprised when Steven came home carrying a box and put it on the kitchen table. 

"It isn't food. It was in the very bottom of the freezer. The food bank guys looked at it and said I had better take it."

In a plastic box was what looked like a bunch of letters wrapped in both a blue linen cloth and then a plastic bag.

"Whose letters are those? What are they about? When were they written?"

"I don't know. They look old. I thought you could help me decide if I should just toss them or if we should maybe read then."

"Oh honey, I don't think I could ever let you throw them away. You know me, you know how curious I am. Honestly if you tossed them you' have to shred them, finely shred them or I would retrieve them and read them when you weren't looking.

"Well, I guess that settles it."

So Millie made coffee and they spent the afternoon sitting at the kitchen table reading the letters. They were all dated and in chronological order so they started with the oldest first, Steven reading them first and then passing them to Millie. There were eleven letters written to June during World War II. At first both of them assumed they were from her husband, Bill. They knew Bill was a World War II veteran. The first letter showed them they were wrong. It and all the other letters were from a man in the air force named Steven. Yes, STEVEN.

In the first letter to June he wrote:

"Surprise. Bet you didn't expect to hear from me. I heard you and 
Bill Kemper are serious about each other. Bill is a good guy so 
congrats, June. I just wanted to tell you I am sorry about our break-
up. I should never have even looked at Patty Milkowski. I only went
out with her a few times and I never saw her after graduation. She 
can't hold a candle to you. You are lots prettier and nicer. Anyway, 
I've been thinking about you over here and had to tell you that I'm
real sorry. I was a dumb ass.

I am doing OK. All the guys on our flight crew are pretty good guys.
Our pilot as a real Southern accent. Says you all and all that stuff.
We laugh at him a lot.

The food is not so good.

Junie, the English girls aren't near as pretty as you.

Take care of yourself, think of me when you go to Bud's drive-in,"

June had obviously written back to Steven. Their correspondence continued for fourteen months. June must have had strong feelings for Steven and she clearly must have written something to encourage his feelings for her (Millie thought how she would love to be able to read June's letters also).  Each of Steven's letters was more affectionate than the last and towards the end of the correspondence the letters were openly romantic.


In the last letter in the box Steven wrote:

My dearest Junie Bug,

Thank you my darling Junie for saying there is a chance for us. 
I'm so damned happy you still care for me that I feel I could fight 
this crazy war all by myself. The thought of you keeps me going 
every day. I have a photo of you and me at the lake where I see it
all the time. I know we can be happy together. When this is over we
we'll be together again. I KNOW IT.

We can tell Bill together, I think he will understand. I agree you
shouldn't write him when he is over here fighting.

I love you,

your Steven


 At the bottom of the box was a newspaper clipping, Steven's obituary. He died only a few days after his last letter to June. His plane had been shot down over France. All the men in it died.

Millie had been wiping tears from her eyes for the last few letters, now the tears were a steady flow. She said, "She never stopped loving him, I know she never stopped loving her Steven. Bill never knew. She married him because that is what girls did then, they got married. You know, honey, I am so glad she let Steven know how she felt. He was happy before he died."

Steven picked up the letters, put them in a pile and said, "I wonder if there aren't many war stories like that."

"I imagine there are. Honey, you were a kind, thoughtful patient friend to June and I'm sure she felt great liking for you, a true affection, but you know what else? You too are Steven and I think to June saw some of her Steven in you."

"Oh, for God's sake, Millie!", and with that he swept up the letters, put hem back in the box and handed it to her."


THE END 

 

 


© Copyright 2019 Carolee B. All rights reserved.

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