Here it is my first short story, enjoy!
A DAY IN JUNE
I hadn’t talked to her in years, now it was too late. It was too late to apologize, too late to accept her love. It was my fault we hadn’t spoken in years. She had reached out to me with letters, postcards, messages left on my answering machine. Never giving up on me, but I gave up on her and myself. I had spent years angry at what life had dealt me: a mother who had abandon me, a father I never knew, a life spent with an abusive alcoholic grandmother. The only joy I had known during my early life was my great-aunt, and even she had let me down. Life now, was just a series of dead end jobs and worthless relationships. I was doing what I could do to survive, living from meager paycheck to paycheck, and one small step away from living in my beat-up car.
I found out about her death when I had returned from Mexico. My neighbor greeted me with a scowl and two weeks’ worth of mail she had collected for me. I thanked her as juggled the mail, my keys and suitcase. I shoved open the warped door of my studio apartment to see the light flashing on the answering machine. I pushed the play button and listened while I sorted through my mail. There were several hang-ups, a few calls from salesmen trying to sell me things I didn’t need, a call from my girlfriends looking for me and the last call was from a Mr. Lawson an attorney at a law firm here in L.A. The mail wasn’t much more promising, several collection notices (which I tore up and threw in the trash) and a small but heavy package, from my aunt. Another care package, I thought. I tossed it aside on to small countertop.
I checked my watch; I should call the attorney back. It was probably someone calling about money I owed. I hoped it was already too late in the day to reach any one, unfortunately, Mr. Lawson was available. I was prepared to hear the same routine legal jargon I had heard many times before from bill collectors. He continued talking but, after I heard the words “great aunt” and “dead”, I stopped listening. I stood, motionless in my kitchen, the phone dangling by the cord in my hand, I heard his voice on the other end “Miss, miss are you there?” I pulled the receiver back up to my ear, unable to respond. My ears rang, my knees felt as if they were going to give away at any moment. He went on to explain a package was being sent to me per my aunt’s request. He asked that I call his secretary back in the morning to set up an appointment with him. As I hung up I managed a feeble “o.kay”.
I broke out in a cold sweat; unable to hold myself up any longer I collapsed down on the kitchen floor. I buried my face in my hands as the room began to spin and tilt around me. With the taste of bile in my mouth I sobbed into my hands, wanting to die. The spasms in my stomach grew stronger, my legs numb, I couldn’t move. I cried for what seemed like hours, until I could produce no more tears. Fumbling in the dark towards the bathroom, I rammed my shin into my unopened suitcase and fell face first onto the floor. Crawling on my hands and knees into the bathroom I sat down on the edge of the bathtub. I began another bout of uncontrollable crying, remembering my aunt when I had been sick, rubbing my back or putting a cold cloth on my head. I splashed cold water on my face and looked at my bloodshot eyes and red tipped nose in the mirror.
She continued to reach out to me, even after I had turned my back on her. She gave her love unconditionally to a friend or a stranger. My love had conditions. The tears started forming again as sorrow welled up in my heart. She had been the woman who had taken care of me so many years, she had given me hope and glimpses of what life could be like for me. I began to beat the bathroom mirror as I looked at myself, angry at her for sending me back to my grandmother summer after summer. Why didn’t she save me, why did she turn her back on me? Why didn’t she hold on to me so tight that my grandmother had no choice but to let me stay? Why did my grandmother want me anyway – she did nothing but hate me. The mirror broke into tiny fragments; I looked at my reflection now distorted. I smashed my fist into the center of the mirror– cutting my knuckles. I snatched a clean towel and wrapped my hand up.
The package was still on the counter. I had hoped that I had imagined it, but my aching knuckles and burning eyes, reminded me that it was real. I filled a glass with cold water, turning my back on the package as I drank. I could feel it tempting me to open it; I could hear my auntie’s voice, urging me gently just as she had done so many times. I picked up the package and felt its weight in my good hand. I shook it to see if it would give up any secrets. I tore off the brown wrapper to reveal a brown leather bound book, no title on the cover and only a few gold bands on the spine. I opened the cover to reveal a thin tissue like page which I turned to reveal written in my auntie’s familiar slanted handwriting: “My Journal, 1965, Helen Reinhardt, Windsor, California”. I quickly snapped the book shut and placed it back on the counter.
Backing away, I felt guilty, almost as if I had been caught with my hand in the cookie jar. She had always been very private about her personal life. Why would she send me her journal? I went to work trying to ignore it: unpacking, sorting my laundry, cleaning up the mess I had made in the bathroom. I stood in the hot shower, water as hot as I could stand, like thousands of tiny needles pricking my skin. Still it called to me, “read me, read me” over and over again.
I clearly remember that first day I had met my auntie. I had sat in the front seat of grandma’s 1960 green Cadillac. It was one of those cars with white wall tires and big fins. I called it the whale. The car was filled with her cigarette smoke. I sat as far away as I could, pinned up against the door. The only fresh air I had received that morning was when she cracked the window to flick out her cigarette butts. Her lips curled back to reveal yellow teeth as she snarled at me to get out of the car. Her fingers like her teeth were stained yellow from the constant cigarettes she kept between her lips. Most of her clothing had burns from the ashes that fell onto her when she was too drunk to notice.
With a cigarette perched between her thin lips she reached across me with a long gangly arm, I held my breath so I couldn’t smell her. In one swift movement she opened the door and pushed me to the sidewalk. The brown grocery sack that contained all my belongings flew out of the open door, landing at my feet. I watched her drive off, the door slamming shut, weaving down the dirt road hitting potholes and barely missed a mailbox. The last I saw of her that summer was her red taillights through the dust as she crested the hill toward town, and then she was gone.
“June? Why you are much prettier than your picture. I am so happy you are here.” I turned slowly to face the voice. The woman who stood before me looked like a taller, plumper and bumpier version of my grandmother. She wore bright red little glasses with pointed rims that reminded me of cat eyes. Around her neck was a pretty gold locket on a thick chain. Her hair was teased and piled up on her head in the latest fashion. Her face was smooth with little creases around her mouth where she smiled. I checked her teeth while she talked and noticed they were white. Her voice was gentle and sweet, but not as if she thought I was dumb, she talked like my kindergarten teacher. From what I could see so far this woman was the complete opposite in every way of my grandmother. I hadn’t known until that morning that I was going away for the summer. School had just let out the day before, grandmother didn’t have time for me, she never did, but this summer she wanted to spend time with her newest boyfriend in Mexico.
I bit my lower lip, I was confused, this place looked nice and this lady seemed nice. I picked up my brown paper sack and rolled the crumpled edge over and over in my little hands. My clothes were a hodge-podge; my shoes, Mary Janes, a size too big, once they had been black and shiny patent leather, now scuffed and worn. The broken straps of my sundress were fastened with safety pins. Underneath I wore a threadbare pair of pants that were too short and a blouse with only two buttons. My socks drooped and hung loosely at my ankles, the elastic long gone. My hair swirled around in different directions, my grandmother had hacked it off the night before in a drunken rage. My bag contained the rest of everything I owned: a pair of pajamas that were also too small, two pairs of holey underwear, a thick writing tablet to practice my handwriting on. In the middle of the tablet I had hidden my only picture of my mother. A faded black and white photo, she’s happy and her head is tilted back in a laugh, the sun shining through her hair, like a halo. If my grandmother found this photo, she would destroy it.
Some ladies from the neighborhood church had stopped by a few times during the school year and dropped off bags of clothing and food for me. Grandma got mad; accusing me of “telling those no good do-gooders” that she was a lazy grandmother, no one needed to be in our business. I watched quietly from behind the orange arm chair as she blew her cigarette smoke in their faces while they attempted to talk to her, when they were finished she took the bags from them. While wearing her fake smile she thanked them as she emptied the last few sips of her beer out on to their shoes. The bags were tossed out in the trash.
That Christmas, before grandmother got up, I had found a beautifully wrapped package on our front stoop. On the tag was neatly printed “June”. I walked to the alley and opened the gift. I removed the lid and carefully pulled back the tissue paper to reveal a baby doll nestled inside. She was gorgeous; with long blonde hair that was formed into little ringlets around her head, thick dark eyelashes, little pink cheeks and a tiny rosebud mouth. Her hands were outstretched as if she wanted me to pick her up. I gently lifted her out of the box and examined her red velvet dress, pearl buttons down the back, a white lace collar and black patent leather shoes. I named her Samantha. I was able to hide for several months, before grandmother found her. I watched, mortified as she picked up Samantha by the heel, swung her back and forth, and walked out to the trash bin by the curb. She carried my doll as if she was carrying a dirty rag. She lifted the dinged up metal lid, dangled Samantha over the trash, swung her back and forth a few more times while looking at me to make sure I was watching, then tossed her in on top of her the empty vodka bottles and cigarette ashes. She took a one last long draw on her cigarette, and then ground the butt into the lid which she then slammed down with a flourish. She dusted off her hands and then looked at me, pointed like she had a gun and then swung her hips as she walked off down the street to her favorite bar. She left me home alone, but I knew that I couldn’t go out and get that doll; I did not have the kind of courage.
The next morning I heard the trash truck coming down the street, and I knelt on the sofa and looked out the window, peeking between the yellowed blinds I watched as the trash man removed the lid from our trashcan. He gently picked up Samantha and held her up with two hands, turned her over and examined her carefully. He brushed her off and smoothed out her dress. He looked up at the house and shook his head, he knew I am sure he knew it was my doll and had no business being in the trash. He took Samantha and put her in the front seat of his truck. I could see he was gentle with her, he must have a little girl at home; I knew they would take good care of Samantha. His daughter was lucky.
“Are you o.k.? Sweetie, you look a little tired,” I kept my gaze down and nodded several times. “I am so glad you are here! Let’s go in, I think a celebration of milk and cookies is in order” I managed a few peeks around as we walked up the front steps, there was a porch swing, a wrought iron bench in the garden, a birdbath; I was sure there was a secret clubhouse somewhere too. I tried not to show my excitement. My head was back down when I sat down at the kitchen table. A plate of homemade peanut butter cookies and a cold glass of milk were placed on the table in front of me.
I managed a feeble “thank you ma’m”, and picked up a cookie. “First things first, I am not a ma’m, I am your great-aunt Helen, your grandmother’s sister. What do you want to call me?” She said in her soothing gentle voice. “Is it ok if I call you auntie?” I couldn’t bring myself to lift my chin. “Yes dear, I think that will do. Did you bring anything besides your paper bag?” I shook my head no, and put my hands in my lap since I had finished my cookie. “You can have more than one cookie.” I reached for the milk and another cookie as she urged me to do. I listened as she told me about the house how her father had built this house, and how she’d been born here along with her sister.
“You will like it here, I promise. I am going to take care of you. Let’s go see your room.” I had never had my own room. My days at age 6 were usually filled with my drunken grandmother hollering at me for another beer, to get her shoes, clean up the place, or she’d just yell at me because she had nothing better to do. She didn’t want to spoil me so my “room” was the sofa with a thin blanket and if I was lucky a lumpy pillow.
My heart was beating in my throat and a thousand butterflies were fluttering in my stomach as I followed her up to the top of the stairs. She stopped, opened a door, and motioned for me to go in before her. As I walked past her I looked up at her face, still feeling a little unsure, maybe this was a joke. I stood in the room looking around, not moving, my mouth open wide, and my heart no longer beating. The bed was covered with a pink fluffy comforter with layer upon layer of ruffles hanging down to the floor. The desk had a matching chair with delicate flowers painted on the back. There was a lamp on the bedside table, with a shade the same color as the comforter. A dresser with knobs of glass was topped with a picture of my mother. Overcome with emotion; I turned around and hugged my aunt around her waist. She patted me on the head and reassured me all was going to by o.k.
“I am going to get the bathtub ready for you honey. We need to get that smell off you. Why don’t you look around your room, maybe put your things away,” she walked off and I heard the bath water start. I spun around with my arms flying high, my sundress flowing up in the air like a ballerina. I stopped and my dress made a swoosh and I hugged myself tightly
The tub was filled to the top with suds and bubbles. I scrubbed and soaked until I was sure the cigarette smell was off me. When I got out, there was a soft rug under my toes and a big fluffy white towel. I wrapped myself up several time in the towel. I hated the thought of putting my nasty clothes back on, but it was all I had. When I got dressed auntie tried to help me with my butchered hair, but it was pointless. It just poked out of my head, swirling one direction and then another.
“You know, I think we still have time to go do a little shopping, if you’re not too tired.” I nodded yes with a big smile. She grabbed her big black handbag off of the coat rack and I followed behind her out the front door down the steps and back to where what seemed ages ago, I had been dumped off. I walked next to her on the sidewalk as we made our way to the department store downtown.
I heard a woman’s voice from a front porch as we passed, “Heelen! Helen, hellooo there!!” We stopped, and a woman was waiving frantically at us. She was one of the most interesting looking women that I had ever seen. She had jet black hair, piled high up on her head; it was at least 7 or 8” tall and looked like it would never move. Her eyebrows looked like someone had drawn them on with a tiny pencil. Her lips were a bright red, to match her long nails. But it was her dress that amazed me; it was the same color red as her lips, it was tight and came up to the top of her thigh. It had a little row of beads and tiny mirrors around the hem and neckline. She literally shimmered. “Oh Helen, is this your little niece, June? Why she is just so adorable.” She made her way down the stairs toward us in her shimmery dress and pointy shoes. “I have to meet your niece”. She held her hand out to me to shake, “Good afternoon, how do you do miss, my name is Lottie; I am one of your aunt’s best friends.” She talked loud and slow, maybe she thought I was deaf or I couldn’t understand her. I shook her hand, and managed to mumble out a good afternoon and a how do you do.
She turned back to my aunt and the two of them spoke as if I wasn’t standing right there. “Why Helen, I hope you are taking this girl shopping. She looks like she could use some brightening up.” She clapped her hands down to her thighs. “We are on our way to McCormack’s right now. She is growing so fast.” The two of them chatted on and on; I was in my own dreamland, thinking about the sparkly dress I was going to get today. I stood quiet and listened while they went back and forth on the latest neighborhood gossip, “well, I never…wait until her husband finds out…brand new car…” Grandmother would never have let me stand by while she chatted with her friends. She would have swatted me away like I was a fly. We finally said our goodbyes and continued on our way. “Lottie is a good friend of mine, although where she gets her style from, I don’t know,” she said while shaking her head and clicking her tongue. I didn’t understand what she was talking about and why she laughed; Lottie was gorgeous.
I slept well that night in my new bed, with the window wide open, listening to the sounds of my new home, smelling the fresh evening air that gently blew in from my open window. My sheets were soft, the pillows and blankets had a hint lavender. I wasn’t woken up at 2:00 am by a drunken grandmother stumbling in the front door with her friends, or the muffled sounds in the bedroom or neighbors arguing and smashing dishes against the wall.
The summer went by too fast for me. I made a clubhouse out behind the apple tree and old garden shed. I learned to fish in the creek, caught jars of tadpoles. I made friends in the neighborhood; they taught me how to play kick-the-can and tether-ball. The day came for me to go. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t stay with auntie. I begged Auntie to let me stay, clung to her legs. She sat next to me, holding my shoulders, trying to explain, she loved me… but I wouldn’t listen. I sat in the front seat, all the way home, this time not crowded up against the door, but square in the middle.
I was angry at Auntie for sending me back, but my anger never lasted long. Over the years I threw myself into my school work and my grandmother’s demands. Eventually school was out for the summer and I would go back, year after year – until I was old enough to work and get a job. Then I stopped going. I never understood how she could turn me back out year after year. When I was there it was the happiest place I knew. I stopped talking to her, stopped writing her, and started ignoring her.
The journal and my memories wouldn’t leave me alone, I decided to go ahead and read the journal. She meant for me to read it, she sent it to me. It was addressed in her own handwriting. Maybe it was time to stop ignoring her.
Sunday, August 22nd, 1965
You left this morning June. The house is eerily quiet. I don’t like the fact I can hear myself think, and that my kitchen floor is still clean. This summer went by too fast.
I had you cleaned up and dressed, sitting on the top step of the porch, waiting for your grandmother to pick you up. You sat on that step, lonely, your head hung low, just like when you had arrived in June. When your grandmother showed up, you jumped up and hid behind me, crying and clinging to my legs. I sat down with you and tried to calm you down. My heart breaking every time a tear fell out of your eye or a sob escaped your throat. I wanted so much to grab hold of you, hide you, and not let her have you.
You don’t know how much June, that I want to take you and run off somewhere, I am not that kind of person June, I have faith that all will work out. I have to work within the law right now, so as to not jeopardize our future. I don’t expect that you understand this now my dear, but perhaps in time you will see that I have no choice. You grandmother has many friends in high-up places; people who will do things for her, illegally.
You have grown so much over the summer. You were 6 almost 7 when you got here, but you’ve lived many years in your short life. You are mature beyond your age and very bright. I feel much regret for what has happened to you, and wish that I could do more for you. My hope is that you will not lose your sweet demeanor over the school year, that you will not stop dreaming of what you can be, and that you will not let your grandmother break your spirit. Nothing would make her happier than to break you, so you would be as miserable as she is.
I want to start with the beginning, when I first found out about you. I didn’t know you existed until just before Thanksgiving of 1964. The circumstances are miraculous in themselves on how I learned about you. I am your grandmother’s only living relative, besides your mother and you of course. We haven’t spoken in years, since about 1942 I believe. I was working one evening at the church soup kitchen. There was an unusual cold spell that year and many people were seeking warm shelter. The Ladies Aide group at church decided to help in any way we could. We were able to provide a hot meal and a warm cot for the night for some of the old folks in town, the homeless and a few strangers who traveled through.
One evening I was in the serving line. I was putting a roll on the woman’s plate in front of me. Her hands were shaking so much, I had to get out of line and help her with her plate. I got her a cup of hot cocoa and walked to her to a table. She sat in silence as I cut her meatloaf for her, buttered her roll and encouraged her to eat. She had long blonde hair, much like your grandmother had when she was young. She didn’t have enough clothes on to keep her warm. Around her neck she wore a gold locket; it looked very similar to a locket my father had given my sister when she turned 16.
I saw a familiarity in her brilliant blue eyes and around the corners of her mouth. She appeared to be in her early to mid-twenties, and was in bad shape. Her skin was splotchy; her lips dry and chapped, her hands raw. I could tell though that she was a beauty. After she finished eating we found a hat, mittens and a warm winter coat in the donation bin.
I took her to the sleeping quarters for the women, helped her to find a cot and blanket. I encouraged her to go in the ladies room and freshen up with the soap and washcloth I gave her, along with a toothbrush. She walked away from me, and I noted a certain gait in her step, and it came to me that she was my niece, your mother, Elizabeth April McClure. I had only met her once or twice when she had traveled through years ago with a group of friends. She must have been only 16 or 17 when I last saw her, shortly before you were born. I knew that she had dropped out of school and then gone on to live a life in and out of the popular hippy scene. I knew she wasn’t the same girl mentally or physically that I had seen years earlier.
When she returned from cleaning up, her face had some color to it although she had deep dark circles under eyes. I arranged her in a cot and covered her with a few blankets, I pulled a chair up next to her and asked her about her locket, I told her my sister once had a locket like hers and it had a picture of my mother and father in it. She took the locket out from under her thin dress and opened it revealing the very same picture of my mother and father on one side, and on the other was a picture of a sweet little pink baby, with bright blue eyes and a shock of blonde hair. I asked her if she was Lizzie, she mumbled something to me that I believe was “Aunt Helen”. I took her little chapped hands in mine. I wanted her to talk to me, but something was wrong with her, she couldn’t talk. She just looked back at me with my father’s blue eyes, a tear rolling down her cheek, and nodded. She squeezed my hand, and then fell asleep.
I left her to her rest, and went home. I had it in my mind to go back early in the morning after she had rested and bring her home. I don’t know why I didn’t bring her home that night, perhaps it was because she had been so tired and was resting peacefully. Sometimes dear, we do things we wish we could undo, looking back it always seems clearer the choice that should have been made.
I rose before the sun the next day with a feeling of dread, thinking I needed to get to Lizzie before the sun came up. When I got there she was already gone. On her pillow I found a little piece of folded up paper, with my name scrawled on the outside. Inside were the locket and a crudely written note. She told me about you, and how she missed you and loved you very much. Her mother had broken her down over the years. After she became pregnant with you, her mother continued to berate her and humiliate her. She didn’t want to be there, and she didn’t want to leave you. She was torn unsure what to do, unable to think clearly. She had made a terrible choice and now she was sick and too weak go back and get her daughter. She told me where her mother last lived, and she asked that I take care of you.
I decided to try and find her; maybe she hadn’t gotten too far. I had my friends looking all over town, a few drove to Santa Rosa and spread the word at other shelters. Nothing, we couldn’t find her. I tried to find you on the little information she had left. I had to keep my promise to your mother.
I was able to hire a private detective. I don’t know how they did it honey, but they were able to trace you down. They found your birth certificate; you were listed as Jane Elizabeth Thompson, born in Los Angeles County Hospital on September 16th, 1959, born to Elisabeth Thompson (unwed mother). They were able to track your grandmother down. I waited for the lawyers to do their job. I learned how awful your grandmother was treating you. I was hoping that I would be able to have you come and live with me. Your grandmother was your closest relative and she had custody, my hands were tied at this point. I had my friends check on you, they would bring you clothes and groceries. They were able a few times to get right up to the door and see the kind of squalor you lived in. I was told you had very little, but you seemed to enjoy school a lot, you had a nice teacher and some school friends. I was glad to hear this. I picked out a special doll for you and had my friends drop it off for you on Christmas morning.
I tried to get custody of you, and when that failed I went to plan B, which was to at least let you visit for the summer. I arranged through the attorney to make it worth her while to let you be with me every summer. I am not proud of “bribing” her. You were my number one concern, and the promise I made to your mother. I could not turn my back on you.
The first time I saw you, you reminded me of a little rag doll. Your hair had been cut off in a fit of rage by your grandmother. I believe she had you wear all the clothes you owned. I don’t know what she did with the clothes my friends had given you. You looked and seemed confused, no idea as to where you were or why you had been left here. You were a scared little thing, but I could see beneath the fear and the doubt, a little girl who needed some love and attention. You needed a chance to be a child.
June, you blossomed during the summer. After I got you cleaned up and clothed, after you got a chance to realize I was here to be someone to take care of you, you opened up. You began to run around outside, play like a little girl should. By the time you left at the end of the summer, your hair had grown out and you had color to your skin and some meat on your bones. I could see that your attitude about yourself was changing; you had replaced your fear and suspicion with love and trust.
I cannot wait to spend next summer with you. I love you June.
I put the journal down, sank to my knees. I told her how sorry I was. Could she forgive me? How could I have turned my back on her, I had become what she feared – my grandmother. I was angry, alone and had closed my heart years ago. Was it too late? Could she hear me in heaven – could she forgive me? The answer came with a gentle knock on the door. I peeked through the peep hole to see the postman. I opened the door and signed for the envelope with a shaky hand. I shut and locked the door, ripped open the envelope. Again, legal jargon I couldn’t understand. But I did see Mr. Lawson’s name on the heading. I called his office and his secretary put me right through to him. It seemed that my auntie had willed her home to me; it was mine free and clear whenever I could come to his office and sign the paper work. She was still looking out for me, guiding me and loving me. She had forgiven me. She always knew what was inside of me, waiting to bloom. She had given me a fresh start, a place for me to go where no one knew me. And now I was ready.