by Tony Hozeny
My cell rang just as I came into the house with a bag of groceries. I set the bag down too quickly, tipping it over. Apples, green onions, and containers of yogurt fell to the floor, the tops of the containers breaking open, a white, gooey mess spreading all over the floor.
“Hello,” I snarled.
“Not a very nice greeting, Neil.”
“June! What a surprise.” I hadn’t seen her in a few years. We’d gone out as couples, but after a while I got sick of her husband Gordon, the doctor, the know-it-all. I didn’t like the way he treated June, and I was ashamed of her for putting up with it. After the kids were grown, she and Mary had nothing to talk about, so June and I drifted apart, except for the occasional brief, bland email update. But the sound of her voice made me miss her.
Now we updated each other on her daughters Cathy and Julie and my son Ted. Then she asked, “How do you like retirement?”
“I’m still teaching my graduate seminar on the presidency from 1865-1901. I go to faculty meetings, advise grad students. I’m working on a book. So I’m not really retired.”
“But a lot of time on your hands. I hope you’re not sitting around moping.”
I almost took offense, but we’d been friends since college, and she was blunt to a fault; besides, I’d written to her that Mary and I had separated, and she’d begun divorce proceedings.
“Good.” She paused. “I need your help.” Another pause. “Gordon and his doctor buddies took off for their annual two-week golfing vacation in Florida. He just texted me to hire somebody to get the house and yard ready for winter. I don’t even know what he means—well, I know what to do with my little garden. But I guess he forgot about it till the last minute. He’s been so busy lately finishing up work and getting ready for this trip.”
“You could Google handymen in the area.”
She paused. In the old days, we’d done favors for each other without a second thought. But now she was uncomfortable asking. That touched me.
“Could you come over and see what needs doing? Then I won’t feel so dumb calling.” Another pause. “I’d like to see you anyway.”
“I’ll be over right after lunch.”
After I cleaned up the yogurt, I looked out at my backyard. It was almost December, and I still hadn’t knocked down the garden, a job that you wanted done before the first fall of snow. A quarter cord of firewood still needed stacking. I hadn’t made a fire since Mary left. Mary: the first and last thought of every day.
June came out to meet me as I pulled into her driveway. She wore a close-fitting, black-leather jacket, jeans and shiny black Ugg boots. Her hair was still blonde, but it was short now, just past her jawline. When she came close, bright smile and big green eyes, I saw fine lines around her eyes and mouth. She’d gained a few pounds but had kept her figure. We hugged awkwardly. I might have held on a few seconds too long.
June and I walked the yard, our hands occasionally brushing. Their big colonial home was as well-kept as the others in the subdivision, but Gordon had let the backyard go. Leaves covered the long backyard grass. Several birch branches had fallen, and the garden was overgrown with dead stalks. The willow and Arctic fire bushes needed to be trimmed back. I could see leaves and twigs clogging the gutters. The storm doors still held screens.
“What do you think?”
“Tools and mower in the shed?”
She nodded. “Storm windows, too.”
He had a mulch mower, so I wouldn’t have to rake. I figured my tricky back would hold up for the rest of the work. “I can finish all this today, June. I could use the exercise.”
“Really? That’s so sweet of you! How much do you want?”
I grinned. “Make me dinner.”
She grinned back. “Just like I used to. I’ll be inside washing windows.”
I set to work with a trimmer and clippers, the dry lily and bleeding heart and allium stalks
still smelling of summer, the low plants dark and dry for their coming dormancy. Somewhere above, crows cawed, and a woodpecker chopped into tree bark. A cool, stiff breeze rustled the branches and fallen leaves and carried wisps of woodsmoke from a neighbor’s fireplace. It felt good to work outdoors. A couple of times, I glanced back at the house. June waved through the window.
I’d noticed a few balance problems, so I was careful on the ladder and didn’t overreach. Gordon’s mower finally started after I’d scraped the carbon off the spark plug and cleaned the air filter. I worked steadily through the remaining tasks, and dusk fell just as I was putting the door screens away. By then, the air was sharp and dry, spurring a hazy memory I couldn’t quite raise. June called out and asked me to bring in a load of firewood. When I did, she offered me a beer, opened a bottle of red wine, and poured herself a glass. We sat at the oak kitchen table. I could smell beef stew cooking.
“Nice job,” she said, “best it’s looked in years.” I noticed she’d put on a little makeup. She wore a blue-plaid flannel shirt with the top two buttons open, untucked over her jeans. She took a sip of her wine and said, “your email just said you split up, but obviously Mary dumped you. It couldn’t have been the other way around. You always loved her too much.”
“What if I don’t want to talk about this?”
“You asked her to marry you, what, three times? She knew she had the upper hand.”
“Here’s a new topic. You might tell your husband to rake the leaves off the roof or he’s going to have real trouble up there.”
“He does what he wants.”
“Always has. And you always put up with it.”
“Gordon is a good man and a great father.”
“Why do you care that Mary left me? Why would anyone care except our kids?”
“Because you never seemed to get what was going on! She has a new man, doesn’t she?”
I finished my beer. “Look, June, glad to help out and everything, but I’m going to go home. I don’t need this right now. I thought maybe share a few memories, catch up a little more”–
“Sorry. I’ll shut up about the personal stuff. Although there was a time when we could talk about anything.” She walked to the stove and stirred the stew. Then she smiled over her shoulder, and that smile, and the argument, made me feel a spark. She said, “Want to come over for a taste?”
I raised my eyebrows. She said, “oh,” and giggled. As I tasted from the spoon, she leaned a little closer, I smelled her light perfume, and I almost without thinking put my arm around her.
“When we used to hang out, the four of us,” she said, “a couple of times I saw Mary with other men. Arm in arm. But who knows, that could mean everything or nothing. And you never know what’s inside a marriage. I didn’t want to cause trouble for no reason.”
“You did the right thing. But can we please let this go?”
“I just feel—oh, I don’t know what I feel.” Then she brightened. “Wait’ll you have grandkids. They’re the best.”
During dinner, she told me all about Lexy and Adam, Cathy’s kids. The stew was delicious; I had a second helping. The hazy memory became clear. It was a much colder night almost 40 years ago, a night I’d forgotten till now, a night June wouldn’t remember.
As she was clearing the table, June said, “would you like to stay for awhile, have another drink, catch up? I promise no more stuff about Mary.”
Mary: I wondered how many men in how many rooms. I said, “Sure. Do you want me to make a fire?”
I built a pyramid with kindling over rolled newspapers, waited till the fire sustained a blaze, and added logs one by one. Behind me, I could hear June bustling around the kitchen. She was humming—tunelessly as always. It made me smile.
“It gets drafty in here,” she said, pulling on a long blue sweater. She set a beer for me and the bottle of red wine and a thin-stem glass on the coffee table and sat down on the pale green leather couch. When I was sure the fire didn’t need continual tending, I joined her, leaving some distance between us.
“Yeah, but”— I used an andiron to move the logs for a better airflow. Then I slid a large log on top.
“You’re very precise in what you do. I was watching you clean the gutters. Same actions, same sequence, same deliberate pace.”
“I think you’re teasing me.”
She batted her eyelashes. “Maybe a little. Like in the old days when you’d fix my car or wire in an extra phone or get a bunch of your guys together to help me move.” She smiled. “You were always there for me.”
“You typed that damned grad school application that was due the next morning”—
“Stayed up all night. My old IBM Selectric.” She poured more wine. “Do you want another beer?”
I shook my head no.
“Let’s just watch the fire.” She took a sip of wine, then another. I tended the fire again. When I returned to the couch, she’d moved closer. “Do you remember, there was that one winter when we had all that snow and it was really cold, and I wanted to drive back home for Christmas and my car wouldn’t start?”
I remembered every minute of that night, especially the way it ended. “That old Valiant,” I said.
“Virginia the Valiant.” She drained her glass and poured another. “I named all my cars back then. Didn’t we try to jump it?”
I nodded. “Man, that wind was blowing hard. I couldn’t work with gloves on, and my fingers got so cold I could hardly do anything. Too clumsy. Turned out the battery was OK. I cleaned the carburetor and changed the plugs and fired it up. Then I drove it for a while just to make sure.”
She pulled her legs up in tailor fashion. Her knee touched my thigh. “I was living in that dumpy little efficiency. The cold came right through the walls. The windows were frosted over that whole winter.”
“You made us chili, and you typed my senior thesis on the Reconstruction.”
She looked directly at me. “What else do you remember?”
I paused, wondering what she was driving at. “We watched that stupid movie. It was so cute and so sweet I wanted to gag. What was it? Do you remember?”
“Oh, yeah, there was a movie. Now let me think. We were watching it when the blizzard hit. I was afraid for you to go out in it.”
“So beautiful. So romantic.” She burped into her hand and started laughing. I laughed, too. Then she shifted a little away from me. “I was really pretty back then. My face was too narrow and my chin was weak and my ass was too big, but still. Everything just kind of sags now.” Her eyes flashed with anger. “Now you’re going to tell me I’m still pretty, like I’m begging for a compliment.”
“You look good. Not many women your age can fill out a pair of jeans like you do”—
“You haven’t seen me naked!”
I locked eyes with her. “All right, June. Tell me what’s really going on with you.”
Her eyes turned dull. “Gordon took his Viagra bottle with him.” She finished her wine in one swallow. “So he went down there intending to cheat. Might even have another woman down there, for all I know. For years. I was so dumb.”
“No wonder you were talking about Mary”—-
“That’s not it, Neil. That’s not it!” She walked quickly out of the room, and I heard her footsteps going up the stairs, then nothing.
After a few minutes, I went to the foot of the stairs. “June,” I called, “are you OK? Do you want me to leave? I’ll have to knock down the fire first.”
“Don’t you understand anything?”
I’d had enough. I separated the logs, let the fire go down, and closed the glass doors. Then I went to the closet for my jacket.
“What else do you remember about that night?” June said, coming down the stairs. She was wearing a long, blue flannel nightgown like the one she wore that night. I joined her on the couch.
“You didn’t want me to go out in the blizzard, so we slept in your bed. You were true to Chip the hockey player.”
She put her head on my chest, her arm lying across my stomach. “You held me all night. No other man has ever done that. To this day. But I didn’t know what I wanted back then.”
Gently, I pulled her up so I could look her in the eye. “I’ll tell you what I think, June. You’re really upset. You’re kind of all over the map. You don’t know what you want.”
She turned away. “I know exactly what I’m doing.”
“I think you want to use me to get back at Gordon. We can have a little fling and then I’ll be a pleasant memory and you’ll feel nothing too deep or real so you can stay in this big house with your safe life and your grandchildren. Well, I can’t do that, June. I can’t walk away and feel nothing.”
“That’s what you think of me? That I feel nothing? That it’s all about me?”
“I wanted you way back when, and if we start something tonight, I’m going to want you for mine. I don’t want to share you with your asshole husband.” I gestured around the room. “But at our age…you can’t leave all this.”
She kissed me on the lips, hard. “I’m not going to lose my grandkids. My girls know the
score. You’ve built a good life, too. And maybe I’d like to help you recover from that bitch.”
I kissed her back. We held hands walking up the stairs.
Tony Hozeny is the author of the novels Driving Wheel and My House Is Dark and numerous short stories. He has an MA from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars and taught creative writing at four colleges. Over the past three years, he has placed 16 stories in literary magazines. Three of the stories have been anthologized.