Sighing, she tries to blink the light back out, pulse racing after unkind dreams, and June is hungover Christmas morning. The house sags and the doors won’t lock, the plumbing so shot she must empty buckets from beneath the sink. It stinks, her house on the swamp, an extremist’s escape from the tidy suburb of her childhood. Down the impressive lanes of Glorieta, mothers and chauffeurs transported children and maids, always going somewhere. Here, the squalor dazzles even June.
Detritus of last month’s jamboree includes an old boyfriend’s running shoe, fungi sprouting in a teacup, and a pint bottle of something too bitter to drink.
“Merry Christmas California,” June mutters, dreading the day’s events.
What did this golden state promise her parents that drought year she was born, twenty years before, joining two brothers and one sister to make a perfectly balanced family? Their house was a castle, sold as part of the divorce settlement. Her father, George, declared her mother a white elephant like the house, said no one needed anything that big and useless.
Four years ago, June, at sweet sixteen, moved in with her mother, , to an apartment the size of their old garage, but cozy – packed with herb smells and the maternal scent of talc. George, at 51, did leave his wife for a girl half his age – not his secretary but that of his best friend, Dick, the partner and neighbor with whom he’d commuted for thirty years on the ferry which magically departed from San Francisco at dusk with bar on board. When they docked in Glorieta, George and Dick stumbled down the ramp to the serenade of jib lines on their weekend boats, clanging against the masts like warning tolls no one ever heeded.
June blames all things on George: her drinking, her sister’s, her oldest brother’s health mania, her other brother’s drug obsession. Swallowing away sour residue and saliva, she showers amidst the mold, black and blue spores a plague taking over her home, the disease of a past she tries to scrub away like so many spots, the markings she can’t fade or scrape off.
Christ’s Birthday in Northern California, close by the Marin County line: already the sun is high, sky crisp blue after weeks of downpour, the day dawning the color of hope and fulfillment. June closes her eyes to the perfect weather as she scours the shadow of a birthmark on her left cheek, the dark spot shaped like a dagger or jagged tear. She hates it, has inflamed it, had it surgically removed years ago but feels it still, beneath the hot water’s rush wiping away the morning patina of pain. Coffee, four aspirin, a can of tomato juice left over from Bloody Marys, the cats mewing so loudly she’d like to throw them through the window but feeds them instead. And in her former boyfriend’s rich velour robe – in which she feels rich and cared for – the blue cloth a nearly human caress, she looks to the clock to see how late she’ll be, when the phone shrills.
“Sweetie? I’d hoped you’d help with the dressing but don’t worry I got it all done last night and there really isn’t too much left to do now but if you could get here before the others then you’d help me out getting them drinks and taking coats while I do last-minute things in the kitchen. Can you do that, Junie?”
Nausea rises as she listens to Jean, almost always, but especially when her mother is at her sweetest and most self-effacing: You stupid woman, that’s why he left you so cruelly and casually as if walking out over the porch floor he’d never noticed, but which always received the mud on his shoes, dogshit, and the flung umbrella. As much as she despises George and loves Jean, she harbors shoals of hate for them both, blaming both parents for her ill-equipped and, so far, failing venture to adulthood. Her brothers, their wives, and her sister are coming today, but no one will offer to help Jean in the kitchen except for June, who will be resented by her siblings and martyred by her mother for the most minimal assistance. Jean, now 54, lives alone and loves it, she insists, volunteering at adult literacy next county over, teaching English to children of migrants, and living well on George’s settlement and investments; so why must June resent her ever-sacrificing mother? Jean is still the porch floor, necessary and trod upon, and her children continue to treat her as such: Mom, can you sew my coat, loan me money, your car, a credit card?
“Okay, Mom. I’m on my way. I’ll help you. I promise. Good-bye.”
What it means to be the baby of an older woman is to do no wrong, to be always the prized possession, loved and pampered and sucked up to. June has become a younger George, and Jean, learning nothing, invites spit and scorn and walking on. If June arrives late – and she is inevitably, irrevocably late – Jean will never rebuke her, will say, later, quietly, that it was tricky basting the goose and opening the door, as if her own children could not open the door and take their own coats, but Jean prides herself on being the ultimate hostess, planner of extraordinary fetes with every detail attended to. Her talents are, in part, the reason for George’s making partner at the unprecedented age of 26, clients stolen from competitor firms, seduced by Jean’s homemade hors d’oeuvres and hospitality. Gracious Jean who makes everyone feel at home. Overheard in the living room by five-year-old June, Dick to another lawyer: “Jean looks more like George’s mother than his wife, but she can sure put on a spread. And she never hires help. Wouldn’t mind one of those at my house.”
Jean never complains, June says to herself, tearing clothes from the closet, finding everything inadequate, settling finally on oversized overalls, which she hides beneath an old cardigan from her mother’s college days. Jean is the paragon 1950s wife. Jean assures June she has forgiven George, says she is glad to be on her own for the first time since Mills, which she quit her senior year to marry and start the family. She always dreamed of two boys and two girls, and was, she likes to say, blessed to get what she wanted. George never married the secretary but did take her to France, where Jean spent junior year abroad – the best year ever, she claims – she and her girlfriends carefree, hungry for life in a Paris still recovering from the war. Americans welcome visitors, and all their hopes before them.
June’s car smells of old roses, dried petals blanketing the seats, carpeting the floor. The coupe was George’s once: the first Alfa Romeo he bought to keep his interest after it had strayed from home. June drives it to her part-time job on the county advertiser, where she types ads for backhoes, horses, free mutt pups, and do-it-yourself septic systems. She imagines herself subversive, her middle finger raised to George as she fails to finish everything: college, jobs, dishes, affairs. Of her siblings, only the health fanatic went on to follow their father’s anointed footsteps to success. A highly specialized plant biologist in recombinant DNA, Tom works for Del Monte, making bigger, better vegetables for growing Americans like the residents of Glorieta. June snorts, lights a cigarette, and smells the roses she has filled the car with to chase away the stubborn scent of George: that expensive cologne he wears every day of his life, that smell the essence of her father, who, just last year, married the former wife of his best friend, and bought back the white elephant at a hundred thousand more than he’d sold it for, he and his new wife now living there alone but for invitations to the children of both – some who visit, most don’t.
Annie Dawid teaches creative writing at the University College, University of Denver. She was professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, OR, 1990-2006.
Annie won the 2016 International Rubery Award in fiction for her first book and the Music Prize from Knuthouse Press in Fiction. Other awards include the Dana Award in the Essay, the Orlando Flash Fiction Award, The New Rocky Mountain Voices Award (drama) and the Northern Colorado Award in Creative Non-Fiction.
Most recent publications: Brilliant Flash Fiction, Tikkun, Windmill, and “Jonestown, Japantown,” in Joyland: San Francisco, The Casket (UK) and a poetry chapbook, Anatomie of the World, Finishing Line Press, 2017.
Forthcoming poems in Ache magazine, UK, print & online, fiction in Fictive Dream.
Multiple websites feature her short works, including TubeFlash, RetreatWest,
Spelk, Octavius, Nowhere, WeSaidGoTravel, Structo, Fiction Attic Press and others.
Her three published volumes of fiction are:
York Ferry: A Novel, Cane Hill Press, 1993, second printing
Lily in the Desert: Stories, Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 2001
And Darkness Was Under His Feet: Stories of a Family, Litchfield Review Press, 2009