Previous Challenge Entry (EDITOR'S CHOICE)
Topic: Hmph!( 03/04/10)
For the Love of June
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Yesterday, Cora Sanders ordered a casket—one step up from the cheapest—was how she phrased it.
“Listen, Frank,” she said to me in explanation. “My husband, Martin was a small man. Didn’t accomplish much or leave me much. Pressed particle board will suffice.” The widow Cora nudged her sister, who was cradling the maligned man’s charcoal-gray suit and black Oxford lace-ups. “Isn’t that right, June?”
“I don’t know,” the sister stammered. “I don’t think he’d care about the casket—that’s true. But…but, he was a big man…carried a lot of other people’s burdens on those shoulders.”
Cora emitted a noise that traveled past her air-tight lips, out through her nose. June’s eyes welled. I tried not to judge. I know something about grief. It doesn’t always correlate with the number of tears shed.
“We’ll be back in the morning, Frank,” said Cora. The paisley-print chair cried in its own way at her rising. “Make sure everything’s in order.” She was out of my office before I could say, “Of course.”
June’s face reddened. “I’m very sorry,” she said.
“People react differently in sorrow. Don’t worry. How about I take those?” I lifted the suit, laid it across the loveseat. Set the shoes below. Mr. Sanders had become the Invisible Man.
“He looked good in gray,” June said. She stood up, smoothed the jacket’s lapel. Suddenly I had the impression that it was she who had loved Martin. It made me do something I never do. I left the safety of my office to walk her to the front entrance. I held the door open—though one foot remained on the interior carpet runner.
Outside, the April rain proved steady.
Morning has finally broken, and from my office window I watch the sisters park a Ford—four-door, mid-size. It’s a tentative operation, ending on lines. Cora, the shorter, slighter of the two, flings open the passenger door hard enough for it to bounce back onto her booted calf. The lines at her mouth slant downward at an oblique angle. Her husband, God rest his soul, had looked less severe when he had been brought in two nights ago via a different entrance.
June trails after Cora in the splatter of rain puddles across the pavement. June . . . June . . .her name forms the beginnings of a kiss. What will June think when she sees what I’ve done with Martin? Chances are she won’t be thinking what I’m thinking—that the space between inveterate observer and participant isn’t the gulf I’d imagined it to be.
Cora’s rap at the open door startles me.
“I hope everything’s ready,” she says.
“Yes, yes,” I assure her, coming around, leading her by the elbow to the hallway. I nod at June. She answers with a crooked smile—the overflow of a timid heart. I know something about timid hearts.
The hall feels simultaneously too long and too short. We enter the viewing room, where static surrounds my nerves. The casket is open, polyester lining gathered at the corners. I gesture for them to go ahead without me.
Several seconds pass before I hear a reaction. The first comes from Cora—disapproval expelled from nostrils. I wonder how God interprets disapproval, disdain—if He takes it personally.
June’s response takes longer.
“What are you crying for?” asks Cora. To me she says, “What’d you do to his shoulders? He looks like a linebacker.”
“Stop, Cora.” June’s imperative comes too swiftly for me to offer an answer. She turns to me. “He’s exactly how I’ve always seen him.”
Cora hmphs again, but this one lacks emphasis, conviction. Two trembling hands find rest on the edge of the composite wood; her gaze drops to the man she slept with for thirty-two years. She caresses his temple, his cheek, the lapel of his charcoal-gray suit.
After the public viewing, when solitude is close at hand, a newly developed panic surfaces. I walk June to the entrance, searching for words. June . . . June . . .
The rain has stopped. Green nubs of daffodils peak through the saturated earth. “They’re late,” I say. “Very late.”
June’s crooked smile returns. “None-the–less, they’ve arrived.”
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