Before reaching to ring the doorbell Ralph cocked his uniform cap at a rakish angle his commanding officer would not have approved. He planned on controlling the evening. He would start by showing June what she’d been missing. Rather than fatigues, full dress mode did make him look striking and Ralph wanted to assure his Ticket to Heaven with June would be punched tonight. Women found it impossible to resist a man in uniform.
The heavy aftershave he wore reeked of musk and sex, and conjured up memories that fired his need even more. He’d snitched some from his father once in high school and remembered the effect the fragrance had on June.
After he deployed toFrance, Ralph splurged on a small bottle for himself. Since he spent most of his weekend army passes looking for a good time in Europe Ralph considered the expense a necessity, and it definitely attracted girls. At least the kind Ralph wanted to attract.
A vehicle went by on the street behind him with a family of seven. Four children ranging from five to twelve years old were crammed into the open rumble seat of the old Chevy roadster while the parents rode in the front, the mother holding a baby of about two years old on her lap. The car had obviously been well cared for over the years, but rust and small dents indicated that it had also seen better days
The father shifted into a lower gear and the old car sputtered and slowed down as he sounded the familiar ‘ah-ooo-gaa’ in salute to Ralph’s military uniform. The oldest boy nudged the younger one and pointed toward Ralph. Ralph gave them a brisk two finger salute in return but didn’t snap to attention as he would toward an officer. The girls waved and squealed at being acknowledged by a real soldier and Ralph squared his shoulders with an air of supreme masculinity, grinning as he watched the car rumble on toward the heart of downtown.
This kind of adulation made all the other crap he had to put up with in the army tolerable. It reinforced the fact that he deserved a little reward from the civilian population now and then. He turned back to push the doorbell. June better be ready, he thought. He didn’t want to have to wait.
The bell echoed downstairs in the vestibule as June primped and pushed an errant curl back into place. She didn’t want to appear too eager to see Ralph, but she wore her best dress, the red and white calico one with the little capped sleeves that accentuated her shapely arms from three years of hefting dirty dishes, scrubbing tables, mopping floors and serving meals to unappreciative customers at the diner.
“Coming!” she yelled over Glenn Miller’s Orchestra playing ‘Begin the Beguine’ on the little table radio that kept her connected with the outside world. She hoped Ralph could hear her voice carry through the open window to where he stood one story down on the front porch. June gave the small room she rented from Mrs. O’Rourke one last survey.
On the polished hardwood floor sat a straight-backed chair and table with the small radio, a three-drawer dresser and an open rack to hang clothing, a wash stand with a blue ceramic pitcher and bowl, a nightstand with a lamp, and a dressing table and mirror. And of course, the bed. A patchwork quilt her mama had lovingly made her for graduation covered the top and reflected the only cheerfulness in the simple room. The treasured quilt, along with her clothing and a few personal items, was the only thing she had from her mother when she left her Aunt Emma’s spacious Victorian home.
The job at the Diner didn’t pay much, but June had been lucky to get it. She’d worked hard and earned full time hours and she blessed Mrs. O’Rourke’s heart for renting her the small furnished room at a price June could manage if she was careful. Mrs. R. had seen hard times herself and knew what a little help meant to those down on their luck.
June had tidied up the night before when she got home from work. Changing the sheets on the bed, June knew Mrs. O’Rourke would have something to say about the extra laundry when June’s turn came to use the laundry facilities, but June would deal with that later. She was grateful she’d been able to save enough to purchase the extra set last year, making cleaning a lot more flexible.
Now she had to figure out how she would smuggle Ralph in later tonight. Getting past her landlady presented a challenge. Mrs. O’Rourke did not belong to the Fine Arts Society in town, as if they’d have her, and was no prude, but she did keep a respectable rooming house with rules.
June looked in the mirror and reached for the tube of bright red lipstick again. She touched up the inside of her lips where she’d been chewing them nervously, then blotted them with a tissue and checked her teeth for residue. She got up and wobbled over to turn the radio off, not used to the dress pumps squeezing her toes, and peeked out the window.
She could see Ralph, dressed to the nine’s in his handsome uniform, and she let out a nervous sigh. June hadn’t said more than a half-dozen words to Ralph in three years until yesterday. Maybe tonight was a bad idea. What had she been thinking?
She went back to the dresser, a little steadier this time since her toes had gone numb, and reached for her atomizer. The tiny glass bottle held perfume that had belonged to her mother. June started to spray a little more and then decided she’d been extravagant enough. She didn’t want to waste it, and besides, she didn’t want to over-do and smell like an ‘uptown whore’ as her friend Addy used to say. Addy always had a quote from her grandmother to fit any occasion, sometimes amusing, often shocking, but always good advice.
A picture of her and Addy, taken a few years ago by a friend of June’s mother, still sat on June’s dressing table. One white face, one black gleamed back from an innocent past.
Another photo of June and Ralph at his senior prom sat beside it. June didn’t know why she’d kept that one. Maybe because those had been happy times for her – happy until Ralph graduated and broke up with her. Then he was gone, enlisted in the army.
Addy had been there for June, despite Aunt Emma’s insistence ‘that Shanty Town girl from across the tracks is beneath our social standing’ and forbade their friendship.
But June wasn’t about to turn her back on Addy, or let Emma boss her around. Not like Emma had done to June’s mama. Emma could kiss June’s sweet pink cheeks before June would give in and conform to her Aunt’s rigid ideas of proper behavior for a young lady.
Some people could be so high and mighty, June thought. The more prominent they were, the haughtier they acted. June didn’t need approval from any of those stuck-up matrons in her Aunt’s Fine Arts Society; didn’t care if her Aunt thought of her as nothing more than an embarrassment. Addy was a ‘good egg’ in June’s opinion. If color mattered, Addy was True Blue.
She studied her friend’s smiling face, envisioning Addy in her white linen dress with the handmade lace edging, ‘jumping the broom’ with her navy seaman the summer after June’s graduation. A second cousin twice removed or some relation, but distant enough for marriage. Addy had met him at a family reunion.
Addy and June had giggled all the way across the tracks in their frilly dresses, walking barefoot and carrying their good shoes until they got to the Baptist church after sneaking June out of the house. June would never forget the joyful ceremony, singing, clapping and the barbeque afterward. She re-lived the warm glow of genuine acceptance Addy’s whole family had extended toward her that day. How they had given her comfort a short time later when June’s mama died.
When Addy left home, so did June. She couldn’t live under Emma’s roof with mama gone. Emma didn’t try to stop June either. Making it on her own had been hard, but June took satisfaction in her small accomplishments, hoping her mama would’ve been proud to see June stand up for herself.
She looked wistfully at the photo and hoped Addy was happy. They’d promised to write, but June knew how that would go. She shrugged with sadness and guilt, missing her friend’s ability to find humor in anything, no matter how bad things got.
The doorbell rang again, three times in succession, and June knew she better get a move on or Ralph would change his mind. Ha. No, he wouldn’t. Not as long as he still wanted what she had to offer, and she knew he wanted it. There are a few things in life you can count on.
The door opened and Ralph stood face to face with Mrs. O’Rourke.
“Why, Ralph Emerson. And what would you be doin’ ringin’ my bell on this fine evening?” Mrs. O’Rourke’s large frame filled the doorway as Ralph craned to see past her, expecting June to come to his rescue.
“Mrs. O’Rourke. Good Evening, Ma’am.” Ralph turned on the charm. Where was June? She should have been ready and waiting on the porch so he didn’t have to deal with this woman. The evening hadn’t even started and Ralph was irritated with June already. He swallowed his anger and transformed his face into a practiced mask of polite interest.
Lizzie O’Rourke wasn’t buying it. Ralph and the other boys her son ran with in high school had gotten into trouble together more than once. She raised an eyebrow and gave Ralph a questioning look that would freeze hundred-proof moonshine.
Ralph felt fourteen again. So he attempted the same bullshit that worked for him then.
“I’ve come to see you, my darling woman.” Ralph poured the flattery on like maple syrup and gave her a wink. “And I’m seeing a fine figure of a woman, I might add.”
Mrs. O’Rourke looked taken aback at the flirtation from this older version of Ralph, but her natural common sense grounded her immediately and her eyes narrowed.
“And what would you be wantin’ with me?” She gave Ralph a steely look, placing her fists on her hips for emphasis, and loomed larger than life as she always had. Ralph’s brain scrambled to find a way to keep from telling the landlady he was here for June. Mrs. R. would know he was up to no good.
“Well, I’m asking for donations to the USO while I’m home on leave and thought you might be willing to help.” How could she refuse a soldier, with the threat of war raging overseas? Ralph mentally patted himself on the back. He had her.
“Well now.” Mrs. O’Rourke looked surprised but still had suspicion in her voice.
“Well now.” She repeated and wiped her hands on her apron, her reserve evaporating.
“I suppose I could make a small contribution. Wait here.” She closed the door part way and Ralph heard her sensible shoes heavily treading deep into the house.
A moment later the door popped open and there stood June, glancing over her shoulder as she stepped outside and latched the door quietly behind her.
“That was close.” She slipped her hand into the crook of Ralph’s arm and steered him down the steps away from the house.
“Yeah…..’bout time.” Ralph glowered at her and then tried to lighten up, remembering his mission.
“She’ll be in a fit when she comes back and you’re gone.” June giggled and squeezed Ralph’s arm in conspiracy.
Ralph just kept walking, half dragging her down the sidewalk now. He had planned on going up to June’s room right away. Now he would actually have to take her out, spend money on her.
“Where are you taking me for dinner?” June batted her eyes at Ralph, all smiles.
He looked June over. The perfume was lost on him, since all he could smell was his own potent aftershave, but conceded to himself that she did look sort of pretty tonight. He decided to make the best of the situation and glanced up the street.
“The Diner’s not far…and still open.” And the cheapest place in town. He really hadn’t made a plan, other than bedding June.
“Aw. I work there.” June stuck out her lower lip in a pout. “Let’s go somewhere nice,” She knew it was a long shot, but if he wanted her to ‘put out’ he could at least buy her a nice dinner.
“Yeah. Ok.” Ralph said absently, running through the list of other cheap places they could go without a car and said, “Let’s go to Blythe’s Drug Store and share a soda.”
“A soda?” June couldn’t believe her ears and regretted dismissing the Diner so quickly.
“Yeah. Come on.” Ralph grabbed June’s arm and propelled her down the sidewalk, trying to command the situation before she could argue.
“I want my own soda.” June’s petulance escalated, and then disappeared as she said in a soft voice, “Or the Diner would be o.k., I guess.” She tried to smile but her lower lip started quivering and she fought to keep from crying, ruining everything.
“No, you’re right. Going where you work all day is no fun.” Ralph certainly hadn’t planned on a major investment, and June talked herself out of dinner as far as he was concerned. Her own soda. He scoffed silently. Women.
“Come on.” He clamped her hand in the crook of his arm and steered her toward the drug store which was closer than the Diner, giving him the advantage.
June slumped her shoulders and let Ralph lead her down the street and tried to focus on the fact that at least they were going out somewhere. Her first date in a long time, and being with Ralph validated their former relationship, June realized. Seen around town with him, she might enjoy a little more respect if people knew he still cared for her, they were ‘an item’ after all. She brightened and immediately hoped they would run into her Aunt Emma, or at least some of her minions who would report back.
June hurried to keep up with Ralph and wished she’d worn more sensible shoes. The low-heeled pumps were killing her feet after being used to more comfortable work shoes for so long. She’d probably have blisters by the end of the evening, but being with Ralph made the sacrifice worthwhile. She wanted to impress him, remind him of what he’d given up when he dumped her. Asking her out after all this time meant he still had feelings for her and tonight would be the night she redeemed herself with everyone in town.
June felt giddy at the thought. Mrs. Ralph Emerson. Mrs. June Emerson. June Emerson. A strong whiff of Ralph’s aftershave made June lightheaded and she tripped on a crack in the sidewalk, feeling her hand slip from Ralph’s arm.
“Careful, Clumsy. Doctor’s office is the last place I wanna spend my time tonight.” Ralph watched June catch herself but made no effort to help her.
She righted herself before she actually fell and straightened her dress. Memories came flooding back. Ralph’s aftershave. He’d worn the same fragrance one time in high school. Homecoming night. When she’d given in to him for the first time.
And Ralph wore it again tonight, just for her. It was on omen. June knew this night would be special. She felt a thrill starting at her toes and running up her body, tingling her scalp. She felt that life-changing events were going to happen to her tonight, and she was right.
They just wouldn’t be what June was expecting.