Ralph needed another beer. This evening was turning into a real drag and he began to wonder what he’d been thinking, asking June out.
They’d walked to the edge of town, to the Roadhouse Bar and Grill when he couldn’t take June’s whining any more. An out-of-the-way place for transients and folks down on their luck, what the bar lacked in ambiance it made up for in price. And they weren’t likely to be seen by anyone they knew. But after burgers, shared fries and a couple of beers for Ralph his attitude hadn’t improved.
All June had been talking about was her friend, Addy, getting happily married and moving toAlabama. How lonely June had been since then and how romance changed a person’s whole life. Ralph felt bored out of his mind listening to her dreamy-eyed babble. Watching her lips move in the smoky haze of the bar made him want to shove the whole burger into her mouth to shut her up.
Finally he silenced her by taking over the conversation, dazzling her with stories ofEuropeand his accomplishments. He knew she was dazzled by the way she hung on his every word. It always made him feel better to brag about his military and female conquests. June needed to realize that he was doing her a favor taking her out and she owed him.
Ralph stopped talking and shifted impatiently as he watched June wipe up ketchup with the last French fry on the plate and pop it into her mouth. She’d eaten all the red lipstick off her lips and looked ordinary, even plain to him in the flickering light from the cheap wax candle that adorned the rough hewn wooden table. He squinted through the smoky haze to see if he knew anyone else in the place and was relieved that he didn’t recognize anyone else drowning in misery. The Roadhouse wasn’t exactly a popular hot spot for most decent people in town.
“You done?” He made it more of a statement than a question, prompting June to suck down the last of her orange soda before he dragged her out of there. The Andrews Sisters sang “Rum and Coca Cola” from the old juke box in the corner and it sounded like a good suggestion to Ralph, but then he would have to buy June another drink of some sort. Investments were mounting and Ralph wanted to cut his losses and claim his payout.
June laid her napkin on her plate and stole a quick glance at the front of her dress to make sure she didn’t wear any leftovers home. Eating at the Roadhouse had been a real treat for her and she wanted Ralph to know how much she appreciated going out. She reached across the table but Ralph drew his hand back before June could make contact. An uncomfortable smile flickered across her face and she occupied herself by rearranging the napkin on her plate for a moment, fighting back tears and ignoring the slight. She wanted nothing to ruin this date and had been struggling all evening to put Ralph in a better mood.
Ralph drained the last of his dark beer and a few drops rolled down the side, staining his clean shirt. He pushed the bottle to the center of the rough wooden table with his half-eaten burger and stood up. The smoky atmosphere and cheap beer were depressing and reminded Ralph of growing up and his old man. Ralph needed to get out in the fresh air. Damn it! Thanks to June, he’d have to launder his uniform again before he shipped out in two days. This lousy evening was all her fault.
“Thank you for dinner, Ralph. I really enjoyed it – and being here with you.” She added cautiously, her wide eyes begging for reciprocation. Couldn’t Ralph see how hard she was trying, how much she cared for him?
“Yeah. Let’s go.” Ralph threw a couple of bills on the table, not worrying about change. His sudden urgency almost alarmed June. He grabbed her arm and pulled her off the rickety wooden stool. She snatched her small purse off the table as he steered her across the smoky room toward the door, giving a nod to the barkeep to assure him all was well.
They walked back toward the center of town, Ralph in a black mood and June too afraid to break the silence. She couldn’t figure out what she’d done wrong, but determined to make it right somehow before the night ended. She and Ralph were meant to be together. She could feel it, and knew he did, too, deep down. They were just having a rough patch. Going back to fight inEuropehad to be weighing heavy on his mind, but she could ease that burden. Knowing she’d be waiting for him would be a comfort. And she could write every day. She would support her country, the war effort, and Ralph, in her own small way. June had purpose now.
“Hey!” Johnny’s voice called from across the street as he stepped off the boardwalk toward them with Chick and Max following. The four men stopped in front of the drug store and shook hands all around in a brisk military fashion, making June acutely aware of the raw masculinity that surrounded her.
“Ooo-oou. Somebody smells like gay Par-eee.” Johnny leaned toward June and Ralph in mock savoring of the scent he’d identified and Ralph shoved him away in irritation.
“Yeah, I went all out tonight.” Ralph looked embarrassed, as if he’d actually been caught with his pants down. The last thing he needed was for Johnny to make a big deal out of this tryst with June and everything to turn uglier. “Leave it alone, Johnny.”
“Not you.” Johnny paused, oblivious as usual to Ralph’s irritation. “Although you do smell like somethin’ the ladies could eat up.” He grinned at what he considered a compliment, and then added, “I was talkin’ about your girl here.” He eyed June up and down appreciatively and winked at Ralph in approval.
“You heard him, Johnny. Back off.” Max put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder and gently eased him back before Ralph committed to taking a swing or, worse yet, June started crying. Chick clamped a hand on Johnny’s other shoulder and nudged from that side to reinforce Max’s suggestion.
June took it all in, deciding to accept Johnny’s remark as a compliment and batted her eyes at the three men coyly. She wished she’d had time to reapply lipstick before they’d left the Roadhouse, but no matter. A feeling of flattered sexiness swept over her. A little healthy competition could bring out the alpha male, and maybe raise her value to Ralph.
“Thanks, Johnny. You have good taste.” She glanced at Ralph, but he was busy watching a couple of women across the street. “The perfume is fromParis. My father brought it to my mother, years ago.” June continued and beamed at the fact her extravagance had not gone to waste.
“Ooh-la-la. Hot night tonight, eh?” Johnny leered at June and Ralph, his attention refocused, stepped forward menacingly, the gesture mistaken as defense of June’s honor. Johnny immediately backed away with his hands up in surrender.
“Ok, man. Enjoy your date…..don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.” He smirked and ducked as Ralph tried to land a slap on the side of Johnny’s head.
June latched onto Ralph’s left arm and hung on, holding him back from further assault, while Chick and Max pulled Johnny along with them in retreat.
Just as they got in front of the drug store entrance the screen door swung open and hit Max in the back. Without thinking, his military reflex produced a hard kick backward, slamming the door shut again and the scream from the other side shifted everyone’s attention.
The tension dissolved and all five of them crowded to see if someone had been hurt. On the other side of the screenAlicecovered her nose while Mary Beth consoled her and offered a handkerchief from her purse. It had scared the girls more than injured Alice, but Max felt awful.
“Are you girls all right?” He opened the door asAliceturned and ran toward the back of the store in embarrassment, covering her face with the handkerchief so only her pale blue watery eyes peeked over the top. Her straight brown hair was wet with tears on either side of her thin white face and she looked like a mad woman to Max and making him feel even guiltier for his involuntary reaction.
Mary Beth locked eyes with Max, obviously expecting an explanation for his violence, but Max was speechless as he gazed into the deep violet pools surrounded by her creamy white complexion and ringlets of blonde hair. With no explanation forthcoming, the Angel turned toward the back of the store and Max desperately found his voice, cracking out her name as he spoke.
“Ma-ry Beth.” He didn’t know what he could say to make this better, but he knew he had to say something. “I – I’m sorry. I never meant…..” His voice trailed off with a lame apology that at least offered more than no remorse at all.
Max appeared so abjectly contrite that it melted Mary Beth’s heart. This big five-foot-ten soldier towering over her looked like he might cry at any minute. No way could she stay mad at him, not even through loyalty toAlice.
“What were you thinking?” It was a rhetorical question as she turned back and looked at him, realizingAlice’s injury had been an accident and Max’s action a reflex. After all, he was a combat soldier. If truth be told, Alice was to blame for not paying attention. “Never mind. Alicewill get over it.” She dismissed the situation as quickly as it had happened and Max visibly relaxed.
SoAlicehad a banged nose. Serves her right, Mary Beth thought. Max’s feelings were more in need of soothing. She glanced toward the back of the store, spotting her friend on the last stool at the soda fountain wiping her eyes with the handkerchief. Aliceappeared shook up but functional as she slid off the stool and waved unenthusiastically at Mary Beth.
“I need to go talk toAlice.” Mary Beth didn’t move as Max held her gaze and she couldn’t break the connection with his deep blue eyes.
“Would you like to go to a movie….with me?” Max blurted. Where had that come from? Had he said it out loud?
“A movie?” Mary Beth whispered, looking at Max incredulously. The topic change caught her off guard and she froze for a moment, staring at Max as if he’d sprouted two heads.
Alicehad come up behind Mary Beth and looked at the boys with disgust, her red nose still throbbing. She wanted to go home and wished Mr. Blythe would come out of the back room and yell at them to clear his doorway, but her bad luck was holding. Alicealways knew Mary Beth would be the first of them to be asked out someday, but it still hurt.
“Papa won’t let me date, especially a soldier; not until I graduate this year.” Mary Beth tried to be polite, knowing her father truly would not approve. She prided herself in being a ‘good girl’ who wouldn’t consider dishonoring her Papa’s wishes; but for the first time a big part of her really wanted to disobey and go with Max.
Alicesmiled, feeling vindicated as Mary Beth declined the invitation. Max suffering rejection would provide a little sweet revenge forAlice. Besides, her nose needed ice to keep the swelling down. Aliceopened her mouth to suggest they go but the words never left her mouth. Apparently the boys weren’t giving up yet.
“Hey, yeah. A movie.” Johnny chimed in over Max’s shoulder in the doorway. “Let’s go to the Movie House in Amboy. Come on, Ladies. I heard they might be running ‘Sergeant York’….” Johnny stopped, realizing this might not be a film with high appeal for school girls so he added, “…or Disney has a new one out – ‘Dumbo’, I think it’s called.” He looked expectantly from Mary Beth toAlice. “It’s animated.”
Mary Beth hesitated for a moment. If they all went it wouldn’t be a date. It would just be a group of kids going to a movie. Papa might agree to her going on a group outing.
Johnny saw Mary Beth struggling with the idea. He also knew how bad Max had the hots for Mary Beth. Sometimes Johnny got it right. Not often, but this time he nailed it.
“So, Alice. Would you like to go to the movies with me?” Johnny grinned atAlice, giving her his ‘I want you’ look, even though she wasn’t that interesting. Despite all Johnny’s faults, he was loyal and Max wanted Mary Beth. Alicewasn’t bad looking; not his type, but he could stand her company for a few hours. Who knows, maybe he’d get lucky. Probably not, but he could do this for Max. Heck, they were shipping out day after tomorrow anyway.
Alicelooked like she’d been out in the sun too long. Her red nose melted into the blush and once again she remained uncommonly speechless. Had she actually just been asked out?
Max looked back at Johnny in surprise, grateful for the support and noticed Chick shifting around uncomfortably. The situation wasn’t exactly shaping up the way Max had intended.
“Come on, Chick. What do you say? Let’s all go to a movie.” Max winked at his other friend, and then wheeled his gaze back to Mary Beth, hoping the group movie and Johnny’s flattery ofAlicewould clinch the deal.
“Yeah, let’s do it. I’m in.” Chick beamed at being included, hoping Max would be in such a good mood that he’d spring for the tickets if Mary Beth went. “What do you girls say? Come on. It’s just a movie, a group movie. Come on,” Chick’s limited imagination had fired at the invitation and he put on his best gentleman’s face to try and keep his excitement under control. He really wanted to go now, girls or no girls.
“Well…” Mary Beth hesitated and looked atAlice, knowing both or neither must go. Her friend’s eyes implored her to say ‘yes’. Johnny had gotten to Alice and the stars in her eyes matched Mary Beth’s for Max.
“Well, Papa might allow me to go, if it’s just a group movie.” Mary Beth would have to convince her father by not mentioning Max, of course. She could wrap Papa around her little finger if she really wanted something. Mary Beth really wanted Max.
“Pick you up at seven tomorrow night?” Max’s mind was racing. He had to borrow a car to take them all. Had to make sure he had enough money. Make sure he had clean clothes and get a haircut. He was so excited he could hardly stand still. A lock of dark, curly hair fell across his forehead and his deep blue eyes sparkled with excitement, giving him the appearance of a little boy who just got a new bicycle.
Ralph shook his head in disbelief over how silly Max looked. All this stupidity over some girl that he’d be leaving in two days.
June squeezed Ralph’s arm and he noticed that she had tears in her eyes. Women. Romance. What a bunch of crap. In the end it all boiled down to sex, pure and simple.
“Seven would be fine. Pick us both up at my house. Ok, Alice?” Mary Beth took charge of the situation asAlicestood like a Zombie with a dumb smile on her face, staring at Johnny who ignored her now. “You know where I live – the big…”
“…white house at the end ofElm Street.” Max finished for her, and blushed as Mary Beth looked up at him in surprise.
“You and June coming, Ralph?” Johnny looked back at Ralph and saw June’s face light up.
Before June could say anything Ralph blurted, “Nope. Got better things to do than waste money on a film; but thanks, boys and girls.” Ralph hitched up his belt and straightened his military cap, looking every bit the mature soldier and putting the three younger men in their place in an instant. They were just young pups on the verge of experiencing life and all the wonders of the opposite sex, while Ralph epitomized the worldly Alpha Male. He savored the satisfaction that they wanted to be just like him when they grew up.
“Why can’t we go to the movie with the gang tomorrow night?” June stuck out her lower lip in a pout that Ralph used to think cute. He would punch it back in for her if she mentioned the movie one more time.
“I told you. I got things to do, June. We ship out in a couple of days…it might be months before I get back.” He thought about the excuse and the reality of it hit him. You didn’t visit home fromEuropeas if it was the next town over. At some point you might not come home at all. The seriousness of war weighed on Ralph like an elephant sitting on his chest sometimes. He had so much life to live yet, so many things to see and do. June was one of them.
“Let’s go back to your room, Junie.” Ralph took her hand. Maybe a little sweet talk would work. He’d conjure up some romance, or whatever it took to get June in the mood.
“We can’t. I planned that we would, but after your little encounter with Mrs. O’Rourke she’ll be watching for us.” June looked truly disappointed, but Ralph didn’t care what she thought. He’d spent good money, and time. He wanted his reward and he wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.
“Let’s take a walk then.” He pulled June by the hand and headed toward the park. Down by the river he knew of a few secluded spots that would provide enough privacy if he didn’t take too long and his growing urgency would solve that problem.
They hiked across the park, a bit faster than June would have liked, as she chatted about things that Ralph didn’t hear. When the foliage grew denser and the land started sloping down toward the river bank June had to remove her shoes to keep from tripping. Barefoot and in a dress, June’s legs were getting scratched badly.
“Ralph. I don’t want to go any further. Let’s go back. Look. I’m getting all scratched up.” She stopped and lifted her skirt to survey the damage she felt on her lower legs.
“Come on, June. We’re almost there.” Ralph looked at their surroundings. They were already pretty deep into the underbrush near the river and it was getting dark.
“I said I don’t want to go any farther. I want to go home.” June turned to start back and Ralph, lower on the bank, jerked on her dress which created a small rip near the waist seam.
“Damn it, Ralph.” June’s pent up anger finally flared and she pulled her dress out of his grasp, but he clutched at it again, restraining her, and scrambled up the bank. He swept her into his arms and firmly planted a kiss on her lips despite her resistance.
June relaxed and responded to Ralph’s kiss, wanting to believe his urgency represented the passionate romance she craved. She allowed her anger to dissolve as she tried to ignore the stinging on her legs and arms, but a mosquito landed on her elbow and she felt the piercing penetration as it sucked the blood from her. Ralph released her to swat a mosquito on the back of his neck and she brushed her elbow, too late.
“This is crazy, Ralph. We need to go back before it gets any darker.” June was starting feel scared now, scared of what else might be lurking in the darkness, scared of Ralph.
He grabbed her again and slid his hand under her skirt as June tried to resist his advance, but it didn’t stop him. He backed her up under a weeping willow tree and pressed her body between his and the tree trunk, kissing her roughly, bruising her lips.
“I want you, June. I’ve missed you, Baby. Come on. I need you. I ship out in a couple of days and who knows what might happen.” He slid his hand into her panties and she gasped, her own need mixed with fear and violation. Her head was spinning and she thought she might black out, but she didn’t.
“No. Not like this. Ralph, please.” June struggled against him, trying to redress herself as he undid his zipper, but he grasped both her hands in one of his and held them firmly against his chest as he pinned her against the tree with his body.
Ralph wasn’t listening again. He had his own agenda and it didn’t include what June’s feelings at the moment. His free hand roamed, poked, and prodded as his knee between hers forced entry. June was sobbing now, and he pressed his lips against hers, hard, to muffle the noise.
June tried to escape the nightmare, but it wasn’t a dream and there was nothing she could do but endure. When it was over Ralph released her and stepped back. June slid to the ground, crying softly as he zipped and adjusted his clothing.
“Knock it off, June. You know you wanted it. What’s the big deal?” Ralph had no patience for tears, never did. “Come on. It’s dark. Let’s go.” He grabbed her by the wrist and jerked her to her feet. “Get your purse and shoes.” He waited while she blindly stumbled around trying to find her things.
She followed him across the park and out onto the sidewalk. The street was empty, the shops all closed and dark. June looked halfway down the block toward her boarding house and noticed all but one of the lights were off which meant almost everyone was in bed already. She just wanted to sneak in and end this horrible night.
She turned to caution Ralph to silence and all the anger and hurt welled up inside her. He was a pig; she never wanted to see him again, ever. The words formed in her mind as she started to let Ralph have it with both barrels, but she stopped cold.
Ralph was already a half a block away in the opposite direction, whistling and striding along with his hands in his pockets as if he’d just come from the movies. He hadn’t even said ‘good night’ to her. Didn’t look back.
“I hate you, Ralph Emerson! Hate, hate, hate you!” June screamed at him, her voice echoing off the buildings and dissolving into the blackness of the night, just like Ralph.