Christmas Morning Twenty Years Later
Christmas day dawned clear and cold in the little neighborhood just north of Memphis. Children all over were waking, and running to the room that held the tree. Joy had descended on Memphis, Tennessee. In a small, two-bedroom apartment, June Montgomery rose and sat on the couch that she’d slept on last night, staring at the morning. The morning stared right back at her. How many mornings had she been through? How many Christmases had come and gone? The last Christmas was but a dim memory. It was a Christmas with a small tree in her old apartment, the one with one bedroom. There were very few gifts, and not even a card from her mother or little sister. For June, Christmas had lost its magic a long time ago. It was a day just like all the others. It was no different from any other day. But how could anyone call it just another day? Her Pentecostal upbringing told her that it was a very special day, but the last three years told her that tomorrow would just be the day after, and that life, with all of its heartache, and misery, would crash in. No one and nothing could stop that. June had lost it all! But she was coming back. She felt as if she had “bottomed out,” and that there was no way to go but up from this point.
How had she come to this place in her life? The years began to reel into a blur in her mind. She had never been the prom queen, but she’d stolen the prom queen’s thunder. She’d been married into the best family with the biggest reception in town. She had scaled that wall that separated the elite from the common people, and she had walked with the giants that sculpted history.
June Montgomery was beautiful! She looked like a movie star, or like one of those expensive porcelain dolls you could find in an antique shop. A fine little doll with all of her features etched into the memory of everyone who’d seen her that day so long ago back in west Texas. She remembered the long tables set up with all the food on them. She could still see the line of beer kegs that had graced the porch after her wedding. She could recall the blue of the west Texas sky, turning red in the early evening, and then the bright stars coming out with the moon shining down upon her reception. Shining down on the greens of the golf course that wound through the neighborhood. She had walked those greens many times. One time too many! Her entire life had been changed one night on one of those greens. The passion had taken her and led her into something that was irreversible. Her eyes began to tear a bit. Her eyes were blue, like that sky had been. Yes not a shade of blue that you could see, but a blue that was almost transparent as if you were looking through two actual windows to her soul. And that soul was marked, and as unfathomable as only the soul of an innocent child could be when it had been too far and seen too much!
As a child in church she’d learned that sins may be forgiven, but she was now discovering that the mark of those sins remains forever on the soul, maiming it, and staining it in a way that only God knows, and holds one accountable for on that last day. How many times had she looked up at heaven and pleaded for forgiveness? How many times had she wished that she simply had made different choices? She had found that forgiveness was a precious commodity and while God may forgive, but men don’t! She was finding that men did not forget, either. Back in west Texas she was known as “The Catter.” And she was the Catter. She’d learned the game too well, and played it too often. She’d discovered that the thrill had long since worn out and that she was playing the game simply because she could! Men had buttons on them, and she knew how to push those buttons with a learned hand. And all men would react the same way, every time!
Her hair had been naturally blonde, and hung down to the middle of her back. Now she had it cut to shoulder length. Cut, as it was it began to curl a bit and draw up. But if her eyes were bluer than the Texas sky the color blonde isn’t the word that would really describe her hair. The description didn’t do justice. Golden because gold has value, and this gold stemmed from the head of a goddess. She was a perfect five foot, two inches tall, with just enough “baby fat” to round her out. Her pregnancy had done her figure justice, and rounded out the areas that were still “girlish.” Her breasts were well formed, but not too large. Her butt was a perfect heart shape and on her face was a look of constant surprise. Her lips formed a natural “pout,” that was even there when she was asleep. A pout waiting to be kissed by her lover. It was almost as if she were puzzling over something over, and over again. This face had gotten her over the imaginary wall and into the “Bend,” that exclusive section where she’d been married. This face had split her family and inspired love and hate. This face was not scorched, and lined like so many other girls from west Texas. They looked far older than their years, tired and worn out way before their time. The image of the lovely cowgirl on a horse was but a myth, for they all looked harsh, driven by the west Texas sand with their faces of leather.
But while June’s face was far prettier than these, she had come to consider it a liability. For all of her beauty, her clothes were wrinkled, and they had that “slept in” smell to them. After her return from Texas, her boyfriend, a man she called the “Doc,” because he was a pre-med student at a local college, refused to even sleep with her, and he put her on the couch. It was a new experience for June. She’d never seen a man that could walk away from the promise of her love. What’s more, the boyfriend had made other moves even before her arrival. When she’d arrived home the night before she discovered that he had already evicted her clothes and would shortly evict her. He had thrown her clothes out on the porch. Then he called her husband’s biological father, known to her as “Real Daddy” to come and get her “possibles” if he wanted them. She called some friends last night, and sent them to “Real Daddy’s” house to fetch her clothes. “Real Daddy!” God! She wished she’d never started that one! It seemed an eternity since she and her husband had been, sitting by a cow pond back at her stepfather’s ranch talking about “Real Daddies.” Her husband, Mike, lived with his “Real Daddy” in a shack across town. June loathed “Real Daddy.” Her mother in law, Claudette Montgomery, had left this ogre years ago and remarried.
Claudette’s husband, Bill was Junes father in law, and not this toad known as “Real Daddy!” She’d lied to her boyfriend about her true intentions in going back to Texas for the holidays, but really she’d not known that her soon to be ex husband would be there when she arrived. Because of this she’d avoided contact with the Doc during her trip, and thought that it would be no matter because she really expected him to take off to Little Rock to see his family anyway. But, having heard no word for several days after she’d left for Texas the Doc had called “Real Daddy” to see if she had in fact arrived, only to discover that Mike had flown to Texas for the holidays also, contrary to what she’d told the Doc before her departure. June was to be condemned for one mistake that she really didn’t make. That’s when the Doc threw her clothes out of the apartment. For all of her planning and scheming June came home with only the clothes on her back. She had in fact; left the clothes she’d taken to Texas with her hanging in her old closet back in her bedroom in the mansion at the Bend. Her plans had been laid out well. Her meeting with Claudette had actually solidified her choices, and soon her long sentence in this purgatory of a town would come to an end and she’d be back on the porch of the big house, drinking strawberry wine, and gazing out over the greens of the golf course. The greens! How far they seemed right now, looking into
the mirror as she passed the bathroom, and seeing the tangled mess her hair had become. Back in Texas, she’d never have let her hair go like this. She never let anyone see her like this. Still, her options were open!
West Texas was still waiting for her, and her deal with Claudette was a good one. Screw the Doc! Him and his family of Arkansas hill-billies! She’d grown tired of his ever-present reminder of how great his family was, and how small she was. Poor dumb bastard! Then, looking into the mirror again the reality of the situation overcame her. For June was still a young girl. If she didn’t play this hand correctly she’d have to live in this god-forsaken town forever! She had to get back to west Texas, and the Bend. She had to!
She paused for a moment. “What has happened to me?” The thought ran through her mind. She looked at her eyes. How could these eyes be only twenty years old? These eyes had seen the burning oil wells of Kuwait, and the bodies of the dead Iraqi soldiers lying beside the road as she traveled with Claudette around the Middle East rebuilding what the war had torn apart. It seemed so long ago. When she had been sixteen those eyes had been so much younger. How much could happen in just three years to dull the blue eyes. Sky blue. Pale blue. Her son had the same eyes. Funny how eyes can tell so much even when there are no wrinkles. The age of the soul is timeless. How many lifetimes? How many years had it been? Only two? Only three? She looked away. Then, she looked back. She was still June Montgomery. She was only twenty, and she would still come back and be home again.
She had enjoyed living in this apartment. It was larger than the one she and her husband had lived in. She really hadn’t fixed it up, or made it very personal because deep inside she really knew that one day she’d end this exile and just go home. It had really been Mike’s idea to come here, not hers. She’d have ridden the waves back in Texas and let the seas calm a bit, but, as usual, Mike had no guts. He convinced her to run off to this place where she languished in hell. About the only thing good that had happened was Claudette showing up and helping her during the birth of her baby. Now, the old broker had thrown the doors back to Texas wide open, and she’d be damned if she was going to stand on pride and not go home! Still, she’d been comfortable here, until last night after the Doc had told her that she had to move out. He was so cool about it. He acted as if he hadn’t really noticed she’d been there. He noticed her at night, but now she’d even lost that hold. This one had pride, unlike her husband who’d surrender all pride for a meal any day, just like his “Real Daddy!” The Doc had told her that he didn’t want her “hanging” around his apartment while he was in Little Rock for the holidays. She was outraged at the very audacity of this southern trash to talk to her like that. She just retreated to the living room and listened to him rant. There was a big argument. There were loud words. He didn’t hit her, but then, he never did. She liked that part about him. Her husband would slap her at the drop of a hat. He was cooler than that. He just made a decision and followed through with it. He was very angry with her, but then he did have a right. She had indeed slept with her husband while in Texas, and was indeed trying to . . .
Her mind snapped back to the reality of the moment and she walked over to the couch to pick up her son. “Little Mike”, as she called him, was asleep at the foot of the same couch that she’d slept on. Another pause. A seething reality sunk into her mind. Doc had put him on the couch, also. Even though he’d had his own room with “own bed” in it, the Doc had felt it necessary to have him sleep on the couch, too. His little life was going as rapidly downhill as hers was. Here was an heir to the fortunes of the Bend sleeping on a couch! He was as dirty as she was, but he was innocent. Just then, something gripped her. At what point did she stop using the word “innocent” to describe her own self? Then she realized that she’d left that innocence on a sandy riverbank. The sand. The west Texas sand! The sand itself had betrayed her like the will of God coming through to expose her sins to everyone. She’d come to realize that not all quicksand is wet; some is dry, but just as deadly! If only she’d been more careful that night. If only she’d not been caught up in the moment. The passion had overcome her common sense and her beauty had again trapped her. June had come to realize that in fact, she had never owned her beauty because it had owned her. Her destiny was drifting in the west Texas sand! The sand in Kuwait had been different. It was fine, like baby powder. You’d wake in the morning and it would be hanging in the air like a fog, but it was not a fog. And it was not like the sand of the Pecos. That sand would settle, and would announce your sins to the world like John the Baptist! West Texas sand was like that.
She gently lifted her child and held him in her arms. He woke and began to complain a bit. She shook him playfully, “Hey, hey, little man. Don’t you get up in a fuss? Hey.” She reached out to him and touched his nose and said, “Noooooose.”
The baby touched her nose and repeated after her, “Nooooose…” He was just beginning to mouth words that she said to him. He really couldn’t form sentences, but he could repeat like crazy, in fact he was good at it. She studied his features. Did he look like Mike? She really couldn’t tell. His little face had a lot of her features. He had the same mouth, the same ears, the same everything. Still, he had that particular look that secretly told her that Mike couldn’t be the father. She held him up and studied his form a bit more. Shaking her head she had to admit that it was just too early to tell.
“Who are you, little man?” she asked out loud, but more to herself than to the child in her arms.
“Noooooose,” the baby repeated back.
Just then, she heard the blare of a horn outside the apartment. Looking through the window down at the parking lot below she saw her friends Lois and Crystal waiting in Lois’ little white Mazda. They were the friends she’d called the night before to get her clothes. She drew the curtain back and waved at them. They both waved back up at her. As she went through the apartment, she noticed for the first time that Doc had already gone. His car was not in the parking lot. She had so put him out of her mind that she hadn’t even bothered to check to see if he were in his bedroom. She imagined that he must be nearby, however, because he’d been so adamant about her leaving his home before he drove to Little Rock. He probably didn’t want the “good-bye” scene, and to be perfectly honest she could do without it herself. Last night had been enough. He tried to be cool, but in the end, she knew that she’d just “switched off” the Doc, just like any other man in her life that she was finished with. “Next!”
She went over to the dresser with her child on her left hip, and opened the top left drawer. Inside was some money, a few fives, ones and a twenty; all that was left of her last pay check. She’d left it in the drawer before her trip. Going to Claudette Montgomery’s house did not entail any expense for June. The Doc had borrowed some of it leaving her only a little bit. She didn’t think any less of him because of it, but she did make a note that in spite of his rambling on and on about how well off his family in Little Rock was, he sure got into that drawer and found that money. Deeper inside the drawer, where he couldn’t have seen, was the old King Edward Cigar box she’d brought from Texas. When he took the money, he’d left it. She knew exactly where it was because she had pushed it to that position. It was so far back in the drawer that he didn’t see it. She counted herself lucky. He could have just dumped it on the porch with all the rest of her things, spilling the memories of a lifetime all over the place. What was in the cigar box could not be replaced. Everything else could be, but not that. She gently let her hand run across it, and then picking it up she made sure the big, thick rubber band that secured it was in place. Looking at the cigar box for a moment she felt the slight sting of a tear come to her eye. “Ray.” Her stepfather’s name came to mind. She stroked the box as if it were something precious.
Memories of an old barn, far away came to mind. Yes, she was very glad indeed that the Doc had not dumped the cigar box on the porch. There were memories of someone very dear to her lay within its tattered confines. The side was torn and the paper was peeling from it. She could close her eyes and still see Ray with this very same cigar box sitting on his lap in the barn back in west Texas. It was an old cigar box. In addition to the paper peeling from the side the lid was just barely attached, hence the rubber band needed to keep it all together. She made the rubber band form into a cross because one of the sides was coming loose and without the extra help the contents would spill out. It contained all that was Ray. All his love was in there. Everything that Ray was lay within the tattered confines of the box. It amazed her at how a man’s entire life could be contained within the area of a simple cigar box. She closed it, and reseated the rubber band.
She went to the restroom and removed all of her personal items. There weren’t many of them. When she thought about it she’d never really settled into Doc’s apartment because in her mind it had always been “Doc’s” apartment. She always knew inside that she was just passing through, and the more stuff she had in the apartment she harder it would be to gather everything up and leave, just as she was doing today. Then, suddenly, all the resentment rose within her and as an afterthought she took her lipstick and wrote on the mirror, “Merry Christmas Son of a Bitch!”
The Butcher Shop