June held the resident’s complaint letter in both hands and stared through it. Her forearms pressed against the sharp angle of her desk’s front edge, but she didn’t notice. Thirty years, she thought, I’ve been listening to people complain about the same shit for thirty years. Out of necessity, June had taken the job at the retirement home not long after her son was born. Andre’s father was all promises and sweet words, until the time came to start changing diapers. She hoped he was dead, wherever he was. She slowly became aware of the pain in her forearms as the desk imprinted its crisp lines into her flesh from the pressure. She leaned in harder and clenched her jaw, enjoying the sensation. Only the living can feel pain, she thought. A tortured smile had formed on June’s face without her realizing it.
“Hey June, you mind if I eat my lunch real quick in here?” Aanya was peering at June from the hallway, bent sharply at the waist so that just her head and shoulder were visible in the doorway. “The breakroom stinks. Tony microwaved her leftovers again for lunch. Smells like old lasagna in there.”
“Come on in, Sweetie,” June said, quickly sitting upright. She was surprised how calm she sounded to herself. “I’m just about done with this resident’s complaint. You remember that Easter week Tony brought nothing but leftover ham sandwiches?”
“That was the best” Aanya said. She was hustling the rest of her small frame around the corner and into June’s office.
“I could actually smell the coffee that week,” June said, pointing to a squat purple chair that was just inside the threshold. Aanya obediently spun on her heels and backtracked across the office to retrieve it. June hesitated, then asked “Want to know something strange I saw?” Have I always talked behind peoples’ backs like this? she asked herself.
“About Tony?” Aanya said, eager for some office gossip. Without setting down her lunch first, she began to awkwardly drag the chair to June’s desk.
“Yeah, over her shoulder at her desk last week I saw her in a banking app. She closed it really fast when I got close, but I swear I saw,” June tilted her chin down and raised her eyebrows to sweeten the delivery of this juicy news “she has over half-a-million dollars in the bank.” Why am I telling her this? she asked herself, feeling ashamed.
“There’s no way!” Aanya’s eyes were wide as she crunched a carrot stick.
“I couldn’t believe it myself. If I had that kind of money I’d be having lobster for lunch every day.” June cast a sad eye at the fast-food bags in her trash can. The manila envelope, lurking on her kitchen table, flashed briefly in her mind before she squashed the thought.
“Have you seen her shoes, too?” Aanya gushed. “I think she’s worn the same pair since she started working here. And her car! Are you sure it wasn’t a half-million in debt?”
“We both bank at Chase, Sweetie. I know what I saw,” June chided her gently. Changing her tone, she became philosophical. “I wanted to ask her, but some people don’t like to talk about money, whether they have it or they don’t, you know?”
“I guess we’ll know what happened if she ever stops showing up for work. Got tired of the residents complaining and decided to retire in Hawaii. Or the Bahamas. Somewhere so she doesn’t end up living here.” Aanya smiled a little nervous smile and looked sideways at June, worried that her joke might’ve offended the long-time employee. But June was woolgathering, her eyes were focused on something inside herself.
“Or France, maybe” June said. “I’ve never heard Tony talk about herself much, but I know she speaks French. She helped to translate when one of our residents had family visit from Champagne.”
“Which resident? I don’t remember that at all.” Aanya had produced a smartphone and was tapping rapidly on it with both thumbs.
“His name was Claude. It was a long time ago. He’s been dead since before you started working here, Sweetie. He was a really handsy fella.” June winked and pinched an invisible buttocks.
“Sounds like a charmer” Aanya said, perfectly deadpan, still staring at her phone.
“He used to make Tony laugh,” June said wistfully. “His English wasn’t good at all, so he didn’t talk much. He used to sit next to the big window all day, over by the little table with the chess board, and read French books until someone sat down to play him. Sometimes it was Tony on her lunch break.”
“She plays chess too?” Aanya frowned, briefly looking up. “I guess I don’t really know anything about her, other than her lunches.” Her thumbs never stopped tapping the smudged screen.
“Yeah…” The manila envelope bubbled into June’s thoughts again, requiring a deliberate mental pivot. She thought about how Andre used to jump into her bed during thunderstorms. They would talk for hours about everything, and nothing.
“You feel alright? You sound kind of dazed, have some apple slices. I’m full,” Aanya said without taking her eyes off her phone.
“I’m ok, Sweetie. It’s nothing. I was just thinking about Claude. All of a sudden I really miss hearing his laugh. And Tony’s.”
Later that evening June stood in front of her ancient gas stove, staring into the open microwave mounted above it. She had, for a moment, wondered what the little fan on the bottom of the microwave was for. Steam, she supposed, but she had never used it.
Does anyone use that? she wondered. Then, Is this what I want to spend my time thinking about? She sounded bitter to herself.
There was a cooked Hungry Man TV dinner inside the microwave, patiently steaming. The appliance was almost too small for the plastic tray to rotate properly while cooking. She knew from trial and error that this was the largest frozen dinner that her microwave could accommodate.
June had mostly stopped cooking for herself after her son Andre moved out. He left for college ten years ago and landed a fancy job before the ink on his diploma was dry. He was some kind of analyst now. June wanted to know, really wanted to know what her boy did for a living, but it was confusing to her. She’d asked, years ago, and he’d made some attempts to explain it, but he got irritated when she didn’t understand right away. He was a busy man now so, after a while, she stopped asking him. He would visit for Christmas some years, and he mostly still remembered to call her on her birthdays. He was so far away though, and he was married to some other young hotshot finance type. She had been thrilled for him when the Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal. That joy had been transmuted into equal hurt when she called to congratulate him. He told her he’d already married Luke at the courthouse.
“Why didn’t you invite me?” June had asked with restrained sorrow in her voice.
“Sorry ma, we did it really quick with just a few friends as witnesses. It took less than an hour.”
“I would have flown down there, Baby. I have enough saved for a plane ticket at least.” A tear rolled down her cheek.
“It’s alright ma, it’s just a piece of paper for now. When Luke and I have time, we’ll do a real ceremony. I’ll even fly you in for that. First class, ma,” Andre had said with a chuckle.
“Ok Baby. When do you think you’ll fly down for Christmas?” June asked, careful not to let desperation seep in.
“I meant to call you about that. We’re going to Luke’s grandparents’ cottage in Switzerland this year. He wants to take me skiing. I should’ve told you sooner. Sorry,” Andre said, without any real regret in his voice.
June had then looked at the manila envelope on her scarred and wobbly kitchen table. It had been sitting there undisturbed for weeks. She was afraid to go near it since she first read it. She thought about the diagnosis that it contained. Andre’s words had somehow sounded exactly like the words on the papers inside the envelope. Matter of fact. Reasonable. Devastating.
“Be safe out there, Baby. You’ve lived in the heat so long, you’re gonna catch a cold out on a mountain. Dress in layers, remember?” June’s voice was warm and motherly now, but there was a rueful quality to it. If someone were really listening, they would have heard it.
“I remember, ma. And I won’t forget my toothbrush,” Andre said impatiently, not hearing the words his mother was leaving unsaid.
“Ok Baby, I’ll let you go. You have a busy life now. I’m proud of you. Give Luke my love, too. Call me when you can. I love you, Baby.” The silent wailing was deafening.
“Love ya, ma.” Click.
June slowly became aware that she was still staring into her microwave. The plastic tray of faux-meat and pseudo-potatoes was cold now. Mechanically, she closed the microwave door once more, and pressed the “Add 30 Seconds” button three times. She stared into the window of the humming, rotating machine, but she wasn’t seeing her dinner. She was watching and listening to Tony and Claude laugh over a game of chess. The sun poured in through the big window, turning the dust around them into blazing motes of light. June didn’t know it, but she was smiling too, alone in her kitchen.
Biographical Note: Alan Yegerlehner is an English major at IUPUI with a passion for creative writing. On his journey through life so far, he has driven forklifts, been a corporate cook, and walked the streets of Indianapolis as a USPS Letter Carrier for several years. His wife holds multiple master’s degrees in wildlife conservation and criminal forensics, and his daughter will soon be a wildly successful defense attorney, based upon her current argumentation acumen. Alan will one day disappear mysteriously, and no charges will ever be filed.