We'd made June’s room at the hospice a tiny version of her home. Movers had lugged her enormous oak dresser that she’d bought in India and her green velvet couch from her house off Hillside to here. I’d helped hang the old photographs of her in Paris and Germany that, as a child, I’d admired on the walls and next to her bed was a picture of her and me by the pool. The rug with embroidered birds covered the sterile tiled floor and, save for the hospital bed she had to have, the room was as June as you could get. The consolidation of her life was both touching and sad to me, but I knew she felt most comfortable among her own things, and somehow it fit because she herself was so small in comparison to the person she’d been.
The hospice was a nice one. Mom had signed her up after she'd taken a turn for the worse, and she’d moved in a couple weeks ago. I’d come down from Louisville to help. My fiancé, Paul, had stayed for work, making sure we had a nice cushion for when the baby came. June had refused moving into a home for a long time; she said she couldn’t stand to be around so much death, it was contagious. But even she couldn’t avoid it forever, and I think at least she was happy we were there.
The young nurses took to June. I’d see them leaving her room giggling and rosy as if their high school sweethearts had just asked them to the prom. Even now June had that way about her. Today she had what hair she had left pulled back in a silk scarf, and she was wearing a pink shade of lipstick.
“Who are you getting fancy for?” I asked, pulling back the marigold curtains we’d brought from her house. She touched the scarf as if she’d forgotten it was there and finding it again made her smile.
“Sonny’s granddaughter came by this morning. She’s a beauty school girl.” Sonny was an old Cuban woman that stayed in the room next to June’s. Her family was always bringing us Pyrexes full of stewed meats and potatoes. Her granddaughter, Larsa, was around my age, maybe twenty-five. She drew her eyebrows on and made me feel plain.
“How’s the baby?” June asked. I cupped my newly emerged belly with my right hand, a sensation new to me, making me feel both fat and powerful at the same time.
“She’s in there,” I said.
“I’m sure of it, I’ve been craving cucumbers. There’s something very feminine about the whole thing.”
“You’re more nutty than me,” June said. She looked healthy today. Maybe it was the pink lipstick, but she had a glow about her. Some days were better than others. She had refused to eat for two weeks. Even if I brought in things that had been her favorites, like pimento cheese sandwiches and apples with honey, she’d listlessly toss them aside.
June hadn’t seemed to notice I’d been late that day, which came as a relief. She’d started taking things personally. I’d been distracted downtown by a group of Buddhist monks in the center of town.
June’s was only a twenty-minute walk from work at the grocery store, but today was the first day it’d seemed nice enough not to drive. Mountain springtime was fickle. I’d remembered seeing the monks once before when I was young. I’d been shopping downtown with Mom and we’d stopped to watch them, just as they were today, huddled around a large colorful painting my mom had called a mandala. The painting was made of sand, and I’d been fascinated as I watched the men tap together tiny wooden tools that made sand look like liquid. The sound of the tapping was hypnotizing, and I remember getting lost in it. When I had looked up at my mom she'd been crying.
Today they were almost the same as they had been so many years ago. Dressed in yellow and scarlet robes, kneeling as people gathered to watch, in silent collaboration as if the sand itself whispered to them in a language only they could understand. When the mandala was complete they’d kneel in prayer, only to sweep it all away. A reminder that nothing is truly for keeps. I was six years old the last time I’d seen the monks, and it wasn’t until we’d studied Vietnam in school that I’d understood my mom’s tears.
June had moved in next door to our house when I was eleven, the summer of 1975. I remember coming home from school one day and seeing the moving truck. I’d stood behind my mailbox and watched as a woman, much older than my mother but less tired looking, instructed the movers through the doors of the house. Now her house. She was wearing a long red sun dress and a wide brimmed hat and was the closest thing to a movie star I’d ever seen. She caught me watching and held up the brim of her hat, waving over to me, her smile breaking her face into a million little lines. I ran into the house without even a hello, but I’d watched the rest of the move through my bedroom window.
“I’ll take my walk now,” June said. I’d started to write in the journal the doctor gave us to make note of how she was each day, but looking down at the paper I saw I hadn’t written anything but the date. I watched her, so tiny, as she neatly folded the blanket down and slipped her legs out from under the covers. She waited patiently for me to come help her do the rest. Bringing over her coat, I eased her arms into the sleeves. The same purple silk coat she’d worn since I’d known her, with big black lapels. Her Playboy coat she’d called it when I was little, which made me blush because I thought it was a nod to her catching me looking at the magazines under her bed. Helping her into her wheelchair I felt how frail she’d become. I could drop her and she’d shatter.
“Are you sure you don’t want something to eat?” I asked.
“No, not now.”
The hospice was a U-shaped building with a garden in the center for the patients to walk in. Daffodils were in full bloom and the dogwood trees were freshly green but not yet blossomed. June clung to my arm as we made our rounds.
“Silly daffodils,” she said with a disdain that took me off guard, “I’m surprised they’re still here.”
“What do you mean?”
“They are such impatient little flowers, bursting up through the ground at the first sign of spring, then they’re hit with that last winter night and they freeze over. Stupid pretty things.” She clucked her tongue and shook her head. I laughed quietly, but she heard it and grinned up at me, poking my nose with her index finger as one would do to make a baby laugh.
Sonny and Larsa walked by and waved to us both. “Hola, Nancy! Hola, June!” I waved back and smiled, but June just gave a small nod. Sometimes she acted too good for this place. Or as if she were here for different reasons than the rest, that she'd leave on two feet.
“Will you marry him?” June asked me. I again felt my stomach. I didn’t like talking to June about Paul. They’d never met and I preferred it that way. She’d never been married and as many things as we’d talked about, men had never been one of them. I hadn’t shown her the ring.
“Yeah, we’re talking about it. After the baby, I guess. I don’t want to be a fat cow on my wedding day.”
“Cows get a bad rap,” she said. I waited for a laugh, but she was quiet.
“Will you stay here?” she asked.
“No. I’m going to move back up to Kentucky after…” I bit my tongue.
“After what?” She looked up at me, her eyes pale and watery.
“After the baby’s born,” I said. Which could have been true. She squeezed my arm tight and smiled up at me. “And you love him?”
“I do,” I said. I felt a relief as I said it.
“As long as you’re happy, Nanny Goat.” She hadn’t called me that in years.
June had a pool in her backyard. After she moved in I spent all my summers there. Mom worked as a nurse at the Veterans Hospital and was gone a lot. June would lay out almost every afternoon with giant Jackie O sunglasses and hats. I thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world. When she got too hot from the sun she would run to the diving board, bouncing with curled toes three times before leaping in, trying to make a splash big enough to rain on me from the side of the pool.
“Hello my little Nanny Goat,” she said as I walked into the kitchen after school. She was wearing a black one-piece bathing suit under a floor-length robe and a white straw hat. She stood with one hand on her hip, the other mixing a pitcher of vodka gimlets.
“I’m going to teach you gin rummy today, kiddo!”
Thrilled at the thought of June wanting to teach me something, I followed her outside, trying not to step on her robe as it draped behind her. Sitting at the porch table, she handed me my own hat and sunglasses, which I put on with excitement, striking wild poses and feeling good that I could make her laugh.
“Can you shuffle?” she asked handing me a deck of cards. I couldn’t shuffle, but I stared at the cards in my hand. On the backs were pictures of naked women with wide hips and giant breasts, just barely covered by flirtatious hands. June chuckled as she watched me. My first instinct was to drop them.
“Oh we’ve all got 'em honey! What’s the harm?”
I looked down at my awkwardly narrow hips and flat chest.
“Just you wait. Now come on, deal 'em out.” I split the deck in half, attempting to imitate the mobsters I’d seen in movies, and ran the cards along my thumbs. They flew everywhere and I jumped up and hit my hand hard on the table. June looked startled at my outburst at first, but her face softened as she picked up the cards.
“Patience is a virtue, Nanny. You’ll learn.”
I did learn. We played gin rummy almost everyday from then on, and I got so good I was better than she was. As I got older she’d let me smoke cigarettes and sneak me sips of her gimlet. We’d listen to the Beach Boys and Joan Baez, and when I finally started filling out she let me root around through her old dresses. June was almost old enough to be my mother’s mother, but she had a youthfulness about her that my mom could not seem to maintain. Wrinkles riddled her face, but she wore them proudly. “I earned these!” she’d say and laugh heartily.
After our walk I left June with one of the nurses. I kissed her forehead and she nodded. She tended to act selfishly when I left, assuming I'd never come back. At first it had made me feel guilty but Dr. Toby had assured me it wasn’t something she’d hold onto. I walked home, back through the square. The monks had gone home, but the mandala was still there, covered with a tarp, waiting for tomorrow. It looked to be almost done.
“Hon,” Mom said as I walked in the door. She had her hair in curlers and was sitting at the kitchen table in her scrubs, looking through the phonebook. “You want me to order dinner?”
“No, I’ve got some stuff in the fridge,” I said. "Do we have any cucumbers?”
“Cucumbers? No I don’t think so. I’m on graveyard tonight, but I’ll head to June’s when I get off.”
“She looked good today.”
“She looked good today.”
“That’s good news. How are you feeling?”
“I’ll bring you some tea if you want to go lay down.”
I went into the bedroom, drawing the curtains down to block out the last bit of sunlight. Pulling my shirt over my head, I examined my belly in the mirror. It was perfectly round and did not look as if it belonged to me. My hips were still so narrow and my legs looked as if they wouldn’t be able to support me much longer. Turning to the side I saw how my skin had stretched to its shape.
“I’ve never had to share before,” I whispered to it.
Mom came in with no knock. She’d taken her curlers out and had a cup of tea in her hand.
“Oh!” she said, almost spilling the tea. Watching her eyes well up so quickly I felt mine do the same.
“You look so beautiful,” she said, setting the cup down on my dresser and walking over to me. Reaching out I grabbed her hands, putting them on either side of me.
“My babies,” she said. “Paul should be here with you.”
“He’s got work, Mom. You know that. We’re not made of money, you know.” My voice shook trying to make that seem true and not like an excuse. Mom had lost Dad in Vietnam just before I was born; he’d only seen her pregnant in pictures. She kissed my forehead and wiped a tear I hadn’t even noticed from my cheek.
“Do you want me to call in?”
“No, no, no, please, really, I’m fine Mom. I love you.”
“You’re going to make a great mother, Nancy. You really are.”
Laying on my bed I listened to the familiar sound of mom’s car door slam and watched her headlights dance across my bedroom ceiling. I reached over to the desk and grabbed the phone, setting it beside me and dialing.
“Hey babe,” Paul’s voice answered. “How are yah?”
“It’s a girl,” I said.
He was silent for a moment. “How do you know?”
“I just do.” I could hear him smile.
“I miss you Nanc.”
“I saw monks making a mandala today.”
“A mandala. It’s a sand painting thing they do, some kind of ritual. Something about how everything is just passing through. You know: nothing is forever.”
“Sounds kind of depressing.”
“Not us, babe.”
“What do you mean?”
“We’re forever,” he said. I liked the way Paul’s mind worked. So simple.
“I like being big.” And then, “I don’t think it will be long.” I felt guilty.
“I love you.”
I said it back to him and hung up. Rolling over I hugged my belly between my knees and chin. I pictured June, wondered if she was awake.
The next day people were crowded around the monks as I walked to the hospice. They were taking pictures and clapping. The monks were bowing and smiling, the sun reflecting off their shaved heads.
Mom was in the lobby talking to Dr. Toby when I got to the hospice. She looked exhausted, mascara clumped to her lashes weighing her lids down.
“Is everything okay?”
“It’s fine, honey.”
Dr. Toby said, “June’s had a rough day, but she seems to be feeling a bit better now. She’s been asking for you.”
I gave my mom a quick kiss on the cheek and headed down the hall to June’s room.
She looked as if she’d been crying. The headscarf she’d worn yesterday was abandoned, and her hair was wisping about childishly above her head, but she smiled when she saw me. I put down the bag I’d been carrying and went to the windows to pull down the curtains, thinking maybe the light was too much for her, but she protested, “No, no, please leave them. It’s so lovely to look out.”
“Let’s listen to music, like we did by the pool,” she said, a black and white memory. She looked smaller than ever, her skin almost translucent. I opened the bottom drawer of the dresser where she kept her records and thumbed through them.
“And I would really enjoy a potato chip, I think.”
I slid Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys out of its cover. “What did you say, June?”
“I’d really love a potato chip. Could you get me one?”
June hadn’t eaten solid food in over two weeks. I stood up, holding the record somewhat stupidly. I didn’t want to make her feel like the question was a strange one, but I was having a hard time reading her face. She looked so relaxed. She did truly look as she had all those summers by the pool. I could almost smell her gimlets.
“Yes, yeah, of course, I’ll run down to the vending machine.”
She nodded, smiling. I placed the record I was holding on the desk and ran down the hall. I fumbled in my pockets but couldn’t find any change. I knocked on Sonny’s door, maybe Larsa would be there. No one answered. I heard a nurse coming down the hall.
“Sorry, could I bother you for a quarter?”
“You’re June’s granddaughter?”
“Just a friend.”
“She’s a hoot,” the nurse said, smiling and handing me a quarter. I thanked her and had to force myself not to run back to the vending machine.
June was waiting eagerly for me when I got back. I grabbed the record and put it in the player.
“You have cards around here?” I asked.
“In the desk drawer,” she said, pointing a bony finger.
I smiled as I wrapped my hands around the old deck of naked lady cards. Now they didn’t seem so risqué. I pulled the bedside table out so that I could sit behind it and dealt out two hands. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” started through the speakers and I opened the bag of chips for June. Pulling out a chip, I handed it to her, and she held it delicately between her thumb and forefinger, turning it over and over before opening her mouth and sliding it onto her tongue. Her lips closed, and then came the crunch as the roof of her mouth met her tongue.
I said goodbye to her that night. She’d fallen asleep long before I left, but I didn’t want to leave right away. I thumbed through the deck of cards and finished off the bag of chips.
It was unseasonably chilly as I left the building. I wrapped my arms around myself, letting my elbows rest on my belly. On my little June Bug. Walking felt different: I felt the impact of every step as it hit the ground. I meant each one. When I got to the square, the mandala was gone, blown to the wind. A few grains of sand skipped across the sidewalk under the streetlights. I knew June was gone too. I couldn’t feel her presence anymore. I had wondered what it would be like ever since she moved into the hospice but it felt much different than I had imagined. It felt elegant. I pictured the jars of sand sinking to the bottom of the river, dissolving and, for just one moment, coloring the water: one last breath. I thought about June, standing at the tip of the diving board, her toes curled around the end just before leaping off, but this time there was no splash.