Chapter I from my fantasy novel, SUMMER, which is complete at 101,000 words.
Part I – June
God offers us yearly a necklace of twelve pearls; most men choose the fairest, label it June, and cast the rest away. ~Thomas Wentworth Higginson
It was Memorial Day weekend, and as usual, Ernesto promised us another of his amazing parties. This one he called the Memorial Day Moose Bash and Squirrel Buffet, and he guaranteed it would be a magical kick off to summer. I put a stake through my usual introverted plans and drove two hours from Baltimore to have a good time.
Ernesto didn’t disappoint, either. He placed a huge stuffed moose near the front gate and hung a squirrel piñata from the elm tree in his back yard. Something felt odd and disjointed about the combination, though. Orange with apple, coal with snow, Memorial Day with moose and squirrel. But Ernesto’s parties were not to be missed, so we rolled with his themes. Somehow, he made them work.
“Why the moose and squirrel?” I asked his husband, Rufus, as I walked up to the door. Rufus was talking to two other people I didn’t recognize, and wore a pair of felt antlers on his head. The brown band flattened down his dark hair.
“NBC canceled Rocky and Bullwinkle on this date in 1964,” he answered, handing me a beer from an ice-filled cooler near the door. Then he patted me on the shoulder. I walked into the room and looked around.
That’s when I noticed the woman. Curly, black hair cascading down her shoulders; a cute nose beneath dark green eyes; a slender neck leading to a hint of cleavage. Attractive. She wore a fashionable summer dress of red and white, appropriately short for the warm weather without being scandalously daring. But I didn’t think much about her as I scanned the room for friends.
Then she smiled at me.
I fell in love.
I didn’t realize it at that moment. I was wedded to the theory that I’d never be the kind of man lucky enough to find himself in a serious relationship and had adjusted my reactions accordingly. That way I’d never be disappointed when a woman broke up with me, it would be nothing more than what was expected. It took the rational side of me another month to catch up to the emotional side and remind it not to drag ass behind.
Everyone falls in love at Ernesto’s. That’s where the magic happens.
I found my co-workers, Fran and Mel, near the stereo, holding paper plates of food. I slid over to them, drawing a happy-friend nod from Mel and a smile from Fran. I tipped my head toward the girl by the food table. “Do, ah, either of you know who that is?”
“What, no preamble?” Fran asked with a grin. “You could at least pretend to care about us.”
“She looks the type to, you know. . . like clean out your bank account or something,” Mel said. “Go take a swim, cool off. You got coding to do on Monday.”
“You know I don’t swim,” I told him. “I almost drowned the last time I swam at one of these parties.”
Fran laughed. “That was the best party ever. How the hell does Ernesto come up with the themes, though? Medieval Mariachi Madness, complete with shopping cart jousting?”
“How in the hell did I end up at the bottom of the pool in homemade armor strapped to one of those rolling death traps?” Mel asked.
“Ernesto plans parties for a living,” I said, as I watched the woman, “and your driver sucked.”
“You were driving, Mario Andretti,” Mel said, waving a chicken leg at me, “and I would have won if not for your lack of skill in steering a straight line.”
“Hey, you came in second,” Fran said. “Well, you did after we fished you out of the pool and Missy gave you some mouth to mouth kissing action.”
“That girl is a saint,” he said.
“And your girlfriend,” Fran reminded him.
“Yeah, well, she’s got good taste, that’s true,” Mel said.
“I have to question that judgement,” Fran said.
“Of course you would, Francine,” Mel said. “Remind me to give a fuck when you’re actually dating someone.”
“Hey, I was engaged for a while,” she said.
“Yeah, to Richard, the ginormous walking colon,” Mel said.
“Okay, yes, he was a cheating, scumbag, son of a camel’s rectum, but it counts,” she said.
“I’m going to go get a drink,” I said.
Fran patted my shoulder. “Good luck, Romeo. Maybe you can actually talk to this one. And try not to panic if she says something nice to you.”
I walked to the food table near where she stood. I poured myself a drink from the punch bowl as I worked up the nerve to approach her. The sign next to it read “Antler-aid.” It smelled like the cranberry-juice cocktails which kept my grandmother well lubricated after dinners. Gran handled her drink better than my father did. I thought of the evenings I’d spent listening to her stories of Gramps and the war, while she ignored my childish tales of the fantastic world I imagined. A magical place where it was summer all year round. She was too lost in a haze of past memories to discuss it with me.
“Did you know I was a Foley dancer back in those days?” Gran would ask, pausing to take a swig from her tall glass, her eyes staring blankly into a time long gone. “A wonderful job, and so many handsome men to choose from. They called me the belle of the ball, Ham. It made your grandfather so jealous when he heard the stories. But he was off fighting the war and couldn’t take care of my needs. Besides, he liked that sort of thing. Your grandfather was a pervy bastard, bless his soul.”
Her stories made me as uncomfortable as her calling me Ham. I couldn’t get her to call me Hammond, though. I suspected that was due to her continual state of inebriation.
I stood awkwardly near the girl, drink in hand, trying to determine how to begin a conversation. Trying to decide if I even wanted to. Now that I was near her, the withdrawn side of my mind started telling me I should abort the attempt rather than face certain humiliation. A buzz of voices surrounded us, the stereo played “52 Girls” by the B-52’s, and my tongue twisted in knots. As did my stomach.
She opened her mouth and spoke, and the word came out as smooth and dark as tinted glass. A cool tingle passed along my spine, and I stared at her incredibly white teeth as she smiled at me.
“What?” This turned out to be the extent of my conversational repertoire as I drowned in the liquid pools of her eyes.
“My name. It’s June. You want to ask my name.”
“Yes. What’s your name?”
“June,” she repeated, ignoring my reduced mental capacity, an oversight which made me grateful. “June July August.”
She laughed, and the room brightened, the sound of it like the sun raining its shine down as it peeked from behind a cloud. “That’s my name, stranger. First name June, last name August, middle name July. June July August.”
“I’m traditional summer, not calendar summer. I’m vacation, and hot dogs, and watermelons, and county fairs, and long, slow days under a hot sun broken by cool dips in the lake. I’m fireworks, and kissing in the dark as we lay on a blanket under the stars. I’m reading books in the cool of the library, and riding bikes out on a dirt road to find the best frog pond in the area. And you are?”
“Hammond. Hammond Arlen River.”
“Nice name. It makes me think of an organ, big and grand and majestic. Are you an organ?”
I couldn’t tell if she was flirting or messing with me. Everything about her flustered and confused me while simultaneously making my head spin in that giddy, messed up way of fresh attraction. It intoxicated me. I took a long, dubious look at the cup in my hand, accusing the punch for my altered emotional state. Bad punch, very bad punch.
“Well if you play me, I might make some noise, but I doubt it would be very melodic,” I said. It sounded like a pick-up line, and I cringed. In my panic having an actual conversation with her, nothing else came to mind. It wasn’t meant to be an attempt at teenage seduction techniques.
She laughed again, and I felt a tiny sense of relief. “Melodic, excellent word choice. I love a man with a big vocabulary. Now, you want to ask me to go for a walk.”
“Has anyone ever told you that you’re cute when you’re flustered? You know . . . a walk? You and I putting one foot in front of the other, moving your body forward in a horizontal motion while balancing bipedally upon two legs, with or without a destination in mind. You want to ask me to go for a walk.”
“Do you want to go for a walk?”
“Yes, I’d love to. The lake is a short distance away, and since water is related to your surname, let’s go down to the bank for a bit and talk.”