In a way, it was my fault. We always hosted on Fridays. It became our thing. It was convenient. Our friends and their friends would come to us, and we barely had to move as we drank. If we did leave, it was down the street to the college bar that smelled of chemical cleaner and patchouli.
I asked June to stop annoying our friends with her stories. I told her to write them down and do something else with them. I told her she was just randomly spouting them, and for who?
“I do it for me. For us.”
But really, I was jealous. I could never hold court like she could; the ruby-red wine in her crystal glass would swoosh up to the brim the more animated her stories became, but would never spill. Newcomers with ironed collars, wide brimmed hats and clear glasses would corner me later. Was she single? “I need more ice,” I’d say, burying my head in the freezer, until either the trays were empty or my glass was just ice.
The way June ushered us into place reminded me of my mother. Story time carried weight in my family. Mother read us Hughes and Dumas, her tired brown hands slowly flipping through the battered pages of the stories. My brothers and I all knew how they ended, but we couldn’t get to sleep without them. I would stay up the longest, to hear them end, before I could fall asleep.
“Good night sweet princes,” she’d whispered, as we all got a kiss, from youngest to oldest, the same order every time.
I met June a week before my mother’s passing. I had difficulty with the order of things, of grief, and paperwork and finances. I attempted to write a eulogy before I spoke to any family. I couldn’t. I couldn’t figure out how to arrange my mother’s life into a single story. June helped me through the process, and I fell in love with her for it. She rewrote the eulogy and made my mother sound like the heroine of a Great American Novel. Which she was to us.
June had an order to her stories. When she had us all seated on the couch or the floor, she would shoot me a glance to make sure I was paying attention. I would stare back in mock attentiveness. I was there, wasn’t I?
The first story was always about a woman who kept a bowl of seeds under her sink. She would try and grow them when she was feeling lucky, but often she didn’t feel lucky. Once a month she would reach into the bowl and pull out three seeds. She did this for a year, exactly twelve months of growing. Okra to morning glories to fennel. One day, she came upon a seed that wouldn’t grow. This little seed got all the attention. She forgot to care for and water the other plants. Eventually they died. The seed grew into a beautiful orange flower that gave off an awful smell. The stench was so bad that the woman ripped the plant from its pot and threw it out the window.
This story always got mixed reactions. I asked June to cheer up her material when people started to drink. I said that people can’t handle these dark endings, but she refused to break her sacred order. It was always, always her opener.
The second story was about these twins in the Midwest. As June’s wine disappeared, she played up her narration. There would be accents and wild hand gestures. As people finished their drinks, I’d jump in and play second fiddle.
The twins were the sons of an infamous bank robber. They adored their Daddy and wanted to be bad just like him. Daddy taught the twins to crack safes, but they could only manage with the other’s help. Their adeptness was a blessing, but their curse was to need each other. See, the twins only rarely got along. During one fateful heist, they began to bicker. When the cops showed up, they were wrestling on the floor, but as they saw the police, they both reached for their guns. We acted out the firefight to the whoops and whistles of our audience. Some nights, the twins went down in a blaze of glory. Other nights, they snuck out the back of the bank.
Cliché, but I didn’t care. It was fun. June looked at me differently when I was up there, bank robbing and gun slinging with her.
The third and final story was never the same, except for the ending. On some nights, June danced. She looked truly beautiful as she swayed in front of those watching with bated breath or half-shut eyelids. She asked, but often begged, the crowd to join in. There was singing, too. Sometimes a beautiful rendition of St. James Infirmary, sometimes it was The Song That Never Ends, until she broke into an uncontrollable sob. Someone would signal me to peel her up off the floor and bring her to bed. She would fake sleeping until I was done tucking her in as tight as I could. Every time, as I turned, she would ask,
“Do you still love me?”
“Yes,” I always answered, unsure of whether this was part of the performance.
“Only when we’re bank robbing and gun slinging? Only in our stories?”
“No,” I answered, annoyed by the same questions I heard every Friday.
A trial separation was what she wanted and I agreed. I booked a stay at a hotel to give her space. By the second week, I ran out of boxers. I popped by and found her lying on the hardwood floor, surrounded by papers, writing with intent. Seeing her there, it became clear that it was my fault. She had been carrying the burden of our story all by herself. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a pen.
Sacha Bissonnette is a short story writer from Ottawa, Canada. He is reader for the Wigleaf top 50 series. His work has appeared in Wigleaf, Lunch Ticket, SmokeLong, and Cease, Cows, among other places. He has upcoming short fiction in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Ruminate, BULL, and Terrain.org. He is currently working on a short fiction anthology with the help of a National Canada Council for the Arts grant, an Ontario Arts Grant, and a Youth In Culture Ottawa Grant, and was recently selected for the Writer’s Union of Canada – BIPOC Writer’s Connect mentorship. He loves film and comfort food and tweets @sjohnb9