The disintegration had been slow and insidious.
First, the single vitamin bottle in the cabinet was replaced by prescription bottles, which multiplied, spilling onto the counter.
Soon, Logan’s nightly three fingers of scotch ended. The chemo pumped into his body made that luxury impossible. June’s glass of wine ended, too, for awhile. Later a couple felt like a tonic.
The jeans he used to wear, boot-cut and faded from his work at the paper mill, were replaced with sweats—loose in the crotch and left leg, because that’s where the catheter and bag had to be.
The green tufted leather chair they splurged on for their fifth anniversary, big enough to make love in, was taken out to make room for a recliner, because Logan couldn’t sleep in bed, needed to sit up. Sleep was still elusive, but at least he could rest. And it was easier to access the cath bag, which June emptied several times a day. She only spilled it once. God, what a mess. Frustration, raised voices, tears. June knew Logan was afraid the house smelled bad, people would know just by walking in. But she always cleaned carefully, took out the trash immediately.
His work buddies came often at first. They’d stop by after their shift, have coffee or a beer and tell him the mill news. Bitch about the manager. Swap fishing stories. Brag about the big bull elk they got or whine about the one they missed. Their work clothes carried the stink of the paper mill—like rotten eggs—and Logan smiled to have it in the house again.
They’d bring packages of venison and their wives sent casseroles until June had to ask them to stop. Logan couldn’t eat much anymore. Nothing tasted good to him and when he threw up, real food was worse than a cup of Campbell’s or a glass of Ensure.
Then the recliner was replaced by a hospital bed.
The trips to the doctor became harder then. Logan had been a big man, was still tall, and though June was strong, there were times she felt she couldn’t hold him up, guide him to the wheelchair, lift the damned chair one more blessed time into the back of the van.
The disintegration of the happy home they once had was slow and insidious. Then it was gone.
Now Logan MacPherson was nine months in his grave in the hillside cemetery. Windswept. Clean. Cold.
~ 1 ~
Who will I be when I live there?
Montana June McPherson stared into the darkness over their bed—her bed. Another restless night. She groaned and rubbed muscles sore from packing to move. Couldn’t rub away the ache in the broken heart; her pillow was sodden. While she watched, the crack across the ceiling plaster became visible as the spring day dawned.
Long strands of hair had escaped her braid and were tear-stuck across her cheek. She thumbed them back and wiped the tears, then rolled over to look at the collection on her bedside table. The letter. The box. The key to what would soon be her new house.
Who will I be when I move?
She’d come to this old farmhouse as a bride eleven years ago. Here, she’d been a lover and wife, teacher, daughter-in-law. And now—a widow. Nine months of widowhood seemed longer than ten years of marriage. The farmhouse and land near the Metcalf Wildlife Preserve had been heaven for June and Logan their whole married life. They planned to farm the fertile land themselves someday, but while Logan worked at the mill, they leased acreage to a neighbor.
June’s godfather, Max England, had left the bungalow in Missoula to June in his will. When Logan became ill with the cancer that would kill him, they decided June should move there. The bungalow didn’t have a mortgage nor acreage, two heavy burdens of the farm. Simply made sense. But leaving the farmhouse would continue breaking her heart. This is home.
Accenting that thought, she heard Ranger, her big yellow Labrador, groan and roll over as he started his waking process. Light coming in through the windows strengthened. The crack in the ceiling faded as the shadows disappeared. Day had begun.
She grasped the letter—precious last letter—and the box. They’d been on the shelf in Logan’s side of the closet. She’d delayed emptying it as long as possible because she liked having his clothes there, retaining his own special scent. Not cologne. He hadn’t worn any; rather the deep, earthy, what-had-been healthy male smell. His work clothes, jeans, flannel shirts: all that remained of Logan.
But yesterday the chore had to be faced. She folded his clothes into boxes for Goodwill, pausing when memories became too hard. This shirt he wore when he proposed—he’d kept it all these years? Later, Never even got to wear this belt I gave him last birthday. The final task was dusting the top shelf. She pulled over a chair, stood on it, and with her rag reached back. Way in the corner was a box she hadn’t seen earlier. It was small, wrapped in Christmas paper. Taped to the bottom was an envelope, her name written on it in Logan’s distinctive handwriting. In her shock she almost fell from the chair, diving onto their bed clutching the package. A cry of anguish, flood of tears. Ranger padded in and curled up on the oval rug, his simple presence bringing comfort.
Eventually June sat up and wiped her face. She inhaled deeply, rubbing the shiny paper of the little box. Had Logan forgotten it some previous year, or was he hoping to give it to her this past Christmas, the one he didn’t make? He often bought presents or cards far in advance of a celebration, sometimes misplacing them and spending frantic minutes trying to find whatever it was. It’d always tickled June, but she was one who liked the anticipation before opening a gift. Wrapped presents under the Christmas tree were never a temptation to her, even when she was little. But this wasn’t that Christmas morning feeling; this was bigger, more important. The last present.
June had caressed the envelope. She’d imagined Logan’s long fingers as he put the letter inside. She remembered the feel of his tongue as she thought of him sealing the envelope’s flap. With infinite care, she had removed the letter.
My precious Montana June.
I hope you’ll find this letter and gift after you’ve had a chance to heal some.
Mom’s going to put the box way back in my closet—perhaps
you’ll find it when you start packing to move.
With luck, you’ll be past the first most desperate time.
My darling wife, we believed we’d have all of our lives to love each other—
well, I guess I did.
I loved all of my life with you and cherished every day.
Turns out that it just wasn’t the fifty years we hoped for.
But we took advantage of the time we had—
we never lost a chance to say ‘I love you’
and I leave you with no regrets other than the big one.
I want more time.
You’ll find that this present is pricier than what I’ve given you before,
even your wedding ring. Mom saved money over the years for our kids’ college fund, and well, that won’t be necessary. She gave it to me and took me to Missoula (remember the day?) so we could buy this. I was glad to have the time with her, though it was hard to leave you even for a couple hours.
I was happy you were going out with your girlfriends—hoped you’d laugh and have some fun.
SO, my dear one. Open the package.
I hope you’ll wear this with the same love that you’ve worn your wedding ring.
But June, you need to make me a different sort of vow.
You’ll grieve. Wouldn’t be healthy not to.
But then, my sweet Montana June, please go on with your life.
You’re too good a woman to be alone.
I want you to find some good man to love, and marry the son-of-a-bitch.
Oh, hell, I mean marry the lucky guy. Promise me.
None of us knows now what happens when we pass over the great divide,
but by the time you read this, I’ll know.
I hope I’ll be there, watching you read these words,
loving you as I have for years.
I want you to feel me putting my arms around you.
Remember how much I love you.
It had taken time for June’s sobbing to stop. When she was able, she wiped away her tears. She’d allowed her breathing to settle, then lifted each piece of tape and removed the gold paper. Inside was a glossed wooden box from the upper-end jewelry designer in town. She opened the lid. There, nestled in white satin, lay a gold bracelet. She lifted it out and looked inside the heavy band. Inscribed were Logan’s last words to her:
To My Montana June. Begin Again.
Now, after a sleepless night thinking about the letter, she took off the bracelet and kissed it; reread his message to her; slipped it back on her wrist where it fit as if made for her. She wasn’t sure she was able to do it—begin again. But if Logan wanted it, she’d try.
She picked up the third item she’d brought with her to bed last night and bounced it in her hand. The key to the little bungalow in Missoula. She got up to face the work ahead.
There was work to be done at Grandpa Max’s bungalow before she could finally move in. She settled Ranger in his kennel, then drove the thirty miles to Missoula.
Maxwell England’s house had been packed to the gills with a decade’s worth of stuff—piles of mail, old newspapers and pure junk, like the bundles of used milkshake straws June had already thrown out. What’d he saved those for? But there were treasures, too, things she’d take time going over later, the sweet effluvia of life with Sarah. Each box had to be examined, almost like triage—what’s precious, what to keep to examine later, what can go into the garbage now.
Grandpa Max wasn’t a blood relation, rather her godfather. She and Logan used to visit the old couple as often as possible. June cooked meals and stocked the freezer while Logan mowed the lawn or shoveled the walks, depending on the season. At six foot four and well-muscled, Logan knocked out almost any job in short order.
This house was a jewel while Sarah was alive. She and Max had designed the smallish brick bungalow, making each square inch count with built-ins all over. The focus of the place was the large great room, as big as the bedroom, sitting room, and kitchen combined. When Sarah died, Grandpa Max lost the heart to keep it neat. He started hoarding anything that reminded him of Sarah. And he wouldn’t let June tidy. “You move it, how the hell will I know where to find anything? Leave it alone, Juney.”
Grandpa Max died three months before Logan’s diagnosis.
Now, the main floor was empty, the junk gone, the large picture windows scrubbed. The kitchen to the right and sitting room beyond were also empty of furniture and the stuff of a lifetime. Through the sitting room was the bedroom with its long, high window looking onto Mount Jumbo to the east.
June’d emptied the basement too, so the morning’s jobs included scrubbing the concrete floor, washing away decades of dust and cobwebs, dislodging one old mouse nest in the far back corner. Her nostrils flared with the odor of wet concrete, a smell that brought memories of spring rain in the city. After the floor, she tackled the empty shelves, using “Mrs. Meyer’s All-Purpose Cleaning Soap” in basil scent. All morning she hauled heavy buckets of hot soapy water down the stairs; scrubbed with heavy brushes or big mops; sopping and squeezing, then hauling dirty water back up to dump in the alley. She was soaked and tired, but eventually the basement was no longer stuffy. The place was fresh again.
A fresh, clean start.
Damn it. She didn’t want a fresh, clean start for herself. She wanted her old life, with Grandpa Max to visit, Logan to love, work and laughter and happiness.
Not this pain.
The tears came. No stopping them. June dumped the last bucket and let emotion flood.
Minutes later, cried out, Montana June wiped her eyes. She just didn’t have the intestinal fortitude, as Grandpa Max would say, to work anymore today. Now she was dirty, sad, and empty. Time to go back to the house that soon wouldn’t be home.
The evening sky pinked up as Montana June turned onto the long dirt road to the farmhouse. Through her open window she heard the liquid trill of a meadowlark. Slowing in front of the old garage, she had a perfect view of the sun lowering behind the mountains. The long, low sunbeams highlighted the fire lookout at the summit and the tops of the Chinese elms surrounding the farmhouse. The old house needed a new roof. The leased hayfield to the south brought in a little money, but not enough to cover taxes and the never-ending upkeep that a century-old house required. Once, she and Logan thought they’d sell Max’s house, use that money for repairs. But the man who leased the hayfield had always wanted the farmhouse too, and asked if they’d be willing to sell. Though at first they turned down his offer, when it became obvious Logan was dying they realized it was the right choice.
June parked the Jeep—a CJ5 1950s vintage hard-top—in front of the garage, jumped down from the seat, and let Ranger out of his kennel.
“Hey, old boy. How you doing?” June ruffled the old yellow lab’s neck and scrubbed behind his ears. He placed his big, flat head against her legs and leaned in. She kneeled down to hug him.
“Come on. Let’s get some dog cookies and a drink, sit out on the porch while the sun goes down.”
The screen door squeaked open then banged shut behind them, and the floor creaked, all sounds of an old house in need of repairs she now wouldn’t have to pay for. The living room looked good, though. Logan had refinished the hardwood floor the summer before he got sick. The only things out of place were Logan’s work boots and dirty socks, left by his chair after his last shift at the mill. He’d always done that. It drove June crazy that the stinky things’d sit there until he got ready for his next shift. Then, finally, he’d put the socks in the hamper. Every work shift. But that last time, there hadn’t been another work shift. During the illness, she’d left them there hoping life might go back to normal. Now, she left them there because they were part of Logan.
Dog cookies and booze were kept in the same cabinet, an old breakfront near the wood stove in the kitchen. June poured herself a glass of wine, grabbed two cookies for Ranger, then stepped out to the back porch. She sat on the second step as usual and put her arm around her dog. She closed her eyes, breathing in the clean scent of spring. Growing things. Warm earth. The meadowlark trilled again and some of the stress in June’s heart relaxed. She fantasized that pretty soon Logan’d come out with his scotch and sit on the step behind her, his knees on either side, and wrap his strong arms around her as he had so many evenings. Sunset was a favorite time.
June’s cell phone rang in her pocket with her mother-in-law’s ring-tone.
“Darling girl. You sound tired. Tell me about your day.”
June told Maura what she’d accomplished, going into some detail about the stress of making so many decisions. Eventually, she wound down. “So, I came home and poured myself some wine. I’m out on the porch with the big guy. Oh, there it goes—last rays of sun just slipped behind the mountain. How’re you, Mom?”
“My day’s been good. I did my volunteer stint, then came home and took care of Nanny and Kid. I’ve got my own glass of wine here, and Mr. Mouser on my lap. Been a full day.” Maura’s little household on the mountain consisted of her goats and her cat, gardens and books. She’d lived alone ever since Logan’s father died twenty years before.
While Maura chatted, June gave silent thanks for the older woman. Maura MacPherson had been a mainstay and June’s best friend since they’d both lost the person most precious to them. There was nothing she couldn’t share—they’d already gone through the worst together. From the beginning of June’s marriage to Logan, Maura’d been a real mother to her.
June’s parents died when June was fifteen. They’d been on an extended anniversary trip to Spokane staying at the fancy Davenport Hotel. On the way home, Lookout Pass was icy. A car coming from the Montana side and going too fast down into Idaho couldn’t handle one of the curves, over-corrected and slammed into the MacKenzies’ car. Both parents had died on impact. Max and Sarah, June’s godparents, would’ve taken care of her, but were living in Europe at the time. June’s sister Helena, who was twenty-five and working in Missoula, returned home to stay with June as she finished high school. That’d worked out fine. When June started college and moved into the dorm, Helena left to continue her own life. When June and Logan fell in love, Maura filled a niche that’d been an empty hole in June’s heart.
Maura finished. “So that’s it. A good day.”
“Mom, your call was perfectly timed. I was hoping Ranger and I could come visit you soon. I miss you, and I found something I need to talk to you about. But you know what? I’m getting chilled, my glass is empty, I need a bath and Ranger needs his dinner.”
“Of course. Why don’t you come for dinner, day after tomorrow, about five. Now, you go run that bath. I’m gonna sit here a while longer and soak up this gorgeous view.”
June said goodbye and clicked the phone off, tucked it into her pocket, then picked up her glass, saying, “Come on, big guy. Let’s make your dinner.”
June waited while Ranger took his time getting his hips into position so he could stand. Back in the warm kitchen, June filled his dish then went into the bathroom and turned on the spigots of the old claw-foot tub. She added some lavender bath oil Logan had given her his last Christmas, tested the water temperature and turned it up a notch. This was a night for a good hot soak.
Montana June returned to the kitchen and rubbed Ranger’s head as she reached into the breakfront. She gave him another cookie and was about to pour more wine, then changed her mind. If this was a night for a hot soak, it might also be a night for a stronger drink. She chose Logan’s favorite rocks glass, then poured a large slug of scotch.
Back in the bathroom, June put her drink on the tiny tub-side table and turned off her phone. She stripped off her grungy work clothes and dumped them in the hamper. Looking in the mirror, she brushed her long blond hair and tied it in a knot on top of her head. She leaned in toward the speckled glass. The freckles on her short nose hadn’t faded. She stepped back and looked at her body. Tall enough to carry her extra weight, but she knew she’d need to do something about the pounds soon. Then, as she stepped toward the tub, she was surprised by something she should’ve expected.
“Oh, hell,” she mumbled. “Just great. As if I need my period on top of everything else.”
She wiped up, then put one foot, by centimeters, into the almost-too-hot water. Then the other foot. Bit by bit she sank into the fragrant, steaming bath. Her last reserves of strength ebbed away as the heat worked its magic on her stress. She took a drink of scotch, rubbed her head, and moaned. Tears again. Ranger came into the bathroom and collapsed on the mat.
June’s period had always been so regular she planned around it. That it came now, when she wasn’t thinking of it, brought her right back to that day, more than a year ago, when they’d had the first sign that something was wrong.
One blessing of married life for Logan and June was the physical part. Maura had stitched a sampler—as a gag bridal shower present—with the old saying, “Never go to bed angry” then under that, “(Just go to bed horny).” Even when they had one of their infrequent arguments, they’d look at that sampler over their bed and chuckle. Often they’d dive right in.
One late winter morning, Logan lifted himself off her warm, moist body and smiled.
“Hmmm, darlin’. Remind me again why I gotta work today? How ‘bout I stay home and we keep this up all weekend?” Logan stretched his arms to allow June to move from under him. June watched Logan; her favorite sight in the world was her husband’s face after they made love—dark brown hair all mussed, blue eyes glowing. But now, his expression of joyful fulfillment turned to puzzlement.
“Hey, Junebug . . . um, wasn’t your time of the month just last week? What’s this?”
June looked down at her thighs and saw the slick moisture between her legs was stained with blood.
“Oh, jeez, Logan. Thought I was all done. I’ll clean up and we’ll see about some breakfast.”
Later that day, though, June noticed there was no further sign of her “friend,” as her mother used to call it. In fact, there was nothing until the next time they made love. Perhaps June should go see a doctor.
The next day after Logan’s post-work shower, he came to her looking pale. “Junebug, I guess it isn’t you that needs to see the doc. It’s me.”
Logan was young. Only thirty-five. Prostate cancer doesn’t often strike young men, but blood in the ejaculate is a warning sign. By the time they saw Logan’s doctor and then a urologist, cancer had spread throughout his body.
June, in the now-cooling tub, finished her drink and put the glass back on the tiny table. Tears mixed with beads of sweat on her face from the hot water. Standing up, she wrapped the towel around her, then grabbed the towel bar as the alcohol, hot water, and stressful day hit. Ranger moaned as water dripped on him as she stumbled to the bedroom and fell into bed, towel and all.