J. Carol Goodman was born in a manse in Rahway, N.J. Growing up in the ethnic community was a big influence. She went on to small boarding school in Vermont and graduated from Bennington College, and married with a babe in arms. Her summers were spent in Vermont and winters in Morristown, N.J.
She raised three more children while continuing to write, sometimes with a baby asleep in her lap. She published many short stories in literary journals. One of which was chosen for the Best American Short Stories. She received three grants from New Jersey and fellowships from Yaddo, MacDowell, Virginia Center was the Creative arts, and Banff Centre for the Arts. She has published two novels.
She lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts and is working on a collection of stories and has just finished another a novel.
By J.Carol Goodman
Okay, okay, so he couldn’t keep up with June as she ran on the dark New York City Street. His old injuries. The War, crawling through mud and rubble, spraining his ankle and tearing cartilage in both knees and now the uneven sidewalks. She was frantic to get to the box office where the theater tickets were being held only until twenty minutes before the show. Roger could hardly see her, just the blur of her blue coat. He didn’t remember the name of the theater. June was always dragging him to some off Broadway play he didn’t care about.
She insisted on parking on that dismal street way over on the west side just to save a dime. Cheap and stubborn she was. And she wouldn’t let him cough up the money although he wanted to support her. After all that’s what a man did. That’s what made a man a man.
He squinted to see the last of her blue coat blowing in the sharp January wind, hurrying on her short but well-turned legs. Okay, so she was mad at him. He had complained that he wasn’t exactly ecstatic over rushing to see her acquaintance’s debut. As he walked gingerly along the unlit icy sidewalk he thought how he hated New York, actually was afraid of it. The same sulfuric brew, the stinking clouds of gunfire blistering Alsace, in World War Two. The acid smell of burning flesh, more than twenty years ago, was here and now in this gray, dirty city.
Fall 1944: the village shambled, Germans retreating but a few still slithering behind shutters and doorways. Roger lurched back and forth, separated from his squadron. Lost. The memory surfaced more often lately. Simple things, dark streets, the whistle of a tea kettle, a flashing light and most of all the smell of burning leaves, became the stink of burning flesh Then would come the dreaded memory of that night with the family in the farm house and forcing him into panic.
June had been number eight in the personal ads list two years ago and what an array of dummkopfs answered him. He himself was long divorced with no kids. June had no kids either. Her husband died five years ago and she too was lonely. He fell for her quick, humorous sarcastic mind, the nimble curiosity in her squinting ginger eyes and even the way she stuck out her behind as she pounded back on her heels, branding her territory.
“World War Two,” she had said with one of her dismissive gestures, “I was too young. Only thing I remember is Daddy had to save gas coupons all year just to get us to the shore for vacations and instead of butter we squished disgusting yellow coloring into a bag of fat.”
“You’re right. I guess I should forget the war.”
That was their first date and she had suggested they go to her house. He was a little shocked, well, more than a little, at her immediate invitation but he couldn’t wait to undo the fake buffoonery of her hair and bury his lips into its dyed ebony abundance. Her childish unkemptness aroused his protective instincts. Yet her sexy self–assured expression was not that of some vulnerable widow at thirty-three, nearly twenty years younger than he. She dazzled him as if he were blinking at the sun.
He pulled his scarf tighter. His heart was beating fast as the splintering dread took his thoughts, a new worry about her so far ahead on the lonely street. Bad people, the enemy in recessed doorways and alleys, guns cocked. “June,” he called into the wind, into nothing. He should have brought his gun.
When the smoke subsided the French village that had no signposts left standing at their pocked streets, he stumbled around, searching for his buddies, his squad. It was almost dark when he found the farmhouse.
June’s body didn’t seem to have signposts either. Sometimes he lost his way in lovemaking, rusty, creaky. Couldn’t always figure out his tactics. He tried to take command but she seemed more confident, creative. He became confused and was the one who surrendered. He felt a little humiliated.
He paused to rest a minute against an iron fence. He mulled over again that there was something wrong, down in his gut, something not equal, something missing between them. Yet he had never been in love like this. When he came home from the war he was desperate for love and married his old high school girlfriend and soon realized he didn’t love her. Sitting on the beach at the Jersey shore, brushing the sand from between his toes, on their honeymoon, he told her he wanted a divorce. She screamed. People looked at them. He felt guilty, the ultimate sin of a soldier… betrayal. He had betrayed her.
This summer he would take June back to the Alsatian farmhouse. He would carry the present the family had given him. Roger had hidden the present in the cellar all these years. June had never seen it. Didn’t know about it. He was ashamed, devastated by the present. But he hadn’t thrown it away. He didn’t know why.
When he came home and people asked him what he did now and he answered, “stockbroker, “ his voice sank. Nothing matched or would match that night in their house.
When he came to the Avenue, his eyes squinting to see where the hell June had gone? Hardly anything was open. Don’t panic. He swung around. Breathless, his legs rubbery. Find her, find her. Where am I? What danger is around the corner?
“June,” he hollered and rushed half a block to a bar, the only place open. Inside he demanded, “My wife, is she here? Blue coat.”
The bartender turned to him. “I haven’t seen her.”
“She has got to be here.”
“Haven’t seen her.”
“There is no other place.” His voice was raised. The several people at the bar looked at him.
“Maybe she’s in the lady’s room,” a woman said. “I’ll look for you.” She slid off the stool and went into the lady’s room past the end of the bar. When she came out she was shaking her head. “Not there.”
He ran to the men’s room. He flung open the booths. A brawny man, zipping himself turned on him, “what the hell?”
“Wife! You touch me and I’ll yank your dick off.” He stormed out, Roger behind him.
Now everyone had swiveled toward Roger. He spotted a cop at the bar. He grabbed the cop’s arm. “My wife has been abducted, missing. “
“Where? Did you see the perpetrators?” The cop stood up.
“How long ago?”
“A few minutes. A blue coat.”
“Nope. I’ve been here a while.”
Roger went up to his ear. “Don’t desert me. You want to get court marshaled?”
The cop looked at him funny. “You sure your wife came in here?”
“Don’t you understand that something terrible has happened to her?”
The bar tender touched his own head and winked at the cop.
He can wink all he wants, Roger thought, but he was positive June was here.
Alone in the field, no sign of his buddies, exhausted he carefully sneaked across the field to the stucco farmhouse. No sound. Had the people been killed and the Germans had occupied it and he would be killed? The back door was open. The place was dark. He waited and listened. No sound. He went in, his gun leading. The kitchen was empty. The living room. He slung his head from side to side, holding his breath.
What was that? Crying from below. Momentarily he was mesmerized. He listened awhile before he braved it down the steep cellar steps, stooping so his head wouldn’t graze the ceiling, his gun before him. “Hands up. Up. Up,” praying they understood English.
He found the four knotted in a corner. Only the seventeen-year-old French boy knew English. “You American?” the boy asked.
They all threw their arms around him, the boy, the mother, father and older sister. They huddled again and waited until dark to climb the stairs. After their meager supper of watered down cabbage soup they fixed the couch for Roger, begging him to spend the night. He told them he would stay the rest of the next day to be sure the Germans were not coming after them, and then he would try and find his buddies. He believed the war was almost over. The next day he stood guard at the window. He could see all the way across the deserted field.
“That door,” Roger said.
“What door?” the bar tender asked. “The trap door?’
“Don’t try and stop me.”
“There is nothing there except the freezer and liquor bottles for the bar.”
“Sir?” the cop asked, “Have you a relative, a daughter or son, or a friend we could call?”
Why the fuck was he changing the subject? Roger was half way down the narrow steps when he realized the cop was behind him. Let him find out. This cop was too young to know a god-dammed thing about the horror of battle.
The next day was foggy. He and the seventeen-year-old named Hugo stayed at the window. About 10 in the morning they saw a shadow in the field, a dog? Or lose sheep? No, a person, slow and determined. What color was his uniform? German. Why was a lone German walking toward the farmhouse? Roger had never seen a soldier who was alone. Troops were like packs of dogs in a bog of gun-mist.
“Where was your wife going?” The cop asked.
“To pick up tickets at the theater.”
“What are you talking about? You now perfectly well, the European theater.” He drew in panic stricken gulps of air. The corner of the cellar was piled with cardboard boxes. Along the walls were racks of wine bottles. On the far wall was a long horizontal freezer. He tore at the boxes.
“Wait a minute, go slow.” The cop grabbed Roger’s arm again. “Try and tell me the name of the theater where your wife was headed.”
Roger was feeling those spines of fear rise between his shoulder and the back of his skull. She wouldn’t leave him. Something terrible had happened.
“Lie down on the floor,” he whispered to the family. Was the German truly alone? Yes. He was striding straight across the field toward them, his luger at his side, his helmet on. He hesitated, looked around, wasn’t running, just walking. He was closer than Roger thought, small. One more step and Roger would pull the trigger.
“In there. That’s where she is.” Roger rushed to the freezer and tried to open the lid before the cop could stop him. “Help me open it.”
“Sir, I told you that is a freezer. She couldn’t be…” his voice was sterner now.
“It doesn’t matter what you think.” Roger wrenched himself free and lifted the lid. Oh my god! Packages of all shapes. Limbs, arms, hands, feet. Heads.
“See she isn’t there, just hamburger meat and chicken,” the cop said. He took Roger’s’ arm. “We’ll look for the playhouse, okay?”
“Those were just hamburger?”
“And pork and Chicken?”
“No body parts?”
Roger raised his gun. He closed one eye and looked through the sight. He fired through the open window. The bullet tore through the soldier’s helmet. The soldier paused, as if to think about it. His forehead slowly fell back skyward. Then he jolted forward. His spine let go, his knees buckled. He knelt, his shoulders and head falling down. The boy soldier’s legs splayed and twitched like a run over squirrel and lay still. Hugo ran out the door to be sure.
Roger watched as Hugo kicked the dead boy, who was no more than thirteen, in his head and mouth and groin. Roger didn’t rush out and grab Hugo away or shout, “Stop it.” But his shame and repulsion lasted all these years.
He tried saying to himself, that‘s what war is like, but what festered is what Hugo did. As he was about to leave that night, to find his squadron and discover the war was over, Hugo gave him something. Roger just wanted to get out of there so without protesting he took it. It was wrapped in brown paper with many strings tying it. Some kind of ball? He didn’t open it until he got back in the U.S. He drew back. Was it a skull, the young soldier’s skull? Roger dropped it, seeing it was the helmet the boy soldier had worn. Roger hid it behind the furnace. He kept it so he would never forget the soldier. He never told June.
Now he ran up the steps and out the door of the bar remembering which direction he saw June running and with his knees cramping he hobbled as fast as he could. He had cleared his head, the way he did in battle, concentrate and run, run like hell. He shouted, “June, June.” But he hadn’t needed to, she was running toward him.
“Where were you?”
“Where were you? You knew I couldn’t be late picking up the tickets,” she said, irritated.
“These deserted streets. There could have been anything. Landmines, grenades.”
“You were lost.” He held her. He was shaking.
“No. It was you who were lost. And look at you, all shook up. Why?”
“I had lost you.”
“Let’s just go home,” she said. “We could come see the play another night.”
When they reached the car, he looked at June. Yes, something was not right between them. He hadn’t quite captured her. He had figured there was a reason they had not been as one, not melted into each other the way couples were to do. The reason came to him, she had not lived his history and until she did they would never be together as one.
“June,” he said, as she started the car, “I want to take you to Alsace this summer, to the farmhouse where I spent that night in the war.”
“I want you to meet Hugo. He still lives in the house alone. ‘Come visit anytime,’ he said.’”
As June drove home, Roger planned what he would do. He would ask Hugo if he minded putting on the helmet that Roger would have brought with him. Then he would ask him if he would go out in the field to reenact that day and when he reached just the right spot, Roger would yell, “Perfect. Stop.”
June would be beside Roger in the house at the open window. He would ask Hugo to borrow his gun that he brought bullets for and Roger would look down the gun site and not hesitate. He would pull the trigger. He hoped, his hands wouldn’t shake, which they had been doing lately.
The bullet would wiz toward him and straight into the helmet. Hugo would look up at the sky, his spine would give way and he would plummet, yank and gasp for air, knees buckling, face down in the corn stubble. His body would twitch like a run-over squirrel.
June would then understand what Roger had gone through. She would have lived all the guilt and horror of his history and their lives would be one and the same and she would finally be his.
“Back to Alsace, sure,” she said.