June In January
The world began in 2001 and before that, in 1994, 1989, '80 and '77 and back into the early '60's at least. Each time she thought of what was now, what was recent, it shifted. It was now New Year's Eve of the real millennium. In fact, she had the party banner, "January 1, 2001: The Millennium For Those Who Can Count," rolled up in the back seat for her souvenir and going-away present. Y2K was last year's news, ancient history, like Kosovo or the Gulf War.
She had reported her share of it on the Ten 0'Clock Weekend News as of late but had spent most of her time at the TV station on the dawn patrol. The early birds were the folk's she would miss the most, the anchors and crew of the Five A.M. Report. They had all been so giddy at that hour; they'd had to be just to stay awake.
Now it was almost 5:00, the road she was almost driving on was dark and twisting, and the "picture of a leaping deer" sign told her she was nearing Rollingwood and the sleep of a good bed. The black snake road was hypnotic. It wound left, then right. Its yellow skinny ribbon broke and mended and doubled and singled. Her eyelids squeezed down to slits until she popped them open again. What had happened to the past eight miles, the past eight minutes? How could she be driving yet and not remember? She had not slowed the burgundy Taurus. She had apparently made all the turns. Opossum eyes shone out from the roadside.
The herd was there in front of her! She knew not to swerve. Hadn't she given that driving tip on the air a dozen times? She slowed the car. She was sure of it. She veered easily, ever-so-slightly, to the right. The lead deer finished the crossing even before the herd appeared to her. Two or three animals--maybe one was a fawn--were several yards ahead. Then an adult hit the driver's side a glancing blow. Between the herd and the popped headlight and the ditch was merely a second: "tick," a herd of deer, "tock," an arroyo upside down.
Could she budge? Could she feel her legs? She could. Was she bleeding? She was, but just a little. She budged. The Taurus budged. She pulled herself back to the headrest. She breathed. The world turned back upright. She tried the passenger door. t opened.
She backed away from the wreckage which was less of a wreck than she had feared. There was no explosion. There was the whish of traffic on Bee Cave Road. There was a lifeless doe on the grass behind the traffic. There was a kneeling fawn. The young human stood there in the too warm, the too humid dark. She did not shed a tear.
"Are you okay," Barry asked her.
"Just one more 'cast."
"I think I can do that."
"On the air in three...two...," someone, probably Marge, called from beyond the television lights.
June, always the pro, heard herself say, "This is the Ten O' Clock Sunday News for January 7, 2001...If you are waiting for friends or family to arrive at Bergstrom International Airport or if you are waiting for a flight out of Austin tonight, you are in for hours of delay, according to the National Weather..."
"...And we don't look for the fog to lift until sometime after dawn tomorrow...Roger?" Doug concluded twenty-seven minutes later. It had been a slow news day. Fog was the big story.
"Thanks, Doug. Well, we are hoping the fog will lift in time for June's flight to Pittsburgh next week--or are we? Any chance you'll change your mind about going, June?"
"I'm almost tempted to stay, Roger. My six years on Austin television--first at KEYE and, for the last four years right here with all of you--have been fun. I've learned a lot and I will always take a little bit of Austin with me wherever I go...So, for the last time, that's the news this Sunday night. Good night and have a wonderful millennium."
"We're off the air," said Marge.
"Well, that's it, June," offered Doug with an approach to kiss June's cheek.
"Don't touch me," she scolded.
She was just leaving a job, a town, a relationship. There was nothing to cry about here. There was nothing that could make June cry. Other reporters might tear up at announcing some senseless tragedy, but not June. She was the "Rock of Gibraltar" of the Ten O'clock Weekend News. In fact, she couldn't recall crying about anything, not since the Pink Panther.
She was ten when her parents divorced. Her mother worked, so June, a shy little girl, spent hours after school at her grandmother's house. Mamaw was loving and a wonderful cook and June enjoyed being with her, but there were no kids June's age in the neighborhood.
Her one playmate was Lady, her grandmother's cat. Lady was a youngish cat of long, mostly charcoalish, mottled fur. Poor Lady had had a hard life on the streets when Mamaw rescued her from the animal shelter. Every veterinarian who examined her agreed that Lady would never have kittens, so damaged had she been during her wild days.
Nevertheless, for a recently feral cat, Lady was surprisingly trusting and affectionate. Mamaw could not have chosen a better pet and companion. June didn't just visit Mamaw, she visited Mamaw and Lady. After homework each day June would fill the time before her mother's arrival with reading. She read aloud, sometimes to Mamaw, but always with Lady on her lap.
"Is Lady enjoying ‘Black Beauty?'" asked Mamaw one afternoon.
"I think so, Mamaw, but I think she's getting fat."
"Maybe I should ask the vet about a special diet for milady."
"She feels funny too."
"Funny? How do you mean?"
"I don't know, just funny. I hope she's not getting sick."
"Let me see," Mamaw said, taking up Lady to her shoulder, "Let me feel your tummy, Lady."
"Is she sick?"
"Well, I'll swan!"
"What's the matter?"
"I do believe milady is going to have kittens."
"I thought she couldn't."
"So the vet says, but Lady never studied medicine. She's pregers all right."
"It's a miracle."
"I don't know about that, but it certainly is a surprise! I guess I haven't been watching her closely enough when we visit the backyard. But who would have thought?"
"When she has kittens, can I have one?"
"May I have one," Mamaw corrected her.
"May I have one?"
"Will you feed it?"
"Then we'll see."
On another day after school Lady was missing. Mamaw assured June that Lady was fine. In fact, she had gone to some private place to have her kittens. "Although there may be complications."
"Lady is very weak. She'll probably pull through, but some of the kittens might not. That's what the vet said."
"What does the vet know? He said she couldn't have babies."
"Junie, even very smart people make mistakes sometimes. Everything may go all right, but we should be prepared for the worst."
"Grown-ups," Junie concluded, "always prepare for the worst."
"That's because we know what can happen."
"Well, ‘can happen' doesn't mean ‘will happen!'" June shouted as she ran from her grandmother's kitchen. She was running from grown-up negativity and she was also running to find Lady.
She called Lady's name in the guest bedroom under the bed and in the closet. She did the same in Mamaw's room. June called out for Lady in the hallway and thought she heard a weak "mew." She opened the laundry hamper and there was Lady.
"Mamaw, come here! Quickly please!"
"Junie, what is it?"
"Maybe you had better go read."
"Go watch television a while."
"I can't. What are those?"
In the hamper, next to the exhausted Lady, were three little packets of fur shrouded each in its own translucent membrane.
"Please go somewhere, June. Fix yourself a bowl of ice cream."
"Well, I guess you are old enough to understand such things...The kittens seem to be stillborn."
"Does that mean they're dead?"
"Yes. It means they died before they could be born. I'm sorry."
"Would you like some almonds, something to drink maybe?" The flight attendant was just a bit too eager.
"No thanks," June muttered. She thought she would miss Austin. It was possible. Would she miss it more than Tempe or Covales or more than she might one day miss Pittsburgh? The life of a young television reporter was a nomadic existence. Perhaps she wouldn't miss Pittsburgh, although it seemed decent enough when she interviewed for the job. Of course, that was in the autumn, arguably one of its two best seasons. She did miss St. Louis, she decided somewhere over Dallas-Fort Worth. She missed St. Louis, she missed her grandmother's house.
"I want to show you something." Mamaw hadn't spoken to June in the car all the way home after school. June had hardly spoken to anyone for the twenty-four hours since the dead kittens, except to answer questions in class. Mamaw took her to the laundry room.
"Now, he's very weak, but he is taking milk. I got some special formula from the vet today. He is responding to it," she told June.
"Who do you mean, Mamaw?"
"Look." Mamaw pulled back the blanket covering the pasteboard box. June peered into it.
"It's very scrawny," June nervously giggled.
"But it's alive."
It was a kitten, or something kitten-like. It was more of a cartoon than a creature. It was a cartoon; it was the Pink Panther! There was no other way to describe it: a thin cat-thing, almost anthropomorphic in its proportions, certainly not a plump, healthy kitty. Mamaw was right, though; somehow it was alive.
June had to ask,"Where did it come from?"
"It came from Lady, of course. There was one other survivor of the litter, but it died this morning. I took this one to the vet. He gave it shots and eyedroppered some milk into it. It was very dehydrated then, but seems to be okay now."
"Is it a boy or a girl?"
"A boy, the vet said."
"Can I feed it?"
"May I feed it."
There went D-FW International into the clear, cool, but still-too-warm-for-January Texas midnight. June's ears popped. They often popped on landing and take-off, this time for both.
"Mamaw, why won't Lady feed the kitten?"
"I don't know, Junie. I guess she's just not a good mommy."
"He doesn't look any better today."
"He's not taking his milk."
"I can feed him all weekend."
"You can try. Maybe he'll improve before your mother and..."
"Arthur," said June with a sour face, "Isn't that a dumb name?"
"It's a perfectly good name. Maybe the kitten will be eating before they return."
"I don't want to go with them. Arthur wants to marry her. He wants to be my daddy." June stuck out her tongue.
"You'll love Disney World. And there's no snow."
"But I like snow. Besides, I've been to Disneyland. Isn't it just the same?"
"I want to stay in St. Louis and take care of P. P."
"Pink Panther. See?"
June thought she saw her luggage in the carousel but another woman took it. It was certainly winter in Pittsburgh; white was the color. The airport was busy enough, the tarmac was clear enough, the night sky mauve enough from the amber lights.
"Hey, P. P.," little June whispered, "I've got some milk for you. Open up. Take a whole dropper-full like last time."
The Pink Panther rested in the slight dent he made in Mamaw's guest room pillow. He was what the British call a "ginger tom," an orange tabby whose tiny footpads were as pink as his name. P. P. allowed little gulps of milk from the eyedropper to slip down his throat, seemingly more to humor the girl than to ensure his own survival.
"I'm going to feed you every hour," Junie promised him.
June awakened before dawn that January in St. Louis when she was ten in that earlier part of the past millennium. She was cradling the pillow on which P. P. lay peacefully.
"Time for your five o'clock feeding," she announced.
P. P. would not take the milk. He would not move. He would not breathe. June picked up the limp little caricature of a cat in her hand. She thought to slip on her house shoes but not her robe. It was no matter; she didn't notice the cold.
June carried the lifeless kitten out the back door, down the street to a small undeveloped wooded lot. What would Mamaw do with P. P. anyway? Let the vet take him to be burned, let her bury him in the back yard, flush him down the toilet when June was gone to Florida? Not Mamaw. But P.P. deserved something special. He was part of nature, she knew. She had seen a burial at sea in a movie. The ceremony seemed appropriate somehow. P.P. was not of the sea, he was of the land. He was part of nature, so nature would take care of him.
Junie stood at the edge of the ravine in the vacant wooded lot. There must have been a hundred wild acres before her. There would be no houses here for another ten years. Like a priestess giving an incantation to one about to be sacrificed to a volcano she said, "From nature you came and to nature you return."
As if the little cat we're a dove released to the skies, she held him in both cupped palms and flung the scrawny body up over the dark wooded ravine and wept. Little June wept tears enough to fill that ravine. She wept a torrent for the little thing she had so tried to help. And what had she done? She had fallen asleep and rolled over the poor kitty and crushed his little body. She cried tears enough for twenty years and would have no more tears for almost two decades. She never cried when she lost Lady nor Mamaw nor her mother.
In a new city in a new January in a new millennium June drove her new leased Saturn to a new job. As she passed Three Rivers Stadium a pigeon swooped down in front of her car, under it, and was crushed by her right front tire. She pulled over to the freeway's service shoulder.
"Stupid pigeon!" she wept and did not stop weeping for at least an hour.