Crime writer all-star Jen Conley drops this story of a hungry little girl who takes her shot at a john's petty cash.
JUNE by Jen Conley
The apartment was small—just the bedroom and the front room, a kitchenette off to the side. The men came by, not often, but they came, and in the past, June would go outside and play in the dirt lot next to the building. Today she didn’t. She was getting older, figuring things out, and these men, in their dungarees or slacks, always with wrinkled shirts, cigarettes hanging from their mouths, they arrived at all hours, sometimes standing in the kitchenette, taking a nip of whiskey before disappearing into the bedroom with her mother.
Once, June overheard Mrs. Lambstock, the landlady, talking with Mr. Pratt, who lived below. “It ain’t no business of mine what she does,” the woman said. “As long as she pay the rent.”
Mr. Gash carried a leather wallet and at the moment, it sat on the small card table where June and her mother ate their meals. The banging kept going and the girl moved her ear closer to the radio. She tried to think of other things, like a piece of chocolate cake from the bakery on the main street, or watching television at Betty Kecher’s house, or learning about colonial times in school from her teacher. But none of it removed the thought that Mr. Gash was in the bedroom, that his dented-up car sat in front of the building, everyone knowing why he was there.
She turned around, stared at the card table, her eyes finding the wallet. She knew there was money in it. Probably with other things, like crinkled photographs of his girlfriend or his wife, maybe his kids. She didn’t know much about Mr. Gash. He came from another place, her mother said. “I don’t know where he lives. Don’t care much.”
June hadn’t eaten since the day before, for there was nothing in the apartment. Her mother had promised that after Mr. Gash left, she’d take her down to the market and they’d buy a chicken and a couple of potatoes. The girl’s stomach ached terribly, and she licked her lips, thinking that the bakery may be open still, that with a little money she’d be able to buy something, perhaps a roll.
Carefully, June stood up, the banging from the bedroom thrashing in a fast steady beats, boom, boom, boom, and she crept to the card table, picked up the wallet, opened it. Her breath stopped when she noticed the bills—so many ones, fives, tens. She pulled the money out, looked at it, thought of all the things she could buy: a whole cake, several rolls, a record player. She placed the wallet down, folded up the cash in her hands, turned for the door. But the banging suddenly stopped, followed by a great long howl. June froze, her brain trying to think, stay or go, stay or go. When he finished, Mr. Gash always emerged from the bedroom rather quickly, half-dressed—shoes untied, shirt unbuttoned, belt unhooked and hanging from his waist. There’s no way she could get down the three flights of wooden stairs and make a run for it through the streets. So she returned to her spot on the floor in front of the radio, her legs crossed Indian style, her back facing the bedroom door. The song had long moved to something else, Elvis maybe, but she wasn’t hearing it. The money was in her hand and she straightened the bills out, shoved them underneath the rug.
The bedroom door opened.
“Turn that noise down,” Mr. Gash barked. June immediately obeyed, reaching up, moving the knob so the music was lower, keeping her back to the man. She heard him walking along the floorboards, coughing, groaning like he had some terrible ache, muttering about more whiskey. She heard the pouring of the drink, his gulp, the glass hitting the metal counter by the sink. June stared at the small rise in the carpet where the bills were hidden. Any moment he’d realize his money was gone.
“What’s this?” he said.
June kept steady.
“What the hell is this?” he said again, and June felt the floor shake as he walked towards her. In a second, his untied brown shoes were inches away from her face.
“You take my money?” he growled.
“No,” she said, keeping her eyes down.
“Girl, you look at me!”
June hesitantly turned and peered up at him. He was staring down at her like a beast, holding his empty wallet, his face pink and raw, glistening with sweat.
“Where’s my money?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know.”
“Bullshit. You do know.”
“What? You blaming it on your mom, then? You saying she stoled it?”
“Then you stoled it, didn’t ya?”
June saw her mother, wearing a gray satin robe, appear from the bedroom. Her hair was messy and she was barefoot.
“What’s the matter?” she asked, padding across the room and standing next to Mr. Gash.
“Your kid took my money,” he said.
She placed her hands on her hips. “Is he right?”
“No,” June whimpered.
“You go in his wallet?”
She said nothing, just sat on the floor, looking up at her mother.
Finally June answered. “Yes.”
Like the snap of a whip, June’s mother lunged forward, snatched her daughter by the arm and wrenched her up. June tried to squirm away, but her mother had a firm hold. She grabbed June by the mouth and squeezed so hard the girl’s teeth hurt.
“You show me now!”
June pointed to the small bump in the carpet. Immediately, Mr. Gash bent down, flung the rug over and grabbed his money. The woman let go of her daughter’s face and pushed the child away. June rubbed her mouth with her hand. Both watched Mr. Gash count the bills.
“I’m missing ten bucks,” he said.
“No you ain’t!” June cried. “I didn’t hide it anywheres else.”
Mr. Gash shoved the money in his wallet and stomped across the room, towards the front door.
“June!” her mother hollered. “Where’s the rest?”
The girl shook her head. “I didn’t hide money anywheres else. Just there, under the rug.”
The woman studied her daughter for a long moment before turning to Mr. Gash. “She ain’t lying, Al. I can see it in her face.”
Mr. Gash sucked on his lips, shrugged.
“You got to pay, Al. You know that.”
He opened the front door. “No, I don’t.”
“Al! You owe me money!”
Mr. Gash ignored June’s mother and left, slamming the door behind him.
“Al!” she screamed. “Goddammit! You no good son of a bitch!”
Then she swung around and turned her rage on her daughter.
“You think that radio gets played by air? You think money grows on the goddamn trees?”
June began to weep.
“Damn girl! Now we got nothing! Nothing!” She beat June across the face with an open hand. One hit, another hit, another.
Later, her mother fixed soup from a can, something she went and got from Mr. Pratt down below, and made June sit at the table and watch her eat it. June’s face was still sore from the beating, pain shooting into the top of her head, but it was her stomach that hurt more—how hungry she was.
With each slurp, her mother hummed, smiled, licked her teeth. “Oh, so tasty,” she crooned.
She finished every last bit and made her daughter wash the bowl.