Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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Short Story
3311 words
SHJ Issue 3
Spring 2011


Valerie Miner

People think it’s strange when I call her my kid sister. After all, we’re celebrating her 60th birthday. The nurse counts six candles, offers her shocked congratulations before disappearing. Actually, both of us look young—fiftyish—thanks to Grandma Eileen’s bone structure and somebody’s skin genes. Even now as June’s red hair vanishes into grey like Mary Queen of Scots.

We laugh at the nurse’s reaction once the door clicks shut.

“People seem more scared of age than of death,” June says, blowing out the fire, deftly removing the candles before slicing us each a large chunk of chocolate-chocolate torte.


When June started to eat again, after the last chemo subsided, I brought brown rice and broccoli to the hospital. I know all the delis because June has traveled to Chicago for treatments and the hospital is in my neighborhood. For three days, I brought delicious smoothies made from organic carrots.

“Stop! Stop!” she demanded. “I want jelly donuts, a Reuben sandwich with the fat left on, a dry martini.”

June’s always had a zest for life. Mom used to say, “A talent for disaster.” Since I’m a year older, I was expected to be sensible and rein in my vivacious sister, walking her home from school, sitting on the aisle seat, protecting her from strangers when we took the bus to visit Grandma Eileen. And—as June got older—keeping an eye on the boys. Always gorgeous, she set her sights on a Hollywood career. And a house overlooking the Pacific.


“Delicioso!” June exclaims as she digs into the birthday cake. “You’ve always been a wizard at finding desserts, Lucy. Remember that raspberry cheesecake you bought for my fourth wedding?”

I laugh, “I was looking for something non-traditional.

“And what did you ask for this time? ‘Deep shit chocolate’ for a cancer patient?” she cackles.

I love that cackle, love the bright irreverence in her eyes. I didn’t always enjoy the trouble she caused or the rescuing she expected. A shoplifting charge in ninth grade (“Oh, Lucy, Dad will kill me. Could you just go to Mr. Simpson and tell him I’ll never do it again?”) Two abortions before the end of high school. Her calamities invariably occurred in winter, maybe a psychological reaction to darkness, dampness. By the time summer came, we’d talk about that year’s disaster on the bus to Grandma’s. From her window seat, she pointed out odd license plates, pretty farmhouses, junk-cluttered yards. Each July, I tried to believe that she was starting afresh.

“Really, Luce, you’ve done a star job with this birthday—the cake, the luscious satin bed jacket. When I get out of here, we’ll go to Davard’s, my treat, order Chateau Briand and champagne.”

“Sounds good,” I say, aching to cheer up this sterile room. But flowers are verboten—potted or cut. “After the cord cell transplant, they say you’ll be home in three or four weeks.”

She sits up straight, which I know is painful, and raises those hairless, yet wildly expressive, eyebrows. “You make it sound as if I’m in prison.”


“Prison’s worse. The food. The noise. The ‘toilet facilities.’”

Eighteen months for a few bad checks. She could never balance her accounts. Nothing I could do about that. Happened right after her second husband’s car crash. Nothing you can do about black ice in February. Left alone with three kids at twenty-five; that’s hard on a person.

“Oh, I almost forgot,” I pulled out a wrapped box from my carrier bag. “I have another present.”

“You spoil me,” she puts her hand on her heart, over the embossed rose on the birthday bed jacket. “Already I feel like Carole Lombard.”

I had debated about the rose on the pocket, ornate and sentimental to my eye, but June was a romantic and this was her day.

“It’s just a wee thing,” as Grandma would say.

“So am I these days,” June winks. “Chemotherapy was not my choice of weight loss programs.”

She’s trying too hard, which is how I know she’s hurting.

“Do you need more meds? Shall I call the nurse?”

“I want my other present!” When she laughs, I see my five-year-old sister.

June rips the fancy wrapping and picks up a little mechanical toy—an egg balanced on a metal wheel, which is driven by a lever. She studies the gift, “Virtual breakfast?” Her voice is annoyed, disappointed.

“Press the lever there,” I instruct.

June bursts into loud laughter as a fuzzy yellow chicken pops up from the yawning petals of the plastic egg.

“Which came first?” we ask in unison.

Grandma Eileen always sent us home with riddles and we both took determinedly opposite positions on this one. June insisted on the chicken. I voted for the egg.

She hunches there in bed, as January flurries drift past her window, pressing the lever back and forth, back and forth. “This is good for my fine motor skills,” she grins. “Much more fun than that hard rubber ball Dr. Park gave me.”


Two more rounds of chemo before she’ll be ready for the transplant. She ages ten years in these weeks.

Her children come to town in ones and twos. It still puzzles her why they’re not closer to each other. After their topsy-turvy childhoods with different stepfathers, I’m amazed the kids are in touch. Kids? Sam is thirty-eight.

Myself, I’m relieved she has daytime visitors because I work at the bank until five and, well, she needs more than me.

Will is a tonic. He adores his mother. A more dubious prescription is the twins’ visit the following week. Sarah and Sally have always argued and June blames herself. If only they had been identical instead of fraternal twins, she says. Her fault as the chicken, of course. By month’s end, Joel has come up from Indianapolis and Miranda—a miniature June if there ever was one—from Los Angeles.

Finally, finally, the lab report shows that the chemo has zapped all the malignant cells. Killed quite a few healthy ones, too, it seems. But June remains game. Wants me to decorate the room for “T day.”

Taking a personal leave from work, I bring in blue and green crepe paper and party hats for the collection of stuffed animals sent by kids, by friends. She insists I make a tiny hat to be worn by the chicken when it pops out of the shell.

Not much to a cord cell transplant actually—just another plastic bag tied to the pole by her bed dripping into one of many tubes in her perforated little body. She has shrunk even more in February. Lost muscle in her arms and legs. Her head looks as if it’s getting bigger. During the kids’ visits, she wore scarves. They irritated her scalp so I told her not to bother for me. She did look more in proportion with a scarf. Anyway, she’s wearing a party hat today—a dark blue cone with silver stars. A magician’s hat: I thought we could use all the help we could get. The sun comes out, melting some snow around her windowsill. We decide it’s a good omen. The procedure is over in half-an-hour, then we toast with chocolate milkshakes.

I look down at my thighs. It must be said that while she’s losing weight, I’ve put on fifteen pounds sharing the forbidden foods of girlhood.

The next evening I find her reading a fashion magazine, a feature on bald actresses. She knows the wardrobes and biographies of people I’ve never heard of. “See, all I need is a little makeup and I’ll be ready for the Academy Awards.”

“Well, if you recover as quickly as they’re predicting, we could go to Hollywood in late March. The bank owes me vacation time. We’d get a nice motel. Visit Miranda. Go watch the stars saunter into the theatre.”

“Sure, Lucy,” she winks. “You book the tickets and I’ll design our gowns.”

I wink back. There’s something in her voice, something detached that I don’t like at all. Still, the days are getting longer and as the dark winter eases away, my hope expands.

“Three birds this morning,” she says, a little woozy. “What are they called? The black ones?”

“Crows? Or bigger? Ravens?”

“Never more.”


“Quoth the raven....”

“Oh, right, your high school speech prize.” Everyone had high hopes for June with her looks and her personality and her mellifluous voice. “TV anchor,” Mr. Chambers advised. “Broadway!” Mom declared. “Hollywood,” decided June, heading west. As luck would have it, she stopped short of California—Milwaukee, where she was discovered by her first husband, not a movie producer, but a landscape gardener with a bad temper.

The conversations unravel like this in late February. We start talking about a news item or last night’s TV soap and wind up in a fragmented memory. She needs more mental stimulation than I am capable of after work. And now that she’s getting well, the kids have all returned home to their families and jobs.


“Great news,” Dr. Park comes in one evening. “All your cancer cells have been replaced by healthy cord cells.”

As he talks, June dozes. “She’ll be dancing in a couple of weeks.”

“A good thing, too,” I say playfully, “because she has a date with Tom Selleck for the Academy Awards.”

Dr. Park cocks his head curiously. “Oh, yes, we’ll watch for June on the TV.”

A code alarm sounds in the corridor and he rushes out.

June opens one eye. “Tom Selleck? Anthony Hopkins or nothing.”

“I understand Hopkins is very shy.”

“They’re never shy with me for long,” she mouths. Then coughs.

“More morphine?”

She nods. I press the buzzer for the nurse, who explained earlier today that the chemo kills natural bacteria and often provokes these throat infections, even as a person is recovering from the cancer. I shouldn’t keep her talking.

While we wait for sardonic Gretchen, our favorite nurse, she picks up the chicken-egg gismo. “Did you know that Harvey, in the 17th century, was the first person to speculate about the chicken and the egg in scientific literature?”

I laugh, shaking my head at her eclectic store of information.

She tries four times to press down the lever. Her face morphs from fascination to frustration. Still she tries, and finally succeeds.

June is recovering, I tell myself. Today was just a dip in energy. Soon she’ll be fine, ready for the flight.

The morphine works quickly and she’s snoring, head back on the pillow, mouth open an inch, right hand still clutching the chicken-egg.

I pick up a book and find myself staring at superclean hands. So strange to wash with disinfectant soap, to leave my worldly coat and briefcase in a locker, before entering June’s sterile environment. I feel as if I’m in astronaut training.

The book is about Chicago architecture, something my son Brendan sent, remembering how his father and I liked quiet Sunday walks among the handsome downtown buildings. He would have been as proud of Brendan as I am. Charles’ heart attack ten years ago—that’s my only life regret. He had so much to give, so much to enjoy. Otherwise, I’ve had a lucky time—luckier than June’s—happy family, a steadily rising job at the bank, a nice garden. A relatively uncomplicated life. Truth is, I lack June’s imagination.

I’ve tried to cheer up the antiseptic cell with photos of her children, pictures from our own girlhood. And the kids have come through. Miranda sent the white teddy bear; Will, the silk flowers. The twins brought a good CD player. But I ache for signs of life—blossoms, a parakeet, goldfish. Outside her window, I want something besides snow and sleet and hardy crows. Yes, yes, I’m grateful for the vigilant anti-death weapons—the metal stand holding IV bags, the electronic monitors. What bothers me most days is that damn erasable white board with the names and phone numbers of me and the kids and her primary physician. It’s so essentially temporary and you know the day she leaves, they’re going to get a wet cotton cloth and wipe her away. At night I fantasize about taking a pen knife and carving, “June was here.”


On Saturday morning, I arrive a little late. June is miffed until I tell her I have two surprises.

She tries to guess which hand they’re in.

Then I show her: our plane tickets to L.A.

She looks puzzled, sits a bit straighter as if to speed blood flow to the old brain.

I wait.

“You’re kidding,” her voice is incredulous, maybe a little irritated. “You’re still on this Academy Awards kick. Lucy, how could I possibly?”

“Oh, we wouldn’t really go to the theatre entrance, that would be too chaotic.” Too contagious, I think. “But I have a reservation at a nearby motel run by Brendan’s college friend. And I thought it would be fun to watch it there on TV.”

Do I sound desperate or just silly?

“Luce, honey....”

Her eyes are wide and over-bright. Have they installed a new drug in one of the bags?

“The Academy Awards are just three weeks away.”

“Yes,” I answer hastily. “Think of it, there we’ll be watching the program on a warm balcony, sipping martinis and....”

“No, Lucy.” She shakes her shiny head.

“Oh, once you’re out of here, Dr. Park wouldn’t be checking your teacup any more.”

She starts to protest again, then suddenly asks, “Lucy—you ever get really angry at me over the years?”

I stare at her.

June swallows and winces.

“More morphine?”

“No, I want to stay awake for this.” She picks up her toy, trying unsuccessfully to rout the children.

I reach over to help her and realize that this is beside the point. Morphine, all these drugs, impair motor coordination. The chicken will be a regular pole-vaulter by the time we get to California.

“Well, if your throat hurts, we shouldn’t talk.”

“But you can talk to me.

“About what?”

“Anger.” It’s in her voice. “I must have royally pissed you off sometimes.”

“That’s normal sibling stuff,” I try.

“No, Lucy.”

“OK. Sometimes I resented all the attention you got from Mom and Dad. And how I covered up for you, bailed you out. Yeah, I got angry, occasionally. I told you then.”


“But that ended years ago.”

“Look around,” she shrugs.

“Well, this, how could I be mad at this ?”

She stares at me. At the tickets on the nursing tray. Out the window at the snow sailing from the grey sky.

“I mean, I am mad about this. This cancer. This medieval medical torture. I’m bloody mad.”

She holds out her hand. “So am I.”

I move my chair closer, embrace my disappearing sister and we cry together. I am surprised, relieved, by June’s weeping. Then, in a ridiculous panic, I worry about these tears, about her losing bodily fluids, wonder how long it will be before my sister vanishes altogether.

Gretchen arrives with the next round of meds. “Ah, a wet weep is good for the soul, but don’t soak the sheets. We only have a few more days allocated for you. Dr. Park thinks you’ll be dancing down Michigan Avenue next week.”

“Next week?” I ask excitedly.

“Tuesday, he predicted.”

“That’s wonderful, isn’t it, June?”

“Yes,” she smiles, fiddling with the toy.

The nurse and I watch, fixated, until she pops out the chicken.

“Next Tuesday,” the small success with the lever has cheered her. “Then it’s on to Hollywood for my belated screen test.”

She falls asleep soon after the new morphine starts to drip. I tiptoe out. June will need new clothes—several sizes smaller—for the California trip.


Driving home from the dress shops, I remember I’ve always been impatient. Hardly the guardian angel June imagines. The truth is, if I was angry at June for anything, it was for not being the friend I wanted as a girl. And what a pain I must have been to her: older sister, straight shooter, successful student. The only wild thing I ever did was to drop out of Northwestern to marry Charles. Yes, well, I had hoped for more from her after Charles died. But she had several families of her own by then.

Now it looks as if we have a chance at friendship. I’m loosening up. Take the California tickets. I wouldn’t have been that impetuous twenty years ago.

I almost pass the expensive florist shop near my house. Impatience makes me buy the coral lilies. Too early in the season, I know. But they’ll be pretty on the oak table when she comes home. In the dining room, I arrange them in my favorite glass bowl.


She sleeps through most of the next two visits because of the throat pain and the morphine. I leaf through the magazines I’ve bought for her. Skim interviews with this year’s nominees. Then I return to Brendan’s book, think maybe I’ll take a night class in architecture this fall. June might enjoy that, too. I’m hoping she’ll stay on in Chicago. Certainly, there’s plenty of room in my old house and June loves the garden.

The damn lilies, no matter what I do—clip the stems, change the water, add flower food, move them near the radiator, away from the radiator—they just don’t open up.

One morning I awaken from a dream that the glass bowl has turned into June’s bald head.


We arrive early at the airport. I’ve always been wary about plane travel and today, especially, I want to make sure we get good seats.

The lines are interminable unless you’re one of their gold card flyers. As we wait, I chat with a student from the Art Institute who’s going to L.A. for spring break.

The clerk studies both tickets. She says June needs to be right there in person to collect her boarding pass, to answer the questions about who packed her bags and has anyone given her anything to carry on.

I explain that June needs rest after a long hospital stay.

The clerk sees a woman in a wheelchair. “What the hell,” she says, “she looks pretty exhausted.”

I get just what I want—a window seat and the one next to it.

During boarding, the disabled passengers enter with the gold cards. I wait for our seats to be called.

Once the plane’s hatch locks, I buckle a box beside me into the window seat, then toss my sweater over it.


When I think back on her death, I still ache for a catharsis, an epiphany. But there wasn’t much time. They phoned me at 3 a.m. I pictured the night nurse finding my name and local number on that erasable board. They said she was failing fast, from a sudden heart attack. Completely unexpected but not unprecedented. Well, leave it to June. When I arrived, the room was alive with blinking lights, whistles, beeps.

I took her hand.

She opened her eyes halfway. “Sorry, Lucy,” she started.

“Hush, Sweetheart. Don’t talk. Your sore throat. Save your breath.”

“I love you,” she said.

“Oh, June, I love you, too.”

And then something faint. Later, others said they couldn’t catch the words. I did.

“Now you get the window seat.”


Well, maybe next time. First, I’m taking June to L.A., where Sam and Miranda and I will scatter her ashes in the Pacific, as she asked in the will.

The flight attendant is taking drink orders.

“Two dry martinis, straight up, please.”

“A double?”

“No, two please. Two glasses.”


I lower June’s tray next to mine, sighing as the martinis are served.

We are above the clouds now; sun drenches the window seat.

—Originally dramatized in a broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (August 2003); also appears in Miner’s short-fiction collection, Abundant Light, Michigan State University Press, Lansing (2004)

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury