The Summer the Wars End
Tuesday, May 1st
Through the kitchen windows the softening night promised dawn and another hot day. Before the war, June Katherine—“Kitty” to family, friends and the entire town of Livermore, California—used to think about the future on mornings like this. Futures like marriage to Rusty Lukas. Helping Rusty run the winery. Children. Being something more than a rancher’s daughter. Then the war came, and she began to think about other things, like keeping the Lukas winery alive and running Rose Ranch single-handedly—or nearly so. The war took the cowhands, and her brother Danny, and Mom’s death knocked Dad off his pins, so to speak.
Expressing continual regret at having to retire from her job, Mom mourned her job as a nurse before she married Dad. Mom had many regrets, and probably died from the weight of them.
So Kitty was running two businesses now. Who had time to think about anything else? These thoughts ran through Kitty’s mind every early morning as she entered the kitchen, welcomed by the aroma of bacon and thick black coffee.
Before Kitty could begin to count her own volume of regrets she asked Berte, “Dad up?”
At the stove Berte supervised bacon in one pan and eggs in the other spewing steam like two small volcanoes. Her silver hair, wrestled into a bun at her neck, glimmered in the kitchen light suspended over the table. Berte had come to live with them in the aftermath of the deaths of Kitty’s mom and Berte’s son. And now she was one of them, the hard-working ranchers of the Rose family. The Rozézs, she would say at the Haygood Market. “I need flour for the Rozézs.”
“He went out. Drove down the road. Truck is not back.” Berte’s voice was always a clipped slurry with her French accent.
Kitty dipped her finger into her coffee. The sharp burn would help her wake up. Dad would do what he did best, leave without a word and return with a new used pick-up, or a load of peach trees, or a wading pool for Dickon the big black cattle dog to stand in during the hot days. Sighing, Kitty swirled her coffee, then, walking to the open kitchen window, she sighed again. Through the screen she smelled the mild morning as the sun sent a message to dawn about holding back, and there was the deep cool smell of alfalfa bales that needed to be moved to the west pasture, and the manure that needed to be swabbed out of the stable. Confused crickets persisted with night songs. But the geese were up and honking at invisible intruders. A possum, headed home, trotted across the lawn. She could hear coyotes at the creek. And cattle lowing at the gate, waiting for the day to begin.
Kitty needed to change the oil in the Farmall. She needed to get more feed for the hens. And there was the letter to her brother from the United States Army sitting on the table before her.
She heard Dad’s truck rattling up the road and slide to a stop outside the kitchen door. Just then Berte poured a pile of scrambled eggs, three strips of bacon, a freshly baked biscuit slathered with Rose Ranch butter onto Kitty’s plate. And then a similar steaming mound on Dad’s.
Dad burst into the kitchen, carrying under each arm two of the biggest puppies that Kitty had ever seen. They were pale blond, but the fur around their broad faces was the color of fine mink. Dad’s face was red, as if he had been running.
He dumped one of the dogs into Kitty’s lap, and handed the other to Berte, who grunted at its weight.
The one in Kitty’s lap struggled against her. She wrapped her arms around it, cradling it. Its body weighing heavily on her knees, it went limp, noisily breathing against her shoulder.
“Dad? What is going on?”
The dog smelled like wheat dry from the sun, and radiated warmth. It squeaked a little, then twisted its head to lick her cheek.
“Mon Dieu, they are huge!” Berte shoved aside a chair with her foot and plopped into it.
Both dogs appeared to be snuffling and sneezing, and the breaths of the one in Kitty’s lap came fast, as if it was having trouble breathing.
Dickon, who felt deserving of some respect in the size issue, began sniffing the dogs, starting with their butts and moving along their bodies to their noses. They licked the big black mutt, too. Then he sat between them, tail wagging, looking up at Kitty as if asking her if these house guests were going to stay.
The puppy on Kitty’s lap spread warmth, melting away her devoted family of regrets that stood around her, as if banished by a spell cast by the good witch.
“Well, Dickon, I guess you have a couple sisters now.” Kitty smoothed the fur on her pup’s head. “Oh, she feels very hot!” Feverish, ill, squirmy and whining.
Dad raised his hand, half-closed, and waved it at Kitty, his way of saying he would explain later. Dad had mostly given up speech the day Mom died. But Kitty had learned to read his face, body, feet, even the way his hair was combed.
Kitty nodded. “You’re going to get help? Dr. Walt?”
Kitty thought he would nod assent, but his eyebrows came down, lips thinned. Both hands came up, palm out, in his way of denial.
Shrugging, he left.
Berte muttered something that sounded like cursing in French. Kitty knew how she felt.
“Monsieur Rose, what about your breakfast?” Berte called after him. It was a complaint, not a question.
As she listened to the pickup grumble to life and drive away, Kitty’s mind began to spin.
“Berte, we have to keep them warm, and make certain they have lots of water.”
Nodding, Berte, a true French soldier like her son, was always ready for action. “Laundry basket. Blankets—”
“Too small for the sisters,” Kitty heard herself say. She knew, somehow, that the two were from the same litter and that they were both female, by the clear similarity between the two dogs: fur the color of pale toast, a circle of chocolate around their buckwheat honey eyes.
“What kind of dog do you suppose they are?”
Berte rose from her chair with difficulty, still holding the pup. “Mastéque Anglais.”
Berte shook her head. Her face began to shrink, and Kitty knew that when Berte’s face grew tight and small it was time to just let the subject alone for a while.
There had to be a bigger box, a snuggle-den of a place. Kitty ran through the inventory of her mind, seeking the file—and there it was, a crate in the barn—she had just seen it from her bedroom window this morning, through the open barn doors. The new rake had arrived in it, and they would never get rid of the box—it could be used for firewood, or something.
And now, a nice little kennel.
“Wait,” she said, getting up. “Is Danny home at least?”
Berte nodded fiercely. Then she sat down again, cradling the pup in her lap.
Carrying her dog, Kitty ran up the stairs to pound on Danny’s door.