Ivan and June.
A short story about advertising (sort of).
I once worked with a former mercenary. His name was Ivan and he still wore camouflage pants, Wellco boots, and a field jacket with a bullet hole. He said he got shot in a place called Kisangani, somewhere in the Congo. Ivan wasn’t your typical art director, obviously, but he was good, so the agency put him together with this old copywriter named June.
Some of us suspected it was to get rid of June. She hadn’t written a good headline in years. She was the most nervous person I’d ever met, and Ivan was the scariest. He’d done a lot of crazy things in his time, and didn’t mind talking about them. He was always going on about his experiences in Africa. He had a habit of calling Blacks “darkies.”
June hated any form of racism, especially when she had to share an office with that said racist. She would say, “They’re African Americans, Ivan,” and he’d point to the scars on his shaved head and say, “Not where I come from.”
Next thing you know, they’re popping pills, drinking herbal tea, and doing the occasional nasal flush down in the washroom.
They’d argue, Ivan would stomp around in his Welcos, then June would start popping her pills. She had all sorts of anti-depressants and relaxants. Ivan asked if he could try some. Next thing you know, they’re popping pills, drinking herbal tea, and doing the occasional nasal flush down in the washroom.
It was like watching Midnight Cowboy in a weird sort of way. Maybe June found something in Ivan she could trust. Or maybe working in the same office made it inevitable. Anyway, one day June and Ivan were talking, and he said, “Why do you take so many pills?” She didn’t say anything at first. Then she admitted she’d been raped in her early thirties. Ivan pulled out a small skinning knife he kept in a stealth on his belt. He told her he’d like to cut the bastard’s balls off. June was thrilled. Nobody’d ever said anything like that to her before. All the years of fear and anxiety seemed to leave her body.
She didn’t mind his stories after that. She even enjoyed hearing again about the Red Cross inoculating this village in Kinshasa. A splinter guerrilla group came in the next day and cut off the villager’s arms. It was like watching a movie with Ivan, the way he described things. She could picture it all, the heat, the insects, the dusty villages and the gore.
One night she went home and did something she hadn’t done in years. She dyed the grey streaks out of her hair.
“Hey, June?” Ivan asked the next day. “You seeing somebody?”
“Why would you think that?”
“Your hair’s all dark.”
“I wanted a change, that’s all.”
A few days later, she came in wearing a new dress.
“What’s gotten into you?” Ivan said.
“Nothing,” she replied.
They went home together, but she sobered up along the way. She wouldn’t let him inside. He told June about it the next day.
Ivan figured she was seeing someone. That started him thinking about his own situation. He hadn’t been on a date in ages. He met one woman at a bar. She asked why he was wearing fatigues. He told her he used to be a mercenary.
She moved down to the other end.
Another woman asked what planet he was from. He said South Africa. “It’s sort of a planet”, he said. They went home together, but she sobered up along the way. She wouldn’t let him inside. He told June about it the next day.
“What’s with these women?” he asked.
“Maybe if you stopped calling Black people darkies,” she replied. “Racism scares women away, Ivan. That and your clothes.”
“What’s wrong with my clothes?”
“You look like you’re about to shoot someone,” she said, pinning up her hair. She was wearing a light blue turtleneck. That was a big change for June. Usually she wore this old pink sweater she kept over her shoulders. June was always cold.
“So I gotta buy new clothes?” Ivan asked.
“And take that knife off your belt.”
That day at lunch they went to a department store. June helped Ivan pick out a pair of khakis and a couple of polo shirts. He still wore his leather vest with his skinning knife tucked under it. He also worked on his language. He still wasn’t comfortable calling someone an African American. “Sounds weird,” he told her.
“No one likes a racist, Ivan,” June replied. “Especially women.”
He checked the label on the pill bottle. The dispensing date showed April ninth. It was now May first. Sixty pills in less than a month. June wasn’t even taking them anymore.
One evening, Ivan was working late on some layouts. He decided to grab a couple of June’s anti-depressants. They were at the back of her desk drawer. He took four, washing them down with her branch water. He checked the label on the pill bottle. The dispensing date showed April ninth. It was now May first. Sixty pills in less than a month. June wasn’t even taking them anymore.
The next day, Ivan was cleaning his nails with his skinning knife.
“I finished your anti-depressants,” he said to June.
“All of them?” she said.
“I don’t think they work.”
“Maybe you need a different type.”
“Is that a new sweater?”
“Ivan, why are you taking so many pills?”
“I told you, they don’t work.”
“Why don’t you get yourself checked out?”
“Can you get any more?”
“No,” she said. “You have to see a doctor.”
The phone rang and Ivan reached over. His leather vest rode up showing the knife in its sheath. Up on the wall was a picture of a dusty village and him holding a rifle. Villagers stood behind him looking vaguely amused. When he showed it to June the first time, he kept calling the villagers swamp dodgers.
“For God’s sake, Ivan,” she said.
She looked upset so he started imitating a tamarin monkey. People could hear him down the hall. It was the one thing that made June laugh. After that, whenever he did it, she’d do a kookaburra back.
She never showed Ivan what she bought. One of the bags said Sophie’s Choice. Ivan knew it was a lingerie shop.
Over the next couple of weeks, June would go out at lunch and come back with a new purchase. She never showed Ivan what she bought. One of the bags said Sophie’s Choice. Ivan knew it was a lingerie shop.
“What’s with the lingerie?” he asked.
“None of your business,” she said.
Ivan went to a bar that night on Rue Bishop. He stared at group of women. One of them looked his way. He smiled and she smiled back. Her friend gave her a slight push. “Her name’s Samantha,” her friend called over. Samantha gave her friend a push back. Ivan came around and introduced himself.
“Hi, Samantha,” he said.
“It’s Sam, actually,” she said.
She was cute and plain at the same time. Ivan liked the way she smiled. They talked and Ivan watched his language. Samantha asked about the scars on his head. He said he used to be in the tree-cutting business.
“Occupational hazard,” he said.
When Samantha’s friends left, she stayed. Ivan asked if he could take her home. She agreed and he went to the washroom first. He washed his face, brushed his teeth, and stashed his skinning knife behind the toilet.
At Samantha’s apartment, Ivan walked her to the front entrance. They kissed and Ivan waited until she got inside. Then he went home and burned all his Kisangani pictures in the kitchen sink.
In the bedroom, she smelt the perfume she’d sprayed on the pillows. Scents are a powerful motivator of our subconscious, the book said.
Meanwhile, that same night, June was reading The Eleven Secrets of Imagination. It talked about how fantasy could be made real. One of the scented candles she’d lit earlier had burnt down to the base. June pinched the end with her fingers. Then she put the rest of the wine back in the fridge. In the bedroom, she smelt the perfume she’d sprayed on the pillows. Scents are a powerful motivator of our subconscious, the book said.
The next day, Ivan told June about Samantha. “She likes to be called Sam,” he said. “I watched my language, too.” June told him it was good he was making changes. He asked her how long he should wait before calling Sam.
“It’s up to you,” June said, going off to make herbal tea in the kitchen. She was dressed in a knee-length skirt with a red sweater. Her hair was pulled up in a bun with a few curls hanging down. She even wore a touch of make-up.
Ivan was sure June was seeing someone.
He finally got on the phone and made a date with Samantha for Friday. He called her office just before she was leaving. She sounded interested. Ivan asked June if it was possible to sound interested without being interested. “I suppose,” she said. “You have to make your own judgment calls, Ivan. Did you take those layouts up to the account group? They have to go to the client today.” He took everything upstairs. When he came back, June had left for the day. He went to the bar and get his skinning knife from behind the toilet. On the way home, he dropped it down a culvert. He wondered if that was one of the changes June was talking about.
He was still thinking about that on Friday as he was clearing up his art table. June was putting on her coat. It was a new coat. “Going anywhere special?” Ivan asked, and June said it might just be a quiet night. She was halfway through The Eleven Secrets of Imagination: Conjure yourself into the place you want to be. She didn’t tell Ivan about the book. He was too busy thinking about his date with Samantha. Let him have his date and she’d have her’s. She left him getting ready, splashing on some cologne, going to the washroom for one last nasal flush.
Ivan told her one time, “Go to Africa, June. Nothing makes sense until you see where it all started.”
Midnight: June was getting ready for bed. She opened the window and got under her duvet. She lay there thinking of the villages in Kisangani, the dogs in the dust, and Ivan, with his rifle and slouched hat. She could hear him describing the mountains, the heat and the long dirt roads. Ivan told her one time, “Go to Africa, June. Nothing makes sense until you see where it all started.” How beautiful, she thought. Where it all started. As she drifted off, she imagined what it would be like, standing next to Ivan, the two of them on the open Serengeti plain, him doing the tamarin monkey and her the kookaburra back.
She went to sleep thinking about that.
Robert Cormack is a satirist, novelist, and blogger. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available online and at most major bookstores. Check out Skyhorse Press or Simon and Schuster for more details.
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