Fiction: Julia Claiborne Johnson

Julia Claiborne Johnson worked at Mademoiselle and Glamour magazines before marrying and moving to Los Angeles, where she lives with her comedy-writer husband and their two children.  Be Frank With Me was published by William Morrow/HarperCollins in 2016. 

 

Chapter 8 of Be Frank With Me

Click here to read an intro to this novel by Julia Claiborne Johnson.

As noted, I am not one for complaining, so there was no way I would tell Mimi how my night alone with Frank really went. The way our night together went was more like this:

It was late and we were exhausted when we got home. We tottered in through the hole where the door had been but only made it as far as the living room couch before collapsing.

“You need to take a bath before you get in bed,” I said after an eternity slumped there. I hoped the little boy on the outside would wrestle down the insomniac old man trapped inside Frank and that both parts would tumble into bed together and fall asleep.

“Why?”

“Because you’re dirty.” I’d wiped his face and hands before we went to the hospital, but neither of us had bothered to change our clothes. We looked like fugitives from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a movie I’d never seen and prayed Frank hadn’t, either.

“I don’t want to take a bath,” he said. He reached into his duster pocket. “Cigarette?”

“What?” I thought I couldn’t have heard him right, but he produced a cellophane-wrapped rectangular pack with a label written in French. I was about to hit the ceiling when I noticed the word chocolat. “Where did you get these? I thought they stopped making candy cigarettes.”

“I exchanged them for letters of transit.”

Casablanca,” I said.
 “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” I drew one from the pack. “Here’s looking at you, kid.”

“We’ll always have Paris.” Frank looked very pleased with both of us. He shook a cigarette from the pack and arranged it between his third and fourth fingers before palming it to his face. Happiness, I’d noticed, was a facial expression that almost came naturally to him. Fear, discomfort, confusion—those made him roll down the shades and bar the door. Which said a lot for Frank, if you ask me. Say you had to pick just one emotion you could convey to others easily. I’d like to think I’d go with happiness, too.

“You know what I’ve always wondered?” Frank said. “Why anyone would join the French Foreign Legion. Aside from the uniform. I like those hats very much. I wish I had one. I have a fez.”

“I’m not surprised.”

“The fez is named after Fez, the town in Morocco that had a mo- nopoly on its production.”

“Uh-huh,” I said. “Wait, I don’t remember a character from the Foreign Legion in Casablanca.”

“There isn’t one. But my father is.”

“Your father is in Casablanca?” Geeze, his dad had to be about a hundred years old by now. Maybe that’s why Mimi didn’t like to talk about him.

“Not in the movie,” Frank said. “In the French Foreign Legion.” I sat forward. “Your dad is in the French Foreign Legion?”

“I imagine he might be. Otherwise, why doesn’t he visit?”

Oh. “Have you asked your mom about that?”

He exhaled a plume of imaginary smoke and nodded.

“What did she say?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he said. “Nada. Bupkis. Diddly. Zip. Zero. Zilch—”

“I get it, Frank,” I said.
“There are a lot of words for nothingness,’” Frank said. “Love means nothing.”

“That’s not true.”

“Yes it is. In tennis. What’s your father like, Alice? Is he the gentleman you’re always referencing?”

I ran my cigarette under my nose like a Havana cigar. “No. I mean, I don’t know what my father’s like. He’s been gone since I was eight.”

“Is he dead?”

I peeled the paper off my cigarette. “No. Maybe. I don’t know. He’s just—gone.”

“Maybe he’s in the Legion with my dad.”

“Maybe he went out for a pack of chocolate cigarettes and never came back,” I said. I wasn’t up for talking about my father.

“People do that?”

“I imagine they do. Now let’s get you in the tub and then into your pajamas and bed.” I ate my cigarette on the way to his bathroom. Frank stood there, mesmerized, watching water cascade from the faucet. “Get undressed,” I said. “I want to soak your clothes overnight so the stains won’t set.”

He turned his face from the water to commune with my elbow.

“What are you waiting for?” I asked.

“Some privacy,” he said.
“I won’t look,” I said. “Come on. Hand over the clothes.” “Please,” he said. “If you don’t mind.”

I sighed. “Fine. Wash your hair. Scrub your nails. I’ll be outside if you need me.”

I lay down across the doorway in the hall. He’d be okay in there by himself. As long as I could hear him splashing around I’d know he was alive. I’d have to be deaf not to hear him. It sounded like he was wrestling an alligator in that tub.

But lying down was my first mistake. The hall was carpeted, so of course I fell asleep.

I think the quiet woke me. 
My first thought was that Frank had made a break for it. Stepped over me while I was snoozing, wandered through the living room door hole, jumped the wall, and now lay at the bottom of the hill in a million pieces. Bleeding. Which was a good sign, we’d learned from the paramedics earlier in the day, because bleeding people aren’t dead yet.

But Frank was the kind of kid who left a trail—wet footprints, chocolate hand-tracks, scuffed walls, broken stuff. There was no sign of his passage in the hallway. Oh, no. I yanked the bathroom door open and all but fainted on the spot.

Frank was in there all right. Fully clothed, goggles pushed on his forehead and toy submarine clutched to chest. Eyes closed, pale as death, halo of floating hair. Imagine Jules Verne, Angelic Shipwreck Victim. Angels, of course, are known for many things, one of them being that they are dead. How was I going to tell Mimi I’d let her kid drown in the tub while she lay in her hospital bed?

I fell to my knees alongside the tub. “Oh, Frank,” I gasped. “Oh, no, no, no.”

His eyes slitted open. “Is it morning already?” he asked sleepily.

I sat back on my heels, dizzy with relief. “You almost gave me a heart attack, Frank,” I said. “I thought you were dead. What are you doing in the tub with your clothes on?”

“Sleeping. I thought it would save you work if I soaked my clothes while I soaked myself.”

“Are you insane?” I regretted saying that instantly.

“No,” he said. “See? I took my boots off first.” He lowered his goggles over his eyes and went under. He watched my chin while I watched the water fill the goggles.

“Those aren’t watertight,” I said when he came up for air and pushed his goggles up his forehead.

“I know. I was just confirming earlier research.”

“Listen, Frank. I’m sorry I said that you’re insane.”

“You didn’t say I was insane. You asked. One is a statement and the other is a question. You’re not the first to ask me that, either.”

“Okay,” I said. “You need to get out of that tub. I’m going to hold up this big towel to give you some privacy. I want you to take off those wet clothes. And leave them in the tub to keep soaking. That was a good idea, by the way. Just what I would have done, although I think I might have gotten out of them first. Then let’s get you dried off and into your pj’s.”

“‘Let’s get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini,’” he said. “Robert Benchley.”

I laughed. I was so relieved he wasn’t dead that I would have laughed at anything.

“I’ve been waiting all my life to say that,” Frank said. “Robert Benchley was a famous wag who belonged to a group of Jazz Age writers known as the Algonquin Round Table. What you may not know is that Robert Benchley’s grandson Peter Benchley wrote Jaws. Book and screenplay.”

When Frank stood it sounded like Niagara Falls as the water cas- caded from his clothing. If all the grunting coming from the other side of the towel was any indication, getting out of the wet clothes was about as easy as going over those falls in a barrel. “Do you need a hand?” I asked.

“No thank you. Almost finished. Archimedes discovered the way to measure volume of irregularly-shaped items when he stepped into the bathtub, did you know that? The water level rose an amount commensurate with the volume of his body. He was so excited by his insight that he shrieked ‘Eureka!’ which means ‘I have found it!’ Then he ran through the streets naked. I have never been excited enough about anything to consider doing that.”

“That makes two of us,” I said.

Frank took the towel moments later and wrapped it around himself like a burka. “Now into my pajamas,” he said. “Alice, could you put yours on, too? I’ve always wanted to host a pajama party. I’ve never had a friend to invite before.”

I didn’t want to leave Frank alone for even a minute but I wasn’t about to decline that invitation. So I sprinted to my room, changed, and dashed back to the kitchen. There I found the pajamaed Frank at the breakfast bar, cocktail music oozing from the piano and two full martini glasses in front of him. Frank held one out to me.

“Thanks,” I said, cradling the glass in my palm and sniffing it. Club soda.

“I asked for martini glasses for my ninth birthday,” Frank said. “So my mother got me plastic ones.”

“Your mother is a smart woman.”

“You’re supposed to hold your glass by the stem, like this, see?” Frank demonstrated. “That way the warmth of your hand won’t ruin the chilly deliciousness of your cocktail.”

“My hands aren’t warming up anything right now. It’s freezing in here.”

“It’s because we’re missing a door.”

I looked at the hole that had once been sliding glass. “We should cover that, huh? We could use blankets, or a big piece of plastic if we had one.”

“Dry cleaner bags,” Frank said. “I have a lot in my closet.”

I knew this to be true. “We’ll piece them together,” I said. “You get the bags, I’ll find the tape.”

After ransacking the kitchen drawers—bupkis—I found packing tape in a laundry room drawer. When I emerged, Frank was on the kitchen floor swaddled in dry cleaning bags. He was indulging in a much more transparent and dangerous version of his favorite game, rolling-around-in-a-comforter.

“Stop that,” I said, grabbing the plastic and rolling him free. “What are you doing?”

“Playing.”

“You can’t do that with a dry cleaning bag, Frank. This is not a toy. Look, it says it right here on the bag. ‘This is not a toy.’ You could suffocate. And we can’t use these now. You’ve shredded them.”

“I’ve got more.”

“That’s not the point,” I said. “The point is, you’re a smart boy, and this would be a dumb way to die. Come with me, please.” I herded him to his closet to harvest more bags. “Don’t touch the bags. Do you hear me? Do. Not. Touch.”

“What can I do then?”

“You carry the tape. I’ll get the tape measure. Meet me in the living room.”

When I got there, Frank was sitting on the floor, behaving himself. I measured the hole and lay the bags on the floor so we could piece together something big enough to cover it. “Come and give me a hand with this,” I said. “Please.”

“I can’t.”

“Why not? I said please.”

“Look what I’ve done this time,” he said.

I looked. The kid had manacled his hands together with the tape. The almost-empty roll dangled from his wrists like a charm on a charm bracelet.

“How’d you manage that?” I asked.

“With my teeth,” he said. “It was easy at first, and then harder.”

“I believe you. I’m going for more tape. Don’t touch anything while I’m gone.”

“I don’t think I could if I wanted to.”

“Good.” I ran back into the laundry room and came back with a second roll of tape and a pair of round-edged children’s scissors to cut Frank loose.

“Vive la France,” he said when I’d freed him.

“Vive la France,” I said. “Now hold the plastic still while I tape it together.” When we had a sheet that was big enough I took it and stood by the door. “I’m too short,” I said. “I need something to stand on.”

“I know just the thing,” Frank said. He disappeared for a minute and returned rolling his mother’s big rubber yoga ball.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said.

“You can stand on it,” he said. “I’ve done it. It’s exciting.”

“I don’t want exciting, Frank. I want stable.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m boring that way. Listen. Bring me that chair over there instead. Please.”

Once the plastic was up, I said to Frank, “Now go to bed.”

“I’m not sleepy yet. I’m cold.”

“You’ll warm up in bed.”

“I’ll warm up, but I won’t go to sleep.”

I thought about all the times I’d heard Frank knocking around in the middle of the night. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s build a fire then.”

Frank’s eyes lit up. “Where?”

“In the fireplace, idiot.” Bad. I know. I was tired. “I’m sorry, Frank. I’m the idiot, not you.”

“I know,” he said. “My IQ is higher than 99.7 percent of the Amer- ican public. For some reason it makes the children at school laugh when I tell them that. Can you explain the joke in that to me?”

“There isn’t one. Some kids laugh at people smarter than they are to make them feel stupid.”

“That doesn’t make sense. Why do they think laughing at me will make me feel stupid?”

“Because they’re stupid,” I said.

I’d never lived anywhere that had a fireplace before, so I was more excited than an adult person ought to be to put my Girl Scout training to use arranging the logs and twigs from the alcove by the fireplace on top of wads of crumpled newspaper. “Now, matches,” I said. “Where does your mother keep them?”

“I wish I knew,” Frank said. “She hides them from me.”

I believed that. “How about candles? I could light one on the stove and use it to start the fire.”

“She hides those, too.” Of course she did. I’d never seen one any- where, ever. Not even a lousy birthday candle.

“You could call her and ask,” Frank said.

“Your mother is in the hospital,” I said. “I’m not calling her. Let me think. You know what? We could light a twig on the stove and—”

“You cannot walk through this house carrying a stick that’s on fire,” Frank said. “My mother has said that to me at least a million times.”

I was tempted anyway, but knew I shouldn’t be modeling bad be- havior for a lit firecracker like Frank. Also, without meaning me ill, it would be the first thing he’d tell his mother when he saw her again. “I guess we can’t have a fire then,” I said.

“I have an idea,” Frank said. He disappeared down the hall. I gave chase as he beelined to the laundry room drawers where— Eureka!—he found a nine-volt battery and a roll of wire. Then he beat it back to the living room, where he took the round-tipped scissors from his bathrobe pocket—when did he palm those?—and cut a couple of pieces of wire, wrapped one around each of the batteries’ terminals, and touched the loose ends against each other. The touch produced a spark that made the paper catch fire.

“You’re a genius, Frank,” I said. “How did you think of doing that?”

“Oh, I do it in my room all the time,” he said.

We watched the flames reduce the logs to ember, then ash. I was so afraid of nodding off that I would have taped my eyelids open if there’d been any tape left. This had been the longest day of my life. How did Mimi function if all her nights were like this? How did Frank? One night alone with the kid and I was practically reduced to ash myself.

When Frank piped up with, “I’m tired now,” I jumped the way mothers catapult from chairs when their toddlers say, “I need potty.”

“Off to bed then,” I said, giving him the bum’s rush to his bedroom.

“I don’t sleep much in my room. If you want me to sleep, put me in my mother’s bed.”

I sighed. “All right.”

In Mimi’s room I pinned him tight under her blankets. “Go to sleep,” I said.

“You aren’t leaving me, are you?”

“Do you want me to sit here until you fall asleep?” The thought of staying awake any longer made me want to cry.

“I thought we were having a pajama party. You have to sleep in here with me.”

“I’m not sleeping in your mother’s bed without her permission. It’s not polite.”

His face went blank. Blanker, I should say. Tired as I was, I hurt for him. “How about this?” I said. “I’ll sleep on the couch in the family room. I’ll be close enough to hear you if you want to talk. That’s what makes a pajama party a pajama party, you know. Being able to talk to somebody else until you fall asleep.”

“That may be so. But what you may not realize is I have a hard time falling asleep. And when I fall asleep, I wake easily. And since I slept some in the tub already—”

“Frank,” I said. “I realize. Close your eyes. Close your mouth. Go to sleep.”

I crept out of Mimi’s bedroom, leaving the door open and a light on in the hall. I fell on the couch and was out maybe fifteen minutes, maybe fifteen days. When I opened my eyes Frank’s face hovered inches above mine. I was so exhausted I couldn’t muster the strength to be startled. “What’s up, Frank?”

“I am,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep.”

“I gathered. So now what?”

“We could watch a movie.”

“It’s too late to watch a movie. Or too early. What time is it?”

“Four a.m.”

“Have you always been like this?”

“Like what?”

I tried to think of a word that wouldn’t wound his psyche for keeps.

“Nocturnal,” is what I came up with finally.

“Nocturnal? That implies daytime sleep. I don’t do that much, either. My mother says my brain’s lack of an ‘off’ switch is a sign of unusual intelligence.”

“Unusual,” I said. “Uh-huh.” I rubbed my eyes, sat up and yawned.

“You’re tired,” he said. “Go back to sleep. I’ll sit here and watch you. Or I could borrow your phone to make a movie of you asleep. Like Andy Warhol. His first movie was called Sleep. It was about—”

“Sleep. I get the drift. No thanks. I didn’t come to California to be in the movies. Let’s watch Casablanca again.”

Frank did a quick soft shoe—soft slipper, really—of joy that was so unexpectedly charming that it put me right back in the palm of his hand. He’d never spent a night away from his mother in his life, poor kid. She wasn’t with him now because his hug had turned into a tackle that had landed her in the hospital with twenty-nine stitches in her scalp. You couldn’t blame him for not sleeping. But you had to wonder what his excuse was every other night.

Frank slid the movie in the DVD player and the two of us rolled up in comforters, shoulder to shoulder but individually shrink-wrapped in our own little movie-watching cocoons. Frank fell asleep sometime during the mushy part, where Rick and Ilsa reminisce about the good old days in the Paris apartment when they thought Ilsa’s husband was dead. I stayed awake watching all the way to the end.