RUNNING SHAME chapter 4

The heavy coke bottle lenses had dragged the black plastic frame to the tip of the old sailor’s nose. Frank pushed them back up between his eyes and contemplated another game. He slid the small rectangular window open just enough to be able to feel the cold breeze and hear the distant surf crashing on the shore. Many years had passed since he’d even tried to understand what the waves were saying.

Doubling as his medical dispensary, the other half of the table was covered in a ragged formation of brown plastic bottles with white child-proof caps that vaguely reminded him of the Dixie cups Navy enlisted men wore because they could also be used to bail leaky lifeboats bobbing out in the middle of the ocean.  

In the interlude between games, the old man thought of his grandson, Teddy.  It had been months since the brat had sat with him for a hotly contested game of gin rummy. But Frank, as the old man was called, knew he and gin rummy came in a distant second to what the boy had been enjoying with the young lady who’d, undoubtedly, ushered him into the irresistible world of sex.

Plenty more where that came from, he thought as he dabbed a drop with his fingertip. A whole unverse’s worth of rain drops right nearby, although he’d not left the blacktop path atop the levee to venture down onto the beach in years.

Though it had been ages, Frank knew the power of lust in relation to the novitiate’s weak mind and lithe body. No good came of it if given free reign. The only way to learn that it had to be regulated was to be beaten by it.  Of course, this knowledge was impossible to come by until a part of you had been destroyed. Then, only sometimes, the negative flipped and the end became a wonderful beginning. 

Rain tapped fitfully at the window by his head. He turned to look at the rain drops sliding down the pane, some of them flying in at such an angle through the breech as to reach his table. The droplets formed little nubbins on the Formica causing him to whistle the refrain of an old song … cold – clear – water.

The barely audible tide whispered in through the window. Life isn’t for the faint hearted, he thought with some regret, sitting back and peering at his drab ceiling.  A verse he’d fancied years ago came suddenly to his lips, “Sigh no more ladies, sigh no more. / Men were deceivers ever, / One foot in sea, and one on shore, / To one thing constant never.”

Repeating these lines, a shiver ran down Frank’s spine and for a moment he felt again the spark of life that keeps a man inspired. He licked his thumb with relish and began to strip off cards by threes.  But when he came to the end of the deck, he still had not furthered the game. Goddamnit, he thought. Where’s my luck ran off to now? He looked at the last card he was holding, and the cards lying face up on the table, then slammed his hand down. Even with its promising start, it appeared his game had ended prematurely.

He was about reshuffle the deck when someone knocked on his door.  For an instant, he thought it might be his grandson, Ted, come to rescue him from this purgatory of solitaire. Thanks be to God, he thought, twisting around in his chair.

“Frank … I hope I’m not bothering you.”

It was his neighbor Judy, and he slumped down a little before pushing himself up to his feet to answer the door.

“I saw your light was on and thought, ‘Well, the light is on…so …’” She paused in the middle of her justification, then blurted, “Are you there, Frank!”

Tempted to prolong her uncertainty just a little, Frank tiptoed slowly to the door before he yanked it open suddenly.

“Goodness!” said Judy with a start. “You know it scares me when you don’t answer right away.” 

Met by a cloud of aromatic steam, Frank swiped his fogged up glasses off his face to see the lovely blur of varicolored vegetables she’d lifted inches from his face. The buttery, fresh aroma made his mouth water.  

“Oh my dear, thank you.” He lowered his face, nose nearly touching a spear of asparagus, and inhaled. Noticing her fidgeting while his stood there salivating, he said, “Good lord, where did I leave my manners? Please come in.”

Judy followed Frank into the room, closing the door behind her, “They’d only go to waste, since—“

“Good riddance,” Frank said, cutting her off. “Maybe he’ll stay gone for good this time.”

“I suppose you’re right,” said Judy, wringing her hands as she followed him into the kitchen. “I suppose you are…”

Frank opened his utensil drawer and got a fork. Holding the plate like a platter, he turned and leaned back against the counter and said, “The world is a bordello.”

“Oh God, Frank, you’re so funny,” said Judy, trying to sound like she actually thought so as she stood in the doorframe between Frank’s two small rooms. “But sometimes I just don’t get what you’re saying.”

“Here’s one that’s easy,” said Frank, stabbing a slice of red bell pepper with his fork. “Change your locks.”

 Judy bent down and shut the window next to Frank’s kitchen table. “Your cards are getting rained on.”

“Change’r locks,” said Frank around his mouthful.

“God Frank,” said Judy, which was her go-to phrase when she didn’t know what else to say. “I figured you were hungry.”

“Starving,” said Frank a moment after swallowing. “But I’m serious…change the locks.”

“But I love him,” said Judy, pulling out Frank’s spare kitchen table chair and sitting down.

“Is that what you call it these days?” said Frank, pondering his next bite, a forkful of zucchini and cauliflower.

Judy absently fingered the prescription bottles crowding her end of the table then looked back at Frank and said, “You’re funny, Frank.”

“Let me tell you about funny,” said Frank, after he’d swallowed again. “My grandson is, apparently, ‘in love’ and I haven’t heard from him in months.”

“Oh,” Judy sighed. “I guess love makes you forget a lot of stuff you probably shouldn’t.”

“Wel,” Frank sighed, before blurting. “Then what’s the goddamn use?” He stabbed the air with his fork. “Since when is love an excuse to abandon the other people you are supposedly linked to by love – or – or – coddle and protect someone who beats the living hell out of you!?”

Judy averted her eyes and looked at her hands, which she rubbed together in her lap as if she were trying to start her skirt on fire. Frank laid the fork back on the plate. Even though it was the truth, he might have been indelicate in how he’d broached the subject. The sound of the rain pelting the window broke up the painful stretch of awkward silence as Frank wondered how best he could apologize. 

“Frank, I swear,” Judy finally said, “it’s getting better.”

Oh for fuck sakes, he thought, putting his plate to the side, too disgusted to take another bite. For what could he apologize to this poor, hapless woman, trapped in a perversion of love that counted shouting as pillow talk and blows as caresses? Frank had fallen into that kind of ‘love’ before, and, to his eternal shame, taken full advantage. Now, the wheel had come around again, leaving Frank bound up in double sheepshank of regret and impotent rage. Regarding the impossibility of changing the past, it struck him as particularly funny. Now that he had the opportunity to pay back his cosmic debt by proxy, he was too weak to cash it in.

In lieu of reply, he turned his back on Judy and rinsed off his plate. He hoped she didn’t notice that he’d dumped most of the food down the disposal. His appetite was squashed by the onset of the sudden pain in his stomach that, truth be told, was happening with frightening regularity.

Turning around again, Frank stepped to the table, raised the plate up high, and then smiling, smashed it down, most pleasingly, onto the astonished woman’s head. The smattering of rain smacking against the window dueled with the tinkling shards of crockery falling to the floor.

Frank, holding off his own pain by fantasizing about another’s, stood in front of Judy and laughed like a loon. Judy took the empty plate from Frank’s gnarled fingers and asked him, “Are you OK?” 

Frank looked down at his empty hands, then bringing them closer to his face, he recollected himself and said, “Fine. Never better.” He looked at Judy and patted her on the head. “But I think you’re funny, too.”

“But I’m serious!” exclaimed Judy, setting the plate to the side. “When Roger’s sober, he’s the best man in the world.”

“Is he now?” Frank condescended to smile as he leaned forward to crack open his window after Judy had closed it to keep out the rain. “But, then again, so was I.”

Judy’s glance told Frank that she may have finally caught a glimmer of the truth he’d withheld from her ever since they’d been friends. Perhaps she wasn’t as dumb as she let on, and there was hope for her, after all.

“Listen to me, young lady,” said Frank, his large hand flat against the screen to feel the wet chill, hoping the stabbing pains in his gulliver would remain at a level he could contain. “Whatever it is that compels you to cleave to that monster isn’t love.”

“But…”

“Listen!” screamed Frank, the volume of his voice equaling his physical discomfort.

Judy sat quietly, her hands in her lap, the pointed toes of her strapless flats digging into the floor, head bowed…a ‘good little girl’ waiting for her instructor to proceed. Despite the grinding pain inside him, her submissive pose sent a thrill straight down his lower lumbar. He closed his eyes and caught his breath, then forced himself to take one step back.

“Listen,” Frank hissed through clenched teeth. “You must get rid of him before it’s too late.”

“I don’t…I don’t think—” Judy grasped the sides of her chair, put her feet flat on the ground and closed her eyes, her temples pulsing visibly as she clenched and unclenched her jaw.

“That’s just it!” Frank shook his head and threw his hands in the air, “You aren’t thinking!”

“I mean…I think,” she said, nodding with blind conviction. “Love…that I love─”

Frank’s face turned devil red. “That kind of love isn’t love!”

 “It is,” said Judy, glancing up at him with a sad smile “It’s already too late.”

Seeing the despair in her eyes, the hard edge of Frank’s manner fell away, and his fury turned to shame. More than anything at that moment he longed for the strength to pick her up and rock her like a child in his arms, but, unlike his feelings, his physical anguish hadn’t changed. The pain cutting into him was a dull rusty edge he couldn’t deny. He stepped forward as if to wrap his neighbor reassuringly in his arms, but ended up crumbling to his knees and hugged himself as he doubled over.

“Frank?” Judy stepped forward and put a hand on his shoulder, kneeling down in front of him. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

“Divine intervention, I think,” said Frank through gritted teeth.

“I’ll call an ambulance,” she said, pressing herself to her feet and scanning the surfaces around her. “Where’s your phone?”

“Wait,” said Frank, reaching out and grasping Judy’s wrist. “It gets better…just give it a second.”

“How long have you been having these?”

“Not long.”  

“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me until now,” said Judy, patting his hand reassuringly as she swiveled her head to scan the countertops.

Frank bent over with his hands on the linoleum as if he was going to lie down face first onto the floor. Unable to locate a phone, Judy hurried to the sink and filled a glass of water. When she turned back to give him the glass, he had miraculously dragged himself up off the floor to stand back up onto his feet.

“Oh Frank,” Judy pleaded. “I thought…”

“It’s just a bit of indigestion,” said Frank, brushing the episode away with a flick of his hand.

“Here,” said Judy, handing him the glass of water as a token of her caring, “I thought maybe this would help.”

“Ah hah,” said Frank, accepting the glass and downing its contents in two gulps. “But I’m afraid it’s going to take more than a glass of cool, clear water to cure what ails me,” he said, stepping lightly across the length of his apartment to the turntable in the corner by the door. Nodding once, he about turned and picked out an LP from the old newspapers stacked next to his LA-z Boy recliner, and slid the vinyl copy of Glenn Miller from its sleeve.

“Dance?” said Judy. “Weren’t you just dying!”

“Not, no…not yet,” said Frank as he eased the needle onto the front edge of the disc. 

“You’re so funny,” said Judy, touching her face with one hand to feel her own smile.

“May I,” he said bowing and offering her his hand as the Miller orchestra’s trombones introduced the saxophones and clarinets. Judy shook her head and rolled her eyes then accepted the invitation.

Judy gasped as Frank dipped her so that her hair brushed the ground. “Whoah!” she exclaimed. “Wow!” He pulled her back to her feet with the reserved strength of a polished craftsman, then spun her back into his arms, there faces separated by mere inches. “What’s got into you?”

“I don’t know,” said Frank. “But it’s not half bad.”

Rejuvenated by the time-lapse discography of another life time, they continued to use the limited space as best they could and rode that groove from crackling edge to the center’s scruffling paper. Glenn Miller waltzed out Frank’s window and, like the sporadic rain, dissipated into the ultimate stillness of the night.