Johnny and Frankie by Nancy Robinette

typewriterOne thousand and three green squares from one end to the other.  Lime green squares, match the lime green jello, match the lime green curtains, match the lime green creamed peas. You get the picture. I’m sure the nurses wonder why I wheel slowly up and down the corridor. It’s the number. One thousand and three. Where’s the symmetry in that? I demand order, discipline. So I count again. To confirm. You wouldn’t think that such a detail would matter in the grand scheme of things, but these days, that’s about as grand as my days get. I enjoy uniformity. Regimentation. Forty years in the military will do that to you. “Career Army” they used to call me. Married to Uncle Sam. I wonder how Lorna felt about that.

Now there was a wife. She knew what I expected and she did it all without complaint. She wouldn’t dare complain to Major Edwards. Starched white undershirts crisply lined up in a drawer. Wouldn’t she be dismayed to see the state of things now? Crumpled, yellowing t-shirts shoved in a small dresser in the closet. So it all comes down to this. No more “Sir, yes Sir” with a click of the heels and a smart salute. It’s Judge Judy and Family Feud on the big screen in the corner. Condemned to a life of plastic spoons, doddering old fools, as if we are all at risk of gouging our eyes out with a dangerous weapon. And so I count. What else is there to do?

As I make my fourth pass of the day, I observe the old people everywhere. Some are sleeping, some playing games, some staring into space and some watching me watching them. How did I get trapped in here with all of these old people? My wheels creak steadily as I roll.

Nurse’s station. Three hundred and six. At least that’s an even number. “Hello Mr. Edwards,” calls the pretty nurse as I creep by. She reminds me of a nurse I knew in France during the War. THE War. I wonder if she sees the strong commander I am, was, leading men into battle, into death. Does she see Major Frank Edwards, or does she see an old man in a yellowing undershirt? And wouldn’t Lorna have a fit about that? The shirt that is. She certainly knew about the nurses, the women, all over the world. If I could go back and change that – Hell, I wouldn’t change a damn thing.

Michael is coming today. Feisty and full of life, he flies in like a kestrel on a breeze, full of news about his week. Auburn hair and bright green eyes, and isn’t that boy as smart as a whip. When we visit in the day room I can see the other residents creep in closer, breathing in his youth, as if they can inhale it through osmosis.

He’s late today. Michael’s visits are becoming less frequent but I hope the kid is still coming. I have something I want to show him.

The far wall is coming up fast. One thousand and three.

Damn.

***

It was a perfect day, or it would have been if Caleb hadn’t up and joined the Army. He lied about his age and they knew it, but they still took him. They were desperate enough for men that they took fourteen year old boys. But Johnny didn’t care about fighting, he only cared about fishing. Sitting on the riverbank, his toes in the icy Potomac, he could sometimes hear the soldiers calling out to each other. They had set up camp nearby and Johnny kept his distance. He didn’t want trouble. All he wanted was a catfish. He’d promised his mama.

“Johnny, that pantry is getting’ mighty sparse. Run on down to Miz Unger’s farm and see if they can spare a couple eggs. That one old hen we have left ain’t good for nothin’.”

“Ma, Amy said the soldiers took everything they have too. I don’t think there’s an egg within ten miles of here.”

“Well boy”, said Ma, “we need some supper. If you can catch us a catfish I’ll fix up some greens and the taters you like.”

Laughing, Johnny pushed back his daddy’s tired old gray cap from his eyes and called out, “I’ll do it Ma! You get to fixin’ those taters and I’ll be back before you know I’m gone.”

Johnny ran and grabbed his rod off the back porch as the screen door slammed. “You be careful boy!” Ma called out. “It’s not safe out there! I couldn’t stand to lose you.” She finished quietly, “Your Pa was enough.”

Johnny’s bare feet flew down the dirt path to the river’s edge. He was “all elbows and knees” as his Grammy said, tall and thin with sun-bleached hair. He held his cap as he ran, already thinking about dinner. Nobody could fry up a mess of catfish like his Ma. Popping and steaming in a cast-iron skillet, he could just about taste it. Johnny came up quick to the riverbank and settled down quietly. He dropped his line in and began to wait.

He could hear the soldiers sometimes as their voices drifted on the breeze. “Hey Davey, toss me one of them bayonets,” a voice would call out. “Go on Davey, stick him like a Yankee!” Their hoots of laughter echoed through the woods. Johnny wondered if Caleb was nearby. He had heard rumors that something big was going to happen, and that the Yankees were moving down this way. Johnny didn’t care much about the war. He had to stay and help his Ma and little sister. Ever since Pa took off and joined the Army things had been hard on Ma. He missed Pa, but he hated him too. Pa cared more about some war than he did about his own kin. And now he was dead and they had almost nothing.

Johnny settled back against a tree trunk and closed his eyes when he felt a tug on his line. “Supper!” he cried out, just as a hand grabbed his shoulder.

***

A lifetime before I was warehoused at the lime green abyss known as Fair Acres Retirement Village, I was a reckless boy running the hills of Maryland. My father was a hard-working, God-fearing son of a bitch who never showed much emotion. He usually had a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He didn’t talk much about his life, but I know he came over from England in the late 1800’s. He was forced to leave school when he was ten to work in the tin mines, until he finally ran away. My mother once showed me his last report card, all A’s. I guess a thing like that will harden a man. He worked with a crew of men to build the mill, carving out the caves in the hillside as they built. Father spent most of his life working there, planing wood for the homes of people who were far richer than we could ever dream to be.

My father’s name was Robert Frances Edwards and I was named for him, but I just got the Frances end of it. Francis Edwards. Boy, did I get in fights over that name. Anyone who didn’t call me Frankie came to regret it. We lived with my grandmother, and she loved to call me Franny, but she’s the only one who got away with that.

“Franny, another black eye?”

“Kids making fun of me Gram. I’m not going to just take it!”

She asked gently, “What did they say, son?”

“Gram, they called me Franny.”

Gram threw her head back and laughed. “But Franny, that’s your name!” Gram had a laugh that could make the most stern-faced Baptist preacher smile. Everyone loved Gramma June. Lord, I miss her. Gram was the only light in my life. After Mother died, something died in Father as well. We had to move in with Gram just to get by. I think my father had no idea how to raise a child and my own son would probably say the same about me. Gram put up with her son-in-law, but I think that was just for my sake. Every now and again the mill ran low on work and Father would be furloughed. He’d drink and take it out on me. “Get off your ass, you little bastard,” he’d say. “Go on and get some work done around here, you lazy good for nothing.” My Gram always took up for me which made it worse between them.

My best bud, Charlie Summers, and I went out looking for a little bit of trouble one day, just because there was nothing better to do. We hopped in Gram’s old Model T and decided to head on down to the river. It sure was a great day for a swim. I should have been helping Gram but it was a perfect summer day and I was fourteen. It was too nice a day to sit and shell peas. What I wouldn’t give to have that day back. Shelling peas with Gram sounds like a little bit of heaven. Charlie was supposed to be helping his father in the orchard, but I persuaded him to ditch, and come along with me.

“Frankie, my dad is going to kill me if I leave.”

“Come on Charlie,” I pleaded. “My dad threatens to kill me every day. I’ll help you tomorrow to make up for it. We can go treasure hunting.”

Well that clinched it. Charlie imagined that he was the second coming of Blackbeard, and was forever looking for buried treasure. He kept his dark hair as long and shaggy as he could, until his mama threatened him with scissors. He thought it made him look more like a pirate, and he was probably right. We jostled and bumped over the winding roads in Gram’s old jalopy. It was 1922 and we were fearless and fourteen. Birds darted through sunbeams, their colors flashing as we drove by. We laughed like schoolgirls that day. As soon as we got to the riverbank Charlie hopped out of the car. He had a special shovel that he used for treasure-hunting and he clutched it in his hand as he turned over rocks, intent on his search. He was determined that this time he would find the motherlode.

We’d found things before – coins, old bullets – and Gram said there was a big battle near here when she was a girl. She lost her father and her brother, both. Charlie hoped we’d find a skeleton someday, but I wasn’t so sure about that.

Just as I set my hook in the water, I heard Charlie call out. “Frankie, come look what I found!”

I laughed. “Charlie, I don’t need to see another rusty old bullet.”

“Come on Frankie, you have to see.”

Sighing, I climbed up the bank to see Charlie smiling, and covered in grime.

“I had to crawl deep under that old fallen tree to get it!”

“What do you have there, Charlie?”

He held out a dirty old belt buckle for me to see.

“Look at it Frankie. It has my initials on it!”

“CS” seemed to glow through the streaks of dirt.

“Charlie, run down and rinse it off so we can get a good look at it. Rinse yourself off too, Gram will kill me if you get all that dirt in her Ford.”

Charlie bent down to wash off his treasure and the old brass gleamed in his hands. The initials “CS” stood out, surrounded by eleven stars. Charlie turned it over and we saw “Johnny” was scratched deep into the brass. We looked at each other and grinned.

“Quick Charlie, get cleaned off! We have to show Gram!”

He ran and dove into the water, as I marveled at Charlie’s first real treasure. It took me a minute to realize that he never came back up.

Gram always warned me about the river. She said it has secret currents and there are tunnels in the riverbed that could pull you in if you weren’t careful.

It took them four hours to find Charlie’s body.

When I finally got home Gram wrapped me up in a hug. She tried to comfort me but no words could ever console me. I was the one who made Charlie go to the river that day. It was all my fault. With tears streaming down my face I opened my hand to show Charlie’s treasure to Gram. She gasped and stepped back, a hand to her chest.

She whispered, “Johnny.”

My father never let me forget it was my fault that Charlie died that day. He would hound me every chance he got. He’d often taunt me with, “Hey jackass, go ahead and take one of your little friends down to the river for a swim. Kill another one, why don’t ya.” Gram would do her best to quiet him but nothing helped. I knew he was right. Gram died when I was sixteen, just collapsed and died while hanging sheets on the line out back. After her funeral I packed my bags, joined the Army, and never looked back.

***

The hand lifted Johnny up by his jacket, kicking and screaming. “Put me down! Let me go!”

“Well looky what we have here,” the man said. Johnny found himself looking straight into the eyes of a real live Confederate soldier. “Desertin’ aintcha, boy?”

Johnny squirmed. “Put me down! I’m not deserting! I’m fishing for my ma!”

“Well boy, you’re dressed like a soldier. To my mind, that makes you a deserter.”

The man knocked Johnny’s cap off his head and grabbed at him as Johnny cried out.

“That’s my Pa’s buckle! He was killed last year. Please sir, my Ma is waiting, and my little sister.”

“Boy, I’m gonna have to take you to the Captain to decide what to do with you.”

The soldier dragged Johnny through the woods and into the Confederate camp. “Captain, I think we might have a deserter here.” The eyes of the soldiers glinted in the firelight. They were happy to finally see a little of the action they had been laughing about.

“Let’s skin him alive! We don’t need no cowards around here!”

The Captain raised his hand to quiet the men and asked Johnny his name.

“Johnny, Sir. I was just fishing for my Ma. She’s expecting me home for supper.”

“Well son, we’re in need of strong men like you and we’d be happy to take you on. We have the makings of a major battle at hand. Your ma will understand. You’ll be home by supper tomorrow once we take care of these Yankees.”

Johnny was surrounded. There was nothing he could do but hope that he could somehow slip away unnoticed. The fire cracked and snapped as night settled in. Johnny knew that his ma must be frantic by now. He wondered if she’d saved him some taters. He had never felt more scared and miserable in his life.

Johnny dozed sometime late after dark. He twitched, and woke to the sounds of shouts and gunfire. The battle had started. Johnny jumped up with a start. This was too close to his home! All he could think about was Ma and his sister June. Ma knew how to handle a gun, but she needed a man with her. Johnny had to get home somehow.

A soldier thrust a rifle in his hand. “Shoot at anything blue, boy!” just as a bullet pierced his forehead. The soldier dropped right where he stood. Johnny stood in shock until he felt a bullet whiz by his ear. He dropped the gun and ran.

Johnny headed back towards the river, sticking to the tree line. He knew these woods better than anyone and he easily dashed from tree to tree. He could see the rise ahead and the bend in the river. He knew he was almost home.

“I’m coming Ma, I’m coming”, Johnny promised, just as a bullet pinged beside him. “Ma…”

Johnny fell, crawling slowly beneath a fallen tree. “Oh, Ma. I’m sorry.”

On a cool September morning in Maryland, Johnny died.

***

“Hey Gramps!”

I chuckled to myself. Only Michael could get away with calling The Major, “Gramps.”

“Over here boy!” I waved.

Michael came running up and gave me a hug. He’s more forgiving than his dad, I suppose.  Or maybe he doesn’t know what a rat bastard of a husband and father I was. All he knows is sweet old Gramps in his wheelchair. That would be his father’s doing, and I’m glad to know that my son is a better father than I could ever be.

“It’s good to see you son. I have something to show you.”

***

After Michael left, clutching the ancient belt buckle, I started to wonder. Is it better to die at fourteen like Charlie? Or suddenly, like Gram, just hanging sheets on a line. Like my sweet Lorna did, surrounded by her family as she wasted away to nothing? Or like my father, forgotten and alone, miserable until the day he died.

Is the purgatory of plastic spoons, creamed peas and lime green tiles the worst? or the best?

One thousand and three.

Damn.

 

Nancy Robinette

 

Banner Image: Lordoliver at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

3 thoughts on “Johnny and Frankie by Nancy Robinette

  1. Hi Nancy,
    To mix two time frames can be confusing. You did this with clarity and skill. Your story was a joy to read.
    Hope you have more for us soon.
    Hugh

    Like

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