Frankie takes the 41 to the end of the line, steps off into a twilight of chirping crickets and fresh cut grass. He walks past Tudor mansions and sprawling haciendas feeling more than a little conspicuous. In the fading light he sees kids on trail bikes circling a cul-de-sac. A dog barks. A pool filter hums. Dishes clatter in a kitchen sink.
The house at 105 Pennridge Court has a pillared front porch. Whistling a one-note tune Frankie passes by without a glance. He continues on to a grove of trees at the end of the block, picks one with an unobstructed view and shimmies up to a forty-foot perch. A hedge runs along the rear of the house. Lights are on in an upstairs room and a TV flickers through a downstairs window.
Cassie’s house reminds Frankie of his grandparents’ place in Pennsylvania. He remembers chasing his cousin through piles of raked leaves while his mom and his grandmother battled inside. His mother grew up in a neighborhood like this, a fact that never ceases to amaze him. Once, while searching for her dope stash he stumbled on a shoebox filled with old photographs, Christmas snapshots of Sandy and siblings. He keeps the best one in his wallet, her big eyes and uncertain smile. Already life was proving unmanageable.
Frankie wonders about his mother’s latest transformation – Madame Sandra, Sayer of Sooth. Cassie was her first client and Frankie’s favorite, but there are others, long-limbed girls with designer checkbooks. Their cars beam brightly between the gutted wrecks of eck Street. They huddle with Madame Sandra ignoring Frankie completely. Fact is, his mother has changed in ways miraculous. Bills get paid. Meals are somewhat regular. Actual routines are taking shape. Lately, when he looks in her eyes he sees more than his own reflection. Frankie’s hopeful, but at thirteen he knows he’s young enough to be fooled.
When it’s dark he climbs down from his perch and makes his way to the edge of the woods. The streets are empty. He walks with his head down feeling invisible. At 105 he turns up the drive then veers across the back yard to the hedge. He squats in the bushes recalling his instructions.
“Just take a look around. See what goes on over there,” Sandy slipped a dollar bill in his pocket. “Keep out of sight and don’t steal anything.”
“And if I get caught?”
“Don’t get caught, honeybunch. We’re talking meal ticket here.”
She confides in him now. At first the palms were a problem for her. They looked alike and revealed nothing. But there are easier ways to gauge the fates. An unsolicited trash pickup revealed a preference for imported vodka and ribbed condoms. An intercepted mail delivery spelled out details of a messy divorce and messier settlement. If the future is unforeseeable, the past is as plain as this month’s phone bill. In just a few weeks Madame Sandra has learned more about life at 105 Pennridge Court than Cassie knows herself.
Frankie leans his head against the house, feels the TV volume vibrate through the wall. A light clicks on in the window above him. A shadow passes to the snap of elastic. Frankie throws caution to the wind and sneaks a peek. Cassie stands in her underwear making faces in the bathroom mirror. Faces of cold calculation and smoldering desire, faces she will never use. Then a sudden crunch of gravel and headlights sweep over the yard. Frankie ducks and rolls under the hedge, flattening a day-old mound of dog shit. The stench is sudden and stupendous and he buries his face in the dirt to escape it. The car swings around the circular drive stopping less than ten feet away. Two people get out, a man and a woman.
“Whoooeee!” the man fans the air. “Rusty must have just pinched one off.”
“Oh, that goddamn dog is ruining my pachysandra,” Cassie’s mom gripes. They start for the house but the man pauses, so close Frankie could untie his shoes.
“Jesus,” he gasps. “Have you checked him for worms lately?”
“It’s shit, Roy. Let’s not dwell on it.”
“Sorry, love. Wouldn’t dream of it,” he hastens to join her.
As the door swings shut Frankie scrambles to his knees, spewing mac and cheese over his shoes. His breath catches in a gag and he whirls in circles pulling at his sweatshirt. Weak and wheezy, icy with sweat, he crawls off trailing pachysandra and coagulating gobs of goo. Inside voices rise and fall, carrying through the siding like voices in a dream, Cassie and her mother having at it. At first Frankie can’t make out what they’re saying, but when they move to the corner room their words become clear.
“Rodrigo? Who the hell is Rodrigo?” her mother is shouting.
“Come on, mom! I told you. I met him at Tiffany’s party. You said I should try and meet new people.”
“American people! Jesus, do I have to spell everything out for you?” mother’s heels hammer the hardwood. “People named Rodrigo make minimum wage!”
“So that’s it! You’re a bigot! What about things like equality?”
“Equality is for your hot pants girlfriends baby, not for you.”
Their voices fade as they climb the stairs but rise again from the second floor.
“You’re ruining my life! I want to go live with daddy.”
“That’s a laugh. Your father will have your Rodrigo deported.”
They rant from room to room, then a door slams and silence stretches. Frankie sits and shivers in the darkness. He wills himself to move but nothing comes of it. The porch door squeaks and Roy steps out, stands at the rail looking up at the night sky. Frankie follows his gaze to a sliver moon, but when he looks back Roy’s gone. Frankie strains to hear but no sound comes. His ears pound and his arms and legs stiffen. Roy must have spotted him. He’s hiding out there waiting. He’s sneaking up with a dagger in his teeth.
Frankie rips through the bushes, hurtles the hedge and clears the driveway in world-class time. Running blind he somehow misses the lawn chairs and glass topped table, the marble birdbath and brick barbecue. Wind whistles in his ears and his feet barely touch the ground. He hits the clothesline chest high like a sprinter hits the tape. A fraction of his life flashes then a million stars explode in his head.
The day’s first 41 hits Pennridge Court at daybreak. Frankie climbs aboard clutching a single dollar bill.
“Got no change, little brother,” the driver looks him over.
“Keep it,” Frankie struggles to stuff it in the fare box.
“No man, you keep it,” the driver grins. “Since you lost the last round I’m gonna let you ride for free. Just sit in back and open a window. The early birds are gonna love you.”
Frankie pulls himself along by the handrail. The motion makes him dizzy and the lights hurt his eyes. He sticks his head out the window but it doesn’t help. Slouching low he lifts his shirt to a braided welt embossed in clothespins.
“OH MY GOD, WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOU?” Madame Sandra’s voice screeches like a worn set of brakes. Frankie staggers through the kitchen and collapses on the living room sofa.
“OH MY GOD, NOT ON MY SOFA!” Her cries rip across his brain. Contusions and abrasions vie for his attention. His clothes are crusted in filth and his head looks curiously lopsided. He feels worse than he looks.
“WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOU? HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?” Madame Sandra flies around the room raining cigarette ashes over the rug. He tries to track her movements but his eyes refuse to rotate.
“It’s OK, mom,” he croaks. “No one saw me.”
“NO ONE SAW YOU? I SUPPOSE YOU DID THIS TO YOURSELF?”
“It’s OK,” he tells her again. “It’s OK,” he can say it without moving his lips.
“Tell me what happened. Did you find out anything?” Madame Sandra pulls up a chair and sits facing him. “Cassie called last night. She was upset but she wouldn’t say why. She’ll be over this afternoon and I need something to tell her.”
“Rodrigo,” he whispers.
“What? … Rodrigo?” she leans over and shakes his leg. “Hey, talk to me. Who is Rodrigo?”
“Cassie … boyfriend … big fight with mom,” Frankie’s lips stick together with every “b”.
“This Rodrigo, where did she meet him? Do you know? … FRANKIE!” she pounds his leg with her fist.
“Party … Tiffany …” he lets his head fall back. Something pops in his neck as his eyeballs settle painfully in their sockets.
“THAT’S IT? A BEANER BOYFRIEND? Oh baby, that’s fantastic!” She claps her hands and a thousand bazookas explode in his head. Madame Sandra rushes off and he hears her crooning on the telephone. Frankie stares up at the ceiling. The neon palm buzzes in the window.
Tom Larsen has been a fiction writer for twenty years and his work has appeared in Newsday, New Millennium Writing, Best American Mystery Stories and the LA Review. His novel Flawed is available through Amazon.