Frankie and Johnny Were Sweethearts

FRANKIE AND JOHNNY WERE SWEETHEARTS
Liam O’Brien
Issue No. 4 – June 2014

house

Johnny bought the house in ’78 because he thought he would take care of it. It was too big for one, but they were selling cheap, and he liked the hulking thing near the bluffs, its white stucco and exposed Southwestern beams so unsuited for the climate that they had mossed over long before Johnny got there. He flew out from Seattle in a Navy pal’s sea-plane, a favor called in. He got a car and stocked the kitchen with cans of soup from Anacortes. Then he went out to the front steps and spent all afternoon cleaning the huge, ornate lantern that hung on its chain from a beam, listening to the radio and the distant noise of speedboats on the water.

He and Frankie got back together in ’81, after six years of what in their letters they called, “wild oat time.” Johnny wrote, “Are you sure you want to come? It’s a long way from Tennessee.” Frankie wrote, “Fuck Tennessee,” and next month he moved in. By then the front porch lantern was rusted over again, and the house was still too big for two. But Johnny liked to see Frankie coming down the staircase every morning, wearing the silk kimono Johnny had sent him from Tokyo a long while ago.

Frankie was a wide man and Johnny scrawny. Neither of them were good cooks, but Frankie tried. He packed the kitchen with smoke, spotted the stove’s hood with burnt grease spots. In good weather, they ate in the garden out back, plates on their knees, leaning back in metal chairs scaled with mildew.

Johnny said, “You’re no cook, but you’re a fine-looking man.”

Frankie got up and kissed him with his mouth full. They went in and argued over who would do the dishes, and they were both so stubborn that half the time they went to bed with the sink still full. Frankie would do them in the morning, while Johnny read aloud from the laughable small-town paper. Some nights they touched each other. On others, Frankie would fall asleep first, or Johnny would say, “Too hot for that,” and they would keep their well-explored bodies on the far sides of the great brass bed.

One night, Frankie said, “I don’t think I like what being with you makes me.”

“What’s that?”
Johnny’s mouth moved in the dark.

“Well, you’re a husband,” he said. “So I have to be a wife.”

“You’re nothing of a wife,” Johnny said, and he got Frankie to do him kneeling on the bed, while he held on to the heavy hollow pipes that curved at the headboard. They quarreled for five years, ten years, kissed and made up in the run-down garden where salty air put a white scum on the clay pots of weeds. Frankie got heavier, and gray. Johnny got a belly that strained above his old jeans. Frankie would pat it to wake him up in the morning.

“Let’s go, old dog,” he’d say. “Make me some coffee.”

In ’95, Johnny bought the computer. It was a clunky, off-white machine. He put it in an empty room and called it his office. Frankie had no interest in learning to work the thing, and after a week of trying, Johnny pretty much gave up himself. It was a pain to stare at that screen of tiny glowing graph paper, trying to move things across it with a disembodied hand. So the office was abandoned, piled with stacks of Johnny’s old paperwork.

The men had both grown up cautious, so they didn’t seek out friendships in Anacortes. But one evening, the radio reported there had been a fire at the local marina, and Johnny thought he’d go lend a hand if it was wanted. Frankie stayed home.

“I’m no good at all that,” he said. “I just get in the way.” He lay on the couch with a mystery novel on his face and snoozed.

It smelled bad down by the docks. Some men stood talking by the marina, which was spattered and blackened, but still upright.

“Hello there,” Johnny said, approaching as he’d taught himself in the Navy: the way straight men approached, the walk that said, I belong here with you.

“Thought you all might like an extra pair of hands.”

The men looked him over. So did the little girl who was with them, leaning on a post. One of them said, “It’s not as bad as it looks. But we’ll be working tomorrow if you want to stop by.” He was tall, maybe thirty, tattooed down one arm.

“Can do,” Johnny said. “I’m John Moran.” He offered his hand, nodded around to the others.

“Ed Mullen,” the young guy said. “This is my daughter Theresa.”

She didn’t pay Johnny’s smile any attention, focusing on a long splinter she was peeling from the tarry post. One of the other men said, “You live up on the bluffs? Big house?”
“Yeah-huh.”

“Another guy lives with you, yeah?” Ed Mullen said. “He’s your, your partner? I know him from the grocery.”

Johnny didn’t know whether to nod or laugh or look confused. Then Ed Mullen’s kid said, “My friend Dylan is gay,” looking up with her first expression of interest so far. Johnny looked back at her, thrown off.

“How old are you?” he asked.

“Eleven.”

“Huh.”

***

The next day, Johnny came back and worked all afternoon with Ed Mullen and his friends, who had names like Dean-O and Scooter. They didn’t talk much about wives or girlfriends or Frankie, though Johnny gathered that Ed had been divorced. Navy days, they talked, Army days, housing prices, the fountain Ed and Theresa were building together in their backyard. It took a few weeks to get the marina back in shape, but Johnny kept visiting after they were done.

Sometimes he went with the boys (they were “the boys” to him by then) to a dingy fishermen’s bar and nursed a series of pale beers. Once he stayed out past dinnertime. When he got home, Frankie was bunched up on the couch, looking all resentful, mouth turned like he’d tasted a bitterness.

“You could have called,” he said. And then, “God, listen to me. I hate me.”
“Aw, no,” Johnny said. “My little Frankie, don’t. I’ll take you out to dinner.”

So they went down to the dockside tavern for oysters, and Frankie spooned up broth with tender white coins of flesh, and his mouth got back its sweetness.

That wasn’t the end, though. Johnny stayed out longer. Frankie’s face wavered between sorrow and anger every time. Soon enough Johnny got angry, too, despising Frankie for allowing his own loneliness. He began to stay up after Frankie went to bed, became familiar with the thin screen-light of the office computer. He learned to make the mouse work with his stiff fingers. He learned, too, about the people inside his machine; the ones who came out at night, hunched somewhere over their own machines. They were available – in a new, thrilling way – almost to be touched. When someone said, “u lonely?” Johnny said, “Yes.” But when someone said, “wanna meet?” he always answered, “No. Just talk.”

Apparently the fountain wasn’t going well. Ed and Theresa were harsh with each other one afternoon at the marina, taking any opportunity to quarrel. Scooter was there, telling some story about the college boys who rented his house, who pretended to be scared of him, calling him “Big Daddy.” The story died, and eventually he got uncomfortable enough to say, “See you folks around,” and push out the glass door. Johnny stayed, wanting to maybe help them lighten up, if he could. They weren’t hearing his jokes, though.

A new shipment of stock had come in, and they were packing the shelves with books of knots, inflatable rafts, twine, brass whistles, clean-smelling inexplicable hardware. Ed turned to find Theresa putting a stack of life jackets on the wrong shelf.

“No,” he said, and grabbed them from her with what Johnny considered unnecessary force. He half-stood from his seat by the cash register. Seeing his movement, Ed tried to rescue the afternoon.

“Sorry,” he said. “Hey. Cheer up, kid. Don’t be a sad sack.”

But Theresa glared up at him and snapped, “You have no idea what it’s like.”

That got Ed bristling. He dropped the life jackets on their shelf and said, “You know what? You do not have a monopoly on sadness. Other people can be upset around here, too.”

“I think I’m going to go,” Johnny said, standing up for real this time. They both looked at him, nodded. Outside, he glanced back through the window and saw Theresa raging to the back door, light bob of hair bent down. It was a shame.

He drove the edge of the bay on his way home, one window open so the smell and glint of bright green water could come in. Dazzling all over, even the rocks and bouncy swathes of sea-grass, all giving way to the turtleish expanse of islands. A teacher had once called Johnny a “noticer,” saying he had a great eye for beauty. He’d been proud of that.

Frankie was waiting on the steps. He had been waiting for an hour or more, wearing nothing but the silk kimono despite the day’s chill. Johnny’s first thought was to hold him, warm him. He hadn’t felt like doing that for a while.

“I found out,” Frankie said, when Johnny was out of the car. They stood there while it came to Johnny what might be found out. A quiet feeling came when he got it.

“Let’s go inside,” he said. “You’re cold.”

“No,” Frankie said. “I can’t believe this.” He got louder. “It’s disgusting, it’s gross. I almost threw up when I saw what you did.”

“Hey, hey, slow down.”

“I almost smashed that machine. You’re sordid. I can’t believe I ever touched you.”

Johnny took hold of the stone wall that framed the steps.
“You’re being fabulously immature,” he said.

“Oh, so you’re mature? Some of those boys are probably underage, Johnny. Did you go out with them? Did you go meet them somewhere on your long afternoons?”

The accusation stung him. It hurt that Frankie thought he could do that, and more that he had given reason for the thought. He felt himself reddening.

“So what if I did?” he said. “What if I fucked around? Did I ever promise I wouldn’t? Did we get married sometime and I forgot?”

“Johnny,” Frankie said, the tears coming. It didn’t help.

“You think I just wanted to talk to someone? Someone young? When I have to see you every day, getting older and fatter in that stupid ratty old kimono.”

Frankie made a noise.
“Did you tell them that?” he said. “Did you say that to them?”

Johnny looked up without answering, and Frankie ran into the house.
It was mean, a mean lie to tell. Johnny stood there for a minute, thinking of what might happen next. Frankie would move out. Either that or forgive him. Probably forgive him. They were too old to leave each other. They’d throw the computer out.

He went into the house slowly. Best to do everything slow, not lose his head. It was dark in there, but not hard to move through the familiar hall to the foot of the paneled staircase.

Frankie was standing partway down the staircase looking down, one hand wrapped in his kimono sleeve. He let the fabric go, and Johnny saw that he was holding something. It was Johnny’s Navy pistol.

Slow, he had to go slow. Looking up at the bunchy wet face above him, he almost reached up, almost wept himself.

“My little Frankie,” he said, “don’t shoot.”

“What if I’d done it?” Frankie said a minute later, clutching Johnny as they sat on the stairs. They both watched the splintered line in the floorboards as if it might move. The air inside felt very dry and thick.

“I want a big funeral,” Johnny told him. He held Frankie’s soft shoulder, damp under the silk. “Parade, band, shiny hearse, people in tall hats. You remember that for next time.”

He looked for the bullet, hiding like a small black mouse somewhere in the floor. Couldn’t find it. He’d have to tear up these boards, put in some new ones. Re-do the whole floor, maybe, might as well.

Frankie let go of him but stayed where he was, hands clasped.
“I feel so funny,” he said. “Breathless.”
“Guess we have to do something for thrills at our age.” He could paint the walls while he was at it, and put in some more lamps.
“Johnny.” Frankie paused, then said, “I really thought I wanted you gone. No more you.”

“Yeah-huh.”

Just outside the door, the big lantern trembled, ready to be scraped down and polished up again. Maybe they could hang the gun somewhere prominent; a fine display, and handy for next time. He could make this place so nice.


Liam O'BrienLiam O’Brien grew up on a small island outside Seattle. He graduated from Sarah Lawrence College, where he studied fiction and poetry. His work can be found in print in Unsaid Magazine, and online at the Offending Adam and Blackbird VCU. He will be attending the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa in Fall 2014. Long-term, he aspires to be more like Anjelica Huston as Morticia Addams.





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