Frank was startled when he turned to see a young man standing at the bottom of his driveway, staring at him, but was even more startled by the response he got when he asked, “Can I help you?”
“Just admiring your rainbow, Pops.”
The kid had a goofy, lopsided grin. Frank wondered if he was on drugs.
The kid nodded toward the spray of water coming out of the end of the hose that Frank held in his left hand. It was June; it was dry. He was watering the lawn, like he did every other afternoon. From the kid’s perspective, the sunshine had imbued the spray with a vast and shimmering spectrum of color. “Just admiring your rainbow,” the kid repeated, then offered that grin again and walked on his way down the sidewalk.
Frank shook his head and went back to his watering. It was only later that evening, when he glanced at the kitchen window during a commercial break and spied the fading sunlight hitting the crystal Cynthia had left hanging from the center of its frame, that it occurred to him what the kid had meant.
Cynthia had been gone for almost two years and Frank retired for nearly the whole time. He was beginning to feel restive and lonesome. Dating never even presented itself as an option to him; he just wanted someone to have a chat with now and again. So he applied at C-Mart, and soon he found himself, besmocked and stationed just inside the door, greeting customers, just like in the commercials, just as he had hoped.
His shifts were only four hours. He was a part-timer, and because of the way the schedules of the other Geezer Greeters (as he discovered the manager who was young enough to be his son called them) worked out, he was in five days a week. He didn’t mind, and during his first week, he was offered the chance for an extra shift, which he gladly accepted.
“Good morning, ma’am. Welcome to C-Mart.”
Rarely did he get more than an mmph in return, but, sometimes, an energetic toddler, invariably followed by a haggard-looking mother, would careen toward him and throw its arms around his knees, which would give him a chance to talk a moment with the little one, who had no response but a drooling smile, and, if he got lucky, a brief exchange with the mom.
“Boy, he’s a pistol!”
“You’re telling me. Speaking of pistols, you sell those here?” The long-suffering mother would roll her eyes.
“Ha ha.” Frank would gesture toward aisle 6. “Nope, but we got whiskey. That works all right.”
“For me or him?” the mother would ask. The well-rehearsed banter of strangers.
“Either one!” Frank would respond, and mother and child would go on their merry, chaotic way.
Each day, at the end of his shift, Frank would pick up some groceries for his dinner. He was never good at planning out menus for long periods, or even short ones. Cynthia had always done that well; she’d make a list, a perfect list, and nothing ever went to waste. Frank had tried weekly shopping, but he ended up with spoiled chicken and moldy fruit. Once a day was better.
During his third week, the young manager asked him if he’d be willing to pull a double shift. Mary had a doctor’s appointment and forgot to tell him in advance, he huffed. Frank agreed, and fairly chirped his acceptance of the offer, because he was happy to stay and because he felt it might mollify the manager, make him forget his ire with Mary. Frank liked Mary, even though she was a bit scatter-brained.
The manager hung around, grousing about Mary then segueing into a complaint about “that idiot Lucas,” punctuating his grievances with dramatic glances at his watch, until nearly 20 minutes into Frank’s second shift. Lucas, Frank learned, was an undependable lout who never showed up to work on time, forever 20 minutes late, no matter when his shift was meant to start. The manager seemed frustrated by this state of affairs, especially since he couldn’t fire him. Once he got there, it seemed, Lucas was the best worker of the whole lot. “He tests my patience,” the manager growled, prompting Frank to silently question the existence of this alleged patience, evidence of which he had never seen.
The manager had just stormed away, leaving in his wake a plume of lingering agitation, when Frank heard, “Hey there, Pops!” and turned to see the goofy grin he’d first seen hanging about at the bottom of his driveway. The kid to whom it was attached was sliding on his blue smock as he loped, with the long-legged awkwardness of teenage boys, through the sliding doors. “What’s doing?”
“Uh…” Frank started. His eyes went to the crookedly pinned nametag. Lucas.
“I didn’t know you worked here, Pops,” Lucas said.
“I usually work mornings,” Frank said. “Pulling a double today,” he added quickly, using the term he’d already heard uttered by beleaguered cashiers countless times in his short tenure.
“Cool,” said Lucas. He held out his hand, straightening his back, in a way that struck Frank, for just a moment, as endearingly formal. “I’m Lucas.”
Frank grabbed his hand. Kid had a firm grip. “Frank,” he said.
“Cool,” Lucas said again. “Well, I’d better get to work. I’m late—as usual. Seeya around, Pops.”
“Okay, seeya,” said Frank. And he took his eyes away from the door to watch Lucas stride away.
Two weeks later, the young manager asked Frank if he’d be interested in working full time. Mary had quit. Her husband died. “The old people around here drop like flies,” the young manager groused.
Frank felt like saying, “Tell me about it.” In the last five years, he’d lost nearly everyone he knew—his wife; his best friend; half the guys at the Lodge, it seemed. Instead he said, “Sure. That would be great.”
“You start today,” barked the young manager, as he walked away. “Don’t die on me.”
“I’ll try not to,” said Frank.
Twice the time at the store didn’t make the job twice as enjoyable, but it didn’t make it half as enjoyable, either, for which Frank felt grateful. He liked it almost precisely as much as he had before, though his feet hurt a bit more at the end of the day. The highlight was always sometime just past 2:00, when Lucas would come tumbling in. Frank figured he either had a chronic disinterest in holding onto his job or a pathological inability to tell time, because no matter whether he was five minutes late or 50, he always stopped to chat with Frank for at least 10. If the young manager were around, he’d glare, and if he’d realized how long they’d both been distracted from what he was paying them to do, he might butt in to order Lucas to get to work. Lucas would dismiss him casually with a grin and a, “Sure, sure—I’m on it,” and a wink at Frank, but would always finish their conversation before he left, disappearing into the bowels of the store, after which Frank would never see him again until the following day.
Once, Frank asked him, “Don’t you ever worry about getting fired?”
“Nah,” Lucas replied. “I always make up the time at the end of the day. Plus, that dude loves me. He just has a hard time showing it.”
During their daily chats, Frank learned that Lucas was 16. He drove a 1994 Dodge Pieceofshit, and approximately one-quarter of his salary went toward repairs to keep it running. He didn’t have a girlfriend, and he was usually late because he’d been late to his morning shift at Burgers Inc. and was making up time there. “Kind of a snake eating its tail thing,” he’d said. He lived in Shady Estates, an unfortunately named subdivision considering its fate as the poorest, most neglected area of the small town, little more than a series of dilapidated homes which had fallen into disrepair after the mill closed, leaving most of its residents’ primary breadwinners without jobs. Frank could picture the neighborhood; he’d had friends who lived there. He wondered which of the decaying split-levels, set apart from the crumbling sidewalks by patchy, half-brown lawns, Lucas called home, but he didn’t ask. Lucas didn’t seem to like talking about home much. Frank never heard a thing about parents or siblings, if there were any about which to be spoken.
If pressed, Frank wouldn’t have been able to come up with any of the things Lucas had learned about him, except that Cynthia was dead. He always remembered telling people about Cynthia; even after two years, the admission hadn’t lost its capacity to sting. But Lucas had, in actual fact, learned as much about Frank as Frank had about him. He knew that Frank was 69, and that he had owned his own business—a franchise of a national insurance chain. He knew that Frank’s son, Doug, was a corporate real estate broker in San Diego, and that his daughter, Kathy, was a lawyer in Providence. “One on each coast, and me in the middle,” he’d said. Because he was perceptive, even at his young age, Lucas had correctly guessed that Frank didn’t see his kids very much, and that he didn’t need to work—at least not for the money. He also thought, again, quite rightly, that Frank was a bit lonely, and restless, and a very nice and decent man, with a good sense of humor.
What neither of them knew, and never would, was that the young manager, who perfectly fit just between them generationally, was jealous of their friendship, and wondered, petulantly, why neither of them seemed to like him as much as they liked each other.
July was just winding down, with a particularly nasty heat wave, when Frank stood at the cashier station with the ingredients of his dinner and realized he had forgotten to activate the new bank card he’d received in the mail the day before. The total was $6.02. He had a five-dollar bill in his wallet, which he handed to Sandy—his favorite cashier, because she was shy, and never impatient—then set down his wallet to fish through his pockets for change. “Oh, Sandy,” he muttered, “I’m so sorry.”
“That’s okay,” she said. “I don’t mind.”
Fortunately, there was no one behind him to mind, either.
He came up with 80 more cents, but that was it. “I’ll just put back this tin of beans,” he said, reaching for it. But just then, an arm popped over his shoulder, and in the hand at its end was a one-dollar bill. Frank turned. Lucas grinned.
“I’ll buy your beans, Pops,” he chuckled.
Frank blushed. He hated to be caught in this situation. “No, Lucas, it’s fine; I don’t need—”
Lucas handed the bill to Sandy, who took it and stuck it in the register. “It’s a buck, Pops,” he laughed. “It won’t break me.”
“Well, thanks,” Frank said. “I’ll pay you back tomorrow.”
“Your money’s no good here, Pops!” Lucas said, as he jogged backwards, his arms peddling at his sides. He turned at a right angle at the end of the check-out aisle and continued his backward jaunt, his voice rising as he moved quickly away. “What am I working my ass off in this shithole for, if I can’t help a friend buy some damn beans once in awhile?!”
He gave a wave, then turned on a heel, and jogged right back into the depths of the store.
Sandy dropped 78 cents into Frank’s palm. “Have a nice day,” she said, reflexively.
“Thanks,” said Frank. “You, too.”
Later that night, with a belly full of ham and beans, Frank realized he’d left his wallet sitting on Sandy’s counter.
When he pulled into the parking lot, it was 10:15. The store closed at 10:00, but he was hoping he could get the attention of the cleaning crew and they’d let him in. He was wearing his smock, so they’d know he belonged. He would have gotten there before closing, if he hadn’t spent a half hour debating with himself about whether he could just let it wait until morning. In the end, he couldn’t.
He hurried to the door, and knocked on the glass. A woman working near the door looked in his direction. He pinched at his smock near the nametag and held it up. I’m not a maniac; I’m an employee. She came over and let him in. “I just need to get my wallet; I left it here,” he said.
She didn’t speak English. He mimed pulling a billfold out of his back pocket, then pointed toward the line of check-outs.
“Ahh,” she said, with a nod and a smile of recognition.
He smiled gratefully in return and went to retrieve his wallet. It was exactly where he’d left it. He tucked it back in his pocket and told himself it had been worth the trip.
When he left, he noticed Lucas’ car in the lot, not far from his. It had probably been there before, too, but, in his single-mindedness of purpose, he’d failed to notice it. For a moment, he assumed it had broken down again, but as he passed, he saw Lucas inside, curled up in the front seat, his jacket wrapped around him like a blanket, even though it must have been a hundred degrees in the car.
He hesitated, watching the boy sleep for a moment, then tapped on the glass.
Lucas startled awake and sat up, shaking his head to wake himself, then rolled down the window. “Oh, hiya, Pops. What are you doing here?”
“Forgot my wallet,” Frank said. “What are you doing here?”
“I, uh…” Lucas swallowed, noticeably. It was the first time Frank had ever seen him look nervous. “You know, I just ended up working late, and I figured, why drive home, when I’ve got to come right back here in a few hours?”
Frank frowned. A 10-minute drive to sleep in a bed seemed worth it.
“Lucas,” he said, more sternly than he intended. “Why are you sleeping in your car when you live 10 minutes away? Be honest with me.”
Lucas shrugged. He paused, looking at Frank, trying to decide whether to lie, what to say. “I just didn’t feel like going home,” he said, finally, as noncommittally as he could manage.
“Follow me,” Frank said, and turned. He went to his car and started the engine, backed out of the space and waited. After a moment, Lucas’ headlights came on and he pulled out into the lane behind Frank. They drove to Frank’s house. Ten minutes in the direction opposite where Lucas would have been headed, had he been going home.
When they got there, it was late—past Frank’s bedtime now. It was a Friday night; at least he didn’t have to be up for work in the morning, and neither did Lucas. He didn’t start work at Burgers Inc. until 2:00 on the weekends. Frank wasn’t thinking about any of that at the moment, though. He was thinking about why Lucas was sleeping in his car, and wondering at whom he should be mad about it. They each got out of their cars and walked to the front door in silence.
When they got inside, Frank walked down the hall to the guest bedroom and turned on the light. “You can sleep here,” he told Lucas. He surveyed the room. “I don’t know if the bed is real comfortable or not. I’ve never slept in it. But it’s got to be better than a car seat.”
Lucas took a deep breath and looked Frank in the eyes for the first time since they left C-Mart. “Thanks, Pops. This is great. Really. I mean it. Thanks so much.”
“Bathroom’s across the hall,” Frank said, as he walked to his room. “Don’t sneak out in the morning. I make pancakes for guests.”
True to his word, Frank had batter cooking on a griddle and a bottle of maple syrup and two place settings on the table when Lucas stumbled sleepily into the kitchen the next morning.
“Morning, sunshine,” Frank said. It’s what he’d always said to his kids.
“Morning,” Lucas said through a yawn. His hair stood up at all angles. He scratched his belly under his t-shirt.
“You want orange juice or milk, it’s in the fridge,” Frank said. “Help yourself.”
“Cool, thanks.” Lucas grabbed a glass off the table and poured himself a glass of milk. He leaned against the counter next to Frank. He didn’t know what to say. It seemed weird to thank him, even though he wanted to, when that seemed something better saved for when he was leaving.
“Was that bed okay?” Frank asked.
“Yeah, yeah,” Lucas said eagerly. “It was great.”
“Good.” Frank dumped the finished pancakes onto a serving plate. “Let’s eat, yes?”
“Yes,” Lucas agreed.
The television was on in the living room, and as Frank set the plate down on the table, which sat between the living room and kitchen, something on the screen caught his eye. He stood for a moment, watching. It was a news story about a presidential press conference. “What an asshole,” he grumbled.
He sat down and then realized, suddenly, that perhaps he shouldn’t have put his politics on display. He looked across at Lucas, who looked back, surprised. “You don’t like him?” Lucas asked.
“Can’t stand him,” Frank said, figuring it was too late to backtrack now. “Why, you like him?”
“No,” Lucas laughed. “Feel the same. I’m just kind of shocked you don’t like him. Most old guys do. I mean, well…” Lucas figured it was too late to backtrack now. “You know what I mean.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not like most old guys,” Frank muttered, even though he wasn’t sure that was true.
“No, you’re not,” Lucas said. And he said it so matter-of-factly that Frank believed him.
For a few minutes, they ate their pancakes without speaking.
“They’re good,” Lucas said, through a mouthful. The kid was eating like he was starving.
“Glad you like them,” Frank said. He wiped his mouth with a napkin, took a breath, dropped his hands to his lap. “So, what happened last night—that happen a lot?”
“Not a lot,” Lucas said. He kept his eyes down.
Frank knitted his brow. He waited to see if any more information would be forthcoming. It was not. He didn’t press.
“I got more batter. You think you can eat a few more of those pancakes?”
“Absolutely,” Lucas said, and he grinned.
As he stood at his post on Monday morning, Frank wondered, between issuing his cheerful greetings, whether Lucas would treat him differently now. He had been vociferously appreciative when he left after breakfast, assuring Frank that he understood he was welcome any time, but Frank was worried that he would now feel awkward somehow, ashamed. Part of it, the part he admitted to himself, was wanting Lucas to have a place to go when he needed one, which was contingent on his feeling comfortable accepting Frank’s offer. The other part, which he didn’t really let himself think about, was a chilly fear of losing Lucas’ friendship. He was, in actual fact, a little bit embarrassed that at his age, he was friends with a teenager.
It had never occurred to Frank that Lucas didn’t seem to have many friends of his own. Or that lost souls tend to be ageless.
By the time Lucas was scheduled to lope through the door at any moment, Frank had managed to whip himself into a frenzy of concern. He had played out endless scenarios, most of which started with a hesitant glance from Lucas and an excuse as to why he couldn’t stay and chat today. In the end, it was all for naught. Lucas bounded in with his usual grin.
“Hey, Pops,” he greeted him, with the same unsplintered affability that ever accompanied the salutation. “What’s the word?”
Frank never had a clever response to this. “Uh, good,” he said. “How are you, Lucas? Good weekend?”
“Spectacular!” Lucas replied. “The world is a wonderful place for the working man, don’tcha think, Pops? Trade your labor for a pittance from The Man, rest your weary bones, and back the next day for more.” He said this without a trace of acrimony, but instead amusement. That was just his way. “I am a cog in the machine, and I am well-oiled and functioning exactly as intended.”
Frank laughed as Lucas did a jaunty little soft-shoe. His shaggy hair fell in his eyes. It was the way all the kids were wearing their hair these days, but Frank had the distinct impression that Lucas’ hair would look precisely the same whether it had been the popular style or not.
“I’m grilling burgers tonight,” Frank said, surprising himself. Where did that come from? He hadn’t pulled out the grill once since Cynthia had died; grilling for one just seemed utterly depressing. “Want to join me?”
“I work at Burgers Inc., Pops,” Lucas laughed. “I got burgers coming out my wazoo.” Frank was momentarily disappointed, but it hadn’t even had a chance to register on his face before Lucas added, “Would you mind if I bring some chicken?”
“Don’t they serve chicken at Burgers Inc.?” Frank asked.
“Not real chicken,” Lucas said, and lifted an eyebrow.
Frank grinned. “Chicken it is,” he said. “And you don’t need to bring your own. I can supply you with all the chicken your heart desires.”
“Most excellent,” Lucas said. He glanced over Frank’s shoulder and caught the manager glaring and harrumphing and tapping his foot. He was moments away from storming in their direction. “It’s a date. I’ll see you when my shackles are opened and I am a free man once again!”
With that, he was gone, and Frank didn’t see him again until he arrived for supper.
Over the next couple of weeks, Frank invited Lucas to dinner several more times, and soon, it was a near-nightly ritual. The kid always ate like he was starving, and Frank began to wonder more seriously about the home to seemed to avoid. The scrawniness that Frank had originally attributed to the province of growing teenage boys was, he thought, maybe of graver concern. Lucas wasn’t well cared for; that much was obvious.
It made his kindness all the more endearing. He was unusually thoughtful for a boy of his age—polite, clever. He was considerate, too, and heart-breakingly self-reliant, bringing over groceries at least half the time, swinging by Frank’s station just before his shift ended to tell him, “Dinner’s on me tonight, Pops,” so he would know to skip his nightly grocery shop. Frank certainly didn’t expect it, nor feel particularly good about Lucas spending his money that way, but it was evident that Lucas wanted to contribute, so he let him.
Sometimes Lucas would stay just for dinner; sometimes he stayed longer, and the two of them would watch a movie or play a game of cards. Frank had always been a good card-player and was happy to discover that Lucas was a sponge, eagerly soaking up every game and tip and trick that Frank was willing to teach him. His favorite was poker, and Frank would drag out his poker set—green table topper and chips and all—when the two of them had a game.
Once Lucas showed up with a green dealer’s visor pulled down low on his forehead, his wild hair sticking out at all angles, and Frank was so busy laughing that he never thought to ask him where he had got it.
Often Frank would offer to let Lucas crash in the spare bedroom, disguising it behind extended excuses like the late hour. Each time, Lucas demurred, graciously as always, and would head out to his car, where Frank hoped that he wasn’t about to spend the night.
Sometimes, after Lucas had gone, he drove out to the C-Mart parking lot to make sure he wasn’t sleeping there. He never found him, and was always left wondering if maybe the kid was just parked somewhere else.
One day, in the third week of August, Frank began to get worried when Lucas was even later than usual. An hour and a half after his shift had begun, he still hadn’t showed. Frank wanted to leave his post, but it was a busy afternoon, lots of customers who needed greeting, so he kept his eyes peeled for the manager. When he came within shouting distance, Frank shouted. The manager came over as beckoned, his typical expression of exasperation plastered on his face, and grumbled something unintelligible, which Frank probably would have ignored had he caught it anyhow.
“Did Lucas call in?” Frank asked.
“What’s that?” the manager sniffed.
“Lucas,” Frank said. “Did he call in sick or something?”
“What are you talking about?” the manager said impatiently, his face now scrunched into tortured annoyance.
Frank sighed impatiently. “Lucas hasn’t shown up, and—”
“Lucas is over in aisle 9, cleaning up a pile of baby puke right now,” the manager said, shaking his head as if to convey to Frank that he considered him the world’s dumbest man.
“Oh.” Frank scratched his chin, glanced in the direction of aisle 9. He forgot all about the insipid manager, who, given a moment’s pause, began to walk away. “Thanks,” Frank muttered at his back, to no reply. When he had disappeared from sight, Frank left his post and went to look for Lucas.
He found him, as suggested, in aisle 9, crouched over a mess on the floor which was less being cleaned than smeared into an ever-widening circle with a sopping mop.
“Lucas,” Frank said, and saw the kid’s back stiffen. “Everything okay?” He felt weird all of a sudden, like a jilted prom date, and silently chastised himself for bothering Lucas. So what if he wanted one day free from the obligation of entertaining a pathetic old man? He should have left the kid alone.
But Lucas didn’t seem bothered. He seemed reticent.
“Uh, yeah, I’m cool, Pops,” he said. He had stopped his work but hadn’t turned around. “I just, uh, came in the back today. I meant to swing by, but—”
“No, it’s okay,” Frank interrupted. He felt his face grow hot with embarrassment. “I just wanted to make sure you were all right.”
Frank was just about to leave when he saw Lucas turn slightly to glace over his shoulder at him, and he caught the outline of a deeply bruised eye. Lucas quickly turned away again, but Frank marched around him to stare him in the face. “What the hell is that?” Frank demanded.
Lucas turned his face away. “It’s nothing. I’m cool, really.”
“You’re cool,” Frank muttered. “You’re cool with your big fucking black eye, are you?”
“Yeah,” Lucas said.
“Horseshit,” Frank said. “Who did this to you?” Like he didn’t know.
“Honestly, Pops, don’t worry about it. It’s no big deal.” Lucas looked at him then, and Frank saw the extent of the injury. His eye was swollen almost completely shut, a scabby slit running down the center of the lid. A huge black and blue bruise, turning to greens and yellows at its edges, encircled the whole of his eye, its brow, and part of the bridge of his nose. He’d been socked a good one, all right. Frank hadn’t seen an eye like that outside a pay-per-view boxing match since he’d been in the service.
He sighed, his hands on his hips, and stared at Lucas, whose eyes had been cast back to the ground. “I don’t know what to do here, son,” he said. “Should I call the cops? Should I walk away and pretend I never saw this? I mean, it is a big deal, if you ask me, not that you did, and I don’t feel especially inclined to treat it as if it isn’t, but I’m not your family, Lucas. It’s not my place to do anything unless you make it my place. Tell me what you want me to do.”
Lucas felt overwhelmed. Frank hadn’t had a teenager in a long time, and when he had, they hadn’t been as precocious as Lucas. He’d forgotten, easy to do, that Lucas was still a kid—and a kid who’d been knocked around and didn’t really know what to do himself, no less have any advice for Frank. He hesitated for a moment, and then he said, softly, “Would it be okay if I stayed at your place tonight, Pops?”
The anger and frustration which had welled up in Frank’s gut rapidly subsided, replaced by a reverberating sadness that knocked against the walls of his chest and made him feel slightly sick. He nodded, and moved closer to Lucas, laying a hand on his shoulder. “Yeah,” he said. “That would be fine.”
Frank worried that Lucas wouldn’t show up that evening, but he did, dessert in hand—a cherry pie. They watched The Great Escape while they ate dinner, and they didn’t talk about what had happened. They went to bed early, and, in the morning, when Frank awoke, Lucas was already gone. There was just a Post-It note stuck to the fridge with a note scrawled in Lucas’ handwriting: “You’re tops, Pops. L.”
Things seemed to return to normal over the next couple of days. Lucas started coming in through the front door again, and, were it not for the conspicuous bruise on his face, one wouldn’t have known he’d suffered any notable calamity; his demeanor had immediately returned to the delightful cadence to which those around him were accustomed. Partly, Frank was relieved. And partly, he was concerned about what Lucas was holding inside him, what darkness was secreted away and working its destructive schemes with impunity.
Lucas kept coming for dinner, but he didn’t stay the night again. Frank patrolled the C-Mart parking lot after his departure and hoped for the best.
And then on Friday, he really didn’t show up.
Frank was building up a full head of steam, prepared to find out that Lucas had snuck in again to hide another battered eye or some other infuriating injustice, and ready to call in everyone from child welfare to the fire brigade to get this shit sorted once and for all, when the manager crept up on him and unleashed his own tirade, spewing at Frank his fury with Lucas for not showing up at all. “That’s it,” he griped bitterly. “I don’t care how hard that bastard works while he’s here—now he’s not even showing up and doesn’t call or anything… Screw ’em. If he ever shows up again, I’m canning his ass.”
“Lucas didn’t show up at all?” Frank asked.
“Don’t you listen?” snapped the manager. “No, he didn’t show up at all. I don’t suppose you know where he is?”
Frank took a sideways glance at the manager then marched for the front door.
“Hey! Where the hell are you going?!”
“I’m going to find Lucas,” Frank said over his shoulder.
“You’re in the middle of a shift!” the manager said.
Frank turned. “He’s a kid,” he said. “Don’t you remember what he looked like? He could be in trouble.”
The manager sneered. “If you walk out that door, don’t bother coming back, Frank.”
Frank shook his head in disbelief. “Fuck you,” he said. He ripped off his smock and threw it at the manager’s feet. “You don’t need to fire me. I quit.”
The manager searched for a retort as he watched Frank evaporate behind two sets of sliding doors, but came up empty. He scooped up the smock and held it in front of him. “No, fuck you!” he said to it, then launched it toward the checkout lines, where the nearest cashiers were giggling at him.
Frank got halfway to Shady Estates before he realized he had no idea where Lucas lived. He pulled into the parking lot of a corner store, which had beside its front door one of the few public phones left in town. He scanned the phonebook listings under Lucas’ last name, and found an address on Cardinal Lane, one of the small cul-de-sacs in Shady Estates. And off he went.
Outside 6201 Cardinal Lane, Frank stood in the driveway. Lucas’ car wasn’t there, but he could hear the sounds of an unhappy domestic scene emanating from the house. A woman yelled; something smashed; a man yelled; the woman yelled again. He drew in a long breath and stepped up the front door, pressed the doorbell. The hollering stopped; he saw someone peek from behind drapes in the bay window. He waited.
The sound of heavy footsteps on stairs descending to the front door was followed by the door itself opening slowly, revealing the gaunt face of a woman clad in a tank top two sizes too small and a pair of tattered jeans. “Yeah?” is what she said, suspiciously.
“Are you Lucas’ mother?” Frank asked.
The woman knitted her brow, frowned. “Yeah…” she warily acknowledged.
“Is he here?” Frank looked stern.
“No, he’s not here,” the woman told him, and Frank noted that a shade of belligerence had crept into her voice. “Who are you, anyway?”
“I’m his—” Frank hesitated “—coworker. He didn’t show up for work today.”
“So? Kids don’t always show up for work,” Lucas’ mother said, curtly. “They’re irresponsible, teenagers. Big deal.”
Frank drew in his breath sharply, pursed his lips, tried to hold it together. Had this woman actually ever met her son? “I was concerned,” Frank started, carefully, slowly, “because he looked pretty beat up the last time I saw him.”
“That was nothing,” Lucas’ mother said, too quickly.
“Funny,” said Frank, “that’s what he said.”
“Well, maybe that’s because it was nothing,” she replied.
Frank recalled, in an instant, all the markers of his friendship with Lucas—their many conversations, shared meals, card games, movies. He felt his heart thump hard in his chest as an image of Lucas’ agreeable grin came and went behind his eyes. He had had it with this woman, and his anger boiled up. “You think a 16-year-old walking around with his face beat to hell is nothing?” he snapped. “You got a pretty strange definition of nothing, lady.”
Seemingly out of nowhere, a man materialized beside the woman who had just been the recipient of Frank’s righteous ire, and, though he had moments ago been her antagonist, he was now, apparently, her ally. He glowered at Frank. “What did you just say?”
Frank gave him a long look, taking in his scraggly beard, balding pate, stained shirt stretched tight over a belly that was less a six-pack than an entire keg. He saw in his joweled face the faint remnants of features that might have looked something like Lucas’, once upon a time. The eyes were the same shape, same color, but held nothing of the same lightness.
“I just want to find Lucas,” Frank said, sharply. “I’d expect you’d be interested in the same.”
The screen door which had, until this point, separated them swung open, and the man stepped out onto the top step, forcing Frank backwards. He nearly lost his balance, and grabbed the railing, steadying himself as he stepped back to the cracked cement walk that connected the driveway to the stoop. “What are you?” the man demanded. He drew closer to Frank, a look on his face as if he had just smelled shit. “Are you some kind of cocksucker?”
Frank’s eyes widened in shock. “Excuse me?”
“I said are you some kind of cocksucker,” the man repeated, as though Frank were deaf, rather than stunned. “I’m just wondering what your interest in my son is. Are you a faggot or something?” The man spit out the epithet through clenched teeth.
“No, I’m—” Frank had been thrown completely off balance by this line of questioning, these accusations. His anger was slowly being replaced by a rising fear, becoming more pointed with every step he took backwards as Lucas’ father took one step toward him. “I’m his coworker. I’m his…friend. I just want to find him, make sure he’s all right.”
“Well, you’re gonna need to look somewhere else, old man,” Lucas’ father said with an acidic chuckle. “I kicked his ass out. He ain’t gonna do any disgusting faggot shit under my roof.”
Lucas’ father seemed pleased with his pronouncement. Frank glanced at his mother, standing behind the screen door, her arms crossed. She was smiling.
“All right,” Frank said. “Okay.” He now just wanted to leave without getting hurt. He put his hands up in a conciliatory gesture and backed away some more. “If Lucas does show up, tell him Frank was looking for him.”
Lucas’ father guffawed. “Yeah, and if you find the little shit, tell him if he tries to come back here, I’ll tear his fairy fucking throat out.”
“Yeah,” Frank said. “I’ll give him the message.”
He turned and walked to his car while Lucas’ father returned to his house. As Frank stood, paralyzed with astonishment, his hand on the door handle, he heard that the sounds of fighting at Lucas’ house had been replaced by the sound of laughter.
It was too early in the day for Lucas to be camping out at C-Mart. Frank drove by his house, but there was no sign of him there, either, nor at the Burgers Inc. where he still worked—or not, if he’d skipped out on work that morning there, too. For awhile, he drove around aimlessly, contemplating how easy it was to hide in such a small town. He could be anywhere.
Frank then recalled a conversation they’d had once, sitting on his back porch, overlooking his trim, green yard. Frank had been drinking a beer, Lucas a glass of soda. The smell of burning leaves from a neighbor’s yard filled the air as the sun set, and Frank told Lucas about a trip he’d taken to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with Cynthia one year, where they’d rented a cabin on the lake. Someone had been burning leaves nearby on their last night, and the smell had reminded him of that place ever since. It had been, he said, during their short stay, one of his favorite places for thinking, for indulging a languid mind-wandering as time passed slowly and his thoughts drifted like a breeze always changing direction.
Lucas told him, in return, that he had a place like that. There was a vast Methodist cemetery on the outskirts of town, abutting a vacant church which had been abandoned decades earlier for a newer, shinier building on the opposite side of town. Though the congregation had moved, the residents of the cemetery stayed put, and on its far side, a gently sloping hill, devoid of plots, was home to an ancient weeping willow and a tiny pond that hummed in summer with the songs of crickets and toads. It was there, in the grass, just between the tree and the pond, that Lucas liked to lie and leave his thoughts to their own devices.
Frank drove to the cemetery.
Lucas’ car wasn’t there, either, but its propensity for habitually breaking down meant it could be anywhere, perhaps without Lucas. Frank pulled into the gravel just outside the gate and walked in, past headstones and cherubic statuary, dead flowers and plastic ones. The willow came into view, and, as he headed in its direction, so did Lucas.
He was curled up into a ball, looking for all the world like an abandoned toddler. Frank half expected him to be sucking his thumb. He wasn’t, but, in spite of the oppressive heat and humidity of the late summer, he was shivering.
Frank gently set himself on the grass next to Lucas and put his hand on kid’s hip. Lucas jumped, startled, then saw it was Frank and relaxed, tried to smile. “Hi, Pops,” he said. His face was tear-streaked and drawn and his voice a raspy whisper. He cleared his throat. “What’s the word?”
Frank let out a long, uneven breath. “Where’s your car?” he asked.
“Broke down on Willowcreek,” Lucas said. “Left it there.”
“All right,” Frank said. “We’ll call for a tow in the morning. Right now, let’s just get home and get you something to eat.”
Lucas shook his head. “I can’t go home,” he said. It was the first time he’d ever admitted such a thing to Frank, although Frank knew it wasn’t the first time it had been true.
“No, no, I know,” Frank said. “I meant my home.” He tugged on a belt loop on Lucas’ jeans. “Come on, son.” Frank stood.
Lucas unfolded his gangly limbs and peeled himself up off the ground. Impressions from blades of grass crisscrossed his cheek and temple on one side of his face. A bit of clover stuck out of his hair. Looking at him, all Frank could think was that he wanted a cigarette, though he hadn’t had one in twenty-six years.
Frank wrapped his arm around Lucas’ shoulders, and felt Lucas reflexively pull away, then melt against him weakly. When they got to the car, Frank helped him into the backseat, where he laid across it like a sleepy child, and Frank realized for the first time how young he really was.
Frank cooked a full meal, but Lucas had little appetite. He drank a glass of milk and pushed some green beans and mashed potatoes around on his plate, had a few bites of the porkchop Frank had made. They didn’t talk much; Frank told him they were both fired, and Lucas managed a weak laugh. “We’re better off,” Lucas said. “Damn The Man.”
After dinner, Frank put Lucas to bed and tucked him in tight.
Frank had never considered that the reason Lucas didn’t have a girlfriend was because he was gay. Or that his lack of friends could be because he was ostracized by his peers, in the way that anyone who’s different tends to be in a small town, or any town. Frank had never noticed the six colored rings which hung at the end of the ever-present chain around Lucas’ neck. They were usually under his shirt.
After putting Lucas to bed, Frank stood at the bathroom sink, looking at himself in the mirror. His hair was white and thinning, his face creased and starting to droop in places that made him look tired, even though he didn’t feel that way. His eyes had become permanently watery and red-rimmed. He realized how old he really was. He knew what he had to do. And the next morning, he did it.
Lucas woke up to the smell of bacon and eggs. For a moment, he felt the tight knot of panic in his stomach that accompanied the start of every day, but then he remembered he was at Frank’s house, so there was no need. He slowly rolled out of bed and made his way into the kitchen.
Frank heard him coming and said, without turning, “Have a seat.”
There was already a glass of orange juice waiting on the table for him. Lucas sat and took a sip as Frank came to the table with a plate full of what he’d been cooking.
“I went to your house yesterday looking for you,” Frank said.
Lucas went pale. The knot returned, tighter than ever. Oh, god. He knows. He looked at Frank with the frozen expression of a trapped animal. He swallowed thickly. No words came.
“Your dad told me he kicked you out.”
“Yeah,” Lucas said softly, after a pause.
“You can’t go back there,” Frank said. It wasn’t a question.
“Yeah,” Lucas said, again. He stared at his hands, which were folded on the table.
“You could have told me what was going on,” Frank said. Gently. Kindly.
“I didn’t…I couldn’t….” Lucas glanced at him and away again. “Pops, I need to tell you something else.”
Frank saw Lucas’ shoulders tighten. His knuckles were white as he gripped the edge of the table. Frank just waited.
“The reason my dad kicked me out,” Lucas started, “is…because…is because I’m…” He looked at Frank, his eyes full of terror. Frank wanted to tell him that he knew, but felt he had to let Lucas do this thing. “Gay.”
Frank nodded. “I know.”
Lucas didn’t look surprised. He looked worried. “Is that…I mean…are you…do you…?” Do you hate me, too? His lips trembled.
Frank took a long breath. Sixty-nine years is a long time. Frank had known lots of different kinds of people in his life, some of them good, some of them not so good. He’d known people of every creed, color, religion, sexuality. And sixty-nine years had made him care little for anything but a person’s character. He liked this kid’s character, a lot. And he loved the kid.
“No,” he said. “Whatever you’re thinking, no.”
Lucas collapsed, his shoulders lurching forward, his face falling into his hands, and he sobbed. Frank moved into the chair beside him and put his hand on Lucas’ head.
“It’s all right,” he said. “You’re all right. You’ll stay here.”
Lucas lifted his head only to lay it on Frank’s shoulder as he wrapped his arms around him.
Although Lucas had lost his job at C-Mart, to no real chagrin, he managed to retain his job at Burgers Inc. Frank puttered around the house in the mornings while he was at work, watered the lawn, set to turning the guest room into a room better suited to a teenage boy. He braved Lucas’ parents’ house one more time, in order to collect some of his things. He left them with a slip of paper on which was printed his address and phone number, in case they wanted to contact Lucas. As soon as he’d left, Lucas’ father threw it in the trash.
When Lucas came home in the afternoons, they played cards, or watched a film, or sat on the back porch, sipping their drinks from frosted mugs and chatting away like two old friends. Passers-by might have thought them father and son, or grandfather and grandson, and neither of them would have objected.
At the end of August, Lucas went back to school, to start his junior year. He had decided to take photography, and spent some of the money he’d earned over the summer on a nice camera, which Frank helped him choose at Z-Mart, the competitor of their former employer.
Frank was left with lots of time to himself while Lucas was at school. After a few restless days, he put in an application at Burgers Inc., who happened to have an opening after one of their staff was lost back to the daily grind of high school. He got the job, and was pleased to find a familiar face on his first day. His former fellow Geezer Greeter Mary was working fries. He invited her over for chicken on the grill one night, and she accepted.
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
Frank was startled when he turned to see a young man standing at the bottom of his driveway, staring at him, but was even more startled by the response he got when he asked, “Can I help you?”