Frank sat sprawled with his arm hanging over the back of his desk and legs extending far out into the aisle. The boredom in his half-closed hazel eyes was evident to anyone who bothered to notice. Two years older than the other students in the eighth grade class, he emitted an aura of confidence and worldliness his teachers deeply resented and sometimes feared. Cocky was the word Mr. Beardsley had used when he ordered him to either "shape up or get out" of his class. There had been an audible collective gasp when Frank replied, "Get out sounds damned good to me,” before sauntering out of the room—earning his second three-day suspension in a month.
Ellen sat in the desk directly across from Frank and studied him carefully. An annoyingly argumentative girl, she wasn’t one of the teachers’ favorites either—or anyone else’s favorite for that matter. “She’s nothing like her older sister,” Miss Firebaugh, the homeroom teacher remarked two weeks into the semester. “Ellen’s so not cool,” the popular kids said shaking their heads in disapproval.
With friends in short supply, Ellen spent her free time reading. For the past several months, virtually all of the books were romance novels, which explained why her attention was focused on Frank instead of the teacher. Renegade, rake, rebel, rogue, she mused, searching through her new romance novel vocabulary for exactly the right word to describe the arrogant boy who had been held back twice and would probably never make it through high school. Suddenly Frank glanced in her direction and their eyes met. Ellen blushed and quickly turned away. A few minutes later, he reached across the aisle and handed her a note. Meet me behind the school at four o’clock—F
Until now, all of Ellen's boyfriends were figments of her imagination. This made the prospect of a romantic encounter with a live boy, particularly someone as mature as Frank, both terrifying and irresistible and her heart began pounding furiously in her chest.
At three-forty five, Ellen was waiting behind the school alternatively praying Frank wouldn’t show up and desperately hoping that he would. When he came around the corner of the building, she wasn't sure whether to crumble in a heap at his feet or flee.
"I saw you staring at me in class and decided to let you have a closer look.” His gaze slowly wandered over her body, coming to rest on the two small mounds beneath her thin cotton blouse. Suddenly he leaned forward, placing his palms against the building on either side of her head. When he saw the apprehension in her eyes, his expression changed. “Shit, you've never even kissed a boy before, have you?”
Too humiliated to answer, Ellen pressed up against the building and turned her head away, her hair catching on the rough brick surface.
Frank took her face gently between his hands and brought his lips to hers. The kiss lasted only a few seconds. "Thanks, Ellen," he said, a slow smile spreading across his face. "It’s always nice to be a girl's first.” Then he turned and walked away.
A week after their encounter behind the school, Frank was expelled for fighting. Ellen never saw him again, but cherished the memory of that kiss for the rest of her life.
The Little Coward
“Mommy! Mommy! Billy punched me in the nose!” The screen door slammed behind the little boy as he ran into the kitchen of the modest ranch-style house where he lived with his mother and father. Once safely inside, he wiped his nose on his forearm and seeing the blood cried out again, louder this time. “Mommy! I’m bleeding!”
Phyllis Bradford was in the basement folding laundry. Dropping the half-folded sheet, she hurried up the wooden steps leading to the kitchen. Bobby ran to her, wrapping his arms tightly around her legs and burying his face in the folds of her denim skirt. She placed her hands on his shoulders and gently pushed him away to see how badly he was hurt. His face was streaked with blood, mucus and tears and there were a few drops of blood on his new Spiderman T-shirt—a present for his sixth birthday.
Realizing he was more frightened than hurt, she smiled comfortingly and ran a hand over the stubble of light brown hair shaved close in a buzz cut. "Let's go get you cleaned up." Taking him by the hand, she led him down the short hallway connecting the living room and kitchen to the rear of the house. When they reached the bathroom, she picked up the washcloth hanging on the towel rack and ran cold water over it. Lowering the toilet seat lid, she sat down and began gently wiping the boy’s face.
Suddenly Richard Bradford appeared in the doorway. “What happened to Bobby?” he asked. At the sound of his father’s voice, the boy stiffened and pressed closer to his mother.
“Billy McGwiggan punched him.” Phyllis replied, hoping this would be enough to satisfy her husband’s curiosity.
“Why'd he hit you?” Richard asked, stepping into the bathroom to get a closer look at his son’s injuries.
“I didn’t do anything—honest. He got just got mad and then he punched me right in the nose.”
“What'd you do?”
“I ran away.”
“Why didn’t you hit him back?”
Bobby didn’t know how to answer. He looked at his mother; his eyes pleading for her help.
“Answer me! Why didn’t you hit him back?” Richard demanded, his voice growing louder as his irritation with his son increased.
“I dunno, Daddy.”
Phyllis placed her arm protectively around the boy’s shoulders. “He was hurt and frightened so he ran home. Don’t make more of this than it is.”
“Goddamnit, Phil! Do you want him to grow up to be a fucking coward?”
“He’s only a little boy.”
“He’s old enough to learn he shouldn't let some bully use him as a punching bag." His arm shot out and he grabbed Bobby by the arm, pulling him away from his mother. “We’re going to Billy’s house and you’re going to call him out.”
“Please don’t do this, Richard.”
Ignoring his wife’s plea, he dragged the terrified boy out of the bathroom, down the hall and out the front door. Bobby’s short legs couldn’t match his father’s grown-up strides and he kept falling down. Each time he fell, he was yanked to his feet and dragged along with his sneakers scraping against the concrete sidewalk. When they reached the McGwiggan house, Richard released his grip on Bobby’s arm and gave him a shove forward. “Go ring the doorbell and when Billy comes out you punch him as hard as you can.”
Bobby sat down on the sidewalk and began to cry. “I don’t wanna hit him, Daddy.”
Ruth McGwiggan appeared in the doorway, clicking the lock on the screen door as Billy peered out from behind her. “What’s going on, Richard?”
At the sound of her voice, Richard's anger subsided. “Get your butt up off that sidewalk and get home."
Bobby scrambled to his feet without looking at his father and began to run as fast as he could. He raced past his mother, who had been watching from the porch, into the house and down the hallway to his bedroom. He flung himself on the bed, pulling his knees up against his chest and covering his head with his arms. After a few minutes, the frantic pounding of his heart slowed and he reached for his pillow. It felt cool and soft against his cheek. It’s wrong to hit somebody. Why did Daddy get mad at me instead of Billy? He’s always getting mad at me. He’s mean and I hate him!
Phyllis waited until she heard the sound of the lawnmower starting up in the backyard before hurrying to her son’s room. Bobby was asleep. She sat down on the edge of the bed, gently stroking his forehead. His dirty tear-stained face was peaceful now and her heart ached with the love she felt for him. Dear God, she prayed, placing a hand on her swollen belly. Please let this baby be a girl.
A Bridge to Nana
“If you don’t get down to Florida to see your grandma soon, it’s going to be too late,” Ellen’s mother warned. “You haven’t been there since grandpa’s funeral and I’m tired of hearing the same old excuses. She has cancer—it’s only a matter of time.”
“Okay, Mom, I give up,” she’d replied. “I’ll talk to Paul about it tonight.”
When Ellen told her husband that she was thinking about making a quick trip to Florida to see her grandmother, she’d expected him to complain about the cost, but his reaction surprised her. “If you don’t get a chance to say goodbye, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life,” he’d said. “I don’t understand why you’ve waited this long.”
As a child, Ellen had looked forward to visiting Grandpa and Nana Stevens in Sarasota. She loved the beach—splashing in the warm waters of the Gulf and playing in the sand with the plastic toys they kept in the shed just for her. Then there were the trips to Mote Aquarium, Busch Gardens and twice they had taken her to Orlando to Disney World. She had even liked tagging along with Grandpa on his morning walks through the mobile home park.
“This is my granddaughter Ellen,” he’d say proudly to everyone they’d meet. “She’s visiting from Michigan and I can tell you one thing for sure, you’d better watch out because she’s one smart cookie.” As she got older, she’d wondered if any of them remembered he’d said the very same thing the year before and the year before that, but if they did, they didn’t mention it. The men would just smile and the women would say something like, “My goodness, George, she sure is a pretty little thing.”
Ellen purchased a round trip ticket to Tampa leaving on a Saturday afternoon and returning to Detroit early Sunday evening. It was a smooth flight and the plane pulled into the gate right on time. When the pilot turned off the fasten seat belt signs, Ellen retrieved the small sports bag she had borrowed from her son from the overhead compartment. She hadn’t packed much since she was only staying one night, only a change of clothes, toiletries and a few pictures of her two children.
After stopping at the counter of the rental car agency in the terminal, Ellen steered a gray Taurus down the winding ramp of the airport’s parking garage and followed the signs to southbound I-275. When she reached the entrance to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, she handed the attendant a dollar and drove out onto the causeway.
The blue green waters of Tampa Bay stretched as far as the eye could see on either side of the road. In the distance, Ellen could see the bridge’s bright yellow cables rising high in the air. She drove past the fishing pier on the north end of the causeway and after crossing over the bridge, passed its twin to the south. The piers were remnants of the old bridge that collapsed after it was struck by a passing freighter when Ellen was eight years old, sending thirty-five people to their death.
Ellen had already made up her mind that one visit to the nursing home to see Nana was sufficient and it would be the following morning. After checking into the hotel, she took her husband’s advice and went out for a seafood dinner since it was impossible to get a good bowl of clam chowder in Michigan. The next morning she had breakfast at the restaurant in the hotel before checking out and driving the four miles to Palm Garden Manor.
“Sign in, please.” The woman sitting behind the desk in the lobby told Ellen when she arrived at the nursing home. “Who are you visiting?”
“Ann Stevens,” Ellen replied, carefully printing her name and time of arrival in the visitor’s log sitting on the desk. It was the first entry of the day.
“She’s in Room 323,” she said after a quick search of the alphabetized list of the facility’s residents. “Be sure to stop and sign out when you leave.”
When Ellen got out of the elevator, she noticed several elderly people sitting in a small gathering area watching television. She glanced at the faces of the women, but decided none of them were her grandmother. She found her in her room curled up in a hospital bed with her eyes shut. A second bed closer to the windows was empty.
“Nana, are you awake?” she said softly, “It’s me, Ellen.”
The old woman’s eyelids fluttered. “Where’s George?” she asked irritably, “dinner’s almost ready.” The faded hospital gown did little to conceal how frail she was and the blue of her veins contrasted sharply with the milky translucence of her skin. She eyed Ellen suspiciously, smoothing back her short gray hair with a hand gnarled and covered with age spots. “My back hurts, I need to sit up.”
Ellen hurried out into the hallway. “The woman in Room 323 needs help,” she said to the heavy-set black woman in purple cotton pants and a matching brightly colored print top, who was pushing a cart piled high with neatly folded linens. The woman nodded and followed Ellen into the room. She helped the old woman turn over on her back before raising the head of the bed and placing a pillow behind her for added support. “There you go, honey,” she said. “Do you need to go to the bathroom while I’m here?”
“No, just leave me alone!”
If she was annoyed by the curtness of Ann Steven’s response, it didn't show. “I see you have a visitor today."
“I’m her granddaughter,” Ellen said, blushing at her grandmother’s rudeness. “I’m visiting from Michigan.”
“That’s nice,” the aide said, looking past Ellen to the woman in the bed. “I’ll be back to check on you in a little while, Ann.” She hurried away.
“You remember Josh and Emily don’t you, Nana?” Ellen asked, taking out the pictures of her children and handing them to her grandmother one at a time. Ann studied each picture silently for several seconds and the corners of her mouth seemed to turn up ever so slightly before she let them fall into her lap.
“I’ll put them right here in case you want to look at them again after I leave.” Ellen collected the pictures and placed them on the tray of the over the bed table. There was a television mounted on the wall and she reached for the remote. “Do you want to watch television?” she asked, switching the set on and running through the channels until Lucille Ball appeared on the screen dressed in men’s clothing—a thin black mustache dangling precariously from her upper lip.
Ellen sat down in the visitor’s chair next to the bed and stared at the television until the episode of I Love Lucy ended twenty minutes later. Then she rose and kissed her grandmother on the cheek. Her skin felt cool and smooth against her lips.
“I have to go now, Nana,” she said.
The old woman met her gaze for the first time. "Goodbye, Ellen."
Ellen stopped at the desk to sign out. She was crying, but the receptionist had no comforting words to offer. The woman had been in the job a long time. Her sympathy was reserved for the facility’s residents.
Once safely in the car, Ellen sat with both hands wrapped tightly around the steering wheel, the tears streaming down her cheeks. She wondered how much it had hurt her grandparents when she decided her family’s vacations were too valuable to be wasted visiting old people in a mobile home park in Florida. After a few minutes, the tears succeeded in washing away most of the guilt and she took a tissue from her purse and wiped her eyes.
She was looking forward to the drive back to the airport. It was a clear day and she knew the view of Tampa Bay from the Sunshine Skyway Bridge would be spectacular.
The Good Neighbor
“Can you loan me a dollar, Frankie?”
The male voice worked its way into Ellen’s dream, but it was a bad fit and she woke sensing something was wrong. The bottom sheet had come loose and she tugged at it angrily to prevent her face from coming in contact with the worn gray and white striped mattress.
“Can you loan me a dollar, Frankie?”
Realizing the voice had somehow followed her from the dream; she sat up peering into the semi-darkness. When she saw the outline of man standing at the foot of the bed she screamed.
“What the…?” It took several seconds for Frank's brain to make the transition to full consciousness. His eyes followed Ellen’s terrified stare to the intruder, his muscles tightening instinctively at the possibility of danger.
“Please, Frankie, I need that dollar real bad.”
At the sound of the familiar voice, the tension in Frank’s body subsided. “Jesus Christ, Alex, you scared the shit out of us." He switched on the lamp and checked the time on the small plastic alarm clock sitting on the nightstand next to the bed. “It’s after midnight, how'd you get in here?”
“You forgot to lock the door again." A week’s worth of facial hair—more than stubble but less than a beard—covered the lower portion of the man's face. His blue eyes red-rimmed and bloodshot. Brown trousers and a faded black tee shirt hung loosely from the emaciated body. The left arm ended abruptly a few inches above the spot where the elbow used to be. “I knocked but you didn’t answer."
“Get him out of here,” Ellen hissed.
“Wait in the other room, Alex. I’ll be there in a minute.”
Frank, Ellen and Alex lived in a dilapidated three-story building at 445 West Forrest Avenue in a crime-ridden section of Detroit known as the Cass Corridor. What was once a neighborhood filled with working class families changed rapidly when the white residents fled the inner city for the safety of the suburbs—and the real estate speculators swooped down like vultures on the homes they’d left behind. As the years passed, the houses were torn down, boarded up or carved into apartments rented by the week. The area’s present population consisted of impoverished permanent residents like Alex—most of them barely getting by on welfare or social security—and college students like Frank and Ellen.
Frank, like most draft-eligible males between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six, understood a student deferment was all that stood between him and the possibility of dying young in a rice paddy in Viet Nam. So after graduating from high school, he attended a community college for a couple of years and then enrolled at Wayne State University. He lived alone in one of the building's studio apartments for almost a year and then he met Ellen. One day, Mr. Zaiger, the building’s manager, came to collect the rent and found the old woman in the apartment next door lying dead among stacks of old newspapers, magazines, shoes, clothes, toys and countless other treasures she’d rescued from people’s trash. Frank offered to clean up the mess if Zaiger would rent him the larger two-room apartment for five dollars more a week. Ellen moved in a month later.
Frank pulled on his jeans and walked shirtless and barefoot into the other room where Alex was waiting. Removing a crumbled dollar bill from the pocket of the jeans, he held it out to the old man.
Alex took a small step back. “Thanks, Frankie, but I’m not feeling so good. Will you go and get me a bottle of wine?”
“Okay, Buddy, I’ll go get dressed.”
“Is he gone?” Ellen whispered when Frank returned to the bedroom.
"No, I'm going to Yano's market to get him a bottle of wine," Frank said, reaching for the gray hooded sweatshirt hanging on the back of the bedroom door. He slipped his bare feet into the loafers lying on the floor beside the bed.”
“Are you crazy? I can’t believe you’re going to leave me alone with him.”
“He won’t bother you.”
“He’s a fucking wino! How the hell do you know what he’s going to do?”
Frank slid his wallet into the back pocket of his jeans. Bending over he, he kissed her lightly on the cheek. “I know he’s not going to hurt you. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Frank returned with the bottle of Thunderbird in a brown paper bag. Alex took the wine, pressing it to his side with the stump of his left arm as he attempted to unscrew the twist-off cap with his right hand. “Open it for me, Frankie," he said, holding out the bottle.
Frank removed the cap and returned the bottle. Alex raised it to his lips and drank greedily—his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down with each swallow.
“Do you want a drink?” Alex held out the bottle to prove he was willing to share if he had to.
Alex screwed the cap on the bottle careful to make sure it wasn't on too tight."I’ll pay you back when my check comes the first of the month.”
“Yeah, I know you will.” Frank said, walking over to open the apartment door.
“You gotta remember to lock the door, Frankie,” Alex said, stepping out into the hallway. “This ain’t a good neighborhood.”