Some Neighbors of OursWhen Frankie emerged from his bedroom and announced to his parents he’d be going to the Rialto that evening, it caught them so unprepared that they both seemed suddenly white washed. It would be his first time going out since coming home. While Frankie dressed himself in his bedroom- it took triple the time now -his mother said to his father in a worried whisper from the couch, “It’d be best if you were with him.” Frankie’s father walked to the bathroom to shave. Just before they left the house, Frankie’s mother stood, holding that blanket shall tightly around her shoulders, and said, “You’re as handsome as they come, you know.” Frankie had become so used to seeing his mother lie on the couch that seeing her stand now seemed a small miracle. This business with the blanket shawl and wrapping her arms around herself showed Frankie that his mother was either perpetually cold, or was unsure how to reach out to touch him now. Too much touching would treat him as some pitiful thing, so she opted for none at all. Frankie noted his mother’s strangeness and regretted that she’d probably wear that blanket shall around her shoulders a lot now, maybe always, and he wished she wouldn’t; there was something about it that seemed a very short ways from not getting out of bed at all. That would be his mother, getting lost in her head, parenting from the couch as it engulfed her, while sending her husband like a dutiful messenger to say the things that would need to be said. But it was a good thing to say, to remind him he was handsome, even though Frankie did know the utility of good looks and how much he would need that now. Once Frankie and his father were in the car with the crutches laid across the back seat, assuming the weight and presence of an unwanted person back there, Frankie became acutely aware of his father’s age, which wasn’t as noticeable inside the house in his old flannel shirt and favorite chair. But here they were now in the front seat, both staring straight ahead at the garage door as though it was really something to behold. “You sure, Frank?” his father said. And Frankie said that he was, that it was good to get it over with in one shot. “Probably do the same myself,” his father said, but as he slowly backed the Plymouth out of the driveway, both men privately doubted it was the truth. Frankie regretted not taking his father up on his offer to drop him off at the front entrance because then he would have gotten it over with, the droopy looks indicating his new, diminished value. Instead Frankie had answered, “I’ll walk with you, Pop,” and his father inwardly bashed himself for mentioning it, for not thinking that saving Frankie the long walk from the parking lot would force Frankie to enter by himself, and he told himself he had to think ahead now, had to be smarter about all this. Frankie’s father then made up for his carelessness by walking slowly, a bit behind, so that Frankie determined the pace through the parking lot and down the sidewalk no matter how late it made them. When Frankie and his father entered the polished brass doors of the Rialto to find the rotunda empty, save a few bartenders dutifully stacking glasses into boxes, the mask of gleaming service now removed, revealing people who were determined to get home on time, the father felt an immense relief course down his arms and pool into his muscular hands to finally have helped his son escape something. Like Frankie, his father was good-natured and handsome. Remnants of youth stayed firm across his chest from daily labor. Frankie and his father’s eyes were also the same. Inside both sat a deep earnestness. Frankie’s was for people; his father’s for hard work. Once Frankie’s mother had told her husband, “Frankie’s just like you were at that age,” pointing wand-like with her spatula in the direction of Frankie’s bedroom, then at her husband, and the father said that he was never that good with people. “Frankie’s all heart,” he said. Then, like declaring a disease with a poor prognosis, “Carries it all out on his sleeve.” And Frankie’s mother said, “That he does, that he does” while she smiled proudly down at the flapjack on the griddle and gave it a loving pat-pat with her spatula. But what she had meant was that the common trait she saw between her boys was an honesty so solid as a leaden crest wedged beneath their ribs that it seemed the real reason they were both barrel-chested, until now, that is, for both had recently lost their barrel-chests at the same time. Frankie had lost so much weight and the father’s shoulders had sunken inward from carrying this grave new seriousness around with him, so heavy the guilt that somehow he should have protected his son better, gone to Canada, as his wife begged that one night with the snot running down her mouth. When Frankie’s father bellowed, “No son of mine’s a shirker!” she wiped that long line of snot straight across her sweater sleeve and turned her body away from her husband for several days, if not forever. So that now, here at the Rialto, it seemed to the father that particular fight with his wife and this present moment sitting shoulder to shoulder with Frankie in the theater were bookends of an entire movement that had stripped him of something. Exactly what, he wasn’t sure, but here he was now not knowing at all where to look or what on earth to do with his hands. It was as if layers had been permanently peeled from his skin, making him horribly raw and pinkish. As the orchestra pit fell silent, it took Frankie’s father by complete surprise to feel a man’s hand squeeze his and Frankie’s shoulders together, then whisper a vapor of warm brandy into their necks. “Great to see ya home, Frankie, great to see ya home.” Frankie and his father turned to see Patrick McGregor, a man the father had grown up with, although from a considerable distance. What was it, the father thought, a year or two ahead of him in school? Or was it three? While they watched Patrick McGregor find his aisle in the dark, then move apologetically past people’s knees to receive a severe look from his wife, Frankie thought how people say things twice like that, “Great to see ya home, great to see ya home,” when there’s not much else to say. The father thought how this man, this Patrick McGregor who was one, two, or three years older in school had touched his son more fatherly then he had since Frankie had come home. The father realized he’d been copying his wife, following her lead, for she seemed to always know best, the way she thought on things for so long, pondered, looked at all the angles like a shaman on a mountaintop, and now he was furious at himself for not following his instincts, for not hugging Frankie until the two couldn’t breathe. And so now, at the same moment the curtain opened in a series of smooth swishes he reached behind Frankie and gave his boy’s neck a shake back and forth, a gesture which used to make Frankie’s head wobble side to side back when he was thin and boyish, but now his neck was prime and the gesture wobbled the father more. They could have had better seats, but they hadn’t any practice at maneuvering with the crutches, and of course there was the question of how uncomfortable Frankie might become. He may even decide to leave early. An easy exit was one thing the father felt sure about, but mostly he hadn’t yet grown the calluses for the avoidances of staring. Now, as the red curtain pulled open and a man and woman came on stage from different sides, a great relief coursed through the father for the second time that night. It was Alma! In the incredible feat to get here it never occurred to him that she might be singing tonight. It was a very pleasing song, and the father felt eased to have Alma soothe over his raw pinkishness like a good salve. He immediately wished they’d sat in their better seats up front so that he could see her more clearly. From this far away her expressions were mish-mashed and blurry. He felt guilty for thinking of himself on this night and gripped the velvety arms of his seat to squeeze it out of his head. His guilt was not eased, so he looked to Frankie, hoping his son would look back at him encouragingly as he tended to do, but Frankie was staring off intently and quite disconnected. This worried the father, this looking at nothing, and he wished he was back at home with his son in his own house where nothing seemed to come at him all willy-nilly like this. But Frankie wasn’t staring at nothing. He was staring at the back of Virginia Strauss’s neck not four rows away. That slim neck consumed Frankie. Its long reach up into her hair, how it curved gently to accommodate her relaxed slouch in her chair. He had pictured this neck the entire two years he’d been away, as well as the differences in her eyes, from confused to tired to demure, and her laugh, which starts out as though she shouldn’t and ends glad she did. Yes, Frankie had pictured everything about Virginia, but mostly how they’d fall in love the day he came home, here at the Rialto. Oh, how he’d thought of this in the hours of walking, the hours of waiting: waiting for something to make a sound, waiting for sleep, waiting for orders, waiting for clothes to dry, for food to eat, for blisters to heal, waiting for a grayish green helicopter. There was so much waiting. So much cold, so much wet, and so much waiting. And so practiced he’d become at conjuring up Virginia he could do it alongside anything else: washing himself in a cold stream, wiping down his gun, hiding, getting shot. He became so good at imagining vignettes of Virginia falling in love with him that he lived primarily in these lovely vignettes while his body became a marionette in a brown filthy uniform whose arms and legs conducted the motions of a soldier. Now to see her, right here, Frankie realized two things: that the Virginia he’d been picturing had become out of focus compared to the real Virginia sitting not four rows in front of him. And, second, how Virginia had most certainly saved his life. Frankie felt a surge of hope to have her refocused, to have something he dreamed meet up with real life! He willed Virginia to feel he was there behind her, to turn around so their eyes would meet the way he had played out in his head many times, but this dream fell fast once his eyes dropped down to his knees and he noticed his one kneecap looked significantly smaller from this angle with nothing hanging beneath it. Frankie forced his eyes up and mustered. In ninety minutes the performance would be over. “And then,” Frankie said, “And then we’ll see.” After the performance, Frankie saw Virginia moving through the crowd. Virginia was long and lean in the way that her body looked like it was just along for the ride to where ever her protruding hip bones led it. Clothing looked watery on her. Because of her long thinness, there was a nature to her movements as though she folded continually and sensually in and out of herself like the unjointed tentacles of an octopus. Over the years it had been her movements that consumed Frankie more than any other memory of her. Virginia, as with most tall women, wore her height in a way that accentuated a desire to shrink. This was diluted by the pleasure she seemed to take in her slim waist, a feature she showed off well with belts and the correct dresses, and often unconsciously by placing her hands on her hips, or one hand pressed to her ribs when something struck her as surprisingly funny. Now, across the room near the wall, Frankie couldn’t decide if she looked forlorn, or mistrusting. He smiled at knowing that Virginia disliked crowds, as well as most of the people in them. “What can I get you?” Frankie’s father asked him. “Lemonade and a beer” answered Frankie because he had the strong urge to keep his father busy now that he saw Virginia and her friend Sylvie standing on the outskirts of the crowd in the rotunda. He’d always found them an odd pair, with Sylvie like a new teenager in her lack of restraint in a room full of men, and Virginia’s reserved nature making her look like the governess. “Frankie!” he heard behind him. It was Alma Strauss, Virginia’s mother and his neighbor. “You’re here! Oh, it’s so good to see you. You look more like your father every day. Have you seen Virginia?”“No,” he said and looked to where Virginia was standing across the rotunda. “She’d love to see you. Get over there and peel her off the wall while you’re there.” Frankie shifted on his crutches to Mrs. Strauss’s habit of overstating his abilities. “Come on,” Alma Strauss said to Frankie. “I’m on my way over there now to say hello, let’s go together.” “Go ahead, I’m waiting for my father,” said Frankie. “I’ll be over there soon. Good to see you, Mrs. Strauss.”“You too, Frankie, you too,” Alma Strauss said. Frankie noticed again how everyone was saying things twice to him. He then turned his back and carefully pivoted his foot under him and waited for a few people to pass until there was space enough to pitch the rubber ends of his crutches forward on the floor. There was awkwardness to this because they were caught in a tight grouping of people, and for a few moments Alma stood almost touching him, but staring at his back. He wondered if Alma Strauss could feel the anguish rising off his back like heat.Just then his father returned with a beer and a lemonade. “Hi there, Alma,” Frankie’s father added. Frankie accepted the beer from his father and took a long draw from it. And then he immediately felt embarrassed, for waiting in his father’s hand was Frankie’s lemonade. Because he’d ordered two drinks, it kept his father from ordering any. Frankie stared at his father’s hand and the way he held the lemonade with nervous and critical importance. “Oh, James, Hello,” Alma Strauss said. Then she turned to a woman beside her, “Oh, Mary, meet some neighbors of ours, James and Frank Wood. Frankie and my Virginia are the same year.” Frankie and his father turned and pleasantly shook hands with the woman. After the three of them all agreed it had been a beautiful performance, they realized they had little to say to each other, so when Alma turned to accept a compliment on her singing, the woman quickly moved on through the crowd and Alma seemed to drift away, leaving Frankie and his father standing side by side in silence. Frankie noticed that Alma Strauss’s words had reduced her actually close friendship with his father. Of Frankie’s parents, his father had always been friendlier with neighbors. In the years his family didn’t own a car, his father walked home from the bus every day swinging his steel lunch box with a muscled arm, and just as he turned the corner onto Bryan Avenue he’d toss his lunchbox off to the side to catch a stray ball, football or baseball, depending on the season. At dinner time, it was Frankie’s job to retrieve the steel lunch box in Mrs. Reidel’s or the Weichman’s lawn. Once he found it in the bushes, and several times he wrestled it away from Taffy, the Weichman’s little dog, who had chewed the rubber handle. This made his mother angry, this chewed handle, and she pulled at the mangled rubber and said, “For crying out loud.” Frankie, however, was proud of every ding, dent and tooth mark; he had the only father on the block who didn’t go inside until dinner. His father would leave the boys’ game when one of the other men came home or when Mrs. Strauss came out to get her mail. Because this happened every day, on the team his father played was padded with one extra boy, so that when his father left, the teams could continue without the disruptive trading of players. When his father talked to the men it was a short chat and his father looked as anxious to get back to the boy’s game as the other father was to get inside. But when his father talked to Alma Strauss, the boys knew he wouldn’t be returning to the game. This used to make Frankie’s cheeks hot, but he moved out of that with age and into a period where it was easy for Frankie to imagine his father married to Mrs. Strauss. Not that he would have wanted her for a mother. No, he never thought of something like that. He was merely the age he could think of his father’s life separately from his own, except that Frankie felt cruel for thinking that his father would have been happier had he married Alma Strauss. She was very different from his mother. Mainly, when Mr. and Mrs. Strauss took her car, the cream colored Cadillac, she was the one who drove and Mr. Strauss sat in the passenger seat. Because Mrs. Strauss and his father’s friendship occurred on a front lawn, known to the neighborhood and to their spouses, any suspicions that may have arisen over the years were quelled by the publicity of it. Despite how close they seemed and that other neighbors came over for dinner in those younger years, never once had the Strauss’s invited Frankie’s family to dinner, thankfully, for in those years having dinner with Virginia would have mortified him. Now, at the Rialto standing next to his father, Frankie saw a man approaching Virginia and Sylvie. This man looked like an Irish wolf with his wiry hair that stood up thickly in the front and the rogue way he traversed the crowd. The man was Virginia’s same height, not taller than her like Frankie was, and had a neck too thick for his head. The man leaned in closer to Virginia. She smiled, then her lips moved in light and animated conversation, a conversation in which her friend Sylvie did not seem to be included. Frankie forced himself to look at other things around the room. He felt as if his insides had just dropped like weights to the floor. He spent the next ten minutes looking down, despite having told himself beforehand that he’d look at each face, kindly challenge them with his eyes, win them over. He was surprised to feel stirring in him a sudden anger at all the middle-aged women in the rotunda standing next to their husbands, giving them significance, staving off the same frailties that overtook his father right now as he held tightly to the lemonade. When Frankie said he was ready to go home his father said, “You bet, Frank,” and hustled nervously as though faced with a dire emergency of unknown details. As he held the brass door open for Frankie, his father added, “Never cared much for all the la-dee-da afterwards myself.” Just before the father exited, he quickly searched the crowd for Alma. He had lost track of her after she introduced him to that woman. How comforting it would have been to be seen by her at this very moment. Alma would have recognized the significance of this night, not for Frankie, but for himself. She would have looked at him a certain way with a little tilt of her head. The father exited after Frankie, his head hung low for again thinking of himself. When Frankie and his father returned home, Frankie said, “Thanks, Pop,” and went straight to his room. His mother had fallen asleep on the couch and when she heard Frankie’s bedroom door close she said, “James, how did it go?” He heard her, but did not answer. “James, I said how did it go?” Again he did not answer. He was sure if he had the means for fire at this moment, he would light that blanket shawl, and how pleasurable it would be to watch the yarn pieces writhe like a pit of snakes as they burned. His wife dropped her head back down on the couch and closed her eyes. James went to his bed and sat at the side of it to think. He would likely see Alma this week, and he’d have to be sure to tell her what a beautiful performance she had. Or nice, maybe he should say what a nice performance she had. One or the other he couldn’t decide, but he’d find some yard work to do this week to make sure he saw her, to tell Alma beautiful or nice.