Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Storyteller by Daniel Thompson

Daniel Thompson's touching vignette about an ageing neighbour lost in his memories.

We lean against the kitchen countertop, our heads floating in the window above the sink. An unruly row of blooming forsythias divides the backyards. On the other side of the forsythias is Frank Stratton's property and hanging on his clothesline are three pairs of white underwear. Except they're not entirely white anymore. They're soiled a number of times over.

"Are you going to go over there?" Molly asks me. She's worried. Her eyes are long and purple.

"What am I going to do, Molly? Walk over there and ask him why he's hanging dirty underwear on the clothes line?"  

"He needs help, Jack."

"You think I don't know that? I know he needs help."

The first story Frank told us was around eight years ago. He was in his late sixties then. He had bushy white eyebrows that rose with his voice and these big, dramatic hands that would circle around and slice the air for punctuation.

Molly and I were next door in Frank and Mary's house, and I was staring at the row of Bill Clinton photos on the windowsill while Mary talked about growing up in Clinton, Arkansas. Frank interrupted her; said he had some advice for me.

"Some years ago, I come down the stairs," Frank says, his tan arms reaching out like a symphony conductor. "And there's Mary, looking through the dining room curtains. Well, of all the things, she tells me Jerry Bane - the guy living in your house at the time - she tells me Jerry is standing in his living room with no clothes on. I walk over, take a peek and sure enough, he's naked as the day he was born. Jerry was a sweet man but you could hear the marbles rolling around if you know what I mean. So Mary asked me what I was going to do and I tell her nothing, of course. It's his house, his business. Well, she won't let up, and I finally go over there and ring the doorbell. He answers, and I say Jerry, do me a favor and close your blinds if you're going to walk around without any clothes on. I tell ya, he turned as red as the tomatoes in our garden. Then I say, Jerry, I don't really mind what you do in your own home, but my wife, you see, she sees you walking around like that and it gets her all hot and bothered. Next thing I know, she's trying to get my clothes off, and I can't have that at my age. You understand me? Well, that turned Jerry ten more shades of red."

Frank turned and looked at me, his eyebrows flattened to serious. "I guess my point is this, Jack. For my sake, please, keep your damn clothes on." 

Of course, Molly and I laughed but Mary looked like she was trying to control a seizure. She clutched her chest and covered her mouth before giving up a speedy laugh that took forever to fade away. 

Meanwhile, Frank, with a twinkle in his eye, was watching Mary. He gave her this slow wink, and that sent Mary reeling again. 

Mary passed away unexpectedly last year, and it wasn't long after that we noticed the changes in Frank's behavior. One day, Molly was home alone when Frank knocked on the front door. His face was twisted and red with agitation, but before Molly could invite him in or ask him what was wrong, he exploded. He flailed his arms and spittle flew as he yelled at her for letting Jupiter, our golden retriever, go in his flower garden. Molly started to cry and apologize. Then, like a switch turning off, the angry lines on his face went flat. He asked Sarah why she was crying and before she could answer, he turned to leave.

When I went over to check on him, he was still confused. Said he hadn't seen Molly all day. I noticed how thin his eyebrows had become and his eyes looked small and distant. But when I brought him over to our house for dinner, he ran his large hands over Jupiter like he was his best friend.

He left his car parked in the middle of the road one afternoon and on two different occasions we found him at our front door trying to use his key to get in. Both times, he mumbled and cursed Mary for changing the locks while we walked him back to his house.

"You know how Frank is, Molly. He hates doctors. Still blames them for Mary. For the life of me, I don't know how we'll convince him to see somebody." Still looking out the window, we could see Frank's underwear whipping back and forth in the spring wind.  

"Let's just go over there and check on him," Molly says. "OK?"

"Sure." 

We walk over to Frank's house and find the front door open. We can hear Frank talking and it sounds like he's in the kitchen.  

"Frank?" I call out. 

"Let's just go in, Jack," Molly says. 

Frank's in his seat at the round kitchen table. His arms are out, and he's talking to the empty chairs. His meaty shoulders have turned bony and his polo shirt's loose around his neck.

"Frank, it's us, Molly and Jack," Molly says in a soft voice. 

He continues talking to the chairs. It's a story we've heard before about their old dog, Charlie.

"It's the middle of the night and I'm gone to the world; one too many screwdrivers at the club. So I'm out cold when Mary starts shoving me. She tells me Charlie's got to go. I tell her she knows where the door is but she just keeps shoving. I let Charlie out and wait by the door, half asleep and still drunk. A few minutes later I hear Charlie scratch the door and I open it up like I've done a thousand times. Like a punch in the face from Muhammad Ali, I'm hit with the worst smell known to man. I look down and Charlie, with the proudest eyes you've ever seen, is carrying a dead skunk in his mouth. Well, I yelled and screamed and tried to grab Charlie but he made it straight for our bedroom. I ran after him and there's Mary's standing on the bed yelling and screaming. Charlie shoots under the bed and I can't get him out for anything. Meanwhile, our house is filling up with a smell they wouldn't allow in hell, and Mary's yelling has every light on the street coming on. I finally get my hands on Charlie, snatch the skunk away and toss it outside, but the damage is done. Ten minutes later, the cops show up on account of the screaming and knock on the door but we can't hear them. Fearing an emergency, they come in with guns drawn and when they open the bathroom door, they find the three of us; Mary, Charlie, and me sitting in the bathtub covered in tomato sauce."

For a moment I forget why we're here and laugh. Molly does too but her laugh's quickly choked by rising tears.  

"Frank?" Molly says again.

Frank turns and looks at us. His eyes are sunken in and his lips are white and cracked. For a second I think maybe he recognizes us but then he looks at Molly and gives her a slow wink.

4 comments:

  1. absolutely brilliant! reads like you have experience of this. great dialogue and description and moving.

    Michael McCarthy

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  2. What a great story. Heartwarming, misty-eyed, and so true to life all at the same time. I fell right in and loved the whole ride. The wink at the end was the crème de la crème.

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  3. What an engaging story. It's bittersweet to see that it's a real life story. If these were characters, I would want you to write a lot more about them.

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  4. Enthralling, pulling the reader in to share the experience. Full of atmosphere, with the honesty of true-life.

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