Frankie reached behind the bar and picked up the phone and called Jones. The phone rang about four times; Frankie was about to hang up when Jones picked up. “Listen, buddy; I found the guys who hit Eddie. You remember Fat Joe, the guy who works the dock at Hunt’s Point; the one you have to bribe with porn magazines and beer if you want to get unloaded quickly? Well, I spoke to him today. I called the dock and he picked up. He said he was really sorry and he liked Eddie a lot. Eddie always hooked him up with the heavy Euro porn and the beer was always cold. He said he knew who did it. He didn’t want anything, he just wanted the guys who did it to pay. Frankie, we got to get down there tomorrow.” Frankie listened and agreed.
Frankie walked around to the other side of the bar and sat down. He looked up at a sign on the wall for Marlboro cigarettes, with a tough-looking cowboy pictured. He wondered how tough that son of a bitch really was. How tough were these guys in the bar; yeah, they been through hell Hell and they lived in Hell, but how tough were they? Could they do what needed to be done, when the time came? He sat with his head down, spinning a bottle of Rolling Rock around in his fingers, watching the wet circles it made on the bar top. Frankie looked deep into the grain of the oak, into where the cigarette burns burned away the varnish and burned into the wood. The grain was still there, kind of like a man; he can be beaten and cut and burned, but the core remains the same. Scarred for sure, but even in the scars, one can still see the grain of the man come through. He sat there, thinking about wood grain and scars and character, because it was easier than thinking about what he needed to do, thinking and rethinking what his friend Jones had just said and what he’d left unsaid.
Thinking that there are things we can walk away from with a few scars, and over time the scars will heal and fade, and there are things we can never walk away from, that we will never heal from. These are the stones he told Jones about, heavy, gray, ugly, formless stones we drag along with us to the grave.
Betty walked in and sat down next to him. He looked at her and asked her if she was hungry. She said she was, so they walked together out of the bar and up the street to a small Italian restaurant. The place was small and intimate; it smelled of red sauce and Parmesan cheese and fresh bread. It was dark, with candles on the tables, red tablecloths and red brick walls with huge windows that looked out at the intersection of the main street in the city, called Main Street, of course, and the street that ran up and past most of the factories; ironically, not called Factory Street.
Some nights, usually a Friday or Saturday, we’d see the factory guys in there with their families. It was good food and not expensive. Everyone here was working class; the waitress and cooks, even the restaurant owner all lived together in the same neighborhoods, always within walking distance to the factories. Sometimes Frankie felt like he didn’t fit in at this place at all; sometimes he felt that way about the entire world. This place belonged to the working guys; this place was a reward for the struggle. Frankie was, at best, a very fortunate bum; someone who just always skated by with the minimum of effort. A cute, dark waitress showed them to their table in the corner. They ordered a bottle of red wine.
Betty asked, “What’s the occasion? Usually you guys just buy me beers at Turf’s and take me home and fuck me.”
Frankie always liked how Betty never pretended anything was not exactly what everyone knew it was. He wished more people could be that honest with themselves and others.
The wine arrived and as he took a sip he looked at her and realized she was actually quite pretty. She had the whole factory- girl thing nailed. She was pretty, smart, and somewhere buried deep inside, kind of sweet, but very matter-of-fact.
Frankie replied, “No special occasion. I’m going away for a while and I wanted to see you. I don’t know if I’m coming back here at all.”
She asked where he was going and he said he wasn’t sure, but hopefully not to jail. She said she’d heard he was a big drug dealer now and he assured her he was not; he was simply driving a truck, and that had kind of fallen through now. He was going to meet a friend down at the shore to figure out the next move. He told her he’d invited his friend Alexandrine to join them, but she demanded alone time.
Betty asked if they were sexual and Frankie laughed, “No, she is more my—I don’t know what she is, maybe my conscience. It could never be sexual; that isn’t what it’s about.” The waitress came and took their orders. Frankie finished his wine and poured another glass. “I’ve got to ask you a question. You go to church sometimes; I remember dropping you off one Sunday morning after you stayed with me.”
She said, “Oh yes, I always pray for redemption after fucking you, Frankie; all the girls do.”
He laughed and said, “Do you believe it? Do you swallow the whole thing, the whole story?” The waitress came and brought them bread and salad.
Betty replied, “I do find some comfort there. It’s a quiet solace; being there brings me peace. Did you ever experience peace, even once, Frankie?”
He smiled and said he didn’t think so; pretty sure he never had, in fact. “Peace just isn’t my thing. My life has always been all about war, fighting someone, some demon, some devil, something. I wish I could find and connect with what it is all of you do. Like, you know I killed Sammy, right? It was an accident, for the most part, except a little intentional because of the hit he gave to my head. I came out of that headshot wanting to kill, and I did. I’m really sorry about that; it haunts me every day of my life. That was rage; that’s what my rage has done. Sammy was my best friend. But my question is: would this God of yours forgive me for killing Sammy? What about if I kill again? Can I just keep killing people and coming back around and asking for forgiveness?”
Dinner arrived and they made small talk with the waitress and she walked away. Betty responded, “I’m not certain of the church’s position on redemption, Frankie. I know I go to confession; I ask for forgiveness and I try to do better, which usually works until one of you guys gets me drunk and takes me home and fucks me. To be honest, I don’t see fucking you or any of the guys as a sin. When I’m taking to God, Frankie, in all honesty, you never come up. I know that you need to try. You can’t kill a guy, then ask for forgiveness and then go kill another guy and ask for forgiveness. That’s not how it works. Are you planning on killing someone again? Is that why you’re going away?”
Frankie shot back, “But what do you feel? Do you feel something inside? What do you feel when you pray? What do you feel when the priest says, ‘Go and sin no more’? Do you feel all safe and new and secure and clean?”
Betty looked at him and simply said, “Forgiven. That is what I feel, and before you ask or make fun: no, I don’t know Jesus in my heart and I don’t talk to the Virgin Mother. I don’t see Jesus as my best friend.”
Frankie almost jumped up, “I’m not making fun of anything and I’m certainly not playing here. I just want to understand this whole forgiveness thing and redemption thing. I’ll never find it; I’ll never feel it. When I talk to a priest, my blood runs cold. When I try to pray, I feel empty and stupid. Yes, I think unless some miracle occurs in the next twenty-four hours I’m going to have to kill a guy again. Do me a favor; tell your God when you talk that this motherfucker has it coming.”
Betty looked at him and asked if he wanted to stay with her tonight. He looked at her and he thought, “She is way prettier than Jack,” and he accepted.
They finished dinner, walked back to the bar and grabbed Frankie’s things from Jack’s apartment. Frankie went around the bar and gave Jack a hard hug. Jack knew he was off on some kind of mission. Jack said, “Take care of yourself.”
Frankie stood in the door of The Lovely, with Betty by his side, and he yelled out, “You assholes take care of yourselves; I’ll be back.” Then he turned and walked up the street, toward the factories, toward Betty’s little apartment. They stopped along the way for another bottle of wine. Frankie remembered he had to call Alex before he left.
He woke up in Betty’s bed; she was in the shower, getting ready for work. He heard the mysterious sounds women make while behind bathroom doors: things whirring and doors opening and closing and water running. Frankie got up, found his cigarettes, poured the last of last night’s wine into a dirty glass he found on the floor, went over to the window, lit a Marlboro, and drank the wine, a fine breakfast wine.
From her second-floor apartment, he could see the steady march of the men and women on their way to the factories. Just thinking about that rubber plant sent chills down his spine.
Betty emerged from the bathroom and sat on the bed. She asked if he wanted to stay there for a while. He smiled, thanked her and said he had to get going. He showered while she dressed. He dressed quickly and grabbed his bag. Together they walked out to the car. He drove up past the factory workers’ parade. How he hated that word, “workers.” Sounded to him like they were bees. Someone called him a good worker once and he took a swing at the guy.
Frankie pulled up in front of the rubber plant and kissed her on the cheek. He said he’d look for her when he got back, not sure when that would be. Betty waved and smiled as she walked into the hideous building.
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