Eddie slid the truck into the drop yard, about fifteen minutes outside of Montreal. They were both hungry. Frankie was now a little wasted on beers and exhaustion. They dropped the trailer in the drop yard just off the Trans-Canada Highway. Frankie jumped out of the tractor and lowered the landing gear, unhooked the glad-hands and pulled the fifth-wheel pin. His bare hands were frozen cold. Quietly he swore under his breath. He could not wait to get to a warm place. Eddie pulled the tractor away. They rode around the yard looking for the trailer with the hot load of electronics. It wasn’t there yet, so they headed for a diner and a pay phone.
The diner was warm and metal and glass. It smelled like coffee and grease. Frankie’s first encounter with anyone north of the border was a girl who he offended without even trying. He asked her for a hard roll—that’s what they were called at home, a Kaiser roll . . . a frickin’ roll with butter. The waitress was highly offended and went to tell her boss, a slightly older, very pretty woman. Frankie stammered as Eddie laughed his ass off. “A hard roll, for God’s sake. Jesus, just bring me some toast.”
Eddie said, “Fuck it” and laughed. They ordered eggs. Frankie finally got his Kaiser roll when the waitress came back. Frankie said she did have a nice ass and the manager was called again. Eddie suggested maybe Frankie should try his luck in Mexico.
Eddie went to a pay phone and called about the load. Then he called his wife. He came back to the table. The trailer was in another yard about twenty miles up the road and no one had heard any news from home about a murder. No news probably meant Billy was alive.
Eddie asked if Frankie still wanted to do this. Frankie smiled. “I got to get warm, and I got to get the fuck away from Pam. Let’s go to Florida.”
The eggs came and the two ate in silence.
A homeless guy came in from the freezing cold and the snow. Eddie pointed with his fork and said, “Look at that asshole!” Frankie looked over his shoulder, taking care to not make eye contact with the waitress to look at the man in rags and dirt, dirt that was now like a thin coating of mud as the snow dried.
The homeless guy walked toward them. Frankie stared at a hole in his eggs. The homeless guy began to speak. His voice was soft with a Cajun accent. This filthy stranger didn’t ask. He just sat down next to Frankie. He smelled pretty bad, almost like a wet and muddy dog. Eddie threw up his hands and laughed. They all sat there in silence. The smell coming from this guy completely overwhelmed Frankie’s desire to finish his eggs. The waitress came back and Eddie said, “Get this guy something to eat.”
The homeless Cajun looked at Frankie and said, “I’ve been you, man. I know you. I am you. I see your story laid out in front of me, as clear as the words on this menu.” He waved the plastic and paper book in Frankie’s face. “Don’t go this way. Listen to your friend, the black lady, Alexandrine, who talks like me. Listen to her. You are walking down a dark and lonely path.”
Frankie started to get pissed. He pushed the guy out of the booth and was about to hit him. Eddie jumped up and pulled Frankie off the guy.
Frankie exploded, “What the fuck do you know about me, or my friends, or some black lady?”
Eddie demanded an end to all this. He had the same feeling he always got when he spoke to Frankie’s grandma and he did not like that feeling at all. “Let this guy eat; you go make that call you were talking about and let’s get the hell out of here.” Eddie didn’t believe in witches and warlocks and seers or any of that nonsense, but something was happening here and he did not find it even remotely funny.
Frankie walked to the back of the diner to the pay phone to call his friend, his inexplicable new friend. They had only known each other a short time, but he was drawn to her, this earth mother. She guided him when no one else could. He would listen to her advice and words. He never took anyone’s advice, but he took hers. He weighed each word she told him as if it were gold.
I remember meeting this amazing woman and the lasting impression she left.
It was a dangerous summer day, a heat wave day, ninety degrees at 7:00 a.m. A brutal, life-threatening hangover kind of day. The breeze, what little there was, was saturated. The hot, wet air reached deep into a person’s lungs and fed the still sleeping beast. Everyone was angry that morning, everyone was pissed off on the street. A person could almost taste it, feel it, and hear it, in the rumble off in the distance and in the silence. The air seemed to hiss. It would only be a matter of minutes before someone started something.
Frankie looked down at the ground and waited, like a viper, silent, motionless, waiting for someone to walk by and pass a comment and start up this day. The summer bugs made sounds like they were about to self-combust. The heat enveloped everyone, hugged them, pulled the energy and oxygen from their bodies. The early morning sun, still low on the horizon, burned the skin. Puddles of sweet sweat, booze sweat, dirty sweat, and salty sweat formed at his feet, running out of his body like rain from a sudden summer storm. Frankie stared at the concrete below his feet and watched the fluid, the toxins, run from him and into the ground. It was a scorched earth day, a day to burn it down, a day where there can be no logic or answers, a day where any semblance of caring quickly vanished.
Looking up and down the street, he saw the trampled and browbeaten walk by. Hustling to get somewhere, to a job, to a home, some even running away from a home. Trying to find something elusive, trying to find something they needed, trying to lose something they didn’t need or no longer wanted. Men beat down by the weight of being a man; women, completely exhausted from trying to hold their universes together. Everyone trying to find the crime that fit them, that didn’t offend their particular sensibilities, but still made them feel badass: a crime to end the madness and get them out of there. Heads down, hands in pockets; my dream is your nightmare; my tonic is your toxin. Everyone running from the moment and reality in which they lived; heading somewhere, anywhere but here.
Frankie deeply loved the hopelessly broken people. The people this world had trampled and destroyed and pissed on and abandoned. The forgotten, those who were completely impoverished of material things. He’d walk into their homes and they had nothing, No TV, no air conditioner, too often no food in the refrigerator, if there was a refrigerator at all.
One time he was in Alexandrine’s home and she offered him something to eat and drink. He started to cry. Someone with nothing offered him sustenance, always had something to offer. He could put his hands in his pockets and feel his money, stolen money, a smugglers’ bounty, pirate booty.
When he spoke to this woman he felt the shallow meaninglessness of his life. He deeply loved Alexandrine. He was like a remora, hanging around her, trying to absorb some of her being, her essence, and soul. Maybe, it was that in her Frankie saw something of what he dreamed of being. She had an appreciation for life, no matter how hard it became or how far it dragged her down.
He always seemed to want to bond with people like her, the good people, the people of faith, even though they terrified him; as if by doing so he could somehow understand the ritual of the church, the songs, the candles, the Latin words, and the men in the strange hats. He’d stand on the street outside her house on broiling days like this and look at the junkies, dealers, and gang-bangers, somehow camouflaged by hungry kids with absent fathers pushing bicycles with flat tires and a girl giving a blowjob to some random guy in a car.
One day, I saw him completely lose his mind. He was standing in the middle of the street screaming at some gang-banger father, who sat listening to him, his legs dangling from a second-story window, sixteen feet above the steaming stench of the street, all because his kid’s bike had flat tires and broken brakes. Frankie stood there in the middle of gangland calling this guy out. No one had ever seen him so mad and I’d never been so scared in my life.
After he got done screaming, Frankie slowly walked up to the kid and took his bike and told him he’d be back with it fixed. He looked back at the father, who calmly sat there smoking a cigarette, and flipped him off. I told him as we walked away that he’d better start believing in miracles, because the fact that he was not dead right now certainly was one. Frankie said, “Fuck that scumbag,” and we slowly walked away. Frankie, looking back over his shoulder, fully expected some kind of attack.
Frankie said he could fully accept the concept of Hell. He was looking at it. In his rear-view mirror, but this Heaven thing that he’d heard about all his life was as foreign to him as another person’s dream.
He went back toward the woman’s house. He’d often find himself there when he had no idea where else to go or what else to do. He loved this woman. He was not sure if she was a witch or some spirit guide sent to him to lead him out of this life. Alexandrine could see through the veneer. She seemed able to see all the way through him, down to the deep; past the rage, the fights, the drunk, the pills, hangovers, and sweat. Even so, Frankie would often feel uncomfortable and want to run from her and her poverty and honesty.
She called him an angel one day, after he shared with her some stolen treasure, some ill-gotten gain, and Frankie rebelled angrily. He replied that he was anything but an angel; he was deeply broken. And if he ever did any good at all, it was usually a mistake or simply him trying to get back to even with the universe, with his personal concoction of God.
No one feared death more than Frankie, and no one lived more like he didn’t care. Realizing his days were burning down fast, he was destined to meet this mysterious God-entity and He or She or it would not be happy with him. Frankie was devoid of a soul. There was always doubt if he was born without or did he simply let his die of neglect. There was a spirit in him, but a deadly raging spirit, completely devoid of soul. People who talked of God, of their personal relationship with God, both fascinated and confused him. In their own way, they terrified him. Soul mates and soul brothers and soul patches and fucking Soul Train. “Soul” was a word he could not comprehend, as if he was too thick-headed or stupid to understand the word.
When he was a boy, the old woman sang to him songs of Jesus; he’d sit and listen in awe and fascination, but in the end he’d be simply entertained and more and more perplexed. It’s not that he didn’t want to believe, he wanted to eat the wafer and drink the wine and jump in the water, but there was no connection to the Divine, not even a path.
Inside, deep inside, Frankie was dead. There was an emptiness he ran from endlessly. It was worse at night, when insomnia surrounded him. That’s when he felt the most alone and vacant. He’d lie there in fear. Sometimes a cold sweat would soak Frankie’s sheets as he realized he was completely alone in the dark and silence, a silence that would scream inside his head. He’d hold on, shaking and watching the shadows until daylight arrived, ever so slowly.
Summer was better than winter; the daylight came quicker. He could only survive in the light. The darkness held a complex terror that he believed deeply would kill him one day. It was an echoing abyss, a hole he wanted to desperately climb out of and into the light, but he was always an observer, on the outside peering in through a frosted window. He told me one time it was like seeing a hot girl, but his dick wouldn’t work, and the more he wanted it the more it eluded him. Only Frankie could equate the quest for God and salvation to boners.
Alexandrine watched all this from her front porch. As he walked up to her from the sidewalk, he could see signs of amusement and anger on her face. “Getting yourself killed because of your big mouth does no one any good,” she said. Then they walked into her apartment. She brought him a glass of tepid water, and sat down next to him. She put her large arm around him and hugged him deeply.
“You don’t know the strength and power you possess, Frankie, but you waste it. Look around this place. Do you see the things around you? They are here because of you. My kids have food in the refrigerator because of you; we have a refrigerator because of you. We have heat and electricity because of you. You have power within you. Life is so fragile. The roof over our head is fragile and we didn’t always know where our next meal would come from. We do now. Do you know how powerful that is? You are not Superman, Frankie, but you are a good and honest man. Be humble and be brave.”
Then she continued, “This life is fragile. It gets more and more fragile the further down we go. Living at the bottom, the pressure from everyone above us increases until everything, even the strongest thing, breaks apart. This life I live in, Frankie, isn’t even day to day—it’s hour by hour. Sometimes I sit back and wait for the next fucked up thing to happen. Sometimes I sit back and wait for the next bad news. I know it’s coming within five minutes of the last bad news: bill collectors, debt collectors, motherfucking landlords, doctors, drug addicts, drug dealers, fucking cancer, heroin, pregnant kids.
“You don’t know shit about how fragile life is, Frankie; you really don’t know shit about it. You think you do, but you have no idea. You worry when you only have ten dollars and you need to get drunk. Sometimes I have nothing and four hungry kids. I’ve had to decide which of my kids eats and which goes hungry. Who gets clothes for school and who wears rags. When are they sick enough to see a doctor? I’ve seen babies die, Frankie. Did you ever see a baby die? You come and visit my poverty, but you are a visitor. You can leave. You can go to your bar and get drunk and fall asleep in the bathroom and wake up with your face on the bathroom floor, and you can bitch about how bad that morning sucked, but you don’t know shit. Every day I wake up, face down in the smell of the piss of this life and all I can do is make a choice. I can either smile at the smell of piss and get up or drown in it. I’m out of dreams, Frankie. You are a good man; I know it. Better than most; stronger than most, but when you say life is fragile, you don’t know shit.”
That woman was his friend, maybe his best friend, and his guide. He needed to talk to her. It took a long time before he’d even share her name with anyone. She was from the Deep South, a Cajun, down deep in the Mississippi bayou. He never understood why she stayed in the north, it seemed to Frankie that a person could be destitute anywhere. Why would someone like that stay here where it seems to snow ten months out of the year?
He needed Alexandrine’s honesty. She kept him grounded and real. He picked up the pay phone, slid in some change, and called her. As he listened to the coins drop into the box, he held the grimy handset to his ear. When she answered, she knew it was him. She cried a little, asked him where he went. She had heard about the beating and she assured him Billy was still alive, but he was in bad shape. She repeated what everyone else had said. No one was going to come after anyone for beating the shit out of Billy Martin.
Then she got angry. She asked why he left with no goodbye. He stood there, staring at the hideous wooden paneling on the wall behind the phone, full of handwritten notes and phone numbers. A few read, “For a good time, call . . .” “There just wasn’t time,” was all Frankie could offer. “Billy’s family has money and if they want answers, they’ll get them. I really have to get the fuck away from anywhere Pam lives or could live or ever will live. I have to go away for a while. Winter is setting in hard here, Alex. I need to get somewhere warm. When I come back north, I could stop by and pick up you and the kids and take you south. Come with me. What is holding you here?”
Alexandrine only said, “Life holds me here. It’s the same thing that holds you here, that will always draw you back here. This is your home, Frankie. People like me are your home. When they loaded us up on that bus after Hurricane Frederick, I said, ‘no matter where I end up, that’s going to be home from here on in.’ No more running, no more hiding. Frankie, this is where I’m going to stay; you should now come home, Frankie.”
He thought a minute about what she said. Her toughness. Her resolve. A religious friend once said that God put people like Alex on this earth as a mirror to the rest of us. To look at her and her pride and her poverty, the honor she carried with her, then to look at ourselves and our wealth in contrast and be grateful. Thoughts like this were beyond Frankie.
It was once suggested that Alexandrine was the only person he could ever love. It was not a sexual love or a romantic love. It was deeper than friendship. Frankie met her in the bayou one day on a trip to the Deep South to buy weed. It was like she appeared to him out of thin air. She was sitting on a bench: silent, meditative. Frankie stood next to her, smoking a cigarette, and she began to talk to him; not really so much as a conversation, but like she spoke to something inside him.
She was a big woman, with midnight black skin and crazy hair. As he talked to her or listened—he was never sure when he was with her, probably more listened—he could only think, “This is the spookiest person I’ve ever met.” A little scary, very strong, determined, and smart, but so spooky. She discovered way too much about him in the three minutes it took Frankie to burn a Marlboro.
It was months after this encounter that she appeared in Middletown. He was shocked to see her walking down the street. He asked her why she was here and Alexandrine said she did not really know, but it seemed to her that since a person could be just about anywhere, why not here? Frankie pressed further, “But why here, why my town?” She smiled at him. He never asked any more questions. Alex had found him and it seemed to him to be a good thing.
“Frankie, in the paper today, they called Pam ‘Billy’s girlfriend.’ There was more going on there than a drug deal. Let it go, Frankie. The paper says they have no suspects. That means Pam isn’t telling anyone anything. She’s covering for you and she was with Billy.” Frankie slammed the phone receiver into the wall three times as Alex listened on the other end.
“Girlfriend? She wasn’t his fucking girlfriend!”
Alexandrine muttered to herself and Frankie, “That’s what you are going to focus on here? That they called her his girlfriend? Frankie, for once, just for one moment, ponder eternity. This life is not to be consumed second by second with no thought forward or back. Live in the moment, but ponder eternity. You will find it before you are ready and you will not be prepared. There is more than this moment or the next.”
Frankie started to tell her about the homeless guy. She interrupted him, “His name is Landry. He’s Cajun like me. Listen to him, Frankie. He sees things about you; he knows things about you. Don’t do this Frankie. You will see him again. Next time he may not be so kind.”
Frankie had to go. He started to shake inside. He told Alex he’d call in a few days when he was somewhere warm. They both said, “I love you” and, at the same time, they both hung up.
Frankie walked back to Eddie at the table. “Can we please get the fuck out of here?” It seemed that there was no place for Frankie right now. Frankie then asked where Landry was.
Eddie said, “Landry? Who the hell is Landry?” Frankie answered that Alex knew all about him. Eddie shook his head. Landry was nowhere to be found. Everywhere seemed to be the wrong place to be.
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