Frank's House


ago
5 min
240
readings
3
Finalist
Jury
There's a house under construction on the empty lot across from the porch Frank sits on every day. In fact, it's been under construction for so long that the yellowed grasses and the towering fennel and the little bushels of firework wildflowers have overtaken any indication of the blackened bones there that once supported an entire house, which itself supported an entire family, that of Frank's daughter, Ardelia.
Secretly, Frank begins to work on it. He starts out in the morning and stares at all the rooms that used to be. From his vantage point on Lawrence and Linda's porch, and without lifting a tired finger, he remeasures out the terrace and replots the dimensions of the sunroom upstairs he himself added on some thirty years ago—a space once set ablaze daily by orange wallpaper under the soft sunset light. And how can he forget when his body won't let him? He lives all of it. Even today, the height of the basement and the exact pitch of the stairs manifest in his old man stoop: the way he hunches folded over from all those hot days climbing down and up again to fetch ice from the straw-lined pits that kept it cool.
And so, for years, the house comes easy. Frank does all the planning from his old neighbors' rocking chair until one day he's sure he's got all of it, down to the wooden trellises they used to grow beans in Ardelia's garden out back.
"That's right," he mutters, eyes focused on the lot across the street. "Gonna build us back that house, alright."
With his planning finished, he announces his intentions to his caretaker. Frank tests the waters with Linda, childless Linda, when she sits him down to dinner that night, tucking a napkin in his collar so he doesn't ruin Lawrence's old clothes.
"That house?" she asks, confused. Then her tone lowers. "Your old house?"
"Yes, Ardelia. Gonna build it up."
Linda is gentle with him now. She cannot but look at him and remember the night he appeared, rapping his walking stick at their window, and she and Lawrence awoke to their bedroom illuminated in a nauseating, flickering scarlet light coming from across the street.
Though gentle, her words are now rote, and they trickle from her mouth with a cadence she's only ever used with Frank.
"I'm Linda, Frank. Lawrence's Linda. From Dallas."
Frank grunts and nods to himself knowingly. He is not discouraged.
The next day he tells the postman who delivers the mail at the front gate.
"Goin' up tomorrow," he says.
"Tomorrow?"
"Yessir. We're gonna get to work on it tomorrow. Soon as you bring me that insurance money."
"Alrighty then, Frank. We'll get you that check by tomorrow."
That spring, the days all pass the same. Frank sits out and waits until the postman comes along around the corner, waving and shouting up to the statue on the porch, "How's that swimming pool comin' along, Frank?"
And Frank always answers with his own question. "Oh, it's just fine. Just fine. Where's the check of mine?"
But the postman will only shake his head. "Sorry, Frank. Not today. I'll see you tomorrow."
"Alright," is all Frank says, because what else is there to say? After a few more minutes, he'll walk down those four grand porch steps with the help of his walking stick, amble up that front lawn, collect the mail, and bring it on inside his old neighbors' house where he's lived for some years now. And there he'll stay until the next morning comes.
It's not long before everybody in the neighborhood knows Frank's set on rebuilding that house, and some don't think too kindly of it. Mrs. Gaines, who taught both Ardelia and then some decades later, Ardelia's child Isidora, drops by every Sunday to take Frank to church. He is only inclined to leave, she thinks, on account of the postman not making the rounds those days.
"It's just not right," she says to the other ladies in church. "You can't just keep an old man like him cooped up like that. I do my part, Lord knows, gettin' him here every week. I do my part."
And she does, coaxing him out of the bounds of Linda and Lawrence's house each week, even if it's just so he has somewhere else to sit and think for a while. But whether his thoughts are of God, of Heaven, of Ardelia, of Isidora, or just of that grand house whose floors he's walked over and over in his mind, she can't say.
One Sunday, Mrs. Gaines deposits Frank back to his new home after church and, eyeing the yawning gap across the street, decides to tell Linda exactly what's on her mind.
"It's just not right," she says, entreating one of the only women in the neighborhood who grew up far away in Dallas, and thus one who did not endure her tutelage and accept her as a voice of authority. "A man like that needs some forward motion. At his age, he needs some purpose, something real and compelling to move his life forward. He's stuck livin' in his head, goin' crazy over an imaginary house, and I'll be the devil's fool if I'm the first to tell you he didn't used to be that way."
Linda only wrings her hands right back. She nods and smiles with patience, grateful to Mrs. Gaines for the weekly church attendance she's made possible for Frank, and for those Sunday mornings she and Lawrence have alone.
"Yes, Mrs. Gaines. And maybe you're right, but there's no tearing him away from that porch. You know that as well as I do."
"Just promise me you'll try. Why not take him into town with you every now and then to help out with the groceries? You can introduce him to the old men who play checkers outside the store. He can make the trip, he's a strong man under all that sittin'."
Mrs. Gaines looks Linda up and down just once and then turns to go. "And just promise me you and Lawrence will keep tryin', too," she calls out over her shoulder. "Just because this man's livin' in the past doesn't mean you and Lawrence give up on your own future, now. There's plenty of desks in the schoolhouse."
"Yes ma'am. We'll try," promises Linda, who lifts a now self-conscious hand resting on her belly and places it instead on her waist. She closes the screen door, and of course, there's Frank as he always is in the afternoon. Sitting at the kitchen table and staring blankly right past her, through the screen door, and across the street.
It will be a promise as empty as that old lot, she realizes. Who is Mrs. Gaines to tell this old man how to move through his grief? She, Linda, should know best, after all. She's the one who bathes him, dresses him, and feeds him every day, not Mrs. Gaines.
Because what is motion to an old man who's witnessed the sickening groan of a roof caving in, the abrupt and uncomplicated hammer-and-nail assembly of two coffins, and the steady, season-long withering away of mountains of memorial flowers?
For the hundredth time, Linda shuts the kitchen drawer again where, for two years now under a neatly folded stack of dish towels, she's kept the thin, opened, and yellowing envelope with a letter stamped CLAIM DENIED. And for the thousandth time, she studies the solemn face of the bearded man in her house.
No, Linda decides. Out on the porch where he sees the wild grasses trundle in the wind, and there as he raises his hands to swat at the cloud of gnats in his face on his daily trip to the fetch the mail at the gate, and even in the afternoon when she puts him down to nap and, old as he is, the creak of his toss and turn resonate through the other rooms of the house—there is plenty of motion in Frank's life. And for now, she decides, it's just enough.
3

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