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The Blackberries in Smoking Frank's Garden
I think of Frank in his junkyard paradise.
Somewhere, back in Kansas, Frank is growing blackberries.
In the summer, his whole front yard is a garden. He loads giant plastic tubs with soil and manure and he grows tomatoes, squash, radishes, and carrots. Lettuce grows out of holes punched into thick plastic PVC. From the street, his home is a green, leafy paradise. A junkyard paradise, in which a busted-up old camper shell has rusted onto an even more busted-up old truck. Sheets of galvanized tin are leaning against old hollow-core doors. And an ancient electric dryer sits by the garage, caked in years of dirt. In the middle of everything, a thin dirt pathway lined with blackberry brambles leads to his door.
Frank has a few names, but I knew him as Smoking Frank. Smoking Frank, with a rack of pork ribs slow-roasting all day on an electric skillet inside an old iron barrel in the front yard. The aroma of slow-cooked meat—the greasy, salty air of slow-bubbling animal fat—clung to the asbestos siding of the house. At holiday season, he drops off hams and birds around town. Smoking Frank, who sits inside most days and lights up another pipe. He speaks with an incessant, smoky laugh.
Frank had a dog once, a pitbull named Jack. When he talked about it him, later, standing among the plants in his yard, he flung one arm back. He pointed to the empty, shaded chainlink pen abutting his front wall, and choked back a sob. “That fucking... fucking. That fucking dog.” He wants another dog, but his heart is still broken.
Frank’s “fucking” is another person’s “um” or “like,” a placeholder to fill the empty air while the right word comes to mind. He’ll say, “I saw you last (pause) fucking (pause) Tuesday at the (pause) fucking (pause) tire shop. It was (pause) fucking (pause) three hours before I got my tires. (pause) Fucking (pause) takes forever.” The words are slow trains, running behind schedule into his mouth. “Fucking” stands at the platform and waits.
Once, he was best drywaller in the county. He was always working, so he was always sweaty, usually a day or two past needing a shower. His wife-beater tank tops were grey after years of indifferent washing. His blue jeans were so stained with oil and paint, plaster and mud, there is no name for the color that those jeans became.
But after his heart attack, he slowed down. The same work took twice as long. When I pointed out that he was still charging the same pre-heart attack hourly rate, he smiled a slow, languorous smile at me and chuckled a little. “You fucking do it, then,” he said. “I’ll show you how.”
Frank likes to teach. How to wire electricity, how to sponge off drywall mud, how to patch concrete. He taught me to tile the walls and floor of the bathroom in the apartment I owned. For three days, he and I met in the morning and spent hours passing tiles through the wet saw, frosting the greenboard with thin-set mortar, laying white tiles up the wall.
“Frank’s a great guy,” my neighbor’s daughter Hannah said, and she licked the salt on her wrist before tipping back another shot of tequila. She set down the glass, held the lime to her mouth with her left hand, and motioned with her right for us to wait a second. “Still, though,” she finally managed, “I don’t know if I’d leave him alone with a woman.” She looked me over, eyes shining, and laughed. “I definitely wouldn’t leave him alone with you.”
“Oh, come on, now.” Laurie flicked her cigarette into the ashtray next to Hannah’s tequila bottle and elbowed her daughter. “You’ll scare her.” We were all sitting out on Laurie’s patio, and I’d mentioned Frank was going to help me learn to tile that summer. “Frank’s harmless,” said Laurie. “Sure, he’ll give you that shit-eating grin every time he sees you,” she lowered her eyelids and leered in a perfect imitation, “Hey, Baby.” And she, Hannah and I doubled over in laughter. “But, really,” Laurie tried to pull herself together. “Really. He’s a good guy.”
The first of the three July mornings I spent with Frank, as I was pressing one white tile onto the south-facing bathroom wall, both hands smoothing the surface evenly against the thin-set, I felt Frank’s palm rest on my left thigh. “Frank,” I snapped, still holding the tile, “that isn’t helping me with this wall.” He pulled back, chuckling, and went to cut some more half pieces. To his credit, I only had to tell him once.
Frank thinks every politician is a motherfucker. That counts double for the City Council. And, sure, he likes every Mexican he knows, but he thinks the ones he doesn’t know will inevitably try to screw him too. When he gets some money, he goes to the casino in Wichita and throws it away on nickel slots, so he prefers not to get paid too much at one time. Frank gets paid in cash, like a lot of people do in this world. Just like a lot of those Mexicans he doesn’t like. But I would never tell you when or how much. And, if the Social Security office ever asks, he hasn’t worked in years.
In his world, cold air rises and hot air falls. I tried to tell him differently once, but he just laughed at me and my stupidity. He kept on blustering on about it until I gave up and admitted I was wrong. Sure, whatever. Hot air falls, Frank. I don’t care anymore. The man does love to win an argument, but he doesn’t crow over it. He grins and then he moves on.
And he knows how to fill his time. One year, he glued together thousands of pennies to build a miniature cabin, about a foot and a half tall and equally wide. The cabin has a penny tile roof and penny windows and a penny front stoop. The cabin is shaded by a two-and-a-half-foot tall penny-built pine tree and framed by a four-inch penny fence that curves inward to line the walkway to its penny front door. The whole meticulous copper structure hunkers on a 4x4 piece of plywood on a table in Frank’s kitchen and it must weigh a few hundred pounds. I can’t imagine the number of hours it took to build. Whenever I mentioned it, he’d say, “Oh yeah, that fucking thing.” But he’d smile at it, shy with pride.
And once, maybe twenty-five or thirty years ago, Frank helped to raise two girls. They weren’t his, but the daughters of his girlfriend Theresa. The four of them, Frank and Theresa and the two girls, were living in a single-wide trailer on the west end of town and the little girls shared one tiny bedroom. When it rained, they were kept awake by the pinging of water hitting the metal pans all through the house.
Frank had a friend who was getting rid of another single-wide, shed-roofed trailer and Frank bargained long and hard with the man to get it. Then, over the course of one summer, he battened the two trailers together with scrap wood into a double-wide; he opened the walls to join the interior rooms, and he built a tar-paper roof on stilts to cover the whole structure, keeping out the rain. The two girls were safe and dry, in two new bedrooms. They grew up and one of them, Becca, told me the whole story one afternoon while she was waiting for her husband Tyler, the city cop, to retire from his patrol for the day. “I had some other dads,” Becca said. “But, really, Frank’s the only one I’d ever call that.”
Frank keeps on friendly business terms with the local weed dealers. He knew about the guy running meth out of an old Coke-branded semi-truck at the edge of town. And he told me the whole story of why Amy, the little redhead suffering behind the counter at the local gas station, wrapped her girlfriend’s car around a tree. It was a few summers ago, below the spillway at the lake. She died, strapped to a stretcher in the helicopter to Wichita. “She was a sweetie,” he said, as he finished the sad tale. “I guess she was a lesbian or something, but fuck, sorry, she was cute to look at. I liked to go talk to her, you know, when I went in for a fucking diet coke and a bag of chips. Sorry.” He used to apologize for cursing around me. I always told him not to worry about it.
Frank hasn’t had any alcohol in 25 years. If you ask him why, he’ll tell you that whole long story too. It isn’t mine to tell. But, damn, it’s worth it to ask.
In the years before old John Hazelstrom died, Frank went to the nursing home every day to eat lunch with him. Hazelstrom was pointlessly rich, the retired banker. He’d flown B-24’s over Germany and come home to Kansas to build a tiny empire in the flat, grassy cattle town. Sometimes Frank took him out for pizza and, from a booth by the window, I’d see that wiry, muscled back, that sweaty gray ponytail, straining to help lift Hazelstrom out of the passenger seat of the car and half-carry him into Jerry’s Pizza.
And you know, that old bastard Hazelstrom didn’t leave him a dime. But still, Frank cried at the funeral. He found a black suit jacket in his closet somehow and wore it over his white t-shirt and black jeans. He sat in the front row of the Methodist Church at the service, next to Hazelstrom’s daughter, who inherited everything. And afterward, he stood and he shook her hand. He held the rear left end of the coffin as they carried it to the hearse. Outside the church, I hugged him. I held onto him for a few moments and felt him quake with tears.
Say what you want. Frank knows as well as anybody, better than some, what love means.
“Hey, Baby,” he would call out at me through the open window of his truck and pull to the curb outside the house late in August. “I got somethin’ for you.” I rolled my eyes at the sleaze in his voice. I watched as he turned off the ignition and rummaged in the well below the passenger seat for a minute. Then he got out, grinning like a cat, to bring it to me. A gift. He handed me a mason jar and said, “Don’t give any of this away, okay?”
I held the jar of blackberry jam to my heart. I couldn’t help but smile. “Well, Frank, I might have to share a bit. Just a taste.”
“Alright, but you know I gave that to you, though. That’s yours.” And he grinned and shaded his eyes, looking me up and down. “Well, girl,” he would say, “you know where to find me.”
I watched him climb back into the truck, my friend Frank, waving and laughing as he pulled out onto Main Street.
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