Be Frank With Me - Julia Claiborne Johnson


February 2010

BECAUSE THE STATION wagon blew up in the fire, Frank and I took the bus to the hospital. When I told him we’d get there in less than half the time in a taxi, Frank said, “I only ride in taxis with my mother. You are not my mother, Alice.”

This was a fact. Once the kid latched onto a fact there was no point in trying to talk him around to practicalities. “Fine,” I said. “We’ll take the bus.”

We hadn’t been on the bus very long when Frank said, “People are staring at me.”

“So? You’re fun to look at.” This was also a fact. Frank was pretty in the angelic way ten-year-old boys are sometimes: skin all pink and white and smooth, outsized dark eyes with ridiculously long lashes, freckles spilled across his nose. He had red hair, but not the crazy, curly orange kind that gets kids cast in television commercials when they’re four and ostracized on the playground when they’ve grown to a pasty, lumpy eleven. Frank’s was the Irish setter auburn you almost never see in real life, shiny-smooth and heavy, with a way of falling across his forehead that made you think there was always a stylist standing just outside the frame, keeping it perfect. Casting agents would have gone nuts for him in the early days of Technicolor.

But his looks weren’t what had our fellow travelers transfixed, certainly not in a place like Hollywood where gorgeous kids are so common that you even see them on city buses. No, what got people staring was Frank’s look. Before we left the house that morning he’d shellacked his hair like a mini Rudolph Valentino, put on a wing-collared shirt, white tie and vest, a cutaway coat, morning pants, and spats. Also a top hat, which he balanced on his knees while we rode to the hospital because, as he’d explained to our bus driver when the man admired it, “A gentleman never wears his hat indoors.”

I was the only person on that bus who understood what a sacrifice it was for him not to wear the hat. Out in the world, Frank needed to be 100 percent buttoned up, buckled down and helmeted, even if it were a hundred degrees outside. Seasonally inappropriate is what mental health factotums call his way of dressing, while people into fashion call it style.

“Alice, can you make the people staring at me stop staring at me?” he asked.

“I can’t,” I said. “Close your eyes so you can’t see them.”

He did, and put his head on my shoulder. I almost put my arm around him, but stopped myself in time. When he leaned against me I caught a whiff of fire and maybe a little brimstone. Frank usually smelled like a mix of lavender and rosemary and little boy sweat so I guessed the smoke had gotten its fingers into his wardrobe, even if the fire hadn’t. I’d have to take all his outfits to the cleaners. I’d have to rent a U-Haul.

“They’re just staring because you’re the only kid on the bus dressed in a morning suit,” I added.

“I chose this ensemble because I am in mourning,” he said. He sat up and turned his face toward me, but kept his eyes squeezed shut.

“Your mother is going to be fine,” I said. I hoped I wasn’t lying. “For the record, that kind of mourning, the feeling sad kind, is spelled m-o-u-r-n-i-n-g. Morning like a morning suit is spelled m-o-r-n-i-n-g.”

“I am not a good speller.”

“We all have our strengths and weaknesses.”

“I imagine Albert Einstein was a bad speller,” Frank said, settling against me again. “A bad speller, with terrible penmanship. Despite these shortcomings, Albert Einstein won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921. Do you think Einstein’s mom cared about his spelling and penmanship?”

“Probably,” I said. “Mothers are like that. It’s their job to sweat the details, don’t you think?”

When Frank didn’t respond I realized he’d fallen asleep. I was glad to see it. The ride would be long and he hardly slept, ever. He had to be exhausted. I know I was. Which wasn’t going to make it easier to handle whatever we found once we got to the hospital. Frank’s mother had been held there for three days of psychiatric observation after the fire.

Frank’s mother was M. M. Banning, the famous literary recluse.

Long before she’d become famous or a recluse, Frank’s mother or my boss, the nineteen-year-old version of M. M. Banning, a college dropout from Nowheresville, Alabama, wrote Pitched,