Franklin's aching frame struggled out from under the layers of newspaper and cardboard bedding near a highway overpass by the American River. Had his situation been less dire or sense of smell better, he might have appreciated the musk of the earth underneath him and the redolence of wildflowers in shades of periwinkle, pink and yellow scattered throughout the small park. With hands on hips and feet spread wide apart, he gazed skyward. A barely visible autumn mist hung dripping in the air. He stuck out his tongue. "Augghhhhh." A man sleeping under a nearby tree groaned in protest.
"Piss off," groused Franklin before moving into some nearby bushes to relieve himself.
Back at his camp site Franklin wet his kerchief with river water he kept in a plastic one-gallon jug and mopped at his face and neck. Too cold outside to do more. With a comb still possessing most of its teeth, he tried to tame his longish, grey mane.
Once he had auburn waves that women wound their fingers through. Once he beckoned girls to the front of stages with a lascivious grin and glimmering steel-blue eyes that offered sensual adventure, rebellion and more. He had pranced and flaunted to his audiences, smug, arrogant, the object of covetousness, lust and impotent jealousy. Another lifetime ago.
He wished he could brush his teeth. He could taste the stench in his mouth and feel it on his tongue, but he had a bad tooth and the left side of his face seethed with the abscess. He ran his finger around the inside of last night's whiskey bottle and rubbed it on his gums. Futile.
His tin cup rested atop the things in his shopping cart. He retrieved it and tied it to a belt loop on his pants with a filthy shoe string. Franklin grasped his cart and, with a heave, started for the street above. As he pushed forward, his head, with its mangled, tobacco-stained beard whipped from side to side, searching for imagined threats. He had long ago accepted he was an alcoholic, but rarely recognized the consequences of his disease. He lived amidst perils of his own making, delusion as at home in his mind as the harsh realities of life on the streets.
The fragrance of the park was soon replaced by the odor of gasoline and oil from cars speeding by and the bouquet of fresh baked goods from the two nearby patisseries. Franklin failed to notice. His goal was to get to the spot where he knew he could sit down and no one would drive him away.
Franklin came to the place where he usually spent the better portion of his day. It wasn't a corner, but it was close enough. Corners got more foot traffic, allowed for better panhandling. This piece of the sidewalk was at the edge of an alley by a dry cleaning shop. He remembered when being by a dry cleaners was good because of the cloistering, steamy heat. Not these days. Now they were just depots. Still the memory was nice, so he sat down on a piece of cardboard and pulled his tin cup off its string. Time for work.
He brought his limbs in as close to his body as was comfortable, both to conserve heat and to be as unobtrusive as possible. With arms resting on his knees, Franklin held the tin cup in palsied fingers as he pleaded for change with his rheumy eyes. His jaw throbbed with pain. He needed a drink.
As he sat on the dirty sidewalk, Franklin allowed his mind to wander back to a different life. He pictured the girls who flocked to his dressing rooms. He remembered slouching on broken-down couches drinking Jack Daniels, hand holding the bottle, an arm draped over the shoulder of some girl whose face he would not remember by the next morning, whose kisses never sustained him for a single night.
But the whiskey, he always remembered the whiskey and how it carried him away, gave him peace, courage. He could forget the squalor of his family home and the mother who insisted he was her only reason for living. "My boy, my lovely boy," she would coo as she held his face between her hands. "You are my weakness." Every night, every single night. Then she would kiss him on the mouth and hold the kiss ... so long, too, too long.
When Johann, the owner of the dry cleaning business, came out the door, Franklin returned to his present reality with a shudder of revulsion and gladly left his mother behind.
Sebastian was an alcoholic. Johann had detested his brother-in-law's weakness and, at times, viewed it as a threat to the bond with his wife, Marta. Sebastian would impose on their quiet lives with no regard for the sanctity of their home. He would request a place to stay, always saying "only a few days, a week at the most." Johann felt he had no choice but to relent. After all, Sebastian was family, however unwanted. In the end, Johann would inevitably have to insist he go. Of course, he would find his brother-in-law had taken "a few trinkets," as Marta said, with him. Johann's resentment grew throughout the years.
Shortly after Christmas of the previous year Johann had gotten Sebastian out of the house by paying for two nights at a fleabag motel in another part of town. Johann had a talk with him as they drove.
"Look, Sebastian, you've worn out your welcome. You can't stay with Marta and me anymore." He shoved a wad of cash at the other man, two twenties, and a couple of tens. "You're thirty-seven years old. Find a way to support yourself. Leave us alone." He never told Marta what he'd done.
Only a few weeks later, in January his brother-in-law showed up on their doorstep again. His story was worn and weak. He barely bothered to concoct one. What was the point? They would let him in; his sister would at least. His knock had come right after Johann and Marta had finished their evening meal. There was a heavy drizzle in the air, not quite rain. When Johann opened the door Sebastian started to push past him.
"I nee' a place fer a cupula nights, Johann," he slurred.
Johann put a firm hand on the man's shoulder. Sebastian gripped the door frame. When Johann spoke, anger and resolve filled his words. "No, not this time; I told you I don't want you here. Find a shelter or something, but not here."
Sebastian grinned crookedly at Johann. "Look, jest one nigh.' Go talk to Marta."
"No! This is our home, not yours." Johann gave the man a brusque shove.
He heard Marta's voice rise from behind him. "Johann, that's my brother. You can't turn him away."
"I can and I am!"
"But it's cold and raining," Marta persisted.
"Marta, let me handle this. He can't stay. I won't put up with this anymore. He smells like a brewery. We aren't his personal charity, Marta! He can go to a shelter."
"Cm'on, Johann," Sebastian cajoled. "One night an' I'll go."
Johann shoved the man off his porch with all the force he could muster. "Go! Go crawl into the gutter and leave us alone! I already gave you my answer."
He stepped onto his small porch. Marta cried and protested from inside the house, but Johann held his ground. When his brother-in-law tried to gain access to the porch, Johann hurled him onto the sidewalk.
"If you don't leave I will call the police," Johann growled. He stood, arms folded over his chest, refusing to be challenged any further.
His brother-in-law got up from the sidewalk and pulled a small bottle of whiskey from his coat pocket. He downed the remainder of the bottle and wiped his lips on his coat sleeve. "Yer an ashole, Johann," he spat out the words. "I never liked you." Bellowing into the house he continued, "Marta, you could ha' done a lot better!"
As he wagged a fist at Johann, he stumbled over a crack in the sidewalk. "Prick!" He grabbed a tree for support. "Fine, I'm goin', but yer still an ashole." He almost fell again.
Marta was in the doorway reaching for Johann's arm. "Please, he's too drunk to be outside," she begged.
"There has to be an end, Marta. This is intolerable. I'll give him enough money for a cheap motel for the night, but that's it. Go back inside."
Sebastian attempted a few halting steps down the street before turning back to face Johann. As he turned he fell into a parked car. He swung a useless fist at Johann before saying, "Ashhole!" He blindly staggered into the street from between two parked cars.
He surely never saw the car coming and the driver had no time to react on the slick street. He was thrown into the air and landed on the pavement head first.
Johann heard Marta's screams as if through a filter. He was vaguely aware of running to Sebastian's body. The driver calling someone on his cell phone. Johann holding Marta back. The driver trying to revive the dead man. Sirens and lights. Neighbors on the sidewalk. The sourness of bile in Johann's mouth. Marta's fists hard against his chest. Metallic smell of blood. A night that ripped at husband and wife, took a whole and rendered two. An unbreachable chasm.
Months later, at the beginning of June Marta called Johann into the kitchen. She set a cup of tea in front of him at the table.
"Johann, I have something to say," Her gaze bored into him. "Please don't make me repeat myself."
Johann's hand trembled as he raised the tea cup to his lips. He placed the cup back in the sauce with a jangling of china.
"What is it, Marta?" He tried to keep his voice steady. She hadn't gone with him to their store that day. Bile rose in his throat when he thought about what she might say. He placed his hands firmly on the table. "Marta, I love you, but I'm not going to move out, if that's what you have in mind." He pushed his chair back as if to stand. Resolve etched his face. "This will pass. We will find a way to make ..."
"I'm not asking for that, Johann, but I need you to move to the spare room." Her arms crossed over her breasts.
"Marta! Do you understand what you're saying? You want me to move into the room where Sebastian slept!"
He shot up from the table and in two strides was standing in front of Marta, his hands gripping her shoulders.
"I won't do it!" He shook her. "I can't do it. I will not sleep away from you. I will not live in the place Sebastian spent so many nights drinking."
She shrugged his hands off her shoulders and moved to the sink. She picked up the dishrag. "You will, Johann. Do you know why? Because I lost the only family I had left when you ... you decided to turn Sebastian away that night. You robbed me and you tricked me into believing you were a good man, better than most. You will sleep where he slept and maybe come to understand something about him, I don't know." She turned her back on him. "I can no longer bear to share your bed." She threw the dishrag in the sink; her shoulders sagged. "I have moved your things already."
Johann collapsed onto the chair next to him. He looked at Marta's back and knew that she was weeping. "I will not, Marta, I will not," he said softly. "I am your family." He rose from the chair and left the house.
That night Johann slept in the back of the dry cleaning store. He felt like an outcast. He was more than alone. Marta's rejection was like a hammer pounding down on his heart. A fissure began to form.
In the morning, Johann went home. Marta refused to discuss anything with him so he went upstairs to bathe. He found he could neither get into the bathroom nor his bedroom. There were new locks on the doors. He went downstairs and found all his clothes in the room Sebastian had used and his razor and other things in the bathroom across the hall.
"Marta, this is not right," he whispered to no one, but went into the bathroom and showered.
That night Johann changed the sheets on the bed and climbed under the covers. He detected a stale wisp of alcohol and vomit in the air. A ghost haunted the room and it mocked Johann. It was his imagination, he told himself. He was right, of course, but in a dark corner of his mind, there was doubt.
It was in September, nine months after Sebastian's death and in another light rain that Johann found a man panhandling outside his business. As soon as the man recognized he'd been spotted he moved on. At first annoyed at seeing the hobo panhandling in front of his shop, Johann found he was inexplicitly disappointed to see him go. There was something about this man's demeanor, a certain sense of indifference, almost arrogance in the way he moved down the sidewalk. Perhaps Johann was reading too much into this one act. Still, the next day Johann kept an eye out for the wretch.
For weeks Johann found himself staring out his storefront window. He told himself it was simply the weather, the not-quite rain. He certainly wasn't looking for some crazy homeless man he happened to see once. Maybe he was just avoiding Marta's contemptuousness.
One afternoon near the end of October, Johann strolled to the store window and saw the homeless man coming out of the liquor store across the street, a brown paper bag in hand. Johann turned from the window in disgust, but a minuscule spark of kinship began to pulse in his chest.
Long before Johann found that once he was in his store he was reluctant to leave for any reason. The dry cleaning shop gave him a feeling of security. He had started preparing his lunch in a brown paper bag to keep from having to close up the store in the middle of the day. Marta always went home for lunch. He ate up front at the counter in case anyone should come in. It also gave him a decent view of the street.
After seeing the bum at the liquor store Johann started packing two lunches. What was he hoping for? He felt ridiculous, but compelled to continue. He couldn't explain this to himself.
It was awkward at first, approaching this strange homeless man. Johann would spot the man coming down the sidewalk and find a reason to be in front of his store with an apple or a sandwich. Sometimes his offering was accepted, other times the man seemed not to understand the gesture. Their communication was limited to Johann holding out the item and saying, "for you" and getting a "thank you" or "no, thank you" in return. Either way Johann found the small exchange rewarding.
One afternoon, after accepting a peanut butter sandwich from Johann, the homeless man stopped. He stood a little straighter and looked Johann in the face. "My name is Franklin."
"I'm Johann." He was startled, but gratified by the simple gesture. "Let me get you a bottle of water." Franklin waited on the sidewalk while Johann went inside and returned with the water.
Franklin came by earlier the next day. Johann was outside cleaning the storefront window as Marta scowled at him from behind the counter inside.
"Here." Franklin held out a new, unsharpened pencil. It was purple with silver stars. "This is to help you in the store." He gazed seriously into Johann's eyes.
Johann took the pencil and admired it for a moment. "Thank you, Franklin. That's very kind of you."
"It's just a pencil," Franklin shrugged.
"But it means a lot to me," Johann carefully placed the pencil in his shirt pocket.
Johann held out his hand and Franklin took it. They shook hands solemnly, each looking into the other's eyes. A friendship sprouted roots.
Johann carried two thick slices of bread with meat and cheese between them and a bottle of water. His round, ruddy face smiled kindly at Franklin.
"Franklin," the shopkeeper said. "How are you today?" He held out the sandwich with his chubby fingers. "These are for you. I made the bread last night. There's cheese and bologna on it. Here," he urged, thrusting the bread closer. "Take it."
Franklin shuffled over to the man. "Thank you, Johann."
Johann shrugged. "It's nothing, a little bread and some water." He placed a hand on Franklin's shoulder. "Be well, my friend." He turned to go back into his shop.
Franklin bit into the bread. "Arrrrrggggg! Ohhhh!" He grabbed the side of his face.
Johann was by Franklin's side in an instant. "Ahhh, Franklin," he said as he peered into the other man's mouth. "Something must be done. Immediately. It's an abscess. It's a dangerous thing. It could kill you. The infection can spread throughout your body."
Franklin slapped Johann's hand away. "What am I supposed to do? I don't have money for a dentist."
Johann called into the store. "Marta, come here, please. Marta, can you hear me?" He hoped that since it was the holiday season and so much time had passed, Marta might be in a more generous mood.
"Johann, I hear you," she said irritably, hands on her rotund hips as she emerged from the store. "What's all this shouting about?" She glared at Franklin.
Johann stared beseechingly at Marta. "Look, Marta, look at the side of Franklin's face. It's the size of a watermelon, for the love of God. Something must be done. He should see Dr. Blankenship immediately."
Franklin looked from Marta to Johann, bewildered. Until biting into the bread the abscess was an annoying throb, but when drunk he barely noticed it. If he was lucky he would be drunk again in a little while and the pain would be gone. He gingerly touched his cheek. He pushed a little harder, then harder. He felt something pop inside his mouth and knew that the abscess had just ruptured. He pushed again, this time with force. His mouth filled with a foul, metallic tang and salty ooze slithered over his tongue. He moved to the corner of the alley, away from the couple, and spit. "Uggg," he coughed.
Johann came up to him and handed Franklin the bottle of water. "Here, my friend, rinse." Turning to Marta he pleaded, "We must help him. Can you watch the store while I take Franklin to Dr. Blankenship? Is it all right?" These days he asked permission for everything.
Marta threw her hands in the air. "Oh no, it isn't all right. Dr. Blankenship will never allow Franklin to come into his offices among his patients looking and smelling like this." She looked at Franklin. "I suppose you'll have to come next door to our house. You must bathe and put on clean clothes. After that Johann can take you to the dentist." Turning back to Johann she added, "Make sure the doctor knows that we are not paying for this man's bill. It should be his act of charity."
She fluttered her hands toward the door of the shop, but Franklin didn't move. "No," he flatly stated. "It's too much, too much." He turned to leave, but turned back to Johann. "Explain to your wife why she shouldn't invite someone like me into her home." He drew the bottle of water to his mouth, rinsed and spit on the sidewalk. "I'll find another place, away from your store." He held Johann with his gaze. "Too much, too close." He started down the alley.
Johann watched as Franklin pushed his cart. "Marta, what are we to do? The poor man." He wrung his hands. "He could die from that tooth."
Marta shrugged heavy shoulders and turned to go back to the store. "It's not my problem. Why should you help Franklin?"
Johann knew the implication: Why Franklin when not her brother?
Resolve swept over Johann's face. "Your brother was like Franklin and I was foolish, I did the wrong thing. He died because I denied him!" He sighed. "Marta, I have a chance make up for what I did to Sebastian and to prove to you that I am a good man and at the same time help my friend. I'm going to bring Franklin back."
As Johann strode down the alley he called for Franklin to stop, but Franklin continued, oblivious to Johann's shouts. In Franklin's world he was now at a concert where he and his band were the opening act, the scene a clear picture in his disintegrated mind. He was just leaving the stage and girls crowded his exit. He threw an arm around one as he moved through the throng, pulling her along beside him. He kissed her neck as his music rang in his ears and coursed through his veins. The girl tried to kiss him, but the whiskey bottle was at his lips and he nudged her away while he drank. Rock and roll.
In his tour bus he found his kit and quickly shot up. More whiskey and a haze as he began to nod. The girl's voice was miles away. "You are my weakness," she gushed and he shoved her off his lap. His head lolled against the back of the seat and he let everything slide away.
Johann broke into a trot, then a jog. He called out again.
Franklin's head whipped around. He waved Johann away. Johann would not be deterred.
"My friend, wait, we can help each other. This is not charity," Johann pleaded. "I must make amends for the past."
Franklin wanted to return to the bus. He thrust Johann away from him. "Get out of here!" His shouts were desperate. "Leave me alone. You got too close. Your wife, my mother, all the girls, too close."
Johann stared at him in wonder. "But Franklin, I only want to help. It can be a second chance for both of us." His tears flowed. "My friend ..."
Franklin shot out of the alley and into the street. Johann chased after him as dreams of redemption played in his soul. He caught Franklin by the sleeve. The two men locked in a strange embrace as a struggle ensued. In the briefest moment of clarity, Franklin recognized the need written across Johann's face and knew the uselessness of it.
From her end of the alley Marta watched in horror. She screamed for her husband to stop. "Come back, Johann. Please, come back!" Her heart seized with fear and remorse as she realized the torture Johann had endured for the last year had reached its final throes. He was not capable of more.
Franklin looked up and saw the light rail train hurling toward them, heard the blasts. The briefest trace of a smile. He stood transfixed by the lights of the stage and the roar of the crowd. The band back together. He knew what to do.
"Time to hit the stage." He held fast to his friend and waited.
Johann also heard the blasts from the train. He desperately tried to pull Franklin out of harm's way. Franklin, in his delirium, was not moving from the front of the stage. Johann broke free of his friend's death embrace just before the train reached them. He fell to the ground mere feet from the tracks.
Johann saw. He saw as Franklin, arms outstretched on either side of his body, head turned in Johann's direction, grinned and shouted, "Rock and roll ..." The train slammed into Franklin and pulled him under. Gone.
Johann didn't move.
Marta had run down the alley hoping to stop her husband. Now that she had caught up to him she reached for his arm. "Johann ..."
Johann spied Franklin's cart. Before Marta could finish, he jumped up and ran to the cart. His eyes were wide, wild. He laughed and cried at once. Marta touched his sleeve. He shrugged her off and grasped the handle.
"Johann, stop," Marta pleaded. Her voice cracked.
Johann pushed the cart. He was moving in the direction of the park by the river. His head jerked in one direction then the other, looking for enemies.
That night Johann slept under the stars in the spot Franklin had inhabited. He slept peacefully, happily. He was drunk.
Article © Elaine Zentner. All rights reserved.
Published on 2018-01-08