About seven years ago, during my senior year of high-school, I wrote a short story titled Frank, which I later changed to Living in Memory. It’s been tucked away since then, gathering dust, aging slowly – not unlike the eponymous character – until I found it this morning and got a chance to re-read my 18-year-old writing. It’s about 3,400 words and I wanted to share it here with you all. For those who get a chance to read it, I’d love to hear what you think in either the comments section or through a direct message.
Living in Memory
Frank felt stiff and it puzzled him.
As he sat there, sunlight streamed through the canopies of the gnarled old trees that populated the backyard of a two-story Victorian home. The back of the house was white vinyl and gleamed in the light, the sliding back door open and inviting. The smell of baking cookies wafted into the backyard from the oven inside and the sound of an old Abbey Road record could be heard playing in the living room. A swing set sat playfully on one side of the backyard, a garden on the other.
It was Frank’s ideal home, and it had cost an arm and a leg to buy, but it was all worth it to hear Charlie’s laughter as he swung back and forth to the creak of the swing-set chain.
Frank sat at a round wooden table on the small patio just beyond the sliding back door, reading a newspaper. From time to time he would look up at Charlie’s gleeful face, smiling to himself.
“Dad!” Charlie called.
Frank looked up to see Charlie standing in the middle of the backyard, the swing set forgotten behind him.
“Let’s play tag!” Charlie said, excited. He actually started clapping his hands together, “Please! Please, let’s play!”
Frank set the newspaper down on the table and got to his feet, “I’m warning you,” he said, teasing. “I’ve been practicing.”
Charlie let out a little shout and ran behind the swing set, hiding behind the small wood fort to the left of the swings. His sandy blonde curls poked out once, taking a quick peak to see if Frank was running towards him yet.
“I’m coming in three!” Frank began to edge forward, “Two! One!” Now Frank walked toward the wooden fort in earnest, a smile playing around the edges of his mouth. “You can run but you can’t hide!”
He angled to the right, intending to run around that side of the fort and flush Charlie into the middle of the yard. The swing set was still a fair distance away, so Frank broke into a jog, his knees still springy and feet still lithe.
But the little wooden fort was still quite far away. Frank frowned. He definitely didn’t remember the swing set being so far away from the back door of the house. He would have to get a couple friends over one day and move it closer; it shouldn’t take so long for Charlie to walk to the swings.
Frank glanced behind him and his frown grew more pronounced. There was the wooden table and on it was Frank’s newspaper, the headline “City Gropes in Dark, November 10, 1965,” lying face up on the shiny mahogany planks. Except the table was only about a foot behind him, well within arm’s reach.
This time Frank broke into an all out run, spooked and trying to reach Charlie behind the wooden fort. The day had taken on a hazy cast and the entire backyard was shimmering.
“Charlie!” Frank looked behind him and there was the wooden table, just a couple feet away. “Charlie!”
No sandy blonde head popped out from behind the wooden fort this time. “Charlie!” Frank yelled again. No response. The damned swing set was too far away. Frank resolved to get rid of it as soon as he figured out what was happening. It was far too dangerous.
Sweat began to bead on his forehead and run down his face. Frank reached up and wiped his face with the back of his hand. It was too hot outside for November. It had definitely not been hot enough to sweat a few minutes ago. Frank was wearing a jacket and jeans for God’s sake.
“Frank!” a scratchy old voice said again, more insistent this time.
Frank looked around, trying to find the speaker. All around him the haziness of the day was intensifying. He couldn’t even see past his own yard anymore. The sun above him looked like it was trying to hula dance, the entire orb swaying back and forth and contorting.
Frank’s head jerked around and he immediately gasped in pain as he felt a sharp stab in his neck from the sudden motion. He raised his hand to the pain but his arm responded sluggishly. His joints were stiff, unyielding to the commands he was giving them.
“You dozed off again,” the same scratchy old voice said.
Surprised, Frank changed his focus from his aching neck to the woman whom he now noticed was sitting across the table from him. She was old, must have been around eighty, but then again, Frank now remembered, so was he. She had liver spots on her face and her eyes were more than a little rheumy.
Sophie. Yes, her name was Sophie.
“It’s your turn,” Sophie said. Frank glanced down at the table between them and saw that a nearly finished checkers game had been set up. Around him all the other old men and women were sitting alone, watching television or just doing nothing. Sophie always loved to play board games, though. She had told him once that before her husband died years ago they’d played them every day.
“What team was I again?” Frank found his voice deeper, quieter and less clear than it had been in his dream.
“Red.” Sophie was smiling kindly at him. She was always smiling kindly. Frank didn’t think he had ever seen her not smiling kindly.
“Red, right.” Frank looked down at the red pieces on the table and rested his chin in his hand, pretending to think about his next move.
He glanced to his right, out of the floor to ceiling windows of the game room. Outside was a yard enclosed by hedges and covered by the canopies of trees. There was a patio with wooden tables just beyond the door. No swing set, though. Charlie would be disappointed.
“Medicine time, Mr. Frank.”
Frank got up quickly, or as quickly as he could, from his seat near one of the windows in the game room. The sun was setting behind the trees, dying the sky in colors of red, orange and purple. Sunset was Frank’s favorite time of day because it meant it was time to take his medicine, and taking his medicine meant it was time for company.
“Thank you, darling,” he said to the young woman who was standing next to his chair. Frank didn’t recognize her so he assumed that she was new. He began to walk to the medicine counter in the next room and she walked with him.
“Well aren’t you a treat,” she said, clearly a little confused. “Most people don’t like medicine time.”
Frank looked at her and returned the smile. “My favorite time of day.”
“Well isn’t that nice,” she said. Frank could hear the strain the fake sincerity put on her voice. This one wouldn’t last long. “Why do you love medicine time so much?”
For the few seconds that Frank forgot she was new, he looked at her incredulously. Every single person in the building knew that medicine time meant Frank was going to have a visitor. Day in and day out, even on weekends, he had a visitor.
Then he remembered, and explained patiently, as if she was the aging one, “Every day the sun sets and that means it’s medicine time.” They crossed into the next room where a line of people, each with their own attendant, had already formed behind a counter. “Somebody comes and gets me and I go to get my medicine. After I take my medicine I go to the relaxing room, the one with all the chairs and fancy televisions, and I have a visitor waiting for me.”
“Every day?” the young woman asked, her previous confusion deepening, “Your records didn’t—” she cut off mid-sentence, eyes wide.
Frank gave her a funny look as he took his place in line and she stopped beside him. “Every day,” he repeated slowly, as he would sometimes have to do for Sophie.
“That’s lovely,” she said.
They shuffled forward a few spaces in line. “Lately it’s just my son, Charlie. I can’t remember the last time I saw my brother, Richard. They probably don’t make Charlie sign in anymore since he comes every day, or maybe because he’s my son.”
She was nodding at his words emphatically. “That must be it,” she said when he’d finished.
They waited the rest of the time in line silently. When Frank got to the front of the line he received a thimble-sized cup of pills with the numbers 11/5/12 written in sharpie and a regular-sized cup of water. The new nurse, who said her name was Isabel, took both of them and they walked to a table. Frank took a minute getting into his seat and Isabel put the two cups down in front of him.
Every day it seemed to Frank that the people behind the counter gave him more and more pills. First he took the pink one, then the white one, the two really big white ones, the big blue one and the three little green ones. When he was done Isabel said, “Good job,” like you would to a first grader who had just written his first letter, took the empty cups and left.
Once she was gone Frank got laboriously to his feet and began the long, five-minute trek to the other side of the building and the relaxing room. His knees hurt as he walked; the doctors had told him years ago that he had terrible arthritis in his knees, so it was more of a shuffle to the other side of the building. Nevertheless, as he drew closer to the room he began to shuffle faster, excitement powering his movements.
He nodded and said hello to all of the other old people or attendants who hailed him as he moved past, but never stopped in to have a chat with them. Charlie was waiting for him.
When Frank finally arrived at the room he spotted Charlie’s sandy blonde curls immediately. He was sitting in the same blue leather chair he always sat in when he visited, in the far corner of the room, far away from the mindless noise of the gigantic fancy televisions.
As Frank shuffled his way over, Charlie waved to him enthusiastically, pointing to the wooden chair that sat beside him. Frank couldn’t sit in those big leather chairs or he would never be able to get up.
Once he was seated Charlie gave him a smile and said, “Hi, Dad.”
“Hi, Charlie,” Frank said happily, “You look like you’ve gotten fatter again.”
Charlie leaned further back in his seat, patting a stomach that was beginning to bulge through his button down shirt. “I’ve been eating a lot lately. I’ve been making mom’s old mac and cheese recipe for dinner.”
Frank chuckled, reminiscing about how much Charlie used to hate leaving food on his plate. “How’d the team do in the game yesterday?”
Charlie’s eyes lit up at the mention of baseball. “Won the game, and guess what?”
“I had the game winning hit!” Charlie put his hands over his head triumphantly.
“That’s wonderful, Charlie!” Frank reached over slowly, careful not to hurt his elbow joint, and quickly ruffled Charlie’s hair. “You used the pointers I gave you?”
“Eye on the ball, aim for the top,” Charlie spoke the words without hesitation.
“That’s my boy.”
Out of the corner of his eye Frank spotted Isabel milling around the doorway, shooting him funny glances. He caught her eye once and she quickly turned and left the room.
He and Charlie chatted for a little while longer, mostly about baseball but a little bit about Charlie’s friends as well. He had just bumped into Trevor from elementary school last night, and Frank laughed to remember that time Trevor had come to sleep over when he was ten, only to get scared and make Frank call his mom to pick him up.
“See you tomorrow, Dad,” Charlie leaned over and gave him a kiss on the cheek, “Have a good night’s sleep. Try not to stay up watching those late night talk shows.”
“I’ll try,” Frank promised. Charlie nodded, a smile on his face, and began walking away. “Drive safe, you hear?” Frank called after him.
Charlie turned around for a second, promised to do so, smiled, and left.
Frank reached forward and plucked the white pawn off of the chessboard delicately, letting it dangle there for a second before triumphantly adding it to his pile of white pieces.
Sophie smiled her kind smile at him. “You can’t provoke me into being competitive Frank. You’ve tried, remember?”
Frank smirked at her and sat back in his chair. “Oh I remember. I just know that you’ll eventually get tired of the whooping I give you every day in chess.”
“It’s the same whooping I give you every day in checkers,” Sophie reminded him, her spotted spindly fingers picking up a knight and moving it to a new position.
“Yes,” Frank frowned at the chessboard, “And I always get competitive about it. You don’t.”
Sophie chuckled at him, but the laughter quickly turned into a wheeze. When she caught her breath the kindness returned to her face. “You are the least grown-up old man I’ve ever met.”
In response Frank moved his rook and slowly took another of her pawns from the board.
“Medicine time, Mr. Frank.”
Frank looked up from his game to see Isabel standing at his side again, a smile on her heart-shaped face. Her amber eyes looked at him steadily but Frank could see uneasiness in the way she stood. He slowly got to his feet, promising Sophie that they would return to their game later.
“Do you know what my favorite time of the day is?” Frank asked, as he finally gained his feet.
“Medicine time, Mr. Frank,” Isabel answered. “I think it’s very sweet that your Charlie visits you every day.”
Frank knew that he was old, but he also could tell that in some very few ways his mind was still younger than it had any right to be, and his ability to understand other people had not diminished at all. He looked at Isabel as she walked with him, and when she made her comment about his son, Frank could tell that in some small way she actually cared about him, and he decided that he liked her.
They stood in line until Frank received his thimble-sized cup that was marked 11/6/12. As Frank reached the chair to take his medicine he felt very old and very, very tired. As he swallowed his pills he got the feeling that today’s medicine time would not be his favorite time of day after all.
“Very good,” Isabel said, scooping up the thimble cup and the water. “I’ll see you tonight when it’s time to get in bed.”
She turned to go.
“Wait,” Frank blurted out.
Isabel turned around uncertainly, her bronze eyes searching.
“I was wondering…” Frank started, deciding on the spot to go ahead with the conversation. “What brought you here?”
“To the medicine room? I came with you to—”
“No,” Frank said. “Here in general. To the retirement home.”
Isabel took a couple steps toward him, her ponytail swinging, closing the gap that had opened as she tried to take her leave. Frank could see her wanting to give him the right answer. He could see that for some reason she didn’t want to disappoint him with what she said. So he gave her a few moments to think.
“I was going to say ‘to help,’ but that isn’t really right.” She shuffled her feet a little and looked younger even than the first time Frank had seen her. “I think I came here because you deserve it.”
“Because I deserve it?”
“No,” she said hurriedly, flustered, “I mean yes.” She was fiddling with her fingers now, unsure what to do with them. “A little of both. I mean all of you. You deserve for people to care for you.”
“Oh?” Frank questioned, “Did I do something?”
“No…” she paused and sighed, “Well, yes…again. You were born, you grew up and you’ve cared for someone, in whatever way. You’ve earned the right to have people care for you in return. It’s something that I hope I’ll earn, later.”
Hearing her speak about caring for someone put an ache in his chest, but Frank couldn’t help but smile at her answer, a real full-faced smile, and Isabel let out a little breath of relief, letting her hands hang limply by her sides again. She returned his smile and said, “Charlie will be waiting for you.”
Frank’s happiness faltered for a moment, but he didn’t think that Isabel had seen it so he shook his head in the affirmative. He needed a couple of minutes to himself to gather his thoughts. He had time to gather his thoughts because he knew that Charlie wouldn’t be waiting for him. Not today.
“Why don’t you go on? You should take a break.”
Isabel nodded at him and turned to go and this time Frank let her walk away. As she paced across the room Frank couldn’t help but remember a time when he had been that young.
He sat in his chair thinking for a few minutes before getting to his feet. Joints creaking, he began his slow shuffle towards the doorway to the game room, the same doorway he had seen Isabel disappear through.
He spotted her immediately. She was sitting by herself, sipping a cup of coffee, no doubt trying to obtain the energy it took to chauffer all the old people up to their rooms.
Frank stopped by the coffee machine, slowly made himself a drink, and joined her. He sank into the chair across the table without asking her permission and took a sip of his coffee. Isabel sat with him in silence for a while.
“You’re new here,” Frank said once he had finished half of his drink. It wasn’t a question.
Frank looked at her for a minute, a sudden sadness he usually never had to feel coming over him. To her credit, Isabel met his gaze unflinchingly, waiting patiently for him to speak.
After a minute Isabel took another sip of coffee.
“He’s dead, you know,” Frank said.
The curiosity in her gaze deepened, but she held her silence. Her back was rigid, her spine stick straight the way Frank’s mother had always told him he should hold himself. Her hair was still pulled back into a ponytail, baring her innocent features for the world to see.
“My son, Charlie.” Frank sighed, the sound of a man defeated. “He was eleven years old. Hit while walking to the bus stop. Car crash that jumped the curb onto the sidewalk.”
The curious eyes fell to the table and her mouth seemed to grope for words for a few seconds. “I’m sorry.”
Frank grunted. “Not your fault. I still talk to him though. It’s better…” He searched for the right way to say it. “It’s better, being able to talk to him. Most days, I actually believe that he’s there. Most days, it’s enough.”
A peculiar look appeared on Isabel’s face, and Frank knew that she wanted to say something. Her lips moved a couple times, just tiny quivers, until she finally took a deep breath and met his eyes. Orange light from the sunset streamed in through the window behind Frank, casting his shadow onto the table between them. The dark outline of his head continued past the table and onto her torso but ended on her chest, leaving her face in the sunlight.
“And what about the days that it’s not enough?” she asked.
She understood. Frank could see that she did, and he was happy. She understood that this was a conversation he almost never had. She understood that if she asked him about it tomorrow he would most likely not understand what she was saying, that he would have forgotten that this exchange had ever happened.
Frank smiled and gestured all around him, ending with a broad sweep of his hand that came to rest pointing at Isabel.