Frankie takes the 41 to the end of the line, steps off into a twilight of chirping crickets and fresh cut grass. He walks past Tudor mansions and sprawling haciendas feeling more than a little conspicuous. In the fading light he sees kids on trail bikes at the end of the street. A dog barks, a pool filter hums, dishes clatter in a distant kitchen.
The house at 105 Pennridge Court has a circular porch mounted on pillars. Whistling a one-note tune Frankie passes by without a glance. He continues on to a grove of trees at the end of the block, picks one with an unobstructed view and shimmies up to a forty-foot perch. The house is completely exposed except for the hedge that runs along the rear. The perimeter of tree is set too far away to provide any cover. Lights are on in an upstairs room and he can see a TV flicker through a downstairs window.
Cassie's house reminds Frankie of his grandparents' place in Pennsylvania. He remembers chasing his cousin through piles of raked leaves while his mother and grandmother battled inside. His mother grew up in a neighborhood like this, a fact that never ceases to amaze him. Once, while searching for her dope stash he stumbled on a shoebox filled with old photographs, Christmas snapshots of Sandy and siblings. He keeps the best one in his wallet. Her big eyes, the uncertain smile. Already life was proving unmanageable.
Frankie wonders about his mother's latest transformation -- Madame Sandra, Sayer of Sooth. Cassie was her first client and Frankie's personal favorite, but there are others, long-limbed girls with designer checkbooks. Their cars beam brightly between the gutted wrecks of Eck Street. They huddle with Madame Sandra for hours on end, ignoring Frankie completely. At the same time his mother has changed in ways miraculous. Bills get paid. Meals are somewhat regular. Actual routines are taking shape. Lately, when he looks in her eyes he sees more than his own reflection. Frankie's hopeful, but at thirteen he knows he's young enough to be fooled.
When it's dark he climbs down from his perch and makes his way to the edge of the woods. The streets are empty. He walks with his head down feeling invisible. At 105 he turns up the drive then veers across the back yard to the hedge. He squats in the bushes recalling his instructions.
"Just take a look around. See what goes on over there," Sandy slipped a dollar bill in his pocket. "Keep out of sight and don't steal anything."
"And if I get caught?"
"Don't get caught, honeybunch. We're talking meal ticket here."
She confides in him now. At first the palms were a problem for her. They looked like alike and revealed nothing. She studied a xeroxed copy Cassie's for days, but her fate, as outlined by the imprint was as indecipherable as Sandy's own. But there are easier ways to gauge the future. A single, unsolicited trash pickup revealed a preference for imported vodka and ribbed condoms. An intercepted mail delivery spelled out details of a messy divorce and messier settlement. If the future is unforeseeable, the past is as plain as this month's phone bill. In just a few weeks Madame Sandra has learned more about life at 105 Pennridge Court than Cassie knows herself.
Frankie leans his head against the house listening to the TV through the wall. Despite the warm evening the windows are shut and the drapes drawn. The air is heavy with the smell of fresh turned dirt.
A light clicks on in the window above him. Shadows pass followed by the distinctive snap of elastic. Frankie throws caution to the wind and sneaks a peek. Cassie is standing in her underwear making faces in the bathroom mirror, faces of cold calculation and smoldering desire. Faces she will never use. Leaning closer she runs her tongue seductively over her lips. Suddenly headlights sweep over the yard. Frankie hits the dirt and rolls under the hedge, flattening a day-old mound of dog shit in the process. The stench is sudden and unbearable and he buries his face in the dirt to keep from retching. The car swings around the circular driveway, stoppping less than ten feet from him. Two people get out, a man and a woman.
"Whoooeee!" the man fans the air. "Rusty must have just pinched one off." The voice belongs to Cassie's mother's latest boyfriend. She's gone through several since the anonymous call describing her latest husband's indiscretions.
"Oh, that goddamn dog is ruining my pachysandra," Cassie's mother complains. The two head off to the back door passing within a foot of their malodorous intruder.
"Jesus," the man gasps. "Have you checked him for worms lately?"
As the back door swings shut Frankie scrambles to his knees heaving macaroni and cheese over the hedge, the pachysandra and the legs of his pants. He watches it settle into a smoky orange puddle then tops it off with a layer of bile. His arms and legs tremble. His face is coated with icy sweat. He crawls to the corner of the house trailing uprooted pachysandra and coagulating gobs of goo. Curling himself in the fetal position he curses Madame Sandra and her devotees.
Voices come and go, carrying through the siding like voices in a dream. Cassie and her mother having at it. At first Frankie can't make out what they're saying, but when they move to the corner room their words become clear.
"Rodrigo? Who the hell is Rodrigo?" her mother is shouting.
"Come on, mom! I told you. I met him at Tiffany's party. You said I should try and meet new people."
"American people! Jesus, do I have to spell everything out for you?" her mother's heels hammer the hardwood. "People named Rodrigo make minimum wage!"
"So that's it! You're a bigot! What about things like equality?"
"Equality is for your hot pants girlfriends, baby, not for you."
Their voices fade as they climb the stairway but rise again from the second floor.
"You're ruining my life! I want to go live with daddy."
"That's a laugh. Your father will have your Rodrigo deported."
They rave at each other, stomping angrily from room to room. Finally a door slams shut signaling an end to hostilities. Frankie shivers in the darkness. He wills himself to leave but his legs reject the notion. Noxious fumes rise from his clothing, searing his nose and throat.
Minutes later he hears noises in the kitchen. The back door opens and boyfriend steps out, so close Frankie can see the tassels on his loafers. Boyfriend stands in the doorway looking up at the stars, then trots down the steps and disappears around the side of the house. A mid size dog sits peering through the screen door. Frankie strains to hear but no sound comes. He feels a surge of panic and his arms and legs stiffen. The boyfriend must have spotted him. He's hiding out there waiting for Frankie to make a move. Maybe he has a gun. No, a gun would wake the whole neighborhood. A situation like this calls for a knife. He imagines the boyfriend circling the house, sneaking up behind with a dagger in his teeth. Frankie will die alone and shit-soaked in a stranger's back yard, the latest and grisliest family misfortune.
Frankie bolts, ripping through the bushes like a fullback. He hurtles the hedge in a single bound and crosses the driveway in world-class time. Soon he is running in total darkness. There's a delicious madness in running blind, an adrenaline charge that is pure suicidal. Somehow he misses the wrought iron lawn chairs and glass topped Cinzano table. He blows by the brick barbecue that was Cassie's father's last and most ambitious home improvement project. The night wind whistles in his ears and his feet barely touch the ground. He takes the clothesline chest high, like a sprinter hitting the tape. A fraction of his life flashes before his eyes then a million stars explode in his head.
The day's first 41 hits Pennridge Court at daybreak. A lone passenger boards clutching a single dollar bill.
"Got no change, little brother," the driver looks him over.
"Keep it," Frankie struggles to stuff it in the fare box.
"No man, you keep it," the driver grins. "Since you lost the last argument I'm gonna let you ride for free. Just sit in back and open a window. The early birds are gonna love you."
Frankie pulls himself along by the handrail. The motion of the bus makes him dizzy and the lights hurt his eyes. He works a window open and sticks his head outside, swallowing great gulps of air. Slouching low, he lifts the front of his shirt. An angry welt runs across his chest, the braided impression embossed with clothespins.
"OH MY GOD, WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOU?" Madame Sandra's voice screeches like a worn set of brakes. Frankie staggers through the kitchen and collapses face down on the living room sofa.
"OH MY GOD, NOT ON MY SOFA!" her cries rip across his brain. Contusions and abrasions vie for his attention. His clothes are crusted in filth and his head looks curiously lopsided. He feels worse than he looks.
"WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOU? HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?" Madame Sandra flies around the room raining cigarette ashes over the rug. He tries to track her movements but his eyes refuse to rotate.
"It's OK, mom," he croaks. "No one saw me."
"NO ONE SAW YOU? I SUPPOSE YOU DID THIS TO YOURSELF?"
Frankie laughs in spite of the pain. It's a curious question, coming from a woman whose brother has twice fallen through sidewalk grates, whose father ran himself over with his own car.
"It's OK," he tells her again. "It's OK," he can say it without moving his lips.
"Tell me what happened. Did you find out anything?" Madame Sandra pulls up a chair and sits facing him. Her moment of maternal concern has passed and the look in her eyes is fixed but unfocused. "Cassie called last night. She was upset but she wouldn't say why. She'll be over this afternoon and I need something to tell her."
"Rodrigo," he whispers.
"What? ... Rodrigo?" she leans over and shakes his leg. "Hey, talk to me. Who is Rodrigo?"
"Cassie ... boyfriend ... big fight with mom," Frankie's lips stick together with every "b".
"This Rodrigo, where did she meet him? Do you know? ... FRANKIE!" she pounds his leg with her fist.
"Party ... Tiffany ..." he let's his head fall back. Something pops in his neck as his eyeballs settle painfully in their sockets.
"THAT'S IT! A BEANER BOYFRIEND! Oh Baby, that's fantastic!" She claps her hands and a thousand bazookas explode in his brain. Madame Sandra rushes from the room and minutes later he hears her crooning on the telephone. Frankie stares up at the ceiling listening to the neon palm buzzing in the window.