FRANKLIN AND JACQUELINE
Back to short stories page
Franklin had reached his fortieth birthday without a friend to celebrate because all his adult life he had guarded his privacy and taken jobs like window washing or street sweeping or cleaning offices after closing time to have enough money not only for rent on his one-room apartment and basic foodstuffs like white bread and peanut butter and pork and beans which he could heat in the can but also for his daily bag of pork rinds and the Sunday bacon and frozen waffles which he prepared under the grill in his gas stove that looked like something his grandmother who died of asphyxiation in his arms would have considered an antique.
So for his fortieth birthday Franklin sacrificed next Sunday’s bacon and waffles to buy an Entenmann’s cake at the convenience store two blocks away and then lurched back home through the falling snow to set the cake on the formica kitchen table at one end of his room and see how long he would leave it uncut to admire its immaculate integrity while he caressed the barrel of the semi-automatic weapon he had bought two years earlier with the $500 in twenty-dollar bills he had found in a lower right-hand desk drawer at the tax preparer’s office he was cleaning through an agency when the cleaner they normally sent died suddenly of the pneumonia she had left untreated for nearly a month and used the money to take a Greyhound bus 400 miles down the east coast to Virginia where no laws inhibited his purchase of this beauty along with two boxes of ammunition and enough money left over when he got home with his purchases cunningly packed in a suitcase to buy not only a ticket but also popcorn at the Norwood movie theater which actually had been a very disappointing film if he was completely honest with himself.
The cake remained intact while Franklin finished that day’s bag of pork rinds—did I forget to mention that he bought them at the same time as the cake?—reaching one hand like a metronome between his mouth and the bag gripped by his thighs while studying the current day’s program listings in the free week’s TV listing from the convenience store and continuing to stroke the rifle’s barrel with the other hand until he could detect no further pork rind crumb in the corners of the bag and crumpled it to throw in the corner but missed by a yard the rest of the week’s trash pyramided alongside the four-cubic-foot refrigerator that always needed defrosting before laying the rifle the long way across the table to stand and fetch his bowie knife and wipe its edge on the clean patch of shirt just below his left armpit prior to sectioning the cake into six pieces which he devoured by hand one by one at even intervals until he could lick the last smudges of chocolate icing from his fingers and slump with content against the torn vinyl back of the kitchen chair one hand upon his stomach that felt as though someone had inflated a balloon in it and the other upon the butt of the rifle as if the hand were an award ribbon from a bake contest in the county fair that set up every year on the field beside the fire station a half-mile down the road from the egg farm where he grew up with an emaciated father who despaired of making a living from the farm and an elegant mother who drank all day long but never showed the effects as far as Franklin could see.
That morning Jacqueline Johnson (who still found a special charm in the matching initials she obtained by marrying Marcus) finished plumping the pillows beneath her husband on the living room couch where he could watch television to mitigate the misery of his flu, reminded him to drink all the orange juice he could stand so he could return to his job assembling razors at the Gillette factory, packed her lunch in a small brown paper bag and took herself off in her discolored navy down parka to her own job at the reception area of the Federal Building at Government Center.
While she sat at the end of the car with her back to the window on the Orange Line train rattling its way north towards her destination she thought about their son Floyd and wished they hadn’t named him after a boxer even though it was to give him pride in himself because instead it seemed at fifteen only to have made him expect everyone to submit to his strength so that yesterday evening she had had to undergo another meeting with the school principal over Floyd’s fighting in the lavatory which was especially exasperating because he was so good with his studies and not ashamed to show it and could one day become a doctor or lawyer or teacher if only he would control his need to fight that was so great she and Marcus wondered if she herself was reinforcing his belief that might makes right.
Later that day Franklin’s cunning surprised even himself when he slipped into a raincoat from a rack at Filene’s Basement and hovered near a checkout area to exit when the nearest cashier became distracted by a bar code reader refusing to display a price on the register after repeatedly scanning the ticket attached by a plastic stud to a satiny half-slip being purchased by an elderly short woman with hennaed bouffant hair that partially hid a narrow scar running from her ear to her chin to find himself free in Downtown Crossing and walking to South Station to extract from locker 3482 his loaded semi-automatic rifle wrapped so loosely in newspaper that no shape had been recognizable when he carried the bulky package under his arm ignoring empty seats and standing all the way into town on the commuter train impatient for this moment when the two arcs of his plan could meet in the men’s room stall where he unbundled the rifle and removed the raincoat and wrapped one within the other though he could not fully disguise the rifle’s shape so that when he moved back into the station and then through the downtown streets treacherous with ice fused by hundreds of thousands of footsteps into irregular curves like an abstract sculpture of a miniature rolling prairie he expected at any moment to be challenged by the masses of people who were actually intent only on completing lunchtime errands.
When Franklin walked into the lobby of the Federal Building to unveil his rifle and spray shots in all directions Jacqueline was counting the minutes until she could go to lunch and phone home to remind Marcus to take his orange juice before she bought herself a can of Diet Coke and sat in the building’s cafeteria with the medium-rare roast beef-and-butter sandwiches on whole wheat bread and blueberry muffin from Dunkin Donuts in her lunch bag stored behind the information counter in the lobby so that the suddenness of the assault combined with three years experience in the hectic lobby without needing to strongarm anyone other than dragging an occasional political protester to a paddy wagon much less draw her gun made her hesitate when she heard the initial shots and saw people falling and bleeding but she was still the first to have her pistol out and braced with both hands as she raced at the madman whose finger was working rhythmically as if counting pills into a vial but thank goodness she thought he seemed not to be aiming the rifle because only one bullet nicked her right shoulder to make her feel without seeing the trickle of blood onto her dark-blue uniform and down towards her silvered badge but since she was left-handed she continued to steady her gun with the good hand to pump her own bullets into the crazy man until her trigger clicked without firing and she could watch his rifle fall to the floor and as if by spontaneous combustion fire a single final shot which pierced one temple and came out the other of a seven-year old girl with two blonde braids held by blue ribbons who lost her wide-mouthed grip at the bottom fringe of her mother’s pink turtle-neck blouse and slid to the floor while Franklin fell on his side with blood drooling from a corner of his lips just like in the movies and his unseeing eyes watching Jacqueline’s left shoe graze his face as her adrenalin carried her over his body to tumble onto her wounded shoulder and roll herself into a ball of pain.
That night Jacqueline had to explain to her husband and son not only why she had not telephoned all afternoon and early evening so that they learned about her feat from the six o’clock news for which she had refused interviews but also that she felt so unlike the heroine the reporters were making of her that in the midst of her debriefing upon return to the Federal Building after being examined and having her shoulder treated at Massachusetts General Hospital by a red-eyed intern with Dr. Elizabeth Lopez printed on the nameplate pinned to a soiled white smock Jacqueline had told her employers she was quitting her job despite their insistence that she was only speaking in the heat of the moment
Having recounted her tale to her family and taken several sips from a can of Budweiser light beer she narrowed her eyes and brought her face six inches from Floyd’s to explain in a voice as gentle and truthful as a spring breeze that the only reason she would pick up a gun again would be to come after him if she ever ever ever again learned he was fighting no matter what the excuse.
While she spoke Marcus finished off the half-gallon container of orange juice he had begun that morning.