Joyland

The South |

Franny

by Cynthia Arrieu-King

I’m stuck Googling Franny’s name every six months on my hometown newspaper’s obituaries site, checking to see if she’s died yet. I haven’t returned her two messages in about eighteen months. Today, I stumbled across her name on a veterans-for-peace site, clicking back from the obituaries to the hits her name garnered. What was the date the veteran’s site posted? Where did her actions make a mark on the screen? And what about her marks on me? During our last call, almost midnight, she had asked me should she go to Turkey for fun and probably die from lack of kidney dialysis or should she have another freaking surgery. “I’d almost rather go out with a bang, you know?” she reasoned, “eating figs in the sun.” My guilt has resituated from time to time, shifting like some frozen mammal down in a cave, waiting for relief: the day I either run into her on the street or else find out she’s gone.

I haven’t always dodged this dying friend. Hardly for the reasons I do now anyway. First my sense of resourcefulness balked at the thought of us hanging out: coffee? I’d ask. Not today, she’d say, I’m sleeping. Pétanque? I’d ask. Not today, I’m going to yell at you about your failure to call me back until you actually get a headache, she’d say. Scrabble and a piece of tofu carrot cake? Not today I’m having a seizure at Kroger’s in the deli section: could ya come get me, Franny Old Girl?

*

When I think of the ways I can remember Franny, I like to go backwards. I like to start with the last time I saw my old college friend: she’d almost passed out at an iron table en plein air out back of a twenties brick apartment building, under thick dogwood leaves. At the time she was getting together with people who spoke French at a local coffee shop, and they became the last people I’d seen willing to take care of her. They threw a birthday party for her in a lot of gravel and begonias. They gave her presents that she opened carefully, getting the scotch tape off with a plastic knife and curling her too-red hands in an aristocratic shell. She was so short she could look up through her top lashes at each with a scathing you-shouldn’t-have look, then clap her hands together over her new map of Turkey or a bunch of flowers.

At this birthday I forced myself to watch: I stuck around for white cake with blue icing from people I’d never met. Ugly cake, powder blue like her car, her sweaters, her backpack, thermos – her signature color, that plastic glowing blue you see in skating costumes that brought out her red hair. Her acquaintances were total strangers to me, her close but sometimes friend of thirteen years, and worse than that, all either half-blind, excruciatingly friendly, loud talkers, or sending odd silences out into the garden, not answering one another. This was just about the same demographic spread you’d find at the liberal neighborhood’s post office. Franny inspired people to cater to her and admire her and take her to the hospital for hemo-dialysis when she was passed out somewhere. She dropped back in her seat after a while, a navy cardigan pulled to her knees, and the sleeves midway down to her knuckles. Her hair was so thin and dyed blonde, but coming out an indeterminate fish-wire color, and the circles under her eyes, the papery hang of her skin across her cheekbones, the way her head bent forward no matter how she stood all amazed me. She fell asleep in her chair, and all the birthday partiers quietly ate cake, swatted mosquitoes on their necks and looked at her, then each other. I couldn’t look at them. Someone quietly asked me which birthday this was. She was thirty-seven, and everyone sucked in their breath when I mouthed her age. She was born with her kidney disease. She looked about fifty.

About a month earlier, I had sat straight up in my pitch-black bedroom, and I can clearly recall the calm split second before my heart started pounding at the phone ringing outrageous and twice as loud in the dark. I felt for the edge of the blankets to throw back before the light came on at the bedside table. I walked out to the hall and picked up the phone. The cradle slid off the table because of the too-short cord I normally held down, and it crashed against the file cabinet. “Hello?”

“Ms. Court?” said a man’s voice.

I looked at the clock. 2:54. In the morning.

“Yes?”

“This is Frank Livingstone with the Meade County sheriff’s office. I got a Francesca Anton down here. She’s just had a wreck…not too bad, but she has an expired license and I see that she’s already been given a citation for it?” He waited but not for me to say anything. “I need you to come down here and help me out. She’s sort of incoherent and there’s medical equipment and tubing all in the backseat; she claims she was having a seizure. She needs to have her car towed home, and I need you to come down and verify what she’s saying or we’re going to have to take her downtown because her license was revoked in April.”

“Where are you?”

I put on a bra and slid into my flip-flops. I’d fallen asleep in my shorts. I hadn’t heard from Franny in a few weeks.

Downtown was half-illuminated by streetlight and heavy clouds bounced the city glow back down as a pink cast. I found the police car quick on St. Luke’s Place, a posh street with Victorians crowded against each other, cars parked on either side: only the careful could squeeze through. Franny stood in the middle of the street with her big thighs, large Ukrainian eyes, a hand to her head, not hurt I saw. The officer was coming towards me. Why the hell did she have to be out at two in the morning all the time? She’d gotten so restless, careening around when her seizure medication wore off.

“You Franny?”

“Yes sir.” I wasn’t awake enough to have the wherewithal to decide between being deeply annoyed at him and polite. I could see another cop chatting with a woman in a tank top and shorts printed with little hearts.

“You gotta tell me why this Francesca is driving without a license, and what all this is,” he said in an almost scolding tone. He gestured at the car, at foil wrapping and plastic tubing from her dialysis scattered across the back seat. She liked to dialyze in the car, say, before a movie.

“She’s got one kidney and it doesn’t work. She had a transplant ten years ago. She needs to change the dialysis fluid in her stomach every four hours sir, that’s what all that is,” I explained.

“And what do you do?” Clearly I had to prove I wasn’t a junkie or a vagrant, and I had a lucky answer.

“Work at Methodist Northeast.”

“Why is she out like this in the middle of the night if she’s taking this seizure medication?” He was trying to talk tough, throw questions at me. I told him she couldn’t sleep but about forty-five minutes at a time. But how could I tell him her mother is crazy and can’t help her, her father’s dead, and she doesn’t have anyone to look after her, so she doesn’t get her hemodialysis as much as she should? I plucked one fact at a time from a pile of bad ones, and went with it. His face changed slightly to a scrutinizing notion, but left it at that. Then the look on his face started to change. Sending her to jail would be a disaster. Reprimand for him. A big softie look was starting to creep across his face.

I saw my opportunity and continued, “And she can’t drive all the way to Elizabethtown three times a week because she can’t even be sure she’s not going to have a....”

“Can’t she get social services to take her there?”

I looked at him, looked at the car with its chrome and fenders smashed and Franny’s Alero, the hood grey and the rest of it blue.

“She’s not always on the best terms with the doctors in town. The nephrologists anyway.” I stifled the urge to tell him how she’d also clearly disregarded her kidney doctors’ orders which had knocked her about halfway down the transplant list and that he might not want to do what they said either, in her place.

His face had gotten sober again under his big white mustache and I kept up the method that had worked with authorities before when I had to pick her up, which was not to say much of anything.

“Well Ms. Court, I’ll make a deal with you. She can go home if you drive her home.”

I was so relieved, I tried not to look it.

“You promise?” he gave it his whole stern act.

“Yes sir,” I looked over his shoulder at Franny drowsing on her feet in the middle of the road, red and blue chips of light racing across her face.

I went over to her as he got in his car.

He said he’d have the car towed to the intersection of the street we were on and her street, as long as I promised I would drive it to the front of her house, three blocks down.

Franny sidled up to me. “Give me the keys I’m going to drive.”

“Uh –no.” This was like a hundred other moments in our friendship when suddenly I asked myself how I got in this situation, how my loyalty was so knee-jerk that my free will was getting trampled by my own two feet.

“Come on.”

I stared at her. “They told me your license is revoked.”

“No,” she said in a playful tone.

“Franny. I’m driving it.”

“And who’s going to drive your car? Then I’ll have to drive back to my house from way over here.”

Damnit. I hated when she got all logical and I couldn’t get a handle on her.

“You just hit this car, Franny.”

“Keys.” She held out her hand and leaned up into my face a little.

What can I say? Franny barely let the cops get around the corner and away before she pushed my arm off the door and got in, staring me square in the eye. Surprising how mean and authoritative she could look with her hands trembling.

*

Earlier in that August, she’d called me at work. I had just started an IV but before I could connect the tubing and get it taped down, the secretary said I had a phone call and walked away before I said I would take a message.

I trudged up the hall to the phone, and her voice, a little raspy, said through the phone, “I was wondering if you’d give these people your driver’s license number so I can rent a car,”

“What?”

“I need a car so I can drive to Lexington for hemodialysis.”

“I thought you were using peritoneal” through the abdomen – only takes forty-five minutes “this week. Why are you getting a car? Didn’t they revoke your license?”

“Yes, that’s WHY I’M CALLING YOU. I need you to help me rent this car. I need to move around you know. I need to be able to get out of my apartment.”

“No, Franny.”

“Why not.”

“Because if you hit someone with the car and kill them I’ll be responsible.”

There was a long pause here. She was so dedicated to logical thinking that this fact slowed her like Nyquil.

I went on, “You know, you’re not always going to be lucky and have the hood of the car fly off and miss the big car full of Japanese businessmen on Route 4. Can’t you let me drive you tomorrow?”

“By the time we get there and back after four hours of dialysis, you’ll be late for your shift.” I worked second shift as a nuclear technician in a hospital. The thought of riding in a car with her for four hours made me tense. The ways she’d critique the government in half hour diatribes, the way she’d compliment my hair and ask if we could go to the salon and see if we could get worked in, all the while telling me I should tell her if I needed to be somewhere.

I sighed. I said “Goodbye” and racked the phone, picking up the end place where the cord made a loop and throwing it back toward the basket of paperclips.

I turned to the secretary who said she was sorry, she forgot to ask if it was Franny – “Franny told me her name was Francesca and I forgot.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said.

Right before my brother got married a few years previous, Franny saw him at the bookstore. She always said she liked him and thought about his quiet manner, and intelligence. He was quiet; so I knew even if she’d hinted wildly, he wouldn’t have asked her out, back when they were in ROTC together. They did basic training in the same class — I pictured them in rappelling — probably Alex ended with his feet up and head down dangling from a wooden tower. She wouldn’t have laughed at his mistake – she was like that with people she loved. It was only people like me who let her down that pulled her ire out.

Walking out of the bookstore, Alex, set to marry in about two weeks said to me, “What do you think about Franny?” I wondered about her kidney and her ability to have children. I wondered about all military history Franny knew and could share with him that his fiancée would never know. His loss? Not sure.

“She’s interesting,” I said. I never told Franny what he’d said.

*

The memories drift and are hard to pin to a timeline, like the names of corporate clients pinned to states so meetings can be better arranged between them. I was holding up a plastic sheet of left ventricular images – orange horseshoes that showed where iodine and nuclear dye had been absorbed by heart muscle. I was still running the nuclear camera for the post exercise pictures – the patients would get one set taken under the big tunnel of the nuclear camera, run on a treadmill, and twenty minutes later get the second set taken.

I told the patient what I told every patient—not to move a muscle. I hit the record button and walked down the hall.

When I got past the waiting room door – the side of it most people don’t look at much – I saw the secretary’s chair. Instead of blonde Yolanda, the transcriptionist from Hardin County, I saw a tiny figure seated in it, in a blue patterned gown. Franny’s head was down on the counter, right there on the side of the reception window most people don’t even get to touch. Clear plastic tubing looped up from her neck – a PICC line for quick access to her superior vena cava. I walked back to the door way behind the chair to look down into the records room and Yolanda was sitting there looking dead at me like what the fuck Franny, why’s your friend conked out with a bloody PICC-line sticking up like wires on the back of a disconnected VCR? I stared back in that way that said I cannot believe this, what the fuck right back at you.

“Franny,” I shook her awake.

She didn’t budge. It was funny – she was sitting right in front of the computer I used to track her being moved through the hospital through patient transportation; I wanted to get into her files for confirmation of personal stuff like patient stubborn and unfortunate and intractably drug seeking but what did I not already know? Patient familiar to us and clearly needs to dialyze. Patient not following orders. Given hemodialysis and discharged. Look out. But I looked anyway because how the hell was I supposed to get a straight answer out of someone who wanted me to do things like find her some morphine and bring her steak and cheese and watermelon and all the things that were sure to crap her appendage-sealed malfunctioning puck of a kidney up even more.

She liked this hospital. Dr. Tonnere, a woman doctor with an office in the Oxycontin-loving strip mall dispensed Percoset like hey of course you need this? God. Dr. Tonnere. Franny needed it. I read all about the cracks in her spine from a seizure so severe she actually broke her back against the concrete floor she’d been lying on.

I thought about this while watching Franny sleep just to the side of a pile of EKG’s the secretary was typing up to be sent out to a dozen printers on a dozen floors filed by a dozen hands. I didn’t think would she die right there with the failed kidney her mother had given her and no kidney of her own? Would she die later? Would I have to check the obituaries on-line for her name when she disappeared, or went to County, or else I couldn’t stand to talk to her or have her around drowsing and vomiting and pitying herself on the sofa. In her apartment. In my apartment. Wondering how I was going to get her up. How EMS might get her down the spiral staircase.

I was thinking, how do I get her out of the chair? I picked up the phone and dialed Joe Lentini. I felt kind of sick. I decided to shake her shoulder and say her name.

“Was I out?” she said and a security guard walked up. I shot a look at Yolanda.

“Franny, you’ve got to go back to your room now,” I stared at her. She was disoriented and hung her head.

She said, “You better call me. You don’t call me, that’s why I have to come see you here.” She stared back at me.

The guard filled the doorway and I tilted my head at her, my heart sinking and angry at the same time.

So many people had bailed on donating her a kidney – strangers, crazy libertarian farmer recluses she met on the web, old friends who no longer called. She once called and said she’d never dream of asking me but wanted me to ask people I knew, all around, anyone. I felt the phrasing of the question like a strangely merciful finger coming out from all her rage and petting my hair.

“I feel bad for not giving her a kidney. I’m scared to,” I said to Yolanda later.

“You have future children to think about. They might need one from you. You’re too young for that.”

Future children. Now there was a rationalization that seemed vaguely salient, less like bullshit than the other reasons I’d heard and thought. I turned back to this job of precision and acting and care and rote primary functions. I put the tube in the cannula for the patient back on the table, the one who took the medicine she was told to take, who showed up for appointments she was supposed to attend.

*

Back in ’99, before this, she was sick but functional, and had just come back from Turkey because her father had died. She was so gentle then, and well enough to have her gracious curiosity about others even though her father was her only real family member. She’d called him three days before he died and he’d acted strangely.

“He didn’t feel good but he seemed to know it was worse than passing. I cried all the way home on the plane. I can’t believe he was with her.”

She meant her mother. Franny’s mother was psychotic bordering on needing to be taken to a home — never paid her bills and lived in the kind of crazy filth Franny was forced to from ill health, but I never figured out why the mother’s hold on reality was so slim or why such a sweet old man like Roger had married her forty years previously. I kept popping a moderately ill-tempered Alice back in my mind, too much benefit of the doubt, but then Franny would remind me how she’d made Franny eat seven oatmeal Lil Debbies for breakfast and screamed until they were all eaten. If Alice’d had some marbles, a bed, well, a place to get a fixed meal would have come in handy for Franny.

I remember Franny sounding low and rumbly on the phone telling me how Alice wouldn’t let Franny in the door to see her father’s ashes and hid them.

“She tells me she flushed them down the toilet.”

I gasped. I felt rage swelling up and my face pinching together but then I couldn’t even allow that image in my mind, I had to tell myself it wasn’t possible most of the time like all the things Franny seemed to come up with as life experience: a man kidnapping her in Istanbul and taking her to the country and not really doing much besides making her drink tea and play chess with him and his brother for four days until she mixed scowling and nagging, her specialties, till he got her back in the tiny rattling car and back to the city. Or the man she told me stuck his hand up between her legs while she was just taking a walk at two in the morning in Paris – I think the kidney disease gives a person restless leg syndrome – and she took the Nikon in her hand and whacked him “over the head over and over until he was bleeding.” I pushed these things to some margin aside from her real and known life – things she might be exaggerating about, or that may not have happened. I had seen reality and heard her version of it enough to know she needed excitement and who could blame her twisting characters and events for effect?

But she came over that night and I hugged her and she would never sob, she’d just wipe tears and hide her face and sigh and asked me if I felt totally alone – my father had died the year before. She asked me if I felt like one part of my life was over and the other one begun. She was good at letting her worst heartaches settle in her, the physical pain on the other hand she fought. I left the room to get something – maybe a glass of water so she could take some pills and when I came back I remember she looked at me and smiled, like she was happy for a second and said “Oh Franny, you look so healthy. You look so full of energy.” This was not sarcasm.

I remember wanting to spin around or check if my cheeks were puffed up and red that day.

*

Right at the beginning of last summer I had this dream. It was night and I was in the parking lot of the movie theater my brother had taken me to when I was a kid. It was abandoned and there was garbage and broken glass a couple inches thick across the broad pothole-filled parking lot. I couldn’t stand up because snipers were hidden in bushes and the Taco Bell across the street. And I had to crawl on my belly wearing a World War II helmet towards Franny who was just lying there exposed in her British uniform. I tried to drag her, my arm hooked under her armpit, a foot taking a minute.

I told her about the dream and she said she figured she’d been a soldier in a past life, what with her having been in the Army, and being so interested by the war museum in Paris, and having dozed off to hours of History Channel flickering black and white, and her forties sweaters and polo shirts. We were okay talking about clothes, paintings, actors, movies; restful when she showed me a play written by her Senegalese student who said, “God, you don’t listen to me much, so I won’t listen to you.”

Those nine years earlier, Alice had given her daughter a kidney. I don’t know how they wrangled that woman to the hospital. I never saw her except for about ten minutes like a mute ghost in the room, pink robe, slippers on, having padded down to see Franny from her own sickbed. And Franny had been so drugged it almost didn’t matter — this huge conciliatory gesture, Alice’s hair askew, her act light with wordlessness and small padding steps, the strange rage I’d heard about gone flat for these few days. I can’t even remember exactly how they agreed to all this. I’m sure Roger put his soft ways to work, handsome with those blue eyes like halogens under his white hair.

I saw Franny then through my young eyes and I was chipper and normal like we’d gotten her a puppy. No one ever told me donated organs only last ten years, and likely no one told her either. I remember she sat down for a second. This was some event onto which I’d tried to layer bumbling optimism, to the point I suggested we could play Trivial Pursuit though she was still drugged up. She must have made some foggy or nauseated gesture and the gown fell back enough for me to see the stitches like a long crusty caterpillar along her abdomen, and I almost fainted.

I knew Franny as Franny and other people knew her as Francesca. I would call her at work and people who barely knew her would correct me, “Oh, you mean Francesca.” She loved to say it with an Italian accent and think about all the Italian men she could have been seducing right then. You’d think a woman who knew she was going to die way sooner than most wouldn’t be dying to sign up for the Israeli Army or jump into the sack with swarthy belligerent Parisians, but then such intentional passion is easily mistaken for foolhardiness. I asked her why the new name? Franny Jo was so friendly and fifties and country, and she said she liked being able to pretend she was someone else, someone who wasn’t sick.

Though sometimes her friends and I referred to her as Franny Job, I never once called her Francesca.

There are so many moments to choose from when I try to imagine Franny. Or remember her. The adolescent girl running down the street in a white nightgown in her art films from USC, or the sepia blouses she wore, printed with huge tulips, like an Andrews Sister in her Dutch-boy haircut and red lipstick. Me listening to her while she let her yellow peritoneal fluid drain out of a tube in her belly through tubing to a giant IV bag on the floor — about ardent misanthropes writing her virulent airmail. And raising the clean bag of peritoneal fluid and hooking it on the floor lamp’s switch and listening to the rest. The time we were eating at the diner and suddenly I looked over and her shoes and legs were sticking up where she’d just been sitting because she’d accidentally tipped her chair back too hard. Her boyfriend—who later left her for an Icelandic woman—almost choked on his green chili wontons while Franny and I laughed for about twenty minutes til we were in tears. Not the other way around.

I recall about a year before that when I met Franny for the first time in Paris. She was twenty-six and I was nineteen. About a half-dozen students from Central Kentucky University had gone there to take a five-week course in Balzac, all set-up in dorm-like apartments on the South Bank, tiny kitchen, communal room and wooden bunks. It was a great way to see the city slow, neighborhood by neighborhood, and take in a play at La Comédie Française every couple of days, and talk about them in the mornings with coffee and oldish pieces of bread with our Queens-raised lit professor. I was only used to the idea of Paris – my grandmother lived there and I’d seen her there twice before when I was four and eight years old, wary of French Sesame Street and thoroughly forking through couscous and inspecting pizza with corn kernels and fried eggs arranged on top. I was still at that stage where my brother regularly asked two things: why I was so depressed and wore black, and why did I eat so much. But I was older now – and the academic credit seemed like a good way for me to justify slacking in museums and visiting my aunts. Franny was a bonus. Franny loved Europe — period — and managed to have come on this trip twice already since it was actually a bargain. She thrived on the diesel smog of buses mixed with colognes, cigar smoke, the gamey dust of dove feathers, chocolates lined up in different foil skirts turned upside down, and the smell of onions frying. Even stones managing micro-lichens and mosses on grandes façades exuded a green smell Franny would stop on the street to smell and carefully and matter-of-factly remark how divinely naturalistic Paris was. I would walk along observing her enjoyment of life, her big checked raincoat, her navy topsiders and polo shirts looking graphic under her blonde hair and tortoise shell glasses. I’d try to observe and train myself to enjoy Paris with her. In the military museum with its life-size tableaux of bombed-out WWII Parisian hardware stores and apartments, Franny would sit shoulders back among the cowering mannequins with a smug look. Ask me to take her picture.

Franny made fun of Geraldine. She wore Easter dresses that June, and was obsessed with the Belmond acting clan and their Paris Match photos, first time out alone but asking whether or not she should wear gloves to the tour of Versailles. Geraldine – the frothy pink carnations tucked in her hatband in such a flounced way self-advertised an unfamiliarity with bureaucratic nightmares and suddenly icy bar managers. When she got halfway out the door, Franny would roll her eyes and say something askew and pithy like, “I see she has a short future with those assassin spiders, the French.”

I would laugh and join in, but was only almost as funny she was. I recall helping her move her boxes of peritoneal fluid into the one empty corner of the large common room. The professor would put his hands on his hips and tell us to walk down the middle of the street if we were out late, under the lights. My inner sensible girl had me walking down Rue Charles de Gaulle on the white dotted line while Franny rolled her eyes at me from the Lanvin hat window.

Once, right at the start of the trip, we’d set up a card game with three-dollar Cokes and tiny jam cookies as our poker chips. I don’t remember much about what we said that night except that the room was always drafty, dull and lit with fluorescent overhead lights on blue carpet. Suddenly, Franny looked at me –when she was somebody I’d met only a day or two before — and said, “Do you have a brother named Alex?”

I looked at her shocked. Yes?

“Alex Court. I had a huge crush on him.”

She knew my brother? I could see all the soft old tin tiles on the roof across from us. I could hear shouting in the street, not good shouting.

“You looked just like him a second ago, from this particular angle.” She pulled her cards away from her. “I had a huge crush on him. I just adored him.”

I made puking noises, but then I kind of just stared at her. More shouting. We went out to the balcony and saw a naked man running back and forth in front of the hotel across from us and shouting up at an open window. The balcony was made of wrought iron, flaking with black paint. The real Paris was strange. Not full of men in striped shirts with mustaches and really big baguettes.

Sometime between her getting the good kidney and all the car wrecking and seizing and screaming, I ended up being the tech assigned her, ripping her EKG patches off while she was asleep because I couldn’t wake her up. The only person on second shift had to get her ready for her nuclear test – somewhere in there, she’d given me a picture of her to remember her by – 25 and looking like a silent film star. She liked those damned German silent films where everyone looks like they’ve already croaked and brought their exquisite bedroom gazes to purgatory, trying to tell themselves they were haunting when they weren’t even there yet.

I keep it. I have that picture, but I like to go all the way back, backwards, since it’s the best way to see her do the thing I’d always hoped would happen and know will never happen — her getting younger, and better — to recall the thing she can never be again, the happiest she ever was, she said once. I go back further to before she was a thought in her father’s head. Before she was set with genes for a life like the one she’s had. Or back to when her father would pick her up at school and take her to the park, and take her out for burgers, and take her to the store and browse iridescent puppy planters, so Alice wouldn’t bother her—not yell at Franny nor at her father. Franny would take her pencils out while she sat in the passengers’ seat and her father smoked in the driver’s seat in the driveway, and late after she was supposed to be in bed, she’d sit in the car with him breathing the good vinyl and acorn smells. She’d look out at the dark yard, hear the TV blaring an unbelievably loud game show from the living room – she told me so I know – maybe watch her father stare out at a couple running to catch up with a young dog, and she’d pull out some paper, start her math.