Honourable mention for the Cuffer Prize 2012
Frank is bundled like the dead, and has been talking incessantly since we left Georgetown. He goes on and on, following the circular path of a true hypochondriac. Back to the foot arches and the urine tests. Frank didn't have back pain or kidney trouble, but death was in every cell of his body. There's a smell of tar coming off the road. It's freshly paved, so we cut down the waterfront to avoid car tires spitting asphalt chewing-gum in our direction.
Frank is convinced that the streets are lurking with danger. He marvels at men walking in and out of dark alleys. Frank clings to the curb, avoiding cars and overhanging signs. He's always fearful of the old brick buildings in the downtown core. Brick is the first thing to go, he says. If you had a good steel building it would withstand a quake.
Newfoundland hasn't had an earthquake in 80 years, I tell him.
I wait outside the clinic and light a cigarette. It's unusually hot and all the windows in the clinic are cracked an inch. There's a little red bench just outside the clinic that I sit on, back against the front wall. Frank brings me out the paper to read. The clinic always has the paper. I get through the first couple of pages each day. The important things are always in front.
The old women inside are talking. Frank doesn't have strong ears and they all know it. The waiting room has turned into a support group for the ill; for Frank.
He rambles about the tormented struggle he's having with his back these days. Can't piss without sitting down. Most of them know Frank and they pity him. Pity is worse than any narcotic, it's far more addictive.
Bernice leaves the clinic. She's wearing her heels again, walking like a newborn calf. A younger man holds the door open for her. I recognize him from the mini mart and I nod. He lifts a bag of frozen Asian stir-fry mix to his face and goes inside. He tells the group what happened.
"This young missus," he says, "wanted to get in the shop for a tub of milk. I told her it'd be quicker to milk her cat, cause she ain't gettin' in here till I finishes my smoke," he says.
Broke his nose, this girl. I figure it's the right thing, too. But nobody inside says that. They all tell him it'll be OK, that it makes him look tougher.
Frank's name is called, and I toss my cigarette and fold the paper under my arm. I walk around the back of the building and find the doctor's open window.
Frank looks slightly uplifted when he comes out of the clinic. He'd taken his sweater off anyway. Most days, when he was home, Frank paraded about in Daisy Dukes. Shorts cut far too high, and with uneven pieces of white cotton hanging down from being cut with the kitchen scissors. When he steps foot outside, even in the heat, he wears at least three layers.
"I think I might need an operation," Frank says.
"I have to get to work," I say.
Beneath the girders of the warehouse, I work on getting some motor oil ready to ship. One of the bottles in the box is broken and I try to wash the oil off the rest of them. The smell makes me gag, and reminds me of Frank's hair, combed out with thick teeth and grease.
Frank makes me sick sometimes. He gives off a faint, greenish steam of decay. I imagine he glows in the dark.
I'm more like Frank than I care to admit. I like to think I'm not as bad, but there's a reason I put up with his madness, help him out on occasion, walk him to the clinic.
Little things bug him. Punishment from God, he believes. A broken hook on a screen, batteries running out, light switch broken, mattress too soft, too hard, not as springy as it was when he first bought it.
I have quirks, too. But God had nothing to do with them. I eat oranges at an alarming pace. Always have enough to get me through another day, like smokes. I thought I remembered some rhyme about oranges and mental heath, like apples and the doctor, but maybe I imagined it. I get little headaches sometimes, and I shake my head so fast that the people around me turn into blurred grey ghosts.
I sensed a connection with Frank when he first came here. Frank always did most of the talking, but when I spoke, Frank listened completely. When he talked, I did the same.
I guess I wanted to believe that if I could be happy for Frank it would mean that I was happy, like when you see a couple holding hands. On good days you're happy for them.
Frank calls. He lives downstairs, but he always calls. "Going to run down to the doctor," he says. "Meet you out front?"
"Sure thing, Frank," I say. I tell the dog to go lay down.
I try the doorknob and hear the pin snap inside. A quiet noise, like the low tick just before the alarm clock starts. The knob spins in circles. Each time it spins I feel it catch for just a second before letting go. I start to chuckle. A low guttural tremor before the quake.
I hear Frank outside calling me. He sees the handle spinning and comes over to see if he can jimmy it open.
"I hate when things like this happen," he says.
"You're full of shit, Frank," I say, voice raising to a crackle, aggravated at the doorknob. I hip-check the door. The steel door.
"You're not sick, Frank! You're 35 and and you dress like you're 70! You're healthy as a horse. I know that's what the doctor tells you! We're not going to the goddamn doctor. You're not sitting in a room with a dozen old hens telling you it'll be fine and patting your head. We're taking the car today, Frank, and we're not going to crash. We're going to the hardware store and I'm buying a new knob. And we're taking the dog."
I rest my head on the door, palms on the doorbox. There's silence for a full minute.
"I'm coming around," I say. Down through the fire escape.
"I'll grab some cash," he says. "I need some light bulbs."
There were delays from the paving crew and the traffic was backed up past the Brass Rack. Frank was wearing cargo shorts.
I heard the dog bark after a couple of minutes.
Randy Drover has won numerous awards for his writing, nationally and provincially, most recently the Cox and Palmer Sparks Creative Writing Award. His first vice is poetry, and he is working towards a first collection. He works in publishing in St. John's.