The true story of Frankie and Susie

{Author’s note: wrote this a few years ago, am posting it here for the first time, not sure why.  And yes, it is a true story}

Three dirty mounds on the floor by the registers: two beat up backpacks and a duffel bag.  All filthy and on the verge of busting open.  I get in line behind them.

“10.79? that’s so much.  What part was so much? I just don’t have that much right now,” says the woman.  She has a broken leg in a black splint and an ugly, utilitarian cane. The woman is tall and thin, close to pretty. But her teeth are all wrong.  Beside her stands a taller, scruffier person, a man with a wiry brown beard and wild hair under a dirty wool hat.  The woman is digging in her pockets, mumbling a little.  The man is an ancient statue: silent, still, halfway gone.

“Do you guys need a few bucks?” I ask, in the softest voice I have. The bags on the floor are theirs, but they have forgotten them entirely, all their attention is trained on gathering ten dollars and seventy nine cents.

“No, we don’t,” says the man.  His facial muscles are frozen, no part of him moves when he speaks.

“No, no, we’re okay,” says the woman, and then, to the cashier:

“Put that one back.”

“You sure?”  It’s hard to make my voice kind without sounding like begging; I have a pleading sort of voice.  I’m still chewing the same stale gum I started chewing at the grocery store an hour and a half ago.

“Susie, you need that one!” The scruffy man finally moves, reaches out around her body towards the counter.

“Shut up Frankie! Stop fighting with me.  I know what food the bird has already, I’m the one who feeds him! And cleans his cage, you don’t know what he eats!”

“Ben to the front for customer assistance please, Ben to the front.”  The cashier is pudgy with a buzz cut; his voice over the intercom is rushed, harsh.  He turns to me, wants me to join in his loathing of these people.  I look away.

“What? Why?” Susie looks up from rooting through her pockets. She’s wearing a ratty wool cap also; it was once white, now it’s  lead-grey. Her cheekbones are high, she has a striking profile. Is she thirty-two? Forty? Has she brought her whole life, all her possessions, all her money and her man with her to the pet store?  No, the bird—he must live somewhere inside, so she has a place; a  room over a bar, maybe just a bed at the Y.

“Susie, let’s go,” says Frankie, looking down at the bags, then up at me, suspicious.

“Jeez, Frankie, hold your horses! How much is it now?” Susie looks up at the cashier and clicks her cane on the floor.

“Seven thirty-three.”  The cashier makes his voice the opposite of mine, like an angry assistant principal.  He raises his eyebrows in disdain and sighs loudly.  There are little brightly colored furry mice—royal blue, red, pink, yellow—in a bin on the counter; it takes real effort not to grab a handful and hurl them at him.

“Okay, here.”  Susie’s voice is calm but her hand is shaky.

Eight crumpled bills change hands.  The cashier yanks his away.

Frankie leans towards me, collecting their bags.  He smells faintly of beer, more strongly of himself; it has been a few days since he’s had a shower.  The cash register rings and there is the clicking of change and drawer hinges.

Suddenly Ben arrives and looks at everyone present: me, Frankie and Susie, recalcitrant cashier.  “Steve, what’s the problem?”

Steve closes his eyes and shakes his head.  Does anyone see this besides me and Ben? I hope not.  Probably not; Frankie faces  the other way, carrying all three bags on his shoulders and his head, a fragile Atlas.  Susie is looking down into her bag of bird food, the change clutched dearly in her other hand.  It takes them a full two minutes to clear out.

Susie turns back halfway to the door and says, “Thanks ma’am.”   I’m dumping the cans of cat food onto the rolling counter and her voice, a high raspy bird voice, is like a gunshot.  Three cans hit the floor.

“Of course, any time,” I say and instantly regret.  Of course? Who am I, some benevolent rich lady? Any time? I’ll never see her again.  I should have given her money then, when Frankie wasn’t looking.  As usual, thought of it too late.

Susie follows Frankie out, her metal cane clacking hard on the laminate floor.  The bad leg drags and makes half circles around the good one.  Frankie drops all the bags and holds the door open for her and they push out into the biting January afternoon, head  for an empty bus stop on a blank corner, upstate New York.  The last I see of them, as I walk out of the pet store with a heavy bag in each hand, they’re almost to the flimsy shelter.  Fierce wind blows Frankie’s dirty hair all around, rips Susie’s pink jacket open, tries to tear off both their hats.

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About emvlovely

Oh, I live in an RV. I write poems, essays and prose. Thanks for reading my blog, good health to you!
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2 Responses to The true story of Frankie and Susie

  1. Joanie says:

    Sad story, but probably a fairly common one in our society. Compassion obviously wasn’t evident in the cashier’s response to these people. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do to mitigate a situation, despite your strong desire to help.

    Your piece leaves me wondering about the back-story of this couple and why they ended up in apparent poverty, not to mention what happened to them, and their bird, after leaving the store and facing a seemingly dismal future.

    • emvlovely says:

      Thanks Mom. The pet store in question is the one in Northway mall. I’ve often wondered about the couple since then, and especially Susie, with her broken leg. Every time I worked on their story (which was a lot actually, I pared it down quite a bit), I said a prayer for the three of them: Frankie, Susie, bird.

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