Frankie dressed neatly, casually. Never wore a suit or a tie because he never went anywhere. Wouldn’t think to spend as much as a week’s pay for a fancy meal with drinks in some of those places downtown, regardless of who his date was or her expectations. Having no close family or relatives who even knew he was now living the San Francisco Bay Area he also never got invited to anyone’s weddings, bar mitzvahs or divorce parties.
But he dressed as close to sartorially as he could on the $450 a week. Not to be dapper. Not to set fashion precedent. Merely to see the look on your face when he told you he was a janitor. His buttons were always buttoned correctly and his shirts were pressed at the $1.00 “In by 10 – Out by 5” place.
Frankie’s existence was routine and anonymous. He worked at the Royal duplex on Polk, a neighborhood theatre from 1921 that had been split in the ’70s, a tired building between an ice cream store and the Pasand Bar. It still betrayed the decadent remnants of its glory behind the curtains and pieces of sheetrock and linoleum installed to cover up the marble and crown molding and which made the ornate building easier to clean after the homeless and the wankers had left for the last train.
Frankie arrived for work every night after an evening of entertaining or drinking. With acquaintances that shouldn’t necessary be categorized as friends. When most places were closing and the locals in bed he’d finally enter the dark theatre and vacuum the lobby, deodorize the restrooms; spot mop the aisles. He dusted the candy counter once a week and be out by the time the sun arose.
Frankie worked 7 nights a week; because of the schedule it didn’t bother him that he was by necessity a night owl, with no days off.
* * *
Every day was like a day off.
* * *
Then he’d hang around to meet the morning shift at the theatre and have breakfast with them at the coffee shop. Then he’d sleep the rest of the day in his small walk-up on the 3rd floor of the Grant five blocks up, above the furniture store. It had been converted to apartments when downtown migrated to another county. He’d begin his day again as the evening moved in to accompany his movements.
Frankie was, generally, to outward appearance, a happy guy, quick with last night’s joke and surprising gossip. He had a crooked smile, splitting his slightly pushed-in face that could break you down and make you believe anything he said at the moment. Frankie saw more than anyone realized. He also liked to take local single girls under his wing and try to get them to spend the night with him. Being charming and inoffensive in his demeanor, unattached and only slightly eccentric and flexible for any spontaneous plans, he was often successful with those girls who were experimenting with their own budding sexual urges.
He took them backstage at the theatre, deep in the night, where no one would disturb them and where he had a futon bed, an Ikea loveseat and a lamp plugged into one of the sockets that originally ran the stagehand worklights.
Frankie had a thing and he had a routine. He chatted with the young girls who wandered the streets, no longer locked up by mommy and daddy having reached the age in which they could take care of themselves for the evening or because they simply stopped watching. At least closely.
Frankie knew what these girls were looking for out on the main avenue, whether it was fun or someone of legal age to buy them a drink or some grown-up unidentified thrill. Whether they were window-shopping or had dressed up to flaunt their independence or adopted completely nondescript clothes to remain unnoticed and unmolested, Frankie knew how to get their attention. That crooked smile. He spent at least 5 or 10 minutes talking with them, on the sidewalk over an ice cream. He got them to come inside.
Later was always better – he hung around outside bars and clubs before it got too late and the trade got more serious or withdrawn. He was friendly, acted like he was waiting on a friend who was now an hour late and apparently stood him up. He got the conversations bouncing without apparent agenda. His pushed-in face put them at ease and he didn’t even try to take the girls inside the club because that would only invite trouble with IDs and he wanted them alone anyway. Away from the others.
And although they were young and Frankie preferred them young they weren’t always virgins. That was okay because they were relatively inexperienced and often perfectly clean. Late some nights Frankie would think about his habits and be conflicted. He liked to be good and he liked to not be compared or in competition when he talked to the girls but sometimes this felt bad, like he shouldn’t be the one to expose them to the realities and the complications and the dark drives of the big bad world. But their bodies were able and they joined him willingly.
When they were virgins it was different and he was careful to progress through the realm of touching and sweet whispers and there was no hurry – and no demands. Yet he had a nagging realization afterwards. Was giving them that first experience they’d remember the rest of their lives the role he wanted?
* * *
He ultimately couldn’t fight his own libido.
* * *
The people who knew Frankie didn’t know exactly what he did in the dark all night, only that they didn’t like him. He was certainly nice enough, easy to accept into conversations. He always listened before intruding with an opinion and putting a positive spin on anything, giving people who had fallen from favor the benefit of the doubt, conversationally, you know, a barstool psychologist. And adding the unsubstantiated gossip as example.
But he was a night person, not around a lot except breakfast or for closing-time drinks. And never having to get going somewhere. It was a little creepy being a movie theatre janitor; alone and opposite. His only acquaintances were those who worked at the Royal, the assistant managers from hotels he used to work at who snuck away for an hour late evenings, and whisper to him in the hallways outside the john while passing packets and then having to get back. Or the bouncers at the front desks at the clubs or restaurants. “Frankie, get on out of here.” The guy who ran the Indian ice cream place let Frankie take packs of cigarettes for free. Frankie tried to be social with them all but they ultimately pursued their social liaisons and romances in more traditional venues, at normal hours, at homes or before close, under the aegis of dating and marriage.
So Frankie swam through his night existence and waves of new faces. And conquests. His sexual exploits were infrequent and were protected and were anonymous. He was everywhere but being a small man was mostly unnoticed. No one ever came to visit in his apartment in the Grant.
* * *
One of the parents got wind of their daughter’s clandestine visits downtown. Because young people are not as secretive as they should be. And haven’t yet learned the benefits of keeping things to themselves. Intercepted texts to friends are easy to misconstrue.
What got Anthony Harris alarmed was the sense that his daughter was involved in an older man he had never heard about. She’d gone out on her own more than once after he’d fallen asleep the last couple evenings drunk on the sofa and for the first time was beginning to accept he no longer had a hold on his daughter’s emotions, behavior or her future. In fact he hadn’t had a strong control of any of it for many years, in spite of his attempts that satisfied him more than it ever did her.
His sense of outrage and dread circled around the vaguely racial discomfort that this older guy (“btw cute in his way”) was white and goddamnit taking advantage of her innocence and good graces.
How had he let this happen? He was surprised he’d even discovered it. He’d given LaShanta that phone to text her friends and stay accessible, close. He felt vaguely like a failure, a feeling he got more familiar with since his wife had been taken away.
Harris shook past the fog of his evening routine and determined to get to the bottom of this but wasn’t about to ask her point blank because that was an unspoken breach of trust – reading her texts, intruding past her personal boundaries. He gathered they would meet again that night. And he determined to go observe for himself the nature of the relationship. If such a word was appropriate. Words are always cast by those who use them for their own ends to slant or twist the conversation the wrong way.
Harris had extra drinks that night and pretended to fall asleep in front of the television and waited for the hour when LaShanta snuck out through the back door. He might have heard the screen door open and close quietly on the rubber runners leading out the porch or he might have dreamed it and he waited for a while longer before rising. The house was empty with the blue glow of the TV.
He walked up the street and stopped a block up from where LaShanta had stopped and he ducked into a dark nook in front of a bank between the ATM and a Romanesque pillar holding a For Lease sign. The neon in the window of the Pasand Bar was across the intersection and 4 blocks up. It glowed red and blue with LIVE and logos and the ache of addiction. The Royal stood beside it farther still and he saw the dregs of the last crowd file out and then the lights under the marquee turned off for the night. That section of the sidewalk plunged into darkness.
He watched as his daughter walked up and down the street and meet with a man, thin and maybe 5′ 6″ at most. He had a thick head of hair but a pushed-in face, dressed nice, and Harris hoped he at least was younger than looked. He smiled and they laughed. He held a brown paper bag with a bottle of something or maybe it was a large can of beer, one of those 40-ouncers they sold at corner liquor stores for 1.99.
* * *
They walked through the thinning smattering of people still on the streets, and in through the front door of the closed dark theatre.
* * *
Harris went closer and stood outside the front of the darkened theatre. Through the glass doors he saw nothing. No one was visible inside and the only light was a Coca-Cola clock above the snackbar. The glass doors were locked and equipped with panic hardware on the other side that he couldn’t jimmy or get to. And he didn’t want to try.
They were inside there. Somewhere in the dark theatre.
Harris walked around the side of the building and down the narrow alley between the brick side of the theatre and the bar with plastic garbage cans lining the way. Metal stairwells zig-zagged down from the balcony through the gloom like rickety fingers. The exit doors to the theatre inside were framed with rotted wood; Harris was able to wiggle one. He got purchase on the edge of the first double door – it had already been bent out about 2 inches, from someone years earlier having crow-barred it once. He wondered if that break-in had been successful.
Harris walked through the empty theatre still unclean with popcorn bags and Coke cups littered every few feet between the rows of seats. The empty space void of sound or people made Harris shiver a moment. He stepped on sticky candy buttons and Jujubees. Soda spills dripped and snaked down the floor like drunken pissstreams under seats and through armrest standards. Lazy rivulets pooled at the bottom of the auditorium near the screen and in a dark dusty scum.
Harris walked through a small door, unknobbed and unfastened, at the side of the screen and entered a short hallway that lead behind the arch. Beside him the stage lighting switch board, long abandoned with vaudeville was now just a nook with open boxes of missing fuses, tied off circuits, and open plugs. Beyond a sheetrock wall backed the screen and opened into the narrow expanse of the original stage.
Frankie and LaShanta were there. Harris saw them in the dim light, lit incongruously by a deco table lamp on a wooden orchestra chair. They were lying on the futon Frankie had on the floor next to a discarded throw rug, and LaShanta was naked and kneeling over Frankie who still had his shirt on, holding his soft genitals in her mouth trying to make him hard again.
Harris was still for perhaps a second or an hour, recognizing dimly her inexperience and ardent attempt to revive him both repulsed and fascinated him.
Frankie watched her quietly, every so often giving helpful or appreciative encouragement.
“That’s my girl,” Harris finally said.
Frankie jerked up erect. LaShanta was less quick and fell back without covering herself. Perhaps she felt no chance to hide. Frankie was more modest and quickly grabbed for the first thing he could to cover his naked and slick lower half, a yellow windbreaker.
“What the fuck are you –” he started and quickly faded out, unable to keep it up. Harris slowly walked closer, not full of rage or anger so much as – curiosity. Frankie quickly noted that he, like LaShanta, was black and wondered if the relation was close enough to forebode real danger for himself or if this interloper was just someone who happened to have found them.
“What are you doing back here?”
LaShanta said nothing, didn’t seem to recognize him. The 40-ounce can of Schlitz sat beside her.
“Look man, we’ll get out of here,” Frankie said, looking for his pants. “We’ll get out of your way.”
“That’s my girl,” Harris said again, with force. Frankie realized the import.
“Wait now, I’m not the one…”
Harris turned to his daughter, “What are you doing here?”
“I don’t know, daddy. It’s late…”
Frankie was putting a leg in his pants. “Take her. I’ll leave, you’ll never see me again.”
Harris finally turned to Frankie. “Who the fuck are you?”
“I’m no one. She just talked to me. We just met.”
“You just met.”
“She liked me.” Frankie smiled. He could break you down with that smile. “She liked it. I’m not her first boyfriend, now… It’s nothing.”
LaShanta was getting her dress on now, expecting to be pulled out of here by the arm at any minute. To be spanked. Grounded.
“‘Boyfriend.’ How long have you been her boyfriend?” Harris sniped.
“No, you misunderstood. I’m not her– I never do this twice.”
“He’s not my boyfriend, daddy,” LaShanta said. “Don’t worry.”
Harris looked at his daughter, back in her dress and ready to leave. She had put on her underwear slowly first without much fuss and would have put her bra on carefully as well if she was old enough to have worn a bra.
Harris stared, not sure what should happen next.
Frankie waited too, and he recognized something he had seen only a couple times before and never in such close quarters. Never backstage, but out in the world, during a couple other close calls. A fog descending upon the mind of this person he was talking to, this Harris; a thick wall of denial and rage and above all blindness. Frankie knew that the person he was talking to had suddenly been confronted with a realization that they found troubling and dangerous and something they wanted to fight against. It was the trauma of a basic belief being subverted and made wrong, an encounter with a lie and a slap in the face of reason that changed everything and could not be ignored and was above all, TRUE. Frankie knew that people who fell into this state were suddenly unable to see or hear anything around them, that they were unreachable for the minute or the hour or day or the rest of their life that it took to regain their bearings and they were unable to be reasoned with and were potentially dangerous because talking and money and sense and running all had no meaning.
Frankie backed up and Harris lunged at him. Frankie scrambled, slipping on the rug and ran out the side exit on the other side of the stage and scurried through the theatre and through the exit door leading out under the concrete overhang that lead to the parking lot behind the theatre.
He ran into the neighborhood.
* * *
Harris chased him, out of a sense of obligation rather than rage. He didn’t even look at LaShanta, more worried about losing Frankie in the inky blackness of this night like every other night, never to be seen again. Harris followed down the empty sidewalks away from the main street and along the front of the line of wartime houses, his neighborhood, his shoes making slapping sounds on the dry concrete.
Frankie was a block ahead, and kept glancing backwards. And he zig-zagged hoping to disappear behind some high hedge or secret driveway which refused to present itself. Harris had the benefit of having raised LaShanta in this neighborhood and knew every street. Almost every resident.
Hardly any porch lights were lit and only some windows were illuminated by the blue glow of a late night TV at this time of night, and Frankie was thankful for he didn’t want anyone to peep out of their kitchen window and see him running for his life, his future in this neighborhood that even wasn’t his own. He headed towards the darker end of a road marked “Haste Street” and he smiled to himself as he turned off it and down Martin Luther King Way.
Harris followed and knew where Frankie would end up. He saw him moving toward the dark side of every street, towards the intersections that weren’t lit by streetlights, trying to hide in the shadows, escape into the blackness, become invisible in a field of nothing. Harris heard the che-shrlankll of him hitting a chainlink fence just on the other side of the yard at the corner and knew Frankie had reached the junior high school and was trying to scale it to get off the main road.
Che-shrlankll. Harris slowed and walked to the corner where he knew the gate to the playground was. His daughter had not gone to this school. Not yet. She would be old enough next year. No one knew her here. They didn’t know him. Che-shrlankll. Che-la-ssssss.
Harris walked through the ring of wet grass and into the hard sand field where the playground equipment stood in the dark. He could see the swings moving unnaturally in the moonlight and he remembered what Frankie had said before he had bolted. He was not LaShanta’s first boyfriend. She had had no boyfriends, Harris knew, she was too young to be serious about boys yet but Harris knew she was not a virgin either and he wasn’t sure how much damage Frankie had done but there was no time to talk about that anymore.
He thought he saw a shape hiding in the red and blue rocketship structure, planted in concrete footings and lined with holes to see out and a slide coming out from the bottom to escape.
Harris began to see in the dark.
* * *
Monday morning the schoolyard was hastily roped off and the children were kept away by the police in order to collect all the evidence from the scene.
The body was left on the spinning merry-go-round, although he had apparently been methodically if brutally hammered against the swing-set footings. That was where most of the blood was pooled. Although the neighborhood was well known as a locus of drug activity the method of the assault was not commensurate with a drug hit and there was no evidence of drugs on the victim’s person.
Later it would be determined that he had a small amount of alcohol in his system, although not above the legal limit. DNA evidence on his underwear suggested he’d had sexual relations in the previous 12 hours but that other person was never identified or came forward. The case was eventually abandoned and considered closed after 90 days of inactivity and lack of any new leads.