May 28, 2004
copyright 2004-14 Cynthia Rockwell All Rights Reserved
Franny is digging in the dirt. It’s a sunny afternoon, and she is alone in her front yard on a suburban street. She digs along with the distant rhythmic sound of the mail truck running from house to house, revving and stopping, revving and stopping. Each time the truck revs, she smiles, knowing it’s getting closer. Finally she hears the engine louder and closer, and she drops her digging stick and runs to the mailbox. She stands barefoot, dirty from digging, stringy blond hair a bit knotted as it falls down to her waist. Her knees are skinned and scabbed and she wears cutoff denim shorts and a Supergirl t-shirt. She stands on her tiptoes, antsy and dancing as the truck approaches. When it pulls up next to her on the curb, the mailman leans out and hands her a pile of mail, smiling. “Thank you!” she chirps, and runs up the yard to her house as the mailman moves on to continue his rev-and-stop rhythm.
Inside, the house is quiet. Franny climbs up the stairs with her pile of mail and opens a bedroom door in the back hallway. She drops a few pieces of mail as she enters the very dark room. The light from the sunny day outside is prying in around the closed shades, framing them like an eclipse, providing the only dim light in the room. She walks over to the bed. “Here’s the mail, Mommy,” she says to her mother, who is lying with her eyes closed. Her mother stirs and reaches her hand out, eyes still closed, and cups Franny’s face in her hand. “Thanks honey, but not now,” she says. “Mommy has a migrane.”
“Can I open it?” she asks.
“Sure honey, but out in the kitchen, not here. Mommy needs to rest.”
Franny hurries off to the kitchen to open it. She passes the sink, which is full of dirty dishes. She climbs onto a chair at the cluttered kitchen table and tears into the mail. It’s typical mail–bills, flyers, advertisements–but she imagines it’s all addressed to her, letters from pen pals all over the world.
Once she’s opened all of the mail, she takes the pile back into her mother.
“Thanks honey, just leave it on the bed,” she says, without opening her eyes. “Why don’t you go play outside?”
Franny goes back out to playing in the dirt. A neighbor drives by and waves, and she waves back. She watches the car as it goes down the street. She brushes off the rock she just unearthed, then drops it in her pile and walks to the neighbor’s house and knocks on the door.
“Can Matty come out and play?” she asks when Matty’s Mom opens the door.
“He’s about to eat lunch, Franny,” she says. “Why don’t you come back a bit later?”
She walks across the street to Melissa’s house and knocks at the door. Melissa answers, and asks her mom if she can go out and play, but her mom says they’re about to eat lunch so she can’t go out. She tries a few more doors, but no one can come out to play. They’re all eating lunch.
As she’s walking home Franny hears the roar of the garbage truck. She freezes. She runs as fast as she can to her house and hides on the side of the house as the truck roars onto her street. It stops in front of her house, and she kneels down and shuts her eyes and waits. When it roars to life again and moves on to the next house, she runs to her front door and inside. She watches out the window as the big ugly truck rattles and snarls its way through the neighborhood. She goes in to her mother’s room, where the shades are still drawn and she is still lying in bed. Franny climbs up onto the bed and curls up against her. She lies on the bed and shuts one eye and traces with her finger in the air the square outline of light prying past the thick blinds, framing the windows.
After awhile she goes to the kitchen and gets some crackers from the cabinet. She gets some crayons and paper and sits down and begins to draw pictures. She crunches crackers as she draws. A house, a big yellow sun in the top left corner, a bright green lawn, and stick figures of her all her family members–Grandma, Aunts, Uncles–standing outside smiling. She writes each person’s name above their head. She looks at the pile of mail, and back at her drawing, then gets a new piece of paper and begins scrawling in crayon:
Dear Aunt Mary,
How are you? I love you. I drew this for you.
She then takes another sheet of paper and forms a makeshift envelope, folding it and taping the edges with scotch tape. She takes it in to her mother, who is now sitting up in bed, looking out the half-opened blinds. She climbs onto the bed.
“Can I send a letter to Aunt Mary?” she asks.
Her mother looks at the drawing and smiles. Her eyes are puffy. She takes the letter from Franny and pulls her into a hug. “Of course sugar,” she says, kissing the top of Franny’s head as a tear spills down her cheek.
Franny goes back outside just as a police cruiser pulls into the driveway. Her dad, in uniform, climbs out. She squeals and runs over to him and hugs him. “Hey Kitten,” he says, scooping her up. His shiny black boots creak as he carries her up the stairs and she tells him about her letter.
“Where’s Mom?” he asks as he sits Franny down on the couch.
“She’s in your room,” Franny says, jumping on the couch.
He glances down the hall, then goes into the kitchen. Franny runs ahead of him and gets the pile of mail.
“I opened the mail for you!” she says, beaming. He chuckles and takes it from her. “Thanks Kitten,” he says, sitting at the table. She climbs on his lap and curls against him as he sifts through the bills, advertisments, flyers.
“Lemme go check on your mom,” he says, kissing Franny on the forehead and setting her down as he heads down the back hallway.
Later that night the three sit around the dinner table, Dad now in a t-shirt and jeans and mom in her housecoat. She scoops leftover casserole onto their plates as Franny chatters with her Dad.
After dinner Franny draws another picture, this time for her Aunt Suzy, as she hears the muffled sounds of an argument in the back hall.
“You have to get out of bed!” she hears her father yell.
“Easy for you to say, you’re never here! You leave me all alone to deal with everything.”
“It doesn’t look like you’re dealing with anything!”
The next day Franny is waiting at the mailbox again, this time with the red flag raised. She opens the mailbox and looks in, sees her stamped, addressed envelope, and shuts the box. A few seconds later she opens it again, peeks in, and shuts the box. When the mailman pulls up, she’s grinning widely as he reaches past her to open the box and take her envelope.
* * * * *
Later that afternoon Franny pulls her fluffy white lace party dress from her closet and brings it in to her Mom, in bed.
“Can I wear this to Matty’s birthday party today?”
“Is that today honey?” her mother asks, slowly sitting up. She takes the dress from Franny and kisses her on the forehead. “Of course you can wear it. You’ll be the prettiest girl there,” she says.
“We don’t have a present for Matty, do we,” she says. Franny nods her head no. Her mother frowns and stands up and goes to her closet. “Well if your father were ever here maybe he could help with these things. I guess we can give him one of these toys we were going to give your cousin Joe for his birthday.” She pulls out a box of robots and action figures, and Franny chooses a two-headed dinosaur that transforms into a shiny blue car.
“You like that one?” Franny’s mother says. Franny nods, and her mother pulls her into a hug. “Let’s draw a bath for you,” she says.
An hour later, Franny steps out into the sunlight in her ruffly white lace dress, black patent-leather shoes, and white socks with a ruffle around the ankle. Her clean, blow-dried hair gleams in the sunlight and she carries a brightly-colored package for Matty. Her mother watches with pride from the doorway as Franny walks down the street to Matty’s, two houses down. Mr. Quigley is outside raking his lawn, and when he sees Franny he stops and watches the gleaming white confection as she passes by, smiling. Once she’s at Matty’s house, he gives Franny’s Mom a wave and watches as she waves and withdrawals back into the house.
At the party, Franny eats hot dogs and french fries and cake and ice cream. She plays tag with the boys, scuffing her patent-leather shoes and getting green grass stains on her ruffly dress. She chatters with Matty’s dad, who asks her what she wants to be when she grows up.
“A princess!” she says, dancing on her tiptoes, fluffing her ruffles. “Or an archaeologist,” she says, adding a few extra syllables to the clumsy word.
“An archaeologist!” laughs Matty’s dad. “Now that’s one I’ve never heard. Do you know what an archaeologist is?”
Her eyes grow wide as she lowers her voice and says with reverence, “They dig in the dirt and find treasures.”
He laughs and pats her on the head. “Well I hope one of those career paths works out for you,” he says.
The next day when Franny gets the mail, she tears through it hoping to find a letter for her from Aunt Mary, but there’s nothing for her. She goes in to her mother’s room to tell her, and she explains that it takes a few days for Aunt Mary to get the mail, and a few more for her to write back.
Franny goes outside and gets a group of kids together to play kickball. Before the game is over a few of the kids’ parents start calling them in for lunch, so the group disbands and Franny goes inside. When she steps into the hallway she can hear her mother on the phone, crying.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she’s saying. “All I ever wanted was a family. This is everything I wanted. But I’m going in circles … I’m exhausted … and he’s never here …” She sees Franny peek in the doorway and quickly wipes her eyes. “Come here honey, it’s Aunt Mary,” she says, smiling as she wipes her face. “She called to thank you for your letter.”
* * * * *
Later that afternoon, the kids are all back outside, ready to resume their kickball game after bickering over what the score was when they left off. Soon they tire of having to stop every few minutes for cars to pass through, so they quit the game. Franny strolls over to her family’s big green station wagon and climbs in, calling for all her friends to pile in.
“Let’s go to the store!” she says, taking the wheel herself. She pulls her mother’s big black sunglasses from behind the visor and puts them on, though they’re nearly as big as her face. She turns the wheel, pulls knobs, pushes levers, and soon the car is moving. The kids in the back seat squeal as the car drifts down the driveway, across the street, up the neighbor’s driveway and into their yard, mowing down a big green bush. The car comes to a rest and is quiet for a moment, and then the kids climb out and examine the smashed bush. Everyone is hushed and giggling and looking at Franny. Soon parents start trickling out of their houses to behold the spectacle of Franny’s big green station wagon backed up onto Mr. Quigley’s lawn with a mangled bush under its rear tires.
But not Franny’s parents. Mr. Quigley takes Franny over to her house and knocks on the door. Her mom takes a long time to answer, and Franny opens the door to go get her. Her mother comes to the door in her robe, confused.
“Hello Jean, I just thought you might like to know that your daughter’s been taking some driving lessons!” He chuckles and waves a hand over toward his lawn, where a growing crowd is gathering around her station wagon. She gasps and looks down at Franny, who is looking down at her dirty toes.
“What did you do, Franny? Someone could’ve gotten hurt!” Franny buries her head in her mother’s housecoat.
“I’m so sorry Jeff, we’ll pay to get you a new bush.”
He waves his hand, saying “Aw, that’s okay, I was thinking of ripping that old thing out by the roots anyway. But you might want to lock your car doors to keep this one from growing up too fast!” He chuckles and glances past her into the house. “How is everything, Jean?”
Just then the police cruiser pulls into the driveway. Franny’s mom frowns, apologizes again to Mr. Quigley, and takes Franny into the house. They sit on the living room couch and look out the window at her dad in uniform now dealing with the commotion over the mangled bush.“What did you think you were doing?” she says to Franny, who shrugs sheepishly. “I like pretending to go places,” she says.
Later that night, Franny hears the same fight in the back hall.
The next day, no mail at all. Franny watches the mailman move from house to house. When he leaves her street, she looks up the street at the row of mailboxes. She walks up to her neighbor’s box, and opens it. It’s filled with mail. She pulls out the envelopes, and shuts the mailbox. She walks to the next house, opens their box, and takes the envelopes. She continues, taking mail from every mailbox on her street.
She hobbles back home with a huge pile of mail, smiling as she brings it inside, goes directly to the kitchen table, opens the window blinds, and opens it. But it’s all the same, bills and advertisements. No drawings, nothing for her. She goes into the living room to watch cartoons.
A short while later her mother comes out in her robe and sees the pile of mail. She begins sifting through it, and soon she realizes that it’s not theirs. None of it is theirs. And it’s all opened. Neighbor’s bills, letters, mortgage statements. All opened. She looks into the living room and asks Franny where it came from. Franny hides her head under a pillow. Her mother sits down, stunned. She goes back into her bedroom.
Franny hears the shower running as the Smurfs come on the TV. Just as Smurfette is escaping Gargamel’s dark castle, her mother steps into the living room, now fully dressed, wearing makeup, hair pinned up in a bun. She grabs the pile of mail and takes Franny’s hand and they go outside and return the mail, house to house. Her mother knocks on every door, apologizing, chatting with each neighbor as Franny peeks from behind her leg, smiling bashfully at her neighbors.
After all of the mail is returned to its rightful owners and Franny’s mother has spoken with every person on the block, reassured that she won’t be prosecuted for the Federal offense of tampering with the U.S. Mail, she and Franny return home. They sit in the shade of the porch, Franny in her mother’s lap as she rocks in the porch swing. A few cars ride by, and Franny’s mother waves. She looks into the house through the screen door. “Mommy should get some of those dishes done.”
Franny climbs down from her mother’s lap and stands at the edge of the porch, peering down the street to see if any of her playmates are outside. She doesn’t see anyone. She places her feet in one straight line, heel to toe, and walks along the line of shade on the porch. One half of each foot warm and heated by the sunlight and warm wood, the other half cool and comforted in the dark shade.
Her mother gets up to go inside, and Franny follows her. Just inside the doorway, she looks back and sees Matty come outside with a soccer ball, and asks if she can go play with him. “Sure, honey,” her mother says.
Franny stands in the doorway, light flooding in around her from the hot summer day. “Love you, mommy.”
“I love you too, Franny,” her mother says as she disappears into the cool, dark house. The sun is pouring in through the screen door, and Franny steps out into it.