Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Story of Frank

Frank came with the house. His parents had been close friends of my grandfather, thus he considered himself to be part of our greater extended family. When we purchased Grandpa's house in Montana in 2004, Frank was part of the package deal.

He would come over once a month or so, just to visit--and to see if we had anything for him. You see, Frank was always a needy person. He was always dealing with a wide variety of physical and mental ailments, and as such, had a difficult time making ends meet. He drove truck occasionally, tinkered around at odd jobs, and hauled off scrap metal to sell. Frank generally showed up to shoot the breeze when he was broke. Did we need any engines worked on? Any light construction jobs that need to be done? Could he haul off that rusty old car from the edge of the property? We would invariably feed him dinner and try to find something useful he could do or sell to make a few bucks.

But Frank wasn't only in need of financial help. Frank was perpetually lonely. Although he was physically ten years our senior, his emotional age was significantly younger. He didn't really have friends, and his overly affectionate and familiar way felt awkward at best. We had no personal history with him, no relationship at all other than him dropping by unannounced once in a while, starting shortly after we moved to Montana.

"Hey, Sis. It's so good to see you again. I haven't been over here for six weeks! I've missed you so much. I think about you and Andy and the kids all the time. I've been in Colorado for the last month, you know. I don't know if you knew that, Sis. It's good to be back here to visit you again. I got lonely in Colorado, Sis. You and Andy and the kids are like family to me. Wow, look how much the kids have grown, Sis! You must be feeding them some more of your good cooking. You always make really good meals, Sis."
 
He chatted endlessly about the physical health and career updates of people we didn't know, as if we did know them.

"I don't know if you guys know this, Andy and Sherry, but my brother-in-law has had three mini-strokes--one in ninety-nine, one in oh-two, and another in oh-four. I wasn't sure if you had heard that yet, Andy and Sherry."

"Robert lost his job seven weeks ago, Andy and Sherry. I'm not sure if you knew that."

We didn't know that. We didn't know his brother-in-law. We didn't know Robert. We were able to express genuine surprise every time.

The thing with Frank, though, was that we didn't trust him. We knew that he didn't seem to have a good grasp on what is appropriate behavior and what is not. He was very physically affectionate and seemed to be very fond of our children. We made sure he was never, never alone with them or with me. We had also heard from Grandpa that he was not above stealing when his financial needs grew desperate, which was often. In addition, he held some fairly extreme beliefs and could spot a government conspiracy in everything.

"I am just now starting to feel better, Sis. I don't know if you and Andy know I've been sick for quite a while...let's see...it started four weeks ago Friday and I am just now getting better, Sis. I wasn't sure if you knew. I think it was that artificial food that was doing it to me. I had been drinking some of that artificial soda and that stuff is made to kill you. I was being poisoned, Sis. You and Andy need to be really careful about all the artificial foods out there. The government is authorizing poison to wipe out a lot of people. I'm not sure if you were aware of that or not, but it is a very dangerous situation and we have to protect ourselves."

Grandpa tried to be kind to him for the sake of his friends, Frank's parents, while at the same time holding him at arm's length because he couldn't be trusted. We adopted the same stance.

This went on for years. And then it stopped. Grandpa and Frank had one final falling out over something. We could never be quite sure of what. Grandpa said some very strange things about Frank that we could not verify, and Grandpa's hearing is so poor that we didn't know if the falling out was over something real or something misheard. Frank left the area and didn't return.

Half a dozen years went by, perhaps more like seven or eight. I had forgotten about him, in all honesty.

Last night Frank showed up in our driveway. I asked Tano to come out of his bedroom so I wouldn't have to answer the door alone. I made it clear to my tall, adult son that Frank was not to be completely trusted.

He looked like an old man. He was thin and frail with thin wisps of white hair and a scruffy white beard. His stride was a slow, stiff hobble and his eyes and voice were weary. When he first got out of his truck, I thought he was drunk. He wasn't. 

He went to the shop first, where Andy's woodworking class was finishing up a final glue-up before they could end a very long day. I saw him hug Andy in the doorway--a huge, awkward bear hug. While he was out in the shop, I quickly filled the kids in on our history with Frank. They barely remembered him. Minutes later, he was coming up the front steps of the house. I whispered to the kids that we would be kind and they nodded nervously, but obediently.

I gave Frank a hug at the door. He smelled terrible. The kids each politely shook his hand. He was stunned at the size of them. He remembered them as small children. He looked around the house in amazement. It has changed tremendously in the time he has been gone. He said Andy mentioned that I would make him a sandwich. He was hungry. Certainly. In fact, the leftovers from dinner were still on the table. Would he like a plate warmed up? Yes. He would be grateful.

"You always make such good food, Sis."

We listened for an hour as he updated us on his own precarious health and financial woes. We heard about the health, employment status and marital difficulties of all of his siblings and acquaintances, none of whom we know. No, we hadn't heard about that. Or that. Or that!

Andy joined us at the dining room table part way through the discussion, as soon as he had dismissed his students for the night. Frank turned to him finally and asked if he could park in the yard and sleep there in his truck for the night. He had his bed set up in the back and he was so tired. If not, he would just go back down to a campground by the river. Andy stalled by asking about his sleeping arrangements in his truck and his travel plans. Frank would be heading on down the road the next morning, hoping to get to Drummond to visit someone there, but frustrated that gas is so expensive.

While they discussed these things, my phone buzzed with a message from my daughter from across the room. Ellie would be very uncomfortable with Frank staying on the property. Not knowing how Andy would answer, I assured her we would lock the doors if he did. She still looked nervous, but a little relieved. We don't often lock doors in the country.

Frank stayed in the truck in the yard last night. Andy went out later and locked his shop full of tools, the garage, and the house. We knew Frank was in worse financial straits than ever and one just never knows what desperation might drive a person to do.

Lying in bed, I thought about Frank. He was terribly old and frail at only 57 years old. He didn't even look strong enough to steal power tools to pawn, although I suppose he could. Andy said he had stated he only had two months to live, according to the doctor. This road trip was probably his way of saying his final goodbyes. We have a guest apartment above the woodshop with clean sheets on a comfortable bed. I had just put them on there a few days prior, noting aloud that we were ready for unexpected company. A scene from Les Miserables started playing in my head. You know the one. Jean Valjean is an ex-con on parole. He takes shelter in the home of the bishop, who welcomes him to join them for a meal and a good night's sleep. The bishop's household is afraid he will steal from them, and indeed he does. The bishop, however, does not condemn, but gives freely instead, reflecting God's character through his generosity.

I suddenly felt ashamed. We gave Frank a hot meal and I did pack up a bag of food for him for the road, but we could have given this frail, sad, lonely, disturbed, broke man a bed in which to sleep, and we didn't. We were afraid, afraid that in his poverty he might take from our abundance, so we left him outside in his truck. He had likely been asleep for hours now. It was too late. I felt as though I had been tested and failed. I went to sleep with a heavy heart.

This morning we invited Frank in to shower and clean up. At eight o'clock, as Andy's class was starting for the day, Tano and I followed Frank to a gas station and filled the tank of his truck. We exchanged a little more small talk and some hugs, then watched as he drove away. I doubt we will ever see him again. 

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