FRANKIE WAS HAPPIEST when she was being useful. In June, as a favor to her older sister, she flew to California to stay with her nephew for a few days. A cold fog darkened Teresita Boulevard when she climbed out of the taxi at her sister’s house. On the stoop, a blond man in a loose-fitting camouflage jacket stood hunched over the lock. She stiffened, glanced back at the taxi, but the driver gunned the engine and sped away. The man turned at the sound. Not a burglar. Not even a man. Her nephew had shot up four inches since Christmas.
“Carey! When did you grow up?” She spoke in a loud, emphatic tone, her default mode whenever she was fatigued or uncertain.
He blinked behind his tortoiseshell eyeglasses, too small for his long face, and then hopped down the steps, a key swinging from his neck on a leather cord. Over one shoulder, he carried a muslin knapsack, an accessory that would’ve gotten him beaten up in any New Jersey middle school. “You’re early,” he said. “Is Uncle Bruce—”
“You’re so tall for twelve, taller than me. What are you, five ten?” She held out her arms for a hug, but he grabbed the suitcase handle instead.
“Actually, five nine and three quarters, and I’m thirteen; my birthday was two weeks ago.”
She yanked him into a hug and smelled the pencil-shavings boyness of him. “I know your birthday, you nut.” It had slipped past her. Last year, she’d given him a set of Tolkien novels; god only knew what he was into now. She released him, and he went up the steps with her suitcase. She marveled at his height; he was conceived with the help of an anonymous sperm donor, so every non-Mulroney trait raised the specter of that stranger.
Inside, the house had a cedar and eucalyptus smell she liked and associated with San Francisco. A quick glance at the modern furniture, bare wood floors, and chilly abstract art reassured her that nothing had changed since her visit a year ago.
“We’ll celebrate your birthday tonight,” she said. “What’s your favorite restaurant?” He didn’t like eating in restaurants he told her. “Take-out then. Pizza? No, wait, you like tacos, right?”
“Actually, I’m not hungry.” His faint smile gave her the impression she’d confirmed an unflattering opinion he had about her, her over-eagerness to please, probably. “I’d like to work on my project,” he said.
After his bedroom door clicked shut, she rolled her suitcase down the hallway to her sister’s room. A patchwork quilt covered the bed, an incongruous homey touch. It was ten degrees chillier in here. Three tall windows, opened slightly, looked out over Glen Canyon, Oakland, and a sliver of bay, but now a dense marine layer of clouds obscured her view. It was a relief that she wouldn’t have to go out or feign interest in middle-earth hobbits or whatever floated her nephew’s boat these days. The flight had exhausted her, but she’d been drained before she’d boarded the plane. Naïve to think that moving her seventy-two-year-old husband to the nursing home would ease her burden.
She stripped off her black turtleneck and jeans and changed into a pair of soft gray sweats. Her phone dinged with a text from her sister. A selfie taken on Waikiki Beach: Nora’s wind-blown coppery curls (just like her own) obscuring half her face. Nora was attending a conference in Hawaii on women’s economic empowerment. When her usual babysitter had backed out, Nora contacted Frankie, thinking she could use the break from her “nursing home drama.” Probably, Nora hadn’t been thinking about Frankie at all. If she’d learned anything during her sixteen-year marriage to Bruce, a renowned Mark Twain scholar, it was that successful people put themselves first and seemed happier for it.
Frankie texted: ALL’S WELL IN SF, and then she crossed the hallway and knocked on Carey’s door. His muffled answer sounded like come in. He sat at his desk under the window, shoving papers into the drawer. After raising two spymaster stepdaughters, she was inured to teenage subterfuge. “I heard from your mom.”
He swiveled to face her. “Why won’t you let Uncle Bruce live in your house?” He sounded angry. He and Bruce had formed the He-Man Chess Club, an excuse, really, to escape the women’s pleas for help on holidays.
“Let ? Don’t tell me you didn’t notice a change in him at Christmas. He hardly spoke to you.” It came out more harshly than she intended. She tried again, “It’s for his own safety. You heard about the fire he set in our kitchen, right? Did your mom also tell you he left the house in February without his coat and shoes? If the police hadn’t found him, he could’ve died.”
Carey scowled. “You could just keep a better eye on him.”
“You sound like Jean.” Her younger stepdaughter had accused Frankie of giving up on Bruce. So easy to judge from across the country, from Seattle. “That’s because you don’t see what’s going on. Ask Clara. She’s there all the time. She’ll tell you; we’d have to lock Uncle Bruce in his room to keep him safe.”
“Just lock the front door,” he said, sounding less certain. “That’s what my mom did when I was little.”
“He’s not a toddler—he’s a big man; I can’t control him when he gets agitated. He took a swing at the orderly the other day.” Her nephew’s shocked expression gave her a guilty satisfaction. “He needs constant supervision; if I didn’t put him in the nursing home, I’d have to give up my life.”
He swiveled back and forth on his desk chair, looking unhappy. She returned to her sister’s room, sadness eclipsing her anger. She didn’t have much of a life to give up: a book group that met sporadically; Jenny and Hal, friends and fellow editors at the university press where she was employed part-time. Bruce would continue to suffer these bouts of belligerence until he’d permanently lost his mind, the doctor had told her as though it were something to look forward to. God knew she needed something, but not that. She craved companionship, intimacy. Ten years ago, she’d had a brief affair. She’d kept track of Kip Jones over the years the way she’d keep track of the exit signs on a turbulent jet: after Princeton University, he’d landed a tenure-track position at the University of Texas at Austin. From there, he’d accepted a year-to-year contract at Berkeley. If he’d figured into her decision to come to San Francisco, she didn’t want to examine it too closely. Now she lay on her sister’s bed, watching the fog lift from Glen Canyon. After she sold the Princeton house, she’d rent an affordable apartment near the nursing home so she could visit Bruce for the remainder of his life, which could conceivably be ten more years. She was forty-three.
When she’d set her sights on Bruce Shay sixteen years ago, she would never have guessed it would end this way. She was the twenty-seven-year-old office coordinator, serving the entire Princeton English department, but after Dr. Shay’s wife had died from breast cancer a year earlier, she’d made his frantic, often last-minute, requests her top priority. To show his gratitude, he treated her to lunch off-campus in Palmer Square. Soon the handsome, fifty-seven-year-old professor was lending her novels and volumes of poetry. At Stockton State, she’d been a mediocre English major, more focused on boys than on her classes; if she’d had a professor as brilliant and encouraging as Dr. Shay, she would’ve paid closer attention.
One afternoon in October, he asked her to stay with his girls while he attended a reception that had slipped his mind. She canceled her plans with Larry—the thirty-five-year-old assistant in alumni relations who lived with his parents and wore his glasses during sex—and drove out to the Shay farmhouse on the canal. Two rosy-cheeked, sturdy girls, aged twelve and ten, opened the door wearing aprons.
“We’re baking apple pies,” Jean, the younger girl said. “You can help.” The overheated house was a charming mess of books, craft projects, and potted green plants. Bruce’s familiar tweed blazer hung from a doorknob, and she stroked the woolen collar in passing. In the steamy kitchen, bowls crowded the countertop, a cookbook was propped open with a warty gourd. Clara, the older girl, opened a closet, and from the jumble of rubber boots and jackets, she exhumed a navy-blue apron imprinted with constellations.
“It’s Mommy’s,” Jean said in a reverential whisper. How could Frankie refuse?
• • •
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JANIS HUBSCHMAN’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in West Branch, Colorado Review, StoryQuarterly, Michigan Quarterly Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere. She has won Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open Award and Bellingham Review’s Tobias Wolff Award. Her work has been supported with a Bread Loaf-Rona Jaffe Scholarship and a Virginia Center for the Creative Arts fellowship. Janis teaches fiction writing at Montclair State University.