Monday, November 3, 1997


"Angela, I'm on one step..." Franky said, and the skin on Angela's back tingled.

"Angela, I'm on the second step..."

   She knew where the tale was going.  He had recited it to her many times.

"Angela, I'm on the third step..."  She shivered in anticipation.

She was five years old, and younger than Franky by as many years.  He thought it was funny to say that they were like Woolworth's Five and Ten.  He didn't have many friends his own age, probably because he was too bright for them, so he spent much of his time with her.  Their families shared a big red house--Franky's family on the first floor, and Angela and her parents on the second floor.  All the kids slept upstairs in the attic, Franky and his big brother Joe in one room, and Franky's two older sisters and Angela in the other.

They were in the attic now as Franky continued, "Angela, I'm on the fourth step...."

"Franky, cut that out now," his brother said.  "You'll scare her to death.  Why do you always tell that stupid story of yours just at bedtime?  She'll have nightmares all night!  Angela, go back to your own room."

"But, Joe, I want to hear how it ends," Angela said.

"You know how it ends.  We all know how it ends.  He tells it a hundred-fifty times a week.  I'll tell you how it ends.  It'll be 'Angela I'm on the fifth step,'  all the way to 'Angela I'm on the thirteenth step.'  Then he'll pounce and grab you by the neck and say 'Angela, I gotcha!', and you'll scream.  Now go to your room.  Mary and Louise are already in bed.  Scoot!"

Joe was in the tenth grade, and bossed all of them, especially Franky, but he was okay.  He was big and handsome and sometimes even played catch with the four of them.

The kids up at the top of the hill on Woodward Avenue were mean to Franky and teased him, especially Johnny Morey.  He was in Franky's class at school, and Franky said he made straight F's.

"Sissy, sissy!" Johnny said to Franky one day, "always with his little baby cousin!  What do you two play, paper dolls?"

"You go home, Johnny Morey!" Angela said.  "Get off of our property, or I'll..."

She punched him on the arm.

"Or you'll what?"  Johnny said.  "You'll what, huh?...huh?"

"That's okay, Angie," Franky said.

"Get out of our yard!" Angela said again.

"So make me!"  Johnny said, and grabbed her precious Shirley Temple pin, pulling it right from her sweater.  It had come with the Shirley Temple Doll Santa had brought last Christmas, and Angela wore it almost every day.

"Give me that!" she said, but Johnny just laughed.

"Give it back," Franky said.  His voice was quiet and shaking.

Just then Joe came out the back door and took the porch steps two at a time.  "Give her her pin, Morey," was all Joe said.  Johnny threw the pin on the ground and turned and left.

Franky looked ashamed, or maybe Angela just imagined it.  "That's okay, Franky," she whispered, and put her hand on his arm, but he shrugged it off.

"Are you mad at me, Franky?" she asked.

He shook his head.  "No.  Mad at me."

"That Johnny Morey!" Angela said.  "I hate him!"

"No you don't," Franky said.

He was right.  She didn't hate him.  It was just that she loved Franky.  They were best friends.  He had already taught her to read and do sums.  He said he wanted her to be the smartest kid in the First Grade next year.  It was his goal, not hers, but for his sake, she would try.

The times Angela liked best were when Franky would invent scenerios for the two of them to play.  Other kids played cops and robbers, or cowboys and Indians, or Buck Rodgers, but Franky thought up much better games than those.  Sometimes the terrace that sloped gently in front of their house became instead the Alaskan terrain they had to climb to reach their igloo, lest they die in a blizzard that blew icy blasts of snow in their faces.  It was great fun, and she loved it.

"Mush, you huskies!" Franky would shout.

"Do we call them huskies because they are fat, Franky?" she asked.

"No, dummy!  That's the kind of dogs they are!  Like our Sheppie.  The kind of dog he is is German shepherd."

     "Oh," she said, realizing for the first time in her life why that was their dog's name...Sheppie...she had wondered about that.  She had thought Horsie would have been a good name for him, because he was big enough for her to ride when Joe held her on the dog's back.   She didn't say anything to Franky that she had just then figured out how Sheppie got his name.  Franky  would have said "dummy" again  and been disappointed in her.

Once, when Joe overheard how exacting Franky was with her, he told him not to be so tough on her.  "She's only five-years-old, for heaven sake, Franky!" he said.

"I want her to be perfect," Franky said.

"Well, nobody's perfect," Joe said.  

Still, for Franky's sake, she tried to be.

When the front terrace was not for them a frozen tundra, it was other times a desert over which she and Franky rode their camels in search of water.  Just in the nick of time, when they were about to expire from thirst, they would come upon an oasis.  Franky explained to her about oases.

Sometimes, especially in summer, the terrace, shaded as it was by the big chestnut tree in front, and soft with pachysandra that covered it, was where they sat and just talked.

"I'm going to be rich when I grow up,"  Franky said.

"Are you, Franky?  What are you going to be?" she asked.

""A priest."

"But priests don't make a lot of money," she said.

"Oh yeah?  Didn't you ever see how much money is in the collection basket?  Who do you think gets it all?"

"You're right!" she said.

"He's wrong!" her mother said when she told her.  "They give most of it to the poor.  That Franky's a nice boy, but don't believe everything he tells you."

"You dummy!"  Franky said when she went back to him with her mother's words.  "You tell your mother everything!  Just keep quiet some time!"

   "But, Franky..." she said

"But Franky nothing!" he said.  "Do you think your mother tells you everything?"


"So, see?" he said.

"But we're not supposed to lie," she said.

"Who said anything about lying?  You don't have to lie to them.   Just answer their questions and no more.  Grown-ups have their world and we have ours.  Don't talk so much to them, okay?"

"Okay," she said, but she knew she would continue to talk too much.  She couldn't seem to help it.  Besides, she didn't want her mother and father to have a world apart from hers.  Sometimes, with Franky, she just kept to herself opinions that differed from his.  She didn't want him to feel hurt.

Sometimes, on a Saturday, Franky's mother would shop at the Diamond Street Market downtown, and would take the two children on the trolley with her and drop them off at the old Art Cinema movie house while she shopped.  In those days the Art Cinema showed horror movies, not pornographic ones as it did in later years.

"Don't dare tell her what movie we're going to see!" Franky would say.

She never did.

"What kind of movies are they?" her aunt had once asked, and Franky had hurried to answer for both of them.  "Good ones, Ma," he told her.

"That's nice," she had said.

One such Saturday, her aunt finished shopping earlier than usual and wanted to get home.  She convinced the theater manager to allow her to come in to get her two young charges while the movie was still in progress.  She walked down the aisle of the darkened theater to find her niece hunched over almost double in fright, her hands over her eyes, and Franky mesmerized by what Count Dracula was doing on the screen.  That was the end, then and there, of their Saturday afternoons at the old Art Cinema.

Once she was grown, she credited Franky and his tales and the chills of the horror movies and all the wonderful magic games of childhood he had invented for them, for whatever ambition and imagination she had managed to carry into adulthood.  She missed him terribly.  He was still around, but he really wasn't Franky anymore.

He returned from serving in the Second World War to finish his last year at Carnegie Tech.  Then, after teaching himself German, he took a post-graduate year of studies at the University of Zurich.  He was, among many other things, an accomplished pianist.  Back from Zurich, he enrolled at Pitt in a masters-degree-in-education program.  Relatives began to whisper among themselves that he was afraid to make it in the real world, and chose to stay in the university community.  He did eventually try his hand at teaching school, but it was not for him.  He entered the seminary in Latrobe to study for the priesthood, and left a year later, unordained.   

In a rare moment, reminiscent of their childhood friendship, he confided to her that his life was becoming ever more confusing and that making decisions agonized him.  Finally he could not make them at all.  Stuttering became an affliction, and he spoke less and less.  He withdrew into his own thoughts.  Financially, he became totally dependent on his parents, and at their death, they left him with enough money to live in an institution where things could be decided for him.

Now she wonders if  he realizes how much she looked up to him in those days, how much she idolized him, how much she owes him.    Does he know how hard she used to try to be as good as he wanted her to be?  And if he does, does it matter to him anymore?