They sat side by side under the ten-foot expanse of mountains. The painting had been done by Frank’s grandfather, a surprising liberal in a family of mid-western Republicans, and was the only thing Frank had managed to wrangle away from his family. Frank’s mother especially was loathe to see it go; her grey eyes had flashed with a malice Frank, as the baby of the family, had only previously seen unleashed on his licentious sisters when he had asked for the piece as his parting wedding gift.
Now the majesty and grandeur he had once felt when staring into the white topped landscape was coupled with the sharp tang of his disbarment. The painting loomed large above the tight quarters of his and London’s new rental, incongruous beauty set against peeling wallpaper and the caustic stench of their neighbor’s cat piss. Frank was not yet comfortable here; his shoulders would twinge when he leaned back into the couch, as if they were trying to avoid contact with the hand-me-down and whatever history its stained fabric retained. His mother-in-law had no such qualms and in fact was lying quite comfortably across the arms of the recliner they had all brought home together today from the Disabled American Veterans in Frank’s truck. Her legs were crossed, and she blew smoke towards the ceiling in the relaxed fashion of all beautiful women in the world.
“I wouldn’t trade a fig for a lonely hike in those mountains,” she said to no one in particular. “I don’t understand anyone who would.”
“That’s no surprise,” London said to her mother. “You haven’t left this city in years.”
Frank knew that London had said those words to console him, to smooth the resentment he should have felt for her mother’s comments, her disregard of his grandfather’s conception. London was always willing to confront anyone assailing Frank, even her mother. It seemed to Frank that no one was willing to stand up to a crazed beautiful woman.
The room settled into silence once again, and Frank noticed how the fabric of London’s scrubs, the ones with the pumpkins for the upcoming holiday, was beginning to become taunt over her belly. He knew he should be resentful for his mother-in-law’s smoke and for the very real possibility of toxoplasmosis from his neighbor’s cats, but he only wondered how long his mother-in-law would stay. He surreptitiously counted the seven cigarettes she had left, and he wondered how awkward it would be if he left to buy her more. London placed her hand on his. His hand fought the same twinge his shoulders felt on the couch, and he decided at that moment that he wouldn’t move again until the sun went down.
London got up to make dinner, salmon patties out of a can, cooked in a skillet on the electric stove. It took her too long to make them one at a time, as the stove heating element was crooked and the oil would pool to one side. Frank watched her finish them in the oven. He could see her the entire time from his unmoving perch on the couch; the apartment was only one room after all. She bent and stood with ease still. The lumbering effects of her pregnancy had not yet begun, probably never would. London was too perfect to let that happen. His mother-in-law continued to toss inane comments into the room like confetti; she had yet to move from her station, either. In fact, they all ate on the couches. Dark had come. Frank hadn’t moved, and no one noticed.
The tincture of Green Soap assailed Frank as he entered the tattoo parlor, one final diversion on his way back to the apartment. They probably should not have accepted him as a client, considering the state he was currently in, but he looked like a guy who knew how to tip. When Frank removed his shirt, he pointed to a small section above his right hip, near the hollow where his abdomen met his pelvis, one of London’s favorite spots to trace her finger. As Frank leaned back onto the table and awaited the staccato needle to pierce his skin, the words of the one armed Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell slowly emerged beneath the smudged ink: “We have an unknown distance yet to run; an unknown river yet to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we know not.”
When Frank emerged from his hideaway, one hundred and fifty more dollars they didn’t have on the credit card, the sun had settled well below the roof tops. It was late enough that Frank could safely slide through the front door, drop his keys, and pull back the comforter on their wedding bed without disturbing London. Her smell enveloped him. It was warm and sharp, Magnolia scented lotion and the sweat of a long work day. His freshly perforated skin forced Frank to lay on his left side, rather than the right that he preferred, and he was now face to face with his young bride. When she finally did move, when she acknowledged the weight in the bed next to her, she never opened her eyes, never commented on his truancy.
“Love you, babe,” she said as she rolled over, exposing an unblemished bare shoulder, and Frank wondered why he couldn’t cry.
The puzzle was a geographic one, a map of South America peppered with images of native flora and fauna, totora reeds and alpacas. Frank sat flanked by London and her mother. They had come upon the glass topped coffee table, at which they presently sat cross-legged on the floor, at the Goodwill, as well as a selection of fifty cent puzzles. There was now a pile of softened cardboard puzzles stacked in a twisting tower in the corner of their apartment, and this one, the stylized rendering of the southern continent, held their current attention. London had quickly taken control and set out a collection of edges in a pile for her exclusive use. Her mother, with a lit cigarette always in her left hand, meandered around the edges, sometimes here, sometimes there, never trying very hard and often filling the silence with the warm blather to which Frank had become accustomed. Frank, in turn, would find one piece and search unceasingly until he found a match. He found it harder to put down an unmatched puzzle piece than he found it to utter any truth to his wife.
As twilight softened its way through their unadorned window, Frank rose to flip the overhead light. There would have been a TV on if they had one, probably playing reruns of old 70s shows, but instead Frank found an oldies station on the alarm clock radio. He made grilled cheese sandwiches, burned on one half of each side since the heating element was still crooked, as Little Richard told him repeatedly, “The girl can’t help it.” He returned to the living area, sandwiches in hand, along with two of the Yuengling beers, his best friend, Stanley, had brought Frank after his RV tour of Florida, and a bottle of water. London popped Frank’s beer open and, grinning, took a long swallow before handing it him.
“Mmmm,” she said. “I miss that.”
London rarely drank, and when she did it was never beer, but the moment London was told she couldn’t do something was the moment she desired it most.
Frank listened to the continuous conversation between the women bookending him as he ate and fought the urge to shove them aside like Samson and the pillars in the temple of the Philistines. The puzzle piece currently in his hand held the town of Ushuaia, Argentina, and when he situated that piece into its correct place, he felt a connection made inside of him. Ushuaia was at the southern tip of the southern continent, and Frank saw he could get there. He could climb into his truck and drive, from this country to the next and arrive in a world, in a place, far removed from his own. Frank scraped and washed the dishes clean and slept that night without waking once.
“She never misses a moment to tell me I’m not her father,” says Stanley as he checks his list against the pile of car parts in front of him. “And I never miss a chance to tell her how happy that makes me,” he continues with a laugh as he signs the list and hands the parts over to Frank.
Stanley is a decade older at least, maybe more – Frank has never asked – and seems to be offended by even a moment of silence. “She hasn’t been home in three days,” Stanley says and his grin does not mask his thoughts. “Maybe you could drive by his place when you’re making your deliveries?”
Frank does as he asks. Stanley, despite his own myriad issues, has been raising his teenaged cousin for the last five years, and she has done her damned best to make him pay for his altruism. Her scooter, unsurprisingly, is parked outside, but when Frank knocks there is no response behind the front door besides a tittering laugh. A beer bottle thrown from an upstairs window shatters loudly on his bumper as he prepares to leave, and Frank sits pensively for a moment before starting the ignition and driving away.
That evening Stanley is thankful to hear that two of his major concerns are alleviated; his cousin is alive and is in town. Frank goes home with more concerns than he started the day with.
Frank doesn’t mind that the cold has come. His delivery truck is always warm, and the streets are always plowed. The second shift he has picked up means they now have drapes for the windows, and he always has a few dollars to keep the flask on the seat next to him filled. And it means more hours for Frank to drive. He has been adding up the miles. He would be somewhere in Peru by now, maybe even approaching the border. He notes the next few miles as he goes to visit Stanley at the hospital.