The Weapon of Young Gods #37: Frantic Improv

The sun shone down in withering malevolence on the way to Frankie’s house, baking my drive north in the harsh heat of lives lived a little too far from the ocean. Thanking everything holy for being raised minutes from the beach and the sea’s cool release only seemed cheesy for a split-second, because I was mired in Anaheim traffic on the 57 freeway during high June. I kept the Green Monster’s windows down all the way, the whole time, and tried to stop the surrounding blast furnace from blowing a crumpled map out the window. It was a page ripped from an old Thomas Guide, defaced with Frankie’s scrawled directions, and I finally just held it in my right hand as insulation against the blistering hot steering wheel.

Previous Episode and Previous Pertinent Episode

Francesca and I hadn’t seen each other for a few weeks, ever since our freshman year ended in a frantic spasm of Total Academic Paranoia, as everyone succumbed to final exams and their own individual, horrible wars of cranial logistics. Alex had split after his last test on the second day of finals, and by the time Peter and I were able to come up for air, we couldn’t scare up much more than a quick joint together before his dad arrived and they bailed to San Bernardino.

Frankie was chest-deep in her own exams too, so on the day I left for home she and I had merely agreed to meet up during the summer if and when we felt like it. Empty and pragmatic, definitely, but the passion switch had been flipped on and off so often since I’d last fled her room in a nightmare-induced freakout that our relationship had gone out the window yet again.

Even so, Frankie apparently remained connected by something a little stronger than the cheap emotional velcro I’d been used to, so when she called and asked me to come up and get her one summer Saturday, I was glad to snag the Volvo and go. I brazenly weaved my through the Orange Crush to Fullerton, hollering and cursing at the other sweating fools on the road until I escaped off a ramp near Cal State.

I tried to shake off freeway-brain in between checking the map at stoplights, and eventually made it across town to Frankie’s parents’ place off Chapman. It was an ordinary nice suburban house like all the others on the block, maybe part of the second or third postwar wave of Orange County insta-boxes. I ducked under the massive American flag hanging limply above the door, and knocked.

An amiable-looking, portly man opened the door, and when I introduced myself his chubby hand swallowed mine in a momentarily firm shake before he invited me inside.

“Frank Ross,” he said, “pleased to meet you, Roy. My daughter’s told me so much about you.”

I never know what to say when people throw that one at me, so at first I just gave him an All-American grin with some aw-shucks humility. As we stepped into the living room I thought, Frank Ross? The lack of plentiful Italian vowels in his surname was strange, but I supressed my double take and instead slipped into cheaply obvious mock-concern. “Well, I hope everything she told you was, um, upstanding.”

Mr. Ross humored me with a chuckle, running a hand through his thinning blond hair. “Oh yes, more than some, young man. Wait here and I’ll let her know you’ve arrived.”

He stumped up the stairs and I sat down on the couch to have a look around. It was a little weird to realize that I had not, evidently, arrived in the suburban refuge of an ex-Peace Corps volunteer geologist. Instead it was more like the clean, well-lit dream-home of a mild-mannered Republican appointee who nevertheless nursed a heavy jones for Big Dangerous Machines That Blow Shit Up. Photos of Frankie’s dad with famous conservative politicians dotted the mantel and the substantial bookshelves-the room doubled as his study-and other images of his family on gargantuan naval vessels, or posing near monuments in D.C., stood in front of tomes by Buckley, Kristol, and Will.

Fucking hell, I thought. Frank Ross was a True Believer. If he had been in the Phillipines, there was no way this guy had set foot in a volunteer camp. I dwelled on this until an extraordinarily beautiful thing caught my attention: an old globe on an ornate stand in the far corner of the room. It was brown and faded in places, but a quick glance up close showed it to be at least sixty years old; Africa was still full of colonies, and Europe looked like the Iron Curtain didn’t exist yet. Even if it wasn’t a true Depression-era piece, the thing was endlessly fascinating, and I was still gaping at it when Frankie and her parents entered the room.

Frankie’s mother Caroline, who looked like her daughter might at forty-five, introduced herself demurely before bustling away to the kitchen “for refreshments,” she said, but I didn’t see her again. Frankie herself sported a knowing smirk as she saw me pondering the globe, then said “See Daddy, I told you he’d find it right away.”

“You sure did, sweetie.” Mr. Ross smiled in approval, but he was looking at me. “Lovely, isn’t it Roy?” I nodded back, and he continued as Frankie sprawled on the couch.

“Picked that one up in Manila,” he said matter-of-factly. “Got it as a gift for a job well done.” Frankie raised her brows at her father, but he merely smiled and took the opportunity to elaborate on his time in that part of the world as, I’d guessed correctly, a Reagan-era diplomat. This man would probably not appreciate run-of-the-mill small talk pouring from the mouth of (for all he knew) his daughter’s constant sexual partner.

“Really?” I peeked at Frankie, who smiled stiffly. “Did you, um, enjoy your time there, sir?”

Mr. Ross shook his head in a vague, you’ll-never-understand-young-man way. “Hell, it wasn’t wine and roses, son-we’re talking Southeast Asia, remember-but I still do consider it time well-spent, and,” he nodded at his daughter, “I know my family does as well.” He looked back at me. “I even got to meet Marcos.”

“Ah,” I replied evenly, “that must have been a very…unique experience,” but he merely laughed it off and veered off on another unrelated tangent. Frankie never batted an eye at the glaring contradiction of her previous story, and since it proved a few disappointing theories of mine, I saw no reason to expose her as a fantastic liar in front of her father, who clearly adored her. I didn’t get much time to consider any of this too deeply, though, because he abruptly dragged me over dangerous ground without warning.

“So, Roy,” said Mr. Ross, “Frankie tells me your father was a Marine?”

Shit, I thought. Well, you asked for it, and now you better dance, bitch, or else she’ll know you’re a fictional fraud, too. I tried to adopt an appropriately reverent tone of bittersweet pride.

“Yes indeed,” I nodded, and shoveled him the same steaming pile I’d dumped on Frankie several weeks ago, about the tortured childhood of a Carolina army brat living in the shadow of his martyred father, a war hero killed by barbaric ragheads along with the rest of the Beirut Brigade on the brat’s seventh birthday.

Frankie’s dad grilled me enthusiastically, but I kept sprinting for daylight, sticking to the facts of the history I knew, but otherwise inventing wildly when it came to more personal stuff or fuzzy areas I could explain away with a simple “well, sir, I can’t really remember that very well- I was only a kid.” Thanks to my stepfather’s methodical academic practices-the story came from one of his doctoral theses, one I’d read during my insomniac childhood-I re-fortified my stronghold of bullshit. I became a master chef consumed by paranoia, deathly afraid that the world would discover his signature delicacy’s secret ingredient was Jell-O.

Frank Ross savored every bite, though, and by the end of it, when I’d somewhat shamefacedly admitted that yes, my father’s good friend the psychatrist, who’d helped him weather some Vietnam-generated PTSD, had ended up comforting my mom after the brutal attack, and oh yes, they ended up married briefly before the Lord saw fit to reclaim her for a reunion with her first husband, I had that aging imperial yuppie wrapped around all my fingers and toes so tight that I thought we’d never escape without a Congressional medal nomination.

I knew then that if there was a Hell, I’d be frozen next to Judas in the deepest level, but at the time all I could think about was a tactical retreat-which did happen, eventually, thanks to my silver-tongued partner in mendacity. Frankie was able to extricate us both with a few expert plays of her own, which I assumed had been long since perfected on her father.

“You’re always welcome here, son.” Mr. Ross followed us out the front door, and my self-worth began to sink another few fathoms-until he spoke again, this time to his daughter.

“Be good, Francine,” he winked. “Give us a call if you’ll be back later than midnight.” He waved and returned inside, just missing my instantly stupefied expression. A sinister gong sounded deep in my skull and I caught Frankie’s eye. We glared at each other for the span of a sustained orchestral rest before I managed to spit anything out.

“Shall we go then, ‘Francine’?”

She flushed three shades of scarlet in ten seconds, trying to slough off buckets of psychic muck. “Daddy just does that to annoy me. He really does like you, you know.”

I shot her a weak smirk but didn’t reply and, for a split second, wanted to throw her out of the Volvo before peeling out backwards in an epic, vengeful escape. I should have done that, and much more, but I didn’t, and instead we were soon hurtling back down the freeway south, toward the forgiving infinity of the ocean.


    • Roy Reed on October 4, 2008 at 09:14

    I think I once highlighted some of it in a pfiore8 Writing in the Raw. So any tips/hints/corrections are welcome. Happy Friday. I’m fried.

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