Franklin Thorne lived down near Needmore, right on the edge, but he always seemed to take such pride that he didn't live in Needmore exactly, that his house—if you could call it that—sat maybe two doors down from where Needmore actually began, a scrabble of streets with unpainted, unsteady houses once tenanted by mill workers, then after the cotton mill closed, by whoever couldn't afford to live anywhere else. My old man used to raise Cain with my mother if she ever took a shortcut through there; inevitably the old Chevy would come up with a flat tire, and he swore folks there laid down nails whenever they saw a strange car approaching. I don't suppose Needmore exists anymore, at least not literally anyway (though for most of us who lived in Elmer, Mississippi at that time, it will forever occupy its space in our memories).
For the most part, Franklin went to school only three days a week. Oh, some weeks he'd be there every day, but seems as if his desk often stayed empty on Thursdays and Fridays. We still haven't figured out how he got by with that. I know I never could have, but then I had an old man who would've had a coronary if I'd missed even one day a month of school, so all I could do is dream about doing it. Plus, my mother worked for the school—secretary to Mr. Lorry in the main office—so she always had her ear to the ground about what my brother and I might be up to, which wasn't much, I can admit now, though probably more than our mother wanted. But if you knew the sheriff back then—Sheriff Berry it was—you'd understand why no one came knocking on Franklin's door when he didn't come to school. Sheriff Berry—he acted the part of a truant officer if you want to get specific—spent most of his days with his feet propped up on his desk; the rest of the time he likely was out in the county chasing down the Murphys whose favorite pastime was making corn whiskey.
Nobody really knew Franklin. I mean, he kind of kept to himself those days he did come to school. We believed he was older than the rest of us. I don't remember him in the early grades; it's almost as if he suddenly appeared in Miss Martha Miller's class one year out of the blue—that would have been in the sixth grade. He was taller than the other guys, though he didn't have to go far to outdo us in that respect, as most of us were still prepubescent and wondering how we would ever reach Mary Ann Sullivan's lips should we get the chance to do so. Not that he was smarter. Miss Miller was forever chastising him about his reading when we'd have to read aloud in English or Social Studies, so it seemed fairly obvious he didn't spend the two days each week that he frequently vacationed reading his assignments, or anything else for that matter.
To be quite honest, we really didn't pay a great deal of attention to Franklin Thorne. Some of the girls teased him a bit that first year or so, calling him Frankenstein behind his back, then giggling and nudging each other during class whenever Miss Miller, then later teachers, would call on him. Franklin didn't really look like Frankenstein, of course (or as I discovered later, actually Frankenstein's monster), but his pale olive complexion would take on a bit of a greenish cast in winter, and that, along with his prominent cheekbones which (though they possibly could have been considered attractive in later life, went unappreciated by fellow sixth-graders) might have given rise to this epithet. We boys occupied ourselves chortling every time one of us went to sharpen a pencil, or snickering and grinning when someone—inevitably (thankfully we could usually depend upon Jerry Henderson)—would request "Little Church in the Wildwood" during Chorus in order that we might sing "O, Come, Come, Come," so we didn't waste our time with Franklin. Evidently, however, the girls found their game tiresome, as Franklin seemed untroubled by them—or by anybody else, for that matter. We, none of us, seemed to merit his attention. He simply attended school on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, and his seat was frequently vacant on Thursdays and Fridays. He stood alone on the playground during recess and after lunch, always near the stop sign near the eastern edge of the schoolyard across from the Petersons' house—they of the only wealth in our small community, if you could call it that—as if he were waiting for someone or something. None of us concerned ourselves with him, and he never seemed concerned about us. Yet, we were curious.
We moved easily through the years as children do, you know. Summers would be spent playing baseball or swimming at the one pool our town enjoyed—in the park right near Main Street (until the mid-sixties when feared segregation forced our upstanding city council to order it be filled with dirt and turned into a rose garden)—or riding our bikes down our neighborhood streets in blissful forgetfulness that these giddy days would end in somewhat less than three months. After we graduated from eighth grade, we lost a few of our class members as I recall. Sonny Moses had to leave school to help his old man out at the feed store, and Craig Laine moved all the way to Minneapolis when his parents divorced (the first of those our town had seen, but since all parties involved moved out of our fine state of Alabama, the gossip it raised died out rather quickly). And of course, Barbara Ann Johnson had to remain in eighth grade one more year as her reading abilities were even worse than Franklin's.
The rest of us traveled a few streets farther downtown, to the older school building that loomed like a castle on Greenwood Street, a huge square—three-storied, or four if you include the cafeteria that occupied the old gymnasium in the basement—with an almost treeless campus and a long concrete stairway and sidewalk leading from the street. Ancient, ominous, fearsome—it had always seemed so far away, but now we would enter its portals and be freshmen.
Franklin came with us. Who knows how he managed to graduate eighth grade, but he did. Delighted with the idea of a new beginning, I immediately thrust myself into all activities I could squeeze into my schedule. I joined the Band Boosters, the Rock Hounds (my old man was a geologist and would have raised Cain if I hadn't become a member of that club), and I added my name to the roster for track, the one sports area in which I felt someone with a frame like mine might compete. My older brother Lewis had realized early on that football and basketball were not sports that short, skinny guys could excel in and had settled on running track some years ago, earning himself a letter or two and at least my admiration as well as that of SuEllen Combs who immediately confiscated his letter jacket to wear herself. And though Lew hadn't bothered to teach me any of his methods of sprinting before he left for college, he did leave with me the idea that this might be the one area I could possibly letter in. So after classes that September afternoon I walked out to the track with the other boys to meet with Coach Richter. Fifteen of us had signed up, but only about eleven or twelve appeared that day. Of those, Franklin Thorne and I were the only freshmen.
I immediately discovered that just because my brother had lettered in track, and just because I wanted to be able to run fast didn't mean a hill of beans. I realized quickly that I had work to do.
"Okay, boys, line up in twos and we'll try you out," Coach hollered to us as we shuffled feet and wondered what to do with ourselves while waiting in the bright sun.
Naturally, Coach had me running against Franklin since we were the only freshmen there. Franklin won, pulling ahead immediately, though not by such a huge margin that I felt overwhelmed, but his winning did surprise me somewhat. He'd always moved so slowly, just the way he read aloud in class, that I never would have believed he would be a runner. Coach paired us off again, and I ran this time against Toad Humes, whose nickname described him perfectly. If I couldn't beat Toad, I might as well hang it up, I thought to myself as we lined up. Fortunately, I won, rather easily to my delight, though I noticed no apparent appreciation on Coach Richter's face. Meanwhile, Franklin would run against one of the seniors, Joe Peterson, who had lettered last year. To everyone's complete surprise, Franklin won. He won handily, as a matter of fact. And when Coach put him up against Leonard Wolff who had been on the track team since eighth grade and who already owned three letters, all of us stopped our horsing around to watch. I really thought that Franklin had beaten Leonard, though I guess my view wasn't as good as Coach's. It was close, though, awfully close. We all now knew that Franklin could run.
I went home that afternoon with mixed emotions. I hadn't done too badly, I thought, for a freshman. I knew, however, that I had my work cut out for me if I planned to win even one letter in track and thrill my old man while at the same time carving a place for myself in the annals of Elmer High School history, perhaps picking up a girl like Mary Ann Sullivan along the way. But aside from worrying about myself, I thought almost as much about the surprise I had felt at watching Franklin run.
Since true competition didn't begin until spring, we spent the fall racing against each other. We knew, of course, that the end of football season meant we would gain a few runners from that team, but since Elmer's elite football squad was notoriously slow, most of us who clung to the hope of actually getting to compete come March weren't tremendously concerned about losing a place to a football player. Mike Strange, the team's quarterback, would likely be our best sprinter, but most of the guys preferred baseball to track, so essentially, what we had running around in the fall would be what we had running around in the spring.
Coach decided I had the best chance at working on becoming a miler, so I ran sprints only when someone didn't show up for practice and they needed an extra body for a relay. Normally, though, I would spend my afternoons doing laps around and around the football field, trying to pace myself as I also avoided the sprinters or getting hit in the head by an errant football, as football season had gone into high gear. Although Toad became our official manager, I began to help Coach out with some of those duties because Lew had done the same before me, and I guess Coach figured he could count on the little brother as well
Spring comes to Elmer—or perhaps to most of north Alabama—in fits and starts. Sometimes a January day will be as spring-like as one in March or April--jonquils and daffodils pushing their leaves up through the sun-warmed earth, cloudless, deep blue skies teasing us with pleasant weather--only to be followed by cloudy, damp and cold days, sometimes even with sleet or snow (though snow we always looked upon as God's gift of an unplanned vacation since no Alabama city has ever had any way to combat icy, slick roads). And that year spring came as usual, so we ran outside on days we could, and used the perimeter of the gym to keep in shape on days we couldn't.
Three guys from the football team had joined our group, but two others, along with Toad, had quit, citing conflict with other activities, but we all suspected their real reason to be fear that they lose face if Coach cut them. By now, I felt pretty secure with my position as miler, not that I ran it at record speed, but last year's miler had graduated, and at the moment I was the only one of us Coach had. Since Toad had left, Coach had turned managerial duties over to me, though my workload hadn't increased much since Toad had previously found ways to let me do his job anyway.
Our first track meet was scheduled for Friday. Actually, this would be just a practice meet between our school and one other from Westville, a nearby town, so wouldn't take the entire day. Even so, arising that morning well before my usual time, I trembled with nervous anticipation. Coach had issued uniforms earlier that week, and I had mine carefully packed in my little traveling bag. I had folded and refolded those bits of shiny black and gold satin countless times, tried them on, posed in front of the mirror, and had even run a couple of experimental laps around the house after dark wearing them to make sure I could still move when appropriately uniformed. I could hardly wait for my moment in the sun.
Of course, Franklin didn't appear for school that day. I didn't have but one class—algebra—with him, but since we took that right after lunch, I hadn't been aware of his absence. We all knew, however, our school had a rule that in order to participate in any athletic competition, you had to attend school that day; a half-day would work, but you had to be there.
And Franklin wasn't there.
During lunchtime when I sat with my other freshmen buddies, all of us trying to give our best imitation of Mo or Curly's wisecracks in the latest "Three Stooges" we'd seen that past Saturday, Coach Richter came by the table and said, "Price, you seen Thorne anywheres today?"
"No sir," I answered, "I reckon he's not here, sir. But he just about never comes on Friday."
Coach stared at me a while and said, "Come with me, Price." He led me over to the doorway. "You got to go get him. You know where Reeves' Pure Oil filling station is at?" I nodded. Everyone knew that place. Located at the end of the bridge before you reached the real business district of town, it was a little service station squeezed in between the Milky Way Dairy Bar and the town's only car wash, Quik-Stop. At the back of the filling station was the taxi dispatch office, and it seems that's where Coach wanted me to go. Franklin would be there.
Franklin looked over at me and asked, "Ever had any pussy before?" His face looked even greener than usual in the dim light.
"Nah," I answered, avoiding his eye. I was secretly grateful that I actually knew what the word meant, inwardly thanking the gods that I had seen it written all over the rest room walls a couple of years ago when our family had stopped at a shabby-looking service station en route to my grandmother's house in Memphis, and that brother Lew had relished enlightening me as to its meaning. "Not yet," I added, so Franklin wouldn't think I hadn't even considered it.
"I c'n getcha some." He was smiling at me now, more of a sneer, in truth, and I wondered if he was secretly laughing at me. "It's easy to get. Ya just hafta say the word." He turned back to the drawer he was rummaging in, then added, "It's good." He drew out the good and its sound seemed to linger in the room.
"Nah," I repeated. I simply couldn't think of anything else to say, and I prayed that the subject would be closed. Feeling both titillated and repulsed at once, I thought about the horror I would see on my mother's—and probably also my father's—face if either had heard this conversation. When my mother had discovered that the only other freshman on the track team was Franklin, she'd prodded me to invite him to dinner. "Now, George," she'd insisted in her usual breathless way, "why not ask your little teammate to eat with us this Friday night? Your dad can cook some burgers outside and we'll have a nice time getting to know this Franklin."
My dad had obviously been listening, though he rarely participated in our dinner conversations, because he interrupted. "Not this boy, Nadine. He's a Thorne. Father's in jail." He looked around the table and pointed. "Any more potatoes?"
My mother said, "Oh," making a kind of O with her mouth while reaching for the blue Pyrex dish my old man pointed at. And the subject was closed.
Now, I suddenly pictured Franklin seated at our dinner table with my dad—still wearing his white shirt and tie—asking us about our day, my mother, aproned, serving our plates with her pork chop and rice casserole while bemoaning the fact that she hadn't had time to make any cornbread. The image almost made me start to giggle, and I had to clench my jaw to stop myself. I was already an infant in Franklin's eyes, and I certainly didn't want to reinforce that idea by appearing to giggle over the word pussy.
Franklin had indeed been at the Pure station. Right there in the back room sitting, feet propped on a wooden chair, at a wopsided desk, telephone on one side of him and dispatch radio on the other. "Franklin," I said, truly surprised to see him apparently in charge of the whole setup, "Coach says you got to go to school so you can run this afternoon."
"Cain't," he drawled, "I got to stay here. Ain't got nobody else to answer the phone today."
I was stymied. Coach hadn't told me what to do if Franklin said no. I stood there stupidly for a minute or two, then asked, "Isn't there someone who could do this just for a little while? Coach says you can't run if you don't come to school."
Franklin slowly lifted his feet from the chair. He stood up, stretched his arms and looked at me. "I'll ask one a' them can they come." He indicated the service station next door, and I watched him walk over there.
From Mr. Reeves' Pure station, we walked over to Franklin's house for him to get the uniform and cleats he'd taken home earlier that week. As soon as we entered the front door, well, actually, as soon as we stood on the front porch—a wobbly, unpainted, creaking sort of platform that fronted the house—I became aware of the aroma. Franklin's house stank. Even today, I can't put my finger on exactly what that smell resembled; probably its source was a multitude of things, among them rotting food, urine, dog feces, and just plain dirt, for I think I saw remnants of all of those as I followed Franklin's lead inside where the smell became stronger, forcing me to hold my breath at first.
"Just a minute," he told me. "I think I put that uniform in this here room." He walked to the back of the house, and I again followed, hoping that the smell would be weaker back there. Though the smell was no less pungent, I found myself almost mesmerized by the house itself. It held such a conglomeration of junk: several wooden chairs stood in various states of disrepair in the hallway and had to be navigated around as we made our way down the hall; in what must have been the living room loomed two or three sofas—all in a sort of maroon color—with their stuffing protruding like gray wounds, and I saw no lamps anywhere, no light at all except for the bare bulb that hung from a long string in the room Franklin led me to.
"This ‘ere's my paw's room," he told me as he began to open the drawers of a massive chest-of-drawers whose yellow paint was peeling in places revealing a deep purple underneath. The drawers squeaked as Franklin opened them one by one, peering inside. "He's in jail right now. Ain't no reason for them to take him off again." He looked up at me and shook his head disgustedly. "All's he was doing was playing a little cards."
I think I said something like, "Oh," but I'm not positive. At that point I was wondering what kind of cards would put someone in jail when Franklin asked me his question about pussy.
Franklin and I made it back to school in time for algebra and for Coach to persuade someone to give him credit for the half day he needed. And our team outperformed the other, actually doing better than an Elmer High School team had ever done in a preliminary track meet as far back as Coach Richter could remember. Now we hadn't won all the races that day, but we had done well, and Franklin, for the most part, had done it for us. I had gotten to watch the 40-yard-dash after I finished second out of three in the mile, so I got to see Franklin win that one. He had looked so odd running that I kept wondering if he could possibly beat the others—who ran just the way I believed runners are supposed to. Franklin looked as if he would fall over on his face he ran so low, head down, arms pumping, long legs moving almost as if in slow motion, but striding past the others until he'd reached the end. I cheered loudly as he won that one, then cheered again when he anchored the 440 relay. I noticed, though, that a few of the other guys on our team weren't cheering. And after we finished up and Coach and I were collecting the dirty uniforms, I heard Robert Lee Cook mutter to Mike Strange something to the effect that "Frankenstein must think he's pretty hot stuff now."
Funny how that name Frankenstein had returned. At that point I had almost forgotten how the girls had used it in sixth grade. I didn't think much about it, though—concentrating on myself, on Coach's remark to me that I "needed to pace myself better"—wondering how I could manage that. I went home, ate dinner, answered my old man's queries about the practice meet, listened to my mom's chatter about something that happened in Mr. Lorry's office, and went back to my room. It was Friday night and I had made no plans.
It wasn't my idea. I really didn't know what they had in mind when I got the phone call. But I did turn up at the corner of Mulligan and Beaker streets a half-hour after Ralph Swinson's call. Lenny Wolff and Mike Strange were laughing while they held their noses and pointed to a paper bag that Robert Lee Cook held. "Hey, Price!" Robert Lee yelled as he saw me approach. "Wanna add some shit to the collection?"
Fortunately, I was rescued from answering because both Toad and Joe appeared from the other direction, and I—the freshman—became at that point more of a bystander.
It all happened so fast. The paper bag—filled with excrement—though whose I didn't know and didn't want to know, Toad took and, after screwing the top into a long spiral, held his nose and with the bag in the other hand, stepped slowly, exaggerating his movements like a cartoon character, up the steps to Franklin's house. There he and Lenny, who had followed him, both lighted matches, igniting the elongated top of the bag. Lenny knocked loudly on Franklin's front door, and both he and Toad sprinted to join the rest of us where we stood shadowed by a big oak tree across the street.
The front door opened and in a wink, Franklin was on the porch stomping on the lighted bag, while we watched laughing loudly at his attempts. Our plan had gone awry, though, for almost at the same time Franklin stomped, the fire jumped from the bag and began to spread, slowly at first, but suddenly, it seemed as if the entire porch railing was aflame. Franklin stopped his crazy foot-stamping dance and for a moment just stared, first at the fire, then across the street. He seemed to be looking straight into my eyes, and I suddenly wanted to be far, far away. I started running.
Behind me I could hear the guys yelling. At the same time that I turned back to look, I heard a giant "Whoosh!" and saw Franklin's house suddenly become like a huge piece of kindling, the kind my old man would lay in the fireplace that we'd watch with fascination as it immediately seemed to be sucked into the flames rolling out in leaping, crackling arms. Mesmerized, I stood there for a few seconds and watched it all, the entire house now a gigantic torch. Then I ran, fast as I could go—without pacing—hearing the yells of my teammates, the roar of the fire at first, then gradually only my breathing and the thump my feet made on the pavement, a siren's wail far in the background. I found myself on my own front porch in what seemed just minutes, though it couldn't have been, for we lived on the other side of town at least a couple of miles away.
I spent a miserable, sleepless night in my room waiting for the police, the sheriff, even the fire chief, all to come knocking on my door to take me away to jail. I spent much of the night worrying about whether Franklin had indeed been the figure I thought I saw jump from the porch right before that huge "whoosh," or if he had actually been sucked up in that wall of fire.
It wasn't until morning that I discovered the extent of our destruction. My dad recounted the story at breakfast (he had heard it from Mr. Lumpkin next door when they both retrieved the morning newspapers from bordering front driveways). Franklin's house had, naturally, been burned to the ground, and the houses on either side of it suffered damage as well. Franklin, I learned to my relief, had escaped. I found some consolation in that fact.
We never saw Franklin again. In any case, he never returned to school, and I don't recall anyone even mentioning him. We finished the year in track without him, without much enthusiasm, and certainly without many victories. The mystery of the fire's origin was never solved; it seems Franklin kept our secret. Not one of us ever mentioned our prank; at any rate, none of the other guys who were there that night ever spoke to me about it, nor I to them.
And I wonder if they, too, have spent all these years since trying to forget.