Rowan, the facility’s activities director, flew into Colin’s office, unannounced and unbidden, and seemed as anxious to get out as a mosquito under glass. In a sputtering, gasping geyser of fuss, he garbled, “Frank’s gone mad! He’s knocked out two orderlies and taken an intern hostage in his room!”
Colin was propelled from his chair, the innocent bystander seat spun back into the wall, and he was halfway through the door. “What?” he asked first, though it was not really a question, more an onomatopoetic of how Rowan’s gush of news hit him: like a cricket bat’s swish-crack to the ass; then asked second, “Which Frank?”
“Frank Roberts. And he keeps raving about how someone stole his penny!”
Clive stopped so fast he had to check under his shoes to make sure he did not friction burn a hole in the thin carpet. “What?” this time his interjection certainly was a question.
“I’m telling you he’s nuts,” through Rowan’s agitation a single gold I told you so thread of glee was woven.
“Ah, he’s harmless. He may tell a few good yarns…” Colin dismissed, resuming his accelerated course.
“Yeah, but I also heard him say once that he, personally, killed Hitler, but made it look like suicide cause it would hurt German morale more if they believed their leader had given up all hope,” Rowan offered this like a blade-first knife.
“Yeah, well…” was as much of a response as Colin was capable.
Though Colin was scratching at fifty’s back door, with cheeks you didn’t need a carnie fortune teller to foresee that jowls were in his future, he was still dashing in a way that made all the residents of the Charlestown Retirement Community assume his age twenty years in the junior. He was a proudly hands-on facility director, a flirt with the ladies, sneaking cigars with the men, encouraging rascally behavior by example, while inspiring his crew to scourge the apathy from their decks, (a trademark statement during his hiring process was “I don’t want anyone working here that’s not going to get their heart broken when someone here passes”), generally doing all he could to keep his charges from dwelling on the idea that he was captain of a cruise ship with death their final port.
They rushed down vanilla halls (Colin had made a particular effort to alleviate the defeated smell of urine and antiseptic), slalomed wheelchairs, walkers, then turned the corner sentineled by the large yellow-silk spider-orchid arrangement in time to see Frank deposit the orderly Vinnie’s unconscious form beside the orderly Jones’s unconscious form, and rush back into his quarters.
Colin ran at his top speed to the doorway. Though he was giving serious thought to the idea that it might be time to go to seed, recently canceling the credit card where his gym membership was deducted to avoid the shame of canceling in person, a substantial acceleration was still in his oeuvre. Approaching the scattered men outside Frank’s room, he realized some things: when Rowan had exploded into his office Colin had heard ‘knocked down” – not ‘knocked out,’ which he now admitted was what had actually been said; the plight Colin had been rushing off to had involved an eccentric, crotchety, octogenarian, cornering an intern for protection from two incensed orderlies – one he knew had played college linebacker. Not an honest to goodness hostage situation from a mysterious cent-hoarding codger, with enough blood left in his veins to take down two men he’s got half-a-century on.
“Should I call the police,” Rowan whispered.
“No,” Colin said, thinking he would prefer not appearing on the evening news tonight. “Frank!” he called with a hammering. “It’s me, Colin, open up, please, so we can talk,” then waiting for a reply in a swift whisper he asked Rowan, “What intern has he got?”
“Petricia,” Rowan answered, gently kicking the orderlies in a ridiculous attempt to revive them, “Petricia Murphy.”
From inside his den Frank lion-growled, “Someone took my penny and I will have it back!”
“Open up and we’ll figure it out,” Colin offered, to no return answer; then asked loudly through the door, “Petricia, you all right in there? Tell me how you’re doing.”
“Oh, I’m just fine,” Petricia sang from inside, “I’m in a very comfortable chair, my legs up on an ottoman. I had been served a hot mug of chamomile tea before the hullabaloo started so it should be cool enough now to drink, and Mr. Robert was just about to relate to me the significance of his lost penny.”
“Stolen!” Frank corrected her with a bellow.
“And, Petricia, can you tell me how Frank is?”
“He’s perturbed, more than I ever expected to see him; almost frantic. But he’s not delusional; he seems quite in control of his faculties.”
“Such as they are,” Rowan quipped.
Colin gave him a you’re not helping look, and asked, “Can you try and convince him to let me come in?”
“He seems rather against the idea of guests.”
“What is he saying?”
“He hasn’t said anything, he’s just stationed inside the door with a very large knife.”
A squeak, filtered through his fingers, squeezed loose from Rowan’s mouth. Colin stood his ground.
There was an indistinct verbal exchange from inside, then Petricia said, “Oh, no, sorry. I’ve just been informed that it isn’t a knife.”
Rowan’s hand released to his chest and he breathed out whew, before saying, “That’s a relief.”
“It’s a bayonet.”
Rowan backed up against the far wall and began creeping along it, saying, “Oh, oh,” in an unconscious repetition.
“Maybe he was an assassin,” Colin conceded.
“He can’t have been, the government kills its assassins when it’s done with them,” Rowan conspiracy theorized.
“Look, Frank,” Colin said, hitching authority’s belt up tightly, “Let me in to listen to your story, and I promise we’ll sort everything out.” He rapped on the door as understandingly and unthreateningly as possible. Colin was not worried in the least about bayonets, for though Frank had convincingly demonstrated his combative prowess with Vinnie and Jones, he was confident he could still outrun the old bugger.
There was a bit of unintelligible coaxing from inside, a moment’s complete, fragile, silence, and then the door’s lock swish-clicked. “Come in, then,” Frank growled.
Colin swung the door open, and finding the way inside unblocked and bayonet-free, he shuffled inside.
Frank lived in one of the large studios reserved for single occupants, he being a bachelor. Residents of the Charlestown Retirement Community were invited to bring their furniture unless they now required a bed with guardrails, or some other specialized equipment contingent on their infirmity. This helped keep the transition into the Community a speck less jarring. Frank’s furniture was his own, and consisted of an antique hospital bed, thick-barred arches of black iron head and footboard, with a pair of hand-cranks that folded down from the foot to adjust head and foot angles; a bookcase in dark wood, with glass doors that hinged up and slid inside, containing some books, but mainly the memorabilia of war service, followed by a quiet post-war bachelor life, and stacked above in neat piles of identical black leather volumes, the collected works of Frank Robert; a chrome-fronted half-fridge, with matching microwave perched on top like the head of an unimaginatively designed robot; and the comfortable leather club chair and ottoman containing the cross-legged intern Petricia, sipping her tea with the only indication of caution in her appearance, and replacing it on the chair’s neighbor, the lamp-table, beside the current notebook, with a fountain pen as it’s bookmark.
Colin liked Petricia, along with all of the other employees and residents there. She was young, pretty, and bright, but what really ingratiated her to them was how she considered it such a privilege to be able to come help with chair-obics, dish sundaes, mix Irish coffee, and listen to all the stories the residents were resplendent with.
Petricia had not taken to the Boston area until coming here to work. She had followed her husband across the country as he started grad school, endured his long work, class, and study hours, trying her best not to burden him with her lonesomeness, and her weather-shock after a California rearing. Now, though she craved her husband’s company, she at least had no lack of friends and surrogate grandparents.
While the moniker of favorite was reserved for Mrs. Miniver, who always asked, “Can I get just some of the stuff that makes the coffee Irish, dear?” and had a plethora of far-eyed romantic stories to enrapture Petricia with, Frank was next in line. More than simply liking his craggy face and spry green eyes, or how increasingly easy it was for her to prove how thin his grouchy veneer was, he had infected her with intrigue when she had one day inquired about whether the countless leather journals he wrote in recounted his life story, and he had answered, “I’m writing my life’s story as it should have been,” and then promptly refused to elaborate or allow her to read any.
Colin recognized that Frank was going to recount the story to Petricia, that his only allowance was permission to overhear the tale’s telling, provided he keep quiet and did not make any sudden moves, so he nodded reassurance to Petricia and acted like wallpaper.
“Sit down, Mr. Robert, and tell me about your penny,’ Petricia asked.
“I’ll stand, thank you, young lady,” Frank said as fiercely as he could; though he had about sixty years on Petricia, in her presence he felt like a schoolboy, required to recite whatever she asked of him; his cognizance of this dynamic alternately melted and annoyed him.
He shifted his slight weight from foot to foot, and then convincing himself that it was all his decision, he sat on the edge of his bed, between Colin and Petricia, and started his narrative.
“Like most German-Americans at the onset of World War 2, I was eager to prove myself wholly on the side of America. I changed my name from Franz Reinhardt, enlisted at sixteen, and it was immediately apparent that I had an aptitude for the covert and deceptive. After two years of variably successful espionage, I was sent to New York for training with an equally eager Austrian-American, to learn a particular dialect for an upcoming mission. I went in expecting someone Freud-looking and found a fraulein, the most beautiful girl I ever had the honor of acquainting. During the too short period of my education we found so many things in common, piling up into some grand structure, not least our attraction to one another.
“We were virgins with the city of New York as our chaperone, and we certainly garnered some sharp stares walking, speaking only Austrian flavored German, in the parks and streets, that only my well decorated uniform kept from escalating to confrontation.
“The countdown until we would have to part loomed large and menacing with the glory of each day together. I had never needed something to come back for; the mission was always enough. Now I was desperate to have her waiting for my safe return.
“Sure, it was an age of rash engagements and impetuous loving, so you can dismiss it all you want, but for me, and I’d like to think, her, we just foreshortened our courtship, so it seemed we’d been always each other’s, with marriage the natural culmination. So in one mad night after leaving her I begged and borrowed, but didn’t steal, the money to buy the ring she accepted for her finger, the deed to her heart, and afterward the sole contents of my pocket was a single, steel, 1943 penny.”
“Steel?” Rowan asked. He had crept past Colin to sit on the floor beside the bed.
“They were rationing copper for bullets,” Petricia explained.
“Shush,” Colin said. “Go on, please.”
“As you should imagine, that penny became more valuable that your average good luck charm; it became my first piece of necessary equipment for the mission; that dull little disc became my engagement ring. I kept it safe through the war and never misplaced it once in the following years, kept it attached to my headboard, right there, and now some miscreant here has stolen it!”
“But that’s not the whole story,” Petricia said.
“Well,” Frank had been hoping that it was, at least, all that was required of him, “No, of course not, stories never really finish.”
Colin threw out the prompt, “How did the mission go?”
Frank slapped the question away with a wizened hand, hillocked with veins, valleyed with tendons, sparsely brushed with liver spots and white hair, “It was long and successful and trivial to this story. But there was a bit of trouble getting back afterward.”
“Oh yeah?” Rowan asked. It was innocently asked, although incited as a reaction to his being before shushed.
“Yeah,” Frank replied, returning Rowan’s word to him well masticated. “My cover was blown as a double-agent, and I had to fake my death by dressing up some dead, faceless Nazi in my clothes, planting all of my identification and personal belongings, save my penny, on his body for the SS to find, and then I had to pretend to be some wounded, battle-fatigued amnesiac Nazi infantryman when I was ‘rescued’ by the Germans. I hoped I would be sent to some easily escapable asylum, where, after I was healthy enough, I could return or at least get some word back that I was alive. Unfortunately, my German officers had even less of a tolerance for shell-shock than ours, and I was shipped to the front as soon as I was sufficiently mobile, about nine weeks. Another two weeks of outfitting and transport and I found myself readying to advance upon my countrymen.”
The short pause for breath Frank took was too much for Colin and Petricia, and they burst out variations of, “What the hell did you do?!”
Frank suppressed a grin, and said, “In the deep dark night I created a diversion, contrived a modest explosion in the fuel depot with the conspiration of a confederate cigarette, slipped away into the woods, walked almost until dawn, then stripped down naked and strolled right into the American camp.”
A laugh burst from Colin, bright and buoyant as a Disneyland balloon; Petricia snickered, trying not to transpose Frank’s current aged frame back, out for a jaunt, buck naked at daybreak in a dark German forest.
“Naked?” Rowan asked, his surprised tone and screwed up visage as if he found Frank nude here before him now.
“He only had a Nazi infintryman’s uniform,” Petricia barked at Rowan, after clearing the tickling laughs stuck in her throat. “He wouldn’t have gotten within a hundred feet of the place without getting shot!”
“With no weapon the sentries would know he wasn’t a threat, and the nakedness would have aroused their curiosity, and humor, enough that they would bring him straight to the commanding officer; now shut up,” Colin added.
Rowan huffed irefully, but held his comments to monosyllables.
“Right, Right,” Frank affirmed, smirking over Rowan’s admonishing, his glee momentarily eclipsing his storytelling. “So, I was able to convince the CO that I wasn’t a saboteur, and he relayed a message that, quickly responded to, confirmed my identity and got me an escort back to London.
“But, no rest for the efficient, I had hardly a good night’s sleep before I was back in training for my next mission. I made time, of course, to write my fiancé of my health and whereabouts, my unsnuffed love and the ardency of my longing, never suspecting – never enlightened – that the decoy I had left for the Nazi’s to find to cool down my trail had been picked up by an American patrol, and worked as I had intended. My father received a telegram, and my love.
“I wouldn’t learn of this until I returned from my mission, my last in fact. After my briefing with the usual bunch of high ranking officers my commanding officer held me back, and in that dim, emptied room he told me all: that my fiancé had been notified of my death, and distraught, had returned to an old boyfriend and been quickly married prior to my resurrection; not knowing how I would perform under this dolorous news, and to ensure the success of this last, crucial, mission…”
“The Hitler thing?” Rowan interrupted.
“SHUT UP!” Colin and Petricia yelled.
Frank continued, unwavered by the interruption, “…he had kept this from me. After my successful training with her he had used her for all his linguistic needs – and he had served custodian over her from his responsibility to me. But he hadn’t trusted me to go into the mission broken, soul distracted, fighting for an absent home.”
Petricia watched Frank’s hands fist up on his thin, trousered thighs, and prompted him gently, “What happened next.”
The well of Frank’s loss, never long in drought, bubbled over, “I slugged him in the face. Right then he represented the war that had both filled my heart and excised it. Now he was a tough old bastard, the kind of warrior man that makes John Wayne look like Shirley Temple, so he took it. He just turned back to me, spit out a bit of blood, and said, ‘Now I’ve done you wrong for the right reasons so I know I’ve had that coming. But I never let a man hit me twice.’ I was stupid mad enough to try anyway, but when I woke up a few hours later I allowed him to take me out and get me righteously, de-evolvingly, drunk.”
“Did you see her again?” Colin asked.
“Of course I did, but only from afar. I entertained the notion of stealing her back for about half a minute, but by the time I had tracked her down she had been married for eighteen months, and seeing her it was obvious that she was sufficiently happy. So, instead, I’ve looked after her, never too far away, making sure she’s happy and well.”
“The altruistic, romantic, assassin,” Rowan scoffed and hissed.
Frank swung the bayonet around to point at Rowan, a deathly extension of his forefinger, and said, “Really loving someone and killing someone uses the same muscle. It’s all just about having the will to go all the way!”
“But you didn’t ‘go all the way!’ You stopped short of taking her back. You saw her across the street or room or wherever you saw her, married and happy, and you lost your will!” Rowan volleyed back.
“You will never understand you son of a bitch! She wasn’t just happy: she was pregnant and happy!”
Petricia gasped; Colin’s eyes opened so wide and fast they made a popping sound.
Frank raged on, “So all I have of her that’s mine is my penny, and someone stole it! What kind of greedy animal would steal a penny from an old man, even if it was antique and curious? Search the orderlies and the cleaning lady and FIND MY PENNY!”
“What, this penny?” Rowan said, holding the wayward coin between thumb and forefinger, his tone portraying that he finally had achieved some authority, and he was going to damn well abuse it.
“You,” Frank accused.
“Settle down, it was stuck to the mattress,” Rowan said, extending the penny toward Frank, and when Frank’s accusing bayonet dropped to the duvet, and his gripping fingers got back in line and rolled over meekly, Rowan dropped it into his palm. Rowan then turned to Colin and explained, exasperated, depreciating, “He only had it stuck on with double-sided tape.”
Frank ignored this, caressing Lincoln’s silvery relief.
Despite the happy conclusion to the mystery of the possibly purloined penny, Petricia remained pensive. She stood, walked a step toward Frank, and asked, “Frank, what was her name?”
Frank’s loving finger flinched, “It’s not important.”
“I’d still like to know,” Petricia insisted.
“I would, too,” Colin agreed, himself stepping forward.
“You don’t need to know, and as I have my penny back the story’s over and you can all kindly get out of my room,” Frank said with an obviously frightened insistence.
“Why not? What would it hurt to let us know?” Petricia asked.
“You were so careful not to mention her name in your narrative, you relegated her to pronouns. Why?” Colin asked.
“It wasn’t someone famous?” Rowan piped in.
“No, I don’t think that,” Petricia answered for Frank.
“She must still be alive. He’s doing more than protecting her memory by not revealing her name,” Colin said.
“Her husband must still be alive too. Why else hasn’t Frank presented himself? Grasped these last years for his own?” Petricia said.
“Claimed her, finally,” Colin added.
“I’m still in the room, you scoundrels,” Frank said, trying to throw them off the scent by inflating his umbrage at being discussed in the third person.
“He can’t have thought we’d try to arrange a reunion. Maybe Rowan…” Petricia pondered.
“Hey,” Rowan accused.
“No, he knew that Rowan would never deduce as much,” Colin said.
“Hey!” Rowan whined, indignant, “I deduced where the damn penny was!”
Petricia ignored Rowan and thought aloud, “He’s always been near. Always kept watch.”
“Always had ‘the will to go all the way,’” Colin added, paraphrasing.
“He wouldn’t suddenly, after sixty years of vigilance suddenly give up, abandon her…”
“Unless,” Colin snapped his fingers. Petricia and he had slowly stutter-stepped toward the center of the room during their cross-examination, so that they were before Frank, and close enough that Colin could grip her shoulder as he concluded, “They must live here!”
“Yes!” Petricia ejaculated.
“No!” Frank said, more in defeat than denial.
Rowan swore in amazement, deifying excrement.
“Who,” Petricia demanded.
“It will be easy enough to find out on our own,” Colin assured, casually threatened.
“There can’t be that many Austrian-Americans who had a fiancé die in World War 2 here,” Petricia insisted.
Frank growled, but now it was the caged lion’s roar, and with an unsteady hand brandished his bayonet.
“You won’t be able to watch over her if you’re in jail for triple murder,” Petricia said, not a smidge intimidated.
“Double-murder you suckers,” Rowan insisted, “He’s can’t catch me.”
“And then she’ll learn the story,” Colin said, “You tell us, and we won’t say a word.”
“We won’t interfere, we won’t even infer,” Petricia promised, coaxed.
Frank’s eyes swayed back and forth between Colin and Petricia. For the first time in their memory he portrayed the infirmity ascribed to his age. He still held wildness in his face, but his foot was in the trap, and not even gnawing it off would spare him. Finally he mustered, “Okay, okay; but not him,” pointing to Rowan.
“But I’m the one who found the penny!” Rowan shouted.
In an untraceable flash, Frank flicked the bayonet towards Rowan. The blade bit into the wall, close enough to Rowan that it slap slap slapped his ear with its oscillating flat edge.
“Fine,” the blood dropped out of Rowan’s face looked out tentatively from behind his collar, but he was able to muster a huff, and stomped out.
Frank turned back to Colin and Petricia, leaned in, paused, then leaned in fully and said, “Teresa. She was Teresa Baümer, now she’s Teresa Miniver.”
Every molecule of air in Petricia stampeded out of her lungs; she jerked a hand up to her mouth, heading them off at the pass. The thwarted herd, unhindered in its determination of desertion, rushed up to try the eye trails, but only succeeded in pushing the unsuspecting queue of tears there over the precipice.
Petricia placed her unshepherding hand upon Frank’s arm, below his shoulder, and said, “She still has the ring. She showed it to me. She does think you died in the war, but would only say that that story belonged to her alone.”
Frank’s eyes prepared to shed long hoarded tears, but not wanting any witnesses to this, he said to Colin, and especially Petricia, “Stop looking at me so damn…sparkly!” It was the best he could contrive from the raging whirl of his mind as he shooed them out of his bachelor’s studio.