Be Frank With Me By Julia Claiborne Johnson: Book Review

I love Frank. I didn’t think I was going to, but I really, really do.

Frank is a highly intelligent, hilariously eccentric nine-year-old boy – and I’m not one for cutesy kids stuff.

But Frank isn’t cutesy – he’s sharp and witty and painfully aware that he’s very different from other kids.

It’s never actually spelt out in the novel, but this is a boy who clearly has some form of autism.

Frank lives in LA with his mother, Mimi, a reclusive bestselling novelist, when Alice, the novel’s narrator, comes into his life, sent by Mimi’s agent to be her assistant.

Alice, however, spends less time taking care of book deadlines and more time looking after Frank.

It’s a very funny, delightful and touching read.

Yet to go on holiday? Definitely another one to pack in your case.

Be Frank With Me By Julia Claiborne Johnson: Book Extract


February 2010

Because the station wagon blew up in the fire, Frank and I took the bus to the hospital. When I told him we’d get there in less than half the time in a taxi, Frank said, “I only ride in taxis with my mother. You are not my mother, Alice.”

This was a fact. Once the kid latched onto a fact there was no point in trying to talk him around to practicalities. “Fine,” I said. “We’ll take the bus.”

We hadn’t been on the bus very long when Frank said, “People are staring at me.”

“So? You’re fun to look at.” This was also a fact. Frank was pretty in the angelic way ten-year-old boys are sometimes: skin all pink and white and smooth, outsized dark eyes with ridiculously long lashes, freckles spilled across his nose. He had red hair, but not the crazy, curly orange kind that gets kids cast in television commercials when they’re four and ostracized on the playground when they’ve grown to a pasty, lumpy eleven. Frank’s was the Irish setter auburn you almost never see in real life, shiny-smooth and heavy, with a way of falling across his forehead that made you think there was always a stylist standing just outside the frame, keeping it perfect. Casting agents would have gone nuts for him in the early days of Technicolor.

But his looks weren’t what had our fellow travelers transfixed, certainly not in a place like Hollywood where gorgeous kids are so common that you even see them on city buses. No, what got people staring was Frank’s look. Before we left the house that morning he’d shellacked his hair like a mini Rudolph Valentino, put on a wing-collared shirt, white tie and vest, a cutaway coat, morning pants, and spats. Also a top hat, which he balanced on his knees while we rode to the hospital because, as he’d explained to our bus driver when the man admired it, “A gentleman never wears his hat indoors.”

I was the only person on that bus who understood what a sacrifice it was for him not to wear the hat. Out in the world, Frank needed to be 100 percent buttoned up, buckled down and helmeted, even if it were a hundred degrees outside. Seasonally inappropriate is what mental health factotums call his way of dressing, while people into fashion call it style.

“Alice, can you make the people staring at me stop staring at me?” he asked.

“I can’t,” I said. “Close your eyes so you can’t see them.”

He did, and put his head on my shoulder. I almost put my arm around him, but stopped myself in time. When he leaned against me I caught a whiff of fire and maybe a little brimstone. Frank usually smelled like a mix of lavender and rosemary and little boy sweat so I guessed the smoke had gotten its fingers into his wardrobe, even if the fire hadn’t. I’d have to take all his outfits to the cleaners. I’d have to rent a U-Haul.

“They’re just staring because you’re the only kid on the bus dressed in a morning suit,” I added.

“I chose this ensemble because I am in mourning,” he said. He sat up and turned his face toward me, but kept his eyes squeezed shut.

“Your mother is going to be fine,” I said. I hoped I wasn’t lying. “For the record, that kind of mourning, the feeling sad kind, is spelled m-o-u-r-n-i-n-g. Morning like a morning suit is spelled m-o-r-n-i-n-g.”

“I am not a good speller.”

“We all have our strengths and weaknesses.”

“I imagine Albert Einstein was a bad speller,” Frank said, settling against me again. “A bad speller, with terrible penmanship. Despite these shortcomings, Albert Einstein won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921. Do you think Einstein’s mom cared about his spelling and penmanship?”

“Probably,” I said. “Mothers are like that. It’s their job to sweat the details, don’t you think?”

When Frank didn’t respond I realized he’d fallen asleep. I was glad to see it. The ride would be long and he hardly slept, ever. He had to be exhausted. I know I was. Which wasn’t going to make it easier to handle whatever we found once we got to the hospital. Frank’s mother had been held there for three days of psychiatric observation after the fire.

Frank’s mother was M. M. Banning, the famous literary recluse.

Long before she’d become famous or a recluse, Frank’s mother or my boss, the nineteen-year-old version of M. M. Banning, a college dropout from Nowheresville, Alabama, wrote Pitched, a novel that won her a Pulitzer and a National Book Award by the time she turned twenty. It became the rare book—there must be only a handful—that still sells about a million copies a year, thirty years after its publication. Pitched revolved around a handsome, enigmatic, and unnamed baseball player who dazzled the world before going off his nut. It was short, simply written, and ended with someone dying, a magic combination that made it a fixture on every junior high school reading list in America. Over time the book became a touchstone for disaster, too, a handy symbol for anyone with a story about a failed athlete or other cursed soul. Toss a copy of Pitched on that character’s bedside table and the audience knows to think uh-oh.

After Pitched, M. M. Banning never wrote another word as far as anybody knew.


June 2009

Mimi’s prickly,” Isaac Vargas told me when he asked if I’d go to California to work for M. M. Banning while she wrote her long-awaited second novel. I’d been his assistant for the past year at the publishing house in New York City that had brought out her literary blockbuster back in the late 1970s. As a junior editor, Mr. Vargas had pulled Pitched from a pile of unsolicited manuscripts and had been M. M. Banning’s editor ever since. In theory, anyway, since there had been no more manuscripts to edit after that first one. Or even much communication between the two of them. When she’d called, Mr. Vargas hadn’t talked to M. M. Banning since before I was born.

“Mimi’s in a tight spot. She has to get this novel written, and she has to do it fast,” he explained. She wanted an assistant to help her navigate computers and keep her household running until the book was finished. “She needs somebody smart and capable, someone we can trust. I thought of you, Alice.”

It was a lot to take in. Pitched had been my mother’s favorite book in the world. If I closed my eyes I could still see her girlhood copy of it. She’d handled that paperback so much its covers felt like they were made of cloth. Its yellowed pages had stiffened and were missing little triangles of paper that had gone brittle and broken off where she’d turned down corners. The blurb on the back cover read: A sensitive work of incredible insight, a writer of startling gifts. One of the premiere voices of this or any generation. An instant classic!

Underneath that was a photo of young M. M. Banning. Cropped carrot-red hair, big chocolate eyes behind heavy masculine glasses, wearing a cardigan sweater that engulfed her, looking more like a scrawny preteen boy in Dad’s clothes than a young woman on the cusp of her twenties. My mother was such a fan that she stole her father’s cardigans and glasses every Halloween in junior high so she could trick-or-treat as M. M. Banning. I think she would have dressed me in my father’s sweaters and eyeglasses, too, except by junior high my father wasn’t around for us to steal from.

“Ha!” Mr. Vargas said when I told him about my mother. “What’s funny is that Mimi borrowed my glasses and sweater for that photo shoot because she didn’t like anything the stylist brought for her to wear. She told the hair and makeup person to give her a crew cut. ‘What you want is a pixie,’ the woman told her. ‘No. What I want is to look like a writer,’ Mimi said. ‘Not like some girl who got elected to homecoming court to make the prom queen look prettier.’ When I told her I loved the photograph, Mimi said, ‘You know who’ll hate it? My mother. That’s what I like best about it.’ ”

“Did her mother hate it?”

“I don’t think her mother ever saw it,” Mr. Vargas said. He stroked the stubble on his chin and looked out the window. “Listen, don’t tell Mimi any of that business about your mother. She has a complicated relationship with her fans. And her mom. I think there are times when she wishes she’d never written that novel. Which reminds me. Did I tell you Mimi has a kid now? Named Frank. First I’ve heard of him. Imagine that.”

In the foreword of the latest edition of Pitched that I bought at the airport bookstore to reread on the plane to California, scholars floated many theories about what had silenced one of the premiere voices of this or any generation. M. M. Banning hated writing. Loved writing, but hated critics. Felt suffocated by her sudden, outsized fame and wanted no more of it. Had stored up a trove of manuscripts to be published after her death, when she’d be past caring what anybody else thought about her. Hadn’t written the book in the first place—that it had been a sort of long-form suicide note penned by her brilliant, dead brother.

A mystery kid she was raising on her own? Not a one had volunteered that.

I bought a notebook at the airport bookstore, too. There wasn’t much of a selection there, so I’d been stuck with a pink one with a unicorn on its cover and a pack of crayons Velcroed to its side. I left the crayons on the seat beside me in the airport departure lounge for some kid to find. “Who is Frank?” I inked across the top of its first page while I waited for my plane.

For that matter, who was M. M. Banning? Her name was as much a fiction as her book, Mr. Vargas told me. The publisher had decided the name she came equipped with, Mimi Gillespie, lacked gravitas. So she invented “M. M. Banning,” a name of indeterminate gender better suited to a bank president than a college dropout. Once the book was published and became a hit, Mimi Gillespie was as good as dead. Except to Mr. Vargas, who remembered how she was before she was famous. Next chapter


M. M. banning lived in Bel Air, in the kind of place I’d only seen before in magazines—stone facade framed by palm trees to the street, all glass everywhere else. It wasn’t the kind of house I’d think of buying if I happened to be a celebrity obsessed with privacy. I wondered if M. M. Banning woke up some mornings wondering how on earth she’d ended up there.

According to Mr. Vargas, ending up in Los Angeles had never been part of the plan. When she was twenty-two, he told me, Mimi had left New York to oversee her book’s adaptation into a movie. “I’ll just be gone a few months,” she said.

Everything had gone well at first. The film version of Pitched won an armload of Academy Awards, one of them for the screenplay she’d worked on as a consultant. Mimi attended the ceremony on the arm of the up-and-coming actor who played The Pitcher, an exquisite cipher named Hanes Fuller, who appeared on-screen shirtless more often than not. The press called them “today’s alternate-universe Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe” because she wore glasses and cardigans and was stunningly average-looking, while he always seemed to have his chest hanging out.

At twenty-three, she’d married the movie star. By twenty-five, they’d divorced. Instead of coming back to New York, she’d moved to the glass house and disappeared inside. Or tried to. Before she’d unpacked her boxes, M. M. Banning’s more fanatical devotees had tracked her down and pressed their faces against the glass to peer inside. I’ve read your book. I feel your pain. Come out and play.

M. M. Banning put up a stucco wall iced with razor wire to keep her public at bay. Fans and the occasional photographer still lurked outside its perimeter hoping—what? That the reclusive novelist would come out to pose for the literary equivalent of a photograph of a yeti? That one day she’d be lonely enough to invite a lurker inside and they’d become best friends forever?

When the airport cab dropped me at the gate I was relieved nobody was around watching with binoculars as I punched in the entry code in the keypad. 21 22 00 0. The gate swung open and I scuttled through, then huffed up the steep driveway with my bags. I stood at the door for a minute enjoying the irony of the word “welcome” worked into the rush doormat at my feet. My mother would have died from the excitement of knowing I was there if it weren’t for the inconvenient fact that she was already dead.

“Los Angeles is paradise on earth, Alice,” Mr. Vargas had said as he’d scrawled the keypad’s code on a Post-it for me back in New York. “You can’t blame people for being seduced by it. Have you ever been?”

“Never,” I said.

“Everybody should go once.”

“How many times have you been?” I asked.

“Once,” he said. “Listen, I know Mimi has a reputation for being difficult, but if I weren’t fond of her I wouldn’t send you. She’ll love you if she’ll let herself. In the meantime, don’t let her scare you off.”

I wiped my feet on the mat and squared my shoulders. Don’t let her scare you off. I practiced my smile. Businesslike, but with enough warmth to keep me from coming off as too Nurse Ratched. I mumbled lines I’d worked on during my flight. Nobody knows single motherhood better than I do. It was just me and my mom growing up. . . . No, I’m good, I ate on the plane, thanks. Just a glass of water, I’ll get it myself, tell me where. . . . So this must be Frank! Only nine years old? You seem much older.

Little did I know.

I probably stood there longer than I should have, because the recluse herself opened the door before I could ring the bell and demanded, “Who are you? I’ve been watching you on the security cameras since you came through the gate.”

I was so surprised I gasped “M. M. Banning!” like a toddler might squeal “Santa!” if she stumbled on the guy in the red suit and fake beard sneaking a cigarette out back of the mall during his break. To be honest, I’m not sure I would have recognized her if I’d passed her on the street. In the years since that book jacket photo had been taken, her hair had grown out into a grayish-brown ponytail, she’d developed a big furrow between her eyebrows, and her jawline had gone soft. But her eyes were the same fathomless brown, so dark that the iris and pupil seemed one. She still wore glasses and a cardigan, too, except now the cardigan made her look less like a writer than a middle-aged librarian. A vengeful middle-aged librarian brandishing a portable phone.

“You’d better be the girl Isaac Vargas sent,” she said, “because I have the police on speed dial.”


I wasn’t always an M. M. Banning fan.

When I read my mother’s battered copy of Pitched for eighth grade English, I confess I didn’t see what the fuss was about. “I hate how the guy is just called ‘The Pitcher,’” I complained to her. “Why doesn’t he have a name?” My mother said she guessed the author did that to make the story feel universal, to help readers imagine the character as their own brother or son. “I don’t have a brother or son,” I said. “It just makes it easier for me to imagine him as a water jug with a handle.” My poor mother. Her favorite book, trashed by her only child. What can I say? Junior High Alice preferred Jay Gatsby, with his million-dollar smile and mansion and all those beautiful shirts.

I reread Pitched as coursework in Twentieth-Century Lit when I was a junior in college, soon after my mother died unexpectedly of undiagnosed heart disease. It was a different book to me then. That time it tore me apart. I confessed in class that I’d cried my eyes out when I finished.

“You realize now,” my professor commented drily, “that youth isn’t wasted on the young. Literature is.”


When M. M. Banning called Mr. Vargas, I was sitting at my desk just outside his open office door. They talked for almost an hour. He said very little other than “uh-huh, uh-huh,” “Oh, no,” and “I’m so sorry, Mimi.” The gist of it was that she’d been swindled of her fortune by a crooked investment adviser who’d just been thrown in jail for life that March for bilking the rich and super-rich across America. By June, she was on the brink of losing not just her house but also the copyright to her book, collateral she’d given high-end loan sharks who marketed themselves as money managers to the rich and clueless.

“They had an office on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills,” she told Mr. Vargas. “They sent a car for me. They had nice office furniture. I wanted to believe they could save me.” That was the thing she said that really broke his heart. “My wife’s oncologist had nice office furniture, too,” he told me. A few months after I came to work for him, Mr. Vargas’s wife had died of pancreatic cancer. That fall, his daughter Carolyn shipped out to an expensive private university on the West Coast. On top of all that, the publishing company he’d worked for his whole career had been acquired by a media conglomerate. When he answered M. M. Banning’s call Mr. Vargas said he’d half-expected Personnel, phoning to tell him he’d been downsized. Instead, a second book from M. M. Banning. Good, bad, or indifferent, it would be a best seller. His career was saved, at least for now. And to think she’d called him looking for salvation! Mimi didn’t know it yet, but she’d thrown all of us a lifeline.

“So, how far along are you?” he asked. I thought Mr. Vargas was talking to somebody newly pregnant.

“I don’t have a word on paper yet,” he told me she answered. “But I have the beginning and the middle in my head.”

M. M. Banning did have two very specific demands: a huge advance and an assistant, bankrolled by the publisher and hand-selected by Mr. Vargas because, she told him, “I’m a lousy judge of character. As you so delicately put it once.”

“What happened to her could have happened to anybody,” Mr. Vargas told me.

Not to me, I couldn’t help thinking. Never to me. I’m too careful. Some people in my college dorm might have said boring, but they were glad to call me to come bail them out of jail so their parents wouldn’t know where a night of carousing had landed them. The careless ones knew I’d be awake, sober, and studying. Boring saved their bacon more times than I could count.

Mr. Vargas scribbled out the qualifications Mimi listed for the ideal assistant:

•    No Ivy Leaguers or English majors.

•    Drives. Cooks. Tidies.

•    Computer whiz.

•    Good with kids.

•    Quiet. Discreet. Sane.

Before I worked for him I’d had a string of fresh-off-the-Greyhound jobs, the kind people my age go for when they’re not quite ready to settle into the practical careers they may have been wise enough to train for while they were in college. I had an accounting degree but hadn’t quite been able to bring myself to use it yet. I’d worked as a pet groomer, leaflet distributor, barista, sketcher of tourists in Central Park, black-shirted-to-blend-in catering staff, kindergarten assistant. When we met, I was working weekends at a computer store because my salary as a private school math teacher wouldn’t cover rent and food and insurance. At the store I had to wear a piece of plastic over my heart that read HI! I’M A GENIUS! ASK ME ANYTHING! After an hour of demonstrating shortcuts for managing his flow of information, Mr. Vargas told me I deserved every exclamation point on my name tag and asked me if I’d like to come work for him. “Does this job you’re offering me provide insurance and sick days?” I asked, though I had never missed a day of work in my life. It did. In those days when acquiring your own insurance was both astronomically expensive and hard to come by, a paying job that sounded glamorous and provided benefits sounded like a dream come true. The job came with insurance, sick days, and two weeks of vacation annually. Mr. Vargas didn’t have to ask me twice. I took it.

Which is how I’d landed on M. M. Banning’s welcome mat being chewed out by one of the premiere voices of this or any generation. I pulled myself together before she called the cops and said, “I am the girl Mr. Vargas sent.”

She put the phone in her cardigan pocket. “Well then,” she said. “If you’re done staring at me, I guess you can come inside.” Next chapter


“His name is Frank.”

M. M. Banning and I were seated on the living room couch, watching her son playing outside in the hot, bright sun. The kid, dressed in a tattered tailcoat and morning pants accessorized with bare feet and a grubby face, looked like some fictional refugee from the pages of Oliver Twist, one who’d walked all the way to Los Angeles from Dickens’s London and had slept in ditches at night along the way.

When I say Frank was “playing” what I mean is that he was assaulting a peach tree with a yellow plastic baseball bat, scattering the green midsummer fruit as if the future of the human race depended on it.

“Does he always dress like that?” I asked.

“Some version of it.”

“That’s fantastic. Most kids don’t care about their clothes that much. They’re just as happy wearing T-shirts and a pair of shorts.” My mother always said that the best way to connect with anybody who was a mother was to find a way to compliment her child. An approach that served me well when I taught at the private school, even the times when it had been a stretch to come up with something nicer to say than “Your child is such a good little mouth-breather.”

“I know.” She sounded more irritated with me than pleased.

Strike one. I tried again. “Frank looks pretty energetic.”

“I go to sleep exhausted,” she said. “I wake up tired.”

Yes. I had a nice flight. Thank you so much for asking.

Frank went at the tree again, but in a slo-mo, Kabuki kind of way—his swing stylized, his face a mask. I decided to give it one more go. “Hey, is that a T-ball bat?” I asked. “I used to coach the T-ball team at the private school where I worked.”

“Then you should know a T-ball bat when you see one.”

She’s not one for small talk, Mr. Vargas had warned me. No kidding. I gave up and settled in to watch the kid strip the tree of the last of its unripe fruit. It was awkward sitting so close to M. M. Banning when we’d just met, but there wasn’t much furniture in the living room to choose from. Just the white slipcovered couch we occupied and a black baby grand player piano that had been working through a selection of jaunty Scott Joplin rags since my arrival. There was a piano bench, but I thought it would be weird to go to sit on that. No rugs, but wall-to-wall carpet in the hallway. My mother would have been interested to hear that, since she found nothing in the world tackier than wall-to-wall carpet, even though we’d lived in more apartments with it than without. There were no photos on the piano, no art on the walls. Unfaded squares of paint, though, where pictures must have hung until recently. Looking around the room, you got the sense M. M. Banning and her son were just moving into their house, or just moving out.

“Frank seems like an interesting kid,” I ventured finally.

She took her glasses off and rubbed her nose. “He’s a character.”

Outside, Frank dropped the T-ball bat and wandered over to have a word with the battered black Mercedes station wagon parked in the driveway. He and the wagon’s luggage rack came to some kind of understanding and Frank took off his belt, looped the buckle end, and opened the car door. He stood on its sill while he tied the notched end to the rack.

M. M. Banning jumped up and went to the sliding glass door. She struggled with it, but the door was stuck.

“Here, let me help you with that,” I said.

“I’ve been meaning to get somebody to come out and fix this,” she said, “but the man I have do things is out of town and I don’t like having strange people in my house. What’s Frank doing out there?”

The kid went about his business, slipping his wrist through the loop in his belt, then hopping down and closing the door, being careful to raise his arm to keep the belt from getting caught. Then he kicked a leg back, fell against the door, kicked and fell again, using his free hand to alternately mimic a pistol ring at the luggage rack and make his coattails flap behind himself. I was reminded of the black-and-white westerns I watched on TV in the afternoons after school. “I think he’s robbing a stagecoach,” I said.

M. M. Banning put a hand on her chest and stepped back from the glass. “Yes. He’s playing. He’s all right. The door can wait. He’s fine. Calm down.” She didn’t seem to be talking to me.

“No worries,” I said. I’m not a person who says slacker things like “no worries” or “enjoy,” but I’ve found the best way to handle anyone difficult—rich worrywart moms, the famished Manhattan vegan ordering a late lunch—is to exude the bland calm of the heavily medicated and go about my business. I kept fiddling with the door. “It jumped the track, that’s all.” I gave the door a fierce jiggle that popped it back in its groove. “When it’s stuck, you do this.” I showed her the lift-and-bounce maneuver. “Listen, when your guy comes back, tell him to replace this glass,” I said, tracing a long jagged line that split one of the giant panes. “That’s an accident waiting to happen. What cracked it? An earthquake?” I didn’t like thinking about earthquakes, but in Los Angeles, how could I not? Still, every place I’d ever lived in had come with its own brand of potential disaster—tornadoes in Nebraska, muggings in New York. I guess beneath my thick veneer of boring beat a heart primed to fall in love with danger.

“Frank’s head cracked it,” M. M. Banning said.

“Ouch. That kind of thing happens more than you might think. The glass is really clean, the kid isn’t paying attention. You should put stickers on the glass at his eye level so he’ll see the doors are closed when he’s running outside to play.”

“Since you know so much about what I ought to be doing, will these stickers of yours keep Frank from pounding his head against the glass when the door has jumped the track and he’s frustrated because it’s hard to open?”

“Oh,” I said. “Well in that case, forget the stickers. I’ll have to show him how to get the door back on track.”

“You do that,” she said, sliding the door closed again. Open. Closed. “Stickers. Ha. You’re not from New York, are you?”

“I’m from Nebraska.”

“Of course you’re from Nebraska. The Show-Me State.”

“I think that’s Missouri.”

“Those states in the middle are all the same,” she said, and opened the door to call, “Come here, Frank. Be quick.” She closed the door, using just her pinkie to move it as she squinted through the glass. “This could take a while,” she said, and checked her watch.

“Coming, Ma,” Frank shouted. He freed himself of his shackles, put his belt back on, and holstered his imaginary six-shooter. Took a turn around the yard and stopped to snap a rose from its stem just below the blossom, stroking its petals intently and giving it some clinical sniffs before stuffing it in his breast pocket and then arranging the petal tips to form a sort of pocket square. Plunged through a border of lemon trees interspersed with huge lavender bushes. Ran back and forth alongside a big evergreen hedge, brushing his fingertips along its top. Clasped his hands behind his back and tilted toward the denuded peach tree until the tilt turned into a spectacular pratfall, set to a symphony of Looney Tunes whistles, explosions, shrieks and groans, all loud enough for us to hear through the glass. After that, Frank lay there for a while, first pretending to be dead, then scratching patterns into the dust with his fingers.

M. M. Banning looked at her watch again. “Five minutes.” She opened the door and called, “Frank! While we’re young.” Then she looked at me and said, “While you’re young, anyway. How old are you?”

“Twenty-four. Almost twenty-five.”

“You look twelve.” She said it in a way that didn’t sound entirely complimentary. “I always looked young. Until I didn’t. I bought this house when I was about your age. It was the most expensive place on the market at the time. I’ve forgotten your name.”

“My fault. I should have introduced myself. Alice Whitley.”

“Alice Whitley. I guess you don’t look like ‘Alice’ to me. You look like ‘Penny.’ ” She pronounced it Pinny.

“Why Penny?”

“I don’t know. I don’t even like pennies. When I was a kid they turned green if you buried them in the yard and tasted terrible when you hid them in your mouth. Ugh. That’s a bad taste you can’t forget. Alice. Alice, Alice. I’ll do my best to remember it. I’m no good with names.”

“I could write ‘Alice’ on my forehead with a Sharpie if that would help,” I said.

She laughed then, a short, joyless bark. “You need to meet Frank. He may like you. He likes young women with blond hair. He doesn’t care if they aren’t pretty.”

That sounds cutting, but she was right. I’m not pretty. What I am is organized and diligent. I don’t complain much. I’ve worked since I was sixteen years old, mostly lousy jobs whose chief benefit lay in teaching me that procrastination is a loser’s game and that you’re better off ignoring insults from the public you serve doughnuts. My hair is pretty, I’ll give you that. It’s thick, blond, and shiny, and grows straight to my waist without petering out. Two of my great-grandfathers were named Vard and Thorsson, so go gure. I’ll let you in on a secret, though. Hair like mine is a burden. I’m always worried my face will be a disappointment when I turn around. Still, I’m not dumb enough to cut it off to punish it for being the best thing about me.

Outside, Frank found one of the green peaches on the ground, rubbed its early velvet against his cheek and tossed it back and forth between his hands before hefting it onto the roof, following its trajectory with his eyes, as if he wished he could follow it there. After that he spun around a few times, staring up at the sky, before sauntering to the driveway, where he stepped onto a skateboard and sailed to the porch, arms extended for balance and swallowtails flapping behind him. He hopped off with a certain rubber-kneed grace and waltzed past both of us as if we weren’t there.

“What were you doing out there with the station wagon?” M. M. Banning asked him.

“Oh, you mean the stagecoach. I was robbing it. That’s why I called you ‘Ma.’ For historical verisimilitude. That’s what people called their mothers in stagecoach days. Ma.”

“I’d rather not be ‘Ma’ if you don’t mind. I don’t see a ‘Ma’ as a woman with all her teeth.” Frank edged around his mother but she caught him by the shoulder and turned him to face me. “Hold on, cowboy. Notice anything?”

“The door’s working again.”

“What about her?”

“That her?” He pointed an accusatory finger in my direction but couldn’t seem to focus on me exactly. I wondered if he needed glasses. “Who’s her?”

“Who’s she. She’s Penny.”

“Alice,” I said. “My name is Alice.”

“Who’s Alice?” Frank asked. He fixed his eyes on the grand piano, maybe thinking “Alice” might be the invisible presence manipulating its keys.

“I’m Alice,” I said.

“What’s she doing here?”

“She’s doing everything around here that I don’t have time to do anymore.”

“Staff? Splendid. It’s so hard to get good help these days.” Frank shot his grimy cuffs and I saw he had silver links in them shaped like the masks of Comedy and Tragedy. He extended his hand palm up, as if he meant to take mine in his and kiss it.

“Frank. Look how dirty your hands are. Go clean up. Use soap. Scrub your filthy nails. And come straight back when you’re done. What did I just say?”

“Frank. Look how dirty your hands are. Go clean up. Use soap. Scrub your filthy nails. And come straight back when you’re done. What did I just say?” Frank hustled down the hall.

“If you can believe it, he took a bath this morning,” M. M. Banning said.

I shrugged. “He’s a kid.”

“Young Noël Coward in there was never a kid. Wait till he starts telling jokes. F.D.R. is in a lot of them.”

“You’re kidding.”

“I wish. Once I took Frank to Disneyland with a boy from his class. We passed through a rough part of town down by the freeway, and the kid pointed to some guy on the street who looked like a drug dealer and said, ‘Look, a gangsta!’ Frank said, ‘Where? Is it Jimmy Cagney?’ White Heat was Frank’s favorite movie back then. For a while his idea of fun was sneaking up on me and yelling ‘Made it, Ma! Top of the world!’ ” Off my blank look she added, “That’s what Jimmy Cagney’s character shouts right before the cops blow him to kingdom come. It took Frank a couple of years to get tired of White Heat. I was glad when he moved on to Broadway Melody of 1940. Fred Astaire’s in that one. Eleanor Powell. That led him to My Man Godfrey with William Powell, who Frank likes to imagine is Eleanor Powell’s brother. After that, the Park Avenue accent started.”

“The kids at the private school where I taught in New York lived on Park Avenue but tried to talk like they were dealing crack on a corner in Bed-Stuy,” I said.

“I guess you’re trying to tell me to count my blessings. Where has Frank gotten off to? I’d better find him.” She hurried down the hall, leaving me to fend for myself.

I was glad to have a break. By then the piano had abandoned Scott Joplin for Rhapsody in Blue. I sat on the bench and became so entranced by the ghostly fingers working the keyboard that I was startled when Frank appeared at my elbow, smelling of soap and hair tonic, a combination I hadn’t smelled since I was a kid visiting my grandfather at an old folks home.

Frank’s face was shining and he wore a cravat and smoking jacket over a pair of flannel pajama pants with rockets on them. “My piano instructor is on vacation,” he said. He addressed this to my left eyebrow.

“I see,” I said. “So, Frank, you looked like you were having fun out there in the yard.”

“I like playing by myself. This piano plays by itself, too, did you notice? There’s nothing wrong with that.”

“I think people pay extra for pianos that play by themselves,” I said. “Can I offer you a seat?” I patted the bench. Frank climbed aboard and sat so close that you couldn’t have slipped dental floss between us. I scooted over a little to make more room for him and he scooted after me.

After an awkward silence I said, “I like this song.”

“It’s one of my favorites.”

“Do you play the piano?”

“I do,” he said. “Not like he does, of course.”

“Your teacher?”

“Gershwin. This computer program is based on a piano roll Gershwin cut. He made dozens of piano rolls but very few actual recordings.”

“Is that a fact?”

“It is a fact. I’m very good with facts. I refer, of course, to George Gershwin, not Ira. Ira was his older brother, born in 1896. George was born in 1898. Ira was the lyricist, which means he wrote the words. George composed the music. Friends thought George a hypochondriac until he suddenly died of a brain tumor here in Los Angeles in 1937 in the old Cedars Sinai hospital building, now owned by the Scientologists, who believe themselves to be more advanced humanoids from another planet come to rescue mankind from itself. Ira lived until 1983. Are you familiar with Fred Astaire?”

“I’m from Omaha,” I said.

Frank actually gasped. “Fred’s from Omaha,” he said.

“I know. That’s why I mentioned it.”

“When I was young I thought Fred was from England but my mother explained that actors in the talkies were trained to speak that way. Fred wrote in his memoirs that the last words George Gershwin spoke were his name, ‘Fred Astaire.’ Like Charles Foster Kane saying ‘Rosebud’ as he died in Citizen Kane. I am a devotee of film. Of mathematics, not so much.” Frank had a funny way of talking, as if he were reading off a teleprompter in the middle distance. He slipped his hand into mine then and gave me one of those luminously-trusting little kid smiles that melts the hearts of cynics in Hallmark commercials and makes us believe that, yes, a greeting card can bring the world together again, one family at a time.

He pressed his face against my shoulder and we held hands for a long time before I spoke again. “That’s some wingspan George had,” I said when the composer’s spectral fingers completed an Astaire-worthy tap dance from one end of the keyboard to the other. Then I got the bright idea of following Gershwin’s lead, took my hand from Frank’s, and arched my fingers over the keys.

“No!” M. M. Banning shouted from the hallway.

I snatched my hands away just in time to keep Frank from slamming the lacquered keyboard cover on them. M. M. Banning scuttled to the bench and wrapped herself around Frank, straitjacketing his arms to his sides. “There you are, Monkey,” she said.

“She was going to touch my piano,” Frank said. “We hardly know each other.”

“She doesn’t know the rules yet, Frank.”

“You and I know each other a little already, though, don’t we, Frank?” I said once I got my heart out of my larynx. “I’m from Omaha, like Fred. You know my first name, Alice. I haven’t told you my last name yet. It’s Whitley.” I offered him my hand again, a little shaky and feeling fresh appreciation for the fingers still attached to it. “I hope you’ll let me in on all the rules around here.”

Frank twisted away and buried his face in his mother’s shoulder. “Mama,” he said. “Who is she?”

“Her name is Penny.”

“Alice,” I insisted. “My name is Alice.”

“When is she leaving?” he asked.

“As soon as your mother finishes writing her book, I’ll go,” I said. “I promise.”

“How long does writing a book take?” he asked his mother. Funny, I’d just been wondering that myself. “It doesn’t take long to read one,” he added.

M. M. Banning met my eyes over Frank’s head. It was the first time she’d really looked at me. “There are two things you need to know if you’re going to be of any use to us,” she said. “Rule One: No touching Frank’s things. Rule Two: No touching Frank.”

“No touching Frank? But he was holding my hand just a minute ago.”

“He can take your hand but you can’t take his,” she explained.

“Then how do you cross the street?” I asked, feeling uncomfortably like I was setting up a joke about a punk rocker with a chicken stapled to his cheek.

“I hold his hand, of course. I’m his mother. I don’t have to ask.” She said that with a tenderness that surprised me. Here was the Mimi Mr. Vargas was so fond of.

He was right. I had this. “So, Frank,” I said, “are you familiar with Jimmy Cagney?” No answer. “White Heat?”

Frank turned his head a little so he could see me out of one eye. “Cagney won the Oscar for Yankee Doodle Dandy. His gangsters were tip-top, but those weren’t his favorite roles. He got his start as a song- and-dance man in vaudeville, and was always happiest when hoofing.” Frank pronounced it “vau-de-ville.”

“Can we watch it sometime?” I asked. “I’ve never seen Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

“Well,” Frank said, untangling himself from his mother and reclaiming my hand. “You are in for a treat then. I have seen it many, many times. I’m Julian Francis Banning, by the way. You may call me Frank. You’ve met my mother. I call her Mother sometimes, Mama mostly, Mom or Mommie occasionally. None of those will do for you, of course. Her brother called her Mimi because he found Mary Margaret to be a mouthful as a toddler.”

“Oh,” I said, “that’s right. Mr. Vargas calls your mother Mimi.”

“That doesn’t mean you get to,” she said.

“Of course not,” I said, though from that time on I did. In my head.

“The neighborhood Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino inhabited during the 1920s is called Whitley Heights,” Frank said. “Any relation?”

“I don’t think so. Sorry. And sorry again about the piano.”

“What do you say, Frank?” Mimi prompted him.

“Is that your natural hair color?” he asked. Next chapter


That son of hers,” Mr. Vargas said when he saw me off at the Newark airport the day I left for California. “Do you think he’s adopted? Because she got rid of that ridiculous Malibu Ken I told her not to marry ages ago.”

This wasn’t the kind of conversation Mr. Vargas and I had regularly. “I don’t know,” I said. “Why don’t I ask her?” He looked so horrified I had to say, “Mr. Vargas. I’m joking.”

“Of course you are. I’m sorry, Genius. I’ve misplaced my sense of humor.” “Genius” was the nickname Mr. Vargas gave me once we’d relaxed enough to kid around with each other. He plunged his hands into his pockets as if he thought he might find his sense of humor there. “Oh,” he said. “I almost forgot. I have something for you.” He handed me a small wrapped package.

“What is it?” I asked.

“It’s nothing much,” he said. “It’s silly. Open it when you get on the plane. Keep me posted, Alice. Take care of yourself. Take care of Mimi. Take notes.”

Take notes? Before I could ask Mr. Vargas what he meant by that exactly, he gave me an awkward hug that made me think this must be what it felt like to have your father send you off to college if you happened to have a father to send you off to college. “Go Big Red,” he said, and left me at security without looking back once. I know because I watched him walking away until I lost him in the crowd.

When I unwrapped the package I found a U-shaped inflatable travel pillow emblazoned with the seal of my college, the University of Nebraska. I got a full scholarship to study accounting with a minor in studio art, receiving an education there equal to anything you’d get at Harvard, though not much of anybody I’d met in New York would agree with me on that. Except Mr. Vargas, SUNY New Paltz class of 1969. We’d bonded at the computer store when he passed this chestnut along to me: “You can always tell a Harvard man, but you can’t tell him much.”

Go Big Red. Ah, Mr. Vargas. It said so much about him that he’d know the name of your college team even if he never watched football. Not that I watched football, either.

For the first time in my life, I slept on an airplane. Of course, before that night I’d never been on an airplane.


After Mimi showed me to my room, I got in my pajamas and crawled into bed with my laptop to e-mail Mr. Vargas. Her son, I wrote him, has the same brown eyes and auburn hair so I doubt he’s adopted. Frank’s exquisitely handsome but—

But what? My eyes wandered the room while I considered my next sentence. It was nicer than I’d expected after the fugitive decor of the living room. Beige walls, nubby beige carpet, fluffy white double bed, blond bureau, big closet, minimalist console desk. The one colorful touch, a scarlet love seat arranged in front of the floor-to-ceiling blond curtains, was a bright, true red that stood out like lipstick on a woman so rigorously elegant that she refused all other makeup. There wasn’t a framed photo or a book anywhere. So when I say the place was nice, I mean hotel nice, not homey nice. And way too quiet. Outside as well as in. What kind of city doesn’t grumble to itself at night? Even Omaha was noisier than this.

Then I heard someone bumping around out in the hall and voices murmuring and, softly, the piano. I got out of bed and crept to the door to listen. I heard Frank’s drone, mostly, interrupted now and then by Mimi. I couldn’t hear what she was saying, but by the cadence I was pretty sure she was trying to herd Frank back to bed.

I felt sleepy and my feet were cold, so I got back in bed myself. I erased Frank’s exquisitely handsome but, pressed “send” and lay back and closed my eyes. What else was there to say? His fingernails are dirty? He stumbled into our century through a wormhole in the space-time continuum? I’m worried he’ll julienne me in my sleep?

That last bit occurred to me thanks to what Mimi said as she bid me good night. “If you get hungry, help yourself to anything in the kitchen. Plates are in the cabinet by the sink, silverware in the drawer underneath. Big sharp knives in the drawer next to that in case you need to cut something up. Just don’t open an outside door or any windows at night. I set the alarm before I go to bed and I won’t turn it off until morning.”

I’d been looking forward to opening a window to let in the night breeze. Even the air smelled rich here, with top notes of jasmine and ocean and orange blossom, without bottom notes of garbage and cat urine. “Is this a dangerous neighborhood?” I asked.

“It’s Frank,” she said. “He sleepwalks. Well, not ‘sleepwalks’ so much as ‘roams the house when he should be sleeping.’ ”

Holy Bluebeard’s castle. How could I sleep with the kid wandering the halls swinging his bat or maybe a big sharp knife he’d borrowed from the kitchen drawer? Yes, okay, I confess, too many late-night horror movies when I was old enough for the TV to babysit me while my mother typed legal documents because the night shift paid better than days. When I finally told her why I was having trouble sleeping, she said, “Alice, you’re too smart for that. Learn how to take care of yourself and silly things like zombies and escaped psychopaths won’t scare you quite so much.” I hoped that meant karate lessons, but what I got instead was my own toolbox and electric drill. My mother showed me how to rewire lamps and tighten loose doorknobs and to examine broken things closely to understand how they could be fixed. She trained me to collect random screws and extra buttons in baby food jars so I’d always have extra on hand in a pinch. After that, she taught me how to balance her checkbook and keep track of her tax receipts. Then she tuned our ancient television to the cooking channel, pulled the dial off, and pocketed it, handed me her splattered copy of The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking and left for work. From then on I was the family cook, handyman, and accountant. When I was done with my chores I got in bed and went straight to sleep. I was too tired to do anything else.

So that first wakeful night in California, I unpacked my suitcase. Brushed my teeth and flossed. Made a list of meals I might cook for Mimi and Frank in the next week and ingredients I would need to do it. Filed my nails. Read some more of Mimi’s book. Drew a funny little sketch of Frank on the first page of my unicorn notebook, under the heading I’d scrawled earlier: “Who is Frank?” I had no clue who Frank was yet, but in my drawing he looked like a grade-school Charlie Chaplin who’d misplaced his hat, shoes, and cane.

After what seemed like an eternity the murmuring stopped and I heard a door click shut. I locked my door then and tucked the notebook under my pillow with my cell phone.


Every bed I’d ever slept in before that night had been a couch, a cot, or a twin bed, so I woke up around 3:00 a.m. disoriented by the wasteland of mattress on either side of me. This time when sleep wouldn’t come I got up and opened the curtains. In my microscopic studio in glamorous Bushwick, Brooklyn, I had a view of an airshaft, its sooty brick opposite so close I could lean out and touch it if I were crazy enough to try. Now I had Los Angeles, serene and twinkling, shot here and there with parti-colored neon signs and snaking lines of red that were taillights of cars crawling home from places exciting enough to make staying up past three in the morning seem worth it.

I sat on that love seat for what seemed like forever, just looking, the way those old immigrant ladies in the City with black babushkas and hairy moles on their stevedore arms put pillows on their windowsills and park themselves all day to take in everything streaming along the sidewalks of their new world. From that high up, language or the lack of it didn’t matter much. The swirling currents of people were way better than anything on TV. Even on cable. Except, possibly, the Armenian Channel.

Which made me wonder then if my hotel-ish room came with television. I got up and checked the cabinets. Empty. So I crawled in bed with my cell phone and typed in Fred Astaire Broadway Melody 1940. Fred’s jaunty artistry didn’t translate to a playing-card-sized screen. I remembered that later, when Frank introduced me to Sunset Boulevard, starring Whitley Heights resident Gloria Swanson as washed-up silent film star Norma Desmond. “I’m still big,” she said. “It’s the pictures that got small.”


I opened my bedroom door the next morning at six and smothered a little shriek. Frank was on the floor in the hallway, staring at his hands. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Did I wake you?”

“No, you just surprised me. I didn’t think anybody else would be up. I’m still on East Coast time. Have you been out here long?”

“About an hour.”

“Where’s your mom?”

“Asleep. Your door was locked.”

“You tried to come into my bedroom?”

“I knocked first. You didn’t answer. I got worried.”


“The raccoons around here big enough to scramble over a ten-foot wall are notoriously acquisitive and sometimes rabid. Also, there are coyotes. Dangerous to pets and snack-sized people.”

“I’m from the Midwest,” I said. “Nobody from the Midwest is snack-sized.”

“There are people out there, too,” he said. “Fanatics. One of them climbed the wall to get at my mother before I was born. Which explains its crown of razor-wire thorns.”

“These fanatics,” I said. “Are you talking about your mother’s fans?”

Fan is a derivation of the word fanatic,” Frank said. “An overzealous follower of a person or thing. She has millions. Maybe billions. My mother says she doesn’t like to drive because the fanatics used to rush the car every time she pulled out of the driveway. There aren’t as many now, but that doesn’t seem to provide her the comfort you would expect.”

“I don’t think your mother’s fans would hurt her,” I said. “They probably just want to talk, or get her autograph.”

That didn’t seem to provide him much comfort, either. Frank was wearing a straw boater tipped onto the back of his head, and two pieces of his hair had fallen forward on either side of his part, forming a parenthesis around a forehead gone rumpled with concern. An expression, I realized later, he’d borrowed from the tool kit of Jimmy Stewart, circa It’s a Wonderful Life. I could see his cuff links today were little green and silver shamrocks. The pants of his blue and white seersucker suit, also rumpled, were hiked up so that his yellow and blue argyle socks showed. A navy bow tie with white polka dots dangled untied from his buttoned shirt collar. He looked like he’d been up all night, either policing the perimeter with his yellow bat or hanging off the back of a streetcar with Judy Garland, singing.

“I was probably sleeping,” I said. “I understand your concern. But no walking into my room uninvited. Ever. Got it?”

At the private school where I’d taught third grade math after being kicked upstairs from kindergarten when the pretty teacher who’d preceded me ran off with the father of one of her students, I could never get over how many of the children I’d been put in charge of had never had anybody say no to them. One girl used to walk up to my desk during class to go into my purse looking for cough drops. At the age of eight some of them were cheating off other kids’ papers with a sense of entitlement that took my breath away. I could imagine any number of them ending up in the slam. A nice white- collar joint where, after getting over their surprise at being not only caught but also punished for stock fraud or fudging their income taxes, they’d recast the whole jailbird experience as time well spent polishing their racquetball game and networking. I hadn’t been the least bit surprised to learn that the investment adviser who’d rooked Mimi had a grandchild at that school.

I’m just saying, you have to set boundaries with these privileged kids or all is lost.

“Yes, ma’am,” Frank said. He sat up straight and tied his bow tie with impressive quickness and precision. Frank’s eyes couldn’t quite scale the heights to my face so they’d come to roost on my kneecaps. He looked at his hands again and cut his eyes to my nostrils for the briefest of moments before finishing his sentence with “Alice.” I noticed then that he’d written my name on his left hand, spelled Alis. He saw me looking and slipped that hand into his pocket. “As family archivist, I have brought this album of photographs for you to look at,” he said. I hadn’t noticed it propped against the wall, one of those old-fashioned leather-bound volumes that must have weighed twenty pounds.

“I’d love to see that,” I said. “How did you know I’d want to?”

“I have uncanny intuition unencumbered by the editorial reflex,” he said. “I heard Dr. Abrams explain it that way to my mother when I pressed my ear to the door during one of their marathon discussions. My mother’s response was, ‘Where I come from we call that tactless.’ Can you tell me what she meant by that? I have tacks. Quite a nice collection, in many colors. I understand that thumbtacks have fallen out of favor since the invention of the Post-it note, but my mother knows I am still a fan. When I asked her why she said I was tackless, all she did was sigh. Can you explain that to me?”

“I can try,” I said. “The kind of tacks you have are spelled t-a-c-k-s. What your mother was talking about is spelled t-a-c-t.

When I paused to think about the most diplomatic way to proceed, Frank said, “Oh. It was a case of homonym confusion. I see. Well, do you want to look at these photographs or not?”

“I do,” I said, glad to be off the hook. “Very much.” Next chapter


He patted the floor beside himself. “Can I offer you a seat?”

I slid down the wall to sit next to Frank and he laid the album across our knees, opening it to a crumbling newspaper clipping showing Elvis Presley being kissed by a beautiful young woman in a swimsuit and a tiara.

“You like Elvis?” I asked.

Frank shrugged. “I don’t know much about Elvis, other than that his middle name was Aaron and he had a stillborn twin named Jesse Garon and he drove a truck for Crown Electric Company in Memphis before he cut his first record, a single called ‘That’s All Right.’ ” His voice had just enough tincture of Mimi’s Alabama in it to make him pronounce Memphis as Mimphis. He tapped the woman in the photo. “I do know something about this lady, though. She’s my mother’s mother.”

“She’s your grandmother?”


“Let me see.” I leaned closer and read the caption aloud. “ ‘Crawfish Carnival Queen and Ole Miss student Banning Marie Allen welcomes Elvis.’ Wow.” Banning. I couldn’t decide whether I was more surprised to find out that Mimi’s mother was a beauty queen, or that a beauty queen was the source of Mimi’s pen name.

Frank’s grandmother may not have looked like his mother but there was a lot of her in Frank. “Do you see her much?” I asked.

“Not when I’m awake. She died in a car wreck when my mother was pretty young. Not a kid still, but not old like you."

“That’s terrible,” I said. I almost said, I can’t imagine, but of course I could. “So, how old do you think I am, anyway?”

“I don’t know. Old enough to know better?”

I laughed. “Indeedy,”

“You must be twenty-five then,” Frank said.

“Close. Twenty-four. How did you know?”

“Dr. Abrams says that’s when the prefrontal cortex usually finishes developing. That’s the part of your brain that controls impulsivity. According to her forecast, by the time I’m twenty-five I’ll be old enough to know better. If we’re lucky. It might happen later, when I’m thirty. Or never. Some people’s prefrontal cortexes mature earlier than others. Women’s, mostly. Debbie Reynolds was a teenager when she made Singin’ in the Rain, for example. Look at this.” Frank stopped flipping pages to show me a photo of a gray horse. “That’s Zephyr. He belonged to Uncle Julian. My grandmother said that while there was breath in her body Julian would never get behind the wheel of a car, so she got Zephyr to take him everywhere he needed to go. I wish I had a horse. Horses were native to the North American continent until the last Ice Age. The Spanish conquistadors reintroduced them and the Native Americans were glad. Until they got to know the downside of horses.”

“What’s the downside of horses?”

“The Spanish conquistadors.”

“That’s funny,” I said.

“What’s funny?”

“What you just said.”


“I thought you were going to tell me something else about horses. I didn’t see ‘the Spanish conquistadors’ coming.”

“Neither did the Native Americans.”

“Good point. Hey, want to hear a joke my boss in New York told me about a horse?”


“A horse walks into a bar and the bartender says, ‘Hey, buddy, why the long face?’ ”

When I didn’t elaborate, Frank said, “Then what?”

“Then nothing. That’s the whole joke. ‘Hey, buddy, why the long face?’”

“I don’t understand.”

“Horses have long faces.” I motioned with my hands to stretch my own face to a horsier length that ended someplace around my belly button. “Get it?”

“No,” Frank said. “If I had a horse, I would name him Tony.”

So much for jokes. “Tony?” I asked politely.

“Cowboy star Tom Mix’s horse was named Tony. His hoofprints are in the cement outside Mann’s Chinese Theatre. My grandparents fenced their yard and turned the garage into a stable for Uncle Julian’s horse. Then my grandmother wrecked her car into said fence. She was going fast and wasn’t wearing a safety belt so she went through the windshield and died. Zephyr ran away through the broken place in the fence. They found him the next day standing in somebody’s peony bed all the way across town.” Frank turned another page. “Since he was in a bed I imagine Zephyr asleep and wearing a flannel nightcap. Horses sleep standing up, did you know that? This is my uncle Julian.” He pointed to a photo of a young man in a pair of embroidered jeans and a bead necklace, no shirt, a cigarette tucked behind his ear, sitting on a fence I suspected of being said fence. He had a tooled leather bag strapped across his muscular chest and long blond hair with sideburns like people wore during the Summer of Love, plus an incandescently beautiful face a lot like Frank’s grandmother’s, circa Elvis.

“Wow,” I said. “He’s a handsome guy.”

“Was. He’s dead, too.”

“What happened to him?”

“He fell out of a window when he was visiting my mother at college.”

“Oh,” I said. Ohhh. “How?”

Shrug. “I don’t know. He got kicked out of the college he was going to for making all Fs. He was probably so busy thinking about how he’d tell his mother that he didn’t notice the floor had ended. In my head it plays out kind of like Wile E. Coyote stepping off a cliff he hadn’t seen coming. Do you want to see a picture of my mother’s father? He’s dead, too, just so you know.”

He showed me a picture of a distinguished-looking young man in a military uniform. “My grandfather was a doctor, also named Frank. Which is a nickname for Francis. My mother named me after my grandfather and my uncle because she says she has always had a hard time coming up with names. Dr. Frank volunteered as a field surgeon in World War I before the United States entered that war, then known as the Great War. Because nobody could foresee the Second World War coming yet, although given the enormous reparations the world community forced on Germany after it lost the first war and the resentment that financial burden engendered, the world community should have known.”

“What happened to Dr. Frank?”

“Cerebral hemorrhage. In layman’s parlance, his head exploded. My mom’s whole family died within a year or so of each other, but her father lived the longest. He was born in 1894 and died in 1976. It was a first-in, last-out kind of a thing.”

“In 1894, huh?” I said. “He’d be one hundred and fifteen years old if he were alive.”

“He’s probably glad he isn’t, though I wish he were. I suspect we’d have a lot in common.” Frank paged past a series of black-and-white photos: Mimi’s mother, in a two-piece bathing suit that looked like bulletproof underwear, a kerchief on her hair and red lipstick that showed black in the photo. Dr. Frank smiling at his wife as he settled his tuxedo jacket around her shoulders at their wedding, his young bride staring straight into the camera and grinning. Alongside that, another yellowed newspaper clipping, no picture, with the headline “Banning Marie Allen weds Julian Francis Gillespie” and a first line that read, “Under an antique veil of nest illusion—”

Before I could read any further, Frank turned the page.

After that, toddler versions of Julian and Mimi with chocolate-smeared faces, holding hands and squinting across a battlefield of ruined birthday cake. Preteen Julian and Mimi in a photo Christmas card, sitting back to back on the horse, Mimi facing the mane and Julian the tail, all three wearing Santa hats. Printed across it the line “We don’t know if we’re going or coming this Christmas!”

The color shots hadn’t aged as well. A Polaroid of Julian in his pitcher’s uniform on the mound, hair and face faded to a pale green. A prom portrait of him in a sky-blue tuxedo, face and hair yellowed out, a necktie knotted around his head like a kamikaze pilot’s, his arm around an empty space where his date should have been. Mimi at what must have been her high school graduation, dressed in a shiny black gown and mortarboard and looking worried.

Frank closed the album and put it on the ground beside him. “The end,” he said. “Everybody in these pictures is dead except for my mother.”

“Well,” I said, “who’s hungry?” But what I was thinking was, What about your daddy? Where’s his picture? Is his photograph not in there because he’s not dead yet?

The kid was right about having uncanny intuition because just then he said, “My mom has pictures of my dad somewhere, but she says he doesn’t belong to our family so they don’t go in this album.”

“Because your dad’s not—” I couldn’t figure out a tactful way to finish that sentence.

“Dead? I don’t think so. Maybe. I’ve never met him.”

“Have you seen the pictures?” I asked.

“Yes. But we keep our photos put away because otherwise they make my mother feel too sad. We don’t talk about him, anyway.” Frank picked up the album and tucked it under his arm. “I know how to make waffles. I’m very good at not spilling the batter.”

“I love waffles.”

He offered me a hand up. I knew I was allowed to accept it because he’d offered his hand to me, as stated in the Second Rule of Frank. “Of course you love waffles,” he said as he hauled me up. “You aren’t crazy.”

“How do you know that?” I asked as I followed him down the hall to the kitchen.

“The kids at school say I’m crazy and you don’t remind me much of me. Also, I just know things. For example, Thomas Jefferson had a waffle iron he bought in France.”

“You’re lucky. When I want to know something, I have to look it up. You’ve got so much stuffed in your cranium, Frank, I don’t know how you remember anything.”

“My mother says my brain is so full of facts that there’s no room for nuance. Our waffle iron is from China. We ordered it from a catalog called Williams-Sonoma. There was a sale for very special customers.” He dragged a stool to the counter, climbed onto it, and stood on his toes, straining to reach the waffle iron, still in its somewhat-battered original box, stored on the top shelf.

“Here,” I said. “Let me get that down for you.”

Everything happened fast after that. Frank shrieked, “NO NO NO NO NO NO NO,” swatted the box and sent it flying toward me. I covered my face with my arms and ducked. The box crash-landed someplace behind me and I lowered my arms and looked over my shoulder to see where. When I turned back, Frank was laid out on the linoleum like a corpse on a mortician’s slab, his eyes closed and hands bunched into fists. His straw boater rolled toward me in slow motion like a freed hubcap in the aftermath of a car crash.

“Frank?” I asked. “Are you all right?”

Mimi bounded into the kitchen in her nightgown then, one side of her face still creased by her pillow and her hair in two messy braids. She picked up his boater, stepped over the waffle iron box and knelt beside Frank. “Did he bang his head?” she asked.

“Bang his head? I don’t think so. I don’t know what happened. Does Frank have some kind of seizure disorder?”

“No, Frank does not have some kind of seizure disorder. For god’s sake. You’ve upset him somehow. Obviously.”

“But I didn’t do anything,” I said.

“She,” Frank said, eyes sealed, elevating an undead fist and switch- blading its index finger free to point in my direction, “wanted to touch my waffle iron.”

“I offered to help him get it down, that’s all,” I protested.

“No touching Frank’s things. I told you that.” Mimi picked her son up, set him on his feet, and put his hat on his head again. “There we go. Are you okay, Monkey?”

“I might be someday,” he said. “According to Dr. Abrams.”

When Mimi turned her attention to me I understood how a rabbit must feel when the headlights hit him, just before the car does. “We don’t have a lot of rules around here, Penny,” she said to me. “If you don’t think you can follow the ones we do have, you might as well leave now.”

“Alice,” I said. “My name is Alice.”

But she was halfway down the hall already. After I heard her door slam, I put my freezing hands to my hot cheeks. Don’t let her scare you off, Alice.

Frank, meanwhile, had freed the waffle iron from its box and bubble wrap, plugged it in and opened the refrigerator. “I love chocolate chips in my waffles,” he said with all the ardor of the voice on a telephone answering tree. He took out a carton of eggs and promptly dropped it. Then picked up the carton, checked inside, and said, “Good. None broke this time. Well, well, well. I guess today is our lucky day.”