Franco had more than enough cynicism to accept failure. He just didn’t expect it to happen already by May.
Rich boy. It only offended him when he realized that art born out of struggle sold well. Sure, he had non-economic struggles, but they never made it into his art. Someone would take it, but a small gallery kicked him out. Perhaps he was pink and Mediterranean and questioning his sexuality, but his art didn’t say that. He might as well have been another stuffy oil painter, painting fruits bowls and glassware.
And he had to bear all the traffic on the way to Pearlbrook for nothing.
What else was left? Just because he could paint didn’t mean that Franco was cut out to be a painter. But his talents were so limited otherwise. He was a middling student at best with everything but art. Painting and drawing were all he studied in college. And he hadn’t touched his sewing machine in years.
Oh, going back to dressmaking? He only did that to net brownie points with adults!
It was something to discuss that summer, anyways. He could have a circle with Amy and Annette and get a “one year evaluation”. It was hard to believe he wasted that much time.
There was a big problem at home: everyone else was having fun. It got sweltering by May in Twinbrook, and everyone headed to the pool. Or in Amy’s case, the hot tub, to soothe a sore shoulder. Franco had swim trunks and enough confidence to go shirtless in his own yard. But he always watched with disgust.
It was yet another one of those afternoons. Everyone else enjoyed the water or the near-summer sun. Annette wasn’t there, but Franco saw her in a bikini top earlier that day. Maybe she was holding out for a night swim, while Franco couldn’t allow himself that kind of fun.
All that comforted him was the plate of grilled salmon. Mum made him cook it while she “stepped out”. It was strange, because fish was a rare treat from her. During the years she was married to Sinbad, she didn’t cook it at all. But maybe it was a sign of love and trust for her son, giving him free reign over the annual salmon steaks. He feared and fretted over them, handling each piece carefully in its foil. Fish loved to fall apart. And the mango and ginger mixture could have been a crap choice.
But the plate smelled great. No one else wanted to rip themselves from the sticky Twinbrook heat to get a late lunch. That meant more for Franco!
He ate it on a bed of white rice. Not that he expected it, but Annette left her rice cooker on to keep a batch warm while she was away. She gained that habit with Seng, as he was a creature of habit. It wasn’t a meal if it didn’t have rice! And Franco saw a lot of merit in that. The warm, sticky rice absorbed the juices from the salmon and mangoes and it was heavenly.
The kitchen was quiet for a while, except for Sagebear’s nails against the floor. She must have been in the hallway, pacing around, and her nails needed a trim.
And then the front door opened.
“…you can just leave the cats there?”
“I…there are no cats.”
“Hmmm, I guess Shark’s gonna be one happy tortured soul again.”
Franco didn’t remember seeing them during his visit the week before. Hannah didn’t talk about it either. But he shouldn’t have been surprised. Rose and Meechum were old, old cats. The vet didn’t want to treat the tumor on Meech’s belly because he was so old. Comfort came before survival for both of them. And if one of them walked over the Rainbow Bridge, the other would be loyal enough to follow. Like their old master did nearly nine years before.
“…look, I’m gonna need a car now. I hate to ask, and I’ve barely driven in years, but-”
“You strike me as a Prius driver.”
“Yeah, I probably would be.”
She would be the last adult in the house to get their own car. Though Franco thought, why would Hannah need one that year? She had another year of college left, and parking in Bridgeport cost about as much as tuition.
“And hey! It looks we have just the boy you wanted to see,” said Annette. She still had her bikini top and swim shorts on, meaning that she beamed herself to Bridgeport in nothing but that. How…Annette of her. But he had seen his mum in that and much less before, so it didn’t surprise him. Franco almost didn’t recognize the Hannah in front of him, though.
Sure, he remembered her rolled-up jeans and floral tank top. She owned those since high school. But she grew out her long, silky dark hair ever since she was a child. Last week, she still had it. In the interim, Hannah cut her hair. She cut it short, into a shaggy pixie cut.
It was weird. He would have expected Hannah to one day have cut her flowing locks, but not right after she turned 21. That was the sort of cut reserved for if she married Franco, turned 35, and decided that long hair wasn’t right for a mother of two. But two of those would never happen. A lot of things Franco thought were certain changed.
She gave him a weak wave. “Lunch smells good,” Hannah said. “Your mum said you made it.”
“I tried,” he said. “There’s plenty here and rice too…if you actually eat lunch.”
“Yeah…I’m gonna say hi to the kids. It’s been a while.”
Franco left his half-eaten meal on the counter, and followed her outside. Already, he could see Samira lifting herself out of the pool to greet Hannah.
She ran into Hannah’s outstretched arms for a hug, which Hannah gave. Even if Samira was dripping-wet and she wasn’t.
“Awww, I missed our Sam,” said Hannah. “I thought your big brother would take you out to the city.”
“Well, he said it’d just be weird if I did,” Samira said. “When are you goin’ back? I can run away with you!”
“Uh…that’s kind of a weird story. But I’m gonna be staying here for a while, so we might just have to stick with our capital. I might even get a job there, and I can sneak you in!”
“You haven’t graduated!”
Even from the deck, Franco could see Hannah’s cheek flush as she fished for a non-pathetic answer. And he listened. It was all new to him too.
“Some people just aren’t cut out to finish college,” said Hannah. “I thought about this long and hard, and I decided to try and do without…for now. You can do whatever you want with your schooling too. I’ve already learned a lot about working in a studio, so…we’ll see where that leads me.”
“Are you and Franco gonna get back together now?” Samira asked. Her tone was innocent enough. “He really misses you when he’s here. And where are your cats?”
“Sorry Sam. All of that’s kind of…dead.”
Like a heroine, Sagebear nudged the door open with her wet nose, leaving a mark on the glass. Instead of heading to clean it up, Franco approached his one lifelong companion. If one thing was certain, it was that the family would have a Sagebear for a long, long time.
“Hey there doggie! How about we go for a walk? Walkies with your big brother Franco?”
The hound looked up at him with her blue eyes. She didn’t approve of his tone. Her tail stayed still. Her nose turned towards that plate of salmon again.
“I’ll…I’ll get the leash,” he said. And Sagebear was okay with following that.
Franco always let her lead the way. He didn’t have much of a goal other than to move, while a dog like Sagebear had a whole world to sniff out. There were cookouts and roadkill and poop to investigate. And Franco couldn’t bear to upset her when she found an interesting pile of poop.
It didn’t take long for her nose to lead her down the street. Not in the direction of the bridge, but the other one. Franco could wave to the Racket mansion and Lolly trimming the hedges. He could scoff at the old Carlton place, which Hannah still had to clean up and sell. He could mull over all the empty houses on that street. The old Knack and Wolfe mansions were empty ever since they were free of Knacks and Wolfes. And the Pidgin mansion up on the hill had rumors of being haunted.
She instead pulled on the leash to lead Franco away from the houses, and across a different bridge. It was the rickety wooden one that lead to the sports stadium. And the old Racket Brothers’ Shipping Warehouse. And the old Cooper Gentleman’s Club. That dog wanted to take him a walk of family shame! Or she just wanted to chase a squirrel, which she did. She barked it up a tree and could almost climb it. The stories said she could climb trees as a young Catahoula, but age robbed her of a lot of agility.
He noticed the gentleman’s club, while Sagebear was following the scent of a fast food wrapper on the side of the road. She whined after it was empty and she couldn’t get the last bite of a McChicken. Sagebear pointed her snout towards the building too. Franco was disappointed in his family as a whole, but something about that terrible building always intrigued him as well.
Maybe he just had too many decent memories of it.
“Alright, you wanna go in there again?” Franco asked. “You know bad things happen to you when you do.” He couldn’t sleep for days after Sagebear attacked that club owner and was then near-fatally shot. But then again, the place was empty. Or at least he hoped!
She tugged on the leash until he followed.
Nothing at all changed in seven years. The dim lights still turned on when Franco walked in. The fake plants in the corner had a thick layer of dust. It still smelled like gas and booze and cum, if maybe fainter.
But yet, it was also a much different place without Hannah there with him.
Sagebear sniffed around and growled under her breath. She barked into the empty room and roused no one.
“You’re safe now,” said Franco. “I’m a lot more capable than mum that way.”
She whimpered and licked Franco’s finger.
He took a seat at one of the bars and sighed. “What can I do now? We’re all failures…just because mum was in a bad place at this age doesn’t mean I should be. I’m nothing like her.” He flinched his hand away from an unknown stain on the counter. “At least grandpa made money here.”
Sagebear sat by his stool, thumping her thick tail on the ground.
“You really don’t want me to be like him, do you?” he asked the dog. “But I don’t know what you want from me.”
She started sniffing his pocket. Franco resigned. He took out the zip-locked bag of biscuits in there and gave her two.
He soon crouched down on the floor, keeping and arm around a panting Sagebear.
“You’re the one who brought me here,” Franco said. “So what are you trying to tell me? It’s go bad or bust? I was supposed to be better than that!”
“I was supposed to be better.”
He almost cried, especially as the front door opened. Someone must have come to put Franco out of his misery, or try to sell an escort to him. Whoever it was, Sagebear wriggled free and ran towards them.
“Whatever it is, I know this place is bad. We deserve it,” Franco said, half-weeping.
“Relax.” It was Seng’s voice, loosened up as usual by a pint of red ale. “Annette just wanted me to find the dog.”
“Well, you can take her. All she’s done today is confuse me.” Franco shook his head. “I sometimes don’t get her.”
“Me neither. I have a lot of questions about her…but she’s so damn cute when I dress her in my old Brewers jersey. I can’t bring that to national concern.”
“Yeah…so can you just take her and leave? I’ll find my own way home,” said Franco. “You’re missing out on rice and fish, or screwing my mum, or…whatever you do these days.”
“Eh, I get a lot of your mum. I thought I’d be so sick of you after you made me some weird prisoner, but ya know, I miss you a lot.” Seng took in a deep breath of the musty air. “And I never get time alone with you now!”
“Good. I wanna keep it that way.”
“We’ll see if you can…so I guess this is the place Annette told me about.”
“She did, didn’t she?”
“I brought up stripping and…uh…it’s pretty bad no matter who’s dancing,” said Seng. “I’m pretty lucky with just getting creeps and annoying bachelorette parties. But every story she had about this place, it all happened at Triangles. Though our manager was bitten by a man-”
“Why was I even lead here? I don’t want these stories.”
Seng broke the following moment of silence. “So, do you guys still own this place?”
“I think it’s just abandoned,” said Franco. “Why? You want to lawfully burn it down?”
“We can build it up again, just you and me!”
“I mean, it’s a building-”
“It’s a terrible building, that’s what!” Franco groaned as he looked around at all the drab masonry and wood. “You really want to bring some life back into a place of dusty bars and murdered prostitutes? You lived this and just want it again?”
“I was thinking something else,” Seng said. “It’s a good shell. We could just touch up the outside and overhaul the inside. Hear me out…”
“…There’s already a nice seating area, and those fake plants just need cleaning…”
“…It’s spacious and easy to modify…”
“…and your mother said something about office space downstairs. Guess who needs a place to meet clients? Maybe there’s a space for you to store all your sewing gear. Your room’s really cramped with it.”
Franco pouted at him. “Will this help…ease everything?”
“Uh, depends on everything,” said Seng.
“Fine. Between us. Because I feel like the stranger in the family. That should be you…or…neither of us. I don’t want you to suffer, but…”
“I’m doing fine! But we get to work together picking out wallpapers and new furniture and cleaning-”
“I’ll do it.”
Seng wrapped Franco in an unwanted hug. Franco’s arms just lay limp at his side. Sometimes, especially after the breakup, his mind would drift to thoughts about Seng’s slender torso. It was a gorgeous, classic v-shape. But he always shut those thoughts down. It was the lust his mum would indulge in, and that was the worst kind of lust.
“We’re not doing this,” Franco said, trying to shake Seng off. “It doesn’t matter what I am! I don’t want you. Especially not now.”
“But here’s the thing: I do.”
“Just because we made a mistake with you doesn’t mean you’re entitled to anything! We give you a house and food and that specialty mattress…you’re supposed to be better than this.”
Seng started pleading. “But I have to watch you miserable all the time. And don’t you want to have something in common again? Don’t you wanna go back to being best buddies in the city? We used to dick around the city and drink wine together! What happened to that?”
“Then drink wine and play games with my mum. Just…keep your hands off me! I’m not cut out for bi…this…lifestyle.” He backed away from Seng, afraid of giving into him.
“Look, we’re both miserable and unsuccessful and bored. Can we just do something together, then?” Seng asked. “I thought you’d be up for that after…everything.”
Franco shot him a sour look.
“Whatever. Let’s own offices…a bar…whatever.”
A/N: A doggly chapter for our dog queen! To distract you from how I keep forcing Franco into Bad Ships ™ and had to gracefully let Shark’s/Hannah’s cats go.
I had plans to cut Hannah’s hair after the breakup, but her pretty face is one of the hardest to flatter! She has a delicate jawline and a rather big forehead, though thankfully not the worst case of it yet (Harwood’s line has it the worst. You can land a plane on his forehead because his other features lay very low on the face). I was thinking shoulder-length instead of a pixie, but damn, she looks great with really short hair! Franco is so missing out… 😦