Monday, October 30, 2017

#248: "Who Owns This?" by Nathan Leslie

~This story appeared in Boulevard (2011).


There was this guy.  He called himself Franklin, though I found out later his real name was Charlie Smythe.  Well, Charlie (or whoever he was) liked the name Franklin.  Not Frank or Frankie.  Franklin.  He was proper that way.
            We both lived in the gated community, Meadow Haven.  I was working three nights a week at the Meadow Haven Club.  It was an upscale community pool—just for the residents of Meadow Haven.  The developers carved out a nine-hole golf course, a pool, a line of Jacuzzis, and faux-clay tennis courts.  The works.  Not that most of the Meadow Haven residents didn’t have their own means of entertainment (pools and Jacuzzis of their own), but I worked at the pool anyway.  If Meadow Haven residents wanted to be seen, they’d go to the pool.  That was the difference.  My job was to hand out towels (if needed) and make sure the residents signed their name and address in the assigned box.  I knew most of the regulars, so it was merely a formality.  I was good at being friendly, at smiling my clean-cut grin and validating the Meadow Haven ethos, or whatnot.  I’d get an occasional tip, a lawn-mowing gig.  It was generally relaxing.  There was nothing much to it.
            But back to Franklin.  Unlike most of the other regulars, Franklin always came to the pool unaccompanied.  Of course, our bread and butter were the housewives and their rug-rats.  Each afternoon Franklin would show up in his black Nylon jogging pants, his yellow or green t-shirt, and he always carried a twelve-ounce bottle of Deer Park water in his right hand—in between his finger and thumb as if it were a cigar.  He’d make a federal production:  unscrew the cap, take a small sip, lick his lips, lick his lips again, screw the cap back on dramatically with a flick of the wrist.  He liked being watched.  He liked attention. 
Franklin was a short man with a short man’s complex.  He had an Irish-looking face, with a pug nose and strawberry-blonde hair.  Franklin moved quickly, swinging his arms wildly, as if he were power-walking.  Overcompensation if you ask me.  He usually wore a rhomboid gold earring in each ear, pirate style.  When he took off his shirt I could see the weird, faded places where you could tell he had tattoos removed from his reddish skin.  But whoever removed the tattoos didn’t do such a hot job:  the ghost of his previous tattoos was still there.  When I knew him Franklin was maybe forty—the kind of guy who was not quite my father’s age, but certainly too old to be my brother or cousin.  But I was in college at the time, so my perspective of everything was skewed.
            So I was sitting at the desk reading an Elmore Leonard paperback propped on a stack of towels.  Franklin came up to me.  Most of the residents signed in, took a towel, said hello, and went for a swim.  I felt this guy standing there, watching me.  Just standing there.  Then I heard the smack, smack, smack of gum between his teeth.  His breath smelled like apricots.  Great, I thought, I have to look up from Rum Punch.
            “Hey, bub,” he said.  “Do you know who owns this?”
            I was dumbfounded.  The facial expression I screwed on probably shouted:  “That is a stupid question.”
            “Who owns this?  You do, really.”
            “Right,” he said, still chomping away on his apricot gum.  He crossed his arms as if to defend himself against the oncoming I-gotcha.  “But I still have to sign in.” 
            “You don’t literally own it,” I said.  “But the development owns the golf course, the pool, the Har-Tru tennis courts.  You know, your community association dues and membership fees help pay for maintenance.”  I don’t know why he didn’t see the big picture, but then I guess he wasn’t the first clueless rich guy in the world.
            “Well, I’ll be damned,” he said.  Franklin had an odd way of talking—some kind of aw-shucks 50’s amalgam, with a heavy dose of the new-agey that emerged as we became acquainted.  He was friendly, open-hearted; Franklin always was.  But there was something else there too.  Something.  I mean, “Bub?”  Who says that?  Franklin went on:  he just moved in and he figured he’d see if we needed a sculpture in our lobby.  “You have to have a sculpture,” he said.  He said it might add to the “authority” of the place, the overall “energy.”
            Now you have to understand, “lobby” is far too grand of a word to use to describe the area in which I sat—despite the dues and fees, which mostly covered salaries and upkeep of the facilities.  Aside from the desk, there was a scuffed miniature pool table with warped faux-cherry cues, an air hockey table, and a cheap, triangular, laminated coffee table—management used it for fliers and announcements and the like.  For penny-pinching reasons Meadow Haven didn’t give much thought to the lobby; residents complained it looked like the lobby of a public pool.  No room for a statue, unless it was a little desk-top paperweight do-dad.
            I shrugged, but Franklin kept pressing.  How the lobby needs a statue.  How every lobby should have a statue.  How a statue brings the “energies” of the room to focus.  How a statue makes a lobby feel homey, full.  Like I gave a rat’s ass.  I just wanted to be left to my own devices—to my on-the-job R&R.
            “I’ll have to ask Lynda,” I said.  I propped my head in my hand.  “She’s the manager.”  I let my gaze drift back down to Rum Punch, hoping he’d get the hint.
            “Great, thanks a mil, bub,” Franklin said.  “If you’d do that for me I’d really appreciate it.  And if you want a statue of your own, let me know, will ya?  I mean, I’ll sell you one lickety-split, on discount.”  He made clicking sound with his tongue and pointed at me as if we shared some inside joke.  We didn’t. 
            “Okay,” I said.
            “Just remember:  I’m a sculptor.  I sculpt.  This is my life-force.  Help support your local artist.  We are part and parcel.”  Of what, I thought.  I just didn’t get his whole thing.
            He smacked his gum and signed in, grabbed a towel, glanced at the name.  Even carrying a towel, Franklin somehow managed to swing his arms. 
            “I’ll ask Lynda,” I reiterated, trying to avoid his eyes.  The guy weirded me out from the word go.  I guess there are worse things; he was memorable. 
            Then I let Franklin dissolve into the background.  Went back to my Rum Punch.


            The next time Franklin came in—Wednesday—same thing.
            “Hey, bub,” then into his sculpture fixation.  Fine, I thought.  Now I’ll really ask Lynda.  I was hoping to save us all a heap-load of embarrassment, but Franklin had to keep pushing.  So, fine.  Embarrassment.  Rejection.  Looking at the guy, I was sure he was used to it.  But still.  Since he lived in Meadow Haven, I guessed he could use a reminder that he didn’t own the country.  We all could.  Returning back from college, I resented the cloistered feel of Meadow Haven.  All that us and them.  Inside/outside.  Me and mine.  Sometimes the air seemed too thin.
            When I brought Lynda out, Franklin was spreading photographs of his sculptures all over the mini-pool table and air hockey table.  Each table featured a donut of photographs and each image featured a rotting log, or at least that’s what it looked like to me.  He even whipped out a digital camera to show Lynda more.  Lynda had just stepped out of the Jacuzzi (she let her staff do the work).  Her amber skin seemed to pulse and radiate, as if she had just swallowed a candle.  She was in a good mood, for her.
            Well, long story short:  Lynda didn’t go for the rotting log sculptures.
            “Let me tell ya, it’s not really an artsy fartsy place,” she said.  “I have to be honest, this is just where people go to swim.  We don’t have a lot of foot traffic lingering in the lobby, clogging up the flow.”  She told him to try Berkeley Springs, something like that.  Find your market.  Franklin insisted though—kept saying he was a resident, that the public spaces in Meadow Haven should support his work; he groused about the lack of public funds for art.  For his art.  Who was going to support his work?  Who was going to pay attention to his “dynamism”?  Like this.  Lynda reached into her palm, cocked her head from one side to the other and inserted a dangly garnet earring.  Then the other side.  A power play.
            Lynda was unmoved.  Without saying a word she flipped through the photographs—each one.  She wasn’t dismissive.  She said she “liked this one,” and that “that one is really nice.”  Then she put it to Franklin, point blank:  “Let me tell ya, it’s just not my style,” she said.  “I have to be honest.”  Lynda had her ways.
            “‘Not my style’?  You liked a few of those didn’t you?”
            “Yeah, that’s right.  But these are just not my cup of tea.  You know?  How else should I put it to you?” 
            Franklin stopped chewing his gum, and for a moment I thought it slipped down his gullet.  I watched Lynda.  She arched her eyebrows cruelly.  Franklin gathered his photos, slid them into a claret-hued, leather binder, and tucked his digital camera under his arm.  Started to walk off.  He dropped the act; his mask slipped off; he gave up.  Then Franklin looked over his shoulder, paused, pivoted, circled back, index finger jutting out.  He poked me in the chest twice, handed me another card.
            “Why don’t you call me?”
            I took this as a challenge, nodded.  “Okay,” I said.  He avoided my eyes.  I could tell he was hurt.  Then he sighed, dropped his shoulders.  He swung his arms out the door.
            Lynda snorted, shook her head.  “Unbelievable,” she said.  “The kooks that can afford to live here.”

            So I called him the next day at about one in the afternoon.  This was a Saturday.  Even though I found him annoying, I couldn’t help thinking there might be more to Franklin than met the eye.  I mean, he seemed like such a train wreck I wanted to know more.  Curiosity.  My remaining high school friends were away for the summer.  I was living at home with my parents, again.  I didn’t have a girlfriend that summer, or any prospects of one.  I didn’t have much of a life at all, actually, and the last thing I wanted to do was intensely study a bunch of dreary chemistry and anatomy and pre-med textbooks (I was focused career-wise, but fairly uninspired in my field of study).  But I think the real reason I was interested in Franklin was this:  I wanted a story to bring back with me.  In retrospect, I think I wanted some kind of anecdote to top the ones I’d hear regarding Greece and The Great Wall of China and Machu Pichu from my college friends. 
            The phone rang about four or five times before he finally picked up.  His voice was slow and slurry.  I thought he must be drunk or high.  So I asked.
            “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no,” he said.  “I do not ingest toxins into my system.”  Franklin smacked his lips.  He talked about his daily habits.  He was just getting himself organized.  He said he wasn’t as disciplined as he should be.  “I’m a lazy piece of shit,” he grumbled.
            This caught my attention.  Lazy pieces of shit don’t try to hock their art in swimming pool lobbies, I thought.  Lazy pieces of shit don’t even try.  But what did I know?  I was just getting to know the guy.
            “Do you need help?  I mean, you asked me to call you.”  This seemed to be the most direct approach.
            Long pause, followed by heavy sighing, then the sound of water running.
            “Yeah,” he said.  “I could use a hand.  I guess that’s what I need.  A helper.”
            He gave me directions, told me to come on over.
            “Hey bub, bring some iced-coffee or something, wouldja?”
            When I got over there—iced cappuccino in hand (mom made it before she skedaddled to work)—he didn’t seem to be home at all.  All the curtains were drawn and when I knocked there wasn’t an answer.  I decided to walk around back.  Despite the fancy accoutrements, there were six basic Meadow Haven models (Franklin lived in the faux-Monticello; I lived in the faux-Cotswold Cottage), but they all featured multi-level decks in the back.  When I turned the corner, I saw Franklin squinting in a small shadowy rectangle of his otherwise sunny deck, hunched in a wobbly-looking plastic green chair.  He was wearing a sage robe with an elaborate fluted collar, which reminded me of an antiquated smoking jacket.  His yard backed to the woods—pine trees creaking in the wind.  Birds chirped.  The sun bolted through the branches.  It smelled nice, like some rustic mountain getaway.  All that orchestrated nature crap.
            We shook hands.  I told him my name.  I noticed his pool was covered, even though this was late June.  I asked him about it but Franklin said he only used his pool for special occasions.  He said he only used it once since he moved in—when his only real family, an uncle from Kentucky, visited for the weekend. 
We walked inside.  He pulled open the curtains in the living room and I watched the dust motes spray out over the white carpet.  I thought of paramecium in a Petri-dish.  Even in the summer my thoughts of a life of medicine were never that far off.
            “Jake, huh?  Jake the snake.”  He clucked his tongue, and smiled to himself.
            “My father was Newton Smythe,” he said.  I’d never heard of the dude.  Franklin read my blank eyes, crossed his arms.  Sighed.  Exhaled.  “He was an inventor mostly known for seafaring inventions—technical instruments on ships and the like.  But also invented some well-known toys.  Ever heard of the Frobble?”
            “No,” I said.
            “It was big in the 70’s.  Early 70’s.  How about Brain Drain?”  He chopped the air with his hand.
            “No,” I said.
            “Also big in the 70’s.  You might call it a proto-videogame.  Without the video.  But it had the vibe of a videogame.  Both of those made him a hefty sum.  My father was a real Renaissance Man.  Taught me everything I know, in a sense.”  Franklin was an only child, an island unto himself.  He was easily traumatized.  He was earnest as they come.
            “I believe you,” I said.
            “In all he made millions.  Then he died at the age of forty-five.  It was a freak accident, just one of those things.  I was sixteen.  My mother died three years later.  She just wasn’t the same after he died, bub.”  Franklin bobbed his head and watched the pine boughs out the window.  It was a lonely vision.
            There wasn’t a whole lot to say to this.  I’ve never been good at handling tragedy.  I mean, even in high school when my best friend asked me to come to the funeral service he held for his dog, I lied that I had an ear infection. 
            “Anyway, that’s how I came to live here,” he said, slurping on the iced-cappuccino.  He winced.  “I pretty much fled from my past.  No more Charlie.  No more Chicago.  Had to start over.  Still, I’d trade my entire trust fund for another year with my parents.”  I gave him his space.  I looked off at the sink, at the stove.
Thanks for the caffeine fix.  You want some water or something?”
            We walked into his kitchen.  The house was immaculate, unused.  Every surface in the house glowed and shined.  I could see my reflection in the counter.  He told me later he had a maid come twice a week, but I never saw them.  Franklin jerked the gleaming refrigerator open.  The entire appliance was filled with hundreds of small plastic Deer Park water bottles.  He handed me one.  I held it, feeling the cold plastic against my palm.
            “Wow,” I said.  “That’s a lot of water you got there.”
            “You have to hydrate.  We are ninety percent water after all.  Yeah, I’m not much of a chef,” he said.  “Never really took to food, bub.”  He bee-lined me down the hall toward the garage.  I guzzled the water, tucked the bottle cap in my pocket. 
            “Why’s that?”
            “My mother was always making me eat all kinds of food I hated.  It was terrible.  Especially after dad died.  So I have a lot of issues around food, I guess.  I pretty much wouldn’t eat if I didn’t absolutely have to.  I’d rather just pop an energy pill or something.  Who wants to do all that work chewing?”  I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a contributing factor toward his height, or lack thereof.
            Franklin opened the door and hit the lights.  In the florescence I noticed the mat of Franklin’s chest hair beneath the triangle of plush, sage cloth.  It struck me as obscene in some way. 
In the garage piles of wood moldered in heaps on the floor.  One large pile sat in the corner and other logs were arranged on the floor on plastic sheeting here and there.  On the far wall were two shelving units holding various tools—saws, axes, hatchets, awls—and other log-sculpture instruments.  This was about how I imagined it.
            “This is my zone of creation, my inspiration bubble,” Franklin said.  He opened his arms in a gesture that struck me as something a ringmaster would do.  “She’s something, isn’t she?”  Franklin is an overgrown child, I thought.
            “Sure,” I said.  “Cool.”  Looking into the large pile, I could see termites and worms and centipedes racing in and out of the bark on the rotting logs. 
            So Franklin gave me a tour of his works-in-progress:  there was a rotting circular log covered with bark shavings, which Franklin called “Pasta Salad.”  There was a long rotting curved log, which Franklin called “Banana.”  There was a rotting log cut directly in half, which Franklin called “Bread.  But not all of his sculptures revolved around food—some expressed what he called “Idears.”  In his “gallery,” Franklin displayed a series of logs expressing the seven deadly sins ideals—sloth, pride, gluttony, envy, and so on.  He had another series in the works which conveyed the “emotional core” of each planet in the solar system.  Though Franklin would later instruct me on the subtle differences between each one, each log basically looked the same to me:  each sculpture consisted of a rotten log in some form of decay.  Some were a bit more rounded than others.  Some were formed of oak, or pine, or walnut, or cherry.  But they weren’t like any sculptures I’d seen; they didn’t look like anything in particular.  They were, I guess, abstractions, though Franklin preferred the word “thought-forms.”  That was pretty much it.
            I asked Franklin why he called the rotting logs “sculptures” if he didn’t do a thing to them.  This woke him up.
            “But I do a lot to them.  I do quite a lot.  Don’t you see?  It’s arrangement.  I highlight the inner beauty of each piece.  It takes quite a bit of work and concentration, and a conscious mapping-out of the concept and follow-through,” he said.  “Not to mention the fact that nature has to first prepare the material for its ultimate creation.  I must caress the God-stuff out of the decomposition.  The spirit is all.”
            Franklin suddenly closed his eyes and touched the tips of his fingers to his temple and told me his pressure points felt very “aware.”  He needed more water, he said.  He was only on bottle number seven.  “I need to pick up the pace,” he said.  “Hydrate, hydrate.  I need to find my liquid center.”  Franklin told me he drinks fourteen bottles of water a day.
            Franklin patted his chest, his face, his stomach, his legs.  “Who owns this?  You tell me that.  If it’s not me, who does?”
                                                           
            So Franklin asked me to come by once a week to keep him company, to help him straighten up.  Mostly, he wanted my presence to get him out of his head.  “Sometimes I hate being myself,” he said.  “It’s an awful burden, bub.  The burden of art, the pressure of inspiration.”
            Franklin would have me take out the trash, arrange his tools, take care of bills, and occasionally return phone calls.  Pretty much whatever he needed.  It was basically an unpaid “internship.”  I didn’t mind.  I planned on including it on my resume, and later I did.
            When I got there each morning at nine, Franklin would still be asleep.  Part of my job was to make coffee.  Sometimes I’d ice it.  Sometimes he wanted it hot.  While I waited for him to wake up, I’d read the paper, watch television.  Then Franklin would come downstairs at about ten thirty.  He never ate; I never did see Franklin eat.  He’d drink four cups of coffee straight, then chug three bottles of water.  He’d take a litany of vitamins—A through E, Miracle 2000, Natrol Coenzyme Q-10, Solgar Zinc Picolinate, Omega 3 Fish, Solaray Cranactin.  Then he’d pop the supplements:  Saw Palmetto, Stevia, Yohimbe, Ginkgo, Ginseng, Kava Kava, Horny Goat Weed, Black Cohosh, Bilberry.  He’d down twenty or twenty five of the suckers in three minutes.  To top it off Franklin would take frequent pee breaks, lathering himself with various aromatic body treatments—Shea Butter, Anti-Stress Soul Soother, Winter Wonder Balm, Chakra-Astro Body, Body Tone Synergy.  If a sheep pasture invaded a mall perfume shop, that would pretty much encapsulate Franklin’s odor.  In the corner of each room Franklin had an Ionic Breeze air purifier nestled away silently doing its thing. 
            Franklin would chatter throughout his artistic process:  he’d talk about marketing and promotion mostly—how artists have to get themselves “out there,” how they need to blog and e-mail and make fliers and exhibit coast to coast (he told me over and over about his six week, thirty four city “art tour”).  When he became bored of this, he’d tell me of his latest extra-sculptural work—his memoir-in-verse which he was in the process self-publishing, his self-produced cd of “speculative bluegrass.”  I asked to see his triptychs of the mythical chimera, his stained glass mirrors, but he kept it all hidden away.  He said it wasn’t “aged” yet.  I wondered if it they were made of cheese.
            “You have a lot of energy,” I said.  So much for the lazy-piece-of-shit argument, I thought—at least when he had his caffeine.  I didn’t dare call him on the contradiction.
            “I guess that’s true,” he said.  “I’m fated.  Well, we all are.”
            If he didn’t wear a robe, Franklin would walk around in his boxers.  Sometimes he wouldn’t wear a stitch.  He’d talk about how Michelangelo and Raphael, how the most powerful artists loved the nude form.  How they dissected bodies to fine-tune their understanding of muscle-structure, of how the body moves.
 “There’s nothing shameful in it.  It’s just us two guys,” he’d say.  “What’s the point of clothing?”  This got to me.  I was in the early stages of training to be a doctor, he told me.  I should revel in the human form.  I don’t know that I saw it that way.
I’d try not to distract him, but sometimes Franklin asked me questions.  It almost felt as if he was a gypsy fortune teller:  “Tell me about your mother.  Tell me about your father.  Have you ever been in love?  What do you dream about?”  Inevitably Franklin would return to the Jungian archetypes—Self, Shadow, Anima, Animus.  He would relay a symbolic interpretation of my life, detailing how I am controlled by the Great Mother, though I am lacking the Wise Old Man.  “You are not a Trickster, per se.  More of a Puer Aeternus, I’d say.”  I’d try not to roll my eyes, but inside they were rolling all over the place.  “Describe what you would do in a white room, if you could do anything or bring anything into it you want.”  I never knew what to say to this.
Especially after his coffee, Franklin was jittery and restless.  His hands would shake and his eyes would dart back and forth and his face would flush.  He’d click his head from side to side every five seconds, like a bird.  Then once he entered his garage studio, he couldn’t stick to one thing.  He’d play environmental cds (A Saharan Sunset, Arctic Spring, New Brunswick Fog, Morning Mists of the Blueridge), work on one log, then another, then change the cd five minutes later, then check his e-mail on his lap-top, then work on a third log, then another, then make a phone call, then drink more coffee, suck on an “energy inhaler,” check his e-mail again, and so on.  It was exhausting just watching him. 
Yet, it was somehow exhilarating as well.  It must have been.  Otherwise, why did I stick around?  At dinner one night my parents asked about Franklin.  We were eating pork tenderloin with grilled new potatoes and a walnut-and-raspberry-and-goat-cheese-and-spinach salad.  They didn’t understand why I was wasting my time on the guy.  My father said he sounds “like a freak,” and he offered his firm’s legal services should anything happen to “my person” in Franklin’s house.  He smirked.  My mother said he sounds lonely—as if he needs a friend, or a job, or both. 
“He needs a life,” my father said, spearing a baby spinach leaf as if it insulted him.
“No, he doesn’t need a life,” my mother argued.  “He needs a purpose for his life.”  My mother asked me to inquire as to Franklin’s availability for substituting in the fall.  She is the principal of Foothills High School.  I spent the night blasting Jimi Hendrix in my room.  I had the entire fourth floor to myself; with eight bedrooms and three living rooms, I could do as I wanted up there.  I guess I could relate to Franklin—Isolation was only part of my problem.  I couldn’t help thinking, If only I had lived when the great music was actually created.  I was bored out of my mind, and I constantly felt as if there was nothing new under the sun, that I had missed the boat.  I was born too late.  Everything interesting had already been done.  At least Franklin was trying, I thought.  What was I doing with myself?  I was living with my parents, working at a pool, becoming increasingly dull and isolated in my little Meadow Haven bubble.

After a few months of my weekly visits, Franklin started taking me for a one o’clock lunch after our “hard day’s work.”  By the time he got started, Franklin usually worked two hours, then descended into a funk once his coffee high wore off.
There was a sandwich shop down the road in an all-brick strip mall designed to resemble a mid 19th century mill-town.  It was constructed way back in 1998.
One day Franklin took me to this sandwich shop.  On the drive there we were discussing why Franklin was so habitual.  As usual, the conversation was about Franklin, Franklin, Franklin.  He didn’t need a friend, he needed a therapist.  I can count on one hand the times—without offering up his Jungian interpretation—he asked me a single question about my interests, my life, my family.  Anyway, we were there in the sandwich shop, waiting on my turkey club and Franklin’s California wrap.  Franklin sat perched behind his lap top.  He insisted on checking his e-mail every two minutes.
“Nothing has been the same since she left,” he said, fiddling with the computer.  His eyes were plastered to the screen.  I watched his Adam’s apple move.  I watched him swallow.  “Damn this connection is slow today,” he mumbled.
“Who?”
            Franklin lifted his gaze and narrowed his eyes.  He seemed to realize he was involved in a conversation.  “My soul-mate.  Of course.  You know, bub, she pretty much deep-sixed my life.  She destroyed my vision of things, of humanity really.  I’ve grown cynical because of her.  I think.  You know, I try to fend it off, but sometimes it feels hopeless.”
The waiter brought our sandwiches.  Even though the bill only came to twelve bucks, Franklin gave the guy a twenty, told him to keep the change.  I dug into my sandwich.  Franklin didn’t even touch his.  It just sat there.
He told me his eyes turned blue after the divorce.  Apparently they were, at one point, brown.  Tanya “drained them.”
“I mean, it was partially my fault,” he said.  “It was.  Bub, I was into drugs, into booze big time.  I was out of control.  But when she let me down, it was hard.  She had a cruel streak like you wouldn’t believe.  After my childhood you’d think…”  He trailed off.
I asked him if this is why he made rotten log sculptures, if he was trying to work out his own shit.
“Maybe,” he mumbled.  “That’s an insightful point, bub.”  Right back to e-mail.  I stared at his California wrap.  Both ends glistened with olive oil, avocadoes, feta.  Little sprigs of cilantro and basil poked out of each end.
Then:  “In an honest moment one friend told me—and this stuck with me—that it’s as if I always have one foot out the door, as if the car is running outside.  I leave something in reserve.  I’m never satisfied.  I’m also never one hundred percent behind anything.”  He was running from himself.  He was uncomfortable in his own skin.
In retrospect what struck me about Franklin’s confession was its matter-of-factness.  His honesty.  He didn’t look me in the eye once, yet at the end of his speech Franklin told me how much he trusted me, how much he valued my companionship.
“I need people to calm me.  I get down on myself quickly.”
Franklin’s California wrap still sat there on the table, as if it were listening, as if it were a pet waiting to be stroked.  I didn’t say a thing about it.

By early August the summer was coming to a close and I needed to get back to Pennsylvania, to college.  I was frankly ready to focus on school.  Franklin’s self-analysis grew wearisome.  In addition, Franklin began repeating himself—as if he were struck by early Alzheimer’s.  He couldn’t seem to remember which stories he’d told me, and which he hadn’t.  He ran out of material, and I cared less and less.
Franklin wanted to have me over one more time.  We went through our normal rituals.  That morning in August, Franklin sat me down in his gleaming kitchen and he told me to close my eyes.  I could hear him clump down the hall and then back.  When he told me to open them Franklin stood before me in his white boxers holding a bread-sized sculpture in both hands.
“It’s called Sandwich Shop Special,” he said, handing it to me.  His eyes twinkled sentimentally.  “I hope it means something to you.”
I immediately thought of his California wrap, though the texture of the log reminded me more of beef brisket.
I took it.  “Okay.  Thank you, Franklin,” I said.  I didn’t really know what to say though.  It was his way of generosity, but it was also all about him.  Franklin told me the rotten log was worth at least two grand on the “open market.”  Maybe more.  I found that a bit difficult to believe, but as Franklin said he was, after all, the son of Newton Smythe.  That counted for something, he said.  I Googled Newton Smythe and his proto-video-games, but I couldn’t find a thing.  Still, maybe all these things were true.  Who knows the real to-the-bone truth about anybody?
The log was shaved a bit and gouged out on each end.  I suppose I could visualize the wrap, but then Franklin always said his work was inspired by the Dadaists, the Abstract Expressionists.  He denied being “representational.”
We shook hands, then Franklin wrapped me in a bear hug.
“You’re my only mentee,” he said, misting up.  He told me he was going to miss the “brilliant energy” I brought into his inner sanctum. “You’re like a son to me, really.  The closest I have.”
I nodded and looked off.  I didn’t know what to say. 
“Would you like to use my pool?  It would be nice to take the cover off.”  I shrugged.  I knew he wanted to give me a gesture of some sort—that he thanked me for my help, that he wanted my friendship.  I shrugged again. 
“Good,” he said, and clapped his hands together.  I figured this would be easier than actually immersing myself in some kind of deep, philosophical conversation.
Franklin pealed away the cover to his pool, and I watched the moths and beetles and sticks and leaves and pollen slide from the cover into the strip of grass below his deck.  The water was perfectly clear.  Franklin took off his shirt and dove right in, and smiled up to me. 
“I don’t have my suit with me,” I said.  It was true. 
“Oh, jump in anyway.  Your shorts will survive.  Live a little.  Come on, the water’s warm.”  I shook him off over and over.  All I could bring myself to do was dangle my calves in the shallow end and watch Franklin swim back and forth.  He splashed me a few times.  He tugged at my arm, but it didn’t convince me to swim.  I didn’t even take my t-shirt off.  After a while I couldn’t take it any more.  Franklin was swimming underwater when I lifted myself from the edge of the pool.  I walked back home.
                                                            ~
I hope I don’t sound cruel:  I lost Franklin’s sculpture before the year was up.  I admit it.  For a while it rested on the floor of my bedroom—in my parents’ house—shoved off to the side next to my plastic Snoopy bank filled with pennies from my childhood.  It’s possible my mother thought it was a misplaced fireplace log and burned it when I was in college.  I never asked.  At any rate, I still don’t know what exactly happened to it. 
Franklin wrote me several e-mails when I was in college, but I just never felt like responding.  I became hardened, impatient.  I couldn’t find the energy to deal with him.  So I never did. 
When I returned home the following summer, I worked at the pool again, but Franklin didn’t come by once.  Mrs. Trillin later told me Franklin sold the house to a dentist, moved to upstate Vermont or New Hampshire.  I forget which. 
I thought about Franklin from time to time, but I never did try to contact him. Before I graduated from college the next year, I received a few more e-mails from him and a garbled phone message once (at least I think it was him), but I didn’t return any of those either.  I cordoned Franklin in some corner of my mind where he couldn’t reach out to me. 
Several times since the summer I spent as Franklin’s helper, I felt a twinge of guilt or remorse or something close.  I got down on myself a few times for not being more of a man, for becoming an uncaring or unsympathetic person.  But it passed.  It evaporated. 

*****

THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
“Who Owns This?” is part of a larger collection of stories about the exurbs of Washington, D.C.  The collection as a whole is focused on the gated community described in the story.  There were a few people in my life at this time that helped “inspire” the writing of this story perhaps, but mostly, though not entirely, subconsciously.  The events of the story are completely fictional.

*****

ABOUT NATHAN LESLIE

Nathan Leslie’s nine books of fiction include Root and Shoot, Sibs, and Drivers.  He is also the author of The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice, a novel, and Night Sweat, a poetry collection.  His work has appeared in hundreds of literary magazines including BoulevardShenandoahNorth American Review, and Cimarron Review. Nathan was series editor for The Best of the Web anthology 2008 and 2009 (Dzanc Books) and edited fiction for Pedestal Magazine for many years.  He is currently interviews editor at Prick of the Spindle and writes a monthly music column for Atticus Review.  His work appears in Best Small Fictions 2016.  Check him out on Twitter and Facebook as well as at www.nathanleslie.com




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