Frances was the greatest sixteen year-old train wreck I ever knew. I was only about eleven at the time and although my mom told us she was “hired” to babysit us one summer, it didn’t take long for us to figure out it was the other way around.
Frances was pimply faced, rotund, and wore Coke bottle glasses that made her eyes look the size of an infant’s. She spoke with a lisp and a slur that was probably caused by all the epilepsy medications she took. I don’t know if it was the obesity or the meds that caused her to sweat profusely, but she was always soaked and she smelled odd. Not typical BO, something different. Moldy. Or like the chemicals she was taking.
Worse than all that, she had the mental age of an eight year-old but the raging hormones of a girl her age.
I can’t think of anything she had going for her that summer but us. She had no father to speak of, and her mother, Shirley was a waitress that could pass for a hooker. First time I saw Shirley, I asked my mom if she was a go-go dancer because of the sparkly blue eye shadow she wore from her fake lashes to her brows. The mini-skirt and white patent leather boots added to this look. All of those things had been out of style for many years and only hookers dressed that way back then in my town.
Mom insisted the woman was only a waitress who didn’t know how to wear makeup. My mom had been an Avon lady, an expert in these matters.
That particular summer Mom and Shirley worked long night shifts together at a restaurant. During the day Mom was home, but she had to sleep. My dad would be gone a week at a time with his work, so there were many days we had to take care of ourselves.
We were an active bunch, my brothers and I. Early in the mornings we headed out to the swimming pool at the park or chopped down nearby forests to build our clubhouse/fort. My older brother was thirteen, and the way we saw things, we didn’t need no babysitter. Frances slowed us down. Complaining about the situation brought no results. My mom felt sorry for Frances and her mom and somebody had to do something about this.
So we took Frances everywhere with us that summer. It was the hottest one I can remember and we didn’t have air conditioning. At the peak of the heat wave I’d stick my head in the deep freezer at night for some relief. Staying home in daylight hours was out of the question. The library was one of the few spots we could hit up for some cool air.
Frances did believe she was the babysitter and since she didn’t try to boss us around, we never told her any different. At the library, she checked out some braille books. I had never heard of that and didn’t realize she was legally blind. At night she’d read her braille books to us (in the dark!) and although we weren’t sure if she’d made up these stories or not, we went with it. She also taught us how to read numbers in braille.
My dad wasn’t crazy about it, having this girl in our home all day and spending the night more often than not. After a few weeks of this, he insisted we bring her home and stop this madness.
We packed Frances’ things (you would not believe how quickly most of the things she owned were at our place) and went to drop her off. Her mom refused to take her back. I don’t know what the situation was, maybe she was mentally ill, but Frances came back home with us that day and didn’t return to her mother until school started that fall.
The thing that bothered us most about her was that she didn’t seem to experience emotions such as joy or laughter. We were pretty big on that and when Frances didn’t get our jokes, she felt like a heavier burden. We weren’t saints, but we never teased, made fun of her, or did anything to make her cry. We just dragged her around with us and made sure she didn’t get lost.
One thing she did experience was love. She was crazy about this guy named Jimmy at her school and that’s all she ever talked about. JimmyJimmyJimmyJimmyJimmy. I was pretty certain by the stories she told that he didn’t love her back. I wasn’t sure he actually existed, Frances did have some confusion about reality. Since we weren’t even sure this boy existed, we’d encourage her to call him up on the phone. We helped her find his phone number and taught her how to use the phone. After that, she obsessively called his house. The mother would always answer and say he wasn’t home. So Frances was convinced the mother was the reason Jimmy never called her back when she’d leave our number.
It was difficult to see what sort of things we were learning from her that summer. I already knew people were mean and shitty toward the mentally disabled. People are not courageous and willing to stand up for the weak, they are basically animals. Especially children. Survival of the fittest rules. We weren’t crazy about hanging around with a sixteen year-old. Or an eight year-old. And Frances was both.
None of our friends were fond of her. In fact, in only a matter of weeks, all our friends dumped us. I wish I could say I told off every kid who rejected us or that I made some speech at the pool about how people just need to chill, that the mentally disabled also need friends. Or that I didn’t need them, anyway. But I didn’t have that sort of courage.
Frances, on the other hand, had loads of courage. We were afraid to make phone calls for simple things such as finding out store hours or if they had a certain item in stock. Not a problem for Frances. AND prank calls. We got Frances to do them, and she was pretty damn good with her flat affect and inability to laugh. Us, we couldn’t stop the giggling long enough to get out the first sentence.
For threatening situations, like big kids ganging up on us, Frances was our bouncer. She wasn’t afraid of anyone, and like I said, she was a big girl. Also, due to her disability, people believed she had gorilla strength.
Her greatest act of courage came on a day my dad was set to return from his week-long work trip. On those days, I’d wait at home for him, obsessively checking out the windows to see if his car was in the driveway yet. But not Frances. She’d hide out in one of the back rooms because she sensed how he felt about her always being at the house.
On that day, my dad drove up but did not get out of the car. Mom had a doctor appointment so she wasn’t home. I ran out the door to greet my dad at the car and could see immediately that something was wrong with him. He was pale, sweaty, and weak. There was a bag of ice on his lap, propped against his belly.
He told me he had a terrible stomach ache and had the ice there to make it feel better. I asked him to get into the house and lie down, but he said he couldn’t move for now. He was too weak. So I stayed out there talking to him for about a half hour. His eyes were closed most of the time, I think he was in a lot of pain. When he finally garnered the strength to get out the car, he stood up and then collapsed to the ground.
I couldn’t get him to wake up, so I screamed for Frances to come help. when she stuck her head out the door to see what was the problem I told her it was an emergency to call for an ambulance.
Frances: I don’t know the number.
Me: Dial zero. An operator will answer.
She goes off and I stay outside with my dad. A minute or so later, Frances sticks her head out the door again. “What’s the address?”
I told her the street number and name, but she couldn’t remember and kept coming back. So I broke it down for her, told her the number and had her come back for the street name.
That worked. Within minutes the ambulance was there to pick up my dad. As they put him on the stretcher, the sheets got soaked with blood. My dad had a bleeding ulcer. My mom arrived home just as the ambulance was leaving so she went to the ER and left me home alone again with Frances. I was terribly worried my dad would die and he almost did, he took 44 pints of blood during the surgery to repair his stomach. (It is unheard of, even to this day for a patient get that much blood in one day and live).
While Frances and I were waiting the long hours for information about Dad, she didn’t talk about Jimmy. She was just quiet and listened to my worries. Then she did something she seemed incapable of. She gave me a hug when she saw me crying. And I didn’t care that she was sweaty and smelly. Or that she was sixteen. Or eight.