Francis Down Under
Francis Avery quietly turns off the small reading lamp beside his favorite chair, a lumpy, worn, faded beige recliner, and sits in the dark of the basement, not moving or making a sound as he listens to Karen call his name.
He had heard the front door slam and Karen's heels across the hardwoods, going from the living room to the kitchen to the top of the basement stairs, marking each examined area with her voice. He sees the bleak light from the kitchen as Karen opens the door to the basement. The basement darkness convinces her that he is not down there and Karen shuts the door without coming down to flush Francis out of his favorite retreat. Karen would not assume Francis was in the basement without any lights for why would anyone choose the total darkness of a dank, damp basement in May when there is so much going on outside, so much green, so many flowers blooming, so much life and all the activities that go with it?
After he hears the door close, Francis listens as her steps move back through the kitchen and down the hall to their bedroom. He imagines that Karen is wondering if, when she turns the corner, she will find his body sprawled on the floor, his feeble heart giving out while she was still at work. But her steps are not those of panic or concern. Perhaps, Karen is so far past anticipating the worst that the worst is not so bad anymore. The worst is long overdue. It is expected.
More than likely, she is merely wondering where Francis went and why he left no note. After all, Francis is usually waiting just where Karen leaves him; predictably reliable.
They are not legally husband and wife, nor will they ever be. Karen had wanted that at first, when Francis arrived with only his clothes and a well-worn old recliner. His wife, Adelle, having found out about Karen, had thrown Francis out. He had come home from work one evening eleven years ago to find his favorite chair in the driveway and his clothes thrown on top of it for the whole neighborhood to see.
Francis had come to Karen just until he found a place of his own, which he did in less than a week. Francis recalls how cavalier he had been back then. Back before the two massive heart attacks left him virtually an invalid before the age of fifty-five, changing everything about who he thought he was.
The first one had happened after an argument with Adelle over seeing the kids. Adelle had come to the hospital when she learned of his condition, for she was still his wife. Francis remembers her face staring down into his as though all was forgiven and the only thing that mattered was Francis pulling through. He had thought that he was dying, too, and because of that, he was very tender with Adelle. He said all the right things for a dying man to say. Adelle was the perfect woman to become his widow and he told her so, more or less, in the I.C.U. of St. Anthony's Hospital. Love is at its best, its most pure when you're dying, Francis thinks.
When he was released, Francis agreed to give up his two-pack-a-day cigarette habit, and believing that would suffice, went back to work, his new apartment, and Karen. His second heart attack happened one night in Karen's bed. Adelle did not come to see him at the hospital after that.
Karen insisted he give up his apartment and move in with her until he was 'out of danger.' Why had he been so willing to comply, Francis asks himself. It was not for love or even lust, for that had almost totally evaporated after the second attack. It was fear, plain and simple. He had been afraid of a third attack occurring late at night, alone in his apartment, unable to even reach the phone and it terrified him to think of dying in a rented apartment where, if it happened on a weekend when he wasn' t expected at work, he might lie on the floor, rigor mortis setting in, beginning to smell, turning into such a putrid corpse that his casket would have to be sealed or his body cremated. It was ridiculous how thoughts like these once had such power over him; but they had and Karen sensed his weakness and brought him home.
Back then, Karen had really wanted him. Francis had been her boss's boss. She had seen Francis Avery as an office coupe, better than a promotion. But that was before Francis was forced to take medical retirement. He'd moved in, forever alienating Adelle and his kids, believing he would move out just as soon as he was his old self again, as though good health returned every year like springtime or the months on a calendar, continually recycling over and over again.
Francis pushes back the recliner, bumping the wall. He freezes, barely taking a breath, listening for Karen. But she doesn't call out and Francis figures she is busy undressing, perhaps with the t.v. on. She likes to watch the six o'clock news when she gets home in time to catch it. Karen says she likes knowing what is going on in the world and television, she claims, keeps her up to date. Sometimes she asks Francis to turn the set on and watch it for her on nights she knows she'll be working late.
He had hoped that Karen would be late tonight. Francis likes the place better without her and if it was his place, he'd ask her to move out. But it's not his place and that is the problem. Always there are obstacles, and when they are removed, there are new obstacles. Obstacles did recycle like the seasons.
When Karen received a small insurance settlement from being rear-ended by the teenage son of a physician (if I had to be hit, thank God he was well-insured!) she had bought new living room furniture and banished Francis's beige recliner to the basement.
"Why?" Francis had asked. "It's hard for me to climb those stairs without getting winded."
"Then let's give it to the Goodwill. I'm tired of that ugly, old thing. I want it out of sight, totally, if not out of the house."
The basement. Francis calls it Australia, his own personal Down Under. Karen sometimes suggests he go 'to Australia' when her friends are coming over. "You like it down there and I know we just get on your nerves with all our chatter."
Francis knows whose nerves are really Karen's concern. He knows his labored breathing and shuffled footsteps quell the party atmosphere. "Are we bothering you, Frank?" Some idiot always asks without ever expecting an affirmative answer. The question is more a notification that his movements in the kitchen, or going to the bathroom from the bedroom, are a distraction. "Oh, there he is - again!"
Adelle died of an aneurysm in her brain eight years ago. Any thoughts Karen had of dumping Francis back where she found him are gone. Before Adelle's death, Karen frequently asked Francis if he ever felt like leaving Adelle had been a mistake? Fourteen years of marriage was quite an investment of one's life to just walk away from. Francis reminded Karen that he hadn't walked away; that he and his chair were expelled, exiled, and had she forgotten why?
Karen usually changed the subject at that point. Francis regrets that he was not Adelle's widower. He believes he should have been. He knows that had he died in the I.C.U. after his first heart attack, Adelle would have cherished his memory, despite his indiscretions with Karen and someone named Lorraine earlier. Adelle would have been a good widow and that makes Francis love her all over again.
When he is alone in the house, he reads Book-of-the-Month Club selections that Karen purchased to fill an empty bookcase. He prefers ones set in other centuries and preferably, on other continents. When he needs something more, and Karen is gone, Francis allows himself to fantasize. He prefers his fantasies in the basement, in his chair, with whatever book he is presently reading nearby. Francis closes his eyes and if the house is empty, he begins speaking aloud to the ship's captain, to the hotel concierge, to the safari guide, to the maitre d'. At times, he rescues Mata Hari from the firing squad and flees with her to Switzerland where she remains loyal and grateful, staying with him until the end of his life, which is never far away because Francis does not wish to be a burden to the beautiful Mata Hari, even in a fantasy.
Lately, Adelle appears as his companion, going with him to Kenya or New Zealand and finally, settling in Australia. Francis enjoys this one because when he is with Adelle, there is no stress. They are just an older married couple, retired, seeing the world together. Francis is faithful in his daydreams of Adelle, and she always responds by wearing the same face she wore when he lay near death in the I.C.U. His kids are no longer bitter toward him in his daydream. They think their father is a swell guy. His children would never use such a term, even if they felt that way. But it is his fantasy and Francis is in control. He can make them speak any way he chooses.
Karen is using the electric can opener. The sound irritates Francis, but fortunately, it doesn't last long. If she is cooking something, then she most likely is not going back out, which means Francis will have to wait until she is taking her bath to sneak upstairs and open and close the front door, announcing that he is home from.a walk. No, Karen would never buy that. Maybe he will say Charlie Needham came by and took him out for coffee or a drink or something. Karen would be a little surprised, but she probably wouldn't question it. Charlie hadn't come around in ages, but that's not to say he wouldn't. Maybe Karen is just opening some cat food and she will be leaving again soon.
Francis doesn't care much either way. He's going to lie to her whether she goes out or stays home. He is not going to tell her he's been sitting in the basement in the dark while she was calling for him. Francis doesn't want her to know that's even a possibility because that would ruin it for the next time. Karen would start coming down the stairs even if the light was off.
What a great investment his chair was, Francis thinks. He remembers buying it when he was still with Adelle. She thought it took up too much space in the family room and she feared one of the children might get their neck caught in the leg rest. But in the end, she surrendered and allowed it space in front of the television where it remained until the night it wound up in the driveway, buried beneath the heaps of clothing.
First, the driveway, then the basement. Francis knows if he goes into the hospital again, his recliner will disappear completely before he comes home. He hears himself telling the ambulance driver, "Buddy, please don't leave my chair alone with her. You don't know what she's planning. If she gets rid of it, what will I do? Where will I go? There's no Australia without it." The scene causes Francis to feel nauseated. He hopes he never sees an ambulance driver again. He hopes he dies in his chair. He grips the arm rests and the soft, velveteen fabric comforts him.
Karen is talking to someone on the phone. He hears her laugh. He wishes she would take her call in the bedroom instead of the kitchen where he can hear her so clearly. Her voice and laughter grate on him, reminding him of how like Esau he feels when he is in her company.
Francis never planned to stay in her company. Karen's plans never included heart attacks and disability. She had sworn to all who knew her that she never meant to break up his marriage, but she loved him, which Francis thinks Karen convinced herself at the time that she did. Prestige and recognition, even when it's scandalous, were intoxicating to Karen, like the attention of a younger woman can be to a middle-aged, married man.
They never discuss it, but Francis is certain that even Karen now inwardly acknowledges that she never really loved him. But Karen is listed as co-beneficiary with his children on his insurance policy which is enough to make her bide her time. In his mind, Francis hears Karen speaking after he is dead: "Thank God, he was well-insured!"
There is a clattering sound of a plate or bowl in the sink, silverware, running water, Karen's footsteps on the kitchen linoleum, the opening and closing of the refrigerator, and then, the more distant sound of the t.v. in the bedroom blaring.
Francis's chair is in the far back reclining position. He closes his eyes and relaxes. When Karen is in the kitchen, Francis tenses, afraid that he might bump the wall again, or sneeze or knock over the lamp in the dark. He had been sitting with his eyes open, staring into the black space in front of him as though watching it were somehow helpful in keeping Karen upstairs.
But with his eyes closed, Francis can once again enjoy Australia in the basement and his shallow breath comes easier as he imagines aborigines standing in the distance, sparsely clothed, spears in their hands but not raised. They are using them as walking sticks. Adelle is there with him and he tells her he is thinking he would like one for himself instead of the cane he sometimes uses to lean on when his breathing is difficult.
Adelle starts to laugh. "What in this world would you need a cane for?" She asks him playfully, nudging Francis as she speaks. And then, Francis is laughing, too, a big voluminous laugh that echoes across the savannah to the aborigines. One of the aborigines looks toward Francis and then suddenly, lets out a shrieking sound as if in response to the laughter. The aborigine lifts his spear, and with Francis watching his every move, the aborigine sends it flying over the savannah, over the ocean and the equator. All the way from down under, it makes its way through the darkness of the basement, with Karen clomping around upstairs, totally unaware. She has no idea that at this very moment, a spear moving with such velocity that impact with it could shatter bricks, is coming right at Francis where it finds its mark, straight through his heart and clean out the other side.