Even distracted, Mr. Baxter plays a better gin game than Fran. He spends most of the time watching her, like he's afraid she'll vanish if he looks the other way, and only pays attention to his cards when Fran prompts him that it's his turn. Still he beats her every hand.
"Where'd you learn to play so well?" Fran asks, watching him pile the cards together after she's lost another hand. His hands are quick and capable, the sound of the cards shuffling together momentarily drowning out the distant music from the New Year's Eve party in the apartment next door.
"The war," he says. "Little known fact about Korea: lots of free time to sit around playing card games. Sometimes you'd only have one buddy to play with, which made poker less fun, so we'd play gin."
Fran cuts the cards. "I didn't know you were in the army."
"I wasn't. " He deals the cards with efficient, careful movements. "I was in the Navy. I'll forgive you for that, Miss Kubelik, but I know a few Navy men would consider that an unforgivable insult."
"I appreciate that." Fran rearranges the cards in her hands and catches movement out of the corner of her eye when she's nearly done; he's refilling their glasses of champagne, his cards already sorted, of course. "Don't you think it's about time you started calling me Fran?"
He looks up sharply, tilts the bottle back up at the last second to prevent a spill. "You mean instead of Miss Kubelik?"
"I suppose you could use both, but Miss Fran Kubelik is a bit of a mouthful," Fran says, putting the last of her cards in order. She wishes she had more to rearrange because even though he's watched her cry over another man and helped fix her worst mistake, asking him to use her first name makes her feel shy, somehow.
"Fran," he says, like it's the nicest name he's ever heard. She has to tap him on the wrist with her down-turned cards to prompt him to make the next move. "Oh, sorry. And of course you can call me Bud. Most people do."
"All right, Bud," Fran says, and eyes the card he places on the discard pile. "You sure you want to throw that one away?"
- - - -
Jeff gets on Fran's elevator at his usual time - three minutes before nine - and takes his usual spot, standing a little closer than he needs to, just behind her. So close that she can smell his cologne, which she'd missed so much after things ended the first time that she went out and bought a bottle. She'd thrown it in the trash New Year's Day; wasteful, but she couldn't think of another use for it.
Fran leans toward the buttons of the elevator, calls out, "Going up, twenty-two through twenty-eight."
"Where have you been, Fran?" Jeff whispers once the elevator starts moving.
Fran shrugs. "Oh, here and there."
"I've been terribly worried, I turned around after the countdown to the new year and you'd disappeared."
"I didn't disappear." Fran feels the elevator slow, reaches her hand toward the buttons to the right of the door. "I realized there was somewhere else I'd rather be, and so I left. Twenty-two."
"Somewhere else -" Jeff cuts himself off as people push past him to get off the elevator, closing his hand around her elbow when someone jostles him into her.
He doesn't let go when the doors close. Fran can remember the rush it used to give her, the intimacy of his touch in a confined but public place. The first time it happened, she had to put her hand out against the front of the elevator, the contact so surprised and unsettled her. Now her hand stays still at her side; now it's just like any other man who gets too friendly in the elevator.
Fran pulls her elbow free. "Twenty-three."
"Fran, I left my wife for you."
Fran turns her head and looks at Jeff for the first time since seeing him in line for her elevator all those floors below. She tries to put everything she feels into her face, wants to make it clear how thoroughly she knows his statement to be a lie. Most of it must come across, because before the elevator arrives at the next floor he looks away.
Two men get off, but they're slow about it, most likely eager to see how things play out between them. Jeff clears his throat once the doors close again. "Maybe it didn't happen exactly the way I'd planned, but-"
"You didn't plan for it to happen at all." Fran can hear how tired she is of this topic in her voice. "Twenty-five."
Jeff doesn't argue with her, stays quiet just behind her while one man gets off and the elevator rises to the next floor.
"Have dinner with me," Jeff says. "We can talk about this, figure it out. We'll go anyplace you want. Who cares what anyone says now anyway? Just name it."
"I'm sorry, I'm busy," Fran says. "Twenty-six,"
No one gets off. She turns to see that the elevator is close to empty, only Jeff and one white-haired woman left.
Jeff moves so that he's standing beside her. "Tomorrow night."
"I'm busy then, too."
"Washing my hair, watching television, lots of things," Fran says. It's satisfying to see the confusion on Jeff's face. "Twenty-seven."
The woman gets off, but Jeff doesn't. "I don't understand, Fran, I thought we had this sorted out."
"I know you did, Jeff. So did I," Fran says. "That's the thing of it - girls like me, who end up in situations like the one I did, people think we're stupid, that we don't understand the odds. We do. We know men like you don't leave their wives for girls like us-"
"Fran, I did-"
"So we understand the odds, most of us just don't know the stakes. At least I didn't. You go into it thinking all you'll be giving up are a few nights, a few dinners, a few - well, you know. But at the end of it you look around and realize you've lost a lot of stuff you didn't know you'd put on the table."
"You're not making any sense."
"Maybe not to you," Fran says. "This is your floor, Jeff. I need to get back to the lobby."
Jeff takes his time getting off, and turns back to look at Fran before walking toward his office. He's wearing his long wool coat, her favorite pinstripe suit, and a gray hat with a black band near the brim. All things she's held in her hands, smoothed over with her fingers. She knows she'll never touch them again. She's had that thought before, when she saw him in the first days and weeks after their summer together, and back then the revelation came with a pang, a hurt so sharp in her chest that when she got undressed at night she'd look down by her ribs, felt like there should have been a mark there on the outside.
She never found one. Now there's no pang at all, only a bit of pity for the Fran who used to be, the girl who watched him walk toward his office with her heart in her throat, desperate to get back what they had. Now she sees the way he walks past his secretary without a hello, remembers the way he could never keep track of stories he told her, things like her sister's name or where she went to school.
Fran looks at the elevator buttons. She's got one floor left on her route - twenty-eight, upstairs - but no one on the elevator with her. She could go down to the lobby now, probably should go down to the lobby now. Instead she presses the button to go up, allows herself the pleasure of an elevator with herself as the only passenger for an extra floor.
- - - -
It's tricky, setting up dates. Fran and Bud don't run into each other in the elevator anymore (him out looking for a new job, her thinking of doing the same), and half the time when Bud calls her apartment, Fran's brother-in-law hangs up instead of handing the phone over.
Early February and Karl drops the receiver back in the cradle without anything after his initial hello, ignoring the pointed look Fran gives him while she finishes up the dishes. It takes longer than usual because her sister's next door with a neighbor; otherwise she probably would have gotten the phone herself. She's generally pretty quick about answering it.
Fran dries her hands, one at a time, and looks over at Karl, who's just taking his seat at the table again. "I appreciate the sentiment, but you have to understand -- what happened on Christmas, that wasn't his fault."
"He was willing enough to take credit for it." Karl unfolds the newspaper, turns to the sports pages he reads every night after dinner. "That's enough for me."
Fran wants to tell him, tell him the whole thing, about Jeff and the apartment and what Bud really did for her that night. But something stops her from getting the words out; something always does. She settles for saying, "He's a nice man."
Fran picks the phone off the hook and dials, then stretches the cord around into the living room; not far enough for actual privacy, but enough for the illusion of it. Bud answers before the second ring finishes.
"Hello, Bud, it's—"
"I know who it is," he says. "Hey, I know we have plans for tomorrow, but I was wondering if you were free tonight for dinner. It's late and everything, but -"
"I'd like that," Fran interrupts, even though she's already eaten.
"Oh, great," Bud says. "That's just great. How's about I pick you up—"
"I'll meet you," Fran interrupts, thinking of Karl's face when she passed him with the phone.
Fran brings the phone back and places it in the cradle, collects her purse and coat, picks up her hat and gloves. "I'm going out for a bit. Tell Laura I'll be back in a couple of hours."
Karl shakes his head and there's something in the movement that's reassuring, somehow. Fran has always thought of herself as an inconvenience to her sister and brother-in-law, an unwelcome intrusion after things went badly for her back home. Something about the hard set of his features, the sharp way he turns the newspaper to the next page, makes Fran realize that there's more than obligation at play here.
"You can do better than this guy, Fran," he finally says.
"That's what I used to think." Fran puts on her gloves, adjusts her hat, and makes her way to the door. "Shows what I knew."
- - - -
Forty minutes later, Fran sits across from Bud at the Automat, a bowl of vegetable soup in front of her, a pile of food in front of him.
"So I'm still persona non grata in the Matuschka house?" he asks, cutting up his meatloaf.
"So it seems." Fran stirs her soup, too hot to eat for now. "I think I should tell them."
"Tell them what?"
"You know." Fran watches Bud dig into his meatloaf and potatoes. "What really happened on Christmas. Why I was in your apartment, what you did for me."
"Why would you want to do that?" Bud sounds like she's suggested joining the circus instead of telling the truth.
Fran shrugs. "It bothers me the way they think of you."
"Let them think what they want about me," Bud says. "I'll get them to come around."
"You sound pretty confident for someone who can't get past a hello on the phone with Karl."
"I'll have you know that I have quite a winning personality," Bud says. "I did very well in the Dale Carnegie course I took last winter. It's just a matter of time before I win your family over, you'll see."
"I guess I will."
Fran takes a spoonful of soup, asks him about his day. He's just finishing up his first week at his new job; she tells him about the one she's applied for in the doctor's office next door to the place where her sister works. The conversation flows easily— it always does with Bud, one of the things she liked about him from the start, even before she really saw him— but Fran can't let go of a nagging thought at the back of her mind, one that crept in when he sounded so sure about it being a bad idea to tell Karl anything resembling the truth.
Finally, she can't help voicing it. "Do you think it's terrible, what I did?"
"What do you mean? I think working in a doctor's office is a fine idea - just remember, I know those doctors have fancy degrees and loads of money, but would they take you to a place as great as this?” Bud gestures toward the rest of the Automat, where people meander by the machines with nickels in their palms, trying to decide which dinner to buy. "All this, and an escort home on the subway. No fancy doctor's going to give you that."
"I'll keep that in mind, but that wasn't really what I was talking about." Fran knows that she should be more specific. What's difficult is how easy it is to do so, how many answers there are to give: seeing a married man, opening that bottle of sleeping pills, lying to her family. In the end she can't talk about any of them out loud, same as always. She says, "I meant before."
Bud's fork stops halfway to his mouth. "I didn't mean to imply— I don't think badly of you, Fran. You know that, right?"
"I know." Fran knows that as sure as she knows anything, most of the time. Almost all of the time. But sometimes she can't keep that other part of herself quiet, the small part of her that used to be almost all of her before, the part that's sure he'll eventually realize or remember who she really is, all the bad things she's done, all the ways she doesn't measure up.
When Fran looks up and sees the expression on Bud's face, his usually lively features settled into a serious expression, she feels something awful turn over inside her, and also a bit of something like relief. Fran's spent a lot of time waiting for the other shoe to drop, and it looks like it's about to.
"The only thing—" Bud stops, takes a second to consider. He's using his fork to dig a hole in what's left of his mashed potatoes, and he doesn't look up when he starts talking again. "I just have a hard time with you taking those pills, Fran. It's not that I judge you for it. I know you were in a bad place, and Lord knows I understand it, I absolutely do. All that other stuff, it doesn't matter. I just figure you are who you are. And you know I'm a big fan."
Bud's looking up at her with that expression she remembers from Christmas Day— a determined attempt at cheerfulness, to cover up something sad underneath. One of the first things that made her heart crack open to him. "Bud—"
"I guess the thing is," he goes in, ignoring her interruption, almost like he's afraid he won't keep going if she stops him, which might be true; this is the first time either of them have brought up anything about the pills. "I need you to promise me that you won't try something like that again. I suppose that's why I didn't want you to tell your brother-in-law anything more about that night, especially not on my account. I thought it would get you thinking about it, and all the stuff that led up to it, and maybe make you sad again, and I don't like the idea of that. In fact, I hate it. I—"
"I'm not that girl anymore, Bud." Fran says, and as she says it, realizes that it's true. She's not sure when exactly it happened - maybe when she left Jeff in that restaurant on New Year's Eve, or a little after, or a little before. She knows there used to be a big mess of bad stuff pulling down at the center of her, and it's like the cord's been cut, or frayed. The sad turns her mind takes no longer feel impossible to escape. "I am going to be sad sometimes, though."
Bud shakes his head. "Not if I can help it."
"It's not a question of helping, it's just how a person happens to be, I think," Fran says. "My sister's never shed a tear at a movie, and I had to stay a while past the credits of Imitation of Life because I couldn't stop crying."
Bud holds out a hand like he's come up with the perfect solution. "Then we won't go to those movies. Only comedies. Problem solved."
Fran can't help smiling. "Bud."
"I know you probably think I'm overreacting, but—"
"No, I understand." Fran does, at least a little bit. She remembers the way her breath caught in her chest when he told her about sitting in his car with a gun in his hand back in Ohio years ago, remembers running up the stairs to his apartment on New Year's Eve and hearing an awful sound she later realized to be a champagne cork. "I just don't think you need to be worrying the way you are."
Bud looks at her like he wants to believe her, but can't quite. "Fran, I-"
"Do you want me to tell you why I don't think you need to worry?"
"Maybe that'd help."
Fran pushes her half-eaten soup aside and scoots her chair closer to the table to close the distance between them. "The way I figure it, both of us are pretty vulnerable to heartbreak. Based on past history."
"There's some evidence there, sure."
"Pretty strong evidence, I think." Fran says. "And I think our problem before was that we picked lousy people to pin our hopes on. The lady in Ohio for you, Jeff for me - they may be all right human beings in general-"
"I think you might be being a bit too generous to Mr. Sheldrake there, if you ask me."
Fran goes on as if he hadn't spoken. "But they weren't very good at taking care of us, heart-wise. Wouldn't you say?"
Bud nods. "I'd say."
"And the thing I know for sure is that you'll do a good job of that. Of taking care of me. Heart-wise and otherwise-wise," Fran trails off, a little awkwardly. Something about speaking up about her own feelings, even to Bud, always makes her feel shy. "The same way I'll take care of you."
Bud spends a long time looking at her, smiling in that same funny way he did during their gin game on New Year's Eve, until finally a girl comes by and picks up their trays. Bud watches her go and says, "Not sure I'm doing such a great job on the taking-care-of-front if I let you eat only a half a bowl of soup for dinner. Far be it from me to comment on the eating habits of a lady, but, well, I guess that's exactly what I'm doing. Don't you want anything else?"
Fran shrugs. "To be honest, I'd already eaten when you called."
"And you came out anyway?" Bud says. "I'm not sure if you noticed, but it's February and twelve degrees out there."
"Oh, I noticed," Fran says, and shoots a look at Bud, because it's obvious why she came, but something in his expression keeps Fran from teasing him about it. "You're worth a trip out into the cold."
- - - -
The subway stop nearest to Fran's apartment leaves them with a bit of a walk, so she tucks her arm in his a little tighter than usual when they step out onto the sidewalk and feel the full burst of the cold again. The contact shouldn't make much of a difference, what with the temperature and the number of layers between them, but something about it makes the cold easier to bear. "You think I'd do all right in a doctor's office?"
"I think you'd be great," Bud says. "People going to the doctor often need a little cheering up, and you always did a good job of that in the elevator. Do you think you'd like it?"
"I think I would," Fran says. "I'd be answering phones and setting up appointments and greeting people when they came in. No dictation."
"So no worries about spelling," Bud says. "Except for people's names, and they usually like it if you ask how to spell it. Shows you're careful about doing your job right. And you will be that, I remember you never missed a trick back at Consolidated Life. I once had a girl forget to stop for five whole floors, and another girl let me off on nine instead of nineteen."
"You're making that up."
"I am not. Just to prove it, I'll tell you that there's a truly terrifying fern just across from the elevators on the ninth floor."
Fran laughs. "You know, I can't figure out why no one does anything about it, either trimming it or getting rid of it. It looks like it could reach out and grab you."
"Maybe that's why no one does anything about it, they're terrified!" Bud says, slowing his stride a bit. They're a few buildings away from Fran's apartment, close enough that Fran can see from the lit-up window that her sister and brother-in-law are still up.
"Maybe that's it," Fran says, and stays quiet for the rest of the walk, her eye on the lit-up window that gets closer with every step. Every time they go out, Bud takes her home, all the way to the vestibule of her building, waiting while she gets her key. Every time he offers to walk her upstairs, and every time she declines.
Fran does it to prevent a scene upstairs, to eliminate the possibility of another fight with Karl. She does it so that Bud doesn't get hurt. The thing is, Jeff used to say things like that; used to tell her that she shouldn't smile at him so much in the elevator, or greet him by name when they passed each other in the lobby.
"It's out of concern for you, Fran," he used to say. "I don't want people to get the wrong idea. I don't want you to get hurt. Surely you understand."
Fran does, a little better, now. When they get to the steps outside her building, she says, "I forgot, there's something I meant to tell you. Well, two things, really. And the second thing's more of a question."
"All right," Bud says.
"Well, it's kind of private, so maybe we should step inside for a bit." Fran takes him by the hand, leading him up the stairs into the vestibule of the building, almost always quiet this time of night.
By the time the door shuts behind Bud, he's smiling, like he knows what's coming. Fran guesses he probably does. "What's the first thing?"
"This," Fran says, and lifts herself up on her toes to kiss him. By the time she's finished, his hat is on the floor and she's dropped her purse, both of them a little worse for all the slush people's shoes have carried in all day.
Bud leans over to pick both up, settling the purse on Fran's shoulder. “Now are you sure that's all you needed to tell me? Maybe we should try again, make sure I definitely got the message."
Fran would like to try again, but she's also afraid she'll lose her courage. "Why don't we take care of the second thing first."
"All right," Bud says. "What's the second thing?"
"I was wondering if you'd like to come upstairs and meet my sister."
Bud can't keep the surprise off his face; he can't keep much of anything off his face. It's one of the things Fran likes best about him, how easy it is for her to see what he's really feeling. Right now he's feeling nervous, or scared, or some mix of the two, when he says, "Of course I want to meet your sister! But what about my hat? And shouldn't I have brought something? Or is that just at a dinner party, I can't remember -"
Fran takes the hat in her hand, wipes at the brim a few times and then settles it back on his head. She straightens it so it sits right and looks up at him, at the face that's become so dear to her that she can't believe she ever found it unremarkable. "You are bringing something. You're bringing me home."