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The Responsible One

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Joe lived his life as though Frank might be watching.

It wasn't difficult. He'd always tried to set a good example for his little brother, and for his son, once Joe had a child of his own. He and Maria took Frank Junior into their house when Dorothy decided to go to back to school, and ended up raising him as their own when she died, two years later, in the passenger seat of a car driven by her latest boyfriend, a man three weeks out of prison for dealing drugs. Joe begged Maria to give up the pot, and for awhile he thought she had, but then she got careless again about letting him catch her with it, and he decided it wasn't worth the fight as long as the kids never found out.

Raffael was a quiet, gentle boy, as Joe had been, though Joe made sure his son could throw a punch and fire a gun because he knew what feeling weak could do to a man. Frankie was the hellraiser, a spitting image of his father. From the time he was old enough to sit up, he could wriggle out of his diapers, spit puréed vegetables across the room and break toys that had been approved by three parenting magazines as safe for babies. Maria did all the disciplining because Joe couldn't bear to spank him, ever; he would lock himself in the bathroom when Frankie screamed so he didn't have to hear, and so the boys wouldn't see their father crying.

Maria was also the one who realized that Frankie couldn't learn to read, not because he was stupid, but because he couldn't figure out which directions the letters were supposed to go. The doctors and therapists did tests and told them that he also had problems concentrating, and impulsive behavior disorders, and things that made Joe really angry before he grasped that they could be fixed. Then he understood and for the first time in his life he hated his parents, whom he had always assumed did the best they could for him and Frank; but they never really noticed what went on, they never really wanted to know what caused it, and they both checked out when things got really bad. Family wasn't supposed to check out, ever. It was the one thing Joe was determined to teach both his kids.

When Raffael was in fifth grade and Frankie in third, there was a call at the station about trouble at the school. Joe rushed over to learn that Raffael had slammed another little boy's head into the metal bar of a jungle gym because the other boy had told mean lies about his brother. Of course everyone in town knew about Frankie's father, but Joe had thought enough time had passed that maybe the boy wouldn't have to hear or be judged by it. It seemed that he was wrong. "We have to move," he told Maria, who cried to leave her students and the lake and her friends, but she packed up their house and turned it into an adventure for the boys, who were just as happy to be going.

Joe cried only once, late at night, sitting in his thriving garden in the backyard. Cried because after they left town, his brother Frank might never know where to find him again.

 

* * * *

 

At eighteen, Frank Roberts Jr. is an honors student, captain of the swim team, headed for the University of Michigan in the fall if the scholarship money comes through. If it doesn't, he'll stay home and work the farm with Rafe and Joe for another year, saving up, which he wouldn't really mind because he'll be able to keep seeing Dina who's younger than he is and won't graduate until the next spring. Sometimes Joe wants Rafe to go back and finish his degree, too, but the boy has never been very interested in school, and it makes Joe feel good to see his son up at the crack of dawn every morning, smiling as he heads out to work the crops. Rafe has never had a girlfriend and Joe's starting to think maybe he never will, but that's all right as long as he finds someone to love. Having a family is what's important.

Maria has never lost the thirty pounds she gained when she quit smoking for good and Joe couldn't possibly love her more. He thinks that maybe he and Maria both gave Raffael too little in their determination to cure Frankie, but Rafe has never complained and couldn't love Frankie more if he were actually his brother. They told the boys the truth about Frankie's parents when Frankie was sixteen. Frankie got very sullen for a couple of months and Joe once overheard him sobbing in the barn; then for a couple more months he blew off his schoolwork, but when faced with suspension from the swim team, he pulled himself together and started searching for his real mother's parents. Dorothy's mother had died not long after she did but Frankie sees his grandfather sometimes, and even though the old man is strict and disapproving of Maria, Joe thinks it's good for both of them.

Six months after they moved, Joe could admit that hard as it was leaving the people he grew up with and the farm that was no longer his, it was also a relief, save for the lost connection with his brother. For years he looked for Frank in the crowds at Frankie's Little League games and swim meets. He has always insisted on family vacations in Canada and Mexico -- Thunder Bay, Niagara, Cancun, and where could Frank have gone? Before he quit police work, he would spend hours at the station poring over lists of John Does, guessing that his brother probably hadn't survived that long, driving home in tears, until Maria insisted that there were more important things than money and if she could quit the weed, then Joe could leave the force and eke out a living as best he could as a farmer. It would be better for all of them.

Tomorrow Frankie is graduating from high school, and Joe is standing out by the barn in the evening light, full of memories. Remembering the night his brother graduated and then got booked for trashing a bar with a bunch of his classmates. Remembering the night he and Frank sat out in a field drinking and chasing each other through the corn. Remembering Frank's son at fourteen, coming around a corner looking so much like his father that Joe's heart stopped for a minute before he realized that the Frank he was remembering was twenty years younger than life.

There's a noise nearby, and Joe turns to see one of the day workers drop a package beside him. "It's for Frankie," a voice says gruffly, but it's a voice Joe would know anywhere, and eyes he last saw in a rear-view mirror receding forever, now set in a crinkled, tan face half-hidden behind long hair and a thick, curly beard. Joe can't move. "It ain't much, but it's all I got."

Frank, Joe wants to say, Frank, but he can't, because if he acknowledges it then he's breaking the law, putting his family at risk again, and even Frank wouldn't want that, not when he's come to him like this. "You did real good by him. I want to thank you," the voice continues, which is all wrong because Joe should be thanking him for the gift and for the gift of Frankie, but if he speaks he'll cry. "I never forgot what you said," and the ghost walks out, and it's goodbye, this time probably forever, and this is a gift he never earned, this is a gift that will send him to church on Sunday and maybe every Sunday for the rest of his life even though he stopped making the kids go years before.

Joe ends up sending the money anonymously to the hospital where the bartender died, which is also the hospital where Frank Junior underwent all the medical tests that let him be an honors student instead of a criminal. The money's not enough to pay for a year of college, but it's enough to cause trouble with his taxes -- enough to disrupt his family. Still, he keeps a hundred bucks, and when he gives it to Frankie, the boy who has become his own son asks shyly how his dad would feel about him getting a tattoo, marking the gift into his skin.