Francie Phipps Wakes Up, chapter one

Chapter One, June 25, 1973

Before she opens her eyes, Francie takes stock. Her mind isn’t blitzed by a hangover, so this can’t be the day after yesterday. She smells fresh-baked pecan rolls, which means she’s at her Mom’s house. She has to pee desperately, and her belly is heavy and huge. It feels like something is moving inside her. She realizes that she’s very pregnant, more pregnant than she’s ever been. This must be 1973 then. Her son will be born on July 14, 1973.

Now letting herself look, she sees red rose wallpaper. So, she’s in her old room. She hasn’t yet lived the day in 1958 when her mother plastered the walls with these roses, but she knows they were meant to make her happy, so she smiles reflexively. Living the life she has lived, Francie has learned to hit her mark and respond on cue.

Next, as always, she checks the clock, the calendar, and a pocket mirror. An old analog Mickey Mouse clock says 11:05am, and a freebie pocket calendar has the days crossed off until Monday, June 25, 1973. That makes sense. In the small dimestore mirror, she sees her 29-year-old face, bushy unkempt brows and just the faintest beginnings of a worry line dividing her forehead in two.

There’s plenty to worry her. Things go wrong at Mom’s house. There’s too much history she doesn’t know, and too much future she does know. She makes mistakes here.

She thinks maybe she’ll leave tonight. She often runs away. It’s never long for Francie between the thought to go and actually going. All the major decisions in her life have been made between sun-up and sun-down of a single day. When you find yourself waking up every day on a random, non-sequential day of your own very long lifetime, you learn not to second-guess yourself.

By her best guess, Francie has lived over 1,000 random days plucked from her 98-year-long life span, since she lived her first one, a day from the year she was 13. Yesterday, she was 45. The day before that, she was 94, and the day before that, she was 7.

Right now, she really, really needs to pee. Lumbering out of bed, feeling the gross weight of herself as she stands, Francie realizes she won’t be running anywhere today.

A scrawny, wild-eyed cat leaps off the top of the chest of drawers and races past her as she opens the door to the hall. Francie wonders how it got into her room. She’s never kept pets.

There’s someone in the only bathroom in the house. Francie has no idea who is staying here today. It could be any one of her Mom’s current bunch of foster kids.

She knocks, gets no answer, then bangs on the door and pleads, “Pregnant lady needs to pee!”

When the door swings open, it’s Denise, a teen-aged Denise.

Francie blurts out, “Oh my God,” and pees herself.

Denise died in Francie’s arms two days ago, but that hasn’t happened yet. It won’t happen until just after midnight, November 12, 2038.

It has already happened to Francie, though. Her dearest friend, Denise, died at age 82 of cancer two days ago.

Yet here she is, big as life. She was always taller than Francie, and today she has a full-blown Afro that adds a good five inches to her willowy stature.

Francie aches to throw her arms around the girl, but this girl barely knows her.

So, Francie does what she always does. She hesitates. She tries to smile. She says, “I’m sorry.”

Denise looks at her cock-eyed. “How come is it that you wake up and walk out here every day and act like you hadn’t never seen me in this house before? But the first time I laid eyes on you, three days ago, you acted for all the world like you already know who I am?”

Francie can only murmur, “Damn,” again. Denise has sized up the situation really well. Of course, she would. She’s Denise.

“You going to clean that up? You expecting me to do it? I am no kind of maid.”

Denise is the first black kid to be placed in this house by Social Services, and she will someday tell Francie it was a painful placement.

“Oh, hey. No,” Francie says, as she moves aside to let Denise step over the puddle.

When the girl bumps into Francie’s giant belly, the baby kicks back, and Francie laughs.

The child will love Denise more than he will ever love Francie.

Denise’s eyes crinkle into a mocking stare. She says, “Your Mom is so right. Says you’re touched in the head.”

Francie claps her hands together to stop herself from reaching out to touch her old friend. She knows and loves the look Denise is giving her, but there’s no way to explain that to her, and it’s not wise to try.

Denise breaks the tension with a little shake of her head, as though dismissing a thought. Then she simply walks away.

Francie leans into the doorframe and lets herself cry. Days with Denise are never long enough, and there’s no telling when Francie will get the next one, so she hopes this will be a good one.

Working hard to maintain her balance in this unwieldy body, she sops up the pee on the floor with a towel between her toes and manages to toss the towel in the hamper with her foot.

She’s wildly hungry. She wants pancakes and bacon. Yesterday, she was vegan, but she was also 45, lonely, and a binge drinker then.

She washes herself up a bit, enough to be presentable, so she can face whoever is in this house today.

Francie discovers that stairs are tricky when you can’t see your feet. She hugs the railing as she goes down to join the others.

They’re in the living room. Denise is standing in a corner, leaning against the wall, picking at her thumb. Mom is ironing in front of the TV. Something strange is playing. At this time of day, it should be a soap opera. That’s usually as predictable as the arrangement of the furniture at her Mom’s house.

Denise pipes up from the corner. “I let your cat out. Probably ought to let it in and feed it about now.”

It takes Francie a minute to realize that Denise is talking to her.

Denise says, “You don’t remember, do you? You got that cat two days ago. Said you wanted to see, could you look after it properly. On account of the baby coming.”

Francie sighs heavily. Her Mom will end up raising her son.

Mom saves Francie the trouble of answering. She says, “They keep showing this stuff day after day, first one channel, then the next one, and the next one, and then back to the first one. All three channels. They pre-empted my stories. Beats me why. I suppose they must think it’s important, but I can’t make head nor tails of it. They already sent all the crooks to jail. Now the politicians just want to go on and on about it like there’s still some kind of mystery. I swear they just don’t respect our President. Some of these guys have it in for him. The papers say awful things. They don’t like it that he got re-elected, but he’s a good President and everybody knows it. That’s why he won so big. He’s getting us out of Vietnam. He got us a peace treaty, didn’t he? All those poor POW’s came home. People need to let the man do his job. This is no time for rocking the boat. It’s a pure sin. They’re doing all this just to slander the man.”

Francie nods. It’s safe to nod at anything anybody says. She learned that on day one. Her Mom is happiest when she’s doing a monologue, anyway.

Denise says, “Sorry to say, Ms. Phipps, but your Mr. Nixon is a crook, too.”

Mom puts down the iron with a thud. “Not you, too! I won’t have it. Not under my own roof. You take that back, young lady. It’s a bald-faced lie!”

“Watergate!” Francie says, and she goes over to dial the volume up on the TV. “Mom, Denise is right about Nixon.”

There sits John Dean. His name is on the screen.

Francie is wincing a bit from feeling her Mom staring a hole in the back of her neck.

Denise says, “That guy’s been talking all morning. Spilling his guts.”

Mom says, “Francie Phipps, you turn that down. The man’s a liar. Just look at him. He’s nobody. It makes no sense. Why would our President do that? I don’t believe it for a minute.”

Speaking too quickly, Francie says, “The President is a liar. And a crook. Just listen to the tapes.”

“What tapes?” Denise asks, giving Francie that look again.

Francie realizes they don’t know about the tapes yet.

She changes the subject. “I should have named him Dean.”

“Nobody calls a cat Dean,” says Denise.

“No. The baby,” says Francie.

Mom is red in the face when she declares, “If that baby is a boy, we’re naming him Michael, after your father. It’s already been decided.”

She’s right. Francie’s son will be named Michael, and unfortunately, he will take after his grandfather in every way.

Francie has never tried to change the future. She wonders if a name makes a difference. “Sure, Mom,” she says, shrugging and backing away from the TV.

Mom immediately walks over to take control of the dial. She switches the channel again and again, grumbling about the three choices as she flips through them.

Francie approaches Denise and whispers to her, “Denise, if I forget, please remind me that I want to name my boy Dean.”

Denise smiles, but says nothing. It will be a secret then.

“I’m going to make some pancakes,” Francie says, lifting her belly to lumber away. “Do we have any bacon?”

“You bought bacon yesterday,” Denise says.

Francie stops and smiles at Denise. “Want to help?” she asks.

Denise takes a long moment to decide, while they look one another in the eye.

Then Denise says, “Come on, you got to feed your cat.”

Francie’s son is kicking again. Her body is not her own today. She stumbles.

Denise holds out a hand.

Francie takes it gratefully but gingerly, and she manages not to cry. Apparently, her dear old friend has just become her new young friend.

“Thank you,” Francie says. “I might have forgotten.”

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