“ Hi Sweetheart, it’s your old mom again. Just wanted to wish your sweet girl a happy birthday. Did you get my last message? Check your mail. There should be something in there from me and your Aunt Jeanne. So go look, okay? Oh, and give me a call back when you got the time later. Or just send me a picture of little Rosie or something to let me know you’re alive…ha ha, just a joke, honey. Anyway, ca— ”
Frank fiddled with the Bic lighter, flicking the flame on and off with the press of his thumb, as his mother rattled on through his tinny flip phone speaker over the droning hum of his microwave. Before she could finish her last sentence, his voicemail cut her off and spared him another plea to return her calls.
“ There are no new messages, ” his phone declared, so Frank flipped it shut and shoved it back in his pocket right as the microwave stilled and beeped twice.
After opening the door and using the edge of his shirt to pull out the steaming mug, Frank nearly toppled the mug sideways onto his hot plate in a rush to remove the scalding ceramic from his tender fingers, the thin fabric of his t-shirt, sourced from Goodwill some years ago, having failed in its duty to protect his hands.
“Shit,” Frank hissed, popping a red finger into his mouth.
The steam subsided from the mug a minute later. This time using two old McDonald’s napkins as a potholder, Frank took the mug and turned it over onto a paper plate, and out flopped a misshapen but identifiable chocolate cupcake—or at least the bottom half of one. The internet had said that whipped cream was better for babies than straight icing, so he topped the cake with a nice swirl of Walmart-brand Reddi-Whip and a single candle to represent Rosie’s one little year of life.
One the candle was lit, he turned off the kitchen light and carried the plate the few steps to his couch, placing it down gently on the coffee table so that he could take his little girl into his arms.
Rosie fussed and squirmed as he sat down, but he shushed her and turned her attention to the cake in front of her.
“Hey, baby, it’s okay. That’s for you,” Frank said after he’d sang through the song and blown out the candle, running a finger through the cream and putting it in her mouth so that she could taste. “It’s for you, see? Probably tastes pretty fucking good compared to the bland shit you usually get.”
From her sudden interest in the cake, Rosie agreed. Her stubby fingers reached forward towards the plate, so Frank picked it up and let her dive in with her fingers. Neither of them had nice clothes so he figured a small mess was in order for a very small birthday girl. He didn’t bat an eye when Rosie covered her face in shitty, crumbling brown cake, the whipped cream crawling down the front of her shirt.
She giggled and awkwardly tried to eat the remaining dessert from her sticky hands with no avail.
“Shit, kid. Bath time, you think?”
Rosie smiled. He threw the plate in the trash on their way to the bathroom.
His mom called again while Rosie splashed around in the tub. The special ringtone he chose specifically to warn him not to answer the phone echoed the same way that most loud noises did through his utilitarian apartment, near-empty in a visual representation of his double-digit checking account, and he ignored the sound with practiced ease.
Frank worked a handful of body wash into his daughter’s fine hair. “Your grandma’s kind of a nosy bitch, sometimes,” he told her and she laughed like she had understood his words to be a very, very funny joke. And, because she looked so fucking cute, he grabbed his phone and snapped a picture of her with his grainy phone camera anyway, just in case he decided to humor his mother after all.
The guilt came when he went to work at the motel a few hours later, with Rosie exhausted and asleep in her carrier next to him. Did spending her first birthday alone with him make him a shitty dad? Could Rosie tell there was something missing? Logically, his kid was too small to know any difference, especially since she didn’t have any other birthdays to compare today to, but was this the kind of thing that left mental scars on kids forever? Like, would she be sixteen, bursting into tears on her birthday because, fuck, her dad didn’t do enough for the very first one she had?
Frank had thoughts like that a lot. As with the other times, he took a raincheck on the inner turmoil and figured there wasn’t much he could have done, as single and broke as he was, to make it better for her. Besides, Rosie had enjoyed the cake more than enough.
A throat cleared in front of him from the other side of the safety glass, tearing him from his thoughts.
“Can I get a room, please?”
The voice belonged to a guy, a regular at the shitty motel where Frank worked, with shaggy hair dyed black from a box. He was taller than Frank—most adult men were—and usually wore these baggy, dark clothes that were either a dedicated stylistic choice or reflected complete apathy towards what he looked like. Either way, the guy dressed like he stole directly from Frank’s own meager closet.
His fingers tapped impatiently on the counter and his eyes kept nervously flickering to the short middle-aged man who stood a few feet behind him. On any other guest, the behavior would’ve been enough to warrant suspicion that something was amiss. But any nervousness here, Frank knew, came from the regular’s anxious anticipation of another nameless one-night stand. The guy brought a line of men through the motel every few nights, never returning with the same partner or looking particularly comfortable with his choice of company. Sometimes he looked almost upset to be there, and during those moments Frank wondered if speaking up was the moral thing to do.
A guest was a guest, though, and they paid all the same. Frank only maintained interest in the lives of the regulars as far as it provided entertainment on a graveyard shift.
“How long?” Frank asked, skipping the usual spiel of liability and check-out procedures to someone who’d heard it directly from him probably a dozen times.
The guy shared a look with the man behind him and then said, “Three hours?”
Frank shrugged and drew up the paperwork, to which the guy quickly signed his name— Gerard Way, Frank never remembered that—before taking the key and disappearing down the hall, trailed by a partner too old and ugly to be remotely within his league.
Rosie stirred in her sleep. She looked like her mother the least when she was relaxed and dreaming which meant that that was when she looked like him the most, during those moments of peace at the end of the day. Frank hoped that Gerard and his company, only a few very thin walls away, would be quiet enough to not wake his little girl. She was already going to be fucked up enough as an adult.
The lights flickered a little in the hallway next to the front desk and a minute later muffled grunting started from the room assigned to the Gerard guy and his company. Rosie stayed asleep and so Frank sent his mom the picture of his girl in the tub. Just to ease his conscience, if only a little.
A few months into adulthood and about six weeks before his band split up in the middle of touring, Frank figured out that you could buy Walmart bakery goods for dirt cheap if you went an hour or two before the place closed, or at least, in the case of the twenty-four-hour Walmarts his band frequented while on the road, if you went close enough to midnight. Something like a box of donuts that cost close to ten dollars fresh would be marked down to two, three bucks and could feed someone for a day or two if you weren’t really picky about nutrition. After that, Frank made a habit of never buying food before dark.
He made one of his late-night Walmart grocery runs the payday after Rosie’s birthday. Figuring out how he would pay for the diapers and food she needed and the food to feed himself while still affording the rent that was due in a few days took up most of his brain power, but he tried to entertain her as much as he could with a running stream of snarky commentary.
“If I ever see you wearing shit like this when you get older I’m disowning you,” he told her upon passing the women’s clothing section, where three mannequins advertised poppy, bright-colored Panic! at the Disco t-shirts.
Rosie pulled his hair in response and shrieked happily when he cringed in pain.
“You’re grounded when we get home,” Frank said, letting her continue to tug at his scalp. At least she wasn’t knocking over and breaking merchandise this time. “I mean it. No cell phone, no boys, no nothing.”
She didn’t sound very remorseful, though, from the volume of her laughter and the strength of her little hands as they yanked his head in her direction.
Frank meandered around the bakery section, holding his daughter with one arm and his basket with the other. Her weight was starting to tire his arm out, but he had a thing about letting her go in public even if she would be right in front of him in the cart. Besides, if he let himself buy enough stuff to need a cart, the long walk home would be hell.
While gesturing to an array of extremely cheap baguettes on a cart, he asked Rosie for her opinion. “Which one do you think is gonna mold the quickest?”
She reached out a hand towards a pink cake a few feet away and he took that as a sign to grab the one nearest to the direction she was gesturing in. He was shoving the long loaf of bread in his basket when, from his pocket, his cell phone rang.
Since the ringtone indicated Ray as the caller instead of his mother, Frank took a second to maneuver his child and basket so that he had the free hand to flip the phone open and hold it to his ear.
“Call your mom,” Ray said without preamble and Frank realized he’d been duped.
“You have ten seconds to explain yourself before I hang up.”
Ray sighed. “Come on, Frank. You know that it’s weird and shitty that I’m the touchpoint between your mom and her grandkid. Just call her so she stops calling me .”
Frank took his basket and kid and walked over to the cereal aisle, his last stop in the store. “What’s she paying you to harass me? Whatever it is, I’ll double it if you tell her that my phone got stolen.”
Frank grabbed one of the bags of Malt-O-Meal Golden Honey-O’s, an off-brand bulk version of Cheerios that could feed him and Rosie for two weeks’ worth of breakfasts. “Yeah, I mean it.”
“So you’ll give me two hundred bucks to tell her that.”
That halted Frank in his tracks. “Wait, is she actually giving you that much? Shit.”
“Obviously not,” Ray scoffed. “Like you could afford it if she was.”
Frank resumed his trek from the back of the grocery section to the cashiers at the front of the Walmart. “Maybe I could,” he said. “I got paid today.”
“I know how much you make, and no you couldn’t,” Ray countered. “Are you at Walmart right now? Is that what I hear?”
While Ray was talking, Frank had approached the self-checkout machines and started to ring up his stuff. Scanning was made difficult by the baby nodding off on his shoulder, but his three months of cashiering at Pathmark in high school had left him adept at the one-handed checkout. He probably retained more skills from that job than from all of his classes at school combined.
“Yeah,” Frank said. “Told you, pay day.”
“You know, most financially stable adults don’t have to wait for their direct deposit to buy food. Hey, did you ever get that EBT card?”
Frank swiped his card, cringing a little at his total. “No. I just don’t think I need it, you know?”
That wasn’t exactly true. During one slow, shitty night at the motel he risked pissing off his uptight boss and used the ancient front desk computer to look up the steps to get food stamps, only to exit out of the tab a few minutes later. The website listed about a hundred different steps—filling out paperwork and going to the Social Services office and getting interviewed—which just made his head hurt. He hadn’t tried looking at it since.
“Yeah, okay,” Ray said. “Look, I have to go. Say hi to your mom when you call her, alright?”
“I’m not calling her.”
“You are,” Ray said. Then he hung up.
Frank sighed when he looked at the display on his phone for the time and saw that he’d be waiting the full ten minutes in the cold for the bus to bring him and Rosie home. So, once under the shelter, he placed his grocery bag next to the bench, sat down on the freezing metal, and called his mom, cradling Rosie to his chest and cursing Ray all the while.
His mom picked up after the first ring. “Frankie! It’s so late.”
“Ray told me you needed something, so. Hi.”
“I wanted to check up on Rosie for her birthday. Is she good?”
“She’s one,” Frank said. “She’s always good.”
“Well, I hope she had fun on her birthday. I sent a little present, did you see it?”
“No,” Frank told her, even though Rosie was wearing the teddy bear trapper hat gifted to her by his mother right then. “I’ll have to check again.”
“When you do, send me a picture.”
A gust of wind swept through, cutting right through his jacket to his skin despite the shelter. He shivered and asked, “Is that all you wanted?”
“Well…” His mom’s voice trailed off and Frank frowned. “I just think it’d be nice if you joined us for Mass this Sunday or the next.”
“ Mom ,” Frank groaned.
“You haven’t been in so long that all the ladies there think I made my granddaughter up. They think your mother’s crazy, Frankie. Won’t you come by and prove them wrong? Get that little girl inside a church before she turns two?”
Frank hardened himself to his mother’s pleas. “I’m not going back to church, Mom. And I’m really not going to drag my kid there.” He exhaled and watched his breath appear and dissipate in the air. “My bus is coming now, so.”
“I’ll send you the picture if the gift comes. Bye.”
Frank shut his phone and waited another five minutes before the bus came for real. He paid his fare and sat in the very front seat without checking for suspicious stains or sticky shit on the floor.
The quiet bus pushed forward, jostling them as the tires ran over potholes and patches of uneven pavement.
Frank held his daughter against his chest, jealous of her easy sleep, and wished for a single moment that someone would hold him like that, just for a little while.
The gas station convenience store was the only place within walking distance of Frank’s apartment open twenty-four hours a day. So, when Rosie catapulted his entire keychain into a storm drain on their walk home from the bus stop late at night, they had no way to stay warm except to loiter there until the building superintendent woke up hours later. Rosie didn’t seem to mind that much; mostly she looked upset at the sudden disappearance of her favorite toy—the key chain in question—and that now she had to entertain herself with the substandard replacement engraved with Rose that Frank bought upon their arrival at the gas station.
After about an hour into their tenure roaming around and discretely squatting in the aisles, Frank and Rosie finally attracted the notice of the attendant, who had been leisurely flipping through a gossip magazine up until Rosie let out a particular loud shriek.
The attendant stood up and looked ready to come interrogate them as to what business he and his daughter had bunkering down in a shitty gas station when a customer walked in to buy gas, stealing the attention away from them. As the attendant left the store momentarily to pump the customer’s fuel—a baffling move, considering the distrust she’d been eyeing them with seconds earlier—Frank grabbed Rosie and moved them to the bathroom, locking the door behind them in hopes to elongate their stay here.
If they were made to leave, he didn’t know where they would go. Midnight had already come and gone, leaving behind the coldest hours of night, and the only other heated places to go—the two bars a block over—would hardly let him in with a one-year-old. So Frank tried to keep Rosie quiet until the two a.m. shift change came around.
He sighed in relief when he heard the employee exit door right outside the bathroom open and footsteps—too heavy to belong to the petite older woman who’d been working until then—traveled to the register.
As the two attendants greeted each other softly and started the necessary till counting to trade places, Frank picked Rosie up with one arm and prayed that she would stay silent while he crept back out to the main area and pretended to be intently considering different brands of sunglasses.
“—weirdo with a kid in the bathroom,” the first attendant was saying to her replacement.
Frank froze but didn’t try to move. The two workers probably couldn’t see him from the front of the store unless they scrutinized the live security footage, but since the first attendant had decided to snitch, he figured it was only a matter of time before the second asked him and Rosie to leave. His mind raced. Maybe he could find his superintendent’s place and knock on his door before five a.m., begging him to let them into their apartment. But the last time he knocked on his super’s door for a favor there had been a gun leaning against the front entryway wall, so maybe that wasn’t the best plan.
“I’ll take care of it, Beth,” the second attendant said. His voice sounded familiar but Frank couldn’t place it and couldn’t turn around and check just yet.
“Be safe,” said Beth before leaving—exiting out the front door, thankfully.
Then it was just Frank, Rosie, and the new attendant in the store, so when he heard footsteps, he knew whose they were and where they were headed.
The guy stopped behind him and cleared his throat.
Frank turned around slowly, ready to play dumb or plead his case. But the moment he faced the attendant, the words were stolen straight from his throat. All he managed to get out was: “It’s—you.”
Gerard the motel regular looked as embarrassed as Frank felt. His face flushed and he took a step back. “You’re—” His eyes caught on Rosie in Frank’s arms. “Whose kid is that?”
Frank cradled Rosie’s head and angled her away from the man in front of them. “Mine,” he said defensively.
Gerard blinked and then shook his head like he was coming back to himself. “You can’t be in here,” he told Frank. “I mean, we have a no-loitering policy, so you have to buy something or leave.”
“I am buying something,” Frank said, deciding to play dumb, at least at first. He grabbed a pair of children’s sunglasses and shoved them on Rosie’s face to demonstrate his point. “See?”
Gerard didn’t point out that sunglasses at two in the morning was a weird purchase, but he did say, “Beth said that you’ve been in here for, like, two hours, so I don’t really believe you.”
“It’s her, not me. Just can’t make up her mind on which pair she wants,” Frank said, staring Gerard down and daring him to kick a little girl out into the cold. “Babies are really indecisive at her age.”
Gerard frowned. “Right… Look, don’t make me call someone, alright? Just…help her make her decision, or whatever, and go. Alright?”
Frank waited until Gerard turned his back and walked back to the register to let his shoulders droop. Scrubbing his face with his free hand, he breathed out and tried to form a game plan for the remaining three hours until they could get home. Maybe they could bus somewhere like Walmart or the White Castle a few miles away but he didn’t have that much money on him and both options would entail a lot of of walking in the cold and dark.
Unfortunately, he was out of other options. Before he made his way out, he grabbed a small cup of hot, black coffee and approached the counter to pay for it.
To his credit, Gerard looked guilty as he rang up the coffee and asked Frank for the dollar that it cost.
Frank handed over an assortment of spare change and decided to swallow his pride and try honesty as a last-ditch effort. “You know, I, um, lost my keys.”
Gerard looked up from the register. “Your keys?”
“Yeah,” Frank said. “She threw my house keys down the storm drain and I can’t get in my apartment until morning. So that’s why we’re here.”
“Oh,” said Gerard. “You don’t have a car?”
Frank shook his head.
“You could have, like, ridden the bus around until morning, maybe.”
“The routes get weird at night—the bus changes and stuff.”
“I know.” Gerard bit his lip and handed Frank his receipt without giving in. “Sorry.”
Sighing, Frank took the receipt and coffee in one hand and readjusted Rosie on his hip. She was awake but getting sleepy and had her thumb in her mouth.
“Thanks,” Frank said before taking a swig of the scalding coffee and walking to the front door. Next time Gerard came to the motel, Frank was going to give him the room that had just been bug bombed.
As he opened the door and a gust of cold air hit him in the face, Gerard said from behind them, “Shit. Wait. You can—you can stay.”
Frank backed up and turned around. “Really?”
“Yeah,” Gerard said but he didn’t look sure. “Just… fuck, don’t steal anything, okay?”
Frank nodded gratefully and retreated to the back of the store again to avoid Gerard for the rest of the night.
“Hey, uh. What’s her name?”
Frank had just wandered to the front of the car maintenance aisle when Gerard asked the question. He looked up and then faked interest in a bottle of windshield wiper fluid for the car that he did not have. Why was he never around normal, realistic stuff when he needed to be?
“You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to,” Gerard continued through Frank’s silence. “Forget I asked.”
“It’s just that—” Frank moved Rosie from one hip to the other, “You don’t even know my name, so why would I tell you hers?”
“Okay. What’s your name, then?”
Frank considered lying or saying that that information was private, too. It wasn’t that he was afraid of Gerard using their names for some nefarious purpose or whatever. After all, Gerard knew where he worked; if he wanted to find Frank badly enough all he’d have to do was show up at the motel some weeknight after ten. The problem was that the act of giving away even a small piece of information about himself beyond what he’d already relinquished felt intimate, and Frank didn’t do casual camaraderie with near-strangers. He had too low an opinion of humanity.
But if he kept the standoffish attitude then Gerard might think twice about letting them stay there all night. So, reluctantly, he said, “Frank,” and then, nodding at his daughter, continued, “This is Rosie.”
The smallest of smiles formed on Gerard’s face, which unnerved Frank. “I’m Gerard.”
“You do?” Gerard asked. Then he shook his head. “Oh, of course. The motel.”
“Also your nametag,” Frank said.
Gerard glanced down at his chest, where a laminated white card that said, Hello! I am GERARD and I am ready to help you! stood out against his bright red polo shirt. “Right,” he said, the tips of his ears turning pink. “You know, it would be really cool if you could, like, not mention where you know me from to anyone, maybe? I mean, specifically the part about the… you know….”
By then Gerard’s whole face had flushed a bright red and he had his head turned in the complete opposite direction of Frank, who decided to put him out of his misery. “What, the guys you bring there? Take it easy, dude, I don’t even have anyone to tell.”
Gerard fiddled with the sleeves of the thermal shirt he wore underneath the polo. “I just meant if you were, I don’t know, chummy with my co-workers or something.”
“I don’t do chummy ,” Frank said.
“I don’t do that, either.”
“Yeah, I can tell,” Gerard muttered.
Frank pretended not to hear him and drifted into the candy aisle.
“So, what,” continued Gerard a moment later, “You don’t have friends?”
“Not really,” Frank said. Rosie had started to fall asleep and was becoming heavier in his arms by the second. If he didn’t get some weight off his feet, his back was going to kill him for the next week and a half. “I don’t have room in my life right now for other people.”
“Because of the kid?”
Frank had his back to Gerard but turned his head to make eye contact and nod before quickly turning away.
“I know lots of young parents—single parents, even—who still have friends.”
Frank shrugged and rounded the next aisle so that he faced Gerard. “They’re not me, though. They don’t have to deal with everything that I have to deal with.”
“Yeah, but who do you talk to?”
“Her, mostly.” Frank knew how pathetic it sounded even as it left his mouth.
Gerard rolled his eyes. “How old is she—ten, twelve months? My brother has kids that age and, you know, I wouldn’t exactly call them conversationalists .”
“We make it work.”
“Sounds pretty lonely.”
“I’m not lonely,” Frank insisted as he reached the front of the aisle. His spine couldn’t take it anymore, so he sank down to the floor and rested his back against the side of one of the beverage freezers. “I always have all the company I need.”
Gerard glanced meaningfully at Rosie and then said, “That’s not what lonely means, though.” He walked out from between the register and cigarette wall to lean against the customer side of the front counter, crossing his arms. “I mean, take me for example. I live in my mom and dad’s house. They’re both retired, so they’re just, like, always home and begging me to do shit with them. But it’s always like, Let’s go to Zumba at the Y or Your dad got three tickets to Jimmy Buffett instead of, I don’t know, we’re taking you to see Butterfly Suicide at the Delirium later .”
“Butterfly Suicide fucking sucks,” Frank said. “And the Delirium is a shit venue.”
Gerard shrugged. “No shit, but my parents don’t know enough about me to know that. That’s what I’m saying. I live with them and we spend a lot of time together but they’re not my friends . And only hanging out with them makes me lonely as shit.” Gerard cast his gaze downward then, biting his lip and looking like he wanted to say more.
An uncomfortable twinge of pity for the guy who let them stay out of the cold hit Frank in the stomach. “Maybe your parents are just lame,” Frank said. “Rosie’s totally punk rock, though, so I don’t have your problem.”
Gerard pressed his lips together again in that almost-smile. “You’re probably right,” he said.
Only one other person entered the gas station convenience store after Gerard started his shift. An older man, probably a truck driver from his haggard flannel and his bugged-out eyes, bought the largest black coffee he could and didn’t seem to notice the twenty-four-year-old sitting on the floor with a baby, even as he stepped over them to get to the register.
Eventually, Frank’s shoulder must have become uncomfortable for Rosie because about twenty minutes after the truck driver left, she roused from sleep and quickly grew restless. By that point Frank completely lacked the energy to give her the attention that she wanted, and she started to fuss, grabbing for anything within arm’s reach. When Frank slapped her hands away from the merchandise he couldn’t afford to replace were it ruined by baby drool, she let out a wail so loud it sent an electric shock down his spine.
“Come on,” Frank begged her, rubbing her back and trying to get her to calm down to no avail. “You’re okay, baby girl, stop crying.”
Gerard had been leaning against the coffee counter but now made his way past them and over to the register.
“Fuck. I’m sorry,” Frank told him, watching curiously as Gerard hefted himself up onto the counter to grab something small and rectangular from behind the receipt printer.
Gerard slid back down to the ground and then brought the thing to them, guiding it into Rosie’s hands. “Here,” he said.
The thing turned out to be a calculator, a choice that Frank didn’t understand until a few seconds passed and Rosie stopped crying almost completely, thoroughly engrossed in pressing the buttons in slow motion with her little hands.
“Holy shit,” Frank said. “That worked like—how did you know to do that?”
Gerard shrugged casually but Frank thought he looked pretty happy with himself. “I told you earlier, my brother’s got kids. I help out sometimes. Mikey and his girlfriend, they have this—this toddler enrichment thing that’s like a board with a bunch of buttons and keys and stuff like that. And it also has a calculator on it, so I figured, hey, why not try?”
“Thank you,” Frank told him, more genuinely grateful than he’d been all night long.
“Don’t worry about it. I wanted to hear her cry just about as much as you, I imagine,” Gerard said, giving Rosie’s back a friendly pat. “Do you think it’s okay to keep her up like this, though? Shouldn’t we be trying to get her back to sleep or something, considering what time it is?”
Ignoring how much Gerard saying we like he was part of this irked him, Frank said, “She’s on a different schedule than most other kids her age because of when I work.” He eyed Gerard suspiciously and felt the need to defend himself. “The internet said there was nothing wrong with adjusting her schedule if she still gets enough sleep, and she does.”
“I was just wondering, because you work those late hours at the Red Oak.”
“I bring her with me,” Frank said. “You haven’t seen her there?”
“No,” Gerard said. “Your manager must be really cool to let you do that.”
“He doesn’t know,” Frank told him and left it at that.
As the night progressed, Frank slowly got more comfortable letting Gerard play with Rosie, mainly because he had been up since nine and just staying awake was taking up his entire attention span. Gerard first picked Rosie up at one point a little past four and Frank didn’t even protest. Besides, Rosie seemed to like Gerard for whatever reason, and if she was giggling that much, she was probably okay.
Finally the night faded to early morning and five-thirty, the absolute earliest Frank could contact his superintendent, arrived. While Gerard bounced Rosie on the counter, Frank called the number and explained the situation to his bleary super, who only sounded a little unpleasant as he instructed Frank to come knock on his door when he got back to the apartment building.
“I should get going,” Frank said, standing up and swaying on his feet.
Gerard nodded. “I could carry her there if you want. Another attendant’s going to be here soon, so I can take my break.”
“Nah, I’m good,” Frank told him.
“Okay,” said Gerard skeptically. “It’s just that you look like you’re about to fall over.”
Gerard had a point. Frank imagined himself tripping on the sidewalk and falling with Rosie in his hands, sending them both head-first into the concrete. “Alright,” he said, figuring that, while leading someone he didn’t know that well directly to his apartment constituted a morally dubious decision in the eyes of the Child Protective Services, he could probably fuck up Gerard’s life pretty bad if he tried anything.
They all remained silent on the short walk to Frank’s apartment building. Only once they were inside the freezing cold stairwell did Frank remember to be embarrassed, but the derelict state of the place didn’t seem to phase Gerard, who did, after all, work in a shitty gas station in a shitty part of town.
Frank led Gerard to his front door. “Stay here,” he said before climbing back down the few floors to get his superintendent, a man in his late sixties named Randy.
A few minutes later, he returned with Randy in tow to find Gerard still there, bouncing on his heels and humming something to a quiet Rosie.
“Is he living here?” Randy asked as he unlocked the door for them, nodding towards Gerard. “He ain’t on the lease.”
“No—” Frank started but Gerard beat him to it.
“I’m just a friend,” Gerard said.
Randy eyed them suspiciously like he didn’t quite believe it, but eventually just shrugged, told Frank he’d need to fork over fifty bucks later that day if he wanted a replacement key, and then skulked back towards his own apartment.
Gerard gently handed Rosie back to Frank, who let out a breath of relief when she remained quiet through the transition.
“Thanks,” Frank said. “For the—you know.”
“Sure,” Gerard said with a smile. “She’s a good kid.”
Gerard cleared his throat. “Well, I’ll see you around.”
“See you,” Frank said. Dead on his feet as he was, he couldn’t help but stand there and watch as Gerard walked down the stairs, one-by-one until he disappeared from sight.
Over the following few weeks, Frank found himself craving the gas station coffee during every single uncaffeinated moment of his day. The urge didn’t make a whole lot of sense; the coffee had been nothing more than the average cup of gas station joe: marginally better than what his Mr. Coffee made at home but not worth a cent more than the dollar it cost. Still, stopping for a cup of hot coffee became a routine part of his walk to the bus station for work in the evenings.
The first time he decided to fuck his budget and indulge in the drink, Beth from the night he spent there was working and gave him the evil eye as he fixed his cup at the coffee station, up until he approached the register with the intent to pay and left. Under the scrutiny of her glare, Frank swore that he wouldn’t come back, that burnt home-brewed coffee that tasted like piss was good enough for him. Then the next day the craving struck him again and that time he entered the gas station convenience store and saw Gerard, who perked up and waved hello.
Frank came back regularly after that, buying cup after cup and not trying to think in math about how a dollar per day meant thirty dollars per month, which was a month of diapers for Rosie or a third of the yearly phone bill for his shitty TracFone. But it was hard to prevent the habit from forming after he began to look forward to buying the coffee every day, to the hot liquid caffeine sliding down his throat while he exchanged a casual word with Gerard, which maybe said something about how pathetic his life was.
Eventually Beth no longer looked at him with scorn every time he entered the convenience store, and a few of her and Gerard co-workers—the people Frank wasn’t supposed to talk to about the motel, he remembered—started to anticipate his nightly visit.
On one occasion about a month after Rosie threw his keys down the storm drain, Frank’s boss at the motel moved the start of his shift back by ninety minutes for no other reason than to remind Frank that he could. That night Frank bought his coffee about an hour later than usual and so he encountered a gas station attendant other than Gerard, who usually worked Wednesday night.
The fact that Gerard wasn’t working didn’t shock Frank. His own work schedule had shifted around, after all, so why wouldn’t the same happen to Gerard, whose part-time job entailed a lot less shift regularity than Frank’s?
What did surprise him, though, was that when Frank put his coffee on the counter to pay for it, the attendant asked him, “You’re the guy with the kid, right?”
Frank glanced at the little girl in his arms at that exact moment and, with no minor degree of confusion, answered, “…yes?”
“I mean the one who’s friends with Gerard. That’s you, ain’t it?”
Frank considered the question. Were he and Gerard friends? They talked daily and knew some of the more intimate details of each other’s lives but both of those qualities came about because of a handful of coincidences and moments where they both happened to be in the wrong place at the right time. Frank only knew the proverbial tip of Gerard’s iceberg of baggage—honestly most days he struggled to reconcile the upbeat gas station attendant with the guarded man who brought one-night-stand after one-night-stand to a seedy motel every week—and Gerard sure as hell didn’t know Frank’s. It had been a while since Frank had been friendly—because that’s what they were; they were friendly— with someone who didn’t live through all that baggage with him.
Ray Toro was just about the only real friend Frank had and he’d witnessed the suck firsthand. In high school when Frank dropped out and his mom had her big freak-out meltdown, Ray helped grab all of his shit in the middle of the night even though he still had to go to school the next day. Two years later, Ray loaned Frank the clothes he wore to his dad’s funeral. And, a few years after that, when Mel showed up at Frank’s front door with a fucking baby strapped to her chest, Frank had called Ray first.
Frank didn’t have to explain himself to Ray ever because Ray knew his damage and, even though he had his life together and much better things to do, still stuck with Frank all these years later. Frank certainly didn’t have that with Gerard. So were they friends?
“Uh, yeah, I guess,” Frank said because he doubted the attendant had intended to launch a conversation about the semantics of friendship and labels through asking his question.
“Thought so,” said the attendant. He reached beneath the counter and grabbed something, handing it to Frank. “He was here a little while ago and told me to give you this. Said you’d know what to do with it.”
Frank inspected the object in his hand—a ring of five or six keys of different sizes and colors with the sharp edges dulled down to be perfectly safe for a baby to chew on. Each key featured a different, hand-painted design: a spider, a smiley face, a cactus—weird choices, but Gerard didn’t strike Frank as a normal guy, anyway.
He handed the keyring to Rosie, who started chewing on the key with the spider while he paid for the coffee. A smile appeared on his face and he was selfishly glad that Gerard wasn’t around to see it.
“Thanks,” Frank said, and, with coffee and kid in his hands, he left for work. He could only hope that Rosie would keep a better grip on this keyring than her last.