Excerpt from Frances Johnson
Stacey Levine

Frances Johnson sat on her front porch, listening to the radio in the dark. She wore a blue dress.

Beyond the wooden porch, night was thick. Frances stood, walking into the living-room, listening. A train lumbered across a nearby trestle, halting as it reached the center of the weak bridge. Below the trestle was a curving road, leading in one direction toward the town, and in the opposite direction toward the sea.

The train hissed. It would follow a tricky, meandering route that would probably lead to another state.

Frances was an expressive woman in many ways.

There were so many people and things to think about, such huge compendiums of circumstances.

Sometimes Frances was afraid for no real reason, it seemed. Oftentimes, waking in the middle of the night, she was uncertain who she was. Frances did not like that. Stumbling to the bathroom, she feared that who or whatever she was would be inappropriate or cause a calamity of some kind—and that was the most frightening thing of all. Standing on a little foot-rug, she would calm herself by rubbing her limbs briskly, hoping the heat would fill out her body and make it more dimensional.

" We can't know the future," she said dully to someone on the telephone, then hung up the heavy receiver.

" I will not attend the dance," she spoke aloud to herself.

Outside, the porch swing creaked.

Frances had a suitor, Ray Garn. Ray was fine, though sometimes his enthusiasms were hard to understand. The two had been together for quite some time, making vague, halfhearted plans for the future.

Ray was mild-tempered, and things generally went well. Once, though, they traveled a few miles south to search for the sea—just that once—and Ray hid behind a wall for hours, causing Frances to feel a kind of fury.

It was a long, tall wall that rose up to hide the ocean shore from the road. Ray squatted next to it, smoking, smiling, and looking up at Frances when she found him, as if it were all a game, as if he had made her worry on purpose by hiding. She got so angry that she smacked him, hard, on the jaw.

He laughed. " Frances, it was just a joke! You know—hide and seek? Well, now you can hide, if you like."

Frances did not want to. She preferred to go into the cabin and play a quiet game by herself with a bowl of salty water, a religious-type game in which she imagined punishing and bathing herself and others. Sitting alone, in any case, brought such relief that Frances locked Ray out for most of the trip, feeling deliciously private while he stood by the sea with its freezing waves.

After some time, she saw through the cabin window that Ray had resorted to taking a walk. The wall along the beach prevented him from looking at the sea—assuming he liked the sea—and clamorous, gusty winds ripped at his sleeves and hair.

Frances left the cabin to join him at the far end of the wall. They said nothing at first, but soon were sharing some hard crackers and butter, sitting in the wild grass near the fence, chatting amicably and joking, shouting into the wind.

That evening she allowed Ray into the cabin bedroom, which smelled cheerlessly of mothballs and skin. He lay next to her on the bed for a while, then, levering upon bent arms, rolled atop her. She heard a tiny click: Ray's eyes shifting. After moments, he rolled away.

" It doesn't make sense to me," she exhaled toward the window, which framed a dark, gelatinous sky. " Two adults, in the middle of the night . . . one lying on top of the other . . . ?" Frances felt out of sorts.

" Yes, it's awfully strange," Ray agreed.

They fell asleep.

After the vacation, the pair got along fine. There was no reason to argue, they said, and each day vanished quickly, as if eager to flee the world. While not exactly gloomy, Frances regarded Ray with some sense of puzzlement.

Frances could not perceive Ray easily. She noticed, when physically close to him, that his head loomed so near and large she lost the sense of what he really looked like or who he was altogether; she would wonder why she was positioned next to him at all. She did not always enjoy their time together. But Frances stuck with Ray, on some days forgetting about him entirely. Her parents did not care for him, which was disappointing, but on the other hand, he was dependable, and good at bicycle tire repair.

It seemed she loved Ray.

Whom did Frances Johnson love?

Tonight, she looked at the door.

Ray was there. He looked down over his broad, tanned face.

" If things keep going the way they are, well, I think someday soon there might be a revolt!"

He was referring to their town, Munson. Years before, it had been called Hutchinson-Munson, after the pair of entrepreneur brothers-in-law who had founded the city upon a dream of a prosperous smelter. That business failed for countless reasons, the unpredictable Florida weather being only one of these. Still, the brothers-in-law strove to become famous, because they feared sudden death and the nothingness that might come after. So they became joint mayor of the town, writing a pamphlet about the local volcano and its stolid beauty before fleeing the region. Now, the town was simply known as Munson.

Munson was isolated, though at its border stood a sister town, Little-Munson, which was poor and weak. The people there always seemed to struggle for the simplest things.

Ray often expressed irritation with Munson, because, as he put it, the town preferred to forget—perhaps hide from—the outer world. Others, including Frances, were inclined to feel the same. Certainly there were worse places to live, towns that lacked even a council. But Munson had a strange air; besides, it had too many rules.

" Oh, Ray, who's going to revolt? There's no one to revolt," she said tiredly, glancing at his dark sweater-vest.