Frank and Ocho

Frank and Ocho

Frank and Ocho

An Essay by Justin Finley

    No one knows Frank’s story, but we all knew his store. A lot of my coming of age took place there, on the corner of 84th and Lawndale. I had my first bag of flaming hot Cheetos, first kiss, and first official handshake all in the store. Several moments with Frank helped shape me into who I am today. We never understand how important people are to us while they’re here. If I could say anything to Frank today I would tell him thank you, and that I’m doing fine. I’d want him to know that I have a great job that I’m great at, and that I pursued a higher education too, just like he told me I should.

    When people asked him, Frank said he was from "Nowhereville," but he was actually from Jordan. He'd tell them that he’s from a city where there were cars, men, women, children, sky, and buildings.

    “Kinda like this place.” He’d say giving a sly smile, and rearranging the cigarette boxes right next to the Hennessy bottles behind him.

    Frank taught me everything: how to fix a bike chain, tie a tie, and ask a girl out to the movies. Our conversations taught me as much as my teachers did. We talked about work, current events, which coffee was the best, and where he hoped to retire when his body was ready to rest. I entered the store with nothing and always left with something. Whether it was a new book or skill, I was grateful.

 

    Ocho was a big man with strong arms who was always at the store. He had a stature that Jack’s beanstalk couldn’t match. Ocho got the nickname, "Ocho," after grabbing eight kids who were stealing. He did this all in one big bear hug. He squeezed until they dropped everything they had. Frank would take pictures of all of them captured in one big hug from Ocho, and tell them that if sees them in the store again Ocho would crush them until their spines turned into dust. Ocho’s real name was never revealed to me.

    Ocho was a gentle giant to everyone except the thieves. His footsteps were light enough to not be heard when he made laps around the store. When he showed up next to shoplifters they’d think he practically walked through the walls. I never saw Ocho punch or tackle anyone, but the stories I heard could make a soldier afraid of getting on his bad side. Rumors in the neighborhood were that he could punch a hole through a brick wall. Sometimes he’d spot me on the store’s milk section. I was only there so I could get big and strong like him.

   Frank’s store was dimly lit like a haunted boiler room in a factory on cloudy days, but on sunny days the natural light from the glass door was warm like your grandmother’s hug. The store was attached to a small strip mall, which always contained stores that didn't last long. The barbershop that was two doors down closed after a bunch of the barbers got married and felt they needed new careers to support their families. Now, it's a hair salon with pink walls, hair washing stations, and the women working there are pretty enough to have a mob of teenage boys looking through the glass drooling at 4:32 p.m. every day after school. Like an incoming lunch rush, they prepare themselves every afternoon for the boys. Checking their makeup and outfits in the mirrors, they blow kisses while dancing the afternoon away while the boys watch.

    The aisles were like whole cities to the local kids who ran through the store like mad chickens after school. Frank worried very little about local kids stealing due to the fact that he knew all of our parents and had most of their phone numbers. The best aisle was the cereal aisle. It was a local fad to buy ice cream and mini cereal boxes that you could mix all together into a bowl.

    The store smelled like a lot of things, but mostly of aging wood, hot cheese, and lemon mop water. Frank always smelled of old man cologne for the ocean of attractive mothers who'd bring their kids by after school let out. I never thought to ask Frank if a child was in the picture for him before.

    There was enough candy to rot your teeth three times over. There were juices and pop in the back of the store. Behind the counter, there were the cigarettes and few different types of hard liquor. Several adults in the neighborhood, who were once the kids in Frank’s store, talked about buying their first drink from Frank. I told Frank I was waiting to purchase my first drink from his store and he pulled a sharpie from his pocket and marked July 9th on the counter. He told me I had to be at least taller than the counter before we could discuss such things. Now, while writing this essay, I am six feet tall and 168 pounds. I am two feet taller than that counter, and six days away from my 21st birthday.

    Frank’s store sounds like two different places depending if an adult or a child were to be talking about it. A child would jump up and down while describing to you in vivid detail how much candy they’re going to munch on with their friends. Meanwhile, an adult would tell you that Frank’s is the place to go after a week of work for a cold beer. Adults would always shoot the shit by the counter as Frank & Ocho read the paper. My father would be by the store multiple nights a week, and always bring me back a can of Dr. Pepper when he came home.

    “I’ve known these guys for years now.” My dad said. He loved taking me for walks to the store whenever I had new shoes, just so I could show them off. All the kids playing outside at night would watch my feet blink along the sidewalk as I passed their block. My favorite walk to the store was after my dad got me a pair of blue and red Spider-Man sketchers with white LED lights in them.

    “Boy you look like you walking on fireflies!” my father yelled while as  I ran ahead of him. I looked—I look—just like my dad in every possible way from our small eyes, full lips, and curly hair.

    As we walked in, Ocho stood towered by the door. He was so tall that it became a daily task for him to grab items off of top shelves for the customers he referred to as “da shorties.”

    “I can’t wait until I’m taller than the counter.” I'd say, looking up at Frank.

    (Many kids believed that Frank floated in mid-air, without legs because he hardly left from behind the counter.)

    “Don’t look forward to a future; it comes faster than everybody wants.” He'd reply, running his hands through his thinning hair.

 

    “Is Frank married yet?” My mother always asked this as she could hear my plastic bag crinkle with chips and juice as I made my way to the kitchen.

    “Not yet” I would respond. “Me and Ocho are looking for the perfect woman for him.” I'd joke. Oh yeah, Frank taught me how to joke.

    It's hard to say if I consider Frank an older brother, uncle, cousin, or grandpa to me. This is because he had all the qualities to be any of them. So I guess Frank was just Frank. I could describe him to you a million times over, but I’m not sure how many times it would take to capture his full personality. I actually don't think I ever could.

    Lots of people came and went in ther store, but Frank and Ocho were around me long enough to really know me. They met my new friends and girlfriends as soon, if not sooner, than my parents did. They would smile as I held hands next to the Arizona fridge that hummed like a tiny motorcycle with the girl I told them was referred to as the "prettiest" at Dawes Elementary.  And they gave me a free Arizona when we broke up a week later. Overtime I began to spend lots of time in the store: doing homework or just hanging out. Frank didn’t know a lot about math, and had very little interest in reading anything that wasn’t the newspaper. No matter how much I begged Frank, he refused to hire me.

 

    I was always close with my mother and father. They worked so much. I guess never felt bitter about it because I had a neighborhood to take care of me when they couldn't. In a community where everyone feels like a cousin I never felt lonely.

    “You smart. There are things in this world for you.” He’d say slapping an invisible fly on the back of my neck. I always wondered if there was more Frank wanted out of life than this store.

    Everyone knew Frank in the neighborhood, but no one really knew Frank. He was friends with my father before I was born. Frank hung out with me a lot as he used to with him. Frank frowned upon telling others every detail of his life.

    “Boring!” He’d say while stocking cigarettes behind the counter. “If you learn everything about a person they become boring. There is no more to be learned. Keep them on their toes. Show them there is more to you than they think every day.”

    He gave an affirming head nod after revelations like this. I’d write down a lot of the things he’d say in my “wisdom notebook.”

    “Don’t step on the lava!” he’d say before me and my brother stepped into the store. We'd play the lava game there often, for the next eight years, until I started high school. Frank frowned the day he saw I was not afraid of the lava anymore because he knew it meant I was growing up. He knew I'd stop coming in to by candy every day with the spare quarters from my mother’s purse, and he knew it was coming fast.

    I grew really fast after starting high school. The big store became little as I got taller than Frank and then, eventually, Ocho. The aisles that looked like skyscrapers on my first day of Kindergarten became the same height as me. I No longer had to stand on my toes or have Ocho help me reach. It was around this time that Frank and Ocho began compare back pains over cups of coffee. The splash of gray hairs on Frank’s head spread over the years until it even took up residency in his beard. Frank still looked 50 years old to me. He was there for so long I wondered if he ever thought about visiting home, but didn’t want to ask a question that wasn’t my place to do so.

 

    I started military school in 2011. It was about an hour away from the store. My visits to the store decreased in frequency. I only dropped by only every two to three months. Frank wasn’t hard to read. If he had to tell you something he'd take a number of long pauses in the middle of conversations and he'd scratch his beard while looking out of the window for the correct way to put his statement together. He talked to me like this for a long time. I knew something was coming.

    One day my sophomore year, Frank and Ocho were gone, and a new owner of the store sat behind the counter. He had dark skin and he began to show his temper after having only been in the neighborhood for a total of three days. He told me Frank went back to Jordan to take care of his mother who was been hospitalized at 98 years old. Frank left no contact info behind.

    “Three at a time!” the new owner said as kids came in after class to buy candy.

    I had gone there after class, in hopes to see that the neighborhood didn’t change as much as I did. It was then that I came to the realization that Frank’s store had no difference from other stores in the area, other than Frank and Ocho. They all sold chips, candy, and Arizona sweet teas, and all for the same price. You could get a bag of chips with a glob of melted cheese on top at Frank’s before the rest of the other stores caught on. Without Frank and Ocho though the store wasn’t really special anymore.

    The new owner of the store never let too many colored children enter the store at once. They knew why. And for this, they hated him as much as he hated them. The kids would open chips in the store and half eat them before exiting, stick gum on the drinks then put them back in the fridge, step in as much mud before entering just so they could dirty up the floors, and would purposely eat the bean burritos at the local elementary school just so they could fart by the counter before they left. They were at war.

    “We miss Frank! You stink Apu!” a plump girl in a yellow dress yelled at him pulling up a photo of a Simpsons character on her iPhone. She looked like a sour lemon. The sun wasn’t as bright as it was in 2003, and these kids no longer have scrapes on their knees from climbing trees. Their shoes were not tattered from games of freeze tag, and they couldn’t read clocks. The kids would ponder the location of Frank as they waited outside of the store in threes with their arms crossed. Some said he was in space, some said he was in the mountains hiding out with 2Pac, some didn’t care.

    “Call me Apu again and I put frogs in your candy bags!” the new storeowner would yell through the door, giving the kids a sense of accomplishment through his anger.  

    “I just can’t wait till Frank comes back.” Someone said.

    A girl with box braids walks over to the curb to wait for her trio’s entry and takes a snapchat of the new owner with a plane emoji behind him. Ignorant to the fact that Frank will not return.


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