Frances the ghost is going to school: She is dressed in a white sheet with two holes for her eyes and that makes the people who see her riding in the passenger seat of her mother’s station wagon smirk. Of course, Frances becomes a ghost whenever her mother does not know what else to do. Today was too much already so her mother decided, fine, fine, if she was going to behave like this, fine. The phone would not stop ringing and the baby was colicky again and Frances was pretending she could not buckle her shoes, so Janet, her mother, began to shout, and Frances threw herself on the ground and would not get up. She started holding her breath and crying and the only way to get her to calm down was to pretend she was a ghost again, draping the white sheet over her face and humming, Janet placing her soft lips against the fabric where Frances’s forehead was crinkled up, and slowly, slowly, the tears began to stop. Too many minutes later they are all piled in the front seat of the brown station wagon, the muffler dragging as they drive, and Janet suddenly remembers the baby’s car seat is once again unbuckled.
* * *
An ice cream truck has collided with a van at the intersection up ahead. The station wagon slows to a crawl as Frances sits up and stares at the damage. The vehicle is white and green and lying on its side. All over the road are melting popsicles, Dilly Bars, and Nutty Buddies, growing softer by the moment in the April heat: every kid’s best dream. A hundred bumblebees, excited by the prospect of so many melting sweets, hang above the ice cream truck in a glittering cloud. From beneath the white bed sheet and from behind the two small holes her mother has cut so she can see, the little girl stares at the mass of bees suspiciously. Frances does not like bees. She thinks they are her enemy. One day last summer, she was stung inside her mouth when she surprised a bumblebee hiding under the rim of her soda pop can. Frances places her hand against the outside of the sheet just above her lip remembering. She watches the truck grow smaller and smaller until it is just another strange, uncertain memory.
Oh, oh, oh. Come and see:
See the girl. See the boy. See the pony.
Come and see:
Beneath the ghostly white sheet, Frances is very pretty. She has soft brown eyes and a face shaped like a dandelion: Her hair is blond and curly. For some five months now, Frances has refused to speak. She is reading her school book which is all about horses. In the book, a black mare nestles with a small white pony. The baby, in the car seat behind her, is blowing spit bubbles and smiling at her. While her mother is fooling with the radio, Frances turns and pinches the baby for absolutely no reason.
In the station wagon, in front of the school, Janet turns to face her daughter. Slowly, making sure Frances can read her lips, she says, “Okay, honey, it’s time to take off the sheet.”
The ghost does not move.
The ghost is silent.
“Frances, I want you to take off that sheet right now.”
The ghost makes a small move and Janet can see that Frances has folded her arms in front of her chest, pouting.
“It’s time for school and it’s time for you to take off that blanket.”
The ghost shakes its head.
“Frances, right now.”
The ghost shakes its head again.
“Frances, take off that blanket or you’re going to be on punishment.”
The ghost does not move. Janet quickly makes a grab for the flimsy fabric, but Frances, small, ruthless, quick, is already gripping it too tightly.
Janet is exhausted and it is not even 8:00 a.m.
“Okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay,okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay!” Janet shouts, letting go of the white blanket, sheet, whatever it is. “If you want to go in there like that, fine, be my guest.”
The ghost is still for a moment, then one solitary pink hand reaches up and finds the door handle. Frances hurries from the front seat of the station wagon across the empty schoolyard, before her mother can change her mind, the white sheet still covering the girl’s head. Janet does not even protest. It is now 8:01. It is totally out of her hands. Janet sits and watches the schoolchildren all standing in line, clapping, singing, shouting. Frances is doing well at school, mostly. She has known how to read ever since she was three. Frances loves to read but struggles to speak, or to make many sounds at all due to her hearing impairment. She can say a few words: No, Yes, Hello, Goodbye, but she’s gotten lazy and does not really try to talk anymore. Janet can’t remember the last time she heard her daughter mumble anything like a word. Frances is good at spelling and her vocabulary comprehension is very high. She has a hearing aid but doesn’t like to wear it in her ear. She does not like to wear it because it makes the other children stare.
Sitting there, like every morning, Janet wonders if they are doing the right thing, letting Frances go to the regular public school. There is a special ed school but it is an hour and a half away and the school here has been very accommodating. The biggest problem is Frances, because she gets frustrated and she can be pretty, well, mean.
* * *
In line, the first grade class is whistling. Frances whistles along, hers a bright dizzying sound like a small bird doing figure eights in the sky. Frances knows how to whistle. She does not exactly hear the sound but feels the small, bright vibrations along her lips. She measures the sound and pitch using her fingertips. Some of the kids laugh, staring at the deaf girl dressed as a ghost, trying to whistle along. An older girl from the fifth grade who wears a green dress and a small, coy smile, points and laughs at Frances and says her name in a way which Frances hates. She can tell by the looks their mouths are making how terribly they are saying it. But soon all of the fifth graders begin to chant it. Fran/ces. Fran/ces. Fran/ces. Frances lunges at the closest fifth grader, a dark-eyed boy, and tries to bite his arm through the sheet. Miss Dove appears and asks what the commotion is, and very soon Frances is, once again, crying.
In the station wagon, Janet pulls away, the baby now asleep. Her fingers are aching for a cigarette. She allows herself only two a day, one after Frances has been dropped off at school, and one when both children are in bed. Their daddy is now only a photograph of a young man with boyish good looks, blond hair, soft eyes, who is holding a machine gun at his side, a mosque rising behind him in a sand-colored background. Liberator, my ass, she thinks. How about “big, dumb target”? How about “imaginary husband”? When the cigarette lighter in the dash pops out, Janet struggles to find her package of menthols in time. The traffic light changes too quickly and the jerk in the Volvo behind her begins to honk. The baby dozes behind her. Janet is thinking. She has decided Frances is too old to be hiding under that sheet. She inhales the minty smoke and composes an imaginary letter to her husband in her mind: Your daughter is acting up again. She scratched another kid at school last week and today won’t go anywhere without her blanket. Where are you, you jerk? Do not get killed or I will never forgive you.
Often, Frances must sit in the time-out corner at school. She must sit in the corner for drawing pictures of horses on her worksheets or for leaving her seat without permission.
Up and down. Up and down. Go up, up, up. Come down, down, down, Miss Dove is saying.
Frances, once again in trouble, sits in the corner of the room. She sits on a small wooden stool. There is a great silver spiderweb hidden in the silent angles of the classroom where Frances finds two dead flies. She names one Fritz and one Ferdinand. She decides they are soldiers. She decides they are her dear friends, but unhappy at war, and far, far away from their homes. What adventures the two of them will soon have. Look: Fritz has found a motorcycle with a sidecar. Ferdinand does not want to ride in the sidecar; he is afraid of riding in it. Ferdinand is afraid of everything. Fritz and Ferdinand are now arguing. They better hurry. The enemy is drawing near. The enemy’s evil feathered helmets are getting dangerously close. They fire their muskets in the air, and Ferdinand, suddenly finding the courage, hops into the motorcycle’s sidecar, and the two brave soldiers speed off. The duchess has been kidnapped! Fritz has decided they will rescue her and become heroes. Fritz is the brave one. Ferdinand likes looking at flowers and is not so brave.
Before work, Janet drops off the baby at her mother’s. Her mother is watching a TV game show and puts the baby in his crib, answering the question the game show host has asked. “Jayne Mansfield,” is all her mother says to her that morning.
Parking behind the VA hospital, Janet digs her hand beneath the driver’s seat and searches for a small cigarette case, which contains four tightly wound joints and a small roach, which she lights and inhales from deeply. She checks herself in the rearview mirror, decides she has somehow become her mother overnight, squeezes some eye drops into her eyes, and straightens her nurse’s uniform once she is standing.
Janet is falling in love with a patient named Private Dan. He is a vet from the first Gulf War, around thirty-five, and is missing most of his left leg. He is handsome in a dull way, like an unpolished stone or the sheer face of a cliff. He suffers from PTSD and may have a Gulf War illness. He is in and out of her wing of the VA like a celebrity. He served four years in the reserves and was discharged as a private, which does not say much for him.
Today Private Dan is complaining about a rash. And chronic diarrhea.
“You have to wait like everybody else,” is what Janet tells him, though when he frowns, pretending to pout, he makes her heart feel small and quivery.
If you look, you can see Frances dressed as a ghost, sitting alone on her grandma’s front porch: The bus has dropped her off early and Grandma, not expecting her so soon, has gone to the store to get diapers for the baby. Frances is sitting on the top step of the porch, waving to you as you ride past in the backseat of your parents’ minivan. It is only a glimpse of a girl dressed as a small white phantom. You smile and wave but already she is a blur; already she has disappeared. Frances picks up her pink bicycle from the driveway and rides as close to the curb as she can without crossing into the street. The front wheel dangles dangerously close to the gray concrete edge and Frances imagines crossing the road while no one is looking. She has been warned never to ride her bike in the street. She edges the front wheel on the black pavement but does not go any farther. She slowly turns and sees her grandmother arriving home now, the old blue car teetering up the road from the other direction. Frances hops off her bike. She pulls the white sheet from her head and waves hello. Grandma kisses her cheek, almost forgetting the baby who is still buckled in the car seat. Frances points across the street and Grandma nods after checking for traffic. Frances hurries across to go play with a neighbor girl named Allie. Allie is not really Frances’s friend: She’s three years older and likes to think she is something of a mother to the small, strange girl. Allie is weak-shouldered and skinny, with stringy blond hair and yellow teeth. She will try to carry Frances around like a baby, but Frances will fight, biting the older girl’s shoulder if she does not put her down quickly.
Allie has decided they will go into the woods and throw rocks at a beehive she has recently discovered. Frances does not think this is a good idea. She hates bees. She is completely terrified of them. She stops walking and holds her hand to her mouth at the spot where she had been stung. She decides she is not going into the woods. She is going to head back to Grandma’s and sit and watch TV. Allie stares at Frances and calls her a baby, then walks off toward the woods by herself. Frances decides she does not like being called a baby. She decides she is not a baby and so she hurries to follow Allie. The two small girls gather all the stones they can find and begin pelting the side of the papery brown honeycomb. Allie laughs. Frances thinks maybe there is nothing to be scared of, all they are is dumb bees anyway. Frances throws another rock, then one more. Almost immediately, a string of glittering bees descends, stinging Frances on her face and hands. Allie, a little older but not much brighter, turns and runs away, leaving her small charge to fend for herself. Frances tries to cover her face but they are on her now, the whole hive, stinging her through her blue dress and pink tights.
At the VA, Private Dan insists on a physical exam. Janet draws the curtain as Dan unbuttons his blue shirt.
“How’s your husband?” he has the gall to ask.
Doesn’t he know the way I look at him? Is this his way of letting me off the hook?
“I get e-mails from him every few days,” Janet says. The e-mails are sometimes single lines like:
—Found a kid hiding an explosive device under a Humvey.
—Ate candy all day.
—Think our children will no longer recognize me.
“I’m sure he’s fine,” Private Dan says. “Six months over there and I never fired a round. It was a different war, though,” he mutters.
“So tell me about the rash,” Janet says, trying to establish some decorum.
“Here,” Dan says, pointing to a red mark on his chest. “It really burns.”
Janet pulls on a latex glove and carefully pokes the vet’s chest. Still in shape, Janet thinks. Which is why he took his shirt off. The showboat.
“What do you think?” Dan asks.
“I’m not a doctor,” is Janet’s reply.
“So you’ll have to wait to see Dr. Grant.”
“Is it serious?”
“I don’t know,” she says.
“You don’t know? You just wanted to see me with my shirt off then?” Dan smiles. He has a big toothy grin that makes Janet laugh.
“The doctor will be right in.”
“If you ever want to talk, I mean, I know it can be pretty lonely, waiting for somebody.”
“I have to go,” she says.
Private Dan winks, then, before Janet can turn in mock disgust, he blows her a kiss. It hits her, the invisible kiss, it is as real as a real kiss, and exiting from the exam room and rushing back to the nurses’ station, Janet knows she is blushing.
Grandma is looking for Frances, holding the baby in her soft, flabby arms. She sees Allie sitting alone on the other side of the street and calls out, “Have you seen Frances?”
Allie, alarmed, looks up and shakes her head. No is what her head is saying, but Grandma has raised three kids and knows damn well when they are lying.
In the parking lot of the VA, Janet sits in her station wagon beside Private Dan. They do not touch. They do not talk. They light up one of her joints and watch the front seat fill with smoke. Finally, Private Dan begins to speak.
“I can feel my toes wiggling when I get high sometimes.”
“On the missing leg. I can feel them wiggling when I get high sometimes.”
“Oh, that’s weird.”
The pair is quiet for a while. Then Private Dan speaks again.
“I would sure like to kiss you, Nurse Janet.”
“I’ve got a guy,” she says.
Janet is pleased with herself suddenly. She feels like an adult, like a television actress on a soap opera, like someone’s real wife. She begins smiling, thinking of Mickey the Jerk on the other side of world and the way he looks when he is on the couch sleeping.
“I should head back in,” she says.
Meredith, the other nurse from the same wing, comes hurrying out into the parking lot, looking panicked.
“It’s the phone. Your mom. Something’s happened.”
Okay, first of all, Frances is okay. She is as swollen as a newborn, but she’ll live. Janet looks at Frances’s face and arms and hands and counts nine stings. Grandma has, as usual, completely gone overboard. Frances is lying on the corduroy sofa and every visible part of her is coated in pink calamine. Frances has arranged her small hands over her waist like a photograph of someone beautiful lying in a casket.
“What happened?” Janet asks, but knows her mother has no answer. She turns to face Frances, who is pretending to be asleep. She pats Frances’s hands and asks Grandma where the baby is.
“Oh, I almost forgot! I left him with Allie across the street.” Grandma gets up and moves briskly through the front screen door.
At home now, Frances wears the white ghost sheet at the table. It is dappled with dots of pink calamine lotion from all of her stings. Janet looks up from the TV dinner, unsure what kind of wet brown meat she is eating. She wipes her mouth on the paper napkin and stares directly at Frances.
“Frances, we are going to have a talk.”
Frances blinks, becoming suddenly still.
“Frances, that sheet of yours has got to go.”
Frances does not move.
“Frances. Do you want to be a big girl like Mommy or a baby like the baby?”
Janet cannot see the expression Frances is making beneath the white blanket.
“Do you want to be a big girl? Big girls don’t carry their blankets around with them.”
Frances does not move.
“You can keep it in your bedroom. But no more wearing it to school. Or at the table. Today is the last day.”
Small dots of gray begin to form around the ghost’s eyes: Frances has begun to cry. Janet can already hear it, the soft gumming of her teeth, the tightening of her small lips.
Janet gets up from her chair and puts Frances in her lap. She places her mouth right beside her daughter’s ear and begins to sing: “Frances / Frances / please don’t cry / please don’t cry . . .”
Of course, it is true: If you cover your ears, a whisper does not feel the same as a kiss. A laugh does not make the small hairs around your neck startled the way it does when someone is shouting. When someone cries, it feels like you are waiting for the rain. When someone sings, it feels like the shape of a heart is being traced along the center of your chest.
Frances lays her head against her mother’s neck and slowly stops crying.
By the time the baby is asleep, Frances is ready for bed too. Janet sits beside her and reads her a story that has a horse and a princess and a castle in it. She dabs calamine at the sting above Frances’s left eye and then switches on the nightlight. She goes downstairs and waits a half hour, flipping through the channels. When she thinks Frances is asleep, she climbs back upstairs and sneaks into her room, carefully, oh so carefully, tugging the white sheet from beneath her daughter’s head. She does not know what she is going to do with it, and sits on the couch composing another imaginary letter to her husband:
I did a bad thing tonight, one of the most terrible things ever: I waited for her to fall asleep, then stole the sheet from under her head. I am missing you or maybe just the idea of you. I have begun seriously thinking about other men. I am afraid I am not strong enough or tough enough for this. I am afraid all the time. I have not slept well in months. When are you coming back, you jerk? We are all trying to be brave without you and doing a real crummy job of it. I do not want to have to be brave anymore without you.
Janet holds the white sheet against her face and feels like crying, but she doesn’t. She pulls it over her head and sighs, sitting on the couch like that for a while, a ghost staring through the small eyeholes at the TV. Then she carries the sheet downstairs and hides it with the rest of the laundry, once again afraid she is not doing the right thing.
The morning begins with the phone ringing nonstop. First it’s her mother, then Meredith at the VA asking about Frances, then some annoying guy from the military selling life insurance. By the time Frances is awake, the baby has already been fed. Soon Janet has everyone the station wagon. She turns the key, adjusts the rearview mirror, and throws the vehicle in reverse. Frances immediately begins fussing. She has forgotten something. She has forgotten her white sheet. She kicks her legs and begins sobbing. Janet puts the station wagon in park and takes a breath, then turns to her daughter, lowering her chin so Frances can read her lips.
“Frances, I need your help. I need you to help me get through this today.”
Her daughter’s face is stony-white. Small beads of tears hang at the tips of her black eyelashes.
“Frances, we are going to try to get through the day without the sheet. If we make it, we will have ice cream sundaes after dinner. But if you throw a tantrum, I think I am going to quit right now, honey. I think I am going to go back inside and never get out of bed again.”
The station wagon sounds like it is going to die. Janet stares at her daughter, ready to cry herself, waiting for her daughter to begin screaming. But Frances turns, still pouting, staring straight ahead. She is mad, she is angry, but she does not cry. Janet decides this is okay, this is fine. Angry she can handle. Angry sounds great.