Frances is afraid of the rain. She is afraid that the water will soak through the bricks of the buildings, which will soften like pound cake in milk and collapse. And so when it begins to drizzle Frances takes the bus (the bus is safe, because it is waterproof) into Central Park (the park is also safe, because there are no buildings) and she waits by the reservoir with a red umbrella until the storm passes. Sometimes it is a long storm, or there are multiple thunderstorms, and on those days she brings a beach chair and a blue blanket so she will not get arthritis by standing in the cold and the wet for too long. Sometimes when it rains for days she has no choice but to go home, and lie in bed, and feel afraid.
When home Frances takes the little white bus tickets (the ones that look like receipts, for the cross-town buses), folds them in half the long way, and slips them into a jar she has on the ground by the mirror across from the door. She says she will send them all to the mayor to show how environmentally harmful he is being. After this Frances reopens her red umbrella which she closed in the lobby, and sets it out to dry on the terrace, where there is a black cat figurine. Frances knows it is bad luck and has been the source of many troubles in late years, but is afraid to throw it away in case it was a gift from her daughter. She does not remember. The beach chair is left propped against the cat, as kind of a curtain to obscure Frances’s fear. But in reality she is not afraid of very many things; only the rain, black cats, and the feeling that one day she will forget her daughter. She knows she is very forgetful already; this is because every month she finds a new dried plant on her windowsill that she has forgotten to water. Sometimes she lets things stay on the stove too long and they burn, but she is not as afraid of fire as she is of rain because the bricks in the building are not flammable. Besides, her kitchen walls and floors are of granite, which ought not to burn either.
But fire is not what Frances thinks of most of the time after she steps back into the apartment from the terrace. Most of the time, she thinks about if her daughter is going to visit, and then she thinks about her grandson. Then sometimes Frances goes to take the garbage to the compactor room and sees the man who lives across the hall, except she has forgotten about him. He has lived there two years now, and she has welcomed him with brownies almost thirty-four times. He has helped her pull the Monet print off the wall and then put it up again almost ten times, because she keeps forgetting and wondering why the Monet is not on the wall, or why it is still on the wall.
She is not so terribly lost, though. She still reads the newspaper and does the crosswords in the bathtub and hangs her rose-printed sheets out on the balcony so that at night they smell like Park Avenue sunshine. Sometimes when she is bored she sits on the couch and pulls the comforter up to her chin and thinks about nothing, but thinks that she is thinking about everything. Sometimes she thinks about the man who owns the pickle shop two blocks away who talks to her when she pays for her sweet marinated red peppers, and then she thinks about the doorman who has the night shift downstairs, and sometimes she only sits and stares at the little mark on the wall from twenty-some years ago where there used to be a nail. Frances is sad when she does this, but barely realizes it, and instead considers it a routine time to ponder the world.
Maybe Frances is also sad when she goes to sleep, because she pulls her blanket up to her chin and stares up at the ceiling. Occasionally she stares long enough to remember what it was like staring up at other ceilings. She remembers pink walls (hers at six years of age), gray walls (his at twenty-seven), yellow walls (theirs at thirty-one). She wonders what color he painted his walls after he moved out and moved in with someone else. Usually while staring at those walls she remembers the feeling of smiling. She does not really smile because the lift of her lips takes too much energy, and besides, there is no one to smile to except for the ceiling light. If Frances looks at it for a long enough time it begins to look like a face.
She is not afraid of death, really, only afraid that when she goes to heaven she will not know anyone there. She is not sure of what she will do if no one speaks to her. What if it is crowded, and there is no place to sleep, no beds for her to lie in and no walls for her to stare up at? She has said this to the drunken man on the street corner whom she lets sleep in the living room (this is safe because she knows him and does not forget him like she does the man who lives across the hall. The drunk man, his name is Joseph and he is an actor). He repays her for her kindness by knitting her scarves and sweaters.
There are few events in Frances’s life, unless one counts the flowering of one of her succulents every few years. Otherwise there are events such as when she takes the piggy banks, stuffed with change, to the bank down the street, or when the young woman above drops cigarette butts onto Frances’s terrace (they often land in the aloe plant). Every couple of years her daughter and grandson visit from California, and Frances invites them to dinner and they eat roast pork and beans and tomato gazpacho in silence, because there is nothing to say. Frances’s daughter asks how she is doing, and Frances says she is doing well, how about you? And then the daughter says she is doing well, too, and William has just started his first year of elementary school, and William looks outside at the black cat figurine that is sitting on the terrace because he has nothing to say either. There are minutes of silence, and then Frances asks how Emily’s husband is, and Emily says he is busy and could not come, but did say hello. Frances says hello back, and then they sit and wait for William to finish so they can sit some more.
William is bored and he looks at the cat and then he looks at the Monet and he looks at the old television in the living room and then he looks at the plaid jacket that is hanging on the tall, ornate coat rack. If there is nothing else to look at William will look at the shoes under the bench and the jar under the mirror and maybe into the mirror, but never at his grandmother because he has nothing to say to her. Sometimes Emily hugs her mother and pretends to ask her to come to California, but both she and Frances know no husband wants his mother-in-law in the house, and so Frances says that she is too old to leave New York, and Emily insists that she is young, so, so young. William looks at the carpet and holds his mother’s hand.
Sometimes when it rains and one of Frances’s succulents is flowering she brings it into the park with her. The people on the bus wonder why she is holding a small painted blue pot with a miniature cactus and a long trail of white flowers coming out the middle, but Frances says nothing. If it is night and she falls asleep on her beach chair the small blue pot tumbles out of her hands and into the mud, where she finds it when a nice man wakes her up. Then she gathers all the dirt that was spilled from the pot and slips it back in on the sides, and then looks sadly at each little white blossom, as if to apologize. And when she goes back she is shivering and the doorman with the night shift tells her, again, that the rain will not soak into the bricks of the building and make them soften, and she smiles and says she knows. Then he asks her why she goes out if she knows, and she replies that she knows but does not really know—that she knows in her mind but her heart, where the fear lives, has not quite gotten the message yet. It may have been lost on the way.
Maybe in a few months or a few years Frances will forget her daughter. So that when there is knocking at the door Frances will open it to an unfamiliar face; she does not know anyone this young, she is sure, apart from the mailman and the new man across the hall. Maybe her grandson will be there, too, and she will wonder if they have gotten lost, or perhaps come to the wrong floor. She will ask who they are looking for, and then her daughter will know. But maybe that will come slowly; she will forget many things before she forgets them. She will forget to take the garbage to the compactor room, to bake brownies for the neighbor who just moved in, to pay for her peppers at the pickle shop, to think about life and heaven and smiling when she sits on the couch or the bed and stares at the white around her. Maybe Frances will forget to be afraid of the rain.
Rachel Zhu lives in New York and is a current junior at Horace Mann School. She is the cofounder and Editor in Chief of Horace Mann’s creative prose magazine, LitMag. Outside of school, Zhu writes creative short prose and poetry, and is also an artist and ceramicist. She draws influence from her Chinese background and culture as well as classical European and American works of literature. Through her work, she hopes to inspire other Asian Americans to express their stories and experiences through the world of humanities and art.