The Laboratorium
October 1992

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The Apartment

Franklyn had his reason for taking the apartment, of course. It was a rather good one, considering his situation at the time. You see, if you didn't mind the bathtub in the bedroom, the phone-booth of an entry-hall, the cramming of two miniature rooms into a space roughly the size of a taxicab, or even the absolute lack of anything resembling ventilation, thenthe fact that he could all but purchase the place outright for a sum that would pass for a few months right anywhere else made the apartment seem quite attractive.

Now, in his later years, when his income from his artistic endeavours had finally become a quantity beyond sneezing at, his attempts to seel his former abode brought him no small amount of heartache. Few potential buyers were still interested after they had heard what kind of neighborhood it was located in, and fewer still had any interest whatsoever after they had actually comprehended its minute proportions. Eventually, he cleared out his old belongings and used the apartment as a storeroom for his less successful works. But all this lay in the far future. When we first encountered him, the apartment was still his legal place of resident, sparsely but tastefully furnished.

It was always a capital-E Experience to visit him at his home. Many taxi drivers refused to stop the cab fully in his neighborhood, as robbery was the most profitable local industry. When we used to visit him, Charlie and I would take full advantage of the police patrol patterns. Get off the subway across from the coffee shop where the cops hung out after their shifts, wait for the patrol car to go by (never more than fifteen minutes) and follow it south five blocks, cut east four blocks along the better-lit streets, and then north one to his place; that's how we got there, and as for getting back, we ran all eight blocks flat-out.

We used to joke about it with him, but I always sensed that it was somehow more serious for him, having to go out through the devastation twice or more every day. Once I asked him how many times he'd been mugged, and he started counting the times on his fingers, and quite grimly; I decided the subject set him on edge, and didn't raise it again.

That didn't stop us from wondering about how he had ever furnished the apartment, as the elevator was three feet square and barely seven feet high, and Colin spent many an hour carefully examining the bed frames and the massive claw-foot bathtub for saw marks. I was the one who figured it out, though. It struck me that we had never seen what kind of sculpture he made, having always assumed it to be of the marble kind, and when he told us he created "industrial sculpture", I realized that he must have made the frames himself, inside the apartment. And the bathtub actually did have a hairline seam, so carefully made that it was almost invisible.

Of course, being so incredibly talented an artist made him a natural teacher of English. That's how he got hired by the school, as an English teacher. He once won a sculpture competition, back in his unknown days, and beat out the wife of the chair of the Arts department, and so they wouldn't touch him with a ten-foot pole. But since Ms. Robbins over in the English department had a long-standing fued with Dr. Timmons and his wife, she was more than glad to hire Franklyn, once he demonstrated his aptitude for great literature and his intuitive knowledge of the formal rules of grammar.

We all called him Franklyn; he insisted on it. He felt that if we used his first name, we were being too informal (not that he minded, merely that some inner sense of propriety inside him objected), but he resented the distance that the Mister imposed. So he was just Franklyn to us, and after a while, we never even thought of him in any other way. Even before I'd ever spoken to him, Colin had told me that he was Franklyn, no Mister, and it seemed right.

Colin had had him for eighth grade, about halfway through the year, after he had been expelled from Ms. Orff's class for pointing out grammatical errors in the directions for her tests once too often, and had found his new teacher much more sympathetic. Colin requested him for both ninth and tenth grade, even though we knew that he was leaving after our ninth grade year. We thought that if enough of us requested him that he might change his mind. I had his class for ninth grade, too, and I followed Colin's desparate lead at the end of the year.

Franklyn talked us out of it, eventually, even though we'd been trying to convince HIM not to take an action he'd regret. It was past the deadline, but even if Ms. Robbins couldn't keep Franklyn from going, at least she could make sure his former students didn't let their good experience go to waste with bad teachers in later years, so she honored our eleventh-hour requests and took care of us.

I always had some suspicions in the back of my mind about Ms. Robbins and Franklyn. I never mentioned this to Colin or Rhonda or Stephen or anyone else (Colin would have made some sort of joke about the size of the apartment prohbiting anything of the sort, I'm sure), but that didn't mean I didn't wonder. I never got any direct evidence to suggest that anything out of the ordinary was going on between them, but then again, they were both very subtle people. After he left the school, and Colin and I and a few of our better friends were the only links to him, she would ask us about him occasionally, but with an odd air of an unnatural calm.

The more I ponder on it, the less certain I get. She was happily married the whole time, and still is, and we never, ever, imagnined Franklyn ever involved in a relationship, what with his humble bachelor quarters, until we saw that picture of him, looking twenty years older (though it was only six-and-a-half) at the opening of his exhibition at some swanky SoHo gallery with some supermodel on his arm. From there, it was all a game of follow-the-clippings.

First it was the art magazines, then the gossip columns, and now you see him in SPY magazine. They say he's moved in with some model (not the same one as from that first photo, natch), although that strains what Colin and I will believe. He was always so formal and quiet that we do get quite a shock every time we see him with a ponytail and a woman half his age. If we'd been asked to predict what would happen to him, his true fate would never have crossed our minds. Not in a million years.

We thought he was being monumentally stupid, of course, when he left, but at worst we saw him starving to death, dying for Art's sake, rather than becoming a social event zombie like he did. We'd visit him near to every month, sometimes just Colin and me, or we'd drag Ronnie and Steve and Guy and the rest of our little gang down, and take two trips up in the elevator (maximum capacity: three), or Colin took Sally with him once or twice, although she found Franklyn a little strange and begged off after a while, or sometimes I went by myself. But always in that apartment. Even if we were so crammed that we couldn't all sit, it was always there.

That apartmnet was somehow part of him. He'd bought it, through some kind of cosmic joke of a mortgage, even though he could have squeaked by renting somewhere livable, so that he could buy the scrap metal for his artwork, he'd BUILT the furniture for it, and he'd made it home, and when he threw out his arms in a grand gesture inside, the walls seemed to give way to give him room to make his point. Or maybe he just knew exactly where to sit inside to give him the most arm room.

And oh, what he said. At least twice Colin and I sat there talking to him through the night. Time became superfluous in that place, reality sort of gave way. Colin noted that the elevator always seemed to be going up and down at the same time, and to look out his one window, you couldn't tell whether you were in the basement looking up to street level or up ten floors looking up to the roof of the next building over a fire escape. That is, unless bothered to clean the grime off the outside, (no easy trick), in which case you could tell that you were indeed up and not down.

The discussions we had in that unreal apartment, Charlie squatting in the bathtub, me on the bed, and Franklyn in the apartment's only chair, oh, those discussions were remarkable. We talked about the philosophies of the world, the quirks of students at school, the assignments we should have been working on, anything at all. I had no idea how educated he was, but Franklyn was easily ten times as smart as anyone else at school. He spent four hours going over one page of Charlie's term paper with hm, taking about the usage and significance of every word, even the articles.

Of course, we were upset when he decided to leave, but he kept us from doing anything drastic by telling us we could still visit him. We kept going back until junior year when our lives got too busy. I called him once when I was a senior, but the phone died halfway through the conversation. I got a letter from him a week later, saying that the super had been trying to get cable illegally and had accidentally fused the phone lines.

That was the last I heard from Franklyn, until I saw that picture I told you about. Maybe six weeks after that, I received a postcard from him. He apologized for not writing something long, but he said that he was "most frightfully busy." In any event, he said that he had finally managed to dispose of the apartment, and he invited Charlie and me to help him clean out his old stuff.

Charlie would have none of it. He said that as far as he could tell, Franklyn had sold his soul to the Art Establishment. The old Franklyn was gone forever, and Charlie wanted nothing to do with the new one. I tried to persuade him to come, pleaded with him, but he was set. So on the appointed day, I set out for the apartment alone.

I was late. The coffee shop had closed, and I had to spend some time watching the police cars to learn their new pattern. Perhaps an hour later, I decided that I had seen enough to risk a passage. I arrived at his doorstep out of breath from running the last three blocks, and pushed the buzzer button, which failed to work. On a hunch, I tried opening the door without being buzzed in, and it opened. I vaguely recalled something Franklyn had said, years ago, about being the only tennant who bothered the landlord to keep the place in shape.

The place was as small as ever, and looking very sparse indeed, with the bathtub gone and the bed in two pieces leaning against the wall. A few of his sculptures -- shiny, abstract, contorted, and not every appealing things -- lay about. In the middle of it all was Franklyn, putting the finishing touches on the one chair's wrapper for removal. He looked almost the same, and his elegantly charming manner still showed in his speech, but his hair showed signs of dye and his clothes were expensive.

The conversation, I think, was notable for its lack of notability. I asked him about the bathtub, and he said he'd pushed it out the window (being unable to get it out through the elevator), trying to land it on a mattress below, but had missed and turned it into porcelain shards. I asked him about how he was doing, and he said very well indeed. And I told him about what Charlie had said, and he went into some detail in responding. He said that his work was finally being appreciated, and that was what mattered, that he was still essentially the same person (even to the point where the gallery that represented him advertised him as just "Franklyn"), and that success, after all, did have its rewards. He had clearly thought about it for a long time, but I sensed in him the same touchiness that had greeted my question from so long ago about being mugged, so I dropped it.

I helped him move the stuff downstairs, hitched a ride on the moving truck back to the subway stop, and said good-bye. I called Charlie from the pay phone on the corner and told him what Franklyn had said. Charlie said what else did I expect him to say and isn't that exactly what someone who'd hit it big and was trying to act modest would tell you? I really couldn't answer that, so I told Charlie I was calling from a pay phone and would talk about it later.

Franklyn's sculptures keep turning up in the papers and artsy-fartsy magazines. I keep a little scrapbook of all the clippings I can find, and update it faithfully, but I've never found it worth looking through. Sometimes, I wonder about Franklyn and whether he sold out or not. There are times when I think Charlie is right about the whole thing and that Franklyn did betray us, and there are times when I recall how much Franklyn seemed to have agonized over the question himself and I wonder if maybe he was right. Mostly, though, it hurts my head to think about it, so I don't.

Originally published in Legal Fiction in slightly different form.