No one knows Frank’s story, but we all knew his store. A lot of my coming of age took place at 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 in the store helped to 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 I pursued a higher education too like he told me I should every week.
Frank answered that he was from Nowhereville when people asked him. He would 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 Hennessey bottles behind him.
Frank taught me 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. They talked about work, current events, which coffee was the best, and where they hoped to retire too when their bodies became 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 is strong arms, and a stature that Jack’s beanstalk couldn’t match. His brother would become my 8th grade math teacher in 2010 so I would start buying things from the store and taking them to him pretty often. Ocho got the nickname Ocho after grabbing eight kids who were stealing all in one big bear hug and 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.
Ocho was a gentle giant to everyone except 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 milks so I could get big and strong like him after drinking them.
Frank’s store was dimly light like a haunted boiler room in a factory, but the natural sunlight from the glass door was warm like a grandmother’s hug. The store was attached to a small strip mall that always has stores that never last. The barbershop that’s two doors down closed after a bunch of the barbers got married and felt they needed new careers to support their families. It’s now 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 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 in the Summer 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 of aging wood, hot cheese, and lemon mop water. Frank always smelled of old man cologne for the ocean of attractive mothers that would bring their kids by for after school let out. I never thought to ask Frank was a child in the picture for him before.
Directly to the left of Frank’s store was a restaurant that took on a new form about every few months like a shape shifter. Every year it was closing because of something new. First there was an Italian place that would go for three months until a fire would turn the middle aged couple’s new start into ashes. After them, there were a few Mexican restaurants that would close due to theft, another fire, and a robbery that shook the owning family so bad they disappeared the following week. Finally a quesadilla joint has grounded itself in the space. Thriving and strong like a beating heart, the restaurant remains there building its client base.
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 at the front were the cigarettes and few different types of hard liquor. Several adults in the neighborhood, that were once the kids in Frank’s store, talk about buying their first drink from Frank. When I told Frank I was waiting to purchase my first drink from his store 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, I am six feet tall and 168 pounds. Two feet taller than the counter, and six days away from my 21st birthday.
Frank’s store would sound like two different places if a adult and a child were to compare them. The 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. 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 those nights.
“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 so I could show them off. All of the kids that loved to play outside at night would watch my feet blink along the sidewalk as I passed their block. My favorite walk we took to the store was after he got me a pair of blue and red Spider-Man sketchers with white LED lights in them. We’d always walk there when the streetlights turned on so the LEDs in my shoes shined a little brighter than they did in the day.
“Boy you look like you walking on fireflies!” my father would yell while holding my younger sister as I ran ahead of him. 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 by the door towering so high 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 would say looking up at Frank. Many kids believed that Frank floated in mid air behind the counter without legs because he hardly left from behind the counter.
“Don’t look forward to a future that comes faster than everybody wants.” He would reply running his hands through his thinning hair.
“Is Frank married yet?” My mother would ask 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 would joke
Frank was from Jordan, and hated the color yellow even though the floor of the store was checkered with blue and yellow boxes. He sat a small TV on the counter behind him for his own personal viewing of The Price is Right. The voices of the contestants would soundtrack my visits to the store for more than 10 years.
It was hard to decide if I could call Frank an older brother, uncle, cousin, or grandpa to me because he had all of the qualities to be any one of them. So he 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.
Lots of people come and go in the store, but Frank and Ocho were around me long enough to 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 frig that hummed like a tiny motorcycle with the girl I told them was referred to as the prettiest in Dawes elementary. They gave me a free Arizona when we broke up a week later. I would 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 said my employment at the store would never happen.
I was always close with my mother and father. I never felt bitter about them working so much when I had a neighborhood to take care of me in their absence. In a community where everyone feels like a cousin I never had to feel very lonely.
“You smart. There 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 knew Frank too. Being friends with my father before my birth, 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 person they become boring when 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 would play the lava game in the store for the next eight years from until I got into 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. One day he knew I would stop coming in to by candy every day with the spare quarters in my mother’s purse, and he knew it was coming fast.
I grew really fast after that. After I graduated from the 8th grade the big store became a little store to me as I grew taller than Frank and Ocho. The aisles that looked like skyscrapers on my first day of Kindergarten became the same height as me three months before I started high school. No longer I have to stand on my toes or have Ocho help me reach. Frank and Ocho compared back pains over cups of coffee.
“You be Ocho soon” he would say stepping aside and patting me on the shoulders, as I would enter. The splash of gray hairs in Frank’s hair had spread over the years until it even took up residency in his beard. Frank still looked 50 years old to me. He was here 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 would start military school in 2011 about an hour away from the store. My visits to the store would decrease more and more until by sophomore year I dropped by only every two to three months. Frank wasn’t hard to read. If he had to tell you something he took a number of long pauses in the middle of conversations. Scratching his beard while looking out of the window for the correct way to put his statement together, I knew something was coming by the Fall of my Junior year.
One day, Frank and Ocho were gone, and a new owner of the store sat behind the counter. He had dark skin and a temper after having only been in the neighborhood for a total of three days. He had 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 would say as kids came in after class to buy candy. I had happened to show up after my classes one day to see the neighborhood didn’t like the change in the store’s ownership as much as I did. Frank’s store had no difference from a lot of the other stores in the area. They sold chips, candy, and Arizona sweet teas 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, but 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 the 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 them a sense of accomplishment through his anger.
“I just can’t wait till he comes back.” 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.