Frank and Jimmy met in grade three back when they were assigned by Mrs. DeLorenzo to sit in front of the room so that she could “reach them easier.” Both of them knew what that meant – usually a hard look, sometimes a pat on the head, but occasionally the pat was a little more forceful. The boys learned that once Mrs. DeLorenzo looked away, they had about six minutes while she was “reaching” others before her attention was turned back to them. Six minutes was a long time for eight-year-olds, plenty of time for mischief and goofiness. One time they took all the pointers from the basket for reading time, thinking that Mrs. DeLorenzo couldn’t teach without them. Another time, they traded one shoe – just one – and insisted that they had arrived to school that way even though neither of them wore the same shoe size.
But two years later, Jimmy’s father passed away, and his mom moved back in with her parents in the next town over. The boys saw each other every once and a while at ball games, and they mailed a few postcards, but eventually, they lost touch. Frank and Jimmy grew up barely fifteen miles from each other; it may as well have been fifteen thousand miles. Jimmy’s mother, after moving back home, went to night school and became a nurse. She missed her son dearly at night, but she knew that making a better life for him meant a sacrifice on her part. Consequently, Jimmy grew up knowing that his mother loved him but dependent on his grandparents. By the time he was grown, his mother was able to afford the kind of house that she always dreamt of, but it wasn’t the house that Jimmy did. Large, three bedrooms (“For company, James, for company,” she would always say, and for some reason, with her education came his Christian name), a lovely parlor that no one was allowed in, the latest gadgets in the kitchen. The perfect house for a woman of means, but probably not for her son. In high school, Jimmy and his mother got into constant squabbles that started off mild but progressed to the point that Jimmy moved out the day he graduated. Never having to depend on anyone other than his grandparents, Jimmy drifted through the next six years of his life from one dead-end job to the next. Eventually, he joined the Army, realizing he craved their structure the way his mother craved a matching duvet set with frilly curtains.
And Frank? Frank’s family never left their home on Olsen Street. His father supported the family repairing other people’s cars, which gave him little time to repair the family car. Meanwhile, Frank’s mother had child after child after child, eventually giving up after the seventh. Annabelle, the only girl, was doted on by all of her big brothers, none more so than her oldest brother, Jimmy, who willingly fought her battles until he graduated from high school and joined the Army. For a while, Annabelle was lost without him and wrote constant letters begging him to come home. Her crayon pleas decreased over time, and eventually she accepted that Frank had another family that he also cared about.
So Jimmy and Frank, those two boys who traded shoes and stole the teacher’s pointers, both enlisted in the Army and never crossed paths. Jimmy was warned early on not to piss of Sgt. Mills and avoided the man at all costs. He thrived during his first three years in the service quickly earning commendations and took on more and more leadership roles. Jimmy even came to terms with his mother’s desire to better herself even when it meant leaving Jimmy’s needs to himself. “Oh, James,” she cooed on one of his annual trips home, “I know that your sisters will be so pleased with your time. They really weren’t expecting any trinkets.” Jimmy had warmed to the idea of his mother’s remarriage and subsequent children, but he didn’t necessarily agree with his mother that his sisters enjoyed his time. He got the distinct impression from them that they would rather have a small doll or colorful scarf to play with. And so, his trips home became shorter and shorter until his mother and her new family were more content with his postcards than his 48-hour stays. Frank continued to come home each summer and Christmas to see his parents and family. For the first few years, he took up a spot on the couch so as not to dislodge a brother from a coveted bed. The sofa, he contended, was much more pleasant than an Army cot. Besides, he came home to see his family, not to be comfortable. As the years passed, Frank’s brothers left the house to pursue their own dreams, and he started to bring home friends from the military who were without their own family to return. Annabelle welcomed these new brothers, gleefully learning new jokes or skills from them. Frank figured it was bound to happen, but one eventually caught Annabelle’s eye, and Frank knew that he was no longer the reason for Annabelle’s letters to a soldier.
Jimmy and Frank’s lives take similar paths, as two boys from the Shoreditch neighborhood are wont to do. Each gets married in a modest ceremony. Jimmy’s mother cries what most assume are tears of joy, but he knows better: now her real age is on display for anyone with a brain to figure out. Frank’s parents welcome another daughter into the fold. Frank and his bride spend their honeymoon moving house from Fort Polk to Leavenworth. He enjoys working with the new soldiers and sadly retires after his twenty years are up, only to start his own auto repair shop near where his father used to work. His first order of business? Hire his dad so that he can work on the family car. Frank left the Army after eight years having learned enough about structure and planning. He puts that to good use in the insurance company when he scores his first “real” job after the military and quickly becomes a controlling partner in the business. Each of the boys raises two kids in the standard suburban ranch home. Each boy is content with his life. Each boy forgets about the school on Olsen Street.
Until forty-five years later, when Jimmy goes to the hospital to visit the wife of an old military friend. His friend had passed away several years ago, and Jimmy had heard at a reunion that Anna, his friend’s widow, was sick and in the hospital. He looked back on his time spent at Anna and Rick’s home and remembered their kindness to him and his wife during one of his kids’ illnesses. So, he bought a bouquet of flowers and paid Anna a visit. She looked frail and alien in the bed, hooked up to a bunch of machines that forced air into her lungs and expelled it in one swift motion. As he was heading out the hospital’s front door, he held it open for another man. The man’s cap caught his eye. “Excuse me,” he started, “but I served in the 9th. When did you?” The man looked at him, trying to find his face in memory filled with soldiers. He thought for a while, and then slowly the face he remembered from long ago took shape. This wasn’t a soldier he remembered but a boy that he traded shoes with. A boy he invented codes to torment Mrs. DeLorenzo with. “Jimmy. Jimmy Santorini,” he exhaled. Jimmy was taken aback, for no one had called him Jimmy in forty odd years. He looked at the man, grizzled from years of hard work, and Frank’s eyes sparked a memory that he had long forgotten. “Oh my god. Frank Terny. It has been a while,” and he clasped the other man’s shoulder in the type of hug only two men separated by fifty-five years can share. Frank invited Jimmy up to visit his sister Annabelle, who had been ill for quite sometime. And upon turning the corner for Annabelle’s room, Jimmy saw the flowers that he had deposited just a half-hour before in her room.
Jimmy and Frank became daily fixtures in Annabelle’s room. They delighted when she woke up and filled in the gaps of their lives. Frank and Jimmy, who had been Jim to Annabelle for the past thirty years, had spent the last three decades just ten miles apart, raising their families, growing their businesses, living their lives. They continued to meet for coffee even after Annabelle left the hospital for rehab. Over their cups of coffee, they solved the world’s problems in a way that two old men who have lived their lives on their own terms often do. Jimmy teased Frank good-naturedly when he flirted with Sabrina, their usual waitress, a little too much. Frank, meanwhile, leaned on Jimmy when Annabelle’s rehab failed and he came to the realization that his beloved sister would never recover.
The two boys from Olsen Street drank their cups of coffee twice a week and tipped Sabrina liberally until she eventually left for college. They rehashed their greatest successes in life and traded pictures of their grandkids. And one day, they clinked their cups in memory of Mrs. DeLorenzo, a woman wise beyond her years for putting two such unlikely friends next to each other so that she could reach them.