Francine

First runner-up in the 2022 Great American Fiction Contest.

Someone harvesting potatoes.
(Shutterstock)

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I park behind a Ford pickup on Main Street and begin walking in the direction of the Klamath County Jail. I could have parked closer to the jail, but my light green Chevelle is the only one in town, and I’d rather walk six blocks than let my coworkers know I’m visiting Francine. This mid-sized town can turn small when one of its own gets into trouble.

“She was lazy,” said Mr. Cross the day after Francine’s story appeared in the Herald and News. He had brought his copy of the local paper to school and was passing it around the teacher’s lunch room. Bold headlines and news of Martin Luther King’s assassination filled the first two pages. If the King tragedy hadn’t happened the same day Francine’s trial ended, she might have made the front page again.

“She rarely turned in an assignment,” Mr. Cross continued, “and when she did, I wore my pencil to a nub correcting mistakes.”

“Lazy and provocative,” Miss Harrington said. “Looks like a criminal in this picture.” The phys ed teacher, wearing sweats that matched her steel gray hair, read the short news article a second time.

Miss Stevens raised her pale eyebrows. “Provocative? A middle schooler?”

“Yes. Lazy, provocative, disobedient, you name it.” Miss Harrington handed the newspaper to Miss Stevens. “You’re new. You never had to put up with the brazen little brat.”

“That’s a bit harsh,” I said before downing an Oreo in two bites. I was on hall duty that week, which meant I had twenty minutes for lunch.

“She always picked a gym shirt that was two sizes too small for her.”

Mrs. Lugo gave her coffee a brisk stir. “Like her sweaters.”

“See?” Miss Harrington nodded approvingly. “You wouldn’t have remembered that if it wasn’t obvious.”

“Please, ladies,” Mr. Cross groaned as he picked up his tray. “Must we?”

Conversation switched to other topics after Mr. Cross left the lunchroom — an assembly to honor Martin Luther King, Joel Creighton suspended for smoking in the lavatory — but Francine’s name came up again and again during subsequent lunch breaks.

On my way to see her in a jail I’ve never set foot in, I feel moisture blooming in my armpits. It’s warm for April. I could blame my discomfort on the weather, but women my size always perspire more than skinny ones like Francine. I’m also in a sweat over what to say to her. How does one say goodbye to an old friend about to go to prison? Other than running into her one day at Safeway, I haven’t seen or spoken to her in three or four years. Monday, a sheriff’s deputy will transport her to the women’s correctional facility in Salem, and I’ll probably never see her again.

I remove my corduroy jacket, fold it over my arm, and cross to the shady side of the street. When I reach the other side, I chastise myself for walking along this dusty sidewalk on my day off when I could be in my air-conditioned apartment, reading a good book. Francine and I have nothing in common anymore. I have a college degree. She dropped out of high school after her sophomore year. I’m single. She’s been married and divorced twice. I went to her first wedding; didn’t even know about the second one until it was over. Should I be kissy-face friendly when I see her? Judgmental? Sad? Crack a joke? She used to make me laugh so hard my belly muscles ached.

In the middle of the third block, I pause in front of the building that used to house Woolworth’s five and dime. A FOR LEASE sign is posted on the brick facade. The building’s large plate glass windows are lined on the inside with black paper, and a CLOSED sign hangs on the door. The dime store, as we used to call Woolworth’s, was a magical place for us farm kids. It was also the scene of what may have been Francine’s first caper. We were about twelve years old at the time, and if her petty crime had been discovered back then, I might have been named an accomplice. Now she’s in jail for a felony.

She and I spent many Saturday mornings in that store when we were kids. We’d hop onto the front seat of my family’s ’55 Chevy pickup and ride into town with my mother. While she shopped for groceries, we hung out at Woolworth’s. The store has been gone for years, but if it was still in business, I could walk in there blindfolded, and the mingled smells of popcorn, oiled wood floors, and cheap fragrances would tell me exactly where I was.

The popcorn machine sat a few feet past the entrance. Every Saturday, I used a nickel of my allowance to buy a bag and share it with Francine, who never had anything in her pockets except lunch money on school days. Munching popcorn while we ogled the lotions, powders, and creams on display, we would meander from counter to counter, stealing dabs of cologne. At the makeup counter, we picked out tubes of Revlon lipstick, read the bottom labels, and unwound them to see what “Fire and Ice” or “Cherries in the Snow” looked like. We never sampled the lipsticks, though, because it didn’t disappear on our skin the way cologne did. Besides, a store clerk hovered over the makeup counter like a hawk circling for ground squirrels.

By seventh grade, some of the girls in our class wore makeup. Not a lot, but I wanted to look as good as they did. Mom gave in and bought me a tube of Tangee, a lip tint that went on clear before turning a natural-looking pink. I assumed the Tangee would darken if I applied more of it, so I quickly flattened the tip. Francine showed me how to dig out what remained in the tube with my little finger.

Every time I walk past this building, I remember the last time Francine and I were in the store together. “We should leave,” I said after twenty minutes or so of browsing. “Mom is probably through shopping by now.” We wound our way through the aisles to the store’s entrance and headed for Piggly Wiggly. As we rounded the corner of Eighth and Main, Francine pulled a new tube of Tangee out of her pocket and handed it to me.

“Here,” she said with a satisfied grin. “It’s to pay you back for the popcorn.”

I looked at the lip tint, then at my friend. “Did you just take this?”

She rolled her eyes the way she always did when she thought I was being a wimp. “You’re not going to tell, are you?”

“No-o-o, but …”

“They’ll never notice.”

For a day or two I thought about returning the stolen tube. I never did, though, and I swear that pilfered Tangee made my lips burn every time I used it. I didn’t set foot in Woolworth’s for a month and stopped inviting Francine to go into town with me. If that was supposed to teach her a lesson, it didn’t work. Not in the long run, anyway.

I leave the old Woolworth’s building behind and walk one more block before turning east into an area lined with small businesses and specialty shops. Like most of the commercial buildings in Klamath Falls, none are over two or three stories tall. A furniture store that changes hands every few years occupies the ground floor of the first block. Signs in the building’s second-story windows advertise an accountant, a failed dance studio, and a dentist looking for more patients.

The county jail is in the next block. Take away its steel door and barred windows and it would look like any other storefront in town. I pause at the door for a quick upward glance, wondering which window marks the cell where Francine has spent the last six months.

I have known the jail’s only female occupant since we were five. We lived three miles apart in the farm district south of town where our fathers eked out a livelihood growing alfalfa and raising a few head of cattle. Both of our mothers worked outside the home to cover expenses. I was an only child. Francine was a surprise baby with two brothers already in high school when she was born. Unless she and I were mad at each other for some reason, we shared a seat on the school bus from kindergarten through tenth grade. We also belonged to the same 4-H Club until she dropped out of school.

She looked terrible in that photo in the paper; however, mug shots are rarely flattering. While we were still palling around together, she was always the one men referred to as the pretty blonde. Mirrors, even the wavy ones in the fun house at the carnival, reflected our physical differences. So did my moon face in every strip of pictures we took in the Woolworth’s photo booth. Francine’s wide-set, dark brown eyes, strawberry blond hair, and perfect teeth won her a rodeo princess sash one year. A photo of her and the other two princesses appeared on the front page of the paper, a small claim to fame that encouraged her to enter every beauty contest she qualified for. I was always in the audience rooting for her, but the best she did was first runner-up for Miss Klamath County.

I was in awe of her courage or optimism or whatever it was that made her do it. I couldn’t imagine walking across a stage in a swimsuit and exposing my baby hippo thighs to strangers. I don’t swim, don’t even own a swimsuit, though I did when I was in grade school. I wore dresses when I was younger. Now, I mostly wear jeans or slacks.

On hot summer days, Francine and I used to go swimming to cool off. Wearing jeans over our swimsuits, we would ride our horses a couple miles to Lost River — more wandering stream than river — where we knew of a spot deep enough to swim in. Thinking back, I don’t know why my friend even bothered to wear a suit. As soon as the water was up to her waist, she would slip out of her top, then her skimpy bottom, and throw them onto the weedy riverbank. She teased me mercilessly when I kept mine on.

“It’s harder to take off a one-piece than a two-piece,” was my excuse, “especially when it’s wet.” In truth, I didn’t want to part with the tummy-hiding ruffles on my Chubette swimsuit. Today, I’m hot enough Lost River sounds good, if not for a swim, for a wade. Hopefully the jail is air-conditioned.

I open the steel-reinforced door and enter a dimly lit foyer that reeks of cigarette smoke. I hear the distant hum of an air conditioner that appears to be spewing cool, not cold, air. A uniformed man with a pock-marked face sits at a large, paper-strewn desk a few feet from the door. He gives me the once-over when I ask to see Francine.

“Been to see her before?”

I shake my head.

“Are you family?”

“No.”

“I need to see some ID,” he says, so I dig my driver’s license out of my purse.

While he runs his finger down the list of names in a log book, I look around the small room that separates the front of the jail from the back. The only furnishings other than the officer’s desk and chair are another desk, this one empty, and a wooden bench. Several army green file cabinets stand at attention along one wall.

The shafts of sunlight squeezing between steel bars in the front windows, form strips of light on the gray cement floor. Barred windows remind me of the wrought-iron grills that protect the ceiling lights in my school’s gymnasium. I got in trouble in that gym once when Francine and I were in sixth grade. Miss Harrington gave the class five minutes to change into our dark blue shorts and white tee shirts. As soon as we were dressed, we were supposed to line up behind the out-of-bounds stripe painted on the gym’s hardwood floor. Straighten that line, Miss Harrington yelled if one rubber-toed sneaker touched the black border.

“Let’s see what she does if our shoes go all the way over the line,” Francine suggested one day. Foolishly, I followed her lead. Miss Harrington made us run laps while the rest of the girls played volleyball, and she gave us both Ds in phys ed that term. My friend was accustomed to getting Ds. Nothing happened to her when she took her report card home, whereas I, who had never received lower than a B, got a spanking. How humiliating for an eleven-year-old! It was the last spanking and only D I ever received.

“Okay, you’re good,” says the police officer.

He hands me a pen and points to a line in the log book. While he makes a brief phone call, I sign my name, and in less than a minute, a woman in a dun-brown uniform and western boots appears. The snug fit of her shirt exposes a ruffle of flesh above the gun belt. Her friendly smile isn’t what I expect from a jailhouse matron.

“Follow me,” the woman says evenly.

We pass what looks like a break room. Two policemen at one of the tables turn their heads as we walk by. We continue down a hall lined with doors, all of them closed. The policewoman opens the second door on the left, and I enter a small windowless room constructed of pumice blocks painted a sickly green. A square hardwood table, flanked by two high-backed metal chairs, occupies the middle of the room. A bank of harsh fluorescent ceiling lights is centered overhead.

“Have a seat.” The woman points to the chair facing the door. “Be back in a minute.”

I drape my jacket over the chair’s back, sit on the cushionless chair and wait, my nose offended by the smell of a disinfectant that fails to mask the stench of ancient cigarette smoke. A round, black-framed clock hangs to the right of the door. The clock’s second hand jumps rather than sweeps when it advances from one second to the next, each jump producing an audible click.

With nothing to do but listen to the clock, I try to imagine Francine in her upstairs cell. She’s wearing a black and white striped jumpsuit and sitting on a chair identical to the one I’m on. Her cot, maybe it’s a twin bed, has a thin, lumpy mattress, no sheets, one pillow, one gray blanket folded at the foot. Her hands rest in her lap, eyes downcast. Maybe she’s gained some weight. Maybe she’s eating every carb she can get her hands on like I do when I’m stressed. I can’t picture her looking like me, though, so I stop speculating. What she is wearing or how she looks mean nothing compared to the fact she is in jail. She grew up in an ocean of farmland with a horse pasture for a park and a large sprawling barn for a playroom. Prison is going to be hell for her.

After five minutes of clicks, the policewoman escorts her prisoner into the room. Francine’s mouth twitches when she sees me, but she doesn’t let go of a smile.

“Hi, Teach,” she says while her handcuffs are being removed. “If I’d known it was you, I wouldn’t-a bothered to run a comb through my hair.” She gives a hard little chuckle.

Her sleek blond hair is swept into a pony tail. Her uniform, a light blue, short-sleeved cotton shirt and navy trousers, hangs on her waifish frame, and her eyes are so heavily lined, mascaraed, and shadowed she looks like one of those big-eyed Keane prints Woolworth’s used to sell. Makeup is another luxury she’ll have to forgo in prison.

The policewoman points Francine to the chair opposite me, and then stands next to the clock, close enough to hear every word we say. She folds her arms under her bosom. Her boobs are bigger than mine.

“I can’t stay long,” I begin, instantly wishing I had come up with something better. Good grief, I’m an English teacher.

Francine waves at me as if swatting a mosquito. “Go when you want, Teach. They’ll kick you out in fifteen minutes anyways.” Her arm is bone thin.

She gives everyone nicknames. She started calling me Teach after I finished the first two terms of my slow march through college. For the six years it took me to graduate, she and I picked and bagged potatoes during fall harvest. Summers, I helped my father on our farm. I only got a small boost in my allowance for the farm work, but made enough money in the potato fields to pay for every dollar of my tuition. Now I teach English and literature at the same middle school Francine and I attended.

We would have graduated from high school together if my wayward friend hadn’t dropped out during our sophomore year. That spring, she applied for every job in the classifieds. Some Tulelake farmer gave her a chance, and eventually word got around that the strawberry blonde was stronger and more capable than she looked. She could double-clutch an old truck and drive any make or model of tractor. Some of the farm equipment she learned to operate I didn’t know existed. What’s next, I once asked her — crop dusting? She gave me a rodeo princess smile and reddened; the only time I remember seeing her blush.

“How are they treating you?” I ask. I point at the bilious green ceiling. “I mean … what’s it like up there?”

She rolls her eyes. “What do you expect — rats and chains?” She rests her forearms on the table and leans forward as if she’s going to tell me a secret. “Or maybe that’s what you’re hopin’ it’s like.” She lets a grin escape, and I see there’s a tooth missing in a smile that used to bedazzle.

“Don’t make me the baddie,” I say a bit louder. “I’m here, aren’t I? You should not be here. Did you really think you could take ten thousand dollars and nobody would miss it?”

Francine sits back in her chair, folds her arms and squints at me. “It was nine thousand four hundred, and it took ’em two years and forty-five days to find out where it went.” When she talks, I can’t keep my eyes off the hole left by her missing tooth.

I frown at the policewoman, hoping she’ll move a few feet away from us. By now, Francine is probably accustomed to a lack of privacy. I am not, so when the policewoman doesn’t budge, I lean as far as I can across the table and whisper.

“I couldn’t believe you were the guilty party when I first heard what happened. They gave you that job inside the plant because of your work ethic. My God, you plowed, hauled hay, loaded trucks. You used to fill twice as many sacks of potatoes as I did.”

“Not twice.”

“Close.”

She nibbles a fingernail too short to bite. “You forget,” she drops the nail-bitten hand in her lap, “for you, work meant money for college. Fun money. For me, it meant food and rent. I made a mistake, okay? But think about it — no diploma, no car, brothers got the farm, my back screwed from luggin’ must-a been a million bales a hay and sacks o’ spuds.”

“It wasn’t fun money, Francine. By the way, now they use machines called bulkers to do the work we did back then.”

“I know. I was helpin’ with the books when they bought the first one. I drove it for a couple o’ days.” She gives me a gap-toothed smile. “Helluva ride.”

I can relate to her backaches. I get them, too, mostly at night when I’m trying to go to sleep. The doctor seems to think the pain will go away if I lose some weight. I disagree. I am certain it is caused by the heavy lifting I did in my twenties. My favorite way to ignore it and ease into sleep is to picture myself in the potato fields on a crisp autumn day. The only sounds are the murmur of voices, rustle of burlap, and an occasional flock of honking Canada geese. Sunshine warms my shoulders as I breathe the fresh scent of potato vines — musky like cremini mushrooms. Yes, the work was strenuous, but this is how I prefer to remember it.

Six days a week from mid-September to the end of October, Francine and I, wearing lightweight jackets over flannel shirts and T-shirts, met at the potato fields at 7 a.m. Sometimes the rows of partially exposed potatoes waiting to be bagged stretched all the way to the foothills. A bit of frost still clung to the vines when we arrived. By noon we had shed our flannels and were down to T-shirts. I used to look across the rows to see if Francine had stripped down to her bra, but she never did.

We were given cotton gloves to protect our hands while we sifted through row after row of dirt and vines, scooping up potatoes and tossing them into large burlap bags hooked to wide mesh belts strapped around our waists. We were paid by the bag, and the quickest way to fill one was to straddle a row, bend over, and pick up potatoes as fast as we could, dragging the partially filled bag between our legs as we moved up the row. When a bag held roughly fifty pounds of potatoes, we stood up, pulled it off the belt hooks and set it alongside the row. Except for an occasional break and half an hour for lunch, that was the only time we stood upright.

We sweated alongside a crew of migrant workers, the only gringos, make that gringas, since most of the pickers were women. I found it immensely satisfying to quantify in bags filled and dollars earned what I accomplished every day. I miss that feeling, especially when I’m in the middle of a lesson and my students’ eyes glaze over. I can almost read some of their minds asking, When am I ever going to use this shit?

“I don’t understand why you did it, Francine. Steal the money, that is.” I’m whispering again. “Were you trying to even the score? Punish somebody for your bad back? The farmers we worked for weren’t monsters. Before bulkers were invented, every potato grower in the state used workers like us to harvest their crops.”

“I don’t care. I ruined my back for chickenfeed! When I worked in the office, some o’ the checks I saw were huge. I shoulda been paid more. Everybody shoulda been paid more.”

“We made better than minimum wage, Francine. You, Wonder Woman, made a lot more. Don’t forget … neither of us had a car. We could ride our horses to the potato fields. After work, we rode them to your house, let them loll in the shade while we went inside. Remember how hot and dusty we were? Almost as brown and dirty as the potatoes we bagged. Every sweaty hair on our heads was caked in dirt.”

Francine heaves an exaggerated sigh. “Potatoes, always potatoes. I believe in callin’ a spud a spud.”

I laugh out loud, pleased she hasn’t lost her sense of humor.

“What’s so funny?” she says stiffly. “You probly call ’em po-tah-toes when you’re around your teacher friends. Is that why you come here today? To show me how smart you are? You think you’re better ’n me, don’t you?”

“Hey! We’re from the same roots, remember? If one of us is better than the other, it’s you. You were the rodeo princess, the one who always had a date, the one who’s been married … twice, no less.”

She covers her smile with a bony hand. The look in her eyes says she would like me to expound on her shining moments, but dead cigarette air fills the four feet between us until I return to my story. “Remember how we’d use your garden hose to wash off some of the dirt? Then we’d sit in your living room and tell jokes, talk about everything and nothing over a couple of beers. I haven’t had a beer since that tasted as good.”

Francine nods lazily, places her fingertips together and flexes them as if doing finger pushups. For a long moment we listen to the click, click, click of the second hand as it orbits the face of the clock. I wish I knew what she was thinking. I doubt she remembers those evenings at her house the same way I do. How relaxing they were for me — no exams to study for, lessons to prepare, papers to grade. She kissed me once. It was a sweet kiss, not long, not short. “Blue Velvet” was playing on the radio. Neither of us spoke about it. Not then, not since.

“If your ears have been burning lately,” I say, breaking the silence, “it’s because you are the main topic of conversation in the teacher’s lunch room. Did you know Miss Harrington is still teaching there? She says you were always a troublemaker.”

Francine glares at me before glancing over her shoulder at the matron. “Isn’t it time for her to go?”

The policewoman shrugs, reaches for the handcuffs on her belt. When I stand, my chair’s metal legs squawk against the concrete floor; squawk again when I push the chair under the table. I lower my eyes while Francine is being cuffed. “Is it okay if I give you a hug?” I ask after the cuffs snap shut.

Francine shakes her head.

“Not allowed,” the policewoman says, her tone calm and detached.

“Well, I guess that’s it then,” I say, mostly to myself. “Maybe I’ll send you a funny card.” I feel a twinge of disappointment on my way to the door; don’t open it right away.

“Wait!” she calls out when I reach for the doorknob, and I stop but don’t turn around. “You never told me why you come here today. Was it to piss me off? Make me feel worse ’n I do?”

“Of course not, Francine.”

I stare at what looks like smudged fingerprints on the door frame while I do a quick mental search for an answer. A montage of memories flickers behind my eyes — two gentle horses, a yellow bus, the 4-H calf we raised together, the kiss — but the image that persists is the two of us in our twenties, knees in the dirt, bending and digging, bending and gathering, trading wisecracks as we shovel potatoes into burlap bags hooked to our belts.

I turn for a parting look, expecting to see her dark brown eyes filled with anger. Instead, I see a Keane kid’s eyes, brimming with tears. Before my voice betrays me, I say, gently as I can and still be heard, “Because we dug spuds together.”

Featured image: Shutterstock

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Comments

  1. Tangee! How well I remember sneaking my tube onto the school bus, where it got passed around among friends.
    I never dug spuds with my closest home-town friend, but we, like Francine and your narrator, followed very different paths after graduating from high school in south shore Massachusetts. Seeing her decades later was painful and awkward. Her adult life was marred by a domineering, but weak, husband, financial worries, and too little happiness. I was luckier.
    Our mutual friend, Marty, shared the link to this story. I’m glad she did!

  2. Ginger,
    Your picture painted words filled me with memories of days gone by. We all know someone like your characters which just draws us into the stories you paint.
    Congratulations on your win. I look forward to seeing you soon.

  3. As always, your written images place me in the story with your characters.
    I always enjoy taking the trip eown story lane with you.

  4. Ginger, I love this story. Have lived in Oregon for a while, I can picture the setting and characters so vividly. As always in your writing, you capture humanity and the essence of life so vividly here. Thank you for sharing this with the world. I look forward to more stories!

  5. There’s a lot more to this story than sacks of potatoes, Ms. Dehlinger. I liked how you had it set in 1968 and the backgrounds of both women told in a flashback type of fashion. I was able to picture the whole thing in my mind as I was reading along.

    The ’55 Chevy truck, a 60’s Chevelle, the locale too with your descriptive writing style. I… even have the two perfect actresses if this were a film or a stage play. Joanne Woodward as ‘Francine’ and Kathy Bates as her friend, if both of them were around the same age a long time ago. They aren’t of course, but it’s still interesting to think about.

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