8

Fort Wayne, Indiana

Stealthily, Frank Burns removed a small photo from his wallet. He nervously chewed on his thumbnail while looking wistfully at the black-and-white image of the smiling blonde in the army dress uniform, She was so beautiful and brought back memories of the one time in his life when he'd been almost happy.

"Frank! Quit dawdling and get down here!" A woman's strident voice interrupted him, making him jump.

Panicked that she might see the photo, Frank shoved it back in his wallet, wincing as the corner bent from his haste. "Coming, pumpkin!" Grabbing the car keys off the bureau, he rushed downstairs.

"It's about time! And I don't know how many times I've told you not to call me 'pumpkin!' My name is Louise. Use it!" Louise Burns glared at her husband. She was a harsh woman, who had been disappointed too many times by life to have any patience left over for Frank.

"I'm sorry, sugar...I mean, Louise."

"Oh, stuff it. Girls! Let's go!"

Obeying their mother, the three Burns girls appeared in the entryway. Jocelyn, the oldest at eighteen, protested. "Do I have to go over to Grandma's with you?"

"Yeah, I don't want to go either." This was Melissa at thirteen years old. Sarah, the middle child, said nothing, but looked to be in agreement with her sisters.

"Oh, I don't think..." Frank started, but was cut off.

"Don't be ridiculous. Of course we're all going." Louise's statement ended the discussion. "Give me the keys, Frank."

"Oh, but honeybunch, I was going to drive." Whining, he refused to relinquish the keys.

"I always drive. You're terrible at it." Extending her hand, she waited for him to comply.

Defeated again, Frank gave her the keys. Jocelyn and Sarah exchanged a look, old enough to have already lost respect for their father. "What are you two looking at? You girls better watch it or I'm not going to allow you out of the house for a month! That goes for you too, Melissa." If he couldn't criticize his wife, his daughters, at least, were fair game.

"Yes, Dad." Jocelyn answered for them all, not particularly chastised, but not in the mood to argue her point. The family filed outside, piling into the car for the short drive over to Agnes Burns' house. The girls talked among themselves in the backseat a little, but it was mostly a silent ride.

Upon arriving, they were greeted at the door. "I was beginning to think you weren't going to make it in time for dinner. Did you accidentally forget what time I told you again, Louise?"

"No, Agnes. You said 6:30, and here we are." Louise answered civilly, but seethed inside. She loathed her mother-in-law with a passion.

"It's 6:40. But I suppose someone like you can't be expected to worry about punctuality. Growing up with money, being late is considered fashionable, isn't it?" Dismissing her daughter-in-law, who gritted her teeth and wished that just once Frank would stand up for her, she turned to her son. "Hello, Frank. That blue shirt looks so good on you brings out your eyes."

"Thanks, Mom. It's one you gave to me."

"Really?" She feigned ignorance. "Well, it's a good color on you. C'mere and give your old mother a kiss."

Frank stepped forward and pecked her on the cheek. "You look nice tonight too."

"Oh, goodness. My son is such a flatterer! Imagine saying I look nice when he knows I've been under the weather lately." She addressed herself to no one in particular, but smiled approvingly at Frank. Then, after each of the girls had greeted their grandmother with a dutiful peck, they were allowed past the foyer.

"Do you need any help in the kitchen, Agnes, or do you have things under control?" Louise asked, knowing if she didn't she would hear about it later.

"No, that's okay. I wouldn't want you to spill anything on that dress you're wearing. I'm sure it cost enough so that you'll want to wear it more than once. Jocelyn, Sarah, why don't you two help me carry in the meal. Melissa, you can set the table. There are plates already out."

A few minutes later, the six were settled in the dining room. "Frank, will you ask the blessing?" Agnes made the request from her seat at the head of the table.

"Of course, Mom. Um...Dear Lord, we thank you for this delicious food, and for this chance for family togetherness, and for how well my stocks have been doing this week. Amen." Frank looked up quickly, catching the scowl on Louise's face. Knowing that meant he was likely to be sleeping on the couch tonight, he giggled nervously. "This sure does look like a good meal, Mom. You're a great cook."

"I do my best." Agnes Burns' forte was not humility. "Here, you serve yourself first. You're looking a little peaked. Have you been eating properly?"

"I don't starve my husband, Agnes. Not all women are as frugal as you are." Louise was taking the usual sniping with even less grace than normal. Hearing this, Frank knew for certain that he would be on the couch tonight. And that wouldn't be such a bad thing getting him away from the frigid woman who normally shared his bed except the springs were bad and they always dug into his back and kept him awake. But it was already too late to prevent, so he finished serving himself and passed the bowls around the table.

His mother and wife continued to bicker with one another, but Frank tuned them out, letting his thoughts drift instead to another woman, one from long ago. He wondered what Margaret was doing now. She was probably off with her well-muscled husband, having fun and laughing. She had always been so pretty when she laughed. But the thought of her with that stupid Lieutenant Colonel Penobscott was depressing. Maybe she wasn't happy either, and was even right now thinking about him, Frank Burns, wishing she had never made the mistake of leaving him...

"How was work today, Frank?" His mother's voice interrupted his reverie.

"Oh, it went very well. We had several successful surgeries." He nodded vigorously to reinforce his positive description.

"Uh-huh. And how many of those surgeries did you perform?" Agnes wasn't impressed.

"Why, none of them, Mother. You know I'm mostly in administration now."

"Humph. You shouldn't be letting other surgeons take over like that." His mother wasn't pleased to have paid for years of medical school only to have her son end up pushing papers.

"Oh, but they don't take over. I tell them who to operate on and when to do it. I like this better, since I don't have to deal with all those sick people all the time like I did before." Frank had been pushed out of active surgery several years ago mostly because he wasn't as skilled as he liked to pretend. But all the same, he had been as pleased about the switch as anyone else.

"It's a waste of your talent to have you in a position like that." For once, she let the subject drop without a long diatribe. Everyone knew, however, that it would come up again before too much time had had a chance to pass. They ate in silence for a few minutes. "Frank, sit up straight. Melissa, take your elbow off the table." In one breath she corrected them both, and they both obeyed without a second thought. "Louise, did you remind Frank that today is the anniversary of the end of the police action in Korea?"

"No, Agnes. I couldn't since I didn't know about it." Snapping her jaw shut in anger, Louise bit her tongue and flinched at the sudden pain.

"That's funny. I could swear I told you about it when I called earlier." Agnes made it her job to discredit Louise as much as possible in front of Frank.

"You must have forgotten."

"I suppose that's always possible." The sarcasm in her tone belied her words. "When you get old and weak like me, you tend to forget things like that. One day you'll find out what it's like, and then you'll have more pity for me."

"Sarah! What did you do at school today?" Seizing upon the first opportunity that appeared to her to change the subject, Louise posed the question to the daughter seated across the table from her.

Having grown up with the tension and squabbles, none of the girls thought anything of it. Most of the time, they tried to stay out of it, but now Sarah began to talk, offering Frank the opportunity to slip back into his mental meanderings.

Whoever had forgotten what, that meant Margaret had been out of Korea for almost five years. So had the rest of them Captain Pierce, and Colonel Potter, and that little snitch, Corporal O'Reilly. But as far as Frank was concerned, they might as well all be dead. It would just be good riddance to bad rubbish. None of those people had belonged in a good military unit anyway. Why, he'd been a major, and he'd only gotten to have command of the camp a few times with them all conspiring against him. He'd tried so hard to have them like him, but the only thanks he'd gotten from those smartskis was a bunch of cruel jokes. But Margaret...she'd been something really special. If he hadn't already had a wife, he might have even considered marrying her. Of course, Mother probably wouldn't have liked her very much. She didn't even like Louise, and Louise came from a wealthy family and stayed home with the kids all day.

But in Korea, Mom had been far away, and so had Louise, and Margaret had been so wonderful. For a while, she'd really liked him, more than anyone had ever liked him before. Then she'd gone off with that caveman colonel and left him all alone, but that could have been a mistake. Maybe she missed him as much as he missed her. Margaret hadn't been perfect, but she had held him when he needed to be held and made him feel like maybe he had power and wasn't so ineffective after all.

Later that night, Frank settled in on the couch with his blanket and pillow. The springs were poking him, and he knew he'd be sore in the morning. The rest of the evening at his mother's had finished with no real disasters, but plenty of reinforcement of the hard feelings on all sides. Louise had yelled at him after they'd gotten home for not taking her side in the arguments. It was nothing new, and tomorrow would be another day of more of the same, as would the next day, and the one after that. But for now, Frank blocked all this out, and fell asleep, dreaming of happier times that he'd spent at an army camp in war-torn Korea in the company of a certain blonde major.


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