People Like Frank and Other Stories From the Edge of Normal, by Jenn Ashton [Book Excerpt]

23 June 2021

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Excerpt of the short story “Nest,” adapted with permission of the publisher from People like Frank, by Jenn Ashton ©2021. Published by Tidewater Press.

At 3:00 p.m. Betty put down her knitting needles and died. It wasn’t 3:00 p.m. everywhere, of course, but in her own small apartment over the smoke shop it was. Betty had been knitting little bird nests for the wildlife and bird rescue center across town. There was always a call for them in the spring, when people would bring in eggs they found or when rescued mother birds could not find natural nest-making supplies within their man-made wooden chicken coops. Sadly, Betty’s demise meant they would not be delivered. When people finally got around to packing up her place to make way for the smoke shop renovations, which would include her apartment being converted into a ‘cigar lounge’, the little knitted bird nests were fodder for the Goodwill bag along with most of Betty’s possessions.

Digits & Threads readers are welcome to use the code KNITNOW2021 for a discount when purchasing People Like Frank directly from the publisher.

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Francine McNamara was good at her job. She was good, and she was thorough, and even Steven her boss thought it but never told her so. He was twenty-three and believed that workers should do their best job and not be reliant on praise from their superiors. He’d seen that idea in a movie and adopted it as his own.

After her lunch break, from which she always came back early—wanting to be the first to get started—Francine spied a bit of blue wool sticking out of the corner of an old cardboard box. It was near the door, in the pile that had been dropped off that morning. That was the other reason Francine came back from lunch early: she liked to make discoveries. She enjoyed the Christmas morning feeling of opening a box with no idea what was inside of it, like it was a gift just for her. Sometimes, when she was alone, she would silently mouth the words “thank you,” as if the giver was in the room as she pulled out an old car coat or a pink-haired troll doll. Of course, she knew she could not keep these things, but she felt that she was giving them the love and respect they deserved, having been abandoned for whatever reason in the Goodwill’s back alley. Francine knew a bit about abandonment.

She walked over to the box, which was surrounded by a mound of black, large-sized trash bags, which she knew would be full of clothes in various states of repair, bedding, drapes and paperback books. It was almost always the case, but the bit of blue wool held her attention and she reached over and claimed the box that had GOODWILL scrawled across its side in black marker. She took it to her sorting station, which was a green-legged stool and a long table by the back wall. She liked the back wall for a number of reasons; she could lean on it when she got a little tired, and the back wall was where the shelf with the radio was, and Francine loved to listen to the radio, especially the oldies station.

She heaved the box up onto her table and put on her blue rubber gloves. Chuck Berry was playing. Beside her was a large trash can for obvious garbage, and a few different colored bins, one labeled for cleaning, one clean, another mending, and one for questionable items. Questionable items were things that she needed to ask Steven about.

Francine carefully cut through the one piece of wide packing tape that helped the top stay shut and then she closed her eyes, took a breath and welcomed her gift. First she saw some large cotton housedresses—multi-flowered, but all clean, just out of a drawer, so into the “Clean” bin they went. There were some pantyhose and a few odd socks that had all seen better days; they went into the trash, as did old underwear (always). There was an old copy of The Joy of Cooking, a coffee mug, partially wrapped in a red tea towel, with some orange butterflies and “Betty” written in flowery script, and a small plastic bun bag, from which the blue wool was peaking.

Francine put the plastic bag on her table and finished emptying the box, flattened it, took it over to the skid where the cardboard recycling went and looked around for Steven. She didn’t want to be interrupted.

Back on her stool, Francine carefully opened the bag. It was an old Kaiser roll bag and she could still smell the sesame seeds and bread. It smelled homey and welcoming, so she slowly reached in with her gloved hand. Francine knew better than to do it this way—they were supposed to dump out the contents of any bag onto their tables in case something sharp was inside. She knew better, but she did it this way anyway, she wasn’t thinking too much about sharp things. She had that Christmas morning feeling and she was excited to see what she would get.

Her fingers didn’t feel anything sharp, just slightly pointy and cold and woolly. She pulled out a ball of blue wool, some funny looking knitted things and a pair of silvery grey knitting needles—Size 2 it said at the top of each—with a just-started project attached and connected to the blue ball. She put the needles with the unfinished knitting to one side and inspected the other, rather odd-looking finished things. They looked like little, flat, round blue hats. Francine set one on her head and then immediately grabbed it off and looked around, hoping nobody had seen her. They weren’t supposed to try things on. There were four of these knitted things, all blue, and each was about five inches across. She tried to think about what they could be: bowl? hat? fake breast? (she had seen those come through before, although they were made of rubbery stuff and not wool), knee warmer? some sort of game?

She continued to turn it over in her mind all afternoon as she worked, and then at the end of the day, she put everything back into the bun bag and put it on the shelf under her table. She was not finished with this mystery yet.

Featured image courtesy of Tidewater Press.

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