Johnnie didn’t plan on falling for Frankie. She was too young, too naïve, and his best friend’s sister to boot. But from the moment he sees her, Johnnie knows that Frankie is the only girl for him. There’s only so much pretending he can do before he admits it. And there’s so much to learn—about her, about himself, about life—when he does.
Meanwhile, Frankie used to think all boys were the same, wild and reckless. But sweet, sincere Johnnie is proving that he’s different. Plus, when he’s not around, her thoughts keep circling back to him. As they spend more time together, their feelings grow deeper—is this real love or just a youthful fling?
Set amid the bustle of 1920s Chicago, Frankie & Johnnie is an emotionally charged story of first love, second chances, and the bittersweet journey to adulthood.
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THE first time Frankie and Johnnie met was when Steve hung an arm on Johnnie's back and draped the other arm over the top of Frankie's chair and said, " 'S my sister."
Johnnie took a look at her; he looked at her face, and at her feet, and just then he thought of a wise crack. He thought of saying, "So you've been holding out on me, uh, Steve?"
But he didn't pull the wise crack somehow. That was what made him stuck for a line; the funny crack was all he could think of, it was funny all right but it didn't seem just the right thing to say, looking at her. So he said "Uh," and there was a mixed look on his face.
She was a nice kid; she was sitting in the overstuffed chair; the place was all crossed up with fellows and girls, and somebody wanting to pass by made Johnnie step back a step so that Frankie had to lift her head and twist it around to look at him. Her head was brown, like her brother's, with a little red in it. When the light hit her hair there was red in it. The under parts of her eyes stood out, two small round bands from her cheek. Johnnie wondered was that what people called pop-eyes. He guessed not because they weren't funny.
They didn't quite know whether they should give their hands to each other.
Her girl friend Bet was squatting over doubled legs on the seat of the chair next to Frances. Bet was dark with black eyes and a soft-looking skin, cuddled in a blue velvet dress with tight little sleeves. The tight little sleeves made puffs at the top of her arms so the arms coming out of them seemed frail and slender; and yet she seemed soft to touch. Where she squatted on the calves of her legs there was a little dent, she was so soft.
Johnnie wondered was she the kind that would get fat.
She looked up straight at him; her hair was sleek and her eyebrows were cute.
Johnnie looked and thought which of the two kids should he try to make? Then Red came and danced away with Bet. He noticed when she uncurled to get up to dance she was kind of short. Gee, she was dark and small and her flesh was soft. He could see the little dents like toothmarks where Red put his fingers on her arm.
But Frances was looking up at him with her pouchy gray eyes, and he figured maybe he was supposed to ask her to dance.
"Y' dance," he said; and she got up and stood in his arms so they could dance. Her hair just reached his nose. He felt his nostrils widen and sniffen over it, like a horse's nostrils brushing over pavement grass. Her hair was smooth over her little eggy head, it didn't tickle.
He knew he wasn't such a good dancer, and when he wanted to make a girl he would kid her about that, and then she would offer to teach him how to really step, and that would give him an excuse to come up to her house to see her. All the same he really had an idea he could do some swell fancy stepping if he got the right partner. He had an idea that She when he met her would just naturally be the person he could dance fancy steps with and She would follow his stepping just like that.
But he didn't get started with Frankie, he didn't get kidding with her even. Their dancing didn't go as good together. When the record was finished he didn't know what to do with her so he sort of left her standing there making off he had to talk to one of the boys. All the time he felt funny leaving her; he wanted to stick around her. But he couldn't think of why. She was such a young kid. He could bet she hadn't even been kissed.
"If you're gonna be givin' Your lovin' Sweet baby Oh — make it mine ...
One at a time the fellows had sort of wandered into the sunparlor as if they had important things to tell each other. Louie was by the radio explaining about a new hook-up, and that reminded Steve of a dirty story about a nigger and his girl, and pretty soon they were taking turns telling dirty stories.
The girls were all around the piano.
Johnnie was looking at Red who was telling one about a salesman, but his look went between Red's shoulder and Steve's arm that was on Red's back. Through that chink Johnnie saw the circle of girls. Every once in a while the girls tittered. He wondered what kind of stories they were telling each other.
When a record was put on the fellows went over to the girls and there was dancing.
He noticed how her arms were narrow at the top, so narrow he bet you could join your fingers around them and squeeze. That showed how young she was. He better not monkey with her anyway because she was Steve's sister and he and Steve were sidekicks. It would feel funny to be making a fellow's sister. Kind of foolish.
He started to go over toward Steve but couldn't think of a thing to say to him except maybe to ask him for a Camel. Besides Steve was laying over the arm of a chair that Goldilocks was sitting in, and he had his arm clinched around her.
Frankie noticed that Johnnie's eyes were following Bet around; he was a funny kid, he was kind of cute. In a couple of days Bet would tell her how he tried to kiss her. That would feel funny, it would feel just like if Bet told her that about Steve.
Frankie motioned Bet to come with her in the kitchen. They had two bricks of ice cream to cut up and they figured maybe that would leave the slices too thin. First they tried to count on their fingers everybody that was there.
"You've forgotten Johnnie," said Bet, when Frankie had named all she could think.
"There must be some more too," said Frankie. So she went and stood in the passageway that went from the kitchen by the bedroom and bathroom to the frontroom, and she counted them all; there were fourteen, so she really ought to have another brick of ice cream.
She walked into the frontroom; Steve was sitting around Goldilocks. She walked around a bit trying to seem just as usual, and all the time wondering should she disturb him or ask someone else; she might ask Johnnie, but finally she said, "Steve, I want to ask you something."
So he unwound himself from Goldilocks and Goldilocks straightened her hair and pulled down her dress, and Steve went aside with Frankie. Pretty soon he took his hat and, waving away her hand with money, went out of the house.
Most of the boys were in the sunparlor again; Johnnie wasn't even listening, and when Chink told the one about the negro that fell off the roof he laughed when the negro fell off the roof instead of waiting for what happened on the grass.
"I guess I'll go get a drink," he said and went toward the kitchen.
"Drink? There isn't any," said Louie after him. Louie was awfully funny.
He couldn't find a waterglass so he picked up a long-stemmed wineglass that was standing on the edge of the sink. He felt funny because going into a kitchen was almost like going into a bedroom.
Bet saw him take the glass and said, "No, no, that's for the punch," and pretended to slap him for mixing into girls' business.
"Can't a fellow get a drink of water," he said, and started to fill the glass from the faucet.
"That's the hot water," Frances said in a little sorry voice, and handed him a glass of punch.
Just then Steve came in the back door with the extra brick of ice cream. Johnnie said:
"Oh, hello, Steve."
And he sort of strolled into the frontroom.
Lou had his old man's Buick, and they piled into it to take the girls home. There were Lou and Howie and Red and Johnnie and Goldilocks and Ruth and Bet. Johnnie knew Lou was figuring if they could manage to drop Howie and Ruth and Red then the four of them left could go riding around for a couple of hours yet.
Bet was squeezed in next to Johnnie, four on the back seat. He played around with her hand, and then he ran his fingers up her arm, poking and denting the soft flesh as though he were picking out a piano tune on it. Her arm was soft and round near her shoulder. He tried to join his fingers around it.
"Ouch!" she squealed, muffled.
Bet was a swell kid.
The trouble was Bet and Ruth lived in the same apartment building and how could you let Ruth out without Bet going too? So when they got to the building they all sat in the car in front of it kidding each other, the fellows pretending not to let the girls get out one door or the other, but finally Ruth saw a light go on in the frontroom of her house, so she had to get out, and Bet got out too.
Johnnie was a little glad.
Lou and Johnnie were left alone; Lou lived west but he said he might as well drop Johnnie even if it was out of his way so Johnnie climbed over the seat and sat in front with him.
"Nice kid, Frankie," said Lou.
"Oh, y' mean Steve's kid sister. Not bad." Johnnie puffed. "But she's such a young kid —."
Lou puffed. "That's the kind of a girl," he said, "fellows want to marry."
Johnnie said, "Aw, I dunno. Kind of slow."
Lou said, "She ain't so slow."
They were in front of Johnnie's house but they sat puffing. "Damn nice lookin' kid," said Lou. "Coupla years and she'll be —" His mouth was filled with a watery mmmmm.
"Aw," said Johnnie. "She's got funny heavy eyes." Then he added, "Did ja notice the gold tooth in the back of her mouth? I could never really fall for a girl with a gold tooth." And he thought about their not just naturally making a swell dancing team.
When Frankie was going to sleep she thought Johnnie was a cute kid; it was funny the way his shoes were hard and shiny and his hair was hard and shiny; his hair flopped up and down on his head in little flops when he danced; he carried it bristly like a grand mustachy cat.
She wondered what he and Steve did all the time when they marched off together and what they talked about. She thought Johnnie was an awfully cute kid but it wasn't He.
Johnnie figured if it was Steve that answered the phone he would ask him if he wanted to go downtown to see The Rough Riders.
He was pretty sure Steve wouldn't be home though because today was tank practice and Steve was trying to make the waterball team. So he didn't telephone from the house but went out to the drugstore. The door of the booth wouldn't click shut but he finally got it to stay closed; that made the electric light go on and somehow he felt calmer with the light on.
He knew her voice right away.
He said, "Is Steve home?"
She said, "Not yet, is there any message?"
He said, "Well, tell him a friend of his called."
She said in a twinkling voice, "Which friend?"
"Oh, a girl friend."
He heard a tiny giggle; so he sidled up to the telephone.
She said, "What's her name?"
This time he was sure she was tittering. A gulf of laughter came up in him; he pressed his mouth against the phone, tickled.
She said, "But I always thought you were a man, Mr. Ruth."
He only said, "Naw."
Then it all didn't seem to be funny any more, and they both waited. He could feel her waiting at the other end of the phone. At last she said,
"Is there anything else I can do for you, Mr. Ruth?"
He said quick, "Would you do anything for me?"
She said, "Oh, I'd do anything I could to help a friend of my brother's."
He said, "Is that all?"
"Well," he began, "it was this way. I'm in Honolulu and I'm booked to play in Oshkosh tomorrow and I just missed the boat."
"Isn't that too bad."
"So I was wondering maybe he could take my place in the game tomorrow."
"Oh, I'm sure he will if he hasn't got any previous engagements."
He said, "What's he got to do, sub for Gene Tunney?"
She said, "I guess it was for Red Grange but maybe I can fix it up for you."
Then they both laughed together and she said in a coaxing serious voice, "Who is it, really?"
And he said, "Are you very anxious to know?"
And she said, "Uh-huh."
And he said, "Well, guess."
And she said, "Well —"
And he said, "Well —"
"Well, it isn't Babe Ruth."
"Well, it isn't — it isn't Red."
And he said kind of breathy, "No."
"Is it — is it Lou?"
And that was when he felt kind of sick of the whole monkey-business and wanted to hang up.
"I know who it is," she said.
So he dragged it on, "Well, who?"
"Well, if you know and I know then we both know —"
"How do you know I know you know —"
"Oh, I just know —"
He had sort of had it in his mind to tell her that he had called to find out if Steve wanted to go and see The Rough Riders and now if Steve wasn't there maybe would she go instead? But somehow he didn't feel up to it. It wasn't just the way to start off with her. He didn't have the car tonight and they'd have to go on the L and then he supposed he would feel like he ought to take a taxi home but she would be the kind of a girl that wouldn't let him. Would she?
He hadn't said anything, and she hadn't said anything. He could feel long slow pulses coming over the wire.
Then he said, "Hello."
And she said, "Hello."
"Bet your supper's getting cold."
Should he say, "Would you let your supper get cold, just for me?" Aw, mush.
"Well, tell him I called, willya."
"Want him to call back?"
"Uh? Oh. Uh-huh."
"Oh, that's all right."
"So long, Frances."
He caught that. By, Johnnie. Bet she had known all the time, huh? Bet she was just kidding him along.
He stood in the booth with his hand still around the receiver he had just hung back on the hook. He waited, and the flush went off his cheek. He went out, sort of whistle-humming,
"In the springtime, The ever loving springtime ..."
He didn't let anybody see into his eyes.
All evening there was nothing to do for Johnnie but walk around and there was nothing to do for Frankie but sit around. He went past the Tivoli but he didn't feel like going in alone. She thought of going to the Tivoli but she didn't feel like going alone. She didn't feel like having Bet come over, either. Johnnie didn't feel like seeing any of the boys, either.
When he wandered into the house his mother said Steve called.
"Oh ... . Yeah ..."
Johnnie told Steve: "Gna give the old can a workout tnight."
Steve said, "Take along some frails?"
"Well," said Johnnie, "I get the car, you get the janes."
Steve said, "Well, let's see what we can pick up."
Johnnie yawned and said, "Naw, those cheap Polack broads make me sick."
Steve said, "Gwan, bet ja never even —"
Johnnie blew smoke knowingly and said, "Punks. Where's the fun?"
"Well," said Steve, "then how about Goldilocks?"
"Yah, fr you. And I get that cheesy cousin of hers."
"She ain't so bad."
"She's got a goitre big as a smokestack."
"Well, let's take the twins."
"Hell, Lee's got a steady and that's worse'n she was married."
"Married ones. That's when they're hot," said Steve.
"I thought you knew so many broads," said Johnnie.
"Well, none of 'em suit you."
Steve said, "Come on, we'll pick up somtn."
"Naw," said Johnnie, trying to sound sore. "I don't want to monkey around with a coupla Polacks. I feel like going out with some decent broads, tnight."
"Well, wadya want?"
"Well, how about Bet?"
Steve looked at him but Johnnie evaded his eyes. "She's a good kid all right," Johnnie said.
"Bet and who else?"
"Oh, she knows lots of janes."
"Well, she'll want to drag Frankie along."
"Oh, all right," said Johnnie, giving up. "You take Bet and I'll take Frankie."
Johnnie waited with Bet in the front seat while Steve went up in the house and called Frankie. Then Bet had to change to the back seat with Steve, and Frankie got in beside Johnnie. He started to drive with both hands on the wheel.
She was so small, there was a mile between them on the seat.
He had to cut a corner close. That slid her against him. She settled away again, but not so far away.
When the car cut the corner a sharp and indignant "Hey!" came from the back seat. They both turned and saw Bet and Steve locked together. Bet was curled with her feet on the seat and the rest of her sort of in Steve's lap, and the bumpy turn had knocked them together against the corner of the car.
Frankie and Johnnie looked at each other, and a slow wise smile was divided between them. Let the kids have a good time, they smiled.
A swell bossy car cut in on them all of a sudden and made Johnnie swerve to the curb almost scraping his wheels against the concrete.
"Some guys never learn how to drive," he said, looking daggers after the car.
"Uh-huh," said Frankie.
"It's a crime to let a bum like that drive a swell car. It's like giving ice boxes to Eskimos," he said, but wasn't sure that registered so good.
She said, "Uh-huh."
After a while he let his right hand drop down loose on the seat because he always drove one-arm even when he was alone.
His hand lay like dead ham on the seat, and then because he didn't know what to do with it he put it back on the wheel.
Johnnie thought he heard a lisp in the motor, and he tried pulling out the choke a little to see if that would make it more distinct.
"What's that for?" said Frankie, watching.
"That's the choke."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Frankie and Johnnie"
Copyright © 1930 Meyer Levin.
Excerpted by permission of Jabberwocky Literary Agency, Inc..
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