Fall 2022, Volume 33

Fiction by Deborah Ann Percy

Sleeping in the City

Franny did not sleep the sleep of the innocent. She continually woke around three-thirty in the morning and lay awake for at least an hour, an hour-and-a-half. She rolled from her left side to her right and left again. She had tricks to put herself back to sleep: yoga breathing, thinking about how to confound of her enemies, half-a-Xanax when she panicked and believed she would never sleep again.

In her divorce she got the small wood-frame downtown house, and Bertie, who was no longer sleeping heavy beside her, got the summer home on a bluff high above Lake Michigan. Now, sometimes, Franny was able to lull herself back to sleep comforted by the sounds of the city. Her double bed was pushed up against the front second-floor windows. Metro busses purred gently past. Trains whistled a couple of blocks away. A siren called. Garbage trucks rumbled up, stopped, and then rolled on. In the winter, snowblowers hummed, and her elderly next-door neighbor shoveled the steps to her front porch only a few feet below her head. In summer, rain pelted the windows and lightning flashed in her room that was never really dark because of the streetlights.

Then, in the first week of April, a new and intrusive noise began outside, somewhere north of her. A dull pounding—as Franny imagined something called a piledriver would make—began at six-thirty Monday morning. At first, even though the noise was impossible to sleep through, it lasted only about twenty minutes, and she could inhale and exhale, quiet her mind, and fall back into the dark unconscious. When the morning pounding persisted through the week, she began to wonder about it, to be annoyed, but still felt too sleepy to get up and investigate. Finally, on Friday, the one day she could sleep late, the pounding was too much to bear. She threw back the covers, rolled out of bed, and wrestled open her bedroom window. A blast of cold spring air hit her, but she could see nothing unusual. Only the heavy old oaks and maples filling out with new buds of spring’s favorite complementary colors, chartreuse and deep rust-red.

The pounding finally stopped, and she crawled back into bed, pulling up her still-warm comforter. Don’t think. Don’t think. She had an hour before she had to rise and start getting ready to walk to her restaurant to make the day’s fresh chicken and tuna salads. But it was too late. Her breathing didn’t work. Her downtown lullaby was ruined. She couldn’t stop her thoughts. Her son Gus’s goony plan to drop out of MSU’s restaurant program filled her brain. He and two friends, one Vietnamese, the other from Mississippi, wanted to start a food truck, a Far Eastern-Southern fusion with Gus as head cook and his friends as sous-chefs and managers..

“I want to follow in your professional footsteps,” Gus said to Franny, flashing his beautiful grin.

“My footsteps include a B.A. in English.”

“Which you only use to proof your menu and your specials on the chalkboard,” he said.
“My degree included Moby-Dick, e e cummings, and Emily Dickinson.”

Her wakening brain yanked her back into her bedroom and moved on to the picture of her ex-husband having dinner with his skinny new girlfriend sitting across from him in a restaurant he used to hate. And she needed to make an appointment to get her old car’s oil changed. And what new dessert was her restaurant partner Lynnleigh dreaming up? What soup would she serve at their Café Bueno for lunch next week? A growingly insistent need to pee finally convinced her to open her eyes again. I shall sleep no more, she thought, pleased at least with finding a reference to Macbeth. She was up for the day.

She loved her nineteen-thirties house, loved that it was hers and hers alone, loved the old hardwood floors, the original claw-foot bathtub, the tiny kitchen with only room for her. The state’s no-fault divorce law had given her the small, safe, paid-off house near the main business center, her six-year-old Subaru which was also paid off, her half of Café Bueno and its small mortgage, where she and her friend cooked and baked breakfast and lunch for downtown workers, and her retirement plan. Bertie had gotten the house on Lake Michigan with a big mortgage, the leased Lexus, the pontoon boat, the two crazy-dangerous jet skis and, the only thing free and clear, his retirement. On paper, because of the debts, they were assured by the mediator that the division was even-steven, though Bertie didn’t believe that.

Maybe I’ll take a walkabout on my way home from work, she thought, and just see about identifying the source of the nasty intrusive pounding. She pulled shut the heavy wooden front door behind her, ran a finger over the dirty stained-glass inset, and then sat on her porch rocker for a minute. The spring breeze was fragrant with the smell of wet dirt and mud. The budding old trees already created lacy sun-shadows everywhere.

“My place,” she said aloud. She finished her coffee and, leaving her cup on the little table Gus had made in the seventh grade, went down her front steps. Gotta paint them, she thought, because the wood was bare in spots after a hard winter. Then she headed off to Café Bueno.


Franny’s partner Lynnleigh owned the condo above their restaurant and often came down in the night to attend to the progress of her baked goods: punching down yeasty dough or frosting thoroughly cooled cake layers, baking early-morning cookies and muffins. Lynnleigh had had two unpleasant divorces and now had one boyfriend after another, always tall, nice-looking, a few years younger than she. One at a time, never overlapping. She always wore skirts, sometimes long and swishy, sometimes short and tight. When Franny arrived this morning, Lynnleigh was using a spatula to place hot oatmeal-raisin cookies on a wire cooling rack. Their two morning waitresses were moving about quickly, refilling coffee, picking up bills with credit cards or change, cleaning tables.

“You’re not due for another hour,” Lynnleigh said.

“I was up. There’s this new unreasonable pounding.”

“Probably setting the footings for the new convention center. Combined with your divided nights.” Lynnleigh had seen a reference to split sleep patterns on the History Channel. She had done research, and now firmly believed that Franny’s sleep disruption was a modern vestige of a Medieval Northern European nocturnal pattern. “They used to sleep a couple of hours, wake up, read a book, go out to steal chickens, have sex,” she’d explained. “Then they’d go back to bed. Back to sleep. That’s you.”

“It’s damn irritating,” Franny said, and started pulling cooked chicken from the bones.


“What are you doing here?” Franny said without thinking. She had just stood back up after putting a tray of Lynnleigh’s blueberry-raisin scones in the glass display case later that morning. Bertie’s new woman suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Standing only a couple of feet away, Bethette was thinner than when Francie had first glimpsed her with her ex-husband dining in the window of one of their competitors.

“Ah, Franny,” the thin woman said. “And as gracious as Bertram said you were.” She extended a tiny skeletal hand. I could break those brittle bones if I chose, Franny thought. But of course she didn’t; she wouldn’t. “Are you still going by Mrs.?” the woman went on. “Should I call you Mrs.?”

You may not call me that, Franny thought. Never Mrs. No. No. No. “Please call me Franny,” she said, and took the extended fingers of the dry hand.

“I know your secret,” the woman said. Her lipstick was too red and too thick, and her cheekbones so sharp they threatened to poke through the skin on her face.

“You do?” Franny said, too surprised to come up with a smartass response.

“You can’t hide any longer.” Bethette snatched back her hand and folded her pencil arms.

Can’t hide? What the hell secret? Franny thought. That one of my boobs is larger than the other? That once in a while, gluten found its way into Lynnleigh’s gluten-free cookies? That since Bertie moved out, taking only his favorite and best things and leaving the rest for her to throw in the trash, she ordered a case of wine a week delivered and left on the back porch where a leafy trellis hid it from the street and nosy-parker neighbors? Or was it that the flood of easily available and inexpensive DNA testing to be found everywhere on the internet had finally disclosed to someone somewhere that Bertie was not really—genetically at least—Gus’s father?

“What?” Franny said, finally recovering her voice and holding up her hands in defeat, “You found my Swiss bank account?”

For years, for her son’s whole life in fact, new acquaintances would say on seeing Bertie and Gus together, “There’s certainly no doubt whose son this handsome lad is.” But Franny suspected they said this to reassure the father, because Gus looked nothing like his old man. Bertie was dark, with narrow shoulders, and was no taller than Franny. Gus looked like a young Henry the Eighth—tall, strong, robust, athletic. His beautiful hair was curly and golden red.

“But where does that hair come from?” the new friends would go on.

“My grandmother,” she’d respond. “In women it’s called strawberry blonde. Even in her eighties, Grandma’s hair never turned gray.”

“Our Ms. Franny, here, has a lot of secrets. I can attest to that,” Lynnleigh said, putting her arm around Franny and holding out her other hand, “Lynnleigh LaRue. Sounds like a joke, I know. I think my parents meant it that way. Café Bueno pastry chef extraordinaire. Would you like to try one of my blonde brownies? Sprinkled with chocolate chips.”

Bethette pointed a finger at Lynnleigh. “I’ve heard about you, too,”

“My reputation precedes me,” Lynnleigh said. “And you are?”

“Bethette Marcum. Your friend here disgusts me. And soon everyone will know why.”

Small woman, big voice, Franny thought. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw two regulars, sitting on counter stools and drinking lattes, shift uncomfortably and turn toward Bethette. Around the dining room, other friends and customers looked up. Forks stopped in midair, cups clanked back down on saucers.


“Bethette,” Franny said, waving to their kitchen, “why don’t you and I go—” “What?” the enraged woman’s voice cracked. “Why don’t you and I go where? You want me to lower my voice?”

“Let me fix you an iced coffee or a chai tea,” Lynnleigh said, turning to their assortment of coffee-making machines.

“Have one of our creampuffs—they used to be one of Bertram’s favorites,” Franny said.  

About ready to spit back a response, Bethette seemed to sense the ghost presence of her lover and snapped her mouth shut. Then she said in a much lower voice, “No cream-filled sugar-filled monstrosity from you two fat bitches will shut me up. You’ll hear more from me.” She turned and wound her way between the closely-spaced tables and out the door.

“Fat?” Lynnleigh said to Franny with outrage as she picked up the refill coffee pot and moved from behind the counter to reassure and distract their customers with a fresh cup.

Bitch, Franny thought. She took a plate of cookies out of the showcase and followed Lynnleigh.

“Sorry,” Lynnleigh said. “Please, lunch is our gift today to apologize for the disruption.” And she picked up checks that had already been delivered.


Later, after closing Café Bueno at three, the two women sat alone in Lynnleigh’s apartment above the restaurant. The second floor of the old building had windows that went from floor to ceiling but, unlike Franny’s house, everything here was sleek and contemporary. Lynnleigh sank into a Barcelona-style chair and said, “What the hell was that?”

“Bertie’s new squeeze,” Franny said. “Bethette.”

“I hope he doesn’t squeeze too hard.” Lynnleigh poured white wine in her friend’s glass and then her own.

“No soft landing there.”

“Fat?” Lynnleigh said again, still at least partially outraged.

“I wanted to say she got the bitch part right,” Franny said, “but thought better of it considering the situation.”

“A disgusting secret?” Lynnleigh said.

“I have so many, it’s hard to pick one.” Franny took a fork to her plate that held the last of the day’s tuna salad, as well as a glazed donut that wouldn’t be good a second day.

“Have you been boffing Andy behind my back?” Andy was a very nice-looking college student who waited tables for them. They had a strict and unbreakable rule between them that he would never know how fine-looking they thought he was, never catch even a whiff of their appreciation. No snickering, no rolled eyes.

“Boffing?” Franny said. “Very nice. Of course not. Not even funny, Lynnleigh.”

Lynnleigh shrugged in apology and went back to Bethette. “She’s not really Bertie’s type is she?”

“Which she’s going to learn too late,” Franny said. “Lots of women have become his type.” To be fair, however, Bertie had wandered only in the last few years of their marriage. Fair-schmair, she thought.

“He never hit on me. I always wondered if it was a judgment on my . . .” Lynnleigh waved her hand as if looking for the right word.


“Very nice, yourself, Franny-dear. Not even funny. My BMI is twenty-three.”

Bertie’s style had always been a jovial, slightly sexual flirting with wives of his friends, with waitresses, with pretty much pretty women everywhere. He had been harmless until suddenly he wasn’t anymore. Women sensed the change. Some stepped back, some moved forward. “You missed his come-on signs,” Franny said. “He pushed hard, but only when someone encouraged him.”

“Good for me,” Lynnleigh said. “So, what shall we do to keep her out of our casa? Bad for business to have an angry, threatening, underweight woman screeching at us in front of customers.”

“I don’t have any ideas right now,” Franny said, cleaning her plate.

“You may have to talk to Bertie.”

“Good grief, I hope to come up with a better plan of action than that,” Franny said, taking her plate to Lynnleigh’s sink.


Franny took the long way home, looking for a candidate for the predawn pounding that was hammering into her life. She found a partially-finished fifteen story condo building, a wrecking ball bringing down the brick remains of a burned-out bakery, a torn up intersection surrounded by orange and white “Road Closed to Thru Traffic” signs. She walked on home, up the alley that ran behind the houses on her street. Her son’s old Toyota was parked on the cement pad in front of her garage door. She went up the wooden steps to her small back landing and unlocked the door into the kitchen. Hearing voices, she carried her container of leftover chicken salad and bag of cookies through to the front porch. Sitting in her swing were two young men, laughing, raising bottles of beer to each other; a third young man in sat her rocker.

“Hey, Gus, hey, guys,” she said, stepping over the threshold.

“Mom,” Gus said. “We helped ourselves to some Mackintosh Hard Cider. Except for Le, who’s a Philistine and is drinking one of your low-cal low-carb abominations.”

“Mother Frances,” Tran said, rising respectfully.

“Miss Franny, sit here,” Leroy said, getting out of Franny’s rocker and going to lean against the wall.

“Hungry?” she said, holding up the salad. How welcoming it was to come home and find her son and his friends laughing in the warm late afternoon.

“I’ll get plates and forks,” Leroy said, going into the house, carefully closing the screen door so it didn’t bang.

“Plotting and planning?” Franny said.

“Celebrating,” her son said.

“You got the funding,” she said, “for your food truck.”

“We did,” Gus said. “Dad came through.”

“Did he, indeed?” she said. She fought to keep her voice calm and the smile on her face.

“Don’t go ballistic, Mom.”

“Ballistic? Me?” She felt as if a kitchen match had been scratched across her brain and lit a rage there.

“He proposed a deal,” Leroy said, coming back with forks and plates for the salad. “In return for the loan, each of us agreed to take one class a semester at the junior college.”

“Basics that will transfer back to MSU,” Tran said.

“And he hired us to cater his Summer Solstice office party at the lake house,” Gus said. “It’s all good, Mom.” He smiled his beautiful grin that once in a while really did make him look like Bertie.

“We think we can open in six weeks,” Tran said,

“We’ve been planning for a long time,” Gus said.

“We want to talk to you and Ms. Lynnleigh about business—ordering, pricing,” Leroy said.

“We’re going on a road trip to Oak Park Saturday to look at a real good truck prospect,” Gus said.

“We want you and Ms. L to go with us,” Leroy said.

“All of us in your little car?” she said. She took out a cookie and handed the bag to Gus. Two desserts in one day, she thought. I will be fat.

“We’ll rent one,” Tran said. “Big enough for all of us.

“We have an advertising plan,” Gus said, leaning forward. “We’ve been working on it for months, and we want to roll it out next week.” Their pure joy and enthusiasm put out the fire inside her brain as her heart took over. “We wondered if we could pick up some of Café Bueno’s leftover pastries at the end of the day. We’ll credit you on the menu.”

“We would never allow that,” Franny said, finally really smiling. “Lynnleigh will insist on baking you fresh. Eat up those cookies and save me from myself.”

When they tumbled back through the house and she heard the old Toyota start, she thought, Look at food trucks? And then, with anxiety, Do I have to tell Gus before someone else does?


An hour or so later, still feeling good about the boys’ visit, she went upstairs and put on sweats, then returned to the first floor, opened a bottle of white wine, and took a glass out onto the porch. Bertie was there, gently rocking in her chair. He’d come into her home while she was changing and poured himself a scotch, which he swirled gently in the glass, watching the shifting amber light.

“Walk right in,” she said. “Help yourself.”

“I see you still haven’t bothered to fix the doorbell,” he said, presumably by way of explanation.

A shade had been pulled firmly down on his part of her life, a book slammed shut. Yet here he was, uninvited and unwelcome in his dark suit and red tie, rocking gently back and forth, drinking her booze.

“Bertie,” she said, letting the screen-door bang, “you damn old dog. What are you doing here?” He already had an early spring tan.

“I was on my way to work and had a hankering to see the view from my porch,” he said.

“Sometimes I have a hankering to see my old view of Lake Michigan from the house on the bluff. But that’s yours now. This is mine.”

“No-fault divorce,” he said with a snort. He continued to pretend he didn’t understand the math.

“Gus says you gave him the money for the food truck. Why the hell would you do that? Facilitate his dropping out of college?”

“He asked . . .”

“He’s asked to spend Christmas with his friends in Thailand. He wanted to become a Sherpa, or a hip-hop producer. We simply told him no.”

“. . . and he and his friends agreed to take their basic classes at the junior college while they start their business . . .”

“. . . and you’ve already hired them for your fancy-schmancy welcome-to-summer office party.” The early evening breeze picked up the scent of his heavy cologne, making her almost gag.

“Really, Frances? Really?”

“No-fault divorce only applies to property,” she said. I don’t understand former spouses who like being friends, she thought. How they still go out to dinner together. She sat across from him on the swing.

After another pause he said, “Bethette told me what she said to you. She doesn’t know any secret, Frances. She and I had a disagreement. She was hurt. More than I expected.”

“She sounded like she meant it.”

“She’s smart,” Bertie said. “Intuitive. She knows everyone has a secret.”

“She’s skinny,” Franny said, draining her glass. “You like women who are . . .”

“Plump? She told me she called you and Lynnleigh fat bitches. She’s plump on the inside. Soft and gentle.”

“Really? You couldn’t prove it by me. And about twenty-five brunch customers. She’s a bitch on the outside.”

“She doesn’t know your secret,” Bertie said.

“I’m an open book.”

“I knew your grandmother,” Bertie said.

“A truly unpleasant woman,” Franny said. “Wouldn’t give me the recipe for her Dutch apple-rhubarb pie. Took it with her into the next world, so now no one can enjoy it.”

“Her hair was steely gray. Not a bit of strawberry blonde.”

“Possibly. You could be wrong.”

“I know,” Bertie said, “what you think your awful secret is, Frances. I’ve known almost from the beginning. But listen—I realized a long time ago that if anything was different, he wouldn’t be the Gus I love. The Gus I’ve always loved. My Gus. That’s all there is to it. Nothing awful there.”

Again, Franny was at a loss for words. Twice in twenty-four hours. Remarkable.

“Nothing but wonderful,” he said.

“There’s a pounding that wakes me up every morning,” she said. “Damn irritating.”

“Probably the pounding is a piledriver,” Bertie said, “hammering down the metal supports that will hold up the new park pavilion. I’ve watched its progress from our conference room’s windows. New customers for your little shop.”

Our little shop, she thought. “Lynnleigh and I are going with them to look at potential food trucks someplace in Chicago.”

“Oak Park. Good,” he said. “Their business needs to be up and fancy-schmancy by June.” He shrugged and finished his drink. Then he stood, shot his cuffs, and went down her steps. He got into his tony, only partially-paid-for car, and drove away.

Franny patted the swing seat beside her where Gus had sat earlier. Bertie, she thought, you old sonofabitch. You’ve always known. Her boy was their boy after all, and Bertie loved Gus as much as she did. A motor scooter putzed by. The sun fell below her neighbor’s roof. She could hear the elderly owner raking the winter leaves out of his flower beds.

She got up and went back inside, leaving her empty wineglass on the table Gus had made for her. She climbed the worn wooden stairs. In her bedroom she kicked off her shoes and crawled under the covers still dressed, overcome by the intense lassitude that comes with intense relief. Relief that promised real sleep through the night, through the strange pounding of the piledriver thrusting blunt metal stakes into the heart of the city.



BIO: Deborah AnnPercy (Johnston) earned the MFA in Creative Writing at Western Michigan University; she lives in Kalamazoo and South Haven, MI. A book of her short fiction, Cool Front: Stories from Lake Michigan, appeared in 2010 from March Street Press; a full-length collection, Invisible Traffic, appeared in fall 2014 from One Wet Shoe Press and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a 2015 Independent Publishers Book Award. Her latest fiction projects are a short story collection, Stepping Off into Space, and two short novels, So She Said and A Second Opinion. Her plays, and those written in collaboration with her husband, Arnold Johnston, have won awards, publication, and some 300 productions and readings nationwide. Debby is a member of the Dramatists Guild, the Associated Writing Programs, and the American Literary Translators Association.