When the phone don't ring, it'll be Frank

I’m sitting at Frank’s kitchen table, editing his manuscript. It’s a funny, intricate, unexpected article about asking Georges Perrier, then ruler of Le Bec Fin, Philadelphia’s only nationally ranked restaurant, to cook a Philly cheese steak. The article, like the steak, is wonderful.

A basket of apples and today’s mail lie on the small, white Formica table. Frank’s chair is empty. His guitar, which needs re-stringing, and his hunting rifle, which needs polishing, lean in a corner.

He is brewing espresso. He stirs the beef stew on the stove, tasting from the stirring spoon. As he walks over with my demitasse, his baritone voice reaches out from the stereo, singing, “When the phone don’t ring, it’ll be me.” He asks what I think of his draft.

This scene has variations. Sometimes tomato sauce is simmering. Sometimes he’s singing, “What have they done to the old home place?” Sometimes the article covers a porn shop slated for demolition or killer potholes.

Sadly no more variations are possible. Frank Rossi died, age 44. Frank, my best friend, mentor and muse, was the kind of colleague all writers crave but few find. I miss him.

A staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Frank worked at home, which was five doors away from mine. As two home-based writers who lived to write and wrote to live, we depended on our mutual admiration -- and editing skills.

For the last six years of Frank’s life we served as each other’s principal lunch partner, coffee date and sympathetic editor. He called in the middle of an unruly paragraph and said, “Let me read this to you.” Never, “Do you have a minute?” Never, “Can you take a break?” Just, “Let me read this.”

And I pushed SAVE on my computer, put my feet up and listened, because whenever the urge hit, I reciprocated. Often he said I was the best editor he ever had, even though I never thought he needed one. And Frank, with the precision of an engineer surveying a suspension bridge, could study an essay I’d composed and pinpoint its weaknesses.

You can’t easily replace a muse, and when my phone don’t ring, it’s often Frank. I am a better writer for Frank’s mentoring. More focused. I search for the telling detail. I whip a quotation into a juicy insight.

Frank also lives in my clam sauce recipe. Not too much, he said. Don’t drown the pasta. Just a heap of noodles with a dollop of sauce: a few cans of clams, olive oil, white wine, fresh garlic, salt and pepper. Superb.

“You don't need a recipe,” he often said. “Just put stuff that looks like it goes together in the same pot. Tomatoes get basil, beef gets gravy.” As I relaxed in the kitchen, my cooking improved. As I relaxed at the keyboard, my writing improved.

Frank said that to do a decent job, you need the right tools. To write, you need a computer, which I owned, and a fountain pen, which he gave me from his collection. To cook, you need sharp knives. After ridiculing my sorry drawer-full of never-need-sharpening blades, he took me to a cookware boutique and made me shell out 25 bucks for a real knife, 20 for a sharpener. He was correct, of course.

Mostly Frank and I sat in his kitchen or mine over lunch, exploring active verbs and anecdotes.

Frank, writer, singer, chef, got a diagnosis of lymphoma at age 20, fighting back for 24 years. Catching cancer that early stinks, and Frank never accepted it. Sometimes he sang, “I’m making plans to be lonesome.” So was I.

Frank invested three agonizing years in the process of dying. I wish he were alive and well and picking chords down the street, but he’s not. Frank, who died in 1992, is here in spirit, though. In my fountain pen. In my clam sauce. In my writing.