Steinbeck introduces Frankie, a young boy who first appears in the doorway of Western Biological as an eleven-year-old. “For a week or so he just stood outside the basement door and looked in,” Steinbeck writes. “Then one day he stood inside the door. Ten days later he was in the basement.” Although he is incredibly dirty, Doc allows him to help out in small ways. One day, he asks Frankie about his home life, and Frankie reveals that he comes to the laboratory because Doc never hits him. At home, he says, his uncles beat him or give him a nickel to leave. His father, he says, is dead. Taking pity on the boy, Doc cuts his hair, treats him for lice, and buys him new clothes at Lee’s. “I love you,” Frankie says. “Oh, I love you.”
Doc’s willingness to clean Frankie up, cut his hair, and buy him new clothes is yet another sign of his unfailing kindness. An empathetic soul, he doesn’t hesitate to welcome people like Frankie into his home. This, of course, is why people feel so fondly for him.
Despite Frankie’s yearning to be useful, Doc can’t deny that the boy is rather clumsy. In fact, there’s something off about Frankie, who has trouble conceptualizing and executing simple tasks. Whenever Frankie fails to do something, he sheepishly crawls into a box in the lab and refuses to come out. “But Frankie was a nice, good, kind boy,” Steinbeck writes. “He learned to light Doc’s cigars and he wanted Doc to smoke all the time so he could light the cigars.” Above all, Frankie loves when Doc has parties. One day when Doc has several people over, Frankie grabs a glass of beer from the kitchen and gives it to a girl sitting nearby. “Why, thank you,” she says, and Doc says, “Yes, Frankie is a great help to me.” Overjoyed, Frankie repeats this line in his head for days.
In keeping with the theory that kindness breeds more kindness, Frankie desperately wants to do something to help Doc and thus show the man his appreciation. This is why he’s so overjoyed when Doc calls him a “great help,” for he—like Mack and “the boys”—wants to treat Doc with the same kind of compassion that Doc shows him.
Wanting to replicate the splendid moment in which Doc praised him, Frankie seizes his opportunity at the next party that takes place at Western Biological. Going into the kitchen, he pours multiple glasses of beer and balances them on a tray. Walking carefully through the party, he goes to the same woman who thanked him the first time. When he reaches her, though, his “co-ordination fail[s]” and the entire tray falls into her lap. In the silence that follows, he runs downstairs in shame. Following him into the basement, Doc finds him curled up and “whimpering” in his box. “Doc waited for a moment and then he went quietly back upstairs. There wasn’t a thing in the world he could do.”
Doc is an extremely empathetic man, but he recognizes when nothing can be done to cheer a person up. In fact, this is actually a facet of his empathic abilities; he can put himself so thoroughly in Frankie’s shoes that he understands that nothing he could ever do would make the boy feel better about what has just happened. On another note, it’s worth remembering Frankie’s disastrous failure to show his appreciation for Doc, since the novel’s primary plot concerns itself with Mack’s attempt to the same thing. As such, this moment foreshadows what’s to come.