©2007, originally published in Center: A Journal of the Literary Arts, Vol. 6, “My Father’s Guns,” by Kara Frye [Krauze]
* Several names (of people not related to my father by blood or marriage) and some physical details have been changed.
My Father’s Guns
July 3rd, 1959: my father wrote a check to Chuck’s Gun Shop. Larry, as he was known back then, was a graduate student at the University of Texas-Austin. He was married to his first wife, but the marriage would end within a year. I was born on July 3rd twelve years later. This record of a check, this date, is perhaps insignificant: just a notation in a now mildewed checkbook registry, the staples bleeding rust. The barely legible scrawl of his handwriting gives no indication what he actually purchased with that thirty-five dollar check. But my father died thirty-five years later, almost to the day, from a gun—his own.
Lawrence Ortlieb Frye taught Germanic Studies at Indiana University in Bloomington for more than thirty years. I was born in this small Midwestern city. The university, the center point of the town, was where my parents had met, my mother then a graduate student in English literature fulfilling a language requirement. They divorced eight years later, in 1976, and my mother soon moved my younger sister and me to Ohio, where she had found a teaching position at a small liberal arts college. My sister, Adriane (almost four years my junior), and I returned to Bloomington for long visits with our father during the summer and for the Christmas holidays, our lives unevenly divided between Wooster and Bloomington, between Mom and Dad.
In July 1998, I traveled back to Bloomington, for the first time since my father’s death, my longest absence. When I belatedly realized I had booked my flight from New York to Indianapolis on Bastille Day, it seemed appropriate. I think my father, with his edgy humor and linguistic acumen, might have appreciated it too. French revolt instead of American independence. A counterpart to July 4th, the anniversary of his suicide. Independence Day: I hear those words differently now, a small, wry laugh inside, a twinge of pain.
I last passed through the Indianapolis airport four years earlier. But last time was in reverse. Then I was returning to New York, clutching a soft-sided, rectangular, tan leather bag, my father’s weekend case, with a cardboard box inside. I nervously released the bag to the x-ray conveyor belt before entering the terminal wing. The attendant stopped the belt, staring at the x-ray screen. The contents of the box were too dense to decipher what was inside. Another man in a security uniform joined her. They asked me to open the bag.
“It’s my father’s ashes,” I said, the words falling awkwardly from my mouth.
I pulled out the “Permit for Disposition of Human Remains” the funeral director had given me. Everything moved in electrified slow-motion. I was removed from my body, hovering above the scene, as though viewing a security video designed to capture my anxiety for strangers. I tried to sound calm, tried to make this preposterous situation seem normal. In the week since my father’s death, I had almost grown accustomed to the strangest of requests and explanations coming out in my voice, an unexpected cousin to my normal voice, my tone tightened by tension and grief. I struggled to find a delicate way to explain ugly details, provide macabre descriptions, and ask uncomfortable questions.
I was twenty-three when my father killed himself. He was fifty-nine. Alicia, his lover, was twenty-six. I find comfort, a certain immutable surety in numbers, in ages, in these indisputable details. Numbers do not lie; even if they barely speak at all, even though they are deceptively simple. I return to them, accumulate them, count them, as though they were the beads of a rosary, a talisman I could never possess. But they are solid at least, precise and explicable, when so much else defies me, pummeling my trust and taunting my memory.
My father was a visually-imposing man, a forceful presence whom people often found intimidating. Six feet two inches tall, long-legged and broad-shouldered with solid arms, his round stomach protruded between his chest and belt line in later years, like an extraneous guest, an afterthought, but it emphasized his solidity. He might almost have made a good Santa, though too magisterial, too tall. He had a deep voice, sometimes melodious, when he chose, when he wished to seduce you with words or a story. His physical stature lent him an easy authority, but I think it was the sharpness of his intellect that proved it, his penetrating eyes upon you, studying you, breaking apart what you’d just said, rendering your sense into nonsense, or sometimes into greater sense.
He must have cultivated this firmness of stature, striving for indomitability, at least since college when he rejected his father’s plans for him to attend Wharton business school and instead chose to concentrate in the arts, eventually majoring in Germanic literature, going on to a Fulbright scholarship and a doctorate. The late 1950s, what could be more invincible than a professor? —a man armed with intellectual discourse, educated with the elite. He had found a new tool with which to differentiate himself from his comparatively mundane, struggling middle-class roots. He sometimes used this professional authority and quick-witted intelligence indiscriminately: I watched his biting sarcasm unleashed upon check-out clerks and colleagues, lovers and gas station attendants, my mother and my sister and me. He warded off the demons of weakness and self-doubt with sharp intellect, erudition, and an acerbic wit.
But there was a soft underbelly to Dad’s sharpness, if you could find it. I remember a bus ride in Ireland, shortly before I turned fourteen, when Adriane (then ten) and I traveled with our father in Europe for a month. An older woman was offering sweets to fellow passengers. I stiffened and sat up straighter as she approached our seats. Preparing myself for Dad’s harsh words, I cast my eyes down in order to avoid complicity with his haughtiness. But when the woman reached us, he accepted her offer gratefully, a smile lighting his face, a smile that seemed sweeter than the candy itself. More than half a lifetime later, I still hold the image of that smile engraved in my memory: my father seemed so genuinely pleased by this surprise kindness, insignificant as it was. The smile reached up to his eyes, which crinkled at the corners; its sincerity almost surpassed the capacity of his face to convey it.
Dad was frequently judgmental, but perhaps most heavily upon himself. He cloaked his vulnerability beneath protective scaffolding—bespoke suits, an East Coast accent in southern Indiana, studied self-possession. He was terribly self-involved, self-centered even, but he needed attentiveness (whether his own or from others) to protect himself, from erasure or potential insult, I’m still not sure. Likely both. Every exchange offered the possibility of a fresh wound, of old scabs revisited—one must preempt the possibility.
When we walked into the house the first time, afterwards, it was warm and humid, the house shut up for days, and the smell unbearable. I cannot forget that smell. Death, old blood, decaying body. My father’s corpse had been removed from the hallway more than twenty-four hours before, but the stench was still overpowering. I am almost able to recall it at will, like you might remember a photo.
I don’t know who else might recognize the smell of death, of human decay. It is not something you talk about, the awful smell your father left behind, the knowledge you have of rotting blood, of a corpse left untended for a day and then some, thirty hours of change. But she—Alicia—understands. She arrived first.
I think of the end of my father’s life as being drained of rage. His anger deflated, he was left only with depression and pain. But then there is the gun, there is the violence of the blood sprayed from his head. There is the awful mess the police did not clean up. The note on the front door telling whoever might knock, and get no reply, to call a phone number. The number is Alicia’s. And she does find him, as he wished.
A fist-sized stone lay near his body, a talisman Alicia says she gave him. The porous stone had turned a mottled brownish-red by the time my sister and I saw it, altered by his blood. He may have clutched the stone in his left hand, its bumps and grooves a comfort against his palm, as the right hand pulled the trigger. He wanted to have a piece of Alicia with him in his last moments, before his last desperate act. She believes he wanted her to arrive first, because he wanted someone he loved, someone who loved him, to be with him, with his body, before the uniforms and officials—strangers—would carry him out: another corpse, another suicide.
Alicia was pregnant then, for those brief weeks, before and then after his death. They both thought the unborn child was his, but they each wanted a different outcome for the child-that-might-be.
July 7th, 1994. Two days have passed since the coroner and police removed my father’s body. The holiday is long over. The house is deathly quiet. His absence, the empty silence left behind, has brought new meaning to the cliché. My father’s possessions—not just the blood-mottled carpet, but the Oriental rugs, the African masks and carvings, the framed art prints and photographs, even the silverware, coffee maker, and fondue pots—exude death, reminding me of its choice, shooting sinister glances suggesting how quickly he made himself gone; and how many years it might have taken.
At first, only the four of us are in his house—me, my sister, my mother and stepfather—our shoes a transgression upon his carpets, our presence there together palpably wrong. Adriane has just finished her first year of college and is home for the summer with our Mom and stepfather, Ron. This is her first summer in Wooster, instead of in Bloomington with Dad. He picked her up from college just over a month ago, and they drove from Minnesota to Bloomington for a visit, before Adriane would go on to Wooster to start her summer job. Now she is back in Bloomington already. My father’s brother has caught a flight from upstate New York. He and Alicia will join us at the house later in the day. Everything remains unfathomable, surreal details accruing, impossibly true.
The police found Dad’s body on July 5th, after Alicia called from his home. An officer later phoned the German Department, and a colleague of my father’s called my mother in Ohio. A few hours later, the end of my workday near, my mother phoned me in New York, asking me to return straight home to my apartment, so she could speak to me there. Since the phone call from my mother, not even forty-eight hours ago, I seem to be the one in charge. I am virtually numb; details pinch my brain, emotion might hit in waves or pin-pricks, but everything is on hold except for essentials: the coroner, the funeral home, the insurance company and retirement policy. We need a lawyer. We must sanitize the house and sort through belongings.
I look through the phone book for companies that clean air ducts. I hadn’t even known that such a service existed, but now I know there are many, most of them booked for the next month, most of them not willing to clean a duct filled with human blood. Though Dad made careful plans—choosing the hallway rather than a room, laying a beach towel beneath him, a pillow to cushion his head—he overlooked the air vent inches away, a ready drain to the basement. I suddenly have a team of people to talk to, phone calls to make, health code obligations to meet. I am so used to my new voice—calm, even-toned, filled with grief—that it is almost all I have left. I am the young woman on the phone, or in person, whose father shot himself. A hasty introduction to shame, to denial, yet already my shame competes with a growing obstinacy: while I may want to hide, I don’t want to cower, don’t want to feel tainted by the word assigned to Dad and his death, still so new, strange and foreign: suicide. But for now, I am the twenty-three-year-old child who must explain: my father passed away. . . . Everything is almost unbearably difficult, but I am capable of anything. I have become a machine of details, a body with a voice that will modulate as needed, will explain what must be explained.
Alicia explains things to me too. My father has left his current checkbook out with other papers and overdue library books on the dining room table. Mundane entries mostly, loan payments, a bookstore purchase, but then, at the end, there is a notation of a check for two hundred dollars written to Alicia on the 2nd of July. Her abortion was scheduled for later that month.
~ Part 2 ~
~ If you are new to the site, see “How Madoff the younger became my kin” for another view on some of the same material…. ~
©2007, originally published in Center: A Journal of the Literary Arts, Vol. 6, “My Father’s Guns,” by Kara Frye
*Several names (of people not related to my father by blood or marriage) and some physical details have been changed.