©2007, originally published in Center: A Journal of the Literary Arts, Vol. 6, “My Father’s Guns,” by Kara Frye
My Father’s Guns
On Bastille Day 1998, accidental marker of independence and revolt, I exit the plane from New York and enter the Indianapolis airport, the air flat and snug against my skin. It feels wrong to be back, four years like an eternity. In that time, I have quit my job as a purchasing agent, traveled in Europe, written a novel, and completed a year of graduate school. Yet Dad’s death remains fresh, my grief still raw. Numbness coats my movements, dulling my hyper-vigilant senses, as I enter the terminal. A cheerful sign greets me:
“Welcome to Indianapolis, the success story of the Midwest.”
I almost want to laugh, but I can feel it choked in my throat. I probably want to cry more. My whole body is tense, I just want a cigarette, I just want to be settled into my motel in Bloomington, still fifty miles away.
My brain is melting.
I am in the shiny bright-green rental car, sitting low to the ground. Last time I rented a car, the acceleration was lousy. This time it’s the brakes; they work, but I have to press hard, half holding my breath, waiting for the car’s delayed reaction. It seems fitting since I can’t really stop now anyway. Though I don’t know exactly why I’ve come back, I do know that I cannot turn around.
The speeding car and the too-familiar highway are hurtling me back toward all of the years and ages preceding this moment. All of these different stages and ages of someone named “Kara” are rising up, revolting, returning with me now; and I am losing me in the process. I’m not sure what “Kara” means, who should answer to the name. I am twenty-seven, but I might be eight, ten, five, thirteen. . . . I’m afraid I might be slipping away. Again.
I am an angry and scared four-year-old, screaming as my mother buckles me into the car to visit my father. I am an eight-year-old transporting every belonging I can pack, bringing every stuffed animal, every book, every toy, as I pile into the car, leaving my home for his. I am a trembly ten-year-old, tears sprouting in the corners of my eyes, my chin trying to hold still so my pain, my longing for my mother, will not show as we drive away from the mid-way meeting point in desolate western Ohio, the three-hour journey from Wooster too short. “Ohio, the heart of it all,” our license plates proclaim. I wave forlornly to my mother as we drive off, and I try to be strong, try not to think about how much my ribs hurt, my throat aches, how long six weeks, eight weeks, will feel.
I am a stubborn thirteen-year-old, utterly insecure about my body, my social skills, my place in the world, but I will argue tooth-and-nail to get my allowance, to get permission to walk to the mall with Adriane, to finish reading a book when my father wants me to talk instead. My little sister and books offer respite from Dad’s erratic angers, from the vagaries of his unnamed depression. Mostly, I am sullen, I am silent, my face can turn implacable, my voice firm, and I can argue with the best—because I learned from the master. Even if I rarely win, I will fight.
This is what I try to remember as I move closer and closer to Bloomington, as scraps of the past whiz forward: I am a fighter, I am a survivor. The cliché reassures me, a reliable platitude in the midst of chaos. Even if I didn’t always know what I was fighting, now I have begun to know what I am surviving: death, the suicide waiting latent for years, the intense need that might have foretold it, had it been truly readable. I tried to read everything but that need—I read only that need, then ran from it. We should not have fought each other so resolutely, but generations of precedent don’t easily vanish. And death comes suddenly, irrevocably.
The motel on the edge of town is just as I remember it, except I barely remember being here at all. The four of us—the new family of my mother, sister, and stepfather—spent five nights here immediately following Dad’s death, but all I remember is a bed and the only sleeping pill I ever took and running along Third Avenue in the morning. The Bloomington shopping mall—large, non-descript, ugly even—rests reassuringly across the busy intersection of city streets and the highway, just a block away. The chilled mall was the haven of my childhood, where I could buy candy, trinkets, and, later, clothes. Where I felt independent, in charge of my own movements, for stolen hours at a time. No one watching, no one criticizing, no one saying, “Don’t do that.”
God, I miss him.
As I get ready to go to dinner with Lucinde*, one of his earlier, post-divorce girlfriends—one of “his women,” as Lucinde will put it, that other, intelligent, middle-aged men were jealous of—I am not yet thinking of loss and rage. His losses I have been familiar with for as long as I can remember; I just couldn’t be enough to replace them without disappearing myself. But rage I am just beginning to understand. Rage and bullets and guns. Death and anger, anger and death. But I cannot bring them together yet, cannot fit the pieces together.
Suicide. The dictionary says: 1. “The act or an instant of intentionally killing oneself.” It is an action taken. 2. “The destruction or ruin of one’s own interests.” It is a result. 3. “One who commits suicide.” And it is a person. So cold, so plastic, so empty; like what it sometimes leaves behind. An act, a resulting destruction and ruin . . . a person. Cold, plastic emptiness. Suicide, even the sound is slippery. Sui: of oneself. Cide: killer. He is the murderer. He is the victim. Suicide. I repeat it in my head . . . until the word is empty, until it has over-flowed so much that nothing and everything remains: the result of the word, of the act, the culmination of his life, a life which has only ended physically. He still remains.
But I don’t think about all of this as I quickly change, as I try to remember I am a New Yorker, I have left this place, I am not eight or thirteen or . . . I am me with an adult life. And he hovers around the fringes of the motel room, the edge of my thoughts, in the Indiana summer air, and I wonder again, “Why did I come back? Why now?” I didn’t think there was anything significant to learn.
Lucinde welcomes me warmly with a hug at her front door, but her movements seem vaguely hurried and nervous. Her hair is rich auburn now, cut shorter near her jaw, instead of the light brown I remember from childhood. She says she exercises every day, and she looks healthy. She seems comfortable in her body, her life. I like the new chicer, blunt-cut auburn.
I try to be relaxed, calm, I try to be me. I think her hand shakes a little as she makes wine spritzers for us to take onto the porch. Within a few days I will be used to seeing hands shake, almost indiscernibly, and faces wearing a mask of wariness as they greet me, just as their voices covered themselves in caution over the phone. After all, I am his daughter. I am not Lawrence, but I am a reminder of who he was, and what he did. Yet everyone is kind, considerate, even thoughtful in what they share, how they open themselves up to both painful and joyous memories, and the reminder that it came to an end with a bullet through his head. The love is still there, and the painful questions, still unanswered, never really to be answered: “Why couldn’t he control his temper? Why couldn’t he only be all of those amazing, wonderful things?” He was witty, he was sharp as hell, he was humorous, he was maybe even a “genius.” This word “genius” floats around like some unfair twist of fate. And his temper. . . he was never wrong, and, now, he has finally had the last word. Unless, maybe, we do.
Lucinde and I settle into lawn chairs on the porch, the air warm, the light buzz of summer evening around us. The street is quiet, with little traffic. The occasional pedestrian or stray voice calls in an errant child for supper. We talk about safe topics: Lucinde’s work, her daughter, my sister, what I’m doing in graduate school. And then we move inside for dinner.
We eat rice and stir-fry that Lucinde has prepared. We are growing more comfortable together, our shared history softening the gaps in our intimacy. But, still, I feel like a pilot on a long, night flight through a storm; my senses are completely alert, adrenaline pumping, while on the surface I remain easy-going, calm. Lucinde delves deeper into her memories, and the storm gathers momentum. My father owned guns long before his death, Lucinde tells me. He had two revolvers, as well as a rifle, when they were lovers in the late 1970s. My stomach drops. My semblance of childhood begins to crumble, eroding further than I thought possible. I push food around my plate. I keep my face polite; I keep it strong so she won’t stop talking.
Of course, I know he had a gun in his hand at death: the last word, the last sound, a shot. “A .38 caliber police revolver from the ’40s.” This is what the coroner told us. But I believed it was newly acquired, though I did not know when. But Lucinde has shattered my sense of sequence, willfully near-sighted though it was. His suicide was not a rupture in an otherwise even-keeled life; it was building for years. This does not come as a surprise, not after four years of considering his suicide, the depression preceding it. But now I am confronted with the violence of his death, the latent violence before. I had known about my father’s rifle. He had it on the farm where my parents lived for four years from my infancy until my mother left in 1975. We found the rifle when we sorted through my father’s house after his death.
But two revolvers? We are talking about 1979. I was eight years old. Lucinde and her daughter, Becky, were living with him. I remember that summer: the new semblance of a family, playing with Becky, teasing Adriane, day camp, taking photos in the backyard. Lucinde and Becky moved out in September. Adriane and I had already returned home to Ohio, our small-town home, our mother, our routine and comfort. So, I don’t remember them leaving, just that they were gone.
Lucinde says it was late. They were having a fight. She was going to call the police—I don’t ask why—and he brought out the guns. She can’t think of the word for the piece of furniture where they were stored. Though she is German, she speaks fluent English, but at this moment, in this awful memory, the simplicity of one word evaporates. I say, “the bureau,” and she says, “yes,” but later I will think it was the closet, with its Swiss shoes and forbidden top shelves. But how could I know? After all, I was not there. Her words emblazon a story, a series of frozen, staccato images, in my mind.
They were in a case, a pair of revolvers or pistols. He threatened her with one of them. I see him holding the gun and my blood is frozen. I imagine Becky, not yet eleven years old, just outside the room, but I don’t know if she was.
Lucinde and Becky moved out that night, buying a new house within two weeks, abandoning the home to be made together, the talk of marriage, the new family Adriane and I might have returned to at Christmas or the following summer. Leaving his temper behind, though the relationship dragged on for months to come.
There are things I have forgotten, pushed away in order to carry on. And there are things I had no idea I did not know. Just one life, and, of course, it is far more complex than I have realized. He was charismatic, my father, he was intense and loving and fascinating, and he could be verbally terrifying. But never physically threatening.
I am being a sissy, I tell myself, a wuss, a wimp, my vocabulary regresses, I am a naive child. Nearly fifty-percent of homes in America hold a firearm. Why should mine have been different? Guns are everywhere. And I hate them. Because I saw my father afterwards. Because I saw his face, white, drained of blood; his hair matted on one side, sticking up wildly on the other. Because I saw the expression on his face, that expression frozen forever, indescribable, but visually inscribed across the cells of my brain. I cannot dwell on it without my body tingling, my brain slowing and my pulse beginning to quicken: the same physiological reactions I imagine my father having in his last moments. And I cannot forget it, even though I must not have seen him for more than ten, maybe fifteen, seconds, as I dutifully confirmed what everyone already knew: Yes, that is my father, that is Lawrence O. Frye. Deceased.
Even if I hadn’t seen him then, at the funeral home, after they had cleaned him up, after they had tried to erase some of the horror of what he had done, I would still have the pictures in my head of how he must have lain in his hallway, of how he must have pulled the trigger. How Alicia found him.
When I first met Alicia, immediately after his death, I felt empathy: I identified with her, I wanted to reassure her. After all, she had known him, loved him, for less than a year. She was a novice at negotiating his needs, his temper, his love. I had been with him for twenty-three years. I understood how hard it was to love him, how hard to stay.
And she. . . . I don’t think she is as complicated as my father, but she is much younger, and for a while I think she could practically have been me. She learned too late: too late, what is too much, and what is too little. Or, perhaps, she just arrived too late, thirty or forty years past due. He drank from Alicia’s youth, allowing his thoughts to open up. He relished her vivaciousness, her candor. It brought forth candor and new energy of his own. But he never understood that no woman could save him, nor could she reverse his earlier mistakes, make him born anew. Just as a new child would not remake his past, return to him opportunities he had lost or squandered. And yet, despite the joy she gave him, he meant for Alicia to find him—he taped her phone number to the door—though she was barely an adult herself, though he loved her.
I refuse to think of my father, gun to his head, living his last moments in rage. I refuse to see violence in the movement of his finger pulling the trigger. I cannot see vindictiveness shaping his final hours. I focus on his pain, his hopelessness, his depression. His illness.
But my own dreams belie my intellect’s attempt to think of suicide as non-aggressive, only private and individual. My dreams are filled with violence, with threat. In one, he holds a gun to my sister’s head, and I am responsible for saving her, by doing what he asks, but also by deceiving him. I think I do save her, but the dream ends without resolution.
In another dream, he is calling me to come talk in the living room, a place of sullen conversations in guarded language. I feel threatened, in physical danger. Does he have a knife? I am in the kitchen; I am afraid to go into the other room, but I know I must. I take three knives, hiding them in my clothes. The dream ends before we confront each other.
He said he did not want us to be angry with Alicia, he said he wanted us to help her, if she needed it, and she us. As though we could be made family by his love.
“You know already how I feel about you, how I love you both,” he wrote to his daughters.
“You are both wonderful and will do well. All I have is yours to share, divide – including disarray and debts. Your mother will hopefully help sort out & order. Perhaps – if she’s willing, I hope – Alicia will also help. If she needs any help or support from you, please give it. – I want that, even if things didn’t turn out as I would wish & envision.”
This is what he said he wanted, what he wrote down late on the afternoon of the 3rd, before he would call me that evening to wish me a happy birthday, before his thoughts and syntax would become less lucid. And I know, now, that words—what we say or what we write—can rarely contain and convey all of what we mean, or what we feel. Suicide notes, in particular, are not reliable documents. They can appear so honest, so bare, so brief—they seem to hit a raw place of pure emotion, pure feeling. Yet they are deceptive, the work of a mind feeding upon itself. After putting down his last words for Adriane and me, he composed several elliptical notes to Alicia.
July 3rd, 11:23 p.m.:
“If we couldn’t meet in a new alliance, with whom could or would I?! We – you who so wanted to get under my skin, who liked this and that, who loved – in spite of this and that. I, so entranced by you that I spun myself out to you – and wanted to be re-wrapped in you. . . . If only I knew you had something to strongly remember me by and with.”
He continued his thoughts a few minutes later, shortly after 12:01 a.m., according to his diligent notations, on the 4th of July.
“I wonder from what motive you give no sign of yourself. Sad moments. I’m in terror.”
“. . . This incredibly excruciating and hard.”
The last word of this note drops down off its line, the thought truncated, too heavy, unsayable.
~ Part 3 coming soon. ~
~ For Part 1 click here. ~
©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.