Mentions loss of a sibling and thoughts of suicide
He doesn’t remember the night Fritz left, but he imagines it like something out of a movie scene. His brother is spewing gravel and a cloud of dust trails behind him. The horizon is aflame, crowning his blond hair as he flies down the interstate. A postcard arrives from a gas station in Nevada, which is so out of character it fits. There is no evidence to confirm Frank’s version of events. He’s thirteen years old with a hand cupped against the telephone receiver, struggling to hear Fritz above the static and the intermittent announcements from a disembodied voice. He always liked remembering him as something larger than life, as if he wasn’t at an airport with too few quarters and expecting Frank to clean up the mess he left behind.
The postcard is from a souvenir shop and it’s everything Fritz is. Perfect penmanship, misspellings, a series of disjointed thoughts that hide his true intentions. It’s an apology for the bruises Frank bore in his name. Now he’s drunk-drunk with Dad’s arms around him, trying to sort the good from the bad. Where did everything go wrong? The news registers in the same staccato as that airport conversation. Fritz. Accident. Body unrecognizable. None of his newfound friends missed him, did they?
Nobody reported him missing because everybody knew Fritz disappeared for days at a time, returning with a hangover from hell and none of the money he owed them. His motorcycle, his baby, like a crumpled beer can on the side of the road. Frank’s nose is red. Next to Elvis, Fritz is the closest thing he has to God. He crosses his legs at the ankles and tucks his cigarettes into his shirt sleeve like Fritz taught him. Voice slow, drawled, unaffected. Fritz wanted to be a movie star. Frank wanted to be somebody who didn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, who treated love like an inconvenience and never allowed himself to get hurt. He never learned how to be that person. He sleeps on our buttercup yellow sofa. Dad tucks a blanket beneath his arms. He leaves a glass of water and aspirin for when Frank wakes up.
Morning comes too quickly. He blinks away the sun and tells the story of when Fritz was still his big brother. Nothing less, nothing more. He laid down on the concrete beside Frank and watched the clouds transforming overhead. Frank thought it as magical as wish flowers or shooting stars or somebody who dared listen long enough to everything he had to say. His teeth are gritted against the headache. He’s nauseous and afraid, yet he needs to hold onto these moments when Fritz is still technically a part of the world. Three days. Frank is a mashup of superstition and the rare occasions they went to church. If Jesus took three days to ascend to Heaven, then his brother’s spirit must still be here. Frank is lying in the driveway with an arm tucked beneath his head, searching for signs of him.
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel.” He confesses, turning his face away from me. “I always thought… I thought… I don’t know what I thought. Why didn’t he come back?”
He doesn’t know if he wanted him to. He knows we all have to die someday, but he can’t say he’s ever thought about losing Fritz. How soon is forever? What happens to us when we die?
“How come I don’t feel anything?” He demands.
“I don’t know.”
He shields his face with his hand, still peering at the sky. His eyes water and everything blurs together. The clouds don’t look like anything. They’re shapeless entities, there one moment and gone the next. No right or wrong, good or bad, they just are. Dad doesn’t want him to be alone. He winces as he lowers himself onto the porch steps and unravels clouds like novels. Dad loves stories. Dad loves Frank like an extra son. The sky is as blue as the sea.
Frank argues with his daddy on the phone. His face is pinched as they discuss funeral arrangements. Neither of them lived the lie of a suit and tie. Their brother, Geoff, will fly back home. If he recognizes the sounds of the airport, the stories he spun about Fritz crumbling, his face doesn’t show it. Fritz taught him the different names for clouds. Cumulus, his favorite. Stratocumulos. There were always more than either of us could remember, but if he pretended to have the answers I would just as soon believe him. The world is changing before us.
Frank struggles with his lighter. His arm trembles and the wet, smoker’s cough is just another reminder that Fritz isn’t here. Fritz dared him to pilfer cigarettes for the three of them to share when their daddy blacked out in front of the TV, then left him with the white hot rage. Frank has always cleaned up his messes, always suffered for reasons he doesn’t understand. But Fritz is Elvis and Elvis is God. Hell if he knows the difference. Doesn’t everybody suffer for the people they love? Isn’t that what love is? Dad shakes his head. He starts to say something. He reminds Frank to buckle his seat belt. Frank doesn’t own a suit. He’s all crisp blue jeans and white t-shirts, a uniform he adapted to be more like Fritz. His brother abandoned it. He didn’t. It’s as familiar as his favorite melody, a reminder that once they didn’t hate each other. Fritz didn’t always leave.
He’s scuffed brown shoes beneath the hem of his pants as Dad helps adjust his tie. The morning of the wake his face is puffy from crying or drinking too much. The only difference between Geoff, Fritz, and Frank is in their height. They’re perfect, all American boys with broad shoulders and slim hips. They drink enough for the entire goddamn country and crash their motorcycles somewhere off the interstate. They’re grainy drivers license photos where they squint at the camera and try to smooth the squiggly lines, to distinguish the good from the bad, eyes as blue as the sky as blue as the seas that they’re drowning in.
There are eight years between him and Geoff, so he’s never gotten enough screen time. Former ringleader turned corporate monkey. A mentor to somebody, but not Frank. Never Frank. Their daddy’s pride and joy. He doesn’t hate Frank, but between the two of them he doesn’t have enough left to give. Frank reaches to shake his hand and blinks when Geoff hugs him instead. His shoulders shake. The Knopf children aren’t supposed to fall apart, but Frank can never remember his lines or follow the cues laid out to him.
Geoff pats him awkwardly on the back. He hangs his head and conjures images of Fritz in a haze of dust, gravel, and his streak of luck changing for the better. He isn’t dead. He’s fooling the string of enemies he made, but he will return as successful as ever, an explosion of star dust and glittering lights. They’ll find him on an island. Fritz, Elvis, and James Dean too. They’re immortal, don’t you know?
His daddy ignores him, but Dad squeezes his hand and waits while he tries wrestling everything back down. He doesn’t screw his face up when it doesn’t work. It hurts to watch. Maybe he knew what to feel all along, but he was afraid. Did he deserve to be sad? Maybe he didn’t cling tightly enough to that postcard or he spoke of Fritz with rolled eyes. Maybe he only remembered the bad and it’s his fault Fritz died. I don’t know how he’ll get through the next day and a half or why it takes so long, as if we have to put our suffering on display to prove they deserve a place in Heaven. Fritz is still gone.
I don’t know how to feel. Their daddy isn’t talking to him. Exit stage left. He can read his thoughts as easily as if he said them aloud. It should’ve been him. And it’s funny because Frank would give anything to take his place, to give them a few more minutes together. He’s certain nobody will ever need him as much, could never love him the same, that he’d be doing them all a favor. One more chance to clean up Fritz’s mess. We leave before those things can take shape.
There isn’t a cloud in the sky. A window separates us from them and Frank’s eyes are glued to it, as if he’s waiting for something. A sign, maybe. Dad’s wrinkled hand covers his. He pours liquid creamer into his coffee and watches as patterns emerge. Frank’s watery smile shows his understanding. He presses his face into his hands and tries not to fall apart again. He digs through his jacket for something to connect him to Fritz. They’re saying it was an accident. There are no signs of foul play. Nothing indicates another vehicle. Fritz didn’t speed past his enemies with gritted teeth and an expectant lover back home. In the end, he was still just Frank’s brother. Elvis left the building. With none of the glitz and glamour of a movie hero, he rode drunk and lonely. He rode to forget. Should Frank have tried harder? Should he have reached out to him in his absence? Would it have made a difference?
Dad’s fingers cramp. He jostles his coffee cup. The images disappear. With Fritz gone, Frank can pretend there’s a nobility to these past moments. They were brothers looking out for each other. Who’s going to argue otherwise? When he says “look, a rabbit,” who can tell him the shape of a cloud?