Fiction by James Ward Kirk
Francis Redd breathed like a ghost, short and shallow intakes of ether, a spectral manifestation of his life.
Francis Redd resolved to discern who murdered him and exactly when, and why, even though he feared the resonance of the why part of the mystery.
Certification of death escaped him.
If murder described his true state of affairs, that is. Pinching hurt. Reality, and its thick blanket of confusion did not serve him well; however, he believed with some certainty suicide wasn’t the answer. Francis Redd’s parents, also dead and living near by, pious and Pentecostal, managed to instill in him before he could escape them a hard understanding that suicides went to Hell and he knew he didn’t want to be there, so—although he hadn’t ruled it out—suicide, that is--he’d place his money on murder.
His body, whole and clothed, did not hurt; no mangled limbs from a possible automobile accident or some other severe form of bodily trauma; no bullet holes gaped open. Perhaps in death, he thought, one’s body became whole once again. Or perhaps his apparently whole body obscured an internal thing—perhaps his brain had stopped working, or his heart, or a sly poison killed him.
Francis Redd first began to realize just a few weeks ago his death had come about.
On his way to work one morning, even though he knew it would make him late, Francis Redd stopped by the bank. He wasn’t sure why he wanted the money so badly, but he was sure he wanted some. He locked the door of his beige Escort and went inside.
The first customer of the day, he walked to the first teller in line. She was young and blond with blue eyes and a pert smile and pert breasts and a pert voice.
“My name is Francis Redd,” he wanted to say, but only got half of it out. He wanted to look at the teller’s breasts again, but she was keeping an eye on him to make sure he didn’t. The teller brought to mind a girl in his office with perky breasts, and Francis thought sometimes she didn’t seem to mind if he looked at them.
Reaching for his wallet, he pulled out a folded check he kept for emergencies and handed it to her. She became more pert as she counted out his money.
Francis Redd left the bank and got back into his car.
Francis always drove safely. Risking an accident and seeing his insurance go up, and not having his car while it was in the shop, therefore forced to rely on Darlene for a ride to work and back home again, or getting a ticket for speeding for some ungodly amount of money, prohibited careless driving. He never drove faster than the speed limit, even when people sped past him, slinging him sour looks of distaste and distrust for driving so slowly. He always kept both hands on the wheel.
This day, however, would be different. A sapphire cloak of some uncertain and unordinary emotion forbade the customary insipid morning drive. Francis felt it in his groin.
A particular memory from childhood had come to mind and he couldn’t shake it. He’d grown up in northern Indiana, surrounded by forests and gentle farms. There was a deer, approaching middle life; but at some point very early in the deer’s life he’d become domesticated. As the deer grew to maturity, the owners turned it back loose to the wild but had taken the care to tie a bright red handkerchief to the deer’s neck so hunters would know not to shoot. Francis learned to love the deer. The beautiful creature, unafraid and unlearned in fear, allowed Francis’ careful approach. Francis would follow the deer into the woods after filling his belly with fresh sweet corn from a farmer’s field. The deer knew Francis followed, but didn’t seem to mind and perhaps even enjoyed the camaraderie.
One spring morning, after Francis left the house with no lunch, because there was none to be had—he didn’t care though, he knew where the apple trees and mulberry trees and blackberry bushes could be found—he happened across the deer and the deer was gracious enough to take a fresh handful of blackberries right from Francis’ hand. His soft, gentle, and trusting eyes consoled Francis.
Then one day down by the river under a mulberry tree, Francis found the deer dead. Someone shot the deer, point blank in the forehead. Since the deer remained untouched, not butchered for food, Francis figured the animal killed by one of the farmers; probably for eating from their fields.
Francis, trying to shake the memory, only worsened his headache.
About halfway to work he began crying.
Francis always felt like, just under the surface of his skin, tears coursed in symphony with his blood, adding musical hysteria to the song of his life.
He’d seen a psychiatrist, but she told him there was nothing wrong with him that wasn’t wrong with any other 44-year-old man. Francis refused referral to a behavioral psychologist. The psychiatrist gave him a prescription for Xanax anyway and told him to make an appointment anytime he felt it necessary. She gave him an entire eleven months of refills, told him to take it religiously, but he never did. Darlene made him fill it each month, though, because she thought it was cool to have Xanax in the house. Francis wished she’d use the drug, but Darlene only drank vodka martinis “to take the edge off.”
But tears leave his poor corpse like fleas jumping from a dead dog. He howled. The long buried wails, the sorrow and horror, would frighten and distress anyone that might hear. The very force of his grief left spittle on the steering wheel and windshield. His chest and head hurt terribly.
In the parking lot for the social agency he dried his eyes using his power blue tie his brother gave him this past Christmas, glancing about, hoping no person lurking about the building noticed his creased and cracked face, and knowing no one would; he only a cog in the life machine, beyond repair but ready to break and bring it all down. He took the elevator to the second floor, keeping his gaze downward. He rarely met anyone’s look anyway, because he had a lazy eye and felt self-conscious about it.
Over the next couple of days he began to notice peculiar expressions on the faces of his coworkers whenever he walked past them. Never in Francis’s life would someone have accused him of being verbose. He accepted as truth still waters run deep. Logically, then, when he did speak coworkers were more likely to value his words. The metaphor, he came to learn, never once solidified as an undeniable certification of reality; but people did look at him with colored expressions he couldn’t understand when he did speak. His voice was soft, like a black oil brush with no color moving around a white canvas.
Francis Redd worked disability. Every day he smothered himself in other people’s misery and lies. It was part of the job, and he one of the best. He left work each day believing it could always be worse.
One day soon after his crying spell, Francis closed up his cubicle, walked to the elevator, pressed 1, left the building, started his car, pulled out of the lot and began his drive home. It was an uninteresting mid-March morning, the sky’s dull gray pillow-casing the sun. Only when he was half way home did he realize that it was only two o’clock in the afternoon. He felt his heart lurch, and he pulled the car over. Half aloud he asked himself: how could I do that? He could go back to work, and hope no one noticed his absence. Or he could go home and play it off tomorrow as if he’d squared everything away regarding a doctor’s appointment or some family related task. He didn’t want to go back to work, so he drove home. There was an electric feeling in the center of his chest, just below the heart and hurting like anguish. He was afraid his chest might explode. He looked at himself in the rearview mirror and shuddered, his revulsion thick.
Francis Redd guided his car into the subdivision he lived in, the streets themed after all the different types of ducks. All of the houses were different and they all looked the same, with brick fronts, sides covered with different bland colors of vinyl; pale yellow and lackluster silver look surprisingly alike, he came to believe. Francis’ was one of the dull silver ones.
Francis always felt proud, at first, as he drew near his house. He worked so hard. But disappointment, an ever-present chameleon, changed him; turning him tan and as lackluster as the khaki pants he wore, as beige as the Escort he drove. His house, silver, at first glance, looked like the other silver houses dotting the landscape.
Francis walked in the hours after dinner, his wife on the phone, the children doing homework or playing favorite games. Walking around the neighborhoods and watching his neighbors, glowing silver because he understood their unawareness, their intellectual incapacity of belief inhibiting their ability to recognize the familiarity of their flavorless lives floating at the outer boundaries of their dreams, and out of reach of their competence to reconcile what they believed with what they lived.
Francis Redd, death blushing him, understood too well.
Dread unfulfilled, unfinished; in these precious moments of superiority he celebrated, because they, his neighbors, the people he shared the world with, he judged self-deficient in understanding their ignorance; lacking the necessary self-awareness of dreams.
Understanding his own existence as less than mediocre bled from his heart, the slow drip-drop of thick blood, in synchronization with his breathing and blinking. At times he envied their dull minds.
Darlene’s big green minivan sat in the driveway, clean and shiny.
Francis Redd opened the front door to his house and walked in. The house, decorated to suit Darlene’s tastes, painted a gypsy portrait, full of odd antiquities displayed on antique furniture, heirlooms from Darlene’s side of the family, paint unifying her color scheme of burgundy, cream and forest green. Francis liked the colors, at first, because he considered them relaxing but after a while he began to hate the colors as much as everything else about the house. The crimson and flesh yellow shaded walls turned on him over time, betraying him, suffocating him like moist bloody gauze.
Francis found the living room devoid of life, so he turned and walked down the hallway toward his bedroom. He almost called out, to announce his presence, but through the half-open bedroom door he witnessed Darlene naked, her legs straight up in the air and as far apart as possible, in the most open of human gestures. On top of her was a large black man, naked too, buttocks tight but beginning to relax as his orgasm lessened. Darlene called out, but Francis couldn’t understand what she said.
Francis stood frozen, watching his nightmare, his image reflected in large gold-gilded mirror he hated but Darlene loved, latticed with faded golden seraphs dancing like dolphins in the open ocean, decorating but drooping on the wall behind him, reminding him of his pale loose existence of hate.
He turned away from his reflection. Frightened, paralyzed, he didn’t know what to do: a tableau of self-pity.
Kicking the door fully open and shouting “Stop!” seemed a bit ridiculous, since they were finished anyway. He knew he didn’t want to confront Darlene with the man still in the room, as that would be awkward.
Denied essential tears rendered Francis into two halves. His necessary and basic weeping was remanded to an old and ancient dwelling carved under his heart long ago when he was nothing but a ravenous and unsatisfied infant, a-synchronic, dank with old blood. He needed and wanted to cry, but he didn’t want to cry in front of Darlene or, for that matter, the man. He stood there in his indecision, quivering, watching the man dress and Darlene light a cigarette. He trembled with such might that his head made a soft knocking on the wall behind him.
The man finished dressing and turned to Darlene; “I have to go.”
“Okay;” Darlene, stretching, her back to both men.
The man left the room quietly, pausing, nodding in Francis’ direction, but into the mirror, before continuing on. Francis heard the front door open and close. He decided this was not the moment to speak to Darlene. His mouth open, baring his teeth to form a mock smile, Francis retraced his steps.
He sat down in the cream-colored leather recliner in the living room. The fireplace loomed behind him. A large stand-alone mirror framed with gold cherubs blurred his peripheral vision just to his left. Darlene refused to move the mirror, even though Francis had nearly put his foot down about it. He hated the mirror.
Francis heard the screeching brakes of the school bus pulling to a stop in front of the house.
Francis understood the tears beginning to drain him once again, feeling them on his cheeks and chin until they disappeared into the dark fabric of his shirt, scented like rain too late to save a summer’s crops.
Caleb and Ruth May came through the doorway, quietly, as if unsure of what they might find. Francis expected a greeting from them, as he wasn’t supposed to be here yet, but instead they just glanced in his direction, focusing on the mirror beside him. They seemed, to Francis, hypnotized; perhaps by the sight of themselves in the mirror; or by their father’s reality. They turned away, in unison Francis thought, as if one was the pale reflection of the other, hurrying up the stairs two at a time toward their rooms.
Frances heard a car door shut outside in the driveway. It was Sue. “Sexy Sue,” as Darlene called her. Francis never liked her. He possessed a pretty nice collection of DVD movies, and he was proud of it, and he’d asked Darlene not to loan them out. Of course, she did, to Sue—she thought it funny that it bothered Francis so much—and Sue had yet to return them. She had his Collector’s Edition of Milos Forman’s best movie. He really admired Milos Foreman. Sometimes the common man won and sometimes he didn’t.
Francis heard the sliding glass door at the back of the house open and close. It occurred to Francis that Sue’s presence made her complicit in Darlene’s affair. He listened as she rustled down the hall toward his bedroom. Sue preferred to date black men because she admired their penises so much, and was happy to talk about it and often did with Darlene. Not that she limited herself, though.
One night on one of Darlene and Sue’s drinking bouts—Darlene was expert at making martinis—Francis joined in, listening to their conversation, laughing knowingly on occasion. He didn’t really join in, though, because he found the two of them confusing. Overwhelmed after her three martinis, Darlene walked to the bedroom and lay down on her bed, leaving Francis and Sue alone. Sue leaned over to him and mentioned just how much she truly enjoyed giving oral sex. Francis, also feeling overwhelmed by vodka and circumstance, stood and dropped his pants. Sue laughed at him while walking to the sofa and dropping off to sleep.
Disturbed, gingerly walking to the bedroom, he removed all of his clothing and fell into a listless sleep next to Darlene. The next morning when Francis arose, he left his bedroom and stumbled toward the kitchen. Darlene and Sue, already there, shared a knowing expression as Francis poured some orange juice. Darlene snorted. Francis, cold and numb, like a cube of ice still unused, returned to his bedroom.
Francis, back in the moment, and cold, in the recliner, listened to the voices in the house. In the bedroom, Darlene was on the phone with Sue. Sue must have said something funny because Darlene was laughing wholeheartedly. Francis heard Caleb and Ruth May upstairs arguing over a video game. Ruth May, two years older than Caleb, and stronger, whacked Caleb loudly. He heard Caleb’s cry but, unable to move in his new frozen environment, did nothing but wish his two children were more like the dolphins hanging from the ceiling in their shared bathroom. Francis loved dolphins. Two doors slammed shut upstairs. In Ruth May’s room, the thud of tank machine guns and jet fighter explosions battled through her door and down the stairs to Francis. The crashes and booms muffled Caleb’s cries.
Francis realized that of all of the rooms in his house, none were his. There was no room for him, no place for him to cry or laugh or make love. Life pushed him out: you don’t belong here. He thought about going upstairs and punishing June May and comforting Caleb. He thought about going to his bedroom and asking Darlene what was so damn funny.
Instead, he left the house through the front door and crossed over to the garage where inside he pulled down the stepladder leading up to the attic. He hit the light switch but the bulb had burned out a long time ago. Climbing back down to the garage, he found a flashlight, and paused; what am I doing?
Not waiting for an answer, he again ascended to the attic. Afraid, like a little boy lost in an unfamiliar place, but determinedly shining his light around the attic, he saw items poorly stacked around the space, leaning like bad memories. An old crib, his daughter’s, lay wasted against one wall. Pink at one time, dust and time painted it a jaundiced yellow. Somehow water leaked into the attic in spots and the thick scent of mildew and rotting clothing assaulted his brain. Sorting through a dank cardboard box, one item drew his attention; his wife’s wedding gown. Loaned to a relative, and upon return, the gown became discarded, without value.
He sat the flashlight on an old chest, and held the dress up with both hands in front of him. He tried to remember Darlene happy in the dress, now stained and ruined, but only remembered clumsily trying to take it off her on their wedding night. They were both very drunk and the night ended in failure. Francis dropped the dress and picked up the flashlight, again searching for an object to jog memories. In one corner of the attic where the light couldn’t reach, slept a bat. The bat, an adult male, slept alone because of new building in the area; tonight, he would search out his lost life.
Francis moved his light around, growing more desperate. His beam illuminated a trunk. Francis walked over and opened it, finding it full of photographs. Plunging his hand in, he happened to pull out a picture of Darlene in her wedding dress on their wedding day. She, excellently beautiful, he thought, and the smile on her face—the glow in her eyes—created a craving for her smile. But no more smiles existed. He sat down and studied the photo, crossing his legs Indian style like when he was a kid. Quite certain that she’d loved him truly and deeply on that day, he wondered, having done all that he could: what happened? He worked hard to provide for his family. He loved them as much as he possibly could, so much it hurt, so much it killed him.
Two futures battered each other in his mind. Images of his gray cubicle, all the paper, all the broken people, the drive to work, the tired silver siding on the house meant nothing to Francis.
Lost love stroking his consciousness with bitterly used work gloves, his future flashed jade, reptilian, painting his face red; teeth consumed this possible future. The other future, more comforting, addressed all of his desires.
Before descending from the attic, Francis noticed he still grasped the wedding photo; he let go and watched the picture butterfly its way to the floor. Francis left the attic, closing the door behind him
Francis, moving quickly, determinably in the kitchen, adding a bit too much salt to the chicken, a smidgen too much salt to the vegetables, and he finished by adding a tad more salt to the gumbo. After pouring the milk into the sink, he made a large pitcher of lemonade. Then he crushed up three whole bottles of his medicine. He poured the fine powder into the lemonade, stirring well. After setting the table, and calling everyone to dinner, Frances left for a pack of cigarettes.
Francis, in the park, lit a cigarette, smoked it, flicked the butt out the window and lit another. He watched a family—father, mother, son, and daughter—playing on the swings. The little girl cried out for daddy to push her on the swing but he told her to be patient and he will push her but right now Mommy was busy loving Daddy.
Francis recalled a moment from his own childhood. He didn’t want to remember but the emotion arrived fiercely, unable to be tamed and quartered. He gave in, he folded, he cried and the memory burst through its mental wall, hard-shelled and faux-winged, so he gave up the ghost, he surrendered and remembered. Tiny, as tiny as a baby’s whisper, he cried out in unison with his baby brother wailing in his crib in this other room. Mommy and Daddy rushed in. Little Tony kicked and quivered at the water bug pinching and tearing at his big toe. Daddy squeezed the bug so it released. He flushed it down the toilet and told Mommy, while roaches skittered across the floor and dropped on them from the ceiling, they must leave this house. But it was too late for little Tony. Later, Francis remembered, a bit older and wiser, and weaker, perhaps 10 years of age, he used his pellet gun to chase the rats out of his bedroom. The rats didn’t leave, only burrowed into the shadows; only to return when sleep came, coarse whiskers itching inside his brain.
Francis shook his head and scratched his forehead until it bled. He’d shared some of these stories with Darlene, in the early years of their marriage, only regretting in these later years, wallowing in the unique and ugly remorse of telling a secret that should have remained a secret.
Darlene said: Why can’t you work harder, earn more, and love more?
He realized, then, that no one murdered him. After everything, he had killed himself. Even though he’d escaped his parents and their own brand of poverty, even though he’d managed to live through the drug years, the violent years, even though he’d gone to college and fell in love with literature and earned a Master’s degree, in the end, he’d still murdered himself. The fact stood as red and plain as the blood on his face, if anyone cared to look. Now the ghost of Francis Redd, he inhaled the dirty air and exhaled sorrow-like a memory of someone else’s nightmares.
Francis remembered: hard rain, inundating the earth. He stared across the grave of his mother. Darlene, Ruth May, and Caleb stood under an umbrella on the other side of the grave, looking at him, their thoughts searing and melting into his own: you loved this dead woman? Muddy water ran into the grave. Dear God, Francis prayed, my mother drowned. How could you let it rain today?
That night Francis dreamed of swimming in a deep blue ocean, dolphins playfully circling him, smiling and chortling hellos, and in a miracle he breathed the warm water with them; a most wonderful existence. He awoke with a smile and an erection, and he turned to share his dream with Darlene, but she wasn’t there. He walked down the long hallway toward the kitchen, and he heard Darlene and Sue in there laughing so he stopped. Darlene was telling Sue that maybe Ruth May ought to have been named Ginny and that Caleb should be Vernon-for-vermouth.
At home now, Francis carried Darlene into the bedroom. He laid her on the floor while he pulled the comforter back. Then he put her in the bed and tucked her in. She was just barely breathing. He went upstairs. June May laid in her bed already, a soft green comforter pulled to her chin, her stuffed chimp named Bananas laying lifelessly as she on the pillow beside her. June May no longer breathed. Francis turned the television off, and then walked to Caleb’s bedroom. He lay dead on the floor. Francis put him in bed, under his blue blanket. Francis returned to June May’s bedroom and retrieved the war game the two of them fought over earlier and placed it on the pillow next to Caleb’s head. Francis returned to his bedroom. Darlene was still breathing, quite shallowly, so he placed his pillow over her face. He walked into the bathroom and urinated. Looking into the mirror as he washed his hands, he noticed the dolphins on the wall behind him, splashing mirth and smiles. Francis took the dolphins off the wall and put them in his jacket pocket. Returning to his bedroom, he uncovered Darlene’s face. Darlene no longer breathed.
Francis parked his car on the side of the road near the bridge over Eagle Creek Reservoir. Francis powered down his car windows, about a half-inch for each window. Taking the dolphins out of his pocket, Francis placed them on the seat next to his. A silver minivan with a family inside drove by him, and then he was alone.
Francis Redd drove his car into the reservoir. The car slowly filled with water and, soon enough, the water picked up the dolphins. Francis smiled with the chortling dolphins floating around him, and he no longer breathed.