By: Ruth Z Deming
There he is, Frank Kelso Wolfe, coming down the stairs in his slippers and bathrobe. Whistling, he looks around for his mom and dad. The kitchen clock reads ten-thirty. He’s slept late again, but who wouldn’t. It takes him hours to fall asleep. His mind is so active, so filled with ideas. Already the little tablet on his end table is crammed with ideas for poems and paintings and sculpture.
A big man, with skin the color of cocoa, he fries a couple of eggs, along with four strips of bacon, which he drains on a paper towel, helping himself to one hot delicious strip, and licking his fingers.
Sitting at the table, he tries to taste each delicious bite, but his mind is racing again, off and running like an overwound clock.
“Better not forget to take my pills,” he thinks. In the middle of the table is a huge white pill box. He pries open the “Wednesday morning” container and empties five pills into his hand. Friggin’ mental illness, he thinks. If only there was a pill to curb that appetite of his. All those pretty little pills – pastel blue, pink, yellow – plus a two-toned capsule that reminds him of a car they once owned with a black top and red body – the darn pills make him fat as a house.
Downing them with a glass of Tropicana orange juice, he remembers many a time when he purposely didn’t take the pills. Talk about getting sick! There is no sickness in the world like becoming psychotic. He gives a soft laugh. “Jeez, what I put my parents through.” Last year, he believed he was a famous stand-up comedian and was communicating -telepathically – with Eddie Murphy.
“Mom and Dad,” he said to his parents as they sat on the front porch. “I know it’s hard to believe, but Eddie Murphy – yes! – THE Eddie Murphy is talking to me this very minute. He wants me to open for him at the Steel City Coffee House.”
He shook his head in disbelief.
“Frank,” said his mother in that stern voice of hers he hated. “Frank, did you take your medication?”
She was a take-charge woman, like his sister Nettie Jean, while his dad, the retired assistant superintendent of Graterford Prison, liked nothing better than to putter in the garden and perfect the art of relaxation.
Frank still remembered when his dad was spokesperson for a hostage situation that ended with no one getting killed. Well, that time, anyway. Inmates in those days often came out to the house and helped do chores.
His dad, a superb chef, who did all the cooking – ah! those luscious sweet potato fries dipped in honey mustard – would tenderly show the inmates, clad in orange jumpsuits, how to boil an egg to make egg salad.
Frank would stare at these men – white and black and brown – when their backs were turned. These were real criminals, not actors on Law and Order. Just ordinary people who robbed banks, assaulted people and forged checks.
The only thing Frank did wrong was not take his medication.
“Eddie Murphy! Do tell!” He gave a whoop and a holler and cake-walked around the front porch.
His mother grabbed him by the arm and marched him into the house.
She sat him down at the kitchen table, looked him over and shook her head.
They heard a squirrel running across the wire outside.
“The squirrels have more sense than you do, Frank Wolfe,” she said.
Frank got into the habit of sequestering himself in his room after he lost his job as a certified peer specialist. He had actually earned money for being mentally ill. As a peer, he helped other mentally ill men organize their day and prepare for the world of work. In the morning, he would meet Joe or Big Sal or Bobby for breakfast at McDonalds. He would pay for their breakfast and his own and while listening to them, he would eat three – yes, three – egg, cheese and bacon biscuit sandwiches.
But his chronic pain got worse. The pain in his feet, his knees and his hips became unbearable so he ceased leaving home and lost his job.
His strong faith in God never wavered, but he wondered, “Why am I being punished?” He would call his friend Ruth on the phone. What he didn’t know was that, if she was home, she would decide if she had the strength to listen to him.
“Hello, dahling,” he would say in a playful voice. And then he would launch into a dissertation on his pain, especially in his size 12 feet. “I’m holding on for one more day, sweetness. I go down the steps on my butt. It’s the only thing that gets me downstairs.”
She was of no help at all, but just hearing her voice, a sort of raspy cheerful voice, made him feel better. For as long as the phone call lasted, he forgot his agony. He would have stayed on the phone all day, but she always had things to do. He could hear her doing things while he talked. Once he heard her open a door and go outside. The birds were in a frenzy of chirping. They seemed to enter his own bedroom and fly all around, landing on his desk and computer and book shelves.
Until, of course, he got off the phone and was left in misery again.
Oh, Lord, why are you punishing me?
Books! Was there ever a man who loved books more than Frank Kelso Wolfe? Frank was a bi-racial man, with a white mom and a black dad. Back in the small town in Ohio where Bob and Cecilia met and married, they encountered little prejudice. On his own, Frank discovered Native Son by Richard Wright, the story of Bigger Thomas, who kills a white woman; The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, who paints himself black and finds out what it’s like to be black in a white man’s world – unimaginable hatred, yes, true hate! and of course all the James Baldwin books. Who could blame Baldwin, thought Frank, studying “Jimmy’s” kind, yet sad face on the book jacket, for living as an expatriate in Paris.
Frank also liked to page through his own books. He was one of those rare birds: a published poet. Had he really written hundreds and hundreds of poems? Re-reading them, while lying in bed with a soft lamp illuminating each page, he silently thanked God for giving him the gift of writing.
Today I shall cut myself shaving, and slap on some Aqua-Velva,
just so I’ll remember the sting.
Last night I brushed my teeth, then drank a glass of orange juice,
so as to not take sweetness for granted.
My bed, less and less a comfort, I make it every day despite
the struggle of standing, finding pleasure in things well ordered.
From his bed, his eye fell upon the book The Red Badge of Courage. He was in too much pain to pull it off the shelf, but suddenly he had an idea. Since he liked it so much, why not read it to his parents? His dad, after all, was happily retired, and his mom could certainly take a break from her housekeeping duties. Like her son, Cecilia was a whistler. He loved the sound of her whistling as she dusted the living room, with its old-fashioned furniture. Why buy anything new when there was such loveliness and comfort in what they already had?
The three of them sat in the living room. Frank opened the drapes so daylight could flood the room. From the purple easy chair, he showed them the cover of The Red Badge of Courage, with the American flag carried as a standard-bearer by the Union soldiers, dressed in blue.
“It’s about courage,” he told them in his soft voice. He dared say nothing about his failing courage in living with his physical pain. He cleared his throat and began to read.
The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. As the landscape changed from brown to green, the army awakened, and began to tremble with eagerness at the noise of rumors. It cast its eyes upon the roads, which were growing from long troughs of liquid mud to proper thoroughfares.
“Wait a minute, Sonny,” said his dad. “You know I ain’t so young anymore and I can’t hardly hear you.”
“All right, Dad,” said Frank. He pulled over the purple ottoman and sat right in front of his father, who sat next to his wife with his arm around her.
As long as I read, thought Frank, I will live.
And so they went through book after book.
He read them classics like The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, and O Pioneers by Willa Cather.
“Never cared for O Pioneers in high school,” Frank confessed. “So I thought I’d give it another try.”
“It’s good, Frankie,” said his mother. “And you read it so well!”
Their son had lots of practice. He was a stand-up comic and poet at the Steel City Coffeehouse in Phoenixville. A born performer, his YouTube videos show him striding confidently onstage, with the help of a cane, seating himself at the mic, and speaking with intimacy to the audience, urging them to give him a round of applause.
The many sides of Frank Kelso Wolfe.
My God, he thought. What a legacy I’ll leave behind. He knew for certain there would come a day, he knew not when, when he would end it all.
Lying in bed one night, he reviewed his life. It was a great life, really. He knew this and hated to leave it, but he and The Devil duked it out. In high school, he had been a scholar and an athlete. Had he known at the time that mental illness would stalk him for the rest of his days, he would have snagged one of the pretty cheerleaders at high school. He was always attracted to white women, like his blonde-haired mother. He remembered Leslie, a short woman with huge calf muscles, who tossed that star-spangled baton so high in the air at football games you thought it would sail up to the moon. Yes, that’s who he would have chosen, little blonde Leslie with the big calves. Wonder where she was now and if she’d remember him in the obituary notice.
For three months, Frank and the Devil played catch-me-if-you can.
“Today is the day!” Frank would announce to himself, only to find there was something worth living for the next day.
Suicide experts know that once a person makes up his mind to do himself in, a calmness comes over him, like a lull in the ocean waves.
A wordsmith to the end, Frank lay in bed thinking of all the words for death. He deemed it cheating to use the dictionary. His was the Random House Unabridged, which was almost as fat as he was, he thought. His favorite expression was “to croak,” a term his psychiatrist was fond of using. He loved his psychiatrist and was sorry to disappoint him.
Should he write a note? Heck, his entire life of forty-five years served as his note. There was one thing he had to do before he went to the other side. That little nephew of his, Jamie, with his black hair and smiling face, he must see him again.
But the Devil was at his back. He couldn’t wait. He was suddenly propelled to take action.
He’d failed before, many many times. “Failbetter” was a term dreamed up by the playwright Samuel Beckett.
This time he would fail better than ever. He would succeed.
He placed his cane on his bed, along with one of the hats and baseball caps he loved to wear. His married sister Nettie said he looked “so debonair” when he wore them. Dressed in a warm flannel shirt, khaki pants, and thick socks and shoes, which cushioned a bit of the pain when he walked, he looked around his room, his sanctuary.
“Goodbye room,” he said and blew it a kiss, after closing the door.
He went up to the attic and let himself out onto the roof. He startled a couple of doves who sat on the roof cooing sweet nothings to one another. Everything he loved was in view now. His parents were downstairs and had no idea what he was planning. A neighbor across the street came out of her house in her white apron and began hanging laundry on the clothes line. Frank didn’t even bother to wave. He was in the same kind of trance as when he wrote or painted. Looking up at the blue sky, he had a sudden thought.
This is the day of my death, October 7, 2014.
Spreading his arms out like a bird, he dove head-first off the three-story house toward the ground below. A million thoughts passed through his mind. What a relief – this must be what taking heroin is like. Then, Darn it, I sure don’t wanna die. I should’ve waited a few more days. Little Jamie’s plump cheeks and pencil-written stories caused tears to form in his eyes as he sailed down like a falling chess piece.
The crisp autumn air against his face and body made him wish he were sitting out on his front porch. And though she didn’t notice, he smiled at the woman in the white apron and wished her peace.