Jan/Feb 2001  •   Fiction

Frederick (All She Wrote)

by Stanley Jenkins

Frederick was 92. Frederick was a mean son of a bitch. He'd always been that way, now and at the hour of his death. He'd stabbed himself twice in the stomach. He'd slashed at his wrists inconclusively. He was still a son of a bitch.

It's like this: Frederick was terminal and wanted to go. He found the most spiteful way. Let his daughter find him. And he made her clean up his mess one more time. And he made her clean up his mess.

When they took him off the respirator, I watched him die. I watched him die because it is part of what I do.

I stroked his forehead. It was scabby and obscene. I caressed him.

His mouth was dentureless. Spit and blood coagulated in the corners. I wiped it off.

And I said, "God is merciful." And knew it to be true.

And I said, "It's OK, you can go, we'll hold the fort." And that was true too.

And I rubbed his shoulders. And I caressed his arms. Swollen and weeping arms. I was his daughter's pastor. World without end. Swollen and weeping without end.

And it's like this: It takes much longer than you would expect. There are a lot of false starts. And it happens in stages. But finally the son of a bitch died. And man, we didn't have anything to say, me and the family he hurt so bad.

But it was so peaceful. So very peaceful. Now and at the hour.


Well, one thing's certain. That's all she wrote, Frederick. Slow morphine drip. The graceful descent of a well-built paper airplane. And then you're gone. Yes sir, Frederick. All the rest of us poor sons of bitches should be so lucky. Now and at the hour of our death. Yeah.

But there's one thing Frederick: I, who caressed your swollen and weeping arms, though you were nothing to me but one of our own—and that really is sufficient, isn't it?—will never comprehend the human heart. Because in your frailty even your daughter, who was afraid of elevators, and never knew her grace in your gaze, forgave you; though at the last, her pen ripped the paper, the paper that released you and said it was OK to go home now into great white eternity, to go home now though you had never released her, or even once in her life made her feel pretty like only a Daddy can because, Frederick, you were a mean son of a bitch, and like I said, the pen ripped the paper and at the hour of your death ink stained her hands, so that at the end even her love got stained, and embraces were awkward when the doctors came back and gently encouraged us to leave and you were dead leaving her with so many questions and a grief and a guilt and a withered life left to mourn. And she still forgave you. And you never even said thank you.

Frederick, I do not comprehend the human heart. Either its frailties or its capacity to endure. Or its courage.

But I did your funeral. Because someday somebody will do mine. All us poor sons of bitches. All us poor children. Amen.