Frank

I mean, what can I say about Frank that you aren’t already thinking? He was an ass. I know I’m not supposed to say stuff like that at his funeral, but it’s the truth. The man was a cantankerous, angry ass of a man. Angry at the world, angry at all of us and the meanest sonabitch any of us ever met.

Y’all can laugh if you want, but you know it’s the truth. Frank never met a person or a pet he didn’t hate. When Widow Mullen’s dog went missing, well we all know Frank hated that dog. Hated it rotten. And we all knew what happened, what Frank had done. But the police need proof and, well, we still miss that dog. If y’all remember, it would bounce around trying to lick everyone, ‘kept Frank. Maybe it knew something we didn’t. 

Frank was in the army, or at least that’s what he said. He didn’t know his way around a gun proper, so I figure he was making all that up anyway. Still, he was there at the ceremony every Memorial Day, standing silently to pay his respects. Maybe he was in the army, maybe war was what changed him. Or maybe he was born that way, I dunno.

As far as I can tell, Frank didn’t have any family left. Or, whatever family he had left Frank. Either way, the man was an island and didn’t want any company to join him there. If I try to imagine Frank as a child, all I see is a smaller version of the old man, limping around school with a full, scraggly beard at nine years old, yellin’ at everyone about everything. Maybe that’s the best way to remember Frank, the same way he always was. 

But then, he jumped in didn’t he? We were all standing around, looking, and Frank jumped. The Sanchez boy, I mean Jose, was in that river and God knows how he got there. The rains had made the river a flood and there was Jose, clinging onto a tree in the middle. We all wanted to help, but swimming ain’t something we do a lot around here and, if we’re all being honest, we was glad we weren’t stuck on that tree with Jose. 

But Frank, man, that cantankerous jackass, pulled up in his pickup and immediately started screaming at all of us about why we wasn’t doing nothing to help. Frank always screamed, so we learned to ignore him, but even over the roar of the water you couldn’t miss his voice. I can’t say that’s the angriest I ever heard Frank, but I can tell you I never heard him more angry than he was that day.

I still remember his glare. He stopped screaming, stared his dead eye gaze at us for a moment and then shambled over towards the water. We were so used to avoiding Frank at the store, on the street or anywhere that everyone just moved away. He limped his limp to the water and everyone just parted before him. 

And then, that horrible ass of a man, he jumped into the river. Overalls still on, boots still on. I still can’t believe that happened, even though I was there. I don’t think Frank could swim, and I don’t think it would have mattered in those waters. But he grabbed that old oak tree long and he moved towards the boy one hand at a time. To this day I still think it was the anger that was driving him. Anger like that, ain’t no nature going to hold back. Not even the river when it was that angry.

For me, it felt like I watched Frank struggle and climb and paddle for years. I don’t know what I thought, or expected to happen. I’d be lying if I wasn’t hoping the river would take him. But he made it to Jose, even though the boy looked like a worn out flag after a tornado. It’s a miracle the boy was still alive, God’s grace protected him I gather. 

And that devil, he grabbed the boy and dragged him back. Even slower than before, hand by hand, inch by inch. None of us came to help, shocked as we were at the sight of Frank doing what he was doing. Or we was too scared to move. Or embarrassed that Frank, of all us, was doing something to help. I don’t know, I think about that a lot. I’m sure y’all do too. 

When Frank got close enough to the shore, still grippin’ that boy with his gnarled, angry hands, we did come to our senses. Most of us rushed down to help grab the boy, make sure he got out alright. But even then, did any of us reach for Frank? There were four of us carrying that boy up the bank of the river, but did any of us carry Frank? I don’t rightly remember. I want to believe that we did. I want to believe that we reached out a hand to him, and he knocked it away like he always did. I want to believe that Frank scowled his scowl at us from the water, angry that we’d try to help him. But I really don’t know. Everything happened so fast. 

Frank never got out of the water, as y’all know cuz we’re here today. The doctor said it was a heart attack, but I figure if Frank’s heart was going to kill him it would’ve done that a long time ago. If anything, Frank killed his heart just to get it to stop beating. Nah, I figure Frank was ready. No man can be angry for that long, even Frank. Maybe he wanted us to remember him from that day, instead of the years and years before that. Or maybe he lost his grip and his anger finally failed him. I’d like to think Frank left the way he wanted. 

He didn’t have to jump in, but he did. Was that who Frank was? The man who jumped in when he had no right to be doin’ so? Or was he the angry, dog-killing, people hurting jackass that we all knew? 

I dunno, I’m sure the good father here will have his wise words for us about that this Sunday. What I do know is that Frank is gone, and nuthin’ I’ve said so far you didn’t already know. But I do think all of us think about it a bit more than we’d like, based on the fact that I ain’t never seen so many people here at one time before. 

I don’t know if y’all are here for Frank, or for yourselves, or for Jose but I do know y’all ain’t here to listen to me talk.  If I had one last thing to say to Frank, I’ll be honest, I don’t think I’d say it here. The best thing you could ever do for Frank was just leave him alone, and I will do just that.

The Diner

Phil’s Diner was over on the corner of Main St and Pine on the far side of town. Back then, well that’s where you’d find the stores and the restaurants and, of course, the people. On Saturdays and Sundays everyone would be wandering around, seeing what and who was going on. The town wasn’t that big yet, so we all kinda knew everyone else even if we didn’t know their names. When it got crowded it never felt crowded, everyone being polite and friendly since we knew we’d see each other again soon. 

Nowhere was as busy on a weekend morning as Phil’s Diner. There were days when all the seats at the counter were full, the few booths were overflowing and I just ate my breakfast standing around chatting. I don’t know how he did it, but Phil worked that kitchen by himself and kept up with the orders all of us threw at him. They might have had a menu, but I never saw one. Everyone knew their order and so did Phil, so if you walked in the door he started making it before you said a word. 

I can still remember the smell. You’ve been to diners before, you probably know what I mean. You could almost taste the food in the air, but it wasn’t a specific dish. A blend of bacon, eggs, hash browns, toast and coffee that would welcome you in the door and beg you to stay long after you’d finished your meal. 

Phil wasn’t a tall guy and he carried more weight than he should have, but his smile was so wide that you’d swear he was the perfect size for his soul. He had a bear hug that would squeeze the sadness right out of you, and an apron that I swear never got dirty no matter how much he was cooking. He used to say that he went bald on purpose so he didn’t have to wear a hair net, which I wouldn’t believe except it was Phil. 

Phyllis worked the counter for a while, until she had that fall and hurt her knees. Ha, Phyllis, I had forgotten how funny we all found it that Phil had married Phyllis. No one ever said anything, of course, but the smiles those two exchanged made you think they were in on the joke. Or maybe just in love, I dunno. But after Phyllis there were some folks working the counter, none for very long. Phil was the constant, always shouting at you from the kitchen or coming out front to drink a coffee and talk properly. 

Phil’s daughters worked at the diner from the time they were small, and for many years they were the main attraction. One of them would jump on the counter and sign their favorite song, or play us the fancy new music the kids were listening to those days. We all had kids of our own, but those girls were almost our kids too. If you told them a funny joke they would give you extra bacon when their dad wasn’t looking and I laughed the hardest I’ve ever laughed listening to folks try and win them over. 

Sometimes I went in during the week, or after work if I got out early. It was quieter then, just a few folks sitting around talking and nursing a late lunch, but it still had Phil. Those were the days he had time to sit with you and talk about life, and when Phil was talking to you there was no one else in the world. If you had a problem, Phil had a story for you. He’d pull in the other folks to help you, ask them what they thought and make it all seem like family. 

In the movies, it seems like people always go to bars when they are down and need help. In my experience, people go to bars to drink and get drunk. If we had problems, we went to Phil’s and we talked about them. When Annie and I were having problems having kids, we were at Phils talking it through with the other folks, who turned out to be in the same boat. After the layoffs, I went straight to Phil’s and he was there with a free coffee and an ear to hear us all out. I’ve never tried solving my problems with a beer, but let me tell you that coffee and eggs has solved many of my problems. 

I still remember when I heard, about Phil and the heart attack. All of us in town were in shock, seeing the “Closed” sign up on the diner door on a Saturday. It happened so suddenly that we felt like we lost two friends, Phil and the diner. You could tell at the funeral that no one could process the loss, as we all shuffled around looking at each other and mumbling something or other. We’d always been so open in the diner, but then what was there to say? Phyllis had the funeral on a Saturday morning, I think on purpose so we’d all get together one last time. I think she already knew what was going to happen. 

Phyllis couldn’t run the diner, what with her legs. The girls had moved on to college or jobs in the city, and they didn’t have any other family. There was talk of some people pooling their money to keep it going, but a diner is hard work for not much and that didn’t go far. Meanwhile, the diner was there with its “Closed” sign hanging in the window. I’d walk by sometimes and imagine opening that door and feeling the warmth of the grill, the smell of the food and hearing the chatter of all the voices. It’s hard to see the husk sit there, silently, and say nothing. It never opened again. 

Maybe that was for the best, Phil’s diner wasn’t really a place. You’ve been to plenty of diners and this one wasn’t much different. What made it different were the people. And Phil. Maybe Phil brought in the people or the people brought out the best in Phil, I dunno, but you went for the food and the drinks but really for the people. 

Although, all those same people are still here. I still see them walking around on the weekends, even though some of the stores have closed and restaurants too. We are still friendly, even if we don’t see each other as much. But we’re still here, so we could be the same. Maybe not at a diner, but at the coffee shop, or the bar. We could have the same conversations and talk about the same things we did. So maybe Phil’s was a place. Or a place and a time. 

All I know is that when we lost Phil we lost something else, something we still haven’t found again. They tore down the old diner a few years ago, part of a project to “rejuvenate” downtown. I’m not sure what that means, it seems like you’re losing history and replacing it with something new. In some ways it’s easier now if I walk down around there, not seeing the old building sitting quiet and dark. Somehow it’s also harder, since I see the ghost of the diner in my mind and nothing feels quite right with an office standing there. 

All this happened before you were born, we figured out that whole kids thing. It makes me sad that I’ll never get to take you into Phil’s and introduce you to all the folks. I think you would have liked singing on the counter, and getting a big bear hug from Phil. 

Turtles

It was a beautiful day in the swamp, as two turtles sunned themselves on a log.

“Say, Tony.” Said one turtle to the other. “Have you heard that saying about how home is a people, not a place?”

“Oh, god.” Sighed Tony the Turtle. “Not this again. Listen, Tania, I told you. These shells aren’t homes, they are part of us!”

“Well, that’s pretty deep.” Said Tania. “But not what I mean. Is this swamp home because our friends and family are here, or is it home because we know this place so well?”

“Tania, we’re turtles.” Said Tony. “And the next swamp is too far for us to walk. This is home because we can’t go anywhere else.”

“Yes, but what if we could?” Said Tania. “Let’s say all the swamps of the world were connected by streams and rivers so we could go wherever we please. Would we stay here or go somewhere else?”

“I’m not sure.” Tony replied, clearly never having thought about this before. “How would we know what the other swamps are like? How would we know we would like them better?”

“EXACTLY!” Shouted Tania, clearly excited. “What if our true home, our real home, is in another swamp? We would never know because we only know this swamp!”

“But even if that’s true,” Tony said, thoughtfully “we could spend the rest of our lives looking through all the swamps in the world and not find the right one. An entire life wasted searching for something. Isn’t it better to be happy with the home we have?”

“Wouldn’t life be wasted settling for a place that isn’t home?” Asked Tania, frustrated. “Wouldn’t it be sad if you spent your whole life unhappy, while home and happiness were just one swamp over? Isn’t that worth looking?”

“Maybe.” Said Tony, slowly. “But it seems to me that your time would be better spent making yourself happy in the home you have, instead of hoping there is a home out there that will make you happier. Control your own destiny.” 

“But you can’t have two homes!” Tania shouted back, clearly angry. 

“Says who? “ Asked Tony. “You have the shell on your back, this log that we use and this swamp that we know. Those all sound like homes to me. Maybe home isn’t a people or a place, home is what you make of it?”

“Bah, you don’t get it.” Tania shrugged. 

“You always say that.” Replied Tony.