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Frankie

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I’ve never been to a funeral home before, and I’ve never seen a dead person in a coffin before. I’m ten years old and tonight will be my first time, and I have to admit it, I’m pretty scared. My mom’s taking me with her to pay respects to our neighbor’s son, Frankie. Frankie was killed in Iraq and came home last week in a coffin. It was only four months ago that Frankie left for Iraq, and I know he didn’t want to go. He tried to hide it, but he was scared. His parents had a party for him the night before he left and I saw him in his backyard, sitting in a lounge chair with his head in his hands. Everybody else was inside and Frankie was out there all alone. My parents were at the party and I was supposed to be in our house doing my homework. I was putting our dog out to go to the bathroom and that’s when I looked over and saw Frankie. I ran up to the fence line and called his name. He didn’t look up so I called him again, thinking he hadn’t heard me. After a minute or two, Frankie slowly raised his head and then I could see that he’d been crying, but he smiled his big happy smile at me and said “Hey there, little lady.” I blushed with pleasure and smiled my biggest smile at him. Everyone knew (Frankie knew, I’m sure) that I had a crush on him even though he was so much older than me. He always teased me and called me “little lady” and I just loved it when he did. Anyway, I climbed over the fence and sat down next to him. He had his full dress Marine uniform on, and boy did he look super-cute! We were quiet for awhile, just looking up at the night sky together, staring at all the stars. I finally asked Frankie if he was afraid of going away to Iraq, and he winked at me and said that the only thing he was afraid of was that he wasn’t going to be around this summer to protect me from all the neighborhood boys who would be chasing after me. I really blushed then and we both laughed. Then his mom came out and told him he had to go back inside, that everyone had come to see him and say goodbye, and he should be with the guests, not hiding outside. I still had homework to do, so Frankie gave me a big hug and asked me to write him letters while he was in Iraq. He told me to sign them “Little Lady” because that was his special nickname for me …
 
I just sent my first letter to him a month ago. I wonder if he got a chance to read it before he died. I sure hope so.
 
It’s time to go to the funeral home. I’m dressed up in my best Sunday-church clothes and as my mom drives, she’s really quiet and sad and I can see tears glistening in her eyes. Daddy isn’t with us because he’s out of town on a business trip, but mom says he’d seen enough of his friends go home in a coffin from his war (Vietnam) and that my daddy never, ever wanted to see another man in uniform in a coffin again. Frankie was only twenty-one and too young to die in this Goddamn war, that’s what my daddy said when we first heard the news about Frankie.
 
When we get to the funeral home I’m so nervous I feel like I might throw up, but I take a big breath and hold onto my mom’s hand as we walk inside and sign the guest book. The funeral home is packed with people but only a few other little kids like me. The smell of flowers is pretty awful and everyone is talking really quiet to each other and crying, or looking like they’ve been crying. The coffin is in the front of the room. My mom tells me I don’t have to go close to it if I don’t want to. I tell her it’s okay, that I’m going to be brave. I want to do this for my Frankie. My mom puts her arm around me as we walk up to the coffin and kneel down beside it together. I just can’t bear to look at first so I hide my face in my hands and say a prayer, and then I hear my mom, and when I open my eyes she’s smiling. “Look, baby, look at that,” she whispers, tilting my face to look at Frankie in his coffin. I don’t want to, but I look, and it’s such a shock! He just looks asleep, like I’ve seen him so many times in the summers, in a lounge chair in his backyard getting a suntan. He’s in his Marine uniform and there’s a rosary clasped in his folded hands. I can’t stop staring, almost expecting him to open his eyes and smile at me, just like he always used to do. But then I see what my mom really wanted to show me: right next to the coffin is a stand covered with pictures of Frankie, at his high school graduation, at holiday parties, and summer barbeques, laughing and surrounded by family and friends, playing baseball and football. And then there it is—a big picture of Frankie and me sitting together in the backyard the night of that party. Someone inside must’ve taken the picture because it’s out of focus, but we’re both smiling, our faces tilted up, looking at the night sky together. The inscription beneath the photo says “Frankie and his favorite little lady.” And that’s when I stop holding it all in. I know I can stop being so brave, and I finally start to cry.

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