by Joe Baumann
Fritz hid the wings for Otto’s wake. He donned the Ted Baker trench coat Otto gifted him nearly a decade before and which Fritz had given more care and attention than any other possession so that it still looked new, wearing it over his sports coat, beneath which the wings were pinned. When he checked himself in the bathroom mirror, they were hardly noticeable if he slouched.
The funeral home was hot, something wrong with the air conditioning, which shouldn’t have been necessary—the temperature, on an overcast day with low humidity in early April, was in the sixties—but Otto had many mourners. This should have given Fritz at least a little solace, but the tumescence of so many bodies crammed together turned the viewing room—which was ornate, bordering on gaudy, with dizzying, arabesque carpet and gilt trim along the walls—into a sauna. Fritz was quick to sweat anyway, and all the fabric made him feel like he was being cooked. He wasn’t one of those middle-aged men who carried a handkerchief, so he had to scrape the sleeve of the trench coat along his brow, leaving sweat stains in the cotton. When mourners approached, Fritz grimaced at the knowledge that his skin was mealy and slick, a clammy fist gathering around their fingers. None of them seemed to have sprouted wings in response to Otto’s death.
The viewing went well enough. Fritz didn’t cry; he’d done enough of that when Otto was in the hospital, and considering how much he was perspiring, he was sure his body had no moisture left to give. No one gave any speeches, per Otto’s request, and the only noise besides the whispering of clustered mourners was pre-recorded organ music piped in through invisible speakers.
Fritz wasn’t worried about what might happen if anyone saw the wings. Otto had sprouted his own pair, the red-yellow-blue of a scarlet macaw, when his brother died. The feathers drizzled down his back, the triangles of bone blooming through his scapulae. They appeared the morning after Sean’s death. Otto had spent the night staring upward, not sobbing, not moaning or shivering, just looking up at the silent, unmoving blades of the ceiling fan. He was unresponsive to Fritz’s exhortations and careful proddings that Otto needed to eat, or drink some water, or say something, do something, anything except tumble into the cavern of his thoughts and sorrows. The wings were already there when Fritz woke, his nose tickled by the silky feathers. He sneezed, the violence of which made Otto let out a grunt. Fritz drew the sheet back.
“Is it bad,” he said, “if I think they’re beautiful?”
Otto let out a trembling breath and shook his head. He extracted himself from bed and stood in front of their shared bureau.
“How do I get dressed with these things?” Otto said. Fritz helped him cut some holes in a ratty, white t-shirt. The feathers were smooth and elegant and flapped in quick bursts like a ticking cat’s tail when Fritz tried to maneuver them through the holes.
“I’m not doing that,” Otto said. “They’re doing it on their own.”
“I know,” Fritz said, then set his chin on Otto’s shoulder, the wings between them, fuzzing against Fritz’s bare chest. He hated that he liked how they felt. It took two months for them to vanish, disintegrating into nothing with as little fanfare as they’d appeared. Otto seemed surprised, almost disappointed, as if the loss of the wings must mean that something about the loss of his brother had changed inside him.
And then there was Fritz’s mother, who upon his father’s death had bloomed a pair of pure white wings: swan or pelican or dove or budgie parakeet. He had no idea. He didn’t ask. He and his father had never quite gotten along, Fritz suffering through tennis lessons and grade school basketball, feeling the hard fire of a spotlight on him as the coach’s son. The pressures he’d felt were ones Fritz had promised he’d never levy on his own offspring. When he and his mother saw each other for the first time after his dad’s death—Fritz had moved to Louisiana for graduate school and had been in Baton Rouge for two years—he could see the startled sorrow in her face, not only at the loss of her husband of thirty years but at the absence of wings on her son’s body. She didn’t say so, but Fritz could tell by the way she looked at him askance when she thought he wasn’t paying attention. Her discontent had so stained his father’s funeral that Fritz had been too busy trying to convince his mother that he was upset about his father’s death to truly process that the man was gone.
So the absence of any other wings at Otto’s wake didn’t bother Fritz. He knew grief worked differently in every body.
After the service was over, the paperwork signed, and the cremation scheduled, Fritz had his son Michel over to the house. He finally doffed the trench coat. The removal was sweet relief, as was the air conditioning. Fritz also tore off his sport coat, hanging it in its place in the bedroom closet. He forced himself not to linger on Otto’s button-down shirts and chinos, his tie rack full of plaid and silk designs. The community college at which Otto had spent over twenty years teaching didn’t have a dress code for faculty, but he’d taken pride in wearing a tie every day he taught, even when the Missouri weather became oppressive as summer loomed. This reminiscence made the wings twitch beneath Fritz’s white Oxford, the fabric straining. He untucked the shirt and felt the wings spring against the seams, desperate to unfurl. Michel, seeing the wings, didn’t register any surprise. If anything, he looked as Fritz had imagined he’d appeared to his mother, sheepish and sorry that Otto’s death hadn’t mustered wings of his own.
“It’s okay,” Fritz said. “I know you miss him.”
They watched an early-season Cardinals game. Per Otto’s request, there was no gathering, no bunch of mourners crammed into the living room and kitchen. No funeral sandwiches, no platters of lunch meat and cut cheeses, no former co-workers and friends clutching small cups of punch or water or something stronger. No black-clad bodies hunched and sniffling while mourning Otto through whispered stories. No endless hugs or pats on the back or young children who had no idea what the hell they were doing at a stranger’s house. Just Michel, drinking a beer from the fridge in the garage, and Fritz, leaning forward so he didn’t crush the wings against the leather sofa. They watched the Cardinals lose, and then Michel went home, though not before asking Fritz if he’d be okay on his own; he was sorry, he had a shift at the hospital that night that he’d been unable to get out of.
“It’s fine,” Fritz said, standing. The wings flapped and Michel’s eyes widened but he said nothing. “He’d want you to work. To go save some lives.”
“Let’s hope it isn’t that bad.”
Fritz tried sleeping on his side that night, but this bent the wings in weird directions and sent pain shooting up into the muscles along his spine. Lying on his back was out of the question, so he flopped onto his stomach. Otto had always slept this way, Fritz never; he felt like he was smothering himself, and when he turned his head to the side his neck ached. But the ceiling fan billowing down soft gusts of air onto the wings was nice, soothing, and so he focused on that, pretending that Otto was hovering above him, blowing down on Fritz’s skin.
He wasn’t entirely surprised, when he woke the next day, that he’d dreamt of flying. Like many people, Fritz had these dreams every now and then. He would leap from hilltops and glide out into the open sky, his stomach topsy-turvy the first time his body dipped down, but then he would spread his arms—as if they were wings—and swoop up toward the clouds and the sunshine and feel the breeze caress his cheeks. Eventually, he would stir awake and feel the plumb weight of his body pressed to the mattress, a little bit of sorrow crowding his jaw at being trapped by gravity.
He’d carried his wings into his dream. Fritz flew over his neighborhood, the houses unfamiliar from above. He followed the snake of roadways to a cemetery where Dream-Fritz knew Otto was buried. Fritz landed on a tree branch, the bark rough against his palms when he held on to steady himself. As soon as he caught his balance, the bright sunshine was replaced by ominous clouds as dark as the feathers on his back. A rainstorm cracked through the sky, lightning threatening to shudder through his bones. Then he woke.
Fritz knew the wings were an accouterment, a show, like decorative columns that did nothing to hold up an awning. Otherwise, wouldn’t people struck by grief be zipping through the sky all the time? Death stunk up the world every minute of every day, grievers feeling the sting of loss by the thousands at any given time. Whether their wings were a peregrine’s or a pigeon’s or a parakeet’s, no one had ever reported taking flight thanks to the signs of sorrow blistering out from their backs.
He squeezed his eyes shut. Fritz didn’t want to get up, face his empty house, but he wasn’t sure what else to do. His back was throbbing. He wrangled his achy body and sat up, blinking toward the window blinds. Outside, a bird was trilling out a morning song.
He was struck, then, by the opening of Otto’s favorite poem, “To a Skylark”:
Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from Heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.
Otto had not written about Shelley in his dissertation—his true love, and the subject of the monograph he’d published a few years after graduating, was William Blake—but he liked to recite that poem, all twenty-one stanzas, from memory. Otto’s voice would gather steam and he would practically be singing by the end. For many years Fritz had been bewildered by Otto’s brilliance: he knew all there was to know about the British Romantics, and his book had received significant praise and been taught in a number of undergraduate courses at universities and colleges that paid to bring him in to guest lecture or offer keynotes at conferences. And yet he’d never tried to apply for a new position after landing his job at the community college where he taught a five-five load. Fritz had always been reticent to bring the idea up, especially after they adopted Michel. He couldn’t imagine uprooting everything they knew, and Otto seemed content enough. But how could you ever know for sure? He’d never been brave enough to broach the subject, to ask Otto if he was truly happy.
Fritz heaved himself out of bed and stood before the mirrored closet doors. The wings were a pair of large black arches framing his body, the feathers thick and layered. At first, he thought they looked vulture-like, as if he was some kind of carrion bird, but now he wondered. Could they be something else? He thought of Otto’s recitations, the lilt and joy and swoop in his voice as he spoke Shelley’s poem, as if capturing the rise and dip and slip of a skylark. Fritz reached up and danced his hand along one of the wings and thought maybe he’d been wrong. The edge feathers were smooth and glossy, as if he were petting a freshly-bathed animal, the underlying hollow bone structure feeling delicate, breakable. He was tempted to squeeze it.
Not as if it really mattered. He refused to read any particular meaning into the wings. Fritz knew that what sprouted from one’s body was a matter of random chance, as were so many things. After all, what had caused cancer to erupt in Otto’s gut and spread to his lymph nodes in a swift assault that dropped him into hospice care before radiation and chemotherapy could even start to take effect? He’d been healthy, a non-smoker who barely drank and avoided too much red meat. He was the one who’d gotten Fritz into his running habits, dragging him to the gym early in the morning or late at night, pushing him through sweltering neighborhood jogs along the hilliest streets. That he’d been the one to have his body turn on him had been the ultimate demonstration of injustice as far as Fritz was concerned. And so if life could be that cruel without an explainer, what possible difference could it make what sort of wings sprouted on someone’s back in their darkest moments of grief?
Michel called after breakfast to see how Fritz was doing. His nursing job usually meant twenty-four hours on and then forty-eight hours off, but his supervisor had practically forced him out the door after twelve hours, telling him to go mourn properly, and now Michel was staring at two days of nothing. Fritz could hear in his son’s voice that he wasn’t sure what to do with endless, formless time.
“I know it’s silly. I spent days not seeing him all the time.”
“But it’s different now,” Fritz said.
“Yeah. It is. How are you holding up?”
Fritz didn’t mean to sigh. He was standing in the kitchen, where everything looked perplexingly normal: the coffee cup upturned in the drying rack; a spoon left out next to an empty cereal bowl; the ceramic dish on the kitchen island full of coins and his keys; the LED candles that Otto had habitually turned on at dusk every day.
“I’m managing. Somehow, things don’t feel much different. Which feels worse. More wrong than if things felt completely different.”
“Yeah,” Michel said. “I hear that sometimes.”
“From families? Of patients who don’t make it?”
“Yep. They feel guilty.”
The wings brushed against the kitchen island. Fritz thought to mention them but then thought better of it; no point in even obliquely bringing up the fact that he had wings and his son did not.
Sorrow wasn’t a competition.
“Do you want to come over?” Michel said. “For lunch? Toby said he’d grab sandwiches.”
“That’s nice of you, but I think I’m okay.” Fritz didn’t mention that he’d struggled to drive to and from the service yesterday with the wings pressed against the back of his seat.
“We could come to you.”
“It’s okay, really. I’ll be okay.”
Fritz opened and closed his mouth. He looked around the kitchen. He wasn’t sure what to say: yes seemed so harsh, as if he was able to brush away Otto like he was garbage. But to say no, out loud, would pierce something open that Fritz wasn’t sure he could clean up or contain.
“That’s the question, isn’t it?”
“I just want to make sure you’re okay, Dad.”
“Alright. Sandwiches it is, then.”
“We’ll be over at noon.”
Fritz had long had questions about the nature of Michel and Toby’s relationship, more out of curiosity than anything else. They’d been roommates in college and had continued living together into their twenties, sharing several two-bedroom apartments, moving around the St. Louis area—first Webster Groves, then Rock Hill, now Maryland Heights—every few years for no more reason, it seemed, than a change of scenery. Michel never brought home girlfriends in high school or college, nor did he bring home any boyfriends: just Toby, who had lived in the room next door to Michel their freshman year. Fritz had wondered aloud to Otto many times whether or not Toby might be more than a close friend, and every time Otto had sighed and said, “Does it really matter?”
“I just wonder why he wouldn’t tell us.”
“Maybe that means there’s nothing to tell.”
At noon, on the dot, Fritz heard the bump of Michel’s car humping into the driveway, the engine squealing as the car idled. Fritz watched through the front window as his son emerged, tall and lanky, sandy hair bleached lighter by the spring sun. Toby was nearly his exact opposite:
Mediterranean skin, black hair, shorter but not tiny by any means, strong-muscled from playing defensive tackle in high school. He worked at a pharmaceutical company doing studies involving lymphoma, something too complicated and specific for Fritz to understand.
Fritz opened the door before they could ring the bell. Toby didn’t flinch at the wings; Michel must have warned him. Instead, he was quick to wrap an arm around Fritz’s shoulder, just above the wings, and give him a squeeze, apologizing for having to miss the service.
“I flew in from a conference last night.”
“It’s okay,” Fritz said as Toby let him go. “It was really just a show.”
They sat at the dining room table. Fritz watched Michel look around. He tried to see the space through his son’s eyes; this was the house he’d grown up in, a modest sixteen hundred square foot three-bedroom with admittedly thin-ish walls and not a lot of space: the kitchen and dining area were separated from the living room by the open-style basement stairs and a wall cut-out; the two bathrooms shared a wall and mirrored one another. Escape to one’s private quiet hadn’t been easy, even with only three of them in the house.
“It’s strange,” Fritz said, “isn’t it?”
“How normal everything looks.”
Michel nodded. Toby passed out the sandwiches. Before him, Fritz found a meatball sub, his favorite. The mozzarella was still gooey. He nodded his approval at the first bite, full of basil and garlic and paprika. They ate in silence, bread crunching between their teeth, napkins wiped across lips, tongues dragging dribbles of sauce from the corners of their mouths.
When they were finished, Toby gathered up the empty slabs of butcher paper sprinkled with caramelized onions and crumbs. He moved about the kitchen with familiar ease after years of visits, tossing the detritus into the trash can beneath the sink and grabbing paper towels to wipe down the table despite Fritz’s attempts to protest.
by Tomislav Silipetar
Joe Baumann’s is the author of three collections of short fiction, Sing With Me at the Edge of Paradise, The Plagues, and Hot Lips. His fiction and essays have appeared in Third Coast, Passages North, Phantom Drift, and many others. He possesses a PhD in English from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. He was a 2019 Lambda Literary Fellow in Fiction. His debut novel, I Know You’re Out There Somewhere, is forthcoming from Deep Hearts YA. He can be reached at joebaumann.wordpress.com.
In 2014, Silipetar graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb in the class of Igor Rončević- Painting Department. In 2015 he became a member of HDLU. In addition to many group exhibitions, he had a number of solo exhibitions in Croatia as well as in the other countries. He is the winner of the rector’s award for excellence in 2013. His paintings are mostly made in acrylic, and the themes vary from solitude and isolation to human existence in the society that condemns. It favors the simple colors, and the line that goes perfectly with the total preoccupation of getting out of the ‘boxes’ of academy.