· ESSAYS

Mikal Gilmore

On Friday, April 30, I received a call around 5 p.m. from a hospice in Canby, Oregon, where my older brother Frank has lived in recent years. The call informed me that he had just died. The nurse who gave me the news was badly shaken. He had seemed tired but in good spirits just an hour before, she told me. Frank was 81.

I had been planning to see him come the middle of May, though that may have been hindered since Oregon now has the fastest-growing Covid rate in the U.S., the county where he resided in particular. Indeed, that development prevented Elaine and I from visiting the Portland area to make funeral arrangements. I had to settle for a memorial center conducting a cremation and sending his ashes to me.

Frank was the last member of the family I was born into, excepting me—a family that in a better world should not have happened. Now, though, living in the arms of my wife Elaine and her family—including her grandson, baby Aiden, born in the early days of the pandemic and now toddling all over the house squealing gleefully—sustains me during whatever is left of my own mortal passage, and brings new meanings.

Frank loved Elaine, and he took delight when, during a video call on his last birthday, I was able to introduce him to Aiden. “After all that we went through with our family,” he told me, “I’m glad that one of us has now found a better one, a true one.”

It is, as the poet said, life and life only. Even after it ends.

The day after Frank died I looked back at something I’d written about him after a December 2019 visit to Canby, which is what The Journal is offering here.

Frank's Story

Frank Gilmore, 1950s

“Do you recognize this guy?” the nurse said to my brother when she rolled him in his wheelchair to greet me at the assistive care facility.

Frank was beaming, dressed in a royal red holiday sweater. “I sure do,” he said. “It’s good to see you, Mikal. Come join me at lunch.”

Frank’s caretakers had contacted me a short while back, telling me my oldest brother was in hospice and suggesting I come for a visit. Elaine and I made the arrangements as quickly as possible, navigating around the holidays and her own travel. I arrived at the Portland Airport the night of Sunday, December 1, then endured the fuckestry of Uber, who wouldn’t take me anywhere due to some unpaid fare that I simply hadn’t incurred, forcing me to sustain a taxi ride that was three times the expense.

As Elaine can tell you, I’m ready to bolt anytime something unexpected comes up regarding a trip. I don’t like traveling—especially alone—and to be honest, this trip scared the hell out of me. This was a journey to commune with the last bit of my bloodline. Which also meant, of course, that I couldn’t bolt for any reason. So I took the long ride to Canby and checked into my Motel 6—a place that does not leave the lights on for you, despite the promise.

The word hospice portended funereal to me. I’d thought about entering one myself, when I received a Stage IV cancer diagnosis in 2015, but Elaine wouldn’t hear of it. I imagined a hospice as severe though caring at the same time. A barebones place, almost like a tomb with blankets and medical tubes.

Canby seemed the ideal place for such an asylum. It was the last town down the line before you got to the last town down the line. My motel was feet from timeworn railroad tracks, running the length of a First Street that was grimmer than any of those isolated avenues conjured by Sherwood Anderson, Carson McCullers, or Thornton Wilder. This was a place that time had forgotten, if it ever embraced it in the first place.

Incongruously, these train tracks and streets were lined with vivid and inviting blue-lit two-story Christmas trees, while storefronts illuminated the sidewalks with antiquated plastic Santa and nativity displays. But it was like a holiday display for nonexistence: Nobody walked these streets on any of the nights I wandered there. I didn’t see a soul roaming, just a steady stream of cars. I passed by Chinese restaurants and taverns that looked darker inside than the night outside. Through their windows I saw solitary forms. The sight reminded me of some horror story I’d read long ago by Dennis Etchison, about night places occupied by desiccated husks. You shouldn’t enter unless you were willing never to leave.

As a result, when I went to see Frank the next morning I think I was expecting his shelter to be akin to Collinwood Mansion in the old Gothic soap "Dark Shadows." Instead, I found a clean, well-lighted place, sparkling with holiday decorations and bustling with efficient and kind attendants.

Frank offered to buy me lunch and asked about Elaine. Was she with me? I explained she couldn’t come on this trip. He was disappointed. “That’s too bad,” he said. “You’d probably be happier with her here. She’s a smart and attractive woman. You married well, and you married somebody smart and half of your age.” I let that one go by. He was right on one count, after all.

Then Frank said, “Have you seen Mom yet on this trip?” That one stopped me. Our mother—Bessie—was born in 1913. If she were alive, she would be 106. Instead, she’d died in 1980. Frank had been one of the last people to see her alive. He rushed her to the hospital when her mouth abruptly erupted in blood, maybe like my mouth did a few years ago one night, just before I learned I had cancer.

Gary Gilmore, Mikal's brother, with their mother Bessie

Frank’s question wasn’t any kind of jest. He wore a concerned look. I knew he had recently suffered memory problems, but nonetheless I quickly found myself maneuvering through confusing and delicate territory, and I didn’t feel adept.

I said, “No, Frank, I’m only seeing you on this trip.”

“Well, that’s kind of you. I won’t tell her I’ve seen you. She would get mad knowing you saw me but not her.”

I spooned at the soup in front of me, trying to figure how to change the subject. Then Frank asked, “How about Dad? Do you ever hear from him? I never hear from Dad.”

Our father, Frank Harry Gilmore (Frank is named after him) was born in 1893—one-hundred and twenty-six years ago. He was 47 when Frank was born in 1940, and he died in 1960—nearly sixty years before this day and hour that we were speaking in. I told my brother the truth: I had not heard from our father in a long time.

Frank asked the same about our brother Gaylen. “I sure wish he would come see me. I always liked Gaylen.”

Then Frank asked—though I realized it was coming—the question I now dreaded most: “Do you know where Gary is?”

The Executioner's Song

Gary Gilmore's drawing of his girlfriend Nicole Barrett, an unforgettable character in Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song.

Gary, one year younger than Frank, died in January 1977 when he was 36, at the hands of an Utah firing squad, for two murders he had committed months before. Frank and I had been the last members of our immediate family to see him, in visits on death row during the last days of his life.

Our brother died famous: His death reintroduced the death penalty to America, and it took place because he insisted upon it. Gary withdrew all appeals and pursued in the courts to be put to death. We were all sundered, but maybe Frank was sundered the most. He left Utah that week without telling me or Gary.

Years later Frank and I visited Salt Lake City and Provo together, and Frank bore witness to me about a horror that had started when Gary was still a baby. Frank clearly loved Gary, but also clearly hated him. He couldn’t forgive our brother for what he had done—to the men he murdered or to our family. I couldn’t either. Where Frank and I parted ways about Gary was that Frank thought it was fitting he had been executed. I did not.

“I think I heard Gary is in Utah,” Frank said. “Do you think he will stay there?”

I answered truthfully: “Yes, Frank, I think Gary will stay in Utah,” though in fact I had in my company all that was left of Gary Gilmore—his bones—in a jar at home, on a windowsill.

“It’s good he’s in Utah,” Frank said. “I hope he’s found a girl, settled down, raising a family. I thought the world of Gary—we grew up together. But he carried so much anger in him. I’m afraid Dad made him that way. I hope the Mormons over there aren’t too hard on him. I hope he’s found some peace. Do you think he has?”

“Yes, Frank, I think Gary has found as much peace as he ever could hope for. I think it will last him.”

“That’s good. I always worry about him. If you hear from Gary tell him I’m thinking of him.”

This was how our first visit went. New ways of circumnavigating boneyards and brutal history. Frank had glimmers of the family pain but he could no longer remember the worst parts of it. I left his care home shaken that day.

I went back at night. Frank wanted to sit and watch TV. He had a beautiful large screen. He said, good-naturedly, “I never remember what I watch, but I watch it anyway. Or I sit here and read about the history of magic and practice my tricks.” He had a desk full of several decks of beautiful magic playing cards arrayed before him, in pristine shape.

We settled on a boxing match featuring fighters Tony Harrison and Jermell Charlo in a Junior Middleweight World Title match. It turns out the bout had already occurred but was being aired again as lure for an upcoming rematch. I hadn’t seen any of these encounters before and they were good fights. These were careful, scientific boxers, not muscle-minded brutes and brawlers, and they were well-matched. Both were careful, though Charlo seemed a little more aggressive, maybe more dominant. Still, it appeared the fight could break either way. We were truly engrossed.

Then Frank surprised me again: He began to narrate the fight nonstop—naming the kinds of punches being thrown, who was better at finding an opening, taking an opportunity, who was foolish. In effect he was calling the fight, as much to himself as to me.

At one moment he said, “Did you see that? The guy with the orange hair [Charlo] moved so quickly you’d miss it if you blinked, but I think he hurt the other guy just now.” Charlo had.

Then it all came back to me: Frank and I used to watch boxing matches all the time. Indeed, it was my brother who taught me how to watch boxing for style and stamina, for grace and edge and energy, for form and ballet. He taught me everything I knew about observing fights, and it had stayed with me.

This night, though, we were coming to different conclusions. The match went its full twelve rounds. It seemed razor close to me, but I was pretty sure that Charlo had won on points, given his assertive momentum at various points. Frank didn’t think so.

“Nah,” said my brother, “the other guy [Harrison] won. I’ll bet you anything. It will be unanimous.” Frank was right—though many viewers saw it the same way I did. That’s why a rematch, which may be on for December 21, is so avidly anticipated.

My brother and I watched two more 12-round matches that night. Frank was confident, masterfully observant. I sat back and listened, trying to see the action through his eyes, trying to learn from him again.

The next day I was back for lunch again. The questions of the day before were repeated. Time and again Frank asked if I’d seen our mother or Gaylen, if I knew where our father and Gary were. Why didn’t anybody come to see him? Didn’t they know he was so lonely? I never lied to him but I didn’t tell him that any of them—all of them—were dead. I didn’t know what the impact would be, and whether I’d be upsetting him with disclosures he’d forget anyway five minutes later. It tore at me to see him in anguish over the absence of these people who had hurt and desolated him his whole life.

Still, when Frank turned to his memories of him and me, our relationship and experiences over the years, he rarely had that same unfilled space. His recall was as vivid and detailed as mine. He relished those times. “We were good together. We went everywhere—on walks, to movies, on trips.” I began to see here a pattern of how his heart and mind might be functioning when it came to his history, how he might be choosing unconsciously what he could hold on to or forget.

That same afternoon Frank’s caretakers—his nurse and counselors—invited me into a conference room to advise me better about my brother’s condition and prospects. I related to them all I’ve written about here so far, and said that despite his amnesia or dementia—despite Frank’s confusion about missing family—he seemed nonetheless in good spirits. That is, he seemed better than I’d anticipated, though that could have been due to my visit. But then they laid it out for me. “Your brother has perhaps six months left.” That froze me. They went on to detail matters about his condition I won’t repeat here. They also added that there was nothing certain in their forecast. They had seen residents endure for seasons, or even leave hospice.

I already knew all this on one level, but I’d hoped for more. The caretakers also were looking to convince both Frank and me that I should assume power of attorney for him, for the eventuality that he might no longer prove capable of making his own decisions. That was when Frank wheeled into the room.

He knew we were discussing something serious about him and he did not want to be excluded. So the care team brought up these matters with him, without telling him about his six-month prognosis. The counselor who had called me a couple of weeks before said, “Frank, we have no instructions or authority for what we should do with you in final matters. For instance, what would you like us to do with your remains?”

Frank appeared baffled. “My remains?”

The counselor went on, gently but clearly. “Yes, your remains. What would you like us to do with the remains of you, should your life end while you are here? Right now we don’t have any clear directions.”

Frank swallowed, looked down at his folded hands on the conference tabletop, then said: “What I’d like to direct you to do with my remains is take them somewhere, bring them back to life, then get me back here in time for dinner. I really like this place.”

Everybody at the table gaped at him, except me. They weren’t sure what to say. After all, Frank is sometimes detached from reality. But this was the Frank I’d grown up with: irreverent, able to cut through formality in ways that might discomfit everybody else in the picture. I saw him do it even before I was born: Shot in the Heart’s original cover photo of my family—an American gothic portraying my father, mother, Frank, Gary and Gaylen, but not me (there was never a photo of us as an entire family; for a long time that troubled me; I felt left out, but by the time I was done writing the book I was grateful for the exclusion)—that original cover had to be scrapped because Frank was pulling a goofball, side-eyed face and self-delighted smile. Instead, I found a sober version of the same scene.

The Gilmore family. Frank and Bessie with Frank Jr. at left, Gary, and Galen.

In many family and school photos, Frank liked to undercut moments that others thought deserved respect with a mocking countenance that he saw as better deserved. “You spoiled the moment,” I remember my father and mother saying when they saw his cross-eyed expressions in developed photos. Actually, Frank was revealing a truth: This family does not deserve the respect that they aim to command.

That’s what Frank was doing in the conference room at the assisted living center. It was a great relief. I cracked up, and my brother winked at me. He said that he indeed wanted me to have sole power of attorney. He signed his name in a meticulous and stately cursive: Frank H. Gilmore. I signed mine in my typically ugly scrawl, resembling two cockroaches fucking angrily.

Nonetheless, there were details about this arrangement that unsettled my brother. They had to do with my authority to obtain his veteran records. Frank had been drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War. He was an active member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses at the time and the faith was conscientiously opposed to war and participation in any form of it. Frank had told the draft board he was willing to compromise: He’d serve in the Army—he’d work as a medic—but he would not carry arms. He would not kill other people.

A draft officer said that could be arranged but it never was. When my brother refused to train with rifles or bear any weapons, he was court-martialed and sentenced to the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth. In time, Oregon Senator Wayne Morse obtained my brother’s release.

But Frank understandably remains bitter, though doesn’t know why. Or at least he seemed to have no recall this afternoon, sitting in the care center’s conference room, of his court-martial or imprisonment. Later, when it was just me and Frank’s caretakers, I apprised them about his military history and its likely bearing on his antipathy toward veterans’ benefits, even if Frank no longer recalled his time in Leavenworth.

That night Frank asked me the same questions about our family that he’d mocked in photos: Had I visited our mother? Why didn’t our father and our brother Gaylen visit him? Was Gary now better off—finally walking a straight line clear of violence and trouble?

He posed those queries a dozen times.I never lied to him or offered false remedy to what was eating at him. Frank knew something was amiss—a vital part of his frame of reference was missing. Instead, I tried to explore what remembrances and feelings he retained about those relationships. When he’d respond he was clear and accurate: He knew well their faults. He recounted how they had hurt each other, how they had used or discarded him, how our family’s damage spilled out and hurt others.

He didn’t recall that they had all fallen into dust one by one, or that Gary had murdered innocent men then insisted that the State of Utah put him to death for those killings. I wasn’t about to tell him. I’ve had to explain these matters to so many people over the years, to examine and try to account for my family’s sins. It was interesting, and a relief, not to have to do so now with the only person that knew all that better than I did—and not because he recalled it, but because he no longer could. He was still able to get to the heartbreaking stuff, but not its endings and verdicts. We’d talk like we were exploring secrets and enigmas. Though I now recalled more than Frank did, I still had never truly fathomed those mysteries. Even so, as we probed that history again, I learned something new every hour.

We also turned to other obsessions. The truth is, Frank asked me more questions about Elaine than about anybody else. He had met her twice—once in 2016, during a family vacation to Portland, as I was still recovering from my cancer treatment and was then laid low in our hotel room with a kidney infection. He encountered Elaine for the first time in the hospital. They got along well and talked candidly.

He met her again the following year, when we visited Portland for a Willie Nelson show and took him to the event. Frank didn’t remember the concert—he’d ask me repeatedly what Elaine does for a living, always surprised, and impressed, to learn that she works with Willie Nelson (whose music Frank loves, despite not recalling that outdoor performance my wife took him to). But Elaine herself Frank remembered quite well. She left him with a fascinated impression.

“She’s so young and beautiful.” I once told him she wasn’t quite as young as he thought, but he didn’t believe me. He was then shocked to learn Elaine has three adult children. How was that possible? Did she have them as a teenager? When did she and I meet? (1977). How long have we been together as a couple? (Eighteen years.) What year did we marry? (2009).

I don’t think Frank ever quite assimilated this information. “How old are you then, Mikal?” Sixty-eight, I told him. “No, how can that be? That would make you older than me.” Frank is in fact 79, but I wasn’t going to press that. I said instead, apologetically, that I was never good at math.

“What do you and your wife do for fun?” I said that, since getting our dog, Ruby (I showed him a picture and he said, “Is that a real dog? It looks just like that stuffed Lady toy from Lady and the Tramp that you had when you were little”), we now spend a lot of time with our family and the Goldendoodle. We don’t go out that much. Sometimes we watch crime stories on TV. Frank thought I meant crime drama (Elaine in fact prefers true crime) and turned on his TV. He came across a CSI. “I like these because I can always solve them before these stupid cops can, even if I can’t remember a damn thing about the mystery or what I’m solving.” I told him I did too, about almost all mystery fiction that Elaine and I watched. “I think we got that from Dad,” Frank said—and I think he’s right. Our father always spoiled endings for us with his deductive abilities.

“Can Elaine do that?”

“No, she cannot,” I replied. “It drives her crazy that I can. Sometimes she doesn’t believe that I know how a mystery will end. I try not to spoil it for her, but then when she begs me to tell her the solution, I of course have no choice. She doesn’t always believe me. But when I’m proven right, she says, ‘I hate you.’” Frank got a kick out of that. He wanted to learn as much about Elaine as possible. Telling him her flaws as a mystery-solver perhaps humanized her a bit for him. I know it does for me.

Elaine was now an essential element of my bond with Frank. “None of the rest of us—not me or Gary or Gaylen—married and raised children. That’s good—the family screwed us up too much; we would have been terrible as husbands and parents. I think Elaine has blessed you. She provided you a love and family we couldn’t. She was good to you in a way you always deserved but that our family didn’t give you. I think she saved you, MIkal.” Frank’s moments of clarity could be like beatitudes. He was helping tie the same circle for me that Elaine had.

I visited again on Wednesday and Thursday, in early afternoons and all evening. I became a bit better at talking with my brother about our family’s history. One afternoon we sat in a lovely library den lined with hardbound Reader’s Digest compendiums. RD had condensed Shot in the Heart in 1994 (and did a terrific job of it). I wondered if it was on the care center’s bookshelves but never found it.

Frank repeated his questions about our family’s neglect of him, yet we were able to inch more deeply into emotional dynamics. He now had vivid recall of many events, both good-humored and bleak. In truth, he had lost much of his bitterness against these people who had hurt him—who in effect never really visited his life with the love and reinforcement he deserved and needed. The withholding of that affection had driven him more inside, more alone, shutting off the potential of his fine mind and kind heart.

Inevitably, we touched on instances Frank had relayed to me in Shot in the Heart. As I told his support team, I never could’ve written that book without the input of my brother’s far-reaching memory and eye for keen detail and most important, without his attesting to awful events that culminated in physical and psychic ruin for us both and for others, and that still reverberate for both us and others. Many times in our visits we enjoyed the grace and help of laughter. Other times we came to the impasses made of ruin that we’d known over and over in our lives.

In particular, Frank kept circling around the star-crossed relationship between our father and Gary. In a way that is really all that Shot in the Heart is about—how my father punished Gary their entire lives together for something Gary couldn’t have helped, and how Gary both hated my father for his hard-heartedness and fought the battle against paternal authority until it executed my brother.

“Gary would’ve killed Dad if he could,” Frank said, then related the times he had saved our father from Gary’s rage. He recalled one day when both he and I had intervened—at our home on Oatfield Road, in Milwaukie, Oregon, during my father’s final weeks in 1962, as he was dying of cancer. It took place during one of the last afternoons we were all together as a family under the same roof. As Frank recollected the event, his telling was close enough to the episode as it appears in the book that I’ll simply cite that passage at length here:

Gary was using drugs a lot in these days—uppers, grass, cough syrup, some heroin, plus plenty of alcohol—and he was coming and going at odd hours, bringing strangers around, who sat waiting in his car outside. I never liked the faces I saw on those men. I felt as if they were a danger, just waiting for entrance to our house.

 

One afternoon, when we are all at home, Gary asked my father for some money. My father was in a bad mood—the cancer was making him nauseous—and he told Gary: “Why the hell can’t you get a job and make your own money, like other adult men? Why can’t you stay the hell out of trouble for five minutes, you goddamn son of a bitch?”

 

That was all it took. Immediately, Gary and my father were embroiled in one of their terrifying shouting matches, and as had now become our custom, the rest of us removed ourselves to an upstairs room to wait for the storm to blow over.

 

Only this time, I could tell, it might not end easy. I heard a mean edge and slur in Gary’s voice that frightened me, and I heard a helplessness in my father. I think Gary must have sensed that as well, because he was making threats about tearing the house apart if he didn’t get what he wanted. I turned to my mother and Frank and Gaylen and asked them if somebody would please go down and stop the fight. 

 

They looked at me and quietly shook their heads. They had seen plenty of these fights, and they knew better than to try to get in the middle of them. I went down to the kitchen myself. My father was seated at the kitchen table, dressed in his bathrobe, and he looked gray-faced and exhausted. Gary was wearing his black raincoat and straw porkpie and was standing across the room, leaning against the kitchen counter.

 

“I want the goddamn money,” said Gary.

 

“And I want you to get the hell out of my house and never come back,” my father said, as forcibly as he could muster the words.

 

Gary picked a glass up off the counter and hurled it at my father. If my father had not moved his head quickly, the glass would have hit him in the face. Instead, it smashed against the wall behind him and shattered all over his head and shoulders. My father looked up and saw me watching all this and said: “Get out of here.”

 

I ran back upstairs to my mother and brothers. “You have to do something,” I said. “Gary is going to kill him.”

 

Frank got up and went down and stood between Gary and my father. “Leave him alone, Gary,” he said. “Can’t you see he’s too weak to fight?” Gary shoved at Frank. Frank shoved back. Gary hit Frank in the face. Frank returned the blow. Then the two of them were brawling, furniture and dishes flying all over the place.

 

“I’m not a great fighter,” Frank told me later. “I’m not tough. But Gary knew almost nothing about fighting. He was strong but he was also awkward. If he got hold of you he could hurt you, but I made sure that he didn’t, and I was coming out ahead.”

 

Then my mother entered the fray. She came into the room with a broom and started to hit Frank Jr. over the head with it, saying: “Stop this, you’ve gone far enough. I’ve called the police on you, Frank—I want you out of here.” 

 

Both Frank and Gary stopped fighting and looked up, startled, at my mother. “Leave Gary alone,” she told Frank once more. 

 

Frank looked deeply wounded, got up off the floor and walked out of the house, slamming the front door behind him. My mother sat Gary in a chair, dabbed the blood off his face, and handed him a wad of twenty-dollar bills. “Now please leave before the police get here,” she said. “I’ll take care of everything.”

 

Frank Jr. came back after midnight. My mother had gone to bed, but my father was sitting up at the kitchen table, still in pain. When my father saw Frank walk in, he said: “I want to thank you, son, for what you did today.”

 

Frank Jr. was a little drunk by this time and was still stinging about the way his mother had thrown him out of the house. “Man,” he said, “I didn’t think Mom would ever call the cops on me. I was trying to help.”

 

My father said: “She didn’t call them on anybody. She just said that to stop the fight. She couldn’t very well say she had called them on Gary, because who knows what he would have done? He would take that real serious, because she’s the person he feels he can always trust. He might have killed one of us at that point. So she said she called them on you, just to get things straightened out.”

 

Frank thought about it and decided it all made sense. Nobody could confront Gary. They had to protect him and themselves at the same time. He finally decided it was one of the smarter things his mother had ever done.

After Frank retold this incident during my visit in his Canby room, he finally made a breakthrough. “I felt bad that Gary and Dad could never reconcile before Dad died. I’ve always thought that, in some way, that afternoon had something to do with why Gary killed those two men in Utah years later.”

Frank stunned me here: Until now, he hadn’t acknowledged our father’s death nor Gary’s murders on this trip, and now he allowed to both at the same time. Also, Frank said something I’d never realized but will now wonder about until the eve of my own ending: Did the thwarted violence of that day figure at all into Gary’s murder of two young innocent men in Utah, in summer 1977? Of course it did. The battles with my father figured into almost all of Gary’s destructive moments.

Gary Gilmore at his arraignment, 1976

Christmas

During the whole time in Canby I’d wanted to visit downtown Portland. I looked forward to seeing the city’s holiday tree and lights at night—something I hadn’t done in years. I kept trying to figure out available time and travel, and hoping to round up and see friends at a bar or coffee shop. But then my brother Frank told me that on Thursday evening there would be Christmas carolers at his assisted living center. I thought, What more could I wish for? As they say about wishes, be careful.

When I arrive the program is underway. I sit next to my brother. I’m happy to be there. Then I glance around at the audience, which is maybe ten people. They appear, for the most part, to be in their eighties. All are in wheelchairs and are wearing serious expressions. Maybe they are listening for something in these lyrics that they have heard thousands of times—some familiar assurance—or perhaps some new promise. Maybe some wonder if this will be the last time they hear these words and melodies. This is all in contrast to the worship and rejoicing of the singers. Nobody listening joins in song.

I’m more somber now. There is a due smattering of applause after each carol. Then I hear something unexpected: a low voice saying, “Booo! Booo!” What? My hearing can be tricky. Certainly nobody here would be making that sound for an occasion like this—would they?

But again: “Booo!” I peer around and...it’s my brother. He has his hand cupped to his mouth, smiling mischievously. I realize no one else can hear him—or is meant to—but me.

“Frank! That’s kind of rude!”

“Was that me making that sound?”

“Yes—and shhh!”

A minute later he says—a little more loudly—to a singer wearing reindeer antlers, “Are those your real ears?” She doesn’t register it. Dear lord. It’s another demonstration of him as an irreverent goofball, a smart ass. He is in his element. “Frank, this is almost over. Can you just stifle it for a little bit longer?”

“Sure, MIkal, sure. I wouldn’t want to embarrass you.”

“Thank you. I thought you looked forward to this.”

“This will be our last song,” one of the carolers finally says. “At least you didn’t throw any tomatoes or rotten apples at us!”

Dear god, I think. Frank doesn’t fail me. “If we’d known you were coming—but they didn’t pass any out to us,” he says, more loudly this time, laughing.

“Frank,” I say, in a hushed voice, “you know how you don’t remember things that well anymore? How come you remember how to be such a smart aleck?”

“I guess some gifts are just forever,” he says. “Anyway, do you think those are that woman’s real ears?”

The next day, Friday, is my last visit with Frank. He is a little down. I know it’s because I’m leaving in the early evening to return to Los Angeles. “These days have really meant a lot to me, Mikal,” he says. He wonders more about why the others in our family never visit him. He has no conception about the reality of respective ages. It’s as if he had ended up in this place in the early 1960s, while we were all still alive, when we were in physical proximity though emotionally far apart, and unwilling to lessen that distance.

As we talk there’s a true crime show on TV—an account of a murder in a military prison that investigators suspected as racially motivated. Frank tells me about the animus he saw in Leavenworth and how he was savagely hurt by a white prisoner when he wouldn’t join in an attack on a black inmate. This surprises me—I’d never had any inkling before of such disturbances from Frank, but the pain that contorts his face as he shares the story is real enough.

“I was in prison because I wouldn’t carry a gun or participate in war and violence,” he said. “I wasn’t going to hurt a person simply because somebody else hated him for his race. I got pummeled badly for that, more than once. Guards usually looked the other way unless it might cause a riot that made trouble for them. But I got roughed up badly enough that I finally got moved to another prison wing.”

I recall that when Frank got out of prison he was like another man for a long time. He’d felt betrayed by the Jehovah’s Witnesses who didn’t come to his defense; by Gaylen, who had stolen Frank’s savings from his bedroom while Frank was jailed; by a government that took away his spirit and momentum. I’m not sure he was ever the same after that.

Frank got hurt a lot and yet he regained enough faith and strength to remain loyal to us all, to care for us, to stand by everybody as, one by one, they died. Now he no longer remembered their deaths, but he understood that the family had been one long dissolution, and here he was, stranded, alone, waiting for something. A visit. A sign of love, a promise of company.

There was the presence of losses so terrible that when Frank and I were together, we could never overcome the holes they left for us in time and love. We had been part of the sort of family system that should never have happened, yet does far too often. The unacknowledged norm. Every time my brother and I were in each other’s presence we couldn’t help but be aware of the immense lacuna in our story. If anything, that lacuna was our shared entity. As I say, Frank and I are what is left of a family that was an epitome of what flesh and blood should not be: a unit that is a genealogy of violence—a descent of depression, a descent into death, or both. As I wrote years ago, it is heartrending my parents ever had children at all.

“I’m glad you got out of all this,” Frank said, “that you found Elaine and that you have a family with her. You made amends for us.” I didn’t tell Frank the ways in which I’d failed Elaine and my new family. I’d let down chances that perhaps I’d earned, though maybe not. I haven’t given up, but there’s much that even now I don’t understand about my own unfinished heart.

Frank is in a different place. He wonders why he is deserted but doesn’t know that it is ghosts that abandoned him. It is only ghosts that could visit him—except for me. Frank forgets fundamental knowledge about people that never respected or heeded him enough, never loved him in any way that saved him. He forgets that they are dead. Therefore their ongoing motivations for being absent from his life remain mysteries. That is, he has forgotten the ends of what has hurt him.

What he knows instead is that the others in our family still hurt him—they are out there somewhere, neglecting him. His ongoing conception of our family is like my night dreams of them: They are still alive. In my dreams, I know that their lives—though dead—are unacceptable and frightening. In these moments, awake or dreaming, Frank and I are in the noumenal world. The noumenal is not all it’s cracked up to be.

My brother remembers me as somebody kindlier than those wraiths. I don’t think I wholly deserve that, but I’m here, to tell him I love him, to witness him, to affirm him for what he is and always has been: the sole hero in my family’s history. The one whose suffering signifies what love should be.

 

In our last visit he asks me, “Why did Dad hate Gary so much? What went so wrong between them that ended up hurting everybody else?”

I could give Frank the answer to this. In fact, I once did, many years ago. At the end of Shot in the Heart I wrote: [Gary’s] bones aren’t the only thing I brought back from Utah. I also brought back the knowledge of a secret that I found truly devastating and that I did not know what to do with.

Everything is Hard to Talk About

Nicole Barrett on Gary Gilmore: "I felt like I had always known him. And I felt like I had always loved him."

I had first learned about this secret from the taped interviews that Larry Schiller and Norman Mailer loaned me. In a conversation between Schiller and my Aunt Ida, Ida had told him about something that had happened a long time before. It was during the time when my father had been in prison, and my mother had taken Frankie and Gary back to her parents’ farm, to live in the house out back. One day my mother was showing Ida some photos, when she came across a picture of Robert Ingram [my father’s son from an earlier marriage]. “Isn’t he about the most handsome man you’ve ever seen?” Bessie asked Ida. “I sure miss that boy. You know, he’s Frank Jr.’s real father.”

Bessie went on to tell Ida that she and Robert had a brief affair shortly after she had married my father, during one of the times when Frank Sr. had left her alone in Sacramento with his mother and estranged son. Bessie had liked Robert, and Robert had liked her, plus the affair had been a way of paying Frank Sr. back for all his abandonments.

Bessie had not meant to become pregnant, but when she did, she knew it would be easy enough to convince Frank Sr. that the child was his. Still, my father had always suspected something. Ironically, he thought that Gary might have been Robert’s son, and perhaps that played into his later special dislike for Gary, and the intensity with which he beat him.

Perhaps the secret also figured into why Bessie used to beat Frankie when he was a little boy. Maybe every time she looked at him, she remembered the affair. Maybe she felt guilt or shame, maybe she blamed the child. In any event, Frank Jr. was the only one of us that my mother ever beat regularly. Between her and my father, Frank Jr. and Gary paid a lot for that secret.

I had known about this story for some time, but I wanted to try to confirm it with the family in Utah, if possible. I had not yet told my brother Frank. I didn’t know how to. At the same time, Frank and I had made a deal to tell each other whatever truths or rumors we learned. He had told me things that had troubled him deeply to tell me. After Utah—where Vern and Brenda confirmed the rumor as much as possible and filled in some of the details—I realized I had to tell Frank what I knew.

During one of our last visits, I told Frank I had something to tell him.

He took a seat. “Is it a shocker?”

I said yes, it was. And then I told him. He took it in quietly for a while. When he spoke, it was in a low voice. “I’d heard Dad insinuate something like that once or twice with Mom. He was screaming it at her at the time, saying that she and Robert had this thing, and that he had always known about it. I’d heard him, but I thought he was just shooting his mouth off, trying to get at her.

“I guess that explains a few things. I guess it explains why I’m kind of fucked-up emotionally. And I guess it explains why Mom was always so hard on me. I mean, after Dad died, Gary and Gaylen were in trouble constantly. They were draining her. But she always had a lot of love for them. I was the one that had to bust my ass to try and keep her going as best I could and in turn I got nothing but just hatred, hatred, hatred.”

Frank paused and looked at me, his face in pain. “So this means Dad wasn’t my father. It means my half-brother was my father, and Dad was my grandfather. But what I want to know is, since you and I don’t have the same father, does it mean that you’re still my brother?”

“I will always be your brother,” I said, “and you will always be my brother. Nothing will change that. I’m sorry I had to tell you this. I wondered for a long time whether I should. It’s kind of a hard thing to talk about.”

Frank looked down, trying to blink back his tears. “Everything in our family,” he said, “is hard to talk about.”

Will I See You Again?

Mikal Gilmore, 1959

On that visit in December 2019, I could’ve told Frank that same story in answer to his question, “Why did Dad hate Gary so much?” But I decide not to. It would likely only confuse him in our last minutes together—and if he retained it, I wouldn’t be able to help him after I leave this room. Instead, I tell him: “Bad hearts don’t always know why they do what they do. The hurt just goes on. But I know this: I love you, brother. You have always been good to me.”

“I love you too, Mikal. You were the only one in our family who was there for me. We did a lot together. With you, it was always a good time.”

It is time to go. I embrace my brother. “I wish you could stay,” he says. “I wish you and Elaine could live up here.”

“I know, Frank. I know. But our family—my family with Elaine—is in Los Angeles. My family with you stays in my heart.”

“Same here," Frank says.

I pick up my bags and head for his door. “Mikal,” he says, “will I see you again?”

The truth is, I don’t know. Elaine and I had hoped to visit him before another season passed. Instead, the Covid pandemic swept the land a few weeks later and travel and visits weren’t possible until recently. Bearing down the whole time was another critical complication: Frank’s nurse told me my brother’s end could be a slow-coming dark, or he could shut his eyes to sleep and never open them again.

I tell him, “I will try, Frank.” It’s the last thing I say to him, face to face.

My brother’s final days were full of confusion and cut-off memories. Maybe, come my time, I should hope to remember as little as possible about the lives that hurt me and instead hold to the memory of the faces that were kind—even if I must imagine some of them. Maybe I’ll even see such a face one more time before my rest in the dust. That, I figure, would not be a bad end.

I hope I left Frank with something of that grace. God knows he deserved so much more.

Mikal Gilmore is the author of four books, including the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning memoir Shot in the Heart, and the 1960s cultural history Stories Done. He is a longtime writer for Rolling Stone.

Giovanni Ribisi as Mikal Gilmore and Lee Tergeson as Frank in Shot in the Heart, the 2001 HBO film by director Agnieszka Holland

Brian and Mikal's Playlist

Only Love Can Break Your Heart ::: Neil Young

Family Affair ::: Sly & The Family Stone

Brotherly Love ::: Ollabelle

Memory Motel ::: The Rolling Stones

Death Don’t Have No Mercy ::: Rev Gary Davis

I Wonder If I Care As Much (Roots version) ::: The Everly Brothers

Lost And Lookin’ ::: Sam Cooke

Lost On The River ::: Hank Williams

Ode To Billie Joe ::: Bobbie Gentry

Feel Like Going’ Home (demo) ::: Charlie Rich

My Father’s House ::: Bruce Springsteen

Alone And Forsaken ::: Hank Williams

An American Trilogy ::: Mickey Newbury

Never Let Me Go ::: Johnny Ace

Never Let The Journal Go

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