In Sister Agnes’s rosary I have a place:
convalescence in neurology.
A small quadrant of my head, quite gone,
scooped out and stuffed with stomach fat,
an eggplant bandaged over.
to other patients, cheerfully turbaned,
mostly children, who slowly nod along,
grazing Christ’s feet of the many crosses,
hung in the corridors as friendly reminders.
Unswathed, they have maybe a decade or two left,
always asking each other empty questions,
Mind? Do you mind?
The cost and the rest, the cost and the rest
of such brain tampering,
Sister says, “Never mind.”
She can’t wait to go.
With hands ever aflutter,
her black robes flare out her many efficiencies.
After drawing the drapes in a dying room,
Sister says, “What we really need is more DayGlo
paint for craft hour.”
Or, when fussing over the flowers,
ward donations from the healthy wealthy,
Sister says, “How well Toby manages,”
his marshmallow head bobbling along,
just like the balloon tied to his Jerry chair.
Or, when Patsy falls in PT because she’s too dizzy,
Sister reminds us of Station Number Three.
Living under House Rules,
I do Sister’s jigsaw puzzles,
appreciating that each precut piece
will somehow reconnect.
Humpty, we come to Sister already Dumpty,
like abandoned conches on a kingcup road.
“That’s why there are puzzles and crosses and missing persons,”
smiles Sister Agnes, deftly fingering her beads,
haggling down God’s price.
Most days, he stays in his bed-
stripped room, dimmed-down, musty-still,
like parlor wicker in a house closed for the season.
The top sheet tents his head, teepee style.
When the nurses whine, “Terry, don’t you wanna eat?”
He yells, “No! I just ate yesterday.”
When Herman the Monster,
the orderly, flicks on the overhead
“How ya doin’? No more Greta Garbos for today,”
Terry shrieks and flails like a caged macaw,
into the fringed ears of the parlor’s browning fern.
Then, back to black, bald, woebegone.
So exposed, he’ll soon go,
sent on to Chronic.
Sometimes he’s found in the bathroom,
lying naked on the dull tile floor, liking
the feel of a fly
foraging off his linty skin.
THE CLUTTER CONTEMPLATIONS
To tame a squirrel
from your cell,
then slit a throat
of a man you call
“a very nice gentleman”
you don’t “feel anything.”
You found him so “soft-spoken,”
until so much blood gurgling
somewhat marred his delivery.
You smile, offer a pillow to his son,
a care tendered, as you did for the other Clutters
before the electric blue blast
of the 12-gauge ricocheted
their faces to the walls.
As you say,
“It wasn’t because of anything the Clutters did.
They never hurt me
like other people.
Maybe it’s just that the Clutters
were the ones who had to pay for it.”
Now you mostly muse,
drawing another Jesus
to adorn your jail cell walls.
You move words kindly
across the page, capturing
sympathy and sales.
How many Finney County folks were befriended?
How many autographs signed in “affectionate admiration”?
You started wearing Stetsons before you left Holcomb.
You complain and confess, “I just can’t finish the book
until Smith and Hickock hang.”
The Clutter family never liked your portrait of them,
but they kept a small-town silence.
Your jaw-thrusted pose conquered the Clutter living room:
“This sort of furnishing was what Mr. and Mrs. Clutter liked,”
delivered with propriety, calculated; humility gratuitous,
while you drew your own conclusions.
Part of the Family:
Fifty years later, it’s hard
to find motives beyond money and a mistake.
The plastic-baggy samples of cord and boot prints,
the stripped beds and couches are dumb.
Everybody involved is dead.
The Clutter farmhouse, open for tours;
the detectives’ notes, on the auction block.
Not even the grainy Clutter photos,
in queer before-and-after form,
answer to the greater losses
of a certain kind of family
that can’t ever escape the fifties.
The Perry voices lose Truman words,
winnowed between the wind and the wheat.
In my dream,
I live in that house.
The bodies stay dead in their rooms,
like bad children in time-out.
Their blood still wets the walls.
I go about my housewifey ways
with nary a thought of removal,
because I have to learn
how to live with my own killers.