When we opened the cardboard
carton that read Human Remains,
she was in it, my father’s mother,
the dead woman he would not burn.
Her head rested on a block of wood
and her death did not open us to God,
not in that moment in the mortuary,
winter-Kentucky filling the window—
the first momento mori is Memory,
a story of a blue dress on a corpse
and embracing the whole of afterlife
as one gray afternoon with a narrative
in which you aren’t necessarily the hero.
I let him seed that much of my life, but
why did I? Because I could. It was what
I might next do for someone who had
done more than a few things for me.
How Death Was Led Forth from the Body
and How, That Afternoon, She Lived Again
There is a seduction plot between the job and who fills it.
However, I didn’t so much imagine having taken a position
as found myself intact after the parachute and reserve failed.
The job of ushering the dead has rules like packing a chute.
You can’t let them despair of ever inhabiting the body again.
It requires patience, but then so does getting anything right.
In this case there are guidelines, regulations, best practices.
I suppose someone thought I might be good at steering souls.
But, on awakening, I had begun reciting the Agnus Dei—
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis—
because, well, once a Catholic always a Catholic.
Then I took a knee. For what lives, what dies.
I snapped a selfie, but couldn’t post it. The dead
aren’t allowed to use Facebook. If the rules hadn’t
prevented me, I would have updated my Status:
Being who I am is like falling through a clear sky
and going through the checklist until all that can be
done has been done, and the ground rises to meet you.
Marilyn Standing next to Her Cadillac, 1954
In 1954, America wasn’t great. This was when
Marilyn Monroe and her Caddy are brand-new,
and her face outshines the dark-blue curves of
a waxed-to-faultlessness GM factory-paintjob.
And if it’s 1954, she is on the cover of Playboy—
and married to Joe DiMaggio. The Great DiMaggio,
Hemingway calls him in The Old Man and The Sea.
Of that Marilyn Monroe: “…two other screen stars,
Joan Crawford and Lana Turner, got only casual
attention. After Marilyn every other girl appeared
dull by contrast.” Years later, Tony Curtis played
Antoninus, a poet, in Spartacus. Antoninus says
“I’m Spartacus!”—first, which gets him killed.
After this, they’re together in Some Like It Hot.
Tony Curtis said she reeked. He said it nice,
if there’s a nice way to say that, but he said it.
If you believe there should be a sense of honor
among those with whom we are most unguarded—
how could he know his judgment would carry?
how could he speak like that about the dead?
Barbiturate-dazed, she may not have washed or
was about to miscarry. She was fucked up, sure.
But asked what it was like to kiss Tony Curtis,
she volunteered: In my mind, he wasn’t there.
Near Hell for Certain, Kentucky
That summer, I lost a prized bear there.
The Teddy bear granny Potter bought me
in the bus station in Ohio. Jenkins, Kentucky
was the endpoint of the Greyhound line in 1962,
but my granny ensnared some off-duty taxi driver
by promising him ten dollars if he would “carry us”—
an eight-year-old boy with a Teddy bear, her, and
her slate-gray Samsonite suitcase—from Jenkins,
out of a blistering July-noon in eastern Kentucky,
to Hell for Certain. Which was in Leslie County.
Turns out, America Webb lived there. Her sister.
America had a deep well with good, cold water.
A widow with no kids. Raised tea roses in the
postage-stamp yard of her white row house.
America adored my granny. And my granny
adored America right back. But I’m digressing—
I must have left my bear there, near Hell for Certain:
I don’t recall having it in my eight-year-old arms after
waving goodbye to America through the back window
of a cab. I’m 99% sure that’s what must have happened.
However, it could have been something else altogether.
The bear left in some drugstore café on the return trip,
Kentucky to Ohio, its fake-glass eyes reversing Dayton.
Regardless, I was told that Teddy bear would be my last.
And I was asked, Can’t you hold on to anything? Until she
died—Mazie Frances Collier Potter, my mother’s mother—
I didn’t know that a death can make you feel what I felt:
like you’d never leave off looking for that loved thing.
Why They Shot the Bear by the Railroad Tracks
“The arc of the Universe is long, but
it bends toward justice.”
—Martin Luther King, Jr.
They said it was an imminent threat, even minding
its own business, sauntering out from the sanctity
of landfill-forest to feast on the wild raspberries
in summer bloom beside train tracks. A juvenile
black bear by a state route. Someone had called.
And the patrolman who responded got handed
the job the others at Jolly Pirate, a donut place,
didn’t want. He was the freshest kind of recruit:
shit-scared the other cops would think him soft.
He had the stomach for it, for shooting anything,
and still he took a zigzag route, hoping the bear
would be gone. But the bear wasn’t gone. And
he shot. Missed and followed—is it something
we’re doing wrong or is wanting what we want
a way of saying we don’t expect to live in peace?
Anyway, he hit the bear. Wounded, it walked
in his direction. The cop waited until it was
close enough—I mean, we’re talking noon,
broad daylight, and kids out of school for the
summer watching and learning about the world.
No calling the Columbus Zoo and Jack Hannah
to make a short trip to Newark: 30 minutes, tops.
The black bear was eating raspberries, for fucksake.
Wasn’t doing that thing humans do where they shove
everyone else the fuck out of the way. Just lazily eating.
One tranquilizer dart and everyone—and the bear—
goes home in a limo. When things like this happen,
I and people like me decide again what we feared:
we may have always been this unwise. This sure.
At least the last shot from his service revolver
found its mark and he dropped the poor thing
like the cop literature said he could expect to.
Roy Bentley is the recipient of a Creative Writing Fellowship in Poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts, and fellowships from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs and the Ohio Arts Council. Books include Boy in a Boat (University of Alabama Press), Any One Man (Bottom Dog), The Trouble with a Short Horse in Montana (White Pine Press), Starlight Taxi (Lynx House Press); as well as Walking with Eve in the Loved City, a finalist for the Miller Williams Poetry Prize and published by the University of Arkansas Press.