Poem Noir

Michael Spence Click to

spenceI spent a hitch as a junior naval officer aboard the aircraft carrier, USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67), a vessel since decommissioned.  (Thus I have small fear I’ll be recalled to active duty aboard it.)  I then drove public-transit buses in the Seattle area for thirty years, a job I’ve now been retired from for six months.  Poems of mine have appeared recently in The Hudson Review, The North American Review, The Sewanee Review, Measure and The Southern Review.  My fourth book, The Bus Driver’s Threnody, is available from Truman State University Press and my fifth, Umbilical, is forthcoming from St. Augustine’s Press.  I was awarded a 2014 Literary Fellowship from Artist Trust of Washington State.

–for G. M. Ford

The only reason I survived
Is I was sitting by the door.
The diner was the kind that thrived
Before the Second World War–

You know the sort: the tables chipped
Like the mugs of coffee boiled so hot
It stripped your tongue, and no one tipped
The waitress since she always got

Your order wrong. So all of us–
Jacob and me, the Carlson boys
At the counter, George (the wrinkled cuss
Who hogged the four-top to annoy

Corlene because she wouldn’t date him)–
We looked around as the door squealed
Open. A woman tall and slim
Eased in; her tawny trench coat concealed

Her curves half-heartedly, like a card
Shark who likes to gloat. She glanced
Around the diner, glaring hard
At every face as though romanced

Badly by each guy there. The cold
Increased when she took off her hat:
Her hair fell reddish-blond as gold
Lightly rinsed in blood. But that

Was just the start–she opened up
Her trench coat, showing us the dress
She wasn’t wearing, though her cups
Ranneth over. I must confess
I can’t tell why I looked away—
Maybe a life of getting nowhere
With women made me wary. They say
A gun is just a tool, but I dare

Anyone in danger to trade
A revolver for a socket wrench.
The way the flicky light played
On her coat’s lining with a French

Suggestiveness showed me her curves
All added up to forty-five.
Her Colt emerged like a gift that deserved
To be admired. But staying alive

Means I’ve often had to cut
My pleasures short–I dove out
The door. Before it started to shut,
I heard her silver pistol shout

Death at everyone inside.
Not looking back, I ran like the devil
Was about to brand my sinful hide.
Into a vacant lot (its gravel

Imitating banana peels
Beneath my soles) I dashed, climbing
The chain-link like feathers were on the heels
Of my wingtips. But my timing

Was a little shook–I swan-dived splat!
In the mud on the other side. A zing
Zipped by my cheek as I rose, so flat
As a flounder I went, quickly squirming

Around the corner of the drugstore.
That crazy dame’s gone nuts! I thought,
Grabbing my thirty-eight. I abhor
Violence, especially when I’ve caught

Its attention, but I’m prepared
(My only Boy-Scout quality).
They say a private dick who’s scared
Is no damn good. Well, I pity

Whoever wouldn’t be: for all I knew,
That diner was now full of the brave.
(Jacob had tackled at the U,
And the Carlson boys were known to behave

Like Vikings after too much mead.)
Somehow this woman seemed familiar,
Now that I’d had a chance not to bleed.
Was she the angry moll of a mobster

I’d put in a cell or on a slab?
An ex-girlfriend I’d promised to wed?
As my foggy brain tried another stab,
A bullet nearly cleared my head–

I dropped behind a garbage can
(As if that would stop a serious slug),
The only cover I had. To scan
For my Valkyrie, I eased my mug

Around its edge. There she stood:
Her tawny trench coat closed (too bad),
Baring only her Colt (not good)
And her snowy teeth. You lousy cad,

She suspired in a voice more smoky
Than Lilly’s Lounge after last call.
Bet you thought when I went to the pokey
You’d never see me again. The doll

Laughed like nylons tearing. Such a big
Man, huh? Toss that gun out here.
Now you’re gunna die, you pig!
Pork wa? I asked, feeling fear

Freeze my blood a drop at a time,
Staring at the girl with the xanthous tresses
As my snub-nose clattered in the slime
Of the street. I’ll give you three guesses,

She said, then went: Tap-tap-tap-tap-ding!
Tap-tap-tap-tap-ding! That struck a bell:
My former secretary! Our fling
Had ended when I failed to quell

Her urge to be my sidekick. I work
Alone, I said, repeating what I’d told her
That long-gone day some client jerk
Had asked, What’s her rate? A colder

Tone frosted her words: The whole town
Made me a joke when you revealed
My own attempt to track down
The Stocking Killer was just a shield–

Since I was the Stocking Killer! She tore
More lingerie with her cackle. I fixed
My eyes on her gun muzzle and swore
I wouldn’t let myself get nixed

By the black period it planned to punch
Into me. Okay! I cried; no fuss–
You can be my partner! Playing a hunch
She’d forgotten that I’m ambidextrous,

I raised my right hand higher while
My left (hidden behind the can)
Drew a derringer (my smile
Grew wider as her Colt began

To lower) from my ankle holster.
You’re right, I continued; I need someone
Who knows the criminal mind to bolster
My business. You won’t have to run

A typewriter any more! She grinned
As bright as a blizzard. I’ll always see
Her lovely face as I put some wind
Holes in her trim midriff. To be

Or not, I sighed; I will not boff
You again, alas. I fired down
Once more to be sure. Then I walked off
In the rain and thought: I hate this town.