Poetry Supplement Summer 1999, Volume 17.0
Five Ways to Die
S. Ramnath's poems have appeared in two recent anthologies: Beside Prayers (Harper, San Francisco, 1997) and Heal Your Soul, Heal the World (Andrews McMeel Publishing, Kansas City, 1998). His works are among the assigned readings in the Introduction to American Literature course at the University of Dresden, Germany.
The boy said with a sneer, "Man, you're not my kind."
The man in the car said, "What is your kind?"
"Look at this," the boy said, opening his denim jacket slightly to reveal a gun. His friends stood by silently as if waiting for a cue from the drama director. The boy pulled out the gun slowly, and said, "This is my kind."
"Do it, Mikey, do it," one young voice urged from the back.
Mikey turned his head to look at the tallest member of the group who had thus far stood by silently. The tall boy gave a slight nod. In the darkness the man in the car noticed the exchange. There was no more talk. The boy pulled the trigger.
"Jump me into the gang, Marlo," Tury said one day at school, asking his friend a favor. Tury learned a lesson that day. There are no favors to ask and no favors to give. Tury took the beating of his life.
Tury sitting in the car with a loaded AK47 in his hand, remembered that day. No favors. As the car slowed down for the curve near the school, Marlo who was sitting in the back seat said, "OK, turn off the headlights." The playground at the school was teeming with students who had gathered for an eclipse watch. The earth's shadow had started cutting into the disk of the moon. Tury put the barrel outside the car window. Soon the moon would be consumed and darkness would fall on the earth.
Honest-to-gawd, I coulda sworn he was behind me, even thought I heard his voice you know, but I guess it was all `em pills I'd been taking, had to have been, but there he was, this fella, comin' through my back door, and I says to him, is that you George, an' he don't answer, an' he looks kinda tall and big, an' there I was in my nightgown, an' I done forgot all that George said to me the other day `bout his goin' out to look at `em stars in the middle of the night, this was a new thing with George you know, an' so when I seen this big fella come through my back door, an' he don't say nothin' to me when I talk to him, I popped him with the gun. He crumpled to the ground, an' he moaned loud like George does when he has `em bad toothaches, an' I knew I done shot my husband.
She could have been thinking: if my dad finds out about this he will have a shit-fit. God knows what my mother will do.
She could have been thinking about the night of dancing and beers. Of being washed out and wiped out on graduation night. In whose house was it, on the cold floor in the laundry room where she was found asleep, bedraggled, after the monstrous shape came out of an alcoholic cloud, pinned her down and pried her legs open.
She could have been thinking about pricks. About how all men are pricks.
She could have been thinking about doctors and nurses. About knives, stirrups and blood. The smell of iodine and antiseptics, cotton balls, gauze.
She could have been thinking about any number of things, but surely she was not thinking about the last man who came into the clinic. He burst into the room, dropped the newspaper to the floor, revealing an automatic rifle, and then she saw a gush of blood at her stomach.
A dark wave swept over her. A monstrous shape came out of a mist, pulled her down to the floor that was cold like death.
Gateway runs parallel to Highway 10, and where it intersects Washington, an exit road off the highway, at the corner, sits Gas and Grocery. And inside the store behind the counter on a barstool sat Gracie, fifty-four years old. The time was a little past three on a Sunday morning, a thick fog had rolled in blanketing the light from passing cars on both Gateway and Highway 10. There was no one in the store and outside the doors nothing was to be seen. Perhaps it was this feeling of isolation on that early morning that made Gracie go for the gun that she kept on the counter top under the newspaper when a heavily bundled man walked into the store. When she got a better look at him she noticed he had on desert camouflage pants and an army jacket, and a scarf covered most of his face. He walked with a slight limp, shuffled briskly over to the beer section which was hidden from her view and she heard him say, "You can kiss my ass," as if he was talking to somebody. Then she heard him rummaging in the cooler. She heard cans and bottles being pushed around. "No fuckin' Mexican beer," she heard him shout, then there was the sound of bottle breaking. When the man emerged from behind the shelf that was packed with soup and vegetable cans, Gracie noticed the man had a six pack dangling from his left hand and in his right hand was the broken bottle which he held by its neck.
"I want you to leave the store," Gracie said, from behind the gun.
The man looked at the gun and said, "Whatchya gonna do, lady? Shoot me? This shooore is an unfriendly place."
"I want you to leave," Gracie said, and her voice shook a little.
"Tell you what, lady. I'll make you a deal." He closed his eyes. His head swayed back and forth, and then he said opening his eyes, "I will buy you them roses you got there."
He then took a step forward toward the counter.
And Gracie shot him dead.