She Do the Police In Different Voices
In our country’s perpetual endeavor to convert tragedy into pre-packaged spectacles not unlike “the Katrina Show,” several successive shootings have appeared nightly on cable, often accompanied by arguments about gun control. Among the most recent is sure to be labelled “The Chick-Fil-A Massacre,” though the sole injury was sustained by a security officer who disarmed the perp: his backpack was loaded with extra magazines of Sig 9 ammunition and fifteen of the franchise’s signature sandwiches.
“I hate your politics,” he was heard to shout at the headquarters the American Family Council, which has come out, so to speak, in support of Chick-Fil-A’s anti-gay stance.
The police’s delayed arrival prompted some pundits to aver that the security officer’s shoulder wouldn’t have taken a bullet, and the shooter been more swiftly dispatched, had the American Family Council workers been packing. They could have had a free lunch as well.
While I have no statistics about poultry plants, or the number of the franchise’s restaurants—I’ve purchased nothing but iced tea or coffee from my current town’s—more than one Expert has cited the number of firearms that now exist from sea to shining sea (and we know about Sarah Palin and her moose rifles in Alaska)—for each citizen to own some bullet-powered weapon, though half are illegal. The last I heard was followed by a PAC-financed commercials denouncing “gun grabbers,” interspersed with photographs Hillary Clinton and verbiage about a treaty with the UN. Why? Do these people believe that, after all this time, she still wishes to Kill Bill?
I declare myself guilty: I, too, have been a “gun grabber,” albeit in a different fashion. Among the items jammed into my bathroom etagère, next to the Water-Pic whose ways I haven’t mastered, rests a pistol in whose use I am even less skilled. Issued by the Royal Armed Forces to my ex-husband’s grandfather and refitted for American ammunition, as I learned only a month ago, when a houseguest who found it by accident insisted I “at least have the damn thing cleaned,” I knew from the start that this farewell gift from my ex-husband was intended to make him feel less guilty were I to be murdered or raped or chopped into small pieces after he decided to change addresses.
But one night, reading late, I heard a strange noise directly beneath my window, which was covered with a black-out shade. There was clearly a prowler afoot! And trying to force open the sliding glass door from the patio.
The godammned gun’s unregistered, I thought. I’ve been afraid to call the police and take necessary steps. In fact, most of the time, I’m afraid of the pistol.
Nonetheless, this was no time for thinking, which is what makes owning firearms hazardous, especially if you require more than one set of glasses: having studied classical ballet for many years, my muscles have far greater memory than I currently possess otherwise, and I did a grand jeté that propelled me out of the bed and toward my dresser.
I am forbidden to sell the dresser or any other piece of furniture belonging to my mother’s family. I am told the lamps, the china, the crystal, the silver, the end-tables, the candle holders, and let’s not get into the chandeliers, were all brought from Godmersham, a/k/a Mansfield Park—no, I can’t introduce you to Jane Austen, for not only is she dead, but there’s no blood relation, the house having passed to her own family under the laws of primogeniture—now a school for ophthalmologists. Besides, I have much more in common with the heirloom-laden-but-cash-strapped, febrile, and intemperate Brontë sisters, whose rap sheet is truly misleading: tuberculosis notwithstanding, have you ever seen the gorse-spiked Yorkshire moors? No place for sissies.
Nor are street-corner deals involving greasy—from fried chicken sandwiches?—dollar bills, but I have often thought about selling the handgun. However, I remain also ill-accustomed to having my property invaded, thus I plucked the pistol from the dresser, drew back the trigger, and crouched at the top of the stairs, staring into the darkness.
It wouldn’t have mattered if I’d left any and all of the chandeliers undimmed, for I realized the limitations imposed by my own myopia. A far wiser course of action occurred to me: bolt into my study, lock the door, and call 911.
A flashing blue light was quickly visible. Only then did I truly panic: how was I going to explain the complete absence of registration papers? Worse, I was wearing only a T. S. Eliot t-shirt with holes in it, a gift from students—might I be fired? would the police laugh at my skinny legs?
But it was too late: I peeked outside again and saw four men, in unison, click on terrifyingly large flashlights. (I think this is called a “sweep.”) Finally came thudding knocks on my door. I opened the small casement window to reply, for I didn’t want the police to think I were dead or rude.
“Ma’am, this is your Metro police squad. Are you in danger?”
“Hell, yes,” I almost shouted. “You’re going to arrest me and my mother will have a heart attack when she learns that her only daughter was hauled off to jail in such unsightly attire on charges of owning an unregistered gun.”
But I said nothing of the kind. “Yes, sir.”
“Can you come down here and let us in?”
What the two officers thought an indicator of genuine hazard was actually a delay technique: I explained, apologetically, that they’d have to wait until I located the spare set in a filing cabinet. (Which, since it originally belonged to Office Depot, I sold on a subsequent move.) I pushed out the screen, tossed down the keys, and then hid the gun behind my shelf-full of books on Eliot.
“We are now on the premises, ma’am, and fully armed. Where are you?”
This was no time to ask why they couldn’t they predict my whereabouts from the screenless and half-open window. It seemed more polite to shout through the study door and offer directions: “First room at the top of the stairs!”
“We are now standing outside. You have nothing to fear. We are fully armed. Will you open up?”
“No. Or, would you first be kind enough to walk down the hall—just two more doors—and bring me the robe hanging from a hook in the bathroom?”
“Yes, ma’am!” the officers rumbled in unison.
“Either they’re in for a big disappointment or should be prepared for a shoot-out themselves,” I thought. “One word about my legs [which, yes, resemble a chicken’s] and I’ll make their night!”
Fortunately, this did not happen. We had coffee at the dining room table, four police officers and myself, and they took down a complete report. But my mind kept drifting back up, to the landing. What would I have done had I met with a marauding maniac? Ask him to turn on a light, stand very still, and, by the way, did he see a pair of glasses on the dining room table that he might prove gracious enough to bring up the stairs to me so that I could focus my eyes and shoot him?
“Ma’am, do you own any firearms?”
“No,” I lied cheerfully. “Did you see any signs of attempted entry beneath my bedroom window?”
“Yes. There are scratches, a gouge—which could be old—and a set of prints. We’ll keep an eye on the house and come back in daylight to examine the prints and take a set,” one officer reassured me.
“You know what I think?” asked one of his partners. “Possum.”
“Sir, I assure you this wasn’t a possum. They lack the necessary bulk to make the kind of noises I heard.” I thought murderously of the handgun on my Eliot shelves. “In fact,” I said, half-disrobing and thus causing some consternation on the officer’s face, “do you know who this is?”
He admitted his ignorance. “T. S. Eliot. Ever heard of the play called Cats?”
“No. Do you have animals yourself?”
“No. The play is based on a book called Ol’ Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. He also wrote a poem with which you may not be familiar, but its original title was He Do the Police In Different Voices. It’s a quotation from Dickens suggested to him by his first wife.”
“Never mind. It ends with the Sanskrit words “Shantih shantih shantih.” This roughly translates to the ‘peace which passeth understanding.’”
Eliot liked movies, as well as music halls. His essay on Marie Lloyd, the Lady Gaga of her day, is a too-little-known gem. If my mind is caffeine-jumbled, thinking of fast food, Hillary reading in bed when Bill broke the news, plus the aforementioned pundits and Hillary as she supposedly threw the book she was reading at Bill, two things remain continuous: the High Anglican Eliot reads his poems, I have always thought, in an odd, slightly oily intonation; and while he may have switched to tea after his conversion to England itself, then wives, at one point, he measured out his life in coffee spoons.
The officers’ mugs drained and goodbyes said, I thanked them for their prompt action and promises to secure my safety. Then I refilled my cup—coffee, soy milk, and rum, in equal parts—and retrieved the handgun, taking care to lock the bedroom door as I smoothed the sheets and got back into bed with The Waste Land. And the pistol? Lacking a “safety,” its trigger remained in a retracted position through three additional moves for over a dozen years.
The grotesque and tragic shootings? There is no let up.
for Quincy R. Lehr
Diann Blakely’s Cities of Flesh and the Dead won the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award from. She has appeared in numerous anthologies, including two volumes of Pushcart and Best American Poetry. Poems from her latest manuscripts, Rain in Our Door: Duets with Robert Johnson and Lost Addresses have featured twice in Greil Marcus’s “Hard Rock Top Ten,” as well as Lisa Russ Spaar’s Chronicle of Higher Education poetry column and Blip Magazine; Blakely has been also published at Harvard Review Online, theNation, the Paris Review, the Oxford American, Triquarterly, Shenandoah, the Southern Review, and Verse, among others.