Sensitive content: This story may offend some people. It contains scenes of murder, gore, gun-violence and death.
For poetry purists, I have incorporated some of the technical elements of Dante’s epic poem into the structure of this pale imitation, but have deliberately left others out. I have forgone a rhyming scheme and tight numerical patterns to focus on the story, which is set down in a (very) loose form of free verse (the first word of each line is capitalized).
Inspired by the Master’s original example however, I have divided the story into three parts, included references to the three guides, and Alighieri’d the last word of the last line of each section. I should also point out that Dante devoted more than 12 years, to completing his masterpiece. And as it is mathematically impossible to get 14,233 lines of poetry within a 3000 word manuscript, I’ll say no more about that.
Inferno –Virgil and I advance toward the flames. I plummet into the depths.
Virgil and I, responding to the call, were first on the scene. We both
Had a choice. We were going off shift. Then a panicked 911 voice
Claimed a robbery was in progress. So we both suited up again, high-fived
It and signed back in. We protect and serve. We train to run toward danger.
It’s another boiling-hot day here in the city that fun forgot.
Many say, crime and violence happen most in hot climates.
Some say, that’s just unproven urban lore. They say, Jacko
Boy, you really need statistics to back up that theory, my man.
It’s God-given that doubters of wisdom have to arm themselves with
Stats, to climb up and stand on, attempting to disprove cause and effect.
But from my vantage point here, I don’t need stats. Crime and violence
Seem blindingly obvious. It’s been a scorching July, the hottest on record.
But, today, I hold the heat entirely blameless. There are other factors at play.
Virgil held position by the cruiser to radio and coordinate back-up, and I,
Already invited inside by telephone, slipped into the bank building.
A young man was standing beside one of the waist-high tables that
Customers use to write deposit and withdrawal slips. From the back,
He didn’t look dangerous. Slim, maybe five-ten. Wild, frazzy blond hair.
A camouflaged army combat shirt that was darkening at the armpits
With perspiration. Skuzzy old blue jeans. Sandals, and cruddy feet.
But he is deadly serious. He has a handgun, and a bulky
Backpack, that contains a bomb, he says with confidence. Five
Sticks of dynamite. The gun, a Glock, may be a .40 calibre,
I’m not sure. Doesn’t matter, we’re not going to be trading
Firepower today. I am definitely taking a hands-off approach
With this one here. I’ve been waiting for you, he says, smiling.
You’re my official passport out of this place.
Two bank officials, the manager and an auditor, have produced
A carry-all bag stuffed with cash. The bomber waves the two men
Aside casually, with the gun. He picks up the bag with his free
Hand, and hugs it tightly under his arm.
The auditor is scared, but determined. He speaks, angrily,
Protests. Then he suddenly rushes for the bag. It is a mistake.
The big 150 grain slug catches him in mid-stride. It enters his
Skull, low on the forehead and just above the bridge of the nose.
It rips through the frontal and parietal lobes of his brain and
Explodes out the back of his head, leaving a silver-dollar sized
Hole that chugs out cerebral fluid and pieces of cortical substance.
I’ve seen similar, but the brutality of the act is still shocking. The
Auditor drops as if pole-axed and is now on the floor, gulping
And twitching. After-death reflexes, but a female customer who
Was sprayed with particles of bone and dura mater, shrieks and
Shrieks and shrieks, as if she has been shot, herself.
A clear fluid leaks out through the jagged hole in the auditor’s skull
And forms a pool around his face on the floor. The collective fear in
The room gives off a rank, animal smell. I feel the bile rise in my
Throat. The killer waves the Glock at me. Let’s go, he says.
I push the bank door open and a searing blast of hot air from the
Outside suddenly envelops me. I have a quickening sensation, wetness
At the armpits, and I smell my own fear, a musky, rank animal stink.
I never heard the shot that came from the SWAT sniper rifle on the top
Of the building across the street. The bullet swept away most of the blond
Young man’s head. Then, in the micro-second before the shock wave
From the explosion ripped through my body and sent me spinning and
Tumbling through the air, depositing me into a boneless and jellied wedge
Between the police cruiser and the curb, I saw the young man’s skinny
Frame begin to swell, as if attached by the anus to a high pressure air hose.
He came apart in slow motion before my eyes. His body seemed to expand
Outward, puffy and bloated, stretching the fabric of that sweat-stained clothing
To near transparency before disintegrating into tiny bits of flesh, fabric and monetary Confetti. It separated into layers, as mass of different-density reacts in a centrifuge.
And in that last moment while I still had clear vision, I saw Virgil reach
Upward involuntarily, perhaps to grasp something from the air, as the
Particles of detritus from the blast scattered into the sky like so many stars.
Purgatorio – Wounded and dazed, but hanging on. Virgil tries to help
The concrete is hot and rough against my naked temple
There is a puddle of sticky something under my cheek.
It’s strange that there is no pain. I can see the thumb
And two fingers of a human hand on the sidewalk.
They are near, not far from my face. Are they my fingers?
I look again at those severed digits, stark and waxy-white against the
DayGlo yellow paint of the curb marker. If I survive this…I sense the
Puddle under my cheek slowly spreading. But no, I push that thought
Out of my mind. I need to live because I want to know. I want to know why
This escalating craziness – bombs, for Christ’s sake? – is taking place.
Because, to me, it makes no sense. And I know I’m not alone in this thought.
It’s hard to see clearly. The angle is all wonky and it’s like
Looking down a tunnel with a telescope. I try to move my head
Slightly, but can’t. I squint to focus. No, they’re not mine.
The fingers are bloodless and stippled with bristly hair. Blond hair.
Definitely not mine! There is no hand, just those three digits, connected
By a thin strip of translucent tissue. Skin. It looks dry and crinkly-curled, like
A rawhide pet chewy left out in the sun. It’s only been moments since it
Happened, but I’m not surprised. It’s been a truly scorching summer.
You could probably toast Wonder Bread© on this sidewalk.
I can see right into a bank employee’s office. The gaping, splinter-edged
Aperture that was a heavy triple-glazed window two minutes ago, now
Is free of its pane. But I can also see where some of it went.
A two-foot shard of the thick window glass has neatly impaled
Someone’s left arm to the polished top of a desk. The arm’s owner,
A middle-aged man, Is slumped soundlessly in the desk’s chair,
His silent face death-mask-white. The glass-sliver winks in the sun.
And then, out beyond the end of my personal tunnel, I suddenly
See the tour guide. I don’t see any of the others from the group,
But I see her. From the bus-tour. The stunning young woman who
Looked so cool, chic and stylish in the blue and white summer dress.
She is lying on her side not far from the curb, where she
Has been thrown. And that curb, I shockingly remember, is
Twenty, maybe thirty feet from the entrance to the museum,
That is across the street from the bank. Her group was all
Milling about not far from the front door, waiting their turn to
Go in to the museum together, when the blond young man
With the Glock, bag of stolen money and lethal backpack
Disintegrated into small bits and pieces, right across the street.
So the tour guide, and I, must have both been catapulted a good fifteen
Feet or more to land where we are now. The thumb and two fingers
Near the curb tell me without doubt what happened to the blond young man.
I still can’t see anything to either side, and, again, I wonder about Virgil.
The tour guide is on her side now, both arms hugging her knees.
The fetal position. Instinctive. Involuntary. She is lying in what looks
Like a pool of tiny glass fragments and I see where these have
Come from. There are two civi cars parked along the curb in my line
Of vision. The side windows of both cars have been blown out
Completely, onto the sidewalk. But the back window of the car closest
To me, a red Hyundai sedan – by some weird focal happenstance I can
See the emblem quite clearly – has been shattered into a giant cobweb
Pattern but the glass is still holding together in its frame. So I think, the
Blast couldn’t really have been that powerful then, could it? I seize onto that.
The chic blue and white dress is beginning to stain red at a hundred
Little points on the fabric and I think about how it must have felt having
Flying slivers of glass penetrating the light material. She is close
Enough that I can see her mouth. It is partially open. Saliva is dribbling
Out onto the concrete. But suddenly I see an arm unfold and one leg kicks,
Convulsively. She is moving, so she is alive. I seize onto that.
And I wonder again about Virgil, and the others.
The tour guide is struggling to get up now. She is definitely alive. I
Hang onto that. The blast was survivable, for some, at least. She is now
On her knees. She is bleeding from the nose. It is puddling, bright crimson,
On the sidewalk. I can see a fine mist of vapour, like steam, rising off the
Concrete….the hottest July on record, people keep saying.
Virgil appears through a wax-paper window, pushing back a gawking crowd.
I can’t hear, but can sense sirens in the distance. It’s strange that I still can’t
Feel any pain at all, except a beginning chill, which is perplexing on a day like
This. I reach for the sun’s comfort, but in growing darkness, see only stars.
Paradiso – Mother Beatrice comforts me. A thought for Bernard, from forensics.
I strain and try to view more. There is no telescope effect now, but I
Can’t see much beyond that focal tunnel. Can’t see anything to either
Side. A detached retina. That’s probably what it is. I have a detached retina.
Like she thought when I was a kid. I remember the anxiety on mother’s face.
I was sitting on the toilet seat, crying. Beatrice, my mother, now passed,
Was a nurse, and worked for an eye doctor. She was holding up something
In front of my face. How many pencils do you see? One, I blubbered. See
Any spots? No, I said. I could see her visibly relax then.
You’re lucky, my Mother B said, putting Ozonol ointment on my elbows
And knees, and cutting gauze with her surgical scissors. You could have
Suffered a detached retina when you took that fall. Your bike’s a wreck. It
Will need major surgery. She smiled. But you’ll live, sweetie. What’s a
Detached retina? I blurted out.
She switched to her clinical voice then, and told me the symptoms.
She’s gone now, but I still remember what she said. You’ll live. I
Seize onto that now, as I clutched to it then. You’ll live. You’ll live.
I wonder about the blond young man. He couldn’t have been more than
Twenty-five. And he looked so normal. I wonder if he didn’t want to live,
And what could have possessed him to throw away his future by
Robbing a bank with a gun and a bomb and committing a murder.
And the innocents. I wonder about them. There were, I think, at least thirty
Or forty people here in the area. Maybe more, with the bus-tour group. Who
Thinks to count people in a tour group? Except maybe the tour guide who is
Responsible for keeping track of them, to see that someone doesn’t wander
Off, or maybe pilfer something and disgrace the group.
You read about these bombs as being sophisticated. You see it in the movies.
They are triggered by cell phones and such. All very high tech. Not this one.
This one had a simple, wooden clothespin trigger. The type with a coil spring
That opens the jaws, like a toothless alligator. I noticed it in his hand, his left
Hand. It was clamped on his forefinger. That’s what set the bomb off, when
The round from the SWAT sniper rifle took him down.
I see the clothespin now, on the sidewalk. It’s not far from those
Disconnected fingers and thumb. I can see that the alligator jaws
Have some sort of metal contacts fixed into them. I hadn’t noticed those
Before. And there are two thin wires going back from the contacts. They are
Uneven lengths. One is about six inches long, the other maybe eight.
They look like two fine strands of red spaghetti, the ends copper-coloured
Where they must have been severed from the detonator in the backpack.
Bernard and his forensics team, I am sure, will want this apparatus, as they
Piece this mess all together. I must remember to tell them, when they come.
I wonder again about this blond young man with the clothespin on his
Finger who suddenly swelled up and began to come apart at his
Clothing seams, just as our eyes locked. I wonder about his mother.
I wonder about his childhood. I wonder where he went to school and
I wonder what he learned there. A line from a Steely Dan song comes
To mind: The things that pass for knowledge, I can’t understand.
I wonder about his dreams and goals.
He reminded me vaguely of Teddy, the cousin of a girlfriend I had met
Years ago, at the lake. Ten or twelve years younger than I am now. Early
Twenties. Skinny. Slightly gawky. Straight blond hair, a bit untidy. Pale blue
Eyes. A three-day growth of scrappy, blond beard. Teddy and I had talked.
He had said he was frustrated with the button-down world around him and
Was looking for adventure. Lots of people want that. Like Teddy, this blond
Young man with the pale blue eyes, scrappy growth of beard and the backpack
Looked so normal.
But what normal person does something like this? The murder of the auditor,
Especially. Were there demons at work in his head? And what about the bomb?
Was it a bluff? Or, would he have set it off on his own accord? Was he looking for a Doorway to another World? Or had he given up on life? We’ll never know now.
The entire devastation is now visible. It is fearful, chaotic, like some
Grotesque travesty of war. The scene is a Salvador Dali mural out
Past the far edge of my field of vision. It is way out of focus, a zig-zaggy
Portrait behind cloudy film, like a reflection in a steamy bathroom mirror.
I know the asphalt under my cheek is blistering-hot, but I still feel
Nothing. I open and close my eyes. No change in the scene.
Just the blurred and insane Dali poster.
Gawkers’ vacant faces float past my envelope of vision. They push and
Crowd toward a greasy brown patch on the hot asphalt the size of a manhole
Cover. Like vultures and carrion pickers sensing blood, they move in relentlessly.
The blood has stopped puddling on the asphalt under my cheek.
Virgil is striking at the gathering crowd with his nightstick, keeping
Them away. Then I see my partner turn his head and look down
At me. Virgil suddenly looks like he might puke.
Someone is walking on the glass shards two feet in front of my
Face and I can see, but not hear, the glass crackle and crunch.
The congealing blood has now glued my cheek firmly to the pavement.
I try to hold on and focus on the viscous, oily brown smear that is slowly
Beginning to go dry in the hot sun. It is visible through a saran-wrap window.
If there is a doorway into the next world, the blond young man has taken
The fast way through. No long goodbyes, just a quick rocket-blast to the
Hereafter. Is there a door? The psychics and parapsychologists say so.
My eyes are slowly closing, and an intense white crystal of light
Penetrates through my closed eyelids, past my crushed eyeballs
And like a searchlight, illuminates a room in my brain.
Suspended over me, I see many faces. Virgil is not there, but I see
Beatrice, and there is the blond young man. His face is whole and
Serene, and the Glock and the backpack and the money are missing.
I feel myself gently lift off, and float up. First into the brilliance,
And then slowly into the growing night surrounding the stars.