BUT PEOPLE JUST DON'T ACT THAT WAY
"But people just don't act that way,"
my students assure me.
Atreus never cooked his kin and fed them to their father,
save the hands and feet, which, still raw
as belly tripe in the butcher’s case,
he displayed like dessert cart delicacies to the satiated Thyestes.
Raskolnikov never used an axe,
or Emma arsenic, or Anna an oncoming locomotive.
No, people just don’t act that way.
That’s why Goneril and Regan never turned on Lear,
or Cain on Abel, and why Peter never thrice denied Jesus.
In fact, that’s why Stalin and Hitler never
found henchmen and why each died unknown,
except by the handful of humble mourners
at his quiet gravesite, their muffled weeping
mingling with the muted calls of the saddened birds.
A true tale from Indiana,
(picked up from the wire services)
where the heartland folk act the way they act:
They were from Gary, lovers on a cruise,
their marriage mere months away.
All was as it should be, as such things always are
except in ugly stories told by those who just don't know the world.
The Caribbean was South Pacific Blue, the breeze Cape Cod crisp,
the buffets bountiful and blessedly salmonella-free.
The sex, well, the sex was steamy and ardent,
just as the brochures boasted slyly it was certain to be.
Then the telegram.
His beloved dad was in IC,
back in Gary, and might not make it.
A quick flight from St. Maarten to Miami
and a connection home was what he wanted.
They'd paid for four more days at sea,
saved so long for this, their first vacation
together, she said. His father would be fine, she said.
She–they–shouldn't be deprived of these days they'd dreamed of together.
So, they cruised to the end.
On those last four days, how did they act?
Perhaps my students could say.
Two hours before they reached Gary, his father died.
After an appropriate wait, they married.
Ten months later a son was born.
On the eve of his third birthday,
the cheerful tyke, chatty, eager for tomorrow's treats,
was too excited to sleep;
but the drink his father gave him put the kid down permanently.
He told the cops simply that his wife had needed to learn grief,
as he had learned it by his dead father's bed.
Why else marry her now? Why else father her child?
Why else indeed.
Asked why he had waited three years to kill,
he said to allow her time for “total bonding” with the boy.
This child is in the ground now,
in the dirt we track in the treads of our shoes.
A lesson from the heartland.
"Why do you tell us such things?" my students ask,
"Why do writers write them? It's gross, it's nasty."
"Because that's just what we do," I say.
Allen reads "But People Just Don't Act That Way":
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Allen confesses: "The case described here was so heinous that it stuck with me long after I read a brief account of it. Finding that my students at NCSU often regard especially nasty behavior depicted in literature as implausible, I thought to write this poem."
ALLEN STEIN teaches American Lit at North Carolina State University and has had poems published in Southern Poetry Review, Aethlon, and Modern Age.