Charlie's Golden Halo

My painting "Charlie's Golden Halo" is inspired by "Charlie Dream," the first piece in Chris's Starkweather Dreams, a book-length poetry sequence focusing on Nebraska's notorious "spree killers" of the 1950s, Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate. —J.B.

Charlie's Golden Halo
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They's fryin' him tonight       the voice confides
in my dream             him      Starkweather  tonight
(countrified fake          -backwoodsy     like hicks
in bad movies)           and I am
in the death chamber           Charlie in the hard
straightbacked electric chair           without
straps                just a kind of                       
   metal bowl atop        his head
to jolt               the juice         in
and he looks     as he looked:             (Presley
sideburns          James Dean              windbreaker
Bogart             cigarette         between his fingers)
smaller than I'd           remembered               or imagined
slighter            traces of          baby fat softening
his cheeks        freckles            but the familiar
  Brando sneer              molding            his mouth
(voice now      behind my ear            whispering They's fryin'  
him tonight yeah                    justice comin'           hot
  an' hard                      courtesy the state
 of Knee-braska             in the good ol'            U. S. of A.)

 the switch the switch            I know hundreds
 of plain folk    outside          would love
  to throw          the switch      is in my hand
 it looks like                 a light switch
  in my home    or yours           ten times        bigger  
  giant ON         painted black just       above it
OFF below       and the room             is      
small    close-packed               dark yet
   I sense people            all around          murmurings   
 on every          side and         as I look 
toward Charlie               I see
 Caril there      in his lap            their arms
    around each other      her head leaning           to his   
   touching it        or rather      the metal            bowl around it 
  she wears        blue blouse   jeans white         cowboy boots
strictly the       all-American             country girl from
       Life       or Look         and she sucks  greedily    
  at a half          -empty bottle             of Pepsi
      in her child      -sized hand smiling     pleasantly   
between swallows          I know I   
    should throw              the switch shove it  
   upward watch             them smoke               and shudder
  for as I             stand there in             the crowded room
  I see                 my brother      falling             in subzero
  Nebraska night              his face          burst
   in screaming                shotgun fog       without even
  a jacket against           December        lunar cold
  see       my daughter   falling    down abandoned
 storm cellar                 steps             back of her head
  splayed open               bright            as sunflowers  
feel      the knife           in my own      back my own
belly                  my own        chest              
my body            raged apart              and see
the two            of them            smiling           goading me
  to do it             do it       switch          in my hand 
and I press        on it     push             it up
(it        weighs              hundreds        of       pounds)
and as            I do        the room         suddenly       grows
brilliantly!       bright!              hum of!          2200! volts!
sheeting! throughout it!                  spitting!      
crackling!        the room!        alive! with current!   
voices!  screaming!    everywhere!               around me!
my own hand             blueglowing                 smell of
   my flesh           sizzling while             in the chair   
Charlie's          metal bowl becomes      a golden
halo the two               of them
embracing        in light           giggling sharing
her Pepsi        between them leaning            together
watching        us        watching        me
enjoying                   the show

From Starkweather Dreams: Landscape With Figures copyright © 2009 by Christopher Conlon
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