I am not a taxidermist, I am afraid of John Wayne.
A guest at Uncle’s house, I slept in The John Wayne Room.
It was called The John Wayne Room as if a room
such as this could have another name: a life-size
cardboard form of John Wayne in the Western
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. The plot not to be confused
with that story where the woman’s head falls off
as her husband unties the ribbon’s silky knot secured
around her neck. The secret she kept her whole life
from the man she loved, a private strangeness
such as having, in your home, The John Wayne Room.
Egyptians dehydrated the human body by extracting
soft tissues. The torso, left intact so the soul, an airy thing,
could find its likeness in the afterlife. In this room,
John Wayne’s soul would have a number of likenesses
to confuse for the original John Wayne. The most alarming
of which is the John in a Box which is just as it sounds
except that it was not a box but a buck with a tail
for a crank, then: Pop goes the John Wayne.
Who thought of this is less disturbing than who would
buy this except I know the answer. I would have
John Wayne stuffed and mounted in The John Wayne Room
to look at when I’m an old man, Uncle declared.
I am not a taxidermist because I read “A Rose for Emily”
in high school and I know the need to keep something,
everything, long after it is gone, like youth, like love,
the longing to take it all with me because what is memory if not
the cadence of colliding, forgotten things, cymbals
that tempt a tremor from the body’s core and wake
that thing inside? I am not a taxidermist because I would stuff
my dog the time he got his head stuck in the railing
of our stoop. His leather tongue lapped happily at his dish
as sparks darted around his head from the iron cutters
like the squirrels he was about to chase, mad with desire.
I am not a taxidermist because I would pull the skin
off the kind of sleep I got as a kid, drape it around me
so I could remember what it’s like to be ten again.
I would freeze-dry the first time I let music move inside me
like a sinuous being, fit to romp for days. Yes, the sadness
of these things gone, but I am not a taxidermist
because how do I find the exact eyes Tracey had,
shiny with tears, shaking, when she looked at me,
her father’s fist blued into the knob of her chin?
Or her body the night she huddled beneath my porch light
over a spread of Gin Rummy at midnight, that terrible hand
just across the street. Then the girl with the strange name
in ninth grade, the girl with those cheeks, pocked and red
and pus-capped, that frantic hair, I would mount her
on a shelf so I could look at her, wonder why I wasn’t nicer.
I am not a taxidermist because I would cast all the women
from now that I might never get to be, shake my fist at them
and demand a list of failures. I am not a taxidermist because
one day I would sit surrounded in my John Wayne Room
of All I Wished Forgotten. People in town would wonder
about me, rumor what they don’t know. And I,
an old lady in a rocking chair, would stare stolidly
at the hybrid creature of trauma and whiskey sickness,
the griffin myth of if I woke to her groping me
the way I swore she did while I stirred from sleep
in my dormitory bed. Too afraid then to confront
that beast, now I’d stuff it, I’d give it back its teeth.
* * *
This originally appeared in Rattle on August 31, 2011.
Lauren Marie Schmidt is the author of three collections of poetry: Two Black Eyes and a Patch of Hair Missing; The Voodoo Doll Parade, selected for the Main Street Rag Author’s Choice Chapbook Series; and Psalms of The Dining Room, a sequence of poems about her volunteer experience at a soup kitchen in Eugene, Oregon. Her work has appeared in journals such as North American Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Rattle, Nimrod, Painted Bride Quarterly, PANK, New York Quarterly, Bellevue Literary Review, The Progressive, and others. Her awards include the So to Speak Poetry Prize, the Neil Postman Prize for Metaphor, the Janet B. McCabe Prize for Poetry, and the Bellevue Literary Review’s Vilcek Prize for Poetry. Her fourth collection, Filthy Labors, was released this year from Northwestern University Press. Schmidt is currently at work on a YA novel.