The Shooting of John Dillinger Outside the Biograph Theater, July 22, 1934
Chicago ran a fever of a hundred and one that groggy Sunday. A reporter fried an egg on a sidewalk; the air looked shaky. And a hundred thousand people were in the lake like shirts in a laundry. Why was Johnny lonely? Not because two dozen solid citizens, heat-struck, had keeled over backward. Not because those lawful souls had fallen out of their sockets and melted. But because the sun went down like a lump in a furnace or a bull in the Stockyards. Where was Johnny headed? Under the Biograph Theater sign that said, "Our Air is Refrigerated." Past seventeen FBI men and four policemen who stood in doorways and sweated. Johnny sat down in a cold seat to watch Clark Gable get electrocuted. Had Johnny been mistreated? Yes, but Gable told the D.A. he'd rather fry than be shut up forever. Two women sat by Johnny. One looked sweet, one looked like J. Edgar Hoover. Polly Hamilton made him feel hot, but Anna Sage made him shiver. Was Johnny a good lover? Yes, but he passed out his share of squeezes and pokes like a jittery masher While Agent Purvis sneaked up and down the aisle like an extra usher, Trying to make sure they wouldn't slip out till the show was over. Was Johnny a fourflusher? No, not if he knew the game. He got it up or got it back. But he liked to take snapshots of policemen with his own Kodak, And once in a while he liked to take them with an automatic. Why was Johnny frantic? Because he couldn't take a walk or sit down in a movie Without begin afraid he'd run smack into somebody Who'd point at his rearranged face and holler, "Johnny!" Was Johnny ugly? Yes, because Dr. Wilhelm Loeser had given him a new profile With a baggy jawline and squint eyes and an erased dimple, With kangaroo-tendon cheekbones and a gigolo's mustache that should've been illegal. Did Johnny love a girl? Yes, a good-looking, hard-headed Indian named Billie Frechette. He wanted to marry her and lie down and try to get over it, But she was locked in jail for giving him first-aid and comfort. Did Johnny feel hurt? He felt like breaking a bank or jumping over a railing Into some panicky teller's cage to shout, "Reach for the ceiling!" Or like kicking some vice president in the bum checks and smiling. What was he really doing? Going up the aisle with the crowd and into the lobby With Polly saying, "Would you do what Clark done?" And Johnny saying, "Maybe." And Anna saying, "If he'd been smart, he'd of acted like Bing Crosby." Did Johnny look flashy? Yes, his white-on-white shirt and tie were luminous. His trousers were creased like knives to the tops of his shoes, And his yellow straw hat came down to his dark glasses. Was Johnny suspicious? Yes, and when Agent Purvis signalled with a trembling cigar, Johnny ducked left and ran out of the theater, And innocent Polly and squealing Anna were left nowhere. Was Johnny a fast runner? No, but he crouched and scurried past a friendly liquor store Under the coupled arms of double-daters, under awnings, under stars, To the curb at the mouth of an alley. He hunched there. Was Johnny a thinker? No, but he was thinking more or less of Billie Frechette Who was lost in prison for longer than he could possibly wait, And then it was suddenly too hard to think around a bullet. Did anyone shoot straight? Yes, but Mrs. Etta Natalsky fell out from under her picture hat. Theresa Paulus sprawled on the sidewalk, clutching her left foot. And both of them groaned loud and long under the streetlight. Did Johnny like that? No, but he lay down with those strange women, his face in the alley, One shoe off, cinders in his mouth, his eyelids heavy. When they shouted questions at him, he talked back to nobody. Did Johnny lie easy? Yes, holding his gun and holding his breath as a last trick, He waited, but when the Agents came close, his breath wouldn't work. Clark Gable walked his last mile; Johnny ran a half a block. Did he run out of luck? Yes, before he was cool, they had him spread out on dished-in marble In the Cook County Morgue, surrounded by babbling people With a crime reporter presiding over the head of the table. Did Johnny have a soul? Yes, and it was climbing his slippery wind-pipe like a trapped burglar. It was beating the inside of his ribcage, hollering, "Let me out of here!" Maybe it got out, and maybe it just stayed there. Was Johnny a money-maker? Yes, and thousands paid 25¢ to see him, mostly women, And one said, "I wouldn't have come, except he's a moral lesson," And another, "I'm disappointed. He feels like a dead man." Did Johnny have a brain? Yes, and it always worked best through the worst of dangers, Through flat-footed hammerlocks, through guarded doors, around corners, But it got taken out in the morgue and sold to some doctors. Could Johnny take orders? No, but he stayed in the wicker basket carried by six men Through the bulging crowd to the hearse and let himself be locked in, And he stayed put as it went driving south in a driving rain. And he didn't get stolen? No, not even after his old hard-nosed dad refused to sell The quick-drawing corpse for $10,000 to somebody in a carnival. He figured he'd let Johnny decide how to get to Hell. Did anyone wish him well? Yes, half of Indiana camped in the family pasture, And the minister said, "With luck, he could have been a minister." And up the sleeve of his oversized gray suit, Johnny twitched a finger. Does anyone remember? Everyone still alive. And some dead ones. It was a new kind of holiday With hot and cold drinks and hot and cold tears. They planted him in a cemetery With three unknown vice presidents, Benjamin Harrison, and James Whitcomb Riley, Who never held up anybody.
From Staying Alive by David Wagoner. Copyright © 1966 by David Wagoner. Used with permission.