Reprise (or Reprieve)


By Louise Ure

 Oh, man, this has never happened to me before. Here it is, my Tuesday, and I got nothing for you. In 117 separate blog postings, I’ve never been so empty of ideas. Maybe it’s because I just had dinner tonight with Pulitzer prize winner and US Poet Laureate, Kay Ryan, and a small group of truly creative, curious and gregarious friends of hers. It only lasted a couple of hours; we had to hurry to the Herbst Theater where she was to be interviewed for NPR’s City Arts & Lectures series.

Ryan is a self-deprecating wit … a woman in love with cadence and word sounds, but whose work is closer to Robert Frost than Emily Dickinson. “I love reading murder mysteries,” Ryan told me with a wink. “They generate such an empty mind.”

It’s nice to know that there are still fascinating, witty and kind people out there. It’s just that today I’m not one of them.

On the other hand, I crossed a busy street today without noticing the red light and almost got run down. I couldn’t answer the guy who asked me what time it was because I had forgotten that iPhones have the time on them as well as everything else. And I slid the deposit envelope in at the bank before realizing I hadn’t put any checks in it. Just spacy, I guess.

In recognition of that (and the fact that it’s already midnight and I don’t have a blog post for you) I’m reprising a post from four years ago that meant a lot to me. Hope there are some newbies here who haven’t seen it yet.


My First Dead Body

I came across my first dead body when I was sixteen. I don’t remember his name and I’m sorry about that. Especially because I had so much to do with killing him.

I was cheerleader-fit that summer, and as callous and superficial as only a teenage girl can be. My mind was on high dives and bikini lines. Kevin and Eldon and Keith.  Not on the job at hand.

I was the rent collector at my mother’s rooming house and I wasn’t happy about it.

The boarding house had a proud past and a dissolute future. It was built in 1888 to house the engineers, conductors and brakemen from the new transcontinental railroad that had just reached territorial Arizona, and was both the first-built and the last-standing two-story adobe building in Tucson.

By 1967, the time of my story, its decline was complete. The two-foot thick adobe walls were crumbling. Mice and mosquitoes used the sliced screen doors as grand promenades. There were only three hallway bathrooms left to service the twenty-eight guest rooms.

The clientele was in similar decline. We now catered only to the drunk, the sad, and the desperate. Sometimes they were the same person.

Friday was always a good day for collections. I took in thirty-five one-dollar bills from the Indian in room fourteen, keeping a wary eye on the knife handle sticking out from under his mattress. Lucy, my longest guest-in-residence in number twenty-three, wore only a polyester slip and painted on eyebrows. She had an open bottle of vodka on the bedside table. No glass in sight.

The character in room seven was my biggest problem. A thin, wild-eyed Latino, he’d arrived only two weeks before but was already behind on the rent.

“I have one room left,” I’d told him. “Top of the stairs at the front of the building.”

My brother and I had used plywood and discarded railroad ties to cobble together another two rooms out of the grand old wooden balcony on the second floor.

The man had no luggage — that wasn’t unusual for my clientele — but when I opened the door to the porch room, he recoiled.

“It’s wood!”

“Yes, and it’s thirty five-dollars a week.”

“But I cannot …”

“You don’t want the room?”

“It’s the splinters.”

He was haunted by splinters from New Mexico, he said. They swarmed around him and prevented him from leaving town. They even kept him from going to see his daughter for help.

“They attack. They jab like knives. They try to blind me.”

“Take it or leave it.”

He’d steeled himself and swallowed hard. I handed him the key, but he was still standing in the hallway when I started back down the stairs.

Crazy fucker.

I did have one other room, but it hadn’t been cleaned and I wasn’t about to do that when it was a hundred and ten degrees out. And what the hell, it had a wooden ceiling too.

He’d paid for the first week, but I hadn’t seen him since. I’d squinted through the screen door when I’d come by on Wednesday. He was asleep on the bed and no amount of pounding or yelling could rouse him.

I wouldn’t go away empty handed today. I was hot and tired and angry about having to be a slumlord-cheerleader. I felt almost justified in having sentenced Mr. Cabeza Loca to a windowless, all-wooden room for the week.

But something was different today. The air was not just hot but fetid. There was a thickness to the smell, something that clung to the back of my throat like sewage.

He was on the bed. Dirty gray boxers and yellow toenails. One hand flung sideways off the mattress.

This time there was no rise and fall of his chest. No thin wheeze of restless sleep.

And his fingers were covered in a dark red tint.

The paramedics didn’t arrive very quickly. It was August, after all, and they had lots of dead bodies to attend to in this heat. When they did get there, I heard one paramedic tell his partner, “Did you see his fingers? He tried to claw his way out of there.”

I do not take death lightly now. Not in life and not in literature.

It is never pretty. It is rarely peaceful. And it can be soul rending to those left behind.

And I can’t read crime fiction that devalues that experience. I don’t care if you’re writing about an amateur sleuth who keeps tripping over bodies or the police detective who has to deal with them every day. Don’t make a joke of it. Or, if you do, show me that humor is the only way the character can deal with the death, because his heart is breaking.

Ken Bruen reminded us several weeks ago about the Bossuet quote:

“One must know oneself,

to the point of being horrified.” 

I do, and this nameless man on a Friday in August, 1967, is part of it.

We’re all carrying splinters from New Mexico somewhere in our past.

22 thoughts on “Reprise (or Reprieve)

  1. Shizuka


    The fingers covered by a dark red tint, the cobbled-together wooden room — I love these details and they'll stay with me for days. And I never knew "splinters" could mean something else. This is the first time I've read this and I hope you'll write more shorts.


  2. Louise Ure

    Good morning, Shizuka and Sarah. I'm so glad this post found new eyes.

    And yeah, Alafair, I thought she was actually complimenting the genre until the second half of that sentence.

  3. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Amazing post, Louise, and, no, though I'm not so much a newbie anymore I came aboard later than your first posting of this blog. It's descriptive and intense. No wonder you became such a good writer, you grew up like Jim Thompson. I mean, come on, who has a childhood like that? You collected rent from thieves, prostitutes and the depraved in a dilapidated adobe boarding house in Arizona? Writers now PAY for that experience! Shit, Louise, I don't feel damaged at all. It's just not fair.

  4. David Corbett

    Oh, Louise.

    What a way to begin my Tuesday.

    First, I'm a little concerned about the absent-mindedness and the distraction. Perhaps they're just reflections of having way too much on your mind. Or (as I more than suspect) there's an anniversary you're dealing with. You needn't respond here, you can email me privately, but you're very much in my heart and in my thoughts today. I know that distraction and absent-mindedness. I love you, little sister. You're one of the bravest, kindest, finest hearts I know. (No, you don't horrify me in the least.)

    As for Kay Ryan's remark, I couldn't help thinking of these witty ripostes (which now officially qualify, I suppose, as pensées d'escaliers):

    Kay Ryan: "They generate such an empty mind."

    Louise Ure: "That's no doubt a blessing after the clutter poetry leaves behind."


    "Oh, I'm sure the emptiness was there to begin with."


    "You've no doubt read Sensei Chandler's masterful essay, "Zen and the Simple Art of Murder"?"


    "I wondered what was creating that whistling sound coming from your ear."


    "Let us go then, you and I
    When the evening is spread against the sky
    Like a pompous poet bloated with gas."

    I could go on. But will restrain myself. (Don't forget to tip your waitress.)

    As for your post: Jesus. No apologies, please. "The drunk, the sad and the desperate" — My people! "Slumlord cheerleader" — man, that should be a title. Or a punk band.

    But then that final image, the crazy fucker who died trying to claw his way out of the room you made him sleep in. That just exploded in my heart and brain and the detonation keeps echoing.

    Your bringing back the Bossuet quote really clinched the deal. I fear you may be too hard on yourself, though, but only because I'm so familiar with the inclination.

    There are moments when we look at something like this and see how full of ourselves we were, and how rudely life shook us out of our vanity and our selfish preoccupations. But if we horrify ourselves, that too is vanity.

    As the great Ann Peebles sang in Breaking Up Somebody's Home: "I didn't make myself." (That song is an anthem to the power of simple human loneliness to fuel our worst impulses.)

    Yeah, we're a mess, we're petty and venal and jealous and weak. We slip snarky little digs into compliments at dinner parties. We mock crazy people who then turn around and try to claw their way out of hell. But I don't know if being horrified is the way to go. Sobered? Humbled? Put in our place? Sure.

    It's always the person staring back from the mirror who scares us the most. Because the ego's a liar and we can't escape that. That's as true of me as it is of you. You're not alone.

    I need a nap now. And it's 9:15 in the morning.


  5. Louise Ure

    Jesus, David, I should have just asked you to post for me this morning. You added so much more to the post than I could have.

    I'm definitely going to borrow your "No doubt a blessing after the clutter poetry leaves behind" bot mot. I'll credit you the first three times I use it; after that it's all mine.

    Thank you again for your big heart. Sorry to have exploded it so early in the day. But is there really any good time to read (or write) a sad, short story that makes you hate yourself?

  6. David Corbett


    Two most important words I ever heard as a writer: "Steal wisely" (Oakley Hall). The bon mot is yours.

    My heart didn't explode, it just got heavy, thinking of you. And I don't regret it. Boy, au contraire, mon chéri, made my morning, and put me on the right track for my own work.

    Thank you thank you thank you thank you.


  7. Murderati fan

    Oh, man, this has never happened to me before. Here it is, my Tuesday, and I got nothing for you. In 117 separate blog postings, I've never been so empty of ideas. Maybe it's because I just had dinner tonight with Pulitzer prize winner and US Poet Laureate, Kay Ryan, and a small group of truly creative, curious and gregarious friends of hers. It only lasted a couple of hours; we had to hurry to the Herbst Theater where she was to be interviewed for NPR's City Arts & Lectures series.

    Holy Shi_, Louise, one of these days you've got to upgrade the class of people you hang with.

    Any time I scroll down a post more than three times, I suspect it's David. Isn't he a marvel?
    To be worried about your slight mental meanderings. Bet he's never found his car keys in the fridge. The Wirz

  8. Louise Ure

    Wirz, I think it's those truly interesting folks I've been hanging with that have given me such a sense of worthlessness! I need friends in lower places if I'm going to start thinking I'm all so special.

    And about those car keys in the refrigerator? Erm … that's the way my mom started, too. Losing it, I mean. Watch yourself, sweetheart.

    All Ures, David.

  9. Reine

    Louise, I had never read this. I am so glad you reposted it. It is brilliant… so absorbing… god. The comments, too… mm.

  10. Sylvia

    Riveting! Thank you for re-posting as I don't recall reading it. The yellow toenails… urgh.

    Hey, I was absent-minded today too. It must be in the air. I put the wrong checks in the envelopes, sealed them up and mailed one. I'd like to say it is Tuesday, fog, whatever.

  11. Louise Ure

    Thanks Zoe, Reine and Sylvia for the news eyes on this blog post.

    Yeah, sure Sylvia. Tuesday. Fog. First quarter of the 21st century blues.

  12. PD Martin

    Great post, Louise. And definitely new to me 🙂

    My childhood wasn't tortured and I don't hang out with any cool, famous types. Hope they're not pre-requisites for writing!

    I am, however, extremely absent-minded all the time. I try to tell my husband that it's all part of being "creative" and a "writer" but it doesn't usually fly. Perhaps if you're more absent-minded than usual an amazing, brilliant idea or character is brewing in the sub-conscious. All your brain power is on that rather than trivial things like crossing the road. Spacy can be good, but do be careful outdoors!

    Hope you ended up having a good day.


  13. KDJames

    Louise, your writing is beautiful even, maybe especially, when you delve into the ugliness. I hadn't read this either and am grateful you decided to bring it into the present.

    But I hate it, absolutely fucking hate it, that you are feeling worthless. You are so badly mistaken. Knock it off (she said affectionately).

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