Poetry Porch: Poetry

Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers”
by Robert K. Johnson

Two hired gunmen, Al and Max, enter a lunch-room, tie up the cook and Nick, a young 
customer, back in the kitchen. They tell the counterman, George, they will wait for a 
regular customer, the Swede, to come in and then kill him.
George: What are you going to do with us afterwards?
Max: That’ll depend. That’s one of those things you never know at the time.

And now George understood
that every day of his life,

he fell at a measureless speed
through a darkness that would drop him

to either warm splashing water
or the agony of concrete.

Later, a man comes in, and George quickly tells him that the cook is sick. “Why the hell
don’t you get another cook?” the man says and leaves. 

And though George could still see
plates of ham and eggs,
bacon and eggs on the counter,

the sight could not prevent him
from knowing that the world
he lived in was insane,
that while the cook and Nick,

bound and gagged, sat hidden
in the kitchen next to a killer
holding a gun to their heads,

a man had just complained
about not being served
a dinner and then stalked out,
slamming the door behind him.

When the Swede doesn’t show up, the gunmen leave. Nick runs to Hirsch’s rooming-
house, where the Swede lies in bed in his room. Nick tells him about the killers, but the 
Swede says he won’t try to elude them—“There ain’t anything to do.”

And the sympathy
that lay in the pit
of Nick’s stomach
like a hot sickness
was swept away

by a mounting rage
and the wish that the wall
behind the Swede
would collapse, crush
every bone in his body.

Leaving the Swede’s room in Hirsch’s rooming-house, Nick meets the landlady
Nick: Good-night, Mrs. Hirsch.
The landlady: I’m not Mrs. Hirsch. I’m Mrs. Bell.

And Nick, too bone-tired
to take another step,

hears her words
echo into a laughter

that tells him he—
that every human being—

knows nothing, 
nothing at all.


Copyright © 2005 by Robert K. Johnson.