To some, it may have seemed disturbing that an eleven year-old boy would take such an interest in a murderous homosexual outlaw, but to me I’d finally found someone I understood. Mark Adolf and I had snuck into the Lake Theater in my hometown of Oak Park, Illinois to see Bonnie and Clyde when it finally made its way to the suburbs. Sitting in the two-hour darkness of that day, something snapped into place that was wondrously confusing.
The end of the film made me turn away from Mark so he wouldn’t see my tears. The horrifying slaughter of these good people was enough to make me cringe and stare at the same time, but it was the final frames of the film when the filthy cruel locals came up to their newly destroyed, but still beautiful bodies, and clipped souvenirs off of them. That’s the part that really got to me.
I went back to the Lake the next day by myself, walked up to the ticket counter, plunking down an adult fare. I didn’t want any arguments from the staff. It was the first showing of the day, and I didn’t emerge from that theater until I had seen the film three more times. I swaggered out of that place, daring anyone to get in my way. I smiled a Beatty smile all the way home.
I always liked the movies, but for the first time, I realized their coolness, complexity, and power. I knew I wasn’t just looking at just a story anymore; I was seeing a piece of art. Something else happened that day, a baby chick’s beak breaking the first tiny hole in its eggshell. While it’s not explicit in the film, Clyde and C.W. certainly had a deep relationship, it seemed, one that was charged with an unspoken electricity, a friendship that looked fun even if, at the time, I didn’t have a clue what that meant. Clyde sure was a handsome devil, though, and that C.W. was a good looking fellow, too. They looked great together.
I happened by the local record store on the way home from school the next day, and saw they had the Bonnie and Clyde soundtrack. I’d have to save up two week’s allowance, and it was all I could think of the entire time, a countdown to hearing that music again. Maybe I should take up the banjo? When I finally bought it, I started to play the record, reading each word of the liner notes, staring at the black and white still of Clyde and Bonnie and Clyde’s very handsome brother, Buck, on the back cover. Just as “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” ended, dialogue from the film started. The record had dialogue!
I began to listen to certain parts over and over, memorizing the inflection and words of Clyde, but oddly enough, I was more drawn to Bonnie’s lines. In the opening scene of the film that also happened to be on the record, when a bored and frustrated Bonnie looks out from her upstairs bedroom window and catches Clyde starting to steal something out of the backyard, he calls up and invites her for a ride.
“Wait there. I’ll be right down.” She fixed the pin curl on the side of her head, and jumped into his car.
“I’ll be ri-i-i-ght down.” I repeated. I was sounding downright Texan.
Shortly after that scene, Bonnie was suddenly all over Clyde, trying to kiss him and reach into his pants, when Clyde bolted from the car, telling her to slow down. It’s a pivotal scene in the film, a coded indicator of his sexuality. All I knew was that I was compelled by her response, “your advertisin’s just dandy. Folks’d never guess you don’t have a thing to sell.”
Now why would Bonnie say that? I didn’t know, yet I couldn’t repeat it enough.
Mrs. Malone, my bleached-blonde sixth grade teacher with an unfortunate limp, assigned us to bring a poem into class and read it aloud. By this time, I had a well-thumbed paperback biography of the real Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. I knew Bonnie was a poet. She’d written three poems in her short tragic life, after all, and I could only imagine what she would’ve written if the law hadn’t cut her down in her prime.
I thought of choosing The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde, her last poem, written weeks before they were tricked into their death trap. Even with its amazing honesty and heartbreaking last stanza (Some day they'll go down together, they'll bury them side by side. To few it'll be grief, to the law a relief, but it's death for Bonnie and Clyde.) I opted for the drama of her epic, Suicide Sal.
I practiced the words, but more importantly, I practiced my Faye Dunaway for days before the performance. Around the house, I would drawl my words, bat my eyes, and I eventually Bonnied my dad into silence. My mother, when she was conscious, thought I was acting like a sissy, but I explained that I was readying myself for a school project.
“What kind of goddamned school project is that?”
“I’m reading a poem.” She lit a cigarette and looked away, disgusted. She didn’t understand the level of commitment an artist needs.
On the day of the reading, I’d written the poem out in cursive on a sheet of lined paper. I had it neatly folded in half, kept safe inside one of my schoolbooks. The first person to read was Leslie Gombiner, who chose a selection by Robert Frost. I smirked. Next up was Dan Van Zandt. He stumbled his way through something by Ralph Waldo Emerson. What an uncreative jerk, I thought. After all, we went to the Ralph Waldo Emerson School. This class needed some excitement.
I was next in line. I hated reading in front of people, my throat usually tightened up, and I got that feeling in my chest that made it hard to breathe. I boosted my confidence that day, though, by dressing like a million bucks. For the occasion, I was wearing a cowboy-type shirt that had snaps instead of buttons and skintight corduroys with my penny loafers. I stood up, walked to the front of the class, and unfolded my paper. It was a long poem that covered the front side of the sheet and half the back, single-spaced. After pausing for a moment of anticipation, in my best Texas voice, I read:
I was born on a ranch in Wyoming;
Not treated like Helen of Troy,
I was taught that rods were rulers
And ranked as a greasy cowboy.
Then I left my old home for the city
To play in its mad dizzy whirl,
Not knowing how little of pity
It holds for a country girl.
There I fell for the line of a henchman
A professional killer from Chi
I couldn't help loving him madly,
For him even I would die.
There were laughs and grunts from the class, and I lost my place in the poem even though my finger was trying to keep track. My throat closed and by the time I got to the ending, I was barely spitting out anything audible.
Not long ago I read in the paper
That a gal on the East Side got hot
And when the smoke finally retreated,
Two of gangdom were found on the spot.
It related the colorful story
Of a jilted gangster gal
Two days later, a sub-gun ended
The story of Suicide Sal.
I slunk back to my desk with my head down. Mark Adolf leaned over and said, “Good one, Ace,” then laughed.
When I got home, I went right to my room. My mom yelled for me to come to her room where she was lying in bed, smoking, and asked, “How’d your poem go?”
“It went great.” She looked at me for a second, then away, off into the distance of her medicine. I went back to my room, closed the door, and put on the soundtrack of Bonnie and Clyde. I sat on the floor and started to mouth the words along with Faye Dunaway.