A Martian Named Smith

A hard, cold wisdom is required for goodness to accomplish good. Goodness without wisdom always accomplishes evil.
-Robert Heinlein

The last time we spoke, you were working
for an off-brand convenience store
on the gulf coast. It was a job
you could get after prison. You pulled
fire down to the white ashes, tapped
the butt out on your sister’s living room rug,
and said, ‘Since I can’t drive, I’ve got a room
set up in the back. They gave me a cot.
Might as well have a chain around my leg.’
I said something about it being an easy commute,
and you smiled, just a little, a narrow fish hook
jag of the upper lip. It was Christmas,
but you didn’t eat. You were as skeletal as usual;
black hair going white, and you kept excusing yourself
to the garage. When you came back, you didn’t smell
of booze, but there was a burnt chemical smell
so it was probably meth.

Ten years ago, you met a woman on the internet
and drove out to California (in a stolen car,
without a license) to be with her. Forever.
She never wanted anything IRL,
never expected a visit. She was married, I think.
You came back a month later, on a greyhound,
wrapped in a church basement coat,
and you never answered any questions.

I remember that we talked about Heinlein,
about wanting to touch and be touched,
and the way that you quickly squeezed my breast
after Grandma’s funeral. I remember pulling back,
hiding in the cloak room among vestments
that had been shed and piled like skins.
You kept repeating, ‘My mother is dead,
my mother is dead. My mother is dead.’
You smelled like vomit and vodka and the nutty,
sour stench shared by all lonely men.

You weren’t much of an uncle.
As a father, you were so piss poor
that your only daughter probably won’t hear
about your news for another week or so.

When I was eight, you gave me a working tool kit
and taught me how to hammer a nail straight.
The tools were bright yellow, half scale,
but they worked. You taught me how
to unkink a bent spike, how to measure twice,
cut once. You gave me your stained copy
of Stranger In A Strange Land,
when I was too young for it.
You tried to teach me multiplication, but gave up
pretty quick. Every time I did something
my father didn’t like, he’d say, ‘You are going
to wind up exactly like your Uncle Bill.’

There isn’t going to be a funeral.
They found your body five days late,
when the neighbors reported a smell.
You couldn’t afford the dignity of the grave
and nobody has offered to pay this tab for you.
And all I can think of, now, is how hurt you were,
through your whole echoing life, how hurt
and how lonely, and how long five days can be
in the heat and the sun.



Bethany W Pope has won many literary awards and published several novels and collections of poetry. Nicholas Lezard, writing for The Guardian, described Bethany’s latest book as ‘poetry as salvation’…..’This harrowing collection drawn from a youth spent in an orphanage delights in language as a place of private escape.’ She currently lives and works in China.