Last Conversation

Years ago, Margo and I met
by the only window in the psych ward
and dreamed of eating Kung Pao chicken
in a little joint with red and white
checked tablecloths
that you normally find in Italian restaurants.

That same day in Milwaukee
Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested by police.

Margo told me she always wanted to be a writer
but her poor penmanship stopped her
from freeing into the world
all her personalities.

I promised when we got out
to purchase dozens of paper tablets
a fountain pen and a box of ink cartridges
so she could write.
I guaranteed her that her penmanship
would improve with all the pages.

She turned to me tears in eyes
and stated she lost who she was a moment ago.
We searched all night but Margo was not
on the ward anymore.

copyright © 2023 Kenneth P. Gurney


Because the statues
were so much plastic kitsch,
I found it difficult
to take the doctors seriously.

I took their
institutional questions as obscene
while sitting on frayed lawn chairs
on freshly cut grass.

We sat in a half circle
with the psych doctor opposite us,
wondering if our similar defects
make us kin or family.

I had not yet learned
your names or your ages
but the doctor felt at ease
telling everyone our middle names.

The doctor told us we looked beautiful.
Me with my white goatee.
Gale with the bandage around
a self-inflicted gunshot wound in her thigh.

Marla’s face still droopy
after the forced calm of a Thorazine night.
Carlos full of machismo in his wheelchair
knowing diabetes eats his remaining leg.

The doctor asked us to speak our truths
as if her pen was a magic wand
to move the stone over the cave entrance
to allow the Christ to rise.

We talked around metastasized memories
and treatment theories from previous occasions
spent with hospital bands around wrists
and rotations of others in the circle.

We nervously told pornographic jokes.
One of which keyed a lock in Gale’s mental closet
and the memory delivered a first round, one punch
knock out that ended the session.

For participation we were awarded
blue bubble gum cigars,
which lead to Groucho imitations
from the oldest of us.

copyright © 2020 Kenneth P. Gurney


A girl who walked away
from the psych ward
sat next to me at my cafe.
Her white ID bracelet
clued me to her name.
Sam in quotation marks.
She sat stone quiet for twenty minutes.
She drank from a paper cup.
Water with four sugars.
She chewed on a stir stick.
Sam turned toward me.
Hold up your hands in a triangle
and face the sun with your eyes closed.
You will see two eggs move like sperm
and penetrate the triangle.

Do it, she softly requested.
Do it, she repeated with undertow urgency.
Before I complied, Sam got up
and walked to another table.
She cornered herself
as far from the cafe entrance as possible.
A woman in black scrubs
with hospital ID tag on her breast pocket
walked purposefully toward her.
Hello sweetie. It’s time to go back.
No, said Sam. I wait for a friend.
What is the friend’s name, sweetie?
Sam’s thousand yard stare glazed the sun
streaked window an employee cleaned.
Three more nurse types in blue scrubs
entered the cafe and beelined to Sam.
Out numbered she surrendered,
They guided her out as quietly as she had sat.

When Sam first started talking to me
I did not recognize my opportunity
to introduce myself,
so her summons for friendship
would have had a name
she could carry back to the ward.

copyright © 2019 Kenneth P. Gurney


This poem is 85% true and 15% poetic license. On 13 September while I sat at the counter of my favorite cafe writing poems, a young woman sat down next to me with the paper cup, wearing street clothes and the hospital wrist band. She was very quite for twenty minutes and seemed withdrawn into her own thoughts. Since I never learned her name, I made a name up for the poem.

The real life scene played out much as it does in the poem. The part about forming hands into a triangle and staring at the sun was quite important to her. I had just made the triangle shape she showed me, when she got up and moved to the farthest corner of the cafe. The nurse in black scrubs entered the cafe shortly thereafter and bee-lined to the girl.

I do not know if depression and life trauma affect a greater percentage of the country today than in the past. Even with all of our modern stresses I find it hard to believe today is more stressful than living through the Great Depression or the Spanish Influenza/WWI years. I think in modern times it is more accepted by society to reveal depression and trauma and to openly seek help.

Live with good mental health today (one day at a time).

Love & Light