The Last Words of Pancho Villa
Vol. XXVI, no. 2
Thomas Edison, his body unwinding
on a bed in Menlo Park, turned his head
toward the window. It's very beautiful
over there, he said. I imagine him
lying on a litter of the flotsam and jetsam
of invention, his delicate head propped
on an old phonograph cylinder. What
is the recording? An assistant singing?
The long, low whistle of a distant train?
A projector chatters as it throws an image
against a wall: a man sneezing, another
performing the Ghost Dance, a team
of assistants electrocuting an elephant.
What did he see through that window,
and when he called it beautiful, did he
wish he was somewhere or someone else,
that the world in which he was dying
was not beautiful at all? It's easy
to imagine this, though I don't know
much about Edison, or anyone, really,
though I like to believe that listening
brings us closer, sometimes against
our will. I can't help but love the jokes
of killers with a sense of humor,
condemned men of vaudevillian wit.
As they strapped him into the chair,
Appel said: Well, gentlemen, you
are about to see a baked apple.
And French, when his turn came
said: How about this for a headline?
French fries. Even the worst villains
sometimes have a gift for poetry.
Standing at the gallows, Carl Panzram
said: I wish the whole human race
had one neck and I had my hands on it.
I can't argue with such deft aphorisms,
no matter how venomous. Words
work that way, ratcheting us closer
to one another, even as the gaps
between us grow wider and more
perilous. Amelia Earhart beamed
her voice out to the earless lull
of radio waves: We must be on you,
but we cannot see you. Fuel
is running low. I wonder if she knew
that no one would answer back,
that while her words found someone,
she would not be found? And if
she had known, what would she toss
into the pool of air and static?
A letter to a secret lover, a testament
of faith, or something more mundane?
Would she beg for the last pages
of a book left unfinished on land,
an apple from a certain orchard,
or to hold a glass of cold tea against
her wrist? I would believe any
of this—we want the smallest pleasures
most of all, don't we? Conrad Hilton,
dying, said only: Leave the curtain
on the inside of the tub. Thomas Grasso,
murderer, complained: I did not get
my Spaghetti-Os. I got spaghetti.
I want the press to know this. Details.
matter, even when we're dying:
we ask the condemned for last words
because to deny them that, somehow,
seems worse than death. Einstein's
last words vanished into his nurse's
ignorant ear like a stone thrown down
a long, dry well—she mistook his German
for babble. And even with four gospels,
the Christians can't get their Messiah's
last breath straight, though I suppose
it makes sense to keep their options
open, to reserve those different verses—
despair or resignation—for the days
that need them. Most tragic of all,
however, are those who have nothing
to say, no word to draw us close
one last time. Seven riflemen shot
Pancho Villa while he was driving
through Parral, his roadster loaded
down with gold, flanked by bodyguards.
I imagine this scene as the finale
of an epic western film: Villa staggers
into the dusty street to fire a shot
at one of the riflemen, who crumples
and falls from the roof to the wooden
sidewalk. One of Villa's Dorades,
his golden ones, closer to Villa than
any other—a cousin perhaps—rushes
over and, weeping, lifts the revolutionary
by his bandoliers, whispers something
into his ear. Villa, coughing blood,
delivers a monologue—inspirational,
but short—and dies. Of course,
this does not happen. Death is never
as romantic as we hope. In reality,
Villa has no time for soliloquies,
only time to say: Don't let it end
like this. Tell them I said something.