Dear Mr. Hammett

By: JR Rhine

Dear Mr. Hammett,

Sometimes I fancy myself a gumshoe whenever I hear another elder at a town hall meeting bemoan Where are the youth as another steakhouse is built, Why all the drugs when the opioid epidemic plants kids purple-faced face down on the golf course, to be a seed growing veins to soak up what the earth couldn’t. I prowl these Amish streets at dawn looking for your specter, over a century since you were born to the farmers and watermen who still call this county home. Gone are the cobblestone streets on Great Mills Boulevard; the gambling huts, the strip clubs, the drunken sailors stumbling into the dark country night clashing dangerously with the new world brought by wartime. You see, while you were battling influenza overseas, Uncle Sam set up shop with a naval base on the Patuxent river. Pax river, along with the Potomac from the West flow into the Chesapeake Bay, which I learned is this country’s largest estuary, meaning a body of water containing both freshwater and saltwater, from the Atlantic. They call the water brackish, call the jellyfish that flock here in the humid summer months sea nettles, call Lexington Park where Black families live in crumbling concrete the ghetto, on a road most naval base workers have to drive down on their way to build a better bomb. There’s a community of dwellers living out in the woods in an enclave the locals call Tent City. It’s right by the elementary school I teach at. Sometimes the Tent City-folk wave at us beyond the fence on their way home, past the treeline. One resident is known locally as Jesus: He wears all-white, more off-white now, with long white hair and a long white beard, often carrying a huge thick bible, or a literal cross over his head. It’s become the kind of town where they paint the crosswalks not so much for the foot traffic but the legalities, making you wonder which of your friends’ ghosts are making use of them. And the horse shit that paints the shoulders of the road, trailing the Amish buggies, makes you almost want to look into the mess for a Rorschach, see if these streets stare back into you as much as you into them. There is a cardboard Hatchetman propped up with flowers on the shoulder of Patuxent Boulevard where a Juggalo was crushed by a cement truck. Only in a small town can the deaths of its inhabitants become landmarks. Immortalization when only so much can really change. We grow accustomed to the sounds of jets screaming overhead, wailing sirens, the mugshot or funeral photo on Facebook of someone we graduated high school with. Class of the Who Got Out. Dash, can I call you Dash?—I met your distant nephew a few years back while playing in a church band. I asked if the family still got Maltese Falcon royalties. He said pennies on the dollar roll in, your legacy that you died drunk and penniless like the rest of ‘em. The thing about an estuary, the thing about brackish water is how the taste can be bittersweet. The blood rush and bite. Swimming in the runoff and the beckoning of a body deeper and mysterious. Here to rub salt in our wounded baptisms. Sam Spade, your partner’s been found dead, washed up under the Solomon’s bridge. O’Shaughnessy’s been cleared, but her track marks pepper the veins of those camped along these rivers of blood. Mirroring all the familiar cracks in the sidewalks. I imagine a day when this peninsula, sick of its dead, will saw itself off and dissolve into the waiting bed of the ocean. How mysterious. Whenever I come across one of your books at a local sale, I snag it. My favorite right now is Red Harvest. My favorite line of yours comes from The Thin Man, which is “I prefer lanky brunettes with wicked jaws.”

JR Rhine

—St. Mary’s County, Maryland, August 2020

JR Rhine is a poet, musician, and educator living in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. His newest collection of poems, Expired Damages, is now available online. He tweets @jarjarrhine and is on Instagram @jrrhinepoetry.