Alberta Clipper 10/27/15: “Urban Legend” by Denise Duhamel

by Holly Fleck

Filed under: Blog |

“It sounds like an urban legend, except it really happened.”

The infamous Axeman of New Orleans, having reigned in terror over the city from May 1918 to October 1919, killed his last victim on October 27, 1919. Mike Pepitone’s wife was surprised to find her living room turned into a blood-splattered canvas, with her husband and a ruined painting of the Virgin Mary at the foreground. Out of the corner of her eye she witnessed an ax-wielding shadow flee into the night.

Though this was the last of the official murders, the local newspaper received and published a letter addressed from “hell” on March 13, 1919.  The letter included chilling statements made by the Axeman. He claimed that he was not a mortal human being, but rather a demon from the hottest hell. The most startling declaration was that at 12:15 AM exactly on the next Tuesday night, he would being paying a visit to the people of New Orleans. However, there was a catch: Every jazz hall and home with a jazz band playing at full swing would be spared.

The entire city of New Orleans greeted that night with trombones and saxophones. No one was killed. The identity of the Axeman was never revealed.

Flash forward to the summer of 2005 in Lincoln, Nebraska. The weather that hugged Prairie Schooner imitated the thick, muggy air of New Orleans, as if the city was placed under a curse by a Voodoo queen. The temperatures in late June reached 97 degrees. The maximum humidity percentage was predicted to reach 100%. 

Though the office must have felt like a Louisiana swamp, the summer 2005 issue of Prairie Schooner was published without incident. This issue included a piece called “Urban Legend” by Denise Duhamel, in which she writes about the narrator’s parents being caught in an elevator accident. Much like the story of the Axeman of New Orleans, the author pieces together the scraps of a happening that sounds like a story that children would whisper to one another over a flashlight at a sleepover. Except it really happened.  –Holly Fleck

Denise Duhamel

Urban Legend

Two best friends draw a circle in the sand and say hello to the full moon, not knowing that eight states away one friend’s mother is in the trauma unit.  A dark fist of clouds grips the moon, and one of the friends feels a moon pit in her moon stomach.


Her father insists that he is fine but the doctor points to the heart monitor where there are dangerous dips in the hills. Her father says he wants to see his wife two floors up in the same hospital. His wife is put into a room with someone else from the same accident, a woman who insists she was covered with his wife’s blood. His wife makes a dry-cleaning joke. His wife squeezes her morphine drip and the cloud fist finally releases the bald moon, the cloud’s fingers turning dark like hair covered in blood.


When both of your parents almost die the same day, everything starts to sound odd: Give me liberty or give me death. Give me puberty or give me wealth. Give me lunacy or crystal meth. Give me Mini Me or give me Austin. Give me Miami or give me Boston. Give me Sally or give me Beth. Stifle me or give me death.


For example, Ice Novel is an anagram for Violence.

Ice Novel

They were once live,
They knew nice love.
They were never once evil,
Never once vile.
She was el novice
Cooking in a lice oven
In her once veil
Until that subordinate Xmas, that vice noel.


My parents were in an escalator accident. A pileup of fifteen people. My mother lost her hair, and almost bled to death. My father’s heart went out of whack. They were rushed to an emergency room in Atlantic City. The doctors were having trouble finding enough tetanus for everyone hurt. It sounds like an urban legend, except it really happened.


When I take a plane to New Jersey, it’s September 11th. 2003. I’m almost the only passenger on Spirit Air. I’ve packed scarves, lots of scarves, to bring to my mother in the hospital, since I imagine all her hair is gone. The scarves are the ones Nick’s mother wore before she got Alzheimer’s. “What about this one?” Nick says, holding up the black and pink flowers. “Or this one?” He holds up the yellow stripes. The purple and white checks.


I sit next to a businessman who has a bad back, who had originally wanted to drive home in one of the company cars, but his job ran late and he’s lost his wedding ring and his wife isn’t happy. I tell him about the escalator accident, what I know so far, and I call it a freak accident and it occurs to me for the first time that’s what it is and when I get to the hospital I hear about the woman whose earring was caught and how her lobe split open, a parting curtain.


The escalator accident, the escalating conflict in Iraq, fears escalating, escalating tensions…. I see the word escalate everywhere in the news.


I know what I’ll do. I’ll write a sestina using only up and down as end words:

up/ with people; don’t give up; stick ‘em up; get up; gitty up/pony; this is a hold up; cheer up, give me ten sit-ups; shape up; shut up; up tempo; up/ ward mobility; we all have our ups/and downs; up up up/in a puff of smoke; up up/and away in my beautiful balloon; movin’ on up/(like the Jeffersons); up/the ante; we all have our ups/and downs; are you down/with it; a real downer; Down/ syndrome; Downy/Softener, going down/for the count; touch down; low down; down/ward mobility; down/ward spiral; down/the hatch; down/the pike: down/and out


A few weeks later, taking care of my parents, I pray on the wooden floor inside my childhood bedroom. By now the moon is a bowl of cereal my parents are too weak to eat. I get on my knees, keep my back straight. I don’t cheat, I don’t lean my body into the side of the bed or stay in bed altogether, like I’ve done before, sure God or Whoever would hear me even with my blanket over my shoulder. I used to pray from the comfort of my bed, not even lifting my head from the pillow. God will hear me, I used to think – God wouldn’t want me to get up from under the warmth of the covers, but now that my parents are so close to death I want God and the Universe to know this time I mean business. I want God, when he scans the crowd of praying folk on earth, to readily see me kneeling, see my earnestness and follow my thoughts right to my parents. And by then, he’d become just God, big bearded God with lightning bolt hands, big bearded God that expected an apology for my sloppy praying in the past or for the prayers I forgot all together. So sorry, I said to that God, and meant it.

Prairie Schooner, Vol. 79, No. 2 (Summer 2005), pp. 83-85

The Alberta Clipper is a biweekly gust of history—brushing the dust off of a poem from our archives and situating it in the current events and local Nebraskan weather reports of days gone by. Explore theAlberta Clipper archives here.