IAN PATRICK MILLER
“Got old,” my cousin tells me in our grandmother's kitchen. We’re drinking Old Styles. “I could sleep when I was a kid. Didn’t matter where I’d been. What I done. High for three, four days straight.” He smirks, the lines of his mouth going sharp and deep.
Even nervous, “Agitated as chickens,” his body a thrum of loose electrical wire, my cousin stays steady. “Because I’m an adult,” he says. With a job at the Furniture Emporium & Rent-to-Own where he cashiers and sometimes janitors.
This is Joplin, Missouri. Our grandmother is dying. The family has congregated. My cousin’s mother is my father’s sister, both raised in Joplin. My father got out, San Francisco then Seattle. His sister didn’t.
I live in Chicago, my life stuck in the ostensible. You know the kind: third-story studio in Rogers Park, 675 a month, atop a street splotchy with oil stains whenever it’s not full of parked cars, clogged snow. I work in admin, corporate coffee. I don’t have a boyfriend, a girlfriend, I don’t even touch myself. Three shelves of books beside the bed—Hegel and Lacan; I like the sound of Hegel and Lacan—and there’s a collapsable card table where I stay alive on Lebanese takeout and evaporated milk. I never use the fridge, it smells of old breath, and the only sink is in the bathroom. But I have the window, for which I am thankful.
Like my cousin, I’ve passed the orbit of thirty. When not at work, I take night classes at Roosevelt, which is curious since I already have a degree from another school in another town in another life of wide lawns and stately brick and date rape, where I was drunk enough to try anything twice.
My favorite night class is poetry. I can’t say all of whom we are reading, but verses have been welting up inside me like bobby pins chained in a line, a length of yellow yarn looped through the eye of each.
Maybe this is how history works. The evanescence of our beings inside the body of a giant. And we’re not the pins or the yarn as much as we are the dark audience. The pins and the yarn—one pricking, the other looping—round and round, until the insides of the giant are smothered in metal and wool. Which is, I think, what my poetry instructor would call killing a metaphor.
On the night before Grandmother passes, my cousin and I drive to the bruised face of a farmhouse, where I wait in the T-Bird while he buys a freezer bag of methamphetamine. The crystals inside the bag look like old ice clawed from the wall of a freezer. I’m afraid they’ll melt.
We park in the lot of a Walmart, where my cousin wipes down the dirty dash of the T-Bird with the sleeve of his hoodie. Yellow sodium light showers through the splatter on the windshield. Light glowing on the freezer bag. I think the word is luminescence. My cousin’s not ashamed to say it’s pretty.
I close my eyes tight until I see a black sphere haloed in fire, which is not the same as bobby pins and yellow yarn, but at least it’s something and not nothing.
Is this what happens when vessels compress? Blood blooming in knots so much it hurts. Are these the tides pounding Grandmother to trash?
My cousin is cracking his neck, circumventing his skull around his shoulders like a planet. He snaps the cartilage in the first two joints of each finger and blows his nose into his hands.
The thrill of knowing but not knowing what will happen next.
Larry Levis wrote a poem once about two men who force this woman and her boyfriend to swallow Drano from a can and then flush their mouths with water and make them swallow.
Last week, the poetry instructor told us the story is true and that the men were high.
I want to tell my cousin. About the halo and the trash. The poem and the story. But he’s busy rocking back and forth in the driver’s seat, a finger in the corner pocket of his mouth.
Our grandfather was a Southern Methodist preacher and a 33rd Degree Scottish Mason and a railroad cop working the negro shantytowns in Birmingham, Alabama, during WWII.
Story goes he pulled one of my aunt’s high school boyfriends from a car and beat him unconscious with his old slapjack. Story goes he abdicated a lifetime of violence in the days before his death. “If I could burn the blood from my heart,” he said, “I would.” Grandmother never did remarry.
After the doctor showed her scans of the tumor inside her head, she had the hospital shuttle drop her off at the Joplin Community Library. The ladies at the counter helped her create an email account.
“The world has most amazing machines,” she wrote to the family. “To think how far we’ve come since I was a child. It’s not even the same air anymore.”
“How long do you think she has?” I ask.
“I’d bet cash it’s tomorrow,” my cousin says. “Mid-morning, latest.” He leans back in the seat and hooks his foot into the steering column and lights a cigarette. “You think it happens the way they say in church? Heavens of light, hands of God, whatever.”
My cousin nods.
“I tell you about that sunk body I saw awhile back?”
“No,” I say.
“Local boys drug her up. Ozarks. Nice little spot I fish when I find the time.”
He takes a last drag, the dry burn of the paper, and pushes the butt into the ashtray.
“Body been bound in wire. Dug out. Filled with two, three bags of cement, they said.”
I watch him pick a peel of skin from the base of his lip, balling it in his fingers.
“Body rots through rock. But never wire.”
I can tell he enjoys the story about as much as he doesn’t. Like the nipple rings he wears. Those two halos beneath his shirt. His face half-shaved in shadow. Another cigarette suddenly glowing.
We have our moment of silence before he takes the freezer bag off the console, pinches a pillar of its salt onto the dash, and hands me his house keys—the groves already caked.
I think of how Levis ends the poem, when the fool is hanged and the poet disappears because he doesn’t know what happens next and everybody knows there wasn’t any king. I think of that and my cousin, face a half-moon of yellow Walmart parking lot light whose chemical is a sodium, and the word that thrums inside me is also light, the music of splintering beams & glass, it shimmers, already a memory, already gone save the Yes.
IAN PATRICK MILLER’s writing has appeared in a number of literary journals and magazines, including War, Literature, & the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities, Confrontation, and The Massachusetts Review. Selected as the 2013 Perfect Day Publishing Visiting Writer, his work has been recognized with fellowships from the Summer Literary Seminars, residences at the Banff Centre, a scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and a nomination for Best New American Voices. Currently, Ian lectures in the Writing Seminars at Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar.