Dear Headstone

Dear headstone.

You are the roof over the head of somebody who is safe now.

I know this might seem bitter,

or jaded,

or a tiny bit maligned

But the facts are that there is the downstairs room of the dead,

the no-longer-feeling

There is you, the ceiling,

And then there is the attic of mankind.

Headstone, our world hurtles on like a hijacked bus

But this world is in conflict

For its convicts, that’s us,

We are sitting backwards in our seats.

We would rather look back at the people we have loved

than forward at the people we might.

Now—if strangers are just friends you haven’t met

And friends are just strangers you have

Then you, headstone, might say we’re just getting too caught up in the individual:

that which is conditional

in those who are invisible.

Do you think we should find our way forward?

Turn on the Sat-Nav, look at all the strangers we will have?

No.

Headstone, our world is your attic,

But we’re all asthmatics up here

And nobody’s dusted in years

As the guinea pigs of language we live through metaphor

But, really, who is that better for

When we are taught that clearing the air means telling the truth

And then we go and fail at that?

We lie

And then we lie about it being a lie

And then we lie to ourselves about lying about it being a lie

and somehow we aren’t appalled

And when the sky falls we will not howl regrets like terrible singers,

we will run to the cemetery and we will point fingers.

Headstone,

I think the Earth takes the best of us because it fears the rest of us.

We no longer look like the pictures in our files.

Our hearts aren’t in our bodies

On the contrary,

You’ll find most of them in the mortuary!

We are brilliant mourners on church corners

We take out huge bank loans

We give them you, headstone,

And we put all our savings into your millimetre deep engravings.

But no matter how hard we try to be particular

No matter what we write, the Earth will read,

“This specific human cannot declare war,”

And for the tiniest,

most wonderful moment,

the Earth isn’t scared anymore.

So it might seem more pragmatic to close off the attic

And pretend we were never here,

But headstone, there is air to be cleared.

Maybe you should send up that decently merry, recently buried

lodger downstairs.

I’m sure he’s qualified, I can’t imagine he’s occupied

Maybe if we saw him out of his coffin

we wouldn’t need to mourn him so often

Maybe he could bring our hearts back up with him,

if it isn’t too much fuss—

Maybe then we wouldn’t be so angry.

Maybe then we could learn how to face the front of the bus.

By J. M. Miller

First published in Empire Times (October 2015)
http://empiretimes.com.au/

The Stopped Things

Loretta Asche looks like coffee being poured into a jar. Her hair is as dark as the raw, bitter energy of the beans; her skin swirls like the milk underneath. But around her is the glass. The barrier all kinds of men have surely pressed their hands against; the wall which keeps all of her in. She’s lost something. That’s why she’s here.

‘Detective Lionel Black.’ I extend a hand and kiss her knuckles. She doesn’t exchange any pleasantries, just says:

‘I need you to find my perfume.’

‘Your perfume?’

‘Yes. It’s in a white box with gold flowers, and it smells like cinnamon.’ She sees my frown. Asks, ‘Is there a problem, Detective?’

‘I beg your pardon, Miss Asche. But the things missing in this town are usually the diamonds or the husbands.’

She’s got two handbags, one smooth, one boxy. The fifties are proving a strange decade for fashion. She swings them both from one hand to the other. Lifts her chin. Says, ‘I beg your pardon, but aren’t you getting a bit old to be chasing crooks?’

‘Ma’am,’ I reply in earnest, ‘this job has been mine for twenty-five years. I can’t just slip it off. I wear it like an invisible coat, or a second skin, or—’

‘Or a favourite perfume?’ she interrupts, stepping so close that her eyelashes become rows of delicate trees. ‘Surely,’ she murmurs, ‘if I can appreciate your need for an invisible coat, then you can appreciate mine.’

I take the case. Of course I do; it’s good money for little work. Ten minutes with my guy on the street, who’s got a network like a maze of vacuum cleaner cords. He winds slowly into hundreds of inner circles and then, at the press of a button, he’s back and out and there’s just the space where he used to be.

We meet in a marketplace. The paradox of privacy, that it’s best found in public. He’s calling himself Dennis these days and we stand for a minute surveying the market goers, until it’s safe and I tell him:

‘I’m looking for some stolen perfume. White box, gold flowers. Cinnamon-scented.’

His eyes still drifting over the crowd, he replies, ‘I hear a tall blonde guy’s got a box load of the stuff.’

‘Does this man have a name?’

‘Sure does.’ Dennis won’t say another word until I slip him a fifty, then tells me: ‘He’s calling himself Isaac.’

‘Where can I find him?’

‘I’m not too sure.’

‘Maybe you should check again.’ My hand at my waist, folding back the jacket, letting him see the gun.

‘Jesus, Lionel,’ he says quickly. ‘I really don’t know. You might find him four blocks that way,’ he jerks his head, ‘Or you might not.’

No need to thank him; he’s got my gratitude tucked into his wallet. I fall into the crowd like a drop of water into a puddle.

I’m two blocks from the market when suddenly there is an outstretched foot where there shouldn’t be. Air rushing when it should be still. My whole body where I should only have my shoes. People almost queue up to help and one guy’s apologising but I’m only interested in one of the faces.

‘Are you alright?’ she asks.

I ignore her outstretched hand, and when I’m on my feet again I say, ‘I think the real question is: have you been following me, Miss Asche?’

‘I have,’ she admits. ‘It’s always been a bit of a dream of mine, to fight crime. Like I’m in one of Raymond Chandler’s books.’

I ask her, ‘Then why hire me?’

‘Because I have more faith in you than in myself. Chances are I would get myself shot.’

‘For a bottle of perfume?’

She sighs. ‘Must we go through this again?’

‘Of course not.’ I peer into the distance, to the street Isaac is more than likely down. ‘If you’ve been paying attention, Loretta, you’ll know I’m close.’

‘Naturally,’ she smiles. ‘But I don’t have a gun.’

‘Have mine.’ I’m a little creaky with my fists but it will have to do. She stores her smooth handbag in her boxy one, and curls her fingers around the Glock.

We walk like old friends out for a stroll.

One block. Two.

We become as silent as photographs of ourselves, until the corner, the new street, my whisper swirling then fading like cigarette smoke:

‘That’s him.’

And there’s the perfume, white with gold flowers; there’s a whole row of the stuff. Isaac is kneeling down, a box in his hands, concentrating. Doesn’t see us until Loretta’s pointing the gun straight at him. Jumps, raises his hands in the air, yells:

‘I ain’t done nothin’.’

I shake my head in wonderment. It’s never been this easy. ‘How stupid are you,’ I ask him, ‘parading your stash around in broad daylight?’

‘Not as stupid as you,’ he snarls. A chill at the back of my neck. I tilt my head and see that the street is too empty. There are noises from other streets, none from ours. But I can feel gazes. The careful aim of weapons. The sinking entrapment.

But before I can do anything, Isaac sees Loretta’s awkward hold on the gun and lunges, snatches it, presses it to the side of her head. Our eyes catch and hold like magnets.

‘There’s no use running,’ sneers Isaac.

Anyone with an above-average IQ knows this. But that doesn’t stop me from taking a step—to get away, to get closer, I have no idea.

The gun jerks in Isaac’s hand. There’s no noise and I wonder if I’ve gone deaf. Loretta wrenches herself from his grasp and reaches me just before I hit the ground; her lap is soft, her nails tickle my face. I can feel my lungs expanding. Falling. Struggling. Failing. I can feel my tonsils going dry, but the air stops there. Everything stops there. Everything stops.

Then, suddenly, there’s a voice.

Loretta is speaking through the walls of the stopped things.

But instead of pleads to God and admissions of love, she sounds annoyed. Maybe I’ve heard her wrong.

But then she says it again.

‘Look what you did, Isaac. You got him all excited. No shooting next time.’

‘Sorry. I was just kind of in the moment, you know?’ There are strong arms lifting me into a sitting position, and then Isaac is looking at me. Asks me, ‘You alright, Lionel?’

‘No,’ I say. ‘I’ve been shot.’ But all of my blood is inside my body. The white perfume box stares down at me from the shelf; I pull one down and dazedly hand it to Loretta.

‘Thank you, Lionel,’ she smiles, placing it in her boxy handbag—no, shopping basket. She stands up, straightens her nurse’s uniform. Helps me to my wobbly feet.

Dennis appears behind her, flanked by a few onlookers pushing trolleys. Pats me on the shoulder and grins. ‘Back with us, are you, Lionel?’ He takes out my fifty and gives it back to Loretta.

‘I’ve never been the villain before,’ says Isaac. ‘That was brilliant. My Grandad’s got dementia but all he ever does is forget everyone’s names.’

‘Well,’ says Loretta, ‘your Granddad obviously watches less movies than this one.’ She puts the gun—no, it’s her phone. She puts it in the shopping basket. Catches me staring at the box of perfume and says, ‘It’s for Emily, remember? It’s her birthday tomorrow and you wanted to get her a present.’ She pauses, then adds, ‘It’s 2014, Lionel.’

‘Oh, yes,’ I reply cheerfully.

She checks her watch and says, ‘We’d better get you back to the home. Nurse Jane will be waiting.’

I don’t want to ask who Emily is, even though I need to. She sounds familiar. She sounds close to home. We head for the checkout and I can’t stop myself from hoping that she’s missing a diamond or a husband.

 

By J. M. Miller

Published in Empire Times, 2014

 

 

Empire Times Creativity Competition Winner: ‘On Your Father’s Toes’ (8 April 2015)

         Dante, I can’t remember what music sounds like.

         I can’t…

         I can’t…

My fingers reach yours before you can sign anything else, and I shake my head. Of course you haven’t forgotten. Time has more compassion than this. Behind you, the dinner party claps on Harper as his fingers dance across the keys and its as if we haven’t really left, only been misplaced somehow. Slip us back into the fold, darling. You haven’t forgotten anything.

Don’t be ridiculous, I sign. Music is simple. There’s the guitar, the bass, the piano—I point towards Harper—and the drums… I knock a rhythmic fist on the wall next to her head.

From the living room: “Was that someone at the door?”

“Nonsense, Aria. You’re hearing things.”

I start slightly at the voices but you only begin signing again, frantically. I can remember sounds, like…wheels, and…voices. But music is just…gone.

That last word yanks at your courage like it’s nothing. Yanks a part of you out through the back and reassembles you a metre or so from us. You are here, closer than arm’s length, and you are over there, a hand against the wall for balance, a pair of glassed eyes. Singing.

#

This other you gently lullabies us to sleep and then boisterously heralds in the next afternoon. It listens to us, flinches as I throw that box from the attic down on the floorboards. We spend hours sprawled out, going through the old vinyl records. You love them because they belonged to your Dad, and because at family gatherings he’d dust off the gramophone, lift you onto his feet and twirl you around in a world only you were ever invited into. Years later, when the radio played certain songs, you would tell me how much you missed him and your eyes would gleam with something which seemed, at the time, to be stronger than everything else.

There are songs and moments of the past all spread out around you. Everything you need to remember how to dance on your father’s toes. I know it. If the feeling of music is as powerful as the sound, then one sense will surely remind the other.

It’s not working, you eventually sign. I ignore you and reach for that green My Bonnie vinyl, the one you’re named after. It sits in my lap so my fingers can form the words. You can’t forget this one. Remember, when the drums kicked in you’d drag me into the middle of the room and make me dance…

You grab my hands and shove them back at me, shaking your head.

Remember how you always said…

D A N T E. You make each letter almost forcefully, your eyes shining with the wrong realisation. You think it’s over. If that’s true, darling, then nothing is.

Two days later I take the both of you to that music shop in the city and your favourite six-string acoustic is still there. You can play a grand total of one song and you’d always play it on that thing. You said it sounded metallic, like rain on a roof. You said a person could hear the song once and remember it for the rest of their lives.

The manager, Banjo, recognises us immediately.

“Thought you’d up and left us for somewhere glossier!” His gaze falls on the guitar in your lap. “Come on, then, play that blues thing I never stopped hearing.”

Let me, and I will. Give me one frenetic glance and I’ll explain that his words are lost on you, and we’ll walk straight out of here. But there must be a certain look about him that you recognise, because suddenly you smile weakly and your fingers fly to those same old chords. And yet your movements are mechanical. There’s no longer anything in it for you, or at least not this you. The other one’s singing along.

Banjo applauds, we flee the shop and you shatter the moment we’re out of sight. The strangers pretend not to look as they pass but I know they see us, a man comforting his wife, and they might wonder about us later but they’ll never understand. Here you are, more beautiful than them all, and yet made to live in silence; why is it so hard to help you? The music is there! In your head! Your arms are flailing in the dark, and all you need is to hit the right memory, put your fingers on the right keys…

Keys. That’s it.

I lift all the pieces of you into my arms, and head for the car.

Harper leaves his apartment unlocked and we stride straight in. He looks up in surprise from the piano.

“Hey guys, I didn’t know you’d be…”

“You’re a journalist, Harper.” My voice is louder than it should be. “You know words, yes?”

“I suppose so. What are you…”

“And you’re also a musician. So you can describe music to Bonnie; you can help her remember it.”

Slowly, he shakes his head. “It’s not that easy.”

“Yes, it is! A blind person can have a book read to them, so of course you can tell someone who’s deaf…

“Music and English are two very different languages, Dante. Music can’t be translated. Listening is the only way for us to know what it’s saying.”

“You’re wrong.” Of course he’s wrong. He doesn’t understand us, darling; he’s a stranger like the rest of them. He’s despicable. “Everything can be described…what are words good for if that’s not true? What am I good for, if I can’t help her?”

I am good for nothing. I am good for nothing.

“Dante, listen to me.” Harper pauses, then says slowly: “Tell me what words taste like.”

A phone rings in the apartment next door.

A dog barks down on the street.

Somebody sobs.

“I’m so sorry.”

And suddenly there’s a hand slipping into mine, and Harper grows smaller and smaller, and then he’s gone.

We sit down in the elevator, because you can’t hear and I can’t help and nobody cares about etiquette. We sit and we stare at each other. I can see my unborn son in the ridge of your nose and the protrusion of your ears; I can see your lips on my wrist, your fingers on my pulse. But I’m starting to forget the way your voice woke up. The way you struggled to finish a joke without laughing. The way you bought pizza.

I’m starting to forget what music sounds like.

‘I love you,’ I whisper. My voice trails over and knocks at your ears, waits, shrugs, turns away. But the knock is enough.

By J. M. Miller