Miller on the Rocks
Miles Davis dies and Miller takes to his roof and plays "A
Love Supreme" over and over again, coating the neighborhood
in sickly sweet saxophone prayers. I yell up to him, through
hands, that it is Coltrane he is playing. From his breast pocket
he pulls out a business card and scribbles on it. Miller throws
the card at me. On one side the card says Jesus Saves, and on
the other side, Miller has written Are You Going to Become a
Name Person? The card is signed Spirit Broken, M.
I yell up to Miller from the worst yard in all of Paradise Cove.
It is Miller's yard. People know this, and, knowing so, they make
special arrangements. They make allowances. They allow for a lack
of grass; Miller has instead spent bottle rockets, weeks of wet,
dying newspapers, scattered scales of redfish, duck down, sticks
and sticks of the flat, cardboard flavored bubblegum that comes
with baseball cards, pieces of potato, bell pepper and carrot
from the time Miller threw his dinner at me, and a shower of
Bible study literature, which has been around so long as to work
its way into the soil, to spread its seed and root itself. Miller
does not care about the Home and Garden Committee. He is a
he says, with a different eye for beauty.
Yes, and about the Bible literature, Miller asked for it, begged
for double or triple copies of Revelations, of Genesis, of
Mark, and Luke. For his friends he said. Miller, inviting the
men in, the men leaning new bicycles against the rail of his
scraping the scales from their loafers, the men in their black
suits and crisp white shirts, going into Miller's house to spread
salvation. The men had closely cropped hair and perspired easily.
Their bodies were so rigged for goodness, Miller told me, that
they could not abide waste, and so they constantly sweated. The
men were in a consistent state of cleansing, said Miller. The
men, looking over Miller's living room, gawking at his shark tooth
rug and rustling through his jazz collection, the men cut and
dried, black and white, losing the slightest bit of resolve in
such an unclear, unsure place as Miller's.
He offered them Corn Pops, he told me. And marijuana, though none
of them would take it. Tell me, tell me, tell me, he told them.
And they did, they told of miracles and sentences, plagues and
baptisms, of good and evil and saviors. Miller smoked a bowl and
half of hashish that he shook out of a Pluto Pez dispenser, and
said, Yes, yes, I hear you, but what about the thrust of the hips?
he asked them. What about that? What about lying close to it in
the middle of the night, and asking yourself the tough questions?
He leaned closer to one of the men, a man with a woman's mouth,
and asked, What about the loins?
They told him stories, Miller says. The men invoked commandments
and shed black jackets and knelt on Miller's rusty deep shag
sweet wisps of pot circling their heads like halos, and asked
him to speak the name of the Lord. They sweated, they pleaded,
they spoke in tongues.
When he could take no more, when he tired of the Bible men and
their closely cropped hair, when finally he had to do other
Miller thanked the men for their time, asked for double, even
triple copies of what they had to offer, and said that he had
to go Drain the Lizard.
And Miller, this man now crooning over a dead trumpeter, wafting
impossible questions down onto his friends, Miller then built
a pile of these pamphlets in his front yard, after first cutting
them up with an assortment of Ginsu knives and a hedge trimmer.
Miller then stuffed, with pine straw from his back yard, a white
button up shirt and a pair of black polyester slacks. He hung
the stuffed shirt on a stake and tacked the pants onto it with
a staple gun, the staple shooting through the zipper, thudding
into the wood. The stake Miller planted among the pile of
in his front yard, pointing skyward. Miller put a black jacket
around the shirt, and provided a soccer ball for a head. Then
Miller repeatedly set fire to the figure at random times, in
spots, with a Zippo lighter. After things died down, Miller went
inside. He blew a joint and watched a tape of Bill Dance, a real
fisherman whose common practice is to hook them and let them go.
Miller never lets them go.
But Miller, Miller, I yell to him. Miller on the roof, Coltrane
tangled up with angels, tripping over the question of supreme
love. Miller, I say, it's duck season. Our boat is ready, I tell
And Miller, on the roof, squints towards the shallows of the Bay,
and says, Yes, Of course, I see.
Miller taught me to duck hunt, instructed me on how one leads
the bird strategically so that the bird will fly headlong into
the shot. So that the pellets will occupy the same time and space
as the duck. This, Miller taught me. Miller has also taught me
that, by running the motor wide open, him sitting in the bow of
the boat with shotgun at the ready, the plug out, seven shells
in waiting, by hurdling around the corner of a bayou, one can
surprise any sort of animal and knock them dead before they can
look up. This works with ducks, sure, but also hogs. And nutria,
of course. Miller and I, when the ducks are not flying, when it
is too warm for them to care about moving, when we want to kill
something big, we shoot nutria. Miller does not have to lead the
nutria, since I have the motor humming, and he has the gun
and nutria aren't that swift. Miller in the bow will nudge the
dead animals with the barrel of his shotgun, sometimes
a final round of shot to the creature, and Miller will then mumble
a mish mash of prayer and damnation over the nutria unlucky enough
to have been just around that particular bend on a day with no
wind, on a day too warm to provoke ducks to fly, to warm their
wings and get the blood flowing.
And so, this morning Miller and I have stopped at the IHOP, eaten
two stacks of pancakes and maple syrup, and dedicated our hunt
to the dead trumpeter.
Today, Miller said, we shoot for Miles.
Realistically, I tell him, we can only shoot for about sixty
Your type, says Miller, are what is wrong with America. Your type,
he says, puts rice in the sugar holder.
Miller points at the tray of condiments, but I notice instead
his reflection in the window, the way he holds his hand, the way
his image holds together despite greasy diner lighting. Miller's
hand glows; Miller shines at night.
And so, Miller, radiant, is up and walking, and though I'm quite
sure he is about to goose the waitress and streak out of the
with guilt close behind, he walks innocently by her, into the
back, towards the men's bathroom.
The waitress noodles me into some small talk.
Sugar, she says, is everything all right?
Do you mean spiritually, I ask her, or do you mean something less,
say financially, say tip-wise, or do you mean something more
like are the pancakes satisfactory?
The waitress says that she means it however it makes me happy.
She hangs around, straightening the creamers, topping off coffee
cups. She somehow works it into the conversation that she has
What, I ask, like someone gave them to you?
Naw Sugar, she says. They're smart, geniuses almost, she says.
The waitress tells me that one of her grandchildren is afraid
that the earth is moving too close to the sun, and, according
to this grandchild, that average temperatures will rise so high
as to boil our blood.
I ask her does she think the kid is putting her on, and she says
that it is just a theory of his. She says that it is not anything
to get worked up over.
She shuffles off, asking the man in the booth behind me, whom
she also calls Sugar, would he like anything. As she leaves I
notice the web-spread of inky blue on her legs, covered over with
thick pantyhose. In those webs of branching vein and fractured
vessel are the shocks and agonies of getting cups of coffee, of
delivering countless eggs and links and bacon strips. Of listening
to small geniuses say The End is Near.
The waitress pats my shoulder in consolation as she walks back
by me, back toward the kitchen, from which Miller emerges with
an industrial sized sack of flour slung over his shoulder as if
he were saving it.
Miller can call ducks, like people, from far away and turn them
around and have them hanging down in front of us, as if hanging
from strings. He puts hands to mouth, holding a slight reed
his lips, and chortles and cajoles and clicks and clucks his feed
call, and the birds will turn, as if hearing the music of the
Spheres, will turn at whatever angle necessary and head back for
us, following the lead of the first duped duck, humping back and
wing, creaking gristle and riding pockets and buffet shocks of
winter air, until they are hanging above us, wings cupped and
winter plumage shimmering in the sun, tethering down and almost
stopping in the air for us to take shots at, and Miller, I think,
almost hates to shoulder his gun and knock them down and end the
Miller has taught me how important it is to finish ducks off,
to stand quickly and reload and sluice them on the water if they
are splashing and sputtering around. Since we have no dog, Miller
sometimes takes off through the marsh, gliding over puddles and
walking ballerina soft over gumbo mud and deep going swamp-sucking
holes. Miller trusts his judgment and wears only knee-high rubber
boots, saying hip waders will kill a man by filling up with swamp
water before he can cut them loose. When Miller's ducks land in
the swamp, he is up and after them before my last shell has been
ejected. Miller finds the ducks and holds them by the head and
spins them until the neck is broken.
Ducks, if they are only injured, will try to slide back into the
water, will edge themselves off the bank and into the current,
and they will dive down and catch hold of a root or a plant and
hold onto that plant and never come up. They'll do that.
Miller is unable to formulate for me, to verbalize, the flow of
thoughts that have led him to this point--this point being me
with him in my car with a sack of flour, heading, I think towards
our boat and the Delta, though Miller has not yet worked out that
aspect of the equation. The one word I make out of Miller's
theorizing about time and meaning and reason is Distribution--
and so, snatching up handfuls of flour from the backseat, from
the stolen, slitted sack, Miller proceeds to bless the cars we
pass along Government Street. He distributes the goods.
In the Name of the Father, he says to a blue El Camino. Two
at a red light dust the vehicle, the flour trailing down in the
streetlights as we pull away.
In the Name of the Sun, then, as he dubs two crumpled men sitting
in the parking lot of the Heart of Dixie Inn. Miller has made
them into ghosts with a snatch and a blessing. They shake white
hands at us, but we are off.
In the Name of the Moon, prays Miller, and with that, Miller
on the hood of a Jaguar just as we enter the tunnel, and radio
waves get covered over and wiped out by the concrete, silent and
floodlit, and water. We are under a river, the Jag far behind
us, and Miller, God Bless him, is dribbling out flour with both
fists, my car breathing a fine white powder on the people we pass.
When Miller calls, I turn immediately, imperceptibly toward
toward the thing that I think will make sense.
In Miller's garage is an old gray radio, the antennae of which
Miller has strung out the garage window, across the back yard,
and up into the tops of the pine trees that stand idly in his
backyard. Late at night, after hunting or watching television
and smoking dope, Miller and I will get on that radio and tune
in some exotic station--sometimes listening for hours at some
Asian language we don't understand, singing through the static,
that voice bouncing up and down off of clouds and atmosphere,
carrying right down through Miller's pine trees and into that
old gray radio, through water crackling speakers and into our
ears. And though the voice may be talking about the price of
milk, or the chances of the heavens opening up and pouring on
the folks below, may be talking about nothing much, to Miller
and I it is an angelic sing song, and we lie on the cool garage
floor and listen for hours to words we cannot understand. And
it pleases us that we do not have to comprehend what is being
said, that we can just listen in on the wilting lilt of an old,
Asian man or woman, sitting next to a microphone, speaking out,
trying to tell the truth. Trying to give witness.
We ride and ride in Miller's skiff, down the Delta inlet, up the
fingered slivers of bayou and pothole, past snipe hunters and
trout fishermen, seeing nothing. We pass some of our favorite
holes, the boat whirring around stands of cane and squatty bush,
surprising nothing. Perhaps the whining churn of our motor is
carrying too far on this still day; the ducks we see are flying
high, up with cirrus clouds and radio waves, perhaps bypassing
our state and heading for Cuba or the Caribbean. They are not
And so, I stop the motor and let us drift and float, and we bob
along while Miller smokes a joint. I decide to make a chum slick
with the stolen flour, and so I begin throwing out a trail of
the stuff, working at with both hands, doubletiming. Miller is
lost in his own cloud of smoke, covered over with his own dopey
dreams, and I shovel flour and extend our slick for a few hundred
yards. Then I notice a heron, curled up in the top of a clump
of gnarled swamp trees.
Now the heron is nothing unusual to see, but, then, to see it
folded up, coiled in the top of a tree (a heron in a tree!), that
is a revelation. The legs of this heron are long and bent,
The beak angles out, opening and closing slightly, perhaps asking
something. Perhaps confessing. And yet, the crest on its head
is not merely one proud feather, but instead is splintered,
a dangling clump of white that sways as the heron shifts about.
The crest hovers over the heron's head as he gulps, ebbing his
head on that long neck, in and out. His wings are daubed with
blue, and so, sitting up in that pine, cramping with color and
stature, the bird looks down on me. On all of us.
And Miller, so inaccessible now in his own cloud, wrapped in an
atmospheric shroud of his own making, cannot help me theorize
why, now, it seems that I must do what I must do, and so Miller
does not even emerge from the cloud until I have shouldered my
gun, white flour hands fumbling with the trigger, and have knocked
that heron from the top of that tree. Shot smoke adding to
cloud, making it denser, more impenetrable--Miller is so far
that cloud that he is incomprehensible, and I cannot understand
what it is that he is saying to me. The heron falls to the bank
and slides slowly towards the water, it's eyes lolling, blinking,
closing. And so, spirits break quietly, the blows dampened by
mats of straw, carried away in the rush of a puff of smoke,
skyward, whispering away all the right answers until there is
only sunlight and brightness, and the way we carry ourselves in
the face of certain circumstances.