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Brian Oberkirch

Miller on the Rocks

Listen:

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 cupped 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 Proper 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 shredded 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 landowner, 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 Matthew, Mark, and Luke. For his friends he said. Miller, inviting the men in, the men leaning new bicycles against the rail of his porch, 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 carpet, 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 things, 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 pamphlets 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 random 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 him.

And Miller, on the roof, squints towards the shallows of the Bay, and says, Yes, Of course, I see.

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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 shouldered, and nutria aren't that swift. Miller in the bow will nudge the dead animals with the barrel of his shotgun, sometimes administering 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.

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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 yards.

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 restaurant 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 specific, 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 gifted grandchildren.

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.

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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 between 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 moment. Almost.

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.

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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 mumbled 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 handfuls 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 dumping 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 Miller, toward the thing that I think will make sense.

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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 goat's 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.

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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 within range.

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, retracted. 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, fringed, 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 Miller's cloud, making it denser, more impenetrable--Miller is so far inside 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, trailing 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.

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