Ornithology


By Adam Patric Miller

I want to write a story.  Not a complete story
but write at least about an image.  It is a pure image
and makes sense on its own, but not the way a
story makes sense, perhaps.  It might be better
as a line in a poem.  If you’ve had an image
stored in your head, say, for years, it must mean
something.  But maybe your brain got attracted to the
quick punch to your right shoulder, the smell of gun
powder after the trigger pull, the orange clay pigeon
bursting into fragments over rocks and receding tide, the
puff of smoke, the sound of the ejected shell skipping hollow
and plastic on pavement.  Maybe, on that winter day, those
images just got stuck.  My father used to take me to the
Remington Arms Gun Club at Lordship Point, just off
I-95 a few miles north of our home.  How to handle, clean,
and fire a gun had been important to him, so I
had gained some mastery.  Whether or not images from
shooting pigeons as they flew out over Long Island Sound
have deep meaning or not, who knows?  What if I committed
such images to words on a page?  What if I made it
conversational, not a story, not poetic in the least?  Too, I
remember the slaughtered seagulls down by the slick greenish
rocksor I could piece together in my mind what had been
a seagull.  The seagulls had been deflated, crushedthey were
two-dimensional and missing parts.  But these images are different
from the one that triggered the desire to write a story.  It
was the end of a day of teaching, early in my career.
My classroom was in the new building, the brick one,
on the second floor.  Room 255.  I’d hung an imposing poster
of Malcolm X next to the chalkboardhe wore black-rimmed
glasses, a suit, a slim tiehe pointed his finger, and
it looked like he was about to cuss, to say something
very angry.  His lips were pursed.  Below it read: History
is a people’s memory, and without a memory, man is demoted
to the lower animals
.  The poster, I thought, should inspire
my students.  Another poster of Billie Holiday, Lady Day,
gardenia in her hair.  “Dag, Mr. Miller, I thought Billie Holiday
was a man.”  A poster promoted an Afrocentric view of world
history, a cross-section of a tree with concentric circles
back to the origins of mankind with arrows to a list
of African contributions to Western Civilization.  Other
posters: Charlie Parker.  Frederick Douglass.  Zora Neale
Hurston.  (Now I teach in the suburbs of St. Louis, twenty
years later.  A student will come across Malcolm X in a
handout I’ve prepared, and read aloud: Malcolm the Tenth.) The
older building, at least had stylea high school built in
another century, when a school had substance and art:
Doric columns, words engraved in stone, a sculpture of an owl
keeping watch.  Marble steps lead up to heavy wooden doors.  And
then they plopped down the new brick building in front
of the old one, only a narrow road between them.  The brick
building faced the parking lot, and one day, after the final bell
I stood at the window observing the grey afternoon, when I heard
popping sounds and saw students running for cover.  No one was hit
a bullet went through the back window of Al Goodson’s car and
a few others smacked into brick.  Over the years, I think back
to the popping sounds and how I’d just stood there.  I hadn’t
even ducked.  Back then I’d fooled myself about what I could do
and what I could avoid.  Down by the university, down by the
basketball courts by the beach, next to the projects with names
like Marina, P.T., and Father Panik Villagethey’d opened fire
on a phone booth.  It was a case of mistaken identity.  The
boy was eleven, big for his age.  No time to duck, move,
run.  No time to dial his grandmother who raised him,
his mother on the streets, his father dead of AIDS.  Nor
was it a phone booth in a comic strip with a superhero
who could deflect bullets and fly, and no one, not you
not me (even my imagination right here, right now), can
change any element of what happened.  But the image I’m
trying to get tothat was from a different day.  On that
day, I packed up, walked down the stairs, passed the gym.
It was quiet and deserted.  Light reflected off dirty floors
as I approached the door.  In the parking lot, I walked
to my car, a Dodge Omni, which was parked up against
a long island where a few trees had been planted
when they built the lot.  The car wouldn’t last long
one day the battery would die, I’d pop the hood,
and jump the car, but I’d put positive to negative,
not positive to positive, and the transmission would sizzle.  When
I walked to the car the trees were chirping loud with sound.
It was not a normal chirping.  It was like the trees were
on firethey literally crackled and popped.  It was like
walkie-talkies turned up too high, the kind the school
security carried.  It was like the trees had speakers. 
As I got closer, I saw that the trees were filled with
a chatter of Monk parakeets.  Some people, I later learned,
call them Quaker parrots.  And I stood underneath, listening, as
the trees vibrated louder and louder with the sound of tiny green fists.


Adam Patric Miller’s first book, A Greater Monster, was picked by Phillip Lopate to win the 2013 Autumn House Press Nonfiction Prize. Miller, who recently completed his MFA in poetry at The University of Missouri in St. Louis, lives with his wife and their blended family in St. Louis, Missouri.