Andrew Miller Skeleton Key


All this takes longer. It takes another ten minutes longer,

and I could have followed the drive to the car

but my wife tells me I need to leave by the garden

because leaving that way is hyggeligt--

pronounced hoog-leet in her language

and meaning nothing we Americans can say or know.


Then I drive to where the city limits are marked with columns,

and the city continues for miles: industrial parks, financial parks,

streets threading into subdivisions and tract homes

until only tree lines thicken and begin to break occasionally

at the pace of driveways and sun between limbs.


I drive to the Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Facility #4

where before the bored sea of slate,

the faces of forty-six boys sink on their palms.

This is my classroom of tables fixed

before bolted-down and backless benches.

The boys may not place their hands outside my sight.

They may not speak unless I ask.

Ears and noses once pierced with gold

scab all month long with the skin’s resolve to heal,

and I watch time growing out in mohawks: blonde and brown.

Only the tattoos of skulls on biceps--

their eyes spilling out black block letters

that spell words I know too well or not at all--

remain gilded against the passage of time.


We read out loud in one voice

from a spine-long list of spelling words

crossing the fifty-year-old primer's page:

family, freedom, fortunate, federation,

each boy rewriting what is there.

Beyond each 'f'' there is a 'u' he is glad to let me see.


Still I mention opportunity, wasted lives,

but even the story of my wife newly arrived in America,

seeking its language on a Peter Pan Bus out of Vallejo, California,

doesn’t move them. I’m standing there,

acting out the faces of those three Mexican women

she interrogated for every bit of slang they knew,

only the word ‘woman’ ignites a tender burst of laughter--

or perhaps, hatred or need, whatever it takes

for hands to go back into fists, for only an instant.


This is why I will take the laundry gate.

I will leave early this afternoon,

walk back to the parking lot along the canal

that circles us all day long-- the moat that it is.

This will take longer, maybe thirty minutes longer.

I will flash an ID card to the gate guards,

and each will slip a card-key in his lock.

Between the fences, German Shepherds will whine.

Bolts will unclasp. Tumblers will resound automatic and precise,

and below their caps the guard will say nothing,

which in the American idiom,

means everything we can know or say.

This we, this you and I,

because I am speaking and you can hear me

in a common language, though I will not speak out loud

about my gate or the spring's early outbreak

in a garden built on the stolen peoples of the upper Niger.

I will never mention my wife sleeping.

I will not talk of her talking half the night

in the spondees of the language she dreams in.

The morning’s cold will be pregnant in her feet,

and she will warm one under my thigh, the other

between my calves. I will not say this, or ‘love.’

I say ‘shut up.’ ‘Sit down.’

‘Sound out the letters one at a time.’ The ones

that pour out of the opened holes in a skull.


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