“Cold Water” and “Not Her Real Name”

Poetry by James Miller

Cold Water

We have no heat left for showers

and the washing up. The instructions

to relight the pilot are detailed,

patient—but leave us no warmer.

Grease hangs on our pans.

How quickly we dry ourselves,

and how eager our ablutions.

I am thinking of years ago before

our marriage, my summer pilgrimage

to the Jains’ holy place and its village.

For me a cold-water tourism:

gleam of wet on the face

each morning, then slow climb

to the beatific Bahubali statue,

seven hundred vertiginous steps

to the temple at his feet. A shriveled

old woman had been carried

on a stretcher all this way, lay

panting under prayers for release.

I watched the pair of attendants

lift her down again, confident

in their negotiation of distance

from hope to resignation. How much

longer it took me to follow,

as the steps seemed to grow more

narrow and grudging every dozen.

Or was it that the June heat

in Shravanabelagola implied

the sharp breath I would release

next morning when my cupped hands

would bring a portion of iron-rust

faucet water to my cheeks and closed

eyes? All this on my knees. Standing,

I would think again of the woman

and her pair of handlers in white shorts,

disappearing into the crowd

of supplicants and market voices.

The air grew still at noon, hinted

monsoon at dusk. Bats circled

overhead; dust settled

in the streets for our long

dark, our long wait.

Not Her Real Name

The Book Barn, last of its kind in town—

head down N. Main, turn left onto Texas

when I pass Rooster’s BBQ,

park on the side street next to

Anderson’s Boot Emporium.

The front room is mostly SF and romance,

trusted rent-paying residents. On the back wall,

the classics shelf shares a half-dozen

copies of Jude the Obscure with smoky

Galsworthies and Pearl Bucks.

The former owners were near-silent,

ghosted in their teacher-retirement

with a pile of Adams receipt books stiffed

on the checkout table, and Pall Mall

coffee, bitter as beetroot ash.

They sold out in the late 90s to metal-boogie

Jeannie, hair feathered from Lake Charles,

her Black Sabbath burbling so gentle

I can’t be sure it’s supernaut,

or children of the lowing grave.

One Saturday I stop in to ask after

books on Australia. I’ve been studying

paintings of the Blue Mountains, stirring

miles of peak-pierced clouds till

thumbs stain with pale froth.

Jeannie has just the one. She’s been reading

The Fatal Shore, takes me to the back

room’s travel and trades. For half an hour

we share anecdotes of the antipodal

expeditions we will never take, then

just as her Maiden mixtape winds down

she says: The Barn will be closed next week,

I’ll be on my honeymoon. We’ll spend

two nights on the Riverwalk, then

head west for Taos and the thin air.

Months pass. I’m back home for a sentimental

haircut at the Trophy, and recall that the Barn’s

back room dusts some oddities, above all a two-volume

set of Miss MacIintosh, My Darling

for a sweet, sticky $6.50.

I am the only customer, maybe for weeks.

The new husband (presumably), bearded and chub-

cheeked, lords in his orange flannels on a spindly stool

behind the register, gut inched

a half-inch more than my own.

I pull out a ten to pay. Bear-boy leans back,

arms folded, barks: You have a customer!

A faint groan, and Jeannie pulls herself from

the cool linoleum—she’s been curled there

shivering with fever at his feet.

Jeannie makes change wordless, eyes narrowed

to slices of grey rotting gouda. Her lips are pocked

with pits, scarred with dryness. She pushes the thick

tome across the counter, swallows, sinks

again to the ground I can’t see.

About the Author

James Miller

James Miller is a native of Houston, though he has spent time in the American Midwest, Europe, China, South America and India. Recent publications include The Atlanta Review, Cold Mountain Review, The Maine Review, Lunch Ticket, Gravel, Main Street Rag, Verdad and Juked.