Whenever there’s a knock at the door, whenever the telephone rings, whenever that little voice that lives inside our computer shouts “You’ve Got Mail!” because somebody, most likely Miranda, left the volume on full blast after spending over an hour on YouTube, whenever any of these fear-inducing situations, these nerve-wrenching predicaments becomes a reality, tension builds. Whenever any of these things happen, Miranda and I incredulously convince ourselves that we’re abject losers, that the door, the phone call, the e-mail has to be for the other one, has to be the outside world recognizing the other one’s unique qualities. This time it’s the doorbell. I try to clarify the occult nature of our doorbell to Miranda (it’s hidden behind an overgrown bush that came with the house—it baffles me that Miranda hasn’t trimmed it, but she says it has ambiance, that it adds mystic to the atmosphere, that it’s emitting an aura, so there it hangs), and how I’m too brash to share with my friends or acquaintances my knowledge of its location, so the doorbell has to be for her, but she won’t listen. If not for her music helmet—two ear buds burrowed in her drums, inundating her grey matter with dancing electrons—she’d say that my logic is illogical, that my reasoning is unreasonable.
The doorbell rings again, more fervently than before.
We’ve paid our bills. We’ve agreed never to order anything online. We’ve tortured that Jehovah’s Witness one time and let him loose to spread the word. Who could it be?
I open the door and there stands a man beneath a five-dollar haircut but with an immaculate face—perfectly plucked eyebrows, trimmed nose hairs, and a clean, fresh shave that lets the world see his smooth, wrinkle-free skin. The rest of him hides behind an all-white suit with more buttons than most, and a few ornate zippers that I surmise are merely ornamental and serve no utilitarian purpose. His left forearm and his torso keep a clipboard from falling to the porch, and he nervously clicks the pen in his right hand. Four bottles of milk rest by his ankles in bottles I thought were only antiques.
He’s yet to acknowledge my presence, lost in deep thought. Suddenly he bursts with life, his limbs go wild, and everything except the milk leaves the porch, like he’s about to start some big song and dance routine, some big musical number. I shut the door before he hits the first note.
I walk into the living room and rip the helmet off Miranda’s head. She admonishes me with a look I’ve developed a tolerance for.
The doorbell rings again in some unrecognizable series of notes, some hundred-year-old song I’m probably supposed to know, maybe not the name but at least the melody, to let us know that the world needs us. Nevertheless, neither Miranda nor I seem to question why the doorbell rings a different tune, both too vexed by the din of it all to care for scrupulousness.
“It’s for you,” I tell her.
And she ignores me in a way that says, “Then why did the doorbell ring again? I don’t fraternize with people who evince such rudeness.”
“It’s your mother.”
And she’s silent in a way that says, “Why would you broach the troubles of my past so wantonly? What are you trying to prove?”
I clear my throat in a way that says nothing and tell her that her father’s at the door.
And she crosses her ankles and shifts her weight from her back pressing against the cushions of the couch to her right elbow resting on the arm in a way that says, “You haven’t absolved yourself of your blunder of blunders yet, mister.”
I rub my eyes in an effort not to say anything incriminating, but Miranda looks through me, at snippets of our past resting on the mantelpiece between metal and glass. Her look is in a foreign language I don’t understand. A language I didn’t know existed.
“It’s the milkman.”
And she says out loud, “The whom?”
Miranda’s correct use of the English language evades the inevitable babel. There’s no confusion. Only ignorance. A lack of things about which to be confused.
“It’s the milkman,” I echo. “I’m not quite sure why he’s here.”
Silently, Miranda makes her way to the front door as I watch the porch from the living room window and when she opens the door I can hear the conversation with my left ear. It’s like being at the movies.
“Hello, ma’am.” He removes his hat, fully exposing the results of paying five dollars for a haircut, meanwhile letting the sun bounce off the sweat boiling atop the bald spot that’s beginning to develop towards the back of his skull, thinning hairs working their way towards the front, the back, the sides. “How are you this week?” He bends over and picks up the clipboard and rather than looking for the pen, pulls out another one from one of the pockets on his chest.
Silently, Miranda picks up the case holding the four bottles of milk and walks inside, closing the door behind her. I hear the milkman say, “Hey, you don’t get to keep the case!” and then, after the door closes, based on his actions, I surmise that he says something like “And…and you owe me $14.50! Plus tip!”
I follow Miranda into the kitchen and there are already two glasses sitting on the kitchen table, evidence that we either had breakfast together or that the second eater felt his or her laziness, sloppiness, uncleanliness would be mitigated by the first eater’s indolence, unkemptness, indifference, I forgot what happened. She sets the case on the counter and removes one of the bottles, ignoring la evidencia.
“Any idea how to open one of these?” She holds up the bottle in the void between her and I.
I take it from her hands and examine it. It’s not a twist-off. It’s not a pop-off. It’s not corked. It’s not sealed with plastic. Can and bottle openers would be useless in this situation. And, at this closer inspection, the milk doesn’t even look real. It looks like glue. It looks like a prop.
The doorbell rings again, this time one long, constant note, like a tuning fork. Or a Chinese gong (has any other country produced a gong, I wonder?).
“Don’t answer that,” she orders.
“Um.” I thirst for what’s in the bottle. I yearn for its contents.
“What makes you think that’s the milkman?”
“Um,” I echo. I turn the bottle over and wrap my fingers around its neck. I swing the bottle towards the table and my knuckles are throbbing but bloodless. The bottle remains intact. The contents remain unobtainable. “The milk.” I throw the bottle against the linoleum floor and break three tiles and nothing else. “The suit.”
“That’s what makes a milkman a milkman?” She picks up the bottle like it’s in pieces. She squirms like she’s cut her hand. “Delivering milk? Dressing like a prudish bride?”
This is the longest conversation I’ve had with Miranda in eons and I have nothing to add. No response to her Socratic probing.
The doorbell rings again like an intercom does when the person yearning to step inside only presses the button halfway down, when the person on the other side of the wall truncates his plea to be part of the community, part of whatever party is inside.
“I’m answering that,” I tell Miranda in a semblance of bravery. I exit the kitchen in a way that says, “I’m an American Hero for doing this. I’m a saint who’ll answer a ringing telephone, caller I.D. or no caller I.D.”
And I can hear Miranda opening the bottle and pouring its contents into one of the glasses on the table. I don’t know if it’s into her past or into mine. She’s silent but I can hear her shout to me, “Go ahead. Live between the worlds. Let the milk and me sour in the void. I’d rather be in isolation than in incompletion, whole and cold than asunder to the point of irrevocability. This milk tastes sweeter than you’ll ever know.”
I answer the door with little reluctance, curiosity getting the better of me, and there stands the milkman, only now he stands beneath a what-has-to-be-at-least-one-hundred-dollars haircut with a thick beard masking his face. Expensive materials of which I know neither their names nor their countries of origin envelop his body.
He removes his Ray-Ban sunglasses and smiles, as if he’s saying, “I know you’ll recognize me by my trademark eyes and teeth.”
And I do.
“Sweet Cherries!” I say, as one would shout if he just discovered that his best friend was an eminent, world-renowned writer or painter or quilter, some quasi-genius putting the pieces of the universe back together to create some pseudo-picture of happiness, or whatever you want to call it, the gods, the powers, the strings, the forces that keep everything together, relative to one another, contingent yet far apart, asunder, anachronistic, each puzzle piece in its own time zone, its own epoch. I go back to reality and say, “You’re Trent Farfkinsonvon—the hot new German actor that’s taking America by storm.”
“Yeah,” he says in a cool, collected manner, saying in one word, “You’re right, despite your trite use of clichés, but I don’t really believe in, y’know, titles right now. Names. Existentialism is going to be ‘in’ in the Hollywood scene in about six months so I need to act now in order to look like a trendsetter as opposed to a trend follower, so that maybe they’ll call me Trent ‘The Trend’ Farfkinsonvon someday,” and so forth.
I try to shout to Miranda but I’m speechless and she’s wearing some technological helmet.
Trent looks impatient.
“So did I get the role or not?”
“Um.” I want to shout to Miranda for backup but I don’t know how to articulate what it is I really want to say. Besides, in all likelihood, electronic images and meaningless dins are enveloping her at the moment. Surely the contents of the bottle are swimming through her, the effects of that internal voyage unknowable.
And Trent goes, “You are Steven Spielberg, no?”
I want to say yes. I want to tell him about the studio (my backyard) and that, together, we’re going to start a low-budget, high-concept trend in Hollywood; we’ll film ourselves planting a flower, evading ants and arguing over how much water to give our roses; he’ll say I’m overwatering our garden and I’ll give this melodramatic soliloquy to the camera towards the end of the film about the dangers of dehydration; it’ll be very Shakespearean (or is it Shakespearesque?); or we’ll film ourselves building a small playground, mollifying the waiting children with candy so that they have something to think about while explaining to irate parents that our intentions are pure and noble so that they can stop thinking so much; we’ll successfully market a Warholesque (or is it Warholian?) film and still be artistic, something no artist has ever done—make money without selling out—but then I think about the implausibility of it all, waking up every morning and stepping out of bed, doing something other than idleness, doing anything other than accepting Western-engendered ennui (I hate the French); then I think about how strenuous post-production can be and about how the arbitrariness of which films become successful is too precarious for my blood, too circumstantial for my taste—happenstance and fortuity have no place in this world in my opinion—and so I tell him the truth—that there is no Steven Spielberg. That E.T. and Close Encounters of The Third Kind are governmental propaganda to indoctrinate the youth and the old respectively into believing that aliens only exist in our imaginative world, our Hollywood existence, and that they aren’t walking amongst us, that there hasn’t been alien contact approximately once every 3.2 years, that we haven’t pacified the creatures that have landed here by giving them human bodies to inhabit, and that we haven’t fixed elections to pacify the significantly irked creatures that have landed here by giving them a seat in office…Nietzschean power for the old ones, candy for the young ones, and explanations for their parents, of course.
And Trent goes, “This is L.A., no?”
“No, this is Gary, Indiana. My name is Rob. You could call me Bob if you’d like and I probably wouldn’t say anything. I’ve never really put much thought into it. Anyways, I work at the town library and have a lot of time to think to myself. It’s a simple existence, but I enjoy it.”
“Could you point me towards L.A.?”
And I point to my left until Trent is out of sight but not out of mind—I don’t know where to point in order for that sort of extraction to happen. I close the door and find Miranda in the attic, watching six televisions at once, each one broadcasting the same image, snow falling on a hillside.
“Who was at the door?”
I see the empty bottle behind her and dodge the question. “How was it?”
And she ignores me in a way that says, “How was what?”
The snow on the upper-left screen seems to be falling at a faster rate, but I’m imagining things. The silence worries me. She’s yet to answer my question, so I ask a simpler one. “What’s your favorite book?”
“Um.” She pauses and it works. She’s thinking about my question. She’s forgetting her own thoughts. “I don’t know.”
She coughs, I think. It’s not quite a cough, it’s not quite a sneeze, but it’s something. And she asks, “What’s yours?”
This is the second longest conversation, soon to be the longest, that I’ve had with Miranda in quite a while and she’s asking for the obvious. She’s inquiring about one of the first things I tell someone. After my name, my vocation, my quirky anecdote, and my witty joke, I tell people my favorite book. I told Miranda my favorite book first because I knew she was the one, long before she knew my name or my vocation, eons before she heard my first story or my first attempt at humor.
“Come on.” I take two steps and finally enter the room. I’m in empty space. The doorframe no longer protects me.
She’s forgotten everything. She doesn’t remember. She’s in another world. She’s a different person.
“It’s the dictionary,” I remind her.
“Oh.” She presses a button. She turns a knob. Nothing happens. “I didn’t know that was a book. Who wrote it?”
She takes the bottle from behind her and drinks it like it’s full. Like I can’t see right through it.
I try to tell her why the dictionary is my favorite book. How there have been a plethora of authors, but the essentials have remained the same. How, unlike the Bible, which is the only other book with equal ubiquity and equal innumerability in authorship, which changes and mutates with each new edition, the dictionary is immutable, is oneness. How a dog will always be a four-legged creature with fur. How to run will always be to move quickly on one’s feet. But I don’t say a word. There’s no combination of words that describes what it is I want to share. Ineffable is nowhere close to capturing the inability to express oneself. The frustration is
“We found another one,” I tell her.
For the first time in I don’t know how long, she looks at me. She really sees me. Her eyes are fixated on my image, her ears are ready to aggregate any noise I decide to make, and her olfactory abilities, however limited after years of breathing in household cleaners while trying to immaculate the house, to expunge the microscopic extraterrestrials from our house, detect what little individuality my odors have.
We both feel the cage’s presence, the cage that engendered her obsession with cleanliness, her need to stay in the house and watch, listen, feel, but we refuse to acknowledge its existence on a sensuous level.
“Well.” The bottle is no longer in sight. I didn’t see where Miranda put it. “Where is he?”
“I let him go.” I think about our life before the cage. The days before we moved to Gary, Indiana. The days before we had Internet access. The days before we saw the cage fall off the black van pretending to be an exterminator’s truck and found the alien pretending to be a muskrat inside, a fake collar around his neck, the other end loosely tied to the cage. The days when I knew her favorite book.
Miranda wants to ask me why I let him go but she knows I don’t have an answer for her. My answer is
The bottle is no longer in mind. I didn’t see where I pointed.
The snow on the bottom-middle screen seems whiter than the rest. The snow above it seems to be mocking me.
The blizzards fill the screen with whiteness and Miranda gives me a new admonishing look for which it will take me eons to develop a tolerance. She averts her gaze and puts on a music helmet and television sunglasses. She disappears without leaving any footprints.
I think about dosing myself with cologne, about rolling around in a pile of pinewood, about baking a giant chocolate cake and jumping in, about sautéing clove after clove of garlic until my clothes are imbued with the smell, about becoming a marijuana smoker, about discovering the secret to new car smell and drenching myself in it, but I’ve already ascertained that any effort to change my odor would be futile. I’ve lost Miranda on a sensuous level. I’m caught in her mind on some deeper, intellectual cosmic void. She’s reduced me to an idea. The cage may be empty, but I’m trapped.
Ryan Dunham is currently a doctoral candidate at Ohio University in the Media Arts and Studies’ Mass Communications program. He earned both his B.A. and M.A. in English Literature and Creative Writing from Binghamton University. His work has previously appeared in Helix Magazine, Jersey Devil Press, and Ricky’s Back Yard, and is forthcoming in The Bookends Review.