When the germ of a picture agitates the viewer, exegesis requires the audience turn her head and appear, if not disinterested, then distracted by another more agitating symptom of her eye. In this way, the story can be told.
When my friend and his mates became angry at school, they would load into a pickup with pipes and cricket bats. The task might be to take out mailboxes or plastic flamingoes set too close to the curb. But in South Africa, where my friend was born and raised, it was the heads of the blacks walking alongside the roads in the farm country outside Johannesburg.
It’s hard for me to see his face as he tells the story. His hands, which are large and irregular, motioning forward as if to fork out the language before us. His features no longer belong to him, rather arranged onto a mask like knobs and buttons and holes.
The story of his father, a Dutch farmer and alcoholic, driving for miles at night, threading the taverns set off the roads like a string of dirty Christmas lights, two or three fluorescent bulbs in the dark, insects suspended in the aperture, trucks in the parking lot. My friend slept on the floor behind the bench seat as his father went in, continued to drink. Always work to be done in the morning at the farm, always scuffs of flesh at the back of his father’s hands.
I once had a dream about my father. I was 6 or 7 when it happened—a dream but whenever I think of it, I realize how deeply I believe it to be true.
I walk downstairs, it’s late morning, early afternoon, and I find my father lying on the cot he keeps in his study, atop camouflage webbing he brought back from Vietnam, a transistor radio with a bullet hole pierced into its black husk—the top of his skull uncapped.
His eyes are open but he does not appear to recognize me, and I stand at the head of the cot, peering inside—inside like the insides of a vivisected matchbox car, where the two parts of the car had been soldered together.
Do you know what I’m talking about? I ask my friend. Did you bust apart your toys to see how it came together?
He tells me he didn’t even see his first traffic light until he was 13.
Inside the dream, my father and I are sharing the toilet upstairs. I ask him why his head was open. I ask him why I saw no blood or brain. I ask him if it hurt. He says he is fine. He says I didn’t see what I think I saw. He says it’s late, I should go to bed.
It was getting late, and this kid, the son of the rugby coach, a year or two younger than the rest of the boys, including my friend, had been asking to take his turn with the pipe, the light nearly gone out of the sky.
The woman walking alongside the road had a bundle of cloth at her back. Maybe the kid thought he would strike the cloth, spare the woman. It was only afterwards the boys realized it had been a baby.
Ian Patrick Miller, Transistor
American, b. 1977, playing from Seattle, WA, USA
Ian Patrick Miller’s work has appeared in a number of literary journals and magazines, including Devil’s Lake, Ghost Town, War, Literature & the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities, Confrontation, and the Massachusetts Review. As the 2013 Perfect Day Publishing Visiting Writer and a finalist in DIAGRAM’s 2013 Innovative Fiction Contest, his writing has been further recognized with fellowships from the Summer Literary Seminars, residences at the Banff Centre, and a scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Since 2009, he has been on faculty at Weill Cornell Medical College-Qatar, the international branch campus of Cornell University, where he lectures in the Writing Seminars. During his tenure, he has twice been honored with an Excellence in Education Award as selected by the student body. Ian lives in Doha and Portland with his wife and daughter.
Thoughts on the Telephone process
I started thinking about the painting like a photograph, perceiving it like a photograph by what Roland Barthes calls the studium and punctum—studium being that which I like or don’t like, and punctum as “that accident which pricks me … bruises me, is poignant to me” (Camera Lucida 26-27).
Note the stress fractures at the top of the receiver, just above the radio dial; there are two of them, jutting upwards like desiccated trees. I kept coming back to these fissures in the machine. And then, a week or so later, my friend and I were drinking. It was Thursday evening on the Arabian Peninsula, the end to a long week. We were drinking and he told me this story. He is a good friend—a large, gentle man—and I like him very much, but I didn’t know what to do with this story. He didn’t either. He held it out, naked before us. I wanted to cover it up, push it away. He grew up in a very hard place. But that didn’t explain anything. The violence transcended matter. It was fucking inexplicable. I thought of that woman on the side of the road, wailing into the bundle of cloth that had held her child. I thought of my wife and my daughter (born in July, our first). I thought of the boys in the truck. I thought of my father. I thought of that dream which I swear is real. And I thought of the stress fractures. I couldn’t turn away. I had to turn away.
Once the piece was said (and I do think of the piece vis-à-vis its orality), it became increasingly difficult to add or subtract to it. I suppose, tautologically, sound is the sound it makes. Sound as object, sound as subject—like the people in “Transistor,” object and subject.
I really appreciate the opportunity to participate in this project. And I would like to thank the artist as well as Nathan Langston and everyone at Satellite Collective. “Transistor” does not stand on its own. It’s part of a larger fabric, a patch or a thread.