I am six years old and looking for angels. My lifted face scans the vast gray Ohio sky above the alley behind my Grandma Carrie’s house on Cleveland’s near west side. There are no angels to be seen. A blue jay breaks from a mulberry tree and flaps above the two story wooden house where my mother grew up. Shadows of mourning doves pass over me. My grandma has just died.
Inside the house, my mother and the adults are distracted, distraught. My mother cries, as does her sister Ruth and my Aunt Virginia, all three sitting at the table in the small kitchen. Uncle Bob and my dad sip whiskey from juice glasses, shake their heads, rest their hands briefly on their wives’ shoulders, then drop them to their sides as they lean silently against the counter.
My cousins Tom and Kathy, and my older brother Dick and I, sent from the house, go out through the back gate, a wooden frame stapled with chicken wire, and into the alley. Our parents and grandma never come out past the gate, so it’s the place we kids will be left alone. Something between a narrow street and a sidewalk lined with garages, alleys seem like mysterious pathways, like something from a book.
We stand near a barrel used to burn trash. The barrel is blackened with soot; ashes and burned wood fragments, along with a scorched crushed tin can, gathered in a happenstance circle at its base, like a saucer of dust and debris. In the alley behind grandma’s house, we act as quiet as if we were in church. If we speak at all, we whisper.
When I am at mass on Sundays with my parents I think about angels. I can’t read the hymnal or the missal well, so I turn the pages, stopping at the pictures of the Holy Ghost who is sometimes presented as a child’s head with small wings where his ears should be, or of baby Jesus and grown up Jesus. But I’m more interested in the pictures of angels. They look a lot like Jesus, yet they have large wings, and they usually appear kneeling and praying. Once I saw the image of an angel lifting someone up into heaven, holding a haloed saint by the hand as they hovered over weeping women. I kept looking on Sundays for that picture but I never found it again. Now my grandma has died and I imagine a winged angel’s hand reaching for my Grandma Carrie. I picture the two of them rising up on an elevator of cloud of smoke.
My brother Dick pokes at the ashes in the trash barrel with a stick. My cousin Kathy sniffles and cries softly. My cousin Tom starts making a small drum sound, like the sound made by wild people in the movies. He hops to the beat and circles the trash barrel. Dick moves out of his way. Kathy stands staring, her mouth open but not saying anything. “Grandma’s dead,” Tom chants, “Grandma’s dead.” Dick and Kathy and I start to follow Tom, circling too, also making drum sounds. Our bodies move erratically, as exaggerated as puppets on strings. I feel a day of pent-up energy igniting. Dancing around the barrel is like a match and I am catching of fire. “Grandma’s dead,” we chant, moving faster, growing louder.
I see my cousin Tom began to lift, rise, take flight. His face, wide-eyed and open mouthed, is a mask not unlike the faces of martyrs on a holy card, an expression caught between surprise and fright. What suspends him in the air though is not an archangel, a dominion or throne, but my Uncle Bob, a policeman and decorated war hero, who holds his son, his left arm hooked under Tom’s armpit, his right hand like a vise on the back of his neck. Kathy and Dick and I became statues, silent and still.
My Uncle Bob’s shoes sound sharp on the gravel then dull as he carries Tom though the gate and into the yard. In a fluid motion, he lowers and releases Tom, who sprints beyond the reach of his father and toward the house as his feet find traction. I can see the wooden steps of the rear door where my mother is crying, a bunched handkerchief held to her face, leaning against my father, while Aunt Virginia leans against her, wringing her hands. Aunt Ruth stands alone, saying, “Oh, oh, oh,” hands clutched at her neck.
Uncle Bob stops and turns back toward the three of us outside the gate. I expect a sharp, angry look, followed by his bellowing for us to get in the house. But he doesn’t. He just looks sad, his face a sagging, crumpled paper bag, sadder than any adult I’ve ever seen. Then he nods to us a few times and returns to the steps, the women, the loss.
Dick and Kathy follow him toward the house. They don’t look back. From the alley I watch them pass into the house until the back steps are empty, the door closed.
I am all alone. Something has happened but I am not sure what. It’s like I have the pieces to a jigsaw puzzle but I don’t have the finished picture to look at for a model. I walk around the dark barrel several times, but it feels different. When we chanted and danced, I sensed the loss of the moment lift, knew an odd exhilaration, but now it seems flat, common. A physical loneliness weighs upon me like a heavy coat pressing me toward the ground.
A raucous noise from above calls my attention. An erratic trio of crows wing and glide against the gray sky. As they swoop and caw, their dark shadows pass over me. I genuflect instinctively yet offer no prayer. Then I run as fast as I can toward the house, flapping my wings as if I’ve become a bird.
Robert Miltner’s book of prose poetry is Hotel Utopia (New Rivers Press, 2011, selected by Tim Seibles for its Many Voices book award); his collection of short fiction is And Your Bird Can Sing (Bottom Dog Press, 2014). His nonfiction has appeared recently in The Los Angeles Review, Eastern Iowa Review, Buried Letter, Hawaii Pacific Review, Great Lakes Review, and DIAGRAM; he was nominated for a 2016 Pushcart Prize in nonfiction by Terese Svoboda. Miltner is Professor of English at Kent State University Stark and is on the faculty (fiction and poetry) of the NEOMFA. He edits The Raymond Carver Review.