Scenery v. Scene

by Douglas W. Milliken

It becomes rote, how routinely he steals his girlfriend’s dreams. The demon-eyed woman who abducts and murders infants, leaves them pinned by their baby big toes to the clotheslines of their former homes. The boy who lives inside a lion’s gentle mouth, slipping past its teeth and tongue to nestle sleeping in its throat. The crew of a science vessel docking within the heart of an ancient, super-cooled sun, discovering within its milky stellar haze a legion of captive ghosts. But maybe stealing is too harsh a word. She tells her dreams and he writes them down. He sells her dreams to science-fiction magazines.

When asked (which isn’t often), he claims that his ideas are channeled through him, that he is a conduit but not the source, that like all forms of folklore, the stories do not belong to him. It’s as close to the truth as he ever dares come.

For her part, the girlfriend tells no one.

In one dream, a green and striking snake bites her thumb, pearly fangs buried to its purple gums and poison welling blackly to mix with her blood. She begs the boyfriend to get her a knife, to cut free its venomous mouth. But what the boyfriend brings her is a butter knife, which he simply holds, watching the snake and girl each writhe. She tells him this dream while sitting pooled in the sweated linens of their bed, and he listens, feeling accused. It is a dream that he does not sell to a magazine. Though he tries.

Each knows but cannot admit that someday, of course, this must end. She will leave and take her dreams elsewhere, he fears, or he will leave and her dreams then might as well not exist. It does not occur to either one of them that she might write her own dreams, giving explicit voice to her own sleeping voice.

Yet secretly—more secretly than even his fears—the boyfriend wishes his fears would come true. That her dreams were gone. That her dreams had never been. For riding beneath the current of each stolen dream, there is the story he’d rather tell. Of a boy kneeling in the leather backseat of a car, looking backward through the rear window while his father drives him somewhere through the middle of the world. Beyond the grass, the boy can see road and pasture and poles strung black with quivering wire—birds, and cows, and grass—while each pass and recede. Pass to recede. Diminishing to a single distant point that is also a line but is really neither: the illusion of an end where in fact, there is no end. The horizon contains always more horizon. Inside each story resides this other story, the story he knows he will never write because no one buys or reads such movementless one-note stories, a world he longs for and suspects but can never quite touch through the fog of another person’s dreams, stories about boys kneeling backwards in the seats of their fathers’ cars, wondering in quiet worried awe, are we staring at our future or at our past?

Douglas W. Milliken is the author of the novel To Sleep as Animals and the collections White Horses and Brand New Moon. Other work also appears in Glimmer Train, McSweeney’s, Radio Silence, and the Believer. “Scenery v. Scene” was written as part of a fellowship with the Hewnoaks Artists Colony. www.douglaswmilliken.com

What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Scenery v. Scene”?

In college, I devoured poetry in huge and messy doses. But as evidenced by countless other dropped or gathered habits, my metabolism has certainly changed over the years. The only poet I read anymore with any measure of devotion or scholarship is W. S. Merwin, whose collection Migration I take on the road with me the same way some people might pack a Bible in their suitcase or tuck family pictures in their wallet.

Traveling with poems of dreams and desperation in place of family or faith. A fact that might very well be reflected in this story.


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