How to Fall Without Falling

by Denise Miller

My freshman year of high school, our volleyball coach taught us how to fall without falling. She schooled us on how to first assume the proper stance, knees bent like the beginning of a weight-room squat, arms outstretched, vein side visible and palms clasped as if we were, like a girlfriend or boyfriend, holding our own hand. Next, in order to truly be ready for the hit we were supposed to then balance on our tiptoes without falling. Finally, at the sound of coach’s hand slapping the ball, one after the other, we were told to push off our toes toward the ball, push it up before it hit the ground, then fall to the court floor without falling. This coaching meant that each September we became a line of ball-bruised and gym floor friction-burned girls in a cycled dance of balance fall, balance fall.

At 10, I had gotten used to falling. The kind of falling I had seen more times than I could count was like the falling of the domino armies I had carefully constructed over and over each week as I sat on the linoleum kitchen floor in my aunt’s house. It was probably the only time my legs were motionless in those long, small town southern Ohio summers made for kickball, big wheels and running as far and as fast as possible. In fact, there wasn’t a ball or Frisbee or half full liquor glass or lit cigarette that I couldn’t catch just short of the ground. But that summer I often separated those days instead into time for lining up dominoes into armies of bodies that with one flick of my finger I would send tumbling head to foot to head to foot until they stumbled into a long line of bodies falling.

The first body I saw fall was my grandmother’s, a small and black and sturdy statue against the punches of my grandfather. His fist was the flick that sent her falling in to walls and down stairs and onto floors as my aunts, sister and I huddled tall to short, oldest to youngest and watched. And the impact of the sound and image of her hitting hard against objects sent all of us falling, a long line of women and girls, into each other. My childhood years became a bearing of witness to their falling one after another by the flick of a fist or the tongue of a lover.

The second body I saw fall was my own. I was a child raised in a family who on-the-clock mostly worked with their hands as coal miners, cooks, and mechanics—all men and women who molded materials to make ends meet. So when the ticking turned morning to 5pm or Monday to weekend and the men had all week molded materials much less malleable than the mouths of their women and the women had given shape to ingredients much less palatable than the fists of their men, they all took to construction. The kind that demands the felling of structures before the rebuilding. The kind that leaves the foundation. My uncles, father, and grandfather felled female bodies with fists. My aunts, step-mother, and grandmother fell child bodies with the choreography of their staying—balance fall, balance fall.

Photo: Shutterstock

Denise Miller, born in Martins Ferry, Ohio, and raised in Cadiz, Ohio, is a Kalamazoo Valley Community College instructor, artist, poet, and community activist.