What dust is made of, really, no one can say. It seems so clear at first. This is just dry dirt. But dirt is already dry. So maybe you say, this is dirt in the air…floating dirt. Then how could dust get kicked upthat’s what they always say, right? I mean, if dust is floating dirt already, what difference would kicking it up make? This is all strictly rhetorical, mind you. I know what dust is. I’m just not sure you do. I take that back, I’m sure you don’t. Unless you are from one of the dust states. Even then, probably only if you are the kind of person who doesn’t take off their shoes when they come into a house for no good reason, like they have mud or dogshit on them. We know different things than you do. I know that will be hard for you to admit. I know you think we’re spooky and philistinistic. I’ve heard you speak that word like we don’t know what it means, which is odd, given its source and the fact that what you really mean is people who have the wrong fundaments. I would only remind you, there are different ways of knowing things. There’s a word for that, too, I guess.
But, let me tell you three different kinds of dust that I know, and leave all that other shit lay. They happen in three different stories I was told, all by the same guy, whose name was Ray Tres. He was from Iola, I think. Somewhere down in the southeast corner of the state, where it’s basically like it’s Ozark people living, only without the hills or the rivers or the fine, sorghum accent. Same drugs, same service-sector jobs. Not so many Scots-Irish. The dirt down there is not as good. Soil some say. The dust, of course, is fine.
Ray Tres said the first time he got laid off a job, he took the next thing he got offered. He couldn’t remember if it was the first one he put in an application at, but probably not. Two weeks, he told me, was the longest he ever went without work since he was some teen age that I don’t remember anymore. Fifteen maybe. I have made less than minimum wage, he said, sometimes. Usually then he’d say something about laziness and its people. I never listened too careful to Ray when he got into that part of his story, it’d spoil some of the rest if you did.
So he was sacking groceries at a kind of sad little slummy supermarket. Not bad, he said. The butchers kept the ballgames on the radio. He swore he was listening the time Jackson caught it at the warning track in left center and made that throw to home, flat footed, on the fly, for the tag. In response, I swore I’d watched that play on TV. I don’t know why. That story had a hole in the middle of it. I ignored the hole as a practice. Life around Ray was life around a hole. He was staying in the upstairs of a gack shack in Chesney Park, then. A dusty place, in its way. Anyways, at this grocery store where he worked when he got laid off, the sackers had to stock the coolers during downtime, and they kept a six pack in rotation back in the cooler. You just pulled a bottle out of the pack and twisted it and kept yourself refreshed back there in the cooler, between things. 3.2 beer, but a free 3.2. You could also smoke out on the docks, and take you a little hit or a bump if you had it from time to time. Long as you didn’t get the tweak sweats.
I believe this was in Topeka. Some people believe things happen in Topeka and I am one. I am all of them, of course. I am the guy sacking our groceries in North Topeka, I am the dude in the Parks Dept. tee-shirt and the mesh vest with reflective stripes running the weedwhip in the parking strip, I am the judge bellied up to the bar at Persky’s in Czechtown. I am dusty in the back of a pickup going down 24 highway, I am the kid in the rumble seat of the station wagon in front of you at the light, I am sweat, salt, summer, and some of the women, too. Also, I am the wigger in this story. Do not forget me.
I believe in Topeka, but Ray never really said. That’s just kind of how I always imagined it because it’s kind of how I imagine most things. When I was a kid, there was a grocery store across from New Ville Homes, which was projects, which in Topeka were really just duplexes. Not so bad ones, either. White kids played outside in their underwear at most hours, became dirty about the droop of their drawers where the dust met the buttsweat, but not mud yet. Younger ones sold food stamps for half their face value. We could buy the twopacks of cherry danishes from the store with the stamps and the New Ville moms could buy cigarettes with our allowance.
See? We do believe in science, here, no matter what you might have heard. Symbiosis and shit.
We rode our bikes down there to the store in the summer and sometimes one of the projects kids stole one, but usually they just rode it around the parking lot and then brought it back laughing while we cussed and laughed, too. Once, one little kid hopped on one of our bikes but wouldn’t bring it back. He just rode in circles around the big aluminum can recycling station in the parking lot, flipping us off each time he passed. We threw rocks, threatened worse. A black dude came out of the store and we pointed and yelled and threw more rocks. The kid saw the grown-up and biked breakneck down the sidewalk away and under an overpass where the creek ran into a box culvert. The man picked up a baseball-sized chunk of asphalt and hurled it flat footed. It rode its arc like a little black sun in a world populated by poached ditchweeds. Sometimes when I tell the story I say the guy was wearing a Jackson jersey, or that he hollered out, Bo knows, bitch.
But this was before boys called each other bitch. What the black dude really did was screamed, “You dirty little white nigger. Bring that motherfucking bike back you little white-ass nigger.”
Then he laughed deep from inside his skinny chest and I saw he was maybe only in high school or so. We were embarrassed. We felt like something was fucked up that a white kid could get called a nigger in front of us. Especially by a black dude. Then the kid came hauling ass up over the embankment on the other side of the road. The black dude was still laughing crazily. Even as a child, I knew that motherfucker was laughing like a crazy person. I was scared. The little kid popped a couple half-assed wheelies as he crossed the street then skidded out in front of us. I’m sure it seemed pretty bad ass to him. The black dude settled down and basically the kid gave the bike back and soon we were all laughing and calling each other niggers or white niggers or white trash niggers. I don’t think we knew the word wigger, then. When we stopped the black dude was gone.
So I always pictured this to be the grocery store Ray Tres was talking about, but who knows? It might have been the one over on the Boulevard, which was a little more well kept. I suppose it might not have even been in Topeka.
Wherever the store was, Ray drank the free beer and put the groceries in the sack. Kept himself pretty high sneaking bumps. Getting by. He didn’t ever explain why very well, but for whatever reason, he really couldn’t stand having to carry somebody’s groceries out to their car for them. The light was too bright, maybe, brighter after the strange light of the fluorescents in the basically windowless grocery. The front windows of those kinds of places are always painted over with day-glow sale signs and the inside of them is always stacked high with the row of shit they keep outside of the registers, like dogfood and firewood and other weird shit that you need but nobody really knows why they’re stacked out there where you have to get them after you pay for them. Whatever the reason was, though, he didn’t like it.
It was cold in Ray Tres’s story. He was laid off in the winter. I forget that part because when I think of the grocery store it’s always hot in my memory and the black dude’s perfectly bald head is dewy with sweat, and some of us have on tank tops and all of us are in shorts, and those fucking New Ville kids have on what amounts to halves of full sets of clothes or even less. Ray Tres’s story is a winter’s tale, though. He was pursued by a bear, back then. A hell of a bear. And he was angry at it, that bear pursuing him through all his many exits. That’s the way he told his rehab story, at least. It wasn’t, of course, formal rehab. This was a real point of pride to Ray, though usually when he mentioned getting clean we were at least drinking. Ray’s rehab, as he described it, was a promise to his mother. He described her as a Mexican might. You have to wrestle that bear, Ray, he said she said. Then he’d often go quiet, sip pensively. It was my cue to leave, so the scene could end for the evening.
His name was Ray Tres, and irregardless of how he talked about his mama, he wasn’t no Mexican. Tres was short for Trestle. He’d given himself the nickname because he thought it was bad luck to be named Trestle and work on a bridge crew, which was where I knew Ray from. Likely that wasn’t even his real name, but his mother’s maiden name. Ray wasn’t a bridge rat for long, though. A couple years. Doesn’t matter.
The dust, the dust, the dust will be our focus, Ray said. It was lunch break. We were sitting in the shade under the job trailer, as we’d seen the Mexicans do. He pointed to the sun, though, not to any dust. I looked right at it, against all advice. I didn’t go blind, but while I stared I noticed the actual ball of the sun appeared to be a vacant, pitch-black hole, not a bright yellow ball. More like a small and terrifying absence than the wondrous, near, and life-giving nuclear reaction it supposedly was. I began to wonder about the validity of science. Wasn’t it really just a long history of things they thought they knew and later found out were wrong? Finally I was afraid to look away, wondering what might issue forth from that absence when I wasn’t looking. I may have done some permanent damage, Ray said.
When I did look away, it was basically an accident. I turned from the little black sun and gazed out over the poached ditchweeds and I could no longer see the glaze of gray concrete and gravel dust in the grass or on the trees and I worried I had gone slightly blind and when Ray spoke I turned to face him, which we rarely did, preferring instead to mutually stare off and away and out as we spoke to one another. There in the relative dim under the trailer, in the shade under his heavy brow, it appeared as though Ray Tres had no eyes. I may have cried out.
The dust gives us this color, he said and he ran his battered left hand up his arm. A fine aura of dust rose in its wake and I’m sure I made a noise of high relief when I realized I could see the dust in the sunlight in the air, but I could not look at his eyes again to see if they were there. From fear, whether that he in fact had no eyes and that I’d never noticed, or from fear of the other way it might be, I can’t say. I may have never looked at his face before or again, although I seem to remember certain indelicacies about his teeth when he smiled. His flesh of his forearm was a deep rue of permanent tan and fresh season sunburnt, but I believe he basically was talking about the color brown. I looked cautiously again at the sky all around the sun…tense blue washed by its blood of light in a wide areola.
I am inside a teat, I thought. A teat the size of the world, and we are leaking this light out into terror all around us. But we were, if nothing else, Kansans. People for whom the sky is a touchstone and a kind of constant. For whom the wind prays and reminds, I have travelled all my days only to pass you by.
Which was one of the dusts.
The other dust was from the factory. The one where Ray worked before the grocery store, before the bridge crew, and before whatever he did in the time in between. The tire factory he got laid off from in the first place that started this story. He started there in the warehouse, like everyone did, painting the sidewalls of the retreaded tires with black something strong. Stacking the tires in columns, head high and even higher. He watched the two Indian brothers, Zeke and Narcissus. They could hurl the tires twice a man’s height into the air and land them perfect atop the stack. Like pancakes, Ray said. These were big tires, too. Truck and tractor and airplane tires. Ray learned to stack them, but never as high as those Indian brothersone fat, one slim. One with goiters, the other with scars in great, fresh gashes gliding down his hairless forearms. From fishing. Hand-fishing for flatheads, which I think they called noodling, but maybe I heard that term later like so many others. I did see a polaroid Ray had, of Narcissus hoisting some kind of God’s accident by the banks of a small river or large creek. The background is that green light you see in pictures taken in woods. The kind of woods that no one would call a forest. Thick with bramble, the light like the air, nauseous and with no source. A thing that leaks up from the mud.
In the foreground is a fat, little man. As Indian as any, I guess. It’s hard to tell sometimes. Most of us have some Indian in us around here. Especially outside of the bigger towns where the white ethnicities were once real or at least recognized. Here we have all pretty much always been peasants and we only care to know who is Catholic or who is a regular, garden-variety cracker. Like, for instance, if you owned a liquor store, or your sister married a Mexican, you were usually a Catholic. Otherwise, who knows anything about people’s people except the women, and the old ones at that? The fat man and his fish is a photo you used to see a lot. The new technologies have torn a swath through us and our tender young traditions, too. I remember waiting, feigning interest, as Ray dug the photo from his glove box. A tin of fine-cut snuff spilled out onto the floorboards and he paused to try to sweep it into his palm. I noticed then that he was missing part of a digit, but I can’t recall which one. Not the thumb. Not the right thumb, at least. I shook his hand too often to not remember that. Then he got the picture and held it to my face, but pulled it back when I tried to take it from him.
The little fat man’s hat is backwards. He is in a factory uniform shirt and cut-off factory uniform pants. The blood in the photo is brownish. It looks a little like chaw spit. It was a remarkable photo. Especially the background. I couldn’t make out the trees. Only that light. It was a light with no dust, I think now. There’s no dust by the river, there’s no dust in the woods. Which is why I can’t abide them. There was dust in Ray’s truck on the dash and the floorboards and the upholstery when you patted it with your palm like take a seat right here, girl, don’t be scared, we got cold beer and we’ll give you a ride wherever you want to go. The passenger side window was stuck and the sun was beating its way in. There was no shade in the cab or anywhere around. I tossed my hardhat into the bed and reached a lite beer from the cooler which I knew was going to taste o so good and it did.
Ray Tres said the fat Indian was dead now and that he hadn’t really hung out with the Indian brothers anyway after he transferred out of the warehouse to an assembly line spot on the swing shift which paid more. The new spot he got was running a small grinder, grinding out the bad spots in the steel-belts where nails or gravel had poked through the tread and the metal had rusted. He said tire dust got in his eyes and his ears and his skin and that he was still washing it out for weeks after he got laid off. And he said it was that dust that got him shitcanned at the grocery store. He was taking out an old broad’s bag and the dust gave him away. Of course, this is the kind of thing that you will hear repeated here. It’s a kind of refrain. The dust gives us all away here.
He was walking out behind the woman and had his arm thrust in her grocery bag. The crank kept him sheeny with sweat and thin, but he had not workedwork-workedsince he got laid off. He wore no coat for the walk to the woman’s car. She was a puffed parka on two skinny legs, the legs wrapped in sagging white hose. She was old, yes, but not elderly. She could still probably take a dick, Ray said. And she should have carried her own single bag. So Ray, vengeful high, had his hand in her bag, a kind of substitute for violence. Perhaps a kind of violence itself, in some people’s eyes. And he did what he always did. He wrapped his ropey hand around her loaf of bread and throttled it.
And the bread somehow loudly cracks and squeaks in the cold, hollow air. And the parka on its little legs pivots. And Ray raises his right hand up from the sack, as though swearing an oath. And his hand drips the yellow, mucous knurl of cracked eggs from his three whole fingers and nub and thumb. My friend, Ray Tres, a known stoic, committed scab, heroic speedfreak, and a fine working man…who lied, lied and denied all the way to the manager’s office. And still, until they lifted the styrofoam egg crate from the sack he’d handed over, he swore on his mother’s name: Man, this bitch is a liar, man.
And there on the crumpled egg crate was a mangled print, precinct-perfect. The whorls of his fingerprints, the shape of his hand, the truncated digit. Traced. In tire dust. Fine black dust from the skiving station, where he ground out the bad spots in the old tires with a gooseneck grinder. God grant us his labor, I still say. And the labor of men like him, if there are any. He ground so long, so much, so many, that the dust had finally got into him, impossibly deep. Into his skin I guess. Into the creases and cleavages of his flesh and only the greasy sweat of stepped-on dope and the heat of the air handlers in the ceiling of the store could press it out of him. Press it onto the white styrofoam of the egg crate and only the light, the fluorescent light that tore at the scraps of his hangover and tugged at the stray ganglia of his frazzleonly that light would reveal it.
The manager turned the carton to and fro so that every one could see the handprint and told Ray Tres: Lay your hand over this. So I did, Ray said, I did just what the bossman say do. I laid my hand over the motherfucker’s face. Over. And over and over, and that was the end.
Always is. All our stories end with something, the same thing, really…struck over and over. Mine, too. My story is over and overall and all of Ray’s stories and some others, too. And yes, I am patting this upholstery at you, girl. I am holding up this photo to your face of someone else’s fish. Feel this, philistine, is what I am saying to you. But don’t try to take it or touch it, that’s not what this story is about. I told you who I am and I asked you not to forget, which is warning enough where I’m from. Yet I think you may have missed something. Something about what gets kicked up or thrown out or throttled. Something about how what we know is how we know it, here. Like, how I know there was supposed to be another part about dust, but I’m not worried. I’m sure there is and it’s here somewhere.
Craig Davis is from Topeka, Kansas. His short story collection, Ramshackle Wonderlands, is available from New American Press.