“DUST IS soil with the life sucked out of it.”
My Great-grandpa Cyrus, born in southwestern Kansas in 1921, spent the early years of his life discovering this truth. He whittled away at the huge, shapeless horror that was the High Plains in the 1930s until he got down to something he could recognize, something that made sense to him.
When he was in the middle of his growing-up years, Cy didn’t see anything as pure as what he thought Truth should be. He only saw mountainous dark goblins of grit fill the sky, over and over again. They lumbered in from whatever direction the wind determined, bearing down on homesteads and wheat fields, shedding scales of thick misery.
One typically parched afternoon beneath a typically brown-veiled sky, the local men gathered in town to consider hiring a rainmaker. Cy was at the meeting with his pa, although he wasn’t old enough to have too many opinions about too much of anything or to open his mouth and expect anyone to listen. By then they were three years into the invasion. The goblins kept coming with dismal regularity, kept dropping their deadly freight. A roller had just passed through a few days earlier. Each building looked gray and beaten. Even cavorting tumbleweeds were scarce. Farmers had been hoarding them to feed their withered cattle. And even to feed their families, when worse came to worst.
But trying to bust water out of the sky with dynamite? Cy’s pa was dead set against making so risky an investment. The Depression had settled in along with the dust. Money was tight. Besides, “The drouth ain’t the real problem,” he said to his neighbors. “We kilt the land. Dust is soil with the life sucked out of it. Dust is the earth’s haint.”
Bonanza Bill Lawton spoke up. “So what we s’posed to do? Persuade Jesus Christ to breathe life back into it?”
“We’ve all tried contacting him a thousand times,” a wag named Pokey Stiles drawled. “Seems he ain’t takin’ our calls.”
After their meeting, while the farmers continued to jawbone outside the feed store, Cy squatted and scooped up a handful of the powder that covered everything in sight. He let it sift through his perpetually dirty fingers as he thought of his father’s words. Finally, Truth appeared, right there in his palm.
The stretches of prairie his ma described so wistfully, the waving buffalo grass and rustling bluestem and nodding flowers, had lain belly-up for years. This dust was its ghost, relentless and punishing.
“’Spect you got every right to dog us,” he whispered.
SO WHAT form does the haint of a ruined life take? Maybe this form, blotchy-ink and smeared-pencil scrawls on mismatched pieces of paper. But they’re better than nothing. They’re better than the hole in my soul, and better than oblivion.
Realities of My Past
ALONZO AND I strolled down 51st on our way back to Elizabeth Street, wrapped in the fleece of summertime dusk. I’d been thinking how I liked corner grocery stores, for we’d just been to one; thinking how they filled me with undeserved nostalgia, for I was only nineteen; thinking how I cringed at the sight of those sliding gates of galvanized steel folded back on themselves, for they’d soon be pulled out, transforming urban charming into urban ugly.
“I hate seeing gates on stores,” I said to Lonzo. What I hated more than anything was not being able to hold his hand as we walked.
“You mean the security gates?”
“Yeah. Nice old buildings shouldn’t have to look like cages.”
“That keep the animals out.” He smiled, at least with the side of his mouth I could see, but it wasn’t an amused smile. I didn’t know the word for it then.
Sardonic. I know it now. I know a lot more words now. Words are my friends, and writing has been my only therapy.
Lonzo playfully bumped my shoulder with his. “Don’t let it get you down, little prince. We’ll be leaving tomorrow.”
The thought brightened my day. I wouldn’t miss Chicago. So many of its neighborhoods, at least in this part of town, sagged with wasted potential. I could parachute out of a plane, land pretty much anywhere on the South Side, and know immediately where I was. Stately trees shaded once-stately brick row houses and apartment buildings, their ground-floor windows blinded with sheets of plywood. Single-family homes, duplexes, triplexes huddled in groups of two or three, or sometimes stood alone. Grassy vacant lots divided them. Walking down one of these streets was like touring a mouth with multiple missing and discolored teeth.
We’d only been there a week, but that was plenty long enough. Lonzo had wanted to drive down from Milwaukee to visit his stepfather, a sixtyish man he called Pop or Dizzy and whom I called Mr. Woodruff. Ever since the death of his mother six years earlier, Lonzo had made a point of spending a week in the summer and a week at Christmas with his pop and making shorter visits in between. I’d only met Mr. Woodruff once before, when Lonzo brought him to Milwaukee last year for Thanksgiving.
Mr. Woodruff was gruff and taciturn. And tough as railroad spikes. He was finally, I think, beginning to accept me. A little.
Lonzo took the small bag of groceries I’d been carrying. “The neighborhood I grew up in was a lot nicer,” he said reflectively, eyeing a gang-tagged stretch of alley. “Pop had a job then, and Mom was working too.”
“What made him move here?” Like the old Chicago housing projects I’d heard about, it seemed to be an area people fled from, not to.
“First my ma passed away, then I moved out, then Pop lost his job.”
“A series of unfortunate events,” I murmured. When I was younger, I’d devoured all the Lemony Snicket books.
“That’s about it.” I doubt Lonzo caught the reference, but it didn’t matter. “Pop said he couldn’t afford nothing better. He had to make his savings stretch. And he can walk to his crappy little part-time jobs so he doesn’t have to piss away money on train or bus fare.”
“At least he works good hours.” I couldn’t seem to harvest more optimism than that from the situation. Mr. Woodruff cleaned a couple of small local businesses before they opened, which meant he could walk to and from his workplaces in the relative safety of early morning.
God, what a sheltered life I’d led. I might’ve been a throwaway, but before the age of sixteen, I was pretty damned insulated from the big bad world.
A car boomed past. Loud voices cut through the pastel twilight. “Maybe we should’ve drove,” Lonzo muttered.
“But it’s such a nice evening.”
“Evenings ain’t always so nice around here, especially on weekends.”
Letting me walk these streets made Lonzo uneasy. I stood out like Casper. I have blond hair and fair skin and more than the average male’s ration of cuteness. Wearing a Chicago Bulls ball cap helped conceal my golden tresses, but what I really needed was a melanin dip.
The worry went both ways. Lonzo looked too Hispanic (he considered himself a Latino Hispanic), which wasn’t a good thing to be in this part of town. Didn’t matter that he was African-American, too, with a dash of Irish. The composition of his DNA wouldn’t help him if some dude with cement for brains made the wrong snap decision.
At that moment, though, I wasn’t thinking about those things. I was looking forward to a cozy evening in front of the TV, sitting next to my boyfriend on Mr. Woodruff’s worn plaid couch, leaning into him, feeling the sultry warmth of his smooth mocha skin as we talked softly, lazily about nothing of any importance.
We were trying to decide which movie to watch first when I heard a sharp, deafening boom. Lonzo’s body suddenly bowed backward in the oddest way, like the strings of a tennis racket dented by a hard-hit ball. Looking confused, he made a strange sound, a startled sound, then stumbled, then wilted to his knees. The bag of groceries and DVDs thudded to the ground. A jar of salsa shattered, spewing moist red chunks and green flecks over the sidewalk and into the shallow gutter peppered with cigarette butts. I caught Lonzo just in time to keep his head from cracking to the pavement.
A car squealed away. I’d never seen it approach. At first I thought the noise had been thunder and Lonzo had been struck by lightning. My mind wasn’t equipped to absorb the truth. Within a second or two, at some level, it did. For a few critical minutes I had enough sense to pull out my phone, hit the button for 9-1-1, and stutter out the necessary information. When the dispatcher started asking questions that either seemed irrelevant or required answers that might alarm Lonzo, I disconnected. He needed my full attention. As he lay on the sidewalk with his head in my lap, I pressed one hand against the shocking red stain spreading over his tank top and stroked him soothingly with my free hand.
“Looks like I fucked up,” he said with a feeble smile that faded like paint in water. “Sorry. You okay?”
“You didn’t fuck up, I’m fine, you’ll be fine too.”
“I think I was shot.”
I nodded, kept up the pressure on his wound. The feel of sticky wetness seeping against my palm was terrifying. I felt as if I’d been shot too, as tight as my chest and stomach were. It never occurred to me to check.
“Still love me?” Lonzo asked.
“Of course I do, you know I do.”
People had begun to gather and chatter. I barely noticed them. All I could hear was the spiraling hysteria of my inner adolescent, wailing What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck? the way a pig shrieks when you try to pick it up. Only when Lonzo’s lips moved could I hear past the screaming in my head.
“Promise you’ll look after Pop.”
“Sure. We’ll both look after him.”
Sirens keened ever closer. I gripped Lonzo’s hand—this wasn’t what I’d had in mind a few minutes earlier, God no—and kept holding it even after it went limp, even after I felt his warmth retreat from my fingers and palms, as if recoiling from my chilled skin. My hand felt bloodless, and Lonzo didn’t need more cold.
His eyes closed.
He had enough coldness to last a goddamned eternity.