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Leah Lederman writes her stories when everyone else goes to bed. She cleans a lot.
Enjoy a Lederman story about cleaning—and stay tuned for a guest post and interview with the author next week.
Dust to Dust
She ran her index finger along the bookshelf, exposing the glossy cherry finish beneath it. It reflected the light from the chandelier and for a moment she thought about the ripples in a mountain creek eroding the mossy banks on either side. Here the moss was a layer of gray dust, its backdrop a jagged range of leather-bound classics.
The dust was thick enough to peel from the surface like a soft, linty scab, and so she removed the bulk of it this way. Her back straightened in anticipation each time she reached another corner, and she only dared to exhale after she’d finished the peel —it was coming off in thick wallpaper strips. She’d never seen dust quite like this. The funeral was only the day before, but clearly there had been months of neglect prior to that, time spent navigating insurance paperwork, weeping silently, packing lunches, going through the motions. And during that time, she’d sat quietly, attentively, at the bedside of someone whom, she imagined, would probably rather she went home and dusted the bookshelves.
“It will get done eventually, dear.” She had said it out loud to him, there in the hospital, just to let the walls soak in something other than silence. He would not say anything. He could not. But she stayed there with him, sitting in the cold tiled room addled with disinfectant. She put a bottle of the hospital solution in her purse one night after the nurse left. Another for her collection. She was in his study; the dusting nearly finished. Afterwards, when she’d collected all of it, she’d try the disinfectant.
The room would smell like a hospital—just the way she remembered him.
I told you the dusting would get done,” she tittered to a photograph of him on the shelf. He was on his boat, smiling at the camera. The wind made his hair stick out at a 45 degree angle like some slanted cliff. She hadn’t seen his hair in a long time. The sky and water behind him were seamlessly blue, and the white spray from the boat mirrored the clouds. Her finger, grubby now from the dust, streaked slowly across the frame’s glass, leaving a smooth, dusted trail behind it. A jet stream tinged with human dirt.
She returned her attention to the shelf and peeled another strip, but this one crumbled. The little scabs of dust swayed lazily to the floor, and a few particles rose up in the air around her. She paused. Were these tiny flecks like snowflakes, no two the same? Nonsense. “But they are human,” she whispered to herself, “Dust is 80% human skin.” Smiling, she began to hum a vacant tune.
This is his dust. This is him.
A blond, translucent hair poked out from the dust she’d gathered on the lower shelf and she paused, turning her head to the side while she conjured the scene that led to its placement there. She could see him, wearing the same faded shirt as the picture, smoothing his hair as if he’d just walked in from the boat ride. A single strand dwindled down across the books, undetected, as he peered absently at the leather-spined titles—the same little hair that now stuck out so obstinately from its dusty bed. His finger grazed the tops of his collection, sending tiny particles to rest on the shelf. Inhaling, he turned slowly and it seemed that he might face her. Before she could meet his eyes, though, she found herself alone in the room. Looking at the dust she’d collected, she sighed.
This is all I have, now.
When the shelves were dusted, she polished them quickly with a soft white cloth and the spray she’d taken from the hospital. It made her think of echoing footsteps and beeping machines when she breathed it in. Perhaps it is too quiet in this house, she thought silently, and began to hum softly again. The smell followed her into the various rooms of the house, where she shoveled dust into one of the ceramic containers she carried with her, for occasions just like these, before wiping down the various surfaces. She swabbed along the tops of clocks and picture frames, behind the TV and over top of the snarled electrical cords throughout the rooms. Her empty humming tune drifted down the hall, dissipated by the hiss of the aerosol disinfectant.
She had cleaned houses before, of course, and this made things simpler – she knew the process. Once everything had been wiped clear of dust, she swept debris from the hard floors and linoleum into the only carpeted room in the house, the study. This is where she had begun. The polished shelves twinkled back at her during the few short minutes she ran the vacuum cleaner, their cleanness paralleled by the careful stripes she made along the carpet. She removed the vacuum’s dirt cup and emptied its contents into her little ceramic urn, the same one that carried all of the dust strips and remnants from throughout the house. This container was, she thought, well-chosen. There was always a small selection available in her oversized purse, and she liked that this one had a smooth stone disk for a lid. After arranging the two latches that held it in place, she wiped off the outer surface and placed the whole thing into her bag.
Once back in her own home, she carefully ran the cloth—now smudged with a gray, wrinkled handprint—across the shelf before removing the container, lid intact, from her bag and setting it carefully on the shelf between granite jewelry box and the vintage candy tin. It was a perfect fit there, and she gave a perfunctory nod of satisfaction as she stepped back to view its spacing from the other urns. A sweet, sad little collection. Her lip had twisted upward on one end, halfway between a sob and a smirk. Indeed, it was a sweet, sad little collection…but it still needed more.
“Thank goodness you’re here, girl! It’s been a busy afternoon,” Janet spoke in a hurried sigh, trying to catch her breath, “We had two new arrivals this morning and we’re still trying to get things situated.” A phone rang on the desk across from her. She gestured to it without looking up from the scrawled notes on her legal pad, “Do you mind grabbing that for me?”
The purse made a distinct “clink” noise as she set it down on the desk next to Janet and answered the phone, “Sheet County Hospice, how may I help you?”
Co-editor Omar Figueras on “Dust to Dust”: I found the nameless consciousness in this story haunting, alluring; she's a ghostlike presence but flesh and bone in her awkwardness. Human and longing to connect and preserve something she cannot define. Leah's writing is trance-like, hallucinatory. The reader has the pleasure of embodying this near-omniscient, unknown consciousness for an interim, and afterward is irrevocably transformed.