It was her bag of dust. One day, just like that, one day she started walking up and down streets, hallways, restaurants, stores, public buildings picking up dust. If she came for a visit, she would scour the room with her eyes looking for dust -- no matter what anyone was saying to her at the time. She carried on the conversation without losing the thread. But her eyes were focused on the corners, on the shelves, under the chairs. She turned her head just enough to get a glimpse of what was under the couch and then snatched a bit of dust and put it in her bag.
They found her on that narrow street along the river, going into each apartment building picking up the dust on the stairs and putting it in her bag -- the satin one, with the rose stitched on the side, you remember? -- Just collecting dust. "Why?" they asked her.
"It's important," she said.
I tried to intervene, tried to get her to stop. I whispered, "Don't!"
She didn't listen. She kept it up.
I visited her sometimes, in that large one room apartment. At first she put the dust in a shoe box under the radiator. Dust fell out on either side. Then she got a larger box from delivery men who brought a washing machine to an apartment on the avenue. They asked her if she wanted a hand in taking it home. "Oh, no," was all she said and dragged it along the sidewalk
and up the stairs into her building.
Dust began to blow around the apartment. The paintings, the curtains, the books, the piles of magazines, the shelves -- everything that wasn't used had dust on it.
Once the phone rang while I was there.
"Aren't you going to answer it?" I asked.
"It's not for me."
Curiously, I felt better when she said that.
With each visit I felt more uncomfortable. There was no room left, almost nothing but dust. I forgot what her apartment looked like, forgot the oak floor and the green rug that partly covered the oak floor, forgot the furniture, forgot the texture of the wallpaper. There was only dust, dust in great heaps, dust everywhere. Surrounded by billows of grey dust I forgot everything.
"Where do you sleep?" I dared to ask during another visit.
"On the floor," she pointed to an old blanket on the floor, nothing else, not even a pillow.
She said she enjoyed my visits.
"Good-bye," I said.
Whenever I walked by the apartment I looked up at the windows. Their reflections were tinged with grey. They were darker, more somber with each pass. It was impossible to see in.
She looked worse. Strangers stopped her on the street and asked, "Are you OK?"
"Just fine," she said in a peppy voice.
She began to sleep in the hallway. When I met her on the street she was always coughing. If I asked what was wrong she said, "Just a cold," or, "I didn't sleep last night."
What I can't understand is why they didn't evict her? I convinced her to get a second apartment, one to live in. She continued to go back to the old place and put dust in it. Even when the door could barely close, and she had to force it shut, she fit in more dust. None escaped her. If some fell out, she carefully picked up every bit, meticulously placed it back inside and closed the door. None of it was lost.
Then, one day she came to me and said, "Well, it's done!"
"What?" I said.
"It's filled," she said.
"Oh," I said.
The apartment was completely filled with dust; she could not fit another pinch of it in. And just like that she stopped. Her interest in dust disappeared. She couldn’t have fit a speck more in the room, it’s true. But after such an all consuming obsession what stopped her from not getting another apartment and filling that one? Her answers were always murky, all the more so because she delivered them with such clarity.
When I finally asked her, "Why?"
"It was an investment, all an investment," she said. Her red lips never ceased to shimmer. They seemed independent of the rest of her.
As far as I know she still has the apartment where she keeps her collected dust.
We rarely speak to each other anymore. When we do it's about the weather or about a package that mistakenly got delivered to my place instead of her place.
I have to stop myself from asking about the dust. After all, the less I know about it, the better. She's doing well now, friends still say I made the right decision.
"It wouldn't have worked!" they say with certainty.
I'm not certain; after all it was just something she had to go through – a phase maybe.
I remember when it first started. We were talking about the possibility of moving in together. A strand of dust came floating down between us. And she just stared at it.
"Did you ever!" she said with the most confused look on her face.
Copyright © 2014 Robert Miller
Robert Miller lives in Kittery, Maine, the first town you come to as you drive into Maine on I-95. It’s easy to think that all there is to Kittery is a stretch of malls along Route 1, but a couple of right turns will bring you out to the beaches and the rocky coast of Maine where the waters of the Atlantic ebb and flow.
Miller has written fiction and poetry; for very long periods of time he was his only audience. He has had a story or two published in literary journals and online magazines. He has published a novel, The Touch of Bark, the Feel of Stone, and an essay “Circles” was published in the “Green Briar Review."
He joined the Peace Corps when he was more than twice the age that most people are when they serve in the Peace Corps. He served in Mali, West Africa and has written about his experience there as well.