2006 – Damon Stewart – Turning Dust

Fiction selection from the 2006 issue

Turning Dust
by Damon Stewart

Nick sat on the couch, hot coffee and cigarette in hand to help cut through the haze of a new day. He was tired, having gotten up several times the night before to help Janice. He did that a lot now and the fatigue was beginning to feel normal, like ragged clothes worn every day; a shambling comfort amidst steady decay.

He was staring at a space two feet above the light blue shag carpeting as the morning sun shone through the opposite window, illuminating a gently swirling column of dust. Nick was absorbed in the languid motion of the particles, their varying size and shape just distinguishable in slow, scavenger flight.

The house was completely quiet. No creaking, no appliances ticking, humming, or buzzing, no planes overhead, no traffic outside, no TV, no radio. No Janice. Most importantly, no Janice.

The silence. It was, he thought, like looking at one of those notebook drawings of a three dimensional rectangle set at a slight angle–depending on your perspective, you were either looking down on it or up at it from below. The silence was like that too–it was either a roar or itself.

When he thought about it from the silence-as-silence perspective, the dust motes almost seemed to be moving in rhythm. That was what had so captured his attention: how could anything move in rhythm to silence? There was a connection there, but he couldn’t get quite get it; like seeing a face and having the name at the edge of cognition, ready to tip off if you could only give it a mental nudge.

The doorbell rang, interrupting his meditation. Nick shuffled over to the front door, his bare feet padding softly as he glanced down at his gray “Rolling Stones” sweatshirt and faded jeans. No stains, and his general presentation seemed ok for a Saturday morning. He wasn’t expecting anyone, but her friends showed up all the time now. Not that his appearance mattered of course, but he often felt he was being judged by them and, to his annoyance, he cared.

Nick swung open the door and saw Henry standing before him, dressed in his usual sports-casual attire, Saturday or no–a navy sport coat over a blue oxford, khakis, battered running shoes (what Nick figured to be a nod towards a weekend state-of-mind) and the tweed hat that Henry always wore this time of year, its color a perfect match for his graying hair.

Henry’s face, which Nick had once described as “strikingly bland,” was finely etched with lines at the corners of his mouth and eyes. They were the same age, but Nick had so far escaped the more obvious signs. As for Henry, the small amount of forehead visible just under the brim of his hat bore creases as well, as if chiseled by a glacial burden, or, Nick thought with a familiar tightening of the stomach, the long rake of intense, well-deserved anger. Nick didn’t like to think of himself as the sculptor, but he knew he tapped at least a few of those lines into place, regardless of more recent developments.

“Hello Henry.”

“She here?”

“Yes.”

He looked past Nick into the apartment.

“Where?”

“Upstairs.” Henry stared until Nick stepped back to let him in, their shoulders brushing as Henry passed and began climbing the stairs just beyond the doorway. It was strange; circumstances aside, Henry ought to ask permission to enter, much less go upstairs. But somehow Nick felt like the stranger in the house, careful not to offend his host’s sensibilities. Nick knew Janice had met Henry at the coffee shop down the road–neutral territory–right after she found out, maybe a couple of times after that, but this was Henry’s first visit here. Not that it wasn’t appropriate, of course, Nick could hardly say no under the circumstances.

Nick watched as Henry tread slowly up the stairs, his head upright, never wavering, no glances to the right to view the photos on the wall, no looking to the left to survey the household domain from on high. Straight and true he ascended to the top, turned left and disappeared, no doubt walking down the short hallway to the bedroom.

Nick went back to the couch and sat down, reaching for his coffee. The smoke from the cigarette smoldering in the ashtray had joined the dust, adding texture to the image. He felt he was on the verge of something again and tried to concentrate, but he was too tired.

It had been a long night, even the OxyContin—dispensed to Nick by the pharmacist every two weeks, with grave warnings (or perhaps suggestions?) about the consequences of overdose–hadn’t managed to quell the pain that radiated through Janice’s body. The hospice people came by every day and offered to take shifts through the night too, but Nick insisted that the burden remain his alone, at least until sunrise. He didn’t know why; except that perhaps he drew a mild comfort from the sacrifice, such as it was, on his part.

The pain—Nick had a name for it, the Demon. He had knighted it as such in a moment of dark humor as he watched her writhe through a particularly bad evening, the gnawing in her bones causing her to moan and occasionally cry out. Of late he caught himself wondering if she actually was possessed, not quite comprehending how a simple biological process, out-of-control as it may be, could reduce someone to a gibbering husk begging for oblivion.

It had been five months since they got the news and she began her increasingly steep descent, this sum total of time flying by with pain-soaked ease. But the individual evenings, especially recently, seemed to have inverted the flow of time itself– they became entire days of pain in and of themselves, each minute stretched for maximum infliction of distress.

Lately he’d been feeling frozen, cracking his mold only to get to the office three or four days a week to sign a few documents, make some phone call and delete 500 or so email messages (some read, most not). But mainly he just stared at his desk. They were good about it at work, his boss told him to do what he could and not worry about it, but that wouldn’t last forever. Nick couldn’t find the strength to care. He hadn’t seen his children weeks even though, despite her anger, Angie had been pretty good about letting them have weekend visits. He wasn’t sure how much they minded his absence; the boys–eight and twelve–came when asked and dutifully followed him to museums, amusement parks and movies, but always with an air of numbed bewilderment that he was only too familiar with. Their relief upon being dropped back off at their mother’s was almost tangible, as was his.

The sound of the bed creaking made him look up, and he wondered if he should go upstairs, his presence necessary because… No, he thought, not now. Especially not now.

Nick had met Janice through a mutual friend, Roger. Roger and Nick headed their respective departments—Process Management and Finance—at an automotive parts manufacturer (muffler clamps—a conversation-killer every time the question was asked). Nick and Angie were regulars at Roger’s bi-monthly parties; cookouts by the pool in the summer, cocktails by the fire in the winter.

Henry and Janice had first shown up at Roger’s a year and a half earlier, invited by Roger’s wife when they moved into a house just down the street. Nick gravitated towards Janice from the moment he saw her: he and Angie had been there for an hour, a nice buzz had just settled in, and then the front door opened and she had entered the house a few steps ahead of Henry. Nick was 30 feet away, standing in the doorway to the kitchen, when he looked across the room and caught her eyes. Later, when he tried to figure out exactly what it was about her, he thought maybe that’s what it was, her eyes. Simple as it sounded, he felt there was some meaning in the intense blue that pulled him in when she was near; he couldn’t look anywhere else or think of anything else but her. Those eyes.

They had stared at each other for a split second then both looked away, but there was that flash and he felt the energy, a metabolic boost from her physical presence, and he almost instinctively moved towards her without any idea of what he was about to do.

What he did do was introduce himself in a manner that Janice alone seemed to think charming; offering her a piggyback ride to Roger’s homemade bar for a drink. To his surprise and delight she seemed inclined to take him up on it, but Henry’s obviously forced smile brought them both back to reality. They chatted for a few minutes until Janice was obliged to circulate around the room with her husband. But throughout the night they kept re-engaging in a running conversation that excluded all others–she had picked up on a Dr. Who reference he had made, and they traded snatches of episodes–and each time he felt the spark, its brightness corresponding to her proximity and attention.

By the end of the night they were alone in the kitchen, deep in discussion about whether the Donner party used salt. She had disagreed with vigor; it was a ridiculous argument, they were obviously flirting and both knew it, but they kept it up until their respective spouses walked into the room. Whereupon said spouses, taking in the topic, the overbright smiles, animated gestures and the general vibe, removed their mates from the room to go in separate directions, like parents escorting wayward children.

But two parties later and Nick and Janice were drunkenly kissing on the back deck, and from there it was a short journey to the more advanced forms of adultery.

After four months of furtive encounters, clichéd hotel engagements and back-seat romance, Janice moved out of Henry’s house, Nick explained the new reality to Angie, and Janice and Nick rented a narrow townhouse apartment in downtown Albany, just a few blocks from the Capitol building and several lives away from those they used to inhabit.

Compared to other marital re-alignments that Nick had observed, his was rather easy. Indeed, Nick convinced himself that despite his and Janice’s seemingly successful efforts at discretion, deep down Henry and Angie simply must have known and thus, surprised reactions notwithstanding, tacitly approved. He had even convinced himself that someday Henry, upon being offered a presentation of the reasons why Nick and Janice were a perfect match, would see the obvious merits of the case and–grudgingly no doubt, which was understandable– concede the point. With grace even, if Nick had a few beers before he thought about it. Nick didn’t go so far as to believe they’d be friends, but he would daydream of themselves as acquaintances who politely agreed to disagree.

On the other hand, he knew Angie too well to bother with such notions, and simply tried not to think about her. Once, a month after his departure, he tried to arrange a lunch, inviting her to a nice place downtown to discuss the kids, taxes and the remaining property issues–he wanted the T.V., had easily given up everything else, but didn’t make a fuss over it at first for fear that she’d withhold it out of spite–but before he finished his proposition she interrupted with a laugh.

“Lunch? You’re fucking kidding me, Nick. Feeling guilty? Want things to just be normal, whatever that is, between us? The kids will love us both, grow up happy and everyone neatly goes their separate ways?” He was silent, stunned by her scouring of his illusions. “Well, you can just forget it, cowboy. I’m hurt, I’m angry, and I got a gloriously vicious lawyer who’ll go nuclear the minute I give the word. So you just keep up the child support—such as it is, for now—and stay the fuck away.” And that was that.

As news of their new arrangement spread, Nick and Janice’s circle of friends contracted so quickly he wondered if they been subjected to a malicious rumor; if instead of a simple change of pairings, someone had hinted at abuse, theft, or murder. It took Nick awhile to realize that unlike the relative balance of opinion with most of the divorces that he had seen, his and Janice’s unexpected severances had resulted in almost universal sympathy for Henry and Angie, and the more negative spectrum of scorn to outright hostility for Nick and Janice.

For his part, Henry never issued any threats or even acted in a particularly intimidating manner. Except for the time when Nick, slightly drunk at a party they had all happened to attend (to the host’s obvious embarrassment) a few months after the big split, tried to have a neutral chat with him.

Henry’s face, the unremarkable facade then just beginning to acquire a layer of anger, swiftly transformed into that of a snarling dog—literally a dog; it struck Nick as absurd and he had to suppress a shocked giggle as he tried to remember the name of the breed—and Henry suggested that Nick never again attempt communication. Advice that Nick, shaken from his “acquaintances” theory, took to heart.

Janice came up to him minutes later, a smile on her face but when she got close she spoke through gritted teeth.

“I can’t take it, Nick. No one will talk to me.” She glanced around and hissed, “I mean, literally no one will speak to me. Let’s just get out of here.” Nick agreed. Along with the unpleasantness of Henry, he too found the room cold. Not as if no one would speak to him, but the small group with whom he usually engaged in conversation at gatherings like these, politics, the weather, luck of the Giants, seemed restrained. No jokes and neutral observations only—“yes, it has rained a lot lately.”

Christ, I’m being shunned, Nick thought and shrugged. They would get over it someday. So he and Janice held hands as if preparing to jump in tandem off a bridge and made a completely unobstructed run for the door. He thought he’d heard one person say “Bye,” and the sharpness of the tone managed to surprise him.

Thus detached, not only from their former spouses, but also from their entire social network–this was the last invitation they would receive for awhile– they were forced to strike out on their own, and did so with abandon. Those first months together, Nick hadn’t felt so full of unpredictable potential since he was a teenager. He discovered a passion for hiking, started going to the movies regularly, and Janice even got him back into tennis. They joined a Thursday night league and made new friends. Dinner out most nights, weekend trips to New York or Boston, the mountains. Sometimes they’d just sit in a bar and talk about all the things they had done or had yet to do. Money was tight for Nick; he was shocked to discover the costs of divorce–child support, attorney’s fees, his share of credit card debt and car payments–but Janice made enough as a VP at an investment firm to cover the both of them with ease.

It was just before she got sick that he noticed it–a fading of events, the fabric of their relationship, their existence even, beginning to wear thin and washed out, like winter light in the late afternoon. There were a couple of mornings, at the first instance of consciousness, where he found himself in a mild panic, as if he couldn’t believe what he’d done, that it couldn’t be real. Not that he wanted to take it back, but he wanted to call a time out and think about things some more. He had begun to wonder if all the running they were doing was designed to keep their minds off the specific sort of running they had already done. He was afraid that the energy, the lust intertwined with the excitement of new companionship was somehow false, a buzz that couldn’t be sustained.

As for Janice, as far as he could tell she was—or had been– perfectly happy. She laughed with delight whenever he entered the room, kissed him every time she sat next to him, and flat out told him any number of times how happy she was. Nick knew she had spoken to Henry before she got sick, but it never bothered him. They had been high school sweethearts, together almost 20 years, and he wasn’t so naïve to think that such a relationship would be so easily extinguished. In fact, their continued communication was one of the rationalizations he used to help justify his part in the modification of their relationship. It wasn’t that bad, he’d tell himself, they remained friends after all. Even after the angry exchange over the telephone, he had tried with again Angie but she wasn’t as…sophisticated as Henry. He was left with only a vague sense of magnanimity; a veteran whose come to terms with the war, even if all the other side had not.

There were only two occasions when Nick noticed Janice seeming to be in any doubt. The first was a few days after they moved in together, a Friday night after they had been to the mall for dinner and a movie. They were lying side by side in bed, like they had been a couple forever, she was finishing up a book and he was about to turn off the TV, when he caught her looking out the window, the muscles on her jaw bunched with tension. She noticed his stare and smiled; it was forced, but he couldn’t tell if it was for his or her sake. Then she lay her head on his chest, jaws still clenched, put her arms around him and squeezed so tight he couldn’t tell if she was trying to hang on or force him into a different shape; perhaps like the thing she saw out the window.

The other time was a few months later, the night Henry called and asked her to come back. Nick had just sat down on the couch next to her and could hear him talking, begging, saying he’d forgive her if she’d just come home. She put the phone down, crying, and gave Nick a wild look, almost accusing, then ran into the other room, saying it was “too late.” Nick hung the phone up and smoked a cigarette, waiting to see what would come next. She came back in a few minutes, smiling, said not to worry and they went out to a bar. After a few gin and tonics he asked her about it; she said she didn’t want to discuss it and they let it go at that.

When the pain first started, she just said, “must be cramps,” and shrugged. Nick went along, how could he know otherwise? When it didn’t go away, he was mildly concerned, but she went to see her doctor mainly because they had planned a trip to Montreal and were afraid that some sort of minor ailment would jam up the plan.

Then came the chain of events that he’d heard about but never really paidattention to, along with a host of other bad things that didn’t affect him directly. Tests, doctor visits filled with increasing somberness, dread, then the news, obvious before being verbalized. Therapy, poison actually, she tried to keep pace but was soon rendered to bed, the battle turning to a rout and the enemy lacking mercy.

Her friends returned. They had been trickling in since the rumor began circulating; when confirmed there came a flood of support.

Nick, though never made unwelcome, felt increasingly uncomfortable at the restored bond between Janice and the representatives of her Henry life. Everyone was quite friendly, but there was a scent of blame in the air, a sliver of judgment in the quick looks and faster smiles. Despite their close company in such circumstances, Nick didn’t think any lasting relationships were being built between him and Janice’s friends.

As for his own friends, a few started speaking to him again and a few more were pretty much done with him. He didn’t mind the latter; what he did mind among the former was the sense of embarrassment about Janice, as if it was all a tragic mistake that their ridiculous fuck-up friend Nick had caused despite their best efforts to help him.

And there it was, he thought, a straightforward–leave their respective spouses–that seemed to make sense at the time, but who knew? He just didn’t understand his role anymore, and there were obligations he could sense but didn’t know how to perform.

He figured he should check on how Henry was doing. As he began to climb the stairs, he wondered why he felt like apologizing to the man.

Nick slowed as he turned the corner of the hallway and looked into the bedroom. The sun was shining in through the window and he could see the faint waves of dust motes gliding through the light. Part of him wanted to go back downstairs to compare patterns of motion.

But it was the bed that captured his attention. Henry, fully clothed, had gotten in with Janice. She lay in his arms, her head on his chest and he was whispering to her, Nick could barely make it out, “shh, just listen to my heartbeat, shh….” and gently rubbing her back. Henry glanced up when Nick stepped softly into the room, but returned his attention to Janice

The fear—for days now he could feel it, smell it on her, and was ashamed that he’d never been able to lessen it—it was gone from the room. There was a look of peace on her face that not even the drugs had been able to bring, a stillness she possessed–a posture that Nick had always assumed Janice would acquire as their lives settled into each other’s, but she never quite made it. It wasn’t a relative calm either, not the pause of an otherwise agony-wracked soul slowly diminishing, but rather an absolute peace, one that he knew, if only by looking at her lying with Henry, comes with a profound contentment. The word “complete” went through his mind, and he wondered what he had done, what damage his actions had wrought. She had attained a beautiful detachment in the presence of her match; found sanctuary as a sympathetic vibration, and he thought of the dust swirling to music he could not hear.

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