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People of the World of Dust


I have a house. I have a home, I live somewhere, but whenever I visit my parents, I say I'm going home. My sixteen-year-old son says, "What do you mean, you are home." Home is a concept layered inside others like figures inside Russian nested boxes. "I mean my first home." But it isn't, not the actual house. I'm opening boxes down to my first home—my parents, their bodies.

I walk into the kitchen and set my luggage down on the floor. It's the same, a floor you rarely see anymore: green linoleum streaked with random swirling of imitation agitated froth. In the window, a clay ashtray I made when I was nine squats on the sill, and the same two potted philodendron struggling for life within the ruffles of the thinning curtains.

My mother, having kissed me, weeps automatically, then opens the broken dishwasher in Harvest Gold she uses as a storage bin and jostles in an empty margarine container. The dishwasher is so stuffed with plastic containers and tops she can hardly close it. Every closet and drawer in the house is like this. Like most old people, she never throws anything away because anything might prove useful; you never know, let it stay.

I hear my father coming toward us from far away, shuffling through the house, breathing.

"I hear heavy breathing," says my mother, and into the kitchen he stumbles, a large burly animal just out of hibernation.

He stares at me. "Hello," he says as if I were a stranger.

"Dad, it's me, Eugenia."

I hate that name. It means polite, well-mannered. They imposed it on me like a first law after a twenty-four-hour labor my mother describes as traumatic. They still call me by that name. I have shortened it to Nia which has no meaning, is merely sound—one consonant and a mellifluous ending.

"My Evyenia," he says in Greek, rubbing my hand, "Is that you, my baby?"

"Yes, sweetheart, it's me."

I help him sit down at his chair at the table. He takes off his glasses and wipes tears from his eyes. "Where have you been for so long?"

"Just living, Dad."

I sit down and reach for his other hand, the one with the missing index finger that ends in a knob like a sausage with a nipple at the end. He lost it in five different ways, according to whatever story he feels like telling when anyone asks. His past is a mystery; we don't even know exactly when he was born, only where: on a Greek island, in a village plastered into the side of a mountain, the stairs covered with donkey-shit, the people who knew him as a boy all dead.

He takes out his upper bridge and carefully places it on the table where it sits staring at us, gold in places, the rest bone colored.

My mother carefully places a plate of Kalamata olives and Feta on the table, sees the teeth and makes him put them back in.

"I've been living too," he says, "dragging one foot after the other, on my way to the grave."

I lean toward him, "The tomb of the body, Dad, that's what Plato called it."

My mother pushes the olives and cheese toward me. "Eat," she says.

I'm not hungry.

"Those old Greeks," he says, "Two thousand years ago they already understood everything."

My mother is at the sink slicing tomatoes. She nicks her hand but thank God it's not the one that's been swollen for forty years since the radical mastectomy she barely survived when I was a kid. My father takes his teeth out again and carefully places them on the table. With trembling fingers, he raises a piece of Feta to his mouth and gums it; soft white crumbs of it escape into the crumples of his shirt which inflates and deflates with each breath.

She brushes off the crumbs, puts a bib on him, scolds him, and puts his teeth back in. It's like he's ten years old. That's new.

I have children of my own, a husband, and a dog. I have a home. She cuts a piece of bread, butters it, hands it to me, insists I eat it. It's like I'm ten years old. That's not new. That's very old.

Just like always, the television's been on since I arrived, and just like always after dinner they finally actually look at it, and just like always I'm anxious to get into bed with a book. I spent my adolescence in my room, reading.

Until I was twelve or so I was a very obedient, model child. At thirteen I started sulking and dragging my feet through living rooms and church halls filled with eating and dancing Greeks. My father used to dance the Tango with me at every party they dragged me to. I could always predict the moment when Greek music would temporarily be displaced by a Tango and my mother would approach my father and tell him to dance with me.

I think they both thought that if he danced with me at Greek weddings, I would grow up to marry a Greek.

Out of the arsenal of books I have brought with me I choose Sun at Midnight, the writings of a 13thcentury Zen monk, Muso Soseki.

I flip back through the introduction. His mother died when he was three. He became a monk at nine.

For him, Satori finally came in a garden, late at night, after meditation. There was no light. He stood up. Sure he knew the place well, he reached to steady himself against a wall which did not exist. He fell. Burst out laughing. This is it, he said to himself. For the first time he knew where he was.

My bookmark deposits me in the middle of his "Dialogue of the Dream." I start rereading at a phrase I had underlined this morning on the airplane, flying through fifteen hundre miles of clouds to get here: "people of the world of dust."

The people of the world of the moth that vanishes, the rust that corrupts, the thieves that taketh away. At Muso's famous garden in Kyoto none of the original temples, trees, or mosses is the same. Nothing remains except the rocks, symbols of permanence.

I have not been reading very long when my father comes into the room and leans over the foot of my bed peering at me. He examines me for a long time and finally says, "You know, I like you."

It's unclear if he remembers who I am. I can practically hear his brain clicking, sieving information. Who is she, she's young, do I know her, why is she sitting in this bed in a room in my house—am I in my house, what is a house?

"Dad, it's me, Eugenia."

"I know," he says, "I know who you are."

Amid the siftings of the past that drift through the landscape of his mind, I am a rock of reality, the present.

It's Lent here in St. Louis. Fasting for Orthodox Greeks means paying attention to complex rules about what goes into the mouth and through the body. At every house we visit food is brought out and inspected carefully as if we were all diabetics. This week Jello is fine, cake is not; peanuts are fine, and cantaloupe. Meat is not.

A dispensation lightens the rigors of Lent for anyone as old as my father is. His years weigh heavily on him. He sighs often, a deep shuddering sigh. I listen to him sighing while my godmother, Athena, talks.

She may be the only Greek woman in the world over a certain age who has read a book that was not a Greek cookbook. She has actually read Dickens. When I was growing up I was afraid of her, but she fascinated me. She still does.

"What good do all those books do her," my mother asks whenever we leave her house. She means because Athena's husband is dead and she lives alone. She also means what good do all those books do me.

Athena's daughter Antigone is sixty years old and still lives a house away from her mother and is in fact serving us the cantaloupe and jello. Upstairs the bookshelves in one of the bedrooms still carry into the future Antigone's collection of dolls which I used to go up and look at and never touch and which she had never been allowed to play with either.

Athena looks at my father who is oblivious to the company and staring at a napkin he is turning over and over, and says, "Isn't that ridiculous? He's completely senile."

As if her mother did not exist Antigone announces in her quiet way, "I don't need to point out to you people, do I, that if I weren't around all events would occur on the wrong date and bills would be paid at least twice."

Athena ignores this and asks how my husband is. "And how many children do you have?" adds my father, with such an interested air no one knows if he's being sarcastic or senile. Athena laughs. He always could make her laugh. As a kid I thought she was sweet on him. She complained to everyone about her husband behind his back, and the moment he entered a room, withdrew into sarcasm or total silence. But my father she catered to, addressed all her comments to him. With him, this Amazon with a double mastectomy always flirted.

Antigone smiles and then tells the story of how she recently dismissed her mother's last companion. Apparently, the companion charged exorbitant rates and refused to launder clothes or wash a dish, but did take Athena to lunch at expensive restaurants, at Athena's expense of course.

"I liked going out to lunch at expensive restaurants. Why shouldn't I? Spending money is the last pleasure I have." Athena sighs. "I always said I didn't want to live too long," she says. And it's true she always has, and she is now eighty-five.

Adept at changing subjects before they can backfire on her, she then remarks that so far, she has neglected Lent this year.

"Aren't you tired of worrying about it?" I venture.

"Honey," she replies, her eyes bright as her tongue is acid, "I'm tired of everything."

My mother is not tired of anything. Every Sunday she single-handedly performs the labors involved in getting my father ready for church. She bathes, shaves, dresses him in expensive suits with matching ties, handkerchiefs, socks and shoes, then she extricates him from the world of the house and deposits him inside the house of the Lord.

This morning I stand beside him, both of us like life-sized dolls on display before the congregation. Six larger-than-life Byzantine Saints look down grimly, one of them pointing directly at us, while the priest prods the merely-human upward, toward the spiritual.

Outside the moon shines in midday as inside the dusky foyer the world of the past comes forward in the flesh and I greet the people who knew me as I was growing up. "You look just like your mother," they say. "Vasili looks great," they say to my mother. "He's doing great," says my mother, "yes, he's looking great."

Eventually the dust of noon settles over the vestibule as, gradually, everyone vanishes.

I assume they all reappear, like us, in their homes, surrounded by the foods of Lent. My mother and I eat bread and cheese while my father eats eggs, and even a small piece of sausage, because he is closer to death than we are.

Suddenly my father laughs. My mother looks at me and says, "Do you believe him? It's like he's out of his mind."

I like these lapses of his into other worlds. When I start probing into this one it turns out he is thinking about his grandmother.

"I didn't know you had one—that you knew anyway."

"Of course I had one, when I was a boy, just like anyone else."

Apparently, she had white eyelashes. He can see them as if he were there—now. They are what he is laughing at.

My mother, busy as Queen Elizabeth the last year of her life, the year they say the Queen never sat down, tries to get him to remember her name.

But my father does not want to remember his grandmother's name, or cannot; he wants to lie down. My mother is tireless about keeping him connected to this world despite his Olympian resistance. He doesn't need a nap; he needs to read the newspaper, he needs to go out, he needs a new tie so he can go out.

My father is still laughing to himself. I think the last thing he needs is another tie.

My mother is clattering dishes onto the sink, then she leaves. I follow her into another room.

"See, Mom," I say, "the way he goes in and out of time like that, that's worth more than religion. It means we go beyond time, in and out of it as if it were nothing."

I'm just about to delve into this wonderful subject of how everything will be all right because in reality we are outside time, I'm just about to pick up Muso and quote you fly out of this world…to live there where heaven and earth were never divided, when my mother interrupts me. She is tailoring a jacket we bought in too large a size because it was on sale and the only one they had. "Get up and try the jacket on again," she says, "I think it's done."

"See," I say, "it turns out nothing but the material world is ever really interesting."

"No," she says, "I'm interested."

She moves to the sewing machine, altering other things: the sequined top left over from last Christmas, seventy-five percent off, that only needs to be taken in at the waist in order for me to wear it for this year's Holidays; the ones that will follow this year's Lent.

In and out goes the needle of her machine, the noise of the machine pausing as she adjusts the material, and then starting up again.

At night dreams flit through my sleep, fluttering white eyelashes of enlightenment, missing breasts, mouths like black caves, a wall that is not there, bones like fists of rock. I wake to the mysterious presence of the body.

"Eugenia," my mother calls. The world is waiting for us, dresses throb on racks. Shoes pulse in boxes, desires flutter across counters of glass. I prod myself into clothes, not old, which already seem, under my mother's influence, outdated. When my mother has levered my father into his clothes, which seem dowdy and also outdated—nothing like his Sunday best—we steer him through the obstacle course of the house, (the stairs, protruding tables, unwieldy chairs), to the car, where he becomes vehicular, wonderfully movable.

Once we extricate him from the car and into the restaurant at the mall, it's evident my father is not in a good mood—he doesn't like the restaurant I picked, he doesn't want to eat the food of this restaurant, he will not take a glass of wine.

My mother immediately starts pandering to him. Don't you want this, wouldn't you like that? He growls negative replies. Finally, she hits on something he accepts. He will have soup. Good, good, he will have soup, how wonderful, he will have soup.

I have ordered a martini for myself and am buttering a piece of bread. Just as the waiter prances up with my martini, my father slaps away my hand with the proffered bread, which flies into the waiter's tray, upsetting the drink, half of which spills on me. I am so embarrassed I insist it is our fault and won't let the waiter bring another.

I sit there spotted with gin while my mother berates my father and tries to placate me now. He didn't mean it, she says to me. I don't know what's the matter with you today, she says to him.

The afternoon seems dusty, ruined, the restaurant chaotic, trash being swept up around us, washed glasses with lipstick still on them, children squirming, parents threatening or cajoling, one or the other, nothing in between, a surly bus girl filling water glasses, her mouth a purple bruise.

At the next table an order of spinach fettuccine appears. Nursing my half-spilled drink I remember a little green coat I bought once in Paris. It still hangs in a closet of my life in another time-zone collecting dust.

My parents have never been to Paris.

After lunch, my mother and I park my father on a bench in the mall, giving him instructions not to leave. Every twenty minutes of so one of us has to come back to make sure he hasn't wandered off somewhere.

My mother and I head toward the department store nearest his bench. Just before disappearing into it we check on him one more time; backed up by a huge ficus he is nursing his low-fat frozen yogurt.

We control ourselves at the perfume counter, trying on five different obsessions and escapes, but buying nothing.

At the jewelry counter I look at the cases filled with stones and metals. "Why do people buy jewelry?" I ask the man behind the counter.

"Oh, Eugenia," my mother says, "why do you say things like that!"

The man behind the glass case isn't sure how to counter my question. But for a moment I sense he agrees with what my question implies. Even though he is wearing a suit, he can't figure it out either.

To give himself more time he repeats the question, "Why do people buy jewelry?"

"Yes," I ask again, "why do they?"

But this is not the man I am looking for. I'm looking for someone who knows; this man never makes a reply. I gave him the question and now I will furnish him with at least a partial answer. I move down the case to the topaz and say to my mother, "This is topaz, my birthstone."

I know that because we are upset with my father, we might charge these blue topaz earrings. But from our assessment of their worth, someone has inflated their value ten times. The earrings are marked $525. And we do not dare such extravagance just to mark my passage of breathing through time.

We spend the $500 anyway, but in smaller increments: an Albert Nipon suit, a dressy sweater, Via Spiga shoes, all on different charges; a stamped computer passport that will remember for months our journey through the mall while my father, whom we check on periodically, sits on a bench waiting—our baby.

The time we have allotted for shopping has flitted by like a shadow barely glimpsed as it turns corners around forests of dresses and mushrooming shoe boxes.

Like a woman looking for the perfect husband, one who will match her every requirement, my mother has led us from store to store searching for the missing mate, in shoes, of a dress she wants to wear to a wedding. She is a woman who looks long, knows how to wait, is never satisfied.

After two hours we end up going back to the first store where she opens a box containing the first pair of shoes she tried on. The color is Heavenly Gray. She tries them on once again.

As I carry the shoes for her in a box inside a sack, they remind me of my father sitting on a bench waiting to be taken home.

Although we are getting shorter and shorter on time, we accidentally get deep into a sale on designer dresses. She wants to buy me one. But she also wants me to check on my father. I put it off, and after another ten minutes when she tells me to check again, I say, "I'll go in a few minutes, even if he wanders it won't be far."

"There are no doors," she says, "he can go outside, this place is big, how would we find him."

"The restaurant was ruined," I insist, "do we have to ruin this too?

"I'll go," she says, "you stay here and shop."

"I'm going," I mutter, and throw my bag on the floor and stomp off.

When I get to the balcony that overlooks where we left him, I think it must not be the place, because although there's a huge ficus and a bench down there, there's no little old man hunching over a cane.

But there are lots of big ficuses next to lots of benches. I descend by escalator into a lower world of shops and arcades.

As I get off and approach the bench I hope isn't the right one, I spot the yogurt cup. I can even see the remains of the right flavor, one miserable berry peeping at me out of a slough of lavender yogurt, and I know incontrovertibly this is the right bench and the right ficus. The gates of hell shudder open in the middle of this huge imitation paradise, and it's all my fault, my miserable, petty, selfish fault.

Hundreds of people, hundreds, are milling through swells of tropical plants and marbled terrified fountains. I run to the yogurt shop not far from where he was. Have you seen an old man, shuffling, with a cane? No, they haven't.

With dread in my heart I turn back to where I left my mother. She's already heading toward me because it's taken me so long to return. She's ready for the worst and I give it to her.

She thrusts the shopping bags at me and starts running even as she says, "Are you sure you went to the right bench?" Trying to keep up with her, I tell her about the yogurt cup.

We're at different levels going down the escalator, searching not for a perfect husband, but for a real one.

I see her head straining, turning, scanning the place. I move down toward her, pushing my way past other people, brushing past them impolitely with my cumbrous, tearable bags. I just reach her as she's about to step off and she jerks her arm away. "I told you this would happen," she says and stalks onward, her head craning, her whole body leaning forward.

I never knew a woman so little could walk so fast; I have to run to catch up with her. "Ma," I say, "listen to reason, let's go report it first, let's have him paged, let's get the whole mall looking for him."

I can do whatever I want but she, personally, will head down each corridor leading out of this maze.

"How will I find you?" I yell after her already receding figure.

She looks back at me, pauses for one little moment and turns around—I never knew she could hate me at all, let alone this much—puts her hands on her hips and mimics the way I talk: "Why don't you have me paged?" she says.

By the time I catch up with her, of course she has found him. With the instinct of a creature looking for its mate, she has found him, just outside the mall, sitting on a bench near the curb, traffic whizzing a few feet away.

She doesn't seem relieved at all—she's angry. She yells in Greek, "Why did you do this to me? You're an ungrateful mule. Why don't you ever listen to me?" He starts crying. "I didn't know," he says, "I didn't know I left."

"Why did you leave the bench when I told you not to, why?"

"I wanted to go outside," he says shaking, and wiping the tears off his glasses. A car zooms by. "I wanted to go home," he says.

Passersby cannot understand the language, but this is a picture that tells its story. Finally, she sees herself being stared at. he changes direction gracefully as a duck midstream, swivels completely around—"poor baby," she says, wiping the tears from his face with the heel of her hand like a windshield wiper. "Kaimene, poor thing, you didn't know."

"Ma, we need to get him home."

Indeed, he seems terribly shaken; we all are.

She and I each take one of his arms. It takes at least three tugs to get him off any seat. "Why are you hurting me," he cries, almost angry. It takes five minutes to get him into the car, part by trembling part—first one foot, then the leg, then sit, then the other foot, etc. We finally have got all of him in there in the front seat—he always gets the front seat—and he starts complaining about how mean we've been to him. But at least we've landslided out of The World into our own little world, inside which, with one flick of a switch, we're locked in, our erosion contained.

She won't let me drive, she never lets me drive, and to him, who's still complaining, finally she says, "Oh shut up."

She drives like a little old lady, carefully but oddly, all hunched over the steering wheel. People are honking at us. He starts wondering out loud where all these people think they're rushing to, and as I answer on cue, They're on their way to the grave. Suddenly laughter bubbles up in me. The walls are down. I know where I am. I'm sitting in a car filled with the human condition, and it's permanent as rock.

We disengage him from the car, first one foot, then the leg, then all the rest of him into the air of the world like one of those flowers you put into water and it unfolds in moments and pieces, jutting out into a whole blossom. My parents are moving toward the metal screen door just over a step that leads into a vestibule through which you reach the truth of the house, when he stumbles, and he stumbles hard. She takes the brunt because I've just gotten there after closing the car door. I'm on the edge of the fall, but she's there from the start and she saves him by cushioning him, where his head would have hit, with her bad arm.

The mastectomy she had when I was a kid was so extreme they took all her lymph nodes too, and her arm swelled up in a kind of elephantiasis and has been that way ever since. We call it her bad arm because even the smallest cut can infect it; it swells even more, she gets a high fever. She has come close to dying from this several times.

"Mom, your arm." I'm already panicked. I'm this weak thing compared to her, this kid who was seven when they took her away and said she'd never make it back. She has told me she remembers me standing in a window crying, watching her leave.

"I'm fine," she says, "get him inside."

The dog starts leaping all over us. My mother and I kick him aside. "Hey," my father yells, "don't be mean to the dog," like the dog is him, which it probably is.

The dog is yapping and yipping and practically running up my father's trousers like a rat, in fact it looks like a rat and I hate it so much right now I could strangle it.

We're all screaming at each other, and finally I kick the dog with a jab that stops him. Gets him watching us quizzically, while we finally get my father to his chair. We're swabbing the cut on his forehead and at the same time we're both looking at her arm and we're not sure, but we think it's already red. For sure it's throbbing because she says so. He keeps saying what's the matter, leave me alone, why are you irritating me, leave my head alone.

If her arm is swelling, she and I know it means a trip to the hospital and what are we supposed to do with him and I'm also wondering what she would have done if this had happened when I wasn't here. At least I'm here.

Suddenly it comes to me: we've got to stop dealing with him and pay attention to her. "Mom, I'm putting him to bed now," I say.

She starts to argue with me, I just ignore her.

"Sit down," I say.

She stands there.

I go find her robe and give it to her. "Get in your robe and sit down." She sinks down on the couch behind her.

I start to take him to his bed, she starts to rise, I point a finger at her, she sinks back down again. She leans her head back in utter exhaustion while I shuffle him back to their bedroom.

He's been in diapers for some years now, but when I've helped her undress him up to now, I've always left the diaper part to her, because of some superstition that if I saw him as a man—his genitals—my father would die. Tonight we've come to the edge of the world and nothing matters except not to cross over it. I undress him down to his diaper and although it's probably soaked, I ignore it and make him lie down.

Poor baby, he lies down like an angel and I know he's wet, and once he's down, I think grow up, and do it. I take off my father's diaper. I have never seen an old man's thing; it is straggly, bent and withered like a carrot that's been in the fridge too long, and I change his diaper which is wet as the ocean. I feel good putting something dry on him just like I did when my kids were still in diapers, and then I start massaging his feet.

I don't know if there's any point in doing it any longer; I think he's asleep. But just as I'm about to stop, he says, "Thank you, that's enough."

I bend down and put my arms around him and suddenly he leans his face close to my hair and smells it. He nuzzles into it and I realize he has gone back into some memory of making love to a woman. For a split second I become her—Athena, or my mother, or whoever she is. In this moment we get down to basics he and I. From the idea of father and daughter we plummet to a reality much more basic, elemental as the body itself and all it contains—life, and death.

"Dad," I say, very politely, "it's me, Eugenia."

His interest in my hair recedes. He lies back, flat, his hands on his chest.

Neither of us says anything for a long time. I imagine he thinks I've gone, but after a few minutes he says again, "Thank you."

I'm just standing there; I find it difficult to leave. I stand there thinking, How do people of the world of dust actually travel from having acquired a body, to giving it up?

My father knows.

After a few minutes, "Kiss me," he says, "then go."

I kiss him on the lips.

"Good night," I say.

Then go.

My mother is where I left her, on the couch. Her robe has fallen open and I can see her ribs, behind what was once her breast. Beneath the grayish-purple skin loping from one rib to another something flutters—I don't know if it's her heart or a lung—deflating, and then inflating with each breath.

She wakes panicked. "I have to change his diaper, get him ready for bed." She starts to get up.

"You don't have to worry, I've done it, I've taken care of it." I push her gently down, but with enough firmness to get the job done. Then I sit beside her and examine her arm. It is red now, definitely, and swollen, but if there's not actual cut we may get away with it this time.

I inspect her arm carefully, grazing its skin with my fingers. Her skin, slightly crazed with age, is so soft, the light blue map of veins underneath, beautiful.

There is no sign of a cut in her soft flesh, the tomb of the body. Her arm is an island of flesh rising above the bone and suddenly I am afraid. Afraid for all of us whose bodies death will enter, like a last food with a taste of dust.

I find the bones under her elbow and wrist and all the little ones inside her fingers. I look for injury and find none except the marks of living—the ghost of a burn, the scar of an old cut, the knobs of arthritis built up around the joints of her forefinger and thumb—and I think, This is dust, no, this is not dust. I take her in my arms saying, "You're not hurt, you'll be all right. You'll be all right," and she lays her head on my shoulder like a child.

I massage her neck and put her to bed. I go to my own bed and sleep with my body in the fetal position, cold as death.

She goes to sleep but wakes up past midnight. I can hear her haunting the kitchen like a ghost. She almost never sleeps past midnight.

Notes from the Author
I took this to a class I took in Iowa at the writing workshop; someone suggested I needed to make something happen, like let the father get lost; I did this and like everything else in the story, I no longer remember what really happened and what I made up, it's all so like it always was, everything both didn't actually happen, but also did, it was all so typical from the moment I put my bag down on the floor (which comes from a different childhood home than the one I am actually—but also fictionally—arriving in) to the end when i'm trying to establish some kind of control over the chaos of living.

First appeared in the Marlboro Review, 1999.