Dust. Johnny Caputo.

22 Dec



“Well, would you look at that?” Dad said.
He stood at the top of the ridge and waved for me to join him. His canteens clanked at his side, and his backpack was filled with what we had found that morning: some scraps of firewood from the forest, a few cans of beans from before the Drought, and some kind of old handheld electronic machine that Dad claimed he could get working again.
“What? What is it?” I said, racing to the top of the ridge to meet him.
“There,” he pointed.
I wiped the thick coat of dust and sweat from my forehead and stared out over what appeared to be a graveyard of machines. A bunch of odd looking hunks of rusted metal just lying in the dusty field. One was just this big forty foot wheel with cars attached to it. Another one was this a big circular platform with a roof over it. Between the roof and the ground were these plastic horses with poles sticking right through their spines holding them in place. Most of them had these looks of pain frozen onto their faces like they would be stuck that way forever.
I had some engineering books lying around the house, so even though most of the machines we stumbled across hadn’t worked since before the Drought, I could guess what they had been supposed to do. But I had no idea with these ones. I tried to imagine them working, but all I saw was just a bunch of rotating wheels spinning around and around for no real reason.
“What were these for?” I said.
Dad pulled the bandana from over his nose and mouth, spat out a mouthful of dust, and took a swig from the canteen.
“Guess,” he said.
“Scaring birds off from crops?”
Dad looked at me for a long second before he started laughing. He just laughed and laughed like it was the funniest thing in the world. But I didn’t think it was funny. I got kinda mad, like he was making fun of me for being stupid or something. And I realized right then that no matter how much I thought I knew about the world before the Drought, I’d never really understand it.
“These were rides,” he said when he finally stopped laughing. “They used to have the fair here.”
“Yeah. Rides. People would get on them and they’d spin around and go up and down and it’d be fun.”
“And they wasted gas on that?”
“It wasn’t always such a precious commodity. You know, you were actually here once. Back when you were real little. Your mother and I brought you.”
He passed me the canteen, I didn’t really know what to say. I pulled off my bandana and took a few big swigs. He never talked about Mom, so I never really asked about her much. It never bothered me or anything that she wasn’t around. It was just a fact of life, like how I knew the earth revolved around the sun. Something I knew, but never really paid much attention to.
“What was Mom like?” I said.
He thought for a second, like he was trying to bring up something big from way down deep in his brain. Like fishing through the gunk at the bottom of a pond trying to find a gold ring.
He set his pack down with a few clinks and clanks and then sat down sidesaddle on one of the frozen horses with a loud creak. He patted the saddle of the horse next to him. I set down my pack and climbed up.
“You know,” he said, “I think it’s time I told you.”
“About Mom?”
“About how it all ended,” he said.
“Really?” I gasped. That was the one thing he told me never, ever to ask about. He was always more than happy to tell me about how things were before the Drought, but whenever I asked him how it happened, he would get real quiet and tell me not to worry about it. That I shouldn’t concern myself with such things.
“Did Mom have something to do with it?”
He laughed this lonely laugh. Like he was the only person in the world who got the joke.
“Not quite. Your Mom was a damn prophet, though. I think she knew exactly what was going on, not that anybody believed her. Nobody wanted to pay attention, not even me. Hell, we were just kids back then. Twenty-two. Twenty three. You must’ve been two, maybe two and a half, so I guess that puts this around 2015 or so. God, was it really that long ago?”
He stopped and looked out at the horizon, then down at his hands. It was a long moment before he started talking again.
“The price of gas was up near four dollars, $3.89, $3.95, somewhere in there. It’d been climbing pretty steadily for years, so it wasn’t this huge, noticeable thing or anything like that. Still, people were talking about it. Mostly bitching and complaining, but we had every right to. I mean, you needed a car to get around back then to get to and from work and all that, and cars needed gas to run, so it was like that whole gasoline business kinda had you by the balls.
“Anyway, we were driving along that morning. Your mom was in the passenger seat and you were strapped in the back. I look down at the gas gauge and see we need to stop for gas. So I pulled over and I looked out the window at the big red-lit numbers, and that’s when I saw it for the first time. $4.09. For one gallon of gas. I looked at your mom and I said, Damn. And she told me to watch my mouth in front of you.
“I told her I was sorry, and she just kissed me real sweet on the cheek and looked at me. She had the most beautiful eyes. They had this dampness to them. I know that sounds weird, but that’s the best way I can describe them. They were damp in the same way that good soil is damp. You could see how nurturing and warm they were. It was like she made the world blossom around her just by looking at it. That’s the kind of woman your mother was. She saw the best in everything, even me. I knew I would always be better because of her.
“I had to cough up a twenty just to put a few gallons in the tank, which only left me twenty bucks for the fair. I figured that would’ve been more than enough to ride a few rides, have an elephant ear or a couple of corn dogs or something. When I started the car up, the tank was barely half full.
“Eventually, we pulled into the parking lot which was right over there.” He pointed off to a field which pretty much looked the same as everything else around us: dusty.
“They didn’t charge for parking or ask for tips or anything like that, which was nice. And as we walked through the parking lot up to the gate you Mom was holding your left hand and I was holding your right. We’d count ‘one, two, three’ and swing you up real high and you would laugh and laugh.”
“Sounds like a nice day,” I said.
“It was. Or at least it started off that way. But when we got up to the gate, and I asked for the tickets, and the woman said it would be twenty-five bucks.”
I gasped. “But you only had twenty left.”
“Don’t I know it,” Dad said. “I told the woman it wasn’t three adults. We only needed two adult tickets and one kid’s ticket. But she shook her head and told us that twenty-five was the right price. I told her it hadn’t cost that much a few years back and she just shrugged her shoulders and said, ‘What can I say, prices only seem to know how to go up.
“I patted my pockets but that didn’t change nothing. The twenty bucks sitting in my front pocket was all I had. I looked down at my hands and right then right there they looked about as empty as a pair of hands can look. Deep creases in them like lonely valleys that go all the way down to nowhere. Callouses rising up like mountaintops tipped with dead skin.
“For a second I thought about buying one ticket for myself, then digging around the fair to see if I could find a way to sneak you guys in. But the thought was only half-developed in my head when your mother stepped up right past me, handed the lady a few crisp bills, and didn’t say a word.
“The lady handed your mom the tickets, and your mom just smiled and nodded like nothing had happened. When we got inside I told your mom that I was sorry. That I had no idea it was going to be that expensive.
“‘Don’t worry about it,’ she said. I told her I really was sorry and she said, ‘Really. It’s fine.’ And she meant it too. I told her that the work would pick up soon and then I could take care of her. Spoil you and her rotten like the two of you deserved. She told me that wasn’t my job. That the two of us could provide for you just fine and that she didn’t need me to spoil her. She was happy the way things were.”
Dad rocked to one side to pick up the canteen. He took a swig, swallowed harder than he usually did, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He passed it to me and I took a drink too. Then he told me to cover my face back up before any of the particulates got in my lungs. I did what he said even though he wasn’t wearing his own bandana.
“I thought you said there was trouble?” I said.
He gave me a sideways look.
“I told her to stay right where she was and I’d go buy the two of you the biggest funnel cake you could imagine.”
“What’s a funnel cake?”
“It’s kinda like a…oh, what would you know? Kinda like a pancake, but sweeter and with powdered sugar on top.”
“What’s powdered su—
“Just know it’s good. Like real good. Anyway, your mom said she would take you into the barn to see the goats. For whatever reason, you really wanted to see the goats. So I brought your mom in real close, kissed her on the forehead, and set out to find the funnel cake stand.
“It only took me a few minutes to find the place, but there was a long line so I waited for a bit and got two of them. Bigger than your head, and they only cost me eight bucks. Had a good twelve bucks left for the rest of the day. Rides and games and dinner if we stayed that long. I was thinking about how we were gonna make the money stretch and everything as I was walking back to the goat barn. I was sort of on auto-pilot, ya know? Brain was too stuck on the money to actually realize what was happening in the moment.
“Until I got right outside the barn and I heard you crying. That brought me back real quick. I knew it was you because you had this weird little hiccup in your throat when you cried. So when I heard that, I started running. I made it to the stall and there you were with a goat chawing on some hay right behind you, tugging on your Mom’s sleeve. You were saying her name over and over again and tugging on that sleeve, but she wouldn’t answer you. I flapped the plates down on the ground table, and called her name too. And that’s when, I saw it for the first time…”
His voice trailed off. He rocked forward on his haunches and squeezed his eyes shut real tight. He took another drink of water and swallowed real hard. The horse creaked underneath him.
“That look she would get on her face. Like she was looking dead ahead, just staring into space. But not in a dazed way, more like this real deep concentration.
“‘Nance,’ I said, ‘Nance.” Over and over again. I snapped my fingers right in front of her face, but she didn’t respond at all. Her eyes had this dry and wild look in them, like there was a ghost standing heavy in the dust right in front of her. And I got scared. I’d never seen her like that at all. Ever. She was always so sharp and with it and paying bills and making sure we had your allergy meds wherever we went. I thought she was having a stroke or something.
“I looked around but there was no one else in the barn so I scooped you up and I told you that everything was going to be okay, that Mommy was just feeling a little weird, but that she was going to be just fine. But you didn’t believe me. You kept on crying and crying. And I didn’t know what to do. I just had no idea what to do. So, I started running. Had you in one arm, and was waving the other one and yelling, Help, Help. I need some help over here. I got a bit up the midway, far enough to be breathing hard when a paramedic came up and asked me what was wrong. I told him about your mom and we ran back to her.
“When we got there, your Mom was standing next to the stall and the goat was still chewing away like nothing had happened. Your Mom’s head was swiveling all around, and she had this real scared look on her face. When she saw us, she came running over snatched you out of my arms and hugged you against her chest.
“‘Damnit, Brian. You scared me to death,’ she said. I tried to tell her that something had been wrong with her, that her face had this weird look on it and I thought she was having a stroke, that I only went to get help, but she wouldn’t have it.
“‘You never scare me like that again,’ she said.
“I kept trying to argue, but she wagged her finger at me and poked me in the chest. “‘Do you understand me?’ she said. ‘Promise me. Never again.’ So I promised her. I promised I would never scare her like that again.”
“The paramedic stepped in and asked if she was feeling alright. She said she was fine, besides that fact that I had almost given her a heart attack. She still had that wild look in her eye, but she relaxed a little bit. The paramedic asked her if he could get her vitals, just make sure she’s alright and everything. She let him do it, but she wouldn’t let go of you the entire time. He took her pulse and her blood pressure and all that. Then he pulled out a little light and shined it your Mom’s eyes.”
“You were holding on to her so tight, and the cloth of her shirt was all balled up in your fists. I looked her right in the eyes just like the paramedic did. And that’s when I really saw it for the first time. That bone dry look in her eyes like whatever dampness had been there before was all dried up now for one reason or another. It was like now she was seeing something that the rest of us couldn’t see. Or maybe she was just seeing the world like the rest of us saw it for the first time in her life. Either way, her eyes were real dry. And when the paramedic finished the examination, your mom looked right at me, right into my eyes. And I felt dried up too. Like I was just some normal, dried up, run of the mill collection of bones and nerves. And that’s all I would ever be.
“Anyway, the paramedic put his light away and said everything looked fine. Her heart rate was a little fast, but that was to be expected. He said she should probably drink some water and get some rest, just to be safe, but that there wasn’t anything seriously wrong.
“And over the next few years, every time she got the look on her face, as it came more and more often, first every few weeks, then every day, then every few hours, I thought about that paramedic. I thought about punching him right in his lying little mouth.”
Dad swallowed hard again. This time, he didn’t even take a swig of water to try to hide it. He was quiet for a long time, and it took me a while to build up the courage to ask him what I wanted to ask him.
“Did you ever find out what was wrong?”
Dad shook his head.
“She tried to describe it to me a couple of times. What it was like when the episodes hit. She said it was like watching the world falling apart molecule by molecule. Like she could see the molecules, every last one, and I watched them disconnect from each other. One by one, fall apart into atoms. And then the atoms themselves fell apart. And the worst part, she said, was that when it happened, she wasn’t even scared. She was fascinated. Like she couldn’t stop watching even if she wanted to. Like it was this rare opportunity to watch everything fall apart and she couldn’t waste it. She had to see and remember and record every last bit of it in her memory because it was just so damn beautiful.
“And every time it happened, I just felt so helpless. Like there was nothing I could do to help her. I would just tell her that she was going to be fine. That everything was going to be fine. And she’d look back at me like she wanted to say something else, but she never would. And I wouldn’t ever push her on it. Not even when she told me she was admitting herself to the institution. That she wanted to find a solution to this thing, and that as much as she hated it, she had to go away. For her sake and for yours. So that she could get better and be with you again and not scare you.”
Dad laughed again, that lonely laugh, and then he stopped talking. He just sat there dangling his legs off the side of that frozen horse and not saying anything.
“When she said that, all I did was tell her that I loved her and supported her and that everything would be fine. I didn’t try to stop her or help her or anything. I just told her that everything would be fine.”
“But it is, isn’t it? We’re fine.”
And he looked up at me. His eyes looked wet and he laughed.
“Yeah,” he said, “I guess it is, isn’t?”
“You really loved her, didn’t you?”
“To this day,” he said. He reached out and touched my knee. His hand sat there for a long time, warm and strong and comforting until finally he gave me a little tap and said, “alright, that’s enough of a break for us. Lotta work to do this afternoon.”
I jumped down off the horse and took one last look at it and all the other strange, purposeless machines scattered throughout the field.
“Hey, Dad” I said, “I thought you were going to tell me the story of how it all ended.”
“Well,” he said, his jaw tensing. He looked away and spit into the dust. “Maybe some other time.”

Johnny Caputo




One Response to “Dust. Johnny Caputo.”

  1. Julie Robinson February 17, 2017 at 06:56 #

    Very nice!

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