Yet one more previously unpublished short story. Enjoy.
a short story by Harvey Stanbrough
As he lay in a tiny puff of dust that only he in all the world would ever see because it was right there, inches from his face and a few inches off the ground, his face was turned south. But only he would ever see that puff of dust because only he was here in this particular position with this particular view and eventually the puff would settle again. At least all of the puff that he didn’t inhale in these final seconds.
It might even expand. It might settle around him and over him with just a little breeze. And there was a breeze. Hadn’t he felt the slightest breeze slipping fingers over the top of his head as if the earth were saying goodbye?
Something to consider, perhaps. Later perhaps, when the expanded puff of dust had settled over his t-shirt and jeans and shoes and then beyond his shoes and just beyond him before anyone else had a chance to see all the worlds swirling around inside it. But then, there was nobody else around.
His first thought as he watched those worlds—a thought he might have said aloud but wasn’t quite certain—was, “Isn’t that curious?” because he was plainly seeing for the very first time all those little worlds that people—no, not people, writers—often thought of.
But only peripherally, only in passing, maybe as the worlds danced in sunbeams filtering through the blinds and across the living room and the writers sat in recliners to watch TV. And later, in a more convenient time while they were at their typewriter or laptop or sitting with a yellow legal pad on their lap or however they chose to write it all down, they could never think of the worlds in quite the right way to capture the moment.
God he was tired.
Nothing dramatic about it though, the weariness. No “weight of death” as the great man had written or anything like that coming to settle on his back, to press the breath from his chest in a final slip of air.
That was funny, really, that whole “weight of death” thing, though it wasn’t meant to be funny. But everybody knows death is an event, not a physical entity, so it has no weight. It could have no mass, so no weight at all, yet others had written that it does. The great man himself had written that it does when he wrote that it settled on his legs and then moved up onto his chest.
Or maybe they knew, those who professed in their stories to know. But if they knew they would have to learn from experience—certainly the great man would have to learn from experience because he wrote only from experience—and then would they have been able to write it down? Probably not. How could one write about death after having experienced it? So really that was probably all bunk. Something to think about though.
He’d keep one sense peeled for the weight of death. It would be an interesting thing to know even if he was able to know it for only an instant. Surely he wouldn’t be able to see it coming. Even the great man himself hadn’t been able to see it coming, except maybe in the metaphor of that hyena slipping along at the edge of the light from the campfire.
But if death did have mass and therefore weight, maybe he could see it coming. Maybe the great man could see it coming too if he’d looked in the right place, only his attention was diverted to what would become the metaphor. If it really was a metaphor, which it probably was.
A slight frown wrinkled his brow and sent a single droplet of sweat trickling from a crease to the ground, which lay to the right side of his face. And accompanying the frown was a thought within a thought. So a metathought: What was he thinking about before?
He was thinking about something before the weight of death that had no mass so you couldn’t see it coming, but the weight of that thought tore his mind off whatever direction it had been whirled away into and centered it on something that wasn’t there.
Things that were there—those were the things that mattered. That was something he’d always known and always professed to know. Things that were there mattered, and things that were not didn’t. Things that were there: parents, children, true friends, and current events, meaning events that were currently happening directly to you, like lying there in the dust considering one puff after another directly in front of your face like little ghosts begging you to come with them.
Those were the things that deserved the time to think about them. Especially now, especially when time was slowing its march, slogging toward the finish line, its metaphorical toes dragging in the metaphorical dirt so that when time eventually went home, its mother would frown at the dirt-tanned toes of its shoes and wonder what it had been up to.
Okay, that was dramatic. That was plenty dramatic. It would be good if he could write that down. But maybe it was too dramatic to write down. “Gaudy” was what it was. “Gaudy” was a good word. It resided somewhere on the other side of “melodrama.”
“Gaudy” was what people called drama when there was too much of it crammed into too small a space. And an undeserving space, maybe. A space not designed for so much drama.
But that was another thought, and it was nosing in while he was trying to recover the thought from before the total-waste-of-time weight-of-death thought. Which had nosed in while he was trying to recover the thought about worlds whirling in the dust in front of his face and—
The worlds whirling in the dust! That was it! The worlds whirling in dust and the silly writer not noticing them, not really, when they were right there. And then the folly of trying to recreate the memory of them and the words he would have used to describe them if only he could have been disciplined enough to pull his attention from the television for that few seconds. If only he’d gotten up, gone to his keyboard and scribbled down those thoughts, those impressions, while they were fresh and happening. That was it. That was the thought: the worlds whirling in the dust.
And he felt fortunate because the worlds were still right there, whirling inches away from his face in the little puffs of dust, and he had nothing else to divert his attention and nowhere else to be.
Nowhere else to be maybe for a very long time, he thought, or maybe even forever. Well, except not really forever. Forever minus the brief time he’d spend on this earth. So maybe for the rest of forever, whatever that was. But his thoughts were tugging at him again, trying to pull him from the whirling worlds into thoughts of forever, and really nobody could figure that one out.
Back. Back to the worlds and the words.
Interesting word, “whirling.” Interesting too that when he was trying to remember the thought about the worlds his mind told him it was “whirling away” in an obvious effort to remind him of the worlds, which were really the only things in this current occurrence that whirled at all. Really, a mind or even a thought couldn’t be said to “whirl.” Really only worlds whirled—well, specifically, only worlds and other orbs that had been set in motion—and at present only the worlds in the dust cloud, which was beginning to settle now, which meant he had been here for only a matter of a second or so.
But wasn’t the mind a wonderful thing? that it could speed so many thoughts through itself for his entertainment in the second or so (so far, he thought, but wasn’t sure) between the time the right side of his face first contacted the ground and sent the first puff of dust and its worlds aloft and this very moment when he finally had remembered to think about the whirling worlds again?
So maybe thoughts could whirl. Maybe the mind set up a vortex or maybe a whole series of vortices to keep thoughts parading by at quick, inconvenient intervals, which led to confusion but also delivered a lot of thoughts into a tiny slice of time.
But the worlds, and the writer’s observation of those worlds, and his attempt to recreate those observations later at a more convenient time—that was the main thought of the moment. He didn’t want to let that thought escape again until he’d finished with it. The worlds really were fantastic, yet they were right there. Still plenty of them right there, whirling—yes, whirling, whirling was a great word—as they slipped through their miniature universe and he looked on as a kind of god, in size if not in ability. The worlds and their wonder. The whirling worlds and their immense wonder.
But he had it back, the thought about the whirling worlds and the world’s writers missing the opportunity to write them down in real time. And here he was, trapped in a cosmic joke, with all the observations of the worlds and the opportunity to write them in real time but no ability. Because his keyboard was on his desk a scant few yards behind him and behind a closed door that might as well have been a barrier to another world of its own, one in which he would write and go on if only—
It was all a mistake, of course. It was all a vast joke played by that mini-cosmos of that puff of dust or that ray of sunlight, that a writer would believe he could capture moments like that. Because really, those worlds lived only for an instant in one observable place before they whirled away and were lost forever, their denizens whirling away with them into their own immutable futures.
So let’s consider the whole dust cloud and all the worlds theoretically whirling inside it. Do they collide with other worlds to make larger worlds? Or perhaps to their mutual destruction? Was he, the Writer in the Dust, within himself a world and had he collided with another somewhere in the space-time-space continuum and that was what had brought him to this place at this time, lying here wondering whether this is how it all finally went?
But it didn’t matter, and thinking about it didn’t matter because even if he solved it all who could he tell? Who could he tell now?
So the circumstance of him lying here facing south didn’t matter either, really, not to him as a writer because he could never write it so he could never tell anybody else so nobody else would ever know. Or more accurately, they might know sometime after the fact, but he wouldn’t know that they knew.
Still, he wished them well and hoped they would write it down. The worlds whirling in the dust, not him lying face-down on the desert floor.
But he was facing south. That much was certain. He knew he was facing south because his right cheek and cheekbone and ear and the hairs he hadn’t yet asked his wife to trim from the sides of his head were pressing against the few bits of rock and gravel and the tiny bits of granite that make up the sand that layered the one-twentieth of a mile walk between his beloved workspace and his house.
And below the puff of dust an ant was passing by and glancing over at him—glancing north, the ant was, and curiously—as if he—the writer, not the ant—might be a treat. Or maybe to say, sarcastically, “Thanks for the dust storm, asswipe.”
And his stupid earlobe, and not only the lobe but the upper part too, supposedly made of fairly stiff cartilage, a nice-enough alternative for “gristle,” those were bent the wrong way beneath his head, the upper part folded forward and the lobe folded upward, both as if to protect the inner workings of his ear. All that silliness, that odd folding of things in the wrong way, had started in his 66th year, the same year the doctor, no spring chicken himself in his late 40s or early 50s, had joked that he was in great shape for an octogenarian. And being a writer he hadn’t had to look up the word to take its meaning, and he’d laughed a little to be polite but he hadn’t found it at all humorous.
Because it wasn’t supposed to be like this, folding ears and twisted pee-tubes and scrunched prostate and all of that, until he was old, and God knew he still hadn’t attained his 70th birthday and he hadn’t planned to consider himself old until he attained at least his 90th.
Those and an uncountable number of other thoughts, a million-billion thoughts maybe or maybe many more, crowded through his mind.
But they all spun around the one thought, the chief thought. It was something he read in a story somewhere, almost certainly Hemingway, almost certainly “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” and that thought firmly held the center ground in his self-absorbed consciousness. On the other hand, he figured it was all right to be self-absorbed at times like this. Well, at the One Time that’s really like this, for there was only one time, which of course negated the need for the simile. And that chief thought was: “So this is how you die, in whispers that you do not hear.” Not exactly that but something very similar.
It was another thought, another sentence among many, that he stole and twisted to his own use.
So you, he thought—and he meant “I” but used “you” to keep the thought of death at bay as best he could—you die in bits and pieces, sharp pangs and short gasps and illogical recoveries that string you along a stretched-thin strand of hope that this isn’t really It. That like so many times before when you were almost certain you were going to just stop but you went on anyway and this time you will too because this can’t quite be It, not really, can it? Not really. Not really.
This can’t be It because It is blackness. No, the muddled thought came through, that isn’t right. It is nothingness, not even blackness.
No, death—It—is an overwhelming absence. Well, not overwhelming. Not really whelming at all because the subject is not aware of It at all. He might be aware of Its approach or believe he is, but Death, or It, is an absence of anything and everything all at once. And he realized he’d moved from It to actually naming It: Death. But that was all right.
Death is a jolt, maybe, or maybe not, or maybe a gentle warning but one that isn’t kidding this time, and then after that It is only a fading and then, in his case at least, It is a stumbling fall—Had he stumbled before he fell? He couldn’t quite remember—and then soon enough It is back to (or maybe forward to) being the absence of anything at all. Absolutely anything at all.
The sun was warm sliding up to hot on the back of his neck and his ridiculous bald spot which he was sure was ridiculous but he couldn’t see it, ever, so it didn’t really bother him. And the heat moved across his shoulder blades beneath the back of the silly blue t-shirt he was wearing, and boy would his wife be pissed if he recovered and made it to the house with the drab flat tan sand color all over the front of his formerly blue t-shirt and imbedded in the scrape on the heel of his right hand. There was a scrape, wasn’t there? So apparently he’d tried to catch himself, so there had been some automatic motor reaction so maybe this wasn’t really It after all.
Inside, in his work space, he’d finished a cigar and felt warnings—a sudden slowing of his heart accompanied by a sense of nausea that he dismissed as he had a thousand times before with a snort and a hack and expelling spittle into the black-plastic-lined trash can—before he turned off his mouse, closed his laptop, covered his monitor, pushed back from his desk, got up from his excellent desk chair and went to the back of the room to turn off the fan, then back past the desk to the front door and on down to the house for a brief break—definitely his intention was not a rest-of-forever break—as he also had a thousand times before. Outside he stopped, turned, and set the door—it was swollen with humidity and wouldn’t close properly—then braced a 2×4 against it. And finally—now there’s an apt word: finally—he stepped off the tiny half-moon stoop toward the house and with the emptiness in his chest took a few steps—
And here he was.
And what a silly place to be. What a silly position to be in. He couldn’t even see the Whetstone mountains unless he got up, and he had no sense of getting up or even of wanting to.
He had only a sense of the worlds whirling in the miniature dust cloud a few inches from his face. Not melodramatically or gaudily as though they were taunting him, but as if they were peopled by minuscule creatures looking heavenward as they spun on their tiny rocks and wondered whether God existed at all and what He or She would look like and silly things like whether he himself, the writer, was all-powerful and could therefore create something so large that even he couldn’t move it.
He’d seen them a thousand times before too—the worlds, not the creatures on them—just as he’d seen the Whetstones a thousand times before. The view of those mountains was clear from here, well, if he was standing up, because the workspace was just higher enough in elevation than the house that he felt the uphill tug when he went to work and the downhill tug when he went home. Only this time it was ridiculously downhill even in metaphorical ways, but at the moment that couldn’t be helped.
At the moment he wasn’t even sure he wanted to help it though he probably did somewhere at his core because as someone had told him long ago, life wants to live.
But he had to wonder in that instant of a second: Could it be helped?
He tensed for a moment, tightened his shoulders and his abdomen and his toes as if considering pushing himself up—not doing it but thinking about doing it—and a massive, crashing weight fell on his back and he was surprised he didn’t expel a gust of air and raise another puff of dust, but he didn’t.
But that weight. Maybe the great man really had felt what he’d said he felt and still somehow managed to write about it later. Maybe somehow it wasn’t too late to slip from the philosophical into the actual. Maybe he only had to rest awhile, get through it or let it get through him and come out the other side and move on to someone else while he moved on to something else.
But really, the buck should stop here, shouldn’t it? At long last? And that gave him an image of a red deer sniffing a corpse and that was too morbid to think about.
He came out of himself and looked south again. The puff of dust was still there, the whirling worlds still whirling and it was good to know things go on.
And he looked to the other side of the puff of dust, his right eye practically at ground level and his left providing perspective a few inches off the ground.
And there was the junkpile both he and his buddy had vowed they’d get rid of someday, but he’d dragged his feet, again metaphorically, on that matter because he really didn’t want to render the squirrels who lived there homeless, and he hoped one of them would come out to say goodbye.
And he focused in, closer again this time, below the puff of dust but the ant had gone on apparently to more pressing matters than a gigantic fool lying in the dirt making little puffs of dust with his breath and a small pool of saliva soaking into the desert beneath the right corner of his mouth.
He wondered whether the ant knew about dignity and the relationship between the loss of that and the bit of mud beneath the corner of his mouth.
Jesus, how I must look, he thought, and he remembered he’d read somewhere that one’s bowels and bladder released at the moment of passing or maybe just before, and a shudder trembled through him. He really, really hoped that wouldn’t happen. After, maybe, but not just before.
Nothing mattered more in that moment and the whole world was tied to that thought and it occurred to him that although scientists and doctors had never been able to locate the soul in a human he, a lowly hack fiction writer, had just located human dignity. Obviously it was housed in the bowels and bladder and maybe in the leakage of spittle from the corner of a pair of betraying lips, and he wondered whether one of those organs, bladder or bowels, held more sway than the other over the retention or loss of dignity.
He couldn’t tell, though he decided that was probably why they were the last to go, so to speak: to save the dead guy any embarrassment.
Because as he had established at least for himself at least in that moment, at that point there is an absence of awareness of anything at all, yes, even the voluntary expulsion of fecal matter and urine.
And he realized why he’d never become a first responder, specifically a paramedic or a mortician or a doctor or a nurse or even a candy-striped volunteer, though the fact that he’d look thoroughly ridiculous in a red and white dress or for that matter in any other dress probably waylaid that last one early on.
In fact, that one was probably subconsciously but firmly set aside the morning after he’d wet the bed at 7 years old and his father had found out and made him put on one of his sister’s dresses and stand outside on the front porch of his tiny house in southeast New Mexico as many of his classmates paraded past on their way to school, which he was not allowed to attend that day so his father would have the opportunity to show the world what a complete waste of time his only son was.
His father even mandated than he curtsied each time one of his classmates looked over, but although he always did as his father said at other times he curtsied only twice and only because his father happened at those times to be standing just inside the screen door behind him.
He was also supposed to call out, “Hey, boys, I’m actually a girl,” but he hadn’t done that and his father hadn’t seemed to notice. Thank God. And he realized that was probably the first time he’d prayed.
The thought brought with it a shuddering sigh and at the end of it he took a deep breath, maybe the only inhalation since he’d fallen.
And with a slight tinge of surprise, he realized the dust smelled clean except for the side whiff of the place where saliva was wetting the ground beneath the corner of his mouth. Amazing.
Ants and other bugs (he was truly sorry he didn’t know all of their proper common names but he hadn’t paid attention during that class, not being much of a scientist) and squirrels and the errant coyote and bats and birds and lizards and snakes and dogs and maybe even his beautiful Little Bit of a cat voluntarily expelled waste in that dust, both liquid and solid, yet it smelled clean. So maybe being a paramedic or any of the others might not have been so bad if they learned the aroma of the loss of dignity was a natural thing.
But he’d been a Marine for a while, not a first responder but more of an only responder and that was enough maybe. He’d learned while there that everyone was green and that everyone, including all the 4-legs and no-legs and feathered and furred and other creatures bled red. Well, except for one certain spider who bled blue, but he never saw that personally because he had nothing against spiders.
And that was definitely enough.
He was born to a beautiful but too-young mother and a sadistic, cruel father who had his own left-over problems from his own childhood and never managed to dig out of them and maybe never tried because who could know?
And in Marine basic training he did things he’d never done before like eating well and gaining weight and getting into great physical shape and learning a ton of things, most of all how to be self-sufficient and to trust the guys next to you and very few others, especially civilians and among those especially the ones who wanted to be helped through every step of life and wanted things done for them and wanted other things given to them.
And even the drill instructors, who were not your father and whose job sometimes was to hit you in order to eventually save your life, hit you only for a specific reason, to impart a lesson by attaching it forever to an unpleasant physical sensation, so that was a huge step up from his childhood, which ended abruptly on a set of yellow footprints in San Diego.
And he’d hung around in that fine organization for 21 years until the heart thing started to plague him and now he’d been out much longer than he was in, but he was still in touch with a few of his superiors and many of his subordinates, his “kids” in the Corps. And what would they all think if he just up and checked out this way, lying face-down in the dirt without first having been violated by an enemy bullet or knife?
After the fact they would understand he hadn’t had time to say goodbye. But they would not understand him lying face-down in dirt when there were no rounds incoming because he’d tempered them to believe he would never find himself in such a position.
And a thousand-million other things happened but he didn’t want to think about them. Things happen and then other things happen, sometimes cause-and-effect and sometimes effect with no particular identifiable cause.
And thoughts came and went. Really, they waxed and existed and waned and didn’t matter. And like the things, the thoughts were the reality only of the moment and then other thoughts happen and whose to know what matters to whom and what doesn’t matter to others anyway?
Things and thoughts alike, they happen until they just don’t anymore. But thoughts can go on separate of other things. Thoughts can be about things or about nothing at all. Things were different in that way. Things just happen, and here he was.
The pundits say there are only two things in life that are certain and even if you avoid the first and flat refuse to pay taxes someday you’ll still come to the end of your personal line.
Maybe you’ll feel the dropping-off of a heart rhythm and you’ll get up anyway like you have so many times before and you’ll turn things off and shut things down and block the door and take one step too many in a particular direction toward a place you really wanted to go, maybe the most important place you ever wanted to go because there’s safety there. But it’s still one step too many because who can know which step might be the last one they’re allotted?
And maybe you go face-down in the dirt, which is what you always secretly believed you deserved because that’s what was hammered into you all your life, and then you stopped breathing and with the final breath you didn’t even try to get up because you just didn’t care anymore.
Or maybe you lasted a little longer. Maybe you walked through what you thought might be the last step and took another and another, and then you spent a time wondering whether the quizzical look on your greeter’s face was relief or wonder. Or disappointment.
But you could never know unless the final step you took was the last one before you reached that place, the last one within view of that person who had come out to greet you.
Then you would know. In that final instant of that final second you would view that particular look on that particular face and even if you didn’t give it voice you would know whether you thought it was good or bad, and whether it was good or bad toward you. And you would know what the person greeting you really thought of you the whole time. Or it might reflect what you thought of yourself.
He realized his eyes had closed and he tried to open them.
He strained the little muscles in the eyelids, willed them to pull the eyelids up, to move the lid even just a little because one more look would make all the difference, all the difference.
Things go on, he knew that. Things go on and he wanted to see, he wanted to know things would go on, that everything around him was not his construct, that it would not go away when he went away. And he strained and he concentrated and all his effort went into prying open those tiny little insignificant lids.
And they finally opened. Only a slit, but they opened and the world was bright in that brief space.
The puff of dust was mostly settled, only a few whirling worlds left, looking odd in the clarity of the lack-of-dust void around them as they spun and he hoped maybe a breeze would take them and maybe waft them away to a destiny they hadn’t even considered because those destinies are the most exciting of all.
He watched the worlds whirling and it was good and things were all right out there and he thought maybe he grinned at the irony or maybe at the division between out there and in here.
He thought about the worlds, pulled them into his mind and let his eyelids close. And as they eased down, reluctant to shut out the slit of light, still the brightness warmed and then it went red and then dark.
All the other thoughts stopped whirling to make room for the worlds he’d pulled in, but their orbits were decaying and below them he noticed a fine layer of rock and granite sand at the bottom of his mind.
He was calmly startled, realizing the harsh, hard realities with which he’d lined the bottom of his mind. He hadn’t even realized he’d brought some of the granite sand in with the worlds.
He’d thought to bring in only the whirling worlds and their creatures and the breeze to maybe take them away.
But things and thoughts happen and they don’t always work out the way you expect them to.
Well, he knew that. Everybody knew that even if they didn’t like it.
The worlds whirled and spun and wobbled and gyrated into and around each other in slowing, decaying orbits.
And slowly, slowly, slowly they sank. And when the last one fell to the bottom of his mind, it did so with a resounding crash and the splintering of a grain of granite sand, and all the creatures on the world ended and a massive weight descended on him again. Bigger. Heavier.
And whatever else let go or didn’t let go, his dignity remained as far as he knew. Except one stinking tear leaked from his right eye. He knew that. He knew it leaked.
And then he knew nothing at all.
And without him knowing, the tear dropped a minimal distance and began to soak into the inscrutable desert.