Writing Catalog

Gabe Ewen

Grade: 10

University School - Hunting Valley

Instructor: Jack Somers

The Man and the Dust

Short Story

The Man and the Dust

I live in a boxcar now. I don't remember what it looks like on the outside. In my memories, its colors change. Often it's red or blue, occasionally black. Once it was orange. Sometimes I wonder if the boxcar is pink. And if it is, then what sort? Is it the warmer sort—the kind of pink an afternoon sun could light ablaze? And if it is—if it is that sort of pink, and if the sun does ever focus its smoldering gaze on the boxcar, and if the boxcar ever does burst into flames—I don't know if I would realize.

I know very little about what surrounds the boxcar. Plenty of trees, yes. I know that the boxcar is in a woods. But whether the woods are deep or shallow, I do not know. And I am not sure if people live in them, or by them. When I had come to the place where the trees met the field, when I had crossed from sun-fall into shade, my head had been encased in burlap, and rough hands had grasped my shoulders. And if there are roads beyond the field, I have never heard a truck or car drive over them. Though I suppose I've never cared to listen.

What I do know is what is inside the boxcar, even though the sun does not show through its steel walls. There isn't much here. Just me, the darkness, the dust. There is a man who leaves food and drink for me each day. Mostly bread, a pitcher of water. I have never seen him, but I know he is a man because of the way the fallen leaves cry beneath his boots when he comes near and because of his rough cough which never leaves, and the smoky smell of cigarettes, back-alley dumpsters and garbage-stained sewage pipes, that sticks to my bread. I hate the man. For the noise he makes when he walks, for his cough, for the smell of charred ash that now swirls about me. Has he come yet today? I have no idea.

I talk too much.

I talk to the dust that collects on the floor, that hangs from the walls like cobwebs, and rolls down my tie like tumbleweed, propelled forward by the soft exhalation of my breath. The dust that has clung stubbornly to my jacket the few times I've stood. At first, that is all I did—stood. And walked. Paced, really, charting and re-charting the simple geography of my confines. And thinking. I thought a lot in those days, before I knew the dust could speak. It's funny, I tell the dust. That was only yesterday.


It is not as though I've stopped thinking altogether. Just moving and caring. I lay, prone, in the center of the boxcar's floor, staring blankly up at the ceiling, and listen to what the dust has to say. This is how our relationship works. I unload upon it my sorrows and regrets and then wait while it tells me of all the others like me who it has seen pass through the boxcar. They all left, the dust tells me. And you will too.

My stay in the boxcar is only temporary, this I have been assured. "Two weeks, tops," John had said. "Just until our guy's available." The guy, I think, is in Arkansas. Or is it Alaska? I can't remember what John said at the time. Just that I was supposed to sit tight, be patient, and trust that everyone had my best interests in mind. Then the hands on my shoulders, a sack over my head, and John saying, "I'll see you later, buddy," as I was thrown into a car. Minivan, I think. It smelled of Cheerios.

The dust says that this is standard practice, company policy. Much better than being stuck in the back of a cop cruiser, hands cuffed and nose bloodied.

And what if I had been picked up? I ask the dust. I was never the one to pull the trigger, had taken care to prevent blood from splashing on my face. I'd washed my hands each time, buttoned my collar and cinch my tie. It had been easy, like Kyle had said, to launder the money. But covering it up? "You'll never do it perfect," Kyle had warned. "You just have to know when's time to jump ship." Shouldn't the captain go down with his ship? I ask the dust. You never were the captain, the dust reminds me. It's thinking you were that got you here.

I do imagine that the ship is real from time to time. And that I am the captain. Metaphor be damned, I'll sail the seas, I boast to the dust. And then the dust has to respect me, my fortitude. Instead, it waits silently until in my imagination a lone wave towers over my magnificent ship and pulls it beneath the sea. My crew cuts bait, like logical men would, and jumps from the ship, fighting for survival. But I wait in my cabin until the pressure of the water shatters the glass of my cabin windows and forces me out of my chair. I don't hold my breath or attempt to swim to the surface. And once it's all over, I open my eyes, and I am still in the boxcar. Around me, the dust gently floats upward in a faint breeze that I know doesn't exist, and I can tell that it is laughing. But secretly, I think I'm smiling.

I have not told the dust everything about my life. Like that I have a family. A wife, a kid. Three kids, actually. It's funny, I think. The day I'd met John outside my house, been told to be patient and sit tight and had felt hands on my shoulders and a sack over my head and had been thrown in the car (minivan, I think) that had smelled of Cheerios, I had stood in my bedroom one last time. And I'd buttoned my collar and cinched my tie, and atop a briefcase on the bed I'd left a note. But not once had my eyes wandered to the bedside table, to the photo of my wife and children, and of me, when hiking in Maine, that time Dana had lost the car keys up on one of the rock mounds, the one that had overlooked the entire hillside and all the trees and even a stream with clear blue water that had cut a sparkling path down the hill and—I wish I had stopped, just for a second, and looked. But I had been standing on a ship of drowning men then, and when a man is in the middle of hurling himself off a sinking ship it is probably best that the man doesn't think of his family. A moment's hesitation, and then he is sinking too.

Chris had been at soccer practice then. And James still at school, because he had a team dinner for lacrosse that would last until 7:00. Matt was with Dana at the dentist's because he needed his tonsils removed. Where were they now? Had Dana found the briefcase, read the note? And had she followed my instructions and spent the money? And what had she told the kids? This, most of all, I want to know. But I never will, because right now there is a guy in Arkansas (or Alaska) who has my best interests in mind and who will be here in a week and who will take me away from the boxcar, and everything before the boxcar, and who will tell me to forget my family. And I think I'll listen to him.

Good morning, the dust says, and I turn my head to face it, and I realize that I had not slept that night and that I had never even known it was night and that, really, I didn't care. Go away, dust! I cry to nobody in particular because deep down I know that the dust can't talk but no, I am not delusional. Just tired. Really, really tired.

There is a guy who will come to see me in a week. Six days, now. But I don't care because now my eyelids are heavy and I, like the floor, have begun to collect dust, which now blankets me in silence and for some reason I can't bring myself to look at the ceiling anymore because now I'm crying and I've begun to think that I should get some rest because it's been a couple of days since I last slept, and I can remember now that the hand on my right shoulder had told me to rest up because I had a long journey ahead of me and so I think I best just lie here for a bit. And close my eyes and do nothing. And if I die along the way?

I don't know if I would realize.