Dust Wanders – Ian Collins

Stacey had breath like a burnt-out T.V. screen.

He and I had a tricky relationship; as is usual when a relationship involves business. His was the business at the receiving end of underground traffic. Illicit rocks stored in colorful cereal boxes, pistols under the couch cushions, and a library of “every DVD you can think of, I even got the movies they haven’t made yet.”

And he was right. He had a movie about a T.V. that ate other T.V.s and gained divine omniscience from their programming. Another one starring a handsome bodybuilder who had a strange addiction to licking the licence plate on every parked limousine he encountered. That one was the most tragic.

It was his DVD’s, the way they were always playing on the flat-screen in his apartment, that usually lent an air of light unreality to our meetings. As long as his dark, sitting reflection was frozen on the screen- behind a scientific montage of snails copulating- what sort of harm could he possibly bring?

The stage props of our relationship listed like many inner-city forensic files:

The crease-lined sheet of aluminum foil, stained with a web of black tar drip which- illuminated from the right angle- would glow like a backwoods talisman, or an obscene burial mask.

The loaded six-shooter pistol he once placed in my hand in a display of criminal confidence. The sort of gun I could imagine wild west detectives polishing tenderly while whispering female pet names.

The way he kept asking about my friend Maria- not her real name, though he didn’t know that- always referring to her as “that little white goth girl,” and for whose sexual presence he offered me money and free heroin. The aforementioned gun also played a part in this scene, after I repeatedly told him “No.”

Situations like these only highlighted the gaping negative space in the center of our relational Venn diagram. Me, a shy white kid living in section 8 housing in downtown Oakland. He, the hardcore street veteran down the hall, late-40s, who yelled when he spoke, and whose severe slouch brought him down to the level of my chin.

Stacey’s casual evil struck me as charming and absurd. He liked that I hated cops. I never asked whether he’d ever killed anyone. On multiple occasions I had had to hoist his unconscious body up onto the couch and try to shake him back to life. He was very sick. I at least knew him that intimately.

Once in his apartment, while he fished a black rock from a box of Lucky Charms, he told me he had decided to legally change his name to Dust Wanders. I asked why and he replied, “Cause that’s just how dust wanders baby.” Right on cue, the theme from The Good The Bad and The Ugly began whistling from the flat-screen.

A short time later, Dust Wanders was raided and arrested by a group of men in suits, leading to his eviction and temporary disappearance. A neighbor slash mutual friend told me that they had left his door wide open. On his T.V. was a film about all the things Jesus could no longer carry in his hands due to holes as wide as railroad spikes.

When Dust eventually wandered back he had rats on his mind.

He spent whole days on the sidewalk in front of the building, shooting a penetrating eye at every ex-neighbor who went in or out. The property manager had no way of dispelling the atmosphere of menace that lingered just beyond the graffitied windows of the foyer.

One morning as I left for work, he stood there with a carton of ice cream. Without the easing-in of our usual small talk he demanded that I be a good boy and run back upstairs to get him a spoon. I refused. He glared. I saw a rat scurry by behind his eyes.

Our Venn diagram had snapped loose and the two circles slid off the page.

From then on I was in peak paranoia. He took to stalking me on my walks home from the train at night, pulling up alongside me in his pepto-pink Ford Explorer, driving slowly with his bass rattling the paint from storefront windows. He would do that and just stare.

I changed my route every night. Then I started sleeping on my ex-girlfriend’s couch. I had stopped using and my sober nerves were frayed to shit. What I needed was an accidental intervention. And that’s exactly what I got, though I still don’t know what had happened.

I went home for a change of clothes, and parked there across the street, right there in the smoggy daylight, was Dust Wanders. He hung back, face up from the open door of the pink Explorer. His fingers nearly touching the asphalt. His eyes closed and his mouth open.

“Is he dead?” I asked a neighbor. “Dust has to settle sometime,” she replied. But no, he wasn’t dead. What he was, I don’t know, nor where he went after.

Time passed. I was happy to be another extra in the background, that the focus was no longer on he and I. That the lens had pulled back onto a more mundane panorama. Still, I would catch myself wondering if I had played some unknown role in his removal from the scene, and whether some form of retaliative violence waited up ahead, ready to shoot holes into the fourth wall.

And then there was a night of wind and chain link and yellow light.

Dogs barked through iron fences over distant bass that chewed up everything unseen on some other block. A friend and I had wandered toward a corner store in West Oakland. She went in to buy beers and I stood outside smoking. That’s when I saw him leaning against the wall of the building next door, also smoking.

He hadn’t seen me yet. My friend came out and we started crossing the street. I looked back, he was looking right at me. I turned and kept walking.

A strong wind blew and I turned again to see Dust for the last time, enshrouded by dirt sucked up into the air and illuminated by white security light, as his slouched form wandered across the threshold into the liquor store. The traffic flew by like unreadable movie credits.