The white mist swirled in all directions as I fell to the ground and grabbed for a bush, a tree, anything to steady myself, hold myself in one place. It was impossible. Anything I touched seemed to become dust at that instant. I was moving steadily, backward and awkwardly, away from the VW and nothing was going to impede that ana-progress. And that mist, that fog, that whiteness moved over me, under me and around me rarely varying in thickness. I was breathing it, eating it, swallowing it down and it wasn’t like fog, or smoke, or anything I’d ever known before. It was different.
It was moist, like fog. It was thick like steam. I could see through it, but I couldn’t see much farther than my arm could reach and that was all my arm could do, reach but not touch. I felt my body moving over a large, angular stone, a boulder, and I tried to find a place to grab it and hold myself steady, maybe release myself from whatever it was that hold of my ankle. There was nothing tangible to grab, no edge, or corner, or nick that I could find. I moved off the stone, still moving steadily and the stone seemed to disintegrate as I left it behind. It was the most unusual feeling I ever recall having.
Off to my right, at least I think it was my right - even distance and relationships seemed to have slipped out of my ken by this time - I thought I heard the sound of running water. It lay behind the roar, the constant roar of some untamed animal, some force of nature. I tried to remember if that map had shown me any rivers or streams or a lake nearby. Nothing came to mind. Nothing felt familiar, like the fog. It felt somehow like something I’d known before, but I couldn’t put a finger on it. Not then, anyhow.
"Steve..." I heard Jelly shout in the distance and I tried to shout back, but my mouth was encumbered by crusting mud and the mist, that thick, thick air. At least he’s calling for me, I thought. At least there’s that in his favor. I heard a melody just then, a sort of jingle, a commercial tune, that wouldn’t let go of my brain for a bit. It turned itself around in my head four or five times before I got it, before I really heard it full out and knew it for what it was.
"Mr. Clean, Mr. Clean..." it sang, over and over and over.
"This is too damn weird!" I thought. "Too damn (small d) weird!" It didn’t seem real to me, hearing that dumb tune over and over in my head. Yet somehow it made sense. There’s nothing so relaxing and comforting as those tv commercials you hear over and over for years and years. They let you know that nothing has really changed in this world. We still have what we had thirty years ago and we’re still after the same things as well. "Mr. Clean, Mr. Clean..." it kept chiming out that familiar melody. And it made me feel okay about this dragging thing.
I tried to get a look at what had me by the ankle, but it just wasn’t clear enough, I said to myself, and then I knew something I hadn’t known before. My being dragged through the mist was kicking up the mist a mite. The densest portion of the air was around me, around where I was slammed down against the earth, against the cool, wet earth. My trail was easy to follow, at least for a little space beyond me, through the dust trail, white and thick, I’d left behind me.
"You’re using me like a garden rake," I shouted at whatever it was had me by the ankle. "You’re making this fog with my body!" I was screaming now.
There wasn’t an answer, but without warning I had my leg back to my own self again. I was lying in a pool of mud and dirt, my clothes torn, my ankle and leg in pain and there was a pale grey cloud above me, stalled like I was, lying there, laying in waiting for a breeze or a hand to fan it into that lush white stuff that had surrounded us all this time.
"I’m a mote, a goddam mote," I said out loud and I knew I meant it, too. "I’m nothing but a scrap of dust, floating in the sunlight, thick around with other motes of all kinds, animal, vegetable and mineral," I said, but nobody was listening.
"We’re in a man-made duststorm," I cried out to anyone who could listen and I hoped that Jelly could hear me.
There was a horrible moment when I remembered reading about this stuff, about how our own skin produced thousands of motes a day, millions of them maybe. It came to me all of a sudden that this whole thing was a pocket of air filled with the tossed off molecules of human detritis, including my own now that I’d been ground to a pulp on one side of my body from being dragged so far. I did what I had to do.
"Jelly!" I shouted in my loudest voice. "Jell, if you hear my voice, blow your horn, man. Play me back to you."
I thought he’d honk the car horn, but instead he got out his cornet and began to play, soulfully, his own version of Green Eyes, and I drifted toward it like a man under the spell of a mesmerizer. I didn’t hear nothing except his music, my music, my haunted sounds and the Mr. Clean song was soon out of my head completely. I thought I saw the VW once or twice, but was wrong. I’d been dragged a long way, it seemed to me, and the fog, the mist, the dust in fact, was thicker than it had been before.
Then it was there, the car with Jelly hanging out the window blowing his heart out. I touched his horn and gave it a quick up-and-down shake, a "yes, I’m here" sort of nod of brass and he finished the refrain really fast.
"You’re back," he said.
"I am. Although I was never truly gone," I said.
"Ain’t seen you."
"You will yet," I assured him. "I know something."
"You know what?" He wanted to hear it.
"It’s going to clear, and soon. The sounds we heard are gone. The legs are gone, too."
"What about that dragging thing?"
"It followed the roaring sounds we heard, Jell, and they’re both gone."
"Praise Jay-sus!" he said.
"But I figured it out, out here."
He moved from the window and threw open the door. "Get in, you mother!"
I did. "And tell me everything. Start with my damage."
I’d forgotten about that. My mission. I’d accepted it and failed it. I made up an answer. "You’re fine. Car’s fine." He nodded, and I continued. "Here’s the scoop, man."
"Give it to me," he said.
"We’re in a cul-de-sac," I told him, "one of those little side streets that come full circle and dump back out into the main drag and it, and everywhere around here, is suffering from bad air and bad air conditioning and simultaneous vacuum cleaning."
"What does that mean?" Jelly asked me but the look in his eye said ‘you crazy and you get out of my vehicle.’
"Those legs," I said, "belong to some housewife hereabouts and she and her neighbors and her friends and their neighbors been doing the Friday - clean for the weekend thing - all of ‘em at the same time, and sure enough them air-conditioners are sucking up and spewing out all the dust they raising in those houses. It all spills out here into the road and the whole street gets caught in the many motes of dust."
"I don’t get it," he said.
"Listen. You know those Bissells and those other machines your wife got at home that sweep, shampoo and vacuum up all at the same time?" He nodded. "Well I bet you anything that every house for a mile around has got that same machine and is using it right about now. Wet vacuum, and dry floor makes thick, white, misty dust."
My explanationwas sound, I thought. I thought of his map with that mark on it, and I asked him again about it.
"Yeah," he said, "I know that mark. I just don’t know what it means." We took another look at it, but all it said was ‘this is a place.’ What it meant was still a mystery, but it was sure a warning to avoid this place, like a circle with a line through it might do.
"That thing that grabbed my ankle and dragged me for so long was most likely one of those machines itself sucking me along, holding me - too big for the nozzle - and letting me go when the machine is done or needs some sort of fixin’ or something."
"You know how crazy you sound, Steve?"
I ignored him and went on. "Those legs go with some Amazon woman, I guess, some really tall woman." Although as I said it I thought about the windshield and how very small it actually was. Average height would be all a woman needed to be to show off those legs in the fog.
"I’m right," I said. "You’ll see. The wind will shift, now that they are all through cleaning, and blow all this mist, all these motes away. Then we’ll just start up the car and get out of here."
I knew I had it. I was confident now.
"And then what, Steve, just drive on like it never happened? That what you want?"
"Unless you want to hear from your grandkids, some day, about the day Grampa got scared in the fog. I don’t."
"Well, I’ll wait for it, then," Jelly said finally. "I’ll just sit here and wait the Hell (big H) out of it."
And we sat and we waited for the mist to go and leave us less remote than before. We had our map and we had our experience and we’d wait. And the mist would soon fall, the motes becoming dust again. And we waited.
There was nothing else to do but wait. And we waited.
I started to whistle a tune, but Jelly stopped me. "Aint be no tune whistling in here," he said. And we waited.
"Mr. Clean, Mr. Clean..."ran the toxic chemical waste theme song through my head. And we waited. The roaring had stopped and the mist had cleared enough for me to see lights in a few houses, but still not see where the street went. I thought about my theory, about the vacuums and I wondered if maybe all of these places had that central vac, that sort of thing where the whole house turned itself into a big cleaning machine and sucked out dirt and motes and mites and crap, all at once. I wondered if all these houses here had that, if all of them did and they all turned on at the same time, then maybe I was right about this mist. Maybe it was what I thought. Maybe this community here was one where the folks all did the same thing at the same time, like to the same church. It would be a time when their houses could clean themselves and not bother folks. It felt right to me.
I don’t know how long we waited for the motes to move, for them to be demoted from mist into dust. I only know that my theory is right and that sometime soon we’ll be able to see our way clear to drive on, out of this awful valley where dustmites, motes of all kinds, can rule the world. And we waited.
And we waited.
And we waited.
/ / /
When you have read the entire story, please feel free to send any comments, questions or criticisms to the author. Use the contact form below.