The Language of Dust (a short story)

The muffled rattle of the jackhammers on the Manhattan pavement below threatened to drive Jackie mad. It had been incessant for weeks now, but it wasn’t just the noise. No, it was even more so the fine layer of dust that coated everything, all the time. How was it possible for construction dirt to drift all the way up to the 10th floor, even somehow slithering into her lingerie drawer? It was depressing.

Jackie was not a rich woman, but she could afford not to work. In fact, her ambitious husband of three years demanded it. George was a very generous man; all he insisted upon was a meticulously clean house and a hot, homemade meal when he came home from the office. But Wall Street had not made him quite wealthy enough (yet) to bestow Jackie with domestic help. She was on her own to cope with this summer’s construction conundrum.

Keeping George happy was Jackie’s number one concern in life, so it was never a good situation when he came home to dirt. Normally she could make the place spotless with plenty of time left over for shopping and other routine outings, but Jackie’s days were now overtaken by dust. In fact, dust had become pretty much a full-time job for her. It irritated her terribly to catch George surreptitiously running his forefinger along the hall table when he came in the door. Was he measuring how much the construction workers had accomplished that day, or rather Jackie’s value in his future? It disturbed her greatly that she could not answer that question.

The apartment was quite large, so after much worrying and many missteps, Jackie devised a plan for a daily dusting route that guaranteed George would find as little dirt as possible. Of course, the front hall table was the last to be dusted; it was timed perfectly for just before he came home. She’d put some polish on one particular cloth in the morning, so the lemon aroma would fade and he’d never suspect she’d just polished it. Jackie wanted George to see her as a magician, the perfect housewife, because after all, they planned to be married for a long, long time.

Day after long, hot summer day, Jackie toiled at her task. As much as she did not like cleaning, she found a certain satisfaction in it, to see the late afternoon sun slant through the blinds onto a gleaming coffee table. She had even come to like George’s evening arrival instead of dreading it. Lately the sly finger running along the tabletop was followed by a satisfied grin. He looked happy, but not in the way Jackie imagined. From George’s point of view, he finally had his wife trained.

However, this boot camp for the best-housewife-ever-award was soon to blow up. As the summer wore on, and as Jackie’s patient hands polished each nook, cranny, and crevice of the apartment over and over again, it gradually began to dawn on her that dust was not at all her problem. Finally one fateful day, she fully realized that she couldn’t bear it. Not the unending dust problem, mind you, but the way she had sold out on her soul.

And so it was that one fine evening in late August, George came home from the office to find the front hall table covered in dust. He frowned, and then noticed the can of lemon polish and brand new cleaning cloth beside it. There was also a quick note, not on a piece of paper, but hurriedly jotted into the dust. The ever so clean scribbling said simply, “You do it”.

Down on the street pulsing with life, Jackie walked quickly in the dusk, pulling along behind her the one suitcase she’d hurriedly packed. She looked back at it for a moment, wondering if she had enough clothes. Jackie smiled. Suddenly her life was no longer about what clothes she owned or cleaning house. She was headed for adventure, though she knew not where for sure. Perhaps Africa? Jackie had always wanted to go there…. Maybe she would even start her own little business. She had, after all, excelled at clothing design before she married George. She couldn’t wait to buy the plane ticket with some of her meager nest egg. She wanted to get as far away from New York as possible.

Meanwhile, a very old bus rattled and groaned along an unnamed street in South Africa. The sun had set hours ago, so in the soft darkness the veneer of dust on everything was indistinguishable to Nandi. She was glad, because the days felt eternally hot and dirty. It was a relief to at least not see the dirt, even though she could feel it clinging to her sweaty skin. She couldn’t wait to get home to take a bath. More so, she couldn’t wait until her life was no longer about cleaning other people’s houses.

Nandi’s long workdays were consumed as a cleaning lady for rich ladies. She tried always to feel grateful for the work, and not resentful of those who lived a life of ease and luxury. She glanced out the window at a brightly lit billboard passing by in the night. It advertised some famous designer’s perfume, way out of Nandi’s realm of reality.

She wondered, what would it feel like to not worry about money, to buy a bottle of expensive perfume on a whim, without thinking twice about the price? She had a great deal of difficulty imagining that kind of life, and just for a moment, she did indulge in some jealousy. Nandi quickly pulled herself back from it. Even though young in years, she already understood that there is a price for everything.

Each night after a quick dinner and bath, Nandi devoted some time to her needlework before collapsing into bed. Every spare second and cent was spent on her passion. Nandi embroidered good used clothing with traditional patterns that had been passed down in her family. Her designs were starting to be known, sold from a little neighborhood consignment store in the city.  Nandi yearned for the day when she could put her beautiful embroidery designs on equally fine new dresses and skirts.  She knew her own talent, but she also recognized that she needed to meet just the right person to start a business. Where to look?

Two days later a plane serendipitously landed in Johannesburg, and a young woman still trundling her suitcase with one hand, and now with a map in the other, made her way down a hot, dusty street. The small hotel she was booked in was somewhere nearby, but she was a little lost. Thirst threatened to overcome Jackie, and so she stopped at a small café to grab a cold drink.

As she walked back out onto the street, a passing ray of late afternoon sun glinted gold on a dress in a shop window. She crossed over to take a look, and taken with the stunning needlework, she went inside to inquire. The lady told Jackie about Nandi, and agreed to coordinate a meeting of the women.

Suffice to say, these were two people born to meet each other. They hit it off immediately, and although they both hated house cleaning, they were not afraid of hard work. Together they built a successful clothing business in Johannesburg, and their deep friendship endured until Jackie’s passing some sixty years later.

Over the years they marveled occasionally at the events of their lives, and how two women from very different worlds had ever managed to meet. Destiny can be fulfilled in the strangest of ways, and it often takes what we loathe to arrive at a place of what we love.

The Fates whispered to Jackie and Nandi in the language of dust, and they listened.

© Susan L Hart 2023


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