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MUSED Literary Magazine.

Dust on the Soul

D. D. Renforth

The death of Cecil’s best friend was a mirror in which all of Cecil’s life was a shadowy reflection. Losing his friend when so young was difficult to endure or understand and a clear indication to him that, if fate chose to take his friend, then many others should not pass the test of deserving life, including Cecil himself.

Before the death, Cecil had attended university and eventually earned a doctorate and joined the faculty as the youngest ever staff member. After the death of his friend, Cecil saw his teaching job as a babysitter with spoiled and unappreciative students wasting their good fortune. Students soon revenged through their evaluations and Cecil resigned and returned to wallow in the same factory where he had had a summer job between university years as a line supervisor. There he could hide and freely let the despair triumph. There he could show his discontentment with the human race. There also he would set loose a darkness that had apparently been waiting within him. There he could grumble without consequences.

One of the few people Cecil exempted from his scorn and negativity was Julia, the sister of his deceased friend. Cecil, of course, had known Julia since childhood, had lived on the same street, and went to the same schools. In school they were both shy, sullen, bookish, and unpopular, with few friends and no romances, while her brother was a popular star athlete and the crush of many girls. At dances Cecil sat on one side of the gym and Julia sat on the other, neither participating in the fun.

After her brother’s death Julia jumped on a train to a profligate destination, the opposite life of the girl she seemed to be and the one Cecil knew in high school. Cecil ignored her behavior and never condemned or tried to correct her. Food and money he gave her without expecting them in return. He ignored her loss of many jobs, her waste of money, her failure to pay her rent, and even a night in jail for misconduct. Even when she would appear at his door a few hours before daybreak, sometimes crying and heartbroken, or unaware of who or where she was, and sleep in his bed while he slept on the couch, he remained supportive.

“What’s wrong with you?” Julia mocked him. “Why do you help me? Why are you always there? You don’t even like me. When my brother was alive, you’d go out of your way to ignore me. And why are you always looking at me like that?”

Neither she nor anyone else had the answer to these questions. His fellow factory workers’ explanation was that he was attracted to her. Why else would he be so kind to an obviously unappreciative woman? Continually he reminded them all that he did not like her romantically or even as a friend. A few wondered if he might be comforting her after the death of her brother, but that explanation he also denied strongly. Their common rage over the death had never been a bond between them. Nor could their past history and her present behavior and lifestyle offer reasons for why he ignored his own darkness and treated her differently.

Some other factor had encouraged him to stay near her, but to no one had he revealed that factor because it seemed so private and strange. Then he had a casual encounter with a fellow factory employee, Paige, who worked both in the office and on the floor of the factory.

Paige went to high school with Cecil and Julia. She had a thick red scar diagonally across her face and was very short, almost as short as a dwarf. Her small stature also made her stocky and overweight and this plus the scar were sources of ridicule by the guys in high school and on the factory floor, the men Cecil supervised. But they would never attack her in person because of her reputation. Paige was the office dragon, willing to snort oral fire at any sign of unfairness and always willing to defend herself or others. Her appearance was unique, but it could not compare to her fiery personality, confidence and fearlessness.

Like everyone at the factory, Paige knew about Cecil’s moody and generally disgruntled personality, and Cecil knew about Paige’s temperament, but they rarely had the opportunity to interact beyond the needs of their jobs. That changed one day when Cecil overheard the office clerks who reported to Paige talking about a popular television soap opera. Cecil in his usual grouchy attitude reacted by announcing that they were people without “taste.”

“People with taste,” he announced, “don’t waste their time on such inferior writing, acting and plot lines. Find something better.”

“Why don’t you mind your own business?” Paige countered in support of her team.

“What’s the matter? Don’t want to hear the truth?” Cecil asked.

“Seriously,” she continued, “go back to the floor. You make everyone nervous and depressed. Or shout at your walls at home. Leave us alone. You’re just a bitter old man in a young man’s body.”

Because of the way his own team treated her, Cecil had sympathy for Paige and would have preferred to avoid sparring with her. Her attack quickly changed his mind.

“Really?” Cecil asked. “You think that show is for the intellectual giants of the world? The problem with you all is that you set your sights too low. You’re all just looking for a husband so you can be baby machines and then have an excuse to watch one soap opera after another.”

“Even if that was true, which it’s not, at least we’d have a purpose,” Paige said. “What happened to your purpose, Mr. Smarty Pants? I remember you in high school. So intelligent, so ambitious. Even taught at the university. Now look at you. Working at your summer job.”

“Being only a baby machine is no better than being a lower animal,” Cecil continued. “The universe gave you a brain. Use it.”

“What do you know about me or any of us? At least we’re not living the life of certain women you and I know. Or is destroying one’s body and brain with drugs and alcohol and going from one measly job and man to another a sign of an intellectual giant? Why not go after her?!”

As he was about to counter-attack, he stopped himself and not only because he knew that Paige was correct. Julia was living a dissolute life and he had not accused her. But he stopped himself for the same reason he supported Julia, a reason that stretched back to the time of his friend’s death, when the realization first had momentarily struck him. He had failed to clarify it to himself many times, but could only say that the experience seemed to lift him from a morass or a cold place of shadows within him. Paige, like Julia, inexplicably had that magical capability. There was something in Paige’s eyes that radiated a positive energy from being near her.

“Leave Julia out of this,” he replied weakly.

“We’re not all artists, poets and philosophers, you know,” Paige said. “Consider our boss, what do you think he does to relax? He reads comic books and looks at porn. Go after him, why don’t you? He’s educated. He’s got an engineering degree. Ha! But no, you’re not going to attack him. Well, I’m not ashamed to admit it, I’m tired at night and I want to veg out. If I start to read a book—and I do read books and so does everyone else here—I go to sleep, that’s how tired I am. I’m on my feet all day.”

With that comment Paige turned and walked away. The office workers at their desk glared at him with emotionless faces, but inside they each shouted a victory, ‘Yes! The dragon wins again! The monster is defeated!’

Cecil did feel defeated, but this defeat did not bother him because, even in the midst of the argument, Paige lit up something within him and reminded him of a time when he was a happier person.

At three o’clock the following morning, Cecil heard a heavy thump at the door that woke him up. He opened the front door and there laying across the doorstep was Julia crying and groaning. He stepped outside to see if she was with anyone, but he could only see a car speed off down the street in the darkness.

He picked her up, as he had done on other occasions, and laid her on his bed.

She opened her eyes and stared at him. A tear came down her cheek. Then she gagged and needed to regurgitate. He brought the pail and she threw up. Cecil wiped her lips with a wet cloth.

He noticed a stream of blood coming down her leg.

Julia could tell he was looking at the blood.

“They hurt me, Cecil,” she said in between cries.

“Who? Who?” Cecil said.

“I don’t know for sure. I wasn’t fully conscious. They put something in my drink, I think.”

Cecil called 911.

The ambulance came and took her to the hospital. The police eventually found the men who had assaulted her. They were among the men with whom she had often gone to clubs, took drugs, and danced.

In the emergency cubicle at the hospital, as Cecil sat in a chair by her bed, Julia asked if he could stay with her for a while.

“I know you don’t like me, Cecil,” Julia said, “and I don’t understand why you’re always there for me. You never liked me, even when we were kids. You don’t have to deny this. It’s OK.”

Cecil would not explain his reasons for watching out for her, not here, not in an emergency room.

“You want to be like my brother, don’t you?” she said. “I know. My brother made you promise, didn’t he?”

Cecil shook his head. Her brother never spoke to him about Julia.

“You really don’t have to watch me anymore, Cecil. Not anymore. I’ll be fine. I’ve had enough of this, more than enough. I’m a mess and I know it, and, you know what? I’m done. You did well. Considering you never liked me, I’d say you did very well.”

She reached over and touched his hand.

“Thank you, Cecil, even if your kindness sometimes hurt me. I don’t get it, but thank you. If you had liked me and did what you did for me, then it would have been different, but I knew it wasn’t that. Did you do it out of sympathy? Is that it?”

Again Cecil shook his head. His care for her had nothing to do with her brother or her brother’s death. He had little sympathy for the way she treated herself.

“Fine. Deny it. Don’t tell me,” Julia said. “It doesn’t matter.”

Cecil avoided replying to her at that moment because he believed that whatever he said would hurt her feelings. He could never avoid the truth that he did not like her romantically or as a friend. He had no specific reason for why he did not like her; he was just not comfortable around her.

But something greater than chemistry drew him to her.

At work that week, Paige came up to Cecil and said, with her fists up in the air, as if she was ready to box.

“Do you want to fight some more? I’ve got time and lots to say.”

“I bet you do,” Cecil said. “But no. Maybe later,”

“We heard about Julia. I’m sorry, Cecil. We all wish her well. We really do.”

“Thanks,” Cecil said. “She’s just got out of the hospital and is determined to start a new life. Of course, her partying friends call because they want her to return to the old ways but she doesn’t want to. The few friends she had from high school had long ago dropped her. So she’s really lonely and stuck with me. I’ll tell her what you said. She’d appreciate you asking about her.”

Cecil was about to walk away, but she stopped him.

“And there’s something else. We all heard what you said about me to the guys on the floor,” Paige said.

“I spoke the truth,” Cecil said. “You’d be the best union representative for them. No one can fight for others’ rights better than you, I’m sure of it.”

“Well, guess what? They voted me in,” Paige said.

“Great. So they should. Everyone has a giant inside, but few can show it to others. You’re one of those who can.”

“I don’t understand,” Paige said. “Those guys would never have supported me without you. They sometimes even make fun of me. But you stood up for me. Why? You’re not even in the union. And you’re such a monster usually.”

Cecil smiled.

“Let’s just say, I’m in and out of darkness.”

“But why support me?”

There were two reasons, but Cecil decided not to share them both. The key reason he recommended her was that she deserved it. None of other candidates was as articulate or as passionate as Paige. But the other reason was that she reminded him of something that happened to him on the day Julia’s brother died. As he was thinking about how unfair was his friend’s death, he sensed in that moment that he was outside the sorrow and harshness of life, the darkness, and saw who he was and the beauty in others, in nature, and reality. A light rushed upon his soul. And from it he was so alive and so unbelievably relieved and uplifted. Everything seemed to make sense. But soon that glimpse was over and something like a giant stone was rolled across the entrance to his life again and shut off that vision and he slid back into a darkness, where everything was selfish and false. He wasn’t sure how or why he had the experience, but it happened and for a brief period he had a flash, a feeling, of how extraordinary life was. Afterwards, he suppressed the experience, thinking it was crazy, but he could not forget it.

He tried so hard to recapture that moment of light. He tried at the university, at work, and through meditation. Nothing worked until he saw Julia by accident one afternoon at her brother’s gravesite. She was recovering from another wild night, she had been crying, but he looked into her eyes and could see that light again and for a couple of seconds the darkness vanished. The light was dim and the feeling shallow, but it was present. So he hung on to it, hung on to her, because she gave him the hope of light. Now he looked for it in everyone and had found it in a few others, but most people affirmed the dark and the selfish and the vicious and were sticking needles in him; after a time, these needles transformed into a disease and began to affect him so much he could not control it. He had a harder and harder time seeing that light in others, though it occasionally did happen. Anger and depression followed.

Then the other day, when he was quarrelling with Paige, the light burst from Paige. It was a much more powerful light than the light from Julia or at his friend’s funeral, and once again he was so happy. It broke up for a couple of seconds the black cloud of ignorance and selfishness that had blocked him. The darkness had covered him like dust on the clear mirror of his soul and the dust has become so thick that no light from others could be reflected in it and he could not even see himself. But occasionally there was Julia and others, and now Paige. She was an inspiration, a flame that reignited the barely burning embers of his soul.

Cecil laughed.

“Why? Because none of those guys can compare to you as a rep and they know it. You’re going to be a great union representative. Keep that spirit of yours. It’s great.”

“Thank you,” Paige said, blushing, almost embarrassed by his speech. “I don’t know what to say. I’ll try my best.”

She walked away, but, after sitting at to her desk for several minutes, she went back to his office. Cecil was working on his computer and did not see her standing at the door. She was unsure whether to speak her mind in this situation, but his comments encouraged her.

“I was thinking,” she said to Cecil, “could I have Julia’s cell phone number? There’s a couple of things I want to talk to her about. For one thing, we could use another person on my team. I’m going to meet her for coffee. And Cecil, thank you again, you’ve brought a bit of light into my life.”