An excerpt from the novel "Dust Collectors"
by Lucie Faulerová
Translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker
It was the worst moment of her life—except for all the others, that is. It was the worst moment of my life—except for all the others, that is. Except for the ones behind me now, waving to me with that look of satisfaction from a job well done, and except for the ones looking forward to me, shuffling their feet in anticipation, watching out for my arrival, chins lifted and arms spread wide.
But the funny thing is, you can get used to anything. So after some time you start to get bored. You stop trembling in fear, stop nervously chewing your nails and actually offer your face to be slapped, even going so far as to point to where you want the stinging blessing this time, oh yes, please, again, again, smack from one side, smack from the other. And if it doesn’t hurt enough, if it doesn’t catch you off guard, take you by surprise, buckle your knees, kick you in the groin, knock you to the ground, thrash you within an inch of your life and stomp on your throat, you’re even mildly disappointed. That’s all? Really? That’s it? That’s the best you can do? Pff, thumbs down.
But this was the worst moment of my life. Hands down. Across the board. No question. Except for all the others, that is. It goes without saying.
A tired drum set rings out across the empty stage, ba-dum tss. I clear the scene and switch off the last flickering fluorescent light.
A young woman walks down a busy street, although in actuality she is older than you imagine. It is one of those autumn days when the passing of summer announces itself. Yes, one could say Indian summer, but it was one of those autumn days when the passing of summer announces itself. The sun was no longer warm enough for you to sit out on a bench in the park, but still warm enough for a walk in nothing but a thin sweater. And it was in a sweater like this that the young woman—seriously, she is older than you imagine—was walking down a busy street. Actually she was wearing a coat. No, a sweater. Hmm. A young woman walked down the street in a light cream coat. It was a pleasant afternoon, as pleasant as you can imagine a pleasant afternoon on one of those autumn days when the passing of summer announces itself.
She was a tall, slender woman, though rather more like gangly and skinny, and her full lips, which you mistakenly imagine as full and sensual instead of full and protruding like a duck’s bill, so that, even despite her gentle smile, it gives the impression of a child’s annoyed arrogance—which for now we will disregard, for the sake of the story, and think on it, agreed—her full lips were gently upturned at the corner into a smile as fresh as one of those autumn days when the passing of summer blah blah blah. Just imagine the genial atmosphere descending over the city as the wind, neither cool nor warm nor sharp nor weak, ruffles her hair, causing her linen coat to dance around her hips, neither curvy nor flowing.
Waiting to cross the street, she stopped at the curb and gazed into the treetops on the other side. Green leaves turning to yellow. Yellow to orange. Orange to brown. Brown to green. This time it could have been an almost enchanted smile, but to imagine this character enchanted is like imagining snow in July, like imagining a grizzly that strokes your hair, like imagining pigeon couples dancing to a samba beat. But it could have been an almost enchanted smile if you squinted with one eye and just closed the other, enchanted as she stepped into the street, because she was thinking about how this step of hers was a step that symbolized hope and determination, a step into a future in which—
And here it comes! It’s happened! A car runs her down so suddenly she doesn’t even have time to stare in terror at the headlights in slow motion. Nor is there time for her whole life to flash before her eyes, and anyway what would it be except a big ball of dust lazily rolling past. But not even that. Just boom bam and kaput. No light at the end of the tunnel, not even a glimmer. Stiff as a board. And the blood spilled out poetically over her cream coat, and not a leaf stirred, and the world didn’t stop and the people didn’t stop and the car that ran her down didn’t stop, and the Earth turned and the day went on and it was still just as nice a day, just as pleasant an afternoon, one of those autumn days when the passing of summer announces itself.
I woke up on the couch with my head wedged in between the backrest and the seat. I freed my head, lifting it with the help of my hand so I could check what time it was. I should make a point of remembering which of my three clocks here (in the display cabinet, on the chest, on the ground) is set to the correct time, since mornings can be slightly disorienting and confusing, and even if you have always woken up exactly, truly unfailingly, at the same time, plus or minus five minutes, assuming you don’t oversleep, or fall asleep at all, for the past few years now, you wonder if it is really as late as you think it is and whether you are where you think you are. I think I am where I’m supposed to be, namely, in my living room, alive and well, hooray, and I think it’s the time it’s supposed to be, namely, somewhere between six fifty-two and fifty-seven, that is, assuming I didn’t oversleep, or fell asleep at all and woke up. Cracking with every step, I relocate my frozen bones to the bathroom, plunge a toothbrush with toothpaste into my mouth, and sit down on the toilet and pee. Next, I step out of my panties, place one foot on the bowl, and open the valve on the water tank. That is my routine, assuming I intend to flush, which sometimes, ew ew, you nasty, nasty girl, I don’t. I tug the flush cord, close the valve on the running toilet, jump down, spit in the sink. Tra-la-la, the radiant smile of an actress in a toothpaste commercial.
And we’re off to puke another day.
And I’ll buy myself a cream coat.
Boom bam and kaput.
Click-click. I could hardly imagine a greater bliss after that all-day masquerade, after stuffing my brain with a cornucopia of opening heads, from round ones to square ones, from pointy chins to no chin at all, I could hardly imagine a better bliss after hours of grueling toil, treading the boards of my job among the bosses, coworkers, and clients and their opening heads, clack clack, treading the boards of the city where I live, from the corner store to the tram to the post office, treading the boards that make up my world, I know of almost no greater bliss at the end of the day, a day like every other, when I count down to the end from the moment I wake up, than to kick off my shoes and give my very own intimate performance. So I step into the glare of the spotlights, into a circle illuminated by a cone of light, surrounded by props no one bothered to put away after the last production. I come home and put on my very own one-woman show, onstage in my own microworld, down among the clumps of dust, where the cone of light is waiting for me, aimed down at the imaginary mark where my rear end goes, and it will stay parked there for the rest of the show. This is the spot, here, next to the wall, where the rug with the traditional beige pattern and the large diamond-shaped decoration in the center doesn’t reach, the kind of rug factory owners’ wives have in their apartments in old-time movies. Its tangled fringes tickle my thighs.
Click-click. Now I’ve been sitting here like that a while, a bottle of cheap port in front of me, an ashtray and a pack of cigarettes at my feet. In one hand I’ve got one of those metal lighters with a top that I keep flipping open and closed with my thumb, click-click, open-closed. The lighter is inset with a skull of little white stones—OK, some of the stones have fallen out—and the ashtray is a small metal goblet set into a ceramic cat. I sip the port from a big, bulbous glass with no stem, made of cut glass. The lighter I took a while back, off the windowsill in the bathrooms at work; the ashtray I bought in an antique shop. As for the glass, I don’t remember anymore where I got it. Either it was a gift or I stole it—that would explain why I have only one. But I also might have received it in a neatly packed box with a set of four glasses, each in its own cardboard-delineated space. In my head I see one of them fall off the kitchen counter and shatter on the tiles, another fly through the air and smash against the wall, a third slip out of my hand as I fall asleep drunk on the couch. Maybe. The story of my bulbous glasses with no stems. Only one remained. The sole survivor. The strongest. I raise the heroine on high and examine her. On the bottom is a purplish spot of dried fluid, proof this brave glass has been waiting here for me since last night. Damn and I was all ready to pour half the bottle in there, what else was it waiting for, but that funky-looking spot kind of puts me off. Hmm. What will this young woman—although, really, you’re squandering your fantasy picturing a woman younger than she actually is
—decide? Will she make the pour into the smelly glass, or get up and go wash it out? My narrator hears the deafening tick of the clock filling up my living room, I hear the intensifying b-b-b-b-beat of drums. The tick falls silent, so do the drums, and I take a drink from the bottle. The correct answer is c. The narrator waves his hand in disgust and walks offstage, I hear ba-dum tss, the sting that accompanies the punchline of comics looking for a cheap laugh. I’m expecting laughter and applause from the audience. But it was a bad routine. So ka-ching crash and nothing. Click-click.
I have my usual things I tend to use, the clothes I wear, the food and beverages I eat and drink. I wouldn’t call them my favorites, just the usual. For them to be my favorites, first there would have had to be a process by which they gained in favor, a process of comparison whereby they rose to number one. But I don’t usually do that with the usual things. I reach for the first/cheapest/closest to my lazy hand, then remain loyal to it until I come across some other one that at that particular moment is first/cheapest/most readily at hand. Currently it’s cheap port, menthol cigarettes, the lighter with the thinning skull, the bulbous glasses of cut crystal, the cat ashtray. And a lamp with a red lampshade, which, guaranteed, comes from some Nazi brothel and which I’m reaching out to turn on at this very moment, because darkness has settled over the city, as my narrator says, and is intruding through my windows.
I hear the muffled ring of a phone. Probably from my coat pocket. It’s my sister, no point getting up and going over to verify. It’s my sister, no point getting up and taking the call. I’ve already been on the phone more than enough for today. Just like every day. I’m an operator, you see. Have been, four years now. They say operators have a shelf life of three years, so that puts me in extra time.
I edge the ashtray closer with my foot and reach for the pack of smokes. Click, light up, click. I run my big toe over the cat’s flaking breast. My phone starts to ring again, which makes me think how much my sister would hate this ashtray. She’d hate my whole apartment, but I haven’t given her the chance, she’s never been over. Between the kitsch and the dust, it would be more than she could handle. The concentration of bad taste. I positively wallow in it. My own personal dump, my inventory of schlock, an assemblage of superfluous things that nobody, including me, cares about. Utter junk, as useless as my entire existence. No art, no souvenirs, no memorabilia, no collector’s delights. Just the dust collectors I buy and steal. Sometimes someone gives me something, but mostly I buy and steal. Mostly I steal. After two hours sitting there in silence, she herself was practically starting to gather dust, the narrator says. Total silence doesn’t bother me, as long as I don’t realize how total it really is. Just the ticking of the three clocks, each with a different sound, each with its own time, and one sometimes skips, it has a problem advancing from quarter to to twelve, the occasional crack of the floorboards, the sound of burning paper on a lit cigarette and click-click.
I woke up on the floor at six fifty-two, maybe fifty-seven, and maybe I didn’t wake up, and the first thing that hit my nose was the sour smell of spilled wine. I sat up and cracked the vertebrae in my neck. Pulled my T-shirt over my head and tossed it on the red stain soaking into the floorboards next to the overturned bottle. Using my bare feet, I rubbed the T-shirt around in the puddle, then tossed the shirt in the trash. New shirt, new habit. There, and now let’s take the day again from the top, you know the drill. Brush in mouth, pee, valve, flush. This time I supplement my cleaning routine to get rid of the stench of wine and smoke, jumping straight off the toilet into the shower, toothbrush still in my mouth.
I was woken by a stream of cold water and the taste of fluoride in my throat. Somehow I had dropped into a squat and fallen asleep in the shower. Judging from the fact that the hot water had run out, my nap must have lasted a minute or so. My fingers blue, I opened the shower door. Seven twenty. Longer nap than I thought. I got rid of the crud in my mouth and headed into the bedroom, where I picked out one of my collection of boring, respectable, itchy, black-black, post-menopausal librarian’s frocks. I pasted my hair behind my ears. For breakfast I had a smoke and a cup of bitter coffee. Then the grumbling in my stomach ordered me to consume my daily doughnut intake. So now I’m eating a doughnut.
You are what you eat. I am flour and sugar and fat with something sticky inside.
I threw my coat and bag over my shoulder and walked out into the gloomy weather. The passing of summer was past, the narrator says; take summer and its passing and shove them up your ass, I say. At the bakery on the corner I stopped and bought one with chocolate filling and one with blueberry.
I got to my sister’s just past five. She welcomed me in the doorway with the full trio of offspring behind her back. Poor wretches.
“You’re walking, that’s brilliant,” I said, making a genuine effort at an upbeat, woohoo tone. As for how it actually came across, I refuse to accept any responsibility. Marek leaned timidly against his mommy’s leg, but smiled back at me with a childish look of pride on his face.
“You get thinner every day,” were my sister’s welcoming words. Seriously, did somebody sew that admonishing, overmotherly, but-I-swear-I-mean-well look on her face permanently or what? My God. And the worst part of it is, she’s been that way for as long as I can remember. She already had that face when she was ten.
“You’re putting on a bit,” I said. Warm sisterly greetings out of the way, I sat down in the kitchen while she made me a cup of coffee.
“Where is he?” I asked, leafing through the tabloid on the dining table.
“Who, Zdeněk?” My sister turned to me, then back to the electric kettle. Whatever alchemy was going on in that plastic container, it required her attention. She often had work to do when we got together—usually with her back to me. “He went for a beer.” Shocker! the front-page headline screamed. I just nodded. So he would be gone a long time.
Karolína came running up with a doll and started explaining something to me with a serious look on her face and gestures equally serious. I nodded along, confused, but more than that, taken aback at the sight of such a little girl wearing the same worried look as her mother. Luckily my sister still had her back to me, since surely it wouldn’t have escaped her attention that I shuddered like I had swallowed a spoonful of vinegar. Most people laugh, don’t they, when kids use grown-up facial expressions or repeat grown-up phrases they’ve overheard from adults, or even when they put on their mom’s dresses—as long as they aren’t boys, no one really laughs at that anymore. But hearing it made me feel anxious, mildly disgusted even. I myself was surprised that I found it so . . . inappropriate, that’s the word, since there isn’t much I find inappropriate, I’m not the type to be easily unsettled. Karolína’s plaintive tone reminded me of when I bought cable because I was home sick in bed with salmonella, and I was flipping through the channels and there was a live broadcast from a little miss beauty pageant. The whole thing took place in some God-forsaken town in the southern US, where these little girls, aged four to eight, were parading across the stage, their baby faces invisible under a ton of makeup, childish curls coiffed to the hilt. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, they strutted around in high heels with fake breast inserts, shaking their little-girl hips and blowing lascivious kisses to the audience. Meanwhile their hysterical mothers hovered over them constantly, and all the women fell into one of three categories: either they were abnormally ugly, so they were making up for what they could never do, or they were abnormally young, so they were making up for what they had missed out on, or they were former Miss Buttholesvilles themselves, so they were making up for the fact that their best years were behind them now. But with all three groups, the main reason why they were doing it was obvious. I mean, sure, for the money; sure, they were enormously proud; but farts, hugs and kisses, there was something else going on, and it wasn’t hard to see: Guilt. A dirty conscience. All of them with this masquerade were trying to drown out their guilt at sometimes secretly regretting having children at all. Even though they would never admit it, the thought had crossed their minds for one second at least, in a single moment of weakness, stinking of baby vomit and sobbing over their old graduation photos, wondering what their lives would be like if they could decide all over again.
I can’t say I didn’t like Dana’s kids. But neither can I say I felt any intense affection for them. I don’t really know quite how to put it into words. How do you describe when you don’t feel anything at all? Looking at my sister’s kids was like watching fish in an aquarium. Sort of. They held about as much interest for me as a rainbowfish or a piranha—though I would certainly never say so to my sister or to anyone else. No one would understand, they would just instantly write it off as the ultimate in offensiveness, since go ahead, give your four-year-old daughter fake tits, ruin her skin, hair, figure and values along the way, hey, no big deal, but by God you had better not say they matter to you as much as an angelfish. Not that it matters what people think, but I don’t need to feed anyone’s negative opinions of me. Life is easier without those kinds of headaches. And that’s my main goal. I’m not going to pretend I’m the type who’s like: Let them think what they want about me. Sure, let them think what they want, but the shoe that’s a size too small (i.e., life, i.e., a metaphor) is more comfortable when you don’t think about it. In any case, bearing in mind that I secretly compare my nephews and niece to fish in an aquarium, Zdenda, the oldest, could be considered my favorite. He’s due to start school next year. Unlike the other kids, he doesn’t talk bullshit. On the other hand, there are times when he’s out of it. He’s different, which, unlike me, worries my sister. We’ve always been opposites. Whenever I want to know what to feel, think or say, I just have to look at Dana, figure out what she’s feeling, guess what she’s thinking, listen to what she’s saying, and do the exact opposite.
I never did understand why my sis pumped out three kids in such rapid succession. And with Chickenshit, of all people. Yes, that’s his actual name. When you translate it, that is. In Czech it’s Kuřinec. It was just too easy. The name that embarrassed Zdeněk Kuřinec his entire life—mocked for it in childhood, bullied for it in adolescence, tactfully avoided in adulthood—in my hands became a tool with which to dig at his ego. Keeping him in his place in the pecking order, so to speak. Rubbing his face in it.
The alchemical process reaches its climax. Water boiling and bubbling. I observe my sister’s back and her hair coiled on the top of her head. Click. I glance down at the cellulite of the singers on page six.
Before they were even married, she came to me one night and confided that he had been beating her. Her eye was swollen and there were bruises on her arms. She spent hours and hours just sobbing. We stayed up late making plans for her to come and stay with me awhile, and first thing in the morning, while he was out at work, she would go over to his place and pack up all her things. But Chickenshit didn’t go to work. He waited at home for her. Sober, with a bouquet of roses that killed her plans on the spot. And not one year later Zdenda was born.
“What’s new with you? Have you finally found someone?” she asked, pouring an instant coffee for me and a cup of tea for herself.
I couldn’t help but smile. It wasn’t so much the question. Or, let’s say, it wasn’t the fact that she asked it. She probably had no intention of ever giving that up—prying into my personal life. No, it was that finally of hers. The Dana finally. A finally dripping with meaning. If there was one thing I couldn’t deny, it was my sister’s gift for packing a whole matrix of information into the most inconspicuous filler word. If you didn’t know her, you might not notice. It wasn’t in the tone she used, or the look on her face, already in place as she set the mug of foul-smelling liquid down in front of me. There was no dictionary definition for these personal words of hers. Signifying both everything and nothing, they could mean something different every time, so you could only decipher them through a prism of context extending backward in time. Far, far back. I myself was already so steeped in the context that I translated the true meanings of her utterances automatically. I could decipher all the symbols in any given finally, by the way, actually, or maybe. And how did I reply? The same way as always. I pretended that finally just meant finally and there was no need to react.
“Yeah, I slept with someone just last week.”
Dana shot a look over at Karolína, still performing a pintsized version of my sister with that hundred-year-old rag doll under her arm—hard to say whether more tragic or comic—then told her to go to her room.
“Think anything’ll come of it?” she asked, taking a seat opposite me.
“I hope not. I’m on the pill.”
“Keep it up and you’ll die alone.”
“Yeah, yeah, Jesus,” I said, rolling my eyes. I never would have known.
“You’ll be sorry,” said Dana, taking hold of the little paper label on her tea bag. She chose to overlook my playacting.
“There’ll be no little fish from these eggs.” I didn’t even give her a chance to shoot me a confused glance. “God, what kind of motor oil is this?” I said, screwing up my face at the nasty sludge in my coffee mug.
“You’re a lost cause,” my sister sighed. She raised and lowered her tea bag in a steady rhythm, up and down, into the water, then back out again.
“I agree,” I nodded, spooning mounds of sugar into my mug.
“I thought you didn’t take sugar.”
“Only with coffee,” I said. The charred taste of sour acid was still on my tongue.
She reiterated her belief that I was a lost cause. This time without words.
I agree. But about her. Dana is a lost cause. My narrator puts his hands on his hips, shaking his head in dismay. What kind of crap are you feeding me here? Stop trying to confuse my readers. Now they’re going to wonder which sister is the lost cause, damn it! Although actually, if I know him, he would put it differently: Dear reader, above all, it is essential to note that each of them has a completely different way of life in mind when they use the word lost. Add to that the fact that each sister lives a completely different life and it is clear this is a clash between two sets of beliefs about two lost souls. That’s how he would put it. Zip it, I tell him, then chase him out, out, out of my head.
“I didn’t say anything,” my sister suddenly said out of nowhere.
Had I been talking out loud? “What?”
“What?” We went back and forth so fast our voices almost merged. “And you won your man as a raffle prize, huh?” I said. Forget the internal monologues.
“You want to be alone your whole life?”
I let out a sigh and took a sip of my sugar with coffee, burning my mouth. Dana stood up in sync with her first exhalation of smoke to close the door and open the window before the smell of her cigarette could permeate the air.
“I still hope you’ll get over it once you meet someone,” she added.
And when is it going to dawn on you? At first I couldn’t figure out if I’d spoken out loud again or not. Dana didn’t react, but that didn’t necessarily mean I was just imagining it.
Dun-da-da-daa. My sister. My hoping sister. No, there was no point asking her why in God’s name she hoped anyone else would change their mind about how they wanted to live their life. That’s just how she was. Any opinion or perspective on life that eluded her understanding of what was normal and how things ought to be were automatically warped, bad, weird. There were times the poor thing really did try to understand. Why things are the way they are. After all, people aren’t that different. They all long for the same thing, have the same ideals. See the meaning of life in line with the evolutionary model of mating and reproduction. “No, you don’t,” I see little Karolína shaking her head from side to side, wagging her finger in the doll’s face: “Uh-uh-uh, that’s not the way it works, little girl.” Well, if that’s not the way it works, that’s not the way it works, and I am weird, bad and warped. All along, I’ve been the weak link that ruined our sisterly bond. I think Dana has always wanted us to be like those loopy sisters who are also best friends, braiding each other’s ponytails, filing each other’s nails, hugging when they say hello, and holding the other’s hair out of the way when she overdoes it. She wishes I were the same as her. That I would do normal things, like find a man and settle down with him. That I would want normal things, like a family. She wishes that I would be satisfied with her way of life. Subject myself to a tyrant, cook him dinner every night, afraid to lift my ass from the chair so I won’t have to hear what a tramp I am, but also make sure not to sit in the chair for too long, so I won’t have to hear what a sloth I am. Pay the bills, clean the crapper, get the kids to nursery school, pork kabab and potatoes, pay the bills, clean the crapper, brewskis and sausages. Nope, sorry to say, that’s not my dream. Guilty as charged. Why do women want children, anyway? Because it makes them feel more important, more respectable. A woman isn’t a woman until she’s a mother. Bull. I see myself standing on my toilet bowl, opening the valve on the tank so I can flush my shit. Maybe that’s also why women think they can transform their sadness to joy by investing their energy in somebody else who will do things the way they want them to. There is nothing natural or instinctive about maternal love. Forget Darwin for a moment. Maternal love is a mishmash of all the most twisted impulses, there’s nothing pure about it. It’s born of the desire to wield lifelong power over another human life.
What would my friend Mercedes say? Probably something like, “And what is pure, honey? Pure honey?” And as my friend Ondřej would say, “If you don’t want to be harmed, don’t harm others.”
As I walked home from my sister’s, I regretted not having driven. It must have been nearly two miles, and it was getting dark and cold fast. I remembered once when I was little walking home at dusk, I had this story come to mind, this idea that one whole part of the city, filled with identical tiny lanes, had morphed into a parallel world that looked exactly the same, in every detail, only everything was different. And the only reason I knew was because I was the only one who hadn’t changed. Suddenly everything was dark and alien and spooky, and I was afraid my whole family would be different when I got home. Mother, father, sister. I would walk in and know right away they were just imitations. Mechanical devices that looked like humans, or UFOs that looked like humans, or demons from hell that looked like humans. And the worst part about it wasn’t that everything had changed and become alien and dark like the streets I was walking through. The scariest part was that I was the only one who stayed the same. And I couldn’t tell anyone. I couldn’t even try, because they would all be them. And they would know that I was still me. From then on, every time I came home I would ask my mother and sister, and sometimes my father (which tended to get them fairly wound up), questions that only “the real they” could know the answer to.
I was maybe seven or eight at the time.
But walking home like that again now, for the first time in a while, through the quiet streets in the dark, it was no longer a frightening thing to imagine. It was what I wished for. I had come to realize there was nothing worse they could morph into. If in the time it took me to get home, the world had changed, maybe now it would be a place where I’d be happy.
That was before Miriam killed my father.