This short story came out of a comment from Chad Lyons. He suggested that I should write a story about a street photographer. I asked that he send me 5 random words as a story prompt. His five words were: Invisible, Capture, Blend, Decisive and Juxtapose. Thanks for the inspiration Chad!
Dust To Dust
He had been 10 when he found the jar at his Grandparents house. He was looking for cookies in the back of the pantry, instead pulling out a tall mason jar full of dirt sealed with a rusted metal lid. His Grandma was a woman of few words, life had never given her the luxury of time to engage in idle conversation. As her long thin fingers traced the raised letters on the jar, a lone tear trailed through the deep valleys of her weathered face. She pushed the jar his way and her slow and low Texas drawl declared, “Remember that even the smallest of things can break the strongest of men.”
She had no idea that from her simple words a seed had been planted in that ancient jar of dirt. Years after she died, he stumbled upon a yellowed envelope that contained a picture of her as a younger woman, holding a baby as the dust swirled around them. The other pictures looked like scenes right out of “The Grapes of Wrath,” people in old trucks packed with anything it could hold, houses encased in dirt. The only living thing in the pictures were the people, they had the same far off stare of battle weary soldiers.
It was the first time he had ever looked at a photograph and felt the raw emotions of the moment. He was hooked, he got out his Dad’s old camera and started taking pictures. In his high school photography class he realized everyone was photographing flowers and birds but he was taking pictures of his classmates. Not posed pictures, but scenes when they weren’t even aware he was looking. He was invisible to them but decisive in the moment. Now, looking back to those early years, it made sense that he had grown into the photographer that he was. Still looking for the moment, usually in the urban jungle of whatever city he was traveling through. His passion, street photography, searching for strangers in the crowd and finding that glimpse where everything that is of this world falls away and the truth remains.
A year ago while searching for a lost camera lens he came across the pictures tucked into a forgotten pocket of his camera bag. Although they were always with him, it had been a couple of years since he had stared into her eyes. Drawn to her and the echo of the past, the journey began.
Somewhere between Texas and Oklahoma his air conditioner had died, this must be what it felt like to be trapped in a convection oven. The Southern Plains in July, what had he been thinking? If anything, this minor inconvenience somehow enhanced the overall experience; traveling the 5 corners that connected Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas, the states most severely affected by the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. Now roasting under the hot Texas sun, he had arrived in the town the wind had chased her from.
The town was a blend of old and new. Open dirt fields had been replaced by a strip mall and the local high school with a parking lot big enough to accommodate every town member for Friday night football. The original town still remained and as he stood holding the picture in front of him, he recognized buildings now occupied by a health food store, the local gym and a variety of bars and antique shops.
One building on the far edge of town had hardly changed at all. It had been the general store and gas station. The signs that covered the building were either honoring the past or holding it together. The gas pumps seemed to be from the 1950’s and obviously hadn’t worked in years. The porch floor creaked as he walked toward the ancient Pepsi machine and he was amazed when he opened the top to see the bottles floating in the cold icy water; maybe there was a God in Texas. The screen door creaked louder than the floor and a woman his age with large eyes gave him an awkward smile as he entered. It was difficult to juxtapose that his Grandma had stood in this very spot with the weight of the world on her shoulders and here he stood, looking for a whisper of the past and a Pepsi.
“I haven’t seen you before, you must not be from around here,” she seemed interested in what would bring him to this backwater town.
He smiled, “I couldn’t think of a better place to be on a 110 degree day.”
Shaking her head, “Oh this isn’t nothing, I almost wore a sweater today.”
He had been alone for days, their conversation was almost as refreshing as the icy drink. In short order he told her the story of what had brought him to town. She shared that generations ago her family had stuck it out and had never left and she now owned the store that her Grandparents operated when his Grandma had lived in town. A small connection to the past, this woman who’s Grandmother would have sold his Grandma what little they could afford to eat. Between customers, she told him that he was welcome to take as many photographs of the store as he wanted. She was obviously busy and he silently slipped out the back door.
He spent the next couple of hours wandering the town. It was now “Any Town USA” the dirt and despair had been replaced with fresh air and the trappings of modern life. Looking in the distance, he could see the storm rolling in over the plains, it was time to move on. He took one last look through his lens down the once dusty street. He noticed that she stood in front of the old store, the current owner looking his way. She was holding a baby, naturally resting the young boy on her hip as the dark clouds low in the sky seemed to be resting on her shoulders. Her hair swirled in the stormy breeze and her large eyes opened to the moment, unbeknownst to her, the jar full of dirt he had returned resting by the side of the building.
He kept her picture with the ones in the yellowed envelope with a handwritten note on the back, “Dust to dust.” Not everything had withered and died in the dirt.