Short Story: City’s Dust

He lived. In a way this was the strangest thing of all. He had felt coming alive gradually, as a light, thin, slightly greasy substance had settled on his body. Had it been dust? No, too – well, humid. But not water either. It had been too dry for water. Anyway, there he was, with his newly found consciousness, wondering what he was doing out in the cold at night looking at a semi-high wall and a little park beyond it. In front of the wall he saw a pair of railroad tracks leading to a tunnel somewhere to his left. No; he was in a city, he felt, so these had to be streetcar tracks.

He slowly closed his eyes – large, dark, quiet eyes with just a hint of melancholy in them. If only he could remember what had happened before – before he had come to and found himself here, wherever „here“ was. He almost remembered hearing voices, voices that talked things concerning him, but he had been only half awake then and had not listened or looked up when the voices‘ owners had walked away. He had been too dizzy then, and he still was dizzy now.

He felt a moment of despair, wishing either to know everything he needed to know or not to have gained consciousness in the first place. After all, who needed consciousness when one did not even know who one was?

But then there was curiosity. He opened his eyes again. He did not even know his name, although there was something written on the left breast pocket of his blue jacket. His outfit looked like an army pilot’s uniform. Was he a pilot? And what was the word written there? Lomies? Ruvie? He couldn’t make it out clearly. Was that his name? It sure as hell did not sound familiar. And he could not see himself as an Air Force pilot either. He could not see himself at all! Oh, he somehow knew his eyes were brown, and he had dark hair; at least he could tell that by the dark brown strand hanging into his eyes. But he did not know what he looked like! He tried to remember, tried to force a picture of himself in front of his eyes, but it was no use. He saw exactly nothing.

How come he knew all these words, anyway? For all he knew he might never have spoken a single syllable in his entire life.

„Shit“, he said aloud, and that sounded real enough.

So he could talk. Oh, great. And where did that get him? Absolutely nowhere. He still didn’t know who – or where for that matter – he was.

He tried a tentative step forward, and he came loose, but he was too tired. He staggered back against the wall and fell into an uneasy sleep.


He was awakened by a harsh rattling sound and a sudden gust of wind in his face. He jerked his eyes open and saw a streetcar passing by, not two yards away. It had to be morning, people were going to work, some gazing lazily out of the window. He cringed and drew nearer to the wall. Why didn’t they see me? he cried inwardly, when the train had passed, his mind racing. Why didn’t the driver see me? Was it that normal that guys slept by railroad tracks? Weren’t tramps arrested in this town, even when – especially when – they wore Air Force outfits? What on earth was going on here?

He felt a strange reluctance to leave this place. He had nowhere to go, no one to look for, did not know what to say in case anybody decided to talk to him. The fact that the people on the train had not noticed him was troubling in a way, but reassuring in another. He could stay here and sort things out – for a while at least.

Not that there was much to be sorted out, anyway. He pondered the facts he had gathered so far.

One – he had woken up without knowing who he was, with no recollection whatsoever of his former life.

Two – he had woken up in a decidedly strange place and in decidedly strange clothes.

Three – people seemed to think he was perfectly normal. Was he? He didn’t know.

And back to square one. It all ended up in one single sentence. He didn’t know. And while he was at it – what had happened to that strange liquid/dusty/greasy stuff that had probably made him wake up in the first place? It was gone now, but it had been all over his body before, and he did not remember washing/rubbing/taking it off.

He gazed at the nearby park. Children had come out from their homes and were playing among the trees. They had even climbed down to the railroad tracks and were taking a look at the graffiti sprayed onto the wall opposite him. Kendall it said, and Ruby Buster, in large colorful graffiti letters. The kids did not notice him, though. They talked and they laughed, and then they ran off playing again. It was fun watching them. It kept the mind off other things. Important things. He wondered vaguely if he should go somewhere, look for a clue to his identity. Later, he decided. At night. He was too afraid what might happen when he met people.

After he had come to that decision, he felt better. And almost secure in his knowledge that the people in the few passing trains would not notice him.

He dozed off for a while, but didn’t really sleep. His eyes were closed though, and he nearly leapt straight up when he heard a female voice say:

„Aw, gee, Tommy, almost looks like he’s sleeping!“

„Yeah, really“, answered another, male, voice, „and they made him an army guy, too!“

It took all the will power he possessed to keep his eyes shut. They were talking about him! They had been walking along the tracks and had noticed him! But who was the „they“ they were talking about, „they who had made him an army guy“?

(But he had been right! He hadn’t been in the military before, he was sure of that! But how come these two knew more about him than he himself did?)

„Look, he’s even got his name written on his jacket! What does it say? Lewry?“

„Nah, Cindy, can’t you read it? It says Lewis.“

„Oh, Lewis, right. Stupid me. Well, anyway, let’s go on. Why bother with this – figure?“

The couple moved on. His first thought was, HEY! Wait a minute! What do you know about me?! Almost at the same time another thought materialized: What the heck did she mean by „This – figure“? Am I such a terrible sight to look at?

And then it struck. Lewis, the man had said. Lewis. He felt some sort of elation. That was it, although he could not remember the name being his own, or ever having been called by that name. There was none of the revelatory feeling people who lost their memory are supposed to have when they are confronted with their name again and everything just sort of clicks into place. There was none of that, and as far as he knew his name before might have been Tom Jones or John Smith. But still, Lewis was right, now. The name suited him down to the ground, felt comfortable in his mind, belonged to him. Lewis. All right, so be it, then.


When night came he decided to have a try at taking a look at the city. There had been no streetcars for a long time, and he supposed that the last train of the evening had long passed. He felt more secure now with his name found, and ready for almost anything that the city might have in store.

He stretched – he had been in the same position for much too long – and cautiously started walking along the tracks towards the street. He threw a look backwards at the wall – strange, he had already begun to think of it as „his“ wall. There was graffiti there, too, that he had not noticed before: Dias it said, or Pias, and Frosen and Kelmen. He walked on.

When he reached the crossing with the traffic lights, he turned left. There were no cars or people to be seen, but the lights were still on. He crossed the street. A small group of teenagers came sauntering along – he did not know what the boys might do to a lone guy like him at night, so he quickly melted into a small shop entrance.

It worked. The teenagers walked past without noticing him. He emerged from the dark entrance, but as he went on, from the corner of his eye he caught a glimpse of himself in the reflecting glass of the shop window. He whirled around and stared at his image, fascinated.

He had been right, his eyes were dark, as was his hair, but he had known that before. Large eyes they were; he detected something in them – a slight touch of (tragedy? sorrow? grief?) melancholy. He looked young – he felt young – but there were some light (gray? white?) streaks in his hair that, together with the sad expression in his eyes and something about his face, gave him an older look, or rather made his age difficult to define. He knew he was young, but he didn’t really look it. Not always. His age almost seemed to shift while he was looking at himself.

He had high cheekbones, maybe that was part of it, too. His face almost looked like he had some Indian heritage, and he was sun-tanned, too. Or was it really the darker skin of partly Indian ancestors? There was not much more to be said about his face. He thought he had interesting features though, even if not really handsome.

Then of course there were his clothes: his air force outfit, the jacket open at the neck with a white tee-shirt below. He hadn’t even noticed he wore that. White running shoes at his feet – didn’t quite match the blue uniform, did they? Looked quite cool though.

And there was something else he couldn’t put his finger on. There had been a difference between him and the group of guys that had just passed; they had been younger, all right, but still…

„What was it?“, Lewis mused aloud. They had looked different. It had been something in their faces… But it was no use wasting time trying to grasp something that did not want to be grasped, so he shook his head as if to clear it and walked on.

He read the signs on the house entrances as he walked by: little shops, doctors‘ and lawyers‘ offices, private apartments, old houses and new ones.

I’d like to live in such a cozy old house, he suddenly thought. I’d paint the rooms white and have pictures on the walls. I’d find a nice girl-friend and – A surge of sadness swept through him, almost as though there was no chance of ever getting these things. But why not? There was nothing to prevent it – or was there?

Strange thoughts. Where did they come from?

On a wall to his left there were advertisements of all sorts: colorful posters as well as austere pictures of some elderly men – probably politicians on an election campaign. There seemed to be official notes, too. One ad caught his eye. It obviously was a mix between political campaign and simple note.

„Keep our City clean! Stop the decay!
Ban vandalism and graffiti – it is a proof of
uncontrolled aggression!
Citizens work together for the benefit
of our fair City!“

Lewis snorted. That thing was the biggest heap of garbage he’d ever seen. Well, since he could not remember anything, he thought he couldn’t have read anything as cheap as that before.

The only thing that’s missing is „re-elect Tubby Tantrum for mayor for the benefit of this our fair city“! They won’t get far with this „decent citizen“ rubbish!

But the streets were uncommonly clean, and usually there were more people out on the streets in the center of a city at night, and he was getting near the center, he could tell that.

He did not see any posters except in the designed areas on the walls, and the only graffiti he noticed was a small sign painted on the side of a house. There had been more, he saw as he drew nearer, but it had been rubbed off cleanly. There still was some trace of colored dust on the street below the place where the picture had been. They really had given the wall the complete works, and probably would finish soon with the rest.

The mayor of this fair city must be a very powerful man indeed. He seemed to have started that campaign of his against the criminal, dirty, and anti-social elements among his citizens with a vigor not seen in years. Well, if he thought it did any good… Lewis decided it was no concern of his.

But why couldn’t he get rid of this feeling of unease, then, as if these things did concern him, and a great deal at that? He thought about it a little longer and found the obvious answer. He had slept by the streetcar tracks at night, now the question was again: why, especially if this town was so intent on being proper, why hadn’t he been arrested?
But even when he had solved the problem that feeling of unease did not leave him. Was there more to it than that?

This feeling – as if the mayor’s plans could harm him…

As he stood there, some people walked by, and then some more: there were things going on here after all, the city was not as devoid of nightly activities as he had thought at first. Good for them. He turned away from the postered wall and walked on. He had not gone far when he reached another, larger crossing. Cars were rushing by and people were waiting for the lights to change. The traffic lights turned to „walk“ just as he arrived behind the last pedestrians standing there. He just walked with the crowd, and nobody took any notice of him. Not really. He thought a young man’s and a woman’s eyes crossing the street in the other direction stayed on him a little longer than was necessary or usual, but he wasn’t sure. Well, anyway, it did not matter.

Lewis roamed the streets all night long, getting acquainted with the city. He saw the extensive – and expensive for that matter – shopping areas, the shops now closed of course, only their windows illuminated, looking strangely out-of-place without all the people. The restaurants in this area had closed, too, eagerly waiting for the new day.

He came to the city’s downtown part: more restaurants, of the take-out variety, too, small shops, mostly three- or four-story brownstone apartment buildings, as well as a couple of delicatessen joints, one specializing in Italian food („Aldo Contelli’s home-made lasagna“), another one sporting a Greek sign over its door and Greek stuff in the windows. The other ones were just your normal everyday homegrown sort of deli: Lewis could almost smell chickens being roasted in a spicy sauce and lettuce made into a crisp salad.

He was not hungry, though, which struck him as a little odd, as he had not eaten in – how long? At least a day. All the better for him, he thought with a wry grin, all the restaurants had closed by now, or almost all of them anyway, so he wouldn’t be able to buy anything right now… Which led to another thought. He stopped abruptly and stuck his hands in his pockets. Nothing there. Hip pockets, breast pockets. Any other? Yes, inside his jacket. But nothing. Emptiness. No money, not a scrap of identification. Driver’s license? Passport? ID-card? Wallet? No, Sir. Nothing at all. Except that crazy embroidery that told the world his name. But that did not count, of course.

Ha ha. This was getting better by the minute.

I wonder what unpleasant surprise will be next, he thought madly, then walked on. Maybe the walking did not help solve his problems, but in a way it helped loosening up his mind. There were too many questions whirling about inside his head, but with an effort he shut them up. For the time being, that was.


Lewis also saw more graffiti as he explored the city. Most of it had not been touched, but in the more accessible places things had been done to the paintings. Washed off, mostly, but where the paint had been too resistant for that, the cleaning crews had taken the more effective measure of sandblasting off the pictures. Dust was all that was left.

This is the real city’s dust, Lewis thought, then shrugged. He did not ponder the fact any further until –

At first it was just another street to be crossed, with a pair of streetcar tracks to be crossed as well. Out of curiosity, and because he had nowhere better to go – one direction was as unknown to him as the other – Lewis decided to follow the tracks. This gave him a certain feeling of purpose, crazy though it was, as he had to admit to himself.

The tracks led past one train station, then past another, and after a while he came to a tunnel entrance. It was not „his“ streetcar tunnel – he was in an entirely different part of the city –, but there were similarities. The tracks led underground gradually, so that there was a rising wall on both sides before the actual tunnel began. No park here – the street ran alongside wall and tracks on both sides – but there was graffiti here, too, and plenty. And none of the cheap one-color illegible smearings either, but elaborate, multicolored pictures much like the ones opposite his hide-out. They had not been washed off, obviously the mayor’s Klean Krews for Law and Order hadn’t arrived in these parts yet.

And a pity if they did, this is art, really, Lewis thought.

And then he stopped dead on his feet, simply stood there, frozen, mouth agape, eyes wide open, staring in shock.

Suddenly, everything fell into place, like a long-worked-on jigsaw puzzle with its centerpiece suddenly, miraculously found and thus bringing all the other pieces together at once. Suddenly, Lewis knew. He knew with such a sizzling intensity and utter clarity that he wondered how he could have missed it before. Among the graffiti on the wall there were two pictures of people – one a fierce-looking warrior with a green helmet and sparkling eyes, the other some sort of Islamic prince, clothes drawn in silver, a turban on his head. The figure had a small dark mustache, the other – the warrior – had suitably red hair, but that wasn’t the point. The point was these two were like him!

That had been the difference between himself and the teenagers he had seen earlier that night, this had been why the people who had seen him – had really seen him – had looked at him that curious way. This was the reason the people on the streetcars and the children on the playground had not noticed him although he had been perfectly visible in his „hide-out“. It was – hell, it was the reason for everything!

He was an image. Like that girl Cindy had said: nothing but a figure. Lewis the Incredible Graffiti Man. And he hadn’t known, had wondered what separated him from the other people, had wondered why he could not remember anything of „before“. All along he had been blind. Was that as stupid as someone could be? But he lived. Figure, picture, image, whatever, he lived! He could think, could see and hear and smell and touch, he had feelings, why, he could even talk! He was alive! Those two pictures on the wall in front of him were not, though. He went a step nearer and addressed them, but he did not get any reaction, and he could feel it, too. These two were just what they were supposed to be, simple paintings.

But why me, his strained mind cried. How could he live? He was totally confused. He could not think straight any more. He was sure that he was going mad, that he could not cope with this.

But you have to, kid. Have to.


After what seemed an eternity, Lewis moved on, away from this place. He did not know where to go, just away from there! Slowly he walked up the gentle slope to the street, slowly he crossed it – not a car to be seen – and slowly he turned his back on the tracks. He was so intent on not thinking at all that at first he missed the change.

He had picked up speed shortly after leaving the streetcar tracks, but now he was going more slowly again. Only gradually he realized that getting on that slowly was not a matter of his unconsciously slowing down but of it becoming more and more difficult for him to move on! He did not notice it at first because it began nearly imperceptibly. It felt like moving through a fog, but a fog does not really slow one down of course. But the further he went the more he had to walk through some sort of resistance, which he definitely had not felt before.

Thirty more steps. The first ten or so were still pretty easy to negotiate, but then things got rapidly worse. Now he was not walking through the resistance any longer, he had to fight his way through it. It seemed as though he was wading through some sort of stuff that was gaseous at first, then got liquid and finally dried into a rubbery substance, yielding but an impenetrable barrier for all that. Lewis felt he was at the semi-liquid, half-dry stage at the moment, and it was only a matter of time before the stuff dried completely. There was no such stuff of course, he only made the handy image up in his mind. But it felt so real! There was something keeping him from getting on! It was as though something was trying to shove him backwards, and Lewis fought it with all his strength. It was like in one of those dreams one sometimes has when it is desperately urgent to get somewhere, to do something, but you can’t, there’s this invisible force field to prevent you.

A force field. And it was pushing him back, pushing him, pushing. Now he actually had to fight being shoved backwards, nobody was talking about getting on any more. But it was no use. He could resist the pressure for some time, but not for long.

No!“ he moaned. He pushed all his weight against the invisible barrier, but it was stronger. He had to retreat a couple of steps.

And then he gave in. He felt instant relief. The force field was walking him backwards more gently now, but there was no doubt whatsoever that it was no use going in any other direction than the one he was supposed to go. He could just as well turn around and face whatever there lay ahead.

All along he felt the gentle pressure in his back as he walked, and although he was forced along a different – shorter – route than before, he somehow felt no surprise at all when he reached „his“ streetcar tracks and what he had called his „hide-out“. He had to step down the gentle slope beside the tracks and was pressed against the wall.
Dawn had come.

Things did not much change over the next few days. Nights, he walked about the city, relishing his freedom but invariably being forced to return just before dawn. Days, he stayed where he was and thought things over. He thought a lot during these days. On his nightly wanderings he kept an extra-keen eye on the proceedings of the mayor’s cleaning crews. And proceed they did. More and more of the artful graffiti pictures were removed as the days passed. If it hadn’t been for this, Lewis might have contented himself with the situation as it was, for some time at least. But now it was only a matter of time until these people would get to his place, too, and then… They would come in broad daylight of course – he shuddered at the thought.

He simply had to find a solution, he had to get out of this. He did not want to lose his consciousness, the restricted but oh! wonderful sense of living that he had come to appreciate – and to love. Yes, to love, too. He did not want to become nothing but a tiny heap of color at the side of the streetcar tracks, did not want to be pulverized into simple dust, city’s dust… Shit, he didn’t want to die!

And then came that terrible, hope-shattering night when he discovered that the two figures at the other tunnel entrance had gone! Both prince and warrior had been wiped off cleanly. Until now there had been that half desperate, half crazy hope they might leave the subway entrance walls alone. No such chance any more. Now he was even more desperate, racking his brains for what he knew must be impossible, but still trying to find a solution. And somehow, some way an absolutely mad scheme dimly began to form in the back of his mind.

It took him several days to work it out and to convince himself he had the courage that was needed, as well as several nights to make at least partly sure that his desperate plan might work. It might work. It might just.

There was no escaping the pressure forcing him back just before dawn, no matter where he went or how far he went. It was not so strong when he stayed near his wall, though; he came back early one night just to find out. But even when he thought he knew enough to set his scheme into action, he still put it off night after night. He wanted to be absolutely sure of this thing, and he was not quite ready yet.
But before he was, they came.

Lewis had walked around in the city as he had done the last few nights, from the feeling he had to make the most of his life as long as he could. Back at the wall he was again thinking over his plan, looking for an obvious flaw and finding none, when suddenly he heard noises. Cars were approaching, strangely near, certainly nearer than the street. Then two large vans appeared above the opposite wall, the doors opened and five men got out. They pulled their equipment from the vans and hoisted the stuff down to the tracks.

He had waited too long! Oh, this was the end, he had waited too long and now they were going to kill him, rub him off first because they would see that he was alive. In a minute they’d laugh and point at him and say, why, let’s just start with this little shit, what does he think he is? Alive, ha ha! Let’s finish him off, guys! And they would, oh they would, he had waited too long and now they would kill him!

Except they didn’t. The men set up their equipment, talked for a while and then unhurriedly started working on the other wall.

That day was a nightmare. Although the cleaners worked with the slow sure routine of people who had done this particular job a few times too often but who got paid for doing it well nevertheless, Lewis got more and more anxious each time they finished another picture. If only he could move! But he couldn’t, and so he had to watch helplessly as the men rubbed off the color. Their brushes made the dull scraping sound of sand on concrete. The sound hurt him.

It’s going to sound like this when they scrape you off…
Stop it, man! Just stop!

And they were drawing nearer and nearer.


Somehow this dreadful day ended. Night came, but Lewis did not dare leave his place. It had to be tonight, he must not miss his last chance. He forced himself not to think about what would happen when his plan failed. If he died because of his mad scheme, well, he would die anyway as soon as the cleaners came back.

Shortly before dawn he pushed himself off the wall and waited. Slowly, painfully, the seconds crawled by and turned into minutes. Already he could feel the pressure building up, but he resisted it. He resisted it even as it got stronger. He wondered if everything would go wrong at the last moment – but then he heard the streetcar approaching, the first train of the morning. It came out of he tunnel and up the slope, and in the instant the pressure got so strong that he couldn’t resist it any longer he gathered all his remaining strength and hurled himself in front of the train.

Oh what happens if the force field pulls me back what if this is going to kill me, too –
And then the train was on him.

The young woman sitting on the train, going to work, had a hallucination. It had to be a hallucination, there was no other way to explain it. She was idly staring out of the window when she saw a figure that looked like it came straight out of a comic-strip falling and being run over by the train.

When the streetcar had gotten past that spot – maybe 30 seconds later as it was a long train of three coaches and well over 50 yards long (although she did not know it, a long enough period of time had passed for that crucial moment of dawn to be over) – she raptly stared back. To her utter surprise she saw a perfectly normal, human young man standing up, but dazedly, swaying a bit and shaking his head, then steadying and limping off to the side.

Good thing nothing happened, she thought, crazily, for this was just a hallucination, wasn’t it?, and then the train was around the corner and the young man out of sight. In the evening she had forgotten the entire incident.

When the cleaners arrived two hours later, the graffiti picture of the man in the blue uniform was gone.

Ein Kommentar

Eingeordnet unter English Language Entries, Kurzgeschichten, Lesen

Eine Antwort zu “Short Story: City’s Dust

  1. Jetzt nach dem Posten sehe ich, dass die Jahre doch ganz schön an dem Text genagt haben: Einiges würde ich heute anders formulieren. Vielleicht mache ich das auch noch irgendwann. Aber jetzt lasse ich die Geschichte erst einmal so stehen, wie ich sie vor fast 20 Jahren (ach du Schande, ich werde alt…) schrieb.


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