SKETCH BY THE AUTHOR; 9″X12″ GRAPHITE
I don’t know where this came from and I didn’t know where it was going, but it here it went, and it brought me along for a bit, even so far as to assemble for itself a quick illustration out of the dust and dander in the back of my mind.
And here we go…
He always said his “I don’t knows” in pairs—“I don’t know, I don’t know”—as though the second one were there to reassure the first. He had a weak chin and dark basalt eyes, and I loved him.
His name was François, and he was the dust bunny that lived under my bed, though he wasn’t always a bunny. Only when he was feeling comical.
He would gather himself up from as much dust and dander as he could manage—some people say that up to 90% of all household dust is made of your own shed skin, but it’s not true—and it was always easier for him when dad was too busy with work and hadn’t vacuumed or there had been thunderstorms, which saw our dog, Booger, trembling under my bed.
François loved to describe to me what it was like not to exist. (Or to exist in a “disassembled state,” he would say when he wasn’t channeling Nietzsche.)
It was like walking in the park, he said, but without legs or arms or eyes and no worry for right side up or upside down.
It was like, he said, sinking to the bottom of the pool without needing to breathe and without any sort of bottom to the pool to begin with.
It was like being sucked up into a vacuum cleaner, he said, and shredded apart and recombined, over and over again, until all noise became quiet.
I don’t think François had ever been in a park or a pool, but they were nice ideas, anyhow. He was full of nice ideas, when he felt like it.
One of his particularly nice ideas fell on a sunny summer day when I was eleven and the sky was a bright blue jewel, making the grass greener, the wind warmer, and the kids in my neighborhood much, much louder.
“Let’s go to the roof,” he said.
“What? Why?” I asked. It was the sort of day the roof would scorch like hot coals.
“I want to go stargazing,” he said.
So, I brought him to the roof.
I grabbed one of the thicker blankets from the linen closet, a pair of leather work gloves from my parents’ woodshop, and a small tupperware to keep François from tumbling apart during the climb. François’s ideas didn’t always seem like good ideas at first, but I’d learned to give him the benefit of the doubt.
We lived in a two-story clapboard home with a screen-in porch propping up the front. Booger like to crawl into the shade under the porch on days like this, and I heard her softly yipping in her sleep down there as she chased invisible rabbits. I climbed out of my parent’s bedroom window onto the porch roof some fifteen feet above her. Mom was in her basement woodshop; the sound of one of her power saws buzzed through the walls and out of one of the open windows downstairs. Dad was out meeting clients.
My skin stuck to itself as I scudded across the grey-green shingles, careful not to touch it with any bare skin. The skin on my hands in my mother’s leather work gloves were the warm of taking a dish out of the own with threadbare oven mitts. I dragged the blanket out the window after me, a heavy, thick thing someone’s great-aunt had made, and folded it into a multilayer, extra thick protective rectangle.
I removed my gloves and untucked my shirt, letting François in his tupperware tumble out from that space just above my waistband. I popped the lid and tipped him gently onto the blanket next to me.
François stretched, sighed, and looked up.
I followed his gaze to the bright, blue sky.
“There aren’t any stars,” I said after a moment, though I hadn’t expected there to be.
“Of course there are,” said François. He continued to gaze upward and I waited for him to explain, but he simply lapsed back into a watchful silence.
“No,” I said, “there aren’t.”
François finally looked away, his dark dusty eyes falling on me. “There are always stars,” he said, as simply as though we were stating that the grass was green.
I gave him a skeptical look.
“Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they aren’t there staring down at you,” he said. “We’re never alone,” he added, more quietly, his eyes finding the sky again.
I could hear the distant tche, tche, tche, tche of a sprinkler and the squeals of the neighborhood kids.
A shiver passed over the street as a lone cloud obscured the sun. The sun, a star.
The shiver brought on a gust of chilled wind, and the squeals grew momentarily louder. I looked down at François—I think I knew what he meant—but the wind had sent him tumbling, scattering, and on impulse, I reached out to catch him.
I lost my balance, which sent me tumbling and scattering, head over foot, and I woke in the darkness later, the starless darkness of the hospital, abraded, broken, bandaged, and set.
I had fallen off the roof while François had fallen into the sky.
Hospitals may be dirty and diseased, but they make poor homes to dust. No one wants a bit of dust sewn in during surgery or plastered to you in a cast; no one wants a cloud of it to gather itself up and crawl from under your electric bed to join you in watching disjointed reruns of FRIENDS on TBS, and so it was that I did not see François for weeks and weeks.
School started without me, and Mom or Dad had taken to bringing me my schoolwork at suppertime each day when they had the time to drop by.
I had breaks in both legs of varying severity, along with three fractured ribs, a broken clavicle, and a sprained wrist, all up my left side. The doctors couldn’t fathom how I’d broken so much from only the second floor, but broken I was, so I’d been rigged and pulleyed up, set to use a cold bedpan before the nurses could cut me down and let me out of bed to use the bathroom proper, after which point Mom or Dad might wheel me around the hospital for short walks when they could manage a visit.
I started asking when I could come home.
“Wait until physical therapy,” Mom and Dad said vaguely. “Until you’re up and about. We don’t have time to help you around the house right now. It’s crunch time,” they said, “before the weather turns.”
I had missed the Halloween dance by the time I was back at home, at school, moving slow and unevenly, pins still in one leg, but finally able to get around on crutches.
Mom and Dad had set up a bed downstairs so I wouldn’t have to try and maneuver the stairs. One of them had brought down a week’s worth of clothes that could fit over my pins, which turned into my entire wardrobe for yet another month. The kids at school looked at me like I were disgusting or terrifying; I couldn’t always tell which.
By Thanksgiving I was done with the stares. I would climb the stairs to my room and find new clothes to make me. There wasn’t pain in my leg anymore—not even the dull throb that had kept me company for some time; a stiffness remained, that was all, and I probably could’ve clambered up the stairs some days prior, if only I’d had the guts.
Opening the door to my room, I saw the happiest thing I’d seen in weeks and weeks. Mom or Dad had apparently neglected to vacuum my room in the intervening months, though Booger had taken it over as her own doggy bed of late, so François was larger and livelier than I had ever seen him.
Booger was lying at the foot of the bed, hardly raising her eyes to acknowledge my entrance, while François lounged at the head. He was roughly the size and shape of the largest carnival teddy you could win at the ring toss, and around the dusty darkness of his mouth, I thought I detected the impression of a smile.
“Where have you been in this small, wide world of ours?” he said, sitting up and slinging two dust-made legs over the edge of my bed. Booger lifted her head to watch a moment’s worth before settling her muzzle back between her blonde front paws. I hobbled over and eased myself between the pair. Booger didn’t watch this time, though, a second later, she lifted her wet nose and moved it a few inches to reach my hand, which she started licking it in a thoughtful sort of way.
After a moment of shared quiet I said to François: “Do you know what it is like to live in a disassembled state?”
He smiled warmly on me, his eyes more like embers than shadowed pits of fur and dander. He had gathered himself up from so much of the dog’s sheddings he was almost gold himself. Almost.
“What is it like?” he said, gently.
“It is like being Humpty Dumpty gone stargazing,” I said, “gone stargazing during the day, up high. And when he falls, it’s like being an egg—first the shell, then the white, then the yolk—and no one—not all the king’s nurses or all the king’s men—can really put him all back together again.
“They try, but first, he’s just an empty shell, so they try again, and he’s just like a clear protein blob, so they try again, and he’s just like a big, yellow ball, bright as the sun. But still, he isn’t whole.
“He isn’t whole or wholly himself and he kind of lies in a puddle of all his parts until he realizes that only he knows where everything goes. Humpty’s the only one that can put himself together again, from stardust or starlight or whatever he is. Only Humpty knows.” I finished and we fell into a short silence in which I fingered the pins poking out of my once-mangled leg.
“…Only Humpty knows,” said François after a moment, as though to himself. And then, as though to reassure the fact of it, he said it again.
“Only Humpty knows…”
Somewhere rather far away and altogether close, a place between fiction and reality, Humpty Dumpty sits high up on a wall feeling quite unafraid. Should he fall to the paving stones below and put himself into a bit of a disarray, he is assured he has all the dust and dander of everything forever from which to gather himself. Until such rending may pass, he is perfectly contented to keep his gaze toward the purple-blue, star-speckled horizon and wonder what lies beyond (and if there is a higher wall) with a mild attitude of seeing and seeking.