Diamonds or dust.
My mother beat this into my head countless times. It was her insight into life itself. Her mantra.
It’s your choice, Joseph. Life’s just a pile of dust. You can drown in it, or you can take control and make diamonds from the dust you receive.
I suppose she’s just part of the dust now. Just like me. Only I’m not dead. Just living a useless, dull life. And now I’ve got to take care of business. Her business – not mine.
Light streams through the attic window as I bend and shuffle a few boxes around. I wrack out a cough. Plenty of dust up here. I sneeze. Tears well from my eyes. I wipe them away with the back of my hand.
She was young. Too young. She’d be forty-eight in three days’ time. The bus was young too. This year’s model. The bus won. She lost. So did I – because now I have to clean up her mess. Kinda expected, though. She never planned for anything. Ever. So here I am, starting from the top and working my way down, attempting to clean up the remains of a life lived without much regard for others.
All to son.
That’s all she could bear to put down when some lawyer pressed her to address her legacy. I can picture the impatient look she must’ve given the person who who pressed her to at least include a verb in her will. But that was mom. Always keeping things simple.
The devil’s in the details, she always used to say.
All to son.
No fucking devils in those words. Just a lot of drudgery and pain. I sneeze again. Where the hell do I start? With the sewing mannequin that stands like a troubled child in the corner? Lurking in the gloom where the shards of light don’t quite reach?
I never liked that mannequin. Especially when it was downstairs. It always looked like it was in a state of constant pain. And no wonder, since its life was spent pierced by pins and mishandled needles. Yet, it remained and still remains uncomfortably mute in its hurt. I felt compelled to scribble a smile on it when I was a kid. A big shit-eating grin. To make it, I don’t know, happier. I only accomplished making it even creepier with its crooked cartoon smirk. And now it stands there in a dress that will never be finished, the top half unclad like an old school carnival porno made 3D.
I shiver. I need to focus on positive thoughts, or so says my therapist. But these aren’t happy times. Mom shouldn’t have died. She shouldn’t have left this mess. She was my goddamned Mom. I wasn’t done with her yet.
But now she’s gone forever.
And I’m still here.
And because she couldn’t manage things while she was alive, I’m left cleaning up her mess. Not that I don’t owe her that. Not that I have anything else to fucking do. My business is complete shit anyhow.
I haven’t had a case for weeks. And I haven’t had a paying case for longer than that. Not since Mike threw me a bone that one time. Five years since the Academy and three since “the incident.” I straighten and grab my right hand with my left. It helps with the shakes. It helps if I don’t think too much, try focusing on a single object in the room and repeat its name over and over.
Terror mannequin, writhing in pain.
I’m overthinking it again, but that’s nothing new. I’ve always been prone to overthinking – except for when I pulled that trigger.
That came too easy.
I shove at a box with my boot to unleash my frustration. The box bumps into another box, starting what seems to be a Rube Goldberg Machine my mother set up from beyond the grave just to frustrate me. The second box crashes into a creaky chest of drawers which tilts and thumps into still more boxes covered in dust, until the chain reaction finally jolts into the terror mannequin, causing it to sway in its anguish.
As the full breasted figure rocks back and forth, the gingham skirt that was never finished flashes red and white in a beam of sunlight – like the coruscating light atop an ambulance. Back and forth it goes, until it teeters just enough for momentum to tilt it past the point of no return, and it crashes to the floor. The kid-drawn smile beams up at me, mocking how horrified I am.
I rest my hands on my hips and my chin drops to my chest. I can barely ignore the heaviness in the lungs that comes from ignoring grief, but I battle back the tears. She’s fucking dead, and this is my mess now. So I need to man the fuck up and get shit done. A tear escapes. Then another. I blame the dust. I’m drawn to the mannequin even though it’s the last thing I want to touch. It looks far too human lying there helplessly in the attic. I notice that some kind of straw is now leaking from its side. I run a hand over damp eyes.
A vision flashes over reality of my mom smeared against the side of a car, blood leaking through her dress. I remember standing there, mouth opened idiotic from shock, still holding her purse as she bent to tie a stray shoelace. It was an impossible scenario realized, an outlier statistic, nobody’s fault. But I still feel responsible somehow. Loser son. Couldn’t even take his mother to an appointment without getting her killed.
What’s my life become?
The mannequin mocks me. An echo. Fuck this. I can fix this at least. I clamber over the box and splay myself over the chest of drawers. The ancient dummy’s leathery skin is crepe paper thin. An heirloom of some sort. Back from when it was cheaper to make and repair rather than dispose and rebuy. Those were the days. Hard, but fair.
I wriggle a hand under the dummy. It’s heavier than I thought. Who in the hell managed to drag it up here? I lift with my legs and the torso scrapes along the edge of the furniture, ripping the tear in the body further open. More straw and sawdust flow out. I wonder if this is the same sort of stuff they used to soak up the blood on the road. My mother’s blood.
I force the dummy erect and it sways again on its base, rocking to and fro. I place a hand on its torso to stop it from falling over. It feels the same as I did with my mom, just before the bus ripped her away. I look at my hand, and it’s shaking. It’s the same one. The one that pulled the trigger.
More straw leaks, a trickle of sawdust follows. This one’s for the garbage heap. No way to stitch up that rip. Too deep, too permanent. I rub at an eye. It twitches. This, at least, is new. Something to add to the collection.
Then something changes. I don’t know. Maybe the angle of the sun spearing through the motes of dust kicked up by the tumbling dress dummy. There’s something in there. Inside the torso. It appears sharp against the softness of the straw. Peeking out. What the hell is that? Maybe some kind of cardboard filler, maybe straw was too expensive. I can’t help but investigate; it’s my compulsion. I lean down and pincer my fingers and grab at the edge.
It’s firm, almost oily. It’s a cloth. Heavy duty. I pull harder and there’s a soft rip as more of the fake skin gives way. It’s not cloth, it’s a satchel. And embossed on the outside in fading gold print is a name. My fucking name. Cawley.
What’s my family name doing on an old bag inside a dress dummy?
I sit my ass on the collapsed chest of drawers. It creaks and protests. I scratch my forehead and cough. My hand no longer shakes. I wiggle the heavy clasp and slide out the leather tongue. I pull back the top. I need to know what is inside.
It’s a book. A leather-bound book with a red cloth spine. Stenciled on the front, again in gold print, is Cawley.
Who the hell hid this in here? This mannequin has, according to stories, been in my family for generations. I gently lift open the cover. It’s heavy and well made. The paper is creamy smooth. There’s a name in floral script. Rebecca Cawley. My Mom’s name was Elise. I’ve never heard of a Rebecca.
I flip the page. There’s a date written in the same cursive script - October 19, 1932. I flip over a few more pages and the dates progress. Shit. It’s a diary. Or a journal.
I go back to the 19th. I start to read.
It’s already been two days …