1929 changed everything in the twinkling of an eye
I close my eyes.
I've always been good at holding myself together.
It would be wrong to say I felt like a bird in a gilded cage. A bird just sits there on its perch, chittering a melancholy song and pining for the blue sky beyond the golden bars, oblivious to the fact that it would likely be eaten by a cat within a matter of hours. No, I was more of a dog in an iron crate. I fumed and seethed and barked and threw myself against the walls confining me with all my might, and whenever I made enough noise I would get thrown a steak to quiet me down.
I remember standing there in my office, looking down at the people in the city below me. There were so many of them. They looked so tiny, too. Like living grains of sand on a beach, carefree and without a clue that the tide was about to come in. Back then I thought myself an important person—or at least that I was living a marginally more consequential existence than the tiny people beneath me. I enjoyed the comforts of an extravagant home, a full wardrobe, and every other perk and luxury one would expect of a young man from Wall Street.
I didn't expect it to last forever, but I never would have guessed it would end as suddenly as it did. 1929 changed everything in the twinkling of an eye.
I had told myself years ago that I would rather die than go back. But in reality I did not want to die, and since it was becoming increasingly clear that I could very well perish in my present situation, I decided to set my dignity aside and go to back to the one place I knew I'd find help. It would be humiliating, certainly. But I've always been good at holding myself together, at least on the outside. I scraped together what little I had left and made the dreaded journey back to Kansas.
And thus the dog returned to his cage, tail between his legs.
I didn't send a letter to inform them of my arrival. I knew that they'd be expecting me as soon as their daily paper arrived. Sure enough, there was an extra place set at the dinner table for me when I walked in the door.
Mom was the only one who hugged me. Ted, my brother, shook my hand and smiled like we'd just met at a church picnic. Uncle Lem said, "right on time!" and laughed, but not in a cruel way. Aunt Margie commented on how thin I was and how lucky it was that I didn't die in the riots and thank the shining Lord in heaven nobody slit my throat and stole the clothes off my back.
Dad didn't say anything, and I was grateful for that.
From that day forward, I was an employee (I had stopped being a son a long time ago). To prove myself, I worked almost twice as much land as anyone else, yet the taunts of "city boy" and "Mr. Fancypants with his edgey kayshun" persisted in full force. Everyone, everyone seemed to delight in watching me work the fields, pushing myself until my hands were blistered and bloodied.
In New York, the world had seemed to go to Hell in a hand basket. In Kansas, however, things were looking brighter than ever.
"Wheat is golden for a reason," Uncle Lem would say. Ted and I would walk past a lush patch of growing crop and he would never fail to elbow me and ask me which greens were worth more now. I swallowed my pride and endured every humiliation. I just kept on existing, tarred and feathered, beaten and bloodied, caged and enraged, calm and collected. I've always been good at holding myself together.
Nobody seemed worried when the price of wheat first dropped. They were annoyed and inconvenienced by it, but it'll pass, they said, and before you know it things will be back to normal; yessirree, everything's going to be blue skies and golden wheat from now til Christ comes back.
I was skeptical. I had a feeling something coming. I'd seen it before. And I was half right: I had anticipated the dropping numbers, but the dust came as a surprise.
After the first storm, people couldn't stop talking about how it was the storm of the century. 'Never in all my year have I seen anything like it!' 'I thought it was the end of days, I tell you!' 'It'll take me all day to clean the car!' 'Kids, help me sweep the dirt out of the barn!' Everybody jabbered on about the great big dust storm and how glad they were it was over.
A week and a half later, the next storm came.
And then the next one. And then the following one was even bigger, and the one after that made the one before look minuscule in comparison. Within a matter of months, the dust storms had become such a part of our day-to-day lives, we were habitually setting the table with the cups and plates upside-down.
It's a bad season, everyone said. We'll take a hit, to be sure, but we'll just have to tough it out until ol' mother nature's sniffles go away.
You'd see the storms coming over the horizons like rain clouds, and within minutes your property would be covered in a thick brown haze that made the world look like a tinted photograph. We closed the windows, but some dust would always, always get on our nice curtains, and Mom never failed to wash them all spotless just in time for the next storm to dirty them again.
The dust surrounded you, got into every inch of your house, every corner, every drawer. You woke up each morning and shook the dust off your sheets. You knocked your shoes against the floor before putting them on. If you were a kid, you could draw on literally any available surface. If you were a woman, your entire existence became a blur of scrubbing, sweeping, and praying that the attic didn't start raining down dirt into the porridge. Actually, everyone prayed the dust didn't get into our food, because if it did we had to eat it anyway. We got by from week to week by telling ourselves this storm will be the last one and it can't stay like this forever.
Then people started dying.
It started as suicides. The papers were full of stories of people going broke, losing their farms. Losing hope. One headline told us of an elderly couple who ended their lives together after losing everything they'd worked for. One morning I woke up to Mom and Aunt Margie wailing over the death of a friend. Gunshot to the head. She just didn't want to deal with the dust anymore.
It wasn't long before the cattle started getting sick. You could see the dust in their noses and ears and mouths. Sometimes they'd eat a mouthful from their trough and get more dust than they did food. Then the people started getting sick. Same thing. They called it 'dust pneumonia.' It got so bad that if a child so much as cleared their throat, their mother's heart would skip a beat. Cathie, Ted's wife, made their daughter Grace wear a get-up with goggles and a mask. Grace said it was harder to breath with the mask on, but Cathie insisted that anything was better than dust pneumonia.
One day I noticed Grace sitting by the front steps while Cathie was inside cleaning like her life depended on it. Mother and daughter were only a couple of yards away, and yet Cathie never noticed Grace sobbing her little eyes out beneath her dusty goggles, nor did she notice me pick her up and tell her everything would be okay. It was out of character for me, but I told her a couple of jokes. I took some of my savings and told her to get in my car. Told her I'd take her to a picture show, and I did. I needed something to get my mind off the living nightmare my life had become, and I figured that if this kid's own mother couldn't bother to hear her crying, then Grace probably needed some cheering up too.
It had been years since I'd seen a picture show. It was Grace's first one. King Kong was the title. We loved it so much we ended up watching it twice. Grace asked me afterward how they made the monkey move. I didn't know, so I just told her they used a real one. She knew I was lying, but she smiled.
I realized something on the car ride home from the theater that day. I realized I didn't feel angry at the world anymore. Before the dust, I'd felt alone in my misery. After the dust, I felt like everyone else was just as miserable as I was, and I'll be honest, I took some petty joy in that. But besides that, I had gotten so complacent and comfortable in being bitter that'd I'd forgotten what it felt like to just let go of my cares and relax until that day. There I was, driving back to the farm with my mind full of Fay Wray and Bruce Cabot and fifty-foot monkeys, and Grace was there to share it with me. I still felt trapped, but I didn't feel alone anymore.
We went to the picture show at least a dozen times after that. We had to space it out, of course, since money was tight, and I know I spent more than I could afford, but it was the only thing that made life bearable during that time. There was a nice girl named Phyllis who took our tickets. I started flirting with her after the third or fourth show we saw. I think she was interested in me. I don't now if Cathie ever found out about our little excursions, but if she did, she didn't say anything. Grace told me one day that she was going to grow up to be a famous movie actor one day, and if you'd have laid eyes on that girl you would have believed it.
March 14, 1934. The sky was finally blue again. For the first time in recent memory, there was no wind at all. Everyone gave thanks to Jesus and celebrated with picnics and parties. We had hardly anything left at that point, but everyone still put forward what few resources they had for the sake of the occasion. It felt like ages since I'd seen everyone so happy. Even Dad didn't look at me with quite as much bitterness as he usually did.
Our neighbor Cecil baked an enormous chocolate cake and nearly gave us all heart attacks when he said he'd share it with our family. It was a terrific day, really. That's why I don't think what happened later was a punishment. If someone does something wrong, you don't make them happy before you punish them. That blue sky and giant cake was an apology, I think. Some kind of note from God or whoever to say, you don't deserve what you're about to get, and I'm so, so sorry.
It was still 3:00 in the afternoon when we saw it coming. At first we thought it was another dust storm, but it soon became clear there was something different about this one. This was coming much quicker. The dust clouds were so huge they looked as though the mountains themselves were running toward you. It extended infinitely to the left and went on forever to the right. Nobody said anything. We knew what to do. We all ran inside the house, gathered together in a circle, and covered ourselves with blankets and clothes and anything else we could get our hands on.
The storm carried on all night. You could feel and hear the house rattling on its foundation. Cathie started crying, and when Ted told her to shut up I just about knocked his head off. Besides that, nobody said anything until the storm quit the next morning. It was dead quiet when we opened the door. It was dark. Not as dark as night, but dark. Brown, too. We were used to the air being dusty, but this felt like the air was dust. We had the women stay inside while we went to inspect the damage to the property.
Ted had left the barn door open and the whole thing was pretty much packed full of dirt now. Dad screamed at him. Hit him. Kicked him when he was down. He only stopped when he saw a rabbit nearby. Rabbits had been eating what little was left of the greenery, and smashing them to death was how a lot of men passed the time. But right before Dad caved its head in, we heard something that sounded for all the world like a human cry for help. Coming from the rabbit. We all looked at each other, wondering if the others heard it, too, but none of us said anything.
Days passed. Nothing changed. The dust still hung over everything, blocking the sky and the sun. When Dad and Uncle Lem screamed at each other about whether or not to get back to work, I would take Grace up to her room and we would talk about the actors and actresses we liked and which stories we thought were best.
Day and night grew so difficult to distinguish from each other that we eventually lost all track of how much time had passed. At some point Cecil came banging on our door, his face like he'd seen a ghost. He gathered me, Dad, Ted, and Uncle Lem together and told us that he'd been hearing rumors. He said Ruben Peterson down the way had hanged himself. We told him that this kind of news wasn't surprising anymore. Then Cecil said that Ruben Peterson's wife found his head lying on the floor, screaming, sitting five feet away from his body, dust pouring out of his neck like sawdust from a doll that's been ripped apart. Dad called Cecil a gullible idiot and threw him out of our house.
One night—I think it was night—me and most of the family were sound asleep when we heard Ted hollering outside. Uncle Lem just about died when he saw Aunt Margie way out in the distance, hobbling slowly away from us and into the dusty oblivion. He yelled at her, pleaded from a distance, begged her to come back. He tried to chase after her, but Dad and Ted held him back. I'd never seen Uncle Lem cry before, but he just sat there in a broken puddle. We all eventually left him and went back into the house. He came back inside hours later. Told us that he only stopped crying because the dust had dried up all his tears. Nobody went back to sleep that night. I wondered if anyone else had seen a figure way off in the distance. The figure Aunt Margie had been walking toward.
Food was running low. Dad said we would all starve to death if he didn't try to drive to market. Mom begged him not to go, but he insisted. Right after he opened the door and right before he stepped outside, he looked at me and said, "g'bye." He didn't look at Mom, or Ted, or Uncle Lem when he said that. He looked at me. It was quick and meaningless, but I still wonder what it meant. We never saw him again after that.
Uncle Lem and Ted went next door to check if Cecil was dead. If he had food he wasn't using, we needed it. They told me to stay behind and guard the girls. They came back empty-handed, their eyes haunted. They wouldn't tell us what they saw, they just hugged everyone and said they loved them.
We all slept together in the living room after that. Once more I awoke to a loud noise in the middle of the night, only this time the source was a gunshot. Mom was dead. I grabbed Grace and carried her upstairs, shielding her eyes, while Ted tried to wrestle the gun away from Uncle Lem. He was able to, but only after Lem had put a bullet through his own head. When I came downstairs to help clean up, I asked where all the blood had gone. Ted just looked at me and handed me a broom, and I realized that there hadn't been any blood at all.
It was just me, Ted, Cathie, and Grace after that. Cathie clutched Grace so close to her chest that I was afraid she'd strangle the poor child. Eventually it occurred to me that might be her intention. Ted pointed out that none of us had eaten since we ran out of food the previous week. Cathie wailed that we were all on the cusp of starvation, and we'd be dead within hours if we didn't eat anything.
A week or so after that, we had a very similar conversation.
I caught Cathie sitting by herself on the front porch one day. She was rubbing her fingernail along her forearm, chipping away the dust that had built on her skin. We all had dust on our skin. But as she picked away the dust bit by bit, I realized that the crater she was making in her arm was getting a little too deep. I stopped watching after that, because I knew she would keep on picking through to the other side, and all she'd find was dust.
Grace was asleep when Ted and I found Cathie lying outside, her face fluttering in the breeze, barely attached to her head by a tiny scrap of skin at the right ear. We didn't say anything. Ted didn't even look upset. I probably didn't, either, but I still felt like he should have at least tried to look sad. Her face tore off and soared into the distance as Ted and I dug her grave.
Her face came back not long afterward. It was attached to a cat. It killed Ted. He didn't seem to mind.
I walked up to Grace's room. The stairs wobbled. I had a feeling that the only thing holding them together now was dust. Dust was all that held anything together now. Wind was blowing everywhere, even though we were indoors. Grace sat on her bed, with that calm look children have when all the adults are hopelessly upset. She'd become pale and thin, but by God you would swear she could have been a movie star one day.
I took her into my arms as the wind blew circles around us. We talked about King Kong one last time. She would have these long periods of silence between her responses, and every time she fell quiet I would think she'd passed, but then she'd come back and tell me she wondered if they built a giant robot monkey and had it climb the Empire State Building. We talked some more about the Empire State Building. I told her what it looked like on the inside. I told her about New York City, and what it was like to be rich and free, and how she'd get to see it all for herself when she became a famous actress.
And then she stopped responding entirely.
When Ted died, the wind blew him away in chunks, but Grace went away in a single, gentle gust, drifting into the air like sand along a shore.
I explored the world outside the house and found nothing. I think I'm the last one in the world who hasn't crumbled into dust yet. I guess I've always been pretty good at holding myself together.
I don't need to eat, drink, or sleep anymore, even though my brain tells me I do. Sometimes I see shapes in the distance that look like people, but when I get closer I just see things that might have once been animals.
Cathie's body came back at one point and stood over Grace's bed for an hour or so. I gave her a mask to cover where her face used to be and told her that Grace wasn't here anymore. I put Cathie back in the ground, but she had already dug herself out again when I woke up the next day. I haven't seen her since.
I'd lost all hope until a little black bird came flying out of the dust and into my hands. I can't explain how I knew, but I knew it was Grace. I could feel it in the dust inside the bird inside the dust. She didn't say anything, but she didn't need to.
It took years to find them all, but I did.
I open my eyes. I'm ready.
In each hand I hold a cluster of strings woven around the legs of countless birds. Aunt Margie, Uncle Lem, Ted, Grace, Mom, Dad, Cecil, and even Phyllis from the theater are here, along with other folks I don't recognize. I thank them for being kind enough to volunteer. Their wings are twitching in anticipation. I take a deep breath, allowing the dust to fill my lungs. It's so much easier to breathe now that I just accept it. Normally this plan would seem insane and impossible, but these days the world itself is insane and impossible. Besides, I'm so much lighter now. There's no more anger weighing me down. No more hatred.
I open the door to the gilded birdcage. The little black birds pour out and fall upward into the sky. As I feel my feet leave the ground, I stare into the beautiful brown oblivion and whisper a dusty word of gratitude for finally setting this old dog free.