Merchant of Dust Chapter 1


It was two o´clock and the crack babies hadn´t shown up yet. Senator Collins, who was not really a Senator, glanced around nervously. Beads of sweat popped out along the edges of his toupee and ran down his cheek like ants escaping a drowning colony. He looked like Ivan Lendl at Wimbledon without a tennis racket; nothing to hold, nowhere to put his hands. The Senator´s campaign chief, a thin, dour man named Ledbetter, held a yellowing Albuquerque Journal to block the sun from the Senator´s face and blotted his head with a cocktail napkin. He turned to me, exasperated.


I shrugged. Procuring crack babies in the New Mexican desert for photo ops was not part of my job. Ledbetter seemed to think you could just order them, out of some demented Sharper Image catalogue or something.

The motley cheering section we rounded up began to fidget. All they had to do was stand behind the Senator and clap on cue, but they began to wander off and grumble. The promise of a free lunch had lured them out into the vacant lot, but sunburn, hot wind, and thirst were quickly souring the deal.

“We´re gonna get bad shadows if we don´t tape this soon,” the cameraman groused.

Ledbetter glared at me. “Do something, damn it!”

I waited for a half–second, returning the stare, then headed down the road. The asphalt was ancient, cracks branching through it like miles of huge varicose veins. Two blocks down, one block over, I found Rosanna Quintana´s house. From what I remembered, Rosanna, being a dutiful Roman Catholic, popped kids out every few years like a human Pez dispenser. If anyone could help me find a photo–op baby on short notice, it would be Rosanna. Her home started out a small two–bedroom adobe, but grew a new room with each child as if the house were pregnant too. Some of the newer walls were finished; others just held bent chicken wire, catching twigs and leaves, still waiting for stucco. Each new section reflected the skill of the neighborhood volunteers available at the time; when Sandra was born, the only one around to help was Larry, when he was sober enough to hold a hammer. Whether organic or metal, he always hit a nail. Larry´s room (as it came to be known) faced away from the road, not a right angle in sight.

I walked through the open gate and rapped twice on the wooden screen door. A few thin strips of dingy white paint flaked off and spun to the cement porch. It was warm and solid, just like Rosanna. Seconds later, a squat woman in her sixties emerged from the cool, cavernous interior. Her face was lined with wrinkles, as many from laughter as worry.

“Hello, Rosanna. It´s Mark. Mark Thomas. How are you?”

Rosanna came closer to the door and squinted at me for a moment, then cracked a wide smile. I opened the door and stepped in. She pounced on me like a spider does a fly, capturing me in a big hug.

“Mark! Hello! How are you?”

“I´m good,” I said as my eyes relaxed, enjoying a reprieve from the glare outside. The living room was small but comfortable. Metallic blue light from a hidden television reflected off the far wall. “But I don´t have much time to visit now. I need to borrow a baby. Is Sandra here?” I realized the silliness of my request as I said it.

She cocked a partially drawn eyebrow. “Sandra? Oh, heavens, no. She´s all grown up. She´s at school right now. When you babysat her she was just a little thing.”

I somehow thought everything would freeze in time, and be the same when I returned. How odd to realize that time had dragged everyone else along with me. I slapped on a quick smile. “Well, who´s the newest addition to the Quintana line?”

“Roberto? He´s Melanie´s boy.”

“Yes, yes,” I sputtered. “A friend of mine needs to have his picture taken with a baby, and we can´t find one right now. Can we take Roberto for a few minutes? I´ll bring him right back.”

Rosanna crossed her arms. “What about Mrs. Wallon down the street? She´s got a baby. Maybe you could rent that little troublemaker.”

“No, we need a beautiful baby, like Roberto.” My time with Senator Collins was coming in handy. “I heard the Wallons´ kid isn´t very cute.”

Rosanna leaned close. “Don´t tell nobody I said this, but that boy´s ugly as a dog´s behind. I hear he scared two burglars away the other day.”

“Right. That´s why we need Roberto. Can I take him for a few minutes?”

“They were carrying the TV when they saw him there on the sofa. They just dropped it and ran out!” she said, nodding solemnly.

I slouched slightly to meet her eyes. “Rosanna! Can I take Roberto? He´ll be in the news… won´t that be fun? You can come with us, if you want.”

“No, that´s okay. I´ll stay with the others. Just a second.”

She scurried off into the dark maze, returning a few seconds later. I took the sleeping Hispanic bundle of joy into my arms. He was all chubby cheeks, little slits for eyes, and wisps of black hair. I gently tugged his tiny toes inside a home–knitted blue and white bootie. “Yep, he´s a Quintana. Bet he´s even got a little ´Made in Thoreau´ sticker on his ass,” I said, making faces at Roberto. Rosanna laughed and slapped me playfully. I told her I´d return him in ten minutes. I covered his head against the sun and bore him back to the media circus.

Everyone was more or less where I had left them, although a few mutineers lurked in the shade of a nearby porch. Senator Collins and Ledbetter huddled over a clipboard, going over the Senator´s short speech. Collins looked ungainly, as he always did, but he did look the part: he was portly but not fat, respectable but not distinguished. I would buy a used car from him, but get it checked out as well. Ledbetter was doing his best to keep the Senator cool both in temperament and temperature.

“Here you go,” I said, displaying Roberto to Collins. “One baby. Just keep the blanket over his head.”

Senator Collins took a last, long drag of his cigarette and flicked it to the dirt. He accepted Roberto and turned to the photographers while Ledbetter roused what was left of our crowd. Collins walked back into the sun and waited for everyone to focus their cameras on him.

“I´m here in our great state of New Mexico to meet the hard–working people of Thoreau.” The Senator tilted his chin up and held Roberto to his chest. “Friends, I am not holding a child. No, I´m holding a symbol of the broken American Dream. This is a crack baby. Her mother´s name is lost to the winds of the desert, but she will not be forgotten. Because when I am elected Senator, I´ll make sure that poor children like Becky here have a second chance at life.” Cameras clicked and the group behind the Senator cheered halfheartedly as Ledbetter pointed to them. “I´ll put more money into drug treatment programs. I´ll fight for better roads, better services, and more police. And I´ll fight for less government spending.” He paused as more rehearsed cheers arose from the crowd. “I´m Frank Collins and I´d appreciate your vote for Senator,” he finished with a smile. Collins stepped down from the podium as people crowded around to shake his hand. I jumped to retrieve Roberto before the Senator could kiss the poor kid.

I told Ledbetter I´d be down the road and to honk when the campaign bus was leaving. Rosanna soon returned the littlest Quintana to his crib, unaware of his early start as propaganda tool.

“So what are you doing back here?” Rosanna asked, patting the armchair next to her. I obediently took my place there.

“I´m with the Senator´s election team right now.”

“´The Senator´?”

“Frank Collins. He´s the one who needed Roberto for the picture. He´s not really a Senator, but he told us to call him that —he read it in a book on positive thinking. He´s from back east.”

She shook her head. “Never heard of him.”

“He´s a Democrat.”

“Does it matter?”

“I suppose not.”

“And what are you doing for your Senator friend?”

“I joined the team about a month ago. I´m what´s called the ´local liaison´. I help coordinate his campaign, plan events in local communities, that sort of thing. Collins needed someone local to help him connect with the people.”

“Oh,” she said, absently. “So what have you been up to? It´s been, what? Ten years?”

“Five. We left in 1982,” I said, leaning back into the chair. “I´ve kept myself busy. I went to the university for a few semesters. Now I´m working part time at a bookstore and helping out on the campaign. That´s about it.”

She leaned close and touched my knee. “And Margaret and your father? How are they?”

“My mother´s fine. She´s in Denver, working at a small insurance place. Saw her at Christmas. I think she´s seeing an internist.”

“And your father?”

“My dad´s gone. He died a few months after we left. There wasn´t much they could do for him.” I looked across the room at the adobe wall. A foot—tall painted wooden santo sat on the hearth, his arms thrust out unnaturally straight. The sound of wooden blocks banging against hollow plastic came from the labyrinth behind me.

Rosanna leaned over and took my hand. “I´m sorry, Mark. I hadn´t heard.” Motherly concern poured from her kind eyes.

I squeezed her hands. “It´s okay. I didn´t really tell anybody, nobody to tell. I haven´t talked with anybody here since dad died. There´s no reason you´d know. But thanks.”

Rosanna glanced around the room, turning back to me when she found a new topic. “Well, we´re still here, doing okay. As you can see, Thoreau hasn´t changed much. We did get a video store here, though. Did you see it? It´s just down the road.”

“Vinnie´s Videos? Yeah, I saw it. I—”

A bus horn blared outside. I glanced out the window to find the Collins bus driving slowly down the dirt road. “I need to go,” I said. “I´m sorry I can´t stay longer. That´s my ride back to Albuquerque. I´ll come back again soon, okay?”

“Oh, that´s fine, Mark. We´ll be here. You go along with your Senator.” I thanked her for her help, gave her a hug, and dashed out the door. Out of habit, I almost reminded her to vote for Collins, but I stopped myself. She had already contributed to the effort.

Things were heated in the Senator´s air–conditioned bus. As the cameraman steered us back toward the highway, Collins paced back and forth in a very short ellipse.

“What the hell was that?” he demanded. “Why do I end up getting the shaft? Everyone else gets great photo ops: Reagan rides a horse on a ranch and shoots ahead twenty points. Gephardt visits inner city kids. And I get stuck in the middle of the fucking desert with no babies to hold? What´s wrong with you people?”

Ledbetter spoke. “Sir, I had been told that we could probably find a good photo op here. I do apologize for the baby mishap.”

The Senator continued his outburst. “Not here! In Detroit, Los Angeles, hell, even in Boston you can go into any building and get a crack baby.”

“Sir, I don´t think —”

“Shut up, Bedwetter. You´re just lucky that Mark here was on top of things.” The Senator winked at me. The last time a man winked at me was in high school, when Jesus (pronounced “Hey, Zeus!”) the janitor took me down to the school basement to see his porno collection. “Good job, Mark,” the Senator said.

Ledbetter was pissed off; he sucked in his cheeks and regarded me coolly. I tried to help him out.

“At least it all worked out okay, Senator,” I said. “Could have been worse.”

The Senator didn´t answer, but braced himself on formica as the bus pulled onto the highway. He took a bottle from the wet bar and poured a vodka tonic. A lime quarter bobbed between ice cubes, jarring with each pothole. He spoke after a few long swallows. “So now what?”

Ledbetter violently flicked through the pages of his pocket DayRunner. He glanced at his watch, then back down at us.

“We just have time to shoot a segment in Grants on the way back. Then we have an eight o´clock plane to New York.”

“You all are leaving?” I asked. “Already?”

“Yeah. So?”

“Well, sir, I thought you´d want to spend as much time here as possible, what with the race heating up. I mean, it looks good to be seen around the state. If I were you, I´d spend more than just a few days a week here.”

“Are you running this campaign now, Mr. Thomas?” Ledbetter asked.

“No. Just trying to be helpful,” I said. “Sorry.”

The Senator finished his drink and spoke up. “Ah, hell, I´m not worried. I pay Ledbetter to worry. Ledbetter! Are you worried?”

The man responded with a polite smile full of teeth. “No, Senator.” He turned to me, speaking patiently as he would to a thick child. “That´s why we´re shooting the Grants video. Senator Collins has work to do back home. So we´ll shoot a video and give it to you. Next week you send it to the TV stations, with a note telling them it was shot the day before. That way it looks like the Senator is spending time here while we´re busy back home.”

“But what if they find out that the Senator wasn´t in town when I said he was?”

Ledbetter frowned. “Look: it´s canned news. The station directors love it. It saves them the time, hassle, and cost of getting a crew out there to cover it. It´s easier this way. I´ve been doing this for years. Don´t worry about it.”

Forty–five minutes and two drinks later, we pulled into Grants. It was a routine stop: Senator shakes hands, Senator waves to crowds enticed by the promise of free beer. Video and photos are taken, then people go home. I helped the cameraman unload his cases while Ledbetter scouted for a good location and extras. Fifteen minutes of effort yielded mixed results: The crowd he returned with looked a little baked. If every village has an idiot, Ledbetter would find him and all the runners –up as well.

It wasn´t his fault, though, it was a sampling problem: mayors, council members and other upstanding citizens weren´t usually hanging out at the bars and Dairy Queen at three thirty on Friday afternoons. Ledbetter decided that few crooked smiles on wobbly Collins supporters wouldn´t be noticed, and might in fact bring in the A.A. contingent. No crack babies were requested this time. When the five–minute segment was shot, the cameraman handed the cassette to Ledbetter, who then handed it to me.

“Make three copies of this and get them to the local news stations,” he said. “Send them out Tuesday morning so they´ll make air for the six o´clock news. In fact, call me when they´re sent out. We´ll edit and send out the Thoreau footage later on. And you´re going to Rio Rancho on Sunday, right? To set up the meeting?”

I nodded and tucked the videotape in the seat next to me.

The bus didn´t get back into Albuquerque until about seven forty. The Senator was tipsy, and Ledbetter was finally winding down. That´s when Ledbetter´s Ironman watch went off, beeping, blinking, and flashing, doing everything but shooting lasers.

“Fuck!” he shouted, freezing the Senator´s gumpy smile solid. Even the cameraman pulled his eyes off the road. “The plane. We´re going to miss the plane! It leaves in fifteen minutes.” Ledbetter held his watch up for all to see, as though confirming his statement.

“So?” I said.

“So we don´t have time to return the bus and get back to the airport.” He turned to the cameraman. “Pull over so we can make a call.”

“Don´t worry,” I said. “I´ll drop you guys off and drive the bus back. Just give me some cash for a taxi.”

Ledbetter smiled at me. “Maybe you´re not worthless after all.”

“I have my moments. Fifty bucks should cover it.”

I squeezed forty out of Ledbetter before I took the wheel. The Collins contingent, and all its bluster and fuss, finally made it to the gate and out of New Mexico.

Meanwhile, I had a new set of wheels. A big tour bus, probably for rock stars and dignitaries. I tried to picture how many groupies Mick Jagger could fit on the two long tan sofas. It even had a little bunkbed and a bathroom tucked in the back. It was cherry, as my Hispanic friends would say.

I decided then and there, as I pulled out of the airport and onto Gibson Boulevard, that the bus would be a few days late. I figured the bus company was used to having stoned rock stars trash the bus and throw up inside it, so they´d probably be pleased to get it back at all. I cranked up the air conditioner (because it was the first vehicle I´d driven that had it; my decrepit 1976 Toyota Corolla just blew hot air on me) and snapped the radio on. Dusk approached as Axl Rose whined “Paradise City” on Rock 108.

Fifteen minutes later, I neared my apartment, a medium–sized place on Montgomery Avenue. I left the bus in a Denny´s parking lot down the street and walked the rest of the way. I didn´t want the bus in front of my apartment, and I figured it would be safer at Denny´s anyway. Making my way between parked cars and around large garbage bins, I finally got to my door. I pushed my key into the lock, but the lock wouldn´t turn and the door wouldn´t budge. I pushed harder with my shoulder, then the plastic end of a push pin jabbed my right eye. I hollered and kicked the door, but it held. My good eye faintly read the words “Rent” and “Due.” It took a second for those two disparate words to congeal into one phrase in my mind, and when they finally did I slumped into the door jamb with a long sigh.

I wandered back to the bus, rubbing my watering eye. Luckily, I didn´t have to be at work until noon the next day. I´d go see the landlord and straighten things out with him before work. I climbed onto the bus and crashed out on the sofa. Another day as local liaison for non–Senator Senator Collins drew to a close.