Merchant of Dust
Merchant of Dust
Author: Benjamin Radford
A dark satire set during a political campaign in 1980s New Mexico, The Merchant of Dust tells the story of Mark Thomas and his attempt to thwart a U.S. Senate hopeful who may be responsible his father’s death, first by joining his opponent’s campaign, then by uncovering his role in a scandal. He soon finds danger lurking close to his home town of Thoreau.
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Rap emerged, Reagan reigned, and Rushdie hid.
AIDS and drugs threatened to kill Americans on a scale the Soviet Union hadn’t had a chance to. Scandals shook Wall Street, a space shuttle exploded, and South Africa ended apartheid.
Meanwhile in a speck of New Mexico…
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 an already-damp 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, 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 her cousin 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 flickered 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 to this tiny town. How odd to realize that time had dragged everyone else along with me. I slapped on a quick smile. “Well, who’s the newest Quintana?”
“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. “He’s in the other room, I just put him down for a nap. 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 borrow Roberto? He’ll be on TV… 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 butt,” I said, making faces at the smiling 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.