Volume 29, Number 1

Remember You Are Dust

Daniel Vollaro

The first time I drove to Camden to look for Marion, I was on a mission for my mother, who believed that I could raise my sister from the dead, like Jesus calling Lazarus out of the tomb.

“You’re so good with people, Alan,” she sobbed, wiping the sleeve of her blue hospital gown across her wet cheek. The white plastic ID bracelet dangled loosely from her bone-thin wrist. “You bring my baby girl back to me.”

I promised her I would try, but we both knew that Marion answered to her own angels.

I immediately left my mother’s bedside and drove from St. Francis Medical Center in Trenton to Marion’s apartment in Camden. At that time, Marion was living on the ground floor of a two-story row house with a front door that opened onto South Broadway. I parked my car on the street and walked up the three cement steps to the porch, which was crammed with an inexplicable assortment of junk—stacks of empty milk crates, a kid-sized pink bicycle with a missing chain, two coils of garden hose and an old typewriter with rusting keys. When I knocked on the screen door, I could see my sister inside, draped over a beige couch like an old blanket. She was watching reruns of a show called “Top Chef” and drinking Mr. Pibb from a plastic bottle. Marion was paler and thinner than when I had seen her at Christmas, and her blond hair hung around her face in dry, snarly dreads, a new look for her. She saw me in the doorway and waved me inside.

“Haven’t you heard of calling first, little brother?”

She did not move from the couch.

“Your phone doesn’t work,” I shrugged. “Again.”

A familiar cloud of rage and bewilderment blew across Marion’s face. A second later, she was smiling again.

“I mailed the goddamned check, but those fuckers are so incompetent over there, you wouldn’t believe it. Remember when AT&T ruled the world? Christ, Dad practically blew a vein when they divested in the 80s. Remember that?”

Dad worked for AT&T for almost thirty years; of course I remember.

Marion kept her own cramped museum of family nostalgia, and every artifact is framed to show off her dysfunctional worldview. She wheeled out the AT&T story whenever she wanted to rail against “the system,” which was always conspiring against her in some way.

“How are you?”

“I’m tired.” Marion stared hard into a crack in the plaster above her television set. The room smelled of a heavy man’s sweat and thousands of cigarettes stubbed out in cold pizza crust. I streaked my finger through the dust on her coffee table and muttered something familiar from our childhood.

“What was that,” she snapped?

“Remember you are dust,” I repeated, louder this time.

“Why would you say that?”

“I was thinking it, and then I said it.”

“It was one long Catholic nightmare, little brother. That’s what I remember. For you and me both.”

I don’t remember it that way, but I would never say this to my Church-hating sister. With Marion, you were always trying to avoid setting her off. I remember going to Church every Sunday as a family—the pleasant, dreamy routine of it—and playing CYO basketball with my friends in the courts behind the rectory. I remember the feel of the cushioned kneeler on my knees after receiving communion and the exotic aroma of incense during the Christmas Mass, the sensory pleasures of being Catholic that added up to something—I don’t know what exactly, but certainly not the monstrous, oppressive thing that Marion experienced.

“Like you suffered.”

“I won’t argue with you,” she snapped her bony fingers, a hard crack that split the air between us, “’cause you’re still wearing the monk suit.”

“I teach history at a Catholic High School, Marion, not catechism.… why am I still explaining this to you?”

“Monk suit.”

“You don’t get it.” I refrained from all the obvious retorts—At least I have a job, or I’m not the one living in a shithole that smells like a man’s dirty laundry.

“Didn’t you get enough of that shit when we were kids, from Mom?”

“What shit?”

“The rules, the nuns, the fucking statues.” She waved her hands in agitated gesticulations. “The bloody bodies strung up on crosses.”

“I teach history,” I repeated, as if this fact alone could absolve me in her mind.

“Yeah, the history of making people feel ashamed of themselves.”

“It’s pointless talking to you.”

“Do they pay you in prayer cards?” She laughed at her own joke, a nasally chortling sound. I remember a time when that laugh could charm me, but that was before the arrests and the overdose that nearly killed her and the big screen TV ripped from the living room wall of our family home and sold for drug money while mom and dad were asleep down the hall. After all of these abuses and indignities, Marion’s laugh had become a painful irritant, a reminder of the jagged hole she had blasted through our family and of our collective failure to save her from herself.

She rolled her eyes. “Jesus, I’m just kidding around, little brother.”

“Where is your boyfriend?”

“Stephen. His name is Stephen.” She squirmed on the couch, digging her fingers into the cushions for a few frantic seconds before she gave up. “He’ll be home soon.”

“You should bring him around to meet the family sometime.”

“Like that would be a good idea. Can you imagine Mom? Christ, what a shit show that would be.”

“No … I mean, I don’t know what would happen.”

“Yeah, right, you don’t know.”

“Does Stephen work a night shift or something?”

“No, why?”

“You said he’s coming home. I thought maybe he was working late.”

“He don’t work,” she barked. “He’s on disability, for his back.”

I changed the subject.

“Let me take you both out for lunch. What do you think?”

“There’s a Denny’s around the corner. Why don’t you go over there, and we’ll meet you in a few minutes.”

She squirmed again and finally dug a scratched black flip phone from inside the cushions. She tossed the phone onto the floor and then pushed both hands back into the cushions.

“Are you all right,” I asked.

“I am now,” she held up a crumpled pack of Virginia Slims for my inspection.

“You want one,” she waved the pack in my direction.

“No thanks.”

“Come on, I remember hanging out at the dam with you and Marcus, smoking cigarettes and smashing empties. Remember that?”

“I remember.”

“How is Marcus anyway. Is he still threatening to move to Manhattan?”

“Every day.”

“He’s got a great voice, you know. He’s talented. He should go.”

Marion was the proverbial broken record. She said the same things over and over. I’d heard the Marcus-is-so-talented routine for years, and that’s what it was, a routine, a performance of normalcy she turned on for family and old friends.

She jammed one between her tightened lips, then lit it in a frantic, jerky motion.

“Go, go,” she waved the cigarette at me. “We’ll be right behind you, in a few minutes.”

Standing on the sidewalk in front of Marion’s apartment, I could feel the sun, hot and pitiless, burning through the thin cotton fabric of my blue button-down shirt. The city was dying slowly all around me, rotting away in the shadow of the Philadelphia skyline, which stood proud and aloof just across the Delaware River, a sparkling reminder of what Camden would never be. The city had been on life support since the 1970s, after Campbell’s Soup, RCA and New York Ship closed, after the riots in ’71, when doctors and merchants and teachers began hemorrhaging from the city in a great white bleeding-out of money and talent. After that, the city cannibalized itself a little more each year, spitting out tons of metal ripped from its abandoned industrial infrastructure into mountains of scrap piled up along the waterfront, waiting to be carted off in barges.

On the sidewalk in front of the bodega across the street, three white-haired old men ceased their card game to stare at me.

“Hello,” I broke the spell.

One of them nodded, and they returned to their game.

I walked to the restaurant and found a booth near the back. My sister and Stephen arrived twenty minutes later. She bounced through the lobby doors, laughing loudly, a newer, livelier version of herself. The buckles of her open leather jacket jangled as she dragged her boyfriend through the restaurant. In less than half an hour, she had become the ebullient Marion, glassy-eyed and manic.

Stephen was a solid, sullen man with a shaved head and deep crow’s feet etched along the corners of his pale green eyes. His carriage was slouchy and graceless. When I stood to greet them, he hung out his big limp hand for me to shake. I took it, but he refused to look me in the eye. As he muscled himself into the booth, I noticed his Civil War-style handlebar mustache and two visible tattoos—the German Luftwaffe insignia on the back of his hand and the snake wrapped around an infant in swaddling clothes on his forearm.

“This Cold War bullshit has got to end, little brother,” Marion moaned loudly after we sat down. “You are the only person in this whole fucking family who will even talk to me anymore. I need my family around me now. I need my fucking family.”

The pitch came after the waitress brought out the potato skins; I was ready for it. “Stephen’s disability check is coming in two weeks, but we really got hit by that insurance premium on his Honda. Can you help us out?”

Marion grinned weakly and reached across the table to tap my hand with the tip of her forefinger.

My sister had become the perpetual supplicant, her life interrupted by an endless chain of mini-tragedies. Cars broke down, jobs disappeared, unexpected bills arrived in the mail and minor surgeries materialized from thin air.

“It’s not like I have any money, Marion,” I shrugged. “You know that.”

The first rule of surviving in a relationship with my sister is to never, ever give her money.

At that moment, Stephen removed his thick arm from around my sister’s shoulders, placed both forearms on the table. Flexing the muscles in his substantial upper torso, he stared into my eyes for the first time. I stared back at him for a long, measured moment, and then looked at my sister again.

“I’m tapped out. Sorry.”

I paid for lunch with my credit card even though I had two twenty-dollar bills in my wallet. I didn’t want them to see the cash.

Marion and Stephen both looked away when I grabbed the check. As we left, Marion lit a cigarette in the lobby. Outside on the street, I finally told Marion what I had come to say:

“Mom just had a lump removed from her breast today. She’s in the hospital up in Trenton.”

Mom.” She shook her head and let out a raspy gust of disapproval. “Mom.”

“I just came to tell you. I would have called, but the phone… We thought you’d want to know.”

“Mom! All right then, I can’t … I’m trying to straighten my life out and this fucking … this bullshit is all I need right now.”

“Hey, I’m just the messenger.”

“If she thinks I’m running up there …” she dragged hard on the cigarette. “No way, no fucking way, not after what she said to me last time. I don’t care what … Goddamn!”

“All right, maybe I should go, Marion.”

“After what she said? God Dammit.” She pointed the smoldering butt at my stomach. “You know I told her, I’m always telling her.” Marion rapped her temple hard with two knuckles. “It’s a chemical thing.”

We did not hug or even shake hands; she backed away from me still talking and then grabbed Stephen’s hand and pulled him down the street, heading away from their apartment.

Later, sitting in my car with the engine idling and the radio tuned low to a Springsteen song on one of the Philly classic rock stations, I gripped the steering wheel with both hands and clenched my teeth to stop myself from shaking.

Turn out the light, bolt the door, I seen enough, I aint gonna hurt no more.

I traced two words in the dust of my dashboard—words my freshman religion teacher once scrawled in white chalk on the blackboard: Imago Dei—in the image of God. Who, I wondered, had created Marion in His image—Marion, the patron saint of paralysis, all hollow bones and cravings, too weak to resist the tsunami of boredom and gutted-out pain that periodically carried her out to sea? I knew that when the Rapture came, Marion would still be living in Camden with her shit-stomping boyfriend, two blocks from a Methadone clinic and twenty yards from the nearest scumbag selling $10 bags, the same $10 had she never had. When the Rapture came, she would be taken up bodily to heaven, because a just God could never blame His creation for the flaws in His design. It was a chemical thing. She had repeated it like a mantra, absolution carried off in words, as if words alone could possibly wash clean everything she had done. She was not responsible, so how could she be made to suffer for any of it? What choice did God have but to absolve her? When the Rapture came, she would ride the wave, and then drown in it, like she always did.

* * *

I went back for Marion a second time, six months later, on the day after my mother died. This time, it was Dad and my sister Ellen who sent me; they both agreed that I should go. Before my mother died, she had made her peace with the fact that she would never see her youngest daughter again. I had not, and neither had Ellen.

“Don’t be that guy,” my father said.

“What guy?”

“The angry guy.”

“No, I want you to be that guy,” Ellen shot back. “She doesn’t deserve any better from us.”

So, while Ellen and Dad were making the funeral arrangements, I drove down to Camden again, this time with Marcus, who brought his $500 camera in a conspicuous black nylon camera bag slung over his shoulder. We were both twenty-four that year, both still living in Hamilton after most of our friends had left for New York or Philadelphia or other far-flung places. By the end of that summer, Marcus would move to Manhattan too, to live in a closet-sized apartment with the drummer from his punk band, Skilletjob, but before that, he would tell the world he was a photographer, the latest chapter in a long and tiresome novel written to satisfy his ex-dinner-theatre-actress mother’s fantasies of a career in the arts. When I asked him to drive down to Camden with me, he bragged that he would win a Pulitzer Prize shooting black-and-white photographs of the Third World in America—chickens clucking in backyards and feral children kicking tires down the street. “Camden is like a Guatemalan barrio,” Marcus said. He would shoot the scrap yards on the old waterfront piled high with mounds of metal. He would shoot the crack whores and the miles of abandoned infrastructure that made a candidate for governor once remark that Camden reminded him of Dresden after the war.

The drive from Hamilton to Camden took about an hour. We rode with the windows down, Marcus lounging across the front seat, all legs and arms at odd angles, his long black hair caught up in the wind.

“Why does your sister live in such a fucking dump?”

“Because she’s special,” I rolled my eyes.

“Because she’s a fucking crackhead, that’s why.”

I could feel the heat in my neck, but I kept quiet.

“Who doesn’t come to the hospital to see their own dying mother? She’s going to hell for that.”

“I think she’s already there.”

“Sounds like you’re excusing her.”

“I’m fucking tapped out. She’s exhausting. After awhile, you’re not surprised by anything she does.”

“She was little Peanut. That’s what I remember.” Marcus sat up straight, newly animated by his reverie. “Remember when she used to sneak downstairs when we were lifting and try to steal the five-pound weights, like we didn’t see her. She was such a cute little Peanut.”

“Do you actually forget anything, Marcus?”

“She was just a sweet kid, that’s all I’m saying.”

“Yeah, she was.”

“I mean, before she started fucking for crack and all.”

“She has a boyfriend.”

“Pimp,” Marcus taunted?

The heat had reached the tips of my nose and ears. I could feel it about to boil over.

“You know what they say about no one else being able to criticize your family but you.”

Marcus fell silent for a minute.

“So why don’t you just call her and leave a voicemail message,” he asked? “Why the road trip?”

“Her phone is turned off.”

“Doesn’t she have a cell phone?”

I shrug.

“That’s fucking pathetic.”

“No joke.”

“I mean, shit, I'll buy her a phone? Problem solved.”

“She'll tell you to fuck off.”

“Seriously, I’ll buy her one of those track phones.”

“She doesn’t take charity,” I rolled my eyes again. “Until she asks you for it.”

“She’s got all the junkie bases covered,” Marcus laughed. “Sorry, I know, I’m not family, but seriously . …”


“That's not the Little Peanut I remember.”

“No,” I said. “That girl is gone baby gone.”

* * *

At Marion’s apartment, we found Stephen alone and slumped into a yellow bean bag chair, high, watching TV.

“Where is Marion?” I got right to the point.

“She’s out.”

“Stephen, I need to find her … now.”

“She’s out.”

“Thing is, I need to find her, right now.

“I don’t know what to tell you.”

I could feel Marcus behind me, all smoke and crackle, a mountain of lava on the move. He pushed past me and stood over Stephen, leaning down into his face.

“Her mother just died,” he spat. “Tell me where the fuck she is, now.”

Maybe it was the beanbag chair that enhanced his vulnerability, but Stephen looked like a scared child at that moment, sunk down in that shapeless mound of Styrofoam and air. He seemed paralyzed and could manage nothing more than to look to the side as Marcus was talking down to him.

“She’s at the bank,” he said at last.

“Where the fuck is that?”

“It’s four blocks from here,” he waved his big sloppy arm in the direction of downtown. “Back from where you came.”

“What kind of bank?”

“It’s a bank.”

“You said that?”

“It’s all boarded up.”

“You mean an abandoned building.”

* * *

We found the old bank building exactly where Stephen said it would be. It was a big concrete and brick building with white pillars on the front. The windows and doors were boarded up with plywood panels with the words “City of Camden” stenciled neatly in black letters. There was graffiti everywhere. People were staring at us from inside doorways and parked cars, me with my khaki pants and loafers and Marcus with his camera bag jutting out from his hip.

We slipped into the alley behind the bank and found an emergency exit door that had been uncovered. Marcus leaned his shoulder into it. The door wasn’t locked, but it was blocked from the inside by something. After a few nudges, Marcus opened up a space wide enough for us to slip through.

Inside, we were overwhelmed by the smell of dry rot and wet cardboard. Most of the interior walls had collapsed long ago, exposing brownish slabs of insulation that hung from plywood and clusters of steel cable. The remaining walls were covered with graffiti. Chunks of plaster drooped from the rotting walls, and the floor heaved with bulging black trash bags. Some of them split open to reveal their calcified innards. Splinters of wood jutted out from the walls like broken bones, evidence of the search for copper pipe and wiring hidden in the walls, ripped out by frantic hands and sold for a few dollars of dope money. Camden tears at itself, always looking for something to pawn or hawk. Bottles lay everywhere—some whole, some smashed—and the uncovered floor spaces were sprinkled with the even more delicate porcelain shards of broken light bulbs, like a light dusting of snow. The chandelier that once hung from the high ceiling was long gone, but the round plaster mandala from which it once hung was still visible, overhanging the entire scene like a single, unblinking eye.

Marcus, ahead of me by three paces, stopped to aim his camera at something on the ground, and when I finally caught up with him, I could see that it was a condom twirled around a rusty nail and drying in a shaft of sunlight that had broken through a hole in the ceiling two stories above us. The condom was tan and brittle, like the outer skin of a cicada, sloughed off and left to blow away in the wind.

I followed Marcus up the stairway to the second floor, which felt spongy and precarious underfoot, as if we might fall through with one wrong step. Upstairs, the graffiti fused together like an incomprehensible weave of tiny black vesicles entwined under an invisible skin. The smell was worse upstairs. Marcus stopped then and pointed his camera lense down through a large hole in the floor that opened up into another room downstairs.

There, slumped against a wall with the tag “Willy 8” spray-painted in big black letters, sat a middle aged black man with a high forehead and paint-speckled tan work boots jutting out at the end of his long-splayed legs. His big, weathered hands lay palm upwards on either side of him, open in a gesture of sloth and defeat. We could hear but not see a second man, who stood just out of view; he was talking and making a scratching sound.

“I think we should go back,” the hidden man said.

“There used to be great big hanging plants over there,” the visible man waved his big sloppy arm in one direction. “The wood was all that shiny red shit.”

“Mahogany,” the invisible man answered, the bass baritone gentility of his voice filling the space. “Have you noticed the carpet in the basement of the church smells like Comet?”

“I’m tired,” the visible man complained.

“You’re tired all right.”

“No, I’m serious. We gotta turn things around.”

“Turn it up brother.”

“It’s high time we got out.”

“Hi times, brother. Right on.”

“Good Christian people help each other out,” the visible man preached.

“Testify, brother Wade. Testify.

We searched through the entire bank building, but Marion was not there.

“Fuck,” I pounded my fists into the soft wall and wailed into the cavernous space. “Fuuuuuuuuuck!”

Marcus was snapping pictures in a frenzy, pointing and aiming the long black lens at odd angles, climbing on top of piles of rubble and pushing the lens through holes in the wall.

“Hey, watch your language,” shouted the invisible doper from the other room.

“Yeah, watch it,” his friend laughed.

“We’ll find her,” Marcus said. “Come on, let’s go back to the apartment.”

Back at Marion’s apartment, we found the front door now closed and locked.

Marcus pounded on the door for over a minute.

“They’re not inside,” he said at last. “They’re hiding, like a couple of bitches.”

“I can’t take this,” I sobbed. “What the fuck is her problem? She’s not fucking human.”

“She’s damaged, man.”

“She’s got no fucking right. It’s all such bullshit, all her excuses.”

“Let’s just leave a note and go,” Marcus advised.

“I’m not leaving a note.”

In the end, I left a note. It said: “Marion, come to mom’s funeral, please. You know where to find us.”

* * *

We drove up South Broadway in the direction from which we came, headed back towards the highway. The Ben Franklin Bridge was framed in my rearview mirror, and Camden sagged all around us like a soggy cardboard box, low-slung and dirty. We passed old row houses shoehorned together into impossibly dense configurations of doors and windows. Behind us, the road disappeared into miles of old housing stock and abandoned factories. We passed the storefront Church of the Holy Spirit, where someone had painted the words ‘The Kingdom is Coming, Alleluia!' on the front door, just above the tagged refrain 'You must be insane to fuck with mad theories.' We passed a Catholic Church, and behind it, a fenced-in patch of dry grass with a bench and a stone statue of the Madonna. I recognized something in the Virgin’s granite stare, a sad-eyed look, at once stoic and pliant, with grayish ribbons of pigeon shit streaking down the sides of her head. In her gaze, I saw the impossible paradox of the virgin birth. I saw my saintly grandmother as a girl, daydreaming of escape, daily envisioning her flight from the nameless feudal poverty of Southern Italy. She had bundled up her rosary beads and prayer cards and stepped onto that ship in Naples harbor without once looking back, sixteen years old and already finished with Italy and its rocky, unforgiving soil. It was the religion more than any of the rest of it that clung to her. Not the theology, but the symbols—the crucifixion, the bottomless torments of the saints and above all, the Madonna, bearing her innocent breast to the infant Jesus.

My mother died in stone-faced silence, clutching her small gold crucifix tightly to her diseased breast. She had so much wanted faith to be her lasting legacy to her children. Did she resent what me and Ellen and especially Marion had done to our inheritance? At the end, did she see the fallacy of perfectible flesh? Even as she continued to believe in miraculous powers, in the body as a Temple of the Holy Spirit, she must have known that her cancer and Marion’s insatiable thirst to get high could just as easily be explained in a Godless idiom that was impervious to prayer. What else could she do but clutch the crucifix to her breast and pray with all her heart that I would bring Marion home? What else could Marion do but bring the Temple down around her head?

The traffic stalled on Boulevard, and forgetting for a moment where I was, I rolled down the window. Just then, I saw the woman in my peripheral vision, stepping out from the shadow of doorway and striding, half jogging, towards my car. Before I could react, her thick red hair and frantic brown eyes were pushing through the open window.

“Where you goin’” she asked, as if we had known each other since childhood?

The sweet tangy scent of perfume and Juicy Fruit flooded the car.

“Where are you going, beautiful?” Marcus asked.

“Wherever you guys want.”

I stared over at Marcus, but it was impossible to tell if he would actually go for it.

“We’re going home,” I said.

“Want to take a ride with me?”

“Can’t right now, sorry.”

“Want to buy me a strawberry shake then?”

“Sorry, we can’t.”

“Just like that?”

“Gotta run my errands, you know.”

“He’s got a lot of errands,” Marcus mocked.

“You look like a guy with errands,” she frowned.

“It’s sad, that’s what it is,” I said.

She was close to me now, and I could see her body, with its curves and tight brown skin. She wore cut-off jeans short shorts and a white halter top, and she was alive with wiry energy, propped up on the balls of her feet, hands on the car door, half a push from flying through my window and landing in

“What’s your name,” Marcus asked?

“Salt,” she smiled.

“Is Pepper around here somewhere,” Marcus smirked?

“She’s over there somewhere,” Salt said, missing the joke entirely. “She never come this side of the street.”

I noticed that her hand was resting palm down on the window frame in the door, and before I could stop myself, I reached out and took it in mine. It was an impulse, almost involuntary. Her hand was warm and dry in mine.

“Salt, I’m pleased to meet you.”

I could feel her recoil just a bit, knowing by my touch what it did not mean, but then, following her own impulse, she wrapped her hand in mine and squeezed it warmly. For an instant, we were joined in an awkward clasping of flesh.

“Hmmmmm!” she said, closing her eyes to slits. “You have great hands, mister.”

At that moment, the traffic began to move and she let go, waving from the sidewalk.

“You come back and see me sometime,” she shouted. I could see her marking the sidewalk with her foot. “X marks the spot.”