An Excerpt from “Forty Days in the Desert”

R.T. Jamison

It’s raining sand. Fine, warm, flaxen sand. It drifts down like powdered sugar and dusts the trees and lawn furniture. No breeze distracts this sand from its sharp incline, straight down. It trails away skyward, a faint yellow smudge in a cloudless expanse. Such an apparition hardly gathers any attention for hours. No one seems to notice the slow buildup of grit, a grainy patina on what many neighbors already consider an eyesore. The mounds of tires, the tattered lawn furniture, the junked cars, the mailbox crafted from an engine block. Somehow a dusting of sand makes this ramshackle ranch house on an unpaved road in an unincorporated expanse seem staged and muted — as if our lens is smudged with a bit of white lithium grease. The sand goes unnoticed. It is, admittedly, a dusty place.

Noah does notice the sand, but assumes a wide broadcast is in progress. He does not think for a moment that this gritty manna is bestowed upon him alone. So he collects a broom and begins sweeping. He starts on the porch, working the sand from the corners and whisking it into his alkali yard. He shakes off the lawn furniture, replacing each chair to its carefully ordained position, then returns to the porch only to find a thin coat of sand has reappeared, now divided diagonally by a set of paw prints. The Rottweiler stands at the edge of the porch — as if lost in spiritual considerations — before shaking the baptism from its body. It yawns and saunters between the maimed dirt bike and the wheelbarrow of carburetors, finding solace in the doorless garage. Noah notices a stream of sand skiing off the brim of his hat, and for the first time senses that this will be a special day.

Though many of Noah’s neighbors are in various forms of demission — early, voluntary, forced — the younger set, in their forties and fifties, still ply their trades in nearby communities as teachers, nurses, construction foremen. And by the time these mettlesome weekday commuters reach the end of their daily pilgrimage, Noah has advanced to a leaf blower. He’s worked his way around his one-and-one-quarter acre plot many times, buffering his property with a ring of sand some two feet high. Still, the granules fall. The neighbors slow as they pass, sensing that this is somehow different from the claw-foot bathtub birdbath, or the hobbled horse trailer guest house, or the finned bomb-casing flowerpots. No, this is bigger than Noah Lamb. This is meteorological.

At day’s end a congregation of neighbors gather before Noah’s house. Busy with his leaf blower in a shroud of oily smoke, he waves high and wide and seems to speak at length, but the howling machine renders it in pantomime. The visitors gaze upward, tracking the sand as it casts down like a ray of amber light.

Noah continues his sweeping motions, the granules skittering across the yard in waves, as one neighbor climbs the bank of sand and seesaws his arms. Noah fumbles with the blower and the machine stops. For a moment everyone but Noah stands motionless, inner ears ringing as the roar fades and a new sound emerges. A rustling. A hiss. The shushing sound of untold grains of sand tumbling on everything and everyone.

“Ho, hi Jeff,” Noah says, wiping his face and bobbing, as though standing still would have some negative outcome. “I’m cleaning up. You figure it to stop soon? I don’t think Charlie likes it. Nuh-uh. He’s hiding. Lookit, there he is. Come here, boy.”

The Rottweiler, peering out from the sanctuary of the tilting garage, ignores them both.

“Here,” Noah says, grabbing a rock from the porch, “lookit what I made.”

He spits on the rock, rubs it against his jeans, and bears it to his neighbor. On the rock he has printed a good deal of the lyrics to “Stairway to Heaven.”

“It’s a door stopper. Ho, or a what . . . paperweight. What else it could be? Something. You want it?”

Jeff Bell has had many such encounters with Noah Lamb. He is one of the few neighbors who will talk with him. Most would rather ignore the man-child magneto. Many find him frightening, or at least annoying. Some won’t even return Noah’s eager waves. Jeff is therefore the neighborhood go-to guy for all things Noah Lamb.

“Hey, that’s great, Noah. You better keep it, though. You been sweeping for a while, then?”

“It’s really coming down, huh? Charlie don’t like it. Nuh-uh. Lookit him. Look. Hey, Charlie. Come here, boy,” Noah says, slapping his jeans.

Jeff shields his face with his hand. “How long has it been coming down like this?”

“Well,” Noah says, coughing into his shoulder, “I been over the place, I dunno, maybe — what, counting that first time? Let’s see, maybe — five times? I been sweeping, what, let’s see, counting the time I been using the leaf blower? Let’s see, what, bout — six hours? I’m bout outta gas. You got any gas? I’ll pay ya for it.”

“I don’t have any gas, Noah. You say it’s been like this for six hours?”

“I’ll pay ya for it. I’ll hafta go get some if you ain’t got any. Ho, lookit that. My boat’s bout filled up.”

Noah points to an abused aluminum utility boat, half-filled with sand. A stream of granules dribbles from a quarter-size hole in the bow.

“I know where I got some gas,” Noah says, as he hands the rock to his neighbor and bounds off to the house.

Jeff climbs back over the sand halo as the neighbors gather. He brushes the grit from his upper body as they all shake their heads and tsk-tsk the man-child desert rat and his dusty abomination.

It looks like a dust devil, one neighbor says.

But it’s just hanging there, says another. It ain’t spinning. What do you make of that?

. . .

Read the rest of this story in the Summer 2014 issue of The Kenyon Review.

Back to top ↑

Sign up for Our Email Newsletter