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By Ruth Z. Deming
He was invisible. He made a point of arriving at his job an hour before the museum opened. They trusted him with the keys.
A small, bent-over black man with a bad back, he carried the cleaning supplies in a huge crinkly bag that read “Target” on the front. He would let himself into the high-ceiling rooms, and take out the cleaning supplies from the bag. Groaning with pain, he checked the entire museum to make sure nothing had been disturbed during the night.
Sometimes, while he dusted, he thought about his life as a child growing up in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Most of the southern family were as dead as boll weevils in a sack of cornmeal. A smattering of relatives found the means to migrate to Philadelphia, as racist a town as any in the south.
Mostly, though, he concentrated on removing the dust and grime of the city of brotherly love from beneath the tiny cracks and crevices of the one hundred and eighty figures designed by the French sculptor Auguste Rodin. He didn’t much care for the The Gates of Hell right there on the front door. It put him in a bad mood to see what became of sinners in hell – who knew where he and his late wife would go? They were quick to argue.
“Why didn’t you meet me in church? You seeing that hussy again you claim is your niece from Clarksdale?”
Yet he dusted The Gates of Hell with love and care.
Balzac was his favorite. The towering Balzac wore the cloak in which he composed his thousand and one characters, most of them mischief-makers. It cast a spell over him without his realizing it. The duster hadn’t much money but at home he fashioned, piece by piece, a black cotton cloak like Balzac’s. He did it with his wife’s sewing needle and small spools of thread, the cloak grew bigger day by day. He would hold it up to the light and smile.
"Patience," he’d counsel himself. "The Lord hadn’t made the world in a day."
As the buds appeared on the trees in the spring, he slipped the long, flowing cloak over his stooped-over body and rode the bus to work. There was The Gates of Hell greeting him as he unlocked the door, with the cleaning supplies in his arms, and checked to make sure everything was in order for the hundreds of visitors. This time was different, though. This time he wore his new black cotton cloak around his stooping shoulders and bent back.
When the director walked in, he strode over to the duster and doffed his cap.
“Why Balzac!” the director said with incredulity. “You’re alive!”
The Duster nodded his head and smiled. The biggest smile since he buried his old lady in a pauper’s grave.