At first it was almost festive. Lining up in the dark at four on a July morning had reminded Dusty of a concert he’d gone to as a teenager. Except this time he was surrounded by sleepy people, most at least twenty years older than him, all waiting to get into the stadium to sell some trash.
When he’d first penciled the flea market into the business plan he’d drawn up to dissolve his life, the idea of selling the last of his junk at a flea market had seemed brilliant. Right on schedule, the apartment had emptied of furniture. All the big stuff had been easy to put up on the web—snap a couple of pictures, write a short description, and sit back and wait until someone offered a tenth of what it was worth. He’d even found a place on Milwaukee that gave him a few dollars for his closet full of suits and the tux Charles had bought him to celebrate their first big deal together. That was one memento he’d been happy to see go. If he hadn’t teamed up with Charles, where would he be now? Not standing in some goddamned flea market parking lot at four in the morning, he was sure of that.
He glanced back. Looking over the heads of the people right behind him, he could see the rented van piled with the detritus of his life. All that was left were the little things that in a normal move would go in boxes labeled kitchen
, and bedroom.
And here he was, waiting to rent an outdoor flea market space—an urban garage sale.
He tried to tell himself that it was freeing, that letting go of possessions would bring him spiritual peace. But who was he kidding with that crap? He hadn’t gained spiritual peace through the accumulation of stuff. Now, all letting go of his possessions would bring was a slight reprieve from the creditors, and it might put enough money in his pocket so he could afford to crawl home to his parents’ basement like the abject failure he was.
Dusty took a long sip of coffee. He hoped the line would move soon. He’d come to Chicago full of hope. A dream job right out of grad school, and the salary… He hadn’t believed it when the offer came—money and bonuses, enough to pay off his student loans that first year. And life had only gotten better when Charles, his handsome, well-traveled, seriously sophisticated boss, had taken an interest in him. More than an interest. Charles said he’d fallen in love. And Dusty had tumbled right down with him.
The doors opened, and the crowd surged forward. Dusty’s line shuffled toward a table where two old men were assigning spaces. The pros strode past. Apparently they didn’t need to pay a day fee. The guy on the phone had said something about monthly passes. No way was Dusty doing this more than once.
Sure, Charles hadn’t been perfect. He’d been hypercritical right from the start. And cold in bed. But that had been Dusty’s problem. He was too emotional. Too needy. Charles had said he was trying to help him get over that, to man up, as it were. Well, he sure had. The only neediness Dusty felt now was purely fiscal. Some people just shouldn’t have relationships, and Dusty was obviously one of those.
Dusty handed over his crumpled money, and the old guy with tobacco-stained fingers handed him a number. He could have gotten a corner spot, but that cost more. Given his cash-flow problems, he’d need to be happy with whatever he got. He went in search of his booth space.
Even before the crowds arrived, the air smelled of old socks and grease. A few people chatted, but mostly the lot was filled with the sounds of work—people stomping back and forth from the parking lot, the thump of boxes dropping on the ground or tables, and the crinkling of paper and plastic as things were unwrapped. Inside the big pavilion would be air-conditioned, an important advantage on a hot July Chicago day. But at double the booth fee, that wasn’t a luxury Dusty could afford. Even with the lower cost of a few rented tables outside, the day would run him over two hundred, not to mention the time spent on the paperwork, organization, and getting things priced. He hoped that, unlike everything else in his life, this time he’d end up in the black.
He found his spot and walked back to the van to start unloading. He could have used some help. But help hadn’t been very forthcoming in his life of late. Yanking out the top box in the van, he told himself to quit whining and do what had to get done. He stacked another box on top of the first one and marched back toward his little patch of retail space. At least this piece of rented real estate wasn’t sporting an eviction notice.
Dusty’s arms ached by the time he had all his boxes moved. People were just starting to wander around the booths. He unscrewed the cap of his thermos and poured the last of his coffee into the cup top, his only remaining mug. It was going to be a long day. It would have been nice to have a friend to hang with on a hot Saturday in an unfamiliar suburb of Chicago.
One of his rented tables was crooked. Dusty kicked at the dirt under the low leg until he got it almost level. He started unpacking and setting things out on the tables. Might as well get everything out before arranging his display. At least that way the early shoppers could get a peek at his wares. Not that there was anything special to look at—the programmable coffeepot he’d given up setting after he lost his job, shoe trees and the shoes to go on them, a backscratcher his Aunt Ruth had given him a long time ago. That he’d miss. But there just wasn’t space in his life for mementos.
He looked around. Hardly any of the other sellers were flying solo. Not that Dusty had a choice. Somehow, over the past, year he’d gotten isolated. At first, Dusty had been in shock. Getting marched out the door by armed guards was a hell of a way to leave a job. Charles had stomped around the apartment, his phone pressed to his ear, while Dusty sat at the kitchen table waiting for the apology that never came.
Then, after Charles’s trial ended, Dusty had stayed in bed for a month, only to discover when he emerged that he’d become a pariah. Even among their nonprofessional friends, no one had wanted to stay close enough to spend even part of a day roasting amid the detritus of Dusty’s life, much less let him camp out on their couch.
He straightened a stack of dishes that Charles had picked out. He’d said they had a strong, masculine look to them. Not like the floral pattern Dusty had liked. But then, as his father had always said, Dusty wasn’t much of a man anyway.
And now here he was, flat broke and alone. It had been over a year since he’d had more than half a day’s employment, most of that odd jobs for neighbors, and almost as long since he’d gone out for a beer with a friend. The days of big parties and bigger checks were gone. The eviction notice was dated next weekend. Today everything had to go.
A group of women picked through his housewares. One of them, a pale woman with dark hair and multiple piercings, peered up at him. “It looks like you dumped your whole apartment out here.”
Dusty shrugged. “I did.”
“You’re not committing suicide, are you?” She didn’t sound concerned, more like it might be a bargaining point.
“No. Just moving.” Back home. The thought twisted his gut. They didn’t know. Charles’s misdeeds hadn’t made the national papers, and no one in his family’s circle of friends read the Chicago Tribune
. Going back home and telling the truth meant diving into a stinking pool of shame. And living with his dad had never been fun. But it was that or a dirty sleeping bag and a grocery cart under an overpass somewhere.
He’d vaguely thought about going to stay with his Aunt Ruth, his only liberal relative. But they hadn’t been close in years. Back at the empty apartment, he’d left a duffel full of clothes and everything else he was keeping stuffed in his backpack. At the last minute, Dusty had added his sleeping bag to the pile of things to keep. A month or two in Idaho might convince him that living under a bridge had its advantages.
The day was heating up, and he slathered on more suntan lotion. Maybe he should have sprung for the tent. A guy offered him five bucks for his almost new vacuum cleaner. He talked him up to ten, then let it go. In the end, getting something for his junk was better than nothing.
He rolled his head to loosen his shoulders. Standing on hard pavement in the hot sun was worse than he’d imagined. And the boredom. He wished he’d kept one of the kitchen chairs so he could sit down. People strolled by, sometimes picking through his things, every now and then offering cash, rarely looking him in the face. It was business at its most impersonal. There was no one to take over the booth so he could get away. He waited until he was in real pain before sprinting to the bank of portable johns. By the time he got back, someone had stolen his wok.
By midafternoon he’d unloaded about half his belongings. His pocket bulged with one dollar bills. He was hot, hungry, and beginning not to care about anything.
His phone rang. Colin. Shit, just what he needed.
He took a deep breath and prepared himself to keep up the big lie for a few minutes longer. “Hey, bro. What’s up?”
“You’ve gone ghetto, little brother.” Colin’s voice had that reedy quality it got when he wanted something.
“No.” Not for the first time, he wondered how it was that they were they related. “How can I help you today, Colin?”
“I’m calling to make sure you’ll be here on time for the party. When is your flight?”
Dustin squatted down, suddenly exhausted. He should just tell Colin now and get it over with, but the thought of opening up that wound right here made him sick. He’d deal with it after the anniversary party. “I can’t say for sure. We’re on a tight deadline right now, and I won’t know when I’ll be able to get away until the last minute.”
Colin sniffed. “Don’t tell me you’re not coming. It’s our parents’ thirty-fifth wedding anniversary. I won’t let you make another excuse and get out of that, even if I have to come to Chicago and drag you there myself.”
“I’m coming, I’m coming. I just don’t know when.”
A car honked.
“What’s that?” Colin sounded suspicious.
“I’m on the street. We were in a meeting when you called, and I stepped out here to keep from disturbing anyone.” Dusty rolled his eyes at the lameness of his own lie. “I should get back in there. Charles’s waving me in.”
After Dusty signed off, he jammed the phone into his pocket. He could picture Colin behind his gray metal desk scowling at the phone, as absurdly jealous of Dusty as he always had been. He’d probably take it out on the secretary. Or his wife. And the ridiculous part of it all was that Colin, the high school bad boy who’d never traveled farther than a hundred miles from home, was the successful son. Without taking so much as a bookkeeping course, he’d gone from driving a long-haul truck to owning a fucking transport empire. And he was jealous of Dusty?
The big lie felt like lead in his stomach. Dusty rubbed his eyes. Residual suntan lotion stung his eyes. He blinked it away as a guy examined the lamp Dusty’s mom had given him when he went away to college. She’d been proud of him—her smart son. And what had Dusty’s fancy education bought him? An afternoon where he could sell her gift for quarters to a guy who smelled like he hadn’t taken a bath in a week.
“Take it.” Dusty handed the guy the lamp. What the hell? The market closed in another hour, and Dusty planned to leave everything that hadn’t sold. After that he’d drive the van back to the rental place, pick up his deposit, and grab the bus home. Then he’d count his cash and see if there were any other options than that damned basement and telling them all the truth.
His phone rang again. If it was his brother calling back, Dusty wasn’t about to answer it. But the screen read an unfamiliar number. He sighed. Great, some creditor spoiling a perfectly good Saturday afternoon. He looked down at the pavement, scattered with what was left of his belongings. Maybe not such a terrific afternoon. Might as well take the call. If he ignored it, they’d just call back. They always did.
“Dustin Walker?” What a voice. Like dark, rich honey running all the way down Dusty’s spine. Maybe the day was looking up after all. If this was a creditor, he could stay on the phone all day.
“I’m Joe Black. You answered my post about a ride west.”
Holy shit. This was his ride? Sweet. He’d been worried that he’d end up with some chatterbox who’d annoy the hell out of him across five states. But this was a voice he could listen to for a thousand miles, no problem. Joe Black. Like that old movie. Dusty imagined riding across country with someone who sounded like this and looked like Brad Pitt. He straightened. “Call me Dusty. How far are you going? I need to get to northern Idaho by a week from Friday.”
“Seattle.” The voice went still.
Oh, please, let this be my ride.
Dusty might be done with sex, but an attractive voice for a driving companion—that sounded great. Dusty dredged up his charm, something he’d tucked away with all the rest of the junk when Charles nosedived and took him along. He launched into a series of logistical questions—where to meet, how to deal with gas, how many passengers Joe was looking for. Anything to keep him talking.
After a few minutes, Joe loosened up, and Dusty let himself relax. As they talked, Dusty let that voice roll over him and wash away the dust and stink and shame of the parking lot. He’d been isolated for way too long if he imagined an instant connection with a ride board stranger, but Dusty let himself pretend it was true. He asked stupid questions just to keep the other man talking. How far was Joe going? How many days would it take to get to Northern Idaho, like Dusty hadn’t made that drive a few times before. How about road food? With that question, Dusty knew he was scraping the bottom of the question barrel.
A woman touched his arm and held up a scented candle that Charles’s mother had given them in the good old days. Neither of them ever lit it. “How much?”
Dusty mouthed for her to take it. The fifty cents she might have added to his stash of coins wasn’t enough to make him hang up the phone. It felt like forever since he’d felt this comfortable with or connected to another human being. In all probability it was an illusion, built on anonymity and need. They weren’t talking about anything important, but Dusty didn’t want the voice to stop.
Inevitably, after a while, they ran out of ways to talk about meeting and packing and driving. The line went silent. Dusty could hear Joe breathing. Neither of them spoke for a moment.
Joe cleared his throat. “I’ll see you in a few days, then.”
“Okay.” Dusty couldn’t think of anything else to ask that would keep the conversation going.
Dusty thought he heard reluctance in Joe’s good-bye. Or hoped he did.
The parking lot felt empty when the line went dead.
* * * *
The sound of Dusty’s breathing echoed in the empty apartment. He shoved his phone to the bottom of his clothes duffel. Before his service got cut off, he’d found an app that would allow him to make free phone calls whenever he was connected to the net, meaning that from now on his phone was a Wi-Fi-only device. At least until he could afford regular service again.
Monday morning he’d gone to the bank with all his bills and spent half an hour getting counter checks to pay everything but the landlord and the phone—they’d need to eat the loss. Dusty withdrew what little was left and then watched the teller count the ones and fives from the flea market, crumpled bills that smelled of cigarettes and the bottom of someone else’s pocket. It hadn’t amounted to much.
Now he spread his life savings out on the floor. Two one hundred dollar bills, five fifties, a small stack of crisp twenties, some tens, fives, ones, and change. Every penny he owned—a hair short of seven hundred dollars.
Years ago, just after Dusty had joined the firm, he and Charles had traveled around Spain for a week, two well-dressed men on an expense account. One night in Madrid, they’d been mugged. They’d lost a good chunk of cash. But of course they’d had credit cards and fat bank accounts, so it wasn’t like they were stranded and broke. But Dusty had been terrified, and since then, every time he packed for a trip, he divided his money between his bags, only keeping enough in his wallet to make it through the day. Charles had laughed at him, teasing that anyone that conservative with money didn’t belong in the world of high finance. Evidently, he’d been right.
Joe had suggested they each chip in a hundred dollars for gas and split whatever was left when he dropped Dusty in Coeur d’Alene. Dusty stuffed one of the big bills in his wallet for the gas envelope and added two twenties and a ten for food. He divided the rest between his two bags and tucked two twenties into his sleeping bag. Compulsive behavior? Probably. But old habits died hard, and if there was ever a time to be conservative with money, this was it.
Dusty sat back on his heels and surveyed the empty room. It needed a good vacuum, but he’d sold that. Before playing with his money, he’d wiped down the kitchen counters with an old sponge and done his bathroom with the last of the cleaning supplies. It was only fair to leave the place as tidy as possible, given that he was skipping town three months late on rent, much more than his deposit would cover. A passive loss for his landlord that might be tricky to deduct.
When he’d said good-bye on Tuesday to the older woman upstairs who sometimes hired him for odd jobs, she’d told him he could probably keep the apartment for a few months longer if he tied the landlord up in court. Not only had Dusty sworn to never again enter a courtroom, the truth was that the landlord could have tossed him out months ago. Dusty owed him a clean-ish apartment on eviction day.
It was a weird, floaty feeling, being between lives. He should be happy to leave the notoriety of the life he’d built in Chicago. But what did he have to look forward to? More humiliation. He wouldn’t really be leaving all this behind. He could picture his father’s sneer of disgust, his mother’s red-rimmed eyes as she tried to hide her hurt feelings, the smirk on his brother’s superior face. He wasn’t looking forward to any of that. He should have called them when the shit first hit it. But instead he’d spent his days feeling sorry for himself and pretending that when it was all over he’d find a new job, a new life, and leave all the drama behind. And later, when it became clear that there weren’t any clean slates, at least not in Chicago, talking to his folks was just another degradation to try to avoid. And now, as his father would say, it was time to pay the piper.
The thought made his stomach ache.
He looked at his watch. Not that it mattered. He wasn’t meeting Joe until the next morning and there was nothing for him to do between now and then. He’d spent the last couple of days saying good-bye to the few Chicago friends, acquaintances, and odd-job employers who still talked to him. No phone, no TV, not even a paperback to while away the time. The thought of going downtown to hang out at the library with the rest of the homeless population was depressing. Dusty had never been much of a drinker. He’d smoked pot a few times in high school and college, but he’d been more the chess-club type than a party-hearty kind of guy. But right at that moment, he wished he could smoke or drink or fucking inject something that would pull him out of his skin and give him a few hours of relief.
He rolled out his sleeping bag. Maybe he could sleep the rest of this day away and not wake up until it was time to escape.
Escape with the guy with the voice. Joe Black. God, that had been a terrible movie. Although, when Dusty had seen it—at what, fourteen?—the idea of death as a guy who looked like Brad Pitt had been more than a little intriguing. In the movie, Joe Black had been blond and a little stupid. But what a body.
What would this Joe Black look like? Dusty tried to come up with an image to match the voice. He’d be a big man, not fat but with a huge, barrel chest. A voice like that took space. Dusty pictured him with thick muscles that hugged his bones and pressed out his skin into lickable long ridges. And strong hands that would grip Dusty’s shoulders as Dusty slid down his body until he landed on his knees with a giant, purple-headed cock in his face.