The whole of the flea market was coated in a thick layer of fine soot. Nothing looked as if it had been shifted or moved within it for years. There was a wall of farm implements, a few buckets of nails and screws and random bits and pieces of things that were unidentifiable under the dirt, and several tables of maybe housewares and maybe toys. Lucille studied the wall, taking inventory of a decent sized sickle and a small hand axe. A sign next to one of the buckets proclaimed “NAILS $1 PER POUND”.
A low raspy cough sounded from behind a small crevice near the door in which an old desk and even older cash register sat. Smoke billowed from behind the register in wispy trails, pregnant with the strong scent of cloves. A hoarse voice breathed hushed words into the stale air, “Can I help ya?”
A short older, lean hunchbacked balding man peered out from behind the ancient register with his small glasses pushed as far up towards his eyes as his nose would allow. His flesh was arsenic white and his diminutive hand was stained yellow from years of smoking and nicotine abuse. Unsurprisingly, he held aloft a smoldering clove cigarette. His cubby was piled high with ashtrays full of old stale cigarette butts smoked down to the thick and snuffed out into small scrunched sculptures that resembled their creator.
Lucille recognized him as the last of the shadowy figures and hoped that she had now encountered all of the town’s remaining inhabitants. She suspected that this Nightshade couldn’t sustain any more lifeless listlessness than the five inhabitants she had witnessed in the motel parking lot and had now met the last of.
“Can I help ya?” the man echoed, pushing his glasses again up his long nose as his nostrils flared and his beady black eyes fixated upon her.
“I collect farm tools,” Lucille lied through her teeth. “How much are these?” she inquired as she lifted the sickle and the axe from their hooks on the wall, hefting them slightly as she did so in order to feel their weight and solidity in her hand before setting them down on the counter.
“Aww, y’all can have ‘em for $5 total,” he stammered as his eyes bore into her further as if to discern her true intent.
Abruptly, Lucille reached into her purse and removed a rumpled $5 bill from her billfold. Best not to push it, she thought as she considered purchasing a pound of nails for $1, fretting over whether he could see through her ruse or not. She wasn’t sure what she’d do with the nails anyway.
“I gots more farm ‘quipment fer sale,” the balding man exclaimed, gesturing to two more walls of larger implements, plows, scythes, horse harnesses and such.
“Thank you, but I need things I can fit in my luggage,” Lucille spat out, “I have to get them on a plane once I get to Portland.” Why can’t I ever think up better excuses on the fly? she thought.
“Um ‘kay,” he rasped and took a hit off of his cigarette.
Lucille decided to change the subject. She formed her words carefully, “Interesting place you’ve got here, this Nightshade. Tom says no one comes by much nowadays. He says maybe because of the casino, that you used to be a tavern town.”
“Tavern burnt down,” the little man drawled, glancing out the window across the street. “Been almost decade ‘go now. Town’s dried up since…”
Something about the way he spoke was distinctly unnerving. There was definitely more to this history than Lucille cared to know, and she felt uneasy, like she had asked too much already. “That’s too bad,” she backpeddled before quickly changing the subject again to leave. “Thank you so much. I won’t take any more of your time.”
The little man folded the sickle and axe into a moldy brown-black paper sack and slid it over the counter towards Lucille. She took the bag hesitantly in the manner of someone who has been handed something that one doesn’t want to touch for fear it might be contagious. The bag crumpled to dust at the edges but remained remarkably intact, concealing its contents perfectly.
Lucille exited the building and started towards the gas station, well aware of the black beady eyes boring holes in her from behind, peering out from beyond the register in the creviced nook in the wall and through the nicotine stained door of the more-flea-than-market.
The street seemed quiet enough, too quiet really. A wispy breeze drifted by lazily but otherwise there were no signs of life except for the scraggly grasses and scrubby plants that had overgrown much of the derelict ruins and the empty lot that stood between her and the gas station, and even those weeds didn’t seem so much living as simply waiting to die.
Tom was sitting in a sunken rust stained chair behind the desk watching a rerun of some unfamiliar 1950s era sitcom glowing forth from on a small television set in the corner of the room. He turned towards the front as Lucille entered, the bell attached to the door awakening the room to her presence.
“I’d like to go back to the motel,” Lucille quipped. “I think I’d like to sort through my luggage before dinner, since I’m not going to make it to the wedding now.”
“Mmm’kay, jus lemme get my keys,” Tom replied as he stretched, leaned forward, and rolled his neck back and forth to pop his jaw a couple of times. He pressed a button on the cash register and the drawer tongued open. Tom groped about within it to extract a Ford pickup key, and slammed it shut with a quick clang. He rounded the counter to head towards the front door.
“D’ya find somethin’ at da flea markt?” Tom asked as he nodded towards the bag Lucille clutched in her arms.
“Yeah, I collect farm tools,” Lucille said matter-of-factly in a voice that suggested not to ask any more questions because the answers didn’t matter and weren’t that interesting anyway.
“Good-deal. Dat’s def’nately da place fer dat,” Tom smiled. “Told ya ts worth da trip…” He held the door and gestured for Lucille to exit, not in a gentlemanly manner but with the air of someone who needed to clear the room before he locked up afterwards. As Lucille snuck past him in the tight quarters she was acutely aware of how he deeply inhaled the air that she passed through right beneath his nose and how his eyes brightened a bit when he did so. She hurriedly headed to the passenger side of the truck, noting that he left the building unlocked despite acting as if he was going to secure it.
Tom climbed into the driver’s side and opened the passenger door from within, beckoning her to join him. She carefully slid onto the seat and they started down the road back to the motel. Neither said a word; the trek back seemed to take twice as long as coming.
The white Cadillac still sat motionless and untouched by the front office.