On the fringes of the boarded-up hinterlands of a former industrial section of a small Missouri town stands a building, decrepit yet painted a shade of purple so striking that it seems phantasmal against its drab backdrop of deadened grays and tans. On its side are the words "Flea Market," scrawled so hastily as to appear an afterthought. Walking down a weedy sidewalk on an unseasonably warm late November day, I happen upon this eccentric edifice out of place amidst deserted warehouses. My interest is piqued by the "Flea Market" proclamation, and by several signs taped to the door. One reads "One Bag $8.00." Another says, "Huge Sale Clothes 50¢- $1.00." Peering into the window, I can see little, as it is dark inside, and the tinted window glass filthy. However, a battery-powered neon sign on the door reads "Open." Propelled by a mixture of curiosity and boredom, I enter.
The interior is nearly as dark as it looked in the window. Daylight disappears as the door closes behind me. I make out a shadowy form of a hoary man behind a glass display table, talking to someone. I assume he is the proprietor and has just opened the store for the day and has not yet turned on the lights.
As my eyes adjust to the gloom, I start to browse around the front of the store, which is filled with shelves containing objects of all kinds. Clothes are carelessly strewn about the floor. I try not to step on any of them, but it is impossible to avoid, as there are only narrow passageways between shelves; and in some parts, the floor area between them is covered in underwear and baby clothes. In one patch lie the scattered remains of a large china teapot, each shard covered in such a thick layer of dirt that it looks as if the teapot shattered years ago. Most items in this area are housewares, such as dishes and lamps, which do not interest me but rather contribute to the ennui that I am seeking to escape. I venture further back.
"Hello," says the raggedy man behind the glass case. "Are you looking for anything in particular?"
"No, not really," I reply. I am looking for anything that might inspire me, and I never know what form that might take.
"Well, have a look around then. Do you need a flashlight?"
"Oh, no thanks," I answer with a laugh, thinking he is joking. But the lights do not go on, and the farther I go from the window, the darker it gets. Now, I can see hardly anything. I look over at the proprietor, but do not catch his eye, as he is again talking to someone, so I make my way up to the front.
"I guess I do need a light after all," I say to him.
"Oh, sure, let me get you one," he says. "I'll be back in a minute."
"Oh, you need a light? I've got one here," says the woman that had been talking to the proprietor. She brandishes a cigarette lighter. She is overweight, missing all of her upper teeth, and smoking. I explain that I only needed a flashlight. She proffers a cigarette, which I decline.
"Might take him a while to find ya a flashlight," she insists. "Sure ya don't want a smoke?" I normally don't indulge in tobacco; but given these circumstances, it seems inappropriate to refuse. I justify my acceptance with the reasoning that the gases from the cigarette are probably no more insalubrious than the odors pervading the space that I am about to enter. My lungs prove impervious to my mind's self-justification. One puff sends me into a fit of coughing and choking, but the woman doesn't seem to notice, as she is already telling me about her health problems. Just as she is relating her theory about how her pinched nerve might cause her to have a heart attack, the proprietor returns with a flashlight.
"Do you have an ashtray?" I ask.
"The floor is our ashtray," he replies congenially. Again, I think he is joking, but glancing down, seeing an array of ashes and butts on the floor, I realize he is serious.
"Well, I guess I'll look around, then," I say, dropping the cigarette with a momentary reflexive qualm.
"Go ahead, jest be careful," he drawls the warning. "Sorry it's so dark. I'm closin' up at the end of the month, an' they turned the lights off early on me."
"Are you moving to another location?" I inquire.
"No, I'm closin' permanently," he sighs. "Jest don't git enough business. They say the economy's gittin' better, but it sure don't seem to be."
Armed with the flashlight, I return to the area I had been previously browsing. Now I am in a corridor between two tall bookshelves. The beam illuminates a disorganized hodgepodge of cheap romance novels; musty religious tomes; and self-help paperbacks, punctuated by the occasional joke book. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between the self-help books and the joke books. I count at least nine copies of You Know You're A Redneck If... It is said that diagnosis is the first step toward recovery, but I see no other books dealing with this specific condition, so I wonder: What is a redneck to do once he has learned the nature of his affliction?
Perusing the books gets tiring, as most of them are strewn in haphazard piles all over the shelves, and I have to strain to read the titles on their spines. At the base of the bookshelves are several plastic tubs of miscellany. Kneeling down, I begin sorting through them. The uppermost stratum is primarily clothes. They are damp. Watermarks and damage on the ceiling tiles above reveal the probable cause of saturation. Digging through the clothing layer, I uncover a trove of uncased VHS tapes buried beneath. Most are recorded TV shows and pirated movies. Many titles are Disney. Many are unlabeled. I move on.
The flashlight endows me with a heightened feeling of self-importance and aggrandizes my sense of adventure. I feel that I am an investigator, an explorer, a spelunker.
The narrow channel between shelves leads me into a larger, darker chamber. Pausing at the threshold to assay its contents, I am momentarily startled as my flashlight irradiates hundreds of pairs of expressionless eyes. They belong to heaps of bedraggled stuffed animals filling this room, spilling out the door. In awe, I attempt to step forward but my foot is restrained by cushiony masses of plush toys. I begin wading through the piles of matted tawdry fur. A large stuffed frog catches my eye. As I pick it up, the pupils of its three-dimensional googly bug-eyes roll back menacingly into its head, and a curled ribbon tongue lolls out of its mouth. This holds a red heart bearing a charming expression: "Love Me Or I'll Croak." A tag on its body indicates that it was produced for a large retail chain. Vague uneasiness washes over me, and I toss it aside.
Common sense dictates that I return to the front and leave, but fascination impels me to continue. Beyond the toy room, things become more disorganized and harder to navigate. I imagine myself excavating a lost civilization that has been devoid of human presence for years. My fantasy is shattered, however, by testaments to the contrary: modern beer cans and full ashtrays squirreled away in improbable areas beneath musty objects and bulging bags. I even discover a petrified sandwich crust stashed inside a broken music box. I wonder if this store ever had a following.
Growing tired of rummaging through miscellaneous items bearing no relation to one another save proximity, I find nothing among them of any value to me. Hoping that I might be on the verge of a grand discovery keeps me going, but the assiduousness of my search wears thin and I advance more quickly, stopping only if something catches my eye.
Deeper into the building's tenebrous bowels, I begin to notice a chill in the air, accompanied by a unique blend of disagreeable odors growing stronger and more noxious the further I proceed.
Desultory piles give way to mountains of unsorted clothing and overstuffed garbage bags piled so high I can hardly reach their apices. I had hoped to find some vintage clothing for myself, but so far have found nothing in my size. Maybe this is my chance. I break open a bag just above my head, and am assaulted by an avalanche of tent-like undergarments. Disencumbering myself from them, I compulsively rip open another bag. Whatever is inside emits a malodorous blast so nauseating that I nearly keel over.
Fleeing the stench, I find myself in another room, dank and expansive like a warehouse and full of old appliances and furniture. The building didn't look this large from the outside. I pass through row after row of rusty dishwashers, washing machines, and vacuum cleaners so old they might as well be in a museum.
At the threshold of an adjacent room, I am confronted by a nearly impassable mound of Christmas decor obstructing the doorway. Sparkly globes and dusty gold tinsel glitter in the flashlight beam, remnants of the glory of bygone holidays celebrated by strangers who might already be dead. My exploratory enthusiasm is waning. I begin to feel more like an invader than an investigator. The straggly limbs of a phony pine as ragged as a bottlebrush are bedecked with a handful of ornaments bearing personalized inscriptions and family photos. Stockings embroidered with unfamiliar names overhang a cardboard box. Suddenly, the flashlight seems more a burglarious appurtenance than an instrument of adventure. In my preoccupation, I trip on a plastic chimney, which topples over with a hollow clunk, spilling Santa and his reindeer and sending me sprawling into a stack of dried wreathes.
Falling, I let out a startled shout; no one heard. Thousands of surrounding objects muffled it, saving me from embarrassment; yet I am hardly grateful. The front desk seems so far away. I jump up, leaving behind any sense of adventure amongst the brittle pine needles on the hard floor.
Somehow, I manage to navigate the holiday mess, only to encounter a final awesome sight: a monstrous shelf of knickknacks towering over me like a skyscraper. Overcome by sensory overload and vertigo, I gaze up at dizzying arrays of myriad animal figurines, decorative teacups, porcelain bells, shot glasses from cities around the world, spoons from national parks, and religious figurines. Suddenly, a singular item stands out amid the mass-produced menagerie. It is a glossy statuette of a reclining ballet dancer. On paper it would sound stereotypical, but in person it is one of the most unusual figurines I've ever seen. The ballerina's white dress and shoes are sprinkled with cerulean splatters; a quirky ponytail sits high atop canary yellow hair. A goofy yet knowing smile is set off by piercing dot eyes thickly but irregularly lined in black, like light shining through two bullet holes in a tin can I saw earlier by the side of the road. I almost imagine her staring back at me. I pull her off the shelf and look for a way out.
"That all?" the owner asks as I hand him the figurine.
"Yes," I reply, feeling almost guilty that out of oceans of objects, I only found one thing worthy of purchase. He stares at it.
"Where'd you find this?" he inquires after a long pause.
"Over on that shelf of knickknacks in the other room," I say, pointing in its direction.
"Sure is scary," he sighs, shaking his head, still looking at the strange ballerina as he rings it up on the cash register.
Through the door, I wonder at his reaction.
The stark pall of the bleak gray town seems at once oppressive and comfortingly familiar. Strange odors linger on my hair and clothes and I realize how fresh the air outside is.
It is dispiriting that this potentially charitable establishment is perishing in a shrinking settlement of a population too meager to support circulation of used goods. Still, I'm glad to leave.
Further down the sidewalk, I pass the woman who gave me the cigarette, now with another woman, apparently returning from a convenience store. I greet them, but they are so absorbed in conversation and in drinking their 72-ounce sodas that they don't seem to hear me. They might as well be in a parallel where I don't exist. Thankfully, the fresh air tells me I have left the twilight zone and re-entered the real world.